• The Dwarven Lord of Kickstarter

    If you're headed to Gen Con in Indianapolis this weekend, you might swing by booth number 1201, the headquarters of Dwarven Forge.

    As you enter the exhibit hall, you can't miss their stall. You'll know you're at chez Dwarven Forge because, well, you'll feel you're home again — home in a miniature-scaled, two-inch high dungeon, that is. Just insert Dungeons & Dragons figurines and a tiny gelatinous cube and feel your geeky imagination swell.

    Such is the domain of Dwarven Forge, makers of what is essentially a Lego set for fantasy gamers. The company produces hundred of different miniature terrain pieces, each cast from either resin or what they call "Dwarvenite" (a custom variant of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride). Using these parts that look like walls, corridors, tombs, caverns, staircases, and buildings – think a modular 3D version of graph paper — RPGers can build highly-realistic environments for their underground or above-ground game settings. Like Lego, each is element is compatible with every other, and can be joined in endless configurations to make fantastical and/or ludicrous layouts for your favorite game setting, be it D&D or Pathfinder, old school or 5.0. (There's even a sci-fi set.) The pieces are scaled at 25-28mm (or 1/58-1/64 size), which makes them more-or-less compatible with miniatures from most miniature companies, including Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings and Warhammer lines.

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    Amazingly, these playthings are incredibly popular. How popular are they? Dwarven Forge has become one of Kickstarter's biggest successes. Their last three fundraising campaigns have netted a total of $6.5 million.

    "This year, thanks to the amazing support of our customers, we will cast our 5 millionth piece of Dwarvenite," says Stefan Pokorny, who founded the company in 1996.

    Hang out at Gen Con's Dwarven Forge booth, and you'll inevitably meet Pokorny. He'll be the cheery, enthusiastic guy, probably wearing chainmail. Once upon a time, Pokorny, 48, was a classically trained painter and sculptor. But this artist was also a medieval fantasy dreamer. He collected 25mm figurines. And he played a lot of D&D. When his art career didn't pan out—"I tried for ten years to get galleries in New York to hang my work," he says, speaking by phone from his Brooklyn studio (the company itself is based in Westport, C.T.)—he began to create his scaled-down dungeon-making accessories, a setting for where his imaginary adventures might take place. "The plan was to make some money and go back to painting, but this ended up being my profession."

    Dwarven Forge was born.

    Those art school sculpting skills came in in handy. Each piece is impressively-crafted down to the last scrupulous detail: stone floors apparently cracked by time; limestone-like formations brimming with eerie green goo; portcullis gates that could easily pierce a kobold or your hapless magic-user; sarcophaguses studded with jewels; dungeon doors, seemingly pre-battered by orcs or trolls, that practically creak on their tiny metallic-painted hinges.

    Dwarven Forge had enabled the kind of literal world-building that most gamers guard privately, in their heads. In doing so, Pokorny has helped bring the "tactile" back to the tabletop gaming, an industry under attack from the digital realm. "I'm just a dude," Pokorny says, "an artist who found D&D when I was a kid and just loved it and started crafting my own worlds through decades."

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    But not all customers buy the sets for their miniature and role-playing games. Some are content to use the modular pieces to build elaborate dioramas, and then take pictures of them. That fact might help explain why sets like the 20-piece "Narrow Dungeon Passage Pack" ($65), the 31-piece "Catacombs Set 2" ($119), or individual pieces such as the "Falling Block Trap" ($8) and "Raisable Portcullis" ($8) sell so well.

    Case in point: Back in April, Pokorny's company raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter to fund its new batch of gaming terrain, the City Builder System, which (when it's released in January, 2016) you be able to use to build medieval-looking cityscapes. In scoring of this latest horde of cash, Dwarven Forge's City Builder System became Kickstarter's 35th most-funded project of all time. This isn't the first time Pokorny has struck crowd-funding gold. In 2014, he raised $2.1 million for another set of gaming "caverns" [now sitting at number 41 on the all-time list] and in 2013, he raised $1.9 million for a set of gaming tiles [number 48].

    That's three gangbusters campaigns in three years, each landing in Kickstarter's all-time top 50 money-makers, making Dwarven Forge one of the most lucratively crowdsourced companies ever.

    What's interesting about Pokorny is that's he's not just an artist, gamer and entrepreneur, but he's an insanely dedicated Dungeon Master who has been working on his campaign world of Mythras, which he began creating at age 12, some 36 years ago. His miniature terrain pieces are just one way of helping him visualize this world. When he DMs, he puts on a show, what he called "theatrical D&D," using costumes, sound effects, smoke machines, as well as his massive Dwaven Forge layouts. (More on this below.)

    "I've got my own sort of spin on D&D, to make it more of an experience. Obviously, I'm the guy that makes terrain. So right there, it's more of an experience than just spirit of the mind."

    How does Pokorny do it? What makes his products so popular? Why does Dwarven Forge have so many loyal customers?

    "I don't know!" he says. "We've got good fans, good backers." But surely there's more to the Dwarven Forge story than that. I had an opportunity to chat with Pokorny to learn more about the origin story Dwarven Forge, the secret to its success, some DM's tips for how to use the terrain pieces in a game, well as what special items and announcements to expect from Dwarven Forge this weekend, July 30-August 2, at Gen Con.

    One likely sight if you swing by to visit booth 1201: Pokorny, wearing chainmail, bent over a gaming table, tweaking his tiny labyrinths, and inviting you to come play in his world.

    Ethan Gilsdorf: Let's talk about the artistry here. Stefan, how long does it take you to sculpt a typical piece?

    Pokorny: Anywhere from several hours to several days if it's complex. Sometimes you just need to step away from it, sleep on it, and see your work with fresh eyes so inspiration can hit.

    Gilsdorf: Now that your company is growing, are you still doing the sculpting?

    Pokorny: I would say I still do about half of the sculpting. I try to hire really good sculptors. My forte is more in the stonework. I like to sculpt stones and architectural kind of things. My father was an architect. Stone, and that kind of stuff. I'm not good with putty – that two part epoxy they use. I hate that stuff. That's why I don't do the real miniature stuff. I probably could sculpt it if I wanted to try. I did a few details on this Kickstarter. I had a bridge that had a couple of dragons and a troll head, that are really, really small and detailed. I used regular clay. There was literally a toothpick and an Exacto knife sculpting these details. It's hard to sculpt when it's not putty because all you have to do is graze it and it puts a mark. But I manage.

    Gilsdorf: Tell me more about your art training and its connection to Dwarven Forge.

    Pokorny: I've been trained, from the time I was 15 years old, as a classical artist. I went to art school. I have a master's degree in painting. And that was really what I thought I was going to do, was be a painter. But it was during the age of abstraction and being a realistic artist, it was impossible to get anyone to show my work. So as a Plan B, I started Dwarven Forge in 1996 and it just took off from the start. 18 years later, it's still going!

    Gilsdorf: So: "Dwarvenite." What the heck is it? And why did you switch from using resin terrain to Dwarvenite?

    Pokorny: Our older, classic sets are resin, all hand painted. Dwarvenite is the new, indestructible, yet highly detailed, material we introduced via Kickstarter in 2013. It's not a polystone material, which is too subject to chipping and cracking. It's actually a proprietary PVC derivative, modified to stay flexible, take paint and hold tight details in casting and tested to ensure safety and stability. Resin, while not extremely delicate, has to be handed and packed with more care. Dwarvenite can simply be swept off the table into one of our canvas totes to carry and store.

    And it's great! You can throw it against a wall, you can step on it, and it doesn't damage at all. That's been great for me, if I wanna go and play somewhere, I just throw everything into a box, or duffle bag, and a backpack, and just spill it out onto a table. So that's been a godsend from the transportation aspect. And the customers love it.

    Gilsdorf: Any thoughts on why your products are so successful at attracting Kickstarter funding?

    Pokorny: I think when we post the goal, it's not really a realistic goal. It's not the goal that we really want. But I think if we were to go on there and say, "Hey, we want to hit 1 million," that would probably turn people off. We try to be a little more modest. But really in our minds, we feel like we want to equal what we did last time. So that's really just sort of a ghost goal, really. There's always a bit surge at the end. It's a big sigh of relief.

    Gilsdorf: So you've raised millions on Kickstarter. Are you getting filthy rich?

    Pokorny: While we're very happy, I can't say we're getting rich. We're trying to run the company smartly — get and pay the best people we can to help, invest as aggressively as we can into new development, our tooling, keep a better inventory of new products where possible, price products fairly, pay our taxes, and save a little bit for a rainy day.

    Gilsdorf: How big is your company now? How many people?

    Pokorny: We're a very small company, a private two-person partnership. This year it went from me just working out of my home, even though I'd been in business 18 years, me sculpting out of my home, to having to rent an office space that was 600 square feet. That was, like, six months ago. To now having to move into a 2,200 square foot space. And I have at least 5 or 6 people in there every day. Sometimes I've got 10.

    We're sort of exploding.

    We're lucky enough to have some great creative collaborators. I've got writers coming over, I've got illustrators, I've got plumbers, I've got carpenters, I've got me sculpting. It's craziness. And it's all being filmed, on top of that. So it's very exciting. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to lose my mind. I'm always just one phone call away from a nervous breakdown, honestly.

    Gilsdorf: Being filmed?

    Pokorny: I'm even producing my own TV pilot. It's kind of a reality show about Dwarven Forge. They've been following me around for months and filming our processes that it takes to create these dungeons. They've been filming me in the office and they've been filming me running games in bars. We're surrounded by a whole bunch of wacky people. We make the Jersey Shore people seem dull. It's really a production that I'm pouring a lot of money into. I produced it myself because I wanted to make sure it was done the right way. I want people to see that we're not just a bunch of smelly guys in a basement. That stereotype.

    And I want to show that these games are great games for anybody. Girls love to play it. It's not just losers that play these games. There are a lot of very creative, intelligent people that play these games. This is really what I want to show people. I have really high hopes for this and the footage we've got so far is fantastic. And it's not just about D&D – it's about Bushwick, the very artistic neighborhood out here it's like the new SoHo, back in the old days of New York, full of crazy, wacky people doing crazy things. And it's all part of this energetic sort of culture we have here. There's just incredible stuff going on here.

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    Gilsdorf: What's the big news you'll be talking about at Gen Con? Any new products? I see on your Facebook page that at Gen Con, you've got you City Builder System available if folks missed your Kickstarter, as well as unique individual pieces available for sale. There's also mention of a preview of your new book. What's that about?

    Pokorny: We will be at Gen Con, with some City Builder prototypes, and, if all goes well, a surprise new product. Our biggest announcement, at least to me, is the introduction of my campaign world of Mythras, my home grown personal world which I started creating when I was 12 years old, 36 years ago. Over that time, I imagined and re-imagined, created, and re-created Mythras and the City of Valoria.

    We're not just releasing the terrain, there's also going to be the modules. Dwarven Forge's first module. This will be our first foray into actually making adventures. From the time I was a teenager, I've been drawing maps from my own personal world. A lot of them no one's ever seen. There's the dungeons, the maps. People have been asking me to sell the maps, make them available. And 30 years later, here I am, about to launch it. So it's really exciting for me. We are working on a large tome detailing parts of the world ["Maps & Secret Dungeons"] a collectible hardcover art book that features maps I've drawn by hand over many, many years of gaming. Of course, because we produce terrain and miniatures, you can actually build in 3D the whole scenario using our terrain sets.

    I felt this was the time to introduce the City of Valoria since we were doing modular city components at this moment. I have been told that modules don't make money but I honestly don't care about that — my partner won't be happy with that answer— because for me, I have the best occupation in the world, a get to dream like a child, and then watch those dreams take form, like magic. And now it's about to see the light of day. Once again, I'm scared, but I'm also very excited that I'll finally be able to share this with so many people.

    Gilsdorf: Wait, surprise new product? Can you say more?

    Pokorny: I'm afraid we can't do this yet. We also promised to unveil it at Gen Con for the first time. I can tell you that it is a special edition gamer product that is integral to our world of Mythras and a great complement to using our terrain.

    Gilsdorf: Let's talk about your latest set of terrain, the City Builder System. You're leaving the dungeon. Now you want to build cities. Where did that idea come from?

    Pokorny: This city that we're selling now, this terrain, is modeled after my city that I've drawn out in the city of Valoria, in the world of Mythras. And this world is inspired by all my travels to Italy and Greece. Both of my parents were European. My mother was born in Rome and my father was born in Czechoslovakia. They both grew up in Europe and they came here later in life and they adopted me.

    I'm half Korean, half American. They adopted me and we all grew up as immigrants in New York City. So, all of those things have been put into this world of mine, this combination of travels through Europe. And I just kind of picked up things here and there and threw it all into a campaign. And it's a mishmash of a lot of things: Greek gods; the streets of my city are modeled after Pompeii, the houses are Tudor but then there's also Czechoslovakian – Prague. What people are going to realize is, this city is based on my world, and then we're going to release the map of the city with all the descriptions of the various taverns and inns of my own city with characters. We're actually going to make miniatures of some of the main characters in the city, and we have stories that revolve around the politics and history of the city.

    For instance, our city was built upon another city that was destroyed thousands of years ago. There's ruins under the city, and there's rat men and there's were-rats, and there's sanitation workers with their own guild. There are all of these exciting things that are part of this campaign. And I'm hoping that people are going to be excited about it and realize that, "Hey, if you're buying terrain, you're not just buying terrain, you're buying the whole campaign world." And we're just going to keep unleashing more and more stories about this city so you'll have a reason to have this terrain. Hey, if you're not used to running adventures in cities, don't worry, we're going to give you the adventure if you want. That's what I hope will be more of a boost for this whole endeavor.

    One last thing: It's going to be a book that's a whole bunch of my maps with blank pages throughout the book so the Dungeon Master, the game master, can take this book, look at the maps, and then make up their own world. It's an experiment, because people look at the maps and they're fascinated by the maps. We'll have one book that's just maps and blank pages so you can design your own world, and then another book is going to be my actual campaign – I have history, I have illustrations, monsters, all that – and then a third book I think is going to be artwork. Maps, scribbles, everything related to my artistic drawings and things like that. Three books. I see it like a starting point for people.

    I find that there's people that have great imaginations and good writing and they have all these ideas, but they aren't artists. They can't draw. So I've drawn all these maps and I can present it to them blank, and they can make up whatever they want. I feel like this would be a good tool for them.

    The funny thing is, when we made the modules, this is basically what our starting point was. I really hadn't fleshed out any history for my campaign or really thought too much about it, I didn't have to present it to anyone. So when I decided, now we have to present this to the world, I thought, "We've gotta flesh this thing out." So I hired these guys who sat down and looked at my maps, and just started to make up stories. Like, "Hey, we imagine this, we imagine that." And it was all inspired by the maps. They were helping me come up with all these ideas about a history, and it just grew bigger and bigger and bigger. And it's still growing! And it's all just inspired by looking at my maps. The names of the mountains, and there's things on my maps that say stuff like, "The Hills of Ud and Nud." And I have no idea who that is. I was going to make it up at some point, who Ud and Nud was, but I never did. So these guys just start making things up.

    The Hills of the High Priest. I never made who the High Priest was, so they made things by looking at my maps. And I was seeing how it was inspiring them so much that I thought, "Wow, this is great! We should have a book like that. Other people might want to do that."

    Gilsdorf: What version of D&D do you play?

    Pokorny: I played a little bit of second edition. My world of Mythras is a mix of first and second or else what I picked up along the way or make up. I'm very ignorant of a lot of other systems because we just kind of played D&D in my own little cave, little world. I didn't really play out of modules. I just played in my own world. I'm really not much of a gamer, per se. I haven't played a lot of games.

    I just play D&D. So I'm ignorant of all these other games, these card games that everyone is passionate about.

    Gilsdorf: What is your sense of how most people are interfacing with your terrain? How many people are using it for their D&D campaigns, are using it for other games, and do you get a sense some people are just collecting it and making layouts, taking pictures and stuff, but not actually using it during a gaming session?

    Pokorny: I have no statistics. I have hunches, but I do know that we have a website where people are really passionate about what they build, and they take photos and they post it. There are some people that just like to build the stuff and takes pictures up close, as though you're in the dungeon or the city, then they post it. But a lot of people just like to play with the pieces.

    And I know that, our generation, they have children, boys and girls that are growing up that are going bananas for it. So a kind of second surge is coming now where the kids of the gamers are now growing up with our terrain, just loving it. It's like when we were kids, and I grew up with Legos, and I think they're luckier than us because they're growing up with some really awesome terrain. I really feel that we're going through a D&D or RPG renaissance right now. And I think a great deal to do with it, is just because of this. All the gamers have children who are discovering role playing games for the first time.

    And they're really excited about it. And I really feel it could be something big. If you think about it, look at how when D&D first came out, it spread like wildfire. And that was before social media or emails, text messages, anything like that. I personally have seen in Brooklyn, I posted signs up in the area saying, "Hey, learn to play D&D, come to this bar. We'll give lessons, or run games in the basement." I set up some terrain and I found a smoke machine and I found a cloak and armor and we had music, and people just went crazy for it. The room was filled every day. Seriously, if I wasn't so busy, I would run these games every week. I probably would have all of Brooklyn playing D&D.

    Gilsdorf: Sounds like another side project for you.

    Pokorny: We have plans for that. If it gets big enough, I'm going to open my own game store and start playing these things, we're going to send people out to run games. I really feel that, when you look at the other game stores in New York – the Die 20 store, the Brooklyn Strategist – these places are full of people! They're full of hipsters and a younger generation of people who are saying, "Hey! There's something I can do here other than go to a bar and drink. I can play these really cool games."

    And there's this generation that's not totally blown away by video games. It didn't happen to them, they just grew up with it. It was always there. So this, to them, is more of a new thing. And to us, video games were new to us. Like, "Wow! Check that out." They're actually kind of going back in time. This is cool. This is cooler than the video games that kids play now. It used to be, "This is what the nerds play." But now, this is what the cool people play.

    Gilsdorf: And your version of D&D, as you DM it, is pretty theatrical.

