Saturday, March 30, 2019

Alien: Containment Short Film

Fans of Aliens can rejoice, as the first of a series of film shorts hosted on IGN for the 40th anniversary of the legendary film Alien is now up for viewing. It's a good takes about 9 minutes to provide a brief glimpse into the dark and dystopian future universe of the Alien franchise with a careful use of effects and tension to make for an interesting experience. You can't do lots of character building in the short time of these films, but of course the Alien franchise excels at scenarios of tension and horror and short films can provide interesting snippets of such.

Here's the whole film:

My understanding is there will be 6 more of these to be released in the coming months. As an unrelenting fan of the Alien franchise, I am very happy. There's also the Alien Isolation digital series shorts, which provide a seven episode "best bits" presentation of the video game story as a coherent narrative, well worth watching if you've played the game or would like to play the game but lack the skill/time/interest just to learn the story. Here's episode 1:

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Invisible Sun's Black Cube - Prestige Gaming and Glorious Excess

I actually picked this up. Not through the Kickstarter, but after reading a great many "we're playing this and it's fun" posts around the internet, followed by asking my local game shop owner if she could secure a copy. Unexpectedly two weeks later there it was, and another two weeks later I scraped up the $250-odd dollars less discount for the monster.

First, it's so large and heavy that when I stuck it in the front seat my car complained I needed to buckle it in.

Second, it really is heavy. According to Amazon it's almost 29 pounds.

Third, when I got home and tried to unfold the monstrous box, which is designed to be a permanent storage unit with a thematic element tied to the game, I realized I didn't have enough free table space for the endeavour and had to make some serious room.

The contents look like this:

That includes four hard cover tomes, a soft cover art book, 1,000 cards, a withered claw, a bunch of round cards and a ton of tokens. There's numerous envelopes filled with props and other things, cloth fold outs, maps, stuff I haven't quite realized the purpose of yet. The only item missing was a metal medallion but I think, near as I can tell, that it was a Kickstarter exclusive.

Reading the game is exactly like reading any other fine Monte Cook produced product: fun and engaging, with a good deal of expository world building, but it does this in a manner I would characterize as being distinct to Monte Cook's style and less like other comparable products in the broad genre of "modern weird RPGs" such as World of Darkness or Unknown Armies....this is a more readable, engaging product, essentially, one that will look familiar to any fan of MCG's other product lines.

A lot of the content of this book....the props....really are props, designed to enhance game play but not necessarily required for gaming. I have never been much of a prop person at the table, but the Black Cube makes adding them in easy. If you're a fan of the deluxe products released for Call of Cthulhu with lots of handouts, you'll like this.

Mechanically I can see the underlying skeleton of the Cypher System, but grown in new and different ways. I am intrigued to see how this plays, and how it integrates the core conceits of the parent system in new directions for the theme of the product.

I'll write more about this soon.....lots of reading to do! But on the surface it looks like a weird and intriguing dive into surrealist gaming with magic that walks a line between Salvador Dali and Guillermo del Toro, and I am kind of hoping I can squeeze some Twin Peaks David Lynch style inspiration out of it, too.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Penny Arcade and Acquisitions Incorporated doing an official D&D Setting with WotC

Well this is interesting. Also, the cartoon which as usual is poignant and funny:

This is an intersection of the hobby today that I know nothing about, so I don't know what it means to have Tycho (Jerry Krahulik iirc) authoring a book via Acquisitions Incorporated as an official D&D product through WotC. I mean, I know what the last part means...the unannounced new setting is clearly this thing, whatever it is. But I haven't really got a clue what the setting is, or why it is, other than that the Penny Arcade comics have been a consistent source of amusement for me for twenty years now, something few other online comics have held up to over time. And as far as I know Acquisitions Incorporated is...I think...a youtube channel or something where people dress up and play D&D? Or maybe they do it at the PAX conventions that I'd love to attend someday? I am not sure and their website is surprisingly ugly. I don't have the time to go down that rabbit hole these days so I guess I'll just let some future setting book surprise me completely. Kind of like how Ravnica got to be a new thing for me since I know nothing of Magic after about 1995.

I guess we'll know later this year!

