Monday, November 29, 2021

A Slurry of Film Reviews: Resident Evil, Ghostbusters Afterlife, and Eternals

 After watching these three movies over the course of the holiday week, I feel burnt out and disillusioned - a bit - with the film industry. It's not that it hasn't had its problems, but watching these three movies in sequence really hammers home how corporate and calculating a big chunk of the film industry is these days. Call it the Disneyfication of films in general, or maybe its just the result of a craft which can't afford to misstep in today's post-pandemic box office, but none of these films were especially visionary (well, Eternals had its moments), and all three were very, very carefully calculated to pander to a certain kind of audience.

Rather than review each individually and at length, I thought I'd try to encapsulate my take on each in as succinct a manner as possible. I wish to note that of the three, only Eternals really stands out, chiefly because while it is a Marvel movie, it barely feels like one (until some line or reference is thrown in every few minutes to remind you that yes, this is taking place in the MCU). That alone makes it a better general fare than the other two films, neither of which are anything more than a desperate attempt to produce something which generate the most likes from over-dedicated fans in Reddit and Youtube (and all the rest of the social media ilk). goes...Note: Some Spoilers Ahead! 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife 

A film which reminds us that Ghostbusters 2016 was at least a movie that understood it was part of a comedy franchise, this new installment leans heavily into a Spielbergesque (or, I am told, Stranger Things-esque) revisionist take on the Ghostbusters as something to be deeply nostalgic and sentimental about. It populates the movie world with a persistent series of direct throwbacks to the original movie in the most pandering, fetishistic nostalgia-fueled manner possible, and gets people like Kevin Smith to have deeply emotional reactions to what is fundamentally a movie that feels like 1/2 "young adult novel" reinvention of the Ghostbusters concept mixed with quasi-religious reverence for all things of the original movie, aimed presumably at adults who were kids when they saw the first one and didn't get all the SNL-style humor. We probably all have movies a bit like that; for me it's Alien and The Empire Strikes Back, but it's definitely not this movie. I mildly enjoyed the artless ways in which the film reverentially, almost fetishistically, took no chances and filled its run time with artifacts, spooks and concepts all directly from the original movie, while providing a mostly neutral to unlikable cast of kids who, in the end, are entirely overshadowed by a brief series of unsurprising original cast cameos. Also, a CGI Egon, for whom I hope his family estates are properly compensated. 

Overall rating: C- but I did enjoy seeing Gozer with modern special effects. This movie is technically watchable, but clearly I am not and have never been the target audience for a "serious take" on the Ghostbusters franchise. My son loved it though, and this movie was definitely for him. But make no mistake....this film offers no vision and ends with an after-credits that threatens more of the same. Ghostbusters is no longer a comedy, apparently. That was their take-away from the failed 2016 reboot (which I think could have been notably better if it had simply not tried to be a reboot). I suggest avoid, unless you have someone who is 10 who loves Ghostbusters in your life, or someone who is spiritually 10 when it comes to this franchise (or even yourself, if you are deeply committed to the series!).

If you've never seen or cared much about Ghostbusters before, while this film is technically competent, I am not at all sure the storyline will make a lot of sense to you, or the constant, never-ending callbacks to the original movie will make much sense, but hidden within this movie is the core nugget of something that could be much better if it weren't hampered by its IP.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

The first 25 or so minutes of this movie felt promising, as it took some core conceits of the original games and then took its precious time to build up a bit of dread and atmosphere. Not strictly following the game plots, it still took the core conceit of the series (such as Leon being a rookie on his first day, and Claire returning home to find her brother Chris) and proceeded to make Raccoon City spooky and interesting in a promising way. Then, someone reminded the movie makers that they were supposed to make a Resident Evil movie that covers the first three games' worth of content with an hour and a half left to do it and the entire film suddenly spins into a weirdly paced yet atmospheric overdrive as it tries to jam into its remaining run time what took 30-40 hours of game play to experience. The result was....watchable, but I have to be honest, Sunday I was trying to even remember what movie we'd seen on my son's birthday a few days' prior! 

The good news is: whoever was in charge of the cinematography, the look and feel, got it down quite well. There's some stuff here which just drips with atmosphere, and there are lots of faithful replications of locations directly from the game. What was missing was any sense of pacing as related to the original games; the movie, rather than take the original Resident Evil and expand on the idea of a haunted mansion tied to a secret lab where a virus that makes zombies gets loose, instead conflates that event with the entirety of the second and third games' plotlines, almost as if the screenwriter was told to "make this movie follow the games, but do it in a short run time." The result is a mess of beats that come from certain highlighted moments in the games, but jumbled about as if someone had a puzzle but were missing most of the pieces. Or maybe they were handed a list of things that someone thought needed to be in the movie for it to be considered "authentic," possibly from a Reddit focus group.

Also, worth noting is that some of the actors really don't feel "right" here. Jill is not Jill. She doesn't even get her signature hokey lockpick line (which is on that aforementioned list), it is instead given to Claire. Leon's actor has the right face, but he is turned into an incompetent klutz and had a brief character arc which boils down to "I shot one zombie, and then I found a rocket launcher and lived" by the end. On the plus side, the actors for Chris, Claire and Wesker work fairly well. 

Overall Rating: C- but tempted to give it a C+ for at least getting the look and feel of creeping around the Spencer Mansion right (when they aren't exploding zombies). The first 20 minutes was a solid A-, however, and I wish they had run with their early instincts and made a movie that worked for its medium rather than another "by the numbers" attempt to appease Resident Evil fans with the basest clinical attempt at pandering, or even better, just made a different movie. "Look! We have that zombie who looks over his shoulder! Here's that zombie dog! Here's Wesker, being Wesker!" And the one thing that was new to the franchise (a creepy survivor of a Birkin experiment) felt out of place and utterly unaddressed in the film, only there because it felt like they needed one original idea in the film even if it was given no purpose than to hand off a bundle of keys which, of course, have unique markers that were themselves a call-back to the game even if they were not at all used for such a purpose in the movie. Yeesh.*

Side note! If you know nothing of Resident Evil and just want to see a good horror movie with zombies then I think you may enjoy this one. As a pure horror zombie film without worrying about RE lore stuff it's probably a C+ and worth a watch if you can see it on the cheap.


