I Actually Had Fun Playing D&D – Ravenloft Review

“So how are we all positioned?”

“You’re all, like, sort of lined up on the banister and the knight’s just barely been knocked down to the third step. Shump’s in front, Lenne and Hingle are rounding the rail to get at him, you’re a little further back.”

“Cool. I’ma go WWE on his ass.”

Three rolls later, Crux had jumped over the safety rail, vaulted onto the steps behind and below the knight, swept an arm up between his legs, and threw him down two long flights of stairs. Several rolls after that, a note goes up behind the GM screen. Twenty minutes later, the knight – really just an empty suit of armor – can be seen hobbling up the steps with a spear as a crutch. Five minutes of Shumpian bullying after that, Crux stops and apologizes to the monster as a single greasy tear slicks down its visor.

This is Ravenloft. Mind the haunts.

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All that style for $50? Damn.

I’ll open this review with a confession: I’ve never liked Dungeons and Dragons. Which is mainly to say I dislike the culture surrounding the game so much that it poisoned the actual game itself for me for years. The nuts and bolts of why are some other blog post for some other day – what matters is this: Last night, I finally had fun playing D&D.

It was 5th Edition Ravenloft. For those not in the know: Ravenloft is D&D’s attempt at a Gothic Horror setting. It began as a one-shot adventure module way back in the early ‘80s and eventually grew popular enough to have its own setting, sub-settings, and spin-offs. It’s spawned a fair number of tie-in novels and a video game or two. Its central villain, Strahd von Zarovich, is iconic to D&D as a whole, and was one of the earliest examples of a ‘smart’ antagonist – basically an AI in a roleplaying game – that actively sought out and attacked the player characters if they spent too much time lollygagging around. Its sub-settings have overlapped with Dragonlance (to Margaret Weis and the Hickmans’ great disdain) and with both Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms (re: the “core” D&D settings for most people).

Most player characters aren’t native to Ravenloft, at least not at the outset, and at least not as the game is more-or-less meant to be played. Ravenloft exists within something called the Demiplane of Dread – basically a collection of ironic personal hells for really powerful people created and maintained by the ultra-vaguely defined Dark Powers. Player characters bungle into the Demiplane through thick, shrouding mists, and then they either stay on forever or until a specific task is completed. The aforementioned really powerful people? They also stumbled into this place, where they became Darklords, with whole countries built around the idea of dangling what they want just out of their reach.

Ravenloft’s core sub-setting is a country called Barovia. Basically: Take Gothic Victorian England, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania, and that weird high fantasy/proto-steampunk Mainland Europe that seized mid-to-late 2000s Hollywood (see: The Brothers Grimm, Van Helsing, and the late-to-the-game-but-come-on-it’s-got-Amanda-Seyfried-in-it Red Riding Hood). Throw them all in a blender and then sprinkle in some unfortunate old school Romani/Gypsy stereotypes. Voila.

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“Very loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood,” Wikipedia says. Nevermind the weird masquerade-rave-thing or the Twilight cash-in…

Player characters generally arrive not knowing a damn thing about it, and the game itself can be as much about exploration of the setting as it is cat-and-mouse with Strahd.

Our party bungled in through the mists and arrived at a creepy village late at night. Long story short: A haunted house lured us in with concerns about the family of two children crying out in the front yard. It wanted to eat us. We probably looked pretty tasty.

That poor house never knew what hit it.

Over the course of an eight-hour session, we proceeded to conquer the place in spectacularly disorganized, often violent fashion. Our Paladin tried to befriend everything, up to and including converting a psychotic nanny poultergeist into a reliable (if put-upon) ally with a fondness for smutty literature; our Barbarian destroyed a mirror, mutilated a mimic, and chopped chunks off an undead idol worshipped by a ghost cult; our Druid revealed himself as a master of both slick negotiating and magical legalese (re: he literally stole the house from its undead owners); and my Fighter went on enough of a rampage to effectively Rebuke Undead with mundane Intimidation rolls.

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This was probably my face. Not the character’s. Mine.

For all that D&D players bitch and whine about Fighters vs. Wizards, and for all that dual wielding characters with dark pasts are trite and played out, I had a good time. I played Crucious Constantine, a.k.a. Crux, a Chaotic Good Human Fighter suffering from a Haunting. In his past, he survived a harrowing event where a terrible monster slaughtered dozens of innocent people and left him alive for no apparent reason. The trauma broke his marriage and his wife left him. He took up monster hunting as a coping strategy, along with a fondness for poetry (Edgar Allen Poe, y’all – and not just The Raven). Until the session, he had no compassion for the dead, viewing them as ‘the lucky ones.’

By the end of the session, Crux had basically become a third father to two ghost kids, Rose and Thorn. He’d lugged their corpses through ghastly caverns and done some truly horrifying things to carry out a promise to get them out of the house and bury them in open air. While Shump the Barbarian went off to make bank and Hingle the Druid went off to get dank, Crux and Lenne the Paladin buried the kids out front with a borrowed shovel. As a group, we plan on turning the house into our base of operations. Crux is gonna build a little shack in the front yard to keep an eye on the graves.

In hindsight, I probably should’ve buried my Gothic Trinket with the kids. It’s a wineskin that refills overnight if you bury it with a dead body.

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That’s normal, right?