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Thinking about things to do with The Fantasy Trip

It's been no secret (or a poorly kept one, anyway) that I've been feeling some general burn out, but I have good news....with some time off, and opportunity to recharge my batteries a bit, I am starting to feel that creative itch again. Hopefully that will translate back to the gaming table, but either way, some of this is due to the fact that I am finding the prospects for The Fantasy Trip very inspiring. It's an old school system, but easily one of the best at what it does and stands the test of time admirably. A game from a lost era, preserved in amber, with firm roots in the future....also, TFT is in many ways a "GURPS Lite" in the truest sense, a version of the same rules, after a fashion, in which they function for identical purpose but are also easier to master in every way you could want. Good stuff.

So I was thinking that it might be a lot of fun to actually visit one of my classic settings, either Keepers of Lingusia or Realms of Chirak using the TFT rules. I am leaning to the KOL setting since it is as venerable as TFT in many ways, and back when I did get to run some TFT in the early eighties it was the only setting I used for everything (even Runequest 2). Whatever game I ran back then, no matter how exotically different from AD&D, found an excuse and a way to fit within the original Lingusia world.

That said, there is a lot to be said for designing a world around the core conceits of the rules to allow for the game as presented to nurture itself in its own unique direction....yes, you could ask, "Why not just use Cidri?" but the answer is easy....I gain a lot more satisfaction out of devising an interesting world and a lot less out of simply retreading someone else's creation, which is why I rarely run modules. Of course, if I did try that approach, maybe I'd experience a bit less burn out, so there are merits to the idea.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Digital Game Store Competition - Epic vs. Steam

Jim Sterling has a pretty good piece on the Epic Store and why it seems to be generating so much ire:

One item that isn't pointed out enough about the Epic Store is it's profit split with publishers.....according to reports, Epic is doing a 12% take with publishers, in contrast with Steam which is a 30/70 split. Gamers may be pissed off....but that's significant, and business owners (the publishers and devs of games) would be engaging in poor business practice not to take advantage of this. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole point of going exclusive with Steam for some of these larger publishers like Ubisoft wasn't to put a dent in Steam's stranglehold on the online market for this exact reason.

Gamers who recall 2003-2004 well as I do may also recall that all this row with Epic sounds an awful lot like the exact same fit people had when it was revealed that Half Life 2 would require the Steam store link to download. And while, as Jim Sterling points out, the Epic Store does not have even a fraction the features that Steam offers was also true back in 2003 when Steam was revealed that Steam itself had no special features (outside of getting Half Life 2 to us on slow speed internet connections) and lots of disadvantages against a physical purchase in the store.

One thing Valve did offer through Steam back then was a clean storefront with a selection of games people wanted. It wasn't huge at first....but it was possible to actually find the game you wanted on Steam, and you didn't have to drive around looking through dusty bargain bins to located it. Cut to 2019, and suddenly Epic offers up a clean, simple (too simple) site with a limited selection of "curated" titles (special backdoor exclusive deals aside), and Steam is the digital version of the dusty bargain bin filled with trash that you wouldn't pay 50 cents for....and somehow, miraculously, Steam has managed to bury its own quality under mountains of digital detritus.

Steam could take this back from Epic. To do so, it needs to recognize that it's unmoderated wasteland of content is just not going to work anymore, but continuing to develop a reliable, feature-laden, community driven service that it has morphed in to over the years should be priority. Also, maybe find a way to compete on the price split, the end, it doesn't matter what you have on offer if the publishers can get an extra 18% on their game's price by going with the competition.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Fantasy Trip is Here!

It was well worth the wait, too....the box that arrived unpacked to reveal so much stuff I am still processing through it. I bought the "I want it all" level on the Kickstarter, so I definitely got exactly that... The new Fantasy Trip* includes, among other things:

--1 box bigger than my game tote that hauls all of my D&D or Cypher books for a game session
--one copy of The Fantasy Trip main rules "In The Labyrinth" in soft cover
--another copy of TFT "In The Labyrinth" in hard cover
--one deluxe, four panel sturdy (heavy stock) GM screen
--a box of punch-out megahex pieces
--two maps, of the world of Cidri and a local town
--a folio for your records
--a booklet of character and reference sheets (and a double sided dungeon map)
--a card-style pack of pregenerated characters (and some blanks)
--a pack of what look to me like post-it sized character sheets
--another pack of what appear to be deluxe sized "post-it" style character sheets
--two special dice
--a new modern box version of Melee, which includes counters, map, rules and three dice
--a modern box version of Wizard with counters, map, rules and three dice
--a modern box version of Death Test, with Death Test 1 and 2 plus counters
--A full size book plus map of Tollenkar's Lair
--A large storage box on the side with a copy of the retro-classic version of Melee & WIzard combined boxed set (this set uses the new sturdy plastic box format, and has rules plus counters and maps for both games in one)
--a large, durable full color Melee map on rollable material that reminds me of mouse pads
--a similar, even larger map for Wizard of the same material
--Two sturdy folders for characters or whatever you want

