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Nick Abadzis‘ and Hilary Sycamore‘s Laika is meditative, thorough, and heartbreaking.

Everything I knew about Laika — the first orbital space traveler, a stray dog trained and conditioned for her one-way mission — before reading this book came from her Wikipedia entry and small exhibits about her at aerospace museums. I now know a lot more about her, and how extraordinary she was.

Laika is as good as two of my other favorite biographical comics, Box Brown‘s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend and Derf Backderf‘s My Friend Dahmer. Both are sad reads (and the latter is challenging in other ways, too), and both enriched my knowledge of their subjects.

Where Laika takes liberties — fully disclosed at the outset — they ring true to me. Dogs have an inner life; they think and feel, love and fear; they’re sentient beings. Considering what Laika’s inner life was like, which is beautifully expressed in the comic, is one of the things about the book that resonates most with me — and has continued to resonate months after I finished it.

Reaing Laika made me glad my first dog, Charlie, died in my arms, surrounded by people who loved him, and it makes me want to go home and pet Wicket.

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Over on G+, Karl Keesler posted about how he rebases his HeroClix minis (and sometimes adds base textures and highlighting, too), and damn if that’s not a great idea. Here’s Karl’s intro:

I am always trying to find cheap ways to make my role playing game tables look cool. I often take modern looking Heroclix or Horroclix minis and cut the big bulky bases off and stick them on 25mm Armskeeper bases. They look better and I can use them on maps with 1″ squares in them You can buy these bases in packs of 80 or more. They are relatively cheap.

The Clix base is big and clunky, whereas nice uniform 25mm black bases are smaller, more streamlined, and take up less space. If you’re already not using the Clix base for HeroClix, why have it at all?

From repairing one of the minis that came in the bulk HeroClix lot I bought recently, I can confirm that even the ones whose little feet are attached directly to the Clix wheel (as opposed to being on a sort of micro-base atop the wheel) can be glued right back on, so gluing them to another base should be no big deal.

I glued Wrecker back onto his base with two dots of Krazy Glue, and he looks good as new:

Even if you skip Karl’s next steps — adding a texture and/or paint job to the new base, and then touching up the mini itself with highlights or other simple techniques — just swapping the bases looks like a dandy upgrade.

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I recently stumbled across Scott Pyle’s Super Mission Force, read up on it — it’s a low-complexity superhero miniatures game that uses power suites to make character creation simple, and it supports campaign play — and thought, “That sounds totally rad! Except I don’t have any miniatures for it . . .

Enter HeroClix, which have been around for years, and which are readily available in bulk lots — perfect for someone who doesn’t care about them as HeroClix[1], just as miniatures. SMF is specifically designed to work with whatever minis you have on hand (just like Frostgrave, which I love).

The best I could do for bulk minis, with some duplicates and likely a few broken ones in the mix, was $0.50/figure on Ebay. Or so I thought, until I remembered that CoolStuffInc — a fantastic online game store I’ve shopped at for years — stocks loose/single miniatures.

Their HeroClix selection includes batches of 100 assorted HeroClix for $15, with the note, “May contain duplicates.” (They also have batches of 100 different HeroClix for $28, but those were sold out and in any case were pricier than I’d like.) I rolled the dice and bought four packs.

Zero minis enter, 400 minis leave

Here’s the first 100, which turned out to be the lot with the fewest duplicates of my four (dupes and broken are in front):

Those plus the second hundred (growing horde of dupes off to the left):

The final 200:

The breakdown

Here’s how my 400 HeroClix shook out:

  • 332 unique miniatures
  • 68 doubles (and multiples, etc.)
  • 3 broken figures, all easily repaired with glue

At $60 for all 400, that’s $0.15/figure, or $0.18/unique figure — much better than the best I could find anywhere else.[2] And duplicates aren’t a bad thing: Superheroes fight forces of goons, squads of robots, evil crime families, and the like all the time, after all.

The variety across my 332 unique HeroClix is staggering. A wide range of skin tones, genders (male, female, genderless, ambiguous, etc.), ethnicities, species, roles, and heroes/villains are represented in my lot. Also included are a dozen or so minis on flying bases, some mundane non-super folks, and a handful of giant-sized figures.

