Friday, September 30, 2011

Month in Review: September 2011

What a great month for blogging September was. With new fandoms to explore, and new incarnations of old fandoms to investigate, there was no shortage of things to talk about...and that's just the beginning. We paid a week-long visit to the past, varied our posts from short and amusingly fluffy to long and philosophical, and recognized holidays and anniversaries both silly and solemn. Some long-awaited changes were made to the blog itself, including some tweaks to the sidebar, better sharing links at the bottom of each post, and a sweet updated banner.

Whether you enjoy continuity in the blog posts you read, or just think we're hip cats and want to get to know us better, you will not be disappointed by what we wrote in September. If you are, however, please don't tell us; our egos are quite fragile and we really like what we wrote:

- A recap of my contributions to videogame humor website in August and September of 2011

- The story of Gradius II and how it helped fuel my sudden Konami craze

- A look at Steve Geppi, Diamond, and bad art deals

- A completely misguided attempt at celebrating Labor Day

- A geeky and heartfelt Flashback Week, including:

+ My schoolyard days of playing Magic: The Gathering

+ Alex's unlikely baseball card collection quest

+ A long-overdue recounting of my first and only James Taylor concert

+ A somber piece that wasn't originally planned to be a part of this series, but seemed appropriate during a week of reflection: an outsider's perspective on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks

+ The origin and progression of my ongoing endeavors to expose my girlfriend-turned-fiancée to the fandoms I love

+ Alex's confession that he wasn't always a geek

- Alex's weekly stream-of-consciousness opinion column, Waiting for Wednesday, which has returned to its comics-oriented roots in Volume 3, Issues 36-39, with coverage of Swamp Thing, Batman (concluding our Flashback Week), Wonder Woman, and Justice League Dark

- A Dungeons & Dragons-themed guest post I wrote some time ago giving advice on how to run a better battle

- Alex's chance to see Andrea Bocelli...and finally hear him sing

- Thoughts on DC Comics' massive relaunch

- An admittedly halfhearted celebration of International Talk Like a Pirate Day

- Complaining about changes to Windows, Office, Pandora, and Facebook without actually complaining

- Proof that actor Nicholas Cage is a vampire

- A spotlight on the radical content delivery style of Champion! comics magazine

- An admission that I am a fan of bad movies

- Reviews of two DC relaunch titles: the impressive Batman, Issue 1 and the controversial Catwoman, Issue 1

Thursday, September 29, 2011

GameCola Recap: September 2011

My contributions to videogame humor website in the month of September keep with the tradition of the previous two months: there are two.

This time around, I got an easy sprite comic out of Frogger that may or may not provide a quick laugh, and a review of a Mega Man game, which shouldn't take anyone by surprise. To be fair, it's a review of a somewhat obscure Mega Man game that the general public seems to hate, and I haven't written a review that wasn't prompted by a company giving me a free game since January, so I think it's worth tooting some kind of horn. Bweeet.


- Sprite Flicker: Amphibian Impasse


- Mega Man (PC)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 3, Issue 39

This week marks the roll out of the last of DC's New 52 titles. With another 13 number one issues hitting shelves today, fans will get their final round of new books before having to decide which ones they'll continue to buy come next month.

There's some good stuff lined up for today, including two books that have been on my radar since they were first announced this spring.

But before we get to that, I just wanted to quickly follow up on my post yesterday about Catwoman, issue one.

I ended that post a bit abruptly, partly because it was late and partly because I just didn't have the time--or the brain matter, frankly--to put a nice bow on it.

I still don't have said time or brain matter today, but I did want to mention the following. I don't think the issue was a bad one in the sense that it accomplished many of the goals of DC's relaunch.

The issue introduced readers to a character and we got to know quite a bit about her. Granted, most of what we got to know wasn't very likable, but she is a jewel thief, right?

I dunno.

I'm still having some problems with the book. See, I like Judd Winick. Quite a bit, actually. And I really wanted to like this new Catwoman series. And like I said, I kind of did.

Selina Kyle as international woman of mystery is cool and different, and something I'd read on a monthly basis. But Selina Kyle in a T&A book for no apparent reason? Not really my thing.

And that's what issue one was--a strange, kind of creepy mix of very cool premise and very exploitative T&A action.

That said, I'm going to buy issue two. Hypocritical? Yes. But I think there's something good here--good enough to give a second issue a chance. Part of me is convinced that the book ended the way it did (more on that in yesterday's post) because it needed something big for people to talk about.

In that sense, the issue was a home run, as it very nearly broke the Internet in half. Still, I have faith in Winick as a storyteller, and I think this book is going somewhere good.

But enough about last week's books. Let's get to this week's new releases.

First up, Justice League Dark, issue one, hits stands today. Featuring three of my favorite DC/Vertigo characters--Madame Xanadu, John Constantine, and Zatanna--I've been looking forward to this title for quite a while now.
Written by Peter Milligan and with art by Mikel Janin, Dark is one of those books that immediately grabbed my attention when it was announced.

I need my Vertigo fix, and I've missed Madame Xanadu since the cancellation of her (excellent) solo book earlier this year. Milligan has been busy writing the heck out of Constantine in Hellblazer the past couple of years, and Zatanna is a character I feel DC has always dropped the ball on, until recently.

So, yeah. High hopes for this book. Here's the solicitation information from DC:

The witch known as The Enchantress has gone mad, unleashing forces that not even the combined powers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg can stop. And if those heroes can't handle the job, who will stand against this mystical madness?

Shade the Changing Man, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna and John Constantine may be our only hope – but how can we put our trust in beings whose very presence makes ordinary people break out in a cold sweat?

Next up is I, Vampire, issue one. Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov and with art by Andrea Sorrentino, this book is the wild card for me.
I know nothing about the history of this character or this world, but I like horror books, and this one promises to be a good horror story. I've seen art from Sorrentino, and it's dark and creepy (in a good way!) and wonderful. I don't have much else to say about it, other than the whole purpose of this relaunch is to try something new.

And I plan on doing just that with I, Vampire. Here's the blurb from DC:

For hundreds of years, vampire Andrew Stanton kept mankind safe from the horrors of the supernatural world, thanks to a truce he made with his ex-lover Mary, the Queen of the Damned. But now that truce has reached a bloody end and Andrew must do everything in his power to stop Mary and her dark forces from going on a killing spree – and she plans to start with the heroes of the DCU!

And that's what I'm buying today. How about you guys--what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Exfanding Review: Catwoman, Issue 1

Okay, so, this is the kind of thing we normally wouldn't even think about touching on Exfanding, but last week's Catwoman, issue 1, from DC' New 52 relaunch has sparked so much debate online that I feel the need to talk about it.

First, a warning. Actually, two.

This post will be filled with spoilers. Seriously, if you haven't read the issue and plan to and don't want the ENTIRE THING RUINED, then stop reading now. Second, if you do plan to continue, know that we'll be talking about some not-exactly-PG stuff for the next few paragraphs.

Hey--don't blame me. DC put the book out.

And now, for the especially dense...


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Catwowman, issue 1, is a bit of a head scratcher. On one level, it's an interesting and engaging revamp of a popular character. On another level, it's a very creepy comic book.

And I'm not talking good, horror story-creepy, either.

I'm talking the Bridge Troll Comic Fan-creepy.

Stop it. You know exactly the kind of fan I'm talking about--he might stare at you a little while too long with somewhat murderous intent in his eyes, but in the end he really is harmless. Creepy? Sure, but ultimately just a fan who lacks a few social skills, and is otherwise a pretty decent guy.

That's what Catwoman, issue 1, feels like to me.

It's that kind of creepy comic book storytelling that plays into all of the worst stereotypes about the comics industry, but at the end of the day, it's pretty much harmless.

But let's back up a minute for some context.

As with all of the New 52 from DC, the goal of Catwoman, issue 1, is to re-introduce the character to readers both old and new. In that sense, writer Judd Winick has introduced us to a new(ish) version of Selina Kyle who is in the vein of an international woman of mystery.

Infiltrating Russian mob parties, escaping from mysterious assassins, etc.

That's pretty cool, and I think it's a nice revamp of a character we'll be seeing a lot of in the next year as Chris Nolan's third Batman film approaches. But character revision is not what has raised the ire of so many people.

Winick's Catwoman is, I think, supposed to come off as a predator, using her sexuality to get the upper hand on the bad guys. Only, I don't think the issue did a good job in that regard. Instead, it made Selina look pretty bad.

