Where have I been?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that my posts have been less frequent in the past year. In lieu of my usual holiday “snailmail” letter, here’s an update.

Late 2014 turned out to be difficult. Janice and I traveled to Pennsylvania and New York City to visit an ailing uncle of hers and our college friend Steve A.L., respectively. Both of them died, so we drove back down to their funerals.

Mike H., the manager of the Compleat Strategist in Boston, also died, joining Robert A.S. and other role-playing friends whom we lost in the past few years.

After the usual holiday travel to see our families in Upstate New York and Virginia, Janice and I got sick in early January 2015, followed by a very snowy winter in the U.S. Northeast.

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Waltham, Mass., February 2015

I then changed jobs in March 2015 (Janice had changed technical writer positions in September 2014). This has been the main thing keeping me from blogging.

After about six years as an editor managing a TT site about Windows enterprise desktops, I began working at EH/RBR as a writer covering robots. My former colleagues gave me a very nice going-away party, and a few have stayed in touch, joining former co-workers from BNA and IDG/CW.

Robotics has been an interesting beat, as I’ve learned a lot by trying to keep up with the business news around this rapidly developing technology. I’ve also had the good fortune to travel to events in Milan, Italy; San Jose, Calif., and soon, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In the coming months, I may also get to travel to Canada, Denmark, and Lithuania for work. While I don’t particularly enjoy spending time in airports or cramped airplane seats, any chance to see the world, meet new people, and eat new food is a good one!

I got to tag along with Janice to Limerick, Ireland, and we really liked exploring the Cliffs of Moher, various castles, and the beautiful countryside. Janice and I have also returned to regular arts fairs such as the Lowell Folk Festival and the Christmas Revels.

In the meantime, Janice and I have kept busy, hosting college pal David I.S. & Sandra K. for last New Year’s and the wedding reception of mutual friends Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H.

We also hosted her family for Easter and her 50th birthday, grad school chum Erik B.L. and his family, and St. Louis-based gamer Byron V.O., who may be visiting again later this month.

In late August, we met my family in Ogunquit, Maine, to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday, my father’s 80th birthday, and Janice’s and my 20th wedding anniversary. So many milestones!

I also attended genre entertainment conventions including Anime Boston, the Tampa Bay Area Renaissance Festival, the Watch City Steampunk Festival, the Boston Comic Con, and the Rhode Island Comic Con. All of them had the usual cosplayers, fun panels and autograph sessions with celebrities, and tempting artist and vendor booths.

We recently spent Christmas at my brother and his family’s new house in Northern Virginia, and we met some friends in Westchester, N.Y., on the way home. Some of us have started planning reunion gatherings to celebrate the 30 years since we graduated from high school and began college.

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The “Westchester crew,” December 2015

Three nights a week, I’ve continued my role-playing games and historical weapons classes. My D20/FATEVanished Landsfantasy campaign has given way to two adventuring parties using Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D5e).

Fellow Game Master Jason E.R.’s “Star Wars: Dark Times” scenario (using Savage Worlds) just ended its latest chapter, and we’re about to start Bruce K.’s D&D5e “Kings and Pawns” space opera miniseries. The latest “episodes” of my D20/FATEStar Trek: Restorationgame also went well.

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My latest Star Trek costume, Halloween 2015

Speaking of ongoing series, I’ve been enjoying the latest wave of fantasy, horror, superhero, and science fiction shows on television (more on that to come). I saw fewer movies in theaters in 2015 than in previous years, but I’ve gotten pickier, and time has been limited.

I’ve also been reading several SF magazines and Web sites, assorted pulp comic books, and various novels (mainly with the “Escapists” book club). So much to do, so little time!

I’ll try to post more specific reviews in the coming year, and I wish all of you a healthy, peaceful, and Happy New Year!

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again because of travel over the past month, the holidays, and being ill. Fortunately, I have no shortage of topics to write about!

Last week, David I.S. & Sandra K. drove from Rochester, N.Y., to visit Janice and me in Waltham, Mass. Dave was the very first friend I made at college, and our New Year’s celebrations have become something of a tradition.

