Thursday, December 22, 2016

Building the Bestiary #10: Devils

(This is the second of two columns for this week. I'm taking Christmas week off, so look for my next column in the new year!)
(L): Blista (Legends of Chima); (R): Lavaria (Nexo Knights) with Maleficent's horns (Disney Minifigures) and Cute Little Devil's tail (Minifigures Series 16).
My regular gaming group recently concluded the Pathfinder mini-campaign that my wife Erika ran for us. Going into the final adventure of Dungeon Interludes, we knew that the main villain was an evil conjurer known to summon devils, so I helped her prepare by building LEGO miniatures of a few varieties that had CRs appropriate to our level (11th). Because that easily covered most of the devils in the first Bestiary, it seemed only natural to make them the subject of my next "Building the Bestiary" column.

Most devils are Medium to Large in size and bipedal, which makes it possible to use minifigures for the base of most of them. Of course, many will require wings and/or tails, so I've tried to provide a few examples of how I add those limbs.

If your collection or budget is limited, some themes include minifigures that make good generic fiends. Nexo Knights sets are the easiest source for these right now, with their many demonic-looking, magma-themed villains, as are some of the recent collectible Minifigures series. If you have can track down characters from older themes, the minifigure-sized versions of the Barraki (Bionicle; see barbed devil photo below) are good examples of suitable "defaults" for devils and other fiendish monsters.

Lemures, the lowliest of devils, are shapeless masses of flesh that bear only a vague resemblance to humanoids. A zombie or a classic Castle ghost works well for a lemure, or you can build its crude form out of bricks.
Lemures (L-R): brick-built; zombie head on plain gray body; Castle ghost.

Imps are Tiny winged devils. The Cute Little Devil from Minifigures Series 16, with his small legs, horns, wings, and tail, is an obvious choice here, especially if you can substitute a scarier face. The Gargoyle (Series 14) is another good option, lacking only a tail. If you want a figure that is closer to Tiny scale, use a microfigure or see Building the Bestiary #5: Tiny Creatures.
Cute Little Devil (with imp head [Monster 4 game] and Kai's torso [Ninjago]) and Gargoyle (Minfigures Series 16 and 14)

Erinyes are fallen angels with black-feathered wings, cruel expressions, and fiery bows. Wings from the Legends of Chima theme are perfect for this; attach them using a breastplate from that theme, or the smaller, clear wing attachment from sets like Ultimate Lavaria (Nexo Knights). The erinyes shown here has Voldemort's face to suggest the disfiguring evil that mars her once beautiful form.

Bone devils (osyluths) are Large, skeletal outsiders with insectoid wings and long, stingered tails. A LEGO skeleton makes a suitable base. For mine (see photo), I used wings from the Geonosian Warrior Zombie (Star Wars) because they were tattered, insect-like, and wouldn't interfere with attaching a tail. The tail is attached with an L-shaped neck clip, and is made from hinged parts, a robot arm, and a large, hard rubber "fang" piece. The base is a 6x6 radar dish to show that it's a Large creature.

Bearded devils (barbazu) are distinctive for their spiky beards and saw-toothed glaives. Any beard and polearm will serve here, but the more demonic-looking the face and armor, the better. Mine use Garmadon and Stone Warrior minifigures (Ninjago) as a base. Their tails are built like the bone devil's, but are much shorter since they aren't weapons.

Barbed devils (hamatulas) are Medium humanoids covered in barbs, and attack with huge claws. Use spiked breastplates or shoulder plates to suggest the body spines, and long claws like those on the Werewolf (Monster Hunters) or Wolverine (Marvel Superheroes), or clawed gauntlets (Prince or Persia). Barbed devils have long tails, but I've left that off of the figures shown here, as the armor makes it hard to attach an L-clip, too.
Barbed devils (L-R): two Barraki (Bionicle); Yazneg with Werewolf claws (Hobbit, Monster Hunters); Gundabad Orc with clawed gauntlets (Hobbit, Prince of Persia) 

Ice devils (gelugons) are Large insectoid devils. The first example below simply takes a bug-like alien from the Galaxy Squad theme and gives it a weapon suggesting ice powers. The second example uses the same spear but the creature is built from Technic parts. (Note the handled plates I used to attach the second devil's feet to its base. He's a little top-heavy, so needed the extra stability.)

Horned devils (cornugons) and pit fiends both fit the archetypal bat-winged devil shape, and both are Large. Winged monsters such as Blista (Legends of Chima) and Lavaria (Nexo Knights) make excellent choices for these monsters when mounted on Large (6x6) bases (see the photo at the top of this column). If you want a larger boss figure, build one from bricks. (See the previous installments on Giants and Elementals for ideas.) The Burnzie character from Axl's Tower Carrier (Nexo Knights) would also make a lovely pit fiend, though he's at least Huge in size and lacks wings.

Appendix: Past "Building the Bestiary" Columns

#1: Humanoids
#2: Underwater Races
#3: Giants
#4: Undead
#5: Tiny Creatures
#6: Four-Legged Friends
#7: Oozes
#8: Spell Effects
#9: Elementals

Monday, December 19, 2016

Building the Bestiary #9: Elementals

(I will be out of town visiting family most of Christmas week, so I will be posting two columns this week instead. Here's the first one. Expect the other in a day or two.)
Rock Raiders monsters (left, center) and Ultimate Flama (Nexo Knights, right)
Elementals are most commonly encountered as the servants of a conjurer or in areas that have a connection to the elemental planes. These creatures are essentially spirits embodied within a mass of their own element--air, earth, fire, or water. In earlier editions of D&D, elementals of a given type all shared the same approximate shape, but in Pathfinder, their forms are not rigidly set. Elementals can appear in a variety of shapes, but share the same statistics within their element and size category.

