Thursday, July 2, 2015

Random Reviews: The Martian

“I'm pretty much fucked”

I am not normally someone who gets bent out of shape by movie adaptions.  I understand that movies and novels are different mediums and that sometime changes need to be made to the way the story gets told.  I also don’t sweat it too much if the movie sucks.  After all, the book will always be there regardless of what sins against cinema the movie commits. So the fact that the first thing I though when I heard that they were making a movie out of Andy Weir’s The Martian was, “I hope they don’t screw this up”, is a sign of how much I love this book.

The Martian has an incredibly simple premise.  Astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally left behind on Mars when he is injured and believed killed during a dust storm that causes the Ares 3 mission to be scrubbed.  With no way to contact Earth, and no hope of rescue before his supplies run out, Mark Watney must find a way to survive on a planet that cannot support human life.  It is basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

So if the premise is so simple, why do I like it so much?  Well, first off the science is exceptionally good.  No work of fiction will every be 100% scientifically accurate, but Andy Weir obviously worked very hard to make everything as plausible as possible.  In an interview he had with Adam Savage (worth a view BTW), he talked about how he had even worked out the launch date where the distance between Mars and Earth would be favorable for a mission where the astronauts would be on Mars over the Thanksgiving holiday for plot reasons.  Please note that Andy Weir never actually mentions the launch date in the novel, he just wanted the novel to be as accurate as possible.

When you are calculating orbital mechanics and trajectories for interplanetary travel just to make your novel more accurate, well you sir are a steely-eyed missile man.

With all of this focus on scientific accuracy, you might figure that it is a dry read.  That is where you are wrong.  Knowing that we would be alone with our protagonist for the majority of the novel, Andy Weir makes sure Mark Watney is an enjoyable person to spend time with.  Smart, inventive, and possessing a sarcastic wit, there would be no one I would rather be trapped on Mars with.  OK, maybe a sexy starlet, but I am sure I would survive longer with Watney to work through problems as they arose.

As for the challenges Watney has to overcome, Andy Weir does a great job of making them appear insurmountable before showing us how the protagonist overcomes them.  In the interview with Adam Savage linked to above, he mentions how he wanted all of Watney’s problems to be a “cascade failure”.  In other words, almost every issue Watney faces is either a result of the initial dust storm that stranded him there or the result of something he had to do since then to survive.  This is not the story of someone with incredibly bad luck; it is the story of someone forced to overcome incredible odds.

I know this review is a bit of a love fest, but I can’t help it.  The Martian is easily my favorite book of the century so far.

Now I just hope they don’t screw up the movie.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

So the Lords of Tyr tried out the Dragon Age RPG…

Ah Solas, you old heartbreaker.

While I am not the video game fanatic that my wife is (few people are), I do enjoy playing them from time to time.  One of my favorite video game franchises at the moment is the Dragon Age series.  So I have been curious about the pen and paper incarnation of the franchise for awhile, but only bit the bullet with the recently released Dragon Age RPG Core Rulebook, which combines and expands the rules from the previous three sets that Green Ronin has produced.

The basic mechanic of the system will be familiar to anyone who plays RPGs.  Roll some dice (in this case 3d6 instead of a d20), add the appropriate ability modifier, and then compare it to a target number.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.

The most innovative concept introduced in the Dragon Age RPG is the stunt system.  You are rolling 3d6 for most rolls in this system, and whenever you roll doubles, you generate stunt points.  How many stunt points depends on your dragon die (one die of a different color).  You can then use those stunt points immediately to do something cool, like get an extra attack, push an opponent back, or even perform multiple stunts together if you have enough points.

I was intrigued by the stunt system and was curious how it would function in actual play.  I also wondered what gamers who were unfamiliar with the Dragon Age video games would think of the system and the world.

So I gathered together some of my fellow Lords of Tyr and decided to run Duty Unto Death, the introductory adventure featured on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop.  Only one of my players was at all familiar with the Dragon Age video games, so I figured they would be a good group to evaluate the game on its merits without affection for the franchise seeping in.

