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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! 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 3.5 edition. 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 will do with a full attack. It does add some needed clarity to the monster entry — especially given how often creatures in this book 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 is built on tradition — one of the reasons 4th edition bombed — and Wizards of the Coast actually 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 thing 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 given DMs (and players) the indication that the changes would be cosmetic at best. Three skills and one feat were renamed, and two feats were slightly altered. The changes 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 may come from Persian folklore (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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Dungeons & Dragons #9: Quest of the Skeleton Warrior

5th Jul. 2016 | 01:48 am

Quest of the Skeleton Warrior title cardOriginal air date: 12 November 1983
Writer: Buzz Dixon

Given the “Skeleton Warrior” in the title, it’s a fair bet this episode will emphasize the old appearance vs. personality debate — in other words, can you judge a book by its cover? Will the Skeleton Warrior be good, showing us we shouldn’t judge others by their looks (like Lukyon in “The Prison without Walls”), or should we very much judge the Skeleton Warrior by his bone structure (like Eric and the Bogbeasts in “Beauty and the Bogbeast”)?

The episode begins with Venger flying through a thunderstorm on his nightmare. No lie: that’s kinda badass. He lands on the top of a cliff and asks, “You dare summon me, Dekkion?”

This is a nice buildup for Dekkion, but it turns out he’s Venger’s servant. Dekkion claims to have found, after centuries of searching, “the Circle of Power.” That’s a boring name for an artifact: “power” is vague, and no one cares about circles. I mean, at least do what Vampire: The Masquerade games do and give us an Ankh of Power. Fortunately, we can ignore the boring artifact name and concentrate on Dekkion, who reveals he is the eponymous skeleton warrior.

DekkionTo Venger’s dismay, Dekkion announces the Circle of Power is “forever” beyond their reach in the “Lost Tower of the Celestial Knights.” “Celestial Knights” is a more intriguing name, but the tower can’t be that lost: Dekkion is pointing right at it. There is a catch, according to Dekkion: “Only one who is pure of heart, only one who could be a Celestial Knight, may enter that tower and survive its tests of courage.” Since Venger won’t free Dekkion from his spell, he can’t fetch the Circle of Power, and obviously Venger can’t either.

Venger’s got a plan, though. “I know of six young ones who are pure of heart,” he says. “Perhaps they can be persuaded to enter the tower for me.”

(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 “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

The kids cross a rope and wood bridgeThose six young ones are trying to cross a wood and rope bridge right out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Temple of Doom was still a year in the future, but the movies that inspired ToD probably also inspired this.) The bridge is swaying in the wind, and Uni is for some reason perched on Bobby’s back, but Eric decides this is the time to talk about Hank’s failure of leadership. “I knew we shouldn’t have come this way,” he says. When Hank tells him to keep moving, Eric responds, “Moving where, Great Leader? We’re lost!”

I appreciate Eric’s strategy; he’s using a crisis point he can control to actually discuss Hank’s multitude of command sins. But this is a mistake, of course. By seemingly jeopardizing everyone’s safety, he increases the resistance against his legitimate concerns. He will find no allies on the middle of a rickety bridge, and regime change will have to wait another day. Sheila immediately seeks to muddy this issue in order to bolster Hank’s flaccid managerial credentials. “We’re lost everywhere in this world, Eric,” she lectures. “That’s why we have to stick together.” Sheila has complained about being lost before, when the word “lost” had even less meaning, and Eric didn’t mention splitting the group then. She’s trying to make listening to Eric seem even more perilous than the bridge.

Before more of the group can shout down Eric’s case for reforms, Uni looks down and gets a case of vertigo, causing the bridge to sway even more. Eric tries to reassure everyone: “Steady, steady …” But a third “steady” turns into a shriek as he’s confronted by the grim Specter of Dooms Yet to Come: Dungeon Master, who decides to block their path across the bridge. You know, Eric was trying to get legitimate concerns addressed with his obstructionism. What is Dungeon Master trying to accomplish?

“I have news,” he says. “Ahead of you stands the Lost Tower. And in it, you may find the power to return to your world.” OK … I will admit Dungeon Master does seem to have calmed the storm and winds, which makes standing on the bridge much less dangerous. But he’s left off the “Celestial Knights” part of the tower’s name because he’s trying to make that lie about “may find the power to return to your world” more plausible. (We know he’s lying, right? At least in an Obi Wan, “from a certain point of view” way.) The Lost Tower could contain anything. The Lost Tower of the Celestial Knights … it probably contains Celestial Knights junk, which might not be that helpful.

Dungeon Master looking displeasedPresto goes nuts in his excitement, but as always, Eric is the clear-headed one. “What’s the catch this time, Your Shortness?” he asks, and Dungeon Master’s look shows he isn’t pleased by either Eric’s question or nickname — or both, probably. It turns out the catch is the normal one that heroes encounter in abandoned towers: they have to overcome that which they fear the most and “defeat the enemy within yourselves.”

“What does that mean?” Diana asks, and while Eric turns back to angrily say Dungeon Master isn’t going to tell them what it means, Dungeon Master disappears. Immediately after they realize their guide has vanished, the storm returns, and lightning strikes the bridge. Thanks, Dungeon Master. Eric falls, with only chance — his boot catching between two of the last planks in their half of the bridge — keeping him from a certain death. Hank tells everyone, “Don’t panic. Just climb!” While Bobby and Uni freeze on their rungs, Eric climbs over them. They give him dirty looks afterwards.

“Boy, Eric, talk about rude,” Bobby says, and Uni, seemingly possessed by a donkey demon, bleats its agreement. Hey, Bobby, if you had started climbing, he wouldn’t have had to climb over you. You and your pet jeopardized Eric’s life; what do you expect him to do? (I know; Bobby’s a kid. But he’s a kid who has consistently valued the life of his pet over humans, so, you know, he’s got this coming.) Eric then proceeds to climb over everyone else, who have frozen as well. He knocks off Presto’s glasses, which are caught by Sheila. Knocking off Presto’s glasses wasn’t cool, but was Eric supposed to just wait? ND what is wrong with the rest of the group? Why are you hanging onto a deathtrap? Is it Hank’s fault? Has he failed to lead you upward?

Bobby and Uni angry at EricYes, he has! The others can only start climbing after Eric makes it almost to the top. “So that’s what Hank meant by ‘just climb’!” they think to themselves. “He meant climb!”

Eric rubs it in at the top, sarcasm dripping from his voice: “C’mon — what are you waiting for? You heard what Hank said.” A hand on his shoulder takes some of the starch out of his shorts, and he flees when confronted by Dekkion. He’s right to do so: Dekkion is more powerful than their standard villains. Eric’s shield absorbs a ray from Dekkion, but the ballistic force shoves him backwards. Dekkion catches Hank’s energy arrow, and he puts up a shield to bat aside Diana’s leap. Presto strides forward to fail boldly: “Alaka-zow, abraka-dation, I cast you away by teleportation!” He pulls a telephone from his hat; Dekkion crushes the phone.

The siblings turn out to be the key to victory: Bobby threatens Dekkion and gains his attention while Sheila steals his sword. Not that Dekkion has used the sword, but still: nice going, Sheila! When Eric directs the others to attack, Dekkion holds up a hand and says, “Halt! I have no wish to fight!”

Eric is incredulous, which, given that Dekkion attacked him unprovoked, seems reasonable, but Hank decides to give him a chance to talk. Dekkion unspools his tale of woe: he was a Celestial Knight, a group of warriors who magically fought evil, who was cursed to look like a skeleton because of an evil wizard’s spell. Only the Circle of Power, inside the knights’ tower, can break the spell. Sheila says they’re going to the tower, and Eric is panicked that Sheila wants to help Dekkion. He pleads with Hank to “stop her.”

“I think she wants to help this guy so we can get home,” Hank says. “Any objections?” Eric has been outmaneuvered again: Hank (and the others) have associated going home with helping Dekkion, even though no such link has been established. By Thoth, Eric’s “friends” are devious. While Eric stammers out a reply, Hank gives Dekkion’s sword back to him. Eric can’t see how he’s gotten into this mess, but he sure as Hel resents it as he mutters under his breath. Can’t say I blame him.

***

The Lost Tower sticking above the cloud coverAt the “Lost Tower” — again, not lost — Sheila marvels that it’s “so skinny.” I suppose even towers can’t be too rich or too thin. When Eric sees the lock on the tower door, he is happy to be balked, but Bobby smashes it. After Bobby’s act of vandalism — nice security, Celestial Knights — the kids discover the tower is a Tardis, much bigger inside that outside. Dekkion promises to rendezvous with them later, and the kids head inside. “The sooner we go in, the sooner we go home!” Hank says. Hank, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that time is irrelevant. Enter the tower that instant, the next day, the next year … you’re still not going to find anything in that tower that will get you home.

***

“This place gives me the creeps,” Sheila whines. Again, I’ll note Sheila gets a free pass on her whining.

Gargoyle with glowing eyes“Yeah!” Presto agrees as a gargoyle’s eyes glow in the background. “I feel like someone’s looking inside my brain.” This leaves Presto wide open for Eric’s rejoinder: “That shouldn’t take long.” Ha!

(Geek aside: Gargoyles are exactly what you think they are: creatures that resemble those monstrous projections on cathedrals. The description overall is thin, but according to the Monster Manual, gargoyles “will attack anything they detect, regardless of whether it is good or evil.” These must be slackers. Also unlike what is intimated by the episode, gargoyles have no mental powers.)

As they walk along, a statue grabs Sheila’s cloak, then turns inert as she tries to free herself. The rest of the party walks along, unconcerned until she pleads for them to wait. Before they can help her, she falls into a magic hole that closes up after her. Bobby runs back and pounds the floor where she vanished, but to no avail. He begins to lose control of himself to his anger and fear as Hank comforts him. There’s nothing funny about Bobby’s grief.

Sheila on a desolate plainSheila’s always good for a laugh, though. She wakes up — for some reason, she’s fallen asleep in the process of going between worlds. Was the magical transition too boring for her? In any event, she’s alone on a near featureless plain. A few scattered rocks cast long shadows in the blue light. Sheila calls for her friends, accusing them of a prank, then begins running as she broadcasts her fear: “You know I’m scared of being alone!” After she realizes she is alone, she curls up on herself in fear.

Back in the tower, Sheila’s friends call for her. Uni nuzzles Bobby, trying to comfort the boy. Hank tells Diana to keep an eye on Bobby while he wanders off by himself so he can fall victim to the tower as well. The tower quickly walls off Hank from his friends, and Diana makes no impression as she fruitlessly bangs on the wall with her staff. Then, instead of having Bobby swing his wallbuster, Presto decides to cast a spell. Of course it goes wrong: Presto gets out, “Sim-sim-sallah —” before pink smoke pours out of his hat. When the smoke clears, Eric and Presto are gone.

