Thursday, February 11, 2016

Happy 5th Anniversary

Five years ago today, I started this blog with an appropriately titled blog post, "Why A Blog?" to discuss why I chose to start blogging.

As I look at my stats in terms of the number of posts I've made each year, I am a bit dismayed that if you put them into a line graph, that line would just point steadily downward over time. As I mentioned last year, I no longer have the time (or frankly, the energy) to post as often as I did when I first began the blog. However, as I did mention last year, I do think that the quality of my posts has increased. I'd like to think that most of them to provide some sort of inspirations or thought-starters for role-playing games, which is a big theme of my blog. I like writing that kind of content much better than trying to cover "geek news" which I did a bit of in my first year or two of blogging.

Here are some highlights of the blog over the past year.

The missing three months. 
 I've mentioned this a few times, but my daughter was involved in a very traumatic accident over the summer and I pretty much just disappeared from blogging while helping her recuperate. It just felt a bit weird to me to keep blogging about comics and gaming while my daughter was dealing with her recovery. Whenever I am stressed, whether from work or personal issues, the blog is one of the first things to suffer because I'm just not in the mood.

I did game quite a bit last year before my daughter's accident, with a combination of my Friday Night Labyrinth Lord hack of S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth at the beginning of the year. A month or so ago, we actually decided to put that game on hiatus for a few months and return to my friend Sean's Savage Worlds' version of Cthulhu, picking up right where we left off in the middle of Masks of Nyarlothotep. That's fun for me because it means I get to be a player, which I really enjoy.

In other role-playing news, I continued running sessions of my long-running World of Samoth game - last May saw the 14th Anniversary of that game and I commemorated it with a post that includes images from my campaign notebook. And this past October, I played D&D at a Convention for the first time ever, although it was sadly a less-than-stellar experience.

I also did quite a bit of board gaming with my friend Cal and his wife, and a few times with my friend Wil and some of his other friends. However, my board gaming is a lot less frequent than it was when my daughter was much younger. As a result, I've found that I'm actually just not as good at board games as I was even just a few years ago. I was never particularly great at the hard-core European strategy games, but I could usually end up figuring out the strategy eventually and even if I didn't win, I could think through what I could have done differently that would have resulted in a better showing. The past few times I tried a new game, however, I did pretty poorly. I don't beat myself over this kind of thing, but it's just been pretty eye opening that I've started to lose my "board gaming muscles." I'll be attending Orc Con this weekend with Cal and my friend Jeff, so hopefully I'll get some time to test out a few more games.

Lastly on the gaming front, I was once again given the opportunity by All-Around Cool Cat Random Wizard to judge the One Page Dungeon Contest, which is really a ton of fun. This past year, there were fewer judges than in 2014, but that resulted in more communication between the judges and in the first-ever Google Hangout after the prizes had been awarded so that we could all talk about why we chose what we chose, and also people could ask us questions. As luck would have it for me, just today on Twitter, Random Wizard announced publicly that I will be among the returning judges for the 2016 contest! For those who are interested, there are a lot of posts on the blog from the 2014 contest. I also wrote a post in 2015 about "Why We Need" a One Page Dungeon Contest.

I continued to read a lot of comics, although I did skip my weekly visits to the comic book store for about a month or so after my daughter's accident. Luckily I'd cut back on the number of monthly series I read - at one point I was up to 60 per month, and now I'm down to fewer than half of that, which is much more manageable. I still continue to write reviews for althought I haven't written a "full" review since the summer. I did recently attend another "Red Carpet Premiere" for ComicAttack, where I got to interview the voice-talent and crew for the new Batman: Bad Blood animated feature which came out last week. I'm transcribing my recorded interview notes and will be posting that article soon.

Here on the blog over the past year from a comics standpoint, I wrote about a very cool book on the history of the Avengers, which I reviewed for ComicAttack. In another post, I wrote about a variety of new Star Wars media that included some comics from both Dark Horse and Marvel.

One fun post I made about comics last year involved me asking the question, "Do you read comics? Why or why not?" It was intended to be a two-part series, and I finished the second part just yesterday. 

Geek Stuff. 
One thing that's really important to me as the dad of a young girl who has both "geek" interests (super heroes, Star Wars, and comics in general) as well as stuff like Disney Princesses and frilly dresses, is that girls are represented well in "geek" media and that they are given the same attention, as consumers, as boys are. I wrote a post about this last year when I'd gotten fed up by the lack of female super hero toys and comics for my daughter. This really came to a head after my wife and I took her to see the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, and in the Disney shop next door that sold all the merchandise from the movie they did not have any Rey action figures. My daughter specifically pointed it out, and it was just one in a series of things she's mentioned: "How come that poster doesn't have Wonder Woman? How come that t-shirt doesn't have any girl super heroes? Why don't they have Raven and Starfire action figures?" Things seem to slowly be getting better with Disney finally figuring out that the public backlash against them not including Rey in their Star Wars merchandising is a PR nightmare, and also with DC coming out with their new girl-oriented super hero line.

On the "general geek front," as opposed to the "Top 10" list I did at the tail-end of 2014, this year instead I did a list of some of the interesting movies, TV shows, comics, and games that I'm looking forward to in 2016 (as well as a few things I'm not all that excited about). 

I've been keeping up the Inspirations theme of the blog, most recently by starting a relatively "new column" here on Tuesdays, which is "D20 Era Reviews." The idea is that I'll be writing about some old forgotten D20-era publications that could be dusted off and mined for inspiration and ideas, regardless of what system you're playing. I started the series with a look at From Stone to Steel.

Fridays have been "reserved" for Inspirations for quite a long time. Most recently, I looked at probably my favorite post-apocalyptic book, Hiero's Journey.

Looking Ahead.
I suspect the blog will continue much as it has, albeit with me making an even more concerted effort to try to post at least once a week. I do try to use the comments as a guideline toward why kind of content people are most engaged with, but I have also noticed that a lot of people tend to comment on Google+ instead of here on the blog which makes it a bit more difficult for me to keep track of. But, it does make sense - it's more "immediate" to comment on Google+ sometimes, and I myself do it quite a bit. As always, though, I'm always open to thoughts on things people are more interested in reading about.

