Category Archives: Featured

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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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.

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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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.

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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Dungeon Master’s Guide Review

DnD_DMGThe Dungeon Master’s Guide is always my favorite book of any edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  My established role at the roleplaying game table evolved into running games a long time ago, and I like the tools that the Dungeons Master’s Guide has historically provided. Back in college, I would use the third edition DM Guide to build fantastic worlds for my players (I was a massive dork, I know.). I’m afraid that if you looked through my Psych 301 notes, you would find sketches of cities, dungeons, and continents complete with “here be dragons” style areas to entice adventurers.

The Dungeons Master’s Guide for the fifth edition of D&D is a good starting point for new DMs. About half the book is dedicated to teaching a Dungeon Master how to build a campaign setting, an adventure, and how to string them all together. This section is liberally sprinkled with tables that help you randomize everything from dungeons to villains to what buildings are in a village. Also included are tips for the actual management of the game experience: ways to keep the game moving, how to deal with difficult players, and even the best way to roll dice.

As an experienced DM, I don’t really need tips on how to create campaigns or how to keep the game enjoyable for everyone at the table, but I appreciate the randomized tables and how they can streamline things when (not if) players go off the beaten path. Gone are the days when I would have to take a lengthy break to figure out what is going to happen next while I hide in another room. Everyone will appreciate the added game time at the tabletop.

My favorite part of the book, though, is the lengthy list of treasure. The Player’s Handbook was woefully lacking in magical items, but the DM guide rectifies that with nearly 100 pages of goodies. I’m going to have so much stuff to reward and plague my players with! And the treasure tables are super useful. I love giving out randomized treasure, so having lots of tables I can roll on to determine rewards is so great.

You know, as I’m looking at the overall picture of fifth edition, I’m ecstatic that I’ll be able to play the game without a laptop or an app on my phone. I love having a large toolbox to use right out of the books. I  dislike playing from behind a computer because it creates a mental separation between the players and the DM. I want to be “in the fray” with the people who are playing the game.

For people who want to play Dungeons and Dragons, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a must-have manual. For a new group of players who are trying out Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, this book is a good primer for how to run and play the game. For D&D and RPG fans of all kinds, this is a recommended release. You can find the Dungeon Master’s Guide at your friendly neighborhood gaming store (and other book stores) on December 9th.

 A review copy of the Dungeons Master’s Guide was provided to The Cool Ship by Wizards of the Coast.


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Terminator: Still Waiting on Judgment Day

Remember the early nineties when most everything was great, and we only had two Terminator movies? Two films about time traveling cyborgs trying to change the future by altering the past. Terminator and Terminator 2 were a rare offering in film: a story in two parts with a complete resolution. When Terminator 2 closes we are given a complete story, an ending. Somewhere along the way the series ceased to be “self aware” and in pursuit of an ongoing franchise started pumping out sequels that made me wish Skynet had just wiped us all out in the nuclear fire in 1997.

Image property of 20th Century Fox

Image property of 20th Century Fox

After Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines succeeded in making little sense and less money, the franchise took a break. A break that many of us thought would last forever. However once the dust settled someone realized that since the continuity was already fractured Fox could do whatever they wanted. Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles did the only logical thing, operating in the space between Terminator 2 and 3 allowed  the showrunners to explore the importance of John Conner’s mother. The show wasn’t perfect, but if there had to be additional stories wrung out of the original concept at least original writer and director James Cameron was involved with the project.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles lasted for 2 seasons. After the 2nd season ended in a fascinating cliffhanger, it was canceled. Not because the numbers were bad, but to avoid confusion with the new prequel/reboot Terminator: Salvation.  This movie sought to explain what no one cared about; how did Skynet construct the Terminators and make them look human?

If you haven’t put it together this rant is building to a new rant about a new film in the franchise due out in July.  The poorly titled Terminator: Genisys, because when Skynet took over all of our computer systems spellcheck wasn’t compatible.  Genisys sounds so unbelievably terrible that it will most likely do this dead horse of a franchise in, despite the fact it has been optioned as the beginning of a new trilogy of films.

Terminator: Genisys is expected to begin with John Conner sending the Arnold Schwarzenegger  model terminator back in time to look after his mother as a teenager. With that one sentence we have effectively destroyed the only  two movies worth watching in this entire series. This won’t be the tidy universe creation of the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Oh and how does the model T-800 look so old? Time travel aging his organic tissue. Gotcha. makes perfect sense. Especially give how awful the one film without Schwarzenegger turned out. Even director Mcg saw the problem and created the CGI puppet seen in the films climax.

