Author Archives: TJ Johnston

Gen Con 50: Day One: Finding My Inner Dork Again

I entered the Con with a bit of an identity crisis on my hands. Gen Con’s 50th year is a little odd to me. I’m finding myself more passionless, more ambivalent, about being here. It’s interesting. I used to pride myself on my nerdiness, and now I’m just, kind of, here.

I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was the breakup of my gaming group. Maybe it’s the fact that I keep buying nerdy things like RPG rule books and board games and never get much of a chance to play them. Real life comes at you fast: things in the house need fixing, work gets crazy. There’s school stuff, job stuff, family stuff. I’m not super great at prioritizing my enjoyment of tabletop gaming, but is tabletop gaming still even a priority? Should it be?

About a six months ago, I volunteered to run the new RPG Star Trek Adventures for the fine folks at Modiphius. Star Trek has been a fixture in my life, and Modiphius offered me some store credit to do it (basically, I ended up getting a free core rulebook), so I set up a couple of sessions of an adventure they put together called “Entropy’s Demise.” It’s not the Star Trekiest of Star Trek stories, but it’s a fun one about an away mission and a good introduction to the game’s rules.

The game is a lot of fun, cribbing some good mechanics from a number of different systems. I look forward to maybe running for people at home once I know the rules a lot better.

My big purchase of the day was Starfinder by Paizo. I know the basic premise is that it’s Pathfinder in space, and I could probably homebrew that for a group, but the art is fantastic, it’s fat with a lot of information, and Paizo puts out entertaining stuff enough that I wanted to support them.

After all that, it was dinner with friends, old and new, and we got to check out the Rick & Morty: Total Rickall game. We had a lot of fun committing random acts of betrayal and card murder. Also, I am very jealous of those who are staying at the JW Marriott in downtown Indy. Man, that place is poshy and has some lovely views of Indianapolis in the starlight.

As I was taking the long walk back to my car, I realized that while I was playing games, I wasn’t thinking about this dumb nerd identity crisis I’m having. I was just having fun. In this weird time where everything seems bad, it was nice to have this port in the storm for a few days. The news has been getting me down.  (Coincidentally, I just found out about the Barcelona attacks. My heart goes out to those affected.)

That’s the end of day one. I’m going to see if I can talk to some people today about games and making games… but I also want to save that for a book I want to write. See you tomorrow.

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On Learning New Things

A week ago, I started learning how to play guitar. I have no frame of reference about how to play, so I’m starting with zero knowledge of the instrument. When the guy at the music store asked me what kind of guitar I wanted, I replied, “Red?”

I didn’t make a purchase that day, but I did borrow my father-in-law’s Parker electric guitar. Thankfully, it’s red.

I did, however, purchase a little program for my Xbox called “Rocksmith.” The box promises that it’s “the fastest way to learn guitar!” That quote from a national study by Research Strategy Group Inc. I have no idea what that group is, but that quote, along with all the reviews of the program I’d read, convinced me to give it a try (and the $20 discount with Amazon Prime didn’t hurt either). I don’t want to focus this column on Rocksmith, but it’s a good program that seems to be working for me. I’m better at learning things when I can turn learning into a game.

I wanted to start learning guitar because I was feeling stagnant. I’ve been at my job for nearly seven years. I’m a work-at-home dad, but as my kids progress at school, they will be home less and less. I needed to learn something that would keep me busy, keep me striving to get better, and keep the loneliness away when I was by myself.
I also missed performing music. Guitar seemed like the perfect solution.

And while I’ll never look as cool as this guy:

I could at least look as cool as this guy:

I promise I’m not mocking this man. He looks dope.


I have nothing to prove I’m striving to just keep practicing, learning, and attempting to be a tiny bit better than I was the day before. I’m not pressuring myself too much. I have no performances to train for. I’m not starting a band. I’m just doing it because I love to make music.


A lot of times, I have been so afraid of failing that I wouldn’t try new things. Sticking to stuff you already know is safe. You don’t have to get too far out of your comfort zone when you stick to the same activities. This is almost a completely new universe for me, and the freedom to fail is, well, freeing. I want this to be a big first step in becoming a more well-rounded individual.

If I may, let me encourage you to try something new, especially if it’s something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Learning those subjects that you actually want to learn changes the dynamic of gathering knowledge so drastically. Enjoy yourself.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here badly plucking away at “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”

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Storytelling Potential

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the storytelling potential of RPGs, and what kind of group it takes to tell mature, interesting stories. I’ve been down this road since I reviewed 7th Sea–which was a great game for just throwing the dice away and telling a tale with friends–and after listening to the most recent arc of D&D podcast The Adventure Zone.

The Adventure Zone started as a funny Dungeons and Dragons podcast (well, it’s still pretty funny), but expanded into some deep, mature storytelling. The latest arc is almost a deconstruction of D&D as the normal “break down the door, kill monsters, get loot” was almost entirely turned on its head as the characters were forced to give up items and even some major earlier story beats (in the form of memories, changes to backstories, one guy lost his body) in order to proceed through “Wonderland,” an insane game show dungeon. The story they ended up telling was one of loss and sacrifice, and doing heroic things that could hurt you in order to save friends.

This isn’t really something that can happen in a convention setting, I don’t think. This kind of storytelling had to be built up over nearly 60 episodes, and the players had to have a deep understanding of who their characters were and what they would do in any given situation.

Some gamers value different things from their RPGing. Some like to hack n’ slash their way through hordes of baddies to make their characters more powerful. I get that appeal, I’m a fan of Destiny and Diablo. Some players like to just hang with their friends and be goofy and laugh.

I’m getting to a point, though, where I want to explore something that I couldn’t well in a video game (yet). I want to understand my character. I want to be challenged and forced to think on my feet. I want to have to choose between betraying my character’s values or not completing the objective.

I want to be challenged creatively through the RPG art form.


Substitute Teaching with Gaming Materials

Nope. Not nervous at all.

I began an interesting chapter in the story of my life last week, when I did substitute teaching for the first time. It was a crazy experience; I was thrown into a bit of a crucible. All the third grade teachers were having a conference, so it was all substitutes standing in front of a number of third graders with no safety net.

Third grade is an important year. Studies show that a child who completes third grade without a proficiency in reading is more likely to leave high school without graduating. And, frankly, there were kids in my class who weren’t quite there with their reading yet. My heart breaks for them a bit. And for the teachers.

Teachers face a lot of hurdles: inadequate funding, disengaged parents, kids with learning disabilities. And somehow they have to form these kids into proficient readers who are ready to learn. It’s difficult.

Since I was only going to be there one day, I had to connect with them somehow, so when I introduced myself, I mentioned my love of tabletop gaming! Many of them told me that they loved board games!

I promised them that if they listened, I’d show my dice (which I carry with me in my satchel), and my Pokemon deck (which I brought with me to show them).

It actually ended up working great! When some of them didn’t want to read, I’d mention my dice or my deck, which would quickly get them back on track.

It ended up being a great day. The kids were rowdy, but nice. I got to show my dice off (many remarked at how pretty they were), and they all approved of my Volcanion Pokemon deck. I even ended up getting a hug at the end of the day.

All generations love games; I was glad to share my passion with these kids as I assisted in a small way with their education.

2017 Plans

Dear Readers,

One thing I always wanted to do with The Cool Ship was to showcase the lives of gamers and their passions, so in that vein I’ve been working on a yet-untitled project to step more fully in that direction. I’ll be starting it in 2017, and want to showcase some of the quality writing of which I know I’m capable. I can’t wait to share this with you. Watch this space. Happy holidays!


Where I Got my Roleplaying Fix: WWE 2K17

I don’t think I’ve ever really talked at length about my love of professional wrestling. I watch it every week and generally adore everything about it: the goofy characters, the athleticism on display, the sheer LOUDNESS of it all. As soon as I could, I picked up WWE 2K17 for my Xbox One. And I, surprisingly, ended up scratching that RPG itch I get from time to time.

The WWE games are mostly what you expect; you choose a character, choose an opponent, and get to fighting. It’s fun if played that way, and my son and I have faced off quite a few times as our favorite wrestlers (currently, mine are AJ Styles, Zack Ryder, and Chris Jericho).

But there’s also the “My Career” mode, where you’ll find a surprisingly deep RPG. It has everything that you would expect from an RPG: you create a character by designing his outfit, raising his attributes and skills, pick his move set, generate an entrance (complete with video and music), and decide if he’ll be good or evil.