The classic form for air elementals is a vortex of wind or smoke, but they also often appear in bird-like forms or as misty humanoids.

Earth elementals often appear as crude humanoids made of rock, soil, or crystal, but can also appear as terrestrial animals made out of those materials.

Fire elementals can be large upright flames or serpentine forms made of smoke and flame. Some prefer shapes that resemble humans, fire giants, or demons.

Water elementals typically adopt wave-like forms, sometimes with smaller waves as limbs, though some take the form of aquatic creatures made out of water.

In addition, elementals of mixed origins also exist: ice, lightning, magma, and mud. This column, however, will be focusing on the four basic types above.


"NRG" Zane, Cole, Kai, and Jay (Ninjago)
There are a number of minifigures available that can be used to represent mostly humanoid elementals:

  • Castle: Ghosts can serve as air elementals. 
  • Elves: These elemental-themed elves are suitable for the "planetouched" or "geniekin" races (ifrits, sylphs, etc.).
  • Legends of Chima: Phoenixes and other flame-empowered heroes make good fire elementals.
  • Minifigures: These collectible characters include two Genies (Series 6 and 12). The Gargoyle (Series 14) makes an excellent mephit or (minus wings) Small earth elemental. 
  • Nexo Knights: The lava-themed villains (Flama in particular) make good fire and magma elementals. 
  • Ninjago: The four main characters are perfectly color-coded to the four elements. (Jay is technically electricity and Zane ice, but their blue and white costumes work nicely for water and air, respectively--and Jay's thundercloud insignia looks a lot like an octopus.) I usually keep their "NRG" versions' minifigures, minus their ninja hoods, on hand as my default for Medium elementals.
  • Rock Raiders: This old theme included a number of monsters that make wonderful earth elementals, particularly the "big figure" Rock Monster.
  • Star Wars: Blue- and green-skinned characters (Aayla Secura, Cad Bane, Oola) can be used as water elementals or undines. 
  • Superheroes: Some characters (like Electro) have elemental powers, making them obvious choices for elementals of the matching type.

In addition, any statue minifigure can be used as an earth elemental, and any minifigure that fits an element's color scheme--especially if the whole character is one color, like a ninja--can be pressed into service as that elemental type.

Brick-Built Elementals

Because elementals have mutable forms, and because they rarely have well-defined facial features, a brick-built model does not necessarily need a great amount of detail. In fact, the model's blockiness can help emphasize the fact that the elemental spirit is only temporarily inhabiting this crude form. In a pinch, a rough pile of bricks of an appropriate color and size will do just fine. I typically use white or light gray bricks for air elementals, red or orange for fire, brown or gray for earth, and blue for water. (See "Building the Bestiary #3: Giants" about size categories.)

The key to building an effective model is capturing the elemental's silhouette or motif: the wave of a water elemental, the flames of an fire elemental, the lumbering bulk of an earth elemental. For Medium elementals, a few bricks to show its size, and to suggest eyes and limbs, is usually enough. Sloped bricks are good for shaping waves or flames, or for suggesting that the figure is arising from a pool of its element.

Earth and water elementals are the easiest to build, as their forms are usually crude and chunky.

For an air elemental, use round pieces of differing diameters to suggest the form of a vortex or funnel cloud. 1x3 or 1x4 bricks can be used to build a cylinder, as shown below. For a larger whirlwind, use larger bricks to build a broader cylinder. The hexagonal model below is built solely with 1x2 and 2x4 bricks, which are among the most common sizes.


A very simple fire elemental can be built by mounting a flame brick on an appropriately-sized base. A standard torch-flame makes a good Small elemental, while larger flames can be used for Medium and Large elementals. A blue torch-flame can also be used for a Small water or air elemental.

 If you have enough transparent bricks of appropriate colors, you can build very striking air (clear or smoke), fire (red or orange) or water (blue) elementals. This is a good way to make us of large cockpit pieces, as shown in this column by Lego Game Master.

A Huge magma elemental,
from the "Gorilla Island" adventure
in my Freeport campaign
The Bionicle and Hero Factory themes are good sources of parts for building larger elementals. Some of the smaller sets can be used as-is, while others can be pared down to an appropriate size. (The Huge magma elemental shown at right was built using parts from a couple of Hero Factory sets.)

Mixels are also a good source for unusual elemental models. Some sets already have an elemental theme (Series 1 and 2 included fire, earth, electric, and frost "tribes"), and others provide appropriate palettes for other types.

Appendix: Past "Building the Bestiary" Columns

#1: Humanoids
#2: Underwater Races
#3: Giants
#4: Undead
#5: Tiny Creatures
#6: Four-Legged Friends
#7: Oozes
#8: Spell Effects

Thursday, December 15, 2016

TBT: My New Kentucky Home

My family put up and decorated our Christmas tree this past week, including the little blue horse shown here:

Three years ago, I wanted to find a new ornament to commemorate my family's first Christmas in Kentucky. I was unable to find one in stores or online that I was satisfied with, so decided to create my own. The city's mascot is a blue horse of the same name, so I painted a LEGO horse that color. Normally, I view altering LEGO bricks in any way as something bordering on blasphemy. This attitude is mostly due to the fact that once a piece is altered, damaged, or lost, I can't use it for its original purpose, and I've rarely had enough spare parts (or the cash to replace them) to justify the sacrifice. However, I have acquired a large number of LEGO horses over a lifetime of collecting LEGO, and never use more than a few of them at the same time, so made an exception to my own rule.

