Friday, December 29, 2017


One area in which AD&D (and 2E and 3E and 4E and 5E) exceeds B/X is the number of different classes it offers players from the outset, ensuring a large variety of possible character types, and thus distinct variations in players' party composition.

Which is a good thing, because that makes for interesting play.

Now I can quibble over how good, or useful, or redundant, or necessary each available character type is (and I have in the past), but I've come to the conclusion that this doesn't change the end result: a little extra variation is a good thing to encourage long term interest and engagement, and the seven B/X classes might not provide sufficient options.

Hell, I probably already knew this (deep down somewhere in my subconscious) I not the guy who published The Complete B/X Adventurer, containing some 17 new character classes for B/X? Certainly, I allowed these new classes to appear at my B/X gaming table (and they did), spicing up the rather staid parade of fighter, fighter, dwarf, fighter, elf, etc. For all the benefits inherent in the streamlined B/X design, it remains a BASIC game, one that needs tooling for long-term engagement. That's no joke.

My longest running campaign, in which I was involved both as a player and as a DM, lasted from circa 1982 to 1988...close to seven years. That may not seem like all that long...and it isn't, compared to some long running campaigns spanning decades. But it represented a significant number of hours, considering how much available time we had to play as children. Homework was light in those days (or easily ignored), and what extracurricular activities we practice, piano lessons, Scouts, whatever...only took a couple hours a week. At school, after school, weekends, vacations, we were planning or playing our game.

During that time we had six to eight regular players, with a couple other visitors showing up for the odd game or two. Among the seven I'd consider to be real contributors to the campaign...who actively participated and around whom our various adventures resolved...we had a total of 29 original characters whose names and specs I can readily recall. Remembering that we started with B/X, only gradually converting to AD&D as we acquired books (and grandfathering in old B/X characters when necessary), I can tell you that:
  • Not counting henchmen (of which there were few), only ONE race-class combo was repeated (there was a human fighter, created during our B/X days, and a second created a few years later. Interestingly, both were played by female players, despite AD&D strength limitations based on sex).
  • Of those 29 characters, 21 were race-class combos found in the first edition Players Handbook.
  • Of the eight characters that were not "standard" PHB characters, six were made using rules found in  the Unearthed Arcana (three were Drow, one was a human barbarian, and the other two incorporated the thief-acrobat subclass in their design).
  • The remaining two characters were created using rules found in Dragon magazine or 3rd party sources.
  • None of the characters were gnomes or (if I remember correctly) half-orcs.
  • None of the characters were druids, paladins, monks, or cavaliers.
Race-Class combos for years, y'all.
That's a lot of mileage out of a single book. The total number of race-class combinations found in the first edition PHB are 34, not counting dual-class, multi-class, or bard characters. As we tended towards "optimal" configurations (no half-orc clerics or elven fighters, for example) it's unsurprising we only used a portion of the possible character types available.

But we did create a large number of characters...and there were NPC druids and monks, etc. who found their way into the campaign, representing their individual character types. The sheer number of possibilities permitted by the AD&D system provided plenty of grist for the imagination mill, allowing us to churn out a thriving campaign world of class/race-based factions, colorful characters, and adventures equivalent to any cheap-ass, knock-off fantasy novel.

Which isn't said to be harsh, by the way. We weren't authors trying to create "great literature;" we were kids playing an adventure game. The play of the thing, and our engagement with it, was la cosa mas importante...the most important thing (sorry, still in Mexico). Having that variety...occasionally supplemented by a Dragon mag, or the UA, or whatever...allowed us to remain engaged, and play the hell out of the game, for many years. Our game group fell apart for reasons of social dynamic, not any lack of interest or inspiration. We weren't failed by the system...certainly not the way (I believe) later editions failed their players...we were failed by issues that arose outside the game.

[folks who continue to play and enjoy later editions of D&D...2nd to 5th...are welcome to disagree with that last sentiment. And, yes, I guess the jury IS still out on 5E (people are playing it and loving it, from what I gather). But from my own experience, 2nd and 3E both failed to retain the interest and engagement of myself and those I played it with (due to their system design "features") and it appears evident that 4E failed a majority of players on a pretty large scale]

Anyway, as I consider the system requirements of my own redesigned campaign world, I find myself remembering things that worked well in the past, and this particular aspect of the AD&D game was one of those things. Wholesale availability of class and race combinations isn't desirable (I've seen the madness of that in my 3E days), but I'm a lot less opposed to the idea than I was a few years ago.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

It Starts With Religion

Hope everyone had a "merry, merry" and all that jazz. My holiday (which continues this week in Mexico) has been pretty good, what with the food, family, and fun. Heck, I even got to watch the Seahawks game Sunday, an exceptional gift, in and of itself (as well as a bit of a Christmas miracle, all things considered).

But has been tough to get any blogging done (duh) with the festivities. Not to say this was my intention (it wasn't), but I have had some things I wanted to write about. I've been trying to finish up a post on The Temple of Elemental Evil for about four days, and just haven't quite put the capper on it. Still, that's just one of several things floating around my brain.

When considering the creation of a fantasy campaign...or, more accurately, it's "milieu" (to use the Gygaxian term) has to consider how things tie together, setting and system, in order to ensure a type of consistency that will last long term. Not necessarily because "everything needs to make sense;" sensibility, is actually a little bit down on the list of necessaries for a good, fun game. But because it helps establish boundaries and paradigms within which one can create.

[does it sounds like I'm gearing up for some sort of painfully amorphous, "thought exercise" blog post? Yeah, I guess it does. But I'll try to keep it short]

Ancestor was raped by a dragon.
For example, what is the overall fecundity of fantasy species in your game world? Is it some sort of Xanthian cauldron of crazy that allows for half-dwarves and goblin-troll hybrids? Some fantasy allows for vampires to have biological progeny (the "daughter of Dracula" kind of thing); others take a far more staid approach to the subject. Decisions like this (and the relative sentience of species and levels of variance and ability) not only inform how the game world looks, but important system considerations like what are playable races, and whether or not non-human characters are allowed to choose between different classes.

Similarly, there are issues of tone to consider. Here, I'm not talking about dictating player behavior...over the years, I've come to the conclusion it's damn near impossible to influence something that will be (largely) determined by the particular group dynamic of the players you're saddled with. But one has to decide the "background noise" of the world. Is everyone living in fear of some unconquerable horde that periodically ravages the civilized lands? Do the rulers of the realm more resemble the High King of Gondor or the scheming nobles of Game of Thrones? Is magic an inherited birthright, a supernatural art, or some form of lost, "higher science?" All these things contribute to the flavor of the campaign setting, informing what type of scenarios and situations might be encountered by players...and also places limits on what becomes necessary for rules.

For me, however, I've come to the conclusion that my first cosmological priority is, and has to be, the form and shape of religion in the game world.

Not, necessarily, the God or gods of universe, or the "creation story" of my little fantasy setting. These things are generally "higher mysteries" that players may or may not discover...and that are possibly subject to change (with new "discoveries" or revelations that occur in play). And anyway, I already know how this particular universe was created: I made it. Probably the players will know that, too.

But people relate to their belief systems (and the effect those belief systems have on the people) is a major, serious, foundational bit of world building for a fantasy campaign, especially one based (however loosely) on the Dungeons & Dragons system. Not only with regard to the clerical class and its related subclasses, but also alignment, magic, the ordering of the natural and supernatural, the organization of societies, the conflicts inherent in the world, the value of treasure...just a crap-ton of different aspects of the game, its systems, and the fantasy environment in which the players will adventure.

Anyhoo. Maybe I'm wrong, but for my game, that's what I'm starting with. Apologies, but at the moment, I don't have time to elaborate.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Apologies, folks. I'm a total jackass.

By which I mean to say, I had originally planned on writing a rather long and insightful (or, at least, entertaining) post, but I simply don't have the time. I am winging off to Mexico tomorrow to spend the Christmas holiday with the in-laws, and I thought my travel time was to begin in the afternoon/evening. Turns out: no. My plane leaves at 9am, which means I have precious little time to get everything packed (and the house in order), before catching a little sleep and getting the kids up, a couple hours earlier than they're used to. I'm doing this on my own, of course, as my wife is currently in Paraguay; we're meeting in the middle.

