Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mansions of Madness Minis: Creative Platypus

Never mind the Mi-Go...

My skills-of-a-photographer still leave something to be desired, but here is my first-draft of the miniatures from Fantasy Flight Games' Mansions of Madness. I've supplemented the base set with all sorts of do-dads from my Warhammer collection and some old museum souvenirs I had lying around the house. Points if you get the inside joke with the cultists (aside from the obvious Cthulhu reference).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Platypus Summer Reading 2016: The Platypus Reads Part CCXCIII

June is usually the month when I get most of the year's blogging done. This June has been full of distractions, so here I am at the end of the month just putting together a post on Summer Reading.

Every summer I put together a prospective reading list. At the end of each summer, I award the best of those books the Seven Heavens of Summer Reading awards in honor of Michael Ward's Planet Narnia. So what's made the list so far?

First off, I finished up a little more reading on the Salem Witch Trials with Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare, a book I found excellent but ultimately unpersuasive (especially because I was uncertain of what exactly the author was trying to persuade me). A more satisfying read was Escaping Salem by Richard Godbeer about the witch trials in my own back yard (Fairfield County Connecticut) that I never knew about. Godbeer manages to treat his subjects as real people inhabiting a real time and place without the sanctimonious rush to judgement all too common in histories of witch trials (other notable exceptions are Charles Williams and John Putnam Demos).

Finally finished with witchcraft (for now), I decided to move back to my first scholarly love, the Ancient Greeks. This means wading through the published version of Christopher Matthew's doctoral thesis A Storm of Spears. If Matthews is right -and he looks right so far- then the mechanics of Hoplite warfare need some serious revaluation. You don't often get a game-changer like that in Ancient History, so although the book's a slog (a doctoral thesis has to be), it's also an absorbing read.

Next on the list has been a return to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (never far from my mind). I read Rice professor Jane Chance's Tolkien's Art earlier in the year and am in the process of following it up with her study of The Lord of the Rings, A Mythology of Power. I've always heard people talk about how popular Tolkien was with the counter-culture, but A Mythology of Power is the first attempt I've seen to explain why. Chance locates resonances between Tolkien, Third Wave Feminism, and Michel Foucault that are a salutary corrective to current portrayals of his thought as Crunchy-Conservative-Catholic.

Not all of this year's summer reading is non-fiction, however. My wife and I have been working through Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Series this year and we've just started The Farthest Shore. We also finished a massive slog through the Finnish Kalevala after reading Tolkien's Tale of Kullervo with accompanying essays by Verlyn Fleiger. This was my second read of The Kalevala, and I found it every bit as unique and amazing as it was when I first read it fourteen years ago (listening to all that Nightwish made it a bit of a surreal experience as well). Finally, we made a detour into speculative fiction with a friend's work Reboot, by Emmett Biffle. Having heard the manuscript read by the author during peer-group sessions I may be a little biased, but this is one of the few works of speculative fiction that I actually enjoyed and I look forward to reading the sequels when they appear.

So there you have it: the start of Summer Reading 20016. It won't end where it began, but it looks like it will be a fun ride along the way. Stay tuned mid-August to early September for the 2016 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading Awards here at Platypus of Truth!

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Platypus Mansion (Slightly Haunted): Table Top Games

Fantasy Flight has produced an entire line of games dedicated to a New England author who dedicated his life to the study and praise of New England -it's like a dream come true! So here is the newest iteration of Platypus Gaming, Mansions of Madness, a dungeon crawl based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

The first thing I noticed about the game, right from the moment I opened the box, is the high art production value. Every element of the game is beautiful and represents a united aesthetic. Tone is such an important element in Lovecraft's short stories and deft art direction creates a consistently lovecraftian tone from the get-go.

The second thing I noticed, while perusing the rule book, is that unlike many other dungeon crawls, Mansions of Madness is truly adversarial. The game is set up to evenly match investigators (protagonists) versus the Keeper (antagonist) and let them duke it out for the victory. There's no issue here of a capricious "game ordinance director" going for a "total party kill" while a more moderate one might hold back -going for a "total party kill" is the Keeper's job! This comes back to the issue of tone as an important aspect of Lovecraft's writing is that the heroes often lose. As in the writing, so in the game: there is a real sense of tension because we know that the heroes can lose.

Once I got down to playing, I also appreciated the simplicity of the game play. Looking at the myriad of pieces and rules made me worry that I'd never be able to play Mansions of Madness without a lengthy internet tutorial -never mind getting someone else to play with me. In fact, the game mechanics are functional and elegant making it easy to pick up and smooth in play. The second factor enhances the narrative elements of the game (it is about solving a mystery in a haunted house after all) giving it the feel of an actual short story. Even playing a starter game against myself gave me the creeps! (ok, the week long thunderstorm helped.)

