Rochester, N.Y. visit, Part 2 — fun and games

David I.S. at the Strong Museum of Play
He does everything a spider can!

Please see my previous post for the first part of my belated visit to longtime friend David I.S. in Rochester, New York. We started Sunday, 10 July 2011, strongly with cheddar melts and turkey bacon. I met some cool hipsters at Park Avenue Comics and found a few more back issues in the disorganized but full stacks at Comics Etc. I’m impressed that a small metropolitan area with only 1 million residents can support so many comic shops.

Comics Etc. also had more tabletop gaming books than Millennium Games, but not as many comics as Comic Book Heaven, which reminds me fondly of Hole in the Wall Books in Falls Church, Va. In general, I collect DC’s superhero comics, and Dave tends to like independent and horror titles, but we’ve come to appreciate numerous genres and art styles. I’m glad to have stoked his and his friend Amit T.‘s interest in the medium.

We then went to the Strong National Museum of Play, which I’d compare favorably with Boston’s Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science. It was a walk down memory lane, with old board and video games, antique doll collections, and a superhero exhibit. Fortunately, the museum wasn’t too crowded on a late Sunday afternoon.

The famous Dinosaur Barbeque didn’t disappoint us for a late lunch/early dinner (“linner”). Dave and I ate chicken wings, pulled pork, mojito chicken, plus side dishes. While that may not have been the healthiest of meals, I had tried vegan jerky earlier in the day. It wasn’t bad, and partly relieved my guilt at eating intelligent, delicious animals.

After that, we walked to the Thomson Reuters and art deco Times Square buildings, as well as varied bridges. The Rochester Spillway and abandoned subway in the heart of the city are unique landmarks. We skirted the Genesee Valley Park and the University of Rochester campus before visiting the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

Dave recently got tenure at the School of Interactive Games and Media in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences. He took me to his office and the cool Game Design Development Lab. While I’ve only dabbled in computer and console games over the past 30 years, I respect the creativity and hard work that goes into them. As with wargames, collectible card games, and board games, I still prefer my weekly pen-and-paper role-playing games.

That night, we created comic book dividers and talked about music and health. The next morning, I drove back to Massachusetts. This time, the lack of air conditioning was more apparent when I sat in traffic as the temperature reached the 90s Fahrenheit. I stopped at my sister-in-law Shelly’s house in Utica, N.Y., on the way for lunch and to spend a little time with her husband Melvin and children Laura and David.

Since then, I’ve been busy with work and trying to catch up on recorded genre TV and phone calls from friends before my next trip!

Rochester, N.Y., visit — food, falls, and funnies!

Dave and Gene, July 2011
Near Ontario Beach

This past week has been even busier than usual. It started with the Independence Day and 300th anniversary events in Needham, Massachusetts, continued through various meetings at work, and included a Pathfinder: “Holy Steeltelecom fantasy game.

On Friday, 8 July 2011, I drove to Rochester, New York, to visit college chum David I.S. On the way west, I realized that the air conditioner in my car still isn’t working. Fortunately, the weather wasn’t too bad, and traffic was light. Dave and I stocked up at Wegman’s and Beers of the World before returning to his current apartment to grill steak and chicken for dinner.

As usual when we get together, we stayed up late into the night talking about family, relationships, work, housing, and our circles of acquaintances. Among the beers we tried were a Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, Rogue Hazlenut Brown Nectar, and Imperial Chocolate Stout. The dark brews went well with the dry-rubbed beef. We also ate vegetable and fruit salads, kamut noodles, and chocolate frozen goat’s milk, among other things.

After sleeping in the next morning, Dave drove me to several spots along the Genesee River Trail. We didn’t have the time (or I the likely endurance) to rent a bicycle or fully explore them. I saw the strange megaliths near Lower Falls, the Fast Ferry pier and Ontario Beach, and Maplewood Gardens. Dave and I did a mix of “urban hiking,” viewing of bike trails, and strolling to take in the sights.

Rochester has poorer, African-American neighborhoods interspersed with more affluent, mostly Caucasian ones. I’m glad that Dave is aware of but willing to cross racial and economic divisions. I’ve said before that the Rust Belt isn’t confined to the Midwest — it begins in Worcester, Mass., and ends in Iowa or beyond.