There are a lot of things that separate this game from my prior experiences with D&D. The big ones are as follows:

  • The GM let us have fun. We weren’t inhibited from doing crazy shit just because it was illogical at a glance or above our level (see: the crazy WWE slam from the intro, Lenne befriending everything, Shump bullying monsters, Hingle’s entire Grand Theft Haunted House hat trick).
  • We were allowed to point buy our stats. RPGs have a long-term love-hate relationship with the Random Number God. Frankly speaking, I’m mostly opposed to it in character creation outside of Call of Cthulhu. Yes, you sometimes get people with phenomenal rolls…and they have an irksome tendency to lord it over other players, while the players who don’t get phenomenal rolls just get kneecapped and don’t have anywhere near as much fun. Point buy kept us all relatively even and eliminated the risk of players being dicks to each other out of jealousy (as opposed to the time-honored tradition of being dicks to each other because it’s funny).

Pretty much everything else was window-dressing. That’s the big stuff.

I find, as both a player and a GM, you can get a lot out of just letting people have fun and build characters how they want to within a certain set of constraints (ie character levels). It’s a way of getting buy-in: players feel empowered when they can just make something without getting screwed over by a bad dice roll. When they feel empowered, they feel invested. When they feel invested, things in the game actually matter.

The one place where I did enjoy rolling dice on character creation was in determining Crux’s backstory. 5th Edition D&D has several spots on the character sheet dedicated to Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. These can be chosen from various tables in the rulebooks or made up from scratch, depending. Crux’s Flaws did a 180 by the end of the night, but the Traits, Ideals, and Bonds selected via dice were solid and remained unchanged. It helped that the GM rewarded us for playing to these things.

One other thing I really liked about 5th Edition was the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. Anyone who’s experienced D&D has at least one story of having to Google, houserule, or sift through a billion books trying to find rules governing one situation or another. 5th Edition neatly eliminates most of that by giving you Advantages or Disadvantages – you roll the dice twice and go with the lower or higher roll, no need to sweat the eleventy billion modifiers and penalties you used to worry about in older editions. That streamlined the hell out of things and kept the action frantic and enjoyable.

D&D is never going to be my favorite tabletop roleplaying game. But it’s getting better, and I like what they’ve done with 5th edition. If you’re new to the hobby, it’s a good gateway. If you’re already entrenched, it can still be a fun playthrough. I give it a solid three and a half out of five.

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“I regret many things,” Strahd says, “An atrocious pun isn’t one of them.”
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Welcome to Guicheng – Feng Shui 2 Review

Five minutes separate the point where a bullet entered Charlie Zheng’s head and the point where his cousin, Riley Zheng, gently pulled the black tie from his neck and put it on. Two and a half minutes separate that point from the earlier collision of Guanyu Sun’s body with spinning helicopter blades, two minutes and twenty-five seconds from the gore-spattered helicopter crashing into the side of the building and tearing its way down to ground-level, and two minutes and forty seconds from Riley’s friend, Connor Macklin, jamming his hand into the side of Guanyu’s neck to stop an ambush. Two minutes exactly separate the crash of the helicopter into the ground and the Russian mutant, Leia, crushing two men’s skulls to a pulp while Riley soars past. One minute and fifty-five seconds before Riley puts on the tie, they throw a ninja star through the side of Chin Lu Man’s head. One minute and fifty-four seconds before Riley puts on the tie, the star careens over the side of the building and is lost to the ages. One minute and fifty-three seconds before Riley puts on the tie, a Pokémon trading card sticks out of Chin’s right temple as his body slams into the ground.

It’s a bloodstained Ratata.

This is Guicheng.

Welcome to Feng Shui 2.

I recently got to run my first session of Atlas GamesFeng Shui 2 Roleplaying Game. It’s an over-the-top tour de force of players being lunatics in the spirit of Hong Kong action cinema, along with anything that echoes it, including Korean, Japanese, and certain Hollywood flicks.

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This guy gets plenty of mentions.

I’ve played Feng Shui 2 twice now and fell in love with it. My first session’s highlights included Pele kicking a guy through the side of a mountain temple after an epic one-on-one duel in Hell. My second session was all about playing a pro-wrestling buff who did things like surfing up the side of a tornado and Van Daminating a sorcerer with first century Chinese temple furniture.

I’d go so far as to say that it’s a better system at being Exalted than Exalted itself is.

Naturally, I had to run it. I didn’t want to use the scenario in the book so I threw together one of my own and set it in Guicheng, which Google Translate kindly informs me means “Ghost City.” China famously has several of those: whole cities built from scratch, nearly or completely uninhabited. Reality is more complicated than that. Most of the ghost cities that sprang up in the 2000s-2010s now have populations ranging from a few tens of thousands to a couple million. But the idea of an almost empty city that serves no purpose other than to host crazy Kung Fu shenanigans? Sign me up.

I had four players for my first session: Reilley (rendered above as Riley), Leia, Connor, and “Twilight,” respectively The Scrappy Kid, the Gene Freak, The Everyday Hero, and the Full Metal Nutball. The players took it a notch farther than their archetypes: Reilley was agendered, drawn by their player to look like Dave Strider in a business tutu with a crazy hoverboard, Leia was a Russian Terminator reject, the Everyday Hero was basically just a Connor MacGregor clone (and that was his actual name in game), and “Twilight” had a mullet.

In his defense, “Twilight’s” player was twelve.

They got through the first two fights I had planned before we ran out of time.

