Monday, December 31, 2012

What I'm looking forward to in 2013

As I write this, our friends in Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania have already wrung in the New Year. Hopefully, if the US government can come to some kind of compromise over the fiscal cliff (sadly, not looking promising at the moment), we may start to see some signs of improvement in the global economy in 2013. Hope springs eternal.

On the gaming front, most of what I'm looking forward to is coming from The Design Mechanism and Mongoose. First from Peter Nash at the Design Mechanism, there is Monster Island for RuneQuest 6. Due for release early in 2013, Monster Island combines the features of a setting, a sourcebook and a bestiary in one book. Looks like a solid first supplement for RQ6. Following up later in the spring will be Book of Quests, a loose campaign of seven scenarios with a sword-and-sorcery feel.

From Mongoose, I'm mainly interested in the 2300 AD product line. I've been patiently awaiting the long-promised releases of French Arm Adventures and Tools for Frontier Living for several months now. Hopefully, my patience will be rewarded in the coming months.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rippin' on...Maid: the RPG

Zack and Steve are very busy all of a sudden and they've decided to poke around in one of the darker corners of the tabletop rpg world, Maid: The Roleplaying Game.



Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Skill use and combat in RuneQuest 6

Skills in RQ6 are based on percentiles. A roll equal to or less than the skill is a success, higher is a failure. However, 01-05 is always a success, while 96-00 is always a failure. Furthermore, a roll equal to or less than 1/10th the skill is a critical success, while a roll of 99-00 is a fumble. The implications of critical successes and fumbles depend on the skill being used, the circumstances and the will of the DM.  Skills can also be modified to account for the difficulty of the task being performed, with difficulty grades ranging from Very Easy to Herculean. There are two ways these modifiers can be applied, either a straight modifier (the easy way) or a multiplier (the hard way, but scales with skill level).

Opposed rolls are handled by first comparing the relative degree of success. For example, a critical success beats a standard success, regardless of the rolls. For two identical types of success, the higher roll wins. In some cases, both opponents may be successful, in which case the DM must adjudicate the result. For example, a critically successful Stealth check will beat a successful Perception check, but the guard is alerted and may get a bonus to notice anyone else following up.

Combat uses the same game mechanic as other skills, although the results of critical successes are more strictly defined and typically lethal. Each character has a set number of action points based on INT + DEX, with two being the most common number (although three is possible). These action points represent the number of actions the character can perform in a round. Actions include casting spells, attacking, parrying, moving, evading and outmaneuvering. Players have to decide how to allocate their precious action points and may God help the poor soul facing off against a heavily-armed combatant without an action left to attempt an Evade roll.


Merry Christmas!

Best wishes to all for this holiday season.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Rippin' on...Warhammer and...Synnibarr?!

Zack and Steve slipped a couple past me when I wasn't looking. The over-the-top artwork of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is always good for a laugh. As an added bonus, the guys have thrown their weight behind an effort to reboot the famously awful game The World of Synnibarr. The Kickstarter project has almost achieved its goal. May God have mercy on us all.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Magic in RuneQuest 6

There are five different types of magic in RuneQuest 6th Edition, each involving a different approach to spellcasting and drawing upon different sources of power. The most common of these is Folk Magic, as it is potentially available to any character with a relatively modest expenditure of skill points. This type of spellcasting is governed by the Folk Magic skill, which is rolled to determine whether a spell is successfully cast and also to provide the opposed roll to any resistance roll made by the target of the spell. Folk Magic spells are generally weaker than spells from other magic traditions, being associated with hedge wizards and wise women.

The other magic traditions, Mysticism, Animism, Sorcery and Theism, are each governed by two skills and apply magical effects in different ways. Sorcery and Theism will be familiar to gamers with experience with D&D as they represent arcane and divine spellcasting. Sorcery is spellcasting in its most scholarly form. The two skills associated with this form of spellcasting are Invocation and Shaping. The former skill works much like the Folk Magic skill, it determines the degree of success or failure and also serves to oppose the resistance roll of the target. The Shaping skill determines how adept the sorcerer is at modifying spells. Spells can be modified or "shaped" in several ways, such as increased range, number of targets, duration or magnitude (a measure of spell effect). Multiple spells can also be combined into one casting. The degree to which such modifications can be applied is governed by the Shaping skill. There is no actual roll involved, but rather, the percentage of the skill determines the number of shaping points the sorcerer may apply.

Theism is the magic of priests. Like sorcery, there are two skills associated with this form of magic, Exhortion and Devotion. The former skill is the one rolled to determine success or failure and represents the skill of the spellcaster in convincing his god to grant his request for magical aid. Devotion is a measure of the priest's conduit to the source of his divine power. The higher his Devotion skill, the greater the intensity of his miracles. For example, an Intensity 1 Earthquake miracle would rattle the dishes in a large room, while an Intensity 10 Earthquake would level a city block.

The other two types of magic deal with the spirit world (Animism) and personal enlightenment through meditation (Mysticism). Like Sorcery and Theism, each are governed by two skills, although the way these magical traditions function is somewhat different from the more traditional spellcasting embodied in Folk Magic, Sorcery and Theism. The broad range of magical options for characters in RQ6 allows for a lot of experimentation, although it is important not to spread oneself too widely as it requires a lot of investment in a given magical tradition to achieve really awesome levels of power.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gun control in Canada

Sadly, we are once again confronted with the horror of a school shooting. This one is particularly painful for me as I have two small children, one of whom is the age of those slaughtered in Connecticut. Inevitably, talk of gun control in America begins anew. I know the issue is different in the US than most other countries because gun rights are constitutionally-protected. Here in Canada and in most other western countries, gun control is a political issue. Governments establish gun laws according to the whims of the electorate with little concern for possible legal challenges. For this reason, it is difficult for Americans to draw much insight from the gun control laws in other countries. Still, for what it's worth, I offer my thoughts as someone who has recently begun the process of exercising my legal gun ownership priviledges in Canada.

Americans would probably find some things about Canada's gun control laws surprising. Gun rights advocates in the US often exaggerate the severity of Canada's gun laws. We have three categories of firearms, non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. Non-restricted firearms include most rifles and shotguns, including semi-automatic rifles. To own a non-restricted firearm, you must get a non-restricted Possession and Acquisition License (PAL). To do this, you must be 18 years of age or older, take a certified firearm safety course and pass both a written and practical exam, provide two references as well as your spouse or conjugal partner, provide contact information for any previous conjugal partners within the last two years and reveal any criminal offences or diagnoses of mental illnesses. You then submit this information to the RCMP so that background checks may be performed. If you pass the background checks, then and only then may you purchase your firearm or ammunition. Restricted firearms include most handguns as well as certain short-barrelled long guns and any rifles with telescoping or folding stocks like the AR-15 used in the recent school shooting. The process for getting a restricted PAL is similar although an additional exam is required. The major difference is that every restricted firearm must be registered. Some of you Americans may, at this point, notice that despite what you may have heard, handguns are not illegal in Canada. I must confess, even I was a bit surprised by how easy it is to legally acquire a handgun in Canada and I live here. Still, most Canadians don't own handguns. It is, I think, a bit of a cultural thing. Handguns are associated with police or criminals. So, if you're not a cop, Canadians tend to wonder why you would want a handgun. The third category is prohibited and it includes all firearms not covered in the previous categories. This includes certain types of small, concealable handguns, "sawed-off" shotguns and rifles and, of course, automatic weapons. Despite the terminology, it is possible to own some of these weapons, although the criteria for qualification is so extreme, it is virtually impossible for private citizens to own such guns, unless you own a firing range. One important caveat should be noted at this time. As I mentioned, military-style, semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are legal in Canada, but the large-capacity magazines like those used in the Connecticut school shooting are not. Semi-autos in Canada are limited to 5-rd. magazines regardless of the type of magazine they employ. If a particular rifle doesn't have the option of a 5-rd. magazine, a larger capacity mag may be modified by a gunsmith to limit it to five rounds. This regulation will not, of course, stop a mass shooting, but it can reduce the death toll.

In researching for my gun license application, I was surprised to notice how rates of firearm ownership vary from country to country. The US is, of course, far ahead of the rest of the developed world with around 90 firearms for every 100 citizens. After that, the frequently-cited Switzerland and Finland come in at around 45 guns per 100 citizens. Canada, along with France, Germany, Austria and most of the Nordic countries have around 30 guns per 100 citizens and the UK, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the free world, has around six guns per 100 citizens. Given its draconian gun control laws and stifling level of domestic surveillance, I fear the UK is, for all intents and purposes, a benign police state.