    Pokorny: When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by those magicians who used to go out there and do magic acts on the street, and I remember being mesmerized by these guys, the circus, the magicians, these kinds of things. I grew up in New York, you know, where there's crazy shows and events. I think all this influenced me a little. So I try to put on a show. I've got costumes, I've got the miniatures, I've got props, I've got sound. I've got sound effects. You open the door and I've got a creaky door. When the mummies attack I've got the mummy growling, I've got a smoke machine. I try to act out as much as I can. Theater.

    I play these games sort of in the dark. I think when everything's dark, people are more concentrated on what you're saying. There's less distraction. So all my games, what I call it is "theatrical D&D." And it's not the only way to play. I'm perfectly fine to just play a regular D&D session without any of that stuff. It's a piece of cake compared to what I've got to do to run these games. It's wearing me out. It takes me like, four hours to set up. And days to plan, to set up, and then I'm just drained. It's like I've been drained a couple levels at the end of the game. But people love it. They pay me a lot of money to come out here, and I run games for the patrons up on the Kickstarters now, like $3000 a game.

    Gilsdorf: Whoa. Three grand?

    Pokorny: I guess I've sort of become a professional Dungeon Master. It's a pretty big deal. Wow, people pay me now, to play D&D! And why not? I feel like any artist gets paid for what they do. Dungeons & Dragons is kind of an art. It can be done in an artistic way. I feel like it's sort of a mixture of theater and writing. It's a mixture of a lot of things. It's its own art form. All on its own. I feel like people should understand that. But there's nothing like it, so I feel like people really don't know how to classify it.

    Gilsdorf: I'm wondering about your thoughts on the difference between playing a role playing game, D&D, with miniatures and a map, and in your case, with three dimensional dungeons and buildings, versus none of that . When you're playing and the props are in front of you, do you find yourself and the other players focusing on what's happening on the board, and not having to imagine the game in their minds?

    Pokorny: That's an interesting question. When I run a game, it's usually a little of both. I usually, before I had the city, I would start off in my city and it was all theater of the mind for a couple hours. And it was only until they got out and into a dungeon that we started to play on the table, so to speak. And I think it takes away a little bit from the total imagination and it becomes a little more of – I wouldn't say a war game, but people start to look at the table.

    And they start to look at – let's face it, my terrain is pretty good to look at. So they start looking at it, and they marvel at all the little details. I cover it all with cloth, so each room I uncover, they're immediately going, "Oh, wow." People are taking pictures. It's kind of a different experience. I don't think it's better or worse, it's a different experience, that a lot of people haven't experienced before.

    Everybody that's willing to drop a few thousand dollars on a layout like that, most D&D is theater of the mind or if they have miniatures, they just pop them down on a mat. And they're mostly imagining stuff.

    That's why, when we go to the miniatures, I realize that they're focusing on the miniatures now and all the characters are painted, they're moving them around, and all the monsters I bring out are painted. And it's really kind of a cool experience because it's rare that you find someone that really goes all out, painting everything. Every room fleshed out. It's a fun experience, I encourage them to role play their characters so it's not just you moving your things around like Monopoly.

    And I'm acting out the characters, and I try to make sure that it's still an RPG game, it's not a war game. But even when you have the rooms, there's a lot of things that go on. You have to talk as the monsters. What I find I do less as, when I'm playing with the props, is that I'm not describing to them the rooms. Because they can see the room. Whereas with the theater of the mind, I have to describe the room to them. So what I try to do, I have the musical, the sound effects, I've got the props, I've got the miniatures, so it's very intimate, in kind of another way. Which is fun.

    Gilsdorf: How do you set it up in advance, and how much time do you spend pre-game setting up the terrain?

    Pokorny: It takes hours! 2 or 3 hours to set it up, everything with little bits of cloth, and as we move through each room, I take away a section of the cloth. And it's fun, because they don't know what's going to be coming. And they really huddle around and they move their miniatures like, "I'm gonna go here, and you go there." Obviously, the reason to use the miniatures is to know where you are. Because in the theater of the mind, it's hard to really imagine where anyone is. Especially if 16 kobolds come out, you'll have no idea who's where, or what's going on.

    But it's kind of cool to actually see 16 kobolds in the dungeon.

    Gilsdorf: So you have this massive dungeon you've laid out on the table, but you don't want to reveal it all at the time to your players. How do you handle that?

    Pokorny: I find that cloth is the best, T-shirts, or I get a big sheet of felt and just cut it up into little squares. Because let's say they're going down a passageway that comes to a T shape. I'll just roll it back, and when they get to the T shape, I'll stop it there. Cloth is the easiest to manipulate. That works best.

    Plus, if I get a whole bunch of bits of cloth, I can put some fake bits here and there so that they don't know – "Oh! There's going to be more dungeon over there." You just put more cloth around, and then they don't know. You sort of trick them.

    Gilsdorf: It sounds like Dwarven Forge has been an unexpected turn into you life and artist career. You wanted to be a traditional artist. You ended up an entrepreneur. Not what you planned, but that's the way life turns out sometimes.

    Pokorny: That's how life is. It gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

    Gilsdorf: There are worse things you could do.

    Pokorny: I make a very effective lemonade.

    Gilsdorf: And you still get to make art.

    Pokorny: What this game's all about, it's about you, using your imagination. People using their creativity. That's what I love about what I do. I unleash this terrain, and people come and they post pictures online. It's a community they share with one another and are very excited. I've got the best backers, customers, in the world! They're a great bunch of guys, girls. too. And it's a wonderful experience.

    It's so much more fulfilling to me than the art world. It's a horrible world. The gallery owners spit on you, the clients abuse you, they make appointments with you, they never show up. They treat you like a prostitute. I've felt so horrible all the time. And now in this world, of gamers, I feel so privileged. I get so much great feedback from people. It's a wonderful place to be in. I want more people to get into this. I want to share my work with others, and I feel like I'm just an artist creating stuff for D&D and getting it out to other people.

  • Meet the scientific storytellers who can make the public afraid of anything—for a price

    You'd think that the American public would not be so easily duped about the consequences of climate change. Or, for that matter, about the dangers of cigarettes, asbestos, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, or any number of a host of hazards to our species.

    And yet as the new documentary Merchants of Doubt makes clear, distorting science to favor corporate interests is a simple matter of the media quoting the right – or wrong — industry-funded think tank spokesperson. The result? Scientific truth is twisted, and left twisting the wind.

    Directed by Robert Kenner (who also made the Academy Award-nominated Food, Inc. and Two Days in October), Merchants of Doubt plots this journey into the dark heart of spin. The film, which has been rolling out this spring in selected theaters across the U.S., peeks behind the curtain of charismatic pundits who are hired by the very industries under fire for posing a hazard to the public—from dioxin to pesticides to flame retardants in furniture.

    Sold to the media as "experts," these authorities' main purpose is to sow doubt in the public mind. The technique dates back to the 1950's, when the tobacco industry realized the mounting, irrefutable evidence that smokes were carcinogenic would cut into profits. All their lawyers and PR wizards had to do was create doubt, to keep the debate about the safety of smoking alive.

    As Merchants of Doubt makes scarily clear, that same tactic is used by energy companies today to raise questions about climate change.

    "We thought this was a fight about a science," John Passacantando, the former executive director of Greenpeace USA, says in the film. Clearly, it isn't. The fight is rarely about the data. And because scientists are not nearly as skilled as highly-paid PR agencies at spinning the story in their direction, they are easy target. Doubt-sowers go after the scientists, not the science.

    The list of supposedly impartial think tanks and which industry backs them reads like doublespeak excerpts from Orwell's 1984. The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was created by Philip Morris in response to a 1992 EPA report that nailed secondhand smoke as a smoking gun. Citizens for Fire Safety claimed to be citizen-based, but was actually created by the three flame retardant chemical manufactures. Save Our Species Alliance, financed by a forestry trade group called the American Forest Resource Council, actually opposes the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Consumer Freedom is run mostly by fast food companies.

    You get the picture. So when so-called experts from these organizations speak on CNN or Fox, beware of what they say. That's the thrust of Robert Kenner's film Merchants of Doubt.
    I had a chance to chat with Kenner, as well as Dr. Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science and earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Kenner based his documentary on Oreskes's 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming (co-authored with Erik M. Conway). Oreskes also appears in the film. Through the magic of the word processing and the Internet, my conversations with both Kenner and Oreskes have been combined and edited below.

    Ethan Gilsdorf: I was fascinated to learn that these tactics of industry creating doubt in scientific research go back to the 1950s.

    Robert Kenner: We knew cigarette companies knew tobacco caused cancer in the early '50s, and what became the basis of our film was, how could guys who represented tobacco keep doubt alive about a product for 50 years when it was known it caused cancer and it was known that it was addictive. Nicotine was addictive. They were really good at it! And they developed a playbook, and the playbook was to create doubt. Remember the applesauce line in the film? [One Philip Morris executive, when asked if cigarettes are harmful, says, "Anything can be considered harmful. Applesauce is harmful if you get too much of it."]

    Gilsdorf: Yes. Horrifying.

    Kenner: Now in climate [change], it's really, again, like the tobacco playbook. Create doubt and delay. Another tactic is to attack the messengers. To attack the scientists, and then to attack Naomi, and now to attack me.

    Gilsdorf: Naomi, as a result of your book, did you find people going after you? Was there any character assassination or efforts to discredit you?

