Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Most Exciting News of 2023: Basic Roleplaying Returns!

 I just got the Ab Chaos newsletter from Chaosium this morning and here was the announcement:

Holy cats....a new release of the BRP book in April, with print to follow! Just when I thought Chaosium had all but abandoned BRP as a generic game system. 

Questions do abound, though. Will this revision reflect the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu changes? Will it be a truly big book with enough core content to let a GM devise their own games, or will it mostly be a framework with the intent that it spark lots of open content, as it will fall under the open content license Chaosium has set up? How much of it will reflect Chaosium today vs. the Chaosium of prior eras? The old Gold Book covers "Old Chaosium" well enough, so if this one is mostly focused on the current edition of the system as reflected between Runequest and Call of Cthulhu I think I would be fine with that.  The lighter resource for BRP previously released free online is probably the new template for this book, I presume, which is a good thing....it is an excellent modern iteration of BRP.

Either way, this is the best news and the thing I am most looking forward to in 2023 now (next to Mothership 1E finally being released).

Monday, March 20, 2023

In the Works: Vaesen

It looks like the Pathfinder 2E campaign (Extinction Curse) is coming to another pause soon. We're on....um, I think it's the end of the second module in the Path, but we're already like level 8 so I am not really entirely sure, maybe we plowed on in to the third adventure path. Who knows! I am a good player and simply do not cheat and look at modules I am playing in. 

But that means I'll be back to running again soon. I've been running a live ongoing high level D&D 5E campaign on Wednesdays, but I've pleasantly avoided running anything on VTT lately. I have been messing around with the prospect of Foundry at last, and I think I could do it....Foundry has a lot of potential, although it also has some curiously rough spots as well, things which, say, Roll20 does exceedingly well but which Foundry does not (and the reverse is also true). 

I threw out a mess of ideas to the player group, and the one which seems to have the most traction is Vaesen. It's not hard to see why: it has an exotic historical setting (19th century Sweden), an entirely new and different approach to horror (the monsters of Swedish myth and folklore), and an interesting game system with a robust and easy way to make genre-appropriate characters without needing to be intimately familiar with Sweden in the 1850's-1860's. 

My biggest road block at the moment is grasping how to make Vaesen as scary as much of its descriptive text promises. It has some decent background and setup for the GM to work with, but when I get to actually reading some of the monster descriptions they sound entertaining....but maybe not as scary or weird as I'd like? The art, based on a famous book of illustrations on Vaesen in Sweden, is almost adorable in its modest cartoonish style, giving me a "children's spooky stories for kids" vibe, which --I'll be honest-- is going to be hard for me to work with, because these illustrations generally aren't evocative of adult horror. 

There's got to be something I am missing, some spooky and unknowable element I am overlooking throughout the process. Maybe I am just ruined by more grim and dark horror like Call of Cthulhu and Kult (a game which I can readily, almost immediately see the full and dark potential of)? Maybe my poor old brain has been too deeply influenced by decades of obsession with Cosmic Horror to find itself able to wallow in traditional spooky old folklore. "It needs something truly weird, really out there," my old brain is thinking. "It can't really just be an angry fairy that's curdling milk (and maybe the milk maid is being curdled, too)."

Still, I am going to give it the old college try and see how it goes. Everyone is prepped with main and backup characters already, and the player enthusiasm is strong, so I must feed from that for my own. 

I mean, hey, at least its not yet another D&D game! More on that and my extreme D&D burnout in a future post, though.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Operation Blackwatch - A Savage Worlds Supers/Horror Mashup

 I ran this in the older edition of Savage Worlds a few years ago, it was a lot of fun and I am thinking of revisiting this campaign again soon:

Operation Blackwatch Campaign

A Savage Worlds Horror/Supers Mashup (but would work with GURPS, Hero System, Cypher, etc. just fine) inspired by the likes of Hellboy, Creature Commandos, X-Files and all those faddish Zombie/Superhero What If Tales)


A top-secret international covert ops organization named Operation Blackwatch is founded in 1946 after it is discovered that atomic bomb testing has resulted in a weakening of the fabric of reality’s walls….the “universe’s skin” has been damaged and something from somewhere else has begun to bleed through in to the physical world.

Initial encounters with the phenomenon proved deadly, and reports were enigmatic….the first appearance of “aliens” in Roswell, the appearance of enigmatic, Aryan figures in “sky chariots” to hapless drivers in the night, all seemed to have some connection to the opening phenomenon which materialized in the New Mexico desert a year after the initial tests were successful….a night which left dozens dead and three ghost towns in its wake. Demons in one location, aliens in another, and angels or gods of old in a third, all appearing within months of one another.

While the government instituted smokescreens such as Project Sign and Bluebook to disguise what was really going on, A covert team of specialists were assigned to study the aftermath of the “Old Organ” incident, especially specimens which had been recovered in the battle. The first team called these things demons, but settled on a more familiar term to the locals: skin walkers. The reason was simple: each creature appeared to have ripped its way out of the skin of the humans they seemed to inhabit, transforming them into brutal monsters.

Over several decades Blackwatch worked behind the scenes with other organizations, including Majestic-12 which was established by the US to coordinate negotiations with non-hostile “outsiders” as the term came to be for these beings which spontaneously appeared. Of the few who were willing to work with groups such as MJ-12 and Blackwatch, the so-called Vegans (three entities who suggested they were divine angels from the planet Vega) and the “little green men” of Roswell who never admitted to being aliens or otherwise, but would attempt to dominate human minds with psionic control at any turn if they weren’t kept unconscious with an oxygen rich formula, left the investigative teams suspect as to the intentions and contradictory stories of these beings. In 1951 in Korea a being called a Gunung manifested at the October 1950 incursion allegedly aided by the Chinese. The Gunung was so called because local Korean soldiers on both sides saw it as a manifestation of a brutal war god of old mythology, and it turned the tide against South Korean forces aided by the US.

