Sunday, September 07, 2014

Dragon Con 2014 Recap - Never Split the Party

Last weekend, my friends and I went to Dragon Con, the Southeast's largest and most raucous multigenre fan convention. Here are some of the highlights from our adventures...

There's a lot of live music at Dragon Con, mostly played by indie rock and folk bands in out-of-the-way hotel rooms. These performances make up for their lack of production value with intimacy and enthusiasm. I attended a lively one by Dragon Con regulars Emerald Rose, and it felt more like a jam session with friends than a formal show.

My friend Ziggyzeitgeist cosplayed as Pool Party Lee Sin, from "League of Legends." Turns out Riot Games was actually sponsoring a lounge area in the Marriott, which led to predictable photo ops.

Another highlight was a late night Mystery Science Theater 3000 panel featuring Joel Hodgson, Frank Conniff, and Trace Beaulieu, followed by a screening of a classic episode, "The Magic Sword." It was a ton of fun chatting with all my fellow MSTies in line, and there were costumes only a diehard MST3K fan would recognize ("Rowsdower!").

Puppet shows are a big deal during Dragon Con, both on the premises and at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts. These events are invariably packed, so you need to get to one early if you want to see anything. Here's a shot from a solo marionette show to give you an idea.

Astronomy Cast recorded a live episode of the podcast, fielding tough space science questions from the fans. It was really neat seeing the banter between Fraser Cane and Dr. Pamela Gay up close.

As for my cosplay, I dressed as "Doctor Deadpool," a mashup of Tom Baker and the Merc with a Mouth:

Some costumes were much more elaborate than mine, though.

Still, I thought my outfit turned out well. One caution - wearing a wig, a frock coat, donegal tweed trousers, an argyle vest, and a long scarf during Labor Day in Atlanta can be a little...warm.

Ziggyzeitgeist ran his annual D&D convention game, set in his "Dead's End" campaign world. As usual, we quickly drew crowds of onlookers and guest players, including some who had played with us the year before.

See ya next year, Dragon Con...

Miscellany: Dungeons & Dragons box sets, then and now...

To celebrate the release of the new fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I'm taking a look at two D&D box sets: 1994's "Classic D&D game" (a reprint of the 1991 boxed set) and the 2014 fifth edition "Starter Set." Read on to see how they compare...

The Old: "The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game" box set, circa 1994

Twenty years ago, I walked into a bookstore looking for a way to teach my kid sister to play D&D. Rather than overwhelm her with the 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbook I had at the time, I wanted a simple, fun way to get her spelunking into dungeons and kicking kobolds in the face.

The "Classic D&D game" box set fit the bill exactly. It came with one softbound "Rules and Adventures Book," which packs in rules for creating characters (with classes like "Elf" and "Magic-User"), a condensed tutorial adventure, and a bestiary of monsters for the DM. The book was big, and still a bit daunting for a grade-schooler, but it was more approachable than the PHB:

The set also came with dice, fairly well-detailed (but nonpainted) plastic figures for PCs, cardstock standees for NPCs and monsters....

...a large, attractive poster-sized battlemap to use with the tutorial adventure...

...and a DM screen.

The set had two major downsides. The included adventure only supported two or three gaming sessions, and the characters and rules in the set were largely incompatible with the main 2e AD&D rules being used by everyone at the time. Still, I thought (and still think) the set was a great value.

The New: D&D 5th Edition Starter Set, circa 2014

In terms of physical components in the box, the new Starter Set is a little underwhelming. You get a set of dice, a rulebook, pre-generated character sheets, and a booklet that runs you through the adventure "Lost Mine of Phandelver," but there's no battlemap, miniatures, or DM screen. The slim rulebook is especially disappointing considering that Wizards of the Coast released the "Basic D&D" rules as free downloadable PDFs.

In terms of content, though, this is perhaps the most complete game tutorial ever released for D&D. The "Lost Mine of Phandelver" booklet aims squarely at newbie DMs and players, and does a pretty good job explaining how to handle common D&D tropes (an ambush on the party, a dungeon crawl, pumping NPCs in a town for quests/information, and the like). There's enough story, monsters, encounters, and dungeons here to support a couple months' worth of play, and everything is 100% compatible with the complete set of D&D 5th edition rules.

[One word of warning: they had to condense everything down a lot, so some encounters don't give as much explanation to the DM as they should. For instance, there's a dragon midway through that will easily kill off the entire party of adventurers in a straight fight, but no explanation that the PCs should try bargaining or sneaking past the dragon rather than attacking it.]