    Naomi Oreskes: Oh, of course. That's their whole modus operandi. The point of the book is to explain that. We're being attacked again now in predictable ways. They try to create controversy by attacking you, making all kinds of allegations. They drum up alleged controversy and then try to discredit you by saying your work is controversial. Well, my work is not controversial among historians. It's only controversial among the people I expose who obviously have a vested interest in discrediting me.

    Gilsdorf: What I found interesting was that the "creating of doubt" strategy has changed over time. Especially in climate change. Initially, doubters said, "climate change doesn't exist." Now they might say, "Oh, it exists but it's not being caused by humans," or "It's being caused by humans but, A, there's nothing we can do about it or, B, it's not worth the cost to fix it so we might as well just do nothing."

    Kenner: It shape shifts. So, in other words, the whole goal is just to create inaction. That's the goal. It doesn't matter what the argument is. You keep moving the target, but the point of whatever the argument is, is that we shouldn't do anything. And they're really good at it. They're very clever. Everything is really designed to stop regulation. But what I've found is, stop regulation, until you can find regulation that can help you.

    Gilsdorf: Like with the successful effort to distract people from the issue of cigarettes causing house fires, to the false idea that instead, we need flame retardants in our couch cushions. When house fires are never started that way.

    Kenner: "Let's put chemicals in couches." How brilliant is that? Peter Sparber said, "It's not cigarettes that cause house fires, it's couches, and we need to put chemicals in them." [The tobacco industry planted Sparber, a veteran tobacco lobbyist, into the National Association of State Fire Marshals to shift attention away from the countless fires started by smoldering cigarettes.] And it turns out those chemicals don't stop fires, but they cause cancer.

    Gilsdorf: When it comes to regulations, it seems like it simply depends how you look at them. That "big government" versus "small government" debate feels moot, since the issue comes down to what kind of big government you like. If "big government" means regulating in a way that requires your company's product to be used in something like flame retardant cushions, then of course you're in favor of big government in that case.

    Kenner: [Those who oppose regulation] have the ideological backing of being libertarians and fighting regulation. But secretly they'll be fighting for their own regulation that benefits them. Recently, there's a new bill to stop sales of solar panels. In Georgia, one of the original Tea Party members formed the Green Tea Party, because she found that home owners could not put solar panels on their property and sell excess energy, because the Koch Brothers and Southern Company were fighting it.

    I think she helped turn it around. Now the Kochs and people are putting up what they call the Electric Freedom Act to prevent you the right of doing this. What inspired me for this film as much as anything was, when I was doing Food Inc., going to a hearing whether to label cloned meat and a representative from the meat industry said, it would just be a burden for the consumer to have that kind of information. And I though, who says such a thing? And you look and find groups funded by fast food industries are creating front groups called Center for Consumer Freedom to stop you from knowing what's in your food. Center for Consumer Freedom. It's just this Orwellian world, with Electric Freedom Act, and these groups. They always have "freedom" and "center" in them.

    Gilsdorf: Those words appeal to a certain person.

    Kenner: Like with Citizens for Fire Safety. It was three chemical companies. It wasn't citizens. They could have called it "Three Largest Chemical Corporations Trying to Defend their Product" but that wouldn't be as effective.

    Gilsdorf: Naomi, it seems to me that part of the problem is that newspaper reporters, editors and TV producers aren't doing their due diligence to check these people out, whether they are tobacco cancer deniers or climate change deniers. Has that gotten any better?

    Oreskes: For so long, journalists were presenting this as a debate — a "he said" "she said" problem. They would juxtapose a climate scientist with someone from the Cato Institute and put that on television, put that in the paper. Some journalists are still doing that, but by and large, I think the journalistic community has begun to get it and say, "This is not a scientific debate, so please don't present it as one."

    And B, that it's a false equivalent to put a climate scientist against some guy from the Cato Institute. But it's amazing how long it's taken. It's taken a long time for the journalistic community to get there. I think now, because of our work, and some other people who have written about this, I think the journalistic community has kind of woken up and realized they have to be a little more sophisticated about how they think about balancing objectivity in their own reporting.

    Gilsdorf: As a journalist, or TV producers, even if your goal is always to provide two sides to every issue, it would seem to be pretty simple to see who is backing these so-called experts.

    Oreskes: Right. You would think so. But if you have a 5 o'clock deadline, and you haven't been covering climate science, and you certainly didn't cover the ozone hole back in the 1990s or acid rain back in the '80s, you don't realize that these are the same people over and over again. So, we thought that was a really crucial part of the book saying, "Hey, look at this, this is a pattern. These same people are showing up over and over again. That's telling you something important."

    Gilsdorf: Has the situation of scientists not being as savvy about presenting the facts, the data, begun to change at all?

    Oreskes: Scientists used to think this was a problem of public understanding of science, and if they only just explained the science more clearly, or had clearer graphs, or clearer charts, or less complicated charts, or less complicated slides, that this could all get cleared up. Now, the scientific community understands that while public understanding of science is extremely important, and certainly it's very, very important to the scientific community to do whatever it can to explain the science clearly, that that's not what's driving climate change denial.

    And so that's makes it a much more challenging problem, because scientists have to find other ways to communicate.

    And I think one of the things is to make alliances with people like Bob Inglis [a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina's 4th District who changed his mind about climate change] or Katharine Hayhoe [a Christian geoscience professor at Texas Tech University], who have the credibility with conservative communities. Because so much of this is political and ideological and cultural. It's not enough just for scientists to explain the science.

    Gilsdorf: Robert, now that you have a couple of these types of films under your belt, what for you is the biggest peril as a director when you are trying to put together an argument or a movie that is muckraking in its purpose? What are the things that you need to worry about or the things that you have to keep in mind as you start to tell your story? What can go wrong?

    Kenner: Good question. First of all, you'd better be factually correct. You'd better be able to defend every word in your film. Because people are going to come after you. But I think one of the problems is, don't make medicine. At the same time, I want to make it an entertaining movie. Which is strange. I just didn't want to make it just chock full of information, because people don't remember facts. Facts disappear. Characters and emotions, humor, is remembered.

    Gilsdorf: Was it hard to get some of these climate change critics sit down with you and talk, whether for the book or movie? I'm thinking Fred Singer [a physicist and director of the Science and Environmental Policy Project who argues that carbon dioxide increases do not increase temperatures] or Marc Morano [who runs ClimateDepot.com, a leading site for climate change skeptics]. They would have suspected what your motives would be — to try to discredit them.

    Oreskes: In general, my experience with these guys is that they're always very anxious and eager to get their message out. And because they're very good at what they do, they are usually pretty confident they can get their message out. So in general, my experience is these people do agree to talk.

    Gilsdorf: Do you think these guys — I'm thinking particularly a guy like Marc Morano or James Taylor [senior fellow at the Heartland Institute and managing editor of the free-market environmentalism journal Environment & Climate News] — do these guys actually believe what they're selling? Do they enjoy the spotlight or the ride? Or maybe they're just getting paid absurd amounts of money to say what they say.

    Kenner: I appreciated Marc. Because he was very honest. A guy like Steve Milloy [who runs the climate change-denying site JunkScience.com] pretends to be one thing when he's really the other. Steve Molloy's the guy that went on Glenn Beck. And Glenn Beck said, "Are you in bed with Big Oil? And if so, how good in bed are they?" He said, "I'm just trying to do the right thing."

    Well, that's not true. He's being paid a lot of money. He lives in a freaking mansion. And he's being paid big bucks to fool people.

    He's just out there to work for his client. He doesn't have any regard for the truth. He's just looking to defend a product. He'll talk about asbestos. He'll talk about tobacco. He represents numbers of products that killed thousands of people, if not more. But the one thing I've learned. I asked Stan Glantz [who researches the health effects of secondhand smoke], "Did those tobacco executives, when they stood up and said that nicotine is not addictive in front of Congress, were they lying?"

    And Stan said the one thing he's learned from his lawyer is to not to say what people are thinking. When Singer wrote me a friendly letter saying he's thinking of suing me, he said, "If you called me a liar for hire" — which I did not call him — "the word 'liar' implies that I know something and I'm saying otherwise." And he said, "How are you going to prove that?"

    Gilsdorf: We were talking earlier about characters and stories and feelings. I thought that the interview with Bob Inglis was the most moving. I don't know if I would agree with most of his politics or particular issues, but stuck his neck out, changed his mind about climate change, and got screwed for speaking his mind about the issue and lost reelection. It's sad story.

    Kenner: Well, it's sad, but at the same time, it's a very heroic story. For me as a filmmaker, my greatest thrill is coming across Bob Inglis, to come across people where we don't have the same opinion but we have total respect for them. And to sit and talk with Bob, I think it's a great treat to disagree and try to understand his perspective. Bob is a very conservative man, and we probably do see the world differently. It's a treat to meet people who have different ideas.

    Gilsdorf: In watching your movie, I was reminded that there are these other hot-button issues that seem to have disappeared. Growing up in the '80s, everyone was talking about acid rain. In the '90s it was all this talk about the ozone layer. You never hear people talk about that stuff any more. What happened?