I also sacrificed a few of the oldest bricks I own (which are notably battered and yellowed after nearly 40 years) to build a stand to hold the horse while I painted it. After picking my parts, I used black spray primer, then used acrylic paint to give the horse a nice light blue coat.

The slot in the horse's back is usually filled with a 1x2 plate on top of a 1x2 brick, but I only added the 1x2 brick in order to leave room for a special brick later that would allow me to attach an ornament hook.

I then painted the classic LEGO horse's bridle and eyes back on, and made the mane and tail a darker shade of blue. I wrote "New KY. Home" on one side (a play on the song title "My Old Kentucky Home") and "Lexington 2013" on the other, first in red then again with narrower white lines. 

Once all of that dried, I sprayed it with matte fixative. I then just needed to attach a brick with a hole for attaching the ornament hook, and little Lexington was ready for the tree! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 3 (Class Options, Part 1)

Back in March 2016, I reviewed the first year or so of "Unearthed Arcana" columns on the D&D website with an eye for how to use them in a Fifth Edition Freeport: The City of Adventure campaign. I covered the April through August 2016 installments in a later column.

Starting in November, the column started appearing weekly rather than monthly in order to present a slew of new options for each class. This week's "Studded Plate" reviews the first five installments of that series--and the couple columns preceeding them--with the Freeport setting in mind.

The Ranger, Revised (9/12/2016): This piece builds on previous "Unearthed Arcana" articles about modifying the ranger class, which many players have found frustratingly underpowered. This latest iteration includes three archetypes (or conclaves), reworking the two presented in the Player's Handbook as well as the Deep Stalker from "Light, Dark, Underdark!" (11/2/2015). As with previous variants, this ranger could be found in Freeport, either alone or co-existing with the original--with the DM's permission, as always.

Encounter Building (10/10/2016): This column is a DM tool more than a content article. It presents an alternative system to building encounters from that in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but uses the same underlying assumptions and math.

Barbarian Primal Paths (11/7/2016): Freeport sees a diverse mix of barbarians pass through its waters, so these three new primal paths could prove quite useful in making each barbarian culture distinct. For example, The Path of the Ancestral Guardian would be suitable for many primitive islander tribes. Druzhdin barbarians are frequently berserkers or totem warriors, but the cold version of the Path of the Storm Herald also fits their homeland quite nicely. Azhar barbarians are a natural fit for the desert version of that path. Savage humanoids with a strong war-god cult (like the orc god Krom) could be drawn to the Path of the Zealot as easily as to that of the berserker.

Bard: Bard Colleges (11/14/2016): This column introduces two new archetypes for bards. The College of Glamour is designed for bards with ties to the Feywild, and is a natural fit for the elves of Rolland. The College of Whispers focuses on infiltration and leveraging secrets, and is thus perfectly suited for the intrigue-riddled streets of Freeport.

Cleric: Divine Domains (11/21/2016): This installment presents three new divine domains. The Forge domain is appropriate for dwarven gods, as well as fire-based religions like Kizmir's Eternal Flame. The Grave is designed for death-oriented gods who oppose undead, and is thus an excellent choice for the Church of Retribution and its Inquisition. The Protection domain is appropriate for a wide variety of deities, from gods of knowledge to gods of war. (In Pathfinder terms, these domains would roughly correspond to Artifice and/or Fire, Repose, and Protection, respectively.)

Druid Circles and Wild Shape (11/28/2016): Druids are almost always outsiders in Freeport, and usually feel more at home in the jungles of the Serpent's Teeth than in the city. Circle of Dreams is a good fit for wood elves from Rolland, while the Circle of the Shepherd would be a good choice for any druid who wants to protect the islands' native creatures. The Circle of Twilight, on the other hand, are devoted to hunting undead, and will find plenty to keep them busy in the streets and sewers of Freeport itself. (The Circle of Twilight would make a good foil for Inquisition witch-hunters--both seek to exterminate the threat of necromancy, but their training, beliefs, and methods would put them at odds with each other, too.)

Fighter: Martial Archetypes (12/5/2016): The Arcane Archer and Sharpshooter are both good choices for a fighter who specializes in ranged attacks; use the former for a magically-empowered mystic warrior, the latter for a more mundane sniper or scout. The Knight fills a role very similar to the Cavalier archetype ("Kits of Old," 1/4/2016), but is less focused on mounted combat, making it a better fit for Freeport. Buccaneers of Freeport introduced an Asian-flavored Eastern Empire to the World of Freeport, which gives Samurai a place in the setting, too. (The Kodath half-orcs from True20 Freeport: The Lost Island should also be considered samurai.)


For ease of reference, I've compiled a list of all my previous columns discussing running D&D Fifth Edition games set in Freeport.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Thumbs Up for Matthew Colville's "Running the Game"

Someone over at at The Piazza recently made me aware of "Running the Game," a YouTube series by game designer and SF writer Matthew Colville. It's an excellent introduction to what's involved in running a D&D game. Colville is very knowledgeable about the game and its history, and brings a lot of insight to why Dungeon Masters do the things they do. For example, in the first full episode, when he walks the viewer through creating a first adventure, he takes the time to explain each decision he makes. His dry wit and unabashed enthusiasm for the game are infectious, and will make you want to keep watching. I highly recommend this series to anyone who is curious about what goes on behind the DM's screen, as well as for DMs of all experience levels who just want some suggestions for new things they can try at their table--or just a better vocabulary to help explain to others what we've learned the hard way. I've been running games for over 30 years, and I'm finding plenty of ideas to use in my future games.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Advanced Rulebook Series

Back in 2005, Green Ronin published the Advanced Rulebook Series, a set of three books that gave new options for the d20 System. I mainly play Pathfinder these days instead of v.3.5, so have been rereading these books to determine how useful they would be for that system.

