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The post on Epsode 16 is delayed, but here's a link ...

4th Nov. 2016 | 12:10 pm

Since I’m now planning how to spend my remaining days before the end of this planet called Earth, I’ll be too busy to write my regular post on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. The next post in that series, “City at the Edge of Midnight” (#16), will be in two weeks. Also: If there are any eschatologists out there making book on how the world will end, put me down for $50 on “Trump” and another $25 on a parlay of “Trump” and “Chicago smugness” working together.

For those of you who are interested, Comics Alliance has posted a video of 12 facts you may not have known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. I knew these things, but hey — I’ve been writing about the series for a while now.

I saw the video mentioned on writer Mark Evanier’s site. Evanier developed the show for television and wrote / co-wrote a couple of episodes. He mentions that despite what the video says, he did not co-create Groo the Wanderer, but everything else seems kosher. Well, not quite: The narrator keeps mispronouncing Venger’s name, making the “g” a hard g (like “penguin”) rather than a soft g (like “avenger”). That’s distracting and makes me wonder why that wasn’t caught. It’s not like the series was ambiguous about the pronunciation, and his name was said almost every episode.

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Three Things about ... The Dark Side by Anthony O'Neill

28th Oct. 2016 | 06:42 pm

The Dark Side coverThree things about The Dark Side by Anthony O’Neill:

  1. The kind of man who cites his sources: Unsurprisingly, given the title, The Dark Side is a novel set on the far side of the moon, although O’Neill points out that “dark side” is not an exact synonym of “far side”: the far side is the side of the moon we on Earth never see, as it’s always pointed away from us, while the dark side is whatever half of the moon the sun isn’t shining on at the moment.

    This observation could be a predictor of one of two things: Either the author is being pedantic / precise or he is trying to be as accurate as possible scientifically. The latter is the case, in an impressive way.

    O’Neill does his best to make the Moon societies in Dark Side as realistic as possible, and he tries to look at the difficulties of roving the lunar surface after years of lunar exploration and colonization. Although O’Neill never skimps on the dangers of living on an airless satellite, the book never seems bogged down by his explanations, nor does it seem like the colonists’ fixes are unrealistic. The narrator considers problems ranging from physiological to material to chemical and physical (in the sense of physics): the effects of moon dusts on humans, how the moving terminator would affect a man in a spacesuit, how a habitat might get rain and what that rain might look like … it’s impressive, and looking through summaries of O’Neill’s other novels, it seems like he’s the kind of writer who does his research and integrates it into his work.

    And he literally ends the novel with a two-page acknowledgements section that lists the dozens of sources he used to get the lunar science right.

  2. Go ahead and detect, if you’re a detective: Because of the science and other aspects of the novel, like the protagonist and the noir trappings, I enjoyed Dark Side quite a bit. But for the next two items, I’m going to discuss things I didn’t like; they are things I wanted more than needed, and my expectations shouldn’t be seen as a recommendation against the book.

    Dark Side‘s protagonist, new Lt. Justus Damien, has a reputation as a dogged detective, but we don’t see him doing much investigation. Partially, that’s because he’s a lieutenant and doesn’t have to do the canvassing and grunt work that is given to detectives. He’s also immediately famous in Purgatory, the corrupt, independent city-state on the far side of the moon, where the press portrays him as the new broom who will sweep out corruption; he’s congratulated and celebrated wherever he goes, making confidentiality and getting information out of common people difficult.

    Soon after Justus appears in Purgatory, one of its high officials is assassinated in a bombing. Justus and his team investigate the murder and subsequent killings of influential citizens, but the Purgatory police department is incompetent and corrupt. That’s the way Purgatory’s founder and patriarch, Fletcher Brass, wants it, or so it seems; throughout the book, Justus is trying to determine if Brass hired him specifically. It seems unlikely, given that Brass is a ruthless capitalist who has always put himself above others, but Brass is also leaving Purgatory for a manned Mars mission. Who knows what the real agendas are?

    Certainly not Justus. His only recourse is to interview people — mostly the important people in Purgatory, such as Brass and his daughter, Q.T. Brass. These are important people in the investigation, but we rarely see what is driving the investigation forward since the forensics investigation almost nonexistent and Justus can’t get information out of his subordinates; he can’t even discipline or threaten them.

    It’s hard to get interested in a mystery when the investigation is completely shrouded from the readers. Justus doesn’t learn much from the Brasses, who are both charismatic liars, and we don’t see into Justus’s thought processes very far. He does pursue some lines of inquiry, making calls around the moon, but we don’t follow those conversations; instead, we learn about them only when Justus’s boss reveals he monitors Justus’s phone conversations.

    In the end, Justus relies on his intuition rather than evidence to pinpoint the malefactor. His solution is the likely one, but the lack of evidence makes it an unsatisfying conclusion. The reader knew the murderer was the biggest bastard around at the beginning, and that’s the main evidence Justus uses against him at the end as well.

  3. Two vast and trunkless threads of plot stand in the (lunar) desert: Dark Side feels like two novels interlaced. Justus’s investigations into Purgatory’s political murders is one of the plots; the other involves a killer robot rampaging across the lunar landscape to get to Purgatory. Unfortunately, the two individual plot threads don’t have enough in common, other than their lunar settings and the way they intersected at the end, to make up one complete novel.

    The killer robot is superficially charming, but his charm makes his interactions with people monotonous: He seems normal, enters their residence or vehicle, then slowly reveals his psychosis (based on the Brass Code, Brass’s rules for ruthless capitalism) as he acquires what he wants from the human before murdering her or him. This does allow O’Neill to show readers a wider selection of lunar residents, and some of their stories are amusing. When someone is following the robot, the story becomes more interesting, but that’s rare, and the robot meets no credible threats to its rampage.

    But the only suspense in those vignettes is whether anyone will survive the robot, and the answer is always “no.” Now, I can see the argument that those scenes are not supposed to be interesting: we are supposed to be seeing the satirical end result of Brass’s cruel philosophies played out with robotic strength and certainty. (Plus his safeguards are turned off, meaning none of Asimov’s laws apply.) However, one or two or three of those would be enough to get that across, and instead, the killing goes on and on.

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Dungeons & Dragons #15: The Treasure of Tardos

24th Oct. 2016 | 04:22 am

The Treasure of Tardos title card

Original air date: 15 September 1984
Writer: Michael Reaves

This is the first episode by Michael Reaves, who — after Jeffrey Scott — is the series’ second most prolific writer. Reaves wrote six episodes and co-wrote another; most importantly, he wrote “Requiem,” the unproduced series finale. (No matter what anyone tells you, there was never an episode where the kids got to go home. That’s just the Mandela Effect working.)

The episode starts not with its usual danger but with a long, loving pan over a pastel landscape, following a pair of birds. I praised Toei last episode, but this opening is not among its more distinctive efforts. When we finally get to the party, about 15 seconds in, Bobby is trying to give Uni a bath while everyone else looks on. Uni is having none of it, even though Bobby insists, “This is for your own good.”

“Yeah,” Eric says. “Nobody likes a dirty unicorn.” I can’t imagine that’s even remotely true, especially since — I assume — a “dirty unicorn” is a sex act somewhere … in the Realms, if not in our world. It is correct, though, that no one should have a dirty unicorn around a 9-year-old boy. Too much of a chance for misunderstandings.

Uni slips from Bobby’s grasp, dumping Bobby into the water. Nobody laughs except for Eric, showing his friends’ hypocrisy: if that had happened to Eric, they would have busted their guts. Of course, it is funny when Eric is splashed with water after Bobby jumps after Uni but misses. Eric takes it in stride, though: “Well, since I’m wet anyway, maybe I’ll just go for a swim.” He even tosses his cape on Presto’s head, covering the Magician’s look of gape-mouthed wonder. You think maybe Presto had been looking forward to this moment, seeing Eric disrobe as he walks into the water, and Eric’s teasing him? I do!

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Treasure of Tardos” on Youtube. (It has the Season 1 intro.) Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Eric running from a dinosaurAs Eric is pulling off his chainmail shirt, showing he wears a white wifebeater underneath, a giant mosasaur emerges from under the water. I will remind everyone: This is the shallow water Bobby was washing Uni in and Eric was wading through. Where did this creature come from? Does the river bed suddenly drop from less than a foot deep to a couple of fathoms? Stupid Realms with its stupid geology.

As one does when confronted with a giant, fanged dinosaur, Eric retreats, redonning his chain mail. A roar sounds from far away, and the mosasaur gets a move on, running / swimming / wading down the river away from the party and the roar. “That thing wasn’t attacking,” Hank says. “It was running scared!”

(Geek aside: A mosasaur — or as the Monster Manual describes it, a mosasaurus — is a marine dinosaur. There is absolutely nothing else interesting about mosasaurs, at least in Dungeons & Dragons.)

The party in a ring around Dungeon MasterEric, still frightened, bumps into Dungeon Master, and the source of the mosasaur’s fright becomes obvious. If I were a dumb beast, I’d run from the misshapen runt too. Dungeon Master then tells the kids great danger lies ahead. Of course there is — in other news, water’s wet, Venger’s head is asymmetrical, and unicorn is good eating, dirty or not. “What this time, O terrible tour guide?” Eric asks.

A danger that will keep them from getting home, Dungeon Master says, because it could destroy the Realms themselves. “If this world is destroyed,” he explains, “you will have no chance of returning from it.” Well, he has a point: can’t go home if you’re dead. Also: The Realms is where they keep all their stuff! He names the threat as Demodragon: “A terrible creature. Half demon, half dragon, whose power could devastate the Realm.” The difference between Demodragon and Dungeon Master? We don’t know Dungeon Master’s genetic makeup.

Sheila asks what they can do. Oh, poor, naïve Sheila: you know you’re going to be called upon to destroy / neutralize / terminate with extreme prejudice poor Demodragon. But Dungeon Master is content to point them in a direction and let things take their deadly course: “Seek out the city called Tardos Keep.” He gives them a map — a map! Cartographers rejoice! — and tells them to defeat Demodragon, they will have to help “the one who stands against you.” Eric thinks this vague, and the lack of definite answers enrages him; the tendons in his neck stand out as he rails against Dungeon Master. But the answer is obvious, Eric: It’s Venger. You’re going to have to help Venger.

Map of route to Tardos KeepNone of the other kids have any idea what that could mean, because they’re stupid. When they turn to press Dungeon Master, he’s vanished. They look at the map: they’ll have to go over the Alicorn River (“Alicorn” is a name for a winged unicorn, which is irrelevant) and through the Dustlands to reach Tardos Keep.

While the others head out, Eric turns and starts walking the other way. What’s he hoping to accomplish by this? Wander off, get lost, and die alone? Surely he knows he’s not going to survive long by himself. Or maybe he knows they’ll all end up in the same place, like they did when he split off in “In Search of the Dungeon Master.” Before he can get very far, Sheila has turned invisible, headed him off, and herded him in the right direction. She manages to do so without humiliating him in front of the others, which is nice of her.

***

Party overlooking frozen riverWhile wandering over a dusty hill with skeletal trees, Diana claims the group is traveling through the “Wondrous Woods.” That name wasn’t on the map we saw, though. “Doesn’t look too wondrous to me,” she says. Her tone of voice sounds like she thinks the Realms Tourist Board tricked her into taking her vacation here. The Alicorn River appears in front of them, but it’s been changed to a solid, glossy surface — “frozen,” according to Sheila. “Wait! I get it,” Hank says. “Something’s burned down the woods and frozen the river.” Well, no duh, genius. “The things in front of me appear to be physically changed. I will describe those physical changes and pass it off as an epiphany.” I swear: Sometimes I think you deserve what you get, Hank.

While Bobby wonders what could have caused those changes, they hear a far-off roar.

***

If course the kids are going to be complaining about dust while walking across the Dustlands because none of them have the intelligence to put cloth over their mouths to keep from breathing in the dust. Diana wants water and almost convinces Presto to conjure up some, but Eric discourages him by reminding him that the last time he tried, he conjured up a fishbowl with a goldfish. Hey, it’s still water, Eric, and the goldfish is a good source of protein.

Army camped in front of Tardos KeepAfter trudging across the Dustlands with no scouting and no thinking, the kids come across Tardos Keep. Unfortunately, Venger has camped his Orc army in front of it. The last time they needed to sneak into a castle guarded by Venger’s forces, in “The Lost Children”, they stole robes from some monsters and snuck in — a moderately clever plan made more impressive by my low expectations. So how are they going to get in this time?

Ah, their plan this time is to sneak around the army, staying near the canyon walls, and then … bang on the door to the keep, hoping they’ll be allowed in? Unfortunately, no one is given credit for this brainwave, so I don’t know who to blame. It hardly matters — the kids’ position is given away by a unicorn sneeze, which is probably the cutest way to kick off one’s impending death. The party goes into the final sprint a bit early, as Shadow Demon and the Orcs chase them to the doors of Tardos Keep.

(Also: In 500 words or fewer, discuss whether “Shadow Demon and the Orcs” would be a good band name or merely pandering to Gen-X nostalgia. Points will be given for grammar, originality of argument, and how well you insult Buzzfeed listicles.)

Bobby and an Orc struggle over Bobby’s clubOne of the Orcs grabs Bobby’s club, saying, “I’ve got you, you little alien.” Blond-haired, blue-eyed Bobby has trouble processing the idea that he’s the one who’s weird, but he manages to defeat the Orc with Uni’s help. The others use their abilities as well: Diana vaults with her staff, Sheila turns momentarily invisible, and Presto calls on a spell: “Abracadabra / And all those other magic words / *squeak*!” A stream of marbles flows out of his hat, time they are more obviously helpful than the ball bearings in “Prison without Walls”: the marbles fall down the stairs, tripping the pursuing Orcs. “Who says losing your marbles is bad?” Presto asks, and the lameness of his joke makes me want to reach through the screen and hurt him so much.

Inside, the defenders of Tardos Keep watch the party with interest. “Let them in,” the blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman wearing blue-and-gold jewelry says. Her wealth and Aryan good looks mark her as the leader, even if the other person hadn’t called her “Queen Solinara.” “That way, we may learn what Venger’s plan is.”

As they are about to get in, even Hank pitches in, using his arrow to tie up a bunch of Orcs. They wait for aid from within as Venger flies toward them. He fires a generic white energy beam at them, but Eric’s shield deflects it, and the kids are allowed inside. Venger and his army are left waiting outside, like loser kids who have been excluded from all the cool stuff.

Queen SolinaraQueen Solara and her soldiers welcome the kids to Tardos. It’s a lot bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside! No, that’s a lie: it’s immense from the outside, and it’s built into a rock wall, so who knows how far it extends into the mountain. Anyway, Solinara demands to know why Venger wants the kids so badly. “He wants our weapons,” Hank says, and this causes Solinara to briefly blow at the ear of her chief counselor.

“I see,” Solinara says. “He wants something from us as well: The Treasure of Tardos.” I’m betting it’s the Moment, the doomsday device the War Doctor almost activated in “The Day of the Doctor.” “For years, he has tried to trick his way into this keep.” Solinara snaps her fingers, and her soldiers move forward, triggering an obligatory sad / fightened bleat from Uni. “Speak truthfully and quickly if you would survive: Why are you here?”

Eric stammers out an excuse, blaming Dungeon Master for sending them to Tardos. And Dungeon Master should get more blame! “You know Dungeon Master?” Solinara asks. Eric immediately tries to deny knowing Dungeon Master that well, which is a logical choice when someone points out you’re taking orders from a guy who uses child soldiers.

Hank glowers at Eric “Quiet, Eric!” Hank hisses. On the screen, he looms over Eric; either we’re supposed to think Eric has sinned against Hank, his god, or Hank is about to devour Eric’s soul. I’m not sure which. Hank admits knowing and getting his marching orders from the manipulative old gnome “Ah, this is good!” Solinara says. It’s good for you — Dungeon Master has finally passed his unpaid lackeys on to you. “Dungeon Master is our friend.”

Eric bows and grovels, claiming yes, Dungeon Master is his friend. It’s embarrassing, but I might do the same if I found myself among a city that counted Dungeon Master as an ally. I mean, Dungeon Master continually sends Eric into lethal situations without any reward. What might Solinara do — hook his heart up to power a grist wheel? Make him clean the stables with his tongue? Use his wedding tackle as a fishing lure?

Eric’s humiliation is ended by a knock at the door. Man, I never get saved from awkward situations like that. Solinara takes the kids to an observation platform, where they watch Venger blast the door over and over without effect. He should be shooting at the observation platform, of course.

“Solinara!” Venger shouts. “Yield to me your treasure! Or face the ultimate consequences!” Boy, I bet she hasn’t heard that since He-Man said it in the back seat of his car on prom night. Solinara refuses, going on and on about how great Tardos is, and she doesn’t even tell him about how they can just vanish and go to another time period if they want to.

Demodragon in chainsIn response, Venger makes his grand reveal: Demodragon. Half demon, half dragon, all hideous. It has two heads — one spouting fire, one ice, both helpfully color coded — plus cloven hooves and more tentacles on its body than I’m comfortable with. Venger magically frees Demodragon from its chains, then tells it to attack Tardos Keep.

The two heads alternately hit the keep’s door with fire and ice, cracking it. Solinara claims this is impossible, but Hank plays Mr. Wizard: “The heat and cold are making them brittle!” Hank leads the kids on a sally through the door’s new entrance. Initially, they are successful: Hank’s arrows ensnare all four of Demodragon’s feet, and then Bobby strikes the ground with his club, causing Demodragon to fall over and everyone else to spasm like they’ve got the boogie-woogie flu. Solinara looks on, nearly swooning at their heroism.

Venger holding Hank’s energy arrowHank then turns his attention to Venger, but Venger grabs his arrow right out of the air and tosses an energy bolt of his own, which Eric deflects. As Demodragon snaps his bonds, Eric says, “Let’s not make him any madder than he already is!” C’mon, Eric — retreating is a decent idea here, since you don’t really have anything that will injure a flier, but who cares how mad Venger is? Hank looks pretty peeved himself, and as he’s readying a return shot, his bow is taken from his hand by an unseen force. In short order, everyone’s weapons are stolen, and it turns out all the weapons are in the grips of Demodragon’s tentacles. I knew all those tentacles were a bad idea.

Venger gloats, and the kids are about to get eaten by Demodragon. Now that’s a cliffhanger!

***

After the commercial break, though, we learn the joke’s on Venger, too: Demodragon’s not listening to him any more. Demodragon resists Venger’s commands, breathing fire and ice on Venger’s troops when Venger demands the weapons. Meanwhile, the kids are falling apart; Sheila says they don’t stand a chance without their weapons, and Eric demands Hank prove himself worthy of his leadership role: “Hank, you’re the leader! What do we do now?”

Demodragon has stolen the party’s weapons “The only thing we can do: Run!” Hank replies. Now that’s inspirational leadership! Eric says, “I could’ve thought of that,” which is true. By not giving the order earlier, it seems Hank might have frozen when confronted with a difficult decision. It’s a poor quality for someone who leads people in battle, although it jibes with the general lack of battlefield direction from Hank. In Hank’s defense, though Demodragon is turning the area in front of Tardos into a kaiju movie, which should rattle anyone.

Venger demands the weapons again, and for his trouble, Demodragon roasts him, knocking him from the sky. Eric is puzzled by evil turning in upon itself — I suppose that Dragonlance adage was a few years in the future — but Solinara says, “Your weapons have broken Venger’s spell of control.” Oh, yeah? Where did you get your degree in arcane studies, Solinara? The Tower of High Sorcery at Wayreth or Palanthus? Studying with Elminster or Blackstaff? Grey College in Greyhawk? I want to see credentials!

Venger, recovered from his immolation, begins the argument that all fathers fear and all sons secretly long for: The dominance argument, with the elder’s main support is that they gained the moral high ground by once satisfying a primal urge. “I created you,” Venger says, pointing at Demodragon. He sounds more disappointed than angry. “You cannot defy me.” He whups out the corporal punishment as a first move, but Demodragon is too big for him to put over his knee, and the two exchange blasts while they move a large rock behind the dmaged door of Tardos Keep.

Demodragon wreaking destructionWhile the kids moan about their lot, Eric says he’s more concerned about his stomach than the battles outside. “How can you think of food at a time like this?” Sheila whines. Hey, an army marches on its stomach. Taking care of basic human needs is a must in a war, and if you can’t see that, you’re going to lose.

Eric summons the “shrimp” to go scrounge food with him, and although Bobby bristles at the label, he follows Eric. Meanwhile, the others listen to Solinara yammering on about Tardos’s problems, the worst of which is probably the broken chameleon circuit. Well, maybe they’ll get it fixed … Venger isn’t interested in that, though — he wants the treasure: Dragonbane, an herb that dragons are real allergic too. Solinara doesn’t want to give it to Venger because it will allow him to dominate or destroy Tiamat. I’m surprised Tiamat’s name is used in the episode, if only because she’s not mentioned in any other way and she’s not even in the intro this season. I’m also impressed at how late Presto is about saying the name “Tiamat”; a second after the rest of the party has figured out the strategic importance of dragonbane, he figures out what’s going on. Nice work, nerd.

He’s also the one who asks, “How come you didn’t just dump some of that stuff on Demodragon?” Because then Venger would collect it, dork. After Solinara explains that to him, Presto does bring up the idea that if Demodragon breaks down the doors, Venger will get the dragonbane anyway. Presto is getting some Eric-like ideas: “Sheesh! You risk your people, your city, us, to protect some —”

Solinara weepingBut Solinara has an excuse; someone who’s friends with Dungeon Master is always going to have an excuse about why they can’t do what you want this time. For good measure, she even turns on the waterworks as she leads them to the city’s underground (but extremely well lit) pools. “Our people are hiding in a land far away,” she says to Sheila, the softest of a group of soft touches. “We who remain are volunteers. We stay to guard the dragonbane and if the gates fall, to destroy it … then Venger would surely destroy us.”

Meanwhile, Eric, Bobby, and Uni tour the (well-lit, underground) gardens. They come across an old man, sitting on a bench. “I am pleased you like my gardens,” he says. As a gift, he puts a wreath of greenery around Uni’s neck: “It will bring luck.” You know it will because it makes a tinkling noise as the old man puts it around Uni’s neck.

“It's probably poison ivy,” Eric says, and Bobby gives him an exasperated “Eric!” When a barbarian is embarrassed by your lack of social skills, it may be time to admit you have a problem. The awkwardness is cut short when they hear a roaring sound; they dash back to the rest of the party. Meanwhile, the camera pans down off the old man, and we see his reflection change to that of Dungeon Master.

Dungeon Master’s reflection in the waterYou know the garland’s dragonbane, right? There’s no other reason for Dungeon Master to take a direct hand for once. It’s fitting that one of his few acts to help the kids is to essentially violating a ban on exports.

***

The queen’s advisor tells Solinara Venger’s forces will attack again soon; the queen reacts in a rather unqueenly manner, balling up the report on the situation and running off in a huff. Tardos is stuck with her, though; it’s too late for a revolution. We’ll have to hope for their sakes that the bureaucracy is able to keep the war running smoothly.

When Sheila whines that they have to get their weapons back, Eric says, “You’re out of your mind! How are we going to get them away from Godzilla?” At this point, Diana brings up Dungeon Master’s advice — “by helping the one that stands against you” — and now everyone, even the slow Presto, understands that that is Venger. “I never thought I’d say it,” Hank says, “but Venger is our only hope.” Sure, sure, because Anansi knows Dungeon Master isn’t going to help. Well, help any more.

Eric and SheilaThe kids slip out the crack in the door while Solinara watches impassively, as if thinking, “I thought they’d never take the hint.” The soldiers slide the massive rock back into place, never to be moved again, Odin willing.

***

“Make friends with Venger,” Eric says. “Oh, sure. How are we supposed to do that?” Presto has a decent answer: “Buy him another horn for his helmet?” Sheila wonders how they’re going to find Venger or Demodragon, but since Demodragon is setting the horizon on fire, neither Hank nor I think that will be difficult. (How did Sheila miss seeing what looks like a giant sun setting over the mountains? Is she dumb or blind?)

Orcs advancingVenger watches Demodragon set bits of the desert on fire. I wouldn’t be amused by that for very long, but then again, the Realm doesn’t have Internet, as far as I know. “Demodragon’s out of control,” Venger says, “more powerful than I planned. He will destroy the Realm unless something is done.”

“Together we can do that something, Venger,” Hank says as he leads the party into the command center of Venger’s army. Are Orcs that pathetic at setting pickets and performing guard duty, or has Hank summoned up some reserves of competence previously hidden? I’m betting the former. “You want to defeat Demodragon, and so do we. Let’s join forces.”

That is called “laying all the cards on the table,” I think. Venger is not impressed by the proposed alliance: “You are a fool. Without your weapons, you are nothing.” Bobby counters that they’ve fought Venger without their weapons before “but still whipped you.” Well … Presto lost his hat in “The Night of No Tomorrow,” but that’s hardly an impediment. In “The Hall of Bones,” they didn’t’ so much beat Venger as avoid him long enough to recharge their weapons. In “In Search of the Dungeon Master,” Sheila recovered their weapons before they fought Venger. The best evidence to Bobby’s claim is “Servant of Evil,” in which they defeated Venger and Lizardfolk who were wielding their weapons with the help of a morally slow giant and another guy with weapons.

Venger casting a spellVenger’s Orcs, upset at this insult, advance, but Venger stills them with a word. “I agree to your proposal,” Venger says and tells Hank to hold out his hands. When Hank hesitates, Venger smirks and asks, “Afraid?” Hank is as unable to resist insults to his courage as Marty McFly, so he sticks out his hands. Venger conjures a gaudy talisman as big as a dinner plate and tells Hank to aim the gewgaw at Demodragon and say his name. He doesn’t say what will happen when they do that, though, and the Orcs nudge one another, happy to be in on the joke this time.

“The trusting fools,” Venger says after the party leaves. “Shadow Demon, take the Orcs, and … how should I say: assist our dragonslayers?”

***

The kids find Demodragon without trouble. How could they not? His cries shake the skies for miles around, his fires outshine the moons. “Let’s hope Venger’s gadget works,” Hank says, advancing on the monster with the talisman held in front of him: The power of Venger compels you! The power of Venger compels you!

Hank with talismanOf course it doesn’t. Hank might has well have confronted Demodragon with a tin foil hat and a colander of kale. The talisman does focus a blue pinpoint of light on Demodragon, but it has no effect. Venger evidently gave them a magic flashlight. (What it shows is that Demodragon is evidently two dragons sharing a demon dragon suit. Weird. Realms cosplay!)

“Nothing’s happening!” Eric shouts. “Venger ripped us off!” Well, since he didn’t charge anything, it’s hard to say he ripped you off. He certainly double crossed you, though. Eric knocks the talisman from Hank’s hands, then leads the retreat. The talisman explodes slightly as it slumps against a rock. Typical shoddy Gnomish workmanship. I tell you: If you want quality work, then you have to buy from (or enslave) Dwarven craftsmen.

Hank tells the others to “get down” (and presumably get funky; this is 1984, after all) and cover their eyes. He makes a dash to the broken talisman, narrowly avoiding getting char-broiled, before smashing the talisman. Demodragon thrashes in the glare of the explosion, and Hank is vaporized.

No! Sorry. Mustn’t drift into the fantasy world. Doctor says I need to keep my mind in reality. And take the pills, all those lovely red and white pills …

Demodragon lit up with lightDemodragon thrashes around blindly while Hank rallies the party. “Now’s our chance!” he says, not hearing how idiotic that sounds. Eric picks up on it: “To do what? That thing’s bigger than my dad’s bank account!” No one listens to Eric, of course. They all charge toward Demodragon.

