Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Witcher Series

I was going to call it a TV series, but since it's on Netflix is it really TV? I suppose the format is very similar.

The series is ok. I've not played the games or read the books, so it might be goring sacred cows left and right. I've watched six of the eight episodes. The tone is all over the place. Bits are so baldly comedic they feel like they were lifted from that old Wizards and Warriors TV show. Other parts have that ugly darkness you'd expect from the IP's reputation. The CGI ranges from nicely subtle to laughably bad. Ditto for the casting and for the costuming. It keeps trying to have emotional payoff without actually earning it. I fear fans are going to be horribly disappointed, but I'm enjoying it (though chiefly as fun but disposable entertainment).

Henry Cavill's a bit one-note as Geralt, but he oozes charisma. He's not nearly as interesting, however, as either Ciri or Yennefer. Though watching Yennefer flail about with sword and dagger seems a bit meh after you've seen her do all this. I mean, how the heck is Netflix supposed to top death by magical raven punching its way through someone's skull?

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Stat Blocks and Table Space

On a post from 2015, Ruprecht recently asked:

I'm curious what people think about the way the modules are handled. They just say Knight (for example) and the DM is expected to look up the Knight statblock in the back of the monster manual. This is brilliant to save space but seems less useful at the table.

This is easily one of the areas where OSR publications stomp all over WotC's stuff: ease of use at the table. An A5 size book with a good binding is easy to use and doesn't eat up nearly the table real estate that 5e's core books and adventures take up. Plus, in the best OSR stuff, the stat blocks and maps are all there on one page for you.

Compare to trying to run an official 5e adventure. You'll have the adventure itself, a big coffee-table tome with the adventure itself. And you'll be flipping back-and-forth because the maps are pages away from the keyed descriptions. And, as Ruprecht points out, you'll also want the MM with you to look up any foes the PCs might encounter.

But wait, there's more! Because you'll also need the PHB so you can look up the details on the spells everyone is going to be casting. And maybe Xanathar's as well, if someone is using stuff from that book. Luckily, you'll only need to flip back and forth in the MM if the encounter includes more than one type of monster. You'll be flipping a bit in the adventure book, and a LOT in the PHB. (Gift idea for the DM in your life: a pad of post-its they can use to mark important pages in all these books!) Which means your DM is going to be taking up twice to three-times the space of a player. Oh, wait, but we forgot about any notes the DM might have written down. Or space to roll dice!

This is extremely sub-optimal, but unlikely to change. Current RPG tastes dictate the complex stat blocks and rules, as well as the honkin' big books as the standard for AAA RPGs (and this is after WotC made a big deal about simplifying D&D).

Due to the extreme unwieldiness and generally meh contents, I've not felt the need to run one of the official adventures. But I do know people who are, and I can probably get some more info from them on how they're finding it.

Monday, December 02, 2019

More Probably Completely Incorrect Musings on the D&D Movie

So we got new info! Joining our hero, Raven Hightower, will be the gnome thief Olivan Trickfoot and the “half-dragon” Hack Karroway.

Olivan is clearly the comedic sidekick here, and probably the “Smart Guy.” Hack is… well, what exactly do they mean by “half-dragon” anyway?

Depending on how accurately they’re using the term, we could be talking about a sorcerer with dragon’s blood in his veins. But with a name like “Hack” that’s probably not the direction they’re going with.

In ye olden days, I’d assume a human sorcerer with some scales on the back of his arms and maybe cheeks, but CGI is so good now they could totally mean a dragonborn. (They could also mean a literal half-dragon, but I don’t think we’ve seen an official version in 5e yet? In any case…) Such a hulking CGI mass of scales, fangs, and horns would obviously be the “Big Guy” and, if the writers have some skill at dialogue, would share comedic duties with the gnome in classic big-guy-and-little-guy fashion.

Our final good-guy is “a masked warrior named Alyssa Steelsong who is set to take over Palarandusk's role [as leader of a group of Triadic Knights] when the dragon dies.”

I cannot express how much this riles up my cynicism, which expects Steelsong to only wear the mask long enough to defeat a gang of villainous flunkies before doffing her mask to reveal OMG-a-woman-warrior-unpossible!!! Somehow, I doubt this option will have much impact a full quarter-century after the debut of Xena: Warrior Princess. (Yep, 25 years ago come 2020!) We will then never see the mask again, and Steelsong will proceed to get her ass kicked in every fight for the rest of the movie, constantly needing to be rescued by Hightower. This will culminate in a climax where the arch-villain male drow Razer Horlbar threatens to kill her in exactly the same way he murdered Hightower’s sister.

In this version of things, Razer’s tiefling ally Damala (probably a spell-slinger of some flavor) ends up travelling with the heroes. Trickfoot and Hack will constantly be going on about how she can’t be trusted, but she won’t actually do anything sinister except behave in a vaguely femme-fatale fashion. In this case, Damala will be the Lancer and Steelsong will be the group’s Heart. If the crew isn’t careful, and they give her enough screen time and cast a skillful actress in Damala’s role, she’ll steal the show from Hightower and there will be clamor for a spin-off solo movie for Damala.

A more interesting option casts Steelsong as the Lancer. The mask will come out regularly, usually when she’s about to do some serious ass-kicking, and it will be quite clear that she’s more skilled as a warrior than Hightower. She’ll keep saying that she ought to be leading the mission, but Hack and Trickfoot will keep reminding her that she hasn’t earned their trust yet. Respect, sure, but that’s not enough to get them to follow her into the Abyss. Her time with the trio will be about teaching her to let go of her mask and allow herself to make real connections with others in order to be a more effective leader. The final climax will have her fighting against the Beast without her mask, possibly forcing her to rely on Trickfoot for survival and victory. 25% chance she chooses to betray the party at the end of the second act for what she thinks, at the time, is the greater good, but returns in the final battle to redeem herself.

In this case, the Heart of the group will be Hightower’s dead sister, who will appear to her brother in dreams and hallucinations (after he’s been knocked unconscious by drugs or blunt trauma to his skull) and impart vague words of wisdom or warnings. 10% chance she’s still alive, serving as a masked or veiled oracle for Razer or something similar. Very slim chance she’s an undead bodyguard for Razer and Hightower is forced to kill her just before he goes mano-y-mano with the drow.

Razer will likely look like Nightcrawler from the X-men movies or possibly like the pale elves from del Toro’s second Hellboy movie. Hack has a 50-50 chance of making it alive to the end of the movie. Too high a chance they’ll try to make Trickfoot into a furless Rocket Raccoon. If they give him goggles, gadgets, and a heavily sculpted “adorable” hairdo, consider it a warning.

No mention of good-guy spell-slingers. They don’t say what Hack is, so he could be a wizard, but that’s not the way to bet. Steelsong could be a paladin, but in any incarnation she likely won’t be slinging too many spells. Honestly, while it’s insane to consider a D&D party going after the relics of Vecna without a cleric, by keeping the spell-slingers to a minimum they reduce the need to explain how D&D magic works to casual viewers.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Sci-fi Treasure

Treasure is easy in fantasy realms. Usually, it's great piles of gold coins, gleaming gems, and works of art. If you're doing a more Bronze Age thing, it can be cauldrons and tripods and drinking vessels like you see in The Odyssey. But what's treasure in a sci-fi universe? Large stacks of credit-vouchers just don't have the same feel as tumbled piles of doubloons and ancient crowns.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when the future was nuclear, space powers feuded over fissionables the way 20th century powers fought over oil. Later, when the power of the future shifted from fission to fusion, He3 became the thing to fight over.

