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 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 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 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 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'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.