Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Do You Read Comics? Why or Why Not? And a Comics History Course!

Today is New Comics Wednesday, so after I picked my daughter up from Summer Camp, we'll be heading over to my local shop once again to pick up my pull-list, chat with the folks we see there every week, and talk about current comic stories, TV shows, and movies. My daughter will also get to go through the kids comics and find all of the "new" comics that came out today based on signs all over the store.

I've written before about my on-again, off-again relationship with comics. But today, I really want to hear your stories. I'm curious about those of you out there who do read comics, but I'm also really interested in those of you who don't read comics. Here are a few questions to get your started. I'll post my own answers to these questions later.

  1. Have you ever read a comic book?
    1. If not, why not?
  2. Roughly how old were you when you read your first comic (if you've ever read one)?
  3. Do you currently read comics? 
    1. If not, why not? 
  4. If you're into (or were into) comics, list three of your favorite stories/arcs/etc. to share with my followers, and why you like them.
  5. What other things do you read (e.g., fiction, non-fiction, specific types of genres, etc.)?
  6. Do you like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 
    1. If so, does it make you interested in wanting to read more stories about the characters?
  7. Do you like the DC Cinematic Universe? 
    1. Similarly to the above - would you be interested in reading more? 
  8. 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? 

On a related note, I recently participated in an online course developed by Stan Lee and Michael Uslan (producer of every Batman movie including the Burton, Schumacher, and Nolan versions, as well as the first person to ever teach a course of comics back in the 1970s) in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. The course was part of "EdX" which is an online learning platform developed by MIT and Harvard that features free courses.

Yes, this course was free! It was called "The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture." It was "taught" through a series of videos, text, and images that covered all of the main periods of comics culture, from the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and up through the Modern Age. In each section, Michael Uslan (who is the main instructor) talks about what was happening in the world at that time (e.g., World War Two, the Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam, etc.) and helps to put the events happening in the comics into context of how they reflected what was happening in society. He also interviews Stan Lee in each section in a series of videos where Stan provides his memories and recollections, which is very cool because he's one of the only people still around who was there all the way back near the beginning of the Golden Age and who is still active and involved in the community today.

As this is a free course, it's graded on a pass-fail basis only. You pass the course be completing some "homework" each week. The homework was based around designing a new superhero, ideally using your own culture's mythology as inspiration. I chose to look to my Scottish and Irish heritage and then designed a female superhero, her alter ego (civilian identity), her origin, and of course her main nemesis - a supervillain. The course lays all of this out so you do it little by little, and at each stage, you provide your reason for the choices that you made. There are also sections for providing illustrations of your character, but they understand that not every is an artist, so there are forums and social media sites for the course where you can partner with an artist to collaborate on your hero. They also give links to online sites such as HeroMachine where you can design your hero yourself with an online template (which is what I did).

I'll talk more about this in coming weeks, but even without the hero-designing aspect of the course, I found it very interesting and informative to learn about the various ages of the comics and how the creators of those time periods were trying to reflect what they saw happening in the world around them. If you're at all interested in comics, or history, or better yet, comics history, I encourage you to check out the course. You can learn more here. They are going to offer the course again based on the feedback they received from the inaugural course that wrapped up at the end of June.

Don't forget to drop your comments below to answer my questions about your experience with comics!

Hanging: home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "How's Your Life - Alix Alvarez Mix" by Tortured Soul (link is for Spotify)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Girls, Princess Leia, and Wonder Woman

I had many goals for myself when I started out this blog. I wanted to share my gaming experiences dating back to the early 1980's all the way up through today. I wanted to chat about comics and also science-fiction and fantasy books, TV shows, and movies. I wanted to provide some unique gaming inspirations and mechanics.

But ultimately my main goal was to document my experiences as a "geek dad" who is raising a young girl and trying to share with her the things I'm so passionate about while also trying to encourage her to have her own sense of self and develop a passion for things that she likes.

A new Wonder Woman Dress for Joy
My daughter, Joy, turned six last week. It was with no small sense of pride that I smiled at her approvingly when she chose to have sushi for her birthday dinner - partly because I'm tired and didn't want to cook again, but also because we've really been trying to expose her to different styles of food. We do this mainly out of laziness, because neither my wife nor I have the patience nor the desire to have to cook two different meals at dinner time. We've adopted a "you eat what we make" type of policy, but fortunately it's worked out quite well for us. Joy eats pretty much anything, although like most kids she has random aversions to certain foods for pretty much no good reason.

