Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The New Star Wars Trailer

I watched the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, during halftime of he awful New York Giants/Philadelphia Eagles game on Monday night. I didn't have much of an immediate reaction to it, though I formed one idle speculation. It was only after reading some of the other online reaction that I decided to write about it.

It looks like the big debate is about why Luke Skywalker doesn't appear in this trailer, given that we know Mark Hamill is signed for all three new films. The two most plausible explanations for this absence are a) Luke is only peripherally involved in The Force Awakens and will be more prominent in the next two films, and b) Luke is Kylo Ren, the guy in the Darth-Vader-like suit talking to Vader's cremated head.

I find myself firmly behind Theory B. Given that the events of the first three films seem to be the subject of rumor and speculation in the Star Wars universe ("There are stories..."), how many people would know exactly where to go on Endor to find Vader's cremated body and recover his head? Of those, how many would be Force users? Also, as much as I like to forget The Phantom Menace, I do remember that the prophecy about Anakin Skywalker was that he would "restore balance to the Force," not ensure the dominance of the "light" side. In that sense, Luke may be giving himself over to the Dark Side temporarily for a larger cause. If this is the case, we might be looking at a more interesting, morally ambiguous take on a franchise that has always seemed black and white. Is this too much to hope for from Disney?

Of course, there are other ways in which one could bring balance to the Force. The prequels paint a picture of a Force divided into two camps: the passionate but destructive Dark Side, represented by the Sith; and a light side, represented by the Jedi, that has lost all sense of empathy and has become increasingly manipulative. It can be argued that the reason Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side is because none of the Jedi can relate to him as a human being; they can only tell him that whatever he is feeling is wrong. This trend continues in the original trilogy when Yoda can't empathize with Luke's fear for Han and Leia, but merely tells him that he must stay "if [he] value[s] what they fight for." Meanwhile, Obi Wan shows his amoral side by using mind control to force people to make better life choices. This amoral streak will later show up in the form of lying to Luke about his parentage and then declaring that his lies were true "from a certain point of view." Thus, the light side has lost much of its humanity and is in danger of losing its moral compass. Maybe the balance that needs to be restored is between empathy and intellect. Of course, this kind of distinction is probably too subtle to make it into a Disney film, given that it's mostly (perhaps unintentional) subtext in the earlier movies.

Now on to some of the things I liked and disliked about the trailer. I liked the fact that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan ignored George Lucas's silly galaxy-wide celebration of the Emperor's death at the end of the special edition of Return of the Jedi. The expanded universe presented a more plausible situation where the Empire doesn't just die because the Emperor's dead, and the new movies appear to portray a post-Endor galaxy more in that mold. Actually, it would be more realistic for the galaxy to split into more than two factions after the events of RotJ, but simplicity has been the trademark of the Star Wars franchise, so I understand the unwillingness to have a multipolar universe.

I also like that the black stormtrooper of the earlier trailers seems to be the main Force-wielding protagonist of the new movie. The thought of all those internet racists crying and spewing into their beer and Mountain Dew warms my heart.

What I don't like is that it looks like there's a lazy repetition to the storyline. We seem to have another story of a developing Force user (though this one is a veteran ex-stormtrooper instead of a naive farmboy). The story starts on Tatooine and ends somewhere forested. There even seems to be a new Death Star on the new poster. All of these bits of deja vu make me nervous, especially since the last time J.J. Abrams decided to reimagine the glory days of a franchise, the result was Star Trek Into Darkness. While STID wasn't a horrible movie, the worst parts of it were its attempts to parallel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Pathfinder Online in Trouble

Tenkar's Tavern has linked to an announcement from Paizo CEO Lisa Stevens about the future of Pathfinder Online. The future doesn't look good. While Goblinworks, the company created to produce the MMO, is still working on development versions of the game, most of the staff has been let go and Ryan Dancey has resigned as CEO and been replaced by Stevens. While Dancey's departure appears to be for personal reasons, the massive layoffs do not bode well for the future of the game.

Since I don't play MMOs, I only find this news interesting for what it says about the ability of tabletop RPGs to translate to MMOs and vice versa. D&D Online has never really taken off, though it seems to have had a dedicated cult following. And that appears to be the most successful crossover attempt between the two genres. The World of Warcraft tabletop RPG doesn't appear to have been spectacularly successful, and now this effort seems on the verge of going belly up. Do these two kinds of game mix in any way, shape, or form?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Vurt: A New Cypher System Game

Monte Cook Games published a blog post promoting a new RPG called Vurt, based on MCG's Cypher System. The game is set in a world where people can ingest feathers that take them to imagined worlds.