And Now... the Stats.
  • 8,172 Page Views. This is down a bit from the 9,319 I had last year.
  • 1.53 Pages/Session (last year: 1.58 Pages/Session)
  • Average session duration 1:44 (last year 1:52)
  • 79.56% Bounce Rate (last year 77.86%)
  • 70.92% of visitors were "new" instead of returning (75.4% last year)
  • 83.95% of the readers are from English-US readers (81.16%)
So clearly, my stats have fallen a bit but I attribute that to the less frequent blogging, so it makes sense.

One post from this past year is now my my Top 10 All Time Posts (in terms of views) - the one about New Star Wars Media, with 1,544 views total. 

Over the past month, of the Top 10 posts, six of them are older posts on the site, including things like my interview of the other One Page Dungeon Contest Judges in 2014, a review of DC's Earth 2 comic from 2013 (which is odd considering it's not even published any more), and an old favorite, The Evolution of D&D Snacks from 2011.

There's a look at the past year. Thanks, as always, for reading. I look forward to another year here on the blog, and hope to hear from you in the comments here or on Google+. Cheers!

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Sparkling cider
Listening: "Ego Spiritual" by Max Sedgely

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Comics Wednesday: Revisiting My Post About Why People Do or Don't Read Comics

Last July, about two weeks before my daughter had her bad accident which pretty much removed me from the online community for a few months, I wrote a post with a short questionnaire about why people do or don't read comics. I was particularly hoping to get some responses from people who don't read comics as to why they don't read them. As it turns out, pretty much all of the comments I received were from people who do read comics, which is interesting although not all that surprising I guess.

I've written before about how I originally got into comics, and about various stages in my life when I "re-discovered" them after not having read them for a few years at a time. That's pretty well-covered territory. I've also talked about some of my current favorites, and I did particularly enjoy what other people think of as their list of best comic arcs/series over the years - I discovered a bunch of new ones that I haven't read before. You should definitely check out the comments to that post if you want to get some reading ideas.

Here are my answers to the other questions I asked in my little questionnaire:

  • What other things do you read (e.g., fiction, non-fiction, specific types of genres, etc.)?
    • I read a lot of different subjects/genres, as I've mentioned in my "What I'm Reading" tab (although that hasn't been updated forever). Most recently I've been reading a lot of books about the history of comics, including Grant Morrison's Supergods and The Secret History of Wonder Woman, as well as histories or personal recollections about role-playing, including Of Dice and Men, Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, Heroic Worlds, and Designers & Dragons. I've also been reading a lot about spirits and beer - next up on my list is The Audacity of Hops. Lastly, I've fit in a few fiction novels as well, including, most recently, Ready Player One
  • Do you like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 
    • I do, although the movies can be pretty uneven. I really liked the first Iron Man, but was less impressed with the two sequels. I thought Winter Soldier was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed the humor in Ant-Man. I wasn't a big fan of Age of Ultron (I didn't hate it as much as some people, but it's clear that it was a case of too many executives trying to change the movie to fit their corporate needs). But, altogether, I think the MCU celebrates the fun of comics and recognizes the silliness of some of the character's powers without being campy. It's a fine line to walk but I think they've done it very well. 
  • If so, does it make you interested in wanting to read more stories about the characters?
    • Interestingly, I'm not as much a fan of current titles of Marvel Comics. When I returned to reading comics shortly after DC's New 52 came out, Marvel also did a soft reboot of sorts called Marvel NOW! and I read a bunch of those titles for quite a few issues, but slowly one by one I dropped them until I wasn't collecting any. I'll read some one-off stories, such as Captain America: White, and I read some of the Star Wars titles (which doesn't really count as "Marvel" anyway). But, by and large, the characters and writing doesn't work for me. One recent exception would be that I just read Volume I of Matt Fraction's Hawkeye, and that definitely got me interested in reading the rest of his run. 
  • Do you like the DC Cinematic Universe? 
    • This is a hard one to answer because, so far, we've really only had one entry into the DC Cinematic Universe (Man of Steel, which I wrote about a few weeks ago). I'm really not optimistic with what I'm seeing in the trailers for Batman vs. Superman. Zack Snyder, to me, does not have a good handle on Superman, and Warner Brothers as a whole is just really pushing the "dark, gritty" themes too much for me. "Dark" does not mean "better." It's a real shame that they have chosen to ignore more than 75 years of their history that featured colorful, fun stories of heroes that people can look up to, instead of dark, gritty stories of heroes that people are afraid of. I'm all for a darker tone for Batman, but even the old Bruce Timm animated series got the idea correct - Batman: The Animated Series worked well as an independent series with darker, noir tones. However, when the Justice League series came out, which was in the same continuity as Batman: The Animated Series, the tone changed. Colors were brighter and they embraced some of their goofy Silver Age past but modernized them and made them relevant again. The long story arc in Justice League that featured the government and CADMUS working with S.T.A.R. Labs to work against the Justice League behind-the-scenes was a relatively dark storyline, but it still was gritty and depressing like the DC Cinematic Universe is shaping up to be. 
  • Similarly to the above - would you be interested in reading more? 
    • I've been pretty vocal about preferring DC's characters to Marvel's, so my superhero reading is mainly filled with DC titles, although truth be told I'm reading fewer than half of the DC titles than I was reading a year or two ago. There's so much other stuff out there from Image and other independent companies that appeals to me more based on their storytelling and the artwork. 
  • For you role-players out there, have you ever used a story, character, or other concept from a comic book in one of your games? 
    • I've definitely patterned NPCs on various characters from comics. Since most of my players aren't currently reading comics, I can get away with this without anyone being the wiser. It gives me an instant hook in terms of how the NPC looks and what their personality is. And I've taken parts of story-arcs to weave into my campaigns, and grabbed a ton of images from the old Marvel Conan comics from the 1980's. 