The Gunung was the first concrete evidence of powerful manifestations outside the US. In a secret charter the Blackwatch Covert Operations Teams were reappointed as a agency under international UN jurisdiction to investigate any supernatural manifestations that happened worldwide. Within five years a dozen major manifestations had been reported. The most notable of these was recorded in The Soviet Union of all places, when a disturbance in Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin) revealed what appeared to be Grigori Rasputin, reanimated and undead, brought back by the supernatural energies. Aiding him was a manifestation straight out of mythic Russian nightmares: the fowl-legged hut of the legendary witch Baba Yaga, who had materialized in the flesh. The stories go that it took Soviet forces, including tanks and hundreds of men to drive the witch and her hut back into the woods with Rasputin, where they lost all trace of them….for a time. The two continued to haunt the Soviet Union for decades to come, as they appeared to take great umbrage at the Communist regime in charge of their country.

The Soviets allegedly formed their own group to study the supernatural phenomenon manifesting in the hinterlands of their country as well. Called the Night Watch (the Nochnoy Dozor), it would have multiple run-ins and conflicts with the UN’s own top secret Blackwatch over the coming decades. The Nochnoy Dozor continues to function in a modified role right to the present, and holds as many as one hundred supernaturally enhanced agents.

The practice of recruiting the “enhanced” began in the late fifties when the first humans who appeared to manifest unusual abilities as a result of an encounter with or exposure to supernatural elements first appeared. Some projects (such as MK Ultra) tried to exploit these enhanced for their own purposes to mixed results, but Blackwatch was uniquely qualified to recruit, train, and deploy these agents in to the field, using their own experience and abilities to counter and contain dangerous supernatural phenomenon.

Over the decades the incursions of the supernatural have grown. There were several hundred reported incidents from 1946-1960, but by 1990 there were another one thousand documented incidents world-wide, and by 2000 the number of cases had doubled. News stories were out of control, and it was only luck that prevented the public from being directly exposed to these manifestations in a manner that could lead to panic social unrest. By 2019 it is believed that there are over 5,000 humans and entities masquerading as human documented on record, and as many as 15,000 cases worldwide that have been records; Blackwatch can no longer keep up. A social engineering program in the early 00’s aimed at normalizing the concept of superhumans to the public and through film and other media this has had mixed success. Blackwatch remains an unknown operation, but a public group named Operation Skywatch ( a tribute to the days when most phenomena were perceived as UFO events) now seeks to identify and contain or train certain selected enhanced manifestations as part of a public program, and the operation openly implies that the powers of these individuals come from aliens.

In 2019, Blackwatch continues to fight from the shadows seeking containment of dangerous threats, while Skywatch seeks to create a public face to the increasingly hard to disguise presence of supernatural beings and humans who have been enhanced by this presence. Behind the scenes though the fight is getting more desperate, and Blackwatch realizes it may have overlooked a powerful hidden movement behind the scenes; the malignant and dangerous beings, the ones labeled demons and monsters, appear to have been forging their own alliances and working on their own agendas.

Threats and Secrets:

Blackwatch knows that there are hidden sources of order among some of the foes they have encountered. Study of these creatures, when captured, has revealed that they have formed “cabals” and “coteries” working to share knowledge and resources. Some of these groups are larger and more well organized; lots of evidence from Russia suggests that Rasputin and his patron saint of evil, Baba Yaga, are working behind the scenes to influence the heart of Russian politics and power, for example.

One recurring thread however is that the beings are growing more complicated, more insidious and manipulative. Most of the beings seem to manifest as identifiable creatures ripped from folklore, film, nightmare and myth. However, they all share the following hierarchy of traits:

1.      First Stage or “Primal” manifestations are beings which appeared the year following the atomic testing, and which appeared with consistency, usually a year or so later after additional atomic tests. It wasn’t until 1963 that Blackwatch, working through the UN, convinced the major world powers to agree to a test ban when they confirmed conclusively that the atomic testing was the actual source and cause of the manifestations.

The Primal First Stage Manifestations are the most terrifying and other-worldly. They seem to take on the most distinct and unrecognizable forms, as if they had not yet assimilated the appearance of horrors known to their first victims, though some rapidly changed and shifted, either into parodies or precise copies of those same victims. To this day Blackwatch has found less than ten of the estimated three hundred beings that appeared in 1946. These creatures, when found, are considered the most dangerous. It is believed that Baba Yaga is one of them, though it is suspected her power is what brought Rasputin back to life.

2.      Second Stage Possessors or “Inhabited” manifestations are more common, and start with a supernatural event manifesting in the region of a likely host subject. The individuals exposed to the “radiation” of supernatural energy from the bleed in the wall or reality rapidly degenerate and either mutate or become transformed by entities who seek a host organism in which to reside. These beings usually twist and mutate the host human in horrible ways, and sometimes are not successful in making the host viable. They seem able to abandon a host form to attempt to gain control of another body at times, though if this happens they seem unable to return to the old host form. Survivors of this sort of possession almost always manifest enhanced gifts….if they survive.

3.      Third Stage manifestations are known more commonly as Incursions as they seem to be creatures who claim to have come from some source of mythology, religion, fiction or nightmare in our world and seem to appear whole cloth. They are regarded as dangerous as their behavior seems to be dictated more by what people expect them to do as the beings they appear as rather than hold fast to any more common-sense agenda. Some early manifestations such as the Korean Gunung and the Vegans fit this description. These are often considered the most dangerous manifestations, but they can be hard to distinguish from Primal Manifestations or Possessors who have had time to shape their form and take on an identify unless you catch them at the moment they appear. The Vegans, for example, attempted to demonstrate their origin from a distant star by sending several agents to that location….their bodies were later discovered in orbit by observant sources.

