Response to some comments from a FB thread on Game Table

Some observations on a recent FB thread about the game table could use a little clarification regarding the project. I’ll try to answer them here:

Is the game table too high? We had to strike a compromise between the height of a comfortable chair, average lap/thigh height and the ability to function at arm and head height. Please remember that these D&D, Heroscape and other tabletop sessions can go 8-10 hours at a stretch. We reviewed and tested the heights with our gaming group to determine the best height that still provided us appropriate consoles with cubbies for storing dice, snacks and, of course, books and paper. Which brings us to the second common comment:

This table is too tech – all you need is old-school pencil, paper, books, dice: In fact, the majority of the gaming group is very old school. Some were teenagers and remember quite well when Mr. Gygax released the very first widely-published D&D set (with no dice, just cardboard “chits” in a cup, all in a simple box with a dragon on it). Several of the group don’t even use any electronics. Each console (and especially the GM stations at each end) are designed to hold books and papers. However, some prefer laptops, tablets or smart phones (which do come in handy for settling arguments quickly or whipping up a last-minute musical cue). And we’ve had members Skype in to participate. Tech is tech — paper and books are technology and so are tablets and smart phones. This table accommodates all preferences.

Too big for an apartment: Unfortunately, the scale of the table we built probably is (it’s 10 feet long and five feet wide, WITHOUT making space for the chairs). HOWEVER, if you look at the plans, you will see it is really just a series of free-standing consoles anchored together to a table base. Such a table could be built with as few as four consoles surrounding a square recessed battlefield for a much smaller footprint, not much larger than a card table. We were ambitious but we have a large group and were fortunate enough to have the space.

Disposable income: While the table looks grand and wildly expensive, it really was not, if you take time to shop wisely for the wood, stain, varnish and hardware. The entire table project done here came in at less than $800. If you look closely at it, you would see that it is intentionally built “rough” to “take a beating” (respectfully). This furniture is meant to be used, not babied, so we built it with simple pine, thick and heavy. If you do not have access to the woodworking, however, you would run into additional expense hiring that part out. Also, it took a long time, several months of long weekends, to build.

Don’t like the light around the battlefield: We don’t always, either. We use it depending on the scenario. We sometimes use 3D environments like Heroscape or 40K that require side lighting to help see, plus the room itself doesn’t have good overhead lighting. But that’s why there is a simple light switch built in to turn it on or off.

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Game Table – Early Stages of Construction

By request, here are a few shots of the game table under construction.

5x10' 3/4-inch plywood bottom level rests across 2x4s and supported by eight 4x4 legs.
5×10′ 3/4-inch plywood bottom level rests across 2x4s and supported by eight 4×4 legs.
Each of the six player stations and two GM stations are sized for placement and running of electricity.
Each of the six player stations and two GM stations are sized for placement and running of electricity.
Once stained and coated in polyurethane, each box is anchored to the lower tier.
Once stained and coated in polyurethane, each box is anchored to the lower tier.
Wiring (regular 12-2 w/ground for 110 receptacles) is run to each station in a circuit. A junction box in the middle is fitted with a cord/plug running out the bottom.
Wiring (regular 12-2 w/ground for 110 receptacles) is run to each station in a circuit. A junction box in the middle is fitted with a cord/plug running out the bottom.
Braces supporting the upper tier battlefield are placed after the wiring is complete. Note from the plans that the dice bin/snack cubbies and corner book units are all in place as well.
Braces supporting the upper tier battlefield are placed after the wiring is complete. Note from the plans that the dice bin/snack cubbies and corner book units are all in place as well.
The stained stations are in place. Wiring is under way. Then come the braces and the top tier. The two tac maps are placed, then the plexiglass goes down and a top border holding the glass down is placed.
The stained stations are in place. Wiring is under way. Then come the braces and the top tier. The two tac maps are placed, then the plexiglass goes down and a top border holding the glass down is placed.
The table is clearly rugged. It is nearly 500 pounds and a grown adult can walk across the bottom tier.
The table is clearly rugged. It is nearly 500 pounds and a grown adult can walk across the bottom tier.

Plans to the Gaming Table

At last, I found the plans I made up for the game table. Several viewers have requested these. so here they are. This is not greatest detail but it should give you a start. I’ll also post a few pics of the phases of construction. I had originally planned to do tongue-in-groove planks to cover the table top battlefield when not in use or as a hidden “reveal” during exploration, but never did this. I did also notice that it says you need to make seven of the player stations – it’s only six – not sure why I put down seven.

Table Overview Rev1

REVIEW – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

©2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), contract in hand, is going on an adventure without his pocket handkerchief.
©2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), contract in hand, is going on an adventure without his pocket handkerchief.

