Saturday, December 27, 2008

Books: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

"The No. 1 Ladies Detective Club" is a novel by Alexander McCall Smith. It follows the adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe, a Botswana divorcee who, after years of dutifully helping everyone else around her informally, decides to open up a detective agency. She solves a lot of problems, covering everything from cheating husbands to stolen cars to insurance fraud. Her most difficult adventure, though, is a case involving a missing boy, witchcraft, and one of the most powerful men in Botswana.

Smith has an easy, relaxed style, and the book is presented as a series of vignettes, some of which delve deeply into Mma Ramotswe's background. Ramotswe is the most appealing heroine this side of Miss Marple - she's even-tempered, fair, cunning, and practical. This book is actually the first in a long series of novels (sort of the grown-up equivalent of Nancy Drew). The book's not long or difficult to read, so it's perfect for an evening spent by a warm fire.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Movies: Slumdog Millionaire

Director Danny Boyle's frenetic style serves him well in "Slumdog Millionaire," a film about a quiz show contestant:

Yep, the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" provides the backdrop for this dramedy. Jamal is the young man in the hot seat; he's an uneducated office drone who grew up in the grinding poverty of the Mumbai slums. The answers to the obscure questions being asked on the show are hidden deep within his harsh upbringing - or are they?

It's a good movie overall. Boyle uses a lot of flashback in this one, but it never becomes a crutch or a distraction. Similarly, the propulsive and lively score contrasts well with the horrific conditions being depicted onscreen (Jamal's neighborhood resembles a landfill more than a street). The child actors who play the three main characters do a good job, too.

"Slumdog Millionaire" loses a lot of steam in the third act, mostly because things start getting a little redundant. The audience, by that point, is hip to the formula (quiz show question leads to a bit more of Jamal's biography), and the stoic performances from the two romantic leads (Dev Patel and Freida Pinto) don't generate much heat. A funny Bollywood ending, though, means that all sins are forgiven when the credits roll.

Rating: 8/10

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 6

In a way, the forced cessation of my "Sparks of Fate" D&D campaign due to Christmas break is a blessing in disguise. You see, I'm suffering from a severe case of writer's block - I simply don't know where to direct the campaign next.

A Dungeon Master's writer's block is a little different from the garden variety case. A DM is not just tasked with generating the storyline for a game; he or she must also make sure that upcoming adventures are balanced and fun to play (both for the players and the DM). I've never believed in running a game solely for the sake of the players' enjoyment; if you don't like what you're running, the DM's ennui invariably carries through into the game anyway.

There are a few tried-and-true ways to solve this problem. One option is a "palette cleanser" - a session that uses a different system, or that uses different characters. Breaking out of your epic storyline for a few hours allows you to riff on ideas that you had trouble shoehorning in.

Another technique is to start putting your stealing into high gear. DMs, like most writers, are natural thieves - good story hooks can be found all around you. Whether it's scanning the local newspaper, reading a biography of an obscure historical figure, or simply browsing the Web, try to turn what you read into something usable.

Some people opt for the backwards approach - use the desired mechanic to shape the storyline. For instance, if I want to mess around with 4E's new Druid class, it'd make sense to have the new druids be part of some order or group. Where are they? What would their goals be? What do they want from the PCs?

I'll see if any inspiration comes my way between now and New Year's.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tech: XBLA Hall of Shame

In past posts, I've highlighted some of the best games for Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service. Today, though we're going to look at a few of the worst:

Beat'n Groovy

There are some semi-competent music games out there on XBLA ("Boom Boom Rocket," "Go! Go! Break Steady"), but "Beat'n Groovy" isn't even passable. That's strange considering this is a product of Konami's hallowed Bemani line of rhythm games, but the truth hurts sometimes. With a mediocre selection of 9 songs, subpar input feedback (it's hard to tell when you're hitting notes on the beat), and iffy production values, this title is a black mark on Konami's music game resume.


Microsoft is no stranger to "advergaming" (remember Sneak King and Big Bumpin'?), and there is even a decent advergaming title on XBLA (Doritos Dash of Destruction). All of those facts, however, do nothing to cushion the mighty blow of "Yaris," the worst XBLA game ever:

Yaris is actually the only game to be removed entirely from the XBLA. Poor, PSX-level graphics and sound, awful controls, and just fundamentally boring gameplay make Yaris a bad racing game. The real kicker? Even though the game was free to download, it still wasn't worth the time and HD space.

Yie Ar Kung Fu

I actually played a lot of Yie Ar Kung Fu when I was a kid, but it's preposterous to have this game stand alone as a $5 title. The gameplay is a throwback to much earlier times - there's no versus mode, there's no real strategy besides "get close and pummel the AI to death," and it just doesn't hold up when compared with other arcade classics.

