Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let's Look at the Sun

Let's look at the sun today, shall we?


NASA's new Solar Dynamics Observatory is starting to pump out some lovely data. Here is a composite color image of the sun from March 30, 2010 showing hot plasma, UV radiation, and flares:

Speaking of flares, look at this amazing SDO video of the flare in the upper left corner of the above image:


Here's another nice flare picture:

Gigantic magnetic tubes of hot gas (aka spicules) on the sun's surface:

A sun halo over Cambodia:

Blue image of sun highlighting hydrogen-alpha spicules:

Martian sunset:

Images from NASA's APOD site.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Should DMs Tell Players What They Need To Roll?

I am currently running two D&D campaigns – one using the original D&D whitebox rules, and one using Labyrinth Lord, which is a clone of the early ‘80s Basic/Expert Sets. In the Labyrinth Lord game I usually DON'T tell players what they need to roll to hit an opponent in combat. I allow them to deduce how tough their opponent is by whether or not their die rolls produce an effect. In my whitebox game I usually DO tell the players what they need to roll to hit.

I have noticed something interesting happening in the whitebox game. With each die roll there is a certain heightened tension where everyone is gathered around the table with bated breath, watching the die, hoping it will come up nice. It's like playing craps in Vegas. If a hit comes up there are cheers and high-fives, if it's a miss there are groans.

Contrast this with the Labyrinth Lord game, where each die is quickly thrown and then followed by a short discussion of what the opponent’s armor class might be. A somewhat more cerebral gaming experience, to be sure.

As an experiment, in our last whitebox game I switched over to the “secret to hit” roll. The cheers were instantly replaced by the armor class deduction discussions. Very interesting.

I made a post at the OD&D Discussion board asking other DMs if they tell players what they need to roll to hit an opponent in combat. Twelve people responded. Only ONE person said they regularly share this information with players… Lo and behold it was James Raggi who said:
“Such secrecy bugs me, as it serves no purpose other than to give me more stuff to keep track of and I'm not so interested. I just tell the players their opponents' AC, and they tell me if they hit. I figure anyone locked in combat will have a pretty good idea of how difficult it is to damage their opponent anyway.”

One of the twelve respondents, Finarvyn (the OD&D forum administrator), said he sometimes tells players what they need to roll:
“Often I'll not tell the players the first time they encounter a monster, but after they hit a time or two I'll share that information to save time.”

TEN of twelve were all very adamant about not telling players what they need to roll. I think these views were summed up nicely by howandwhy99:
“Never. Or for any roll. It defeats the entire design of the game, if a referee does this. IMO it is the purpose of the game for the players to figure out what works and how through play.”

It is interesting to note that the original 1975 TSR character sheet had no AC / To Hit chart (or saving throws, armor class, or hit points for that matter). This implies a gaming style where the DM kept track of most target numbers:

Image from The Acaeum.

Contrast the 1975 character sheet with the 1980 character sheet (what I use for all my games), which clearly states the "TO HIT ROLL NEEDED", along with savings throws, etc. This implies the players should have and use this information:

Based on my own thoughts, and input from the OD&D Forum posts, I tried to summarize arguments for both styles of play...

Arguments in favor of telling players:
  • It seems reasonable that a PC could quickly surmise its opponent’s toughness
  • Vegas-like excitement for rolling a target number
  • AC/To Hit chart on old TSR character sheets implies this should be open knowledge
  • Faster and easier
  • Makes it harder for DM to fudge

Arguments in favor of secrecy:
  • The player, not the PC, should surmise its opponent’s toughness by deduction
  • Your roll model Dave Arneson said "Don't ask me what you need to hit. Just roll the die and I will let you know!"
  • Adds a fun mystery element – players need to track rolls to infer opponent’s AC
  • Makes it easier for the DM to fudge
  • The first TSR character sheet did NOT have AC/To-Hit chart (for those folks who want to keep it "Oldest School")

I enjoy playing both ways, so for a time I'll probably try Finarvyn's model and switch back and forth depending on the situation. For weird, new, or mysterious opponents keep it a secret. For common stuff like goblins let them know. We'll see how it goes!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

1980s D&D Needlepoint

Why exclude grandma from the fun?

Over at Dragonsfoot a discussion is just starting to brew about the strangest D&D items ever produced. The usual contenders like the wood burning kit, beach towel, and wind up toys make a showing. Something I had never seen before, however, are these crazy needlepoint kits (pictures posted by Egg of Coot).

Frank Mentzer comments:
When Kevin Blume became President of TSR in the '80s, his wife wanted him to support her hobby too, so he bought her a company: Greenfield Needlewomen. They did 4 different D&D kits, but the bulk of their line is of course the usual assortment of needlepoint projects. (They were sold off long before WotC got interested in TSR.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nice Players' Maps From Whitebox Game

Here are maps drawn by players in our current whitebox D&D game. One player focused on Level 1, while another player picked up Level 2. If interested, you can read session reports and other notes for our whitebox World Oranj campaign to better understand some of the mapped features.

Level 1 of Morton's Compound:

Level 2:

Note the isolated Wizard Room lost in time and space... The players found this during the game last Sunday. I will try to write up a session report some time later this week.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Guess I'm a 100-sider

I am a d100

My results for the quiz:
You are a d100: You're a bit odd, to put it mildly. We're not sure whether you're socially inept, brain damaged, or just trying to be funny. We've given up on trying to figure it out, and have to accept that it might be all three. For you, non-sequitur are the most common form of non-communication. You are given to great flashes brilliance, but don't have the attention span to carry out any of your most ingenious plans. We don't know what color the sky is in your world, and frankly, we're afraid to ask.

