Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Orcs and Art

With the nod to inclusivity in the 5E Basic Rules, the art has come under additional examination to see if WotC could walk the walk now that they've talked the talk. So how does the art fare?

Numerous sites and blogs have done in-depth frequency and focus analysis and for the most part the numbers are good in terms of diversity and inclusivity. It's obvious with even a flip through of the 5E PHB, so much so some people stuck on a narrow mode of thinking actually comment on there being too many women or persons-of-color (POC)/minorities/non-whites in the art. Seriously.

This post on the Go Make Me A Sandwich blog documents one such exchange and does a good job of highlighting the positive and active depictions of women and POC in 5th edition art. I definitely agree with what the author has to say regarding the topic of inclusive art.

However, I did come across one statement that didn't sit right with me:
CHECK IT OUT, A HALF-ORC PALADIN. This is something I never expected to see! The treatment of race in the Forgotten Realms setting has always been… problematic at best. Orcs and half-orcs have always been depicted with traits that read as a very thinly veiled analogue for blackness. So to see Paladins, who are the literal embodiment of good, being represented by a righteous-as-fuck looking half-orc? That’s revolutionary!
The image being commented on was of this half-orc paladin found in the 5E PHB:
Half-orc paladin, D&D 5E Player's Handbook

There are a number of hyperboles within the statement that could be interpreted as portraying D&D and the Realms as distinctly anti-inclusive (even downright unintentionally racist) throwbacks. While I will not say the game or setting are perfect in every way regarding this issue, I feel there is much more nuance and inclusivity to the game and setting than the statement gives them credit for. Things just aren't as bad as that one statement makes it out to be, though I understand it's exaggerated for the sake of expressing excitement for the recent art direction.

Half-orc paladin aren't revolutionary in D&D and the concept is not foreign in the Forgotten Realms. Whatever this concept may be, it's far from the first instance and not breaking any barriers that still exist.

One example of Forgotten Realms having already knocked down the barrier before 3E came to sweep away the restrictions of older editions was Shield of Innocence an orog* paladin of Torm from the War in Tethyr (1995) novel, the events of which are summarized for the game setting in the Lands of Intrigue (1997) boxed set. Shield of Innocence became the patron saint of the Loyal Order of the Innocents, suffice to say, to earn such an honor meant this orog paladin made the sacrifice needed to live up to his name.

*An orog is an orc/ogre offshoot in 2nd edition (if I recall correctly), later adapted into a type of Underdark-based 'uberorc' in 3E.

As it pertains to the art, let's set some limits at art pieces from the 3E era (or pre-4E) and from WotC and affiliates only. We'll keep things to D&D Core or FR only (as they share the same art trends and cross-pollinate). We'll exclude Eberron because it has a purposefully divergent take on orcs that is in part a reaction to this supposed problematic depiction of orcs in Core and FR. A quick Google search reveals the following:

- We have the half-orc paladin on the cover of Dragon #275, the September 2000 issue. This came on the premier of 3rd edition (released in the summer of the same year, during Gen Con, I assume) when the new edition opened up every class and race combination. So from the onset, the concept found purchase in the main periodical publication for the game for the issue immediately scheduled to follow the wide release of the 3rd edition game.
Dragon #275, September 2000
- There was a half-orc paladin for the D&D miniatures line, released with the Underdark set in 2005.

Half-orc Paladin miniature, Underdark set
- Bringing it back to the Forgotten Realms, in Player's Guide to Faerun, we have art showing line-ups of the different races and ethnicities. For the half-human line-up, shown below, we get a good look at a half-elf, a half-orc and a half-drow. Take a closer look at the half-orc with his sword and armor with the holy symbol of Tyr (scales on a hammer) emblazoned on his breastplate. This half-orc is very likely a paladin of Tyr (or arguably a cleric of Tyr with the War Domain, or maybe a Justiciar). Not that any order or subsect of Tyr's clergy have less stringent commandments, they're all paladin-like.

Half-humans, Player's Guide to Faerun
by Steve Prescott
- Now paladins are most-righteous folk, but it doesn't mean other types of holy warriors are lesser in discipline and devotion.