I think I feel worst of all for former Doctor Who star Matt Smith. This is Smith’s first mainstream American film role, and it is going to be in a terrible movie. Casting Smith at first gave me a shred of hope, but that has passed. Now I can only pray that this franchise can and will “self terminate”

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Go See Interstellar

Insterstellar. Look, tinterstellar.thm_he title doesn’t say it all, but it gets the broad strokes. Every few years Christopher Nolan drops a special treat on us, and this film is no different.

The visuals are amazing, the scope is epic and the music is… Hans Zimmer because Zimmer is to Nolan what Elfman is to Burton. Zimmer knocks it out of the park with the score. Chris Nolan has a way of turning interesting concepts into gripping, engaging plots that never seem gimmicky (see Out Of Time) while serving the narrative–instead of the other way around.

Granted, this is a Nolan film, which means there are plot holes. And any Nolan fan worth her salt knows romance isn’t ever a strong point. And any Batman fan knows the fight scenes aren’t all that engaging. Nolan has always been more interested in what the fight is about symbolically and literally than what it looks like. I’ve never gotten why it can’t be both, but whatever.

Nolan, true to form, creates a film that overcomes or sidesteps most of these problems while doing cool new things. Without getting too spoilery, I love the robots in this movie, aside from an unintuitively useful design (shocked they were so useful). I always get a little bummed when the machines turn evil or have a duplicitous function. I like thinking that robots can assist humanity in exploration rather than just infect us with xenomorph semen.

And there’s a lot of stuff just under the surface. Themes about family play against ideas of humanity’s abstract future, and there’s more than a hint of spiritual metaphysics playing against a very specific scientific ideas. And more than a few ideas about man’s struggle against his own inner demons. Not to mention all of the homages to other great science fiction. And that suspense, right? I was on the edge of my seat the whole movie.

So yeah, go see Interstellar.

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Dungeons and Dragons: Tyranny of Dragons Adventure Path

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Cover Art

I’m not a huge fan of published adventures in general because I really enjoy the world-building aspect of DMing and making a campaign. That said, I’ve run some Kobold Press adventures before and enjoyed their focus on mission-based storytelling, rather than the classic dungeon crawl.

When the books in the Tyranny of Dragons adventure path (Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat) came to my door, I was excited to look them over, and to eventually run them.

The first thing I noticed, as I tend to do when flipping through RPG books, is the art. And wow, it’s really great in these books. Like the D&D books that came before it, the covers are absolutely gorgeous, and the art inside deftly treads the line between overbearingly realistic and overly cartoony.

The Rise of Tiamat - Cover Art(1)

The adventures in these books will advance your player’s characters from levels one to fifteen as they investigate an evil dragon cult that seeks to resurrect its terrible dragon-god.

For the most part, the adventures are well-written and easy to follow. I like the mission structures quite a bit, and as an experienced DM, they’re easy to understand and to run quickly without a whole lot of preparation.

The settings are pretty fantastic, and you will go through mountains, floating fortresses, frozen wastes, and just about everything in between. Good settings are essential for great campaigns and these venues are sure to stir excitement among your player characters.

In the appendices, you’ll find MOST of the information you’ll need for these adventures, including magic items and monsters. The offerings seem pretty sparse, though, from the D&D I’m used to. I kind of miss having an overabundance of magic items around. However, you’ll still need the free pdfs from the Dungeons and Dragons website to get the full experience of these products. Personally, I think that’s a bit of an oversight, but it’s probably a minor one. It’s easy enough to put a pdf on your iPad or Kindle.

All in all, I think the Tyranny of Dragons line of adventures are competently written and the art is beautiful. I would recommend them, but I think a moderately experienced DM is probably needed to run these adventures. I’m not sure if they are intuitive enough to run without having played before. Actually, I think I’m going to discuss just that in my next article.

The Tyranny of Dragons path is a strong start to the Wizards of the Coast’s adventures for the new edition of D&D. I’m excited to world-build, but I’ll definitely be running these adventures for my friends. Now, let’s go out there and slay some dragons!

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I’ll Miss You, Xbox 360

My Xbox 360’s disc drive finally died. I’m one of those lucky people who only had to replace their old, fat, white Xbox 360 once (because of the infamous red ring of death), so that Xbox 36o has been my gaming companion since before the birth of my son over five years ago.

