Sunday, July 25, 2021

This Google Doodle is freaking awesome

 So I'm starting to write this post on Friday evening, and the week at work was a bit stressful this time around, so you could probably put one of those apps designed to entertain cats in front of me, and it would do the trick in helping my mind drift away for a while.  But...I'm pretty sure there's something special about the current Google Doodle.  It's an entire mini-retro-RPG themed around a series of sporting events on Doodle Champion Island (celebrating the Tokyo Olympics, of course).  There's exploration, quests, teams, cute anthro characters, music in a classic style, anime interludes, and (perhaps most entertaining of it all) minigames like synchronized swimming (a rhythm game) and rugby (vs. ogres on Oni Island).  All with a 16-bit look.

Heading toward the recruitment site...

As of late into Saturday night, I have probably accomplished less than I meant to at this point in the weekend thanks to this game. actually feels like time pretty well spent.  Not that my stamp of approval means much to the tech monolith, but nicely done, Google.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Agents of the CROwN

This is an article that originally ran in the OSR fanzine Fight On! back in 2014.  As my mind has lately been meandering around a campaign set up like this -- and I've learned I'm not the only one interested in this style of adventure -- I wanted to post it here to get it out in the wild again.  Thanks to the inimitable Kelvin Green for the artwork!  Be sure to check out Fight On!'s stuff for sale HERE and especially Kelvin's still-rocking blog HERE.


On September 23, 1999, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter. In a calculation error that has since become known as the “metric mixup,” the craft approached the red planet from a dangerous angle and disintegrated in seconds.

That's the story we heard, anyway. In fact, that's the story that NASA believed. Until a few months later...on Christmas morning, when technicians lucky enough to work the holiday at Cape Canaveral arrived to find a rather unexpected gift in Hangar AC – the orbiter, in pristine condition. Pristine except for one major alteration: The craft had been gutted of most of its scientific instruments. In their place stood what appeared to be a large, golden music box. The orbiter was carefully transferred to an underground lab, and its reappearance was wiped from NASA records.

It took many months of serious examination before scientists felt it was safe to wind the box. They started the music on the morning of August 21, 2001. Its ethereal harmonies resonated through the hallways of the laboratory as the massive golden cylinder turned...and turned...and turned. It soon became clear that the music box was powered by more than our usual physical laws. What's more, each time the cylinder completed a revolution, when the tune should have repeated itself, new patterns appeared to take the music into entirely new realms.

On May 28, 2006, researchers finally had a breakthrough. The songs were more than music; they were a code. And they told stories. Stories of magical lands filled with creatures from myths, from faery tales, and from nightmares. There were tales of knights and dragons, of war and exploration, of death and treasure. And most importantly, there were stories of outsiders venturing to these lands, and descriptions of how they did this. A few officials immediately organized the Commission for Research on Otherworldly Narratives (the CROwN) and began to recruit their team in secret. Early in the morning on February 19, 2011, the world's very first extraplanar traveler – half-jokingly referred to by CROwN leaders as the world's first “dungeonaut” – prepared to set foot in the realm of the fantastic...

CROwN Agents

Those who adventure for the CROwN perform a variety of jobs on their journeys. While some agents are skilled in multiple areas, there are four key roles that many agents fill: CROwN Soldiers are the combat masters of each group. This is no trivial task, as the use of modern technologies is largely forbidden on missions (in order to avoid unnecessary attention). Soldiers, therefore, must be trained in the use of weapons common in the lands they visit: swords, axes, and the like, along with the occasional black powder firearms. CROwN Spies are experts at subterfuge, helping the adventuring party in tasks such as disabling traps and picking locks and pockets. Spies are typically agile and sneaky, and other members of their teams often debate the level of trust they should be granted.

Many stories told by the music box include characters with the ability to manipulate reality in ways that researchers can only refer to as “magic.” The means of wielding this force is gradually being unraveled by the CROwN, and some agents are trained in these mysterious arts. CROwN Scientists spend hours studying arcane texts and practicing spellcraft in secret labs. As a result, they gain the ability to alter the world around them in a wide variety of ways. CROwN Medics, meanwhile, do not gain the wider perspective of the scientists, but their magic is seen by many as much more practical in nature. Medics often learn spells of healing and of fighting undead nuisances encountered on missions.