In an issue titled, "...and most of the costumes stay on" the main character is in her underwear a lot. And when she's not in her underwear, she's spending a lot of time trying to get Batman out of his.

Underwear, I mean.

The art--by the incredibly talented, but cheese cake loving Guillem March--played this up to an extent not uncommon in many comics featuring female leads. Unfortunate, but true when it comes to super hero books.

Like it or not, T&A is a part of the culture. Like anything else, a little here and there is okay, but let's try to keep things from getting embarrassing, you know?

And that's where the furor over this issue really lies. At the end of the book, Batman and Catwoman have sex. It's not the usual kiss and lights out thing, or the implied aftermath of a close call in the heat of battle.

They just have sex.

And Catwoman tells the reader what it's like to have sex with Batman. Which is more than I ever wanted to know.

If you're wondering, that whole scene is about as weird and uncomfortable for the reader/viewer as you might expect when two people dressed in spandex and leather, respectively, start going at it on a rooftop after a night of crime fighting/Russian mob infiltrating.

Now, as someone who is not easily offended--especially when it comes to fictional characters--my initial reaction to the book was not one of outright indignation. Even now, after reading the firestorm online, I really don't care that they had sex.

And I really don't care that the art was as racy as it was.

I guess my biggest issue with the book is that DC certainly didn't offer this book as one with a limited, older audience in mind. Note the playful cover copy for the issue, which DC ran as the solicitation information to retailers:

Meet Catwoman. She's addicted to the night. Addicted to shiny objects. Addicted to Batman. Most of all, Catwoman is addicted to danger. She can't help herself, and the truth is – she doesn't want to. She's good at being bad, and very bad at being good. Find out more about what makes Catwoman tick in this new series from writer Judd Winick (BATMAN: UNDER THE HOOD) and artist Guillem March (GOTHAM CITY SIRENS)!

Granted, the book was rated "T+" though I didn't notice that until it was pointed out by someone online.

What has struck me most about the DC relaunch is how all over the place in terms of mature vs. all ages these books have been. I know comics aren't for kids anymore, and I personally like that about the industry, but it's a little weird that most of DC's books are not suitable for kids.

That said, you have to judge a book on its own merits. And Catwoman, issue 1, has problems. Selina is DC's most popular female character--I'm going out on a limb and saying she's more popular amongst readers than even Wonder Woman. Some of those problems lie with the storytelling, and some with the characterization of a major player in the DCU.

Issue 2 is going to be on pretty much everyone's radar to see how DC handles Catwoman going forward.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Exfanding Review: Batman, Issue 1

DC's New 52 relaunch has pretty much dominated the comics press over the course of its first three weeks. And rightfully so, as the relaunch marks a major shift in DC's publishing paradigm.

I've bought into the whole affair, literally, as I've purchased nearly every one of the new number one issues.

As these things go, you can't expect everything to be to your liking, but overall I've been very impressed with the new books. Sure, there have been a couple of clunkers, but that's standard fare during any comic book week.

Since its announcement earlier this year, I've always felt the benchmark moment of this relaunch would be the main Batman book. For the line to work, the main Batman book needs to work. Despite Superman being the first DC superhero, Batman has always been the character that the mainstream flocks to.

Just look what The Dark Knight did for DC in terms of elevating their position in the film industry. Everyone loves Batman; everyone loves Batman's villains. (Everyone, that is, except Nathaniel.) People who never read a Batman book rushed into theaters to see the hottest movie of that year.

And a new number one issue featuring the world's most popular superhero?

That's exactly the book that needs to be well written, accessible to first-time (or first time in a long time) readers, and in an art style that will appease both longtime fans and newbies to the Bat.

Well, last Wednesday we finally got the chance to see what the new Batman looks like, and in my opinion, at least, it was a near-perfect New 52 title. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo definitely delivered the goods, and did right by Bruce Wayne.

They've given readers--old and new--an accessible, back to the basics Batman book that features actual detective work, an appearance by nearly all of Batman's rogues, cool new tech for the Dark Knight to play with, and a cliffhanger ending that left me wishing for a time machine.

You know, so I could fast forward to next month to buy issue two. But you knew what I was saying.

Capullo's art is a perfect fit for Batman, and for Gotham. Dark and gritty, Capullo's line feels both classic and fresh and his storytelling is easy to follow. I especially like his depictions of Commissioner Gordon and The Joker.

In just 20-odd pages, we get an attempted breakout at Arkham Asylum featuring a new villain or two, a new direction for Wayne Industries and Gotham City, an introduction to all three Robins, some great police work by Gordon and Harvey Bullock, and one big, honking mystery that's to be continued.

Batman's back and forth with both Gordon and Bullock was especially well written, and even a one-page-too-long monologue by Bruce Wayne introduced some cool new stuff into the Bat world.

As a longtime (and fairly fanatic) Batman fan, this book scratched all the right itches, and I am definitely on board for the long run.

This book flew off the shelves in my area, and in both stores that I frequent, it sold out before noon. With a creative team like this, and with a home run story like this, I wouldn't be surprised if this book continues to sell out through its first arc.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bad Movie Night

I've come to the realization that I am a fan of bad movies. While there are certainly a few films that are physically painful for me to watch--such as The Creeping Terror, which not even Mystery Science Theater 3000 could make bearable (and that's saying something!)--the majority of movies labeled as "bad" by viewers are, in reality, not that great. Nevertheless, there's more to the movie experience than being entertained.

I find satisfaction in being the champion of ideas and opinions contrary to those of the mainstream (where entertainment and pop culture are concerned, anyhow), and I relish the opportunity to defend a film that has garnered widespread disapproval from the general public, or at least offer up new reasons why it wasn't any good. I think it's worthwhile to challenge the mainstream from time to time in order to ensure that prevailing opinions are the thoughtfully developed personal opinions of many individuals, and not simply the strong opinions of a select few, propagated through other people with no compelling reasons to disagree.

Too often I hear "bad" movies dismissed with a verdict of, "it sucked," as though any objective observer should concur without any elaboration that, yes, this film did indeed suck. I suspect I'm a little more analytical and less gut-reactive about my entertainment than the average person, which is why I view "it sucked" as a statement of fact that needs to be backed up. Someone would punch me in the face if I said that Avatar or The Dark Knight sucked, but if I treated my opinions as facts and failed to clarify my thinking, I would say just that--they're both terrible movies.

Stay your fist for a moment. My opinions are not facts. And neither are yours.

I've already written at length about my feelings toward Avatar and its nine minutes of bonus footage, but The Dark Knight is one film I've avoided discussing, in part because Alex might kick me out of the blog, and in part because my reasons for disliking the film have little or nothing to do with objective criticism of the film's quality.

I'm not big into crime dramas. I don't get much of a sense of character from Christian Bale (I was not impressed with him in Terminator Salvation or The Prestige, though I loved 3:10 to Yuma and enjoyed Pocahontas back in the day). I'm bothered by Batman's just-swallowed-a-cigarette-factory voice. More than anything else, though, The Dark Knight is too...dark for my tastes. The film works incredibly well, and it only works because the Joker is so twisted and Gotham City is such a troubled place. I have a strong appreciation for what the film accomplished. It's not my type of movie.

Compare that to, "The Dark Knight sucked."

Some of you still want to punch me, I'll bet, or are calling into question my right to have any opinions whatsoever. Where are the people who react that way to folks who didn't care for Catwoman or Weekend at Bernie's II? Evidently, we've either got a lot of dedicated fans who remain silent in the face of widespread discontent, or else these are the kinds of movies that, in whole or in part, are objectively bad--the kinds of movies where even the most diehard fans will identify flaws.

I now own a modest collection of objectively bad sci-fi movies that I hope to discuss in more detail at some point. Though there are a few standalone movies in my collection that have been critically panned--Battlefield Earth, for example--most of them, such as Convict 762 and Bride of the Gorilla, I have as part of a compilation. One box set bills them as "50 Sci-Fi Classics" and includes the unforgettable Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Another is a two-disc set of "3 Movies." My favorite, however, is the double feature disc that was packaged in a box labeled "Bad Movie Night," complete with Bad Movie Night popcorn and...barf bag. No indication whether it was for the movie or the popcorn.

It's fun to play MST3K with bad films if I'm watching with other people, but I'm finding more and more that it's strangely rewarding to take them as seriously as is reasonably possible, and to objectively identify exactly what factors make these movies bad. So far, I'm seeing two recurring problems with the films I've been watching: one, low budget; two, false expectations of quality relative to budget on the part of the viewer.