    Kenner: First of all, it was Richard Nixon who created the EPA and the Clean Water Act and fifty other environmental issues, it was Ronald Reagan and George Shultz [U.S. Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration] who solved and created international treaties based on ozone, and it was George H. W. Bush who solved the acid rain problem.

    So ironically, the Republicans have a great history of creating regulations and treaties around these issues and have led on environment. As George Shultz and Bob Inglis say, it's conservative to conserve. And they've taken the lead and are certainly capable of taking the lead again. And that's where hopefully we see it going. It's another Nixon goes to China moment.

    Gilsdorf: Does it make you a little despondent or a little disheartened to learn that Americans are so easily duped by all these fake experts and industry-funded tactics?

    Kenner: This is where a new part comes into the story. It takes the media to help dupe Americans. And they're not easily duped. These guys, they've got a lot of money. They've been able to fool the media a lot of times, and I think we need a media that can work harder and not present Steve Milloy as an independent agent, or James Taylor, who's taken a few science classes, as an independent agent. And I'm not only talking Fox news. Many forms of media have been presenting as if there's two sides of an argument – the earth is round, the earth is flat. I applaud the media for showing two sides, but you can't show it when there aren't two sides. It's not a debate, it's not a fight.

    The debate could be, "What do we do about it?" Do we want business to take the lead, like Inglis or Shultz would say, or do you want government to take the lead? That's a real, honest debate. The science is not a debate. And, first of all, science shouldn't be a debate for the public anyway. Almost every scientist in the world, every climate scientist, says [climate change] is true, 98 percent or something. Of the 2 percent, they're getting paid by fossil fuel companies. And yet, our Senate, and our Congress, more than half of them believe it's not true. First of all, I don't think they believe it's not true. As Bob Inglis says, a lot of the Republicans think it's true, they just don't want to be voted out of office like Bob was.

    Gilsdorf: Ultimately, Americans don't want to be asked to make sacrifices or change their consumption habits.

    Kenner: Bob Inglis's talk at the end saying, "We don't want it to be true."

    It's a very moving talk and it crosses ideological lines. We all like the life we have and we don't want to change. Change isn't easy and it doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat. A doctor from Oregon, a cancer doctor, heard that on the radio and wrote me a piece saying, "You know, it's so true. People don't want things that are bad for them to be true." And he sees it because he sees smokers who get cancer who still smoke because they just don't want it to be true.

    And it's just human nature. But we need to help in turning that around and recognize that we can save this planet. It's a really moral question that we need to take some action. I'm thrilled to see the Pope changing Catholic doctrine.

    It used to be "Dominion over the earth," now it's, "You have to preserve that earth." I see change coming and people are capable of changing. Look at gay rights. In '08, not only were Republicans against [same sex marriage], Democrats were. It's now the law of the land. So things can happen quickly. I hope they happen quickly on a number of issues, including climate. So I think of this film being more about the playbook than any one issue, and climate happens just to be the big payday at the end.

    Gilsdorf: Naomi, are you hopeful?

    Oreskes: Well, I think the situation is very mixed. In a way, I'm a little depressed. We started working on the book in 2005. I started working on climate change as a historical question in the early 2000s. So I've been working on this for about 15 years now. Fifteen years ago, [we thought] with enough work and enough effort to communicate, people would get it and would start taking steps to address this problem.

    When you understand the history and you understand how long scientists have understood this, it's a little shocking how successful the merchants of doubt have been. It's hard to look that in the face and not be demoralized. I would be lying if I said, "Oh yeah, this is all great, I'm not worried, I think this film will change the world and we'll fix this problem." On the other hand, if I didn't think there was hope, I wouldn't be doing the work I do, I'd just go back to writing, I don't know, maybe poetry or something. Or retire and take care of your dog.

    Obviously, you don't write a book, you don't make a film, unless you are fundamentally optimistic, and you fundamentally believe the action of writing a book or making a film has the capacity to change people's minds and therefore to change what they do. It's this weird balance between, on the one hand, being ambitious and on the other hand, not becoming narcissistic. But I don't compare myself to Rachel Carson, obviously.

    But, the fact is, Silent Spring changed the world. The book changed the world we live in. It made an enormous difference. So it tells us that it's possible for books and films and people to make a difference.

  • Fan films and the future of fantasy

    With the Oscars come and gone, many budding and lapsed filmmakers might feel inspired to try their hand at producing their own movie. So why not do it? Well, maybe you don't live in Hollywood. Or perhaps what's holding you back is the notion you need megabucks in funding before you can shout "Action!"

    Director Peter Jackson has proved that a DIY spirit gets movies made. He's practically the poster boy for the homegrown filmmaking movement. Think what you want of his latest outing (The Hobbit trilogy), but after the success of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson demonstrated that with few bottles of spirit gum, some truckloads of hand-crafted hobbit feet, and throngs of naive and gung-ho Kiwis, anyone can make their own swords-and-sorcery epic. The widespread popularity of Game of Thrones has only fueled the fires of filmmakers wanting to be crowned the next fantasy master.

    (more…)

  • The best books for nerds from 2014

    I'm only one man. I can only read so many books in 365 days. And I'm a slow reader.

    Worse than that, last I heard, some 600,000 new titles are published annually in this country alone. How can anyone keep up? We can't. I often feel overwhelmed with books I should read, books I want to read, books I've abandoned only half-read.

    Nonetheless, we geeks must fight the good fight. And we make our lists. Here's my stab at 15 books, from fiction to nonfiction, kids to coffee table, that spoke to my inner nerd in 2014. Please remember, I'm only one opinionated nerd. But of course, feel free to disagree.

    (more…)

  • A nerd's 12 best and worst films from 2014

    The various film critics associations and circles, from Boston to Los Angeles, have made their best film selections. The Golden Globes, A.K.A. the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, has also released its nominations of best movies and TV shows. Some predictions, like Best Picture going to Richard Linklatter's Boyhood, or Michael Keaton nabbing best actor for Birdman, have come true. There's been some surprising choices, too, such as the National Board of Review handing out its Best Original Screenplay award to (ahem) The Lego Movie. Now begins the long wait for the 87th Academy Awards; nominations will be announced January 15, and the final envelopes will ripped open February 22.

    (more…)

  • A Conversation with Wil Wheaton

    Like many celebrities who have managed to create lasting careers, Wil Wheaton has learned to diversify.

    The actor was thrust into the spotlight at age 14, when he co-starred in Rob Reiner's coming-of-age film Stand By Me. His installation into the geek firmament came after being cast as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wheaton went on to become an author, blogger, podcaster, voice actor, Twitter addict, and overall nerd culture champion.

    Wheaton's most recent incarnation is as "game show host." No, not that kind of game show. For the uninitiated, Wheaton is the creator, producer, and host TableTop, a webseries in which Wheaton plays board games and talks trash with stars from pop culture, entertainment, Internet fame, and sports. Guests have included NFL player Chris Kluwe; actors J. August Richards (Angel and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) and Erin Gray (the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss, and Dork Tower comic book artist John Kovalic. A frequent guest is nerd goddess Felicia Day, co-creator of Geek & Sundry, a multimedia production company, and the YouTube Channel on which TableTop is "broadcast."

    People are watching Wheaton's show: Season 2 of TableTop pulled in about 8 million views on YouTube, with an average of about half a million views per episode. Funded by a crazy-successful $1.4 million Indiegogo campaign, Season 3 launched this November. Between now and August 13, 2015, episodes will feature guests such as actor Jason Ritter, video game developer and entrepreneur Richard Garriott, and video game voice artist Jennifer Hale.

    I recently had the chance to interview Wheaton in Los Angeles, during a break during the editing of Season 3 of his hit program. We discussed the effect of TableTop on the board game industry, why board gaming is safe from trolls, and his plans for a future "TableTop RPG show."

    Ethan Gilsdorf: It's great to finally connect with you. Our paths in the nerd universe have come close to meeting. I'm the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. A copy of my book got handed to you at Pax in Seattle, I think back in 2009.

    BTS_TT_2

    Wil Wheaton: Oh my gosh. Yes! Of course. I know that book.

    Gilsdorf: I'm that guy.

    Wheaton: You're on my bookshelf. You're right next to Of Dice and Men .

    Gilsdorf: That's cool. Thank you. In my book, I talk about my Dungeons & Dragons background. I started playing in the 1970s and the 1980s. After a long, 25 year break, I'm back to playing D&D again. Now the new edition is out, and the 40th anniversary this year is obviously a milestone.

    Wheaton: Have you played 5th edition yet?

    Gilsdorf: I have a little. I have friend with a 12 year old son and he was eager to introduce D&D to him. So I played a little. I think they did a great job. I like the packaging and the production especially, but I haven't had a change to dive deep into the rules yet. I tend to play rules light with my regular group, you know? What do you think of 5th edition?

    Wheaton: I absolutely love it. I think that they've taken the best of every edition that they've ever released and put it into this one, and they've managed to get rid of all the stuff that I've not liked from the previous editions. It's really fantastic. I really like it a lot.

    Gilsdorf: When did you first get into gaming, whether RPGs or board gaming? How far back in your life does gaming go?

    Wheaton: I cannot recall a time in my life when I didn't play board games. It is very much a tradition in my family. As long as I can remember, we would spend New Year's Eve playing The Mad Magazine game as sort of a tradition in my family. And one of my babysitters when I was very young always brought Payday.

