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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 in review

In 2019 I finished a D&D campaign, started and ran another one until it blew up, then started a new one with a mostly different group of players that is still going. All of them were in different, original settings, although I mostly threw in old school adventures, slightly altered.

I started a board game group, and we are still going, although on hiatus for the holidays.

It's a short retrospective on the year, but I have mostly kept busy, I continue to exist.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I watched The Phantom Menace (TPM) earlier today. My thinking was that it's 20 years old now and maybe I should look at it with fresh perspective, which was going to be hard, just because of my history with that film.

Remember the build up to TPM? In 1999 I was working as a substitute teacher at Mexico High School (Mexico, NY), and I remember it pretty well. I used to bring stuff with me to read, because they had block scheduling then (80 minute periods) and I always had a free period, plus lunch to kill time in. One of the things I brought with me was a copy of Star Wars Insider, Mona used to buy them for me when she spotted them in the wild, and, since the movie was maybe six weeks from release at the time, everyone, teachers, students, and administrative staff, all commented. America was on fire for a new Star Wars movie.

I remember going to see it with Mona, maybe on opening day, I don't exactly recall, but certainly in the first week; then seeing it a day or so later with my dad. I may have seen it a time or two more in the theater, I am not sure. Mona and I talked about it a bunch, both of us were sure it was a good movie, that we actually did like it, or that maybe we missed something, somehow. I got the movie on VHS and DVD as soon as they were available, although the VHS copy was a gift and only got watched once maybe.

The internet turned into a cesspool of hatred for the movie, and I started to agree with a lot of the criticisms of the film. I hated the whole midichlorian thing, I was annoyed by Jar Jar Binks and I thought Jake Lloyd's acting was terrible. The story itself was convoluted and boring, trade disputes? Really? I cringed at the racist caricatures. George Lucas had done the impossible, he made a Star Wars movie that sucked, although the Holiday Special and the Ewoks movies really should have showed us it was possible.

Even with the crap in them though, there were still some cool scenes in each act of the film. Darth Maul was pretty cool, and his music was awesome. The action scenes were, by and large, pretty decent. I watched the DVD with commentary on so I could see what they were thinking, and it did give me a greater appreciation for their craft, and I could see what they were aiming for.

I dutifully watched TPM before each of the other two prequel films, but I never liked it. I sought out and watched The Phantom Edit, which did make it a better film, and invented the concept of fan edits. I got buried under a mountain of TPM related merchandise, most of which was garbage, just because my mom and Mona's mom both knew I was a huge Star Wars fan, and it was so over merchandised, it all got marked down to next to nothing for the next few years. I think George really expected Jar Jar to be a breakout character, his stupid face was everywhere.

Fast forward to today. I had not watched that movie in maybe a decade, maybe more. Honestly the last time I recall watching it was to show my kids all the Star Wars movies before we took them to see Revenge of the Sith. We're 20 years out from it's release and I keep hearing that people are loving the prequels now, so I figure it's time to give it a rewatch.

My impressions are now that it is less tedious to watch. Dialogue is pretty bad, most of the old complaints are still there, but less now. I figure it's because I knew what to expect going in, setting expectations low made it easier to watch. I cut the actors some more slack than I did in the past, because I have heard what a nightmare it is to be directed by George Lucas, and the dialogue, like I said before, is pretty bad. The biggest new thing that struck me is the CGI, it both held up well in some cases and kind of sucked in others. The CGI droids look pretty good to this day, mostly any mechanical stuff does; the biological stuff though is dreadful. All the fish things in the planet core transit sequence for instance look like crap, the Gungans all look like crap too, even Jabba the Hutt and Yoda pretty well suck. I didn't hate the pacing, the fight scenes were generally good, although I still think that the Jedi/Maul scenes look too choreographed, but maybe that's just me. I thought about it as I was watching them.

I guess, in closing, I'd say that a reviewing of it after two decades, along with the careful consideration of everything I've learned about the film and it's makers and the actors has made me reconsider my overall grade for it. I'd give it a C- these days, which is up an entire letter grade from where I'd've placed it 15 years ago, but down from where I figured it must be back in 1999 after my initial few viewings.

I have been in something of a Star Wars place for a couple of weeks now, thinking about watching the original trilogy and trying to bring back that spark of love I had when I was a kid. I kind of want to play a Star Wars RPG too, or maybe GM one. 

