Monday, November 20, 2017

Stranger Things 2

One year ago I went into Stranger Things with what I thought were appropriated calibrated expectations. I’d been burned before by critically lauded productions that failed to live up to the hype and there was no way, I thought, that it could possibly be as good as everyone said.

Well.

I was pleased to be wrong.

And here we are at the end of series two.

Again, I thought my expectations were adjusted appropriately. The sophomore slump is real. I knew that going in. The Duffer Brothers had a lifetime to create season one and ten months to craft the second.

The first one had been an experience. An event. A phenomenon.

The second season was merely competently-produced TV hobbled by three big problems.

1.) It’s become too cutesy and self-referential. Eleven in particular is merely a catch-phrase spouting caricature of her earlier self. I'm fond of observing that Star Wars (A New Hope) is the only Star Wars movie that doesn't take place in the Star Wars universe. A lot of the tropes that would come to define it were still being codified. It drew on Kurosawa and Flash Gordon serials and managed to combine them into something entirely new. Same with season one of Stranger Things. It's imitating itself for season two and like the ripoffs that followed Star Wars, it is missing a lot of what worked the first time around.

2.) They're trying too hard to please their most vocal critics. #JusticeforBarb does not need a series long arc, we didn't need an entire sitcom family for Lucas because his parents were not conspicuous in the first series. These are both addressed in excruciating detail. It couldn’t have been less subtle if his dad had mugged for the camera at breakfast.









The Star Wars prequels were awful, but there was one thing I respected. After George Lucas got some flak for the note-for-note Tarzan yell in Return of the Jedi, he doubled down with TWO Tarzan yelling Wookiees in the prequels. Likewise, when Classic Doctor Who painted themselves in a corner they simply smashed through a load-bearing wall to get themselves out. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Not everything has to be wrapped up in a bow.

3.) The storylines are siloed. Much like later seasons of A Game of Thrones, it's essentially a bunch of stories that are happening at the same time rather than a single coherent storyline. They don’t even converge as much as they happen to drop the characters in the same location. I’ve run a lot of role-playing games since I began playing in the Stranger Things era of 1980s small town America. There were often times when I saw that attention at the table was flagging so I would hustle things along with a handwave. Rather than worry about the logistics of travel, I’d just say, “Okay, you all wind up at the castle at the same time.” It was lazy, but we accepted it because it got us closer to the interesting part. I was thinking of that when everyone happens to arrive at the lab at the same time. Ugh. I can get away with it because it’s something I’m doing it on the fly with a small group of friends. I’d like a little bit more effort from my entertainment, especially when I know they’re capable of it.

Picayune complaints/stuff that I didn’t like (as distinct from stuff that I thought was objectively bad) Billy is poorly integrated into the story and it drives me crazy when writers fall back on the “I have a hunch that happens to be correct!” solution to their problems. I don’t know if Kali and her group of weirdos was a back door pilot or a hook for series three, but either way it was boring and awful and should have been cut entirely. Mike is kind of a tool and if he was a real person, he’d be on track to grow up as an Internet Nice Guy.

This probably makes it sound like I hated it, but it had elements that really worked too. Any reference to Aliens is welcome. Sadie Sink was astounding as Max and gives a breakout performance. Only Will is better. He carries the show with his vulnerability. Sean Astin was a wonderful addition to the cast. Hopper and Eleven were great together. Steve is great, as always. Nancy and Jonathan do have great chemistry together (too bad they have so many scenes with Murray, who is just this side of an offensive stereotype).

Bottom line, it wasn’t bad but it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been. Series one set a high bar and series two fails to deliver. The more I think about the first series the more I like it, but the more I think about the second series the clearer its problems become.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Illinois Nazis

One time, say about fifteen years ago, a mod on a message board I frequented remarked that he hated Nazis. After I determined that he wasn't making a reference to the Blues Brothers,



I said something like, "Dude, it's not like you're taking a courageous stand here. Nazis are like pedophiles. EVERYBODY hates them."

And yet, here we are in 2017, with some of the most powerful Republicans in the country defending Sebastian Gorka, Nazi, and Roy Moore, pedophile.

I never want to hear "Both sides do it!" again.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Alton Brown: Eat Your Science

We caught the show in Easton on Wednesday.



The show was three hours long with a half hour intermission. He was very much like his television persona, which I consider a good thing. Some people expect something qualitatively different out of a live show, and this material was very much in the vein of an episode of Good Eats, with a couple allowances made for medium. He’s got a polished formula and there was no need to tweak it overmuch.



Jen and I liked it; Lily loved it. It was a really nice outing.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doctor Who:Night of the Jackal



I had planned to run a Doctor Who RPG session at my birthday party last year, but that never came to pass. However, we managed to do it this year and it was a lot of fun.

Our characters were:

Bob Ross: Soft-spoken be-afroed painter of public television fame. In this universe, he has some kind of a Dorian Gray kind of immortality (he keeps meaning to complete that self-portrait, but always gets distracted by all those happy little accidents)

A time-displaced Anne Boleyn: Rescued the day before her execution. She is not sure what to make of the futuristic world of Victorian London, but she is determined to live her life to its fullets.

Coraline Magnus: Apprentice Time Lady working who had heard from her friend Romana that earth was a pretty great place. She’s working at the Red Tavern.

We also had two characters who dropped out of the game after an hour. Both players were kids, and they were expecting something different than what they got.

Chrysanthemum “Chrissie”  Íroas: A gallfreyan Time Tot who was enrolled in Hogwarts and sorted into Ravenclaw. She graduated at fifteen, but was unable to go home, because the Time Lords weren’t scheduled to pick her up for three more years and there were no protocols in place to bring her back early. Her player decided that her parents had sent her to earth because Gallifrey was going to be destroyed, which was news to Coraline.

Reaper from Overwatch: Hilariously violent and inappropriate. The party was attending a funeral as part of their investigation. When asked by the dead man’s sister how he knew the deceased, Reaper(falsely) claimed, “I killed him.”

Also of note was the Terminator trying to pass (unsuccessfully) as Sherlock Holmes. He overshot his mark by about a hundred years and he's just killing time solving mysteries while he waits for Sarah Connor to be born.
                     
I modified a published adventure, Night of the Jackals, from Cthulhu by Gaslight.  My original intent had been to run A Night in the Lonesome October game, but that idea fell by the wayside and the only vestige of it was that the two games happened to share the same Victorian London setting.

Of our three adult players, only one had ever played in a tabletop RPG, but they really took to it extremely well. Most people with whom I played began in adolescence.  They were great for first time role-players. They even came in costume!

We opened with Coraline receiving a message on her space-time telegraph.



Just then, Alan Paice, the owner of the Red Tavern (in this continuity) showed up and apologized to Coraline. He’d have to miss their weekly lunch because he had to attend the funeral of an old army buddy.

The party tagged along to the funeral and began investigating.  The kids disappeared at this point, and we all agreed that their characters were keeping an eye on Alan.

The other characters unraveled the mystery and the whole thing went very smoothly. I’m of the school of thought that players should never miss a vital clue due to a bad roll.  The trick shouldn’t be getting the information; the trick is putting it together correctly to reach the proper conclusion.

I think the biggest failure of the night was on me. I introduced the baddie later than I should have, and the scenario is set up to establish another character as a red herring. I didn’t want to lead them to the wrong conclusion by not giving them enough information. That’s not fair to do to new players and it’s a good way to sour them on the game. Unfortunately, I think I laid it on a little too thick. As soon as he showed up they called a sidebar and basically said, “This guy is obviously the villain.”

(In my defense, we were four hours by that point, and I think hurrying things along was probably the best choice, but it certainly could have been handled with a bit more finesse.)

We had some memorable moments, like the women putting on pants in order to pass as men to sneak into a gentleman’s club and the climax of the adventure came when Anne Boleyn chopped the head off the jackal-headed monster. Everybody was good, but Anne’s character was simply born to play that role.

It was all delightfully silly and everyone had a lot of fun.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Believer

Lily asked me why I wasn't writing about her as much as I used to, and she was afraid that it was because I didn't think she was remarkable anymore, but that's not it at all.  The real reason is that I'm concerned for her privacy. Like a dummy, I'm blogging here under my very distinctive real name and I don't want to write anything that would embarrass her if her friends should find it.

But, because she asked me I'll relate this story.



Lily asked me about the song Believer, by Imagine Dragons. and what I thought the song represented. I wasn't familiar with it, but I listened to it and concluded that the artist had overcome some kind of hardship in his childhood and the act overcoming it shaped the person he became as an adult. Lily said that she had come to the same conclusion and then she added, "I like that I can get you to think about things you wouldn't otherwise consider."

