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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 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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Dungeons & Dragons #6: Beauty and the Bogbeast

20th May. 2016 | 03:12 pm

Beauty and the Bogbeast title cardOriginal air date: 22 October 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

Ugh, this one.

“Beauty and the Bogbeast” is the most anti-Eric episode of them all, which is saying quite a lot. Everybody gets a chance to laugh at Eric this time around. Does he deserve it? I’m not going to say he doesn’t; he’s a spoiled, occasionally self-righteous white male teenager. Everyone who falls into more than a couple of those categories deserves to be mocked now and then. But Hank also falls into most of those categories, and he never gets called on anything he does wrong. And Presto — Presto! — Presto tried to sell the party out numerous times last episode. I don’t approve of bullying, but I might’ve overlooked it if someone had given him an atomic wedgie or snicker-snagged on him. Why is it only Eric who gets grief?

(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 “Beauty and the Bogbeast” 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 camera pans over a volcanic landscape — a nice anime trick from Toei, the animation company — as the kids watch something invisible trudge over the hot lava. They are lying in wait for whatever horrible thing is trudging over liquid stone like it was nothing, and they are so concerned they’ve resorted to using teamwork. The party is split into three: Hank and Diana on one side of the path, Sheila and Bobby with Uni on the other, and Eric and Presto at the end. They fear what’s coming, even though Presto admits they don’t know what it is. When he asks Eric his opinion, Eric says it’s probably “something awful.”

Dungeon Master sitting on a rockAnd he’s right! It’s Dungeon Master. All that planning — someone’s head is probably overheating from coming up with that simple ambush — and they’re not even going to fight. Instead, they’re going to listen to someone who cares less for their well-being than most monsters. “Nothing like a stroll over hot lava to soothe the feet,” Dungeon Master says, taunting the kids with their human limitations.

Dungeon Master says he’s “discovered” a way for the kids to get back home. The kids are overjoyed, of course, showing they still fail to realize Dungeon Master’s leads are never straightforward or fruitful. When Dungeon Master says it’s not so easy as pointing the way home, Sheila whines, “I knew it. There’s always a catch.”

Sheila, please, you didn’t know any such thing. But Dungeon Master says it’s not a catch: It’s a river. “You must find the river that rains upside down,” he tells them. Technically, that’s not a catch. Eric says, “I think his brains are upside down.” Not your best putdown, Eric — keep working at it.

Dungeon Master says for 60 seconds every year, a certain river flows upward. During this time, the river will take the kids wherever they want to go. “But where will we find this river?” Diana whines. Ah, Diana has found the catch — Dungeon Master won’t tell them. But before he disappears (he doesn’t even have the decency to walk around a rock; he just teleports away when the camera’s not on him), he tells them, “Beware: you must never touch the beauty that breathes the beast.”

Eric doesn’t want to leave until Dungeon Master explains the riddle, but the other kids are more than happy to head off down the path. Eric is persuaded to follow by a magma hot foot. The musical score gives him a sad trumpet blat as his principles are overwhelmed by exigencies.

It doesn’t take long before they reach a fork in the road, and Sheila sounds defeated by having to make a decision: “Oh, great! Which way do we go now?” You know, Eric gets all sorts of crap for his (admittedly) bad attitude, but at least he’s isolated the root cause of his problems: Dungeon Master. When Sheila whines about minor difficulties, she sounds totally lost, and no one ever points out how unhelpful she’s being.

“Whichever path we take will be the wrong one,” Eric says. Pessimism probably isn’t helpful either, but I’m not sure he’s wrong. Bobby has a bright idea: split the party to take both paths.

Oh, come on. You never split the party: That’s Dungeons & Dragons 101. Every D&D party learns early on that splitting the party is a recipe for disaster, and given that this is the kids’ sixth adventure, they should know that dividing into two groups is an awful idea. But Diana seizes upon the plan, taking Eric and Presto down one path while the rest takes the other.

Soon, Bobby is using his club to hack through jungle vines. Putting aside the swift change of landscape from blasted volcanic wasteland to overgrown jungle — sure, why not? — I’m betting the kids wish Dungeon Master had given them a magic sword, or maybe a magic machete. (Magic Agent Orange?) “Are you sure we’re still on the path, Hank?” Sheila asks

“The only thing I’m sure of is I’m not sure of anything,” Hank says. Remind me again — why is Hank the leader? Is it his blond hair? Blue eyes? Ranged weapon? Age? I’m not going to be so crass as to say it has anything to do with his pale skin and penis (I presume he has one), but, well, you know …

To interrupt that line of thought, Bobby’s club clangs off “a metal wall.” “What’s it doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” Sheila asks. There are many reasonable answers to that question, mostly doing with abandoned cities and lost civilizations, but this is Dungeons & Dragons: even in the cartoon, the unexpected is out to kill you.

Iron golemAnd of course, this is as well. “I don’t like the look of this,” Hank says, as he pulls off the vines to reveal a foot. It’s a gigantic metal statue (actually, an abnormally large iron golem), clad only in sandals, a helmet, and briefs. (Did its creator give it underwear, or did the statue learn shame and construct them himself?) It quickly comes to life: “Who goes there?”

“Bobby the Barbarian,” Bobby says. “And who are you?” I have to give the kid points for chutzpah and for politeness, both of which the statue lacks. He doesn’t answer; instead, he comes stomping after the kids. Bobby and Uni fall. Sheila uselessly rushes back to save them, but they’re already in the golem’s hand. “Golem destroy intruders,” it says.

(Geek aside: The iron golem is one of four golems described in the Monster Manual (the others are clay, flesh, and stone golems). A golem is created by a wizard using the building material mentioned in the golem’s type, “ultra-powerful spells, and elemental forces.” The golem in the cartoon is much too tall; iron golems are usually around 12 feet tall. They follow a magic-user’s commands and can breathe poisonous gas every seven rounds.)

Bobby is less than impressed: Even standing on the golem’s hand with Uni, he’s ready to strike it with his club. I imagine even with a magic club, he’s going to do about the same amount of damage when he gets swatted as a fly holding a tiny bologna sandwich would do when I swat it. (Don’t worry about where it got the tiny bologna sandwich; there’s places that sell them, I’ve seen them, no, really, I swear I have, honest to Nergal.) But Bobby threatens to do a “Steve Garvey number” on the golem’s nose.

Wait — Steve Garvey? I accused the writers / characters of having an LA bias in the previous episode, but even a Dodgers fan could think of a better thumper than Garvey, who was a high average hitter with only decent power in his best years. By the time this cartoon came out, he’d lost most of what power he once possessed, and only once in his career did he have the sort of power you like to see out of a first baseman. Of his teammates on the ‘82 Dodgers (the year before this cartoon came out), three of his teammates had higher slugging percentages and hit more home runs; Pedro Guerrero hit twice the homers Garvey did, and he’d been a better power hitter than Garvey for three years (albeit two in a part-time role). In ‘83, when Garvey was in his first year with the San Diego Padres, six Dodgers hit more homers than Garvey, although only one had a higher slugging percentage (Guerrero, of course). Garvey was second in homers and first in slugging on the Padres, but the Padres were a .500 team then.

I don’t know. Maybe Bobby wanted to single the golem to death.

Anyway, Hank deals with the impending swatting the only way he knows how: with his bow. Frankly, that’s the only way he knows how to deal with anything. One day his feelings for Sheila are going to overwhelm him, and, well … I don’t think any of us want to be around when that happens.

Bobby and Uni ride an energy arrow“Magic bow, don’t fail me now!” Hank shouts as he fires. Like a good plot contrivance, the energy arrow scoops up Bobby and Uni just before the golem swats his hands together. Bobby and Uni ride the arrow up into the air, and no one is troubled about where they’ll land or the arrows’ disturbing proclivity to disappear after a while.

The golem turns its attention to Sheila and Hank. After Sheila tells Hank the golem is indestructible, Hank says, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” and fires at the insides of the golem’s feet. Hank, a word of advice: you can’t just force catchphrases. They have to happen organically. Otherwise, you get things like “Wubba-lubba-dub-dub”, and you do not have the charisma to pull that off.

Iron golem falls to pieces.Suddenly the arrows produce a lot of heat, and the golem’s feet become welded together. Sheila taunts the golem (she calls it “tin breath”), it tries to follow her, golem fall over go boom, breaking into large pieces. Despite the golem’s parts covering what looks like dozens of acres, somehow Hank and Sheila (and Bobby and Uni, somehow returned to Earth) aren’t crushed.
Sheila wonders what it was guarding; Bobby essentially shrugs and says, “Maybe that upside-down river thing?” Spoiler: It was not guarding any upside-down river things. The kids climb to the top of the golem’s chest and see that they’re going into the desert next. The jungle-adjacent desert, which has no transition zone.