I'm on the fence about this development. On the one hand, I'm not entirely sure how this setting is that much different from that of The Strange, one of MCG's major Cypher System games. On the other, I'm encouraged by the idea of third-party games for the Cypher System. The only thing I would like better would be if the core rules for that system were released under an open license, allowing other publishers to freely make games for it without going to Monte Cook Games for permission. Though Monte Cook was one of the lead designers of D&D 3rd Edition, which was the first game released under the OGL, I haven't seen any signs of this happening.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Movie Review -- The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Minor Spoilers)

I liked The Avengers, though not as much as many others. I felt that it (perhaps unavoidably) ignored the character development that had defined the other Marvel Studios movies and the best superhero films in favor of action. The main arc in terms of the characters’ relationships to each other was the team’s struggle to overcome their bickering and work together as a team to defeat a powerful enemy.

The good news is that there is more character development in the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron. Among the protagonists, the relationship between Black Widow and the Hulk is explored, we learn more about Hawkeye’s background and his life outside of the team, and the complex personal failings of Tony Stark/Iron Man play a central role in the plot.

There are also a few new wrinkles, though they are arguably underexplored. First is the question of whether artificial intelligence should be created, and what kind of care should be taken in that endeavor. You can argue that the creation of the titular villain Ultron replays the issues with the creation of Frankenstein’s monster in the space of a few minutes. In both cases, a new intelligence is created by someone who has underestimated the complexity of the process and their responsibilities to guide their creation (in the case of this movie, because the creator is too busy partying). The creation of another new character, the Vision, raises all sorts of potential questions about what qualifies an entity as a living being and whether living beings have the right to live, but these questions are never really explored (or even asked). After all, the movie was running long and Joss Whedon was contractually obligated to include a certain number of action sequences.

Unfortunately, Age of Ultron repeats a lot of the motifs of the first movie. The most noticeable example is repeating the sequence of an outside force manipulating the Avengers to bicker among themselves, forcing them to discover the value of working as a team. This angle was so prominently played up that it gave me a sense of deja vu. It is the single biggest weakness of the movie. What’s worse is that, with two-thirds of the team replaced at the end of this film, we can probably look forward to seeing this kind of arc repeated in the third installment, as the new members learn the value of working as a team. Captain America seems to be setting that up in the final scene....

Overall, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an enjoyable movie, though it sometimes feels less like a sequel than like the first movie remade and done better.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: White Star

This week saw the release of White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, by James Spahn, published by Barrel Rider Games. It has already become a bestseller at RPGnow, apparently shooting up to Electrum status (however many units sold that means) incredibly quickly. It's safe to say it's the most popular OSR product to come out recently.

What's all the fuss about, you might ask. The game's biggest selling point is that it faithfully recreates tropes from classic sci-fi movies from the late 20th Century, the time period when many old-school gamers were growing up. I use the shortened form "sci-fi" for a reason. The game's seven core classes owe a great deal to the original three Star Wars movies (now known as Episodes IV-VI), and that influence means there are a lot of low-level fantasy elements.

White Star is based on the Swords and Wizardry Whitebox Version, so it uses only a few classes, a few of which are actually races. The human classes are:
       Aristocrat (Princess Leia)
       Mercenary (no obvious equivalent among the Star Wars heroes, though one reviewer has suggested Boba Fett)
       Pilot (Han Solo)
       Star Knight (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker after finishing his Jedi training)

There are also three non-human classes:
       Alien Brute (Chewbacca)
       Alien Mystic (A less powerful Yoda)
       Robot (the droids, obviously)

The two alien classes are meant to be broad-based, so it's up to the player whether their hulking brute has fur or scales or a hard shell, for example. by contrast, the robot class is divided into three subtypes with specific abilities.

Both the Star Knight and the Alien Mystic gain powers (called Meditations for Star Knights and Gifts for the Mystics) that are prepared and spent like D&D spells, though the effects are all fairly subtle and small-scale. However, the GM can always eliminate these two classes to play a science-fiction game without magical or psionic effects.

There is also a brief list of aliens and creatures, who fill the function of monsters in old-school D&D. Most of the aliens are thinly disguised versions of races from sources like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who. The creatures are somewhat more original, though a few (like the sandworm) are instantly recognizable from famous sci-fi works.
Your opinion of this game will depend on how you feel about the rules-lightest of OSR offerings . If you're content to have many aspects of the game hand-waved with phrases like "whatever fits the style of the campaign," with little guidance on what campaign style considerations might go with what rules, you'll probably like White Star. If you need more guidance from a ruleset, you may want to try another game or look for supplemental rules systems from other sources. I find myself somewhere in between, loving the flav or of the rules and itching to design not only my own settings, but my own subsystems to fill in the gaps.