One common agreement with study of the Incursions is this: they seem to need to take on forms chosen by the humans they intend to manipulate, terrorize or kill and feed off of. They are unable to survive without this “fear contact.” Certain classified experiments with captured Incursions have demonstrated that they seem to come apart and go insane, eventually killing themselves or dying when kept in isolation.

4.      Fourth Stage manifestations are identified by a Tibetan term and are called Tulpas. These entities are unique as it appears they are formed from others….including talented humans who have learned how, and are effectively simulacra of people. Tulpas can be complex or simple depending on the effort and energy invested in their creation, and some tulpas forged by powerful manifestations have enhanced powers and shapeshifting skills. The tulpa has become a significant danger in the spycraft of the modern era, as it is possible for a talented agent to kill and replace a target with a perfect duplicate, sometimes fooling the enemy for years. Tulpas almost never seem to manifest without being coaxed; but there are few exceptions to every rule and Blackwatch keeps a file on known tulpas for whom no creator as ever identified.

Blackwatch’s most dangerous foe in this game is the entity known simply as The Cabal, though it often has local titles going by whatever vernacular the creatures see fit to use. In the United States the Cabal is believed to be fairly strong and have infiltrated a portion of the government, with an unknown number of prominent organizers behind it, possibly all either hidden manifestations, enhanced humans sympathetic to the monsters, or tulpas in their service. The faceless leader of the Cabal is a being called the Tempest, and it is considered a great failing that no one in Blackwatch has gotten close to identifying who or what Tempest is.

In 1987 the Cabal forged a force of its own and thanks to some good luck and critical mistakes by certain agents the Cabal learned of a Blackwatch Operations Center and infiltrated then destroyed it in a raid, killing over one hundred agents and personnel in the process. Since this day Blackwatch moved to a more distributed operations network of cells spread throughout the world to avoid any one compromised Control Center from impacting the others. From 1988 to 2010 there were only four identified attacks on these cells. From 2011 to the present that tripled to 13 known attacks, and it is believed that the Cabal is getting better at infiltrating.

On occasion agents of the Cabal have been captured and interrogated. The most successful interrogation was with a Primal Manifestation which called itself the Grimjack, a gray, ghost-like being that had been working as a serial killer in the backwoods of Montana for decades. The Grimjack initially appeared incapable of speech beyond small mimicry, but when given paper and pen began to write furiously, producing a mixture of apocalyptic prophecy and occasional moments of lucidity. It was through this writing that the researchers learned that the Cabal’s leader could be a Primal Manifestation, one with strong influence over its kind. It was clear too from the writing that the apocalyptic descriptions of the Grimjack were not of our world’s future…yet….but of another world entirely, possibly one he had come from through the Bleed between universes.

Then, one day, the Grimjack spoke. “This is not the first time we’ve been here,” he told the stunned interrogators. “But this will be the last.” It was moments later that the Grimjack broke free and killed most of the researchers in the complex before disappearing. Rumors today suggest he is somewhere in South Texas, but local cells have yet to pin him down.

The Defectors

Almost all of the so-called Defectors are either Incursions which, though the adoption or their forms and “minds” have appeared as beings empathetic to humanity’s survival, or as victims of Possessors who have managed to survive the experience with enhancements. Defectors are unique in that they are by definition creatures of “the other side” or have been touched by them, but appear to have the best interests of humanity at heart. Angelic beings, demonic beings and other more disturbing entities who somehow found themselves with an undeniable soft spot for humanity have cushioned out the ranks of the Blackwatch. Long before they are considered for field duty as operators these beings undergo rigorous examination and testing to confirm they are not plants of the Cabal. So far, about one hundred such beings have made agent status.

Of interesting note about these defectors: each tends to firmly believe it is a correct and true manifestation of whatever supernatural element it presents itself as. However, in each case these beings seem to have strange “blank spots” in their memory that seem oddly to not bother them, but which constitute the rift in any memories that might lead to confusion about their natures. An angelic incursion, for example, might not remember its appearance on earth and instead think it descended from Heaven, but claim in its mortal form to have little more than feelings or impressions of what Heaven was like. Such beings, if interrogated too closely about their true natures, sometimes seem to go mad and may spontaneously change at that time to more hostile forms. Blackwatch’s interrogators have perfected a method by which they can attempt to force such reactions out of Defectors; if the defector resists and does not succumb to madness, or acknowledges it recognizes its existence as a manifestation of human creation then it has passed the test.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Reviewing the Backbone One - The Portability Firehose

 I recently decided to complicate my life slightly more by picking up a Backbone One, a funky and slightly overpriced device that attaches controllers to your iPhone, turning it in to a kind of portable game console. It's a $99.95 device, which is about $30-40 more than most PS5 and Xbox Series X controllers cost right now. On the plus side, it has an audio jack which is like gold in the phone world these days. There is a subscription based app which then makes it look and act like you're in a console environment while using it, though that is an entirely unnecessary product (with the caveat that it really does make it easier to connect to Xbox's Cloud streaming service than using Safari). It otherwise acts as a hub for various streaming apps, allowing me to connect to the PS5 and stream from the machine, or to my home PC to stream from my Steam library. It also works with a lot of games natively in the Apple Games store, and Apple's subscription service.

