Monday, May 30, 2016

Project Catalyst

Been experiencing a lot of "short-timer syndrome" the last few weeks, as my time here in Paraguay wraps up. I feel listless, just going through the motions, while daydreaming about getting back to Seattle. Really squandering a golden opportunity considering that once I DO return, the "free time" I have for writing will be taken up job searching, daycare providing, getting the kids adapted to a completely new lifestyle, etc.

Plus, I don't think anyone's walked the beagles in the last couple years.

Still, can't help it. I mean, here I am wasting precious time blogging about wasting time. If that's not the perfect illustration of "waste," I'm not sure what is.
; )

Here's the problem. Well, there are a couple really. Problem "A" is that to REALLY write, I kind of need large chunks of least a couple hours and preferably four or more. Just to, like, get the motor up and running. This "snatch 15-30 minutes here or there" thing doesn't really work for me, especially when I'm feeling fatigued.

Problem "A2" is that I'm fatigued a lot. And there's not much I can do about that, except try to sleep more at night or something. *sigh*

Anyhoo, even though I have only a couple-three months left down here (and really, not even that much considering upcoming plans and such), I really want to get a few projects knocked out. I think...I THINK...I can Okay, maybe two. At least two...but I really need to bust my ass.

Hmmm...maybe four.

Anyway, I'm going to try, I'm going to give it a shot...which means I'm going to take a bit of hiatus from Ye Old Blog. Well...from blogging (I'll try to keep up on my blog reading, commenting, etc.). But I don't want to just be writing "progress reports" or my thoughts on...well, whatever it is I'm thinking about this week. I really need to focus if I'm going to churn some of this stuff out. Just to get the writing finished, you know?

I just don't want anyone to think the blog is going dark, at least not "for permanent." Okay? Okay.

BY THE WAY: the title of this post was actually going to be in reference to the superhero genre. In the fantasy genre (wizards and dragons, etc.) most games or fiction start with the creation of a fantasy world...a place to adventure. With the superhero genre, most NEW settings/series (i.e. not the long-tuning, well established Marvel/DC universes) start with a CATALYST...the thing that made it possible for all these superheroes to get their powers in the first place. Some sort of world-shaking event other than the presence of a criminal underground that causes vigilantes to don a mask and skulk the night. The usual ideas are things like some sort of radiation/mutagen-releasing explosion or alien/dimensional invasion that forces the evolution of humankind.

I say "the usual," least when it comes to RPGs...there are a lot of times when the catalyst is simply glossed over, or is even nonexistent. "Since the dawn of human history, there have always been heroes..." blah, blah, blah. Great. Most of the super RPGs out there are taking place in our contemporary world, and it matters little (or nothing) whether there were fire-breathing mutants in Ancient Rome or if Merlin was the first Sorcerer Supreme.

So, yeah, I wanted to talk about catalysts in the supers genre, but then I realized that it was more important to talk about a different kind of catalyst: the "I'm-going-to-be-kicking-myself-in-the-ass" for the next few weeks.

All right, that's enough. More later, folks. Really...I will be back.
: )

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cap's "Civil War" (Redux)


SO...last night my wife and I were supposed to go out with some friends of ours for burgers and beers at a (relatively) new place called Saint Glutton. It's nice because they have a lot of rotating imports (it's the only place I've found Sam Adams south of Texas). Unfortunately, they flaked. We still went out (since the babysitter was already in place) and found ourselves at the VERY new (opened this month), very large, very extravagant shopping mall built by Guatemalan business interests in the heart of the "tourist district" (i.e. next to the Sheraton). As per usual, it was nearly devoid of people, relative to its size, as the people who can regularly afford to shop in such places generally acquire their loot in Miami.

Anyhoo, we found ourselves at the movies and we ended up seeing Captain America: Civil War for a second time. This my wife's choice, just BTW...I was willing to see anything (both X-Men Apocalypse and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising we playing at the same time...slapstick is my wife's flavor of humor), so I was a little surprised at the choice. She's not a comics fan by any stretch o the imagination; as a kid in Mexico she watched (dubbed) X-Men cartoons and enjoyed those, but she tapped out of that film franchise round about X3 (as did I). She hadn't even watched the prior Captain America films.

But she liked Civil War (even though she had complained about many of the same issues as I had) and it felt like a popcorn film night and, well we decided to watch it again. And after a second viewing, both of us came away with revised opinions: Captain America: Civil War is pretty darn awesome, and the plot is both tighter and stronger than we remembered.

I'm allowed to change my mind.
I think that part of the problem with the first viewing was (for me) that the action sequences were SO spectacular, you forget (and/or miss) the elements of Zemo's scheme that are present throughout the film. The scenes are tightly woven into the plot, and the dialogue provides exactly enough exposition without hitting the audience over the head with extra redundancy. The "Soviet dude" Zemo hunts down for the "red book" isn't a Soviet...he's ex-Hydra. Zemo's knowledge of Hydra's Winter Soldier program is from deciphering the encrypted files released by Black Widow two films ago. The phone call he makes to the Berlin hotel from Siberia isn't about the room's about getting the room service to find the dead body in the tub, knowing that this will get into the German police waves, makes it's way to Tony (and showing him his mistake), thereby luring him to Siberia.

It's actually fairly genius, given Zemo's year-long study and following of the Avengers, and Tony's well- (and self-)publicized issues with his parents' demise, notorious instability, and crazy-ass death wish. If the other Avengers had shown up along with Stark, he would still likely go berserk and the ensuing mayhem more spectacular (feeding Zemo's ultimate goal). It's not like Zemo had been planning on walking away.

So great movie. Clearly, it required a second viewing for me to fully appreciate it. A few other revisions to my prior post:

How many wrecked faces do we need?
  • I (now) understand Zemo's characterization and "get it." In the comics, Zemo has two main drives: his anger at Captain America for the "murder" of his father (when he first appears it as the costumed villain Phoenix, attempting to avenge his father), and his hideous facial disfigurement at the hands of Cap and Falcon (which results from his first fight as the Phoenix). But the filmmakers already HAD a disfigured character in the film...Crossbones...which was necessary as part of his character's development as a villain (and thus gives him the extra motivation he needs). So instead you have to boost the "avenge family" motive (hence, he blames the Avengers for the loss of his father, wife, and son). I get it.
  • Now that I paid closer attention to the plot, I also see just how intelligent, innovative, and audacious the filmmakers made Zemo...all in line with the actual character. Zemo is more an organizer and schemer than anything else (until he later gets ahold of his magic rocks)...even his mutants were created with the help of Arnim Zola (I forgot that part). While the "extra winter soldiers" and the "blue serum" still seem rather extravagant red herrings to throw into the plot (as is his willingness to throw away such readily available tools), the rest of the film is a showcase of the thinking man's Zemo, though perhaps lacking some of the scene-chewing grandstanding longtime fans have come to expect from the Baron.
  • I decried the lack of women in the film previously, but actually there are three (Natasha, Wanda, and Sharon Carter) who all get huge, heaping amounts of screen time, and plenty of ass-kicking. Black Widow has definitely become my wife's favorite character (she keeps hitting me in the shoulder and saying, "she's so awesome" throughout the movie). Over the course of the films she grown, rather understandably, into that "den mother" role that often occurs in a team environment (a trope that goes back at least as far as Wendy and the Lost Boys). It's strange considering Widow's comic book characterization, but makes perfect sense given the development of the MCU. And I have to say I prefer this version of Black Widow to the "evil, lusty Rusky" version found in both the classic comics and the Ultimates imprint.
  • I under-appreciated Black Panther a bit as well. While I'm still not as gaga over the character as some folks, his "cat scratch" fighting style and (yes) panther-ish grace and agility IS very distinct from other scrapper types. I will admit my main turn-off was a scene that saw him running on all fours in a bounding style reminiscent of Sabretooth (in the X-films) or most any werewolf movie I've seen in the last decade plus). But both he and Wakanda have a lot of potential. BP is a guy who seems to get a new update every few years as people try to figure out how to incorporate all that vibranium technology (at least he wasn't wielding glowing, purple knives).
  • Lastly (regarding Crossbones)...these are films, not comics. It's pretty insane to trifle over the demise of a character when you're dealing with an entirely different medium of the genre. Per comic vine, Captain America has appeared in nearly 8700 comics. Crossbones has appeared in 285. Given that we may see...what? 10 or 12 films with the good Captain, what's a reasonable percentage of them to include Crossbones? Probably about as much as we got here. And it was a good bit. But he certainly doesn't need to become a recurring villain...this isn't a television series we're talking about.