The group quickly divvyed up the pregens, a Ferelden Freeman warrior, a Dalish Elf rogue, and a Human Circle Mage.  Because they were new to Dragon Age, I spent some time discussing the world and how they fit into it.  Luckily, the introductory adventure made this easy, as the characters were all new recruits to the Grey Wardens, and it begins with Duncan explaining key concepts like darkspawn and the Blight to the characters.

The first combat was very interesting.  Stunts came up a lot more frequently then I expected and really added a bit of variety to the “I hit it with my axe” rut that fighter heavy games can fall into.  It also forced the group to think tactically, especially as it was discovered how squishy the non-armored circle mage could be when darkspawn closed in on him.

(The circle mage also learned the importance of the rock armor spell from this combat, and he became a bit obsessed about keeping it up as much as possible since it is not a spell that can really be cast once combat has begun because of its long casting time.)

Because the game started a bit late, we only were able to fit in one more combat encounter in the session. By this time the group was pretty acclimated to the rules, and were really looking forward to stunts when they came up.

After the session, feedback was pretty positive.  Stephanie, still the newest gamer in this particular group despite having years of experience at this point, gave the most positive review.  She liked the stunt system, but seemed even more intrigued by the setting, which she thought had a lot of depth.  So I guess that is more of a thumbs up to Bioware, which created the Dragon Age setting for their video games.

All and all, it proved to be a very fun session.  It probably won’t become our regular game, as the group is pretty invested in the two long-term campaigns we currently are running, but I can definitely see us returning to it as time permits.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A quick update

I normally try to keep my posts here strictly geek related.  It has been long enough since I posted last though that I thought a quick update was warranted before I (hopefully) begin posting regularly again.

So a lot has been going on in my personal life.  Most significantly, my wife and I have moved halfway across the country from the Windy City to the Valley of the Sun.  We moved because of my work, which has been pretty hectic since I arrived here.  Things have calmed down a bit now though, which is why I am going to try my hand at blogging again.

I am still gaming with the Lords of Tyr using the various amazing digital tools which are available nowadays.  Currently I am running Princes of the Apocalypse (Dungeons & Dragons 5e) and playing through Rise of the Runelords (Pathfinder).  I also recently ran Duty Unto Death (Dragon Age) for my old group when a few of them were in town visiting.

Over the next few weeks I plan to post about virtual table tops, my experience running the Dragon Age RPG, a couple of book and TV show reviews, and possibly a major model building project I am thinking of undertaking.

So if you have been waiting for my triumphant return, here I am!  If you have stumbled across this page by accident (more likely), then I hope you like what you see.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Random Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy

Look, you can see the top of Rocket's head!

Unlike most of the movie going audience, I actually knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were before it was announced they would be appearing in a major motion picture.  That being said, I was pretty ambivalent when it was first announced.  Even though I am a Marvel fanboy, the Marvel cosmic characters were never my thing.  I figured I would catch it on Netflix at some point.  Then the quirky marketing campaign started and I decided to take a chance and see it in the theaters.  I am glad I did.

Guardians of the Galaxy is less of a superhero movie and more of the kind of old-fashioned sci-fi romp that they don’t make anymore.  There is more Star Wars in its DNA than Iron Man.  Peter Quill, or Star-Lord as would prefer to be called, is part Han Solo and part Captain Kirk—at least when it comes to Kirk’s penchant for banging alien-chicks of various skin colors.

Despite being the only human in the cast, Peter Quill is not a point of view character.  By the time you see him as an adult, he has been in space since he was eight years old and is fully acclimated to the strange universe he inhabits.  That is one thing I appreciate about this movie, it is confident enough to do its world-building on screen and drop you straight into the middle of the action.  They filmmakers felt no need to put earth in peril to artificially make the audience care about what was happening.  Instead, the spent the time making you care about the characters and the universe they inhabit.