On Tuesday, 30 December 2014, Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Thomas’ brother Tony joined us for a potluck dinner and fun conversation. On New Year’s Eve, we took it easy because Dave & Sandra were suffering from bad colds (that Janice and I later caught).

On New Year’s Day, Janice, Dave, and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for a 3-D matinee of The Hobbit [Part 3 of 3]: The Battle of the Five Armies. We mostly enjoyed the finale of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels.

Battle of the Five Armies
Parties to the battle

Plot

As with the previous installments, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, it’s assumed that viewers are at least passingly familiar with Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jackson’s films for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition, the audience should have seen the first two Hobbit movies (even more than read the relatively brief children’s book) before watching Battle of the Five Armies.

The story draws from Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, fairy tales, and the extensive world-building and linguistics research of Prof. Tolkien. The Battle of the Five Armies sticks with the major threads from the book. (Note that some of the enclosed links lead to “spoilers.”)

The Wizard Gandalf has sent Hobbit Bilbo Baggins across the dangerous wilderness with a band of 13 Dwarves to help them reclaim their treasure and lost homeland from the fierce dragon Smaug. On the way to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, they encountered vile Goblins, haughty Elves, various monsters, and the scruffy humans of Lake Town.

Once Smaug is awakened from his slumber by Bilbo and company, the angry dragon incinerates Lake Town. Only the human Bard the Bowman is brave enough to face down the huge beast, even as Orcs and Elves rouse troops to wrest control of its hoard at Erebor.

Here are the five armies of the title battle, in order of appearance on the scene:

  • DwarvesThorin Oakenshield‘s band of former exiles (and Bilbo), plus eventual reinforcements from his kinsman Dain Ironfoot
  • Men — refugees from Lake Town and the lost city of Dale, led by Bard
  • Silvan Elves — from Mirkwood, led by King Thranduil and including his son Legolas and scout Tauriel (a character created for the movies)
  • Goblins/Orcs and Wargs (giant wolf-like steeds) — from Gundabad, plus Trolls/Giants and unnatural bats
  • Great Eagles — plus the shapeshifter Beorn (and Wizard Radagast the Brown, present only in the movie)

Meanwhile, to the south of Mirkwood in the ruined fortress of Dol Goldur, the White Council finds the Necromancer, who is revealed to be the evil Sauron. Gandalf, Elven nobles Elrond and Galadriel, and the Wizard Saruman the White fight the incorporeal Sauron and his nine Nazgul, the spirits of corrupted human kings.

Can Bilbo find a way to keep Thorin’s lust for treasure from getting their company killed? Can Gandalf and the White Council defeat Sauron? Can Dwarves, humans, and Elves put aside their differences long enough to deal with the Orc hordes, and what casualties will result from the battle? If you’ve read the book or noticed any of the foreshadowing in the previous Hobbit movies, you’ll know.

Cast

There are no major additions in this movie, but there were a few good moments for Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman as good-hearted burglar Bilbo, Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage as proud Thorin, and Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as isolationist Thranduil. As before, Bilbo’s scenes are closest to those in the book, and I even began to feel sympathy for elk-riding Thranduil.

I would have liked Thorin’s “gold sickness” be more of an opportunity for the other Dwarves to react than an explicit echo of Smaug’s words. With three long movies’ worth of screen time, there should have been more character development for all 13 Dwarves.

While I approve the addition of Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in a male-heavy cast, I would have preferred less of a forced love triangle with her, Orlando Bloom’s ageless Legolas, and Being Human‘s Aidan Turner’s young Dwarf Fili.

I understand that the slapstick scenes with Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown and Ryan Gage as his slimy assistant Alfrid were meant to contrast with the virtue and courage of Luke Evans’ Bard, but they were a bit too broad for my taste. Of course, they wouldn’t be out of place during most fantasy tabletop games.

Spartacus and Arrow‘s Manu Bennett (whom I’ve met) and John Tui remained menacing as Orc chieftains Azog and Bolg — mostly through motion capture, I assume. Busy Benedict Cumberbatch had less voice time as the Necromancer and Smaug this time around.