[my children, while under the age of seven, are veteran travelers and real troopers when it comes to this kind of thing. Unfortunately, they are fuck-all worthless when it comes to packing and organizing or even (with regard to my youngest) dressing themselves or cleaning their own nether regions] I am pressed for time, I will simply give you the skinny in bullet point form:
  • I will be out of the country till New Year's so anyone ordering books are S.O.L. until January, when I will fulfill any and all orders in my inbox.
  • Likewise, I will be (mostly) unavailable to answer the various emails and comments I sometimes receives.
  • I am very hopeful that you ALL have a HAPPY and SAFE holiday season. I know that's not always possible, through no fault of your own (observe Monday's tragic Amtrak derailment in my own neck of the woods), but I'll send up a prayer that everyone makes it through to 2018.
  • I've been doing a lot of reading and research on the old Traveller game this last week. And not just ANY edition of Traveller but, specifically, the original 1977, first edition of the game...which happens to be (oddly enough) different in many respects from all the later editions, even the 1981 "re-print" (the only one available in PDF at the moment, as far as I've found). I found an incredibly interesting resource over at the Tales to Astound blog, and have spent at least a dozen hours or so reading through his entire string of "classic Traveller" posts. Very enlightening stuff, especially the relationship of the game (both its themes and gameplay) to the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. Fascinating, and definitely recommended reading for the Traveller enthusiast. Hopefully I'll have a chance to revisit the topic in a future post.
Aaaaand...that's about all I have time for. I'll try to get out a post or two while I'm in Mexico, but if I don't, know that I'm wishing you all a "merry, merry" one...whatever it is that makes you merry this time of year.
: )

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Admitting Defeat

The other day I blogged about picking up a few 2nd edition AD&D books (used) in a moment of birthday self-indulgence. One of these books was the adventure Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. Return is one of those "silver (25th) anniversary" adventures put out by TSR shortly after TSR's acquisition by Wizards of the Coast; it is, of course, based on the old B2 adventure Keep on the Borderlands of which I've spilled plenty of internet ink. As I've only played 2nd edition on a couple occasions (even after it was published, my friends and I continued to use 1E), these were never a priority of acquisition, although I have owned Return to White Plume Mountain since it was first published...a lovely little adventure that greatly expands the original, creates several interesting challenges, encourages faction play, and has a nice little moral quandary and multiple ending "solution."

Nice art, but I prefer Roslov.
Return to the Keep on the Borderlands isn't quite as expansive, appearing to adhere much closer to its original source material (though I'm still in the process of giving it a really thorough read). It is also, much like the original B2, designed to be used with beginning players and characters, offering all sorts of tricks, tips, and advice to the new Dungeon Master which, as I recently mentioned is sadly lacking in the 2nd edition DMG.

Of special interest is the following note on page 3:
Dividing Treasure & Experience
The original D&D and 1st edition AD&D games gave experience points for treasure gained and monsters slain; 2nd edition AD&D shifts the emphasis to story awards and specifies that it's only necessary to defeat the foe, not necessarily kill them (sometimes it's better to take prisoners). For purposes of this adventure, the Dungeon Master is strongly encouraged to use the optional rule that grants experience for treasure (at the rate of 1 XP per 1 gp value); this sends the message to the players that there are a multitude of right approaches to take (combat, stealth, negotiation), not a single preferred method of play.
[a slight quibble, but per the 1981 Basic D&D set, "Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting, or wits." Outright slaying is not required]

Emphasis added by Yours Truly.

While (as might be imagined) a crotchety old grognard like myself is inclined to cackle a bit upon reading this (oh, you finally figured out your 2E XP system was silly and counterproductive), I mainly find myself wondering why this reasoning wasn't carried over and implemented in later editions. After all, the author of Return to the Keep is John D. Rateliff, a WotC employee for years, and co-editor for both the 3rd edition PHB and DMG.  After all-but-outright conceding that an XP-for-treasure reward system is a road that opens D&D to something other than straight combat, WotC defaulted the other way, making the game about fighting monsters ever since.

Fuck, dudes.

I took the time to review my old 3E books this afternoon, just to see if there was some "optional rule" about calculating XP based on treasure I'd missed or failed to remember. Nope. Just challenge ratings and "story awards." I wonder what the reasoning was, what was discussed in the brainstorming sessions and design meetings when they decided this would be the way to go. Were they already considering the plethora of other-genre D20 games that would be published based on their proprietary OGL? I know that the OGL itself was developed as a tool to rope in and destroy D&D's competition in the marketplace.

Hmm. Maybe something to look into.

Friday, December 8, 2017

On Victimhood

Kyle Mecklem recently blogged his thoughts on how and why D&D has become a "boring" game in recent years. While I think his analysis is a little off (you can read my comments on his post), it still raises a subject I find worth discussing.

[not beating up on Kyle, here...I'm just riffing off his subject matter]

Sure, I can get on board with the idea that the latest editions of D&D don't hold the same appeal for me that the older versions of the game do, but that doesn't mean they're boring to everyone. Clearly there are folks enjoying 5th edition in some capacity, and who are more than willing to put their cash in Hasbro's cash register. Perhaps I am simply out-of-touch with what "the kids" want these days...certainly that's true with regard to pop music and reality television.

And even if though I can come around (rather easily, I admit) to an idea that the game is objectively "less fun/exciting" than it was "back in the day," I'm rather hesitant to consider it has anything to do with the reasons Kyle lists: low effort players, hand waving away of minutia, and the lack of "true challenge." I can see how these things might appear to be causes of this "boring-ness problem" -- they are all features of classic "old school" play, and Kyle's premise seems to imply old school play being more desirable than the current systems -- but I'd argue against them. After all:

- There are plenty of RPGs that require extensive, pre-play character development that offer nothing like classic D&D play. Furthermore, if players are approaching the game with a "video game mentality" (as Kyle suggests), I would lay the fault at the feet of a game designed with video game sensibilities, not the players' response.

- Too much minutia can be off-putting and distracting from the escapism of the game being played. Some people want to count arrows and torches; some people find this breaks their immersive experience. Different players have different thresholds for the amount of minutia they can handle; I for one did not enjoy the "challenge" of worrying about my caloric intake when I played in a certain on-line campaign.

- Games that are too deadly in nature promote caution in players, leading to slower play, which I consider to be fairly boring. On the other hand, what Kyle describes as a "slow grind" is very inherent of some styles of Old School play, and the wahoo "lich council assault" he describes sounds much more video gamey in nature. I suppose I'd just say these are matters of style and personal taste over something inherent in the game itself (neither in its current nor past incarnations).

Here's the thing: what Kyle is expressing is a lack of satisfaction with the D&D game experience these days, and I can agree with that. I mean, I have sampled 5th edition and found it dead boring (and 3rd edition, which I played for a couple-three years, was at least as much, if not more so). Mostly though (mostly), I would chalk this up more to the manner in which the game has been presented...the main marketing thrust of the game since the advent of the 21st century seems to have been to make the perspective DM reliant on company-created game resources, rather than promoting one's own ability to create and run the game independently. This may be an excellent business model (evidenced by the company remaining in business) or it may not be (I haven't purchased any of their D&D stuff in 15 years). Regardless, I don't subscribe to this presentation of D&D, and I would actively discourage anyone else from doing so, were they to ask my opinion.

['course, I'm not playing much at all these days, though I am gearing up for the future, so take my opinion for what it's worth]

Alexis Smolensk, bless his ever-present-desire-to-help-us-be-better-DMs, has written a couple good posts about encouraging player agency over victimhood.  "Victimhood," a term I'd use interchangeably with "de-protagonization," may be the usual state players find themselves in when playing a published adventure path, but it's been the default starting point for adventures since the Hickman/Weiss era of the mid-1980s. See examples such as Dragonlance ("Your village has been burned and you've been captured by the Dragon Army"), the Desert of Desolation series ("You've offended the local lord and you are being forced to do this quest in the desert"), and, of course, Ravenloft ("You're trapped by this mysterious fog in some Transylvania-equivalent; go break the curse!").  And reading and running (and aping) published adventures is one of the main ways young DMs learn their craft.

[I'd argue that earlier adventures (Against the Giants, the Slavers Series, early Basic modules) offer a bit more player agency: here's some adventure site, do you want to take it on or not?]

Unfortunately (in addition to de-protagonizing players), relying on this kind of heavy-handed story-forcing doesn't do a DM any favors, either. Not only are they subject to extensive cliches (how can it not be, when fantasy adventure gaming is built upon and chock full of cliches?) but requiring a DM to follow a dramatic plot...whether a published one or a story of her own design...ties the DM's hands, limiting the DM's ability to improvise and adapt to the needs/wants of players or even (on occasion) the results of the dice rolled.

Yes, such constrained play can certainly feel trite and/or boring.

In my opinion, the main lacking in the most recent editions (perhaps ALL editions) of D&D is the clear, concise instruction needed by perspective DMs for building and running adventures and campaigns. Without that instruction...well, you get what you've got.

And that's all I've got to say on the matter right now.

***EDIT: I wrote this post before reading this, published today. It's a little harsh, but not terrible advice to the perspective DM. More of this kind of thing would be helpful, I think.***

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Better Wheel

There are a number of different posts that I've been wanting to write lately, but lack of time and distraction has made it a real challenge to do anything besides scribing in my own brain. Because of this, I might be hitting a bunch of semi-random subjects in this post.

I'll start with this:

I've been considering re-writing Dungeons & Dragons for my own purposes. This is stupid on a lot of levels. First off, it's not a very original idea. Second, it's not a profitable use of my time (no one's going to buy such a thing). Third, I've already done this before (see Five Ancient Kingdoms). Fourth, it's just a stupid, stupid idea.

I might still do it, however, because there are some things that really bug me about the game as it exists. Ability score modifiers. A lot of stuff about combat. Lack of specificity with regard to classes. Too much specificity with regard to classes. "Subjective time" in a game. Some spells. A bunch of random things.

Here's a thought that keeps going through my head: should a fight with a band of orcs be run the same as a fight with Demogorgon? How about a fight with an ogre? If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then you may (like me) have a problem with the combat rules, regardless of the edition you're using. I know I do, in part because it's caused me to avoid certain types of play in the past (depending on the edition I'm running)...and I shouldn't have to do that.