I don't really know how Americans will square the circle on gun control. Any measures, even if broadly-supported by the electorate, will be subject to legal challenge on constitutional grounds. Throw states rights and partisan gridlock into the equation and you have a real mountain to climb. I'm not at all confident President Obama is the man to climb it. It may be that only a Republican president could manage it, like only Nixon could go to China. Still, I hope for the best. Atrocities like those we witnessed this past week in Connecticut erode the soul of a nation. They make us fearful and paranoid. They chip away at the foundations of civilization. They must be stopped.


Monday, December 03, 2012

What I'm reading. Part... whatever

I spend most bus trips to and from work reading form the kindle app on my iPhone. I've been doing it for years and actually quite like it now and in some ways prefer it over a real book. (mostly because of portability). Having finished off whatever I was reading before I flipped through what kindle books I had around and look them up trying to decide what to read next.

I had the first book of Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" series and it seemed to have pretty good reviews. I'm not especially big on detective novels but I thought having a wizard as the protagonist could be an interesting twist so I gave it a try. I was pleasantly surprised. The first book Storm Front, does a good job introducing the protagonist and many of the secondary characters that occupy Harry Dresden's world. Harry is a wise-ass who's mouth frequently gets him into trouble - lots of it. In fact I am amazed that he manages to survive every book since it seems like just about everyone is out to get him. There is lots of great action and the dialogue is very well written. Several times each book I have a good laugh out loud and something someone says or does.

The first book is a bit low key and sets the template for the books to follow. Plot one is established. Plot two is set up which twists plot one somewhat, a time limit is put in place and Harry frantically tries to figure out the mystery before time runs out and he ends up dead. Book two ramps up the action and violence. Book three is the only book of the series so far that had some missteps. I felt it had too many plot twists and was overly long. The ending was a big bummer as well. Things moved the other way for books Four and Five which were both EPIC! So much action, great mysteries and both had excellent plots.

I just finished book Six yesterday and although it was a very enjoyable read, revealing more of Harry's past, and giving lots of insight into the White Court, it lacked the awesomeness of its two predecessors  Maybe I just don't like the books with the sadder endings as much.

Anyway, if you are looking for a new series to read, I recommend this one. It's got gangsters, fairies, vampires (several kinds - no sparkles), cops, paladins, wizards, fallen angels, demons, werewolves, and even a dragon. Lots of great action, dialogue, and character development.

Go read it!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Remember when we were awesome? pt.5

Throughout its history, the Royal Canadian Navy has deployed British-designed and built ships, from the HMCS Rainbow, which entered Canadian service in 1910 to HMCS Bonaventure and even today, with our less-than-stellar Victoria-class submarines. However, Canada really began to come into its own during the Cold War, relying less on the UK for military procurement. The first Canadian-designed warship was the St.Laurent-class destroyer escort. Seven were commissioned between 1955-57, HMCS St.Laurent, HMCS Skeena, HMCS Ottawa, HMCS Fraser, HMCS Assiniboine, HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Margaree. Though based on the British Whitby-class frigate, the St.Laurent-class incorporated some distinctly Canadian features, notably the rounded deck edge to prevent ice buildup on the foredeck. The St.Laurent-class ships also included several design features for dealing with nuclear, chemical and biological attack, including sealed crew quarters and a pre-wetting system to wash away contaminants. The later Restigouche-, Mackenzie- and Annapolis-class destroyer escorts were modified versions of the St.Laurent-class design. The seven St.Laurent-class ships underwent DDH conversion in 1963-66, allowing them to take advantage of the newly-developed 'beartrap' helicopter retrieval technology and all were equipped with a CHSS-2 Sea King helicopter. The last St.Laurent-class destroyer escort, HMCS Fraser, was decommissioned in 1994.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

RuneQuest 6 - chargen

I will illustrate the process of character generation in RuneQuest 6 by going through it step-by-step. Anyone who has played Mongoose's RuneQuest II will recognize the procedure is pretty similar. My character is Kassar, an infantry soldier from Polmaro, a city-state with a culture similar to Late Imperial Rome. Deciding on these sorts of details early helps later on when making decisions regarding skill selection.

The first step is generating attributes. There are several ways suggested, but I will go with point-buy since that is the approach we typically use in our games. There are seven attributes: Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Size (SIZ), Dexterity (DEX), Intelligence (INT), Power (POW) and Charisma (CHA). Most of these are pretty self-explanatory except POW, which represents a character's magical potential and luck. Anyone interested in playing a spellcasting character will want to have a high POW score. Each attribute will have a minimum and maximum value to begin. For humans, the maximum for each is 18. The minimum varies depending on the attribute. INT and SIZ have a minimum of 8, all others have a minimum of 3. You have 80 points to spend on a one for one basis including the points necessary to buy up all the attribute scores to their racial minimums. So, in the case of humans, 31 out of the 80 are already encumbered buying up to the minimum for each attribute. At this point, I should talk about optimization. My gaming group includes a couple of notorious min-maxers (you know who you are), and all of us engage in it to some degree, so we're all cool with it. RuneQuest is not a game that provides a lot of opportunity for min-maxing, but point-buy attribute generation is one place where you can optimize. This is because there are a lot of secondary characteristics that are generated from attributes. Typically, these result from the sum of a couple of attributes which are then compared to a table of brackets. For example, action points (in effect, the maximum number of actions possible in a round) are derived by adding INT and DEX. If the total is less than 12, the character gets one action point, 13-24 provides two, 25-36 provides three and so on. So, an optimizer would try to set his INT + DEX near the bottom of one of the brackets to ensure few points are wasted. Adding to the potential for optimization, SIZ + STR determines damage modifier, while SIZ + CON determines hit points, so some manipulation of the numbers is needed to get the best use of your attribute points. After crunching the numbers, I came up with the following set of attributes for Kassar:
STR 18 CON 13 SIZ 18 DEX 9 INT 8 POW 7 CHA 7

Now, to generate the secondary characteristics: INT + DEX = 17, giving me 2 action points. STR + SIZ = 36, good for a +1D6 damage modifier. CHA = 7, giving me a zero for my experience modifier. This means when it comes time to make experience rolls, Kassar will get no bonus rolls for high CHA, but won't be penalized for having an especially low CHA either. CON = 15, giving Kassar an impressive healing rate of 3, which he will need in his chosen profession. Strike Rank is the average of DEX and INT. It is a modifier that is added to one's initiative roll. Kassar's strike rank is 9. Kassar also receives magic points equal to POW. This is important because even though Kassar is not a dedicated spellcaster, all characters are able to utilize some minor magic in this game. Hit points are provided for each hit location based on SIZ + CON. Kassar ends up with:
Head = 7, Chest = 9, Abdomen = 8, Each Arm = 6, Each Leg = 7.

The next step is the selection of skills. All skills are defined by a percentile. The base value is equal to two relevent attribute scores added together or a single attribute score doubled. There are a subset of standard skills that all characters have. These include physical skills such as Brawn or Swim, social skills such as Deceit or Influence, knowledge skills such as First Aid or Customs and combat skills such as Unarmed or Combat Style. Combat Styles are a bit more involved than mere weapon proficiencies. They usually incorporate a couple of weapons and are, to a certain degree, defined by the culture from which the character derives. There are also other skills, professional skills and magic skills that may be acquired at this stage based upon character background and concept. Starting with standard skills, even though every character gets all the skills, he or she can only add starting skill points to a select few of them based on the character's cultural background. Being from a city-state, Kassar is civilized. I will assume also that he is of the default Freeman social class. The standard skills for a civilized character are Conceal, Deceit, Drive, Influence, Insight, Locale and Willpower. He may also select three professional skills from a list of suitable choices. Kassar will have Streetwise, Lore (Monsters) and Craft (leatherworking). He will also take Combat Style (Polmaro Militia), which allows him to use the shortspear and target shield combination typical of his home city's militia. Finally, all characters get a base +40% to Native Language and Customs. 100 points may then be distributed among this list of skills with each point equal to one percentage point.

Next, the character profession is selected. Kassar is a Warrior. As such, he gets a second list of standard and professional skills from which to choose and another 100 points to distribute among them. In most cases, there will be some overlap in the lists of cultural and professional skills. Finally, there is a pool of bonus skill points based on age. They can be used to top up any skills already on the character's list and/or add one new professional skill representing a personal hobby of the character. For Kassar, this bonus skill will be Folk Magic. So, applying the base values, plus 100 cultural skill points, 100 professional skill points and 150 bonus skill points, here is Kassar's final skill selection:

Standard Skills: Athletics - 32% Boating - 31% Brawn - 51% Conceal - 15% Customs - 56% Dance - 16% Deceit - 15% Drive - 16% Endurance - 71% Evade - 63% First Aid - 17% Influence - 24% Insight - 25% Locale - 16% Native Tongue - 55% Perception - 35% Ride - 16% Sing - 14% Stealth - 17% Swim - 31% unarmed - 37% Willpower - 49% Combat Style (Polmaro Militia) - 82% Combat Style (Polmaro Archers) - 62%
Professional Skills: Lore (Monsters) - 26% Lore (Strategy and Tactics) - 21% Craft (Leatherworking) - 27% Streetwise - 34% Survival - 25% Folk Magic - 29%

More to come...


