Sweet Simplicity–Dungeons and Dragons

D&DI received the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Guide last night, so I’ve been looking over it pretty diligently for  the last 24 hours or so.  It has a lot of things going for it, especially its simplicity. It is elegant in its restraint. After the bloatedness (note: I said bloated, not necessarily bad) of fourth edition, I’m glad to see a rules system that is so streamlined.

I mean, I don’t have time to learn a lot of rules anymore. I’m not the dude in my teens and twenties that could spend a lot of time  memorizing  pretty much an entire rule system to run a game with my buddies, but the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is like cuddling up with your favorite blanket. It’s familiar and looks great.

John and I were talking about how easy it is to make a character, and how if we wanted to, we could do some customization with just a couple of tweaks. We won’t have to wade through dozens of webpages and rulebooks looking for rules to make our characters exactly as we want to. Awesome.

My favorite part of the new system, though, is the seeming emphasis on story. I’ve always been more interesting in the storytelling aspect of RPGs rather than the rules, so D&D now makes it easy to jump into the story. The characters can do cool stuff without having to worry about too many complicated rules. That’s all we want to do. We want to have a little bit of fantasy escapism and be heroes. The new Dungeons and Dragons makes doing just that uncomplicated.

After I’ve played some more, I’ll tell you all about it.

 

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When Players Are in Control

swcombineJohn and I often write about the kind of MMO we want to play. And it generally comes down to giving us the options of a tabletop RPG in digital form. We want the power to control the governments, the economy, etc. in the game.

But what happens to a player-controlled game when the player base is dying?

Enter Star Wars Combine.

Star Wars Combine is a browser-based MMORPG set in an alternate Star Wars timeline. Nearly everything is player controlled, and it has some neat system to balance that. Travel is real time. Want to jump across the galaxy? You’re going to be on your ship for two weeks. All in all, I like it. It has some good ideas.

But it’s been in development for over 15 years, and it’s not complete yet. Combat has yet to be fully implemented. The interface is bulky and hard to understand (I don’t think it was made by native English speakers).  But, the roleplaying has made it worth it to me. I joined a group of people calling themselves the Falleen Federation (you might remember that Shadows of the Empire villain Prince Xizor was a Falleen, but these guys purport to be more virtuous). I even made some friends.

But the player base is dying. You know what happens when people are in hyperspace for two weeks? They don’t log in for two weeks. And if they have some major responsibilities within their guild or faction, those can get neglected. Case in point, my faction gave me a mission to complete, but I haven’t been able to finish it yet because I am waiting for a person from a separate faction to give me access to a space station. She hasn’t logged in for nearly 8 days. So, what do I do? I wait. And it makes me not want to log in since I can’t do anything. And I can’t force my way in… because that hasn’t been implemented yet.

I like the people, though, really. It’s just… it’s kind of a boring game. An economic simulator, really, right now. And there’s no threat of physicality to balance the economics.  And because of those basic things not being implemented, more people are leaving the game. It’s like watching an entire mini-universe gasping for breath.

It’s an odd situation, but maybe when it comes to having players control everything, we are getting exactly what we asked for. And a lot less.

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Life After “The Fappening”

Something crazy happened this month. The details and idle speculation got ubiquitous, so I won’t do the play by play.

Instead I’m going to talk about what I learned. And I’m going to call it The Fappening despite some well-argued points for why I shouldn’t. That name says something important about what happened. The news actually reported it as The Fappening. That’s history now.

First, there’s the obvious. Sexism and misogyny are still doing quite well in 21st century America. The cycle of shaming and victim-blaming continues even now.

Speaking of victims, I also learned that, despite years of leaked celebrity photos, stars are still willing to be photographed performing private sex acts. That seems a little silly to me, but it doesn’t mean that Jennifer Lawrence and the other women deserve this. While nude photos aren’t the smartest play, these women did nothing wrong and they are victims. It’s not unlike someone breaking into your computer and publishing your tax information. It’s wrong.

The difference, to the prudish, is that it’s sexually risqué, which is akin to deviance for some. And there will always be a segment of the population that enjoys seeing deviance punished.

I learned that there might be a secret market for celebrity photos that has been operating to the benefit of a ring of shadowy collectors for years. That is kind of insane to me.

I learned some things about people too. Despite it being so easy to simply not look at the photos – literally all we would have to do is nothing – millions of people seek out those photos. Perhaps thousand swill continue to celebrate a massively public violation. There will be memes, jokes and Twitter recriminations of the famous. There are people out there who want it to get as crazy as possible and savour the mayhem. Moments like these make me reflect on a famous quote from The Dark Knight.

As an exercise in morality, people should be able to not look without reward or threat of punishment. This makes me think there are far too many people that won’t do the right thing without incentive. It’s a dark entry in the debate about whether people are evil.

I also learned a lot of people are more passionate, positively or negatively, about a video of Jennifer Lawrence performing a sex act than about about important things like ISIS or voting. Cynical though it may be, watching the Internet community come together around this issue (as opposed to our water shortage in the western US) and work in concerted effort to catalog and promote “The Fappening” was something else.

I also learned something about myself. If I were a teenager, I would almost certainly be obsessed with spoils from the leak. Seeing a famous person naked, much less having sex ,pretty much would have blown my mind in a way only teenage immaturity can. Thankfully, I’m an adult. After The Fappening, I didn’t find my feelings about any of these women changed. I don’t think that Jennifer Lawrence is any less talented or Kaley Cuoco any more so. I don’t think any of these women are morally wanting. If anything, they are a little more real to me as I try to imagine what it must be like to be afraid you’ve been redefined by something so private.

Mostly, I find myself relieved that I really don’t care.

When Activities Become Lifestyles

ticket to ride

Proof that games were made for everyone.

I’ve been reading this week that the “End of Gamers” is upon us. Good riddance.

Look, I like games. Any of you who know me are aware that I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs, board games, and videogames. There are few activities I love more than sitting down with friends and family and playing together.

