Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Coming Home To Roost

When you live in this part of Virginia, right on the coast, you find that two birds mingle in the parking lots: seagulls and crows.

The crows are back.  They've been back for at least a week now.  They bring with them thoughts of Autumn harvest...

Except it is so hot and muggy here you can't even imagine Autumn.

Oh, and we've got these sharks...

You might have seen something about it in the news.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Busch Gardens Howl O Scream 2015

Anyone who bothers to follow this blog even part time during the Autumnal Event will know about my ongoing love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.  I railed against the loss of the Big Bad Wolf and the limp and ineffectual Verbolten that replaced it and how the Oktoberfest polka show was given the boot for a saccharine fairy tale mashup that even small children hated (see here).  I've spoken highly of Howl O Scream and I've castigated the same for its Dark Side of the Gardens seasons with the Scare Zones that took the balls right out of the event (here).  Who can forget my excoriating post (here) about BG's complete and total disrespect of their patrons?
So what does this year hold?
This year promises Unearthed, a setting for which we have only the scantest of information:


Breaking News: Maintenance Crews Stopped in Tracks - A construction team was halted yesterday when crews hit upon a mysterious object while digging in a back area at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The park is currently investigating the unusual discovery. Please check back for more information.

Source-BG Howl O Scream webpage: BGWilliamsburg

We have three shows this year.  The first is Fiends, wacky Doctor, body parts, whore nurses.  
We have Monster Stomp again, featuring Jack the Ripper in a stomp pulse-pounding review (probably a good show).
Finally we have Night Beats.  If you can imagine Vampire Flappers  (and honestly why would you ever do that?) then you have the gist of it.  I'd bring a stake if I were you.

Some rides are open during the season, so that's always a bit of fun and it is not as hot so standing on line is not as big a deal.

Spooky shopping.  I don't know that I can say anything about spooky shopping other than it is shopping and apparently it is somehow spooky.  

The area of most concern to me is the decoration scheme.  The atmosphere (did you really want me to pun that?  Fine atmosFEAR.  Happy now?) is what makes Howl O Scream work or fail.  I have written in the past that it is a shame that the park does not do more to decorate the grounds out of easy view as it would really enhance the train ride to take advantage of the woodlands for decoration and I can't imagine they'd start taking MY advice at this stage of the game, but the Terror-tories (BG's name, not mine) are the themed decorations that take over the regular lands of BG Europe during Howl O Scream and that's what we need to discuss.  

In previous years on the Pumpkin I have taken you on a full tour of the park with pictures and all, so you can go look those up for a visual trip into previous Howl O Screams.  This year we have France turned into Demon Street complete with demons carrying chainsaws because the zombies in Canada are just so two years ago.

We have Ports of Skull because nobody at BG got the memo that pirates aren't cool anymore.  It's superheroes now, BG.  Get with the times.

Germany is still full of bloody vampires.  Not sure why, unless...well, you know, Nosferatu.
Look out, sparkling twat behind you!  Oh, yeah, never mind.  

Canada is Wendigo Woods, which makes sense as that is a Canadian/North Woods thing.  Also it is a state-of-the-art research facility that got attacked by some wendigos, I guess.  They used to have werewolves, so it's just keeping it in the general forest monster family.

Finally we have Ripper Row, which is in the England section, naturally.  England section is traditionally the least exciting section of the park as it has nothing but shops, dining, the theater and the entrance/exit facilities (first aid, stroller rental, lost articles, etc.) but given the nature of the event it already feels creepy so that's just bonus innit?  Of course the Jack the Ripper Monster Stomp as well.
That headless hearse driver was in France last time I went.  Lots of headless things walking about Ripper Row for some reason.  Seems more French to me.

We've discussed attending this year, Frau Punkinstein and myself.  If I do, I'll take pictures.  If I don't nobody will really be surprised.

Howl O Scream runs 25 SEP through 1 NOV Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  The park opens at 10 AM but Howl O Scream officially begins at 6 PM on those nights.
And as the website puts it:
Be warned: at 6 p.m. Busch Gardens® becomes a seriously scary place and may not be suitable for little ones. Please use discretion when bringing children into the park at this time. The curse spreads Sept. 25 and continues weekends through Nov. 1.

Yeah, don't lie to me, you bastards.  It's a happy, cheery, not even scary by half event.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Stretching Things A Bit

He wears no pants.  He has cool hair and a pair of goggles.  He fights crime.  Yes, I'm talking about Plastic Man.
The one, the only, the original: Plastic Man
I've mentioned my love of Aquaman several times in the past.  The New 52 has been doing Aquaman credit, but tell people you are an Aquaman fan and they think you ate paint chips as a kid.  They imagine that time that Raj dressed as Aquaman on The Big Bang Theory.  It's not pretty.  I've established Aquaman's badassery before so I don't need to repeat it here.  Since I am one of those freakazoid Aquafans it must come as no surprise that I like the 3rd stringers on the super-teams, the characters that don't get the pop culture love that they should.  Oh, Superman is cool, I grant you that, but is he fun?  I'm talking about Batman circa 1966 fun.

