Friday, May 29, 2015

The Wrong Side of History

What do the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games and the fifth edition of D&D have in common? Two things, one good, and one bad. The good thing is that they are both high-quality standard bearers of their respective genres, well-loved and heavily played.

The bad thing is that neither of them have official digital versions. And it's for this reason that neither of these games see heavy rotation at my table.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay uses virtually the same system as the FFG Star Wars game, but with one key difference: you can find WFRP at DriveThruRPG. That, in my admitedly-bizare opinion, makes this the better game.



About 98% of the things I read are in a digital format, either as a .pdf file or a .mobi file. It is much, much easier to carry my slender iPad Air with me on my daily commute than it is a full-sized hardcover book, not to mention more convenient for bed reading and night reading.When we look specifically at RPGs, I can keep entire product lines on my iPad and access them with just a couple of finger taps. And that's just straight up reading; if we start talking about hyper-linking, cross-referencing, and alternate formatting, we have a whole bevy of convenience options via tablet or PC that aren't available in a physical version.

Yet two of the hottest commercial role-playing games out today simply don't utilize these options. I'm sure their PR teams and their licensing teams and their design teams can roll out a whole cart of reasons why this is the case. All of them are bullshit, and I'm tired of hearing it. I'm tired of the big, resource rich titans, unable to get with the times, simply ignoring the writing on the wall and then acting like it's not a big deal.

I know the reality of things are a little more complex than this. But I also know that Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight Games are not merely bucking a trend; they are straight-up ignoring evolution for no better reason than they can afford to ignore it. Could you imagine where Evil Hat would be if they didn't make Fate Core available as a .pdf? Or Sage Kobold with Dungeon World? 

As a grown-ass man, I tend to be busy. My free time tends to come in spurts and clumps, not long stretches like it did when I was younger. It no longer makes any sense for me to carry around a heavy hardcover book (let alone several) just for those moments to come up when I can flip through them and prep for the next adventure. I need a format that utilizes the existing technology I have to work with me and help me get the most out of my time.

I'm not saying I'll never play D&D or Edge of the Empire ever again. Far from it; I'm currently in an EotE campaign, and I plan on starting a D&D campaign soon. But I plan on steering away from those games very, very soon, and when I do, I won't be looking back. In fact, for this reason, I'm thinking about switching my D&D campaign to 13th Age. About a year ago, I wrote that I was worried that 13th Age wouldn't be very successful because of D&D's sudden resurgence. But now, I'm actually thinking 13th Age has a great opportunity, here. As part of the Bits and Mortar Initiative, you can get free pdf copies of every physical book you buy from Pelgrane Press (13th Age's publisher). That is absolutely brilliant. Now there's a company that appreciates my time and wants me to make the most of it!

I love the Bits and Mortar Initiative so much that I'm tempted to exclusively only play games from companies that support it. Because that is modern design. You have the big, colorful, hard cover book for common use at the table, and the discrete, portable digital version while you're riding the bus to work.

So, again, it is absolute bullshit and backwards thinking that prevent these modern games from having a digital presence, so disappointing that it weighs against my inclination to run them (I should make it clear that my disdain only extends to GMing these games; if someone else wants to run them, then I shall gladly play in them!) Let me shoot down a couple of counter-points before I wrap it up, here:

1. I think D&D Basic is a great idea. But not great enough to be a total stand-in for the core game in digital form. When working on an adventure or just brushing up on rules, I do not want to worry about if "the basic version" has everything right. I also don't want to have my options reduced, and I definitely don't want a situation where I can cite a rule from the Basic file but have no damn idea where it can be found in the "real" books. So while the D&D Basic .pdf is, admittedly, a step in the right direction, it is not a valid solution in and of itself.

2. Scanned bootlegs. Seriously? Is this what we've come to, Wizards and Fantasy Flight? We're so scared about piracy that we're actually going to create a demand for it? This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say "backwards thinking." Bottom line: I don't do bootlegs. I just don't. Everybody's snobby about something. This is what I'm snobby about, okay?