I can’t, though, imagine defining my whole life around one activity. There’s so much to life that defines who we are. For instance, I have family, church, my writing, my job, my son’s school stuff, and so much more. I’m not a single facet of anything I do… I’m all of those things.

What is happening right now is that an activity has turned into a culture. And that activity used to be ostracized. Geeks were picked on. We weren’t mainstream. Comic books could get you mocked when I was in school. I was made fun of for liking Star Wars! Who doesn’t like Star Wars!?

But, now, we’re in the majority. Guardians of the Galaxy is the biggest movie in the world right now. Let me repeat: a fairly niche comic book’s adaptation is the most popular movie on Earth right now. Dungeons and Dragons is getting write-ups in TIME and other major publications. Videogames make all the money.

And it’s good to be on top. But, when you’re on top, you don’t want everyone else to be on top, too. So you begin to exclude. Most women can’t come in here. They’re not real geeks unless they have to pass a litmus test. My mom isn’t a REAL gamer. On and on it goes. The exclusion. The building of a wall around the bastion of geekdom.

Games are here to stay. And more people are going to be playing them every day. And whether it’s Skyrim or Candy Crush Saga we’re all gamers now.

And that’s okay. We don’t need huge arguments about who’s in the club and who isn’t. We don’t need to treat people who play games we don’t enjoy like garbage. We don’t need to threaten people’s lives.

Let’s just play games. Because games are awesome.

Don Pardo: A Voice That Meant So Much

PardoIf you are under 50, then chances are you knew Don Pardo, or at least his rich baritone. For 38 seasons (all but 1)  Pardo was the announcer for Saturday Night Live; each week he could be heard belting out his trademark line “It’s Saturday Night Live”. Whether  intentional on the part of NBC and producer Lorne Michaels, hiring the seemingly straight laced traditional announcer provided an interesting foil and an air of sensibility to the sketch comedy show. Pardo did more, though, than lend an air of legitimacy to the program.  He even appeared in a few sketches and monologues as a parody of himself.

Pardo began his announcer career 70 years ago at NBC. There he handled announcer duties for memorable programs like Jeopardy (pre-Trebek) and The Price is Right (pre-Bob Barker). Pardo was the first voice at NBC to announce an assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy.

Pardo said over the years that he paid careful attention to his voice. He semi-joked to the Associated Press in 1985 that besides being his meal ticket, it was also “my Achilles heel. When I get sick, it’s always my voice.”

He said he carried cough drops everywhere.

He appeared in Woody Allen’s movie “Radio Days,” playing a game show host, and can be heard on recordings by the late Frank Zappa and Weird Al Yankovic, in his “I Lost On Jeopardy” parody. Despite relocating to Arizona in the early 2006, Pardo continued his SNL duties long distance.

Pardo was a familiar voice to generations of radio and TV fans; though, many have never seen his face. Upon the announcement of his death, tributes and remembrances poured in from all over the television industry.

“Any SNL actor will tell u:the ultimate moment of your career was hearing Don Pardo say your name. Each week he represented a dream come true,” tweeted Rachel Dratch, who appeared on the show from 1999 to 2006.

Seth Myers, who spent years on “SNL” before recently beginning his own late-night talk program, wrote, “RIP Don Pardo. A voice that meant so much.”

Don Pardo died August 18, 2014. He was 96.

 

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Gen Con 2014: Stray Observations

I’m still decompressing from the crazy gaming weekend. This year was so big that I ended up finding quiet corners a few times to get away from the sensory overload of the exhibit hall and the main corridors. Basically, I felt like Nicolas Cage confronting Christopher Eccleston.

While the Con is still on my mind, I wanted to mention some things that I didn’t talk about in either of my previous posts.

1.) I am impressed by all the young, ambitious people I meet at Gen Con. I met a gentleman who is producing independent films, a game setting for Pathfinder, and seems to have numerous other projects in the works.  I also met a guy that runs his own gaming store near Cincinnati. Last year I met a woman who designed her own game that’s releasing in September. It’s exciting to see people following their dreams and achieving them.

2.) I like the more laid back nature of the convention hotels rather than gaming in the main conference center. We had the opportunity to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons in the D&D area of one of the exhibit halls (Hopefully, I can procure a new D&D Handbook and talk about it in a later post), but I think I would’ve found it a lot more rewarding if I didn’t feel the press of the crowd around me that was doing the same thing. For instance, we played a big RPG game of Vampire in one of the hotels, and even though there were about 10 people at the table, I never felt crowded, drowned out, or rushed. It was nice. Same thing for the Legacy of Mana (link in the first paragraph) game I played. The meeting rooms in the hotel were mostly quiet, and much more conducive to roleplaying games.

3.) Open gaming is the thing to do. Whether it’s testing a random new game or just setting up a game for you and your friends to play in one of the gaming rooms, open gaming is something I wished I had more time for at the convention. I’m so obsessed with getting into events sometimes that  just sitting and being with friends gets pushed into the periphery.

4.) Brazilian steak houses. Go to one. Now. Stop what you’re doing and go to a Brazilian steak house. If you love meat, you owe it to yourself. Dining at Fogo de Chao was one of the great experiences of this trip to Gen Con.

5.) Talk to people. Gen Con is basically a safe place for gamers and that makes people a little more open. I talked to a lot of random people in line, all of which were super friendly. I didn’t get their names, and I didn’t need to, but it definitely made the time in line go faster. Also, take business cards or some other giveaway object. People love that stuff at conventions.

So, when you’re at Gen Con, you want it to last as long as possible. Perhaps getting into ALL THE EVENTS isn’t the way to do that. You’re there to play some games with friends, and basically to escape from the pressures of life for awhile (unless you’re there to work; that’s probably an entirely different convention experience). So enjoy it. Do what you want to do, not what you feel like you have to do.

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Gen Con: Day 3 – A Little Bit of Weird

The third day of Gen Con is always a bit bittersweet. Yes, it’s fun, and you’re still wrapped in this wonderland of games and geekery, but the cracks start to show through a little bit, and this gaming paradise starts to appear a bit tarnished.