Incidentally, that’s the one real weakness I’ve observed in Feng Shui 2: Time management. Fights can drag in any RPG, but for a system designed to be almost nothing but combat hysterics, this one can lag a bit. Part of that is me being new, but part of it is also the Shot Counter mechanic. It does the work of managing initiative, and I like it since I’m usually terrible about that, but slower characters tend to be screwed over by how long it takes to get to them. I had one poor guy waiting while everyone else (even the mooks) went twice for each of his turns.

My houserule fix, starting in the second fight, was to allow slower characters two initiative rolls (if they didn’t like their first one). Fixed the problem right out the gate, didn’t have him killing time on his phone and looking bored.

The other snag was keeping the players from falling into the trap of not trying new stuff and not going over the top insane. I’m gonna level with you, dear reader: I like it when players do crazy shit.

A lot of roleplaying systems – and I’m not naming names here – almost seem as if they’re designed so that players can’t do awesome things. Sometimes that’s part of the appeal (see: any horror RPG worth playing). More often than not, it’s grounds to skip the system entirely and try something else (or, at the least, ignore anything about it that makes you start at level one). The problem is that the systems where players can’t do awesome stuff right out the gate are way more prolific. Players get trained to think certain ways and it gets really hard to break them of it.

You need buy-in. Y’know. The thing that changes “I punch him” into “I set the tips of my fingers against his forehead, glare into his eyes, and then deliver the one-inch-punch that caves his skull into his brain.”

Feng Shui 2 runs on the latter. “I punch him” can be useful at times, but it’s nothing compared to giving someone a Bruce Lee lobotomy. To get around that, I’m pretty freewheeling with the bonus dice, to the point that there’s almost no real challenge in the game. It’s something to work on. My other big thing is to go completely, ludicrously over the top myself. Feng Shui 2 is a system that thrives on your GM hamming it up at least a little bit, or at a bare minimum not getting in the way when you ham it up yourself. The fact that my first FS2 game master let me go crazy is probably one of the reasons I like it so much.

And there’s a lot to go crazy with. The game runs on six-sider dice, usually no more than three at a time (one good, one bad, one bonus). Roll high enough and you can do just about anything; the game itself gives the example of running up a stream of bullets to get at the person behind a machine gun. Most of the enemies are literally mooks with one hit point. If you succeed at touching them in just about any way, they die (or just get taken out, if you’re merciful). If you slip and give one a nickname though, it instantly becomes a Featured Foe – half a player character’s worth of hit points and whatever else he GM feels like throwing at you. The damage table includes specific values for getting run over by a Chevette or thrown off buildings of varying heights. There’s an ability that allows villains to literally use their mooks as sacrificial armor. One of the character archetypes is a transformed crab. Another pretty much has Being American as a superpower.

I plan on completing the Guicheng scenario within the next week or two, time permitting. I added another fight to it so that I could introduce some new players (and their characters) to the existing crew (if any of them return, and I’m sure at least Reilley and Connor will).

If you’re one of said players, here’s a good spot to stop reading. If not, carry on.

Spoiler
This is a thing now.

The goal of the scenario is to introduce players to the Chi War, Feng Shui 2’s driving meta-conflict. Without going too far into the weeds, the gist of it is this: a bunch of powerful factions seek to dominate the timestream via feng shui – the actual pseudoscience of Chinese geomancy, realized here as a mystical art. They harness chi from various points in time and space, known as Junctures, which are in turn connected by the Netherworld, an elaborate city made of tunnels and vast chambers. Some Junctures are stable, such as the four that provide the backbone of the game’s setting, respectively Ancient China, 19th Century Hong Kong, Modern Hong Kong, and The Future. Most Junctures are temporary affairs that fade connect and disconnect from the Netherworld on a whim.

Guicheng, as I envision it, is actually in one of those temporary Junctures. That’s why it’s a ghost city in 2017. The ‘real’ one goes by a different name and has a population of about two and a half million people. Its Charlie Zheng is not only alive and well, but using other versions of himself as proxies in the Chi War. His goal for the scenario is for the players to stop “Ensa,” the high-tech backers of the Hundred and Eight Stars Triad. Ensa is actually the New Simian Army, a bunch of evil, jacked-up cyber-apes from The Future looking to conquer the world (give or take). That the players then happen to wind up in his world is an added bonus.

The New Simian Army is kind of a joy to play with, by the way. Mostly because the game itself encourages you to come up with silly names for them. In my first session we had Gorilla Grosse, while the second includes such luminaries as Grimpan Zero (cyber chimp), Orang-Ichi (cyber chimp with ball and chain), High-Rise Aldo (Kung Fu Planet of the Apes cyborg), and my personal favorite: Andre the Gigantopithicus. The book itself includes Battlechimp Potemkin (one of the good guys) and Furious George (the NSA dictator). It plays them completely, utterly straight in the most humorless, deadpan way possible and you can just hear the writers giggling when they do it.

The plan now is for the next batch of players to go through a crazy urban street chase/battle sequence, follow up with a blitzkrieg sequence on the ground floor of the sky scraper at the city’s heart, then wrap it all up with a nod to King Kong as they battle Andre atop the Chinese knockoff Empire State Building. From there, if it all goes anything remotely close to my plan, the session will end with the Real Charlie cryptically welcoming them to the Chi War.

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Totally not my inspiration for Charlie. Charlie’s one of the Good Guys. Really.

Players being players, it’ll probably go even more off the rails than when Connor used a bus as a golf club. In fairness to Feng Shui 2, they’d probably do that anyway.