What happens when you get an amazing director with a vision, an obscure comic property from a guy who always thought big in his story ideas, and then let that film maker create a story that they want with the only restriction being that it must fit within your existing Cinematic Universe? The Eternals is what happens. This movie should not have been part of the MCU, but if it wasn't part of the MCU no one would likely have gone to see it, so its kind of a catch-22. The movie has some noteworthy elements, key among them being that it largely breaks tradition and is the first Marvel movie in quite a while to not follow the by now very standard formula/script of the typical Marvel film. Among other things this movie had some sense of gravity, a weight to what was going on which would have been stronger had the film not been in the MCU. If the film were its own universe then the ending would have been utterly captivating, as we the audience would wonder "how will this end?" with utter uncertainty. But because it is an MCU film we know how it will we know there will be more Marvel films after it, so the only question becomes "How does this lead in to future movies?" instead.

Despite the fact that the film reminds us every ten or fifteen minutes that its in the MCU, it resonates well as its own deal, and in so doing changes much of the landscape of the Marvel universe (sort of). It feels to me like its indirectly setting up for a future Fantastic Four film (for reasons that are not obvious unless you are familiar with the big world-ending beats that the FF regularly deal with), and its post credits appear to threaten us with a more conventional "Guardians of the Galaxy" styled sequel in the future, but all about Eternals, followed by a post-after-credits event that is so obscure your conventional Marvel fans will have to ask the real hardcore fringe fans what it is alluding to. Hint: another Disney+ TV series down the road about a character I vaguely recall being an Avenger from the 80's, and I have no idea if he's had any story development since then.

Overall Rating: B+ and this would have been a great movie to stand on its own, apart from the MCU it is locked in to, but I also suppose it would not have succeeded without that attachment. I can't decide if I am really looking forward to future Marvel movies about obscure comic characters who's books I would not have bought on the shelves, either now or back in the day, when they were actually being created and written about, but as Marvel movies go this one is surprisingly bold in its derring-do. I actually had multiple romantic interests, an actual scene suggesting some of these characters have sex at one point, and a mild gay romance which felt artfully part of the story and not a deliberate effort to pander. Most Marvel movies seem to stay far away from this, implying no one in the Marvel universe is ever allowed to have a meaningful relationship for various reasons (having to do with trying hard not to offend too many focus groups at once, I think). This one just....let the characters be human, which is ironic in a movie about Eternals. 

So I need to see some better movies to scrub my brain. Spider-Man's next movie, filled with three film franchise reboots' worth of call-backs, is coming soon, and I don't think I can take another round of this!

*Important to note that my problem here is, why make the keys look like actual keys from the game? Why do this at all? They could just have been a normal key for purposes of what the story needed. It's a needless detail that will go over the heads of people who don't know about RE lore, and an annoying detail for fans who will feel like these keys are there for recognition purposes at the expense of coherence. It's like in the earlier Ghostbusters: Afterlife film: why is the stack of books there? Why is the crunch bar there? So you can go "Hey, I remember that!" and the studio hopes that is enough to trigger your nostalgia love for the film. Please, Hollywood, stop.

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Temple of Set for Mythras

Okay, this is officially very cool: The Temple of Set, a new Mythras module for use with Classic Fantasy is out, and it's Egyptian themed! Love the cover, and the interior art is equally awesome, so far as I read through I really, really want to run this:

You can find it in PDF and POD on Drivethru here (link), or just go directly to The Design Mechanism and get it in PDF or through POD at Lulu (here). 

This is reinvigorating my interest in running Mythras. I had been working on campaign ideas earlier this year but my enormous workload prompted me to stick with easy to run stuff for a while, but time is freeing up again, so I think this module makes a great excuse to revisit what I can do with Mythras going into the Winter and 2022. 

Roll20 actually has a Mythras character sheet someone devised, which says it supports various setting books, including Classic Fantasy....I need to check this out. Although, ideally, I'd like to run it face-to-face my plan would be to start running this as soon as my Saturday group winds down on the ongoing Pathfinder 2E campaign, which has just hit level 7 and may be, depending on how much people want to do in terms of plot and exploration, about 5 sessions away from a suitable resolution (or 20 if they just want to keep going), so who knows. Maybe as a side-game on the Mothership night, to break up the grim space game with some old-world action and adventure for levity? Hmmmm.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Mulling over future game plans

 Brief post! Just a fun one as I muse on future plans.

Right now I am running D&D 3.5 live every other week, a campaign focused heavily on hexploration (without hexes, I only have grid paper), dungeon crawls, liberal adaptation of old Necromancer Games modules and a setting ripped right from 500 AD (but with, you know, more D&D in it). Then every other week I have an ongoing live Call of Cthulhu game, which I expect to last 2-4 sessions, but who knows, maybe it will go longer. Saturday I am running Pathfinder 2nd Edition on Roll20. I have been warming back up to it, albeit with the caveat that Pathfinder 2E will never quite feel as liberating to design for as D&D 3.5, but we all agree that we have fun playing it (it plays very well), and there is a lot of group investment in the campaign.

Meanwhile, semi weekly I am running Mothership RPG on Roll20, and it is quite fun....but also the kind of game where I can see how it may be best handled in periodic doses. It's extremely focused in its content, so every game feels like a dense dose of B-movie sci fi horror maxed out. This is good....but I could see overdoing it after 10 sessions or so. But hell yeah it is good! Just maybe best to broaden the focus to mix in a periodic palette cleanser.

For my new campaign ideas going in to winter and 2022, I have given some thought to what I most enjoy and wish to focus on. As one gets older, it becomes inevitable that you start to grow familiar with your preferences and find less and less trouble leaning hard into them. As such, I realize that I have some very specific interests, and those interests are remaining tighter and more consistent, which I really appreciate; I feel like maybe at last I am shedding my days as a "chasing the shiny" behind. Slowly.

