Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Postmortem: The Predictions for 2019 - RPG Edition

Okay then! Here's what I predicted for 2019. First off, for tabletop RPGs:

1. A new D&D sourcebook based on a known property. (TRUE)

I may have been hoping for Spelljammer, but I mentioned it might be Eberron, and sure enough I was right. And a pretty good sourcebook, too!

2. No Far West this year (TRUE)

I was probably reading Erik Tenkar's blog this year, which I notice has far few entries these days (I guess he's on other media such as Facebook which I don't frequent?) and his Far West updates have been endlessly interesting. This was a very safe bet, though...and sure enough, so far as I can determine there was no motion forward on this ancient Kickstarter at all. I could make this prediction into perpetuity I suspect with little chance of inaccuracy. I didn't even back this one; it's just interesting to watch a metaphorical publishing train wreck in action for so long.

3. Modiphius Goes Critical This Year (FALSE)

I think my prediction here was that Modiphius will finally grow too large and have some trouble, experience some financial stress, or otherwise show signs of slowing down at some point; so far this appears to be entirely false....Modiphius has so much stuff going on I can't even keep track anymore.

4. Four Releases for D&D This Year (TRUE AND...)

Did this happen? Per Wizards' site, they actually had 8 key products out this year if you include the Tacical Maps pack, Acquisitions Incorporated, Rise of Tiamat reprint and all the other books. So yep, definitely. If we get another 8 books in 2020 I'll be quite happy, to be honest.

5. Pathfinder 2.0 will please the hardcore 1E fans, capture curious new interest, but fail to expand beyond the base (MIXED)

I'm going to suggest we don't yet have enough info to figure this one out, but it does seem that we have the following camps on Pathfinder 2nd edition so far:
1. The entirely new fan base who love this game, perhaps coming over from D&D 5E or coming back to Pathfinder after a long absence (like me);
2.  Fans of 1E seem not to be converting to the new game if their whole group doesn't (but I am really not seeing angry 1E fans complaining, either);

But Pathfinder 2E's key problem it turns out isn't with converting existing 1E fans; it's getting the attention of the vast swarm that plays D&D 5E almost exclusively to anything else. All I can hope for this coming year is that it continues to do well, as my entire group loves it and plays it exclusively now, and I love it's ease of access for GMs.

6. Palladium may go belly up (FALSE)

So I don't think this actually happened, but it also seems like Palladium is still in a downward spiral. I'll suggest that Palladium, in its current state, may inevitably perish within the next few years unless it can course correct.

7. The Fantasy Trip Gets a Serious Revival (TRUE)

I have a vast stack of Fantasy Trip books, sets, modules and fanzines that prove this true! The question is, will it continue for 2020? And will I ever find time to play it?

8. BRP Revised finally appears (FALSE)

Not only did BRP not appear in any form (not even a 32 page book or Mythic Iceland), but based on what seems to be going on at Chaosium I predict nothing of the sort will likely appear in 2020 either, with them now focused more on keeping Call of Cthulhu in the limelight, followed by a single new Runequest book released in PDF at the end of this year, and some obscure project based on an obscure IP I have never heard of (Rivers of London) planned for the future; this is either a brilliant efffort to market to a younger crowd that recognizes this IP, or a telling sign that it will be a niche prestige product which does not grow the BRP field beyond the highly focused interest of specific fans.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Year in Review: Movies in 2019

This was a grotesque, weird year for movies. I personally think it all boils down to the nine-foot tall purple gorilla in the room: Avengers: Endgame came out this year (remember that movie?!?!?) and it overshadowed everything else before and after it. The rest of the year was, at best, a middling to average year for movies, with a vast number of serious duds in the mix.

So here are the high (and low) moments I noticed for 2019:

The MCU's Grand Finale Couldn't Be Beat

Avengers: Endgame dominated, so maybe other films knew they couldn't compete and dished out their subpar content instead? This argument doesn't really hold up; lots of movies this year clearly thought they had the chops to contend. No movie this year (not even Star Wars Rise of Skywalker) could possibly hold up to the 20-film long conclusion to the MCU juggernaut.

I think it is more likely that, outside of the sharp contrast of a monumental conclusion to a united film series in the final Avengers film, every other film this year suffered from a dearth of new content ideas; even the really good movies suffered from this simply by comparison; Shazam was great, but really just the Superman film we didn't get with Man of Steel. Terminator Dark Fate was an impressive film to the few people who saw it, but really just the Terminator 3 we wanted but didn't get back in the day. Spider-Man: Far From Home was proof a Marvel movie could be fun post-Endgame, but also still very much a continuation of the "let's fix Sony's horrible mistakes from the past" kind of movie.

The Duds Were Many And Prolific

Hollywood flooded the theaters this year with movies which couldn't hold a candle to the major blockbusters. If your movie wasn't a Disney film, then as a director, producer or distributor you were probably sweating in your boots this year. The list of distinct duds....movies which fell flat or failed to stand out in the crowd in a meaningful was way was shocking. In prior decades these were called "normal films," but today, anything lacking the clever polish of an MCU film when it comes to action blockbusters seems doomed to fail.

Examples I was subjected to (some I enjoyed, some not so much) were prolific: X-Men Dark Phoenix, Zombieland Double Tap, Hellboy, Men in Black International, Godzilla: King of the Monsters....all of these movies came out this year, and I ended up seeing them. Of these movies, each had something good, but some were grimly bad in weird ways. It could just be me; as I get older and more curmudgeonly (it's a horrible thing to feel your mind and body aging into something less pleasant, something which disdains fun in the conventional sense) but honestly....none of these films really "had it" regardless.

Streaming Got Complicated and Expensive

You can't just subscribe to Netflix anymore. Now you need to consider at minimum four or five streaming apps for your entertainment if you're serious about watching TV or have a family to entertain. It's annoying; we thought we were moving away from the cable companies, but in a sense we're right back where we started; too much money, spread too thin for the entertainment value.

I've personally continued to maintain my subscriptions to Netlix, DC Universe, Disney+, Shudder and Curiosity Stream....but five services is honestly too much for the actual amount of time spent watching TV in my "mostly gamer" house. 2-3 stations almost feels like too much! But such is the era we now live in.

