Category Archives: Tj Johnston

Halo 5 Got Bigger, but Lesser

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

Spoilers are probably ahead. Read at your own risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Taken King Took Me In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Dungeons & Dragons: Out of the Abyss — Review

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

I’m an adult; it happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Humans Love Repetition

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Gen Con Continued: Wrath of Con

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Itchy Face — Before Gen Con 2015

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

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

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

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

When a Man Loves a Batman

BAKI am Batman.

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

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

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

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


The Blind and the Bold: Marvel’s Daredevil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gemstone in the Rough

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

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

But this was the turning point.

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

“What is this?” I asked.

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

Mind. Blown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gemstone IV

Knotwind fights a mutant crab.


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The Arrow’s Greatest Weakness

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

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

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

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

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



Rocky Balboa and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Game Life

One of my first conscious memories?

One of my first conscious memories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I immediately got rid of the game.

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

3.)I understand the importance of having fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hero Forge: How I’m Going to be Wasting My Life

Hero Forge launched this week, and it’s probably going to kill my productivity for awhile. If you haven’t heard, Hero Forge is a business based around the 3D printing of custom miniatures that you design on their website. It can be pricey (the cheapest mini is $15), but for something custom, it might just be worth the cost.

The 15 dollars minis are good for normal table play, but are a little more difficult to paint. For a good quality, paintable version, you’re going to have to pay a little more.

If you’re a tabletop gaming fan, I suggest you check out Hero Forge. I’ve been waiting for this kind of tool for a long time. Here’s a selection of minis I made.

HeroForgeScreenshot(1) HeroForgeScreenshot(2) HeroForgeScreenshot(1) HeroForgeScreenshot(3) HeroForgeScreenshot HeroForgeScreenshot(5) HeroForgeScreenshot(4) HeroForgeScreenshot(2)

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Warhammer_fantasy_roleplay_coverI needed a roleplaying game to play while a portion of my main group is off doing some real life important stuff, so I pulled out an old favorite of mine: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd Edition).

My history with Warhammer is a lengthy one. I’ve never played the tabletop wargame (though, I wish I could. I’m just too cheap), but I’ve read many of the books. John asked me one day to come play the game with him and some of his friends, and I fell in love with the system.

It’s just so simple. The mechanic is percentile dice. Roll 2 d10s (or a d100 if you are a snob), and try to roll lower than the number on your character sheet plus modifiers.

It’s easy, but it has so much depth. There are, literally, dozens of careers for your character, all with different abilities and skills. They even have a system where you can randomize EVERYTHING about your character, even down to distinguishing marks (like a bald spot or a snaggle tooth).

I ran a small group of just two characters. They decided to play dwarves, and our journey into the grim world of dark fantasy began.

Dark fantasy. Did I mention how dark the game can be? The setting is a gloomy one, for sure. Think of middle-earth and Grimm’s fairy tales/Hans Christian Anderson’s tales had a baby… but then throw in every superstition you can think of from the middle ages and make it real… and that’s basically Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Your character will probably die a horrible death… but it’s the adventure that counts, right? Not the ending.

As a DM, this setting gives me a lot of opportunities not to screw over my players, per se, but to bait them using common roleplaying fantasy tropes. For instance, I gave the dwarves a magic sword that they needed to present to the dwarven king in order to save their town. They were explicitly told NOT TO USE THE SWORD, but RPGers being RPGers, they used the sword.

Which disintegrated their enemies, but also turned to dust. So now they have no magic sword to present to the dwarven king in order to save their town. Should be fun seeing how they pull this little caper off. I’ll keep you updated.

If you can find a copy of WFRP 2nd edition, pick it up! It’s really great.

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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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Sweet Simplicity–Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

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

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

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


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When Players Are in Control

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

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

Enter Star Wars Combine.

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

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

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

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

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

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When Activities Become Lifestyles

ticket to ride

Proof that games were made for everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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