Tuesday, May 28, 2019

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Seas of Vodari Quickstart (5e OGL)

I love pirates and swashbuckling. I spent a large chunk of last year finishing up on 7th Sea campaign and starting another one. Since I’m a fan of 5th edition D&D, and swashbuckling, I was an easy mark for the Seas of Vodari Kickstarter.

If you didn’t catch it while it was on Kickstarter, Seas of Vodari is a setting for 5e that is based around sea travel and swashbuckling, taking place in a setting that is largely comprised of the island remains of a shattered continent. In addition to ships and swords, the setting also has cannons and muskets, to complete the swashbuckling feel.

While I don’t often dive into advance material from Kickstarters, I’m enough of a 5e and pirate nerd that I couldn’t help but look through the book, especially since there is a mix of setting information and broader rules that can be introduced into other games.

Disclaimer—this is a quickstart, and not the final rules. I’m giving my own opinions on this, but this isn’t a review, just my first impressions.

Unfurl the Sails

The quickstart is 63 pages long, and the artwork and formatting already look impressive. I don’t have any concerns that this will be an attractive final product based on the quickstart. The pieces showing ships and locations have an almost impressionist look to them, and the characters have more of a comic book feel to them.

Lots of headers and clear formatting makes the document easy to navigate. Which is good, because navigation is important for stories about sailing. Okay, I’ll stop.

The Setting

There is a one-page pitch for what the setting is all about that summarizes it in seven broad points. I’ve seen similar things done in the Primeval Thule and Midgard Campaign settings, and I like the concept. Broadly, it sets up that there was an ancient world long gone, the gods cause some ongoing issues, the setting is more scientifically advanced than most D&D worlds, and there are large portions of the campaign set to exist under the seas as well as above it.

Skipping ahead a little, we do get two aquatic PC species, but other than the ancient societies that were lost in ages past, we don’t get much information on the undersea civilizations of the setting in this primer. I know, it’s 63 pages. I'm just pointing this out.

Essentially, there was a very ancient empire that disappeared, modern humanoid species started to develop their own cultures, with the dwarves and elves isolated with their own issues, and humans and orcs enslaved by dragonborn. I like that space that dragonborn have as an important culture, and I like the potential kinship between humans and orcs—but that doesn’t get developed much in this document.

All the cultures that emerge from the overthrow of the Dragonborn are effectively shattered when the gods go to war and break the continent into island chains.

After the humanoid species recover, we’re told that all kinds of cultures intermingle, especially among the humans. But there is also a note on goblins and kobolds being excluded, and orcs are only mentioned as raiders. I’m a little disappointed, as this feels like a setting where you could have easily played against type with traditional humanoid races much like Eberron and Midgard do.

There are vague analogs for France, Italy, and maybe Spain for some of the nations. There are also some that have fewer direct parallels, such as a nation of scientists and engineers, and one run by various criminal organizations. While some of the giants are specifically noted as being willing to trade and communicate with the smaller races, orcs don’t get the same consideration.

The center of the island chain includes a massive continual storm, which can ebb and flow in size and effect, and I’m all for that detail in a campaign like this.

New Races

While I tend to default to terms like species or people or ancestries these days, I’m using this term so that it’s clear that the book is using the standard D&D terminology. The new races included are:
  • Aurirn (a subrace of aquatic dwarves)
  • Cursed Souls (think of playing someone from Barbossa’s crew in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but less obviously undead)
  • Mechasouls (machines that came to life and mutated to humanoids when inhabited by gnome and elf souls)
  • Vodas (shapeshifting aquatic humanoids)

Dwarves don’t often get pegged for an aquatic variant, and I like the idea that even though they are aquatic, they are still undersea miners. I really like the idea of the cursed soul, and its probably the race I most want to play of all of these. The vodas look like a lot of fun, and I have a feeling that the species could easily become the signature for what is unique about the setting.