A diversion: I read a lot of statistical analysis of baseball, primarily from Fangraphs.com. The writers will occasionally emphasize that they are interested in a process-driven approach. They want to find the right process. Baseball has a lot of random results, so sometimes the right process (the one that will generate the most wins or runs in the long run) does not pan out with favorable results in the short term. For most of baseball’s history, the game has been results-driven; that is, whatever gets a good result is repeated, over and over, even if it isn’t efficient. Everyone imitates winners, even if they don’t have the personnel to get their results. Even the winners might be doing things “wrong,” in ways that prevents them from getting the best results. Winners don’t care — they’ve won, after all — but when they try to get those results again, they often can’t because the process is flawed.

That’s the difference between Hank and Eric here. Eric’s process is correct: they are unlikely to win. They have learned things that could help them in a future confrontation, but even a blinded Demodragon isn’t vulnerable to their fists. If Hank knew the talisman would explode, the right process would have been to save that explosion for a later plan. Hank, however, relies on a results-based operating philosophy: The party has gotten the right results — survival, mainly — by attacking monsters without much of a plan. Things just work out: see the monster, beat the monster. Simple.

Hank should have been eaten several times over by now. Just saying.

This time both the process and results look awful as Hank and Diana are easily driven off by Demodragon’s flailing tail; in the chaos of the retreat, Eric falls down, and Uni for some reason slumps next to him. Demodragon picks both of them up, and Eric says, “I hope we at least give him a stomachache!” That’s some good quipping, Eric. I mean, I wouldn’t want those to be my final words, but hopefully they’ll keep up the spirits of your comrades as they hear Demodragon’s powerful jaws crunch your bones.

Demondragon turning whiteAh, but remember: Uni’s wearing the crunchberry — sorry, dragonbane — garland. As soon as Demodragon touches it, he becomes as sparkly and pale as a Mormon vampire. Demodragon gently places Eric, Uni, and the weapons on the ground as it goes into its death throes, then vanishes in a sparkly puff. (Also like a Mormon vampire, I guess.)

The kids are gapemouthed and stupid. Diana thinks Presto magicked Demodragon away without his hat, which HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. “I couldn't have done it with ten hats,” Presto says. True. Sheila — who looks weird without her cape, by the way — figures out the truth. Eric claims he knew what Uni was wearing, and that’s why he risked his life to get Uni to Demodragon. “Do you expect us to believe that?” Bobby asks.

But Shadow Demon and the Orcs arrive to interrupt the kids’ exploration of beliefs, demanding they surrender their weapons. Sure, why not demand that? Maybe this time Presto will crack completely. Sheila hides the dragonbane while Hank blusters, but Shadow Demon isn’t buying it. Eric comes up with a decent strategy: “There might be a zillion of you, but we’ve got one of him,” he says, pointing to Presto. “Who do you think zapped ol’ Demodragon, the Tooth Fairy? … Listen, Shadow Demon, don’t get him mad, or he’ll turn you into … uh, he’ll turn you into …”

Presto sweating“Creamed spinach?” Presto asks. Sounds good to Eric, who was really grasping at straws there. Unfortunately, the enemy is not deterred, and the Orcs attack — until they are stopped by a blast from Venger. “Beware what you say when you speak of magic, wizard,” Venger says, “or you shall see who has the greater power.” Presto is suitably cowed. “As for you, Ranger: you have destroyed that which I created. How, I am not yet certain. But you have restored the balance. Now we are even. The next time we meet expect no favors.”

“Likewise, Venger,” Hank says, which is a decent parting shot, although I don’t know if I would sass a guy who made the inexplicable decision to not betray and destroy me like he had planned. To each his own, I suppose. Since Venger is holding all the cards, he gets the last word in: “So be it.”

Everyone is amazed they have been spared. They troop back to Tardos, hoping the Doctor hasn’t left already; Eric just wants a decent meal. Who can blame him? But the talk turns to Venger: “Do you think maybe Venger’s not all bad?” she asks. Eric scoffs: “Sure — and Genghis Khan was a stand-up comic.” Cue laughter from the kids and tears from Dungeon Master.

Dungeon Master crying“You are wrong, Cavalier,” Dungeon Master says. “There was good in Venger once … Everyone makes mistakes; Venger was mine.” Then think of how much trouble you could have saved, Dungeon Master, with a magical prophylactic. If you couldn’t shield your rocket, you should have left it in your pocket. I wonder who the mother is, though? Given Venger’s appearance, I think it’s likely Dungeon Master has a weakness for the bad girls.

You will be able to overcome your weaknesses if you learn these lessons:
  • You have to be pretty perverse to enjoy a “dirty unicorn.”
  • The best defense against a world-destroying monster is a fancied-up pony with neckwear made of herbs.
  • If you find someone who’s willing to do the hard work, let your layabout friends know who to manipulate into getting their work done as well. I mean, even Venger takes advantage of the kids.
  • Results are more important than process, which is more important than eating.
  • Having a group of “pupils” means never having to do anything about that “mistake” you made a long, long time ago.
  • I could’ve made a lot more Doctor Who jokes.
Going home tally: No portal is mentioned this time. They’ve found five portals home; two of those times they’ve briefly gone through the portal.

Monster tally: One monster from the Monster Manual; Demodragon doesn’t appear in any first edition materials. Totals: MM: 32; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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The Baseball Prophet has spoken; Armageddon is nigh

14th Oct. 2016 | 02:35 pm

Canadian author W.P. Kinsella died about a month ago at the age of 81. In his long writing career, Kinsella wrote a great deal about Canada, especially about its First Nations people. However, he was best known for writing fiction about baseball. His novel Shoeless Joe was the basis for the movie Field of Dreams; I first encountered Kinsella in 1986, when I was still in grade school, when Sports Illustrated excerpted his then-new novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

The SI version, cut down to a couple dozen glossy pages with illustrations, described the 1909 Cubs playing against an Iowa semi-pro all-star team. The game, originally planned as Game 1 of a July 4 doubleheader, lasts until dark, with the score still tied. The Cubs manager decides to stay in Iowa until a winner is determined; the Cubs’ reserves are sent to play the team’s schedule as the game stretches on for weeks. In addition to the story of the game, there are fantasy elements: a rift in time take two modern (as in 1978) men back to watch and play in the game, Leonardo da Vinci shows up in a hot-air balloon, a stone graveyard angel joins the game on the Confederacy’s side, and play continues without a hitch after a player is struck by lightning and killed. (I still can’t see lightning without thinking, “God’s instrument,” which is what the crowd at the game says every time a flash lit the sky … including the time the rightfielder was struck.)

I enjoyed the mixture of baseball and fantasy enough I read the entire book the following spring, sitting in the back of my parents’ ’86 Tempo as we went to Mississippi to visit some of Dad’s family. I remember the book as a massive tome, a giant hardback that felt like it was 500 pages, but that’s just how memory plays tricks on a person. I have a copy downstairs, and it is an average-sized paperback, a few hundred pages of normal-sized type. It’s not a daunting book at all — it’s a book I could pick up at any time and finish a few hours later.

What SI published left out a lot of stuff … the literary and human stuff, I’d say now, but back then, the narrator’s romance wasn’t of much interest to me, nor was the Iowans’ strange Christian sect or anything else that didn’t directly relate to the course of the game, as strange as it was. Come to think of it, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy was my first encounter with magical realism, and I can’t remember it phasing me at all. Strange things can happen in a baseball game; ask any baseball fan. Even at 10 years old, I think I understood that, even if I realized time travel and animate cemetery statuary were not particularly likely outcomes among baseball’s myriad near-impossibilities.

The Thrill of the Grass coverThe Iowa Baseball Confederacy is my favorite Kinsella work, but even before I heard of his death, I had been planning to re-read one of his short stories because of its relevance to this major-league season. “The Last Pennant before Armageddon” is the first story in Kinsella’s 1984 collection The Thrill of the Grass. In “Last Pennant,” the Chicago Cubs run away with their division, but their manager, Al Tiller, is haunted by dreams of Cubs fans in heaven asking God to let the Cubs win the National League — not the World Series; just the National League. The Cubs had not won the league since 1945 or the World Series since 1908. (Neither of those facts have changed since the story was published.) However, the manager learns through an archangel prophesying to a radio show in St. Louis that if the Cubs win the pennant, it will be the last pennant before Armageddon. (Later, God confirms this in the manager’s dreams; it does not discourage or dissuade the Cubs fans pleading for the Cubs to win the pennant.)

With international tensions heating up after a Soviet invasion / putsch in Sri Lanka, Tiller considers sabotaging the Cubs chances, but there’s little he can do, given his talented personnel and the team’s lead. As America threatens to liberate Sri Lanka and the Soviets threaten extreme retaliation, the Cubs take on the Dodgers in the playoffs. The first four games are blowouts, and nothing Tiller does could influence the game at all. But in the deciding Game 5 — the league championship series were best of five back then — the game is tied in the ninth. His pitcher is tiring; two are on, with two out. Tiller could go to his closer to send the game into extra innings, or he could stick with his starter. Either choice, given the ethos of the time, is acceptable, but leaving his starter in is more likely to lose the game for the Cubs. Which does Tiller value more: winning the National League or avoiding the possible end of the world?

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who wants to read it. Kinsella’s story was prophetic, released in a year in which the Cubs not only won the NL East but also lost in the fifth game of the playoffs. (They lost to San Diego, not Los Angeles, and they lost not because of a manager’s decision but because San Diego rallied in the sixth and seventh, with the tying run scoring on an error by Cubs first baseman Leon Durham.) 1984 was the last year the league championship series were best of five; the next year they became best-of-seven affairs.

This year the Cubs won more than 100 games and have their best team in decades. They are the best team in the National League, something that hasn’t been true since 2008. (That team was swept in the NLDS that year.) They stand a good chance of winning the National League this year, if not the World Series. They even play the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series this year, although it will be in a best-of-seven series, not best of five. The parallels are striking, although Joe Maddon, the manager of the Cubs, is no Tiller; Tiller was an itinerant baseball manager, hired because he’d take the crap the owner dished out. Maddon was highly sought after, the rare manager who was courted as a free agent. The Cubs even gave the “it’s us, not you” speech when they kicked first-year manager Rick Renteria, whom they had nothing but praise for, to the curb. Maddon has proven himself as someone who would get his closer without a moment’s hesitation, making the climactic decision in the story very unlikely in 2016. (Few managers would hesitate to get the closer today.) Maddon has also never struck me as someone who would let the (possible) end of the world stand in the way of a pennant.

But … look, I’m not saying I really believe the world will end if the Cubs win the National League. But with the mess the presidential election is, the rising specter of Trump and the realization of what his seemingly unshakeable support means, the threat of terrorism, a looming new cold war with Russia that could erupt into a hot war over Ukraine or Syria or the Baltics or somewhere else the Russians want to meddle in, there’s an apocalyptic charge in the air. Let’s just say I’m not eager to see the Cubs in the Worlds Series. No, I don’t think the world will end if the Cubs win the National League Championship Series …

But if they win the World Series? I’ll be buying freeze-dried food, hazmat suits, and enough guns to fill a bomb crater.

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Dungeons & Dragons #14: The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow

8th Oct. 2016 | 03:43 am

The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow title card

Original air date: 8 September 1984
Writer: Karl Geurs

As you might be able to tell from the air date, “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow” is the kickoff for Season Two of the series. It’s a relief to me to finally be done with Season 1, but other than my personal sense of well-being, not much changes between seasons for Dungeons & Dragons. The idea for Saturday morning cartoons at that time was to sprinkle a few new episodes — the eight in Season 2, six in Season 3 — into the rotation to give the older episodes a little extra life. Because of this, adding weird ideas like “plot and character development” was forbidden; these episodes were the entertainment equivalent of bread that stretches the meatloaf.

That’s not to say these episodes are any lower in quality than the first season. This episode, for instance, is an excellent episode, with some nice writing by Karl Geurs and great animation by Toei; the only flaws are a few moments that make Eric dance like an organ grinder’s monkey for others’ amusement. But overall, these episodes are more of the same, with Dungeon Master leading the kids on and getting them to do his black bag work all over the Realms.

Oh! One thing that does change is the intro — gone are Tiamat, Venger, and the roll call. For Seasons 2 and 3, we see the kids fighting enemies and hear Venger stating in a voiceover, “There is no escape from the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons.” (The intro on my DVD doesn’t change, though — it always remains the same Season 1 intro.)

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow” on Youtube. (It has the Season 1 intro.) Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Eric realizing he’s not as clever as he thinks he isThe episode starts, once again, with the party fleeing from monsters, this time on a narrow mountain ledge. The monsters in this case are Bullywugs, who stream toward the kids as they climb a … vine, I guess? Maybe a rope, although I don’t know what a rope would be doing there. Anyway, as the party uses the vine to swing across a canyon, a couple of Bullywugs leap after them and to their deaths. Such are the wages of Bullywug sin, I suppose. Eric, who anchors the vine, taunts the Bullywugs with lines like “Your mother’s a tadpole!” When the vine reaches the other side, everyone jumps off, except for Eric, who — chuckling over his own wit — goes swinging back to the other side. When he realizes what has happened, he gives the camera a look like Wile E. Coyote just before a huge rock falls on him. All that’s missing is a tiny sign saying, “eep.”

But Eric doesn’t fall into the canyon, and no boulder falls on him; in fact, nothing bad happens to him. A trio of Bullywugs jump on the bottom of the vine, which makes no sense, given how close Eric was to the bottom to begin with. But rather than just laughing at Eric, which is the group’s standard m.o., Hank helps him, shooting the rope below Eric’s feet and sending the Bullywugs plummeting into the river at the canyon’s bottom. The Bullywugs land on the Bullywugs that had previously fallen — not on their dead bodies, though. The Bullywugs not only survived the more than 100-feet fall but were beginning to stand up. However, having their comrades fall on them probably crushed their spines (or notochord, or whatever they have).

Roller coaster car covered by foliageEric complains he could have been hit by Hank’s arrow as he flies off the rope and crashes into the underbrush; nothing like a pratfall to humiliate Eric as he’s being ungrateful. While he’s still muttering imprecations toward his allies, he stubs his toes on something — a car from the Dungeons & Dragons roller coaster, as it turns out. It’s a nice callback, especially since we’re starting the second season. Bobby thinks the car might take them home, so Hank asks Presto to whip up a spell “to get it working.” I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, given that there’s no power source and no tracks, but that’s not the biggest obstacle — that remains Presto’s incompetence (ignoring the previous episode).

Before Presto can do anything, the Bullywugs cross the canyon, charging at the heroes, who hide. Very well, as it turns out; the Bullywugs, unable to find the kids, take out their frustration on the car. “Filthy barbarians,” Eric says, and while I think Eric’s ingratitude plus his crash into the underbrush is excessive, this seems exactly the kind of elitist thing he would say, even when Bobby reminds him, “Watch it … That’s my nickname.”

And I’m also glad that unlike last season, Eric has decided not to let himself be pushed around by a 9-year-old. “Oh, please, forgive me, Sir Bobby,” he says. “But I’ve had a bad day. Do you mind?” And then he gets jumped by a mutant dog, which knocks him down. The clatter alerts the Bullywugs, although I’m not sure how they heard it over their ineffectual clanking against the car.

Dog tries to eat Eric’s footAlthough Eric has regained his feet, the St. Bernard-ish dog, which looks like it has hooves instead of paws, has grabbed one of them in its mouth. “Would you relax?” Bobby says. “He just wants us to follow him.” Yeah, right, kid. If a dog that size bit my foot, I wouldn’t think, “I should follow this dog!” I would be thinking, “After I bludgeon Cujo here to death, I need a rabies shot.”

Everyone rushes after the dog. “I’m not following something that looks like that,” Eric says, and of course he’s forced to when he sees the Bullywugs rushing toward him. That’s just Comedy 101, although I wish to Crom somebody would move on to Comedy 102.

***

Bobby, Uni, and the dog stare down an unseen enemyWe cut to a bunch of Lizardfolk standing listening to a crying child. Ah, the children of the … men. And women. What music they make! The camera turns, and we see Bobby and the pets standing nearby. Bobby’s club has swollen considerably — shut up, I know he’s a child — and the dog has turned from “ostensibly adorable pet” into a slavering hellbeast. Well, that was quick. The Toei animation here is a little unsettling, and there’s something about the long shadows from the setting sun that adds a bit of emotional oomph.

It turns out it’s a girl, tied to a tree, who is crying. The party charges to her rescue, and save for Eric, too busy trying to warn somebody about the Bullywugs, the kids kick a lot of lizard tail. Even Presto gets in a good spell, conjuring up a door (without saying anything); when a Lizardfolk warrior runs through the door, it disappears, the door shuts, and the whole thing rolls up like a windowshade before disappearing. I’m not sure I’m ready for a world where Presto is competent. It’s … unsettling.

After Sheila frees the girl — you know, I’ll just bet this girl dreams tomorrow, probably on a regular basis — she starts calling out for Diana. “Get her away from the tree!” she shouts. Diana steps away, and two Lizardfolk fall from the tree onto the two Lizardfolk she was fighting.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the teeming, hurrying Lizardfolk troops, Eric’s prancing around like he needs to find a bathroom, except instead of needing to take a whizz, he needs to shout into the toilet that the Bullwugs are coming. In the end, he grabs a Lizardfolk and yells about the Bullywugs at it. While he’s being chased, though, Sheila, Diana, Bobby, and Uni are having a nice chat with Terri, the Blue Girl (dressed in blue jeans, a blue shirt, and shoes that match the shirt), as the chaotic battle rages a few feet away. It’s good of the Lizardfolk to give the girls (and Bobby) some privacy.

Bullywugs and Lizardfolk spearing EricEric’s running about takes him face first into a Bullywug, and pretty soon he’s captured by Bullywugs. Then he’s captured by Lizardfolk. Then the two groups keep tossing him into the air like a ragdoll with their spearpoints. Oh, it’s hilarious! Grudgingly, Sheila says, “My turn,” before going to help Eric. Sure, Sheila, you’ve done so much this battle — you untied a girl! Nicely done. Meanwhile, Eric was trying to get vital intelligence to you. Some gratitude you have.

Sheila does the old divide-and-conquer bit, albeit in a hemiglutteal fashion: she calls the Lizardfolk leader (he’s got a shirt, he must be the leader) “snake face,” then slaps his ass. Why, Sheila — I had no idea! Fortunately, the Lizardfolk leader knows it’s sexual harassment, and he doesn’t have to take it. Unfortunately, he seeks redress against the Bullywug leader (he’s got a dumb hat, so he must be the leader) and tosses him out of the scrum. High-level reasoning: The Bullywugs haven’t spoken a word of Common / English ever, so it’s unlikely a Bullywug called him “snake face.” The falling-out between the two groups becomes more violent; before, they were fighting over Eric, but now they’re fighting over pride! And blood. And to find out who’s better at killing violence.

Sheila pulls Eric out of the scrum, remembering to stay invisible, while Eric, frozen, babbles incoherently. Terri expresses concern over Eric’s trauma, but Hank shrugs it off: “Eric just gets like that every once in a while.” He adds, “We abandon him to fight monsters all the time while we just watch and mock his inability to handle intense danger and near-death experiences. It’s a laugh riot! And then we passive-aggressively call him a jackhole when he doesn’t kiss our asses. You’re gonna love it.”

Well, no, he doesn’t say that last speech. But he probably should have, to let Terri (and her dog, Freddie) know what she’s in for.

***

Campfire on a plainOut on the Serengeti, in the light of the three moons, the kids build a bonfire that can be seen from space as Terri tells them how she got to the Realms: through the D&D ride, just like them. Her dog jumped onto the car before they could stop him, “just like he knew something was going to happen,” which raises the obvious question: What amusement park, even in 1984, allowed non-service dogs? That seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Presto wants to know how Terri knew to warn Diana: “You got a crystal ball, or what?” Terri tells them she had a precognitive dream the night before, her first in the Realms. “Except for you guys, everything in this world has been a bad dream,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” Eric says as he tries to sleep, tossing aside a bug that makes a disconcerting squeaking noise. Then he buries his head in frustration as he sees Dungeon Master striding into camp. “Ah, not now!”

Forbidding mountain peaksTerri is amazed Dungeon Master knows her name; Bobby says Dungeon Master knows “all kinds of things.” “Huh,” Eric says, “everything except the way home.” Not so, says DM: “A portal to your homeworld lies within those mountains.” Everyone looks adoringly onto the mountains, which look like they may be called the Impalement Peaks. Eric, of course, wants to know what the catch is. Man, do you see those mountains? They make Caradhras look merciful in comparison.

But Dungeon Master says the catch is that “before they leave, they must destroy [the way home].” “And if we destroy it, it can’t get us home, right?” Eric says, disgusted. “Sheesh.” I’m with you, Eric. This seems like a bug hunt.

Presto wants to know how they can find the portal, and even though I expected Dungeon Master to disappear rather than respond, he gives an answer: “The portal lies within the Maze of Darkness. To find it, you must first become lost.”

“I’ll tell you who ought to get lost: You, you little … invisible …” Eric trails off as Dungeon Master has disappeared. Unsurprising! Also unsurprising: Hank is consoling Terri, telling her they’ll find the way home. Of course, he makes no claim that they’ll actually get home, because even Hank has some scruples about lying to children.

After Bobby gets across a subtle diss about Terri’s age and inexperience, Terri still wishes him a good night. Bobby replies with a perfect disinterested, “Yeah, g’night.” As clouds roll in, Shadow Demon flies away to tattle to Venger.

***

“They defeated the Bullywugs and my Lizardmen?” Venger shouts, his reverb up higher than usual. “They must have fought well.” Well, kinda. But Shadow Demon doesn’t contradict him; he puts the blame on Terri. Yeah, that’s what made the difference. I have to admire Shadow Demon’s ability to slough blame here: “Your soldiers aren’t incompetents defeated by light horseplay! They lost because a 9-year-old told someone about her dreams.” I admit that I would run screaming from someone who tried to tell me about their dreams, but that’s not what happened. Unsurprisingly, Venger is interested in acquiring this young girl.

***

Sheila and Terri, asleepBack at the camp, team mom Sheila has fallen asleep in probably the most uncomfortable position ever, sitting upright with her legs beneath her and leaning against a rock. She’s allowing Terri to use her lap as a pillow, though, so it’s for a good cause — especially after Terri’s heart-shaped locket twinkles, and she begins to have another of her special dreams …

The portal appears as a huge glowing light above a pyramid, and it sucks the kids into it. Hank is overjoyed as the Realms Rapture begins; he always knew he’d be chosen. But Bobby, Terri, and the animals are left behind, and their way is blocked by a Venger-shaped shadow. The shadow changes into a five-headed pyrohydra, which grabs Bobby and Uni; Bobby shouts for Terri to run. Terri flees into an immense labyrinth, and in her mad dash, she runs into a gigantic hole. I mean, the hole is obvious, and it makes Terri look as if she spontaneously decided to end it all. Like many dreams, it ends with her falling, falling, falling …

When she wakes up from her bad dream with Bobby and Sheila hovering over her, she immediately lunges into Bobby’s arms and begins sobbing. Not the reaction I would have expected, but OK — I suppose if my prophetic dream showed me to be suicidal or terminally stupid, it might be upsetting. Eric, sleeping apart from the rest, asks, “What’s all the racket?” When Presto tells Eric that Terri had a bad dream, Eric says, “This whole place is a bad dream. Tell her to shut up. I’m trying to —”

Diana and Hank conferBobby angrily cuts him off before he can finish, but for once, Hank’s on Eric’s side: “Cool it, Bobby. Let’s get back to sleep.” Sounds like someone doesn’t like kids much. Was there a pregnancy scare in your past, Hank? Don’t worry — I won’t judge. No, that’s a lie: I will totally judge. Maybe Diana will too: “Hank, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I’m trying not to,” Hank says, with a resentful look back at Terri. Oh, yeah. He’s totally a guy who doesn’t want to be tied down by a kid. No, I’m joking; he says, “I sure hope Terri’s bad dream wasn’t about us.”

***

In a confectionary landscape, Eric announces breakfast is on its way. “I thought you said Eric couldn't find food if it came up and bit him,” Terri says. This is slander! None of them can find food. Actually, the only time I remember anyone finding food was in The Garden of Zinn, when Eric tried to filch Solars’s basket of food. That puts him ahead of everyone else.

Bobby and Terri riding lizard chickensIn this case, he tries to use Terri’s dog to rustle up something. His “friends” suggest breakfast will be stinkweed stew or boiled beetles or dragon dumplings (those are really good — I suggest you try them if you ever get a chance), but hearing some clucking, Eric thinks it will be chicken. Unfortunately, Freddie flushes chocobos from the brush. Terri and Bobby briefly ride the lizard birds before being thrown. The two kids think their lack of chicken-riding ability is hilarious, which makes me suspect the flowers they fell on are hallucinogenic.

Anyway, while Diana and Sheila snicker behind him, Eric is incensed they couldn't capture the giant chickens, using the “couldn't catch food if it came up and bit you” line on them. He is, of course, correct. The question of who can or can’t find food is interrupted by the five-headed pyrohydra from Terri’s dream, who wants to make all of them food. Funny how the incompetent, disinterested hunters becomes the hunted. It’s a story as old as time.

The hydra grabs Uni as an hors d’oeuvre; Bobby, rather than charging, tells Terri to run, just like in the dream. Terri — most likely remembering how that went in her dream — decides to go out swinging … her impotent fists against the hydra’s caudal area. Shamed by Terri’s bravery, Hank finally starts firing arrows. Presto keeps Sheila from doing anything heroic as the hydra drops Uni and Bobby. The kids are fine, though, and they are even finer when Eric uses his shield to block the hydra’s fire breath. The hydra has evidently squeezed the sense out of Bobby, because he asks what Eric’s doing. “Being stupid,” Eric says as the kids retreat under a handy waterfall.

The party under a waterfallPresto, always one to look on the bad side, thinks they’re trapped, but Bobby knows brute force and ignorance will win out over pessimism every day. He smashes the cave wall, and instead of drowning them all as the water from the lake above flows into their cave, the water knocks over the hydra and washes it downstream. I’m not a geologist or hydrographer, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it should work. On the other hand: Magic club.

(Geek aside: The pyrohydra is one of three types of hydra, a multi-headed giant reptile, in the Monster Manual. The pyrohydra is differentiated from the lernaean hydra and the regular, vanilla hydra by its ability to breathe fire. Hydras have five to twelve heads — roll 1d8 and add 4 — but pyrohydras rarely have more than seven heads, according to the MM. Even so, this pyrohydra, with only five heads, is a smaller one. For those of you who know classical mythology, only the lernaean hydra grow new heads in 1st edition D&D.)

As everyone walks out of the cave, Bobby proclaims Terri’s attack on the hydra “the bravest thing I ever saw.” She tries to deflect the attention onto Eric — his shield did save them from being vaporized — so Bobby says, “That was only the second bravest thing I ever saw.” That’s fair, because as Bobby points out, Terri didn’t have any magic.

Eric’s a bit put out by this, as you might imagine; “Hey, don’t everyone thank me at once,” he says. Presto and Sheila, walking behind him, say in a singsong chorus, “Thank you, Eric.” That made me laugh unironically. It’s a good joke all around; it doesn’t make up for Eric being a prancing dipwad throughout the scenes with the Bullywugs and Lizardfolk, but it’s still nice.

But Venger, who’s following the kids, is no joke. “I must find the source of the girl’s power,” he says to himself. OK, man, but I think the source is that locket and My Little Pony fanfic, and neither one suits you. But he’s focused on his goals: “Then I will see into tomorrow, and she will dream no more.” The threat is almost Shakespearean, in its way.

***

Party among obsidian spikesSince the Realms hates the kids, their path leads them through a field full of sharp obsidian projections. After Eric tears his cape and Diana shouts in pain, Hank says, “Be careful: some of these rocks are sharp as knives.” Yeah, thanks, Hank. Your hindsight is working perfectly well.

