Thursday, August 18, 2016

Romantic Fantasy and the Heroine's Journey

Over on G+, Kiel asks:

So I'm asking anyone who knows more than me:
Does the above paragraph line up with what Blue Rose was/is/is supposed to be? Does it line up with what romantic fantasy is about?

Blue Rose: no, not really. The original, at least, was basically a very nicely streamlined version of 3.5 D&D (that later became True20) with the trappings of romantic fantasy, but lacking much of the substance. For instance, Blue Rose allowed you to play an intelligent, psychic animal without really understanding the role of such animals in the fiction.

Romantic Fantasy follows a particular sort of “heroine’s journey” that’s similar to, but distinctly different, from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” The big difference, if you want the tl;dr version, is, where Joe’s hero meets people, the heroine of romantic fantasy collects people.

Typically, the heroine (though occasionally it’s a hero) starts off in a bad family situation. She’s unappreciated, perhaps even hated, by what should be her family. Perhaps she’s even in danger. Some instigating event causes her to leave home. She may have a destination in mind or just be wandering aimlessly.

Early on her journey, she’ll encounter a being in trouble. She’ll rescue this being and earn its loyalty by embracing her principle virtue. This being is often a psychic animal, but could also be a gay male imbued with mystery and often Bishōnen characteristics. What’s important is that the heroine can absolutely trust this being because they are both not acceptable as a romantic interest, nor are they potential competition for the eventual romantic interest.

This typically begins the second act (assuming a traditional three-act structure) dominated by the heroine collecting strays of various sorts (usually among the marginalized, mistrusted, or scary) and building a new family for herself. By the end of the second act, this family will be a firm source of strength for our heroine, and the third act is heralded by the family being either temporarily shattered or the heroine leaving that family and putting herself in great risk to save the world/kingdom/whatever. Of course, the family rejoins to support her at a crucial moment.

There are many, many novels that follow this pattern, and the ‘80s was a heyday for female authors of what we now call romantic fantasy. Chief among them was Anne McCaffery. Dragonflight was the book that started the Pern series that eventually got her a castle in Ireland, and it’s a great book, but if you want something a bit more condensed, try Dragonsong. It’s the first of a trilogy because it was published in the ‘80s, when everything in sci-fi/fantasy came in trilogies.

The other big name from that time was Mercedes Lackey, and she probably had the greatest influence on Blue Rose, especially its setting. I’d suggest Arrows of the Queen, but I’ll admit I’ve barely scratched the surface of this prolific author’s work, so others might have better suggestions.

If you want something more military, try Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. This is classic ‘80s fantasy; bits of it read very much like a D&D session from the time. Moon was probably also the most successful in moving the formula into space.

For something a bit more risqué and modern, look to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. This one messes with the formula most of all by pushing the full arc out into the trilogy and then mucking about with the order things normally happen in.

Outside novels, there’s lots of anime that fits as well. From Miyazaki, there’s both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Vision of Escaflowne banks heavily on you being familiar with the formula so it can subvert it from start to finish. The most true to the genre, however, is probably Fushigi Yuugi.

So yeah, long story short, SW, SM looks to be closer to the genre than Blue Rose 1e was. You could certainly play a romantic fantasy story with BR, and it was closer to the genre than D&D, but it was just as easy to play it as D&D with talking animals.

The big challenge to my eyes is that romantic fantasy is very focused on its heroines the same way Dr. Who is focused on the Doctor. How do you keep that same sort of personal discovery and coming-of-age elements without making some characters feel like bit parts? Can you have multiple families being built simultaneously (and possibly even overlapping)?

Definitely study the genre, but don’t let yourself get trapped by it. There’s some great stuff there, but there’s also some cruft that doesn’t belong in anything but possibly solo PC campaigns.

(Oh, and here’s an interesting exercise left to the reader: is Dune romantic fantasy in space?)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Invisible Railways

Between the time when the OGL rejuvenated the hobby and the rise of the sons of Dragon and Dungeon (that would be Paizo and their Pathfinder game), there was an age undreamed of. Actually, it was a sucky time full of despair and the gnashing of teeth. With the coming of 3.5, the bottom fell out of the d20 market. Lots of companies went belly-up. IPs traded hands swiftly. The FLGS was an endangered species. Even Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games felt the need to get a day job, and he was roundly praised for his sagacity. RPGs were doomed to follow the same decline as model railroading and wargames before them.