Take our first event today. I was pretty excited for it. We were planning on playing some kind of space-based RPG that I had never heard of. But, then we sat there and waited. And waited. And waited.

Our DM never showed up. After asking the RPG HQ of the JW Marriott what was happening, they informed us that our event had been canceled. They were apologetic, but couldn’t really answer exactly WHY we weren’t informed of the cancellation. Seriously, we could’ve slept in for a few hours today. It would’ve beenphoto 3 photo 4 photo 5 photo 1(4) photo 2(3) photo 3(1) photo 4(1) photo 1(5) photo 5(2)glorious.  When we finally inquired of the people who are running events like this, we were told that they used to have a system that automatically told people when an event was canceled, but that they didn’t anymore. Weird.

photo 1(3)Also, I can’t help but consider the Disney World-sized lines that form around the simple act of buying something. To be the first to have and play something. It’s getting weirder and weirder to me the older I get, too. Here’s the thing, for most of the stuff I bought, I could’ve gone on the internet in 3 weeks and ordered it at 20-30% off retail. And yet, even today, I saw lines that would stretch around booths twice.

There was a weird contrast I noticed today as well. There was a Colts pre-season game tonight, and it was fun seeing the differences between the game dorks and the sports dorks. On the game dorks side, for one thing, there was an awful lot of cargo shorts. Lots of cargo shorts.

On the good side of the day were a couple recommendations. One is Set (and its little sister, Set Junior) from the good people at SET Enterprises. Not only was the woman running the SET booth super nice, their games are also really fun. Check them out.

Also take a look at the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. I’ve always wanted to play a card game that felt like an RPG and this fit the bill nicely.

Also, try a Brazillian Steakhouse. I don’t even want to tell you about it because I want you to experience it.

In closing, here’s my gallery for the day. Today’s theme was selfie quest. photo 4(2) photo 3(2) photo 2(4) photo 1(6)

GenCon: Day 2 – In Comic Con’s Great Shadow

Every year GenCon is more popular. With better than 50,000 this year, the event is on track to be the largest ever. I’d like to think it’s because the things that we love to do – playing games – are more popular. Geek fair’s stock has never been higher.

And that comes with good and bad. Greater popularity means more products that we get to try and, for those with the ambition, more opportunities to earn a living doing something they love. It also means a far better chance of finding people to play with when you go home. One of my great laments every year is how many purchases I make that will never be played.

But that popularity also comes at a cost. TJ and I discussed at some length if GenCon could ever be too big. The annual struggle our sisters and brothers in geek pursuits face during the great pilgrimage to San Diego Comic Con is a passing interest to us. It is nothing short of what I imagine hell looks like.

The lines. The waiting. The endless hours in an amazing city camped out hoping to see/get some swag. I usually draw comfort from the differences between these two conventions. Where SDCC is about seeing celebrities and sitting in on panels, GenCon is a game-driven show – the guests reserve their events ahead of time. Theoretically, GenCon can expand infinitely and because most of the events are run by businesses trying to promote their products we’ll never see insane lines. As consumers grow, events should grow with them.

And it’s a comforting thought until you try to buy something from Fantasy Flight on opening day. Words cannot describe this line. I could tell you how long it is in minutes (3 hours) or feet (thousands) or people (also thousands) or Cthulhu sanity points (10), but it doesn’t really express what your mind experiences when you walk the length of this line. And those lines are becoming a more regular thing.

And there’s the other stuff too. Gen Con’s opening ceremony this year included a lengthy (and obligatory) notice about harassment. And there are those moments when you step out of the charm and you see the people for who they are. While exploring the exhibits today, one of the cosplay girls schilling sexiness for a business looked down at her bust line (which was quite low) and made not-quite-a-frown. I couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking.

Was she reflecting on the outfit? Or maybe thinking about how much money was changing hands or how sex sells? Maybe she was checking for a nipple slip or just wanted to go home. I’ll never know, but up until that point, I only thought of her as scenery.

As our pastimes become more popular andgen-con-logo more mainstream, it raises the profile on what our communities do, right or wrong. If we’re good, it’s an opportunity to face those questions. Will we drive the money, or will the money drive us? How can we be better? What kind of community do we want to be?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m busy buying loads of swag, but I think GenCon’s next 10 years are going to show what we’re made of.

Gen Con: Day 1 — Today We Win

photo 1(2)Gen Con was pretty awesome today. And busy. The busiest Thursday I’ve seen in my four years attending the con.

It started with waiting in lines. The press line today was pretty long, and that’s okay. I think a lot of people were trying to get into the exhibition hall early so they could buy all those sweet, sweet new game releases. The big release today seemed go be Warhammer 40,000: Conquest. At least, I couldn’t get it when I finally got through the line. Better luck tomorrow, eh?

Our first big event was a Call of Cthulhu LARP by the good people at Novus Ordo Seclorum. In my opinion, this might be the best multi-GMed game I’ve ever played. There was so much to do. So much to discover. There were between 35-50 players: all with different goals and sets of skills. I won’t ruin the story for you, but if you enjoy really slipping into character for a few hours, I highly recommend their big LARP game.

photo 2(1) Our final event for day one was Artemis: Patrol Station Zebra. It was a GMed Artemis: Space Ship Bridge Simulator game. Again, this is a game you should be playing with a group of friends if you can. If you’ve ever wanted to be a part of the Enterprise’s crew, this is the best way to do that.

All in all, day one was a good time. Not too busy. I had a really delicious Italian beef sandwich from one of the food trucks on Georgia st. Great day. can’t wait for tomorrow.

Gen Con: Day Zero

Table flip

Don’t play games with this guy. He’s the worst.

Well, I’m (mostly) packed and ready to go on the big trip to Gen Con. I’ve been going since 2011, but I’m not sure exactly what to expect this year. I always tend to find something new, find something I’d like to do but can’t, or just get sad about not having enough time or getting tired.

