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Random Encounter – New Bookstore

Greetings programs!

Blogging time has been scarce this week, but I’m still here.

Let’s talk about bookstores!

Good bookstores have become disturbingly hard to find and even the big chain stores are getting scarce. Matters are worse for me, as we haven’t had a good bookstore in my town for 20 years.

In a university town. How does that happen?!

So I’m always happy to explore a new bookstore. When I find one that excites me I make sure to share the wealth.

Such is the case with 2nd & Charles.

Tucked away in a residential corner of Dayton, Ohio is a quirky old mall called the Town and Country Shopping Center. It’s an odd location that looks like they took an upscale strip mall and covered the front, creating an atrium and making it a pseudo-indoor mall. One of the downsides to this design is that the stores have very little visibility from the outside. I’m an infrequent visitor to the area and I didn’t know there was a bookstore in the mall, until I happened to drive around behind the building and saw its rear entrance. This was a while ago but I didn’t have time to investigate the store until yesterday.

I was very glad I did. My wallet, not so much.

2nd & Charles offers an eclectic mix of treasures. It sells both new and used items that include books, magazines, comics and graphic novels, music, collectibles, toys, new and vintage game systems, and just about any other fandom-related thing they can get their hands on.

The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and the geek is strong with them. I felt right at home. The store is larger than I expected, neat, and well organized. Best of all, it’s full of product. Some stores have a disturbingly small selection despite having plenty of shelf space. Not so here and they make good use of their space without crossing the line into cluttered.

Their supply of gaming materials isn’t large, but it is interesting. Among a few obligatory Pathfinder books I found other items such as 1st edition AD&D hardbacks, a few Rifts books, a smattering of 1st edition Vampire books, and a few more exotic games from the 80’s and early 90’s. Many of these had clearly come from people’s collections, with some wear showing on the covers and occasional margin notes. One book still had several character sheets sticking out of it. It’s obvious the staff saw them when shelving and decided to leave them with the book.

They understand the appeal. They are of our geekish tribe.

They even had a boxed set of MERP, Middle Earth Role Playing, from Iron Crown Enterprises. MERP was a big deal back in the 80’s, being both the official Tolkien role playing game and a stripped down version of I.C.E.’s Rolemaster RPG. Their sourcebooks were excellent and their artwork was always top notch. The box was in good condition and reasonably priced, so it nearly came home with me. If it’s still there next time that may change.

I was particularly pleased with a display of vintage board games. The sign said, “Kids, this is real retro-gaming. All analog!” The games on display included several true classics, such as Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and the old Avalon Hill Starship Troopers bookcase game.

In the end I spent slightly more than I should have and much less than I wanted to. Woe be unto my bank account if my next visit is closer to payday.

2nd & Charles turns out to be a modest-sized chain, with 23 locations nationwide. If you happen to have one near you, check it out. If the Dayton store is any indication you won’t be disappointed.

Image from http://www.pdclipart.org/

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Books and Comics, Reviews

 

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Insert Coin For Inspiration

I recently finished reading Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One.

It is a delightful book that is a love letter to everything geekish from the 70’s and 80’s. I highly recommend it to anyone reading my blog, but this post isn’t about the book itself. Instead it’s about video games.

Specifically early video games that stuck a chord with my role playing gamer’s soul and have stayed with me ever since. These games inspired my imagination in the same way that sitting at a table with a character sheet, dice, and lead miniatures still does. These are not computer role playing games, instead these are games that hit the same emotional triggers without attempting to simulate Dungeons & Dragons. These games do have common threads, most notably mazes, exploration, and evocative imagery.

