Armagideon Time

Being an almost comprehensive list (at the time of posting) of the records I’ve played on this day of COVID-19 furlough.

Air – Moon Safari (both sides)
The Cars – The Cars (both sides)
Throwing Muses – House Tornado (both sides)
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents (both sides)
Blondie – The Best of Blondie (both sides)
The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace With God (both sides)
Siouxsie & The Banshees – Juju (side one)


March 13th, 2020

Let it be known that I spent my 48th birthday on pandemic-induced furlough, eating junk food and watching the world burn.

Also, a happy birthday for fellow 313′er Mike Sterling, who owns the best dang comic shop on the planet. In fact, you should go buy something from him right now.

Recommended listening: There won’t be a birthday mix this year, because I’ve been too busy to curate one. You’ll just have to settle for this punk pop/mid revival obscurity.

Playlist of the plague days

March 12th, 2020

Being an almost comprehensive list (at the time of posting) of the records I’ve played on my first day of COVID-19 furlough.

Air – Moon Safari (both sides)
Apollo 440 – “Can’t Stop the Rock” (12″ extended 440 mix)
Chemical Brothers – Exit Planet Dust (side one)
Chemical Brothers – Born in the Echoes (side four)
Various Artists – Indie Top 20: Volume IX (side one, the “Madchester side”)
Mazzy Star – So Tonight I Might See (side one)
The Pogues – Red Roses for Me (both sides)
Various Artists – Radio Active (1982 K-Tel compilation, both sides)
Tubeway Army – Replicas (both sides)
The Clash – The Clash (US version, both sides)

All my AROOOO-dy friends

March 5th, 2020

And before you jump into the comments and ask, Johnny Cash is canonically a vampire.

Blood from a stone

March 4th, 2020

As I mentioned in a previous post, The Mines of Bloodstone AD&D module was a big deal when it dropped in 1986.

Dragon Magazine hyped the heck out of its high-level level play parameters, which went beyond even the demigod-slaying action of the classic The Queen of the Demonweb Pits. My geeky teen self was not immune to this hard sell, which is why Mines was one of the few official adventure supplements I bought for full retail price back when spending money was scarce.

The badass novelty of the product was reason enough, the same way crappy-ass horror movies on VHS or laughably “transgressive” heavy metal music could bypass my flimsy adolescent male quality filters. I didn’t even have a regular group of players at the time of purchase, much less ones with suitably powerful characters. It was something to “ooh” and “ahh” over and use as an inspiration for some derivative homebrew adventures.

The marketing angle of a high-level AD&D scenario (or promised campaign) obscured the deeper question of whether such a thing was actually feasible or what shape it ought to take. Coming from outside the TSR bubble, John Saunders didn’t mince words on the matter in his White Dwarf review of Mines of Bloodstone.

If I’d read his takedown at the time, I’d have dismissed it as some boring old fart being nasty. These days, I’m inclined to think he didn’t go far enough.

High-level play doesn’t lend itself to official RPG scenarios. Unless you’re doing a one-off using “came with the frame” characters, the number of variable to consider is staggering. Once character levels start encroaching on the lower teens, the official rules start taking a backseat to the specific group’s internal narrative. The combination of gear, spells, abilities, history, relationships (to other players, NPC, the DM, the game world in general) takes on a life of its own where number-crunching and tables become secondary to interactive storytelling. The rules are still there to provide structure when required, but the campaign’s momentum is the real engine driving events.

Effective scenarios for such groups require more than simply upscaling traditional module fare into absurd levels or dropping plot device beasties such as demon princes or the tarrasques into the mix. (Statistically speaking, I’m sure that some party has legitimately bested a tarrasque in line with the official rules, but that would be the astronomical exception to the norm…and, no, I don’t want to hear how your party once pulled it off.) By the same token, a module writer can’t account for countless permutations of “my wizard won a pocket universe from the Green God and the group’s fighter had a troll arm grafted on by a necromancer after her original arm was lost to a vorpal blade and have I mentioned our time-travelling magic carpet?”