The comic relief find themselves in a swampy forest. Oops!

Hank finds his energy arrows can’t dent the new wall. He tells himself he needs to find a way back to the others, so he climbs the first staircase he sees. Yes, that’s a great idea, Hank. Sheila fell through a hole, and the others are on the same floor as you (as far as you know), so the best way to find them is to climb up stairs. Brilliant, leader. As he climbs, the stairs disappear behind him, leaving only the cosmic void. “Oh, brother,” he says as he runs from the Void that Consumes All. “Some leader I turned out to be!”

Well, you’re right about not being a leader, Hank, but I think you have bigger concerns right now.

Back in the swamp, Presto says, “I’m sorry if my magic got us into this mess, Eric.” If! Viewers can probably guess that it’s the tower that did this, but this seems like a Grade-A prime Presto screw-up.

Eric agrees. “Face it, Presto, you’re a first-class nerd,” Eric says. That’s not fair, Eric; nerds are generally good at something they hyper-focus on, and we have yet to see anything that Presto is any good at. “That’s why people are always laughing at you. You know, I’d be scared to walk out of the house if I knew I was going to get laughed at.”

Eric covered with a  sheet as Presto looks onThis cruelty and hubris is the cue for the plot to make Eric its butt monkey — or Bottom monkey, if you’re the Shakespearean sort. A wisp of fog comes out of the swamp and envelops Eric, solidifying into a sheet phantom. In short order, Eric turns into Halloween Charlie Brown. After a few seconds, the sheet phantom flies away, and Eric is revealed to have a huge schnozz and ass’s ears.

(Geek aside: The sheet phantom is the kind of monster people mock the Fiend Folio for. The sheet phantom is exactly what it says: a sheet that acts like a ghost. It kills prey and turns them into sheet ghouls by enveloping them, with the attack looking exactly like a kid using a sheet to make a ghost costume. Fortunately, the sheet phantom in this episode doesn’t suffocate Eric. The Fiend Folio says these monsters are “greatly feared,” but that’s a lie.)

Presto calls Eric a “nerd,” because Presto likes making fun of Eric’s transformations. Just like in “Beauty and the Bogbeast,” Eric has to beg the laughing Presto for aid. (At least Diana isn't there to laugh at him as well.) But this time, karma’s a bitch — yes, I know, karma is a complicated ethical theory and not just a momentary punishment for schadenfreude, but I’m too lazy to think about that. Just as he’s about to cast a spell, a banshee swoops toward Presto and steals his glasses. As stated earlier in the episode, Presto is helpless without his glasses.

Eric with donkey ears and large nose with Presto nearby and banshees hovering behind themThe banshee is joined by several of his fellows, and they start taunting Eric and Presto: “Look at the goofy one. Look at his ears. And that one thinks he’s a wizard!”

(Geek aside: In the Monster Manual, banshees are known as a “groaning spirit”; “banshee” is a parenthetical name. The “groaning spirit” name doesn’t get phased out until the Monstrous Manual in 1993. According to the Monster Manual, all banshees are the ghosts of evil female elves. Their keening wail can cause those close by to die on the spot if they fail a save.)

***

After the commercial break, we return to find Bobby, Diana, and the four-hooved pest wandering the crystal halls of the tower. The walls show reflections of the two … hey, I just noticed Bobby and Diana are wearing matching boots: fur-topped, calf-length boots with laces around the outside. And they’re wearing matching fur bikini bottoms. I suppose they both got their clothing from Dungeon Master of Beverly Hills, so it makes sense that they match.

Anyway, after Bobby compares the reflection to a funhouse, it becomes obvious where this one’s going to go: the mirrors are going to distort them in a way to show their worst fears. Uni freaks out after seeing a mysterious face in a mirror, but the two humans concentrate on their reflections. Bobby sees himself as a baby; Diana sees herself as a wrinkled crone who has trouble Bobby as a baby and Diana as a scantily clad old woman.keeping her bra on. (Old Diana’s garments being dangerously close to exposing her wrinkled dugs is not something I want to see, and yet here it is. It is seared into my brain now.) It may seem weird that teenage Diana is worried about growing old, but remember: she’s a gymnast. Competitive gymnasts peak early, and gymnasts can be washed up by the time they reach 20.

Diana and Bobby change into their reflections, although fortunately real Diana’s clothes fit her better. “I don’t want to be a baby!” Bobby whines. “I can’t hold my javelin,” Diana croaks. “I’m too weak.” Now that the two of them are helpless, six gray-skinned specters glide out of the mirror and surround them …

(Geek aside: Specters — spelled “spectres” in the Monster Manual — are undead that drain the life from the living. They “haunt the most desolate of places, tombs, and dungeons … Daylight makes them powerless. Life makes them lament their unlife.” Essentially, they are the popular stereotype of Internet trolls, although they have to touch their victims rather than harass them online. Also, they can’t turn their victims into Internet trolls like specters turn their victims into specters.)

***

So now we’ve got all the fears expressly stated: Sheila’s afraid of being alone; Hank’s afraid of failing as a leader; Eric’s afraid of being laughed at; Presto’s afraid of being helpless? being blind?; Bobby’s afraid of being too young to help; and Diana’s afraid of being too old. Presto’s and Hank’s fears are entirely rational, as Hank is a bad leader and functioning in a world you cannot see is terrifying.

Everybody clear? Good. Now we devote the last few minutes of the episode to defeating those deep-seated psychological hang-ups!

***

Hank’s still fleeing the disappearing staircase. “This is like a bad dream!” he says. Well, I wish something more interesting was happening, and I can’t see how this relates to your strategic incompetence, but the thought of Hank being dropped into the endless void isn’t a bad dream. Eventually, his retreat is cut off by a brick wall, and the floor he’s standing on disappears. “Oh no! And the dream’s getting worse!”

Hank and the Circle of PowerHank falls into a spiral of pinkish energy, which quickly gives way to a stone floor. Unfortunately — sorry, I mean: don’t worry: Hank’s not hurt. Because he’s a middle-class white kid, he’s completely unsurprised that the object of his quest just appears to him without much effort on his part: the Circle of Power is directly in front of him. When he touches the circle, which looks suspiciously like a halo, light flares, and he can hear the panicked cries of his friends. After searching in a nearly empty room, Hank realizes the cries are coming from the only object other than the Circle of Power: a giant globe covered by a red cloth. Hank removes the cloth and sees all of his friends in trouble.

“I’ve got to help them!” he shouts. “But where are they? It’s all my fault, for agreeing to help Dekkion.” Yes, of course it’s your fault. So what will you do now? I know: Mean old DM taught you to weep and moan, Hank, but crying won’t help you, and praying won’t do you no good. “Every since we came to this world, I’ve been afraid I’d fail like —”

And of course it’s Hank who figures it out first. Saying the word “afraid” makes him remember Dungeon Master’s words: “We must defeat the enemy within ourselves.” Hank’s solution? Refuse to be afraid. By Hiisi, is that all it takes? Why didn’t anyone tell me not to be afraid when I was facing my deep-seated fears of drowning or clowns or being drowned by clowns? If they had, maybe Jojo the Fantastic would still be alive today, instead of being buried in a shallow grave.

Hank shouts his insightful advice at the magical globe, and all his friends hear it. He goes on to explain that they’re being attacked by their worst fears. “You gotta fight back!” he shouts. “It’s not real!”

Sheila reacts first. “I’m not alone? Then I’m not afraid.” Xochipilli, that’s a copout. “I got over my fear by no longer being exposed to it!” It’s like me declaring my allergy to tumtum tree pollen had disappeared when someone pointed out tumtum trees don’t exist. Anyway, by declaring she’s no longer afraid, Sheila disappears from her prison world and reappears next to Hank.

Next up are Eric and Presto. Presto is the first to drink the Kool-Aid: “Why should I be scared just because I lost my glasses?” For the very good reason that you can’t see anything, and one of those banshees could eat your soul while you’re not looking. Hey, what’s an attack from the undead between friends? Eric thinks Presto’s logic is stupid, although not for the right reason: “Who cares about your stupid glasses? I lost my whole face!”

“Well, maybe I can find it,” says Presto, evidently deciding being blind won’t make him any worse of a magician. He’s correct there, at least. While he’s fumbling with his hat, the banshee with his glasses divebombs him and Eric. Eric waves his shield in the banshee’s general direction, causing to veer off and drop Presto’s glasses. Somehow, Presto not only knows that the banshee dropped his glasses but where to grope for them. Within a few seconds, he has his glasses back.

A lot of bansheesPresto’s excited, but Eric’s using his shield to deflect more banshees. He asks Presto to pull something useful, like an aircraft carrier, out of his hat. An aircraft carrier? On dry land? Most likely uncrewed? What is wrong with you, Eric? Presto tries his incantation: “Abraca-davy, United States Navy!” That is a lazy spell, and regardless of the results, you should be ashamed, Presto.

As it turns out, Presto does summon an aircraft carrier, and he and Eric stand on the deck. The banshees bonk off the hull of the suddenly appearing ship. “I feel better already,” Eric says. Presto is there to make sure Eric doesn’t get too full of himself: “Well, you don’t look any better.” It’s too late, though: Eric and Presto appear in the room next to Hank and Sheila, and Eric has his normal face back.

The plot doesn’t want to waste too much time on Diana and Bobby. Hank, Presto, and Sheila tell them not to be afraid; evidently they stop being afraid, because they appear next to the others, looking their normal ages. Thank goodness we don’t have to waste time on having them figure things out.

Hank with the Circle of Power.“Here’s what we came for: the Circle of Power!” Hank says, grabbing the circle. It glows as he does, giving him a sinister cast. He starts running immediately, as if he expects the tower to collapse after they take it. Why? Who knows. It does seem like the sort of jerk thing the Realms would do to the kids, though. Maybe Hank is getting smarter!

Eric protests that the Circle of Power is their way home, and if they give it to Dekkion, he might not give it back. To be fair, Dungeon Master never said the Circle of Power was their way home. He didn’t even imply it, really; he just said the tower might have a way for them to get home. Eric has jumped to a conclusion that Eric and the others pushed him into.

The kids take the circle to a henge on a high cliff, where Dekkion is waiting. As Hank’s about to hand the circle to Dekkion, Dungeon Master comes out from hiding. “Do not be hasty, Ranger,” he says. Dekkion reveals his true intentions by drawing his sword. Bad move, man! You gotta stay cool at the handoff. You can’t let the kids know you’re a narc.

Henge in the moonlight“That would be unwise, Dekkion,” Dungeon Master says, the implicit threat hanging in the air. Do it, Dekkion! Strike him down! If not for Venger or yourself, then do it for the kids! BETTER YET: DO IT FOR ME. But the moment passes, and Dungeon Master spills Dekkion’s secret: he betrayed the Celestial Knights centuries ago, leading them into a trap in exchange for treasure.