It’s weird. I’ve been playing my Wii U a lot more lately, but I’d been missing first-person shooters, especially Halo, a lot lately. And then, I suddenly couldn’t play any of my discs. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, I guess. Like Cinderella said:

Luckily, the old Xbox has a large hard drive on it, so I have a lot of downloadable games on it, so that’s nice. But, I used the Xbox as my primary DVD player… so I can’t watch DVDs right now either. And I’m sick… and my sick tradition is to watch all the Lord of the Rings films.

I’m not going to replace it. I’ll save up the money and eventually upgrade to the Xbox One, but I wanted to take a moment to thank that old Xbox 360. You’ve been a good friend, and you’ll be missed.



Dungeons & Dragons — Monster Manual Review

“Apprehensively excited” would be how you could describe my reaction to the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I participated in the public playtest, but it didn’t really electrify me in any way. The Player’s Handbook, though, got me wanting to play D&D again, and the new Monster Manual really has me chomping at the bit to roll some dice with friends.

The first thing I noticed when opening up the new Monster Manual was how pretty it is. Wizards of the Coast really went all out when it comes to illustrating the monsters. The art walks the fine line of keeping the monsters somewhere between realistic and cartoony, and I think it’s a perfect design aesthetic for the game. The monsters aren’t off-putting, but they aren’t adorable, either.

Monster ManualI would be remiss to not mention the great cover image of the legendary beholder attacking a group of adventurers who stumbled into its lair. That picture alone makes me want to jump into the game as soon as possible.

This is also the first Monster Manual in awhile that made me actually want to read the lore portions. Generally, I just want a bestiary with a bunch of stat blocks that I can use in my game, but I was engrossed while reading about the giants, drow, and dragons. Some story hooks emerged in my mind while reading the flavor text, so the writers really did their work well in that regard. It’s more than just a rulebook, and I appreciate that.

Each monster feels basically unique, too. There weren’t many times when I felt like a creature was basically a reskin of another creature. Most monsters have unique abilities that set them apart. Again, that’s super helpful for people who are running a game and want to keep things fresh.

The selection of monsters is pretty decent; though, I considered complaining about the 33 pages or so of dragons, but then I remembered what the name of the game was.  The system (right now) seems more heavily weighted towards early game, with most of the monsters being challenge level five or under. (Challenge level is a quick metric of how powerful a monster is. A challenge level of one means that four level one characters should have a decent challenge when encountering the creature).

I tend to think that RPGs get really interesting after level five. While there’s plenty for adventures of mid-to-high level to battle, I wish WotC would’ve dropped some of the lesser-known, low-level monsters for some more advanced creatures. That’s a minor quibble, though. A good DM shouldn’t have any problems crafting unique adventures with what’s there. (And what’s there is A LOT. There are over 400 creatures in the book.)

Speaking of high-level monsters, I love the “legendary” monster rules. Monsters like the Tarrasque have “legendary actions” that afford them extra actions that they can perform after another creature’s turn. Maybe they can attack, or stomp on your adventurer, stuff like that. It’s a great idea and kind of breaks the game in favor of “boss” creatures. I really like that for some reason. Maybe because it reminds me of the final battle in a Final Fantasy game.

If you were wondering if the new version of Dungeons & Dragons was worth playing, I think this Monster Manual could be just the thing to heighten your desire to play the game. Head to your friendly local game store and check it out; I think you’ll find that D&D is back with a vengeance. With the Monster Manual, Wizards of the Coast strove for greatness, and I think they hit their target.

The Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons releases on September 30th. The Cool Ship was given an early review copy of the book.

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Gen Con: Day 3 – A Little Bit of Weird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Mastering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Charting a New Course

transparent ships bigHey everyone,

It’s been awhile… hasn’t it. A lot of life changes were happening for a lot of us, so we went away for a little bit.

But now we’re back.

And we’re doing things a little more simply now. You’ll notice the look of the site has changed. I’m sure it will undergo further revisions as we discuss (argue?!) and refine what we’re doing here.

Who are we? Oh. Yeah, maybe I should reintroduce us.

I’m Tj. I’m the guy that generally takes care of The Cool Ship and tries to keep the ol’ girl on course. John and Rob have been here since the inception (bwaaaaam) of the site. Gabrielle is here, too. And Mr. J. Fortune. And more! I’d encourage you to go back through the archives and read some of our stuff. I think you’ll find that it’s generally pretty good, and you’ll get a good feel for what we’re doing here. We’re just people with opinions, writing in our own little corner of the Internet.

