Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: The Beards and Battleaxes RPG?

Cover art from one of the GW army books
Hello everyone, sorry for a lack of posts Friday and Monday, things were a little troubled on the home front. But here we are again, talking about gaming. After venting my frustration last week, I began thinking of a gaming project I could undertake, something simple, specific, and entertaining to me personally, while at the same time, viable as a product that can be shared to folks out there in the world at large.

So I settled on a game about dwarves.

I like dwarves. I've played them in various RPGs. The Dwarfs (not Dwarves, but Dwarfs) were my first Warhammer Fantasy Battle army. They're short, stout, and bearded, just like me, and although beer isn't my go-to form of alcohol these days, I can certainly appreciate a well-brewed pint of ale or stout. Dwarves are also usually portrayed as gruff, curmudgeonly little assholes who don't like taking shit from anyone and hold grudges far longer than rationally reasonable, and yes, guilty as charged on all counts.

A single player-race game might seem limiting, but it is also focused. It lessens the number of decisions during character creation and reduces the rules and word count, keeping the game tighter. Also, I would probably stick with tradition and limit any form of Dwarven magic to a kind of rune-crafting, coupled with perhaps some kind of holy boons or blessings from Dwarven gods. Again, it limits player choice, but also alleviates the need for a player-side spell catalogue (which in many games can be equivalent to all the other rules put together).

From a GW Dwarf infantry minis box
As for adventures, I think a lot of the major bases can be covered. Dungeon and underground exploration is an obvious go-to, but you can also have dwarves patrolling the areas around their strongholds, overland expeditions, trips to human (or non-human) lands and cities, long-distance explorations, diplomatic trips, monster hunts...with a little thought, almost any adventure type is possible.

As for the rules, I think I have a good foundation I want to build upon. Originally I thought of going with the core rules I developed for my stalled-out Tankards & Broadswords RPG, but I think for the moment I am going to set those aside and try something a little more basic, and if that doesn't seem to fit my needs, we'll reconsider. I think the rules should be simple, avoid a lot of math, and most difficult of all, not be just a generic system but an expression of the concept of the game. How we get there, we'll have to find out.

So, I'm going to leave this be for now. Next week I hope to have a few more details on this, and as time goes on, we'll build bit by bit. In the end, this is likely just going to be a downloadable PDF that anyone can enjoy, so we're keeping it as simple and straightforward as possible.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: Nine Novels, Zero RPGs

Old Cover Draft from Wayyyy Back When
Going to cut and paste in a series of posts from Twitter that I wrote this weekend. Every year or so, I get this notion of "finally" finishing a small role-playing game product that I can let out into the wild. I don't think I'd sell it, just create a PDF that's available for download, perhaps put a print-on-demand version on Amazon for as cheaply as they'll let me. But year after year, it doesn't happen, and I got thinking about why recently:
I've blogged about it in the past, but it is very strange for me to face that I have written nine novels and many shorter works of fiction, but the thought of putting out a short role-playing game product is vastly more nerve-wracking. 

I've been gaming since '93 and writing for profit since 2011. I ran campaigns with several homebrew RPG systems over the years, and tinkered with probably a dozen more system ideas. Yet, I have never had the nerve to finish a gaming product, package it, and put it out there.

At first I thought it was fear of criticism, but being a novelist beats that out of you pretty quickly. Maybe it's knowing that most readers just consume your product and move on, but so many gamers I know are system-tinkerers. It's like running a restaurant where half your customers are also running their own restaurants. Every single person who buys it is going to be deciding whether they could have done this better than you, and how.

Because that's the nature of RPGs. And that's fine, except that means not just criticism, but active, in-depth critique. No 4* reviews on Amazon "Fun read but the action was a little confusing". You have to defend every rule and every wording against everyone who reads it.

And to have that level of exhausting engagement, and so much of my time dedicated to a project that'd probably earn me 1% of what a novel would (if I even put it out at a price, which I probably wouldn't) just seems...not worth it.

