Friday, December 29, 2017

Gaming Wishes, 2018 Edition!

I'm back home from visiting relatives for the holidays, and all of that time away from my keyboard let me do so deep, game related soul searching, and I think I've come up with my gaming wishes for 2018.

In case you didn't read my gaming wishes for last year, I'm not phrasing these as "resolutions," because I'm not sure it just takes "resolve" to make these things happen. Sometimes it takes opportunity + creativity to make them happen. Plus, I'm just obstinant enough to want to call it something other than a resolution.

Wrap Up My Ongoing Campaigns With Intentional Endings

So, this one is going to be all or nothing, but since I started all of my current ongoing games as limited run games, running about 9-12 sessions each, I want to make sure that all of those campaigns wrap up with a completed story arc (even if there are some open questions left at the end).

In general, I've been running most of my games as "seasons" in recent years, and I've been doing a better job of actually having an ending for my games, so I want to keep that streak going. But I'm only counting this one as "complete" if I bring all of my current games to a close in this manner. Currently, that includes:


  • 7th Sea
  • Dresden Accelerated
  • Age of Rebellion
Gaming in the Wild

This one is a weird one. Way back in the golden age of my gaming, back in high school, I actually ran quite a few games outdoors, in the tiki hut bar out by the pool that we had in the backyard. Because of that, from time to time I've run a few games outside, but not for a very long time.

So sometime in 2018, I'd love to get the chance to run a one-shot, or maybe a few warm-weather holiday games, outdoors, at some kind of park location. I'm calling this one right now--I'm thinking this is one of the trickier ones to pull off.

Get Back in Front of the Camera

I had a lot of fun running my Shadow of the Demon Lord game, and I got a chance to play with some great new friends. I don't know what I want to run for this, but I'd like to run another online game at some point in the future. I still haven't gotten over my inability to adapt to virtual tabletops so this will be increasingly out of touch with the overall gaming community, but hey, I'm doing it for the fun.



Run a Call of Cthulhu Game

Despite poking around the gaming world since 1985, I've only played Call of Cthulhu at conventions, and I've never run the game. I want to rectify this. Some random chatting with my wife about the Waltons while driving through the mountains the last few days actually jumpstarted some thoughts on what I would do for this game.

So at some point in 2018, I'd like to attempt to actually run Call of Cthulhu, and get some use out of my 7th edition PDFs.



Visit The Sixth World

I've liked the Shadowrun world for a long time. I've always been intimidated by the prospect of running a Shadowrun game. The rules are a little daunting to me, and I've heard tons of stories about how to run Shadowrun the "right" way.

Despite being daunted by all of that, I've gotten to interact with Shadowrun via video games, and when Shadowrun Anarchy came out, it felt like it was written just so I could finally run the game. 

So, it may only be a one-shot, or it may be a longer arc, but at some point in 2018, I want to use the Shadowrun Anarchy rules to actually run a game in this setting that I've been hovering around for a while.



Play With Some Sharp Things In Shadowy Places

I did reviews for Blades in the Dark and 7th Sea back to back, and which game I ended up running was kind of a toss-up. In the end, I went with 7th Sea, because it was easier to immerse myself in the media that informed the genre.

I'm not sure if I want to run the game or play it, but I wanted to have some kind of engagement with Blades in the Dark to sink my teeth into it a bit more than I have been able to.



Cross the Remnants of the Rainbow Bridge

I've been a fan of the Midgard Campaign setting since before it was called the Midgard Campaign setting, going back to the glimpses we got of the setting in issues of Kobold Quarterly. Heavily eastern European, slightly steampunk, and not quite as black and white as other d20 fantasy settings, I've been picking up lots of products from Kobold Press over the years.

Early next year I should be getting my new edition of the Midgard Campaign Setting, as well as the new book containing 5th edition material. Given that I like Midgard as a setting, and I like 5th edition D&D as a game, I need to get both of those together in order to run a campaign in the setting.



Enter the Funnel

Its been a few years since I ran Dungeon Crawl Classics, and in the interim, I think I have a better idea of how to use the game without trying to make it do what it wasn't intended to do. In addition to this perspective, I've backed a few DCC Kickstarters, including the scratch-off 0-level character sheets and the DCC Lankhmar boxed set. 

While I definitely want to run a funnel again, because those have been consistently fun, I want to have a chance to experience a few higher level adventures with the game as well. I'm also really interested to play with the Lankhmar modifications to the rules, such as the three class structure and the Fleeting Luck mechanic.