And, since today is Wednesday, here's a list of what I picked up today. None of the Image, Boom! Studios, Dark Horse, or IDW titles read came out this week.

  • Batman
  • Batman & Robin Eternal
  • Batman/Superman
  • Flash
  • Flash (variant "Adult Coloring Book" cover - my daughter specifically requested that the store hold aside a copy of this for me since Flash is my favorite character)
  • Legend of Wonder Woman
  • Supergirl 

Anybody else pick up any comics this week? If so, which ones?

Hanging: Home Office (laptop)
Drinking: A barrel-aged "Pasadena Christmas" (Blanco Tequila, Reposado Mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse, and Sherry, with Smoke Bitters)
Listening: "Something Cool" by June Christy

Friday, February 5, 2016

Inspirations Friday: Hiero's Journey

In the past, my "Inspirations Friday" posts have mainly dealt with inspirations for my ongoing World of Samoth Campaign, but I've also written about ideas for other things such as fantasy Colonial America and a "field guide" to extra-terrestrials.

Today I'll be writing about a classic science-fiction book from 1973, Hiero's Journey. This first part of a planned trilogy (although the author never completed the third installment) was listed in the Appendix N of the original Dungeon Master's Guide as an inspirational work, and also was mentioned as an inspiration for the original Gamma World game. My exposure to the book came from neither of those sources, but instead from the cover of a paperback reissue of the book that must have been published in the early to mid-80s. It featured a picture of man standing in the wilderness next to a moose that was harnessed to be ridden like a horse. The man had a bunch of equipment strapped to him, including a long dagger or a short sword, and he seemed to be in the middle of a conversation with a bear that was standing on its hind legs and gesturing with its arms. This picture grabbed my attention and I grabbed it off the little spinning rack it was on. If I recall correctly, I was at some drug store shopping with my mom, and it had a spinner rack of novels, a small section of which were dedicated to the fantasy and science-fiction genre. I read the little blurb on the back of the book, and then found a map inside the front cover, and I was instantly intrigued. It basically looked like a handbook for the Gamma World game, which I was very familiar with at the time (but somehow had never seen the notes about how Hiero's Journey was one of the inspirations for the game).

My mom didn't end up purchasing the book for me, but I found it shortly thereafter at the "big library" in the city (which I liked going to after school because they also had copies of many of the hardback AD&D books on the shelf, when they hadn't already been checked-out). I devoured the book and, at the time, of course didn't catch many of its political and pro-environmental messages, as a young boy of 14 years old. I was more focused on the world building of a post-apocalyptic setting. The Gamma World game had a bit in the front part of the book about the history of the world and how the great apocalypse had come about, but there was scant little information about the state of the current world. D&D had Greyhawk and the "Known World," and Boot Hill and Top Secret were based on real-world earth history. But Gamma World didn't do much to flesh out what the world was like other than providing equipment lists. For me, reading Hiero's Journey, I started to get a real sense about how the natural world would grow, un-attended, and slowly start covering up all of man's creations. That had never occurred to me before.

The author, Sterling Lanier, also developed a whole culture that included a futuristic version of a Christian church, different political entities, and secret societies that were much more "grounded" than some of the more fanciful and outlandish Cryptic Alliances described in the Gamma World rulebook. It should also be noted at this time that my copy of Gamma World, which I had purchased from a friend at school for $2.50, was missing most of the pages about the Cryptic Alliances anyway, so reading about "organizations" in Lanier's book seemed really cool to me at the time.

Lanier also included something else in his book that, at the time, I loved even more than maps, and that was a glossary of terms used in the book. He defines all the different organizations, churches, political entities, and mutant creatures that he names in the book, and reading this is a really quick way to get a bunch of great ideas for a Gamma World campaign.

Within the book are tons of great ideas that were ripped right out the story and imported into both Dungeons & Dragons, including a green slime creature, psionic powers (which are in both D&D as well as the mental mutations of Gamma World), and an old-fashioned dungeon-crawl at the end of the story. It is really fun to read the book with a knowledge of these two games and see why Gygax and Ward listed it as an inspiration for their game design, and which elements from the book ended up being major themes for their games.

I recently re-read the book, and its sequel (The Unforsaken Hiero) a few years ago. The really imaginative ideas and descriptions still resonated with me after all these years, but in looking at it now, there are some interesting, and not always entirely successful, choices that Lanier makes in the novel. It's definitely a product of its time, and reading it now as an adult I can see that he was really pushing a pro-environmentalist agenda very hard. It actually does work within the context of the story, given that the world in a Hiero's Journey was destroyed and polluted by man-made machines, but often the execution of this message is a bit preachy. In addition to the main protagonist, Per Hiero Desteen, there's the mutant bear, Gorm, and a Hiero's moose mount that also has a limited form of mental telepathy so he can communicate with Hiero and follow his instructions. There's also a female character, Princess Luchare, and its in her depiction that you can really get a sense of the time period this novel was written. She is a dark-skinned member of a "barbarian kingdom" and Lanier's treatment of both her race and her sex are not entirely up to modern standards.

At the climax of the book, here's also a really interesting scene that as a kid, I didn't get at all. It can be read on a very literal level, but going back as an adult, it's pretty easy to see the Lanier is making a thinly-veiled political commentary. Again, it's really only there if you're looking for it, but once you figure it out, it's hard not to focus on it.

None of these minor quibbles ruin my enjoyment of the book. It really is a classic example of early post-apocalyptic fiction and it shows so many roots that made their way into Gamma World specifically, but also into D&D. I myself used the book as inspiration for my Gamma World campaigns when I was younger, and I still tend to do my world-building for Gamma World based upon a lot of ideas from Hiero's Journey. A lot of the encounter tables I created to replace the missing pages from my copy of the Gamma World rulebook were based on characters and creatures from the book.

Who else has read this one? What are your thoughts about it? Share them below, or of course on Google +.