There's been all sorts of unobtaniums associated with power generation or FTL travel, such as Star Trek's dilithium crystals or the floaty magic rocks in the Avatar movie. This is a common and accepted way of expressing great value in space opera these days.

Mass-to-energy conversion makes this sort of thing difficult (unless the unobtanium is a key component in the process). Energy-to-mass conversion essentially makes anything dirt cheap. At that point, your treasure is going to be works of rare art, especially if you can verify the authenticity of original works. (While AIs might be able to churn out amazing art at astounding speed, the assumption here is that the original creations of idolized artists will still command great value, though potentially only to eccentric collectors.)

There's also the secrets-of-ancient-antiquity version, whether that's the knowledge of a lost (often but not always Golden) age (like the STCs of the Warhammer 40k universe), or dead alien civilizations.

While gemstones can still work (especially if you have a magical tech that can distinguish between natural and artificial) it takes more work. Keep in mind that diamonds are worth as much as they are today in the real world due to the bulk of the natural supply being dribbled out slowly by the principle mine-owners. They're actually quite common, just not in circulation.

Finally, while there's lots of gold and other precious metals potentially floating about, if you're talking about a galaxy-spanning civilization(s) with a population measured in the vigintillions, and most especially if there are practical applications for these metals (conducting electricity is still a thing), demand could still drive up price. This can be especially true if something is disrupting mining efforts; local pirate activity or warfare could drive up the price locally, double so if your FTL travel isn't instantaneous.

I've been casting about for other ideas of what future treasure might look like. If anyone has other suggestions, please feel free to share in the comments.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

They Were Wargamers

It’s a fact that the earliest players of D&D were wargamers, and that D&D sprang, not full-fledged from the brow of Gygax, but rather as variations on fantasy medieval wargaming. It’s easy, therefore, to extrapolate some assumptions based on what we know about wargaming. But if you don’t do much wargaming, or you’ve only been exposed to certain flavors of wargaming, the keyhole you’re looking through might be too skinny for you to get the full view of things.

Let’s take a look at one of the most popular wargames (at least in the US) out today: Warhammer 40,000. Thing is, when it was first released, it wasn’t really a wargame. Rogue Trader was billed as more of an RPG. Today we’d recognize it as a skirmish-level, campaign focused wargame with RPG elements. The idea was you’d create these stories of the 41st Millennium by playing out clashes between freebooters, criminals, space marines, and orks on the backworlds and seedy alleys of a dark and distant tomorrow. And stories need characters. In order to create interesting stories, you need interesting characters. That requires a certain amount of customization, if only in the ability to name and outfit your dudemans to personalize them. So if you flip through a copy of Rogue Trader, you’ll see all kinds of weirdness: Space Marines wielding shuriken catapults and rolling after a fight to see if your character was just laid up in a medical vat for a week or is truly, really, completely dead.

That’s likely what the first iterations of proto-D&D were: rules for personalizing your fantasy army’s captains and lieutenants, so you could create your own Elric and Conan and Aragorn and pit them against each other. They would acquire a history and rivalries and bosom companions and such from the stories of their battles, which would spin off new adventures (very much the way The Temple of Elemental Evil was spawned by the wargaming of a fantasy siege).

But note that this is a desire to imbue these characters with personality and hang stories on them. This is not the disposable cypher miniature of just another grunt in your horde. So how do we reconcile this desire for story with the very disposable nature of early D&D characters?

Quite simply this: the story a wargamer is telling isn’t so much the story of any particular individual, but rather the story of a battle, a campaign, an army, or a family. The death of any individual doesn’t end the story, but merely marks the ending of a chapter in a broader, possibly multigenerational story.

This is why AD&D has rules for things like constructing strongholds, for stat adjustments when characters age, for followers and henchmen and the like. Early D&D may not have been about fighter Joebob III, son of Joebob II, son of Joebob, but it could very much be about the dynasty of Joebob, the effect it had on the Gran Marches, and its eventual corruption and destruction at the hands of the black wyrm Mavelant.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Movie Review: Color Out of Space

I got to see Color out of Space at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon last night. While I’m not a connoisseur of Lovecraft adaptations to film, this is the best I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of movies like The Thing, this is likely right up your alley. This is also the best Richard Stanley film I’ve seen, but again, not a connoisseur, so take both of those statements with a grain of salt.

Still, this has all the hallmarks of a solid film. The fx are good, the casting and acting are excellent across the board, and the writing is top notch. Note that this is not a scene-for-scene adaptation of Lovecraft’s story. Instead, Stanley puts the focus of the film on the Gardner’s, the family that owns the farm the Color lands in, and sets it in the modern day.

The result is something potent. The Gardner’s are a family with a surfeit of life happening to them. Mrs. Gardner, who appears to be a financial consultant who works out of the attic and is the family’s breadwinner, just survived a cancer scare. The movie version of the family has three kids: an elementary-school aged son named Jack, a teenage stoner son named Benny, and a gothy Wiccan daughter named Lavinia. Mr. Gardner is played by Nicolas Cage and, honestly, I’ve enjoyed him in so many movies, good and bad, but this may very well be the role he was born to play.

We first meet them through the eyes of the kinda-sorta narrator of the film, Ward Phillips, a hydrologist from Miskatonic U. doing surveys for a water reservoir project. He stumbles across Lavinia in the middle of a ritual, and it’s not creepy in the slightest. Instead, she comes off as almost the stereotypical nerdy girl teen, and the target audience is likely to fall in love with her from the start. And while the family has its issues (actually, likely because the family has its issues), you fall in love with the whole quirky bunch of them. Which is a bad idea, because this is based on the freakin’ Lovecraft story and…

And this movie doesn’t play by the traditional rules. It doesn’t show animals dying but it literally kills them by the truck-load. This is not Spielberg’s Poltergeist where everyone gets out scared and scarred but alive. This isn’t an ‘80s style horror film where people who have sex get killed while those taking noble risks survive. The Color is a Lovecraftian horror and doesn’t give two flips for human morality. The result is a brutal and disturbing horror flick that draws out the tension almost perfectly before punching you in the gut. It’s not shy about splattering even its youngest cast members with ropy splatters of blood.

It’s Nic Cage who really nails the Lovecraft feel, however. He’s the one we get to watch descend into madness. And he does it perfectly, going from a mild-mannered mildly neurotic middle-aged father trying to shepherd his family through modern life to a gibbering wreck of a human being. And the story supports his descent; near the end, events happen that make you question if some of his delusional ravings were really delusional, or if he was seeing things others couldn’t. He’s not Jack Nicholson chasing his family with an axe; he’s Joe Everyman watching something utterly horrible and alien warp and destroy the land he grew up on and his family.
The creature effects are excellent and disturbing and will draw comparisons to Carpenter’s The Thing. The soundtrack is subtle and broody, but does at times step on the Foley, especially when the Color is making whistling sounds. It’s hard to tell at times what’s the soundtrack and what’s a sound the characters can actually hear.