Adventuring for the CROwN

Most CROwN missions involve a very specific objective that will add to human knowledge of wonders, advancements, and threats from outside our world. The ease of sticking to the objective varies greatly by mission. Some recent adventures undertaken by CROwN agents include:

  • Exploring a dungeon to retrieve a sample of “living metal,” an alloy reported to grow organically and behave much like a plant or colonial animal. Naturally, such a dungeon attracted a sizable population of rust monsters...

  • Investigating the twisted grove of a mad druid to search for clues to the origin of the fearsome owlbear.

  • Collecting tomes from libraries on various worlds in order to conduct an analysis of multiversal linguistics.

Missions are often quite deadly, especially for new agents.

Standard Issue

Besides the standard and mission-specific adventuring equipment carried by agents, CROwN scientists have developed some items that are now considered standard issue for all adventures:

  • Orb of Vision – All agents are issued one of these small crystal globes, which can be carried or worn attached to the uniform. The orb of vision magically illuminates a 30' radius around its wearer. It also records all that the agent encounters, so that adventures can be easily reviewed by CROwN officials upon the return of the orb.

  • Planar Scroll – Each agent also receives one of these scrolls, which provides transport back to our world. By reading the scroll's inscription, an agent is quickly warped into our reality. However, the agent must read the scroll while in the exact location where he or she arrived in the fantastic realm. For each 10' in any direction that the agent is located away from this spot when reading from the scroll, there is a 5% chance that the adventurer will be transported to a random world or plane, rather than back to CROwN headquarters.

  • Good Green – Agency botanists have managed to cultivate, in limited amounts, a rather remarkable herb encountered on an early mission. Every agent begins travel with one dose of this plant, which has received the simple nickname “good green” for its ability to cure all diseases and curses encountered thus far on adventures, as well as providing 1d6 of healing when eaten.

Infinite Worlds of Wonder Await!

Now is the time to show your loyalty to the CROwN! 

Monday, July 12, 2021

5e, Iconicon, and Bo Burnham -- thoughts from the weekend

 So I did finally play Fifth Edition D&D this weekend, and I'd say that my thoughts upon finally giving it a read with the fresh eyes of a would-be player have mostly held up.  I mean, I'd enjoy playing just about anything with this group, and Watson (in what was, I believe, his first crack at DMing) led us into the realm of the Moon Warrior in style.  We didn't have a chance to work our way through the whole thing due to some technical issues during the game, and I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to it.

One thing I learned about 5e that really stuck out to me -- and that I don't think is just a holdover from previous editions (at least not before Fourth) -- is that the only bonus that comes from taking Two-Weapon Fighting is that you get to add your Strength bonus to damage from the second attack.  Everyone else can still function as a dual wielder, just without that bonus.  Which seems...unnecessarily liberal in what it allows any old combatant to do.  Not a huge deal, but wow.  Have I missed this in previous editions?

While I only had to be concerned with player-facing issues during the game this weekend, in related news, I also got my PDF of The Folio #27 yesterday.  It's written for First and Fifth Editions, and the 5e monster stat blocks look like they make use of a great method for keeping the blocks short and sweet.  I'm definitely going to pay attention to this approach as I move forward in exploring the current edition of D&D!

Also, yesterday was Watson's birthday.  Another happy birthday to you, man!


I also realized that the online convention Iconicon -- focusing on pop culture of the 1980s -- was going on this weekend and managed to watch some of it.  I definitely enjoyed what I saw of the panels on iconic 80s vehicles, on comic shops during the decade, and on what they termed the "big three" toylines of the era -- G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe (that's terminology I can definitely get behind).  I am all about enjoying some 80s nostalgia, and if you are, as well, you might want to click HERE to peruse the collected content.  There are a lot of great creators involved and a lot of interesting topics to go through.  I've only hit the tip of the iceberg so far.


Finally...Laura and I finally watched the Bo Burnham special Inside on Netflix.  We had started watching it on an evening when we knew we weren't going to be awake long, and while I thought it really looked like something special (ahem), it wasn't until we watched the whole thing yesterday that I got the full effect.

Holy shit.  I was blown away by it.

