Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tightening Up the Collection: Endgame? A Lean, Mean Collection of RPGs

I've narrowed my game collection down...dramatically....and it's been reduced, essentially, to the following titles and associated sourcebooks:

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (All WotC books and a selection of 3PP)
13th Age (all Pelgrane books and one 3PP)
Traveller (All Mongoose 2nd edition only, Traveller edition of Mindjammer)
Starfinder (almost everything so far released, and select 3PP)
Cypher System (All Cypher System and Numenera books plus The Strange and Vurt)
Genesys Core RPG (plus Realms of Terrinoth)
Pathfinder (Pocket Book Editions only!)
Call of Cthulhu (All 7th Edition and a select few earlier titles)
Delta Green (Well, this stuff is new, the Arc Dream edition which I am really enjoying right now)
Basic Roleplaying BGB
Magic World
Cthulhu Dark Ages
Mythras (plus Monster Island and Classic Fantasy, but I'm debating about the value of the latter)
GURPS (all of whatever I still have, which is mostly 4th plus favorite 3rd edition books)
Savage Worlds (core plus genre books, and a couple sourcebooks I love like Tropicana, Zombacalypse and The Last Parsec)
Fantasy AGE (and assorted sourcebooks)

...that constitutes the sum total of "games I continue to own because I run them a lot." Or like to think I will soon.

I also have retained in my "collection" part of the collection the following books which I plan to read and maybe some day run:

Symbaroum (all books released)
Conan: Adventures in and Age Undreamed Of (All releases so far)
Infinity RPG (all books so far)
Unknown Armies (3 book box/screen set)
Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles Deluxe Edition
Mekton Z Reprint
Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls (and related recent releases; all my old stuff from the seventies and eighties has gone to a fine group of diehard collectors via ebay)
Metamorphosis Alpha (the hard to find one from SignalFire; I recently snagged it when I got hold of the producer of the game on his new KS to find out what happened to my copy)
...maybe one or two miscellaneous games I have missed.

But that's it. Depending on whether or not you're a major collector, that list will either sound anemic or immense. To me, this is very anemic, possibly the smallest I've kept my collection since 1995, when I mostly had a medley of AD&D 2nd edition, Call of Cthulhu and GURPS.

The new collection is missing pretty much all of my old OSR collection, which I sold off. As sad as I was to let some of it go, the truth is it was always more fun to read and explore than to actually do anything with. My key exception is White Star Galaxy Edition, but I didn't mind selling it for a very specific reason: the print edition on rpgnow is much higher quality than the cheap-o copy with thin paper and bleed through that I got through Lulu, so I plan to snag a nicer copy that way.

Another reason I got rid of some items is repetition. A lot of RPGs today, thanks to the OGL, tend to be variants of the same system. Most OSR titles are a result of this, and a lot of D100 system titles stem from the Legend OGL. Traveller has a similar (minor) problem of such nature with the Cepheus Engine (which come to think of it I do have in print, too). So a goal has been to reduce the amount of system redundancy in my collection. I still have a few areas where I could shave off a bit here and there. Luckily for D&D 5E, 13th Age, and Pathfinder despite their common ancestry I feel like each is distinct in its own right. But Mythras, Magic World, and BRP? An argument could be made.....and I've already cleared out all the other OGL-Legend derived homages and variants, including Legend itself (and yes that means I have decided to give up on OpenQuest, though I think it a worthy game, along with River of Heaven, M-Space, D10 Revolution and many other spinoffs from the Legend OGL).

I sometimes feel like as glorious as the OGL has been to promote hobby growth, some of that growth has been in a perverse, inward direction that stiffled innovation in the name of repetition.* I see it as a positive trend on the odd days, and a deleterious one on the even days, I guess.

But, I digress....

This grand plan to slim it all down does make me question why I am backing any further Kickstarters right now. Hmmm.

I'm still thinking of further ways to slice it down even more. For example, I almost never run modules. Ever. So why do I own so many for certain games? Things to think about.

*And the canonization of what amounts to a compendium of house rules or heartbreakers disguised as OGL variants.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Here at last: The Advanced Labyrinth Lord Kickstarter is Live (and Funded)

It's here!

I've been eager to get a combined edition of Labyrinth Lord for some time, since the OSR experience I uniquely enjoyed back in the 80's when it was New School was a mix of B/X D&D and AD&D, and Advanced Labyrinth Lord handles that quite nicely.

UPDATE I've tentatively backed this....I love that Orcus cover (#2).....but still debating. I just eliminated close to 85% of my game collection, not sure I want to start down that road again. On the plus side, the newer covers for the Advanced LL look more "sellable" to contemporary groups; I've never been a fan of covers #3 and #4....I lack the deep nostalgic love of the crappy game art from the seventies and eighties necessary to properly appreciate those two covers. Erol Otus's art style is a huge exception, as he had a unique style and quality that went beyond the usual "I want to draw fantasy but never took an antomy class and perspective is haaaaard" style of most art from the time. But seeing as Otus is not doing any of these covers, I'll opt for #2 and #1 in that order.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The E3 Trailers: Cyberpunk 2077, The Division 2, and The Last of Us 2

This is the only new game announcement from E3 that I am really genuinely excited for. It might at least partially be because there's an idea floating around that RTG and Mike Pondsmith will release an updated Cyberpunk RPG book to accompany the computer game, but even if that never happens this trailer really sells it to me:

There were only two other games to genuinely excite me at E3's releases. One was The Division 2:

In many ways The Division damaged my love of Fallout as a franchise with it's brutal "day after tomorrow" approach to quasi realistic depictions of the collapse of civilization.

Finally, I have to admit, The Last of Us 2 looks to be the third and possibly best upcoming release shown at E3:

A Naughty Dog game is a must buy for me. I have never been disappointed by any of their titles.

As for the rest.....Gone Home looks good but the newer trailers leave me wondering where the zombie hordes went.* Anthem looks cool but EA has managed to tank multiple games that should have been hits out of the park so I'll wait and see. This is one the whole family is interested in, but if they load it full of micro-transactions and loot boxes then it's a no go for me. Starfield is a minute long trailer promising something awesome, probably in 2021, and Elder Scrolls VI after it. Don't even get me started on the weird community building MP survival sim that they're turning Fallout 76 in to. But Cyberpunk 2077? Yeah, this one is going to be big.

*You don't see them in The Last of Us 2's trailer, either, but Naughty Dog has earned my total confidence that whatever they offer will be amazing. The producers of Gone Home have shown a lot of cool trailers....but the proof is in the play.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Starfinder Logs: The Rise and Fall of the Aeon Empire

Stretching across the spinward stretch of the Conarium Expanse and spilling in to the area known as Necrospace are the remnants of the old Aeon Empire. Drawn from the advancement of the ancient Haradrim Imperial Consortium on the planet Tesophar, this budding starfaring world became a hub of activity as its united consortium of mercantile organizations expanded outward into the stars after the discovery of the Drift, when elders of the Order of Triune arrived to spread the word of their stellar god.

Within two centuries the Haradrim Imperial Consortium had grown to cover nearly one hundred worlds of varying habitability, from old Tesophar the capitol to remote Tyrnaides, a colony world on the edge of known space at the time. It is said that the Consortium prospered like this for five centuries before conflict arose. The House of Aeon rose up, already known for its military factories and private mercenary companies, and the first elder of the house, Teodan, decided that the Consortium no longer served any purpose. In a war lasting a century the old rule of merchant houses fell and Aeon rose up, declaring Teodan emperor. He ruled for two more centuries using unnatural aging practices both biogenic and arcane to sustain his lifespan before being assassinated by his great granddaughter, Persemene, who took the reign as empress.

The Aeon Empire was said to have lasted a thousand years and covered as many planets, spreading throughout the region called the Haden Expanse and the spinward rim of the Conarium Expanse which defied even the Aeon Empire's efforts to conquer and expand. Haden Expanse was dominated by the Empire, but when it fell, it was renamed Necrospace.

The Aeon Empire ruled through fear and paranoia. It's reign of long lived near-immortal emperors went through six successions, starting with Teodan, then Persemene, who later was killed and replaced by her clone sister Amoree, who died in battle not long in to her rule and was replaced by her son Gathas. Gathas ruled three centuries before tiring of his reign, and he handed off control to his son Spartos before traveling with an explorer fleet into the Unknown Vast. Spartos ruled for two more centuries before being assassinated by his own son Veros.

Veros was the last ruler of the Empire before it collapsed in civil strife and the necrophage plague. The Empire's fall was precipitated by a rise in insurgent worlds seeking to escape the totalitarian grip of the Emperor. The leader of these worlds was Caliria, a peaceful world which was located along the edge of the Empire's expansion in to the Conarium Expanse. A rebellion fomented here and in neighboring worlds, and opposition leaders gained secret funding from the Karthan Star Empire which was troubled by the Aeon Empire's presence and hostility. The Azlanti Empire, which had only recently discovered this region, also sought a way to undermine this dangerous rival deep in the Vast and provided carefully smuggled munitions and military training.

