An Ode to an Old Gamertag

I changed my gamertag today, and I’m sad. “Spumis” has been with me for over two decades, from Juno email to AOL Instant Messenger to Xbox Live.

HeroForgeScreenshot(4)

Spumis in miniature form.

Spumis was a name that I came up with thanks to a classmate who couldn’t quite remember the word “Tsunami” on a pop quiz. He ended up writing “Tspumis,” and I thought that “Spumis” would be a unique, fun screenname… And I wouldn’t have to rely on numbers or the infamous “Xx__xX”.

The first time I used Spumis was for a roleplaying game my neighbor was DMing back in jr. high. Then I used him again in Gemstone III, the text-based MMO game.

Then I just started using it everywhere. It was mine. In fact, I still answer to Spumis when people call me that IRL.

Spumis will live on in other places and other realms, but my gamertag is now officially “The Cool Ship.” I wanted to give it some synergy with my Twitch account, if I ever decide to do the Twitch thing (don’t worry, I won’t be annoying about it when I do).

Gamertag Spumis is dead. Long live gamertag The Cool Ship.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Card Games

I am TERRIBLE at card games. Specifically, I’m talking about collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering (even digital CCGs like Hearthstone). I just do not have a mind for it.

Magic tgMy terribleness is probably at least partially due to how unpracticed I am. I played a little big of Magic when I was in Jr. High, and I played a lot of the old Pokemon card game with my sister, but other than a few matches with John or at Gen Con, I don’t really play them.

Even when I play a card game a lot (I try to play Hearthstone at least once a day on my phone.), I’m not great at it. Practiced or not, I just can’t seem to bend my head around probabilities, ability combos, deck building, etc. In games, I’m kind of bad at thinking ahead and planning my next move. I’m reactionary and twitchy. It makes me okay at online shooters, but terrible at strategy games.

I don’t like to spend a lot of money on things like booster packs and expansions, either. Magic, especially, is built around constantly buying packs and hoping you get cards decent enough to field. I try to be frugal about my gaming habits, though; I rarely buy games when they first come out (since you know a discount is coming eventually), and I constantly scour websites for deals to feed my hobby. Micro-transactions for card packs in Hearthstone can add up quickly, and I tend to forget when I’ve spent money on such things, so I just don’t do it. Magic booster packs seem relatively expensive as well.

Maybe the entire genre isn’t for me. There are card games that let you play a game straight out of the box with no booster packs required. The Game of Thrones Card Game and Star Realms are well designed and lots of fun, for instance. You only have to purchase the game one time, and boosters/expansions are optional. But they don’t seem to have the mass appeal of Magic: the Gathering.

How do I get good at these games, then? Do I hire a tutor? That seems unlikely. Do I just need to play more? Commit to spending money? Read The Art of War a couple more times?

Really, though, until I’m better at thinking ahead in these games, they probably just aren’t for me. I don’t think I’m a sore loser; I just lose about 80% of the time.

Next time, I think I’ll write about how bad I am at games in which I have to bluff and lie. Ugh. I’m a terrible liar.

 

The State of the Ship

I’ve been neglecting The Cool Ship a bit lately. Partly because it’s just me at the moment and I really like working with collaborators, but mostly because I’ve been making money with writing and editing, and this doesn’t provide any cash. I mean, I really love this thing, but providing for the family has to take precedence.

So, where is the Ship heading in 2016 (even though it’s nearly half over)?

Unrelated John Cena Picture

Unrelated

1.) Gen Con – I love board games, card games, and RPGs, so we’ll be making our yearly trek to Gen Con. I will provide daily reports from the frontlines, so you can know what we are playing, what you should be playing, and what’s coming up that we’re excited about. Also, we might get philosophical, like we did last year.

2.) Twitch Streaming – I play enough Destiny that it might be fun to stream the thing. You can follow me: The Cool Ship on Twitch!

3.) More writing – I really need to write here more. I apologize. I know I don’t have any rabid fans or anything, but blogging on here is a lot of fun.

4.) Getting some new or returning collaborators – Most of the people I started this site with have moved on to bigger, better, or more important things, but getting some fresh blood in here could only be a good thing.

So there they are, goals for 2016. I’ll try to stick to them, and you stick around too. I miss you.

Gaming Clans Changed the Way I Play

I haven’t really been the most social of online gamers. For a long time, I tended to play games with my headset off and other players muted. The reasons are numerous for playing games this way: language when the kids are around, people listening to loud music or coughing, twelve-year olds who are trying out adult insults for the first time. I really just didn’t want to deal with it.

I had been in guilds before, but I was mostly a silent member. In World of Warcraft, I’d mostly do what I was told to do during raids and just hold the line. I’m probably more antisocial than I’d like to believe… But my philosophy on conversation (and social media) is basically this: if I don’t have something funny, interesting, or useful to say, I tend to just listen. Especially in situations where I don’t know the people I’m conversing with well. (This might be a reason why I’m pretty good at being self-employed.)

But Destiny happened to me, and to ascend to the pinnacle of Destiny you need a team–you need a bunch of online friends. I have a few friends that play the game, but not enough to do what I needed.

DoD

Still big, but 20 lbs. lighter.

So I went searching online. It wasn’t too long before I discovered the Dads of Destiny. I mean, it fit me pretty well. I’m a dad. I play Destiny. ‘Nuff said. But the DoD ended up becoming more than just a group of guys to shoot digital dudes with; it became part support group, part chat room, part gaming group. I’ve played with guys that had to take a short break to go change  a diaper. I often hear kids running around in the background through my headphones. It’s great.