On a 10+, Hold 3, Spend One on To Start a New PBTA Game

I'm running quite a few Apocalypse World inspired games at my local convention at the end of January, as I have for the last few years. So I'm not going to broadly say "I need to run PBTA games," and then pat myself on the back for doing something I already know I'm going to do.

What I want to do, then, is run a PBTA game, outside of my regular convention, that is not one of the games that I've run on a regular basis on the back. That means, much as I love them, I'm not counting:

  • Monster of the Week
  • World Wide Wrestling Roleplaying
So, I need to find something to run, outside of the convention, outside of the games I've already run.

Take A Cue From Back to the Future III

I have never run or played a game in the American Old West. My personal preference is probably for a slightly more steampunk-ish or weird west vibe, but any kind of western gaming would count for this. I've just never, ever done this in the past, and I should probably rectify this at some point in time.

Get a Clue

I now have PDFs for Trail of Cthulhu, Night's Black Agents, and Timewatch. I'm taking this as a hint that I need to finish reading the rules for at least one of them, and I need to run and/or play in some kind of Gumshoe based game in the future.

Convention Time

In addition to my local convention of Winter War, my goal this year is to hit both Gary Con and Gamehole Con this year. I'm not sure if those two will always be my "goal" conventions, but I definitely want to experience them this year and see what they are like.




Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Unmasked Review at Gnome Stew

If you are curious to see what I had to say about the most recent setting released for the Cypher System, Unmasked, you can head over to Gnome Stew and read my review right by clicking on the link here.


And if you want to see my reviews of other Cypher System products from this blog, you can follow this link, right here.




Sunday, December 17, 2017

Not Quite From the Journal of the Whills--Thoughts on the Last Jedi (Spoilers!)


I’m probably not going to post this for a while, but I wanted to write up some feelings on The Last Jedi while the first impression of the movie is still fresh in my mind. I was lucky enough to go into the movie without hitting any major spoilers on the internet, although now that I’m seeing them, a lot of spoilers, out of context, really don’t convey what happened in the movie. There were a lot of moving pieces in this film, and isolating one plot point doesn’t really explain a lot.



I’m also going to try to avoid directly addressing comments I’ve seen online, although I can’t promise that some of those comments haven’t helped to form what I end up addressing and in what detail. While we can seek to blunt the edges, we are all products of our biases, and it is all but impossible to live outside of our own heads.

Reactive Film Making

I’m sure someone with an actual education in film probably already has a toolbox full of terminology for this kind of discussion. I apologize, but I don’t have that at my disposal, but I’ll try to make due. I wanted to address, right off the top, a trend that I’m seeing more and more in movies, especially in franchise movies. Reactive Film Making, for the purposes of what I’m discussing here, is taking what was said about another film on a similar topic and making a film that seems to directly address observations and criticisms of that other film.

This has always happened, to a degree, but it’s less noticeable when, say, a director makes another police buddy film that isn’t in the same series as the one whose criticism was the basis of the reaction. There have also been other course corrections that have happened over the years, with creators taking the spotlight off a less popular character, or recasting someone that didn’t seem to work well in the previous film.



But what I’m seeing a lot of now is directly reactive. Dawn of Justice directly addressed fan criticism of Superman not saving enough people in Man of Steel. Justice League directly addressed the tone and direction established in Dawn of Justice. The Marvel movies seem to almost be directly addressing the more serious, darker tone of the DC movies by pushing even harder into comedy. Hell, the X-Men movies literally reacted by giving an in-universe explanation for why everyone could ignore the movies that were the least popular in the franchise--before repeating some of the mistakes of the movies that were erased from the official timeline.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this trend. I really want creators to stick to their guns and produce what they feel moved to produce. On the other hand, George Lucas reacted very little to fan response to the earlier prequels, and as a result, seemed to double down on the elements that seemed to cause the most consternation with detractors.

In the modern information age, I’m not sure that we can avoid reactive filmmaking. It’s too easy to learn exactly what audience reaction to a film might be, and with larger and larger studios in charge of big franchise movies, executives are going to call for course corrections if they feel that profits might be impacted. With all of that said, I’m not sure I want to be as aware of the filmmaker reacting to feedback as I have been the last few years. It may be a new art to develop a light enough touch to correct course without letting the viewers feel the change in direction.

I say all of that because I could feel reactive filmmaking at work in The Last Jedi. While I’m not a fan of the trend, I did like the way that Rian Johnson reacted, even if I could see the outlines of where those reactions existed in the film.

