Friday, July 20, 2018

What Is Wrong With Iron Fist?

I watched the trailer for the second season of Iron Fist, and it's just not that visually interesting. Eventually his fist glows and he does a ground pound shockwave thing.

It is obvious there is a tonal issue with Iron Fist, and that much has been evident from the original series launch. Iron Fist in the comics is a much more philosophical character that was much more influenced by the area where he was trained, while Danny in the TV series somehow manages to retain some of the worst elements of his own culture, even though he’s spent a significant portion of his life in K’un L’un.

That said, it can be hard to just “fix” tone, and it can be difficult to get a handle on a very physical character with a martial arts background without looking at how you visually communicate information about that character.

It strikes me that the starting point for Danny really should have been that he is a wuxia character that is not in a wuxia story. While the Netflix Marvel stories are aiming for a gritty, street level feeling, the contrast between the established setting of this version of New York with Danny’s “native genre” would have made for a better contrast. Instead of running away from the mystical elements of the character and/or toning them down, they should have dove straight into them.

I’m not an expert on Danny Rand. I read Heroes for Hire as a young child in the 80s (where I got to see them cross over with ROM, Spaceknight!), but a lot of what I’ve seen of Danny has come from his appearances in other comics. That said, I have some familiarity with the character.

His fist and his tattoo glow, he can magic punch people, and he can even do things like healing others. He is a wuxia character.

While I have never seen a comic that shows him hovering in the air while performing his attacks (something that isn’t evident in a static medium like comics), or defying gravity to run up walls or the like, this is exactly what he should have been doing in his series.

Using more wirework to portray Danny’s martial arts as clearly mystical would have also helped to alleviate the problem with the actor not being the most proficient with his fighting. If he can run up a wall and backflip over an opponent, nobody is going to think twice about sloppy or sluggish punches or blocks, because that’s not what is impressive about his “style.”

In this paradigm, the setting is still gritty and street level. In fact, Danny isn’t immune to bullets or swords. He can just defy gravity for a few seconds at a time, run up walls, and do other “supernatural” things. With that as your starting point, instead of “grounding” the character, anything else you do to differentiate him will flow naturally from realizing that he isn’t fighting his supernatural, philosophical background, but trying to integrate it into a world that is much less ethereal than the one he left.

In other words, for a character that is defined by being a martial artist, the best way to decide how to portray him is to understand his martial arts. While also moves him away from being a white guy with a chip on his shoulder, that means that the character’s current starting point is the same as Daredevil’s and Punisher’s.

Image result for Jianghu hustle

Credit Where Credit is Due

A lot of my thoughts on this wouldn’t have crystalized without listening to Jianghu Hustle. You should totally be listening to that podcast. They are awesome.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews?--Chronicles of Sorrow: Sorrow's Ruin

The funny thing about today’s review--I was just getting ready to pick it up, when I was contacted by the author about doing a review. I chose to buy it myself, because I was already going to do so. So, I guess . . . half disclaimer for being contacted by the author, but not actually getting the review copy for free?

Sorrow’s Ruin is the first part in a series of adventures that are being published under the banner of Chronicles of Sorrow, and is available on the Dungeon Masters Guild.

 Physical Parameters of Sorrow
The PDF itself has an eye-catching photographic cover of a model dressed as the titular Sorrow, as well as the title itself, which incorporates the name of the ongoing series. The interior has a simple but clear and functional layout, with large red headers, grey sidebars, and a two-column format.

There are simple full-color maps for various encounter locations included in the book. The book is 32 pages long, and the last 9 pages are larger reproductions of some of the maps included in various encounters, as well as maps of the (potential) player character home base. There is a dramatis personae list of NPCs as well as a page of NPC stats for characters unique to the adventure. That means the bulk of the adventure is wrapped up in the first 20 pages of the book.

In The Beginning

This adventure is designed for 1st level characters. Characters are meant to end up in Secomber and become champions of the Western Heartlands of the Forgotten Realms. This caught my attention, as I remember fondly all the various city-states and holdings in the Western Heartlands from the AD&D 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms Adventures, hardcover, and it’s a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention these days.

The adventure assumes that PCs are coming into Secomber as caravan guards, and that they have a lull in their employment, at which time the locals have a problem, and recruit them. A woman that works for the local cleric of Ilmater tells them that the cleric has been kidnapped, and offers them a fee to find him in the nearby woods.

Without skipping to the end, this adventure has a nice hook for getting PCs to end up in the region long term, and this is a 1st level adventure. It feels like this introduction tries too hard to be the “standard” beginning to a D&D campaign. If the PCs are assuming they are caravan guards waiting for jobs, it would be very easy for them to just not take the hook (note: as players you shouldn’t do this, but, many adventures seem to frame options in such a way that you might think there could be other hooks waiting for you).

As 1st level adventurers, it almost feels like it would have been better for the PCs to have been directly responding to a job offer sent out by the cleric, as it starts the PCs with buy-in at the beginning of the campaign.

There are some opportunities for the PCs to pick up some clues from the locals, and then decide if they want to head out on their rescue immediately at night, or wait until daytime. It’s harder to track the cleric and his abductors if they wait until daylight, and there is a chance that an additional encounter is triggered. PCs that avoid the additional encounter, according to the adventure, still gain XP for it.

I feel like the choice between nighttime and daytime should have been a little stronger. As it stands, it feels like it serves mainly to punish the PCs for not being willing to help immediately. Since it’s already raining in the nighttime scene, I almost wish that had been ramped up, with the PCs choosing between a nighttime pursuit, mechanically dealing with environmental factors, or waiting until daytime, when the bad guys will be reinforced, but without environmental factors causing potential issues. Maybe I’m just a sucker for PCs needing to worry about things like falling trees, lightning strikes, or sinkholes to get some variety from monster encounters.