Monday, November 19, 2012

RuneQuest 6th ed. - first thoughts

I thought for sometime on whether to invest in RuneQuest 6th Edition, before deciding to buy it. I already own Mongoose's RuneQuest II, a similar iteration of the classic game written by the same authors, Peter Nash and Lawrence "Loz" Whitaker. Even after reading several positive reviews and interviews explaining what improvements have been included in RQ6, I remained skeptical that the differences were sufficient enough to justify the purchase. What finally changed my mind was the apparent lack of interest in tabletop rpgs being demonstrated by Mongoose. That's not to say they've abandoned rpgs, but their publication frequency has dropped considerably in recent months and with so many properties to support, it seems unlikely there will be much coming out for the Legend and Elric of Melniboné product lines any time soon. The guys at The Design Mechanism, however, seem committed to enthusiastic support of RQ6.

It's a massive tome, weighing it at 456 pages. At over $60, I would have liked to see it in hardcover, but it's a small company and so, I'm a little more forgiving. I can't say I'm overjoyed with matte finish of the cover, however. It really shows fingerprints and they don't just wipe of like they would on a glossy finish. The cover art is nice. It shows a female warrior named Anathaym battling a reptilian humanoid called a slargr. Sidebars throughout the book describe the story of Anathaym in order to illustrate many game concepts. As one can deduce from the style of Anathaym's equipment, the default setting for RQ6 is more of an Ancient Greece/Rome style than the typical medieval Europe we're accustomed to. Nonetheless, the rules are flexible enough to play in any setting from ancient times to the renaissance. The interior art is sparse and without colour, but what is there is decent and appropriate. It should be noted that there is little in RQ6 that ties directly to Glorantha. There are no Ducks or Dwarfs made of metal in the bestiary. Although future Glorantha supplements for RQ6 are planned, the basic rules are intended to be generic. There is so much to discuss about this game, I will have to spread it out over several postings. Stay tuned for more thoughts in the weeks to come.


Remember when we were awesome? pt.4

Canada is, in many ways, a unique country with unique national security concerns. We are in the advantageous position of sharing our only land border with a strong and friendly neighbour, but we have a ridiculous amount of ocean to patrol and a fairly modest population. Furthermore, much of our territory is remote and frozen, so we have few options for land-based military resources to aid in protecting our sovereignty in the far north. Without the option of massive aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and numerous coastal airbases to patrol our seas, the Canadian navy has been forced to use ingenuity to deal with its security challenges. One example of that ingenuity is the Beartrap, a Helicopter Hauldown and Rapid Securing Device (HHRSD) developed in collaboration with Fairey Aviation of Canada. Designed to allow helicopters to land on small ships in rough seas, the beartrap consists of a heavy winch system that can rapidly pull a cable suspended from the helicopter to haul it down and hold it securely to the landing pad. The helicopter can then be pulled into the hangar and secured. The technology has been refined and is currently used by several other countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain and Japan. As well, all of Canada's larger naval vessels, the three Iroquois-class guided missile destroyers, twelve Halifax-class patrol frigates and two Protecteur-class supply ships are equipped with the technology, giving much needed air support to our modest fleet.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Our evolving blog

Anyone who is still regularly reading this blog may have noticed there haven't been many posts about gaming of late. We have recently lost one of our contributors and my other blogging partner has been somewhat quiescent of late. In addition to these personnel developments, I have noticed a recent lack of activity in the tabletop rpg publishing business. With the new edition of D&D still more than a year away and Paizo just quietly going about its business of producing APs and an occasional rulebook of ever-decreasing significance, not much is going on of particular interest to me. I've been trying to keep up with what Mongoose is doing, since I am interested in their 2300AD and Legend product lines, but they seem to be scaling back on their publishing activities as far as tabletop rpgs are concerned, concentrating more and more of their energies on miniatures games.

For these reasons, I have been blogging more about my other interests that are at least tangentially related to gaming, sci-fi novels, military history, space exploration, etc. I hope you, my loyal readers, will continue to find some reason to drop in from time to time and I promise I will have more to say about gaming in the near future. I have recently purchased RuneQuest 6 and I will have a lot to talk about once I have fully absorbed this impressive work. Game on.


Remember when we were awesome? pt.3

At its peak in 1958, Avro Canada was the third largest company in Canada, with about 50,000 employees. It is best known today as the company that designed the Avro CF-105 Arrow, one of the most advanced fighters of its day, intended to achieve speeds in excess of Mach 2 and operate at altitudes exceeding 50,000 ft. Only five were built before the project was cancelled in 1959. All materials and prototypes were destroyed. To this day, many Canadians see the Arrow as Canada's Apollo project and its cancellation still rankles.

The Arrow was not the only audacious design to come from the Avro Canada braintrust. One of the crazier ideas was the VZ-9 Avrocar, a VTOL aircraft designed as part of a classified US military project. Resembling a flying saucer with a single large turborotor in the center, it was hoped the Avrocar would function like a high-performance attack helicopter, but it never performed satisfactorily and was ultimately cancelled in 1961. Only two prototypes were built.

Though not as impressive or cool as the Arrow or the Avrocar, the most successful design to come out of Avro Canada was the CF-100 Canuck, the only Canadian-designed jet fighter to ever reach mass production. First entering service in 1953, 692 CF-100 variants were built. Most were used by the RCAF/CAF, but 53 were purchased for the Belgian air force. Though not as maneuverable or glamourous as Canada's top day fighter at the time, the Canadair Sabre, the Canuck was a solid night and all-weather interceptor and served the Canadian air force well for decades.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Remember when we were awesome? pt.2

Most Canadians have heard of the Avro Arrow, Canada's most famous (or perhaps infamous) foray into advanced military research during the Cold War. Much less well-known, unless, like me, you were born in Halifax in the 1960s, was the HMCS Bras d'Or, Canada's military hydrofoil project. I remember seeing the sleek little ship in the harbour when I was just a wee lad and even though she never got up to speed anywhere within sight of land, she was beautiful. Fifty metres long and displacing 240t, she had a ship's complement of 25. Being an experimental vessel, she was never equipped with armaments. Bras d'Or was built for speed and boy, could she go. Nicknamed the "Flying 400", she reached a maximum foilborne speed in sea trials of 63 knots and was described as highly-stable in rough seas at speeds of up to 40 knots. The project was cancelled in 1971, but the Bras d'Or remains on display at the Musée Maritime du Québec.


Remember when we were awesome? pt.1

Does anyone recognize the ship in this picture? It is the HMCS Bonaventure, Canada's last aircraft carrier. I'm betting some of you are surprised to learn Canada ever had any aircraft carriers. In fact, we've had three. In 1946, the RCN took possession of HMCS Warrior from the Royal Navy. In 1948, we gave her back and replaced her with HMCS Magnificent. Finally, in 1957, the Magnificent was decommissioned and replaced with HMCS Bonaventure, which served in the RCN until her decommissioning in 1970.

The "Bonnie" was initially equipped with McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee fighters, as well as Grumman CS2F Tracker aircraft for anti-submarine warfare and Sikorsky HO4S helicopters. In 1962, the Banshees were retired and in 1964, the newer Sikorsky CHSS-2 Sea King helicopters were added. In 1967, she underwent a major refit which included improved radar and upgrades to her 76mm antiaircraft guns. The Bonaventure had a displacement of 16,000t and was 192m in length. She had a crew of 1200 and a top speed of 24.5 knots.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What I'm reading...Darkship Thieves

My reading time is precious, so typically, when I decide on my next book, I will choose something based on word of mouth from a trusted source or select an old classic that I'd always intended to read, but just never got around to it. However, when I picked up my latest book, Darkship Thieves, by Sarah A. Hoyt, it was for an entirely different reason. Ms. Hoyt is a Portuguese-American science-fiction/fantasy writer and outspoken libertarian who contributes to a couple of political blogs I frequent. I became interested in her fiction by reading her online political musings and though most of her books might be described as historical fantasy, Darkship Thieves and her soon-to-be-released sequel, Darkship Renegades are pure space opera in its finest tradition.

