Tuesday, March 30, 2010

XDM: X-treme Dungeon Mastery

At last year's Gen Con, while wandering the Exhibit Hall, I walked by the Hickmans' booth where XDM was being offered for sale. I had read a little about it, not much, although the impression I had was that it was a book about playing RPGs -- d20/OGL specifically -- in some sort of "extreme" way, with lots of action, stunts, and phat lootz.

Fast forward to last Wednesday, when I was checking the new reviews on rpg.net. One of the day's reviews was this review of XDM, focusing on the rules system. I hadn't thought much about the book or read anything else about it since Gen Con, but I was struck by the tag line for the review: "The best thing to happen to RPGs since the 20 sided die. Seriously." With such a bold statement, I just had to read what it was about.

The book itself does appear to be more about tips and tricks to use with your game. The rules system included, the subject of this particular review, is very simple. The player tells the GM what he or she wants to do, the GM determines a target number based on the difficulty of the action and the character's skill, and the player rolls the dice. It seems to be akin to indie-style rules-light games of high-trust shared narrative control, such as Wushu. The magic system works the same way -- Describe the effect, calculate a target number, and roll.

Seems like a lot of fun, and a style similar to the games our group has been playing lately. I was intrigued by the review, and now I'm curious to read the book itself.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Favorite Music Friday: "Come Dancing"

This is a special Sunday edition of "Favorite Music Friday." I had planned to spotlight this song eventually, but I was reminded of it last night.

"Come Dancing" is among my favorite songs of the 80s, and my favorite song by The Kinks.

Even though there is a touch of sad nostalgia in it, which could be read as a corresponding "loss of innocence", I don't see it as sad and melancholy. Overall there's a feeling of optimism in the song; looking back at past good times, but also a celebration of those days and the present, from the organ notes at the beginning to the brass section that cranks up near the end. I love the sound of an organ and brass instruments in rock songs.

Being a fan of all things British, too, I love this look at a slice of post-war life in England. The song takes on added meaning when you find out that there was a ballroom dancing competition show on the BBC named "Come Dancing" -- I didn't know until now.

When Mrs. Kaiju and I were at Borders yesterday, I flipped though an new book by the Onion A/V Club titled Inventory, a book of pop-culture lists. I was pleased to see that they recognized "Come Dancing" in their list of "Songs That Work As Short Stories". This will be a topic I come back to, but I love songs that tell a story, whether that's literally through the lyrics, or sonically when the actual music takes you on a journey.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Conan The Destroyer: A Re-Appraisal

(One of those draft posts I've been meaning to publish for months...)

Several months ago, I had the chance to watch Conan the Destroyer again for the first time in quite a while. For years this film had the reputation of being "The D&D Movie". The title fits -- a motley group of adventurers are brought together for an epic journey...under false pretenses and with a stinging betrayal.

I know, I know, it's not Shakespeare. It's not even proper Howard, but it's fun. And it's all we had in 1984.

Even though it's less about Howard's Conan than even the first movie, there are still many things to like about it. Roy Thomas's involvement with the original story lead to the comic-book feel of the movie, even if he was disappointed with the final product. I'm not sure what to make of Richard Fleischer's work on the movie. He directed such great films as Tora! Tora! Tora!, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Soylent Green. I think more of the blame should go to the script.

One of my biggest disappointments with the movie is the score. Surprisingly, because the composer, Basil Poledouris, created one of the all-time best motion picture scores for the first Conan film. Some of those same cues are reused here, and the new music is rather pedestrian.

Despite its flaws as a whole, there are so many things to like about the movie. During this last viewing, I made some notes on the bits that I love, and the classic fantasy tropes that are used through the film:

  • A thief counting his coins
  • Soldiers "sneaking" up on our hero
  • A leaping backstab
  • Conan punches-out a horse, Mongo-style
  • A sorceress-queen who hires our hero for a quest
  • A fortress-city on a mountain
  • Evil-looking warlocks reading golden tablets
  • "Dagoth, the Dreaming God"
  • The Scrolls of Skelos
  • A prophecy of a virgin sacrifice
  • The threat of death/treachery
  • Rows of giant statues
  • The Queen's Guard following behind
  • Cannibal tribesmen
  • Decapitations
  • Gladiator pit fights
  • A crystal castle on a misty mountain lake
  • A wizard transforms into a bird of smoke
  • An impenetrable door with the only entrance being underwater
  • An enormous spiral stone staircase (this and the underwater entrance are my favorite scenes in the movie)
  • A hall of mirrors
  • "Out!!"
  • A sword fight on horseback
  • An ancient tomb in the desert (this entire sequence is another great scene)
  • Akiro nonchalantly lighting a torch with magic
  • Zula afraid of...a rat
  • Some really brutal swordplay against hordes of bad guys
  • A magical wizard duel
  • A secret entrance to the city behind a waterfall (my second favorite scene)
  • An arcane magical ritual
  • Sneaking in to stop the ritual
  • A giant Cthulhu Mythos beast (designed by Carlo Rambaldi, who won Oscars for E.T, Alien, and King Kong)
  • Conan tearing the magic artifact horn out of the monster's head and throwing it away with a priceless superstitious look
  • The new queen handing out rewards to the group

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Behind my GM screen

After the Freeport game last week, I cleaned up the table a bit and took some photos of my area. I was inspired by this great post on Gnome Stew from two weeks ago, and I thought I would take some time to point out how I set up my own gaming tools. I fell into the routine of setting up this way after the first few sessions. It helps me feel prepared by having everything in its place.

Going from left to right:
  • The big stack of sourcebooks (more on that later).
  • A small dry-erase board. Useful for quick maps, sketches, or combat stats.
  • The stack of initiative cards.
  • My hand-drawn map of the Southern Ocean (nice quality version coming soon...).
  • A folder with my NPC name/place lists, fan-produced True20 cheat sheets and panels for the Narrator's Screen of Doom.
  • A clock.
  • A pile for the players: printed copies of the rulebook and various Companions, player cheat sheets, and the Pocket Player's Guide.
  • My planning notebook: a graph-paper-lined legal pad where I write all of the prep for upcoming sessions. You would also find my version of the triad sheet for the session in here.
  • A fistful of d20s.
  • My session notebook: a yellow lined legal pad where I record the events of the current session. I also record combat information and any other during-the-session notes here.
On the table proper is my Chessex mat, minis-scale ship plans, scratch pads and pencils. Not seen in this picture is my MP3 player and portable speaker, both strapped under the table, randomly shuffling pirate-themed soundtrack music.
You'll notice that, despite the title of this post, there isn't a GM screen on the table. I've been running screenless for some time -- possibly since the zombie/Cthulhu game in 2000? -- after seeing how it has worked for Edige. I've found that, for me, a screen creates an artificial psychological barrier between me and the other players. I love the idea of a screen, and I like having all the necessary charts in one easy-to-use place. I don't want to create the illusion of secrecy, or the impression of GM tyranny that a screen implied in the days of D&D Past. If I use one now, it would be off to one side and not directly in front of me.

The big stack of Freeport sourcebooks... not including Broadsides! and Corsair.