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Aeroquest… Canto 24

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Canto 24 – Attack on White Palm

White Sword Corsairs were long, stiletto-shaped vessels with a wicked array of pulse lasers, microwave beamers, and contact missiles.  Two hundred of the deadly craft led by Arkin Cloudstalker himself had joined Tron’s own one hundred and eighty Pinwheel Corsairs in high orbit above the desert planet, White Palm.

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“Cloudstalker?  This is Tron.  Do you see any sign of space forces?”

“None,” came the quick reply.  “Amin would be here if he intended to oppose us.”

“Do you think we took the Count by surprise?”

“Not a chance.  He knows we’re here.  If he’s not laying for us in space, he has a trap set up on the planet.”

“Do you have ground assault vehicles aboard your corsairs?”

“Sorry, Brother Tron.  We didn’t come prepared for that.”

“We have two aboard each Pinwheel.  Can you at least provide air cover?”

“Oh, most definitely.  We’re the best you’ve ever seen.”

“You fly like a bunch of girls,” said Tron with a snort of laughter.

“Women, Blastarr!  That makes all the difference!” asserted Cloudstalker.

The Pinwheels began spiraling down into the hot, cloud-free atmosphere of the desert planet.  Elvis the Cruel led the way, lasering the desert below out of sheer spite and meanness.  Sheherazade flew her pinwheel right behind.  The King of Killers was on her tail with Courtney Blake right behind him.

Cloudstalker led the White Swords in a classic “V”formation, with his only male ace, Apache Scout, on his wing.  The Lady Knights all followed smoothly in ground attack formation, spreading out in a slowing double chevron.

It became obvious what tactics Count Nefaria had chosen to employ.  The desert was covered by huge robotic walkers, some on two feet, some on four, and even a dozen or so of the six-legged battle platforms.  Plasma beams sprayed out in a flytrap pattern that took out seventeen Pinwheel Corsairs on the first volley.  The beams were hot enough to burn directly through energy shields and leave wide swaths of glass on the deserts of White Palm when they fell to the planet.

“Tron Blastarr, you are outmatched,” came the effete voice of Count Nefaria over the general com channel.  “A wise corsair would count his losses and fly away!”

“Nobody ever accused me of being wise, Old Dracula!” shouted Tron.  “I’ve come to stake you once and for all before the fall of darkness.”

“Big words!” said Nefaria, apparently commanding another volley of plasma fire.  The words had actually been normal-sized, not big at all, but Nefaria had a reputation for being very cruel and not terribly bright.

Apache Scout was hit, though not fatally.  His White Sword and crew of four arced down into the palm trees near Nefaria’s Oasis City.  A Lady Knight named Stella also caught a plasma beam, but it struck the cockpit, vaporizing all aboard.

Cloudstalker’s deadly corsairs attacked with heat-seeking contact missiles.  Four hundred missiles made four hundred separate hits.  Two six-legged battle platforms went down along with the 398 walkers.  Robot parts were splashed all over the desert.  Tron could picture Nefaria’s monocled face turning pale as he witness the robotic death and carnage.

Elvis the Cruel flew over the Oasis City shield tower, burning it with a sheet of laser fire and causing a series of explosions that caused the building to fold down into the ground, smoking and spewing debris.  Elvis’ Pinwheel curvetted and landed two cliques outside the city wall.  He was the first Pinwheel pilot to deploy his two ground vehicles.  They were tracked ATV’s with pulse laser cannons, the kind that corsairs referred to as “killer campers”.

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As Elvis personally drove towards the walls in his first vehicle, he was hailed by a downed pilot coming out of the palm trees near the reservoir.

“Hey, stupid white man!  I am Apache Scout.  Give me an ATV and I will slay these metal men for you!”

Elvis knew his old enemy, and gladly surrendered command of ATV 2 to him.  Apache Scout was a full-blooded Pan Galactican Indian, and known for his combat piloting abilities.  He could fly or drive anything on the battlefield.

Tron successfully landed his two ATV’s as well.  His beautiful wife and young son rode with him.  If they were going to die in battle, better, Tron reasoned, to all die together.  He knew he could never live without either one of them.  After landing, a battle walker with four legs, called a Road Warrior, smashed in the side of Tron’s number two ATV.  The four crewmen were killed instantly as their own missile battery gutted their vehicle.

Tron, taking offense, cut the head and front legs off the robot, pitching it sideways into the blazing wreck of Number Two.

Sheherazade’s lead ATV, the one she piloted herself, was caught between a two-legged Desert Rat, and a six-legged battle platform.  The plasma energy burned off the back half of her ATV.

In the next few moments, King Killer flew into a supernatural rage, driving down the Desert Rat and pumping the underside of the battle platform full of hot laser fire.  As the platform burned and toppled to the desert, King leaped out of his ATV and plunged into the wreckage to find Sheherazade.  Tron was certain he had just lost two aces from the Pinwheel Corsairs.  Suddenly King emerged from the smoke and flames carrying the still living dark beauty in his arms.

