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.


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 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 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 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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Princes of the Apocalypse Review

I really like Dungeons & Dragons 5th imageedition. Having sampled 1st, 3rd, 3.5 and 4th (as well as a long stint in Pathfinder) I’m happy to report that this is my favorite version of D&D. There is a simplicity and elegance to the system that was missing in 4e and, arguably, Pathfinder. At the same time, the uniformity of the mechanics is intuitive enough to avoid many, though not all, of the rules-lawyer-style arguments that I’ve… enjoyed with D&D’s more classic iterations.

Which is why it seems like Princes of the Apocalypse, Wizards of the Coasts’ third module for the system, is as good a place as any for me to try running the game. As an important note, I have never in my entire life run a game module– pretty odd for someone with more than a decade of RPG experience.

I appreciate that the book begins by giving a broad overview of the setting, plot elements and factions in the module–even if they are difficult to track in the beginning. Princes of the Apocalypse takes place in the varied locations found in the Dessarin Valleys, which is somewhere Northish in relation to Waterdeep. This section illustrates one of the beginning challenges for me as well: there are a lot of details to keep a hold of right from the outset. Some, like the relation a specific place may have to another point of interest in the world aren’t super important. Others, such as the names of cult leaders, faction motivations and such totally are, and it’s up to the reader, with the assistance of the book, to prioritize. 

This is something I don’t like so much, even though it’s a good start for a large, dynamic world. My temptation is to throw all of it at the players instead of pacing myself and, by association, the adventure. I like mixing it all up, which is a discipline issue exacerbated by all the options.

I do like all the different origin options for the players. Princes of the Apocalypse includes over a dozen different origins that are tangentially associated to a character or event happening in the valley. Some of these options would make a good preamble for an established party’s adventures or work as an origin for a new group’s formation. It also reminds me of Dragon Age: Origins.

I also like the accessibility. The campaign is set for groups from level 3-15, but it makes allowances for 1st level players as well. 

For me, it all comes together in chapter three, when the adventure portion of the book starts. I’m a completionist when it comes to RPGs–I want to know every little detail about the setting to make sure the players have all the opportunities possible to run into a stray plot thread or discover an interesting clue. So, of course, I’m going to read the whole book, and at specific parts of the adventure, I can allude to other interesting things or throw out components I don’t like. For the first time ever, when I’m running this campaign, I won’t have to keep meticulous notes about the plot I’ve written and what the players did in the last session. 

Overall, I’d say this book has a lot of potential. It’s kind of a heavy lift for DMs interested in chaotic, “wing-it” style adventures, but for the folks willing to put in that time and do their homework, this is a top-notch set of tools for a great adventure for beginners and experienced groups.

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The Blind and the Bold: Marvel’s Daredevil

In 2003, superhero movies were already cliche… but you couldn’t tell me that. I was 20 years old and was just coming into my own as a geeky comic book fan. Spider-Man had blown me away, and I had enjoyed the two Blade movies that had released by that time. Daredevil released in February, but I went to a college that forbade me from going to the theater (long story). So, the first week I came home, I went to the local dollar place and watched Ben Affleck’s Daredevil in a dirty, leaky theater. I won’t lie; I loved it. I even had the soundtrack (thanks to a friend that burned it to a purple CD for me). I still like the film… at least, I think the director’s cut isn’t bad. After seeing it, I voraciously began to devour Daredevil comics, and he became one of my favorite superheroes–Matt Murdock is just a lawyer trying to make his neighborhood better.

Then, last week, I ecstatically watched Daredevil’s eponymous Netflix series.

MARVEL'S DAREDEVILMarvel’s Daredevil is a rare gem that, while I was watching, made me believe that superheroes could exist. It was intense. It felt real… ish. Most importantly, I believed the motivations of both the protagonist and antagonist. Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk are explicitly two sides of the same coin: powerful men (in their own respective ways) who use that power to make their city a better place, according to their own vision.