I’m having a harder time warming up to the mechasouls. I have two issues, and one is more superficial than the other. I may just need more setting details, but spontaneously generated humanoids because the soulwood in their construction pulled souls in is weird, but with just that level of detail, I’m not sure if it's compelling. And “mecha” feels too high tech, even in a setting that is floating the idea that steam power and guns are available in a D&D setting. That may just be my preference.

Class Options

There is a new gunslinger in town, and I’m not going to go into too much detail on it, especially since this isn’t final material, but I really like it. I think part of why I like it is that the subclasses feel like the kind of subclasses a gunslinger should have in D&D 5e, and they echo features of other classes while also doing their own thing. Not to go too far afield, but the other widely available gunslinger has a lot of specialized rules that work in 5e, but don’t feel native to it.

In this case, you get subclasses that are good with a sword while also shooting (musketeer), a subclass that’s really good and just leaning all the way into using guns (pistolero), and a class that is also a partial spellcaster along with their gunplay, much like the options that rogues and fighters also get.

This feels like the kind of class that makes sense for high fantasy heroic gunslingers across the board, but I haven’t done a deep dissection of individual abilities.

There are subclasses for just about every standard class, and just taking a quick glance over them, I like the adherence to theme, while also creating a lot of variations on what has been done with existing game design in D&D 5e. In some cases, this is hybridizing things, like the battlemaster and swashbuckler being melded for the corsair archetype.


There are only four feats, but that’s okay—I like feats to be a little on the rare side. In this case, we get a feat that makes a character better on the deck of a ship (initiative bonus, no penalties to speed when climbing), better at diving (bonus to holding your breath), better at using guns (something that would have been nice in the DMG to accompany the firearms presented), and a feat for those that don’t like to wear armor.

Armor and Weapons

A lot of items that are common in the setting get restated on these charts, but honestly, I like that naval uniforms are a form of light armor, to encourage PCs using them. Heck, I’d definitely hand out magical uniforms to reward the behavior. We also get more detail on guns in this section.

There are optional rules for dealing with firearms to make them slightly less desirable. What I like is that guns will jam, but they don’t blow up on a bad roll, so you can’t expect 5% of a formation of gunners to kill themselves firing their weapons, the way other rules on the subject would lead you to believe.

Magic Items

There are a number of nautical, swashbuckling themed items, but I think one of my favorites is the Ship in a Bottle, because it allows for PCs to have nautical adventures, but maybe to step away from that for a while, carry their ship with them for a while and do more standard adventuring, and come back to the sea later on.


There are seven new spells included, most of which have a nautical theme. Major Mending is a utilitarian spell for helping to keep your ship up and running once it takes (massive) damage from something like a cannon (detailed later on). There is a cantrip that does thunder damage by mimicking a siren’s cry, waves and tidal spells, and one that turns you into a helpful lighthouse for your friends.

One mechanic that I don’t think I’ve seen before is a spell that, on a failed save, makes the target vulnerable to that particular spell, not the wider damage type that the spell is doing. Maybe I’ve missed a similar spell in the rules. Not saying I dislike it, I just can’t recall seeing something similar.


Most of the ships listed in this section are specifically noted as not currently having stats, which makes sense for a quickstart preview. The ship that is included, the sloop, has a format that matches the ship stats that you see in Ghosts of Saltmarsh (and I suspect for the vehicles that will appear in Descent to Avernus).

This section also has the stats for cannons. There are various sizes and even a few different types of ammunition. The biggest cannonball, the 32-pounder, does 8d10 bludgeoning damage.

I can’t find anywhere in the rules where it is harder to target individual creatures, or creatures of a specific size, versus ships or structures. The main reason I’m wondering about this is that a well-armed ship with a few cannons might be able take on a dragon with a few good rolls, and without a penalty for creatures or smaller targets, I’m wondering how long it will be before your undead captains get shot, sniper-like, as soon as they show up on the decks of their ships.

Sample Adventure

There is a sample adventure included which is a solid “follow the treasure map” adventure, with a few nice twists when it comes to the actual location of the island (I really like where one of the keys is located . . . eventually).