  • Format: The original hardback is about 280 pages. It was also published as a mass-marker paperback, which is the version that I first encountered.
  • Where to Buy: This one is a bit tough to find, and when you do, it can be a bit expensive. Amazon has a "new" copy of the paperback listed for 19.88 or used copies for about $8.00. I found a hardback copy at a used book store in Glendale about 13 years or so ago for less than $10.00.
  • Price: See above on current pricing.
  • More Info: There is no "official" page for this book, and the Wikipedia article is unfortunately very short with limited information. Your best bet for more information is to just read the book!

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Hey Bulldog" by the Beatles

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

D20-Era Reviews Tuesday: From Stone to Steel

In the past, I had reserved Tuesdays for my "Game Design Decisions" posts, wherein I wrote about why I did things a certain way in my on-going World of Samoth Campaign (why I chose the races I did, how I handled religion and magic, etc.). Those posts pretty much ran their course with the end of the three-part (and very rambling) "Classes" series.

For the next few Tuesdays, I'll now be focusing on writing some reviews of some oft-forgotten old D20-era books that you may want to re-look at for your current campaigns. As always with my blog, I'm focusing here on ideas, not rules. So, for those of you who don't like the D20 bloat of classes and feats and all that, not to worry. I don't like that stuff, either. But, the D20 era was a time where very small publishers that might have a very niche product, which under other circumstances never would have seen the light of day, were able to publish handsome hard-cover, fully illustrated books with a D20 logo on them and find an instant audience. As such, for me, it was a time of discovering a lot of new ideas that I hadn't considered in the past.

I have written about a few D20 books before - most recently I wrote about using Northern Crown: New World Adventures as a basis of inspiration for a faux-Colonial era fantasy RPG. Today I'm going to focus on something almost akin to a history book - From Stone to Steel. This massive 351-page hard-cover tome was first published in 2003 using the original 3rd Edition Rules and that's the version I have. I was later updated to a 3.5 edition, but that's really just semantics as the majority of the rules would translate just fine.

While this book probably would fall into an "Arms & Equipment" guide category, it is so much more than that. Here's a look at the type of content included:

  • Sticks and Stones. An overview of the prehistoric era and the types of materials and tools they had available, including illustrations. It also includes sections on "The Pack Mentality," "War, Infection, and the Dead," first aid, and also covers a wide geography of Native Americans, Meso-Americans, and Islander, African, European, and "Other" developments during the time period. You of course also get some stats for Prehistoric weapons and armor. 
  • Chariots of Bronze. Covers the Bronze Age in Sumeria, Egypt, the Far East, the Incas, and Europe and the Mediterranean, including a discussion on copper versus bronze, military tactics, and a long overview of chariot combat. 
  • Iron and Empire. This part covers the Iron Age, focusing on the Assyrians, the Scythians, the Greeks, Persia, the rise of Macedonia, and sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes discussions on iron including rust and faeries. There are sections for psychological warfare, Greek fire, using elephants in combat, and history regarding the Greek-Persian wars. 
  • Rome. This covers the history of the early Roman monarchies and republic, the Punic Wars, Carthage, weapons and armor of Rome, the legionnaires, the Germans and Celts and their tactics, gladiators, animals as opponents, the Huns, and the fall of Rome. 
  • The Far East. Here you get weapons, armor, military tactics, and history for ancient China, India, and Japan, including different eras like the Han Dynasty, the Gupta Empire, the Ming Dynasty, and a whole section on the Wudan Movement. This section also includes information on Nepal, Okinawa, and Malaysia & Indonesia. 
  • A Dark Age, a Golden Age. This section covers the aftermath of the fall of Rome and the rise of the Barbarian Empires, early European Christianity, the rise of Islam, the British Isles (including notes on Arthur and the Saxon Invasion), Feudal Europe, Charlemagne, the Vikings, and the Crusades.  
  • Pageantry, Platemail, and Pistols. This is less focused on geography but instead discusses issues such as bows versus crossbows, war and military tactics, the rise of the Yeoman, firearms in the era, the beginning of the Renaissance, and the rise of "personal weaponry" (fencing swords and such). Some neat touches include things like a Janissary Prestige Class - again, even if you don't use D20/3rd Edition rules, you can still learn about the history of the Janissaries and how a class (social class, not "rules" character class) might fit into your campaign world. 
  • Myth and Magic. This section is a bit unique and covers ideas like Divine Items, Normal Magical Item Abilities, and Items by Region (including America, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Asia, India, Japan, Mesopotamia, Europe, Teutonic/Nordic Myth, Celtic Myth, Rome, Greece, Medieval), Historical Racial Items, and some new spells. 
  • Materials. This section covers using different types of materials to create weapons and equipment, such as Bone and Teeth, Cord, Dragon Hide and Scale, Fabric, Gemstone, Glass, Ice, Leather, Stone, Wood, and a variety of different types of Metal. There's some really creative stuff in here. It also includes ideas for maintenance and repair. 
  • Appendix. This large section includes alternate rules for armor and damage, some ideas on blunt force trauma, and a pretty long bibliography. The rest of the book is all tables and indices. 

I really like how the book covers so many different eras and cultures - most books like this tend to focus on Western European weapons, armor, and equipment, and then maybe pay some token respect with a few pages on Japan. But this book gets into much more detail on a variety of subjects - there's an illustration showing three different kinds of elephant barding used in India. There's a section on the revolt of the Red Eyebrows in the Han Dynasty.  There's also a whole section on the "Guang Hu Adventurer" which comes from a fictitious time period sometime in the early Ming Dynasty - but these are basically like who the main characters in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were like. It's not just presenting a new Prestige Class (which is does), but rather it's all the background about the era and why these adventurers do what they do.

For a history geek like me, who likes to try to include as much real-world history in his games as possible, this book was a huge benefit to me. It's fun to read, great to look at given that it's chock-full of illustrations, and a very useful book in terms of incorporating new ideas into your campaigns.

As mentioned, I have a hard-cover copy of this book, but the PDF is available on DriveThruRPG right now for only $5.00.

Did anybody else pick up this book back in the day? What are your thoughts on it? Leave them in the comments below!