Fisk believes that in order to make the city better, he has to wipe the slate clean and start over. He accomplishes this task through a series of financial maneuvers, blackmail, bribery, mob connections, and murder. Murdock believes that the best way to save his city is to protect the people in it by using his particular set of skills to stop all the crime that Fisk is propagating.

This, of course, brings Fisk and Murdock into conflict.

FiskOne of the highlights of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio. Sure, he could’ve played Wilson Fisk the same way we all remember him from the Spider-Man animated series or like Michael Clark Duncan did in the film, but D’Onofrio’s Fisk is an introvert: a socially awkward individual who is over-extending himself by dealing with the insubordination of his partners, the incompetence of his lackeys, his conflict with The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, and, most importantly, by trying to secure the love of a beautiful woman.

Fisk’s respect and love for the women in his life is one of his defining features. We’ve seen so many villains that are willing to treat the ladies in their lives like absolute garbage. But Wilson Fisk treats the women in his life well. He listens to their advice. He pulls out chairs. He protects them the best he can, and he derives energy from them, especially Vanessa, his lady love. When Fisk finally goes public with his “philanthropic” efforts, it is Vanessa who is standing beside him. The way his relationship with Vanessa works feels tangible to me. I totally get the whole “being socially awkward, but being able to suck it up with the love and support of the woman you love” thing.

Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock/Daredevil is pretty standard, but that’s perfectly okay. The series is written so well that I never think that I’ve seen what Murdock is doing before, even though I know I have. He’s a standard, tortured super hero, but again, he feels tangible. Like maybe anyone with enough training could put on a black ninja outfit and beat up thugs. I know that isn’t the case, but Daredevil is convincing. I trust that Matt Murdock believes in the righteousness of his mission. When faced with the odds that he is up against, I believe that he has to put on the mask and go outside the law to bring about justice.

Foggy KarenReally, I enjoy Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock more than I enjoy him as the vigilante superhero, and that’s because of the interactions with his supporting characters “Foggy” Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Debra Ann Woll). Foggy is Matt’s best friend/law partner and is probably the true heart of the show. He’s often the comic relief, but you never feel like the comedy is at the expense of the character. He’s the sweet, awkward, funny guy that works with you. He’s good at his job, and he’s a loyal friend.

Karen, at least for me, was a little bit less interesting. Her story arc basically consisted of never letting go of a case. That’s pretty standard legal drama to me, but there are hints of her mysterious past that I’m sure will be addressed next season. Her interactions with both Matt and Foggy and the chemistry between all three of the characters is spot on.

The action in the show is brutal and not very flashy, but it’s well choreographed. The lack of flashiness, though, heightens the stakes. Rather than tell you all about it, I’m just going to post a video of this scene from episode two. I think it shows you exactly what I mean.

I actually wanted to cheer when he saved the little boy at the end of this scene.

All in all, I highly recommend Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix. It leaves a lot of threads open for next season (or other upcoming Marvel shows), but the story of the struggle against Wilson Fisk and the fate of Hell’s Kitchen is believable, compelling, and masterfully done.

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Gemstone in the Rough

Let me take you back to a time when I was 12- or 13-years old. It was 1996. The internet sounded like this:

It was then that I was slowly turning into the dorky guy that I am today. Sure, I had already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I was voraciously reading Star Wars novels and other fantasy books. I had been playing Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Quest for years.

But this was the turning point.

I was at my neighbor’s house, and he told me that I just HAD to try a new game he found. I immediately went to sit in front of his TV… but he instead booted up AOL and told me to sit. Then he started it: Gemstone III.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s an RPG. An RPG you can play with a thousand other people.

Mind. Blown.

He immediately took me to the character creator, and I built Lancastrien, a sorcerer with a penchant for blowing up rats with his magic. When the game finally started, I was ready for something amazing.

And then I was looking at a black screen full of white text. I was confused. Where was my sorcerer? Where was everyone else.

