Sunday, January 3, 2016

Star Wars VII - a short critical review.

I actually really dislike it when 'blog writers mix the focus of thier weblogs, so I promise this foray into movies is not the start of a new trend or any such thing.  But, I realize that most of my readers will have an interest in this movie and I feel it might be helpful to throw a little cold water on all the Ra-Ra, go Team! "reviews" that seem to me to be little more than extended advertisements.  Here goes:

So to begin with, I did like the movie and would happily watch it again.  I thought most of the new characters were great additions to the story and especially liked Rey, however the movie has some rather annoying flaws, that were pretty big detractors from immersion and enjoyment.  Full disclosure - I have a BA in Film from the School of Communications at Penn State.  Also I liked most of the Star wars movies.  I saw the first one during it's second run at the local theater in 1977.  I was eight years old, and was a bit disappointing that so little of the movie involved fights in space, but the ending kinda maid up for it.  I liked Battlestar Galactica a whole lot better when it finally came out though. (Sept. 17, 1978, IIRC)  So anyway, I've watched them all, and the only one I don't particularly enjoy is Episode VI, Return of the Jedi.  Aside from some of the Yoda scenes and the hover bike race on the moon of Endor, that movie is mostly trash.  The script was very poorly executed and the whole business with the killer teddy bears defeating trained soldiers with falling logs is too ridiculous to tolerate in even a movie aimed at 12 year olds.

And Star Wars was always aimed at 12 year olds, by the way.  One of the reasons I find the general dislike of Jar Jar Binks so ironic is that 35 year old men are complaining about a character that is meant to be comic relief for kids.  Binks doesn't bother me half so much as killer teddy bears.  Folks seem to forget that when they first saw Star Wars and fell in love with it, they were kids too.  Unlike all the previous movies, Disney Star wars is not aimed at the 12 year old demographic.  It is decidedly not kid friendly.   I'm not saying that's good or bad, just noticeably different, and understandable, as the fan base ages.

Let's talk plot:

A hero losses their parents at a tender age and grows up in a hardscrabble life on a desert planet.  The Hero's life is turned upside down when outsiders come to the planet and involve the hero in a galactic war.  The hero makes a desperate run from the planet on a beat up old space ship called the Milenium Falcon, pursued by the forces of a dictatorial regime, under the command of a dark, mysterious evil warrior in black armor who embodies the power of the Dark Side of the Force.  The hero befriends the ships somewhat dubious owners, Han Solo and Chewbacca, travels to distant worlds, meets the resistance leader Princess Leia, and soon becomes involved in a desperate fight to destroy a gigantic world destroying space weapon the size of a planet.  In the final moments, the hero confronts the evil warrior of the Dark Side, and is instrumental, along with Han, Chewy, and Leia, in bringing about the destruction of the awsome planet wrecking weapon, and in the temporary defeat of the evil warrior of Dark Side of the Force.

There you have it.  Now, what movie is the above plot describing?

Let me say it more plainly, the overarching plot of Star wars VII is identical to the overarching plot of Star Wars III A New Hope.  IDENTICAL

Star Wars VII is a remake.

Sure, there are plot differences, nuances and twists as to how things unfold, but on the whole, I've seen this movie before. and so have you.  It is especially annoying that there is yet another giant killer planet to destroy, since that plot device was already recycled once in Return of the Jedi.  Please stop giving us more Death Stars!!!!

Now, aside from the plot rehash, there are basic elements to the story that had me scratching my head throughout the movie.

One thing you can say about Lucas Star Wars was that the setting always made sense.  That's partly why it resonated so well.  There was a socio-political organization in the background that was believable.

At the end of Return of the Jedi, the emperor was defeated and the republic restored, yet we are now to believe that somehow, some portion of the empire (one of the regional governors?) managed to hold on to their dictatorial control without the emperors support, gain enough economic and social stability and financing to defy the new republic, and continue the fight for 20 years.

Somebody's got a lot of explaining to do, cause as it stands, it's hard to see how that could possibly have happened in anything more complicated than a comic book world.  Equally silly and confusing are the names they choose.  "The First Order".  Um, the first order of what?  Where's the rest of that sentence.  There's also a confusion of names.  Sometimes the new republic is also called "the resistance".  Go figure.

I'm sorry but none of that makes sense.

Then there is the great new evil, the replacement for the old emperor, the super terrifying bad guy, and his name is - wait for it - SNOOK.  Sorry for the snark but I mean, come on man.  I'm pretty sure one of my daughters stuffed unicorns is also named Snook.

<shrug> Aside from all that it was a pretty fun movie.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Magic of Treasure!


 In D&D and AD&D and clones, Treasure Types (A, B, C, etc.) have been often discussed, as has been the "abandoned" or "unguarded" dungeon level treasure tables such as that on page 7 of Underworld and Wilderness Adventure.   Yet surprisingly, the "Items" aka magic items or "prize" table of Monster & Treasures page 23 is almost never talked about.  The loot the players acquire is perhaps the most important aspect of a campaign, especially the magic items.  Certainly, the use of items of magic greatly effects encounters.  Adventurers equipped with fireball wands and displacer cloaks are going to have a very different monster encounter, than the same party might if equipped with run of the mill arms and armor.  In theory then, that makes the Magic Item distribution table of prime importance, perhaps one of the most crucial tables in the game.  Yet,  it is seldom considered.