The colonial uprising sent Veros in to a tailspin, first murdering and usurping his father and then instituting a weapons program to wipe out his enemies. This led to rumors of a secret shipyard where spies claimed the Empire was building super weapons. The shipyard was rumored to be in an all-but-impossible to locate region of space in the Unknown Regions called the Vortex, where a convergence of of singularities created a unique portal in to the Drift. There the Empire had forged a military base called Terminus Station. When the Empire collapsed all records of this location were scrubbed, and to this day no one knows where the secret weapons manufacturing station is located.

In the final days of the Empire it is said that Emperor Veros assembled a vast fleet and went to bombard Caliria into ash. En route the fleet was ambushed both from saboteurs and the secretly amassed colonial rebel fleet. The Emperor's power was decimated in one swoop, but not before he issued a command to a remote research station on the colony world of Tyrnaides. There, in the remnants of a ten thousand year old rusting space hulk found in the deserts of the ancient world researchers of the Empire had uncovered a rift into the Nether, where the planes of Chaos bled in to the mortal realm. They had studied the hulk and its bleed, and learned necromantic secrets which were blended with the cybernetic and biogenic research of the Empire. The result was the Death Plague, which in his final hours Veros ordered unleashed.

The death plague was an undead creating plague, which spread like wildfire from its seed point on the Blackstar Station around Tyrnaides and throughout the Empire and beyond. In the space of five years 90% of the Empire's worlds were devastated, as were many of the opposition and neighbor worlds. The Karthan and Azlanti Empires both quarantined the region until it was determined roughly 80 years ago that the death plague had apparently mutated and was no longer dangerous, though entire worlds were now overrun with the living dead, who often proved effective carriers. The Haden Expanse, once home to this vast Empire, was renamed Necrospace as a warning to all.

Despite the destruction of the Empire, a century later many worlds still thrive in the region, though travel is often restricted. Caliria survived, but it took extreme measures to do so, destroying any ships which arrived in-system from potential destinations in the collapsing Empire. Ironically Tyrnaides itself found the death plague largely burnt out, and the world was colonized by several kasathan clans fifty years ago, followed not long after by shobad raiders. Today Tyrnaides is a freeport and a safe haven for scavengers picking over the ruins of the old Empire. Few realize that it was the origin point of the death plague.

Today, travel restrictions in the region are either lifted or removed entirely, as the advances in Drift technology have made the ability to reinforce passage to and from quarantined worlds all but impossible; most worlds with high concentrations of the living dead are monitored by remote automated defense stations that warn visitors of the risk and shoot down attempts to leave a planet once visited. Of the thousand worlds of the Aeon Empire, less than 100 are considered "safe." Hundreds more were bombed out of existence....including the Capitol Tesophar, which was glassed from space by the old Calirian rebel fleet. After purging the lost worlds it is said that Caliria mothballed the fleet, though it was not destroyed, should it's need ever rise again.

Next: visiting Tyrnaides and Blackstar Station

Death Plague: Type: disease (two types: on contact or inhaled); Save: Fortitude DC 17 (contact) or DC 19 (inhaled); Track: Physical; Frequency: 1/hour; Effect: at the Impaired state victim acts like he suffers from Confusion for next hour; at bedridden state victim drops to 0 HP and becomes an undead (some type of zombie or ghoul usually) within 1D6 rounds. Cure: 3 consecutive saves. 

Notes: Contact is the common form encountered now, through being touched or bitten by undead created by the first wave plague. Inhaled is a rare original aerosol form of the plague. It may still be found in untouched century-old containers from the days of the Empire in rare military installations. Once released, this aerosol form remains effective for 1D6 months. Despite similarities to the necrophage which forged the legends of the ancient Tomb Ships, the death plague is not related....so far as anyone knows. At least one scholar named Abuman Sur on Tyrnaides is convinced that the death plague is only the latest in a series of life-destroying viruses introduced by the beings of the nether into mortal space, and that the lost world(s) from which the Tomb Ships hail may have suffered a similar fate.

The death plague is believed to have both biogenic and necromantic components. It's ability to affect across species is considered a potent element of the necromancy introduced by the addition of sorcery from the demons of the nether.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Starfinder Resources: sfrpgtools and more

If you're like me and have succumbed to the inexplicable but unrelenting siren call that is a complete and total love of the Starfinder Role Playing Game, you may be wondering about resources which will make life easier for you. One site I found which is of immense assistance is the golorious SFRPGTools.com site, where you can:

Make new armor, weapons and equipment
Roll up planets, systems and settlements
Generate random loot
Generate random encounters
Create new Starfinder Aliens and Monsters
...and more

The most useful tools on the above list so far are the monster generator which lets you very quickly create useful monster templates with a bit of tweaking (the generator doesn't auto factor in specific abilities so some minor modification is advised), and the loot generator, without which my poor Starfinder players might never find anything good anywhere.

Next up is Rogue Exposure, with a free adventure, pregens and ships available. Not sure if there will be more on the way, but if you need a free scenario with some decent stuff and ready made characters, take a look here. There's also a ton of podcasts to listen to if you're in to that.

You probably know of this one already, but the Starfinder SRD resource is available here. It's a great utility, especially if you either don't want to get the book, are too cheap for the $10 PDF or find the PDF difficult to search. As usual everything you could need (pretty much) to run the game is right here, but it's still best to support the Paizo book and get all that glorious, pretty art.

If you're looking for adventure ideas, check out Cosmic Homebrew for 100 adventure ideas. They even link it all in to a magical Adventure Generator!

Nerds on Earth has five more detailed adventure write ups that each look pretty fun, as well.

As usual, this is stuff I've found useful but if you've found good stuff too please share!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Video Game Micro Reviews: State of Decay 2 and Echo

I've been accruing video games faster (as usual) than I can play them. My son's making up for some of this, but he's got his own backlog due to...you know, being six and all that. But I spent some time recently messing around with some of these titles to some interesting results! I've tried each of these for at least a few hours, unless the experience was so bleh at the start that I felt the overriding desire to retake my time and bail. Consider these less "reviews" and more "opinions" but, this being the internet, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes!

State of Decay 2 (Xbox One X version)

I grabbed this for the $30 price of a new copy which might be considered a warning sign by some, but I enjoyed spending more than a few hours in State of Decay's first iteration so my thought was maybe the second game would be worth some time as well.

First impressions after a few hours are that it's got better controls and a better feel, but the game (similar to the first, albeit with cleaned up mechanics) places heavy emphasis on the community survival component of a zombie apocalypse. This game does a much better job of accommodating the player who enjoys building up a community of survivors, but does not function so well if you just want to play a lone survivor out there doing their own thing. I will likely play it more and see how many different ways I can push it, though.....but oddly so far I have felt like the SoD2 experience was less dangerous and risky than the first. That might change. So far....Competent B for a game, but there are better and more compelling zombie survival experiences to be found.

If the gameplay experience improves I will follow up. But I think if resource management, community building and zombie survival on a very precise tick of mechanics is your thing, then check this out.

Echo (Playstation 4 Pro version)

This game has a brilliant and subversive transhuman future aesthetic, with a future universe of AI ships, genetically engineered cults of humanity, entire worlds turned into palace tombs by decadent nobility and a plot that is simply excruciatingly interesting. It is also at first a walking simulator that abruptly turns into a stealth game/depleting resource management game/enemies which learn and advance their skills as you do, leading to situations where the person who enjoyed the first hour may not survive the fifth hour. I know I eventually stopped playing because as much as I wanted to love the setting and the story I was HATING the game play. Not in a "I think this gameplay sucks" way (it does, a little) but more in a "The target demographic for this game is either people who like the deep story, or people who want a punishing pseudo stealth shooter game, but not both."

My rating is: find the complete story of cutscenes on Youtube and watch that, unless you love Dark Souls then maybe you'll enjoy the punishment this game delivers. A+ aesthetics and story but C- actual game mechanic experience. Not sure I can bring myself to finish it.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Gaming Family

My son is obsessed with Starfinder. He's also (at just shy of seven) playing other games in the game shop we go to for our Friday gaming, picking up a spot at other tables with kid-friendly game groups. This is a really interesting experience for me as his dad, since I remember how hard it was for me to get in to the hobby back in 1980-81. My sister and I badgered the dickens out of my father to teach us how to play that new red box D&D game that our parents got for us at Kaybee Toys, but my dad was utterly perplexed as to the nature of the game and buried it in newspapers (or mail, or something similar). It wasn't until months later, on my own, that I stumbled across a copy of 1st edition Gamma World in a toy and hobby shop in Santa Fe that I found a game which "spoke" to me. Suddenly, all the cryptic content in D&D made sense through the lens of Gamma World....I ran a game with my sister and her friend immediately, and then found D&D as soon as I got home to begin running it as often as I could. The floodgates were open.