Comics should be fun, dammit.  Plastic Man used to be very fun, back in the 40s and 50s when his creator, Jack Cole, was doing the character for Quality Comics, before DC got the property.  Come to think of it, DC used to be fun too.  Oh well, it's all Darky-Dark-Dark now and there's no going back until the current demographic stops taking itself so damn seriously and grows up and their kids, if they can actually have some kids, get into comics.  And by that time I'll be dead so it's a lost cause, innit?
No matter.  I'm talking about Plastic Man here.  Plas is, in the current continuity, one of those characters that writers just don't know how to use properly.  The reason being that Jack Cole had a simple but effective formula for Plastic Man's adventures.  Plastic Man is serious, but his world is crazy.
Think about that for a minute.
Not correct
Plastic Man is played straight.  The crooks and villains he faces are often zany, drawn in a cartoony style while Plas is drawn in a square-jawed, handsome sort of way.  It works.  It works very well.  Take a character like the Tick.  The Tick works because he, the Tick, is fully into his role of super hero treating every problem in the same committed heroic way regardless of the actual threat, be it an expired parking meter or an alien bent on world conquest.  It's the same thing that made Buzz Lightyear so effective in the first Toy Story.  So why is Plas now a buffoon?

Is it the stretching thing?  I would say yes when we consider that the Elongated Man, another stretchy DC hero, became the butt of jokes and was played as a buffoon in the modern age despite being a top notch detective.  Metamorpho, the element man, can change shape and even become gas if he likes, he got more respect, probably because of Batman and the Outsiders.  Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic over at Marvel, essentially has the same powers as Plas, but he's a super-genius and part of the oh-so-serious comics of Marvel.  He gets respect.  Why not Plastic Man?

The Kyle Baker series from the early 2000s has been described as a return to the Jack Cole era, but honestly I've read the Jack Cole comics and the Kyle Baker comics and it was not.  Baker's work was not bad, it is certainly funny, but in a wacky Ren and Stimpy sort of way, not in the sly Jack Cole manner.  Meanwhile in the mainstream DC Universe, which is all Darky-Dark-Dark, Plastic Man is like Ambush Bug, which he should not be, only not genre savvy.  He becomes a sort of team buffoon, not really living up to his potential.  This from a guy that started out as a criminal?  I can't help but think that if Ben Edlund, the creator of the Tick, got his hands on Plastic Man he could have made something clever and wonderful of it.

This bears further investigation, I think.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Davy Jones

My pistol is loaded, I shot Betty Crocker, Deliver Colonel Sanders down to Davy Jones' Locker...

No, not that one.  He's just the ship's Monkee.
The Davy Jones I am talking about would be from the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.  I've read and heard many disparaging things about Dead Man's Chest, the second of the POTC films.  I admit it can be a bit awkward as it was written solely to create a bridge to reconcile turning a single film into a three picture deal.  In some ways it is like The Empire Strikes Back, a film that sets up the larger narrative, pulls the original into an epic story, and ends with a down note of the heroes at their lowest point.  It's a good film in its own right.
The big villain of the film was, of course, Davy Jones, a mishmash of aquatic creatures, a perfect symbol of the devil of the deep seas that Davy should be.

I truly liked the character's design and Bill Nighy's performance.  His entire crew was a fun concept, I thought.  With a ship that can travel above and below the waves and a pet kraken, Davy was a formidable foe for the heroes to face.  He was also very much an icon of the sea itself and his crew ran the gamut from comical to symbolic of the dangers of the sea.  We accept that POTC is in its own alternate universe from history by the very presence of magic and events that did not occur in our own world's timeline, yet we also accept that elements of our own world and its legends are a part of the POTC universe. The Davy Jones known to sailors is popularly called a devil of the seas and a general euphemism for death at sea as in the construction Davy Jones' Locker for the bottom of the sea (in this case locker being a place where geared is stowed).  You can look all this up on Wikipedia and various other locations and you will get all sorts of unconfirmed sources for the name, including Jonah, but no one has yet suggested, as I am about to do, that it is simply a way to avoid saying the name of the Devil.  Why would I suggest this?
Old Scratch
Old Nick
Old Hob
All epithets used to mean the Devil (with a capital D).
In the same fashion the English used to have words they substituted for God such as in the construction odsbodkins or egad, both used to not say the name of God in an oath or curse but still do it.  Letter of the law vice the spirit, one expects.  However there is an old belief (and it still persists today if you think about the words you are not supposed to say lest they "happen") that if you call on something by name that something will show up.  To this end people substituted other names for things, like saying Nick instead of Satan.  So why not Davy Jones in place of Devil?  Just my personal take on it, not a fact or anything.
The popularity of the POTC franchise meant that things were going to come out that traded on the imagery, or the new popularity of old imagery, such as the Pirates of the Spanish Main constructable card game (with cool little ships) who had their own Davy Jones, very much a lord of the seas.
Quite the devil of the seas, that one.
And far more human looking as well.
Disney went with a more literal sea devil in their Davy and crew.  Davy has what appears to be a cephalopod for a head (yes, head-foot head).  At this point I am going to have to ask you to check your Cthuloid nonsense at the door.
NOT a sodding sea devil.
We'll have none of it.
If we are to call everything that just happens to have tentacles on its head a nod to Lovecraft we will be stupid and shortsighted.  Besides, Cthulhu is an alien, not a sea creature.
"Wookiepedia calls me 'amphibious' because, apparently, the contributors to the Star Wars wiki don't know what amphibious actually means."
Is Squid Head a Cthulhu nod?  Yes, I know you think his name is Tessek of the Qarren species, but the toy was called Squid Head as apparently was the character in the creature shop so deal with it or eat a big old wasabi covered eldritch tentacle.  Well he's not.  He also has no business being on a desert planet in a binary star system.  Honestly.