For her party this year, Joy originally announced that she wanted a small tea party, with only three or four friends, and her mom and I were very much on board with this, because ultimately it meant less work for us! However, over time, the party theme changed - first to Superheroes, and then to Star Wars, and then briefly to "Star Wars Superheroes" at which point her mom and I put our collective feet down and said, "Star Wars it is!"

(Note that there are some spoilers below if you've never seen the original three Star Wars films, but I'm not sure why you'd be reading my blog if you haven't seen them).

Some of the home-made wrapping I did
because we couldn't find Star Wars
wrapping paper
One of our first actions was to make sure that Joy saw the original three Star Wars films prior to her party, mostly out of my fear that someone would "spoil" the surprises at the party, assuming that she had already seen them. So, starting back on May the 4th a couple of months ago, we re-watched "Episode IV" (which she'd seen once, back in September 2014, but which she didn't have much memory of). Then after school let out in early June, we watched "Empire Strikes Back" and finally "Return of the Jedi" just this past Sunday, July 5th. At this point, Joy declared that she'd seen "all the Star Wars movies" and then asked me, just to make sure. With a deep sigh, I finally relented and let her know that, in fact, there are some other movies that take place before the movies she'd just watched, but that they end up spoiling all of the surprises. One of my favorite parts of watching "Empire Strikes Back" with Joy was her debating with her self and trying to convince me that Darth Vader could not be Luke Skywalker's father because he's a bad guy and "bad guys lie, Daddy." I remember as a young nine year-old boy having many of the same thoughts and having to wait three years for confirmation that Darth was, in fact, Luke's father.

We then began searching for decorations for the party, and that actually leads to the main purpose of this post, other than to wish my daughter a very happy birthday.

My kitchen chalkboard decoration
and a REBEL Rouser Double IPA.
Get it? REBEL!?
With Disney having acquired Lucasfilm and the Star Wars properties, we figured that Star Wars decorations for the party would be easily obtained. We could not have been more wrong. We went everywhere you could think of - Target, Walgreen's, Rite Aid, Party City, and even searched online. We searched the Disney stores both online and at Disneyland. The only thing I could find was one (ONE!) plastic outdoor tablecloth, decorated with characters from the new Star Wars Rebels animated series. No cards. No gift bags. No wrapping paper. No cake decorations. We couldn't find anything. Later we came to understand that it's because the stores are culling down their existing stock while they wait for the new movie to come out later this year, so most of them won't have any new items in until September. I guess it makes some sense, but when Joy picked "Star Wars" as a theme, it never occurred to us that we were going to have to hand-make pretty much all of her decorations.

Next my wife bought Joy a really cool Princess Leia costume dress (the classic one from Episode IV) to wear at the party, but thinking ahead, I knew it would be hot outside and after awhile the dress would not be comfortable, so I decided to get my daughter a Princess Leia t-shirt.

Jedi Joy's Force-Push in her new Princess Leia t-shirt
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a Princess Leia t-shirt for a girl (not a grown-up woman, but a young 6-year-old girl)? I advise you not to try to look unless you have a lot of time, and patience, on your hands. I finally ended up having to buy her a custom-made t-shirt on Etsy, which admittedly is pretty cute but also which took me about 45 minutes to find via Internet searches.

 Maybe it has something to do with the new movie coming out, but seeing as how there were plenty of young boy-sized t-shirts with all of the other characters on them, I don't think that's the case. There's been a lot of stories in the press lately about how entertainment companies are doing a horrible job marketing "geek" culture like superheroes and comics to young girls, but I always felt like Star Wars was one of those "exceptions that proves the rule" type of properties. But as I searched for a Princess Leia t-shirt for Joy, I began to realize that the corporate mentality that "girls don't like that stuff" coupled with "boys won't wear a shirt with a girl on it" and "boys won't play with a girl action figure" has permeated even my favorite childhood fantasy, Star Wars.

As my wife and I were working on trying to figure out decorations and accessories for Joy's party, I began to really take notice of the almost total lack of female superhero, fantasy, and science-fiction characters. And interestingly, my daughter also took notice - in fact, she began to call it out to me before I had really paid attention.

"Daddy, how come the Avengers t-shirt doesn't have Black Widow on it?" 