Instead folks tend to argue over whether and when to use which lair or level treasure table, or whether to use some 3e style GP reward calculation, or as is often the case, to just make it up from scratch.

Here's the thing - whatever means used for determining coin and jewels, it's almost irrelevant, it is the Magic Items table that ultimately has the biggest game impact. 
What isn't being appreciated here is the reality that the game was designed with the expectation that, barring a few special purchases, the average group of adventurers would have exactly the same percentage of magic items as in the items table.  In other words, if the table generates magic Rings 5% of the time, then 5% of the party's magical possessions will be rings.

That magic item balance should hold true at least until 11+ levels, where the Magic-User can begin to make their own items.  Indeed the very reason magic item creation is prohibited until 11th level may well have been to keep lower level Magic users from over gifting themselves with powerful magic, and thereby skewing the general balance between classes.

With this in mind, I thought it very interesting to trace the evolution of the various magic item distribution tables as a design element.

As the presentation standard, I'll use the table order given in AD&D, since it is undoubtedly the most common.  Notice that maps are included, and I have further interpreted this category to include manuscript and books, because that  is indeed the case in some instances we will be looking at.

Maps & Manuscripts
Potions
Scrolls
Rings
Rods, Staves, Wands
Miscellaneous Magic
Armor & Shields
Swords
Miscellaneous Weapons

Here to follow are all the important magic item tables from pre-D&D to AD&D, as devised by Gygax & Arneson.

The oldest record we have isn't actually a table, but a stocking list.  In Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, he reprints his dungeon stocking notes for levels 7-9 and Tunnels, from late 1971.  By categorizing the various items, figuring out the frequency per level and averaging across all 4 levels, we get the following combined results.

ITEM
%
Maps & Manuscripts
0
Potions
0
Scrolls
14
Rings
0
Rods, Staves, Wands
0
Miscellaneous Magic
11
Armor & Shields
24
Swords
29
Miscellaneous Weapons
24

(The figures in all the tables shown here are rounded to whole numbers sometimes resulting in a total slightly over 100).

Given the small sample size, these figures certainly are not "scientifically" accurate, but I'd say they give us a pretty good idea about magic treasure in early Blackmoor.  Take note of what is not found on the list, especially rings, wands and curiously, potions.  These are all items that have yet to be added to the game. Techincally, there are no "scrolls" either, instead there are "spells".  Although these spells may be something like liquid based balls, they essentially function just as a scroll would in game play, whther the spell is on paper or not. In any case, perhaps the most significant thing to note here is that Magic swords made up nearly 1/3 of the treasure, and when combined with other weapons and armor, nearly 2/3rds of the magic to be found is combat equipment.  While this does get significantly modified over time, we shall see that the dominance of weapons and armor remains in the game throughout the Gygax/Arneson era.

Our next table is even more complicated.  In 1972 Arneson created a new adventure area called Loch Gloomin, and created new stocking tables for it.  I've previously cleaned up and commented on those tables in this post.  

http://boggswood.blogspot.com/2014/08/stocking-blackmoor-wilds-in-1972.html

These stocking tables rely on a series of d6 and 2d6 rolls, so converting them to % required a few more steps, and won't neatly add up to 100% because some 10% of the items (such as clothing) have no equivalent in the AD&D items table.  When all is said and done, here is what the 1972 item table comes to:

ITEM
%
Maps & Manuscripts
9
Potions
22
Scrolls
2
Rings
0
Rods, Staves, Wands
6
Miscellaneous Magic
20
Armor & Shields
5
Swords
9
Miscellaneous Weapons
14

Interestingly, swords have really dropped off here, and potions have the biggest share.  Nevertheless, weapons and armor altogether still account for 1/3rd of the treasure overall.  Scrolls and wands are now apparent, but there are still no rings.

Alright, moving on to the next table - found on the very next page of the FFC following the Loch Gloomin notes - we have Arneson's draft Magic Items table that Gygax developed into the published version found in OD&D, as confidently demonstrated in this post (about halfway down) 

http://boggswood.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-mystery-of-18-pages-of-notes.html .  Here is how it breaks out in the AD&D order:
   
ITEM
%
Maps & Manuscripts
11
Potions
13
Scrolls
0
Rings
0
Rods, Staves, Wands
7
Miscellaneous Magic
10
Armor & Shields
13
Swords
36
Miscellaneous Weapons
9

Swords are once again the big story here at a whopping 36% of finds, and of course, weapons and armor are again close to 2/3rds of the items.  Before getting to much in to the nitty gritty, lets move on to OD&D, via the the Dalluhn/Beyond This Point be Dragons draft from the fall of 1973, side by side with the published version of 1974, and the reorganized "Holmes Bluebook" version of 1977.