The Meta-Theme:  Subversion

The meta-theme of The Last Jedi seems to be the subversion of expectations. After two years of negative comments about The Force Awakens being a remake of A New Hope, instead of avoiding any allusions to previous Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi has many--and then makes sure that the assumed outcome doesn’t happen.

If this had been done in a way that felt like a “gotcha” moment to the audience, I would not have enjoyed the film. I may be one of the few, but I felt like the “gotcha” moment with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 was set up as a subversion only for the sake of subversion. It was a punishment to anyone that brought previous knowledge of the franchise into the film. In many places, where there was subversion going on in The Last Jedi, it really felt, to me, as if the film built up a “balancing point,” and then tipped the opposite direction that the previous films might have gone.

There is nothing disingenuous in the narrative that a thief and slicer is going to betray the heroes for credits. The tension of the moment comes from the meta-knowledge that Lando betrayed the heroes in The Empire Strikes Back, but then helped them. Other than as an echo of a previous story, there is no reason to expect DJ to have any kind of crisis of conscience. What went one step beyond is that the heroes didn’t manage to accomplish their goal anyway--betrayal resulted in failure, full stop.

The idea that a character was going to sacrifice themselves in one big gesture to win the day is a recurring theme, not just in Star Wars, but across heroic fiction. This gets subverted in two different ways, in that the one big gesture didn’t save the day, and that the one big gesture never got a chance to be completed. What is even more interesting about this subversion is that the movie itself set up two big self-sacrificing characters before this scene, creating that balancing point to where it was totally believable that the sacrifice would happen and have an effect, as well as the acceptable alternative that we wouldn’t be doing it yet again in the same movie.

The pivotal moment of a character turning one way or another is subverted in that the situation where, in the past, that decision point is binary, in this case, has multiple directions. Deciding to turn against your master is a different course of action than deciding to turn against what your master has taught you. There is also an interesting lesson in not giving up on a person, but also realizing that not everyone is strong enough to turn back to the light. Subverting the idea of redemption, while still realistically presenting the idea that it may have been possible, might even underscore the impact of previous redemptions in the franchise. Not having the redemption “take” isn’t a rejection of the concept of redemption, it’s a reiteration that redemption is hard.

Possibly one of the biggest subversions of the franchise, which I’ve only seen touched on a bit, has been the idea that everyone that matters in the galaxy has some kind of legacy. Anakin was the Chosen One, Luke and Leia were his children, and the children of a Queen. Chewbacca was friends with Yoda. Boba Fett was the child of the template for the Clone Army. In other words, there is a handful of “important” people in the galaxy, and everyone in the galaxy that matters touches on this circle in some way. This was subverted most specifically with Rey and the reveal about her parents, but it’s also echoed with Finn and Phasma’s interaction during their fight. No, you don’t need to be tied to one of the “important families” in the galaxy to matter when it comes to unfolding events.

A somewhat more subtle subversion, is what it means to be a leader in a Star Wars film. Luke is given an X-Wing and takes control of his flight as soon as he joins the Rebel Alliance. Hand and Lando become generals as soon as they sign up. To this point in the Star Wars franchise, if you are personally competent, it is assumed you must be leadership material. Poe, who pulls off things in an X-Wing that we haven’t seen before, gets demoted, then must learn, and then relearn, what it means to be a leader. We even get a subversion within a subversion, where we think that Poe’s lesson is to think outside the box for resolutions, when in truth, the real lesson is to play the long game.

There is another subversion going on that has been ongoing for a while, even in canon material, but it is explicitly discussed by Luke in the film. A lot of people watching Star Wars movies still default to Light Side Force user = Jedi, Dark Side Force User = Sith. While Snoke already subverts this to a degree, it’s becoming more common in Star Wars media to introduce canon examples of Force traditions outside of the Jedi and the Sith. And like most of the subversions in the movie, the subversion gets partially subverted when we realize that the point may be that the Jedi aren’t the only light side Force users, but they aren’t gone, either.

One final subversion I’ll mention ties into the actual, overt theme of the movie. It appears that the movie is driving hard towards Kylo Ren’s point of “let the past die,” but this gets subverted, partially. After we see Luke’s hard-line “the Jedi must end,” and we see the symbolic Emperor figure with his red-armored guards cut down mid-movie, it seems to reinforce this point. The actual point becomes--take what is works from the past, find out what that means to you, and then make a new future. The Jedi don’t have to end, they must change. The Resistance doesn’t have to be its own thing--it can take what it needs from the legacy of the Rebel Alliance and become something new that honors the past.

