Friday, November 1, 2019

Film Reviews: Zombieland: Double Tap, The Lighthouse and Terminator: Dark Fate

I have caught three movies in under three weeks and frankly all three have some merits (and issues) worth talking about. Except for The Lighthouse which I caught with a friend, my son was also present and had his own awesome takes. Here goes!

Zombieland: Double Tap

Son's Take: about halfway through the movie, and then afterward: "This is not the movie I expected it to be, I am very disappointed in it." Later: "Papa, I saw the trailer for this movie and it looked just like Zombie Tag, which was an amazing idea, but the movie wasn't anything like it. This movie was scary a bit but it was also boring and not funny at all."

Dad's Take: I enjoyed this film, as a sort of direct "ten years later but also like no time at all has passed sequel to the original" type thing. It was more comedy in the same vein as the first, but also felt entirely needless and despite being an hour and 38 minutes long I kept checking my watch in hopes it would end soon. It somehow managed to be both entertaining and boring all at the same time. The first movie was a road trip comedy disguised as a zombie survival film. The second movie is exactly what you get when you make a sequel to something that stood well on its own to begin with and needed no sequel, as if the entire film was cobbled together from additional content filmed during the first and left on the cutting room floor. Funny but entirely unessential. C+

The Lighthouse

I showed the trailer to this film to my wife and son and both were like "That looks neat, we want to see that," but thankfully I went with my friend who also appreciated a good, weird film and as a result I did not have to explain topics such as hallucinatory masturbatory mermaid sex to my son; that  conversation is mercifully pushed off. This allowed me to enjoy a unique film that I hardly ever expect to see in theaters anymore; a film which dances between surrealism and horror while demonstrating that both genres walk the fine line between the terrifying and the absurd....and The Lighthouse does this masterfully.

This is my first experience with Egger's film style, and now that I've seen The Lighthouse I must see The Witch next, and hopefully will also enjoy it as much as this movie. The Lighthouse itself is an amazing treatment, an historical descent into madness which left me elated to see Defoe as an actor let loose while Pattison (our future Batman) demonstrate he's got the chops for some serious acting. Filmed in a 3:4 format designed to induce claustrophobia while reveling in a stark black and white film style, The Lighthouse is a trip that everyone serious about surrealism and horror should take. A+ if you're in to this kind of thing.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Son's Take: After seeing this last night my son went on to a fascinating diatribe about how Terminator: Dark Fate not only surprised him with how good it was, and wasn't just good becasue it "started off with action right away," which he very much appreciated, but he then went on at length to tell me the film inspired him deeply, and he now not only wanted to be an augmented superhuman himself, but that he wanted to affect change in the world in a deep and profound way that he wasn't entirely clear on at his almost-eight-years-old perspective on the world, but he was working on it. He proceeded to tell me he wanted to be just like "That guy who made change happen for real," and then proceeded to accurately quote Martin Luther King Jr. to which I was like "You mean Marti...?" and he was then, "Yes! Martin Luther King Jr.!" and I was pretty much, okay, this is extremely interesting.

Dad's Take: This left me with piecing together what was in Terminator: Dark Fate that so inspired my son to somehow equate the movie with what I suspect are recently learned lessons in school about civil rights activist King Jr. and I suspect it was (itsy bitsy spoiler) Dani's speech moment in the'll know the one when you see it. Also, the cool augmented superhuman, and the persistent message throughout the film that the future does not have to be written in stone, even when it seems to be; but the mere fact that Terminators are being sent back to change the future fundamentally means the humans of the past who know about them can, in fact, change the future.

Okay, all that aside, the moment in the film I thought was most controversial was the completely normal way in which the border situation was portrayed in the film followed by the Rev 9 Terminator cutting its way through dozens of border patrol and military personnel in about thirty seconds. It was controversial, I felt, because the movie did a great job of humanizing Mexico and then turned the border to the US into its own distinct and ominous obstacle as a side issue within the main story itself, done so matter of factly and without commentary yet inevitably forcing many in the audience to consider what it means to live in a country that has managed to do "that thing which inherently does not feel right" to itself, all in the name of border protection. If it failed at all here, it was that the holding facilities as depicted were a bit too clean and not as oppressive as what we actually have in reality.

In the end, this was a perfect soft reboot of the Terminator franchise. It negated three of the six movies in the franchise mere minutes into the story, and proceeded to set up four protagonists who each contributed in meaningful ways to the story, plot and dialogue in memorable moments that only initially riffed off of what had come before, then proceeded to tread new and fresh ground...a welcome change of pace from other films which fall into the pitfall of aping without understanding prior entries in the series.

Schwarzenegger himself was my favorite part of the movie, FYI. I will speak nothing of how his role plays out (best to see spoiler free), merely that I felt he had all the best lines and his story was singularly unique in its approach to how he got to continue to play in the Terminator sandbox, and it worked exceedingly well.

So...yeah! We loved this movie. A+ for sure.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint - the Buggiest Mess of Fun I've Had in a While

I make no secret of the fact that I've enjoyed the heck out of Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands....the former king of "overly long attributive names" now replaced by Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, which is essentially a direct game engine sequel and an indirect "story sequel" for reasons I'll explain in a moment.

