Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Slow and Subtle Cypher System Take Over


Last night we revamped (yet again) the Wednesday night game to introduce a Cypher System SF setting I had worked on.* The new setting's opening session was a bait-and-switch; I told everyone to build hard SF characters for an elaborate post-dystopian, post-cyberpunk future Los Angeles in 2231, an era when the world has recovered from World War III and a lengthy period of social and political decay to suddenly emerge as a more united, focused front for the future. The plot revolved around the player characters being participants in a well funded institute/think-tank on the cusp of developing the first superluminal warp drive system. The risk seems to manifest with possible espionage from competition interested in stealing the technology, or possibly terrorists destroying it.

Except....that wasn't it at all. Some of the PCs had disturbing dreams, or throughout the day of the momentous reveal see strange, ghostly images. Something odd is going on....but what?

The reveal came that night because despite sinking a lot of time into the verisimilitude of this 2231 Los Angeles setting the real setting is a transhuman distant future blend of space opera and Hard SF....the big reveal was that the PCs were all part of a strange simulation using nanotechnology and temporal "readings" that allowed a species of synthetic artificial beings to study the ancient history of the dead world of Earth which they had come to research. But it turns out humans do exist in this future, too.....but they had risen to a great interstellar power, and then collapsed for unknown reasons back to the stone age. The conflict between the humans of the Orion Alliance and the synthetics and their strange interests in the past is one facet of the game going forward, but by session's end all the players were left with lots of mysteries and direction (as well as freedom) to explore a completely enigmatic universe.

This kind of setting is hard to do with certain other generic games. The mechanical simplicity and elegance of Cypher System allowed me to focus on the plot, story, encounters and other details without stopping to spend hours meticulously statting out NPCs. Need a stat for the security guard? Level 3 dude with a  gun. This is hard to do in games like GURPS or Hero. BRP is a bit easier, and Savage Worlds the easiest, but ultimately they still require a bit of time to either find a pregenerated stat block or work out some mechanical details. Some GMs could argue that this can be done on the fly, and that even if you're winging it that's not an issue so long as it's not visible to the players....but if that's the case, then why not look to a system which actively provides you, the GM, with a core conceit in the mechanics designed to let you provide an actual on-the-fly stat assignment? That's what Cypher System does.

Moreover, Cypher System's toolbox approach to multigenre gaming, combined with its total cross-compatibility with the other games in the genre (Numenera, The Strange, Vurt, Predation, Gods of the Fall, etc.) means you can borrow and lift pieces from other Cypher settings to suit to taste. You can do this with other systems, sure....but the very design of each setting for Cypher allows for cross-pollination of content and ideas. Only Savage Worlds, in my experience, handles this approach with equal efficiency.

The need for players to have more mechanical interest and depth is also satisfied by Cypher System without causing any issues for the GM; it's like two different game systems that provide input back and forth through a little black box; the GM experience is decidedly different from the player experience, and somehow it all works beautifully. Players who want mechanical depth can find enough in Cypher System. If you're the kind who wants lots of choices, Cypher has it. If you want to experiment with your own thing, there are plenty of rules for going your own path. The core variation in character options is sufficiently exotic that you can choose from a wide array of unique concepts that are defined through the focus/type/descriptor options. For what I (and my players) need, this game is quiet genius.

This is a long, roundabout way of saying that the biggest problem I face today is playing another game (like Fantasy AGE) and realizing that Cypher could do what I want, better....or even D&D for that matter (I have come to the conclusion that Fantasy AGE is a lot like playing a very badly balanced, underwhelming D&D variant). Sometimes I want a game to let me explore what it has to offer, sure....but rare is the game that simultaneously lets me explore what it has to offer while robustly supporting my own vision of weirdness with a complete toolset. Cypher is all about that, and frankly just what I need in 2019.

I've ordered more cards from Monte Cook Games (I like the cards the game offers), specifically the Ruin Deck which uses content from the Jade Colossus book, one of my favorite "dungeon design" books for weird fantasy-SF mashups now (and who knows, maybe I'll actually use it for Numenera this year, too). With three active Cypher Games going now (superhero, far future SF/interstellar collapse and fantasy/SF hybrid settings) I think the only other games I really feel the need to spend time with right now are Call of Cthulhu and eventually D&D after I am satisfied with my break from the old grand daddy of gaming.



*Wednesdays have been in flux due to work, and as a result I've thrown out attempts to do Starfinder, D&D 5E, Swords & Wizardry, and probably others I can't remember, but none of them have grabbed my interest like I wanted, chiefly because all three are firmly rooted in well-trod territory that I am frankly burned out on. And Starfinder is cool, but trapped in Pathfinder rules, even if they are streamlined a bit....playing Starfinder just makes me think of ways to use the setting with Cypher System, a game that could actually let that universe open up to its possibilities, rather than the procedurally dull Pathfinder rules.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On The Masks of Nyarlathotep and other Gigantic Campaigns


I am just now diving in to this, having picked it up --like-- an hour ago, but just wanted to comment that this is a monster of a tome. Like...huge. Two massive volumes of campaign plus a folio of what looks like more than a hundred glossy, full color hand outs and a custom Keeper's Screen.

I dream of running this campaign, but I also dream of having lots of free time, a prerequisite for the former, so who knows if I'll ever get to do more than read through it. Still, this is a really impressive looking tome, and some serious effort went in to making this the definitive edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep.

This seems to be a book that is part of a trend, though....is it just me, or is this an increasingly common thing? By thing, I mean the periodic and distinct manifestation of gigantic, immense, almost overwhelimgly large scenario books, featuring campaigns that test the memory of the GM, the attention span of the players, and the will of humanity to survive an experience longer than a Steven Erikson or Robert Jordan epic novel series.

Examples I have on my shelf include:

D&D's Waterdeep (Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage)

13th Age's Eyes of the Stone Thief

Traveller's Pirates of Drinax and The Great Rift

And now Call of Cthulhu's Masks of Nyarlathotep

I have others, but these all stand out by volume, weight, and sheer audacity.