    Gilsdorf: Oh yeah! I remember that one. That was great!

    Wheaton: Yeah, and a game called The Ungame. The Game of Life. But [my introduction to RPGs came] when I was about 10 or so, when my great aunt gave me the red box set of Dungeons & Dragons, which is how a lot of my generation was introduced to role playing games. That sort of alerted me to the existence of these non-traditional games that existed. I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons, and the storytelling of it, and the weird dice, and the fact that it didn't use a traditional board. It felt like I was a part of something special and almost kind of like a secret club because a lot of people didn't know what it was, and didn't understand it. Then as I got older, when I was around 14, I discovered what we considered to be sort of modern tabletop games. It predates the Euro game wave that sort of hit in the early nineties, but around 1987, my friends introduced me to games like Car Wars and Awful Green Things from Outer Space, and role playing systems like GURPS, and games like Warhammer 40,000. And that was when I really became a capital G Gamer.

    Gilsdorf: For many people, when you say "board game," they think of Monopoly, Battleship, Scrabble. There are those who use the more current term "tabletop games" and those people know about Settlers of Catan, Cards Against Humanity, and Munchkin. There are some people who play both kinds of game. When you tell people, "Hey, I play board games," are they confused which kind you're talking about?

    Wheaton: I think that that probably would have been true as recently as four years ago. But since we started TableTop, and we have put the existence of these games into the mainstream. And as we used to call them, we didn't know what they were. We didn't know what to call them. We called them "nerdy board games" or hobby games for a really, really long time. And I have noticed since TableTop has become what it has become, and not to mistake correlation for causation, but I have noticed that people refer to these games that we play as "tabletop games."

    Gilsdorf: Is there a divide there? Do these two groups not talk to each other?

    Wheaton: I don't think that that divide is as wide as it once was. There's certainly still I would say a very thin line between what are considered maybe twentieth century and twenty-first century tabletop games. But if you walk into a Barnes & Noble, they now have a section of tabletop games that is as big as the section of tabletop games at any of the big box retailers. And if you walk into Toys 'R Us, you will see, on the shelves with Cootie, and Monopoly, and Ants in the Pants, you'll see Settlers of Catan and Munchkin and Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. I think that divide isn't really there anymore, because people are just playing games. There's a massive group of gamers who are coming to tabletop games. They're not being introduced with Risk or Sorry or Aggravation. They're being introduced to tabletop gaming with Ticket to Ride, or Settlers of Catan or Magic the Gathering or Pandemic. They're coming into it now because just everybody's playing.

    Gilsdorf: Five or ten years ago, hardly anyone would say, "Hey me and my buddies are going to play a game tonight," as an adult, not as a 12 year old or a 10 year old, but as an adult. Now it does seem like it's a legitimate way to spend a night, not just playing cards or poker or Texas Hold 'Em, but Settlers of Catan. There's really been a shift.

    Wheaton: I would have to agree with that, but I will add that my friends and I, we self-identify as tabletop gamers predating the current tabletop game movement. We've been doing that forever. That's been very normal for me, going all the way back to 10 years old and on, getting together for an evening of Dungeons & Dragons, or a day spent playing a big box game. Back in the old days it would have been Axis & Allies, and today it's going to be something maybe like Quips or something like that. But that's a thing that's existed for us for a very long time. And I would agree that it's becoming more normalized and more mainstream, but there are a lot of us who have been doing that for a really long time. I personally think that it's really wonderful that it is becoming kind of a mainstream hobby, to get together and spend a day or evening playing games – and not just with friends and family, but also by going to a game shop, or one of the gaming cafes that seem to be popping up all over the place, and playing with strangers. My friend and producer, Boyan [Radakovich], he coined the phrase "Tabletop games are powered by friendship." And I think that that is something that you see everywhere you go where people are playing games.

    Gilsdorf: Do you think that the Internet is helping to mainstream board games? Some might think, "Oh, the Internet is the downfall of board games," in the same way that "video games are the downfall of tabletop role-playing games." But it does strike me that that because of the Internet, people are communicating with each other. They connect with each other. Gaming doesn't have to be a niche hobby. What are some of your thoughts on how board gaming culture got to be so big? That's a big question, sorry.

    Wheaton: It's a big question that. I'm trying to think of the most efficient way to answer that. You're kind of mentioning a lot of things that overlap and support each other. To the best of my knowledge, a lot of people who play video games also play tabletop games, and vice versa. I know, just speaking for myself, I prefer tabletop games because I like to be with the people who I'm playing with. I enjoy that. At this moment in time, the world of video games has become so toxic and miserable—and I'm confident that's a temporary phenomenon, because we video gamers have endured worse than what we're enduring right now. Well, maybe that's not true. We've endured things that are as much of a threat to our identity as gamers as we are right now. But with video gaming being so toxic at the moment, that atmosphere seems to come around over and over again in video gaming. It just doesn't exist in tabletop gaming. And I think a lot of that has to do with the reality that when we play tabletop games, we're sitting down with people, and we're making an effort to play with people, whether they're friends or strangers. And there's real-life consequences for your behavior at a table that I think don't exist when you're playing online. I think people tend to forget there's a human being on the other side of that screen. You can't forget that there's a human being on the other side of the game board.

    Gilsdorf: Certainly with Gamergate and other kinds of harassment that happens online, you can't imagine that happening in a public place or even in a board café.

    Wheaton: It wouldn't exist in a public place. That stuff is enabled by technological conditions that allow cowards and bullies to take actions that are essentially consequence-free. And in tabletop gaming, we just don't see that. Within the tabletop gaming community, there's games for everyone, from the person who wants to play the extremely technical strategy game where you spend an entire weekend seeing what would happen if a Roman legion led by Napoleon were to encounter the 1946 post-World War Two Russian army, in North Africa. You know? There's a game like that. Or there's games like Warhammer Fantasy Battle where someone can spread out a hundred square feet of armies and play like that. And that goes all the way to the other end of someone sitting down to play a couple hours of Stone Age, or two people, like my wife and I, sitting down to play Blokus or Splendor. Because there's something for everyone, I think people can self-select. One of the things that I've never seen in tabletop gaming is this juvenile notion that the existence of a game that I don't like, or the existence of a gamer who's different than me, threatens my very existence and the very existence of my hobby. That's pretty prevalent in video games at the moment, and it's really not prevalent in tabletop gaming. And I don't want this to turn into the battle of tabletop games versus video games, but just because at this moment in time it's something we're all really thinking about. I think it's culturally relevant.

    Gilsdorf: Do you get a sense of how big the audience is for TableTop, who watches it, and how influential the show has become?

    Wheaton: If you just look at the number of views on YouTube, our audience is global and in the millions. And one of the things that is most surprising to me is that we are viewed extensively by families. I've heard from people who have reached out to me. It's gotta be in the thousands now. The new episode of TableTop comes out, they watch it with their family, and then parents and kids get together after watching TableTop and play a tabletop game. And we see that there's people who watch TableTop the day it is released, and then there is a huge spike the Saturday after it's been released. And this lines up with stories that I've heard from people, that their friends come over and they sit down and they watch the episode, and then they spend the rest of the day playing board games.

    Gilsdorf: Do you think it's impacting sales? Your show goes on, and the next day, does Amazon get huge orders for whatever game you happen to showcase that week?

    Wheaton: I actually know that that is the case because I have talked with distributors who send these games out to retailers, and I've talked with publishers. One publisher told me that, when we played their game on TableTop, that it added $1.4 million to their sales for the year. I think that's what she told me. Virtually every game we play sells out, almost within the month that the show has been released. And this is actually something that we didn't expect that to happen when we started the show. So for the second and third seasons, we actually coordinate. Once a game is chosen, we contact the publishers and ask them, "Will you keep this game in print? Are you able to meet the demand that TableTop drives for games?" And almost always they say "Yes." But if a publisher's going to not be able to keep the game in stock, we're less likely to play it. Because people really want to play the games that we play. And I want people to get so excited that there's just more and more gamers in the world.

    Gilsdorf: Nothing more frustrating than getting excited about a game, then finding out the thing's on backorder for six months.

    Wheaton: It's one of the reasons that for this season, and just because we're crowd-funded this year I was able to do this, I published the list of games and the people who played them during production. People who really want to be early adopters, or people who have been thinking about a game but maybe haven't gotten it, will have an opportunity months in advance to get a game before the TableTop effect hits that game.

    Gilsdorf: You must be pretty pleased by the response to the Indiegogo campaign. Was that surprising to you?

    Wheaton: I was really confident that we would be able to fund at least the $500,000 that we needed to do a partial season. I was very surprised at how fast that happened. And then I really wanted to hit our $1 million goal so we could do this RPG show next season, because I want to do for role playing games what we did for tabletop gaming. I really wanted that to happen. I was not confident that it would. I was just delighted. The only hint was, "Okay, stop giving us money. We have what we need." Then people just. Kept. Supporting us. And what that meant was, we were able to invest so much more into the show, and make the show more than we expected to. I was able to give my crew a raise. Everybody who works on the production, I was able to give everybody raises, which really made me happy because we're not doing this to get rich. It's a passion project, and we try to squeeze a buck and half out of every dollar that we spend in the budget. It was really kind of exciting and wonderful for me to be able to do that because of the generosity and the support and the enthusiasm of people who like our show.