I was overcome by affection for her just then. That's exactly the kind of thing I would say to her.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The perils and rewards of shaving

It's fairly well known that Zelazny came up with the idea for Lord of Light after he cut himself shaving and began free-associating about changing bodies and the impact that would have on a society.

I cut myself shaving this morning. I will begin work on my magnum opus as soon as I get this piece of tissue paper off my face.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Autumn Falls: Twilight Time

Don’t believe what the calendar tells you. Officially, Autumn begins with the September equinox, but around here we know it starts with October.



Or at least it feels that way.

It was my friend Jason who introduced me to the word “crepuscular”. It means pertaining to times of twilight. Dusk or dawn. October is that month, the twilight of the year.

We observed the occasion by drinking our first mug of apple cider, playing Munchkin Cthulhu and reading a chapter of A Night in the Lonesome October.

We intend to watch the first season of Stranger Things, in what will surely become its own October tradition, and I'm beginning to flesh out the ANILO role-playing session we have scheduled for the 28th.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thursday, August 31, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 31: What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?



What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

RPGaDay 2018, obviously.

...

I don't have any idea of what will be published in 2018, so I'll answer this is a vaguely aspirational New Year's resolution kind of way.

I'm looking forward to Ni No Kuni 2 on consoles and in finding a regular group again.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 30: What RPG Genre Mash-Up Would You Most Like to See?



What RPG Genre Mash-Up Would You Most Like to See?

Hmmm…Steampunk, zombies and a wood chipper.



And stay out of my pop culture!


Almost anything worth mashing up has been done. Most RPGs not laser-focused on a single property have advice for mashing up genres.  We’ve done all the peanut butter and chocolate combinations. The only matches left to make are orange juice and toothpaste.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 29: What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed?




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

I’ve had a lot of luck with RPG Kickstarters. Almost all of them have been very successful. I’m still waiting on that PDF from the Invincible Overlord Project, but most of them have been delivered on time and meeting or exceeding expectations.

The Unknown Armies and the Delta Green kickstarters were each solid, but Lords of Gossamer and Shadow takes the prize. They had a very clear understanding of what they wanted to do and a practical and rigorous business plan to get there. They even tracked down my dinky little review. They sent out regular updates and had a strong presence on social media and engaged regularly with the fan base.  After Steven Russell (one of the creators) died unexpectedly his widow stepped up in what must have been a time of unimaginable grief to see the project through to its conclusion. I can’t imagine that level of dedication through that level of pain.

Monday, August 28, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 28: What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group?



What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group?

In my old high school group, it would have been Holy Grail, but that was a long time ago. These days, it's probably Aliens or the Princess Bride. If we're including the BSing that goes on at the table, then it's probably the Princess Bride. If we want to limit it to out of character commentary on in-game events, then Aliens has the edge.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 27:What are Your Essential Tools for Good Gaming?




What are Your Essential Tools for Good Gaming?

Just one. Time. I'm a very slow writer and I take forever to do anything. I need to turn it over in my head over the course of days to refine a concept. If I have that time, I can make something memorable. If I can't, then I've got to depend on the players to spin straw into gold.

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 26: What RPG provides the most useful resources?


What RPG provides the most useful resources?

I suppose there are two ways to approach this question. We can either look at the game itself  in a vacuum or we can look at it in the context of the community that has arisen around it.

I'm going to do the latter. Again, I've got to give this to Dungeons & Dragons. It's got the biggest fan base and it's got the oldest one. Nothing else today compares with the scale of Dungeons & Dragons.


For the game itself, special mention goes to the 1st edition DMG. I loved that book because it was so chock full of inspiration. Medicinal herbs, Gary Gygax's random musings, guidelines for wilderness adventures, comics from Dragon magazine, pictures of naked mermaids, all of it thrown together with no particular rhyme or reason. Where else are you going to find something like this?

"I've got a +2 against slovenly trulls!"


Friday, August 25, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 25: What is the best way to thank your GM?


What is the best way to thank your GM?

Show up and be engaged. That doesn’t mean no pregame chit-chat, goofing off and movie quoting at all, because that’s part of the fun of getting together with your friends, but rather that you should be ready to play at the designated time. Your GM put in a lot of time prepping for the game and the best way to reward that effort is to play the game and respect the hours that went into getting everything ready.  I’d rather have someone skip the session entirely rather than showing up and wanting to be somewhere else.

