General Ramblings


It’s been getting “meh” reviews and i wasn’t particularly interested in this series, so I went in with low expectations…but found myself enjoying Iron Fist, even though it is unquestionably the weakest outing of the Netflix/Marvel series.

The good stuff — the supporting characters are interesting and richly-fleshed out. In particular, I found Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meechum and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing to be the strongest of the bunch. Madam Gao, a recurring antagonist for Daredevil, is also nicely fleshed out. Finn Jones does a workman-like job with what he has as Danny Rand, the hero, but he’s quickly overshadowed by the more interesting Colleen Wing. The bad guys are also good — from the revenant Harold Meechum, to Gao and her nemesis inside The Hand, Bakuto (played with a nice oiliness by Ramon Rodriguez, who i vaguely remembered from The Wire.)

The “meh”: Where Daredevil used color motifs, lighting, and inspired fight choreography to play up the moral conundrums and physical pain of a vigilante’s life, and Jessica Jones played the noir detective look and feel to accentuate the themes of control and abuse, and Luke Cage used strong color palettes, urban music and fashion to craft a believable Harlem in the middle of the Marvel universe…Iron Fist is pedestrian. The fight scenes are not over the top Hong Kong Action Theater. They’re bland and uninspired. The blocking, the shot lists, the lighting, the use of color are something you would expect out of Law & Order: Superheroes. The other Marvel shows evoke the Miller/Mazzucchelli Daredevil run; Jessica Jones has that tired PI in a dirty world flavor; Luke Cage is decidedly Black America; they’re unique. Iron Fist doesn’t play up the Eastern mysticism, choosing a bland corporate backdrop.

That makes sense in some ways. Rand is a billionaire and heir to a massive company and the board doesn’t want him there. It’s a plot element that definitely should have been explored, especially as it is the motivation for the bad guys. BUT… He’s a “living weapon” from the mystical city of K’un L’un out to destroy the Hand. He’s just not dipped in the Eastern mysticism enough, whereas — for instance — Doctor Strange at least did a better job playing to that. The character does meditation and martial arts, sure, but the look of the show isn’t exotic enough to evoke that.

The “bad”: Really, it’s the focus of the show on the Meachum’s corporate machinations and the lack of fight scenes that flow and are elegant. The credit sequence should have informed the look of the fights, with loads of sweeping movement. Jones moves well, and the choreography is accurate to some of the forms used, but it’s not chop-sockey enough, and I suspect that’s what the fans wanted.

So is it worth watching? Yes. It’s a decent addition to the Netflix/Marvel catalogue, but don’t expect anything ground breaking. Substance-wise, it’s got a lot of good character development, especially in the supporting cast, and it breaks the 3rd Act Slump that all Marvel shows seem to have; unlike the others, it doesn’t have that episode 9-11 drag. But stylistically it’s weak tea.

I started work on our sourcebook for 1930s Shanghai. Most likely, this will be a system-neutral product, but may wind up having appendices for Fate and Ubiquity. Right now, I’m in the first writing pass, and this should take a week or two. After that, it’ll be nailing down any system-oriented stuff we might want added, and then a pass for possible fiction interludes and a canned adventure or two. The target page count is 80-100 pages, once art is added.

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So far, you can look forward to information on customs, communications, the nightlife of International Settlement, the expatriate communities of White Russians and Jews. There is a section on the Shanghai Municipal Police force and the Shanghai Volunteer militia. There’s going to b a chapter on the Green Gang — the criminal organization tied tightly to the Nationalist government, as well as information on the espionage agencies active in the city.

I’ve found some excellent maps that will most likely need to be worked over by a cartographer to make work for the book, and tons of public domain photos of the city.

Right now, I’m hoping on a late summer release.

I think that’s what I’m calling this volume of Dungeons & Dragons adventures: The Road to Heroism. Why? Because the Via Graiae features prominently in the campaign, thus far. They are in what is supposed to be deep inside Roman territory, 50 miles or so from the border, and all their adventures have been along the road.

This particular episode for the night was The Goblin Town. Our heroes had managed to convince the prefect of Vigiles in Ariolica to take a force and root out the nearby Vandal threat. With 80 men, 2 ballistas, and the party, they left the Via Graiae and headed into the snowy forests of the Jura Mountains. Along the way, it occurred to Quintus Marcellius — our former legionnaire, that they could use more aid, and that Jurahold, the dwarven village Carrus the Ranger is from, was nearby.

