Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player's Handbook - First Impressions

After all the waiting and anticipation of a new Dungeons and Dragons edition coming out, I'd completely forgotten that yesterday was the official release date. I'd intended to pick it up via Amazon for 40% off the cover price next month, but found myself near the local hobby store, and made the impulse decision to pick up the book at full price.

I'd only intended to give the book a cursory look last night, but I sat down with it about 6:30 or so, and didn't put it down until after 11:00.

I'm pretty impressed with the production values overall. I like the color of the paper, finding it a lot easier to read than the stark white of 4E, and not as dark (although I have to check) as 3E. The font is nice and readable even for me, and I like the use of Serif and Sans Serif fonts in certain places. A lot of thought was put into the overall typography and layout of the book, and it shows.

It took a bit, but I'm now completely sold on the artwork. I was never a fan of the 3E/4E art direction, finding it way too cartoonish and/or comic-bookish. There's nothing wrong with that on its own, but for a game that's supposed to be highly universal in the tones and settings it is applied towards, I think the overall look was too specific. The new art, on the other hand, does a good job of looking ahistorical, while at the same time, grounded in a "fantastical reality" - people actually look like people, creatures like actual creatures, and so forth. Art is terribly subjective and many will disagree with me, but I think it fits a perfect balance of the fantastical and the realistic, reminding me of some of the better 1E and 2E color art from back in the day (which, nostalgia aside, varied WIDELY in quality). Also, it was really great to see a lack of cheesecake art - no chain-mail bikinis or exaggerated "boob-plate" armor. All depictions of the female form were tasteful and again, grounded in a balance of fantasy and reality. This was a big win for me, as I feel it gives a very positive view of female PCs as something other than Black Widow-esque sexy femme fatales or nearly nude magical pixie maidens.

After a single skim through the whole rulebook, I spent most of my time reading the character creation material. I like the balance of the races and classes, some minor quibbles aside. Halflings are now much disengaged from their Hobbit origins, which is I suppose smart, but may alienate some purists. The Dragonborn and Tiefling races don't interest me at all, but since they are carry-overs from more recent editions, and I suppose were middilingly popular, I have no strong feelings either way. I suppose after 40 years, there's room for some original races! I also like that there's a lot of callbacks to how different D&D settings handled differences in the races, as well as discussions on how each race sees itself and other races interacting within the generic campaign setting framework.

As for classes, it was interesting to see how many and to how much of a degree characters have access to spells. Three different "arcane" classes, as well as Bards, Paladins, and Rangers getting much beefier spellcasting abilities (at least, as compared to what I remember). I might go so far as to say the pendulum has swung too far in giving too much access to spellcasting, but as so many multiclass combinations had to do with adding magic to a class, I suppose it makes sense.

I do feel as if the career paths start a little early at 3rd level, but in earlier editions by that point players already had a pretty firm grasp of what they wanted for their character. For the most part, I feel the paths are most reminiscent of 2E class kits, and while some of those back in the day were a little lame, others were really colorful and added a lot to the build. I've seen people complain that the paths are too binding, i.e., "Why can't I play just a plain old vanilla Fighter?", and I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the answers for this question - and many more - are to be found in the DMG.

There's a bunch more to comment on, but overall I'm definitely liking what I see. I felt 3E was too crunchy and bean-county for "Dungeons & Dragons", although I liked the move to a unified mechanic and a more modern (for the time) RPG design approach. I had little love for 4E, finding its attempt to make a tabletop RPG into a weird board game / video game just unappealing to my own personal sensibilities. 5E actually feels a lot like a blend of Castles & Crusades and Pathfinder, two games that were very well received, and I think overall that was a smart design choice. This game FEELS like "Dungeons & Dragons" should feel to me, after 40 years of game evolution.

Monday, August 4, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I'm not a huge comic book fan. Not because I dislike the medium - I think comics can tell some amazing stories - but because they can hook you into an obligation to buy more and more as your understanding and interest in the universe grows. Marvel has a huge line of comic titles stretching back decades, and it is really easy to lose track of what is going on with your favorite characters.

Because of this, I think Marvel Studios took a calculated risk when they decided on Guardians of the Galaxy to be their grand introduction to the greater, off-Terra setting that is the Marvel (Cinematic) Universe (aka, the MCU). Would the non-geeks understand what was going on? Would they have interest in the characters? Would it tie together with the previous movies in a meaningful way? Would audiences accept a talking raccoon with a machine gun and a walking plant-man as heroes?

Thankfully, I think the answer to all of the above is a resounding "Yes!".

This was an extremely well-crafted film, carefully designed to ease an unfamiliar audience into the vast, epic scale of the MCU. Starting on Earth in 1988, we meet the young Peter Quill on the night his mother dies of cancer, and Peter is abducted by aliens. We then fast-forward 26 years, to a dead planet, where we find Quill, now an artifact-hunting thief who (unsuccessfully) goes by the moniker of "Starlord". Smartly, the filmmakers tie the young boy to the man he's now become with one simple connection - the Walkman he had with him when he was abducted. Even if you were completely oblivious to the pre-screening promotions and knew nothing about Quill, the simple act of him putting on the headphones ties us back to that young boy on Earth, and we know just what's going on.

As an aside, the Walkman also serves as the instrument through which one of the movie's best features is presented - the soundtrack. For the last 26 years, Quill has been listening to "Awesome Mix Vol. 1", the cassette in the Walkman when he was abducted. It's full of great music and these tracks are used perfectly throughout the film, also providing a diegetic source for the soundtrack (a trick I usually really enjoy when done in a clever manner).

The plot of the story is actually pretty simple. Quill steals The Orb from the dead planet, and it turns out Ronan (the Big Bad Guy) wants it to do Bad Stuff. Ronan chases Quill and his ragtag band of unexpected allies across the galaxy. Will the Guardians figure out how to stop Ronan before he blows up the planet Xandar? Take a guess, hotshot. But while the plot is very basic, I think it serves as a good means of introducing the vastness of the MCU. You don't have to worry much about following a twisty-turny plot with complex character arcs, in addition to trying to figure out what the Kree Empire is, or who the Ravagers are. The information is delivered in succinct, bite-sized pieces, easily digestible by folks such as myself who couldn't tell you the difference between the Kree Empire and the Nova Empire if we tried.

This is probably a good time to mention another really strong aspect of this film - its great sense of humor. There are funny moments in all of the Marvel films, but GotG is the first to come across as a borderline comedy. There are moments which are laugh-out-loud funny, mostly orchestrated by Chris Pratt in his role as Peter Quill, but also Rocket Raccoon, the all-too-literal responses from Drax, and even the straight-man comments from many of the other characters. I don't think any of the other Marvel movies would have been able to get away with dropping "turd blossom" in the middle of a deadly serious moment and have it work, but GotG pulls it off in a way that feels natural to the spirit of the film; it is a rollicking adventure ride through space, filled with gun battles, spaceship fights, fisticuffs, madcap hijinks, and more than anything else, a great sense of fun. I've seen every film in the MCU lineup multiple times now, and Guardians of the Galaxy is easily the most "fun" film of the lot. I think that was a deliberate choice by Marvel (given a film with a trigger-happy raccoon, this makes sense), but it would have been all too easy for the fun-factor to come off gimmicky or forced.Thankfully here, that is not the case at all.

In conclusion, if you like fun, fast-paced sci-fi adventures, and/or you're a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think you'll enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy.