Saturday, June 28, 2008

Taking the Lamentations of the Flame Princess challenge

Over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess, James Edward Raggi IV has asked the blogosphere to take up the gauntlet and list the media influences that impact their D&D campaigns. This is a difficult one for me as I'm not currently running a game, but am involved as a player in two long-term 3.5 campaigns.

However, I can't resist taking up the challenge and listing those sources of media that have the most impact on my line of thinking re. RPGs, and perhaps will one day make their way into a campaign run by yours truly. So here goes:

Heavy metal. I think I could write an epic, years-spanning campaign based off nothing except for Ronnie James Dio song lyrics. Hell, maybe I'll do it some day. I'd throw some Manowar in, too.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien is my favorite fantasy writer so there's no way he wouldn't make an appearance on this list. If any clowns out there actually think Tolkien is "soft," please pick up The Silmarillion and tell me otherwise. There's brutal fate, awesome battles, evil and death enough in those tales to sate even the most Nordic-influenced reader. And who hasn't imagined Moria during a dungeon-crawl sequence, or Smaug when role-playing a red dragon?

Robert E. Howard/Conan. This includes not only the writings of the man himself, but also the great Savage Sword of Conan adaptations of his material. Vine-choked ruins of lost civilizations, corrupt, decadent, wealth-choked, whoring cities, pirates, dark and wild magic, what's not to like?

Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell is a great grim and gritty, historically accurate writer in the midst of a great series called the Saxon Chronicles, which are a must-read if you like dark ages warfare. Shield walls, Viking coastal raids, etc. would all make their way into my campaign.

Malory/King Arthur. I love the old tales of the round table, particularly the holy grail stories, the evil Morgan Le Fay and Mordred and the corruption at the heart of Camelot, a shining kingdom creating a circle of light in the dark ages, and the themes of the rise and fall of kingdoms.

Gary Gygax. Every page of the old Dungeon Master's Guide and Player's Handbook ooze inspiration and ideas, like some great, musty old tomes of lore. I also love Greyhawk and most of his modules, in particular Keep on the Borderlands, the Giants/Drow series, and his work in the S series. Gygax would definitely be at the heart of my theoretical campaign.

And with that list, I'll see you all in a week or so. I'm off on an internet-free vacation for a week or so. Take care all!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My top 10 favorite heavy metal vocalists of all-time

Heavy metal as I see it: An irregular series about the highest form of music known to man.

I love heavy metal for many reasons, not the least of them the great singers. Metal's best frontmen--the Bruce Dickinsons, Rob Halfords, and the Ronnie James Dios--are insanely gifted vocalists whose voices soar operatically above--or brutally crush underfoot --the digitally-enhanced, studio-made, lightweight pop singers of today. I've definitely suffered some hearing damage over the years blasting these guys on my car radio, but you know what? It was worth it.

So who is the best heavy metal singer of all time? Everyone has their own opinion, but following are 10 that I believe epitomize the power, grandeur, range, and rage that define the very essence of heavy metal. I've included a clip from Youtube depicting a great vocal performance from each, so click through and decide for yourself.

1. Rob Halford, Judas Priest: Currently I have Rob Halford of Judas Priest ranked at no. 1, but depending on what day of the week you ask me, any of the "big three" are interchangeable in the top slot. Halford is so damned amazing. The clip from Youtube is a live performance of The Sentinel. Halford is not just singing here, but his voice is a literal instrument, a glass-shattering sound from another, futuristic dimension in which the Sentinel lives. It sends chills down your spine:

2. Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden: Bruce has tremendous range, and while he may not pack the ethereal scream of Halford at his best, he has, for my money, the best sounding "metal" voice. It's strong and powerful and epic, and he hasn't lost a step with the passing of the years. In fact, I think he's singing much better now than he was at the tail end of his days with Maiden pre-split. Here's an early rendition of a live performance of Maiden's best song, Hallowed be thy Name, which captures the incredible strength and soaring heights of the "air raid siren":

3. Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath/Dio: Dio's voice (and his lyrics) are the soundtrack of a Dungeons and Dragons game: He has a voice like an evil sorcerer in a fantasy opera, and its powerful and stirring to boot. I can't argue with those who think he's the best metal singer of all time. Here he is singing one of my favorites, Die Young, with Black Sabbath:

4. Geoff Tate, Queensryche: At his peak, Tate could hit notes like no one else, save perhaps Halford. He's an opera singer turned metal. Take Hold of the Flame showcases his considerable talent and that opening note (you know the one) remains an absolute marvel:

5. Tobias Sammet, Edguy: It's too bad Edguy isn't better known, especially over here in the United States. Sammet is a throwback to the Helloween/King Diamond school of metal singers, hitting impossibly high octaves with an ease that's scary:

6. Hansi Kursch, Blind Guardian: Although more well-known than Edguy, Blind Guardian is also no household name, but with Kursch at the helm they deserve to be. Kursch can do it all, from powerful, angry, high speed metal to glorious, bardic, medieval hymns. Check this out:

7. Eric Adams, Manowar. Adams has a voice made for power metal and songs about dragons and warriors. Very clean, very powerful, epic, and the guy can scream with the best of them, too. Here's a good example of his considerable ability:

8. Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath. Sure, he's a running joke now and his voice is completely shot, but Ozzy had one of the most distinctive and coolest-sounding "metal" voices in the business back in the 70's and 80's. He did great work on all the old Sabbath albums, and here's one of my favorites:

9. Phil Anselmo, Pantera. Anselmo is very different than any of the singers above and is definitely not a classic/power metal type singer. He's all rage and emotion, but its positively contagious and damned effective in getting fists and heads banging:

10. James Hetfield, Metallica (pre Black Album): I know, I know. Hetfield is not a great singer and is out of his class on this list. But I think he was the perfect singer for early (pre 1991) Metallica, back when they were a very, very good band. For example, I can't imagine anyone else singing Welcome Home (Sanitarium):

So there you have my top 10. Some honorable mentions include Glenn Danzig and Dave Mustaine, who could have made the list on another day.

Footnote: If you Google "Best heavy metal singers," this top 100 list by Hit Parader comes up. This is among the worst pieces of garbage I've ever read, and again proves the point that the vast majority of music journalists and critics don't have a clue regarding heavy metal. And this was released in 2006! I mean, David Bowie? Eddie Vedder? Steven Tyler? Freddie Mercury? Steve Perry? By anyone's definition with half a clue, these guys are NOT METAL.

...Rod Stewart at no. 60?

Someone at Hit Parader needs to be punched dead in the face. I'm tempted to believe that this is some big jest, a cheap way to get fans stirred up. Heck, I'd buy the magazine just to burn it.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Iron Maiden: Old guard still the vanguard of heavy metal

A review of Iron Maiden at the Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA, Friday, June 20.

This was the second time I've seen the gods of metal on their "Somewhere Back In Time" tour, which features a setlist and stage show from Iron Maiden's golden years (roughly 1982-92). Once again, they kicked major ass, despite some problems with the sound (see below). Maiden continues to wave the flag for heavy metal and are the epitome of showmanship and professionalism. May they continue to wave the Union Jack--and the Heavy Metal standard--for years to come.

Iron Maiden did not change its setlist (you can read my prior review here), so I won't spend a lot of time on the review of the show, which more or less replicated the former show. There were a few more stage effects this time, including a giant mummy Eddie that emerged from an oversized golden Pharoah mask. Good stuff.

Friday's show was not sold out, which was a disappointment, but it was probably at 85% capacity. Even better was the large number of younger fans I saw walking around, mixed in with the older dudes like me. It does my heart good to see so many teenagers latching on to Maiden this late in their still prolific careers. Iron Maiden is and remains the best heavy metal band of them all, and I hope these youngsters appreciated seeing greatness before their eyes. This was the eighth time I've seen Maiden and I still get giddy like a schoolgirl every time.

One other bit of good news from the show: Bruce Dickinson announced that the band would be back again for a future tour in support of a new album. He said that the band was planning to hit the recording studio after this tour. This was good and surprising news for two reasons:

1. Good: Iron Maiden could retire any time they choose, and I still hold my breath with each studio release, fearing it may be their last. However, Maiden is still producing incredible material, so why should they stop? I'm a huge fan of all three of their last releases (Brave New World, Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death), and they remain creatively fresh and vital and on top of their game.

2. Surprising: I thought Maiden's plan all along was to do three tours in support of each of their "periods": The early years (Iron Maiden through Piece of Mind, which they did as part of the Ozzfest bill in 2005), the middle years (this tour), and their later material. But perhaps their next tour will highlight the new album and be supplemented with material post Fear of the Dark. Time will tell, I suppose. I frankly would love this, although I know there's a sizable and stupid percentage of Maiden's fan base that would prefer that they play only 80's songs.

The sound
One more disappointing detail: Friday's show was unfortunately marred by poor sound, a fact confirmed by a second reviewer from The Boston Herald. When I saw Maiden at the Izod Arena in New Jersey back in March the sound was a good deal superior. The sound at the Comcast Center was muddled and Dickinson's mike was much too low in the mix. It improved as the night wore on, but it took way, way too long.