It was nice to again see Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Sauruman, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. The narrative framing device bringing back Ian Holm as old Bilbo was an even better tie-in to Fellowship of the Ring.

Direction

Because of the focus on the big set-piece battles, the pacing of Battle of the Five Armies seemed a bit smoother than in its predecessors. Smaug’s raid is rather short, and the evacuation of Lake Town and Dale by humans ahead of marauding Orcs is overly similar to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

A combat between Thorin and Azog (rather than Bolg, as in the book) takes place on a frozen waterfall. As much as I liked 2004’s King Arthur and Battle of the Five Armies, I wish filmmakers would stop copying Alexander Nevsky‘s ice battle, which is based on real history.

Like his distinguished peers George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, director Peter Jackson has let technology overwhelm his sense of storytelling in this second trilogy. A good editor should be able to tell even established filmmakers when certain scenes go too long. Just because one can now realize a grand vision, if it doesn’t help the characters, setting, or plot, it doesn’t need to be included.

Perhaps some of the focus will be restored in the inevitable director’s cuts on DVD and Blu-ray. I also wonder how Guillermo del Toro might have handled the same material in less time, without franchise pressure from Warner Bros.

Cinematography

As noted above, the dragon, Orcs, and landscapes were all brought to spectacular life by WETA Studios. I noticed the computer-generated imagery less this time around, and 3-D worked fine for us (we didn’t find an IMAX showtime we liked). I do wonder what Battle of the Five Armies might look like at high frame rate.

Thranduil’s Wood Elves were too much like the shining hosts of the Second Age or the Sindarin of Lothlorien. Legolas’ gratuitous acrobatics, which have become a cliché since the Lord of the Rings movies, reminded me of why some role-players hated the smug, omnipotent Elves of the AD&D2 era.

Also, I would have liked to see more than telekinesis or blasts of wind during the White Council’s battle against Sauron. On the other hand, most magic in Tolkien’s books is more subtle than the pyrotechnics jaded audiences have come to expect.

Once the Goblins and Dwarves met in battle, it was hard to tell them apart, despite their difference in size (and we saw it in 3-D). I would have given each army more different armor or colorful surcoats. The overhead shots still felt too much like a video game.

Soundtrack

The music served the story, but the themes that we noticed most were those that harked back to The Lord of the Rings. The fine art by Alan Lee and John How during the closing credits was well accompanied by “The Last Goodbye,” sung by Billy Boyd (Pippin in the first film trilogy, which takes place after The Hobbit).

Rating

Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B, 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. Despite some problems, the movie does tie up the prequel trilogy and shows the climactic battle for northern Middle Earth.

That said, I hope that filmmakers leave Tolkien’s work alone for a while before taking a fresh look at The Hobbit or parts of the Silmarillion. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is the stronger work, and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

The previews we saw were decent, but nothing among the sequels and remakes jumped out as a “must-see” flick for 2015. I am curious about spy actioner The Kingsmen and Mad Max: Fury Road, but I expect to see fewer than the 19 movies I saw in theaters this past year:

Back at home, Dave, Sandra, Janice, and I also enjoyed The Edge of Tomorrow, a decent Tom Cruise vehicle that was indeed a mashup of military science fiction Starship Troopers and time-travel Groundhog Day. We also later returned to Burlington for dinner at the busy Border Café, one of our favorite local Tex-Mex eateries.

Janice and I didn’t come down with our colds until after Dave and Sandra left (taking more of my comic book collection with them for storage), but we had a nice time around the holidays. Now, just to shake it while getting back to work!

Fun and games in June and July 2014

As usual, the start of summer has been busy. On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I went to the Compleat Strategist in Boston for Free RPG Day. We then met role-players Beruk A., Rich C.G., and some of Rich’s friends at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass.

I picked up free fantasy supplements for Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Pathfinder, as well as quickstarters for the superhero Valiant Universe and cyberpunk/fantasy Shadowrun. Clearly, I’m still in a retro-clone, old-school Renaissance (OSR) frame of mind.

Other recent acquisitions include Arrows of Indra, Celestial Empire, and the FATE (Core) Freeport Companion, all of which should be useful for my long-running “Vanished Lands” campaign, which is currently using D20/FATE house rules.