***

Meanwhile, Diana, Eric, and Presto have found a river. When Eric wonders whether it’s the river that rains upside down, Presto stands on his head to look at it. Fortunately, his robes don’t fall around his chest; I don’t think anyone is prepared to see Presto’s junk, and I think one panty flash (Sheila in the first episode) is enough — more than enough — for the entire series. Eric looks at Presto sadly, expressing pity for anyone who thought that was a good idea, and tells Presto to “quit clowning.”

The Beauty flowerDiana finds a flower, “the prettiest flower I’ve ever seen.” Eric negs the flower’s beauty, but only so he can praise his mother’s gardens. The flower is garish — impressively garish, I must admit, but still garish. A thought forcefully strikes Presto, evidently giving him a concussion; he realizes the flower must be the beauty Dungeon Master warned them about, but he can’t get the warning out of his addled mind in time. The flower exhales its pollen, and Eric is transformed into a bogbeast.

(Geek aside: Bogbeasts are made up for this cartoon. They don’t appear in any of the hardcover books. Why didn’t they use bullywugs or another example of low-level monster fodder? Perhaps the writer didn’t want us to have any sympathy for those monsters. I’m not sure why; showing that some of those monsters can be good would give the heroes an excuse not to have to fight all the time.)

Diana and Presto fall over themselves laughing. Even before Eric realizes what’s happened, he says, “Some friends you are.” And that’s before he knows the full extent of their jerkitude! He also calls them “twerps,” which I agree with. If my friends are going to laugh at me, I want them to laugh behind my back.

Presto smiles at Eric’s predicamentOnce Eric realizes what’s gone wrong (and Presto calls him “disgusting” — not “disgusting looking,” but “disgusting”), he demands Presto change him back. Oh, Eric … your brains must be addled to think Presto will be able to do anything to help. Even after Presto stops laughing and wipes the shit-eating grin off his face, his efforts to change Eric back are more harmful than doing nothing. He changes Eric into a bogbeast drag act; when Eric threatens him, Presto says, “Relax! I’m just warming up!” That’s true; his screw-ups get more impressive, turning Eric into a bogbeast / dragon hybrid that breathes fire before accidentally changing Eric back into a straight bogbeast.

That’s when Dragon Master shows up: “I see you did not heed my warning,” he says, gloating. If you wanted to warn them about a magic flower, then why, for the love of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, did you not say the word “flower”? Nice job outwitting a teenager, jackass.

When Eric pleads for Dungeon Master’s help, Dungeon Master unsurprisingly says no, waving his E.T.-like fingers as he does so. “I did not create this spell, Cavalier,” he claims. “Therefore, I cannot undo it.” I’m pretty sure Dungeon Master will undo spells he didn’t cast in this … Wait. Dungeon Master points a fingerMaybe he doesn’t. Come to think of it, Dungeon Master might be the laziest man in the Realms. Other than when Warduke captured him, I can’t remember Dungeon Master casting spells. Instead of a spell, DM gives Eric a warning (“If you do not undo the spell soon, you will remain a bogbeast forever”) and another riddle: the way to undo the spell will be found “in what you dislike the most.”

We all saw how well the last riddle went, so good luck, Eric. Again, Dungeon Master disappears while the camera is distracted with a reaction shot from Eric. Diana’s idea is “what you dislike the most is being a bogbeast,” so Presto suggests finding more bogbeasts to break the spell. That’s stupid — obviously Eric hates the Realms the most.

***

Under the one sun that illuminates this particular desert, Sheila, Hank, and Bobby are suffering from the heat and lack of water. Sheila shows she’s not quite up on how deserts work when she claims, “There has to be water around here somewhere.” No, there doesn’t; it’s a desert. Bobby and Uni simultaneously spot a mirage of water, and Uni crashes face-first into it. Ha ha!

“If I don’t find something to drink soon,” Sheila complains, “I’m going to dry up and blow away.” Three things strike me about that statement:
  1. You’ve been in the desert for a few hours. You honestly can’t keep from complaining for that long?
  2. Nice job of provisioning, Hank. Why do the others (and, implicitly, Dungeon Master) let you lead? The three of you don’t even have enough water for less than a day in the desert? How do you survive from day to day? Lilies of the field, that’s what you are.
  3. The double standard here enrages me. Eric’s complaints are met with scorn and gibes. When someone like Sheila or Presto complains, no one says word one. (Bobby can complain, if he likes. He’s just a kid.)
Hank’s answer to Sheila is to jerk his arm around his waist. No, honestly — his “bow” begins twitching, and he can’t keep his hands off it. Bobby thinks the bow is trying to point out where the water is, and Hank smiles and agrees, glad to have an explanation for the masturbatory metaphor he’s enacting. He fires an arrow straight into the air, and it falls back to earth because as we all know, energy arrows are as affected by gravity like normal arrows. Right? That’s how physics works — beams of light fall right back to the earth if you point them straight up. That’s why you don’t see a dot on the moon when you point a laser pointer at it.

ExplosionWhen the arrow hits the earth, it explodes, and everyone’s pulled into the crater. “I don’t understand it,” Hank says, full of admirable if misplaced sangfroid as he’s pulled into a sandy hole in the ground. “That bow’s never let me down before.” Sooner or later, Hank, you’re going to learn you can’t be led around by your dick — I mean, bow — all the time. It’ll get you in trouble eventually. In this case, you all get pulled into the earth …

And fall at least 100 yards into the Land of the Lost. After landing in two feet of water and surviving without any injuries, those three (and Uni) may be functionally immortal. (How I wish Uni had broken a leg, and Hank would have had to put him down.) The fall does seem to scramble Sheila’s brain a bit, as she starts talking using Bobby’s voice. The group is then menaced by a pack of Sleestaks.

No, actually, it’s more bogbeasts. Although the kids are afraid of the bogbeasts, the bogbeasts are terrified when Bobby yells at them, unable to flee fast enough. “We mean you no harm,” Hank says after he pulls one of them from the bushes. (Despite the failure of “We come in peace” last episode, Hank hasn’t learned anything about not using movie lines.) The bogbeast tells the kids that they fell into the ol’ fishin’ hole and accuses the kids of being sent by Kawamung, who has dammed the river to drive the bogbeasts away. Bobby wonders why the bogbeasts don’t gang up on Kawamung, evidently forgetting he was able to rout the entire tribe by screaming.

Snake’s head rising from the swampBack in the swamp, Diana is still mocking Eric when they and Presto are attacked by a … a giant snake of some sort. Not very distinctive, and given that Eric ran away from a normal snake last episode, not necessary. The three run but get stuck in a hole in the swamp. Slowly, they are drawn under. Want to guess where they end up?

(Geek aside: Yes, several varieties of giant snakes are listed in the Monster Manual. No, none of them are worth talking about.)

Among the bogbeasts, Hank tries to get a feel for the situation. The bogbeasts’ representative says they’ll attack when their leader shows up. He reads from the “sacred scroll”: “Him like us, but not like us. Say him drop from sky. Lead us to victory over Kawamung.” Given that they live underground, do they really have a sky? Or does “sky” just mean the cavern roof? In any event, I’m not going to waste time with this prophecy because we all know it means Eric. Sheila mocks the bogbeasts’ half-assed religion by smugly whispering to Hank, “Something tells me are about as smart as they are handsome.” Oh, like you should be casting aspersions of people’s intelligence, Sheila.

That’s the cue for the rest of the group to drop in, of course, making the same fall as the others and suffering as many injuries (i.e., none). Presto, Diana, and Eric at least fall on some shrubbery, though. The bogbeasts recognize Eric as their leader before he can explain to Hank, Sheila, and Bobby what happened. “Now these guys know a born leader when they see one,” Eric says as the bogbeasts make obeisance to him.

The bogbeasts offer Eric a trident decorated with a bow and tell him he will lead them to victory over Kawamung. Where did they get that ribbon? I know it’s the universal sign of “gift,” but it’s not like the bogbeasts, a subsistence agricultural society, would waste time making ribbons. Was it a trade good that somehow found its way to the bogbeasts? Did it wash up as some sort of riverine effluvium? Is it an heirloom, worth more than the trident itself?

A Bogbeast presents Eric with a tridentEric is confused, and by more than the ribbon. Sheila fills him in, telling Eric the story and letting us know Kawamung is an ogre. (Must have been mentioned to her between scenes.) Eric wants nothing to do with leading an army, telling Sheila they should call the Department of Water and Power if they’re having trouble with their water supply. Hank says, “We can’t just let these guys starve,” but I think they probably could. It’s not like the bogbeasts are going to do anything about it. Eric is reluctantly persuaded to help when the bogbeasts reveal the dammed river is the river that rains upside down. Eric also wants assurances the bogbeasts will turn him back to normal, but the head bogbeast tells him he is normal.

The kids and bogbeasts march on the dam. Eric wonders how they’re going to defeat the ogre with a bunch of “losers like this”; the head bogbeast says they need to remove his magic medallion, the source of all his powers — and hopefully his stupid name as well. But why did they wait until they were almost into battle before sharing this bit of info? Didn’t the kids try to get a sense of the situation at all before they not only throw themselves into the battle but also an entire tribe?

“Holy moly,” Bobby says from his advance post. “That dude looks real mean.” And he does, too. Kawamung and his whipHe’s whipping a small group of Dwarves — do Dwarves exist on this show only to serve as slaves? — to produce weapons for him. The damming serves to power his weapons factory. Presto says, “He’s probably getting ready to attack the bogbeasts,” but I’m not sure that’s true. I think the bogbeasts are incidental to his plans. He has no army to arm with the weapons, and he’d be a fool to give competent Dwarves real weapons they could use on him. I think Kawamung is an unscrupulous, primitive capitalist, and he’s going to make a lot of money on those weapons.

Of course the hive-minded kids would have a problem with such ruthless capitalism. It’s weird … I’ve known about bogbeasts for only a few moments, and I already want to push them around. But Kawamung hasn’t! He’s just dammed a river, causing hardship among them. The bogbeasts could do something about it, but they don’t. Meanwhile, a tribe of Dwarves are being forced into slavery, and the kids don’t seem that upset about it! For some reason, forcing a tribe of nitwits to relocate is a more heinous crime than slavery. Bizarre.

Keeping Eric and the bogbeasts in reserve, the kids institute a plan to steal the medallion. As Kawamung states his plan — “I want those weapons done so we can drive the bogbeasts out of the valley for good!” — Sheila makes her way invisibly to the river. (I guess he really does plan to arm the Dwarves. I don’t think he’s very smart either.) Sheila reveals herself, and Hank uses his magic bow to steal the medallion — the arrow just takes it right off his chest and returns it to Hank. When Hank gloats, though, the ogre reveals the medallion was just an illusion. Ha ha, kids!

(Geek aside: Ogres are what adventurers graduate to killing after orcs, bugbears, and other low-level minions become too easy. They are tall, primitive humanoids whose turn-ons include treasure and plundering; their turn-offs include adventurers and swords in the guts. The Monster Manual adds, “The hide of ogres varies from dull blackish-brown to dead yellow. Rare specimens are a sickly violet in color.”)

KawamungKawamung uses his medallion to fire a heat ray at Hank. He misses, blowing up a tree. The rest of the kids and the reserves move up, but when Kawamung uses his medallion to hit the bogbeasts with a freeze ray, the rest of the bogbeasts lose their taste for battle. Sheila tries to steal the amulet while invisible, but she can’t break the rope holding it on his neck. (A knife or something else with a blade would have helped there, but like kindergartners and those on suicide watch, the kids aren’t allowed sharp things.) Kawamung grabs her and removes her cloak. Bobby knocks over a tree at him, but it falls short. Kawamung responds with a heat ray, but Eric steps in front of it with his shield and reflects it back at the ogre, who drops Sheila as he writhes in pain.

Eric, who is most important person in this battle, rallies his bogbeast troops, which has less effect than throwing spitwads at Kawamung but is still more than what the others have accomplished. Kawamung routs them with a shout, though. This means we’ve come to the low point in the battle: the point where the kids have to rely on Presto. “Hocus pocus, abracadabra, et cetera et cetera!” he cries, obviously giving up halfway through the spell. He draws forth a Frisbee from his hat. Frustrated, he gives a mighty heave, and the Frisbee lands in the weapons factory’s gears. Within a few seconds, the works have not only stopped, but the dam has broken. Presto channels his inner Urkel a half decade early, saying, “Did I do that?” I hope Jaleel White shows up and slaps you around for that, Presto.

The now-flowing river is flowing up a waterfall, and the kids are overjoyed — well, the ones that Kawamung hasn’t captured. He has Sheila, Bobby, and Uni in his hands, and he’s outraged at what has happened to his land improvements: “Put back that dam or you’ll never see your friends again!” Put back that dam? Did Kawamung not see the dam being constructed? His engineering knowledge is poor, although I suppose the Realms doesn’t have too many advanced civil engineering programs.

(The bogbeasts near Kawamung are also panicking, but that might be because they’re looking up his skirt.)

Diana springs into action: “Cover me, Hank!” While Hank fires arrows across Kawamung’s chest, Diana pole vaults toward the ogre. She lands on his shoulder, yanks on his ear (for distraction or a handhold, I don’t know), then pulls the medallion until the strap snaps. Poor tactical choice there, Kawamung, keeping your hands full of hostages. Kawamung shrinks, turning into a bogbeast, whom the Dwarves pursue off-screen to exact bloody vengeance.

The kids ride a log up a waterfallDiana thinks the medallion is the solution to Eric’s problems: “If this medallion could change that bogbeast into Kawamung, maybe it could change you into you.” You mean “change that bogbeast into an ogre”; I don’t think that bogbeast / ogre has the brainpower to choose a new name. Eric’s not interested; the portal opens for only a minute, and he’s not going to be on the Realms side when it closes because someone thought they had to explain everything. The kids all sit on one log and float down the river and up the waterfall.

And they’re home! Even Uni made it, contrary to Hank’s position in “The Eye of the Beholder.” (You can even see the Dungeons & Dragons ride entrance in the background. Good to know they didn’t close it after it disappeared a bunch of kids.) They celebrate, but Eric’s still a bogbeast. He puts on the medallion and it … does nothing. You moron. You should have put the medallion on while on the other side, where magic works. “I can’t spend the rest of my life looking like this,” Eric says. Given how much the kids don’t like Eric, it’s to their credit that no one suggests suicide. Presto does tell him to leave this world immediately, though, since the warp will only be open for a few more seconds. And Diana tells him not to come back: “If you go back, you’ll never be able to come back through.” (Where did that rule come from, Diana?)

Kids celebrating after their returnEric makes the tough choice and goes back through the bottom of the lake. “He’ll be lost back there without us,” Sheila says. Right, Sheila. How can he survive without dragging around loads like you and Presto, without having to rely on Hank’s haphazard leadership skills? I’m sure he’ll be fine.

“I wonder what it will be like being alone,” Eric says, but the bogbeasts tell him he won’t be alone. As the Bible says, Eric, you’ll always have the bogbeasts among you. This does not comfort him, however, so he’s excited when his friends emerge from the river.

But I am not. My utilitarian sensibilities are offended. I can see Hank returning for Eric; he’s the “leader,” and he should feel some responsibility. If Diana wanted to return, she could, but given her attitude toward Eric, she probably shouldn’t. Bobby’s just a kid, so he should be left in our world. Sheila’s his sister (plus a burden to everyone else), so she should stay behind as well. Presto’s incompetent. My point is: returning everyone to the Realms is unconscionable.

Plus, I was kinda hoping Eric would get a chance to have adventures without the other twerps holding him back.

The kids next to the riverAfter his friends return, Eric finally changes back into his normal form. “I’m back to my great looking self!” he shouts, hopping in place. Perhaps St. Vitus Dance is a side-effect of the medallion. Was it the medallion that changed him back, or was it the power of friendship? The medallion — in association with the Realms, as the Dungeon Master intimates that’s what Eric dislikes the most, which hold the key to his retransformation. “Of course!” Diana says, after she was convinced the answer was “bogbeasts” not so long ago. “Eric hates this world more than anything!” So after Eric was transformed into a bogbeast, Dungeon Master knew he couldn’t return home in his normal form? If that’s true, that’s incredibly jerkish, even for DM.

Eric apologizes for “messing up your chance to get home.” Don’t apologize, Eric; you didn’t mess up anyone’s chance to get home except your own. They chose to come back, the twerps. “That’s OK, Eric. There’ll be other chances,” Hank says. “Right, Dungeon Master?” But Dungeon Master, not feeling up to the Big Lie, has disappeared already, something which shocks the kids. It’s like they think they’re talking with someone who doesn’t vanish mysteriously rather than listening to what the kids have to say!

The bogbeasts know Eric is going to leave, which makes them sad. Well, at least someone appreciates Eric. They also want to say they’re sorry: sorry “you turned so ugly!”

Everybody laughs at Eric, including the bogbeasts. Eric could take this joke a bit better, but why should he? He’s been the butt of jokes for a while now.

Lesson time!
  • Splitting the party without a plan to reunite the two groups is a normal tactic of effective leader, especially if what the leader wants to accomplish is getting rid of certain members of the party.
  • Some oppressed people are more worthy of your help and sympathy than others. In other words, Hank doesn’t care about Dwarf people.
  • If you lose one of your flock, you should take the entire flock into the wolves’ den to rescue the lost lamb.
  • Lookism is important. If you are ugly, your friends will mock you, and they will be right to do so. You should do everything you can to look pretty, and for the love of all that’s holy, don’t hang out with ugly people.
  • It’s perfectly normal when a guy’s “magic bow” throbs when he’s in public. If you have a problem with it, that’s on you, even if you complain that he’s openly holding it while it twitches.
  • It’s also normal constantly journey overland without the provisions necessary for an afternoon picnic.