This is from directly in front -
you can see that Wonder Woman is cut-off
One of her friends from Kindergarten had a superhero themed birthday party a few weeks ago and there was a huge bounce-house at the park, decorated with DC Superheroes. My daughter knows her heroes, so as we approached, I asked her if she could name them all.

"Flash. Green Lantern. Batman. Superman..." 

She paused for a minute, which I thought was odd, because the last remaining character is her absolute favorite."

"Daddy? Why is Wonder Woman off on the side? Is it because she's not as important as the boys?"

As I looked at the bounce-house through the eyes of my daughter, I saw what she must have been seeing every day and yet I'd never really paid that much attention. Wonder Woman was off to the side - in fact, so much so that she was nearly wrapped around the corner so that only about 2/3 of her are visible. All of the "boy" characters are shown nearly full-figured. And then there's Wonder Woman, pushed off to the side so she nearly falls off.

I guess Black Widow doesn't get cavities
The very next day at the grocery store, we were shopping for some fluoride rinse for Joy. Normally she uses the "Frozen" branded rinse, but this time I happened to spy a different bottle.

"Look, Joy! They have an Avengers rinse! You should get that one!"

Joy looked at it for less than two seconds and then announced, "No... Black Window isn't on it. How come she's not on the bottle, Daddy?"

About a week or so later, we went to Disneyland for the 4th of July to see the fireworks. While there, we decided to let Joy get a pin or two for the lanyard she wears with her annual pass. For those not in the know, Disney has literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these pin designs depicting everything from the attractions at the theme parks to the restaurants to characters from the history of Disney and of course the other entertainment properties it has acquired, including Marvel Comics and Star Wars. So as we went through the pins, Joy searched and searched but we could find no Black Widow or Princess Leia pins. There were plenty of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Doc Ock pins. There were also plenty of Boba Fett, Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, R2D2, C-3PO, and Chewbacca pins. And yet two main characters from their respective franchises were ignored.

By this time, Joy had gotten very quiet and was no longer interested in getting a new pin. And I, at this point, was getting as frustrated as I'd ever been. I grew up with Star Wars and superhero comics, and I've been sharing my love for them with Joy ever since she was a newborn. I take her with me to the comic book shop every Wednesday to get our comics, I play the Star Wars score for Joy in the car while we're driving, we wear superhero and Star Wars t-shirts together, draw pictures together, read the stories, and are planning to see the new Star Wars film when it comes out in theaters later this year. And yet at this point, none of that mattered. I was ready to give up and try to find something else fun to share with Joy that's more inclusive.

Things look better when you have cake
But the thing is - I shouldn't have to give up, and neither should Joy. She does love these things - when we can find a fun Wonder Woman book, shirt, or toy, she loves it. She loves playing Jedi and using her force-push. She loves listening to the music and identifying what scene of the movie is being depicted.

While telling my frustrating story today at work, one of my clients said, "I think your daughter is going to grow up to be a big force of change for the that kind of stuff and fight for girls' rights for superheroes."

That's a nice compliment, but ultimately I'd rather that by the time Joy is old enough to do that, that things have changed enough so that she no longer has to do that.

Any parents out there want to share your experiences? Please drop me a comment below. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: sparkling water
Listening: "Circles" by Soul Coughing

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Judging Dungeon Designs: One Page Dungeon Contest

As I've mentioned previously, I was a judge again this year, along with fellow judges Steve Winter and Teos Abadia, for the One Page Dungeon Contest, administered by Random Wizard.

There were 97 entries this year, and each judge was asked to send over our Top 10 picks so Random Wizard could tabulate them and see which entries got the most votes so he could announce a winner. The results were... let's just say "interesting." More on that later.

Last year, after the contest, I conducted an email interview with the other judges, which you can find here, wherein I asked them their process of how they went about selecting their top picks, and any hints and suggestions they had for future contestants. At the time, I noted that ideally I would have loved to join the fellow judges at a pub, hoist a pint or two, and just chat about the contest.

We're getting a bit closer to that idea this year. When I submitted my picks to Random Wizard last week, I asked him if perhaps we could do a Google Hangout with himself and the three judges so we could more naturally about the process, and also make it more interactive by letting the contestants and other interested parties ask us questions about why we chose the ones we did, how difficult the decision was, and anything else related to the contest that people wanted to know about.

