Monday, May 09, 2016

What's it Worth to Ya?

Via Google+, Greg Christopher draws our attention to an article by Christopher Helton about how gamers need to be less a bunch of cheapskates and be willing to spend more on RPG books. Greg Christopher does a pretty good job of knocking down Helton’s arguments, but there’s more to this. Quite simply, the problem is not with the fans. We’re not cheap.

How can I say this? Quite simply, we’re willing to spend US $40+ (depending on what the exchange rate is this week) for A Red & Pleasant Land. And has everyone forgotten Ptolus already? Back in the double-oughts, when everyone was saying that RPGs were going the way of the model train hobby, Monte Cook embraced that model with an almost-700-page book with CD and handouts and stuff that retailed for US $120. I don’t remember Monte Cook having all that much trouble selling copies of Ptolus. (The electronic version is still available at drivethroughrpg for US $60. Nope, I didn’t miss-type that, the actual price is fifty-nine-point-nine-nine US dollars.)

So the truth is, gamers are willing to spend the money. If you give them something worth that much money.

Calculating value isn’t easy, but here’s a handy cheat: does the feature you’re paying for make it easier to play your game? Does it make it more likely I’ll play your game? Does it make your game more fun to play?

Those are the things that matter to me, the player. I’m not interested in collecting books, I’m interested in playing games. So how does your book make it easier, more fun, or more likely that I’m going to play?

Here’s an example. This table of contents is printed on the inside of the cover, not a few pages buried into the book. It’s quick and easy to find. And notice what’s right on the bottom, left-hand side: if the PCs want to do x, then go to page y, with a list of things PCs commonly want to do. How awesome, yet simple, is that? Why doesn’t every adventure have that? They don’t, but World of the Lost (hard-cover, 176 A-5 sized pages, black & white interior art, MSRP US $40) does.

If you want gamers to spend money on your books, you have to convince them that the value is there. I’m a big fan of Green Ronin’s stuff, but I don’t care how much it costs to produce a full-color hard-back, coffee-table book. I play games; I don’t collect books. But even if I did, why would I buy another glossy coffee-table book when I can get A Red & Pleasant Land or the hardback version of Carcosa, with their stitched bindings, voluptuously tactile covers, sewn-in ribbon bookmarks, and sumptuous paper?

Don’t tell me that the glossy coffee-table format is the only one people will buy. Raggi’s success proves otherwise.

Hell, as a gamer and not-a-book-collector, I’d rather Raggi dump his gorgeous book-printing fetish and go with spiral-bound for everything from now on. That format is just so terribly easy to use at the table. But that’s not Raggi’s bag, so I’m not holding my breath on him doing it.

Here’s what I also know about a book I buy from Raggi: it’s been playtested. The layout has been meticulously crafted to make the book easy to use. The writer, layout expert, and Raggi have all thought about how they can make the book easier to use. The book I buy will take advantage of the innovations they’ve come up with for this book and others.

There’s more useful innovation coming out of a one-man, officing-in-his-living-room shop in Finland than there is out of all the companies based in the Seattle area.

You want me to pay US $40+ for your adventures and settings and RPG rules? I’m willing to do it for Raggi and Monte Cook. I’ve spent US $23.00 for select softcover Pathfinder adventure path books, and that’s a game I don’t even play, because I know there will be cool ideas in them that will entertain my players.

That’s the bar folks. You want my money? That’s how high you gotta jump.

Now get to it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bloodless Magic of 5e

I love a lot of things in 5e. I love the action economy that keeps the game moving quickly and prevents a single character from dominating a turn by taking a stack of a dozen actions. I love the way skills work, there if you need them but equally small enough to ignore when they’d just get in the way, and how the skill system never tells a player: “NO!” I love backgrounds, and the races work, and I love how easy and fun the advantage/disadvantage mechanic is and how concentration prevents characters from layering up on the magical buffs. If I play another version of D&D, even my beloved Moldvay/Cook, I miss a lot of these things, and will sometimes even import them because they work really, really well.

But magic in 5e feels flat. It has no sparkle, no pizzazz. And I’m not sure why.