If you like the system, the core book also includes a short sample setting (including one reasonably detailed space sector) and a prewritten adventure, allowing you to jump into running a session right away. This kind of value added in the base product makes White Star a bargain at $9.99 for the PDF, at least for a certain kind of gamer.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Designer's Epiphany in MegaTraveller

I bought the basic "Player's Collection" of the MegaTraveller Bundle of Holding, because I can actually afford the $5.95 minimum price. This version of the bundle includes the three core rulebooks (Player's Manual, Referee's Manual, and Imperial Encyclopedia), plus the Rebellion Sourcebook supplement. It also contains something called the "Player's Guide to MegaTraveller," which seems to mostly be a compilation of pre-release advertisements for the game, with some information inserted by Far Future Enterprises, the company that currently holds the rights to the game.

The brief Player's Guide contains a summary of the vast changes Game Design's Workshop introduced to the default Traveller setting, the Third Imperium, when MegaTraveller was published in 1987. It also has a Designers' Notes section, which goes into detail about changes in the game mechanics. One of these is amusing to read today. As the author's put it:
As obvious as it seems now, the task system was not originally used for combat. Then in a playtest, a newer player, who didn't know the standard Traveller combat rules, asked what task roll was needed to shoot at an enemy. Lightning struck! The light bulbs went on over our heads, and we realized at once that we were really on to something.
And they had this epiphany only nine years after Runequest was using the percentile roll-under mechanic for combat and non-combat tasks. Of course, to be fair, Dungeons & Dragons didn't reach this state of enlightenment until the year 2000.

It's also hard to get self-righteous when I, as a player, wouldn't have thought about the desirability of a single mechanic for most of the 1990s, no matter how many late-night fatigued die rolls left me wondering whether 2e AD&D saving throws were rolled over or under the target number.

Monday, March 9, 2015

First Shadowrun Mission

I worked the admissions table for GloryCon, the small convention run by my alma mater's gaming club. Fortunately, they only needed me for half the day, so I got to wander around a bit and actually play a game.

I ended up in a Shadowrun Missions game. Missions is the organized play campaign run by Catalyst, the current publishers of Shadowrun. Because the first session of the day had run late due to the character creation process (apparently, the new priority + karma hybrid system doesn't speed things up), I had to pick a pregen to keep the second session on schedule to end when the con closed. I ended up with the combat adept, since the party had plenty of magic and tech people but was short on fighters. Unfortunately, the scenario we ended up playing was not very combat-heavy, so my character ended up being useless. I guess one problem with designing for these kinds of organized campaigns is coming up with scenarios to involve every different type of character.

Since I was also playing with people who knew much more of the setting canon than I did, I felt a little like the odd person out, having not read the 5th Edition core book for a couple of years. However, the plot of the scenario was interesting enough, even when only passively following it, that it conveyed why the setting inspires such devotion. I would play in another Shadowrun Missions game if I can find the time to create an actual character, perhaps my old 4e dwarven rigger from a brief campaign a few years back.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Known World

The Known World in question is the default setting of all the modules TSR released for the Basic D&D games of the 1980s. I was never a devotee of that setting, as some people became, but I remember it for its role in the beginning modules from the Basic and Expert sets, and from a 2e AD&D campaign set in Mystara, as the setting became known after it was converted to that game.

Laurence Schick, the co-creator of the Known World with Tom Moldvay, has an article about the development of the setting at The Black Gate. The most interesting insight to me was the fact that they began developing the Known World shortly after Moldvay acquired a White Box set of OD&D. This may make it the first fantasy world consciously created for Dungeons & Dragons. The World of Greyhawk, under the name The Great Kingdom, existed pre-D&D as a setting for wargames. The Forgotten Realms existed for years before 1973 as a setting for Ed Greenwood's unpublished fantasy fiction. But the Known World was created after exposure to D&D, specifically to serve as a setting for D&D adventures.

The article is also notable for demonstrating the design of a world for specific objectives. Schick and Moldvay originally designed the Known World to be a shared world for multiple DMs in northeastern Ohio. Thus, it includes a great many cultures, all of which are extensively detailed. Though this expansiveness and level of detail dovetails with the demands of a commercial game setting, it looks like TSR actually shrank the Known World for their official version. Unfortunately, the article doesn't mention why that decision was made or which countries were lost in the transition.

You can read the article here:


I've had a couple of blogs before, but I've always had trouble naming them. Then I remembered that there's a Thomas Covenant reference with my actual name in it. Duh!

Even though The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is no longer among my favorite works of fantasy, I still read a lot of fantasy and some science fiction. I also read some nonfiction and play tabletop roleplaying games. Currently, I'm playing my fifth or sixth character in a Pathfinder campaign in which I die a lot.

So I will probably share a lot of thoughts about genre fiction and roleplaying games, with maybe the occasional odd post about something else, including possibly my favorite Linux distribution of the moment.