Until now, I have largely ignored gaming on phones for two key reasons: the general assumption that most (not all, but most) mobile gaming apps are predatory in some way therefore best avoided; and the fact that mobile gaming requires using the touch screen of the phone, which can be an awkward experience at best in most cases. As a result, the sorts of games that work best on phones with a touch screen are not ones I care for. Now, even with the Backbone handy, I think that by and large both of these statements remain true, but the situation changes a bit. 

Now it is already the case that I can readily identify and play games on the phone  (also, iPad) which work well with a remote controller. Sure, I could connect an Xbox controller via bluetooth before, but its not easy using that with an iPad let alone an iPhone. As for the predatory game design, in which the game is hyper monetized: easy solution there is, of course, to avoid those games which demand money be spent. This isn't too hard as the Apple store still contains lots of perfectly good or even great games with one time purchases (plenty of good RPGs, for example), or limited additional purchases (Dead Cells, for example, can be had for one base purchase plus three DLCs that are reasonably priced). Something else I noticed: there simply isn't as much hype around mobile releases. Mobile games tend to stick around for much longer, and fade when interest wanes or compatibility issues overwhelm it. The hype train of the Newest and Latest is mysteriously absent in the world of "free to download" apps.  

So, at least from a practical use case, my desire to avoid over-monetized and predatory games while finding games that work with the backbone is fairly easy to achieve. What I didn't expect with the Backbone was that streaming games I own from devices I own or in the cloud is a much better experience than I have been led to believe. Like...worlds better. As long, of course, as you have decent internet.

So far I have played some lengthy sessions in games like Outriders (on Xbox Series X) and The Division 2 (on PS5) and it was a very satisfactory experience. The only real issue to be honest is that I have the iPhone 13 mini, which is a smaller screen even than my Switch Lite, so this is not something you do without good eyes, or having some reading glasses handy. But I am shocked at how good the streaming is. I am lucky on this, though. Streaming at home: piece of cake, I am well set up for it. It's weird (and unnecessary) to play on the phone when my 42 inch OLED monitor is waiting for me to use it with whatever console I am streaming from, of course, but the experience is superior even to the Steam deck because the actual next gen console is doing the heavy lifting. The only issue would be latency in the controller itself, and I have noticed none at all at home.

I tried it at work, where I have a very good high speed internet arrangement (including a high speed public wifi for my employees) and it works great here as well, even with connecting online. It is better, or at least easier, to use the Xbox Cloud Streaming service in this case....my home consoles were more likely to have hiccups, I noticed.....but it worked really well. 

I tried it in some less suitable circumstances. I connected to the public wifi at a Chili's while having lunch with my wife and it worked okay, but you could see a bit of upside/downside lag. It was still weird playing my cloud saves on a game like Outriders at a Chilis, though. (FYI I could play Outriders on the Steam Deck if I picked it up through Steam, but I own it on the Xbox Series X so that's why I am testing a lot with this game). 

In the end, the phone+Backbone combination is letting me do the following: play (and resume playing) titles I already own on existing saves I have on my PS5 and Xbox Series X, which none of my other devices can do right now (I think I could accomplish this on the Steam deck with some effort at figuring out how to access Xbox on Linux, though); I can download and play native android games from the iPhone store that also work offline if needed (I have loaded Dead Cells, Hyperlight Drifter, Diablo Immortal, and a few RPGs that are backbone friendly); and I can also stream my Steam collection if desired. 

The Backbone+phone combo has two key limiters: you need good internet for the streaming, and you must accept the size of your phone screen. On the plus side, with a small phone and the backbone having a pretty low profile, this is as easy to slip into a pocket as the Switch Lite. It somehow manages to also have a more comfortable grip arrangement than the Switch Lite (which honestly kills my hands after playing for a while). I've had no hand-comfort issues at all with the Backbone. 

Now, for the reason I think that I (in my particular circumstances) may find that the phone+Backbone combo is actually what I needed all along for portable gaming: 

The thing is, I have over the last few years accrued the following devices. We won't go back to days of yore on this; my first post Atari 2600 console purchase was an original Gameboy when in college, which I used to play exactly two games: Castlevania and Metroid. No, this list is only of the current, relevant stuff (so my PS Vita stays in storage):

A Switch OLED; a Switch Lite; Steam Deck; Evercade EXP (plus prior original Evercade).

This is a pathetically small list of portable consoles compared to the average Youtuber who talks about portable consoles; I follow some of these vloggers who get into the portability and the retro/emulator elements, and they have sometimes dozens of imported, often cheap emulator handhelds, portable PC competitors to the Steam deck, and more. But for me, having access to four handhelds is a lot.

When I got the original Switch it was less for the portability and more for the sake of completeness to have all the current consoles on the market. What I discovered was that it was really fun to have a multipurpose portable console experience. Since that original Switch I moved to the OLED model as the screen quality is so much nicer, but when I travel the Switch Lite tends to be what I throw in the bag for ease of access. The reality is that outside of some rare occasions I never generally have an opportunity to pull the Switch Lite out for its actual intended purpose. It's more like an ornament, or a safety cord I can "pull in case of extreme boredom."

The Evercade series is likewise more for novelty than anything else. I like it a lot, especially the latest one, the Evercade EXP, but I am not throwing this in to my pocket on a regular basis for on the go gaming. It's more a novelty, a chance to occasionally revisit old classic 80's and 90's arcade games when I feel like it, and to introduce my son to them. But I think I've already logged more hours on my Backbone than I have on the Evercade EXP....so, yeah.

Steam Deck is a beast, and its a fascinating piece of hardware to have on hand. It's the one device these days I am most likely to throw in to a travel bag for a trip, but its impractical to say, throw in my work case because the thing is just too big for practical everyday hauling around. You can't fit it in a pocket, is what I am saying, and you can't play it for too long without having a way to recharge handy, so its better to have when you're going on a trip and staying at a hotel but maybe don't want to haul a laptop along for the ride.

