Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Although I’m a fan of fantasy, Tolkien, D&D, etc. I must admit that I’m not very familiar with the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, or most of the others that appeared in Gary Gygax’s Appendix N of the 1E AD&D DMG. I guess I was born in an era that was more of TSR’s Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, etc. I didn’t even discover H.P. Lovecraft until my mid-20s! According to Gygax, he was far more a fan of those writers rather than Tolkien, eschewing the other races besides man and finding more interest in the truly strange and other-worldly. While this wasn’t reflected as much in AD&D as it was in OD&D, it was certainly his personal preference.

I had heard about Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, similar to other Appendix N-influences RPGs such as Crypts & Things and Barbarians of Lemuria. Again, as a fan of the more traditional Tolkien-based fantasy I didn’t give these stories or games much thought. I thought it was too much to get rid of dwarves, elves, dragons, and other key figures that were so deeply rooted in my picture of what fantasy truly was. It wasn’t until I was reading Empire of Imagination that I started to think about it again. I kept coming back to AS&SoH over the other two for a few key reasons: the simple and clean layout, the unbelievably amazing artwork that would make David Trampier proud, and the refined-but-still-familiar AD&D-based rules. While I would love to plunk down $50 for the gorgeous boxed set from North Wind Adventures, I went for the PDF, which at $10 is an amazing deal. NWA is working on a hardcover version of AS&SoH (not sure if one big volume or two), and I may go for that once it’s released.

AS&SoH is split into two volumes, the Players’ Manual and Referee’s Manual. At 256 pages, the Players’ Manual is pretty beefy as far as an OSR RPG goes. Looking at the table of contents, it’s confusing as it only covers through page 95. That’s actually for the first volume (Swordsmen & Sorcerers); if you go to page 97, you’ll see volume 2: Sorcery; page 190 is where volume 3: Adventure & Combat begins.

In addition to the classic classes, AS&SoH also provides sub-classes for each one, and in total there are 18 sub-classes. While I can appreciate the number of choices to create exactly the kind of character I want, I think that’s a bit over-kill. Let’s take the sub-classes for the fighter: barbarian, berserker (is that really much different from a barbarian?), cataphract (que?), paladin, ranger, and warlock (isn’t that normally a magic-user specialization?). See, I can play almost all of those simply by the equipment I carry as well as how I role-play a character during a game. I don’t need something different on my character sheet, various ability and skill options and/or bonuses/penalties. That screams rules bloat, and NOT OSR RPG.

Volume 2: Sorcery takes up almost 100 pages by itself; while it’s not anywhere near the overkill of DCC RPG, it’s still a dis-proportionate amount of space. Now don’t get me wrong, more spells is nice, but at some point you have to limit choices (not just spells, but everything such as equipment, monsters, treasure, etc.). The Referee is gonna have to look up and re-familiarize herself with a spell every time a player want to cast it, and with too many to flip through and read that is gonna slow down or even kill the pace of the game.

Volume 3: Adventure & Combat is also a sizable portion, and it’s all rules here. There’s just too many, and my eyes glaze over as I even attempt to memorize even a fraction of them. I don’t even know if a large Referee screen would help; there’s just too much I’d want to let alone have to include.

At 240 pages the Referee’s Manual is also a decent-sized tome for an OSR RPG. Volume 4: Bestiary takes up the first 118 pages, so there’s a nice variety of monsters to choose from. Like other ORS RPGs the stat-blocks are nice and compact. It is in this volume that I really have to re-iterate the outstanding artwork by Ian Baggley; some of the monster illustrations are downright terrifying (yes, legit freaks me out), giving true understanding just how horrifying it would be to actually meet one (or more!) of these creatures. Even if I don’t play this rule-set, I will definitely consult this volume for inspiration when describing an encounter.

Volume 5: Treasure offers a wide assortment of items to shower upon your player for their hard work, astounding role-playing, and probably sheer luck at survival. I do like the organization and layout especially in this volume; having the text as one-column makes it far easier for me to easily see just what all is on offer to give to the players.

Volume 6: Hyperborea is an optional gazetteer of a setting a Referee can either use as the base for her game or it can be an add-on to an existing campaign world. At first glace I was going to ignore this volume, between already having my own world working as well as growing tired of the total page-count of AS&SoH. However, as I flip through this volume I see a lot of things I could actually use. There isn’t a map shown within the volume, but a separate (and very large) PDF is a detailed map of the region. At the end of the volume is a very short Referee Advice section; I’m not sure if this belongs here (rather than say at the beginning of the Referee’s Manual, and why it couldn’t be expanded to at least a few more pages, include some handy tables, etc.

