Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: If I had a Gryphon

Last week I got a hamster.
My first and only pet.
He mostly eats and sleeps and hides.
And gets his shavings wet.

If only I could have a pet
With strange, exotic powers,
I know that I’d find lots to do
To while away the hours.

While walking around the book store last week "If I had a Gryphon" caught my eye. It’s not very often you see a children’s book with a creature of mythology in the title. Having a few little ones of my own I was interested in the book immediately. After flipping through the pages I decided I would marinate a bit on the purchase. Later that day I checked and Amazon had a good deal so I ordered.

The book arrived this afternoon and my children all quickly took turns digesting it. They enjoyed the story of Sam who just got a pet hamster, but wished it was something else. Sam thinks the hamster is boring and her imagination takes a hold of her, dreaming the hamster was a series of magical beasts instead. As a long time gamer I was genuinely impressed with the cadre of monsters represented in this book. Everything from a hippogriff to a manticore is mentioned.

In typical fashion for a book targeting children ages 3-7, the verses in the story rhyme. The illustrations are not scary and have fun vibe to them. The entire work is 32 pages, which honestly seems like some sort of artificial target number. The second half of the book crams multiple creatures into a few short pages. Unlike earlier on, where monsters are given a full page or more, this was a disappointment. The last creature touched upon is a mermaid and the verse does not even rhyme. This almost corroborates the idea that the writer was pressed for space.

Overall I think this is a good pickup for any gamers that have young children. It’s like a miniature Monster Manual with well over a dozen mythical creatures. The actual book is constructed very well and with young children the images are almost more important than the words. My five year old poured over it much longer then her older siblings. If I had to assign a rating I would give it three stars out of five. What seems like a great premise is almost hastily completed toward the end.

Should you purchase it? Again, if your kids enjoy fantasy then yes. Or if you are looking for a gift for a young reader it would be a good choice. Adding to a child’s vocabulary and learning about magical beasts of mythology is a good thing. After all, how often do they get to say words like chimera or harpy?

Product Details
Author: Vikki VanSickle
Artist: Cale Atkinson
Age Range: 3 - 7 years
Grade Level: Preschool - 2
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Tundra Books (February 9, 2016)
Language: English

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

That Old School Torch

The pines were roaring on the height,
The wind was moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit 

So what’s really involved in making a torch? With it being a quintessential piece of adventuring equipment I thought it may be worth looking into. I‘m sure some of you know how to make a torch in a game such as Minecraft, but what about for real? That is information that may be helpful someday in a natural disaster, zombie apocalypse or even a fantasy RPG. In the latter a torch is always something that seems to be available when shopping for your next dungeon delves.

But what if your character was lost in some ancient dark forest? You desperately needed to find a light source and some warmth. Sure the Dungeon Master may allow some sort of wilderness or nature check, but let’s face it, that seems incredibly boring. What if instead you were able to describe what your ranger or druid was doing to create a torch? This may even turn into an opportunity for a cool game event to happen. The Dungeon Master, inspired by this role playing, decides the tree you are harvesting has a magical property!

Old world craftsmanship and survival skills seem to be something modern society has all but cast aside. How many people reading this actually know how to start a fire without benefit of modern tools and fuels? I’m willing to bet that number can be counted on two hands. Playing adventurers in a fantasy role playing game should pique your interest in these sorts of things.

Six torches in the original D&D Basic set had a price of one gold piece. That seems like a lot for a few pieces of wood that just burn, right? Well they are not ordinary pieces of wood. Instead they have a coating of resin that not only burns more brightly, but with less smoke. Often the resin is so potent that rain water will not even extinguish the torch. The Art of Manliness blog did a great illustration a while back showing natural versus modern torch making:

If making camp for the night, your adventurers may use split logs to create a cooking torch. More commonly known as a Swedish torch or Canadian Candle, it can be created with just one log. In this video Eagle Scout Creek Stewart, host of Fat Guys in the Woods on The Weather Channel, explains how to build a Swedish torch.

That same split technique can be used in a pine wood knot to make a great torch. The Rocky Mountain Bushcraft blog gives us a step by step guide here. These historical skills are something that would not be lost on adventurers in a fantasy world. Sure the party wizard may be able to create fire with the snap of their fingers. That does not change the fact that knowledge such as this is, would not only useful in the real world, but helps with immersion at the game table.

Next time your character needs a torch put aside those dice to add some flavor to the session. Describe for the players assembled the type of tree you are looking for and how you will craft the torches. Newer players have asked me a few times to describe old school style of play. The torch, as presented in this post, is almost like a metaphor for old school style. Not only is it an important resource early in an adventurer’s career, but gathering and crafting your own is gaming outside the box. That is the essence of old school style, less roll play and more role play!

Of course I will leave your adventurers with one cautionary statement: If while harvesting wood for torches you notice the tree has a face or appendages you may want to run!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Forever Inspiring: Wayne England

I just learned about the passing of Wayne England. For those that are unaware, Wayne was a prolific fantasy artist. His amazing illustrations have graced Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering and Warhammer for well over a decade.