Casting their eyes towards what remained of the war-gaming and model-railroad industries, the chattering classes that infested RPG.net at the time noted that the survivors had largely adopted a boutique model. That is, they sold high-quality, luxury offerings at a very high price point. Doing so would, of course, only doom RPGs to eventual death, discouraging new blood from entering the hobby. But the kids were too deeply sucked into those damned MMOs and besides, we’d at least get some cool games out of it and Ryan Dancey’s kitties would be kept in kibble.

While there was a lot of talk about the boutique model, and how both publishers and players needed to learn to treat RPGs as luxury goods, not much was actually done about it. The full-color coffee-table book had long cemented itself as the mainstay of the industry, and nobody seemed to be eager to buck that trend.

Nobody, that is, except Monte Cook.

Cook’s Ptolus, a campaign setting and adventure path in one came in a GIANT book, clocking in at 672 pages. It was a wonder of organization and layout, included ribbon bookmarks, and a CD with extra goodies like an additional adventure plus lots of printable handouts for the players. It also had digital versions of previous Malhovic books that Cook had associated with Ptolus: The Banewarrens and Chaositech. Monte called it the “most deluxe roleplaying product ever published.” In an era before Kickstarter, Monte goosed sales of the book by signing and numbering the first thousand copies pre-ordered, and threw in a printed copy of the adventure on the CD plus five printed copies of the player’s guide.

It needed some goosing because the MSRP was $120.

Keep in mind, at the time, the D&D 3.5 PHB had debuted a few years earlier with a $30 price tag. (I’m going by memory here, so if you can find a better number, please let me know.) You could pick up all three of the core books for under $100, and you’d need them before you could play Ptolus. Ptolus was just a setting and adventures, not a game in itself.

I have no idea how well Ptolus sold, but I can say it did nothing to hurt Cook’s reputation. The book earned glowing reviews and took home the 2007 Product of the Year ENnie.

Fast forward to today, past the Numenera kickstarter which had a funding goal of $20k but broke records pulling in over $500k, and the Invisible Sun kickstarter. Where Numenera was conceived of as a familiar coffee-table tome of a game, Invisible Sun is, like Ptolus before it, a boutique luxury item. If this does reasonably well for Monte, that black cube is going to become iconic and I’d expect a few other publishers to take a closer look at dipping their toes in the boutique luxury market. The proposed smart phone app for handling between-session chat and gaming is intriguing, and while it is, to me, the most exciting thing coming out of Invisible Sun, I suspect that will prove a bridge too far for most publishers. But decks of cards, bizarre resin statuary, and a funky-looking box? Yeah, Fantasy Flight is going to be all over that like a duck on a June bug.


And then there’s the “experience” aspects of this thing: the internet clues, the geocaching challenges, the “secrets,” and most of all, the Directed Campaign. A resin statue hand that holds cards seems a little silly to me; getting setting and adventure ideas emailed to me regularly, and physical props mailed to both the GM and players, sounds like an awesome idea and certainly something that more publishers could embrace.

Note that I don’t think this will be a huge revolution in RPGs. But do keep in mind when Ptolus was released, it was still the conventional wisdom that boxed sets had been one of the nails in TSR’s coffin. Three years, and numerous fun and cool boxed sets from Raggi and Mythmere, later and WotC was releasing a suspiciously familiar boxed set of their own.

The RPG industry is being dragged kicking and screaming out of its coffee-table rut. Slowly, but it’s being dragged, by Raggi’s work, by Zak’s lovely and well-laid-out cloth-covered books, by The Dracula Dossier, and by Monte Cook. We’re slowly peeling the roof off this hobby, not because it’s in its death-throes but because it’s enjoying a new Renaissance. I don’t think the future will look like Invisible Sun, but I do think we’ll be able to draw a line from Invisible Sun to whatever the future looks like.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Old vs. New: What's the Difference, and Why Should You Care?