Presto decides to call up a spell that will turn the rocks to rubber. That’s an idea, Presto, but Standards and Practices is not OK showing a field full of rubber, vaguely phallic objects. S&P sends the Venger-shaped shadow from Terri’s dream to intervene; the shadow twists and turns into a sandstorm. The wind starts breaking off the tips of the rocks and pelting the kids with sharp, rocky debris that should be ripping the flesh from their bodies. But it’s a kids’ cartoon, so instead the party reacts like it’s just windy. As Hank shouts out helpful directions, like “Stay together!” and “This way!,” Bobby decides he wants to beat the crap out of the wind with his club. I don’t know what you’re trying to hit, Bobby, but good luck to you, man. It didn’t work for King Lear, but hey, he didn’t have friends he could trust (or a magic club), so maybe friendship’s the key to battling the elements.

***

After the commercial, the dog leads them through a large stone gate, and Hank and the others push it shut after themselves. Whew! I thought they’d have to do something more than casually saunter on a windy day.

The Maze of DarknessAfter they shut the door, they find they’ve trapped themselves in the maze Terri saw in her dream the night before. That’s bad, but there’s an immense portal home on the other side of the labyrinth. That’s good! But it’s full of traps — that’s bad. Eric wants nothing to do with the maze — “You’ll just get lost,” he says, and he’s unimpressed when Presto brings up Dungeon Master’s advice that they have to get lost before they can get home — but before he can convince anyone to help him open the door, it’s melted shut from the outside.

“Three guesses who did it,” Eric says, and Bobby responds, a quarter questioning, “Venger?” I personally would have stumped for Dungeon Master; I mean, he really wants you to go through the maze, and he’s not the kind of being to brook insubordination. But the culprit is Venger, who tells his suddenly wingless nightmare, “Now let the young fools dream of going home.” OK, then.

The maze does turn out to have traps; Eric almost falls into a pit trap as Presto says, “That’s the third trap in the last two hours.” That seems somewhat less than “full of traps,” but I suppose the volume of traps would seem larger if it’s your life on the line. The party has Diana doing perhaps the most 1st edition D&D thing I’ve seen: testing the floor for traps using her staff. She needs a longer staff, though; it’s tradition to use the ten-feet pole from the equipment lists. (Or a donkey, or a hireling; these are also seen as good trap testers, although I don’t think either would fly on Saturday morning TV.)

Old, empty suits of armorAlso: Bobby puts his arm around Terri as they stride down the corridor, while Terri puts her face in her hands. Smooooooth, Bobby! If anyone asks, you’re just guiding her.

In another part of the maze of straight, huge passages, all alike, a wall slides shut in front of the party. Another wall cuts them off from behind, leaving them trapped in an area full of (empty) bronze suits of armor. Terri screams and starts crying, which I was tempted to mock, but on the other hand, that seems a rational reaction to the Realms from a child … or anyone else, for that matter. If I mocked anyone, I suppose I should mock the jaded kids who are no longer shocked by having their lives threatened and stumbling across martial memento mori, but I feel guilty about that too: maybe it’s some form of PTSD or a survival mechanism, where those who don’t become jaded don’t survive.

“There must have been a battle here,” Hank says, and noting the spider webs on the armor, he adds, “And a long time ago.” Presto notes they’re all wearing the same armor, suggesting they were on the same side, but they appear to have fought each other. “And they all lost, too,” Diana says. Well, you don’t know that for sure, Diana; survivors could have continued on, although I admit if you’re talking only of the dead, sure: all the dead are losers.

Eric, taken over by the enchantment“And — and we’re lost,” Eric says, kicking the armor. “And it’s her fault!” He points at Terri. “Do you hear me? She — she got us in here.” The screen loses most of its color as Eric begins his diatribe; the sky is illuminated in reds, oranges, and yellows, while the characters are shown in light, red-tinged shadows while their faces alternate between corpse pale and shadows. It’s an incredibly effective way to show how the situation has suddenly changed and taken on a more sinister cast. Toei, the Japanese animation studio, is really earning its money with this scene; I don’t know if another animator at the time would have done this.

Bobby shoves Eric while Freddie growls. “What’s the matter, little boy?” Eric asks. “Don’t you like me insulting your goody-goody girlfriend?” (Donnie Most really sells Eric’s taunting anger here.) Presto grins evilly, while Diana and Sheila cheer on the fight. Uni squeals in discomfort. Only Hank can keep control of his emotions; he tells the rest to stop, and when they don’t, he shouts, “Knock it off!” and fires an energy arrow into the air.

Somehow this ends the mind-controlling magic. The colors return to normal. Bobby awkwardly apologizes, with little to no memory of what happened. Hank blames the maze for the largely normal teenage resentments that manifested; it’s not like it isn’t normal to have trouble controlling emotions when exposed to life-threatening danger. But Hank says, “It’s affecting our minds!” Eric disagrees: “Your minds, perhaps. You forget the old Cavalier has a brain as strong as a steel trap.”

Eric with a helmet with glowing eyesEric taps a helmet to emphasize his point. The helmet’s eyes glow green, and a ghostly voice says, “Beware, Cavalier!” Eric, of course, drops the helmet and runs. I would too.

***

Hank uses an energy arrow to tie an energy line around a (non-energy) spike on top of the maze. “All right!” he says, staring at the gigantic, coruscating ball of energy that is supposed to be a portal home. “Wish you could see this! We’re really getting close!” Well, why can’t they see this? It seems like attaching a rope to a spike wouldn’t be that hard, or maybe they could climb the energy line. Or maybe — and this is just spitballing — everyone could get to the top of the wall and walk on the non-maze parts to the end. You might have to climb back down into the maze from time to time, but those spikes look more decorative than discouraging. That does not occur to Hank, who is focused on the end goal. “Another couple of days —” And you’ll be dead of dehydration or starvation, most likely. But Hank stops not because he realizes they lack the necessities but because everyone is sleeping, exhausted. “So what do you say we take a break?”

For Terri, of course, a nap is not just a nap: it’s a chance to add to PTSD or depression. While she sleeps, her necklace tinkles, and she has a vision of herself at school. A nightmare, many people would say. Not me — I was good at school. I wish I was that good at something again. I wish I was that good at anything.

Bobby and Terri in the real worldAnyway. Bobby shows up, not in barbarian clothes — ah! Now it’s a nightmare again! He’s holding her necklace; Terri, realizing what this means, rushes to Bobby and hugs him. The dream is interrupted by Dungeon Master saying her name.

When she and the others wake up, Dungeon Master is there. Ugh. It’s worse than a nightmare now. Dungeon Master explains Terri’s dream will come true, then tells them the maze is a tool of Venger’s. “For a thousand years, his Maze of Darkness has lured unwary travelers with the promise of the portal home,” he says. “Many have tried; all have failed.” He then informs them the suits of armor had once been inhabited by “pupils of mine, of a time long past.” Nice job, Dungeon Master — it’s nice to see your hands-off style of leadership has consequences … well, consequences for others. It doesn’t seem like you’re all that bothered by it. “If you succeed, the portal will remain, luring countless others to their doom.”

“What do you mean, ‘If we succeed’?” Eric sneers. Dungeon Master tries to frighten him, but Eric knocks on the wall and says, “Ah, this place isn’t so scary.” An earthquake immediately begins, because as much as the Realms hates the kids, it hates Eric the most.

Terri leaps her dog as Bobby looks onTerri’s excited, though. “Hey, I remember! I remember! From my dream last night — I remember the way out!” I’m torn about this: if she did see the way out, should we have seen it? On one hand, it’s boring to see it twice; on the other, it seems like a bit of a cheat. Oh, things are falling apart — as in, literally: the walls are falling — and you conveniently know the way out? But I’m not sure this maze is going to get any more interesting, so I’m OK with just getting it over with. Hank stops and calls back for Dungeon Master. Presto pulls him forward, saying, “You think he’d hang around here at a time like this?” The old gnome is allergic to danger … and to spending any more time around the kids than he has to. He’s gone, Hank-O. Deal with it.

Everyone’s excited to be at the end of the maze, hugging random mammals. But Venger is there first — riding a flying evil horse, even one that loses its wings occasionally, is the best way to beat a maze — although he’s not there to stop them. “You are free to enter the portal and return to your homeworld,” he says, “But first, you bring her to me.” “Her” is Terri, of course, and the party responds to that about as well as you’d think. Not even frequent collaborator Presto wants to hand her over, which is astonishing.

“We passed your test, Venger,” Hank says, trying to appeal to Venger’s sense of fair play. Good luck with that, Hank. “We beat your maze. Terri comes with us.” Venger disagrees, so Diana says, “You want her? Come and get her.”

Venger’s demon formIt’s more confrontational than the kids usually get, and it enrages Venger; red magic energy pours from his hands, transforming himself into … oh holy god it’s staring at me from the screen it’s going to eat my soul help me jeebus —

Brrrrrr. I don’t know what Venger has turned into; it looks like a demon or devil, but again, Toei’s animators have outdone themselves: whatever Venger is, it’s a damn sight scarier than anything the outsider artists who illustrated the Monster Manual could come up with. The closest I can find is the nabassu, a major demon from Monster Manual II, which would have come out the year before. It’s got the long muzzle, wings (although the nabassu’s wings are scaled rather than bat-like), and three-fingered, clawed limbs. Venger’s a little hairier, but maybe he improved on the design. On the other hand, the nabassu doesn’t have those spiked tentacles, and that’s seems like a big deal.

Hank decides he’s going to hold off this immense monstrosity by himself; he puts Bobby in charge of getting Terri and her dog to the portal. Because of course — why let, you know, Diana or Eric lead when you can put things in the hands of a 9-year-old who’s even more emotional Venger’s larger demon formthan the teenagers? Although Hank says he was going to fight alone, it’s the party that battles the abomination; Presto conjures up a lot of mousetraps, which snap on the beast’s tail and enrages it, causing Eric to express his admiration for the spell.

At the top of the pyramid, Bobby gets to play Rick to Terri’s Ilsa, telling her she has to leave while he and the others hold off Major Strasser. If you don’t leave, Bobby doesn’t say, you’ll regret it — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but definitely when you’re eaten by Tiamat. But what about us? Terri doesn’t ask. We’ll always have the Maze of Darkness, Bobby doesn’t growl, looking her in the eyes.

Bobby carries her toward the portal while Terri reassures him he’ll find his way home. Then he tosses her toward the portal, which sucks her and the dog in. Ah, childhood crushes! So sweet. I used to throw girls into glowing portals all the time when I was in grade school — at least until I got suspended from school from huffing that phosphorescent paint.

Somehow, in defiance of physics, Terri manages to throw her locket back to Bobby. Maybe the portal draws in only organic matter?

Eric does a fastball special on BobbyTheir primary mission completed, the group moves on to the secondary one: destroying the portal. And their method of destruction turns out to be the fastball special: Bobby runs to Diana, who interlocks her fingers and tosses him toward Eric, who swats Bobby toward the pyramid with his shield. Once Bobby hits the pyramid with his club, everything blow up.

***

And then Bobby and Uni are sitting on the sand, looking at Terri’s locket. How long has it been since the explosion? Where are they? Who knows? I don’t, and I don’t particularly care, since this is Bobby and Uni we’re talking about. Hank tries to comfort Bobby in his fumbling way, but Bobby brushes him off. To make the pain go away, Bobby winds up his arm to throw the necklace away, but Dungeon Master shows up to stop him. To soothe Bobby’s pain, Dungeon Master violates player / Dungeon Master confidentiality, telling Bobby about Terri’s last prophetic dream. Maybe he tells Bobby that to keep him from littering. Dungeon Master’s kinda built like Woodsy Owl, although thankfully he wears more clothing.

While they wait, Eric polishes his shield. Presto tells him to quit the “spit and polish,” but Eric will have none of it: “You can never have too much polish, Presto. Of course, I ran out of spit an hour ago.” It’s a nice line, so Hank wanders into the scene to bog things down with pablum and treacle. Fortunately, he’s interrupted by Bobby’s exultant cries as he promises to tell them “what’s going to happen.”

Oh, yes: He’ll tell them what will happen. He will tell them what the prophecies and his dark (Dungeon) Master have revealed to him. There will be blood, and fire; he will hear the lamentation of his enemies’ women; and he will tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet. Or maybe that’s a prophecy about another, more interesting barbarian. I don’t really care. I just want to see the Realms burn.

But I do care about these lessons:

  • The love of a good dog will overcome everyday concerns like amusement-park regulations, Lizardfolk abductions, and evil magic.
  • Lying to children, especially by omission, is an accepted leisure activity in the Realm.
  • Dreams are powerful. Tell everyone about your dreams. Live your life by them. Use them as weapons against a random, uncaring world.
  • Brute force and ignorance will win out over pessimism every day.
  • If your mentor shows you the horrible fate that befell his former students, do not think about the implications.

Going home tally: This is the fifth time they’ve found a portal home. Two of those times they’ve briefly gone through the portal.

Monster tally: One from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 31; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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Some Random Things about ... Monsters of Faerûn

2nd Oct. 2016 | 01:32 am

Some random things about Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerûn by James Wyatt and Rob Heinsoo:

Monsters of Faerûn cover
  1. From “Aarakocra” to “Zombie, tyrantfog”: Many of these monsters were familiar to me — mainly through the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual — and I had wondered why they weren’t in the original Monster Manual. Since I don’t play any of the TSR / WotC official settings, I hadn't realized the bird-men (aarakocra) and lion-centaurs (wemics) were based in the Forgotten Realms. The same goes for the bullywug, the laughable frog-men that get killed when your players have had enough of spitting orcs on their longswords. (The bullywugs predate the Forgotten Realms by half a decade, and they are best remembered for being incompetent villains in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.)

    I welcomed some of these familiar monsters to the 21st century like old friends: the badger-headed, stag-bodied leucrotta, the shrieking gibberlings, the flying stag peryton. The leucrotta and peryton both predate the Forgotten Realms, but it’s nice to see the creatures in any form. On the other hand, only the Forgotten Realms could have created brown dragons (really?), deep dragons, song dragons, and shadow dragons. Also: emerald, ruby, and diamond golems, which I thought were dumb even back in the mid-‘90s. For those who want more beholders, Monsters of Faerûn has the beholder mage prestige class and three beholderkin: death kiss, eyeball, and gouger. (The latter is the nickname of the junior hockey team Apu sponsors on a Simpsons episode, so I think of them as beholders on hockey skates. They aren’t, but it’s a better idea than what the gouger beholderkin actually is.) And, by Mystra, werecrocodiles. Werecrocodiles? Really.

  2. Helpful hints: Again, I don’t play or run Forgotten Realms games, but the “In the Realms” sections at the end of each entry is useful — for ideas, at the very least. For example, Monsters of Faerûn suggests the bullywugs are fighting a long, bloody war against another monster race, but the bullywugs have already lost, and their opponents keep them alive only as a buffer state.

  3. Radioactive spider-god: No book concerning the Forgotten Realms would be complete without a few spider-abominations. So, for your Lolthian amusement, Wyatt and Heinsoo have included the chitine, humanoids the Drow have experimented on, turning them into spidery things; choldrith, the priests of the chitine; half-fiend draegloth, which are the union of a Drow priestess and a demon; and myrlochar, demonic servants of Lolth. I think what we’ve learned from Monsters of Faerûn is that Lolth is not a goddess who is content with the direction that evolution has taken, even when that evolution is spurred on by mortal magic.

    For the more mundane arachnophile, there are hairy and sword subterranean spiders. Because you needed more spiders.

  4. DIY evil: Monsters of Faerûn includes three spells for the creation of specific monsters: create chosen one, create crawling claw (a human hand), and create darkenbeast. I understand the impulse behind the idea, but I don’t think most DMs (or any players) will need these spells. If the monster description had said, “These beasts can be created by wizard / sorcerers of Xth level or greater,” that would have been enough. The details don’t add much, and I hope the PCs don’t ever have to use the directions to create their own little abominations.

    On the other hand, some of the creatures listed in the “Templates” section are disappointing. Ghosts and liches don’t need more powers, especially if the listed powers aren’t balanced by a corresponding increase in CR. (I could increase the CR myself, but I am bad at guessing how challenging monsters / encounters are.) As I intimated above, the world did not need rules on werecrocodiles, nor was anyone asking for weresharks. (All right — someone was asking, but no one needed to listen.) I am amused by the idea of illithid liches — the illithilich or alhoon — because an illithid with levels in a spellcasting class and the lich template approaches the Order of the Stick’s half-dragon half-troll lycanthropic fiendish snail adversary.

  5. Proof of quality: So what would I use from this book? Maybe the leucrotta and gibberlings. I have a soft spot for spider-like creatures, so I could see myself throwing a chitine or three against the PCs. Others I might use:

    — Baneguards. Intelligent skeletons who can fire magic missiles at the PCs. A simple idea, and their low CR (2) gives me a chance to throw several at the PCs.

    — Thayan golem: A wooden golem that shoots magical arrows.

    — Helmed horror: A construct with good tactics and variable magic weapon abilities.

    — Tyrantfog zombie: A zombie with damage reduction that sickens and infects their opponents.

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Dungeons & Dragons #13: P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster

23rd Sep. 2016 | 05:43 pm

P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster title card

Original air date: 10 December 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

We have finally reached the end of Season 1! This meant little, really, when the episodes were on air; the first season was dumped onto television without any breaks (not even for Thanksgiving), and later seasons were spliced into the running order to give the first season a bit of variety. In syndication, seasons are even more meaningless, especially when the characters have little development and the plot doesn’t advance. But the first season finale means something to me: It’s the first real milestone in this little project.

Stegosaur on forest pathAt the beginning of this milestone, the kids are on the run from some bellowing beast, soon revealed as a stegosaurus. I’ve never been fond of using dinosaurs as monsters in D&D, not unless the party has been thrown into The Lost World. It just seems lazy, you know? “Oh, I need something that’s big, scary, and has a thick hide to menace the players with. I know! I’ll go all Jurassic Park on their asses!” (By which I mean: on their donkeys, which are carrying their treasure.) Plenty of big reptiles, flying and not, exist in the Monster Manual already. Why dredge up a big dumb beast from the Natural History Museum and put it into a deciduous forest with a huge dirt road running through it? It just lacks imagination and cohesiveness.

At least Gary Gygax’s use of dinosaurs predated Jurassic Park and a consistent idea of what D&D could be.

Anyway, Hank wants to fight Dino. Eric, as usual, is the voice of reason: “Are you nuts? … Personally, I have no desire to be peeled off that thing’s foot like a piece of chewing gum.” Vivid image, Eric, but let’s face it: No one’s going to be around to peel you off the beast’s foot. It will have to scrape you off on a tree or a rock, so it’s more like you’ll be cleaned up like dog dirt rather than chewing gum.

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Diana in Hank’s arms.Whether it’s from Eric’s out-of-breath counsel or the rest of the party’s good sense, Hank’s “plan” is ignored. The party runs into a cave, which the stegosaur can’t fit into. “For a minute there, I thought we were going to be the main course,” Sheila says, and her obvious relief is the cue the Orcs who inhabit the cave needed to announce their presence. Caught between Orcs and a dinosaur, the kids decide to attack the Orcs, but they are quickly outmaneuvered, even though Eric knocks an Orc over for once. Even Diana’s fancy tumbling gets her only a few moments in Hank’s arms as he catches her.

“Oh, boy,” says one Orc as he holds Uni. “Unicorn stew.” Tiamat bless you, Orc soldier. Now, let’s have a conversation about that wardrobe: a purple cape does not go with your green skin or red tunic. I don’t care if it is part of the latest Venger collection; it’s just not you. And you deserve better! Especially since you don’t even react when Bobby uses a racial slur, threatening to “make bacon out of you.”

Soon Presto is the only party member left free as the Orcs threaten to throw the kids into the nearby magma. (Did I forget to mention the magma? Oh, yeah: there’s magma in this cave.) Eric, caught under a net, pleads with Presto to do something. Presto, after a bit of prodding, begins his spell: “Hocus delirium / Pocus inferium / Spell me a spell / To get us out of here-ium.” A tiny tube of winds emerges from his hat, growing as it hits the cave floor. The Orc near him flees, followed by his comrades. (Their morale must be low, if getting one to run causes an Orc stampede.) Unfortunately, the spell follows the rest of the party, backing them into a dead end. “Presto, shut it off!” Hank yells.

The party about to be sent away by a magic purple whirlwindPresto doesn’t know how, of course. Well, this is how such things go: When you live by the uncontrollable magic, you die by it. It’s been a good run! (And by “good run,” I mean “lucky” and “stupid.”) A few moments later, the cyclone and the party disappear in a peal of thunder. Only Presto and Uni are left behind. Unable to find his friends afterwards, Presto comes to the stupid conclusion that his spell sent them home. Really, Presto? That’s the conclusion you come up with? The Realms is an awful place, dedicated to torturing you. Realms magic — your magic — isn’t going to have that kind of effect. It’s no wonder Uni is wearing your hat; it would probably be a better wizard than you.

***

The rest of the party finds themselves in a forest clearing. It doesn’t take long for them to realize what happened, although they don’t know where they are. They hear a monster somewhere in the distance, and once again, they’re running. Eric — selfish Eric — is the first to realize Presto isn’t there, which says something about Hank and his socialist lackeys. Of course, Eric only notices Presto isn't there because he’s speaking badly of Presto’s magic skills, but hey, that shows more awareness than the rest of the group. (Bobby realizes his beloved pet — the one he’d gladly sacrifice people for — is missing soon after. Maybe you're not ready for a pet, Bobby.) “Presto must be taking disappearing lessons from Dungeon Master,” Eric says, and it’s telling that he doesn’t say “disappearing lessons from Sheila,” the member of the party who can turn invisible.

Bobby insists they have to find Presto and Uni, but the monster’s cry — closer this time — scotches that idea. They run until they hit an invisible wall, and Eric is left to mutter threats against Presto.

***

Dungeon MasterWell, crap — now we’re back to Presto and Uni, the incompetent and the incomprehensible. Not how I wanted to spend my afternoon, especially since the stegosaurus seems to have wandered off, as bored with Presto and Uni as I am. To add to this crapulent mix, Dungeon Master arrives, and I realize I’m being punished. I thought Presto had the same idea: “Dungeon Master! What have I done?” Unfortunately, he means, “What have I done to the others?”

“Your spell was a good one,” Dungeon Master lies, malicious eye askance to watch the working of his lie upon Presto’s. “But you put a bit too much twiddle on it.” Uh-huh. That’s nonsense, of course, and Presto realizes it. But Presto is focused: “Where did I twiddle them to?”

“A far-off land, where they face enormous danger,” Dungeon Master says, which is not at all helpful: “far off” is unspecific, and “enormous danger” doesn’t differentiate it from anywhere else in the Realms. To get them back, Presto will have to “climb to new heights of courage.” This sounds important and vague — great for a quest — but knowing Presto would only screw up without more help, Dungeon Master gives him a checklist:
  1. Meet three strangers.
  2. Lose something “very important to you.”
Not a long checklist, but still … given that Presto has only two things of importance — his hat and his glasses — I can’t wait to see the results. Or maybe he can lose Uni! The unicorn might not be important to Presto, but his kneecaps are, and Bobby is going to atomize them if Presto loses that deformed pony.

Dungeon Master disappears after this advice, thank Hera, and Presto wanders off to get eaten. No, to meet three strangers! Sorry. I forgot this was a kids’ show for a moment.

***

A slime beastThe creature used by guards to chase the party back into prison in “Servant of Evil” approaches. While Sheila and Eric lose their minds, Diana asks what they’re going to do. I will note they don’t even consider attacking the creature, which would be my first response — or at the very least having Hank attack it from a distance, to see if he can scare it off. But Hank does some thinking (you can almost smell the smoke) and realizes that if the force field “feels like glass, then it might break like glass.” You know, it might be glass. Bobby whacks the wall, which shatters, and the kids make a break for it.

After they break out, Hank says, “Look at the size of this place.” As it turned out, they were trapped inside an enormous terrarium, which sits on an even larger table inside a gigantic room. Diana brings up the idea that they might have shrunk, but Eric is not interested in such moot points, reminding the rest they need to get going. They flee across the table until Eric trips over a fork larger than he is. After Eric asks “what kind of jerk” leaves an oversized fork lying around, Diana points off-screen: “I think a giant jerk, Eric.”

Giant staring at kids“Yeah,” says a hairy giant as he is revealed to the viewers. “A giant jerk who eats little jerks like you for breakfast, Eric.” While Eric tries to flee — a rational response — I admit I’m intrigued by the mug of orange stuff on the table. The mug is more than twice as tall as the kids, and the orange liquid looks like orange juice. How many oranges does someone have to pulp to fill that mug? And are they normal oranges, or are they giant oranges? If they’re normal oranges, does a giant have to fiddle with crushing all those oranges? Or is it part of a tribute the giant gets from the locals? Maybe he buys it, which would seem prohibitively expensive, but maybe not — maybe he has treasure, like a golden-egg laying goose. Like in “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Oh my Freya — they’re totally going to do a “Jack and the Beanstalk” riff, aren’t they? This deal keeps getting worse all the time.

The giant cares not for Eric’s attempts at flight or my economic / culinary digressions, picking up the kids. “Ow!” Eric shouts. “Hey! Watch out, you big dope.” The giant is a bit sensitive about this, although I’m not sure how sensitive you can claim to be after you’ve already threatened to eat someone. At that point, their insults become less hurtful and more accurate. “You’ve got a big mouth for somebody with such a small head.” Eric answers, “Yeah? Well, you’ve got a small brain for somebody with such a big skull.”

Giant holding the partyYou have to admire Eric for showing some sand for once, especially since the Get Along Gang are already giving up. I’m surprised they didn’t chastise Eric immediately for being so rude to someone they’ve just met. “Good News” Moose tries to shoot an arrow at the giant, but he misses horribly, and in shame, stops trying. Good one, Hank. Diana says, “Nice try, Hank,” but it wasn’t, really; how can you miss a giant so close to you? Do you need glasses, Hank? “You gotta lot of guts, too,” the giant says. “No wonder you thought you could steal my golden eggs.”

Oh, no. I was right. Jack and the Beanstalk. The only thing left for me is to cry while waiting for a clever spin on the idea. I might have a long wait, though.

“Eggs, schmeggs,” Eric says. I can’t believe CBS’s Standards & Practices allowed such language on the air in 1983. How many children’s lives were ruined by such vulgarity? “We don’t want your eggs. We don’t even want your chicken. We just want to get out of here. Now let us go!”

The giant is unmoved by Eric’s claims; besides, he doesn’t have a chicken. He does have a slime beast named Willy — the thing that chased the kids in the terrarium — and a love of games. The game he proposes is “hide and eat”: “It’s simple! You all go hide, and Willy will come find you … and if Willy finds you, he gets to eat you.” The kids duck under a door; Eric becomes momentarily stuck until the others can pull him through. “What took you so long?” Eric asks.

“Shut up and run!” Hank says. Well, nice to see Hank being short tempered. Or are we supposed to think that he’s being the rational one here? It’s not exactly a plan, you know, and even Gandalf’s “Fly, you fools!” had a rational component to it.

(Geek aside: Slime beasts are made up for the cartoon series. The creature doesn’t appear in any manual or adventure. Giants, however, are all over place. The Monster Manual has six kinds of giants — cloud, fire, frost, hill, stone, and storm — while the Field Folio has fog and mountain giants and the Monster Manual II has the Gaelic giants: fomorians, firbolg, and verbeeg. None of them are as hairy or as large as the giant in this episode, though. The hill and mountain giants are the most hirsute, and they “typically dress in rough hides or skins” like this dope, but I think it’s more likely he’s a cloud giant: they “usually reside in crude castles built atop mountains or on magical cloud islands.” The castle isn’t crude, but it is on a magic cloud island. Maybe the hairiness is from hypertrichosis. Also: “There is a 50% chance that evil cloud giants will have 1-3 captives … in their lair.”