Which kind if sucks, because I love role-playing games, and I have been a tinkering game designer for 25+ years. But the meat grinder which is that middle-aged person's algorithm of time, money, and energy vs reward is difficult to overcome.
I wrote a post about this back in 2015 on my Tankards and Broadswords blog (click to go there and read it, it's still relevant). It's funny that in the last four years, despite continued tinkering, I still don't have any kind of RPG product to share. I'm fully aware that the skill set of "Game Designer" and "Novelist" only partially overlap, but I think that is only a small portion of the problem. So, we shall see. I've got a few ideas, and I feel like if I can start small enough, I can build on a little idea incrementally. Only time will tell.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Media Monday: Rambo V - Last Blood

There's no good way to approach a review of this without sinking neck-deep into the current socio-political quagmire. There just isn't. I'm going to do my best to talk about it without engaging this, but I will fail. I'm just putting it out there that this review isn't meant to be a discussion of racism and politics in film, but rather, how to handle such issues in a way that doesn't make you look like a pack of morons.

Rambo: Last Blood is a garbage movie. There, I said it. Bring on the hate. I grew up watching the Rambo movies on VHS and (edited) television channels, so if someone wants to accuse me of not loving mindless action movies, come at me, bro. I saw Rambo 4 in the theater and left absolutely thrumming with adrenaline because I thought it was, if not a masterpiece, certainly leagues better than Rambo 3, and felt like they at least put some effort into addressing the complexities of the issues at hand with how outsiders view violent civil conflicts, and the futility of "helping" in regions where such help is marginal at best, and bloodily counter-productive at worst.

Last Blood, on the other hand, appears to have been conceived for the sole purpose of getting to the last 20 minutes of the film, and no one gave any real thought or care as to how the film got there. In order to talk about this, I'm going to have to deal with some extensive plot spoilers, so now is your chance to bail now if you don't want this.

Keep scrolling.

Almost there.

A little more.

Last chance.

Okay then, don't blame me if you're reading this and don't want spoilers.

The long and the short of it is that Rambo is now living on a horse ranch in Arizona with Maria, a woman who is at least approximate to his age, and Gabriela, a young girl who is graduating from high school and going off to college. The first big problem here is that Rambo's relationship to these two women is never actually explained. At the end of Rambo 4, you see Rambo going to a place that you assume is his family farm, but in this movie, you don't really know who is related to whom. Rambo isn't Gabriela's father, or even her grandfather. There's mention of her mother, and a deadbeat dad, whom Rambo stopped apparently at one point from beating up the mother. I'm not even sure of the relationship between Maria and the younger girl - I think she might be an aunt, but I can't say for sure. Seeing as the film spends at least its first 20-25 minutes establishing the family dynamic, the fact that I couldn't figure out the relationships makes this just sloppy writing. This is especially annoying, because the entire reason Rambo goes so batshit later on is that the girl is so emotionally important to him, the "one good thing in his life".

OK, according to Wikipedia, Rambo has no relationship to any of these people. The horse ranch belonged to his dead father, and Maria is the grandmother to Gabriela, and Maria just...runs the household? That at least makes sense, but this relationship isn't really ever laid out clearly, which shouldn't be that hard. You at least know that Gabriela's mother died of cancer when she was little, and after that, her father - who was apparently always an asshole - leaves her with Maria and goes off to Mexico. Fast forward to now, when Maria is 18. A childhood friend of hers - Gizelle, who is referred to as a "bad girl" by Maria - is now living in Mexico, and she has found Gabriela's father, who apparently lives in the same Mexican town. Despite Rambo and Maria repeatedly telling her that her dad Miguel was a violent asshole and she shouldn't have anything to do with him, and Rambo even telling her that she should maybe let her urge to visit her father simmer a little before she makes the decision to visit him, Gabriela almost immediately ducks out and drives down to Mexico to go find Gizelle and her father.

I've already spent two long paragraphs here, so I'll keep this short. Dad is an asshole (surprise) and tells Gabriela to beat it. Gabriela is sad, Gizelle takes her to a club, where she sells (!!!!!!) Gabriela to some sex traffickers, who then drug and kidnap Gabriela. Gizelle then calls back to Maria, tells her she lost Gabriela, and Rambo goes full batshit mode and drives down to Mexico, where he finds Gizelle, realizes she sold out Gabriela, and gets her to point out one of the bad guys. Stuff happens, Rambo fails, and gets beat up by the rest of the bad guys, who decide not to kill Rambo, a guy who just tortured one of their own, and showed up with a pistol and a knife.