“Oh, brother,” Eric says. “You mean ol’ Bonehead here is a traitor and a liar?”

“Yes, a traitor and a liar,” Dekkion says. “And I have suffered for it!” Yes, but you should suffer for it — whether you’ve suffered isn’t a question. Punishment ends when it results in rehabilitation (HA!) or when the suffering is enough. Is it enough, Dekkion?

Dungeon Master agrees Dekkion has suffered. He’s even got a theory: “Evil deeds do return to their source. They always come full circle. And their evil will never end until the circle is broken.” (Hint: This is a hint.) Besides telling the kids something they have no chance of comprehending, Dungeon Master is asking for clemency, which figures: history’s greatest monster is soft on Realms crime. And this “evil returning to its source” concept is nonsense: tell that to the victims of Stalin and Mao; tell it to generations of slaves; tell it to Native Americans. The oppressors in those cases slept very well at night and died without atoning, generally.

Eric shouting at the partyEric is for abandoning Dekkion and using the Circle of Power to get home. (No one has said how that would work, but Eric is pushing hard for it.) Hank is unsure; before he can appeal to the authority of Dungeon Master, the red-robed weasel is gone. Venger attacks, filling the gap in menace left by DM. Hank immediately drops the circle, which Venger telekineses toward himself. “Now you shall feel the circle’s power!” Venger says as he fires the exact same kind of blasts with the circle as he did before he had it.

Since Venger has the circle, Dekkion begs to be released from Venger’s spell, but Venger cites a technicality: “You did not bring me the circle, Dekkion. I seized it myself. I owe you nothing!” Ah, I should have known Venger was a lawyer at heart. He tells Dekkion he will have six new skeleton warriors to keep him company, then blasts Hank. Hank’s beautiful hair and skin fall away …

But Dekkion blasts Venger with his sword — wait, how does that work? Does the sword shoot green energy because it’s magic, or is it because of Venger’s spell? Or is it something about being a skeleton warrior? Celestial knight? Well, whatever the reason, Venger drops the circle, and Hank gets back his power talisman (Aryan good looks). Instead of grabbing the circle, Dekkion gets Hank to cover. Hank thanks Dekkion, but Dekkion says, “The thanks is mine, my friend. Your courage has shown me what I must do.”

Dekkion in a green glowing column.Dekkion goes into the open and battles Venger. It’s a one-sided fight; Venger blows stuff up and deflects Dekkion’s sword blasts. Meanwhile, the kids hide, waiting for things to blow over. While they wait it out, Hank realizes Dungeon Master left them a hint, but it’s Presto who realizes they need to break the circle (of Power and evil). Presto rushes onto the battlefield, grabs the circle, then tosses it into the air for Hank to shoot like a skeet. He’s also throwing it in Venger’s general direction, but fortunately Hank’s energy arrow blows up the circle. Of course it does — that’s just science. Energy blows up magic circles. Everyone knows that.

Venger is blown away by a magic cyclone, while winds push the kids around. Dekkion stands in the middle of a green beam of light, and although he makes sounds like he’s being ripped apart by an intrinsic field generator, when it’s over, he’s returned to his young self rather than gaining blue skin and a lack of empathy with humanity. He blows on a seashell, and a giant eagle taxi arrives for him. (The bird does not seem enthused about his new rider; I imagine Dekkion still smells like bones and the grave.) Dekkion then flies away, promising to return when he’s found a way for the kids to return home. Eric says, “We’ll never see him again.” Hank admonishes him, but guess who’s right? It sure ain’t Blondie.

Dekkion on a giant eagleWhen Diana asks what went on — injustice, Diana; I’d think you’d know what it looks like by now — Hank guesses Dekkion “redeemed” himself by fighting against Venger. One fight? That’s all it takes? Geeeeez. I can see if his reward was death; he’s suffered, and he might have suffered enough. But Dekkion gets to live his life all over again, which seems like a raw deal for all the Celestial Knights whose lives Dekkion cut short.

The episode ends with Eric arguing with Uni after Uni actually agreed with him, then getting intimidated by Bobby. Sure, why not? That’s as good a way to end this episode as any.

Time to continue the circle of teaching with these lessons:

  • Overcoming your fears is simple! All you have to do is state you’re not afraid. It often helps if the thing you’re afraid of goes away.
  • One good deed will not only end your suffering but also wipe away your sins and get you an entirely new life.
  • Making fun of people’s appearance is OK if you’re around them all the time.
  • The best way to compensate for poor eyesight is positive thinking.
  • The undead are more interested in taunting the living than stealing away their lives.
Going home tally: I am not counting this as anything close to a chance to return to our world. The kids have found two portals they’ve been unable to escape through.

Monster tally: Three from the Monster Manual and one from the Fiend Folio. Totals: MM: 25, FF: 4, Dragon: 1

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Three Things about ... Deities and Demigods

24th Jun. 2016 | 02:09 pm

Three things about Deities & Demigods by Rich Redman, Skip Williams, and James Wyatt:

Deities & Demigods cover
  1. Cast not dishonor on your forebears: I can’t help but compare this to the original Deities & Demigods / Legends & Lore, both from first edition. The third edition product excels in the areas you would expect it to: The art is in color and generally more professional looking, and the entire setup is more organized. Rules are consistent across mythos and deities, which makes figuring out the mechanics of holiness just so much easier. On the other hand, there are so many fewer mythos in the third-edition book: only the Greek, Egyptian, Norse, and Greyhawk pantheons are represented. (The authors have constructed a few example deities at the back of the book, but they are one-offs, unconnected to any pantheon or even each other.) Despite having half the pages of the third-edition Deities & Demigods, Legends & Lore contained fourteen pantheons plus a chapter on nonhuman deities (easily my favorite chapter). The original Deities & Demigods had two more pantheons, although it’s a bit expensive.

    Also, Greek, Norse, and Egyptian? That’s an incredibly boring set of choices. I understand that certain fans would scream if the most famous mythoi weren’t included, but I don’t need the Greek and Norse pantheons. Give me, I don’t know, Celtic or — if you wanted to veer away from European deities — Aztec or Japanese or Chinese deities. The Greyhawk pantheon, though, is an excellent choice.

  2. Fight the power: I have my doubts about Legends & Lore’s contention that it wasn’t meant to give PCs a bunch of adversaries, but if I had some doubts about the first edition book, I have none about the third edition handbook. This is a book that will help DMs and PCs set up pantheons, yes, but these gods and goddesses exist to be fought. Where Legends & Lore is content with quick stat blocks followed by two or three paragraphs description about the deity, Deities & Demigods’s entries are divided into two sections: a brief, three-section entry about the deity, his or her dogma, and his or her clergy and temples, followed by a Monster Manual-style entry that is three or four times as long. The information about the deity is useful and more consistent that the information from Legends & Lore, but when each entry spends a column worth of space on the deity and more than a page on enumerating each godly ability that deity has, you know what the book’s true emphasis is.

    Deities & Demigods also has a stat that immediately allows you to compare the relative power level of different deities: divine rank, which runs from 0 (semi-divine) to 20 (head of a strong pantheon). This stat is useful in calculating certain abilities, but it also serves as powergamer shorthand for “Can we take this guy?”

  3. A foolish consistency: There are divine feats in Deities & Demigods. They’re called “salient divine abilities,” but they are divine feats. I understand the utility of this for DMs who are putting together their own deities, and it does simplify the deity entries. I would have preferred each deity getting only one or two semi-unique abilities that were fully described in the entry, although I get why that’s impractical: gods have to be more powerful than that if they’re going to be able resist assaults from dragons, demons, and PCs. Especially the latter.

    However, we all know what’s going to happen: players will drool over them as they plot to reach divine status. Even if their campaign has no mechanism for a mortal’s apotheosis, certain players going to be plotting to get Annihilating Strike and Alter Reality. Because why not? There are rules for getting them. It would be stupid to not try, you know? And then they can sulk like Achilles (not appearing in this book but included in Legends & Lore) in his tent when the DM refuses them.

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Dungeons & Dragons #8: Servant of Evil

17th Jun. 2016 | 11:13 am

Servant of Evil title cardOriginal air date: 5 November 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

Unusually, “Servant of Evil” does not begin with the kids wandering around, lost and suffering from dehydration / starvation. No, it begins with the wails of the damned at Venger’s new Volcanotown supermax facility. You know, most Orc and Bullywug tribes didn’t want the prison built in their neighborhoods, but the Lizardfolk were desperate for the jobs, so they weren’t picky. And, you know, there’s not much they could do with that volcano-top property anyway.

“All who defy me must be punished,” Venger says as he appears on the screen. That would make decent house words for Venger, but this isn’t Game of Thrones. I know this because instead of sexpositon, we get Venger Prison of Agonyberating a Dwarf. Venger tells Karrox, a giant, to throw “this sniveling Dwarf into the Prison of Agony.” Karrox has a brief moment of conscience, deciding not to serve as Venger’s prison guard any more, but Venger threatens to take away his medical and dental insurance … and also to destroy Karrox’s bucolic homeland if he doesn’t obey. Karrox caves, lowering the drawbridge and escorting the shackled Dwarf to prison, unmoved by the Dwarf’s pleas.

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read my 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 “Servant of Evil” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Eric in a maskWhen we cut to the kids, shockingly, they aren’t lost or dying because of abysmal leadership. In fact, they’re celebrating Bobby’s birthday with a surprise party. (How old is Bobby? It’s never said.) Eric’s wearing a terrifying mask, but strangely, that’s not his gift to Bobby; instead, he gives Bobby a box of little green-capped … things that are entirely head and legs. When Bobby asks what they are, Eric cheerfully admits, “I don’t know. I found them in the jungle.” Given the opportunity to escape, the things bounce away, and Bobby and Uni rush after them, Bobby’s club swinging at his side. Bobby is totally going to play Whack-a-Thing with those creatures, leaving green smears throughout the … well, Eric said it was a jungle, but it looks like a normal forest. Awesome gift, Eric!

While Sheila thanks her friends for Bobby’s party and Eric congratulates himself for scaring Bobby, Lizardfolk surround the party, making their first appearance on the show. Hank recognizes them immediately as “Venger’s Lizardmen,” implying the party has been attacked by these goons before, even if we haven’t seen it. Diana can’t resist a bad joke: “Correction, Hank — leapin’ Lizardmen.”

This might be funny if the Lizardfolk were leapin’, Diana, but they aren’t. They’re just running and attacking. I hope Daddy Warbucks’s lawyers to sue you on behalf of Little Orphan Annie. (I doubt lawyers would have much trouble going back and forth between the Realms and Earth.) Also: the term “Lizardmen” is sexist, so I use the term used in later editions, “Lizardfolk.” I mean, how would we know whether they’re all men? It’s not like they’re mammals, with (sometimes) obvious mammary glands. They keep their sexes hidden under their loincloths, and if they are happy to let that mystery continue, I, for one, am too.