This is the context you need to understand the history of D&D:

This is also why D&D, in the hands of a weak or mediocre DM and players, has such a dysfunctional and bland combat system - it is not in itself enough to reward intelligent play. (If anything, it does the opposite - if you have better AC and more hp and do more damage than the opponent then you will win, and the process is effectively mechanical. Just keep rolling the dice until you win.)

This is because, at its inception, D&D was not a game about combat. This is old news to folks who’ve been following the OSR for a while; if you look at the old games, you’ll see that the EXP you got for slaying monsters was a mere fraction of the EXP you’d get from their treasure-types. Toss in the reality of unguarded treasures and you have a game that rewards exploration, good mapping, clever play, and only engaging in necessary fights.

But nobody who worked on D&D ever explained this in the books. As early as 1st edition, you had folks who assumed that D&D was about combat. After all, most of the rules were about combat and if you were coming to the game from adventure comics, it might seem like the coolest, most exciting things you could do with your characters revolved around combat. Computer RPGs only heightened this sense, since combat and wandering about were the only real activities in those early games. Later computer RPGs barely fiddled with that formula, focusing instead on graphics and interface, largely to make the combat aspects more compelling. The idea that your game should be about something else hardly ever came up.

Which meant that D&D was zigging while people interested in fantasy adventure were zagging. Early attempts to correct this resulted in 2e with its byzantine class-specific rules for earning EXP.

Things only got worse when WotC took over. By 1999 and the release of 3e, D&D was clearly about combat.

Yet the chassis of D&D was still heavily influenced by that earlier game where combat was not the central activity but a way of adjudicating failure. WotC-era D&D has in great part been an attempt to square the circle of a game that’s supposed to be about combat, but has a fairly “robotic” and extremely abstracted combat system.

And this is where you get the disconnects between Old School and New: the joy of rust monsters, the necessity of wandering monsters, and linear adventures (ultimate efficiency from every encounter being experienced wedded to superior story through creating rising tension from encounter to encounter) vs. non-linear adventures (where player choice, freedom-of-action, and exploration take precedence over efficiency and rigorous story structure).

These issues have profound effects in design and play. For instance, New School DMs work hard to make sure every encounter is balanced and interesting, because that’s where most of the play happens. Random encounters are eschewed as being time-wasters; they certainly are not feared by the players as monsters are EXP-on-the-hoof, and you must kill every monster you encounter to make sure you have all the potential experience (and levels, powers, and magical items) as possible before the big boss battle.

Old School DMs don’t worry about balancing combats. Since most combats are optional, players have the luxury of entirely bypassing certain fights if they don’t feel up to them. Also, Old School players have all sorts of abilities and powers (as well as the ubiquitous randomly-rolled rumors) by which they can learn about their foes before they fight, allowing them to pick their battles and prep ahead of time. Wandering monsters are justly feared not because they’re incredibly dangerous (they tend to be rather weak, in fact) but because they drain valuable resources for very little gain. Since treasure, not combat, rewards the most EXP, players are more eager to bargain with, evade, or simply trick the monsters they encounter. Where an inaccurate player map is devastating to a New School game, an accurate map is invaluable in an Old School game, and so dungeons are designed with an eye towards thwarting accurate mapping. Since combat in Old School D&D is about draining resources, rust monsters are an obvious choice for an Old School dungeon. For New School D&D, rust monsters are annoying in that they cause the PCs to retreat from the dungeon, which is rightly seen as a waste of valuable playing time.

So there you have it. Armed with this knowledge, you can now maximize the fun in either Old School (aka TSR-era) or New School (WotC-era except 5e kinda) D&D. Go forth and have fun!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Burlesque House Siege!

There’s a neat writer’s trick that’s served me well as a DM. If you’re looking for an idea, if you’re working on a topic but you’re not sure which direction to take it, force yourself to write down ten options.

Generally, you can toss out the first three; these are going to be the obvious choices, the tropes, what everyone expects. You can also usually toss out the last two or three, as you were really stretching to come up with something, and the ideas will (probably) be too far out there to work well.