Honestly, creating a character in WWE 2K17 is a deeper, more involved experience than in some RPGs I’ve played (looking at you, Fallout 4). Granted, this might appeal to me more because I’ve secretly always had this dream to be a professional wrestler. I even wanted to go to wrestling school. I do think, however, that it’ll be fun for anyone who likes to spend time rolling up characters.

I ended up creating Tommy “Showtime” Johnston, a heel (wrestling for “bad guy”) who was a bit of a lone wolf and was being held back  by his crappy tag team partner. So I betrayed him, breaking up our tag team so I could pursue my own championships.

Yup. You can betray your partner in this game. You can also try to get in feuds with other people, entice someone to back you up on a tag team, get in fights back stage or in the crowd, hire a manager, and tick off the authority figures in the WWE so they stack the deck against you. You can even cut promos during shows, making the local crowd either love or hate you.

For each event in which you participate, you will gain you Virtual Currency, which is basically just a fancy term for experience points in this mode. With VC, you can raise your attribute stats, buy skills, or purchase new, more powerful moves. The only thing missing for it to be a true RPG is a level-up sound when you rank up.

Currently, Showtime Johnston is working his way up the ranks to win the WWE World Title, and he currently possesses the United States Championship, ruling over that division with an iron fist.

It feels like a really well designed wrestling RPG. In fact, it makes me want to create and host a tabletop wrestling game. I never thought that a wrestling video game would inspire me to want to make something, but there it is.

The game is sometimes kind of glitchy, and it’s not perfect, and there’s a lot of DLC to buy, but honestly, when I get that urge to be a fantasy hero for a few hours, I doubt I’ll be picking up Skyrim, Dragon Age, or Fallout… I’ll be playing WWE 2K17.


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Visiting the Temple Again

Legends of the Hidden Temple was one of those Nickelodeon game shows that I always wanted to be on. While I wasn’t the most athletic kid, always thought I would do pretty well on the steps of knowledge and would be pretty good at figuring out the temple maze. The show was a favorite of mine: I loved the elaborate sets, the talking statue, and I thought Kirk Fogg was enthusiastic and charming.

It was with great joy that I got to sit down and watch the new Nickelodeon film version of Legends of the Hidden Temple with my wife and kids last weekend.

Let me start off by saying that it’s not a good movie, but it is a perfect movie. It is exactly as understated, in-jokey, and cheesy as it needs to be. The three child leads are fine as far as cable TV movie actors go–at least they have believable motivations, I guess.

The story begins with the three siblings Sadie, Noah, and Dudley going to the Hidden Temple theme park. Apparently this movie assumes that everything that happened on the show Legends of the Hidden Temple is canon. Or not. I really have no idea, but HOLY CRAP Kirk Fogg is there as a tour guide!

legends-of-the-hidden-temple-movie-poster-3He makes some comments about how the temple has been closed since the 90s and he’s looking for a medallion to open it… whatever. Kirk Fogg is there! I cheered. My kids didn’t understand why.

The kids end up in the Hidden Temple through a series of mishaps, and Sadie, the oldest, loses her phone in the process. The kids meet OLMEC! He’s apparently an ancient king who tried to…

You know what? Whatever. It was Olmec. He was wise and had a deep voice and was a talking head statue.

Look, this isn’t going to be a recap of the movie. Rather, I wanted to commend the movie for doing something kind of difficult. My kids and I were both laughing at jokes, but for different reasons. My kids didn’t have the context to know that the Shrine of the Silver Monkey was always a problem for game show contestants because for some reason they could never put it together correctly. My kids didn’t know about the various obstacles that contestants would have to overcome.

They didn’t know about why there were animals of many colors in the temple. Or why the temple guards were so ferocious, even though they would only grab you and shake you around a bit.

But laugh they did, even without the retro knowledge of the game show. And I laughed and cheered a lot as they not-so-subtly worked in references that made tween me very happy.

If you were a fan of the show, give it a watch. It’s a fun movie: definitely the best that Nick has put out in a long time.

7th Sea Second Edition Review

7th_sea_cover_v1When sitting around the table with an RPG, I am the game master probably 95% of the time. I don’t have any qualms about it; it feeds into my sense of self worth and importance (kidding). In the 20 years or so that I’ve been running games for people, I’ve become pretty good at reading them at the table, reacting to what they’re going to do, and doing my utmost to maximize fun.

Sometimes, though, you need a challenge.