Darkship Thieves is best described as a sci-fi romance. Settle down, you guys, there are no heaving bosoms and I do not recall a single use of the word "bodice". It is the story of Athena Hera Sinistra, the wayward daughter of a member of the ruling class in a far future Earth, centuries after a vicious pogrom cleansed the planet of genetically-modified humans including the dreaded rulers, the Biolords. Following a mutiny on her father's spaceship, Athena is forced to flee in an escape pod, only to be captured by a darkship thief. Darkship thieves are mysterious pirates who steal energy pods in their technologically-advanced and stealthy darkships. Athena's captor turns out to be a genetically-enhanced human with cat-like vision and reflexes named Kit Klaavil, a descendent of exiles who escaped Earth during the uprising against the Biolords. Though no match for Kit's superhuman reflexes, Athena had always been unusually adept in a variety of ways and her fighting prowess was no exception. Kit senses something unusual about her and decides to take her back to the hidden base of his people. What follows is a story of growing love between Kit and Athena and growing dread for the future of Kit's people. The climactic confrontation is action-packed and the big reveal is awesome.

Overall, Darkship Thieves has a distinct "golden-age" feel. There is little in the way of technical jargon, even though the main character is something of a gearhead. Although the budding romance between Athena and Kit is central to the novel, it doesn't read like chick-lit. There's plenty of action, interesting world-building and a smattering of Heinleinesque political commentary thrown in for good measure. Indeed, Darkship Thieves won the Prometheus Award for the best novel of 2011, from the Libertarian Futurist Society. Well worth a look.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

More on Election 2012 and the bright future

Seems I may have been a bit hasty in suggesting the Obama administration is uninterested in manned space exploration. NASA has unveiled ambitious new plans for future missions in light of the election result. Manned deep space missions, visits to near-earth asteroids, even a possible manned mission to Mars by 2030, that's some pretty exciting stuff. Admittedly, it will require a commitment from future administrations, but any momentum is encouraging.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Election 2012 and the bright future

I can't say the final result is unexpected. Outside of the partisan bubble, most sources were predicting a fairly convincing win for Obama. I was surprised by the vote, however. The final tally isn't quite in yet, but Obama looks to be down about nine million votes from 2008. Clearly, the enthusiasm has ebbed dramatically in four years. Yet, Romney got about two million votes less than McCain. The Republicans definitely own this defeat. Either they couldn't bring themselves to vote for their guy, in which case, shame on them. Or, there just aren't as many of them as there were even four years ago. If the Republican party is declining at a rate of half a million voters per year, they definitely have to redefine what they represent. I wish them well as many of the best values of America seem to be Republican values.

So what does it mean for the bright future? Sadly, I don't think it's at all good. In general, Democrats do seem to be a bit more pro-science. They certainly don't adhere to some of the strange views of the religious Right. However, I don't think they're all that interested in space exploration. Democrats tend to think small. They see America as smaller than Republicans do. Sure, America is exceptional, they say, in the same way Greece or Brazil is exceptional. Grand visions of humans in space seems like fantasy to them, especially when there are so many social issues down here on earth that require immediate attention. Money that could go to space science will more likely be directed to green energy and you can bet the military will not have a lot of discretionary spending capability to direct toward establishing strategic assets in the high frontier. President Obama has done a decent job of encouraging private industry to participate in space exploration and, for that, he should be applauded, but for the most part, I think over the next four years little will be accomplished in the effort to hasten the arrival of the bright future.


Monday, November 05, 2012

Government and the bright future

On the verge of an historical US election, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the role of government in the "bright future". I identify politically as a blue Tory. In the lexicon of Canadian politics, that means fiscal conservatism and relative indifference to social conservatism. As such, I prefer free markets with, at best, a light touch of government to ensure everyone plays fair. However, I do not share the antagonistic view of government of American conservatives. Government, as I see it, is inefficient and large. For this reason, it should stay out of anything in which size is unimportant. We don't need, for example, government broadcasters or oil companies or airlines (all things which we in Canada currently have or have had in the recent past). The private sector has proven amply capable of providing these services. However, I think really big things are beyond the purview of the private sector and space programs seem to be a good example. Sure, big companies like Apple or Exxon Mobil could probably afford to bankroll a project like the Apollo program. A modern version of the Apollo missions would cost about $10 billion per year for about 15 years. Apple, for example, had net profits over the last year of about $40 billion. So theoretically, the largest corporation in the world could afford to fund something like the Apollo program assuming all of its shareholders could be convinced to relinquish a portion of their dividends. However, the mandate of corporations is not to invest in projects which can pretty much guarantee not to be profitable. That is not to say there isn't any money to be made in space. Energy and resources are in glorious abundance in the Solar System and eventually, fortunes will be made, but not on timescales that good capitalists can abide. A long-term investor is someone planning for his retirement in 40 years, not his great-great-grandson's in 140 years. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that governments take a long view either. Most can't see beyond the next election. However, they can commit to projects that aren't profitable as long as enough of the citizenry is inspired by the effort to represent an attractive voting bloc. Now, it might be a bit mercenary of me to say so, but when it comes to motivating governments, a small, but vocal group can often have influence far in excess of its size. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by only about three million votes out of over 120 million votes cast. The presidential election of 2008 was one of the more one-sided in recent memory, yet Barack Obama beat John McCain by less than ten million votes. Imagine how much influence a solid block of five million Americans who are committed to space exploration and willing to vote that way could have on the US political landscape. It is certainly more likely to succeed than trying to get that same five million to fund a private space program at $2,000 per person per year for 15 years with no hope of a return.

The real trick and one I don’t know how to overcome is to convince politicians on both sides of the political spectrum that those five million votes really are available to the guys with the best offer for future space exploration. In the recent Republican primary race, Newt Gingrich made a rather surprising pledge to establish a lunar base within eight years of his presidency. Not surprisingly, he was widely-ridiculed within his own party. Setting aside the question of affordability in tough economic times, Republicans are likely to be wary of chasing votes within the scientifically-literate community of space exploration enthusiasts. Their sometimes bizarre views on evolution and climate change and, more recently, human reproduction make many of them seem to be a bunch of ignorant hicks or conspiracy theorists. In order to influence them to embrace space exploration, they need to know that space enthusiasts would be willing to overlook the occasional weirdness from the fringes of the party in exchange for a firm commitment to the bright future. Too bad Newt didn’t win.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

The bright future

Lately I find myself thinking a lot about what I tend to call the "bright future", the future I thought I'd be living in today when I was a kid. I was a space-crazy introvert with visions of Star Wars and Star Trek in my head. The Americans had already sent men to the moon, there was Skylab and Viking and Voyager.  Then there was the space shuttle and Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space. We in the West had bested fascism and outlasted communism. Infectious diseases were becoming a thing of the past and despite our ever increasing global population, we always seemed to find a way to feed most of them and when we couldn't, it was invariably because of bad governments, not inadequate food supply. As I entered adulthood in the mid-80s, it seemed obvious that the awesomeness would continue. I wasn't naive enough to believe I would be moving to Mars someday, but I certainly would have imagined there'd have been a manned Mars mission by now.

Well, it hasn't quite worked out that way. It isn't all bad, of course. NASA still sends those marvelous little rovers to Mars and the International Space Station still passes overhead 16 times a day. But we don't send people to the Moon anymore, Marc Garneau is a politician (a Liberal MP, no about destroying my adolescent hero worship) and a manned Mars mission seems more like science-fiction now than it ever has. As for things down here on Earth, we still can't cure cancer or AIDS or the common cold. Nuclear fusion remains stubbornly elusive. We may (or may not) be facing a climate catastrophe unless we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, which we won't without embracing nuclear energy, which we won't because...well, I don't know...radiation scary! We have declining birthrates because we're rich and spoiled and children tend to get in the way of our jet setting lifestyles, so we're aging quickly. Soon, nobody will be able to go to space because our osteoporosis-ridden skeletons won't be able to handle the Gs. Besides, there's no internet on Mars and cellphone reception on the Moon is terrible. How are people supposed to follow their twitter feeds under circumstances like that?

This post is an introduction, of sorts, to a series of future postings in which I will share my thoughts and observations on getting back to the spirit of '69. Feel free to disagree, but be civil about it, if you please.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I know, let's throw in a mega-hurricane...

I don't mean to make light of a serious situation, but if the events of the last month were plot points in a political thriller, most people would consider it a bit over the top. First, we have what is probably the most important presidential election in decades. The global economy is in a malaise it can't seem to pull itself out of, Iran is building nuclear weapons and Israel is rattling its sabre, China is bullying its neighbours and the Eurozone is fracturing. The president has an eleventh hour crisis in Libya. The ambassador is dead. Rumours circulate, leaked memos are released. Did the administration ignore requests for more security? Probably. The Secretary of State falls on her sword. Worse, did the president have realtime intel of the attacks and choose to ignore it for political purposes? Seems hard to believe, but the opposition smells blood. At this point, we have all the makings of a decent Tom Clancy novel and that's where I would have stopped. But Mother Nature decides to up the ante and toss in a massive hurricane on the eve of the election. Dozens are killed and millions are without power. Several swing states are affected by the storm. Now it's starting to read like a contrived start to a future history for a post-apocalyptic rpg. All we need now is for the president to declare martial law and cancel the election "until order is restored".