The (Non-Meta) Theme

The theme that is apparent within the movie, not just from observing trends and how items in the movie cling to or move away from franchise tropes, is that of building a lasting resistance to the evil in the galaxy, and how building that lasting resistance may be harder than making grand gestures towards heroism. The theme is also one of taking what is good about the past, but changing and making a better future. You can repeat the cycle, but you don’t avoid the mistakes made in the previous cycle, you fall into stagnation. While it’s not explicitly called out in the movie, that “change to survive” is almost implicit in the New Republic not changing enough from the Old Republic to avoid the same fate, allowing the First Order to grow just as the Old Republic didn’t act on Palpatine’s rise to power.

The theme of building a better, long-term future is addressed in a few places, and may not have been as explicit as we are used to seeing in Star Wars. Rose and Finn’s trip to Canto Bight was totally about seeing the flaws in the old ways, as well as building a new generation of people that will not make the same mistakes.

While the Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base, in many ways we’re still getting an origin story for them. They were a small group that thought they needed to act against the First Order instead of just ignoring the problem, as the New Republic seemed to be doing. But the stories in this trilogy (so far) have been much more closely packed to one another. We’re seeing that the Resistance may just have been a “placeholder” for the heroes until they realized what they really needed to be.

Blaster Proof?

You may have been able to tell from what I said above in my analysis that I largely think that The Last Jedi works, and that I enjoyed it. Does that mean I think everything worked as well as it could have? No, but I think there is more going on in some of the scenes than a cursory pass can cover.

Pacing

I got a similar feeling in the first act of the film that I had with Rogue One, where I felt like we did a lot of cutting between locations to establish some facts, and that I wasn’t feeling the through line immediately. The second act took too long to resolve. I think both acts eventually come together to do what they need to do, but the awkward transitions and the lack of dynamic action cause the movie to lose a little of its momentum for a bit.

The “slow speed chase” to Crait was something that I think could have used a bit more action. We know that the Resistance ships are faster, but low on fuel, but visually, we just see the First Order capital ships behind them, and the Resistance ships up front. Other than positioning, we don’t get a real feel for the speed.

If we had let the ships get out of visual range, and possibly had a few skirmishes with TIE fighters scouting the fleet, it might have been possible to convey the same “hunter and hunted” feeling with a bit more immediacy. I understand the choice of the slow speed chase. It both avoids the appearance of overt heroism by having Resistance ships taking out First Order scouts, and it preserves the idea that Crait is uncharted and a surprise objective.

The problem is, a starfield is visually uninteresting. Broken, mined out planetoids, debris, anything would have helped the scene out, and continued to obscure Crait as the actual objective. To some extent, having “anything” else in the scene but Crait, or having any kind of action may have partially undermined the “don’t just be a hero” theme, but it’s almost a Star Wars tradition to partially undermine your underlying theme with a gratuitous action scene.

Canto Bight is another pacing issue in the movie. While I can see why it was used, when coupled with the character issues below, the scene takes too long to resolve. 

Character Scenes

I enjoyed most of the character interactions in the first and third act. I felt as if Canto Bight was a little devoid of character interaction. Finn, Rose, BB-8, and eventually DJ, are the only actual characters. For much of that scene, it felt like we literally had them walking through cardboard cutouts of figures with signs around their neck saying, “out of touch rich person.” It started to feel hollow after a while. Even a two dimensional, but charismatic police officer would have helped.


Another problem with the Canto Bight sequence is the importance of the children in the scene. Much like the out of touch rich people, there isn't really a strong connection to the children. They have similar signs on them, only these signs read "abused orphans." I only care about them because I'm supposed to care about them, not because they have any real personalities attached to them.

As a final note about Rose and Finn, I didn't feel like the romantic angle really worked. This is one that might look different in hindsight, after seeing where this goes in the future, but I like them working together as friends. I didn't really feel anything more going on. If it turns out that it is intentionally one-sided, and that only Rose is feeling it, and we see an exploration of this, maybe this is actually working as intended.

Snoke Begins

Snoke served his purpose as a symbolic representation of the Emperor to be sacrificed to Kylo Ren’s character development. That said, one line mentioning that he’s the last line of dark side sorcerers from the Unknown Regions or something like that would have been appreciated.

Even though Luke establishes that the old Force traditions don’t have a monopoly on the Force, and even though much of the movie tries to establish that not everyone needs to be connected to a previous Star Wars element, I think (and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Star Wars movie) all of that is a bit too subtle. People still have conspiracy theories about Snoke, and I think a blunt, quick--this is who he is, and all that he is, would have been a good way to close off his story.