Films such as Absolution and Dark Planet--which, at the time of this post, have less presence on Wikipedia than my middle school's math team, if that's any indication--suffer from many of the same problems that many big-name, big-budget films do: plot holes, lousy dialogue, wasted talent, cheesy special effects; you name it. The primary difference is that there's no big-name, big-budget veneer to distract the viewer from the flaws.

By analyzing bad movies--and occasionally offering dissenting opinions about the good ones--I'm developing an understanding and appreciation of cinema that extends well beyond being entertained and stimulated in the ways the filmmakers intended. I'm sticking to bad sci-fi movies for now, but if this research continues, it's only a matter of time before I break down and see Mr. Popper's Penguins with someone.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Exfanding Radar: Champion! Magazine

I'm a big proponent of new, exciting ways to deliver content.

Working in publishing, especially, has taught me that, instead of fearing new and coming digital advancements, we should embrace them and use them to deliver content in the coolest, simplest way possible.

I'd even argue that, in some cases, the delivery of the content is more important (in terms of sellable product) than the content itself. Often, we get products featuring one or the other--great content with a bland, old template or flashy and impressive delivery methods with very little substance.

It's a rare occurrence when both delivery and content prove to be worthwhile, new, different, and, frankly, exciting.

Enter the editors and developers of the new Champion! magazine (yes, they have an exclamation point in their name; no I won't hold it against them).

Created by an editorial department made up of many former Wizard employees, Champion! offers--in my opinion, at least--revolutionary content delivery.

Stories about the comics industry literally come to life with video and audio features that truly enhance the "reading" experience. Product previews are handled especially well. In one of the issues I read, a Wolverine statue is hailed as an upcoming product. The magazine's interface allows the user a 360-degree view of the product--you can spin the statue around and heck it out from all angles.

Downloading the app--which is, for now at least, iPad only--is free, and each issue can be downloaded for free within the app.

Fans of Wizard should absolutely jump on this, and anyone with even a passing interest in the evolution of digital magazines has to pick this up. So go on, check it out already!

Friday, September 23, 2011

I Knew It!

I knew it!

I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.

Nic Cage is a vampire.

Now hold on a minute; let me explain. You see, this week a man posted up an old Civil War-era photograph to sell on eBay. He claimed (rightly so, if you ask me) that the photo--which, again, was taken in the 1860s--is actually of actor Nic Cage.

Which proves--beyond a shadow of doubt--that Nic Cage is, indeed, actually a vampire who has lived hundreds of years. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the photos below. The one on the left is present-day (vampiric) Nic Cage. The one on the right is the 1860s photo found by the (no doubt sound-minded) eBay seller.
Uncanny. It's uncanny, the resemblance. Eerily so, if you ask me. And so, finally, after these many long years, my once-laughed-at claim that Nic Cage is actually one of the walking undead can be backed up by photographic evidence.

Think about it. Have you, personally, ever seen Nic Cage during the daytime? What about all those old, rare, impossible-to-find comics he used to have? Where'd they come from, hmmm? Oh! And--and he was in a movie where he played a vampire.

Which is exactly what a vampire would do--hide in plain sight.

Uh huh. Now you're seeing things my way.

Also, there's probably a very obvious joke about vampires, Nic Cage movies, and sucking that I may be missing...

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Happy Friday, folks!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Banerrific Update

We hinted at it in our celebration of three years of Exfanding Your Horizons, and now it's finally here!

Our lovely banner has been revamped by neko-chan, who you may recall as the artist behind our updated banners in 2009 and 2008, an occasional guest poster, and my fiancée. I'm still impressed by how pretty she makes my block letters look.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 3, Issue 38

Talk about a big comic book week.

Tons of new product from DC and Marvel, and apparently I pre-ordered a couple of (not cheap) collections that also hit today. Oh! And Li'l Depressed Boy, issue six from Image ships!

So no preamble this week--just my picks.

From DC, we finally get to see the much-hyped (and already incredibly well-reviewed) Batman, issue one, by writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire) and artist Greg Capullo (Spawn, Sam and Twitch).
There's been buzz about this book forever, and from all accounts, Snyder's new Bat book manages to exceed the expectations laid forth after his stellar Detective Comics run of the last year-plus.

In that run, Snyder wrote the Dick Grayson Batman--here he'll write the Bruce Wayne Batman, and I'm interested in his take on the iconic Dark Knight that we all grew up with.

Capullo's dark style fits Gotham--and Batman--perfectly, and I fully expect this book to be one of the best in the DC relaunch. Here's the solicitation information from the publisher:

Be here for the start of a new era for The Dark Knight from writer Scott Snyder (AMERICAN VAMPIRE, BATMAN: GATES OF GOTHAM) and artist Greg Capullo (Spawn)! A series of brutal killings hints at an ancient conspiracy, and Batman learns that Gotham City is deadlier than he knew.

Now, group Batman with Wonder Woman, issue one, from the brilliant creative team of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, and you get the two most talked about issues of the New DC.
I'm really interested in Azzarello's take on Diana, as he's known more for his excellent, down and dirty crime books than for the more lofty, superhero-y type of stories.

But from solicitation materials and things I've read online, it seems like this book will focus heavily on the Greek myth aspects of Diana's character--which, really, just makes a whole lot of sense.

Here's the blurb from DC:

The Gods walk among us. To them, our lives are playthings. Only one woman would dare to protect humanity from the wrath of such strange and powerful forces. But is she one of us – or one of them?

I'm excited to try both books, and I have a feeling I'll be buying these series month to month. You can check out previews for each issue over at Bleeding Cool. And remember, if you plan on grabbing these--or any of the DC reboots, really--be sure to either call your shop ahead or get to your store early.

Batman, especially, is going to fly off the shelves today, and many retailers likely ordered fewer copies of Wonder Woman than of Batman, or Action. The issues are already starting to pop up on eBay, with Buy It Now prices of $6.00.

Ridiculous? Yes, absolutely. But a good indication that, if you want to read these books as single issues, you better get to your LCS sooner rather than later.

Right. So. Let's get out of the mainstream for a bit, shall we?

While I'll happily pick up many of the New DC books today, I am most looking forward to Li'l Depressed Boy, issue six, from Image.
Sure there was a bit of a lag between issues 5 and 6, but that merely stoked the flames for what is officially my favorite new book of 2011. I made that claim after reading issue one, and now that most of the year has come and gone, I'm saying it again.

And apparently I'm not the only one to fall in love with this title, as the book has garnered a nice following--so nice, in fact, that they'll soon be releasing a trade of the previously uncollected web comic that spawned the Image series.

But that's down the road a bit. Today's issue is the second part of a new story arc, and Image gives us the low down:

'JAIL GUITAR DOORS' Drew Blood has been arrested, leaving LDB stranded by the side of the road with no clue where he is or how to get home. All he can think is: What would Snake do? Featuring a cover by CHARLIE ADLARD, award winning artist of THE WALKING DEAD and all around nice guy.

Please jump on this book if you haven't already. It's honestly one of the best books on the market, and despite its title, LDB manages to make me smile whenever I read it.

So that's what I'm buying. How about you--what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Progressive Deterioration

I really don't know if I have the energy to complain about this properly. Pandora just implemented a complete redesign that tampers with virtually everything I like about the site's layout; Facebook's umpteenth facelift has continued the unbreakable trend of me somehow thinking less of Facebook with each new update; Office 2010's new ideas waste just as much of my time as they save; and Windows 7 continues to sacrifice nearly everything I like about Windows XP in exchange for one minor new feature I kinda like...and I can't even remember what that feature is right now.

I am a creature of habit and it usually takes me a while to warm up to something changing unless it was obviously broken in the first place. While I could painstakingly whine about the individual changes to Pandora, Facebook, and Windows, the fact of the matter is that most of my complaints boil down to personal preference and an appreciation of various functionalities that newer audiences can be trained not to expect. The bigger problem is not that anyone changed anything I liked, but that they revoked my ability to choose what I liked.

One of the recurring themes you'll notice when I write about video games, especially, is the significance of choice. Even when Muramasa: The Demon Blade gave me incredibly powerful weapons toward the end of the game, I still found myself occasionally gravitating toward the swords I'd picked up only halfway through, because their special abilities were more in line with my playing style. Yes, their damage output was inferior, but I stayed alive longer when I used them--and I had more fun choosing rather than defaulting to the "latest and greatest" option.

I understand making a change to fix a problem. I understand the standardization of procedures and interfaces where consistency is critical. I have run out of patience with innovation steamrolling the established order while there is still room for both. Am I really so inflexible, or have we started to lose our ability to improve on a good thing without tossing out what made it good?

