Sunday, January 17, 2016

Happy New O5L

Very late to this party, and the first thing I’ll note is how wrong I was. I was expecting more stick, but what we got instead was a big, juicy carrot. I think that was the smarter path to take.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some thorns among the roses. But first, to sum up for those of you who haven’t already seen it, there’s an OGL for 5e and it looks pretty darn similar to the one for 3e. That, of course, makes how they differ all the more interesting, and 5e’s SRD has a few interesting wrinkles in it. For instance, while the SRD discusses the existence of things like subraces, backgrounds and feats, the SRD only actually lists one of each. This means you can’t just drop the SRD into a reskinned game where orcs are the heroes and elves are the villains, unless you’re willing to rebuild large chunks of character creation options from scratch. It also means you can’t play the game with just the SRD; combining the SRD with the Basic pdf will allow you to do things like add Warlocks to your Basic games, but only the flavor that is beholding to demons and devils; the Warlock flavors tied to the Fey or cthulhic monsters aren’t included in the SRD.

It may not seem that odd a choice (after all, it means that if you want to play the game, you still need to buy the books if the Basic free-taste leaves you wanting more), but it does indicate a very different strategy. 3e’s OGL was clearly about making the d20 system ubiquitous. Every game and setting was being translated into d20, and that was clearly by design.

Just as clearly, 5e’s SRD, while not preventing that sort of thing, isn’t encouraging it, either. You can still make your 5e version of Shadowrun or World of Darkness if you wish, but you won’t have a stack of backgrounds, feats, and character class options to just lift straight out of the game to drop into yours.
The other thing your 5e-version of another game won’t have is a fancy d20 logo. This lack of “a unified, consumer-friendly compatibility logo” means the only things that will come with a WotC imprimatur will be the stuff sold in their Dungeon Masters Guild web store, and that stuff has to be set in the Forgotten Realms.

(I wonder, as an aside, if this is part of how they hope to avoid rules-bloat: let all those barnacles afix themselves to the Forgotten Realms, then burn it all down as they announce the NEW official campaign setting is now Greyhawk, and start all over again.)

Again, I’m not seeing anything that prevents the release of a gazillion splatbooks and all the horrors that come in their wake. However, I’m not seeing anything that encourages that sort of behavior, either. They’re clearly hoping to encourage more Forgotten Realms-focused content.

I’m only seeing good news for the OSR/DIY crowd. If you’ve been enjoying 5e so far, but have been put off by a lack of a license allowing you to publish your homebrew mega-dungeon or zany science-fantasy setting, happy days are here again. If you’ve been hesitant to toss up your 5e campaign setting or adventures online for sale, you now have an umbrella agreement to use for legal cover. If you’ve got something that’s not for 5e but you want to include a conversion document with it, it looks like you’ve got cover for that as well. I anticipate we’ll be seeing a lot more 5e stuff popping up from the more creative and interesting corners of the online RPG community.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars: the Limits of Efficiency

More than any previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is a sharply efficient movie. That's not entirely a good thing. Maybe it's just me, and I'm more aware of this stuff now, but it seems like there's nothing in this movie that doesn't exist to set up a scene, and some things clearly only exist to set up a scene.

In the Force Awakens, what's interesting about the planets isn't so much the environments as what the movie can do with them. Jakku is pretty much Tatooine with the serial numbers filed off, except for the graveyard of military hardware that gives Rey a craptacular job and provides some neat scenery for a starship chase. The Starkiller Base planet doesn't even seem to have a name; all that matters about it is the giant weapon inside.

The most egregious example is Solo's new ship. It possesses only two distinguishing features:

  1. a maw-like hangar to ominously swallow the Falcon in.
  2. a maze of corridors whose only clear purpose is to set an action scene in which heroes, gangsters, and hungry monsters run about chaotically.

Beyond that, no only do we not know anything about it, nothing is even hinted. The ship has no name, no type, and (in what may be a first for a Star Wars ship) we don't even get to see the entire exterior. And thus it feels fake. It feels like a movie set.

Compare that to Mos Eisley in New Hope. Even before Mr. Lucas went in and riddled the thing with extra CGI, it felt like things were going on around the corner that you couldn't see. If the camera had turned left when Luke and Ben had gone right, you'd have seen a used speeder lot (“Since the XP-38 came out, they're just not in demand.”) or a drunk getting mugged by some thugs or a dude getting his kneecaps broken over gambling debts he owes Jabba.

At no point do I feel there's more to Han's new ship than its maw-like hangar and the bizarre maze of tunnels inside.

This is a big deal for Star Wars. The toys, the games, the books are all predicated on the idea that the stories of the Skywalker clan take place in a bigger universe. The first movie made that obvious.

Another example: stormtroopers. Each movie gave us a new flavor of stormtrooper. In the first one, we had the dudes in white armor and the fighter pilots in black (a nice contrast to the rebels' safety-orange suits that said so much about how much both sides valued life and their own people). We got the snow troopers at the Battle of Hoth, and then the scouts in Return of the Jedi. In all four cases, it was obvious what you were looking at. The hows might not have been obvious (what, exactly, is special about the snow trooper's kit, for instance) but the why and the who was obvious.

In Awakens, we have a trooper call Finn a traitor and attack him with a pair of shock batons strapped to his arm. Why does a trooper have a big, clunky double-shock-baton weapon? The obvious answer is they wanted Finn in a hand-to-hand fight with a trooper who was an actual threat. But the in-world answer is never even hinted at. At no other point in the movie do we see someone with such a weapon strapped to their arm. At no other point in the movie do we see someone use such a weapon in a fight. It feels like the weapon only ever existed to be used in this fight, and it feels like we'll probably never see one again (unless, again, we need someone to hack at with a lightsaber).

The lack of verisimilitude in another sci-fi movie would be annoying. In a Star Wars movie, it's downright shocking and perplexing. So much of this franchise lives and breaths to invite people to come play in it. The toys, the games, the spin-offs all thrive on the notion that the Star Wars galaxy is big enough for a million stories. There are so many things hinted at, elegantly, that imply this: the XP-38, nerf herders, bulls-eyeing womp rats in a T-16.

I am not, by any stretch, suggesting that Force Awakens does anything to rehabilitate the prequels. Far from it; I think Abrams movie shows just how much Lucas stumbled in making his new films. However, Abrams' own shortcomings as a filmmaker do highlight Lucas' strengths. Chief among those strengths was creating what feels like a living, breathing larger universe.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens Review

Spoiler-free version: go see it. It's fun!

But you'll have “refrigerator door” questions hitting you before you've left your seat.

Below, there be spoilers. And you want to see this spoiler-free. The tension through this film is part of the fun. You know people isa gonna die, but who?!?

The biggest thing I learned from Episode VII is this: I want to play cards with Daisy Ridley. That woman's face is amazing. You can see everything that's going on in her head and her heart on her face. Rey's emotional landscape is vital to this film, and she makes emoting through facial expression look easy. In the final scene, she conveys so damn much with her face dialogue would ruin it.

Boyega and Isaac, on the other hand, know they're in a freakin' Star Wars film and they're loving every minute of it. It's so much fun when they're on the screen together, and I hope we get to see a lot more of that.

The biggest thing I love about this film is the emotional heft it has. Part of that is born of fear; you know just about everyone on screen is vulnerable and very few enjoy dramatic immunity to death. And, since this is Star Wars, nobody is immune to fates-worse-than-death. The story really focuses in on those relationships we already have with the old characters. While it has echoes of the original trilogy, it has no carbon-copy characters; Rey is nothing like Luke or any of the frustrated farm boys and suburban kids he was clearly modeled on. When Rey does the “strong woman” thing we buy it, because strength and resilience are baked into her character. And that allows her to be vulnerable which allows us to invest in Rey.

Boyega's character is a bit all over the place, but that really works. You can see Finn attempting to construct himself for the first time outside the whole stormtrooper thing. Some of the warmest moments in the film are comic-relief bits between Finn and Han, and they really work in an old-man-mentoring-a-young-hot-shot way.

Anyone else get a weird vibe between Han and Rey? What was that about? There's respect there, but Han's also clearly trying to hold her at arm's length the whole time. That have something to do with her past? There were more than a few hints that he knows who she is.

Maz Kanata is awesome! She used to be a pirate? Please, give us more like that!

My biggest peeve with this movie is how small and jumbled the universe is. It's like one of those French novels where, no matter how far any of the characters travel, they keep bumping into the same people. I was half expecting to learn that Finn was Lando's son or something equally unnecessary like that.