ITEM
'73 Draft
%
'74 3lbbs
%
'77
%
Maps & Manuscripts
16
25
25
Potions
13
19
19
Scrolls
8
15
15
Rings
17
4
4
Rods, Staves, Wands
4
4
4
Miscellaneous Magic
4
4
4
Armor & Shields
13
11
5
Swords
13
15
15
Miscellaneous Weapons
9
4
10

These three were all put together by Gary Gygax (including the "Holmes" table), and thus reflect his thinking in the OD&D era. 

There's lots here to take note of. Rings make their first appearance, and the significance of maps in the treasure hoard is clearly a big change from Arneson's tables.  As someone who has used these tables, I can honestly say coming up with a new map for 1 out of 4 of the treasures with "items" wasn't something I looked forward to.  Another important trend to note in these tables is that the chance for perishable items like potions and scrolls tend to go up, at the expense of permanent items like armor and, especially, rings.  This trend is no accident as Gygax explains on page 121 of The Dungeonmaster's Guide:
            As mentioned previously, the MAGIC ITEMS table is weighted towards
            results which balance the game.  Potions, scrolls, armor and arms are
            plentiful.  Rings, rods and miscellaneous items of magic represent only a
            25% occurrence on the table.  This is so done in order to keep magic-users
            from totally dominating ploy.  They are sufficiently powerful characters
            without adding piles of supplementary goodies.  What they gain from the
            table will typically be used up and discarded.

By the same token, the high occurrence of swords and combat equipment greatly favors Fighters - a fact which also improves the balance between the Fighting and Magic using classes.

With that in mind, let's move on to something fun.  Suppose we look at all the tables thus far considered and average them out.  Theoretically, that would give us a good merger of both Gygax and Arneson's general views.  Here is what we get:

ITEM
OD&D Era Average of all %
Average without BM Dungeon
%
Maps & Manuscripts
14
17
Potions
15
18
Scrolls
13
10
Rings
3
5
Rods, Staves, Wands
4
5
Miscellaneous Magic
9
8
Armor & Shields
12
9
Swords
20
18
Miscellaneous Weapons
12
9

Now you will notice I've done this two ways - a column with all the data looked at thus far and a column  without the data gleaned from the Blackmoor Dungeon levels.   I find that including the Blackmoor dungeon data is both historically relevant and yields the most interesting results for game play.  Consequently, these "average of all" numbers form the basis of most of those used in the Champions of ZED prize table.  The exceptions are that wands etc. in the CoZ table use the 5% figure at the expense of 1 % from maps.  I also arbitrarily lowered the Miscellaneous Magic to 7% which is both closer to the OD&D percentage and necessary to get a true 100% total.  Table shown below:    

ITEM
Champions of ZED
Maps & Manuscripts
13
Potions
15
Scrolls
13
Rings
3
Rods, Staves, Wands
5
Miscellaneous Magic
7
Armor & Shields
12
Swords
20
Miscellaneous Weapons
12

Before going further, it is interesting in light of the DMG quote to consider the direction Gygax went for AD&D.

ITEM
AD&D DMG
Unearthed Arcana
Maps & Manuscripts
11*
1*
Potions
18
20
Scrolls
14
15
Rings
4
5
Rods, Staves, Wands
14
15
Miscellaneous Magic
13
14
Armor & Shields
14
15
Swords
9
11
Miscellaneous Weapons
13
14

*These percentages are extracted from items subsumed in the miscellaneous magic tables; and I included "scarabs" when determining the percentage or amulets & medalions, because they are sometimes described as amulets.   Although in AD&D maps have a 10% chance of appearing, UA appears to drop maps altogether.  Books are extremely rare in each. 

As can be readily observed the "items" tables of the Dungeon Masters Guide and Unearthed Arcana are practically the same, especially if Maps were included in UA or removed from AD&D.  As Gygax's "last word" on the matter it might be interesting to compare our raw average of Gygax + Arneson OD&D with Gygax AD&D:

ITEM
AD&D DMG
OD&D Era Average of all %
CoZ
Maps & Manuscripts
11*
14
13
Potions
18
15
15
Scrolls
14
13
13
Rings
4
3
3
Rods, Staves, Wands
14
4
5
Miscellaneous Magic
13
9
7
Armor & Shields
14
12
12
Swords
9
20
20
Miscellaneous Weapons
13
12
12

Remarkably, there are really only two differences here greater than 3%.  The chance to get magic swords is significantly better in the OD&D average, and Wands/Staves significantly less.  These two differences are very important however for an OD&D campaign. 

Wands/staves are truly one of the most powerful and handy tools at the Magic-users disposal.  At most in all the OD&D era tables, wands and staves comprise no more than 7% of magical treasure, and usually only about 4%.  Yet in AD&D wands are 2 to 4 times more frequent.  I've seen players with bandoleers of wands, but by the book, an OD&D character should hardly ever find them!

So what we get with the CoZ table, and to a slightly lesser extent in the OD&D table, is a distribution of magic items that greatly favors fighters through equipment and disposable items.  Swords in particular, usually of the intelligent variety, are much more of a staple in the OD&D game, and more still (5%) in CoZ as they were in Blackmoor.  If closely followed, as intended, the Magic Items table is indeed a game changer.