Bobby’s gifts jump awaySo, a fight: Diana uses gymnastics, Presto “uses” “magic” (“Abracadannon, turn my hat into a cannon!” produces an effective barrage of flower petals), and Hank uses his bow to save Sheila. Even Eric uses one of Bobby’s birthday gifts (a jack-in-the-box) to frighten one of the Lizardfolk. “We’ve got ‘em surrounded!” Hank says just before the Lizardfolk use superior tactics (and numbers, to be fair) to surround the party. Oh, well. How could Hank, their mighty leader, know there might be more Lizardfolk?

(Geek aside: Lizardfolk are another race of easily sacrificable minions that I like. First of all, in the Monster Manual, their alignment is listed as neutral, which makes them a rare non-evil race of goons. Secondly, I like the aesthetic; the reptilian heads look fierce and play on our atavistic fears. However, the Monster Manual admits, “They are omnivorous, but lizard men are likely to prefer human flesh to other foods.” Doesn’t sound neutral to me! Thirdly, the Fiend Folio introduced the Lizard King, which was an attempt to make a Doors joke. Unfortunately, the Lizard King does not make an appearance in this cartoon.)

***

“First time a birthday present ran away before I played with it,” Bobby grouses as he returns to the remains of his party. Yes, Bobby, but like I said, I’m pretty sure “playing with” means the same as “smushing them.” With everyone gone, Bobby wonders, “What happened to my party?”

Amulet with Dungeon Master’s faceDungeon Master appears before Bobby, scaring the living daylights out of both him and Uni, to deliver the bad news: everyone’s been captured and taken to Venger’s unescapable prison. But to make up for it, Dungeon Master gives Bobby one final birthday present, inside a golden box with a purple aura: a pendant with DM’s face, which seems like the worst possible present to me. The pendant is supposed to protect Bobby from Venger’s magic, but since it actually talks to Bobby in Dungeon Master’s voice, it seems like a creepy way for him to keep tabs on Bobby. “But remember this,” Dungeon Master says. “Its power is in its giving, not the keeping. When you need its protection most, you must give it away.” Oh, the necklace is love, isn’t it?

Dungeon Master points in the general direction of the prison, then vanishes. See you, Bobby! … Don’t get disemboweled by the Lizardfolk! I’m sorry. That was a lazy and crude ethnic stereotype. Lizardfolk are no more likely than any other race to disembowel their opponents. So let me change my warning to this:

Don’t get eaten by the Lizardfolk, Bobby!

***

In the prison, the Lizardfolk leader delivers the kids and their weapons to Venger. Good work, Lizardfolk! You should jump to the head of the minion line! Unfortunately, Venger doesn’t learn, and it’s going to be a lot of Orcs and Bullywugs from here on out.

Presto and EricVenger, sitting in a chair facing away from the kids and minions, does a dramatic turn, somehow surprising Presto and Eric. Hank said they were Venger’s Lizardmen, guys; whom do you think they would be delivering you to? Hank demands their release, since Venger now has their weapons: “What more do you want?”

Hank, you’ve already managed to rally from having no powers in “The Hall of Bones”. Venger would have to be pretty stupid to let you go now … and this time, he’s not stupid: “The barbarian’s club,” he says, noticing the absence of Bobby and his weapon, “and to be rid of you, once and for all.”

“Your prison won’t hold us long, Venger,” Diana says. “You can bet on that.” She hasn’t heard the buildup Dungeon Master has given the place, and maybe she hasn’t seen that they’re going to be put in volcano Alcatraz. Venger isn’t concerned by her bravado, though, telling her that without their weapons, the prison will hold them forever.

***

“At least we won’t freeze,” Presto says when he sees the eponymous prison. Ah, Presto, already looking on the bright side. Soon he’ll be collaborating, informing on the other prisoners, looking for any favors the guards will bestow on someone willing to sell out their fellow prisoners. Too bad you didn’t conjure up something from your hat to protect against shanks while you had it!

Karrox, having learned his lesson, lowers the drawbridge without a complaint, then conducts the kids to the prison. Presto wonders where Dungeon Master is in their hour of need; I imagine he’s encouraging other groups of kids to sacrifice their freedom or lives for him. “Forget Dungeon Master,” Eric says. “We should be praying for a SWAT team.” That’s a weird religion, Eric, but on the other hand, if it works for you …

Party in the background, prisoners in the foregroundInside, we get a glimpse of a few of the weird creatures Venger has imprisoned; none of them are from any of the Monster Manuals I’m familiar with, and one of them might have been grabbed from a mall or trailer park. While Sheila mournfully wails about her helplessness, we cut to …

Bobby trudging out of the undergrowth and toward a background painting of volcanoes. Bobby is complaining that he doesn’t see any prisons when he hears Dungeon Master’s disembodied voice: “Look where the fires are fiercest. There you will find what you seek.” An amulet that allows Dungeon Master to bug you whenever he wants? This deal’s getting worse all the time. Fortunately, the riddle isn’t that hard — perhaps in deference to Bobby’s age — and he realizes the fire is fiercest in the biggest volcano. I’m not an expert in vulcanology, but I don’t think height equals hottest when it comes to volcanoes. I may be wrong, though.

Eric fanning himself with a Spider-Man comicBack in prison, a wretched hive of scum and artists’ castoff character designs, Eric fans himself with a Spider-Man comic book. “A couple of more hours in this place and I’ll be hardboiled,” he says.

“Well, you always were an egghead,” Diana says. No, he wasn’t. You’re trying to use “egghead” as a broad pejorative, but it’s a specific one: a mild insult to someone who is intelligent in an academic way but perhaps out of touch with practical matters. The latter applies to Eric, perhaps, but no one has been complaining that he’s too smart. No one on this show is an egghead, really.

Look: I didn’t want to explain what was wrong with your mal mot any more than you wanted to hear it, Diana. But that’s the second bit of wordplay you’ve muffed this episode. You’ve been warned.

Eric approaches a Dungeon Master lookalikeAnyway, Presto thinks he’s spotted Dungeon Master in prison with them. From behind, yes, it looks like Dungeon Master, but Presto has forgotten the only true quality of Dungeon Master they know: The kids never see him before he starts talking to them. Eric rushes to “Dungeon Master,” saying how glad he is to see ol’ DM, but in actuality, he’s an oni some Toei animator thought looked cool. While Eric is reeling from his surprise, another inmate says Eric looks like lunch. The intimation that the prisoners eat each other is played for laughs, and we’re supposed to think Eric’s fear is funny. Well, I suppose that’s what he gets for venturing outside the safety of the pack …

But Bobby doesn’t need the safety of the pack! He easily steals a Lizardfolk raft, and he poles himself and Uni across the lake.

The party in prison, dejectedIn prison, Diana’s getting all snuggly with Hank. Funny — I thought Sheila was Hank’s main squeeze, but in prison like this, with no oversight or support structures, the strongest rise to the top. Diana makes a better ally for Hank in this dog-eat-dog world than mousy Sheila. Once Presto betrays the group and Eric is eaten by a hungry animator’s doodle, Diana will be the one Hank relies on to survive. Sheila? Well, if she does what he and Diana says, they’ll keep her safe — they’ll keep her nice and safe …

What? Oh, sorry, drifted into fanfic there for a moment. Won’t happen again.

Before Hank can walk up to the biggest monster in the yard and punch it in the face, a hooded figure walks up to them. Why does he need to conceal his identity? He’s in prison. Anyway, he announces his name is Strongheart, and he rocks a mighty moustache. He’s impressed the kids Stronghearthave stood up to Venger; Hank and Diana say they’d be happy to do it again, if only it wasn’t for the prison and lack of weapons and stuff. You know, minor complications.

But Strongheart says he’s got a way to escape. He’s been “scraping” the walls of the prison, you see, and now he’s punched through to the outside. He’s even cunningly hid his tunnel behind a large barrel marked Santory 1855. (The similarly named “Suntory” is a Japanese company that makes whisky, among other things, although it was founded a few decades after 1855.) Strongheart rolls the barrel aside, revealing a hole large enough to crawl through. Unfortunately, his tunnel leads directly outside, to the circle of stone surrounding the prison building, where the guards immediately see them escaping from their vantage on the volcano rim.

Strongheart’s plan — if it can be dignified with the title “plan,” which I doubt — is to race across the large stone ring around the prison stronghold, then dash across the huge chains that hold the prison above the lava. Assuming the metal in the chains aren’t superheated by the cauldron of lava beneath it, they have to hope the guards have no ranged weapons and no will to restrain the kids when they finally get across. The Lizardfolk realize how stupid this is; they can’t even be bothered to deal with the stupid kids and Strongheart, so they release “the creature.” The CreatureSeeing the monster charging them, Strongheart immediately calls for a retreat. The kids see the wisdom in running for their lives. Sheila falls along the way, and Diana and Hank have to combine forces to help her back to her feet. Fortunately, the monster doesn’t even come close to them, and everyone manages to make it back to the prison and roll the barrel across the missing stone before they’re eaten. Great job, Strongheart!

“At least Bobby’s still safe,” Sheila says. “I hope.”

***

Bobby is safe! Well, for the moment. He and Uni are climbing the side of the volcano, but he’s spotted by a Lizardfolk guard, who reports to Venger. Venger’s happy Bobby has come to him. He orders his guards to capture him and bring Bobby’s club …

I wonder: has Venger so completely crushed the spirits of his servitors that they have no second thoughts about bringing such a powerful weapon to him? I mean, in a world like the Realms, such an object has to be like … I don’t know, a briefcase containing $10 million in bearer’s bonds. You could be set for life with a weapon like Bobby’s: you could lay waste to towns, sell it to someone with ambition, even perhaps swap it with Dungeon Master in return for some boon. But Venger expects total submission from his soldiers, and I suppose his ruthlessness is enough to secure that for him.

Just before the Lizardfolk launch their ambush, Dungeon Master contacts Bobby on the pendant phone. He reminds Bobby, “Remember: This amulet will protect you from Venger’s evil.” I assume it will have no effect on Dungeon Master’s own brand of child-endangering evil, though. That would be counterproductive from Dungeon Master’s point of view.

Uni with its mouth openThe Lizardfolk attack as Dungeon Master fades away. Bobby “accidentally” pushes one off a cliff (he catches a stalagmite rather than splatting on the ground), then uses his club to toss the leader into the air. “Say hello to the man in the moon,” Bobby sneers. The leader falls on the third and final Lizardfolk, miraculously not impaling himself on his subordinate’s spear. Does it count as cartoon violence, I wonder, when not even the kids believe that the characters should have survived, despite what’s shown on the screen?

