The Hobbit 3 & Dwimmermount

I forgot to mention yesterday that I saw the Hobbit over my busy weekend because that was how forgettable it was.  But seeing as I run a fantasy & gaming blog, I feel as though I would be remiss for not commenting on it.

Smaug dying before the title drop is just one more sign of the overall flawed pacing of the movies. The second movie’s payoff is delivered in the first moments of the third, so what’s left? A two hour denouement that leaves you feeling kind of empty and blah.

Battle of Five Armies is a movie that constantly feels as though it wants to be more important than it is.   Its dramatic moments end up feeling forced because it knows what it is: a cynical cash-in that only exists in its present form to con the Weinsteins out of money and compete in a world of media in which people watch procedural dramas on Netflix or USA 9 hours at a time. The Shakespearean tragedy of Thorin and his madness is, in the end, completely overshadowed by all of the other ridiculous non-sense that has cluttered the films. Whatever gravitas Richard Armitage brings to the performance is lost in the poorly paced and predictably direction style we’ve become accustomed to in Jackson’s adaptations.

Killing Fili & Kili to make the Elfy Sue feel bad and understand what is love was less awesome than them fighting to the death to protect a mortally wounded Thorin until Beorn showed up to save him (spoiler: Thorin dies anyway). Given all the time devoted earlier to the goblins and that Beorn was even in the 2nd movie, one would think you’d’ve seen more goblins & wargs and Beorn would’ve shown up all super-bear to rescue Thorin.

Between this and the light cavalry successfully charging a line of heavy spearmen in RotK, I’m thoroughly convinced that Peter Jackson doesn’t actually know how to direct battle scenes, even ones that are spelled out explicitly in text.

Even more bizarre are some of the major geographical mistakes in the dialogue used to justify plot stuff. I mean, it’s bad enough that all of Middle Earth is within 20 miles of the Misty Mountains, but claiming that the orcs are after Erebor because it’s the key to reclaiming Angmar(over some 700 miles west of Erebor and on the other side of the Misty Mountains), showing Mount Gundabad (500 miles west) to be within reasonable walking distance for Legolas and Tauriel to go scope out, and Gandalf telling Legolas that he should go into the North (which would’ve sent him into the barren wastelands of the Forodwaith) to look for Strider made me want to pull my hair. Sauron being banished into the East for Dol Guldur I guess I could understand if we look at “East” as ideological or cultural concept rather than a cardinal direction (Mordor was very south and only slightly east), but the others were kind of baffling.

All in all, I think they would’ve done better to cut things off with Smaug’s death and given an American Graffitti style run-down of which characters died and who became the lords of what pre-credits. I find myself wishing that Middle Earth had gone out on a better note.

Now that I’ve crapped on Hobbit 3: Revenge of the Sith, I’d like to take a minute to talk about something that lots of other people have taken the opportunity to crap on: Dwimmermount.

Dwimmermount is finally a thing, and has been for some time, not that you hear much about it. Still, I find myself more curious about it than I thought I might be. While I can say ‘the brand is somewhat tainted by the kickstarter debacle and ensuing “OMG, OSR IS DEAD” drama in the wake of its delays’, I can’t really comment at all on the quality of the final product, and that’s something I’d like to change.

After nearly two years of Dwimmermount being something of a joke in the gameblog community (just google “9 rats 2000 copper”), does JM’s megadungeon deserve a fair shake? I wouldn’t even be wondering this if it weren’t for Jeffro Johnson’s glowing review. Previous things I’d read, based largely on those who’d been backers & gotten preview stuff, had been fairly ‘blah’ on the whole thing at best, with much more enthusiasm shown for the various ‘hacks’ such as Devilmount. So now that someone whose opinion I value in the gaming community has come out and basically said that everything I thought I knew about Dwimmermount is wrong, maybe I ought to give it a chance?

Even if I do end up crapping on it, it’s only fair to give it a chance before I do. I mean, I waited until having seen Hobbit 3: Escape from Fantasia before dumping on it, so I can surely extend Dwimmermount the same courtesy.

Kellar’s Keep: My First Megadungeon

So, with all of the hullabaloo going on about mega-dungeons, megadungeoneering, the death of megadungeons and the colossal failures of Dwimmermount both in terms of finance, delivery and fun, I got to thinking about my first experience with a ‘mega-dungeon’ (I use the term loosely here to define a dungeon that is really really big.)