My sole playthru of Mines of Bloodstone was the closing act of an epic session staged across a weekend of all-nighters during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. My pal Scott and Lil Bro had finished hacking their way through the Temple of Elemental Evil with their over-leveled paladin and cavalier buddy duo and were eager to kick even more ass. I pulled out Mines and let them run riot through it, with little regard for the rules or basic plot logic.

It was ludicrous exercise in adolescent male power fantasies, but that’s really all the module is really decent for.

And they loved it…although it burned the three of us out on AD&D for a while, and we spent the rest of the summer playing Champions instead.

We can try to understand

February 27th, 2020

The Kid loves boardgames, but it’s a love tempered by a short attention span and dislike of complicated rules. Once an explanation pushes past a single paragraph or half-minute of explanation, her eyes glaze over and she abruptly changes the subject. Part of it is typical teen bullshit and part of it stems from her childhood experiences. We have now doubt she’ll get past it given the time and encouragement, but it does mean that my plans for family D&D nights or weekend sessions of Talisman aren’t really feasible at the present time.

On the other hand, her love of Monopoly is something that tests the limits of my paternal devotion. If push came to shove, I would suffer through those long dreary hours of a game sessions with her, but I’d really prefer to avoid things ever coming to that.

As a result, I’ve been seeking out and acquiring games which fit both her style of visual thinking and my lack of patience. Because I’m a sad soul who spends too much time marinating in Gen X nostalgia, I started things off with a third-hand copy of Milton Bradley’s Stay Alive.

While I can remember the 1978 commercial for the game and “I’m the sole survivor” becoming an ephemeral bit of playground lingo, I can’t remember owning a copy of the game when I was a kid. It — alongside Mouse Trap and most other plastic-heavy ludological artifacts of those times — was usually encountered among the better-off members of my childhood peer group. These were the kids who went to Disneyworld every February vacation, had dedicated rumpus rooms, and owned Intellivision consoles instead of the more plebeian (yet still treasured) Atari 2600.

If I did possess a Stay Alive game, it would’ve been some unboxed and incomplete set scored for a quarter from some church sale. It would’ve been “played” the way most such games were played in my house — with Lil Bro and me futzing around with the moving parts with zero regard for the actual rules. You wouldn’t believe the amount of entertainment two kids could get out of dropping a mismatched assortment of marbles through holes in the days before Gameboys and smartphones.

The Kid was a little wary of the game at first, perhaps sensing the “anything but Monopoly” intent behind my purchase of it. She warmed up to it quickly, however, grasping the mechanics and methodology with ease. I allowed her to work things out on her own instead of armchair quarterbacking her every move, which led to a few moments of “why the hell did she move that slider” followed by her simultaneously sinking two of marbles on her next turn.

A couple of weeks later, and we’ve started to enter the meta-stalemate phase of the game, no matter how we try to randomize the starting positions of the sliders. I’m not sure how that bodes for the game’s longevity as a father-daughter diversion, but it has already paid invaluable dividends in terms of father-daughter bonding.

(And I’ve got a few more simple, prop-heavy games of my childhood arriving to change up the rotation.)

I’ve been working my way through a digital archive of White Dwarf, the British gaming mag that went from fanzine to GW’s house propaganda organ over the course of the 1980s. The bulk of its early run tended to center around D&D, Runequest, and Traveller material supplemented by GW’s stabs at homegrown gaming product and a few-flash-in-the-pan outliers. While there’s no shortage of interesting moments in there, it has made for less interesting experience than my similar journey through the archives of Dragon Magazine, White Dwarf‘s more staid and buttoned-down American cousin.

Even the ads were fairly uninspiring, focusing on material within GW’s local distribution portfolio, with the usual smattering of “my cousin does art real good” plugs for regional game retailers and supplement providers. By the time I started creeping up into the immediate pre-corporate era of the ‘zine, I’d settled into a state of page-flipping numbness…

…which came to an abrupt halt when my eyes drifted over the above item in the back end of White Dwarf #76 (April 1986)

I have so many questions, but the only answers I’ve unearthed were some playbook excerpts from a actor’s page.