All right, that's it. Civil War IS better than your average "popcorn film." While I complained before that it "played small" given the number of super-cameos and the scope of the Civil War story arc, as a self-contained film inspired by elements of said story arc, it's actually quite good. And though there IS an awful lot of Tony Stark and Avengers characters, the story is still centered on Cap, his traditional crew (Falcon, Bucky, the Carter woman), his rogues gallery (Zemo, Crossbones, Winter Soldier), and his usual issues (revisiting the past, being outside of his own time, steering between your moral compass and your duty as a soldier). As a fan of Captain America, this movie had nearly everything I could have hoped or asked for.

It's just that I needed a second watch to see it all.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Super Classes

Yes, "supers week" appears to be continuing at Ye Old least for one or two more posts.

Just continuing my thought process from yesterday's blog post:

One of the (many) inconveniences of residing in Paraguay: most of my RPG library is inaccessible, being 7000 miles from my current location. 

[and my library, I should have you know, is extensive]

Which is incredibly frustrating when I'm either A) researching a particular game or subject matter that I know I have a book for, or B) just have the itch to read or review some game or other. It can lead me to doing things I don't really want to re-purchasing books in PDF form. Like the other day when I came out of Captain America: Civil War and found myself thinking heavily about Aberrant. I nearly broke down and picked up a PDF of the game off DriveThruRPG, something (in a more rational frame of mind) I really didn't want to do. I was fortunate my "cheap-O" instinct kicked in when I saw the $9 price tag. Even though that's small change, it's a lot for a PDF considering:
  • I have already determined Aberrant's not a game I really want to play as written.
  • Even if I did play it, I use hardcopy at my game table not PDFs.
  • I already own a hardcopy of the game.
  • My laptop has finite space anyway, AND
  • That's money I could better spend on some other indie-designer PDF that needs my support.
However, even after going through that rational argument in my mind, I STILL nearly purchased a copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised in PDF form off the same site (not even the 2nd Edition HU, mind you...the PRIOR iteration), despite it being $13! And despite having already purchased that particular edition in hardcopy not once, but twice

And I'm still considering buying it, even tonight. Hey, I'm sure Mr. Siembieda would appreciate the ducats.

But at the moment, I haven't. Instead I'm going to work from memory here.

HU: gives us ten "power categories" (classes), which I long ago memorized in a moment of extreme nerdy-ness: Aliens, Bionics, Experiments, Hardware, Magic, Mutants, Physical Training, Psionics, Robotics, and Special Training. The indispensable HU supplement Powers Unlimited 2 provides an additional ten power types: Empowered, Eugenics, Gestalt, Imbued, Immortal, Invention, Natural Genius, Super-Soldier, Symbiotic, and Weapons Master.

[man, I am a nerd]

Not as outrageous as Rifts sourcebooks.
What's neat about these - other than the sheer creativity on display of someone willing to create entirely different systems for each individual super type he wants to model...and then working to squeeze it into the three "universal holes" of HU (skills, combat, and SDC/HPs) - what's neat about these is that a number of these classes are broken down into subclasses. For example, a Robotics character might be a humanoid robot (like the Vision), or a powered exoskeleton (like the Iron Man armor), or a giant robot (like the old Shogun Warriors, etc.). The Magic character might be a sorcerer (Dr. Strange), or a magically imbued character (like Captain Marvel), or a dude with a magic weapon/artifact (like Captain Britain). The Special Training category includes secret agents, street magicians, hunters, and super sleuths. There's a lot of variation and variety present in EACH of these classes...enough so that you can model most anything in the same power range as the Marvel Universe (some heavy hitters aside).

It's both fun and functional if you can A) come to accept the peculiarities of the system, B) are at ease with the possibility of a WIDE range of possible power levels (with no cinematic bridging), and C) have a GM willing to do a lot of work to make.

[hmm...alternatively, you could skimp on "C" so long as you're willing to lower your expectations of what you want out of your game]

But "functional" (especially with those caveats) isn't really what I'm craving. A little elegance of design would be nice. I mean, isn't gestalt more a superpower than a power-type? I suppose it depends on who you ask. I'm sure Swamp Thing would have considered himself an "altered human" (in MSH terms) or "experiment" (in HU) back when it still believed it was Alec Holland. Wouldn't a "weapons master" simply be another subheading of the Special Training character? Etc., etc.

However, my interest here isn't so much about pinning down archetypes as it is about establishing different styles of play.

Gosh...I was trying to find a prior post I could link to (among my 70+ "class" labeled posts), and could not, so here's the brief skinny on B/X play styles:

  • Fighters: offer straightforward play-style. No surprises, no limitations, but no variety either. It does not behoove a fighter to wear leather armor instead of plate (for example), and if using the default D6 damage rules, weapon matters for little. Advancement is linear, stamina (staying power) is robust. Class requires effective risk management.
  • Magic-Users: offers a wide variety of options, but limited resources (spells). With progression (advancement) variety increases and resources both increase, though always finite (spells will eventually run out). Stamina is low, as is effectiveness outside resource-based ability. Slow advancement. Class requires effective strategy (choice of spells and when to use them).
  • Clerics: offer a hybrid of play-style. Variety added (limited spells) with some variety removed (no edged weapons or missiles). Staying power is good, but less than fighters. There is an expectation of support for other players, presumably with corresponding thanks/appreciation. Swift advancement. Class requires team attitude and balance of strategy and risk management.
  • Thieves: offers a number of options, without the resource limits of spell-casters (thief abilities don't run out), but variety is fairly static (skills don't change much over time), and use is unreliable (always a chance of failure, more so at low levels). Trade-off is low staying power (less HPs, poor AC), partially offset by very swift advancement. Class requires gambling on the part of the player and reliance on luck...not just with regards to skill use but the expected outcome (scouting ahead and hoping not to run into something bad, opening the chest or door and hoping for a positive save against any missed trap).
  • Non-humans add minor trade-offs for bonus abilities. Elf is an exception...adds extra abilities plus benefits of two classes with the trade-off of VERY slow advancement and reduced stamina.

This is a pretty good base to start working from, and I've actually got a few ideas about how I'd divvy up my class categories for a supers game (I was furiously jotting down notes at 3am this morning)...probably three basic classes plus an optional one for "non-humans." However, as with all my recent game designs, I'm really trying to keep the focus human-centric, so maybe the non-humans are out the window. Minimize the weirdness, you know?
; )

By the way, "mutant" is not going to be a class in this little starting-to-form project of mine. I just found out this morning (researching) that the reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe has no mutants is because Fox, upon acquiring the rights to the X-Men, also acquired the rights to the term "mutant" as far as the term applies to the Marvel comics universe. Which is, you know, crazy...but whatever. Mutants muddy the waters of what could otherwise be a post-modern pulp-SciFi supers game...which is kind of the direction this little train is heading. Besides, if I follow-through with my current idea of making it B/X-based, there's already a great, B/X-compatible game with a system for creating mutants (that would be Mutant Future).

[yes, I've been playing around with the idea with drafting a B/X-based supers game for years. What happens is I tinker and write and then think of non-B/X ways to accomplish design goals and end up scrapping and shelving the basic chassis...I just haven't committed to the concept. There IS, by the way, already a B/X-style supers game on the market...Sentinels of Echo City...and I will probably pick up the PDF with the $5 of those dollars I saved by not buying Aberrant. Probably. I kind of want to stake out my own design parameters first, so as not to be unduly influenced]

[ah, hell...what's five bucks anyway?]

: )

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Of Altered Humans and Hi-Tech Wonders

I've written many times over the years of my love-hate relationship with superhero RPGs. I love them because...well, because the superhero genre appeals to that same part of me that the whole "fantasy role-playing" thing does. I hate them because I've so often been frustrated with the actual products.

Yet the list of supers games I've purchased over the years has continued to expand. I've owned the first two editions of Mutants & Masterminds, as well as Green Ronin's DC Adventures. I've re-purchased Heroes Unlimited Revised and picked up Ninjas and Super-Spies as well. And in edition to the hardcopy of Supers! and Supers! Revised Edition, I've picked up a number of PDFs: Champions for 5th edition HERO, Hero High for M&M, Bulletproof Blues, John Stater's Mystery Men, Barak Blackburn's Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul...even tracked down  copy of Dragon 47 for Dave Cook's Crimefighters game. This in addition to fat hardcovers of Wild Talents, Mutant City Blues, Champions 4E, and all the many other books I mentioned back in 2010. Oh, yeah, and some other random ones like the original Villains & Vigilantes and "for free" stuff pulled off the internet (one was a 286 page book that's still not worth mentioning by name).

All of which, BTW, are nothing but a small handful of all the superhero RPGs (and material) that have been released over the years. Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens has a great series of posts reviewing all the superhero RPGs published from 1978-2014 (presumably, his review of 2015 games will come out sometime this year). Certainly recommended reading for anyone interested in the genre (either as a player or designer)...but there's a LOT of ground to cover.

