Friday, July 19, 2019

Talking about Reviews

ENWorld has a good post about reviews...a plea for more, really. I posted a comment there and then realized I have an open post spot for today's blog and should relay that thought here, too. So:

My general experience with reviews in this hobby (and no doubt others) has been along these lines, however: people usually post reviews of product they like, or were predisposed to like. It is not too often that you see a critical or negative review unless the poster was already predisposed toward disliking the product, or was so amazed at how much he disliked it that he needs to share his experience. Gamers seem to be notorious for judging a product after reading it, but far less often actually discuss the product from an actual play session, or even just attempting to work with the mechanics. On my own blog I tend to string out game discussions on product to several posts, exploring facets of the rules and leading up to an actual play experience. I have found I am rarely disappointed that even the cleanest ruleset reveals some interesting warts once actually engaged with at the table. For this reason, review posting online is good....but the typical results of those reviews do tend to follow Sturgeon's Law in both directions (for both the quality of the products and the quality of said reviews).

I'll point out one thing, though: no one has quite managed to capture the lighting-in-a-bottle with a review process that is Amazon. Hell, I may buy mostly on site X, Y and Z but I always go to Amazon first to read the reviews. Every online site that aspires to provide useful reviews should look to the way Amazon does it as a model to aspire to.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer


At the time that the movie Annihilation came out I had not yet started the first book in Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, and to be honest I didn't actually pick all three up and finish them over a couple weeks until recently when I had my mass conversion back to basic print over ebook format. Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance (the three acts of the trilogy) were my first reads getting back in to Plain Old Print fiction and a very good choice for this exercise.

The first thing to know about this trilogy is that it is slow, and while it arguably can be labelled science fiction or possibly even fantasy, in truth it's more of a genre bending transitional form of fiction, stirring the pot of surrealism, with a healthy does of the unreliable narrator to help obscure any sense of objectivity to the process. The first book in the trilogy after which the movie was very loosely based is the shortest, and also takes the greatest advantage of the concept of the unreliable narrator through the perspective of the Biologist (played by Natalie Portman in the movie). The second book moves to a third person format, but still tells the tale of a certain perspective (the man self-identified as Control) and with it comes his limits of understanding and perspective. The third book breaks form somewhat by moving between multiple perspectives, all of them equally flawed in their ability to process and understand what is happening around --and to-- them.

The Movie vs. The Book 
It has been said that the movie version of the first book is something better watched without having read the novel. I agree, to an extent, but consider this: when you are familiar with the novel, it both  shines a light on the similarities and the differences between the book and the film, but in a weird way the two compliment each other. By the time you've read the whole trilogy this will make more sense; the universe of the Southern Reach is one in which countless obscure expeditions have been made into a region called "Area X" and part of the process of many of these expeditions has been to remove contextual personalizing traits from the volunteers, as too much personal identity is considered something risky, something that can be exploited. The movie, from a certain point of view, could have been about a very similar expedition to the one actually in the book (the key exception being the role of the Psychologist, who is also the director of the Southern Reach, and the only such director to have attempted to enter Area X). So....if you just take the movie as it's own thing, complimentary but not necessarily intended to be consistent with the book, you will enjoy it on its own merits.

Is This Mythos Inspired?
I've read comparisons of the Southern Reach Trilogy to being Lovecraftian or Mythos inspired. From a certain point of view this interpretation is understandable, as the core conceit of the trilogy is an unknowable, unnameable force or entity (the Anomaly) that may or may not even be "alive" in any sense we comprehend affecting the region (Area X), and the books focus on the experiences of those trying to understand what is happening. Events in the trilogy at times are strongly reminiscent of the concept of the mythos....horrors and nightmares that are purely such because of how capricious and beyond caring or even seeing humanity they are. However by the end of the trilogy it is clear that the only true similarity or point of comparison is how beyond human comprehension it is, but not because we are like bacteria on the surface of an uncaring universe in comparison to the Anomaly as you might imagine we are to the monsters of the mythos, but rather because the point of the mystery in the trilogy is that there are things that humans can never truly comprehend...or be comprehended by. Some of the core conceit in trilogy is, to me, akin to a human being trying to relate to what it means to exist in the universe as a geode; and conversely, what happens if that geode were to wonder what it means to exist as a human. The point of interaction on such a stage would be so unfathomably alien and difficult for either side to grasp that any effort of necessity must create a sense of terror and misunderstanding.