I get that he was basically an Emperor fill in for a First Order that was desperate to have their Emperor figure, and that the point of this movie was for Kylo Ren to start making the First Order into his own thing, instead of the Empire 2.0. But I think so much buzz has surrounded the character for so long, and it has been so ingrained in fandom that anyone that uses the Force needs a ton of backstory--we could have had a blunter declaration that “he’s an evil wizard--they exist, he was one, and now he’s dead.”

Always In Motion the Future Is

I enjoyed the movie. I think it took risks, but I think it took risks in a way that was informed by previous Star Wars media. I also realize that because it took risks and departed sharply from the tone and structure of the Force Awakens that the movie may not be as well received by all viewers, across the board. No judgment from me--all I ask is that you don’t take elements out of context as an excuse to dismiss the whole movie, or dismiss the opinions of people that may disagree with you.

If I have one concern, it’s with how this movie transitions to the next story in the trilogy. So far, we have had a very tight, focused timeframe in which these stories unfold. Everything has happened in a short period of time.

In addition, this movie has established that the “point” of this entire movie was that the long-term development of the Resistance, and creating lasting change, are the important aspects of what needs to be done.

That means that if we get another, tighter time framed movie, taking place days, weeks, or months after this one, either we shouldn’t get a resolution to the Resistance/New Order conflict (which could be seen as a commercial decision by Lucasfilm to prolong storytelling potential but would make sense as established by this movie) or else we get a quick resolution that undercuts the theme of this movie. “Oh, I guess big heroic gestures are better than lasting change.”

On the other hand, we could get a movie that jumps several years, like we did at the start of Revenge of the Sith and The Empire Strikes Back, where we can infer that the Resistance has been building their long-term change for years across the galaxy where we pick up with them again. In this case, however, it is still going to be tricky to resolve the situation without defaulting to “bold, singular, heroic action.” You can do this, but at that point, you need to reiterate that “sometimes you build, sometimes you take decisive action” to give this movie equal weight with the sequel.

I’m not one to jump on the J.J. Abrams hate bandwagon, but I’m not sure that a tonal reminder of the theme of the previous movie, while establishing a new and consistent theme in the current movie, is really Abrams style.

If we get a resolution in the next movie, what the resolution looks like is going to be very important in determining the legacy of The Last Jedi. If we get a galaxy where there is no longer a single galactic government, but everybody is living in relative peace, and we have multiple Force traditions, for example (and this is only an example--I’m not saying this is the only way the movie could signify significant change), then we see the cycle change this time around. If we end up with a "New" New Republic and Rey on the verge of training a new Jedi order, very much in line with the Jedi order we’ve seen before, this may end up feeling like an aberration instead of a bold change in direction.

All of that said, the possibilities opened by the direction of The Last Jedi make it at least fun to speculate on a direction, rather than being able to assume that what has come before is what will be again.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Appendix D: "Disney Ruined Star Wars"

About the Title

I'm calling this post "Appendix D," because you can assume it appears at the end of anything I post about a Disney owned property from now until the foreseeable future. I'm doing this to try and keep myself from repeating too many of these same, exact points, over and over again.

IP Voltron (But They Don't Own That Yet)

After I wrote my initial thoughts, I've seen a growing number of comments online by people that disliked the movie reducing their criticism to "Disney ruined Star Wars." I'd just like to cite something, and add in some evidence. None of this should change your opinion on if you dislike The Last Jedi--you own that opinion. This is just to combat reactive, reductive commentary that likes to masquerade as criticism.

There have been numerous articles citing that Disney has largely allowed Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios to operate as separate entities, so long as they remain successful. While I know many people might argue "why trust a corporation to tell you how they really operate?," I'll cite both an explicit example of why this might be true and an example that might help illustrate the point.

Kevin Feige had to specifically ask Disney to separate his portion of Marvel Studios from the leadership of the company because he specifically still had to listen to Ike Perlmutter when making decisions about the movie franchise. He had to ask to rearrange the traditional structure so that he could report more directly to Disney, because Disney did not mandate that they be in direct control of the day to day workings of the studio.

As anecdotal evidence, I'll also cite that Disney, itself, is not following the same patterns that Marvel or Lucasfilm are following. Both of those studios have been pushing their boundaries a bit, and trying new things, such as Marvel's "other film genre + superheroes" approach or, for Lucasfilm, The Last Jedi. Disney, on the other hand, has been spending a LOT of money coming up with the successful, if creatively devoid, strategy of "hey, let's take something people loved that was animated and make it live action--even if live action actually means CGI."