Frankly, there's no excuse for this. To the assholes who performed the sound checks for Maiden in Mansfield: You suck, and please return the pay you received for your day's work. Back in the old days guitar techs would come out and actually play (imagine that!) to make sure the sound was correct and mixed properly; however, never once did I hear a single instrument played before Maiden took the stage on Friday night, and it showed. People pay big bucks for concert tickets and often wait years to see their favorite bands, so there's no excuse for extended periods of poor sound.

More ridiculousness: $8 beers? $35 t-shirts? Outrageous. At the risk of sounding like the old man from The Simpsons, back in my day t-shirts were $20, and beers were $3.50! Some of the t-shirts had great artwork, and I would have sprung for one except for the price tag. I just couldn't make myself buy a piece of clothing that would fade to a pale grey, shrink to the size of a postage stamp, and begin to disintegrate after three washings.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A review

At what point do pulp heroes become superheroes? Your answer is the fourth entry in the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I try to turn off my inner skeptic when I watch films like Indiana Jones. Gritty realism is not why I like the franchise, and I love and appreciate Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. But when you have scenes in which:
  • Indiana Jones survives a nuclear blast by hiding inside a refrigerator
  • A boy befriends a tribe of monkeys, and swings with them through the vines of a jungle a-la Tarzan, then lands onto the back of a truck moving at high speed
  • A jeep plunges over a series of three waterfalls--the latter close to the height of Niagra falls--and all the passengers come away without a scratch

then you've officially taken the leap from the exciting, over-the-top action that defined the best films in the fanchise into the territory of sheer physics-defying ridiculousness. Director Steven Spielberg routinely crossed the lines of pulp conventions in the Crystal Skull, and in my opinion greatly dimished the film as a result. Instead of a quickening of my pulse, I found my eyes involuntary rolling in their sockets.

Perhaps the worst offender was the scene in which Marion, Indy's love interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deliberately and blindly drives a duck boat over a sheer cliff. The boat lands on a tree branch, which bends just enough to cushion the fall, and lands them safely on the ground. It was bat-shit insane on her part and completely unbelievable.

What's worse is that the movie didn't need these scenes. There were some other terrific chase sequences (the motorcycle chase at the beginning a prime example) that evoked the best moments from the original film. I enjoyed the well-placed nods to the first film (the Ark), and I also thought the Crystal Skull did a good job of painting the period (the 1950s) with broad, colorful strokes, including the music, the cars, the duck-bill haircuts, and the political atmosphere of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. There was some clever humor as well, including a chase in which Soviet KGB agents are blinded by a "Better Dead Than Red" banner being carried by a group of college students. In general, I thought the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett, were fine replacements for the Nazis from the earlier movies.

But it seemed as though Spielberg and George Lucas (writer) were intent on one-upping all the great chases and escapes from the past films with sheer implausibility and overuse of CGI. And the ending ... well, the "aliens" left me cold.

Overall, I walked out of the theatre at the end of the Crystal Skull with the same impression I had of the Star Wars prequels: They certainly ramped up the action and the effects, but removed the soul that the older films had. The Crystal Skull, with a few notable exceptions, left me with the same hollow feelings.

My rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars. Although I hate to admit it, the Crystal Skull is probably the worst film in the Indiana Jones franchise.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Welcome to the Hall of Fire: My theoretical RPG/book store

I think it's every gamer's fantasy to own his or her own game store. For me, it's one of those idle "wouldn't that be cool" thoughts that creeps into my brain from time to time. Also, whenever I visit game stores, I can't help but think how much cooler I could make them, given enough time and money.

Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps), I've learned just enough about the reality of store ownership to keep that fantasy in the land of daydreams. A guy in my current gaming group used to own his own store and, from everything he's told me, there's absolutely no glamour involved and even less profit. Plus there's long hours, shoplifting, and that smelly dude who spends the whole day hanging around without ever buying anything.

But despite my better judgement, I still think that, were I to ever hit the lottery, I'd open up my own role-playing/book selling sanctuary (after I returned from that six-month trip to Europe, Asia, and Australia). Flush with cash, I'd open up a paradise on earth for like-minded individuals who share my passion for RPGs, books, movies, and other nonsense.

Since this is an exercise in sheer make-believe, my theoretical game store would offer much more than just a clean, friendly environment with a wide selection of merchandise. I'd make it a fantasy-lovers paradise, an over-the-top den of merriment and madness like a modern day Shadizar. I kind of like the name The Hall of Fire, which is taken from the elven hall in Rivendell where stories are told, verses recited, songs sung, ale and wine drank, and past glories relived.