This year, as normal, John and I will be attending, along with 6 other people. Some of these peeps I haven’t even met yet, but I’m sure everything will go smoothly. Gaming tends to bind people rather than divide. Unless you’re an awful person.

Things often happen organically at Gen Con. Normally, our group finds a theme song (Sail! last year; Payphone [WITH WIZ KHALIFA] the year before that). I’m hoping we find a new place to eat that is delicious.

Getting away is pretty nice. I’m a work-at-home dad that makes money on the internet while watching my children. It’s a good life, but it’s exhausting being in “dad-mode” constantly. Gen Con is a good time to just be a person for awhile.

So, coverage starts tomorrow night. We’ll be arriving in Indianapolis, getting our badges (those of us that can) and maybe finding a gamer gathering somewhere. Maybe we’ll get to play some Pathfinder. That’d be awesome.

I hope I’ll see you there.

And Another Thing About RPGs

I’m gonna tell you what I hate about MMOs, and why I think the industry is going to continue a year-long decline into mediocrity. I’ve gone over it before, but in light of some recent experiences, and TJ’s post, I want to get into really specific detail about what bothers me.

And to do that I need to talk about tabletop role-playing games.

Tabletop RPGs are, broadly, a collective storytelling device with a probability mechanic. The most ubiquitous being D&D or some other iteration of the D20 game system. It’s fair to say that without the tabletop pioneers of yesterday, digital RPGs wouldn’t exist today.

The singular element of any RPG, whether a single-player adventure or a massive online world is that you can chose the general direction your character takes. This is usually represented with class and character building options, being able to decide where your character goes, and sometimes being able to impact outcomes in the game.

That last one is becoming more and more important.

I’ve played quite a few RPGs since high school, and whether it’s an online game with thousands of players or just 4 friends around a table, I’ve only seen two approaches to world-building. Ever.

I’m going to call the first approach the Static Setting Approach, which I would like to illustrate with a story. I played a game with some friends once where we had to go somewhere and stop some guys from exploiting some folks. So the party met those folks, got the mission and went to the place to have it out.

FiatThrough the process of trying and failing (or otherwise not being allowed to try) it became clear that this fight was inevitable. This was the way the adventure was written and, like hitting the invisible wall in Skyrim, there was no getting around it. Nothing we players could have done would have changed the fact that we had to fight.

This approach is sometimes called the railroading because the Game Master is keeping his players on the rails to do what he or she wants.

I’m going to call the second approach the Dynamic Setting Approach. This is an approach characterized by unpredictability and the appearance of choice. I say appearance because a good GM can probably get you where he wants you to go (most of the time) while making it seem like the player’s idea. A great GM responds to your choices with lasting changes.

It’s a harder road for a game-runner. It may entail meticulous notes, multiple endings, personalized relationships between characters and on and on. But, going back to the example above, it would have been a lot cooler if we could have bribed the thugs. Or joined them. Or avoided the combat altogether and changed the trajectory of things.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach. Both are totally legitimate, but my leading descriptions have probably telegraphed my preference.

Railroading begs certain questions. Like, if you’re forced into a fight by design, the GM isn’t really allowed to build a fight you can lose because he made you have it. Is the fight really anything other than a chance to roll some dice? If that fight had never happened at all, would anything really be different?

And that’s how all MMOs have approached world-building. Instead of a dynamic world full of people that need things, it’s an environment where players click on one faceless NPC after another. Every MMO is on the railroad, which is too bad because I think tabletop static settings are mostly a result of time constraints. Some folks are good on the fly, but the rest of us don’t have endless hours to fill a sandbox play area.

But companies have time. And money. And there is an opportunity here to spend less and get more. Pathfinder Online is in the works and they have a novel approach. What if all the non-starter armor comes from player crafting?

It seems innocuous enough, but if done right it could be a huge deal. That’s the foundation for a player-driven experience. Instead of killing the same mob over and over again for a drop (excepting material collection), you have to engage in business with other players. Players who have built characters to be skilled laborers. Characters who maybe ask for payment in services rather than money.

DragonBall

Yes, it’s still just Wow in a different flavor.

Those laborers could be other adventurers, but with some MMO creating permanent housing, why not allow them to have shops in villages or remote areas? Throw in some deadly serious PvP, and you’ve got the makings of a world where the players are cooperating in a community with each other – creating their own stories instead of following quest chains.

So what am I getting at? Well let me just quote me in a recent chat I had about Bungie’s Destiny:

That’s what I want. I want this game, with skills that I can use to create an in-game business to found a city. And then start an armada to protect my city. And then get impeached by my councilors. And then take my stolen imperial dreadnought and bombard my own city.

#@&%! That’s what I want!

And on and on I go. Look, what I’m really saying is I want off the railroad. Until that happens, I’m willing to say that all MMOs (possibly excluding EVE) are the same tired trick. Even the ones that look kind of different from each other. Instead of a game that asks me how I want to customize my outfit as I bounce aimlessly between exclamation points, how about a game that asks me how I want to customize my community?

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Before Gen Con 2014

Gen Con 2014Gen Con is my favorite convention. It’s one of those conventions that I feel does nearly everything right. Registration for events happens beforehand. The convention center and surrounding environs are big enough that the convention (minus the exhibition hall) doesn’t feel too terribly crowded. This will be my fourth year going, and my third year for coverage here at The Cool Ship.

This year, I planned convention activities for nine people. I won’t do that again. It’s way too stressful. I did, however, get us into a bunch of events I think we’ll really enjoy like a big Pathfinder game, a massive Call of Cthulhu game, and hopefully lots of time for free gaming and steak. Mmm. Steak.

So, starting Wednesday the 13th, The Cool Ship goes into Gen Con coverage mode. Every night, we’ll recap our day, telling you what we saw, who we met, and what we did. We’ll give out recommendations for new games every day. I hope you’ll join us. It’s going to be a good time.

Marvel Studios, Just Take My Money.