Going home tally: This is the second time they’ve found a portal. This is the first time they’ve gone through the portal and the first time they gave up the opportunity to go home to save a member of the party. (The other time they returned to save an ally.)

Monster tally: Three from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 19; FF 3; Dragon: 1.

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2015 Nebula winner

15th May. 2016 | 02:24 pm

So: Uprooted by Naomi Novik won the Nebula for Best Novel last night.

I never would have guessed it. True, it was nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo, so that should have given me a hint that it was well regarded. But given the caliber of the competition, I didn’t think Uprooted had a chance.

I enjoyed reading Uprooted, although for all its virtues, I thought it had flaws that held it back too much. It’s not a bad choice, I think, but it looks weird among the last three or four Nebula winners. I’m really curious about how it rose to the top — did it have the strongest support initially? Was it a matter of other competition splitting the vote, while Uprooted’s support remained united?

I don’t think we’ll ever get that sort of breakdown of the Nebula electorate, though. I’ve never seen the voting total for the Nebulas released like the Hugo voting is.

As for the contest, no one wins because no one entered. I think this gives me a definitive answer about how many people read this blog. If you can’t give away money to readers, you’re shouting down a well.

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2015 Nebula Roundup ... and the CONTEST!

13th May. 2016 | 01:40 am

We’ve reached the end of my Nebula capsules for this year, sonow it’s time to discuss who will win … and mention the contest.

To recap, the seven nominees are:Obviously, according to the criteria I’ve set, Ancillary Mercy is the best choice for the Nebula for Best Novel. Even apart from this objective criteria — which, I know, aren’t that objective — I still think Ancillary Mercy is the best choice. In other words, the rubric I used didn’t give me any surprising results.

However, it’s not like this process gives me results that Nebula voters agree with. I correctly chose the winner of the Nebula last year, but I didn’t use any criteria; I just chose which book I thought was the best from an interesting but flawed group of nominees, and Nebula voters chose the same nominee (Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer). Two years ago, Ancillary Justice finished second to The Ocean at the End of the Lane in my rankings when I used the same categories I did this year. Among the 2012 nominees, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson finished fifth of six in my rankings; Among Others by Jo Walton finished fifth of sixth among my picks in 2011 (although I didn’t hate it the way I did 2312). I thought the nomination of Blackout / All Clear by Connie Willis was a sop given to a respected sci-fi author, but it turns out everyone was serious, and even though I ranked Blackout / All Clear dead last of six 2010 nominees, it won the Nebula.

So take my evaluations with a grain of salt.

If I had to bet, after reading these books, I think I would still stick with the results above and choose Ancillary Mercy to lay my money on. I’m tempted by The Fifth Season; maybe this is the year N.K. Jemisin, who has been nominated three times before, finally gets a win. I certainly think this is her best nominated book since The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (I thought Kingdoms was the best nominee among the 2010 field. It infuriates me that Blackout / All Clear won instead.) But part of me thinks there’s a reason Jemisin hasn’t won, and that reason has nothing to do with talent.

Anyway, you don’t have to take my opinion as gospel. I mean, it’s not a bad idea, but you don’t have to. In fact, you can put my money where your mouth is. (I don’t recommend this either: money is filthy and shouldn’t be put in anyone’s mouth.)

This is the contest: Post a comment by 6 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 14, stating who you think will win the 2015 Nebula for Best Novel. If any one person correctly predicts the winner, she or he will win a $10 Amazon gift card. If more than one person correctly predicts the winner, the gift card will be given to one randomly chosen poster who chose the winning book. If no one correctly predicts the winner, I will give the gift card to one random commenter.

If no one posts a comment, I keep the gift card. Ha ha!

Post your comments below. Only comments on this post will be entered in the contest.

Good luck! And good luck to all the nominees!

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2015 Nebula nominee #7: Raising Caine by Charles E. Gannon

11th May. 2016 | 03:35 pm

Raising Caine coverThe seventh nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is Raising Caine by Charles E. Gannon:

Plot: After a war with two alien races in Trial by Fire, human representatives are whisked away by the Slaasriithi, a mysterious alien race who proposes an alliance with humanity. Given that humanity just won a fight with two alien races, one of which is deeply unhappy about the defeat and has powerful allies, the Ktor, waiting to destabilize the galaxy, humanity needs the Slaasriithi.

Pure negotiation does not have enough conflict for Gannon, so Slaasriithi / human negotiations are disrupted a renegade branch of the Ktor, who want nothing more than to sow distrust between the potential allies. Complicating matters further is the true identity of the Ktor, which humans discovered at the end of Trial by Fire: rather than methane-dwelling ice worms in environmental suits, the Ktor are humans who were genetically improved millennia before. The Ktors’ previous wars have passed into legend and caused other races to distrust humanity, and even though other races (such as the Slaasriithi and the Arat Kur, the less-angry race the humans defeated) are beginning to figure out the ruse, the Ktor can still effortlessly impersonate humans. Add in human quislings the Ktor suborned during the most recent war, and humanity seems to still have an uphill battle …

But humanity has Caine Riordan, whom aliens trust, who can figure out every nuance of a situation and explain it to the rest of humans, who can MacGyver battle plans out of minimal resources (although he does use guns). Plus: they’re humans! When do humans ever lose?

This should be an exciting novel. The human diplomatic delegation has to deal with traitors, casting a pall of paranoia over their preparations, while the Ktor are technologically superior and ruthless. The Slaasriithi are ill-prepared for physical conflict. All the elements for an exciting, hard-science space opera are there, but Gannon ruins any sense of momentum the plot has by explaining exactly how everything works. Everything. He doesn’t want anyone to be confused by the science or sociology of the world he has created, so he makes sure to explain it in exhaustive depth.

As an example: a small Ktor raiding party takes over a civilian-crewed human ship in a vicious boarding action. The outcome is never in doubt; the Ktor are prepared for this sort of battle, possessing weapons that destroy human resistance before the humans can even get shots off. We get to know the captain and pilot before the boarding action; they don’t survive the battle, and the captain is killed off-page. The survivors of the battle — the Ktor need them to crew the ship — are barely a concern for the final 400 pages of the book. However, it takes more than twenty pages — twenty excruciating pages — for Gannon to describe something that holds no real drama. And that’s not even including the space battle that softened the humans up, which is similarly described in slow motion!

The entire book is like this. Gannon deems very few details as extraneous, even if the plot doesn’t necessitate that the reader know (or care about) them. The worst paragraph of the book is this: “‘Four targets confirmed destroyed,’ Thnessfiirm reported proudly — and needlessly” [emphasis mine]. Needlessly! I think the previous 400 pages proved Gannon has no idea what information is not needed.

I will admit Gannon’s description of the battle on the surface of Disparity improves the novel considerably. When the direct conflict finally begins, the novel finally gains enough momentum to not be a chore to read. However, it takes too long to get to the battle, and I never get an idea of how the humans are arrayed and how many humans there are (either at the battle’s start or at the end). I’m sure the uncertainty is supposed to give me a sense of anxiety, but when everything else is explained within an inch of its life, I don't think there’s a rational excuse for not explaining the battle order of the protagonists. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Caine Riordan! Mr. Intuit-It-All, who is sent to negotiate with the Slaasriithi. It’s hard to find a reason to hate Riordan: he’s smart, humble, and a good leader, even if he doesn’t have the training. Even though he’s part of Gannon’s explain-a-thon, often other people explain for him, which is nice. Still: he’s the author’s go-to to explain what otherwise wouldn’t be known, and he still hasn’t thought to consider who genetically engineered the Ktor and why the Ktor and Slaasriithi warred thousands of years before.

The other humans are, generally speaking, an undifferentiated mass of job titles. With all the room Gannon gives over to explanations, characterizations are in short supply. Dora Veriden, the personal security for the mission’s ambassador, is the exception, but even she falls into the faceless line as the climax approaches. 2 of 5

Villains: I hate the Ktor. I know you’re supposed to hate the villain, but this is a different kind of hate …

Imagine you are on a long flight seated next to a man — of course it’s a man — who is very interested in explaining economics at a high level to you. You can follow the main thread of his argument easily because he exhausts every topic. If anyone within listening distance — and it seems like the whole cabin is in listening distance — evinces any sort of confusion (about anything), he explains the topic in even more detail, which you thought was previously impossible. Although he uses unfamiliar terms, he seems to know this and explains them until your eyes glaze over. You know you disagree with his economic philosophies, in part because he makes it clear that yours are inferior and in part because he declares that dominance is paramount to success. Occasionally he brags about the deaths his theories have caused and will cause. If you weren’t on a plane, you would gnaw your own arm off to escape him.

That guy is a Ktor. You will never be so happy as when you escape him, and you should probably be happy he didn’t kill you. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Raising Caine is the third book in the series. It deals with humanity struggling with the realities of sharing the galaxy with alien races, just the same as the first two books in the series. The actual physics of space travel is still emphasized, just as it was in the first two books. So what’s different?