Races of Destiny gave us a half-orc cleric on its cover.
Races of Destiny cover art
by Adam Rex
Complete Divine gave us the Pious Templar prestige class and the art and sample character provided us with Graaghya, a badass armored half-orc female. While she's still a worshiper of wily old Gruumsh, the Pious Templar is a less barbarian-esque take on one of his followers.
Pious Templar, Complete Divine
by Wayne Reynolds
- Then we have a few depictions of half-orcs in non-savage or less savage images. These characters may not all be good or even lawful, but they seem like honest, 'civilized' people going about their business. These pieces offer some respite from the raging, axe-wielding, berserker foaming at the mouth archetype we're so used to seeing with orc art.

Half-orc Samurai, Complete Warrior
by Doug Kovacs
(Now artists for much of the DCC RPG line) 

Half-orc Bouncer, Races of Destiny
by Jim Nelson
Occult Slayer, Complete Warrior
Bloodhound, Complete Adventurer
by Steve Belledin
In the early days of 3E, WotC offered an extensive series of character portrait sketches by many different artists, many of them TSR staples. Amongst them were these non-standard orcs by Sam Wood, one of the initial concept artists for 3E.

Half-orc Wizard, DnD website
by Sam Wood
Half-orc Bard, DnD Website
by Sam Wood
Half-orc Dragonrider, DnD website
by Sam Wood
Lest we think all the non-standard orc depictions were found in the Core books, here are some more Forgotten Realms examples, beginning with the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book that started it all for 3E FR:
Racial Line-up, FRCS
by Todd Lockwood
(Note: Female half-orc warrior in sensible armor, more fighter than barbarian.)
Trademeed in Narfell, FRCS
by Carlo Arellano
(Looks like a half-orc inspecting a weapon for purchase.
A marauding orc would just raid the place for steel and goods.)
Further continuing with other FR 3E/3.5E supplements:
Imperfect Companions, Champions of Valor
by Ralph Horsley
(A half-orc in armor with a mace, more cleric than barbarian.)
"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous", Power of Faerun
by William O'Connor
(Bodyguard/Chaperon or former adventuring companion)
More civilized seeming orcs were also present in the video game side of the D&D and FR franchise.
Half-orc portrait, Icewind Dale 2 CRPG
(Plate armor, metal shield, and a serene pose and expression.)

As we can see, the notion of righteous and/or civilized half-orcs has been an ongoing concept before 5th Edition was an inkling in Wizard's business plan (indeed before WotC brought out TSR). The recent illustration is another good addition to this trend.

Half-orc paladin, D&D 5E Player's Handbook
Let's just keep in mind it's a trend that was started at least 14 years ago, two D&D editions back (three editions (and almost 20 years) if you count the Shield of Innocence character).
Half-orc Paladin
by Mark Zug

 Make that at least 15 years ago when it comes to illustrations.
Half-orc Paladin
by Todd Lockwood
Sure there are plenty of foaming-mad, barbarian-type 'primitive savage' orc and half-orc illustrations in D&D and FR, but to say that one 5E art piece is revolutionary while imply the setting has done a poor job at offering non-problematic depictions as a contrast is being unfair to the setting and the people who worked hard to inject inclusive and progressive art and lore into the game over the decades.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Speak of the devil. Television that is. Television is the devil.

This week while prowling the forlorn recesses of eBay for out-of-print games and books, as I often do, I thought to myself:

*Self, I should track down a print copy of this.*

Coincidentally, not a day later, I saw the echoing announcements and reshares on G+ regarding something long awaited. This is now a Kickstarter and it already funded during its first hours:

Problem solved.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Didn't see those Kobolds strike.

By now everyone and their animal companion are lighting up the social media and blogging about the official announcement for the release date of D&D 5th Edition (5E, Next, etc.). In addition we get images of the cover art and design, the trade dress, page count, the staggered release dates, the presence of the starter set, the three core rule books, the deluxe DM screen, and the first adventures at release with the Tyranny of Dragon. Through it all, people are analyzing the released information with fine-tooth combs. That's all fun and distracting, but much of it was as expected.