Ultimately, what I have learned is that for daily portability it is nice to have something small and easy to use, which gives you just enough to handle those odd quiet moments when some actual portable gaming can be done. I bet if I were younger and not part of the rapidly growing elderly Gen X crowd that I might be able to find more free time slots for portable gaming....but I am an old guy now, like it or not, with a company to run and a family to wrangle, and portable gaming slips in when it can, not when I would like it to. As a result, throwing the Backbone in to my work bag or even for travel is an ideal and preferable alternative to what I have been doing (sorry Switch Lite!) for day to day access. 

Switch still has purpose, of course. I have designs on finishing Bayonetta 3, replaying after many years Metroid Prime, and Front Mission One of course. But its just not quite as impressive as what the iPhone 13 can run natively, I realize....Switch is looking old, now. And Steam Deck of course is amazing, an artifact of the future, but it needs a slimmer model to compete in the space we're talking about here, which is what can fit in my pants' pocket or my jacket's inner pocket. So going forward: it's just my iPhone as usual, but now with the Backbone One handy for whenever the moment takes me.

If this interests you but you have Android, the good news is a Backbone for Android should be out soon. Note that the current Backbone One is set up to plug in via the proprietary iPhone cable (lightning), so depending on how Apple's migration to USB-C goes that could end up requiring an adapter down the road. My iPad is already USB-C ready so I need an adapter for that when I plug the Backbone in to it to use as a regular controller (you can do that, it just feels a bit like holding an actual bone compared to a full size controller when holding it this way). 

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Film Review: Skinamarink

 I've tried to commit to writing more often on the blog...with a mix of success from week to week. I figure if I can at least manage 2 posts a week that's a good number. As usual, this is more about providing me with a medium for exercising my writing brain and habits more than anything; I feel I've let them atrophy over the last couple years, need to turn that around!

I used to write a lot more critiques on film and games, so let's try more of that. Today: Skinamarink, a 2023 film release that is worth a watch (for some)!

The negative space has taken everything

Skinamarink (2023) (trailer)

Only available on Shudder.com currently (the only streaming service I have subscribed to for almost as long as Netflix),  Skinamarink released in January of this year to the angst and anxiety of an endless array of unsuspecting viewers. Shudder is a great horror site for obscure, hard to find and unusual films. It has some more conventional stuff, and indeed if you're into genres such as 80's horror and slasher flicks its got you covered. But if you want to also find some really unusual rare gems, strange things which can exist nowhere else comfortably, Shudder's got it. 

Skinamarink is an example of this specialized "this peg won't fit anywhere" genre of film. It's not quite a movie in any sense most people would consider....I'd actually draw closer comparisons to experimental films such as those of David Lynch (Eraserhead comes to mind), or the cavalcade of exotic and often surreal, inexplicable arthouse shorts that existed in days of yore (and may still exist), only discoverable at a local indie film house. In the 80's and 90's a movie like Skinamarink just wouldn't exist where the plebs could find it. Today its a film that manages limited theatrical releases and resides for confused and angry plebs to discover on streaming. 

The most important thing to know before watching Skinamarink is that its not a film in any conventional sense, though arguably a narrative does sort of happen. It's more of an experience, and not a pleasant one; almost no one will want to watch this more than once for anything other than the most clinical of reasons. Skinamarink is meant to be experienced, analyzed, then lauded or damned for its results, but never forgotten.

Key in the film's repertoire of effects is an intent to use a grotesque audio, digitally rendered film grain imperfections, filming almost entirely in darkness or with limited use of light, and even then only if the light itself causes discomfort with flickering CRT-modulation effects whenever possible. The most important trick of all is focusing almost entirely and exclusively in the negative liminal spaces. The camera of Skinamarink never looks at the people it is about (primarily two children and briefly two adult parents); you barely get a glimpse of their faces, once each, later in the film, and never of the dad and mom. The camera instead shows you the odd corners of the room, especially the ceiling, or the corner of the area away from whatever is happening. It may infer action from noise or occasional motion or shadow, but its deliberately choosing to never actually show you anything that is actually happening. It is designed to create an unnerving sense in the viewer, by focusing entirely on these negative spaces where no film would ordinarily ever reside except for the barest of moments for effect; in Skinamarink, it lingers entirely and exclusively in those spaces.

The film's story is minimalist, barely there. A house, a dad, a couple kids, a mom who is inferred not to be there but later briefly is. We only see "action" on two occasions, through the eyes of the children, breaking the otherwise persistent focus on negative spaces. The implication is the house is under control of something malevolent, and the kids are trapped with it. No explanations or plot are forthcoming beyond the most rudimentary. There are really only about three "things" of note that happen. The rest of the film is all about ambience and a unique form of don't show, don't tell, only imply, until about the last 10 minutes of the movie when it's focus doesn't really change....but the negative spaces end up being "where things are happening."

The entire thing is jarring and unpleasant to watch. Many reviewers on Shudder liken it to evoking how they felt as children scared of the dark, which is interesting. Many others were just annoyed the movie tricked them into thinking it actually was some sort of normal movie....woopsie. For me, it was a bit of a slog, because it felt like it was using about 30-40 minutes worth of tricks over a whopping hour and forty minute run, which is insane. But I won't say I regret watching it; it's a unique experience, and if you're into the making of films and cinematography I imagine this is a very interesting experiment to watch in action.