Final Thoughts

These starter sets do different things. The old "Classic D&D" game shows off all the cool chrome of the D&D world - plastic figs, funny dice, a DM screen - but basically assumes that people will graduate to AD&D afterward. In contrast, the "Starter Set" targets folks who want to play 5th edition D&D but don't know how, whether it's because they're computer/video gamers or because they're coming from other tabletop RPGs (i.e., Pathfinder). As such, including little toys in the box isn't as important as giving people a serious look at the new game system.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Books: The Broken Sword

Poul Anderson is mostly known for his epoch-spanning "Technic History" space opera, but he did write his fair share of fantasy, too. I recently read one of his early books, "The Broken Sword," and I found it to be an entertaining tale flavored with pseudo-Norse legend.

"The Broken Sword" tells the story of Skafloc, originally the son of prosperous human vikings. But elves secretly kidnap Skafloc as a baby, and leave a changeling called Valgard in his place. Both Skafloc and Valgard grow up to be fierce warriors, destined to play pivotal roles in the conflict amongst elves, trolls, giants, and gods. Which one of them will wield the mysterious Broken Sword? And at what cost?

Even though it was originally published in 1954, "The Broken Sword" holds up well today, mostly thanks to Anderson's gift for pacing. At times, the book describes battles blow-by-blow, with vivid images of every slash and hit. During others, episodes and seasons pass by with little comment, summarized as too tedious or tangential to the story. In the end, Anderson leaves you with a thrilling yarn about a dark ages Scandinavia, before the coming of the "White Christ."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Miscellany: 7 Wonders review

"7 Wonders" is a card-drafting board game for 2-7 players designed by Antoine Bauza. In the game, each player controls a city from the Ancient World, including its corresponding Wonder (the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, etc.). Starting with a hand of seven cards, each player selects a card to play based on the resources currently available to the city, and then passes the remaining cards to the next player. Players can use cards to build up their city's raw materials and commerce, strengthen their science or military, or, of course, to construct their Wonder. All of the cards and Wonder boards are beautifully illustrated by Miguel Coimbra.

"7 Wonders" is a lot of fun, and it has some interesting characteristics that distinguish it from other city-building/economic development games. It's pretty easy to learn, since there are a limited number of things you can do on a turn (play a card, discard a card for gold, or use the card to build a Wonder). It plays extremely fast because players take their turns simultaneously (around 45 minutes per game, regardless of how many are playing). Finally, "7 Wonders" allows multiple paths to victory, whether it's gathering a strong army, building your Wonder, or simply constructing enough victory-point buildings in your city to outpace everyone.

The major downside of the game is that it, at times, feels like multiplayer solitaire. To be sure, you can affect your opponents by depriving them of cards they need to pursue their strategy, and you can force your neighbors to either take defeat or play military cards by buffing up your own army. However, as in most Eurogames, you can't directly attack another player, and the game often boils down to optimization of scarce resources. If you can live with this limitation, I think you'll like "7 Wonders" very much.

Music: Sara Bareilles "Little Black Dress Tour" concert review

The Hard Rock Live is a bland, industrial venue inside the Seminole Hard Rock casino complex. Its stage is flanked by rows of hard plastic seats. The walls and decor are flat and ugly. The nosebleed section is so far up and off to the side that it's hard to believe anyone could watch a show there. But on Friday night, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles turned the place into the liveliest joint in Hollywood, Florida.

Bareilles played piano, strummed the guitar, and swore like a sailor as she treated the crowd to a playful set of tunes from her newest album, "The Blessed Unrest," as well as all of her old hits. Effects were minimal, limited to synchronized lighting and a video screen at the back of the stage. That didn't take away from the show, though - Bareilles's voice came through clear and strong, cutting through energetic songs like "Little Black Dress" and "Chasing the Sun" with ease.

The crowd was instantly brought to its feet by her most popular singles, "Love Song" and "Brave":

Despite what would be deserved aplomb after being nominated for several Grammys and selling millions of records, Bareilles was sarcastic and self-deprecating throughout. "This is the sad part of the show" she admitted, as she launched into "Manhattan"; she later joked that most of her love-related songs were so depressing that people didn't want to add them to their wedding playlists. Even in the slow parts, however, Bareilles's talent trumped all. Though I'm not a hardcore fan of hers, I think "The Little Black Dress Tour" is well worth a look if it stops in your area.