Star Wars IX Ended an Era and The Mandalorian Started an Era

I've worked through my antipathy for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; I may post more (like I haven't enough already) but I've decided it was totally fine, even if it's plot and pacing sucked, in terms of a Star Wars film. I recalled having similar feelinsg of antipathy for Return of the Jedi when it came out; in 1983 the RotJ movie felt like something for my younger self from age 7-10, not my 12-13 year old self; I had moved on from Star Wars (at the time). Now, decades later, I realize I was prepared to go in expecting the movie to be bad; actively looking for it. That Abrams accomodated with lots of obnoxious plot and pacing issues was a coincidence; I could have overlooked many of those, as I had in all the other movies. Honestly....I suspect that, except for Revenge of the Sith (which I loved), I think I just experience burnout with Star Wars periodically and it just so happens the release of this movie coincides with that period of burnout.

But what about The Mandalorian, which itself kicks off an era of streaming films for Star Wars? I totally love it....but also probably because it feels so different from the latest movies; Mandalorian is a thing unto itself; something which manages to get back to an old version and style of Star Wars I had forgotten I loved so much.

Crap! Writing about Star Wars again. Okay....enough of this for now....will dig up my predictions from the beginning of the year next to analyze for accuracy (or lack therof).

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Year in Review: Video Gaming in 2019

Video Games in 2019 had a metric ton of stories, almost all of which boil down to the following key points:

1. A game franchise spits out a new entry which is too much like (or not enough like) prior iterations and fans don't like it

2. A Triple A publisher comes up with or evolves an insidious monetization scheme which gets people mad (even though they seem to mostly continue buying the product --cough cough Call of Duty cough cough--). Bonus points if a country in Europe is suing the publisher for predatory monetization practices!

3. An indie developer is torn with strife after some inappropriate twitch comment, remark or Who Knows What and mayhem ensues in certain online sites.

4. Very occasionally a new game or a new iteration pops up that gets great reviews....but most gamers can feel it in the air; we're just a bit over a year away from two new console releases, and the big dogs are pulling back most of their special projects for this new console release to maximize their press. Anything coming out between now and new Fall season should be looked at as the "final release cycle" for this generation (for big dog triple A publishers, anyway).

...and on and on. The video game news cycle seems trapped in a feedback loop of epic proportions. When the news that sounds amazing is something like, "Hey, EA made a Star Wars game that did not maximize monetization and focused on a single player experience!" then you know your hobby has issues.

Generalizing the trend toward click-bait/negativity aside in this hobby, here's four trends and stories which kept my attention this year:

Resident Evil 2 Remake Revived the Series a Second Time

Resident Evil 7 was a great game in its own right, but it was only nominally a RE game in the sense that it pretended to be a new-style survival horror game at first, then bait-and-switched to a regular RE game toward the end. Resident Evil 2 Remake did a brilliant job of showing that that classic style of survival horror can stand on its own two feet, and that it is possible to do exactly that style of game with modern graphics and controls just fine. Easily the best game of the year for me!

Epic Games Gives Steam Some Competition (For Better and Worse)

For most of this year Epic Games has grown its storefront, tempted players with free games, and learned the hard way about how to handle a sales event. Their storefront is missing so many features. On the one hand, I recall 2004 when the Steam Store was a crappy prereq to get Half Life 2, but this isn't 2004; Epic, if you want to know what a good storefront looks like, check Steam out now.

In Epic's defense, their store functions about as well as Origin, Uplay or the travesty that is Bethesda's platform. It pales in comparison to the monster that Steam has become, and do not forget about GOG, which is easily the best overall storefront for the discerning DRM-free content we all want.

Games as Service is a Horrible, Horrible Thing (and it won't go away)

This year we watched the following things happen:

Anthem appeared and subsequently tanked; EA/Bioware dragged out its survival rate as they clearly planned to have a ton of post-launch plans for it, but then it turns out the contemporary consumerist culture of gamers who don't value games which can't hold their interest for 1,000 hours got pissed off and left. Given that Anthem probably couldn't reliably offer more than 50 hours of fun for anyone, I think there were identified issues well before release.

Destiny 2 broke free of Activision and went free to play with premium expansion content in Forsaken and Shadowkeep. On the plus side Destiny 2 is an awesome game to play; on the downside, it's now riddled (more than ever, it feels like to me) with freemium games-as-service content in the form of the item shop and the seasonal passes, all driven to keep a person playing content well beyond the sparse but entertaining story missions which are the only thing I really care about in Destiny 2. I miss the good old days of discrete single-player campaign content, or even the format of the original Destiny, which was a mellow blend of the two with less forced monetization.

Ghost Recon: Breakpoint tried to do this, and Ubisoft had a "come to Money Jebus" moment apparently when they realized that releasing this game and The Division 2 in the same year may have been "too much similar content, not enough distinguishing features" for the general audience. While I have been enjoying Breakpoint quite a bit, none of these issues are incorrect; they had big plans to make this game a Games as Service experience, and still plan to, apparently....unlike EA, Ubisoft doesn't just give up on a game until they've tried their hardest. I'll stick around for the ride, I think...but I will not spend any real money in their in-game store; that would be idiotic.

Countless other games continue to toy with this formula, even as other old classic MMOs try to remain relevant or update their process for the game. It's pretty horrible, overall.....thankfully there are still plenty of great single player experiences to be found; but finding good multiplayer games that aren't deeply and intrusively monetized is getting harder and harder.

Year of the Switch

The Switch had an enormously stand-out year in 2019. It released the Switch Lite while flooding the market with interesting new games and a metric ton of classic and old school titles upgraded for handheld consumption. This was an amazing year for gamers who care more about gaming then whether the console can pump out 4K resolution or not; and also for gamers looking to maximize their local co-op experiences. Family gaming on the Switch is the easiest option for gamers looking to play locally with kids and wives and such. For myself this is the console all members of my household each have one of, and the system we commiserate the most on (even if our tastes0 vary wildly, with the kid playing Fortnite and Pokemon, mom playing Luigi's Mansion 3 and the other Pokemon and dad playing Deadly Premonition and Legrand Legacy or something).