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Some Recent D&D Thoughts

I am thinking a lot lately about D&D. What I like about it, and what I don't. Me being me, this means old school D&D (or it's clones). I have been giving serious thought to writing my own version of B/X to give to my players, maybe edit down the text only version of B/X Essentials (now Old School Essentials) to add a few sub-systems I like, subtract a few bits I don't. The only downside really is that they'd have to be rewritten for every single campaign I run. Different settings get different setting specific rules, but maybe a core?

I say B/X, because my Ostschild campaign was B/X and it was dead easy to hack those rules, add some AD&D if I wanted, or whatever. AD&D is what my “Colonies of Avalon” and my “Lost Atlantis” games were and I learned there were quite a few AD&Disms I just don't care for. For the last couple of decades at least, maybe longer, I have been hacking and house ruling my games pretty significantly, and I was really the only one that cared about the rules. I was the guy running the game, and my players, which usually included my wife and kids, trusted me to know what I was doing, and mostly could not have cared less about the actually rules. I dropped a lot of stuff over the years I thought was needlessly nit-picky. I pulled in stuff from other editions, or stuff I found online and thought was cool, or just stuff that I made up; not to mention the house rules that everyone just seemed to know from time immemorial. Critical hits on a natural 20 doing double damage, for instance, are so common many people think they are actually in the rules. EGG hated the concept (or so he said publicly, having never played with him I couldn't say), but they were, and are, everywhere. Where did we learn them? Who knows.

One of my players was recently frustrated by the fact that there isn't really any reason to play anything but a Human in 1st edition AD&D. She plays a Gnome Thief/Illusionist and I think has never played old school D&D before. My initial reaction was like “Duh, it says right in the book this is a humanocentric game”, but coming from where she was, I get it. WotC really took a lot of effort to balancing the races (and classes) in 3e (and beyond). AD&D does a pretty decent job at showing the various advantages non-humans get, but is fairly poor at pointing out the disadvantages, and they do not cancel each other out balance wise. In many ways I agree with EGG about the humanocentric game (also in the way he thought that fighters were the class people would want to play).

I have been considering stripping out all of the non-Human PC races. Over time D&D has consistently increased the number of PC races (really species) that are playable. I'd like to go the other way. Elves and Dwarves and Gnomes, if not Halflings, are folkloric creatures and should stay that way. Half Orcs and Half Elves have their own issues, on the one hand species this alien to each other probably should not be able to interbreed, on the other, at least for Half Orcs, it implies a tragic and disgusting backstory of rape.

I might consider creating new classes for human characters that are essentially reskins of the missing demihumans, or I may not. While the B/X Elf gives us a good “Fighting Wizard” class, what do the Halfling and the Dwarf bring?

I would not create the same issues by giving different mechanics to different “races” of humans either. A human is a human is a human, all the same flesh and bone. I might create a different set of skills based on social class, or place of origin, but those are pretty campaign specific. I might even come up with backgrounds a la 5th edition for that, why reinvent the wheel.

I have also been thinking about the class archetypes. In my recent “Colonies of Avalon” campaign the party Cleric has been a particular annoyance to me. I don't dislike the player, I wouldn't play with him if I did, but his character's class irritates me. He has a different view than I do on how Clerics are meant to be played. I always picture them (and as NPCs usually play them) as medieval crusader knights, like the Templars. He plays his character as a support healer, essentially a combat medic. We rarely see anything other than healing spells, which I find sad. Mona used to play this way too, I guess, but at least she fought on the front line, and spells for healing came after combats. I have tried over the years banning multiple preparations of the same spell, removing cure X wounds spells from the game and replacing it with spontaneous healing by removing a prepared spell and getting X number of dice (d6 or d8) where X equals the level of spell you are giving up, giving Clerics spell slots they can use as desired to cast any Cleric spell of the slotted level. Nothing really seems to work with Clerics not just taking advantage of healing spells. 

The other issue with Clerics is their Turn Undead ability. I hate to agree with Mike Mearls on this, but it really is just an “I win” button for Clerics. It takes what should be a frankly terrifying encounter and negates it, which I find both boring and frustrating as a DM. Any encounter with Undead creatures that a Cleric doesn't have a reasonably good chance of simply turning, is probably one the party can't win anyway, and should flee from. I would consider just stripping it entirely from the Class, but taking a core class ability away from it would likely incite player riots.

