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.