So those are the interesting trends this year in video games I noticed....sure, there are plenty of other stories floating around, but I have to say I think these were the ones which kept me most excited!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Year in Review: Tabletop RPGs of 2019

I've written a bit less than I have in prior years in 2019, so if you follow the blog you can probably guess where my energy and interest remains focused, more or less. So don't be too surprised by the  RPG products which I have found to be sufficiently compelling in 2019 that they have soaked up a nontrivial level of time and/or interest, a massive feat these days....rather than rehash how much I love Pathfinder 2nd edition, Cypher System and "other," I'll just point out some trends in the hobby I noticed this year:

The Year of Old Favorites Getting Facelifts

This was the big mark for 2019 as far as I was concerned. Savage Worlds got a facelift to a new, reorganized edition which didn't change much but helped consolidate the game into a cleaner edition. So far we only have a few books out for it, but Savage Worlds Adventure Edition looks like it will work a a good "one book standalone" for most people's needs.

Meanwhile, the Cypher System Revised which started as part of the "Your Best Game Ever" Kickstarter from Monte Cook popped out on time with --you guessed it-- a heavily revamped book with few to no rule changes but a ton of organizational changes and additional content.

Finally (well, for my focus in the hobby) we had the formal release of Pathfinder 2nd Edition, a clever revamp that feels more like a new system spun out of the D20 family more than a regular old 2nd edition of its predecessor. Pathfinder 2E quickly seems to have become my groups' favorite system, and as a result it has been almost entirely the only system we've been playing on Saturdays and Wednesdays since August.

There are old favorites out there which have yet to see their time in the sun (GURPS and Hero System both deserve a "modern day" treatment, if only to see what that looks like) but it's good to see that many systems can get a revamp without critical changes to their core mechanics (okay, well 2/3rds of such systems, anyway!)

The OSR Shifted a Bit from the OD&D Core

This year saw the release of The Fantasy Trip in print for the first time since it's death in the early eighties, as well as a slew of new content. It witnessed a return of Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes in a slick new reprint with additional material to bring the game into the 21st century without changing any of the original game. It has brought a range of interesting Swedish fantasy games in the OSR vein with a keen ability to handle hardcore old school dungeonering and hexcrawling without being distinctly D&D in the form of the Fantasy! RPG and the impressive Forbidden Lands boxed set (which I finally got a copy of).

It's not that classic-D&D focused content is gone, but more that there seems to be a branching of interest in what the OSR can offer, and that's a good thing.

The Bloggosphere Contraction

It's fairly evident when you look around: many blogs of old are now gone, or on life support. The old era of dedicated gaming blogs has dimmed a bit, probably due to the pervasive rise of vlogging through Youtube. 2019 was the year I first really noticed it, to be honest, but even I find more and more RPG vlogs creeping into my Youtube feed, which is where I'm finding most Pathfinder and Starfinder content these days, for example. Still, there remains a hardcore crowd that I believe is mostly made up of other bloggers keeping it all alive. Tragically, we old guard probably without much exception would find it hard to transition to a vlog environment....I have zero interest in putting my face or voice out there; the blog for me has always been a deliberate exercise in writing, not visual presentation.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Final Comment and Reality Check for Episode IX

I think I can beat this dead horse just a bit longer, and here it goes!

Everything you and I feel negatively about the latest Star Wars....may be highly specific to our collective group of associated fans. We have internalized our Star Wars experience so tightly that the very nature of Star Wars is subject to our own deeply internalized expectations and beliefs about Star Wars.

The reason I state this is because, in the course of the last few days I've had exactly three kinds of conversations with people on multiple occasions. They boil down to the following types:

1. I speak to another old Star Wars fan, either a grizzled old Gen Xer or a feisty millennial. We chat about how Star Wars IX and maybe in general sucks in various ways.

2. I speak to literally every other person I know (mostly a lot of co-workers and relatives) who have no deep personal investment in Star Wars. They saw the movie and had a good time. They are unsure why I dislike it so much. One or two say they can see how deeply invested fans might have issues, but most think we're silly.

3. I speak to kids, my son and his friends, and they earnestly love the movie and mostly just talk about all the cool stuff in it they like. If the kid is unlucky they might have a parent who tries to control that narrative, but so far none of my son's friends fit that bill.

So: the lesson learned is: Star Wars is for everyone, and fans are deeply complicated, but maybe should not assume their internalized perceptions of the experience and series are actually universal.

Merry Xmas!

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Mandalorian is Still Good

A very brief post/observation, but I finished ploughing through to episode 7 of The Mandalorian last night and it was the perfect palette cleanser to Rise of Skywalker. Indeed, I realized that The Mandalorian is so much closer to the general feel of classic original Star Wars (while also keeping its own style and pace) that it felt like a much more genuine Star Wars experience than the new movie did.

Anyway.....just a suggestion, that if you like Star Wars but maybe came out of the latest film feeling like you got mental food poisoning, The Mandalorian may be the cure for what ails you.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Key Points on Rise of Skywalker Two Days Later

Okay, it took two days to process this movie, but I think I've landed on the following points of closure for myself (both for the film and the Star Wars series in general). SPOILERS

My kid describes Star Wars IX as "weird and exciting" all at once. He has been practicing lightsaber battles for two days, wants an RC droid model for Christmas and spent some time with me hypothesizing and speculating about the film, which I thought was interesting.....it wasn't just me, essentially, but his directive was more basic an earnest than mine. While I was agonizing over insonsistencies, plot holes and story choices that felt too meta or too contrived, he was more interested in questions like, "Was Rey's dad bad like her grandfather or a good guy? Did her mom survive or did they both die? Why is Rey's lightsaber gold at the end? Why was Leia's lightsaber green at one time and blue another time?" Stuff like that.

My son was not concerned (or annoyed) with things I felt were just bad storytelling; I felt that the shots of an infinite number of star destroyers lined up in endless rows erupting from the planet was just stupidly silly, and a stark contrast from the vaguely more realistic depictions of starship fleets seen in every other Star Wars film (particularly the impressive shots of the Empire's fleet from Return of the Jedi). He wasn't noticing the bizarre pace of the film and its effort to cram two films in to one. But in talking to him about Palpatine and Rey I grew to like the idea that this plot point, as ludicrous as it was, actually made some compelling sense in terms of Palpatine's personality and lengthy backstory, particular his obsession with conquering death. It worked, in principle, even if it did a poor job of establishing the background details necessary for the story to make it work well.