Mind Flayers, yeah, I'll let you have that one, but only because I know where the idea came from.  But only just.
Shit, I've gotten off topic a bit.  We are supposed to be talking about Davy Jones.
Within the POTC universe Davy was a sea captain that fell in love with the sea goddess Calypso, whose heart was as capricious as the seas themselves, and struck a deal to be the ferryman for those who died taking them to the afterlife.  Feeling betrayed by the thing he loved the most (the sea, poetically speaking) he cut out his own heart and forsook his sacred mission.  He was twisted into an immortal amalgamation of the thing he loved (again, the sea) and takes on crew members offering them death or servitude aboard his ship the Flying Dutchman (here we are combining legends).  His crew are twisted over time into aquatic amalgamations themselves until they finally become one with the Dutchman itself.  He's a pretty cool character and very much the ultimate version of Jack Sparrow's ideal.  He's immortal, he's a legend, and he is absolutely the sea itself.

Physically the details are just amazing in the character's design.  Overall he is an imposing figure, tall and broad of stature.  He has been given a clever twist on the cinematic pirate staples of peg leg and hook hand with crustacean parts (items C and E above), and his massive beard (seen in the one scene where he is talking to Calypso and reverts to his old self briefly) has become a mass of tentacles (item D above).  Instead of a nose he has a siphon, in keeping with his cephalopod head.  Similar to his crew his clothing has become encrusted with barnacles, bivalves and other sedentary marine life (item B above).  To aid his crab leg he uses a walking stick (but seems to need no help when he is fighting Jack Sparrow) and his right hand has changed such that his fingers are tentacles as well (item A above) with an exceedingly long forefinger.  He's a big hit with the ladies, I'm sure.
Show me a cane?  Not a cane in sight.
I genuinely feel that Jones, and to a lesser degree his crew, were the best thing about Dead Man's Chest.  The CG work was very well done and the little touches make all the difference.  His use of his face tentacles as very functional hands in place of his clumsy crab claw or super violation finger is a great touch.  He feels totally organic in the film and very at home in his world, which is the sea.  He's also very much the POTC world's version of the legendary devil of the seas, making Faustian bargains with sailors and commanding a fearsome beast, the Kraken, to bring fear and destruction as suits his purpose.  According to the lore it was a deal with Jones that provided Jack Sparrow with his ship, the Black Pearl (risen from the depths by Jones) and as revealed fully in the third installment, he has a Locker.  The Locker being the place of torment where Jones sends people (vice his proper job of ferrying souls).  In it Jack suffered his worst torture, a desert, his ship stranded with no sign of the sea in sight.  In this sense Jones' locker is like the poetic idea of Hell brought to us by such persons as Dante.  As I said, Jones is very much an Anti-Jack while being at the same time emblematic of Jack's ideal of being a part of the sea.  Jones' Locker is the opposite of the sailor's version of Heaven known as Fiddler's Green, the descriptions of which vary from telling to telling, but are sort of the Age of Sail version of Valhalla.  One big rollicking shore leave where your money never runs out and nobody has the pox.
In the end, it is really all about the imagery in a film and a glance at Davy Jones as Disney does him up really says he's everything of the sea that is scary as hell and that is what you want for such a ubiquitous sailor's legend.
"Point of parliamentary procedure; I have tentacles on my face, big old pleasure fingers AND I can stay indefinitely on land.  That should count for something."
Yeah, but you are just lame.  You had all of 16 seconds of screen time and no lines.
Ah, I'm just having a go at you.  You were one of my favorite Star Wars action figures and your head came off easily so I could put it on other bodies.  You'll always be Squid Head to me.  I might even give you a post someday soon, buddy.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Good Guy Pirates

Here's the rhetorical question that starts this all off: Was Robin Hood a good guy or a bad guy?
Everyone knows the answer is "good guy".  Yet he was an outlaw.  He broke the law, constantly.  We accept he is a good guy because we are told he is a good guy and because we are presented with his foes (Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisborne, and Prince John) as unequivocal rotters.  Does it matter that he became an outlaw after poaching a deer and then killing a man all because his youthful pride led him to anger and poor decisions?
Admit it, you think this guy is a hero.