***

Furry man running out of barPresto and Uni wander into a town. I don’t think we’ve seen a functioning town for a while. If you don’t count the castle in “The Garden of Zinn” or the bogbeast village in “Beauty and the Bogbeast,”, you have to go back to the second episode, “The Eye of the Beholder,” to see a functioning town. Are they afraid of Venger’s informants? Or is it a way for Hank to keep control of his little cult of personality — if they saw other people could be happy, the rest of the party might realize they don’t have to be hungry and miserable all the time.

The town Uni and Presto are walking through is sleepy — one person on the street appears to be literally asleep — and a bit run-down. Still, I don’t think it deserves the review Presto gives it: “I don’t like the look of this place. The three guys we’re looking for couldn't be around here — I hope.” You spoiled suburban brat … who cares where the three guys are from? Just because you saw an orc stroll out of the random bar you’re entering doesn’t mean it’s a bad place. I mean, it’s the Realms! You get all kinds there! Including a strawberry fuzzball who dashes out the batwing doors and faceplants into a puddle. (Another victim of hypertrichosis?)

Uni immediately proves its value by charging into the bar and finding a three-headed ogre. Of course the ogre — almost certainly the “three strangers” DM mentioned, because this guy’s plenty strange — wants to steal Uni and sell it, but when Presto gets pulled into the bar and asserts his ownership, the ogre is willing to trade: three magic marbles for Uni. Presto scornfully refuses, so the ogres go on to the skull game, which is the shell game, except it uses skulls instead of shells. Presto tries to refuse again, but the ogre’s anger and his goblin servant pressure Presto A three-headed ogre demonstrates the skull game. into accepting. The ogre moves the skulls too quickly to be seen; Presto chooses the middle skull, which is wrong. The correct one is “the head on the right,” but when Presto picks up that skull, nothing is beneath it. The ogre meant its own head, which is cheating, whatever it says. The ogre takes Uni — better it than me — and Presto is tossed out on his hinder. The ogre throws the “worthless” marbles out after him.

Presto wanders out of town, into the darkness, berating himself for his incompetence. Good! Maybe this will, you know, inspire you to Frigg-ing practice your damn magic. Maybe you’ll learn how to do something! I’m also good with his final self-insult: “You ought to do everyone a favor and make yourself disappear.”

But before he can learn a lesson, he tosses the marbles away in frustration. Because this is a Jack and the Beanstalk story, the marbles immediately grow into a gigantic petrified tree. Well, I supposed petrified is interesting, but I don’t know what it means. Presto doesn’t want to climb it, but he realizes Dungeon Master might have been making a pun with that “climb to new heights of courage” line. “There’s nothing that can make me climb up there,” he claims.

Presto considers the treeYou know, of course, that he’s going to be climbing that tree. What’s the impetus? Well, Uni breaks free of the ogre and follows Presto’s path to the tree. With the ogre in hot pursuit, Presto and Uni have no choice but to step inside the tree’s entrance. The ogre, dumber than a post, thinks the tree has eaten the boy and the unicorn, but the tree is just hollow inside, with a set of stairs. As we fade to commercial, we see the shadow of someone watching Uni and Presto.

***

Coming out of the commercial, we get thrilling stair action. Watch a baby unicorn get tired from climbing stairs! Hey, I wonder if unicorns are like cows: they can’t climb down stairs. It would be a shame if Uni had to be abandoned at the top of the stairs, left to be eaten as an appetizer by the giant or Willy.

Sinister doorway “I wonder where this stairway is taking us,” Presto says. Well, given how it keeps going up, it’s obviously a stairway to heaven — and you didn’t even have to buy it! Lucky you. Presto wants to chicken out, but glowing panels above a doorway frighten him. On to new heights of courage, Presto!

***

Back in the castle, the party is hiding in a giant broom. But when they emerge from the bristles, Willy is there waiting. I wonder if the giant does his own sweeping. He certainly doesn’t seem the type; maybe he has a wife or housekeeper who does instead. Or maybe a domestic partner! Perhaps this giant lives in a brutal-yet-progressive cloudscape that allows for both gay marriage and the torture and devouring of other sentients. It’s a model giant community!

The kids make a break for the window, but Willy manages to steal Bobby before he can get over the sill. Well, we’ll miss you, Bobby. We’ll hold a memorial service for you, maybe see if Dungeon Master can recover your bones … who am I kidding? That giant will grind your bones to make his bread, so there’s not going to be anything left of you when it’s all over, except for maybe your club in the giant’s stool.

Diana throws her staff at the slime beast, which has BobbyBut Hank, exhibiting his usually-say-die approach, stops Diana from tossing her staff — here called a “javelin,” despite its lack of pointed ends. (Also: Diana throws her staff so that it spins horizontally. No one throws a javelin like that.) Hank has a plan! When he’s ready — because it takes so long to set up an always-strung magic bow — he has fake-javelin-girl Diana throw the staff close enough to the slime beast to scare him. Willy drops Bobby, and Hank shoots an arrow that hits a water bucket. The water bucket slides under Bobby, and because falling hundreds of feet into water head-first has absolutely no side effects — just ask the people who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge — Bobby is saved.

Willy hasn’t given up, though. With Sheila shouting such helpful advice as “Bobby, look out!,” Willy lands near Bobby and menaces him while Bobby wildly swings his club. Hank, rather than attack the slime beast which has been trying to dismember him and his friends, hits a ricochet shot that connects with Bobby’s club, carrying Bobby all the way up to the window sill again. (Bobby’s screams in this cartoon, interestingly, are obviously voiced by Adam Rich [Presto] rather than Ted Field III.) Bobby insists to his sister that “that giant parakeet” didn’t frighten him at all. Why were you running from it all episode, then?

Willy makes another run at the kids, and this time, Diana’s staff knocks the shade off a kerosene / gas lamp, trapping Willy beneath it. Golly! It’s amazing what you can do if you just fight back sometimes, especially if you have magic weapons! Of course, magic weapons might not be much use against Super Yeti, who has been standing idly by and watching. He frightens Eric by yelling, “Boo!,” then taunts Eric when he almost falls off the window sill. The giant easily — Giant taunts the kids on the windowsillcontemptuously — captures the party as the clock strikes nine. He declares this to mean another egg has been laid, so he frees Willy to go get it.

“Hey, I’m bored,” the giant says, bringing the kids back to the table. You and me both, brother from another, much hairier mother. But whereas I would alleviate my boredom by doing cruel things out of a maladjusted 9 year old’s brain to the kids, Fuzzy Was-He puts Sheila and Eric on the back of little mechanical dragons that bob back and forth at each other. Bobby takes umbrage. “Isn’t that cute?” the giant says. “The little boy has come to rescue his sister from the mean old giant.”

“Laugh at this, Fuzzface,” Bobby says as he smashes the device Eric and Sheila are on. That’ll teach him, Bobby — mess with you, and you’ll destroy his knickknacks. Then run! Because that’s what the party is best at: running. To cover their retreat, Hank uses his arrows to cut down the curtain behind the giant, which falls over his head. As they run across the floor, Hank urges the group to “Hurry!” If you need further encouragement to run than a several hundred feet tall giant following you, then man, I think it’s going to take a pack of Purple Men to motivate you.

***

Back to more scintillating stair-climbing action! Boy, I was afraid we wouldn’t see every agonizing step. I mean, how could I know Presto and Uni climbed all that way if I don’t see all of it? Presto’s almost as tired of it as I am: “If I ever get back home,” he says, “I swear I’ll never goof off in gym class again.” Well, since you’re never going to get home, that’s what’s called an “empty promise,” Presto.

Presto’s progression through the bargaining stage — only two more stages for you, Presto; I can’t wait for depression! — is interrupted by a squawking sound. Because we don’t have enough “cute” animals on this damn show, Presto and Uni discover a weird lizard thing dangling from a petrified branch; somehow Presto identifies it as a “baby dragon,” which turns out to be correct. Presto climbs onto the branch and almost falls off immediately. He catches himself, but the branch is cracking. “I can’t even twiddle my fingers to whip up a spell,” Presto says. Yes, like that would be likely to make things better.

Uni casting magic with Presto’s hatAdding to this potential tragedy — although when a stupid kid is hurt doing something stupid, it’s less a “tragedy” and more of an “inevitability” — is Uni, who climbs onto the branch as well. “Uni, go back! There’s nothing you can do!” Presto says. He’s wrong: What Uni can do is humiliate him in front of a dragon. Uni scoffs in its horsey way, steals Presto’s hat, and conjures up a flying carpet. If learning a half-witted baby unicorn, which can’t even speak a recognizable language, is a better wizard than you isn’t enough to sledgehammer your self-confidence into dust, I don’t know what is. On the other hand, the carpet lasts only long enough to get them back into the tower, so Uni isn’t that great.

Just as Presto reassures the baby dragon, “We’re safe now,” the creature’s mother arrives. Well, I think it’s the baby’s mother; the baby is gold, and the wingless dragon is more of a baby-crap yellow-brown. Presto tries to get the little monster to “go to Mama,” but it has grown attached to him. Eventually, Presto manages to toss the baby dragon to the floor and beat cheeks (with Uni) up the stairs. Since the adult doesn’t eat the baby, I’m going to assume Presto was right and they are related. (Although some creatures eat their young. Definitely not judging that decision, though.) Despite regaining its child, the dragon still seems incensed the human has touched its child, firing a gout of fire after Presto.

Dragonfire, evidently, is the answer to the question, “What’s needed to inspire Presto to new heights of courage?” He and Uni hit the exit running, still pursued by the dragon, but somehow Presto manages to trip over Uni. Then they both become amuse bouche for the dragon. I bet Uni would be tastier than Presto; as Presto intimated with his bargaining, he hasn’t developed the tasty muscle and instead is probably too stringy. Also: wrapped up in disgusting clothes. I bet he’s never washed that robe, and we’ve all seen the foul places it has been. Double also: Another magic weapon to be found in stool.

Willy stealing a golden eggBut no: after another burst of flame, the dragon spots Willy stealing another golden egg — a golden dragon egg, it turns out. The dragon lumbers after Willy, seemingly in no particular hurry, leaving Presto in a stew of his own sweat and urine (and possibly Uni’s as well). Presto notes the dragon and Willy are headed to an “enormous” castle, then remembers Dungeon Master said something about “enormous danger”; he wonders if that’s where his friends are. A desperate scream from Eric confirms it. “I’d know that panic anywhere!” Presto says.

Inside, the kids are still managing to outpace the giant, who can cover significant fractions of a mile with a single step, until Eric trips. The giant is distracted from squishing the intruder flat by Willy returning with the egg. Pleased, the giant gives Eric to Willy as a reward. Hank pulls Eric to his feet, informing Eric that it’s Willy chasing them now. “What is this,” Eric asks, “tag-team chasing?”

Whatever it is, Presto’s treating it as a spectator sport, as he watches the chase go by. “I sure hope I get the twiddle right this time,” Presto says. Oh, Presto … your optimism is both heartening and depressing. “Alaka-shims, alaka-sham / Give me a spell / To get them out of their jam!” Nothing seems to happen for a few moments, other than the inside of the hat glowing. Presto almost hit by a magic blast“Maybe my fingers aren’t loaded,” he says, just before a blast of white light shoots from his hat and almost takes him head off. A few more inches to one side, and he would have become the wizardly version of the rednecks who try to use a shotgun as a callus remover. The blast of light hits Willy, and a cage forms around him, trapping him.

A happy reunion occurs. “For a minute there, I thought I’d spelled you right out of existence,” Presto says. Then the giant’s voice booms out, remind them all that, hey, you know, there’s still a giant wandering around that could flatten them. “You’ll wish you had when I get through with you!” he shouts.

More running — ever-heroic running. Presto leads them toward the exit until he realizes they can’t leave the dragon egg with the giant. Fortunately, the giant still has the egg in his hand while he’s groping under the table they’re all hiding beneath, and Presto yoinks it from the giant without the giant reacting. Presto then tosses the egg to Eric while expositing — because, hey, he’s the idea man and competent leader at the moment; he doesn’t have to be the one hauling loads around — despite the horror the casual dragon endangerment and information overload causes Diana and Eric. They courageously run away again, but this time, the egg hatches in Eric’s arm, revealing a surprisingly dinosaur-like dragon. The dragon licks Eric, and Eric says, “Cut it out! I’m not your dada.”

Baby gold dragonOh, Eric. Why did you say that? It’s an invitation to get mocked. Please … the next time a baby animal does anything to you, just drop kick it and keep quiet. It will be better for all of us.

Running running running … the chase exits the castle, and the kids make it back into the hollow tree before the giant can get them. The giant starts climbing down the tree while they take the stairs … oh, we can all see where this is going, and it’s nowhere good.

The kids encounter the dragon again, because after its egg was stolen, of course it would just give up and not enter the castle the kids had no trouble running out of. Why not? The dragon grabs both its deformed newborn and Eric, and I find it’s touching that Bobby is willing to “make a suitcase out of that monster” in Eric’s defense. Hank stops Bobby, though, secretly glad the only one resistant to the group-think he and Dungeon Master peddle will soon be dragon chow. But instead the dragon has taken to Eric as if he’s one of the dragon’s kids … Look, this is just stupid. Dragons are intelligent. They aren’t going to be fooled by smell, and they have the visual acuity to recognize what shapes are like theirs.

The party encounters a dragon.After realizing the dragon was “friendly” — why is it friendly? It tried to roast Presto and Uni and failed, curse the luck, and I haven’t seen anything that would change its mind about whether the kids are a hazard to the younglings — the kids dash down the stairs, with the dragon family in pursuit. After Diana realizes there’s no door at the bottom of the tree, Bobby uses his club to create an exit. Bobby smash!

Somehow the kids have arrived at the bottom well before the giant. Instead of having Bobby knock down the tree, Presto steps forward: “Don’t worry, guys! I’ve got this twiddle thing down cold … I think.” His friends are shocked — everyone, not just Eric — and Hank tries to stop him, but since he’s backing away rather than tackling Presto, we’re going to get another Presto special: “I’ll fiddle with my twiddle and diddle with the middle and make a magic riddle that will turn the giant little.”

Eric hides behind his shield and says, “Oh, great. Now he’s doing nursery rhymes.”

The giant surrounded by spell energyBut it works! Mostly because in Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant dies while climbing the beanstalk, and theme is more important than logic here. A helix of red energy circles the petrified tree, surrounding the giant. The tree itself disappears, and the giant is shrunkified into nothingness. He’s dead, or as good as, given that the dragon uses the tower’s former base as a nest. “That was real fancy fingerwork, Presto” Hank says, and I am going to avoid all thoughts about what other work Presto’s fingers have done.

“Your spells are improving, Wizard,” Dungeon Master says. Well, they should be! Their lives often depend on his spells. He should be practicing to get better and stop being such a load!

“Improving?” Eric says. “It was his stupid twiddling that got us into trouble in the first place.” This is 100 percent true, of course, but Dungeon Master deflects the criticism: “Your trouble worked for a good cause.” Is it ethical to risk someone else’s life without their knowledge or permission if you know they will achieve a greater good? Dungeon Master believes the answer is yes; I believe Dungeon Master is a scruple-less bastard who should be tried for crimes against humanity. We will have to agree to disagree.

Hank smilesThe good the kids have done, according to Dungeon Master, is to save the last of the golden dragons, a type of good dragon. (That’s how it is in D&D, often; ethics are genetic. Which makes me wonder what kind of jackholes the rest of Dungeon Master’s race is.) Eric goes for the obvious line: “The only good dragon is a —” The dragon, which after all is good, knows something racist is coming out of Eric’s mouth, so it picks Eric up by the scruff and deposits him in its nest. Of course. It wouldn’t be a Dungeons & Dragons ending without humiliating Eric. “You were saying, dada?” Hank asks, his stupid face pushed out of shape by his attempts to smile.

“The only good dragon is a golden dragon,” Eric says, defeated. Well, that’s not true — the only good dragons are metallic dragons, such as silver, copper, and bronze. But it’s OK, Eric. I know you’ve been hurt.

So, to wrap up this episode, the only good lessons are these lessons:
  • When your enemies are genetically evil, it’s OK to demonize them, even to intimate that you’ll eat them. You’re good! You can get away with that.
  • If you have two problems that seem overwhelming, deal with one of them, and the other one might get bored with you and go away. You’ll never know until you try!
  • Violence should never be your first resort. Or your second. Or your third. Or your final resort. Violence should never be resorted to, I’m saying. Run instead — it’s better cardiovascular exercise.
  • When a creature that can’t speak and has no opposable thumbs is better at your job than you are, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the choices you’ve made.
  • Dragonfire is one of the world’s great motivators.
  • Nothing adds interest to a story like mindless running and endless stair climbing.
Going home tally: No portal is mentioned this time. Four times they’ve found a way home, but each time they have failed. Twice they’ve briefly returned to Earth, though.

Monster tally: One from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 30; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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Three Things about ... Snakewood by Adrian Selby

18th Sep. 2016 | 02:43 am

Three things about Snakewood by Adrian Selby:

Snakewood coverWhose story is this, anyway?: The beginning of Snakewood is narrated by Gant, one of Kailen’s Twenty, a defunct but legendary mercenary group. It then switches to Galathia, who has hired her own mercenaries to hunt down the living members of the Twenty, and then to Kailen himself; later, a mysterious slave becomes the focus of the narrative. Putting aside the mystery man for the moment, this leaves open the question: Are we following the ragged few survivors of Kailen’s Twenty who haven’t been killed yet, or the killers seeking their righteous (?) revenge? Because it makes a big difference. Until I know which way to go, I don’t know who to sympathize with. The mercenaries could deserve their fate; they could be hunted by nutjobs. Who knows, and why do we care?

I can imagine Selby is trying to throw the readers into a gray area; a horrible thing was done to the assassin, although he’s an unpleasant guy, and even though Kailen’s Twenty is being hunted down, they’re mercenaries who have killed repeatedly. However, all the members of Kailen’s Twenty that we meet (Gant and Shale) are innocent of the crime they are being hunted for. In that sense, there’s no ambiguity: The assassin is wrong, given that his killing is indiscriminate (plus he committed his own war crimes), while Gant and Shale’s actions are covered by the legitimacy of the battlefield.

The book is allegedly compiled by a scholar named Goran, the son of one of Kailen’s Twenty, as a historical document. But the lack of focus and lack of background at the beginning of Snakewood shows it is not organized in a way a scholar would assemble the first-person accounts. “I have put all these documents together in a way that I hope makes sense of the fate of the Twenty,” he says, but Selby intentionally does not give us the information we need at the beginning to make sense of anything about the Twenty. This means Goran is awful at compiling and editing, although I have to admit he’s very good at finding historical documents. But given that editor is Goran’s only job as far as the readers are concerned, Goran comes across as incompetent. A logical, historical organization would spoil the mystery of why Kailen’s Twenty are being killed, though.

Riddle me this: But I’m not sure that mystery is worth keeping. Since we know very few of the stories of Kailen’s Twenty and have emotional investments in only a handful of its members, what does it matter what the betrayal was? The author is stringing readers along for a payoff that means nothing to them. If Selby wants us to have any sympathy for those seeking revenge, we need to know there’s some righteousness to his cause; just by reputation, readers know mercenaries might have done something deserving of revenge. Letting us know what the grievance is lets us choose sides, but not telling us puts us on the fence.

The only vaguely sympathetic character is Gant, but he’s just as in the dark as we are. The truth is only some of the Twenty knew what happened, and we don’t get the insight of anyone who knows. (Well, that’s not entirely true — Kailen knows, but Selby is coy and never lets the reader know what Kailen knows, for no reason other than to preserve the secret.) We never become invested in the Twenty; we meet only a few members for longer than it takes for them to die. The cover copy promises, “A lifetime of enemies has its own price,” but that’s not what happens at all — nothing the mercenaries did as a group causes their later downfall.

I’m not sure the twist on who the assassin is holds up, though. He says the Twenty betrayed him, but when he was done wrong, the Twenty didn’t exist: the band had been dissolved by Kailen. So he thinks he’s been betrayed by friends, but both he and those he attacks make it clear they weren’t friends at all; they used each other to their own mutual benefit when they were part of the Twenty, but most of the group didn’t like him. Kailen figures out who the culprit is, but in the meantime, his own organization is killing the Twenty as well. He’s supposed to be a tactical genius, but given that he’s working at cross purposes with himself, that seems unlikely.

Selby wastes a lot of our time describing, through the assassin, how the Twenty have died. It isn’t interesting, since we know all the people he’s killing are already dead and we’ve never met them before, but the assassin’s descriptions go on for pages without drama or variation. (The targets have grown soft or let him get close enough to kill them because they think of him as a friend.) It’s … not interesting. “Oh, hey, I poisoned this guy. Then I got close enough to this guy to knife him; the knife had poison on it. Then I poisoned a few more guys, then knifed a few more.” It’s pointless exposition after the mystery has ended, and we don’t care about those being killed.

A technology more complicated than fire: The lackluster attempt at a plot enigma and the lack of connection with the characters hamstring an excellent bit of worldbuilding: the extensive use of biochemical aids in war. All blades and arrows are envenomed, which isn’t that remarkable, but every soldier has antidotes with them that can counter the expected poisons. Every soldier has access to fightbrews, short-term performance enhancers that take a toll after they wear off and color the soldier’s skin permanently afterward. Arrows tipped with drugged dust are a common part of battles, and soldiers wear masks to counteract. Chemists / physicians called drudhas are feared and respected for their poisons, cures, and enhancements.

The ubiquity of these biochemical boosts is remarkable, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it in any other book. (Well, maybe in Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs by Adrienne Mayor, but that’s nonfiction.) In Snakewood, war is a constant battle between measures and countermeasures; the potency of a drudha’s recipe and “plant” (ingredients) can tip a battle between equal forces or even make a weaker force victorious. In theory, recipes and plant should make for a biochemical arms race, with the best plant being a cause for repeated battles and drudha colleges or guilds churning out the best drudhas. Instead, advances in recipes and competition for plant seem haphazard, a side effect rather than a major cause of the world’s geopolitical order.

In the end, that’s the most disappointing failure in Snakewood. Many novels have split narratives that slow the books’ momentum or readers’ engagement with characters. Untold numbers of novels have unengaging enigmas at their heart. But novels that have such interesting threads woven into their fabric without following those threads to their conclusion are always more frustrating because they come so close to excellence but fall short.

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Some Random Things about ... Fiend Folio

4th Sep. 2016 | 12:42 am

Some random things about Fiend Folio by James Wyatt:

Fiend Folio cover
  • Someone took the “Improved stat block” feat: You can see they were tinkering with the stat block in preparation for transition from 3rd edition to 3.5. Wizards of the Coast has added a few bits of information that weren’t in the Monster Manual II: The book gives a separate line for the creature’s base attack and its grapple modifier, and it separates the creature’s primary attack from what it can do with a full attack. This change does add some needed clarity to the monster entry, especially since the creatures in this book often have grapple attacks. I can’t imagine what a pain in the ass it would be to have to figure out some of these creatures’ grapple modifiers, given how difficult it usually is to correctly execute the grapple rules.

  • Call back to something you probably wanted to forget: Let’s face it: The original Fiend Folio (a “Tome of Creatures Malevolent and Benign”) was not very good; in fact, it was laughably bad at times. If you look down the list of creatures in the first-edition Folio, it’s hard to find an iconic monster. The Githyanki and Githzerai are the best; maybe you have fondness for the nilbog. There are others that get some use, like the slaad and the kuo-toa, and the bullywug even showed up in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. (So did the shadow demon, for that matter.) But that can’t outweigh the sheer awfulness of the dire corby and the tween and the volt and the flail snail and the shocker … and those are just the names. Plus the umpleby. Umpleby! Who could be afraid of the umpleby? The actual descriptions are worse.

    (It’s not just when the Folio came out; the later Monster Manual II had yuan-ti and the tarrasque and modrons and the drider and duergar and the Lords of Hell and a bunch of other creatures I used in 3rd edition without knowing where they came from.)

    But D&D fans (and usually designers) love tradition — one of the reasons 4th edition bombed — so Wizards of the Coast put some of the creatures from the original Folio in the 3rd edition version: 14 of them, by my count. The Githyanki and Githzerai have already been in two other books (Manual of the Planes and Psionic Handbook), but some of the best of the rest are included: the iron cobra (my favorite wrestling move), necrophidius, huecuva, crypt thing, yellow musk creeper … one of my favorite constructs, the caryatid, is in both. The kelpie comes from myths, so it’s got that going for it. These aren’t the greatest monsters ever, but they all serve a purpose. Like most monsters, that purpose is to wait in a dungeon and get beaten up by adventurers. Still, it’s a solid purpose.

    That’s more than I can say for other creatures in both. The dark creeper and dark stalker are reclusive humanoids that live in the Underdark … they’re so reclusive, in fact, I forgot about them a few minutes after I read them. The weird disenchanter, an anti-magic anteater that sucks the charges from magic item, joins the “DM dick move” pantheon with the rust monster and various oozes, jellies, and cubes. The best thing you can say about the blood hawk and terror bird is that they are definitely birds. They are also utterly boring, but that isn’t very nice. The death dog has two heads; good for it. The skulks have a dull name and go downhill from there.

    Some of it isn’t the fault of Wyatt or his editors; the best Folio creatures had been used elsewhere. On the other hand, I see no reason why a blood hawk or terror bird had to be updated for 3rd-edition. I’d rather have seen a nilbog.

  • Repetition is the key, which is repetition: The Folio is the third of the monster manuals for 3rd-edition and the last before the conversion to 3.5. But when you get to the third monster manual, there is a rule: you have to load the book up with subtypes of established monsters. Three demodands. Seven demons. Three formians. Just two giants, which shows amazing restraint. Four golems, only one of which makes any sense. Three imps. Another slaad. A swarm of insect swarms.

    You get the idea. The Fiend Folio isn’t bad at this, as such things go. But man, if I never see another entry for an infernal creature again it will be too soon.

  • Lolth approved: Three of the fourteen creatures from City of the Spider Queen — the quth-maren, the abyssal ghoul, and the blood fiend — are repeated in the Folio. The two books were released six months apart, so it’s not a coincidence; Wizards was obviously getting creatures they thought were good into a monster manual, where people who actually wanted to know about monsters could see them. (Or maybe they were filler for the Folio. I have no direct knowledge.) In any event, I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn't read the two back to back.

  • Upgrades: Several creatures in the Fiend Folio can be summoned via summon monster or summon nature’s ally spells, but unfortunately, there’s no easy chart that summarizes these new, handy-dandy options. Allow me to rectify that:
    Summon monster I: None
    Summon monster II: Nerra, varoot (N); Kaorti (NE)
    Summon monster III: Bacchae (CN)
    Summon monster IV: Nerra, kalareen (N); Imp, bloodbag (LE); Imp, euphoric (LE); Imp, filitor (LE); Yugoloth, sheroloth (NE)
    Summon monster V: None
    Summon monster VI: Formian, winged warrior (LN); Nerra, sillit (N); Slaad, mud (CN); Demon, skulryn (CE)
    Summon monster VII: Deva, movanic (G); Formian, armadon (LN); Relmani, ferrumach (N); Yugolot, piscoloth (NE)
    Summon monster VIII: Maelephant (LE)
    Summon monster IX: Deva, monadic (G); Formian, observer (LN); Rilmani, cuprilach (N); Demodand, faratsu (NE); Devil, wastrilith (CE)

    Summon nature’s ally I, II, and III: None
    Summon nature’s ally IV: Bloodthorn; Spriggan; Yellow musk creeper
    Summon nature’s ally V: None
    Summon nature’s ally VI: Fossergrim; Oread; Swarm, viper
    Summon nature’s ally VII: Dire rhinoceros; Kelp angler
    Summon nature’s ally VIII: Sporebat
    Summon nature’s ally IX: Kelpie; Octopus tree

    For those of you who are wondering, you can also add “Crypt thing” to your create undead spell description. Casters have to be 14th level to create a crypt thing.