I'd also say that it's been pretty evident that it has been Kathleen Kennedy that has been butting heads with, and tossing, directors, not Disney corporate. However you might feel about this, it's definitely a sign that the company has its own command structure.

Disney Will Be The Head

Disney definitely controls the marketing and the merchandising. They are the money people. They own these studios in order to make money. They have entire divisions that have spent decades perfecting the art of what character to put on what product, where to sell it, and for how much. They haven't spent nearly as much time developing studios trained to create super hero epics or space opera.

As a quick aside, it will be interested to see, since the Fox purchase seemed very focused on buying properties rather than acquiring a successful business entity, how this same strategy will apply, especially since much of the acquisition seems to revolve around getting back scattered Marvel assets, and distribution rights to Star Wars films and projects.

I guess my point is: stop the pattern of loving the separate entity when you enjoy what they do, but blaming Disney when they don't provide what you wanted. If you liked Rogue One, but hated The Last Jedi, let Lucasfilm own both of those. If you loved Civil War, but hated Thor Ragnarok, let both of those fall on Marve Studios. Disney has done lots of good and bad, but let them own those decisions at the corporate level. Anything else becomes lazy shorthand that does nothing to communicate a useful level of specific communication.



Thursday, December 14, 2017

Gaming Wishes Update, 2017



Last year, I posted some of my gaming wishes for 2017. This year has been--interesting--in many ways, but when it comes to gaming, this was actually a pretty good year for me. I thought it only fair to post an update to see how well I managed to follow up on my gaming wishes.



Get Back on Track with My Read and Reviews

If there is one thing I think I managed to do this year, it’s this one.  I had a dry spell last year, towards the end of the year, where it was difficult to get any RPG reading done, let along blogging a review into existence.

While I’m still having a bit of a time crunch this time around, I’ll still have at least one review in December, and on top of that, I’ve been reviewing both on this page, and on the super prestigious Gnome Stew. I never would have seen that one coming if you had told me about it last year.

First things first--thank you so much to Chris Sniezak for paying attention to my reviews and bringing them up to John Arcadian, and to John, for giving me a shot at Gnome Stew. I am humbled and very thankful to both, and to everyone that has given my reviews a read over the past year.

But, for the purposes of this post, I guess I can say that I got back on track.  So far, we’re 1/1 on the gaming wishes.
 
Adventure in Middle-Earth

I have almost all the PDFs for The One Ring, and almost all the PDFs and the physical copies of the Adventures in Middle-earth product line. I really like Tolkien, overly long descriptions and all. Most of my regular gaming group does not.

To their credit, they were lined up to play in an Adventures in Middle-earth game that I was going to start, but there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm, and, as it turned out, there wasn’t much time. So, this one didn’t happen.

I’ll get back to this one later, but given how I like to run things online, and the fact that running online makes me nervous that I’ll wind up with Tolkien super fans that will see me for the fraud that I am, this isn’t going to happen locally, and it’s probably not going to happen online. This wasn’t just this year’s failure, but probably a “never going to happen” item in the books. So, the gaming wishes from last year now stand at 1/2.

Run an Age of Rebellion Campaign Again--This Time Successfully

Last time I ran an Age of Rebellion game, I inherited it from a friend. There were some plots in motion, including a double agent among the PCs, and it derailed what I was trying to do. It felt unsatisfactory. Given that I had run a few solid “season length” Edge of the Empire campaigns, as well as a 9-session arc of Force and Destiny that seemed to go well, I really wanted to have a solid Age of Rebellion game going on.

I tried to get this one going with my online D&D friends, but I did a terrible job of trying to use Friends Like These. It was very much my fault for not tailoring the adventure to the group, and not being adaptable enough. I also realized that running every Thursday was getting trickier. I thought this one was going in the “not going to happen bin” as well.

Then I managed to schedule a session zero of a new Age of Rebellion game, and play through our first episode, which involved having the future Rebels survive an invasion from an Imperial director and her star destroyer. This gave them some personal stakes, and put a “face” on the Empire for the group. I know the campaign isn’t “over” yet, but I’m still going to call this one a win.

2/3

Experience the Full Shadow of the Demon Lord

You can watch this one online, on my You Tube channel (more on that later), but this totally happened. I had a great group of players, and despite things getting a little wonky and weird in places, I think it came together well. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and we played through from 0 to 10th level.

