Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Recent Arrival: Special Edition

Other gaming products have shown up at Grubb Street, and they will eventually get their own write-ups, but this one just showed up, and I feel it is important enough to merit its own separate blog entry.

Dark Tower by Jennell Jaquays  and others, Goodman Games, Goodman Games, 2024, consisting of a 96-page hardback, a 316-page hardback, a 164 page hardback, additional handouts, slipcased, Kickstarter.

Jennell Jaquays (1956-2024) was an artist and designer of  tabletop and computer games. She was brilliant at all these things. I had an opportunity to work with her when she joined TSR as an artist, producing the covers for the Mystara revision,  as well as a beautiful piece of a wounded Nautiloid for Spelljammer, and she further immortalized me on the cover of a D&D product - Temple, Tower, and Tomb. She passed on in January of this year. Her work spanned numerous companies, some of which she founded, and she was there when the dawn first broke over the horizon of RPGs with Dark Tower

Dark Tower was originally produced by Judges Guild, and was a 70-page adventure dealing with a secretive cult of Set that had taken over a small community. The adventure consisted of that small town (called Mitra's Fist), and an extensive dungeon beneath it, filled with traps and creatures. The tower of the title is underground. But what established itself over other adventure models of its era was its non-linear design. There were multiple entrances, multiple passages between levels, and across levels between two sunken towers. This type of design has since been giving many names, but I'm comfortable with Jaqaysing as its nom du design.

Jaquays produces interesting adventures that veer away from standard approaches. For a linear dungeon design (good for tournaments), you move directly from room to room, and from encounter to encounter. One entrance (usually) and one exit from each encounter. There may be nests and complexes, but the assumption is that you cleaned out one room or section before moving forward. Everyone has the same experience. In as Jaquays-styled dungeon, there are multiple ways up and down and across, and there is no guarantee that the adventurers will hit everything. The original Ravenloft would pull off the same trick years later, but Dark Tower was first, and set a high bar.

Jaquaysing does have some challenges. A linear dungeon works for linear storytelling. You can feed the player characters information over time. Under a  non-linear dungeon, encounters and clues may be missed entirely, so creating a strong story sense can be a challenge to the DM. In Dark Tower, the players slowly piece together what is going on, and may not engage with the entire story, depending on their choices.

In addition, in this form of dungeon, adventurers can quickly find themselves in over their heads, particularly if the dungeon levels are set for different character levels John "Sacnoth" Rateliff ran us through it in preparation of his essay (which is included in the deluxe edition), and I ended our experience suddenly when I accidentally used the door from a Robe of Useful Items to open a passage into the high-level final boss fight room. OK, maybe it wasn't totally the dungeon design's fault, but it did have the potential to go casters-up and then did.

The cover of Temple, Tower & Tomb.
I'm the one screaming.
The new edition, from Goodman Games, is a slip-cased beauty. Goodman has been revising classic modules of the previous eras, updated from modern systems. The re-released the original in a thin hardback, including a number of essays (from Sacnoth, Grognardia and others). For those who have not seen how things were presented at the dawn of time from people other than TSR, take a look.

Volume 2, by Chris Doyle, is a massive translation of the original adventure in 5th Edition D&D (though the game is not directly referred to as such). The text has expanded, and the appendices are almost twice the size of the original, But it brings the classic adventure forward for more modern audiences. Plus there is more on the overworld around Dark Tower. 

Book 3 by a number of folk, is a continuation of the story at the post-12th level, continuing the themes of Mitra versus Set through a number of smaller dungeons. There is definitely a feeling "But wait, there's more" going on here, but it is all begun with Dark Tower, which remains the centerpiece of the project.

This is a Goodman Games production, which means it has old-school black and white interiors and there are numerous player handouts and character sheets (also part of the Kickstarter). The art is solid and evokes the rough edges of the earlier editions of D&D and maps look good and complete (the originals were pretty spiffy as well). The combined projects both show where we have been in design, and where we have grown, and are playable in either configuration.

In short, they did well by Jennell, and the revised, updated, and expanded Dark Tower is as challenging and engaging as the original was. It is an excellent testament to her contributions in RPGs. 

More later, 

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Theatre: Dreams and DREAMers

 Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, Directed by Desdemona Chiang, Seattle REP through 31 March.

First off, parking stories continues. We did get reasonable parking through the theater app, but it was across the width of Seattle Center, which was a long walk for folk of our age, even taking it in multiple stages. On the parking lot elevator, we encountered another grey-haired couple in the elevator who were also attending the same play.

SHE: What do you know about the play?

ME: I don't know much. I tend to go into these things blind.

SHE (Poking her husband): HE'S the same way!

And yeah, we have season tickets, so we're going, even though the matinee has been moved up to noon and we had Daylight savings time to boot. 

Anyway, Sanctuary City. It was very, very good.

The play divides into two neat, well-produced halves. The Boy, simply identified as B (Junior Nyong'o) and the Girl, G (Emilie Maureen Hanson) are both Millennials in Jersey, underage and illegal in a post-eleven America that does not want them. Their situations are not exact, but they team up as friends, G crashing at B's place to avoid a violent stepfather. We follow them through their high-school years in a scattershot of short, short vignettes, the actors dipping in and out of repeated sequences to set up the pattern of their life from school through graduation. On a bare stage, the short vignettes, slammed into each other over the course of years, like the kids are workshopping their adult lives and what they're going to do. Spoiler - one gets legal, and promises to marry the other, regardless of the personal risk.

And it works surprisingly well. Director Chiang tried this sort of thing in Constellations, which did not work, but here, under the fire and talent of the leads, it powers through effortlessly grabs the audience and does not let go.

And probably if that was where it ended, it would have rewarding but not enough to justify a full production. But, then, everything changes, the black backdrops rotate (a deft use of the Rep's often-overplayed stagecraft), to transform into an apartment over the New Year's break, three years after the promise. Things have changed, and the kids have moved from sharp, all-elbows and worry to long-term angst and stress. Their lives have changed. G visits and discovers B living his lover (a sharp Josh Kenji). Relationships are tested, and the characters have to face a no-win situation, that, regardless of the choice, someone will have to sacrifice their future.

And it is sad and beautiful and honest. Hanson and Nyong'o grow up (and apart) before our eyes. And while delving into the depths of the political situation of the age (post WTC, pre-cell phones), it is political but never weighed down by the overwhelming politics of the era instead concentrating on the characters' own situations. They take the politics and make it personal, and in doing so conquer their lives. 

Yeah, I liked it. Glad I went in blind, because it left me wondering how it would all turn out, and it was sad and funny and damned good writing with damned good actors. More of this, please.

More later,