A lot of the credit for the success of this movie goes to Chris Pratt.  I have been a fan of the actor since I first became aware of him on Parks and Recreation, and his charisma and humor come through full force on the screen.  Much like I have trouble seeing anyone but Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark nowadays, I can’t imagine what this movie would be like without him in it.

This is not to undercut the other performances.  Bradley Cooper is amazing as the voice of Rocket and Vin Diesel is able to convey a surprising amount meaning in saying, “I am Groot”.  Even some of the smaller roles, like John C. Reilly’s “beleaguered cop” member of the Nova Corps and Michael Rooker’s “blueneck” portrayal of Yondu were a joy to see on screen.

Most importantly, the movie knows how to have fun.  It is not the full on comedy you might think it is from seeing the trailers, but it had plenty of laugh out loud moments.  Perhaps more surprising is that the movie was just as good as evoking pathos as it was at evoking laughter.  There are many moments where you really felt the pain of the characters in the movie, even if they were a CGI raccoon or a green skinned alien.

This is my favorite Marvel movie since the Avengers, but the impressive thing is I have been a fan of the Avengers since I was a kid and the Guardians of the Galaxy were a group I mostly knew about as a point of trivia.  The fact that I enjoyed this movie so much is an impressive feat.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dropping skills for backgrounds in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

I am the kind of guy who writes pages of character backgrounds for my characters.  Some of them probably qualify as short stories.  Sometimes they are written from a first person point of view, other times in the form of a journal, occasionally from a third person omniscient or the point of view of another character in the story.  I feel I need to write these backgrounds in order to properly play my character.  Even in the MMORPG City of Heroes, where I never played with deep role-players, each of my ‘toons’ had surprisingly detailed character backgrounds.

I realize not everyone plays this way.  When I am running games getting character backgrounds from some of my players is like pulling teeth.  Often players will present me with character backgrounds no more complex than “I grew up in a peasant village and when I was old enough I left to find my fortune”.  That is OK, everyone has a different playing style.

Still, I like games that encourage characters to develop their background a bit.  Probably the first game I encountered that did this was Warhammer Fantasy in which your character development was tied to your career path.  Knowing that your character was a rat catcher or a merchant before they began adventuring wasn’t much, but it was something.  Last Unicorn Games short-lived Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG took a similar path, where during character generation you would take a number of ‘tours’ on previous starships to determine your skillset.  Maybe you spent a tour on the USS Hood as a security officer even though you were in command now so you were handy with a phaser.

I think my favorite take on this mechanic so far is in 13th Age.  During character creation you allocate a number of points to backgrounds.  Rather than specific skills you might say you spent time as a cat-burglar, a guild mage, or a merchant.  Maybe you were a poacher (4 points) who was drafted as a soldier (2 points) and then became a animal trainer (2 points) when you got out.  Rather than have a specific list of skills, you roll and add an appropriate ability modifier plus points in your background where you would roll a skill check in D&D.  If the party needed to track someone through the woods and one character had a poacher background while another had a bounty hunter background, both could make the roll using their background points plus their wisdom modifier.  However, if they needed to tie up a captive probably only the bounty hunter background would be applicable.

During the D&D Next playtest, I always thought this system would be easy to implement as a house rule.  D&D Next was already more skill light than D&D 3e or D&D 4e after all.  So I was pleased to hear that at Origins there was talk of an optional module that would use backgrounds instead of skills in a similar manner.  Assuming it is well implemented, I would definitely use that option in any D&D 5e games I run.

Or I guess I could just run a 13th Age instead.  It really is a fun system.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What digital offerings I want from D&D 5e

Bad digital tools make me want to burn the whole place down!My gaming group makes extensive use of digital tools when playing.  We have vast PDF libraries that keep us from breaking our backs hauling books back and forth.  We use various character generation tools to assist with character creation and tracking.  We use virtual game tables both for ease of play and to allow members who cannot attend locally to join in the fun remotely.  Digital tools are an essential part of our game.  Trapdoor Technologies, a new licensee for Dungeons & Dragons digital tools, asked on their website what we want out of Codename Morningstar.  Here is my wish list.