Positive Vibes

I think everything that is included is exactly what needs to be in the setting to evoke the swashbuckling, seafaring adventures that the setting draws on. I think for this particular setting, the focused, closed pantheon works really well. While I haven’t done any deep number crunching, I think the mechanical options all feel well thought out and logical in light of current design, while doing a few new things. I’m excited to have a chance to read more about this setting, and I think it would be easy to think of a campaign’s worth of adventures within it.


My first concerns are things I kind of understand, but I don’t think are as necessary as they may seem. The quick inclusion of the standard “drow turn bad and get banished” story seems unneeded in a nautical campaign and repeats some of the things I really wish we could get away from in D&D history. Similarly, I can understand creating a history of animosity between orcs and goblins and humans, but in the new status quo after the god’s war, I would love to see an actual nation of orcs and goblins, possibly more in like with Vikings, willing to raid and fight, but also willing to take shipping contracts or work as bodyguards if people are willing to actually bargain with them.

I’m also concerned that, while the setting seems to be inclusive of a variety of humans in every nation, when humans lose their old empires and reform new nations “regardless of past nations,” those multi-cultural nations are either unique to the setting or look firmly European. It reminds me of a lot of comments I have been reading recently about how Whiteness is something that erases other cultures while it includes them.

In addition to this, while the interior art has a variety of human skin tones, the cover is less diverse, and the only characters that don’t appear to be wearing more European themed clothing are non-human characters.

At this point, it may be too late to hope for, but I would love to see a few more nations that are more like Manden or Maghreb from the 7th Sea book Lands of Gold and Fire (Maghreb, for example, draws inspiration from the Barbary Pirates for their corsairs).

Current Thoughts

I’m looking forward to this. It’s doing a lot right. It’s polished and it is hitting the right notes to resonate with the kinds of adventures that it is trying to inspire. The mechanics look good. I just wish that it could have gone just a little bit further to avoid reinforcing some of the defaults that exist both in fantasy settings in general and D&D material specifically.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Defenders of the Wild: The Warden (5e OGL)

I never ran a 4th edition D&D game. I honestly was very interested in the system, but was . . . less than enthused about the changes made to the Forgotten Realms going into 4th edition, and I felt the marketing campaign could have been more inclusive. Despite this, I played in a 4e campaign, and I played in several one-shots at the FLGS. While I didn’t pick up every book that came out, I did keep my D&D Insider account active for quite a while, even when I wasn’t actively playing in a campaign.

Because of this, I saw a lot more in 4e that I would have liked to have utilized, without getting the opportunity. While I played an eladrin paladin in my regular campaign, I saw so many classes that I wanted to try out, and made a ton of them. I eventually got to play my minotaur runepriest in a one-shot game, but I was always wondering about other classes like the avenger and the warden.

If you never had the opportunity to look at 4e material, the warden was, in brief, the nature tank. Using the more tradition D&D classes as examples, in 4e druids controlled and modified areas of the battlefield, and rangers were focused on being mobile and doing lots of damage. This roughly corresponds to the way wizards and rogues operate. Wardens soaked up damage and punished opponents for attacking anyone else, much like the 4e fighter, but with more nature flavored abilities.

Just as with the previous release Callto Arms: The Warlord, which recreated the 4e Warlord class with 5e mechanics, Robert Schwalb’s Max Press 5e imprint has release Defenders of theWild: The Warden, which does something similar for the warden class that I mentioned at the top of this post.

All-Natural Container

This review is based on the PDF of product, which currently is the only version to be had. The product itself is 12 pages long, with original artwork of nature-oriented warriors doing their thing. There is a little bit of slightly blurry nudity, and one page of text is comprised of the OGL statement, with another page consisting of an add for Shadow of the Demon Lord. There is a green themed formatting to the document that you might find familiar if you have seen any of the Terrible Beauty related Shadow of the Demon Lord products. Everything is attractively formatted and laid out.