There will be countless comparisons to Mr. Jackson’s earlier works, as well as to Professor Tolkien’s text, in discussing this film, but for fantasy enthusiasts who want to romp in the Shire, cross the water and take the Old Road to Rivendell, climb the Misty Mountains and face off against orcs of unimaginable fright, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the ticket. It lets us know “This is not your father’s Tolkien,” but also keeps the feel and flavor of all things in Middle Earth.

The amazing thing about this film is how the first hour can take place just within Bag End among the dwarves invading Bilbo’s quiet abode and it hold your attention so well. It’s neither tedious nor overwhelming, and is exactly as it should be, for film. Had you told me this would be made into a movie a few years ago I would have said no way, but it’s here and it’s wonderful. My own children cite quotes from the dialogue of the dinner party all the time, and the introduction of 13 characters is a hard task. Jackson and the team pull it off in spades.

Then the real adventure gets under way, as little Bilbo discovers the wide world is full of wonders and terrors he never imagined. He sees the best (and worst) in others’ behavior, and finds his own heroics growing like a little acorn slowly turning into a mighty oak.

Old friends from the future (in the LOTR trilogy) are here — we see Elrond, Galadriel and yes, even Sauraman, still amazingly played by the legendary Christopher Lee with razor-sharp interpretation. We see the nefarious trolls who later become older Bilbo’s tales for children. We see the amazing confrontation with the Goblin King. The escape from Goblin Town is probably one of the best sequences ever put on film for gamers and fantasy enthusiasts. It might not be total canon, but it’s worthy and a blast.

The underlying epic story, that of the doomed house of Thror, and Thorin Oakenshield’s obsession to reclaim the mountain and his birthright, comes out as well, beautifully played by Richard Armitage. A moment has to be said about the many talented actors who are playing the roles of the dwarves. The two standouts, Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur, deserve a huge acknowledgment, but then, so do all of the characters for what screen time they have.

The underlying conflict that Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and the fanboy favorite Guillermo del Toro had to tackle comes out in a secondary character from Tolkien’s history. The “white orc,” a bombastic foe whom Thorin faces in a fiery confrontation that is guaranteed to continue, is a new element but works so well nobody should care. When you consider that this film ends with the party being cornered in the tops of pine trees surrounded by orcs, you’d never believe the cinematic version could be so breathtaking. It is. Go see it and enjoy the start of a new wondrous trilogy.

Gaming Table Still Getting A Workout

With Heroscape tiles on the tac map, the group faced off against a nasty group of monsters.
With Heroscape tiles on the tac map to add some 3D flavor, the group faced off against a nasty group of monsters in the D&D 3.5 campaign.

Just a quick note that an afternoon of gaming is always fun, especially on a 3-D tac map of old Heroscape figs, which are scale enough for the D&D minis. Set it in the middle of the custom game table and you’re ready to go!

 

Commentary – The Battle of Five Armies

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) share a silent moment in the aftermath of battle in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."
©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) share a silent moment in the aftermath of battle in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”

And at last we come to it. Three years in the adventure as Peter Jackson, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and a beautiful cast of talent bring the epic story of Bilbo Baggins to its eye-popping conclusion.

First, we must always understand this is only one interpretation of Tolkien’s work. It will be, IMHO, the BEST interpretation, but hey, it is only one vision. It’s glorious.

And when I say that, I’m not even talking about things like the insane brogue-spewing Dain Ironfoot upon his war-hog, splitting open orc heads like butterflies. I’m not referring to Christopher F***ing Lee at age 90-billion facing off with Elrond, Galadriel and Radaghast against Sauron’s spirit and the Nine to save a broken and beaten Gandalf at Dol Goldur. I’m not talking about the spectacular deaths (SPOILER IF YOU DID NOT READ THE BOOK) of the house of Thror and the eerily isolated confrontation with Azog upon a frozen waterfall, far from the center of the battle.

I’m talking about the unexpected beauty and raw emotion in Bard with his makeshift strap for a bow, steadying his last black arrow on the collarbone of his teenage son, tears and smoke all over his face, as the dragon advances on them through the ruin of Laketown. I’m talking about the absolutely perfect Balin, shaken and despairing over Thorin’s turn toward insanity over his dragon sickness. I’m talking about Bolg’s demise at the hands of Legolas with a fantastic fall and a crushing blow from a stone block. Smaug’s carcass crushing the Master of Laketown and all his gold. Tauriel’s lament over the anguish of love. Thranduil’s nearly mad struggle to process and understand dwarves and humans.

And yes, I’m talking about one of the best, absolutely best moments in film (ever) when not a word of dialogue is used, as in stunned silence Bilbo and Gandalf sit beside each other in the battle’s aftermath, Bilbo worn beyond tears, as the wizard fusses with his pipe, and the two exchange knowing glances that after it all, indeed, Bilbo will never be the same.