In the end a lot of reviewers are pointing out that a fair chunk of this movie should have actually been the basis for the second film; clearly decisions internally at Lucasarts/Disney were not so focused on making a smart trilogy of movies as much as letting auteur interests of the directors and producers take precedence. I firmly believe that in the hands of a better, more focused director this movie would have worked exceedingly well. But then, I think a storyline that did not bring the emperor back (but still left a biological tie to Rey) while focusing on Kylo Ren as the final enemy would have been a more coherent, tighter script. Ah well! At least now it looks like almost all adult Star Wars fans are united on a common antipathy for the final film, even if  the grounds for that antipathy may be wide and varied.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Thirty Eight Random Thoughts Inspired by Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker

I'm not going to review this. I will offer instead some random thoughts which went through my head while watching the ninth installment in the Star Wars saga, and a few that came shortly after. There may be indirect spoilers.

The opening is the single most jarring non-Star Wars-opening scene in the franchise.

The first twenty minutes (which were excruciating) felt like a summary of the middle film  Abrams never got to make.

Who built all these Star Destroyers? Kaminoans? Why did they bury them? Is that good for Star Destroyers....being buried in the planet's crust? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?

Oh, I see...so why didn't they just call this movie Dark Empire - the loose adaptation?

Somebody thought these Leia scenes were a good idea.

These are painful to watch, and not in a "poor Carrie is dead" way, but a "Wow, this dialogue is desperately trying to wrap itself around the cutting room floor leavings of a dead woman's off takes from two prior films.

I like how they're trying to make a poor dead woman's last words recorded on film into profound mentor conversation.

Did Daisy Ridley feel awkward talking to a dead woman's ghost scanned in in post? Because it sure felt awkward to watch!

Why does Poe keep "skip jumping" into active debris zones? Hell, why does he need to do this other than JJ Abram's rule of cool approach to SF?

This movie is starting to feel like the Star Trek: Into Darkness of the Star Wars side of life.

Oh hey the movie got a plot going that wasn't trying to do exposition catch-up and it got interesting for a moment.

Lando got a big happy crowd reation.

Oh look a Sith Holocron.

Sure do wish the Knights of Ren had some depth or dialogue or really anything.

There a lot of stuff quietly being borrowed from The Old Republic series in this movie.

Oh snap I was totally right about Rey's parentage!

The movie is trying hard to give Poe and Finn new love interests, albeit with the briefest of effort to do so....wonder why....

Poe was a smuggler before?

That we are just learning this fact about Poe three movies in is a tribute to how clever and well thought out this trilogy has been.

Hey cool Endor's Moon really does have a grassy plains and a ragin ocean with a chunk of the Death Star in it.

So far the idea that the Death Star II had large debris raining down intact on Endor is the most believable part of this movie's logic straining levels of excess.

Rey can heal? Hmmmmm.

Kylo's guilty conscience moment almost feels like it was part of the plan all along. I think it was!

Oh look there's Luke's X-Wing, and it's covered in plant debris just like when we saw it in The Empire Strikes Back, rather than covered in rust from being submerged for a decade.

Good to know force ghosts are really efficient at interacting with things.

Okay, well maybe it's just Luke's force ghost.

I just realized Anthony Daniels as C3P0 has all the funniest lines in this movie.

So Star Destroyers carry world-destroying guns now. Sure, why the fuck not.

As a total aside I've been reading Justice League Odyssey and for some reason feel like there are some funny and vague parallels with this movie.

I didn't understand the real purpose of the tiny cone robot until stopping at Target after the movie where my kid begged me for toy lightsabers and a RC model of that robot. Ahhh now I understand.

Final sequence is just....like....why are they doing this? Why does anyone think this ridiculous CGI excess is a good and necessary thing? Maybe it is for the contemporary movie audiences but...seriously, it's not even remotely as interesting as what they did in the prior two films. Rogue One had a better end battle.

There's some good Kylo/Rey/Palpatine closure here. Except for the part about how Palpatine got closure like 36 years ago but whatever.

Oh hey look, Ian McDarmid actually is acting and chewing the scenery! This is good.

Oh, Ian McDarmid is now shooting enough force lighting into space to disable the entire Resistance fleet. Alrighty then. All those great Imperial public works were for naught, I guess.

The audience really ate up that final Rey and Kylo moment. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it.

The whole "single weak transmitter" subplot to focus the ship/beast rider action on was so utterly contrived. Whyyyyyy.

Chewbacca may have only thought he was dead in this movie, but after seeing the movie himself he'll WISH he really had a moon dropped on him! Ba-dam!

I honestly never thought I'd see both Star Trek and Star Wars reach the point where canonical actual movies feel like bad fanfic, but here we are.

Holiday Buying Guide Part II: Five Cool Gamer Gifts

It occured to me I'd better get another guide out on this since I did a "part 1" already.....time flies when you're working too much to keep on top of the fun stuff!

Here's Five cool gamer-related gifts you can consider if you need a last minute purchase. As I am a well-rounded gamer into a plethora of content, this list will reflect the gamut from video games to paper and pencil RPGs, but absolutely will not talk war or board games because for some reason I have just never been able to appreciate the subtleties of the genre. To be honest, some of these will look like no-brainers as suggestions coming from me; anyone who follows my blog or games with me knows my predilections...

Number Five: Disco Elysium (PC)

When I started playing this I was expecting another obtuse indie RPG which left me desperately wishing for something else, either more complex and realistic or more basic and down to earth.....indie RPGs are all too often extremly narrow in their taste range. Technically, Disco Elysium may have a narrow taste range, but this is by far the finest example of a well-thought out, excellently voice acted, graphically interesting RPG experience that is absolutely unlike anything you will have experienced. It has trace elements of other film, game and literary genres running through it, with your protagonist being a drunkard who may or may not remember being a cop while his inner demons literally hound him, to a deep, intense focus on a single region of a city in deep dystopian trouble. If you have ever watched Twin Peaks, read Blake Crouch, played Deadly Premonition and enjoyed it, then you owe it to yourself to pick up Disco Elysium. If you like complex and interesting character driven RPGs but will punch the monitor if it's yet another story of a sixteen year old blonde kid about to go on his world saving quest.....then you really need Disco Elysium, the ultimate palette cleanser.