So the first and biggest thought I have is: More D&D 3.5. It's a very robust system, and essentially complete since no one publishes for it anymore (if you exclude Pathfinder 1st edition stuff, which is technically compatible). I realize now I have enough D&D 3rd to last me to my dying days, easily. The stuff that annoys me about 3.5 is easy enough to ignore or modify, whereas the stuff that bugs me about D&D 5E requires a more fundamental rebuild, so I think its just easier to stick to 3.5 and be done with it. These are words I would never have thought I'd have typed 13 years ago. 

The second big thought is: more Cypher System. Monte Cook Games has the new Planebreaker Kickstarter out, and I decided to back it with the intent of getting the Cypher System version. I learned a lot earlier this year running my Realms of Chirak campaign in Cypher System, and one of those lessons I learned is to fit the setting with the system better....Chirak was born of an ancient and unholy mixture of Runequest and D&D back in the day, and is best if it stays in that wheelhouse, My next Chirak campaign will be in Pathfinder 2E or D&D 3.5, instead. Cypher, instead, deserves all the creativity and newness I can pour in to it, and I really want to explore my post-apocalyptic space opera campaign ideas for the next campaign.

If you follow this blog (and I know blogs are very out of style these days!) then you know I go back and forth on a few issues with Cypher System and Pathfinder 2E. In considering what I will do next with these systems, I think it boils down to this:

Cypher System: I want to look carefully at the way encounters/challenges are framed in Cypher, and how to make that work without defaulting to the more conventional RPG tropes set by D&D. Especially as Cypher character get to around Rank 4, when they become ominously powerful against conventional threats. 

Pathfinder 2E: On this one, the issue I have in mind is: can Pathfinder 2E run in a "loose hexcrawl" structure similar to the open-ended campaign I am running for D&D 3.5? Could I adapt 3rd edition style modules to Pathfinder 2E and not find balance issues that unnecessarily put PCs at risk of death? The Gamemastery Guide talks about hexcrawling as an option, but I am curious as to how it would really work and feel in play. I am not 100% sure my gaming group is good for this style of game, at least with Pathfinder, as I have some rules lawyers who can very quickly do the mental math to ascertain whether an encounter is disproportionately unbalanced either for or against the group, and that sort of balancing issue is core to encounter design in Pathfinder. I haven't reconciled this, but I do feel it is worth investigating....time will tell. D&D 3.5 is much looser and can handle this fluidity a lot better. I, for example, could have a mixed level group in D&D 3.5 without much difficulty at all, but in Pathfinder 2E it is very clear that PCs should never be more than 1 level apart, and ideally all the same level.


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Mothership: Running Ghost Ship from Dissident Whispers

One of the books published by Tuesday Knight Games is Dissident Whispers, a great collection of dozens of short 2 page modules for various game systems, including system neutral, original B/X D&D (and therefore compatible with OSE), D&D, Mork Borg and more. Key among the selection is 11 modules for use with the Mothership RPG, which is one of this new wave of RPGs that I think spawned out of the Zine Quest movement to focus on tight but versatile RPG designs and modules which function with the utmost brevity while still delivering content.

Two page modules aren't new, and prior years have seen products focused on one-page dungeon crawls and other "brief' but useful designs for DMs with an excess of creativity/flexibility but a dearth of time. These modules work really well for me, once you figure out the intended structure of the designer's narrative (or lack of it), as they are very similar to how I used to write modules, especially back in the nineties and early 00's, using a round outline, notes and some charts to identify what I needed to know. I tend to write more robust modules for my own use these days, but module designs like this allow for a high degree of customization and improv....they are essentially skeletons on to which you can drape all the flesh and clothing you want, and can be very suitable to GMs who benefit from this style. If you're not sure if this style is for you, ask yourself this question: does a 2 page module with lots of brief ideas that can last 2-3 sessions easily sound appealing, or does a 64 page Adventure Path module from Paizo, in which you might get about as much actual content as the 2 page module, but with a massive additional word count and a lot of hand-holding and pathing provided by the author? Or, like that, but in a 300 page Wizards of the Coast tome? The appeal of that 2 page module is strong if you're not so worried about improving details as needed.

The first module from Dissident Whispers that I picked is Ghost Ship, a fun romp through a haunted ship with shades of inspiration from various haunting movies and a nod to Event Horizon, the grandmaster of B-Movie ghost ship stories. The premise of the module is incredibly simple: the lost ship Somnus reappears periodically out of nowhere in random locations, people investigate, and they get trapped when it disappears again. Meanwhile, on the actual ship are actual horrifying ghosts, an eerie alien artifact and a mad android to contend with. The module is only two pages, but I will go in to no further detail; we're on session two as of last night and the group ended on a cliffhanger that likely will solve the mysteries (or blow them up). 

If there's a negative to this module, it is that it is, after all, only two pages and while it provides quite enough content for you to run a good 1-3 session game, if you happen to be using Roll20 for a VTT game like I am, there's no real VTT support. I took a lazy route and copy/pasted the tiny ship map from the PDF into a Roll20 window, but it looks god-awful blown up; still, asking for a ton of VTT support from the module seems a bit much; I could have taken some time to draw or design a custom map easily enough, just call me lazy/low prep.

Because the core module is more of an outline on which you can choose (or not choose) to drape as much additional exposition, description and detail as you wish I have had a bit of fun with the ghost manifestations and some other elements, but honestly this module provided just about all anyone would need to run a haunted house in space. Good stuff, in other words!

I'm planning to run more of the two-pagers in Dissident Whispers soon.....some are a bit convoluted (the logical flow doesn't work for me) and some are very high concept (Escape from the Violet Deathworld feels like an outline of a grand campaign) but all offer enough stuff to make for many fun nights of gaming.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Nitty Gritty of Game Collecting (and Balancing the collector with the gamer)

 I've been rebuilding my D&D 3.5 collection for almost a year now, and it's looking pretty robust. Almost 80% of the collection as I remembered it....the books I used with some regularity, or at least wanted to use...are back in the collection. My success at finding clean, nice copies has been pretty good, actually. Aside from a ratty first edition Creature Collection and a water-damaged original Tome of Horrors (oddly labeled "in mint condition" by the seller) I've had some major success.