However, most of the ground covered is pretty similar. Aside from the specific settings some of them have, most supers RPGs come in a fairly general package. Characters show up as a set of human-ish attributes (abilities, skills, whatnot), and then have powers added (from a provided list), with an attached system for modeling the kind of comic book antics one expects from a superhero RPG. Similar to the superhero genre of film, character is the main facet/draw of the game (exploration of what the character can do in relationship to the adventure/scenario/story the GM crafts)...however, the amount of character development that occurs varies wildly from game to game, from glacially slow (Marvel Superheroes) to ridiculously fast (Mutants & Masterminds).

That being said, of the variations that do help to distinguish RPGs from system to system, the one that most interests me is the one least often seen within the genre: class-based archetypes. Most supers RPGs eschew any type of D&D-style class system (even the D20-derived M&M) in favor of an open-ended system of character creation. I'm not exactly sure why this is, though I know that a lot of the genre's fans also happen to be folks who HATE class-based systems in RPG design (Barking Alien, I'm looking at you!). Maybe it's because so many (comic book) heroes over the years have defied being pigeon-holed by type? Maybe because there IS only "one type" of superhero: the kind that resolves conflict with (super powered) violence?

[to the fighter class, every problem that arises looks like a combat encounter, yeah?]

Honestly, I don't know. I suppose (putting on My Designer Hat for the moment) that having character classes in an RPG helps distinguish one player's imaginary avatar from another...and such is unnecessary when characters are readily distinct based on their various power suites. That being said, it's certainly possible to categorize power suites by archetype, and certain games have done this...City of Heroes (yes, there was a tabletop RPG based on the MMORPG) and Capes incorporate such categories explicitly in their design, while Mutants & Masterminds did it by way of sample, playable archetypes.

These particular categorizations, however...and simpler categorizations like the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG's "origins" (Altered Human, Mutant, Alien, Robot, and Hi-Tech Wonder)...ignores one of the best benefits of class-based RPG play: variation in play style. Consider D&D as a well-known example: playing a fighter is very much different from playing a magic-user and both are very different from playing a thief or cleric. Each class emphasizes different game systems, requiring different sets of rule mastery AND providing different play experiences. Play in MSH doesn't differ from character to character (you are taking an ability or power, rolling on a chart, and trying to get a good "color" result...probably using your best trait, i.e. "the one that will do the most damage" and/or "has the best probability of a good color result"). Capes (as another example) is even more pronounced in its lack of distinction...the systems function exactly the same for each character (regardless of whether or not you are a Brick or a Shooter or an "Animal Avatar"), only the narration differs. The game (like many story-first games) is about how you use the system; the system doesn't offer any variation in form/style of play.

Of the superhero RPGs I've seen, the only one that comes close to delivering class-based play variation on the same level as D&D (or Gamma World or Adventure! or Vampire: The Masquerade or...) is Kevin Simebieda's Heroes Unlimited. And, no, I don't think this is due to any particular forethought or genius of design; instead, it is almost certainly due to the haphazard fashion in which he throws the thing together, marrying different systems that model various comic book tropes while lacking any coherent, unified vision (other than the system for combat). Regardless, the variations in class allow for widely different styles of play...even wildly different styles of chargen!...possibly explaining the longevity of a system that has taken a beating from so many critics of games and design over the years.

Accidental genius? Does it matter?
If it isn't evident from the slant of this post, I should be clear that I am a big fan of class-based design.  It's not the ONLY way to do RPGs...and it's not the only way I design games!...but I think it's under appreciated for what it (potentially) offers. In fact, I should probably write "under appreciated, even by me" because of the three superhero RPGs currently on my design table, two do not utilize class at all, and the one that does does no more than categorize characters by types similar to MSH (normal, mutant, altered human, and non-human). For the first two (both of which are limited in terms of scope and duration), that's okay. For the third, though, I'm thinking I should really reconsider my approach to the thing.

Anyway, I am (as usual) running long on word count and short on time, so I'm going to have to cut off here. However, I do want to leave you with one last thought from my head (which I hope to come back to...perhaps tomorrow). Consider for a moment how the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not own the rights to the X-Men and their associated characters, and how this has influenced the way characters in the MCU are portrayed: there are no mutants. Comic book mutants are a long-running staple of the superhero RPG genre (some RPGs feature them as the ONLY type of character one may play...see Aberrant, Wild Talents, etc.). Do they need to be? Are they necessary for a decent "superhero" RPG? Was it necessary to make the Maximoffs mutants in the latest Avengers film? Do the MCU films suffer for a lack of mutation or "mutant menace?"

But more on that later.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


No child care today, which means I am the child care...which means I won't be able to write/blog/post the stuff I had planned. Sorry about that...hopefully back on track tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cap's "Civil War"

[yes, there WILL be SPOILERS. Consider yourselves warned]

[***EDIT 5/28/16: Having just watched Captain America: Civil War a second time, I have revised much of my (negative) opinions of the film. You can see my new post here, if you're interested. I leave this comparison review up as a true recount of my initial impressions. But as with Age of Ultron (also discussed below) the film greatly benefits with a second viewing***]

My wife got me a copy of Avengers: Age of Ultron for Christmas last year (actually, she bought me two copies...accidentally. No, this was not something I asked for or really wanted; would have preferred some software to help with book layout...). ANYway, today [EDIT: yesterday] I took the time to re-watch the thing in anticipation of finishing this post (started a couple days ago) because I drew some comparisons between that film and the new Captain America: Civil War (AKA "Avengers Part III"). I'm glad I did, because now I can pretty much scrap most of what I wrote previously.

Here's what I'll keep:
...when you really examine it, the whole film [Civil War] is pretty flimsy...a weak plot with the sole objective of giving the audience what we all want: a brawl of epic proportions between the various superheroes of the Marvel universe. There are some nice, emotional moments scattered throughout the thing, but really they're just the bridge between fight scenes. The villain is particularly weak...especially considered next to the arch-menace of Ultron...which makes it more apparent and galling what chumps these "superheroes" really are. The movie is a popcorn flick, pure and simple. A good popcorn flick, sure, but nothing deeper than your average, decent James Bond flick.  
[hey, who doesn't like a good James Bond film?]

Previously, despite these criticisms, I was holding it head-and-shoulders above the second Avengers film. I'm going to stop that now. Age of Ultron is a very good comic book film in the style of...well, of The Avengers. Even if one gets fatigued watching dudes bash thousands of robots, it LOOKS like the kind of credible threat that would drive the plot of a film containing so many superheroes from so many different walks of life. The story...and the way the story unfolds...fits the genre. Prior to my re-watch this morning, I was buying into the hype of various reviews I'd read, decrying the huge ensemble cast that prevented real character development from occurring.

Um...okay. Character development isn't really what the comic book film genre is about. The characters have a long history of development...hell, many of them are OVER-developed, going through changes every couple decades that make them unrecognizable all in the name of doing something "new" (in order to keep selling comics with a popular character...). What's interesting about these films...what's fun about these seeing how the filmmakers (producers, writers, directors, actors) translate these established characters to screen. How they choose to interpret or re-interpret the characters in the new medium, especially considering the 21st century timeframe for supers that had their glory years in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

Right or wrong, I'm not expecting the same thing from a Marvel film that I expect from other films. Likewise, I'm not expecting 100% faithful adaptations of comics. I'm looking for something that allows the characters room to be comic book-y, that allows them to hold true (somewhat) to their roots, and that holds my interest in the same way that a good story arc in the comics can.

And neat F/X and action sequences, sure. These are punch-drunk superheroes, after all.

You dig me? And so suddenly, I realize that the main thing shaping my "first impressions" of these films isn't the overall "is this a good film" but actually the interpretation of characters that I already know and (in some cases) love. It doesn't matter if Wanda Maximoff is wearing a red tiara and cape, and it's not even all that pertinent whether her abilities come from being a mutant or some weird genetic experiment with a magic crystal. Does she go from being a villain to an Avenger? Does she exhibit both self-doubt and vengeful bad ass-ness? Do the filmmakers figure out a way to make it believable she'd want to get it on with a robot?

Here's what I hate about Age of Ultron: the characterizations of Captain America and Hawkeye. That's it. For whatever reason, when Joss Whedon directs an Avengers film, he makes a truly wimpy Captain America...a guy who's the butt of other character's jokes, who is frequently at a loss or questioning his abilities or responsibilities. I don't see the confident, self-assured war veteran, pillar of virtue that was the rock of the Avengers...the go-to leader because, hey, who else would you rather have leading you in battle? This guy...I find it hard to believe that hard cases like Black Widow and Hawkeye can take this guy seriously. Iron Man certainly doesn't.