3/4




Visit Dungeon World Again

It wasn’t a long visit, but the one slot where I didn’t run a Powered by the Apocalypse game last year for my local convention, Winter War, I played in a Dungeon World game. Matt did a great job of running that game, and we pretty much scratch built the setting, and he responded with a plot. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to be on the other side of the table, playing in one of these games for once, instead of running it.

4/5

Accelerate a Dresden Game

I’ve been wanting to run Dresden Accelerated ever since I got the “almost finished” PDF, before it had final art. I finally managed to do so this year. Currently, the Dresden game is a monthly game on the second Saturday of the month, and it’s been a lot of fun. It was one of my one-shot games that managed to turn into full campaigns after our trial run.

5/6




On the Other Hand, Those One-Shot Games . . .

I ran one shots of 7th Sea, Dresden Accelerated, and Predation, and almost all of those went from single games, to multiple games, to ongoing campaigns. 7th Sea and Dresden are still ongoing, and should get at least a proper 9-12 session story arc before they wrap up.

Now, I’m not sure it counts, me running games from my backlog as one shots, if I end up running them as actual campaigns, but I totally started them just as one shots, and they were all games and/or settings I hadn’t run before, so I’m counting them.

6/7

Successfully Complete Storm King's Thunder

 Running Storm King’s Thunder was interesting. I had a group of fun players, we played for about 2-3 hours at a time, and we played on a weekly basis. It’s been a while since I ran a weekly game, and it’s been a while since I ran so many sessions in one campaign with the same characters (36 sessions total).

I blogged about the campaign elsewhere on the blog this year, but this one was a definite one for the win column, even if I wish I had stuck the landing a bit better than I did (but I’d rather finish okay instead of strong, than not finish at all).

7/8

Get Some Cypher Gaming Going

 I have a ton of Cypher System material, and very little playtime at an actual table. While the core mechanic isn’t difficult to grasp, I was a little concerned about unleashing the changing foci of The Strange on my regular Thursday group, so I scrapped those plans.

I did eventually get a chance to run Predation. It didn’t turn into a full campaign, but the setting was a big hit, and we had a lot of fun with it.

8/9


Explore Some Venues

When I set this goal of exploring new venues to run games, my “go to” venues were running at the local convention, running Google Hangout sessions, or running at the FLGS. It wasn’t long after I posted my gaming wishes that we found out that the FLGS was shutting down.

Thankfully, a new FLGS opened in the spring, and I’ve been running games there. It’s in the mall, and often, we have a table that is outside of the store. It’s interesting to be in a wide-open space with shoppers wandering by, but sometimes it’s more comfortable than being in a busy, loud game store with other events going on.


Originally, my thought on this was to look at libraries or student unions to run games. I still want to see some new spaces I haven’t tried yet, and I want to get some outdoor gaming in at some park or another when the weather gets better, but for now, I think I can count this one as complete, since I’ve never actually run a game outside of a store, in a mall before.

10/11

Get Some More YouTube Video Sessions Going

I managed to do this one as well! I reorganized my old Marvel Heroic Videos (I’m still lost when it comes to editing, so I apologize for anyone attempting to watch), and I recruited for a Shadow of the Demon Lord game.

I got to play with two old friends, and I met three new gamers, and forged some new online friendships. The game was good (I made some mistakes, and learned from the experience), but what’s even better is that I have new gamers in my circle of contacts online who are great people.

11/12

Hey, that’s almost a 92% completion rate! Unless I manage to run a The One Ring or Adventures in Middle-earth session for my in-laws in the next two weeks.  Hm . . .

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thinking About The Cypher System



I like the Cypher System. I picked up most of my Numenera material when it appeared in the Bundle of Holding, and once I was familiar with the system, I was very excited for The Strange. I love the setting and the concept of that setting a great deal.



I liked all of that enough to back the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter, and to pick up the core rulebook as well.

As much as I like the system and several of the settings, however, there are a few things that nag at the back of my brain. Some of these are due to the mechanics of the system, and some are due to presentation.

Normally, I wouldn’t spend too much time on the negative. It’s not a bad system. Its fans are justified in their love of it. Its flexible, and it does things in a way that is unique among RPGs. Occasionally, however, I see fans that really see it as the pinnacle of RPG design, or that are convinced it can handle all genres, all the time.

No system, be it d20, Savage Worlds, Fate, Genesys, or whatever else you can name, is 100% functional across all tones, genres, or game styles.

This isn’t so much a review on my part, as a little bit of analysis, culled from all the Cypher products I’ve managed to consume up to this point.