This movie is worthy. People can say it’s bloated like all of Jackson’s work. I say an epic is in league with bloat. This film is a spectacular conclusion to a recreated epic, a story Tolkien created as a child’s bedtime tale that HAD to be broadened and matured to fit within all the massive spectacle that would follow. And this set of films did just that. The dwarves are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, not comic grotesque. The enemies are brutal and deadly, the heroism and understanding of what is right and must be done, always at the forefront. Here we have the noble, the cowardly, the heroic, the deserving, the pitiful, the savage. It’s a delight, a swift 2.5 hours you won’t dare to miss. I can’t wait to have it for the home to relive so many wonderful moments. A great and fitting end.

Desolation of Smaug – Commentary (Spoilers!!)

©2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment. The evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) confronts Bilbo and the dwarves in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
©2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment. The evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) confronts Bilbo and the dwarves in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

Less has been said about TH:DOS than I had expected regarding the creative license Mr. Jackson exercised in the film. I found it not inappropriate for this medium. Just as in LOTR (but more so due to the scant nature of some of the book material), TH on screen has thus far wandered from the Tolkien path somewhat for plotting and story structure, character interaction and pacing. This in no way, unless you are hard-core, detracts from the story. Some friends have muttered about some of it being “simply unnecessary” and it’s “just way too long,” but everyone has become a critic and no one is ever satisfied (but THAT is a topic for many social psychological studies!) Anyway, whether you found it unnecessary or not, it was fun or at least tolerable, and not painful. To me, it was just a fun continuation of the story and more time in the Middle Earth playground.

In LOTR, the story was altered to speed it up in places, but the spirit was never lost. We see more of this in TH:DOS and it’s OK. Really. The book was meant to be a bedtime tale for children but because it is (now) a prequel to a sprawling cinematic achievement, the expectations and desires for a broader, powerful story are high and must be met (again, in THIS medium of film) to do it justice. Also, culturally, the audience is familiar with what WILL happen in a few decades (and we’re reminded of that with a quaint intro by familiar faces Ian Holm and Elijah Wood on the very morning of the long-expected birthday party from FOTR.) Fan “boys” are never satisfied and love to complain and whine (again, a great social psych project on how they compensate for self-perceived and baseless insecurities) but at its heart this film is no less than remarkable. If possible, it’s better than the first Hobbit film other than being the middle act of this great adventure and having a brutally abrupt ending. But let’s dive into some details.

The action is much faster in this film and it almost looks like it’s been edited by someone  different or in a different mood than TH:AUJ. With a much more Saturday-matinee feel, the party flees on the heels of hook-armed Azog’s party into shapeshifting Beorn’s sanctuary, a beautifully done practical set (one of the few) with an even weirder over-scale than we’ve seen before. From here it’s off to Mirkwood the Oppressive, a trippy, smothering arboreal crawl into the parlor of spiders. Saved only by the deeper confrontation of the exotically earthy and wild wood elves, Thorin’s company is, just as in the book, locked up by Thranduil in his Woodland Realm dungeons. We also cut back and forth to Azog meeting his master, the still non-corporeal Sauron, in  Dol Guldur and Gandalf, with hero support from Radagast, finding the wards and seals of the Witch King of Angmar decimated and the ring wraith long gone from the High Fells referenced by Galadriel in AUJ.

But the cool thing in Mirkwood is Thranduil himself. He’s a badass pure and simple. One look and you know Legolas’ daddy ain’t no Elrond or Galadriel. He’s just as intelligent, but he’s cunning and (eventually) revealed as scarred, a warrior of ancient evil, who wants to protect his kingdom and leave the outside world to its own hells. This character, perhaps more than the other high elves, gives us a taste of Tolkien’s greater, more ancient world from the Silmarillion. His scenes are few, and you don’t have much love for him, but you do understand his icy demeanor and decisions.

Bilbo works hard to save his companions through the use of the barrels shipped to Esgaroth, and the nearly insane action of the elves pursuing the dwarves downriver into a clash with Azog’s hunting party is worth the admission price to this film. It’s probably only five minutes, but like the D&D-inspired flight from Goblin Town in AUJ, this action is pure joy. The skirmish between elves and goblins with dwarven acrobatic heroics is no less than jaw-dropping. If you thought Legolas’s princely moves sliding down oliphaunt trunks in ROTK was out there, just be warned that he and his implied love interest take the melee to a whole new level here. And yes, the elves are as gaga hot as ever. What is introduced between the bursts of action was something totally unexpected: a crush from hunky young dwarf Kili directed to the red-headed Captain of the Guard Tauriel. It’s a (very brief) triangular tension between Prince Legolas, Tauriel and the captive and captivated Kili but it’s not hard to look at it. If you appreciate the real culture of dwarves and elves as Tolkien wrote them, the interaction is both thoroughly believable and, hey, yes, just a tad romantic while being easy on the eyes. It shows dwarves to have truly chivalrous hearts and an appreciation for beauty. Remember how Gimli could not even look upon the beauty of Galadriel or how Frodo was enraptured by the inner light of Arwen? Same thing here, and it really is a pleasant addition to the story.