But the middle four or five are where you’ll find gold. These are ideas that are not the obvious clichés you’ve seen repeatedly, but are not too weird to be believable or that risk throwing everything else out of whack.

I don’t know that Mr. Chenier did this when he came up with Burlesque House Siege! I can say he purposefully worked to avoid the cliché of religious bigots persecuting an LGBT burlesque house. What he came up with instead is far more interesting.

So, the basics: an LGBT burlesque review, the Maison Derriere, is besieged by a gang of bandits while the PCs are recovering from a night of frolic and debauchery there. They’ve got roughly half-an-hour to prepare for the attack, and help is hours (if not days) away. Plop the provided maps of the house on the table, start the clock, and let the players come up with plans to defend the place.

The villains are a gang of ne’er-do-wells who mistook the Maison Derriere for a brothel. When they insisted on a “happy ending” they got tossed out on their ears. Now the boss, Tallest Joe, is back with his whole crew and one strong monster in order to wreak vengeance.

Interestingly, this strongly implies certain things about Tallest Joe and his crew. Did they not realize they were dealing with all manner of trans/queer folk? Or was that part of the spice? It’s easy to imagine Tallest Joe straddling the middle of the Kinsey Scale, or being some flavor of trans himself.

And once you do that, you open up the adventure to all sorts of interesting possibilities. Granted, Kiel doesn’t address these directly; the original specs for this adventure were a one-shot convention event of two to four hours (and he offers good advice for modifying the adventure for both shorter and longer sessions). But he also mentions possibilities for long-term campaign play. The Maison Derriere might hide a treasure, Tallest Joe’s true goal. Or it may hold an entrance to a sinister and secret subterranean city.

These options are just touched on briefly. More detail is lavished on maps of the Maison Derriere, a cast of intriguing NPCs, and potential for betrayal, heroic last stands, and/or comic pratfalls a la “Home Alone.” As Kiel says in his advice for running this adventure:

Player Choice is #1. Don’t let the adventure become a total railroad if you can help it. If the players are set on abandoning the burlesque house and running to town with the NPC’s, LET THEM. If they want to rush ahead and meet the Bandits head on, LET THEM. If the players have an elaborate trap in mind for the burlesque house, or they ALL really want to talk their way out of a big fight, LET THEM.

There’s a lot of excellent, practical advice as well on how to run a good convention game, plus random tables for generating dancers, a random table for deciding why each PC is hanging around the place (a fun way to generate character backgrounds for one-shot convention play), even how to run the Maison Derriere as a business if the PCs end up taking it over somehow (not that unusual an occurrence in my campaigns, I can tell you). There’s also a table of dance routines for the DM in need of inspiration.

And, of course, there are all the interesting characters, complications, and conflicts you should expect from Mr. Chenier’s work. If you and your group love to chat with NPCs, get to know the local characters, or just thrive on character-driven interactions, Burlesque House Siege! provides a lot of interesting grist for your mill.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"You Don't Understand; These Ghosts Kill People!"

Just saw the new Ghostbusters flick. First off, it’s fun. Not great, not hilarious, but certainly entertaining; I laughed out-loud a few times.

What it’s not is a remake of the original. This is a very, very different film. It’s a lot darker (one character is killed off-screen and another commits suicide on-screen) and far more physical. It’s a lot more slapstick than the original Ghostbusters, and includes actual action-movie action scenes. These new Ghostbusters wade into a sea of ghosts, blasting left-and-right with twin proton pistols or punch ghosts and other things with a proton-cestus.

In short, the new Ghostbusters are actually cool, unlikely the awkward goofballs of the original. Which is odd, because this Ghostbusters is, in many respects, what the first Ghostbusters might have been if Walter Peck, the annoying EPA agent, had been the hero. And, oddly enough, in spite of that, it works.

Don’t take your friends who haven’t seen the original (or haven’t seen it since it came out) until you make them sit down and watch the original; a good portion of the jokes require you to have that film in your mind when you come see this one.