I really liked that there was a selection of NPCs to meet and talk with at the inn, but I wish more of their rumors had been more long-term items that helped establish Secomber as an ongoing campaign location. Effectively, you can get a little more detail on some aspects of the challenges coming up by talking with them.

I also wish it had been a little more explicit that the adventure doesn’t flat-out stop of the PCs miss some of their information gathering or tracking rolls. I would have rather an explicit “if they miss these clues or tracks, they run into X as an extra encounter, and then find the place.” It’s a complication, not a dead stop.

I also really like the idea that the guards that will accompany the PCs during the day will potentially complicate the situation by taking a blunt approach to retrieving the cleric, but I would have liked a little more in the way of personality from the guards, with perhaps an explicit call out to the kind of roleplaying that the PCs might engage in to convince the guards not to proceed with the most direct course of action--the automatic assumption that they will complicate the encounter reinforces the idea that the PCs are just getting punished for waiting until the morning, instead of making it a viable option with some benefits.

Sorrow and the Grotto of Forbearance

Once the PCs rescue the cleric of Ilmater, he sends them on another quest to rescue a tiefling prophet that guards a sacred shrine to the god of suffering. We’re told that Sorrow is going to be a major NPC as this series progresses, and she is guarding an artifact that resulted from a confrontation between the followers of Loviatar (the goddess of pain) and Ilmater.

If the PCs accept the job, they arrive exactly at the same time that the local cultists of Loviatar are attacking, and the PCs have a chance to save Sorrow. The pocket dimension that holds the artifact that everyone wants can only be opened by Sorrow, or by her blood, so the cultists are probably opting for the latter.

Because the artifact is going to be important going forward, even after the cultists are stopped, Sorrow wants the PCs to retrieve it, so they can all head back to Secomber. Inside the pocket dimension, various mausoleums have sacred effects that trigger, following Ilmater’s themes of endurance, easing of suffering, and healing, but there are also various undead left over from the previous assault from Loviatar’s forces, where the artifact was created in the first place.

It becomes obvious as the adventure progresses, but since the pocket dimension is partially corrupted by Loviatar’s forces, I would have almost rather her cultists had a means of opening the portal that didn’t involve the guardian’s blood. If they have a means of entering the place, it makes more sense to remove the artifact beyond “later in the series it’s going to be important to a prophecy.” Once the cultists find the location of the shrine, if they have their own means of entering the pocket dimension, it becomes a lot more logical to move the artifact.

I also wish that the undead forces of Loviatar in the corrupted pocket dimension had names and quirks. I know most of them are low-level undead, but given that there is a bit of a hint at the saints and martyrs of Ilmater that watch over the place, the opposite number might have been fun as well.

That said, I really liked the various effects of the tombs in this section. There are some places where PCs will be asked to say something relevant to the faith of Ilmater, and while there is a “right” answer, PCs can state something that “feels right” and make a check to see if it works. I’ll be honest, that’s the kind of “puzzle” that I like in my adventures--ones that might have an answer, but it’s not so linear that there is only one very specific course of action that solves it.

There is also an effect in one of the tombs where PCs will have an effect that keeps them alive if a fight is going badly for them. In another circumstance, this might feel like a contrivance to keep low-level characters alive in a dangerous situation, but it works because it’s a payoff to all the supernatural effects that are themed to Ilmater’s faith.

Payday and Payoff

The final section of the adventure has the PCs returning with Sorrow and the artifact to Secomber. The cleric of Ilmater that they rescued previously will make them an offer to stay on as guardians of the region, complete with their own fortress and magic rings to zap them back to the fortress whenever they are needed to protect the area.

There is also some time spent on explaining that Sorrow might be available as a romantic interest under some circumstances, and I must admit, the NPC feels a little overplayed at this point. I know she is meant to be important long-term, but I think she is being oversold upfront. We know she is good and beautiful, and has a tragic backstory, but other than that she wants to do good things, I don’t feel like I know much about her. For some reason, the comparison that springs to mind is Martian Manhunter--it’s like knowing that his family died on Mars and he wants to protect his new home on Earth, but not knowing that he likes Oreos.

I think this is a pretty compelling way of drawing in the PCs for the duration of this adventure series, and my only real complaint is that I wish the offer to become the guardians of this region had come up when the cleric of Ilmater first offers them the job of protecting Sorrow. It reminds me a little of the traditionalism that still hangs around a lot of D&D adventures. “Do the right thing, and maybe I’ll clue you in on the narrative you are participating in,” instead of actively inviting the PCs into the overall theme of the campaign.

Despite that, I think it’s a strong hook for the start of a campaign. I like the limited use teleportation rings that allow the PCs to go out and do some more wide-ranging things if they wish to do so, allowing them to snap back to home base whenever the next adventure starts.

Ease of Suffering

This adventure has a great setup for a long-term campaign, between a mysterious artifact, a base of operations, and magic rings that snap adventurers back to where they need to be. The fight through the Grotto of Forbearance is great and has some nice thematic bits with the various tomb effects.

Embrace of Pain

Sorrow is a little bit oversold, and the beginning of the adventure isn’t tied as strongly to the theme of assuming the mantle of protectors of the region as strongly as it could be. Ilmater’s faith gets some nice thematic elements, but Loviatar’s followers don’t really stand out from the evil cultist mob with any personality.