3. I was talking with someone not too long ago about what it takes to be a good GM, and how to create more good GMs. One point I always come back to is this: a good GM has to be comfortable. It doesn't matter if I should be fine without the digital files: the fact is, I'm uncomfortable running a game without them. And if my sensibilities prevent a game from getting played, then my sensibilities should probably be addressed.

So, Wizards and FFG, I know you guys are capable of doing this. I know the reasons you don't. Please just let me know when you get your shit together, and I will be first in line to run your games. Until then...





Friday, May 22, 2015

The Perfunctory Geek Blog Post About Game of Thrones

(Note: the following post pertains to last week's episode of A Game of Thrones, "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken." As a courtesy, I've made this post as spoiler-free as possible, but, of course, I strongly recommend not reading this post if you have any intention of watching the episode in question.)

"Oh, my story is taking off so well, it's like the characters are writing themselves!"

This, Dear Reader, is precisely what happened last week. With King Jeoffrey gone, Ramsay Snow-Bolton is clearly the Biggest Asshole in the Seven Kingdoms. Even before That Scene, there was no denying that. 

Littlefinger brought Sansa to Winterfell under what we discover later to be an if/then plan to become Warden of the North: if Sansa doesn't plot and scheme to bring down the Boltons from the inside, then Littlefinger will let the Baratheon Army crush them from the outside, then swoop in with his Knights of the Vale to cut down the remaining forces and take Winterfell for himself. Littlefinger may or may not have real feelings for Sansa, but either way, he's as willing to throw her to the Boltons as he was to throw dear Aunt Lysa down that big-ass hole in the floor of her own castle. 

I'm sorry, Dear Reader, but you can't have it both ways. You can't love a story for having a life of its own, then get all pissy when that very story takes you to places you don't want to go. A Game of Thrones is a show where the "main" character got beheaded unjustly in the first season. If that didn't tip you off to the "life" this story was going to have, then you got a nice reminder when the son of that same character was betrayed and murdered at his own wedding. Along with his pregnant wife. And his mother. And his dog.

That does not mean you have to be okay with the main character's daughter getting raped. But it does mean that this is a world where that kind of thing can happen. And that is why this show is so damn good; because it goes where it has to, not where you want it to. 

I was very disturbed by the rape. I wish it hadn't happened. Had I been the head writer on the show, I might not have even gone there. But that's why A Game of Thrones works. It's willing to go there. It's okay to disapprove of the rape by itself, but if you're no longer interested in the show because of it, I submit that you never should have watched it in the first place. 

Sorry to go on a rant here, but this is, absolutely, the number one thing that pisses me off about modern storytelling today. We have war movies specifically made to be appropriate for 13-year-old children, with the gore and blood removed so they don't get any nightmares about what war is really like. We have horror films that are neutered down to nothing but "boo!" moments that wash away like popcorn butter from our hands. We have romantic stories that fade to black when the characters finally get to make love. I'm not a pervert, and I'm not some sicko, but I'm also not stupid, and each one of those broad examples is a blatant insult to my intelligence. 

Anyways, the thing that pushed me over the edge and inspired me to write this came from Chuck Wendig, off of his blog. I respect Chuck; I've read some of his work and I think he's talented. But then, he said this:

"Here’s the thing: storytelling is about breaking the status quo. About juking left when we expect you to go right... Where’s the twist? The hook? The artistry? This isn’t artistry."

I couldn't possibly disagree with this more. Storytelling is, first and foremost, about one thing and one thing only: telling a story. Nothing greater, and nothing lesser. Sure, there are plenty of stories that "break the status quo." But there are also stories that are about the sadness and tragedy of the status quo.

So here's to hoping the rest of the series is as rape-free as possible!



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Boardgames at Lunch: Zombie Edition

Alright, enough of the morose stuff. Back to games!

This afternoon, I resurrected my Boardgames at Lunch initiative in my office. I grabbed my two regulars, Ryan and Brian, sat them down in the conference room, and broke out Zombie 15'.


