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BOOK PREVIEW: The Black Archive #71 - The Aztecs by Doris V. Sutherland

 



Was a time when I would review books from Obverse's The Black Archive: a series of critical monographs focusing on individual Doctor Who stories. I've written one myself, am working on another, and already have a pitch in the works for a third. Having written in the line doesn't preclude reviewing them... but being one of the editors does. (Because yes, that's a thing now.) My love for this line and what it does is genuine, which is why I said yes to the editing gig. But I am aware that "This book is really good, trust me" doesn't come across as an especially objective review when you're part of the team helping to get it out there.

So call this one a book preview with my genuine feelings on it, irrespective of the fact that I am on the editing team and worked as a proofreader. Behold: Black Archive #71, written by Doris V. Sutherland and covering the 1964 serial The Aztecs.



If you've never read a Black Archive before... well, they're delightful. Each volume is written by a different author (although there are some recurring favorites), and encompass deep dives into the episode in question. This could be from literary, sociopolitical, psychological, historical, or industry angles... or a combination of several or all of these. At their best, these books don't seek to rate the episodes, but rather to understand them. Every Doctor Who story across its entire run will have some good and some bad, some earnest and some misguided—The Aztecs included.

This book is, in a word, thorough. It looks at a beloved pure historical (beloved of many of us at Obverse especially!) from every angle, including a few you likely haven't thought of. There's an examination of the tone of pure historicals in the Hartnell era, the changing role of Barbara (and Jacqueline Hill's portrayal of her), and discussions of how the mechanics of time travel have evolved across the series as a whole.

The bulk of the book, though, is taken up (as one might expect) with an examination of the serial's historical influences. It's not just a matter of how accurate the serial was, but how accurate the serial had the capacity to be—and the truth me surprised me. Sutherland goes deep into the history surrounding the story as compared to academic writings available at the time.

There's also an extended look at the veracity of Barbara's claims that are central to the action of the story. If you haven't seen The Aztecs, the main theme is that the history teacher, with her knowledge of how the Aztec Empire fell, wants to intervene to make changes to avoid that fall. The questions this raises are many, and Sutherland interrogates every last one of them... including, again, a few important questions none of us may have thought to ask.

To address all these points while still having an obvious love for the story is a wonderful thing. The ability to interrogate something this deeply without casting it aside is a talent we're losing in modern media literacy, and knowing The Black Archive is keeping it alive makes me very happy.

Pick up your copy of The Black Archive #71 - The Aztecs from Obverse Books

Important TTRPG Lessons from The Oxventurers Guild

 


Well, everyone, Oxventure has ended its first main campaign. It's not the first group of their characters we've seen to their end (Blades in the Dark and Deadlands have both run their course, as far as we know). And it's not the end of Oxventure proper, as the players and DM are coming back for a new campaign in a new setting soon.

But, short of potential live shows or hypothetical tie-in literature (which, you know, that's something I do for other franchises so call me), we're leaving the world of Geth behind. The final session felt like a fitting end for this adventure in more ways than one. So, even though I'm sad to see it go, I'm glad that it was here. And all that.

See, Oxventure popped up at a time in my life when I was kind of done with tabletop games—both playing them and watching actual plays. I felt like I'd never be quick enough to roleplay well, smart enough to remember every rule and roll, or emotionally stable enough to deal with aggressive players and DMs. But watching this campaign reset my standards for what D&D, and tabletop in general, should be. And I think they're important things.


You Don't Have to Play to Character Tropes

We've all heard the tropes. You gotta be a horny bard, a dumb barbarian, an edgy rogue. While that's funny in moderation and I'll probably never not laugh at a good old-fashioned horny bard joke, it does lead to the idea of "playing wrong." And characters from the Oxventurers Guild really challenged tropes.

Take Egbert the Dragonborn Paladin. He doesn't seem very Paladin-y. He rarely uses his spells, preferring to use bombs. (I respect this; I love playing Paladins, they're my second-favorite class, but it's hard to remember everything.) But the essence of Paladin-ness is still there. He's seeking atonement for something—and yes, we do eventually find out what. And he prays to a weird sun cow and generally seems attached to doing right thing.

And Corazón de Ballena the Human Pirate Rogue, my unapologetic fave. A Rogue/Rogue multiclass (no, that's not a typo), he presents himself as a heroic swashbuckling pirate. But he's actually a rich kid with daddy issues and probably a massive dose of impostor syndrome. Rather than being a rogue edgelord, he's attention seeking with moments of legitimately powerful character development.