All things considered AS&SoH is a very impressive and formidable game. A clean (if somewhat simple) layout, good organization, and stunning artwork show off a very different take on classic Appendix N-based gaming. While I personally couldn’t play without the inclusion of Tolkien-based facets of fantasy, there is a lot in AS&SoH I will gladly port over to my game. I am glad I went with the PDF version, as I can extract the volumes I want to keep. If the eventual hardcover isn’t too expensive, I would likely purchase it for the artwork alone, along with all the great information and inspiration it contains.

Re-watching Lord of the Rings and Star Wars

Earlier this year I had some recent downtime and was able to re-watch a few movies in my collection that I haven’t viewed in quite awhile. In this entry, I’d like to cover my thoughts as I finally re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I hadn’t watched in a year or so) as well as all six Star Wars movies (which I haven’t watched in at least a couple of years).

Lord of the Rings

In total this trilogy is about 7-8 hours (not the extended edition, I couldn’t handle that). I don’t remember if I saw the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, in the theater but I do remember watching it when it first came out on DVD with family in Arkansas. Besides the visuals, it’s Howard Shore’s music that stands out for me. The first movie is the setup, and I enjoy its slower pace and less focus on combat/battles. It’s great to see the Shire as well as Rivendell, though the latter isn’t shown much besides where the council meets. The mines of Moria were incredible, and the visual of the Balrog, engulfed in flames and wielding the flame sword and whip, well that was better than any dragon could have ever been!

I do remember watching The Two Towers in the theater, and it was a pretty long movie. I did like seeing more of the human realm with Gondor, despite all the problems and politics they deal with. The battle at the end of the movie was great to see, although I still have a hard time believing that even with the help of Gandalf and Gondor’s men’s they didn’t come so much closer to defeat.

If I did see The Return of the King in the theater, then I don’t remember having to sit through this extremely long movie. Heck even right now I’m having trouble remembering what all even happens in the movie. Frodo and Samwise finally reach Mordor, although it can’t be as simple as throwing the ring into the fire, with both the temptation to Frodo (though not as great as it was to man) as well as Gollum’s scheming and ultimate lashing out in one last attempt to steal the ring for himself. I liked that Aragorn was re-united with Arwen despite her father’s objections, and that the heart-broken Eowyn may still find happiness with Faramir, and with all he’s been through it would be a great turn-around for him as well.

It will likely be quite awhile before I watch these movies again, and in the meantime I still need to read the books!

Star Wars

Initially I was only going to watch the original trilogy, but I decided if I was going to re-watch those I might as well re-watch all 6, as it had been just as long since I viewed those. I remember having a mixed opinion of the prequel trilogy, but with this viewing I went in with a fairly open mind; since it had been so long since I had seen them, it wasn’t too hard to accomplish that. I did watch them in the order they were released, as that still makes the most sense for me. For a new movie viewer, I would recommend starting with the prequel trilogy.

The amount of wonder and awe that Star Wars elicits doesn’t fade much even with so many repeated viewings. Starting with the opening shot we’re put right in the middle of this universe, and we see how important characters already make an impact on its happenings. We get glimpses of bigger things, but time and budget kept things focused. The model-work still rivals the best that CGI can offer, and John Williams‘ score is still top-notch.

If there’s a better sequel than The Empire Strikes Back, it would have to be really damn good. Taking off after the events of the first movie, this film delves deep into the dark side in many ways, showing the efforts and repercussions of the Empire’s deeds as well as the struggles of the Rebellion. Directed by Irvin Kershner and written primarily by Lawrence Kasdan, this movie also showed that while George Lucas is the creative mastermind behind this universe he could trust others to step in and make an even better movie.

The final original movie, Return of the Jedi, has some failings compared to its predecessor. The ewoks. Ohhhh the ewoks. I don’t necessarily mind them, but they definitely take up a disproportionate amount of screen-time. Otherwise there is some good story development, and some closure with the relationship between Luke, Darth Vader, and Leia. At the end of the movie we see a glimpse of hope for the re-building for many major cities and planets, and we’re curious to see where things go from here. A wonderment that would take over twenty years to get answered.

The first movie of the prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace opened in theaters with ungodly expectations and humongous fanfare. We get a wandering and overtly-political story, ham-fisted villains, overwrought CGI that dominates everything, and probably the most annoying character the movies will ever see.

The second film of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones, is in an odd position in relation to the other five movies. Considered an improvement compared to the first movie but not as good as the third, Attack of the Clones is the debut of an older Anakin Skywalker played by Hayden Christensen. While he has received very negative reviews for his performance, I have no doubt as much if not more blame must go to the director, George Lucas, both for poor dialogue as well as over-reliance on green-screen CGI effects. Text here. Christopher Lee makes a great villain, and his sword-fights are quite plausible.

The final movie of the prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, is another step up compared to the previous two films, and I would consider it the fourth-best movie (including The Force Unleashed). Hayden’s acting is a bit improved, as is the script. Maybe George finally got into a groove as well as took some criticism and feedback for the first two movies. Ewan McGregor does a great job especially in this movie, and Natalie Portman is heart-wrenching at the ending. But in contrast Ian McDiarmid is way over-the-top and the fight with Yoda is quite laughable. Yoda may have been a bit more spry years before meeting Luke, but literally bouncing off the walls? No.