  • Format: 351-page hard-cover black-and-white book (also available as a PDF)
  • Where to Buy: As mentioned, this is currently available as a PDF on DriveThruRPG, although I'm sure you could find used copies on Amazon, Ebay, or at a local game shop. 
  • Price: Originally, $39.95
  • More Information: Monkey God Enterprises, the pubishers of this book, seem to have gone out of business, so there is no "official" site for this book. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Everything (Big Room Mix)" by Kaskade

Monday, January 25, 2016

Looking Forward to 2016

Well, as I mentioned before, I lost most of my Summer and early Fall last year due to very unforeseen circumstances. But, things are progressing for the positive with my daughter, which is great news. While work remains extremely busy, I feel like I'm in a decent place where I can get back to the blog and not feel "guilty" about it.

At the tail-end of 2014 and early 2015, I did a "Daddy's Geek Top 10 of 2014" two-part post, recapping my list of cool things that debuted in 2014, including games, TV shows, movies, comics, and Star Wars stuff. I had intended to do a list for 2015 as well, but seeing as how we're already more than two weeks into 2016 and that I did kind of drop out for a bit to focus on my daughter's recovery, I think it makes more sense to focus on things that I'm looking forward to in 2016.

I'd love to hear your lists for 2016, as well as things that you really enjoyed from 2015. Please drop them into the comments below.

Coming in 2016...

  • Movies. 
    • Given how big a fan I am of DC Comics, it might seem obvious to think that I'm looking forward to "Batman vs Superman: Dawn of the Longest Movie Title", but sadly, as cool as the idea of having Batman and Superman together in a movie sounds, I'm just not looking forward to this movie. Although I was actually pretty enthusiastic about "Man of Steel" after I first saw it, I've had about two and a half years to ruminate over it, and at this point I am decidedly in the "I don't need to watch that movie ever again" camp. The main part of this is actually what I alluded to in my review in the last third of the film. That's a huge part of my dislike of the film. But more important, it's just not Superman. If the film had been about pretty much any other character, or even a made-up hero, I probably would be fine with it. But my real issue is that DC and Warner Brothers seem to be going so far out of their way to make their movies "dark" and "grim" to be different from Marvel, and in so-doing, they are losing the sense of who their characters are. Batman works well as a "dark" character. But Superman? Not so much. As I look at the Marvel movies, for the most part, they do look like they were pretty much pulled right off the comics page. However, "Man of Steel" decidedly does not like that, and that's to its detriment. Given that Zack Snyder is also working on the "Batman vs Superman" movie, and given what I've seen so far in the trailers, it looks to be another dark, gritty movie that I'm just not looking for in a comic book movie. 
    • On the flip-side, I am pretty excited for "Captain America: Civil War." I enjoyed the comic series the story is based on, and I'm glad they were able to work Spider-Man into the movie franchise. 
    • Then there's "Suicide Squad," also based on a DC Property. Back in the mid-80's, I had a lot of fun reading the John Ostrander run of Suicide Squad, in the post-Legends days. However, the new movie doesn't look like it has the sense of goofy charm those stories had (even though they were based on violent criminals - it was essentially a comic book version of the Dirty Dozen, which worked quite well). I'd say I'm a little shocked that DC picked the Suicide Squad to debut in the movies before some of their more well-known properties, but they're using the Harley Quinn version of the Squad which is currently in the comics, and Harley is basically DC's equivalent of Deadpool (which isn't to say she's anything like Deadpool in terms of her character; it's just that she's a one-off humorous character that people seem to just adore for no explicable reason). 
    • And speaking of "Deadpool" ... right now I have no interest in that movie. I'll probably just wait for cable/DVD for that one. 
    • Then there's "Star Wars: Rogue One" which I'll definitely see - it's an interesting time period, and I'm looking forward to seeing a different treatment of the Star Wars universe other than that of JJ Abrams. 
    • The list of movies I'd like to see also include "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny," "Ghostbusters," and maybe "The Magnificent Seven" (although I'm leery of that last one). 
  • TV.
    • I haven't yet heard a ton about the new shows coming out for the 2016/2017 season, but in a few months I'll be going to the Upfront Presentations held by the networks and can report back then. 
    • In the meantime, the two shows that are debuting in 2016 that I am pretty excited about are "Agent Carter" (season 2) and "Legends of Tomorrow," both of which debuted last week. I have them recorded but my wife and I tend to like to watch these types of shows together and last week we were both busy with work and didn't get a chance to watch them yet. 
  • Comics. 
    • While one can read ahead roughly three months to see what the "solicitations" are for comics, I actually tend not to read those too often. Many of the solicitation descriptions actually can contain spoilers, especially when you see things like "Final Issue" listed. As such I don't really know much about what's coming up this year but I'm sure there will be some big summer cross-over events that end up being not quite as good as they should be. 
    • Image continues to come up with really great, intriguing ideas with spectacular art. One of my favorite Image titles, The Fade Out, just finished its short 12-issue run (it was planned to only run 12 issues; it didn't get canceled because no one was reading it). This "film noir" style comic that took place in late 1940's Hollywood was by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who really have a knack with the noir style setting. I'm really eager to see what their next project will be. 
    • I've read a rumor on comics site Bleeding Cool that DC Comics will be doing yet another reboot of sorts this summer once the remaining titles (that haven't already been canceled) from the original New 52 reboot in 2011 reach #52. Right now they are on #48. There are actually only a few of titles that will reach #52 this summer (it's all the ones you'd expect - Batman, Detective, Action, Superman, JusticeWonder Woman League, Flash, and Green Arrow, plus a couple of others). Other than that, DC lately seems like they are starting to focus on shorter, self-contained "mini-series" that are planned to run for 6-7 issues. It's a strategy that Marvel TV-show runner and comics writer Jeph Loeb mentioned as "the future of comics" in an interview on Kevin Smith's "Fatman on Batman" podcast a few years ago. Essentially the idea is that kids (or people in general) are going to be skeptical of picking up a comic book that has a high issue number on it, for fear that they won't be able to follow the story. But, if instead  you have shorter runs of self-contained story arcs that run their course and then start over again with a new #1 and a new arc, you're more liable to get someone to take a chance on picking up an issue. While there's some validity to this theory, for those of us that are "continuity geeks" (I like reading stories where authors take scenes from the past that seem unrelated and work them into the current stories - Geoff Johns and especially Grant Morrison are experts at doing this), it's a real let-down. 
  • Games. 
    • Unfortunately, my gaming ran into a standstill starting in the summer after my daughter's accident. Since then, I've actually only role-played twice - once at a Convention over Labor Day Weekend (which, as I noted in my post, was not a great experience), and once just a couple of weeks ago at a Friday night Savage Worlds Cthulhu game. I'm in the process of soliciting dates from my group that will work for an upcoming game in my long-running World of Samoth campaign
    • Other than that, on the gaming front, I was recently asked to participate in an RPG-related event again this year, which is really awesome. I'm not going to share quite yet what it is, but if you've read my blog for the past few years, you can probably figure it out.
    • I'm not entirely up-to-speed on what new RPGs or supplements are coming out this year - I'd love for people to drop their recommendations below. 
    • Other than RPGs, I played a few board games in 2015 but I don't really know what new games are coming out in 2016. I usually am exposed to new board games from my friend, Cal, who plays a lot of new board games at his friend Tom's house on Friday nights. 