The Good

The game is extremely simple for a GM to run. If you can come up with a relative strength of the opposition, you can come up with stats. Level 3 thug? There are your stats. Need the thug to do something unpredictable or impressive? Wait for a 1, or offer the PCs XP for an intrusion.

The core concept of picking and choosing (adjective)(noun)(verb) for character creation is a strong hook. In fact, it’s so prevalent in all the Cypher System games, it’s odd to me that the games lean on cyphers being the unifying concept of the game and not the character creation.

Beyond the core concept of how to build a character, almost every game to start has a ton of options, because the number of character concepts is a permutation of how many of each of the three character elements are presented.

I really like basic action resolution, because it creates the opportunity to build story when a character makes their roll. Defining everything that might affect the difficulty of the roll before you roll, and talking out how those things modify the scene, is a great way to add story elements.

Setting wise, I love both The Strange and Predation, and I like a lot about Numenera.

With All of That Established

All the above form a very compelling center around which to hang a game system. Moving beyond that compelling center, here are the things that aren’t always my favorite elements of the Cypher System.

Multiple Sources

I like that the various elements that make up a character have potential background information and/or ties to other characters in the party, or to the starting adventure. Unfortunately, that also means that not only is there statistical information in multiple places in a rulebook, there is also background material in multiple places in the rulebook, as well.

In addition to this scattering of information, it becomes a bit more pronounced when you introduce the Worlds of the Cypher System books into the mix as well, which give you some replacement information on the main “types” in the game, but only detail about half of what you need in the setting book, referring you back to the main book for the other half of what you get from that type.

That’s a lot of flipping around to find exactly what you need to create a character to begin with, and it’s very easy for a player to not realize they are missing some aspect of their character until they see that another player managed to find some of the character creation material that they missed.

Naming Conventions

A lot of Cypher System games have strange naming conventions. It makes sense to use words that almost sound like something, but don’t quite have a traditional meaning, in a setting like Numenera. Its Earth, a million years in the future. But that kind of odd “you can’t figure it out from context” style of nomenclature has stuck with other Cypher System games as well.

Much of the recursion of Ardeyn, many of the concepts of Gods of the Fall, and even the character types from Predation feel just a little too alien to be comfortable. Gods of the Fall takes this to another level, not just using new terminology, as many fantasy settings do, but redefining words commonly used in a fantasy setting to use in a manner that isn’t really based on anything. Dragons are greedy sorcerers. Elves are fungal growths that make you hallucinate. It feels odd for the sake of being odd at times.

Rough Edges

Many aspects of the Cypher System rules are great in how quick they are to establish and resolve. On the other hand, armor in Numenera and The Strange, and just about any version of the game explaining how stat pools interact with edge and effort show a few rough edges in the game.

It’s not that these rules don’t work, but there is a definite feeling that instead of being a game that was created from synthesizing independent games and going in a new, but similar, direction, that Cypher is a game that was built by reverse engineering much more simulationist, rules heavy games, to a point to where it felt more story based.

“Backing into” a more story based model is something of a double-edged sword, because it does feel distinct from other games that tend to be more narrative based, but the game retains a few steps that feel a little more complicated than they need to be to achieve that same end. For an example, look at the “second pass” on armor in they Cypher System core rulebook versus Numenera and The Strange.

Cyphers

Cyphers are one use, expendable powers. They are stated as being the unifying concept of the game. But they aren’t, really. The unifying concepts of the game are the three-part PC character creation and the difficulty system, along with GM intrusions.

Cyphers were a great inclusion in Numenera. It made perfect sense that people would find widgets of varying power from past ages, that could be used for one off powers, and not easily replicated. While most of the established settings have done a good job incorporating the concept, reading the core rules makes it feel as if that’s one special hurdle you need to jump if you are making your own setting.

I can envision having a whole campaign that utilizes most of the concepts of the Cypher System, except for Cyphers. In fact, my players in my play test of Predation completely forgot about them for the whole session, and so did I. While Predation has a neat explanation of what they are in that setting, saying that the core concept of the game centers around Cyphers is like saying you should plan around a D&D session having potions and scrolls being used every session. 



But What Do I Really Think?

There are a lot of quirks that stick out to me whenever I engage a Cypher System rulebook. It’s not my favorite game system, but it’s far from my least favorite. The more I dig into the things that I may have done differently, however, the more I see that those items also serve to give Cypher a bit of a unique personality in an RPG space filled with a lot of “generic” game systems.