Take it all, damn you. You're good, Marvel Studios. You're good.

Take it all, damn you. You’re good, Marvel Studios. You’re good. [Logo property of Marvel/Disney]

Marvel Studios seriously knows what to do to get my money, along with damn near everyone else’s. They know how to create some solid product, and by solid product I mean their movies. Ever since the first Iron Man film debuted in 2008, they’ve been raking in all the cash that every geek and nerd in the world is willing to shell out. Obviously, it didn’t stop with Iron Man either. They’ve been pretty steady with their films each year and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping anytime soon. I mean, they do have quite the catalog to work with.

So far there have been three Iron Man films, two Thor films, two Captain America films, an Incredible Hulk film, and an Avengers film that collected all of the heroes from the previous films into one gigantic, money-making extravaganza that, by all accounts, was one of the best comic books to film adaptations ever created. And now they have Guardians of the Galaxy releasing today, which looks freakin’ spectacular! I haven’t read a bad review about the film yet. It’s so damn good that Marvel announced a sequel with a confirmed release date (July 28th, 2017) and director (James Gunn will return to direct) a week before the film was even released. That says something. And from the trailers, exclusive looks, reviews, and interviews, not to mention the cast list (Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, to name a few), I’ve become a new fan of GotG. I had absolutely no interest in this series before this film was announced, and now I don’t know how I wasn’t a fan of it. I’m sure this film is going to convert a lot more people into fans very soon.

If you haven’t seen a trailer for it yet, here ya go:

Also, I’d like to point out that Josh Brolin will be playing Thanos in this film, as well as any other that features the character, and I am insanely excited about that. I mean, I wanted him to be Batman, but this works too.

Marvel did the same thing for me with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Well, Marvel and Chris Evans. Before that film, I was a fan, but not a huge one. Cap was always one of the goody two shoes that didn’t really catch my attention.  I didn’t dislike him, but I wasn’t die-hard about him either. He wasn’t Batman or The Punisher; although, he was pretty badass in the Civil War story arc. With The First Avenger and The Avengers, my interest grew some. I definitely had a lot more respect for the character. But after The Winter Soldier, I was hooked. Thanks to that outstanding film and Evans’ stellar performance, I’m a lifelong Captain America fan. If anyone ever had doubts about him being cast as Cap, that film will shatter any and all doubts.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to see it. Here’s the trailer:

Seriously, this film became one of my all-time favorites rather quickly.

From the start, Marvel Studios hasn’t made a bad film and if they keep doing what they’ve been doing, they won’t ever. They’re making all the right choices with the writers and directors they hire and the talent they cast, as well as the choices they make involving scripts, character design, and pretty much any other decision involved in making their glorious films. And judging by the release schedule they’ve reserved for the coming years, they’re going to be making many more great decisions that’ll take even more of our money. They’re planning on releasing 2-3 films a year for the next five years, consisting of one sequel and 1-2 non-sequel film(s).

  • May 1, 2015 – Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • July 17, 2015 – Ant-Man
  • May 6, 2016 – Captain America 3 
  • July 8, 2016 – Doctor Strange
  • May 5, 2017 – Unknown
  • July 8, 2017 – Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  • November 3, 2017 – Unknown
  • May 4, 2018 – Unknown
  • July 6, 2018 – Unknown
  • November 2, 2018 – Unknown
  • May 3, 2019 – Unknown

There’s also the possibility of a Black Panther film, an Inhumans film, a third Avengers film, another Thor film, and possibly and Iron Man 4. And like I said, they have quite the catalog to work from. Marvel is unstoppable. DC can’t touch them. There are also rumors of a Hulk sequel which could potentially use the Planet Hulk/World War Hulk storylines. That would be beyond epic. They’re also trying to corner the television market with five new series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Agent Carter, and Luke Cage) which are will also probably be huge hits for them. And if they can tweak Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into a better show, they’ll dominate the small screen as well. Although Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, and Constantine are going to be tough competition.

So go ahead, Marvel, keep doing what you’re doing. Take my money and my dedication. You’ve earned it.

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The Last Days of the MMORPG

Only now, at what feels like the conclusion of more than a decade of Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Gaming am I starting to get a sense of how strange and grand these games really are. Watching their inexorable decline makes me think of the elves of Middle Earth preparing for their journey west. In some ways, I feel like we never really understood their mysteries.

Wow. So geeky.Shipples

I’m not saying we don’t understand how these games work. Quite the contrary. Creating “the one chosen hero” and then grinding levels while making friends with all the other chosen heroes is old hat.

I mean to say that where these games fit in our lives is still an evolving question. A question that gaming companies have lost quite of bit a money attempting to answer.

One of the most interesting modern examples is where The Elder Scrolls Online comes in. With a rumored budget of $200,000,000 (sometimes you need to write out all the zeroes) the game is quite possibly the last attempt a game studio will make at a AAA MMORPG. During TESO beta testing before the April launch, I gave  the game a whirl. After my excursions in the newest iteration of Tamriel, I was left with one question. Will this be the biggest gaming disaster of 2014?

More importantly, is this the last roar of the genre?

Yes, there will still be other MMOs in one form or another, but I don’t think they’ll be massive the way we’ve understood it. At its height, World of Warcraft had somewhere between 10 and 12 million subscribers paying them $15 a month. That’s a truly insane amount of money. So much regular cash, in fact, that WoW spawned satellite industries. At one point, thanks to resource farming, WoW gold was worth more in US dollars than the Mexican peso. Even today it has a better exchange rate than some world currencies.

And since that wild, and completely unforeseen success, challenger after challenger after challenger has attempted to be the “WoW killer.” But in the 10 years that WoW has dominated the market not a single game has come close to topping it’s player base.

The cards are stacked against TESO.

I had the opportunity to give the game a try, and I think I walked away with some valuable lessons. In theory this game could operate a lot like Skyrim, but with other players. The graphics are almost on par with Skyrim and, to the game’s credit, it is quite beautiful. And at the end of the day, Skyrim is a whole lot like a single-player MMO. You get quests from individual NPCs  and then you go out and complete them. So you should get all the stuff you loved with Skyrim while enjoying the company of many other players.