So...it's got some similar DNA to mythos horror and Lovecraft, but the context is distinctly different.

But is this Series Good?
Absolutely, and well worth a read for anyone who is in to: science fiction, mysteries, surrealism, tales from unreliable narrators, strange mysteries and psychological horror mixed with a bit of body horror, with a very slow burn. By book three (Acceptance) I felt like there was maybe a bit too much push to provide some semblance of closure for the characters and reader, enough so that when we finally did get a reveal on the nature of the mysterious Anomaly and Area X that it felt at least a bit to me like a cop out....but, admittedly, one which was well within the limited narrative allowance, when you recall that all the details we know are filtered through the perception of the characters, so the reveal itself is still tainted by a potentially unreliable perspective.

The ride to get to the third novel is a weird, wild ride despite being such a slow burn. The first book (Annihilation) is the tightest and most interesting since it focuses on an expedition in to the wilds of Area X and is the most exotic of the three novels by comparison.

Book two (Authority) tries to read more like an espionage or spy novel to some extent, and while it hints at the depths of chicanery going on behind the scenes with the organization tasked with containing and researching Area X (The eponymous Southern Reach) it is as much a deep dive into the personality of "Control" who is a deeply scarred product of the world his parents forced him in to as the actual operations and people of the Southern Reach. Much of the suspense and horror in the second novel is an exceedingly slow burn as well, riveting to me but it might be too slow for some readers.

By book three (Acceptance) the story winds around to multiple narratives from different time periods, focusing on the Psychologist from the first book, the gentleman we learn is Saul the lightkeeper from before Area X appeared, and the actions of Control, the Psychologist now self-identified as Ghost Bird and the assistant directior of the Southern Reach (Grace). Together their narrative wind down to something approximating an end, at least for each character, even if the ultimate reveal is purely an interpretation by one particular character which also feels (to me, at least) a bit like the author realized that if he didn't offer up some bone then it might not feel like a proper resolution. I won't give any of it away....if you read through books one and two, you owe it to yourself to finish book three and decide for yourself how you feel about the end.

Overall this is a brilliant trilogy, roughly self-contained, demonstrating to me that Jeff Vendermeer is a consistently good author (I have enjoyed every book of his I've read so far). If a deep, careful slow burn of a novel with an obscure, almost surrealistic apocalyptic mystery at its heart sounds like your cup of tea than I suggest you read this as soon as possible.




Monday, July 15, 2019

Alien RPG

Just in case it seemed odd I hadn't posted about this...yes, I am totally stoked that this is a thing that is happening. Check out the Alien RPG here, and see the video they put together below.


Alien - The Roleplaying Game Trailer from Free League on Vimeo.

I haven't preordered it (yet) but I plan to when I have a $100 lying about (and I'm not preparing to shell out a ton of cash to Paizo for Pathfinder 2.0). Still time before December!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Brainstorming on Presenting the Realms of Chirak in a New Print and PDF Format


As some of you know, I have an ongoing world (Realms of Chirak) which I have tried to produce a working final published document for for a few years now. The timeline for Chirak as a publishable D&D setting has kind of looked like this:

1992-1999: The dark ages, in which I started with a basic 20 or so page document that was my springboard for campaigns in Runequest III and AD&D 2nd edition during the nineties.

2000-2008ish: during this period I did more work solidifying and updating a massive accumulation of notes and bits from prior campaigns into two working documents. The first was a 50 page document that was my GM's gazetteer which rapidly grew to about 150 pages, and the other was a 32 page player's guidebook. I kept a working document for both D&D 3rd edition and whatever version of Runequest was extant at the moment. These saw publication as chapbooks but were only made available to players in my groups.

2008 -2011: One major problem with 3rd edition D&D for me was that it was nigh impossible to do a custom homebrew setting in the system without breaking or mashing some rules. All to often what worked just fine for my own game table would be considered blashphemy in the D&D 3rd edition community, and as a result I never felt comfortable completing a working document for publication. 4th edition D&D changed all of that, with a very codified ruleset which made mechanical implementation pretty easy. I managed to upload a finalized document for sale, and a version on lulu for print in this time period. To date it remains the "print" version that is pubically available, outside of what I have released on the bog.