[The opening acts, Hannah Georgas and Emily King, were good but didn't have the seasoning and polish of Bareilles. Georgas's set of Feist-like indie songs were pleasant but not rousing. King's delivery was full of new-school R&B jump, but she rushed from one song to another without talking to the crowd, and her set was over before you knew it. They'll both benefit from the exposure and example set by Bareilles]

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Guns: S&W Governor review - Judge the book by its cover


On paper, the Smith and Wesson Governor sounds like the kind of bullheaded, "F--- Everything, We're Doing Five Blades" one-upmanship you'd only find in a corporate boardroom. I can see the S&W executive meeting now: "The Taurus Judge is selling like hotcakes, so let's make one of our own, but with a six-shot cylinder, instead of five. And have it chamber .45 ACP using moonclips. And make the frame with scandium. And stick on a tritium night sight. That'll show those Brazilians!"

Yours truly was skeptical. From my comments three years ago about the Governor:
Against all odds (and common sense), the Judges continue to sell well. S&W is just following the money – can’t really blame ‘em.
The scandium frame means this sucker will be expensive, though – not sure how many people will pony up for a premium Judge. Especially since people who spend that much money on a revolver probably know better.
Well, I bought it, despite knowing better. I bought it even though the gun is an ungainly, cartoonish revolver of Samaritan-like proportions. The S&W Governor was awkwardly compelling enough for me to buy one, if only to have something to write about, and home it went.

First Impressions

A big selling point for the Governor is that it's a Smith and not a Taurus, which means that it's better built than any Judge. The ball-detent cylinder locks tight. There aren't any weird toolmarks, rattling parts, or crooked alignments. Things seem to be fitted together in a workmanlike manner.

In hand, the fat six-shot Governor is muzzle-heavy compared to the five-shot Judge, but it handles well enough. Smith is shipping the Governors with the same smoothly pebbled, non-tacky hard synthetic grips that come on most of its revolvers. If you don't like 'em, most K/L round butt grips should fit, including Crimson Trace lasergrips.

Sights and Trigger

You might need those lasergrips because the Governor has surprisingly small fixed sights, especially considering the outsized frame. Up front is a minuscule tritium bulb that's minimally visible in dim light, and in the rear is a shallow trench. I guess they thought that most people wouldn't use the sights at close range. I wish they were larger.

As for the trigger, it's very much like other modern full-size S&W revolvers, though a bit heavier overall - approximately 12-14 pounds double action and 4-5 pounds single action. The double action's pretty smooth, but nothing to write home about, and I didn't notice any weird stacking or hangups in the single action trigger.


The Governor is chambered for .45 ACP, .45 Colt, and .410 shotshells. Due to the incredibly high price of factory .45 Colt (a dollar per round, usually), the ability to shoot .45 ACP is a huge plus, and probably the single biggest advantage the gun has over a Judge. You will need a demooner tool to unload the spent cases from the moonclips, but if you're really on the cheap, you can improvise one from sprinkler parts:

Range Report

The Governor shot about as well as any sub-3" barreled .45 I've ever tried. Here are some offhand groups at 10 yards with Federal and Winchester 230 gr. ball ammo.

Recoil was quite soft with the .45s, partly because the gun is big, partly because the short barrel and elongated cylinder decrease muzzle velocity (the Governor spits out .45 ACP bullets at around 700 fps, with about 250 ft-lbs of energy). .45s are still usable for defense in the Governor (especially +Ps), but it's not the Hammer of Thor performance you might expect from such a big revolver.

The real point of the Governor is the .410 shotshell capability. When using .410 for defense, please, please, please avoid the novelty birdshot loads and stick with buckshot or slugs. Birdshot is for shooting tiny 14-ounce quail and fragile clay pigeons, not determined attackers.