Missing from my box set is the TFT Companion, which I am told from recent updates was left out of the first few shipments but should be coming separately soon. I'll try to take photos tonight. The stock picture above does not do this justice.

I owned TFT's In The Labyrinth back in the day, and distinctly remember the magazine-like quality of the original cover and printing. The new version of the core rules is a major improvement, sturdy and designed for use. The entire game, in fact, demands to be played, just oozes with potential that commands your attention. I kind of wish I had ordered two, so I could put one on a shelf as a collectable, because the copy I got is going to get some serious game time.

My son was also very excited to see the game, and I may need to order a copy for him as well. He's young, but he's got a real interest in learning and reading to play already, and the focus on bits and pieces in TFT is right up his alley. Plus, the game on review so far appears to be quite kid and millennial friendly. I think if SJGames can get some people playing this on Youtube then they will see that it has a lot of traction.

This is a lot of stuff. But I see that the fortune teller down by the orange grove near the old scarecrow was totally right, The Fantasy Trip is indeed about to dominate my game group's near future!

*Which is just the old Fantasy Trip, but now with a major facelift 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Worlds United for Mythras - Vintage Planetary Romance and Retro SF

The Design Mechanism is hard at work, and Mythras has a new book out in POD: Worlds United, a sourcebook for gaming in a futuristic alternate reality 1959 where you too can now adventure in a world filled with rockets, rayguns and Venusian dinosaurs. I have been waiting for a SF setting book for Mythras for a while now (M-Space is interesting but not really as robust as what I need), and while this isn't quite it either the core conceit of vintage nostalgia planetary romance might be a really useful toolkit for some games.

Anyway, check it out! If someone could do a review I'd love to read more about this so I can determine if it's right for my table or not.

Okay, plug over....Now for a rant on Retro SF:

This got me to thinking about the retro planetary romance genre and specifically about how it seems like there's a strong tendency for many reasons for this sort of retro vintage take on science fiction to perpetuate in role playing games. Long after the genre was more or less abandoned by film (which dives instead into modernized science fantasy), and contemporary fiction to the best of my knowledge doesn't do this sort of thing (it, too, has progressed to a point where there is no return to the vintage form of this sort of genre), the retro SF genre seems to thrive, or at least continue to manifest in RPGs.

Despite being deeply into contemporary variants of the same sort of genre as Starfinder and Destiny, I don't really have much investment in the vintage/retro SF subgenre as its own thing. I have no particular interest in replicating worlds in which Venus wasn't a hothouse to begin with that requires some level of terraforming to normalize, or in which Mars was really like Wells envisioned it all along. Of far greater interest would be a setting which takes what we actually know about the solar system in 2019, extrapolates in to the future, and then figures out interesting ways to reconcile the fantastical elements of prior eras in fiction in a manner which both moves the setting forward and also avoids a conflict with the ever-present sense of verisimilitude that makes good SF feel right.

Given how often this genre continues to pop up in RPGs...we have Worlds United, Slipstream, Space: 1889, Rocket Age, Buck Rogers, various versions of the Barsoom/Mars series, and quite a few others I haven't even thought this a market in high demand, or just a corner of the hobby with a lot of dedicated fans? I'm curious if there's a real market for this, or it's just a niche market with a hardcore base.

I can completely understand the core conceit if it's what excites someone....I don't want to sound like I am denigrating the subgenre because hey, I like Starfinder and I consider that to be a very niche-within-a-niche subgenre of "space fantasy sci fi" as well so I completely understand the idea of liking a very specific take on a genre (I like hard SF for the same reason). But every time I try playing or generating interest in a setting that asks me to pretend like I don't know everything I know about Mars or Venus, I feel like there is a missed opportunity to take everything we DO know about Mars and Venus and then wed that with a futuristic vision that still manages to capture the retro elements of the past without removing the interesting parts of a very real present understanding. 