Now, however, things are starting to get into the tricky gray area of books which I would like, but for which so would everyone else, and there aren't that many to go around. These books hold collector's values, and as a result are really difficult to secure copies for at prices I would consider reasonable for a copy that is destined to be read and used in play at the table. I'm not collecting for the heck of it....I want to use these puppies. 

Some of these books are particularly vexxing, too. Monster Manual IV and V are damned expensive, with the MM IV commanding $125 or more on average (though I found a mildly scratched copy for $79 after shipping, so I'll call that a win). The MM V, for reasons I assume are because of how late it was released in the D&D 3.5 lifecycle, is going for $200 or more easily. Yikes! Odds I will find a copy.....slim. 

One nice thing about Ebay is if you wait long enough, someone will pop up with a good quality copy of a book and either aren't too interested in gouging for it (want to make a quick sale) or they don't know what they have (didn't do the research). I secured a $55 like-new copy of the D&D 3.0 Book of Challenges this way, a price normally too low for a ratty copy, based on months of watching for it.

Still....this does mean that as I move forward, its going to be a harder (and slower) process to secure the books I want. MM V? Probably not anytime soon. Rappan Athuk Reloaded? Hah! Probably smarter to either spend less money on the very expensive D&D 5E edition of that module, or better yet, just go full 3E and buy the original trilogy in much cheaper format....maybe supplement it with the POD version or something. 

The print on demand market has helped, of course. Most Necromancer Games books don't cost too much these days, but I suspect that's because a bunch of them are available in POD at Even Rappan Athuk Reloaded, which is a $60 reprint can be found in POD, and suffers only for not being able to provide the original maps properly. 

Another side effect of collecting for ownership vs. collecting as a gamer is that I can at least narrow down what I want to own to "the stuff I will use." I have so far found no need for Book of Nine Swords (the shadow precursor to D&D 4E) or Magic of Incarnum (a book no one wanted to mess with back in the day). I can preemptively never worry about buying a disastrous Mongoose of FFE splatbook in 2021, since I have the retrospective to look back and know which 3PP were destined to be good and which ones just plain sucked.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying my 3.5E game every other Tuesday almost as much as my Cthulhu 7E and Mothership games. It is beating out Pathfinder 2E as well, which much as I like my world and setting for that campaign, I find myself constantly comparing PF2E to D&D 3.5 and wondering how it is that the many iterations of D20 strayed in such weird yet predictable ways. Even 5E is shelved for me, for a while at least; maybe when D&D 5.5 arrives it will tempt me again, who knows. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

On Mothership and The Haunting of Ypsilon-14

Mothership RPG and its first two modules (Haunting of Ypsilon-14 and the mega module Dead Planet) are available on  Roll20 now, so it was easy to get a game going at long last. By using Roll20 I was even able to create a mixed A team of local players and friends I gamed with across the country in my prior incarnations (or who moved elsewhere), so it was a great group!

The Haunting of Ypsilon-14 module in print is a wee cardstock trifold brochure promising an entire module. The online version through Tuesday Knight games' website conveniently includes three MP3 recordings you can play as the group finds various discarded cassettes during the module. These are professional-sounding recordings illuminating the grim last days of certain characters (one has some music), and lend to the mood quite my group is not too used to such theatrics so finding them in play is a novel reward.

I think the Haunting module is intended to be a one-shot to last an evening of play, and arguably it can probably take about 4 hours to complete by a highly organized and risk-embracing gang of players. My group took three sessions to complete the module, and I will admit I buffed it up a bit both to provide some extra challenge but also to motivate them to explore areas that my often more risk-averse players were resistant toward exploring. 

Mothership is the kind of game where players work best when they approach the experience with a tiny bit of delight in the nihilistic nature of it all. If you go in to Mothership determined to make level 10 and steal boasting rights from Ellen Ripley over your alien moderation skills then you might be missing some of the point of Mothership. Can you get to level 10? Sure, absolutely. But should you do so through the safest course of action possible, without a backup character? Most decidedly not!  As with Call of Cthulhu, if your character lives long enough to be committed to an insane asylum then you should consider that the best case win; CoC and Mothership both are games where if you find you truly love your character to the point that you wish them no harm, then your best course of action is to send them home, safely, to let other more daring souls with shorter lifespans handle the mysteries and many deaths lurking throughout the universe.

With all that said, my entire group did not lose a single character, though the NPC mortality rate was an astronomical 80% or more. The group, on average, took a fair amount of damage, and everyone's stress levels (Mothership's take on the sanity mechanic) are skyrocketing....therapy and recuperation alone do not readily reduce the Stress level of your PC, you have a chance to drop it a bit when leveling and maybe if the Warden (GM) is feeling especially kind and that's about it.

The Ypslon-14 module in print and with the MP3s is perfectly playable at the game table though some sort of general station map to track the action would help the warden. The Roll20 version was particularly nice, though, and the first time I ever bought and ran a preprogrammed module using Roll20. It was a nice experience, though I was hopelessly lost in figuring out how to handle map overlays and ended up defaulting to the old fashion fog of war option.

The Roll20 version includes NPC sheets and tokens, module pieces for all locations, the MP3 recordings and a nice retro SF map of the entire mining station your group will be trapped on while investigating the mystery surrounding Ypsilon-14.  It's a nice package, and as I mentioned it lasted 3 nights for us, a total of about 12 hours of gameplay.

Before I go any further in talking about the module: SPOILERS! I don't want anyone to stumble into secrets and information they did not want to know. Here goes....