We had a tasty lunch at Cheeburger, Cheeburger and visited a few comic book and game shops, including the small but well-organized All Heroes Comics, the friendly suppliers at Empire Comics, and the range and depth of the collections at Comic Book Heaven (CBH). In addition to meeting Dave’s local friends Amit T. & Krysta B., CBH proprietor Dan showed us the amazing archives in his old building, and we all hope to help his business.

Dave also took me to Millennium Games, which had a decent selection of role-playing games, if not as well-stocked as the best shops I’m familiar with in downstate New York, Northern Virginia, or eastern Massachusetts. We passed on local landmark Nick Tahou’s “garbage plate” for a simpler dinner at classic Jay’s Diner. That night, Dave enjoyed Superman/Shazam: the Return of Black Adam, especially the grindhouse Spectre short and the western/horror Jonah Hex one.

Coming soon: Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

“Vanished Lands: Holy Steel” update — the quest for Faelonia resumes!

Map from "Time Bandits"
The Chaos Wars -- "Time Bandits" map

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for the latest “Holy Steel” session, which was held on Tuesday, 5 July 2011. My long-running “Vanished Lands” heroic fantasy campaign currently uses Pathfinder, Skype, and an online dice roller.

In one ancient world, there was a region where strange majicks and demihuman races thrived. In the “Vanished Lands,” travelers became adventurers, and adventurers strove to be heroes in the face of many perils and wonders….

>>Player Character roster for “Holy Steel” miniseries, summer 2011:

-“Faelonia Telcontar” [Dexter V.H.]-female Drow Ranger (western Dark Elf Beastmaster), ambassador for the Waletku and Zeda kingdoms and champion of Mekkil and Vulkan, with wolf companion Facon and Heart Bow (artifact) Dalis; NGl, Lvl. 16

-“Rellim Dorathan” [Mark M./Non-Player Character]-male Quelanthi Fighter/Cleric of Aerdary (High Elf: Labelas), friend of Faelonia; CGn, Lvl. 6/6

-“Milos Valoren” [Beruk A.]-male Barbari human scout [Rogue/Fighter/Gatecrasher from Ted A.H.’s D&D3 “Solar Gods: the Ether Wars”], former “Liberator” and “Dragonslayer”; CGn, Lvl. 10/3/3

-“Nialla Burkin” [N.P.C.]-female Suthern human Qedeshot/Battle Dancer (proto-Arabic Bard/Monk), former crewmember of the Dragon’s Bane and follower of Milos; NGc, Lvl. 8/1

-“Ibrahim al-Sufaia” [Byron V.O.]-male Suthern human Ghazi/Khery-heb (Egyptian Paladin/Wizard) of Isis, former “Dragonslayer” and bearer of custos (enchanted khopesh) Akhu; LGn, Lvl. 13/3

-“Arianna Leafsplitter” [N.P.C.]-female Sylvan (Wood) Elf Druid, follower of Ibrahim; TNg, Lvl. 9

>>”1 April 1229 B.C.E.:” Faelonia and Rellim had followed emissaries of the nefarious kingdom of Zuromm from the court of Pharaoh Ramses II. Their pursuit into the desert west of Pi-Ramesses and the Nile Delta led to a confrontation with chromatic dragons and other foes….

After their successful mission to Khemet (New Kingdom Egypt), Ibrahim, Milos, and their followers had returned to Hesolin, capital of the (proto-Western European) human kingdom of Hifalendor. The (D&D4e) “Faith-Based Initiative” was retrieving relics for the barbaric Gusorin Confederation, and a new band of adventurers (“Pathfinder” telecom team) would soon meet in the northwestern borderlands.

Metallic dragons Quenamun and Thilgatha/Rhiannen told Ibrahim and Milos that they had called in favors in the Celestial Court to learn that Faelonia was trapped but otherwise unharmed on the Astral Plane. Ibrahim reassured Faelonia’s assassin husband, “Shea” [Peter D./N.P.C.], that he would find her.

Sometime later, Faelonia, Milos, and Ibrahim awaken. They don’t know where they are or how they got there. The Drow Ranger, Barbari Rogue, and Suthern Paladin are surprised to find themselves unarmed and unarmored. Faelonia is annoyed to again be without her weapons, and Milos peers from the rock they’re perched on at small lights around them.

Ibrahim casts Detect Evil and senses malicious intent in all directions. Faelonia tries to telepathically contact her wolf Facon and Heart Bow Dalis, but they reply as if from a great distance and are unable to help her. Milos realizes that they’re on a rock about 100 feet away from other floating rocks, many of which have campfires on them.