All in all, I give the system an 8 or 9 out of 10.

I’m a sucker for anything that lets me use garbage wrestling moves against wizards.

Attempting to Educate Through RPGs

A friend recently asked me to both run some games and teach kids how to run games themselves. It went pretty well!

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Give or take.

For starters, I dusted off a relic of my own childhood: Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

It was probably one of the most anvilicious, ridiculous, flat-out stupidly over-the-top things on television back when it aired but it also covered some ground that kids really don’t get nowadays. Especially American kids. It’s a cartoon about an international, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-everything band of heroic teenagers trying to save the world. Beyond simple, moralistic plots on the environment, it also tried to deal with HIV, gun violence, drugs, the impact of capitalism on poor people, and god only knows what else.

I can fault it for a lot of how it covered those issues, and for a lot more besides, but I can’t fault it for trying and the basic ideas behind it are still sound.

So I adapted it to Evil Hat’s Fate Roleplaying System, with a handful of updates, then I tossed out Captain Planet himself since that’s basically the game master’s player character that nobody else can compete with. This would be a game about the Planeteers themselves.

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And not a game about his mullet.

While I’m happy enough with the setup that I might polish it off and upload it somewhere, it went off the rails by the second half and never recovered. Running a roleplaying game is all about knowing your audience – as I’ve written before. I didn’t know mine.

Unfortunately, this was also my first time running for a group composed entirely of kids and I had a rough patch thanks to a trifecta of boys playing off each other in all the worst ways. If it had been any one of them in the game without the other two, it would’ve gone off without a hitch, but as anyone who’s ever dealt with young boys can and will tell you: they can be demons of chaos. I could see the dynamics forming but I couldn’t figure out how to stop it and keep them on point – that’s on me. Pretty much every trick I tried short of booting them from the game just did not freaking work. It didn’t help that one of them was just watching, not an actual player. I also had to keep shutting another down when he kept trying to play for other people.

Even with that, they all did good during the opening vignettes. Not coincidentally, this was where I put most of my planning and research in. The second half of the scenario was supposed to build off all that but I wasn’t aware of how much handholding I’d have to do (another failure on my part, considering the age group here). That’s one thing I’ll clean up before I upload it anywhere.

Everyone also learned some things in spite of themselves. Within the first five minutes, those kids opened up to environmentalism, current events, political science, and geography. They stayed hooked in for all that stuff throughout the first half; any scenario I put together for kids in the future will probably also try to hook players in with new info rather than just dumping them into the action. If I could figure out how to cram a class’ worth of New Info into a session from start to finish, that’d be gold.

For many of them, it was probably their first time learning about these things with no filter. None of them knew, for instance, that Ukraine has a bucketload of aging nuclear reactors and diminishing resources to care for them. None of them knew about the war vets at the DAPL protests. None of them knew about piracy being a thing in the Indian Ocean. None of them knew about violence against environmental protesters in Brazil. None of them knew about poaching in Africa.

I didn’t dump any horribly visceral details on them, but I didn’t sugarcoat it. They responded amazingly well. And to be fair, none of their parents probably know about this stuff either. There’s a lot to keep track of these days and not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with goings-on in our own country, let alone anything international.

I myself didn’t know about the Ukrainian reactor tidbit until a few days ago, although I definitely need to do more research than Michael Chossudovsky’s Centre for Research on Globalization; slick looking website, and the fact that it’s Canadian had me off guard (Canadians supposedly being more reasonable than us in the States), but craaaaaazy bullshit is crazy and should not be a source of info for anything when dealing with kids.

thanks wikipedia
Fool me once, asshole.

It was also interesting that four out of five players – boys and girls alike – were playing outside their own gender, national origins, and three played outside of their race. These are little things, yes, but that’s one of the key ways you can build openness and empathy in people: take them out of their own skin and put them in someone else’s.

For all that they wrecked the game, two of the problem boys shut down the third when he tried to make a snide comment about one of them playing a girl. The player didn’t hide behind insults, he didn’t make excuses, he didn’t try changing the character in question; he just plain told the other kid to shut up. He liked playing as her. His buddy backed him up without a moment’s hesitation.

Sure, the session was a tire fire.

But I’ll take my victories where I can get ‘em.

The Problem with Wonder Woman

Here’s my hot take Wonder Woman review in a nutshell: It’s a good movie, not without its flaws but easily the best one to come out of the DC cinematic universe to date and probably the best DC movie since The Dark Knight. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman and it shows; you can see where the executives were brawling and biting nails, but you can also see where the actress was given free rein to just be Diana, Princess of Themyscira. There are moments and scenes that have more emotional weight than just about any other superhero film to date, there’s a clear progression of plot and power escalation, and more clear character arcs than any DC film since they started the drive towards a shared universe.

It’s the equal or better of more than a few Marvel movies, especially during Phase One. Most of my gripes have more to do with special effects and the constraints of keeping it PG-13. I give it a solid 4 out of 5.

But as I was talking with my fiancée afterwards, she brought up a pretty damn good point about what was wrong with it. Namely, Steve Trevor’s role. We went back and forth a couple times before coming to the joint realization of why he was kind of a weak point.

Below be spoilers.

Spoiler
I’m not recycling this at all.

I was and still am mostly okay with Trevor’s role in the film. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it did a good job of being the short-lived tragic romance that brings Diana to the mortal world and introduces her to the handful of good, redeeming characteristics of it.