Elvis and Apache Scout had fifteen kills between them, the highest of any ground pilots in the battle, when they finally breached the walls of Nefaria’s Command Bunker.  The Battle of White Palm had officially ended in a victory for the raiders.  All that remained was the fox hunt for Nefaria within the tunnels of his own complex.

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P.T. Barnum

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Last night my wife and my daughter the Princess went with me to the movie musical The Greatest Showman at the dollar movie.  I was enchanted.  My wife laughed at me for how much the movie made me cry.  But it was a very touching and timely movie for me because it was about pursuing dreams in spite of economic hardships.  The award-winning songs promote with energy and stunning beauty the notion that you should follow your passion no matter the risk, and that choosing to do so will produce rewards as long as family and love are with you and along for the ride.

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Of course, one has to remember that the whole story is based on the life and work of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a man who is a lot more like Donald Trump than he is Hugh Jackman.  I really doubt he could sing and dance the way the movie portrays him.  And words like “humbug”, “fraud”, and “exploiter” apply to him in a very real way.

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Barnum was actually one of those wheeler dealers who wants to control the story.  He actively found ways to alter the public narrative about himself and used criticism to help promote his money-making shows.  The idea of bad publicity being just as good if not better than good publicity actually makes its presence felt in at least one scene in the movie.  There is ample evidence that more than a little of Barnum’s efforts were aimed at making himself a star.

And although the movie sentimentalizes his exploitation of freaks and special individuals, giving him credit for giving them self esteem and a means to make a good living, that was really only the fictional Barnum created by Barnum’s own media efforts.

The truth of the matter, though far more fascinating than the movie version of Barnum, does not make for a good musical libretto.  In the movie the theme of special people outcast from the society because of their uniqueness coming together to support each other in a circus is strongly woven into both the story and the music.  The song “This is Me” performed by Keala Settle playing the part of bearded lady Lettie Lutz is a powerful anthem for everyone who feels smaller than they really are because of prejudice, bullying, racism, sexism, or any of the other forms of moronic stupidity that humans are so often guilty of.  I have to admit, the song made me cry even as it filled me with joy.  The musical score of this movie is one that I intend to listen to again and again and again.  It makes the circus seem like an answer to life’s problems.  It is the same feeling that I got the first time, and every time, I ever saw the circus with all its clowns and jugglers, acrobats and lion tamers, bare-back riders and elephants.  And I knew it was all illusion.  All humbug.  But it was pure joy worth the price of the ticket never-the-less.

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The movie was only rated 56% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  But I rarely pay attention to things like that.  This musical goes into the category with The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, and Mary Poppins of musicals I can’t live without.  Never mind the greedy little man that it is based on.  This movie is about big dreams and even bigger achievements.  And it is well worth the price.

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Equipment Makes the Adventurer

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You cannot cleave a ghost in twain with a cast-iron fireplace poker. Throwing snowballs at vampires will not keep your blood from being drained.  And bugbears don’t really have an aversion to little girls in pink dresses (except for little Tessie Trueheart of the Green Dale; that little booger has a temper as large as her love for the color pink).

To go adventuring in Mickey the Dungeonmaster’s dungeons, you need the right equipment.  Of course, whole books full of weapons and armor and adventuring doodads have been published.  Some of the stuff we use in the family games comes from the game books, as exemplified by the items pictured above.  The Blue Wood Armor of the Forest Guardian is a collection of items put together from the books published for D&D by Wizards of the Coast Publishing.

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My daughter’s favorite weapon is a sentient throwing knife that always flies back to its current master after being thrown.  It also never misses, adjusting its own flight to always strike the target for the greatest possible damage.  It has a mind and intelligence of its own.  It became sentient and alive in the middle of an epic combat with a magical giant golem who hit it with a spell that went disastrously wrong for the caster. This item was created on the spur of the moment in the midst of a published adventure, based on a disasterously low roll of the dice for the monster side of the combat.

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Some items in the game are actually treasures from the published adventure scenarios I like to use. Instead of simply selling off items when they are discovered in the cold, dead hands of defeated evil druids whose dreams of conquest and tyrannical rule you have thwarted, you can take them for your own personal use.  I have a tendency to embellish what is described in the pages of the adventure with both really good powers and effects, and really insidious concealed curses.  The Legendary Black Blades are both demon-laced and deadly.  And both, though fatal to your enemies, will eventually darken your own heart and possibly shorten your adventuring life the hard way.

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Not all equipment is made of swords and armor.  The Evil Heads of Dr. Zorgo are a collection of living zombie heads that can impart wisdom and information (allowing characters to add skills) and can also direct you to places of adventure and great treasure.  Of course, they are evil.  There is always that little factor to consider.  But come on, how can you not be tempted by treasures talked about by the Ghost Elf’s head when you tried to ask her for the time of day in her native land?