The good folks at Gamerati and John Wick Presents were gracious enough to provide me with a review copy of 7th Sea, a role playing game set in a Europe-like land of swashbuckling and backstabbing. Here’s where the challenge comes in for me: the holidays are coming, and that means that for the next two months, it’s going to be difficult to get a group together to play. I had a play session coming up, though, and a player had to drop out of our regular D&D game, so I invited the others to play 7th Sea. The challenge: I only had 36 hours to learn the new system, be able to teach it to others, come up with a story, and run the game… Oh. And I needed everyone to have fun.

36 hours for a married guy with two kids and a job, actually becomes about five hours. Luckily, the presentation in 7th Sea is beautiful. The art is very easy for your eyes to fall upon, and the text is uncluttered and uncomplicated. I also love learning gaming rules, so flipping through the rule book was a pleasure.

That said, I’d often completely forget about learning how to actually play 7th Sea when I’d get caught up in reading about the ins and outs of the setting. I love alternate Europe scenarios, and this one combines the Renaissance with mythology in an easy-to-grasp package. This is a very fluffy game, and that’s fine by me. I’m much more of a storyteller than a dice roller; I revel in lots of world-building information.

If I’m to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how the dice mechanic works in the this game. I know, I’m a bad reviewer, but again, I had five hours. It doesn’t look complicated, but it definitely takes a backseat to building solid, believable characters and a setting that feels fresh and real.

Character creation in this game is so deep. Characters are heroes and can’t really die without good reason, and that’s okay because this game forces players to really think about their hero. There’s even a section of 20 questions to more deeply consider the role you’ll be playing at the table. Yes, there are skills and talents and attributes, but while playing the game, it didn’t really feel like they mattered very much. What matters in 7th Sea is creating a character with a soul. The attributes might say that your character is strong, but these 20 questions will tell me if your character is meek, or bombastic, or prone to boasting. Your hero will end up having defining character traits and virtues  This, to me, is so much more important than what the numbers say how many dice a player gets to roll. These characters get to drive the story in a meaningful way, and the players get to create heroes who are more than just a math problem.

I spent five hours frantically reading and learning 7th Sea, and game time finally arrived. My confidence in my ability to learn the system may have been misplaced, but I understand storytelling and had enough of the setting information under my hat that I could fake what I needed to.

I had two players that evening: people who were experienced role players ready to try out the brave new world of a brand new system. We started with character creation. We didn’t get super deep since this would be a one-off game (for now), but they created two characters: one was a soldier from a terrible war that destroyed his homeland. The other played a sailor who had made a Faustian deal to bring retribution upon his enemies.

We played the game on November 5th, and with the Gunpowder Treason fresh in my mind, our intrepid team was drafted into saving the queen of Avalon from a mysterious plot by Church loyalists who were unhappy with her stance on religion. Both the characters were imprisoned for piracy, but the Crown’s agents knew of the heroes’ competence, so they were willing to cut a deal.

This plot quickly went off the rails. The characters, as created, were  pirates, so they chose messy freedom over having to work for someone else. They picked locks, they let out terrible criminals…

And then I had the idea that maybe their tower prison wasn’t exactly what it seemed, so they began to descend an endless stairway, dotted with rooms that would confront the “heroes” with their sins. I got to play with English mythology, introducing a character based on Merlin, a giant talking baby, swamp witches, and other barely sane characters as they moved deeper into the rabbit hole.

The game basically ended up as a way to just let our imaginations run wild. There were a lot of laughs, a lot of careful moves and counter moves, and we all had a ton of fun.

I know I’m not the perfect reviewer here, but I want to say this: 7th Sea is really, really good at facilitating fun storytelling for mature role players. As my two friends and I started getting lost in the story we were telling, the dice and mechanics took a back seat to pure role playing. I actually found myself exhausted by the end of the session, but I was also exceedingly happy from having such a good time.  There are very few games where I found that to be the case.

In a world where throwing dice seems to be the main point of RPGs, 7th Sea gave me a breath of that fresh ocean air of storytelling. I cannot wait to visit it again and dig a little deeper into the rules.


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The Journey into RPGs

Stories drive me. They contribute to my sanity on my darkest days. I’ve read, watched, or played some of the greatest stories that people have been able to tell; obviously, I’ll never experience every story, but there are billions of people in the world and each one has some kind of story to tell. Humans are natural storytellers. One of my favorite ways to tell a story is through the medium of the roleplaying game.