Merry Christmas

My favorite Christmas carol is "O Holy Night," in part because the French-to-English translation of its lyrics led to some interesting phrasing. I mean, how often do you hear the world "pining" for something? In any case, the song paints a portrait of a serene, loving Jesus, "in all our trials/born to be our friend." Whether you're Christian or not, it's a comforting image.

The song itself contains some operatic flourishes, so it's a favorite of musicians who need to crank out a Christmas album. They tend to leave out or change some of the verses (since the popular "O night" refrain only occurs once in the traditional version), but you usually don't see alterations as extreme as Eric Cartman's rendition:

Books: Mrs. Sharp's Traditions

Many people have a firm belief that life was better "in the good old days." By most objective measures, it probably wasn't. Heck, running water alone makes the industrialized world's quality of life leaps and bounds better than a century ago. But if you are still nostalgic for earlier times, Christmas is a good season for it, and "Sarah Ban Breathnach's Mrs. Sharp's Traditions" can help you get more old-fashioned in a hurry.

Actually, I found "Mrs. Sharp's Traditions" floating around in a bargain bin, probably because it lacks the glossy color pictures and famous faces that grace other homemaking books. Instead, you have charming Victorian-era illustrations and suggestions to revive long-dead holidays and customs. The book is organized by month; the December entry, for instance, has a recipe for galette des rois, a copy of the classic poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas," and instructions on how to create an advent calendar, among other topics. It's an interesting read even if you don't attempt the projects inside the book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Links: Darths & Droids

In the same vein as DM of the Rings, "Darths & Droids" is a webcomic that takes screencaps of "Star Wars: Episode I" and marries them with a roleplaying game narrative. Here's a sample:

It's a neat idea, though I suppose it's only really hilarious to someone who's familiar with both Star Wars lore and RPG tropes (admittedly, there's probably a ton of overlap among those two populations). The addition of Jar Jar Binks (someone brings their little sister over to one of the sessions, and Jar Jar becomes her character) is a bit of inspired lunacy that really helps the whole thing to have an identity of its own, apart from the movie.

I actually think the three original movies would have worked better for this project, though, since the characters usually stayed together as a "party." The prequels' plotlessness (time for a random stop on Tatooine!) ultimately works against any kind of parody, because even a parody has to make sense.

Movies: Dwayne Johnson Double Feature

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is the most successful wrestler-turned-actor ever. It's not hard to see why - like Hulk Hogan before him, you never get the sense Johnson is taking himself too seriously on camera. At the same time, though, he's proven to be a much better actor than Hogan. The Rock has good comic timing, as well as heaps of charisma, as shown by the following films:

Get Smart

Nick-at-Night was one of my favorite channels growing up, mostly because of "Get Smart." This TV series starred Don Adams, and it spoofed popular movie spies like James Bond. When they announced the remake starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, I winced. After all, TV-into-film adaptations are usually wretched (see "The Brady Bunch" for a sterling example). Thankfully, "Get Smart" isn't bad.

For one thing, the plot makes a lot more sense than most spy movies (heck, this movie is way more plausible than "Quantum of Solace"). A secret organization named KAOS has obtained nuclear warheads from Chechnyan rebels, and now they're threatening to strike on U.S. soil. Enter Maxwell Smart, an analyst tasked with tracking down the nukes and uncovering the whole operation.

The original series was interesting because Max was portrayed as "semi-competent" - he often loused things up because of his stupidity, and yet the villains were always defeated in the end (often because they were morons themselves). The movie is a bit different: Carrell's Maxwell Smart is a talented analyst and even a decent marksman, but he doesn't have any field experience. His foil is Agent 23 (played by Dwayne Johnson) - a savvy superspy who regularly has his way with the ladies. All in all, it's a fun movie.

Rating: 7/10

The Rundown

One of Dwayne Johnson's first starring roles was in "The Rundown," an action comedy directed by Peter Berg. The movie concerns a loan enforcer named Beck who goes into the Amazon in order to retrieve the wayward son of his boss. Hijinks ensue, including a scenery-chewing villainous turn from Christopher Walken.

The script isn't very good, and Seann William Scott (Stifler from "American Pie") is as annoying as he's ever been. Without the Rock, the movie would be unwatchable, but Johnson's performance is so affable (projecting equal parts relaxed menace and honest courtesy) that you end up rooting for him even over the comic relief sidekick, which is rare in most action movies. It was this role that proved Dwayne Johnson could be a star, so I suppose it's worth watching based on that alone.

Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Guns: S&W 686

For the reloader who spends a lot of time at the shooting range, a revolver is one of the most practical firearm designs. All of your fired brass is neatly contained in the cylinder, so there's no need to chase down empties or even to cycle the action carefully.

My favorite range revolver is the full-size Smith & Wesson 686, a fairly recent design (by S&W standards, of course - the 686 was introduced in the early '80s) that usually sports a full lug and stainless steel construction (barrel, cylinder, and frame). Consequently, it's a heavy firearm, which is necessary to take the sting out of full-house .357 rounds. With handloaded target .38 loads, the gun barely has any recoil at all.

My particular example was a 686-M, which indicated that it was part of a first run of revolvers which were recalled by Smith & Wesson in order to fix a minor problem with the firing pin bushing (the M indicates that the gun received the factory modification). It had plain ramp sights and a run-of-the-mill Hogue monogrip. Even though it didn't have any bells and whistles, it was accurate and reliable.

Sports: The Art of the Highlight Reel

YouTube and the widespread adoption of video editing technology have changed many things, and among them is the fact that nowadays an independent fan can make a sports montage that rivals even the best of what you see on broadcast TV.

Here are some of my favorite examples of this new democratization of the highlight reel:


Roger Federer is one of the greatest tennis players ever, and there are many YouTube members who assiduously chronicle the many highlights of Federer's career. Chief among them is FedererMagic, who has nearly 1500 subscribers and has posted over 200 videos, some short, some long. Above is my favorite, which features awed commentators and slow-mo captures of Federer's array of deadly groundstrokes.


The Florida Gators have been on an impressive run in the world of college sports (the football team will play in the national championship game in January), and no one captures the thrills of Florida football quite like Chrisleakfan4life. Taking his name from Chris Leak, the underappreciated quartback who led the Gators to a national title in 2006, Chrisleakfan4life has created some great music videos. Here we see his "Tebow for Heisman 2008" tribute, which interweaves game footage with a famous press conference where Tim Tebow promised to play harder than anyone in the country:

Honorable Mention - Cinedan1000:

Cinedan1000 doesn't post very many videos (actually, aside from the championship games, there aren't very many sports videos at all), but the ones that are posted are pretty awesome.

Food: Also-Rans Part II

Sorry for the long hiatus, guys - things are always a little crazy around the holidays. Anyway, here's a post I've been meaning to put up for some time:

I try out one or two new restaurants every week. Some are good, some are bad, but many are simply "also-rans;" that is, they're not quite good enough to earn a repeat visit from me, but they're not really bad, either. Here are a selection of Gainesville also-rans with my thoughts:

Haile Village Bistro

Restaurants morph and change all the time, even in an upscale district like Haile Plantation. You might remember "The Third Place," a restaurant I visited earlier this year. Nowadays, it's under new ownership as "Haile Village Bistro."

The menu was quite different, with a big emphasis on pastas and seafoods rather than steaks and burgers. The two tortellini dishes my friends and I ordered were mediocre-to-bad (the sauce was so sweet it was like eating Chef Boyardee), but the fish and the appetizers (like a Persian chicken salad) were decent.

El Rancho Viejo

My favorite Mexican place in Gainesville is La Tienda, but it's so easy to start a Mexican restaurant that there are inevitably new ones that spring up. The latest is actually around my neck of the woods, right near the student apartments on 20th. It's called "El Rancho Viejo."

This is a classic Mexican greasy spoon, with low-grade tacos, enchiladas, and burritos all ready for consumption. I'll give it one thing - the main dining area has a big screen LCD TV that broadcasts CNN, which is convenient if you're a newshound. The counter service is fine, too, but all that doesn't outweigh the humdrum food.

Firehouse Subs

The sandwich business is a tough one, and Firehouse Subs tries to make the mark by delivering a sort of "Quizno's-lite" experience - they melt the cheese and warm the meat, but they don't toast the whole sub.

On the whole, although their subs aren't awful, I think both Subway's and Quizno's has them beat. Subway serves up fairly cheap subs, and Quizno's has the higher-end toasted sandwich market - meaning Firehouse Subs is stuck in the middle. There is no queue for producing sandwiches, either, which usually translates to longer wait times for your food.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

News: Call for the cops, and call for a pizza...see which arrives first

Reading these kinds of news stories makes me a little angry, mostly because this tragedy didn't have to happen. That criminal scratching at the door could have been stopped. Brittany Zimmerman called the cops because - well, because the cops have guns. But they didn't come in time. As a college student, it does give me pause.

Friendly reminder: keep your firearms loaded and ready, and train with them. Because you never know what kind of slimeball is waiting at the door.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tech: Raw deal

No, today's post isn't about that forgettable 1986 Arnold Scwarzenegger movie, but about the recent release of a map pack for "Gears of War 2." The "Combustible" map pack, which contains 3 maps, is selling on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 800 points ($10).

I don't tend to comment about downloadable content for video games, since much of it is just plain silly (paying a few bucks for new costumes or paint jobs). But $10 for three maps is hitting a new low, especially for a game that still has many technical flaws (there are eyebrow-raising delays when trying to join an Xbox Live match, for instance). It's also only been a month since the game's been released, making it abundantly clear that these maps probably could have been included in the final product without too much trouble. Instead, gamers get charged for it - bad show, Epic.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

School: Does anyone know who's spending the money?