It’s not the spells themselves. With spells like Mirage Arcane, Crown of Madness, Dissonant Whispers, and Hunger of Hadar, 5e sports some of the most flavorful and evocative spells the game has ever seen (though I’d certainly not be against seeing a more consistent effort across the board to sex them all up, a la LotFP’s spell list). The neo-Vancian spell-slots thing doesn’t help, calling to mind capacitors and other technology-heavy metaphors. Still, preparing spells reads like magic; it tends to fall flat on its face in the actual implementation, when it goes from bundling components or chanting mantras and becomes bare bookkeeping.

And that, right there, is clearly one of the issues. What, exactly, does it mean to prepare a spell? The PHB treats it as nothing more than a bookkeeping chore:
You prepare the list of wizard spells that are available for you to cast. To do so, choose a number of wizard spells from your spellbook equal to your Intelligence modifier + your wizard level (minimum of one spell). The spells must be of a level for which you have spell slots. (PHB pg. 114)

It’s almost verbatim for every other class that casts spells. There’s nary a fig-leaf of mumbo-jumbo, woo, or the like to dress it up. Admittedly, this is not something we want to spend a lot of time on, and is best done between sessions. Still, at least a fa├žade of mysticism would be nice.

We get the same sort of just-the-facts-ma’am attitude on how spells are acquired. Clerics and paladins clearly acquire their spells from their deity, which gives DMs wonderful openings for tying the PCs to their world. Wizards get their spells from books (mostly). But everyone else (including wizards) get spells when they level up.

How? It’s never explained.

It sorta makes sense with sorcerers. Since they acquire magic via genetics, the power grows like an exercised muscle. Druids and rangers can kinda crib from both clerics and sorcerers, saying that, as their experience with Nature grows, so does their ability to channel its wondrous powers. But how do you explain wizards and bards just suddenly acquiring new spells when they level up?

But the most egregious example is the warlock. Yes, obviously, they should acquire their new spells from their patrons. But there’s nothing at all in the books about how this works. I could see a scholarly warlock with a Great Old One patron actually having their mind expanded by reading the Necronomicon a few too many times, but really, there’s nothing in the book about how warlocks interact with their patrons. How are they contacted? What is the nature of the relationship? What do the patrons get out of it?

On the one hand, I appreciate the light touch that leaves lots of room for individual interpretations. On the other hand, there’s a ton of cool opportunities just left on the table, and, in the heat of the game, it’s easy to just ignore this sort of thing. And if you do that, magic kinda deflates into a technology with the wires and gears hidden behind sparkles and unicorn farts.

Art by Thomas Dewing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: The Last Witch - Trust and Tension

The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel movie. By that I mean it's fun, it's exciting, it's a touch melodramatic (in a good way), and it's incredibly imaginative.

It's also a bit disappointing. Especially if you've seen Pitch Black recently.

A movie like Pitch Black is a hell of a thing to saddle an actor with early in his career. You know what he's capable of, and you want to see him hit those heights again. And when it's a near thing, it hurts a little.

What follows is less a review than a dissection of how so much can go right and the movie still be a near miss. If you're on the fence at all, go see it. It's fun. You'll be entertained. Diesel's character has a lot of heart, the visuals are entrancing, and if you've ever been attracted to the whole goth thing, you'll find something to enjoy in the world they've created. So yeah, close this post and come back after you've seen the movie.

Ok, so what's wrong? It's not the acting. Diesel's badass-with-a-heart might not be as dramatic as his badass-shocked-to-discover-he-has-a-heart from Pitch Black, but he's very much a hero you can root and cheer for. Michael Caine does his Alfred thing, which does a very good job hiding his character's dark secret.

But then there's Rose Leslie. From her very first line, we know she's set up to be the love interest in this story, and they never allow her to shake that feeling. And that undercuts everything that happens between the two characters. Their relationship is all about trust. He's the Last Witch Hunter, the immortal badass who slays witches. He's got a nasty reputation, and while we know it's not entirely earned, he certainly leans on it throughout the film. And she's a witch, a witch with a dark secret that ought to set our Witch Hunter's spidey-senses tingling.

But when they're forced to trust each other, we don't feel any risk in it at all. Of course she can trust him; he's the hero! He smiles at kids and risks his life to save little puppies! (Ok, not really on the puppies part, but if there had been any, you know he'd have totally saved them.) And she's the love interest! Of course he can trust her.

