Saturday, February 18, 2017

50 Shades of Blueberry

If you are of a certain age, largely congruous with being there when AD&D was the new hotness, you probably remember when entertainment aimed at children was rife with kink.

No, I’m serious. The Adam West Batman show was probably the most well-known. Every story was a two-parter, and the first part invariably ended with Batman and/or Robin captured and tied up in some bizarre, slow-acting death trap. Like a rotisserie cooker, or beneath giant magnifying glasses, or inside a giant mousetrap, while Julie Newmar (or Eartha Kitt) crawled all over them wearing tight spandex and purring.

That, ladies and gentleman, is the sort of image that will stick in your subconscious and never be dislodged. Especially if you saw it five times a week.

Batman was, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. Saturday morning cartoons were rife with this sort of thing. A single episode of the Speed Buggy cartoon, “The Hidden Valley of Amazonia” involves not just the female doms/male subs the title implies, but also forced feminization, objectification (people as widgets on a conveyor belt), togas, and the ever-popular mind control. And that was probably a rehash of a nearly identical plot from the not-fetishy-at-all Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space episode, “Warrior Women of Amazonia.”

The bizarre thing was how much all of this was hidden in plain sight, a sort of purloined chain-letter of kinky deviance all over the place. Part of that, I’m sure, was the dominance of the counter-culture at that time, but there also seemed to be willful blindness about things. Things like the twisted and macabre horror-film-disguised-as-a-kid’s-film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

This movie is a magnum opus of body horror and industrial objectification. Kids have their bodies warped and twisted in numerous ways, or get trapped in industrial machinery, or burned alive in a furnace. (At least, that’s what’s strongly implied.)

Maybe it’s his relative youth that allows Kiel Chenier to not treat any of the murder and mutilation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as normal kids fare. Instead, he embraces the kinky body-horror of the whole thing and plays it as a straight-up Lamentations of the Flame Princess probably-kill-you-all-but-in-amusing-ways adventure.

The thing that Kiel does that the movie doesn’t is linger on the effects of all this body-horror. In the movie, children die off-camera, while the horribly disfigured and mutated are dragged away by the creepy Oompa Loompas. In Blood in the Chocolate, warped bodies become classic OSR-style challenges. Getting inflated isn’t something that just happens for a moment; it’s an ongoing condition and slow death-by-degrees that has to be dealt with (or possibly even capitalized on). And, honestly, that’s one of the more normal things that can happen to PCs in this adventure. Characters can be forced into cannibalism, literally uncontrollably eating their buddies to death.

This is really warped stuff, and even above-and-beyond what I’ve come to expect from LotFP; there’s some twisted stuff in Broodmother Skyfortress, but none of it is as twisted or personal as what’s in Blood in the Chocolate. In Broodmother Skyfortress, you see ugly, twisted, icky stuff. In Blood in the Chocolate, your character becomes ugly, twisted, icky stuff. And then explodes.

The use of cultural icons for humor purposes does make this look, at least on the surface, similar to Venger Satanis’ Alpha Blue stuff. However, where Alpha Blue implies a certain amount of Yakkity Sax playing in the background, Blood in the Chocolate is deadly earnest, which makes the silly bits go from comedic to downright creepy, the same way Pennywise the Clown isn’t in the least bit funny, but all the more terrible because of the associations.

This all means that Blood in the Chocolate is a welcome step in the right direction for including fetish content in your RPGing. It’s not just window-dressing (as is often the case in Pathfinder adventures) but something the adventure (and likely one or more PCs) wallows in. It’s not exactly the focus of the adventure, but it certainly is both unavoidable and central to the fun, if not the plot. I don’t think you could really play this game straight, though I suppose if you did and just ignored all the implications, hey, that would be an awful lot like Saturday mornings in the ‘70s.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jeff Rients Wants to Blow Up Your Game

I never thought of Jeff as one of those black-jacket anarchist types, running about smashing things with tire-irons and crowbars, but, well, have you seen Broodmother Skyfortress?

If you haven’t, and you want to play in it, ***SPOILER ALERT***READ NO FURTHER***SPOILER ALERT***. If you haven’t and you’re just curious, there are many good reviews of it out there. I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’d like to talk about what Mr. Rients has going on under the hood in that adventure.