More on that (perhaps) later. Next:

I've been re-reading Alexis Smolensk's How to Run, specifically Part 4: Worldbuilding. When I wrote about this section in my review of his book (a few years back), I may have given it shorter shrift than it deserved...and if so, I would chalk that up to being intimidated, overwhelmed, and (frankly) not really understanding everything in that section. Well, I'm a couple years older and wiser and I'm seeing the thing with new eyes. Maybe it's just more extensive reading of Alexis's blog, but I'm comprehending the concepts he's communicating and I'm drinking the Kool-Ade. It's still intimidating, but it's not overwhelming.

The last couple years or so I've been considering what kind of setting I'd prefer to run as a D&D campaign...always assuming I will (eventually) get the chance to run a D&D game at some time in the future (as my children continue to get older, it seems the possibility is more likely). It's been tough nailing down concepts...what I want the setting to look like, what I want the game to look like. Sometimes I want something one way, sometimes another. But up till now, I've never bothered to sit down and actually outline it, actually write it up. I haven't bothered considering the functions and structures I'd need to get the game that I want. Re-reading How to Run, four years later with a lot of water under ye old bridge, I find Alexis has a great roadmap for creating such a thing...if I bother to use it.

Back in September, I wrote a post that I intended to follow with a discussion of strategies for enhancing play and increasing gaming "longevity." Obviously, I never got to that. But the gist would have been (mainly) about attending to the immersive least, with regard to fantasy adventure games like D&D. Much of that particular discussion could have involved cribbing from strategies outlined in How to Run, manipulating players feelings/stress level both through one's presentation/style (as Dungeon Master), and use of the rules (structure) in play. I've started coming around to the idea that what has made me a successful Dungeon Master in the past (i.e. one that could attract and retain players), has far less to do with any amazing creativity on my part, and much more about how I handle my players at the I run my games.

Which may seem like a no-brainer to folks (duh, JB)...but I'm talking about the extent of the importance. Let me put it this way: Sure, I've always felt I was fairly competent (hell, competent enough to expound on "the Art of Being a DM" here on Ye Old Blog) and that this contributed to my players' enjoyment. After all, I've been at the table with other GMs whose style or ability wasn't to my liking, to the detriment of the game being played. But I figured this accounted for only a small percentage of a game's overall "enjoyment factor;" say, something in the realm of 30-50%.

What I'm starting to believe (now) is that the manner in which we run a game accounts for more like 80-90% of whether or not a game is going to be successful. Assuming everyone's on board with the game being played (system, genre) originality and creativity of design, while important, is only a small part of what makes for a successful gaming experience. We've all killed orcs before, re-skinned or not. Can the DM immerse you in a game world that sucks your breath away, not with its unique design, but with the manner in which it's presented? Pacing and panache; competence and confidence.

While the game remains a game, can the DM make you forget that fact? If he or she can, even for a moment, then you can enjoy a short period of transcendence which makes RPGs like D&D so much more enjoyable than most pastimes.

This is why "world creation" is such an important step for the guy (or gal) running the game. In developing one's world, you have the opportunity to know it intimately...and that allows you to speak with authority to your players. It's why you need to have real investment in your world (and sound the time creating the world you want): so that you, the DM, wants to spend time there. If you can't be excited about your own setting, how can you communicate that to your players?

In the past, I've rarely considered the world past the adventures I've designed...I've tended to run my D&D games as "episodic," dungeon-of-the-week affairs (at least, since my adulthood). I've achieved some success (i.e. created enjoyment) for players because of the way I run my game sessions, but I've had little success running long-term campaigns. I've no established world that makes folks want to come back for more. I've no established setting that makes me want to come back for more. I have no Middle Earth, no Urutsk, no Tekumel, no Greyhawk. I have nothing invested, and there's nothing in which to invest.

Running the game (that 80-90% of determining player enjoyment) includes running a campaign/setting. Long-term play is one of the bennies an RPG lie D&D enjoys over other's one of the "perks" of its design. And I've always known that (duh)...I just haven't paid that fact the attention it needs and deserves.

Anyway. Remaking the wheel. That's what I'm thinking about lately, with regard to D&D. World building and rule writing. Function and structure. I'm beginning to think that it's no coincidence that many original campaign settings, developed by individual creators over decades, have rules that deviate substantially from the published game system (see Alexis, Kyrinn Eis, M.A.R. Barker, Dave Arneson...even Gygax). Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm wasting my brain power. But it's a thought that keeps carousing around my skull. Just thought I'd share.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Keeping the Flame Alive

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving holiday...well, for the readers who happen to celebrate that one. Other than being sick the last week or so (been passing the holiday colds around Ye Old Family Unit this month), mine was pretty good. Not spectacular perhaps...but does it have to be? Food on one's plate, family in attendance, a minimal amount of bickering. Definitely satisfactory. Everyone should be so fortunate.

Not a lot of time to write at the moment (what else is new), but wanted to say a few words. It was my birthday this month (turned 44 this year, though I daresay I look younger, despite the hairline) and in a fit of self-indulgence I picked up a few things from my favorite game shop. A handful of books, including a full set of 2nd Edition AD&D (PHB, DMG, Monstrous a couple of the 2.5 "Options" books). I've been thinking of these ones over the last year or so (I have owned them in the past), and when I saw they were available in the "used" section, I decided to splurge. More for research than nostalgia.

[though I have been feeling nostalgic birthday hit me kind of hard this year. And I had a whole "nostalgia post" teed up on the blog before I decided to have mercy on you all and the pull the plug on the thing. It was even more self-indulgent than usual]

It's been a while since I've read 2E, and while they do have some good stuff going for them (including what must be the best interior artwork of any edition...really, the overall quality of their color plates are excellent), my opinion of this particular edition has dropped even lower since reacquiring the books. I mean, for all the stuff they "clean up" they are fairly terrible at explaining how to play the f'ing game. Remember my series of posts comparing the 1st edition DMG with the 5th? Maybe not...I mean, it was two years ago.

[see here, here, here, here, and here if you're interested]

Well, 2E provides absolutely NO information on how to craft a campaign, or an adventure, or how to run a game. It's PHB provides rules (and spells) while the DMG provides supplemental rules (and magic items). But if you wanted to learn Dungeons & Dragons with only the 2nd Edition books for reference? You'd be shit out of luck. They basically tell you to find an existing group or look for a copy of the basic set (I suppose this would have been Mentzer's red box at the time). Hell, while the term "campaign" is used a couple-four times in the text, it doesn't even appear in the glossary. Like, WTF, dudes?

And yet I have it on good authority from an industry insider that 2nd edition remains one of the most popular versions of the game still selling (when it comes to "obsolete editions") right up there with 1st edition. Not because of the system, mind you, nor even nostalgia, but because of the plethora of settings that TSR published to go with 2E: Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright, Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur, Ravenloft, etc. Even Dragonlance (first created during the era of 1st edition) had substantial setting material released with 2nd edition. For folks who enjoy these settings and who possess neither the time nor inclination to do straight conversions, 2E is the system of choice.

Mm. Sad.

I've been thinking a lot about 1st edition AD&D lately (I told you, I've been feeling nostalgic), the version I used for most of my "formative gaming years." There's a lot of cool stuff in it, especially the asymmetry of the thing. I find it's lack of balance so charming...kind of like the unfairness of life.

Mm. That's pretty sad, too.

Anyway, I was having breakfast by myself the other day at a local hipster hangout (in the Ballard neighborhood, which is plenty hipster by itself), reading through my newly acquired 2E books. The amiable young woman in her (early) 20s asked me, politely, what I was reading. When I explained ("Dungeons & Dragons") she wanted to have a whole conversation about the game and how she wanted to learn how to play, how she had always been interested in the game, but how watching the Netflix show Stranger Things made her even more curious. Wanted to know if the game was accurately depicted in the series (as to how the game was "back in the day").

[I haven't bothered writing anything about Stranger Things on the blog as I figure any reader of mine who has access to the show will have already devoured it. Definitely my favorite Netflix offering, and I'm a fan of a LOT of their original programs]

So I gave her the discussion she was interested in and provided her with a list of games to check out and where to acquire them, including B/X and its various retroclones. I figured it was the least I could do. You know: just "keeping the flame alive." Giving the newbies the insight into the most accessible editions of the game.

Which is important. At least to me. Still. One of these days I'm going to get back into gaming and I'd like to see the ball is still rolling out there.

EDIT: Probably should have written "dice are still rolling," right?
; )

Monday, October 16, 2017

Our Last Best Hope

One thing I'd like to get back to one of these days is the dozen-or-so, half-finished drafts sitting in my blog's memory. I mean some of them are still pertinent. However, for the sake of "just doing something" (baby steps, right?) I'll write about something more current:

The last month or so, I've been dipping my toes back into the Magic: The Gathering world. The reason for this is pretty simple: my son has discovered Magic cards. Back in June, he be can collecting and trading Pokemon cards, and was gifted with a huge stack of the things from an older kid (11? 12 years old?) who'd moved onto MtG. While we played these earlier in the year, what's become a big part of the fun for my first grader is trading cards on the playground (before and after school), and Magic cards became the currency of choice sometime around the 2nd week of September.