Can you imagine auditions? Can you imagine opening night? Can you image the audience? Of course you can, yet somehow I suspect the reality beggars whatever visions one might conjure.

Better gate than never

February 18th, 2020

Talk of a console port of Baldur’s Gate dates almost as far back as the game itself. Playstation and Dreamcast versions of the AD&D-branded RPG showed up under the “season + year” bottom end of upcoming releases lists through the dawn of the new millennium before quietly vanishing. The increasingly apparent unlikelihood of ever getting a console release was a significant factor in my decision to buy my very first “grown up” computer — a Celeron II eMachine jobber — which occasionally struggled with a few resource-intensive chokepoints in the game, but still enabled me to experience what it had to offer.

For those of you who aren’t hopeless videogame geeks of a certain age, Baldur’s Gate — along with its “Infinity Engine” sequels and spin-offs — helped revive an ailing computer RPG scene by reworking real-time strategy into something more skirmish-level and exploration-driven, which was then married to a faithful approximation of the 2nd edition AD&D rules.

While the player’s party had the scripted agency to whack away at any opponents until one side or the other was dead, any foes above cannon fodder level required judicious use of the “autopause” system, where a tap of the spacebar froze the action while you queued up spells, quaffed potions, and micromanaged your tactical options. (These could also be performed without pausing, typically as acts of frantic desperation.)

It captured the feel of the tabletop source material, but as a fast-flowing isometric exercise staged across a score of gorgeously pre-rendered environmental backdrops, full of side quests and secrets to uncover. I was well and truly done with anything D&D related at the time, but Baldur’s Gate‘s blend of familiar and innovative elements hooked me something fierce.

Playing the game on its native platform did make me wonder how a theoretic console release would’ve functioned. A fair number of macros and hotkeys are required to navigate the gameworld and manage one’s adventuring party, with moving and character/team/party grouping mechanics handled by some agile mousework. Even with the expanded number of inputs on the Dualshock and later crop of controllers, it seemed like a lot of compromises would have to be made. It’s no wonder that the “Baldur’s Gate” games we did get on console were a pair of brand-coasting Diablo clones — great fun, but hardly rulebook-accurate, detail-intensive epic AD&D adventures.*

And now, after two decades, we finally have actual console versions of the Infinity Engine suite — BG 1&2 plus the Throne of Bhaal expansion, Icewind Dale, and Placescape: Torment. The ports are pulled from the “enhanced edition” releases from Beamdog in the early 2010s, which cleaned up some of the creakier bits of the originals while adding new and/or consolidating older content.

I passed on these at the time because I already had my “definitive” versions of the games — GOG’s current OS-enabled original versions tweaked and modded to my personal standards of perfection. The most notable of these was the “Trilogy” mod, an ambitious fan-made project which imported the assets of the original Baldur’s Gate into its more robust sequel for a (mostly) seamless mega-epic. Other, smaller tweaks included scripts allowing for same-sex romances and removing class-requirements for stronghold quests. No matter how great the enhanced editions were, they weren’t going to be the game as I’d grown to love it over the past two decades.

Yet I did end up picking up the PS4 bundle of BG 1&2. Mostly because I had a surfeit of holiday gift cards and I’d already received the Icewind Dale/Planescape PS4 bundle as a Christmas present.

If I was going to revisit any of these games — especially on console — Icewind Dale seemed like the place to start. The game was a narrative-lite spin-off of the BG series which dropped and franchise’s signature character interaction in favor of hacking and looting one’s way across multiple dungeons. It was still an Infinity Engine game — meaning it was still more involved and complex than a straight-up action-RPG — but I assumed its stripped-down gameplay would be more manageable in the absence of a mouse and keyboard.

It was a mixed experience, though mostly a positive one. The controller-based interface was a massive pain in the ass to navigate at first, and only improved slightly once I go the hang of things. Detailed tactical combat movement took more effort than it was usually worth, as was engaging in the complex buff/debuff/damage spell duels that made the original IWD’s higher end battles feel so rewarding and intense. It was just as easy to obtain the same results by brute force melee rushes, with the occasional drop down to can’t-be-slain “story mode” difficulty.