The Advanced Bestiary is a collection of creature templates designed to help GMs get more mileage out of their existing monster books. These templates range from very simple templates that can be added on the fly if necessary through complex templates that require a complete overhaul of the base creature's stats. (The book's most complicated template, the Amalgam, allows a GM to create a hybrid of any two monsters.) The Advanced Bestiary is easily my favorite Green Ronin title outside of the Freeport line, and of the three Advanced Rulebooks, it's the one I have used most often.

Green Ronin recently produced a new edition of the Advanced Bestiary for the Pathfinder RPG. All of the original book's templates have been updated (except for the handful that Paizo already published in their Bestiaries), and several new templates have been added. The new book is also in full color with all-new art, instead of black and white like the original. This is now one of my favorite Green Ronin books, period.

The Advanced Player's Manual covers a variety of topics: creating new races; six new classes; more uses for many skills; new alignment mechanics; mass combat rules, new spells; and an appendix with a new psychic class that uses skills and feats instead of spells. There are many good ideas in this book, but I have used very little material from it in my own games--just the planetouched template and a few spells.

The Pathfinder RPG has its own rules for some of these subjects. The Advanced Race Guide has detailed rules for modifying existing races and building new ones; Ultimate Campaign provides rules for mass combat; and Occult Adventures introduces "official" psychic classes for the system. (The Advanced Class Guide includes a warpriest class, but it is very different from the one found in the Advanced Players' Manual.)

Earlier this year, Green Ronin's "Pathfinder Short Cuts" PDF series included installments that converted some of the spells from the Advanced Player's Manual as well as the thanemage class. In a few cases, other spells already have obvious equivalents in Pathfinder (for example, water jet should be replaced by hydraulic push). But that still leaves a number of other classes and spells yet to mine.

The Advanced Gamemaster's Guide provides much advice for GMs on how to run their games, as well as a number of optional rules, complete with discussion about how those changes might affect the game. I've found the less system-specific sections to be a useful source of ideas (and reminders about how to be a better GM), but I have not used any of the new game mechanics in my own campaigns.

Much of this book's advice would be just as useful in Pathfinder, though it overlaps somewhat with similar chapters in the GameMaster's Guide and Ultimate Campaign. In addition, some of the variant rules already have equivalents in Pathfinder, such as Ultimate Campaign's rules for downtime and investments.

The list of "Forty Campaign Themes" has recently been expanded to fifty in the "Pathfinder Short Cuts" series. Other sections like this, which focus on adventure ideas and managing players, will always remain useful for Pathfinder, and pretty much any other fantasy RPG.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

LARPs in Limbo

Many years ago, I was involved in the live-action role-playing (LARP) community in New England, and attended Intercon, an all-LARP convention, several times. It's been many long years since I last played this kind of game, and I do miss it from time to time.

This past March, my wife Erika attended Intercon again because a friend who's still very active in that scene had persuaded her to co-write a LARP for the con. They are now writing another one for 2017's Intercon. Coincidentally, they started working on it just before NaNoWriMo--and a well-executed theater-style LARP scenario certainly involves a very similar effort of writing and revising!

Back when Erika and I were still regularly involved in LARPing, I had started working on a handful of scenarios--one in collaboration with her, others on my own--that never saw the light of day. I've always wanted to go back and finish them so that they could be run at Intercon or some other venue, but never got around to it. Now that Erika is working on her second in two years, that might be the push I need to dig out those old notes--or to work on more recent ideas that never even got that far.

Here are a few brief notes about those projects that are currently languishing in development Limbo (i.e., boxes in Tim's garage):

Miskatonic Regional Elementary School: A day in the life of a third-grade class made up of junior spacemen, kid superheroes, and the eldritch spawn of local cultists. I helped write and run this game at a Build-Your-Own-LARP Workshop at Intercon back in 1998, and still have copies of the characters sheets and other material we produced for it. It was a fun little game that was all role-playing with no game mechanics, and it deserves a second run. But it also needs a heavy-duty polishing first (which I've taken a first stab at, but need to do more work on).

Albuquerque!: A LARP based on the works of "Weird Al" Yankovic--and especially inspired by songs such as "Midnight Star," "Everything You Know Is Wrong," and "Jerry Springer." He's released at least two albums since I last worked on this, so I'll need to work as many of those songs into the fragments of characters and plots that I already have. My family went to see Al's Mandatory Fun tour this summer (my kids' first time seeing him live, my and Erika's second), so my interest in this one has definitely been rekindled!

Caravanserai: Travelers from Arabia, China, and beyond meet in a caravanserai on the Silk Road in central Asia, circa the 1300s. Erika and I had worked out most of the characters and plot, but need to go back and flesh out character histories and "blue sheets" (handouts that give characters additional background that their character would know, such as the history of a place, or their faction's identities and agenda).

Narnia (untitled): At one point, I tried to sketch out a scenario set in C.S. Lewis's Narnia, but was never satisfied with the result. If I ever go back to it, I'll probably mine the most recent movies for additional ideas, since they invented a great deal more action and visuals for the various battles.

A Lazy Sunday Afternoon in Freeport: I've been a fan of Green Ronin's Freeport: The City of Adventure setting ever since its birth back in the dawn of D&D Third Edition. I would love to develop a set of LARP rules tailored to the setting, but in order to do that properly, I also need a compelling introductory scenario suitable for a large group of LARPers--each with their own agenda and secrets--rather than a standard party of dungeon-delvers. My working title is a joke about the fact that most of the adventure titles in the product line follow the format of "[Something Horribly Depressing] in Freeport," starting with the original trilogy of Death, Terror, and Madness.