I have a fairly substantial collection of MtG cards, most of which were purchased off an old roommate back in 1999 or 2000. We...myself and my housemates of the time, including my spouse (before we were married)...found the cards enjoyable for casual play, especially down at the Baranof, over breakfast, while nursing our tremendous hangovers (ah...wasted youth). But casual play was all we ever did with them. While it was fun to build decks and tweak them with the nickel cards you could pick up at Gary's (back in the day), none of us wanted to invest substantial amounts of money in them. For us, it was just a cool substitute for Rummy or Cribbage...something fun to play while relaxing with a beer (or whatever) in the evening.

While I did end up amassing a couple thousand cards, they got boxed up and (mostly) forgotten sometime around 2000 or 2001...after my wife and I moved out of that house and "grew up;" getting married, buying cars, and houses, etc. But as with many of my gaming products, I kept the cards (still in shoeboxes), figuring some day they'd get brought out again. And now they have.

[just in case anyone's wondering: I am a packrat, but I wouldn't call myself a hoarder. I have been known to part with things, even things of substantial nostalgic or symbolic value (my old electric guitar, for example). And some my 2nd Edition AD&D books...I found exceedingly easy to discard. I don't hang onto EVERYthing, folks!]

However, after a couple-four weeks of deck building and playing and attending one local, MtG competition (at a local shop with a substantially younger crowd), I find myself kind of sour on Magic, again. The cards are still neat and I really dig on the newest series (it's all inspired by South American-flavored pulp: lost world dinosaurs, Aztec-ish vampires and conquistadors, plus various South Seas pirates)...but I don't want to invest in a paper product that disintegrates in water, and certainly not to the extent that I could compete in a competitive environment. And just beating up on my six year old is kind of a dumb exercise in gaming. At least when we play Rummy he can win a hand or two.

But the boy still likes the cards and I picked him up a booster pack for him this weekend, as well as a new RPG for yours truly: Our Last Best Hope, a GM-less story-game by Mark Diaz Truman, inspired by the disaster movies of recent years that focus on world-threatening melodrama. Films like Armageddon, InterstellarThe Core, The Day After Tomorrow, and any of various zombie-apocalypse films that have graced the screen...stories where a small band of heroes must work together and overcome various obstacles to save the human race from extinction.

It's a well-known trope these days, and I'm kind of surprised at how familiar I am with it, considering these types of films bore the shit out of me. I mean, the formula's pretty tired, the drama pretty contrived...and yet these stories remain popular and (probably because there are so many of them) I've seen more than my fair share of them. Heck, some of 'em (like Armageddon) are a lot of fun, even...or especially...when they are at their most ridiculous. Regardless, the game is exceptionally well-crafted, and playing within such a recognizable genre gives players a real chance to ham things and have a great time.

Underrated classic
Hell, you could use it to model a lot of high stakes, crisis-type situations. Something like the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage...which I just re-watched with my kids a couple weeks ago (despite its age, I still find it a great film)...would be perfect for Our Last Best Hope. Even though humanity isn't on the brink of destruction, The Fate of the Free World is!
: )

I won't get into the specifics of the rules here except to say that compared to other "Story-Now" indie-games, it's very concise and focused with excellent practical in-game resources and a lot of new-tech support (including QR codes throughout the book that you can scan with a phone app for video examples of specific rules). But for me, it shows that there ARE real reasons for playing other RPGs, and other systems. You could not use (for example) the D20/Pathfinder system to emulate the large-scale disaster drama with the same kind of laser-focus that Truman brings with Our Last Best Hope.

It really warms my heart. Damn, there are some designers doing good work out there.

Anyway, Diego's not old enough to play (he's still a little young, even for D&D), so it'll probably be a while before I get a chance to try Our Last Best Hope. But it's definitely worth keeping on the shelf for some future, rainy day. Unlike the Magic cards, I doubt it'll take sixteen years for me to find an excuse to play it.
; )

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Soul Searching

I don't pray very often.

I just don't much anymore. Not because I don't believe in the power of prayer, but simply because I've gotten out of the habit of actually petitioning God for anything other than to do God's will. While I go to church more often these days than anytime since I was a child (I try to get my kids there every Sunday), and I do meditate and thank the good Lord for my many blessings and ask for aid to all the folks who need it, etc. there WAS a time when I could...and would...pray at the drop of a hat. For aid in all sorts of things. Things that, objectively, one might consider selfish. To do well on a test. To not get caught doing something I wasn't supposed to do. For the local team to win a big game. Things like that: the normal petitions of a young Catholic who believes in the intercession of the Trinity (and perhaps a saint or three).

I watch my son pray, and I find it amusing. He'll pray that he wins a hand of cards (we play a lot of cards in my house). Or that the Seahawks make a field goal. Or that we make it to [wherever] on time. He closes his eyes and clasps his hands and prays silently, unashamed of who may be watching. I admire him for it...even envy him a bit (I was never so demonstrative, nor...I fervent, except perhaps when praying for God to save us all from nuclear war and Mount St. Helens). He prays with equal fervor for folks affected by hurricanes and earthquakes and mass shootings. He's a good little kid.

Why am I writing about this? I've been thinking about soul searching lately, self-meditation, praying for guidance. The subject keeps coming up for me the universe telling me it's something I should be doing. Because lately I feel like I've been ignoring my "inner voice" (what some might consider the whispering of the divine) in favor of simply treading water: going through the daily routine, doing my day drinking, grinding out some semblance of substance in a life where I often feel like some slacker fraud.

I am reminded of an incident from my childhood, where my father gave me the worst tongue-lashing I can remember (and deservedly so), when he discovered I had his words..."pulling the wool over his eyes." Pretending that I was the model student when I was, in fact, really letting shit slide. It was horrifying on many levels, and probably gave me all sorts of negative conditioning that still haunts my psyche to this day. In the moment it was occurring, I really thought he was going to take me out.

I wonder how much of this has been passed on to me and become part of my own "parenting style."

[terrible thought]

I picked up a copy of Michael Thomas's BLUEHOLME Journeymanne Rules today, and had a chance to read through it. I am a big fan of Thomas's original BLUEHOLME (the "Prentice" rules), and wanted to see what his concept of an expanded ruleset would like. I was...well...underwhelmed. The book itself is beautiful (the artwork and layout is fantastic), the scale (less than 120 pages) is about perfect, but the content isn't much more than the original, save that it "goes up to 11" (or 20...level this case).

And perhaps that's enough...perhaps that was Mr. Thomas's objective in writing it. If I didn't have the Prentice rules (or a copy of Holmes Basic), this would be a "must-have" book for this edition...this style...of Dungeons & Dragons. That's what Holmes is, after all: the world famous D&D game in a slightly different flavor. And while he offers a couple of new innovations (for instance, I like his variant weapon damage that makes sense within the style and scope of the original), on the whole it feels like it could have been more.

But how can I fault him? Really...who am I to pass judgment? He has created a very nice retro-mash of Holmes and the OD&D supplements, packaged it in the most pleasing form (art and layout) of ANY OSR clone yet (honestly, I can't think of a nicer looking OSR clone that I've seen), and provided all the rules he feels necessary for his preferred flavor of D&D. And me? What the hell have I done lately?

The truth is, I've been on an extended hiatus, due less to the busy-ness of my life and far more to straight-up lethargy, inertia, and my various addictions. I'm just saying this to "come clean" I sit here at the German pub, drinking beer and ignoring my other obligations. Hell, I just ordered a second half liter as I was writing that last sentence. The fact is, if I didn't have my family to anchor me (and really, it's just my kids) I would probably have no reason to go home at night. Or shower and shave (occasionally). Or clean my house. Or grocery shop. Or anything productive at all.

And being "productive" isn't the same as being "constructive." Productive is simply treading water at this point in my life, and that feels like a damn cop out. About 18 months back, I was writing about how I never learned to "hustle," and worrying about my damn legacy and a bunch of other bullshit. Part of the problem I'm seeing now is that I actually have an idea, an inkling, of what I should be doing with my life...and yet I'm not doing it. It's so easy to rest on one's laurels, to celebrate the small victories instead of seeking out the new challenge, the next mountain to summit.

Fuck. I'm really NOT trying to be poetic here.

It makes me want to (mentally) beat myself up, but I understand and realize that's truly a counterproductive waste of time. If someone came to me with this same, sad sack bullshit I'm writing here, I know what I'd say to him/her. But I've discovered in recent months how useless words can be to changing someone's behavior, let alone their life. Only self-action (i.e. actions taken by oneself) can change the road you're on, not helpful...or compassionate...or shouted...or constructive advice.

Time to put down the fucking beer and get on with it.

I started this post writing about prayer. I can't explain why I find it so difficult to pray (outside of church, when I'm modeling behavior for my children), except that I'm fucking out of practice. God doesn't care if you pray for selfish things, and as long as you understand God's answer to your prayers might well be "no," there's no harm (or foul) in doing so. I think I might benefit from doing some prayer...especially the deep, soul-searching kind. The last couple months I've been doing a little of this during Mass, and I've been receiving some inspiring ideas...ideas that I haven't done much about. Too tired, you know? Or too "busy." Or too lazy. Or something. Whatever it is, the inspiration fades after a couple donuts and a big, Sunday brunch followed by the football game on TV...just your typical, habitual Sunday ritual.