My biggest complaint is that the artificially generated film grain imperfections are both distracting and nauseating. With the film length it becomes easy to notice patterns of repetition in the generated artifacts, and that proved distracting. I kept wondering if my experience of the film would shift from discomfiting unease and annoyance to genuine interest if it simply removed the film grain effect, but I also felt that the reason it was there was to create deliberate optical uncertainty, to make the viewer's mind keep searching the imperfect darkness for things, and, of course, to make the viewer discomfited and uneasy. Still....I'd love to see what this movie looks like with the film grain off in most shots.

From the perspective of judging this as an experimental surrealist/horror genre film, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, though it is arguably nowhere close to the level of eerie unpleasantness that I found a movie like Eraserhead to be (the only film I can think of offhand to compare it to). If you want to see a movie with the eye of a film enthusiast or to study their technique, I think this is absolutely worth it. If you like experimental films in general, Skinamarink won't disappoint. But if you want to see an actual movie with something amounting to a plot, characters and events that happen, Skinamarink is probably going to make you a little mad. So....Solid B- from me for an art film, but don't see it with any other expectations.


Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Clinical Methodology of Delta Green

 I've been a big fan of Delta Green since its original appearance in the late nineties. The Delta Green concept has always been an interesting treatment on what a mythos-burdened world might look like if there was the usual level of Cold War era espionage layered on top of the very real threat of the occult and the mythos. To one degree or another I have used its concepts in my own Cthulhu campaigns for decades now, and recently I took the time (while laboring through the latest round of "what sort of virus is plaguing the household this week?") to read the newest edition's Handler's Guide cover to cover. 

I got reasonably far in when I began to experience a weird sort of fatigue, not so much with the subject but with its endless precision in presentation. I realized that Delta Green as a foundation for framing the mythos in a modern, espionage laden context, is really useful, but that the concise and rigorous approach of the latest edition has created an elaborate narrative arc that can be quite at odds with that most important element of the Cthulhu Mythos that I feel must as a necessity permeate any good campaign, that being the utter and total lack of understanding of the unknown, and the unclassifiable depths to which the mythos will degenerate a human understanding of the world and how it functions. Delta Green is all about "scientists with guns" to use a phrase in its early era (P4), seeking to understand it enough to classify and destroy it. In the process of doing so, the organization develops a lot of clinical methods of interpretation and approach. 

There's nothing to criticize about this presentation, of course, and it fits the mythos well, but as one reads further along it becomes clear that Delta Green at least as presented is a game for the sort of players who might engage with and enjoy Call of Cthulhu more if the world worked in a more rigid and discernable fashion than the universe of the Mythos as a whole tends to work. A good example is the Dreamlands, an element of the Cthulhu Mythos which is a bit incongruous in some ways with other aspects of the setting. When looked at from the view of Lovecraft in his time the elements of the Dreamlands can fit just fine, and indeed they work well in many pastiche homages for decades afterward as a weird and mysterious element that is somehow coterminous with if not directly embedded in the more conventional madness of the Old Ones and their inscrutable natures. In Delta Green, however, the setting of necessity parses out the information in a manner consistent with an espionage agency which is identifying features and elements as clinically as possible.

Again....nothing wrong here, it makes sense. But, it got me to thinking: the approach Delta Green takes, even when it highlights how certain members in the field have gone mad, seems to lean heavily into a certain kind of player type for the game. These are player types I encounter when running the game on occasion, usually guys with some background adjacent to or occasionally in the military, who find the idea of Call of Cthulhu fun but argue semantics on things like sanity checks and whether or not these would really be called for when presented with grisly content. The conversation often boils down to, "I think I'd have seen worse in Afghanistan," vs. me as GM saying, "But nothing in Afghanistan warps your perception of existence just by looking at it."

Delta Green's current iteration (as I do not recall this phenomenon being evident in its original books in the 90's) seems to lean more in to this notion that one can, if you are clinical and precise enough, analyze and understand the conceits of the mythos through proper analaysis. I am not entirely clear on whether or not this is fully intended....and as I continue to read through it I may come to different conclusions, so this may only be the first part of my discussion, but it did get me to thinking that Delta Green in its pure form may be the better "fit" for those guys I have gamed with who get into this sort of argument about how and why sanity as a mechanic works and what it represents. There's a "grounded, reality-based, I was or wish I was in the Army" kind of mindset which conflicts with a more literary view, in which the notion is that "sanity in this context represents something you can't experience in the real world because the mythos are functionally destructive to all of our perceptions of what reality is."

Delta Green likes to identify this through various terms which --again-- make perfect sense for its interpretation of the genre, such as hypergeometry as a term to define what amounts to magic, but it is interesting to consider that the game may choose to cater to an approach where, without that sort of analytical approach, some players might not otherwise be willing or able to embrace the concept that the "unknown reality" of a universe with the mythos is simply too damaging to a normal mind on exposure not to lead to an erosion of sanity. That merely interacting with things that exist across more dimensions than our own can be debilitating. 

I don't know where I am going with this, just yet....as I plow through the second half of the book my view on how it handles the matter might change, so probably a part two to come!

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Quitting The Kickstarter Grinder

 I'm trying to give up Kickstarter. I bet a lot of other people are as well, and some may even succeed. The problem is not with the product, most of the time, but the timing. I've had some generally successful backings over the years, and even the ones which stretched out well beyond their due dates eventually fulfilled, usually with a decent product at the end. But....as there is always a but.....

Sometimes that amazing game you are really enjoying in 2020, which has a Kickstarter that comes out for a product with a promised 2021 release date that gets pushed back to 2022 or beyond? Yeah, it may not be the game you care as much about two years after you successfully engaged with the initial product.

Or maybe it is, but the perpetual tardiness just generally makes the final product less and less viable over time as you wait patiently for something to play, only to find other actual real live games coming out that end up fulfilling the goal here while the Kickstarter languishes.