I haven’t felt like part of a real online community for a long time. Yeah, I’m obsessed with Destiny, but I think that part of that obsession comes with being able to play with the Dads. As a guy that works at home, it’s been a huge boon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twitch Isn’t Just Video Games

While I’ve been enjoying Twitch fairly regularly for a few years now, lately I’ve been paying a lot more attention to it. Sure, it’s been a great platform for watching people play new games so you can get a decent handle on what they are before you buy (and watching lots of people play Minecraft and  Hearthstone), but the people who stream content on Twitch (and Twitch itself) have been getting creative with how they are becoming an entertainment entity.

Bob RossBringing the Joy

A few months ago, Twitch ran a stream that featured Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting for a few days. After pulling in over 5 million viewers, Twitch has made The Joy of Painting available all the time at Twitch.tv/BobRoss.

This is what really got me interested in Twitch as being something more than just gaming. It feels like the floodgates of interesting entertainment opened wide after the late Bob Ross changed things up.

Live Entertainment

ASAdult Swim has been basically running their own channel via Twitch streaming. They run low-budget, low-key talk shows from 11-6:30 EST, and between segments, they stream their wall clock. And while a stream of a clock probably seems pretty boring, the clock takes song requests, so chat moves at a pretty good clip as people try to get their song on the air.

It’s so simple that it’s kind of ingenious.

And their talk shows are all pretty creative. Stupid Morning BS is their morning, “coffee talk” type show where the hosts recap the news, play trivia games with the audience, and give away prizes.

Other shows include Fishcenter, where the hosts provide commentary of the goings on in the AdultSwim fishtank, and Williams Street Swap Shop, where the hosts attempt to facilitate trades between viewers.

Blackstaff

I really like using this picture of Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunson.

Tabletop Gaming

Twitch is known for video gaming, but tabletop gaming is becoming a fixture there too. The folks that created Dungeons & Dragons periodically do a stream, and so does Geek & Sundry, but other, lower budget fans run streams as well(Like the Thursday Knights).

It makes total sense, too. RPGs are great storytelling mechanisms, so not only do you get a great story, you get to experience the thrill of victory and agony of defeat as the dice fall where they will.

A quick search on Twitch for “board games” brings up a whole bunch of viewing choices as well. I love watching other people play board games, especially when I’m thinking of buying something specific. It’s often difficult to get a live demo of a board game (unless you’re at a convention or a good gaming store), so watching other people figure out the mechanics can give you a good sense of what you’re in for.

Twitch is doing some really cool things right now. If you got some free time, check it out. You’ll probably find something you like.

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Hamilton: Hip hop and History

Hamilton PosterMusicals are not really my thing. Sure, I like to sing, and I like to dance around (poorly), but watching people sing and dance around always seemed like the height of ridiculousness to me. For instance, my family watches White Christmas every year, and I can’t get through it without my own biting, hilarious (read: annoying) commentary.

I’m a real amateur Mystery Science Theater 3000, I am.

Then, along came Hamilton, and my whole view of an entire form of entertainment changed.

Hamilton is the hit Broadway musical that tells the story of, who else, Alexander Hamilton. But the creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda,  did something with the ten-dollar founding father’s story that I find intensely interesting: he threw hip hop into the mix.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Hip hop and rap are about love, braggadocio, the struggle of poor people, and then the struggle of new money. Sometimes those musical forms are about violence.

So when Alexander starts rapping about how he came up from nothing and starts bragging about how smart he is (but unpolished), it feels authentic. Really, the story of Hamilton is the story of a hip hop feud. There are competing posses, there are shootouts, there are falls from grace, and unrequited love.

Honestly, Hamilton could be about Notorious B.I.G.

And that’s where it works. When we think of the founding fathers, we think of stodgy old white dudes who talked with semi-British accents who forged this country from nothing. Sometimes, I think we see them as peerless demi-gods.

But they were men. They loved. They hated. They cheated on their wives. They had slaves. They sometimes drank too much or ate too much or cared too little about certain things. They didn’t all agree on every single point of our government. They had fears and regrets. They had aspirations. They succeeded and failed.

And although I think they were intelligent and exceptional men, they were just men–not the giant gods made of granite that we picture when we think about them.

Hamilton doesn’t shy away from the fact that they were human.

Hamilton

Hamilton meets Laurens, Lafayette, and HERCULES MULLIGAN!!!

It’s funny: we live in a society that isn’t afraid to crucify celebrities or public figures over their failings, but I’ve heard folks talking about the founders as if they were infallible gods second to Jesus in all matters. Hamilton isn’t afraid of poking holes in those perceptions. If that gets only a few people interested in our country’s history, I think it will have been worth it.

Even better, though, Hamilton, like the book on which it’s based, focuses on the women in Alexander’s life as well. Women might not have held a whole lot of power in the 1700s, but, man, could they bring their influence to bear. Angelica and Eliza Schuyler get plenty of attention (and some great songs to boot.)

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’ve listened to the cast recording of the show probably a dozen times. I’m not sick of it yet (though my family might be), and I doubt that I will be for some time. I highly recommend it.

And, hey, maybe I was wrong about this whole live-action musical thing. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Living Less Large

Belly

My kids, nephew, friend, me, and my belly.

I was extremely hesitant to write this post, but I needed to write something–and this seemed like as good a topic as any.

I’m on a diet.

Yeah, I know. New year, new you. You have my permission to look at the screen skeptically for a moment… I’ll wait. No worries. You’ve earned that right to do so.

Ahem.

Anyway, I’m on a diet: counting calories, trying to get more steps than I normally do, etc. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile; I just never really got around to it. It’s really easy to make excuses for your weight when you’re 6’6″. But I’m also up to about 375 lbs right now. There’s no real excuse for being that heavy. Reasons, for sure, but not an excuse.