2011-present: all of my ongoing work, ideas, future and current campaigns and so forth have made their way in some form on to the blog. By not monetizing the blog and keeping it free and "you get what you pay for" this freed me up to offer my take on content without worrying too much about what people would think of it for their own needs.

2013-2019: My Pathfinder 1.0 document is a shambling mess of material and notes but I never came close to a definitive rules doc with Pathfinder like I did with D&D 3rd, probably because Pathfinder didn't really need it. However with D&D 5th edition I found the task of editing the book for 5E mechanics to be fine (but boring; 5e stablocks: "easy but boring")....but the real task is that the sum total of a unified document reflecting the campaign over 27 odd years of weekly gaming totalling what might well be somewhere around what I estimate to be at least 6,000 to 8,000 actual game hours spent in Chirak, with thousands of pages of loose documents and files to draw from, to be a horrifying challenge.

So....here I am now, with a rough draft of a final 5E update that is close to 500 pages in the edit and I'm still far from done. Where to go from here?

Well, recently I decided to start breaking it down in to discreet pieces to see if that let me focus more specifically on sections of the setting without getting too bogged down. So far this has worked well, and after I complete five or six "pieces" I think I'll try releasing them in smaller setting books which then unite over a larger scope. Eventually I will have enough that I can then turn them into print-ready compendiums without much effort....but at least I can get them in to some working format!

The trick now is what systems (if any) to focus on. 5E is easy enough, but I have been adding Cypher System mechanics to literally everything these days (I have a complete working document of the Sabiri Lands statted out in Cypher System, for example) and it's hard not to, given how easy and liberating Cypher System is for GMs. Also, there's this little thing about Pathfinder 2.0 coming out soon....but I suspect that if I were to try including that, I might run into some of my old problems. We'll see.

What I could do is release different versions of each piece for specific systems. A version for 5E and a version for Cypher System are both easy enough. If Pathfinder 2.0 is a forgiving system to write and design for, then I can add it in. Doing these doc piecemeal may indeed make such tasks less onerous.

In the meantime, my current plan is as follows: before close of year, I'd like to release these short books, each ranging from 30-50 pages for Chirak:
Espanea and the Kaldinian Isles
The Sabiri Lands
Mercurios
A Guidebook to the Cults and Religions of Chirak
Xoxtocharit 
Kasdalan

...With more planned. Some regions haven't been developed enough for a 30-50 page treatment (I've never had more than a couple pages on Adenach, for example), so some of these books could incorporate neighboring smaller kingdoms/regions as well.

Another advantage to these focused location books is that they can string into the intended campaign, but could also be used "as is" by GMs looking for a specific location, or could be dropped in to someone's own setting to fill a niche or corner. My plan is to make sure that everything you need to fill out the detail on the local setting is provided in each book.

I also need to think about the art direction. Plenty of decent stock art out there to be found and paid for these days, but many other publishers are also using that stock art. I have a lot more income to mess with now than I did 10 years ago, so a little money spent on good art for a vanity project might be worth it. I could try Kickstarting, but not unless I do it the Sine Nomine way (also known as "The Smart Way") so I'll need to go read over the excellent publishing doc he provides, as it is well worth any small publisher's read through before tackling any project, let alone a Kickstarter.

Stuff to ponder!



Wednesday, July 10, 2019

FIlm review: Terrifier (Netflix/streaming)


The film Terrifier has been sitting around in my Netflix queue for a while after reading a recommendation a while back that this was an indie slasher flick worth catching. The Terrifier focuses, apparently, on a malevolent clown who previously appeared in a series called All Hallows' Eve which I had not as of yet caught, and luckily did not need to see for this film to make sense.

Right off the bat: if you're not in to gory, splatterpunk style slasher flicks, then just skip this movie. Got it? Okay, for the rest of you....

This is a brilliant and horribly awesome B movie slasher flick! If not for others talking about it I would never have known to look for this one, and it was well worth the watch. The lead villain (the Terrifier, I guess?) is a sadistic serial killer who dresses up in the gruesomest black and white clown garb imaginable, easily a contender for freakiest clown outside of maybe Pennywise in the It remake (and even then only when Pennywise starts transforming).