It was a text game. And as I started getting acclimated to it, I began to discover that the game was much deeper than the console RPGs I was used to. You could do almost anything, and I could interact with other people. Lots of other people. This was before the days of Everquest or Ultima Online, so people were congregating here to get their geeky RPG fix. It was great. So great. I was utterly sucked in. I was killing giant rats for experience, meeting internet friends at the inn for conversation about our adventures: I was making both friends and enemies.

I went home and begged my parents to get the internet. I wanted (NEEDED) to play Gemstone III. They finally relented, and we installed one of the AOL discs that came in the mail. The first thing I did? Create a Gemstone III account. I rolled a bard named Spumis, and my love affair with the fantasy bard class began.

The adventure couldn’t last forever, though. GS3 moved to a web portal and started charging to play. I quit after that. I couldn’t afford it, and I had plenty of N64 games to play.

Eventually Gemstone III upgraded to Gemstone IV. I kept track of the game, but never got back into it (I wasn’t going to pay for a text game when I could pay for graphical games and basically get the same fix.)… Until recently.

GS IV went free to play recently, so feeling the pull of nostalgia, I jumped back in. It’s still a fun experience. There aren’t as many people playing, but that only adds to its mystique. I still love the text-based game format, and the game is more intuitive now: the tutorials are better, the interface is much, much better.

Anyway, I can thank Gemstone for turning me into the D&D-playing dork I am today. It’s nice to be able to go back to the game and get that adventuring fix a few times a week. Since it’s free, if you’re interested, you really should try it. And look for Knotwind in Icemule Trace. I’m sure he’d be happy to show you around.

Gemstone IV

Knotwind fights a mutant crab.


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Nostalgia-Class Gaming

shovel knight thrustI got an Xbox One in the last week or so, and I love it. It’s nice to have a “gamer” console again after only having a Wii U (which I also love, but for very different reasons) for a year or so. I was, however, left without it or internet access this past weekend, but I brought my laptop and a gaming controller with me. My laptop certainly is not a gaming powerhouse, but it has enough power to play some recent, not-graphics-heavy games. The two main fixtures for last weekend’s gaming were Shovel Knight and Rogue Legacy.

Both these games give you a good idea where my head is at when it comes to video games. I’m a child of 90s gaming, for sure. Shovel Knight is a quasi-8-bit platformer that combines the best parts of Mega Man, DuckTales, Zelda II, and Castlevania into one of the best games of last year. Shovel Knight has a quirky story, superior level design, and catchy music.

rogue legacyRogue Legacy is a rogue-like platformer, meaning that the levels in the castle you are adventuring in get randomly generated every time you enter. This game is difficult, and you will die–a lot. That’s okay, though, because after every death, you pick an heir from three options (also randomly generated), but they keep your equipment and the money you collected in the previous castle run. Death is just a part of the game, and it’s fun trying out new characters as you make your way through all the parts of the castle.

My new Xbox is great, and I love playing games like Shadow of Mordor and Titanfall, but to have just pure fun that appeals to me as an early millennial gamer, platformers (especially those that refine, perfect, and enhance the experience like the ones mentioned about) are where it is at for me.

The Arrow’s Greatest Weakness

ArrowMuch like my friend John, I probably watch too many shows on the CW: The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Arrow, The Flash. My current favorite of these, though, is Arrow. Oliver Queen has been one of my favorite DC Comics superheroes for a long time. I love the goofy Robin Hood aesthetic and that he’s a bit more lighthearted than your typical superhero fare. CW’s Arrow, however, has given Ollie a Batman Begins-style “realism.” That isn’t a problem. I don’t mind “serious” superhero stories. The problem is that those stories are currently bound by the tropes of the CW.

Ollie on the show is a brilliant tactician: a deliberate personality that risks life and limb in order to “save his city.” He’s tough. He rarely waffles in his mission. Except for (and here’s where the CW-ness sets in) in matters of his personal life.

sad ollieIt seems like about 10 minutes of each episode is spent on story beats like not being able to tell his secret to someone, him not being able to be romantically involved with someone he wants to be with, him getting angry at someone close to him over some stupid, bull-headed thing. A lot of the “drama” is only tangentially connected to the story at hand and is falsely inflated much of the time. It’s bizarre to me that between The Flash and Arrow, it’s the gritty show, Arrow, that gets the most bogged down with the CW-style drama.