First off, he thinks you need to blow stuff up. If there’s a favorite tavern the PCs enjoy hanging out in, or a particular lord they love (or love to hate) or whatever, he suggests you have the Skyfortress giants come down on it like a ton of bricks. And he’s not talking about a little raid that knocks over tables and kidnaps a few peasants. He suggests you ask yourself:

If the Giants attack by surprise at night, as is their wont, is there any possibility of survivors or would visitors find nothing but a collection of bloody smears?

Death Frost Doom
is (in)famous for the possibility that the PCs might unleash a plague of zombies on the world. Broodmother Skyfortress assumes something nearly that bad is happening already.

I love this idea when used in moderation (as Jeff himself suggests in the book). A destructible world is more real, more immediate to the players, and far more interesting. Being willing to blow up the Keep on the Borderlands (illustrated beautifully on the back cover of the book) tells players that they’re gaming in a truly dynamic world where their actions (or lack thereof) will have real consequences. That’s cool.

On the other hand, if the players never know whether or not all elves will be transformed into cat-people, or all wizard spells now result in explosive flatulence, or all the gods are simply going to vanish at the drop of a hat, it actively prevents them from investing in the setting. Doing one of those things over the course of an entire campaign might be cool. Doing one (or more) of those every time you sit down to play tells the players that nothing is trustworthy, and they’ll just avoid investing in any of it.

While that’s fascinating all by itself, Jeff’s after more than just blowing up your campaign. He wants to blow up your entire game.

There’s little more sacred in D&D than the to-hit roll: d20 + mods to reach or beat a target number. The sanctity of this mechanic has only grown over the years as it has been expanded to cover nearly every situation, from saving throws to skills to tool use. Pretty much anything a PC wants to do in 5e is accompanied by rolling a d20.

When fighting the giants, Jeff suggests you just not bother having the players roll to hit. Yep, they always automatically hit the Giants. However, they have obscene numbers of hit-points and the first five points of damage from any attack don’t count. Attacking them with mundane weapons (or even lesser enchanted ones) is barely going to scratch these monsters. Normal combat is going to lead to TPKs; the players simply can’t put enough hurt on these monsters fast enough to take them down (unless they’ve got access to some really nasty magic). And, by eschewing the sacred d20 roll, players should immediately understand that this is an unusual situation.

Jeff calls this Mechanical Alienation, and it’s a cool technique. Again, it’s probably most potent when used rarely (I’m thinking of invoking it at the end of one of my current campaigns), but it does drag into the middle of the table the central question of what your RPG is. Gygax is famously credited with saying, “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules.” This is that idea turned up to 11. It’s not quite free-form RPGing, but rather understanding that all the rules are there to promote the fun. Rules that don’t promote the fun should be tossed aside, maybe for good, maybe for only a few moments. It would be too much fuss and bother for us DMs to create a completely original set of rules for each encounter (and if you did, you’d destroy player trust in your campaign; see above). But there is a time and a place to set the book aside and recreate the game in a more fun shape. At its heart, this is what Broodmother Skyfortress is all about.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Visions of 40k 8th Edition

Stormcaller over at Bell of Lost Souls has some “safe bets” for 40k’s impending 8th edition. I’m not terribly impressed. His first two statements, that many will like it and some will hate it, is about like saying that grass will be green and Ultramarines will be blue. (Yes, that pun is front-and-center in this game. That tells you so much about its origins. ;p )

Stormcaller also brings up the bonuses you get if you max out the number of units in certain formations. Clearly, this is a call to buy more miniatures. Only, who the heck has time to play with armies that size? Adam Harry (also at BoLS) points out that maxing out some of the units in Fall of Cadia and Wrath of Magnus would mean armies over 3k (and possibly close to 4k) points. The “standard” game of 40k in the US runs between 1-2k points and takes something in the neighborhood of three hours to play. Eventually, as Harry points out, player fatigue becomes an issue, even if you’ve got six hours to play (and if you do, I think most would prefer to play a pair of smaller games).