So one thought I have is that some of this is a throwback to the old days of boxed campaign sets, but with the modern disposition toward excessive word count and minutiae in design. Where once a boxed set might have some handouts, maps, and three books usually of 32, 64 and maybe 96 or so pages, now we have multiple hard cover tomes and accessories, often totalling hundreds of dollars in cost. See Invisible Sun for a fine example.

Maybe some of this is spinning off from the dominion of board games? Board games often command significantly more money for a boxed set, then yet more for supplements....or maybe it's the manifestation of the Kickstarter, which often heaps a metric ton of additional goodies into the mix, leading to an escalation of content. Never mind that the books I list above were not purchased from Kickstarters, and I'm not even sure if they were Kickstarted....but it certainly could make sense.

In the end, I'm not really bitching (um, much), there remain plenty of shorter campaigns and modules for all such games. But....it's interesting seeing this trend toward expansive, elaborate and lengthy campaign scenario books, designed to take a great deal of time. I could argue that I wish I had the time to read and run these, but then I am reminded of an important fact: I have never really had this time to run such a monster of a module. Indeed, the last time I attempted (and even succeeded in doing so) was the much smaller and more focused (relatively speaking) Return to the Tomb of Horrors for AD&D 2nd edition, many many years ago.

The irony of this rant sounding like an old gamer complaining about new trends is not lost on me...ah well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Observations about Fantasy AGE in Actual Play


We've played a couple sessions of Fantasy AGE now, and as you know there's nothing like actual play to spot some rules oddities!

Here's what we've noticed so far:

No Unarmed or Martial Arts Rules

Yes, it turns out Basic and Companion rules don't really provide a set of rules for unarmed combat, grappling, or anything else. You can houserule (as I did) but apparently this is not something that went unrecognized as an issue, since I see martial artists are a thing in Modern AGE.

The good news is, you can probably port the Modern Age martial arts rules over to Fantasy AGE easily.

(EDIT: there is an unarmed skill that plays off Accuracy, and a damage value for fists....so it's not bereft entirely, but that's it. So when in game session one player wanted to throw down and disarm a foe it was entirely improv at that point.)

Health Point Inflation is Still A Thing (but...the Companion)

Okay, the problem here is dependent on subjective notions of what sort of damage you are dealing against a target, and what that target can soak. It also depends on what the GM's expectation is on how to build an encounter. Fantasy AGE provides loose rules on this, but after yet another game where I threw a batch of average difficulty monsters against the players I (yet again) felt that weird sensation that combat was going on too long.

Admittedly, we had 8 players against 18 orcs, so you might say, "what did you expect!?!?" but hear me out. I'd expect a combat like this to take a long time (and prove lethal) in Mythras. It would reasonably take an hour or so for D&D 5E, and I am sure it would take a similar amount of time in Cypher System. But Fantasy AGE's session ran about 3.5 hours for one combat, and that's not even with much downtime from people refreshing or learning the rules. Most of it was with the fact that the system, as currently designed, defaults to health points which are definitely inflated beyond "normal" limits. By this I mean: there's an expectation that if a sword strikes you for a lot of damge, you should have a reasonable chance of being killed in one hit. Mythras does this as the core conceit. D&D does this as levels 1-3 for most battles, and then escalates damage (and hit points) as you advance. Fantasy AGE? It seems impossible even with a 6 on the stunt die to do enough damage to take out a foe in one hit at starter levels and health without the GM deliberately reducing health. You either use a minions rule to cut health in half, or use the Companions book to modify how health and/or damage works.

For this test campaign I wanted to run the system straight up, first, to see how it felt in default mode. The experience has been that the only way to assume orcs and other 30+ health point monsters function is that they are really, really tough.

Whether this is a problem or not depends on what you expect a game to run like when a fight like this pops up. For some, this is fine. For others....it's a tedious length of time for what is supposed to be a shorter fight. I guess that's why the Companion offers up a bevy of alternative rules to make health or combat shorter and deadlier.

Given the Health Totals Magic Seems Really Weak

This impression may change with time, but right now, given most arcana don't have more than four spells in Basic (and maybe a few more in the Companion), the spell progression feels like a system built around the equivalent of 1st to 2nd level magic in D&D. There are insanely few examples of what I would call "role play" or non combat spells, but very few spells that are frankly all that impressive. Except penetration spells. Those are badass, even if they do minimal damage, because armor points are a bitch in this game!

Try buying an animal or a horse

Just try! You can do it in Dragon Age RPG, but somehow despite having a very comprehensive equipment list, and even having mounted and flying combat rules, Fantasy AGE is still missing purchasing costs for mounts and animals. Given that the equipment section in the book is clearly derived from the one in Dragon Age, it feels like more of a glitch and omission in error and less choice or oversight.

....Okay, my observations for now. I plan to run this at least 1-3 more sessions but I am debating pausing the game and just accepting Cypher System as my God of Games forevermore. ALso, maybe, tempted to talk everyone into trying Symbaroum next....!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Deathbat's Computer Gaming Predictions for 2019


This list falls in to two categories: the first is "industry changes" I want to predict (for fun). The second is "my own habits" I want to predict (also for fun). Here goes!

Industry Predictions for 2019:

1. Epic Games will get some legs

Steam has been dominating the PC marketplace online for a decade and a half. It has in the last five or six years become well known for being an immense pit of despair when it comes to shopping for games, thanks to a series of increasingly poor policies on what games they would allow on their platform; short version is; too much garbage, and too hard to sort through to find the gems. They have in recent months gone to great lengths to try and refine their store....but I suspect for many it is too little, too late.