I have a big exam in Bankruptcy class coming up on Tuesday, so posting will be light for awhile. Interestingly enough, one of the authors of the textbook, noted consumer credit expert Elizabeth Warren, is on the oversight panel for the financial bailout:

Warren is a Harvard law professor who's done quite a lot of research into our economy, so if she's really as clueless about the whole thing as she seems to be in this interview, we're all in Really Big Trouble. Makes you wonder why most of the Senate, including President-elect Obama and Senator McCain, voted for this turkey in the first place.

Friday, December 12, 2008

TV: Rugrats

Every time the holiday season rolls around, I'm reminded of "Rugrats." It was one of the first truly successful Nickelodeon cartoons, spawning several feature films and a host of related merchandise. "Rugrats" thrived because of witty writing, excellent voice talent (E.G. Daily, who played Dottie in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," stars as Tommy Pickles), and a great soundtrack by Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh. The show is centered around a group of one year old babies who constantly misunderstand the world around them, making for easy comedy.

In particular, "Rugrats" had the distinction of airing one of the best Chanukah-themed episodes I've ever seen, where the babies battle "the Meanie of Chanukah" (a malapropism of "the meaning of Chanukah"). First, some background: I grew up in south Florida and a lot of my classmates were Jewish; Chanukah was a Big Deal around those parts (not so much in the religious sense, but in the practical time-to-get-gifts sense). During elementary school for instance, I think I received chocolate Hannukah gelt at least half a dozen times every December.

Anyhow, I kind of miss those days when December was packed with holiday celebration, and the Rugrats chanukah episode really filled things out between all the Christmas-themed stuff. But I suppose Christmas is good enough on its own.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movies: The Home Alone series

To appreciate the magnitude of the success of "Home Alone" in 1990, you have to step back a bit. Here's a PG-rated kid's movie that went on to become a worldwide hit, grossing nearly half a billion dollars. It starred a near-unknown child actor, Macaulay Culkin, along with a supporting cast of character actors. There aren't any flashy special effects, and there aren't any big name stars (unless you count Joe Pesci and Catherine O'Hara).

The ridiculous premise - a well-to-do American family accidentally leaves their 8 year old son Kevin at home while embarking on a Christmas trip to Paris - is pure childhood wish fulfillment. Directed by Chris Columbus (one of the most successful family comedy directors in the business), "Home Alone" mixes Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote slapstick with well-worn Christmas heartstring tugging, to great effect. Imagine if Bedford Falls from "It's a Wonderful Life" turned into a warzone between a kid and some bumbling burglars, and you have "Home Alone."

The sequel, "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," was a critical failure and, while it performed adequately at the box office, didn't have the blockbuster success of the first film. Again, Kevin is separated from his family, this time at crowded O'Hare International. The labored steps taken to recreate the conflict from the first film (the Wet Bandits manage to escape from prison, and they just happen to be in Manhatten at Christmastime) mean you should throw plausibility out the window and just enjoy the ride.

I'd argue that "Home Alone 2" more accurately reflects the spirit of Christmas than its predecessor; Kevin McAllister's vow to stop his old foes, Harry and Marv, from stealing money meant for patients at a children's hospital rings as true for me now as it did then: "You can mess with a lot of things, but you can't mess with kids on Christmas." The booby traps are amped up (the burglars suffer from a 2-1/2 story fall onto pavement, electrocution, and immolation), and so are the stakes.

Growing up, though, both of these movies were holiday favorites of mine - I must have seen that grainy VHS tape version of "Home Alone 2" a dozen times. Even though I'm grown up now, I can't really give them an unbiased rating, since I still see them with an eight year old's eyes. But maybe that's the point.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Music: A Tribute to Vince Guaraldi

Ever heard of Vince Guaraldi? If you haven't, you've probably heard his music:

Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) was a jazz musician who composed the score for the animated "Peanuts" specials (most notably the famous "Linus and Lucy" theme, which has become one of the world's most famous piano pieces). These compositions, when coupled with the popularity of the "Peanuts" cartoons, helped to inspire generations of jazz pianists.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is the score that really put Guaraldi on the map. His reworkings of traditional Christmas songs have a rollicking, playful quality because they aren't as adorned as typical Christmas jazz songs. Guaraldi's original tracks, like the slightly melancholy "Christmas Time is Here," showed off refined musical sensibilities; many are now jazz standards in their own right.

Unfortunately, Mr. Guaraldi died at the age of 47 from an unexpected heart attack. During December, though, when "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is played on televisions across the country, his legacy lives on.