Okay, so Ypsilon-14 is a mining station on which the party, while visiting on their freighter for routine company pickups, is asked by the station superintendent Sonya to check into the disappearance of a missing crewmember. As the group further investigates they discover more crew go missing, and something which is insidious, dangerous and invisible appears to be lurking....there is a secondary related mystery involving a dangerous yellow goo, and another visiting ship, locked in its own docking bay, with a mad doctor on board. Oh, and there's Prince the cat who has now been adopted by my players for reasons.

The trifold module provides an incredibly space-efficient layout for how to run the module. Too efficient, actually, because it provides no instructions on how to absorb the content it offers, and you sort of have to stare at it a bit and read through to realize what it is doing, but once you see it it will "click" and make total sense. It works like this:

1. There's a paragraph on why the crew is here, which if read verbatim can dispense with literally dozens of minutes of conventional preamble and warmup (my game started with them being mysteriously diverted to the mining station, building a little tension as to why the company sent them there). 

2. You then get a flow-chart layout of the station; a map can be nice, and is great in Roll20 to track who is where, but the trifold itself lets you see what is in each area descriptively, with arrows, connectors, lock icons and such to tell you how the place connects. It's direct, no-nonsense descriptions give the warden the outline and you can use it as directly or with as much additional riffing as you see fit.

3. You get a table of NPCs. You roll on this periodically to see which one goes missing.

4. You get a monster. Every few minutes you roll a D10 and that is the region of the ship the monster is lurking in next. It's tough, but if the group is tougher (has a marine or two) they can probably take it with some luck if you are not careful (they technically blew it to bits at the close of session 2, but more on that in a bit). The creature is meant to be a stealth striker, and does enough damage to hurt but not usually kill a PC in one round. How easily you make it for the PCs to get around on the station will impact how readily the beast is likely to corner and strike with success. 

5. You get three complications: the yellow goo, which is a substance that heals the monster but turns humans into a slushy over time, Dr. Gillespie who is on the locked down ship Heracles and is slowly dissolving to the goo while studying the monster, and the three tapes, of which the first is easy to find, the second requires the PCs to climb into vents (which a risk adverse group is unlikely to do), and the third requires boarding Dr. Gillespie's ship and confronting him. In the end, to insure they got to hear the tapes I places tape #2 near the vacant space suit in the mines and tape #3 was the mysterious final broadcast from the Heracles before the group left (they never investigated the Heracles, instead using laser cutters to weld the ship's bay doors shut).

....And that is it. The module is very simple and straight-forward, and you can modify it easily to season to taste. I, for example, made the following modifications:

Mixed Tapes; changed tape locations (as the players failed to follow up on certain angles of exploration). I also described them as "recordable media in EMP-hardened cases" rather than, essentially, space versions of 8-tracks because I am just not in to the idea of fetishizing the 70's style SF as often happens in Alien-inspired media (Alien: Isolation cough); the SF of the 70's had CRT monitors and green screen computers because it was the 70's and they had budgets and limited ability to predict near future changes. I have no such limits.

The Goo Origins: elaborated on the yellow goo, which is a macguffin designed to hint that water is a weakness of the substances and maybe the creature (not really); this worked in that when they found the wellspring of yellow good they obliterated it with a high pressure water pump cobbled from their ship. I used the yellow goo in more detail, since it was unclear to me how vacc-suited miners were getting it on themselves in the first place, suggesting instead sloppiness and the creature tracking the stuff around was the source of contamination.

Exploding and De-exploding the Alien: After the group blew up* the creature in session 2 I revealed its remains had gone missing; the yellow goo, it turns out, began regenerating the creature (as intended) but could do so even if it were chunked; the creature got one final hurrah that way, before they tricked it in to docking bay 2 and welded the doors shut. That means that as of the third session when they grabbed the human survivors (Sonya, Prince the cat, and Morgan who was covered in yellow goo and stuck in cryostasis) that they left the station with Dr. Gillespie and the creature still in the Heracles....

The Goo and Water: The yellow goo causes contaminated humans to react badly to water, but the module explains nothing further. I decided it's actually chemically converting water molecules in the human body, thus causing some of the breakdown. This lead to an avenue of exploration for the scientists and androids in the party. I riffed quite a bit on what the goo was, on analysis, because I love that sort of SF stuff, but someone running the module straight up could probably work with what info is at hand easily enough. 

Expanding on Mike: Mike was the first miner to disappear. I added another guy into the mix as well as a ruse: Jenkins, in case some of my players were secretly familiar with the module. I further decided that Mike didn't die; he became aware of the creature's use of its pod to heal, and then unsuited and entered the pod himself (deciding also that the properties of the yellow goo kept him alive in a vacuum). So when they investigated the pod, Mike appeared, which was a great scene as I described his yellow-goo covered body, the madness in his eyes as he lashes out, only to exploded in a cloud of vaporized goo when struck by the laser cutter, covering all of their vacc suits in yellow goo from his converted body. Good stuff!

In Space You Don't Have Gravity: the module identifies where in the mines you are in vacuum. It doesn't talk about gravity at all, so I assume when entering the mines everyone passed out of the artificial gravity well created by the station generator. How does it work? Dunno, but this led to a tense combat in the mines when everyone realized that projectiles can send you flying backward, and exploding stuff doesn't stop or slow down. 

The Mysteries of the Alien: The module suggests little about the alien and the pod it comes from, other than that the yellow goo heals it and does horrible things to things alien to it like humans. I toyed with the idea of how much to riff on this, and settled for a few sequences in play that built tension and mystery: the group discovered the yellow goo on analysis was biomechanical, a nanite slush, and that when they tried to see if it could be "communicated" with it did something horrible to the computers which crashed. They later discovered the alien in their own ship, attempting to override their mainframe to take control and broadcast a message. The implication: this is an alien stranded here, its pod either exiled to the asteroid or crashed. They never established what the deal was, and the module lets me figure that out. I can sense a Part 2: Return to Ypsilon-14 module in the future....