Compared to the other prepainted minis I’m used to, WotC’s old D&D Miniatures line, the paint jobs on HeroClix range from awful to pretty good, with the occasional excellent one — but I knew that going in. HeroClix get the job done, and what they lack in quality they make up for in variety. I don’t know of a better way to acquire this many prepainted figures, with this much variety, this cheaply.

Some of the fancier and more interesting-looking ones actually look pretty awesome, too. Here are a few favorites:

I also threw in a random assortment of $2 HeroClix maps for good measure.

Overall, I’m beyond thrilled with how this worked out. When Super Mission Force arrives, I’ve got a deep catalog of potential miniatures to match damn near any character concept we can come up with. I also bought a superhero RPG by the same author, 3d6 Supers!, that looks it will work well with miniatures.[3] I’ve loved superhero RPGs since I was a kid — I’m sure there will be plenty of chances to put these to use.

If you need a walloping great bunch of inexpensive superhero minis, this is a splendid option.

[1] I’ve played HeroClix and it’s neat, but it’s not my jam. And the older I get, the harder it is to read the tiny icons on the bases.

[2] Compared to CSI’s $28/100 different, which shakes out to $0.28/figure, this is the clear winner.

[3] I don’t always love using minis in supers games — Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, for example, is superb as a theater-of-the-mind game — but some supers games lend themselves to that approach.

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Back in 2015, I came across a Gary Gygax quote I hadn’t seen before — one that resonated deeply with me then, and which still resonates just as deeply 18 months later:

Role-playing isn’t storytelling. If the dungeon master is directing it, it’s not a game.

I love this quote. It’s a strong stance, and it’s one of the cornerstones of how I see Gary and his work.

I do see roleplaying as a form of storytelling, but a collaborative one; I guess I part ways with Gary on the definition. But the second half? That sums up my feelings perfectly.

I don’t have a stake in what anyone else considers a game, or how anyone else plays. But for me, if the GM is directing the game, I’m out. Video games do that style of play so much better than tabletop RPGs, and that’s where I go for that particular fix.

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Back when my group in Utah was playing The Dresden Files RPG, I wanted to try something different than my usual beads or stones for Fate points. I initially considered the official Fate coins: They’re lovely, but also not cheap, and like beads/stones they’re all the same.

And then I thought, why not just use actual coins? But not the same coin; not a roll of pennies, economical as that solution would be.

A few eBay searches later, I figured out that I didn’t want any tokens and that I did want circulated currency (more character). For about $18 shipped, I bought a pound of “world coins,” about a hundred coins with just a couple duplicates.[1]

I like coins, so there’s that, but they also seem perfect for Dresden. They’re often rich in symbolism, like many things in the Dresdenverse. They symbolize the diversity of a large city. And they’re actual currency, a handy reminder of the mechanical currency in Fate — and one that feels good to hold up when offering a Fate point.

They worked great in play. We always had more than enough of them at the table, and the purse I kept them any took up hardly any space at all. While that campaign has ended, my coin purse sits on my shelf of game aids, ready to serve in some other game.

[1] I also learned that “that coin smell” is actually the oil in your skin reacting to the coin, not the coin itself. Coins don’t generally smell like much until you’ve handled them a bit.)

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I love getting reading recommendations, but my to-read shelves are such an embarrassment, particularly when it comes to comics, that I don’t always take them. But after a visit to Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique (which rocks!), I took one: Rat Queens.

I heard about RQ when it launched, but had too much on my plate to give it a look. I’m sorry I waited so long, because it’s excellent.

Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated, at least initially, by Roc Upchurch (he was kicked off the series after being arrested for domestic abuse, but apparently he’s coming back), Rat Queens is in many ways a raunchy love letter to D&D and fantasy tropes.

(Cover by Fiona Staples.)

It’s feminist and funny and inclusive and bloody and surprising, and I love it. The back-cover blurb from the first trade sums it up nicely:

They’re a pack of booze guzzling, death dealing battle maidens-for-hire and they’re in the business of killing all the gods’ creatures for profit.