Monday, September 19, 2011

International Talk Like a Pirate Day 2011

Avast! Once again 'tis International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

...I think that's about as much as I should say, lest I embarrass myself as badly as I did last year and the year before that when attempting to talk like a pirate. I'll let you head on over to the official website of International Talk Like a Pirate Day so you may enjoy the festivities and possibly learn to speak better Pirate than me.

Go on, now. Pip pip, cheeriyaaaar!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On a Konami Kick

I am officially on a Konami kick. It started with Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, followed by Gradius II, followed now by Gradius III. I'm even considering an attempted playthrough of the original Gradius for the GameCola YouTube channel. (I say "attempted," because I'm not sure I've ever beaten the game honestly, without Game Genie or emulator savestates.) How did I get so hooked?

I've already written about getting into the Castlevania game, and about getting into Gradius II, and it's a logical progression to Gradius III: I just barely beat II (after discovering there was an option screen to set the game to Easy Mode with 7 lives and infinite continues), had a great time playing it, and was left just a smidge unsatisfied by the ending, which implied I wouldn't see a real ending unless I beat the game on a harder difficulty mode. I wanted more, but I recognized I'd never be skilled enough to get the full replayability out of Gradius II that the game I saw whether the Wii Virtual Console offered Gradius III instead.

It did. And I just happened to have a few dollars to spare on Imaginary Virtual Currency. I also noted that Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was available. Good to know, in case this Konami kick continues after Gradius III, because I'm already getting a hankering to dig into my collection and play through Castlevania III and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, having completed about as much of Harmony of Dissonance as I care to spend the time on right now.

I've beaten the game, collected almost about 98% of the items (and still can't determine which ones I'm missing, even with a walkthrough), gone through Boss Rush mode on Easy and Normal difficulties, and tried playing as the two top-secret unlockable characters. I know there's a final final boss I'm missing out on, and a secret Hard difficulty for the main game, but I'm finally beginning to question how much of my life that Completed status on my Backloggery is worth when I've already Beaten a game and experienced the majority of what it has to offer. Amazingly, I feel pretty satisfied...but I wouldn't mind taking a shot at Completing another Castlevania game that contains less to complete.

In addition to anything I've already mentioned, I believe there are three major factors driving my continued enthusiasm for Konami games right now:

(1) I'm excited to continue experiencing more of these long-running fandoms I've had such little exposure to over the years;

(2) the games are genuinely fun, and rarely get bogged down by the kinds of gamewide problems and shortcomings that have spoiled my enjoyment of too many games over the past few years (see: Mighty Bomb Jack, Police Quest II, Link Rides a Choo-Choo Train, etc.); and

(3) they're short. Castlevania took me, what, two, three weeks of regular playing? Gradius II took me about a week. Maybe I've just had too many RPGs in my gaming diet, but it is refreshing to pick up a game and not feel like I need to commit the next 6-12 months of my life to finishing it.

We'll see how long this kick lasts; Gradius III is not fully living up to my expectations so far, despite the welcome ability to completely customize my weaponry (which is why I've been interested in playing this game since I first read about it in Nintendo Power oh so long ago--similar to how Nintendo Power got me interested in Mega Man once upon a time, incidentally). The music isn't as catchy as that of its predecessors; several of the challenges are more tedious or frustrating than clever or fun; and unlike Gradius II, which brought back a few ideas from the original Gradius and its spinoff, Salamander (or Life Force, if you prefer the NES version), most of the revisited ideas in Gradius III feel more like rehashes than tributes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The New DC

Admittedly, I've been a bit down on the comics lately. A thing or two happened in my personal life that made me toss my beloved funny books to the back burner for a couple of months there.

But as they always seem to do, comics won me over again recently. Specifically, I'm talking about DC's new line of number one issues.

Say what you will about Flashpoint--the event that preceded the new line--and all of its (mostly superfluous) tie-ins, the New 52 has debuted incredibly strong in its first couple of weeks.

Justice League hit massively, selling over 180,000 copies and going into three printings; Action received almost unanimous critical and fan praise as one of the year's best comics; Animal Man has become a must-read DC Universe title; and Barbara Gordon is out of the wheelchair and back into her role as Batgirl.

It's been a whirlwind of new books--13 number one issues have shipped each of the past two weeks--and there have been a handful of titles that fell flat. But so far DC's win-to-loss ratio has been impressive, and I hope their streak of quality books continues.

All in all, it's a pretty cool time to be a comics fan--old or new. Lots of stores have reported new customers seeking out the new books, and many have said that old (probably jaded) former customers have returned, looking for a New 52 fix.

Of course, as it always happens in this industry, the speculators hit the shops hard, and copies of first printings were up on eBay for many multiples of their cover price--on the day they came out.

Seems like we'll never truly be rid of that particular type of creature.

Still, retailers I've spoken to are happy with the way the books are selling, but they're having a bit of a hard time figuring out how to order going forward.

Will the second and third issues of even the highest-selling debuts fall off, as they usually do? Or will more people come looking for them, knowing that they'll probably sell out of the first printings on release day?

A good problem to have, but still a bit of a thinker, that.

Going forward, I plan to continue buying every one of the New 52 number ones, and scale back to the books I like best. For once, I hope I have less money in my pocket and more comics on my floor come week five. Or 10. Or 52.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Last Night...

...I was here:
And because I was there last night, I am in a very good mood today.

However, I am also on a deadline at work, so I don't have much time to write this morning. Which is fine, because I mostly wanted to just brag about how I saw Andrea Bocelli live in Central Park last night.

Sure it was cold. And rainy. And there were lines. But we managed to get around that pesky, 10,000-person deep line (don't ask), the rain stopped completely after the intermission, and the show was amazing.

Great friends, great music, great night.

I'd previously seen Bocelli in Florence--years ago and with the same friends I went to Central Park with last night--when he received an award. We all crowded into the event, hoping to hear him sing.

As I remember it (and, again, I've had a couple of concussions since then), there were people all over the place, angling for position to hear one song.

However, all he did was say thank you in Italian.

Ten years later, and we finally got to hear the man sing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

This battle is too hard! This battle is too easy! This battle is juuuust right!

While we're still reflecting on times gone by, I'd like to bring back a Dungeons & Dragons-related guest post I wrote in August of 2008 for Beneath the Screen, a roleplaying blog started by a friend of mine, which we've mentioned before. Looking back, it appears that I used to be funny. Or so I tell myself.

[Initiating overly verbose guest post in 3… 2… 1…]

It was to be a beautiful start to the campaign. There was no exposition, not even so much as character introductions; there were just three words: “Roll for initiative.”

My players had recently returned from summer break; all of them either had new characters, or else they had characters who had advanced to level 15 in the five years that had passed between the previous campaign and the current one. I wanted to kick things off with a hefty challenge.

I had what I thought to be a clever plan: toss my players into a battle with a particularly tough and nasty hydra (twelve heads, breath weapons, lots of hurt) before they had a chance to determine each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and roles in battle.

Once the battle was over, they would discover that they were actually watching a play of people pretending to be them, celebrating (though inaccurately) their historic deeds from the previous campaign, and that the hydra battle was really a performance on stage and was strictly for dramatic effect.

The details are a little fuzzy, perhaps because I blocked them out of my memory, but I’m fairly certain that my hydra never got a chance to attack before going down.

I was devastated. It was supposed to be a balanced battle, and there were the heads… so many heads… Hydra, how could you let me down???

Sometimes battles are intended to be too easy or too hard for players to handle, but when a battle is not of the difficulty you were anticipating, it can spoil the fun and lead to enormous disappointment and/or frustration. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of battles that didn’t end up how I planned them. Fortunately, I’ve learned many things from those experiences.

Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I dedicate this post to exploring what you can do before and during a battle to ensure that it ends up being the challenge it’s supposed to be. These suggestions assume that you’re playing regular old 3.5, but most of them should hopefully be applicable to some extent beyond 3.5.

Wait… I have to come up with the plan?

The two greatest mistakes I made with the hydra battle were: (1) I didn’t fully understand how to effectively use a hydra, and (2) I was unprepared for how powerful level 15 characters are.

My D&D experience at that point was pretty limited: long story short, I played for about a month under 3.0 rules and then was the DM for the next several months using 3.5 rules, and that was it.