Zombie 15' is a co-op zombie survival game played in real-time. The game comes with 15 missions. Each mission has different objectives, and are meant to be played in order, with each mission adding a new rule and more challenge than the mission before it. However, every mission has one thing in common: the players have 15 minutes to complete it, or they lose.

The rules are extremely straightforward. On your turn, you get four actions. You can basically do three things with your four actions: fight zombies, search buildings, or move. There's other stuff, like getting up if you've fallen down, and in later scenarios, picking up heavy objects critical to the scenario can take actions, too. But overall, that's it. Players take turns moving around the board, smashing zombies, ransacking houses for more weapons and equipment, and achieving whatever the scenario's objective is. New zombies get added to the board every 60 seconds (except in the first mission, which works like a tutorial). They get added wherever the current player is when the 60 seconds are up (a soundtrack included with the game cues the zombie onslaught with a grrrrrrl!!) 



This was my second time playing Zombie 15'. Like the first time, it was an absolute blast. In two short plays, Zombie 15' has soared right to the top of my list of favorite zombie boardgames, dethroning the former champ, City of Horror. (No, I haven't played Dead of Winter yet, but I really, really want to). At its core, Zombie 15' is a tactical game, like the D&D adventure boardgames, but it plays so much faster than any other tactical game I've ever played. The escalating campaign is a great touch, too, as it gets you used to the fundamentals before beating you over the head with the crazy stuff, plus it allows you to scale the game to the level of the group.

Speaking of which, if you've got a group of seasoned board gamers (or just smart, patient people who don't mind the idea of getting torn apart by zombies), I'd recommend starting with the second scenario, not the first. The first is actually a little too easy; after both games, me and the other players were like "Uh, that's it?" It was fun, don't get me wrong; but Zombie 15's campaign errs on the side of caution and wants you to be comfortable with the fundamentals before it unleashes the horde in all its terrible glory on you. If you are going to start from the very bottom, be sure you pitch the rest of the game to the players so they don't think that's all there is to it and aren't willing to come back.

Oh, and if you're worried about replayability, don't be. Even if/when you get through the 15 included scenarios, there are already more available online, and you can easily make your own; this isn't Mansions of Madness where the scenarios have customized bits or anything.

As a Boardgames at Lunch selection, Zombie 15' is damn-near perfect. After everyone grabs their lunch and is ready to play, an hour gets whittled down to about 40 minutes...that's pushing it for a 60 minute game, even a 45-minute game, but more than enough time to setup, play, and take down a whole scenario of Zombie 15'. I would add, though, that just a little bit of preparation will make it even easier. Take ten minutes before bed to get the search deck ready and the tiles necessary for your scenario stacked up top and separated from the rest, and you'll be bashing zombies with looted banjos in no time flat in your conference room!




Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reboot

There was once a time in my life when I considered myself a proud introvert, capable of going days...weeks, if necessary...without human communication. Then, I got married.

Fifteen years later, my estranged wife is in Colorado, starting over again, and I remain here in D.C. And the loneliness is there in the back of my mind, always gnawing, always scratching at the walls of my brain like a rat. I get home from work, and that loneliness says "What now?" I watch a TV show while I eat dinner. I finish the show, and, again, it asks "What now?" I go on the internet for a bit. Facebook. CNET. Whatever. "What now?"

Then, I lie in bed. That's the hard part. Alone, in the dark, just me, the ceiling fan, and that little voice saying "What now? What now? What now? You have to do something. You can't just lay there."

My therapist, she tells me I need to feel that loneliness to get over it. And so I have. And it crushes me. It's literally brought me to my knees a couple of times since she left. It's only been a few weeks. I'm patient. It could take many more weeks...months, even...before that voice finally shuts the hell up. I'm confident it will, though.

In the meantime, when I feel like I can't take it anymore, I rally. I do this by focusing on three things: my job, my friendships, and my hobbies. The first one is simple: I wake up. I get dressed. I go to work. I come home. Rinse and repeat. The second one is being served right now with my vlog. It's a chance to connect with the people who make up my world.