So with that in mind, Epic Games now has its own game store, and while it a bit anemic it does have some gems. More importantly, it has Fortnite for PC, and is therefore essentially already installed on millions of PCs. I've already grabbed the free copy of Subnautica and will likely look to future purchases depending on how things develop. Epic is poised to conveniently be a major contender to Steam right out the gate, all thanks to Fortnite. Remember when Steam ended up on all PCs thanks to Half Life 2? Yep.

2. The Next Call of Duty will have a Campaign 

The rationale is that Activision wouldn't have more than one of its three studios developing CoD games try a Battle Royale mode, and that they also would be suspicious that this isn't just a fad right now, or possibly that they are too late to market. Therefore, based on their traditional design schedule, I predict that the next Call of Duty from Infinity Ward will probably be a conventional offering with a campaign, and also I bet it's either a sequel to Modern Warfare or Ghosts (shudder). Probably the former.

3. Bioware will announce a new Mass Effect or Dragon Age game this year.

This doesn't seem far-fetched, but I bet when they announce it the reveal will include a lot of apologetic marketing to appease the disenfranchised fans and also that the actual release date will coincide with the next generation release of game consoles.

4. Fortnite will be replaced by some new hotness......in 2020

We'll see the manifestations of this sometime in 2019, and Fortnite will continue to do fine, having captured it's market share, but I have a seven year old in the house and I can see how this sort of thing works; the millions of kids playing Fortnite will eventually get tired of it and force their parents to find some other video game to babysit them. You'll know Fortnite has descended to the realm of "popular has-been" when the twitch streamers start playing As Yet Unreleased Hotness X.

(Yeah this might contradict prediction #1 above but I say no! The new hotness could after all manifest on Epic's own platform).

5. There will be a new Alien Game announcement (and possible release) this year

The official channels are hinting at it, but unlikely we will see a movie release until Disney finishes carving up Fox's corpse, so I bet the hints are about new tie-in material, including a game. A game has been mentioned in 2018 titled Alien Blackout, but I bet thanks to CoDBlops4's mode they will have a different title when it is properly announced.

6. Ubisoft may actually give Assassin's Creed a break this year

This actually seems unlikely to me, but if Odyssey didn't sell well then I get they give a two year hiatus to the franchise again to let it rejuvinate a bit....and with any luck they fill that gap with a new Watch Dogs game (but I predict that won't happen....maybe by March 2020?)

7. Another obscure corner of gaming from around 1998-2005 will come back in style

Here's the rationale: as computer and video gamers move into their early thirties they tend to start pining nostalgically for the games they loved in their formative years. This is a similar phenomenon to what happens in tabletop, but I don't think tabletop gamers start doing this until their forties or fifties (when the kids are off to college, usually)....but video games ellicit a different response, especially for thirty-somethings who suddenly find that their dexterity, time, and ability to dedicate dozens of hours a week to gaming are all on the wane. Usually, a baby is in the mix and the desperation is for a game, some game --any game-- to play between diaper changes. The Switch understands this!

But the current crop of thirty-somethings in 2019 were around age 10-15 during their formative period, which was dominated by PS1, Dreamcast, early Xbox and Nintendo64. At least part of the current trend is to pop out retro consoles, usually in miniature (easy to hide/store in apartment) filled with memory-laden titles. Sony recently released and semi-botched their own effort, but not really; this is the generation that started with polygon-based gaming that looked amazing for its time, but has aged incredibly poorly (and quickly). As a result, they want to play games like they remember......but they will also want it to look better.

Most subgenres and types of gaming from 20 years ago are still around....so what game type is due for a revival? My suggestion: Myst and Riven style games! We've had a lull in pixel bitchers for a while, and the current trend is for very user friendly titles ala the late Telltale Games' titles. I bet we start to see a new crop of "Souls Like" Myst-inspired titles soon.

(Out there, but if there's one trend you can always predict in gaming it's that diehard subculture that needs games to punish them or they can't tell if they are having fun!)

Consider that last one my "really weird prediction."

Now for Deathbat's Personal Predictions:

1. I will finally catch up on Assassin's Creed games. I will complete Syndicate, Odyssey and Origins in some order at last. Unity's sour taste is at last out of my mouth.

2. I will enjoy The Divison 2 for a bit but will find it less endearing than the first if Ubisoft doesn't up the ante on the story component (which I bet it instead focuses on multiplayer).

3. I will buy the next Call of Duty because it adds the campaign back in, but then fails to innovate (so far only Infinite Warfare made any headway in innovation) and I will again feel had.

4. I'll be sick to death of Fortnite by March but will still play it with my son out of paternal duty.

5. I will finish The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, sometime this year. Possibly in the last week of December 2019....knowing how I roll....!

Maybe some movie predictions next!


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Deathbat's New Years Gaming Resolutions for 2019


Here's my list!

1. Focus on putting a more serious tone in my games. And game maybe a bit less often, but aim for higher quality.

By this, I mean that I have finally determined that the reason I have enjoyed gaming less than I could in the last year or two is that I have less time to prep for it, and also my burn out manifested in the form of what I might call "too many tropes, and too much meta." If I am seeing too many tropes, and feeling the meta within my games, it means I am not finding the time to make them more interesting, and less "trope-y" or less meta.

You might ask what I mean by that, and I could devote a whole post to such, but in the short version:
Too Many Tropes - I find myself leaning on the same cliched and tired content to fill in gaps when I have not had enough time to prep for the week. Another wandering monster encounter with "insert here" or yet another classic dungeon delve designed to soak up the evening without enough care and consideration into the plot = tired, old tropes being used in place of good content.
Too Meta - this is harder to work on, but in theory if I am working on better story content with fewer tropes then meta elements become less prevalent, too. Meta means I am GMing from the context of the game as an experience in itself, and less from the story or "character" arc of the tale; this could be to being too familiar with the content, or finding the rules to be too "in the way" of the experience. This is when I get that sense of ironic familiarity with a situation and can't resist reflecting on it, leading to a less serious effort at game tale telling. By focusing on a more serious, interesting tale I may be able to overcome this. I want games that feel like they used to: actual adventures, and less like they have: people killing time at the table with well worn and familiar cliches. To do this, I must focus on the narrative seriously, avoid the tropes, and commit to quality over quantity. Also, game systems which encourage new and interesting content are helpful, too.