They arrived in a small valley where Juraborg, the dwarven town, is situated. Jurahold is carved into the mountain face above the picturesque village, and is a refuge against attack and the harshness of winter. On approach, the guard are shocked to see Carrus, but not their leader Smaigo the Zwergifuhr (who was killed prior to the introduction of Carrus, Icio the Monk, and Calvinus the bard in media res) a few weeks ago.

The force is invited into the hold and in the great hall, Lady Fega — Smaigo’s wife and ostensibly the new ruler of the tribe — does not handle the news of her beloved’s death well. The character’s stories are consistent, but biffed charisma roles meant that they were not given the warmest welcome at the news, but things did not go terribly. Carrus, however, was not content to be the guy that lost his tribe’s leader, and convinced an equal force of Jurazwergi to join them in the attack on the Vandal village nearby. (Benefits of a crit 20…) They stayed the night in the dwarven hold, Calvinus romanced a pair of dwarven twins while he was playing for the entertainment of all, and in the morning, they were off to find the Vandals.

As they were nearing the village, they could hear wolves baying — the goblins were not going to be surprised. Carrus and a few of his dwarves slipped forward to reconnoiter the location and confirmed an old Roman village that had been abandoned ages ago was inhabited and being repaired by the goblins. They got an estimate of the numbers — maybe 500, with 200-250 of that being children, and 100-150 women. That left about 100 warriors to worry about. They also spotted an old dwarven hold in the rockface of the hillside near the town that the goblins were operating out of. While watching the town, they saw a force of 50 Vandals leave to intercept the Roman advance and retreated to warn the others.

The decision was made to have a small force of the dwarves under the party raid the subterranean hold from the back door, hoping to find and free the prisoners, while the main force under Abrecan, the prefect, met the Vandals…maybe they were looking to talk? Either way, the main force has superior numbers and training; the smaller force would most likely only encounter a similar number in the hold. (The cleric stayed with the main force, as the player was out for the night.)

After slipping into the hold from the massive doors (we established that the dwarves always seem to overbuild…they’re on average 4’8″, but all their ceilings are 18-20 feet high; their door 12 feet tall! They walked straight into a guard and the monk dispatched him with a fantastic success on his attack. The next passage had three Vandals, and a cage full of the children taken from Timo’s Ford, the village from the first adventure. They dispatched the baddies and freed the kids, then pressed in, encountering 3-4 goblins per chamber.

The bard kept taunting the Vandals with “vicious mockery” — I’d never considered the hit points were as much a mental and physical structure; and this cantrip did hit points of damage. This led, in one of the fights, to me using that notion against Carrus. In one of the chambers, there were cages of prisoners under them, with a walkway running through the room. He had fouled an acrobat roll and slipped, nutting himself on the bars and temporarily at the mercy of one of the Vandals, who was able to strike at him. For the first few adventures, the characters have been first and second level, but the sheer numbers they’ve faced has allowed the to jump to 3rd level by this week’s game; a hit from a goblin a few sessions ago would have killed the character, but in this case only did about 40% in damage…I decided that was mostly from mental trauma: the swipe of the goblin’s scimitar lopped off one of Carrus’ beautiful twins braids of red beard! There was no damage, but the indignity of having his beard shorn off in combat was a distraction for the fight.

Eventually, they reached the main chamber where most of the survivors of Timo’s Ford were being shackled for the day’s work rebuilding the town. A half dozen or more Vandals were in the cavern, and before a fight could commence, Icio — the aasimar monk — lit himself up with the radiant soul ability: suddenly, this scrawny monk burst forth with inner light, glowing wings erupting from his back, and spouting off about the judgment of God and repenting their ways.

The goblins ran for their lives.

The towns folk were so awed by him, they started to ask about this god he spoke of while they were being released.

With the townsfolk released, they now had to either escape through the back door, or hold position in the defensible caverns of the hold and wait for their friends to arrive. They chose the latter. The Vandals made a perfunctory attempt to reconnoiter the hold, but a well placed pilum (javelin) by Marcellius drove them off. Weended the night with the Vandals rolling olive-oil covered burning barrels into the cavern to confuse and harass the party and their charges… (Yay! A cliffhanger ending!)