Now, everyone is assuming that 8th edition will be “streamlined.” That, after all, is the buzzword these days. But goals and achievements are two different things. And there are practical limits on what GW can do with 40k. Just as everyone knew WotC had to use the classic six stats when they published 5th edition D&D, you can bet that GW will include the multiple-rolls-per attack thing that is the hallmark of 40k: roll to hit, roll to wound, roll saves, remove casualties. This cascade of rolls incentivizes big armies; the more shooting you’re doing, the more you’re likely to hit and wound, and the more likely your foe is to fail some of those saves. And GW is all about selling the minis.

But all that takes time. You’re rolling handfuls of dice, pulling out the hits, rolling those, pulling out the wounds, and then your target gets to roll those dice or an equal number of their own. Sitting there counting out how many of 40d6 rolled 3-or-above takes time. So does picking up and re-rolling the few that went off the table. As does re-positioning units or terrain knocked about by the flood of dice.

7th edition did a decent job of streamlining the rules already by simplifying how you adjudicate things like charges and cover. Granted, they did make things like the psychic phase more complicated, so there is room for streamlining, but not that much outside of what some people would consider sacred cows of 40k.

Granted, if GW is willing to go after the sacred cows, especially the you-go-I-go aspect of the rules, then yeah, there’s tons of room to streamline and make play faster. I just don’t think they’re going to do it. If you want a quick, simple game, you’ll have Deathwatch. But 40k is still going to clock in at 20+ minutes per turn between 1k and 2k points.

That said, I think we’ll be seeing a LOT more of these grand army formations. You just won’t see many maxed-out formations. This is because your FLGS really dislikes the way wargames are made and sold.

Why do I say that? Because wargames eat obscene amounts of shelf-space. For example, your average wargame has five or more factions and each faction has a handful of troops types, leader types, and special units, possibly with vehicles on top of all of that. This is part of the fun for players; you identify with your “side” and the way it plays, and you eschew the other factions for their failings. If the publisher does their job right, every side has its features and bugs, and seeing how they interact is part of the fun.

But all of these units eat up shelf space like a horde of ravening locusts goes through crops. And, on top of that, play space for wargames is expensive; the six-feet of table two 40k players use could host 5+ RPGers, 6 CCG players (each of whom probably paid an entry-fee for the privilege of playing; there are reasons your FLGS bends over backwards for M:tG and its ilk), or possibly 8 folks playing a board game. This is one reason you’re likely to see someone pushing Frostgrave get exceptional support from your FLGS; the game uses the same minis that the store already sells to RPGers, uses less tablespace, and easily expands to more than just two players in a game.

(Someday, someone is going to produce a wargame where players build their units from a standard box of parts, like robots or some such. If they do it right and it becomes successful, FLGS owners will weep tears of joy.)

Anyway, point is, if each player plays only their faction, and there are lots of factions (I think 40k has something in the neighborhood of a dozen now, and that’s not breaking out chaos into its four + unified or all the different flavors of space marine), that’s a lot of shelf-space for a fraction of the players of a single wargame. This is why it’s so tough for a new wargame to gain traction at an FLGS.

But GW already has traction, and by getting players to embrace building armies from multiple factions (Guard + Marines + Mechanicus, or, as we’re seeing now, Dark + Vanilla Eldar) they increase the efficiency of the shelf-space they’re demanding. Mechanicus might not have enough fans to warrant much space on a store’s shelves, but if marine players are also buying those minis, now it might make a lot more sense to give them more room. And, of course, that means more minis sold, especially if the marine player likes what Mechanicus does and decides to expand his “allies” into a full army to play as a change of pace.

So, my predictions for 8th edition: there will be all sorts of talk about streamlining the game, but it won’t do more than shave a few minutes here and there, and won’t be dramatic enough to change how people play the game. There will also be a lot more support for building huge mix-n-match armies via formations and allies rules, which will royally piss off the competitive players but make the narrative gamers much happier.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

And For Good Reasons - Outcast Review

If you saw the trailers for 2014’s Outcast, you can be excused for thinking it would be a train-wreck. Nicholas Cage and Hayden Christensen as AWOL crusaders who’ve travelled to China (or, at least, a Hollywood version of China) and get involved in dynastic politics? Yeah. But, the important question is, would it be a glorious train-wreck?