My initial beef was that he was just too good, too central in a film that wasn’t about him, but as the movie went on it was continually established just how out of his league he was in having anything to do with Diana. The role he and his fellow soldiers play is to help establish Diana as a unique kind of superhero: She is not above the fray, like a Superman or a Batman. She’s a hero of the people. Her allies are men, yes, but they’re relatively diverse, complicated men and they’re the folks who’d be on the front lines in that era.

His character arc comes to a natural conclusion with a heroic sacrifice; this sacrifice gives Diana the rage and then the clarity needed to take out the film’s Big Bad.

A little hokey, but sure, whatever, love interests dying to motivate heroes ain’t exactly new and I’m kinda cool with it being a guy for once.

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The problem, which my fiancée and I hit upon during the end credits, is that this was pretty much the first time a love interest in a superhero flick had that kind of arc – a near-equal role with the hero. And it was a guy. In the first superhero movie dedicated to a female lead.

I’m not tooting my own horn here, but I’m a comic book nerd and I’ve seen most of the superhero movies released in the past ~30 years. I’ve missed a couple that might have similar arcs (the second Garfield Spider-Man movie, arguably Suicide Squad, etc), but this was the first one where I really saw anything like Steve Trevor.

Most superheroic love interests get solid screen time in one to three movies, then drop off the face of the Earth to probably never to be seen again. See: Natalie Portman, whose Jane broke up with Thor off-screen for no apparent reason, or Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Pepper Potts didn’t show up at all in Tony’s recent outings. By comparison, Mary Jane made out like a bandit in the original Spider-Man movies. The less said of Famke Jensen’s Jean Grey, the better, and that’s not even going into her own nominal husband’s fate.

Their arcs, if they have any, are basically filler. They’re usually there to give a male hero something to work for or something to risk; difficult things to do when your hero is bulletproof (re: Lex Luthor throwing Lois off a building in BvS or Jane being a plot device in Thor 2).

Steve Trevor ain’t like that. Steve runs after Diana through No Man’s Land and washes out German trenches with a shotgun. Steve’s a spy, an international man of mystery, someone who could practically be a superhero in his own right – and he is in several comics, as DC treats him like Captain America Lite sometimes.

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The closest parallels to that are Natalia Romanov and Gamora, both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t really count Gamora since she’s part of a clear ensemble cast and has to carry more narrative weight than Token Love Interest for Peter Quill.

That leaves Romanov, whose arcs in Civil War and Winter Soldier are both roughly comparable to Trevor…except that in both she’s still reacting to and being shaped by male leads. And let’s not even talk about the Age of Ultron. Or the fact that Natalia’s been the #2 or #3 character in around five films now. They might finally give her a movie after Infinity War, but I have my doubts, and after Ghost in the Shell I’m not exactly a ScarJo fan.

What I’m saying is that Trevor himself isn’t the problem. He’s fine. It’s the fact that he’s a one-of-a-kind that’s the problem. And he probably only manages that because he’s an American military man. There need to be more Stephanie Trevors out there.

Give us Pepper Potts wrangling corporate jackasses and mastering fire powers or something else that inspires Tony to finish out a character arc. Give us Jane having the awesome revelation that lets Thor save the day, assuming she doesn’t verbally mangle Loki herself.

Hell, give us more female co-stars who aren’t love interests.

Is that really too much to ask?

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 Review

It took us a billion years about a year and a half but my group finally finished Season 1 of Pandemic Legacy. We started off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the halcyon days of January. By March, we were plague-hardened. By December, half the planet seemed like it was rioting and Chicago had burned to the ground.

Real World Time, that means we were playing from December 2015 to April 2016. So our game did an adequate job of paralleling a pretty awful year!

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We joked that Trump got elected in November, courtesy of an October Surprise. Guess when our win streak ended.

I played Hiro Watanabe McCain Mercer Piper Mercer, the dispatcher who ended up with a Shady Background and a terminal grudge against the Powers That Be, along with at east four sketchy marriages including two to the same person. One of our players went through three (technically two) characters, including one that went Paranoid from the early game twist and was lost to us with the late game twist. She recycled the identity of her first one (Catherine Mercer) for her third.

Our Researcher, known only as Señorita Blanco, ran on the power of Bullshit.

Our Medic, Randy, was better known as Jesus.

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Does this look like the poorly photographed face of mercy to you?

Things were a little rocky early on. We lost the first halves of January and February, then had a win streak from March to the first half of October. Since this was a Legacy version of a game, our successes and failures both haunted us.

North America and Europe became disaster zones following the first twist in the game and stayed that way until our second try at November. That win streak cost us any Funded Events – re: lucky breaks – for seven games straight. We won by the skin of our teeth and lost cities to rioting that we didn’t need to lose at all. Chicago in particular became a dumpster fire. I’m still boggling that Atlanta didn’t turn into a similar disaster area since Washington also popped multiple times, going all the way to a level 3 riot by the time we got North America under control.

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Give it time.

All in all, it was a fun game. I’d recommend playing it.

Looking through the cards again, I’m pleased at how diverse the game’s cast is just at a glance – obviously you can name them anything and their histories are an irrelevant blank slate, but there’s a lot of women and minority representation in the artwork for this game. It also strays clear of the usual stereotypes by virtue of everyone being some kind of STEM professional. In a hobby range that desperately needs more people who don’t look like me, that’s pretty damn cool.