Number Four: Alien RPG

I just got my physical copy of the core book, dice and GM screen, but this is a graphically amazing game, a true coffee table set piece for fans of the Alien movies as well as an actually decent RPG. As I told my gaming group: I now have a game which by default lets me tell the stories I normally hack into my Traveller games anyway, but with lots of excellent, visceral art and specific details of the setting's universe. I will write more about this soon, but an excellent book releasing late in the year and well worth hunting down.

Number Three: Astral Chain (Switch)

The only downside to Astral Chain is that it's a Switch exclusive, so if you don't have one then this is not going to be a useful gift suggestion. That said: if you have a Switch, or someone you are buying for has a Switch, and they don't have this game, then you simply can't go wrong. Astral Chain is a futuristic dystopian cyberpunk action title focused on a world in which a handful of trained agents with the ability to harness the powers of extradimensional beings that are invading Earth use that very power to fight the invaders. It's complex, interesting, has a compelling narrative and excellent mission structure and is just so hard to stop playing. Easily my favorite Switch game purchase this year, in a year absolutely crammed with good stuff.

Number Two: Cypher System Revised

This is my permanent go-to system now for multigenre gaming, really weird settings, pretty much any game with my son (who is much better at understanding this game than any of the D&D-alikes), and it's the only system I feel like running these days aside from Pathfinder 2nd edition. Go figure! The Kickstarted revised edition was well worth the asking price, and is fully retro-compatible with the first edition; this changes nothing, just adds lots of extra good stuff and aims for a reorganizational approach to Cypher that allows for a bit more design flex while still being ridiculously easy to get in to. The first major support setting "The Stars Are Fire" also now out, focusing on SF gaming in Cypher.

Number One: Pathfinder 2nd Edition

This has rapidly become my discerning preference for D&D-like gaming. Pathfinder's focus on refining the numeric shenanigans of its predecessors have led to an interesting level of depth, design and lethality that values my time as a GM, provides a wealth of options to the players, but still delivers hardcore on "adventuring is a dangerous business." Encounters can be rough, and we've had more deaths in PF2E than almost any other edition, but the encounters won felt actually earned. The game rewards strategic thinking in play, and while the character generation is robust it eschews the "hours spent min/maxing" headspace of PF1E in favor of getting down to the nitty gritty of doing things in actual play. And play is where it's at; my group can't stop playing PF2E, and we just can't get enough of it.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Cepheus Light - Actual Play Comments and Comparing to Traveller

Our group was down a whopping 50% Saturday night so we decided it was once again time for an alternate game night. We picked Cepheus Light, on the premise that:

Half of us knew Traveller well enough to figure it out;
And the half that didn't would find it easy to pick up. Both assumptions were true.

In fact, knowing Traveller (MGT editions for most; back to CT for me) helped shine a light on why Cepeheus Light is both quick and easy and also where some differences lie. Here's what we noticed:

Character Generation - it's quicker because it drops lots of little stuff from the framework of more conventional MG Traveller (such as life events) and bundles a lot of stuff as alternate/optional rules. That said, we were quick to adopt most of the optional rules (including dumping iron man as a default, adding zero rank skills back in, etc.) since those are additions to the game which make it a tighter, more satisfying experience.

Other observations: the professions included covered most bases nicely. It was weird that the agent profession did not have stealth on the skill list. Most survival and re-enlistment rolls seemed weighted toward the easy end.

Cepheus Light includes a short experience mechanic which is atypical of Traveller but it does work well for a Light system like this, as you don't need to worry about training downtimes...just track XP. CL also wins out when it comes to equipment and augments; the game provides plenty of equipment and the cybernetic augment rules were quickly abused by the players. I designed at least one NPC for the game with psionics, too. The psionic rules are simple and get the job done.

All told, the vets to Traveller generated multiple characters in an hour, and the new players (and a lapsed player) caught on in 30 minutes or so. Cepheus Light as a quick pick-up-and-play system stands firm. When I compare it to Classic Traveller, I still think it could have been made even tighter without much loss of fidelity, though.

Actual play worked pretty much exactly like it does for either edition of MGT or the full Cepheus system; in fact I had to double check and confirm if some things I was using (such as assumption about applying effect) were actually in Cepheus Light or not. As a rule of thumb, if the rule added non-required complexity...it probably wasn't in Cepheus or was an optional rule.

So, in the scenario we played which involved an extraction team landing on a colony world with extremely strict laws to aid a spy in escaping with valued information the game played out fine. The rules reduce the skill system ever so slightly by combining some skills, but these were nominal changes at best; the characters designed felt robust enough for gaming and the combat mechanics had the essence of what was needed for a good shootout.

I included some nonhumans from what the book did offer....odd that we had reptiloids but they were more like "standard lizard dudes" and not the "disguised as the president" types, considering greys are one of the other species on offer. In the scenario, when the reptiloid was defeated they had to pull of his rubber mask which he used to walk disguised among men.

I noticed the vehicle and starship rules were sufficiently slender that using them during play to work up quick vehicles was not out of the question. The starship statblocks were very easy to reference and I felt comfortable at the idea of running a starship combat if needed, though we never got around to that.

Anyway....in the end, it's indisputable that Cepheus makes for an excellent quick night of gaming, can subsitute for a full Traveller experience almost without effort, and is good for pick-up-and-play nights, especially if you roll some pregens first. My main question, though, was whether using Cepheus Light was a better choice than one of my other options, including the full Cepheus Engine, Traveller 2nd edition from Mongoose, or Classic Traveller, which I have in the digest size FFE reprint with a Vargr on the cover.

So....is it?