2. Focus on games with I have found to be reliable time and again. For me this list is pretty simple:
BRP and Call of Cthulhu
Dungeons & Dragons (despite it being a hotbed of potential tropes and metagaming)
Traveller
Cypher System

Likewise, newer games on the rise may well contribute to this process. I expect to get a lot out of Over the Edge 3rd edition and Kult this year, for example. Fantasy AGE and Modern AGE continue to strike me as the kind of systems that move in the direction I want.

3. Focus less on games that do not prove so reliable, or which feed in to the tropes and metagaming.
Games such as Starfinder are awesome, but I concede that I never get far with it because it is the very definition of a setting and system that calls attention to itself and its own absurdity/mechanical contrivance. And I LIKE it! But fails for me anyway, because I can't quite reconcile what it offers with what I really want deep down inside, which is something more akin to Traveller or the Elite Dangerous RPG. Real SF, in other words. With limited time, I need to choose carefully, and not go for the tasty eye candy.

4. More family gaming.
This one is a no brainer! Gaming with my son and wife is proving more fun than ever.

....Okay, those are my gaming resolutions for 2019. We'll see if I stick to them!



Monday, December 31, 2018

Deathbat's Tabletop Gaming Predictions for 2019



Ah, this is going to be a tough one because the game industry (for RPGs, at least) is fairly stable and predictable these days. But I'll give it a shot with some suggestions for what may come to be:

1. D&D will see an official sourcebook for at least two of these: Spelljammer, Dark Suns, or Eberron

It's clear that Wizards of the Coast has been setting up all three for a return at some point, the question is just: when? And will we see more Ravnica/Planewalker stuff for Magic soon?

2. Far West will not appear this year, and therefore not appear this decade

I have no bone in this failed Kickstarter that is somehow still in limbo after something like seven years. Follow Erik Tenkar for occasional "updates" on the Kickstarter, but the only certainty anymore is that clocks are right twice a day, and this Kickstarter kicked the bucket a long time ago, but the author manages to keep stringing it out to hopefully run out the statute of limitations on lawsuits, I am guessing. 

3. Modiphius will hit some sort of Criticality this year

Modiphius is a prolific publisher and distributor, and just acquired the controls to the entire World of Darkness line in the wake of some shake ups at Paradox/White Wolf over poor editorial controls. As a result Modiphius now has a ridiculous number of titles and IPs under its belt, possibly more than they can handle, although I admit I have no information on total staff size or arrangements.

In general Modiphius has been brilliant at handling high quality print and PDF distribution, Kickstarters and distribution deals. I don't know how long they can sustain, and given that they were the only retailer online I ordered from in the last two months that was not quite able to fulfill their orders within the same month that the orders were placed, I suspect that they may be a bit overwhelmed. My prediction is that this year Modiphius could do very well, but it is possible --likely, even-- that they have bitten off more than they can chew at last, and I wonder if some of their product lines are maybe not moving as fast as they should? Even Cubicle 7 seems to have streamlined their product schedule, for example.

It could be that Modiphius is effectively sliding in to a new category of publisher/distributor and maybe is closer to Fantasy Flight Games in terms of scope now than, say, Cubicle 7. But I predict either way that we'll see some sort of impact on their high volume of product output this year.

4. D&D will see more than four major releases from WotC this year

D&D seems to be doing well enough that we're seeing more product creep, which is either a good thing or not depending on who you are. I predict we will see five major releases this year instead of four like last year, with some clever tie-ins to work it all together.

5. Pathfinder 2.0 Release will please the hardcore and capture the curious but fail to expand market share

I don't think this is a brave prediction, unfotunately. I think that the open playtest led to an unfortunate feedback loop in which players turned off by the playtest simply bailed out, and the ones willing to embrace it stayed in, and as a result the playtest will be a solid refinement of what that core likes, while missing the information necessary to expand the game to include the larger overall audience. Will it be playable? Absolutely. Will it be worth playing? Only if it offers an experience that is competitive with D&D in a way that is going to capture new players. Unfortunately I think it's going in the opposite direction.

6. Palladium may go belly up

Possibly not until 2020, but I have a feeling that Palladium will hit rock bottom and finally go kaput this year. Too much negativity from burned fans over Robotech may be the cause, but it's chiefly due to the fact that while many could argue Palladium's games have been stuck in the nineties, now even their business practices are stuck in the nineties, and this along with what seem to be perpetual financial woes may be it for them. I could possibly be wrong here.....but only in that this may not happen until 2020 or maybe 2021, but since I need something contentious for my list this is a good bet.

7. The Fantasy Trip gets a serious revival

This is a no-brainer: TFT is being released, in print, by Marchish. Steve Jackson Games is providing an encouraging online storefront for new product. We'll see the release of classic TFT lead either to serious expansions or a 2nd edition announced before the end of the year.

8. BRP revised finally appears

Fingers crossed, we will see the new 32 page BRP book and maybe an updated Mythic Iceland in PDF at least before December 2019. Of course, Chaosium still needs to get print versions of the Glorantha Bestiary and GM Screen out, which I sincerely hope does happen....even if you're not a Glorantha fan, the game is amazing and deserves attention. It will MAKE you a Glorantha fan!

....okay, that's enough of that! I'll do one for Computer Gaming next.




Wednesday, December 26, 2018

2018 Movies in Review


This was a long and movie-filled year. Were they all good movies? Nope. Were any of them great movies? A few. This was also the year predicted by some Youtube Nostradamii as the movie apocalypse, a time in which a big budget tentpole/AAA release hits every week through the whole year and leads to the collapse of multiple film studios and/or publishers. Which did not happen...imagine!