So, some of the things I/we took away from this: 1) hit points are both physical and mental damage…it is possible to describe a hit in D&D that doesn’t have serious effect as a distraction, or a momentary bit of fear or lack of surety; it doesn’t have to be an actual physical hit. 2) Fighters are much more bad ass in 5th edition at lower levels. 3) Likewise, low-level spells — even cantrips — are have more punch in 5e. Magic users are actually formidable. 4) The features and other customizable bits are fun, but can get a bit tricky to manage. 5) Having a rules lawyer when you’re still new to the system can be handy and annoying at the same time. (One of the guys has been running 5e for a while, now.)

We’ve been steadily building out this alternate-Roman setting, and one thing that’s been changing subtly is our initial take on Christianity, as a simple cult of Judaism, has morphed into an almost Alan Christianity: where 1) Jesus was an assimar, as was John the Baptist; 2) the rest of the story is pretty much the same; 3) Jesus is considered divine or divinely inspired, but not God, per se. 4) The cult of Jesus is still growing in strength and popularity, but is behind where it was in the real world. Even so, Christianity was still building, post Emperor Constantine, so we’re not as off the map as we were initially going to be. 5) Since I’ve established the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons and creatures exist, Christianity is locked in a fight with the other religions for believers not just in temples; these gods are trying to keep their membership rolls up. This may tie into the monk’s antagonist — a nephilim (or cursed), what they call tieflings in the Levant — and what his mission for Lucifer might be.

So for fairly simple outings — defending a caravan and a town, and then rescuing the village population — the characters get to build their game world reputations, but we are steadily building out and refining the greater world, even while remaining in an area of play that is only 50 or so square miles.

 

After four months of delays, we finally managed to finish The Death Jade. This adventure scenario is set in 1936 Shanghai. Rumblings of war are being heard in the International Settlement of Shanghai as the characters are hired to find a priceless artifact from ancient Chinese history — the Donguin jade, part of the fallen star that allegedly prophesied the end of the First Emperor’s reign, and which is said to carry his soul! The first man hunting the jade, Count Rusikov, has gone missing, and as they track his steps, they must stay ahead of Japanese and communist spies, and dodge nationalist warlords.

The Death Jade is live on DriveThruRPG.com for both Fate and Ubiquity. This 25 page adventure module costs $2.99.

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Our D&D game picked up with the characters’ caravan, led by their dwarven ranger, finding the Graian Way — the main Roman artery to the nearest real town, Ariolica. Positioned near the Jura Mountains, Carrus the ranger knows the place, and is known to the population. While the merchants are unloading and trying to trade, the characters did a quick exploration.

The players for Carrus and Marcellus were out this week, so the latter spent most of his time arranging for the arrest of the Vandal goblins that attacked them. Carrus’ dwarven connections in the town give them the lowdown on the tribe their captives are from — the Vanhalus tribe of goblins moved into the area a few months back, but supposedly there’s a much large force of them that have moved into the area. They’re close enough to be a real concern for Carrus’ town and hold. We also learn that Carrus is a local hero for pulling together the defense of a small Graeoceli village near his people’s hold; to the locals, he is “Carrus the Goblin Killer.”

They also spot a pair of goblins who are “Alemmani” — they’ve allied themselves with that great tribe of humans and they are from the “Sweda” band of goblins. They are in town as traders in fur. They know the Vanhalus and with some browbeating, they learn the Vanhalus are much larger a group that their prisoners told them. They were expecting a band of 500…these goblins say it’s more like 5000. Even with the assumed children and non-combatants in band that large, they are looking at 200-500 combatants! They also find out villagers from Timo’s Ford have not be shopped around for slavery. Why would they be holding onto the villagers? The Sweda guess they are being used to build defenses. Your Vanhalus are hear to stay.

Marcellus, meanwhile, had made contact with the prefect of the town — an Alemmani that goes by the name Abrecan Legio (the strong legionnaire), but whom he had known in the Legio II Augustus as a centurion, Abrecan Haraldus. He supposedly had died in combat, yet here he is, appointed the prefect not by the district tribune, but by the people of the town. Things are starting to fall apart for the empire, even here 50 miles behind the front.

Abrecan is convinced by the party to pull a force from the Vigiles of the city to probe the Vanhalus camp — after all, even Marcellus’ small force has done for two dozen of the goblins. With a heavy century (100) of trained fighters, their pair of magic-users, and some siege equipment, they might be able to intimidate the goblins into giving up their prisoners.