The writing gets a bit soft at the end, but that’s hard to avoid. The opening is so solid, and the events in the last 20 minutes come so fast and furious and bizarre that they couldn’t really keep up the quality. When the Color is resolved, we really don’t know how or why, and it certainly doesn’t appear to have anything to do with what our characters do. There’s a joke for the fans involving a Chekhov’s Gun that doesn’t go off, and because it doesn’t go off the timing is a bit off, but you’ll recognize it later when you’re thinking about the movie. And the movie is peppered with little nods to the Mythos, from the frequent calls of whippoorwills to the logo of the local TV station to Ward’s choice in reading material.

I’m glad this film got made. I appreciate all the work and craft that went into it. I don’t think I ever need to see it again. Can there be greater praise for a movie adaptation of a Lovecraft film than that?

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Muir

I was really ready to adore this book. Humanity has spread through the universe and (at least part of it) is currently ruled by a necromantic god-emperor who apparently at some point resurrected humanity from extinction (or, at least, a sizeable portion of it?) The Emperor instituted Nine Houses, ruled by powerful necromancers, each with its own character and bailiwick. The empire is tottering, shot through with rot and decay (as you’d expect from an empire built upon necromancy) and most of the Emperor’s champions, super-powered necromancers called Lictors, have fallen over the myriads since the founding of the Empire.

And yes, “myriad” is the right word here, used frequently in the book in its archaic meaning of “a unit of ten thousand.” My inner word-geek squealed in delight at this.

And our heroine spends most of the book running around wearing an almost-kinda black trench coat, totally ‘80s mirrored shades, and a rapier. And she spurts ‘80s quips like a gay action-hero.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Grade A Brian bait.


You knew there had to be a “but,” right? Brian only giving three stars to a story that looks like it was based on notes by Clark Ashton Smith but strained through ‘80s action and anime tropes? That blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy? What gives?

What gives is the plot. It’s a mess. Our heroine is enslaved by a sadistic necromancer princess. Their relationship is… plot-convenient? It’s not so much that I didn’t buy it, but rather that I picked up the wrong signals. Our introduction to their relationship felt less like the opening to a romance/buddy cop thing and more like setting the stage of a nasty revenge. Rather than helping us to like both of these characters and straining at the antagonism that separates them, I started off hating the princess and never really warmed to her.

These two are summoned by the Emperor to a conclave of the scions of the Nine Houses (each accompanied by a body-guard/champion and no one else) to a decaying palace on a distant world. Once they get there and we’ve met the other scions and their attendant cavaliers, things devolve quickly into Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

Things are made worse by the antagonisms of the various scions. Instead of working together (something that should be the obvious move once you understand the rules of the game, since it’s nearly impossible for anyone to succeed without cooperation), they assume (for no good reason I could discern) that only a few can rise to Lictor in spite of being told outright that it’s the Empreror’s dearest hope that they all achieve that status.

But you can’t really blame the scions, because the Emperor himself set this up in an incredibly stupid way. Shuttles we are told are “valuable” are tossed into the ocean and sunk instead of merely being flown away. The rules are poorly explained and even more poorly enforced. Once the secret of attaining Lictorhood is understood, the most devout house of Emperor-worshippers declares that such a thing is blasphemy and does its best to prevent anyone from becoming a Lictor, to the point of actually attempting to murder the other scions.

It’s a neat premise described with excellent word-smithing that falls utterly apart if you poke at it at all.

Still, it’s a fun read for all that. Just understand that this is a romance/mystery/thriller sort of thing, much more Ten Little Indians meets Jane Eyre in space with skeletons than Dune. Also, it’s of the more prudish sort of romances, where things never get to the point where fade-to-black is necessary. Don’t let the frequent references to dirty magazines and the course language of our protagonist fool you on that point, either. This romance is headed towards a union that is purely symbolic and spiritual, so if you’re looking for torrid lesbian shenanigans, this ain’t your book. If you’re cool with all that, and turning off your brain to avoid “fridge logic,” there’s a fun little romp here for you.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

It Doesn't Make Sense to Make Too Much Sense

So you'll often hear, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," and it usually means that you shouldn't destroy a project trying to achieve perfection when all you really need is something that's better-than-serviceable. In other words, a good book that actually gets published is vastly superior to a "perfect" book that's never finished.

A pitfall like unto it is being overly clever. We've all seen the elegantly designed RPG that is a thing of beauty, with its perfectly symmetrical stats or elegantly designed resolution system that just doesn't work at the table. Well, that sort of thing isn't just for game designers; it can strike GMs too.

The fact is, the real world is full of wonky little things that make no sense. The highest and holiest of Christian holidays, Easter, is named after a pagan deity we know almost nothing about, but we're pretty sure all the rabbits and eggs point to Oester being some sort of fertility deity. Obviously what happened is that Christians piggy-backed on Oester's popularity and just co-opted one of her more popular holidays for their own. But the eggs and the rabbits persist, long after we've forgotten just about everything there was to know about Oester.

This is why it's a sure comedy hit every decade or so when some comedian will go onto college campuses to ask our "best and brightest" why Jesus wants us to hide eggs on Easter. If there's one thing college students learn, especially those of us who tackled the liberal arts, its how to create sense out of the jumbled nonsense of reality, especially if there's no sense their to be found.

Our days of the week are the same. Sunday through Friday, the names are Germanic/Norse, referencing gods like Tyr (Tuesday), Wotan (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), and Frigga (Friday). And then, boom, Saturday, named after the Roman god Saturn. What's up with that? We really don't know. There's been lots of conjecture that the Norse were mapping their days of the week over the Roman ones and just didn't have a god they liked to replace Saturn. There's others that think Saturn was close enough to an Anglo-Saxon word "sætere" that means "seducer" or the like that they just kept it as-is. But the truth is, nobody really understands what happened there.

The point for you, my fine world-building friends, is that things that make too much sense, that are perfectly rational, are not terribly realistic. To make your world feel more real, make it less perfect. Throw in that one odd halfling drinking custom in your dwarvish culture. Create a perfectly rational solar calendar, but for one month a year that runs lunar and can swing between having as few as 20 days and as many as 36. And don't feel you must explain it (in fact, come up with three mutually exclusive explanations that scholars in your world feud over, just for that added hint of authenticity).

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Diegesis, Dissociated Mechanics, and You

This is good and useful stuff (if a touch esoteric), as we've come to expect from Cavegirl:

Diegetic (adjective): Actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted.

Non-diegetic (adjective): Not actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted, an external thing to the fictional world depicted that the audience percieves.

These are handles you can use to grip game rules or ideas and manipulate them in interesting ways:

Are the powers a D&D 4th edition PC has diegetic or not? Do the different weapon strikes, moves, spells and so on represent distinct techniques a PC has been taught? Can a 4e fighter talk about the different techniques they use? Or are they a non-diegetic abstraction that simplifies the chaos of combat into maneagable gameplay? Or is it somewhere between the two?

This, of course, takes us directly to The Alexandrian's discussion of dissociated mechanics:

For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt.