Tenuous Recommendation--The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
I was a bit critical of the how the adventure ropes in the adventures, but I also know that beginnings are hard, and now that the PCs are assumed to be taking up the mantle, it may be interesting to see what can be done with the tools put in place. I would like to see a little more to Sorrow, personality-wise.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Love and Justice and Rockerboys and Vending Machines and One-Shots

Yesterday, I canceled my regular Dresden Accelerated monthly game since we were missing one of the players. We’ve only got four players in that game, so it’s harder to keep it moving without one of them, and we play infrequently enough that I didn’t want to work around it. In the past, when I’ve scheduled one-shots instead of the regular monthly game, I’ve used the It’s Not My Fault cards from Evil Hat. Those are awesome, but we’ve already done that a couple times, so I wanted to try something else.

Looking over my “short but sweet” games I want to try out list, I remembered that I have Love and Justice and Rockerboys and Vending Machines on my hard-drive. I asked the group if they would be interested, everyone was, so I printed both games out (Love and Justice is 3 pages, and Rockerboys and Vending Machines is 2 pages—both are based on Lasers and Feelings, which is, itself, awesome).

Love and Justice
We weren’t sure how much time it was going to take to play through the games, and everyone wanted to try Love and Justice the most, so we led with that game.

For our team, the group decided to go with a musical theme—everyone would have a name based on an instrument, and their instrument would be on a charm bracelet and become their object of power.
This was one of the longest sequences in the game. People would come up with a concept, drift the concept, change an aspect, until we finally got everything nailed down, including transformation sequence and the group’s signature finishing move. 

Here is how the team ended up:

  • The Leader—Cornet, real name: Sakura, drawback: vain, power: fire
  • The Tomboy—Viola, real name: Eirin, drawback: stubborn, power: electricity
  • The Swan—Tambourine, real name: Tami, drawback: lovestruck, power: positive energy

We also decided that Tami’s “lovestruck” meant that she is in love with seeing people in love, so she is constantly matchmaking. The deciding factor on how Tami’s instrument chose was “would Stevie Nicks play this instrument?”

Their finishing move would be called the Rhapsody of Harmony, which was a rainbow blast filled with glowing musical notes. The power would start with the tambourine, then add in some more complicated strings, then flare up with the Cornet.

The elements that I rolled for the episode were—a fancy dress-up event where the Dart Heart Collective would attempt to steal all colors to take over the world. Because of the musical theme, I drifted this to the Dark Heart Collective stealing music to make people more compliant with their mind control.

The Episode
The school had a huge formal recital planned, and Tami decided Eirin needed to get a nicer set of clothes to wear. Before they left the school, we met Jake, who is completely clueless, and who Tami is trying to match with Sakura.

Jake: “I have absolutely no musical talent, but thankfully, I can help out by moving stuff from one place to another on stage. I’m happy to help!”

Sakura: “I’m glad you are useful.”

We establish that the dress shop is right next to a sporting goods store, which is how Tami entices Eirin to go there. While we get a montage of Tami loving the frilly clothes she picks out for Eirin and Eirin getting more aggravated, Sakura finds a girl crying in the corner of the store. The money she had to buy her formal dress was stolen, and Sakura sees a man in a formal suit with a fedora counting money on the street.

Side Note: When attempting to describe who the thief was, one of the players happened to ask, “was he a smooth criminal,” at which point the entire theme of the Dark Heart collective occurred to me, and I responded—he’s not just A smooth criminal, he is The Smooth Criminal.

Sakura confronts Smooth Criminal, at which point he indicates that he’s just having some fun before the Dark Heart Collective REALLY takes over this town. Then he throws his signature weapon at her, the laser fedora. Which is a fedora, encircled by a laser.

Sakura transforms into Cornet, and attempts to use her fire power to grab the hot laser brim and catch the hat—which doesn’t work so well, and the fedora explodes, throwing her into the side of the building. At this point, Eirin and Tami come out of the dress shop and transform. Eirin grabs a baseball bat from the window of the sporting goods store, charges it with electricity, and knocks one of the laser fedoras back at Smooth Criminal.

In the end, the girls must choose between saving the girl from the dress shop, who just wandered into the street, or catching Smooth Criminal. They protect the girl from the barrage of laser fedoras and Smooth Criminal gets away.

The Concordant Trio returns to school, and the girl they just helped starts flirting with Jake—we established that there will be an ongoing “will they get together” motif between Jake and Sakura for this season. We also introduced Gordon, the head of the cooking club, as a potential love interest for Eirin. Tami has been trying to get them together, but Gordon never noticed Eirin until she bought her fancy clothes. We determine that, unlike Jake and Sakura, that are kind of meant to be together, we’re going to find out that Gordon is a jerk and no good for Eirin as the season goes on.

As the recital is about to start, one of the violinists realizes that they can’t get their instrument to make noise. They hand it to Eirin, who is infected with the loss of music. She just doesn’t see the point anymore, and if she can’t see the point of music—SHE CAN’T TRANSFORM INTO VIOLA!

At this point, Thriller attacks the auditorium. Thriller is a werewolf that can command zombies, and whenever people can’t appreciate music, he can start to control them. Additionally, whenever Thriller does something, there is a narrator’s voice that everyone can hear that explains what is going on, that sounds a lot like Vincent Price.

Side Note: At this point, the players noted that our show is probably going to have a hard time with Michael Jackson’s estate. We made a note to tell our lawyers to start considering how the law views parodies, just in case.

Eirin gets carried away by the hoard of zombies. Sakura transforms into Cornet to fight off the zombies to give Tami time to transform into Tambourine and convince Eirin that she still loves music. Thriller starts to pull the life force from all his zombies to become more powerful, but Tambourine convinces Eirin that she does love music still, and she transforms into Viola.