Well, honestly that story has long since been replaced by the noble-in-exile outlaw story, so I suppose it doesn't, but the point is that Robin Hood and his Merry Men are outlaws, which makes them criminals and they rob people, which makes them criminals but we accept that they are fighting against bad guys so they are not "bad" in our estimation.  There is something comforting, I suppose, about the outlaw being loyal to a rightful king and fighting against an evil despot.
Yet this does not apply to pirates, it would seem.
Pirate fiction, whether it be written or visual, tends to paint pirates as bloodthirsty rouges, mean-spirited, rapacious, and of generally no count.  The main avoidance tactic is to make pirates into silly and lovable rogues in a comedy piece.
In order to have a heroic pirate you have to have a privateer, since privateers work for a government.
Can you spot the privateer in this picture?  How about the pirate?

Of course history, if you dig deep enough, provides ample evidence of pirates that were outlaws resisting what they saw as oppressive governments, such as the Navy that impressed men and refused to pay them after a voyage, merchant captains (including slave ship captains) that paid low wages, if at all, and were harsh with discipline, and even the nations to which the pirates had previously belonged.  We have ample evidence that the great Blackbeard might have been fighting against an England that had a new monarch of whom he did not approve.
William Kidd as history remembers him
Indeed some famous pirates began their careers as privateers, including Benjamin Hornigold, his protege Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, and William Kidd, who sent out with a privateering commission but turned pirate due to unfortunate circumstances.
Long before those men sailed the seas as gentlemen of fortune, Sir Francis Drake sacked Spanish colonies in the New World, and indeed the Spanish called him pirate and much later when the father of the US Navy, John Paul Jones, conducted terror attacks against the British in their own waters, he too was called a pirate by that nation.  Pirate or privateer, it really comes down to a piece of paper and whether or not you are being targeted by the holder of it.
Captain Kidd, a product of the imagination (of Howard Pyle, in fact)

What is a Privateer?
A Privateer is a privately owned ship holding a commission to seek out and attack shipping and commerce of a nation that is an enemy of the nation that provided the commission, and/or an individual holding said commission or crewing said ship.  The privateer was legitimized in its actions by a government (and possibly financial backers as well) through the issuance of a letter of marque and reprisal.  Effectively it was a license that gave a private individual/vessel the authority to make war on behalf of government of issuance within certain boundaries laid out in the letter itself.  Issuing letters of marque was a good way to increase the naval power of a nation without specific cost to the nation itself.  As part of the practice, a portion of the plunder would be given over to the government, or perhaps the financial backers, with the rest going to the crew of the ship.  There is a certain patriotism to the role of privateer, and yet a certain romantic freedom to the idea as well.  The privateer fights for the home nation (or indeed might fight for a different nation, since profit was the prime motive) but is legitimized by the support.
POTC:OST calls Barbossa a privateer, but the entire ship is full of Brit Navy so he's hardly a good example.
Privateers also make for heroic characters that get to basically act like pirates, but can be good and noble because their crew is not a bunch of bloodthirsty rogues out to rape and plunder.

Only they are, and that's the problem.  People have no difficulty accepting the heroic nature of the privateer captain fighting for King and Country, but the attitude and motivation of privateer crews is essentially the same as a pirate crew: profit and freedom from the onerous merchant/navy shipboard life.  Even if the crew is made up of patriotic persons, these are still private individuals and they want prizes.  But we can pretend they are Merry Men, and that takes the curse off it.  A special case is the pirate hunter.  Benjamin Hornigold started out as a privateer, became a pirate, and then accepted a pardon from Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers and ending his career hunting down his former pirate buddies.  The pirate hunter gets to be a romantic, heroic figure as well, thanks to pirates always being portrayed as vile, evil rogues (save for comedies, where it could go either way).
The thin paper line between legitimacy and outright knavery.
But this is all bollocks, because the only thing that differentiates a pirate from a privateer is a piece of paper and who is making the call.  All the letters of marque in the world do not change the enemy's opinion.  England's privateer is Spain's pirate, you see.  We can say that there is another difference, but now we are getting into the nitty gritty of it, the nuts and bolts, if you will.  Pirates, by virtue of taking up the life of high seas crime, are self-determined individuals.  From the buccaneers of Hispaniola to the sunset of the Golden Age, pirates entered into agreements when they joined crews, had full democratic decision powers within it, and elected their own leaders, but privateers less so.  The captain of a pirate crew held his position through popular election and only as long as the crew wanted him, while a privateer crew was through a contract and the captain had authority close to, but not as absolute, as a naval or merchant ship's captain.  Mutinies did happen.  Strictly speaking a pirate crew cannot mutiny because a pirate crew can also depose an unpopular leader.  At the same time it is the nature of humans that they set up ordered chains of command in any ad hoc grouping, and sailors are given to a routine life, so pirates and privateers could be counted on to mostly get on with the business of being fighting sailors with or without an admiralty court in some distant land handing down absolute authority.  This makes the privateer your beloved Robin Hood of the seas with his Merry Men being the crew of NOT bloodthirsty and rapacious rogues.  Centuries of bad press have made it so that the word pirate precludes heroism, by and large.  We all want to be one, it seems, but we don't want all the bad press that goes with it.  Thus the privateer becomes the solution to creating the heroic pirate captain we really want in our fictional work.  Whereas the image we have of the pirate captain makes us think that he cannot command without murder and fear as his allies, we can accept the privateer sparing the enemy's lives and the crew will not turn against the captain because they are not all bad people, just private individuals with a desire to fight for their nation.
Yes, it sounds pretty sappy and ridiculous when you say it out loud.

Having said all of that, I don't mean to suggest privateers are wimpy pseudo-pirates, because they are not.  Famed French pirate Jean Lafitte could serve as the model for Jack Sparrow, engaging in smuggling, open piracy, spying and serving as a privateer for multiple governments during his career.  Indeed he cut deals, not throats, and tried to maintain a good image as much as possible all while engaging in a variety of quasi-legal and downright illegal activities.  Yet he is the romantic hero played by Yul Brynner in 1958's The Buccaneer.
The aforementioned Benjamin Hornigold may or may not have started as a privateer, but was by all accounts a man of some scruples who preferred to not attack British ships (his home nation), was a pirate and who ended his career as a pirate hunter for the crown.
Sir Francis Drake, sailor, patriot, and according to Spain, a pirate.

Is a privateer really a better choice than a pirate?

Given everything I have said above, it would seem that the line between privateer and pirate is a thin and blurry one at best, and I believe this is so.  What the privateer offers is a good way to have all the cool trappings of a pirate without the image problems that we naturally associate with piracy.  It's to be expected, sadly, that we love the pirate image, but when pressed we all (well not me) tend to sheepishly admit that pirates were bad people, which is not an accurate assessment at all.  You say, "I like pirates.  I'd like to be a pirate." and somebody is going to say, "Oh, you want to be a murdering rapist thief?".  It's like suggesting that slavery is okay.  So you sheepishly admit pirates were evil people, but it's just not true.  Some pirates were evil people in the same way that some car salesmen are evil people.  Still, there is no changing hundreds of years of opinions, so the legitimacy of the privateer allows us to have our pirates and call them heroes if we like.
We can also focus on the privateer captain as the big hero without running into the problems of the fully democratic pirate crew.  Our privateer can be a rugged individual, perhaps former navy, that has his own quest and we don't feel a conflict with his having to keep control of a pack of backstabbing, bloodthirsty rogues.  But we still get the whole pirate attitude and style.  It's a win-win situation, really.
Henry Morgan sailed as a privateer against the Spanish in the 17th century, sacking Spanish towns and recruiting the buccaneers of Hispaniola to form an amphibious strike force, eventually retiring from a life of adventure to become Lt. Governor of Jamaica.  This is a picture of a twat from a rum bottle, not at all the man in question.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Witch Hunters, Warhammer and Otherwise

It's not pretty, but I'm afraid we have to talk about it.
Witch Hunters.
Now I'm not talking about real life witch hunting.  I'm talking about fantasy game witch hunting.
So calm down.

I can't say what fantasy game first included a Witch Hunter character or class, but I can say where I first encountered it.  It was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition which had an advanced career option called Witch Hunter.

In the world of Warhammer these fellows don't hunt witches, per se, but rather root out Chaos, which often means vile spellcasters.  In their extremes this would apply to all magic users, even the good ones, but then that is up to the individual writer or player.
Let's have a close up, shall we?
When I first saw that image I was instantly drawn to it.  It looked familiar to me somehow.
Looks damned familiar...
Ah yes, that was it.  It reminded me of Solomon Kane, a character I had become familiar with thanks to Marvel Comics, in his own limited series and in issues of the Conan magazine.  I liked the swashbuckling Kane far more than the naked barbarian and something about the hat really stuck with me.
Solomon Kane was not a witch hunter himself, but his never-ending battles against the forces of evil, in a setting that historically frowned upon magic as a form of evil, created a template for this type of hero.  It comes as no surprise that his iconic look would be applied to the witch hunter as well.
This guy cares little for the total lack of Puritanism in the Old World of Warhammer and resents your implications.
Thus it was when I saw the Witch Hunter expansion miniature box at a local game store I purchased it, despite not owning the base game Warhammer Quest (I would purchase that as well shortly afterwards).  I painted it up to look more like Kane with black and white, vice the buff coat shown and started using it in games with my mates on base.
He's got a pistol, he's got a sabre, he has magic amulets, he can use faith to alter the outcome of a battle and he can learn dirty tricks to kick evil right in the unholy balls.
It was a glorious character indeed, capable of fighting any evil, but committed to destroying evil casters, undead and Chaos wherever it might hide.  Which was conveniently in dungeons.  I once took out the big bad of the box set, the Minotaur, by my damn self.  Which is something I could never manage on my Bretonian Knight (which is bullshit, by the way) and managed to piss off my buddies since I got all the gold for the kill.  Ah, good times.

Within the Warhammer setting itself Witch Hunters seem to be in a nebulous position.  Sometimes portrayed heroically, sometimes portrayed as craven psychopaths, and sometimes just plain badass, such as the trilogy of novels by C.L. Werner starring Witch Hunter Mathias Thulmann.
"Overkill, you say?  Look, if there were witches in there they are not a problem now.  I call that efficient."
There is nothing about this cover that is not totally badass.
At the time of the writing of those novels the Witch Hunters were considered a sect of the Templars of Sigmar.  You can tell that superficially Werner borrowed from the historical Witchfinder General Mathew Hopkins (including giving Thulmann an assistant/torturer named very close to Hopkins own John Stearne), but Thulmann is not near as unsavory a character and is downright heroic by the end of the series.
Yet I prefer this simple red silhouette on black background cover.  I find it more menacing by far than the omnibus edition shown above.  Less fantasy, I suppose.
When Warhammer entered the MMO market with Warhammer Age of Reckoning (WAR) the Witch Hunter was one of the available classes for the Empire and my preferred class.  With no business being on a battlefield (it was a major stretch to fit them into the story and one I thought could have been done better) the class had to be given the MMO treatment with a build mechanic that allowed them to unleash "finishing" attacks that never seemed to finish shit.  The lore on it was accusations (attacks, really) and then you unleashed when you'd built up enough accusation, only it didn't have to be the same target as you'd accused, so what the hell is that about, really.  My favorite was called Absolution and supposedly involved using a flaming torch to burn the sinner up, but the UI never actually showed a torch.  Sad, really.  At least the hats were cool.
Fortunately my own imagination did not fail where the MMO did.
Part of the problem, I will admit, is the MMO problem itself, which you will know if you play them.  MMOs rely on a set of programmed routines for the hotbar such that what started as a pretty neat animation just becomes another thing to ignore as you grind away in the game.  Something like Absolution should be a rare occurrence, great for a big fight in a movie or book or an asspull to save the day.  In an MMO it just becomes part of a routine and thus not at all spectacular.  When I said I killed the Minotaur all by my damn self, understand that was an inspired bit of gameplay where I looked at the rules, at what I had available, and figured out a way to give myself something like 6 attacks in one turn by using up all my resources.  It was a heroic move and not to be repeated ad nauseam like some bloody video game.  Hell, even Mortal Kombat restricted the awesome killing to once per match at the end.
Suck it, Chaos!  Hope you like that skull, cuz it is going right up your arse.
Once the Witch Hunter had made MMO status, it pretty much became just another regular character with hundreds of them running around fighting in the war, not at all like the lore would suggest.
Looks downright happy.  Like he's saying, "It's a dirty job, but oh do I love it so."
Other games, like Deadlands, would play with the archetype as well, such as our Weird Western friend above.  I admit it, I love that picture.  The artist has really worked the hat and coat into something we instantly recognize and yet appropriate for the setting.  The virtue of these games is that they are fantasy games.  Monsters are real.  Evil is real and can be denoted by an alignment, or a description in a manual.  The characters called Witch Hunters are really evil hunters and get to face down a variety of vile things, like necromancers and undead, as well as spellcasters practicing maleficium.  Are they not similar to paladins?  They can be and indeed a paladin can be one, but to make a character or class specifically is to touch on the idea of a person fighting against evil by knowing it intimately yet resisting it through some combination of faith and skill, often with very little magical help.  Very little vice no?
Well yes.  Again, fantasy genre, which means magic is just an accepted part of the whole thing.  Solomon Kane acquired a magical staff from the African witch doctor, N'Longa (with whom the Puritan developed a lasting friendship, I might add) which was revealed to be the Staff of Solomon.  So it is not that magic of one kind or another is not employed.  Indeed another favorite of mine, Giles Redferne (played by Richard E. Grant) in the film Warlock, displays several times his knowledge of folk counter-charms for the titular Warlock's magic.  The use of minor beneficial (or at least not harmful) charms to counter true evil magic is well-established in folklore and literature.

What makes a Witch Hunter?
Expand for a better view
Observe the handy illustration above.
While any player can choose to play a character as nice or nasty, good or evil, understanding or prejudicial in judgement, the best characters are the ones that are not disruptive to the game or party and can get along with others.  We are all here to have fun.  That said, the Witch Hunter type is, like the Paladin, a character of great conviction.  There is no room for self-doubt when fighting pure evil.  Evil will seek to use any weakness or chink in the proverbial armor to gain an advantage, seducing, manipulating, and even equivocating to gain the upper hand.  Do not let a vampire get chatty.  They might try to convince you that they are just another organism feeding on prey in the natural world, or worse try to gain your sympathy for their plight, all the while they are really bloodsucking fiends of the night that must be destroyed.  Thus only characters with strong convictions and absolute confidence should take up this monster hunting role.
Guns are a plus, but not necessary.  The image of the Witch Hunter with gun and sword is so commonplace and so popular (I like it) that it would seem to be required, but really it is not.  However a good Witch Hunter type character will have an arsenal about their person consisting of trinkets mostly; items that are bane to supernatural evil, such as silver, iron, herbs, holy water, minor talismans and such.  The Witch Hunter trades supernatural power (such as Clerical spells) for knowledge and how to apply that knowledge in practical ways.  Unless the character is also a Paladin, torture is an acceptable method of fighting evil (even Solomon Kane was tempted to use it against the vile Le Loup in "Red Shadows"), including the all too human variety for which there is simply no excuse.  While you could play the character for comedy (as Frank Finlay played the Witchsmeller Pursuivant in series 1, episode 5 of The Black Adder), typically this character is played as more grim and determined, but it can still be a hell of a lot of fun.  Dry sense of humor is, however, always appreciated.  Think Batman.
"My lord, you see how the duck still possesses him!"
Play us out, Solomon.
"Unholy fiends to my back.  Devilspawn serpent before me.  The gloom of the cave oppressing but for my absolute faith in God Almighty.  Must be Wednesday."