For sanity's sake I'll just call this Breakpoint for the remainder of the discussion. Breakpoint is a direct sequel to Wildlands insofar as it is the same game engine and technically the same universe as the prior Ghost Recon titles...if you're in to following what those themes are, anyway. Unlike it's predecessor Wildlands, it tries to have a more directly involved story about your Ghost Recon character, focusing on a web of betrayal while being trapped on a high tech island paradise gone horribly wrong. Very much like Wildlands, it's really about your Special Ops character beign dumped into a hostile environment with limited resources and a veritable army of enemies surrounding him (or her) and a series of escalating plot points you must complete to progress the game.

Both Wildlands and Breakpoint function under a broad open-world engine designed to allow the most flexibility you can get Ubisoft style, with vast open world environments, vehicles and regions to explore, and lots of side quests and collectible missions to pad your time out while playing. Unlike Wildlands Breakpoint dives heavily in to the microtransactions, but I have found them completely ignorable so far.

Also unlike Wildlands, Breakpoint has some interesting bugs. My guess is that they took a variant build of Wildlands, probably before that game was even fully completed and patched, and started designing for Breakpoint. Then...a few things happened, in no particular order as follows.

First, Ubisoft got flack from the Bolivian government for using Bolivia as the setting for Wildlands. They were chastised by some groups at the time for depicting a real world country, even if it was a fictionalized account of such, intermixed with a somewhat fictitious but nonetheless inspired depiction of Mexican and South American drug cartels. For better or worse it actually made the game feel more interesting a bit "authentic" in the way that so many other modern shooters tend to fail at, and I very much enjoyed the game's attempts at ambient action, adventure and exploration in a faux Bolivia against faux Mexican cartels.

Second, Ubisoft had lots of bugs early on but they worked through them, and in similar fashion to The Division around a year in Wildlands was a very polished experience. Unfortunately, for better or worse Ubisoft pushed hard on getting people to not only enjoy the game's single player (and co-op) campaign, but they really wanted people to participate in the Ghost War multiplayer. Fair disclosure: I never even tried Ghost War and only played co-op with family, so consider that my appreciation for Wildlands was 100% about the PvE element of the game.

The net result of these events resulted, perhaps, in the reason Breakpoint is a bit of an odd duck. What Breakpoint does strangely may be entirely a result of Ubisoft's efforts, visible in almost all recent games, to clean up any politically contentious content in favor of something less offensive to all....and in the process making a product which ends up feeling like it has no backbone and stands for nothing. Here's how:

Breakpoint, in contrast with Wildlands and other Ghost Recon titles of the past, takes place in a fictional series of islands in a difficult to identify region of the world where an Elon Musk-like tech genius had decided to forge a new utopian society. He brings a PMC group in, the Sentinels, to serve as a temporary (?) military force, but in short order the PMCs take over and turn the production of good technology to bad. The island goes black....and the Ghosts are sent in. Within the span of the first cutscene the entire ghost operation is wiped out and only your character and a handful of survivors are left to regroup.

The villain in this game is technology; corporatism; militia-themed mercenaries (?); and the island is populated by what come across as random Silicon Valley people out picnicking and unsure of what to do in the midst of all the chaos, while extremely well funded and armed mercs hunt you with exactly as much skill as the difficulty level you decide to play at. To add some gravitas, one of the mercs is an ex-ghost who you previously trusted, so we have the "payback" plot bit mixed in, too.

Contrast this with how Wildlands handled it: the ghosts were meddlers, sent with deniability by the US to support a black op run in Bolivia to take out a dangerous collective of cartels which had siezed control of Bolivia and were turning the drug empire into a true international threat. The story was about the local agents you assisted, the rebels fighting both corruption in their government and the new cartels, and you had at least three factions to deal with, one of which was friendly to you. You also had ally NPCs you could default to playing with, and that made for some hilarious fun if you don't have anyone else to play this kind of game with.

In the end, with Wildlands, you learn a great deal about the malevolent, misguided and sometimes tragic personalities behind the cartel, while the government that lets it all unfold remains an oddly faceless aggressor in the background. Your character's stake is personal in that he/she gets the job done, no matter the cost...and you see the local dramas unfold. It was interesting, and a brave approach to storytelling for this kind of game.

Breakpoint, in contrast, manages an interesting story of personal grudges that makes the event very personal to your character, but in the course of doing so it removed most of the visceral level of story immersion Wildlands provided by making far too much of the fictional islands you are trapped on feel like "Video Game Land Gone Wrong," rather than a real place. They could have set this in Disneyworld and come up with some bizarre explanation for why you can't leave until everyone who's wronged you is dead and it would have made as much sense, in other words.

Examples of what I mean: travel in Wildlands for a while and you encounters towns, villages, graveyards, travelers who you must avoid killing because you're here to help, occasional narco patrols and occasional government troops. In Breakpoint you get evenly spaced random gangs of mercenaries with poor far-sightedness, occasional rare weird ruins of a mystery civilization, and small groups of what look like techies who were out on a picnic when the mercs took over and aren't sure what to do.

Despite all this, I am enjoying Breakpoint a lot. The personal story is good, the side quests are interesting enough, and so far the "busy work" collectible stuff seems to exist but I haven't yet felt compelled to pursue it. There's some sort of season pass nonsense buried in the game but like the microtransaction store I am simply ignoring it; none of that stuff matters if you play this for single-player or casual co-op.

Now, that said, one thing this game has a ton of and your tolerance may vary on is bugs. Playing Breakpoint right now feels like reading a really fun but poorly edited book, filled with typos and sometimes egregious grammatical errors. You keep thinking, "This book is great, but the author really needs to get a real editor!" --Yeah, Breakpoint is exactly like that. "This game is great, but man they really need like 100 patches!"