The mechanic is dissociated because the decision made by the player cannot be equated to a decision made by the character. No player, after making an amazing one-handed catch, thinks to themselves, “Wow! I won’t be able to do that again until the next game!” Nor do they think to themselves, “I better not try to catch this ball one-handed, because if I do I won’t be able to make any more one-handed catches today.”

This sort of discussion is highly important to me because verisimilitude is one of my primary goals when I do the RPG thing. I want my players (or even myself) to be as much in the headspace of our characters as possible. The more our decisions map directly to the decisions made by our fictional characters, the easier it is to see our fictional setting from the point-of-view of the characters in it.

Which is a long and fancy way of saying that I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics in my game. Does that mean I also want to minimize the presence of non-diegetic elements. Not necessarily. As Cavegirl points out, the soundtrack in most movies is non-diegetic; the characters can't hear it. But it helps us in the audience to interpret what the characters are doing, adding emotional context to their actions helping us to see inside the characters' heads to the emotional states they're experiencing. Music and lighting in the room where you're playing, and the layout of a character sheet are all things that are non-diegetic but which can actually improve the verisimilitude of the experience.

(Note also that, while I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics, that's not the same as eliminate them. Abstraction of the boring and the unpleasant can make an experience more immersive by not inviting, or even forcing, you to flee the experience you're supposed to be immersing in.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Taghri's Prize

This novel (link is an Amazon Affiliate link) is of the genre of not-so-young-man-does-good stories that were fairly common in days of yore. Writers like H. Beam Piper and David Drake used to give us lots of these. They deviate from the young-man-does-good stories of authors like Alan Dean Foster in that our protagonist has at least a decade of adult life under his belt. He's done his time in the trenches (often literally) and is ready to wed his worldly experience with youthful energy to carve out his place in the world. He'll use restless initiative and wits to shock the world and his enemies, along with a strong sense of justice and an almost present-day morality to earn the loyalty of his followers and comrades. There's almost always a young woman who's only just entered adulthood but who also exhibits maturity beyond her years to win, usually by climbing the social ladder (if the society has nobility, he'll be a commoner or close to it at the beginning of the story, but fairly elevated up the noble chain by the end). A large component of his success will be based on this character seeing what others cannot, often by finding new and innovative ways to use whatever tech is cutting-edge for their culture. Piper's Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen is probably the pinnacle of this genre, though you can absolutely see how it grew from books like The Count of Monte Cristo and A Princess of Mars.

This book posits a world like ours, but where the monotheisms that came to dominate the world never developed. Taghri's world is one of many gods, and even the gods of a single pantheon can be jealous of one another. It's a world where the gods also take a hand in things, though slowly, and often through agents. It's also a world of gunpowder and, but for the lack of faiths like Islam and Christianity, looks like our own in the 16th century.

Taghri is an experienced campaigner, a veteran of the Sultan's wars who tries his hand at being a merchant. He's hardly gotten started when he finds himself fighting for his life again, this time against pirates. He slays the pirate captain and claims his ship. Among the treasures stowed on board is a princess and a knife that tingles with magical power. These treasures bring him to the attention of both this world's secular and divine powers, and he uses this opportunity to work his way to greatness.

This is a decent book of its type, but not a great one. The writing is engaging and descriptive, Taghri is sufficiently sympathetic (the dude never misses an opportunity to save a cat), and the action is written with gusto.  A sea battle about midway through the novel is especially fun.  However, you rarely feel much tension; suspense for our hero or his friends is frequently undercut when they quickly show that their hard work and cleverness has made them far and away better prepared for any encounter than their foes. The world-building also feels fairly meh. We get just enough local color for this to feel like a modern retelling of a story from the 1,001 Nights, but little else. Our hero doesn't help matters by never failing to exhibit modern sensibilities towards issues like slavery. While he doesn't give any impassioned speeches about the evils of slavery, he never fails to free any slave he comes across, nor does he show any interest in enslaving his enemies. And, while the setting strongly implies that Taghri's friends and allies own slaves, we never, ever see even one. This and a few other choices by the author leads to the setting feeling a bit like a Hollywood back-lot more than a real place.

That all said, this is a fine book of its type, and if you're spoiling for a book along these lines, you'll probably enjoy Taghri's Prize.

Gamers will appreciate Taghri's gung-ho cleverness, and the relationships between the gods and their worshipers feels very much like what you'd expect in a D&D world. The magic item in-and-of-itself isn't terribly exciting, but DMs will be intrigued by the way the plot is woven around it, and by how it launches our hero into a world of political intrigues and results in moments where the gods literally steer our hero in the right direction.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Wherefore Gorgeous Hardcovers?

Noisms asks, “How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?”

For the larger industry, the answer lies in the fact that most professional RPG shops are really more book-publisher than game-maker. The glossy, full-color, door-stopping coffee table tome looks more like quality than the thin booklets or magazine-like specimens that dead-tree RPGs have alternatively looked like. You can get away with charging $50 for these coffee-table monsters; you couldn’t do that with thinner, “cheaper” books, forget PDFs. And, while the coffee-table tomes are more expensive to produce, they’re not that much more expensive to produce. On top of that, the industry is so comfortable with this sort of thing, both as publishers and consumers, that nobody questions the choice and everyone feels they know what they’re getting into. So if you want fancy downtown Seattle office space and medical insurance and full-time staff, this is your tentpole product. It may not be the only way to go, but it’s where the “smart” (meaning “cautious and not-rocking-the-boat”) money is going to go.

But what about the OSR? Well, therein lies a tale. Actually, many tales, which can still be read on the old blogs, including Noisms'.

Return with me now to those heady days of yesteryear. WotC had saved D&D from the sinking ship that was TSR but something just wasn’t right. The 15 minute workday, the assumptions of a combat-focused design erected on a foundation that really didn’t support it, the terribly demanding math of encounter design that resulted in a single fight taking up a whole evening of playtime. There was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something wasn’t right. It was probably ’03 or so when I first heard someone say they’d rather be playing B/X if they could. (And Ferrus Minx, if you’re out there, you were a man ahead of your time!)

But then 2008 happened, and with every sneak peek at what D&D 4e would be, someone new experienced a visceral recoil from what they were seeing. The to-the-foundations transformations of not just the rules, but the setting info, of how parties were built and what adventures were about was bad enough, and it was coupled with an insulting ad campaign that literally drove people to seek other options. It had been fun back then. It wasn’t fun now. What had changed? Could we recapture the magic?

Yes, as it turned out, we could. And, when you read those old blogs, there’s a sense of shock and wonder when the old games were dusted off and played, followed quite often by a sense of betrayal and anger. It wasn’t something TSR or WotC had purposefully set out to do. They’d simply tried to improve the game, but they’d done so based on a set of assumptions very much not shared by fans of those older games.

The OSR knew that the old games were better (for certain definitions of better, sure, but as far as the OSR was concerned, those were the definitions that mattered). And the OSR wouldn’t just bring those games back, they would do it better than the Industry was doing! The rules would be better, the adventures would be better, and yes, the production values would be better.