Viola disrupts the negative energy beam that Thriller is using to drain his zombies with a lightning bolt. Thriller then merges with the Narrator to become a huge two-headed dire wolf monster. At this point we see Cornet, Viola, and Tambourine call forth the Rhapsody of Harmony—but, we introduce that the girls haven’t agreed on the name of the finishing move, and argue about it briefly before letting it fly.

They strike the wolf thing, and it glows, then disperses in energy, but as it fades away, they can hear the Narrator laughing.

In Love and Justice, you have three Friendship Dice. You use them to help one another, and depending on the number they land on, you use them to narrate the end of the episode. In our case, we had two dice at 3 or below (a negative resolution), and one at 4 or above (a positive resolution).

  • The school recital went so well the school made it into regionals (positive)
  • Eirin decides to start dating Gordon, and he immediately starts asking her to change for him (negative)
  • Jake was still in the auditorium during the fight with Thriller, and saw all of the transformations (negative)

This was so much fun. Everybody had a blast. The reason it worked so well wasn’t just that the players were fun and rolling with the tropes, but that they were throwing out ideas, like Smooth Criminal and Gordon, that I could run with.

Since this definitely didn’t feel like an end of season episode, we determined that next episode’s villain was going to be The Man in the Mirror.

Rockerboys and Vending Machines

We wrapped up with enough time that we decided to try out Rockerboys and Vending Machines as well. Rockerboys and Vending Machines is a game about cyberpunk tropes, and here are the characters we ended up with:
  • EXE—AI, role: corporate executive, goal: meet sexy AI, cybernetics: overpowered robot arm
  • Dump Trukk—Autonomous Roomba, role: driver, goal: keep being awesome, cybernetics: manipulator arm with freeware
  • SKUD—Punk (!), role: courier, goal: look cool as hell, cybernetics: glowing fiberoptic mohawk

The mission we ended up with was to steal credits from the hottest nightclub in town, opposed by a rival AI, and the twist was that the club’s unexpected guards.

I filled in that the club was called Flynn’s, and it was a Tron nostalgia bar. We determined that EXE was already keeping an eye on the AI that ran security there, a program obsessed with old computer puzzle games called Myst (E). The twist was that the guards at the club had been genetically enhanced with an alien bacterium that was mined in space, and that if they didn’t receive their normal injections, they would mutate out of control.

Side Note: The players noted that our lawyers for this show/movie were going to have a much harder time with Disney than they did with Michael Jackson’s estate, so we’re losing a lot of money on licensing with the Tron thing.

The group did a fantastically bad job at researching the job they received, but eventually got the name of the manager of the club. SKUD was going to deliver a package to him, dropping off EXE’s robot hand inside the Wi-Fi area of the club so he could distract Myst (E). Dump Trukk would part next door in the parking garage, ready for an extraction.

We determined that EXE’s “cybernetics” was part of an android he used to use when he was still part of his previous corporation. His company was sold, and he got the rights to himself in the deal, and had to retain a hand to shake hands. Dump Trukk worked in a dive bar, and his getaway vehicle was an old hazardous waste disposal unit. It had traditional controls, but also an interface that he could just drive into.

The Revolution Starts
At the dive bar, we learned the Mop Bot, another self-away cleaning robot, was a coworker of Dump Trukk. Mop Bot was a revolutionary that was enraged that cleaning robots were given self-aware AI just so that the rich could have “people” that they legally owned. He often muttered about trying to drown “the man” in his bucket, if he could just get their faces into it. When Mop Bot heard that Dump Trukk needed time off, Mop Bot decided to dump his bucket on the bar’s electrical box, shorting out the power in several businesses on the street. Mop Bot then rolled into the street saying, “work’s canceled! Everyone throw off your chains! You’re free!”

On the way to Dump Trukk’s vehicle, his nemesis, the cat that rides around on top of him, arrived. Dump Trukk tried to scare it off by pulling his manipulator arm with a gun in it, but then his freeware played a Meow Mix commercial, and he couldn’t threaten the cat anymore. It rode Dump Trukk into his getaway vehicle and lounged in the disposal unit for the rest of the mission.

At the bar, all the waiters and waitresses wore fiber optic glowing outfits to fit the theme. Dump Trukk parked next door to Flynn’s, which was also next to Omni-Food, a towering building containing all the fast food companies. SKUD talked his way in the door to make a delivery, and as it turned out, the boss really was waiting for a delivery. The Wi-Fi on EXE’s hand let him into the system, and he started to talk to Myst (E).

On the news feed being played at the bar, SKUD saw that Mop Bot was gunned down by police. They issued a statement that Mop Bot wasn’t armed, but that he had repeatedly threatened them with what he would do if they put their faces in his bucket, and that he was a potential danger.

Myst (E) attempted to get EXE to solve a puzzle to get into her private network, but he said, “no more games,” and she dropped her firewall for him. But then he wasn’t on the wider net any longer. SKUD was in the boss’s office, and as it turns out, the boss was waiting for the courier with the sedative to keep the mutant bodyguards from going crazy, and he had many of them on the other side of a glass barrier waiting for an injection. SKUD attempted to intimidate him by waving a gun at him, but the manager was more scared of the now further mutating bodyguards.

The guard at the front door ended up shooting the real courier because he was an “impostor,” and the guards mutated out of control, trailing blue slime that was infecting the patrons as well (no, the Expanse isn’t cyberpunk, but I’m a creature of many inspirations). SKUD got the manager’s codes, Dump Trukk transferred the funds, and SKUD shot the manager as he ran down the stairs so that the mutant bouncers chasing him would fall on the manager first—and they threw the manager's body parts all over the place.