As Bobby is contemplating how to get across to the prison, he’s surprised by Karrox and Venger, who seems every bit as tall as the giant Karrox now. Venger promises lenient treatment for Bobby and his friends if Bobby surrenders the weapon, but of course Bobby refuses: “No way, Jose!”

Venger goes straight to tossing a blue ball of magic at Bobby. Whatver it’s supposed to do, it doesn’t, and Venger bellows like a gored bull. Once everyone has processed this improbability, Venger orders Karrox to take Bobby’s club …

Karrox fends off Uni and BobbyLook, we know how this will go: Karrox will refuse to hurt the cute little boy, his refusal will last until Venger says, “I’ll destroy your homeland,” and then he’ll lumber toward Bobby reluctantly. And that’s what happens. Karrox picks up Bobby by the front of his … tunic? What is that crossed leather band thing he wears? Anyway, Bobby swings his club ineffectually while Uni tries to inflict damage on Karrox by dancing on Karrox’s head. Having a unicorn stomp on your head is, unsurprisingly, a little distracting. Karrox drops Bobby, and he and Uni make a break for it.

Bobby drops the drawbridge to the prison and dashes across, with Karrox close behind. Bobby turns and makes a swipe at Karrox’s feet; Karrox is unusually clumsy and falls off the edge of the bridge. Since this is a children’s show, he catches himself on the edge of the bridge, rather than making a high dive into the lava, and Bobby feels he has to rescue the giant who wanted to hand him over to Venger just a few moments before. Using his club, Bobby pulls Karrox back onto the bridge.

“I never wanted to harm you,” says the giant who grabbed Bobby, then pursued him across a drawbridge. “But Venger will destroy my homeland if I disobey him. I miss home very much.”

Bobby goes gooey inside at the mention of “home.” I suppose that’s a fair way to make a connection between the giant and the runt; Bobby also wants to go home. (As a side note: Why doesn’t Venger threaten Earth? Is Earth immune to Venger’s magic? And if so, is that why Dungeon Master chose children from Earth to battle Venger?)

When Venger demands Bobby’s club, Karrox whispers to Bobby: “I have a plan. Will you do as I say?”

“OK!” Bobby says. That’s awful trusting of Bobby, and I don’t just mean “trusting” in the sense that he’s relying on Karrox’s good intentions. He’s also relying on Karrox having a good plan, even though he has no indication that Karrox has any strategic abilities … or even low cunning, for that matter. For all Bobby knows, the plan might be for Karrox to throw Bobby at Venger and let Bobby’s immunity to Venger’s magic take care of everything. Which isn’t a bad plan, come to think of it.

Maybe he trusts Karrox because they both wear fur bikinis. I dunno. I suppose people have bonded over dumber things.

Karrox grabbing Bobby“I have the boy,” Karrox yells to Venger, “but his club has fallen into the lava.” Venger calls Karrox a “fool,” but he believes Karrox, even though Karrox’s plan involves him hiding Bobby’s club by slipping it into his belt. It’s in plain sight! Venger tells Karrox to put Bobby in prison with his friends. “At least none of Dungeon Master’s little pests will be bothering me any more,” he says as he walks away.

Bobby gets a reunion with his friends and sister, the latter of whom hugs him. “Quit the gushy stuff,” he says. “I’m OK.” Also, Sheila, you’re hurting his cred with his giant friend. Rule #8 of the Fur Bikini Bro Code is “No gushy stuff,” after all. Karrox chooses to overlook this violation and informs the kids of the next step of his plan: he’ll lower the drawbridge at midnight. Not that anyone in the prison has a watch or clock or any timekeeping device, really, but I’m sure it will all go off without a hitch.

Bobby hands over his talking-DM amulet to Karrox because he’s tired of having DM talking to him about … things. I’m assuming Dungeon Master has promised that soon he will give Bobby The Talk, and Bobby wants to avoid that at all costs. No, not really: Bobby realizes the amulet will protect their big ally from Venger. Plus, as he scornfully tells Eric as Eric berates him and yanks him around by his horn, “Dungeon Master said when I needed it most, I had to give it away.”

Eric pulls Bobby’s helmet’s hornsEric: physically venting your anger on a little kid, even in this relatively non-painful way, is uncool. Also uncool: physically venting your anger on someone with a club that could pulverize your bones.

Eric thinks Dungeon Master’s advice is stupid, but Sheila chastises him: “Think about it, Eric. If Venger stops Karrox, none of us will get out of here.” When Sheila corrects you in a way that correctly uses “Think about it,” you’re having a bad day. Or brain failure. Maybe something Eric has eaten was infected with prions, and now he has the early symptoms of variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.

Well, probably not. But it’s just as likely as Sheila being the superior strategist.

Anyway, Hank wonders what they’ll do once they escape, since they don’t have any weapons. This causes Strongheart to tell the kids that once he had a magic weapon: a golden hammer. Do you think Strongheart is the kids, version 0.1, discarded by Dungeon Master when he got too old? I like to think so, but mainly because it makes Dungeon Master even creepier. Anyway, Venger took Strongheart’s magic hammer (*snicker*) and put it in a cell. Hank figures their weapons are keeping the hammer company.

***

Lizardfolk try to lower the leverAt the appointed time, Karrox lowers the drawbridge, then runs like crazy. Bobby shatters the dungeon doors with his club, and Strongheart and the kids dash across the drawbridge. The Lizardfolk feverishly do chin-ups on the lever that raises the drawbridge, causing it to start to raise while the heroes are halfway across. Hank tells his party, “Let’s go!” — as if they needed the advice. What do you think they were doing, Hank? Unfortunately for the guards, raising the drawbridge dumps the heroes into Venger’s volcano fortress and seals the entrance (with the drawbridge) so that they cannot follow.

Strongheart leads the kids to a locked door. Presto thinks the door is impregnable — “It must be a foot thick!” — but he has already forgotten what Bobby’s club does to doors. One strike, and the door is down — not shattered, but knocked out of the frame while remaining intact. Venger should really pay his contractors better or at least get better construction bosses. It’s this kind of shoddy construction that’s the downfall of evil overlords everywhere.

Inside, they find Strongheart’s hammer and helmet (*snicker*), but Diana, stating the obvious, notes their weapons aren’t here. I half expected Strongheart to make a heel turn here, but he sticks with them. “At least we have two of them,” he says, but before he can get his words of hope out, Venger shatters the wall with a blast of lightning.

Strongheart and Bobby leap away from Venger’s blast“Unfortunately,” Venger says, “that won’t be enough to save you.” He waves in his elite Lizardfolk guards — well, I assume they’re elite, because he’s given them the kids’ weapons, and why would he give normal soldiers the most powerful weapons in his arsenal? Maybe Venger can’t tell the difference, and he gave them to random guards. Perhaps there’s a Henchman #21 lurking among them, geeking out over having cool weapons but destined to screw up the opportunity.

Still, Lizardfolk with magic weapons is awesome, and they prove more adept with the weapons than the kids do. The one with Presto’s magic hat pulls out a hawk, which immediately steals Strongheart’s golden hammer. This makes both Strongheart and Presto look awful. “That hat never worked that good for me,” Presto says. No, it never did. Why is that, Presto? Is it because you’re a failure, or because you give up too easily?

Giving up is certainly paramount to Hank: “We don’t stand a chance against our own weapons,” he says. The Lizardfolk concentrate their efforts on Bobby, and Sheila shows no confidence in her baby brother. “Bobby can’t save us all by himself!” she wails. You know, he just rescued you all from your prison cells. Why don’t you have a little faith in the runt?

But, rather than allowing Bobby to show his awesomeness again, reinforcements arrive in the form of Karrox. He defies Venger when ordered to grab Bobby, then takes Hank’s bow and Presto’s hat from unresisting Lizardfolk. After tossing them to Hank and Presto, he rescues Diana’s and Eric’s weapons as well. Venger doesn’t even try to retaliate while the tide is turning, but once most of the kids are re-armed, he shoots a spell at the floor.

Two-headed lava dragonAnd up from the ground comes a bubbling monster — lava dragon, that is. Gold death. Realmsfire.

Well, the next thing you know, the kids are thinking they should move away from there. (I’ll stop now.) Hank tries to drop the ceiling on the dragon with his bow, but the falling debris has no effect on it. Strongheart thinks his hammer might have some effect on the beast, so Diana launches her staff at the forgotten hawk and makes it drop the hammer on Strongheart — it falls right into his hand, as a matter of fact, which makes Diana’s toss even more impressive.

The hammer does save Strongheart from the dragon’s blast of fire. Did I say “dragon”? It has two heads, which makes it more like a hydra, but hydras don’t usually have breath weapons … well, except for fire-breathing pyrohydras. But this is not a hydra. It’s a lava creature … but still, I’m going to keep calling it a dragon.

Eric’s shield is also effective against the creature’s fire blasts, although the shield can’t maintain Eric’s sangfroid. “C’mon, Presto, make with the magic,” he says. “Hurry!” Presto does, indeed, make with the magic, stumbling over his spell and lacking any confidence. He ends the spell with, “Oh, what’s the use — I never get what I want anyway.”

Presto is sprayed in teh fStill, you can probably see where this is going: to battle a dragon made out of molten rock, Presto pulls forth a firehose. Presto gets a blast in the face, then turns the hose on Eric; finally he gets the aim right, and part of the dragon turns to stone. Bobby goes into fits, although it turns out he’s encouraging Presto. With Diana and Hank’s help, Presto turns the dragon to stone.

“Your moment of triumph will be brief,” says Venger, seething with rage. “For you cannot withstand the force of the volcano itself.” I have to give Venger credit: nothing says “supervillainy” like initiating the self-destruct on a volcano base. Everything starts shaking, and lava enters the room they’re in. While things fall apart, Karrox tries to make the center hold by hugging Venger. It’s a sweet idea, but I don’t know if now’s the right time …

Venger and Karrox fly off in a bubble after Karrox reveals the secret of his confidence / protection. The rest of the group, encouraged by Hank, beats cheeks out of there. Once they are outside, they see Venger test Karrox’s protection, but the magic rebounds on Venger, knocking him into the volcano. Well, at least he isn’t atomized by an explosion this time. In fact, he doesn’t even complete the fall, slowing to a stop a few feet above the lava, then disappearing in a flash of light. “Where’d he go?” Bobby asks.

“No telling,” Hank says, “but now isn’t the time to worry about it.” He uses his bow to release the drawbridge, allowing all those imprisoned within, most likely hardened by their time in Venger’s prison, free to roam the Realms. I know there isn’t any time to vet these prisoners, Hank, but I bet you’re really going to regret let some of those guys free — or you would, if this series had any continuity. However, Strongbow seems to act as if everyone in that prison was a political prisoner, innocent of any real crimes.