Core Concept

Essentially, the warden is a class that derives power from spirits to defend nature. While you can still argue roles exist in D&D 5e, they are less rigidly defined in most classes, but the warden’s job is still primarily to keep opponents focused on them while the rest of the party does what they do best. As a d10 hit dice “half-caster,” the warden most closely resembles a nature focused paladin on the surface. Unlike paladins, however, you aren’t getting easy access to heavy armor.

The starting signature abilities of the class are Defender’s Ward, which defines a 10-foot radius where the warden can use a reaction to trigger an attack penalty to opponents, and Fount of Life, where the warden can both heal themselves and create an area of rough terrain once per short rest. Right from the start, the class establishes the importance of the warden being in contact with the ground, and I like the thematic feel of that. That said, the penalty assessed by Defender’s Ward is a dice-based variable, which isn’t bad, per se, but always jumps out at me compared to a lot of 5e more fluid use of rules like disadvantage.


The warden gets a fighting style and spellcasting as they advance in levels. They also get essentially a “reverse smite,” where they can sacrifice spell slots to reduce damage taken (I am now dreaming of a goliath warden rolling all kinds of dice to not actually get injured in a fight).

The subclasses for the warden are called Aspects of Nature, and they kick in at 3rd level. They pick up an extra attack, as you would guess for a combat-oriented class. Eventually they pick up the ability to save against ongoing effects early, get advantage on opportunity attacks, to do extra damage when you charge yourself up, make attacks of opportunity against anyone that attacks someone that isn’t you, get bonus hit points on a high death save, and a regenerating effect as their capstone.

While the higher end abilities are useful, getting opportunity attacks when you already have other powers that rely on you to use your reaction doesn’t feel as amazing as it could. Overall, the class feels a little front-loaded to me, although capstone abilities vary wildly even with the core D&D 5e classes.

Aspects of Nature

The three choices presented are the Aspect of the Elemental Storm, Aspect of the Primal Beast, and Aspect of the Sacred Trees. Each one grants a different set of bonus spells themed to the aspect in question. Each aspect also grants the ability to adopt a new form. It not quite shapeshifting (as in, getting new monster stats with a second set of hit points), but your appearance changes and you may get bonuses to armor class, resistances, extra damage on attacks, or gain a damaging aura.

At higher levels, different aspects allow the warden to spend spells slots to zap a foe with lightning by expending spells slots when they hit, give them a pounce attack that allows a bonus action attack, or entangle an opponent. At 15th level, the aspects grand abilities like extra lightning damage when a foe misses, advantage on attacks to a foe that has missed an attack, or an increase in your Defender’s Ward ability.

The high level (18th level) abilities granted include creating an area of difficult terrain that imposes disadvantage on opponents, a kind of mini-barbarian rage, or an even greater AC boost, reach, and more difficult terrain (difficult terrain is really a staple warden trick).

New Spells

There are 10 new spells included in this product, and I appreciate that there is also a list of what other classes beyond the warden would have access to these. While many of the warden’s class features involve making them a more tantalizing target, several of these spells increase the damage done by the warden, or cause an opponent attacking the warden to take damage. Four of the ten new spells are bonus action spells.

My favorite is probably Close the Gap, as it functions as sort of the opposite of Expeditious Retreat, pulling an opponent into close range with you where all of your class features function. Only three of the spells have a higher-level scaling option, and one goes up by a d4 per level, which probably isn’t the best use of your precious higher-level spell slots.

Nature’s Boon

This is definitely a class that establishes its flavor early and lets you play with the idea of standing firm to defend nature from the start. I like the cleverly inverted class features used to reinforce the them, like the Primal Might ability. I like having useful bonus action spells that play into what the class does well, so that burning spell slots on Primal Might is a deliberate decision, and not an easy default. I really like the ”not quite shapeshifting” abilities of the Aspects of Nature, and the kicker abilities that these subclasses get are very much in keeping with their themes.

Punishing Storm

The class feels a little front-loaded, and I’m not sure that when the rest of the party gets better at taking damage at higher levels, taking even more damage than everyone else is going to feel as useful. Part of that issue may just be how D&D scales at higher levels. I’d have to play to be sure, but the more passive, harder to hit nature of the Aspect of the Sacred Trees feels like it would be a little bit less fun than the other aspects, that have some neat “gotcha” effects that allow the warden to switch to a more proactive mode.