What really seemed to come out of no where was the reveal that the designers for the two Tyranny of Dragons adventures, Horde of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, were none other than Wolfgang Baur and Steven Winter, but it was actually Wolfgang's company Kobold Press that was hired as a third party developer for the adventures. The press release and Q&A on explains this arrangement was similar to the video game industry setup of having games developed by one company but published by another (and sometimes the publisher does own the IP of the game being developed). The Kobold blog post notes this is a one-time deal and does not mean KP has rights to write more official D&D adventures or if this is the model going forward for D&D adventures or even if this is a hint at the OGL equivalent for the upcoming edition.

Kobold Press's involvement is significant because although both authors have written adventures for TSR/WotC previous, in the capacity of employees and as freelancers, this is the first time they've been included as part of a third party company. Not to say KP had free reign over this project as I'm sure WotC had guidelines and requirements they desired for these adventures, but inclusion of a third party company does seem to indicate the possibility of allowing KP more freedom in following through with the entire chain of design, from content creation to writing to art direction. Certainly this doesn't mean the designers will necessarily write differently, but there could be an alternate mentality going into this as another company versus as freelancers hired by the publisher. Either way, congratulations to Wolfgang and Steven and the whole Kobold team involved in this. This is a profile raising contract and really goes to show the support Kobold Press has even amongst the major RPG companies. As always, I'm looking forward to new adventures from Kobold Press and am doubly curious due to the tie-in with the new D&D.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A to Z Bust

This needed far more planning than what I had jumping in. The itinerary I laid out is also more ambitious than I anticipated when coupled with the real life schedule and obligations. Back to the trenches to hold the nose to the grindstone, unfortunately most of the result is not in any way imagination related.

A teacher of mine once said it was the cheap, little thrills in life that keep us going. I posit it's also the small torments in life that keep us down. They're never enough to wipe us out, thankfully, but they can make it feel that way. Fortunately, there's not much left to complete and I can start climbing back up after the small torments are done with me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Next up, April A to Z Challenge

Didn't mean to let March almost slip by without a post, but weekly exams do tend to pull attention away from the more enjoyable "assignments" in real life. April will be no different as it's the month leading up to the last weeks of the semester, finals occupies the majority of May. However, since there's the April A to Z Challenge, I'll give another activity a shot. Despite knowing I've gone the easy route with these last few challenges by compiling brief posts into large blocks right at the very end.

Why do these month long activities always fall on the busiest months. The A2Z Challenge in April before the end of Spring semesters. NaNoWriMo is in November, when typically Fall semesters' finals tend to take up the early to middle of December and term projects and papers are due shortly after Thanksgiving. For those who work in retail, it's one of the busiest months of the year. Family tends to coming over in November, get-togethers require planing, traveling, and cooking. Why not March and October?

Anyway. On to the A to Z Challenge!

Will be blogging along unofficially as I will likely not have the opportunity to write up half-decent blurbs every day this month. I will use it as a prompt to sketch out a setting I've been mulling for a while. Each day and letter will have a location/geography/polity topic and a person/object/organization/history bit. Further refinement of the major topics yielded the following six subjects for each broad topic:

"Where (Mostly)"
1 - Country, Kingdom, Empire or Major Polity
2 - Capital City
3 - Other City, Major Town
4 - Site of Interest: Fortress, Prison, Outpost, Oasis, etc.
5 - Ruin, Historical Site, Site of Catastrophe or Tragedy
6 - Geographic or Geological feature or landmark (Mountain, Forest, Desert, River, Lake, Sea, etc.)

"Who (bit of What or When)"
1 - Organization
2 - Religion
3 - Ruler
4 - Person of Interest
5 - Significant Object/Relic
6 - Major Historical Time Point or Historical Person

I rolled 2d6 for all 26 letters and that formed the basis for the topics by letter. More rolling may be required to narrow down the day's topic and I'll likely pull up some random generators to trigger ideas to overcome the blank slate. I'm going into it with a rough idea of the atmosphere and a few archetypes I want to include. Beyond that, nothing is set, not even names, which is where the alphabetical nature of this challenge comes into play.

First up is A and the roll results say Ruin or Historical Site (5) and an Organization (1).

Of course, I'll have to pull up the country entries first to flesh out at least some names, associate them with rough archetypes to get a sense of where things are before I can jump in.