Friday, March 27, 2015

A (Retro)Review-The Complete Paladin's Handbook

TSR, 1994 by Rick Swan
Today's Subject

What a love-hate relationship.
I truly enjoyed many of the Complete line of handbooks that TSR put out in the 90s.  The kits gave characters more flavor and I always went straight for them, but I think I only read maybe 3 of them from cover to cover, the first being The Complete Fighter's Handbook, which was the first to come out as well, the Psioncist and this one.  See, I like knights and paladins are (were, but dammit they always will be to me) knights.  They were knights when they appeared in Supplement 1: Grayhawk and they were knights when they were made a subset of cavaliers, and thanks to this handbook they were mostly knights.  It had sections on courtly love, castle life, duties and responsibilities and a notation that paladins simply would NOT wear anything less than metal armor.  That's all very knightly.  Then there were sections on faith, clerical benefits and powers, and a set of kits that ran the gamut from very knightly to more hermit-like and made a few stops at very specialized forms, like a paladin that specializes in flying mounts.  There was a kit for specifically fighting undead (Ghosthunter), a specialist in dragon fighting (Wyrmslayer) and one of my personal favorites, the Inquisitor, a paladin devoted to combating evil magic and those who would use it.

In fact those three kits were employed by myself and two friends in the Navy specifically to annoy a newbie DM.  We knew our friend was running his first ever game and we knew he loved dragons and wizards and vampires very much, so we conceived the plan to all play paladins each with a kit to combat one of the things we just knew in our hearts we'd have to face.
Okay, I conceived of the plan and they eagerly agreed to it.  Apparently I am a bastard.  I played the Inquisitor in case you were wondering.
Of course I did.
That is one badass mini, trust me

The Inquisitor kit reminds me of the Witch Hunter from WHQ.  Which is probably why I liked it.

This particular kit gives the player a very strong ability to resist illusions that does improve over time as well as abilities to detect and dispel evil magic and a virtual (90%) immunity to charm, mind control, etc.  All very useful in hunting down and dispatching practitioners of evil magic.  It takes away a few abilities (as many of the paladin kits do) however.  The Inquisitor cannot heal by laying on hands, can never learn nor cast priest spells, cannot cure diseases in others, cannot turn undead.  He does retain his personal immunity to disease, saving throw bonuses and warhorse.  Wait.  What in the figurative f..., that's a lot to trade off to be able to dispel EVIL magic a few times a day (it maxes at 6).
Perhaps a regular paladin would be just as effective.

So where is the love-hate relationship of which I speak?
It has to do with the nature of the book itself.  Author Rick Swan was responsible for the book, as well as the Complete Wizard's Handbook, the Complete Ranger's Handbook and the Complete Barbarian's Handbook.  Complete Paladin's came out in 1994 while the first book, Complete Fighter's Handbook came out in 1989.  It was the first and set many of the standards for the line.  I found Complete Fighter's Handbook to be extremely useful.  The fighter had become so undefined in AD&D and the CFHB provided these amazing new things called kits that helped the player define their fighter giving them a few benefits, a few hindrances, and some guidelines for roleplaying their character.  The CFHB noted that the kits were available to rangers and paladins as well, those being subsets of the basic fighter.  For the most part the kits helped to give a player some focus, which might be needed as the fighter was a basic class with nothing special about it.  Paladins and rangers, however, were already quite well defined.  They didn't need kits, but we always liked to have the options.  While the CFHB was full of optional combat rules that any class could use, later handbooks would include class specific content for their subject class that were not easily shared by other classes, if they could be shared at all.  In the CPHB Swan wrote volumes about knighthood, and that appeals to me.  In keeping with AD&D 2nd edition's more "historical" and less sword and sorcery style of play and settings, Swan's work provides everything a player needs to know to play a knight.  I can't stress this enough.  Swan unequivocally establishes that a paladin is a European knight in the style of feudalism and the middle ages.
I know it's a ridiculous sword, but I have always preferred playing Siegfried
For example in the section on equipment he notes that paladins take their equipment seriously and seek to own the best that money can buy.  If that seems odd when you consider the 10% tithing and not keeping treasure (donating it to worthy causes instead) you might find that a bit less than the holy warrior concept you are no doubt harboring.  Yet it fits perfectly with the ideals of the class.  In terms of armor, again we see Swan declaring that a paladin will simply not wear non-metal armors and prefers plate, including giving up magical forms of lesser armor to obtain normal versions of better armors (such as giving up +2 scale for regular plate).  We saw the same thing in 1989 with the Cavalier kit in the Fighter's Handbook.  All of that I like.  I think it sets the paladin apart from the regular fighters as much as their alignment (always lawful good in those days) or their code of conduct (which Swan reinforces as chivalry).
It wasn't all good though, at least not to me.  Swan uses paladin in place of the word knight (although he does open with an introduction that explains the origins of knighthood) and makes it clear in several places that he considers paladinhood to be something bestowed upon a character by a church or government (which does follow along with knighthood, I admit).  Some of his explanations also don't suit when it comes to history, but it is an RPG so I suppose I can't hold that against him.  The kits are probably the area where I find the least satisfaction.  Although I do enjoy some of them, I find them all wholly unnecessary to the game.  Unlike Fighter, Paladin is a defined character.  As we've established the class is a knight, not a holy warrior, but then the various kits redefine the class to the point of creating new quasi-classes, which is very different from what was started in 89 in CFHB.  This reminds me of the Complete Bard's Handbook, which seemed to go out of its way to invent a dozen or so new classes all loosely defined as bards (some were more bard than others with the Blade and Gallant being variant fighters and the Herald being played as a medieval fantasy equivalent to James Bond, while others like the Jongleur, Jester and Skald being very much what the bard class of 2nd edition was originally designed to be).  The kits of the CPHB breakout as follows:

True Paladin-The paladin from the Player's Handbook, with an added requirement to learn the lance.
Chevalier-Effectively the Cavalier kit from the CFHB rewritten for the paladin.
Divinate-A paladin that is the militant wing of a church.
Envoy-A diplomat, really more of a bard's role one thinks.
Equerry-Master horseman, cavarly, scout or guide.  Gets a special bonded mount over and above a regular paladin's bonded mount.
Errant-A tournament jouster and adventurer, oddly enough not the Lancelot ideal version one would think.
Expatriate-Really just a way to play a normal paladin; no church or government support.
Ghost Hunter-Specializes in destroying the undead.  This was the first kit to lose some of the normal paladin abilities in exchange for specialized abilities, all the previous having the normal paladin abilities and a few benefits and hindrances added on.  The Ghost Hunter might be too specialized as normal paladin has a very good chance at success without the added undead turning, dispel evil and immunity to ghoul paralysis.  In exchange the GH loses healing, spells, immunity to disease and curing disease.  Maybe not awesome after all.
Inquisitor-The witch hunter I discussed above.
Medician-A combat medic, focusing on healing over harming.  A cleric is still more effective.
Militarist-A battlefield virtuoso with minor weapon specialization and mounted combat bonuses.  Honestly one wonders if a Fighter would be better.
Skyrider-A paladin that has a flying mount.  That's really it.
Squire-In keeping with the knighthood theme of the book, the Squire is a paladin that never actually becomes a paladin (as Swan defines paladin, meaning knight) and remains a professional servant to a paladin.
Votary-An ascetic, similar to a Divinate, but far less friendly.  Takes vows of chastity and poverty and has little respect for other faiths.
Wyrmslayer-Specializes in killing evil dragons.
I'll show you a Wyrmslayer, buddy.
Swan even suggests a list of possible kits the players and DM can make, noting that the possibilities are not limited to the suggested list.  Of the list two really stood out to me:
Pacifist-A paladin that fights evil by NOT FIGHTING.  That's just stupid.  This is an RPG and frankly that won't work.
Seaguard-A ship-riding paladin that fights evil on the waves.  That one actually appeals to me.

None of these kits are needed, most provide nothing but roleplaying guidelines and some actually harm the paladin as a class (like that Pacifist suggestion).  I don't know if Rick just needed to fill pages or if he really thought all of this was a good idea.  Maybe it was TSR company policy.  It's a shame because there are many good things about the book.  You can add to what I wrote before the sections where Rick breaks out the various paladin abilities and requirements (tithing, lay on hands, detect evil, etc.) to explain their purpose, mechanics, and in game flavor.  It's all very helpful, especially for putting the paladin back into its purpose of knight (NOT HOLY WARRIOR) for the last time (3rd edition would leave that notion broken, bloody and abused in a corner somewhere).  Sure, you could get a group of players together and everyone play a paladin and with the kits they can all be different enough to be interesting, but that does not justify such specialization.  Ultimately I feel like it is a failure compared to the earlier and more useful handbooks.  It didn't ruin one of my favorite classes, thankfully, but it is mostly superfluous to the game and the class and added little value.  On the other hand it did uphold the truth about paladins, which is not the holy warrior, but the shining knight, and for that I can't dismiss it entirely.
Everything that would come after, the tanking MMO bollocks, the leaving behind of the strictly human and lawful good requirements, the belief that the paladin was some sort of half-assed healer/fighter I choose to dismiss entirely.
Because THAT is not a paladin, I don't care how many times WoW tells you it is.
"Got my plate armor, got my shield, got my sword, what am I forgetting?  Oh yes, let me just get out my HAND YOU YOUR ASS button."

Look, not a naked barbarian in sight.  You know why?  Dumbass is dead lying in a pool of his own blood and feces.