Those are the games that come to mind right now. If you are interested in hearing more about any of them--or better yet, want to play them if and when they are completed and get run near you--please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Jedi Academy: DIY Lightsabers

Jedi Academy is this school year's theme for the Religious Exploration classes at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, KY. I was one of two instructors for the lightsaber practice unit. For these classes, we needed padded lightsabers for the padawans to spar with. Fortunately, building these weapons was easy and inexpensive (only about $4-$5 per lightsaber*), so I have decided to share the process here. 

These instructions are based on a design by Frank Sewell and adapted by UU educator Jessica Gray for the Jedi Academy curriculum. 

Colored lightsabers for our Jedi Master instructors. 

You will need the following supplies:
  • PVC ratcheting cutter.
  • Lengths of 1/2" PVC. (These need to be Schedule 40 PVC so that they can take impacts without breaking.)
  • Lengths of 3/4" PVC. (Do not need to be Schedule 40.)
  • 3/4" PVC couplings. 
  • 3/4" and 1/2" end caps.
  • 1/2" to 3/4" bushing. (This part allows you to join pipe of different gauges. The inside needs to fit over the end of a 1/2" pipe, while the outside needs to fit into a 3/4" coupling.)
  • Sandpaper or sandpaper block. (Relatively fine grit is best.)
  • PVC cement.
  • Pipe insulation. (Insulation sized for 3/4" metal pipe will fit 1/2" PVC pipe.)
  • Metallic duct tape. 
  • Other colors of duct tape for decorating the handles.

PVC cut into blades (top) and handles (bottom), plus bushings (in tray), couplings, and end caps.

Cut the 3/4" PVC into 6"-8" lengths for the handles. 6" is long enough for children, but adults may want a longer handle. (We were able to get twenty 6" handles out of a 10-foot length of pipe, though the last two were more like 5.5" because the pipe wasn't exactly 120" long.)

Cut the 1/2" PVC to the desired blade length. The blade + handle should be no longer than the user's hip-to-floor distance or the weapon will be too long to control easily. Our padawans ranged from kindergarten to middle school age, so we needed a variety of lengths: 30" blades for the oldest kids and the instructors, down to about 18" for the youngest kids.

Handle (left) and blade (right) subassemblies.

Lightly sand the last 1" band at one end of the 3/4" PVC handle. Cement that end into the 3/4" coupling, making sure that the PVC is pushed all the way into the socket. Put a 3/4" end cap on the other end of the handle; this joint isn't structural, so doesn't need to be glued.

Lightly sand the 1" band at the end of the 1/2" PVC blade, and cement that end into the 1/2" side of the bushing. Put a 1/2" end cap on the other end. This makes the tip safer by covering the sharp end of the PVC.

Assembled lightsabers.

Give the cement some time to dry, then cement the bushing on the blade into the 3/4" coupling on the handle.

Applying pipe insulation (tight) and metallic tape (left).

Cut the pipe insulation long enough to cover the blade, and wrap it around the blade. There will be about 1/4" inch or so of the bushing still showing on the handle, which you may want to cover as well. (Filling that small gap will make taping the blade easier, when we get to that step.)

The pipe insulation has a slit along its length that you will need to hold together while you cover it with tape in the next step. Wrapping a few pieces of duct tape around the blade will help, particularly around the end cap and bushing, which are slightly larger in diameter. (It doesn't what matter what color this tape is, as you'll be covering it up.)

You will probably end up with a few leftover pieces of insulation that are too short to cover a blade. If you want to conserve your supplies, you can combine some scraps to make up the full length. Be sure to tape the join well, so that there is no gap between sections of padding. (I only really recommend doing this if you come up a couple inches short and need to fill in a small gap near the hilt. It's safer to have a solid piece throughout the area where the impacts will be.) 

Cut a small disk of insulation to place directly over the end cap. In a thrusting attack, all of the force of the blow is concentrated into the tiny tip of the blade, so extra padding here will make the practice weapon much safer.

Cover the insulation with metallic duct tape. Apply the tape lengthwise down the blade, wrapping over the end and down the other side. Attach the ends of the tape to the coupling on the handle to hold the insulation firmly in place. (You will cover these ends in the next step.) Apply a second piece that crosses the tip of the blade at right angles to the first piece of tape. These four strips of 2" tape should be wide enough to cover the full circumference of the insulation. (If you end up with gaps, cover them with more tape.)

We used plain silver duct tape for the practice blades, except for the two that the Jedi Masters (instructors) would use. If you're making the lightsaber for a padawan to keep, or for part of a costume, then you can choose any other appropriate colors for the blade (blue or green, possibly purple; for Jedi Academy, we avoided red, the color of Sith blades). 

Wrapped handles, with and without accents.

Wrap a different color of duct tape around the handle, from the bottom of the blade down to the pommel. You can do this lengthwise, or in rings, or try wrapping it in a spiral like some real-world hilt grips. (We tried some of each, and settled on a few lengthwise pieces plus a band around each end of the hilt as being the easiest and most time-effective.) You can cover the whole end cap. or leave the top of the cap bare, as you prefer.

Decorate the hilt as you desire. We put a band of contrasting color around each end of the handle to emphasize that this is the only safe place to hold the lightsaber.

Then you're done! May the Force be with you.

(Many thanks to UUCL's R.E. director, Stacey Stone, for recruiting me to teach in Jedi Academy and helping to build the lightsabers.)

Completed lightsabers.