The writing on the new Ghostbusters is very weak. The plot chugs through its points, but you can tell the only reason the Mayor of New York is in this film is because the original Ghostbusters had a run-in with the Mayor. Lots of things happen just ‘cause. The most egregious example is Jones’ Patty Tolan. She joins the Ghostbusters… erm, well, we really don’t know why she joins. We understand why the rest are eager or willing to let her join, but we aren’t given any reason why she’d want to. It’s not like there’s a paycheck in it or anything.

The villain is equally thin. We’re given a vague sort of he-was-bullied, but we’re never really shown that. He comes off and just a genius nut-job nihilist.

The film feels very small, especially compared to the original. Where the original Ghostbusters had that entire firehouse, the new Ghostbusters have a single room above a Chinese restaurant we never see. They test out their gadgets in a trash-strewn alley behind. Yeoman’s cinematography gives this a very made-for-TV feel, and not the expansive, big-screen spectacle the original was. Where New York was a character in the original Ghostbusters, it’s mostly just a setting in this one.

The editing is rough on this one as well, especially the way it cuts around during the action scenes. It’s impossible to tell where anyone is, the jumping camera makes it seem like moments have been cut out, and it just lacks the natural fluidity you expect from a big-budget film.

If it seems like I’m damning this film with faint praise, well, I sorta am. It keeps referencing the original and utterly failing to live up to it in all sorts of little ways. The original Ghostbusters had a great, tight script, a strong sense of verisimilitude, and incredible writing. This one has a loose, paint-by-the-numbers script, feels like a made-for-TV action-comedy, and has maybe two quotable lines (one of which is in the 2nd trailer: “The power of pain compels you!”) It never seems to find its groove. One minute it’s a dark action/horror film (ghosts murdering people, our heroines blasting away ghosts and rappelling into hellmouths), the next it’s a slap-stick comedy (the final confrontation is won with a literal photonic kick to the crotch), and then it’s trying to be a touching story about friendship. Since it can’t settle on its tone, it meanders about, not quite hitting all the notes its aiming for.

That all said, the casting is great. Hemsworth steals every scene he’s in, displaying the comedic talent that landed him the role of Thor; McKinnon’s Holzmann is endearingly awkward, funny, and kick-ass; and you know the laughs are coming whenever you see Jones on the screen. Kristen Wiig gets the thankless job of playing the straight-man, but she does so while giving us a surprisingly likeable character in spite of the obvious stick up her butt. Unlikely the original, this film has actual scary moments (though it does rely on the jump-scare a bit more than I’d prefer). And where the original Ghostbusters were middle-aged schlubs with mortgages, bills, and receding hairlines, the new Ghostbusters are glamorous, gravity-defying butt-kickers who never have to worry about the state of their petty cash.

So if you think you’ll like this sort of thing at all, do go see it. It’s a very entertaining way to spend an afternoon. And do sit through all the credits; there are extra scenes scattered throughout.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Little 5e Under My Belt


Not quite two months ago I finished my first 5e campaign. We met kinda-sorta twice a month, each session lasted about four hours, and it ran for, I think, 14 months. So ballpark it at about 112 hours of gaming. The highest PC level attained was 10th.

I’d call it a successful campaign; the only player dropping out is moving out-of-state; everyone else wants more. And I learned a lot about how 5e works.

EXP

This is the biggy: EXP-for-kills turns the PCs into bloodthirsty savages. They don’t look for the easiest or quickest route around a problem, they look for the solution that creates the largest pile of corpses. Solo monsters (your traditional dragon atop a mountain) are nigh irresistible, especially if the players have time to prep and plan in advance. The players threw their PCs at the same problem twice with a head-long frontal assault (granted, the first time they did attempt some subterfuge), failed both times, but came out smelling like roses due to the body count and EXPs collected. EXP-for-kills is the first thing I’ve dropped from the new campaign.