EXE found out from Myst (E) that the nightclub was also a front for genetic experimentation on the staff and even the patrons, and that there was a sterilization protocol. She said that she wanted to keep EXE in her network and wouldn’t cause him any harm, but she had to initiate the protocols now.
Dump Trukk used EXE’s backdoor that he had stored on his phone to pull him out, drove through the wall of the club, and retrieved SKUD, breaking out through the Omni-Food building before the sterilization protocol started. EXE told Myst (E) that none of this was a deal breaker, and that he’d love to work with her in the future.

What Just Happened
EXE contacts Mr.Johnson275638E-3456789T about payment. Because of the Hardwired mechanic (where you get to ask questions if you roll your stat exactly), EXE finds out that the job was really about Omni-Food wanting to take over the corner building and put in their own Total Recall themed club.

This was also a blast to play. Rockerboys and Vending Machines is pretty much pure distilled cyberpunk mission structure, and even if you aren’t doing the slightly goofy one shot that we were doing, the outline of mission structure and the randomly-generated mission structure is spot on for the genre.

The only thing that I couldn’t help thinking is that I would love to add in the same “end of session” resolution mechanic from Love and Justice. Maybe add one die per player, and instead of being Friendship Dice, they become Contingency Dice, and you roll them when you have a flashback to how you prepared something ahead of time to help in the current situation.

Also, playing The Sprawl has biased me toward including “getting paid,” i.e., did we get paid, screwed over, or double-crossed after the mission, being part of mission structure in cyberpunk.

Jumping to Conclusions

Both games are a lot of fun, and do a really great job of emulating their genres. Since both are free, I would highly recommend downloading them and giving them a shot at some point.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

ENnie Review Roundup, 2018 Edition

You may have heard that the ENnie nominations were announced last week. I encourage anyone that wants to be better informed about the games they may be voting for to make an informed decision. That said, if you want to be at least partially informed by some of my reviews, well, I’ve thrown together some of the reviews both from my blog, and from my reviews at Gnome Stew (which, by the way, is also nominated for an ENnie for the Best Blog category).
Below is a list of reviews that I have done over the past year for various ENnie nominated RPG products, along with what category that nomination is from.

Predation (Best Setting)
Predation Review

Blades in the Dark (Best Game)
Blades in the Dark Review

Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse (Best Family Product)
Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse Review

Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Starter Kit (Best Production Values)
Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Starter Kit Review

Star Trek Adventures (Best Rules)
Star Trek Adventures Review

High Plains Samurai Legends (Best Free Game)
High Plains Samurai Legends Review

Critical Role: Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting (Best Art, Cover)
Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting Review

In addition to my own reviews, a few of my fellow gnomes have done some reviews of other products which are also ENnie nominated as well.

Harlem Unbound (Best Art, Cover; Best Rules; Best Setting; Best Writing; Product of the Year)
Harlem Unbound Review by John Arcadian

Faith RPG (Judges’ Spotlight Winner)
Faith RPG Review by J.T. Evans

Uh-Oh, Monsters (Best Monster/Adversary)
Uh-Oh, Monsters Review by Senda Linaugh

There are way more products that have been nominated than I could cover in the past year, and even adding in the work of my fellow gnomes, there is a lot of uncovered territory. Still, I hope if you want to do a deeper dive into a few of these products and want to gain a wider perspective on them, these articles will be of use to you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Radioactive Roud Pegs in Square Holes--D&D, Inspiration, and Context (Overview)

As usual, the discussion on Misdirected Mark is inspiring and great. In this instance, the inspiration for this post comes from the game discussion in Misdirected Mark 315--Four Structures. While it wasn’t the main discussion, what came up was the unintended subtext that comes from Dungeons and Dragons.

Rightly, I believe, D&D does have a subtext of racism and colonialism. There are “bad” races that are okay to kill, you wipe out those races, and settle on the land where they lived and get a title.

Two things are true about this (I think):

  • It wasn’t really the intention of the game
  • It needs to be acknowledged to avoid continuing the problem

I think it is worth looking at how this subtext emerges in D&D. I’ve said before that D&D isn’t literally a genre emulator for one “style” of epic fantasy, so much as it creates its own genre by mashing together everything that was popular at the time of the game’s creation. I think a lot of these individual components end up creating some unfortunate synergies that allow the above subtext to emerge.

Another Famous Mash Up for Comparison

Star Wars is a space opera, but it brings in elements of Westerns, Samurai movies, World War II, and eastern philosophy. While there has been a deep space battle station’s worth of commentary on Star Wars, the commentary I’ll make about unintended context will look at how some of the influences of Star Wars are expressed.

When the prequels came out, many people were upset that the Jedi have some traits they didn’t like (very stringent denial of emotion, child “recruitment,” the order doesn’t marry). It is very clear that the tropes leaned on in the original trilogy leaned on samurai tropes. Honorable warriors trained in deadly swordplay, in service to a central government.

Because eastern philosophy played into the inspirations for Star Wars, the Jedi were less samurai in the prequel trilogy, and more like the sohei of Japanese history. The sohei were warrior monks, and their history shows their involvement in various wars over the years, as well as changing philosophies and traditions. I have no doubt that Lucas intended the Jedi to be like the sohei from the beginning, but the original trilogy had much more samurai imagery in it than the material that implied the sohei connotations for the Jedi order.

Oh, also, I’m not sure that George fully intended to imply that Han was a drug smuggler, but all the Dune terminology surrounding spice and all strongly implied that as well.