All in all, I'm loving Mansions of Madness so far. There are two main expansions, neither of which I own, with numerous print-on-demand minor expansions, so as long as Fantasy Flight keeps the game in print, there's sure to be continued fun. My wife and I have enjoyed Fantasy Flights' other Lovecraftian mythos games (Elder Sign: Omens, Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror), so we're glad to see that this one measures up.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Invasive Doodle: Creative Platypus

A quick doodle in honor of our school's favorite invasive species.

Thoughts on Final Fantasy II (Cont.): Platypus Nostalgia

Something I forgot to mention in my prior post:

Final Fantasy II is an open world. Once the party gains Minwu's canoe, it can reach just about any area on the map with enough effort. Paid travel via Cid's airship or Leila's pirate vessel make travel even easier as the game moves on. The only restriction on the character's travels is their ability to survive the increasingly difficult monsters that wait only a little ways off the beaten path. As the heroes begin as a trio of nobodies, this creates another in-world reason for the characters to restrict their actions to certain areas of the map. The bottom line of this is that it gives the game the feel of a real world in which you are free to travel from A to B but must suffer the consequences if you try. While this hides a good deal of rail-roading, it does so in a way that makes it easier to suspend disbelief and by in to the story the game is telling. That suspension of disbelief is key to creating the sense of wonder, of fantasy, that the entire series revolves around. In this respect, though it is only the second title in the series, Final Fantasy II outdoes several of it later descendants.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Thoughts on Final Fantasy II: Platypus Nostalgia

I remember when SquareSoft's (now SquareEnix) original Final Fantasy came out. It was a turning point in the evolution of the game industry and it took my young imagination by storm. What I didn't know at the time was that there were a host of other titles in the series already in the works. What we Americans would know as Final Fantasy II would actually be the fourth title in the franchise. After Square made the switch from Nintendo to Playstation, they began releasing these other titles for the American market. I had other things to do while that was happening, so it's only just now that I've gotten around to playing Final Fantasy II and experiencing the adventures of Firion and his friends.

Final Fantasy II makes a number of ground-breaking improvements over the original title. There are defined player characters with their own rudimentary stories and personalities. Some of these characters come and go, as in Final Fantasy IV, but the number of them that meet a grisly end is much higher than subsequent titles in the series. The world the characters inhabit is well defined with a host of distinct kingdoms and towns that each have their own personality while still fitting in with the overall world of the game (something I felt was lacking in Final Fantasy VII and simply under-developed in Final Fantasy I). The character advancement system, which focuses on how the characters are used rather than simple leveling up, is also a welcome innovation that sadly was not followed up in many of the subsequent titles. It is also one of the real challenges and pleasures of this particular game.

Two aspects of the original title that remained that I particularly enjoyed. The first, was that in contrast to Final Fantasy IV and VI, Firion and company start out as nobodies and have to work their way up to becoming the most important people in their world. This allowed the story to grow and widen with the player characters creating and added sense of adventure and accomplishment. I also enjoyed the high medieval fantasy feel that marked the earliest titles in the series before giving was to a steam-punk/cyber-punk feel in Final Fantasy VI. As with the original Final Fantasy, the world of Final Fantasy II is a vast and coherent place to explore.

The above represents my initial thoughts immediately after completing the game. If other ideas occur to me over the next few weeks, I'll be sure to post them here at the Platypus of Truth.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Aeneid Doodle (Cont.): Creative Platypus

Quick marker doodle of a soldier from Virgil's Aeneid. I did a little research on Etruscan armor in an attempt at verisimilitude. The shield is too small, but I like the roughness and slight awkward angle of the spear. It gives it a little more of an "authentic" feel. ...and that's so much of Virgil: modern, apartment-dwelling, fast-food-eating Roman tries to imagine life over 1,000 years ago in a way his urbane audience will buy.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Earthsea Doodle: Creative Platypus

Drawing Virgil's Fields of Asphodel put me more than a little in mind of Ursula K. Le Guin. Along those lines, I began thinking of a similar scene in the Earthsea Cycle that I could draw using the same techniques. Here we have Ged in the Otherworld trapped between the Land of the Dead and the Shadow. I'm most happy with the Shadow and Ged's cape. These are the pastel pencils again (Conte) on black paper. There's a little computer editing on the midtones to bring the scan closer to the original.