POST SCRIPT -- who am I kidding, I am totally going to get this book....a new Mythras tome, absolutely! I am sure it can be mined for all kinds of useful material for any number of weird science fantasy games.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Vital Resource: Alien Bestiary from Legendary Games (Starfinder)

A very useful book for any Starfinder gamer is the Alien Bestiary from Legendary Games. This is a 450 page monster book filled with much-needed new and reinterpreted beasties for the Starfinder game system. Highlights include:

--Full color format for about 300 monsters up to CR 30
--A bunch of the "best of" from Pathfinder adapted to Starfinder (such as much-needed stat blocks for Neh-Thaglu and other "scifi themed" monsters)
--Cthulhu beasties including Starfinder adaptations of Cthulhu and Hastur
--There's content on using this with Legendary's Aethera setting, but it does not get in the way of using this as a generic resource
--A section in back with new traps, some new rules, spells, and a bit on cults

Overall it's an indispensable book. A small number of monsters have some cross-over with the Alien Archives (mi-go and kytons, for example) but arguably the Bestiary's got more interesting interpretations. The kytons, for example, are provided in elaborate detail and include a bunch of the kyton subtypes that have appeared in the past in Pathfinder, facilitating whatever weird Hellraiser/Event Horizon scenarios you might imagine, and which can complement and enhance the Velstrac (the futuristic kytons in Alien Archive 2).

One area the book is a bit weak in is racial templates for player characters. The Alien Archives include a large number of racial options for players to pick from with the stat blocks necessary to make whatever weird characters you want, but Alien Bestiary omits these racial stat blocks, even when there might be a monster type that would fit well. That said, the majority of the monsters in this book would not, on average, make for good PCs....but for the few that would this omission is noticeable.

One other complaint I have heard but can't verify is that there is a fair amount of recycled artwork. I presume this is art from other Legendary Games products, but don't own many of their other books for Starfinder (yet). Obviously whether this is a problem or not depends on taste, but it is not a concern for me.

The editing and design on the book looks good and I have encountered no real errata issues so far. Likewise I have encountered no stat block issues; everything functions well in Starfinder rules as intended. There is also a 5E version of this book through Drivthrurpg although I have not seen that version, but if you want to add some SF weirdness to your 5E game you can definitely do it.

Overall a Starfinder GM will find a lot here to like. The conversion monsters are worth getting, as they will alleviate the need for you as GM to do Pathfinder-to-Starfinder conversions, and the overall number of creatures that are both new and new to Starfinder make this an invaluable addition to the Alien Archive books; if you have those two tomes plus this then you have over 500 stat blocks of monsters to choose from for your Starfinder games. The book sells for $70 for a print plus PDF edition. Even at that price point this book is well worth the price.

Grade: Solid A, a useful book for any Starfinder GM

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Now for the Positive Gaming Outlook Post

So, it't not all doom, gloom and burnout here at the Realms of Chirak. My actual gaming has been working as follows:

1. My wife has been running a Cypher System game set in 1920 featuring pup action heroes in a style that is extremely interesting (I call it interesting because I'm an old fan of pulps from the era but not sure anyone else in the group is, so the net result is....unique and eclectic, to say the least!)'s a lot of fun, which is good, but I admit I remain a terrible player for all sorts of reasons. But a break is a break!

2. When she isn't running that I resumed my Cypher-powered Domain SF setting with a second session and am having fun exploring that weird future universe concept. When my wife isn't running, that is!

3. I continue to run Starfinder every other midweek, and am enjoying it for what it is. The more I run Starfinder the more I see it is an earnest Spelljammer with more techno-trappings, which in turn makes it even more fun to engage with.

4. The bi-weekly night I tried resuming D&D is the only one up in the air right now. I will probably stick with it, but I plan to maybe deliberately undermine the "D&Disms" that I outlined in the prior a game where I specifically avoid all the things I find are taken for granted in D&D and stick to plots and elements that I find more interesting. This will be tough, because the baseline stuff is "no-brainer" material and I realize I've relied on it because of my lack of time to prep, but my goal is to focus on the plots over the process, and pretty much cut out all those default trappings entirely, see how it goes. If that doesn't work, then I'm gonna shelve D&D for a while and run something very different.