In no particular order:

1) Joust – Joust is an arcade platform game from 1982. The game is for one or two players who can chose to either compete or work together. Players are knights in full armor, wielding lances, and mounted on a flying ostrich or stork depending on which player you are. Controls consist of a joystick for left and right movement and a “flap” button for flight. Using these controls you guide your knight around the screen and fight evil knights who ride buzzards. If your lance hits higher than their lance, you destroy the knight and release an egg. If you don’t capture the egg fast enough it hatches, revealing a more powerful knight who will mount a new buzzard and join the battle. The battle is fought on rock platforms hovering over two lakes of lava. Flying too close to the lava will cause a demonic arm to reach up and catch your mount, forcing you to flap as fast as possible to break free or be drug down to a fiery doom. If a round takes too long a nearly invulnerable pterodactyl flies onto the screen, hunting the players.

There is no story to the game and no ending. Like most early arcade games the challenge is to see how long you can last and how high a score you can build up. What captures my imagination about Joust is the surreal imagery. Flying mounts are nothing new to fantasy, but Joust adds a unique twist by its choice of birds. Knights flying on flightless birds is something far removed from J.R.R. Tolkien or Anne McCaffrey, it’s more in line with Lord Dunsany’s imagination.

Ideas from Joust have rolled around in my head since the first time I put a quarter into the machine, though I’ve never put them directly to use in a gaming universe. Though occasionally a bird mounted adventurer has shown up and an evil order of buzzard-riding knights has been included in a few world designs that never made it to the table.

2) Berzerk - An arcade game released in 1980, Berzerk is a science fiction game where the player is navigating through an endless maze of electrified walls and killer robots. Once again there is no story and no ending to the game, but the stark imagery evokes a sense of exploration and tension. The game also boasts sound effects that were impressive for the time period, including voice clips that sounded like the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica that would frequently taunt you, especially if you leave a map before destroying all the robots.

“Chicken, fight like a robot.”

Berzerk is a simple game, even by the standards of 1980, but it connected with some themes that were common in a lot of 70’s science fiction. It’s a fatalistic struggle pitting a runner against endless legions of implacable robots, running through deadly corridors in a vain attempt to find a way out.

“Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

3) Wizard of Wor - Hitting the arcade in 1981, Wizard of Wor is another maze game, this time fusing science fiction and fantasy. Like Joust, the game is for one or two players who can work together or against each other. The players control what appear to be space marines armed with laser rifles who enter the wizard’s maze. The maze is filled with monsters who can turn invisible and shoot energy bolts. If the players do well they are faced with the insect-like Worlock, who attempts to kill them or escape the maze, and then the Wizard of Wor himself will appear. The Wizard moves quickly and teleports at random, making him a dangerous enemy.

Unlike Berzerk, the maps of Wizard of Wor are self-contained and there is less of the fatalistic tension involved. Instead this game feels like you’ve been drawn into a tournament, each maze being a challenge issued by the Wizard to test your skill.

4) Mountain King - Jumping from the arcade to the consoles we have Mountain King, released in 1983 by CBS Electronics for the Atari 2600.

The Atari 2600 is, to say the least, a limited console. Ground breaking when it first came out, competitors like Intelivision and Colecovision quickly outpaced it in terms of technology. Still the Atari console dominated the market for years due in no small part to the proliferation of games available to it. The best of these are able to push the Atari to impressive levels, providing games with more depth than one would expect possible.

Mountain King is such a game.

You control an explorer equipped with a flashlight and impressive jumping powers who is delving into a vast series of caverns. Your objective is to collect 1000 points worth of diamonds, which come from small but plentiful deposits in the walls or hidden treasure chests that are only revealed by your flashlight. Once you have enough diamonds you will hear the faint sounds of Hall of the Mountain King playing. The music gets louder as you approach the Flame Spirit, a flickering fire placed randomly in the caverns that you need to look sharply to spot.

Having collected the Flame Spirit you need to go to the temple hidden near the bottom of the map and give the Flame Spirit to the Skull Spirit. This lets you climb up and collect the Crown, which triggers a more elaborate and faster paced rendition of Hall of the Mountain King to begin. You now have to race all the way to the top of the highest mountain where the Eternal Flame is, all the while dodging the Cave Bats. If you are caught by the Cave Bats or if the music ends before you reach the Eternal Flame, the Crown is returned to the temple.