James Edward Raggi IV was one of those making the most noise on this front. He was vociferous in denying all the “conventional wisdom” of the time. And he was right to do so; there was a lot of BS floating around that everyone “knew” was true about the hobby. (And keep in mind, among these was that RPGs were a dying hobby that could never recover; eventually, it would all be cheap little pamphlets printed from home, or deluxe luxury products like Ptolus, following the same pattern as the slow decline of the model railroad hobby).

James was determined to outdo the big companies, especially WotC. And, to him, this meant tossing aside what was expected. His books would be works of art. When his printing of McKinney’s Carcosa came out, it was shocking! Here was a beautifully bound book. The embossed cover felt decadent in your hands. The endpapers were not blank, but had hex maps on them. The high-quality binding meant it stayed open to the page you turned it to, and it didn’t crack and loose pages (like a certain PHB and MM of mine have done, not naming names, *cough*5e*cough*). It wasn’t full-color, and yet it still felt luxurious compared to the industry standard at the time (or even today, to be honest). It was a book that was meant to be used at the table and look gorgeous on a shelf. This was a book that was special, and you could tell that just by looking at it.

And Raggi wasn’t alone in this. We were told you could only hope to break even with six-digit print runs; OSR publishers printed high-quality books in the handful-of-thousands. We were told that print magazines were passé so Fight On! and others were created. We were told that boxed sets were too expensive and had lead to the death of TSR, so we got the Swords & Wizardry White Box, two boxed sets from Raggi, and, finally, when WotC got into the act, their boxed set looked like this!

The books of the OSR were experiments in usability, shrines for what we considered to be important in our hobby, and shots across the bow of a staid industry wallowing towards obsolescence. Probably the ultimate expression of this was Raggi’s hard-cover Free RPG Day offerings, each chock full of new, never-before-seen material, when everyone else was sending meager quick-start rules or thin pamphlet adventures.

I think there’s still a lot to be done with the book. I think Kiel’s Blood in the Chocolate is an amazing start, but I think we can push the functionality of the hardcover even further. I also think that electronic formats have been neglected by the OSR, and there’s lots of room for amazing things in that arena.

As for Noisms, he appears to see the high prices for these books as a gauntlet to be taken up. I very much look forward to seeing what he does as a shot across the bow of the rest of the OSR.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Why BX is the Best!

Got a copy of Moldvay's Basic D&D? Turn to page B16 and check out the Charm Person spell:

Any commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted, and an order to kill itself will be refused.

Emphasis added for what I hope are obvious reasons. This, I tell the young'ens, is how we differentiated between two fighters back in the day. If your character was a mercenary who'd gut his own grannie for a shaved copper, or a paragon of virtue who never raised a hand against the defenseless and the weak, mattered mechanically, and was specifically called out in the rules.

(Compare this to the rules in Gygax's AD&D Players Handbook, which do not reference habits or personality at all in resisting Charm Person or Mammal.)

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Agony of the Feets

I can’t remember my feet ever hurting this much. Not sure if it’s a testament to my waxing wimpiness or that this truly was the last rodeo for my sneakers. Poor things had a blow-out.

I saw lots of amazing and cool people this week. If you encountered me on Saturday or later, and I seemed terse or distracted, it wasn’t you; by Saturday the fire-hose of social interaction and ALL TEH AMAZEBALLS GEEKY THINGS!!! had me feeling more than a little punch-drunk. Next year, if you’re going to be at GenCon and want to hang, let me know and we’ll do a better job of arranging things.

Honestly, getting to sit down and debate theory with the likes of Zzarchov Kowolski and Jacob Hurst, discuss the ins-and-outs of the industry with folks who have less sexy but vital jobs that keep the wheels rolling, and just laugh and “OMG have you seen this?!?” with fellow geeks is one of the very coolest things about GenCon. But the coolest is almost certainly the Exhibition Hall. Even though I think a third of the things I saw were “kickstarting in the next four months,” (or maybe even because of it), the things to see and touch and play, and the excitement of everyone around you (shining through the “haven’t slept in two days” exhaustion in some cases), is amazingly inspirational.

The LotFP GenCon exclusives didn’t quite sell out, so there are some copies over at Noble Knight Games. I’m pretty sure the inclusion of She Bleeds, etc. is an oops and they only have the first four available. No idea what the quantities are, so if you want ‘em, best to snatch ‘em up now!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Murdered by Pirates is Good

This year started off with so much promise for the blog but, obviously, I fell off the wagon in May. So what has the Troll been up to?

Quite a lot. I'm involved in three regular campaigns. One is weekly, the other two switch off weeks, so that's two evenings of gaming every week (plus regular meet-ups for board games and the like). What's crazy for me is that, due to quirks of fate, all three games are 5e D&D. What's really crazy? I'm a player in one.

The big news is that I'm getting an adventure officially, professionally published for the first time. I've written one of the GenCon exclusive adventures Raggi will be selling at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess booth this year. Being a fan of the Orientalist painters, I wanted to do something involving the Barbary Pirates, who were busting out of the Mediterranean and onto the world stage in a big way during the default time period of LotFP adventures.

I worked with Tabby L. Rose on this one. She's DMing the 5e game I'm actually a player in. Her experience with RPGs is very different from mine. She got started later (because she couldn't find anyone who'd let a girl join their games until after high school) and played very different games from me. Where I've been accused of treating most RPG rules as variations to add to Moldvay/Cook, Tabby had an extremely varied RPG diet, ranging from first edition Rune Quest and FASERIP Marvel to Talislanta and Shadowrun. The longest running campaign she GMed was a Firefly game that started using Margaret Weis Productions rules but later migrated to Fudge. This makes her fun to collaborate with because her expectations and assumptions are often very different from mine.

And this was very important on Menagerie of Exiles because, hoo boy, was this a reminder of how odd my games are. When my players' PCs board a pirate ship, whether as guests or crew or cargo, they want to know all about what's happening: who are the pirates and where did they come from and what are they doing right now (at 3 PM on a Tuesday afternoon) and when can we get the quartermaster alone without anyone else overhearing our conversation? They're going to want to seduce the First Mate, and if they see an opening, they're going to prep a mutiny plan, even if they don't necessarily pull the trigger.

Most of my notes for something like this would be almost-kinda bullet-points jotted into my moleskin or possibly just scribbled on post-its tucked in as bookmarks into the rulebooks. Now I had to make it intelligible for other folks all while keeping it within the word-and-art limits of a GenCon exclusive booklet.

We were absolutely overly ambitious. What you’ll get is a ship and crew with the broad outlines detailed and a bit more focus on particular individuals. There’s a dark secret on the ship that threatens to split the crew apart, a secret that the enslaved prisoners in the hold are part of. And that’s probably skirting too close to spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re running a LotFP campaign, you’ll get a creepy little adventure on the high seas that you can use to move the campaign to more exotic locales. In the decades before the start of the English Civil War, the Barbary Pirates were raiding as far afield as Ireland and Iceland (and, in both cases, absconding with the entire populations of small villages). So you could have these pirates pop up just about anywhere and transport the PCs to just about anywhere. If you’ve been looking for a way to move the campaign to North Africa for Rafael Chandler’s World of the Lost, here you go!

If your game is not set in a real-world analogue of the 16th through 19th centuries, you still get pirates with a dark secret. They can transport your PCs across an ocean and give your table something to do with that journey, rather than just handwave it as “time passes.”

