Friday, September 6, 2013

Surface thoughts

So, Wonder Wife and I are currently watching Surface, an unsuccessful 2005 science-fiction series pulled after one season. We operate at the whim of Netflix streaming and have found a surprising number of shortrun sci-fi series that we wish had had more episodes - Alphas, OutcastsThe Dresden Files, Nova, and Flash Forward among them - but this is not about the serendipity of tripping over a cancelled series that you like.

Surface centers on the interaction between a few people - a California oceanographer, a Lousiana good ol' boy, and North Carolina teen - and a new underwater species: some sort of large vertebrate with an electrical charge and an active lifestyle that involves eating dogs, sharks, whales, boats, and so on. With a bit of a Close Encounters vibe, these civilians come into conflict with shadowy government agents who have their own agenda regarding these creatures.

We're only halfway through the show's fifteen episodes, but we've been having a rollicking good time. There's technobabble science, high-seas adventure, conspiracy espionage, and interpersonal drama in pretty equal measure, with decent pacing and appealing characters. It's not a great show, but it certainly is solid entertainment.

What's noteworthy is that for me it puts lie to the idea that Aquaman is a hard character to write for.

This show is all about something coming up from the depths of the ocean; the core of the show is  a sea-monster, for cryin' out loud. And is sure has a lot of watery set pieces: among them, we've had a research submarine expedition, the carrier Ronald Reagan and a military sub in the Arctic, spear-fishers under an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a pickup-creature chase along a river, and a jerry-rigged bathysphere being lowered from an outlaw salvage ship. And those are just the scenes with the main cast: the sea-monster teasers have taken us all over the world.

And yet, much of the show plays out like any television thriller: scientists work in labs, senators meet in conference rooms, agents drive SUVs, children get dropped of with ex-spouses, cell phone calls are made and answered, pins are placed on large maps in cluttered situation rooms, and characters share beers while assessing their chances. While the plot is ocean-driven and the show ocean-centric, nothing ever feels ocean-bound.

So why is Aquaman seen to be so limited? Just because he is an ocean-based hero, that doesn't mean he can't ever function on land. Almost half the world's population lives within 100 miles of the ocean, and if you add the navigable rivers there's even more. Think about how many world-class cities are ports: New York, Boston, San Francisco, London,  Shanghai, Singapore, Rotterdam, Tokyo, and on and on. Granted, Aquaman's probably not going to be crossing the Sahara or parachuting into Siberia, but there's a lot of world that is still reasonably open to him from a plot perspective, and he doesn't have to stay submerged to be effective.

Aquaman is a marine mammal, not a fish - he can come up on shore, look for information, contact sources, visit an old friend, and yes, even engage the enemy on their own turf. The major action scenes in an Aquaman story, as in Surface, should certainly be on the water - getaway speedboats, island hideaways, cruisers remaining in international waters, and so forth - but nothing keeps Arthur Curry from being a force to be reckoned with on dry land. He still packs a punch like a ramming whale, right?

I gotta check Netflix again. Are we sure he didn't have a show for even one season?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Knights of old

So, way back at the turn of the century, in the summer 2000, a D&D club at a community college in southwestern Washington wanted to go to Dragonflight, the Seattle area gaming convention, but their club advisor was unable to make to trip. Since the outing would have to be cancelled if there were no faculty/staff advisor to go along, the student activities director scoured the campus for a volunteer, and eventually made the campus security director an honorary, temporary student club advisor.

That's how I attended Dragonflight and got my first real exposure to the gaming community. The story of that trip has several details of note, but the one I am reminded of now is how I was present for the birth of what eventually evolved into the HeroClix phenomenon.

As I wandered around the convention, my charges nowhere to be found -- they were all involved in nonstop tabletop RPG sessions beginning literally within minutes of our arrival -- my attention was drawn by a fellow who was hawking figurines that had little dials on the bottom. I chatted with him a while, and he explained how you could use the dial to keep track of the condition of the character represented by the figure as you played the game. Gathering together my then-limited understanding of tabletop gaming, I ventured "So it's like D&D, except instead of keeping track on a character sheet, you keep track with the dial itself?"