And Hawkeye? I respect the filmmaker's decision to draw their inspiration from the dour, mask-less family man found in The Ultimates (the re-imagined, updated "Avengers"). But...well, I prefer the ex-criminal, Circus-trained dude. I mean, the thing that was endearing about the guy was his sense of humor about his own lack of super-powers and the comical way he'd run out of arrows. It made him different from a Green Arrow clone. The way this Ultimate Hawkeye translates to the screen is a little too much like WB's Arrow, what with his awesome reflexes and tactical ability (he makes Cap look like a rank chump). I find him terribly unbelievable as portrayed, but I guess that's just me...

You take those irritations away, however, an Age of Ultron is a fantastic genre film. It sucked that they offed Baron Strucker so fast, but everything else (including the various subplots) were perfectly to my taste.

Civil War gives me a better "first impression" only because I prefer the characterizations. There's blessedly little of Hawkeye, and this is the baddest ass version of Captain America I've yet seen in film. He kicks a truck! His shield defies the laws of physics! He is willing to take a stand for his principles, even though it means going against his friends, colleagues, and country! He is large and in charge...and he's a guy that others like, trust, and want to follow.

This guy? Awesome.
I also love the current interpretation of the Falcon. I could hardly give a shit about the Black Panther (he's fine, but the character is fairly bland...bulletproof suit? fighting ability? retractable claws? tracking?...hmm, where have I seen a similar power set?), save that my son thought it was pretty cool they'd put BP in a movie (no, I have not allowed my 5 year to watch either of these films). But the Falcon just gets more awesome every time he makes an appearance. Anthony Mackie is great, the updated backstory is a far cry from the original comic book version (giving the character a real reason to make a "buddy connection" with Cap), and his flying suit? Awesome. Making Red Wing into a portable drone? Awesome. All his little built-in gadgets...believable experimental military tech? Awesome. And his relationship with Cap? Great. I only had a chance to read some of the Cap-Falcon comics later in life, and they were okay, but I'll watch any film that has this Falcon in it, with to without the good Captain. He has definitely climbed into my Top 5 list of film superheroes.

But fun as it was to watch the heroes lay a beat down on each other in exciting fashion...Ant-Man's scene stealing was worth the price of admission for me (sorry, but we've had waaaay too many Avengers films to not have Giant Man make an appearance) as it was, the film played too small.  Which would be fine if this was a film that (as the title implied) was simply focused on Captain America and his particulars. These individual titles, unlike the Avengers, are places where it's appropriate to have that individual "character development." Civil War was a little too crowded with too little pay-off.

SPOILER: This does not
happen in the film.
I mean, the Civil War story arc (that is the direct inspiration for this film) spans most every title in the Marvel Universe and raises issues regarding "registration," WWII-style internment, security versus privacy, and all sorts of ugliness. Heroes and allies turn on each other, one-time criminals become "good guys," and yes, Iron Man and Cap end up on opposite sides. The whole arc is big and bold and beautiful, culminating in Captain America being assassinated on the steps of a federal courthouse following his arrest and arraignment. That's some serious, serious subject matter to be having in 2006 and 2007 in the last years of the second Bush administration (when we were still dealing with our self-made Middle East shit-storm).

This Civil War? We get a dozen heroes having street brawl on an airport tarmac.

It's just weak. Crossbones to Captain America is like Bane to Batman...and here he's in and out in less than ten minutes. Helmut Zemo is one of the coolest, baddest adversaries in Captain America's rogues gallery. He's an evil mastermind, a genetic engineering genius who makes mutants that wouldn't be out o place in the latest TMNT film. Here? He's a sad, lonely mercenary who has somehow stumbled on Cold War secrets that eluded the U.S. Government for decades and uses them to punk "Earth's Mightiest Heroes."

Few people can rock the purple costume like
crazy mad scientist Baron Zemo II.
I don't know. Just...weak. I mean, I used to order bacon and black coffee for breakfast, too...though with a side of plain oatmeal (I guess my death wish wasn't quite as pronounced). This and a saved voicemail is the extent of this villain's characterization?

[sorry...if the bias isn't apparent, I'm a big Zemo fan. His stories gave me real chills as a child]

But, again...even such a "mini-Zemo" might be a fine antagonist if the film was confined to Cap's personal circle...Bucky, Falcon, one or two others. Throwing the Avengers (minus the Hulk and Thor, but plus Spider-Man and Ant-Man) into the mix requires a world-shaking menace: omnipotent A.I.s, alien invasions, or Ragnarok, in other words. The bar has been set too high for this many "enhanced beings," even if you take the heaviest hitters off the table.

Doesn't mean I didn't like the film...I enjoyed a lot of it. As I said, for this genre of film, the long-time-comic-book-translated-to-big-screen, it's the characterizations that are important. Watching Hawkeye fire Ant-Man on an arrow (a classic tactic)? Awesome. Watching how Paul Bettany brings life to a character (The Vision) who was always pretty flat and lifeless (to me)? Awesome. Watching Downey as Stark make a hash of things (again) despite some fairly WTF plot/writing? Still was watching his inevitable beat-down (must Iron Man fight every Avenger at some point? He has now picked fights with Thor, Hulk, and Cap...oh, and War Machine, too, if you count his fight with Rhodey in IM2).

But...(*sigh*) I guess I just wanted more. I guess I've turned into one of those "impossible to please" fanboy-types. I mean, it was cool to see all the "diversity" on display in film...if by diversity, you mean "black dudes." Even without an appearance of Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, you still have a film that prominently featured War Machine, Black Panther, and Falcon (I'm don't think I count Vision as "a person of color," though some least allegorically). That's quite a few POCs for ANY comic book movie (considering the source material)...but where are the ladies? The Avengers have had a number of prominent female characters over the years (Wasp, Ms. Marvel, Monica Rambeau, Tigra, She-Hulk...those just off the top of my head) and while most suffer from the "pants-less" trope, I'm sure they could get updated costumes, same as the Scarlet Witch. Instead, we had ladies "checking out" of the film...Pepper Potts and Agent Carter have both departed (in different ways) and they're never shown on screen, even in flashback. Stark's new Girl Friday hardly counts as a female protagonist.

*sigh* (again). I liked Civil War as the popcorn film it was, and some of it was truly excellent stuff. But I found myself disappointed mere minutes after exiting the theater as the "refrigerator moments" started hitting me one after another. I don't like that. Especially considering the film contained several of my favorite all-time comic characters (Ant-Man, Cap, Bucky/Winter Soldier, and Falcon...and I'm an Iron Man fan from waaay back in the day), I wanted more. With the material they had to work with and the talent they managed to hire and the budget the film possessed, I expected...well, I expected to NOT be disappointed. And yet, here I am.

Probably should have been
a novel, not an RPG.
One final (really) note: when I watch a superhero film, I often get a vibe, and an itch, to play or run a particular RPG based on the action/story that's presented. This was no different. However, the RPG I found myself drawn to (based on the themes expressed) was Aberrant, which is unusual. I almost found myself picking up the PDF off DriveThruRPG (since I don't have my book here in Paraguay to flip through). Fortunately, I slept on it and woke up slightly saner remembering that characters like Iron Man and the Falcon don't fit into the world of Novas and Teragen. Still, I'm thinking a bit about Aberrant now, and how packed it is with cool ideas. Maybe more on that later.

Monday, May 23, 2016

No Small Parts

My internet's back up...enough said about that. I plan on writing at least one or two posts today, but they probably won't have as much "game related" substance as people like. Probably. We'll see.

The second planned post is one I've already started writing, a little rant/rave about the latest Captain America film. Normally, that's what I'd be finishing up this morning. However, I am currently unable to get last night's Game of Thrones episode out of my mind, so I'm going to subject Ye Old Blog readers to my thoughts on it.

First, though, I'll give you a little view into my "real life" world. My kids are young (ages 5 and 2), but they tend to go to bed late. We shoot for 9ish, but it's usually closer to 11pm. My family's a bunch of night owls (we like mid-day siestas). Nearly every night, my wife watches some television after the kids are down, and more often than not I join her, even though I'd prefer to be writing or sleeping (I get up earlier than she does, and I'm the one that gets up with the toddler at 2am or 4am or whatever). But Sunday night is Game of Thrones night, so there's no arm-twisting involved.

[my wife, BTW, is delightfully obtuse about all things fantasy-related. It put a smile on my face when she reminded me, "Don't forget, the new episode of Lord of the Rings is on." I generally don't bother to correct this kind of thing; like I said, delightful. Plus, I more than ably fill my household's "nerd quota" all by my lonesome]

So, after reading the 5 year old to sleep (Treasure Island), I made it down to the sala and tuned into GoT...only to find it was already 40 minutes into the episode. I don't know why I assumed it was on at 10, but whatever. The wife came down a few minutes later, and we clicked over to another channel about 5 minutes before the end...since we'd watch the re-broadcast at 11:30, I figured I wouldn't spoil the end for myself.