Roleplaying starts early. One of my earliest memories is from when I was in preschool. A couple of boys in my class had picked up the silos from a Little People farm set, and were holding them like cannons.

“Bank robbers! Bank robbers! Boom boom boom!” they chanted.

Little me, though, loved heroes: Ninja Turtles, Super Mario, the (Real) Ghostbusters, Batman. I couldn’t understand why kids would want to be bank robbers, but if they were bank robbers, it was my job to stop them.

So I tackled them. Hard. I remember one of them crying… Maybe not, but it makes a better story if one of them was crying, so one of them was totally crying. Don’t worry, though; I got in major trouble. Mrs. Riccio was not impressed with my heroic shenanigans. I had to sit in her kitchen while she made cookies, and then I’m pretty sure that I didn’t end up getting any.

I literally have no idea what his name is. Steve is a good placeholder.

I literally have no idea what his name is. Steve is a good placeholder.

Not long after that, my parents purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System. I’m fairly certain that it changed the course my life. (Maybe for the worse. Maybe for the better. The jury’s still out.) The NES allowed me to not just experience stories from books, but also actually PARTICIPATE in the stories being told. I was Mario stomping on goombas. I was Link slaying Ganon. I was Balloon Fight Steve floating around with frustrating controls…


I can’t believe I wanted to read this based on the cover. My friend must’ve given it a massively good recommendation.

Don’t get me wrong, I still became a voracious reader. My mom was awesome and took me to the library often. I was entranced by the stories of  the Boxcar Children and Laura Ingalls. I was also blessed to have some good grade school friends who were also readers. One of them introduced me to The Hobbit. I was immediately intrigued by this cover of a morbidly obese man with a butter knife being stalked by the sad spawn of Count Orlok and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Thus my love of fantasy began. Grade school became a time of hobbits, the mouse protectors of Redwall, the land of Narnia, and all kinds of various magics and dragons. Good always triumphed. Evil always failed. And the smallest of creatures (like me, a kid in grade school) always had the courage to stand up for what was right. That kind of morality gets lost in the grittiness of the adult world sometimes. Roleplaying games are fat with fantasy settings, so it’s obvious now that I would be instantly drawn to them.

The term RPG didn’t enter my lexicon until I discovered Final Fantasy after Nintendo Power magazine sent the strategy guide for it to my house. Even with the guide, I didn’t understand the game at the time. The turn-based combat didn’t make sense to me; I’ve never been a great tactician. However, the fact that I could create a party of adventurers, give them names, and send them out into a world of mystery and magic was immediately appealing to me. RPGs eventually became my video game genre of choice. The Final Fantasy sequels, Dragon Warrior/Quest games, and Chrono Trigger all became my favorite games.

The next step in my RPG journey takes me to the internet. After receiving maybe 40 AOL discs in the mail, I convinced my parents to give it a try. One of the first things I discovered was a little game called Gemstone III. GS3 was multi-user dungeon (MUD), which basically means it was an MMORPG before that term existed. It was text-based, but I was playing with real, actual people on the internet! I was making friends and thwarting enemies who were actual people. Mind blown.

And then came Dungeons & Dragons. Introduced to me by a friend in Jr. High, I had never before played a game that was both so rules-intensive and yet so freeing. Anything could be done in D&D. My character had a family, became mayor of a town, and finally died at the hands of a vile beast… And I’ve never been able to shake that kind of storytelling. It’s interactive and collaborative.

Now that I think of it, maybe tabletop RPGs are the reason why I tend to thrive in cooperative settings.

Autumn often leads to me being introspective. I’m writing all this because I’ve been a little bit reflective lately. Why am I who I am? What helps make me tick? What are good things that I can pass on to my children?

Communication is just storytelling. I pray that I can instill in my kids and others a love for it. I have this suspicion that important virtues like empathy depend on a person having a love of stories.


Obama Llama Game Review

Obama LlamaParty games have long been anathema for me. I’m just not really a huge fan of Uno or Trivial Pursuit or other games of that ilk. I guess that my idea of a party game is a rousing session of Dungeons & Dragons, but that certainly isn’t the cup of tea of some of my family and friends. So, I’m glad that I learned about Big Potato on Twitter. At Gen Con, I was introduced to Obama Llama.