So all in all, a fun time was had by everyone. The module really does work best with a more relaxed crowd who is in to the genre; my friend playing the marine did a fantastic job of emulating the genre elements cemented so well in panicking marines from Aliens, and my other buddy played the unnerved scientist to a tee. My rules lawyer was a bit of a rough spot as Mothership is not as worried about nitty gritty details, such as a moment when I realized that there's really not a surprise mechanic in the system (just roll speed to see who goes before or after the monster). Both of my players who played androids really played it to the hilt....apparently Ash and David are exemplary of your average androids when it comes to top of the line models!

If you run the module, I have a couple of suggestions: advise the groups they can roll all teamsters, or maybe all teamsters and one scientist or android (or both). Marines with their basic loadout do make the creature less of a threat. As with the original movie Alien, a lot of the tension was due to the crew being average space truckers with no meaningful defensive gear.

My other suggestion is: as I did, change a few things a bit. I am reasonably sure at least one of the players had snagged the module ahead of time because their gear loadout looked suspiciously prescient, with items that the module assumes they won't start with access to. Throw that player off a bit in whatever way you think works best with some surprises.

We'll be doing Dead Planet next, and I have to say I can't wait. I have all the modules I can find so far between Tuesday Knight games, Exalted Funeral and DrivethruRPG and I plan on eventually running just about all of them!

FINALLY! The irony is not lost on me that this review is probably twice as long as the actual module.

*The marine in the group threw a grenade and rolled a spectacular critical on the hit as the creature rolled a fumble on its Combat armor check. The rules in Mothership seem to not provide guidance on what a crit success does to damage, if anything, but I ruled that you get maximum damage when criting on an attack. In Mothership parlance a frag grenade rolls 1D10 for damage, and in Mothership the line under the roll means "multiply by 10," so he did 100 damage on a crit! Frag grenades are deadly in space.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Modules and Their Many Sizes

 Short post today.....trying to remember to post more frequently (I got badly out of habit from the old days on 3 posts a week hell or high water). Yesterday several books arrived which I had been waiting for, and each was a lesson in varied design. In fact, it's rather insane how widely varied the approaches are in each of these books:

Aurora is the latest in a series of Mothership RPG adventures. It comes in a docket packet you must break to get in to, and the module itself is a handful of cardstock pages with the usual excellent minimalist design characteristic of Mothership adventures, in which you get a framework on which to drape your own interpretation of the horrors within.

Halls of the Blood King along with five other modules from Necrotic Gnome for Old School Essentials RPG is an example of how an economy of design (not unlike one sees with Mothership) gives you the framework of an adventure without bogging the GM down in details that are best handled by....the GM. Excellent maps, slick retro graphics that are modern but evocative of an older fantasy style without feeling pandering and a "to the point" design approach make this an incredibly approachable (and usable!) module.

The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is 1 part sourcebook on the Feywild to three parts adventure series, with some updated fey for 5E that I think many will be happy to see. The book is typical of Wizard of the Coast design, a large tome which aims at readability and shows more effort at structuring the overall plot into bite-size chunks, allowing DMs to manage it without too much fuss. 

This is actually two monstrous 400+ page tomes, the first one of which is split between a series of articles and interviews on the inception and impact of the oiginal module, followed by a faithful reprint of the original Village of Homlet and the 1st edition compilation of the Temple of Elemental Evil. It then dives into a massive retooling of the modules into 5th edition rules, which start in book 1 and spill in to book 2, ending with a massive bestiary and new items section. It is a gigantic tome, and lives up to this module's daunting reputation. I also think Goodman Games knows its audience leans older, as they use a big, readable font for the 5E section that is easy on older gamer eyes.

As I look at these books I realize that while I really would like to run The Temple of Elemental Evil, it's just...too much, man. It's also very traditional in design, in the sense that it communicates a lot of text-heavy exposition and depth. This is not something I'd notice or care about if not for modules like Aurora and Halls of the Blood King, which are actually more old school in design in the sense that they get to the point and leave much of the exposition to the GM. They are not genuinely old school, however, in the sense that actual old school modules were never this user friendly in design. Meanwhile, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is interesting but I can tell it's one of those modules I will read and maybe borrow a bit from before moving on. There might be some cool plots there....we'll see, I need to find time to read it.

But The OSE and Mothership modules? Yeah, those simple economies of design and brevity I can actually handle, they fit into my wheelhouse of usefulness.

Monday, September 20, 2021

More thoughts on running D&D 3.5, D&D 5th and Pathfinder 2E at the same time

 So for several months now I've been running three different games: a more or less weekly Saturday Pathfinder 2E game, and a rotating weeknight session that jumps between D&D 3.5 and D&D 5E. In Pathfinder the group has hit 5th level, so still relatively low powered. D&D 3.5 deliberately started at level 1 and has crept up to level 4ish for most of the group now. D&D 5E rolled in at level 3 and is hitting level 5. 

In each case I worked out a fairly detailed scenario/plotline to keep things focused. In Pathfinder the group is a gang of young acolytes in a local assassin's guild with strong political, patriotic ties to protecting the city itself. They face a crisis as the heir to the throne is killed, then resurrected under extremely suspicious circumstances, even as their senior leadership are taken out of action, leaving them alone to figure things out.

In the D&D 3.5 game I started with a level 1-3 zone in which I worked out a main dungeon of interest and several minor side quests. I then built it around leading in to a specific Necromancer Games module from the good old 3.5 days of Necromancer, which shall remain nameless in case any of my players are reading. The key conceit of this campaign is it is extremely sandboxy and open-ended; I don't care where the PCs go, as long as they do something of interest....I have most angles covered unless they suddenly decided to journey two hundred miles away in a random direction.

In the D&D 5E game I an running it in a different section of the same world the D&D 3.5 game is taking place, and it starts with a group of ragtag mostly monstrous heroes who work for a local investigator of an orc-dominated city; they are essentially given tough jobs that require protecting the interests of the city against the neighboring human kingdom which often mistrusts the orc-run area. The group is currently wrapping the latest investigation, into the attack and kidnap of a priestess who channels the will of a popular goddess, and it is exposing a deeper mystery of other groups who seem interested in sowing conflict between the orcs and humans. I started this campaign as a 3.5 venture for the first scenario, but then moved to 5E for the next storyline as I wanted to do exactly what this article is about: contrasting 3.5 D&D against its successors, 5E and PF2E.