The secondary characters aren’t immune, either. Just this season, Laurel has been hiding the death of her sister from her dad. Diggle almost decided to quit the team. Felicity wanted to give up. Thea was keeping her newfound ninja skills secret. Roy having false memories of being a murderer. It’s not that those are bad story beats; it’s that they often feel only half-baked.

I love Arrow. I think it’s a pretty good show for the most part, but sometimes I kind of wish that it was on a cable channel rather than the CW.



Growing up Without the Grimdark

Space HulkI won a copy of Space Hulk a couple of weeks ago from the good folks at Den of Imagination, a company that does custom painting of miniature models for war games, etc. As you can see from the picture, I’m pretty stoked about the whole thing because I wouldn’t have bought it for myself.

Space Hulk is a game by the folks that make Warhammer 40,000, a game that I would really like to play, but thus far have been unable to justify the cost of the models, rules, paint, and basically everything else that goes along with the hobby. I’m an RPG player, and coming from the RPG world, where I can buy a set of dice and a rulebook and go from there, the cost of getting into the miniature war gaming hobby is kind of staggering. I’m sure there are ways around the massive gulf that separates me from playing the games, but I haven’t found it yet.

I play other games in the 40K universe, though. I play Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, Death Angel, and Dark Heresy. I’ve played the Dawn of War and Space Hulk video games. (I don’t read the books anymore, though; those are depressing.)

Dark VengeanceThis is the weird dilemma of being an adult geek with actual responsibilities; I’m an adult and can basically do whatever I want… but I don’t. I look at that sweet Dark Vengeance starter set, and I just can’t justify the $100 price tag. And that’s just the cost before paint, glue, etc. And the time cost involved with getting everything the way you want it. And then you’ll want to expand your armies with more models. Or buy new armies. The cost just balloons. I start thinking about groceries or that the car needs tires, and I don’t pull the trigger on the purchase.

Maybe I just don’t want to try it as much as I say I do. I could probably save up a few bones over time. I could go nuts with my Gen Con money; I just don’t. Maybe my buying power is limited only by what I can justify to myself? I have no idea.

I also always end up considering how terrible a company Games Workshop seems to be. Prices are much higher on the books and models than they were when I was in high school more than a decade ago. Has the cost of casting models risen that much? Did they just do it to make a quick profit? Probably.

The contradiction? I’ve spent a lot of money on the X-Wing Miniatures Game, so that leads me to believe that maybe I just don’t have the time or inclination to put the Warhammer models together.

This is a weird, rambling blog post. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my criteria for purchasing something has changed quite a bit since I was a teen with lots of disposable income. I have a lot of responsibilities now, and one of those responsibilities is using my money wisely. And right now, Warhammer just wouldn’t be a wise purchase for me.

Well, other than the paint and accessories I need to paint my Space Hulk figures.


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Rocky Balboa and Me

Rocky Balboa and I couldn’t be more different. He’s 5′ 11″. I’m 6′ 6″. He grew up poor. I grew up middlish class. He worked as a thug. I’ve never been much of a criminal. He’s a high school dropout. I’m a college graduate. He’s a two-time heavyweight champion. I am certainly not. He bought his brother-in-law a robot. I have never done that. He becomes awesome through training montages. I don’t have that luxury.

Even though Rocky and I are different dudes, I can’t help but love the guy. He has some charisma, to be sure. But, I think it was his drive to do what he loves to do and rise above his station that I admire. He’s a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve. A guy that tells tigers that he’s engaged to be married. He wears goofy hats and doesn’t seem to know how to put his hands up to defend his face. He can take those punches, though, and keep moving forward. He keeps punching.