Well, we get a look at the Ktor, but they are a bunch of hypercompetent assholes, which isn’t unusual. The Slaasriithi are the featured alien race in Caine, and they are a bit different: a group of aliens with a talent for terraforming worlds through training the biota with spores. It’s interesting initially, but it wears out its welcome, and it’s not innovative. 1 of 10

Fun: About 100 pages into Raising Caine, I seriously considered throwing the book at the wall and refusing to read any more. I hadn’t decided whether to admit my failure here or just bluff my way through this review using what I had read and other reviews — who would know? who would be reading this in the first place? — but I decided to tough it out. Why? I’m not sure. Stubbornness, I suppose.

This is a book for people who like explanations — at length, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. If anyone ever makes an observation, Gannon cannot let that character keep that observation to her- or himself. The observation must be set free. (It’s not a problem of narrative POV; we get into the head of viewpoint characters all the time.) The universe, it seems, is full of know-it-alls who can’t wait to explain everything to you — everything! Things you’ve realized, things you haven’t, things you’ve resolved not to give two hrunts about. My God! It must be like living with me, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Let me put it this way: If Gannon spots a bit of unexplained nuance in the narrative, it is his mission to pursue it with a clown hammer until it is no more than a streak of gore on the narrative thread. If you read Raising Caine, you will get some of that gore on you. I just hope it washes off. 0 of 5

Total: 5 of 30. This easily ranks in the five most excruciating Nebula or Hugo nominees I have read. I think what the people who nominated this book really want is more entertaining physics texts.

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2015 Nebula nominee #6: Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

10th May. 2016 | 01:58 pm

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard coverThe sixth nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen:

Plot: In a future populated by uplifted animals, elephants (called “Fants”) are restricted to one planet, Barsk. There, they live in placid communities; when it’s time to die, they receive a vision of where to go, then wrap up their lives before sailing away. Jorl ben Tral, one of the Fants, is a historian and a Speaker, a person who can call back the personalities of the dead by gathering together the particles they emitted when they interacted with others while alive. He uses his gift to help his historical research, and it gives him a link to the prophecies of the Matriarch, who set the rules for Speakers. In fact, one of the Matriarch’s prophecies gave him the mark of an aleph, Barsk’s highest honor.

In addition to his historical work, Jorl also looks after his best friend’s widow and their son, Pizlo. Pizlo is an odd child, an almost feral albino; a quirk in his parents’ relationship when he was born has afflicted him with the albinism and an inability to feel pain. It also makes him an outcast, and other Fant pretend to be unable to see him. Pizlo has learned (mostly) not to care, and he’s developed a sense of prophecy himself that becomes valuable to him and Jorl as the book progresses.

The Fants have a treaty with the other uplifted races: they will provide the Alliance with certain products, especially pharmaceuticals, and Barsk will be left alone. By the treaty, no non-Fant can set foot upon Barsk for any reason. However, as Barsk begins, Alliance military ships are abducting Fants on their way to die for some reason. No one misses these Fants until Jorl tries to speak to some of them and is unable. He fears the Matriarch’s prophecy of the Silence has come, and the prophecy states he will have to investigate. What does the Alliance want? What do all the prophecies signify? Is there a point to all this?

The book starts slowly and progresses lumberingly toward its prophesied conclusion. When an author launches into a prophecy plot, it has to round out satisfactorily without being too obvious about how it gets to the end. Schoen pulls that off. The plot’s early pace is suited to a story about elephants, but as appropriate as that is, a slow plot is a slow plot: the reader’s enemy unless there’s something to distract the reader, like humor or an astonishing richness of description. Neither is the case here. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Jorl and Pizlo are both near the center of the story. While Jorl is the chief protagonist, Pizlo gets a lot of pages for someone who is essentially a little plot device. It’s hard not to feel for Pizlo, who is ostracized by Fant society for nothing more than an accident of birth, and he seems more like a child than many children in literature do: he wanders without supervision, enjoying climbing trees and exploring, and he has a powerful imagination. Well, it turns out his “imagination” is the gift of prophecy, which isn’t true of most children, fictional or real.

Jorl is a historian who talks to the dead. He’s not very interesting, other than his insistence that he should do the right thing, whether it’s inconvenient or not, and his inability to let go of his best friend, who committed suicide. When you can talk to the dead, though, I don’t suppose you have to let go of the past. 2 of 5

Villains: The Alliance — specifically Sen. Bish, a yak who authorized the Alliance incursion into Barsk’s sovereignity, and those under him — captures the banality of evil, and I wish Barsk had delved more into that. Bish has a team of precognitives that tell him Barsk and koph, the drugs Speakers need to speak to the dead, will be important. Because of the imprecision of precognition, Bish isn’t sure what will come of being on Barsk and discovering its secrets, but he’s sure it will give him more power; after all, Speakers have power, and possessing what fuels their powers has to give Bish even more power.

When one of Bish’s underlings massacres Fants, he’s more than willing to sacrifice that underling because it makes him look better to Jorl. He’s willing to be friendly to Jorl and Pizlo if it gets him what he wants; he’s also willing to be cruel, but he doesn’t see any reason to care about the Fants or show his anger. It’s just a way to get what he wants. His assistant, Druz, is cut from a similar cloth, being so steeped in power that cruelties are minimal concerns in the pursuit of more power. I would fear Bish and the Alliance — not as much as I fear the Wood in Uprooted, but with Bish, being able to understand their motivations make them more fearsome. 3 of 5

Inventiveness: I don’t think the characters’ animalian nature adds anything to the story. (However, it does make me envision all of them drawn by Stan Sakai.) Yes, the big revelation at the end wouldn’t make sense if they were aliens or humans of different types, but then again, there’s nothing surprising about the ending. As soon as it occurs to a reader that Barsk exists in a universe like our own, the final twist is obvious. Well, the plot twist itself — I still don’t buy the implications of the revelation as the reason other Alliance races dislike Fants so much.

The Speakers and koph are a bit more unusual, and I appreciate the pseudoscience behind it: the koph allows the Speakers to concentrate the nefshons — the particles everyone leaves behind in memory when they interact with others — a dead person has left behind. These particles can maintain memories, as the dead remember when a Speaker has talked to him, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest the dead have a soul or deal with necromancy in any way: it’s just particles, after all. To summon the dead, a Speaker has to have dealt with the deceased herself or learn about the deceased from those who did. Even historical documents can help the Speaker find those little memory particles and coalesce them into the long dead. It’s a little mystical, a little scientific — a good fit for a science fiction novel that spends a lot of time on a sedate, placid planet. 4 of 10

Fun: The uplifted animals are slightly amusing, especially if — like me — you envision them as Sakai or Disney funny animals. The narration and characters aren’t funny, and the occasionally ponderous plot precludes the sort of zip that makes a book fun to read. Barsk also has few action scenes to get the pulse racing. Schoen’s style isn’t distracting, though, allowing the reader to concentrate on the story. So that’s something. 2 of 5

Total: 14 of 30. I would never have suspected Barsk would do so well, but even though it’s not an exciting novel or a daring novel, it is one without glaring weaknesses.

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2015 Nebula nominee #5: Updraft by Fran Wilde

9th May. 2016 | 11:39 am

Updraft coverThe fifth nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is Updraft by Fran Wilde:

Plot: Kirit lives with her mother in a city of living bone towers. To get between the towers, one needs wings, and Kirit is excited about getting her license to fly around the city. But when she is outside her tower when she is not supposed to be, she is attacked by a skymouth, an invisible predator that migrates through the city periodically. Kirit is saved only by her scream, which drives the skymouth away. The city’s secretive law enforcement unit, the Singers, want her to join so that she can use her scream to help against the skymouths, but Kirit is set on apprenticing to her mother, a famed trader. All she needs is to be able to legally fly between towers …

The Singers control the laws of the city, however, and they penalize her for being where she should not have been to hinder her at her flying test, and they warn her the penalties will be worse if she tells others about her screaming powers. Even when she does excellently at her flying test, the Singers still find a way to bring her into their orbit — and into their secrets.

You’ll recognize this as a coming-of-age plot, and you’ll be unsurprised to find out who the true villains are. Wilde seems to put her creativity into the setting, which interests me less that the story itself. Updraft‘s plot is linear and unsurprising — well, unsurprising except for how little Kirit questions her situation and for how she’s regarded at the end, despite all logic. I suppose Updraft is a good example of cultural and organizational brainwashing, but the story doesn’t seem interested in describing it as such. Part of the reason why the book reads so quickly, I think, is because the plot gives so little resistance. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Kirit is a teenage girl, on the cusp of responsibility and excited to begin her adult life. She wants to be a trader, but she’s stung when her mother wants to apprentice her to another trader rather than to herself. Given a chance to bargain for her future with the Singers, she is silent. She could try to gain some advantage by calling the Singers thieves who stole her future, but she keeps her anger and any cleverness she has inside, accepting the Singers’ offer. And when she falls in with the Singers, boy, does she fall — she buys their propaganda in cash, without any haggling at all.