  • Bhut!: There is a creature called a “bhut.” I could go into its background, such as it being an unquiet ghost from Indian folklore or that its alternate spelling (“bhoot”) indicates I’m mispronouncing it for comic effect, but I think all I really need to say is that it’s named “bhut.”

  • Preparing for the future: Fiend Folio was released a few months before the 3.5 revision, so it’s not surprising the rules take the coming edition into account. The sidebar on how 3.5’s changes were incorporated into the Folio’s 3.5 rule set, however, is minuscule, which might have suggested to DMs (and players) the changes would be cosmetic at best. The sidebar indicates three skills and one feat were renamed, and two feats were slightly altered. The changes in 3.5 edition were larger than that, but I can’t say how great they were; in any event, incorporating these small changes early was a good idea.

  • Any method to screw the PCs sounds good to me: Fiend Folio has two appendices. The first lays out three prestige classes for evil outsiders; they don’t do much for me, but I’ll admit giving fiends the power to slowly corrupt PCs and NPCs could be useful. I just don’t use evil outsiders that much.

    The second appendix is more interesting, as it covers grafts and symbionts. The idea is the same, though as with the fiend prestige classes: tempting characters into committing evil acts. I could see using either one. The grafts have the added benefits of giving a bump to underperforming monsters and cheating the PCs of treasure; the Fiend Folio says to treat grafts as part of the monster’s treasures, and since it requires the graft flesh feat to attach the graft, the PCs will find it difficult to get any use from the graft even if they wanted it.

    Symbionts aren’t treasure, but they do literalize the internal struggle of good vs. evil. They also add another use for the Ego score that has mostly been used for intelligent magic items, which is nice. Since most of the “symbionts” are actually parasites, I can’t imagine any characters allowing them into their body or not dealing with the surprise visitors immediately, but it might be fun to try them on the PCs.

  • Many shapes, many sizes, some on my back: Look closely at that cover. Embiggen it if you have to. See it? Right below the “I” in “Folio”? Right — a nipple. A pierced nipple, to be exact. And before you ask how we’re looking through something with a nipple to a scenic panorama of Mt. Doom, there’s another one right above the “o.” Now look at the back — two pierced nipples, to the left of the text.

    I can’t explain it. If you can, leave a comment. I don’t know what the cover artists, Brom and Henry Higgenbotham, were thinking, and I really don’t want to.

  • Fabulous: The senmurv comes from the folklore of Persia and nearby cultures, where it’s called the simurgh, simorgh, and simoorg, among other things, but it looks like it’s right out of San Francisco. Yes, yes, I know — stereotypes. But seriously, the senmurv looks like the first homosexual monster created in D&D. Less so than the joke image the artist, Larry Dixon, originally sent in.

    And of course it’s lawful good.

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Dungeons & Dragons #12: The Lost Children

29th Aug. 2016 | 01:27 am

The Lost Children title card

Original air date: 3 December 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

Beginning with the kids being miserable is a standard opening for this series, but usually that’s because Hank is a horrible leader — they’re lost or starving or lost and starving. But in “The Lost Children,” writer Jeffrey Scott decides to make the kids’ miserableness take the form of cold rain. I can’t blame Dungeon Master for this one, although I’d like to; into every life a little rain must fall, and given how many deserts (usually next to jungles) the kids have trudged through, they’re overdue for a soaking rain.

But rather than look for or fashion some sort of shelter — or for that matter, think ahead and get some rain gear to put in their … in their … oh, that’s right: they don’t have any luggage or backpacks of any sort, do they? That seems like an oversight a good leader wouldn’t make, but what do I know? Anyway, the kids decide to turn to Presto to alleviate their suffering, but as we all know, relying on Presto is a horrible idea. “Alaka-watsis, let’s give it a try / Please give me something to help keep us dry!”

Eric holds a bat creaturePresto pulls out an umbrella — one single umbrella — and displays an unwarranted pride over the act: “Hey, I did it!” Eric grabs the umbrella, although I’m not sure why; it can’t be much better than his shield, which he was using in a similar capacity. The umbrella turns into a giant bat, and Eric runs away, screaming, to fall in the shallow creek.

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Lost Children” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Presto apologizes, as well he should. “My hat doesn’t work very well when it’s wet,” he says. Eric’s response writes itself: “Or any other time.” He’s punished for taking the obvious line; he stands up and is startled by the presence of Dungeon Master and falls back into the creek.

Presto decides to turn to Dungeon Master for meteorological advice, asking how long rains last in this world; Dungeon Master says, “Last time, it rained for three years.” Imma gonna call BS on that; I bet DM said that mainly to see if he could get the rubes to believe it. They do, of course.

Dungeon MasterWhen Eric asks for a boat to survive the flood, Dungeon Master says he’s found a ship that could take them home. His expression, as he says it, implies he’s going to require their first borns in return, but instead, he leaves them something rather than taking: a clue. When asked where the ship is, he says, “The answer lies with the lost children.” Congratulations — we have an episode title!

And having given them the episode title, he disappears when Diana asks for more info. This time he uses no subterfuge, like vanishing after he passes out of sight. This time, he’s there one moment and gone the next; Diana should be looking right at him.

“C’mon,” Hank says. “We better get going.” Get going where? It’s not like Dungeon Master gave them directions; he didn’t even tell them where they could get dry. Dungeon Master is very much a bootstrap kinda guy; unfortunately for these kids, the Realms doesn’t seem to have invented the bootstrap. But the others hardly realize this; even as they blindly follow Hank, the lost leading the lost, Bobby wonders where the lost children are. They could be anywhere, his voice says. The only way to find them is to march, so I will march. Only Eric expresses any reservations, and those are about the objects of their quests, not the leadership: “This is great. Now we’re looking for a bunch of crybabies and a yacht club.”

***

The party among ruinsEventually the rain ends, and even that causes Sheila to complain. “I think we took a wrong turn somewhere,” she says. Really? How could you possibly know whether you did? Do these ruins not look like a place lost children would hang out? Frankly, they seem just as likely as anywhere else. Eric says, “So what else is new?” just before a spear thunks into a tree branch yards over their heads. Eric freaks out and shouts, “We’re under attack! Get ‘em! Get ‘em!”

“Get who?” Diana says, as if Eric’s panicked cries are unreasonable. “We don’t see anyone.” Well, fix that! If someone’s lobbing pointed sticks at you, finding the perpetrators is a high priority. (Taking cover’s probably the first priority, though. Still, at least Eric has some reaction to a potentially lethal attack.) Sheila vanishes as more spears appear, while Eric tries to take cover in the bushes. Unfortunately for him, the bushes are already occupied by an attacker. “Hey!” Eric shouts. “It’s just a kid! We’re being attacked by kids!”

“In that case,” Bobby says, “let them pick on someone their own size!” Nice one, Bobby. He flushes one of the kids out of the bushes in front of him, but unfortunately, his adversary has his kryptonite: cooties. “Eww, it’s a girl!” he shouts. “I don’t fight girls.”

Presto trying to communicate with the Lost ChildrenBobby’s reservations aside, the rogue children are quickly subdued. The party tries to understand the kids’ motivations, but the kids don’t say anything. “Forget it,” Eric says. “They probably can’t even talk.” I have no idea why he’d think that, but OK, fine. Presto asks why the kids attacked, using the worst attempt at hand signals I’ve ever seen. That’s not even close to sign language, Presto. Are you even trying? Is your brain still wet?

“Judging by your strange weapons,” one of them says in an erudite but childlike voice, “we assumed you worked for Venger.” Really? Well, if you believed that, you did a piss-poor job of attacking them, kid. Even Venger’s minions would have made kid-kabobs out of you.

After Sheila compliments their English, Presto somewhat redeems himself by jumping to the logical conclusion: these are the lost children Dungeon Master warned them about. “OK, Lost Children, now you’re found,” Eric says. “Where’s your ship? Take us to your yacht club.”

“We are the lost children,” one of them says. Wait, they self identify as “lost children”? I would have identified them as the Vitiligo Children myself, but whatever. “But we have no ship.”

The Lost ChildrenThis causes Eric paroxysms of anger; he makes vague threats toward Dungeon Master until another kid says, “Our ship has been taken by Venger.” Then you have a ship! Unless you, in your precise way, think theft removes the previous owner’s right of possession. Which you don’t. So why did you give Eric the runaround, you little twerps?

With that matter settled, the party finally asks about the kids’ adults. The kids’ “elders” are all gone except for Alfor, who was captured by Venger when their ship was wrecked. Presto can’t figure out why Venger wants a boat, while Eric has reservations about fighting against Venger.

“Whether you like it or not, Eric, we better find a place to camp. It’ll be getting dark soon.” Oh, for the love of … What does Eric’s position on fighting Venger over a boat have to do with setting up camp? Are you trying to portray Eric as anti-camp? Eric is expressing reasonable reservations, and you’re trying to conflate his position with a lack of preparation. Hank, you are either suffering a degenerative brain disease — may I suggest kuru? It’s called the “laughing sickness,” which I think is a delightful way for you to die — or getting too good at politics, which makes you an awful person.

***

Venger’s castleThe castle Venger is holding Alphor in isn’t his usual undercliff castle; this time, Venger has a more conventional abode, although the upper towers seem to have been constructed of whiffle. Inside, a figure in a blue hazmat suit — presumably Alfor — is welding, which meets Venger’s approval. What meets my approval is the welding gear; one of the jets is shaped like a monster’s head.

“Your ship shall make me powerful than ever,” Venger ckuans, but Shadow Demon has to toss a lightning bolt at Venger’s victory parade: the Lost Children have been seen with Dungeon Master’s pupils. “Good,” Venger says. “Now we can eliminate them all.” Oh, Venger: does it really seem likely, given all the times you’ve failed to defeat Hank & Co., that you’d be more successful now that they have allies?

Alfor welding the ship“No!” shouts Alfor, but he’s not agreeing with me; he’s trying to get Venger to spare the Lost Children. Well, we all have our priorities, I suppose. “If you harm those children, I will work no more.” Venger is flabbergasted that anyone would stand up to him, but Alfor stands his ground: “Your threats mean little to me, Venger.”

Venger takes it in stride, ordering Shadow Demon to make sure the Lost Children are captured but not harmed. I like Alphor — seeing a captive with backbone is a nice change of pace — but he’s not considering that when he finishes repairing the ship, he’ll have no more leverage with Venger. Or maybe he has thought of that and is using what leverage he has while he still has it.

***

Back at the combined camp in the ruins, we come across a wacky misunderstanding between Eric and one of the Lost Children. Eric asks “whatever your name is” for salt, the kid responds with his name — “Sogor” — which Eric mistakes for “sugar,” and that isn’t what he asked for. The routine isn’t exactly “Who’s on First?” For that matter, it’s not exactly funny either. The sketch ends with Diana telling Eric to be nice to the kids, but her tone is milder than usual.

Bobby, Sheila, and UniBobby and Sogor go out to fetch firewood. Sogor asks how old Bobby is; Bobby says, “Almost 10.” Unfortunately, Bobby just had his birthday in episode #8, “Servant of Evil, which means either the kids already have been in the Realms for a year or so or this episode should be set before “Servant of Evil.” I suppose another answer is that Bobby is lying, trying to impress his new little friend. Anyway, “almost ten” seems impossibly young to Sogor, who is 74. This so unnerves Bobby that he runs back to camp, blabbing the kid’s age to his sister and everyone else. Eric thinks Bobby’s gullible for believing Sogor; Sogor’s sister agrees, stating Sogor is only 73 ½. (I suppose that gives credence to the idea that Bobby too was exaggerating his age.)

“But that’s impossible!” Eric says. “Look at them! They’re children!” But the Lost Children maintain they are children, with middle-aged Alfor — age 552 — their only elder. The long life span sounds great to Presto, but Eric sees a flaw: “They probably go to school for 360 years.” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but spending at least 70-plus years as a child does sound nightmarish.

Hank decides this mild discussion has gotten everyone riled up. He tells everyone to get to sleep because “we’ve got a big date tomorrow … with Venger.” Sure! Maybe he’ll bring you a corsage. Who knows? Cross your fingers that he’ll ask you to go steady!

***

The two groups of kids approach Venger’s castle. Hank wonders why there are no guards; Eric tells him it’s because no one’s dumb enough to go to Venger’s castle. I doubt that’s true, Eric. Someone with as many enemies as Venger wouldn’t think that way. And of course, he doesn’t. When they get a better look at the castle, they found out why there are no guards: Venger has a small army encamped in front of the castle. “C’mon,” Hank says. “Let’s try to get closer.”

The Lost Children, agog“What?” Eric protests. “I say we forget this whole deal. We’re not even sure where Alfor is, even if we could get inside the castle. And … we can’t!” These are all valid points, Eric, although they display a lack of strategic thinking. In response to his objections, Sheila realizes she might be able to sneak inside the castle with her invisibility cloak as she demonstrates its powers. The Lost Children are agog — and one of them looks like he might have wet himself, that one in the lower right — after they see Sheila disappear. I myself would be quite happy if Sheila vanished … at least until I realized I couldn’t be sure of another private moment, since she could always be lurking nearby.

“Good idea, Sheila,” Hank says. Yes, Sheila, you have one job, and you remembered it! Nicely done! In fact, you remembered it before strategic genius Hank could. That doesn’t stop Hank from man-splaining what Sheila’s supposed to do: find Alfor and the ship, then return. “By the time you get back, we’ll be ready to move.” What — like you have to requisition supplies from the quartermaster or something? You’d be ready now if you have the intelligence you needed.

(Yes, I meant “intelligence” in both senses of the word.)

Eric can’t let Hank’s last line go, although it’s for different reasons than the ones I have: “You mean, if she gets back,” he says. Well, the sentiment is pragmatic, at least. I would have waited until Sheila was gone, to keep her from losing confidence (God knows confidence leaks out of Sheila like oil out of a ‘82 AMC Spirit). Bobby and Uni tell him to shut up. Fortunately, Eric isn’t shown quailing from a 9-year-old kid.

Sheila walks through the encampment, which is filled with Orcs and Lizardfolk, Venger’s most competent minions. She leaves footprints behind and snarls an insult at Lizardfolk guards as she walks between them, but she makes it to the castle. Somehow, though, Hank knows where she is: “She made it!” How … Did Hank attach a tracker to Sheila’s cloak? Because that’s creepy, Hank. Don’t be creepy. You’re not cool enough to pull it off.

Sheila removing her hoodOnce inside, Sheila removes her hood. Why are you taking your hood off, Sheila? Why do you always take off your hood? It’s like she has trouble seeing when she’s invisible … which, if you consider the physics involved, may be true. If she can’t be seen, then visible light is probably bending around her, which means light isn’t getting to her eyes. That doesn’t necessarily mean she wouldn’t be able to see at all; the cloak might give her the ability to see in other spectra, like ultraviolet or infrared (which I learned by reading The Physics of Superheroes). Given the purple glow around her when she removes the cloak, I’m going to go with ultraviolet. The alternate spectra aren’t as good — or maybe just aren’t as familiar — to Sheila, so she removes her cloak to get a better view.

Anyway, while prowling around, Sheila spots a tripwire and avoids it. This will be important later. Well, “important” as this cartoon defines it; a couple of goons will be inconvenienced. Let’s not get crazy with “foreshadowing” or “well-set up dénouement” or anything like that.

“I sure hope Venger’s dungeon is in the basement,” she says. That is the usual placement; I’m not sure it would be a dungeon if it were on one of the upper stories. Besides, the damp is extra irritating to the prisoners, especially those what have the rheumatiz. Fortunately for Sheila, the dungeon is in the basement, and as Sheila goes from cell to cell, calling Alfor’s name, the viewer realizes Sheila should have asked for a description of Alfor — especially since the person who Venger in disguiseresponds to her calls turns out to be Venger in disguise. “Aaah! Venger!” Sheila cries about two seconds after all the dumb kids watching else have figured out what’s going on. It is a nice terrified scream, though, so good work by voice actress Katie Leigh there.

“Do not worry,” Venger says. “You will soon be joined by your friends.” That’s considerate of you, Venger! Now I’m kinda ashamed at laughing at all those horrible things people have written about you on gas-station walls — especially on that one off I-Þ (second exit past the Bullywug swamp).

***

“It’s been over an hour now!” Presto says, checking his watch. I will not lie: I am impressed Presto still has a functioning watch. I would have thought that thing would have had the life expectancy of a Tamagotchi owned by a kid with ADHD. “I think she’s in trouble.”

“I think she was in trouble when she left,” Eric says, and he’s right. He was probably a bit too negative before, but this statement is true: Walking into Venger’s castle is trouble.

“In truth,” one of the Lost Children says, “there is a 97 percent chance that something unexpected has happened to your friend.” I expected her to be captured or killed. When you’re starting from that baseline, what does “unexpected” entail? Exiled to another world? (She wouldn’t react well to that, according to “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior.”) Polymorphed into a rutabaga? Forced to watch Venger’s home movies? I certainly wouldn’t expect any of those!

When Eric scoffs at the odds, Dungeon Master arrives to tell them all the kid is right. “In fact, you are all in great danger,” he says. “However, through defeat, you shall find victory.” Diana immediately asks what that means, as if she’s going to get an answer. She should know by now that DM isn’t going to tell — in fact, he’s already vanished — and no one else knows. Eric gives it a try, though: “It means the warranty has run out on Dungeon Master’s brain.”

Cyclops with staffs“I think the time has run out on our safety,” a Lost Child says. Dungeon Master was right about part: They are in danger. Cloaked figures holding glowing probulators and riding deformed pteranodon fly toward them. Frightening as they are, they are poor tacticians; the figures (who seem to be cyclopes, judging from their one glowing eye) land and dismount some distance away from the kids. This gives the heroes a chance to prepare and Hank an opportunity to get in a few shots with his bow. However, Hank does nothing — because why fire your weapon with unlimited ammo? — while Diana and Bobby are disarmed and captured. Perhaps it’s better Hank didn’t fire, though; when finally does shoot, he disarms himself as the energy arrow ricochets off a probulator and Eric’s shield.

(Geek aside: Cyclopes don’t appear in any of the standard monster books. Instead, “cyclops” — greater and lesser — are listed in Legends & Lore, the book that details several different mythoi from literature and ancient culture. The cyclops are listed among the Greek pantheon, of course. Neither the greater nor lesser versions seem to fit what we have here; the greater are the god Hephaestus’s amphibious servants, and the lesser versions are one-eyed hill giants — that’s not a euphemism — who throw rocks. These might actually be cyclopskin from the Monster Manual II; they’re slightly smarter than lesser cyclops, and they live in small bands. Their eyes are red, not glowing yellow, though.

The pteranodon comes from the
Monster Manual. It’s a flying reptile that spears victims with its beak or swallows them whole. They aren’t that interesting in the cartoon.)

When all looks lost, Diana says, “Presto, try something,” which I believe is Esperonto for “Though defeated, I decline an honorable surrender.” “Here goes!” Presto says. “Cloaks and weapons / Drop to the ground / Put Venger’s troopers / In the lost and found!” The scene fades out with nothing happening other than Presto’s apologies and his hat glowing.

***

Venger and Shadow DemonA thrilling time for a commercial break, right? As we come back from the break, it appears the heroes have been captured — well, the wee ones, at least. As Venger and Shadow Demon watch, four cloaked figures lead Bobby and the Lost Children to Venger’s castle. Presumably the older children were thrown off the cliff, since they weren’t protected by Venger’s “no-kill” shelter. Venger thinks the older party members have escaped, though: “Dungeon Master’s other young ones cannot be far behind.”

Oh, irony! (And yes, Alanis, I’m using the term correctly.) As it turns out, Presto’s spell caused Venger’s forces to vanish, and the four older kids stole the cyclopes’ cloaks and probulators for disguises. Eric thinks this plan will get them “creamed”; when he pulls his hood back to look around, Diana tells him, “Cover your face, Eric — and while you’re at it, cover your mouth too.”

The party in disguise with the Lost ChildrenUnfortunately, the castle guards do not seem to have felt the extreme temperatures generated by such a sick burn. Two Lizardfolk stand by the door; one of them is actually wearing clothes, which is a real step up in the world for Lizardfolk. Hank overhears the password given by the Orc ahead of them in line, which he duly repeats. Well, he stumbles a little over the words, but I’m going to cut him some slack: the words are nonsense, and he does a good enough job.

When Hank does something cool (a rare enough condition), the rules say Eric must embarrass himself trying to equal or top the Great Blond Hope. In this case, Eric decides to take the lead, stammering out a request to an Orc for directions to the dungeon. Hank and Diana express their disapproval, but the Orc does point them to Sheila’s cell (#3). “You were cool, Eric — real cool,” Diana says.

“Hey, quit complaining,” Eric says. “I got us the directions, didn’t I?” He sure did! The kids wander by generic monsters in cells, looking for Sheila and Alfor, but Shadow Demon sees them first and informs Venger. Of course Venger already knows the kids have infiltrated the castle, although I don’t see how — the Orc, maybe? Venger shows that while he has power, he doesn’t have some of the keen analytical skills someone in his position needs: “This will be easier than I expected.” Just like all the other times, right?

Presto held by a monsterThe kids think they’ve found Sheila’s cell, but Uni’s blind pawings reveal Presto isn’t opening cell 3 — it’s cell 13. Inside they find a pale monster instead; it picks up Presto, offering to take him back to its cell to see its etchings. No, not really: he picks up Presto as if he’s going to throw him into the wall. Hank drives the monster into its cell with an arrow, and the kids hurriedly shut the door. Sheila signals her friends from down the hall, but the monster has raised a commotion that alerted the guards, who intercept the kids.

The first guard uses his mace to knock the shield out of Eric’s hand. Waitaminute — why didn’t Eric’s shield work? It should have protected him from the mace blow, but instead it worked only as a normal shield. Something must be up, right? Dungeon Master’s precious magic weapons wouldn’t just stop working for no reason. This must be foreshadowing! (Note: This will not be followed up on. It’s just a way to make Eric look ridiculous.) Eric pretends to know karate, and while his eyes are closed, Hank hits the Orc’s mace with an arrow. The arrow sticks to the mace, and the momentum carries him into the other guards, knocking them all down and out. “Boy,” Eric says. “I must be better than I thought.” Ha, ha.

(If you’re compiling a list of things Hank’s arrows can do, add “be magnetic” to the list. I’m not going to bother; I’m keeping too many lists as it is.)

Diana breaks the flimsy lock on Sheila’s cell door with her staff — wouldn’t having Bobby do it make more sense? — and a tearful reunion ensues. All reunions are tearful with Sheila; for that matter, so are most movies, sunsets, sunrises, lunches, and oak trees. What I’m saying is, she cries a lot. This time she might have a reason, as she sounds shaken up by her imprisonment. When Bobby asks if she’s all right, she says, “Sure I am, Bobby,” a tone that could convince only a 9-year-old.

Eric trying to keep Alfor in his cellEric keeps them on task, saying there’s “no time for sentimentality”: They need to get Alfor and scram. He then frees (without checking the cell) someone who claims to be Alfor. When the person he frees turns out to be a Mok, he tries to shut the cell door, but it’s no use. “He must have eaten Alfor!” Eric shouts.

Fortunately, it is Alfor, according to the kids, and true to their pretentiousness, they take this opportunity to announce, “We’re all vegetarians.” The real time to tell the others (and us!) this was at supper the night before, but obviously, the party, used to meatless dinners because of Hank’s poor foraging and management skills, didn’t think to remark on the lack of animal products. “You guys grow up to be Wookies?” Eric asks. No, Eric; as I established, he’s a Mok. Ookla’s a distant relative. “You guys grow into monsters — I mean, things like that?” Eric, do you really think mighty Chewbacca is a monster? I am staunch in my defense of you, Cavalier, but that’s too much to defend.

***

To disguise themselves on the way to Alfor’s ship, the kids stand on each other’s shoulders, three to a cloak, and wander the halls of Venger’s castle. It’s a disguise that wouldn’t fool Thog, the ogre who has taken too many blows to the head, but that’s what they’re doing. Sheila, lucky girl, gets to remain invisible and all alone in her cloak.

Alfor’s spaceshipThey find the ship, but the kids are shocked to learn it’s a spaceship. Guess that’s why these weird people (from another world, as they later admit) traveled on it, and why Dungeon Master thought it could get you home! The ship appears to be alone in the chamber, however. “I wonder why there are no guards,” Hank asks. When the party asked that question before, it was because an army was camped just over the next rise. I mentioned before that Venger doesn’t seem to have learned anything when he declared it easy to capture the party; I think the same line of thought applies to Hank. The empty chamber screams, “Trap!” But no one seems to hear it.

Especially not Eric, who conjectures there are no guards there because no one gets to the lab. Well, that’s an idea, but it turns out to be incorrect; while Eric is saying how flimsy the spaceshift looks. He’s kinda got a point; you could say it looks fragile or classic. I opt for the latter, but I don’t blame Eric. “I wouldn’t fly in that thing if Venger were standing right next to me,” Eric says, and then Venger then stands behind Eric as he springs the trap. Cue the sad trombone. If that gag sounds familiar, well, it’s because the writer of this episode used the same gag in the previous episode.

Eric’s the first to retreat to the ship, but Alfor admits he failed to mention he still has to make a repair: like R5-D4, the ship has a bad motivator. (I think the writer was enjoying making Star Wars references, but I he should have been more aggressive about it.)

Eric and Presto are agog at Presto’s tiny tankThe battle begins, and Presto is casting spells as a first resort: “Magic hat / I’m going to be frank / What we need now / Is a twenty-ton tank!” (For the record, twenty tons is a very light tank; the M1-Abrams, which was the newest tank when this episode aired, weighed 54 tons; the Sherman tank of World War II weighed 30 tons.) But instead, Presto gets a zero-ton tank, a toy that toddles toward Venger. “This is no time to open a toy store!” Eric chides Presto. Presto apologizes, and however the battle turns out, he’s right to do so.

Sheila takes advantage of foreshadowing and lures two Lizardfolk into activating the tripwire and capturing them in a cage. As smart as that was, it took out only two guards when there were a dozen times that, and as she re-emerges in the main chamber, reinforcements are running in. Fortunately, Alfor’s repairs are done, and they all pile into the ship, ready to go.

Energy covers Venger“I am warning you, Alfor …” Venger says, letting his hands glow white and his threat go unvocalized. Just as he’s ready to zap the ship, Presto’s tank trundles up to Venger, bumping him repeatedly. Venger decides to get rid of the annoyance and stamps on the tank, but it explodes in a burst of red energy. Oh, the humiliation of being taken out by Presto’s magic!

They still haven’t escaped, though. They take off, but Venger activates the closing mechanism of the window they have to fly out of by blasting the sensor above the window. The round orifice has two sets of jagged, clashing plates that open and close: one pair that emerge from the top and bottom, one that close from the sides. When they close, clanging together, they then open again. I’m assuming the opening and closing are malfunctions, but why have an exit like that in the first place? It seems like overkill, at best. (Eric calls it a “trash masher,” likely another Star Wars reference.)

Alfor has no trouble threading the needle, though. (A powerful ally for Alfor is the Force.) They fly into the open air, seemingly home free, only to get shot down by Venger. The ship crashes in a huge fireball, and Venger declares everyone dead and their weapons destroyed, even as Shadow Demon tries to convince him otherwise. Boy, Venger really doesn’t care any more, does Venger watches an explosionhe? I mean, I would immediately dispatch a team of minions to investigate and secure the wreckage, maybe even find one of the kids’ weapons, but you? Nope! Just wipe your hands and call it a day, maybe grab a can of Arcane Light and kick back. (If you need a light at the end of a hard day, just say, “Shirak!” and open a bottle of Arcane Light. Made with unnatural ingredients, so you know it’s magical!)