Oh, and there’s a very loud giant spider on the lowest level of the caves that will web you up, then return and eat you if you don’t break out fast enough.

All this in an Atari 2600 game. I really hope the programmer got a bonus.

Despite the limited graphics the scope and nature of the game makes you want to explore the world. The hidden objects and haunting music convey the same emotions that a role playing game evokes when dungeon delvers venture into lost and lonely underworlds. Thoughts of Tolkien’s Moria and the great spider Shelob come easily to mind.

Mountain King also has either a bug or Easter Egg that can be stumbled on while exploring, where by using the right combination of jumps you can fly high into the sky and discover a realm of shifting ladders. Once there you can walk and climb around until you decide to leave or, more likely, the ladders vanish beneath you, sending you falling back to the ground.

5) Adventure - I have spoken of my love for Adventure in the past and rather than rehash it here I will encourage you to read my post in the archives. Adventure holds a special place in my heart for many reasons, not the least of which is how the game offered more pure exploration challenges than other games of its era.

While it did have a basic narrative, told through the game manual rather than in-game, the story is so simple that it leaves plenty of room for our imaginations to spin further tales. The hidden White Castle was the most compelling mystery to me. The Black Castle represented evil and the Gold Castle good, but what did the White castle represent? Why was it hidden beyond the dark Catacombs? And in the sealed room there is a doorway with no opening on the other side. This was probably a glitch, tied to further rooms that never made it into the final design, but to my imagination it was a portal to somewhere else, perhaps a dimension where the builders of the White Castle fled long ago. Or where they were banished to.

6) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Released in 1982 for the Intellivision game console, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was the first video game to bear the official seal from TSR. Given that exalted status you might think that the game would do a decent job at emulating the mechanics of AD&D, but you would be wrong.

By 1982 there were already several computer games that attempted to emulate the tabletop D&D experience, such as Telengard and Moria. These games featured statistics, spells, and inventory elements that are still staples in computer RPGs to this day. Conversely Intellivision’s game took a more arcade-style approach. Players control an archer wandering through a world of forests, rivers, defensive walls, and dungeon-filled mountains.

Entering the dungeons puts the archer in a randomly generated maze that reveals itself through exploration. Sometimes you’ll hear a nearby monster but it won’t awaken until you uncover its lair, which gives the game a “Fog of War” mechanic and adds to the sense of discovery and tension. Items can be recovered from the dungeons that will aid you in getting around the game world such as keys for the gates, axes for the forests, and more arrows for your bow. Your ultimate goal is to reach Cloudy Mountain, where the pieces of a crown are guarded by winged dragons.

Much like Adventure, Advanced D&D is a game about exploration more than participating in the designer’s story.

 *****

These games have a common simplicity about them, both aesthetically and in presentation, and most involve exploration. Even when there is a narrative the story is little more than a framework and there are still plenty of mysteries to ponder. What happened to the Mountain King? Why are you facing the Wizard of Wor? Why are knights riding birds and jousting over lava? These questions have no answers.

Or it would be more accurate to say that they have many answers, because we come up with our own stories.

These games provide a spark to kindle our imaginations and let our dreams run wild. It’s this quality that sets these games apart, both from other games of their era as well as later games that do incorporate a complete narrative. That’s not to say it makes these games better, but there is a different nostalgic connection to these games because the stories are, in the immortal words of TSR, products of your imagination.

 

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2014 in Computer Games, Gaming

 

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Dwimmermount, Complete At Last!

Finally!

After being two years late, after the first copy arrived damaged, I finally have a pristine copy of Dwimmermount in my hands!

DwimmermountGood1

I really wondered if I’d ever see the day. And look at that beautifully not-ripped spine!