My son is more of a player than GM right now, but he's had an interesting progression in his gaming experience. I tried about a year ago to get him involved, first using "No Thank You, Evil!" and then a Labyrinth Lord game. When Starfinder showed up he grew obsessed with it, especially due to the evocative art which he really dug. He even tried GMing (after a fashion) by running me through a game of "No Thank You, Evil!" although he made the rules up as he went along.

He got the gist of role playing but was still too young to really grokk the rules or overall flow of play. Some of this was also a "son vs. dad" bit I realize now; pushing the limit on what dad will (and won't) allow in the game. Also, for a while dad here was pushing for games that I thought were simpler and easier....but what my son wanted to play was not the game that was simpler, but the game that looked Amazing and Super Cool. It didn't matter if Starfinder is a beast of a game to learn (at age 6 1/2), he wanted to play that, to understand that, and not White Star or Swords & Wizardry. Those games didn't look cool, they looked old and boring to him.*

I thought about using Starfinder as the art resource and White Star as the rule system. In the end, though, his own savvy was for questions about what the Starfinder rulebook was asking him, not what that other book was saying. I caved and made a Starfinder character template for him that was big and bold with a clear way for him to read numbers and items on it, which would of course help his reading and math skills, too.

We ran a couple games like this, but it was hard to compete when his younger friends would show with their parents. Now, in the last few months, we game on Friday nights at one game store where friends show up, which includes lots of kids. There are several game tables which are very kid friendly, and he (being the social extrovert his parents are not) quickly makes friends and joins those games. He's suddenly got a D&D 5E game or three under his belt and even played Firefly last week. He's played a game his father has never even tried!

The Firefly game this last Friday seemed to be a turning point for him. When the game was over, he promptly came over to my game table with the active (adult) Starfinder game and promptly declares that he was ready to join my table. I gave him a Kasthan Solarian commando NPC for him to run, and he got to arrive in time to save the group from an incursion of the Nether (the rift in spacetime where the Abyss and the Nine Hells are spilling out in to). He had a great deal of fun, and was prompt to make sure he was taking his turn.

So, he's starting about 3 and a half years sooner than I did, but I have to say, my son is a living demonstration of just how different the general culture of gaming and geekdom is now than it was in the late seventies and early eighties when I carved my way in to this hobby through sheer determination. I'm glad this is a thing, and he's apparently totally up for it....future family games should be very interesting!

*OSR publishers take note: there's room in the market for a low-difficulty OSR style entry title with art to rival Paizo, Not sure how one might accomplish this on the usual OSR production budget, but it explains (to me) why the Pathfinder Beginner Box remains a successful entry point into the hobby.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is now out in PDF

You can find it here on Chaosium's website. There's free downloads of some sample monsters, a background worksheet and a character sheet. I'm balking at the price right now ($27.95) for a book I really want but am not sure just how much it is tied in to the Glorantha universe.

Example: a background system which is not custom tailored to Glorantha would be useful to me because I could extrapolate from it to other settings. Can I do this in the book? I don't know, but the background sheet provided suggests this might be hard since it even provides Glorantha calendar dates prefilled for your character's history.

I used to run Runequest 2nd edition (and later 3rd edition) in my own settings, which were tinged with the essence of what Runequest had to offer (the runes, spirit magic, and monsters inherent to the system) but back in the 80's you could use all that without seeing much Glorantha in the mix. I'm curious if this system can work that way, too. I mean....technically I'm doing that with Realms of Terrinoth right now to run my own setting with the Genesys Core default fantasy realm as the base.

I think the only reason that it is more of a question with Runequest: Adventures in Glorantha right now is because it seems very clear that the new edition is specifically aimed at being a vessel for this campaign, and Chaosium has indicated that future fantasy earth supplements will be their own separate deal; this is not going to be a "one rule book, many settings" approach. A lot of fans have had thirty years of Runequest editions that allowed you to design your own universe, so going back to Runequest's earliest roots like this is a little jarring for us.

Still, I love this ruleset, and it really looks from reading the free content like this new Runequest is very much an iteration of the system I love the most. I will probably cave and get the PDF....more to come once I've done so and had time to absorb the new system. If I can even just use it to create my own uniquely flavored universe once more with the style of a Runequest Glorantha but the trappings of a world of my own design (say, if I could use it to power Pergerron) then I will be satisfied.

Sometimes I do wish I was the kind of gamer who could just relax and enjoy someone else's universe......but a fundamental component of what I enjoy about this hobby is having the tools to create my own, not the Rough Guide to visiting someone else's.

UPDATE: Got a copy. In reviewing the contents this appears to be very much a core rulebook; while the writing and art is flavored with Glorantha (and it looks damned nice, read extremely well) the immensity of the tome is focused entirely on character generation, rules, magic and downtime.....a bestiary is yet to come, and it looks like there's not much more direct "Glorantha campaign" content in this book than in original RQ2, beyond the fact that the background system is entirely flavored with Glorantha in design. It's very interesting....Gloranthaphiles are going to be ecstatic, and I think people who are just looking for an easy system and setting to pick up and run with will find this an efficient way to jump in.

Anyway, more discussion to come!

UPDATE 2: Reading through this is making me want to strongly work up a "Conversion to Archaic Earth" doc for my Mesopotamia campaign.

UPDATE 3: final comment before I take proper time to dive deep....I am amused that the conversion doc in the back is aimed squarely at RQ2 and also RQ3. This is definitely a succession to those two editions, and in many ways an "alternative" RQ3 for a new altered reality timeline.

As I plow through, I am both awed that the book does such a fantastic job of making Glorantha look on the surface like an accessible play experience (something I feel prior editions were not that great at) and disappointed to realize that there are no longer really any of  the general purpose tools to let you add to and do what you want with RQ. For example: you can use the cultures of Glorantha and the Glorantha background, but beyond a quick and dirty method provided to get a PC in to play there's nothing really that provides guidance on designing new backgrounds and cultures. Likewise, every cult you could want from Glorantha is detailed in glorious depth but I am not seeing any direction on new cult creations, orders or other elements added in other iterations of the game. As a result, adding your own stuff will be through extrapolation rather than any guidelines.

I'm liking this book's design a lot, and impressed at how hard it works to make Glorantha accessible, but it's definitely "Roleplaying in Glorantha" and using it for anything else is probably more work than I want to put in to the process for, so I don't think Mythras or the BGB are going to stop being useful anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Random Bits: Mordenkainen, Champions Now, Cypher System and Pathfinder 2.0

I've been lite on posts for a while as external life matters make time precious, so here's a "quick thoughts" blog to see how some short post obsevations work....

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes

First, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is amazing and any D&D 5E fan needs to check it out. It's thick with ideas, monsters and also contains some material reprinted from the scenario books, meaning you don't need to access (say) Out of the Abyss if you need Orcus's stats.

Champions Now

This is a thing, being done by the man behind the enigmatic Forge site where people analyze games to the point where they stop being fun. I kid! Sorta. But that doesn't mean Ron Edwards isn't the right man to start a Kickstarter bringing back Champions in approximately it's 3rd incarnation from the late 80's, an interesting concept which I feel I must back to see how it all works out.

Cypher System

Playing Genesys Core got me sufficiently intrigued about other recent generic systems I have ignored that I decided to revist Cypher Core. Something happened not long after: the system "clicked" for me and now I am very keen on running it soon. More to come!

Pathfinder 2.0

The more I read this never-ending thread over at rpg.net the more I grow weary of the entire concept. I need to stay away from all playtest posts, they are killing my interest in whatever Pathfinder is polymorphing in to.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (Review)

I'm sitting in a hotel in Los Alamos as I write this, enjoying day three or four of what started as a work trip but then turned in to a sort of family road trip vacation. Along the way we decided, in our meanderings, to stop in Los Alamos and tomorrow we're off to see Bandelier National Park (as well as a plethora of local museums, Los Alamos has lots of those). But there does happen to  be a small local theater, and we managed to catch Solo there tonight.

Fun movie! I will be honest and admit I wasn't that enthusiastic about Rogue One, which was a perfectly good movie but outside of Jyn Erso and the robot I really hard a hard time keeping track of everyone and why I was supposed to feel bad when they died. Director Krennick (was that his name) was also distinctive, but the most I remember about that movie was "Cool CGI Tarkin, cool CGI Leia, and oh, that's why there wasn't much of a fleet when the Death Star approaches Yavin's fourth moon."

Solo, on the other hand, was loaded with interesting characters who either you want to see more of, or who die and you actually feel like you had some reason to miss them. "Gee, would have been cool if she'd survived," type moments. It also had a ton of fan service. This may have been the most fan serviced movie ever, and probably will benefit from this aspect hot on the heels of the anti-fan service film The Last Jedi.

There is one scene, in fact, which took me quite by surprised (my son was not surprised apparently and also loved it) when a character very much thought Dead with the capitol D shows up. This is something the new extended universe foreshadowed, I guess, but hell it surprised me that this happened in a feature film.