* Here's a quick breakdown of the costs, buying enough supplies from Loew's for 20 lightsabers:
  • Ratcheting cutter: $12.98.
  • 1/2" PVC pipe: $2.35 per 10-foot length. Depending on what length you cut them, you can get 3 or 4 blades from each pipe. We bought 8, and used 6.
  • 3/4" PVC pipe: $2.61 for one 10-foot length (enough for 20 handles).
  • 3/4" x 1/2" bushing: $0.48 each (we bought 20).
  • 3/4" coupling: $2.10 per bag of 10 (two bags).
  • 3/4" cap: $3.61 per bag of 10 (two bags).
  • 1/2" cap: $2.62 per bag of 10 (two bags).
  • Foam pipe insulation (3/4" bore): $1.18 per 6-foot length. You can get 2 or 3 blade covers out of each piece. We bought 10 and used 8.
  • Sandpaper: $3.97.
  • PVC cement (8 oz.): $5.58.
  • Duct tape in two colors: $8.98 each. (Additional colors are optional, and can be more expensive.)
That totals $99.04, which comes to about $5 per lightsaber. If you adjust for the fact that the cutter tool is a one-time investment, and some of the supplies (cement, sandpaper) should last for multiple projects, it's more like $4 per sword.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After Harrowing Election, Santa Reassures American Children that Christmas Will Not Be Cancelled

By Tim Emrick
November 9, 2016

NORTH POLE -- In a surprise press conference today, Santa Claus made a rare public appearance in order to address the children of the United States of America.

“I know that many of you, as well as your parents, are frightened by the prospect of a Trump presidency,” the patron saint of children said. “Now more than ever, it is important to remember to be kind to one another. Be good, for goodness’ sake!”

Santa reassured his audience that his determination to distribute presents to nice children remains undaunted. “Remember Heat Miser? Loud-mouthed, orange-haired buffoons have never stopped me for long,” Claus said confidently.

When reporters asked how the election results would affect Kringle’s recent reinstitution of “the coal standard” for adults on his “naughty” list, the jolly old elf’s smile faltered. “I admit that we grossly underestimated the demand for coal in an election year. Sure, I know who’s naughty and who’s nice, but humans have free will, which means I can’t predict the future perfectly.” But then the twinkle returned to his eye. “However, my elves are already in negotiations with mining companies in Appalachia to help us meet our new quota. The silver lining here is that hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed coal miners will get their old jobs back. For the next four years, at least. By then, we hope to have retrained many of them for jobs in the toy industry.” Then he winked at the camera. “Yes, West Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

#Drawlloween2016 catch-up: Days 24-28

I sprained my drawing hand about two weeks ago, so fell behind on doing #Drawlloween2016. It's healing, albeit slowly, so I'm able to do most light tasks again. I can knock one or two of these short sketches at a time without any complaints, so I should be caught up within a couple more days.

Day 24: Mechanical Monstrosity

Day 25: Entombed Tuesday

Day 26: They Came from Outer Space!

Day 27: Call of C'Thursday

Day 28: Ghosts-A-Go-Go

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The "Dungeon Interludes" Party

My wife Erika is currently running the Dungeon Crawl Classics module Dungeon Interludes, which is a series of six interconnected side quests designed to be inserted between other adventures in a campaign. She ran it once before, using it as written for D&D v.3.5, but that group was never able to play the sixth and final part. Ever since then, she has wanted to run it again so that she could complete the series. Our group's current default RPG is Pathfinder, so she has converted all six parts to that system. However, she is dispensing with other adventures in order to focus on completing Dungeon Interludes. She started us at 1st level, and we've been advancing our characters two levels after each completed adventure. We just finished Part 5 this past weekend, with 9th-level PCs, and we will be 11th for the conclusion.

We have a much larger party than the adventure was designed for because we invited another friend to join us, as well as his two teenaged children, bringing us up to 8 PCs. (This is the other family I'm running the D&D 5E Starter Set adventure for, and Jeff will be playing in my upcoming "Time of the Tarrasque" campaign, too.)

The party's racial mix is highly unusual, too. Erika has been encouraging us to stick to just the Core Rulebook as much as possible, but let us choose classes from the Advanced Player's Guide and races from the Advanced Race Guide. We ended up with only one human, though half the party could pass for human if they had to.

It was a great deal of fun to build miniatures for this motley crew! Erika has been trying her hand at building LEGO minis for the enemies in these adventures but, with one exception, I built all the minis for the party members.

Kaori is a kitsune rogue. As a shapeshifter, she needed a miniature for both her natural fox-woman form (left) and her human form (right). In play, she usually stays in human form in order to blend in, but on the map, we normally just use the fox mini to make it obvious which one she is. For the fox form, I used Furty, a Fox Tribe character from Legends of Chima. For the human form, I used the Kimono Girl from Miniseries Series 4. 

Enakai is a gillman barbarian. This race looks mostly human except for gills and webbed digits, so I gave her a Pirates of the Caribbean mermaid head, turned to the angry side with the gills and scales. Her body is from a Native American minifigure (Old West theme), to suggest her tribal background as well as the light armor she preferred in order to run and swim at full speed. Now that she can afford mithral gear, she has started wearing heavier armor, so I've added a chrome breastplate from an Imperial Armada conquistador. Her falchion is the Desert Warrior's (Minifigures Series 16).

Kuroda is my character, a tengu cleric of Iomedae, goddess of justice and valor. His head, body, armor, and wings are a combination of parts from a couple different Raven Tribe characters from the Legends of Chima theme, and the fire tile on his chest is also from that theme. His shocking blade is a Ninjago energy sword.