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

I can’t speak for everyone playing D&D 5e, but I think this would be a fun class to try out, and definitely worth the purchase. Robert Schwalb has done a ton of work both on 4e and 5e, and even when I see quirks in a class that don’t quite “feel” the way established classes do things, I feel like that’s someone that knows how it’s done pushing boundaries and experimenting, rather than not following the established pattern.

Your millage may vary if you haven’t played 4e and had some curiosity about seeing similar concepts expressed in different game rules. I know I’m not usually one for brand new classes, as I generally think more can be done with design space using subclasses. But I think this one is worth checking out, and I think the mechanics are fun and interesting enough to at least ponder.

Parting Shots

Robert Schwalb recently mentioned that this may be the last Max Press release, at least for a while. I love Shadow of the Demon Lord, and I fully understand him playing with his own well-designed toys, but I really looked forward to these releases, and would love to see more of them in the future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What Do I Know About a Leave of Absence--Real Life Updates

You may have noticed I haven't been posting here as much as I have in more recent months, and this month you won't get to see a review from me up on Gnome Stew. For anyone interested, I thought I'd provide a bit of an update.

Ordinary Issues

I'll start with the most mundane thing, and that is, I work at a school district, and we're reaching the end of the school year. Turns out people really like to have data when they wrap up one year and start planning for the next, so a data specialist's work is never done.

That's the normal ebb and flow of work. Now for the less fun bits.

Unexpected Complications

I went to the doctor for one thing, and ended up learning about a whole other set of health problems.

Because I don't think there should be a stigma about this kind of thing, I've had a lot of ups and downs my adult life. There are times when I have a hard time functioning, and sometimes, when everything works out right and I have a nice, steady schedule to follow, my lows aren't as bad, but they still happen.

On top of depression, my anxiety has always made it hard for me to rest. I'm getting to a point where not being able to sleep at night because my brain keeps reminding me of things that need to be done, or things that can go wrong, is much harder for me to deal with. I was starting to average a little over three hours of sleep at night, and I couldn't keep doing that.

I went to my doctor, and she helped me to get on an SSRI as well as something for anxiety, and I'm actually falling asleep without being exhausted, and sleeping through the night for the first time in years. Its a really strange feeling to be able to differentiate between being tired and exhausted again.

I also started seeing my therapist again. I had stopped for a while, in part because scheduling was difficult, and in part because I was afraid that because I kept having days where I was feeling depressed, I was convinced I was doing something wrong. Most of the time between sessions I felt pretty good about myself, but I didn't understand why I kept having those bad days. Now I have the other piece in place, and I'm doing the work again.

The problem is, a few years ago, when I was in a really bad place, I tried really hard to pull myself out of it. I changed my diet, started exercising, and it worked. For a while. Then I got sick and had a few emotional crashes, and I gained back about fifty pounds and went back to some really bad habits with my diet.

Because I wasn't sleeping, I survived on coffee and caffeinated soda in order to keep my eyes open at work. Because I was always pushing myself to get things done until I finally crashed for a few hours, I ate lots of terrible things. It was a cycle of existing, but not really taking care of myself.

Forward Thinking

In summary, living off of fast food, coffee, and soda pretty much wrecked my health. I have ridiculously high cholesterol and I am now diabetic. So in addition to being on medicine for anxiety and depression, I'm also on medicine to manage these new health issues. Thankfully, I'm still at the point where I don't need to take insulin, but I do need to make major adjustments.

The good thing is, it was way easier to juggle the blog, gaming, work, and family when I was taking better care of myself, and now that I have some support in keeping me from having as many issues regarding anxiety and depression, I have better tools to keep taking care of myself.