Some of the errors are just comical. If I don't see a load screen where my character is tightly gripping empty air where a gun should be then I just don't feel like I'm playing Breakpoint, you know? If  I don't see trees swaying in the wind, down to the trunk bases embedded in the earth, then how would I know I'm in a buggy early Ubisoft release? What would this game be like if my character's context-sensitive commands didn't get confused with some items being too close to one another (such as motorcycles)? If my character's climbing, swimming and running animations don't occasionally get get the idea.

My theory is that they started work on Breakpoint before they were finished cleaning and perfecting Wildlands. My second theory is that they started work on Breakpoint after Wildlands released, and had to scramble to build the content, overlooking lots of these visual and action issues to pump out the product. So either they worked on a build that deviated from an early Wildlands code, or they worked on a post-Wildlands code under a tight deadline. Either way....Breakpoint is the result.

For some, the bugs are sheer insanity and induce levels of hatred best expressed by a guy like Angry Joe. I haven't experienced all the bugs he has (and his problems may stem from the multiplayer aspect in ways I can't see in single player as easily), but I have seen some of them and they really stand out when encountered. For others like myself, these are not game breakers, but I trust Ubisoft to patch as much as they can. Some though....I have a theory here about some of these bugs, and it goes like this:

Wildlands let you run up and down mountains with no visible windedness, and sometimes with terrain that defied the logic of your movement (try running up a steep stream on a mountainside in real life to contrast with how you can do that in Wildlands). My theory is that a programmer at Ubisoft really didn't like this, and had a brilliant idea for more nuanced terrain movement in Wildlands, but he was shot down because it caused implementation issues, and they needed to get a working product out over a more nuanced, realistic product.

Cut to Breakpoint; that developer has more say and points out with Breakpoint there is time to implement this system of movement with terrain. They green light it, and we end up getting a context-sensitive movement system where your character slogs through marshes, struggles up steep slopes, can slide and fall, has great swimming animations when the water is deep enough, and can demonstrate fatigue over time. Other things, such as resting at bivouacs to get perks toward movement and tweaking of the stealth/hunched movement are implemented. Someone, very specifically the person who likes these, is extremely pleased with the result. Then the game is exposed to everyone else.

Now we have a game system which simultaneously feels more realistic in its movements while also leading to a constant series of fringe cases in which your character's movements can be mildly to severely annoying, especially if they start gyrating when you least want them to, the best example being when too many items you can interact with are too close to one another. Terrain that is "right on the edge" can cause strange actions such as swimming for a second down a shallow stream, or unexpectedly plunging down cliffs that you had seconds before seemed okay with hurdling.

To me....the fringe cases have been amusing and mildly annoying, but easily overlooked; I kind of like this context-sensitive movement...when it works well. But for others, especially the "angry video game reviewer" crowd? Yeah, they hate this stuff. And by hate, I to make videos showing their hate. They are not wrong, though. I think a cleaner movement system like Wildlands is less cumbersome in the long run; but Breakpoint may be the "test bed" for Ubisoft's next game which gets this nuanced movement right. happened with Assassin's Creed, it can happen here!

Another random gripe: why can't I recreate or port over my Wildland's character to Breakpoint? Why are the character models in Breakpoint less interesting and universally uglier than the ones from Wildlands? Why does blood on my character like look strawberry jam? Did they not see the flak Moderrn Warfare 2 got for the "strawberry jam = blood" effect?

Finally: here's my weird pet peeve. What ancient culture resided on the island, leaving behind all these strange monuments that look like the love child a Viking and a Hawaiian? Seriously; mor than anything, their ambiguous unidentifiable imaginary indigenous culture drive me nuts. It better be reptilians is all I can say.

Anyway.....I just wanted to ramble for a while about this game. I feel Ubisoft waffled in making "big tech company + PMCs" the villain, and they experimented with an open world that led to new bugs, but still made a fun game. Right now I'm going to rate this game a B- or maybe C+, but we'll see where it's at in a few months with patches, and whether or not their future content releases are worth investigating. Time will tell....

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Baldur's Gate Collection on the Nintendo Switch

This week Beamdog Software, responsible for the enhanced editions of beloved Obsidian classics Baldur's Gate I and II, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment releases console editions of all the classic AD&D 2nd edition-powered RPGs from roughly 1998-2000, easily some of the best and most innovative RPGs for their day, and still some of the best iterations of D&D today, as well as shockingly good to enjoy even now, as long as you're in to isometric RPGs.

If you don't know and don't feel like googling it, isometric RPGs are effectively "top down perspective" games which in this case happen to be RPGs; there are lots of other isometric games out there, but this subgenre focuses on elements with a bit of more conventional CRPG design mixed with real time strategy and turn-based combat. For their time, the Obsidian AD&D game titles were well regarded for how they allowed you to play in real time and pause when things got too interesting or required your intervention....which was often a lot. Back when I first played these games, I set the parameters for when the game paused to "most situations" by default...I liked keeping careful control back then.

Thankfully that level of granularity works in my favor these days, as I prefer less control more than anything. The new versions of these games aren't really "new" anymore, either....and odds are if you lurk in blogs like this you already have played these games or own one on some form of device in the last decade or so; the enhanced editions and originals have been available on PC in digital format as well as tablet for some time now. Moving them ton consoles is a brilliant move, though; Beamdog had to design the ports with a controller in mind, and anyone who has seen how Pillars of Eternity and Divinity II: Original Sin handled this know that the current conversion method actually makes for a better, more intuitive set of controls than you get on a mouse an keyboard. Take that, PC master race! the console ports I picked up are on Switch, which adapts the resolution of text appropriately and makes it possible to play handheld and still read it (old gamers may still need reading glasses). The game on a TV looks fine, but maybe not as good as I can experience on 4K resolution through my GOG edition, but honestly? I'm here for the ridiculously intuitive controller setup.