Random Wizard and the other judges liked the idea, and so based on our collective work schedules and other time management issues (I'll fess up - one day I have to be gone to take my daughter to her ballet lesson!), the Google Hangout will be held tomorrow, May 28th, at 3pm Pacific Time. Random Wizard is also going to work on recording the Hangout for those of you who can't join live, but if you do have a question, you can probably put it on Random Wizard's Google Plus Post about the Hangout at the previous link, or go ahead and leave me a comment below and I'll do my best to answer it either during the Hangout or will address it directly in the comments here.

This now brings me to - "Why do we need a One Page Dungeon  Contest?" There are lots of talented people out there, and many of you are more than capable of creating your own worlds and dungeons, and in fact might not really find much use for a "simple" one-page dungeon that might not fit into your world. This type of contest is obviously not for them.

However, having been a judge for the contest two years now, I think this type of contest offers a lot to the role-playing community. Below are just a few of my thoughts, which due to time constraints today are just stream-of-consciousness.

  • It encourages creativity. The one-page dungeon format is not easy. Trying to create a whole scenario with a map, encounters, a narrative flow, some type of objective, and a "hook", all within the constraints of one page, is extremely difficult. It takes some real creativity to make it all work without just shrinking the text so small that it's illegible. One of the things I most look forward to is not only the idea itself, but also seeing how the contestants lay out their ideas to make them work within the format. You'd be surprised what you can fit into this format if you edit yourself enough to keep from trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the submission. Besides layout and design, it also takes creativity to come up with something new and different that the judges aren't seeing over and over again to make your submission stand out. Reading through the submissions can give you a lot of ideas for ways to take your game that you may not have considered before. 
  • It gives you options for when you want to take a break. Maybe your whole group isn't able to get together for your regularly scheduled game, but you still want to play. Maybe you've been playing your regular game for such a long time that you never have time to try something else (a different character, a different setting or genre, or a different set of rules).  Maybe you're always the GM and while you don't want to give that up, maybe one night, one of your players could take on that role and allow you to play through a short one-page adventure just to give you a break. Any of these scenarios above could lead to even new outbreaks of creativity that you weren't expecting. Maybe the player who takes over the GM role likes doing that job so much that he or she decides to start a new campaign...
  • It can act as the springboard for a new campaign. Speaking of new campaigns, many of these one-page dungeons are so much more than "dungeons." Many of them read like mini-campaign setting ideas. Every campaign has to start somewhere. While my current campaign (of 14 years!) is based on some pretty standard fantasy tropes like Conan, some old-school D&D game worlds like Greyhawk, the Known World, and Dragonlance, and also our own world history, as I read through the submissions last year and this year, it definitely gets me interested in running a game of a completely different genre.
  • It gives players a "voice" in the community. Many might not think this matters, but I know back when I was a young teen just starting to game, it was clear that I didn't fit in with the other kids who were more into sports and hanging out at the mall. Back then, it was difficult to find people like me, and, on the whole, we tended to be smart, a bit quiet, and not that likely to have the confidence to speak up about things. But as we probably can all agree, role-playing encourages creativity and one of the first things most new role-players do is want to create things for others to look at and use. It was something I loved doing and was "good at," and where I could be in control of one part of my life. I've blogged before about doing that in my "Amateur RPG Design" columns. But, as much as I would have wanted it, I had no illusions that my designs were never going to see the light of day outside of maybe a handful of friends, because "RPGs were run by big companies." Back then in the early 1980's, we didn't have the luxury of the Internet to form a community. I would have loved for the opportunity to share my ideas with others in the form of the contest. Just knowing that somebody else was looking at and reading my ideas would have been cool. It would have made me try harder, focus more, and really work at creating something different and hopefully useful. Anybody can create home-brew stuff for their games. We do it all the time. But it takes a commitment to do so in a polished form and enter it into a contest for hundreds of people to look at and comment on. The One Page Dungeon Contest essentially empowers people who might not have a "voice" to gives them the opportunity to show their creativity and be recognized, and gives them a reason to really bring their best. 
  • It encourages young people to remain active in the hobby. This idea goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts above on giving players a "voice," but for the past two years we've seen entries by youngsters who learned of the contest and submitted their ideas. Sometimes it's easy to forget that people of all ages play these games - they're not all just like us. And while, again, for some people it doesn't matter if new people get into the hobby or not, I look at it more as a big picture thing. This is a hobby that helped define me as a person (for the better) and I'd love to "give back" to help the young people of today learn about it and give them ample opportunities to work on creating things that a larger community can see, comment on, and encourage them to keep trying, keep improving, and keep being creative. I might be a little biased as a dad whose daughter is still a bit too young to grasp role-playing games (she's getting there - she'll be six in July), but I do think it's a strong benefit of this contest. 
Those are just a few of my thoughts. To me, this contest is about so much more than just "bragging rights" for having won. But, that's just me. What are your thoughts on the contest?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Mercyless - Original Mix" by Waye Tennant