The answer is: meh, not so much. Nick Cage prancing about with a prosthetic ruined eye and snakes wrapped around his wrists isn’t as much fun as you’d think, mostly because he defaults to doing an odd impersonation of Long John Silver for most of the last third of the movie. Christensen actually comes off quite well, though you’d be excused for thinking he was a poor-man’s Karl Urban with that haircut and delivery. But this is lightyears better than much of his work in Star Wars.

This one avoids most of the pitfalls of the White Savior trope. Yeah, the ex-crusaders are excellent warriors, but not supermen, and you don’t get the feeling that there’s something special about them, that either is a chosen-one type. But you absolutely get the sense that someone wanted to do a Chinese historical epic but was afraid that if the main characters were not white that American (or maybe Chinese) audiences wouldn’t show up. This isn’t the only box-checking this movie suffers from. We’re also treated to the reluctant warrior trope; all three of the bad-asses in this film have been deeply scarred, even ruined as people, by the wars they’ve fought. There’s no such thing as a noble warrior or even a noble cause. There’s only brutality and guilt, but hey, look at these fun action sequences we’ve put together for your enjoyment! Yeah, classic example of Hollywood hypocrisy in action.

And that, in the end, leaves us with a luke-warm film. It’s got some neat costumes, but nothing on the level of Curse of the Golden Flower or Game of Thrones. It’s got some ok fights (the final mano-y-mano clash is actually pretty good, except that it happens for no reason other than that’s how things are done in movies). It’s totally lacking in a classic Nick Cage freak-out, though. He swerves close, then backs away. Just like this whole movie does, in its depiction of cultural interactions, violence, and emotion.

This one is probably not worth your time unless you’re a Cage completest, and even then you’ll likely only watch it once.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Abandoned Territory

DRAGON magazine #154 was published in February of 1990. It’s largely a forgotten issue (the theme was war, but wargaming was out of vogue in the RPG world at the time, so it mostly talked about historic examples of military conquerors, feudalism, and heraldry) except for an editorial by James Ward entitled “Angry Mothers From Heck (and What We do About Them).” This was the infamous article in which Ward explained that the 2nd edition of D&D (published in ‘89) lacked half-orcs and assassins and renamed demons and devils in order to avoid the negative publicity that had dogged the game through the ‘80s. The article loudly trumpeted the fact that D&D was about good, heroic characters and teamwork, and would feature “wholesome” content that would be beyond objection.

The result? Well, causality isn’t an easy thing to trace, but in ‘91 we got Vampire: the Masquerade, the game where you played a blood-sucking undead slowly losing their humanity. V:tM was wildly popular (though we don’t have numbers to know if it was Pathfinder-levels of popular) and brought lots of new faces (especially female ones) into RPGs and LARPing.

When a successful RPG publisher states, “This we will not publish,” what they’re doing is abandoning territory to their competition. They’re making it easy for you to find customers they’re not servicing (or to peel off customers they’re servicing poorly). WotC did something similar at the dawn of 4e, basically stating that they were no longer going to publish material in compliance with 3e’s OGL and abandoning those customers to Paizo. (You could say a similar thing happened at the dawn of 5e, but licensing issues and a perceived lack of popularity have prevented much of anyone from capturing the old 4e audience, to the best of my knowledge.)

Of course, everyone has their limits, and it’s interesting to note how Paizo has quite purposefully positioned themselves just a smidgen outside what WotC considers acceptable. While what is considered acceptable isn’t always easy to pin down philosophically, most of us can recognize where something falls on the spectrum when we see it. D&D looks like this, Pathfinder looks like that, and the thing over here with the penis-slugs has got to be LotFP.

This is what makes an article like Kotaku’s “Dungeons & Dragons’ Gradual Shift Away From Monster Boobs” interesting. While it’s not an official pronouncement from WotC about what will and won’t appear in D&D, it’s pretty close, including lots of quotes from Senior Manager Mearls and Lead Rules Developer Jeremy Crawford.