As for the half-orc bard? Well, okay, Dob does have a huge crush on the BBEG, a drow named Liliana. But other than that, he's a lovable goofball who's maybe a little bit self-destructive.


Evil Doesn't Have to Mean Antagonistic

I've had problems in the past playing in parties of multiple alignments. Not recently, mind; in the past, before I came back to gaming. There's a mentality that there are only two ways to play an Evil-aligned character: in a party with other Evil characters in an Evil campaign, or antagonistically and destructively to any Good- or Neutral-aligned characters. But Prudence proves otherwise.

Prudence the Tiefling Warlock is evil. Her patron is Cthulhu, she dreams of ultimate power, she will absolutely simply murder people given the opportunity. But all of this is at odds with her affection for her party. She legitimately cares about them, and this is put to the test more than once. The way this is played is very sweet. In person, she'll use veiled threats as a love language; in private, you might catch her hugging an Egbert-shaped gargoyle because she misses him.

When it comes to the rest of the party, Prudence's evilness is treated as a trait that everyone just kind of lets slide because they like her. Kind of like your friend who's into something you hate, but you let it go because they're your friend. Sure, Prudence is capital-E evil. Sure, she craves ultimate power. Sure, she can summon portals to a void beyond worlds and make an entire cult's eyes bleed with cosmic horror. But she's our friend. Tabletop gaming is, after all, collaborative. Over the table, everyone is on the same side.



Flexibility Makes Things Fun

When Oxventure began, no one was really an expert. It was meant as a brief subscriber milestone bonus, but snowballed into the 6+ year series we have now. And because so many people came in kind of unversed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, things were (and still are) pretty fast and loose.

Merilwen the Wood Elf Druid is a great example. She was given her Wild Shape ability a level early because, well, it's more fun that way. (Merilwen's chief Wild Shape form is a very specific cat, and I get the sense that turning into a cat was a big part of the Druid appeal.) It also took a bit before she handled spells the way Druids do—that is, preparing spells rather than learning a smaller set. As someone notoriously bad about remembering the whole Prepared Spells thing when I'm playing one of those classes, it was reassuring to see the learning curve handled that way.

In their adjacent Blades in the Dark game, certain mechanics were only added in once other mechanics had been learned. This not only allowed new players to get acclimated, but also made it easier for viewers to comprehend a new system.

One of my big hang-ups about gaming has been the fact that I am a slow learner and I learn by doing rather than memorizing in advance. Seeing the whole Oxventure table be patient with each other's learning experiences, in addition to being willing to be flexible when something outside the rules just works better, made me much more comfortable about expressing my own needs at the table.


Silliness Doesn't Preclude Seriousness

My first game back from my time away from gaming folded because half the players considered it "too silly." From what I could gather, "too silly" meant "not serious all the time." It was a shame, but the DM and other remaining player and I formed a really great group afterward. And, much like the Oxventurers, it proved that silly and serious can coexist.

Oxventure has been called "the rodeo clowns of D&D" and I don't fully disagree—though people forget that being a rodeo clown still requires you to know what you're doing. And their antics haven't stopped them from having some genuinely emotional moments. Dob is an absolute mess, but I did weep a little when he found his sister. Merilwen may kill NPCs with her puns, but she had one of the most powerful moments of the finale. Corazón may be... well, Corazón... but his character development is jaw-dropping when he shows it.

At my own tables, a fully serious character rarely gets away without some humor, and a fully joke character ends up becoming emotionally compelling at some point. The best games have some element of both... or, at least, don't fear leaning one way or the other.


I can't recommend Oxventure enough - their main D&D campaign, their Blades in the Dark and Deadlands campaigns, and their one-shots. I have no idea what's coming next, but I know it's gonna be amazing.

OUT NOW: Otaku USA Summer 2024 Edition

 


It wasn't long ago at all that I alerted you to the latest Anime USA—the special anime-only edition of Otaku USA Magazine that comes out twice a year. But for those of you following the main mag, the summer issue is out!

To address the obvious: yes, it is quarterly now as opposed to bimonthly. So there's fewer issues coming out per year. That said, you'll also get to see more regular coverage of evergreen titles. For example, the excellent Joe Luster covers the also excellent Dragon Ball Z in this issue!

For my part, I'm back again with more reviews and features:



I'm enjoying talking about Pokémon Concierge pretty much anywhere I can, because it really is that worth it. This short, sweet stop-motion series has won over so many people, and rightly so. Check out the mag for my review of this delightful addition to the franchise.