News: Dig deep enough, and all you get is dirty

Whether you liked Sarah Palin or not, you have to admit that the whole Troopergate "scandal" was about as interesting as mud. I mean, even assuming everything alleged was true, pressuring someone to fire an incompetent brother-in-law didn't seem to be enough to even get Palin in political trouble, let alone face any criminal liability. Not so for Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich:

Seriously, who didn't see this coming? Illinois politics (and Chicago in particular) has a pretty infamous reputation, and it's really not hard to imagine this kind of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Blagojevich formed a review panel last month to look over potential candidates to fill Obama's vacant Senate seat, and I suspect whatever evidence comes out of there will be critical in proving or disproving these charges.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Movies: *batteries not included

The first twenty minutes of the 1987 film "*batteries not included" are relentlessly depressing. In the movie, the residents of a run-down tenement building are being pressured to move out by a wealthy real estate developer. Frank, an elderly man, runs the diner downstairs, but business isn't good since most of the old neighborhood is gone. His wife, Faye, is suffering from mental illness and seems to be getting worse. To top it all off, the developers send in a street gang to rough up the residents and tear the place up. The situations seems hopeless...until some help arrives:

"*batteries not included" is just one of the many "friendly alien" movies that got churned out in the '80s. Like its kin ("Cocoon," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "E.T."), it features ordinary folks who get visited by some extraordinary beings. But even with the help of interstellar visitors, saving an old apartment building in New York isn't going to be easy...

The fingerprints of the Spielberg/Marshall/Kennedy production team are all over this one, even if it's not as skillfully plotted as some of the other movies listed above. You'll see some very good character work by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, one of Hollywood's most famous husband-and-wife acting teams. You'll see pretty convincing special effects from ILM. Most of all, though, you'll see a lighthearted optimism running through the whole thing (the villain even "wins," but not really).

Rating: 7/10

Tech: Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix

The first "Street Fighter" game I ever played regularly was a dilapidated "Street Fighter II: Championship Edition" cabinet in "The Palace" roller skating rink's arcade. I had dabbled with the original version of "Street Fighter II" in arcades before, but I had never seen an a machine with such obscenely high traffic. Some years later, I picked up the original SFII cartridge for the SNES, but it just wasn't the same:

It's now 16 years later, and the latest, final version of SFII is upon us - "Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix" for the XBLA and the PSN:

This is pretty much the ultimate version of "Street Fighter II." It's old-school 2D fighting - no parries, no air blocking, just good old down-and-dirty SFII action. The game's been rebalanced by tournament player David Sirlin (check this page out for all the changes). Some characters have received fairly significant upgrades (T. Hawk actually works now, sorta), but everybody's been tweaked at least a little bit.

Then there's the window dressing. New HD sprites and backgrounds, remixed music and voices (Guile sounds a lot better in particular), and even a up-rezzed interface demonstrate that the makers of SS2THDR weren't just throwing out a lackluster port. The new graphics might not be to everyone's taste (they have a little bit of the anime/Alpha sensibility courtesy of UDON Entertainment, the producers of the SFII comic books), but the game as a whole looks great.

The real miracle, though, is the netcode. For the most part, online matches in SSF2THDR don't suffer from significant input lag or random drops. You can easily sit down for an hour and play two dozen matches in a row against two dozen different opponents - something that only happened in a very crowded arcade back in the '90s.

The only thing holding the package back a bit is the lack of new features - all that's included for your $15 download is a basic single player arcade mode, a training mode, and local/Xbox Live matches. Some "making-of" stuff or bonus game modes (car-smashing minigame, anyone?) would have rounded out the package. There's also the awful Xbox 360 d-pad to contend with, but that's not the game's fault.

Rating: 92/100

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Movies: Tank Girl

"Tank Girl" raises some interesting questions about the purpose of film adaptations. Is the point of a comic book movie to stay faithful to the comic? Or to still be a good movie for someone who knows nothing about the source material? Or maybe something else entirely?

There's some of the makings of a cult classic here, no doubt. You've got Malcolm McDowell chewing scenery as the movie's villain, you have Naomi Watts giving an appropriately mousy performance before she was a big star, and you have the kind of dogged absurdity that Lori Petty brings to the character of Tank Girl - equal parts Gwen Stefani and George S. Patton. Heck, there's even Ice T wearing a mutant kangaroo costume designed by Stan Winston.

But the movie as a whole really falls flat, especially when you compare it to genuine post-apocalyptic cult classics like "Cherry 2000." I think that plotless absurdity on screen is often just an excuse for really poor writing, so the last third or so of "Tank Girl" feels more like laziness than anything else. The movie bombed at the box office, only grossing $4 million on a $25 million (!!) budget, and it was widely panned by critics.

Apparently, though, the movie continues to draw new readers to the "Tank Girl" comic, which is at least a moral victory...I guess. And hey, the soundtrack (featuring the likes of Bjork and Portishead before they made it really big) is excellent. All's well that ends well.