Seriously though, stay safe, American friends (and Canadian friends back east who are also getting hit by Sandy).


P.S. Hey, hurricane-naming people...Sandy? Really?

Monday, October 29, 2012

SpaceX Dragon - mission accomplished

This is awesome. I am of a certain age that I can remember a time when landing men on the moon was something the USA could do with some regularity. At the time, it was generally accepted that the Soviets could probably do it too and eventually would. We also had supersonic air travel. Admittedly, flying on the Concorde was a rich man's game, but it held the promise of a bright future. Then came the space shuttle. There was also nuclear fusion, which they assured us, was only twenty years away. Could lunar bases and manned missions to Mars be far off? Where the heck did all that go? It's been forty years since a human has visited the moon. There's no more shuttle program. No SSTs. Nuclear fusion, they assure us, is still twenty years away. Instead of moon bases, the height of our technological advancement is the Chevy Volt and the iPhone.

Thankfully, it appears we are crawling out of this new Dark Age. The Chinese are talking about sending a man to the moon. While I certainly don't relish the thought of the future belonging to Communist China, it will hopefully spur western countries to reinvest in space exploration if we see a successful Chinese moonshot. In the meantime, American industry seems ready to keep things going for now. I doubt I will see a manned Mars mission in my lifetime, but it's enough to know we haven't completely abandoned the future


Friday, October 26, 2012

D-bane bids adieu

Some of you may have noticed that one of our longtime contributors has utterly disappeared from the blog. Derobane-bane has, for personal reasons, chosen to remove himself entirely from this site. Fear not, gentle readers, all is well. D-bane is still with us, still throwing dice and still lurking around. He has simple chosen to become an internet ninja.


Friday, October 19, 2012

The Urth of the New Sun

Having completed The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe a few weeks back, I promptly turned my attention to the sequel, The Urth of the New Sun. Set ten years after the events of the original series, it tells the story Severian's effort to fulfil the prophecy of the New Sun and the ultimate fate of Urth.

[Spoilers ahead]:

The Urth of the New Sun begins with Severian onboard the spaceship, Tzadkiel, on a journey to Yesod, a higher universe, where he, like several Autarchs before him, will undergo a test to determine if the people of Urth are worthy to receive the New Sun. There are, of course, mishaps and even an attempted mutiny along the way, as there are many who do not wish Severian to succeed. After all, the arrival of the New Sun will bring with it, a great cataclysm and most people of Urth will not survive. Soon after his arrival, Severian learns that there is no test and that he is the one to bring the New Sun. He then returns to Urth to prepare it as best as he can. However, this where things start to get a bit chaotic. Severian finds that he can travel the "corridors of time", sometimes at will, other times unconsciously. Indeed, when he arrives back at Urth, he is in the past, during the reign of the Monarch Typhon. Later he arrives at a time a few decades after he left, his wife sits on the throne of the Commonwealth and the New Sun is just about to arrive. Still later, he returns to the distant past to the time of Apu-Punchau, an ancient ruler in prehistoric Urth and then, finally, to a future time, a few generations after the return of the New Sun.

I must confess, I found the latter third of this book a bit difficult to follow at times, largely because of the time travel. Some of the journey's through the corridors of time were not made immediately known to the reader. Still, once I realized what had happened, I was able, with an occasional bit of rereading, to clarify things. All, I can really say as far as a recommendation is, if you enjoyed The Book of the New Sun, you must read The Urth of the New Sun. It doesn't tie up many loose ends from the original series (my sense is that Wolfe is not the kind of writer who feels compelled to do so), but it will answer the one big unanswered question, namely, what would become of Urth and the prophecy of the New Sun.


Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Rippin' on...Call of Cthulhu continued

The Cthulhuesque fun continues at

Mansions of Madness, pt.3


Thursday, October 04, 2012


While reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe over the last month or so (currently reading the sequel, The Urth of the New Sun), I was impressed by the depth of the world Wolfe created. It seemed tailor-made for adaptation to a game setting. So I set out to see if it had ever been done and sure enough (and much to my dismay, as it turns out), it had. The source of my dismay, it was a GURPS setting. I played a lot of GURPS back in the 90s. I was a university student back then and all the cool kids were playing GURPS (at least around the campus gaming club). They say familiarity breeds contempt. Well, for me and GURPS, the saying is true. After a couple of years of almost exclusive GURPS, I was completely and irrevocably done with it. I still kept a few of my favourite sourcebooks, like GURPS Conan and GURPS Terradyne to mine for ideas, but I haven't played the game itself in nearly 20 years. Needless to say, I was somewhat ambivalent about investing in GURPS New Sun, but in the end, the pull of the setting proved stronger than my antipathy toward the game.

One point before I discuss the book, GURPS New Sun is one massive spoiler. It is unlikely anyone would even think to buy it if they hadn't already read The Book of the New Sun, but be forewarned, the entire plot of both The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun are revealed.

GURPS New Sun is a quality work and quite an interesting sourcebook even for someone who may not wish to play GURPS. It starts out with a history of Urth, starting with the Age of Myth, which is basically all of history up until humanity's ascension to the stars and the creation of the First Empire. When the First Empire began is unclear, but its slow decline began about 72,000 years before the events of The Book of the New Sun. This era of interstellar empire and decline is known as the Age of the Monarch, named for the Monarch Typhon, the last great ruler of the age and a character who makes a brief appearance in The Sword of the Lictor. The Age of the Autarchs follows. It is the current era in The Book of the New Sun. Finally, there is The Next Age: Ushas or Ragnarok. The future of Urth is governed by the prophecy of the New Sun. If it comes to pass, Urth will go through a catastrophic upheaval, but will emerge on the other side as a vibrant, abundant world (Ushas). If the New Sun does not come, Urth will eventually turn into a frozen ball revolving about a burned-out sun for all eternity (Ragnarok). It is not an easy choice. Those alive in the present would not see Ragnarok, not would their children or even their grandchildren. However, the catastrophe that would mark the beginning of the rebirth of the world would be devastating and immediate. Most would not survive.

Next are chapters on the geography of Urth, especially the Commonwealth and its capital city, Nessus, although a few pages are dedicated to Ascia. There is a chapter on religion, mainly the Church of the Conciliator, with some description of Yesod included in this chapter as well. There is also a chapter on some of the unique aspects of space and time as described in The Urth of the New Sun and how they can be adapted to the GURPS system. Being a sourcebook, there is, of course, a chapter dedicated to character creation. For those unfamiliar with GURPS, chargen is a point-buy system for everything. You can buy attributes, skills, advantages. If you buy low attribute scores or disadvantages, you get points back that can be spent on other things. It is a pretty straightforward system, but one that is easily abused. Anyway, the character chapter includes some new skills and advantages/disadvantages as well as advice on how to adapt some existing ones to the setting. There are also an impressive array of character templates in keeping with the astounding depth of the setting. Of course, there are also the usual components of any game setting, weapon and equipment lists, a bestiary and a bunch of adventure hooks. Finally, there is a chapter on thaumaturgy. The lines dividing technology, magic and psionics are very blurry in The Book of the New Sun. The impression I got from reading it is that everything is actually technological, although some of that technology, especially some described in The Urth of the New Sun, stretches the limits of what I would consider possible within the constraints of the laws of physics. Having said that, GURPS New Sun treats a lot of the seemingly mystical effects as sorcery or psionics. It is up to individual GMs to decide the nature of the technology in their campaigns, but from a game mechanics perspective, it seems easier to treat it as magic.

Overall, GURPS New Sun is a pretty decent sourcebook. Even if the game system itself is not my thing, I have always felt the supplements were invariably excellent. At a modest $20 for a meaty, 128 pg. soft-cover, it's a good bargain and I would say it's a must for anyone interested in converting The Book of the New Sun to a tabletop rpg game setting.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reading project - The Book of the New Sun

The latest installment in my effort to read all the science-fiction works in the NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books is The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It is a tetralogy, comprising The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch telling of a distant future of deprivation and decadence in the shadow of a golden age long past, similar to that described in The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. No less an authority than Neil Gaiman has described The Book of the New Sun as "the best SF novel of the last century".