If you’re going to be at GenCon this year, be sure to stop by Raggi’s booth (#3010) and check it out. For myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas. Zzarchov always does neat stuff. And I have a sneaking suspicion I know what James’ mystery book is. If I’m right, yeah, it’ll twist more than a few noses out of joint.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From One Generation to the Next

So people are talking about the generations of D&Ders. And, as usual, I don’t really identify with what the author is writing about.

Part of that is my near total lack of running into any friction for my gaming. Nobody teased me about it. I was encouraged to bring my gaming books into school. My 8th grade English teacher used the NPC generation tables in the 1e DMG as part of a creative writing exercise.

But more than that, I don’t think the level of acceptance of D&D in the culture at large had a huge effect on how we played the game. Rather, I think it was the assumptions we brought to the table.

If you look at Grognardia’s Ages of D&D, you notice that the Golden Age doesn’t even look like D&D as most people know it. Players didn’t invest with their characters the way they’re encouraged to do so now. You rolled 3d6 in order to generate your character, meaning you had no idea what you were going to play until after you’d rolled your stats. You probably had a handful of characters ready to go at any time, and might play your cleric or your wizard depending on factors like which was too busy training up to their next level (something that didn’t happen automatically) or what the group was likely to need tonight. Taking your character on vacation with you and playing in a game across town or across the country was a completely natural thing to do.

But above all of that, D&D was a game about exploration. Monsters were not opportunities for EXP but resource sinks; every fight limited how much longer you could spend in the wilderness or dungeon. Barely any effort was made to balance encounters. Carefully mapping the dungeon unlocked opportunities for finding unguarded or lightly-guarded treasure which was the key to gaining those first few very precious levels.

Unfortunately, early D&D did a poor job of explaining itself. The assumption was that most would learn the game from someone who could trace their learning of the game back to Gygax’s group. Even the Basic boxes fumbled here; the clues were there but not everybody connected the dots. “Why should my characters become better killers from gathering treasure?” was a commonly heard refrain.

2e muddied these waters. The advancement mechanic moved to class-specific criteria: wizards and clerics earned EXP for casting spells, thieves earned EXP for acquiring treasure, fighters earned EXP for slaying things. Even more transformative was the stuff coming out of DUNGEON magazine. Gone were the funhouse dungeons like Castle Greyhawk or thematic ruins that were all about place. The adventures crafted by the Hickmans like Ravenloft and the Dragonlace series, already described as classics, were seen as the model. Everything had to be about story. The assumption that the PCs would be accompanied by a small army of henchmen, something obvious to the first generation of DMs, now seemed weird. You never saw Strider or Raistlin or Elric hanging out in a tavern, interviewing mercenaries to see who would go into the dungeon with them. Charisma transformed from being one of the most important stats in the game to being everyone’s dump-stat.

By the time TSR hit financial troubles, few still played the way that first generation did. The game was about story now, which meant actually killing characters became a hassle. Steps were taken to insulate characters from death, like going unconscious at 0 hit points instead of just dying, giving PCs max hit points at first level, and making resurrection spells more common.

When 3e came out, you could easily see that perceptions of the game had transformed drastically. Now D&D was seen as a game about combat. You earned most of your EXP from killing things, which meant wandering monsters stopped being a threat and started to be a boon to characters who needed just a few dozen more EXPs to level up. The game became more about mechanics; we got all sorts of new ways to differentiate our characters with numbers, like feats and skills. (And, suddenly, nobody’s character could tie knots or swim anymore.) The DM was given tools to balance encounters so that fights were more likely to be “close calls” or, at least of “reasonable” challenge. And to aid in this, each monster got massive, page-long stat blocks, allowing the DM to craft their own monsters using the same rules the PCs used to make their characters. The chains of feats and class abilities made character creation a mini-game, on par with deck-building in games like Magic: the Gathering.

With 4e, D&D had completed its transformation into a game centered around combat. Only, it turned out, that wasn’t really what the fans wanted. And with 5e, the focus was moved back to stories.

Unfortunately, the chassis of the game is still built around the exploration model of the original game. So it does story in a rather clunky way, requiring all sorts of bizarre tweaks (like ubiquitous resurrection magic) to smooth out the rough patches.

Ok, but how does this history help us make sense of D&D’s multiple generation gaps? Well, each generation comes to the table with its own expectations and assumptions. The oldest Grognards play a game about exploration and personal challenge. They want to use their own brains to overcome the challenges and fully expect to use their real-world knowledge of things like physics as well as the rules of the game to triumph. They approach combat as a war and expect to need to use every clever idea they can muster to just survive. Character death is just part of the game to them. They don’t invest in their characters as much, and might not even name them until they’ve reached 3rd level.

After them come the Voyagers. They wallowed in the crazy imaginative worlds of TSR from the ‘90s like Planescape and Dark Sun. They want simple rules that will keep things consistent but don’t get in the way of telling their stories. They love having entire sessions go by without touching the dice and really want to delve into the orc warlord’s backstory. Hacking the rules of the game to better fit the strange settings they love creating is very common. Meta-knowledge is something to avoid. Fights can be tense and dramatic, but not really why they came, and most discovered, sooner or later, that they were best served by the Basic/Expert rather than the Advanced rules. If the DM’s world is described as “Game of Thrones in Oz” or the player has an original character race with a detailed description of how its biology evolved, you’re probably dealing with voyagers.

3e engendered a new generation that reveled in rules mastery. They expected intricately balanced encounters that utilized the rules in new and challenging ways, but they viewed combat in the game as a sport, to be played within a certain set of bounds. The solutions to every challenge was on the character sheet; 10’ poles and using spilled wine to find hidden passages were replaced by skill checks and character abilities. DMs obsessed over encounter design, always seeking to create unique circumstances that conformed with the rules of the game, but did so in new and surprising ways. For some groups, story became simply a path that strung together one gorgeous set-piece battle or skill challenge after another. Crunch reigned supreme and everything else was just fluff. If you hear grumbles about how D&D doesn’t allow enough mechanical differentiation between characters (or, how you really ought to be playing Pathfinder), you’ve got some Rules Masters in your group.

We have a new generation of players coming to D&D today thanks to streaming games. They thrill to the roll of a natural 20, but they seem to be just as much about story as the second generation, perhaps even more so. They’re not as excited about exploring strange and alien worlds; rather they seem to prefer the tried-and-true high fantasy that’s considered D&D’s default. They also don’t appear to be as interested in kit-bashing the rules as the story-focused gamers of old, beyond crafting new backgrounds, races, and classes. They want to play the “real” game with as few tweaks as possible. And they apparently love the idea of not really earning EXP at all, but rather going up levels when their characters meet milestones in the journey of their personal and group stories. If you’re group uses “Milestone leveling” instead of awarding EXP, or the DM bends over backwards to avoid character death, and most especially if they only started playing in the last three years, you’re probably playing with Epic Stream players.