If you're dead set on having some strange buck and ball load, Hornady puts out a "Triple Defense" combo of a .41 caliber slug and two .35 hardcast lead balls under their Critical Defense line. It's widely available and patterns reasonably well:

However, in my opinion, the Federal Premium 2-1/2" handgun-specific buckshot ammunition is the hands-down best choice for the Governor. Out of the S&W, each shell sends four 70-gr. .36 caliber pellets out at 800 fps - roughly equivalent to shooting four .32 ACP rounds at once. Penetration is not exceptional (you'll be lucky if they get to 12"  in gelatin), but using four separate projectiles, you're much more likely to land an incapacitating shot. Patterns are also excellent due to Federal's use of a longer than normal wad, designed to keep the shot together for as long as possible:

In contrast, here are some groups from an unoptimized Winchester Super-X 000 buck load, the kind that you might find on a Wally World store shelf. As you can see, there's a pretty stark difference in terms of effective patterning. If you use non-handgun specific .410, any shots outside of about 5 yards are going to lead to missed pellets and possible injury or death to innocent bystanders:


Is the Governor the ultimate self-defense handgun, or a useless gimmick? The truth falls somewhere in between. If you stoke the thing with leftover birdshot scrounged from a drawer, or generic Wally World 000, you're not going to be happy with the results (and I pray you never have to actually fire the thing in anger). But if you know the gun's many limitations, match it with the right ammo, and have an idea of its real world ballistics, the Governor is as durable, reliable, and even accurate as many of Smith & Wesson's other revolvers. So, in the end, I guess the Governor is what I thought it was.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Food: Rhino Doughnuts & Coffee

Rhino Doughnuts & Coffee doesn't have any locations in South Florida yet, but I'm going to give them a shout-out anyway. They gave me one of their maple bacon doughnuts for free, and it was fantastic. If they ever open, they're well worth a try.

News: Jon Meis, Certified Badass

Jon Meis, a student at Seattle Pacific University, pepper-sprayed and subdued a gunman who was pausing to reload his shotgun. Meis's decisive action saved countless lives, and for that, he gets the official Shangrila Towers Certified Badass Award™:

(In case you were wondering, it looks like Meis likes firearms and supports the RKBA. He also apparently co-founded a school Airsoft club. Probably why he was able to counter-attack when the guy was reloading his shotgun.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Miscellany: Forbidden Desert review

"Forbidden Desert" is designer Matt Leacock's latest and greatest cooperative board game. Much like his previous games, "Pandemic" and "Forbidden Island," it pits two to five players in a race against time - in this case, an ever-worsening sandstorm and the pitiless desert sun. You must work with your teammates to excavate an ancient flying machine to escape...before you're buried by the sands or die of thirst:

It's a great premise, and the setting informs all of the game's mechanics. The board starts off as a grid of unexplored desert tiles, with a blank space in the middle for the sandstorm. Each turn, an adventurer gets four actions, chosen among several options: move, clear sand from a tile, excavate a tile (i.e., flip over and reveal), or pick up a part of the flying machine.

At the end of the player's turn, though, it's the storm's move. The storm can dump sand on tiles (which can trap players and prevent them from exploring), or the sun can beat down, forcing each player to deplete his or her own personal water supply. Allow too much sand to pile up, or allow anyone to run out of water, and you lose.

Each adventurer has a unique special ability.  For instance, the Climber can move through sand, while the Water Carrier can spend an action to collect precious water...if you've found a well. Likewise, ancient equipment recovered in the desert can instantly blast away sand, reveal water supplies, or protect from the sun. It'll take full exploitation of your abilities, judicious use of items, and a little bit of luck to get the flying machine together and everyone aboard before they're swallowed by the sandstorm:

My friends and I really liked "Forbidden Desert." The game is easy to learn, quick to play, and yet requires a fair amount of strategy and cooperation to succeed. The randomly generated map and different adventurer roles provide a lot of replayability, and the components are all high quality. If you're in the market for a coop game that'll appeal to a fifth grader, a hardcore gamer, or your parents, you should probably check out "Forbidden Desert."

Monday, June 02, 2014

TV: Hannibal

My friends got me into NBC's "Hannibal," which was recently renewed for a third season. The series is loosely based on the Thomas Harris books, but it's set well before "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs." The two stars are Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (who plays the eponymous serial killer), and the gorgeous dinners prepared by food stylist Janice Poon:

Mikkelsen's Hannibal feels like an artfully crafted collage of his prior roles, one part refined-but-brutal Le Chiffre, one part Danish outcast, one part supernatural menace. It's an interesting take on the character, and miles away from Anthony Hopkins's campy version. Mads-as-Lecter is a manipulative killer, with no wink to the audience to lessen his deviousness.

As for the food, it's incredible. Hannibal is a master chef in this version, and the lovingly shot meals are both delectable and symbolic (anyone up for some sacrificial lamp chops?). Check out Janice Poon's "Hannibal" blog (warning - spoilers) to see some of the beautiful culinary arrangements she's cooked up for the show.

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