And I think Zenimax is playing it that way. The voice cast for the game is positively ridiculous for any game, much less an MMO.

I mean, come on! John Cleese? Kate Beckinsale? Those are some serious guns for MMO dialogue, which we can expect only a portion of the players to get if they are faction specific.

But TESO still feels like an MMO. And all the MMOs since WoW have had one key problem: they are all basically WoW. Having button bars on the bottom of the screen and grinding quests through different zones is something we’ve seen before. It feels like the same game I’ve played before, with a different skin. As a matter of fact, most MMOs I’ve played, with the exception of EVE, have felt like variations on the same game.

And that’s really what I’m getting at. I’m not looking to snipe TESO. Honestly, I haven’t even kept track of the game’s success since its launch. But I do wonder if this massive investment in cash signifies a change in the dynamic.

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An Incendiary Note On Doctor Who’s Retcon

Sitting at my day job, as I sometimes do,  my mind wanders to all manor of things. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the X-wing Miniatures game and Green Lantern Comics. Sometimes I also think about how weird the 90s actually were. Sometimes I wonder if we would have achieved this level of technology if the planet was only 2 tenths water instead of 7.

For some reason I feel like the answer would be no.

Last week I started reflecting on The Day of the Doctor. It’s been a while since it came out, but I got there eventually. I mean (spoilers) how cool was that episode? How completely amazing was it to see the Time Lords back in play? And Billie Piper was back as an alien super-weapon’s conscience. I mean, bangarang Rufio what?!?!

And while Tennant is one of my least favorite new Doctors, I always love seeing him along.

But as I reflected, I started thinking about the logistics of the Time War and all its subsequent events. And it strikes me, as I try to focus on my work, that The Day of the Doctor makes no sense. Like not even a little. Here is my list of grievances because I would love to argue about it on the internet.

My understanding of The End of Time is that the Time Lords are trying to break out of the Time Lock using the signal they implanted in the Master’s mind. So I believe they are already timelocked or whatever it is that the The Doctor remembers doing when John Hurt pushed the big, red button. I’m assuming he only remembers pushing the red button to activate The Moment since #9 and #10 only recall burning Gallifrey. I mean, if Gallifrey was just hidden in a pocket universe and all the Daleks killed each other in the crossfire, how did Dalek Caan pull Davros out of the time lock to rebuild the Dalek Empire and steal Earth during the 10th Doctor’s run?

And if there was no time lock how was the Lord President of the Time Lords back in The End of Time to wreck everyone’s day?

And how is it that the Doctor has always remembered Gallifrey being both timelocked and burned? In The Day of the Doctor there was a discussion about how many children were on Gallifrey when it burned. So why time lock the war if you’re going to kill everyone?

And why did 10 believe at The End of Time that all the crazy from the war would come back? He talked about the Nightmare Child and the Would-Have-Been King and a million bajillion Daleks. I get that The Doctor’s memories were confused because of… actually I don’t really get it. There’s some timey wimey about all the timelines being messed up and John Hurt, 9 and 10 not remembering this stuff. Still, my problem is not with hand-waving away his missing memories, but with the idea that both happened.

And what the hell is a time lock? I assumed that it was a point in space-time that was put in a big bubble that other people can’t time travel to. Again I ask, if it’s locked up, why burn everything? And if you’re gonna burn it, guess you don’t need the lock, right?

God I miss Babylon 5.

God I miss Babylon 5.

Also, what the hell is up with the time lords? This was THE last great war that almost swallowed the whole universe and made a man committed to fixing things talk himself into fake genocide. I was expecting some next level space wizard s***. I wanted some science-as-magic themed super soldiers a la Babylon 5‘s technomages, but even cooler.

What I didn’t expect was a generic-combat-armor-scifi-film-wardrobe-are-these-guys-cosplaying guessing game. And for my money, I’m thinking Wing Commander or the Lost In Space remake with Matt LeBlanc. Also, how did they get Gary Oldman in that movie? Wait, that question probably belongs somewhere else.

How is it the Doctor’s own people conduct a war in much the same way I would expect us to? I’m not saying they should be better at it, but one could make the argument being alive for billions of years damn well ought to make them better at it. I’m not saying they should be better in the sense that they should be morally above our kind of warfare. Part of the reason John Hurt pushed the button was because the Time Lords had become monstrous. I’m saying they should look cooler doing it. I want laser screwdrivers that look like wizard’s staves and war TARDIS battles with clever time-shift tactics.

Also, did Gallifrey actually get destroyed at one point? Is this like, it always was burned until this first time when Matt Smith changed his mind? Or is it like it never got burned and John Hurt, 9 and 10 just remember it weird because the Time lines crossed the streams or something?

Just saying.

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NPCs Are the Worst

pretty and vacant

Pretty and vacant. Kind of like Megan Fox!

I’ve been having a difficult time playing video game RPGs lately. Sure, many of them are great. Some of them have interesting stories to tell, but what takes me out of the experience every time are the non-player characters. Yep, those mindless characters with 5-6 lines of dialog that either wander around endlessly or stand in one place.

Take Skyrim, which is considered the best video game RPG by many. I was in one of the villages when a dragon attacked. The dragon killed some NPCs before I was able to slay it. As I inspected the bodies I noticed that the mother/wife of one of the families had been killed. I went to talk to each of the characters in the woman’s family; I even took her body home for them to lay it to rest.

You know what those NPCs did? The same things they always did. Telling me about the best places to buy weapons, and how scary things had gotten in the world lately. No mention of the death of their mother/wife. No sorrow. Just aimless wandering. Same dialog.

And it completely pulled me out of the game. Because there are no stakes. If the NPCs don’t seem like they care about each other when they die, why should I care about them? Why even save the world? Why redeem something so devoid of life and emotion?