I won't bother reviewing the games beyond mentioning that a few hours in to Baldur's Gate and it all runs quite well. I'll try the others out as well, soon as I can find time (yes, somehow I found the money to grab them but time....time is indeed precious...!) Baldur's Gate is proving to be the experience I remember from my multiple prior playthroughs (fair disclosure: I've only beaten the original once) and I actually feel emboldened by the superior controls and portability that I may at last get to replay Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale as well as play and finish for the first time Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment. Yes, you read that right; I have not played either of the latter two games; I had even less time in the late 90s'/early 00's for computer gaming and a cruddy Mac for my computer, so my options were slim! But luckily thanks to these new ports I think it is at last time to make some room on my schedule.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Pathfinder 2E Monster and Hazard Guide is Up

It's been up a little while I think, but it's been a busy month for me....anyway, download it from Paizo here.

The guide's pretty straight-forward, and as anyone who's been running PF2E knows this information will prove rather useful; I have been extrapolating from creature stats and leveling process to scale NPCs as needed, but a more detailed process is much desired and this document, which appears to be the whole of Chapter 2 from the forthcoming Gamemaster Guide, is most welcome.

I'm hoping they will try to assemble the data into some quick-access charts similar to how they did it in the Alien Archive for Starfinder, but even if that doesn't happen this will absolutely work. For those who have not seen it, Starfinder is a bit of a hybrid of PF1E and 2E in approach, with closer etymology to 1st edition while experimenting with the nascent ideas that blossomed in to 2nd edition. It is distinct, however, in providing a very solid set of easy rules for letting GMs quickly design enemies as needed, even on the fly, with level-appropriate core stats.

Either way.....gone are the old days of monster stat block design of equal complexity to PC design, a change I definitely welcome. Despite this reduction in complexity the stat blocks still provide all the actual content you need as GM, and serve primarily to reduce the noise level of older 1st edition stat blocks while still providing all the stuff you want and need. This is, to contrast a prior failed attempt at a similar reductionist style (D&D 4E) a very good way to go about doing it without losing the "resolution" a GM needs for a role playing game. About the only negative I have to offer is that the stat block sometimes frustrating mention a rule from another location, so stat blocks are not always self contained, something I thought we'd all agreed a while ago was a good thing. Despite this, D&D 5E and Pathfinder 2E  both still seem to learn that lesson.....although both are still much better on average than they used to be, so there is that.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Can't...Stop.....Pathfinder 2Eing....

Brief post! More to come. Pathfinder 2E is the dominant game at all my tables now. It's just so....easy, and fun, even as I analyze the heck out of certain design choices, it's still inescapably a surprisingly playable and tactically interesting game.

Will I ever get back to Cypher System (of which the revised core is in my hands now), Savage Worlds (Adventurer's Edition is in the mail at last), or D&D 5E? Yes, eventually....but it is very clear that the Pathfinder 2nd edition phenomenon must be allowed to play itself out. Ultimately I blame Paizo for making the game so damned interesting and fun to play....

Hell, I don't want to stop playing it. I just want more time in my life to play other games along with it. with the time you have not the time you want! So for the moment, Pathfinder 2nd Edition is where it's at.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Switch Lite vs. The Original Switch - a Switch Off???

For most of my computer gaming/video gaming forays into this corner of the broader gaming hobby I have never considered myself much of a Nintendo guy, but I've had my moments.....specifically I once did own a Nintendo 64 specifically so I could enjoy Shadows of the Empire and Goldeneye, and later on I had one of those Gameboy Advances to keep myself occupied during a period when my jobs seemed to require a lot of waiting around between driving. I recall nothing of the GBA other than it existed, though.

Later on the Gamecube arrived and that most definitely was worth getting, although for every good game on the Gamecube its competition had 3 more so the machine was, while neat, not exciting enough. We got a few really memorable titles for the day on it (Resident Evil 4 when it was still an exclusive, and Eternal Darkness, may the short-lived but awesome franchise R.I.P.) In the end though it was the Xbox which won the day.

I missed the entirety of the Wii phase of Nintendo, and later dabbled only at the end-of-life on the Wii U when I could get a cheap console and games just to experiment with it and play its handful of good exclusives. I only ever owned a Nintendo 2DS briefly, and found it amusing but not quite as awesome as the PS Vita for what I needed as an adult human gamer; finding DS games that were more engaging for adults* was possible but took digging and effort.

So a year and a half or so back when I decided to grab a Switch to see if a portable system that's key selling point was you could dock it with the TV for a bit more processing power, it was mainly from a "this is an interesting tech/gadget" perspective, and only a few games were out for it yet which I really had interest in. As it turns I am a year and a half later, and I think the Switch is the defacto video game machine in my house right now, right behind the PC itself. How on earth did this happen?!?!?

Now, here we are in September 2019 and a Switch Lite is on the loose. I snagged a grey edition, and because this is a thing even though I don't do the tweets or whatever, I guess I'll start the #greyguys movement for this particular console color. The Switch Lite is like the Switch Regular except for the following:

   It is smaller and lighter (it is bigger than most DS models I have seen but distinctly more petit than its bigger cousin);
   It does not have detachable joycon controllers;
   It does not dock to a TV station (thus does not, if you will, "switch");
   It does not get along well with Nintendo Labo although given you can still pair joycons to it anyway I am not sure why;
   And lastly it can be bound to your existing account but if you plan to maintain two switches on the same account will require some Nintendo-level unique juggling of save files and wifi connectivity to work as intended.