I work a pretty sedentary job, but I’m discovering that I was using food for comfort. If I was stressed, I would eat. When I was relaxing, I would eat. Breaking that cycle is difficult.

I was inspired to do this by my parents, weirdly enough. When I was young, they quit smoking. I remember it being a bit of a nightmare at the time, but they did it. In my pride, I thought that if they could do something to better their lives, that I could, too.

So, here I am: officially day four. I’m doing pretty well, I think. The low-level always-hunger started on day two, though. I remember reading that a person on a major diet would feel hungry a lot; however, this reminds me of a ringing in your ears that you can never get rid of–except it’s in your stomach, and your body knows that you can stop it by shoving tortilla chips by the score in your face.

Day three brought a neat emotional breakdown where I knew everything was awful and nothing was ever going to be okay for myriad reasons. Have you ever seen a grown man crying in the pickup line of an elementary school for no reason? Well, the mom in the Honda Odyssey in front of me who looked in her rear view mirror did.

I’m hoping she just thought I was sensitive.

So why am I doing this?

Health, really. I’m mostly okay with the way I look. I mean, my beard is on point and I dress pretty well. I don’t really want to keel over and leave my kids fatherless and my wife having to date again… because dating is awful. What a nightmare; I would never want to have her go through that mess again.

I’m trying to gamify this whole journey as well. Weight loss is a quest, and the more days I hit my calorie goals, the more experience points I’ll have as this quest gets more difficult. It’s been working so far. Granted, I’m still only four days in.

Blackstaff

Does it get any sexier? Khelben has mad game.

I was told that I need to have some concrete goals, so here is what they are:

I’d like to get down to 275, preferably 250, but at 275 I can basically go about my life without fear of my heart exploding at any moment. My family has a history of heart disease, so staving that off is important.

I’d also like to be in shape enough to cosplay. If you’ve read any of this blog, you know that I’m a pretty nerdy dude, so being able to dress up as Thor or Superman or  Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun would be pretty cool. I would never body shame anyone of my size that wanted to do it, but I’m not comfortable cosplaying at my size. Getting my fitness on, however, is going to have to come after I get the eating habit under control. I know myself well enough to know that I won’t keep at it if I have to change everything about myself at once.

So, that’s where I’m at. It’s going to be a long journey, but my family is supportive. I told my son last night that I was eating less food so that my belly would get smaller. I told him that I was going to be cranky sometimes, but that I would try not to be cranky to him and his sister. That night, he prayed for me to not be so cranky.

He’s a sweet kid. I like him a lot.

I’ll try to give frequent updates, as well as more musings about any nerdy thing that comes to my mind, as 2016 progresses. Stay boffo, friends.

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Halo 5 Got Bigger, but Lesser

Halo 5Halo is in a weird place right now, but let me just get this out of the way: the shooting feels great, the gameplay is solid, and some of the new moves included in the game are a lot of fun. The spectacle of Halo is still in full force, but I can’t help thinking that when 343 Industries took over the series, they assumed that “higher stakes” for the game’s protagonist meant that the galactic threat got larger. When it comes to the Halo games, though, I’m not entirely convinced that bigger is better.

Spoilers are probably ahead. Read at your own risk.

Halo 5: Guardians (a subtitle, really?) begins with new character (in the games, anyway) Spartan Locke and his crew of Spartan pals taking down the Covenant on a planet in order to rescue Spartan-and-Cortana creator Dr. Catherine Halsey. After the rescue, she informs the heroes that a new threat is about to emerge.

Meanwhile, the Master Chief and his childhood buddies are on a mission to stop some Covenant baddies from stealing some stealth ship technology on a secret space station blah blah blah, and then he gets a message from Cortana. She’s alive!

And this, for me, is immediately where the story starts to fall apart. The marketing of the game (not that you can always trust game marketing) seemed to indicate that Spartan Locke would be hunting the Master Chief because he had made a tough decision that went awry. That is far from the case, however.

In fact, the story is kind of incoherent when a little thought is put into it. Sure, Master Chief goes AWOL, but I feel like they could’ve given him a call rather then send a team after him.

And let’s talk about Cortana’s resurrection. Halo 4 was a lot of things, but it’s greatest moment was when Cortana, your AI buddy through the all the previous games starring Master Chief, manages to put off her insanity long enough to sacrifice herself to not only destroy the bad guy that is threatening earth, but also save the Chief. It’s almost a tragic love story. The two had been through a lot.

So I was interested to see how ole John-117 was going to cope without her on his latest mission. And honestly, with Cortana back and evil, the effect is ruined. Cortana has cured her insanity and has decided that the best way to save the galaxy is by enforcing a rule by fear using massive robots to kill anything that threatens the peace–a “Pax Cortana” if you will. And now we get into 343 thinking that “higher stakes” means “galactic threat.”

CortanaFor Master Chief, the stakes were already very high. For seven years or more, Cortana has been his constant companion, his protector, his confidant, his love. She may be an AI, but he had real feelings for her. She died in a moment where he was powerless to do anything to help the situation. She saved him.

Imagine a game where you’re defeating the bad guys, but the real story is about Master Chief’s survivor’s guilt. He loved that little blue robot lady, and now he has to face a universe where the constant comforting voice inside his head is gone. Sure, he still has his buddies, but they aren’t one flesh with him like Cortana was (she was, after all, attached to his brain). The Chief is basically a widower.