We make a lot of jokes about gamer culture and the bad habits associated with it, but I'll be honest with you. Take some time and think about how you are doing. If you can, get checked out, physically and mentally. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Little Help From Your Friends

Supernatural season 14 just hit Netflix, so to commemorate me watching yet another season, I’m posting my rough draft of a Monster of the Week move inspired by this season. Without spoiling too much, there is an added element of managing other teams of hunters that caught my attention.

In addition to the elements of the show for this season, I’m also reminded of one of my favorite moves from The Sprawl, which lets you direct someone to do a job for you while you are busy doing other things. That move is specifically tailored to a cyberpunk “job” structure, so I took it for inspiration, and then kind of built the equivalent for Monster of the Week from the ground up.

Some hunters have friends and family that they can count on, even if they don’t travel with them on a regular basis. When this is true, hunters can call in a favor to have another team run a job for them while they are currently investigating another mystery. Alternatively, sometimes hunters want to stay on scene while another team of hunters accomplishes a task or retrieves and item that is needed, but is removed from the site of the mystery.

Run A Side Job

Whenever a hunter directs another team at a distance, roll +sharp

10+; The team manages to get the job done with no hitch. They stop the monster, rescue the victims, do the thing they needed to do offsite, or retrieve the object. If the action or object is needed in the current mystery, the player hunters have access to the benefit in the next phase of the day after they make this move.

7-9; The team gets the job done, but it’s not pretty. Choose one of the following:

  • They stop the monster, but the victims didn’t make it
  • They rescue the victims, but the monster got away
  • They stop the monster and rescue the victims, but they lost a hunter
  • They get the item, but it’s damaged or cursed
  • They get the task partially done, but the player hunters will still need to do something else to complete the task

6-; The job went sideways. Choose one of the following:

  • The team was wiped out or captured
  • One member of the team was turned
  • The item was destroyed or circumstances have changed that make doing the task impossible
  • The monster has the item
  • The monster knows what task the team wanted done, and has sent a guard to a critical location

Remember, the key to this move is that the hunters have to have established other people that they know in order for this to work. If they are asking characters that have been established in their backstories or that they have met during mysteries to do these things, it makes the consequences of the move much more meaningful.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Fast and the Furious Franchise as Platonic Ideal of Modern RPG Campaigns

My Turbo Charged Thesis Statement

A few days ago, I posted on Twitter that the platonic ideal of a modern action RPG setting, excluding superheroes and urban fantasy, was The Fast and the Furious franchise. This got a lot of likes, reshares, and commentary, to the point I was almost afraid to expound on this for negating the simplicity of it all. But I’m me, so I have to expound.

When I said this, part of my thinking was that even though often set in modern times, urban fantasy and supers often have their own rulesets for their own sub-genres. You can use a broad ruleset that can handle multiple genres to run those games, but they often have many, many options that are tailored specifically for them.

The other thing that was on my mind in this instance was team versus single protagonist. I saw a lot of mentions of John Wick in my comments on this. It is by no means impossible to tweak the tropes you are playing with to move from “one unstoppable protagonist” to “team of unstoppable forces,” but it does require some tweaking.

I also saw mention of the Mission Impossible series as sitting in the same space as an ideal construct for a modern RPG setting, and I’m not going to argue that one too much, because it is a team-based setting where characters take on a variety of challenges and various characters are useful because there are individual character niches. That said, I think I jump to The Fast and the Furious over this one for two reasons:  while not as ubiquitous as urban fantasy games or superhero games, there are a good number of specific espionage RPGs, and The Fast and the Furious eventually does enter this genre as well. The Fast and the Furious contains multitudes.

Time for a Disclaimer

Whenever I talk about media as it ties into game inspiration, I worry a little that it comes across as an endorsement of that media. There is very little media I would endorse without disclaimer, in part because people deserve things like content warnings, and in part because the degree to which problematic elements are an issue can vary from person to person, and someone not affected by various social issues isn’t the best people to determine why something “isn’t that bad.”

So, before I dive into the problematic elements of the series that jump out at me, I’ll give you my perspective. I’m a cis white male in my 40s. I apologize if I miss some really glaring issues that people from various marginalized groups have experienced, and I honestly would like to hear about problematic elements that I have missed, if you want to share that perspective--but I know it’s not your job to do so, either.