For me, that dungeon was Kellar’s Keep, the first expansion created for Hero Quest, a really cool game set nebulously in the Warhammer universe (just try figuring out where in the borderlands this is supposed to take place, I dare you).  Kellar’s keep features a fairly simple plot line: Immediately following the heroes’ massive screw-up of unleashing a powerful lich king upon the land, Morcar/Zargon has used the opportunity to throw everything he has at “the Empire” (I’m guessing as in Nuln & such), and the Emperor’s army got trapped in a citadel called Kellar’s Keep. Fortunately for the emperor, Kellar’s Keep is supposedly connected to the Dwarven Fortress, Karak Varn, by a series of now abandoned tunnels. If the heroes can find their way from Karak Varn to Kellar’s Keep, they can secure the Emperor’s army’s retreat path and escape the besieging forces (aparently escape, at this point, is preferable to actually breaking the siege).

The campaign is made of a series of 10 ‘quests’, which are really just large segments of the tunnel between Karak Varn and Kellar’s Keep sandwiched onto the Hero Quest board. There’s an in door and an out door. Get to the last out door, you’ve established an escape route for the Imperial guard. While the tunnels are cram packed with various greenskins and a handful of undead, what was a decent bit of work for the 4 Heroes is probably nothing for the full Imperial guard, so the quest is about ‘finding the way’ rather than getting everyone out afterward; that part is a given.

For the benefit of those who’ve never played Kellar’s keep or seen it or don’t believe me when I say it’s a megadungeon, I’ve put together a map (doors and secret doors only, it’s not keyed yet) that represents the 10 ‘quests’ as if they were strung together as a single dungeon. I’ve taken a few liberties with the layout, since oftentimes you’ll have an exit door on the north end of one map with the entrance door on the east end of another. Since you can buy things in between ‘quests’, one can assume that there are areas in between each ‘region’ that a)have shops or places to trade, b) connect back with a populated portion of Karak Varn, c) wandering adventurers might be willing to trade, d)it’s an ancient hasbro game, stop overthinking it.

In mapping, I’ve attempted to place the layout in a fashion that connects each quest hub in a sensible location in relationship to the preceeding and proceeding areas. As such, a few things are apparent: The abandoned tunnels are something of a spiral with two obvious tiers (level 4 is directly below level 3) and Kellar’s Keep is almost directly below Karak Varn (the final area and exit are more or less directly beneath the first tunnels; i couldn’t really represent this on a single image graph map) unless we handwave some distances between the hubs.

Kellar's Keep

A First Look at MYFAROG (Varg’s ‘Burzum’ RPG)

While the vast swaths of the tabletop gaming community spend  post after post wringing their hands over the fate of Dwimmermount, Shortymonster and I seem to be the only members of RPG Blog Alliance community who have taken up the bizarre, once in a life-time opportunity to be play-testers for MYFAROG (Mythical Fantasy Roleplaying Game), a game developed by the infamous Varg Vikernes of Burzum fame.  Mr Vikernes, who has already stated he would be using his own money rather than Kickstarter to fund his project, recently announced that the core book that he’d hinted at a few times over the year was complete and ready for playtesting.  For that alone, he towers above much of the gaming development community as a gentleman and a scholar.

Pretend I spent this paragraph explaining who Varg is and how I disavow him. These posts are going to be a review of his game and the adventure he supplied with it.

First, let me say that I guess my head has been so wrapped around the purely academic question of which OSR ruleset would be the best to play with, I was briefly under the illusion that maybe Varg had the answer. Maybe I was hoping for Dungeons & Vikings? Instead, what he has given us is “Norseman: the (Hunting and) Gathering”.

In many ways, MYFAROG reminds me of a White Wolf game, in that the system is inextricable from its setting. While all White Wolf games (the last time I looked at them, which was back in 2004) had a common character sheet and dice-rolling mechanic (Stat 1-5 + Skill 1-5, then whatever crazy system/character/class related stuff added to it), Races, Classes, “Charms” or whatever their Masquerade equivalent was, were all highly specific to the setting. With something like Exalted or Vampire, rather than buying a game that could be plugged into settings, you were buying a setting that came with game mechanics.