So, the threat didn’t have to be galactic. The story could’ve been about how self-destructive John-117 had become, with his friends trying to bring him back from the brink. Maybe Chief’s recklessness had done something bad to one of the colony worlds, and he decided to go AWOL in shame. Locke then, would actually be “hunting the truth” to find out what happened and to bring the Chief back.

I don’t hate the story that the game has. It’s interesting enough, such as it is. But I think the storytelling in Mass Effect, Bioshock, Fallout, and even Gears of War, have shown me that games that are shooters can have deep, personal stories that make you empathize with a character.

Maybe Locke and The Chief will end up saving the galaxy, but is it worth rescuing a galaxy that has no real personal stakes? The expanded universe of Halo is full of good stories about people trying to make their way through the both the chaos of war and the ultimate order of living in a massive police state. The audio series “Hunt the Truth” is a superb example of just how interesting the universe that Halo has created can be.

Maybe what Halo needs is fewer power weapons and more plot. The characters should be what drives the plot; as it is right now, the protagonists are merely slaves to the story rather than the player feeling like they are a part of it. War stories are only good when the characters are well-developed. Here’s hoping that in Halo 6 is less about spectacle and more about the characters involved.

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The Taken King Took Me In

WarlockI’ve written before about how much I love Destiny, the “shared-world” shooter by Bungie. It scratches every itch I have when it comes to video games: first-person shooter, co-operative, competitive, MMO, RPG elements. The newest expansion “The Taken King” has leveled up my love for the game even further.

I came into Destiny a little later than a lot of people. I bought it after the first two DLCs had come out, so some of the things that people had been complaining about had been fixed. I played the game all the time. Got my Warlock to Level 33 and was preparing to do raid stuff in the weeks before The Taken King released. I also got involved in a clan, The Dads of Destiny.

TitanLet me just make an aside here: the Dads of Destiny are a great group of dudes to play with. They are all polite, most of them have children, and they mostly play when they are able to, which can be pretty random. The other day I was playing with a couple guys, and we were all commiserating about sick kids who refused to sleep. It’s part gaming clan and part Dad support group.

Anyway, The Taken King takes Destiny and makes it better. The story is more coherent, the enemies are more challenging, some of the events are more epic, and the NPCs actually feel like characters rather than a means to an end (and I actually remember their names). I also like the fact that Light Level (the measure of how powerful you are in the Huntergame–an aggregate score of your defense and attack values) and character level are separate, so you always feel like you are improving, even after you’ve reached the maximum character level.

The meta also hasn’t reached the point where one load out beats everything else. Right now I can play the way I want to play, and it’s just fine. I don’t have to worry about having a certain loot drop to go into a raid; I can just play. It’s beautiful, and I hope it stays that way.

That’s not to say that everything about the game is peaches.
I really don’t like that so many of the high-level activities don’t include matchmaking. I get that Bungie is attempting to go for tight-knit groups of friends, but I have to play pretty randomly, and mostly late at night. And, let’s face it, most people are using looking-for-group websites to connect with others to play endgame content with. If people are going to a website that Bungie owns to do this… why wouldn’t Bungie just include it in the game?

Other than that, I’m pretty satisfied with the game. Will I still be playing when Halo 5, Fallout 4, or something else I love comes along, that I can’t answer right now.

 

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Dungeons & Dragons: Out of the Abyss — Review

Out of the AbyssI’ve never really been one to use published adventures; I love creating my own worlds and letting my players explore them through mutual imagination. However, recently my life has been pretty busy. My kids need help with homework or navigating the life of being tiny. Work can get overwhelming.

I’m an adult; it happens.

So for my roleplaying games that I’ve been running, I’ve been turning to alternative sources of running adventures. Whether it’s through knowledge of the Star Wars universe, or through adventures by Kobold Press or Adventure A Week, these adventures for people who have little time to prepare have been great. I’m especially impressed by the new adventure path for Dungeons & Dragons, Out of the Abyss.

Made through a partnership between Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin publishing, Out of the Abyss takes place in the “prime” setting for D&D, The Forgotten Realms. To add to its relevance, more specifically, your group of adventurers finds itself trapped in the bowels of the Underdark by an evil drow priestess. From there, they will find that an incursion from the demon-infested Abyss is going on, and they must stop it.

I’m not the biggest fan of the Underdark setting. I’m pretty burned out on Drizz’t (the famous drow hero) and drow (dark, evil elves that live underground) in general, but some things about this adventure re-piqued my interest in the drow, their society, and the dark hellhole that they inhabit.

For one thing, I think drow society makes a little bit more sense now. Right in the first adventure, your weak, mostly helpless player characters are imprisoned by a drow priestess and her underlings. The drow seem to be enmeshed in an almost cut-throat corporate culture where Lolth, the evil spider queen/goddess is the CEO, and everyone under her is vying for a promotion. They sabotage each other; they sleep around; they scheme. Drow society is like a crazy soap opera that I really enjoy. And the PCs are basically mail room interns that can’t wait to escape from corporate meaninglessness. If you watched Mr. Robot (and you have), the drow are a lot like Evil Corp.

For another, the drow aren’t really the stars of the show, here. The Underdark as a whole is. You meet a lot of the Underdark races along the course of this adventure path (and it is a lengthy one). The good guys. The bad guys. The guys who are just out for themselves. They’re all here. As a guy that is largely sick of drow, I found this to be a very good thing.

The book looks great, too. The art is the high standard that has typified Wizards of the Coast publications over the last year or so. The binding is high quality.

So, for now, I would say that if you want to run a good published adventure, this is a good one. I don’t want to give too much away, but the profiles of all the demon lords in the appendix is worth the price of admission. Also, it’s well written and beautiful. Go out and get it at your local game store. And as we run adventures out of it, I’ll publish some reports here.