It took me a while to get comfortable with level 15 characters, and by the end of the quest I had figured out some things that might have helped that hydra battle, as well as numerous other battles, to be a balanced challenge for my players:

Know the level: If you’re launching a new campaign, set the starting level as one you’re familiar with, whether through DMing or through playing (preferably both).

If you only have experience with very low-level campaigns and are sick of never getting past level 3, don’t just start a new campaign at level 16; start somewhere close to what you’re used to and gradually work your way up from there.

Think of it this way: if you had only ever seen Star Wars: Episode I, skipping Episode II and watching Episode III would make almost enough sense for you to get away with it, but watching Episode I followed by Empire Strikes Back would be totally nonsensical.

Slowly progressing up from levels you’re familiar with (or progressing down, if you’re one of those strange folk who’s never played a character lower than level 8) gives you the opportunity to gradually get a feel for new feats, spells, etc. by having them slowly trickle into your campaign instead of needing to suddenly deal with new magic items, three attacks per round, obscenely high skill checks, etc. all at the same time.

Know the PCs: Ask for your characters’ backstories. Read your players’ character sheets. Look at HP, AC, saves, skills, feats, class features, equipment… you don’t need to memorize everything, but you should be familiar enough with them to know the characters' strengths and weaknesses. Know the basics about each race and class represented in your campaign.

I allowed a shadowdancer to join in the middle of one of my campaigns before I had much of a chance to review what a shadowdancer can do, and my ignorance of his character put me and my monsters at his mercy. Knowing the PCs puts them at your mercy (as it should be): in the same campaign, the players were strong in every department except for long-range offense, so any time I wanted to guarantee a tough battle, I threw in some enemies that attacked from a distance and were difficult to reach for melee combat.

At the very least, know your PCs well enough so that you aren’t surprised when the villain around which your entire campaign revolves, Lord Karthlor the Terrifying, Destroyer of Worlds, is suddenly polymorphed into a banana.

Know the enemies: Check challenge ratings and encounter levels. Understand everything your monsters and NPCs are capable of; don’t gloss over that stat block! Make sure your attack bonuses and save DCs are high enough to present a challenge to the party. Consider damage reduction, flight capabilities, AC, etc. and think about whether or not the party can overcome them. Anticipate any tactics or dirty tricks the party might try.

Look over the stats before the session or before the battle to ensure that nothing gets forgotten (I’m looking at you, fast healing!). If necessary, make notes to yourself about tactics and special abilities; concise and often incoherent notes such as “Ranger - bad!” and “Use electricity!” and “DODGE!!!” are effective and also double as suggestions for buying a new vehicle.

Know your place: Choose the right location for your battle, and know all of the specific terrain rules and hazards that go along with it, plus the weather conditions. An open road in broad daylight with some suspicious-looking bushes is a perfectly acceptable location for a battle between a few kobolds and a party of first-level yahoos, but it’s hardly ideal for a battle between epic-level heroes and the stealth-reliant assassins that have been following them.

On the other hand, having those assassins surprise the epic-level heroes at midnight amongst boulders and large piles of rubble next to a river of lava at the base of an active volcano is perfectly acceptable, but bear in mind that pitting yahoos vs. kobolds in such a place will not likely end well for your players or for your flammable kobolds.

Make sure you know whether the environment will help or hinder those involved in the battle, and to what extent; a fight between a party and their evil clones should theoretically be even on a level playing field, but put the bad guys on a tiny raft approaching the good guys on the shore or put the good guys at the bottom of a tiny well with the bad guys looking down at them (and probably spitting on them), and the dynamic of the battle changes and the difficulty shifts.

Status report: Consider the party’s condition at the beginning of the battle. Will this battle be the first one of the day when everybody’s rested and at full health, or will it be the last of a long string of battles when the players are worn down and have no more spells left?

Assuming that the battles are of about average difficulty, lower-level characters can handle very few battles before needing to rest, mid-level characters can handle a good number of battles before needing to rest, and higher-level characters can almost go on indefinitely thanks to special abilities and lots of items. Think about the shape the party will be in before and after each battle to help you gauge whether or not you should adjust the difficulty.

Put it all together: So, to sum up this section, consider how the PCs, enemies, location, and previous and future fighting will all interact in a battle. Could fully-rested PCs defeat the enemies in an empty, open field? (If they are facing a pair of dire sperm whales, my guess would be “yes.”)

What if they’re injured and running out of spells? Will the location give an advantage or disadvantage to anyone involved in the battle? (And, by extension, does the location make it possible or impossible for one side to defeat the other when it wouldn’t be that way otherwise?) How long could the PCs and enemies survive in the chosen location if they were exploring there without fighting anything—that is, is the location suitable for a long battle, and is it suitable for a battle at all?

Proper preparation goes a long way in making a battle the challenge you want it to be, and a battle that is thoughtfully crafted is almost always more satisfying and memorable than a battle against a random critter from the Monster Manual thrown at the party in a hurry. Unless the party demands a tavern fight and you have the Tarrasque come in to eat the tavern.

Perhaps we made a tactical mistake…

So you’ve memorized everybody’s character sheet. You can recite the stats for every monster in the Monster Manual. You know every square inch of the battleground for the fight to come. You’re ready. This is going to be the most awesome battle ever. The poet Homer would come back from the dead just to write an epic about it.

Yet, planning is only the recipe… you still need to bake the cake. And if the cake falls apart and burns up as it bakes, not even Homer Simpson will write an epic about it. But, if it melts in the rain, Donna Summer might sing about it.

…But I digress.

I threw a campaign where a city was under siege, and a few arrow demons (four arms, two big longbows, lots of hurt) had taken up sniping positions in the buildings surrounding a small city square. The party arrived on the scene, spotted one of the demons, shot at it once or twice, missed, and assumed it was just an illusion or something of that nature when it didn’t shoot back; they proceeded without too much caution into the center of the square.

The remainder of this story involves a dead vigilante who never got to roll for initiative, panic, disorganized execution of a nonexistent plan to kill the demons, and me remembering halfway through that the demons had damage reduction. If the survivors’ HPs were added together, the total would be roughly equal with the number of players. Oof.

What happened there? Aside from forgetting about the demons’ damage reduction (because I failed to write a note to myself saying “DR DEMON!!!”) everything I did went exactly as planned. It was the right challenge rating for the group, but there were the arms… so many arms… and the amount of damage I could dish out with multiple bows in an ambush was staggering, especially when all the arrows were directed at the one person that had gone ahead just a little too far.

I wasn’t expecting anybody to die before the battle started, and I really expected them to go into each building together and systematically wipe out the demons rather than split up and have one or two people mucking about in the square where all the demons could shoot at them.

I even anticipated that the battle might be a bit too difficult and worked in the fact that these demons were all mercenaries, and a few of them could have been convinced to leave or fight for the good guys for enough money or with a good Diplomacy check… if anybody would have rolled higher than a 7 on a Sense Motive check.

Shame on me, I underestimated the power of the arrow demons and expected my players to show a little more common sense. Perhaps we’re all equally to blame for the fiasco that was this massac—er… battle. Maybe it was just bad luck; if the person who initially shot at the one demon had hit the target and figured out the demon wasn’t an illusion, or if the players would have rolled higher on their Sense Motive checks, things might have turned out better for them.

Regardless of the causes, when a battle falls apart because of an unexpectedly high difficulty, steps need to be taken to get things back on track, both for the enjoyment of the players and for the success of the quest… provided that you’re interested in seeing them succeed at all and aren’t constantly trying your darndest to kill them off. Drew.

In the event that you’d prefer not to annihilate or nearly decimate your players’ party, there are some steps you can take during a battle if you see things starting to go sour:

Retreat: If the situation permits, remind the players that they can run away. During one quest I ran that I had reused from the previous year, the party encountered some girallons (four arms, rending, lots of hurt… hm… I’m seeing a pattern…) in the woods.

The quest was originally written for a group of six people who found the girallons to be a solid challenge, but the current party only consisted of five people; I figured that the extra XP they would gain by not having a sixth member would help to make up for their reduced number, but apparently that wasn’t the case.

The party’s barbarian pulled off a phenomenal critical hit against the first girallon and felled it, leading everyone to believe that these were big, fuzzy bags of easy XP they were fighting. Oh, how wrong they were.

One person after another was ripped apart, and the cleric ended up running in and out of the fray to drag bodies away and do some healing. Astoundingly, they managed to survive and moved on to nearly get slaughtered by minotaurs at a later date under similar circumstances, but there’s a lesson in here somewhere about the value of retreating from time to time.