Obama Llama is the combination of a memory game, a rhyming game, and charades–which sounds busy, but actually works effectively into a cohesive experience. The game is all about getting your team to guess the rhymes written on a card. If they guess, your team gets points; for every three points, your team gets to flip over two memory cards, looking for a rhyming pair. The team with the most rhyming pairs at the end is the winner.

The game includes three types of clue cards: Describe It cards work like the old game show Password, where you have to get your team to guess the rhyme without using any of the given words; Act It cards have the name of a celebrity on the back, and the team has to figure out the thing that rhymes with the celeb’s name; and Solve It cards, where you just read the sentence on the card and your team has to guess the rhyme. You’ve only has 30 seconds to guess, so the game moves quickly and can be played in about half an hour.

Here is an example of the rhymes you’ll have to try to guess (from the back of the box):

Clue: Mysterious snow monster enjoying Italian noodles.

Answer: A yeti eating spaghetti!

I fully get why a game should have teams and scoring, but honestly, the first night I played Obama Llama was with my wife, my 7-year-old son, and my mother, and we just took turns trying to get everyone else to guess the rhymes and laughing our heads off.

This game brings the chuckles in droves. The thought of Fay Wray using eBay or Tigger having a girlfriend who is a gold digger are instantly funny to me. I’m a big fan of absurdist humor, so this is right up my alley.

Honestly, if the game has any flaws, it’s that the cards really depend on pop culture. I played a session with my mother-in-law who sometimes had a hard time keeping all the newer actors and characters straight. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it might be wise to consider the group you’re playing with before you bring this one out–a more pop culture-savvy crowd will appreciate this game more.

As far as presentation goes, the box is compact and has plenty of space to neatly house all the components (which is always a sign of quality for me). The cards are easy to shuffle, but feel sturdy enough for lots of use. It even comes with a pencil!

Big Potato has created a game that is fun, funny, and quick. Obama Llama is a keeper for sure. I can’t wait to pull it off the shelf again.

Obama Llama (and other Big Potato games) can be found at Target in the US. A review copy was provided to The Cool Ship by the publisher.


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Gen Con Day Four: Who We Are Now

Sunday is always a bittersweet time at Gen Con. It’s officially branded as “Family Fun Day,” so you’ll often see harried parents herding children through the crowded vendor hall.

But for many of us gamers, it’s the last day of the convention, and everything will be torn down and packed away for next year.

For John and I, Sunday meant one last trip through the vendor hall, one last wait in the line at the Marriott for coffee at Starbuck’s, and one last game–this time, Pathfinder in the Legacy of Mana setting, run by our friend (and game designer) Cameron Parkinson.

Honestly, it mostly turns into a fun shooting-the-breeze session of gaming. It’s pretty relaxed, and this year we only had one other person show up for the game: a nice man named Greg who seemed down to game and enjoy chatting. Sundays are chill, after all.

Well, they’re chill for some people. We were constantly beset by trolls from a group of gamers who seemed very upset that we were assigned to a table in “THEIR” space. They were afraid that we were going to be interrupting them, but they actually kept passive-aggressively interrupting us with nary an “excuse me.”

I love gamers a lot, but when they act like THEIR gaming is the most important thing ever, it gets tedious. Anyway, we ended up moving because they were super loud, but they kept butting in anyway. One guy apologized, but sheesh.

After the game ended, we parted ways and walked through the halls, watching chairs and booths being packed up. A weird, sad ending, but there is always the promise of gaming for next year.

As John and I left Indianapolis, our drive home was quieter than normal. We discussed a bit what we want to do next year and what we want The Cool Ship to be.

All in all, I think we had a pretty good, chill Gen Con this year. I’m already counting down to the next one.


Gen Con Day Three: Space Intrigue and Bros

Four-and-a-half hours of sleep seems pretty par for the course for most Gen Cons, but I was really feeling it today when I woke up. I love gaming, but you cram so much of it into this weekend that it almost loses its meaning.

Anyway, we had a nine o’clock event at the Marriott hotel. We thought it was a Babylon 5 RPG (Babylon 5 is John’s favorite show), but it was actually a weird, hodgepodge, homebrew board game. There were ELEVEN players… and the game was definitely not optimized for it. There was a lot of downtime where I was trying to read the hand-written rules or just playing Pokemon Go on my phone. I think there was a kernel of a good game there, but it was a bit exhausting. Luckily, someone won the game early, so we had a little extra time to visit the dealer hall.