I’m Team Hannah, the foul-mouthed elven mage:

. . . but I dig all of the main characters: Violet, the hipster dwarven fighter who was shaving off her beard before it was cool; Dee, the atheist cleric who was raised in what’s basically a Cthulhu cult; and Betty, the smidgen (think halfling) drug-cooking thief. They do a lot of the things an average old-school D&D party might do — start fights, cause trouble, and murder their way across the countryside — but they also right wrongs and try to help people. It’s a good mix.

Maybe the best recommendation I can give is this one: I’ve been on a manga tear for the past few months, to the point that I found myself accidentally reading Rat Queens right-to-left several times, and Rat Queens is the first American comic out of a stellar lineup of potential candidates to break that streak.[1] It’s splendid, and I can’t wait for the second trade.

[1] It also broke my 3.5-month streak of not blogging. I figured something would — I’ve been busy doing other stuff, not avoiding blogging per se — but I didn’t expect it to be Rat Queens.

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After making a string of phone calls where I needed to spell things for the person on the other end of the line, I decided it was finally time to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet so I could stop doing this:

Okay, it’s five, P as in pork chop [shit, now I’m hungry], six, three, H as in hors d’oeuvres [why the fuck did I choose something that sounds like it starts with an O?] . . .

I typed up the list, stuck it to my monitor, and started memorizing it.

Then, over on G+, Adam McConnaughey mentioned “U as in unicorn,” and I started thinking about a D&D phonetic alphabet using monster names.

But not one designed for maximum clarity, like the NATO phonetic alphabet — one made with names that are funny, difficult to pronounce, fun to say, and, ideally, confusing for the person on the other end of the line.

One that’s full of terrible phonetic choices — like this little dude, who sounds like he was named by Mister Mxyzptlk:

I as in ixitxachitl

Here’s what I come up with using two of my favorite monster books, AD&D 1e’s Monster Manual and Fiend Folio:

Need to liven up your next grinding, soul-crushing, red tape-filled phone call? This should do the trick.

“Wraith” has a silent W, making it sound like it should be an R-word . . . but it’s the W. “Ixitxachitl” is clearly an I-word, but I always stumble over it when I say it aloud. “Gnome” is another sounds-like-the-wrong-letter entry. And so on.

If the majority of my monster books weren’t in storage, I bet there are at least a few other letters that could be made more confusing. Suggestions welcome!

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I backed John Mahoney’s Zentropa on Kickstarter because it looked gorgeous and it seemed like he had his shit together. When I saw the samples he posted, it felt very Heavy Metal to me, and apparently they agreed: The first 10 pages of Zentropa appear in issue #382.

I was also intrigued by the concept of a wordless graphic novel. Not new, but not something I’ve seen often, either. And holy shit, that artwork.

Choose your own adventure

By design, the story of Zentropa is open to interpretation — you decide what it’s about, and what’s happening in it. (I’ll still avoid anything I think might be a spoiler here, though.) Here are three examples of John’s artwork that should give you a good idea of what Zentropa is like.

Here’s the first panel in the book:

Most of the book is black and white, but some panels and pages are two-tone or color, like this gorgeous piece:

Lastly, here’s a page that highlights how well John mixes detailed elements with negative space:

An exploration

Zentropa invites exploration — of what it might be about, what it could mean, what’s happening in each panel, and of the artwork itself. Looking at the rest of my comic collection, there’s nothing else in it quite like this book.

It’s weird. It’s sexy. It’s neat. And it’s fun to explore.

I’m not sure where best to pick up Zentropa post-Kickstarter, but this looks like one option.

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This Adventure Time dice bag rides in my gaming bag every day, just in case. What’s inside?

Why, it’s a big ol’ pile of Rory’s Story Cubes!

I carry these to every game because they’re one of the most useful improv tools in my GMing toolkit.

Here’s my full assortment:

That spread includes the following Story Cubes sets (also noted is where they appear in the above photo):

I don’t find every Story Cubes set to be perfect for improv GMing — Actions, for example, doesn’t really meet my needs (but it might meet yours; YMMV, and all that). There are also newer sets I haven’t considered, but I worry that having too many dice in this bag would dilute some of its potency; this amount is a good fit for me.