TL:DR, Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin have knocked it out of the park. Go buy it.

 

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Humans Love Repetition

My son is on summer vacation from school. He’s six and LOVES cartoons and other kids shows. He doesn’t get to watch them all the time, but he is definitely plugged into them when he does. His current favorites are Teen Titans Go!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Odd Squad, and We Bare Bears. What’s always amazing to me is how he could watch the same episode of a show so many times, and the jokes are still funny to him, and he acts like he’s never seen them before.

The same goes with books. He loves this one book (Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog) and we could read it over and over and over until our eyes bleed and our mouths are dry. My daughter is the same. At first, I thought this was a kid thing–until I started really considering it.

I’m the same way with music. I could listen to the same song time and again and not get sick of it. I’ve probably listened to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours a thousand times, and I can still groove to it like it’s the first time I’m listening. Pop songs often stay on the charts for months because people like to listen to them repeatedly.

DestinyWe tell stories like this. My grandpa tells me the same couple of anecdotes every time I see him. I can recite most of his stories verbatim. And I’m the same way; I tell a few choice anecdotes of my own to ingratiate myself into new social circles.

I’m regularly this way with video games too. I’ve been playing Destiny so much lately. I love it. There’s not a lot of content, so I end up playing the strike missions over and over, but I find it really enjoyable and relaxing. A lot of people complain about it, but I kind of see it is a feature rather than a bug. There’s something comfortable about doing the same thing constantly. We love routine, and for me, Destiny has become a fun routine. It doesn’t hurt that the game mechanics are really well designed.

Bounce

It was weird. This always put him to sleep for some reason.

Repetition is a way for us to cement concepts into our brains. It’s also comforting: I remember there was a certain way I had to bounce my son in order to get him to go to sleep–if I didn’t do it exactly the way he wanted, he would get upset. He was comforted by that repetitive motion. We learn things by doing them consistently: practice makes progress.

It’s easy to get so caught up in repetition that we are afraid to step out of that comfort zone. Maybe the best kind of consistency is to be constantly trying new things, so that new experience become habit.

Have fun with that. I’m going to go watch The Empire Strikes Back again.

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Gen Con Continued: Wrath of Con

Indy at nightWhen you last left me, I was itchy, angsty, and a little bit torn about this whole Gen Con thing. Well, after little sleep, some canceled games/no show GMs, and meeting some very cool people, I am happy to announce that Gen Con 2015 finally won me over and was a complete success.

Day 2 was a good one because we were able to sleep in a little bit and only had a couple events. That led to a scouring of the exhibit hall for swag and trying out Lynnvander‘s Deep 5, a game of space and betrayal. I didn’t get to play, but my cohorts said that it is super fun. I hope to be able to try it as soon as possible.

I also worked the booth for 3D Virtual Tabletop and AdventureAWeek.com. I was super, super impressed by how smoothly 3D Virtual Tabletop worked and absolutely loved volunteering to help out. One of the things I love about Gen Con is how its basically built on the backs of volunteers… Gamers working to give other gamers a great time. Sometimes it doesn’t work out (like when your GM doesn’t show up), but when everything goes smoothly, it is a thing of beauty. AdventureAWeek is also a solid service, providing all kinds of adventures for a low price. Seriously, if you want to DM some games and want to save time, the combination of 3D Virtual Tabletop and AdventureAWeek.com is a surefire winner in my book.

I also wanted to briefly give a shoutout to Mike Myler, who is going to be Kickstarting his Hypercorps 2099 cyberpunk setting for Pathfinder. He’s a nice guy and has a lot of hustle.

After volunteering, we went and played a game of the Doctor Who RPG… And had a crazy amount of wibbly-woblly, timey-wimey fun. In our group, we had a fellow who didn’t really know the show very well, but he immediately decided to play The Doctor, and he played a very dark, violent version of the Time Lord. It was hilarious. John played Clara Oswald, the Doctor’s “conscience,” and he had his hands full keeping our Doctor under control. Would definitely play that again.

We finished out Day 2 by playing Conquest of the Starlords, a game that has been in development for 10 years. If the creator is reading this… Kickstart that thing. It is a beautifully complicated game for hardcore tabletop gamers: both complicated and treacherous, Conquest of the Starlords should be a “real” thing.

Saturday, Day 3, we were running on very little sleep after getting back to the hotel at 2:30 AM to get up at 7. But we had to get moving to watch Tracy Hickman’s Killer Breakfast. A gloriously corny comedy of errors and death, Killer Breakfast is the perfect way to watch low-level player characters die in hilarious and dangerous ways. I loved it, but I think the corniness of the event wore on me a bit after two hours.

Next up was the event we were really looking forward to, a game of Mutants and Masterminds, my absolute favorite RPG game. Unfortunately, the GM no-showed. So, over 5 years, we are 1/5 for playing Mutants and Masterminds. John and I were discussing running somewhere around four games of M&M next year, just so we could play a couple times. We love the system, and it seems like it sells out every year. There really should be an organized play option.

Tragedy struck again on Saturday when another one of our events was canceled without any kind of notice. I would love for Gen Con to have system that would email you when your event was suddenly unavailable. I’m actually surprised that something like that isn’t available yet.

We ended the night with a party at BL&Ts hosted by Lynnvander, CoolMiniOrNot, and GeekChic. There was so much candy. And gaming. And just having fun with new friends. Looking forward to hanging out with those guys again next year. We played a game of Zombicide with the creator of the film “The Rangers.” It looks really great. Give it a watch when it’s available.