IMG_1534

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Fantasy, Gaming

 

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Gaming Fodder From Snopes

I’ve been a fan of Snopes.com, the Urban Legends Reference Page, since they started in 1995. Thanks to them I’ve been able to allay many fears and rumors rolling around the internet. Occasionally I’ve been surprised to find out one of the stories cluttering my inbox happens to be true.

The last few days have turned up a couple new urban legends that caught the attention of my game master’s brain.

The first is something that reads like a player’s handout for Call of Cthulhu.

A team of archaeologists working for the Australian National University, who were proceeding to an excavation near the sandstone rock formation of Uluru, has unearthed the ruins of a large precolonial city dating back to more than 1500 years ago. The important number of tombs and artifacts already discovered on the site suggests that it could have been the capital of an ancient empire, completely unknown to historians until now.

Professor Walter Reese, in charge of the site, claims that the extent of the site and the superposition of various layers of constructions, suggests that it was occupied for 400 to 500 years, from approximately 470-80 AD, up until the 9th Century. He believes that the city could have held between 20000 and 30000 inhabitants, making it the most important center of civilization in the Southern Pacific at the time.

-Text from urban legend Ruin Nation

It turns out that this story comes from World News Daily Report, one in a long line of fake news sites trying to imitate The Onion. However any Lovecraft fan worth their salt recognizes this as a clue to the location of the lost library of the Great Race of Yith, as described in The Shadow out of Time. Sounds like it’s time to send in a Delta Green task force to deal with those pesky archaeologists before they release something truly unfortunate. Hopefully all the scientists are what they appear and that none of them are possessed by the Great Race, otherwise it could get complicated.

The second is related to my recent post on post-apocalyptic gaming. The urban legend claims:

SPIDERS HAVE BEEN RELEASED FROM A DNA LABORATORY LOCATED NEAR THE WOLF SANCTUARY ON ANTIRE RD !

Government testing on DNA has produced these spiders in a Laboratory in Missouri. Unfortunately they have been located off Lewis Rd just west of laboratory and seem to be breading in the wild much faster than when captive.

Government officials are doing all they can to try to eliminate these spiders but can offer no guarantees. They could be popping up in surrounding neighborhoods west of the siting (Eureka, Pacific, Union, and St. Clair) within weeks.

What we have in our favor is that winter is approaching and hope to slow down the migration no further than St. Clair before the cold hits.

If you see these stay indoors and call the local police. They have been informed on procedures of capture and contact of the local governing agency.

-Example text from urban legend Mutant Spiders in Missouri.

The story, with all it’s potential for adding to a Mutant Futures bestiary, is false. However the surprising thing is that the accompanying pictures are real.

We’re going to need a bigger shoe!

That’s not a photoshop job, it’s not a model, it’s not even forced perspective. Thankfully it’s also not an arachnid. These rather hefty bits of nightmare fuel are Coconut Crabs, the largest species of land-based arthropods in the world. They’re not aggressive, eat mostly fruits and nuts, and are closer relatives to the Horseshoe Crab than anything found in Tolkien’s Mirkwood Forest. Still, that shouldn’t hold you back from using this as a hook for your next Gamma World game.

It is comforting to know that these huge crabs aren’t really giant spiders. However they do remind me of something else, something not quite as non-threatening…

garthim

Garthim!

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Weirdness

 

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Review – Ultimate Spy

“I and many members of the former East German Foreign Intelligence Service, the HVA, were surprised to discover a book that included elegant photographs of syp equipment, from Keith Melton’s unique collection, and accurate descriptions of clandestine techniques that we had spent our careers keeping secret from Western intelligence agencies.”

-Markus Wolf, former head of the East German Foreign Intelligence Service

Introduction to Ultimate Spy, 2nd Edition

I love DK books. The illustrations are excellent and the information is well researched. Pick up any DK book and you’ll get a brief but solid introduction to whatever subject it covers. Such is the case for Ultimate Spy, DK’s book about espionage written by H. Keith Melton. My copy is the second edition, published in 2002 and updated to include post Cold War material.