Rating: 4/10

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Miscellany: Brother PT-1830 Labeler

There are few things in this world that are as eminently practical as a label maker. People have been labeling stuff for years, but it took modern science to make a handheld device that prints out labels for you. Enter the Brother PT-1830:

It's incredibly easy to use. You feed in a special tape that contains both a nice glossy side (where the labels are printed) an adhesive side. You type in what you want on the label. You hit the print button. Like magic, the label pops out the side. Press down on the handy integrated cutter and you're done. It works pretty well, so it gets the Shangrila Towers thumbs-up Seal of Approval.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 5

I've found that almost any combat encounter in 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons requires interesting terrain to be effective. The core rulebooks do a good job emphasizing how terrain affects movement and the overall flow of a fight.

Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of D&D, sometimes break their own rules. I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the DMG tips on terrain (which are really quite good) a dungeon in a published 4E adventure - Thunderspire Labyrinth's "Horned Hold."

DMG Rule #1 - Bigger is better

A typical 4E fight involves 5 PCs versus about 5 monsters, all of which occupy their own distinct squares on a battlefield. The DMG is pretty explicit here: cramming everyone into a 10 foot corridor usually makes for boring gameplay, since it's hard for the party to flank enemies and vice versa.

Here's a rule of thumb that I use - multiply the number of actors in a particular fight by ten squares, and use that as a minimum space for the fight. So for my "Sparks of Fate" campaign, which features just 3 PCs, most of the combat areas are at least 60 squares large ((3 PCs + 3 monsters) x 10).

Does the Horned Hold dungeon comply with this design precept? Well, the "boss" encounters with the Duergar overlords are done pretty well; you usually get large open rooms to work with. Some of the smaller encounters take place in very small spaces (the initial tussle with orc berserkers is a good example) unless you let fights go from room to room. Which brings us to the next rule...

DMG Rule #2 - Use cover and difficult terrain

As a practical matter, most rooms and caverns aren't empty. In terms of gameplay, it's always better to have detritus around the battlefield that forces people to make tactical decisions. And dramatically, a combat scene is just more memorable if there are things to interact with (the teahouse shootout in John Woo's "Hard Boiled" is a really good example).

I tend to do things holistically; I imagine where the encounter is likely to take place, and try to design neat terrain around that concept, rather than shoehorning flavor onto a preexisting battle map. For "Sparks of Fate," I knew one crucial fight would occur in a warehouse (a typical D&D setting if there ever was one), so I based the warehouse on the final scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." That meant big crates, catwalks, metal braziers that acrobatic characters could swing from...all fun stuff that made it into the final product (and the fourth Indiana Jones movie, BTW).

This is probably where Horned Hold needs the least improvement. Of course, the whole design is based off of the "fortress" archetype, which is pretty much a license for any kind of architecture. Still, there are large stone bridges, a decrepit chapel filled with rubble (and wights), and some neat slave pits, so it's not totally blank. Even in the more mundane rooms (barracks, storerooms) there are tables and beds that can be used in creative ways.

DMG Rule #3 - Think in three dimensions

If war has taught man anything, it's that whoever holds the high ground has a big advantage in combat. D&D, for game balance's sake, doesn't give the elevated attacker excessive benefits, but elevation still serves some important roles in terrain design.

Elevated positions allow ranged attackers line of sight while impeding most melee attackers. Unlike typical difficult terrain, though, an elevated position has a certain movement flow - it's faster to jump down from a ten foot dais than it is to clamber on top of one. This can make for an interesting decision when a monster drops a poison gas cloud on the ridge the PCs are attacking from - do they stay and take damage, or jump down and lose the benefit of being isolated from melee monsters?

This is an area where Horned Hold really falls down (no pun intended). The whole dungeon, as far as I can tell, is flat as a pancake. Even some stairs or balconies would have livened things up. It's just not the most exciting structure to fight in.

DMG Rule #4 - Make terrain flavorful

The DMG actually urges you to make terrain "fantastic," but I think what they're getting at is to pile on layers of detail so that a combat encounter comes alive. A fight on two wooden platforms is usually not as good as a fight on two rickety rafts careening down a river in the middle of the jungle.

Another tip that belongs here is to make sure that the fight is linked, somehow, to the arena itself. This adds urgency and realism to most fights; after all, if the monsters weren't all around the King's unconscious body, there'd be no reason to stick around the throne room to fight them. One of my friends created a fight centered around a huge, elaborate ritual, along with the mechanism that was used in the villain's plan. You couldn't just abandon the place, though, since you wanted to stop whatever it was that was happening. It's a classic trick, but a good one.

Horned Hold does an okay job here, with the fight in the blacksmith's forge making the most sense. A lot of the other fights seem to be optional; the PCs can simply elect to avoid or run from those encounters, and there's no plot weight tied to them. I know some DMs prefer this style, but I like to drive the story ever forward with each fight.