Some time ago I contacted Wayne after seeing his atmosphere art in the pages of the 5th edition Players Handbook. It was beautiful work in my opinion, and really helped to give the book a unique feel. In my interactions with Wayne he was always incredibly humble, and a genuine pleasure to correspond with. Not only was he very enthusiastic, but excited I was so interested in his art. He would end every conversation with, “have a top day”, which I will never forget. Several of those atmosphere pieces now hang proudly on the Game Tavern wall. So tonight please spin a d20 in honor of Wayne, as his art has been inspiring us for years, and will continue to do so.

Wayne is survived by his wife Victoria and children Millie and Harry.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

D&D Public Perception, Then & Now

This morning while taking my normal train into the city I overheard something that made me smile. A few seats ahead of me were three young college students, probably freshman, discussing Dungeons & Dragons. Two female students and one male to be exact. How did I know they were students? Well it was not hard to see all the spiritwear proclaiming so. Their conversation involved how they recently took a chance playing the game and had a blast. They were very enthusiastic and looking forward to their next session.

At one point the conversation shifted to the origin of the game and one of the students brought up her uncle. She went on to explain how when he played D&D it was considered occultism and witchcraft. Of course the cerebral students all laughed at this and considered such thinking not only backwards but ridiculous. This immediately made me think back to the early 1980s and living through the hysteria generated by D&D.

I started playing the game in 1983, and my family was very well aware of the claims that D&D involved devil worship. Luckily for me, my clan is a forward thinking bunch, and I was never asked to stop playing D&D. That being said, the social stigma of the game was almost palpable in some circles, especially school. In 1984, Patricia Pulling founded B.A.D.D. (Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons), after her son allegedly committed suicide because of D&D. This of course made the teen pastime of D&D an even bigger target to curious onlookers and doomsayers.

Between B.A.D.D. and the 1982 Tom Hanks movie Mazes & Monsters, D&D was seriously under fire. Then it all came to a boiling point in 1985 when 60 Minutes aired its notorious segment on Dungeons & Dragons. Co-creator Gary Gygax defended the game which was contrasted by interviews with Patricia Pulling. This all of course fanned the flames of nervousness parents had over their children playing role playing games. But as with most manufactured hysteria the years rolled on, and the flames were extinguished as people like Pulling were discredited.

Fast forward to 2016 and D&D has touched every major form of media from cinema to PC games. References to the game are everywhere, some of which people do not even realize. Table top gaming is actually having a big renaissance now as social media has finally become mundane. People want to re-connect and actually socialize around a table and real tactile gaming helps to facilitate this. Things like superheroes, comic books, role-playing games and science fiction are now mainstream. Being imaginative and creative is rewarded instead of ridiculed by the status quo. All these wonderful changes could not have happened if those of us who played D&D in the 70s and 80s did not weather the storm. For those interested in reading some of the panic induced articles of the 80s here is a small collection:

As I sat on the train this morning I silently mused over all these things. My day dreaming was interrupted when I heard the conductor announce my stop over the loud speaker. As I walked past that cluster of young gamers I paused and turned to greet them. I suggested that they check out as they may find a post later in the day interesting. I hope they see this but if not maybe someone else new to role playing games will stumble across it. As the old adage goes history repeats itself. Let’s not let that ring true with everything we do not understand. Think big, think aloud, and most importantly think for yourself!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Curse Day: Strahd Saw His Shadow

Strahd is a legendary vampire in Barovia, Ravenloft. On February 2 (Curse day) of each year, the town of Barovia celebrates with a festival of closed windows and feebly burning fires. During the ceremony, which begins just before the winter sunrise, Strahd emerges from Castle Ravenloft to contemplate his machinations. According to folklore, if Strahd sees his shadow and returns to the castle, he has predicted six more weeks until a terrible curse fills the land. If Strahd does not see his shadow, he has predicted an early end to winter. This prognostication is heavily relied upon by the people of Barovia who learned of the portents from the Vistani.

With today being Groundhog Day, and the Curse of Strahd being released in six weeks, I thought some tongue & cheek was in order. This year Punxsutawney Phil emerged and did not see his shadow predicting an early spring. If he had seen his shadow then according to lore we would be in for six more weeks of winter.

The actual Groundhog Day may find its roots in the Gaelic holiday of Imbolc ("IM-bulk"), also called (Saint) Brigid's Day. Many animals were observed to see if they would emerge from hibernation and herald the coming of spring. This certainly would be a good gauge even in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The waning of winter would be observed by most communities as a time of celebration in the realm.

Surviving the cold months, and all the dark creatures that take advantage of it is great campaign material. What if anything have you done over the years to emulate this? With entire communities holed up inside their cottages it seems like a perfect area for opportunistic monsters. A great example is Grendel bursting into the Heorot during the epic poem Beowulf. Even though Grendel had different motivations the horror of some unspeakable thing haunting an isolated community is great stuff.

The undead are particularly unnerving when used with a winter backdrop. One of the entries in Tales from the Game Tavern #2, the Frozen Man, provides a good example. Anyone who has read or is a fan of the HBO series Game of Thrones is familiar with the White Walkers. The utter horror they add to the ongoing story is just fantastic. Having a recurring winter boogeyman that finally vanishes with the coming of spring can help bring your campaign to life. Do you have any traditions in your campaign world similar to this? If so what are they and do the players love to hate them?