Drop clues: If your players are finding the battle to be too difficult because they are doing something futile without realizing it, it’s OK to let them know. Dropping a hint like, “You’ve been slashing away with that sword and the monster doesn’t even have a scratch on it,” suggests to the player that the monster has damage reduction of some kind instead of a huge HP total like the player might mistakenly believe. You might have your players make a Wisdom roll to realize a better battle strategy if it’s obvious that they really don’t understand what to do.

Remember that it’s technically the characters who are fighting, not the players, so there’s always the chance that the character will pick up on something that the player does not.

Hold back: If the enemies have any attacks or abilities of any kind that haven’t yet come into play, ignore them. Don’t rend, swallow whole, constrict, trip, etc.

Move around so you can’t use your full attack. Rely on spells and abilities with low save DCs. Don’t try to flank anyone; only attack the characters with the most HP or highest saves.

Line up or cluster together to become easier targets for spellcasters; don’t use cover; provoke attacks of opportunity, perhaps by leaving one target to pursue another; charge whenever possible for the -2 to AC if the +2 to attack isn’t going to make a difference (that is, if your attack bonus is already through the roof); etc.

Doing all of these at once will make it obvious that you’re not trying, but using a few of them can make a big difference for the players.

The fewer, the merrier: If there are any enemies who haven’t yet joined the battle but are going to join in soon, forget about them; unless they’re somehow a threat to the enemies who are already engaging the party, they’ll only cause more trouble.

The more, the merrier: Add things that will work in the players’ favor:

“Hey, look! That bugbear just kicked over a mound of fire ants we didn’t notice!”

“Hey, look! There are two potions of Cure Light Wounds on this dead guard (instead of the none you had planned)!”

“Hey, look! It’s a purple worm! Wow, our whole party just got swallowed whole and we’re all going to die! Double wow! There’s another fighter in here who probably got eaten just before we did and will probably help us to fight our way out!”

“Hey, look! There’s a band of elves marching over the ridge! Maybe they can reattach Sir Malroc’s head and vital organs!”

The more plausible the addition is (for example, if you had heard rumors about a wandering band of elf surgeons who specialize in head and vital organ reattachment), the less your players will feel like you’re getting soft on them.

Fudge the numbers: Pretend that dragon started out with fewer hit points than you gave her. Pretend that the brutal critical hit you just confirmed was actually just a regular hit. Change the damage you’re about to give to a number that’ll knock a player to -9 instead of -14.

If fudging individual rolls rubs you the wrong way, consider applying a -2 penalty to everything your bad guys do, and maybe write it off as sloppiness caused by overconfidence from wiping the floor so far with the good guys.

Alternatives to death: This can be tricky to pull off, especially on the fly, but certain enemies might be willing to negotiate with the party: “We’ll let you live if you hand over all your gold,” or, “Scrag want goat. Bring Scrag goat and he not eat you.” Heck, maybe even one of the enemies might pipe up and just talk through the conflict, depending on how it started.

Some enemies might demand that the party surrender and be thrown into some musty prison somewhere, be made into slaves, or be brought elsewhere for a proper execution, thus keeping them alive long enough to find a way out of their new predicament, perhaps in a battle that’s more evenly balanced.

Even with animals and monsters who can’t talk and only seem to want the party dead, you might be able to develop a peaceful way out, like removing the thorn from the lion’s paw.

Even if there is no way to avoid death as a final outcome and the entire party is slain, you might have an evil cleric revive them and command them to do his bidding as his servants, or you might send them on a quest in the afterlife to gain enough favor with the gods to be restored to life. This isn’t Final Fantasy; losing a battle doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over.

Bottom line: No matter what you do, try to make it plausible, and give your players as much of a chance as possible to fix the situation before you start interfering. Add things to the battle that could possibly have been there the whole time; take things away from the battle that the players never realized were there; and give your monsters and NPCs a logical reason for the actions they take.

Create the illusion that you had planned it all along, and an atrociously failed battle saved only by the grace of the DM can be transformed into a heart-pounding but successful close call.

That’s it? I was just getting started!

In my experience, battles that are too hard are easy to fix. Battles that are too easy, however, are hard to fix. I ran a campaign where the characters became epic along the way, and even before they made the transition to epic it was difficult to create battles that were anywhere near being challenging enough. Everyone had become so powerful that only the most complex enemies and the most sophisticated battle strategies could challenge them.

Also, the list of monsters with an appropriate CR for those characters is shorter than a legless gnome, so I ended up doing a hefty amount of NPC creation.

Due to time constraints, I basically had to ignore almost all of the advice I gave about proper battle preparation, and most of my battles suffered for it. They were almost always too easy; most battles were over quickly, and I often had trouble threatening the party at all. I felt powerless to do anything about it without putting in the kind of extra planning that requires failing out of school or switching from sleep to caffeine delivered intravenously.

I ended up falling back on the following tricks to increase the challenge of my battles after they had started:

Threat assessment: Is your battle too easy because you can’t hit one player’s AC? Is your battle too easy because everyone keeps succeeding on their Will saves against your enchantments?

If there’s anything obvious that is allowing the players to fare so well, start targeting only the players you can harm, and/or take away whatever it is that’s causing your players to kick your butt. Disarm the dude with the vorpal sword. Shine some light on the area so that blasted rogue can’t sneak attack from the shadows. If you find that a player is using the same tactic in every battle to take your monsters down, use that tactic against him or her, or keep that tactic from being effective.

One player in my epic-level campaign dual-wielded swords with Wounding, and thanks to Haste, had something like 17,000 attacks per round. Give or take. Having all of my bad guys die of Constitution loss after about three rounds is bad enough, but constantly recalculating HP and Fortitude saves was truly vexing.

My solution was to start introducing enemies with an immunity to ability score damage, and also to start striking back with characters with Wounding weapons of their own. *WHAM!* A dire flail to the face! *WHAM!* Look, your face is bleeding! *WHAM!* Look, I’m wounding you! *WHAM!*

And, if that doesn’t work, just house-rule the problem out of existence. (“Sorry, man, each sword can only do 1 Constitution damage per round, even though you have 17,000 attacks. My villains are not anime characters and do not contain 12 gallons of blood for you to drain them of. Tough noogies.”)

Call in reinforcements: If one monster isn’t strong enough, have another one join the fray. There might be an endless supply of kobolds behind those suspicious-looking bushes, so keep them coming until there are enough to make your players sweat. If that isn’t an option, pick any monster or any stock NPC that might fit the situation, regardless of CR, and add as many as you think is reasonable.

If Xandor Soulbane, leader of the Army of Hextor, is totally surrounded by the good guys and is taking a beating, send in a few soldiers to distract the party. They might not pose much of a threat, but they cost you nothing to add and can draw one or two characters away long enough for Xandor to make an escape or to have more of a chance to dish out some heavy-duty damage before he falls.

Perhaps the greatest stroke of spontaneous genius I ever had was during a final battle where the evil NPCs were putting up a great fight, but didn’t have enough hit points to last for more than a few rounds. I had a flesh golem come crashing through the wall, as if the villains had been impatiently expecting him, and I also threw in two invisible lackeys who each fed a potion of Cure Moderate Wounds to the main villain every round, baffling the players about how he could “drink air and gain hit points.” I can’t speak for anyone else, but I love how the battle turned out.

If all else fails, make up a monster on the spot and arbitrarily choose its HP, AC, attack bonus, damage potential, and one or two special qualities like spell resistance or an immunity to fire; mutant skeletons and funny-colored oozes can fit in almost anywhere for this purpose.

Fudge the numbers: Basically, do the opposite of everything I suggested for when a battle is too hard:

Pretend the dragon had the maximum possible amount of hit points when starting the battle. Automatically confirm any possible criticals. Add +2 to everything the enemies do. Re-roll any 1s on your damage dice. Forget the 1d4-turn wait for breath weapons; make it 1 turn. Increase damage reduction, elemental resistance, or spell resistance if they haven’t come into play yet.

The element of surprise: Suddenly reveal that the villains tied up a character’s loved one and threw her into the lake behind them. Have the enemies start to burn down the town or try to collapse the tunnel you’re in. Have an enemy pull out an item that suddenly teleports everybody to a random location on the battlefield. Have an enemy keep whispering over his shoulder and trick your players into believing that there’s another monster in hiding for them to go after.

Along the same lines of calling in reinforcements, have an ethereal filcher pop into the middle of the battle and steal the players’ healing potions. Allow a poisonous insect to land on a player’s neck undetected and bite him or her for a high-DC Fortitude save. When a monster dies, have it explode. That is, explode like a bomb, not explode like the pig-lizard in Galaxy Quest; the biggest challenge to come out of that would be getting the stains out of your clothes.