The dealer hall used to be the main attraction of the convention for me, but it’s kind of lost its luster. I had this thought a couple years ago that I was standing in a lot of lines to spend more money than I would at my local gaming store or one of the great online gaming store options… Anyway, ever since then, the dealer hall has become this weird, uncomfortable shrine to geek commerce that I just can’t really get behind. I guess I’m not the type of person anymore who has to be THE FIRST to play new, awesome games. I can wait for the reviews and prices to drop. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’m getting more cheap. Maybe I’m changing. Is my enthusiasm for this media waning a little bit?

Next up, Fantasy Age! I’ve been wanting to play this one for awhile, and we had a lovely GM who ran us through 3 hours of fantasy action and roleplaying. We played the role of teens attending a coming-of-age party on a local island… when an eclipse happens and an ancient evil appears. I had a blast roleplaying as a halfling bro who was trying (and mostly failing) to be the life of the party.

Turns out, my love of RPGs hasn’t waned very much… but Gen Con is starting to feel like a very board game-centric convention. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I get the appeal of board games… but do I ever love telling a story with a group of friends.

jokerAfter that, we had steak dinner and saw Suicide Squad, which I didn’t think was very good, but I love Jared Leto anyway.

Last day is tomorrow. Bittersweet. I’ll fill you in.

Gen Con Day Two: Demigods and Starwarriors

Day two started with one activity that almost never happens at Gen Con: sleeping in. Oh man. We slept until 8:30 and it was glorious. Granted, we probably slept too late (we were late for our game due to traffic and weird parking troubles), but we made it to our first game of the day: Exalted.

Exalted is a game where you roleplay as, for lack of a simpler term, demigods. As powerful beings tasked with… well… really nothing, it’s your job to give your character meaning in a world full of mythical monsters and magic.

I ended up building a character who was a pastiche of a drunken master from a whole bunch of my favorite kung fu movies. Casey, the GM, was a vivid storyteller who led us through the depths of the abyss and back. I had a great time. The system seems a bit overly complicated, but I think the storytelling aspect more than makes up for it.

Next, our wanderings brought us back into the dealer hall. I didn’t spend any money today, but did get to spend some time with the great guys at Big Potato Games. They’re some blokes from England who are just starting to distribute into the US (Target has picked up there games on our side of the pond). I was really taken with their game “Obama Llama,” but I’ll wait to give you some of my more in-depth thoughts about it when I spend more time with it.

Our stomachs then led us to St. Elmo Steakhouse, where the shrimp cocktails flow and the steaks sizzle. The food was good. The staff was friendly. What else can I say? It’s been open in Indianapolis forever, so you should probably just visit it if you’re in town.

Finally, Conquest of the Starlords end our day. Man, I can’t tell you how much I like this game. I suck at strategy, but this one somehow transcends my terribleness into something near-magical. I couldn’t wait to attempt to conquer the galaxy after my failed attempt last year. This year, I came much closer to winning, but we simply ran out of time. Rogue Judges, please put this game to Kickstarter soon. Really. I have my money right here. Just take it.

Now, I’m back at the hotel and ready for bed. See you all tomorrow.

Gen Con Day One: Starships and Superpowers

Our phone alarms went off at the same time: 5:30 AM. I, groggily, got up and limped to the shower. I had pulled a muscle in my foot when I was mowing the lawn a couple days before. It hurt… a lot. But gradually loosened up as I bathed and started moving around. Foot pain and Gen Con don’t really mix very well, but I’d just have to do my best not to whine about it too much.

rabbleI treat day one of Gen Con like a dog treats a new room. I like to look around–figure out the space. Get a feel for the people, the smells, the noises. Learning how to RPG again in a room full of other groups of people playing took some getting used to, for sure.

As we drove to the Indiana Convention Center we got a glimpse of a beautiful sunrise shining through the thin clouds. I had a feeling it was going to be a pretty good day.

The parking situation this year is weird. Gen Con has contracted a company to relieve some of the parking pressure downtown, so we bought a 5-day parking pass. It wasn’t a bad deal–the parking is farther away, but it includes a shuttle service.

Of course, we found out the shuttle service consists of 2-3 buses or vans. It’s not too bad, but there are a lot of people to serve.

