23 February 2017

The ultra-cool dwarf and the seven planets

Okay, this is (apologies in advance) ultra-cool:
Astronomers have found at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the same star 40 light-years away ...
The seven exoplanets were all found in tight formation around an ultracool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Estimates of their mass also indicate that they are rocky planets, rather than being gaseous like Jupiter. Three planets are in the habitable zone of the star, known as TRAPPIST-1e, f and g, and may even have oceans on the surface.

(More here.)

For a 'hard' (or 'hard-ish') science fiction setting -- one in which there is no faster-than-light travel -- a single solar system with 3 life-supporting planets (and four other earth-sized ones, capable of being settled) sounds ideal.

The only downside to this discovery is that it makes me worry (once again!) about Fermi's paradox. (Alastair Reynolds's "Revelation Space" novels provide a cool -- but quite disturbing -- explanation for Fermi's paradox. Well worth reading, if you haven't checked them out yet!)

10 February 2017

Crypts and Things Reloaded has arrived

Actually, the new edition of Crypts and Things has been out for a while now, but my hardcovers arrived only last week:

I have yet to delve into this new version (while I was a Kickstarter backer, as far as I can tell I never received the PDF version last autumn, and I was a bit slow in ordering in my physical copies). However, once I have a chance to look properly through the book over the next few weeks, I’ll post my thoughts here.

(Of course, it’s hard for me to be objective when it comes to C&T, as it draws upon some of the house rules that I developed for Swords & Wizardry many years ago.)

Based upon a quick skim, it looks like Newt Newport has added a lot of cool stuff to this version! And the new art is quite impressive.

Praise Crom!

28 January 2017

John Hurt RIP

Actor John Hurt has passed away.

Not mentioned in the obituary linked above (and, I suspect, in most others) is Hurt's role as "Aragorn" in the 1978 animated film version of The Lord of the Rings. That was a film that, when I saw it as a wee lad at a repertory cinema in London (Ontario), awakened in me a lifelong love of fantasy.  (I recognize now that that version has many flaws, but when I was a child it was simply magical.) Hurt's voice acting for Aragorn was perfect for the character.

[The death of Boromir from the animated LotR film.]

The film version of 1984 also had a profound impact on me. (I saw it before I read the original Orwell novel.) I couldn't get it out of my mind for weeks afterwards, and read the novel and Animal Farm shortly afterwards. Both books greatly shaped my life as well (though obviously in very different ways than the LotR movie).

The Elephant Man, which I also saw as a teenager, had a similar affect on me. It moved me to tears and I thought about it for a longtime afterwards. I think it made me try to be a better person. Few films have that kind of power.

(And of course Alien is one of the greatest science-fiction/horror films of all time...)


18 January 2017

Ultimate Dungeons and Dragons gaming table

Apparently there is a show called "Super-Fan Builds." In this episode the lucky super-fan receives an amazing ('ultimate') Dungeons and Dragons gaming table. It's worth a watch. I'll think that you will find the super-fan featured in this episode to be quite entertaining.

The reason why I know about this episode is that it features an old friend of mine, Robert, as the 'super-fan.' For a few years during our PhD program (2000-2002, if I recall correctly) we regularly gamed together. Rob is a hilarious person in general (he also was active in an improv comedy group at the time), and he brought that gift to our games as a player. The other players were great as well.

That grad student group remains one of my all-time favourites. Sadly, we all live in different parts of the world now (Rob lives in Los Angeles), so we don't have too many opportunities to see each other in person these days. It's good to see that some of us are still engaged with the hobby -- Rob even more than myself, it would seem!

17 January 2017

Reclaiming the word 'millennial'

An important story from The Beaverton: "1000 year old wizard reclaims word 'millennial'."