Gabriela gets doped up, gets her face slashed, and is put to work as a forced prostitute. Eventually Rambo learns from an "independent journalist" (who just happens to watch him torture one of the bad guys and saves him after his beating) where to find Gabriela, but alas, after he saves her, she dies in his car as they're just...I don't know, driving around in the dark. Yes it makes no sense. He finally drives over the border and brings her body home, then buries her on the farm. Maria just packs up and leaves. Rambo tells her he's going to leave too, but that's a lie. He goes back to Mexico and kills one of the two lead bad guys in a way so that they know it was him. He then comes back home, preps his murder maze, and in the last 20 minutes of the film, kills everyone. The end.

You might be thinking, "Hey, this actually sounds awesome, what's the problem?" but honestly, everything is just so stupid. It's not that the characters make stupid decisions - although there is some of that - but that every time the story reaches a point where something could be done in an interesting, intelligent, nuanced fashion, the car screeches off the road and goes into the ditch. By the time you get to the climactic battle at the end, it is boorishly obvious that the entire reason the film was made was to show Rambo running around an underground death maze, murdering bad guys with knives, punji sticks, old-timey guns, booby traps, and other assorted ordnance (claymore mines and hand grenades???). There isn't even any strategy or cleverness to any of it - bad guys just die, over and over, running flat-out into death and screaming in blood and pain.

I'm sure many of you are STILL shaking your heads and saying, hey, what's the problem? The problem is, it is stupid, sloppy work. This movie could have been a really good reflection on the plight of old soldiers who never really left the war behind. On PTSD and re-integration, on wanting to be left alone, only to find violence at one's doorstep again. And while you might think there's some of this, the movie only ever skims the surface, like a stone skipping across the water, but never sinking, just bouncing back out on the other side of the river. What was the point of the movie? What themes does it dig into? What message does it send? You could get the same thrill just firing up your XBox and killing dudes in some FPS game for a couple of hours.

And yes, I am skirting the whole "Mexico" issue. The only thing I'll say about that is, you could have told the exact same kind of story, even with most of the major plot elements relatively intact - and not use Mexico as this sort of Hades-esque underworld that you only venture into at your own risk. It is, again, sloppy, tone-deaf plotting that so obviously doesn't care how it is going to be received, and in fact is probably counting on "snowflakes" hating the movie to stir up buzz and get defensive butts in seats in support of the movie. I don't know, and that's not something I want to engage with, but again - there were many directions the movie-makers could have taken this story and at the same time, left its bones intact. They picked a route through some really, really questionable waters, and at the same time, made a film so sloppy and superficial that there's no real substance to back up the choices they made, except to get us to the finale with extreme prejudice.

Honestly, I am really disappointed.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Fiction Friday: The Stonehaven League LitRPG Series

The "LitRPG" genre of fiction is...a weird one. It's not actually that new, however. The premise is that these stories revolve around characters who exist within a "game world", i.e., a world that is artificial and created as part of a game. The degree of artificiality in LitRPG stories can be very obvious, or the world can feel completely real, but still exist only as a result of some kind of game.

The first novel that I know of which seems to fall into this kind of genre, although it wasn't called LitRPG at the time, was Andre Norton's 1978 novel Quag Keep, a story about a bunch of adventurers in a medieval-type world who are actually people from Earth who were playing a role-playing game. Given that Dungeons and Dragons was roughly four years old at the time Quag Keep was published, Norton got on the bandwagon fairly early. Many others have followed over the years, one of the most notable being Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series, which started in 1983 with The Sleeping Dragon. Beyond the written word, one would consider the '80s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series to be a form of this kind of genre, as would, I feel, the movie TRON.

But the modern form of the LitRPG novel is more commonly based around computer games, and more specifically, not people transported to worlds, but rather, immersed in them through play. As virtual reality is more common these days in gaming (and is growing bigger every day), the idea of putting on VR gear and submerging yourself as your character in a game world is very real. In fact, Ready Player One  is a perfect example of this.

Enough background, though. Author and former (?) game developer Carrie Summers has written an engaging series of LitRPG / GameLit novels, which in the "real world" are set a few decades in the future, where virtual reality gaming has extended all the way to cybernetic implants that dump the virtual reality of the game right into our brain's perception of reality. In her first book, Temple of Sorrows, a young woman named Devon leaves her crappy job to work as a kind of "super-tester" for a gaming company, Relic Online, in order to push the game and it's artificial intelligence to the limits of what a capable, creative player can do.