LGBTQ+ Issues

Earlier in the series, LGBTQ+ slurs were used as insults by some of the characters. Unless I have missed them, this appears to be an issue that fades away as the series progresses, but it's never addressed head-on. Beyond the slurs, the only evidence we have that LGBTQ+ people exist is that we see several parties where attractive women like to make out with one another. As diverse as the cast eventually becomes, it would be nice to have LGBTQ+ characters appear as part of the “family” as well.

Race and Ethnicity

While the team became more diverse pretty early on in the series, the series leaned heavily on people of color as the villains, and that’s not changing with the upcoming Hobbs and Shaw. The Shaws, as villains, did shift this dynamic, but it's still present in most of the movies. Additionally, while it’s nice that when the middle-east came up, we didn’t get stereotypes about terrorism, we did have a pretty two-dimensional portrayal of a rich middle-eastern prince.

While the team itself has definitely diversified (in some regards, more on that later), it would be great of Rome wasn’t the main comic relief on the team.


From its inception, the Fast and the Furious movies have been invested in having some scene, somewhere, that spends a lot of time showing attractive women in skimpy clothing. Contextually, it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but the fact that many of these scenes are shot in such a way that you can only identify the actress by how distinctive her posterior is makes this pretty glaring.

The team itself is really lopsided when it comes to women. Mia can drive, but the majority of the time her job is to be in danger or to sit at home and worry. Letty has been the most consistent presence any woman has had on the team, and is generally shown to be competent in and out of a car, but she was also used as Dom’s revenge focus as well. Giselle was similarly competent, but also had weaponized flirting as part of her team responsibilities. This would have been less of a problem if there were more women on the team, so that one of the only women wasn’t “the flirty one.” Elena’s role has always been entangled in Dom and Letty’s relationship, and she’s also defined by the husband she lost. Monica was never really part of the team, per se, and after she was undercover for a while, she basically dropped off files on Hobbs’ desk. For all of the other recurring characters that the series cycles back into the narrative, we never see Suki outside of the second movie.

So while there are proactive and capable women in the movies, they are way outnumbered by the men, and almost all have some very stale tropes welded on to them. Which brings us to . . .

Toxic Masculinity

There is so much “I was disrespected, I must prove I am better than him” going on in these movies. There is also a crap ton of motivating men by putting the women they care about in danger, and comedic posturing to establish the social order of the males on the team.

Probably the most glaring toxic masculinity issue at play here is the “women as prizes” trope. Some of the movies subvert this by having the women, who are competing in races, reassert that they are racers, not prizes, and reaffirm their agency as participants. Unfortunately, most of the plot of Tokyo Drift is completely about this trope, and it is jokingly referenced from time to time later in the series.

The hardest thing to address about all of this is that there are some elements of toxic masculinity portrayed in these movies that are so over the top, it’s hard not to take them as parody. I mean, this is a series where Hobbs flexed his cast off, and it wasn’t even the most over the top thing in the movie.

I would also be remiss if I weren’t to point out that the continual theme of family often leads to the male characters showing genuine affection for one another in a way that feels less like the fist bump or one-armed half hug of other buddy action movies. The biggest, most problematic element of this is that while Dom and Brian are allowed to have emotions, Rome’s emotional state is almost always played for laughs, which is even more problematic when you have one of the black male recurring character’s depth being invalidated for comedic purposes.

In Summation . . .

There is a lot of Very Hollywood Action Movie going on in the Fast and the Furious movies, and I’m not going to say that the good outweighs the bad, or that the over the top elements allow some of them to be excused as self-parody. I enjoy the series, and hope it corrects some of these problems, and I definitely think they could do so without changing the overall tone of the films or lose any of the gonzo nature of what gives the films their charm.

Time for the Next Quarter Mile

Now that I’ve laid all of that out, we can start digging into The Fast and the Furious as modern RPG platonic ideal.

So, how, exactly, is The Fast the Furious the platonic ideal for modern action-oriented RPGs?