Speaking of shows with healing vibes, I also review My New Boss Is Goofy. This is another installment of the anime genre's recent "Toxic Workplaces Are a Blight on Society" meta-commentary—now with a bonus kitten!



Tearmoon Empire is the subject of one of my two long-form features this time. It's a surprisingly fun series about time travel, second chances, and Sumire Uesaka playing a princess who's either a genius or an absolute idiot. (Spoiler: only the narrator and the audience know the truth.)



And, last but not least, I also cover the anime adaptation of Shangri-La Frontier. Besides it just being an entertaining entry in the full-dive VR subgenre of anime (no one's trapped, life and death aren't on the line, it's gaming all the way down), it's also just a fun case study in fandom. I got to dive into the history of kusoge: where it started, how it's evolved, and how it got us here. Any time I get to learn something new while writing an article, I'm happy.

Grab the latest issue at your local newsstand, or visit the website to subscribe or order individual copies. You can also read shorter web-only articles from me on the website every other day!

May 2024 Book Review



It's book review time! I was aiming to have a solid five here, but regrettably the busy season at work got away from me. Regardless, I've got three absolute bangers: a love-at-first-sight romance with a musical twist, a coming-of-age story by way of RuPaul's Drag Race and Ariana Grande, and an Appalachian murder mystery with a healthy dose of magic. Thanks to the authors and publishers who share their review copies with me!


THE BALLAD OF DARCY AND RUSSELL
by Morgan Matson
Now Available

Darcy Milligan has a fine, albeit messy, life. Raised by a single father and named for his favorite song by his (and now her) favorite band, she's about to leave her hometown of LA for a college she barely knows anything about in Connecticut. Before that, she's hit a Nevada music festival to see said favorite band perform. But when she gets stranded at a bus station with no phone charger, she meets Russell Henrion—a handsome, witty aspiring Broadway composer who knows the source of her name and happens to love the same obscure book she does. Suddenly, she's wrapped up in a whirlwind one-night romance like the ones in the movies. At first.

A few bad late-night decisions later, Darcy discovers that Russell Henrion is actually Russell Sanders—son of Wylie Sanders, lead singer of that aforementioned favorite band. Between the shock of being in her favorite celebrity's Nevada home and trying to figure out whether Russell is the love of her life or a big liar, she barely has time to cope with that other problem: the whole college thing. But as the long weekend goes on, both Darcy and Russell start coming to terms with college, family, and and whether love at first sight is a real thing.

The Ballad of Darcy and Russell employs my least favorite romance trope (miscommunication), but it's the exception that proves the rule. Rather than being a drama of errors where people willfully misunderstand each other or walk past the wrong door at the wrong time, it's an exercise in understanding each other and embracing difficult parts of ourselves and our lives. Both Darcy and Russell are figuring out who they are, both in the context of their families and themselves. Despite their very different lives, they have very similar fears. And the lack of communication that kicks the story off is the whole point: opening up, breaking down their own insecurities, and allowing themselves to communicate more freely.


HOT BOY SUMMER
by Joe Jiménez
Now Available

Besides Cammy, his one gay friend, Mac has come out to his sister and his dog. As he coasts into his final high school summer, he's looking for more chances to be himself. And thanks to two new friends—the fabulous Flor and Mac's crush Michelangelo (a.k.a. "Hot Mikey")—he might just have that chance. As summer kicks off, it looks like the new friend group will be spending a fierce summer marathoning Drag Race, choosing their pride lewks, and maybe even hitting up an Ariana Grande concert. Best of all, Mikey seems to reciprocate Mac's feelings.

But things start to fall apart as Cam doesn't share in Mac's feeling of freedom. Cam and Flor can't stand each other, and Mac's first gay bestie seems convinced that his first gay relationship won't work out. What started as the perfect summer becomes a series of ups and downs: some of Mac's best days ever interspersed with potentially friendship-destroying fights. And in the midst of it all, Mac's sister is going away to college, leaving him alone with his less-than-understanding father.

Hot Boy Summer is everything it purports to be on the back cover, but it's so much more than that, too. It's a story of someone trying to find his place in the world—and the fact that finding Your People is not always as cut-and-dried as one might hope. It's also an important reminder that toxicity can come from unexpected fronts—as can kindness.


ROOT AND BONE
by Jessica Raney
Available May 14

As anyone from the Appalachians knows, magic is still very much alive there. The Spencer sisters—Jewel Spencer and Leona Monroe—know this better than just about anyone in their little town of Ames. Both are trained in healing and witchcraft, and Leona has a special aptitude for seeing and speaking to ghosts. And all of those skills will come in handy when a gruesome murder plagues the tiny town.