Here's what I've learned now after several months of gaming:

Pathfinder 2E Remains Fun but it's Balance is Too Much 

Pathfinder 2E's rigidly designed skill system is annoying. Seriously, I wish it was a broader set of skills, and not so tightly woven into the structured pathology of Pathfinder's overly balanced advancement, balanced to the point of eerie predictability. In fact, after running a level 1-20 and some smaller campaigns in PF2E, I have decided that, in contrast with the editions it is meant to replace or compete with, that it's highly structured style just isn't as flexible or fun as prior editions have been. PF2E, on occasion, has been compared to D&D 4E, and I can understand why: it's design was handled with too much emphasis on a specific play experience, and not enough feedback clearly entered during design and playtest to allow for Paizo's team to realize that there are other styles of play which their new game would not support so well (such as at my table, where I am sick and tired of calling on Society checks or generic crafting checks or Nature, Survival, etc. etc. for myriad other skills that the PCs should actually have as separate skills).

 Do I still enjoy running it? Yes, particularly in Roll20, which makes it easy. But it is painfully clear that in contrast with 3rd edition and 5th edition D&D that Pathfinder 2E feels a bit more like a "sandbox playground where everything has been padded to prevent the players from escaping its confines." Moreover, my players describe PF2E as "A GM's game, for GMs who don't like uppity players." They like elements of it....such as how ancestries work, but they also sense that a lot of PF2E's design went in to removing the potential for players to design truly interest characters and unexpected synergies. 

As a GM I have come to realize that combat encounters of even 1 CR more than the players can be a pain in the ass and risk unexpected deaths and TPK, it simply doesn't have the range that you can get out of D&D's editions for encounter design due to its hard focus on tight balance. I have ranted about this in prior blog posts, of course, but to give you an idea: I mostly design encounters around a CR 1-2 less than the PCs. Anything more than that is too trivial, and anything except a rare CR+1 will be too deadly with remarkable consistency. 

D&D 3.5 Is Funner Now That It's No Longer The Only Game Around

Put simply: D&D 3.5's key flaws evaporate once people are playing it for fun and enjoyment and you no longer have a large player base and online presence talking about min/max game design and turning everything into an arms race. My group is having fun in a way that very much reminds me of the early fun days from 2001 to 2006. Sometime after that I feel the game hit a level of notoriety and the obsession with optimal builds began to infect everyone who played it. Now? It's just a fund game and I am enjoying a sandbox campaign with a group that is barely optimized for fighting paper bags, let alone serious stuff. I run it as a DM aimed at providing for a good time, and I don't worry too much about balance at all, a welcome reprieve from PF2E on the other game night.

One thing I realize with 3.5: I prefer the old skill system. It was flexible, a little unpredictable, and had more stuff in it that feels natural to call out for in the course of play. I am sure a great many people much prefer "perception" as a skill (or not at all in the OSR crowd) but I love the fact that Spot, Listen and Search are three different things and can reflect that one PC might be a keen eyed observer but have a hearing problem, while another PC might have bad eagle vision but can search methodically with great efficiency. Good stuff.

I don't anticipate running D&D 3.5 past level 12 or so, but who knows. 

D&D 5E Feels Better to Run with 3.5 Fresh in Mind

D&D 5E is good, and running it back to back with 3.5 makes me appreciate it more. Most interestingly, sometimes I find myself using 5E as a reference point for adjudicating some moments in 3.5, to keep tings simple. Other times I find myself tempted to house rule in a few items from 3.5 to 5E, but I try to restrain myself as much as possible. Like with 3.5, I suspect that as D&D 5E goes on I may grow a bit tired of its core simplicity and lack of dynamic elements in stuff like saves and damage; but I did decide with this campaign to run it using gritty resting rules and that is going a surprisingly long way toward my feeling like the players are "tough guys in a tough world" rather than the standard 5E trope of fantasy superheroes. Still...they've only just hit their good levels, so we'll see how things go in the coming months.

Also, I don't hate the D&D 5E skill system, at all. In fact, while I still like 3.5's granularity on skills,  will take the 5E skill system over PF2E's skill system any day.

After the group completes their current storyline, I am considering integrating a module, possibly Rise of the Drow, which I just snagged. We shall see.

Some Conclusions (so far)'s fun running three iterations of basically the same game, and seeing how my expectations and experience in one lend to observations and changes in the other two. The real takeaway I have gotten from this experience so far has been one about how I structure and focus on campaigns. Specifically: I am not as interested in the "big story" campaigns as I once was, and the D&D 3.5 game where I basically made a sandbox for them to do whatever (including regions of different levels they can wander in to regardless of their own level) has actually been the most fun. But my structured investigation stories in the 5E game have also been a lot of fun because I took some time to lay out interesting paths of discovery and skill challenges related to the investigations. It's "pseudo-rails" in that the PCs could, like, stop investigating and go elsewhere, thus ending the module, but they had motivation and interest to proceed so it worked. 

Meanwhile, the very structured big picture storyline which admittedly makes the PCs more integrated to the world and setting proved perhaps a bit too much in terms of scope and design. I realize now that I came up with a great idea, but then sort of left it as a "and so that happened," type event, without a lot to go after the main event. Luckily I proceeded to dive in to some of the smaller angles and pieces, fleshing out the game to feel more like a sandbox, but I concede it's hard to just do sandbox in PF2E because a good sandbox should allow for the PCs to get into more trouble than they can handle on occasion, and in PF2E that can quickly turn into a lethal TPK. So....we'll continue for a while on this one, but afterwards I need to think hard on whether I plan to continue with PF2E or not, because it almost....but not quite....manages to frame the sort of adventures I like to run, but just not as well as either D&D 5E or D&D 3.5, which both do it so much better.