While at first blush it appears to make enough genuflections to political correctness to warm the cockles of any HR manager’s heart, that’s almost entirely from the author of the piece, D’Anastasio. If you read the words of Mearls and Crawford, you get a very different message. Here’s a list of quotes plucked from the article and out-of-order to make it clearer what I’m getting at:

“We’re equal opportunity cheesecake merchants,” Mearls added. “We don’t assume heterosexual male players.”

In an e-mail, Mearls said that nymphs were simply unpopular monsters among Dungeon Masters. 5th edition was designed after crowdsourced playtesting, and over 175,000 responses from early testers confirmed that gamers prefer elder brains and beholders, apparently, to monster boobs.

“When we considered the audience, we tried to think of how men and women would react, and make sure the reaction we elicited was in keeping with the monster’s character and the design intent,” Mearls said.

Bare breasts are absent from Volo’s Guide, the latest supplement to the Monster Manual out in October of this year, in what Mearls says was a conscious effort to “make sure that the art we presented was as appealing to as wide an audience as possible.”

“I think there was a feedback cycle where the inner circle of fandom was mostly male, that group gave feedback on what they liked, and you had art that delivered what they wanted,” Mearls said.

The Mearls quotes almost seem to backpeddle on the promise of the article’s title: “No-no-no-no-no! We’re not removing the cheesecake, we’re just recalibrating it to appeal to a wider audience. Calm down, owners of Hasbro stock. We know sex sells; we’re just making sure we use as broad a scatter of titillation as possible.”

It’s an interesting dance, one in which WotC attempts to both cater to current corp-world pieties while still promising to satisfy the entertainment-hungry customers. Of course, it’s mostly for show; as the article makes clear, D&D’s days as part of a counter-culture are over. Nobody turns to D&D manuals for titillation anymore. The idea is laughable, like someone saying they get turned on by perusing O’Reilly programming manuals.

Which means there’s lots of abandoned territory there. And I mean LOTS! Venger Satanis has staked out his claim to part of it, with his focus on campy, ‘70s comedy mashup of Benny Hill and Star Crash. Raggi’s planted a few flags on the hill of sex-as-body-horror, but he’s hardly saturating that market.

And that, to the best of my knowledge, is all there is, really. Both Numenera and the new Blue Rose give a wink-and-nod to sex-as-empowerment, but their love-as-thou-wilt (pun intended) ethos is rather lacking in friction or heat.

Compare that to where popular fiction has taken the subject. The obvious point of reference is Game of Thrones. You can probably get there from the new Blue Rose (there are some intriguing relationship mechanics in the game I haven’t had the time to deeply explore yet), but it’s not the direction Blue Rose is pointed. You can probably tack that on top of D&D, but WotC has no interest in helping you out. Pathfinder would love to point you in that direction, but they won’t go there with you.

And that’s not even touching the real 500 lbs gorilla in the marketplace: romance. Monsterhearts is a (small) step in the right direction, but also an understandably timid one that’s a bit mechanically complicated in all the wrong places. (The fact that it started out as a lampoon of Twilight that morphed to embrace Gingersnaps and Jennifer’s Body says a lot about why the game stumbles. When we get a game that openly embraces Twilight without a hint of irony, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.)

I should add, I say this not having played Monsterhearts, so if someone’s got a more experienced opinion on this, please speak up. Also, if there are games out there that I’m missing, please say something. The market’s so broad now, it’s easy to completely miss huge swaths of it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Apocalypse Star Wars

Ok, it’s not bad. I did enjoy watching it.

I’m not in a hurry to go back, though.

If you thought the TIE fighters coming out of the sunset was Apocalypse Now, wait until you get a load of this one. Forest Whitaker is Kurtz, complete with paranoid mumblings and devoted followers, with a heavy-handed dash of Darth Vader. The new u-wing isn’t really a fighter, it’s more a combat shuttle, complete with seat-belt strapping and slide away doors with pintel-mounted .50 calibre... er, blasters.