As you may have seen by now, I ran four games in one week! After the latest Creation Star Trek convention in Boston (more on that later), I ran my usual “Vanished Lands: A New Dawn” telecom team on Sunday, June 22. The Player Characters encountered monsters while scouting an army approaching the city of Sogewa.

On Monday, June 23, the “Vanished Lands: Vistel’s Expedition” face-to-face group continued its adventures. That adventuring party has traveled through time to free some slaves.

Byron V.O., an alumnus of the Boston-area groups who now lives in St. Louis and participates in “A New Dawn” via Skype, stayed with Janice and me after a business trip back east. On Friday, June 27, I ran an extra “Vistel’s Expedition” session, and Byron and I were pleased at the strong turnout.

Byron V.O.'s June 2014 visit
“Vistel’s Expedition,” summer 2014

On Saturday, June 28, I ran “Star Trek: Restoration,” and it was nice to host a smaller group for the first time since moving from Needham to Waltham, Mass. The crew of the U.S.S. Rotha was involved in a tense standoff with Romulan warbirds!

After that afternoon session, we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Josh C. for a solid Italian dinner at Fiorella’s in Newton. Byron, who is always a good houseguest and fun gaming companion, left on Sunday, June 29.

On Monday, June 30, Josh ran a one-shot of Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, using FATE Core (reminding me of what I like and what I’d tweak). That wuxia (Asian-style fantasy) scenario was among the one-shots and miniseries my groups have tried out each summer in between longer campaigns.

Pregenerated P.C.s for “Hammer, Don’t Touch This!” — Josh C.’s Tianxia one-shot at Brian W.’s home in Newton, Mass.:

  • Ma Wei Sheng” [Gene D.]-male eastern human, wandering nobleman, taciturn warrior determined to get out from his family’s shadow and make a name for himself
  • Smiling Ox” [Beruk A.]-male human, master of the Demon Hammer, boastful brute with large appetites and a heart of gold
  • Sister Chuntao” [Brian W.]-female human, Bodhist nun and former thief, conscious of checkered past and seeking harmony, with monkey Sun
  • Jasmina” [Sara F.]-female tiger, talking animal with scars and a strong sense of justice
  • Han ‘Dragon Dog’ Ping” [Bruce K.]-male human, enthusiastic young adventurer and working-class hero
  • Yee Wong” [Rich C.G.]-male human, old Daoist wizard, immortal but absent-minded and irascible alchemist
  • Wolf-Eyed Yue” [Brian S.]-female human, wild woman and member of the secret White Widow sect devoted to helping women defend themselves

The Boston-area and telecom games took a break around the Independence Day weekend, during which Janice and I hosted one of our nieces. During the latest “JasonCon” on Monday, July 7, Jason E.R. (whose “Glassworks: the Devil’s Den” superhero scenario using Icons: Great Power recently ended) graciously hosted Rich’s School Daze, a narrative, rules-light game typically focusing on high school archetypes.

P.C.s for Rich C.G.’s third School Daze session, held in Reading, Mass.:

  • Emo Wallach” [Gene D.]-male human goth, junior at Trowbridge High School specializing in art and comfortable in dank spaces; discovered a dead dog and classmate during a stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake; later a friend of “Reasonable Squid” reporter Cynthia Hoskins
  • Chuck Taylor” [Jason E.R.]-male human jock, Trowbridge senior and friend of “Fighting Krakens” water polo Coach Bronkowski and his bullying son Murphy, helped defeat a homicidal alien with surprise tire-iron attacks; after a change of heart, became a nerd defender
  • Brandon Shaw” [Bruce K.]-male human, shop yank and Trowbridge junior, prone to bad humor; fancies himself a ladies’ man and good with an axe in a scrap
  • Alan Morris” [Brian S.]-male human Trowbridge senior and budding filmmaker; friend of Henry Lee Jackson, an old hermit with a hook hand; recorded attack by assistant camp leader “Ms. Bellum,” who was actually a mantis-like alien; dating Chuck’s younger sister Tracy
  • Feskilado ‘Fesky’ Mepeselph” [Erik R.]-male human Trowbridge senior, science and clank/electronics expert; snuck pet dogs and cat into camp; later found beheaded, and cat Severus was revealed as an alien guardian

I expect “A New Dawn” to resume this coming Sunday, July 13, and Bruce K. will begin his “Eberron/Pathfinder: Reign of Winter” miniseries next Monday. So many games, so little time!