This game, along with its non-legacy counterpart, is also good for its representation of the CDC – they’re not just faceless healbots, they’re actual heroes ensconced in battles for lives, with resources diminishing every time they actually do their jobs. A lot of agencies, including the real world CDC and my favorite, the Coast Guard, get hit with that stick. The only way that could be more realistic at this point is if the resources diminished regardless of the outcome.

Donald Trump
Obligatory.

Minor spoiler here but I was also pleasantly surprised to see a 90s/early 00s throwback in the game: The military as an obstacle for the civilian good guys.

It doesn’t pop up as often now, after sixteen years of the Pentagon funding blockbuster movie hits and politicians demanding that war critics separate soldiers from the conflicts assigned them, but the military used to be one of the go-to groups for Bad Guys With Power. Combat PTSD was, and often still is, the easiest (and most inaccurate) way to have someone Go Mad From The Revelation.

Ever watch the X-Files? There are whole episodes dedicated to showing how much of an asshole a senior officer could be or how barbaric the system is to the men and women serving in it, and they’re some of that series’ best. The Hunted is all about a civilian contractor having to fix a military screw-up. The Abyss famously includes a Navy SEAL going insane and trying to kill everyone. Dr. Strangelove was one long absurdist condemnation of the whole military-industrial complex. In the original Half-Life, the military shot you and every other civilian on sight just for being in Black Mesa.

And hey, sit down and watch The Siege sometime.

Point is: We don’t get the Military Is Evil trope all that often in American entertainment nowadays. It’s kind of refreshing anytime it pops up at all. Not because the military actually is evil – that’s a whole ‘nother chain of philosophic discussion – but because it’s variety and nuance. I’m a sucker for variety and nuance.

I’m also a sucker for Chicago not burning to the ground.

chicagofirepanorama.jpg
You can’t always get what you want.

ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 3: Agents of Light and Darkness

                The Nightside is the sick, secret, magical heart of London, where gods and monsters go to make the deals and seek the pleasures they won’t find anywhere else.
                – Simon R. Green, Agents of Light and Darkness

I ran my scenario twice, once for a test about a week before ShushCon and then during the convention itself. There were some pretty big differences and some pretty fun moments in each.

To give you a quick, semi-spoiler free rundown of the book this was all adapted from: Agents opens in an ancient church with the main character delivering a teddy bear to an eldritch abomination. After that he gets a job to find the Unholy Grail, the cup that Judas drank at the last supper. He hooks up with his prospective love interest, whose nickname is literally Oh God It’s Her Run, and together they go on an off-and-on rampage through the Nightside, digging for clues and wrecking people’s day. In the background, from start to finish, angels tear the Nightside down to the ground, warring with the natives and each other over possession of the grail.

Rule #1 of this book: You don’t mess with angels. Rule #1 of the scenario: You don’t mess with angels.

What do my players do?

welp

In both runs, players made a go of it versus the divine. In the first one, Julien Advent’s character challenged one to fisticuffs and scared it off – a social victory over something I literally gave an infinite social stat to. Later on, Suzie Shooter and John Taylor dragged another angel down and Suzie strangled the damn thing with plot device-tier piano wire.

In the second run, the players had a healthy fear of them but that didn’t stop Dead Boy’s car from flat-out eating an angel. It was set up that the car could eat things. The intro vignette had it snacking on a hobo when Dead Boy looked away. But when the crew visited a former Nazi holdout, the car bowled over an angel three times, harpooned it, and ate the damn thing. It ran over three others, courtesy of the player burning up most of his fate points, keelhauling one of them through the Nightside before breaking it in half on a street lamp.

Tommy Oblivion’s character, who isn’t actually in the book the scenario is based on, stood out in both games. His whole schtick is convincing reality to be something that it isn’t. In the first run, the Existential Detective talked the crew’s bartered van out of a high-speed collision, talked it out of being half-destroyed by an angel, and talked Suzie and John out of being blown to smithereens after the fact. They reappeared, healthy and hale, in his closet during the epilogue, the result of Tommy pioneering a whole new branch of necromancy. I’m pretty sure their former corpses, the result of a Spirited Disagreement™, were still lying on the road when they were resurrected.

In the second run, Tommy proceeded to fall in love with the eldritch abomination from the prologue, used a silver-plated mace to slowly, methodically chip his way through a concrete wall less than six feet from an open door, asked questions so bafflingly stupid that they stunned multiple opponents and set that angel up to get eaten by Dead Boy’s car, and ultimately defeated the Collector by taking control of gravity and destroying the inside of his moon base warehouse. The scenario ended with Tommy going full meta, complete with the player looking at me like he wanted to smack me as I described him sitting there at a gaming convention in South Carolina (running joke, long story).

500
It has nothing to do with this guy.

One of the biggest differences was how each scenario ended. Last post I mentioned the need to improvise on the fly? I had to do that here. Spoilers below.

In the book, John and Suzie ultimately find the Unholy Grail in the possession of a character called the Collector. It’s in his moon base. Because of course it is. They then bring the grail back to John’s client, who turns out to be none other than Judas Iscariot looking to destroy the grail’s power as part of his eternal atonement.

In the first run, the Collector was more of a background menace; he sent lackeys to interfere with the party and they raided one of his warehouses (and burned it to the ground), but he never showed up on screen. Instead they found the grail in the hands of Nasty Jack Starlight. He’s a bit character in the book; a schlub who entertains the undead with a one-man theater act. An angel kills the bajesus out of him after John and Suzie wreck one of his performances. In the test run, he appeared as a psychotic drag racer fueling his car with the Unholy Grail. The crew took him out, stole the grail, and booked it to the church from the prologue. They handed it over, got the Big Shocking Twist, cue epilogue vignettes.