2018 does, for me, mark a couple significant changes in film viewing, though: my son is old enough now to enjoy movies in a more sophisticated manner, meaning the palette of movies he can sit still for has grown exponentially; movies are indeed coming out with greater frequency that tick that box which says "kids and family want to see this, and don't want to wait for it to show on Netflix," and finally I still just love seeing movies in the theater, and theaters locally are really making the experience more fun and easy thanks to luxury assigned seating. So yeah...overall we saw more movies this year than I have in, well, forever.

Here's the best movies in 2018, according to the Realms of Chirak household (so YMMV, of course!):

BEST HORROR FILM: Overlord

If you haven't seen Overlord, you are missing out on an unexpected great, if not entirely monumental film. The movie manages to be a compelling, at times nerve-wracking tale of Operation Overlord on D-Day (so, A World War II movie) when it abruptly dives into the deep end of weird Nazi scientist zombie super-soldier horror. I knew very little about this movie before going in to it, and was rewarded with one of my most enjoyable film experiences in years.

Runner Up: there were actually quite a few good horror movies this year, believe it or not. I'll tentatively suggest that Annihilation gets this billing, albeit with the caveat that it was just as compelling as an SF film (see below). So let's also nominate A Quiet Place for runner up!

BEST COMIC BOOK FILM: Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

I chose the title "comic book film" because this isn't just about superheroes, it's about a comic book style of tale telling writ large. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse manages to be a great superhero movie but an amazing comic book movie, possibly the best of its class. It takes a relatively incredulous core conceit (the spiderverse), a fan favorite from the comics (Miles Morales) and then tells a tale that does a bunch of things right that not many superhero films pull off: compelling character arcs, plot with resolution, action sequences that you can follow and make sense, surprises all over the place that felt carefully designed that way, and all topped with a CGI cartoon style(s) that blend remarkably well for a perfect package. If you only see one comic book film this year, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse should probably be it.

Runner Up: that easily goes to Deadpool 2, which thankfully had no backstory to worry about this time around, and made for a hysterical take on the Marvel universe through Deadpool eyes.

BEST SUPERHERO FILM: Avengers Infinity War

You could argue all sorts of reasons for why this is a good movie, but it is inarguable that Avengers Infinity War pays off on eight years of Marvel Cinematic Universe buildup and cashes in on that with great success. The sequel will be just as big, as Marvel and Disney left this movie with a cliffhanger that had the entire audience of children in tears, with adults quickly confirming that their beloved characters who appeared to have been destroyed still showed future movies in development, or actors with future movies still on contract.

Runner Up: Black Panther, which was a brilliant film and a unique exploration of Wakanda in the cinematic universe. One could argue that it deserved top billing and Avengers Infinity War get runner up, but the truth is neither film would have been as effective without the years of world building that went in to laying the groundwork, and both benefited greatly.

BEST SCIENCE FICTION FILM: Annihilation

Yes, the best movie in SF this year is the one no one saw. Natalie Portman and a team of scientists enter an anomalous region where life and reality are being warped into strange symmetries by an alien presence, and the film is all about the eerie exploration...at times terrifyingly so, of this event. If you haven't seen it yet, go get a copy or find it on Netflix or something, you have missed out.

Runner Up: Ready Player One deserves this credit for its Spielbergian depiction of a futuristic dystopia in which life is so grey and miserable that even your grandma has retreated into the virtual space, but somehow that's okay because this is an upbeat tale of dystopian futrue romance. Well worth watching, whether you liked the novel or not, for its straight-forward depiction of a future that is unfortunately far more likely to come to pass than the happy singularities optimistic futurists promise us.

BEST COMEDY: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

It's a Netflix exclusive, and it's also a western, and also it's a surrealistic black comedy, but this was probably one of the most enjoyable films I've seen this year. A series of western vignettes, each one a story of tragically arbitrary failure with only two of the tales resolving in a manner equatable to a happy ending, the Ballad of Buster Scruggs should be seen by anyone with a penchant for Coen Brothers films or subtle, dark humor in general.

Runner Up: oh this is a tough one. I guess Deadpool 2? It's the only movie which made me laugh as hard as it did (and also my son, when got to see the slightly less raunchy Once Upon a Deadpool).


FILM OF THE YEAR: Black Panther

Black Panther  deserves high praise for its depiction of the super-science hidden country of Wakanda. Even more significantly, it handled an interesting trope in the depiction of black characters on film, with Killmonger being a serious contender for best villain in the MCU who represented a sort of depiction of the way that black characters are all too often handled in American cinema, vs. the deadly serious, deep and utterly self assured Black Panther and his many supporting characters.The result is a film that manages to portray a subject in a manner that defies conventional racial depictions in western storytelling and, frankly, just crush it. Black Panther may have benefitted from being able to do so as part of the MCU, but it also managed to demonstrate that this can be done..and should be done, from here on out.

What list wouldn't be complete without some raspberries? Here are some duds for the awards:

BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: Venom

Venom deserves no special awards other than somehow being a Sony movie that was actually fun. For bonus credits, watch Venom, then watch Once Upon a Deadpool, and notice how the latter demonstrates how clearly the former film edited itself for a PG13 rating when they realized their R rating would lock out 90% of their target audience.

Runner Up: Aquaman! Who knew they could get Aquaman right, and also make a movie where a thousand laser sharks on screen was a serious moment?!?!?

LEAST INTERESTING MOVIE: Ant Man and the Wasp

It was fun, okay? But this movie was the very definition of playing it safe, and demonstrated (I feel) every case study in what people were afraid would go wrong with the MCU under Disney. It had a toothless villain, a lack of any real sense of gravitas, and a general focus on "feel good but don't think too hard" at it's core that made this the least interesting fun movie to watch in 2018. I get it: they need these kinds of films for the series; but this one was just uninteresting enough that I could (and may very well) sit out the next one and wait for it to show up on streaming somewhere.