There's my quick look at some things I'm looking forward to in 2016. Again, I'd be really interested to see what movies, TV shows, books, comics, and games you all are interested in (and why). Drop a comment below, or head over to my Google Plus page (link over to the right-hand side) to discuss.

Cheers, and Happy 2016!

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Iced Black Tea
Listening: "Scavenger" by France and Dom

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thoughts on How Not to Run D&D 5E at a Convention

I've been wanting to get a bit more exposure to D&D 5E - I have the Player's Handbook and DM's Guide, but I haven't been able to read all the way through them yet. The bits I have read, and also comments online, have intrigued me. One of my friends keeps threatening to run a campaign using 5E, but so far we've only played one session about 8 months or so ago.

Over Labor Day Weekend, my friend Cal and I were able to get some time to hit up Strategicon here in Los Angeles and the first thing we did after we arrived shortly after 8am was to sign up for a D&D 5E game. The last time we tried this, all of the games were full by the time we got there and we ended up playing Dungeon World instead (which as it turns out, was a whole lot of fun).

This time, there were a couple of 5E games still open, so we signed up for the next one that was coming up and headed over to the room where the game was to take place. The short description mentioned it was a high level game which was one of the main reasons we signed up for it - we really wanted to see how the game played at higher levels.

Cal and I were the first two people in the room, but it shortly started to fill up with various players. I'm using the phrase "fill up" here literally because more and more players kept coming into the room. By the time we started, there were about 12 players total (all men except for one woman who was married to one of the players). The DM was a convivial sort and actually had created t-shirts for everyone which he began tossing over to us as we all called out our shirt sizes. This guy knew his audience pretty well, as he'd printed extra shirts at various sizes that, let's just say, aren't your regular shirt sizes you'd find at a store. It was obvious he had a lot of enthusiasm for this game, which we learned quickly was based in his homebrew campaign world that he's clearly been using for quite a while. (I'm not going to mention the name here because I had some issues with this particular game - not with the setting but with the actual game play).

It's possible that my issues are more based on expectations, but given that this is a convention and people paid to get in and signed-up for a game that was to last for four hours, I would expect that people should get to actually play the game for four hours. This wasn't a tournament style game that was being judged on points, so I really don't think it makes sense to have players set aside their time at the convention to sign up for a game that basically takes them away from any other game they could be playing, only to come across a "Save or Die" type of situation, have their character auto-killed with no chance, and then told that there are no "replacement" characters for him to play.

"Thanks for signing up for my game. Sorry you got killed in the first 45 minutes, and every other game you could play already started. Have fun sitting around for the next 3 hours and 15 minutes."

I have nothing against old-school game play and I'm not opposed to Save-or-Die situations. But in this case, I think there should be some kind of concession for a convention player. Just throw the guy a bone and let him play someone's henchman or something.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, as that particular scenario above happened a bit later during the game.

Firstly, after we had all sat down, the DM scattered a bunch of index cards on the table that listed all of the available characters. The descriptions were pretty evocative - I chose one that read something like "Assassin - Wraith." My friend Cal chose "Heavy Armor Thug." For myself, I was thinking I had picked an Assassin character whose name was Wraith. Cal figured he'd picked a Thug type character who liked to wear heavy armor.

As it turns out, my character was a Wraith Burglar Assassin who was totally incorporeal, could turn the dead into Spectres, and had no actual physical possessions (again, because he was incorporeal and couldn't carry anything) but he kept his most prized possession in a secret cache buried somewhere. But then oddly, in his character sheet, right after he said he carried no possession, there was a note that he had a deck of cards.

Cal's character turned out to be a Helmed Horror Thief/Thug.

We were actually pretty excited to play some non-standard characters and see how the rules system matched them up power-wise against other more "mundane" characters in the group (there was, oddly, a human, Paladin, even though it was clear that my character was an evil undead wraith, an elf wizard, some other assorted humans/demi-humans, but also a mummy priest-king, a dragon in human form, and a purple worm ranger). It was quite an eclectic group.

The DM's next step was to pull me outside the room, tell me that I'd picked the "most important character" and that my guy was essentially the "leader." Then he want on to tell me that the planet everybody thought they were on was not the "real" version of the planet. It was like some sort of shadow-version, but only my character and one other character knew this. Everyone else thought they were on the "real" planet. Then he told me to make sure not to tell everybody else about this. He then told me that I'd been asked to recover some item or body or something - I can't actually remember. But it was a standard "go recover something" type of quest and I was given vague information about where to start looking and then told that I needed to get the other players to agree to go with me.