I think I need to start praying on days other than Sunday.

I'm going to leave it at that for now. I want to talk more about BLUEHOLME in a separate post (after I give it a second read and collate some of my more random-ish thoughts), but at the moment I've got some other stuff I have to get to.

Later, gators.

[EDIT: just re-reading this, my writing...and sentences...appear very short and "clipped." I want folks to know that, mentally, there were a lot of loooong pauses in my brain when I was typing this up]

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


I'm sure I've written this before, but I'll write it again: much as I love the game of Blood Bowl (and the latest edition might be the best version yet)....much as I love the game, there are a lot of ways in which it fails to mimic the actual game of American football on which it's based. While the various discrepancies could be written off as just a post-apocalyptic fantasy world's imperfect interpretation of the ancient rulebook (so would say the original "fluff" of the game) there are other, non-field aspects, that simply cannot be emulated. The current brouhaha in the NFL, for example, where players are using their public platform to bring attention to the continuing racial injustice in our country that has led to more inappropriate outbursts from our sitting POTUS. While some non-field events and antics can (and are) emulated with the use of random event cards, in the existing fantasy setting the various Blood Bowl teams play for different nations and species, rather than a single country. There can, thus be no single cause or rogue leader against which to rail and bring unity between teams bent on mutual annihilation in the name of sport.

As usual, reality proves itself stranger than fantasy.

Even so, Blood Bowl is a great game, certainly one of my All-Time Faves. Diego and I have had the chance to sit down and play a game or two since the NFL season started. As said, the current release might be the best iteration yet published (previously, I would have given the nod to the 3rd edition), at least in terms of rules. But then, Games Workshop has been publishing and evolving Blood Bowl since 1986...thirty years!...and while the main "overhaul" of the game was the '94 version (when they introduced time limits and turnovers) the last 20 years have simply been tweaks and tinkering based on actual play and feedback in an attempt to make the gameplay experience better. Blood Bowl isn't the flagship game of the GW brand; hell, there have been periods in their history when they weren't even publishing the game. Their business strategy for getting new cash infusions from BB fans is based on newer, shinier releases (better game pieces, cooler models), not some false proclamation that the "older version" is no longer viable as a system. The game is still about 16 fantasy figures taking the field 11 at a time, and I still can (and do) utilize the playing pieces I've owned since I got into the hobby circa 1989 (with the 2nd edition).

The reason I bring all this up is the recent series of thoughtful posts from Alexis over at the Tao. For reference, you can check out:
Measuring Yourself as a DM
Those Who Quit the Game

They're all short, but particularly thoughtful (and thought-provoking) posts on Dungeons & Dragons. One thing Alexis has been good at over the years is reminding his readers that D&D, for all the wonderful things it is and all the joy and meaning it may have given us, is still a game. A game that has to be played to have any real value. A game that we can...and perhaps should...strive to become better at.

Last week I received a comment on an ancient blog post in which the reader expressed doubt of my actual experience with the game (and, presumably my authority to blog about it). It's true that I've played D&D since 1982, but those 35 years have been "off and on" and the last five years or so have been mostly "off." If I really consider the actual years I've spent playing and running D&D...not just acting as an "armchair DM," my actual experience probably amounts to only 15-17 years...and maybe not even that. Reading and designing and prepping are all a part of the game (especially for would-be dungeon masters), but most of the practice is only accomplished at the table. Like flight time for a pilot...there's a difference between hours spent in a simulator and hours spent in the air. It is quite possible that there are people out there who only started playing D&D with the 3rd edition (released in 2000) that have more hours "in the chair" or "behind the screen" than I do, despite my decades of involvement in the role-playing hobby.

And that actual, hands-on experience makes a real difference. It does so with any game or sport, and the more challenging and complex the game, the more difference that experience makes. When I play Uno or Rummy 500 with my son, he beats me nearly as often as I beat him. With Cribbage, I generally beat him (even though we don't count muggins and I help him with counting). When we've played Magic cards...recently discovered this month...he's beat me a single time in a dozen plus games (random draw should preclude this from happening). And I've never lost a Blood Bowl game to him. But then, I can only remember losing a handful of Blood Bowl games, ever, to anyone...BB is just my wheelhouse.

And it's not just about winning (after all, D&D isn't about "winning," right?). The boy and I were at the local game shop where we completed a full game of Blood Bowl in a couple-three hours...and during the same time period we watched a pair of adults struggle to even complete a half in the same time period (Blood Bowl, like soccer, is played in two halves)...despite having been set-up at the table before we even sat down. When I've simply acted as referee for two players (I do this sometimes), I've managed to facilitate complete games far quicker. That's just experience that comes from playing.

D&D is a game. A special game, sure, but still a game. A complex game with a strange set of rules, some of which are unwritten, some of which can only be parsed out in play. Especially for the development of a competent DM, real experience is needed at the table...hence, the often heard phrase, "you learn to be a DM by running games."

And yet, imperative though it is, just running games is not enough to hone your craft as a DM. I've run the Hickman module Pharaoh two or three times (boxed text and all), but if that was all I did I wouldn't develop anything except my ability to run that particular module. I think Alexis is right when he states part of the reason people quit the game (assuming that they had an enjoyable experience with it when first played) is that they reach a point where the game's perceived limitations fail to satisfy their expectations of entertainment. "I'm tired of killing things and taking their stuff," or even "I'm tired of pretending to be something I'm not," especially when one can instead escape into the easily accessed television program.

There are several strategies for enhancing and retaining player enjoyment...and I think those strategies are ideas worthy of exploration. But that's going to have to wait for a follow-up post.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 #30 and #31

From the #RPGaDAY 2017 challenge (information here):

And we've reached the end of these posts...and because I completely spaced that YESTERDAY was the 30th, I will be doing yet another combo-post. Sorry about that (but at least it's over)!

#30 What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?

This is another fairly easy one to answer: some sort of mash-up of dinosaurs and (modern day) warfare. M16s versus velociraptors. Dudes in a Bradley fighting vehicle being chased by a triceratops herd. That kind of thing.

I love this kind of thing.
This goes back to my longtime interest in "lost patrols" stumbling into some kind of Land of the Lost, prehistoric dimension. Like The War That Time Forgot or my one-time micro-game Out of Time, I just get a thrill off the idea of pitting automatic weapons against gigantic killing machines. I know I'm not the only one who digs on this (Jurassic Park, anyone?) but it seems to be a genre-mash that's gone largely unexplored. Yes, I already have a copy of Hollow Earth's not enough.

And, just in case anyone's interested, I did find my old copy of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (I was cleaning/organizing my office last week. Fortunately the chewed portion was limited to the back cover and index). Maybe I could adapt the dinosaur stats to Twilight 2000...

#31 What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

This is a tougher question. "Anticipate" means "expect" or "predict," but do they want an answer with regard to my gaming? Or to gaming (the "state of gaming") in general?

I'm not expecting much, truth be told. Regarding my own gaming, I predict more Blood Bowl and Pokemon and the same drought of RPG gaming. With regard to gaming in general? I don't see a 6th edition of D&D yet on the horizon. The indie market seems to be striving right along. FFG will probably roll out a new Star Wars supplement based on Episode 8, hoping to capitalize/cash-in on a tie-in with a popular film. The Old School community will continue as it has.

Yeah, I really don't know. I know that *I* have a LOT on my plate these days, but my hope is I'll be more active in blogging, designing, and publishing than I've been the last couple years. And hopefully (hope-hope!) I will be able to produce some stuff that inspires some folks. Especially around this corner of the blog-o-sphere.

But even if I'm not as active as I hope, I hope other folks will pick up the slack. And while that's for selfish reasons...well, it's my hope.

All right. That's it. Thanks for reading.
: )

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 #25 thru #29

From the #RPGaDAY 2017 challenge (information here):

Wow! I'm nearly a week behind...again! A "quick trip" to Montana (or anywhere, really) can sure set you back when you're trying to do regular blog posts.

Then again, August is a pretty poor month in general to try scheduling regular blog least if you're a parent of school age children (like Yours Truly). The next few days look to be exceptionally busy as I get unpacked from vacation and ramp up for the coming school year. Plus, I've got coffee and ice cream socials to plan, coach training for soccer, uniforms to patch, and blah, blah, blah. Because go my limited time, I will be combining my delinquent posts into a single missive.

Here we go:

#25 What is the best way to thank your GM?

Beer. A six pack or pitcher is good, but a pint at the local pub is perfectly acceptable. If you're feeling spendy, or can't get together at the bar, a bottle of wine is always a welcome substitution.

If you're too broke to buy and you still want to express your gratitude for a game (whether it be a multi-session campaign or one-off), words of thanks are always appreciated.

#26 Which RPG provides the most useful resources?

Probably Twilight 2000, with its pamphlet reference sheets (included right in the box). The original Marvel Superheroes RPG (and the later Advanced version) had excellent maps, paper figures, and character cards for reference, but fighting over the same few blocks of New York City could get old.

#27 What are your essential tools for good gaming?