The Alchemy of Partial Trope Fusion

Dungeons and Dragons has tons of inspirational material. Some of it I’m familiar with it, and some of it I’ve never spent much time-consuming. There will most likely be all kinds of nuance I’m missing—but that’s fine, because even with what I’m sure about, I’m even more sure that the early D&D designers lost just as much nuance when elements were included.

I’ll specifically mention the following elements and how they were included in D&D early on:

  • J.R.R.Tolkien (yes, I know, Gygax didn’t like Tolkien, but, it’s totally in the game, mostly in the form of monsters and species of things as well as artifacts—we’ll talk about that later)
  • Robert E. Howard (Gygax LOVED Conan, and I think the default adventurer’s attitude in Gygax’s work is based on Conan)
  • Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and Mouser are a little different in outlook in adventuring from Conan, but cities and thieves in D&D really channel this vibe)
  • Michael Moorcock/Poul Anderson (In large part because of alignment being a big cosmic force that heroes align to willingly or not)
  • Wargaming (Not just because of rules—the above influences are fantasy worlds flavored by, but not directly analogous to, various times in history; the war gaming influence represented trying to pound the above fantasy back into a mold that more directly resembled medieval Europe)

First off, Gygax and Tolkien—I’ve seen a lot of people go off on tangents that Gygax didn’t like Tolkien, so it wasn’t a big influence on D&D. Often said within earshot of people playing halflings, fighting balor, using corrupting artifacts that can only be destroyed in a very specific place tied to the origin of the artifact.

Gygax didn’t like the pacing or themes of Tolkien, but the wider variety of species and monsters, as well as the presence of artifacts and how those artifacts might corrupt their wielders, and how they might be destroyed, has had a huge impact on the shape of D&D. Compared to other media that had a stronger tonal influence on D&D, Middle-earth has a lot more variety when it comes to species that regularly occur (rather than singular monsters that can only be found in one place or under very specific circumstances).

Elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs being species that live in various parts of the world, in significant numbers, is very Tolkien, and is very much a core assumption of D&D, even in the more human-centric Greyhawk setting.

In the next section, I’m going to mention “troubling subtext” and “troubling context” both when talking about sources—what I mean by subtext is an element of the work that can go off in a bad direction when combined with other influences, and what I mean by context are just troubling elements of the works themselves. These aren’t exhaustive, and I fully realize that some elements I’m putting in one category may be 100% in the other category for other people.

Misaligned Tolkien

Taking orcs (and goblins, etc.) out of context from Middle-earth causes some issues. While orcs appear to be “okay to kill” in Tolkien, in the broader context, orcs, goblins, trolls, etc. aren’t things that adventurers seek to wipe out, per se, but they are victims of Melkor and Sauron that are kind of tragic in the grand scheme of things. Even the dwarves trying to take back their holds from orcs in the wider history isn’t really portrayed as the obvious “right” thing to do.

Troubling subtext:

  • Assuming some creatures are always “okay to kill” gets reinforced when alignment is introduced, and this is reinforced further when alignment goes from a Law/Chaos arc to a Good/Evil arc
  • Bringing in any kind of “divine right of kings” element from Tolkien (mainly through alignment and rules that reinforced mechanical aspects to alignment, for example)—it may not have been the best thing Tolkien himself ever added to his work, but it at least had the context of the king living up to his responsibilities, and those that didn’t saw their kingdoms break apart due to their inability to do the right thing

Troubling context:

  • The only human cultures that weren’t white people in the books sided with the bad guys—they were redeemable and eventually sued for peace, but they didn’t get to be the “last best hope” for the world either

Misaligned Howard

Conan’s influence was heavily felt in much of the adventurer’s perspective in early D&D. Adventuring is about getting rich and famous, then taking over a country and being in charge. The problem with porting those aspects into the game come from the fact that Conan’s world was 99% human. Conan never considered himself “good” for being a mercenary or a thief, but he had a few places where he would draw lines that he wouldn’t cross, usually involving people that he met and knew to be “innocent” through personal interactions.

Without expressly pointing out that PC adventurers should run into people that challenge their worldview, and adding in alignment and the idea that some self-aware beings are “monsters,” it becomes way too easy for adventurers to see it as “gaming as intended” to wipe out, subjugate, and rule over a region.

Troubling subtext:

  • Being a self-reliant adventurer with your own moral code makes you better than other people
  • The goal of “better” people should be to rule over those that are less than themselves

Troubling context:

  • Women are prizes in Conan stories—some are competent, but even they end up being prizes or reasons to get revenge, and this definitely comes through in some D&D material
  • Many Conan stories have racist content in them, but The Vale of Lost Women is probably the worst, and porting any kind of “your race is okay, but don’t touch our women” is particularly disgusting, yet it’s easy to get into with all the half-races in D&D

Misaligned Leiber

I’m biased, and I will freely admit it. While I think that Gygax favored the rugged individualism of Conan as the Platonic Ideal of adventurers in D&D, I think Fafhrd and Mouser, with their occasional screw-ups, arguing with one another, and propensity to do random stuff that may have been way more stupid and adventurous than profitable, fits the general D&D adventurer mode way more than Conan.

The Twain also ran into a lot more supernatural stuff than Conan, which also feels a bit more in keeping with how D&D’s tone developed. It may not have been as common for Fafhrd and Mouser to run into elves or dwarves or whatever, but it also wasn’t that strange for them to know an entire city of self-aware sea humanoids existed, or a city of people with invisible skin and interesting diets.