After a hasty evacuation, everyone safely watches the volcano blow its top in a pyroclastic burst of destruction. I mean, “safely,” of course — all life within miles should be wiped out by the ash, acid, poisonous gasses, rain of heavy rocks, etc. But you know, they’re heroes: they’re safe from consequences.

Venger in a cloudSpeaking of consequences, Venger emerges from the blast in the form of a cloud — again. Man, that shtick’s getting tired. “You will all pay for this,” he bellows. No one pays any attention to him this time.

“Finally, Venger’s Prison of Agony is finished,” Strongheart says. Karrox gives back the amulet to Bobby, then laments that Venger will destroy Karrox’s homeworld. But Bobby returns the amulet, sure it will protect Karrox’s home. I don’t know, Bobby … that amulet protects the wearer. I don’t think its effects will carry over to an entire dimension. The two shake hands, with Bobby’s hand gripping two of Karrox’s fingers. Karrox appreciates the gesture: “Thank you, little one. I will never forget your kindness.” Also: He doesn’t make a “pull my finger” joke given that awkward handshake.

Bobby shakes two of Karrox’s fingers.“Giving presents on your birthday?” Eric says. “Bad policy.” I’m not sure that it is, really; the idea of giving things to people who are important to you on your birthday — in effect saying, “Hey, thanks for helping me live another year” — seems like it might be an intriguing way to realign some of our priorities. I mean, it may cause some hurt feelings if you don’t give gifts to certain people, but still, it would show who you valued. Also, it might be nice for people to reflect on what is important in their own lives on a non-commercially hijacked date every year.

But of course Dungeon Master has to emerge from the aether and be a jerk about it. “In that case, Cavalier, perhaps you ought not accept the gift Bobby gave you,” Dungeon Master says. “Your freedom.” Oh, go blow it out your ass, DM. That’s not a gift, given the nature of teamwork and camaraderie: Bobby had an obligation to try to free them. No one thanks Eric for the gift of saving them from harm with his shield, do they? No. Occasionally they mock him for it. Still, Dungeon Master’s line causes Eric to stammer while everyone laughs at him.

Karrox and Bobby are still shaking handsThe episode ends with Bobby and Karrox still shaking hands. Karrox must be the one maintaining the handshake, given his relative strength, but he has to know it’s getting weird, holding a kid’s hands for so long. Right? That’s weird, especially the strange grin on his face and the way both of them are looking at the camera.

And now, I will continue my policy of giving lessons:
  • Just because someone is a minion of an evil overlord doesn’t mean that person is automatically a male. Minions come in all genders.
  • When you’re a teenager in prison, you can lob whatever insults you like and not worry if they make sense. You’re a teenager in prison. The world should cut you some slack.
  • Having a mighty moustache does not mean you are good at planning prison escapes.
  • Fur Bikini Bros forge the tightest bonds.
  • Don’t get too old: if you do, your “guide” might not want to see you or your “golden hammer” any more.
  • High quality contracting is a must for the evil overlord.
  • Volcano lairs exist for their owners to destroy them.

Going home tally: No mention is made of getting back to our world. The kids have found two portals they’ve been unable to escape through.

Monster tally: One from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 22; FF 3, Dragon: 1.

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Three Things about ... the Dungeons & Dragons Gazetteer

10th Jun. 2016 | 11:42 am

Three things about the Dungeons & Dragons Gazetteer by Gary Holian, Erik Mona, Sean K. Reynolds, and Frederick Weining:

D&D Gazetteer cover
  1. The Distance: This book is 32 pages plus a map. It originally retailed for $10. I think the only reason it sold any copies is because it came out in September 2000, the same month as the Dungeon Master’s Guide and only one month after the first third edition volume, the Player’s Handbook. It had a narrow window in which to sell: the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer came out two months later, was six times as long, and sold for about $27. You had to take a cold look at yourself, I guess. Were there die-hard Greyhawk fans who couldn’t wait two months for the better product? If you didn’t shrug and move on, man, that sort of cash grab / capitalizing on fan eagerness would have to rankle, poisoning your thoughts toward Wizards of the Coast and / or D&D. WotC even suggests picking up the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer on the last page of the Gazetteer, which probably didn’t help.

  2. The Land: With only 32 pages, the Gazetteer gives only the barest bones about the places in Greyhawk. Again, you’re probably better off picking up the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer. On the other hand, if you don’t particularly care about Greyhawk, the bare outlines may contain some ideas for DMs to incorporate into their own campaigns, especially material from Chapter Four, “Geography,” and Chapter Five, “Power Groups.” The former gives a paragraph or two about several points of physical geography, such as bodies of water and mountains. The latter has about two pages on seven organizations, some of which — with the serial numbers filed off — could be useful. Neither is worth $10, though.

  3. The Map: Maps can be valuable, though. The Gazetteer includes a 16½" x 21½" pull-out map, tinted in muted colors. The labels and scale are clear, you can tell the land from the water, and the key is clear enough. But you know what I want on a map, more than anything in the whole wide world? It isn’t vibrant colors, it isn’t nice fonts, and it isn’t even a consistent scale. I want grid coordinates so I can find the damn country the gazetteer is referencing. Where is Ket? Rel Astra? Dyvers? I don’t know. Why don’t I spend five minutes trying to find the godsforsaken place on this map? The closest thing the book has to a finding aid is the map on the front cover; if you’re new to Greyhawk but the place you’re looking for is near Greyhawk or the Sean of Gearnat, you’re in luck. Otherwise — ha ha, sucker!

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Dungeons & Dragons #7: Prison without Walls

3rd Jun. 2016 | 11:44 am

Prison without Walls title cardOriginal air date: 29 October 1983
Writer: Steve Gerber

Steve Gerber! Man, he’s one of my favorite writers. This is Gerber’s only Dungeons & Dragons episode, and I’m really sad; “Prison without Walls” is excellent, and he has a real grasp on Eric’s character. Eric is often wrong, but his errors come from a reasonable place the other characters don’t understand, and Gerber gets that.

Gerber is best known for creating and writing Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics, but he was also the story editor for the first season of D&D. In addition, he created my favorite adventure cartoon of all time: Thundarr the Barbarian. If I get enough positive feedback on these recaps, maybe I’ll do the same sort of write-ups for Thundarr when I’m done with Dungeons & Dragons!

I’m kidding, of course. No one’s reading these, let alone giving feedback.

(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 “Prison without Walls” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Anyway, “Prison without Walls” is a wonderfully ominous title, and the episode delivers on the promise of that title and Gerber’s writing. It begins with another blasted wasteland, with the kids — once again — lost following Dungeon Master’s commands. Well, maybe following Dungeon Master’s commands; when Sheila asks Hank if he’s sure this is the way Dungeon Master said to go, Hank says, “I — I’m pretty sure.” Presto points out they haven’t seen a village all day, although I’m not sure why that’s important; Eric says they haven’t run across any food. If you can’t carry enough provisions for more than one day, I say it’s time for a new leader.

They come across a cave that has strange noises coming from it, and Diana wonders what’s inside. “Something that moans a lot,” Presto says, which is a perfect opening for a “Yo Mama” joke. Were “Yo Mama” jokes a thing white people knew about in 1983? Doesn’t matter. Someone should have introduced the concept here.

“Yeah, and probably something bigger and uglier that makes it moan,” Eric says, which is a good, not perfect, opening for a “That’s what she said” line. Honestly, it’s like these teenagers have never heard of innuendo.

Dungeon Master appears at this point, agreeing with Eric that there’s no way home through the cave. That’s a bad sign, of course. “A heartless dragon dwells in the Vale of Mists,” DM says, “and there is no portal to your world. … However, when the dragon’s heart is in the right place, it may show you the way home.” May, Dungeon Master says; it may serenade you with ukulele renditions of the “William Tell Overture” and the “Toreador Song” from Carmen. Who can tell?

Hank and Diana surprisedWhile the kids are working out what Dungeon Master means, they take their eyes off of him, and he’s gone. That’s another thing a good leader would do: assign someone to never take their eyes off Dungeon Master. The kids are shocked: “He’s gone!” Hank exclaims. This is the umpteenth time he’s done this to you, and you’re still surprised? You’re not big on learning through repetition, are you?

Eric says, “And I think we should follow his example.” That’s a guy who’s thinking tactically, but by some sort of reflex (although we can’t rule out mind control by Dungeon Master), the rest of the party heads for the moaning noise. “You’re going to regret this,” Eric says. “You’ll see.” Bobby is skeptical about the impending regret.

The kids blunder through the fog, which Presto compares to “peanut butter.” (I don’t think I want to know what Presto put on bread along with the jelly.) Hank calls for silence, then — not two seconds later — he falls off a cliff. Everyone follows him, tumbling after the great leader. Given the party’s groupthink, I’ve often thought each of them would answer “Yes” to the question “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” Now we have proof that they would — even Eric.

Dragon statue with an empty depression in its chestThe kids aren’t detected, though, and they spy another place where the local population has been enslaved. In this case, it’s Gnomes, not Dwarves, but it’s not like anyone can tell the difference until an Orc names them. The Vale of Mists has walls studded with “mystic gems,” which the Gnomes are mining, and in the middle of the vale is a giant dragon statue with a hole in its breast. Orcs whip the Gnomes into compliance, and Hank immediately blames Venger. Last time they saw Orcs, in “In Search of the Dungeon Master,” it was Warduke who controlled the Orcs, or at least seemed to. Hank is right about the Orcs’ allegiance this time, but I’m not sure he should have been.

(Geek aside: For some reason, I’ve never warmed to Gnomes as a race. They’ve always seemed like knock-off Dwarves. Yes, I know Gnomes existed in a mythic / folkloric sense before Dungeons & Dragons, but still. … Anyway, in the Monster Manual, Gnomes have wood-brown to gray-brown skin, and they live for 600 years. That’s a long time to be a slave! They also are “highly resistant to magic and poison,” which means they should be able to survive mine disasters and shouldn’t make good targets for Venger’s spells of enslavement.)

When one of the Orcs threatens to whip a prostrate Gnome, Bobby can’t remain passive. “Leave them alone, you big nerds!” he shouts as he charges. Nerds? I see no pocket protectors or calculus Orcs goggle at their broken swordsbooks. Besides, Bobby, you were the one who took a ride on a roller coaster named after the biggest nerd game of all.

So now comes the combat. This is usually where the writers and animators get creative about what the weapons can do, since the TV network’s Standards & Practices department won’t let the kids harm their opponents. But this time, the kids are allowed to use violence effectively without hurting the Orcs. Bobby destroys the sword blades of two Orcs who attack, leaving them amazed and frightened. I would be too; if Bobby’s club could do that to steel, what would it do to my body? And now the Orcs no longer have reach on the kid. They do the sensible thing and flee.