 Maybe the product seemed cool and came out, maybe even on time or early, and you suddenly discover that the hype was much more promising than the delivery. I have several in this category, where the finished product once received was just a huge helping of "m'eh" as I realized the idea of it was so much better, and indeed that idea still exists, waiting for a better form of fulfillment.

There's also the "Rich Guy" Kickstarters out there. The ones which plan to produce 1-3 years' worth of product in a single showing, and ask you to fork up hundreds of dollars up front. These can be the worst, because you are asking to commit to funding a game with many products before you know you're really going to be happy with it. Quite a few of these KSs exist, and I have skipped many of them. These days I skip even ones I know I'd like, only because I am reaching an age of elderly enlightenment where FOMO no longer concerns me. The new Adventures in the Cypher System on Backerkit, for example: I am confident I can end up getting the books out of it that I want eventually, when they are actually out, without forking over a few hundred dollars now or running up a credit card. 

Gamers love to get a new thing, especially one catering to their niche, and even better if it seems to come with a heap of support, which we love to death. But Kickstarters are in some ways a terrible burden on the industry, because they depend entirely on the diehard fans who have more money and less sense to back them and then fund lavish projects that ultimately go nowhere outside of the people who backed them. And if the company does print enough product for more than just the backers, will that product have any legs outside of the core fanbase that backed it? Can it ever generate a fanbase if the product is only ever really aimed at the diehards? 

What happens when a company decides it only produces new product that it can guarantee is a sure thing through what amount to preorders, anyway? Now the focus on product is not on "what will get people to buy this?" but rather "What can we promise people that will get them to buy it?" That seems like a bad deal for everyone involved. (Edit: Okay this sounds pessimistic; right now what happens is you get some very focused, niche level products that are often excellent for what they do. But, just as often, we get products that maybe are so niche and so specific that one wonders if anyone, anywhere, is actually playing them. I can think of a dozen such Kickstarted products right now).

Not all Kickstarters must be quit, though. A few are really good, they announce their product release on the platform mainly to get traction going for preorders on an already finished product. Some use the KS to generate revenue to pay for decent art and editing. The zine scene also uses this wisely. Not always (I have evidence now of a few zines that are in KS hell right now) but others are quick and timely on their release with plenty of consistent content (Hexagram for TFT from Steve Jackson Games is one I back consistently, for example).

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Black Flag Playtest! Aye, They've Pirated the SRD, Matey!

 Well, I mean I don't know what I was supposed to expect, but the Black Flag Playtest document (which right now is 12 pages of basic proof of concept stuff) seems to follow the SRD 5.1 pretty closely until it doesn't, which is when ancestries and talents suddenly come in to the picture. It basically means we have High Elves as cloud elves now, and wood elves are grove elves, I guess? Couldn't wood elves still exist apart from D&D IP, seeing as how Tolkien formulized them in the first place?

There's not quite enough here for me to have any real opinion, but I do have a chance to see what Kobold Press is doing against another revisionist competitor....the era of Officially Licensed Fantasy Heartbreakers, I guess; and that competition is Level Up! A5E RPG from EN World, which does a really good job of taking base 5E and fixing everything anyone ever found even vaguely wrong with it. 

That said....I can see where Black Flag is going, and I like it, too. The two backgrounds layer up a bit in nice ways. The talent system is a way of codifying stuff that previously was best considered "class abilities" into something that might have more universal applicability in design.

It's going to be interesting over the next couple of years. The monsters were quiescent in their pens, but the handler got a bit drunk one day and became very abusive. Now the monsters have broken loose and roam free, and the handler is no longer hidden behind his safe walls. 

About the only downside I can see is also an upside: everything here looks like its meant to sustain compatibility down the road across multiple related systems. It's meant to woo D&D fans by being close enough to D&D in whatever incarnation to feel comfortable. 

Maybe, one day, WotC will be publishing a licensed "Worlds of D&D" campaign expansion for Black Flag. Who knows! Probably not, but it would be really amusing if it got to that point.

The downside of all this is, of course, the fact that the days when a much wider range of RPGs that are strange, interesting and different all appear to be dwindling behind us. At some point soon (and in some ways already) it will feel as if 95% of all RPG content is somehow 5E compatible or derived or otherwise based on some variant of D&D. In reality while we still have some different stuff out there, it's getting ever so less common to see new, interesting alternatives on the market. I guess that's what the zine scene is for, these days, but even it suffers from its own problem with imitation and flattery.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Tales of the League Universe XVI: Miscellany (Cypher System)

 Here's the remaining less-developed notes on various characters, the old league before it fell apart, and some villains. Mostly used by me to track and draw from for spontaneous encounters and events, and to set up the players to be the new League members:

The League Universe – Miscellaneous Characters and notes

Other Active Current Heroes and Villains:

Bowman 13 – Level 7 archer

   Little is know of Bowman 13, who wears a gray and brown suit, fully covered mask, and the number “13” stenciled on his shoulder pad. He seems to have a major beef with the Mystech Corporation, which insiders know is devoted to harvesting technology and magic into a hideous form of technomancy for profit.

Tranzor – level 8 artificial construct

   Tranzor was a fully sentient robot built decades ago who continues to serve his aging creator, Doctor John Travis as best he can. His beryllium and steel mesh armor makes him especially difficult to damage, and his array of particle beam and non-lethal weapons make him excellent at dispatching enemies. He can shape shift in to a speedy vehicular form.

Marylin Monroe – Level 6 alien

   Marylin Monroe is a shapeshifting alien not related to the Wraiths who seeks to acclimate to human society, but can only emulate from images such s photographs and pictures, not actual people. Marilyn took on the guise of a favored human, who’s shows had only recently arrived at her homeworld, and now tries to make her way in life trying not to draw much attention (despite her appearance) while getting sucked in to weird shenanigans. In her alien form she is a fast runner with claws and can see in multiple spectra of light.