If you want to talk about generation gaps, discussing expectations and desires seems a far more useful taxonomy than simply Old vs. New, or even TSR-era vs. WotC players. And keep in mind, few groups or even players are purely one or the other. While I started in the “Golden Age” with the Grognards, I was self-taught and started the game with many of the Voyager’s assumptions. And, on top of that, most of my groups are dominated by players who are new to the game, so there’s a lot of Epic Stream influence in my games as well. How much mileage you’ll get out of this discussion will depend largely on your exposure (or lack thereof) to people with alternative expectations. When you find someone at your table making odd assumptions, it’s time to start asking questions. From my (terribly not scientific) experience, you’ll likely find the source of those assumptions comes from when and how they started playing the game.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Retail Déjà Vu

This is going to look familiar to those of you over 30. You may remember when D&D was sold in Sears stores. I actually never got any of my stuff from Sears, but I did buy the Sear's exclusive poster from Larry Elmore last year at GenCon.

If you needed any further proof that D&D is experiencing a Renaissance, I think this Target exclusive boxed set is another hefty data-point to consider. This, on top of the Stranger Things box, means there are now three different "beginner" boxed sets to get you into D&D. I'm wondering if we're going to see a Critical Role boxed set soon?

I'm also curious if the rules are different from the Basic pdf. The ad copy implies that they've been re-written from the other boxed sets to now "on-boards players by teaching them how to make characters". And that implies that it doesn't use pre-gens. If you've got more info on this box, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Oh, the '80s!

I just cut this from an article I wrote for dlair/net about the Tales From the Loop RPG. It was extraneous there, but I liked it so much, I'm dropping it here:

Being a child in the ‘80s was something of a surreal experience. This was due, I think, to so many things no being what they were supposed to be.

Europe experienced a long run of peace thanks to the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nuclear power went from the salvation of civilization to a curse. We stopped talking about the impending new ice age and started talking about the greenhouse effect. Future Shock transformed into VCRs, digital watches and Teddy Ruxpin. “Wholesome” Afterschool Specials taught us to question the authority of our teachers while children’s entertainment turned gory with Gremlins and Watership Down. Rated R movies like Robocop had action figures in the toy aisle. Iron Maiden became the most amazing false-flag educational program in the history of ever. (Seriously, check out the lyrics to their song Alexander the Great and tell me that’s not AP test prep disguised as popular entertainment.)

People on TV said D&D was satanic.

So the nostalgia of GenXers tends to be laced with weirdness. Whether it’s the bittersweet psychodrama of emotional issues we didn’t have names for in Ready Player One or the nostalgia and paranoia mix strained through Stephen King that is Stranger Things, ‘80s nostalgia tends to be, well, surreal and fantastical. And before there was Stranger Things, there was the art of Stålenhag.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Dice of Generations

Back when G+ was still a thing, this is the sort of stuff I'd post on it. I really don't have much to say about this piece, but it's sweet and useful and interesting:

The Dice of Generations

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

What the Arkenstone Can Do For You

The PCs are finally geared up (or angry enough) to take on the dragon! It's gonna be a big event in your campaign (because: DRAGON!!!) and you want the treasure hoard to be worthy of it. How do you make it something truly special without making it stupidly huge? How can you make quality compensate for the fact that you're not actually giving your players literal hillocks and ravines of coinage?

 Here are some suggestions for things that have served me well over the years:


The dragon hoard par excellence is probably still Smaug’s, and it’s heaped with the story of the dwarvish kingdoms and their alliances and rivalries with their neighbors. Describing the treasure is one of the few times you have the undivided attention of everyone at the table, so it’s a great time to sprinkle (not dump) some exposition on your players. Coins bearing the face and name of the second Warlock-emperor of the Melechan dynasty (worth ten times their mere weight value to collectors), arrows crafted by elven fletchers to slay the Arch-lich Kazshet, or the gilded toe-bone of the poet-scholar St. Gweniach will draw a lot more attention to the history of your setting than any dry dissertation by long-bearded scholars or sleepy ents. Focus on bits of history that are or will be important to your campaign’s current events, and especially the active interests of your players and their PCs.


Smaug’s hoard contains the Arkenstone, a wondrous gemstone that bears more than a passing resemblance to the doom-fraught Sillmarils. Perhaps the Temple of the Risen Sun doesn’t think a reliquary of St. Gweniach belongs in the hands of murderhobos. Perhaps Kazshet’s agents infiltrated the circle of elven fletchers to add a curse to the enchanted arrows. Perhaps, as with the Arkenstone, there are cultural or personal or political ramifications to the ownership of some of that treasure. One of the things that makes The Hobbit stand out from generic fantasy fare is that there are exciting and fascinating consequences to the slaying of Smaug. So it can be with the dragons in your campaign.

Something Personal

This is a great time to make callbacks to the backgrounds of the PCs or events that happened earlier in the campaign. The paladin’s great-grandfather’s sword doesn’t need to be in the hoard, but there might be a sword that’s marked with the rune of a company of knights he once rode with, or the champion’s prize from a tourney the great-grandfather competed in. There might be a treatise on abjuration magic written by the wizard who was a mentor to the wizard PC’s teacher. There might be some piece of jewelry or other objet d’art that a villain vanquished by the PCs early in their careers sent as tribute or bribe to the dragon. Callbacks like this are a great way to make the players feel like their characters fit into the setting.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

D&D Movie Musings

Yep, they’re making another one. And Paramount could use a successful franchise now that Star Trek is (at least in movie theaters) wallowing in face-plant.

According to The Hashtag Show, things have been off to a bumpy start. They still don’t have a director, though they do appear to have a script they’re happy with. Michael Gilio’s other screenwriting credits pretty much begin and end with Kwik Stop, a quirky little indie film that garnered rave reviews and some awards, apparently. Gilio was called in to “rewrite” a script by David Leslie Johnson whose credits include multiple episodes of The Walking Dead, Wrath of the Titans, and Aquaman.

That implies to me that the script is fairly safe B-list fare (though I haven’t seen Aquaman yet and may be selling it short). This doesn’t exactly change that equation:

Once things get rolling, Paramount hopes to land an actor from the following list of talent: Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Matthew McConaughey, Jamie Foxx, Joel Edgerton, Dave Bautista, Jeremy Renner and Johnny Depp.

Seriously?!? No, I don’t think it’s serious; I think they’re trying to raise buzz for the project because about the only thing those actors have in common is that they’re male. Imagine a role you’ve ever seen one of these actors in and try swapping them out. Either the lead is a complete cypher (which doesn’t speak well of the script) or they’re not serious about this list.

If they’re still aiming for a ’21 release, that probably nixes Brolin and Bautista (who will be filming Dune), and, as much as I’d love to see him in this, Vin Diesel (who has a whole slew of projects listed on his IMDB page, including F&F9 and xXx4). Pratt is probably on this list because he’s hot in nerd media right now. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around McConaughey (as much as I loved him in Sahara) or Depp in the lead for this movie. Put a gun to my head and I’d guess that, if this is an actual list of actors they’re looking at, it’ll most likely be Edgerton or Renner, and I’ll bet you Edgerton’s cheaper, so…

(Smith and Foxx would be interesting choices, but if this is a B-list movie, they’d almost certainly be the only non-white character with a name. The script clearly isn’t written to explain who this character is as an outsider in the local dominant culture or we’d see fewer gringos on this list. So yeah, wouldn’t hold my breath for either of those, though they would be interesting choices.)