Final Thoughts

I think that above all, terrain should be understandable by the players. Instead of drawing symbols that indicate rubble, go ahead and draw out rubble. Instead of trying to explain what something is, just label it on your map in big print (a good marker and an eraseable battle map are almost required for running 4E). And if something sounds like it might be plausible in a fantasy novel - ripping a door off its hinges for mobile cover, freezing a chandelier chain and then breaking it apart with an arrow - I like to let players do it. In the end, most pen and paper roleplaying games are collaborative, and 4E D&D terrain should be part of that act.

Movies: Turkey Day Trifecta

Thanksgiving Weekend Movie Review-a-palooza! Let us begin:


This is one of the first Walt Disney Animation features to bear the mark of the Pixar-Disney merger. Producer John Lasseter, after becoming Disney's Chief Creative Officer, reportedly changed much of the story and tone of the movie, to great effect. What might have become yet another soulless CGI kids film is now a competent entry in the Disney stable.

It's about a dog named Bolt who believes he has super powers, but is actually just playing the role of a superdog on a TV show. The premise is part "Truman Show," part "Toy Story":

It's not Pixar-good (the second and third acts don't break any molds), but it doesn't really aim to be. See it in 3D if possible - I have a feeling that a lot of my enjoyment of "Bolt" stems from the slam-bang opening sequence; the chases and explosions are just more viscerally satisfying when they seem like they're right in front of you.

Rating: 7/10 (6/10 in non-3D theaters)

Live Free or Die Hard

Sly Stallone isn't the only one to revive long-dead action movie franchises. In "Live Free or Die Hard," the fourth entry in the series, Bruce Willis stars as John McClane. He's thrust into a new crisis against new foes...but has the world changed too much for Mr. McClane to matter?

The big controversy here is that the rating of "Live Free or Die Hard" is PG-13, meaning the violence and profanity had to be toned down considerably. But really, I don't think that decision hurts the film as much as its reduction of McClane's character into little more than an emotionless killing machine.

The first film succeeded because it was about an average NY cop against 12 well-armed, well-trained opponents. In this one, you never once feel like John's in any real danger, and as the action setpieces ramp up into absurdity, it turns what should be an edge-of-your-seat ride into just another big-budget spectacle. Additionally, there's a serious case of Generic Villain here - someone should just cast Alan Rickman again as Hans Gruber's twin brother or something and be done with it.

Rating: 5/10

Bad Boys

A lot of people underestimate how hard it is to make a good action movie, so it's sobering to look at the first "Bad Boys" as a case study. Here we have two gifted comic actors (both of whom had popular sitcoms at the time the movie was in production), a famous action director, a script that hits all the usual buddy cop points ("Lethal Weapon" redux), and even Joe Pantoliano. Can't miss, right?

Even with all the trappings, though, the meat of an action movie - fight scenes, chase scenes, shootouts, big stunts - is sadly lacking here. Michael Bay would refine his craft a bit in "The Rock," but compared to the real action greats, he's still got a lot to learn. The final shootout in "Bad Boys," for instance, lacks coherent geography (a strength in James Cameron films), pacing (Peckinpah's specialty), and emotion (John Woo's specialty).

Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Food: Nino's

My favorite Italian restaurant has long been Nino's, a modestly-sized place located in a strip mall in Boca Raton. No, it's not the best Italian food I've ever had (that prize goes to all the great eateries in Rome and Florence that I've visited), but it's a sentimental favorite. During the winter, when the snowbirds come down, the joint can get pretty crowded. We've waited as long as 45 minutes to get in. Why the crowds? Why the wait?

Just walking in, you wouldn't suspect the place was anything special. In fact, the decor looks a lot like every other pizzeria/Italian restaurant in every other strip mall. But there's that special bustle in a popular restaurant's kitchen, that urgency in all the server's movements, that speaks of a well-run operation.

The food? Well, for starters, the eggplant parmigiana at Nino's is the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen. It's a huge slab of eggplant, cooked till it's soft enough to cut with a fork, and covered with marinara and mozzarella. Again, it's not elegant, and perhaps not even really Italian, but it makes for great comfort food.

All the entrees are like this. The linguine with red clam sauce (my Mom's favorite) can feed two people, or one person with enough leftovers to make for a great breakfast the next day. The large deep dish pizza can easily feed an entire table, especially if you layer it with toppings. Best of all, the prices are relatively low ($~14 for most dinners, which includes rolls and a soup or salad).

For the longest time, Nino's had an additional sort of mystique - they didn't take credit cards (they do now). We speculated whether it was a laundering operation for some mobsters (there are probably a ton of retired Jersey gangsters in south Florida). In any case, before eating there, you'd have to pool all the cash everyone had on hand - sort of like appeasing that loan shark who just can't wait for his money.