[Spoilers ahead]:

In broad terms, The Book of the New Sun is a Bildungsroman, following the progress of Severian, an apprentice torturer who would one day ascend to great heights, both figuratively and literally. His journey begins with a crisis of conscience in his role as a torturer. He grants mercy to a noblewoman condemned to a horrible death and faces exile for his failure to fulfil his duty. Forced out into a world he knows little about, where his kind are hated and feared, Severian must find his way armed only with a fine executioner's sword and the black cloak that is the badge of his office. Along the way, he encounters bizarre creatures, weird technologies from the ancient past and plenty of women. Yes, Severian chases a lot of women. One turns out to be a clone, another is resurrected from the dead, while the lone, seemingly normal one, spends most of the novels trying to kill him. Eventually on the run for failing a second time to fulfil his duty, Severian joins a mercenary company on the front lines in a war against the Ascians, sworn enemies of his homeland, leading up to the climactic events that reveal his ultimate destiny.

Reading The Book of the New Sun, I was struck by the way Wolfe's world-building, which is truly impressive, parallels the approach taken by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Wolfe would often step outside of the narrative, telling stories largely unrelated to the plot, typically through recitation from Severian's brown book, a treasured possession from his youth, or, in one case, from a storytelling competition among several suitors to win the hand of a woman. These serve a role, much like the many poetic interludes in The Lord of the Rings, to flesh out the world, giving it texture and depth. Without the considerable world-building in The Book of the New Sun, it could have been a significantly shorter work, and probably an easier read, but too much of what makes it truly special would have been lost.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Terminus Est, Severian's sword. Roughly translated as "this is the end", Terminus Est is a marvel. A hollow, flat-tipped greatsword with a reservoir of quicksilver inside, it is the obvious inspiration for the mercurial greatsword introduced to D&D 3.5. Though primarily an executioner's blade, rather than a fighting sword, Terminus Est gets Severian out of many life-threatening situations. It's eventual destruction is as heartbreaking as any of the deaths in the series.

A challenging read, but well-worth the commitment.


Friday, August 31, 2012

Confirmed - FASA is back

It's official, FASA is back in the publishing business. They have a new website,, although no content is up yet. They have their own Earthdawn IP as well as licenses for Fading Suns, Blue Planet and Noble Armada (didn't Mongoose have that last one like a month ago?). Check out this podcast for more information.


Monday, August 27, 2012

RedBrick calls it quits

RedBrick has announced it is getting out of the game publishing business. There have been some problems lately between RedBrick and the lead designer of their third edition of Fading Suns which I haven't been paying a lot of attention to since I'm more interested in the rumour of a Fading Suns Pathfinder edition. However, it now looks like all plans related to Fading Suns, as well as Earthdawn, Blue Planet and RedBrick's other IPs are up in the air. Not surprisingly, the Earthdawn license has reverted to FASA, but I'm surprised that FASA is also taking on the Fading Suns license. Holistic Design is the licensor for Fading Suns and as far as I know, FASA has not been an active publisher for more than a decade. It sounds like FASA is coming back to life, an interesting development to be sure. Sadly, the announcement does not say anything about the possibility of a Fading Suns Pathfinder edition. I will have to keep an eye out for upcoming announcements from FASA.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

RIP Mr. Armstrong

I do not, as a rule, post death notices on this blog. Although both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson have passed away since I started blogging, I didn't feel any impulse to comment. Their contributions were important to me personally, but still, I felt no compulsion to join the outpouring of public grieving. I didn't know them personally and I wasn't emotionally affected by their passing.

However, the news of the death of Neil Armstrong is different. He was a personal hero of mine. I became a scientist, in large part, because of the Apollo program. Although I finally settled on geology, I started out in my academic pursuits in astronomy until the maths finally became more than I could manage. Still, I have always been fascinated by space exploration and I've always felt that Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of human achievement. It is a sad day for me and humanity.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Rippin' on...Call of Cthulhu again

More love for Lovecraft from Zack and Steve.

Mansions of Madness, pt.2


Back to my reading project

After taking a break from my effort to complete all the SF books in the NPR Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, during which time I read the John Carter of Mars trilogy (not on the list, but entertaining), I returned to my reading project over my recent vacation with the monumental Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. I had one brief flirtation with Stephenson's work back in the late '90s when a friend of mine insisted I read Snow Crash. I'm not much of a cyberpunk fan and I just wasn't ready to appreciate Stephenson's work at the time, but I'm glad I decided to give him a second look. Anathem relates the story of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a monastery (or "math" as they are referred to on Arbre, the planet upon which the novel is set) dedicated not to religious reflection, but to science (theorics) and philosophy (metatheorics). As a result of thousands of years of tumultuous history, the mathic system has come to its present form, sequestered from the outside world, denied access to most technology (praxis) and tasked with keeping records of humanity's accumulated knowledge as civilization rises, falls and rises again. In exchange for allowing the mathic world certain priviledges, the Secular Power reserves the right to call out or evoke individual avout (monastic members) in times of great need if it feels they could be of some value.

[Minor spoilers ahead]:

Things really get tense when the Secular Power starts evoking several avout at a time and one particularly beloved older avout even gets the aut of Anathem (a combination of excommunication and expulsion) for engaging in some undisclosed, but seriously forbidden research. In short order, the remaining avout determine that an alien spacecraft has assumed orbit above the planet. Awesomeness ensues.

This book is a challenging read, no question. There are lengthy philosophical discussions, especially between mathic orders who descend from Saunt Halikaarn and those who claim descent from Saunt Proc. The philosophical differences between these two correspond to Platonic realism and mathematical formalism, respectively. Overlain on top of all this is a mountain of unfamiliar terminology. A cellphone is a jeejah, a video camera is a speelycaptor. Yet, despite all that, Anathem is a real pageturner. I read the entire book, just shy of a thousand pages, in under two weeks. Now, I'll have to make it up to my kids. I can't really say if you, the gentle reader, will love this book or hate it. It definitely will require a certain type of person to appreciate it, but I can say I never read a book before that made me want to go read up on Plato's Theory of Forms.

I suppose I should prepare myself for more Stephenson awesomeness, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon are all on the NPR list. I'm getting a little light-headed just thinking about it.


Sunday, August 12, 2012


For those of you out there looking for a great deal on  (non-painted) miniatures take a look at Reapers Kickstarter for its new Bones lines HERE.

$100 gets you over 100 miniatures at this point with more being added everyday. Lots of good bonus deals as well. I'm going to pledge for sure, I'm still undecided about which extras I will add in.


It is summer time and since we only get about 3 weeks of really nice weather a year everyone is out enjoying it which means things are pretty quiet around here.

I have been playing through Mass Effect 3 for a second time and its got me itching to do a squad based futuristic RPG (one where you mow down aliens not one where we run for our lives every fight).

We are, however, still in the early phases of the Rise of the Runelords Campaign AP so its unlikely we'll be doing anything else any time soon. We TPK'd at the end of the last session but this one is going to start with us naked in jail (well, our characters anyway) so we'll see how it goes. We were defeated by some nasty terrain and a druid goblin.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rippin' on...Call of Cthulhu

Zack and Steve apparently took some time off from bashing on tabletop rpgs and based on their rather weak take on AD&D 2e Tome of Magic, they probably returned to it a bit prematurely. However, they're back with the funny in what looks like a series of shots at Call of Cthulhu. It's about time.

Mansions of Madness, pt.1


Friday, July 27, 2012

The Duelist Revisted

Most people would agree that the Prestige Classes (PrC) no longer shine so brightly compared to the base classes in Pathfinder. In 3.5 the most optimized builds usually had several different dips of various Prestige Classes. I think the main reason for this was that the base classes tended to be on the weak side, PrCs were front loaded with cool class abilities, and there was no incentive to stick with a class. At the end of the 3.5 era I think most people were sick of the vast number of Prestige Classes out there and so with the coming of Pathfinder, Prestige Classes were few and largely sucky compared to the beefed up base classes.

In the Pathfinder Beta, the Duelist prestige class was very strong defensively but weak offensively. The release version nerfed some of its defensive strength but did little to boost it on the offensive side. The poor Duelist has been left out in the cold sitting in a dark corner next to the Assassin PrC - things no PC in their right mind would take.

Over time more splat books come out offering more options and often things that suck alone synergize nicely with new options. Sometimes this is intentional and sometimes not. The Dervish Dance feat is specifically worded so it blends nicely with the Duelist PrC. This feat allows you to use dex for damage. It comes with lots of restrictions but the Duelist faces the same restrictions for most of his class skills so it doesn't matter.