So, what does that tell us? Well, none of these guys are exactly young; we won’t see some young man in a coming-of-age story here. Most likely, that means our lead is a grizzled human warrior. His primary weapon will be a sword. We’ll probably get a five-man band that includes a comic-relief axe-wielding dwarf as “the Big Guy,” a brash and blond Viking-esque dude with a massive sword who’s an old friend of our hero from way back as “the Lancer,” and a spell-slinger who won’t cast any spells you recognize out of the PHB who will supply exposition as needed in the role as the “Smart Guy” (salt-and-pepper or grey-haired if it is a guy, or a bland, dark-haired ice queen if female).

If the writers know much about D&D and wrote an actual D&D movie, the “Heart” will be a cleric (and the “Lancer” will be an effete warlock who always seems to be on the verge of betraying the party, and you’ll probably replace the dwarf with a half-orc or, if the budget can support it, a dragonborn). That said, it’s probably more reasonable to expect a sword-wielding princess who constantly reminds us that she’s as tough as any man and is also in constant need of rescuing (think Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing).

Of course, this is the Marvel Age, where LotR and The Hobbit each got green-lighted for their own three-movie deals and comic book movies are both good and summer tent-pole events. So it’s possible I’m completely wrong (possibly even likely), and we’ll end up with something decent. If so, I’ll happily eat crow on this. But, right now, I’m thinking Critical Role’s half-hour cartoon is a much safer bet for a fun D&D movie.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

War and Remembrance

On this day, 11 years ago, the 2008 Fantasy RPG Wars began. And we won.

By “we” of course I mean everyone who plays RPGs. Paizo shocked WotC into going back to basic principles and discovering that their fans don’t want 80 lbs of rules, nor is a new giant stack of character classes, etc. every few months or even every year a good way to support an RPG.

And now D&D has shocked Paizo into improving their games further, seeking to be the more mechanically complex game, but streamlining it to make it accessible to new players. At the Paizo booth at the GAMA Trade Show, one of the Paizo folks said, “We want Pathfinder to be the game you graduate to.” That sounds like a good place for them to be.

I used to think that WotC would eventually sell the license to D&D in order to keep the IP alive and save themselves the expense of making the game. I no longer feel that way. D&D is healthier than ever, and this rising tide appears to be lifting most, if not all, the boats.

Make the most of it, folks.

Art by Wayne Reynolds.  The genesis of Pathfinders goblins can be read here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Let the Good Times Roll

Just got back from the GAMA Trade show, and the big news this year is… that there’s really no big news. Certainly nothing on par with the bombshells dropped by WotC and others on the state of the RPG industry last year. WotC told us that ’17 was the best year for D&D in its entire history and that ’18 was even better, but beyond that didn’t give us anything new in terms of details. We’ll be seeing more alternative covers. They appear to be sticking with the take-it-slow publishing strategy.

What about the influence of the OSR? Well, in addition to The Forbidden Lands (more on that very soon, but maybe not until next week), everybody’s gotta have a boxed set. Most of these are intro starter sets, but even these are getting beefier and beefier; the one coming for Cubicle 7’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (itself very much a call-back to the original version of the Warhammer RPG) sports more than 100 pages of rules and campaign material, suitable for running as an entire campaign or using as a segue into their (very OSR) The Enemy Within “director’s cut.”

R. Talsorian is back. They’ve got The Witcher tabletop RPG and are working with CD Projekt Red on their new Cyberpunk 2077 (based on Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk 2020) as well as the “Cyberpunk Red” tabletop RPG which Pondsmith is crafting to bridge the timeline between the two.

Production values continue to inch upwards. Cubicle 7’s new boxed sets promise lots of neat handouts. We’re seeing the design decisions of the OSR/DIY bunch leaking into the mainstream, things like maps on the endpapers. They haven’t quite embraced the focus on ease-of-use-at-the-table, but they’re sliding that direction.

And we’re seeing a lot more openness in mechanics. I think that’s coming from a strong interest in making the games textured but simple. By “textured” I mean delivering more than just a core mechanic, an equipment list, a spell list, and a bestiary. Mechanics that serve to deliver an experience or tactical flexibility at the table. Things like rolling for depletion of consumables in The Forbidden Lands or Pathfinder 2.0’s new action economy and how it interacts with the spells. (For those not keeping up with it, you get three actions every round. Many spells now come in three flavors: a one-action version, a two-actions version, and a three-actions version. So you get to decide when you cast a healing spell if you want to heal yourself with the single-action version, someone you can touch with the two-action version, or send out a wave of healing energy to everyone in 10’ with the three-action version.)

We’re seeing a lot more variability on ICv2’s list of top five best-selling RPGs. (The Autumn 2018 list replaces Pathfinder with Lot5R. Yes, I’m serious.) They say that RPGs are selling well. Renegade Games, a relative newcomer to the RPG scene, sold through their original printing of Overlight, a very high-concept RPG.

So no big news, just lots and lots of good news. Our hobby appears to be doing quite well. There appears to be lots of room for big and flashy projects like Invisible Sun and little experimental things like Mothership. The Golden Age is rolling along apace. Make the most of it!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rolling Dice is NOT Playing the Game

I'm going through a review of a sci-fi RPG and the reviewer alluded to something I see a LOT in Space Opera RPGs. (I'm not going to mention the name of the game here because first, the way the reviewer mentioned this implies but does not state outright that this game is guilty of this sin; and second, I don't know this reviewer so I'm not sure how much I can trust there statements yet.)

The problem is starship combat. Designers want everyone to have something to do during the starship fight, so they try fall back on Star Trek bridge stations and try to come up with something everyone can do every round. What usually results is something extremely uneven.

If you're using minis and some sort of hex grid or the like, usually the most avid wargamers will pick the ship's course and speed. Then everyone rolls dice to see if their character's station succeeded that round.

If there's no grid and you're playing theater-of-the-mind, the course of action is usually pretty obvious: flee, chase, whatever. The group might decide together at the beginning of the encounter what they want to do, and they might revisit that choice as the situation changes, but generally that's the last important decision made. After that, everyone rolls dice to see if their station performs a function that contributes to the goal.


I suppose rolling a die to see if you can squeeze extra speed out of the engines or get a better targeting lock or put a torpedo up someone's tailpipe is better than nothing, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this is fun. If the player isn't making an interesting choice, they're not engaged with the game. If the choice of group goal dictates their action for every round until the goal is achieved or changed, all the player does is roll the dice and note the (usually marginal) adjustment this causes to the situation. You don't even get much of a gambling thrill since the stakes are watered down by being spread across four to six stations.

I realize that the starship duel presents a serious challenge to RPG designers. You want this to be an epic moment, you want everyone involved and sitting on the edge of their seats. But you've got to actively engage the players if you want that to be the case. You have to stop falling back on Star Trek as your model. If the gunner's only interesting choice is between "shoot" and "don't shoot," what the hell kind of choice is that? Make it interesting, or it's dictated by circumstances. Give your GMs help crafting interesting starship duels that require players to do something more interesting than just roll dice, that allow the players to be clever, that invite them to use their skills and tools in creative ways.

And don't give me another cockamamy attempt to make the communication station important and "exciting" in combat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

And the (Spam) Hits Keep on Hittin'

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