FYI some Spoilers ahead!

The story is basic and to the point: two gals out for an evening on Halloween are effectively stalked by a madman dressed as a clown, and there's a lot of collateral damage along the way. This film is absolutely about the tale of the Terrifier, and make no assumptions that there's a protagonist for us to root for as the murder clown disembowels and slaughters those who get in his way; the story is not about who survives, but what's left of any survivors at the end....it harkens to the splatterpunk genre with great efficiency as a result.

One of the better bits about this movie is that the guy playing as the Terrifier sticks to a wordless, almost soundless approach to the villain, with only occasional grunts and just once a scream when taking injury. For all his horrifying bits, the Terrifier is (for most of the movie) a mortal human, just so disturbingly freaky that he unnerves his victims into desperation. His facial emotes with the mask are memorable, though you may wish they weren't (unless your a jaded old horror fan who can't be scared by anything anymore, like me). This adds an element of uncertainty to the film, as it is always possible that a victim could finally gain the upper hand on him.

Speaking of splatterpunk, the gore in this movie is over the top, and sufficiently gruesome that I had to watch this with kid in bed because it was just Too Much (and this is a kid who is obsessed with Friday the 13th so much he can tell me the whole tale of Jason Vorhees). Unlike the guy with a hockey mask however, which is mostly a film series with "conventional slasher" gore, Terrifier is definitely much closer to the more visceral and disturbing splatterpunk style of the genre.

The Terrifier has a few "odd moments" which I still haven't quite reconciled. There's a moment when it is unclear if he's wearing a victim's skin and prancing about, or if he's merely placed the mask on her corpse and she's under his control somehow. It's a freaky effect and I can see why they went with it, but there's never any clear resolution as to what was going on in this sequence. Toward the end of the film, in true form to the tradition of serial killer films he's brought back as a terrifying, unkillable revenant specifically so we can appreciate that there will be an inevitable sequel.

Anyway, it was a good, terrifying, dismemberment-filled romp, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The movie is currently playing on Netflix and probably other streaming services. A+ for horror and splatterpunk fans! Non-horror fans and the squeamish should probably avoid.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Getting Seriously Excited for Pathfinder 2.0


As the teaser articles roll out I find myself increasingly excited for Pathfinder 2.0. I've certainly enjoyed my time with D&D 5E, but I continue to admit that there has always been something really special about the years I delved deep into Pathfinder (and 3rd edition before it), warts and all. The idea of a streamlined, retooled version which (it seems) dropped the weird stuff from the playtest I didn't like has me really excited.

Yeah, I hope that the final product holds up to this excitement, too! I would hate to go all in (as I plan to do) and then find myself bummed out at the final product.

We shall see, though....I have a good feeling about this one, don't know why, I just like the cut of Paizo's gib, y'know?

The product will probably only fail for me if it does more than one of the following:

1. Integrate too deeply into the default world of Golarion making it hard to use the game with my own settings;
2. Did not actually get rid of annoying and cumbersome rules seen in the playtest (such as the essence mechanics for magic items);
3. accidentally introduces too many new rules in the name of streamlining that are counter-intuitive for verisimilitude-focused play (the "4Eification" of PF2.0 if you will; a valid concern since the devs have occasionally suggested that 4E had its influences here).

I don't want to be disappointed though....I really want a viable, interesting, intuitive but more flexible and detailed game system that provides me with a permanent alternative to D&D 5E. Again....I am not denigrating D&D 5E, I am just saying that I want something that innovates in this space and moves forward in new and fun ways for me as a jaded veteran gamer. I'm a "old gamer who wants to see interesting new ways and mechanics to play in the D&D space," essentially...and I'm betting my chips on Pathfinder 2.0 doing this.

Ten Steps on How to Play Fortnite as a Dad


Ten easy steps to gaining deep satisfaction in Fortite if you are an actual adult with children who also play Fortnite!

10. See that cool skin? Buy it. See that cool dance? Buy it. Now equip it and watch as everyone goes insane in the waiting zone attacking you for having what they want but can't afford because they're, you know, kids.