There was some role playing opportunities — the monk, overwhelmed by the mass of human contact, retreated to a quiet place to meditate; the bard and cleric hit the Temple of Apollo to pray, then went in search of female companionship; Carrus went to dinner with the town’s dwarves; and Marcellus worked with Abrecan to start putting together their expedition for the following morning.

We had a short fight where a pair of goblins from the Vanhalus, in town to trade, spot and try to assassinate Carrus, who was stumbling home to the caravan horribly drunk. Even in his condition, he was able to put down one of his attackers, while the monk ran off the last.

We ended the night with the expedition — 100 men plus the party under Abrecan, armed in Roman style, but with a pair of light ballistas broken down and being hauled by the men, heading into the snowy forests of the Jura to find this goblin settlement.

It’s something every GM will face. You’ve started a game, and now you have new players. The second installment of our Dungeons & Dragons in an alternate collapsing Roman Empire met last night. My task for the night was to fuse two new players and their characters, plus one of the main group that had been away the week before, into the action.

When last we had left the two characters introduced in the “pilot”, they were hunkered down with a half dozen people in a small, but wealthy, caravan of merchants in the little hamlet of Timo’s Ford, a small town next to a stone bridge over a tributary of the Rhine in the Black Forest. The entire 150 or so of the town’s population had been disappeared, their homes trashed, their animals slaughtered simply for the fun of it…they were certain it was the work of the Vandals that had hit their caravan a few hours earlier, but that would mean there’s one hell of a big population of them somewhere nearby!

They were attacked by a small band of Vandals — in our game, the Vandals are goblins pushed out of Scandinavia by the people there — and they managed to dispatch them and capture one for questioning.

The new characters are a Roman noble who has been exiled from home for his antics, and who is traveling the empire as an entertainer (he’s a bard); a former anchorite — an assimar monk who is part of the Cult of Jesus, an aasimar prophet who was hung up by the Romans — and whose guardian angel, Michael, has put him on the path to hunting demons, and linking up with one of the established characters, Aurelius Augustinian, a cleric who has healing powers; and an dwarven ranger from the Jura Mountains who’s clan are tied to the Alemmani. The last is a folk hero for his selfless rescue of an Alemmani village from Vandal raiders.

They are introduced in media res — running for their lives from two dozen Vandals and their wolves through the deep cold and snow in a darkened forest. Carrus Zwergi, the ranger, has managed to find them the fastest route away from the Vandals, keeping them behind, but they have been running for an hour and collapse at the base of a snow bank to catch their breath. Where to go? What to do? The bard is stunned — where is the army!?!

They see strange lights in a little hamlet across the river…it’s Timo’s Ford, Zwergi knows. They race to the bridge fording the river and make contact with the caravan group, and voila! the characters are joined up! After taking stock of their weapons, doing some healing, while the bard boosts everyone’s spirits, Zwergi and the former Roman legionnaire, Quintus Marcellus, plan their strategy. There are a dozen of the goblins across the bridge, barely visible against the snow; they can hear the wolf with that party baying to the second wolf with another group stealthily making its way around the opposite side of the town. They don’t have much time, and only the PCs and one NPC are any kind of fighters…they have to move quick to preserve any advantage they have.

The party leaves the safety of the old Roman-styled tavern and cross the bridge, luring that group of Vandals out. Marcellus and Augustinian shoot the leader of the band, putting him down, but not killing him. They then jump into the fray, and Augustinian and the monk, Icio Zaccharius, surprise each other with their use of magic. Two magic users in one place!?! This is no coincidence. Zaccharius knows this is not coincidence, for the cleric had once visited his anchorhold in Malta and had questioned him on Jesus’ teachings. He knows Michael has put him on a path to find this man, and then to join forces to find the demon that killed his mentor…

After a hard-fought battle, they kill most of the Vandals and capture the leader. Their victory causes the other group of attackers to break off.

The next morning, having rested, the ranger gathered food for the group and their first decent breakfast was had. Next, they question the Vandals, discovering that there is a large force of the goblins just moved into the neighborhood — perhaps 100-200 fighting men, and maybe a total population — with their women and children — of 500-750. They took the people of Timo’s Ford to trade as slaves to the other tribes in the area.Most of them are even still alive.

The characters formulated a plan: the lead merchant of the caravan is going to take one of the horses and make a mad dash for the nearest Roman guard post, about a day’s ride in the snow. The rest will accompany the caravan to the nearest decent side town to see if they can gain some sanctuary and perhaps aid in rescuing the people of Timo’s Ford.