Come along with us.


Farewell, Ultimate Warrior

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually watched any sort of professional wrestling and an even longer time since I actually enjoyed it. It’s nowhere near as great as it used to be, just a hollow shell of the massively spectacular extravaganza that it once was. Today, the “sport” is nothing but an over-the-top, testosterone-fueled, overly dramatic soap opera filled with 2nd rate actors and models who showboat more than they actually wrestle. It’s like if Days of Our Lives was filmed at a gym and they threw in some T&A. I won’t waste my time anymore.

Hulk knows who the real champ is.

Hulk knows who the real champ is.

When I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to be able to witness the better days of wrestling. I was able to witness the awesomeness of Macho Man Randy Savage, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Jake the Snake, Sgt. Slaughter, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and many other greats. They were the true artists of the sport, back when it was truly a sport. And one of the greatest ever to step into the ring was the Ultimate Warrior. The man was legendary from the very beginning. He was all muscle, mayhem, and neon face paint. He stood down from no challenge, he feared no opponent. He was a larger-than-life personality with the wrestling skills to match. He WAS wrestling. In my honest opinion, he was greater than even Hulk Hogan.

Sadly, the world has lost this legendary figure. Warrior passed away on Tuesday, just days after being inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. His induction speech seems quite ominous now, “No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, it makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized.”

We lost Andre the Giant, then Owen Hart, then Mr. Perfect, then Macho Man, and now the Ultimate Warrior. It truly is a sad day for what was once an incredible sport. I like to think that all the wrestling legends we’ve lost are wrestling each other somewhere out there in the great beyond.

R.I.P Warrior. You will forever be missed.


[image source: WWE]

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Working Through the Process of Buying a New Computer

The first thing you will notice if you haven’t bought a computer in a few years is that there are a lot more options than there once were. Buying a computer today is far more complicated than just choosing between a desktop and a laptop, as it were 10 years ago, or choosing between Mac and PC.

When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, the initial reaction by many in the tech industry was simply skepticism. Obviously, the consumer voice was far less hesitant to embrace the new technology and since that time we’ve been fortunate to undergo a tremendously innovative four years of tech releases: particularly in the PC realm.

Your choices for computing now are more cluttered than ever: laptop, tablet, desktop, laptop convertible, laptop hybrid, docked tablet, portable desktop, smartphone, or simply trying to survive off the wire. But, who am I kidding, that last option is hardly an option at all any more.

I recently underwent this process for the first time in two years when my apartment was broken into and my laptop stolen. For the first time in nearly five years, I was not decided on a product before shopping. Competition is a lovely thing, but man does it make for more of a headache when making a purchasing decision.

For a large number of consumers, Macs have become the obvious safe choice. My experience over the last week confirm this. The build quality, screen quality, performance, and particularly battery life remain at the top of the industry. But, where Apple was once the pinnacle of innovation, a thirsty resurging company reclaiming consumer confidence for the first time in two decades, they have lost a step and began to churn out one slightly more refined product after the next.

I was surprised while doing my shopping to find that the PC market is actually booming with innovation right now. Whereas PC hardware manufacturers such as HP, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Samsung, and others were once backseat to the build quality executed by Apple – who control both software and hardware from the top down – the trend I noticed, above the $1,000 price range, was one of build quality and innovation. Of course, the budget PCs remain questionable at best and, while I’m happy those options exist, any consumer would be better fitted to save their money for a better day when they can really make a reliable purchase.

One of my primary complaints I have always had with PC laptops were the quality of the trackpad. Upon demoing a number of units in store, I am confident that the big players have finally figured out how to make them usable within the Windows interface. Even more rewarding, many of moved to touch screens, which conceptually seem questionable but in practice are simply brilliant. Windows 8 and 8.1 have retooled themselves to handle this feature and the user experience is benefiting greatly as a result.

I wonder how long it might be before Apple releases a touch screen enabled MacBook Pro or Air. While those pulling for Team Mac often scoff at the half-hearted efforts by Microsoft to regain the trust of consumers, I can’t help but wonder how many have bothered to play around with one of these machines.