Lastly there is the question of what classes to use for entry to Duelist? The Rogue seems good thematically but sucks in practice. Rogues have trouble hitting in combat and sneak attack looks much better than it actually is. My current preferred set up is fighter 5/monk2. We'll use the Lore Warden Archetype for the fighter classes. We trade away Medium, Heavy, and shield proficiency which we would not use anyway and get 2 extra skill points per level, Combat Expertise and a small boost to CMB/CMD. The fighter levels also gets us enough bonus feats to qualify for Duelist, Weapon Specialization and Weapon Training, which when combined with Gloves of Dueling give us a total of +3 to hit and +5 to damage. The 2 monk (Master of Many Styles archetype) levels are for style feats and Evasion since we'll have a really good Reflex save. If you started with Fighter 1/Monk2 you could have Crane Wing allowing you to deflect one attack per turn which is pretty strong when most things only have one attack at this level. The Crane Style feats work when fighting defensively which combines nicely with the Duelist's Elaborate Defence ability.

Here is my 10th level Duelist build. Fighting defensively, To Hit drops by one but AC goes up by 3. Combat Expertise can also be used to punch AC up into the stratosphere (AC 37).

Male Halfling Duelist 3 Fighter (Lore Warden) 5 Monk (Master of Many Styles) 2
LG Small Humanoid (Halfling)
Init +8; Senses Perception +18
AC 31, touch 27, flat-footed 20   (+3 armor, +9 Dex, +1 size, +1 natural, +2 deflection, +2 dodge)
hp 87 (8d10+2d8+20)
Fort +13, Ref +16, Will +12
Defensive Abilities Canny Defense +3, Evasion, Parry
Spd 30 ft.
Melee +2 Scimitar +20/+15 (1d4+14/18-20/x2) and
   Unarmed Strike +16/+11 (1d4/20/x2)
Special Attacks Precise Strike, Weapon Training: Blades, Heavy
Str 10,  Dex 20/22,  Con 10/12,  Int 14/16,  Wis 14/16,  Cha 10
Base Atk +9; CMB +10; CMD 36
Feats Combat Expertise +/-3, Crane Riposte, Crane Style, Crane Wing, Dervish Dance, Dodge, Improved Unarmed Strike, Mobility, Monk Weapon Proficiencies, Stunning Fist (4/day) (DC 18), Toughness +10, Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus: Scimitar, Weapon Specialization: Scimitar
Skills Acrobatics +19, Disable Device +16, Fly +8, Knowledge (Dungeoneering) +16, Knowledge (Engineering) +16, Knowledge (Local) +14, Perception +18, Perform (Dance) +5, Stealth +23
Languages Common, Halfling
SQ AC Bonus +3, Enhanced Mobility (Ex), Fearless, Fuse Style (2 styles) (Ex), Stunning Fist (Stun) (Ex), Unarmed Strike (1d6)
Combat Gear +2 Scimitar; Other Gear Amulet of Natural Armor +1, Belt of Physical Might, DEX & CON +2, Bracers of Armor, +3, Cloak of Resistance, +3, Handy Haversack (empty), Headband of Mental Prowess, INT & WIS +2: Disable Device, Ring of Protection, +2
AC Bonus +3 The Monk adds his Wisdom bonus to AC and CMD, more at higher levels.
Canny Defense +3 (Ex) +INT bonus to AC (max Duelist level).
Combat Expertise +/-3 Bonus to AC in exchange for an equal penalty to attack.
Crane Riposte When you deflect an attack, you may make an attack of opportunity
Crane Style Take -2 penalty when fighting defensively
Crane Wing May deflect one attack per round while fighting defensively or using total defense
Dervish Dance Use Dex modifier instead of Str modifier with scimitar
Enhanced Mobility (Ex) +4 AC vs attacks of opportunity while moving out of a square.
Evasion (Ex) If you succeed at a Reflex save for half damage, you take none instead.
Fearless +2 morale bonus vs Fear saves.
Fuse Style (2 styles) (Ex) At 1st level, a master of many styles can fuse two of the styles he knows into a more perfect style. The master of many styles can have two style feat stances active at once. Starting a stance provided by a style feat is still a swift action, but whe
Improved Unarmed Strike Unarmed strikes don't cause attacks of opportunity, and can be lethal.
Mobility +4 to AC against some attacks of opportunity.
Parry (Ex) Forego an attack to defend against enemy attacks.
Precise Strike (Ex) Extra damage when using light / 1-handed Piercing weapons.
Stunning Fist (4/day) (DC 18) You can stun an opponent with an unarmed attack.
Stunning Fist (Stun) (Ex) At 1st level, the monk gains Stunning Fist as a bonus feat, even if he does not meet the prerequisites. At 4th level, and every 4 levels thereafter, the monk gains the ability to apply a new condition to the target of his Stunning Fist. This conditio
Unarmed Strike (1d6) The Monk does lethal damage with his unarmed strikes.
Weapon Training: Blades, Heavy +1 (Ex) +1 Attack, Damage, CMB, CMD with Heavy Blades

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Resource management in D&D

One of the most radical design changes in 4e was the abandonment of Vancian magic. Some design features had been incorporated into D&D 3.x/Pathfinder in order to mitigate the problem of the "5 minute workday" such as bonus spells for high ability scores, school slots and powers and, of course, the introduction of the Sorcerer class which traded versatility for extra spellcasting. Still, the temptation to rest after every major encounter was still present, especially if more combat was expected. So, D&D 4e did away with the problem by allowing spellcasters to cast spells all day long (although, I must confess, from my brief flirtation with 4e, I found the constant reliance on that "go-to" at-will power got pretty monotonous in long fights...and let's face it, in 4e, they're all long fights).

I mention this in response to the most recent article from Mike Mearls entitled the The Five-Minute Workday. In it, he tries to explain how the next edition of D&D will include Vancian magic, while still allowing the spellcasters to be effective for a full day of adventuring. Based on what I've seen in the playtest, it still plays like 4e. For example, magic missile, one of the at-will powers for wizards in 4e, but a 1st-level spell in previous editions, is now a cantrip and useable at will. The new version of the venerable spell is slightly weaker in that it tops out at 4D4+4 instead of 5D4+5, but it is still way more powerful that any cantrip in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder. So, the issue of resource management is still being ignored in D&DNext. Wizards will still be able to go all day, only rationing some of their precious spells and still never having to come up with creative ways of being useful when their big booms are depleted.

Perhaps it is characteristic of our advanced years and accumulated aeons of gaming experience, but our group doesn't seem to have a problem with the 5-minute workday. Our spellcasters rarely seem to have a problem letting the fighters mop up after the first few rounds of heavy fighting. Sure, our wizard could blow his last fireball on the three remaining orcs that are running away instead of allowing the ranger to pick them off with his bow, then promptly demand the party rest for the day. But, it just doesn't play out that way. We consider resource management the mark of a skilled gamer. Besides, fighters do so much damage in Pathfinder, the spellcasters are usually better off keeping them in the fight than lobbing fireballs anyway.


Monday, July 09, 2012

RuneQuest 6 - Do Not...tempt me further!

I must say up front, I do not understand the sudden resurgence of interest in the game known as RuneQuest. It is a great game. In fact, it may be the greatest tabletop frpg, but who plays it? I own several incarnations of the basic game system, including Mongoose RQII, Legend (i.e. son of MRQII) and Elric! (RQ rules, Moorcockian setting), but I must confess, I've never played it (except in my own mind). The closest I've come are brief flirtations with Call of Cthulhu and Basic Role-Playing, both of which use the same basic game mechanics. Now, a new edition of the venerable game is making its debut, RuneQuest 6 from The Design Mechanism. The primary designers of MRQII, Lawrence Whitaker and Peter Nash, are the guys responsible for this, which makes ignoring RQ6 pretty much impossible. But do I need yet another version of RuneQuest? If it's the best one yet, then absolutely yes. However, the pdf has a hefty $25 price point, double what I am usually willing to pay for something sight unseen. Weighing in at over 450 pgs, I would expect to hardcopy version to show up on store shelves with a price tag north of $60. In other words, it's a pretty steep buy-in for something which may be only superficially different from the last version of RQ that Loz and Pete produced. Initial reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but I suppose I will have to wait to find out if RQ6 is significantly improved over MRQII.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Expanded summon monster lists

The summon monster spells in Pathfinder are not exactly awesome. They have long casting times, making them hard to complete, the monsters you get when do manage to cast them are more nuisance than threat and if you want to commit to being a decent summoner (as opposed to a Summoner), you have to burn a precious feat slot on Spell Focus (conjuration) (a school with very few spells for which the feat is useful) and then take Augment Summoning. Adding insult to injury, for spellcasters whose personal morality forbids them from even temporarily unleashing the denizens of the lower planes upon the world, the choices for higher level summonings (when the spells actually start to get interesting) is quite limited, Indeed, for the 8th-level version of the spell, only an elder elemental is available for non-evil spellcasters. Oddly enough, even though we have had two new bestiaries added to the game since the core books were released, no effort has been made to incorporate some of the new monsters to the lists. These are all based on CR and have not been playtested, so I propose trying them out to see if any of them are game breakers.