Akhu, Ibrahim’s custos, also seems far away. The holy warrior of Isis, goddess of magic, deduces that he and his allies are in the sea of Elemental Chaos. Milos is skeptical about his surroundings and jumps! The Gatecrasher doesn’t need his Ring of Featherfall and reawakens surrounded by giant webs.

After Milos leaps into the dark, Faelonia and Ibrahim see a rider charging at them from another floating rock. The flaming hooves and skull of the Nightmare illuminate the plate armor and terrible visage of a Death Knight. Faelonia casts Summon Nature’s Ally, and a giant eagle grabs her in midair.

Rather than face the Undead Blackguard alone, Ibrahim also jumps to find himself somewhere else, surrounded by webs. He greets Milos, but Faelonia is still asleep and twitching. Huge spiders close in on the trio, whose followers are also entangled.

Back in his armor, Ibrahim draws Akhu and casts Daylight, briefly blinding the arachnids. Milos uses acid and daggers to cut Faelonia, Rellim, Nialla, and Arianna free. The grateful Ranger casts Mass Invisibility with Dalis to buy more time. Faelonia also attends to Facon and Milos’ exalted cat, and she doesn’t Detect Undead in the area.

Unfortunately, groggy Rellim, Nialla, and Arianna can’t recall how they were reunited, either, so Faelonia prays to her patron deities, Mekkil and Vulkan. The Divination reveals that they are in the outer plane of Pandemonium, near the Abyss. Ibrahim believes that devils such as Asmorath Malvolus are responsible.

Before they can be bitten, Faelonia uses the Heart Bow to Plane Shift herself and her companions to the Beastlands. Ibrahim is relieved to see grass and trees rather than flames and gloom, but Milos would prefer to be back on the Prime Material plane of existence. He checks his gear and cat.

Large lions approach, alarming the humans and their animals. Faelonia communes with the beasts, who welcome them to the realm of Krigala, the first layer of the Happy Hunting Grounds. The lions begin to lead the visitors to their lord Nobanion, but Elf Rellim tries to disbelieve.

Wary Milos asks Nialla how they were brought together in the first place. She says the physical trap in Pandemonium and the mental trap in the Elemental Sea could have been set for them. Ibrahim Detects Scrying, and Druid Arianna is happy to pet the lions. As the wanderers stroll, they hear sounds of battle!

Milos stealthily scouts ahead. He sees leonines and centaur-like Wemics being attacked by Death Knights riding Nightmares, similar to the vision in the primordial chaos! Faelonia casts Magic Circles vs. Chaos and Evil through Dalis, and Ibrahim defends the followers and ignites his sword and shield. Milos is reluctant to get involved, but Faelonia and Ibrahim exchange glances and prepare to charge….

I’m glad that we were able to play, despite short notice and the usual scheduling snafus and delays. While the main teleconferencing game and the Boston-area FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures: “Vortexspace opera are on hiatus this month, there may be opportunities for other one-shots. For example, Dexter is willing to run a D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition scenario, for which I don’t need to be present (although I wouldn’t mind participating if I had the time).

In the meantime, I hope that everybody had a good Independence Day weekend, and stay in touch! -Gene

Animation nation, early summer edition

Animated-style Justice League
DC's Justice League

In the past few weeks, I’ve caught up on DC’s animated movies, including Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and Superman/Shazam: the Return of Black Adam (as well as Marvel’s Thor: Tales of Asgard).

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is part of an ongoing series of direct-to-video animated adaptations of DC Comics superheroes. Like Green Lantern: First Flight, it features Firefly/Serenity and Castle‘s Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan, the first human to join the interstellar Green Lantern Corps. Unlike First Flight or the recent live-action movie starring Ryan Reynolds, Emerald Knights isn’t an origin story and takes an anthology approach to tales of the corps.

The Korean animators behind DC’s recent cartoons do an excellent job of depicting Green Lantern‘s aliens, exotic worlds, ring constructs, and fight scenes. I was pleased to see stories taken from the print comics, and Andrea Romano has again assembled a strong voice cast, including Harry Potter’s Jason Isaacs as the aptly named Sinestro, Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as rookie Arisia, musician Henry Rollins as big “poozer” and drill sergeant Kilowog, and The Mummy‘s Arnold Vosloo as Jordan’s predecessor Abin Sur.