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 24: Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more.


Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more.


This is quite a niche question! To the best of my recollection, I have only ever purchased one PWYW item, and it was the Double Dragon Neon soundtrack by Jake Kaufman. You can get it here. I really enjoyed the game and a large part of the enjoyment was from the soundtrack. I think I could have gotten it for free, but I like his work and I want him to make more of it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 23: Which RPG Has the Most Jaw-Dropping Layout?



Which RPG Has the Most Jaw-Dropping Layout?

This isn't the kind of thing I notice. I'm sure there's a comic book RPG out there with some clever layout designed to emulate a comic book, but I’m happy with two columns and the occasional sidebar. I use these books as reference books for the game and as long as they’re readable, with no White Wolf runic scribbles beneath the text, I’m pretty much fine with whatever.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 22: What RPGs are the easiest for you to run?



What RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

Probably the Amber Diceless RPG, for three reasons.



1.) I'm very familiar with the source material.
2.) As the name suggests, it's diceless. The resolution system is a combination of comparing relevant attributes and GM fiat.
3.) There is heavy emphasis on interaction between the players, so I don't have to do all the heavy lifting.

Monday, August 21, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 21:Which RPG Does the Most with the Least Words



#RPGaDay 2017 Day 21:Which RPG Does the Most with the Least Words

I...have no idea. Probably one of those old-timey Steve Jackson Games games in the little plastic cases.




Sunday, August 20, 2017

Seems Legit

From my email. I think I'm going to help this guy out. I just don't like people taking advantage of seniors like this. 


#RPGaDay 2017 Day 20: What is the Best Source for Out-of-Print RPGs?



What is the Best Source for Out-of-Print RPGs?

Best is certainly relative here, as there are a number of options, but they each have their own drawbacks.

eBay (or increasingly for me, third-party sellers on Amazon) is an option, but I miss the days of the Wild West, when it seemed like you could stumble upon all sorts of treasures as people liquidated their collections. Now it's just a bunch of resellers and storefronts for small businesses.

The quarter bins at cons are great, but the few conventions I attend these days tend to be narrowly-focused and only feature tabletop gaming peripherally and the composition of the vendors reflects that.

Still, I'll always treasure that copy of Brave New World I picked up at I-Con. If I had looked more closely, I would have realized that I was not buying a copy of Underground as I thought I was.

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 19: Which RPG Features the Best Writing?


Which RPG Features the Best Writing?


I wasn't sure quite how to interpret this one. Are they asking for a comment on the quality of how the prose conveys the mood, or are they asking how cleanly it articulates the rules for the reader?

Either way, I'm going to give it to the Unknown Armies team, with Delta Green (which has many of the same team members) close behind. UA has all these gonzo concepts, but there is never any question about how to implement them mechanically. Also, each game has a ton of vividly realized NPCs, and the writing really brings them to life.


Friday, August 18, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 18: Which RPG Have You Played the Most in Your Life?




Which RPG Have You Played the Most in Your Life?

Check me out! I’m one-percenter! (In the sense that I’m not in the 99% who will answer some edition of Dungeons & Dragons. (It’s probably not actually 99%, as I’m sure that a bunch of gamers who came of age in the 1990s will answer Vampire: The Masquerade, but it’s certainly going to be the majority.)

My answer is my own Play-By-Email game, the Mazeworks. It was founded on June 9th, 2001 in Yahoo groups. We had a database failure and then we started in the MazeworksII group in November of 2001. I actually considered just folding the game at that point and just walking away, because we would lose so much. Yahoo eventually restored what we had lost, but it was easier to stay at the second group.

I considered folding the group again in 2006 when I knew my daughter would be born. I didn’t think I’d have the time to keep up with the game, but another player convinced me not to. His name is Bob. More on him later.

PBEMs typically flounder after a while, but we bucked the odds, thanks to some really great players.  There were days with a hundred posts, and there was a nearly five-year span where we had at least one post every day.

It’s spawned a number of in-jokes as any long-running game will: The croquet mallet, “YOUR (sic) A LIAR!” “STOP CURSING AT ME!” I met my friend Frederick through the game. I made a number of friends whom I’ll probably never meet. One of them, the incomparable Bob from earlier in the post, handcrafted a beautiful rocking horse and shipped it at his own expense for Lily’s second Christmas.