So what's the appeal? Well, to address each of the above distinctions:

Smaller means more portable. You can fit this thing comfortably in a pocket and the carry cases are like 1/3 the size of the standard Switch carry case. If you're looking for something a little more discreet and slim, this is it. Some have reported that the slightly smaller screen makes small text harder to read, but here's the deal, speaking as a 48 year old gamer who needs his reading glasses for fine print: if you need glasses to see the current Switch, this one will be about as clear. The difference in size is sufficiently marginal that I am finding no meaningful difference, and the slightly smaller screen size honestly makes the image look a bit crisper to me.

No Detachable Controllers. You can still pair them up through bluetooth connectivity, but for many this is probably an improvement. I know both my son and wife are hard enough on their controllers that they have managed to get them loose during play on the regular Switches. How? I have no idea. On the plus side, I have larger hands and these built-in controllers on the Switch Lite feel just fine to me.

No TV Dock. Look, if this is the feature you want then pony up for the Switch Regular. I did, and I love it. The Switch Lite is the thing I will take with me on business trips or camping trips or pretty much any trip, really. The bigger switch and its dock is how I play my Switch 90% of the time at home, so it's absolutely essential to the Switch identity, but there is lots of room in here for a dedicated handheld-only version that takes up less space and costs less as a result. @All You Youtubers stop breaking your Switch Lites open and trying to mod them to work on the TV, it doesn't have the guts for it (literally).

No Nintendo Labo. I don't know much about Labo, my son is too in to Beyblades and Fortnite to care about it, so I am the least informed person to comment on this. My guess....give Nintendo time, if Labo was a big seller I bet they'll make a kit for the Switch Lite.

Multiple Accounts. So I've personally been messing with this part. Here's what you need to know to do this:

Copying the SSD Contents: you can't just copy data from one SSD to another and stick it in your new machine, it has to be downloaded. Only saves can be transferred. I learned this the hard way by plugging my MicroSD in to the PC, migrating the data to a new MicroSD and then having the Switch tell me the data originated from an evil foreign machine (my docked Switch) and therefore it must be expunged. Sigh. So now I am manually loading the collection to the Switch Lite, all 400+ GB of it.

No Duplicate Saves, No Easy Cloud Saves:  Nintendo's odd method of control is to only allow one save on a machine at a time; even if you're loading to the cloud it appears the save is also "local" and therefore you can keep a save on only one machine at a time. There are some exceptions: you can still play the game on both machines, sure, but it will be two different saves at that point. Presumably the cloud save will backup from the primary console, but I haven't confirmed that yet.

Playing the Same Game on the Same Account on Two Machines: (UPDATE!) You can't play both machines at once, regardless of the game. So You can't try playing any game on one account with two machines, you need a second account to do that. I tried this out tonight under the impression this was not an issue and....surprise. In defense of Nintendo I can't do this on my Xbox One or PS4 Pro either.

Save Juggling: The save juggling is what you need to remember. If you plan to take off on a trip, take your Switch Lite and transfer the save from your docked machine to your travel machine. When you get back, you can load the save back to your docked machine. Easy enough, right?** You can also make sure your Switch Lite has games on it which benefit from or are not hurt by having saves going on two or more machines. For example, I have a whole different save going for different characters on my copy of Torchlight II on both Switches, and I am fine with that. this machine for you? This is the question all sorts of bloggers and vloggers have been asking over the last few days because the Internet is full of this stuff, and I'm bored and happy to contribute to the clog. Here's my assessment:

Are you a tech/gadget person? Then yeah this is a fun console to own.

Do you travel a lot and like a slimmer portable machine? Then totally, yes.

Is your interest mainly in playing on the TV and engaging with the Switch in ways that benefit from the removable controllers? Then the Switch Lite will disappoint.

Have you always wondered how awesome it would be to have a portable version of an Xbox 360, but even better? Then hell yeah any version of the Switch is right for you, especially as its current and imported game library has grown enormously and includes a ton of "classic" era 360 titles and updated ports such as Bayonetta, Saint's Row III, Dragon's Dogma, the Darksiders series, Dark Souls, Resident Evil Revelations I and II, Assassin's Creed III (with IV and Rogue on the way), and many more. What the Switch can run is frankly shocking.

Do you love RPGs and especially isometric American RPGs? Then you are a criminal for not owning a Switch. You can, as an example, play all the usual assortment of JRPGs on the machine, but you can also play Divinity II Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity and action RPGs like Torchlight II, Titan Quest and Diablo III. More importantly: in the next month we will see releases of Baldur's Gate I and II, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. Holy cow. I hope those last few are enormously good sellers because the Switch would be a great place for the Shadowrun titles to land as well as Torment: Tides of Numenera. Future releases include Pillars of Eternity II: Dreadfire and I understand  Neverwinter Nights I as well. That's a lot of classic RPG goodness.