MYFAROG is an astoundingly detailed setting for which mechanics have been lovingly created. Yet herein lies some of the difficulties of bringing MYFAROG to your gaming table. Varg’s world is a vibrant and complex fantasy realm set in a far northern pre-medieval pseudo-Europe called Thule; the cultures of Thule are coming to grips with the growing pains of transitioning from Hunting/Gathering to settled society, transition from ‘The Old ways’ and ‘Tradition’ to ‘The New Ways’ and ‘Religion’, all while the mysterious realms of the Ettin grows and threatens human life. The game’s mechanics account for the sub-races of men, all of which have names which are both difficult to spell and/or pronounce unless you have some background in Scandanavian language, culture and grammar (consider that your default race is ‘Jarlaaett’/’Jarnmaðr’; I am looking forward to seeing the additional rules on the ‘Alfaborinar’ or ‘Elfborn’, which are gonna be the half-elves, I think). Worldview is divided into a 2×2 of “Veiðr”(old) and “Byggjandi”(New), “Seiðr”(Tradition) and “Asatru”(Religion), which respectively represent chaos (entropic & natural, not evil) and law (order and structure to society), and bestows mechanical benefits as part of a characters ‘upbringing’, as it means that, as a part of that culture, the character was raised with certain skills and values. Note that this is on top of an alignment system, which I’ll go into in a future post, perhaps.

There’s the old saying “A truly great (whatever) must wear many hats.” In MYFAROG, think not of classes but roles, and these roles are the many ‘hats’ that the character wears. Everyone starts out as either a ‘Hunter/Gatherer’ or a ‘Peasant’ (of course MYFAROG uses the more appropriate terms “Veiðimaðr” and “Buandi”), but gains new roles throughout their adventures, such as “Striðsmaðr”(warrior), gaining points to allocate and develop skills and attributes along the way.Thule has a complex pantheon and system of high festivals.

Further adding depth and complexity, your character’s birthday is important in determining which gods influence their life, bonuses to divine interaction, and other attributes.There are tables for ways of currying favor with deities (I’ll have to read more on how Favour Points work, cuz it seems that even a moderately devout character can rack them up extremely fast).  Needless to say, if you want to get the full experience, you’re going to need to use a campaign calendar (Varg has provided a sample 28 day lunar calendar).

As you can imagine, I have been a bit overwhelmed by the amount of detail, to the point where I’m still not ready to roll up a sample character yet. If and when I do get a chance to run the sample adventure, I think I’ll use some of the pre-generated characters that Varg provided, and instead just give the players a chance to read up on the world and what their character’s stats all mean, rather than send them headlong into things saying “here’s a book, you’re all playing Jarlaaett with the
Veiðimaðr and Striðsmaðr roles and Byggjandi/Asatru worldview, good luck!” Well, I guess that’s the same thing, only they won’t have to fill out the stat sheets…

Varg himself recommends starting with a stripped down version of the ruleset and slowly adding rules to add complexity to the campaign. A lot of your enjoyment of MYFAROG will be determined by how invested you become in the setting, which should not be hard if you give it a chance. So far, most of what I’ve gotten through is ‘fluff’ rather than mechanic, but by golly, what amazing fluff it is! (Even if MYFAROG ends up on your shelf more than your table, it’s a great fantasy read, so I highly
recommend it.)

I’d also like to mention that it was a ballsy move to make the playtest scenario a wilderness adventure. I won’t give away any details, but “The Demise of Watchmen Island” embodies all of the best moments of Morrowind’s Bloodmoon expansion. It also sets a number of expectations, in my mind, for what MYFAROG should be. Norsemen wage war bravely and heroically, go on mighty hunts, fight giants and monsters who threaten their homes, etc. etc., but don’t spend a lot of time in dark caves and dungeons looking for treasure. There should be some opportunities for dungeon crawling, but looking for treasure in a hole should take a back seat to going forth against incredible odds to outsmart the Ettin and possibly die a heroes death on the field of battle. While Varg mentioned that he didn’t make MYFAROG with minis in mind, this is a perfect game for setting up a wilderness hex map.

As I get through more of the book, I’ll try to review the content, and I DO hope that I get the opportunity to run “The Demise of Watchmen Island” with some folks. When I do, I’ll relay the experience here.