An excerpt:
“A youth of the ages 20-35 may have experimented by taking ayahuasca at a summer festival in the desert. However, that is mere child’s play. My Friday nights consist of sacrificing the soul of a centaur to Beelzebub during high moon.” Ragnicius bellowed from the back of a tavern, “Only children of the 990s will understand this to be true!”
Indeed. The kids these days know nothing of eldritch lore...

15 January 2017

Ancient images of paladins uncovered

While the magic-user (later rebranded as the 'mage' or 'wizard') always has been my favourite Dungeons and Dragons (or AD&D) class to play, in my early years I also seemed to have been quite fond of the paladin. This now strikes me as a bit puzzling, as paladins now rank at the bottom of my list (behind even clerics!).

I was reminded of my youthful fondness for lawfulness and goodness recently while at my parents' house for the holidays. There I uncovered some more pictures from my early teens (I posted another piece of youthful 'art' -- "Dragonslayers" -- a few months ago).

Here is "Eric the Lawful" (a character I created, no doubt, in reaction to Trampier's classic "Emirikol the Chaotic" from the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide):


And here is a character whom I remember using quite a bit in my early gaming days: "Emric Bogg."

I'm not sure why I never finished this picture (which is on a big piece of bristol board). You can see the outline of his right arm and sword in pencil if you look closely. Why didn't I spent another 20 minutes to finish poor Emric in ink? Only my 13 year old self knows.

I uncovered a few more pictures recently, and will post them here in the near future. So if you like amateur teenage D&D art, stay tuned!

28 December 2016

Rogue One is very good

I finally saw the new Star Wars film Rogue One today. It was a pleasant surprise! My expectations for the film were quite low, but it now ranks as my second favourite Star Wars film of all time, ranked behind only The Empire Strikes Back (and tied for second with A New Hope).

Here are three things that I especially liked about the film:

1. The character of the droid ‘K-2’. I think that this droid may now be my favourite in any Star Wars film. Sorry Chewy! (And I wonder if the name ‘K-2’ was a subtle reference to Inspector Jacques Clouseau’s sidekick from the original “Pink Panther” movies?)

2. The film explains what always struck me as an obvious hole with the original 1977 movie: namely, why the Death Star would include such a fatal flaw in its design, such that a single well-aimed shot from an X-wing fighter could destroy the whole thing. That Death Star design flaw now has a plausible rationale!

3. While the good guys succeed in their mission (this is no spoiler, at least not to anyone who has seen the original Star Wars film), it is not a traditional ‘happy ending.’ Instead, the ending is both tragic and hopeful.

Two minor criticisms:

a. The computer-generated ‘resurrection’ of Peter Cushing (who died in 1994) as ‘Grand Moff Tarkin’ struck me as rather creepy and even distasteful. Frankly, the film didn’t need to use Grand Moff Tarkin at all.

b. Forest Whitaker’s character ‘Saw Gerrara’ was pretty pointless. I was expecting more from him.

Those quibbles aside, though, Rogue One is my most pleasant movie surprise in a long time.

And the final scene with a young Princess Leia brought a tear to my eye. (RIP Carrie Fisher.)

21 November 2016

The Haunting (Call of Cthulhu adventure summary)

Since October 2014, I've been running a (very) sporadic Call of Cthulhu 7th edition campaign. Most of the adventures I've run have been new ones written for the 7th edition. The one exception is "The Haunting," which of course dates back to the beginning of Call of Cthulhu. Since "The Haunting" was included with the "quick start" rules for 7th edition, I started with it. Below is my brief summary of that adventure. (I will post summaries and impressions of the other adventures in the near future.)

The Setting:

1920s Massachusetts (Boston and Arkham), i.e., "Lovecraft County."

The Investigators:

Helen Tilton. Freelance photographer and journalist.
- Originally from Toronto.
- Sometimes works for the Boston Globe.
- Has Marxist sympathies.

Bertrand Smyth. Lecturer in Archaeology. Originally from London.
- Visiting lecturer at Harvard University (1922-23).
- Specializes in Ancient Greece.
- A veteran of the Great War.
- Cousin of Stephen Knott (property-owner and collector of rare artifacts).
- A bit of a ‘fuddy-duddy’ (dresses in an unstylish Edwardian manner).