Anyway, the real question is: can two new actors spice up a young coming of criminal age tale featuring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian? Yes, the answer is absolutely. Both actors pull this off quite well (imo) and I left this movie eagerly hoping it does well enough to see a series of future solo films. There are more tales to tell for both Han and Lando, and I would love to see this happen at some point.

This is about as far as I can get without going hip deep in to spoiler territory, but let's just say that Star Wars' first stand-alone heist film was fun, worked well, and held the spirit of Star Wars perfectly. It would be hard for fans (and haters) of The Last Jedi to dispute that this film was a good Star Wars movie, and fans of any prior films ought to find something here to enjoy.*


*If you loved certain Han Solo tales from the Expanded Universe (i.e. Pre Disney) then you are going to be a little miffed, though. A lot of specific novels are now non-canon and completely irrelevant all of a sudden.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Genesys Core - Session Four

I'm four sessions in to a Genesys Core game now, set in a fantasy world borrowing from Realms of Terrinoth and the copious resources over on the FFG forums.

Magic- Session four is demonstrating some interesting new learning hurdles for the game system. Notable among these are the magic system, which is very free-form, but also "menu driven" in that you pick your spell type (Attack, Barrier, Curse, etc.) and then add on to the base effect with a series of options that increase effect and difficulty. It's an interesting system, unless your group is very tired and unfocused....then things can slow down a bit (and yes, it seems like many of us were kind of tired and unfocused last night).

Right now in terms of the magic learning curve I have two players with mages who are picking it up nicely, one player who is behind the curve, and a GM who gets the concept but in reality isn't thinking quickly on his feet at the table when it comes to aiding in these calculations. Yaaaay for me.

The Dice- Interpreting the dice is getting much easier with practice. That said, I realized that I as GM sometimes like to reach for the dice to check an NPC's reaction to something players do. "Is this person stupid enough to believe X? Is this guy clever enough to realize Y?" And in Genesys it is simply quicker and easier to decide that as the GM rather than let fate call upon the dice, since the dice can make the GM spend thirty seconds staring at them, which is narrative flow time lost. I'm not entirely unconvinced this isn't stripping me of a bad habit, actually.

One thing I don't suggest if possible is to mix Star Wars dice with Genesys dice. The new player was using Star Wars dice but it was clear when we gave him Genesys dice this time that it threw him for a loop.

Initiative- the way this game handles initiative is fine, but I feel it needs refinement. Everyone rolls initiative, and the player group can essentially trade off their slots in the sequence to others. How this is done is described poorly in the rules, and has led to moments where I ask who goes next, and no one is sure who wants to go. I think I'm going to implement a "house protocol" where I tell the players they can hand off their initiative if they want, but I will otherwise call on them in sequence.

Battles- Combat remained interesting and dynamic, and we actually ran through roughly three major encounters for the evening, two of which ended up in battle. Gauging foes in Genesys can be a bit of a trick, though. Seven trolls using a doc I got from the forum proved to be a bad idea for a minor encounter, but it was easy to demote six of them from rivals to minions. That said, I find the damage/soak mechanic a bit weird at times. Spells have to get through soak, for example....unless you add an effect that lets them pierce soak. This leads to the counter intuitive result of a guy taking a lot of fire damage with the burn effect but it's okay because he had plat mail on so he only took a bit of it. I could rationalize it as the idea that most of the burn effect was splashed off on his plate, but in practicality I'm not sure getting doused in flames while wearing any medieval armor is a good idea.

There were a few rolls with a lot of density in the combat roll, but the players who are catching on quick were good at parting out the flow of data from the dice into their advantage effects, attacks, crits, threats, etc. This was good.

Overall, despite the muddy moments with the "rules to dice to narrative account of what is happening" process as relates to certain spells and effects attempted, I still was impressed that the system manages to help create a distinct evocation of storytelling that makes the adventure memorable. Very good plus there!

As a total aside, while I am really enjoying a "build from scratch" new world design for recent games, the Realms of Terrinoth book is a blast to read and a great setting. I even caved and picked up Descent 2nd Edition to play with my son, and am debating picking up some of the other board games. Well played, Fantasy Flight.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Pathfinder after a Two Year Gap

"Rhesus The Fighter"

I think it was around March 2016 that I last ran Pathfinder....it's been a sea of D&D 5th Edition, 13th Age and a medley of other games since then. I'd quit running Pathfinder on Wednesdays as far back as 2013 right before 5E arrived, but the Saturday group had more dedication. That said....things changed and around two years ago Pathfinder was essentially laid to rest.

Until tonight!

My irregular gang of Starfinder players who meet on Friday nights when we all happen to be able to had a short player but still wanted to game. Not wanting to proceed on Starfinder with the missing cohort, I proposed an alternative game....and so we decided Pathfinder.

All told it was fun, and about what you might expect with any game after an absence, particularly a game that is very well known to all at the table, even if time has passed. I noticed the following in our short session....

It felt Deadlier (at level 3) than 5E

Pathfinder, at least at the lower levels, does feel deadlier than D&D 5E. D&D 5E can be deadly without much effort at level 1-2, but so long as you don't throw a bunch of hobgoblins at the group they'll live. Pathfinder has its own dynamic, but the game has fewer renewable resources, so resource management is a more prominent game, and this fact was noticeable.

Easier to Remember the Rules than to Forget Them

Apparently if you play Pathfinder long enough, it gets burned in. I was disturbed to realize how quickly I snapped back to the mechanical rigor of the system like a fish in deep water. I'm not sure it's equivalent to riding a bike, but apparently the years of running Pathfinder really engrained the system in to my head.....I realize now I probably spent more effort forgetting Pathfinder rules to play D&D than I did learning the new rules....!

This probably doesn't apply if you didn't play enough to get the rules down.....but honestly, I was shocked at all the obscure minutiae I was recalling.

"Reggie The Ranger"

The System is Laden with "Trap" Mechanics

A thing that 5E avoids is scenarios (in most cases) where the PCs are relentlessly beating on a foe that either cannot be hit or cannot be damaged, to no effect in the end, leading to a weird combat that is protracted and brutal. I had an encounter involving Iron Cobras that only went fast because with three players things can go fast....but they were in the awkward position where hitting the target was hard, and dealing damage past the DR was harder. This something I realize D&D 5E really avoids (mostly).

With Like Minded Cohorts Pathfinder is Perfectly Good Fun

I played with people who were in on it for the fun, and while some system mastery was evident, the focus was on fun and interesting characters rather than a militant play strategy aimed at tactical decimation. The result was much, much more fun than the old days when I had a large group focused almost obsessively on system mastery.

Indeed, the group independently rolled up a barbarian, ranger and fighter, with a high INT score of 8 and nary cleric among them. When they realized what they had done, they decided this would be pure gold entertainment, then conspired to insure that the tiefling, goblin and vanaras all had goblin as their only common tongue....yep, it was a fun night. They proceeded to play professional repo men and eviction specialists for shady merchants with suspicious agendas that none of them could spot with a botched sense motive roll. Good stuff!

As an aside, I set the game in a corner of the new campaign world I've been building with Genesys Core. Not much exposition needed with three guys who averaged 7.5 intelligence.

So yeah....looks like Fridays are the official "XFinder RPG" nights for a while.

"Huh the Barbarian"
BONUS! I got to use my pocket rule books for Pathfinder at last. Purchase: justified. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Hierarchy of Science Fiction RPGs by Discovery and Exploration

Like D&D and other fantasy games, science fiction games have their own hierarchy as well. Unlike fantasy, there is no single SF game that casts a long shadow over the rest of the genre, and for purposes of this overview we are only looking at actual SF games which encompass space travel, visiting other worlds, and exploration of the future of humanity and/or it's dominion of space. Sorry post-apoc games, you'll get your own post soon!

The hierarchy of SF games doesn't suffer under the presence of Traveller, despite the ubiquity of the first truly authentic SF game on the market. Rather, SF RPGs tend to reflect a style focus. Rather than try to identify the style in context of subgenres (space opera, hard SF, soft SF, exploration, war, etc.) I wanted to identify how game systems tend to focus their rules on types of play, creating distinctly different narrative/game experiences through the discovery and exploration mechanics.

For example: you are actively encouraged to role up new worlds and explore new hexes on the subsector map in a Traveller game, often with very little prep from the GM, but a game with any of the many Star Wars RPGs tends to focus on specific settings and locales defined by the Star Wars universe in its various incarnations, and new worlds operate on rule of cool rather than any sort of logical design system. So with that said....here's how SF games tend to fall in the catalog of Discovery and Exploration:

1. Procedural Exploration Games

Traveller is clearly a fine example of this. You're game is focused on exploration, and the rules support a mechanism to facilitate going to places and locales without necessarily having to know what is around the corner in advance. Such systems are often very old school in feel, and they focus heavily on procedurally generated content, and may even offer settings that still nonetheless require more rolls and design to flesh out as they are explored.