So the point of this post is that I am really proud of my drawings of D&D equipment and wanted to show them off.  This post is merely an excuse for doing that.  I have one more to show you, though I must confess, while I drew this one, it was designed by number one son to be used for his character, though as soon as he got it made, he sold it for lots of gold to use on the next project.

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The Little Shop Full of Treasures

Every good Dungeons & Dragons game needs a quaint little magic shop to provide the appropriate magical boom-boom solution that isn’t obviously needed, but will prove essential to the adventure later.

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For our game, where we had a choice of a number of screwy little magic shops that didn’t manage to blow themselves up, the main place of choice was Failin’s Arcanum Magickum Shoppe in Sharn.   (Why “shop” has to be spelled “shoppe”, I’m really not certain.  You have to spell things wrong to cast spells apparently.)

The shoppe is located in the Precarious District of Sharn, City of Towers.  Visitors have been known to be crushed by falling parapet stones from above that may or may not have been wedged loose by a hobgoblin street gang.  Failin himself is a rather morose individual with red hair and a connection to the Dragonmarked House Orien, the house whose magical dragonmarks allow the members of the house to do transportation magic.  Failin was himself a talented geomancer, able to create items with bound earth elementals used for power and propulsion.  He also collects items of great value from adventurers and commands impossibly high prices for them.

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So, if you want to buy a Wand of Blinding Colors, a Bag of Holding, a Flaming Elf Skull of Timely Warnings, or a Deadly Drum of Druid Doom, he’s definitely your man and will only take twice the amount of everything you own in payment.  If you want something more powerful or more arcane, you better be ready to slay a dragon for it and bring back the entire hoard as payment.  Failin is rich in several different ways.

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Working for Failin is his one and only servant, Gobbie.  Gobbie is also a rare thing, a goblin you can trust.  He was raised by dragonmarked humans and treated slightly better than the average goblin (who tend to be killed on sight by heroes).

Gobbie is also trained as a shield bearer, and carries a shield that is immune to dragon fire and most magical fire and ice.  Failin rents Gobbie to adventurers for a high price, and Gobbie usually serves them just as faithfully as he serves his red-haired master.

And Failin’s shoppe is a place where you can find any number of magic users, wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, illusionists, thaumaturges, and other magicians.  If you don’t mind risking a meeting with horrifying necromancers, you can find and talk to some of the most powerful people in all Eberron.

 

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Role-Playing Games in the Classroom

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Zeus, the god of Storms and the Sky

In the early 90’s a fellow teacher became acutely aware of the effect the role-playing games I was playing at home after school had on the cognitive abilities of the fatherless boys I was constantly entertaining.  She suggested that maybe, if it was working at home with a few students and former students, it could also work in the classroom with all students.

This, of course was a daunting classroom activity to carry out, but enough of a creative challenge to my story telling abilities that I simply had to try.

I began with a cheap RPG book about adventuring D&D style with characters from Greek Myth.  This was an opportunity not only to play adventure games, but to teach a little bit about history and a lot about mythology.

So I created generic character sheets using my own personal copier, my own copy paper, and my own overhead projector plastic overlays.

I created adventures that could be conducted on the overhead with dice and each kid having their own set of skills and useful items.  We conducted Olympic games and included mythological creatures like Tritons and Centaurs as player characters.  We learned about the city of Olympia, the city of Argos, the city of Corinth, Athens, Sparta, and even Atlantis.

I let students draw their character from a hat on strips of paper that contained a boy option and a girl option.  I even let students trade for the character they wanted and we learned negotiating skills along with problem-solving skills.

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                                                                                     Demeter, goddess of fertility (which you can’t say in a junior high classroom, so goddess of crops and farming.)

Most of the stories were driven by a kidnapping where the beautiful daughter of one of the players was kidnapped immediately after the Olympic medals were awarded.  The villain would take her to his evil island base, and the players would have to work together to buy or steal a boat.  Gods and goddesses could be called on to intervene, and sometimes they actually did.  Another story line began with the sack of Troy, during which the players either murder or witness the death of a young Trojan boy who just happens to be Heracles’ son.

That story took the players on a quest of penance to visit the underworld and retrieve the boy in the same way that Orpheus tried to rescue his lady love Eurydice.  Potentially, Heracles would even join the quest himself if none of the player characters were the actual killer.  And, of course, all sorts of encounters with monsters would ensue.

 

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I ended up using about as much of my personal resources as a story-teller and a cartoonist to create those adventures as I had available.  But I had students tell me that the week of classroom time spent playing that problem-solving myth game was one of the most memorable learning experiences they ever had.  I never tried it with a high school class, only middle school, and then mostly with 7th graders.  But I think the experiment was very successful from about 1992 to 2004, and it taught me even more about teaching than it ever taught them about mythology.