At the same time, I had a blast reconnecting with a no-longer-so-familiar favorite, chasing trophies while relying on my reflexes, wits, and dim memories of hidden treasures and other secrets. Upon hitting the home stretch, I decided to continue the streak with a cheap second-hand copy of the Baldur’s Gate game ports.

Even so, I didn’t have much confidence about how far I’d actually progress in the games. For all my tweaking and adjusting and custom portrait-making, I haven’t made it past the first third of BG1 on PC for at least fifteen years. Second edition AD&D can be extremely unforgiving to low-level characters, and even more so when dealing with an utterly impartial computerized dungeonmaster. The slog to survive until my character could take a couple of heavy hits tended to sap my urge to continue once I finally hit that point. I gravitated toward the cavalier subclass in the game because it offered intrinsic immunities against attacks for which there was no practical defense until a character had a half-dozen levels under their belt or girdle or whatever.

I barely made it out of the first wilderness zone before realizing this was not going to be the case with the PS4 version. Battles that had been white-knuckle affairs on PC became cakewalks on console, even though the difficulty sliders were set identically in both. I guess the enhanced edition developers realized how punishing the original could be and decided to dial things back a bit. It also helps mitigate the awkwardness of the controller interface, as do the default character AI scripts which are helpfully proactive when it comes to spell-casting.

At times, the game feels almost too easy, but my attempts to up the difficulty have run afoul of my aged hands’ ability to manage the clunky interface. It has freed things up for me to play the game instead of get mired in one micromanaged battle after another. The absence of my custom portraits and standard suite of mods means I’m second-guessing less than I would be on the PC version, and more inclined to just roll with less than optimal outcomes. Taken together, that’s probably why I’ve been able to progress through three-quarters of the story quest and most of the major side quests with the space of a long weekend.

It may not be my preferred way to experience the game, but at least I’m actually playing it. We’ll see if that lasts through BG2, where the PC mods had a greater impact on how I played, but I’m not feeling the same trepidation I felt when I dived into the PS4 edition of the first game.

As for the enhanced edition stuff, the fixes are appreciated but the new content is forgettable. The added characters and their BG2 style personal quest-lines are all right, but BG1 already had an overstuffed roster of recruitable party members. A few more, even from previously non-represented classes, doesn’t add much. I’m much more pleased that nearly all of the original’s little secrets and oddities were retained, such as the “free” Ring of Wizardry and suit of Ankheg mail still being stashed away in the environment for the finding.

The shovelware origins of the ports does show through in a couple of places, however. Most notably, the display tends to run outside the screen of older TVs (such as mine) with no easy fix or in-game option to adjust it, which makes it impossible to see the lead party member’s hit point total or the little icon which indicates a character is eligible for leveling up. It’s entirely characteristic of a late console cycle port of ten year old reissues of twenty year old PC games, but it doesn’t make it any less irritating.

If you want to truly play these games as they ought be played, go for the either the original or enhanced PC versions. If you’re looking for a more casual, forgiving, or couch-conducive experience — either to reconnect without full immersion or just to check out why folks raved about this shit back in the day — then you’ll probably be fine hunting down a cheap copy of the console bundles.

*A “mostly complete” beta of the PS1 port of Baldur’s Gate has surfaced in some of the shadier sections of the internet. It’s an interesting historical artifact and technical achievement, but only drives home my point about the number of shortcuts required to replicate even a rough iteration of the original PC game.

Which came worst

February 12th, 2020

See, this is what happens when a eager young letterhack gets Dragon Magazine‘s and Penthouse‘s “Forum” features mixed up.

I bet he thought it could never happen to him.

(from Dragon #121, May 1987)


January 30th, 2020

What, “filled with a profound sense of embarrassment and regret you’ll either psychically bury or use as the stuff of cruel self-mockery a couple of decades later?”

Mission fucking accomplished.

It is my sincere belief that the funnybook scene’s decades-long push to exhibit a caricature of “maturity” has done more damage than either the Comics Code or any goofy Silver Age story ever has.

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