I knew very little about Bo Burnham going into it...and had no idea this is the sort of thing he could produce.  It was funny at times, and he's a comedian, but calling it a "comedy special" would do it a disservice.  It gets dark. the end of it, if I found out it was actually a Joker origin story in disguise, that wouldn't have felt out of place.  It's overall very human, and while watching, I got the same feeling of having a brush with genius that I got the first time I watched Hamilton, or the Buffy episode "Once More, with Feeling," include something other than musicals here, I guess a game-changing movie like The Matrix.

Even it doesn't seem like it's your bag, I'd recommend watching it to see if maybe it actually is your bag.  It is really, really good.

Here's a bit from it.  I hesitate to use this one because it's one of the least self-reflective pieces in the special, and some people might even think it's a little mean.  It's such a good song, though...


Oh, and in other, much more boring news, I finally have Jersey license plates, and I'm proud of myself for being able to just screw the damn thing onto the front of my car, which had nothing set up to hold a tag.  (Side note:  I've also recently learned that calling a license plate a "tag" may be slang from my upbringing that isn't even widely understood around here.)  So...pat on the back for old Jonathan...

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Uh, I think I'm really starting to like this Fifth Edition thing...

 I'm not really sure why I've been so slow to embrace D&D Fifth Edition.  I mean...I've paid a fair amount of attention to it and tried to learn a bit about its ins and outs.  Long, long ago, I had this idea that I wanted to hack it for superhero gaming, so I started to learn the core of it (relative to the versions of D&D I had played).  I even put together a little microlite version of it that I think is both very flawed and very much playable with the right DM.

But I still didn't play 5e.  That 5e supers idea was ultimately replaced by Light City, a superhero hack using Swords & Wizardry Light as the base.  And while, like so many of my projects, I eventually let Light City wither (although I'd still love to revive it!), I did make some stuff that I found to be fun, using a system that I was simply more comfortable with and excited about.

I picked up the 5e Starter Set at one point, still with the thought of immersing myself in the mechanics for an entirely different minigame-type project that may one day see the light of day.  I enjoyed what I read of it (especially with its inclusion of Lost Mine of Phandelver), but never really did much with it.  I just didn't need it.  I have old D&D, OSR games, and all sorts of non-D&D games I can play.  Why bother with this new one?

It was with the publication of the Ravnica sourcebook that the tide started to turn.  After working on Light City stuff, I've still been pretty attached to that WhiteBox/Light take on Swords & Wizardry.  I like the low HP, the d6-only damage, the single saving throw.  And it's really just the bones of a game...very much one that you can make your own in many different ways.  But with these Ravnica species at my fingertips...well, that's when I started thinking about taking 5e races and tacking them onto S&W Light-style classes.  It's an approach that works for me, and I've recently been settling into that mindset in tinkering with my own take on a Fantasy Heartbreaker.

But now, I'm about to play in a full-on 5e game.  First game I've played in that is absolutely, officially, wholly Fifth Edition.  I had recently picked up a Player's Handbook (once again, to familiarize myself more with the rules but without necessarily having the intention to ever play it as-is) and finally started looking through it with the eyes of someone about to use the book as it's meant to be used.

And I'll be damned...5e is a good game.

I was way too willing to dismiss 5e characters as too complicated for quick generation before jumping into an adventure.  I think the formalization of character backgrounds seemed unnecessarily sprawling to me...when in reality, it's probably the best part of 5e for creating the sort of game I want to play in.  Not to mention that I'm sure there are some easy ways to approach those a little differently, giving players more freedom in telling their characters' stories while ensuring there's no sacrifice in power.

Sure, some of the classes are certainly more complicated than the ones you get in a game like Swords & Wizardry, but the old D&D standbys...well, they really don't seem much more cluttered than a typical class from most OSR games.  Heck, Vancian spellcasting isn't even totally Vancian anymore; this is a detail that had completely escaped me...because I guess I always skipped over spellcasting rules, assuming I already knew how they worked!

Kinda crazy that this is such a revelation for me this late in the game.  While the old school will certainly keep a prominent place in my heart (I'm still in the midst of an AD&D game and loving it), I expect to start thinking about and looking for chances to play 5e a lot more.  Maybe it turns out that my Fantasy Heartbreaker is actually just something along the lines of the Starter Set. heartbreak actually needed...

Man.  How did I miss this?