I have seen some suggestions for fixing either of these issues on various blogs and the rework of the Cleric in “Lion & Dragon”1 is pretty interesting; but the best suggestion I have seen is to simply remove it from the game.

That leaves us with an issue; if people rarely want to play Clerics, nobody wants to play a Magic-User (and why, oh why, couldn't Gygax have named this class Wizard or Sorcerer, or any other damned thing). Glass cannons, one shot wonders. Can't wear armor, poor choice in available weapons, weakest hit points in the game; melee combat is not an option. Only getting a single spell at first level always seems to leave them cowering behind the lines, often wasting good casting opportunities, just because they know they'll be done, absolutely useless to the party the moment they cast their lone spell. Sometimes (depending on the exact system of D&D being used) they will provide some largely ineffectual missile fire.

I have played a single classed Magic-User in every edition of D&D that has been out since I started playing (1981) up through at least mid level, I have been that guy. I could offer advice to the other players, but mostly I was taking cover and providing a little bit of missile fire. 

I have seen games where the party Magic-User blasted through his spell right away, that tends to lead to the ten minute adventuring day.

Fixes? I have seen very few. One suggestion that all Magic-Users get a cantrip or two, non-damage causing, they can cast at will makes them seem more mysterious and magical. It may have been the same place I saw the idea that Read Magic and Detect Magic should just be a class ability, which is useful. I might go ahead and make Identify a class ability (or skill) too. I am not sure any of this makes the Magic-User a more attractive Class to be though.

I have posted about the Thief in the past, and I guess my thought on this currently is to go with something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess's Specialist Class, you can do almost anything with them.

In the end most players I know like playing Fighter Classes, as God and Gary intended. I played in an online game last night where we were all Human Fighter types (actually all Human Bushi, it was a White Box Eastern Adventures game) and we were all essentially the same mechanically (weapon choice made some difference) and were differentiated mainly by the way we role played our characters. It was some of the most fun I have playing in a D&D game in a very long time, with the caveat that I rarely get to play D&D, as I am generally DMing.

I rather enjoyed the simplicity and even the lethality of a White Box game, but I am not real sure I could find players for a campaign, nor am I sure I'd like the difficulty set that high for a campaign. B/X seems to be hitting the sweet spot for me right now.

Not sure where I was going with this, I just wanted to get these thoughts down and sorted. It looks like “Colonies of Avalon” is over, the group has split up, and it's mostly my fault, although completely not game related. I want to have friends and play D&D, but my depression and anxiety, especially since Mona died, have made it harder and harder to keep having any social life at all.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Dun Gwyn

There are a couple of things about the setting I don't think I have adequately conveyed during gaming, so I want to clear this up, for the purposes of Blue Booking, if nothing else.

First, Dun Gwyn is small. It's the end of line line (currently) economically and militarily. The dun itself is a quickly constructed motte-and-bailey. Lord Gwyn1, the first and current lord, has no more than a thirty riders at his disposal, although he commands a larger military garrison too. The small temple of Bel2 is located within the fortified area, and has a handful of temple guards. The detachment of soldiers (about 100, it varies because of their patrols along the coast road, and expeditions to the interior) are garrisoned in tents at the western edge of town. The town is a ramshackle of rapidly constructed buildings, half constructed buildings and tents. One of the few buildings in the town is the poor quality inn, “The Lion's Den” that your party stays at while they are in town. It is lousy with fleas and bed bugs, and doesn't offer a lot of choice in it's sleeping arrangements, either barracks style shared multi-bunk room, the common room (where you just sleep on the floor (or on a table or bench) providing your own bedding, or, lastly, the one private room the inn-keeper lives in, but is willing to rent out to paying customers. The food is mediocre, but filling. Most of the merchants are just visiting, this is the last stop on their trade route, after buying and (mostly) selling here, they turn around and head back to the coast. Most of the stuff they bring is for the soldiers.

Recently an influx of a couple of hundred settlers of various backgrounds arrived, and more are likely on their way. The dun, the soldiers and the settlers are causing tension with the local human (barbarian3) population.