I can’t remember when and where I read it, but someone once said that the true reason of Star Wars’ popularity was because of Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker; in other words, people rooted for the underdog, non-Force-wielding human just trying to survive and earn a living in this large and incredible universe, which just happened to have a war between the Rebellion and the Empire. They likened that viewpoint as the reason for the popularity of Firefly and Serenity. Overall I’m glad I took the time to watch these movies again, it’s definitely like coming home to an old friend. I will probably watch at least the original trilogy on a yearly basis, give or take. The prequel trilogy? Likely rarely, especially now that I have The Force Awakens and new ones are already coming soon!

Star Trek Beyond

Apparently without any real advertising effort behind it, Star Trek Beyond (shouldn’t it have a colon, Star Trek: Beyond?) is now out in theaters. I had pretty low expectations for this movie. I’m by no means a “retro trek snob”, but as I did grow up with the original movies the jury is still out on whether I can adapt to this new crew and timeline; this is definitely Star Trek for the next, next generation, which isn’t me. The first new Star Trek had some key highs and lows, while Into Darkness seemed to crank up the highs and lows. Again, the older movies and shows certainly had their lows, but they were never quite that low (nope, not even The Final Frontier!).

So how did I feel leaving the theater? Actually, quite happy! I’m not sure if the key factor was Simon Pegg co-writing the script, and/or the absence of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, but it may be. This is also the first one not directed by J.J. Abrams, but by Justin Lin. His credentials aren’t numerous or that prestigious, but he seems to be a good fit for these kind of movies. I think what I enjoyed about this movie the most was that each of the characters (and not just the Kirk-Spock-Bones trio) had more screen-time to say something, crack a joke, just be themselves. I know this is a movie and there always has to be something happening, but finally we get a newer Star Trek that isn’t afraid to take a pause! This seems to be a common trend in recent television as well, which is just mind-boggling. I certainly hope the new Star Trek TV series takes the lessons learned from this movie!

Along with the existing bridge crew, the few new characters in this movie are a mixed bunch. First there is Jaylah, the ass-kicking lone survivor on the planet (moon?) where Krall is gathering his forces. I like that she uses her brain as much as she kicks ass; like Force Unleashed it’s good to have more strong female role models! As the villain, Krall is a cardboard cut-out, another forgettable Star Trek villain with no real personal connection to the story. Ok he’s angry, wants to hurt the Federation, bla bla bla. Unless it’s a villain like Khan with a deeply personal connection to someone in the Enterprise bridge crew, I’d rather have the alien and fantastic such as we got in the first movie!

Depsite the mixed reviews and some pitfalls that come with every Star Trek movie, Beyond is the best of the new movies, and it holds its own to the original movies. I hope there’s at least a couple more movies in the future that will continue to utilize and encourage story and wonder over action and effects, as that will show the best of Star Trek in theaters.

Stranger Things

 

You need to watch this show! Yes, pay for a Netflix subscription if you’re not already a member. Let’s start with the incredible music of Stranger Things and logo shown in the intro; I could literally listen to this all day, and I already have. These pulsing synths continue throughout the show, coming in at perfect times and never over-staying their welcome. We also get some other songs throughout the series, and they’re hit or miss; I’d have preferred just the score by SURVIVE.

The cast of this show is also wonderful. The five younger kids, arguably the main characters, are some of the best child actors I’ve been in a TV show or movie, so kudos to the actors themselves as well as the directors who helped draw out these performances. The high school kids are also very good and show the teenage turmoil we’re all painfully aware of. Winona Ryder has a bit of a comeback in this series, as I can’t honestly remember what else she’s been in since the early 90s. David Harbour as the local sheriff is terrific, and easily conveys the conflict as a widower and divorcee. Matthew Modine is great as the scientist without any apparent morals.

I won’t go over the plot here, as it’s something you can find on its IMDB page and also because I recommend watching it with a blank slate. The show is equal parts mystery and thriller, with a bit of X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Call of Cthulhu thrown in. In other words, I feel this show was made exactly for me, and I can’t wait to see what future seasons come up with!

Bandcamp find: Ascendant

Sometimes I can’t listen to doom, outrun, or anything else that’s loud, busy, etc. I just need something in the background while writing, organizing files, or just laying back with my eyes closed. There’s a few soundtracks that can meet that criteria, but just as many don’t. I’ve never really taken a hard look at ambient music before, but like the other genre categories on Bandcamp it ususally doesn’t take long before I hear something that piques my interest. One that did just that is Ascendant’s Meridian. This is perfect music for feeling like you’re floating along in space, relaxed and all worries pushed aside.