In the second run, Shotgun Suzie wasn’t present and Dead Boy neatly skipped the scene where the Collector’s lackeys try to attack the group; he had almost no presence at all until the group broke into his moon base. He tried to attack them for that but Tommy had some fate points he was looking to get rid of. He talked his way into controlling local gravity and then crushed everything in the base. The loss of so much of his namesake collection broke the Collector completely; he was a sobbing, hysterical mess who surrendered the grail without a fight. The gang teleported back to the Nightside, ran over a couple more angels, and delivered the grail to their client at Strange Fellows.

In both cases, neither group actually predicted the Judas twist until it happened. The best part, for me, was John’s second player unintentionally re-enacting a scene straight out of the book: he greets Judas in his cover identity with Hey, Jude. The player did that without ever having read the book or hearing of the series. The second best part also came from that run: Judas needed to drink something out of the cup but the group had all pissed off Alex, Strange Fellows’ owner and bar tender, and all they had to drink was Angel’s Urine.

It is exactly what you think it is.

Judas commented that it tasted a bit salty, then gave it over to Tommy to finish. Tommy slowly, disgustedly poured it out over his shoulder.

One thing I think I could’ve done better in the second session was Julien Advent.

In the test run he was plucky comedy relief who had The Best Moment when he challenged an angel to fisticuffs. In the second run, his player kept hitting brick walls after the introductory vignette – which actually ended up being stronger than the first player’s vignette. Julien’s second vignette was so strong, in fact, that it had everyone primed for vampires instead of angels. I should’ve done more with that, possibly had a couple vampires lurking around as peripheral threats, or had them as flat-out rivals to the angels.

One huge difference from the book and both sessions was the presence of a character named Squid. No rundown of this scenario is complete without Squid.

Mark Hennion, who played Suzie Shooter as Bull Thompson, a crazy-ass demon-seducing grenade-lobbing violence addict with a shotgun slug for every occasion, outlined Squid a couple times in his intro and during the scene where the gang was trying to pin down Lead #1. Other players, including Donald Dennis and Stephanie Frey, pitched in, more or less describing him as a creepy dude with a beard selling guns and info out the back of a van.

By session two, Squid had developed into a full-blown Character. His was the sole black vehicle in a lot brimming with windowless white vans that had things like FREE CANDY, INQUIRE WITHIN painted on the sides. Its interior was as big as a Walmart, complete with deadbeat customers crucified along walls full of every kind of gun or bullet you could imagine. The man himself had morphed from being a merely pathetic arms dealer to a white powder snorting lunatic; Cheech and Chong distilled into an occult arm dealer with a TARDIS. He had more beard than face and the beard was mostly made out of grease. His jacket was held together with biker patches and stolen boy scout honors.

He would’ve been right at home in the books.

Squid actually ended up being a better lead for the players than the Demon Lordz from the original book. He’s also easier to adapt than the Lordz could ever be – they’re grotesquely sexualized monsters running a bondage dungeon without any concept of safe words. He’s comedy relief with an edge to it.

Sufficed to say, I’m keeping Squid on for any future Nightside games. The guy’s just too fun to let go.

I’ll probably adapt the scenario away from the Dresden Files RPG and more to Fate itself. I’m pretty sure one of the Supplements has a smattering of extra stats and if not, I could always just crib the Cheat Sheet off of Dresden and re-tool the rest of it accordingly.

Overall though, I’m happy with how both sessions went.

Fate Collection
Something something crit yay.

ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 2: Of Dice and Men

We interrupt this regularly scheduled series of posts to blather on about the minutiae of running actual games.

Since I mainly run conventions and one-shots right now, I do a lot of pregenerated characters just to save time.

A big part of the trick to using pregens is leaving enough room for the player to take over, especially in any system based on Fate. I often leave out or minimize the actual details of backstory and I usually don’t include names or specific personal details on the sheet. These days I let the players fill almost all of that stuff in, usually by having each one star in a little one-person vignette at both the start and end of the session.

DG Cover.jpg
I stole the vignette idea from Delta Green. Go buy it.

The vignettes are my favorite part of a session, give or take the mid-game shit show. They put everyone on equal footing and help to get buy-in even if the player isn’t all that interested in the game starting out.

In a lot of my older scenarios, I got the same effect with questionnaires, which is what some of the official Evil Hat scenarios do, but I find that tends to slow things down too much. The vignettes work better because Fate, overall, is a narrative system: everyone’s telling a story. If you give everyone the chance to actually star in their own little side-story, it helps get them hooked in for the rest of the session. It also does wonders to frame everything that happens between each set  of vignettes – you can do foreshadowing, you can get the players to give you ideas to fill in any gaps the scenario might have, and they get to define their character through play rather than sitting around jotting things down with a pencil.

And you’ll notice I said “Fate, overall, is a narrative system.”

That’s because you can basically run it as anything from Dungeons and Dragons with a few extra gimmicks and alternative dice to Fiasco with a GM. It’s probably the most robust, versatile system I’ve ever dealt with. You can augment it or lobotomize it at will and it works just fine regardless.