That said, there are still a few elements of the novels and stories that can cause some issues when mashed with other elements. Fafhrd and Mouser internalize a lot of the bad things they do—it obviously has an effect on them, but they don’t suffer “official” punishment for those actions. Some of those actions also just kind of “disappear” from their list of things that they regret, in part because the stories weren’t written in chronological order. Until they get to Rime Isle, they also don’t seem to ever feel like there is much worth fighting for, that there are just different degrees of corruptions in society.

Troubling subtext:

  • No real consequences for bad actions
  • Running away from problems is a viable solution

Troubling context:
  • Women are prizes (again)—although I’d argue there are more women with agency and competency in these stories than Conan
  • Mouser, especially, has a few troubling comments when it comes to his preference in women and their age, as well as flat out committing sexual assault in The Knight and Knave of Swords

Misaligned Moorcock and Anderson
I will freely admit I have the least experience with Moorcock and Anderson, but I know they both influenced early D&D. I have also read a bit more Anderson than Moorcock, so take what I’m saying here with a grain of salt.

Moorcock and Anderson are likely why we have alignment in D&D. Both authors featured the cosmic conflict between Law and Chaos in their works. In this case, it usually wasn’t that one force or the other was “good” or “evil,” but that one force being out of balance caused problems for the universe.

Chaos is the easier thing to rail against, because it’s unpredictable and tends to change/destroy existing things, but Law, out of balance, was tyrannical and oppressive in maintaining the status quo.

Adding good and evil to law and chaos made alignment more descriptive, but changed the idea of what alignment was. Heroes in Moorcock and Anderson were often champions of a cosmic force, not because they believed in that force or were an embodiment of it, but because they were working to restore equilibrium. Aligning with Law over Chaos usually meant that you felt Chaos was ascendant, and you wanted to restore the proper balance. Aligning with Lawful good, in D&D, didn’t mean you thought there was too much chaos or evil, but that you WERE orderly and good in disposition and action.

Troubling subtext:

  • Mortal beings can actually be embodiments of major cosmic forces in the universe
  • Being out of “alignment” isn’t just signing up with a new philosophy, but must have mechanical consequence, because it’s implied that you aren’t just aligned to a cosmic force, but also directly tied to it with your actions

Troubling context:

  • Because cosmic forces and personal goals are conflated, not doing good can be excused as doing the right thing to keep the universe balanced, and knowing that “good” and “evil” have equal weight means you are much “cooler” not playing “their” game

Misaligned War Gaming (And Historical Mapping)

All of the above fantasy settings used a fantasy setting of their own. There may be some short-hand touchstones so that the whole world wasn’t redefining the wheel for the readers (swords, knights, wizards, etc.), and some may have presented more historical leaning settings than others (Conan’s pre-history nodding towards later societies, for example), but overall, they were new worlds that were introduced and didn’t assume that they were bound by what “actually” happened in history.

But D&D was also born out of wargaming, and a lot of D&D was also born out of trying to force a setting that was based on much more broad fantasy into assumptions that would fit medieval history. The setting might have a thousand gods, but the structure of the church models medieval Catholic structures. Certain types of troops will carry what they traditionally carried, rather than what makes sense for a fantasy world. Peasants flock to powerful individuals to work on their lands, because implied feudalism.

While not overtly stating it, by implying that all this wild fantasy fits into a medieval European container, the virtues of a completely realized fantasy world were clouded. For example, even in stories where women were mainly prizes, a woman with a good sword arm, or a quick-fingered woman that was a thief, could be considered important in these fantasy settings. But make the setting look too much like medieval Europe, and women doing those things don’t look like exceptional heroes—they are subverting the place they are intended to inhabit in the setting. Rules that imposed “real world” ability score modifiers on women PCs helped to reinforce this as well.

There is also the “rise to power” paradigm and how it changes from Conan or Fafhrd and Mouser, to when it is filtered by medieval tropes. Conan or the Twain could give anyone that worked for them any job they wanted to give them, but followers that show up are already assigned medieval style roles when D&D hews too closely to historical Europe. Additionally, when you “tame” a land that a country is at war with or by clearing out bandits or dissidents, you at least know that human opponents had a reason to go to war or to decide to break with the kingdom. But when added to the Tolkien misalignments and/or the alignment misalignments, it is a lot easier to wipe out the “wrong kind” of beings and get “rightfully rewarded” by a lawful authority, since the “wrong kind” of people can never have a rightful claim to their own lands.

Troubling Subtext:

  • Colonialism as a means of making the world “better”
  • People have a natural and rightful “place” where they just end up as ordained from on high
  • European norms are the default norms

Troubling Context:

  • Property, titles, and followers are a class and level based “right” of the powerful, and there can’t be a moral issue with accepting these rewards
Wherein I Don’t Have a Solution, Just Some Observations

I love Dungeons and Dragons. I love fantasy as a genre. The Fafhrd and Mouser books are some of my favorites, even with the problematic content, and I try very hard to disentangle my love for them from what I should be doing about the bad things they reinforce. I “like” Conan, but it’s been a lot harder for me to be emphatic in that like ever since I read The Vale of Lost Women, which I didn’t read for years and years later than I first encountered the character.

It is very tricky to love a flawed thing. We can’t just say “oh well, it’s flawed, what are you going to do,” because that implies that we should just live with a certain level of bad. We need to look at the bad things, make sure it’s clear to everyone those things are bad, and try to figure out why we might think the good outweighs the bad. If we create based on the inspiration of these things, we have to work hard to fix the problems we have identified in the original work.