Here's what you'd might see in the Hall of Fire:

Fantasy/medieval architecture. I'd pay a mason to make the front of the building look like a medieval castle. Or maybe I'd just hire an architect to build a room-for-room replica of The (pre) Ruined Moathouse. The entrance hall could look like the entrance to Acererak's Tomb of Horrors and another wing would be a classic Viking mead-hall with a long fire pit running down the middle.

Armor, weapons on the walls: I'd have suits of armor on display and shields and crossed swords and spears on the wall. Just for show of course, but in case of a possible break-in I'd keep at least one axe razor sharp.

A clean bathroom. A must of course, and the toilet paper would be printed with Jack Chick tracts.

Role-playing games, and lots of 'em. Duh. However, unlike most hobby stores that only stock the latest version of D&D and perhaps Exalted or GURPS, I'd keep a copy of every role-playing game in and out of print I could on the shelves, from Runequest and Lords of Creation to Toon, Top Secret, Boot Hill, Chivalry and Sorcery, Star Frontiers, and Marvel Super Heroes. The Hall of Fire could double as a research library for RPG scholars by the time I was done stocking it.

Board games/wargames. Axis and Allies? Wooden Ships and Iron Men? Squad Leader? Revolt on Antares? Car Wars? Star Fleet Battles? Check, we've got them.

Miniatures. I love minis and wish I had the time to paint my old and small collection of lead, so with money and time no object I'd have thousands of minis for sale. And I'd hire these guys to paint them and conduct classes.

Organized trips: I'd organize bus trips to places like Higgins Armory and King Richard's Faire.

Books: Small, independent bookstores are a dying breed these days, so I'd do my part to keep fantasy, horror, and sci-fi titles alive. I'd have floor to ceiling shelves stocked full of Howard, Leiber, Tolkien, Lewis, Cornwell, Anderson, G.R.R. Martin, Moorcock, Vance, King, Poe, Lovecraft, and more. And I'd pay to get authors in for book signings.

Movies: I'd have films like Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, Wizards, Dragonslayer, The Lord of the Rings, The Terminator, and more running on constant loops. Oh yeah, and Thundarr the Barbarian too.

No Magic: The Gathering. Offenders will have their cards tossed into the yawning black mouth of the Great Green Devil on the wall (a cleverly disguised incinerator).

Music: I'd play a wide selection of heavy metal, and for a change of pace, different kinds of heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Dio, and Blind Guardian would get heavy rotation.

Artwork: In and around the weapons I'd hang artwork by Frazetta, Vallejo, Alan Lee, and John Howe, plus I'd obtain permission to reproduce or buy the originals of all the classic D&D artwork (A Paladin in Hell, the PHB idol, the Magic Mouth, etc.) and place them in frames under glass. And I'd commission a talented artist to paint a giant picture of Orcus, too.

Guest speakers: I'd fly out big names like Mike Mentzer, Greg Stafford, Monte Cook, the guy from Grognardia, etc., to provide informative lectures on the history of RPGs, DMing advice, etc.

Book discussion group: I'd hold discussion groups on great fantasy titles like The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Worm Ouroboros, The Broken Sword, The Once and Future King, and everything Robert E. Howard ever wrote.

Regular schedule of fun
In addition, I'd keep a regular schedule of games and other assorted nonsense. I'd run some games, play in others, and pay a stable of DMs a decent salary to keep the others going:

Monday: Wargame night. We'd wage World War II and then move on to history's other great conflicts at least once a week. Uniforms are encouraged, and I'd have films like Patton and The Longest Day playing in the background.

Tuesday: Dungeons and Dragons. Pick your poison--OD&D, basic, 1E, 2E, or the newer versions should you choose, I'd have them all. I myself would run that epic 1E campaign I've always wanted to try, culminating with Against the Giants/Drow/Demonweb series.

Pit-fighting Wednesday: I'd erect a shallow stone pit in the rear of the store, and, equipped with foam axes, swords, nets, tridents, shields, customers could go at it a-la the pit-fighting scene in Conan the Barbarian. This would be a great mid-week stress reliever for those sad souls still working the 9-5 shift :).

Thursday: Alternate game night. Those games of Pendragon, Call of Cthulhu, 007, or Runequest you've always wanted to play? This is your chance.

Friday night: Alefest, followed by a drunken session of D&D. Again, costumes encouraged (required?). Oh yeah, did I mention that I'd be acquiring a liquor license?

So what does your gamestore look like?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The magic of Moldvay

My gateway drug into the seductive hobby known as role-playing was the 1981 Basic D&D box set, as edited by the late, great, Tom Moldvay. For my money, page for page, this is still the best iteration of Dungeons and Dragons ever written.

I still own the same careworn copy of Moldvay basic that I bought back in 1981-82 or so. As I look at it now it remains a marvel of utility, organization, inspiration, and playability.

