Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

Enjoy this multi-violin arrangement of Michael Jackson's classic "Thriller," covered by Taylor Davis.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014: Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XXV Liveblog!

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features.

I can't believe it's been 25 years since the first of the Simpsons' perennial Halloween episodes, and to celebrate, I'm liveblogging "Treehouse of Horror" XXV. I grew up in the golden age of the Simpsons, and "Treehouse of Horror" was always a highlight of October. Even as the rest of the series started to wane, the vignettes in the "Treehouse" specials are usually creative and fun (except for several awful parody episodes).

Happy Halloween, everyone:

Live Blog Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XXV Liveblog

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014 - Music for Trick-or-Treaters

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features. Today, let's get in the mood for All Hallows' Eve with a mega-playlist of spooky songs and terrifying tunes curated by yours truly:

Growing old means you can't go trick-or-treating yourself, so I do the next best thing every Halloween: I set up the coolest possible mood for the kids in my neighborhood. At the doorstep, there are speakers connected to my computer, streaming a variety of creepy, interesting, or even funny horror-themed songs to greet the night's trick-or-treaters.

Most of these are very common Halloween songs ("Monster Mash," "Ghostbusters," "Thriller," etc.), but there are some lesser-known gems on the playlist, too:

"Anna of Covington House" - This is a cut from electronic composer Richard Bone's album, "The Ghosts of Hanton Village." The first half of the track is all eerie piano and willowy synth - perfect for scaring little kids. Several of Bone's pieces are on the list, but if it was available on Spotify, I'd basically just drop in "The Spectral Ships," Bone's dark ambient masterpiece based on ghost ships from folklore:

"Country Death Song" - The Violent Femmes' Christian-tinged sophomore album, "Hallowed Ground," featured this cheerful little ditty about a father who loses his mind, pushes his daughter down a well, and then hangs himself, giving him a "short trip to Hell." Just the thing for greeting neighborhood children!

"Dance of Pales" - There are plenty of horror-themed video games, but perhaps none are as enduring as the "Castlevania" series, which started in 1986 and is still going strong today. For men of a certain age, Michiru Yamane's elegant piece from the all-time classic "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" automatically evokes images of annoying waltzing ghosts.

"The Ghost of Smokey Joe" - The legendary Cab Calloway's greatest creation was "Minnie the Moocher," but he also often sang about Minnie's boyfriend, Smokey Joe. This fun track brings Joe back from the dead at his scat-singing best ("I've got a date on my estate down in Hades/Call my chariot so I can go/And should the Moocher walk in/Just tell her you've been talkin'/To the ghost of Smokey Joe!").

"Midnight Monster Hop" and "Midnight Monsters Hop" - Two not-very-similar songs with confusingly similar names. "Midnight Monster Hop" is a psychobilly song by the Young Werewolves, a band from Philadelphia that was formed in 2002. "Midnight Monsters Hop" is a 1959 novelty rockabilly song recorded by Jack Huddle and Jim Robinson. I like them both, though.

"Murder in the Red Barn" - Let's be could put a lot of Tom Waits's discography on the playlist, and it would work as creepy ambiance. This one's extra super-duper creepy, though, since it's based on a real-life murder in England.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014 - Eldritch Horror

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features. This time, we'll be looking at Eldritch Horror, a board game designed by Corey Konieczka and Nikki Valens:

Fantasy Flight Games has released numerous H.P. Lovecraft-themed titles, each one focusing on a different level of the Cthulhu Mythos. Mansions of Madness took players through derelict buildings and cultist strongholds. Arkham Horror sent players racing around the streets of the titular city. Eldritch Horror raises the stakes even higher - now the whole world is at risk from the Great Old Ones:

The game is divided into three phases. In the "Action" phase, everyone takes turns moving around the globe, buying items or allies, and otherwise preparing for the challenges ahead. In the "Encounter" phase, the players fight monsters or resolve encounter cards. Finally, during the "Mythos" phase, numerous random (and usually bad) events occur.

The goal is to complete enough encounters (e.g., kill a special monster, explore a special location) before the Great Old One awakens and destroys the world. Each "encounter" is a little paragraph-long story that sets up a particular challenge, like fighting an ancient mummy at the Pyramids, breaking up a cultist ring in Shanghai, or getting detained by police in Rome. Your success or failure depends on your stats, your character's unique abilities, and the items you have in your inventory.

Overall, my group liked Eldritch Horror, since it plays like the most content-rich choose-your-own-adventure book ever. The gameplay is quicker and less fiddly than Arkham Horror, while the random nature of the encounter cards largely prevents the "dictator" problem common in co-op games (where one experienced player tells everyone else what to do). And, as always, FFG packs the box with best-in-class components and nice artwork, giving the game an excellent Lovecraft feel.

I do have some complaints. Out of the box, there aren't many encounter cards, so you'll see repeats sooner rather than later (if you expect to play more than a few times, the "Forgotten Lore" expansion - which contains hundreds of new cards - is basically a required purchase). Another downside is that there's not much to resolving encounters; usually, you read what the card says and roll some dice. Nearly all of the player choice in the game boils down to making sure you're in the right place with the right stuff, which might be off-putting to people expecting the game to be more interactive.

Despite these flaws, Eldritch Horror is a really great cooperative title that gives you the same globe-trotting, occult-discovering feel of the best Lovecraft stories, but without the tedium of some of FFG's other games. While Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness are both pretty good, if you're going to only get one Lovecraftian board game, this is the one to get.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014 - Midnight Paths

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features. Today's post concerns an anthology of horror short stories available for purchase via the Kindle Store and for loan through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library:

Midnight Paths: A Collection of Dark Horror

There's no unifying theme to this medium-length collection of horror stories by Joe Hart, save for the fact that the protagonists all encounter some very bad luck. Whether it's something as simple as a stressful day at work ("The Exploding Man") or as exotic as a mysterious undead killer ("The Man in the Room"), every tale features characters who are pushed to their absolute limit - and beyond.

Hart has a number of works in the Kindle Store, and his writing is a notch above average. While his plots and characters aren't anything special (as the author acknowledges, the novella-length "Pale Man" is a riff on the Native-American-spirit-seeks-vengeance story), Hart manages to create some gruesome original monsters. My favorite stories are "The Unfamiliar" (a gimmicky-but-fun trek into a nightmare world) and the Lovecraftian "Adrift" (a likable sailor gets stranded in the middle of the Pacific - but he isn't alone).

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]

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