"Exactly!" he said.

In fact, it was close to the wording they used on the first box set to explain this new invention:

But I get ahead of myself: I didn't get a box set at that time; I did get a free promotional figure, which was one of the first combat dial system miniatures ever produced. I gave it to a pal who was a big Warhammer player back that then. I wonder if  he still has it; he could probably make a dime or two on eBay.

I also got a promotional comic book from the guy:

It was an odd, small size, with decent printing and Rob-Liefield-esque art and the bare bones of a story that gave a background to the MageKnight game world. That world included the usual RPG human and elven and orcish types, with sorcerers and a clerics and such, but with a new element. While magic was a core concept, this time in three schools...

... the plot hook was that the invention of gunpowder had upset the balance of power and given non-magic-users a chance to wrest control from the various mages. It was a neat twist on old tropes, and appealed very much to me, since I was never much of a Tolkien purist or (later) a D&D traditionalist anyway. And it sure looked cool to see a troll and a human drawing down on an Atlantean magic robot with a  crossbow and musket.

I never did follow up with actually playing MageKnight or any of the superhero-based HeroClix games that followed it. I did pick up one of the dungeon-crawl sets at a thrift store years later, and it seemed the gunpowder element had  fallen out out the storyline, at least for that series. I later found an original "Rebellion" set at a hobby shop that had apparently not rotated any stock in about twenty years; that allowed me to replace the comic book (which I think I gave to the Warhammer guy) but I just repurposed the figures for D&D.

No matter what, though, I can say I was there at the start. That and $3.26 will get me a grande latte in Seattle.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fig Deal

So, I dropped in at a D&D Encounters session in one of the local comic/game stores last Wednesday. As we were setting and digging through the small case of miniatures, I remarked to the DM that he had a lot of figures that I didn't have and some that I had never seen. I thought it odd that our collections should overlap so little, since I have a considerable number of figs, about 500.

Then he told me that he had 3800.

You know that feeling you get when you take a yellow light a little too late, and you're feelng guilty, but then you look in the rearview mirror and see that a guy four car lengths back has also taken it? Your head quickly moves from "man, that was a little crazy of me" to "that guy is frickin' nuts!"

That was the same sort of feeling I had confronted with this DM. He made some jokes about not being able to control his addiction and being glad they ended the series he had been collecting so he didn't have to buy any more figs, but all I could think was that for every buck I had spent on this stuff, this guy has spent seven or eight - or perhaps more, depending on his collection. I have bought 95% of my stuff used, some even at thrift stores, and many are re-purposed off-brands. I have no idea what the makeup of his collection was, but it had no doubt set him back a few thousand dollars, at least.

Whatevs, I guess. Is it crazier to spend two grand on a pile of miniatures or on one bike? Is it nuts to spend $150 to go see a pop star sing or $5 for a cup of coffee and sugar syrup? Floating boats and all that, I imagine.

In any case, I wanted remain in the big leagues of DMing, so after that encounter I tried to make sure my ranks were filled out. I took out the last of the MageKnight miniatures I have accumulated and got them ready to re-purpose, and pulled out all the damaged items to repair. He's the injured reserve list:

This Warhammer (?) dude lost his base and is going to get a 5¢ replacement.

This nasty guy needs a blade for his sword so it doesn't look like a defective lightsaber.

Likewise, this Skeleton Lord needs a blade for his axe so it's not a broomstick.

 Mialee, one of the stars of D&D 3.5 Player Handbook, apparently had weak ankles.

This drider-guy lost his head.


MageKnight ogre snapped off his base.

And Giant Eagle off hers.

One trip to Bartell's and some Superglue later, the troops are ready for an encounter.

Except for eagle, who is still in ICU.

Oh, and one last note - in the middle of the Encounter, Mr. 3800-figs DM put down a shaggy beast-man figure and said "This is really a demon guy with claws. I had a better miniature but I forgot it."