Dice. Pencils. Paper. Imagination. Back when I was playing a lot of Vampire: the Masquerade, I made good use of a scientific calculator to run random numbers (since VtM uses D10 dice pools), but these days I do my best not to pull out a calculator (or smart phone) at the table.

A laptop has become essential for ANY gaming recently, as my only gaming has been on-line.

#28 What film or series is the most frequent source of quotes in your group?

I don't have a regular group, but even so, this has always depended on the game being played (as folks tend to reference in-genre films). I mean, at least when I've recognized quotes from players (I would never, for instance, recognize a line from Doctor Who as I've never seen the show).

Personally, I often find myself quoting Star Wars or Blade Runner...usually something like "I have you now," or "Time to die." I try to keep it to a minimum, however.

#29 What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed?

I have only ever backed one Kickstarter, ever: Top Secret: New World Order. I talked about this earlier this month. It seems to have been a well run operation; we'll have to wait and see if the goods are delivered by November as promised.
: )

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Defenders (Part 3)

[continued from here; as with that post, this one includes:]


Just moving right along...

Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones): So let's talk about this particular Danny Rand. I'll say it again, I think Finn Jones does an excellent job in the role. Danny Rand isn't a terribly complex character (few superheroes are), but he is a bit of a strange duck as I've written before. Yes, he's the immortal weapon of K'un Lun and he's plenty cocky about his fighting ability. He also prefers not to fight people who he clearly over-matches (like non-powered criminals), often trying to talk them out of it ("You know I was trained in the martial arts for ten years in the mystic dimension of K'un Lun...") which, of course, never works, thus requiring him to lay the beat-down. 

In some ways, he's a stunted man-child, as one might expect from his upbringing. There's a wonderful scene in an early episode when he speaks in Mandarin to the owners of a Chinese restaurant where The Defenders are hiding out, getting them to stay open by offering to float their business for six months (and making the owners throw in dinner as part of the deal). When Luke points out that Danny could be using his money rather than his fists to have real impact on injustice, Danny gives it a try...even after Colleen (rightly) points out to him that he's a warrior, not a businessman. The complexities of living an adult life in a 21st century American city are still things Rand is coming to grips with; for most of us it takes decades to accomplish (I didn't really mature until my late 20s, early 30s), and some of us never make that adjustment (my brother, for instance). Even though Danny can center his focus with meditation and harness his chi, he's only just begun his road to the kind of maturity he needs to survive like a functioning adult in a city like New York.

He's a kid. I imagine that's part of why he's always referred to as "Danny," never Dan or Daniel.

It's the same in the comic books (though, by the time of The Immortal Iron Fist series, he's mostly got his shit together...the character's existed for decades, by now). Mostly. But in the television show we're still watching these characters as they grow into their own, and even though he may feel he's ready to be a hero (or a warrior or whatever), the truth is there're a lot of areas where Danny Rand still has growing to do. And I think Jones is great at portraying that. It's just too bad the writers don't do a better job of showing his goofy, likable side, instead focusing on his frustrations and resentments with the situation of his life. I can understand why some people find the character annoying. 

As for Iron Fist's fighting style, I like the way they've done it. In his comics, especially the more recent Immortal Iron Fist series, he is drawn with an unorthodox style of long sweeping movements, fully extended legs and arms, contorting his body horizontally at times, more like a ballet dancer than a UFC fighter or centerline military HTH. It is distinctly different from other scrappy heroes of the comic universe, and I think Jones is fairly competent in his action. Others look at his wild flailing about and say, "boy, that actor sure sucks at martial arts." To me, it simply appears to be the fight choreographer's attempts to emulate the comics. The proof of course is in the character winning his fights...he must have some preternatural ability to fight like that and get away with it, right?

But that's part of the suspension of disbelief...the same thing that allows us to turn a blind eye on four heroes miraculously NOT catching a bullet when half-a-dozen automatic weapons open up in a cramped restaurant space (despite only one of them being bullet-proof). The same suspension of disbelief that makes us ignore a killer with a sword deciding to execute a kick on an unarmed opponent rather than slashing them dead. This is how Iron Fist fights...yes, even hunching up to deliver a single chi punch when his fist becomes LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON (thanks, Stan). We've seen fight sequences in cinema, and have an idea of how we think they should look. But Iron Fist's moves aren't based on cinematic fighting alone. Like it or not, there are some comic sensibilities at work here.

[that's not to say that things won't change down the road. Observe the final battle sequence in the first cinematic Avengers film. They have Captain America doing full frontal flips while running along the tops of cars...much as he would in an 80s comic book. Later films have removed these needless, comic book acrobatics from his fight sequences. His fighting style has changed to fit the needs of cinema]

But I'll stop belaboring the point. Me liking a particular quirky show (Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, Firefly, etc.) has never stopped such shows from being cancelled.

Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a.k.a. The Daughters of the Dragon: Also known (in the comics) as Nightwing Restorations detective agency. But I suppose you couldn't do yet another superhero detective agency, seeing as how we already have Jessica Jones. Come to think of it, that may be part of why there's no Heroes for Hire agency either. Ah, well.

I'll talk Colleen first, since hers was the larger part in the series (she was as much one of the "Defenders" as any of the big four). Remember how I praised the Iron Fist series for the way they chose to portray Wing as an interesting, complex person instead of some two-dimensional, cardboard sidekick? Well, The Defenders reduce her to pretty much a two-dimensional sidekick. I'm sure Ms. Henwick was just happy the creators haven't chosen to kill her off like her Game of Thrones character (or like Ben Urich in Daredevil). You give Danny Rand some "extra motivation."


But even so, she must be chomping at the bit for a new run on Iron Fist. There was quite a bit of interesting stuff that was going down with Colleen's character in the first series...her relationship with her students, her relationship with Danny, her relationship with her own martial art (and the best use of that art). Of course, there was also her relationship with The Hand which (I felt) was only poorly explored in Iron Fist and in The Defenders was simply milked for a couple extra fight scenes. I found the entire Bakuto subplot to be a waste of space (and a waste of Ramon Rodriguez's talents). He just wasn't as villainous, or creepy, or scary-deadly as he needed to be. In the end, he was only there to cut Misty's arm off and even that was unnecessary...she could have lost it to the bomb explosion, similar to her comic book canon.

Yes, she finally lost it. Even as they teased us at the end of the Luke Cage series (before confirming that, yes, she would keep her arm), it was clear to me that they were going to take it from her the moment she walked into the Midland Circle building in the final episode. I saw it coming a mile away...I know they're trying to develop these characters along lines similar to their comic counterparts and being a one-armed, ex-cop is part of Misty's whole identity. The faster she gets a bionic replacement from Stark Enterprises (or the Rand Corporation or whoever), the better as far as I'm concerned. Her introduction to Colleen Wing already took waaaay too long.

But though Misty made strides from being a hard-nosed cop to hard-boiled cyborg, she still was left on the sidelines for most of The Defenders, much to my chagrin. Like Colleen, her character and subplots were downplayed (though Simone Missick is such a strong actor, she demands attention even in the few scenes she appeared). But, boy, was she watered down...especially with her being all hunky-dory about Luke's new girlfriend. I realize that the comic book history destines these two for other people (Luke for Jessica and Misty for Danny...well, for about 40 years before she moves on to Sam Wilson) so it's not a huge deal, but she was really crushing on Cage in his series, and I fully expected at least some...I don't know, antipathy? Rivalry? with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson)

[perhaps she's too busy to pine over "the Hero of Harlem;" perhaps she gives zero fucks because she is too busy fighting real crime as an officer of the law. That would certainly fit with the character and Missick's portrayal]

And as for The Night Nurse/Claire Temple: we did see Rosario do a lot more medic duty and a lot less ass-kicking in The Defenders...a good thing in my opinion (that whole hippocratic oath thing). But she's still a good fit and nice lynchpin for all these various Defenders of New York, and she was in on plenty of action, as well as providing Luke Cage with a serious, solid love interest.

Now let's be clear here. The Jessica Jones comic book character (to whom comic book Luke is happily married) has only been around since 2001. Luke Cage's character has existed since the 1970s. And for much of those early years, his main girlfriend/romance was with Dr. Claire Temple. She only broke up with him because she got tired of Luke putting himself in danger all the time, even while she knew (and encouraged him) to be a help to people using his abilities. The end of their relationship actually reminds me a bit of Rosario's walking out on Daredevil in his first season; apparently, she has less worries (so far) about a man who's bulletproof (even though she's now had to treat him...what? Three times?...when Luke was comatose and/or seriously injured). 

I only write this for folks who might not know the old Cage stories and who are wondering why he's with Claire when he obviously continues to have feelings for Jessica (and vice versa). This is actually the writers sticking to the character canon. And if they continue to do so, Claire may one day leave Luke and leave the door open for Jessica. So there. 

[still have absolutely no idea how the Danny of the television series will ever end up with Misty]

Anyway, in case you can't tell, I have a soft spot for these particular ladies. I would really, really like to see a Daughters of the Dragon series featuring Colleen and Misty (and Claire) at some point in the future...a little vacation from the men-folk of the Marvel Netflix Universe. However, no such series appears to be scheduled at this point...more's the pity.

Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver): I'm not going to talk about the various Hand villains any more than I already have, and these posts are already super-long and I've got other stuff to do, but I do want to finish up with "the Big Bad" of the series. I love Sigourney Weaver. I've been a fan since the Alien films and Ghostbusters and I've seen quite a few of her films over the years. I could gush over her for a paragraph or so, but most folks are familiar with her work...she's been nominated four times for Academy Awards, and she'll probably pick-up a lifetime achievement Oscar someday.

This was not a good role for Ms. Weaver. It has nothing to do with her acting chops or her ability to appear subtly menacing and powerful while still trembling with desperation at her character's impending demise...she does as much as she can with the role. It's just that the writers don't give very much for her character to do in the series. Mostly she stands around (or sits) talking. Usually quietly. Sometimes just staring, pondering her immanent doom. 

As the head of centuries-old shadow organization called The Hand...which had all sorts of crazy in previous shows that set our superheroes trembling (remember draining people of their fluids and turning them into zombie abominations?)'d think she'd have something more interesting to do than snipe and politic with her (suddenly all-too-frail) fellow "masterminds." 

"Alexandra" is weak...the character is weak. The bad guys are all weaksauce. She's put all her chips into Elektra (based on some "prophecy" that we never really hear anything about), clearly a loose cannon with a history of being on the other side and betraying EVERY side for her love of Daredevil. That's just suicidally stupid...and it doesn't make any sense. I'd think some Machiavellian immortal would hedge her bets at least a little...maybe have a Plan B and Plan C? Seems like that would have made more sense. Certainly more sense than turning your back on a malfunctioning weapon and going out like a chump.

I don't know, I guess I've played to much Vampire over the years with Antediluvian machinations manipulating world politics, and exerting influence over the world of darkness.

It's pretty lame. Despite having the biggest name star yet in any of these Netflix series (certainly the biggest star in a Marvel flick since Robert Redford showed up in Captain America), this has got to be the most pathetic excuse for an antagonist yet. And that's saying something when you consider the ones in the Iron Fist series. 

Look...I'm not going to write a whole bunch more on Elektra than what I wrote in my last post, but it seems to me that the showrunner(s) of The Defenders have done a major disservice to these Netflix shows. There's a LOT that could have been done with Elektra...especially given her history as an assassin for the Kingpin and her conflicts with the Hand. Clearly, the creators of the Daredevil series didn't want to retread the same ground as the Affleck film, killing the character off in a rooftop ninja fight (*sigh*). But bringing her back for this? Just to fight a few useless battles, kill Stick, and go all Godfather on the shadow mob? And then die again? What a frigging waste.

But that all goes back to the writing...again. The Defenders had some fun, and it was (mostly) fun to watch, especially as I like the characters (and the actors that portray them) so well. But a lot of the story was pretty crappy, I'm sorry to say. I look forward to better things in new seasons of Jessica Jones 2, Luke Cage 2, and (hopefully) Iron Fist 2.

All right, that's it. I'm out of words.

RPGaDAY 2017 #24

From the #RPGaDAY2017 challenge (info here):

Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more.

All of them.

Unless you're releasing some sort of "beta test" or art-free sample or promotional product (i.e. things that are usually given away for free), folks should be charging money for their work.

If you've taken the time to create and publish a finished project, you'd best be putting a price tag on it. Doesn't matter what price you decide on...if it looks really sucky, charge a dollar...but put some sort of value on it. Because if you don't value your own work, why should anyone else find value in it? And if you're not sure it's worth anything (because it's incomplete or has gaming flaws/holes), then you should probably polish it up to a point where you find it has value BEFORE you decide to publish it.

I am assuming this question refers to the many self-published independents out there putting electronic PDFs on DriveThruRPG, and similar sites. Those are the folks I'M talking about. I've picked up a couple or five of these "PWYW" products over the years and can you guess how much money I put in that little box?

Zero. Zilch. Nada. Every time.

If you won't value your work, why should I? Truthfully, I usually pass on anything marked PWYW, but sometimes I've heard something, or read some review, that piques my interest, and I'll download it (despite the quickly diminishing storage capacity on my laptop). And I never pay a thin dime. And I usually delete it from my hard drive, following a quick perusal. No skin off my nose, after all...I paid nothing, I lost nothing, and I have nothing invested in holding onto your work.

That's pretty f'ing terrible. If I pay for something, at least I'm likely to use it, to play it, at least once...if only to get my money's worth out of the thing. And don't you want your games to be played? Isn't that why you're writing them? Or is it really just sheer vanity as you live off you trust fund, futzing around on your desktop publishing program?

Because if THAT's the case, why don't you get off your ass and do something publish a newsletter organizing a grassroots movement to combat the bigotry and intolerance that exists in every American community, even now, in the 21st century.

Assuming you're NOT just writing "for shits & giggles," assuming you design games and game products because of a deep personal need to do so, and that you're publishing independently because you can't afford to not keep your "day job" due to having a mortgage or family or pet that needs supporting...then you should put a frigging value on your work. How long did it take you to write? A couple months? A couple years? How many hours of your precious, valuable time (remember, your days on this planet are numbered, you WILL die eventually, and every moment you're alive is a blessing) many hours did you put into your project? How much is your life, your creativity, worth on an hourly rate?

At least minimum wage for your locale, I'd hope.

Of course, I'm as guilty of undervaluing myself as anyone. My Five Ancient Kingdoms has only netted my about $1700 in net profit (since 2013) is, by far, my poorest selling product. In Washington State, at the time I wrote it, minimum wage was $9.19 per hour, but my own employer paid me substantially more than that. Did I work less than 184 hours on the thing? Probably...probably more like 100-120 hours. But there was more to it than just writing: researching (Middle East myth, folklore, history, and culture), play-testing, layout, finding (public domain) art, driving places (printers, shops), packaging the thing (a couple hours figuring out the shrink-wrap machine), marketing it (minimally...mainly blog posts), dealing with the post office...all those things take time. Plus all the stress, arguments, and headaches such a project can cause with the non-gamer spouse. All that adds up....and the $1700 profit I've made over costs (and that's a high estimate) has been recouped over four and a half years. Most businesses, I believe, would want to get paid within two years of an investment...but, for me, this is still more of a hobby than a business. As a hobby, I don't mind the trickle of sales that come over time.

But only about 45% of my money has come from PDF sales...if I'd made those e-books "PWYW" how far away from $1700 would I be? That $750 in e-sales is the price of a new, small print run for my B/X Companion. I lose that money and all of a sudden it's taking me a lot longer to bring my next "hobby project" to light.

So my answer to the question of the day is, "all of them;" if it's a sample or promo project, then offer it for free. If you need funding for your project, start a kickstarter. If the project is already complete: charge money. Something, anything. If no one buys it (because your price is too high) than reduce the price...but give your work some value.

It has value to you, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 #23

From the #RPGaDAY2017 challenge (info here):

Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?

Layout, huh? I can only interpret this question as meaning "jaw-droppingly bad," as there are only two kinds of layout: functional and dysfunctional. There's no such thing as mind-blowingly great layout. It's either adequate for conveying the game, or it's poor at doing so.

There are actually a few I can think of that had some poor layout. I didn't think much of HOL (Human Occupied Landfill), though I "get" that the RPG was supposed to be some kind of "joke." The Malkavian Clanbook for Vampire: The Masquerade was designed with a similar "joke" in mind (and was similarly un-funny)...but as it is only a splatbook, I don't think I can count it as bonafide RPG.

I don't own World of Synnibar anymore, but while I seem to recall it being a trainwreck in the layout department, I can't verify that's actually the case without looking at it (Synnibar had a LOT of design flaws already, so I don't want to "pile on" based on a memory from two decades back). Palladium games (Rifts, Heroes Unlimited, TMNT, Beyond the Supernatural, etc.) aren't any great shakes in the layout department; however, they are consistent in the way their books are laid out, so once you've figured out one, you've pretty much got them all. First edition Chivalry & Sorcery has fairly adequate layout, but the font for the text is sooooo small (they really wanted to save on page count, I guess), it's really challenging to read.

No, I think the game who's layout was the worst in my mind (that stand out, anyway) is the original Villains & Vigilantes RPG. I didn't actually acquire the game until a few years ago (long after V&V had gone out of print and then revived), so I was probably biased by 21st century sensibilities; still, I can remember opening the cover and being disappoint and slightly distressed at the haphazard layout of the game, the lack of (to my mind) adequate information, and the overall poor presentation of the rules (despite fine artwork).

Sorry to single you out, Jeff Dee.

The Defenders (Part 2)

I was listening to the Alexis Smolensk podcast on the Point of Insanity Network and, as usual, he had a lot of good things to say, not the least of which was a bit of insight into how journalists (and other writers) write stories: the subject has a carrot (they chase) and a tiger (that chases) that helps steer the course of the story based on the various complexities inherent in these elements how they interact with the subject.

This may be "no duh" stuff to folks who've actually studied writing or journalism but, of course, I'm not one of those. I studied acting at university, with a minor in partying. Is it any wonder than my blogging is mainly hack-work and stream of conscious babbling (and often booze-fueled)? Probably not. 