I admire his ability to figure out what he wants and then go after it. Nowhere is this displayed better than in his final film, Rocky Balboa. In it, Rocky is too old. Too washed up. Too lonely. People think he’s a joke, but he believes that he has at least one more fight left in him. So when he’s given a change for an exhibition match against the current champion, he goes for it.

Yeah, I get that it’s a movie, but it inspires me just the same. I think maybe my favorite scene in the movie is this one.

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth! But you gotta be willing to take the hits. And not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

Sometimes I get melancholy because I’m 31 and I’m not exactly where I want to be career-wise yet. This week, I needed a little reminder from Rocky that you just have to keep moving forward. And sometimes when moving forward and taking the hits, you might even surprise not only yourself, but also those loved ones around you. If Rocky can do it as an old guy, maybe I can do it as a younger guy.

He’s a bit awkward, but I like Rocky Balboa. He’s one of the good guys.



The Game Life

One of my first conscious memories?

One of my first conscious memories?

The Atari 2600 released in 1977. I was released in 1983. Video games have been around longer than I have, and they’ve almost always been a part of my life. I’m part of the first generation where interactive entertainment has always been a thing.

I was wondering how the ubiquity of video games has affected me. My five-year-old son is just starting to seriously play them (we have been bonding over Super Smash Bros. recently), so I’ve been a little bit self-reflective. Sometimes I watch my kid playing a game, basically tuning everything else out, and I think that it has to be doing something to him. What did it do to me? I brainstormed some things. Feel free to add how they affected you in comments.

1.) Growing up with video games made me unafraid of technology.

Instead of approaching new advances in technology with trepidation, I am more prone to jump right in and figure it out. I’ve watched rotary phones become touch tones become wireless phones become cell phones become smart devices. I messed around with DOS and learned a few basic commands in Qbasic. I jumped into chat rooms with wild abandon. I remember the internet when it was more like the wild west.

Basically, even as a tween, I was tweaking graphics and trying to build mods and was completely oblivious to the consequences. For better or worse, I’m not afraid of technology.

2.) I get totally absorbed in video games when I play.

I’m not sure if I get totally absorbed because I’m obsessive or if playing video games has given me a slightly obsessive personality. Honestly, an argument could be made for either.

I mostly can’t play games when I’m alone with my kids (unless they are playing with me) since I begin to tune out everything around me. Sometimes my wife will tell me something important, but if I’m playing a game at the time, I will not have any idea what she said. It’s not that I mean to tune her out… it just happens.

Back at the beginning of my marriage, I was playing World of Warcraft. I was a big fan of the game, and after I quit a terrible job, I was playing it a lot. My wife came home one night after work while I was playing. I’m not sure I said anything to her. Then I played most of the night. I completely lost track of time. Suddenly I realized it was almost time to sleep and I had literally said almost nothing to my wife all night.

I immediately got rid of the game.

I recognize this weakness in me. I think maybe video games (and gaming in general) affect the reward parts of my brain. Even though I’m not actually accomplishing anything, I feel like I am.

3.)I understand the importance of having fun.

I like that I have an outlet to have fun, even when I’m by myself. Video games help me relax after I’ve had a stressful day or just a bad one. Even though tabletop gaming is probably my number one leisure time love, video gaming comes in near the top of the list.

I often use video games as a reward. I’m an editor, so I’ve created a reward system for myself. If I get a certain number of articles proofread, I get to play a game for 15 minutes or so. I also let myself bank time in order to play a little longer. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for me. It helps me on rough days.

4. Thanks to MUDs, I am excellent at typing.

I used to play MUDs. Most specifically, I played Gemstone III on AOL. It was a great game (that is still around if you’re interested. They even do free trials), but it was more difficult if you couldn’t type accurately and quickly. Thanks to Gemstone, I have a weird way of typing, but it’s quick and it’s reliable.

Really, thanks to Gemstone, I am probably in the publishing industry. I loved making up stories with my characters which got me interested in writing. The rest is history.

These are just three ways that I think video gaming has affected my life. Hopefully I can steer my son towards the good while keeping the bad in check.