It's the end of the episode that I'm thinking of today...that I keep replaying in my mind's eye. The sadness of it, the tragedy. Honestly, it keeps making me tear up, though I'm always a bit more emotional when I've had a short night's sleep (plus, I've been nursing a caffeine headache since yesterday...that's another long story). No, I'm not going to spoil anything by describing what happens. The thing would only hold an emotional impact for those who are diligent watchers of the show, while the casual or non-viewer would be less interested in the trials and tribulations of a minor character.

A minor character.

There's some semi-epic foreshadowing in an earlier scene in the episode that takes place backstage of a theater production. One of the actors is bitching about only having two lines in the production (ironic, considering the end of the show), to which she is told "there are no small parts"...which she, of course, doesn't get.

There ARE no small parts. Well, okay, there are (I'm supposed to be appearing as "American #2" in an upcoming Paraguayan film...again, long story...), but that doesn't mean they're unimportant. It doesn't mean they can't have an impact. The last stage role I had was in Moliere's Tartuffe, and I had zero lines. In fact, I played the butler...a character that is not listed in the cast role at all, but was rather created for the show. I was on stage through the entire play. I did all sorts of humorous business without speaking a single line, directing household servants, aping the residents, announcing people with an absurdly large gong...getting laughs, in other words, and being integral to the production. Despite not being one of the "principals," I was important to the show...I mattered.

And I had a blast doing it...though as a younger man, I probably would have chaffed at the part, just like the young actor in GoT. Here's the thing: in real life, we are all just "small parts," folks. This is a big old world, and human history stretches thousands of years behind us and (hopefully) thousands of years before us. Even if you can put together enough scratch to take care of your family two to three (or more) generations down the line, there's no guarantee your children or your children's children won't just blow it all...there's no guarantee some unforeseen catastrophe is going to mess up your legacy or wipe out your family line. No matter how grandiose we are in our sphere of influence, we are still very small cogs in the wheel of life.

And likewise, we are all important. We all have, emotional impact...on those who know us, those who come in contact with us. Each of us has the chance to make a difference (for good or ill) on other people, no matter how small we seem in the overall scheme of things. We will never know just how much people care about us, truly, because the measure of a person's impact is often felt in how much they are missed after they're's impossible, really, to know how much one is appreciated by those around us, because we can't put ourselves into their thoughts and feelings and see what we mean...and even the most eloquent of communicators can hardly communicate their appreciation in a way for us to grasp, even if they themselves can grasp the full extent to which they appreciate.

I read an interview with comic book mastermind Stan Lee a couple years back...something throwaway, in a Costco newsletter or something. He explained that the reason he'd published comics under the name "Stan Lee" (his actual name being Stanley Lieber) is that he'd always looked down on his work, and felt that he'd save his real name for the Great Thing he would someday do...the Great American Novel or whatever. It wasn't until decades later in life (like LATE in life) that he realized, from talking to other people, how much people respected and appreciated the work he did. That his pulpy, throwaway entertainment that he'd done "to pay the bills" had had a profound impact on people's lives. That it had meant something to them. That it had changed them, influenced them, mattered to them.

But Lee is perhaps a poor example of what I'm writing about. He IS a big deal, and I'm sure he understands and appreciates (now) his value and legacy. Many of us don't. Most of us don't receive the adoring fan mail or bouquets of flowers thrown at our feet and the only time we feel really, truly appreciated is when one of our kids runs up to us and gives a big smiley hug. But we shouldn't feel our children are the limit of our "sphere of mattering." We have the opportunity to touch lives every interact and build relationships and impact others. That matters.

I know that part of the appeal of playing a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons is the chance to be the protagonist or "hero" of an epic fantasy adventure. To take the role of a larger than life character having a profound impact on the game "world." Some folks might crave this in part because they feel a lack of power to impact the real world...a lack of "mattering" in the grand scheme of things. Today, at this moment, that seems to me to be a poor way to approach the game. RPGs, even light-weight ones like D&D ("light" with regard to tone and theme), have more to offer than just that. If that's all you're searching for, there is a lot of opportunity to experience disappointment in the game. Your character can die. Your character may fail. Your character may prove less effective than other characters. I suppose that a lot of the latter edition changes to D&D have been created in part (consciously or not) to head off this type of disappointment...carefully balancing encounters and character builds to ensure maximum heroic "mattering" through all levels of play. But even if it succeeds at this design goal...isn't that then just reinforcing the illusion?

The illusion you don't matter unless you're a world-shaking hero?

I was very moved by last night's Game of Thrones episode ("The Door"). It's not just the major protagonists...the Ned Starks and Tyrion Lannisters...that experience tragedy and sadness in Martin's cold, unforgiving world. It's not just the principals who have the chance to impact us emotionally. And, silly as it sounds, I think there's something that can be learned from that.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


That's what I ate this morning while I check my email at my "new office:" McDonald's.

Yes, my internet is currently down at home. Which sucks. But does it suck as bad as the Paraguayan form of McDonald's breakfast? Mmm. That's close. The coffee is good...probably the best I've had in Paraguay (and they'll give you a real cup of it, unlike most places; black even, if you ask for it). The medialuna (croissant) was actually to my taste, too. But...

Well, no pancakes, syrup, hashbrowns, sausage, biscuits, McMuffins, English

The McMananero was kind of like a McGriddle (I think) but devoid of flavor.

They have a grilled cheese sammy (with or without ham) that looks terrible even on its poster (it's called a "tostado" but it's just McD's version of the local mixto).

And they have the ever-famous cheeseburger and orange juice combo.


Okay, so...not exactly a "touch of home." I should have known better, but I had such HOPE when I found out the place served breakfast the other day (a rarity here), that I...*sigh*. Dashed hopes...again.

How I miss the Baranoff.

Anyway, the good thing about no internet means I'm now getting some writing done without distraction (I've watched 18-19 episodes of Black-ish on Netflix the last week. Damn fine television that, truly...though I wonder if the humor is as poignant for people other than Gen-X fathers in long-term marriages like myself. Still, great acting and very funny writing...and, yes, I have seen Modern Family. This one hits closer to home for me, despite the obvious race difference). Thank goodness I can't follow the local baseball team on TV...I hear they're pretty good this year.


I'll write more about my current projects/progress once I'm back on-line. Right now I've got to go find some chipa to wash this crap flavor from my mouth. Ble-ach!

I AM taking the coffee, though. Later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Worrying About The Economy

That is to say, the fantasy economy.

I mean, I could share my opinions on what I think of the price of RPGs and the pay rate of game designers. I could just as easily talk about Argentina, whose economy (to me) feels like its on the brink of collapse. Have you ever been to Buenos Aires? To me, it's kind of the Paris of South America (especially considering the size and beauty of its boulevards and the presence of dog shit that no one bothers to clean up). But when you ask a hotel concierge where you can exchange some money, and he says "Oh, yeah...there's a guy on the street corner about 20 meters down the block who seems pretty legit" there's a whole new type of surreality you've entered as a world traveler.

Seriously. Shady dudes propositioning you "Change money?" as you walk down the street, with the same frequency as I used to hear "Buy some acid?" in the University District back home. And then there's the whole counterfeit money thing going on (where even the black-market dealers warn you about trying to give 100 peso notes to taxi drivers, 'cause they'll flip it on you, and the tourist warnings that you're slightly less likely to get counterfeit cash at the bank). For a city that's so big and hip and educated (you can't throw a rock without hitting a couple book stores)...maybe it's just me, but it sure seems to be teetering on the edge of (economic) destruction.

Anyway, NO...that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the economy of the fantasy campaign setting I'm working on. Worrying about the real world economy is waste of my sweet, precious time, considering all the power and control I have over it (i.e. "not much"). The new fantasy world, though...well, there I have a chance to make a difference. Maybe. If I can get it straight.

There's a lot of stuff that's gone into my mind to make this mess of soup that's currently driving me crazy. I mean, so many that, well... *sigh* Let me post a few just so you can get where I'm coming from:

- There's this recent post from Peter Schwieghofer. A lot of my recent game designs have included rules for choosing equipment without going shopping. This is a practice that I first started when I began rebooting Cry Dark Future in an attempt to cut down the absolute torture of chargen from scratch when you have an equipment list roughly the size of Shadowrun (the same issue holds true with actual Shadowrun, which is why they give you a robust list of "archetypes" choose from). The thing is, choosing equipment for one's character is one of the very fun and captivating things about D&D. It puts you in the mindset of your character, it helps you feel the character, selecting your long as the list isn't overwhelmingly long, of course. For a D&D-style game, I want that feeling of "equipping oneself for an expedition." It's damn necessary to the feel of the game.