The Gnome Bobby rescued tells him to run: “You have no chance against all of them!” But they’re Orcs, you grubby little peasant, and the kids have figured out how to use their “weapons” as weapons. Hank fires explosive arrows, invisible Sheila ties up the Orc leader with his own whip, Diana breaks two more swords with her staff, and Eric defends Diana with his shield. (It would have been nice if his shield broke swords too, but I suppose that’s a bit monotonous. “Presto!” he shouts. When Presto responds with “Here!,” Eric says, “I’m not taking attendance, you Dwarf!” It’s a good line, but I have no idea why Eric calls Presto a Dwarf. He’s not short, like Bobby … maybe he’s referring to the stature of Presto’s intelligence or ability.

Orc in a Hawaiian shirt is ashamedPresto’s aid turns out to be a spell: “Ka-beeble, ka-zip: Send that Orc on a trip!” Purple energy shoots from his hat, transforming the Orc’s armor into a Hawaiian shirt and his sword into a ukulele, which does break on Eric’s shield. The Orc is deeply ashamed and runs away — frankly, I think the wound is a mortal one, and he’s running away to die from shame, unloved, in a dark corner. “Close enough,” Presto says about the deadly embarrassment he’s unleashed.

Hank’s ready to run with the Gnome they rescued, but the Gnome doesn’t want to go. The kids are baffled: “You might show a little gratitude,” Eric says. Not that he’s ever done it, but he’s heard it’s a thing people do. The gnome explains Venger’s spells prevents any Gnome from leaving the Vale.

“Maybe Presto’s magic can lift the spell,” Diana says. Diana, I would praise your optimism, but you’ve seen Presto: believing he can counter Venger’s magic isn’t optimism but blindly willful denial of reality. Presto agrees with me: “Yeah, right — and maybe you can lift a dump truck.” Ha!

The kids are told only the Spellbinder, Lukyon, can break the spell. Venger imprisoned him in the Swamp of Sorrow when Lukyon refused to divulge the secret of the dragon’s heart. Eric isn’t keen on any more “volunteer work,” but the kids see no other way to proceed: Since the dragon’s heart is supposed to be key to finding the way home, they need to find Lukyon.

When Hank asks where the Swamp of Sorrow is, the Gnome replies, “To the south, beyond the forest.” Evidently it’s not in the nature of anyone in the Realms to think in terms of distance or travel time. (This would explain the lack of cartography in the series: without distance, a map is a pile of random symbols jumbled around the paper.) Just … just head south. You’ll know it when you get there. I suppose it could be worse; the Gnome could have told him, “You can’t get there from here.”

The Gnome returns to face punishment from the Orcs and Venger. The kids cheerily wave goodbye. Try not to die under torture, Gnome guy we didn’t ask the name of!

***

Venger’s undercliff castleBack in Venger’s undercliff castle, which we also saw in “In Search of the Dungeon Master,” the interrogation of the Gnome begins. (If the Gnomes can’t leave the vale, how did he get here? I suppose Venger can relax the strictures he himself set.) The still unnamed Gnome pleads for mercy, dancing around exactly what he told the kids. Hearing the kids are searching for Lukyon makes Venger so mad he flexes his wings, but he decides to be merciful toward the Gnome and merely work him to death. Venger then sends Shadow Demon to the Swamp of Sorrow to spy on the kids; he’s hoping Shadow Demon will overhear the secret of the dragon’s heart. After Shadow Demon leaves, the Orc captain asks what happens if they don’t find Lukyon. “Then the swamp shall claim them,” he says, leaving their weapons behind.

***

When we come back to the swamp, we find Eric complaining about the Gnome’s information. “Not even Venger would build a prison in a mudhole like this,” he says. “It would sink right into the slime!”

Dungeon Master emerging from the log Eric is sitting on“Your reasoning is sound, Cavalier,” Dungeon Master says, emerging from a hollow log. I like to imagine him lying in there, just waiting for the kids to happen by — napping, carving things into the log with his fingernail, thinking of pointless tasks the kids can do for him someday. It just seems like a Dungeon Master way to do things: dirty, dark, and a waste of time.

Eric is shocked Dungeon Master agrees with him — twice in a single day, even. “Lukyon dwells in the saddest prison of all,” Dungeon Master says. We’ve already established the Realms are the worst prison for Eric, but that’s not the case here: “A prison without walls.” The kids, never the brightest bulbs and having the psychological depth of an inkstain, are baffled; once again, they turn their backs on Dungeon Master to express their bafflement, and he’s gone.

“Maybe he went home,” Eric says, “to his dungeon without floors.” It’s not a bad line, as such things go, but he’s then immediately attacked by a purple tentacled mushroom, which undercuts the impression the line makes. The kids are immediately surrounded and outnumbered by the grabby fungi, and their lack of teamwork — dare I say their lack of leadership? — means they are almost immediately captured.

Violet fungi surrounding the heroes (Geek aside: Violet fungi are, according to the Monster Manual, usually encountered next to shriekers. [Shriekers are motile mushrooms that aren’t dangerous in and of themselves, but they shriek when they detect light or movement, drawing other monsters to see what’s going on.] Violet fungi in the Monster Manual are more dangerous than they in the cartoon, as the tentacles tend to rot player characters’ flesh. They are four to seven feet tall — quite a bit taller than in the cartoon — and generally have fewer tentacles [“branches”].)

And then an oversized shambling mound — a giant plant monster — rumbles into the fight and starts destroying the fungi. He quickly tosses the kids to freedom and has little trouble with the fungi. One gets its feelers wrapped around the shambling mound’s body; the kids stand there, gawking, giving the shambling mound no help. Fortunately, it manages to deal with the final ‘shroom.

The shambling mound is acting like Man-Thing, a Marvel Comics character. Ted Sallis was a scientist until he was transformed into Man-Thing, a mucky, plant thing with only a dim flickering of sapience. (Although Gerber didn’t create Man-Thing, he was strongly identified with the character.) Man-Thing is somewhat heroic and empathic, and he reacts violently in the presence of strong emotions; his tagline is, “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch,” as whomever he touches bursts into flame if they are afraid. Since an eight- or ten-feet-tall muck monster is bound to inspire fear, he leaves a lot of flaming bodies in his wake.

With the shambling mound advancing, only Bobby has any faith that the shambling mound is their ally. “Nothing that ugly and smelly could be on our side!” Eric says, which leaves an obvious Bobby joke hanging in the air. No one picks it up, unfortunately. At Eric’s urging, Hank shoots the shambling mound, which doesn’t hurt it; it grows instead, turning into a giant-size Man-Thing. “This is terrible,” says Eric.

Eric’s arm disappears into the shambling moundDespite not seeming to harbor any malice against the kids, he advances toward them, and they scatter. The shambling mound advances on Eric, who trusts his shield; unfortunately, the shield sinks into the mound’s body. Presto pulls an oversized sprayer of weed killer from his hat but then immediately rejects it. Why would herbicide help against a plant monster, you moron? Hank realizes how useful it is and sprays the mound. Eric is released, the monster retreats, and the kids return to being mystified by the “prison without walls.” Also, Presto shoves the weed killer back in his hat, despite it being the only useful thing they have found against the shambling mound. Sound strategy, Presto.

(Geek aside: A shambling mound! The monster is one of my favorites, a creature from the Monster Manual that attacks fearlessly and incessantly. They are omnivorous, engulfing and suffocating (or bludgeoning) their prey. As shown in the cartoon, lightning causes them to grow, but spells that work against plants — plant control and charm plant are effective against them.)

***

The kids slog through the swamp, tired, dispirited, and mosquito-eaten. “I’m beginning to think we’ll never find Lukyon,” Diana says with a hitch in her voice. Yes, you’re right —give up now, and save face.

“Do not despair, my young adventurers,” Dungeon Master says, appearing out of nowhere and walking on water. He’s Jesus’s tiny, annoying brother! Or maybe he’s the Apostle Peter, who has finally learned not to be afraid. “You are closer to finding Lukyon than you think … [You will know him] by what he says without speaking.” He vanishes into a tussock of weeds, giving the kids a deadline.

“I’m really confused now,” Sheila says. I’m shocked, shocked I say!

Swamp shackThe next day, the kids find a decrepit swamp shack, which Bobby labels “creepy.” Damn suburbanite kids — just because no one felt compelled to maintain the place to meet your personal architectural criteria doesn’t mean you should feel free to turn up your nose at it. It is — or used to be — someone’s home, you pretentious little twits.

“Do you think this could be the prison without walls?” Diana asks. Hank doesn’t know, while Sheila doesn’t think it looks like a prison. It’s hard for me to type this while screaming it at my TV, but what I think disqualifies the shack from being “a prison without walls” is the presence of walls. They may be moisture damaged or rotten, but they still exist. So if it has walls, it’s unlikely to be a prison without walls. Is that clear?

Anyway, the kids’ distaste doesn’t stop them from barging right in and making themselves to home. Eric flops down on the bed, and he’s immediately attacked by a zombie, who says, “My bed.” The rest of the kids are attacked by zombies as well, with one zombie getting both Diana and Presto in one bear hug. (This is a good point to note that D&D zombies, as I mentioned in “In Search of the Dungeon Master,” don’t spread a zombie virus.) Teamwork has always been the kids’ bane; they always get picked off individually, and this is no exception. Things aren’t helped by Hank’s arrow having no effect.

What does help things is the shambling mound’s return. Eric isn’t enthused — “Oh, no,” he says, “Mr. Muckball again” — but once the party is outside, the shambler brings down the roof on the zombies, and the shack sinks into the swamp. Diana realizes they have been saved again by the shambling mound, but when he approaches them, they believe he has turned on them again. Hank threatens the shambler with an arrow, then realizes what Dungeon Master meant by one of his riddles: “What he says without speaking” means that saving the kids from violet fungi and zombies says more than the words coming out of their mouth flaps. Eric thinks Hank’s crazy, but it turns out Hank’s right: the shambling mound is Lukyon.

Shambling mound gestures to the kidsThe kids decide to follow Lukyon, but Eric thinks they’re crazy. “You’re not going to trust a mound of killer crabgrass?” Eric cries, then sees everyone is. “Outvoted again.” It’s charming that Eric thinks he’s in some sort of democracy, when he’s actually in a mobile commune. Soon the party will have to decide whether it’s time for Eric’s re-education, and I think Eric will be unpleasantly surprised by the way the groupthink goes.

The kids follow Lukyon — boy, am I glad I don’t have to type “shambling mound” any more — to a hollow tree. The Keebler Elves have been hard at work here, although instead of cookies, the tree is filled with enchanted items: a few potions, a book, a gem. “Wow, it’s magic stuff,” Presto says, showing why he’s the wizard of the party. Magic stuff. Odin the All-Father, Presto. Eric accuses the shambling mound of eating Lukyon and stealing his stuff, and Hank treats this accusation with the respect it deserves: “Wise up, Eric.”