Preliminary results return the following letters denoted as a country: D, E, F, G, H, L, M, O, U

As you can see, the dice roller threw "1s" consecutively at a length there. Doesn't matter, one letter is as good as any other, especially when the starting phase is so unformed. I had not planned on any specific name for the nations at this point. Broke down my nation archetypes into a list of nine, rolled a virtual d9 and matched them to an available letter.

A few days will be spent (aside from getting RL stuff out of the way) outlining where everything is before I head into the nitty gritty of something as specific as a historical site or organization. Will be back on this after the leap into April.

Friday, February 28, 2014

[The D&D 40th Anniversary Blog Hop Challenge] Day 14

Day 14: Did you meet your significant other while playing D&D? Does he or she still play? (Or just post a randomly generated monster in protest of Valentine's Day).

Guess I owe people a monster. You're getting a haunt instead.

The Massacre CR 14
XP 38,400
CE persistent haunt (70-ft. radius, 20-ft. high, encompassing a dead-end alley)
Caster Level 14th
Notice Perception 20 (to hear the rising twang of bowshots escalating to dying screams)
HP 63 Weakness susceptible to ranged attacks with bows or crossbows Trigger proximity; Reset one year (on the anniversary of the massacre, except on the day of the massacre the reset is 1 minute, if the haunt kills a victim within the last day, the reset time is one day)

On the approach to the old alley one notices the telltale signs of bloody violence, rusting quarrel bolts and arrowheads embedded into ancient stone walls depositing rudy stains dribbling from the crevices like caked blood. When the haunt triggers, the air is filled with the gray metallic blur of an arrow barrage. All creatures in the area are subjected to a scouring winds spell. The barrage bursts forth from the alley entry towards the back wall. A powerful wind (windstorm strength) drives creatures in the alley towards the dead-end as ghostly figures of the original massacre relive the event and share their torment with the living. Due to the surprise ambush of the original massacre, the haunt always acts first each round. Characters can take on the role of the aggressors and assassins by attacking and damaging the haunt with bows and crossbows. The spirits are infused into the wall with hardness 8, the haunt hit points are depleted first before the hit points of the wall. However, this enrages the doomed spirits and they retaliate with one arrow eruption spell each round if assaulted at range, duplicating the strongest attack and projectile used against them. Any creature killed by the haunt (either from the scouring winds or arrow eruption damage) experiences the same desperation and doom as the original victims. The newly deceased corpse is targeted by a phantasmal revenge spell with the corpse's killer treated as the nearest living creature in the alley. The spirit of the freshly slain blames those nearby for their demise and lashes out in rage. All living creatures in the alley can see the wrathful spirit rise from the newly slain, though only the nearest creature is targeted.

DestructionThe massacred spirits can be laid to rest if each of the original murderers or their descendants are brought to the haunted alley to face the same fate.

[The D&D 40th Anniversary Blog Hop Challenge] Day 15 - 28

Day 15: What was the first edition you didn't enjoy. Why?

Disliked 4E, 'nuff said. Not for the rules, because I never played the game. I abstained from the game on principle of the foolish mega-RSE* they implemented for the Forgotten Realms. Some backwards ape-thinking went into the decision making there, and I say that with the risk of insulting apes everywhere. Apologies my primate brethren.

* RSE: Realms Shaking Event or Realms Shaking Event. Yes, this is an official acronym (actually an initialism) now eve adopted into official WotC blog posts by their designers. When that happens, you know there's too much company interjection of meta-plot into a property.

Day 16: Do you remember your first edition war? Did you win? ;)

I was around the game just in time for the 2E vs. 3E edition war. There was an edition war? Indeed.

Highlights include one 3E proselytizer who wanted to convert over, saying WotC hired mathematicians to balance the game mechanics. Right. Even if it were true, didn't help any. Not a knock on the 3E line, there's wonky stuff in each edition. I hung around the Planet ADnD forums at the time. Some of the old guard refused to switch from AD&D and made it known day in, day out. It was all good training for the 4E edition war, which made all edition wars before it look like a border skirmish. Ah, I love the sound of nerd-rage in the morning.

As for myself, I fell in the middle, stuck with 2E for a bit, not for holding the line, but because I hadn't purchased the 3E books yet. I've played in a mix of games over the last decade and change. No one really won that one, 3E is going strong, doubly so given Pathfinder. While 2E isn't a mainstay, there's enough overlap with the OSR to keep it going.