Take for example the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2. Recently spotted at a Best Buy configured with a 1.8 ghz i7 processor, 8GB of ram, a 256 GB SSD, and a gorgeous 13” 3200×1800 display measuring less than an inch thick and just three pounds in weight. Those specs, on paper, will perk any tech enamored person’s ears, but it gets sweeter when you realize that the laptop folds back into a tablet, in addition to two other usability modes, and that the OS actually handles these transitions seamlessly. Most alarming, interacting with the machine in any of the modes, by keyboard, by touchscreen, by trackpad, or by voice is simply a joy.

Where Apple once cultivated the hearts and imaginations of those looking for a better product, Microsoft has stepped up and encouraged a growth of products that capture the “what ifs” of the “next big thing”.

I’ll admit, the initial batch of Windows 8 machines brought on no shortage of justified scrutiny; but, like so many other 1st generation iterations they were followed up by polished products with a real place in the consumer market. The hybrids, convertibles, and tablets (namely, the Surface Pro 2) are polished and perform incredibly well stacked against any Mac opposition.

Which, truthfully, is what saddens me the most. Microsoft did this to themselves, and far be it from me to feel sorrow for a multi-billion dollar multi-national company losing money each quarter, as a consumer I feel sorrow because the work being done, largely unnoticed by many of those in the market for these machines, invites the idea that competition may suffer as a result and competition is a good thing.

With all of the good things happening, and despite my criticisms of Apple playing it safe, we must admit that the strategy of producing a consistent and reliable – if uninnovative – product bodes well for the long-term growth of the company. The process of deciphering the dozens of options in the PC market before choosing a new computer was grueling. But, by engaging in this process, no matter how painful it was, I was forced to examine each feature, each pro, and each con and, as a result, I was able to better determine the exact kind of device I needed.

Best of all, was that due to the many offerings, I found a computer that fit my precise need.

I wanted something that could be used as a tablet, but I was primarily concerned with a functioning laptop. I wanted something that boasted a good battery life with a good screen and good performance; but was willing to sacrifice dedicated video and substantial storage space for form factor and mobility. I wanted something that could browse the web, watch Ted Talks and check Facebook, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to edit and build an Access database and update a website.

What came from that was a 13” laptop that folds into a tablet, has a tent mode to be used as a streaming media device, and folds out to one of the more enjoyable keyboard and trackpad experiences I’ve had on a PC laptop. Four years ago, this wasn’t even an option; in fact, many consumers were still wrapping their heads around the concept of what a tablet was.

What I’ve seen, by many of my friends, is a fear of the number of options and an unwillingness to explore the market because it is just too overwhelming. However, consumers should welcome the opportunity they have to spend two weeks bashing their heads against their desks reading tech reviews and blog opinions. Scrolling through various manufacturers’ options and checking their various configurations. Then getting mad and walking away from it frustrated with a hopeless feeling that they may never be able to make up their mind.

For nearly three decades, there has been one clear leader in home computing. Although that leader has shifted from time to time, the choice has been mostly obvious as to who was out in front in the consumer market at any given moment. For the first time in my lifetime, we are in an era where multiple massively sized companies have tremendous options that will work in a polished way that does not evoke needless frustration as though you’re competing against the tech you rely upon.

When I told folks I was shopping for a new computer their response was, “Get a Mac”. When someone asks me, my response will be, “Go play with every computer you can get your hands on, write down all the features you want, all the ones you can do without, set a price range and – believe it or not – more than likely there will actually be an option out there for you”.

I’ve never been able to give that advice before, but man it feels good.

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The Cool Ship Has a Music Lounge?!

I haven’t written about anything music related in a while, and I’ve been in a musical mood lately (not “musical” as in musicals but “musical” as in music, if that makes sense), so I thought I’d write something music oriented.

First off, I wanna talk about Queens of the Stone Age. Seriously, one of my favorite bands of all time. They are the quintessential rock band, no doubt about it. Each member oozes rock ‘n roll swagger and musical excellence with every note they play or lyric they sing. And their appearance on Austin City Limits is a prime example of that. If you haven’t seen in yet, you’re missing out. Take a gander and find out why they’re so amazing.

Are you hooked?

Yeah, you’re hooked. (If not, get out)

And if you’re digging them, check out Josh Homme’s (the frontman) other projects: Kyuss, The Desert Sessions, Eagles of Death Metal, and Them Crooked Vultures. Oh, and there’s this:

Next, I was trying to think of a top five list of mainstream bands that would make incredibly kick-ass wedding bands, but the my thought process in stuck on one band, Powerman 5000. How freaking sweet would that be?! You sit through the wedding, head to the reception, if you’re lucky there’s an open bar, the music kicks in, and BAM…PM5K starts rockin’ the stage! It would be the only time I would enjoy listening to the Chicken Dance.