What I love about Story Cubes

These dice are well-made: a nice size, tumbled, etched, and well-inked. They’re easy to read, even for my aging eyes.

The symbols are whimsical, but also tuned for what I find to be an interpretive sweet spot: It’s a dinosaur, but that can mean a literal dino, an old person, someone with antiquated habits, a museum, an archaeological dig site — and so on.

That interpretive sweet spot applies just as well when rolled together — better, even. The instant context provided by the rest of the roll, and my imagination, makes different meanings pop out at me.

Three examples

The most common thing I do with my Story Cubes is reach into the bag, grab a handful (no specific amount) of dice, roll them, and just look at the results for a moment. I generally do this when I need a jolt — perhaps I’m feeling stuck, or I’m considering an element of the game that I hadn’t considered before, and some random inspiration seems like it would help.

That’s totally unscientific! But it works for me.

But I sometimes use them for more specific things — like coming up with NPCs (which I wrote about on Gnome Stew three years ago).

I usually use three dice for NPCs, drawn at random from my full mixed set. Here’s a sample throw:

That could be: a planar traveler who uses a magic gemstone to slip into other worlds, a globetrotting hypnotist, someone under the influence of a cursed jewel (ignoring the globe; I often do this if I can’t use every die in a throw), and so on.

Three dice gives me enough to work with, but doesn’t overwhelm me with details to think about. (An especially important NPC might merit more than three dice.)

I also like to use them to think about what’s going on with [X], whatever X might be at the moment — a conspiracy, a faction’s agenda, a mystery, etc. For those throws, I generally use at least five dice, and occasionally more than five. Here’s a five-die throw:

The first thing I thought of was an adventure hook: giants are using enchanted bees to put people to sleep so they can steal their treasure. I read the dinosaur eggs as sleeping babies when I first saw that die, and interpreted the heart to mean that this was a charming, Disney-esque plot rather than a more serious one.

If you looked at those throws and started getting ideas for an NPC or other game element, then you’ll probably like Story Cubes.

A security blanket

Lastly, I like just having Story Cubes nearby when I’m GMing, because I know they’re there if I need them. Zero-prep GMing still makes me nervous sometimes (and I suspect it always will), so knowing I’ve got a proven, useful tool for getting back into the groove — or finding the groove, or unsticking my brain — in my gaming bag is comforting.

And that’s one of the coolest things about Rory’s Story Cubes: They have a million gaming applicatons. Throw in being inexpensive and well-made, and they’re incredibly easy to recommend.

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I have a container fetish.

Not a problem, mind you,[1] a fetish.

Browsing in office supply stores is dangerous for me. When we moved to Seattle, and everything I owned became, at some point, another fucking thing to haul across the country, I threw out a box full of smaller boxes.[2] I own more dice bags than anyone could possibly need. Ditto tiny tins for storing gaming bits and bobs. I blog about bags.

So when I picked up a pair of Flytanium anodized titanium d6s, the next thing I went looking for was a tiny container to keep them in. Not my regular dice bag, because metal dice are heavy and not always kind to plastic dice in transit, but something specifically for these dice.

As is so often the case when it comes to weird little things like this, I found what I was looking for on Etsy: tiny coin purses.

This little guy is the perfect size for these two dice. I love it.

The purse is lined fabric, and the outer layer is fairly thick. It provides plenty of padding for whatever the dice bump into, and it fits into my dice bag. And unlike a box, it keeps the dice from rattling.

The dice themselves haven’t yet been rolled at the table (at the moment, we’re not playing any games where 2d6 rolls come up often), but they’ve proven to be fantastic to fiddle with. I keep them on my desk, next to my high-tech worry stone, and they’re a perfect size and heft to keep my fingers busy.

They’ve also acquired a lot of character in the process, which you can hopefully make out in the photo. Anodization wears off with use, which I like, and on dice it makes sense that it’s going to wear off fastest on the edges. I can see some nice wear on the flats too, though; I love how that looks.

But when I get to bring them to a game, they’ll be riding in their cozy little dice purse.

[1] I can stop anytime I want.

[2] Some of which were, yes, full of even smaller boxes.

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