Alfor manages to land the ship safely, of course, and no one dies. The ship, in point of fact, remains in outstanding condition, considering the size of the fireball it created. Presto and Eric were tossed into a tree, lucky to be alive, and Diana snickers at Eric when he falls off the tree and into a shallow river yet again. Alfor thinks he can repair the ship so that they can get home — “The planet Axon, far off through the northern sky” — but it will take another fifteen years. That’s fine for the Axoners, but for the party … not so much. “I think we better switch to another airline,” Eric says. Hank admonishes him, but Eric’s right; they can’t stick around with the aliens for fifteen years.

The spaceship crashed in a riverThanks and best wishes are passed around before the party trudges away. “Here we go again,” Eric says, half-heartedly waving to the aliens as they walk down the river. Cheer up, Eric: only one more episode before the end of the first season! (Well, that might not cheer you up, but it makes me very happy.)

Here are lessons that will fly straight into your brain:

  • Star Wars references were just as “funny” thirty years ago as they are today. That is: not usually.
  • Every adversarial relationship eventually reaches the point where one of the parties doesn’t seem to care any more, as Venger does at the end.
  • Foreshadowing is the tool of the weak. Don’t be weak! You can let a reference pay off, but geez, don’t make it too important.
  • Just because you don’t see enemy soldiers doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They’re probably around somewhere; try to exert some effort in finding them.
  • Degenerative brain diseases and politics are surprisingly hard to differentiate.
  • Even a blind magician can find a nut every now and then.
Going home tally: This is the fourth way home that they’ve found; all have failed. Twice they’ve briefly returned to Earth, though.

Monster tally: One new monster the Monster Manual and one from Legends & Lore. Totals: MM: 29; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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2016 Hugos wrap-up

22nd Aug. 2016 | 01:42 pm

The Hugos were awarded Saturday night, and the winner for Best Novel was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Not what I would have chosen, but I can still understand the decision.

What would I have chosen? Here are my final rankings of the nominees:
Uprooted finished a close second in the Hugo voting, which book finished third depends on your definition of “third.” If your answer is “the book that got the third-most first-place votes” or “the book that got the third-most first-place votes after the votes for Fifth Season and Uprooted were reallocated,” then the answer is Ancillary Mercy. If your answer is “the nominee that, except for Fifth Season and Uprooted, was the last to be eliminated as the lowest vote-getter,” then the answer is Seveneves.

Ancillary Mercy is the right answer, but that’s probably not the choice someone casually looking at the full Hugo voting results would probably choose.

The voting results page also lists the nominations in each category. As an interesting side note, the Jessica Jones episode that won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, “a.k.a. Smile,” received the fewest nominations of any of the nominees, and the episode wouldn’t have been nominated at all if two other possible contenders hadn’t been ineligible because they were too long for the category. The nominated episode of My Little Pony, which had the most nominations, finished below “No Award” in the voting. Such are the perils of being on the Rabid Puppies slate in a category people cared about. (On the other hand, The Martian did just fine in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, category.)

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2016 Hugo nominee #5: The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher

20th Aug. 2016 | 03:19 am

The fifth — and final! — nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher:

The Aeronaut’s Windlass coverPlot: In a steampunk world, humans live in spires, vertical structures that lift them into the clouds. Each spire has an airship navy that operates under rules and conditions similar to 19th-century naval standards (sans ocean, of course). In fact, the entire world in Windlass seems to echo the Victorian era.

Spire Aurora has set its sights on Spire Albion, where our heroes serve its ruler, the Spirearch. The Aurorans launch a drive-by assault on Albion, using the chaos to cover the insertion of hundreds of Auroran marines. The heroes of Albion must track down these marines and their sinister handler to avoid losing the war before it has begun.

The parts of the book set on Spire Albion are successful; the characters’ paranoia over possible traitors and enemy agents lurking around them gives the middle of the book urgency it needs. When combat begins, Butcher doesn’t stint on the action, and the climactic battle between Albion and Aurora taking place over more than a hundred pages. On the other hand, getting to that battle is sometimes a chore; even beyond the minutiae of airship flight, Butcher’s world-building exposition sometimes slows the plot, especially since it the relevant details have to be communicated to and experienced by characters who have been separated by the plot.

Windlass spends a great deal of time discussing the mechanics of airship flight, maneuvering, and combat. I don’t find any of it interesting, but I don’t hold that against the book because I’ve never really found ships interesting. But however much taking time to have the captain explain the mechanics of airship combat to a new Guard in the middle of airship combat may be practical from a narrative standpoint, it’s a surefire way to bleed the tension from the oncoming climax of the book. Oh, it shows the captain’s steely reserve, his calm under fire, but the back-and-forth between seasoned veteran and newbie makes the fight seem more like a training run than a possible mortal battle.

I can’t help thinking the book didn’t have to be more than 600 pages long, and I found myself looking for parts to trim. The monks, for instance, are mostly irrelevant. Also, did Butcher think it was clever to combine European monks in their scriptoriums and Asian monks with their kung-fu training and Zen thinking? I think he might have patted himself on the back over that one. 2 of 5

Protagonists: Windlass has five protagonists: Gwendolyn “Gwen” Lancaster, a member of the Spirearch’s Guard and the prime minister’s daughter; Bridget Tagwynn, the only scion of a lowly (but still noble) house; Rowl, her intelligent cat (although he thinks of Bridget as his human), who is the prince of a feline clan; Capt. F.M. Grimm, a privateer captain who was drummed out of the regular service for cowardice, although indications are that he was made to take the fall for someone else; and Folly, an apprentice etherealist (Windlass’s wizard substitutes). Gwen, Bridget, and Grimm are the main characters, carrying the bulk of the narrative on their shoulders.

They’re all pleasant enough characters, but given the dispersal of focus, only Rowl stands out as a novel character. Even though focusing on one character would have made Windlass into a different book — especially if that character had been Rowl — I think that book would have likely been superior. I wonder whether Butcher didn’t have faith any of his characters could carry the book by his- or herself or if he wanted to cover so much narrative ground that he didn’t see how he could do it without all those characters (plus a few, more minor viewpoint characters). If the narrative had to have been divvied up between two characters, Gwen and Bridget together could have carried the book, and the contrasts between the two characters could have made up for the dispersal of focus. Bridget and Rowl, given their closeness, would have also worked. But instead, we have five main viewpoint characters, none of whom are developed as well as they could be.

The character selection also contributes to a heavy whiff of elitism in Windlass. Albion’s similarities to Victorian England primes the readers’ (and author’s, most likely) expectation that the characters must be of the finer classes; even the cat is a prince, for Providence’s sake. The characters don’t interact much with non-nobles except for people outside the social structure altogether, like monks and etherealists. I mean, the differentiation between highest-class Gwen and lower-class Bridget isn’t that one is noble and one is not; it’s that Gwen is the prime minister’s daughter and Bridget is a member of a reduced noble house. Very Victorian, but not very 21st century.

On the other hand, I applaud Butcher for not only having three female viewpoint characters but also putting two of those into combat soldier positions and making one stronger than one most men without making her seem less feminine. I feel either Bridget or Gwen could have fallen into the trap of YA-hero tropes if they’d been developed more, but perhaps I should give Butcher the benefit of the doubt on that score; after all, he had the younger characters confront the personal consequences of killing in combat. 3 of 5

Villains: Oh, those dastardly Aurorans — thinly disguised Spaniards to Albion’s English. I must admit, though, that the Aurorans are extremely competent. They manage to insert themselves into Albion without major losses, but they aren’t flawless about it, taking credible casualties. They manage to blend in enough to hide until they launch their mission; they carry off their acts of sabotage competently while taking casualties. The occasional chapter focusing on one of their commanders gives them just enough humanity without making them too sympathetic. They are the villains after, all.

I got tired of the etherealist who was assigned to the Aurorans, however. Sycorax Cavendish is mad over manners, killing rude allies but allowing polite enemies more leeway than expected. She is the most powerful etherealist in the book, but she possesses the kind of power that vanishes when it’s most needed; she doesn’t do anything in the final ship combat, and somehow she gets injured during a different fight despite possessing the power to stop the attacker. Her tightly wrapped “madness” comes across more as cruelty than actual insanity, which gives a different cast to her character. 4 of 5

Inventiveness: I haven’t read much steampunk, but I can’t imagine a world in which airships and nations battle in way that seems suspiciously Napoleonic is all that innovative. The society is 19th-century Britain, the society doesn’t sacrifice much of its standard of living despite its lack of overall technological sophistication compared to ours, and class-structures are rigid, impermeable, and invisible. The spires are little more than islands to isolate the different factions. True, Albion doesn’t use steam power, but crystals? C’mon. Crystals are the most generically magic thing that exists. Eccentrically mad wizards are also generically magic, come to think of it, and etherealists are not much more than eccentrically mad wizards.

The central role of Rowl and other cats are unexpected, so nice job by Butcher there. But I also think books that make cats central characters are relatively common, and most of them probably capture cats’ personalities as well as Butcher does. I’m also not sure cat society fits the rest of the book. The cat tribes seem like an idea Butcher decided to bolt onto Windlass, appropriateness be damned. 1 of 10

Fun: I have mixed feelings about how fun this book is, and I think this is about as personal a judgment that I’ve ever made in this category. I hate boats and loathe hearing about their workings, but I realize that’s not universal. On the other hand, despite the genericness of some of Windlass’s concepts, I’m not an avid steampunk reader, so the lack of new ideas didn’t bother me. Forgetting when the Hugo ceremony was forced me to read the 600+-page book in less than a week, but it was not a chore; on the other hand, it did drag in places with explanations and concepts that didn’t fit, so it wasn’t a breeze to read either.

In the end, I have to come down in the middle, with extremely mixed feelings. 3 of 5

Total: 13 of 30. Fourth of five.

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2016 Hugo nominee #4: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

18th Aug. 2016 | 02:54 pm

The fourth nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson:

Seveneves coverPlot: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and most of humanity is lining up in an orderly fashion to die, so I guess they feel fine.

When a mysterious object plows through the moon, it breaks up into large fragments. Rather than re-coalescing from gravity, the fragments crash into each other, again and again, until Earth’s gravity starts pulling in so many small pieces of the moon the sky will burn and seas will evaporate. In the two or so years it takes for Earth to be overwhelmed, scientists lead the nations of Earth into getting as many people as possible — only a few thousand — into space in a way they will survive as long as possible. Remarkably, the evacuation goes mostly smoothly; it’s the survivors who can’t get along, schisming and fighting until humanity is reduced to eight women, seven of which are fertile (the Seven Eves of the title).

Then the plot starts up again five millennia later, with 3 billion people divided seven tribes, each descended from a different Eve. (Evidently intermarriage is frowned upon, although I’m not sure how humanity managed to expand from eight to 3 billion without some intermarriage; the early years of humanity’s rebirth had to have had a lot of gene therapy to combat the inbreeding if the people don’t take advantage of what little diversity it has.) Humanity is beginning to re-establish itself on the surface of the Earth, but they find traces that indicate Earth might not be uninhabited.

The major problem with the plot is that it doesn’t have the strength to suspend my disbelief; every large plot point causes it to crash down, again and again, until it’s in pieces. I don’t believe humanity would go that gentle into that good night. I don’t believe in the protagonists’ actions. I don’t believe in the science that allows the human race to bounce back from a population of seven fertile women (and zero male genetic material). I don’t believe humanity would separate itself into seven strains in which outstanding characteristics control every member of a tribe. I don’t believe that humanity can evolve — literally evolve — in the ways Stephenson expects us to. I don’t believe that if humanity comes up with three ways to survive an apocalypse, all three will succeed.

On the other hand, I find it hard to believe I had the patience to wade through the entire thing, but I was there when it happened, so I can’t argue against that. 2 of 5

Protagonists: Scientists! Ah, how Stephenson loves scientists. Rational people, the kind of people who build the foundations of societies. The protagonists of this book, however, seem incapable of influencing society, even when human society has been reduced to a couple of thousand people in space. More frustratingly, they don’t engage with the idea that social engineering is important. Things go bad because of the things scientists aren’t good at, and the protagonists don’t seem to understand how they could have prevented it.

The protagonists are too rational at times. When humanity has been reduced to eight women, two of those women are guilty of heinous war crimes. Given the perilous state of the population, the survivors don’t punish the two guilty ones, which seems a poor idea; if they can’t find the will to kill those two, then exile them, or at the very least don’t let them reproduce. As the last third of the book shows, letting them reproduce is a poor idea.

The protagonists show a strong survivor bias. The people who do most of the exciting, daring, and dangerous work tend to die, and a point arrives in the book where the men sacrifice themselves to save the fertile women. (A breeding population needs women more than men, so that’s logical.) This means the readers follow the beneficiaries of other people’s deaths. Those surviving scientists do necessary work, work that is in its own way heroic. But it’s not dangerous, and the lack of danger diminishes them: not only do they not perform the most deadly work, they usually aren’t even close enough to those who do to see them die. Often I had the feeling I was following the wrong characters as crisis after crisis was addressed by someone else. 2 of 5

Villains: Politicians, mostly — or you can say that humanity is its own worst enemy. Stephenson is transparent about what’s holding humanity back, and he’s not kind to his enemies. The world, it seems, should let scientists and engineers do their thing and get out of the way; wrangling over national pride is pointless, and resources should be divvied up rationally. (Stephenson addresses this in a more entertaining way when the Waterhouses divide the patriarch’s estate in Cryptonomicon.) Politicians, even ostensibly good ones, are too self-absorbed. Stephenson even singles out those who sell their science to politicians; the last science advisor to the president of the United States becomes a victim of cannibalism after he helps sell her agenda to the other survivors. If only the president had been a man; Stephenson could have given him a moustache to twirl …

The pro-science / anti-politics bias is as infuriating as it is obvious. The politicians’ victories come in part because scientists see the politicians’ domain as useless, and they refuse to engage in it. (To be fair, this is part of the plot; Stephenson doesn’t rule out that other scientists could have contended with the politicians, but these particular survivors are not good at it.) But by mostly excising the actual politics from the book, Stephenson downplays how difficult politics are; lurking behind the protagonists’ reluctance to argue with philosophical ideas is that they could, if they only tried, and they would be successful at it.

I have to admit, though: the politicians were infuriating in the ways you want smug villains to be. However, the protagonists were as frustrating because they generally did not fight back. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: The main thrust of the book — humanity is forced to take to space because Earth is about to become uninhabitable — is a fascinating idea, and Stephenson tackles it head-on … well, he tackles the science head-on. I am unconvinced by his evaluation of the politics of evacuating Earth, but he rarely stints on showing the technical difficulties (mostly surmountable) that humanity would face if it had to get into orbit in a hurry.

Also, I have to give some credit to Stephenson for the scope of Seveneves. I don’t think many novels takes humanity from 7 billion people to seven people and then back to billions, but that’s probably because that is so much plot that it could fill two or three books. In fact, I think it should have filled two or three books; the tone and plot shifts between the present and the future was almost too much to overcome.

On another level, however, Seveneves is extremely regressive; in the far future, humanity has been reduced to seven tribes, each of which is strongly controlled by a single outstanding personality trait. That’s some Golden Age sci-fi right there, and explaining it through “modern” (read: not really believable) science doesn’t help. I think it’s telling that the book becomes more entertaining when it deviates from hard science and believability. 7 of 10

Fun: Mein Gott, what a dreary mess to plow through. Nearly all of humanity dies: first in a rush, then through slow attrition after Earth is made uninhabitable. But nearly all of those deaths are off the page, as it were; characters make heroic sacrifices, men (almost always men) are sacrificed to keep the fertile women alive, and all those deaths are footnotes to the science. It’s like watching a war movie set on the homefront, except that the homefront is mostly computer programming, and we don’t see any of the war action — we just get a daily roll of the dead.

The final third of the book, which is set in the far future, is more exciting; it has first contact, treachery, a workable human society, action, and a bit of cleverness. But it takes so long to get there that despite sensing the presence of entertainment on the page, I was too numb to absorb it. 0.5 of 5

Total: 12.5 of 30. It’s not as good as that rating would lead anyone to believe.

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So: The Hugos, 2016

17th Aug. 2016 | 11:17 pm

So: the Hugos have snuck up on me again. I don’t know how they do this every year … well, I do know, actually: I always think the awards ceremony will be over Labor Day weekend or the last weekend in August, but it’s not. I can’t remember when the ceremony is, I guess is what I’m saying. I suppose I should set myself a reminder in Google Calendar.

Anyway, the Hugos award ceremony will be Saturday in Kansas City. Three of the five nominees for Best Novel were also nominees for the Nebula for Best Novel, so I’ve already covered them on this site:
That leaves two nominees for me to cover: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I’ve already written about Seveneves on this site, although I didn’t put my thoughts into my usual award rubric. I’ll do that on Thursday, although the post might be more abbreviated than most. (If you read that post on Seveneves, you know why.) My thoughts on The Aeronaut’s Windlass, which I’m reading now, will go up on Friday. A final Hugos post will be up Sunday or Monday, although if you’re really interested in the award, you’ll probably already know who has won.

Unlike with the Nebulas, I’m not running a contest this time, for the obvious reason that no one entered the last contest.

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No post this week

12th Aug. 2016 | 11:35 pm

For the first time since February, I’m going to miss putting up a post over a weekend. I know that will come as a disappointment to the one person anticipating these updates — hi, Mom! — but I had a chance to make money this week, so this blog got put on the backburner.

The next Dungeons & Dragons cartoon post will be — should be — in two weeks. Next week will be the lead-in to the Hugo Awards, which snuck up on me once again. Regular service should continue after that. Should. Who knows what the future might hold.

Thanks for reading!

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Three Things about ... City of the Spider-Queen

6th Aug. 2016 | 01:05 am

Three things about City of the Spider Queen by James Wyatt:

City of the Spider Queen cover
  • What am I getting myself into?: I’m not really sure where to start with City of the Spider Queen; I don’t play in the Forgotten Realms, I don’t use WotC adventures when I DM, and I don’t play high-level characters (City is designed for 10th-level characters at the start, and the intro says characters can get as high as 18th level by the end). The adventure has received praise, albeit somewhat qualified; it was the 24th greatest D&D adventure ever, according to Dungeon #116 (November 2004), and allegedly 2006’s Dungeon Master for Dummies ranked it among the top 10 3rd-edition adventures.

    So I find it difficult to see how this adventure would work, especially since teleporting was hindered by the plot. The adventurers are supposed to journey through the Underdark, past things that can’t be bargained with (including two whole Drow cities, one of which is divided between Drow and a hostile army), and destroy a half-ethereal temple intruding into the material plane. The Drow are the hardest part, with the adventurers having to invade a fortified and on-alert castle full of them … and any Drow they kill will probably be brought back as undead. I expect that Wyatt planned for the adventurers to circumvent the bulk of the Drow soldiers, with the amount and power of the Drow being an extremely unsubtle way of telling the adventurers that they’ve gone the wrong way.

    Is the enjoyment supposed to be in figuring out ways around these elaborately detailed forces arrayed against the heroes? Because hacking through fight after fight doesn’t seem like an enjoyable way to spend … well, weeks, if characters are supposed to gain up to eight levels. There is little opportunity for negotiation that won’t obviously end in backstabbing, and interactions in the book rarely seem to progress beyond snarling threats and insults. It looks like a dreary slog to me. But what do I know?

  • The answer is …: The adventure starts with Lolth, spider-demon goddess of the evil Drow, going silent, and not even her priestesses can communicate with her. This throws Drow society into chaos, with one priestess of a rival Drow goddess, Kiaransalee, using the distraction to conquer a citadel and try to bring her goddess to the material plane.

    What I’m curious about, though, is what was happening with Lolth. From what I can find online, she came out ahead, graduating to the rank of greater deity. But what was her play here? Was she in distress, or was this just another of her plots to test her worshipers? I’m betting on the latter, since Lolth is always testing the Drow. But it says something that I’m more interested in the plot hook than the main focus of the adventure, which appears to be committing hard-fought genocide on the Drow of the city of Maermydra.

  • What’s in it for me?: So what do you get out of this book if you don’t want to run the adventure? Well, there are fourteen new monsters, most of which revolve around the Drow or undead or undead Drow. (They mix in some demons, just for variety.) A couple also appear in the later Fiend Folio, however. Statistics for ten new magic items (and a few that appear elsewhere) are also included, including a minor artifact. There are also some maps of areas of the Underdark the heroes tromp through, and those could be useful. That’s not really much, from my point of view; I’m not into Drow or the Underdark, and I’m only occasionally interested in the undead. Your mileage may vary, of course.

    On the other hand, you might logically ask why, if nothing about this adventure appeals to me, did I read it? And I have no answer for you. It is obvious, within a few pages, exactly what this book is. Hell, most people could tell by the cover. I suppose I was being a completist; although I don’t regret reading City, I didn’t find it very enjoyable.

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Dungeons & Dragons #11: The Box

1st Aug. 2016 | 04:41 am

The Box title cardOriginal air date: 26 November 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

Laundry. What’s more heroic than laundry? Nothing, I suppose, which is why the episode begins with Cavalier’s laundry on the line and Presto and Cavalier (in boxers and a shield) holding their noses nearby. It turns out Eric has been sprayed by a skunk-chicken, a feathered beast that Eric mistook for a “striped chicken.” Rather than sympathizing with him, his “friends” are complaining, with Sheila saying, “I don’t think my nose will ever work the same way again.”

Sure, complain because everyone was so hungry that Eric had to take the initiative and the risk to get you food. And for Loki’s sake, if it stinks so bad, why don’t you move upwind? Or at least farther away?

Eric in a gas mask(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Box” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Presto shows, again, how useless he is. His incantation of “Abracadabra / Quick as a wink / Conjure me something / To fight Eric’s stink” results in a gas mask — one, lone, single, solitary gas mask. Eric snatches it up and wears it; Diana says, “That’s perfect, Eric. Now you look as awful as you smell.” But not as awful as you are a friend, Diana!

What starts as the worst opening ever turns into possibly the greatest. Diana’s carping is interrupted by a major earthquake. Everyone is knocked down, and Hank falls into a chasm that opens in the earth. Aw, too bad. But look at the bright side: It’s an opportunity for a new leader! New start! New (non-starving) outlook! Unfortunately, the party — even the suddenly clothed Eric — isn’t willing to give up on Hank. Ah, well.

Hank’s unconscious at the bottom of a chasm, a 25-foot or so drop that Diana and Bobby simply jump into without thought or consequence. The rest somehow follow, and by the time everyone’s down there, Hank’s fine. But the news isn’t all bad: Bobby’s found a locked treasure chest, garishly purple, down there as well. The kids speculate about what’s inside, although Eric cuts through their crap: “Why don’t we open it and find out?”

Bobby and Sheila look at a purple box“But what if there’s something horrible inside?” Sheila whines. By Osiris’s musty tomb, girl, would you grow up? Of course there’s something awful inside! That’s the way Dungeons & Dragons goes. (My guess is that Dungeon Master’s in there, having a nap.)

But no, I’m wrong: When Eric speculates the box contains “untold riches,” Dungeon Master appears behind them and says, “‘Undead witches’ is more like it.” OK, nice wordplay, Dungeon Master. This round goes to you, although I would have gone with “undead liches.” “I wouldn’t touch that box if I were you.” Annnnnd … I won’t touch the obvious joke.

“I told you it was horrible!” Sheila says, jabbing a bony finger at Eric. Dammit, Sheila, you make it hard to like you. Is that what you want?

Eric makes the improbable accusation that Dungeon Master wants to keep the box’s valuable contents for himself. Dungeon Master says Eric is right about the value, at least: “There is much of value in that box. And an equal amount of pain and horror.” “Pain and horror” is enough to curtail Eric’s enthusiasm, although he asks for some clarification, and Diana (for once) backs him up: “What is in the box, Dungeon Master?”

“Nothing,” he says, with a smile like a smug Cheshire cat. And like the Cheshire cat, I wish he’d just disappear. Eric, frustrated with all the vague, says, “I think there’s nothing in his head.”

Dungeon Master explains that it is Zandora’s Box, which makes me want to go back to 1983 and punch the writer. The name is lazy; if he had to use something so close to “Pandora,” why couldn’t he have used an “X” to start the name, to liven it up a little? “Zandora was a good sorceress, and an even better friend,” Dungeon Master says. And a magical booty call, I bet. “Many years ago, Venger banished her into another world, where she has been trapped ever since.”

Dungeon Master points at a mapEver the sap, Diana says, “I wish there was something we could do.” Never volunteer, Diana. People like Dungeon Master will only take advantage of you. “The box you have discovered holds the only key to her freedom — and yours!” Dungeon Master says, showing them a map. Cartography is alive! “You must take the box to Skull Mountain, place it under the shadow of the skull at high noon, then open it. But you must never, never open the box anywhere else!”

Now I see: it’s called Zandora’s box not because all the zills of the world and zoap are inside it but because it will tempt the kids to open it wrongly. Got it. So does Eric (or at least he thinks he does): “Oh, I get it: there’s something in the box, and nothing in the box; the nothing is valuable, but the something is horrible, and if we open it in the right place, we get nothing, which is good, but if we open it in the wrong place, we get something, which is horrible. I love this little guy.” Unfortunately, Eric is unable to physically express that love because Dungeon Master disappeared during his speech.

***

Heroic music plays as they pull the casket out of the hole, using several ropes. It’s never said where these ropes came from, but if they’re anything like real D&D adventurers, the answer is, “They’ve been on my inventory list all along. It’s not my fault you weren’t paying attention …”

The party pulls the box“According to the map, it will take us one day to get to this Skull Mountain place,” Diana says. Look, I can tell you about Skull Mountain: it’s not that far from Bayport, it’s where they put the reservoir in the 1950s, and it has a secret. Of course, I don’t know which state Bayport is in, so that’s a problem … Anyway, Bobby thinks they’ll be able to use the box to get home after they’ve released Zandora, but Sheila makes sure to reassure him that all hope in the Realms is pointless: “Maybe, Bobby.”

As they start pulling the box away, they are watched by Shadow Demon, who’s perched in a nearby tree. He doesn’t say why he’s watching them — probably sent there by Venger — but I prefer to think he’s stalking the kids on his own time. “Oh, yeah, Barbarian … whack that club. Mmmm-hmmm, work that staff, Acrobat. Yeah, Wizard, reach into that hat — deeper! Deeper! Oh my —”

Anyway, the kids pull the box like pack animals through the swamp. Sheila says, “I think we’re lost.” You always think that, Sheila, and you’re usually right. But you have a map! The map is infallible! Responding to Sheila, Presto says, “I think we’re exhausted,” while Eric cuts to the quick once again: “I think we’re stupid.”

After Hank calls a halt and plots their course — “We’ll head up that mountain slope to the north” — Eric announces the group needs new leadership. He blames Hank for the party being lost, then says the group needs “a real leader.” He’s about to put it to a vote when Bullywugs interrupt his putsch. Eric pushes leadership back onto Hank — with the promise of a little something extra, if you know what I mean — before showing the white feather. Hank’s grand plan — “Let ‘em have it!” — is as effective as it is moronically simple.

It does not keep the Bullywugs from opening the box, thinking they’ll find treasure inside. To the kids’ amazement, after the Bullywugs open it, nothing horrible comes out; in fact, the Bullywugs themselves climb inside. When the kids turn the box on its side and open it, though, the box is empty. Diana somehow surmises that the box, when placed on certain spots on the map, opens into other worlds; Presto assumes that means one of those worlds is theirs; they just have to find the right spot. Showing more political savvy than usual, Hank regains control of the party and the situation by saying, “I’ll bet Zandora knows! Let’s get this box to Skull Mountain and ask her! C’mon!” That’s it, Hank: don’t give them time to think. Just keep dangling the hope of a “return” in front of their noses …

Venger and his minions, encased in ice***

Meanwhile, Shadow Demon returns to Venger’s undercliff castle, where he’s berating monsters encased in ice. Well, whatever management style works for you, Venger. Shadow Demon beats around the bush a bit, obviously nervous about his fellow minions’ treatment, but eventually he gets out that the “young ones” have Zandora’s box. Venger doesn’t want Dungeon Master to gain any more allies, so he takes out his map (the same as Diana’s) and plans to get to Skull Mountain first with the most power. (He is not the most evil person to use that dictum, of course.)