Hank admires the simplicity of Venger transforming Lukyon into a monster: he is unrecognizable, and he can’t cast any magic. “He’s in a, uh, prison without walls!” Diana says. Thanks for giving us the episode title and helping the slower viewers, Diana! Now if you’d just look around and see the prison without walls the patriarchy put you in, forced to wear a fur bikini and listen to what white guys tell you what to do.

Presto with a gem as his friends look onPresto draws a previously unseen wand from the tree as Lukyon takes the purple gem from him. The gem pulses — which Presto thinks is “gross” — but it does lead Presto to realize it’s “beating, like … like a heart!” Nice job, Presto, but it’s Sheila who first says it’s the Heart of the Dragon. (Or maybe it’s Uni, who bleats in between Presto and Sheila’s pronouncements. Maybe Sheila can understand unicorns like she can sprites; it amuses me that the most useless character might be stealing the ideas of the most annoying and taking credit for them.)

Lukyon wants Presto to use his wand to do magic on him, which is a good way to be disappointed. (Also, in our world, asking a teenager to use your wand and do magic is a good way to get arrested by police and thrown out of polite society, especially if a white panel van is involved.) Presto thinks he’ll mess the spell up, turning Lukyon into “a bullywug or something,” but Hank does the leaderly thing and encourages him to try. (Diana and Eric guilt him instead.) Surprisingly, the spell goes as planned, although Presto speaks no magic words, and the magic seems to flow entirely from the gem and wand. This suggests either Lukyon’s found some heavy-duty magic items, or Dungeon Master gave Presto the wrong hat.

The spell puts Lukyon back in his gnomish body, looking a lot like Dungeon Master with more hair — he’s even got those creepy long fingers. On his hat is the Viking rune odal, which according to Wikipedia means “heritage or inheritance.” Lukyon reclaims his wand and tells the kids he’ll show them the way home after the Gnomes are freed. He then teleports the kids back to the Valley of the Dragon. Shadow Demon watches their escape, then reports to Venger.

***

Orcs surrounded by white energyLukyon and the kids appear in front of the dragon statue. Lukyon casts a spell that briefly looks like he made the Orcs explode; instead, he just caged them in magic energy. He tells the Gnomes they are free, but instead of escaping, they decide to celebrate. Stupid. With that out of the way, though, Eric asks to be shown the way home. Fortunately, the four suns are in conjunction, and Lukyon installs the gem into the depression in the dragon statue’s chest. “So that’s why it’s called the Heart of the Dragon,” Sheila says. For Jormungandr’s sake, Sheila: There’s stating the obvious, and there’s letting your thoughts dribble out of your mouth with no filter. I think this is the latter.

The light of the solar conjunction hits the Heart of the Dragon, and the light spreads out to all the gems in the walls of the Valley, which reflects the light even further. “Wow,” Bobby says, “a giant map!”

Lights connecting gems in vale’s walls“Of the whole universe!” Hank says. Wait, what now? How did you jump to this conclusion? All I see is the universe’s greatest Laser Floyd show. But Lukyon agrees with Bobby and Hank: this is a map, and each “point of light” (gem?) is a gateway to another world. That would make it a multiversal map, but let’s face it: Hank was doing pretty well with his guess. But before Lukyon can respond to Eric’s demand to point them to their world, Venger arrives and animates the giant statues in the valley. (These are similar to golems, but I think he’s just animating them with a spell.)

Lukyon and Venger battle while the kids are left to take care of the statues. Uni is caught (and somehow not crushed) by one statue that continues to heedlessly stomp the Gnomish town. Hank stands with his bow cocked, but for some reason, he doesn’t fire. Wouldn’t want to waste that inexhaustible supply of energy arrows! Bobby calls for Uni to teleport, and shockingly, it does, for the first time since “The Valley of the Unicorns.”

Hank’s arrows don’t do much good, but the statue tries to crush him anyway. Hank rolls out of the way — well, I think he does. The statue seems to crush him, and then we cut to another shot of him rolling away. While he, Diana, and Sheila flee, Venger sends Lukyon running and frees his Orc minions.

Statue falling over ball bearingsThis is the nearly hopeless part of the battle, then, and Presto reaches into his hat, hoping to find more than a pool of desperation and a brim soaked with flop sweat. Surprisingly, Presto yanks out a ball of energy that turns into a cannon. Although Presto is proud, Eric points out the pointlessness of a cannon without ammunition. Presto reaches in and gets a handful of ball bearings this time. Yes! Give them a whiff of grapeshot, Presto! But no, Presto acts as if ball bearings are useless, throwing the bearings aside and reaching into his hat for … the cannonball? But all he keeps coming out with is more ball bearings. Eric thinks these are useless too, but we all know what happens when something large steps on ball bearings — they fall down, go boom. That’s what happens here, and the statue shatters as it falls. “I guess we don’t need the cannonball, eh, Eric?” Presto says, in the tone of someone who is fruitlessly trying to get an acquaintance to acknowledge how great a joke is. C’mon, Presto: you need to use your tone of voice to let Eric know how much contempt you have for him. Laughter won’t always be able to cut through Eric’s armor.

Bobby decides to use the cannon, though. He whacks the gun with his club, and the barrel hits the remaining statue in the middle of the chest, destroying it instantly. It’s a frightening display of power and strategy, one that gives a glimpse of what Bobby might be able to do one day. Bobby celebrates, but Eric points out they still have to deal with Venger.

Venger being enveloped by spell energyLukyon deflects Venger’s spell, but it has no effect on the villain. Another deflection takes out part of the valley wall. The explosion triggers magical backlash, which surrounds Venger in a cage of energy; while he’s immobilized, Lukyon seemingly discorporates him again. Bobby asks if Venger’s gone for good, which is a dumb question. Of course he isn’t: “His own power and that of the Dragon’s Heart have banished him only for the moment,” Lukyon says.

“At least we won’t be around when he gets back,” Eric says, hoping to finally get out from under Dungeon Master’s thumb in this stupid proxy war. Unfortunately, the part of the multiversal map that could show where the kids’ world is was blown up in the battle. Lukyon apologizes, but Eric shakes the Gnome angrily. “What do you know about sorry?” he says. Hank stops Eric with a hand on the shoulder, and Eric deflates. It’s a nice bit of actual emotion from Eric — it could have been any of the kids, but Eric makes the most sense, I guess. Who wouldn’t be frustrated after the runaround Dungeon Master and the magical establishment of the Realms have given the kids?

Dispirited party walks awayAs the kids solemnly walk toward the camera, Presto wonders if they will ever get out of the Realms. “You will one day, Magician,” Dungeon Master says. “With each rare deed, you grow more worthy. You will be rewarded, in time.”

I think, as teenagers in a strange world, forced to do good deeds or lose their only ally, they are more than worthy. Rather than question Dungeon Master’s morality, Eric is frustrated with having to wait: “In time for what? Our retirement?”

“Patience, Cavalier,” Dungeon Master says. “Patience!” Why don’t you give them white robes now, Dungeon Master, and let them know that only the breaking of the Seventh Seal will send them home?

Thus endeth the lesson. “Prison without Walls” teaches us this:

  • A lack of understanding of innuendo is not the same as virtue.
  • A good wizard doesn’t blame his tools, but if he’s not very good, maybe he should seek out some better wizarding equipment.
  • The ethics of using herbicide on sentient plants are perhaps more complex than we would initially think.
  • Any architectural impossibility, like a “prison without walls,” is likely to be a metaphorical expression or a magical construct. A badly constructed hovel is unlikely to be the answer.
  • Bobby is frightening when allowed to cut loose against non-sentient objects.
  • There will always be some short demi-humans around for you to bestow patronizing paternalism on. Gnomes and Dwarves can’t be heroes — they have to wait around for humans!

Going home tally: Another lead is blown up before they can find it. This is the third time a lead hasn’t panned out. They’ve found two portals they’ve been unable to escape through.

Monster tally: Two from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 21; FF 3, Dragon: 1.

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Three things about ... Savage Species

27th May. 2016 | 01:27 pm

Three things about Savage Species by David Eckelberry, Jennifer Clarke Wiles, Rich Redman, and Sean K. Reynolds:

Savage Species cover
  1. Powergamer’s delight: The express purpose of Savage Species is to lay out rules for monster PCs. Although I know some roleplayers really would love to play a monster as a character, the entire purpose of Savage Species seemed like a bad idea, an excuse for powergamers to find another way to tilt the numbers in their favor. That pretty much holds for any supplement, I suppose, since players don’t pay money for books that make their characters less powerful. Savage Species tries to balance the awesome abilities some monsters have with handicaps, but I don’t think they’ll really work. Who cares if you can never go into a town if you can psionically blast people and eat their brains, like an illithid?

    Two of the prestige classes seem to back up that idea. The first, emancipated spawn, is a horrible idea, as the prestige class allows characters to gain a massive power spike within a few levels. The three-level prestige class lets undead characters regain all the class levels (and powers therein) the character had before becoming undead upon completing the prestige class’s third level. The illithid savant is almost as bad; by eating selected brains, the illithid can gain feats, skills, class features, and special attacks from other creatures. As if being an illithid isn’t powerful enough!

  2. Tool of the ruling classes: If the DM can keep Savage Species out of the hands of the players, it can be a useful guide. The book has charts that allow the DM to scale down certain monsters, giving DMs a chance to throw monsters at the players that normally would be too powerful. The illithid savant prestige class (and others like it) gives DMs the opportunity to go the other way, scaling certain monsters up in a way that maintains a monster’s distinctive flavor without simply making it bigger. And there are new templates that can allow the DM to build new monsters the players won’t recognize, even if the power levels aren’t changed much. (There’s also a four-page chapter about how to run a monster campaign, but c’mon — it’s four pages.)

    Really, any book that gives the DM so many chances to fool players has something going for it.

  3. For the howling masses: So if you’re not a powergamer or a DM, what’s in it for you? Like most supplements, Savage Species has chapters that can apply to almost any character: feats, spells, equipment, prestige classes. The equipment is mainly built for monsters, though, and there are only one or two prestige classes a non-monster can use. (That’s one or two more than I thought there would be.) The feats likewise have a narrowed focus, although there are a lot of them. The spells can be useful, though; many are useful for only monsters, but some are geared to take out monsters, and some are just plain useful.

    Still, more than a quarter of the book is taken up with an appendix on “monster classes,” which allows you to take more than 50 monsters from pathetic to their equivalent class level (the same power level Monster Manual entries describe). DMs might like it, but for everyone else, that’s useless space. If you didn’t fall into one of the first two groups, you probably didn’t need this book.

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