But this right here? This is my blog, and it's all about the third one.

Last weekend, I played Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and a few boardgames, Fame and Fortune, and Imperial Settlers. This weekend, I'm going to play Dungeons & Dragons, Zombie 15, and a whole bunch of other stuff thanks to the three-day. I do this with my friends, and it makes me happy. And that happiness helps me combat the loneliness. It helps me answer the question "What now?" with "Whatever the hell I want. Go fuck yourself."

This blog was once a place where I obsessed about my hobbies all the live-long day. I abandoned it for awhile, when this was all going down and I couldn't focus enough to care about anything. I realize now, though, that I must in fact do the opposite: I should write more, not less, and the nerdier and weirder and more obscure, the better. It's not good to hide behind your interests all the time, but oftentimes it's necessary to take a break from the pain of living in the moment. And thus that is what I shall do. The blog will live on, and I will continue to fail forward. 









Friday, May 8, 2015

My Thing with Horror

I'm not a big watcher of horror films. I'm not a big reader of horror novels. I'm not a big player of horror video games. Why, then, do I so easily gravitate towards horror RPGs? If someone came up to me now and said "run me an RPG, right now, off the top of your head," the game I'd go to immediately is Call of Cthulhu. Not D&D, for which I've read hundreds of pages (and spent hundreds of dollars!) Not Cortex Plus, for which I've run a complete campaign. Not Apocalypse World, which I've said time and again is one of the most important, if not the single most important, role-playing game of our time. Nope; I'd go with Call of Cthulhu. And I wouldn't even do it because of the system. I'd do it because of the genre.

When I think about it, there are a few reasons that I think I keep going back to horror. For one thing, the horror genre naturally caters to my playstyle. I like shorter-term games/campaigns, storylines based on mysteries and interaction, and realistic characters who aren't brimming with super powers and vast reserves of hit points. Horror hits all of those bulletpoints, right on the head. I also like the idea of survival being its own reward. No silly piles of gold or game-breaking magic items; no, your prize for getting to the center of the hedge maze is your own head, still attached to your own neck. Oddly, I find that more satisfying, more exciting even, then incremental power upgrades that will only lead to incremental enemy upgrades to wipe away any real progression.

Lastly, I'm always looking to make an emotional connection with my players. I can do that in two ways: through humor, and through horror. I like humor best when it's unplanned and natural. I like horror best, however, when it's the product of a meticulous, drawn-out plan. And since many RPGs tend to revolve around planning, that, again, makes horror a natural choice for me.

As I've gotten older, and become more aware of what I'm drawn to, I find a certain sense of resentment growing in me over this infatuation of mine. Fantasy is where it's at. Fantasy is the bubblegum pop of tabletop role-playing. And given my overall goal of bringing more people into the hobby, an appreciation for that genre would much better serve that goal. After that, I think science fiction is the next big genre; it is, afterall, the home of the ever-popular Star Wars. As a horror RPG enthusiast, I have but two onramps to accessibility: zombies and Cthulhu. Both of which, arguably, do not have the same appeal and universal reach of the other genres' staples.

Anyways, I'm compelled to write this because I think this is a very unusual interest of mine. When I return to the table, it'll likely be to a horror game. And I think I'm going to be okay with that, limitations and all.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

The End?

I'm not sure if I'll be coming back to this ol' blog. Things have changed since my wife left, two days ago. I am a different person now. The world looks a little different to me. Not all bad; not all good, either. Just different. Her and I, we've both changed. Grown, one could say. That has made my perspective shift. This blog, that once looked like a part of my life, seems vestigial now.

I don't know for sure if I'm going to stop writing in this blog. I just know that it doesn't seem nearly as relevant, interesting, or important to my life as it once did.

Don't worry, though. I'm going to keep writing. I've got plans. Good plans, I think. I'm not going to talk about them, because I have this superstitious belief that my plans get cursed the moment I speak them. I'd rather focus on putting those plans in motion than talking about it.

So for those of you that have read my blog in the past, thank you. I will keep in touch.