Summon Monster I
no new entries

Summon Monster II
no new entries

Summon Monster III
lyrakien azata - PB2
cassisian (angel) - PB2
harbinger archon - PB3
augur (kyton) - PB3
cacodaemon (daemon) - PB2
silvanshee agathion - PB2

Summon Monster IV
no new entries

Summon Monster V
vulpinal agathion - PB2
ceustodaemon (daemon) - PB2

Summon Monster VI
legion archon - PB3
hydrodaemon (daemon) - PB2

Summon Monster VII
avoral agathion - PB2
shield archon - PB2
movanic deva (angel) - PB2
leukodaemon (daemon) - PB2

Summon Monster VIII
leonal agathion - PB2
monadic deva (angel) - PB2
interlocutor (kyton) - PB3
meladaemon (daemon) - PB2

Summon Monster IX
thanadaemon (daemon) - PB2


Update: Wouldn't you know it, one day after writing this post, I pick up a copy of the newly-released Advanced Race Guide and find a section in it that deals with some of the suggestions I just made. There is a new race called fetchlings, descendents of humans who got stranded on the Plane of Shadow. One of the racial archetypes is a Summoner called a Shadow Caller which includes a revised list of choices for monster summoning. Rather than enlarged lists, there are substitutions of certain choices for other monsters with a shadow theme. Interestingly enough, one of the monsters I added, the Interlocutor (kyton) is in the Shadow Caller revision, but is part of the Summon Monster IX list, even though it is CR 12.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Marvel Roleplaying Game

So recently I had a chance to look at the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. I only had time to skim through it quickly so I'm not going to say I completely understand how the combat works or I have all of the stat blocks memorized. It looks like it is a pretty good system for mimicking Super Hero comic books. The book is quite large (200+ pages) and contains a pretty good description of how the game works. It also includes a short adventure at the end.

Combat works with a token system. It uses the standard D20 set of dice but no twenty siders. Most rolls are checks against a fixed number but some are contested against an NPC's roll. What I find  really interesting is the use of tokens. As combat goes on, you can spent your tokens to be able to roll extra dice (using the most favorable results). The neat part is that you can earn more tokens by doing cool but not optimal things with your turn.

I recall one session in Pathfinder where our Barbarian whips out his weapon and tried to do a dazzling display to intimidate the enemy. Everyone at the table got mad at him because rather than do the optimal thing (kill the bad guy) at best he would have given the bad guy a small penalty to his next attack roll. In Pathfinder there is no mechanical reason to do something cool. Why would you throw a chair at a bad guy when you can shoot him with your bow. Pathfinder (and D&D in general) is all about taking out the bad guys as efficiently as possible. Except by GM fiat, there are no rewards for cool. I think it's great that there's actually a game system out there that tries to reward the heroic and the cool even if its not the most optimal option.

Monday, June 04, 2012

What I'm reading...

I ran out of steam in my effort to complete Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars" trilogy about a third of the way through the last book, although I have every intention of getting back to it in due time. However, in the meantime, I am heavily immersed in something quite different. "Designers and Dragons" by Shannon Applecline is an exhaustive history of the tabletop roleplaying game industry documenting its humble beginnings in the basements and backrooms of wargamers like Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and Jeff Perren, through the golden age of the 80s, the rocky periods of the 90s and ending with the most recent developments of the late 00s. I'm guessing most gamers will find this stuff pretty uninteresting, especially those who didn't live through most of the eras covered, but I can't stop reading. I remember ads in Dragon magazine for a lot of the games discussed in this book even if I never played most of them. What I also find fascinating are the histories of some of the game designers themselves. Many times I've thought to myself, "Wow, I didn't know he worked for 'them' that long ago!" The author also fleshes out the details surrounding some of the more well-known controversies in the history of the hobby. I especially enjoyed reading about the fight between Steve Jackson Games and the Secret Service.

Applecline goes into a fair bit of detail on the evolution of game design throughout the various histories of the different companies. The wargaming roots of the hobby are described in the chapter on TSR. The impact of "storyteller" games are, of course, detailed in the White Wolf chapter and the indie movement is given its due in the chapter on Ron Edwards and Adept Press. The OSR is not discussed much, if at all. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First of all, the OSR movement was really just getting started at the time this book was being written and its impact was minimal. Secondly, the main theme of the book has been about the evolution of game design. Some smaller companies had been purposefully left out because they were not particularly innovative and didn't feature any prominent game designers. The OSR has not, historically, been big on innovation either, at least as far as game design is concerned. I would agree though, it has been influential in establishing a new model for tabletop rpgs as community, rather than as industry. I'm certain that, were this book to be published today, a chapter on the OSR would surely have been included.


D&DNext - more thoughts

I've been thinking a bit more about skills as presented in the D&DNext playtest package. A character will have a background which will include a package of skills. For example, the dwarf fighter pre-generated character has the Soldier background, providing a +3 bonus on Intimidate, Perception and Survival. That same character has a Wisdom bonus of +2 for a total modifier of +5 on perception checks. Therefore, on a natural 20, the character in question would get a 25, two points below the threshold of "Immortal". However, in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder, there are other ways to bump up the modifiers besides ranks. How about an eyes of the eagle, a potion of heroism and a headband of inspired wisdom +6 combined with the Alertness feat? Together, these give an additional +12. Now our dwarven axewielder only need roll a 10 to achieve "Immortal" perception. I guess this means we're going to see a radical redesign of magic items. I would guess this will be a case of drawing inspiration from past editions of D&D that didn't have skills. For example, the "old-school" version of eyes of the eagle allowed one to see 100 times further than would otherwise be the case. What that even means is open to DM's interpretation since vision is limited not be distance, but by line of sight. Still, I'm guessing magic items that currently give direct numerical bonuses to skill and ability checks will have to be either discarded completely or redesigned to grant some sort of ability that doesn't directly improve skill checks.


Saturday, June 02, 2012

Wizard vs Fighter: Results

ok, we played out a couple of battles between a single level 20 wizard and a level 20 fighter. While it wasn't quite the blowout I expected it to be we came to the conclusion that the Wizard is only going to lose if he makes a big tactical mistake or rolls very poorly.
The Fighter basically needs a backpack full  magic items that can counter the wizards myriad of magical tricks. Miss one and he's dead. The fighter did win one battle when he reflected a Flesh to Stone spells and the wizard failed his fort save. That combat aside, the wizard tended to dominate. The only thing that kept the fighter alive for any amount of time was the constant use of Dust of Disappearance. The wizards biggest trump card is Gate. That one spell just opens up so many possibilities.

Another night we'd like to run a 3 vs 3 battle and try the same fight with level 12 characters. Level 20 wizards are hard to play - there are just too many options.

Friday, June 01, 2012

D&DNext - The Good, the Bad and the Meh

After a first go through on the D&DNext playtest package, I have found some things I like, some things I don't like and some things I am wholly indifferent about. First the Good, skills are cool. They still work a lot like Pathfinder skills, except they don't scale with level. A character will typically have a couple of skills from their background which will have a +3 bonus. An ability score modifier will also be added to the skill check, but that's it. No ranks. Imagine that, a low-level palace guardsman actually has a chance to not be totally bamboozled by a smooth-talking high-level bard claiming to be the King's long lost son. As one can guess, skill check DCs are much lower. DC 27+ is considered to be "Immortal" difficulty.

With the Good, comes the Bad, healing. I can't say enough about how much I hate healing surges. No single rule turned me off 4e more than healing surges. Well, they don't call them that anymore, but the effect is the same. Did you just get stabbed in the neck? Sit down for a few minutes and you'll be right as rain. Combined with another 4e "innovation", massive 1st-level hit points, and you've got pretty near unkillable PCs. If they don't ramp up the danger level in the final product, this will probably be a dealbreaker for me.

Last, and certainly least, the Meh, for me, is the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. I get it, sort of. To make up for the lack of scaling in skills, they introduce a mechanic to allow a bit more range of outcome. If the DM decides that the player has an advantage, he rolls two dice and takes the better result. If he has a disadvantage, he must take the lower result. In terms of the above example of the bard vs. the guard, if the bard attempted to tell a fairly believable lie, like he was an illegitimate son of the guard captain, he might enjoy an advantage. If, on the other hand, he was claiming to be the heir to the throne, that would certainly require a disadvantage, unless he had some compelling evidence to back up his claim. So, the mechanic works, I suppose. However, it feels sort of gimmicky to me and a bit too abstract and simplistic. Still, not a dealbreaker.

Overall, I'd say that while it's still too soon to say anything definitive, D&DNext looks promising.