In my own games, I like to toss out the stress tracks as anything other than a vague reminder of what a character can cope with, and I go fast-and-loose on aspect invocations. A lot of players don’t get either of these things and it bogs the game down trying to ‘do it right.’ Speaking as both a player and a GM, ‘doing it right’ is one of the most annoying things you can focus on in any system.

Rule Zero of roleplaying games, and games in general, is that you’re there to have fun. If rules get in the way of that, rules are expendable.

Eclipse Phase
Stole that one from Eclipse Phase.

Another thing I do is emphasize player agency. Fate, as written, is really focused on compelling people to do things. Sometimes I’ll do that but I hate to feel like I’m railroading my players and most of them don’t need me to do that anyway. My formal/informal replacement system for dishing out fate points is as follows:

  • Roleplay according to aspects.
  • Make me laugh.
  • Do something awesome.

This is not unique to me. Some of it’s hard-baked into the system, some of it I shamelessly ripped off of the guys at Roleplaying Public Radio.

Thief_8BitTheater
Sensing a pattern here…

I make it easy to get fate points until a player has at least five of them. After that, #2 doesn’t award so many and you have to actually work a little bit at #1. There’s nothing stopping them from getting more. This way they’re not afraid to spend points, and some of the quieter players tend to bank fate points up, turning into MVPs when everyone else runs out. It also really heightens the drama whenever someone runs out of points all together and has to do something awesome without them.

I also keep a cheapo white board handy for writing down temporary aspects and consequences. I now feel like it’s common sense, but I didn’t actually think to start doing this until my friend, Donald, of the Inverse Genius family of podcasts, recommended it to me.

Another thing I do in my games is to incorporate conventional dice – the ol’ D20 and its friends.

My big thing there is to make people roll Common Sense. This isn’t an actual stat anywhere in the Dresden Files; it’s me giving players an out if I think they’re gonna do something incredibly stupid. It’s usually played for laughs, but every now and then it works really well for heightening the tension and fear.

In actual games of the Dresden Files, D20s are also my main way of forcing Soul Gazes. My players have almost always tried to avoid those, so I make it into a matter of random chance any time they deal with a major spellcaster. On a 5 or lower, hilarity ensues.

Tom Cruise
Picture unrelated.

My third use for D-whatevers is in how some of the aspects are laid out.

I usually design aspects to get players a flat +3 bonus to one or more stats when invoked – it simplifies things and lets them have a framework for how and where to use their aspects, but it doesn’t force them into doing so. Sometimes I’ll give the player a full-on plot device tied to an aspect (the Occult Detective in a recent session had the aspect, And I Can Do A Similar Trick To Your Organs – a once-per-scene trick to empty all enemy firearms while doing an Intimidate roll).

Sometimes though, I’ll give them multiple plot devices, tying it to a D-whatever. One character in a game had a chart’s worth of random items in a bag of holding; statless items they had to make up powers and uses for. Another had a bunch of crazy contacts and favors they could call in; everything from a Congressional librarian to a CIA drone strike. A character in my recently concluded Dresden Files campaign had a D6 summoning chart. She could burn an extra fate point to skip the roll, but often went with the D6 just because it was more amusing and/or dramatic.

I also have a couple things I do with the fudge dice that Fate is actually supposed to run on.

If the dice come up all positive, it’s a critical success and will almost certainly do whatever the player sets out to accomplish in grand fashion. If they come up all negative, I have a field day at some poor bastard’s expense. If they come up all blank, I call it a critical meh. A crit meh can be a success or a failure, but it’s always done in the most boring way possible. Players often get a kick out of just how boring it is, especially if they roll crit mehs multiple times in a single session.

Aside from all that, running a roleplaying game is a huge exercise in understanding the social dynamics of a group, even if it’s a bunch of people you’ve never met before.

You have to learn and account for everyone’s quirks and you have to be able to wing it. This is especially true for any game involving a mystery. If you stick with a rigid setup, your players are going to hit a wall and they’re going to feel like dumbasses and it’s not gonna take long for them to disengage from the game afterwards. This happened to me the first time I tried running Eclipse Phase, it happens to me a lot as I try to figure out Shadowrun, and it happened a couple times when I was starting out in Fate. It’s one thing to have a checklist of people and/or clues to find. It’s another to insist that they be found in a certain order through certain means with no flexibility about the how or when.

If someone’s disengaging, you have to reel them back in. For me, vignettes and fate point banking do a good job of that, but I also like to just zero in on people from time to time. “[Player name]! What’re you doing?” is a good go to.

If someone’s trying to hog the spotlight, you have to give them just enough of the attention they crave without making it all about them. Ultimately, we’re all attention-starved creatives wanting people to look at our stuff and be awed by it. GMs are especially vulnerable to that urge, but we lucky (and foolhardy) few have a stage from the minute anyone signs up for our game. Players don’t have that same spotlight unless you give it to them. The big challenge is just being equitable about it.

If you’re running with a loved one in the group, you have to make sure that person isn’t privileged over other players and you have to make sure you’re not shortchanging them. I’ve run into the latter problem a couple times because my fiancée often plays in my games. She is, frankly speaking, better than me in every damn way when it comes to games in general. She’s better than most people for that matter. Couple this with not wanting to focus on any one player to the exclusion of others and I sometimes forget to give her fate points, expecting her to do just fine without them. And she does, but that’s still a dick move on my part.

As dense as this post is, a lot of the stuff I’ve talked about becomes instinctive over the course of running a couple games.

The End Result
Pretty much this.