To begin with, Moldvay basic comprises a total of 64 pages. Take away the title page, foreward, and glossary, and you have a total of 60 pages. Heck, there are longer modules than this. By way of comparison, a single issue of Dungeon and Dragon magazine exceeded 100 pages towards the end of their run!

The rulebook is comprised of the following 8 sections:

Part 1: Introduction (2 pages)
Moldvay introduces what D&D is all about, how to use the book, and provides some basic D&D definitions.

Part 2: Player Character Information (10 pages)
Moldvay explains how to create a character, explains the character classes and their abilities, provides a simple list of arms and equipment, and adds an example of creating a player characer.

Part 3: Spells (4 pages)
A listing of cleric, magic user, and elf spells, as well as a brief description of how magic works.

Part 4: The Adventure (4 pages)
Moldvay explains how a party is organized, how to keep track of time in the dungeon, movement, traps, encumbrance, light, doors, and retainers, as well as how to award experience points.

Part 5: The Encounter (6 pages)
Moldvay describes monster reactions, combat sequence, saving throws, hand-to-hand vs. missile fire, morale, and adds a nice example of combat. It's a sobering look at how deadly and unforgiving low-level D&D can be: The hobgoblin attacking Fredrik rolls a 17, hitting Fredrik's Armor Class of 2, and scores 8 points of damage! Poor Fredrik had only 6 hit points, so he is killed. I'm also a fan of the morale rules in Moldvay: Why should every monster opt to fight to the death? The rules explain that you should check morale twice: After a side's first death in combat, and when half the monsters have been incapacitated. Monsters that successfully check morale twice will fight to the death. It's a simple, intuitive system resolved with an easy 2d6 roll against the monsters' morale score.

Part 6: Monsters (16 pages)
The longest section in the book is a listing of monsters, from acolyte to zombie.

Part 7: Treasure (6 pages)
Here is provided treasure types, general advice on how magic items work, and descriptions of items such as swords, potions, rings, scrolls, wands, gems, jewelry, and armor.

Part 8: Dungeon Master Information (10 pages)
Advice on how to choose a scenario, draw a map, and stock the dungeon. There's also a sample dungeon, the immortal Haunted Keep with its mysteriously vanished Rodemus family and band of goblin raiders that have taken up residence therein.

The last couple pages of the book include an afterward, a glossary, and inspirational source material. Several of my favorites are listed here, including Poul Anderson, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. Moldvay was obviously a man of refined reading taste :).

In a hobby dominated by massive three-tome, 300-plus page core rules, it is shocking to see what Moldvay accomplished in so little space. Take a look at how short each of those chapters are (4 pages of spells!), and yet, they are all you need to learn

  • what roleplaying is
  • what D&D is
  • how to create a character
  • how to build a dungeon, and stock it with monsters and treasure
  • how to play the game, as both a player-character and a dungeon master

Frankly, it's an amazing feat of economy and clarity. Moldvay basic is playable, as-is, right out of the box. The character record sheet provided in the rules fits on a single side of a standard 7 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. You can open up the rules, roll up a character in 3 minutes, and get started. I know because I did it and had a blast with it many, many years ago.

I'm also a big fan of the presentation, including the organization, writing, and the art. I even like the font! There's some great pieces in here by Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham. I've included a couple samples here. I'd prefer not to launch into a full-scale attack on 3E "dungeonpunk" art, but I do find the style of the art in Moldvay basic far, far more appealing. More than any other of its numerous strengths, this game is inspirational and just wants to be played.

The only two weaknesses I think that you can level at Molday basic D&D are the following:

1. It only goes from levels 1-3. My character is weak. I can't fight dragons and go toe-to-toe with demons. True, that, and for this argument I have no rejoinder. This boxed set is not made for epic, level-spanning campaigns. I would, however, add that, if you couple it with the 64-page Dave Cook edit of Expert (levels 4-14), the companion set to Moldvay, you probably have all the game you'll ever need in a total of 128 pages.

2. It's too basic. Where are the options ? The feats? The skills? Elves and dwarves are classes? And huh, three alignments? Well, this one is a matter of taste. As anyone who pokes around the internet knows, D&D has become divided into two camps--those who prefer their games with heavy crunch and tactical options galore, and those who like to "make stuff up" and let the DM sort it out. At the risk of fence-straddling I'm in a third camp, and frequently vacillate between both extremes. I currently play in a 3E game and enjoy the tactical, battlemat combats, but at other times I find the rules maddeningly and needlessly complex.