Now, the down side is so many of these are retro ports that you may or may not have already played some, all or even just the ones you wanted to and are good where you're at. But if you're like me and you have found that moving such games to a portable medium with a dedicated gaming experience and real controllers is actually the best way to give you the tools (if not the time) to play these games.....then you might want to consider it. it worth it for me? I'm happy to have a compact portable console and love the ownership of uselessly fun gadgets, so I guess so. But the incredible difficulty I have in being able to seamlessly play on either Switch without having to manually cross saves is almost a deal-breaker. Right now, for me, the practical solution is to designate some games (the ones I prefer to play big screen) on the classic Switch, and other games (which make for a better portable experience) on the Switch Lite. But I shouldn't have to do this; the cloud save feature should be better than this, Nintendo. Seriously.

Okay, Switch rave off!

*What I mean here is not actual adults, who do enjoy the DS line, but "Adult gamers who are not in to Pokemon, cutesy anime stuff, chibi, cartoon characters, or hypercuteness." Grimdark and gruesome stuff did exist on the DS/3DS lines, but you had to dig into the dark underbelly of Nintendo and Gamestop to find it. Dementium for example, or RE: Revelations. But not enough warrant keeping the machine.

**Actually it is a pain in the ass. Fix this Nintendo! The 21st Century and Cloud Data is a thing and you should just accept it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Pathfinder 2E Skill Feats - more depth

My prior post felt a bit like a gripe against Pathfinder 2nd edition in a way I'm not really in full alignment with. There's a bit of frustration there but it's mostly because I (being an old, crusty gamer stuck in his ways) get annoyed when a new thing pops up and demands I read it instead of relying on my old sense of familiarity. Such is the main issue with the way skills and skill feats work in Pathfinder 2nd Edition.

Here's a few examples: the first one is Perception, which they deliberately took out of the "skill ecology" of the game. Perception is now essentially a special stat, which is not actually a bad way to approach it (and is in alignment with how perception has worked --often as a houserule-- in prior editions back to 1E's Unearthed Arcana).

The problem is, Perception is still essentially tied to "skill actions." For example: if you want to discern whether an NPC is telling the truth or not (this happens plenty of times at my game table), the way to do it is to roll deception for the NPC (lie action using Deception skill) against the PC's perception score (which not only covers awareness of the senses but apparently also awareness of the character and tone of others).

A second problem is that, while the book is exceedingly well organized for the most part, it has weird moments where the procedure for an action is buried in the details. For example: lying is covered as an action you can do, but discerning lies is buried within the text of lying. So unlike other iterations of the game, you don't have a "Intuition" or "Sense Motive" or "Insight" skill or feat to go to; if you want to detect lies you need to read up not on detecting them but how to lie. This seems like a tiny oversight...even a "Sense Motive" skill action that just says "see Lie" would have helped.*

Skill feats then come in to play to allow a player to distinguish their character's abilities in more detail. Under this system, the way to get better at detecting lies is to actually get trained in deception yourself (learn how to tell lies), then pick the skill feat "Lie to Me" so you can use deception to detect lies instead of your perception score. This means that perception is really just everyone's "baseline" ability to detect lies or see/hear/detect things. The skill feats are where you can distinguish this stuff in more depth.

A really good skill example of how this granularity breaks down is the Society skill. On the surface society lets you recall knowledge, create forgeries, decipher writing and subsist (three of which are general actions; which is to say, skill actions more than one skill might deploy). You can uniquely create forgeries with this skill.

Things you can't do with Society as a skill without a skill feat: behave as a noble (Courtly Graces), build or use connections (Connections), gather information or recall knowledge (Streetwise), and a bunch of language stuff that does make more sense (and also demonstrates that the old Linguistics skill was rolled up into Society). Note that learning new languages are Society skill feats, though; there's no "Learn a Language" skill action that tells you this, though.

As a GM, you need to consider whether or not the skill check you are about to have your PC make on the Society skill might conflict with those things that you need skill feats for. A character trained in Society still can't mimic noble conduct (I think this makes sense, but it means if you play a noble you need this feat), and you can't use it to build connections with a skill check. You can't gather information or recall knowledge since you need Streetwise as a skill feat. What does that mean in the context of a skill check?

In one sense, this is all's a nice way of parsing out skill abilities and defining what they can and cannot do. But in doing so, it becomes an interesting game of tracking two sets of data: the skills you are trained in, and the skill feats that let you do different things with them.

I am personally of the view that having a skill called "streetwise" or "Etiquette" would be easier then having to track skill feats....but that's just me. Heck, even just making these specializations of the Society skill that a "skill feat" slot lets you pick would at least organizationally help out as I see it. The PF2E devs did not go in this direction, though.

I'm ultimately fine with this; it's not a Big Deal after all, and in the end at least you can define a character by his focus through the skill feats this way. feels a little clunky if you don't get extremely familiar with the system. Luckily for both myself and the game I am sufficiently interested in it that I feel the desire to do so. I'm enjoying the overall extra level of depth that Pathfinder brings back to the games, something I have been missing with D&D 5E for quite a while now.


I'm trying to talk my players into running a few weeks with a level 12 mini campaign in Pathfinder 2E. I'd like to see how the higher levels play without waiting for the ongoing campaigns to get there. I'll keep you all apprised if this happens.

*Speaking of things where the developers came up with a neat new thing and then buried it in the details, read up on the uncommon items rules. They are buried over multiple pages. Then, consider that spells have uncommon varieties, and other things may be so restricted. Then read on the classes to discern how that applies to class advancement. Then read through the GM's section to see if you can find clarification on how you, as GM, should adjudicate uncommon spells and features. It's a great idea, but apparently no one thought that it deserved an entire special chapter addressing to the GM what this means and how to handle it, insetad leaving lots of little clues to you and the players to try and figure it out. GAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Contrasting Pathfinder 2E against Dungeons & Dragons 5E

We're approximately 8 games in to Pathfinder 2nd edition between two groups now. Both games have inched along to 3rd level and I think (depending on whether or not I'm interpreting the XP rules correctly) it seems safe to say that a fairly active group of players accomplishing a lot will advance at least 1 level every two sessions or so.