Rogue One is a very Cold War story, which makes its interface with Episode IV feel like an ill fit. The original trilogy wears its WWII on its sleeve. There’s no question the Empire is the Axis powers, with their Stormtroopers, howling TIE fighters, and Japanese-inspired helmets. Lucas famously used dog-fighting footage from WWII movies as filler for the FX starship scenes. The villains are vile and the heroes, even the princess, exude an aw-shucks nobility that personifies the American self-image of what we call the Greatest Generation.

Not so in Rogue One. Even the heroes have been damaged by war, their principles compromised for their cause. The rebel “heroes” are murderers, blasting people in cold blood, and carry the scars of those actions. (Though a few from the gang at the end felt more than a little too green to bear such weights.)

The writing doesn’t help. Listen, I’m one of those softies who loves Babylon 5 and nearly bursts into tears when Sam tells Frodo, “I can’t carry it, but I can carry you!” Purple prose doesn’t send my eyes a-rollin’. But there’s good purple prose and then there’s leaden purple prose, and the constant litany of “hope-hope-hope” just sounded flat. Especially when you consider how so many characters just seem to give up in their final minutes, shrug, and wait for their inevitable deaths.

And the music also isn’t helping. The call-backs are timid, the emotional beats are timid. There’s too much trying to be Star Wars and not be John Williams going on here, and it just doesn’t do the emotional heavy-lifting a movie with this sort of dialogue and themes needs. You can tell that poor Michael Giacchino was working under severe time restraints.

Which all sounds pretty bad, but honestly, as sci-fi space opera movies go, Rogue One was actually entertaining. There’s some neat characters, some fun banter, the comedy is excellent and not heavy-handed. It’s got cool locales, neat ships, and well-filmed action. It’s just not up the standards set by The Force Awakens or the Captain America movies.

Comic by jollyjack.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Doing Star Wars Right

Like Kiel, I’m often bit by the run-a-Star-Wars rpg after watching one of the new movies. (Never felt this way when watching the original trilogy, mostly because I was so taken by what the pros had done with the setting. Not so much anymore.) While I’ve never done as much work on creating a Star Wars game as Kiel has, here are my thoughts on what one would look like:

  1. Heavily Character Based. Everything is about the characters and revolves around them. But not only the characters individually but as groupings. Luke’s faith in his friends wasn’t his weakness, but his strength. These movies, each and every one, have been about relationships. I’d put that front-and-center in a Star Wars game by:
    1. Creating a quasi-class system where each class has a nice little expertise niche carved out for itself, but where the abilities of the different classes have powerful synergies. A pilot and a mechanic working together can make a ship do things neither alone could. A diplomat plus a warrior can play good-cop-bad-cop in negotiations and interrogations. Getting attacked by a Jedi and a sniper is far worse than being attacked by either alone.
    2. Give relationships actual mechanics. Being siblings creates synergies (Luke calling for Lea while hanging from the bottom of the cloud city), being romantically involved creates synergies (maybe by being able to boost each other’s skills a la Han and Lea in front of the bunker on Endor), and being able to call on the aid of NPCs the PCs actually invest time and effort into.
    3. A pile of dice in the middle of the table the group can decide together to spend on any one roll they agree is important enough to warrant it. Yeah, it’s a dissociative mechanic, and generally I don’t like those, but this very much fits the feel of a Star Wars band coming together and supporting one another. Maybe instead it’s dice that each PC has, but that get boosted if given to another player?
    4. Base most of character advancement on this. Sure, Luke becomes a more powerful Jedi over the course of the first three movies, but he’s an aberration. Han’s already a hot-shot pilot; his growth arc has nothing to do with his skills and everything to do with his relationships and moral fiber.
  2. Remember that, while swashbuckling combat is a part of Star Wars, it’s not what Star Wars is about. To that end, I’d avoid fights for the sake of fights and instead of a usual combat system adjudicate every fight with a variation of Daisy Chains of Death & Destruction. The fighting in Star Wars is almost never about killing someone, and almost always an obstacle that must be overcome to achieve a goal.
  3. And I’d keep in mind that the Jedi are mystics first and warriors second, and make the higher plane they operate on mechanically significant to the game. Morality in Star Wars isn’t quite black-and-white, but it’s pretty central to the original stories, and making that work in the rules is important to getting the right feel.