For me, I think there's probably something to be said for the more nuanced mechanical approach of Classic Traveller, and as much as I like the lighter mechanical elements, I feel like the detail you can get out of CT is just a bit more interesting, even if it means you have more fiddly mechanics to deal with, or a rules set which is a  bit more piecemeal and all over the place.

But...Mongoose's 2nd edition Traveller is a really hard package to beat. It has a solid evolution of the game, and there are clearly lots of influential details from MGT2 floating around in the optional rules sections for Cepheus Light. I can't even say it loses on portability; you can get an almost as portable version of the three books for MGT2 from the box set edition of the core rules, and which include rules missing from CL such as creatures and more details on aliens.

Still....if you want to play something that feels a lot like Classic Traveller as you might remember it (if not in reality) and you like a slimmer design approach, CL is a good fit. Will I use it again? I just might. But for my next serious campaign in Traveller I still think the MGT2 edition is my preferred resource.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Cepheus Light

If you're not familiar with the Cepheus Engine, it's the spiritual OGL-powered successor to Mongoose's 1st edition of Traveller. When they migrated to Traveller 2E, Mongoose managed to put out a very nice looking, useful product....but they left the OGL behind. For third party publishers this really only left them with one choice: keep publishing under the 1st edition Traveller OGL.

Eventually a fully functioning variant of the OGL for Traveller was released from Stellagama in the form of Cepheus Engine, a product essentially compatible with all of the 2D6 versions of Traveller,  designed to provide a Traveller-style ruleset to people who for whatever reason might not be interested in the Mongoose version or the immense 5th edition that exists somewhere in Kickstarter Land. For me, it's a nice ruleset although I do personally prefer Traveller 2nd Edition from Mongoose, which is a very complete engine with lots of changes I like.

Cepheus Light accomplishes very much the same thing MGT 2E and Cepheus Engine does, but in a tighter package that manages to evoke the feel of Original Classic Traveller while actually incorporating key elements from modern design that make it a robust package that straddles a fine line between old school and new, as well as being sufficiently versatile to cover multiple interpretations of Traveller style gaming.

If you're familiar with how ridiculously easy Classic Traveller is, then you'll have a sense of how Cepheus Light works, albeit from the MGT 1E OGL framework. Unlike CT, Cepheus Light aims for a more comprehensive ruleset recognizing the years of additional supplements as well as making it more sufficiently generic so that the players and referee can tailor the game to their own SF universe. There are 12 career choices, for example, as well as rules for augments so you can reflect cybernetics/bioengineering in your setting (a problem with CT, which was published before Cyberpunk left its permanent mark on SF).

Cepheus Light includes streamlined versions of rules for various features, most notably starship design and combat, which includes 19 pages of design rules and a bunch of clean stats for pre designed ships, as well as 10 pages on starship combat, half of which is an example of play. The only failing of this chapter is the fact that it includes no ship maps, a tradition in the Traveller universe of games....but a quick scan through Drivethrurpg.com will reveal hundreds of those you can deploy in a Cepheus Light game if that's your thing.

Unlike Classic Traveller, Cepheus Light is focused on the rules of MGT 1st edition from the OGL so things such as combat work with the more contemporary version of those rules; this may be a welcome style for people who remember the rather clunky modifier tables and armor mechanics of CT. All in all, though, the rules for Cepheus are incredibly straight forward; any Traveller fan will recognize them, and any new gamer will find this edition of the game easy enough to follow along with. It is actually easier to understand (imo) than both the 1st edition MGT rulebook and the Cepheus Engine full rules.

If I have to provide a negative to this: it's that the rulebook itself, while illustrated, is otherwise using fairly generic stock art that is not that exciting or evocative. There is also a tiny section on alien races, but it only provides three examples (greys, reptiloids and insectoids), then refers you to another Stellgama product for more detailed design rules; there are also no rules on creatures. Not including even a page on some design rules hurts the product's universal applicability just a bit.

That said....you get a rule system that far exceeds most packages and at only 108 pages this is still probably the best bang for your buck in SF gaming right now; I'd say it's a better choice even than Classic Traveller which can also be found in POD on DriveThruRPG.com. Check it out! I plan to run an SF game soon using only these rules. I find the versatility in such a small package to be a very welcoming experience.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Deathbat's Highly Biased 2019 Shoppers Guide to Gaming Part I

The problem with writing a shopping guide on a non-monetized blog that is as much a personal exercise in writing for fun as it is for promoting anything out of the goodness of my own heart is that practically anything I advise will always necessarily imply a "YMMV" following it. For example: I happen to think that Terminator: Dark Fate, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Deadly Premonition Origins and The Mandalorian are all fine sources of entertainment. Stellar or for everyone? Well, remember: YMMV

That said.....here are four things you should think about when shopping for that gamer out there, or heck, just for yourself:

Books worth Grabbing
Eberron: Rising from the Last War is actually a really good D&D book and you should totally get it. Preferably with the amazing alternative cover art. If you're not in to D&D then you should also look at Shards of the Broken Sky for 13th Age, a fantastic campaign in the 13th Age world, running from levels 1 to 7. Or for that matter, take a trip to space fantasy land and check out the invaluable new Character Operations Manual for Starfinder, with new classes and options for players.  And of course, if you haven't seen Pathfinder 2nd edition yet, you should! More on that later though.

The Switch Lite is a cool gadget and worth owning if you are the least bit in to decent handheld, on-the-go gaming experiences. If you have some young tyke or old whippersnapper who might also appreciate a portable gaming experience, this is a no-brainer. Just remember to get an SSD card to go with it! The 32GB onboard memory fills up fast.

Once you have it, if your tastes are like mine then you should grab Deadly Premonition Origins, Assassin's Creed III Collection, Asphalt 9, Astral Chain, Pillars of Eternity and the D&D collections for Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate I and II. Also, check out Legrand Legacy, a worthy retroclassic RPG.

Free to Play King
The best free to play gaming experience on PC currently is Destiny 2. I will argue this objective, holy truth at this point. Sure, Warframe is out there, but that's sort of like comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, if Star Trek is Destiny 2 in this scenario and is about immortal space wizards fighting alien cults in a post-utopian apocalyptic solar system, and Star Wars was Warframe, a game entirely about Guyver-like bodysleeves who are also sort of immortal fighting alien cults in a post-singularity apocalyptic solar system. The main differences are one makes its microtransactions weird and hard to benefit from and the other makes its microtransactions even weirder, harder to benefit from and expensive as $#!*.