9. See that skin your kid wants? He will do an insane number of chores to earn the points to afford it. Use this wisely! It's an excellent motivator.

8. You can teach your children critical thinking skills with Fortnite by explaining to them that 99% of the Youtube videos espousing Fortnite secrets and reveals are all a bunch of conspiracy garbage.

7. In the same vein as #8 you can also teach them a bit about game design by explaining that sometimes when you glitch into an area you shouldn't be and see a big block it is not Kevin returning but just a polygon artifact that the devs didn't think anyone would be able to find.

6. Don't play it consistently. It's better to play it once every few weeks and clear out an entire three weeks' worth of weekly challenges in one sitting, and prevents you from learning to hate the game a tiny bit less.

5. You get to learn that among the average Fortnite players "mid twenties" is damned old and where everyone not ages 7-13 is grouped. Rest easy knowing that age 23 or 48 or 56, it is all the same to the youngest generation Z!

4. Appreciate that the skins in Fortnite are at least amusing and creative. Contrast with Black Ops IIII (sigh) in which it looks like Serious Bizness Mercs all got caught in a paint store when it exploded, or Apex Legends, where it doesn't matter because these ridiculous avatars should all be ground under the heel of my Titan mech and what the hell Respawn.

3. Appreciate the fact that you can get 3-5 games of Fortnite done in the time it takes you to play through one game of PUBG and then get sniped from across the map.

2. Watch and learn as 11 year olds build twenty story tall fortresses in a matter of seconds. Do not despair! It turns out that the reason they can do this is because no one told them not to. Also, their brains are younger and more adaptive. You can still figure it out, though, just give up any pretense of your fort making sense and you'll be fine.

1. Most of all, enjoy the modern 21st century equivalent of the bonding experience in computer gaming with your kid(s).



BONUS! What System should I play Fortnite on?

You can play Fortnite on anything, possibly even your microwave if Epic has anything to say about it. Here's how your choice of system matters:

Mobile: Fortnite on the phone is for your kid, or if you are desperate for entertainment and don't mind being put down like a dog repeatedly and often.

Xbox: Although you can have a good experience here, Xbox supports keyboard and mouse, and seems to group (heavily) with the leet PC gamers so you will feel constant and never ending disappointment as you die repeatedly.

PC: the leet gamers and streamers linger here. If you want to at least know for certain that the guy who killed you was A: amazing, B: streaming your death, C: maybe actually cheating, who knows; and D: mocking you while A through C happen, then PC is your game.

Yes, you could keep playing PC in the hope you will "get good," but it won't happen unless you're under 25 and can explain to me what the f*** the dab police are (or more specifically WHO he is).

PS4: My preferred choice for gaming in Fortnite, it is the only place to get good graphics, less lag, and a smug sense of superiority as the very high casual play base on PS4 means you can actually shoot someone else first occasionally.

Switch: The Nintendo Switch is the secret weapon for People Who Want to Get Things Done. You play on the Switch not because it's a good iteration of the game (it's not) but because the low res graphics (720p), limited draw distances and potential for your opponents to be operating with joycons and a tiny screen mean you can DOMINATE them. And you'll see how, easily! No one builds in the Switch sessions...hardly anyone seems to have gotten used to how to build quickly with the Switch arrangement, and its the only game where Rumble mode can feel like Gettysburg as everyone charges each other in wide open fields. It's crazy, but it works. The reason for this is simple: without at least a Switch Pro controller the game's difficult to aim in, and Epic cordons off Switch and Mobile players in the same corner. You will almost feel sorry for the mobile players as you watch them clumsily try to swing their touch screen aim around to shoot you as you gun them down.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Film Review: Hellboy (2019)


If you blinked then you probably missed it, and that's probably a good thing because it will be on Netflix soon enough to suck up precious moments of your life.

Hellboy for 2019 was a magnum opus for the series, an intent to kick off a new film "expanded universe" while aiming for a stronger depiction of the creative core of the Mike Mignola created character Hellboy and his comic universe. It got a lot of the visuals right, and to be fair the film had some great moments....but it managed to fall flat in so many other ways.