Kirit spends most of the book learning from the Singers about the organization and her powers, the standard introduction-to-another / adult-world trope. It’s fine, and Kirit is … well, I have to admit that having a protagonist so deeply believe in an evil organization even when a reasonable person would have thought, “Oh, no, these people are evil,” is unusual. Kirit doesn’t seek to resist or compromise with Singer beliefs until she sees a Singer driving a skymouth to eat an innocent woman; I would have thought the human sacrifice would have been enough to drive her to rebellion, or the secret monster breeding program, but what do I know? 1 of 5

Villains: If you encounter a secretive group in a YA novel, you know they are going to be bad. If that group uses and endorses human sacrifice to pacify some non-physical force, they are evil. If they use trial by combat to entirely smother political dissent (Singers can’t openly speak dissent unless they defeat a representative of the status quo in a fight), they are almost certainly corrupt.

The only reason given for the Singers’ awfulness is that they made decisions that got away from them, and they didn’t have the will to change it. They are hidebound, and even though some Singers see things need to be changed, the lack of power the leaders have to exert to maintain their control is remarkable.

I’m kinda in awe of the Singers. It’s one thing to feed the people a line of crap; it’s entirely another thing to have them tell you how delicious it is and demand — demand! — seconds. I don’t find them believable, but they are effective. 3 of 5

Inventiveness: The world of Skybreak is a slight spin on the young-adult monoculture. Kirit is restricted by the rules, which are frequently oppressive but are seen as necessary for the survival of the community. A secretive group clamps down on dissent — not for the good of the community but for their own good. This pattern has been repeated time and again; one of the Mystery Science Theater episodes I watched recently, Teenage Caveman (#315), has a very similar structure, except that it takes considerably less in that movie for the protagonist to break the stifling, unconsidered laws. (Admittedly, Updraft is considerably better than Teenage Caveman, but Caveman is a Roger Corman film.)

Hey, did you know adults aren’t fair and that the adult world isn’t exactly how it’s described to kids? Me to! But who would have thought such a hard-hitting take on the world would be found in a young-adult novel? Oh, wait — everyone? Hmm …

The city in Updraft is the real innovation: it’s a city in which people must fly between towers (bridges are rare, dispensed by the Singers as rewards) of living bone. The towers grow — sometimes naturally, sometimes at the urging of the Singers. Laws are sung. (Thus, the laws are enforced by Singers.) Tools are built of bone, as metal is exceedingly rare; criminal offenses are written on bits of bone that are tied to the offender. It’s an exotic setting, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s exactly innovative.

The citizens in Updraft have adapted to their situation and don’t seem to lack for anything they need. They’ve compensated for all its difficulties, and that makes it less exotic. 3 of 10

Fun: Updraft has quite a few adrenaline moments, although I can’t say the flying scenes did anything for me. Kirit’s lack of foresight, planning, or dynamism bothered me, though; she gets swept along by the Singer curriculum rather than deciding anything on her own. I mean, yes, Hogwarts had a very structured year, but even Hermione got into scrapes outside of classes.

Quick read, though, even if I did want to scream at Kirit for being a dunce most of the time. 2 of 5

Total: 10 of 30. It isn’t just the YA nature of this book that marks it as different from the other nominees; it feels less consequential, less involving, than those books.

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2015 Nebula nominee #4: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

6th May. 2016 | 06:42 pm

The fourth nominee for the Nebula for Best Novel is The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu:

The Grace of Kings coverPlot: The Emperor Mapidere has united the Seven Islands of Dara and its component states. His rule is unpopular but backed by draconian punishments. When he dies, an inexperienced son is put in charge, and rebellions spring up everywhere, led by people with nothing to lose. The seven states Mapidere united re-emerge, and eventually two great leaders emerge: Kuni Garu, a charming and clever ne’er-do-well, and Mata Zyndu, the last of a family of great warriors and generals. They unite to fight the empire, but they do not consider the likelihood that either they will recreate a world with feuding states, in which there will be constant fighting, or they will recreate the emperor — and there can be only one emperor.

Grace is told in a historical style. Liu uses simple, straightforward sentences, forsaking clever turns of phrase for communicating ideas efficiently. Liu narrates the story by following various characters around the islands in an attempt to spread the widest net over his narrative. No historian is ever suggested as a writer, but she or he is always there, lurking behind the pen. Some of the characters actually intuit the historian, questioning how history will evaluate the emperor or their own actions. But the book’s historiography isn’t modern; frequently events read like legends, like when soldiers urinate on a fire threatening a city’s walls to put it out. In reality, that wouldn’t work unless the fire was small, but it’s the sort of tall tale seen in classical or medieval histories: almost but not quite plausible.

As you might guess from the title, Grace of Kings is concerned with questions of government: what makes a ruler? How should they be chosen, and what’s the best method of succession? Is a central or distributed government better? All the reviews I’ve read tell me this is innovative, but it doesn’t feel that way. These reviews talk about Liu addressing tax policy and similar administrative questions, but Grace addresses these as a means of pointing out the protagonist’s or his assistants’ cleverness. For all the characters we visit, we don’t see how these ploys work; we merely hear, in a sentence or two, that they do. This is not surprising, as all these stratagems have surface validity: of course pulling back government interference is good; of course technological innovations swing the tide of battle; of course a program to certify approved cooks of a certain cuisine is popular. But for some reason the protagonist never has to deal with the flip sides of these — sabotage, arms races, knock-offs — or any other problems.

Although it has no overt magic, Grace has meddling gods, and the narrative is always concerned with the peculiar ways humanity can reorder the world with their thoughts. When a rebel leader creates his own state from the territory of another, the most powerful of the rebel kings says, “Why can’t new … states be created out of thin air? Many things in this world become real when enough people believe them to be real.” That’s how Kuni and his followers reshape the world: they imagine new things. It’s troubling that no one but Kuni’s faction has that imagination, and it seems a major plot hole. (Or a weird lack of coverage, given how many narratives Liu strings together.) 2 of 5

Protagonists: In keeping with the style of someone looking back at events from a distance, the characters are mostly flat — that is to say, we don’t get far into anyone’s head.
Kuni is wily, but I wouldn’t say he’s fun or exciting; he’s a clever plot aggregator, spitting out cunning ideas when the story needs them. Despite the evidence that Kuni’s a good man, I never am sure of that; we see his deeds, and we see his words, but we rarely see deeply into his heart. We do get a few of his thoughts, but we never get the key to his soul. He falls in love and wants to choose the most interesting path, but both those motivations have fallen away at the end. What moves Kuni?

These characters are obsessed with tests, questioning and offering other characters to get them to reveal their real motivations. But without the depth that characters are examined in in most novels and with Liu’s quick, direct style, these tests come and go in a paragraph or two, and we don’t see those being tested wrestle with the questions they’re supposed to be tested by. Sometimes those doing the questioning trap themselves, their gambits being too obvious to force the truth out of the other person. It’s a ploy very well suited to the classical history style Liu is emulating, but the simplicity of style and lack of character depth that we see make the stratagem feel like a shallow trick. 2 of 5

Villains: Liu’s historical approach is an advantage when it comes to antagonists. Like some histories, Grace has no real villains, just people out for their own goals. Since the book doesn’t dive deeply into the characters’ interior lives, Liu is allowed to show just enough to know why certain characters do awful things. Emperor Mapidere united the lands, even if most of his major projects after that were stupid or cruel. Pira, the counselor who diverts the new emperor while the empire runs aground, is ruining Mapidere’s legacy because the emperor killed his love. Mata Zyndu was devoted to the revolution and honor, but he was so bound to what he saw as honor he made awful choices. Even the protagonists, like Kuni, perform dishonorable acts, although like a history written to be kind to a great man, it’s usually suggested that his underlings persuaded / tricked him to do it. 4 of 5

Inventiveness: As I said, the reviews I’ve read harp on Grace‘s innovation, but I’m not sold on it. I don’t think Grace’s concerns about government are unprecedented; I think the baldness with which Liu states those concerns may be.

What sets Grace apart is its style — few authors would use such a seemingly simplistic style — and its setting, which is reminiscent of ancient China. I’m not sure anyone but Liu could get away with such an unornamented, straightforward style on their first novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but Liu certainly succeeded at writing what he was wanted to. Non-European settings are unusual, and given that fantasy is about making new worlds, an underrepresented culture (in Western fantasy, at least) is welcome. 5 of 10

Fun: Grace is frequently a slog, especially in its diversions; what it has is its overall plot, and when we learn of another character who will not affect that plot, it loses all its impetus. Often Grace reminds me, in style and subject matter, of Roman histories, but even though I’ve read a few of those, I wouldn’t say they’re enjoyable. When they’re over, I’ve learned something about history. Since Grace is fictional, I can’t even say I’ve learned anything. 1 of 5

Total: 14 of 30. This is a solid total — higher than I think it deserves. It doesn’t matter what I think, though, since Grace or Ancillary Mercy is going to win.