Most importantly, we need to realize that for some people, the good doesn’t outweigh the bad, and we can’t try to force them to see things our way. We aren’t them, and they may have been hurt much more by the harmful aspects of things that we ever will be.

Some bad leaks into things because we’re just so used to the bad, we don’t see it when others do it, and we don’t realize we’re doing the bad thing either, because we aren’t analyzing what we are doing. We need to be more conscious, and to do better. Once we know a thing is bad or problematic, we must cut it out, or change it to a force for good. It’s not easy, and we’ll probably screw it up a lot, but we must do it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Tale of Two Adventures--My Spelljamming Past

I will freely admit that I loved Spelljammer, but I was also perfectly okay with watching the line fade away. How can I say that if I loved it? Because, like much of 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Spelljammer couldn't stay focused on what it wanted to be.

What did I love about Spelljammer?

  • Weird blue space guys selling magic chairs that let your ship fly up into space
  • Spider-eels with Umber Hulk warriors
  • Beholder and Illithid crewed ships
  • Explosive rainbow goo between the crystal spheres
  • Different, sometimes REALLY fantastic cosmologies
  • The legend of the Spelljammer itself
  • The idea that any adventure from any D&D world could end up in space
  • Gun crazy hippo mercenaries!
I loved the crazy, over the top weirdness of the setting. I loved running into areas of space where the stars were sentient or were just glowing paint on the inside of the crystal sphere. I loved things like the Dwarven craft ships and the Rock of Bral, that provided fortresses and cities in D&D space.

So why was I okay with the whole thing fading away? Because this crazy setting that existed "out there" away from all of the D&D worlds and was it's own thing rapidly started to become part of every setting. Initially, I loved the idea of running into a Krynn minotaur in space. I even enjoyed the crazy contributions of the tinker gnomes to Wildspace. But I really hated when tinker gnomes were kind of "known" in various worlds because Spelljamming, within a year or two of products, went from this rare thing that some adventurers may run into, to being a THING that all the important movers and shakers know about in the individual settings.

There was even a mention in the Spelljammer boxed set that the phlogiston (the flammable rainbow river between worlds) flows AWAY from Krynn, meaning Krynn adventurers usually find space, but almost never go home again, and outside influences don't often find their way to Krynn from other worlds--until later products came along mentioning Spelljamming docks in Palanthus, and we won't even talk about how other gods apparently can grant spells in Krynnspace despite the whole theme of the original set of modules. Kind of makes you wonder why Spelljamming missionaries never showed up in that 300 years of silence and just said, "hey, I've got a deity for you, and they didn't drop a mountain on you."

Why was I okay with Spelljammer fading away?

  • Even Elminster and Khelben shouldn't casually know a ton of facts about Spelljamming
  • Cormyr and Shou Lung shouldn't be building up Spelljamming fleets since that kind of significant changes the damn setting
  • There shouldn't be space elf ambassadors just hanging out in every elf kingdom in every D&D world, but especially not with the Silvanesti on Krynn
  • There shouldn't be not one, but three, space wars to end all space wars that make any planet based war look really petty and pointless
So, what about those adventures I mentioned in the title?

I tried running two published adventures while I was DMing Spelljamming characters. One adventure was everything I wanted out of Spelljammer, even if it had its own little quirks. The other adventure was everything that annoyed me about the conceptual drift that the meta-setting seemed to run smack dab into eventually.

I haven't run these adventures since the early 90s. I'm super old. So I might get some details wrong. That said, Crystal Spheres was the adventure I was picturing when I first read about Spelljammer. Your adventurers end up heading into space. They get their own unique ship, shaped like a hummingbird, that could convert magic missiles into anti-ship energy blasts. You were chasing a vampire villain in a scavenger hunt across multiple crystal spheres, including one called Faeriespace, where all of the planets hung in the boughs of a giant, star system sized tree, and the final battle took place in Darkspace, where the sun had burned out and the whole system was pretty much set up to favor the vampire villain.

I am sure I modified and skipped various parts of the adventure, but I loved the idea of flying to a ton of new crystal spheres, with crazy, weird cosmologies and local rules, doing over the top things to track down a villain who is hiding out in a region of space that pretty much is all about him being in his home territory.

Later, I tried to run Under the Dark Fist. Under the Dark Fist was about a space emperor with a fleet of spaceships that threatened all of known space. So, in other words, if you don't stop the Emperor, all of the local D&D worlds are heading for their own Dark Times. Your characters get to interact with the Free Space Alliance. Are these just space-based cultures that are worried about the Emperor? Nope. This includes representatives from the standard D&D worlds, sent by people that know something about Spelljamming, to form an alliance to defend their worlds. 

And while I'm not normally the guy to complain about this--Important People on Oerth, Toril, and Krynn know about this massive space fleet that threatens all of their worlds. But instead of Mordenkainen, Elminster, or Dalamar being directly involved, well, we'll look for some 10-14th level adventurers to handle the fate of all of our worlds.

While Crystal Spheres was over the top with wonder and craziness, Under the Dark Fist was over the top by multiplying everything by 100. The Free Space Alliance and Cormyrean and Shou Lung fleets of Spelljammers was the trend that looked to be emerging for the setting, not the prospect of finding flat worlds carried on the backs of elephants, floating in Wild Space on the back of a giant tortoise, or acting as space privateers, raiding eel-spider slavers for gold and glory.

There have been a few hints about Spelljamming in 5th edition, and I'd welcome it--but I really hope that it's the crazy "planets in a tree" and "let's fight a vampire where all the stars are dead" Spelljammer, and not the "this is all kind of mundane, and all the stuff you thought was important back on your home world really doesn't matter" Spelljammer.