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Campaign Setting Anniversary

One of my players sent me a note this morning, mentioning that it was 14 years ago today that I began my World of Samoth campaign. Out of the original seven players (including me as the DM), there are three of us left, plus we've added several more over the years. Our current group is five strong and has been that way for the past couple of years.

At our "first session" all those years ago, we rolled up our characters, ate dinner, and then all went to the movies to go see the first Shrek movie. Our "true" first session was a couple of weeks later, when the group began with the old school module, B6: The Veiled Society, which kick-started a murder mystery involving some warring families vying for control of the city. One of those families still plays a very important role in the campaign to this very day.

Back when we started, my wife and I were not yet married (we were engaged, though, and our wedding was about six months later). In fact, of the group, only two of the original players were married at the time, and none of us had kids. Now everyone that's currently playing in the group is married and all but one of us has kids.

We've changed our snacking preferences a bit, as I've mentioned before. Now, more and more often, we include beer at our sessions as well. We're not a "soda and Doritos" type of group. Our frequency of play has lessened due to combinations of kids, business travel, and other reasons, but we still do get together (we played about two weeks ago, in fact).

I've blogged quite a bit over the years about these things, and about my campaign setting and our game sessions, so for this anniversary I thought it might be fun to show some pictures from my "Campaign Setting Book" that I've made. I started working on my campaign way back in the summer after my high school graduation, in 1988. It was actually a "reboot" or revision of some earlier settings I had worked on dating back to when I first started playing D&D around 1983 or so.

Back then, I didn't have a computer or of course any access to the Internet, so all of my campaign world research was done by going to the library and also going through my parents 30+ year collection of National Geographic magazines. I oftentimes would copy drawings I saw in those books as inspirations.

I've kept pretty much every scrap of paper on which I've written notes for my campaign setting over the years, and then in 1998, about 10 years after I'd started, I began collecting all of my notes in a big non-lined sketchbook. I started by actually meticulously re-copying all of my old notes but over time I found it more efficient to just cut out certain sections of my notes and paste them into the sketchbook. Below are some pictures to give you an idea - it's a mixture of hand-written notes, old pages printed from a dot matrix printer in late 1989 or early 1990, newer pages from around 2003-2004, sketches, and more. I'm still adding to the book although these days it's more of almost a "scrapbook" project, as most of my game-related notes on characters, NPCs, etc. are just on my laptop.

Hope you enjoy. Tell me about your campaign world for your games - is it homebrewed like mine, or do you use a published setting? Do you have a crazy notebook like mine full of hand-written notes, or are you more organized?

The first pages. On the right is graph paper that I pasted
into the book. It's got a mixture of dip-pen calligraphy I did
along with a regular ballpoint ink pen. I used the World of
Greyhawk boxed set as a template for my campaign note. Circa 1987-88.

Another piece of graph paper with a mixture of
calligraphy and handwriting, for a Language Tree
for my campaign world. Circa 1988.

This is a more recent creation for the campaign world ("recent" being about
10 years ago), for a calendar design. Circa 2004

Various sketches I did of weapons and architectural designs. Circa 1989.

Some more sketches of weapons and armor, grouped by culture. These were
actually for some "secret societies" that were employed by various merchant
houses. Circa 1989.

Sketch of a chainmail hauberk and a helmet. Circa 1989.

An NPC and a description of an organization that was
essentially a powerful mercantile league run by dwarves,
along with a rough sketch. Circa 1990.

"The Imperial Alphabet." This was hand-written with
a dip-pen with a special nib for calligraphy. I used to love
practicing calligraphy and applied it to my D&D stuff.
Circa 1987-88.

Some more weapon and armor designs. Circa 1987-88.