- Then there's this article from Mr. Lizard regarding the various coinage of Arduin which (like Mr. Lizard) I find incredibly inspirational and suggestive of the scope and possibility of a fantasy campaign. Of course, it helps (or doesn't help) that I've had this other post from Tim Shorts saved on my laptop since March, because I've been wanting to talk about it and the possibilities it suggests. Not just the different cultural currencies, but as a medium of different coins are worth different values to different peoples. Maybe the "10 gp = 1 pound" measurement makes a bit of sense...if you consider that (due to the exchange rate) you need a pound of coins to get 10gp worth of value.

- There's my own recent work on a B/X supplement in which I finally managed to hash out a cosmology that (for me) justifies the way magic works vis-a-vis the B/X rules/systems. And how, if the DM plays RAW and doesn't give away spells for free, the acquisition of spells for magic-users and elves can be a good train of excess party gold. It's got me thinking of all sorts of ways to balance the fantasy economy. This recent post by Alexis regarding henchmen is also excellent food for thought...even PCs who steadfastly refuse to "settle down" and buy castles should have things to spend cash on. There's no reason for PCs to be hauling "useless" hoards of treasure at the mid-to-high levels.

- Then there's Alexis again. Damn it, Alexis. If you're a regular reader of his blog you've been subjected to all manners of posts on the fantasy economy via the man's extensive and elaborate trade tables (here's an example). The point often missed by folks, including me when I first started looking at them (*cue eyes glazing over*) is that they're NOT about modeling "reality" or a "realistic" economy. They're just about modeling an economy...period. In aid of making his campaign setting a more immersive experience for his players. Mr Smolensk doesn't want a world where every town carries an identical "adventurer store" stocking the same inventory found on page XX of whatever edition you happen to be playing. Likewise, the inclusion of such a system creates ideas for adventures based on its very system, as the players (via their characters) interact with a world with an uncaring, driving, elemental (economic) force. I don't want to create (or recreate) a system or world like that of Alexis, but its worth noting the power that having such a system...such to one's game. Now that I've seen that, I can't "un-see" it, you know? The idea is there.

So, then how does all this stuff combine to cause me worry? Let me give you an example from this morning:

I was taking a break from my analysis of clerical spells (that's a subject for a different post) and thinking about armor in general. This may have been due in part to some recent thoughts about two-weapon fighting (another subject for a different post), and considering whether or not I wanted to have an actual list of armors in this fantasy world I was building, or just go with something abstract ("light armor" versus "heavy armor," for example). Going back to that idea of "the fun" and potential immersion of actually buying something for your character, I started considering what specific armor would I like on a list, were I to do that.

From there I started thinking about there really not be something called leather armor, but if we were to say a gambeson, or thick furs, or other type of "padding" and then add the armor value of a simple helm (not a fully enclosed, visored thing), we might be able to get to the light armor category B/X calls "leather armor." That would be AC 7, two points better than the unarmored AC 9, and we could even go so far as to break that down into:

Gambeson: 1 point of armor (+1 to AC), and
Simple helm: 1 point of armor (+1 to AC)

From that little idea, it was short trip to breaking down all the standard B/X armors (chain mail and "plate mail") into their component parts. For example:

"Half" chain mail (short hauberk) (+1 to AC),
Full chain mail (+1 to AC)

This guy? AC 4.
Which, when added to the gambeson and helm gives one the AC 5, right? Once you start breaking things down, you can do all sorts of fun things, like add greaves and vambraces to a cuirass without the benefit of mail in order to model some ancient soldiers, or add little bonuses like AC +2 for a great helm (instead of the standard +1). You can even list full suits on your "shopping list" for people who don't want to bother mixing-and-matching various armor pieces.

Anyway, I thought it was a neat, rather simple way to add a little detail, a little extra "player choice" to the game, or even to spice up NPC encounters with component bits of armor.

[hmmm...note to self: need to review the partial armor system in BECMI's Orcs of Thar]

*ahem* I was saying, it was a neat little idea, but then I started thinking:

How much should I charge for a gambeson?

And it all went to hell. Because the implication...of doing the research and getting consistent values for something based not only on game considerations but also a modeled (fantasy) economy, just made me want to throw up my hands and quit.

Because even though it's possible to do some research on what things really cost 5-600 years ago and then transcribe those costs onto the currency/value of an Arabian world that had a similar level of technology (as I did with Five Ancient Kingdoms)...or even to look at current, real world costs and extrapolate them into the future using a fantasy currency (as I did with Cry Dark Future), what do you do when you're making a gonzo culture that mixes medieval tech with super science and magic in a post-apocalyptic landscape? Especially one set on a different planet with (presumably) different levels of resources, not to mention and ecologic and geographic features that may make trade of some goods more or less valuable? Even if take some arbitrary number or coin or measure to start, I've got to balance it against everything else.

I spent a lot of time reading through the Song of Ice and Fire Wiki, looking at that particular fantasy world and it's currency and trade info. While there's neat stuff there, it's ill-defined because it only gets brought up in relation to the plot at hand (i.e. as Martin requires for his fiction). We learn that 100-300 gold dragons is a reasonable ransom for a captured knight, and that a complete set of good steel armor costs 800 silver stags (a bit less than four dragons), but these are subject to wild fluctuation based on the state of the fantasy economy (things like war causing rapid and incredible inflation of prices)...which means "these things can change at any time," right? How do you build that into a game?

The end result of all this? Probably just spinning my wheels again. That's really the sad truth of the matter. I will probably, probably just throw up a bunch of arbitrary numbers on a sheet of paper (or spreadsheet), most likely arbitrary numbers based in whole or part on B/X or Holmes. Because it's expedient. Because there are other aspects of game play and world building that requires attention. Because it's just a game.

BUT...but, I'm not sure that's really good enough for me. I've got too many ideas crammed into my skull. If my posting seems slow this week, it's because that's what's occupying my focus.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Legend of the Lich Lord

So I was up till 3:30 this morning (um...that would be Thursday morning, actually, though I'm probably posting this Friday or Saturday) watching the entire series of Legend of the Lich Lord, the latest YouTube series from Spencer Estabrooks and the One Hit Die folks.

[EDIT: yeah, this is getting posted even later. Sorry about that!]
Some ambitious D&D-style
(web) TV from Canada.

As usual, I'm a little late to the party, seeing as how this was released back in October...though I did mention its imminent release back in September. Even so, I want to talk about it a bit.

There's a lot that I don't like in this series. I want to start with that. I know, I know...I'm O So Mean. Keep in mind that I did spend my time (and precious hours of my time) watching the thing. There's enough substance there that (for me) makes it worth watching. There are some genuinely funny bits. There's some fair acting. It's D&D...really, it is. And it's independent filmmaking which, of course, I want to support and promote. Art, etc., etc.

Plus, it's compelling. I mean, each episode made me want to watch the next episode, which should be a goal of every good series (TV or internet). Case in point: TV crack like Game of Thrones.

For me, OHD is compelling...but not, perhaps, in the way the filmmakers are hoping. It piques my curiosity...I genuinely want to see where the show is going. I'm interested in the destination of the plot. However, the journey to that destination isn't always fun...or, at least, not as fun as it could be.

That's the thing I'm trying to figure out...right now, as I type this. There is some disappointment for me with the second series of OHD, and not just because the show displays some amateurish filmmaking (I realize this is a low-budget internet production, so of course I cut it some's the film equivalent of your neighborhood theater group). I'm not sure, but I'd guess my dislike stems from  either my sensibilities as a gamer and/or as a film watcher...OR it comes from some disappointed expectations. Right or wrong, I feel like the latest OHD series is a missed opportunity.

Okay, now I'm going to write out some specific critiques, but they will probably contain SPOILERS so if you want to watch the show first (and draw your own opinions), you probably don't want to read the following notes just yet.

By The Way: I DO think folks should watch and support the show, and I would very much like to see a third season. I think there's potential there that hasn't been mined...I truly feel like the show has yet to "hit its stride." gripes (in no particular order):

I think OHD suffers from wanting to adhere too much to its "mockumentary" style. There's a fairly obvious influence from shows like The Office and Parks & Rec. I think it's important to understand why those shows are successful with this style of filmmaking: 1) the writing is spectacular (and I will address OHD's writing in a moment), 2) much of the humor comes from the ho-hum setting. The idea of spending time and resources to make a seriously thorough documentary about the scrub office workers of a smalltime paper company (The Office) or a small government department of a small town (Parks & Rec) is ridiculously absurd...and yet through the lens of the filmmaker we see how their small-time, non-Earth-shaking concerns can still hold drama in the lives of the characters, with big emotional stakes, even (or despite) the silliness of their mundane, daily lives. Petty politics, office romances, infighting and bullying...these are things that a lot of people can relate to from their daily lives, and even we can acknowledge the ridiculousness of it when viewed from a large enough frame of reference. And yet, there's humanity to it as well, which makes all the ridiculous characters lovable in their own silly ways.