Action Economy

This is the principle reason I stick with 5e. The action economy takes a bit of work to wrap your head around, but once you grasp the concept of bonus actions (and that everyone only gets one), it’s a lovely, elegant little trick to allow neat extras, but not give a single player a dozen actions in a single turn. It also gives all the players an easily understood resource to manage in the middle of combat that is not immediately dissociative. Do you use your bonus action to fight with a second weapon? Use a special ability? Wait for an attack of opportunity? It’s usually an easy choice to make, but it’s also one that has a different answer in different parts of a single fight, and very different answers for different character classes.

Backgrounds

I love these in concept. In play, they can create lots of neat opportunities for RP; almost all give you a neat out-of-combat/RP “power” that can help drive a campaign forward and give players interesting spot-light opportunities. However, it’s easy to forget about them. Normally, I’d just rely on my players bringing them up, only…

Complexity

… 5e is just on the bad side of the complexity line.

Yes, I know; it’s not nearly as complex at 3.x, the latest edition of Shadowrun, 4e D&D, any version of Fading Stars and Vampire, or just about any mainstream RPG you care to name that’s been released in the last 20 years. So how simple do I need it?

Apparently, simpler than this.

My players are not dumb. They’re not even mentally slow. The youngest was in her late 20s, most had college degrees and even those who didn’t had at least a few years of college under their belt. These were, almost without exception, white-collar professionals or successful entrepreneurs. One dropped out of the game briefly to teach opera in Paris. There wasn’t a dim bulb in this bunch.

And yet, even in the final session, I was holding hands, reminding people of their powers and abilities, describing how simple mechanics worked. And I’ll be shocked if half of them understood the action economy.

Those who were interested in the mechanics picked it up pretty quickly. They understood their powers, how they could leverage their background, what it meant to use a bonus action. The others were eager to dive in and try things, but they didn’t understand how to make their wishes work within the system and often forgot opportunities their race, class and background created for them.

A good part of this I blame on not playing every week. I think a weekly schedule would have kept things fresh in everyone’s mind, and there would have been less remedial education from session to session. But playing weekly isn’t an option when people have lives and money. And that means we need a simpler game, with easily grasped mechanics. 5e is almost, but not quite, that game.

Magic

As I’ve said before, it doesn’t feel very magical. The spell-slot system works, but it feels more like loading bullets in a gun, or apps on your phone. The spells themselves don’t really help, being fairly straightforward in their applications. The most mystical character of our bunch was probably the min-maxer’s druid who freaked the more arachnophobic players out by turning into a giant spider and webbing spell-slingers in the face.

When I abandon 5e, it’ll probably be because the magic is just too dishwater-dull.

Combat

It works, but even with the elegant action economy, it’s not interesting enough to hang a game on. 4e’s probably was, but 5e’s only got a bit of 4e in the shape of its fenders. If you want a fun, successful campaign, you’ll need to bring a lot more to the table than just some bog-standard fights. And 5e isn’t going to help you much in achieving that by itself.

Classes

Meh. I’m not a huge fan of balance; I’m fine with some classes being less interesting, but also less complicated than others. But I do prefer it when the players know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

There’s definitely a simplicity gap between spell-slingers and everyone else. There might be a fun gap there as well, though that’s largely going to depend on temperament. The thief is a good class for someone who wants to really dive in and try all sorts of lateral thinking and wacky hijinks, but if you want to play it as straight DPS you’re better off with a spell-slinger, and certain flavors of monk are far better at the sneaky thing. The bard is struggling to find its niche in a system where three other classes also have Charisma as their most important stat, where the high-Intelligence wizard is blowing away the History and Arcana checks, and the high-Wisdom cleric is the party’s face due to her excellent Insight (and, in our group, nearly as good Persuasion) rolls.

Rangers are a hot mess. They’re kinda-sorta DPS, but they’re not as good at it as other classes and kinda squishy. Their abilities are cool and useful when they’re in their favored terrain, but otherwise… meh. Their combat powers are just weird, and clearly work best if you’re using a battle-grid and minis. The one player who took ranger did ok with the character, but they were dissatisfied and have opted for a sorcerer in the new campaign.

A shape-shifting druid is hard to take down and extremely flexible, in and out of fights. Wizards remain the big guns, but more than ever it’s clerics that win combats, principally by keeping the rest of the party on its feet and buffing their attacks. Clerics are a potent force-multiplier in this game.