Runner Up: Bumblebee! I loved it, but this movie was all about making a family-friendly, earnest, heartful course correction for the Transformers franchise, which it succeeded at, but it left very few surprises in place; when your biggest surprise is that the appearance of the transformers matches their appearances from the original cartoon, then....well, yeah.

BIGGEST FRANCHISE IMPLOSION: The Predator

Look, I can't call it the worst movie of the year because it is technically proficient, and there are worse films out there. But The Predator demonstrates that just because you played a bit role and did some minor dialogue rewrites in a film from 1987 does not mean you are in any way qualified to follow up on it decades later. The Predator effectively killed the franchise and demonstrated that it is completely possible even in this year of 2018 to misunderstand the core conceit of a film franchise in such a manner that you destroy it for the fanbase.

Runner Up: Solo, but not becuase it was a bad movie (it was a lot of fun) but rather because it suffered the backlash of The Last Jedi and demonstrated that Star Wars fatigue had already set in.

WORST MOVIE I SAW IN 2018: Monster Land

So here's the problem with doing a list like this when you're not a hardcore film buff or paid critic: I avoid movies that get bad reviews, or which I suspect I might not find that engaging. The movie doesn't have to be bad (I'm avoiding the Return of Mary Poppins, for example), it just has to be off my radar. As a result, I often don't see the bad movies of the year. However, I may see some truly awful movies within the year, just not films that were released in 2018. For example: Monster Land, a truly miserable little collection of indie vignettes which for the most part are as irredeemable as any Amazon Kindle selection of random short fiction rudderless and without an editor to steer it into some sort of readable direction. So if I elect a truly bad film this year: Monster Land deserves it, even though it was released in 2016.

If I had to mention a movie in 2018 that was truly horrible, I guess I'd suggest Gotti. I didn't actually see the film, but the clips I have witnessed suggest strongly it deserves this honor.









Wednesday, December 19, 2018

2018 Computer Gaming in Review


Like the tabletop RPG gaming post, I find myself amused by the fact that far less of what I did this year with computer gaming was actually from 2018. Even worse, I have indulged in plenty of 2018 releases, but to be honest....not too many were all that impressive. This is not a great year for gaming, to be honest....especially not AAA gaming.

So without further delay: here's the Realms of Chirak Household Gaming Top Six List for "Things we Played and Liked" in 2018:

#6: Vampyr
 
   I think this came out a year ago, but it is notable for being the only 3PS role playing game I have bought this year that is not a distinctive Sony exclusive. It's a great story about Victorian London during a rash of sickness and plague and the physician who finds himself an unwitting vampire. Very much enjoying this one, check it out!

#5: Fortnite

   As a family we have played a lot of Fortnite in the last year. It's ironic because back in 2017 (or was it 2016?) I bought the zombie-killing fortress building retail version of this game for my son and I to play together. We weren't so excited about that mode it turns out, but Battle Royale ended up getting us back in to it.
   This game has the following features going for it:
--it's basically family friendly as shooters go (if you mute the snotty kids in squads)
--you can group up in the game as a team (great for mom, son and dad to play together)
--it's Battle Royale mode is free (but yes you will end up wanting to spend money on v-bucks Just Because)
--just when you get tired of it, a new season starts; also, if you give up the idea of actually being good at it you can instead play the "challenges and achievements minigame" which is honestly the only way to get anywhere in Fortnite anyway unless you are aged 15-25 and stream on Twitch.

#4: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands

   Did I review this game last year? I played a lot of it, but I kept on playing in 2018 and finished the full campaign then dived right in to the weird DLC. I don't know if this game is ultimately a "reccommend to all" sort of deal, but Ghost Recon: Wildlands uniquely exotic and fun version of fictional Bolivia is a pleasure to explore, and filled with interesting open world content. I continue to revisit the game even months after completing the content.

#3: Watch Dogs 2

   Yeah, over two years since it was released and I finally finished this game, but continue to love it. The theme of millennial hackers vs. the evil cyphers for Google and Facebook is a fantastic open world experience, and I really appreciate that the game let me play a non-lethal character for 95% of the experience. The multiplayer component is singularly unique and digital San Francisco was loads of fun to explore. I am done with it now, but I spent a lot of time getting to this point in 2018.

#2: Diablo III Eternal Collection

   Speaking of family games, Diablo III Eternal Collection on the Switch has also proven to be a household hit. Remember, the family that slays demons together stays together! We all have copies, and have engaged in lengthy demon-slaying sessions. I think my wife and son are way ahead of me, however. Once again, though....this game is several years old, but thanks to a new release of a very good port to a dedicated handheld-optional game console, it's well worth playing again.

#1: The Switch

   This location gets reserved for the portable hybrid console which Nintendo has championed. The Switch is loaded with content that just works for fun entertainment, as only the Switch can deliver. There are games on the Switch (such as Dead Cells, Bayonetta and Octopath Traveller) that I will happily engage with on the small screen in the comfort of bed or on a lawn chair that I would never bother with on a big screen with a regular console. And when I want to play the Switch on the big screen, or on co-op with the family? Piece of cake. I started with one months ago, and now we have three Switch consoles in the house, one for each of us.

Dishonorable Mention:

A lot of new and ongoing franchises just crapped the bed this year. In no particular order I feel that AAA gaming did itself little justice....at least for me. Here's the list of shame:

Call of Duty Black Ops IIII: buggy, crashes often, and needs lots of tweaking to make the Blackout mode ultimately worth my time as a filthy casual who can't compete with the hardcore leets. I load it up periodically and think about how cool it would be if they had a single player campaign I could enjoy, but then remember that they decided I am not their target demographic (solo player who likes a story with his FPS game). I need to make sure not to buy CoD anymore, it's like the game dumped me, but will still take my money.