Now, normally, I think that would be fine, but again, given the time constraints of a convention type scenario, I think it would have made a lot more sense to just fall-back on the old standard scenario of him telling us "you've been hired by King What's-His-Name to recover the Whatever-It-Is and you've accepted the offer and are on the way..." That way, we could have gotten right into playing.

Instead, I had to try to herd 12 people, who were split across two different tables because there wasn't a table big enough for all of us, and try to get them to agree to go on this quest, when I wasn't actually sure why my character wanted to do it in the first place.

Then the DM stopped, and had us all switch tables where we were sitting - he shifted some of us around. At first, Cal and I thought that he'd divided the players into "Good" and "Evil" tables, but it turns out that he actually just divided us based on which chariot we chose to support at some big chariot race that was happening. Then he announced that we could bet on the outcome of the race and players started to say that they were going to place bets. Then the DM rolled some dice, told one table that their chariot lost, and then announced, "That's why you shouldn't bet on chariot races." He then let people go back to sit wherever they wanted.


We were, too. This had nothing to do with our quest, and given that we were using pre-generated characters that we were never going to use again past this convention, there was little reason for us to be attached to money for our characters. This is when I began to have a bad feeling about this particular game. At this point, we'd been "playing" for about 45 minutes or so, and hadn't done anything to experience the actual rules of 5E.

There's a lot of stuff that happened that got us to our next point in the adventure, but it mainly involved me and two other people asking a series of questions to the DM to figure out "where to start" so we could actually find the entrance to the place where the thing-we-were-supposed-to-recover was hidden. Again, given that this was a convention game and not a long-term campaign, I'm not sure that this was a good use of time.

We eventually found the entrance and through a combination of my character incorporeally flying into various doors to find the correct one, and the purple worm character tunneling through, we eventually got started. After the first few room descriptions, Cal and I immediately turned to each other because we realized that we were playing through the Tomb of Horrors.

Again, I have nothing against old school adventures at all, and I would have been very happy to "play" through the original Tomb of Horrors. I was a little bit surprised that the DM didn't foressee that his audience of players, most of whom were in the age range of 40+, had probably played through this adventure before. But, we soldiered on until it became obvious that the DM's planned strategy for our group to handle the notoriously trap-laden tomb was for my character to fly while incorporeal through the dungeon, find all the traps, tell the others where the traps were so they could be avoided, and then find the "thing we were supposed to find" and the get the Hell out. It seemed like he really didn't want or expect us to go through the dungeon as it was intended, so the next 90+ minutes of the game consisted of me saying, "Okay, I'll fly over here..." and then him telling me what I saw, and the rest of the players just sitting there watching and listening (or actually playing on their phones because they were bored... who wouldn't be?). I started to get very annoyed because I kept putting myself in the shoes of the other players who were just sitting there and I kept gently urging the DM "If we're just going to have me fly everywhere and find all the traps, can you just hand-wave this and skip to the part where everyone can be involved so they're all not just sitting here?" He would nod and say, "Yes" but then he just kept continuing to do what he was doing. He didn't catch on and despite my best efforts, he made me go through every single room by myself even though nothing ever happened to my character. Eventually some of the other players tried to do something, which resulted in the purple worm player eating through a section of the floor and ending up being transported to "someplace we didn't know" and having him removed from the game.

This was the "Save-or-Die" situation I referred to above. I then spent the better part of the next 20 minutes or so, again very politely, trying to suggest to the DM that perhaps it would make sense to let this player have a chance at playing another character since he'd sat there patiently for the past hour or so while my character did everything, and that it probably wouldn't be a good experience for him to just end up sitting there with nothing to do for the rest of the game. The DM's automatic answer was essentially "that's what the rules say - your character is gone" but eventually he relented and let my wraith fly into a room and find the body of the purple worm character so that I could go back and find the party cleric to have him raised. This process eventually worked but the DM had the wormed raised with no intelligence so he was basically just like a big dog at that point.

Eventually the "Tomb" part of the game ended, we found the thing we were looking for (I recall now it was an actual person that had somehow been turned into a painting by some bad guys or something, but we fixed him). Then the DM pulled me outside again and told me that this guy asked me for "the-prize-you-treasure-over-all-others" (I don't remember what it was) - the thing I had buried in my secret treasure cache. I asked the DM for some context - "Do I already know this guy? Do I have reason to trust him?" etc. It turns out that this guy had apparently given my character the item at some point in the past, so I gave it back to him. The DM was shocked and said, "I can't believe you gave him that!" and I was a little surprised by his reaction. I simply told him, "This is a one-shot convention game and I have no information I could use to make an informed decision, so in the spirit of moving the game along this seemed like the best course of action." 

I should point out that during this whole time, there was no dice rolling or actions taken by any of the characters other than my wraith, who had to role sometimes to avoid demons that were attracted to his incorporeal status. This all took about three hours of our allotted four hours for the game.

Later, there was a big party to celebrate us returning home to the "shadow-world-that-is-not-real" and there was a big discussion over where the money was going to come from to throw the party, which again I'm not sure was relevant, but it took awhile to figure out the logistics of the source of funding for the party.

During the party, where all of our characters were present, a group of wizards teleported over the party and used Time Stop in order to attack the guy we had just saved from the Tomb of Horrors. It turns out that all of our characters were susceptible to Time Stop except for Cal's Helmed Horror (it specifically said on his sheet that he was immune to Time Stop). So, for the next 45 or so minutes, the rest of us sat around with nothing to do while enemy wizards, one after the other, cast Time Stop, tried to attack the NPC guy we rescued, and in turn were attacked by Cal's Helmed Horror. This lasted until Cal's character had killed all of the enemy wizards, and then the session was over.

That was it - I never really did get to see how 5E worked in action, and I felt very awkward that my character had the majority of "screen time" (not by my choice, but by the way the DM had set up the adventure) and that no one else other than Cal and me really got to do anything at all.