***

“I don’t get it,” Diana says. “There’s no jungle on this map anywhere.” Oh, by Ilmarinen’s sampo … But Uni spies a shaft of sunlight, and by looking through a gap in the canopy, the Skull Mountainkids can see Skull Mountain, and holy crap, does it exceed expectations. That’s an evil place, somewhere you wouldn’t want to go even if you were paid. (I don’t think that’s what Skull Mountain near Bayport looks like.) That’s not a mountain that coincidentally looks like a skull; that’s a mountain that’s been carved, by erosion, man, or magic, to look like many skulls. This is a mountain that’s for lying down and avoiding.

Bobby and Presto are concerned not by the creepy mountain but by the thought that they haven’t been walking long enough; the journey was supposed to take a complete day, but it’s only been a few hours. “Who cares?” Eric asks. “You wanna drag this thing another 20 miles or what?” Hank notes the shadow of the skull (which skull?) is moving, and says, “We don’t have much time!” Hank, you have exactly the same amount of time as you had before. Dungeon Master’s directions were to put the box on the skull at noon. Is it noon? I dunno. But they drag it onto the shadow, then open it to find … a staircase, going downward. There’s some symbolism there, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

Hank and EricPresto’s call to Zandora gets no response, so Hank says, “I guess we better go down and check.” Eric gives that suggestion (and Hank) exactly the amount of respect it deserves: “Well, you know, in case that’s a bad guess, I’ll stay topside with Presto and keep a lookout.” This independent thinking does not go over well with Hank, who gives Eric the stinkeye. But it’s tactically sound — if the chest is moved, they won’t be able to escape — and Donny Most’s sarcastic delivery of Eric’s line is hilarious.

“This is scary,” Sheila says, looking into the darkness. It’s fortunate that Sheila doesn’t have to keep a brave front for Bobby because she would utterly fail. Her cowardice does not dissuade the others, even Uni, from going down the stairs, and I can’t imagine stairs are easy for hooves. When Presto asks if their friends will be OK, Eric says, “Sure! It’s probably just a sewer.”

Man, Eric’s the best.

Meanwhile, Sheila’s the worst: “I don’t like the look of this place,” she says by the light of one of Hank’s half-cocked arrows, and I bet she’s thought a lot about Hank’s half-cocked arrow. (It probably didn’t glow in her imagination, but, you know, live and learn.) “Yeah,” Diana says. “Something tells me we’re walking right into The Twilight Zone.” Diana, honey, you live in the Realms, a magical land where all sorts of weird stuff happens. Why are creeped out about a something only a little more strange?

A clock, a checkerboard floor, and many moonsThe stairs disappear into an inky fog, and Hank calls out. He receives an answering response, so the kids enter into a land with a checkerboard floor, a large clock, and many large moons hanging in the sky. Bobby calls the timepiece a “dumb ol’ clock,” but when that dumb ol’ clock chimes, all the black squares disappear, and the kids are dumped into a chasm. While Presto frets above and Eric tries to avoid doing anything, Hank fires an arrow into the wall, which becomes a line that allows him to save not only himself but Sheila via a Robin-Hood swoop. Diana uses her gymnastics to save herself, while Bobby and Uni plunge to their deaths.

No, not really — somehow Bobby grabbed one of the bars on the side of the chasm, then caught Uni on his club. While the four kids are trying to figure out what’s going on, a giant wasp flies up from far below. Presto, hearing the screaming, gets permission from Eric to go to the rescue while Eric waits above. But Eric doesn’t want to wait alone, so he makes the unsound decision to follow Presto. While they head down stairs, Shadow Demon shuts the lid. The stairs disappear, and Presto and Eric fall onto the wasp’s head.

***

After the commercial break, Presto tries a spell: “Hocus pocus, alakazoff: Gimme some stuff to make that bug bug off!” Steam pours out of his hat, giving everyone hope … until it clears, showing the number of wasps has doubled. Sheila complains, but no one says anything about her negativity. Probably too busy worrying, but still — Sheila gets away with so much crap.

A giant wasp menaces the kidsHank comes up with a plan, which he shares with no one, and leaps into the void. No, I say in a monotone. You had so much to live for, Hank. Please don’t. Eric sadly speculates he always knew Hank was a flawed tool that would eventually splinter in Dungeon Master’s hand: “I knew he’d never hold up under pressure.” While falling, Hank uses his magical, unexplainable arrows to pierce the wings of both wasps. They fall to their doom, causing Sheila to say, “What a hero!” (presumably while swooning), while Hank fires another arrow that connects to the broken remnants of the staircase. Hank climbs the glowing energy arrow rope — I imagined that has to give him a really funny feeling down there — and climbs to safety. Somehow the rest follow him, and Eric says, as he gets to safety, “Like I said: Hank’s a hero!”

I tried to find sarcasm in your voice, Eric, but it’s not there. I’ve lost a little respect for you now.

(Geek aside: The giant wasp, which is approximately the size of a human, is yet another giant animal in the Monster Manual. After using their stings to paralyze prey, they carry them off to serve as food for their larvae. Victims take two to five days to be devoured by larvae. Fortunately, their wings are vulnerable to fire, which makes them easy to burn. Of course, that just means you have a flightless giant wasp, which isn’t much of an improvement. )

As they climb the reassembled ladder, Eric is forced to admit Shadow Demon shut the box’s lid. Diana looks like she’s going to strangle Eric, and Sheila is about to lose her mind, but Bobby calmly knocks the lid open with his club. Somehow, Shadow Demon’s insubstantial weight can’t stop Bobby’s blow. Shadow Demon flees, the writer makes fun of Eric … life goes on. Diana can’t understand why they didn’t find Zandora, as the map says they are in the right spot. Sheila forsakes her stubby god, saying, “He must have been … wrong.”

Dungeon Master sneers at the kidsIt turns out accusing Dungeon Master of being wrong is the best way to draw him out. Oh, no — he can’t be wrong. He’s the Dungeon Master! Such an error in judgment is unthinkable! And just as the kids are saying, “Nuh-uh, we did what you said,” the mountain disappears. Dungeon Master gives the kids a pudu-eating grin. It was all an illusion, and Presto is furious that they have been tricked by Venger. No! Don’t lose focus! Keep your anger directed toward the all-knowing gnome who’s just thrilled he was right and a bunch of kids are wrong.

Fortunately, Eric can keep that angry focus going: “Look, if you just tell us how to get out of this crazy world, you’d save us all a lot of time and trouble.” And Dungeon Master, having no answer for this, disappears before Eric can get to the end of his righteous tirade. And Hank, his stooge, picks up a rope and tells the others, “Let’s get moving.” No! Unravel his lies now while you’re focused!

***

Shadow Demon slinks back to Venger, who is understandably angry at and contemptuous toward his minion. He plots so hard against the kids that his map bursts into flame, Bonanza-style.

***

Now the kids are in a desert. Sure, why not? Why not go from swamp / jungle to desert in a single day? Anyway, Eric is complaining about his feet and hands hurting. “And my ears hurt, from all your complaining,” Diana says, but if it were Sheila complaining, as she usually does? You wouldn’t say one damn word, would you, Diana? Meanwhile, Uni’s riding the box like it’s a pasha from some far-off desert land — a true beast of burden. Get up and walk, you lazy beast!

Skull MountainBut they’re just about to Skull Mountain, which looks much more like what’s on the maps than that multi-headed monstrosity. They push the box into position, then, when Eric declares he’s had enough of the mystery box, Bobby shoves him aside to open it himself. When a blue mist pours out of the chest, Eric says, “I told you it was a mistake.” But the blue mist resolves itself into Zandora, who unfortunately looks a bit like Dungeon Master.

Her manners are a bit better, though, as she immediately thanks the kids for setting her free. “Dungeon Master sends his greetings,” Hank says, in case Zandora wonders why her old “ally” isn’t there. I suppose Hank’s proclamation is a bit less awkward than Dungeon Master having to explain to an old friend with benefits why he let her rot in another world for years. “I should have known Dungeon Master would not forget me.” Of course not; he never had it so good as he had it with you, baby.

Now that the pesky do-gooding has been done good, Diana asks for Zandora’s help getting home. Now here’s the real question: Will she screw over the kids? I mean, it’s not like Dungeon Master has been able to get messages to her. Or has he? Maybe enjoying a round of telepathic sex when he gets bored … or maybe Zandora’s a lot like Dungeon Master: a total jackhole.

Zandora, sparkling “Perhaps I can lead you in the right direction,” Zandora says, and the amount of qualification in that “statement” is telling. “I am a sorceress, aren’t I?” Hell, I don’t know, lady. This world’s confusing. She teleports them to the top of a stone arch and tells them the box will open on a stairway to their world. And of course the arch begins collapsing, so there’s no time to think about anything …

Diana treats Zandora like she’s her elderly grandma. “THERE’S NO WAY YOU CAN KNOW HOW MUCH THIS MEANS TO US,” she shouts, even though Zandora is less than a foot away. Bobby and Uni begin bawling at their parting, but Zandora steps in and says she’ll take “good care of the unicorn” for Bobby. Sure, she will. I’m sure she has dozens of unicorn recipes.

The world starts shaking and the staircase disintegrating as soon as they all are in side. “I knew we shouldn’t have trusted that old bag,” Eric says, hindsight being 20/20. The staircase falls apart, and they all fall into the Dungeons & Dragons rollercoaster car. The car aims for a portal.

The kids’ rollercoaster car heads into a spiral portalBack in the Realms, Venger arrives on his nightmare and threatens the portal. “Out of my way, feeble one,” he tells Zandora. But Zandora believes she’s still got something up her neck rings: she blasts Venger with pink energy. “You are wasting precious time,” Venger says, which is true. But whose time is she wasting? Her own? Venger’s? The kids’, since they aren’t going to get home? “Without Dungeon Master and the weapons of power, you cannot stop me.” He makes a persuasive case, blasting her in the face … You’ll have to insert your own Dungeon Master sex joke here, because I just don’t have the heart to do it. With Zandora indisposed, Venger and his nightmare fly into the box.

The car pulls into a deserted station in a deserted theme park. The ids immediately celebrate, with Eric kissing a nearby wall (which is probably more dangerous than anything in the Realms: can you imagine putting your lips on any part of an amusement park structure, touched Thoth knows how many times?) and Presto shouting, “Thank you, Dungeon Master.” What did DM do for you this time?

The celebrations are ended by an attack from Venger. Presto thinks they have to stop Venger, but Eric decides to call the cops. He ducks into a phone booth, but he has no coins. Venger renders his dimelessness moot by blowing up the phone booth. Venger demands their weapons, but Hank defiantly calls for the kids to use them against Venger. Unfortunately for them, the magic weapons don’t work. Amusingly, it takes four or five pulls for Hank to realize this. “Fools!” Hank futilely plucks his bow“Venger says. “Your weapons have no power in this world!” Venger then starts blowing stuff up because, well, why not? Down goes the Ferris wheel. Up goes the hotdog stand.

If we stay here,” Diana says, “Venger will destroy our world.” Really? That’s the lesson you get from him blowing up a couple of inanimate structures? Have you no faith in Stinger and Sidewinder missiles, lasers (you blind him, at least), and tanks? C’mon. The military-industrial complex is there for you, and everyone in it would salivate at the thought of making anti-magic (and later magic) weapons. “And if we give him our weapons,” Presto says, “he’ll go back and conquer Dungeon Master and the entire Realms.” Presto makes this sound like it’s a bad option, but I’m assuming the only reason he brought it up was so he could convince the others to do it later on.

Hank says the only option is to return to the Realms so Venger will follow them. “You’re nuts!” Eric says. “I wouldn’t go back to that place for a million bucks!” Hank says he’s returning to the Realms, with or without Eric. The sheeple immediately follow, although it’s ambiguous whether Sheila is choosing to return on her own or if she’s trying to stop her brother from doing so. Eric doesn’t move: “I’m home, and I’m staying. Nothing can make me change my mind.”

Venger intimidates Eric*doodly doodly doodly* “That changed my mind!” Eric says after Venger comes up behind him and demands the shield. He runs after the car, hops in, and rides back into the roller coaster’s first tunnel. Venger, stunned Eric would make such a stupid choice, follows. When they emerge on the arch, Zandora’s kinda stunned too.

Eric wants to slam the lid on Venger, to shut him in the in-between, but Hank and Presto stop him. Presto is sure Venger would take over the world by the time the kids could get back to earth, which is simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic: pessimistic that they don’t think Earth could defeat him, and optimistic in that he thinks they’re ever getting home. Soon after, Venger emerges from the box, demanding the weapons and the box. He’s trying to hold Earth hostage — if he doesn’t get the weapons, he’ll go back through and destroy Earth. Of course, if they give him the box, then he’ll go back through and destroy Earth, but the kids won’t think of that.

Fortunately, Zandora’s there to think for them. She steps to the cliff at one end of the arch, steals the kids’ weapons and the box with telekinesis, then shoves the weapons in the box. “You’ll regret this, Zandora,” Venger says, blasting Zandora and the box. The box is sent tumbling end over end, and the arch disintegrates. Venger steps over to the box and daintily steps inside. “At last, the weapons of power are mine.” When he’s inside, Zandora shuts the lid.

The kids are alternately happy that Venger is gone and sulky (and apprehensive) that he has their weapons. Zandora explains that Venger went into the box after it was moved (although she admits he will escape), then shoves the box back to where it was when she put the kids’ weapons inside. She then opens the box and reveals the kids’ weapons. “But where’s Venger?” Hank asks.

“Let’s see,” Zandora says, consulting the map. “He should be right about … here.”

Tiamat attacks VengerHere, as it turns out, is an ominous cavern that leads up to a large wooden door. What’s behind door #1? Tiamat, who begins blasting Venger.

After Zandora and Hank exchange thanks … wait. What is Hank thanking Zandora for? Saving her own life, along with the kids’? Bah. Zandora regrets that the natural bridge was destroyed, since it was the only place the box could be located that would open a stairway to their world. Eric, of course, flips out over this revelation, saying, “There must be another spot that will get us home.” He shoves the box near the edge of the cliff, insisting it must be close enough. He opens the box, and with a triumphant “Aha! I knew it!,” he disappears down the stairs. He quickly returns, though, pursued by Bullywugs.

Of course, everyone laughs at Eric. What episode would be complete without a reminder that we should mock the friends who remain by our sides despite being continually undercut and unsupported by the group? And Eric’s humiliation would not be complete without Dungeon Master arriving and watching Eric trying to keep the Bullywugs inside the box.

Dungeon Master winks at ZandoraAs the episode ends, Dungeon Master winks at Zandora. Dungeon Master’s getting some magic nookie tonight!

To take your mind off that unsettling thought, think upon these lessons:
  • Fantasy names aren’t hard: Take a character from Greek myth, change the first letter, and boom! You’ve got gold, man.

  • Occasionally, to reach your workers a lesson, you have to freeze them in ice. It’s the only way to get them to listen.

  • Sorry, kids: our world has no magic. You’re doomed to a life of mandanity unless you find a portal elsewhere.

  • Petty displays of violence against structures is the most strongly correlated behavior to world conquering. If your neighbor blows up your garage or woodshed, be prepared to declare her or him emperor of the world.

  • If you are likely to have to abandon your pet or leave it for a long period of time, do not make any plans ahead of time. Just foist it on the handiest person, and everything will work out for the best. You probably won’t leave at all!
Going home tally: The kids get home but have to return to the Realms after Venger follows them through. This is the third portal they’ve found and the second time they’ve actually returned to Earth briefly.
Monster tally: One new monster from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 28; FF: 5; Dragon: 1.

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Three Things about ... The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

22nd Jul. 2016 | 11:31 am

Three things about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet cover
  1. Truth in advertising: The title is indeed accurate — it takes a long time (a year) for the characters to get to a small planet where its people schism and war over small deviations in orthodoxy. And believe me, Chambers makes readers feel every moment of that year.

    Long Way is a series of vignettes, character pieces that stack atop each other until they reach novel-length. The stories have little connection other than that they follow the crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship that punches holes in space for hyperspace express route. (You’ve got to build express routes!) The book possesses no overall plotline, and nothing that happens plot-wise in one story influences the next. Although the character work builds throughout, the interpersonal conflict between crewmembers is basically nil.

    In fact, Chambers seems as determined as possible to bleed the book of every bit of drama it has before the climax. Besides having no conflict among the crew — except for Artis Corbin, the algaeist, whom everyone (including Chambers) ignores because he has prickly personality — Chambers makes sure we quickly know none of the characters are in much danger. The most exciting scenes involve the Wayfarer being boarded by pirates and (in a later scene) a crew member being arrested for being a clone in a system where cloning is illegal and clones are not recognized as people. These should be moments in which we fear for the characters, moments in which we don’t want to put the book down. Instead, the clone issue is resolved in one page when Rosemary Harper, the ship’s clerk, files some paperwork, and the pirates accede to Rosemary’s polite request not to take too much stuff. (They do take stuff, valuable stuff, but none of it is personally important to any of the crew, and essentially it’s all insured.)

    At least in those scenes Chambers lets us think something is going to happen. In another scene, the crew is scrounging for technology on a planet where giant deadly bugs periodically swarm all over the planet’s surface. When a swarming starts early, the crew has to remain on the planet, hiding behind an energy shield. So many things could go wrong … but nothing does, and Chambers never hints that it will.

    It all adds up to a long slog to get to the climax in the last fifth of the book, where the something exciting does happen! It doesn’t really have anything to do with what happened before, as foreshadowing is an alien concept in this book. Well, I suppose aliens are relatable in Long Way, so foreshadowing is beyond alien.

  2. More or less human than a human?: Chambers’s humanity of the far future doesn’t resemble the humanity of the early 21st century. Humanity has left Earth behind — out of necessity, not out of choice — and spread throughout the universe. This has resulted in a humanity that is pacifistic, accepting, and less than a footnote in the universe’s politics. (The aliens in the book regard humanity as a joke, albeit an occasionally funny one.)

    That’s probably part of the appeal of this book, he said, blindly speculating. The people on the Wayfarer accepts all sorts of people, whatever their genetic or cultural background or whatever personal choices they’ve made that sets them apart — no discrimination, and no hate. (The characters don’t seem to suffer from either of those, either.) No one condemns using whatever drugs they want (when not working), and no one worries over who you love, physically or emotionally. Violence is at a minimum, and it’s not humanity’s fault when it does happen. The fate of the universe doesn’t depend on humanity; the people in this book are doing their job, which is (admittedly) kinda cool. (Two of the characters are engineer / IT types; another files papers and writes reports. No one’s doing blue-collar work.)

    This makes humanity very bland and forgettable to me, as well as just being more alien than some of the aliens. I can’t imagine humanity ever getting so far away from its violent, racist, ambitious roots. Chambers’s humanity feels neither neither plausible nor interesting.

    That being said, a little violence against the characters causes them to do a 180-degree turn on humanity’s new principles. It seems a total betrayal of the characters’ accepting, open nature that after they are attacked a rogue element of the Toremi Ka, one of the factions on the small, angry planet, the Wayfarer’s crew voice their condemnation of letting the Toremi Ka into the Galactic Commons. The people on the Wayfarer are sure the Galactic Commons’ offer is based solely on the resources the Toremi will give them. But economic ties are an excellent way to start a process of understanding, and no society can be held responsible for its most radical elements. Since everyone admits they don’t understand what motivates the Toremi Ka, how can the Wayfarer’s crew be so sure the Toremi Ka don’t deserve to be part of the Galactic Commons?

  3. To thine own self-publishing be true: I wish I hadn’t read that Long Way had been self-published before I picked it up. The knowledge colored my reading experience, as I frequently saw sections that I would have expected to have been deleted by a professional editor: passages that went nowhere, sections that had no bearing on the rest of the novel, scenes that weren’t interesting enough to include. One review I read said Long Way resembled a fix-up novel, one of those books in which an author takes a bunch of previously published short stories with a common theme or character and weaves them together to make a novel. I agree with that assessment, except that none of the individual stories are interesting enough to have been published on their own.

    Knowing that the book had been self-published made me more adamant that the book lacked focus. (I can be dogmatic about the issue, especially with multiple-viewpoint novels, but nowadays I try not to.) Whose story is Long Way? No one’s, really. I’m sure the author or fans of the book would say it’s the story of the Wayfarer, but that’s not it — we barely learn anything about the ship’s alien navigator or the algaeist. Rosemary seems like she should be our viewpoint character, but we spend little time seeing through her eyes; when she wants to starts a sexual relationship with a crewmate, her advances are as great a surprise to the reader as they are the crewmate.

    Long Way is the story of the nice crewmates who work together on a ship and mostly just chill, right up until the end, when something interesting happens. I have a feeling that would have been a tough sell to a traditional publishing house, and self-publishing might have been the only way to start for this book.

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Dungeons & Dragons #10: "The Garden of Zinn"

16th Jul. 2016 | 01:57 am

The Garden of Zinn title cardOriginal air date: 19 November 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

“The Garden of Zinn” is the first episode on the second disc of the three-disc Mill Creek set, and I’m overwhelmed with a sense of relief. For a while, it seemed like I’d be stuck watching that first disc forever, with nightmares of Dungeon Master’s distended face haunting my nightmares forever. But now I’m more than one-third of the way to the end of the series, and the Dungeon Master DTs come much less frequently these days. I feel good; I feel confident; I feel … happy.

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Garden of Zinn” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Bobby and Eric contemplate the escape of lunchThe kids, however, are not happy; they’re starving. Eric and Bobby chase after a little lizard … oh, no. That tiny lizard is supposed to be lunch? Hank’s leadership has led them into starvation land again, hasn’t it? Because they don’t have ranged weapons, the lizard is able to dive into its hole before Eric and Bobby can catch it. Oh, wait: they do have a ranged weapon! Hank could’ve shot the lizard, although who knows what effect the energy arrows would have had on it — pushing it, tying it up, electrocuting it … Well, that last one would save them some cooking time.

Panning away from the disappointed hunters, we see Sheila and Presto sitting on their asses and Hank standing with his hands on his hips disapprovingly. “There went our lunch!” Sheila whines. Well, if you did something, or got your quasi-boyfriend to do something, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten away. “Looks like we’re eating berries again,” Hank says.

Meanwhile, Diana is doing something useful, having become a fisher for men who are too incompetent to fish for themselves. She’s caught something using her primitive fishing pole. “Filet of sole, or maybe shrimp cocktail,” Eric speculates as Bobby and Hank help Diana with the pole. “Or better yet, caviar!”

“It’s bigger than I thought!” Diana says, and if ever there was an opening for an adolescent joke, that’s it. (That’s what she said — literally!) “Maybe lunch for seven?” Presto asks.

Dragon turtle chases DianaThen a dragon turtle emerges at the end of the line, and lunch preparations are shelved. (I don’t know what that fishing pole was made of, but its tensile strength is tremendous.) Sheila has time for a witticism — “More like seven for lunch!” — before putting up her hood and skedaddling from the particularly aberrant dragon turtle. First of all, this dragon turtle has no shell, and it can use one of its forelimbs to grab Diana. Still, I can’t argue with its effectiveness, especially after it snaps Diana’s staff when she tries to prop open its mouth with the magic stick.

Welp, that’s one magic item and one Acrobat down. Where do they go from here? Hank launches an arrow, which of course ties the creature’s mouth shut. (What else would an energy arrow do?) The dragon turtle lets Diana go. Bobby helps Diana make a perfect gymnastic landing. The two stop and have a little chat, with Diana expressing her thanks while the creature who could stomp either of them into dust thrashes nearby. Seems like a survival strategy to me!

Bobby’s there to smash the creature when it slips his tether, but his sister cramps his barbarian style, pulling him out of the way as he’s about to smash. Well, almost pulls him out of the way: he still gets a scratch on his arm. Nice going, Sheila. Bobby’s second attempt does better: his club causes a tidal wave that sweeps the dragon turtle away. Bobby insists to Hank and Sheila he’s fine just before admitting he feels “not so good” and getting woozy. Presto speculates that the dragon turtle’s bite might be poisonous. Or hey — it might just be diseased, like a crocodile or komodo dragon.

(Geek aside: The dragon turtle in this episode is nothing like the one in the Monster Manual. The book’s description mentions nothing about poison, for instance. The book does mention a shell “nearly impossible to harm” — that’s where the “turtle” part of the name comes from — and a breath weapon of a steam cloud, which is where the “dragon” part comes from. Really, if it weren’t for the script, I wouldn’t have called it a dragon turtle at all.)

Diana snaps the two halves of her staff together“I hope there’s a cure!” Diana says as she snaps her magic staff back together. Oh, so that’s how it is, huh? The staff is like a Lego set — it can be destroyed, but it can always be put together again.

“We’ve gotta find Dungeon Master,” Hank says. Yeah, good luck finding Weekend Daddy when there’s real trouble.

***

The party travels through the jungle. How do we know it’s a jungle? There’s an establishing shot of a snake in a tree. Hank’s carrying Bobby, but Bobby says, “I’ve gotta rest.” C’mon, Bobby, you are resting. Sheila says Bobby’s suffering from a fever. Unfortunately, the fever is neither for more cowbell or the flavor of a Pringles. Saturday Morning Fever, maybe?

Dungeon Master appears from behind a tree. What excuse will he give for not being able to help his chosen people this time? If he’s honest, the answer would be that he doesn’t feel like it unless the kids help him with his program of regime change, but I doubt he’s ever been honest. Maybe he made a bet with Venger to test their faith? No, he wouldn’t admit to that either. I’m going to guess he’s going to say he’s running out of magic power, and he needs to snort a rare ingredient to get that power back …

Dungeon Master examines Bobby“This is nature’s doing, and I’m afraid my — my magic cannot undo it,” he says after feigning sympathy examining Bobby. Screw you, DM, both for the lameness of your excuse and for not choosing the option I guessed. But a rare ingredient, the foot of a yellow dragon, is mentioned as Bobby’s cure. That means I was partially right, which puts me ahead of these dopes. Eric scoffs at this “help” — no yellow dragon is going to willingly part with a foot, and these kids aren’t slayers of anything, let alone dragons — but Sheila is desperate and asks were they can find the yellow dragon’s foot.

“To the north,” Dungeon Master says, “in the garden of Queen Zinn.” North! Cartographers, rejoice: A direction, at last! We can also rejoice that Dungeon Master has taken that as an exit line, and we’re done with him for a while.

While everyone packs up to go north, Eric complains about still being starving because, you know, they didn’t get anything to eat. “Forget about your stomach, Eric!” Hank says. And forget about your poor nutrition, caused by Hank’s poor leadership!

***

Queen Zinn’s castleMeanwhile, Queen Zinn, who lives in a Disney castle, receives one of her a phantom stalker, a purple being that can turn into smoke. The stalker says, “A suitable knight has entered the Realm, one who is fit to be your king.” Zinn wants to be sure this really is a suitable knight, one who can survive “the Trial of the Worm.” The stalker thinks the magic weapon Dungeon Master gave the knight should allow him to survive. It’s not said, but we all know the “suitable knight” is Eric, right? Right. I’m not sure when the stalker would have seen the shield in action, though.