Destiny 2: well, the problems with Destiny 2 are many, and I think they stem from the fact that Bungie doesn't know how to do a living world MMORPG. The fact that Destiny 1 content is gated off from the new game is an example of how they fail to do this right. The newer game has too much hardcore content and not enough stuff for filthy casuals who just want to do missions, have fun and NOT grind for armor and weapons. It has too many locations on odd worlds, asteroids and moons that are singular in their lack of interesting details (contrast with the much more interesting locales in the first game), and a restructured questing format that is just not at interesting as it used to be. I'm still playing, but only barely.

Star Wars Battlefront 2: As this game chugs on it continues to avoid re-introducing loot crates after the debacle last year, but they have added more content. Unfortunately most of the content is just not as good, and often leads less to strategic and interesting experiences on the map and instead leads to confusion and random nonsense. I am sure, if I had the energy, I could find the sweet spot for this one and get it to click, but I find it interesting that I found Battlefront 1 so accessible and fun, and the sequel is just so.....painful and random. I may delete it entirely (although my son might object so maybe not).

The Future:

There are a few games I look forward very much to playing in 2019, but I haven't gone far enough in to these games in 2018  to be able to speak on them much yet. These include:

Pathfinder: Kingmaker -- a computer game in Golarion, with Pathfinder rules!
Numenera: Tides of Torment -- I have it, and my interest in the RPG will get me to try this at last
Assassin's Creed: Origins and Odyssey -- yeah I'm two games behind on this now, still trying to finish Syndicate, but both of the new games I would like to visit in 2019.
Anthem: please EA don't let me down here.
Resident Evil 2 Remake: I can't stress how much I desperately want this game.
Division 2: absolutely looking forward to this one.

Monday, December 17, 2018

2018 RPGs in Review


This was a strange year for gaming in my household. Notable this year was my son's reaching an age where gaming "clicked" for him; dad reached a unique level of gaming burn-out even as son hits his first stride; all of my top gaming discoveries this year were older games for the most part; and I significantly reduced my game collection earlier in the year via ebay.

Wrestling with what has felt to me like close to a year of burn-out has been tough. Part of me is certain the burn-out is tied to the exponential increase in my responsibilities at my business, which does indeed take much more time out of my life than it ever has before. Some of it is a more general genre burn-out, and discovering a game like Cypher System which let me break out of the D&D box a bit actually framed just how long I had been running D&D, and perhaps how uninspired I was now feeling as a result.

However, I have a great crew of long time friends and family I can game with, and that alone makes it all worthwhile. I have (due to work and other issues) taken more time off than usual this year on gaming nights, but with any lucky 2019 will be less arduous and I will rekindle my creative juices.

So in looking at 2018 in review, it's hard to pick out five or six things to address that are topically new. Instead, I'll do a "this was important to me this year" list instead.

#5: Starfinder

This year I tried running Starfinder multiple times, managed a campaign on an off day for a few months, and got several stalled games running that I wish could have gone further. The general consensus is that Starfinder has a great premise and style, and manages to pull off a fun game in a Pathfinder frame. However, due to my difficulties this year it has been very hard to remain committed to Starfinder for the lengthy period that it deserves.

#4: Call of cthulhu 7E

My campaign for 7E CoC wrapped earlier in the year, and it was a truly spectacular event. Call of Cthulhu's latest editions has captured my attention and this was a highlight of gaming for me in the last two years (the campaign started in 2017). I definitely need to run more CoC in 2019.

#3: Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Despite being burned out on it, D&D 5E remains an important staple for me in gaming. Two events keep me inspired going in to 2019: first, my son has active characters (see an earlier post on this) and we are really enjoying this very simple, very straight-forward 5E game. I actually hope it will help me to start enjoying the game more generally again. I am also inspired by the Ravnica setting which WotC released. This is the first genuinely new setting for D&D in a very long time, and I hope it does well; D&D needs new and innovative going forward; it's got the "classic stuff" well covered already, perhaps too much so.

#2: Numenera

I haven't run it yet, but Numenera as a setting is one of the single most unique and fun settings I have encountered in a long time. It's material is inspirational for any fantasy or SF setting, and I have pilfered from it for my Cypher System games. I hope to finish reading through Discovery and Destiny (the new edition of the game) and have a a campaign lined up for this next year.

#1: Cypher System

Discovering and then figuring out Cypher System was a major revelation to me. Just as I found myself getting tired of the old classics (or 5E's version of the game genre), while finding myself without the time or energy to wrangle the more sophisticated modern offerings (Pathfinder, Starfinder) or the dedication to learn new and unfamiliar things (Genesys Core), Cypher System arrives just in time for me. A game designed to be player-facing, loaded with things for players to tinker with while being written specifically with the time-limited or lazy GM in mind who wants to use RPGs for creative release but maybe isn't too interested in the stat block mini game, Cypher System is the best game find I've discovered in the last twenty years.

...So, going in to 2019, I realize I have some interesting things to consider. I want to keep running Cypher System, for both my fantasy-SF campaign I designed for it as well as my super hero setting and more I am working on. But I also want to run Numenera (same game system, so doing this is all about absorbing the volumes of content for the Ninth World), and really want to get back to Call of Cthulhu. I frequently feel a desire to return to Traveller, or something like it....and a couple oddities such as the Everywhen RPG and Fantasy AGE still command my interest.

It is possible, outside of my family game, that I might actually be able to stay away from D&D for a while. We'll see....a few more books like Ravnica and I will probably cave and dive back in.

Games not yet released, or games I am in the process of reading and thinking about using, could finally get some time next year. I still would like to run Cold & Dark, for example. I'd like to experience Elite Dangerous RPG, which looks really interesting in a "totally like yet not Traveller" way. Kult will eventually show up in print one day, and that is a game I very much enjoyed back in it's 1st and 2nd edition days.