Past the Breakpoint
Despite its issues, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Breakpoint is actually a lot of fun, and much better on PC than PS4 (I run into almost no glitches or bugs at 4K on ultra settings on the PC). The graphics at this setting are so impressive I just can't stop treating the game like a beautiful forest/mountain excrusion sim punctuated by moments of intense violence.

Or, you know, you could go play CoD: Modern Warfare with all the sheeple. I will probably get MW as well when the price goes down at some point so I'm not one to gripe.

More advice to come! I plan to rant and rave about all sorts of things from this year now that my work life is calming down and I am finding more time to actually think.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Watching The Mandalorian

Two episodes of The Mandalorian have been released since Disney+ premiered a few days ago. Tonight I decided to bite the bullet and do the free trial, if only so I can see the show for myself rather than hear everyone else talk about it.

First: some Spoilers ahead! I suggest you go watch at  least the first two episodes yourself. If you are not sure it's for you, here's my suggested criteria for taking the time to do so; any one of these will do:

1. You like Star Wars, and have also enjoyed the expanded content beyond just the films;

2. You always thought Boba Fett specifically was a loser but the concept of the Mandalorians deserved more development;

3. Or you played a lot of Star Wars RPGs in the past and always wondered what those would look like on the big screen.

Really though, just enjoying SF on TV is a sufficient criteria. Also, SF with a nice budget.

...Anyway, minor spoilers ahead! A few, I will try not to do much (some reviews I have read don't even do the courtesy of not explaining they are about to broadcast the entire plot, including a huge reveal that I feel is much better experienced in viewing than my telling you what it is).

Right off the bat, my gut impression after the first two episodes is, "It's Lone Wolf and Cub, but with Star Wars trappings." I also liked that it leaned hard into a strong "space western" thematic; you will get shades of classic spaghetti westerns out of this series as well as throwbacks to classic ronin-themed samurai films. I won't explain why, but you will see.

The two shows break with some Star Wars conventions. No classic music; no screen crawl at the start. Fine with me. It does not always break with "Star Wars-isms" though, and some of them are a bit annoying. An example: the Mandalorian approaches a door for a secretive bounty, and is greeted by a robotic eyestalk, just like in Return of the Jedi. This scene is here because of that callback; it doesn't mesh well with the "lore I remember" which raises questions about why a creature I vaguely recall as being some sort of cyborg monk in Jabba's palace would also be on this other unrelated planet. But....the fact that the old Expanded Universe is no longer canon also means perhaps that the robot eyestalk deal is really just a "door answering service" in the outer rim, maybe?

These Star Wars-isms are more annoying in the first episode, but they start to diverge quickly enough as the plot and setting start to take better hold. The events in the series are post-Empire, so take place some time after the Return of the Jedi. The locations all appear to be in a very lawless Outer Rim, and The Mandalorian dives in short order into some serious world building that thoroughly takes advantage of the "show, don't tell" approach. This pays off exceedingly well.

Throughout watching episodes one and two I quickly got in to it for being it's own thing; sure, it's Star Wars, and I sort of feel like I'm watching Star Wars because it keeps throwing things at me on screen that are reminding me its Star Wars....but it's also very much its own style of film, exploring a new niche in the Galaxy Far, Far, Away that we have sort of wanted to see on film for a long time now, but really only seen in books. Arguably it does a better job of this than Rogue One or Solo, both of which tested the waters but maybe were also too timid to really try and expand the idea of what a Star Wars tale could be.

Well, I didn't want to pay for another service....but I'm hooked. If this is indicative of the average quality of what Disney has lined up, I guess it will make for a fun ride.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Never Go Full Retro" - Gone Retro (console gaming, that is)

So for an early holiday gift I decided instead of spending $100+ on Modern Warfare to get one of these:

For reasons that I will elaborate on more in a moment, I picked up a Playstation 2 slim model for a cheap price and snagged some games with it. The experience of "stepping back" about 19 years to a time when gaming was very, very different in the video game market has been interesting and illuminating....

Some of the impetus for this has been a burnout on my part with this year's never ending wealth of churned Triple-A product and controversies over RMT (real money transaction) schemes that are now the fuel for the "games as a service" approach to the industry that is also quietly killing it. My games on my PC and modern consoles are more or less segregated into two categories: those which I doubt will ever "end" or have no desire for me to stop playing them (I can't be incentivized to purchase more content if I stop playing) such as pretty much any game on the market currently (Call of Duty, Fortnite, Destiny 2*, Ghost Recon, etc.), and those which still offer a more traditional model, and try to use DLC/expansion pass content to get some extra cash (most Sony exclusive titles, for example). There's also a third party niche which Nintendo is dominating on the Switch, in which you get a plethora of one-purchase-and-done content for retro remasters and indie titles.

This last category, with the Nintendo Switch, is the one I have spent most of my free gaming time messing with. I've put more time into the Resident Evil releases on Switch along with Baldur's Gate, Deadly Premonition and Assassin's Creed III than I have on any of the AAA releases this year, and that's kind of weird. Weird not so much because I'm spending time enjoying good games, but rather because games that are often a decade or more old are proving to be more fun, more engaging, than what we have on the market today.

Anyway, with that thought in mind I stopped in at a local shop in Santa Fe (8-Bit Retro Video Games) and on a lark decided to grab a PS2 Slim model. I snagged a few titles with it: Silent Hill 2 being a no-brainer; I played it when it was new, and again a couple times, but I could always go for one more. Parasite Eve (and ancient favorite from the PS1 days), and then Resident Evil: Code Veronica topped it off (but the disc turned out to be a dud and I need to return it). The next day at a local shop in Albuquerque I found dirt cheap copies of Splinter Cell (always wanted to play it but never did), Twisted Metal Black, Phantasy Star Universe and a couple others....most of these are about $1.95 to $4.95 at the shop I visited, but I noticed that many of the old faves I'd like to try again such as anything in the Silent Hill series are hard to find for less than insane collector's prices.