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2015 Nebula and 2016 Hugo nominee #3: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

6th May. 2016 | 02:47 am

The Fifth Season coverThe third nominee for the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novel is The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin:

Plot: Jemisin follows three different stories:
  1. as the world is pulled apart by volcanic spasms, a mother (Essun) pursues her husband, who abducted their daughter after killing their son because he possessed the power to manipulate seismic forces;
  2. a child (Damaya) is inducted into the Fulcrum, the order that controls and trains orogenes, those who have abilities like the murdered boy;
  3. a young female orogene (Syenite) is sent on a mission with a powerful orogene on behalf of the Fulcrum.
Since the world isn’t ending in Syenite and Damaya’s stories, it’s quickly evident these stories are set before Essun’s, but the temporal relationship of Syenite and Damaya’s narratives is unclear at first.

I dislike narratives with multiple viewpoints, but Jemisin manages to weave the three stories together in an artful way. It’s very impressive, especially given that Essun’s narrative is told in the second person; this unusual point of view seems like an attempt to get readers to more quickly empathize with the character, but it serves a larger narrative purpose. (Which is good, since I didn’t need any additional inducements to sympathize with a mother who has had one child killed and another kidnapped.) Essun’s story is the beginning of an epic: the long pursuit of a murderous man and a missing child. As such, her story feels like it should dominate the novel, but it’s too accommodating, giving up space to lesser stories.

Damaya’s story has a YA feel; her story (and Syenite’s) are dominated by the repressive monoculture that is so often seen in young-adult fiction, and the empire in Fifth Season follows unforgiving rules literally written in stone. Fortunately, Essun’s story contextualizes Damaya’s and Syenite’s stories and eventually strangles the YA vibe. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Syenite’s and Essun dominate the book. Syenite is ambitious, focused on rising in the Fulcrum and resigned to the things she’ll have to do. As such, she’s completely unprepared for the revelations the powerful orogene she’s teamed with helps her discover. Essun is a woman who alternates between anger and numbness, each of which are useful as she trudges her way toward revenge. She’s filled with regrets for the poor choices she made before and during her journey.

Essun and Syenite are interesting protagonists but they are not captivating; I feel sorry for them, but they don’t have much of a personality beyond their reactions to the wrongs that have been done to them. Fortunately, they are dynamic characters who confront their world and its injustices. 3 of 5

Villains: The Guardians and the Sanze empire work to keep the orogenes oppressed for the good of the majority. The empire is quietly menacing, although only to the orogenes, but oppression of the few in pursuit of happiness for the majority is a major evil — it is, after all, slavery. The empire’s policies are kept in the background, with the masses’ discrimination toward and fear of orogenes being far more prevalent. Racism is also an obstacle, though some non-orogenes don’t have that fear and distrust; this gives a hope that popular discrimination against orogenes isn’t an invincible force.

The Guardians are frightening. They guide orogenes; they police orogenes; they destroy orogenes. Which of these the guardians do at any one time may seem capricious to orogenes. Some of them have special abilities that cancel orogenic powers. One of the characters claims Guardians are surgically altered children of orogenes who have been born without powers. The Guardians don’t appear often, but when they do, they are always bad news. 3 of 5

Inventiveness: The world of Fifth Season is ruled by the Sanze empire, which gains its power by maintaining cohesion during the periodic “Fifth Seasons,” extended disruptions — usually volcanic winters — caused by the planet’s powerful seismic and volcanic action. An empire that can survive what is, essentially, the end of the world is unusual, although Jemisin doesn’t explore that idea much; the empire has guidelines about how to prepare, but in the only disaster we see, it’s clear the empire will not survive.

In a way, Fifth Season is like a superhero story, although a dystopian one; the powerful are kept in metaphorical chains to serve the powerless majority. The island of Genosha from X-Men, essentially, although it’s switched in geographical scope: orogenes are kept in check in the Empire, although orogenes are free in a few independent islands.

If Jemisin was exploring colonialism in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, then Fifth Season hits much closer to the present-day American attitudes. Jemisin is using orogenes as analogues for African-Americans. I suppose it could be any minority exploited by a ruling majority, but which group Jemisin is referring to is not exactly subtle; the derogatory nickname for orogenes is “rogga,” for instance, and late in the book, a pair of orogenes start calling themselves that, in a sense claiming the term for themselves rather than using the duplicitly polite term “orogene.” The narrative, both of the book and empire, explicitly state that it’s in the state’s interest to make the orogenes pursue a behavioral perfection they will never reach in return for acceptance. One of the orogenes decides the only way for orogenes to break free, to be seen as people, is to bring about the end of the world. That’s depressing, but it gives the story a feeling of relevance that many speculative fiction books lack. 6 of 10

Fun: This is not a story designed for fun. A large part of the book is set in the oppressive shadow of the Fulcrum, where overseers ritually break children’s hands to instill fear and obedience in the children and order members to have joyless sex to create a new generation of orogenes. Most of the rest is set in a world going through an apocalypse, where a woman pursues her husband to kill him. A small segment is set on an island with pirates, where the protagonists live carefree lives and have hedonistic sex. You will be unsurprised to know that doesn’t last. 1 of 5

Total: 16 of 30. Impressive, but not quite enough to overcome Ancillary Mercy.

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2015 Nebula and 2016 Hugo nominee #2: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

5th May. 2016 | 03:33 am

Uprooted coverThe second nominee for the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novel is Uprooted by Naomi Novik:

Plot: Agnieszka lives in a valley surrounded by mountains and The Wood, an evil forest that corrupts all it can get its pollen and leaves on. Those corrupted by The Wood spread that corruption like a disease; the infection can be halted, but only by rare and strenuous magic.

Supplying that magic is the Dragon, a wizard who lives apart from the valley’s inhabitants and keeps the valley safe from the Forest. Well, safe-ish; the Forest is too powerful for any one mage. Every ten years, the Dragon selects a 17-year-old girl to serve him, shut in his lonely tower and unable to talk to her friends or family for a decade. After that decade, the woman is given a bag of silver and allowed to go on her way. The girl, now a woman, always leaves the valley.

Of course Agnieszka is the girl chosen, even though everyone has for years suspected the Dragon would choose her beautiful best friend, Kasia. She cries and stumbles through her first days with the Dragon, who eventually teaches her magic to help her do the necessary chores. Agnieszka stumbles through the Dragon’s spells until she finds her own special magic, none too soon — because The Wood has ensnared Kasia, and Agnieszka won’t let her go without a fight. Her struggle to save Kasia starts a larger conflict with The Wood, one that pulls the entire kingdom (and perhaps the entire world) into a battle The Wood might win.

It’s a standard fantasy plot beginning — number 12(b), Rural Youngster Taken in by Gruff Master Has Hidden But Mighty Talents and Has to Use them to Defeat Evil, if you’re going to buy it off the shelf — but the battle with The Wood raises the story above its coming-of-age in a rural fantasy setting baseline. 3 of 5

Protagonists: I think there’s a factory that stamps out heroes like Agnieszka. She’s a spunky teenager with a special gift that makes her better than her predecessors and her peers; she demonstrates her gifts to her teacher, who seemingly disapproves of her style but secretly is amazed by it. Although we think her true gift is that special talent she exhibits, it’s actually her loyalty and love to her family / friends / home.

Agnieszka’s similarity to other YA heroes is not an insurmountable problem, and her narrative voice is smoothly readable. But Agnieszka is a bit of a special snowflake even compared to those protagonists; her understanding of magic is innate and mystifying to the other wizards, and she becomes more powerful than most of them after only a few months. No one can understand Agnieszka’s magic, and no one really tries, despite its efficacy. I know some of this is a metaphor for being a teenager — no one understands, but I’m really awesome — but it makes her a bit difficult to deal with at times.

She also engages is what I would call an inappropriate affair with another character. She doesn’t seem to have a deep love for him, and at times I question whether it’s love at all; it seems mostly an infatuation. I won’t give away which character she has this liaison with, but if I say he shouldn’t have allowed her to stand so close to him, I think you’ll figure it out. 1 of 5

Villains: The Wood is a frightening adversary: consuming, corrupting, implacable, and clever. So often nature is seen as clean and pure, something that won’t — can’t — harm humans. Malicious nature is depicted as something that has been corrupted by outside influences, but The Wood stands out as something else. The communicability of The Wood’s corruption is remarkable, something I don’t think I’ve seen in other books. It can be subtle or overt, drawing new victims into its web, and let its smallest corruption work over time. I may quibble about the mechanics of how it disguises its greatest plan, but it doesn’t change how creepy The Wood is. Novik does a great job sowing the seeds of paranoia — anyone may be corrupted — and at each turn, each ally revealed as compromised feels earned.