So we arrive at the convention center at about 7:15. I get in the press line, and begin talking up Trent from The Board Game Family. It’s his first Gen Con, so he’s come alone to check out the sights, sounds, and overwhelming amount of games. I’ve heard some of his stuff before because of the Dice Tower Network, but I keep it coy. I mean, I’m not really the type to gush over the work people do, but as the conversation went on, I told him that I had heard of his site and the work he’d done, and marveled at the success he was having. I highly doubt he’ll ever read this, but he was a nice dude, and I hope he enjoyed his convention.

Next up was wandering around waiting for…

Mutants & Masterminds.

This is, by far, my favorite RPG. I love superheroes. I love wacky adventure. I love that the system can be tailored to whatever superhero story you want it to be. John and I played Captain Metropolis and Bowman, respectively. Captain Metropolis is to cities what Swamp Thing is to swamps. He’s super amazing. My character, Bowman, is not all that spectacular, but I really enjoy playing underpowered heroes for some reason. It turns out to be a really good time. Bonus points for Steven, our GM, actually showing up to run the game… We’d struck out three years in a row previously.

Next up was a run at the exhibit hall where I bought way too much Pokemon stuff for my kids (and, okay, for myself). If you would’ve told me ten years ago that Pokemon would become a thing in my life again, I would’ve laughed you out of the convention center. But here we are.

Following that, lunch at Circle City Bar and Grille. We got free mugs for being in the first 30 people to ask for one. Free mugs! The food was good, but a bit overpriced.

After realizing that we had misread when our X-wing game was going to take place, we ended up jumping into Empty Epsilon: Multiplayer Starship Bridge Simulator.

The game is really fun, but the presentation was plagued with a lot of first-day issues that seem to creep up when a new group is trying to put a Con game together. There were some networking issues and the staff seemed to be a little frustrated (they were all finding their legs), but we ended up getting grouped with some nice guys from Austin, TX and a guy from right here in Indianapolis, so it worked out okay. Also, we were totally better at running our ship that our co-op bridge crew across the simulation. We’re just that good.

After buying more Pokemon stuff (because I have a problem), we set off for the hotel, where I sit now. I think steak is on the menu tonight, and then we’ll be back to bed to hit Gen Con tomorrow. Hopefully my foot will feel better and I won’t be such a hobbley mess.


Gen Con: Pre-convention Thoughts

Undiscovered CountryPhew. Another year has passed, and I’m about to pack up a bunch of games, snacks, and toiletries and head to Indianapolis for Gen Con. This will be my sixth trip to the largest tabletop gaming convention in this hemisphere. At this point, I feel a bit like an old pro. I know what to expect, I’m not really overwhelmed by the glamor of the whole thing, and I haven’t planned too much.

This year, the convention is bigger than ever: expanding throughout the Indiana Convention Center, all the hotels connected to it, and the Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the Indianapolis Colts) across the street. It’s getting huge. Too huge? I guess we’ll find out.

The group is smaller this year, and that’s fine. As much as I love taking as many people as possible to this gaming Mecca, this year it’s just two, which made planning everything quite  a bit less stressful. It’s a lot easier getting two people into events than 11… or even 4, really. That said, my friends have an open invitation to join me in coming years. The more the merrier.

As per usual, I’ll be bringing you my daily impressions of Gen Con: what I see, who I meet, what I do. This isn’t really a place for breaking gaming news… I’m one guy, and I can’t do that coverage justice. However, I’ll include brief reviews of the stuff I’ll be playing and giving you my recommendations.

Truth be told, I’m really excited this year. I’m excited to see people I only get to really interact with on Facebook. I’m excited to have an organized way to play my favorite games. I’m excited to not have to GM, and I can just enjoy pretending to be a bard-warrior half-elf or whatever.

I’m going to have fun, and I hope you’ll share in a little bit of that with me.

An Ode to an Old Gamertag

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


Spumis in miniature form.

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

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

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

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

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

My Love/Hate Relationship with Card Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The State of the Ship

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

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

Unrelated John Cena Picture


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

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

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

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

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

Gaming Clans Changed the Way I Play

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

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

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


Still big, but 20 lbs. lighter.

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

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







Twitch Isn’t Just Video Games

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

Bob RossBringing the Joy

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

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

Live Entertainment

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

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

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

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


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

Tabletop Gaming

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

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

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

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

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