Max Brewster. Private Investigator. Bostonian (originally from Lowell MA).
- A forty-ish, slightly greasy, gumshoe.
- A specialist in dodgy divorce cases.
- Plenty of street smarts, but little formal education.

The Scenario: The Haunting (September 1922).
[Warning: Spoilers below!]

Stephen Knott – cousin of Bertrand Smyth and owner of several Boston properties (‘Knott Properties’) – hires Max Brewster to investigate the ‘Corbitt house’. Knott has had trouble selling the house because of rumours that it is ‘haunted.’ Helen becomes involved because she knows of the house’s reputation and thinks that there may be a story worth pursuing. Bertrand agrees to assist in the investigation as a favour to his cousin. After some preliminary research the party investigates the house and discovers that it is indeed haunted. Poor Bertrand is tossed out of a second-story window by an animated cot, and later is attacked by a floating knife. Battered and frightened, the investigators leave the house.

Before returning to the house, in the course of their investigations, the party explores the ruins of the ‘Chapel of Contemplation.’ They come across some strange symbols amongst those ruins – symbols that look to have been recently painted. The symbols are of three Y’s arranged in a triangle, with a staring eye in the centre. 

A previously hidden basement also is discovered. There the investigators locate a moldy journal and an ancient tome (the tome later is identified by Bertrand to be the Liber Ivonis). Employing her connections with the Boston police department, Helen subsequently discovers that the church had been subject to a secret police raid years ago because of alleged unsavoury ‘cultish’ activities. The ‘pastor’ of the church, Michael Thomas, was arrested and sentenced to 40 years in prison on five counts of second-degree murder. However, he escaped from prison in 1917 and remains at large.

Eventually the investigators discover a hidden crypt beneath the Corbitt house, and encounter the undead sorcerer Walter Corbitt. It seems that it was Corbitt who had been causing all of the mysterious difficulties within the house since his ‘death’ in 1866 (including the deaths and mental illnesses of the house’s occupants over the past several decades, most recently the Macario family). After a tense struggle, the investigators defeat Corbitt, and the vile sorcerer’s body dissipates into dust. The investigators decide not to mention Corbitt’s existence to anyone else, including Stephen Knott. 

After their victory over Corbitt, the investigators resume their old lives as best they can, but remain in touch because of their shared experience (which they cannot discuss with anyone else). Bertrand studies the Libor Invonis and learns some things that mankind was not meant to know…

Thoughts on the scenario:

This is a solid adventure that (obviously) has stood the test of time. The players were appropriately creeped out as their investigators learned more about the Corbitt manor and the Chapel of Contemplation. The final encounter was quite tense, with Corbitt taking control of Helen and almost killing poor Max! 

One weakness with the scenario is that not much is provided in the text in terms of advice for bringing the investigators together and motivating them to work for Stephen Knott. In this respect, I think that "The Edge of Darkness" is a better beginning adventure, as it provides a compelling reason for the investigators to work together and go on the mission in question (it also provides more structure for players unfamiliar with role-playing games).

That criticism aside, though, we all enjoyed this adventure. It was a good way to test out the 7e rules. I would give it 8/10.

15 November 2016

Beren and Lúthien book coming next year

This news is a few weeks old, but since I'm too busy to write a proper post right now, I thought that I would mention that there is a Beren and Lúthien book coming next year. (More info available here and here.)

Last month I finally got around to reading The Children of Húrin -- and thoroughly enjoyed it! I've been getting back 'into' Middle-earth over the past few month (in no small part thanks to Cubicle 7's Adventures in Middle-earth book), and so am looking forward to picking up Beren and Lúthien once it's available.

For someone who's been dead for over four decades, Prof. Tolkien certainly is quite prolific!

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.