[another show in the same style, VEEP, takes a slightly different tact by taking the sacred cow of the American White House, and boiling it down to its most mundane bits and pieces, showing it as just another workplace full of shmucks, rather than some group of lofty power brokers...but it's still the ridiculousness inherent in the daily grind that is on display]

OHD, though, isn't about the "real world." It's not about LARPers dressed in RenFair costumes, even if the first season often sounded like it was (talking about the Out-Of-Character needs to gain experience points and level up, etc.). Instead, it's a show about fantasy characters in a fantasy world going on fantasy adventures. There's certainly things in OHD that gamers will identify with (not exactly broad appeal that), but there's little "real world" humor and humanity. To me, the little asides (the 4th wall-breaking talking heads) feel jarring given the hyper-reality of the show's setting. Consider another television show, 30 Rock, which people often associate with the (aforementioned) mockumentary shows. 30 Rock is NOT a "mockumentary;" it is hand-held, slice-of-life filmmaking of a deliberately absurd hyper-reality. There are no side interviews, no panning to the (fake) documentarian. The musical score/soundtrack is played throughout the show (not just briefly between scenes) to accentuate the fact that this is a fictional piece, created for slapstick humor about some extremely over-the-top nut jobs.  Maybe that style would be more suitable to what OHD is trying to do, especially considering some of the slapstick touches OHD regularly adds to its scenes.

Personally, though, I think the subject matter is far more suitable for a different style of show altogether: something akin to the live-action fantasies of Sid & Marty Krofft...just written for adults rather than children. It has all the elements needed for that kind of crazy...things like The Bugaloos, or Dr. Shrinker, or Land of the Lost...right down to the guys in the rubber-faced, monster outfits (and a very sexy necromancer...necromantress? an updated "Witchie-Poo"). If OHD was to take its cues from the Krofft brothers...well, I think we'd see a style of medium eminently suitable to the production.

Of course, OHD doesn't have the sound studios (mores the pity), which I would guess is due to budgetary constraints. But dammit, that's another major gripe I have! Much as I love some of the forest scenes (the Elvish king was a highpoint for me...I shall henceforth portray all elves in similar fashion), I get tired of watching the characters tramp through the outdoors. A D&D-inspired show should have more "dungeon" to it...and necromancers and undead should not be hanging out in broad daylight just because it's cheaper to light. Isn't there some local set designer that could cobble together something modular in way of a "dungeon set" that could be shifted around as needed to represent different  chambers and whatnot? I mean, isn't it kind of a running gag of D&D that all dungeons are composed of perfect 10' wide corridors? Couldn't that be built into the show as part of the commentary/humor/satire of the thing?

Anyway, I've known some pretty creative set designers who were good at coming up with all sorts of clever ideas on the cheap (one of the reasons they got paid before the actors). Maybe no one was to be found among the back alleys and neighborhood theaters of Alberta, but I have a tough time believing it. I'd like to see OHD scrounge something up for season three.

Let's see; what else? I disliked the "beating-the-dead-horse-into-the-ground" brand of humor. A lot of time, it seemed that one-note-joke scenes ran overlong, filling far too many empty minutes (how many mummy heads need to fly before one gets the point? how many times do we have to explain the Lich Lord's "orb" isn't his eye?)...but perhaps that's a stylistic choice, or perhaps I am just an un-funny person. For me, it felt like the script could have used an extra set of eyes to say, "hey man, hit it  and quit it" and move on to the next clever/funny bit. The actors...especially the returned ones from last season...seemed competent enough to deserve some better writing.

But OTHER THAN ALL THAT...yeah, I just threw up a few thousand words of negativity, but I still think One Hit Die is a fun project, worth watching/supporting and certainly worth continuing. I think it's ambitious (in a good way), and can see the possibility of the show being pretty cool with a little tweaking to the writing and production; certainly, it could be a vehicle for communicating useful commentary on both the game and gaming...the scene where the thief gets stuck in the girdle of masculinity/femininity and turns into a "sexy pirate" was both amusing and (dare I say) pertinent ('Why are your shoulders suddenly bare?"). Even the whole "teamwork" thing was a nice coda to the season, if a little primary school in tone...but then, didn't I say the thing would be better suited to the old Saturday Morning Krofft shtick?

[and oh, the druid. Loved the druid. Need to get him reincarnated]

So watch the series, recommend it, support it, and hope that One Hit Die will continue to grow and evolve. That's what I intend to do. Hell, in all honesty, I wish I could get in on the certainly looks like they're having fun with it.
: )

A-Z Reflection Post

I finished the A-Z April "blog challenge" last month, and I'm offering these thoughts for those for the folks who run the thing (per their request):

Probably won't do it again.

This was my second go-around with the challenge (the last time was in 2011...five years ago!), and I wanted to see if I could "still do it." As before, I was able to complete the thing. The strategy for me is simple: think of a theme, and figure out your 26 theme-related alpha topics prior to starting. After that, it's all about grinding out the posts.

"Grind." That's the best way to describe it. My posts were, for the most part, lackluster and uninspired...forced, really. Most of the times when I blog, there's something I'm itching to write about...stuff that keeps me up at 3am (not that I sleep anyway). I didn't feel that way this time. Perhaps I chose a poor topic...certainly I chose an "easy" one for a gaming blog. Maybe it's just the "other stuff" in my life was getting me down. I don't know.

What I do know is that the A-Z challenge felt like an endurance race this year, and I'm not really built for least not when it comes to creativity. At least not this year. I did it, mainly 'cause I dislike being categorized as a "quitter" (I fully intend to come back to all my unfinished projects at SOME point in my life) and because it didn't take a ton of effort. If the challenge had been "write 1000 words on every daily topic" ...well, that might have broken my resolve.

As it was, I "phoned it in" and it still felt like a grind.

SO...probably won't be participating in the future. I've had two shots at it, finished both, and now will return to my usual bloggishness. Maybe my tune will change in the future...check in with me in another five years.

Didn't know where else to put this.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


I got some bad news earlier this week. Oh, it's no big deal for folks not from Seattle...and even for folks who are, it won't matter much unless you care about basketball (which I don't) or private investors dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy in the form of jobs, improvements, and infrastructure (that's me). So...well, a bit of a downer.

So to cheer myself up, I started surfing the blogs (as I'm wont to do), looking for something to lighten my mood. Specifically, I was interested in finding info about Paul Reiche's (and Erol Otus's) old FAE supplements The Necromican and Booty and the Beasts. What I found was Mr. Lizard's fantastic gaming blog, and I've spent much o this week reading his archives.

Ian "Lizard" Harac is a very smart, very funny guy who's been playing RPGs since the 70s...a looong time, in other words. A part-time game designer (his latest book has good reviews), he makes no bones about his affection for "gonzo" gaming...his pet project (years in the works) is a GW-style game with a bat-winged, laser-eyed bear for a logo (Earth Delta). He was heavily inspired in his formative years by the Arduin books of David Hargrave, and that's mostly what I've been reading: his series of posts reviewing, detailing and commenting on the three tomes that make up "the Arduin Cycle."

For me, a guy who was never exposed to Arduin (never owned, read, perused, or played in Hargrave's world), Lizard's articles have been nothing less than fascinating. And funny..I often find myself laughing out loud at his caustic observations. I'm a big fan of snark and sarcasm (there are worse failings to have...*drink*), and Lizard is an equal-opportunity offender, sniping at Old School, New School, and Indie gaming wherever his fancy takes him. At the same time, it's obvious the love and admiration he has for these crazy-works, books that have inspired his own gaming for I said, he makes no bones about it.

Not that he plays OD&D or S&W or any other retro-clone...Lizard is a Pathfinder guy these days, and the content he posts on his blog (other than reviews and reflections) is for that game, which he finds preferable with its well-defined limits and boundaries...even if he approaches it in a gonzo fashion. His stance is that "D&D" is more a genre than a system, a genre defined by its kitchen sink, gonzo attitude (not to mention dungeon delving and whatnot), and the system Pathfinder (or D20) provides (with its defined conditions and visual battle mats) gives him the freedom to allow his imagination free reign unencumbered by a system that can degenerate into argument over ill-defined rules.

In fact, Lizard is pretty explicit in his criticism of what he sees as some "revisionist history" among OSR folks. What he is quick to point out (and something I don't disagree with) is that, far from being enamored with a "rules light" or "streamlined" approach to role-playing, real "old school" play was typified by players (and DMs) wanting MORE rules...more systems, more mechanics, more definitions. More clarification of a game that was far from clear. The additional supplements to OD&D, the additional rules published in The Dragon, the larger page count of AD&D, the extra denigrated volumes of the Unearthed Arcana, etc. were all things clamored for by players...players dissatisfied with the Rules As Written.  In addition to Arduin, he points to the other fantasy RPGs that were published back in the day that (with the exception of Tunnels & Trolls) added more complex rules, skill systems, combat options, etc. to what was the basic D&D-ish premise...not necessarily trying to model realism but wanting to model more.