John was playing Destiny‘s beta the other day. He told me that he was totally into the gameplay, but as soon as he had to talk to an NPC, he was over it.

MMO NPCs are really the worst. I remember playing World of Warcraft and watching these random computer people walking around spouting their one line of dialog. Meanwhile, hundreds of decked out warriors flooded into their city. They didn’t care. It seemed really out of place. (WoW is weird. There’s a lot of war, but very little NPC industry. I’m not sure how that economy even moves. Who is making everything? Growing the food?)

I’ve outlined what I want from an MMO RPG before. I want a game where the PCs basically run everything because video game RPGs just don’t have the AI yet to run realistic NPCs yet.

Maybe I’ve been ruined by tabletop roleplaying games. Probably. But, I feel like video game RPGs have been doing the same thing for nearly 30 years. NPCs are basically the same as they were back in Final Fantasy. It’s time for NPCs to be improved.

If I Made GOTHAM

For a little while now, I’ve been unexcited about the concept behind FOX’s upcoming Batman prequel, GOTHAM. I don’t know if it’s because Smallville teased me for a decade or because I was more excited for Heroes than I have ever beenabout any other show. Ever.

You should note that these criticisms have nothing to do with what we’ve seen of GOTHAM at all. And that’s fair. The cast looks great. The trailer actually looks pretty amazing.

But I guess I just don’t see the point. I wouldn’t be shocked if some of the show had been inspired by Gotham Central, which I quite enjoyed. The premise being what super crime in Gotham looks like from the street view the cops have.

But the takeaway of these stories for me is that there need to be superheroes. Which I totally agree with, but why would I want to watch a show that doesn’t have any?

A Different Kind of Show

So if I were doing GOTHAM, I think the first thing I would do is get rid of Gotham City. It’s too well-known and the idea of Batman is so provocative you risk creating a Batman babies program with kid Catwoman and young Joker. I say forget that noise. Instead, I would do a completely generic police procedural like you see on TNT. There would be dramatic scenes, compelling music, and beautiful, brooding protagonists staring directly at the screen a la Rizzoli and Iles or Cold Case.

And I would keep it completely mundane for the entire first season. Just the typical one-shot criminals and police drama. And then in the second season, a few episodes in, I would hit the protagonists with their first supervillain. No one knows where he or she came from or why they do it. All the cops know is they’re darn near unstoppable and they barely run them out of town.

At this point, careful observers might have noticed the tiniest hints of weirdness around the edges of the first season that foreshadowed something else going on. And then the show would go back to normal for a little bit while everyone wondered what the #$?! was going on.

And the show would carry on like that for a while. Normal police procedural that occasionally sees a supervillain pop in a do something crazy. It would be a subtle escalation that tests the limits of our heroes and gives a true view of what everyday life looks like when you have to live in a world with superpowers.

And then around season 4 the first superhero would show up. Just out of the blue, after the cops are getting used to just barely winning and seeing friends die at the hands of super crazies, a masked vigilante shows up and changes the game.

And this is where it gets really interesting. The show turns out to have been a hero origin story the whole time, but from the perspective of our dynamic police force. And like the cops, the show doesn’t reveal who the hero is or how they became what they are. Instead we’re left guessing if it’s one of the supporting cast or some bit criminal from season 1. Could just be some guy no one knows.

Maybe eventually the police even form an alliance, if they ever figure out he’s not just another nut job and stop trying to arrest him.

GothamAnd I would have the story arcs for each season pre-written, so we could lay down clues and foreshadow events years out.

At least that’s how I would do it, with nods to sources like Gotham Central, Irredeemable, and Nemesis –works I’m stealing from in spirit if not directly.

It would be a long con for sure, and I expect no basic cable station would want anything to do with it in the age of instant gratification television. And if it did get a first season, there would be the constant threat of cancellation. But imagine audience reaction once it started to get real. And maybe this kind of show is too conceptual for modern television. Hard to say, but I do think we live in an embarrassment of superhero riches. As the genre’s creative boundaries stretch further and further, maybe some enterprising, young artists will read this and steal it.

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Game Mastering

Edge of the EmpireI had a really good roleplaying game session over the weekend. I generally end up “gamemastering” for my friends because I’m generally the person to organize the game and come up with ideas. I’m not a huge fan of doing it because I would prefer to just roll a character up and focus solely on that. Universe building isn’t really my forte.

But the other night, I had a really good time running a game. It’s like my nearly decade-and-a-half of running RPGs coalesced into something that was fun for the players (I think), but also really, really fun for me. It was a nice change of pace. I’m generally concerned with other people having fun.

So, bearing in mind that I ran an awesome game that I’m still really excited about, here are my game master tips.

1.) Be prepared, but don’t over prepare.
Having a basic idea of what you want to do is great! Coming up with some interesting encounters (and I’m not just talking about combat encounters)  that you can run is also a really good idea, but don’t prepare to the point that you can’t run off the rails. No one wants to play an on-rails tabletop RPG. People have video games for that. Be flexible. And be prepared for anything because players will go off in directions that you didn’t expect.

2.) Play to the strengths of the medium.
When I started running games, I was very much influenced by the video games (Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, etc.). However, that isn’t really the way to go. I mentioned going of the rails in the previous tip. That might be the true strength of RPGs. You can do ANYTHING. You want your character to invent a flying machine that can shoot magical lightning in order to fight against an evil mayor’s unjust taxation? It’s possible. Even in a game that isn’t exactly about that. Give your players some freedom. It makes things more interesting.

3.) Consequences
Give your players freedom, but don’t give them freedom from consequence. In real life, your actions have repercussions. If your players rob a store, you’d better have the constable come after them. If they tick off a crime lord, you’d best believe that a bounty will be put on their heads.

4.) Keep your energy up.
If you aren’t excited, your players won’t be. You’re there to have fun. If you need some snacks to keep the energy up, do it! Take a break if you feel your energy flagging.

Those are the things I keep in mind when running a game. Your mileage may vary, but these have served me well in all my years of GMing. If you have some tips, share them in the comments!