Affordable PDFs

This is more in Wizards of the Coast court than Trapdoor Technologies.

Wizards of the Coast has a spotty history when it comes to PDFs.  In third edition PDFs were priced exactly the same as the physical book.  This meant that they often cost more than you could get the physical books for off of Amazon and even most local game stores.  It also meant that at $30 or more a pop that most gamers had to make a choice between buying a physical book or buying the PDF.  Personally, I enjoy reading a physical book but love the convenience of a searchable PDF during game play.  By offering PDFs at a reasonable price Pazio and other publishers have encouraged me to purchase both.

In fourth edition Wizards of the Coast moved away from PDFs and offered up the D&D Compendium as a digital alternative.  The D&D Compendium was great, but it didn’t allow you to see the rules in their original context.  There is a place for a tool like the D&D Compendium, but I does not replace PDF versions of the books.

Of course Wizards of the Coast has made great strides in their PDF offerings with the D&D Classics site.  However, they still tend to be a bit pricey on the newer stuff and don’t tend to release PDFs concurrently with their new releases.  I hope that this will change with the release of fifth edition.

A robust and customizable character generator

I like character generators and I even liked the D&D Character Builder offered through D&D Insider.  It had a major flaw though, as it did not handle house rules very well.  This is why I prefer a character generator like PCGen.  The ability to load my own datasets far outweighed the occasional quirkiness of the program.  Strong support for house rules is a must.

A useful virtual game table

There are a lot of great virtual game table products out there.  Personally, we use MapTools, but Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds are great products as well.  A great virtual game table must be customizable, allow easy access to remote players, and provide useful management tools for the DM to run encounters.  All three of the virtual game tables I have listed above do this.

To be honest the opportunity here is almost closed.  Where there is still opportunity is to integrate this in with the vast stores of data Wizards of the Coast can provide.  Making it seamless to drop in monsters with full stats and seamless integration with character sheets would make all the difference.  I know it would convince me to switch.

Campaign management tools

There is probably a lot of room for improvement here.  Realm Works is great for campaign prep, but  Obsidian Portal is probably the leader here.  It bills itself as a campaign wiki site, but it provides a lot of tools for game masters to keep track of the locations and characters while only surfacing to the players what the game master wants them to know. 

Outside of the gaming software world, I have found both Workflowy (an outliner) and Evernote (a robust note taking program) to be invaluable tools for organizing campaigns.  I have also been considering trying Scrivner, which is intended for authors who are organizing a novel, but would probably work just as well for a campaign.

I would look to all of these tools for inspiration.

It is more than just a Windows world

D&D Insider ran on Microsoft Silverlight.  While some of my group members use Windows laptops, some use MacBooks, Ubuntu Linux laptops, iPads, and Android devices.  Silverlight did not work very well for them.

Please make sure that whatever digital solutions are created are multi-platform.  Make sure that these solutions are mobile friendly as well.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wizards of the Coast’s new model?

Wizards of the Coast is working with a new licensee, Trapdoor Technologies, to deliver digital tools for Dungeons & Dragons 5e.  In May, Wizards of the Coast announced Kobold Press designed two of the adventures to support the Tyranny of Dragons storylineDriveThruRPG has been powering Dungeons & Dragons Classics for awhile now.  I think this may represent a subtle shift in how Wizards of the Coast is handling Dungeons & Dragons.

I’ve already talked at length about how I feel Wizards of the Coast should focus on their core competencies and let others develop tools for the game in the context of the OGL. It looks like Wizards of the Coast is doing this, except instead of an open source model they are planning to work with specific licensees to fill the void.

While I would personally prefer an open source model, this makes sense from Wizards of the Coast’s point of view.  They can focus their internal resources on the rules and farm tasks that go outside their core competencies to other groups while still maintaining a tight control over how their intellectual property is used.  Seriously, this is win-win for them.

Hopefully, they will open things up a bit more down the road, as Mike Mearls said they would in 2015.  I still maintain that a robust gaming license is good for the hobby, and that what is good for the hobby is good for Dungeons & Dragons.