Traveller is the poster child, but other OSR games such as White Star offer soft science variants on generating worlds and systems to explore. Other games which offer this approach include GURPS Space (though it definitely works better as a type 4 below), and just about any system or sourcebook with a dedicated set of charts and mechanisms to create explorable content (often even on the fly).

2. Defined Setting Games

A large number of SF RPGs fall in this category. Star Trek, Coriolis, Infinity, Cold & Dark, Fading Suns, Alternity's Star Drive, Shatterzone, Burning Empires, The Last Parsec and many more all have tightly defined universes and even if they offer some rules on procedural content generation, it's usually eclipsed by the tightly defined worlds of the campaign that are often elaborated on in great depth and design. These are games not so much about SF for its own sake, but SF of the type and flavor of the specific universes under scrutiny in the game's setting itself.

3. Rule of Cool "Experience" Games 

Most Rule of cool games actually work as defined setting games, too. The difference is that these games tend to eschew consistency of setting or scientific principles in favor of "worlds that are cool to explore." A common trait is that space exploration is easy, and most worlds you visit tend to be the kind you can survive because it's really about blasting your way in to the evil empire's secret base. Soft SF or space fantasy fits here really well. The many Star Wars RPGs, Starfinder, possibly Warhammer 40K RPGs, Hard Nova, Star Frontiers, most Savage Worlds settings (Flash Gordon and Slipstream in particular) and Firefly tend to fit this style of experience. A common trait of these games is that the world design often favors planets that may improbably have earthlike atmosphere despite being volcano worlds, or ice worlds, or "insert single terrain type here" planets. These games could be called "Pulp" Games as much as "Rule of Cool."

4. Scientifically Accurate Games

This is the most neglected corner of the experience mostly because it requires the most effort to work with. You can run games with a large enough toolbox from other categories here if they are designed to support a wide array of experiences....Traveller, for example, can be played fairly straight as a scientifically accurate game with minimal tweaking. GURPS Space is the poster child for this sort of game experience. Some games focused on near future cyberpunk and transhumanism fit here nicely, including Transhuman Space, Mindjammer, and Eclpse Phase. An irony of post-singularity games like the aforementioned titles is that they feel really "out there" yet tend to be tightly focused on logical extrapolations of a near future technological explosion in AI, transgenics and other technology that could fundamentallyc change the landscape of the future. And of course, a common trope of the scientifically accurate game is a tendency to eschew FTL drives, or to provide some sort of semi-realistic explanation for getting around it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons vs. All Other Fantasy Games

These days, as I scrape through my increasingly narrower and more tightly defined game collection, I have noticed that fantasy games seem to fall into one of four categories:

1. The D&D-Like
This game either is Dungeons & Dragons or is closely rooted to it in some way (13th Age, Pathfinder, Swords & Wizardry, Fantasy Craft, OSRIC, every other edition of D&D, and most retroclones in existence).

These games are essentially D&D or offering the D&D experience as closely as the OGL allows. A key component of these games is that they are probably going to have lots of known D&D tropes in them, especially if its in the OGL, or will offer up analogs for those things and creatures which are considered protected IP (if your game has a close analog to a mind flayer, it is probably one of these, for example). If your game has classes, level advancement, attack bonuses, escalating hit points, armor class, and the notion that a level 10 dude can mop the floor with dozens of level 1 dudes then you're probably in this space. Extra points if a beholder, drow, mind flayer or other distinctly D&D monster show up.

2. The "Does D&D Better and/or Different"
This game was designed to emulate the D&D experience but with a different ruleset. Depending on your interpretation certain games may or may not fall in to this category, but some are indisputably attempting to enter D&D territory, but with a different mechanic entirely. These are games aimed at people who's nostalgia is for the idea of a dark dungeon delve, but not necessarily centered on need for mechanical emulation; These are games that pay homage to Gygax's legacy without embracing the rules. Their fans may actually revile D&D mechanically while engorging upon the ambiance of the dungeon delve.

Examples that I would lump in this category include Dungeon World, Mythras's Classic Fantasy expansion, and some games which are arguably more subtle in their differences such as Dungeon Crawl Classics, Torchlight, and FATE's Freeport Sourcebook. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a curious example of a tried and true system seeking emulation. Although I lump 13th Age in the D&D-like space, one could also argue it belongs here (I think it's too close to a 4E emulator, though).

3. This is Totally Not D&D but Really wants to Compete in That Space
These are games which do not seek to emulate D&D, and in fact try to provide a decent alternative set of mechanics and creative mental space in which to work. Their hallmark is doing things differently, from stuff like "our orcs are weird," to "we don't even do orcs, elves, etc." --but a key element of these system is that they totally want you to be able to do orcs in your setting if you want to.

Fantasy AGE is resting firmly in this space, as is Mythras, Runequest, Fantasy HERO, GURPS Fantasy (but not Dungeon Fantasy ironically), The Dark Eye, and many, many classics that are now gone or hard to find (Chivalry & Sorcery, Ysgarth, and countless others). Most Generic Systems that offer fantasy expansions fit into this spot (Genesys Core and Cypher System certainly do; I'd argue that the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion is much closer to a type 2 emulator, though some of its fantasy settings are definitely in this third category).

The key point though is that these games offer up a competitively different fantasy space in which to game. Their selling point is usually that D&D DOESN'T do "this," but that you can totally game with their systems into perpetuity just like D&D.

4. This is Fantasy, And We Hate D&D
Here's where you see the interesting stuff. Stuff which is clearly inspired by Tolkien (Awaken, Symbaroum), stuff which emulates specific genres (Conan RPG) with specially designed systems, stuff which seeks to provide a form of fantasy which neither feels like nor looks even remotely like D&D or any conventional high fantasy experience. It is often easy to distinguish these systems by simply asking whether or not it is even possible to imagine creating your own homebrew setting with them, or modifying it to run your own....chances are no, these games are as unique as their settings.

Talislanta, Skyrealms of Jorune, and Tekumel are classic examples of this corner of fantasy gaming. Worlds weird and strange, magic that defies D&D style quasi-Vancian magic, even (ironically) The Dying Earth RPG more appropriately rests here. Other games like Symbaroum and Awaken might feel more familiar but as you dive in you realize that it is their inextricably entwined rules and setting that make them unique even if they feel like a corruption of the familiar.

These games aren't really competing with D&D; they're trying to ignore it. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Traveller and Generic Systems vs. Other SF Games...

Wes in my last post had a comment about choice of systems over others that got me thinking. At the minimum doing a post on "why this system vs. that one" is a good mental exercises....so here goes.

I happen to be very much in to science fiction gaming, but as I have slimmed my collection down I have narrowed focus to Traveller (Mongoose's 2nd edition version) as the main go-to game, and I retain several generic systems that can get the job done, too: specifically Genesys Core, Cypher System, Savage Worlds and GURPS. BRP could technically count, but has never had an adequate all-purpose SF supplement released for it, unfortunately.

Traveller is, to me, very much to SF what D&D is to fantasy: a system which captures the core essence of a defined experience, which (so long as you accept it's core conceits) is the best toolkit and design book for whatever you need in the given genre. It's a little rusty around the edges (as is D&D when you think about it), but Traveller's got a fanbase of excellent designers out there producing good content for it. Just look at the Mindjammer sourcebook for Traveller to see how flexible it can be as a system.

More to the point, if Traveller doesn't quite do it for me, then each of the generic systems I mentioned offer up some robust source material for running your own science fiction settings. If I want fast, furious action-filled sci fi then Savage Worlds' SF Companion is excellent. If I want a really flexible design with lots of story-focused systems built in then I'm finding Genesys Core and Cypher System both offer a robust toolset. If I want hard SF with all the bells and whistles turned to max then GURPS is still king here, even though it's 4E Space sourcebook is getting long in the tooth.

I also have kept White Star around, because it is the only game of its type rigth now, a sort of genre mashup with a old school style that manages to convey an experience both fun and unique. When I want laser swords without any need to explain the physics? White Star gets the job done just fine.

Despite being "SF" to some degree, Starfinder doesn't quite fit this mold to me. Starfinder is a game about playing a D&D/Pathfinder style experience in a space setting with lots of SF and fantasy trappings mixed together. It's not even about "magic in space," it's about the idea of the D&D scenario in all its glory written in a sci fi setting, but with all of the D&D tropes fully extended in to that setting, too. Or Pathfinder tropes, in this case.

Games that I rejected for my collection or gave up on include:

Stars Without Number - I played this (ran it) for a bit and found that I disliked the fact that it simplified the skill system from it's 1st edition, didn't feel that it's design mechanics meshed as well as I wanted, and that it felt overly complicated for a game which was ultimately still "less complicated" than its closest inspiration, Traveller. Ultimately SWN felt too much like a homebrew version of a more well developed/designed game for me to enjoy it. I also was not a fan of its default setting.