Or at least, their cover of Devo’s “Whip It”

Finally, any music project Phil Anselmo is a part of is beyond badass and will definitely have my approval. His newest project is no exception. Philip Anselmo & the Illegals’ Walk Through Exits Only is a heavy metal masterpiece. Raw, brutal, and unabashedly blunt, it’s one of the best metal albums of 2013. I hope he plans to continue with this solo project because I foresee even greater things coming from it in the future. It feels like an invigoratingly new Anselmo. Not that his recent work with Down is lacking anything, it’s just a different vibe, a different energy.

I miss Pantera as much as the next metal head, but Dimebag is gone and it doesn’t look like Phil and Vinnie are ever gonna reconcile, so any new music that Phil makes is gonna have to fill that void. And he’s doing a damn fine job of it, a much better job than Vinnie Paul’s band, Hellyeah.

What music is tickling your fancy lately? Leave your comments in the comment section.

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What The Cool Ship is Thankful For

We here at The Cool Ship would like to take a moment from our hectic holiday schedules and tell all our wonderful readers what we give thanks for.

Rob A.

I am incredibly thankful for my outstanding wife and daughter, who fill my heart and soul with such love and joy everyday of my life. For the wonderful family that was included in the deal when I got married. They’re an unbelievably welcoming and caring group of people, who have accepted me as one of the family since day one. A guy couldn’t ask for better. For my family on my dad’s side, who are there for me no matter what, always supporting and loving. For my true friends, the ones who are there through thick and thin. For my fellow Cool Shippers because you gotta have a great crew to pilot a ship this awesome. For Doctor Who (no joke), because I’m sure many of you out there will understand, it truly does bring such wonder and magic and feels of all kinds into your life. Doctor Who isn’t just a show, Doctor Who is a way of life. I’m thankful that I’m happy, healthy, and able to take care of my family. I’d be more thankful if I had a better job but this isn’t the time to complain. And last but certainly not least, I’m thankful for all of you, the readers. Without you, we’d have no reason to keep doing this, day in, day out. Seriously, without readers, we’d just be keeping an online journal that no one reads. So thank you for your continued support. You guys are the best!

J. Fortune

I am thankful for my wife and son (soon to be sons!!) and the blessed life we lead. I am thankful to live in a country where I can write, read, or say whatever I please, and for the men and women who have made, and continue to make that possible. I am thankful that because of pizza and other fine Italian foods we need not question the existence of our Creator or His love for us. Finally, for entertainment. For the idea we as a nation have time to sit and stare at art that has been created simply for our appreciation (or in my case critique), I am truly thankful. Have a fantastic holiday.

Colleen K.

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for this year. I mean, I do every year, but this year stands out. I’m thankful to my husband, my friends, my family, The Cool Ship staff, and the thousands of people around the world who supported my catcalling campaign with Hollaback!. (Not sure what I’m talking about? Catch up here and here.) I’m glad that I have a job that I like. I’m glad I work from home meaning that I never really have to change out of yoga pants unless I’m leaving the house and not on my way to yoga in which case I put on jeans.

I’m grateful that my first full year of marriage was like a “Get Psyched” mix tape made by Barney Stinson – it just gets even more awesome the more you get into it.

And I’m grateful to the readers of The Cool Ship. You guys are intelligent, funny, and a wonderful community who I am glad to write for. A toast to you!


I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had this year: From meeting folks at Gen Con to expanding my freelance career, this has been a good 12 months.

I am, of course, thankful for my wife and my kids, all of whom can drive me crazy, or amaze me, but still gift to me the love and support I so desperately need.

I’m thankful for The Cool Ship. It gives me a creative outlet and lets me write about the extremely dorky things I love, like board games.

I’m thankful for my friends. Whether we talk every day or go months without speaking, I am immensely grateful for the people who are close to me.

I am thankful for the massive amounts of food I am going to consume tomorrow. Much like Galactus destroys planets, I plan on destroying turkey like I was the last survivor of the previous universe who was chosen to become a demigod that keeps the cosmic balance by eating turkey.

Finally, I am thankful for whoever reads this. Seriously, God bless you and yours. I hope that  the next 12 months will be better than the previous. Thank you.

For one for all - high fives!!!!! [Gif courtesy of]

For one for all – high fives!!!!! [Gif courtesy of]

From all of us, here at The Cool Ship, have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

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