After last night's game I think, at least for the low level experience I am getting a similar vibe to my initial exploration of D&D 5E at low level: the experience feels very consistent, the combats can be quite dangerous, and risk/reward is quite noticeable. There are some distinct differences, though, which I'll point out about combat, skills and GM resources.


Right now combat in Pathfinder feels tight, intuitive, and the action point system lets you do things you can't accomplish in PF 1E or any version of D&D; you can make iterative attacks as long as you are willing to accept the penalty to hit, and the increased change of a fumble on your successive tries. There's a more strategic element to it even if you aren't using a map and minis (which we have not used except for basic map reference). Combats don't last long, and thanks to the 10-point differential which allows for normal attacks to convert to fumbles and crits combat often has some interesting and swingy results. It's interesting and I like it.

D&D 5E's main issue by contrast is that while combat flows well from level 1-4, as you advance it often feels more and more like "big bags of hit points try to deal enormous amounts of damage." Players and creatures alike in 5E have too many abilities that boil down to damage dealing without enough distinctly interesting effects (PF2E has lots of interesting effects at the low levels for contrast).  Despite this, D&D 5E combat isn't bad by any stretch.....if I ranked it vs. PF2E I'd call it a "good combat system contrasted with a great combat system."

If 5E had mor interesting effects and wasn't so obsessed with Hit Points as the catch-all I think it would hold well in this comparison. But so far: Pathfinder is a clear winner when it comes to the feel and flow of combat.

Skill Systems

As I see it, there are three modes of thought on skills: you love them and no game is sufficient unless it allows for maximum granularity; you hate them and want to know why any skills are really needed; or you recognize that there are "things you need to do" in any given game that can best be handled by skills and so try to find a modest compromise for handling this.

PF2E and D&D 5E both seem to fall in to this middle camp on the surface. 5E gives you a list of skills that I would call "the minimum decent list of skill thingies you will probably do in a D&D session." Pathfinder 2E technically also takes this approach, but then ultimately makes it enormously granular and complex....which should in theory make the "guy #1 who loves skills" happier, right? But it doesn''s actually making a skill system for "guy who recognizes a compromise mechanic but also wants tons of detail on what the compromise skill system does."

On the one hand, I like how specific the skill actions in Pathfinder can get, but on the other hand as I have delved deep into the skill feats I have sort of grown to dislike it. The problem is best described like this, starting with a D&D 5E skill challenge:

1. Player wants to do action X.
2. GM looks at the 5E skill list and thinks skill Y is a good choice.
3. Roll and resolve!

In Pathfinder 2E so far it goes like this:

1. Player wants to do skill action X.
2. GM suggests rolling on Skill Y.
3. Someone points out you can't really do that the way the player wants unless you have Skill Feat Z. GM reminds himself he needs to memorize in great detail all the skill feats because they are lots of "special exception rules" that are in reality hard limiters on the "what you can and can't do without this feat" take which PF and 3E are known for taking to insane extremes.
4. GM manages a compromise on the action, but then realizes he's not asking for the right skill because it turns out that by trying to reduce the skill list as much as it did (while also not looking too much like a copy/paste of the D&D 5E skill system) has led to Pathfinder making some really strange and counter-intuitive choices in skill consolidation. Do they work? They will, once you accept that this is how they are meant to work. Or you could go play another game with a more intuitive skill system, and that is a problem for PF2E.

Now, Pathfinder does some stuff incredibly well with the skill system as provided. Key items of note include: a better and more consistent approach to how to identify and figure out the use of magic items; a simpler crafting mechanic that, while losing granularity, is still easier to use as written; and the perception mechanic no longer being a skill but an ability. Most significant is how initiative is a skill-based thing now which can play off of perception or a relevant skill (e.g. stealth) as suits the moment. That's the most innovative thing I've seen in a game in a long time, so simple yet so logical.

But both Pathfinder and D&D 5E fail to a degree when it comes to how much verisimilitude you want in your game systen. To 5E's credit you can use the DMG rules to add as many skills as you want in, and learning skills is a matter of time and investment and totally untethered from leveling. Both systems wisely add some sort of RP-focued background mechanic (profession/background) which helps flesh out the role-play element that your character will otherwise suffer a bit on with a less granular skill system. And both do this the way they do because they are trying to find ways to solve the mechanical issues on skills imposed by 3rd edition design.

In the end....D&D 5E wins here.

The Gamemaster's Resources

This is a tough one, because to get the full experience with D&D 5E you need three books, so you're spending a fair amount of cash. Pathfinder 2E, despite having some rules to run the game in the Core Book, has offloaded a chunk of what used to be in the core and bestiary in to the upcoming Gamemastery Guide. If you want decent NPC stat blocks, rules for making, scaling and modifying monsters, rules for lots of "GM adjudication" stuff....we have to wait until January next year. Once it's out, it will be a 3-book core system. This is on equal footing with D&D 5E so I have to call this as a draw.

But! The problem here is key items (NPC design, monster design and more depth in the GM rules) were all in two books in PF1E. It is a shame to see this drawn out. One of my players thinks they were forced to rush PF2E to release. I think maybe they just wanted to get it spread out more; but I gotta be honest, I'd have much rather had some NPC/monster design rules in the core books than the goblin ancestry and alchemist. Oh well.