Ultimate Spy is a fun book that touches on intelligence organizations dating back to the Middle Ages, but focusing mostly on the World War II and Cold War eras. It’s a book filled with facts, spy stories, and generously illustrated with enough photos of spy equipment to make Q-Branch envious.

The book begins with an overview of the types of people who become spies, what motivates them, and what activities they engage in. This section divides the different types of spies into roles such as The Courier, The Double Agent, The Mole, and The Assassin, including an overview of how these roles have been employed by eastern and western agencies. Any game master will find useful similarities between this section and the class descriptions in a role playing game.

The next section discusses the history of spying with chapters on operations up through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and spying in the post Soviet era with a focus on counter-terrorism. These sections talk about how espionage evolved to suit the times and includes stories about events and important operations such as the founding of the OSS, the U2 incident, and the transformation of Russian intelligence from the Tzarist Okhrana to the legendary KGB of the Soviet Union. It also discusses famous, or infamous, intelligence figures such as Sidney Reilly, Alan Turin, Mata Hari, and the Walker spy ring, giving a concise description of their real world activities.

Not to mention the frequently unpleasant endings that come to many such stories.

“Mata Hari was arrested as a German spy on her return to Paris. She was tried in a French military court, found guilty, and executed by firing squad in 1918.”

“In 1925, a British intelligence operative named Sidney Reilly was lured to a meeting with Trust members in Moscow, where he was arrested and forced to write a confession revealing all his Moscow contacts. He was then executed.”

-Excerpts from Ultimate Spy, pages 25 & 27

From there the book moves into equipment and techniques used by spy agencies, and this is a must read section for any GM wanting to run a spy game. There are wonderful pictures throughout the book, but the equipment show in this section is particularly good. It all comes from the author’s personal collection of spy equipment, which is the best private collection in the world. There are pages filled with microphones hidden in shoes and pens, lockpicks, concealed weapons, radios, disguise kits, and lots of cameras. There are silver dollars and rings with hidden compartments for microdots, messages written on the back of postage stamps and sent through the mail, walnut shells hiding code lists, and assassination tools such as the Bulgarian Umbrella which injected a poison pellet into the target.

Of particular interest to me was seeing the size and types of the equipment. In an age where everything is digital, wireless, and built of solid state micro-circuitry it is fascinating to see how surprisingly large, or surprisingly small, the spymasters of yesterday could make things. It’s also a good reminder that many of the gadgets made famous by the James Bond movies are not as far fetched as they may seem.

In many cases they aren’t as impressive as their real counterparts.

Ultimate Spy is a great read and an excellent resource for anyone looking to run an espionage game, especially those set in the Cold War.

UltimateSpy

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Books and Comics, History, Reviews

 

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Baby Bestiary

The Infinite Machine Tumblr is one of my favorites for fantasy and science fiction artwork and one of the latest posts clued me in to a fun Kickstarter.

Andreas Walters is running the campaign to create The Baby Bestiary, a collection of artwork depicting various iconic Dungeons & Dragons monsters in their infancy.

“Every beast has an infancy stage, why not add some kittens, cubs and hatchlings to your game with these adorable monsters.”

-The Baby Bestiary Kickstarter

Items available include the book, post cards, calendars, and .PDFs. Less than two days remain for the campaign but they’ve already hit almost three times their goal. Good for them. It looks like a fun project.

My personal favorite is the baby Gelatinous Cube.

They grow up so fast!

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Fantasy

 

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Dwimmermount, Why Do You Torment Me?

At long last!

My copy of Dwimmermount has arrived! I hold in my hands an actual, physical, long dreamed of copy of Dwimmermount in all its hard-bound glory!

And…

Whoever packed the box for shipping screwed up. The adhesive meant to close the cardboard shipping box was instead put against the spine of the book, gluing the two together and ruining the spine.

KAHN!!!!!

DwimmerRip

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2014 in Fantasy, Gaming

 

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