Things that come completely out of left field, when used sparingly and reasonably, can panic, confuse, and distract players enough to squeeze more of a challenge out of a battle than there really should be. Just look at how much chaos I caused by having that arrow demon sniper unexpectedly wait for the party to enter the square before retaliating.

Desperation attacks: Some video games feature enemies who use “desperation attacks” once they take a certain amount of damage, attacks that are more powerful than or very different from the attacks they’ve been using; that concept can be applied to enemies in D&D as well.

Perhaps the monster being fought is wearing a small magical item that no one noticed that casts Mage Armor on the wearer or grants the wearer an extra attack after they receive enough damage; to discourage the player from wearing it after defeating the monster, perhaps the item only works on a specific creature type or crumbles into dust after being used, etc. Players can generally spot that this is also a desperation attack for the DM, though, so be careful if you use this.

Bottom line: Add stuff if it’s plausible, but be ready to explain to your players why they are not allowed to explode when they die. Surprise, panic, distract, and confuse your players. If you pull it off properly, you might just convince your players that your lame-o excuse for a battle was really a clever ploy to catch them off-guard… if your Bluff check is high enough.

Don’t Overdo It

If you have the time and energy to plan thoroughly in advance, if you or your players are dissatisfied with the level of difficulty of a battle, or even if you want to draw out or cut short a battle for some reason, consider these suggestions. However, don’t forget that players sometimes enjoy a battle that’s too easy or two hard, whether you planned it that way or not.

Just don’t go crazy with trying to salvage every battle that doesn’t go as planned; if your players are sharp, they might be able to tell you’re making stuff up when they start seeing elves who reattach heads and vital organs on every hilltop and street corner.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 3, Issue 37

When I was in my Junior year at college, my laptop's background image was, of course, an image of Batman drawn by Jim Lee. The art featured the Dark Knight, standing in the shadows and looking about as bad as can be.
I mention this because, while in my Junior year, I hadn't read a comic book in at least a decade. I had no idea that the image on my laptop was taken from Jim Lee's epic Hush storyline, or that that particular title was taking comics by storm and helping to usher in a new era in the medium.

I also didn't know that, in just over a year or so, I would embark on a mad hunt of every comics shop in my area to track down a copy of Batman, issue 608, which was the beginning of the Hush arc.

I didn't know any of this stuff, and I honestly didn't care.

But, as I've said many times before on the blog, I've always loved Batman, and I've always wanted to be Batman.

What can I say? Some people have Real Person Aspirations, like becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, or a pumpkin salesman in Michigan. For me--and for as long as I can remember--I've just wanted to be Batman.

You know, but without all the tragedy.

For a whole mess of reasons, Batman has been with me since day one, it seems. Some of my earliest memories (granted, I suffered a couple of concussions in college, so these might not be actual memories) revolve around playing with Batman toys (back when they were, in fact, toys, and not action figures), watching reruns of the Adam West Batman show on TV, and listening to an old record that came with a book about Batman and the Scarecrow.

I have no idea why this came as a record--maybe because it was cheaper than a cassette, or easier to pack with a comic book?--but I remember sitting next to my dad's old record player, listening to that same story, over and over again.

The Scarecrow of that particular story was of the not very scary kind, and the whole thing was very clearly aimed at me and my demographic.

In the end, Batman always foiled the Scarecrow and he did it in exactly the same way, but I still hung on every word. I'm willing to bet that record exists somewhere, in a box under a whole lot of other stuff from many years ago.

A few years later--1989, to be exact--another familiar Batman villain did manage to scare me, and he kept me up at night. When Batman hit theaters in that wonderful, Bat symbol-filled summer, I was right there with my parents and my brother.

Before the movie, we went to an IHOP down the street from the theater (today, the IHOP is still there; the theater is not) and had an early dinner. Then we made our way down the block and to the theater.

I don't think it's possible to explain how excited I was for that film. I was going to see Batman--my hero--up on the big screen, and it was going to be the Greatest Thing Ever.

And, honestly, it absolutely was. The Greatest Thing Ever, I mean.

But Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker scared the crap out of me back then, and I remember coming home and checking behind doors to make sure he wasn't there--waiting for me as he waited for Jack Palance in his office.

Looking back on it now, that's probably one of the main reasons I was always drawn to Batman--the fear. Batman himself was scary (even when he was just Michael Keaton in a muscle suit), but Batman's villains were terrifying.

They still are, actually.

That first Tim Burton Batman movie changed things in terms of comic books and their acceptance in "normal" culture.

I didn't realize it at the time, but comics were becoming mainstream. Batman was everywhere, from drinking cups at McDonald's to magazine covers in supermarkets. The Bat Symbol, especially, became the symbol of that summer and of that year.

Meanwhile, completely unknown to me, comics shops across the country were being flooded with new customers and new, edgier work from creators.

After the first film, I remember being very excited for Batman Returns. I still love the look of that movie, even if it's not the best the Bat has ever been. After that, though, I pretty much abandoned comics and Batman.

Sad to say, but true.

Still, Batman managed to pop up here and there. Like in my Junior year of high school when I was being considered for a fairly prestigious peer group. There was a pretty long process to get selected, and the final part was to sit for an interview with the current year's group.

I honestly can't remember any of the questions except for one: Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?

I said, quickly, "Superman. He has powers." Then I paused, and thought about it for a moment. "But Batman has that utility belt, and he's way smarter than I don't know, actually."

Ah, the ignorance of youth.

Flash forward now to my Junior year in college, me staring at my laptop and doing everything imaginable to avoid writing that paper on Yeats that's due in a few hours. I find myself searching for a new desktop image--because, clearly, that is more important than starting my paper.

I stumble across the DC Comics website, see the latest interpretation of Batman, and grab the wallpaper you see above.

Flash forward a year from that moment and I'm in a comics shop in Connecticut, rifling through back issue bins labeled "B". My heart races every time I reach the Batman section and get to the higher numbers.





Nope. Not this time. Next store.

That goes on for a couple of weeks until I finally find a copy of number 608. It was up on the wall of a now-defunct shop (actually, the shop that replaced that one is also gone), sitting behind the most recent issue of the series.

It was in a bag with a board, and the price was $5.00. That day I bought my first back issue.

A year later I have a pretty impressive collection of back issues. I live for Saturday afternoon back issue bin diving like Scrooge McDuck.

A year later and I have all but abandoned back issues to focus on collected editons and graphic novels.

A year later I catch the original art bug.

A year later, I share a blog with this bearded guy at work and we write about fun, geeky, wonderful things.

Three years later we still have that fun, geeky, wonderful blog.

-- -- -- --

Now, I know I've been getting away from what the typical Waiting for is supposed to be like lately, but that should change starting next week. Why? Well, because the books are getting so darn good, that's why.

DC's New 52 launched last week, and I fell for a good number of them, hard, and I'll be buying almost all of their new titles this week as well.

Of particularly high quality were Action, Swamp Thing, and Animal Man. Even Detective, written by Tony Daniel (known more for his outstanding art then for his writing ability), was quite good.

This week, I'm looking forward to Superboy, Frankenstein, Grifter, and Suicide Squad. But the book I'm most excited about is Batwoman, by JH Williams.

If last week was any indication, you might want to get to your store a little earlier today as many of last week's titles sold out before lunch.

DC took a big, bold step, and so far at least, it's paying off.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When We Were Young

As we're taking this Exfanding trip down (geek) memory lane, I'm realizing something that, while not shocking to me, might surprise a few people here.

You see, I wasn't always a geek. No, really. I swear.

I mean, sure, I collected baseball cards as a kid, and yes, I watched both Batman: The Animated Series and the 1990s X-Men cartoon like it was my job.

And, sure, for as long as I can remember I've only ever wanted to be Batman when I eventually grow up.

But I wasn't always such a big dork--I didn't even buy a monthly comic book until 2003. Actually, I wasn't even a little geeky in middle school or high school, and I certainly wasn't geeky through my first couple years of college.

In high school especially, there were so many other things to occupy my mind that I turned a blind eyes towards lots of really cool stuff. Like Buffy, or Freaks and Geeks. Or the 1990s comics explosion and eventual implosion.

I'm very glad to say, however, that I didn't turn a blind eye towards lots of really cool people.

I was friends with plenty of people who had geeky tendencies and geeky hobbies. I was also friends with lots of people who had never heard of Daredevil or Joss Whedon and who didn't care if Han shot first.