Today. Sunday. Day 4. The bittersweetness of Gen Con ending. I’m never more simultaneously distraught and relieved than when it’s time to pack all my stuff (heavier due to some exhibition hall swag) into the car and check out of the hotel.

Dice BagWe learned how to make scale mail dice bags. I didn’t finish mine because I just straight got lost in the middle of it, but I plan on going back. I’ll show you a picture of John’s, however, since he actually persevered and finished his. Our group is 2/5 for completing dice bags so far.

And with a couple laps around the exhibition hall, the Con ended. Congratulations to Gen Con for running another successful one, and to all those who won Ennies or were just brave enough to follow their dreams, make a game or movie or some piece of art, and come to Indianapolis to make their dreams come true. Best of luck to all you crazy people; I’m pulling for you. And I’ll see you next year.

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Gen Con: Day 1 – What Am I Doing Right Now?

Bug monsterToday started around 5:15 AM, which is weird because I really like to sleep. I, however, had a Geek Monolith to feed, and I had to drag my friends there with me. As with all days of Gen Con, before going into the convention itself, we needed to find parking. Luckily, at about 7 AM, it’s a pretty simply proposition.  Next up was the press line: it went quickly, and I got to talk to some other press people about our thoughts on the convention, how big it’s getting, and what exactly our expectations were. We were all in agreement about one thing: there were going to be more people than last year.

Our first game of the day was Damage Report, a pick-up-and-deliver game by Break From Reality Games. I thought it was better as a concept than as an execution. I love the idea of a real-time game where there are no turns and everyone has to work together, but I simply felt like all I was doing was getting in the other players’ ways. I was constantly reaching over and around people to pick up stuff… Even though I had my morning coffee, I just wasn’t easing well into it.

After that, we explored the Exhibition Hall to see all the booths hawking their wares. I couldn’t believe how busy it was in there for a Thursday. The new game Titansgrave (an RPG setting by Wil Wheaton and Green Ronin Publishing) sold out in about 3 hours. So crazy. Also, I felt like Magic: the Gathering was everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.

Next up, we headed to the Marriott to play some Pathfinder in Lynnvander’s Legacy of Mana setting. It was a wild and twisted ride, and I have to give props to our GM, Cameron, for rolling with the punches even as we derailed his game. It was a great time.

Finally, after some snafus trying to play some Magic, we played a GIGANTIC version of Battlestations, a cooperative board game/RPG that makes you feel like you’re on the crew of a starship. I’m going to be absolutely honest… I didn’t really feel like I had a lot of agency. I didn’t understand the game until about the last ten minutes of our session, and even though we won the game, I didn’t feel very fulfilled by doing so.

Dinner at the City Bar and Grille in the Marriott (which was a pretty bad experience overall, unfortunately), and now I’m back at the hotel writing this. Day One is over. Maybe now I’ll go for a swim. I’m hoping that Day Two can build into a better day.

PS: I have poison oak on my face. It might be affecting my Gen Con. Still, hanging out with my friends is pretty awesome. I’ve got a great group of dudes with me.

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Gen Con: Day 0 – We Can’t Stop. We Won’t Stop.

Gen Con 0I’m currently sitting in the back of a van full of large men. This is the commute to Gen Con. We’re just outside of Columbus on the way to Indianapolis: listening to a terrible playlist I put together based on the suggestions of the guys on the trip. I’m feeling a bit of existential angst.

The day started pretty normally with my daughter yelling, “Daaaaaaaaddddyyyyy!!!” in order to tell me that she was awake and that I should also wake up and get her out of her crib (she is currently possesses too much trepidation to climb out by herself). Windows 10 was ready, so I upgraded my laptop… probably a terrible idea before going on a trip, but I’m nothing if not brave/stupid when it comes to these things. I’m liking Windows 10 quite a bit right now, actually. Not that you care about my opinion about it. That’s not why you’re reading this.

Anyway, we’re five geeks in a van heading out to play games with 50-60 thousand other people for a long weekend. The plans are much the same as other years: games, steak, water, aspirin, swag we don’t need. The thing I’m realizing about the Geek Monolith is that it must be fed. And we feed it by buying stuff. A lot of stuff we don’t need. We want new games. We want video game-themed shirts. We want toys we can put on our shelves and look at as they gather dust. We want different games. We want more games. We want. We want. We want. Money. Money. Money. Cash in. Cash out. Day in. Day out. And I’m torn. I love the Geek Monolith. I want to see it flourish.

Yet, there’s a part of me that feels a bit guilty participating in this mass edifice of want. I think of the lines at San Diego Comic Con… people waiting for hours, even days, in order to see actors in a movie that’s coming out this winter. SDCC exclusives that geeks will trample other geeks in order to get. I think of Gen Con, where people stand in looooong lines in order to get games a few weeks before everyone else can get them. The Geek Monolith doesn’t just demand that we buy things to feed it; it demands that we get them as soon as we can so it can be fed quicker. And we scamper towards it to feed it.

We love the Monolith. But does the Geek Monolith love us? Will the tabletop gaming mouth of the Monolith be satiated this weekend, as we look for Wil Wheaton and Jen Page and Geek & Sundry and Wizards of the Coast and Paizo and Fantasy Flight Games? As we look for those elusive exclusives? Or will it leave us empty… just demanding that we keep feasting on tabletop games until we are satisfied? But, will it ever truly satisfy us beyond that couple of days? Are we happier for feeding the Geek Monolith? Does it do anything for us? Probably not.

Maybe there are mental benefits. I’m sure there are studies if I wanted to look hard enough. I don’t think the Geek Monolith promises us satisfaction. Only temporary satiation. But still we feed and feed the Monolith. We won’t stop. And we wouldn’t even if we could, would we?