Maladross is a dhampir (half-vampire) inquisitor of Pharasma, the shepherdess of souls. His studded armor is from an old Castle set, and his head is from a Professor Snape minifigure (from the first wave of Harry Potter sets). Maladross has recently upgraded his favorite weapon, a heavy repeating crossbow, to one of Huge size--essentially, he's Rambo-ing* a ballista--so I've given him one of the bigger bows from the new Nexo Knights theme. (These can fire a 1x1 round plate or tile, but we leave the mini unloaded so that I won't lose pieces.)

* This is a term that I first saw in a miniatures game for toy soldiers in Dragon Magazine, where it described a hero picking up, carrying, and firing a big machine gun.

Jonah is an elf wizard with just enough human blood for an aristocratic mustache and goatee. His head is from a Castle noble; his body is a Dragon Knight wizard (Kingdoms). (The torso is unprinted because it was hidden by a beard on the original minifigure.) He very rarely resorts to melee weapons, so carries only a simple staff and a few daggers.

Byg is a human paladin of Iomedae. His sword and armor are, naturally, from the Castle/Kingdom theme. His NPC cohort, the elf ranger Talathel, is a combination of a Mirkwood elf body with the older elf hair and ears from the Minifigures theme (Series 3).

Caboose is a gnome bard. He wears a chain shirt (recently upgraded to mithral, so he got one of the fancier printed torsos). He fights with a rapier, but due to his size, I used shorter Heroica sword rather than the Pirate cutlass I normally would. A pirate's sextant make an excellent crossbow for a Small character.

Finally, we have the snake gang. Sukisha is a nagaji summoner. Nagaji are snake-like humanoids, so I used a Hypnobrai minifigure from a Ninjago set. I later acquired the skull helmet (same theme), so added it just to accent the snake motif. Like Jonah, he carries a plain staff, but has never really used it in a fight--that's what his at-will cantrips and summoned creatures are for. (Not shown is the mini for Sukisha while he's using reduce person: a Crocodile microfigure from the Legends of Chima LEGO Game.)

His eidolon, Ruchika, started out as a Medium serpent with two arms and a humanoid head. As she gained evolution points through advancement, she grew two more pairs of arms, so she now resembles a marilith demon. Sukisha's player, Chris, built this mini from his own brick collection: the head is the Wicked Witch (Minifigures Series 2), the torso is a Manta Warrior (Atlantis), and the torso extensions are from the four-armed version of Garmadon (Ninjago). Because of the bit of groin armor at the bottom of the torso extensions, one has been turned backwards, and its arms were swapped so that they would bend the same direction as the other four. Ruchika recently grew to Large size, so now finally has a proper snake tail (Ninjago) rather than the small slope bricks Chris had to use to fit her into a Medium space. This bigger base makes her a much more stable model. Like a marilith, Ruchika wields six swords at once; hers are gladiuses (or more properly, gladii), which are the Gladiator's swords (Minifigures Series 5).

Finally, we have Sukisha's NPC cohort, Tsukasa, a vishkanya alchemist. Vishkanyas are yet another race with snake features, but mostly look human. His head is Darth Maul's (Star Wars); the body a Stone Warrior (Ninjago); and the hair is the Sumo Wrestler's (Minifigures Series 3). A flame has been attached to the Female Scientist's beaker (Series 11) to create a bomb. His shuriken is a Ninjago weapon.

Bonus: More Summonings!

If Ruchika is badly hurt in a fight, Sukisha will dismiss her and summon other creatures to fight for him until we have a chance for everyone to take a breather and heal up. (If she's slain, he has to wait a full day before calling her back.) To date, most of these summoned creatures have been elementals (which Chris has D&D minis for) or mephits (which I do), but now we're high enough level that Sukeisha has access to some varieties of good outsiders, too. In order to give Chris better options that what his mini and brick collections offer, I have prepared some archon and azata minis for our final Dungeon Interludes adventure.

These hound archons are an Anubis Warrior (with khopesh) from the Pharoah's Quest theme and three Wolf Tribe characters from Legends of Chima. The gray greatswords are from Lord of the Rings sets, while the gold sword is from the short-lived Knights Kingdom II sub-theme to Castle.

For bralani, I've equipped LEGO Elves minidolls with bows and swords. The lillend is built from a Medusa tail (Minifigures Series 10**), a Pirates of the Caribbean mermaid torso, Eagle Tribe armor and wings (Legends of Chima), and Farran Leafshade's hair (LEGO Elves).

** For those counting along at home, that makes 7 out of 16 Minifigures series represented in this column. As some of you probably already know, I've been actively collecting them since Series 3, and they are one of the best sources for unusual minfigure parts and accessories.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Kynthiad: The Witches

Hecate, the witch goddess
With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I'd devote this week's column to that theme and talk about witches. Not just any witches, mind you, but the witches featured in "The Kynthiad," the Greek mythology solo campaign that I run for my wife Erika. Her character, Kynthia, is a champion of the goddess Artemis, who travels about the world on quests given to her through visions or other messages from the gods. The witches who Kynthia has encountered have proven to be some of the most memorable recurring characters in this campaign.

The witches of Greek myth were always powerful and terrifying. The ability to wield magic was rare, but was dangerous because it was capable of nearly anything, though each witch had her own particular area of expertise. A strong will was necessary to wield such power, and in the ancient world, such independent women were almost universally feared and hated. They were typically described as beautiful enchantresses, who wielded their sex appeal as proficiently--and as wantonly--as their spells. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful witches were demigoddesses in their own right: Circe and Medea were descendants of Helios, Titan of the Sun, and received their first instruction in magic from that god.