Devon logs into the game, stunned at how the direct neural connection to the game world seems so incredibly real - she can feel the wind and the sun, the grass under her feet and the cloth of her clothing. Yet, the world still acts as a Computer Role-Playing Game. She has skills and abilities and she gains experience and levels up. When she kills a monster, the touch of a blade turns the monster's body into "loot" that can be used for other things. Anyone who has played a computer RPG in the last...twenty years or so will be familiar with the tropes of the world and its setting.

I don't want to give the plot away, but suffice to say, there is plenty going on in both the real world and the in-game world. This leads to dangers on both sides for Devon, something that I found interesting as it kept the story from being completely about her adventures in-game, and raised the stakes a little. And while this book is probably perfectly fine for a YA audience, there is a good deal of violence going on, so those who want action will get that, while those who like the puzzle-solving and "game-ness" of a game world will also have something to look forward to.

Overall, this is an enjoyable series. If I remember right, I've read the first three books, and I am just starting the fourth. with six books currently in the series. These books are all available in Kindle (for purchase or Kindle Unlimited) and paperback, and the first four are currently available as audiobooks. If this seems in any way interesting to you, I definitely recommend checking them out.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: eBay Miniature Rescues

Today I just wanted to spotlight a great YouTube channel, eBay Miniature Rescues. Casey is a talented painter and a very nice hobbyist (I've exchanged emails with him before and he was polite and very helpful), who specializes on - you guessed it - finding used and often ill-treated miniatures on eBay, buying them, and then doing a paint-stripping and repainting project with them. His channel appears relatively new, with only a couple dozen videos, but the quality has progressed enormously over time, and the production value of his video work is now absolutely fantastic.

Here's a recent video where Casey strips and repaints an older Warhammer Fantasy Battles model.

As you can see, pretty darn cool. Although he tends towards the fantasy side of the miniature spectrum, Casey will also do Warhammer 40,000 rescues, such as this squad of Chaos Marines:

Although Casey's painting talents far exceed my own, he's given me some of the confidence I needed to begin my own eBay rescue projects. If you are interested in going out onto eBay and finding your own miniatures, as I talked about in a previous blog post, Casey even has a video on some good searching techniques:

So, if you have any interest in the second-hand miniatures market, you absolutely should check out eBay Miniature Rescues.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Media Monday: Enjoy Entertainment For What It Is

Another short but hopefully thought-provoking post today.

First, I know this has the potential to draw in issues of social justice and other real-world problems that we are all struggling with in one way or another, and I get that. Entertainment is there, first and foremost, to entertain us, and that usually means some element of escapism. That kind of escapism is different for everyone, and while there are certainly some issues that should always be addressed, there are a lot of people for whom escapism means being able to step away from those issues. I am not going to say this is a good or a bad thing, just that it is a sentiment often expressed, and for those people, that sentiment is real. I guess that is my wishy-washy way of saying that I am trying to not directly address social issues here, but instead a more all-encompassing philosophy of entertainment.

For me, that philosophy breaks down to "Enjoy entertaining things for what they are, don't hate them for what they are not". No body of entertainment is perfect, nor can any one body of entertainment media address perfectly all aspects of itself that all consumers may find entertaining. If your go-to for entertainment is gross-out comedy movies, clearly that is not going to appeal to people whose go-to entertainment excludes gross-out humor. I see no point in anyone who dislikes gross-out humor watching such films and then complaining about them. This holds true for almost any form of entertainment, and while we might all be forgiven decades ago for going to movies or watching television shows that we were ignorant of, now that we have the Internet, that is a lack of due diligence on the part of the viewer.

I first started (recently) thinking about this when I saw the fan-rage over the teaser trailer to the latest Star Wars movie, Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker. There's a moment with a folding lightsaber - yes, that moment, I can see you folks in the back already twitching in your seats - and within hours, never mind days of that trailer going live, the internet was flooded with people screaming and foaming at the mouth over how stupid a gimmick this was and so on. One particular YouTube channel had a 23-minute long video complaining about the lightsaber. Do you know how long it takes to produce a reasonably professional 23-minute long YouTube video? With props and everything? This person likely invested days worth of work to make it, all to complain about something in five seconds of a trailer for a move about laser swords and space magic.

And you know why? Because the video got tens of thousands of monetized views. But that's a whole other article for another day.