Coriolis - beautiful game, but hard to engage with outside of the aesthetics. A problem I've had with other games as well by the same developer, but may say more about my tastes than the quality of design with looked top notch. In the end, I prefer games which give me tools to do my own world building, rather than rigidly defined by their predesigned universes.

There's a range of horror/SF mashup games as well, I gave up Void Core, Shadow of Sol and others in preference for Cold & Dark, which I love for its design and aesthetic. It does have a default setting, but its one I can work with.

In the end, though, it's games which give me more freedom of design with the setting I want that I enjoy the most. Traveller definitely does that, as do the generic systems. The more tightly defined a game is with its world setting, the less useful it was to me.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Great Purge

As of May I've cleared out around 600 games, books and a few DVDs for good measure. My collection is starting to look smaller (thankfully) and as I narrow it down I begin to look closely at what I have left, what of that must stay, and what must go. It's been an interesting experience...

One thing I've embraced in my quest to slim down from "Hoarder" collector to "Minimalist" free range "person who can move easily" is the important philosophy that despite having a lot of general interest in the memory of the past, I actually don't have as much nostalgia for it as I had previously thought. This has helped a lot in freeing up stuff I have dragged around with me which I have held on to for no other reason than minor sentiment. 

Another change in mindset has been to really think hard about the "stuff I will use and enjoy, and have used and enjoyed and will continue to do so," vs. "All the other stuff. Period." There are things I have (for D&D, for example) which get pulled out every week and will of necessity see use at some point, again and again. Then there are hundreds of other books I have because I was curious but they have never (and will never) actually see use. They are either redundant, not quite to my style, or distinct for their particular moment in the sun but not otherwise sustainable in the gaming ecology I swim in. D&D 5E, for example, is a staple these days.....but almost every OSR book I have fits in to the latter category of products I just won't ever be able to use for various reasons. 

In fact, right now, the only OSR book I continue to hold on to is White Star Galaxy Edition and a couple key source books (Between Star & Void and Tools of the Worldshapers). There are plenty of good books in the OSR universe, but of all of it, only these are the ones I both read and used, and plan to use again. The truth is, if I decide to run classic D&D again, I am grabbing up 1st or 2nd edition AD&D and doing with the real thing, not a retroclone. And truth is....my tastes run very differently now from AD&D. 

Genesys Core, for example, is the main game of choice for the last month or so now. I'm running a homebrew campaign with it using the core rules and Realms of Terrinoth. I'll talk more about this later, but needless to say those two books fall firmly in the "keep" camp. 

If you're interested in what I've decided I must keep so far, it looks sort of like this: 
D&D 5E (official books, a small number of 3PP)
Starfinder (it's new and hot and I have two games going)
Genesys Core (also new and hot, but the die mechanic has gone from "concerning" to the most important part of the experience just like that)
Traveller (MGT2nd, because it's the D&D of space, a guaranteed go-to system)
Cypher System (I'm exploring the idea of it now that Genesys has hooked me on story-focused systems of similar nature)
Savage Worlds (core and certain sourcebooks)
GURPS (I am getting rid of almost nothing here; GURPS remains Old Reliable)
Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition (I love this edition)
Basic Roleplaying and Fantasy World (Go to old reliables)

In addition to those, I've been collecting some books lately I still wish to collect and read, even if I never actually run them (this is why I fail to achieve my minimalist goal): Conan RPG, Infinity RPG, Symbaroum and a few others like Awaken and Mindjammer are impossible ignore, being interesting and well designed games. Who knows, maybe I'll find time to actually run them!

If it's not on the above list, though, I've probably gotten rid of it. Except for the Pathfinder Pocket Rule editions, those are too cute to get rid of (and portable, too!) Likewise for The Dark Eye's portable editions. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

Film Review: Avengers Infinity War

So it's hard to fully review this movie without spoilers, but I'll start off with the spoiler free summary: Avengers Infinity War is definitely worth seeing, and is part one of the two-part big payoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The part one part is really important, as this movie ends on a cliffhanger that guarantees people will be back this time next year to see how things resolve.

The movie manages to simultaneously pay out for the hardcore fans of the movies, as many, many moving parts all slide together into the grand, unifying plot we've been waiting for. That said, if you've not been paying too much attention, or catching every film, this one is still going to work for you; it's stand alone story element holds its own, and even if you have no idea where the infinity stones have been showing up in prior movies (or why) this movie doesn't require that a priori knowledge.

Oddly, one of the most interesting characters in the movie was Thanos himself. Marvel finally has a villain no one can complain about, and this works well; the narrative on Thanos and why he is doing what he does makes him a more compelling and ultimately interesting villain.

So yeah...solid A, absolutely.

Beyond that? Spoilers, lots of spoilers. Actually, I'll try not to spoil things, but I will make the following oblique observations:

1. There's more than one interesting cameo in here, and in particular (you'll know who when you see the scene) that was kind of a "Wow holy cow look who just showed up" moment.

2. This movie HAD to come out right as my kid, in his mid sixes, is developing a strong sense of the concept of mortality.* I saw it on a special preview, but the whole family goes tomorrow and I need to brace my wife for the fact that before this movie is over he's very likely to be streaming tears and snot at certain deaths in this film. It's gonna be rough.

3. The movie politely subverts expected deaths, even as it surprises us with more than a couple unexpected deaths. Then there's....well, a damned good cliff hanger, we'll just say that.

4. Thor had a surprisingly good heroic arc, a sort of fall and redemption, then return to power. Which was good, because like the first five minutes of the movie completely negate any victory garnered at the end of Thor: Ragnarok.

5. No Hawkeye? I thought Hawkeye was going to be at least cameoing.

6. Implied and direct nods to the notion that Scarlet Witch is actually one of Earth's most powerful beings.

FRIDAY REPORT: The family viewing was today. Kiddo handled it better than I expected, although I gave him a pep talk about how this was a sad movie, with some sad things, and then he told me as long as Spider Man didn't die he'd be fine....anyway long story short the ending was perhaps just a bit metaphysical in a sense so it left him sad but not in a streaming snot kinda way (whew) despite ...ahh.....all that stuff that went down at the end (um, trying not to be spoilery). But the overall impact on the total crowd, which had a LOT of kids in it was almost palpable...tears, cries of shock, etc. etc. only the old jaded comic fans were "unmoved." The youn 'uns who haven't gotten used to how these sorts of stories work were genuinely shocked/traumatized/surprised/horrified, etc.

*I found this out the hard way. I bought the animated film "Batman: Escape from Arkham" which I did not realize was quite as adult and violent as it was, but the problem came when my kid immediately bonded with the Black Spider character, who later dies an ignominious death in the movie. My son was devastated, crying, and a couple days later told me I am never to mention that Black Spider died, ever. Period. So.....when you see a movie like Infinity War, as an old comics veteran how do I impart to my son the wisdom that no comic death is ever really permanent? Hmmmm.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Film Review: Ready Player One

This has been out a long time so it's unlikely I'm spoiling much, other than to state that this is another great example of a good movie you can take the family to. Unlike Rampage (reviewed last week), Ready Player One has some interesting subtext to it....there's a thoughtful movie hidden underneath the armada of VR skins that this movie is essentially all about.

Fair warning: unlike many of the other reviewers on this movie, I have A: very few nostalgic memories of the content of this film (I remember the 70's and 80's as something I got through/survived, not something I think back on with any sense of delight); and B: I have not actually read Ernest Clines' novel of the same name. As such, I have no opinion on how this movie reflects the novel, or "fixes" it as some other reviewers appeared worried about. 

The short and quick summary: about 27 years from now an 18 year old protagonist Wade, alias Parzival in the virtual reality world of the OASIS, is one of many people trying to unlock a grand easter egg left by its now deceased creator, Holloway. Figure out the puzzle, and you gain ownership of the OASIS. Other players are after this, of course, as well as the evil corporation IOI, which is funding an enormous number of "players" to unlock the easter egg and take OASIS for itself. 

Naturally the IOI plays dirty, people die in the real world, heroes are born in the virtual world, and gradually three mysteries leading to keys are resolved and the plot ends on a suitable high note. 

For what it's worth, I suspect that in 27 years people will look back on Ready Player One with great amusement. "This is what they thought it would be like???" our future selves (and my adult son, no doubt) will say. Like Lawnmower Man in the nineties or Tron in the eighties, Ready Player One will no doubt fill that void for the late twenty-teens.  That said, it was a very fun movie and quite straight forward in how it depicts what amounts to an almost painfully damaged future that is nonetheless utterly disguised by the cultural and economic obsession with virtual reality as a means of literal escape. Hell....the glipses of "life" in this future were really fascinating to me, probably the best part of the movie, overall, from Wade's insanely damaged relationship with a parent and a "step dad" who were both highly self-absorbed and utterly devoted to the VR universe to the general level of social and cultural decay that was exhibited literally everywhere. 