Finding out The Wood’s malice stems from recognizable human emotions was a disappointment, though. The Wood is alien, something that can’t be engaged … until we see exactly why it became so inimical to human life, and it’s suddenly so human. I don’t need a humanized villain; sometimes I want something I can’t understand. It’s really The Wood’s only flaw as a character. 4 of 5

Inventiveness: The story starts off looking like a Beauty and the Beast retelling / rip-off, with Agnieszka needing to unlock the Dragon’s heart, but thankfully, that mostly gets chucked to the side. (I don’t think the story could have stood another element we’re so familiar with.) The Wood is a great and unusual villain, and that’s the most inventive element of the story by far. (I suppose The Wood’s transformation of those freed from its control is also novel; just because a person is freed from the Wood doesn’t mean they go back to being what they were before.) I mean, I like the mages in the story all taking names prefixed by “the” (the Dragon, the Falcon, the Splendid, the Sword), but it’s not exactly a new idea. The same goes for using Polish folklore and names; given the hodgepodge of European myths that go into standard fantasy, using Poland as the story’s background doesn’t feel that different. 3 of 10

Fun: Although I give Agnieszka a lot of guff for her stock elements, she’s not a hard character to like, once the story begins rolling along. Her narration is clear and enjoyable. But really, all the enjoyment in this book comes when The Wood forces her to step up and become greater than she already is; the other humans, with the exception of the Dragon and Kasia, are dull blocking figures. 3 of 5

Total: 14 of 30. I enjoyed Uprooted, and I wonder if I’m being too kind to it now.

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2015 Nebula and 2016 Hugo nominee #1: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

3rd May. 2016 | 10:32 pm

Ancillary Mercy coverThe first nominee for the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novel is Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie:

Plot: Breq, the ship’s mind who inhabits the body of a human, defends Athoek Station (and Athoek the planet) against a number of threats: possible attacks by one or more factions of the Emperor Anaander Mianaai’s clones, injustice on the planet below, and a mysterious ship lurking beyond a jump gate. These all sound like important events, but Leckie keeps the action slow and low-key. It is easy to forget Athoek could be wiped out at any moment; the book seems as concerned by various injustices on the planet and station and Breq’s personal evolution as it is about the civil war raging beyond the Athoek system.

Mercy doesn’t give much background at the beginning for readers who are unfamiliar with the Ancillary universe; the book, at the end, does not snip off all the trilogy’s loose threads, and the book’s ending unravels a few new ones for readers to puzzle over. Mercy’s ends aren’t as neat and discrete as some readers might like, but it fits the more realistic, if academic, tone Leckie used the entire series.

Much of the plot is follow-through from Ancillary Sword, necessary for character and narrative reasons, but those chunks don’t have much of an effect on the trilogy’s ending. For a trilogy with such messy characters and moral quandaries, the resolution of the trilogy is either disappointingly or deceptively neat. The Presger gun, an alien artifact Breq inteneded to use in Ancillary Justice, manages to even the odds in the book to an almost unfair degree, but it isn’t allowed to end the story; that would definitely be too easy. On the other hand, the way the conflict is ended feels like a cheat. It isn’t; Leckie set up the resolution long before, and Breq manages to sew up that particular bit of plot. But the surprise I felt makes me suspiscious that Leckie buried that resolution and the emotional components that allow it to stick a bit too deeply in the text. 4 of 5

Protagonists: Breq is a remote protagonist, her AI origins giving her a distance from the other characters and their emotions. Her non-imperial background makes it easy to see certain imperial injustices and work to solve them. She understands those under her command, understands them down to the genetic level. When Seivarden, her companion for all three books (who is serving as a lieutenant in her fleet), has a breakdown, she knows what to do; when he insults his lover, she knows what course he should take, even if she can’t make him do it.

But she still has trouble understanding their humanity. For instance, it takes a book and a half for her to realize her officers and soldiers might not appreciate her using the ship’s telemetry to examine them continuously. On the other hand, she has trouble relating to other ships now. She, in essence, outranks the ship she commands, and although she understands the sapience and emotional maturity of the AIs she deals with, she doesn’t always treat them like (non-human) people. Breq’s complexities are sometimes subtle, given her cold personality and low-key emotional epiphanies, and those very effaced realizations make it easier to forgive her mistakes. On the other hand, her lack of strong feelings mitigates the strengths of first-person narration. 3 of 5

Villains: For most of the book, the villains are generally petty, short-sighted bureaucrats who want to keep the empire running as it is, either because they are representing some aspect of Anaander who benefits from obstructing Breq’s policies or because they believe in the status quo. These are the dillweeds who dominate Sword, and their antagonism is more frustrating than interesting. (Turn on the news; you will see these people there. This makes them recognizable but not compelling.)

The portion of Anaander who appears in this book is almost cartoonish in her villainy. When one of Athoek Station’s officers won’t comply with her brutal orders, Anaander shoots her. Anaander demands action, and having no sense of diplomacy or proportion, she gets things done only though threats of violence. Anaander is the weakest point of an otherwise smooth book. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: This is the third book of a trilogy, the point where many authors throw their hands up and shove all their pieces into the middle, seeing what a joyful jumble they can make. But Mercy lacks that cataclysmic catharsis; while it comes to an end, it doesn’t create a thorough bit of chaos, then restack everything into neat piles.

So what does Leckie introduce to the third book? After two books of Breq having to fight for recognition and respect, with most people according human (or human-ish) standing because the emperor said so, Mercy looks at how ships / AIs should be treated — more specifically, how does Breq treat them?

Breq is a ship without a metal shell, trapped in a human ancillary body in a time when ships aren’t allowed to inhabit ancillary bodies any more. She has been accorded rights no other ships possess, but while she accords more respect and rights to ships than any human does, she also sets limits on those rights. Breq is the Other who is also Other to the Others, neither here nor there, no longer part of her old tribe, unable to blend in with her new one, and left to understand and relate to the world from a place between them.

Science fiction is often remembered and evaluated by how it relates to the strange. The first book of the trilogy, Justice, gave us a world in which gender wasn’t important and the female pronoun was used in place of the male; that made the empire foreign in a way that allowed us to see ourselves as a whole. Seeing imperial society react badly to Breq, who is strange to them, is no revelation; seeing Breq relate to her altered, strange role inside imperial society gives us a sober, relatable perspective we don’t often see in science fiction. 6 of 10

Fun: Breq, who tells the story, doesn’t bring a charge to the narrative. The story itself lacks the sort of high adventure space opera is known for; ship-to-ship combat is more intellectual physics than adrenaline. The narrative is never distracting, and I never had to grit my teeth to plow through boring parts or clichés. However, it isn’t fun; excitement is in short supply, and the only levity comves from Translator Zeiat, a human-like creation of the alien Presger, who comes to Athoek to communicate with humans. The Presger don’t understand humanity too well, however, and Zeiat is disconcertingly non-human in demeanor. (Or maybe the Presger understand humanity too well.)

Those who enjoy the trilogy’s social message might disagree with my evaluation of fun, however. 2 of 5

Total: 17 of 30. Ancillary Mercy is the frontrunner I thought it was when I saw it on the list of nominees.

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2015 Nebula posting schedule announcement — and a contest!

3rd May. 2016 | 12:28 am

The regular posting schedule (such as it is) will be disrupted the next couple of weeks. Instead of posts on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Dungeons & Dragons rule books, I’m going to go over the nominees for the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

(The year of the award refers to when the book came out, not when the award was given.)

I have read all the Nebula nominees every year for the last six years. (You can look over last year’s nominees, or the year’s before that, or the year’s before that, or the year’s before that, or the year’s before that, or the year’s before that.) I’m not sure why I do it; my record for picking the eventual award winner is poor (although I chose the correct book last year). I end up hating a lot of books. Not all of them, of course; sometimes I find books I love but otherwise would never have read, like The Drowning Girl and God’s War and Finch. Would I have read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy if not for this ridiculous, self-imposed task? Probably not.

For every book I love, though, I seem to find two I hate: 2312, The Windup Girl, The Love We Share without Knowing, Embassytown, Blackout / All Clear … and three of those actually won the award. You could do worse than to bet the book I hate the most will win.

Anyway, for the next two weeks, I’m going to be writing about the seven Nebula nominees, using criteria I’ve used in many previous years to see who should win the award. Will win? Should win. The seven nominees are:The actual awards ceremony will be May 14. On May 13, I will have one final summary post on the Nebulas. I know you’re all a-quiver about that entry, but to make you anticipate it even more, I’ll be running a contest: if you post a response to that particular entry with your pick to win the Best Novel Nebula, you could win a $10 gift card from Amazon. (It’s not much, but it’s something.) The winner will be chosen randomly from all the comments to that post; comments must be time stamped by 6 p.m. on May 14. If no one picks the winner, the prize will be randomly chosen from everyone who commented.

If no one comments, then screw you all. I get to keep the gift card.

Tomorrow begins the Nebula posts, so check back here this week and next week to see my opinions on all seven nominees! (My opinions will almost certainly be wrong.) And good luck to all who decide to enter the contest!

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