In related news, the Dungeons & Dragons (5e/”Next”) Basic Rules have been released. While there are no earth-shattering revelations, especially after a lengthy playtest period, I’m pleased that Wizards of the Coast released this as a free PDF.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, this looks closer to what I would have preferred for D&D4e, with a mix of AD&D2 style and D&D3.5/D20/4e rules. We’ll still have to wait and see whether D&D5e will tempt role-players away from Pathfinder, OSR, and various indie systems.

Happy 2014!

Friends and fellow role-players, I wish all of you and your families a healthy, prosperous, and Happy New Year! May 2014 bring us new and fun adventures together! -Gene

Boston-area role-playing games, spring 2014:

Vistel's Circus
Face-to-face “Vanished Lands” team

Other Boston-area RPGs, 2013:

  • Vortex: Terra’s Pride,” Gene D.’s telecom space opera, using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer, Bulldogs, Skype, and Rolz
  • Barsoomian Adventures: the Tenth Ray of Mars,” Jason E.R.’s planetary romance, using Savage Worlds
  • Star Wars: Dark Times,” Jason E.R.’s space opera miniseries, using Savage Worlds
  • Red Dwarf, Beruk A.’s science fiction+ scenario
  • Dread, Brian W.’s Jenga-based social science fiction one-shot
  • A New Beginning: Mystic Adventures in the ‘Big D,'” Josh C.‘s modern supernatural miniseries, using FATE 3e Dresden Files
  • The Lizardmen of Xur’Kliz,” Josh C.’s fantasy one-shot, using Dungeon World
  • Steam Wars,” Josh C.’s steampunk samurai/space opera miniseries, using FATE Accelerated Edition (FAE), Google+, and Roll20
  • Telecom fantasy scenario by Josh C., using Microscope, Wushu, and Google+, and Roll20
  • Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Rich C.G.’s space opera one-shot
  • School Daze, Rich C.G.’s rules-light high-school scenarios
  • Strange Tales From Chicago,” Geoff C.’s superhero miniseries, using FAE, Skype, and Rolz
  • Redeemer or Destroyer,” Rob H.’s fantasy campaign, using Storyteller: Exalted, Wushu/Budo, Google+, and Roll20
Savage Worlds team
Star Wars: Dark Times group

Summer’s end, 2013 edition

Scattered thundershowers may have put a damper on some Labor Day plans, but Janice and I enjoyed the last weekend of a busy summer. We’ve traveled out of state at least once per month all year, and we’ve had house guests during at least one weekend for each of the past few months.

Gene in Seattle
Looking out from Seattle

I’m of course glad to see friends and family, but it’s also nice to have a few relatively quiet weekends. The previous Friday, Janice and I went to the Fiddle Master’s Concert put on by the Suzuki School at Lassell College. We enjoyed the mix of Celtic, Scandinavian, bluegrass, and even some big band music.

On Saturday, 31 August 2013, we visited our usual bookshops in Harvard Square, Cambridge. We did have to contend with some traffic, since I had forgotten that students were moving into Boston’s many colleges.

In addition to grocery shopping this past weekend, we tried out Greek Corner, a nice family restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. I’ve had lunches with co-workers recently at Bison County, City Streets, and Elephant Walk in Waltham, Mass.

Although my gaming groups have had some difficulty getting quorum over the past few weeks, I did meet Beruk A. and Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at Thomas’ place in Lexington, Mass., on Labor Day. We had Buffalo wings from Wings Express, as well as cheese fondue, homemade pea and fava bean soup, brisket, and fruit.

Thomas shared some recent anime series with us, and we talked about recent and upcoming genre TV shows and movies. I’ll try to blog more about these soon. In the meantime, enjoy autumn’s approach!