See, I was pretty much the definition of a high school jock--I played football for a couple of years and I was the captain of the baseball team. I was even prom king my Junior year, and I came in second my Senior year.

Which was okay because that year I was named homecoming king. I got to dance with the queen and everything.

Stop laughing. I'm not kidding. It really happened. There are photos. And, somewhere, there are trophies.

But I never really saw myself as a jock, and while classmates who didn't know me well may have pegged me as such, anyone who talked to me for even a little while knew better. I didn't hang out in cliques, mostly because cliques are stupid.

I also didn't eat lunch with a set group of people. In fact, most days I'd eat lunch in the offices of the school newspaper, where I held the position of photo editor.

Yep, even in high school I worked through my lunch hour at a desk.

What I'm trying to say here is, back then I wasn't into a lot of the things that I'm into these days, and that's a shame because I missed out on a whole decade's worth of cool stuff.

And I think that's why I wanted to do this series of posts about our fandoms at different periods in our lives.

I've recently been reading Wil Wheaton's memoirs, and those tales of Saturday afternoons in the basement playing D&D somehow managed to make me feel nostalgic for something I'd never experienced.

This blog does that for me--it makes me nostalgic for things I'd never heard of before Nathaniel wrote about them. Hopefully you get something like that out of Exfanding, too.

-- -- -- --

I'll be back tomorrow with a mixed bag Waiting for Wednesday, wherein I wrap up our "Remember When" posts with a talk about my emergence into geekdom.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Heart My Nerdy Girl

This blog was founded on the concept of sharing our geekiness with others, and that's something I enjoyed doing long before Exfanding was a gleam in anybody's Web browser. I've roped my parents into playing video games with me, and I've coerced my non-Trekkie friends into watching the Star Trek movies with me, but perhaps my biggest ongoing endeavor has been to lure my fiancée into trying out all the fandoms I like.

We met at college, and I knew her through the video game club, the animé club (which she ruled over with a velvet fist as president), and the all-girls Dungeons & Dragons group I ran, so she had plenty of geek cred before we started dating. There was a lot of overlap in our general interests by the time we got together, but the specifics varied greatly. I felt it was my joy and privilege to bring her up to speed on the nerdy references I made, and to see about exposing her to some fandoms I thought we could appreciate together.

Considering how much college students love their time-wastey Internet videos, it's only natural that Homestar Runner and Weebl and Bob were two of the first fandoms we enjoyed together. Along those same lines, we started to check in on some webcomics together, such as Married to the Sea and Order of the Stick; it's a wonder we ever got anything productive accomplished.

I had previously been catching up on the original Star Trek as well as The Next Generation by going through both series from the very beginning, with my former roommate regularly joining me. When he got busy with other things, I continued watching on my own, and was happy to bring aboard my Trekkie fiancée--I find that most things I watch are better when I can share them with someone. We're now on to Deep Space Nine and Voyager, which is funny because she's the one showing me DS9, as that's the one series I didn't stick around for when it first aired.

Animé has been an interesting process--as is also the case with music, she likes most of the things I do (aside from "Weird Al"; I'm still working on that), but I'm not too keen on many of the things she likes. We can agree on comedy and action-heavy series, but she has a taste for slice-of-life and borderline fantasy shows, which are generally a little slow for me, and many of the shows she's shown me (.hack, Moon Phase) lacked characters I got terribly invested in. We haven't given up, yet; she did expose me to Captain Herlock, and that was fantastic. She's pretty much seen everything I've seen, as I didn't get into animé until college, so she's been the resident animé expert.

She's also the one I have to thank for my love of Firefly, which almost immediately became my second-favorite sci-fi fandom. Any time she's let down by my response to an animé she likes, I remind her that she gave me Firefly, which was cool enough for me to turn right around and show to my parents shortly after watching through it the first time--and I never rewatch anything in such a short span of time unless I can't wait to share it with others.

My gal plays video games, but is often just as content to watch someone else play the ones that weren't as much in line with her skill set. Unsurprisingly, Mega Man was one of the first items on my list. Over the course of the time we've been together, I've shown her the majority of the classic, X, and Zero series. Enough people I knew in college liked Mega Man, but I only had one friend from high school with whom I could really geek out about the series. My gal started making puns about the robot masters and started humming along when I broke out into Spark Man's music, and it was at that point that I knew she was a keeper.

We've also gone through Kirby's Adventure, Castlevania, No One Lives Forever 1 & 2, the Space Quest series, Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force, Star Wars: Jedi Knight I & II, and Donkey Kong Country 1-3. It's great to have all of these extra references I can make that she'll get ("What would you do without me?" "I'd be a content old man!"), and all of these philosophical discussions about why DKC3 was solid, but lacked so much of the charm of DKC1 (it's because most of the bonus barrels you jump in just teleport you to the bonus round instead of launching you off into space).

I've also gotten her to play through a few games on her own. She joined me on October 1 for my yearly celebration of The End Day by playing through Crystalis, and even though she generally leaves me to play the platformers, she took on the original Metroid. She wanted to have the satisfaction of completing at least one game starring this tough, buff female bounty hunter (before Other M turned Samus Aran into a scared little girl). She's been stuck in Norfair for a few years, which is only a problem because (a) it's very hot in Norfair, and (b) I'm so antsy to show her the rest of one of my all-time favorite video game series. She's promised me she'll finish the game as a Christmas gift to me this year, which is a relief, because now I don't need to make empty threats about not getting married unless she finishes.

I got her hooked on Animal Crossing, and for a time, she kept my long-neglected little town in order by pulling up months' worth of weeds at a time. We of course started playing through the LEGO Movie games together, as well as Tales of Symphonia, and have the likes of Secret of Mana and X-Men Legends on the horizon. She's gone through Dragon Warrior and most of Final Fantasy IV (the GBA remake, though), but she didn't seem to enjoy them as much as I did when I first played them back in my younger years; the former involved too much grinding for XP, and the latter was too angsty and bumped off too many characters unnecessarily for her tastes.

She's tackled Chrono Trigger on her own (and I admit to getting a little twitchy when she started nitpicking about my all-time favorite not-Mega Man game, though she ultimately ended up greatly enjoying it). EarthBound ended up being a hit, but it didn't start out that way for her--despite endless RPGs featuring the same types of fantasy locations, running around modern-day towns and cities was too...normal for her. EarthBound is many things, but normal is never one I ever considered.

I've been a Monkey Island enabler, giving her the first three games to enthusiastically play through on her own, and promising the others once she finished Metroid. I also let her borrow Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I & II, and I don't think I'm ever going to see them again. We're gradually working our way through Half-Life, but progress has been slow because she's been reluctant to watch--the primitive 3-D graphics aren't sufficiently pretty (not that bloody sci-fi zombies are really pretty, per se), and the experience isn't as engaging when you're not the one who's actually running around with a crowbar in hand and his life on the line.

Showing her Civilization III and Master of Orion II has been a blessing and a curse; we both love the games, and enjoy rallying our armies and building our cities, but even when we're not at war with each other, we're at war with each other if our peaceful expansion starts to get a little competitive. Bonus points are awarded, however, because she went out and bought Civilization IV for herself, and I haven't even played that. It's like she's a bigger fan of one of my fandoms than I am. I'm so proud.

Of course, no excessively long, rambly list would be complete without mentioning Portal 1 & 2, which was just as much a sharing of a favorite fandom as it was an act of community service: the Internet makes more sense when you're familiar with these games. Our current project is Sam & Max: Season One, which was particularly difficult to entice her to watch because those adorably ridiculous Soda Poppers skeeved her out. Persistent nagging seems to be paying off, however, and characters she can relate to better like Sybil Pandemik don't hurt, either.

It's exciting to look back on how many fandoms I've shared with her, and I've barely touched on the ones she's shared with me. While the number of video games I've shown her is grossly disproportionate to anything else, our ratio for exposing one another to songs and music artists has been relatively even. I've gotten her hooked on James Taylor; she's gotten me hooked on Beborn Beton. Our tastes in literature haven't been loosed on one another to any great extent, but I've gotten her to read The Time Traveler's Wife and enough Michael Crichton to shake my credibility as the biggest Crichton fan in this relationship.

College was a wonderful time to be a geek, and I'm exceedingly glad to have found someone with whom I can keep that constant exchange of fandoms going, now that we've traded dorms for apartments and Ramen noodles for...okay, so life's not that different, after all.

[Neko-Chan's note: Hey! My cooking isn't that bad...]