Every class has a magical option. People are going to be whipping out magical abilities left-and-right in your 5e games. However, they’re likely to be reaching into the same bag of tricks, time and again. The result is something that feels a lot like an ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon, where everyone has their flashy, signature shtick and occasionally gets to do something really clever with it. The result is something that looks more like He-man and less like Jackson’s LotR. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is going to depend on your tastes.

TL;DR

All in all, I’m fairly happy with 5e. The mechanical changes are largely positive, streamlining the game and keeping the rules out of the way of the fun. There’s a lot less you-can’t-do-that-by-the-rules and a lot more sure-roll-a-d20-and-we’ll-see-if-you-succeed.

Backgrounds can bring a lot to the table, but only if people remember that they exist. The races are decent, but not terribly exciting. The classes are a mixed bag and will result in a magic-heavy game if only because nearly every member of the party is going to be slinging a few spells or spell-like abilities.

The game benefits from some light rules-tweaking. The rules-as-written EXP-for-kills definitely encourages the players to embrace their inner homicidal maniac, but is easily replaced. It’s fairly simple to create new backgrounds and races customized to your campaign. Creating your own classes, however, will require some serious research and effort.

The game is fun, my players are eager to continue in a new campaign, and 5e is fairly easy to run. This gives it a big thumbs-up in my book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Dram of Glam and Duran Duran

This is fun. I'm a bit older then Noisms, but younger than the "dark metal" crowd. I got into D&D with Moldvay/Cook, Christmas of '81. So the musical background to my D&D was 80's pop laced with a dose of glam and disco. It was urbane, smooth, stylish, but also unearthly, inhuman, and fey.

And style was very much part of the substance. David Bowie as the Goblin King, Sting and Billy Idol as Sting and Billy Idol. Madonna doing her thing. There was a smooth, glossy finish to everything; even the percussively blue-collar Phil Collins crooned and powered our revenge fantasies with the slick style of "In the Air Tonight." Michael Jackson, magical and aristocratic in his so-right-for-the-times "Smooth Criminal." Everyone wanted a fedora, aviator sunglasses, and shiny silk suits, but none of us could pull it off, and we all knew we'd look like dorks in costumes.

Historical accuracy took a distant back-seat to style and fashion. We chaffed at the universal need for armor on our characters. The ultimate fighter was Rutger Hauer in his black quilted jerkin, pauldrons, and gauntlets with his too-damned-cool double-barrelled crossbow. The ultimate magic-user was Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur. The ultimate thief was Indiana Jones, with his quick mind, a friend in every town, and swift whip.

Grunge wasn't a thing yet. Urban decay was an artifact of the Carter years, distant, the stuff of fairy tales. Our Shadowrun characters dressed like punks in black snythleather and spikes chromed with neon shades. Our sci-fi characters wore mandarin-collared suits made from glittering, reflective materials, or futuristic camo in zig-zags and overlapping dots. Everyone had a trenchcoat with a huge collar, bike jacket, or a magic sword with wing-shaped crossguard and a giant gem set in the forte. We cruised through our imaginary metropoli in (air)cars that bore more than a passing resemblance to the DeLorean while listening to the hissing smooth tunes of Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys.

Nobody was surprised when Kiefer Sutherland played a vampire who looked like a Billy Idol wannabe. And nobody was terribly surprised when '80s pop morphed into goth, and the whole melange birthed Vampire: the Masquerade. Again, style was very much part of the substance.

Grunge came as a surprise, though it was a perfectly predictable backlash to the all-synth, all-neon, all-chrome of 80's pop. I ignored it. The '90s were an era of retrenchment for me. I had no interest in Green Day, Nirvana, or Lilith Fair. I was getting into Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.

But before that, the music was glossy, smooth, upbeat, and aristocratic. It was sharp suits, hot cars, tight skirts, stiletto heels, and dark glasses. It was impossible hair, neon jewelry, and highly chromed. Win or lose, the important thing was to look good while you were doing it.