But if I had to choose one play style or the other at gunpoint, I'd take the magic that is Moldvay. Because, if I had to, I could make up my own rules and get my theoretical game to the preferred level of crunch. I prefer to think of Moldvay as a toolkit: Here is everything you need to build a house, including hammer, nails, and a saw. There's nothing to say that you can't put more tools in the box. It's a framework made for tinkering.

Moldvay says as much in Part 1: Introduction:

While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable--anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed.

Now that's my idea of options.

Here's a perfect example, courtesy of Trollsmyth, of what you can do with the rules: Shields Shall be Splintered! It's a simple fix that allows you to add "combat crunch" and a bit of realism into the rules, should you so desire. And you can add or cut rules as needed: The foundation upon which they are built is quite sound.

To quote the great Elvis Presley, Moldvay, "How Great Thou Art."

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Age of Conan: Big money for game companies, but (likely) not book publishers

So have you have you heard of Age of Conan (AoC)? This new computer game is quickly shaping up to be the next World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively popular online "role-playing" game in which you create heroic characters, explore fantastic worlds, fight, loot, and gain power. Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and other pen-and-paper RPGs, AOC, WoW, and others of their ilk strive to incorporate the best parts of traditional tabletop games--the immersive aspect of assuming a character's role and exploring a detailed world--with the latest in computer graphics and player-to-player interface technology.

Although I don't play them, I can understand the allure of on-line fantasy RPGs. One of my gaming group admits to playing so much Everquest he became strung out on the game (earning it the nickname "Evercrack"). As a big fan of pen-and-paper RPGs it seems awfully appealing to have the opportunity to play anytime, without having to set a time and gather a group of friends together. All that's needed is a computer and the money to pay for a monthly subscription.

And on-line RPG fans are legion. Take a look at how successful AoC has already become:

Durham, USA - June 6th, 2008 - Funcom is proud to announce that Age of Conan will pass the astounding "One Million Copies Shipped" milestone, in less than three weeks after the launch of the game. Due to overwhelming demand Funcom's retail partner is now re-supplying retail boxes rapidly while also including new markets to the mix. As a result of the tremendous interest from gamers, Age of Conan has for the past few weeks been claiming number one spots on the sales charts across the western world - including the US, Germany, France and the UK - while receiving glowing review scores from gaming media.

In the US, Age of Conan has a strong # 1 chart position and is now moving past the 500.000 shipped mark. Meanwhile the attention for the game is growing across the globe, with over 8 million unique visitors from over 200 countries to the Age of Conan websites so far in 2008. The community surrounding the game is also growing fast, with over 800,000 signing up as members of the Clan of Conan fan club.

Source: Age of Conan website (and thanks to the REHcomicsgroup Web site for alerting me to the news).

I'm not here to debate the merits of online RPGing (hey, I pretend to be an elf in my D&D game, so that would be a severe case of the pot calling the kettle black), but rather to ask a more interesting question--whether or not AoC will expose more people to its source material, Robert E. Howard's Conan. That question sparked some lively debate on the REHcomicsgroup mailing list, with folks taking both sides. Some said yes, AoC will create a new legion of REH readers, while others said no.

As for me, while I'd like to think the answer is yes, my gut places me in the latter camp.

Why won't AoC inspire gamers to seek out the stories? Personally, I think it's because the two mediums are mutually exclusive. Computer RPGs are played for the experience--the combat, the choices, and the accumulation of power. They are not tools to fire the imagination, but are portals that allow for immediate player interaction and active engagement, be it virtual sword-play or puzzle-solving. Reading of course requires engagement, but it's of the mind, picturing events as they unfold on the written page. Reading and playing are fundamentally different mediums and experiences, and it's my belief that people choose to do them for vastly different reasons.

That's not to say that the same people can't enjoy both--I enjoy reading and pen-and-paper RPGing, for example--but one does not necessarily feed into the other. It's like comparing running and stamp-collecting--the two are on completely opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum.

Furthermore, history has not shown that successes in electronic media lead to a rise in reading. Wildly popular films like Spiderman and the X-Men have not led to growth in the circulation of those flagging comic book titles. More to the point, the Conan film franchise (Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer) did not create a groundswell to get REH's original stories reprinted.

Now, I'm sure there may be a handful of exceptions, a few youngsters who might gravitate towards a Conan book because of their exposure to AoC, but I suspect they will be very, very few. AoC gamers will instead move on to bigger and better computer games when AoC becomes passe', not the books.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Worm Ouroboros: War goes ever, ever on

Warning--spoilers ahead

E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros is not an easy read. You cannot drink it whole and entire in a single draught; it must be sipped and savored like a complex wine, and (to continue the metaphor) its taste is an acquired one. But it is a marvel of fantasy, one of the all-time classics, and if you're a fan at all of the genre you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. It has fallen in and out of print over the years, although you can buy it on Amazon (I myself have the 1967 Ballantine Books edition, pictured here).