3/4 stars (if you're in Boca and feeling the need to loosen your belt a few notches, this is the place)

Guns: Mid-Grade .22 Ammo

Between the big 500+ round bricks of .22 LR on sale at your local Wally World and the nice target .22 ammo you can get off the Web or in gun shops, there's what I like to call "mid-grade .22." These varieties of .22 LR are typically marketed as hunting rounds, and usually comes in small 50 round boxes that'll fit neatly into the average shirt pocket.

The whole cost/benefit calculation is almost analogous to that middle grade of gasoline you get at the pump - you're paying more, sure, but are you really getting more consistent ammo? In the interests of science, I decided to test out a few brands to see how they stacked up against the ole Remington bulk pack.

The results were encouraging. At 25 yards, the bulk pack group was the same size across as the diameter of a Coke can - good enough for plinking, but nothing you'd want to take to the Olympics. The fancier .22 rounds, like the Federal 40-grainers pictured above, were more consistent, turning in 1.5" groups from my Savage rimfire rifle (probably capable of better, but my rifle shooting isn't what it used to be).

I wonder if these rounds are manufactured in the same facility. Are the more expensive .22s merely subject to more stringent quality control? Or are the actual components - the powder, the rim's priming compound, the bullet - better matched in the mid-grade round? In any case, there is a difference. Whether it's worth the added expense comes down to what you're using the stuff for, I suppose.

News: A Real Thinker

I'm currently trying to come to grips with our mock trial for the National Trial Competition - it's based on the Michael Vick dogfighting case. First impression: it seems like an uphill battle for the defense (in real life, Vick plead guilty after some of his codefendants started to turn on him).

The guy defending another NFL player, Plaxico Burress, on gun possession charges looks like he's going to have an even tougher time in his case:

It must be tough defending this charge when your client literally has a gunshot wound in his thigh. Of course, the bigger lesson here is that the only time NY's draconian gun laws actually work is after the firearm is discharged, not before. If, say, Burress shot a man in self-defense that night, I wonder how he'd fare in the court of public opinion?...

Monday, December 01, 2008

Movies: Final Fantasy - The Spirits Within

For the longest time, video games needed no story besides a few bare lines of text. From Pong to Super Mario - heck, even through the first "Final Fantasy" - game developers paid more attention to sprite sizes than to plot. That all started changing around the 16-bit era, and nowadays games have production values rivaling Hollywood movies. "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" shows that video game writing still has a long way to go, though:

In "The Spirits Within," the Earth has been nearly destroyed by Phantoms, mysterious ghostlike creatures that can completely pass through inanimate objects. The Phantoms' touch is lethal to normal life, however, and the remnants of humanity huddle in protected barrier cities. When the film begins, scientist Aki Ross is desperately searching for a way to neutralize the invaders once and for all.

If you took the film and divided it up into cutscenes spliced between fifteen minute segments of gameplay, it'd make for a decent sci-fi RPG, I suppose. But as a two hour feature, the whole effort falls flat. The pacing is awful, the characters are hackneyed, and even the story itself unnecessarily exhibits some video game characteristics (the completely unnecessary second act). When the ending finally comes, it's more a relief than a revelation.

The movie was directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, director and producer of the classic "Final Fantasy" series of video games. This is equivalent to the Yankees entering a cricket league and getting their clock cleaned - just a different arena, folks. Fun fact: "The Spirits Within" is entirely CGI, and is consequently one of the most expensive box office bombs in the history of cinema.

Rating: 4/10

Guns: This is stupid, but also insanely cool.

Ever play "Gears of War"? The default weapon in that game is the Lancer, an assault rifle with a chainsaw mounted on it as a bayonet. You can literally saw people in half, which produces a sickeningly satisfying effect onscreen.

Over the top? Sure. Impractical? Yeah. Impossible?...


Ah - is there anything you can't mount on a 1913 rail?

Books: Martial Power

One of the strengths of 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons was its user-friendly approach to multiclassing. Each character level offered new possibilities since you could choose to spend that level in any one of dozens of different classes, each one with unique abilities. This was a commendable level of customization, even if it did result in some strange, min-maxed combinations ("You're a Ranger...but you're also a Templar and a Barbarian AND a Sorcerer?").

4E D&D, with its consistent emphasis on making sure every class is balanced against every other class at every level, loses some of this raw flexibility. "Martial Power," a recently published splatbook, aims to correct this. Fighters, rangers, rogues, and warlords all receive expanded options - everything from new character builds (including new at-will attack powers) to new paragon paths and a smattering of new feats and epic destinies.

There aren't any new classes, unfortunately, but some of the new builds are so different that they might as well be new classes. The ranger's "Beastmaster" build allows him to use an animal companion in either melee or ranged combat. The "Bravura" warlord has a fun mechanic - intentionally provoke attacks from enemies in order to gain an advantage in combat. The easy mixing and matching of powers from this book and the PHB means a lot more permutations are available for those seeking to construct their perfect martial hero. All in all, this is a must-have book if you're into 4E.