The movie's consolation is that, in the end, the new OASIS owners shut down the servers twice a week to foster human interaction in meatspace. It's all presented as a happy ending....but....yeah. This was like the friendliest and most upbeat Spielberg-type movie you could imagine that still basically sidesteps the entire issue of the film's underlying social decay, even as it plays the entire display straight, a sort of matter-of-fact "Yeah, this is coming, and this is what it's going to look like, but whadda ya gonna do???"

I had a hard time feeling very emotionally invested in the bulk of the virtual action since there wasn't a lot of consequence to it (any more so than an elaborate World of Warcraft raid would), but the overall tale still worked well....and for my son, this was a joy to watch, and he had to get on one of our two VR headsets as soon as we got home. For my wife and I, it kind of felt a bit uncomfortably like our current experience with gaming online, just in a more immersive future where the most improbable thing on screen was how the OASIS developers got so many IP licenses going for the skins of various IPs. The absence of any Disney characters (Star Wars, Marvel, etc.) actually worked for the film, because we all know in this future, Disney has it's own OASIS somewhere, seriously locked down. 

Without the subtext of the future soft cyberpunk dystopia this would have been a fun B, but I have to say that the overall film and its unfortunate implications worked well to bring it to a solid A for me. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Genesys Core RPG: Bringing something new and exciting to the table

Saturday we had a smaller group than usual so we decided to try out Genesys Core RPG. The Realms of Terrinoth sourcebook had just arrived in print, providing a substantial boost to the fantasy-related content of the system, and also helping a great deal in demonstrating how the system can work for the fantasy genre.

The core rules are actually pretty decent at this, but leave the impression that you have your work cut out for you if you want to develop more archetypes, species, professions, gear and special talents/abilities for specific settings. That said, I had a a pretty good idea on how I could run a futuristic Cyberpunk setting using pretty much just the rules content in the core for the Modern and SF genres. However, hen it came down to experimenting and learning the rules with a "learn as we play" game session, fantasy is hard to beat.

After a little over an hour of character generation and plot-assembling I worked out a scenario with some encounters that I cribbed from various sources (including copious pregenerated material on the Fantasy Flight Forums where Genesys has a lot of productive fans). I also borrowed some content from the only introductory module out so far (albeit wedded to a new plot).

The result was pretty interesting as well as fun. My three players drafted up a catfolk primalist, a burrow gnome rogue and a rough orc warrior who all worked in the city state of Keranos in a setting I drafted up specially for Genesys, inspired by what I had read of Terrinoth (and whether the region of Keranos fits somewhere in the Genesys default setting or will become its own thing I have yet to decide.....*)

Some role play events mixed with one distinct battle, in which local thugs hired by a rival of the PC's patron to steal the maguffin they were tasked with protecting and delivering. A group of five thugs and one boss thug proved to be a fun fight, albeit less of a threat than I expected. Playing the combat in Genesys Core was an eye opener....the dynamic of a single dice roll that determines level of success/failure as well as levels of threat/advantage and triumph/despair provided a fascinating scenario in which narrative intrusion into what was going on not only was encouraged, it was practically necessary. It was like a game system which not only asked me to do what I tend to do as a GM already when I run games (describe things in a manner that makes it illustrative and fun) but gave me a mechanical reason to do so, and to reward players for assisting in this narrative, too.

The same thing applied with social encounters, or really any skill encounter. For example, a Lore check on the gnome to see what she knew about her people (she's a gentrified gnome) could result in a couple successes (so she knows a thing or two about her heritage), but imagine a success with a threat or two....that could mean she knows something, maybe something that she shouldn't, or her information is not the kind she wants to divulge. A failure with lots of advantage could mean she doesn't know much about her people, but she bluffs her way through it so people think she does.

There are a lot of interesting way to interpret the dice, though in most cases where it is useful (such as in combat) to gain an immediate mechanical/situational benefit the rules have charts on how to proceed in case the GM is at a loss.

The net result of all of this was a moment in play where the gnome, cornered by a foe (the thug leader) such that she couldn't maneuver to disengage, made an attack in desperation and failed to connect but got five advantages (which look like chevrons, or arrows)....that was enough by the rules to suggest she did, in fact, manage to slip between the thug's legs even as he dodged her attack, and then let her sprint down the alley to medium range with a blue advantage (boost) die for her next action against him.

I don't know of many games that let you get all of that out of one die roll, which was initially just a missed attack.

Anyway: I'm really enamoured with the way Genesys Core RPG plays now. We're going to tackle it again this Saturday, and I'll report more as the play experience evolved. I haven't felt this excited for a game system in a while: a system which is decidedly new and unexpected to me, one for which I can't say I have a strong grasp on, but which is challenging in a fascinating and fun way, that I really want to learn through and through in play. Genesys Core has me very, very intrigued.

*As a habitual setting creator who can only run homebrew with any reliability, my money's strongly on "devise my own setting, even if I borrow cool bits from Terrinoth," such as the rune stone mechanic which is quite cool and distinct, as well as the heroic abilities.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Film Review: Rampage (good family fun!)

Rampage is a classic Summer film, released perhaps a bit early in anticipation of the encroaching box office hell that will be a month of Avengers followed by another month of Star Wars. Despite this, it's a fun movie....not the "think hard and ponder reality" kind of movie, nope. This is a movie which takes the barest backbone of a early nineties video game and turns it in to a Dwayne Johnson blockbuster, fully digestible for the family.

So, all snark or whatever aside, Rampage really is a fun film. It's arguably also a successful game-to-film adaptation but I would go so far as to suggest that reviewers touting this as a feature are being disingenuous; the movie is at best taking the barest core conceit of an already anemic video game as a point of inspiration and then transforming it into the basic structure of a story. The only parts of the movie that are from the video game are as follows:

Three giant monsters (a gorilla, a wolf thing and a reptile thing) need to crawl up a building or buildings and do lots of damage in the process while occasionally eating people

If you capture that, then you've captured the game. All the rest is just icing on the cake....and there was plenty of icing on this cake! The lead protagonist is an empathetic character built to play to Dwane Johnson's particular style. His female counterpart is a mousy but feisty scientist guaranteed to appeal to women in the audience. The villains are suitably villainous in an overt manner designed to make you happy when they get eaten like popcorn. George the gorilla is played straight up to be the most empathetic character of all, and in the words of my son, "They almost made me cry!" at a particular scene I won't mention that I am 100% sure was tested with an audience reaction for maximum positive reaction in the end.

The whole movie, being so carefully constructed, is therefore an entirely empty but utterly enjoyable ride. Well worth it if you have kids to take them to see this, but note that the violence level borders on Jurassic Park level at times, just not in an overt manner....think "people getting squashed, but only occasionally do we get evidence of real gore." Sensitive children probably should avoid it, but my son just ate it up. When the "Yes We're Broadcasting Just How Evil We Are" bad spec ops team goes in after the wolf, my son was gleefully saying "The Wolf's gonna kill them all" with the delight that only a budding wildlife conservationist anti-poacher can evoke.

If my son becomes an  wildlife conservationist one day, or even joins PETA or something I think I'm going to blame this movie.

So....Solid A!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Pathfinder 2.0 Magic

There's a blog post up here about how magic will work in Pathfinder 2.0. Without going in to it much, it's really interesting to see that Pathfinder is going to distinguish itself in some pretty interesting ways from prior and current iterations of D&D with a few specific process and organizational changes.

The more I read about Pathfinder 2.0 the more I am convinced it will be both an interesting new system in its own right, even if it is spawning out of D&D 3.75, and possibly worth investigating for those who may be keen on experiencing the engaging process of immersing in an entirely new mechanical implementation on D&D.....I'm getting the feeling that this will be a system with lots of interesting synergies and emergent mechanical experiences that will scratch that itch that some of us (myself included) often feel when playing RPGs.....not merely the fun of an actual game, but the fun of mastering said game as well. This is an odd take for me, as I always grew annoyed with the imperfect and sometimes bizarre learning curve of D&D 3.5 as well as its predilection for system mastery reward, but I'm sort of hoping that the lesson Pathfinder 2.0 takes away from 5th edition is that you can build a system that rewards with synergies and emergent experiences while not forcing the system mastery concept down everyone's throats in the long run.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Also, Comics Worth Reading: Titans

After bitching about what a weird train-wreck the entire Dark Nights: Metal series was, I realize I haven't talked about good comics in ages. And there are a lot of them! Here's one you should check out:

Titans (DC)

Although there's a rumor that Titans will be cancelled after issue 24, I think it's at best because the series will get a restart soon following the current plot line in which the Titans have effectively been forced to go on hiatus as a team while the Justice League figures out what to do about Donna Troy. It's possible they plan to capitalize on the imminent new TV series of the same name and more or less the same team that I've heard is in the works.

Fans of the old days of the Teen Titans (and you know what I mean....the Marv Wolfman era of greatness) will find the current run on Titans very familiar territory; the story telling is top notch, and Dan Abnett (who has always been good at this sort of tale) shows off his skill as a writer with a series of stories lightning-rod focused on the characters and their internal conflicts, both for better and worse.