 

Something Something of the Planet of the Apes

Ah the reboot, the Hollywood method of pumping new life and new revenue from an existing intellectual property. A way  of turning each franchise into a choose-your-own adventure story. In many ways and though to far less profit, it is what we have done recently here at The Cool Ship.

Image property of 20th Century Fox

Image property of 20th Century Fox

The Planet of the Apes was an absolute revolution when it first hit theaters in 1968. The film boasted the largest FX budget of the time and the sweet baritone of future NRA president, and the guy who seems to love screaming at the end of sci-fi movies, Charlton Heston. The film also starred Roddy McDowall as a frightening realistic (at least for the time) talking ape.

The film is about a team of astronauts who crash land on what they think is an alien planet, but turns out to be the Earth in a distant future. In this future, apes have evolved beyond men while man as we know him has experienced a sort of devolution and has been enslaved. The movie’s beautiful climax when Heston’s character enters “the forbidden zone” and discovers the remains of the statue of liberty is one of the most heartbreaking on celluloid. Planet of the Apes grossed very well for the time.

From that moment forward, for about 10 years, a Planet of the Apes sequel was released bi-yearly, each with an even more ridiculously long title ; Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Stop The Planet of the Apes I Wanna Get Off the musical. That last one was a joke… and not even my joke… it’s from the Simpsons.

Image property of Fox television

Image property of Fox television

The Planet of the Apes sequels are all horrible. I know The Planet of the Apes sequels were awful because they only cost about $4 on Blu Ray… for all of them. That’s roughly 80 cents per film. The original film is available in a standalone Blu ray for $16, or you can get a boxed set of the entire series for $20. I could cite any number of reasons, from decreased budget to watered down scripts to less interesting actors for the shift in quality, but I think you get the idea. I won’t even go into the 2001 reboot except to say that Mark Wahlberg is a pretty poor substitute for Charlton Heston (keep in mind this is 2001 Marky Mark), and the final scene posed questions that could only be answered in a sequel that never came.

image property of 20th Century Fox

image property of 20th Century Fox

2011’s Rise of the Planet of The Apes has taken us back to where it all began. It attempts to answer the question that no one was asking; “how did those apes get so smart, and the humans so dumb”.  The CGI is like nothing ever seen before and as an action movie it does pretty well.

James Franco is a scientist (still with me?) testing a drug meant to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s in humans on chimpanzees. The tests are shut down when one of the apes goes… oh I can’t help myself … Ape S@#! and cause the entire lot to be destroyed. Franco smuggles one infant chimp out of the lab. The chimp called Caesar is crazy smart due to the Alzheimer’s drug passing from his mother. Caesar ultimately is responsible for giving “rise”, if you will, to The Planet of the Apes.  You can see where this is headed, right?  All and all a fine if unnecessary film addition to an incredibly overworked concept. However, it is successful in showing a logical path to the world we were exposed to in the original film.  The most amazing thing about this movie and the coming sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Andy Serkis as Caesar. His movements are recorded by a state-of-the-art suit and transcribed for CGI. This setup makes for a most believable sentient monkey. Has he ever been in a movie? As a person?   Serkis achieves what took Roddy McDowall hours of make-up in the original.

I look forward to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with cautious optimism: we may yet get the follow-up film we have been waiting for since 1968, or we may just as likely get another 80 cent sequel.

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Dune, Nostalgia, and our Rose-Colored Past

DuneI first read Frank Herbert’s Dune when I was in my tweens. I was reading a lot of Star Wars novels at the time, and I started looking for something a little meatier. While browsing the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble, I saw a “staff recommends” sign next to the small paperback copy of the book. The sign read, simply, “Read the book that inspired Star Wars!”

Done. I bought the book with my hard-earned lawn mowing money.

And I loved it. Especially the litany. I would recite the litany against fear when I was afraid to do something. Before tests. Before rollercoasters. Before asking a girl out.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing… only I will remain

I read Dune again recently for my monthly book club, and I still loved it. It held up. It might not have been as good as my nostalgia made me think it was, but it was still solid.

I also recently read Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule for the first time. It wasn’t very good, but it was recommended to me multiple times by many people. Did nostalgia make it seem better to those people than it was?

This week, National Geographic Channel began airing The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? It’s an intriguing look back at decade that I began as a child and ended a high schooler. Many of the images and stories shown still deeply affected me: the Berlin Wall crumbling, the giant fan gathering after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the missiles raining down in the Persian Gulf,  Nancy Kerrigan’s  anguished cry of “Why!?”

Memories began surrounding those moments. Where was I when I heard the news? When did I see them on TV? Who was reporting the news at the time? How did I feel? And the feelings I had at the time began to rush back. I was scared when I saw the images of the Gulf War. I was happy to see the people celebrating as the Wall came down.

Nostalgia is so powerful, but it’s a double-edged sword. I am who I am today not because of those things that happened, but how I remember them happening. I’ve recommended books, movies, video games, and foods based on my memory of them. But memory can be fooled pretty easily. Food that tasted AMAZING on a date with my wife might not taste as good to me when she’s not around. A song I remember listening to when I was carefree and driving around in my first car simply isn’t as good when I listen to it now (I’m looking at you, Meet Virginia).

Thankfully, Dune is good enough to stand up to my nostalgia. The Litany Against Fear still calms me down. But nostalgia is big business. There are whole websites dedicated to old video games, old toys, old candy, old things. These places count on you wanting to buy the stuff that made you happy when you were young, but beware–the things you loved as a kid probably aren’t as good as you think they are.

That doesn’t make the joy you had back then invalid. It doesn’t make your feelings about anything worthless; however, it might be good for us to realize that the lens we are looking through is rose colored. The past is great. We all had awesome times that we are fond of, but we shouldn’t long to be there again. We shouldn’t get stuck there. We should look forward to the new nostalgia we can make, try to make good memories today, and not fear the future.

After all, fear is the mind-killer.

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