Other notable actors include Kelly Hu as martial artist Laira and wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as brawler Bolphunga. I’d compare Emerald Knights, which is rated PG for violence, favorably to Marvel’s recent Thor: Tales of Asgard and give it a B+/A-, 8.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. There’s also a short preview of Batman: Year One, the next in DC’s video adaptations.

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Green Lantern TV series, which looks like it takes Bruce Timm’s designs from the great Justice League and combines them with the blocky computer animation of Star Wars: Clone Wars. There’s also another Batman TV show in the works, but it’s too soon to say whether it will continue the character’s legacy. In the meantime, I’m waiting for Young Justice‘s return and the final episodes of Batman and the Brave and the Bold.

I also belatedly watched Superman/Shazam: the Return of Black Adam, which compiles the shorts attached to previous cartoons and adds a brawl among the title characters. If you already own the other videos, it’s not worth paying full price for a slightly longer short, but it was decent nonetheless. It’s too bad that The Return of Black Adam didn’t sell well, because I enjoyed these glimpses at other superheroes relatively free of continuity. (As a Green Arrow fan, I was hoping for more of the emerald archer.)

Fantasy and mystery TV, summer 2011

Mysterious wallpaper

I hope that those of you in the U.S. had a good Independence Day weekend. Among other things, Janice and I attended the holiday and 300th anniversary celebrations in Needham, Massachusetts, including the fireworks display, parade, and fair. Fortunately, we managed to avoid the thundershowers that had been forecast.

Just over a week ago, Janice and I caught up on some recorded videos, including Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Macbeth, and some animation (which I’ll review later). Each was good in its own way.

Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Nicholas Cage and Alfred Molina, is loosely based on the classic animated short in Fantasia. While not quite as gonzo as National Treasure or as franchise-igniting as Pirates of the Caribbean, this movie is decent young-adult fantasy entertainment in the style of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, with a dash of modern wizards Harry Potter and Harry Dresden.

Jay Baruchel is appropriately nerdy as a physicist who stumbles into a long duel between Cage and Molina’s spellcasters. They are former students of Merlin alienated over the affections of a third student, played by the attractive Monica Bellucci. Star Trek: First Contact‘s Borg queen, Alice Krige, is Morgana le Fay, and Teresa Palmer, who was almost Talia al-Ghul in George Miller’s aborted Justice League: Mortal, plays Beruchel’s love interest.

The plot and script are predictable, but some of the visual effects are clever, and Cage gets to be his droll self as seen in other genre flicks such as Ghost Rider. I’d give Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is rated PG for violence, a B-, two out of five stars, or a 7 out of 10. It’s fine as a rental or to catch on cable television as we did.

A bit more highbrow was the three-hour production of Macbeth, or “the Scottish play,” starring Star Trek: the Next Generation and X-Men‘s Patrick Stewart as the ambitious murderer and king. This adaptation, whose modern setting resembles Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, first ran on stage before being filmed for the PBS.

Kate Fleetwood plays an equally ruthless (and guilt-ridden) Lady Macbeth, who is younger than the onetime military officer but a good match for him to the bloody end. The soliloquies are muted but no less effective, and the script closely follows Shakespeare’s. I thought the weird sisters were nicely disturbing, in an alternative music plus Doctor Who sort of way, although their enunciation was a bit muddled.

I’d give this version of Macbeth an A-, 8.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. There was a brief interview with Stewart after the broadcast of the play, giving some insights into the directorial and acting choices for this interpretation. I can easily imagine it being required viewing in high schools.

Janice and I have also been enjoying PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, including the latest adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. The Belgian detective is still faithfully depicted by David Suchet, and the latest batch of episodes has refrained from making too many changes to the original mysteries. We’re also looking forward to more Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, and newcomer Aurelio Zen.

Elsewhere on the dial, I’m glad for the summer returns of the buddy crime solvers on USA’s White Collar, TNT’s bluesy Memphis Beat, and the capers of TNT’s Leverage. I just learned that Hu$tle, a British show about do-gooder grifters, had four more seasons/series than what I had seen on U.S. TV.

Going back to fantasy, I’m disappointed that Starz canceled Camelot, which suffered in comparison with the more popular Spartacus and HBO’s Game of Thrones. I liked Camelot more than the recent takes on Robin Hood or the later Merlin series. We’ll see whether the planned shows about Vikings and pirates are any good and continue the latest revival of swashbuckling bodice-rippers on TV (such as Showtime’s Borgias).