A couple new games next year: the "new" Fantasy Trip, for example, deserve attention. Cypher System 2nd edition, of course! Over The Edge 3rd edition. I could easily get derailed with any of these three. But beyond this? I think I may be set, honestly. Such is life as an older gamer....getting stuck in my rut, if you will!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Looking at my January Predictions for Gaming in 2018

Seems like as good a time as any....unlikely any misses will turn in to hits with 16 days left on the clock! Back in this post in January I made some predictions for how the RPG industry (and others) would shape out for 2018....or at least, certain companies. Here's what I predicted, and here's where it landed:

1. KULT: Divinity Lost Will Arrive in Print (or maybe just PDF)

I suppose this wasn't that risky since the new edition of Kult was pushed to a summer release, but it was also a long delayed Kickstarter so....yeah, you could go either way here.

Result: True, for the PDFs for sure

Kult is out, and I have most of it in PDF, but the books were supposed to ship November 21st and I am still waiting to even get notice they have been shipped. I've emailed the distributor and Modiphius on status, but silence makes me wonder if the print copies actually showed.

2. No Pathfinder 2.0 in 2018

Heh.

Result: FALSE

We got a playtest announcement and book. Next year's prediction gets to focus on whether or not the final release will be a hit or sinks Paizo, I guess. (Yes, I am one of those people who was gravely concerned by what I saw in the design of 2.0).

3. Melee/Wizard and/or The Fantasy Trip get Kickstarted in a big way

Well, this one was pretty well all but implied once SJG acquired the rights to TFT, but I guess back in January they hadn't formally announced any plans yet.

Result: TRUE

And how! The Kickstarter is full of TFT goodness, the "I want it all" option gives you a ton, and from all updates I've read the final product is on schedule for March 2019 release, maybe even just a bit ahead of schedule. Ancient TFT fans, who are almost as numerous as Greyhawk fans, can at last get their just due for hanging in there. I've looking forward myself to getting to play a game again that I haven't run since 1985.

4. A new Marvel RPG will be announced

This was my "out on a limb" prediction. It was predicated on the idea that Marvel/Disney would be willing and interested in letting their IP get licensed for a tabletop game.

Result: FALSE

Oh and how! Marvel has killed various video game tie-ins (notably a fun to play Marvel Diablo spinoff that I enjoyed for a while) and studiously avoided anything that isn't a mobile game. A video game exclusive for next year on the Switch has been announced, but I don't think the Mouse with the House of M really gives a crap about tabletop RPGs.....sigh.

5. WotC releases four books, and brings back Eberron

Well, I think there were hints suggesting they would revisit something not Forgotten Realms so that wasn't too much of a stretch. As for the additional books....again, its all haruspicy using Mearls' and other WotC personalities' twitter tweets to decipher their plans.

Result: TRUE

Yeah, so they actually released more than four books this year (yay), especially if you count map packs and stuff, then a lot more....Waterdeep, Dungeon of the Mad Mage, Ravnica, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, and lots of peripheral tie-ins like Endless Quest books and "hook 'em when their young" books, too. WotC is starting to look like they're confident in their product, at last. Well....except for Eberron, which got a PDF release as a living document on dmsguild.com. So technically back? Yes. The way we wanted it? Not really.

6. Movie Apocalypse in 2018

What is this doing on my RPG predictions? Hmmmm I must have just had nowhere else to stick it? Well...

Result: FALSE

Did not happen in the manner described by sundry youtube vlogers and amateur film critics insisting that the industry was going to murder itself with a flood of weekly blockbusters. This year had a lot of good movies (and more than a few stinkers, too) but it didn't implode any studios or distributors, near as I can tell. And stranger even, Sony released two Marvel Spider-Man tie-ins in a row worth watching! Now predicting that would have been impressive prescience!

7. Loot Crate Apocalypse

At the start of the year loot crates were a popular topic thanks to EA's ability to egregiously overreach and stay off message with their audience, and Star Wars: Battlefront II was too high profile not go unnoticed.

Result: TRUE

I suspected from the negative feedback in 2017 with games using loot boxes as their in-game monetization scheme that this would have repercussions, and it definitely has. EA got the hairy eyeball in some countries, the practice is under legal scrutiny, and while the concept of the loot box lingers on, video game publishers seem to be trying to keep it lower key and focused on purely cosmetic options. Some (such as Epic Games) don't even bother with them (Fortnite's Battle Royale mode, for example). I suspect that good publishers will realize that being up front with what you're offering will work if your product is worth it and your fans are loyal. Meanwhile the crappy publishers will try to hide substandard purchases behind their loot crates (fyi Epic Games get rid of the damned loot lamas in Fortnite's co-op mode, the seventeen people playing co-op fortress defense could use a break!)

8. Still no Fantasy AGE Companion in 2018

If you love Green Ronin it is easy to be forgiving of their schedule. But when in doubt, just look at what Palladium fans go through!

Result: FALSE

I wanted this one to be false, and it ended up coming out like three months later. Joy!!!

9. Runequest will release

Result: TRUE

This was an easy prediction...it was late, but they were clearly pushing on a release. The book did get in to print before Greg Stafford's passing.

10. Genesys Core Will Expand a Lot

When this released late last year it was a fascinating game and I got a chance to run a campaign in 2018, extracting from the Terrinoth sourcebook. Since then....well, I guess it's subject to interpretation.

Result: BOTH TRUE AND FALSE....FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW?

There's an Android universe book on the way. FFG only released some card sets following Terrinoth, but a lot of talk on various forums revolves around this game (and usually, inevitably around whether people love or hate the dice). I have come to the conclusion that the game won't catch on due largely to the dice, but it will likely serve to gateway Star Wars gamers in to broader role playing. People either get the dice and find it natural or they don't. This is a sticking point for a lot. Hell, I've already decided I won't even bother with the new L5R since I hear FFG has symboled up it's dice. I will likely try playing Genesys Core more in the future, but admit that my discovery of Cypher System really makes that future uncertain now.

11. Starfinder will make or break in 2018

What kind of prediction is this? What the hell was I thinking?

Result: TRUE (I guess)

2018 showed that Starfinder is a game a lot of people like, enough so that it's gotten fair amount of new material and support from Paizo. Yay!