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Justifying The Existence of Aeroquest

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The question may arise if anyone who wasn’t forced to read the novel Aeroquest because they have the misfortune of being my relative ever actually reads the book, “Why did you ever write such a gawd-awful thing?”

The truth is, I didn’t write it, not by myself at any rate.  The essential plot of the novel is such a jumbled mess because the story is lifted directly from a game of Traveller, an RPG from Game Designer’s Workshop.  The basic characters in the novel were all player characters.  Their design and personalities are created by adolescent boys in the 80’s and the paths they chose in the story strongly reflect the chaos of youth.

The Aero Brothers, Ged and Ham were both created by one of my favorite students of all time.  I will refer to him here as Armando Carrizales, though that was not his real name.  I am trying to explain the novel here, not mortify an adult former student living somewhere in Texas, or even elsewhere.  Armando’s idea was to use Star Wars characters.  Hamfast Aero was actually Han Solo in the game.  And when Armando wanted to create an all-powerful psionic character, he created brother Ged Solo, using the first name of Larry Winslow’s character Ged Stryker (And Larry did not know how to spell “Jed”).  Because I really liked Armando, and he was bright, creative, and a good problem solver, I eventually chose his characters as the main characters of the novel.  He was good at organizing expeditions, collecting gear and matching it to the purpose in the adventure before him.  But you do need more than heroes for an adventure game, or for a novel.

Emilio Jalapeno was a very different kind of kid, but also Armando’s real-life best friend.  He was a skinny kid with a goofy grin, and was always ready with a joke or prank that would either make you laugh, or make you palm your forehead and consider murder.  His first Traveller character lasted all of fifteen minutes because he decided he wanted to take his shiny new pistol and kill everyone on the entire planet they were on.  That character, whose name I have forgotten, was actually gunned down by his own adventuring party.  So Emilio had to start again.

He created the character Trav Dalgoda.  He got the name from the first syllable of the Traveller game and a name he spotted on the cover of a magazine laying on the table.  Trav was simply Emilio in an RPG form.  He wanted to have an eye patch like a pirate, but he wanted to have two eyes.  He wanted to wear wide ties with messages on them, like a cartoon screw next to a baseball.  And he dearly loved to blow things up.  A time would come in the adventure where he had access to really big weapons, and we had to let him experiment with killing everybody on an entire planet.  This, then, was the needed comedy relief that kept us laughing through shared adventures.  And Trav’s ability to get into really big trouble would eventually drive the plot forward.

Sinbadh the Lupin, a dog-headed humanoid alien, was also Emilio’s character.  The fact that he based his entire character on talking like a pirate from Treasure Island was a source of endless hilarity.

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Tron Blastarr, the scar-faced villain, was created by Armando again.  There was a time when Larry Winslow wanted to create a villain character in the most desperate way possible.  But the evil villain Mantis, who was really just a living head on a robotic body, and the enigmatic psionic Xavier Trkiashav never really got their chance to be truly villainous.  One became a laughable boob while the other became a hero and the leader of the Psionics Institute.  Tron, however, was a perfect pirate.  He led the band of adventurers on merry chase after looping, curling space chase, eventually becoming the first player character to get married and have children.  He retired as a villain with a fleet of stolen space ships, and a planet (the airless world Outpost1) as his pirate treasure.

So, to claim I wrote the novel Aeroquest on my own is to completely overlook my collaborators.  It is a mess of a comedy sci-fi novel that I am still trying to iron out and rewrite, but it is also a story I shared with some who were very near to my writer’s heart.

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Little Metal Men I Have Made

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Today’s post is basically a picture post.  Every metal (or Plasticine) figure displayed in this post was painted by me with Testor’s enamel.  Most of the figures were painted back in the 1980’s.  Most of them were sculpted by Citadel Miniatures Co.  The Indian boy I repainted as a young storm giant was made of an inferior quality Plasticine that melted a bit with the paint’s more caustic ingredients.  That’s why looking at him closely makes him appear like a burn victim.

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Not all of the figures are from Dungeons and Dragons games.  These are figures I used in the Traveller RPG.    I also owned the Indiana Jones role-playing game, but the figure was used as a Traveller hero.

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These figures were used to play Call of Cthulu as well as Traveller.  Cerebus the Aardvark made appearances in both the Dungeons and Dragons game and Traveller, which was fairly true to the character as he appeared in Dave Sim’s underground comic.

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I am proud that my arthritic hands once allowed me to paint the tiny details on these miniature sculptures.  But the red dragon I wanted to display in this post, that I have pictured before in this blog, is missing for the moment.  I spent most of the morning trying to find him.  Oh, well…  I still got to show off my mini-painting skills.

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