Even worse, I know nothing about how this universe works. There doesn't appear to be an Empire anymore, but the First Order is clearly well-supplied. And yet it recruits by yanking people out of their families and raising them from infancy? That seems more than a little odd. And what exactly is the place of the First Order in this universe? They apparently have some legitimacy because the Galactic Senate can't openly defy them and must secretly support the Resistance. Is this a territorial thing? It's made to look like Takodana is in the same system as the home of the Senate and the Republic's fleet. The Republic keeps its entire fleet in a single system, in orbit around a single world? Sure, the background is probably described in the novels and whatnot, but the movie itself does very little to explain the universe, and in the end makes it feel extremely tiny. The First Order appears to have a single Star Destroyer that does next to nothing besides act as a giant taxi service for the bad guys. Both the Resistance and the First Order have only a single class of fighter these days (that will annoy the game and toy companies no end). Part of what made the original Star Wars work so well is how big and real the universe felt. The universe of episode VII feels tiny, almost cramped. It feels like it was made for TV, rather than a movie.

John Williams has also dialed it back. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the music, and when it invokes old, familiar themes, it works. When it's not doing that, it's perfectly evoking the right emotional flavor for the moment. But there's no Imperial March or Duel of Fates that you'll be humming to yourself as you leave the theater. If Finn or Rey has a theme, it didn't stick in my head.

All-in-all: fun and emotional, but cramped. Like a really good anime, it's the characters who draw you in and keep you invested. There's no thrill of exploration in this movie except for a brief breath of fresh air at Maz Kanata's place, where, ever so briefly, the galaxy feels large and sprawling and full of possibility again. The rest of the time, it's set-dressing for intimate character drama, derring-do, and thrilling action beats.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review: The Expanse on Syfy

Watching the opening credits and seeing the ads online,but most especially after watching the opening credits sequence, you'd be excused for mistaking The Expanse for a sci-fi knock-off of Game of Thrones. Heck, it's pretty clear SyFy wants you to mistake it for a Game of Thrones knock-off. The first episode doesn't really live up to that bill, though.

First, there are way too few characters. It becomes fairly obvious that we've got three main characters. Miller is a “cop” who actually works for a private security firm that does the cop-like work on the colonized asteroid Ceres. He's all noir, with his hat and clothes, his tough-guy demeanor and his dialogue that feels like a washed-out imitation of Dashiell Hammett. He's a “dirty cop,” though the implication is that, being a private corporation rather than a public service, the entire organization is on-the-take. We're also supposed to get that he has a heart of gold because he feels guilty about things and then gets ugly-violent about it later.

Jim Holden is one of those characters who's supposed to be mysterious. He's clearly running from something, clearly inhabiting a social and professional level below his actual birth and abilities, and clearly wallowing in (rather tame and mild) hedonistic delights to distract himself from the previous two aspects of his character. He also holds a vague position of authority on an ice-mining ship, doesn't want to advance in rank, and is banging the navigator who is the only other person on the ship who grooms and talks like lawyer instead of a factory worker. He's so generically mysterious he's boring, because you know you can't invest in his character. Luckily, he's surrounded by far more interesting people, and being “mysterious” means he can engage in broad swings in style and tone, allowing him to take plot-necessary actions nobody else in his position would sanely entertain.

Finally, we have Chrisjen Avasarala, an Indian grandmother who wears elegant saris, tickles her grandson, and, as Undersecretary of the United Nations, tortures political dissidents, possibly to death. Like Jim, she's such a different person from one moment to the next that it's impossible to invest in her, but unlike Jim, she's not surrounded by more interesting people. What you'll be paying attention to when she's on the screen is the spectacle of wealth and power and future Earth around her, and the vaguely Tarantino-esque threat of sudden, explosive violence that seems to linger in the background of every scene she's in.

The show owes a lot more to Babylon 5 than it does to Game of Thrones, from its grungy blue-collar focus to its Cold War themes and hidden motivations. You'll also see a lot of Babylon 5 in the space scenes, where ships move like physical bodies in a Newtonian universe but we still hear the rumble of engines as they pass by the camera. The sex is fairly tame (there's a single scene of gratuitous zero-g sex between a man and a woman), the violence isn't very graphic (though it does aim for a certain emotional impact that it doesn't always reach), and the spectacle is a bit too industrial grunge to really pull off the whole GoT-in-space vibe the marketing team would like you to assume.

It's also very much a modern serial show. You can tell they've got stuff plotted out pretty concretely (the story is based on a novel series) and look forward to a slow, leisurely reveal. Also like modern serial shows (and again, very much in the vein of Babylon 5) they love to set up your expectations and then pull the rug out from under you. They do a fairly masterful job of that right up near the end of the first episode.