This is actually an amazingly accurate result...

For the record, the sky in my world is orange-ochre, but the PCs just entered into a new underground world illuminated by yellow phosphorescent fungus.

Thanks to Jeff's Gameblog, Dungeoneering Dad, and Trollsmyth for the hot new trend sweeping the blogoverse!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Animated Moebius: The Incal That Never Was

In the mid 1980s there was an aborted attempt by Moebius and Jodorowsky to make an animated version of L'Incal. Sadly, the project was never completed. The small amount of material that was finished is presented in this trailer. Watch and weep!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Moebius At Work

Moebius (aka Jean Giraud) is one of my all time favorite comic artists. He helped define the French comics scene in the late 1970s with his work in Metal Hurlant (precursor to Heavy Metal). If you aren't very familiar with Moebius I'd highly recommend starting with The Incal, a science fiction serial written by Alejandro Jodorswky (writer/director of El Topo and Holy Mountain). The Incal was originally serialized in Heavy Metal, but was later reprinted as a series of three graphic novels by Epic and, although out of print, is readily available in these editions.

An amazing and beautiful video tour of Moebius art (DOUBLE-CLICK TO OPEN IN A NEW WINDOW):

It's wonderful to watch Moebius in action. Here are some video clips of him drawing:

Rad D&D Web Comic

One of the players in our whitebox campaign is an exceptionally fine indie comic artist, having done  web comics for Top Shelf like Cookie Duster and Ritual of the Savage. He forwarded me a link to this great D&D-themed web comic also put out by Top Shelf:

The Intrepideers and the Brothers of Blood

Busy weekend coming up... Tomorrow is the Anaheim comic-con featuring William Shatner! I'm particularly looking forward to meeting J.M. DeMatteis of Epic Comics' Moonshadow fame. Sunday is our next World Oranj whitebox game, yeah!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First Impression of Dungeon Lords, etc.

So my web log productivity has been pretty spotty this April. Why? Mostly I’ve been hammered with work. Also, my band Sausage Grinder had its two big CD release shows over the last two weeks.

The weekend before last we did a show at Don the Beachcomber, a classic 1960s tiki bar in Huntington Beach. This place has the best old school rum cocktails in Orange County, and possibly in the whole L.A. area (toss up with Tiki Ti and Trader Vic’s). If you want to experience authentic 1930s exotic cocktails served up in beautiful ceramic tiki mugs, you must check this place out. Last weekend we did a show at the famous California Institute of Abnormal Arts in North Hollywood – a singularly charming freakshow club. We had guest performer Senor Stretchy Skin perform during a few of our instrumental numbers. Stretchy devised a zither with a meat grinder on it and ground sausages on stage to a dancing marionette made of nuts and bolts. He also put 100 clothespins on his face while we fiddled up Stovepipe Blues. That’s entertainment, yesss….!

On the gaming front I worked up my Homunculon post into an article and submitted it to Fight On! along with a few illustrations. Hopefully it makes it into the next issue!

Also, last Friday we had around 20 friends over for our mostly-monthly board game party. I was giddy glad to try out the new Dungeon Lords board game for the first time. The concept of this game is that each player manages a dungeon and has to periodically fight off groups of trespassing adventurers. Managing a dungeon is no mean feat – it includes paying tunnel taxes, following building safety codes, hiring and feeding monsters, watching your Evil-o-Meter rating (mo’ evil means = attracting tougher adventurers), and directing your army of worker imps to help keep the dungeon running. I loved this game - the theme, art, and play experience were great. Despite the fantasy elements, this is a hardcore eurogame, combining worker placement, resource management, second guessing of other players’ moves based on turn order, etc. It also has the typical multi-player solitaire / victory point feeling of most eurogames. This game is very complex and rule heavy. I would definitely categorize it with euros likes Caylus, Agricola, and Power Grid in this respect. So, if you don’t like those games, you’d probably hate Dungeon Lords. Luckily the rules for Dungeon Lords are very clear and well written. Play time for us was over 2.5 hours (with 2 of 4 players being newbies). One of the downsides of Dungeon Lords is that you need exactly 4 players for the best experience – if you have only 2 or 3 players you have to have “dummy players”, which sounds pretty lame. Overall, a pretty fresh and cool board game I’m keen to play again.

C. A. Smith: Too early for his time as a tiki mug designer...? 
I wish to sip demerara nectar from the neck of Tsathoggua!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Science-Fantasy Surrealist Richard Powers: 1970s

Richard Powers (1921-1996) was one of the most influential sci-fi paperback artists of the post-pulp era. He was one of the first genre artists to depart from the realistic styles of the pulps and render covers in a fully surrealistic style. In the 1950s Powers' Tanguy-inspired covers began to grace the covers of emerging stars like Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and Robert Heinlein. This was at a time when publishers like Berkley and Ballantine were trying to market sophisticated sci-fi to more mature audiences. Powers' covers worked like a charm for this purpose, and his illustrations were in great demand for several decades.

Even when photorealism came into vogue in the 1980s, Powers stayed true to his surrealist vision and kept producing great work up until the end. Here are a few examples of Powers' better quality output the 1970s - including both paperback covers and personal art. It's interesting to note that the personal art of many of the greatest sci-fi illustration stylists like Powers, Paul Lehr, and John Berkey was indistinguishable from their commercial work.


Wine of the Dreamers (1971)

Untitled (1979)

Star Bridge (1977)

Mountains of the Sun (1974)

Day of the Shield (1973)

City of Hyper-Ur (1983)