In terms of genre, Hellboy wasn't so much a "superhero film" as it was in the special genre of "campy, somehow not self-conscious action franchises that often have Milla Jovovich in them." That includes the Resident Evil movies for those keeping track...except not as unintentionally funny, alas. Hellboy actually does star Milla as the chief villain, and her performance in this film is pretty good, actually. There is a decent attempt at meaningful performances from most other actors in the film including the new Hellboy, who does the best he can behind the prosthetic makeup he has to wear to convey the gruff and disgruntled Hellboy almost as well as Ron Perlman did.

Unfortunately the story they are trapped in is convoluted, sometimes pointless, often lacks any sense of threat, tries too hard to go over the top when it should have gone for a more subtle approach (living in the shadow of prior Guillermo del Toro works has that effect), and ultimately feels like not insignificant portions of this movie were specifically filmed to fit the trailer they imagined would bring the audiences in droves.

On opening day my family saw and enjoyed it, but the theater was mostly empty. This film was at best pushing a C rating due to such an obscure property with such a failed effort at a script and far too many nonsensical set pieces mixed in with far too many characters we didn't learn to care about. This movie was doomed from the get go and I don't think anyone saw this until it was too late. C-

Thursday, July 4, 2019

What Advent Horizons Needs

I've thoroughly read through Advent Horizons now and have grown to appreciate its unique blend of 3rd and 5th edition on character generation. However, I have been unable to motivate myself to run it....and that can be a real issue for getting any game off the ground. Here's the two reasons why AH is as yet unplayed by my group, and what AH needs going in to the future to attract more players. I hope this happens, because I think it's the best iteration of D&D 5E in a science fiction context I've seen so far, but it still needs some serious fixes.

GM Book

The AH core book includes a barebones approach to system generation, plot generation, a handful of foes and that's about it. There is not enough to get a GM properly up and running here....at least not one like me, with limited time to design a lot of content. The background provided is a good skeleton, but it could also use a sample area with more detail and maybe a starter scenario. Really though it needs an "AH DMG" tome to supplement the core rules.

Editing

The book needs a serious edit from a proper copy editor, not merely a word processor proof-read. I think the straw that broke my back on this was reading about an NPC's "quarks." I closed the book at that point and gave up.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Film Review: Spider-Man Far From Home


The first thing that Spider-Man Far From Home does is get details of the "snap" and the five year gap which leads to the "blip" out of the way. It's simultaneously the most "comic book" of subplots even as it defies the traditional logic of comic book universes, which is that nothing dramatic like this normally ever happens--and if it does, it's to an alternate reality and the main continuity stays the same, or maybe it stays that way for a few years and then the stories quietly resume the status quo when the idea has been exhausted and the novelty has worn off.

This, however, is the relatively uncharted waters of a cinematic universe derived from the comics,  so we instead get to see what happens in a post-event version of the Marvel universe. Spider-Man Far From Home is uniquely suited to this task as it conveniently seems to have insured all of Peter Parker's core gang blipped out with him, and then addresses the general social ramifications of a universe which lost and then regained half of the population of sentients over a five year period. Interesting stuff, and weird, but I admire that they were willing and able to engage with their fictional universe at such a level. It doesn't necessarily hold up under scrutiny....but it absolutely holds up under the rules of comic book logic as applied to the four-color realm of human psychology and norms in a universe where cosmic threats happen with sufficient regularity that it becomes mundane.

Indeed, much of the movie focuses on exactly that: what happens when dire threats are potentially all mundane now, and existential threats must be had to get noticed, especially if you are --say-- a wannabe hero like Mysterio? The plot revolves around this notion and does a great job exploring the concept (again, within the highly defined scope of the MCU) while also telling the story of a teenager with super powers who would really like to continue life as a teenager if only the super hero business didn't keep dragging him back to it.

Overall I loved this movie, it was a really well paced, carefully structured movie with a medley of engaging and likeable characters, a great twist that even I as an old comic fan thought was suitably interesting (and yes, this relates to Mysterio's "reveal.") The best parts related to Peter Parker's long running interest in Mary Jane Watson, and the interplay of that process with their friends. Overall a great, fun, relaxing summer movie and maybe the only one I could really advise people "don't miss." Also my favorite Spider-Man movie to date. A+++!