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Itchy Face — Before Gen Con 2015

In less than 24 hours, I’ll be in Indianapolis for Gen Con 2015. It’s already been quite a week. I somehow got poison oak on my face, so I guess this year I’ll be cosplaying the part of the stereotypical geek with bad skin. I got a steroid shot, so hopefully I won’t scare people away while I’m working the booth for AdventureAWeek.com and 3D Virtual Tabletop (which, if you want to see me, I’ll be there Friday 1-4pm. Booth 3039). I decided to volunteer a little of my time this year so I could write about it. Gen Con is a massive convention, so I’m hoping I’ll get a wide variety of experiences while working the booth.

My anticipation is tempered somewhat by the Benadryl I’ve been taking; it’s been turning me into a semi-narcoleptic. I’m glad I won’t be driving this year. I’m actually really excited about not driving. I’ll get to see more of the Indianapolis sights!

So, what am I looking forward to this year, you might ask. Well, honestly, Gen Con is a time where I can be away from my kids and feel like an adult for awhile. I’m the kids’ primary caregiver, so I often end up feeling like “Dad” and less like “Tj” most of the time. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE being a dad. However, I also like to feel like an adult capable of having fun without cleaning up a juice spill.

John and I will be keeping you updated on the stuff we see, the people we talk to, and the games we play. And we’re playing LOTS of games this year. Stick with us. And if you see us around, come say hi.

When a Man Loves a Batman

BAKI am Batman.

Or, at least, I felt like it for a little while thanks to Batman: Arkham Knight. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt obsessed with a video game, but Arkham Knight has had me staying up till 3 AM for a few days this week–almost unheard of in my life as an adult/parent/person with a job.

It’s due to the fact that the Arkham series of games really made you feel like The Dark Knight: prowling around, taking down opponents unawares, bringing justice to the fearful and cowardly lot of criminals. Nothing feels better than swooping down off a building into a group of 15 thugs and effortlessly bringing them the type of justice that Batman doles out. It’s a joyful experience: a power fantasy, for sure.

I’ve been a fan of superheroes for a long time (who isn’t?), and this game is probably the closest I’ve come to feeling like one. The Batmobile is fun to drive around and comes loaded with a ton of gadgets. Batman’s unique brand of psychological damage is explored. The supervillains are fun to fight. It’s just an all-around great game.

It felt good to be obsessed with video games again for awhile, but I’m glad it’s over so I can get back to sleeping. Maybe Bruce Wayne is adept at balancing his work life and his night life, but TJ Johnston most definitely is not.

 

Replacement Gameology

Game DudesMy son is home all day due to Summer Break from school. He just finished kindergarten, and having him home again all day has taken some getting used to. I do my best to keep him busy: playing outside, reading, worksheets, building blocks, video games. Playing video games is a hobby with both share, and the unthinkable is happening–he’s getting better than me.

I’ve been coming to grips lately with the fact that he is basically here to replace me. That’s fine; my son is a cool guy, and if someone has to carry on the Johnston banner when I’m gone, he’s a fine choice. Video games, though, might be the last straw. For example, we often battle each other in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. He beats me probably two out of three fights. He’s great at platformers. Really, anything that doesn’t involve crazy amounts of reading is like second nature to him.

He also approaches video games with joy! I tend to approach them with cynicism. His spirit hasn’t been broken by large publishers, crappy movie tie-in games, or promises by developers that were never delivered. Instead, he sees a commercial and thinks everything looks AMAZING! I miss that kind of video game innocence.

As he ages, he’ll be the target demographic for video game dollars. Publishers will market to him. He’ll need to have the latest video games on the first day. In the meantime, I’ll be buying game of the year editions of games and not immediately jumping into online multiplayer. Hardcore gaming is a young man’s game.

I’m perfectly okay with my son replacing me in the eyes of video game publishers. I’ll be more likely to enjoy games the way I want to… and maybe I can pass on my gaming wisdom to my replacement.

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Magic: The Gathering: The Return

MagicFor me, Magic: The Gathering is a little like an old friend that never matured. I get older and the details of my life change, but Magic stays more or less the same.

It seems a little wild when I realize that I’ve been playing the game on and off for about 20 years now. My dad picked up the cards on a lark back in the dark days of the 90s. It was a short while after my parents’ divorce started, and I think he was looking for us to have something in common.  

I didn’t play Magic regularly until I was a little older, but as soon as I made friends in junior high that played, that was it. If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, I probably earned a Ph. D between high school and college. 

Sometimes I wouldn’t play for a few months or a year. After I finished undergrad, I pretty much stopped altogether.  Aside from the occasional booster draft at GenCon, it’s been at least six years since I’ve played regularly. A part of me never thought I would again. 

And then an actual friend came along and dared me to buy a booster box of cards. Or maybe I dared him. Who knows? But we ended up with three booster boxes (108 booster packs) between the two of us. 

And now I have so many questions. How do plainswalkers work? And why do people keep telling me the next core set is the last core set? What are these weird symbols in the text boxes of some of the cards? Did they change stack rules for instants and abilities? 

Other things have changed too. I’ve never played this game while having a full-time job and disposable income. It’s now possible for me to spend a shocking amount of cash on cards if I’m so inclined. At the same time, I’ve never had less people to play this game with. Three weeks later, even the friend that I bought the cards with has yet to build a deck. 

So this could turn out like the other games I buy annually at GenCon. Things like The Adventure Time card game come home with me and sit on a shelf collecting dust. I certainly don’t enjoy playing with strangers or squaring off against 8-year-olds all that much.