    Gilsdorf: This show on RPGs, will that be another season ofTableTop, or will be a totally differently branded show?

    Wheaton: It's a completely different spin-off show where we're going to play a role-playing campaign that's going to last for a full season. It's going to be the same players, same characters, going on an epic journey to tell a pretty epic story that will unfold over the course of an entire season. What I'm hoping for, if we do this right, is we will produce a show that has characters and story arcs that an audience can get invested in. Instead of those characters and story arcs being powered by a writers room, like you would see in a show like True Detective or something, it's going to be powered by the players and the game master and the adventure that we're writing. So I'm really, really excited for that, and if it works, that show has the potential to go on indefinitely.

    Gilsdorf: Does that show have a name yet? Or is it still unnamed?

    Wheaton: At the moment, we call it "the TableTop RPG show." I don't know what it will end up being called.

    Gilsdorf: I know you've done those celebrity games at PAX, with you and the same group coming back every year to play. It sounds like, at least within the gamer community, that there's definitely an audience for that.

    Wheaton: Yeah. I think it's going to be really fun. Well, I know it's going to be really fun. I believe that the audience is going to like it because they're going to get something very different from this than they get from what I used to do at PAX. Those were effectively one-shots with persisting characters. And what we're doing with the RPG show is a full campaign with persisting characters. So what we're going to be doing is more of a season of a television series than, sort of like movies with sequels.

    Gilsdorf: Will you be using the new D&D system for your RPG show, or is it going to be something of your own design?

    Wheaton: We haven't announced anything about what system we'll be using. So that's still under wraps.

    Gilsdorf: I know you need to get back to editing TableTop. It's been a pleasure and honor speaking with you. Thanks for your time.

    Wheaton: Thanks a lot. Take care.

    TT_S3EP2_1

    [This interview has been edited and condensed.]

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  • A look at the new Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide

    Of the triumvirate of Dungeons & Dragons holy texts – the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual, the Dungeon Master's Guide — it was always the last that most enthralled me. How do you manufacture a potion? How long might a wood elf live? What chance might my character have engaging in "non-lethal and weaponless combat," or fighting something while riding on a flying carpet? The DM's Guide had the answer to every question I had.

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  • Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophy

    In Plato's Phaedo, the character of Socrates declares that the best way to prepare for death is to be a philosopher. But "Socrates was wrong," writes Christopher Robichaud in "Save vs. Death: Some Reflections on the Lifecycle of PCs," his contribution to a new anthology of essays he's edited entitled Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy.

    Why was Socrates wrong? Because he never played Dungeons & Dragons, Robichaud quips. Therefore, he couldn't have known that, actually, "There is no better preparation for thinking about death – or just as importantly, for thinking about many of the important features of life – than regularly playing D&D."

    By day, Robichaud is a Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. By night, he uses his doctorate in philosophy from MIT to examine the intersection of moral and political philosophy with geek culture such as superhero, zombie, and vampire stories. Now he brings the same eye to one of his first loves: D&D.

    "I've been writing articles that bring pop culture into conversation with philosophy for close to a decade now," Robichaud says. "As the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons approached, I wanted to edit, and contribute to, a volume on D&D and philosophy that acted as a sort of love letter to the game that changed my life." Robichaud has also edited The Walking Dead and Philosophy, another book in the [FILL IN THE BLANK] and Philosophy series published by Wiley/Blackwell, and has contributed articles to others volumes including Iron Man and Philosophy, X-Men and Philosophy, Watchmen and Philosophy, and Game of Thrones and Philosophy.

    Robichaud says it was important for Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy to be "ecumenical" in representing both a range of schools of philosophy and editions of the game. No edition wars, or Kant vs. Nietzsche vs. Kierkegaard psionic showdowns on the Astral Plane. "Philosophers can be a lot like D&D fans: They have their favorites, and adopt a disdainful attitude toward anyone or anything else," he says. "I think the spirit of 5e is to put that sort of thinking to rest, and in academics, I see a most welcome new push to cross philosophical boundaries."

    I was impressed by this smart, witty, and readable book of popular philosophy — so impressed, that when I discovered Robichaud and I both live in Boston, we connected and decided to organize an event tonight, Tuesday evening, Nov. 25, in Cambridge, Mass., called "Head-Banging, Dice-Rolling, and Summoning Demons: A Talk about Rock, Dungeons & Dragons, the Occult, and Philosophy." The reading features Robichaud, me, and another Boing Boing contributor Peter Bebergal, author of the new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.

    Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy is divided into six sections: "Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Evil"; "So Did You Win? Philosophy and D&D Gameplay"; "Crafting Worlds"; "Foray into the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance"; "The Ethics of Spellcasting"; and "Dungeons & Dragons out in the Real World." Robichaud says articles look at D&D through the lens of gender theory, metaphysics, ethics, and existentialism. At around 230 pages, the book is a quick but satisfying read; in fact, he wanted it "to be lean, not bloated," with the feel and look of a "supermodule." (The cover art is intended to feel like an homage to Larry Elmore paintings for the iconic Red Box Robichaud says he unwrapped "many Christmases ago.")

    The ideas here are as fresh as guzzling a hearty mug of ale as you and your future party gathers in the tavern, seeking new adventure.

    In "Sympathy for the Devils: Free Will and Dungeons & Dragons," Greg Littmann asks, "Why should we feel sympathy for the evil-aligned monsters of D&D?" Because they have no free will. "The infant roper, newly hatched, can't truly have a choice about whether to be a killer if it is already a fact that in the next twenty years it will slaughter twenty dwarves, devouring their flesh and, for some reason known only to itself, storing their treasure in its 'special gizzard.'"

    In the chapter "Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft." "Ancient creation epics are about the formation of the world and the filling of it with creatures who call it home," writes Ben Dyer. So, too, Dungeon Masters create worlds, places, and dungeons, and fill them with foes, danger, and magic to complicate and aid the characters' journey through them. "With each choice, the development of a fantasy world (and subsequent campaign) reveals something about the mind of the DM who creates it."

    Just because these are deep thought does not mean they need to written as dry as a scroll locked in some accursed crypt guarded by a lich needing a moisturizing facial. The contributors to Robichaud's book not only know their thinkers, and their D&D, they also know how to be funny. "Who hasn't heard of Socrates (469–399 BCE, chaotic good)? You may know him from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," Neil Mussett writes in one of the compilation's standout essays, "Is Anyone Actually Chaotic Evil?: A Playable Theory of Willful Wrongdoing." "[Socrates] would have made a good DM: he spent most of his time in rowdy groups of young guys, asking them questions about magic rings, dungeon escapes, complicated mythical cities, and non-material worlds." His essay goes on to cite everyone from the "lawful good philosopher. St. Thomas Aquinas" to "John Stuart Mill (lawful neutral)," "Adolf Hitler (lawful evil)," and "Richard Dawkins (chaotic neutral)."

    Robichaud says that practicing philosophy and playing D&D overlap in some interesting ways. "I'm a bit of an OSR guy myself, and one of the thrills with navigating one of those delightfully treacherous deadly dungeon delves, like Tomb of Horrors, was figuring out just how the scenario ticked," he says. "And you never accomplished that simply by taking things at their face value." Same with philosophy, which "pushes precisely on those beliefs we think aren't worth examining anymore, and it forces us to approach them once again, from outside the box, looking at them in a new light."

    Take the chapter "By Friendship or Force: Is it Ethical to Summon Animals to Fight by Your Side in Dungeons & Dragons?," Samantha Noll presents this situation: "What if a druid is attacked in the forest by group of bandits? Panicked, she calls out to the animals nearby for aid, and several birds, rabbits, and a boar come to help. In the process of defending the druid, several animals suffer injury and two of the rabbits die. In this instance, was it ethical for the druid to call upon the animals for help, even if giving this aid may mean their death?" You'll never look at your do-gooding druid the same way again.

    Like D&D, Robichaid says philosophy must find a balance between creativity and rigor. "One of the pleasures of playing the game is the dance between improvisation, creative problem solving, and mathematical calculation. Philosophy does a similar dance, balancing imagination with argumentation and logical analysis."

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  • A Conversation with John Cleese

    John Cleese is a tall man. He is a funny man. And he has written a new book.

    The Monty Python's Flying Circus alumnus was the star of Fawlty Towers and the genius behind other comedic works–from being a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report to writing and acting in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and A Fish Called Wanda. Now he can add author to his resume, as his new memoir, So, Anyway…, hits shelves.

    The memoir charts Cleese's origins, from being a six-foot-tall 12 year old in a sleepy English town to his first forays into comedy at Cambridge University and London's West End. That led to TV work with David Frost, Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, and a 20-year writing relationship and friendship with future Python Graham Chapman.

    The comedy scene of the 1960s and 1970s was a heady crucible, and Cleese and his contemporaries were desperate to break free from what his memoir calls the "deferential, stuffy, compulsively super-polite and excruciatingly cautious" climate of British culture. This set up his career up for what American audiences know him for most: His work with his five other co-Pythons, whose groundbreaking comedy mixed social satire, silliness and absurdity, to which Cleese brought his impressive gifts as a physical comedy.