People like to get outraged about things. Yes, there are issues worth getting outraged about, but the shape of a science fiction laser sword isn't one of them. This obsessive, fandom-ish need to explain and legitimize and pick apart and deconstruct every single aspect of our entertainment media is not only exhaustive, it's honestly annoying. It becomes this battleground where people spend more time arguing over their entertainment than actually enjoying anything. This is one of the reasons I don't visit Facebook groups around WW2 films or books - everyone in there is a rivet-counting asshole, and if they aren't, they get shouted down by the rivet-counting assholes. Every single movie you bring up in such a group, there's going to be someone who hates it because some aspect of it was displeasing to them.

I remember someone complaining about the end of Saving Private Ryan because when the Tiger tank is destroyed by the airplane, the plane didn't have empty bomb or rocket racks attached to its lower fuselage. I also remember someone complaining about the movie Fury, and how "laughably stupid" it was that the Tiger in that movie - in real life the only operational Tiger 1 in the entire world, acquired from the Bovington Tank Museum for use in the film - was in its 1943 Tunisian camouflage paint pattern, and not what one would see on a Tiger in mid-1945. Yeah I am sure the staff at Bovington are just going to paint over and then painstakingly strip and re-paint the only operational Tiger tank in the world just for some asshole in a movie theater. I mean, yeah, this is a bit silly.

I guess my overall point here is, be honest about what you want from entertainment, seek that out, and don't complain about what was never intended to be there. Don't watch Wizards in Space for realistic engineering and physics demonstrations. Don't watch war movies if you'll have an aneurysm over the smallest historical inaccuracy. Don't watch horror movies if you're not prepared to see stupid horror movie tropes in action. Don't watch stupid raunchy sex comedies if you're not prepared to see cringe-worthy sex and gender stereotyping. For a large percentage of the population - for good or for ill - humor is about that which causes discomfort. The Office was all about "cringe humor". America's Funniest Home Videos was all about dads getting whacked in the crotch by whiffle bats. There is no getting away from this - it is at the heart of what is entertaining for some people.

Now, to circle back to my opening statement, you can be justified in being upset at something when it tries to do that thing, but actively fails to do so. If your entertainment is about female empowerment, but you fall back on cringy, decades-old stereotypes, or if your message is that female empowerment is in some way bad and you're trying to be edgy by subverting this...than people should call you out for what you are, because you are trying to do that thing and doing it badly. This also doesn't mean you can be left off the hook for obvious racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on just by saying "well this movie was never intended to address that". We live in too-aware a society for that to be a legitimate excuse anymore. I sort of look at it like the old doctor's premise, "First, do no harm". As long as you can avoid being actively racist, sexist, and so forth, I feel you are not required to actively address those and other social issues if that is not the nature and theme of your entertainment.

At the end of the day, as I mentioned in a recent post about modern reading habits and sources of entertainment, we only have so many hours in the day in which to consume entertainment, so why would we purposefully seek out entertainment that doesn't fit with our entertainment comfort zone? Life is too short and blood pressure too high already for us to do that to ourselves.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Fiction Friday: THE LAST WISH: Introducing the Witcher

If you follow video gaming at all, you've likely heard of The Witcher series of open-world RPG video games. They feature the monster-hunting Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, wandering the world and killing that which goes bump in the night. The world of the Witcher is based around Slavic folklore, a flavor of Western monster mythology that is a little removed from what most of us are used to unless you are really into the subject of bestiary folklore.

But fewer people realize that the Witcher and his world started out as a series of short stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Most of the stories were written in the 1990s, but it wasn't until the mid-oughts and later that they were given English translations. Coming at the end of this year, Netflix is releasing a television series based around the stories, and of course both fans of the books and the video games are howling over how the details shown in the trailer don't do the series justice.

Curious about both such a popular video game character and what might drive Netflix to pick up the IP, I grabbed the first (chronologically) anthology of short stories, THE LAST WISH. I was immediately hooked. For a book translated from a different language, the prose is evocative and pulls you right into the world, a very dark, late medieval-era feeling fantasy realm, very similar to the Ravenloft setting of Dungeons & Dragons. If you aren't familiar with Slavic folklore, some of the creatures might seem unusual to you, but that slightly alien nature just adds to the creepiness of the setting - this isn't some adventurer going after your usual orcs and goblins, this is a true monster hunter, for whom a blend of swords, sorcery, and dark knowledge is needed to take on the evils lurking in the deep forests and crumbling towers.

So if you like dark fairy-tale fantasy with an Eastern European bent to it, do yourself a favor and check out Sapkowski's fiction. I'll definitely find time this fall to work my way through more of Geralt's adventures.