The party floats into the care of Bard, a harsh, grim Luke Evans looking more like Orlando Bloom than, well, Orlando Bloom. I loved this guy. He’s lean, weathered, a caring father and widower, and heir to an apparently flawed legacy in that his ancestor failed to kill Smaug during the decimation of the town generations earlier. The city is right out of Charles Dickens’ ghettos – you can smell the fish and sewage everywhere (the dwarves even crawl up out of a toilet in one whimsical escape). The political intrigue is not as complex as with the Horse Lords and Theoden in TTT, but it’s enough to make you despise the corrupt bad guys and you really feel the chill of these impoverished lake dwellers amid the chunks of winter ice in their stilted wooden and decaying town.

But the title of the story awaits, and with (again) some creative license separating a few of the characters, and the spectacular sidebar of Gandalf stepping into Dol Guldur for a face-off with Sauron’s black-spirited shadow of evil, our heroes return to the rubble of the Lonely Mountain. Following a clever twist on the revelation of the hidden door, the dwarves in character push Bilbo into his purpose as a burglar.

I have to digress here a moment to comment on how moved I’ve been over Scottish actor Ken Stott’s performance as Balin. In the same way that Tolkien over the years has pulled me into a dimension of childlike wonder through his prose and poetry, as if he always knew what makes a child’s mind tick, Mr. Stott brings this dwarf to life in an amazing and endearing way. He uses a tone and expression like I’m seeing either Santa Claus for real or some long-lost uncle or grandfather that I always knew and loved and admired but seldom saw. Stott provides narration in the flashbacks we’ve seen thus far and he delivers wonderfully. He’s like an archetype personified – wise, paternal, a mentor, the Obi-wan character (or Yoda or Merlin of even Gandalf himself without the wizardry). It would be truly grand to be able to just go camping or hiking or something with him for an afternoon and just listen to him tell great stories. Everyone should have a Balin in their life, but Mr. Stott, with a gentle delivery and really amazingly believable prosthetics and get-up, pulls it off perfectly. Thank you, sir, for (aside from Ian McKellen) some of the best supporting performance anywhere.

When Bilbo finally meets the magnificent dragon, Smaug is revealed in utterly believable, malevolent fury. He’s arrogant, cunning, brutal, delivered with relish by Mr. Cumberbatch. The visual aesthetic is unmatched (Connery’s “Dragonheart” of more than a decade ago is the only thing even close, and it’s really not comparable). Smaug is massive and the shots of Biblo’s encounter are a painting unfolding, completely inspired by Tolkien’s sketches just as the riddle game with Gollum was in AUJ. Cinema dragons always seemed to have difficulty being realistically animated, as if their grounded physics could not move quite right. Forget all that. This is totally believable from the moment the wyrm emerges from the dunes of gold and jewels in his unfathomable hoard in Erebor’s halls. The dialogue is operatic and Mr. Freeman continues to deliver as a marvelous point-of-view for us in this predicament, scrambling for the coveted Arkenstone while trying to distract the Greatest Calamity of Our Age. Precious few actors have used facial twitch, furrowed brow, reflective pause and other expressions so effectively.

And here, unlike Tolkien’s less admirable depiction in which the dwarves stayed outside, we have a more heroic group who ultimately decide they must go into the halls and rescue their burglar. It’s the right thing to do, and also drives up the momentary tension when Thorin actually pulls a sword on Bilbo in a fervent lust for the Arkenstone (the physical icon of his royalty). At this point we step into the one misgiving I have about the film. The dwarves, separate from the city for generations, very quickly appear to be able to McGyver their way through a series of assaults on the dragon. All I can figure is that the dwarves had been planning a big party and had a surprise gift almost ready for King Thror when they were driven out decades earlier, because there is a really big stunt involving molten gold and a ready-made statue that was the least believable and sort of weird. True Tolkien and D&D fans know gold and treasure are orgasmic cat-nip to dragons, and the dwarves use this to their advantage. The trap ultimately fails, but it was still really cool to see Smaug temporarily gold-plated.

The film flies by. It never seems like two, much less two and a half hours long, and when the screen abruptly goes black at Bilbo’s gasp of “What have we done?” you realize you’ve been on the seat’s edge for most of the experience. Don’t be hung up by deviation from the children’s book. This is as much Peter Jackson’s story as it is Tolkien’s at this point. I am one of the few who felt the same about his remake of King Kong, that it’s just a huge grand chance to spend time away in that special world so why not take advantage of it? And really, really just enjoy the experience. Can’t wait for next year’s film.