"Religious Items." I think I may have copied the idea
of the totem-like designs from an article for another
game that I read in an old Dragon magazine. You can
see how I cut out my old sketches and pasted them
in here. Circa 1988.
More weapons and armor designs. I used check out
encyclopedias or ancient arms & armor all the time. Circa 1987.
A product of its time: a dot-matrix print-out of some
old NPCs I had created. I've got pages and page of
these in my notebook. These were using 1st Edition
AD&D Rules, modified with Unearthed Arcana and
Oriental Adventures. Circa 1989.

Hanging: home office (laptop)
Drinking: Iced tea
Listening: "Blue in Green (Take 3)" by the Bill Evans Trio

Monday, May 4, 2015

Another Star Wars Post: New Media About A Galaxy Far, Far Away

My daughter with Princess Leia buns in her hair,
doing a Force push at lunch today at school.
They aren't allowed to wear printed t-shirts
or else she'd have a Star Wars shirt on as well.
Pretty much everyone in the blogging community has jumped onto the "May the 4th Be With You" bandwagon, and I actually think it's kind of cool. What was once a small little inside joke has become a pretty big deal in the Star Wars world, and even vendors like Internet giant Amazon are on board, with discounts on Star Wars related merchandise for today only. I would say once something's big enough for Amazon to create a sale out of it, it's safe to say it's hit the mainstream.

Below, I list a few cool Star Wars related things you might not know about that you can check out today to celebrate the day, aside from listening to the music (as I'm doing right now) or watching the movies (as I did last night - my wife, 5 year-old daughter, and I watched Star Wars, aka "A New Hope" for the second time together).

I've written about Star Wars many times before - mentioning how the old Star Wars comics from Marvel were the first comic books I'd ever read, and how my mom really helped encourage my interest in Star Wars even though she really didn't have much interest in it herself. And I've written a few times about Star Wars Day itself, in 2012 and 2013 (last year I was out of town in New Orleans for Jazz Fest, but I did celebrate by wearing a Star Wars T-shirt that day, and I saw several other people doing the same at the concert). What, if anything, do you all do to celebrate Star Wars Day?

As mentioned, if you're looking for a few other things to do, here are some suggestions:

  • TV Shows
    • I've written briefly about of this before, briefly, but you can check out "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" on Netflix, including the 6th season that never aired on Cartoon Network - the show was canceled after Disney acquired Lucasfilm before this season could be shown. Now, I'm not one who actually likes the Prequels (I've been know to say that my daughter can watch them when she turns 18 and moves out of the house, but not before then), but this series, despite taking place between Episodes 2 and 3 of the prequel movies, is quite good. It gets into a lot of background on the Force, especially the Dark Side, and shows in a much better manner than the films how Anakin is seduced. It also includes a very strong and interesting female character in the form of Ahsoka Tano, young Jedi who starts out as Anakin's Padawan but grows into herself and her role as a commander of the Clone Armies during the war. Her character arc along is worth watching the series, but there's so much more to like
    • In the same post above I linked to where I wrote about Clone Wars before, I also wrote about the new Star Wars animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, which airs on Disney XD. Originally it took me a bit to get into, as it is much different in tone than Clone Wars, but after getting used to the change, I really like the show. Yes, it's slightly more kid-friendly than Clone Wars, but the storylines are still very engaging. Watching a somewhat rogue-like Jedi Knight, who mainly tries to hide his past as a Jedi (so as not to be discovered) and is not afraid to use a blaster or to "steal from the rich to feed the poor," but at the same time also tries to honor his past by training a new Padawan, makes for very compelling drama. This is more of a "team" show versus Clone Wars, and all of the characters are interesting. The show creators also did some great work on the main two female leads, who are every bit as tough and clever as the male leads. 
  • Comics
    • The Star Wars. For those of you who are really into Star Wars, you know that George Lucas' initial script included a lot of concepts that were very different than what ended up in the movie. I'm not talking just about things like how Luke's friends Biggs and Carrie were deleted from the silver screen. I'm talking about things like how Han Solo wasn't human, the main character was named Annikin Starkiller, and he is trained in the ways of the force by an old "Jedi Bendu" named Luke Skywalker, to fights against the Knights of the Sith. There's a lot of really different stuff in here, but as a Star Wars fan it's fun to read the original script and see how different the movie ended up being. However, even better than just reading the script is reading an 8-issue comic book adaptation with gorgeous art, to help bring it all to life. Dark Horse Comics, shortly before they lost their license to publish Star Wars comics after it reverted back to Marvel, published this comic and it's one of the more unique Star Wars pieces you'll find. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available in a digital format currently, but you can still buy hard copies of the trade paperback collection over at
    • A tale of two different post-Battle of Yavin Star Wars stories. Right around the time that Disney first acquired Lucasfilm, but before Dark Horse lost the license to publish Star Wars comics, they came out with a new title called simply Star Wars. I did a review of the first trade paperback collection (which collects of the first six issues of the series) and I had very positive things to say about it. It's a refreshing look at things that happen directly in the aftermath of the Battle of Yavin, before the events of the Empire Strikes Back. I really enjoyed this series a lot. And then, randomly, after Marvel re-acquired the rights to publish Star Wars comics, what did they do? Exactly the same thing Dark Horse did! Marvel's first Star Wars comic in about 25 years was called, coincidentally, Star Wars. And it takes place immediately after the Battle of Yavin, before the events of the Empire Strikes Back. You can read my review of the first issue here. So, if you want to get a sense at how two different companies and creative teams deal with the exact same premise, this is a perfect opportunity to read two different stories. And, the thing is - they are both good - different, but good. You can read the Marvel Star Wars comics digitally on Comixology or It's not been collected in trade yet, so you'll have to buy the individual issues.
Enjoy Star Wars Day, and May the 4th Be With You! Please do drop me a comment below, or Tweet me, Facebook me, or Google Plus me and let me know how you like to celebrate Star Wars Day or if you checked out any of my recommendations above.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "The Asteroid Field" by the London Symphony Orchestra (from The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Catching Up on Avengers History