Maybe it’s an opportunity to make new friends. I guess time will tell. 

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Is Daredevil A Perfect Show?

Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix has set_daredevil_netflix_640gotten a lot of praise since its release earlier this month. I have actually only seen one article run counter to that trend. Not bad.

Aware of how positive the reception has been, I posted said article on my wall to see what would happen. And I’m glad I did. The ensuing social media melee, while generally cordial, did get me organize a few stray thoughts I’ve had about the show. Things that hadn’t occurred to me, in part, because of the group-think mentality surrounding the show’s reception. Everyone loves it, so it’s probably good. 

And it’s hard to consider Daredevil without looking at its peers. Up to now, the CW has offered the most competitive non-cartoon superhero shows on television. I suppose Agents of SHIELD deserves a nod, but I was so bored with the first season that I never went back.

That’s not the only way to measure a show. Certainly, there are programs like True Detective that stand well above Daredevil in terms of gritty realism, plot execution and character depth. Sherlock does a far better job dramatized crime-solving. I’d even argue that some of DC’s animated properties better explore the moral complexities of vigilantism.

Still, comparing against peers means going apples to apples. CW is a modern superhero television pioneer. Smallville was well-past the syndication point when the Marvel Cinematic Universe started. Arrow and The Flash are successors to that legacy. But at their core, those shows are still about character drama (and non-stop lying to friends for no reason) that moves the plot rather than the reverse.

That’s something I really appreciate about Daredevil; the willingness to skip the BS in order to tell a tighter story with more interesting characters. A part of me wonders, however, if the bar isn’t set too low to have an honest conversation. 

To be sure, there’s definitely a good show here. For example, I really appreciate the show’s take on Wilson Fisk. He’s a fantastic inversion of the sympathetic villain. Fisk plays complicated and morally nuanced when, in truth, he’s just a bad guy that thinks the rules don’t apply to him. He has no empathy for similarly situated people, getting bent out of shape when someone involves his family or steals from him, while extolling about how he wants to do something good. His story is a pretty blatant power grab from a monstrous character. He is uncomplicatedly evil.

Fisk’s actions don’t appear in any way to be intended to better the city. He certainly does things and says they’re going to help, but he and the show never really connect the dots. I’d like to believe that’s because Fisk, like an alcoholic,  rationalizes his actions with excuses that in no way reflect the reality of the situation.

Except for Vanessa. He seems to genuinely care for her; though, it’s hard to say if it’s out of self-interest (wanting to be loved and have a family) or actual caring for her well-being separate of himself.

There were also genuine disappointments. Foggy’s discovery of the Devil’s identity played out in a very by-the-numbers way for me. We’ve seen a version of all parts of the ensuing argument over and over again. I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on them, the secret identity trope is so old it’s hard to do the reveal differently, but I expected more. 

Karen Page is a flat character for me. I actually couldn’t remember her name, even heading into the season finale. It started promising, with her saving her own life in her initial episode. That’s a big deal in a superhero show, but somewhere along the way her arc started feeling like a time sink. 

This post is a bit if a false flag; there is no perfect show. Daredevil is probably the strongest showing we’ve seen in live action television since the superhero boom started. There’s certainly room for improvement, but it stands well above its predecessors.

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Are The Jedi Religious?

obi-wan-kenobi-the-empire-strikes-back-_144169-fli_1378671413In honor of May 4th, I thought I would attempt to tackle a Jedi question that’s been tickling my brain lately. For most of my adult life, I’ve operated under the assumption that the Jedi are a religious order. Largely because of the parallels between them and Templar knights and that throwaway line from A New Hope:

Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you enough clairvoyance to find the rebels’ hidden fortress…

 

But it occurs to me that the Jedi Order doesn’t seem all that religious. On its surface, most of the common religious components are missing. There appears to be no deity, no stated code of morality, no prophet or enlightener, and no philosophy about life after death (excluding certain Jedi). Without these components, it seems like you can have secular Jedi. Or Jedi that follow specific religions not associated to The Force. 

More importantly, most faiths strive to be inclusive and and to spread. Theoretically, if the Jedi practice a religion, other non-Jedi people should also be able to practice it as well. I can’t recall any normals ever celebrating the vague notions of The Force.  

Then again, Buddhism is a non-theist religion, so perhaps God(s) aren’t a necessary component. And there are Jedi that live on as ghosts after their death. So there is verifiable proof of an afterlife; though the Jedi are oddly silent on the issue. The Force, it could be argued, might be a component of an enlightened state or spiritual experience not unlike Nirvana… that only certain people can have. Together, these things could be called spiritual components of… something. I mean, everyone remembers Luke’s walk into that cave to face his fear. It certainly looked spiritual. 

So perhaps it’s still vague. It’s possible there are more details that aren’t expressed in the films (without having to enter EU territory) that come together with these elements, and poor writing just didn’t get us there.

But my gut tells me that the Jedi aren’t practicing a religion. There doesn’t appear to be any referential material that practitioners can use for guidance. Normally, the faithful can look at a sanctioned, curated tome and discuss components of their faith. The Jedi don’t seem to have a consensus on what is morally correct, seemingly allowing or engaging in murder inconsistently. The only real moral good the Jedi appear to believe in is stopping other force-users from using their power to conquer. That and the whole thing about loving relationships and family being bad. 

On a larger level, religion is supposed answer the big, existential mysteries. The Force and the Jedi philosophy behind it has almost always been about the how things work rather than the why. The bigger questions about creation, the universe and are place in it aren’t addressed here.

No, I think the Jedi have a distinct lack of spirituality… most of the time. 

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