Obsidian – Level 7 metahuman master of shadow energy

   Little is known of Obsidian, who may be from a dimension where light does not exist, but she can bend light and manipulate shadows at will.

Tempest – Level 7 metahuman (arcane), master of hallucinations and body horror

   Tempest can twist and turn any biological form into an abomination, and with a snap of his fingers can undo all….if he so desires.

The White Rabbit – Level 6 methahuman (arcane), induces hallucinations, speedy, Tempest’s sidekick

   A twisted being from another realm who tasks heroes with other dimensional adventures!

The Final League Lineup:

Allegedly died in 2009 atomic explosion in Afghanistan. This was the passing of the old league. As a result, those who survived moved on, and the path was opened for a new, young group of adventurers to be called to arms when the time was right by Dr. Futurity.

American Agent (Level 8)

Health 80, Damage 8 or 14 melee/thrown, Armor 2 natural, Move long

Shifts: 3 Strength, 2 Resilience, 2 Dexterity

Modifications: Might defense level 10, Speed Defense level 10

Said to be the cloned replica of Captain Liberty, American Agent was the loyal servant of the US government from top secret Project Omega until they went public with him as the face of the new League (sometimes called the US Leage) in 2004. He was leader of the team, which carried out missions of national urgency, until they fought the Taliban metahumans to a standstill and failed to stop an atomic warhead from going off in Afghanistan in 2009. He was inside a bunker during the event and some of his remains were found and taken by Project Titan to forge the new Atlas. Rumors that a new clone has been created of American Agent are currently floating around, but if this is true its being kept under Project Omega wraps.


Alan Lord and Steel (Alan Level 5, Steel Level 7)

Alan Lord (Human/Akari hybrid, Health 20, Damage 5, Range short, no armor; 3 shifts Intelligence)

Steel: Health 80, Damage 16 melee/thrown, Armor 6 (3 armor plus 3 natural), Move long, flying

Shifts: 3 Strength, 3 Resilience, 1 Dexterity

Modifications: Might defense level 10, Speed Defense level 8

Alan Lord of Lord Industries is a billionaire philanthropist who was roped into the new US League project by Serena Strane, an dhe utilized his tech resources to aid in dramatically improving the material technology available to the new League, including the creation of the AI Elena from Akari tech.

Alan’s secret is his access to Akari technology. The Akari Empire has close ties to Lord’s family, which is actually Akari in descent, and have been living on earth for many generations. He used this tech to advance his own specific interests when he reconnected with Empress Tan’Sari in 1998, and learned of his family’s legacy. Since then Alan Lord has used this for his own gain.

The Rest of the Old League:

Bluefire (Sam King) – deceased, a metahuman who could control a blue-tinged energy he believed was the spiritual essence of a dead species.

Foxtrot (name unknown) – MIA, a former black ops Navy SEAL who took super soldier serum, presumed dead. Had uncanny dexterity and stealth abilities.

Blast (Lisa Williams) – MIA, a metahuman with augmented energy release abilities, possible escapee of Mystech experimentation. Thought to have been killed in blast.

Twister (Mitch Thurn) – MIA, a metahuman who could control the weather and summon tornadoes. Believed killed in the 2009 blast.

The Captain (Cpt. Sam Thomas) – MIA, presumed dead, a metahuman soldier who underwent Project Omega’s superhuman treatment, and came out the other end sane. Was second to American Agent in positional authority, evidence of his remains found at the 2009 blast site.

The Liberty League (90’s to early 2000’s Era):

Dr. Futurity (on rare occasion)

Phantom Ace (Winston Carruthers, summoned ghostly machines; retired)

Blackstar (Anna Grace, controlled the power of the black star; whereabouts unknown)

Arbalest (reformed era, post-prison/Project Omega)

Starnova (Marina Kustovikya, now retired in Russia; suffers from debilitating cancer and lost star power)

Wire (Drake Sloan, went rogue in 2004 after disbanding and is believed to work as a merc now)

Crimson Spear (Assundro of the Akari Empire; thought killed by Wraiths during the 2003 Eclipse Invasion)


Friday, February 10, 2023

Tales of the League Universe XV: Zullah (Cypher System)

Zullah is my tribute to Gorilla Grodd and Monsieur Mallah of DC fame:

Zullah the White Ape

Huge augmented white ape male – Level 6

Motive: To be free and to free his brethren, as well as grant them intelligence; to forge an empire of the apes (in Minnesota).

Environment: Zullah disliked the jungle privately and prefers the city.

Health: 36

Damage Inflicted: 13 melee fists

Armor: 1 point hide

Movement: short (on foot) long (climbing)

Modifications: +2 shifts Strength (+6 melee damage and throwing; Might Defense Level 8), 1 shift Resilience (+1 recovery and armor), 2 shifts Intelligence (Level 8 Intellect Defense Rolls; knowledge, science and crafting tasks)

Powers: Zullah is augmented with natural intelligence and speech abilities as well as profound strength thanks to a mishap caused by Tempest and the White Rabbit eight years earlier.

   Zullah seeks freedom, as well as a desire to elevate his fellow simians and found an empire that rules over man. He has been in and out of incarceration, but most recently was freed due to animal rights activists which had him moved to a comfortable habitat from which he found escape to be a simple matter. He now plots ways to change the climate of the earth to a hothouse while preparing for his empire of beasts in Minnesota.

 This wraps most of the defined content I had in my "campaign precis" for the Eschaton Plot. Next up are some notes and interesting bits.