Tomorrow, May 1st, the newest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, will be released. The new film will explore more of the Avengers rich history as new characters like the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Vision join the established team of Captain America, Thor, Iron-Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye.

As a kid, I loved reading the Avengers and while I usually became attached to certain team lineups, I always enjoyed when new members would join the team, just to see some of my favorite heroes team-up with Earth's Mightiest Heroes. I remember issue #137 in particular when X-Men's Beast joined the team and how fun it was seeing him in a different context as a member of the team.

For those of you planning to see the new movie, now might be a good time to catch up on your Avengers history. There's a new book out called The Avengers Vault, which is a great way to do that. While serious comics buffs might not necessarily learn much that's new, it's a great refresher and is also a perfect introduction for youngsters who are just learning about comics and their heroes.

I still have this issue from when I was a
kid, when the Beast joined the team.
I was giving a free comic of the book for review purposes, and wrote a review over at Comic Attack. One of the coolest things about this book is the inclusion of old "artifact" pieces, like pencil sketches, color guides, posters, and a reproduction of a vintage membership card for the Sentinels of Liberty, a Captain America fan club from 1941. These are all really cool, well-produced pieces that help to give an historical backdrop to the Avengers, and Marvel Comics in general.

I highly recommend this book - below is the first part of my review, including a link at the end where you can click-through to read the full review.

Also, don't forget that this Saturday, May 2nd, is Free Comic Book Day! Head on over to your local comic book shop and grab some free comics to explore some new characters or companies you've not heard of or read before. And, while you're there, don't forget that your shop actually does have to pay for those books - while they're free to you, they do cost the shop money. So, why not pay for a couple of other comics, a graphic novel, trade paperback, or other items while you're at your shop as a way of saying "thanks" for the effort they go to for Free Comic Book Day? One highly anticipated free comic book this year is Divergence by DC Comics, which will unveil new looks for DC's three main characters, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. In particular, given the events of what happened in Batman #40, which just came out yesterday, the Batman news should be pretty interesting.

Here's the opening part of my review of The Avengers Vault:

This spring sees the release of one of the biggest and most anticipated movies of the year, Avengers: Age of Ultron. The first movie was gigantic in terms of its box office receipts and no doubt created some new fans of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in all forms of media, from comics to animation to the silver screen.
 Just in time for the release of the movie, and to help both new and old fans to wade through the more than 50-year history of the team, is The Avengers Vault, a huge, beautifully constructed hardback book with more than 170 pages of history, biographies, art, and reproductions of posters and other items from the Avengers’ past. This is a hefty book, but it’s very approachable and is written in a conversational, but educated and informed, tone that really will appeal to new fans of the franchise without alienating those who have been following the team’s exploits for awhile.
Peter A. David, the author, really knows his stuff. Unlike some comic collection historians, David is actually primarily a fiction and comics writer, having written a long 12-run on the Incredible Hulk...  (click here to read the rest of the review)

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Saturday Night" by Ned's Atomic Dustbin

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Tabletop RPG Show & a Science-Fantasy Campaign Setting

For those of you who follow the show Tabletop, or RPG news in general, or who still have your Tiger Beat poster of Wil Wheaton hanging in your bedroom, you may have heard that Wil's very popular online show, Tabletop, has a spin-off RPG show that will premiering on the Geek & Sundry YouTube Channel on June 2nd.