    In the course of reflections about his life and career, So, Anyway… discusses the origins of Python's famous "dead parrot" sketch, and provides excerpts from several lost comedy routines from The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show, among other nuggets. He also reveals that his family name "Cleese" originally was "Cheese".

    The charming, funny, articulate comedian, who celebrated his 75th birthday last week, is in the midst of a multicity book tour which takes him to the Chicago area tomorrow night, and later to dates in Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle, various California cities, Miami, and elsewhere. Boing Boing caught up with Cleese during his stopover in New York City. Via the magic of telephony, I resisted the temptation to ask him the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. My only regret? I wish I could have interviewed Cleese in person, and asked him to show us just one more of his amazing, body-bending silly walks. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

    Ethan Gilsdorf: Happy birthday! It's amazing that someone at your age can continue to do as much as you're doing. And I mean that as a compliment.

    John Cleese: [Laughs] I know you do! I know you do. It's still funny when people say, you know, "Someone of your age." The only problem is, the last few months have been very tiring, and I've been very lazy about taking exercise. So really, the thing I'm looking forward to most today I'm actually going to go to the gym. And walk rigidly on a treadmill. I'll have a stick with me. It's a funny idea, isn't it? I'm going to slowly get a little bit of my health back, and stretch a bit. Because the trouble is, I'm six foot five, and I used to be able to get into small spaces a little more … easily.

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  • The hands and minds behind The Boxtrolls

    There's a very cool Easter egg at the end of The Boxtrolls, the new stop-motion film that opens today. As the credits begin to roll, we hear the riffing voices of Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, who play the dimwitted henchmen Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles. As they spout existential babble about free will and whether they really control their fates, we see the sped up movements of a stop-motion animator flitting about a miniature set, manipulating them both.

    That moment exemplifies what separates the art and craft of stop-motion animation from the computer generated kind. In short: With stop-motion, a technique that goes back at least until 1898, what's filmed is real, not pixels.

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  • An Exclusive Inside Look at Denver's Dinosaur Hotel

    In an effort to stand out from their competition, hoteliers will try all sorts of gimmicks. They'll build hotels from former jails, refurbished castles or retired railroad cars. They'll float boat hotels, make teepee hotels, and dig underground and underwater hotels. From a Beatles fan fantasy hotel to, yes, a B&B shaped like a giant beagle, hotel owners cater to practically every imaginable oddball interest.

    Now, add paleontology to this list of niche themes.

    The formerly mundane Best Western Denver Southwest has been transformed into a Jurassic period playground. The new "digs" feature dinosaur relics and quirky paleontological touches, from sandboxes where kids can go digging for fossils to a Pteranodon weathervane.

    Located just outside of downtown Denver, the Best Western Denver Southwest is owned by husband and wife team Greg and Meredith Tally who, emerging from the Great Recession, knew their hotel needed a facelift to keep attracting visitors. Then came inspiration. One day, Greg was out hiking in the Dakota Hogback region of the Rockies, near Dinosaur Ridge, one of the world's most fertile fossil sites. "That set a light bulb off and made me realize, 'Why not remodel celebrating some of that unique paleo history we have right in our immediate area?'" he remembered.

    Two years and almost $5 million dollars later, the renovated "Dino Hotel" opened for business in October of 2013. Greg and Meredith's vision was to create "an immersive experience," Greg said, "where you feel like you're walking into a 19th century explorer's club in the Gilded Age of dinosaur exploration."

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  • Documentary proves girls will play D&D with boys

    Boys like Dungeons & Dragons. Girls don't.

    Or, girls aren't particularly interested in D&D, because they don't even know what the game is. Because they've never played before.

    Such is the story about gender and D&D. But to what extent is it true?

    Here to debunk this conventional wisdom about girls and RPGs is the documentary DnDnG. The micro-budgeted, seven-minute film is brief, cuts to the chase, and packs a powerful punch.

    The premise? A gang of four boys, aged 9 to 11, are asked if they ever play D&D with girls. "Nope," they say. "I've never had any girls in either of my groups." Why?

    Because "boys prefer aliens and stuff," says one boy named Johnny. "Girls prefer princess." Another boy, Danny, worries that the fairer sex might "might pass out because of gore."

    Meanwhile, a group of girls are asked if they'd like to play. Four gals, ages 8 to 11, agree. Before long comes "the unthinkable," the narrator of DnDnG jovially declares. "Boys playing Dungeons & Dragons with girls."

    Why create this little pre-adolescent social experiment in the first place?

    "My boyfriend, Sam Parnell, loved playing D&D growing up, so he decided to teach our friends' sons, ages 9 to 11, how to play," says producer Meredith Jacobson, in an email. "He even talked me into playing with him once, and I have to admit that it was a lot more fun than I was expecting." One afternoon, Jacobson overheard Sam telling the boys that girls their age would never play with them.

    "When the boys nonchalantly accepted that as fact, I knew it was time to prove to the kids and to Sam that girls could absolutely play, and they would even have fun."

    Thus, the idea for DnDnG was born.

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  • An exclusive look at the new D&D Player's Handbook—and The Warlock

    Will Wizards of the Coast get D&D right this time?

    That's the question on the minds of adventurers young and old ever since the announcement that new rules for Dungeons & Dragons would finally be revealed this year. (At various times, this rebooted D&D has been called "D&D Next," "5th Edition D&D" and "5.0." Wizards of the Coast, D&D's publisher, is now simply calling the game "Dungeons & Dragons.")

    But whether the release schedule is designed to whet or frustrate our appetites is another question. As if compressing a decade's worth of D&D iterations into six months, Wizards has planned a clever summer-into-fall roll out of this latest rule set, with many a product to buy along the way. Craftier than a mage casting a spell of Confusion, Wizards first teased us with a free PDF called Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons D&D Starter Set, a rulebook and adventure package, complete with dice and pre-generated characters, that will remind many gamers of the quick-to-learn Basic boxed sets published throughout D&D's history. Thus far, the 5th Edition rules I've seen nicely mix just-complex-enough magic and combat systems with playability, while also emphasizing character creation and roleplaying. It's a balance that veteran gamers should appreciate.

    Next come three hefty hardcovers that hearken back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks. The first one, the Player's Handbook, doesn't arrive until August 19; the Monster Manual is scheduled for September 30; and the climax and clincher, the Dungeon Master's Guide, we won't see until November 18.

    Boing Boing was offered an exclusive preview of that character-building tome, the Player's Handbook, which promises to provide "Everything a player needs to create heroic characters for the world's greatest roleplaying game." And here's some of rulebook's art, as well as an exclusive reveal of a new D&D class: the Warlock. While these nibbles don't give you much of a flavor for the rules, they do show you some eye-candy that will get you into a dungeon-crawling D&D mood.

    "There's an old joke in roleplaying, that people will always want to tell you about their character," said Mike Mearls, Senior Manager of R&D for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast, who led the game design for 5th Edition D&D. But Mearls doesn't need to remind you that in a D&D game, "any character can die at almost any time, just because of a bad die roll."

    So enjoy this brief taste from Player's Handbook, and may you roll your dice well, fellow adventurers.

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  • Meet the man who remade Middle‑earth

    You may not know John Howe, but you have probably visited his worlds.

    Howe is among the best-known illustrators of J.R.R. Tolkien's works. Since the 1990s, Howe has helped visualize Middle-earth by creating art for various bound editions of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and other works. He also provided artwork for more obscure Tolkienania, such as calendars, posters, postcards, jacket art for the covers of audio editions and games and trading cards. Not only that, he's the man behind the pen for a variety of other fantasy art projects: Beowulf board games, Anne McCaffery book jackets, Magic: The Gathering cards, children's books, and folk tales such as Rip Van Winkle and Jack and the Beanstalk. Howe has also illustrated books on dragons, knights and "how to" instructional manuals for how to draw your own fantasy art.

    But Howe's stature as a fantasy artist catapulted to new heights when Peter Jackson tapped him and Alan Lee, another prominent Tolkien illustrator, to serve as conceptual designers for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson has said that even before he hired Howe, the illustrations that Howe drew of Gandalf (see banner image above), Bag End, the Balrog and the Nazgûl's flying beasts helped guide his vision for Middle-earth.
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  • Godzilla (2014)

    Do we need another Godzilla?

    Do we need more scenes of this primordial, wailing, rubber-suited monster interfacing badly with humankind? Need we witness the ongoing struggles of this beast, as he battles other implausible creatures, as they all wreck our cities like piles of blocks and HO-scale train sets?

    In short, we do. Yes we do.

    2014 is a giant year for pop culture. The Mac computer turned 30. D&D turned 40. Dr. Who celebrated the Big 5-0, while the Beatles also invaded U.S. shores five decades ago. This year, our beloved Godzilla, also hit a milestone, springing to radioactive life 60 years ago.

    It all began in 1954, when Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka channeled his nation's fears about atomic power into a wild thing sacking Tokyo. In Japanese, the creature is called "Gojira," a combination of the words for "gorilla" and "whale." Some 29 Godzilla movies have since arrived, some American, but mostly made in Japan.

    Now comes number 30, from British director Gareth Edwards, here to remind us that our need to enact fantasies and nightmares about domination by monsters is as strong as ever.

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