*ahem* AS SUCH, my "reviews" aren't much like how a real journalist would write. At least, if there is a carrot or tiger involved, they're not something I'm putting there consciously. Instead, I'm simply sharing my thoughts and opinions and (sometimes) critique. Often aimlessly, perhaps not in an entirely fair-minded manner...but then, this is a blog, not a newspaper. Maybe I'm the tiger in these reviews.

Anyhoo, if you gathered enough willpower to stomach through the entirety of my prior post on The Defenders television series (from Netflix). You'll have seen that I praised the actors and their portrayal-interpretation of these various characters despite some issues I had with the writing of the series. This post is going to be less of a "review" and more commentary on the individual characters and the actors that embody them. It will probably be long, and will certainly have *SPOILERS*.

Wait, one more time: there will be **MAJOR SPOILERS** here. Got it?

You've been warned.

Matt Murdoch/Daredevil (Charlie Cox): when writing the series, the show creators needed to find a way to bring the various "Defenders" together, and their choice for this was to use Daredevil's longtime foes, The Hand, and his dead-resurrected love interest, Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung). This is not the road I would have taken...but then, I don't work for these people and they're not asking me to consult in their writing room. If they were, I would have said, "ah, crap." This is a crap idea. Elektra is very specific to this a Daredevil story? It should be in a Daredevil series. Can't we take a break from the ninjas? But, of course, they already made The Hand the enemy of K'un-Lun (in the Iron Fist series) so, like, fuck it, we've got to work with it now.

Cox is an excellent casting choice (all apologies to Ben're a great Bruce Wayne/Batman!) for Daredevil. His "polished-up" NY accent is so subtle, his physicality so excellent, his "blindness" pretty believable (gets better with every series). Yung is, pardon me, exquisitely beautiful and delightfully Daredevil she gave such a "playful" interpretation of the rather stoic assassin found in the comic books. Here, she does a fantastic job as a zombie coming back to her old personality with "something wrong" in the noggin. I'm not saying I don't like Yung/Elektra...damn it, Cox and Yung are so adorable in their roles that I really wish they could run off together and live happily ever after. Of course, they can't (that's one of the tragedies of Daredevil, made even more so by Yung's inherent charisma and likability)...but it's a damn Daredevil story. It pulls the character away from the rest of the group causing a bunch of extra friction that isn't needed (they already have plenty of that without adding Elektra). It sets DD apart from the team, and this particular series was supposed to be about a group of diverse (if not outright dysfunctional) individuals coming together. 

And, oh boy is Murdoch dysfunctional. I already mentioned the poor writing that lacks consistency. In the two Daredevil series, Matt seemed to have come to a point of acceptance with his double life and role as vigilante hero, even coming clean to both Karen and Foggy. Here we have a 180 reversal, he's "quit" the vigilante thing, but he wants to get back into it like some recovering addict jonesing for a fix. Another pointless distraction from what could have been a tighter storyline; there's far more drama than THAT angst in DD's life. How about the fall out of his busted partnership? The fall out with Karen? His floundering "law practice" (he's working out of his apartment). Daredevil is all about how shit continues to pile up on a guy who insists on living a double-life and the way he deals with it. In The Defenders, all he's doing is NOT dealing with it and all the shit is just bullshit in his own mind. And it doesn't help that there's the resurrected love of his life butchering people with a sword (of course)...but that shouldn't be his SUBPLOT for the series. It's too big. It washes out everything else...even his role in the group dynamic of team. Almost makes you glad he dies in the end.

Of course, he doesn't. Crap. Now what? I don't know where the Daredevil writers have to go with this, when everyone's basically buried Murdoch (including and especially Karen and Foggy).

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter): Man, I did not know how much I missed Jessica Jones until I saw her in The Defenders. I don't think she was in either Luke Cage or Iron Fist (if she was, it must have been a "blink and miss her" moment). Ritter's portrayal of Jones is quickly becoming her Alias comic books, she is nothing like the train wreck of a person she is on the show. She is a serious antihero: yes, she accomplishes good things for good reasons, but there's not much role-model to look up to here. If she didn't have super powers where would she be? I mean, I've known some serious alcoholics in my time (not just family members), including ones with PTSD, and they had a real hard time finding a place to live or work, let alone holding down their own business. 

Of course, it's already been established Jones is financially assisted by her adoptive sister, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), who appears here again, for the first time since Jessica Jones. Her role is minor, though important, and again it makes me want another season of Jessica Jones. I have a feeling she will not be morphing into her comic book alter-ego Hell Cat (how could she compete with the Daredevils of this world), but she's helps provide the Yang to Jones's darkness. Come to think of it, so does Malcolm (Eka Darville) who is so goofy and almost exhibits the same hero worship of Jessica that his comic book character does (even more funny, given that Mr. Darville's an adult...but since Jones saved him from Kilgrave's influence, I suppose he's entitled to be forever in her debt). 

Anyway, Ritter is redefining a character who outside of her original series (and until recently) made most of her comic book appearance's as the wife of Luke Cage. In the comics, she's opted out of the hero biz because her powers are dwarfed by those of The Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. Here, at the street level, she holds her own just fine. The fight scenes that mix in her brawling with Daredevil's parkour with Rand's mixed-martial arts are pretty cool. It makes me almost wonder if they had multiple fight choreographer's working together on the action sequences. 

However, her whole relationship with Luke Cage? That's going nowhere fast. I already commented how, in her series, things ended on a particularly sour note between the two. Going back and re-watching the last episode I see that's not exactly true. Yes, the last time they spoke face-to-face (without Kilgrave's influence) Luke was ready to do some violence. But once he comes out of his coma (after having experienced Kilgrave) his attitude seems a little softer. But his interactions with Jessica in The Defenders seem almost forced...especially given the relationship between him and Claire (Rosario Dawson). In the comics, they are the loves of each others' lives (more or less) they seem fairly star-crossed considering the relationship Claire has built up with Luke through two-and-a-half series. The whole wife-mother thing seems pretty much off-the-table for Jessica at this point...just adding a whole extra layer of misery to her character.

But I love her. She is so dependable in her undependability. She is a rock.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter): Which brings me to Power Man. Colter is so good in this role. I mean, the casting is fantastic anyway, all of them. But having watched Colter in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and now The Defenders, he's becoming the only "Luke Cage" in my mind. And like Ritter, his interpretation of the character is so different...he's no mercenary, "hero for hire," simply concerned with "getting paid." He's a REAL (street level) hero: concerned with the community, the neighborhood, being a model citizen, doing the right thing. When The Defenders have an argument over blowing up The Hand's headquarters, dramatically it feels like a real waste of the end, they're going to do it (and, yes, they all agree to it and Luke doesn't walk off the site). It's a stupid argument that doesn't actually move the plot forward. But it illustrates something about Luke's character for him to's a character development moment for Cage to make a stand about hurting innocent people, even though the others are more than willing to do the "expedient thing."

[it's just that it's not done very artfully. Again, just poor writing, really. Daredevil, Mr. I-Don't-Kill-Ever-Ever, seems to have no qualms about dropping a building on people in the scene. *sigh*]

I love how they film Colter's action scenes. I love that he moves methodically through a hail of bullets, gauging his strength when he smashes someone (probably so as not to kill them). I love how he's become adept at shielding others...he's a real "tank" in every sense of the term. The action sequences, for me, are the most fun when he's involved.

But what I really wanted to see was Luke's interaction with Danny Rand. Power Man and Iron Fist were a power couple in the Marvel universe for nearly a decade (1978-1986) and so firmly established as team that they often crop up in each other's solo titles. In fact, in the comic books, Luke Cage's daughter (with Jessica Jones) is named Danielle in honor of Cage's best friend, Danny Rand. What I wanted to know was how these two would interact, how they would work together, how they would resolve their different backgrounds to become partners and (hopefully) friends.

And, it was okay. There are some good scenes between the two: Cage telling Rand he's a privileged asshole who should be using his money to help people instead of his fists (great), Cage trying to be nice with Danny (who was tied up at the time), humoring him by asking about his "fight with the dragon" (which Luke clearly has difficulty believing). And, of course, the mandatory First Meeting Fight where Danny just about knocks Luke out (in the comics, they fought the first time they met as well). Yeah, some good stuff...but lukewarm and tentative. Too hesitant, too reserved at times.

But that's part of the reinterpretation. I've been re-reading old Power Man & Iron Fist comics (I have a collection of some 20 or so from the early 80s, bound in a trade paperback). The pair worked well together because they had a certain balance: Cage was bold and brash, but shrewd while Danny was reserved and calm, but naive. When Luke is pounding the bejesus out of someone, Danny will remind him to keep his cool. When Danny bites off more than he can chew, Luke is there to pull his fat out of the fire. They have a lot of mutual respect for each other, they're "comrades in arms," but they don't always understand one another (Cage always gets a bit hinky about Danny's monkish habits and zen weirdness). 

Here's the thing, though: Colter's Luke Cage isn't the big ball of raging stereotype found in the old Marvel comics. He's as cool as a cucumber...and so what does that lead Finn Jones to play off of as Danny Rand? They can make him the angry guy who's likely to go off half-cocked (and sometimes, the show does just this), but A) that makes him an unlikable jerk-wad, and B) seems at odds with the rest of his character. The fun parts.

[man, this is getting long...going to have to break it into a new post; sorry!]