So we have to decide whether Zinn’s good or evil, and despite no overt evil intent in her conversation, all the signs point to evil. She’s beautiful, but she has all the same colors as Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders, from The Hall of Bones: red, black, and yellow. Lolth was a blonde with a black cloak and red stripes, while Zinn has black hair, a red skirt, and a gold / yellow top (breastplate?) and headpiece. More importantly, she’s sexualized, and you know that bodes ill — any character that risks attracting one of the protagonists must be covered up like a nun. (See Sir Lawrence at the end of the episode.) Her arms are bare, and more importantly, her skirt is slit up the side all the way to the hip.

Queen ZinnQueen Zinn’s shirt? has a design motif with … well, breast spirals. That’s the only way I can think to describe them. (I know I’ve seen something like it before, but I don’t know where.) It’s like whoever designed the character — Jean Paul Gaultier? — decided they wanted to make sure no one missed that Zinn was a somewhat sexual being, so they managed to map a route to her nipples on her clothes, then covered up the goal with Zinn’s long hair. Or maybe Zinn decided to trace the path after previous suitors failed a, uh, different trial of the worm.

The final nail in Zinn’s evil coffin is her servitor here. Despite the skeleton warrior from last episode and Solars (coming up later) in this episode, we know no one working with someone so ugly can be good. Anyway, Evil Queen Zinn is ecstatic at the phantom stalker’s news: if she doesn’t marry soon, the spell will end, and she will lose her throne. I’m against spells that coerce marriage, but since we already know Zinn is not good, it’s more that she needs to solidify her evil spell with marriage.

(Geek aside: Unlike the dragon turtle, the phantom stalkers look exactly like the drawing in the Fiend Folio. The Fiend Folio doesn’t mention that these stalkers can turn insubstantial, but they can fly like this one did into Zinn’s throne room. They can polymorph themselves, and as denizens of the Elemental Plane of Fire, they are immune to fire. If they are about to die, they can explode in a giant fireball, making them interdimensional terrorists. What’s Trump doing about that, huh? Why isn’t he planning to make the Realms great again?)

***

Back with the kids, Presto shows dissatisfaction with Hank’s leadership because “I don’t see a sign of dragons anywhere.” Signs of dragons, Presto? What kind of signs are you looking for? Smoking ruins? Weeping villagers, mourning their livestock, children, and / or virgins? Piles of dragon droppings, perhaps with pieces of aforementioned livestock / children / virgins? Dragons can fly, so you won’t necessarily see signs of dragons until you’re near their nest, especially when you’re walking through a forest. If you do see the nest, you’re too close.

Eric exults over the foodHank pissily confesses his ignorance, while Eric complains about his own starvation and walks off to find food. This is a signal for the rest of the group to take a break and make empty promises to Bobby. Eric delivers on his promise, though, finding a bag full of food, complete with loaves of bread. (Where did those come from?) It has all the earmarks of a trap, and sure enough, a donkey-faced jerk accosts him. Eric’s shouts bring the others, causing Donkey Hotey to say, “I mean you no harm!”

“He’s lying!” Eric shouts. “Let him have it!” Eeyore Jr. complains Eric was going to steal his food, which Eric lamely denies. The donkey-faced man says he’s Solars, and when he sees Presto coveting his food, he says, “Take it. I have plenty.” Oh, you were complaining about Eric’s theft, but now you “have plenty.” Screw you, Solars.

But Solars knows about medicine. Seeing Bobby, he says the boy is ill and should not be moved; the next words out of his mouth are “Bring him to my house.” He points to his house, which should be easily seen from the clearing where they left Bobby. Eric immediately recommends against trusting Solars, based on lookism, but I wouldn’t trust anyone who could hide his house like that. I mean, the place looks like a cliff dwelling, but I’d check for a whiff of gingerbread, if you know what I mean.

Bobby’s illness convinces Sheila to trust Solars. While the rest look for the dragon’s foot, she volunteers to stay with Solars, thus improving the group’s chances to succeed. Solars reacts badly to the mention of the Garden of Zinn, saying the kids will only find “evil” there. They manage to coerce some more Realmsian directions from Solars. “Beyond the Dark Forest, beyond the Valley of Smoke,” he says, before adding: “That way.”

***

The Dark Forest and Valley of SmokeAnother day in the Realms, another rapid transition zone. Also, as soon as they hit the Valley of Smoke, which isn’t a valley (more of a prairie or badlands or flats), they come across another fork in the path no one bothered to tell them about. You know, as much as the kids rely on trails, it’s good that the Realms’ road system is so well developed. But while Eric credits Solars’s lack of direction on malice, I think it can be ascribed to a lack of cartographers and cartography-based education in the Realms.

Just as you’d expect, when a choice comes up, Dungeon Master pops up. Now, Dungeon Master didn’t show up when they had to choose between paths in “Beauty and the Bog Beast,” but he’s here now … or is he? “Always go forward!” he says. “Follow the road to the south.” Eric complains but marches onward — “Let’s get this disaster over with,” he says — but Hank realizes something is wrong: Dungeon Master’s advice is too straightforward. Eric agrees, and asks what name Dungeon Master gave Eric when he bestowed upon Eric the shield. This Dungeon Master can’t answer, and Eric is triumphant.

At this point, another Dungeon Master appears, praising Eric and the others for discerning the deception. The two Dungeon Masters fight, and the kids, gape-mouthed, lose track of which one is the “correct” one — I put quotes around “correct” because no matter which one is the one they’ve been listening to, both of them are evil and will lead the kids astray.

Two Dungeon Masters fightOne of the Dungeon Masters wins, gloating over the other: “Now, foolish one, I’ll teach you never to impersonate me,” he says as he’s about to deliver the killing blow. This is Hank’s cue: he knows you always show mercy to an opponent, even when he’ll come back to make your life miserable, again and again. He shoots the gloating DM, tying him up with energy rope.

The now-defeated Dungeon Master turns into a phantom stalker. “He’s the imposter!” he croaks. “He’s evil! He’ll destroy you!” The stalker is not wrong about at least one of those things, and I’m guessing he’s right about more. The kids should be wondering why Dungeon Master was almost beaten by a phantom stalker, but I guess they’re used to his ineffable ways by now. To teach us a lesson? they would tell themselves (if they thought about it), and shrug. Hank’s explanation reveals that’s how he’s thinking: “You taught us to use force only to defend ourselves. That imposter had you down, but he kept coming.”

They’re so flattered by Dungeon Master’s praise and relieved to get a riddle (“The right road is not the left”) they don’t think to question this Dungeon Master’s credentials. “That’s the real Dungeon Master, all right!” Eric says, although the riddle was a simple, obvious one. The quartet takes the right-hand path, and as after they go, the other DM reveals he too is a phantom stalker. I wonder if the defeated phantom stalker has any ill will toward this one, or whether he understands it’s just part of the job, like stage violence in a play — you know, a “Morning, Ralph” / “Morning, Sam” sort of thing.

***

Back at Solars’s hovel, Bobby complains of being cold, so Solars goes for more wood. Meanwhile, Sheila invades Solars’s privacy, rummaging through Solars’s stuff to find a blanket. Instead, she opens a stereotypical treasure chest (the fantasy version of the bag with a dollar sign on it) to reveal royal regalia. “Never touch that!” Solars angrily shouts, and I’m betting that’s not the last time Sheila’s going to hear that from a guy. Or a girl, I suppose; I shouldn’t assume.

SolarsWhen Sheila wants to know what a “creature” like Solars is doing with a king’s robe and crown, Solars tells her, “They belong to someone gone now, never to return.” Solars deflects the question by putting a blanket on Bobby. Sheila thanks him by thumping Solars’s back a couple of times, revealing — if I remember my tropes correctly — that there’s a secret door in Solars’s ribcage.

***

Back to the explorers, who have literally come to the end of the road. Part of me wants to think this is some tragic monument to another civilization, who built far and built well, but as time is the greatest conqueror of all, the road is now buried, like all mankind’s achievements eventually will be, in the dust: “Look upon our works, ye teenagers, and despair!” But I’m sure what happened was that one day the road crew left off where the kids are standing, then learned they were laid off the next day, and the road just stopped.

Or maybe the road crew was pulled under the dusty earth by aggressive plants, as the kids are before they even step off the road. Their weapons are no use. With everyone’s legs shoved under the earth, Hank displays his grasps of the obvious by shouting, “They’re pulling us under!” Helpful, isn’t he?

Dungeon watches the party get captured by vinesSpeaking of helpful, Dungeon Master chooses that moment to show up. When Eric demands he get the kids out of the death trap, Dungeon Master shakes his head and says, “No.” Obviously this is the phantom stalker — something revealed a few second later — but this is the same sort of thing Dungeon Master would do. Well, actually, he wouldn’t show up when the kids needed this sort of help, but the sentiment is the same.

The kids think this is the imposter DM, and when the other Dungeon Master shows up, Eric claims he’s the real one. “Your powers of observation are improving, Cavalier,” the new DM says. “Unfortunately, they still leave much to be desired.” And he reveals himself to be another fake. Ha ha, Eric — that’s what you get for putting your faith, however necessarily, in Dungeon Master! “Perhaps you’ll not survive the Trial of the Worm after all!”

***

After the commercial break, the stalkers report to Zinn. Everything is going according to plan …

This is as good a place as any to point out that Queen Zinn is the villain of the episode. For the first time, Venger will not be walking through that door. Zinn has set everything in motion and is now waiting to reap the rewards of her plot. Does the missing Venger harm the episode? Not in the slightest. The viewers should welcome a break from the monotony of the kids butting heads against the institutions Venger has established, and his absence gives the episode a sense of ambiguity almost entirely missing from the series so far, and the lack of a real Dungeon Master heightens that. On the other hand, a bit of clarity on the kingdom’s status quo would have been helpful …

***

Presto, Diana, and Hank are dumped into a subterranean tunnel. You know, I’ve been writing “worm,” but I’ve really been hoping it was the Trial of the Wyrm — as in a dragon. Now I’m hoping the kids are going to have to fight an overgrown nightcrawler, maybe even put him on a lure and go fishing. And a giant worm would be the perfect bait to catch a dragon turtle. It all goes round in circles …

Eric caught in plant rootsEric is thrust into the tunnel a moment later, wrapped up in vines and missing his shield. The writer couldn’t resist adding a bit of “humor” by making a joke out of Eric’s entrance, but why is Eric the butt of the joke? Anyone could get tangled up in roots while getting pulled through the earth. Eric is dropped into the tunnel, and the vines toss his shield at him a moment later, bonking him on the noggin. Ho-ho, very funny. Ha-ha, it is to laugh.

Presto spazzes out over some earthworms at his feet, running down the tunnel because of a few wrigglers. I’m surprised Presto didn’t jump into Hank’s arms, Shaggy style. Diana puts two and two together, remembering the phantom stalkers said something about worms. Hank’s advice? “Don’t think about it.” Of course not. Because forewarned is … is … a waste of time, I guess.

***

Back to Solars again, and we learn two things: A lick from a unicorn, whatever its signal virtues, doesn’t cure whatever Bobby’s got, and that Solars evidently makes his money as a Pepto-Bismol distributor. Solars’s suspiciously lavender work space is filled with bottles of the pink stuff. Solars denies being a doctor or wizard when Sheila asks, suspiciously, if he is. When she keeps asking about his supply of distilled Barbie aisle, he shouts “Silence! Ask me no more!” and shoves her away from his lab. Then, as if what he really wants is for her to ask him more, he says, “The spell makes me lose control.”

Solars’s lab“You’re under some kind of spell?” Yes, Sheila. That was implicit in what he just said. Solars doesn’t bother to answer; he instead informs her she can’t help — no one can help. Oh, Solars … they know Dungeon Master. He could help. He just won’t, unless helping you will help foster the kind of political change he wants. And guess what? It probably would!

***

“What on earth could have dug a tunnel like this?” Hank asks. A giant worm, jackass. Ugh, honestly, Hank — are you trying to give me an aneurysm? Fortunately, Hank doesn’t have to worry his pretty little head about it for very long because, Diana realizes what dug the tunnel: a giant worm. Well, hooray for you, Diana. The English language holds no mysteries for you. As for your moron entourage …

This revelation gives the quartet a couple of seconds of warning before the giant worm chases them down the tunnel and into a dead end. Faced with certain doom, Diana is the only one who opts for heroism instead of dull surrender, vaulting toward the worm with her staff as she says, “I sure hope a worm can be saddle-broken!” She lands on the worm’s back, near the head, and with a couple of thwaps with her staff, she tames the worm like a talented mahout.

Diana on the purple wormThis is some seriously Freudian stuff right here: giant purple worm squirming down a big ol’ tunnel, but the “worm” is tamed by a scantily clad young woman who hits the worm with another phallic object as she rides it. By Ishtar’s girdle: can you imagine what a freshman psych student would write about this sequence? Or a freshman English student, for that matter. Freud himself would shake himself to death in an orgasmic burst of ecstasy.

Diana invites the boys atop the worm, but Eric demurs: “Are you crazy? I hate worms!” Diana’s logic is unassailable: “It can bite you if you stay down there.” Eric bows to her argument by ascending the worm. Diana then commands the worm to head to the surface — evidently the worm understands the word “up” and two smacks upside the head — and it takes the kids to the surface. (Somehow everyone stays on.) The riders dismount before it disappears below the earth.

(Geek aside: The giant worm is actually a purple worm from the Monster Manual. To keep the theme from above going, the purple worm is attracted to vibrations, and it attacks by swallowing its victims whole … OK, that last one is backwards, but it’s in the same area, at least. The purple worm also possesses a poisonous stinger on its tail. According to the Monster Manual, “this weapon is only used in rear defense.” I’m sure that’s what it tells everyone, at least.)

Purple worm with Diana, Hank, Eric, and Presto bursting through the earth“Bareback riding on giant worms?” Eric says. “I don’t know how much longer I can take this crazy world.” Hank then points out Zinnderella’s castle and the arboreal enclosure below it; I’m not sure if that’s supposed to ease Eric’s mind or overstimulate it. Presto thinks that’s the Garden of Zinn, but before they can walk there, the phantom stalkers surround the kids in a cloud of themselves. “Queen Zinn requests your presence at once!” Ralph (or Sam) says.

The kids are transported into a throne room, with Zinn on her throne. “I hope my servants were not rude with you,” she says. For some reason, Presto asks, “Who are you?” She’s Queen Zinn, jackass. The phantom stalkers even told you! I know they lied about being Dungeon Master before, but it’s not like she’s going to tell you a different story.

Zinn doesn’t beat around the bush: she’s Zinn, and she is funky. Also, she needs a king, and she’s chosen Eric. Diana and Presto are, if it’s possible, even more incredulous than Eric, who is aghast. “Uh-uh, no way. Sorry,” he says. “I’m trying to get out of this world. I don’t want to settle down in it.”

Unfortunately for Eric, Zinn approaches his objection with logic, which is his weak spot. “Why not let your friends continue the search?” She then conjures up a treasure chest with a crown atop gold and jewels. OK, logic is one of his weak spots: money is another. Zinn says she’ll share her wealth with Eric.

Eric with crownThe crown Zinn puts on Eric’s head makes him reconsider: “Listen, guys, if I’m going to be trapped in this world, why not be trapped in style?” Diana reminds Eric that, you know, Bobby’s dying, so Eric asks Zinn where the yellow dragon is. Diana says they need to slay the dragon and get its foot for the cure. The misconceptions of the peasantry amuse Zinn, who takes them into the dragon. There they find “yellow dragon” is a large plant with a foot-like root. Zinn breaks off a small piece of the foot and hands it to Hank.

“Thanks,” Hank says, his tone saying the opposite. Geez, no need to be rude, Hank. Zinn has been nothing but polite to you and your friends. I mean, she’s trying to make Eric her child groom, but … wait. Is Hank jealous? I think he is! Ha, ha! Being the perfect suburban white boy doesn’t make you everyone’s favorite! His question to Eric betrays his jealousy: “You sure you want to stay, Eric?” (It doesn’t sound jealous, I know, but the subtext is there.)

“Beats scrounging for berries every day,” Eric says. Boy, does it. I suppose that’s Eric’s third weak point: not starving. So let’s tot up the good points here: power, wealth, beautiful wife, not starving, not getting attacked by magical beasts, not getting led around by the nose by Dungeon Master, not having to put up with Hank’s half-witted leadership … Yeah, I can understand how that might not appeal to you, Hank. “Come back when Bobby’s better,” he tells the others as they leave. “You can even bring back that creep, Solars.”

Zinn and the yellow dragonAt the mention of Solars, Zinn knows she has to take action: she sends her phantom stalkers after Hank, Diana, and Presto with orders that the kids never reach Solars. “Once I have my king,” she monologues, “my spell can never be broken!”

The phantom stalkers get ahead of Hank, Diana, and Presto, and they are not subtle about the double cross. “This path is forbidden to you,” one says. “You may come no further.”

Diana, on the other hand, gives subtle a try: “Guess that’s that, Hank.” Hank, Coyote bless ‘im, picks up on the cue: “Guess so!” The three walk away, then quickly spin. Hank fires his arrow … OK, they didn’t think this out so well. Diana brandishes her staff, waiting for the stalkers to attack, and Presto … he’s Presto. “There’s gotta be a spell for this,” he says. There is! According to the Fiend Folio, that spell creates a phantom stalker. But he tries one of his own spells instead: “Abra-zabra, pre-fabra …” Nothing happens, and Presto is forced to stick his hat on the stalker’s head, temporarily blinding it.

The commotion attracts Solars and Sheila — evidently this fight is just beyond Solars’s door — and Solars knows the sounds mean it’s Zinn’s doing. “My friends — they’re in trouble!” Sheila adds uselessly. Thanks, Sheila.

But just because what she’s saying is inane doesn’t make it wrong. The party can’t inflict any damage on the stalkers because they can become insubstantial.

***

Zinn and Eric getting marriedMeanwhile, the wedding of the century is taking place at the Magic Kingdom. “Rejoice, O kingdom of Zinn, on this day of your king’s coronation!” the priest proclaims. Wait: Zinn is the name of the queen and kingdom? Was she named after the kingdom, or did she rename it after herself? If it’s the latter, does the citizenry have to get used to periodic changes of their country’s name? And if so, is that why they don’t particularly want to get rid of her? “Geez, no, she’s not that bad — we just changed all the signs and the coins and the tapestries. Just … just a few years of ‘Zinn,’ and then I’ll have the energy to start changing everything to whatever the hell the new monarch wants to name the country — Blatzart or some damn thing.”

Anyway, the coronation / wedding turns out to be a bit more complex than Eric was expecting. He does say “I do” to being a husband and king, but the ceremony also asks him to pledge to “protect the kingdom from dragons and barbarian invaders … and to perform the ritual dance with the Serpent of Fire, to battle the giant, two-headed ogre, to —” When Eric objects, Zinn tells him, “It’s merely part of the ceremony.”

***

The fight drags on fruitlessly. Sheila rushes into battle, while Solars picks up his homemade Pepto and says, “Perhaps I can be some help after all!”

Phantom stalkers turned to stoneSheila reveals herself — becomes visible, not what you were thinking — and while Hank hands off the cure, a stalker encircles them with their dark smokiness. (The other does the same to Presto and Diana.) Solars rushes out of his stone hovel and splashes the stalkers with them; the stalkers fall to the earth, seemingly turned to stone. The Pepto-Bismol works! Evidently the phantom stalkers were just acid indigestion, incarnated.

However, in victory, Solars is still one dejected jackass. Sheila is overjoyed and gives him a hug. “I knew you weren’t the monster Eric said you were,” she says. Oh, don’t play the innocent, Sheila. Eric thought Solars was an evil monster, but you thought he was a rustic, brutish monster. Every time something suggested otherwise, you were flabbergasted. You hypocrite — you make me sick. At least Eric has the courage to own what he is.

And the episode wouldn’t be complete without Sheila turning on the waterworks, and for some reason — it hasn’t been foreshadowed at all — her tears seem to have a magic effect. (They have extra sparkle and *ting* when they fall on Solars.) While Sheila is busy administering the cure to Bobby, Solars turns into a manly man. In fact, when he walks back into his hovel after Bobby has been cured, Sheila gasps at his hunkiness. “Not Solars,” he says when Sheila questions him. “My name is Sir Lawrence, heir to the throne of Zinn. Until my sister’s evil magic turned me into that creature.” Even Lawrence insults what he was, so I suppose it’s OK that Sheila did as well. Sheila is agog at the transformation. She seems pretty into Lawrence as he sensuously strokes her chin.

Lawrence and Sheila make googly-eyes at each otherThat’s when the coin drops for the rest of the group: “But Eric’s about to marry her!” Hank says. “At least she’s beautiful,” Presto contributes. I’m not sure whether it’s encouraging that he’s willing to look past the usurping sorceress business and find a bright side, or whether this is part of the cartoon’s weird lookism politics.

“Not for long,” Lawrence says. “With the spell on me broken, the one who cast it becomes its victim.” Diana says, “Poor Eric.”

Poor Eric indeed. He’s smiling like an idiot, about to become royalty, when he realizes Zinn has turned into a jenny. He flees the ceremony before the officiant can complete “man and wife.” “No!” Zinn cries out. “It can’t be! I was so close! So close …” I feel sorry for Zinn, and I’m not sure why …

Zinn turned into a donkey creature“Perhaps it’s because I’m not sure Lawrence is a better choice to rule Zinn. We’re meant to assume Lawrence is the superior heir to the throne, but why do we assume that? Because Lawrence called her spell “evil” and because she sent her stalkers after Diana, Presto, and Hank. Maybe Zinn usurped the throne because Lawrence was an inbred halfwit, or lusted for war, or wanted to marry random 14-year-olds, or any number of ills. Her spell — good or evil — wasn’t a very good one; if you show me one spell in the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook that can be countered by a young woman’s tears or made permanent by marriage to a person who passed a very specific trial, I’d be very surprised. And those phantom stalkers might have been supposed to only delay Diana, Presto, and Hank until the wedding was complete. (Her command was vague.)

I’ll say it again: We didn’t see anyone in Zinn complaining about Zinn’s rule or seeking out Sir Lawrence to put him back on the throne, did we?

***

Now Zinnderella’s castle is occupied by Sad King Ludwrence, which makes it Neuschwanstein Castle. (I can’t come up with a pun for that one, even a strained one.) Lawrence is sad because he asked Sheila to become his queen, but she refused. And by queen, I mean “child bride.” This is where the series bible, which insists the kids are in their early teens — not even old enough to drive — has to be wrong. Lawrence and Queen Zinn are full adults. If Sheila and Eric are 18, the marriage proposals are a little weird, but still OK; Thief and Cavalier are old enough to make their own decisions, even if they are dumb. If they’re 16 or 17, the wedding bell blues become a little creepy. Kids of that age get married even today, although not usually to adults; even in 1983, I think most people would have been leery of a high-school kid marrying someone more than decade older than her or him. If Sheila and Eric are 14 or 15, well … that’s icky. I

After all the hard work is done, Dungeon Master arrives to praise Sheila’s decision not to marry King Lawrence. (She demurred because she wants to get home, not because it’s creepy.) “You have seen the true person beneath his monstrous appearance,” he says, which is a lie — she saw the monstrous appearance and was puzzled by everything else. I think he’s using this as a setup for when the kids realize how awful he is. “Can’t you see beneath my monstrous appearance?” he’d say, and everyone but Eric would of course say yes.

Dungeon Master and Eric, who has been turned into a blue-nosed baboonEric is righteously angry at Dungeon Master. “Speaking of which, I see right through you, Mr. Imposter,” Eric says, grabbing DM’s pendant. Oh, so close, Eric! If you hadn’t said “imposter,” you would have been so right. When Dungeon Master claims he’s the real deal, Eric says, “If you’re the real Dungeon Master, then I’m a blue-nosed baboon.”

And of course the magic of Dungeon Master’s pendant turns him into a blue-nosed baboon. “A blue-nosed baboon?” Dungeon Master asks. “What a strange choice.” Cue the sad trumpet: Wha-waaaaaa.

Well, I would have gone for the trumpet; instead, we get Eric’s “friends” laughing at him as he asks DM to change him back. But the fadeout ends with Eric still a baboon … One day Eric’s going to make you pay. One day, he’s going to make all of you pay. A hard rain’s a-gonna fall …

Anyway, let’s see if you can see through these lessons:
  • It’s considered impolite to believe people are evil because they are ugly. However, it is permissible to think of them as stupid or low class; in fact, ugly people expect that.
  • There is no such thing as a “good” Dungeon Master.
  • The true path to royal power is through marrying teenagers.
  • Magic items can easily be reconstructed if snapped in half by angry monsters.
  • Sexually attractive women with a taste for power are automatically evil. (They are probably evil if they are ugly, too.)
  • If you write for TV — even in an inappropriate venue, like a Saturday morning cartoon — you too can put your weird fantasies about giant purple worms, tunnels, and teenage gymnasts in fur bikinis onto the screen.
Going home tally: The kids want to go home, but no hints or opportunities occur to them. The kids have found two portals they’ve been unable to escape through.

Monster tally: Two from the Monster Manual and one from the Fiend Folio. Totals: MM: 27, FF: 5, Dragon: 1.

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Three Things about ... the Epic Level Handbook

8th Jul. 2016 | 02:41 am

Three things about the Epic Level Handbook by Andy Collins and Bruce R. Cordell:

Epic Level Handbook cover
  1. Single-minded dedication: Of all the 3.0 supplements I’ve read so far, this is the least useful for general usage. If you don’t play at least 15th level, you’re not going to get anything out of this book. Nothing. It doesn’t really get useful until you actually progress above 20th level, but there are some ideas for extremely high-level (but non-epic) campaigns here — the organizations, the city of Union (to a degree), a few NPCs. Not much for a 300+ page book.

    Just to give you an idea of what I mean, the section on the city of Union has a couple of paragraphs on Mael’s Pastries and Pints. Mael is an 18th level cook, and that’s it. Better yet: she has a 16th level delivery girl. This is far beyond even the Forgotten Realms, where random bartenders can beat up low-level characters. In the Epic-Level Handbook, even the distaff Philip J. Fry can thrash most characters.

  2. There’s some useful stuff: Which I mentioned above, but it isn’t much. This book was not aimed at me at all; I haven’t ever advanced past 11th level, either as a player or a DM, so the idea of designing the game past 20th level just seems silly to me — a powergamer’s fantasy, something to allow you to advance far enough to take on multiple gods at once. This may not be a charitable opinion, but I believe D&D is better at lower levels, and PCs should become NPCs at high enough levels.

    But if you wanted a high-level Spelljammer campaign, a lot of the stuff on Union would allow you to construct a base for a plane hopping setting. (You’d have to design the giant hamsters and bipedal hippopotami yourself, though.) It might be possible to adapt some of the magic items or monsters — perhaps make the magic items essentially artifacts and downgrade the monsters — but it seems like a lot of work just to powergame.

  3. That word — it doesn’t mean what you think it means: Sometimes, you wonder if perhaps the writers aren’t using words that are a bit beyond their vocabulary. Two different times, within the space of two pages, the Collins and / or Cordell use “penultimate,” seemingly in the sense of “really, really ultimate” rather than what it really means (“next-to-last”). About the Godkissed, a group who each claims descent from a deity, the authors say, “the Godkissed members rarely agree on who should lead the group, or the true nature of their penultimate goal.” If they have that much trouble reaching agreement on their penultimate goal, just think of how much trouble they’d have figuring out their ultimate goal.

    On the previous page — pg. 235 — the authors discuss another group, the Gleaners, who operate “the Penultimate Vault … a permanent repository of dangerous relics.” If they put the most dangerous items in the Penultimate Vault, I wonder what they put in the Ultimate Vault? And when will they get around to using it?

    A few pages later, it’s “noisome” that’s seemingly misused: the Market Quarter “is far and away the more noisome. … It is in the Market Quarter where a visitor to Union can find the lively bartering so common to similar districts in other cities.” I think it’s clear the authors meant the Market Quarter is noisier than the Commerce Quarter rather than more offensively smelly. You could argue the other way, I suppose.

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