The characters have already leveled up from this adventure, and the stage is set for the obvious goal of this portion of the campaign: save the town and become heroes.

Previous posts have detailed some of the thinking so far on our new game campaign using 5th edition. Up until now, it’s been mostly a half-baked couple of idea that grew out of not wanting to do the Tolkein-Gygax high fantasy thing, which caused me to ground it in early medieval/fall of Rome period. I specified the gods and creatures of myth still exist (but are rare-ish), and that magic is present but rare enough to still have a “holy shit!” quality when it is seen; some people don’t believe it exists, even…

The world is fleshing out, partly because we have two new prospective players. One is a former colleague from my doctoral studies, and he’s an expert in this period and Christianity (and I am not) — so, no pressure!

It’s the year 1128 ab urbe condita — the Roman reckoning since the founding of Rome. (So about 375AD.) The main action, right now, is happening in the southwestern part of Germania Superior, near the Alps.

The first character, Quintus Marcellus, is a former legionnaire, an optio or the equivalent of a sergeant major/lieutenant, who started as a foot soldier after leaving his home in Mediolanum (modern day Milan) at 12 to join the emperor’s campaign into Gaul. He was under the command of a general named Magnus Maximus, and was for a time a standard bearer for Emperor Valentinian — a bastard of a man — where he befriended his young son, Gratian. He was part of Maximus’ response to the Great Conspiracy of Celts, Picts, and Saxons who attacked Roman forces and spent most of his career, after the Battle of Solicinium, in Rutupiae, the main landing port for their forces, until his mustering out a few months prior to the game. He has a Celt wife, Roua, who he had to divorce after the emperor’s decree Romans could not marry barbarians. They have a kid. He is now latrones — a mercenary — protecting caravans along the dangerous road to Augusta Treverorum (or Trier, as the Alemmani call it.)

Quintus’ wife is most likely an elf,  or half-elf based off of my original pitch for this universe — the Attacoti, Scotti, are most likely the same. Some of the Gauls we’ve established are firbolg (from the Volo’s Guide to Monsters) — and may be related to elves.

The next character was Aurelius Augustinius Hipponensis (or, to our real universe, Saint Augustine) who is traveling the empire after fleeing a bad romantic/marriage situation that embarrassed his family back in Africa. He is a cleric and healer — a magic user, and this makes him impressive (especially to himself!) He used his healing ability for the first time during a fight; so even to him, magic is something he wasn’t sure would actually do much more than parlor tricks.

The next character is (tentatively) Thomas Zaccarius — an aasimar, or “barukim” (the blessed) in our world. He is from Egypt, is a follower of the prophet (and fellow aasimar) Jesus of Nazareth, and has been called to fight demons and their evil in the world. He is a hermit when he can be, since the Jews and Zoroastrians look on him as a quasi-angel to whom they can ask for blessing and intercession with God…a situation his angel, Michael, assures him isn’t the case. He is traveling, chasing clues to find the demon that killed his mentor Haman — an event that led him to an anchorhold to hide from the world. A chance meeting with a young cleric named Aurelius Augustinius led him to venture back out. (Thus giving us a connection for his introduction…)

Hanging in the air is that this demon is gathering certain of the naphalim (or tiefling, as they are calling by the Alemmani) for some kind of evil plot that needs stopped.

This gives us a taste of our version of Judaism/Christianity in this world. Jehovah is one of many gods — maybe he’s even a god of gods, like Ahura Mazda — but the action of the Olympians and their Roman expression has happened from time to time (though less since the Greek Dark Ages…) so the cult of Jesus has not caught on as it did in the real world. The angels and demons play a proxy game with the tiefling and aasimar; so long as they stay off the playing field, things don’t get ugly…

Which brings us to the last character, a dwarven ranger named Carrus Zwergi, part of a tribe of dwarves that consider themselves Alemanni, but are foederati (treaty-bound) with Rome. He is the son of a blacksmith, and his tribe live in their great hall under the juraburge, or Jura Mountains, where they are known for their coal and iron mining. His people arrived in the mountains hundreds of years ago, and were allowed to stay by order of Tiberius Caesar, himself. They are practically Romans, but have the Nordic gods for their religion.

Run ins with the Vandals — in our game played by goblins — nomads that have recently poured in from Nordica (Scandinavia) have led the Zwergi to ask for help from the Romans in Trier, and that mission will bring all of the characters together.

Thursday night, I’m hoping.

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