The current Titans run is up to issue 22 right now and has put the team through the wringer on multiple occasions, culminating in a story arc recently in which Donna Troy is revealed to have a potentially dark future when her distant future self, Troya, returns in time to set her past self "straight" on how to handle the gruesome events to come, chiefly by becoming a sociopath. The team holds up against this but then the Justice League intervenes, and the "younger" and former sidekicks are all essentially forced to disband while the older, more experienced Leaguers try to figure out what to do.

Queue a focus on Roy Harper (Arsenal), the rough and tumble one-time sidekick to Green Arrow, who continues on his usual path, this time investigating the spread of a strange new drug, the source of which is hard to pinpoint. As tends to happen when Arsenal goes off on his own and starts fighting the drug trade, Cheshire shows up again to continue her never-ending con on her baby daddy Roy.

Menawhile, behind the scenes the cutest couple in DC's continuum, Mallah the Ape and the Brain, are the creators of the new drug, which it turns out has a mind-expanding, mind-sharing psionic property, allowing the Brain to aggregate all the minds of the users to expand his own consciousness, giving him effectively singularity-level intelligence.

It's really nice to see interesting plots with a tight focus on the specific characters and their many foibles, relationships, doubts, fears and hubris. Dan Abnett knows how to write this stuff and do it well. The art team of Pelletier, Hennessy and Lucas is "classic," which to me at least means this looks like a DC comic and does not skew toward the more juvenile or cartoony designs of some other titles (Teen Titans, Batgirl), which I appreciate.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with an exaggerated, cartoony style like that, but tonally it changes how you react to the story, and thankfully the more traditional style in Titans works best for the somewhat more hard hitting, emotionally resonant tale of the twenty-something Titans the book focuses on.

Anyway, check it out...either in current form, or start picking it up in graphic novel format. The revival of the Titans began with a tale returning the long absent Wally West to the fold, and it's never let up since, so you won't be disappointed if you have (like me) been craving something that felt more like a continuation of the old Marv Wolfman style than the prior New 52 runs on Titans were.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

What the Heck, Comics? Why Dark Nights Metal Was Just Too Much

Warning: I'm about to rant with spoilers and madness about a recent comic tie-in crossover event. If you haven't read it, don't care about it, or DO care about it and have read it and thought it was awesome, you have been warned!

I finally finished DC Comics' insane Metal super crossover event. For readers of most regular comics there were only a handful of mostly ignorable crossovers; most of the series was contained in a 6 issue mini-series and a bunch of special one shots, all priced at $4.99 and attached to metallic covers that were designed to scream "collectible!" as much as possible. And yes, I got all of it.

Here's the best summary I can get for those interested: Batman, in an old story arc from the trippy Grant Morrison days, was apparently killed but really went back in time. A demon bat named Barbatos got sort of obsessed with him and "created" a multi-thousand year long event in which dozens of seemingly unrelated events in history and story are all tied in to this thing by which Batman's nightmares manifest in a very real "dark universe," come to life, are united, and seek to subsume the light universe in to the dark universe using something called the Ninth Metal (that's really the Nth Metal) and a lot of stuff happens in the course of this process. If you thought the comic book physics of the DC Universe was already stretched thin by Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and the Crisis on Infinite Earths then you ain't seen nothing yet.

Preamble: I am a huge DC fan. They rarely ever disappoint, and usually its only on rare occasion I don't immensely enjoy DC comics in general. I regularly pick up a fair number of DC titles every month, and I love what they've been doing for the last few years. I was a New 52 fan and I liked their efforts to make it distinct, although I also feel like the Rebirth era has been even better.

Okay, that's out of the way. Now....for the odd exception.

Issue #6, the grand finale of the mini-series Dark Nights: Metal is out and having finished it I really have to say...I love comics (especially DC comics) for all their comic-ness, all their tropes, and -isms and so forth, but good grief.....this is the first time in a very long time that I felt I'd just read something that no one wrote to even attempt some form of coherent narrative. There is a narrative....sort of.....but exactly what that narrative is, why it should make any sense at all, or even why I should have cared to follow this entire run is, in the end, beyond me. Indeed, the series ends with an ominous warning that in saving the universe our heroes may have changed it, and that in doing so the universe may have been blown wide open....leading to greater, more inconceivable threats to come. Threats, presumably, more monumental than an entire negative-universe comprised of Batman's worst fears about himself come to life, which was the core guiding point of the series at first.

My understanding of this series is that Scott Snyder had been planning it a long time, and it was based on some fairly obscure derivations of old Batman comics  (the bat demon Barbatos, specifically) as well as the trippy and (some might argue) unpleasantly bizarre death of Batman sequence turning in to a trip through time that Grant Morrison wrote years ago. I feel like maybe yes, this is entirely true that Scott was given a blank check to do this......and thanks to DC being pretty lax about direction these days on its narrative arcs to its creators, maybe no one stopped to look too closely at the overall narrative arc on this tale, which at various time managed (in early issues) to serve as a fascinating concept but somehow just got too big, too wildly self-referential, supremely immersed in the sort of Dumb Ass Metaphysics only comics can conceive of, and in so doing added what started to feel like infinite layers of nonsense to the already heavy and weird canon of the DC metaverse, a metaverse that desperately needs someone to step in and tone it down a bit, not do the opposite.

Sometimes, the ideas just seem.....like, WAT


Ninth metal is actually Nth metal, which of course is what Hawkman and Hawkwoman have long been associated with, but now plenty of other objects are as well (Wonder Woman's bracelets for example, and Plastic Man who spends most of this series inexplicably in an egg shape). Batman has Ninth Metal in him thanks to his "resurrection" tale some issues back during the whole close of the old New 52 pre-Rebirth reboot. And so does Joker, weee!

The Dark Universe is alternatively a nightmare universe, an anti-matter universe, a universe which can literally "flow up" or "slide down" and subsume the "normal" or "light universe." It is the place where Batman's nightmares specifically formed out of the 52 universes in situations where Batman went Very Very Bad in various ways. And apparently specifically Batman alone more or less thanks to Barbatos's time-long obsession with him. Or something like that. It's really not explained very well at any point in what passes for a narrative arc in this tale.

The House of the Bird and the House of the Bat are in eternal war because Sure Why Not, and maybe I didn't read the right Morrison collections from the past ,and then the entire Court of Owls was just one long part of this because "owlssssss" but isn't that a bird and not a bat??? and Oh My God this is what happens when you try too hard to make Everything Tie In To Everything Else.  Sometimes it is possible to know the esoteric lore and canon of a series too well, and in so doing damage it a bit by trying too hard to make it all tie in together.

I liked the Court of Owls when they were just a secret society of ancient families in Gotham who tried to control the city's direction behind the scenes with semi-immortal assassins.

Tenth Metal. Jesus Effin What the WHY

All those one-shots did set up fascinating "alternate reality" nightmare Batmans. But their end pay-off was obscured by what amounted to a bizarrely incoherent final few issues in which who the hell knows what was going on because it felt like plot twists and deus ex machina moments were being yanked out of the nightmarish corners of the writer's ass. See also: Tenth Metal. Only "Evil Batman-Flash" gets proper closure through a noted death. The rest just sort of.....um....die or go away in the endless panels of random shit that the last few issues throw at the page.

The final "It's super dark here so Tenth Metal doesn't work," metal ex machina moment. Honestly it felt to me like someone forgot to tell the artist for those panels about Shiny Batman Tenth Metal Suit and so the dialogue hamfistedly explained it away like this. Or even worse, they just wanted to make sure Batman didn't look too silly in his silver armor while he and the Joker beat up the Batman who Laughs, and they really, really, really wanted this scene in but couldn't justify it until the Tenth Metal sequence, so.....sigh....fine, whatever....

And the almost insanely nonsensical writing of the last few issues with a prosaic style that felt to me closer to the way Penny Arcade mocks this stuff than some sort of writing which was even attempting to explain an interesting story.

Dragon Joker Thing. Why. Just.....why. It was like there purely to be drawn, commented on, and than Whatever.

Oh and thanks to Reasons the entire Metal Event apparently caused new superhumans to manifest for purposes that felt a lot less like "this was a plot thing we totally conceived of" and a lot more like "and then someone in marketing said we should tie in the eight new titles DC wants to release in 2018 to the end of Metal so like yeah they really want this in here."

Hawkman and literally his entire "journey/arc" in this series. WTF

Did this series sell well?* Someone needs to think harder about this crap, and think about how they could actually have tried to construct a tighter and more focused tale out of this comic-spew-word-garbage insanity.

I love DC comics, but.....please, let's avoid something as awful and nonsensical as this again for a while. Please!!!!! Or....well....maybe try and think about what you're actually writing, and why you're doing it, and how there could be so many better, more interesting ways to actually try and tell a story than this.

*#1 sold like hotcakes.....sigh.....