Day 17: First time you heard D&D was somehow "evil."

The internets. The "D&D is satan" reaction, fortunately, happened before my time and beyond my region (as far as I know).

Heard talk about going after Magic playing in schools, but it was due to distraction from academic work (which would be the true crime if this were a real reason to ban games) or some issues of trading (aka gambling) with cards. Nothing came of it at my school.

The same think happened to Pokemon, but you know those electric squirrel-monsters were up to no good.

Day 18: First gaming convention you ever attended.

Does I-Con count? Probably not. I did game with friends there, well, at their house. Come to think of it, we should do that more often, genre convention or not, but the band split into the surrounding states. Nowadays, the web provides the solution. Not the same, but good enough and has its own advantages.

Day 19: First gamer who just annoyed the hell out of you.

In a long running L5R d20 PBeM game, one day a player (a good roleplayer too) brought up an OOC (Out of Character) commentary about how my character's name was ridiculous and he was going to interpret the kanji with a more fitting meaning. This initiated an echo chamber of fellow Nipponophiles 'hai'ing each other. Now I'm not remotely competent in Japanese, but I figured enough out at the time to know the name was silly.

Guess what? It was a code name my character used to stay incognito. He had a real more mundane, more realistic name he kept unmentioned to his party. The game never progressed enough for the big reveal. Fuck those guys.

I guess now I know how folks feel about Realms know-it-alls, but still doesn't excuse the criticism of the setting. Asshats have the potential to infest all games and setting.

Day 20: First non-D&D RPG you played.

Freeform. On another wavelength than D&D so we'll leave it at that.

Day 21: First time you sold some of your D&D books--for whatever reason.

Duplicates sold because I picked up a copy in better condition, probably from buying auction lots and collections of gaming junk.

Day 22: First D&D-based novel you ever read (Dragonlance Trilogy, Realms novels, etc.)

The Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy (which started the franchise), the Dragonlance Legends Trilogy (follow up featuring the Majere brothers and time travel), and the Dark Elf Trilogy of Forgotten Realms (featuring that Drow ranger guy) formed a cauldron of fantasy slurry consumed at a ravenous pace. They were enjoyable enough.

Day 23: First song that comes to mind that you associate with D&D. Why?

Nothing comes to mind, suppose that tells you something ... or something else.

There's music I think fits the bill. There's music reminiscent of the emotions, pains and victories, of characters in the game, or pieces that capture the fun and excitement of playing to a sufficient degree. Yet nothing screams "D&D" to me, only the moments and themes experienced playing the game and those vary widely enough. I guess D&D is bigger than one song. It has to be encompassing in order to be what it is.

Day 24: First movie that comes to mind that you associate with D&D. Why?

Record of the Lodoss War. To this day remains more D&D than the D&D movies and most other franchises purported to have that D&D aesthetic. For all the harping about cliche stories of knights and dragons, there aren't too many movies with those elements in them, even prior to the Lord of the Rings. Movies with a D&D-like group of adventurers set up remain rare. The sword and sorcery movies from the 70s and 80s often focus on a singular hero and don't quite have the same vibe.

Day 25: Longest running campaign/gaming group you've been in.

Not counting freeform ... Two Realms games and the above mentioned L5R d20 game. Only the Realms game remains, though the game in the homebrew is still technically around in some form just not active.

Day 26: Do you still game with the people who introduced you to the hobby?

Seeing as I introduced my group to the hobby and we learned as we went, I suppose I still game with me. Dude's a loser though, but don't tell him that. We just put up with him to be nice.

Day 27: If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything different when you first started gaming?

Probably would have gotten a better start, maybe attend a game run by more experienced players to get a better flow of things. When we started, we only had three people who wanted to play, meaning it was a DM with a party of two. Should have tried inviting more people to at least make it a 3-4 person dynamic. Towards college and the rare games we had while going to non-gaming, yet still geeky conventions, we played short sessions with around six players. Those were a blast. More like that.

Day 28: What is the single most important lesson you've learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons?

Whether edition wars or system schism, old school credentials versus new school innovation, dungeon crawls in sandbox campaigns versus role-play-heavy story-gaming, or whatever topic has seized the energy of online discourse, enjoy the game. Not so much a lesson as a wish for all to have fun.