I learned a few things right off the bat when I got home and hooked up the PS2 to the main TV:

Retro Consoles and Modern TVs: modern TVs often don't even have the plug ins for composite cables; my one 4K TV/monitor is missing this plug in. The main living room TV does have the necessary plug ins, and the Ps2 did work (whew). I have since read that there are better ways to get a cleaner screen image, and am investigating options. I also discovered that the backwards compatibility of the PS2 to run PS1 discs does not play nice with my TV; it appears it can't reconcile the old 280i resolution of PS1 games and does not know what to do, so the screen goes black. I don't have a solution to this (yet) but working on it with an HDMI adapter to see what happens. Worst case, I have an older TV I can drag out of storage if needed....until then, no way to try out the old PS1 titles.

A Completely Dedicated Gaming Environment: Plugging in the PS2 and turning it on was sort of alarming. My only point of interaction with the OS for the PS2 was to set some graphic standards, the time, and memory card management. The PS2 does not want any of the following at all:
--an internet connection to function or update
--my name or any other personal information
--to track my gaming habits, issue points for playing, or any other gamification of gaming
--it does not want to show me ads for other games or products
--it does not care what I am playing at all, in fact
--it does not need to download anything from the disc
--It does not want anything from me, at all, other than for me to put a disc in the drive and play

Yeah. All the Playstation 2 wants to do is let me play games. That's it.

I've owned consoles since the PS1 came out**; I had a PS2 when it released, I loved Dreamcast, I've been with every iteration of Xbox; but after close to a decade of console makers and game publishers chipping away at the core foundation of what a console once was (a machine you play games on), it's downright freaky to go back to one of these machines and suddenly be reminded that this used to be a simpler hobby without a lot of complex monetization and data tracking involved.

As I played Silent Hill 2 again and Splinter Cell for the first time I found these experiences just as compelling as any modern experience, though with the caveat that each game was complete as presented on the disc; I knew for a fact that no updates would need to be downloaded, and these games harken from an era when the game wasn't released until it was actually done, as in QA tested and ready for public consumption. No beta test, no need to download patches, no need to download updates, nothing within the game immediately selling product from active ad placement (Death Stranding, looking at you); not that some of that didn't happen back then....the roots of our corruption in this hobby are long and deep, after all, but in the nascent stages we could little have imagined what that would eventually blossom in to.

Today I snagged a few more old favorites or titles I never played but always wanted to: The Thing, Black, Run Like Hell (speaking of early product placement in games...) and the original Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare. I've played two of these (Ghost Recon and The Thing). Whether I have opportunity to play more or not, my son is already hooked. As I explained to him: this machine is from a time when it said the game supported multiplayer, it actually always meant local split-screen or shared screen; the idea that you could only play together online on separate consoles was super rare. We played some Twisted Metal: Black and an old Robotech game. He was hooked. Old Robotech is like, "Transformers, but really old, you know?" and he is totally, actually right.

So.....long story short....I'm taking the money I would have spent on Call of Duty Modern Warfare and other modern releases (also, I quit Fortnite cold turkey when they rebooted to chapter 2) and buying some retro game fun, instead. I think I'm getting the better deal.

*I'm enough of a Destiny fanboy that I give Destiny 2 a pass. Everyone has their special zone of interest, and immortal space wizards made of eldritch light fighting alien cthonic cults throughout the solar system is sort of my thing.

**Okay technically I started with an Atari 2600 in....ah, 1977 or thereabouts, whatever date they first sold it in the Sears Catalog back then, but I hate dating myself.

Friday, November 1, 2019

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

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

Zombieland: Double Tap

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

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

The Lighthouse

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

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

Terminator: Dark Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Baldur's Gate Collection on the Nintendo Switch

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

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

Thankfully that level of granularity works in my favor these days, as I prefer less control more than anything. The new versions of these games aren't really "new" anymore, either....and odds are if you lurk in blogs like this you already have played these games or own one on some form of device in the last decade or so; the enhanced editions and originals have been available on PC in digital format as well as tablet for some time now. Moving them ton consoles is a brilliant move, though; Beamdog had to design the ports with a controller in mind, and anyone who has seen how Pillars of Eternity and Divinity II: Original Sin handled this know that the current conversion method actually makes for a better, more intuitive set of controls than you get on a mouse an keyboard. Take that, PC master race!

Ahem....so the console ports I picked up are on Switch, which adapts the resolution of text appropriately and makes it possible to play handheld and still read it (old gamers may still need reading glasses). The game on a TV looks fine, but maybe not as good as I can experience on 4K resolution through my GOG edition, but honestly? I'm here for the ridiculously intuitive controller setup.

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

Pathfinder 2E Monster and Hazard Guide is Up

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save Juggling: The save juggling is what you need to remember. If you plan to take off on a trip, take your Switch Lite and transfer the save from your docked machine to your travel machine. When you get back, you can load the save back to your docked machine. Easy enough, right?** You can also make sure your Switch Lite has games on it which benefit from or are not hurt by having saves going on two or more machines. For example, I have a whole different save going for different characters on my copy of Torchlight II on both Switches, and I am fine with that.

So...is this machine for you? This is the question all sorts of bloggers and vloggers have been asking over the last few days because the Internet is full of this stuff, and I'm bored and happy to contribute to the clog. Here's my assessment:

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

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

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

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

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

Now, the down side is so many of these are retro ports that you may or may not have already played some, all or even just the ones you wanted to and are good where you're at. But if you're like me and you have found that moving such games to a portable medium with a dedicated gaming experience and real controllers is actually the best way to give you the tools (if not the time) to play these games.....then you might want to consider it.

So....is it worth it for me? I'm happy to have a compact portable console and love the ownership of uselessly fun gadgets, so I guess so. But the incredible difficulty I have in being able to seamlessly play on either Switch without having to manually cross saves is almost a deal-breaker. Right now, for me, the practical solution is to designate some games (the ones I prefer to play big screen) on the classic Switch, and other games (which make for a better portable experience) on the Switch Lite. But I shouldn't have to do this; the cloud save feature should be better than this, Nintendo. Seriously.

Okay, Switch rave off!

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

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