As I said, I don't disagree with him. If I like and champion B/X or other "basic" games these days, it's because they provide something closer to the happy medium I prefer in gaming. Certainly that wasn't how I operated in my youth, when I was a stickler for segments and speed factor and weapon vs. armor and minutia. A Dragon mag that provided new, specific "thieves' tools" (each with their own cost, skill affected, and individual bonus) and random tables for determining what was in the purse or pocket that the thief was picking...that kind of stuff was appreciated by myself and my players. New "content" for the game (whether from the UA or the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, etc.) was welcomed as new "canon" and quickly adapted into our game. It did head off arguments and provide guidelines when a young Dungeon Master (myself) needed some back-up "authority" for my rulings. It's no good saying the objective of a game is "having fun" when different people at the table have different concepts of fun.

Lizard's writing...both about Arduin and his remembrances of the hobby "back in the day"...has really got me thinking and considering my own game, reflecting on how much "gonzo" I want and what I feel are appropriate limits for, well, everything. Level advancement and allowable classes. Magic consumption and endgames. Adherences to genre consistency and allowing the imagination free reign. In my youth, my co-DM and I created all sorts of random tables and systems on par with what one finds in the Arduin books...but we only did so when there wasn't already an appropriate table or system available as "canon" for our games (which was often enough that we had many pages of such charts and tables). In my youth, I stole ideas willy-and-nilly from any fiction, film, or TV show that caught my imagination and while (I admit) I still do this somewhat, it's nowhere near the wild abandon with which I use to approach my "larceny." These days I'm more restrained (I'd like to say "refined" but that might be giving myself too much credit), and I wonder if my concepts suffer a bit from being too conservative and/or staid in my approach.

Well, regardless, it's gotten me thinking (though I have a lot of other things on my mind this week and most of it is NOT gamer related). And it is entertaining reading. If, like me, you had the misfortune to miss Arduin the first-time around, you might just want to take a gander at what Mr. Lizard has to say on the subject. His passion for the material is positively contagious.

"Gonzo" - when practical < awesome.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Different Type of "Skill Check"

I'm sure I've posted the following excerpt in the past, but I can't be bothered to find it at the moment, so here it is again:

"SAVING VS. ABILITIES (OPTIONAL): The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability ratings (Strength, etc.). The player must roll the ability rating or less on a d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task, +4 for a difficult one, etc.). It is suggested that a roll of 1 always succeed and a roll of 20 always fail."

- From the 1981 D&D Expert Set, page X51

A simple enough rule, and one that I've used on many occasions running B/X; it is the basis for the BECMI skills first presented in the various Mystara "gazetteers" and later in the Rules Cyclopedia.

[these, by the way, worked pretty much the same as the AD&D "non-weapon proficiencies" (first presented in Oriental Adventures, a book mainly written by the same guy: Zeb Cook), and exactly the same as Cook's 2nd Edition AD&D non-weapon proficiencies...all of which I hate, by the way]

I never much cared for the BECMI skills (even when I liked BECMI), and these days I'm not even a fan of the "roll under ability" rule. Simple as it is, when I look back on the way I've used it in the past, I find myself shuddering a bit.

Why? Because I used it as a catchall guideline rule for determining whether or not a PC could execute a particular plan or out-of-the-box action effectively, rather than presuming character competence. It's an antithetical approach to my current philosophy of D&D play.

But aside from any "philosophical" issues, as a form of micro-managing character action it leads to a higher rate of character incompetence, which is less fun for everyone involved. Consider one of the classic challenges of AD&D: the suspended disks acting as a "trail" over boiling mud from White Plume Mountain. A standard method of getting across the cavern (for those who aren't able to fly) is to make a series of jumps from disk-to-disk, using a "roll-under-ability" for success. Certainly, that's what I've always done in the past.

[don't laugh]

Here's the problem: with a check of this type, a series of task rolls reduces one's chance of success exponentially. Consider the guy with a DEX of 80% chance to make the jump to a disk is pretty good, right? Sure...but having to make all nine jumps (there are nine disks in the cavern) means that the cumulative chance of success is only 13%. It's a bit better if (like me) your DM allowed a "reroll" attempt on a miss (a second DEX check to see if the PC can "catch herself") but even then it's no better than a 4-in-6 chance of overall success...and less if the guy has to roll to make it from the last disk to the opposite ledge (a 10th jump). And THAT for a PC with DEX 16...what about the shlub who only has DEX 10?

"Aiieeee! It burns! It burns!"
[by the way, even 3E's alternate skill system runs into this issue in their version of WPM, requiring a jump skill check of 14 for every single disk. Fine and dandy for 7th level PCs who've maxed out their jump and have an 18 DEX (the average L7 thief in 3E)...but what about the guys who didn't put points into jump? Multiply their success chance against itself ten times to see what they're REAL chance of navigating the challenge is!]

Of course, there's more to complain about than just this. Binary (yes/no, success/fail) systems lack any kind of grey-area gradient. There's no room for partial success (nor partial failure), which can curb the irritation at "whiffing completely" while still preserving the old school integrity of character's NOT always failing up just because they're (story) "protagonists."

Thus enter Steve C's rather brilliant idea of repurposing the standard B/X reaction table to account for more than simply whether or not a wandering subterranean denizen wants to take your head as a trophy for its mate. Steve's idea was to use the table to expedite all manner of random issues that might come up in game, rather than spend time searching for obscure systems or hemming-&-hawing over how to rule certain situations...things that other DM's might determine with a simple coin flip (the ultimate binary test) could instead have a non-binary gradient to it.

For folks unfamiliar with the reaction table, it's a 2D6 roll which can be modified by a CHA adjustment (max of +/- two, and usually no more than one point) or circumstance (again, usually by no more than a point or two). The table results break down like this:

2 or less: Immediate attack
3 to 5: Hostile reaction
6 to 8: Uncertain, confusion (roll again)
9 to 11: No attack, leaves or considers offer
12: Enthusiastic friendship

[I realize that this table originally appeared in Might & Magic (OD&D), but Steve's use of an ability score adjustment is what leads me to presume he's taking it from B/X, seeing as how neither OD&D nor Holmes offered specific ability-based (CHA) adjustment to reaction checks...and Moldvay did]

Steve runs with this, giving a simple five-result table ranging from "catastrophically bad" to "extremely good" as a way of judging all those little things that crop up in a game. I say, hell, let's take it a step further and use it to resolve all those "ability saves" in a non-binary fashion!

Take the White Plume Mountain example. Rather than force players to make a series of jumping rolls, why not have them make a single roll (modified by DEX) to see how well they navigate the challenge?

2D6 (modified by DEX initiative adjustment):
2 or less: mistimes jump, plummets into mud (take damage from fall and boiling mud, as usual)
3 to 5: nearly slips but manages to grasp edge of disk though being completely dowsed by muddy geyser (take damage and al further checks to navigate disks are made at -2 penalty).
6 to 8: holds up on disk just in time as a geyser blows (take moderate damage; roll again to continue with cumulative +1 bonus)
9 to 11: made it across! only light damage taken from geyser splatters
12 or more: what a show! made it across without being splashed (and damaged) by boiling mud.

Nice, huh? So much simpler and quicker to resolve than a series of tests, and with an easy range of possible outcomes. Using the reaction table as a base, many "ability challenges" can be resolved in this way, with tastier results than binary systems, and little-to-no need for any kit-bashed skills system.

Some folks may object to such a simplified system of task resolution, saying it doesn't take into account character experience...shouldn't a 6th level character (for example) be better at such a task than a 3rd level character? To those folks I say: HUH? What in a character's class training has taught her how to navigate some mad wizard's bizarre challenge? Why would "experience" count for any such thing?

This isn't a "skill" in which a character trains (like fighting and thieving and spell-casting)...nor is it something that falls into a character's presumed sphere of competence (like knowing how to build a fire or how to tie a good knot or how to mend her basic equipment). We're talking about strange situations, outside the ordinary things encountered...things where the "save versus ability" roll has (in the past) been the main explicit option. Even if a character HAS done the "jumping disk" thing in a past adventure, chances are she hasn't been prepping every weekend since, like some fitness nut training for the American Ninja Warrior competition.

No...success or failure at these kinds of challenges need a system that shows the virtual crapshoot of attempting it (i.e. via random roll), possibly modified by native talent, possibly modified by other DM-arbitrated adjustments (as with reaction rolls). And in such cases, I think it's fair to have a range of possible consequences, only the worst of which is "abject failure."

This is something I'll be throwing into my future games...assuming I ever get back to the gaming table. Thanks for this, Steve!
: )