Medea (Jolene Blalock)
The first witch that Kynthia ever met was Medea herself. By that time, Kynthia had met and fallen in love with Anahodios, the handsome winged grandson of Boreas, the North Wind, who accompanied her on her quests ever since their first meeting. While seeking out Prometheus in the Causasus, the two took shelter in a cave. Kynthia woke during the night to find a mysterious woman sitting by their fire, while Anahodios had fallen into an abnormally deep sleep. Medea quizzed her about her business in this part of the world, then departed. Kynthia was left shaken by the encounter, knowing Medea's reputation all too well--Anahodios was, after all, the son of an Argonaut (Zetes).

Later, when traveling across northern Africa, Kynthia and Anahodios were captured by a band of women warriors who took them to the camp of their mistress, Archemora. This witch attempted to seduce Anahodios and nearly succeeded. Kynthia managed to break free and rescue her beloved, then they (literally) took flight before the witch had another chance to weave any more spells. After this encounter, Kynthia was justifiably paranoid about witches stealing her man!

While traveling near Sicily and the Strait of Messina, Kynthia learned the story of the nymph Scylla, who had been cursed into monster form by Circe. Of her own initiative--and encouraged by Scylla's mother, the goddess Hecate--Kynthia set herself the task of restoring the nymph to her proper form. This required visiting Circe to ask the witch to lift her curse. Kynthia's knowledge of the voyage of the Argo allowed her to approach the witch as a suppliant who could not be harmed without angering the gods. Naturally, Circe was loathe to release her victim, so she set Kynthia three impossible tasks in order to get the necessary ingredients for the antidote: an Erinyes's tears, a kiss from the nymph of the pool of Lethe, and the caul from a virgin birth. This required Kynthia to enter the underworld, a harrowing journey that still haunts her. But to Circe's surprise, she succeeded--returning with Lethe's newborn son Scotius, marked by the kiss and tears, and his caul. Because Kynthia was woefully unprepared to care for a chthonic goddess's ill-omened child, she left him with Circe and took the cure to Scylla.

Kynthia met even more witches in the Tin Isles (modern Britain). She discovered that the Hyperborean princess Thaleia (an old rival for Anahodios's affections) had led an invasion of the island and taken control of the Atrebates, one of the Celtic tribes there. This led to a clash with two other tribes, the Silures (who Kynthia made peaceful contact with) and the Dumnonii, that was decided by a contest of seers at the Giant's Dance (Stonehenge). This contest was orchestrated by Luscina, a Dumnonii sorceress, whose plans failed when Kynthia took the place of the Silures tribe's witch and divined the answers to the tests she posed.

Archemora (Kelly Hu)
Both Archemora and Luscina became recurring villains who Kynthia grew to hate more passionately with each encounter. Archemora next showed up in the mountains near Hyperborea (Kynthia's new home after marrying Anahodios), but was left stranded there after Kynthia shot down her pet griffin. The witch later appeared in Cimmeria, where Kynthia's distant cousin Ophiophane was waging war to claim her late father's throne. Archemora had insinuated herself into the usurper's court (and his son's bed), so while Ophiophane faced off against the king in the final battle, Kynthia and Anahodios took on their old enemy. The witch escaped thanks to her magic cloak, which allowed her to take the form of a flock of crows--which made it impossible for a single arrow to kill her. Years later, Kynthia encountered her one last time, near the witch's original home in Scythia. This time, her target was the king of the Medes (and Medea's grandson). When Kynthia and Anahodios discovered her there, they pursued her doggedly until they had shot every crow in the cloak's swarm, which finally killed the sorceress. At this point, Medea arrived on the scene and thanked Kynthia for disposing of the other witch, as she had other plans for who her grandson should marry to carry on the Heliad dynasty.

Luscina (Christina Hendricks)
Unlike Archemora, Luscina still lives, and Kynthia has yet to engage in actual combat with her. A vision of Thaleia in childbirth dying sent Kynthia back to the Tin Isles. The people of Thaleia's consort's tribe spend a few days of each year as wolves, but this "gift" normally doesn't manifest until puberty. Thaleia's child had been cursed to be born in wolf form, and only Kynthia's miraculous healing powers allowed her old rival to survive the bloody birth. They determined that Luscina was responsible, so Kynthia went in search of the witch in order to force her to lift the curse. Along the way, Anahodios fell prey to a wasting curse, which also proved to be the Dumnonii woman's fault. It was also the only reason that Kynthia didn't shoot her on sight, because (as with Circe's work) only the witch who bestowed the curse could lift it. Luscina demanded a terrible price for Anahodios's cure: a night alone with him, and he would have to do his best to please her. This ordeal left both Anahodios and Kynthia traumatized...but he lived. If Kynthia and Luscina ever cross paths again, the witch will not.

More recently, the campaign has taken a new turn, with Kynthia trying to find allies against the danger posed by the impending return of the monstrous god Typhon. Most of the Olympian gods are currently distracted by an unfortunate little squabble known as the Trojan War, so Kynthia has had to seek help elsewhere. An Egyptian sorcerer revealed to Kynthia much of the secret history behind Typhon's first war against the gods, and suggested that she help him seek out other magicians for help in determining how to avoid (or if necessary, fight) a second one. As a result, Kynthia has introduced Hori to Medea--a very momentous occasion, given how little trust there is between practitioners of magic. But even with Medea as an apparent ally, Kynthia was grateful to part ways with the witch again--the woman still unnerves her like no other, except maybe her aunt Circe.

Meanwhile, Kynthia has learned that the baby she helped deliver in the underworld is actually Typhon's son. Scotius has grown to adult size in just a few years, and has developed powerful magical abilities of his own. Kynthia now has to determine what part Scotius is destined to play in his father's return--and what to do about it when she does...

Sunday, October 23, 2016