Unfortunately, our three main leads do such a bang-up job of being mysterious and unpinnable that its really hard to invest in them as a viewer. (There's actually a fourth key character, but you see so little of her that you'd be forgiven for having entirely forgotten about her as the closing credits roll.) If the show is easy to watch (I don't have cable, so that means episodes posted online) and I have time, I'll probably catch the next few episodes to see if it grows on me; I'm at least that intrigued. But I've not seen anything yet worth rearranging my schedule for. On a scale of one-to-five stars, I give it a tentative three stars.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Disadvantages, Disadvantage, and EXP

In an attempt to make RPG characters mechanically unique, there was a trend in the early years to include lists of disadvantages you could take for your characters. The first game I came across that did this was GURPS in the mid ‘80s but I can’t say another game didn’t do it first.

Typically, these gave you additional points to buy better stats, abilities, or advantages during character creation. After that, it was up to the GM, largely, to keep track of your disadvantages and apply them during play.

This is, obviously, a clunky system, adding extra burdens on the GM to not only be certain to apply the disadvantages but to do so fairly. Certain disadvantages might not show up much at all because of the nature of the campaign (for instance, being unable to swim in a campaign set in deep space) while others might cripple a PC due to the themes and preferences of the GM (like arachnophobia in a campaign where the principle villains are drow).

More recently, people have been experimenting with flaws that reward the player when they penalize the character. You can see this kinda-sorta in Numenera with its GM intrusions mechanic.

I’m thinking of adding it to my D&D toolbox as follows: every time a flaw is invoked to cause serious disadvantage to the PC and most especially if it actually causes them to roll with disadvantage (roll two d20s and take the lower roll, as per 5e), the PC gets EXP equal to 2% of the difference between the amount needed for next level and the minimum they needed for their current level.

Now, I haven’t playtested this at all yet. I’m guessing that a flaw that comes up more than 5 times per hour (or 20 times per session) probably needs a serious looking-at. But this puts the burden of using it largely on the player, and incentivizes them to invoke it.

That said, I’m not sure I’d use it during character creation. Instead, I’d probably use it in conjunction with something like a Table of Death & Dismemberment (such as losing an eye causing disadvantage in to-hit with missile weapons) or mutation tables. I could also see using a system like that in conjunction with mental instabilities like those found in Wrath of Demons or Kingdom Death.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Steve Wieck Sows the Wind

Ok, yeah, I think I understand. Controversy is scary, and I can’t imagine that OneBookShelf isn’t living close to the bone. Still...

First, this is just opening the door to more controversy and fights. If you think the proposed tool isn’t going to be abused next time the RPG world has another slap-fight, you’re living in a fantasy world. Mr. Wieck is in for a world of busy-work, staying on top of this.

Second, Mr. Wieck has suddenly made his opinions important. Before now, nobody needed to care what Mr. Wieck felt about the divisive issues of the day. Now? You’d better believe Green Ronin cares what Mr. Wieck’s opinions on homosexuality are. What about furries? What about tentacle monsters?

By declaring himself the arbiter of “offensive,” Mr. Wieck has painted a big, giant bull’s eye on his back. This will mean more controversy, more Twitter fights, and more heat on Mr. Wieck personally. If he’d endured whatever boycott the offended could have mustered, he’d have found smoother sailing after the storm. As it is, he’ll be dealing with this issue frequently and personally, for as long as he’s at OneBookShelf, if not longer.

Then there’s the issues with publishers, which Mr. Wieck summarizes quite succinctly himself:
Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban."

To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." A work often has to be considered as a gestalt to know if it is offensive or not.

Really? That’s the best you can do?

Moving forward, we’ll probably see a chain of events we’ve seen before. We’ll see Mr. Wieck beg publishers to pull stuff that causes scandal and hope they voluntarily choose to do so, as happened with “Tournament of Rapists.” I suspect that will be Mr. Wieck’s go-to maneuver for now. It allows him to have his cake and eat it too; he says he found nothing personally offensive in “Tournament of Rapists” beyond the title and blurb, and in the end he’s not responsible for pulling the title off OneBookShelf. Win-win for him.

Until someone fingers one of Raggi’s titles, or another publisher tells him to man up or shut up.