The ritualistic killing isn't just gory to look at: it's affected the ghost of its victims and other ghosts in the vicinity. This could potentially extend to Cale, Leona's long-time ghostly confidant and (according to many) ill-advised crush. But things grow more complex as more players enter the field: a charismatic preacher and his ghoulish brother, a band of werewolves to whom Leona's abusive husband is indebted, and a second murder victim. And Halloween is just around the corner, meaning magic and danger will both be in the air.

This intro to the world of the Spencer Sisters is equal parts delightful and terrifying. Folk magic blends with small-town police procedural, and the rules of this supernatural world are laid out in full (with a few variants from the norm). Most intriguing, though, is the lurking threat of magic use, as Leona balances her desire to do good with her understandably turbulent emotions. The ending leaves the door open for more adventures for the sisters... but not everyone makes it out of the first book alive.

TTRPG REVIEW: Düngeonmeister: The Deck of Many Drinks

 


Great news—Jef Aldritch and Jon Taylor are back at it, making more TTRPG-adjacent goodies to liven up your game. Though in this case, adult beverage enjoyers may already be somewhat familiar with the subject matter. But now, it's presented in a way that's even more integrated with the happenings at the table.

One of my local gaming groups has been using the original Düngeonmeister book for quite a while now. This bartending guide includes 75 D&D-themed drinks that, across the board, are freaking delicious. We've yet to have one we don't like, and even the oddest blend of liqueurs ends up tasty. That said, the drinks tend to be their own thing as we play. Sometimes our DM will choose something somewhat adjacent to what we'll be fighting, but usually it's just what looks good and what we can gather ingredients for.

For The Deck of Many Drinks, 50 of those 75 recipes get illustrated cards in a lovely deck. Rather than recipes, though, each card has an effect. The conceit is that, much like the Deck of Many Things, players can pull a random card and get a random effect. But in this case, for the character (and the player, if they like), it's a cocktail. The recipes are in the accompanying book, and each card describes the effects and gives the actual mechanics.

The book even gives ideas on how to integrate the deck into the game. There's a full write-up for the Düngeonmeister Tavern, complete with flavor text, a score of NPCs, and potential story beats that could take place there. There are even thoughts on how to give certain cocktails out as rewards, or how to allow players to craft these cocktails themselves like potions.

I'm a huge fan of the sheer amount of fun tools the Düngeonmeister line offers to spice up a campaign, and The Deck of Many Drinks makes one of its best installments more accessible than ever. I, for one, look forward to a magic-fueled tavern fight using this deck one day. Even if you never make a single recipe in the book, it's a useful addition to your DM bag. (Though if you're a fan of cocktails, I highly encourage you to at least try the Slippery Grippli.)

OUT NOW: Anime USA Spring 2024 Special Edition

 


If you're a fan of Otaku USA Magazine, you should absolutely be picking up Anime USA: a semi-regular special edition. While OUSA covers anime, games, manga, merch, and adjacent topics, the special editions are 100% anime coverage. And for this issue, I got to cover some of my absolute favorite titles of recent seasons!


I cover two very different titles in the reviews section. Migi & Dali is a show that absolutely won me over from the first episode. I've talked about it at length on the OUSA website, but check out my review for a taste of everything that makes it special. (It's a lot of things.)




I also cover Toei's classic film of The Little Mermaid, which recently got a lot of attention from two fronts. Between its Blu-ray re-release from Discotek and its Rifftrax treatment, this buried treasure has been getting a lot more attention in recent months. Rewatching it for the purposes of review was wild, since I haven't seen it since I was a kid myself. And boy, did it shake out some buried memories.




Any chance to talk about Undead Unluck is a win for me. I'm a massive fan of both the manga and the anime, as well as the manga creator's backstory and technique for bringing this strange epic to life. My first of two features covers the recent anime adaptation. In particular, I delve into the original author's own goals for the story—both in terms of pacing and in terms of recognizing people who feel unseen and out of place in the world.



And last but not least, I cover Frieren: Beyond Journey's End. If you've heard this show being hyped up, it's for excellent reason. This show is phenomenal, and it deserves every bit of positive recognition it's getting. Whether or not you pick up this mag, I highly encourage you to give it a watch.

There are lots of other awesome reviews and features from fellow writers, so be sure to pick up your copy at your local magazine seller! And as always, check out features from me every other day on the OUSA website.