I haven't played a ton of role-playing games at conventions - I tend to mostly play board games; so, I'm not sure if these types of experiences are common. The last time before this that I played an RPG at a convention was using Dungeon World, as I mentioned, and it was a much smaller group and everyone was contributing and talking and had things to do. I'd love to hear all of your thoughts, especially if you think I was being disrespectful to the DM by suggesting that he try to alter things to give other players a chance to do things.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Walkin' Shoes" by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Chet Baker

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Tale of My "Lost Summer"

Like that, summer is gone and autumn is fully upon us. I "lost" a large portion of my summer this year after my daughter was involved in a very bad accident one evening in late July. I don't want to get into too many details of the accident itself, other than to say that it was severe enough that I had to take the first flight home I could get (as luck would have it I was on the other side of the country for business) and spent the next week in the hospital with my wife and daughter, and then spent the rest of the summer at a battery of doctor, surgeon, and therapist appointments. Hearing that my six year-old daughter has PTSD is not something I ever thought I'd be listening to.

I don't write this as a bid for sympathy or anything like that - we received a tremendous outpouring of love and support from our friends, family, and even complete strangers in the first few weeks after the accident and it was completely overwhelming (in a good way). I'm not really even writing this as a way to say "this is why I haven't been blogging" over the past few months. I've gone through many spells where work and family needs took precedence over the blog.

My daughter is continuing to recuperate and every day seems to get a little bit better, and we're so thankful for that. In those first few hours and days after the accident, all I could do was pray that my daughter would survive and recover and get back to being her healthy, normal self. I was walking around like a zombie in a half-daze, and then I just started to get grumpy about everything due to lack of sleep and of course stress and worry.

As the days wore on, I found that I fell back onto my old comfort zone to get by. When at first the thought of reading a comic or talking about gaming or movies seemed inappropriate and thoughtless, I found that it brought me a bit of comfort and that in turn helped my psychological state so that I could be stronger for my daughter, even when she was unconscious. I needed to "re-charge" my batteries a bit to just be myself.

What I learned is that my family's support network is so much larger and thoughtful than I ever could have imagined. There are so many tales I could share, but a few are directly related to the overall theme of my blog.

On the second day after the accident, after I'd finally been able to get a flight home, some friends of ours stopped by our local comic book shop that my daughter I visit each Wednesday night after work. The daughter of these people is my daughter's best friend, and their mom is, let's just say, the "anti-Martin." Other than our mutual affection for beer, we have very little else in common. She's set foot in a comic book store exactly one other time in her life, and that was because I dragged her there during a My Little Pony signing, so she could get a signed comic for her daughter. This woman and her daughter went into the shop and mentioned that my daughter had been injured and was in the hospital. The store manager connected-the-dots and realized what had happened (this particular accident had actually been reported nationwide on the news, although of course they kept my daughter's name out of it). He leapt into action, grabbing a bunch of comics for my daughter, and then he grabbed about four graphic novels for me to read in the hospital and just gave them to our friend to give to us. My daughter is kind of a "store mascot" in a way, and this guy knew that I would be sitting in the hospital, stressing out, and that I might need an escape for just a few minutes. And he knew I'd want something new to show to my daughter once she was conscious again. Those comics truly helped my mood and demeanor while I was at the hospital - not just the actual reading of them, but also just the thought and caring that went into him gifting them to us. I still get a bit choked up just thinking about it.

As a side note, about a month after the accident, that same comic shop held an event, named after my daughter, where they donated a portion of all of their sales that day to us to help us pay our medical bills. And they invited a bunch of artists who have appeared at the store in the past to do sketches and signings, and that day all of the money they collected for their sketches also went to my family. I just can't say enough about what a wonderful community we found at this shop and the great lengths they went to in order to "take care of one of their own." When I saw the shop owner post about the event on Facebook, you can probably imagine that I was just completely overwhelmed with emotion.

In other comics-related stories, "Wonder Woman" became a theme for my daughter's recovery. A graphic designer friend took one of my daughter's old Halloween photos where she was dressed as Wonder Woman and put that into a comic-book type "frame" and then mounted it on foam core and we put that in my daughter's hospital room. Other people sent over Wonder Woman themed gifts including bobble heads, a customized Wonder Woman build-a-bear, a Wonder Woman rabbit, and an Ugly Doll dressed as Wonder Woman, as well as play accessories like bracelets, necklaces, tiaras, and other items. All of these items really helped my daughter's spirits and her recovery - we kept explaining how she was just as strong and brave as Wonder Woman and that theme has carried on during her recuperation. Having a strong female role-model like that has been a tremendous help for my daughter.

Oddly, while I was in the hospital and even returning home afterwards, I found that I was going through a bit of a creative streak. After the initial shock of the accident wore off and my mood slowly started to improve, for some reason a bunch of ideas started bubbling to the surface of my mind. I've wondered if this was just my subconscious way of dealing with all of the stress and keeping it from eating away at me. Whatever the reason, I had a ton of new ideas for my on-going World of Samoth campaign that I began to jot down, and also randomly resurrected an RPG idea that I'd been working on-and-off again for the better part of the past five years or so, but one that I hadn't touched in at least a year. I started writing tons of notes and organizing my thoughts.

And of course the WiFi connection in the hospital enabled me to re-watch a lot of my favorite genre shows that are streaming on NetFlix and Amazon Prime. All of these so-called "geek" outlets were so comforting to me in this time of immense stress for my family and me. Being able to "tune out" for a few minutes with a comic, TV show, or game book and collect my thoughts really helped me to strengthen myself and be able to deal with my daughter's trauma.

It's a bit odd to think about my hobbies that way - always before, I looked at them as pleasant, diverting pass-times but nothing more. They're a fun way to spend time with friends or to just provide an escape from reality for a few minutes or hours. But I'd never thought of them as a kind of support network for one's mental health. I'm so glad that I had all of my hobbies and interests to fall back on.

I'm curious to hear if any of you have had similar experiences as a way to deal with stress like this.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Autumn Leaves (Instrumental Version)" by Stan Getz
Drinking: Fall Hornin' Pumpkin Ale by Anderson Valley Brewing Company
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