Before that even happens, I suspect we’ll see a two-tier approach to issues of “offense.” Big publishers will be immune; no matter how much someone complains about a WotC, Pathfinder, or FFG, we won’t see their titles pulled. (And don’t think it couldn’t happen. Remember all the fuss-and-bluster over Hook Mountain Massacre?) Green Ronin is probably safe, as is White Wolf. Probably…

But the small-time and one-shot publishers will be easy prey for folks looking for someone to abuse, or those who don’t want the competition. How many flags will it take before Mr. Wieck has one of these talks? And if a publisher wants to be able to list future titles on OneBookShelf, well, that means “voluntarily” pulling the title.

And that might have been how things shook out. Except, while Mr. Wieck might not be willing to invoke any bright line rules, James Edward Raggi IV is:
If one of my products gets pulled, or if the products of my peers are pulled without their consent, I am taking every LotFP product off of that site, which will be something of an economic armageddon for me and a hardship from everyone on my roster getting royalties from sales.

It’s not an entirely one-sided Armageddon, either. As Raggi points out, he’s a top 2% seller on OBS with “over $100,000 gross sales over the six years [he’s] sold through the site…”

It’s only a matter of time before the mob is howling for Raggi’s blood (and probably Zak S’s or Jeff’s or any of the many others he publishes). So we’ll see how it goes. Raggi’s gone out of his way to offend before. Hell, his marketing relies on it, so I’m sure we’ll see the policies put to the test sooner or later.

Dyson Logos, someone I have a lot of respect for, himself has much respect for Mr. Wieck. By putting himself directly in the crosshairs, Mr. Wieck is clearly attempting to get ahead of this issue. I’m sure he’s got his heart in the right place, but when good intentions are your paving material, your road usually ends up only one place. Whatever he intends to have happen, people will attempt to abuse the system. Whether or not they succeed is entirely on Mr. Wieck’s shoulders. Maybe he had no choice; maybe he had to step into the middle of this. I do give Mr. Wieck props for not hiding behind passive-voice corp speak; he painted this target on himself. I just don't see how he did himself or OneBookShelf any favors by doing so. As he's sown, so shall he reap.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Success Guaranteed!

Are you familiar with the Garden of Eden trap?

It’s a way to short-circuit adventures before they really begin. Basically, it works like this: the PCs need to do a thing or the adventure stops. This can take all sorts of forms:
  • The PCs must surrender to the “obviously” overpowering forces of the enemy.
  • The PCs must solve the puzzle to get through to the next room.
  • The PCs must put these clues together in just the right way to figure out where to go next.
  • The PCs must put Tab A into Slot B (usually meaning bring a portable magic item to a fixed magic item, but it can be even worse when both items are portable).

But the absolute worst is: the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue with the adventure.

You see that last one ALL THE TIME and it annoys me every time I see it. To find the hidden enemy, the PCs must find a secret door. To secure the McGuffin you must solve the puzzle. Heck, to even start the adventure you must pass a lore or intimidation or whatever check just to even learn about the dungeon’s existence!

If the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue, what are you going to do when they fail?

And having three options isn’t enough. What if they entirely miss that one exists and flub the remaining two somehow? What will you do?

This is called the Garden of Eden trap because if Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit, nothing changes; they stay in paradise and there’s no rest of the Bible.

Note that this isn’t the same as combat. Even if you get a TPK in combat, the adventure can continue; it just might be with different characters. But nobody wants to build entirely new characters just because the dice are ornery and nobody can pass a Lore check or something equally inane.

Secret doors and secret passages are cool, but they should be built with the idea that they are bonus material. If the PCs find the secret door, they should get extra loot. Or they offer a way around a nasty monster they’d have to fight otherwise. Or maybe they provide a safe space to rest and recuperate.

Ditto for puzzles. Either they can be solved by brute-force or simply going through every available option (taking the time to do so, of course), or they again offer access to bonus material: extra treasure, a sub-level of your dungeon, stuff like that.

If there is something the players must know so the adventure can continue (like, say, the actual location of the dungeon), then give it to them for free. If you want them to roll a die, then let them, and then tell them what they need to know regardless of how the roll came out. If they roll really well, you might also give them something extra (like that the dungeon is inhabited by lycanthropes or something equally useful). If they roll really poorly, tell them two things, one of which is true and the other of which is a lie.

But for the love of Pete, don’t force the players to succeed at a roll to continue or finish the adventure. If you do, you’d damned well better have more material for play that evening, because it won’t be the players’ fault if gaming ends early.