So there's no frisson there. No tension, no spark, just meh. Remember that scene in Terminator 2, where they take the chip out of Ahnold's head, and Sarah Conner is standing over it with that hammer in hand? She can smash him to bits. And everything in her background, her character, up to this point, says she's gonna do it. You can feel the tension in the air, feel how much she totally wants to smash that motherfucker to broken bits.

The Last Witch Hunter needed that moment. We needed to see Leslie holding Diesel's life in her hand (or worse) and we needed to see her tempted. We needed to wonder, "Oh crap, is she really going to do it?!?"

But we don't. We know she's totally trustworthy, so when that trust is put to the test, and passes, we just shrug and move on. And without it, there's nothing much else to get excited about with her. Oh, she's fun and all, and we understand, on an intellectual level, what her bond is with the Witch Hunter, but we don't feel it. Their relationship is simply taken for granted by the script, robbing it of pretty much any spark.

Which is frustrating when you consider how much we ought to be trusting Elijah Wood's character, but we totally don't and are not shocked at all by his third act betrayal. Again, Wood never earns our trust in this film, never woos us away from our loyalty to Caine's character. In fact, the warmth between Caine's character and Diesel's, and Wood's youthful, big-eyed face keep us from investing trust in him. We expect him to fail (more so to youthful naivete and inexperience, perhaps, but still). So we're very much expecting him to fuck up, prove he's not up to the obvious level of trust and admiration we have for Caine, trust and admiration so strong that when *his* betrayal is revealed, we don't hold it against him for a moment.

So yeah, I'm blaming the writing on this one. We don't feel the risk where it ought to be. We don't feel the trust where it ought to be. This film, in short, doesn't do enough to mislead us, to tease us and make us question our assumptions. Because of that, it feels very paint-by-the-numbers in its plot beats.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Agony Domain for 5e Clerics

My first 5e campaign is winding down, and folks seem to be enjoying it enough that we'll probably do that again. That being the case, I'm poking at some ideas for a post-apocalypse, dark-age sort of campaign. With that in mind, I'm crafting new character options to reinforce the themes. First of these is this Agony Domain. It's not been playtested yet, so if anyone does use it, please let me know how it works out.

The idea here was to create what amounts to a flagellant sort of mendicant cleric, the sort who'd wander about, stripped to the waist, thrashing themselves with knotted scourges and the like.  They acquire power from pain, so I tried to give them ways to fine-tune the damage they took, and then to profit from it.  Starting at sixth level, I can totally see PCs torturing themselves for the benefits of this class.

Agony Domain
There is a purity in pain, a mind-focusing wisdom that clears away all that is not vital and true. You might be an ecstatic masochist, seeking higher wisdom through pain, or a flagellant who wishes to purify mortals of the supreme sin of failing the gods in their greatest hour of need. Pain is your sacrament and your benediction.

Passion Domain Spells
Cleric Level Spells

1st Command, Heroism
3rd Beacon of Hope, Fear
5th Dominate Person, Geas
7th Mirage Arcane, Symbol
9th Shape Change, Weird

Experience with Pain

You have proficiency with marshal weapons.

Embrace the Agony

So long as your character is naked from the waist up and employs no magical AC enhancement, they enjoy resistance to all non-magical forms of damage, whether that’s blunt weapons, fire, acid, or whatever.

Channel Divinity: Share the Pain

Starting at 2nd level, you can use your Channel Divinity to inflict agonies you’ve experienced on one creature within 60’ of you. Your target needs to make a Constitution saving throw. Failure means they take as much damage as you have; that is, for every hit point you are currently below your max, they take one point of damage. If the target passes their saving throw, they take half that damage.

Serrated Illumination

Starting at 6th Level, the first time you are reduced to below half your hit point maximum in a fight, you regain all your level 1 spell slots.

Channel Divinity: You Can Take It

At 8th level, you can use your Channel Divinity as a reaction action to remove one status effect or active spell from another and put it on yourself.

The Ecstasy of Agony

At 17th level, every time you deal 2 or more points of damage to anything that can feel pain (not a construct or mindless undead) you may regain half as many hit points in healing, up to your hit point maximum.

Art by Carl Von Marr.

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.