We finally wrapped up the game in 2012. We had just come to the resolution of a major arc. I was out of ideas and I said so. I didn’t want to run on fumes and I decided we should go out on a high note. I asked everyone who was willing to pen their own epilogue to the series. To this day, I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made regarding role-playing.

The players didn’t want to let it go, so one of them took over and put his own spin on it. I was a player this time, and that worked out. I wanted the Mazeworks to continue; I just didn’t have the passion to drive it anymore.

We played for a few months with Jason M. running the show until he passed away unexpectedly.  I liked Jason so much. I hoped someday to meet him. Who else shared my weird interests of PBEM’s, Roger Zelazny and Robyn Hitchcock. He was a stabilizing influence on the group and such a downright decent guy. I miss him and I’m sorry he’s gone.

We didn’t want the group to end with the death of a player, so someone else stepped up and began running it. His name is Jacob and he’s still running it today. We’re not as strong as we once were, but we’re still telling stories together and I think that’s something to celebrate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 17: Which RPG Have You Owned the Longest But Not Played?



Which RPG Have You Owned the Longest But Not Played?



My first thought was Star Frontiers, but I think I played that in the third grade when I lived in Florida. There were a couple kids with whom I gamed, including one with the extremely unfortunate last name of “Lust”. I’m pretty sure we played the introductory adventure from the introductory boxed set during a sleepover.

Young Josh must have been quite the fan of Tom Moldvay, because he went directly from Star Frontiers to Avalon Hill’s Lords of Creation.  I think I picked this up at K-B Toy and Hobby. In the early 80s they would often offer unsold RPGs at a steep discount. I bought a lot of Dark Sun that way.

I liked the setting and the concept of LoC and the stories that you could potentially tell with it, but even at twelve years old, I recognized that the rules as written were not a good set of tools for implementing those stories. Likewise, Omegakron is an ambitious but flawed adventure.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 16: Which RPG Do You Enjoy Using As Is?




 Which RPG Do You Enjoy Using As Is?

"All of them, Katie!"

This follows from question #15 and my answer is largely the same. I generally don’t feel the need to mod games anymore. I’m generally pretty lazy and modding a game is a bit of work. To the extent that I tweak things, it’s to streamline them. If I don’t feel like looking up the grappling rules and if nothing huge is hinging on the outcome, I’ll just take a guess and apply my best guess to the situation. Or, if I’m at the end of the session and we all want to get it over with, I’ll sometimes skim over the mechanics and eyeball the dice rolls in order to wrap things, but I don’t think that’s what the question is asking.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 15: Which RPG Do You Enjoy Adapting the Most?



Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

I guess I’m going to give another non-answer. I don’t do this anymore.  There was a time when I would create rules for lightsabers and Jedi in my composition notebooks and everyone who was alive in the 1990s made up rules for playing a Highlander style immortal in White Wolf’s World of Darkness.

But these days there are so many licensed properties that there is no need to do this unless you're absolutely infatuated with a system. I know there are Savage Worlds fans out there who want to use it to launch a satellite into orbit, but I'm a big fan of allowing the setting to shape the system, and you don't get that if you try to fit your Avatar the Last Airbender-shaped peg into a Unisystem-shaped hole.

#RPGaDay 2017 Day 14: Which RPG Do You Prefer for Open-Ended Campaign Play




What RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

I tend not to prefer sandbox games these days. When my last day of high school ended, I walked over to my friend’s house and we continued our second edition D&D game right where we left off last session. That was a nice rambling game. There were weeks where we would play at least once a day over the summer. If somebody had a game he wanted to run, he’d take over as DM for a session or two and we’d run our characters through his adventure. We were the stereotypical band of murder hobos and that campaign lasted for years.

That said, I don’t like that playstyle as much anymore. I’m old and I don’t have as much leisure time and as any adult gamer will tell you, coordinating a time when the entire group is free is a nightmare. I like my adventure paths with a distinct ending point so we can enjoy telling a story together.

If I had to choose a particular RPG, I’d go with some pre-third edition iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. It just seems suited to that wandering adventurer lifestyle. When the campaign ends and all the players go their separate ways, I like to think that our characters have more adventures without us.