Just last week, Wil announced the "cast" for the show - basically a bunch of friends of his that are in the entertainment business who also happen to be big fans of role-playing. In the same video announcement, Wil let everyone know what system they'd be using (which is a version of Green Ronin's A.G.E. System but without all of the Dragon Age trappings), and also he talked a bit about the campaign setting and world that he and some friends created for the show.

Wil's been talking about getting this RPG show up and running for a long time, and it's kind of an interesting peak into the world of entertainment and content creation how long it takes for something like this to come together. The public perception is probably something akin to, "How hard can it be? Get someone to film you playing an RPG and put it on YouTube." Lots of people do that.

Unfortunately, most of those are actually not all that fun to watch. The trick with something with a show like this is to find a group that gels together well and can be entertaining for an audience to watch when they aren't actually participating in the game itself. You have to be careful to avoid the inside jokes that are part of every tight-knit RPG group, because those don't translate well to a larger audience. You also have to be careful about the game system you use so that it doesn't have a lot of "secret" pieces that can't be filmed well (as an aside, that's why you'll almost never see a card-based game on an episode of Tabletop, unless the cards are shown for everyone to see). Other considerations are how rules-heavy the game is - for a show like this, getting bogged down in game mechanics like skills, feats, powers, and all that kind of stuff is going to slow the game down and make for a poor viewer experience.

Aside from all of that, there's also the production aspects to take into consideration, including the funding of the show itself. The idea behind these shows, partly, is a business decision from Geek & Sundry. By having popular shows like this, it brings more viewers to Geek & Sundry's other offerings on their channel, and some of those including advertising. YouTube wins because clients buy ads in the hopes that they'll be shown on Geek & Sundry's channel to capture that exact type of people they're looking to reach ("geeks" basically). That's a very simple way of explaining how it all works, but ultimately there are a lot of financial decisions behind-the-scenes that need to be worked out.

I started talking to Wil about his RPG show more than two years ago. And almost exactly two years ago, I met up with Wil and his producer-friend, Boyan, and my friend Cal, and I ran the group through a game of Savage Worlds with a home-brewed campaign setting, as a sort of "test" for Wil and Boyan to see if the game system was one that could work for the show. So, Wil and the crew were primarily focused on the game mechanics and the "viewability" of a show that would use that system. It was a lot of fun - Wil has been very cool over the years to occasionally invite Cal and me over to test potential games that might make a future appearance on Tabletop to make sure that they'll work well on the show. It also helps that Cal and I like to drink craft beer, as does Wil, and we love to inflate Wil's ego by telling him that he makes the absolute best craft beer in the entire history of the world. We mainly do this because it gets us more beer. And now Wil has also been barrel-aging cocktails so I've benefited from samples of those as well (I have yet to reciprocate to Wil because my wife and I end up drinking all the barrel-aged ones I make before I can share them). 

Wil blogged about our game from about two years ago, and I also mentioned it on my Google Plus page, citing the fiction and entertainment inspirations I had used to create the custom campaign setting I used for our short game. In a funny coincidence, it turns out that Wil also is using Thundarr the Barbarian as one of his inspirations for his game world, but it sounds like he's taking it in a completely different direction, whereas my world had a lot more influences from early post-apocalyptic fiction as well, primarily the Horseclans series and Hiero's Journey and its sequel, Unforsaken Hiero.

Ever since that game, I've slowly but surely been working on writing a campaign setting guide for the world I used for that test game, which the three people involved seemed to enjoy. One of the things I noticed a long time ago is that, while there are a ton of campaign settings for fantasy-based games like D&D, there are only a small handful of settings for post-apocalyptic games. I'd actually started working on this setting before I met with Wil and the gang that night, using the rules-light Mutant Future rules for any game mechanics I need. I'll get around to finishing it up one of these days, and then ideally can get some cool art to go along with it.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Gary's Notebook" by Lee Morgan

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