First, let’s define “modern RPG.” I’m referring to a ruleset that has rules for modern vehicles, weapons, and technology and is defined by taking dangerous action, rather than primarily an RPG about personal interactions and drama. I’m also referring to RPGs that do not have a default setting or genre beyond the rules assigned to them. As an example, you have games like d20 Modern, Savage Worlds, and Modern Age that might fall into this category.

Because these games do not have a defined setting, I started thinking about standard RPG tropes, as opposed to genre tropes. This brought me to the following:

  • PCs can be independent operators or work for a patron, in the same campaign
  • PCs can interact with a number of sub-genres and types of adventures
  • PCs can have specialized roles that facilitate specific niches
  • PCs have a noticeable increase in ability that results in scenarios with higher stakes

To use the Fast and the Furious as an example here, we start with, then progress through, the following escalating scenarios:

  • Racers that fight local gangs and pull off dangerous heists while dodging cops
  • Racers that go undercover to take on organized crime syndicates, with limited law enforcement sanction
  • Racers that go undercover to take on international criminals, with limited government sanction
  • Racers take on global conspiracies while dealing with high tech military weapons and vehicles as opposition, with limited government sanctions
  • Racers take on global conspiracies while dealing with high tech military weapons and vehicles as opposition, with extensive government backing

There are many modern era genres and subgenres where a level-based progression system would seem out of place. It does not feel out of place for The Fast and the Furious movies.

In addition, characters in The Fast and the Furious movies do several things that are very much staples of what RPG characters might do in a game:

  • Racing
  • Chases
  • Fighting hand to hand
  • Fighting with weapons
  • Sneaking around
  • Breaking into places
  • Stealing things
  • Doing research
  • Modifying equipment
  • Computer hacking

All of this is a pretty long-winded justification of what was a fairly simple tweet, but it was the culmination of years of reading through more “generic” rulesets and thinking, “what would I do with this?” This isn’t the only answer, but I think it’s a pretty solid example of what you could do with it that would lead to one of the broadest applications of the tools usually available in the aforementioned toolkits.

As far as RPG campaigns go, there is a lot that The Fast and the Furious movies do right:

  • No wasted NPCs--both supporting characters and villains often recur or have a direct tie to other NPCs that have been previously established
  • Widen the Scope, but Have Recurring Locations--The team starts out in one city, has multiple adventures in several other cities around the world, but return to the same neighborhood in LA, and also have a safe location to visit in the Dominican Republic, which was also a location that they expanded into in previous movies. This provides a widening scope while providing stability and continuity as well.
  • Aspects--While most of what I have been talking about here has been regarding more granular RPG systems and Aspects are usually associated with Fate, having clear aspects for characters, locations, and even campaign arcs can be extremely useful for maintaining tone. The Fast and the Furious movies are filled with comments from characters that can serve as aspects, and intentionally noting these aspects can go a long way towards reinforcing tone and tying game elements together.
  • Internal Framing--Rome very succinctly explains how the stakes of the team’s various missions have escalated in a way that makes it very clear that everyone in the story knows the stakes are getting larger. I’m going to go one step further and explain that this is one thing that The Fast and the Furious does better than the extended Die-Hard series--it acknowledges that the actions have increased in scale. In Live Free or Die Hard, McLean acts as if he has always done things like taking out a helicopter with a car, but we all know this would have seemed wildly out of place for the tone of the original movie. “Players” in the Fast and the Furious “campaign” know the campaign structure and acknowledge it.
  • Everything Seems Intentional--I am under no illusions that the creators of the original Fast and the Furious movie, back in 2001, had a plan for 8+ movies. However, by carefully creating simple, easy to follow connections between previous characters, and having characters provide quick summaries of previous movies and how the new information fits with the previous movie, no matter how wild it seems, the movies feel like they are all an intentional extension of the previous movie (well, it took a little longer to get there with Tokyo Drift).

That’s a lot of words to justify an offhand tweet. Now I need to find another movie series to watch for RPG observations.