Second, Tirnakaur (the colony that you are in) is hot. Think Georgia through Florida hot. It also rains a lot there, pretty much every day. So it's also muddy and wet. The area is not especially well explored, although that will probably become a campaign goal as you guys level up. Levels 1-3 are traditionally focused on dungeons (and despite being largely outside, the Hill plays like one because of the magic in the forest restricting you to various paths), levels 4+ traditionally focus on wilderness exploration type adventures, or at least overland travels to more advanced level dungeons.

Third, the amazing abundance of animals everywhere. Us modern folk don't think about this much, but there are more animals than humans in any place there are humans. I went down a rabbit hole researching horses this morning and wow, are there a lot of different, specialized horses, not just the differences between riding and draft horses, but various types of riding horses for different purposes, and all of the working horses have specializations to their jobs, with very few horses being multi-purpose. That got me thinking about the other animals, almost every household has at least one dog, for instance, or cats, a necessity for keeping vermin down (although not particularly liked especially well, as a rule), any settlement or homestead is going to have flocks of various fowl, mostly chickens, ducks and geese, and cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs; with pigs being the only ones that are raised solely for their meat (although their hides are useful too).

So I guess Dun Gwyn is mostly a smelly barnyard of an unhygienic tent city. Crossing the Shrill to the Hill might actually be safer than the impending cholera and/or typhus outbreak that is sure to occur in Dun Gwyn. Probably the only clean places there are inside the dun itself, like Lord Gwyn's hall or the temple of Bel.

1Lord Gwyn is clearly an old style lord, he keeps his own band of oath-sworn riders, most lords of Avalon have abandoned this practice.
2Bel is also known as “The Great God”, he is the most widely worshiped deity in the Avalonish pantheon.
3These “barbarians” are mostly of a similar ethnic stock to the people of Avalon, speaking a different dialect of the same root language, kind of like the difference between the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible vs. the modern American English of today. Isolated groups are of different ethnicities, there are also groups of “wild” elves here, they constitute an entirely different “barbarian” group.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Ostschild is done

Ostschild is done. It's actually been done for a few months now. A second TPK in as many weeks did it in for good, right before our Christmas holidays hiatus from gaming. I am a little sad that it's over, and maybe I'll revisit it later. Ostschild came close to being what I wanted in a D&D game; it was set in a realistic medieval milieu; it built on actual, real world history, folklore, and mythology; and it drew all of that into a coherent fantasy setting. Some concessions were made for D&D, for the feel, or the rules, or the expectations of D&D gamers. The only difference I might make is to change the rules set to something like Lion & Dragon, although it's explicitly British setting would require some retooling to make it fit the Holy Roman Empire. Alternately I might consider running a very similar set up in the British isles, I did lament a bit the choice of central European location making the names of people and places a bit difficult for both my gamers and myself to pronounce, given our American English speaking backgrounds.

I have been running a new AD&D game set in my old Garnia setting. I did TPK the party once there already, maybe three sessions in, but they dusted themselves off like troopers, made new characters and we're on our 5th session with new new PCs now. I adapted “Horror on the Hill” for play in my campaign world, and it's been fun so far (despite the TPK).

I do have some more campaign specific stuff to hand out to them, currently they are aware of the Celtic theme of the setting, and it's set in my “post-apocalyptic” timeline, where all of the old kingdoms were overrun and destroyed by the forces of evil. Their characters are descendants of the refugees that fled the main continent to the relative safety of an isolated island I am calling Avalon in the eastern ocean. Now their people are seeking to explore and resettle the ancient lands of their ancestors. The biggest surprise is that not all of the humans, elves, etc. were wiped out completely, so there are pockets of pretty hardy survivors there, although they have often descended into barbarism due to the circumstances of their own ancestors survival.

The humanoids and other evil forces have become extremely disunited in the centuries following their victory, and have squabbled greatly over the spoils amongst themselves, which is probably why there are pockets of survivors.

Anyway, we've been doing this since January, and it's April now, so I thought I'd blog about it. I still need to put together a list of Celtic names, they actually requested it. I need to write up documents for Elves, Halflings and Gnomes. I already had one I made last year for Dwarves when I was running my “Lost Atlantis” campaign online, it needed just a bit of editing to remove the Roman stuff, it's still the same campaign world, but the other side of the main continent. Atlantis was kind of an inspiration for Avalon in this campaign, an island appearing where none was before and all, only with Avalon it was placed there when the forces of good needed a place to retreat to.