I recently re-read The Worm Ouroboros for this review after a space of a few years, and, as was the case before, I had to slowly break my way into it. It's written with beautiful and ornate language from a bygone era, which has its charms and its drawbacks. More than once I had to go back and re-read archaic words and opaque sentences and paragraphs. But it's never ponderous, and once you have a feel for the language it becomes part of the journey, a wonderful tool of immersion into Eddison's act of creation.

And Eddison uses that language to fashion wonders. The Worm Ouroboros delivers you into a world of bright color and thunder, of larger than life landscapes, and of heroes and deeds beyond the abilities of ordinary men. Here are soaring mountains that blot out the sky; noble hippogriffs and savage mantichores; achingly lovely princesses; and heroes of epic proportions and heroic hearts. And, above all, here is war, full-scale bloody battles of annihilation on land and sea.

And yet The Worm Ouroboros has far more to offer than (a great) story. Eddison had a message to say and while it's not readily apparent, it is there, beneath the surface, revealed in its suggestive title, by its deliberate structure, and through the actions of one of its central characters--Lord Gro.

The story
The Worm Ouroboros tells the story of a great war between the Demons--the good guys, not actually "demons," but noble and and heroic men--and the Witches (not actual broomstick-riding women, but men, evil and warlike). Through the use of a powerful and dangerous spell, the King of Witchland (Gorice XII) ensnares Goldry Blusczo, the Demons' mighty champion, and imprisons him in a magical fortress. Two of the Demon lords embark on an epic quest to find him and bring him back, while the Witches use this opportunity to launch a full-scale war against Demonland. War and epic quest are intermingled.

Along the way we're treated to a number of memorable events and scenes. A handful of my favorites include:

Conjuring in the Iron Tower. Evil witch-king Gorice XII uses the black arts to summon a mighty spell and capture Goldry Blusczo. This is magic as I like it: Not safe and predictable, but wild and dangerous and chaotic. I don't think I've ever encountered a description of a summoning more dark and evocative than that in The Worm Ouroboros:

But the King pronounced not yet those words, pointing only to them in the book, for whoso speaketh those words in vain and out of season is lost. And now when the retorts and beakers with their several necks and tubes and the appurtenances thereof were set in order, and the unhallowed processes of fixation, conjunction, deflagration, putrefaction, and rubefication were nearing maturity, and the baleful star Antares standing by the astrolabe within a little of the meridian signified the instant approach of midnight, the King described on the floor with his conjuring rod three pentacles inclosed within a seven-pointed star, with the signs of Cancer and of Scorpio joined by certain runes. And in the midst of the star he limned the image of a green crab eating of the sun. And turning to the seventy-third page of his great black grammarie the King recited in a mighty voice words of hidden meaning, calling on the name that it is a sin to utter.

The battle with the mantichore. Two of the Demons greatest champions, Brandoch Daha and Lord Juss, do battle with a mantichore on the cliffs of the great mountain Koshtra Pivrarcha. And what a beast it is:

The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be conceived of human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow, elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion's mane, huge bony chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly lips.

The Battle of Krothering Side. I'm a sucker for big battle scenes and this is a great one. Here's but a small sample of this epic clash between Demon and Witch, as told through the eyes of a survivor:

I scarce know what way the battle went, father. 'Twas like a meeting of streams in spate. I think they opened to us right and left to ease the shock. They that were before us went down like standing corn under a hailstorm. We wheeled both ways, some 'gainst their right that was thrown back toward the camp, the more part with my Lord Brandoch Daha to our own right. I was with these in the main battle. His highness rode a hot stirring horse very fierce and dogged; knee to knee with him went Styrkmir of Blackwood o' the one side and Tharmrod o' the other. Neither man nor horse might stand up before 'em, and they faring as in a maze now this way now that, amid the thrumbling and thrasting o' the footmen, heads and arms smitten off, men hewn in sunder from crown to belly, ay, to the saddle, riderless horses maddened, blood splashed up from the ground like the slush from a marsh.

The wrestling match of Goldry Bluszco and Gorice XI. Forget the WWF--within the pages of The Worm Ouroboros is a wrestling match to the death between the two strongest men alive. Eddison paints the match in words that bring to life the crash of the muscular bodies, the teetering balance as each strives to overthrow the other, the terrible strain and the brushes with death.

Lord Gro
Like the Norse sagas from which it derives inspiration, Eddison portrays his characters using their actions and words, not their thoughts or motivations. They are mythical heroes, larger than life, and not conflicted with doubts and uncertainties, but driven by great passions, honor, and warrior spirit. In other words, if you're looking for character studies, look elsewhere.