Pathfinder 2E is proving a lot of fun, but it is also making me appreciate some of the design choices put in to D&D 5E. I am thinking that a perfect version of the game could be found in a system with PF2E level combat and action economy, D&D 5E level skill mechanics, and some blend of the spell systems.

Another contrast is the "gradient of success" mechanic in PF2E vs. the advantage/disadvantage mechanic in D&D 5E. I feel like both are interesting and equally innovative. I wonder if one could implement some version of both in a hybrid version of the two games.....hmmmm.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Cypher System Revised Is Out!!! - Best Game Ever

Yesterday I got my notice that Cypher System Revised was being released and my Kickstarter claim was ready, so I now have the PDF and am waiting for my physical shipment. A few comments for those interested in what this new edition brings to the game:

Same System, New Look

It's the same game system. Much like with Numenera, the revised edition is more complimentary to what has come before. Nothing about Cypher Revised will negate your current collection. I intend to keep my 1st edition book for the game table as it will still be fully functional for players who need to roll characters or rules reference. Monte Cook Games needs to be commended for this practice, it is very much appreciated.

Additional Core Content

I'm still parsing through it all (though I spent most of last night reading this monstrous tome), but so far I have noticed that some content previously reserved for expansions is incorporated into this new tome: post-apocalypse and fairy tale genres are now in the mix, existing genres such as horror get an extra boost on ideas and rules, as well as additional creatures and options. The rules on cyphers are discussed in a bit more depth and some of the "how to implement" ideas are expanded upon in interesting ways. Additional GM content on how to run games is quite welcome. Some of the new rules options which were introduced in the revised Numenera core books are now also available here. The art is a mix of classic and new. Slidikin are in the Cypher bestiary (yay! I have them as recurring major foes in one campaign). Lots of good tweaks and changes.

Clarifications Abound

This rewrite, much like the Numenera rewrite, has given MCG a chance to revise how some rules are explained, aiding in clarification on those moments when it maybe not 100% clear what the rules intent is. Anyone who has played Cypher for a while knows what I am talking about; the adjudication process is very simple so it rarely causes issues, but lots of specific exceptions occasionally give one pause for thought on deciding how best to handle a given situation mechanically; the revised rules so far seem to be cleaning up these odd spots.

So...if you are like me and love Cypher System, this purchase is a no-brainer. If you have been on the fence, I suggest you start with this book. If you own the old book and wonder if you need to upgrade.....well I am a bit biased but I feel it is worth the purchase; that said, if you're only occasionally playing Cypher System, have limited funds, or just want to know if a table using this book will let you use the old book instead, I think you'll still be just fine.

A+++! I love Cypher System, it is the first game system I have ever encountered that feels like it was specifically designed for my GM play style, and I cannot get enough of it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Film Review: It: Chapter Two - The Funniest Thing Heard Leaving the Theater

The best part of watching It: Chapter Two wasn't the movie itself (which was fun and a fairly decent if overly long sequel to the first movie) it was these two guys leaving the theater, both maybe around 27-30 years of age if I had to guess, complaining that the cast of older actors in the movie all looked in their twenties. I could not help but exclaim, "But every adult actor in this movie is actually in their early forties..." and they looked at me like I had deliberately listening in on their conversation just to rain on their RLM-themed* gripe parade. Priceless.

Aside from that.....a fun movie! Not the most eloquent of horror films, but a far sight better than the original film, and in general on the "good" side of the evil ancient cosmic murder clown film spectrum. My son continues to be obsessed with It as a film series and a concept. He's vowed to read the novel, just as soon as he's at that reading level (he has also made me keep a copy of Pet Cemetery  on the shelf for when that time arrives.) Until then it's all Goosebumps and eventually Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark (which was apparently a thing when I was a kid and I do not recall ever reading, unfortunately).

Since this post is turning in to a mini review I suppose I'll mention that while the movie was in general quite entertaining it really could have benefited from being 20+ minutes shorter. There are a few scenes (several being gratuitous CGI scare moments) which simply served no purpose, even the --MILD SPOILER-- homage to The Thing moment (you'll know it when you see it) which as best I can tell was primarily there to give one character his "moment of overwhelming fear" sequence despite the same character rather effectively demonstrating an ability to conquer that fair just a bit earlier. Removing some gratuitous moments like this would have tightened the film and made the actually interesting scary bits more significant.

I've never read the novel, but I am now tempted to. It is interesting to note that there are definitely some common "beats" which Stephen King utilizes repeatedly in his novels, and as I have gotten in to King recently (I have spent decades considering King too popular for my tastes...yeah, yeah, old hipster in action here I guess) it has become impossible not to notice that there are some very common recurrent themes in his books (and films by proxy). It is also impossible not to be intrigued by King's weird universe and its interesting recurrent themes, locations, entities and generally eerie cosmology. He does seem to have a problem with tight endings, I have noticed....and so has the movie, which makes this notion something of a recurring joke. film, not the deepest or most profound but arguably better than a lot of other horror being produced these days (certain key exceptions do stand out), worth watching especially if you have an 8 year old Stephen King-obsessed fan in your house. Solid A-, would have been rated higher if it had tightened up the story to something closer to 2 hours.

*I love Red Letter Media but often Jay and Mike (and the rest) are profoundly skewed and biased in their perception of some films. I do think they represent the tip of the "critic culture" iceberg that permeates society today though.