Final conclusion.....turns out too much balance in design is not necessarily a good idea! Who knew?

Also, and this is extremely important to stress: the D&D 5E and 3.5 edition games both have a huge edge over Poor Pathfinder 2E, in that they are live games I am running in person. PF2E is online, and while the online tools make for an easier time of it, I know my lack of time to sink into enhancing the graphic elements of the experience factor against the game to some degree, as does the predilection for the overall experience to be a generally less satisfying experience than the sort where normal humans are able to see each other live and not share a single audio channel. So, I must concede that PF2E in a live environment might still be a better overall experience than I am giving it credit for. Poor Pathfinder though....I think I got about 10 levels in to the original campaign when it had to migrate to online due to the pandemic, and its more or less lingered there ever since. May need to change that soon.

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Undead Mohrg for Old-School Essentials RPG

 As some may have noticed, I love Mohrg. These fiendish undead are a sort of hyper-advanced ghoul with a long proboscis/tongue that paralyses targets and makes for a generally fine mid-tier foe. Just ask my regular players! They have many mohrg horror stories.

Anyway, here is the mohrg for OSE, my new favorite D&D variant:


Mohrg are terrifying undead forged from the vile souls of serial killers and murderers. They resemble skeletons with a writhing mass of organs and flesh in their body cavity and skull, from which emerges a hideous tentacle-like purple tongue covered in paralytic slime.

Mohrg are noted for their unrelenting sense of commitment to the evil ways that led them to their fate. When mohrg gather in groups this can quickly lead to a unique and terrifying epidemic of undead in the form of zombies and new mohrg.

AC 3 [16], HD 8 (36 HP), Att 2X slam (1D6+3 plus grab) and 1X tongue (1D4 plus paralysis), THACO 12 [+7], MV 120’ (40’), SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12 (8), ML 10, AL chaotic, XP 1,750, NA 1 (1D6), TT R, U

Slam if the mohrg strikes with both blows it can restrain the target with a grab long enough to gain +2 on its tongue attack.

Tongue save vs. paralysis or become paralyzed for 1D4 minutes. Target can save each turn to end the effect.

Undead does not make noise until attacking, immune to effects that target the living (such as poison), immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.      

Create Spawn creatures killed by a mohrg rise in 1D4 rounds as zombie. When this happens the burst of necrotic energy heals the mohrg for 1 hit point per hit die of the slain creature and the mohrg gains the benefit of the haste spell until the end of its next round. On occasion some mohrg generate new mohrg instead of zombies as an effect of slaying a foe. These mohrg are exceptionally dangerous. When a mohrg slays a target, there is a 10% chance that it returns as a new mohrg instead. At the GM’s option any evil character slain by the mohrg has a 50% chance of returning as a new mohrg.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Okay I can see why so many People Love Old-School Essentials

 One of my friendly local game stores has taken to stocking all sorts of hard to find indie and OSR titles in recent months and this has allowed me to, among other things, get my hands on Old School Essentials RPG, specifically the Advanced Player's Guide and Advanced Referee's Guide. These have been genuinely difficult to find online, always appearing to be sold out wherever I go. Admittedly, part of me was also suspicious that should I buy OSE, I'd just be getting yet another variant on the exact same classic B/X/Advanced experience I have in countless other tomes.

Well, while it is certainly true that I have bought yet another OSR variant, I can now see (and very quickly, I might add) why Old-School Essentials RPG is no mere OSR heartbreaker, but a genuinely good game as well as a noteworthy evolution in what it means to be an OSR homage to D&D.

For starters....OSE seems focused on an economy of design, form over function, but also providing a clear and distinct vision in terms of graphics and layout. It's art is simultaneously reminiscent of old school aesthetics (particularly if you equate Erol Otus as high on that list) and still evocative in a manner which feels modernized. The look of OSE is retro-inspired but contemporary, and also it helps that there was clearly a budget for the art, so I am not seeing any old familiar packaged art so common in older OSR works (including my own).

Second, OSE seems to be about capturing the essence of B/X along with Advanced D&D in principle, but it sheds no tears over providing a modern framework to handle contemporary expectations. A few examples of what I mean:

--Optional multiclassing, but not limited to specific races, nor are humans restricted; and a GM who wants those restrictions can decide to do so on their own terms;

--Both class as race and race as its own thing (in the Advanced books, at least); handled well enough that I would readily allow players to pick their preference, and on top of that it embraces drow, svirnfeblin, duergar and gnomes who often for inexplicable reasons get short changed in other OSR products;

--Level scaling embedded in the spell mechanics....a very modern notion, one which aligns OSE much more closely to modern iterations of D&D and in fact does a really nice job of making the scaling even easier and more interesting than, say, D&D 5E.

There are a few items that feel needlessly excluded, I suppose: notably there's an absence of demons and devils in the Referee's Book, which seems anathema to an "Advanced" version of the game; I have honestly been terribly unclear on exactly why it is so hard for an OSR version of D&D to embrace fiends, something in the late eighties that was singular for many in defining a distaste for TSR's capitulation to the moral panic with AD&D 2E. There are obviously specific reasons certain authors choose not to include them, part of the "author's voice" coming through the game design, and that is another thing OSE does really well, as it has no author's voice....just a clean set of comprehensive old school themed rules. So not seeing demons or devils in the game is...weird.

Another oddity, one which doesn't bug me but nonetheless given the other modernities in OSE is surprising is the use of descending Armor Class as the rule of choice. It does provide for both options, though (I'm just blind and didn't notice it does cover this for both even after reading these books for hours, d'oh).

All that aside, if I can find a resources for demons and devils (which tend to play an important role in my own campaigns, especially my venerable Keepers of Lingusia campaign that started in 1981) then I could easily see running and enjoying OSE for a long time. It seems that some other gamers rely on Labyrinth Lord for their demons and devils, though it seems to me my current AD&D Monster Manual reprint would also work just fine.

So...OSE is really damned good. I am impressed! I should have tried harder to find this a while ago.