And yet The Worm Ouroboros also features the conflicted, philosophical, and thoroughly modern Lord Gro, an exile from another country who casts his lot in with the Witches, later defects to the Demons, then rejoins the Witches at story's end. I can't help but think that Gro=Eddison, or at least is the individual with whom Eddision most readily identifies, since he is the most fully realized character in the novel. In the midst of all the savage warfare, Gro in a memorable passage steps back and questions the entire conflict--and the very nature of competition itself:

"Surely," he said, "the great mountains of the world are a present remedy if men did but know it against our modern discontent and ambitions. In the hills is wisdom's font. They are deep in time. They know the ways of the sun and the wind, the lightning's fiery feet, the frost that shattereth, the rain that shroudeth, the snow that putteth about their nakedness a softer coverlet than fine lawn: which if their large philosophy question not if it be a bridal sheet or a shroud, hath not this unpolicied calm his justification ever in the returning year, and is it not an instance to laugh our carefulness out of fashion? of us, little children of the dust, children of a day, who with so many burdens do burden us with taking thought and with fears and desires and devious schemings of the mind, so that we wax old before our time and fall weary ere the brief day be spent and one reaping-hook gather us home at last for all our pains."

Notably it is Gro, the anti-soldier, who sees the clearest.

War as glory and horror
Eddison wrote The Worm Ouroboros in 1922, just four years after the bloody conclusion of World War I. Unlike the stories of his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien, Eddison glorifies war as a grand stage upon which heroes achieve great deeds and carve out their legacies.

But underneath this simple portayal lurks a more conflicted reality of war. After the great Battle of Krothering Side in which the Demons drive the Witches out of Demonland and the tide of war turns, Arnod, a warrior who fought with the Demons, tells the story of the battle to his family in the gorgeous rays of the setting sun. Eddison, who uses the landscape of his world to convey moods, drops the image of an ugly cloud that looks like a battered sword into the midst of the glorious sunset (emphasis mine). It's a subtle but important reminder of the ugliness and monstrosity that is war:

A faint breeze rippled the foliage of the oakwoods of Tivarandardale. The sun was down behind the stately Thornbacks, and the whole sky from bourne to bourne was alight with the sunset glory. Dappled clouds, with sky showing here and there between, covered the heavens, save in the west where a great archway of clear air opened between clouds and earth: air of an azure that seemed to burn, so pure it was, so deep, so charged with warmth: not the harsh blue of noon-day nor the sumptuous deep eastern blue of approaching night, but a bright heavenly blue bordering on green, deep, tender, and delicate as the spirit of evening. Athwart the midst of that window of the west a blade of cloud, hard-edged and jagged with teeth coloured as of live coals and dead, fiery and iron-dark in turn, stretched like a battered sword. The clouds above the arch were pale rose: the zenith like black opal, dark blue and thunderous gray dappled with fire.

The Worm Ouroboros
Eddison's book derives its curious title from a mythical, culture-spanning serpent/dragon named Ouroboros that swallows its own tail. Ouroboros appears in Norse mythology in the form of the serpent Jormungandr, a monstrous creature that circles the world and grasps its own tail in its teeth. In the Norse myths Thor kills Jormungandr during the last great battle (Ragnarok), but is himself slain by the venom spewing from the great wound. Ragnarok is the ultimate expression of this cyclical pattern, as it results in the destruction of the norse gods, their enemies, and the world itself, followed by a rebirth. Thus, the worm is both a symbol of the pattern of life and death and rebirth, or, in this case, eternal warfare.

The much-discussed ending of The Worm Ouroboros conforms to and continues that pattern. The Demons have achieved complete victory with their foes, the Witches, all slain. But instead of thanking the Gods for the great triumph and its promise of peace, the Demons instead long for the return of their vanquished and slain opponents. Lord Juss of the Demons is granted a wish from the magical Queen Sophonisba, and asks of the Gods:

Would they might give us our good gift, that should be youth for ever, and war; and unwaning strength and skill in arms. Would they might but give us our great enemies alive and whole again. For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction, than thus live out our lives like cattle fattening for the slaughter, or like silly garden plants.

Eddison does not pronounce any judgements upon the Demons, so we do not know whether this endless cycle of war continues because men desire it due to pride, or foolishness, or vainglory, or because warfare is inherent in our nature. All that is known is that the gods grant the Demons' wish and the cycle begins again: the worm has swallowed its tail, the other tale continues, and the war--the great war--will go on and on.

I have included a few passages of Eddison's unique prose, but should you wish to sample more you can actually read The Worm Ouroboros in its entirety here: