Sunday, June 24, 2018

Character Creation: We Used to be Friends (ashcan)

Sadly, working summer sessions means I've been tired in the evenings and have slipped from my lofty goal of a character every week, but I'm only a two weeks behind! I do one today and one more this week, I'm caught up, and then maybe I can get ahead!

The Game: We Used to be Friends (ashcan edition)
The Publisher: Growling Door Games, Inc.
Degree of Familiarity: Plenty. I didn't have anything to do on the creative end (that's Jonathan Lavallee), but we're publishing it and I've played it a few times now.
Books Required: Just the one.

We Used to be Friends is a teenage mystery/drama game, inspired, as you may have guessed, by Veronica Mars (it predates Riverdale, though I'm told it emulates that show well, too). You're playing high school students solving mysteries, but the focus is as much on the town and how those mysteries stem from whatever drama the town and its history create. As such, the first thing you'd do in a real group is design said town. Since I do not have a group, however, I'm just gonna wing it.

I will, therefore, be picking a yearbook profile first-off. I played the Sidekick and the Socialite at Origins this year, and the Tech Geek doesn't really speak to me, so that's between the Hard-Boiled and the Delinquent. I think I shall pick the Hard-Boiled this time.

Now, again, normally this would involve a full group and we'd decide who the rich and the poor people are in town, and what keeps them that way, and I'd decide who the town's detective is, but since it's just me we'll assume that my town is someplace in the Rust Belt, because that makes me happy. Skipping over the rest of the town-related stuff (which, again, all requires a group), I need to choose traits (this is the same as Apocalypse World; choose an array).

Well, what this cooks down to is: Do I want to be better at Eyes or Hard? I think it'd be interesting to make a sleuth who's more willing to do the punishing shit in order to get the case cracked, so I'll take the first array (Eyes +1, Rash -1, Hard +2, Soft 0, Body +1).

Now, there's no slot for this on the sheet (which I'm gonna fix before Gen Con, I hope), but I also need to assign these traits to the five basic moves.

Gumshoe gets Hard (I want my character to be willing to injure or humiliate himself to get the info).
Putting it All Together gets Eyes (mostly because I want to be at least sort of good at it).
Open Up gets Body (my character is an athlete, or was, and he equates being vulnerable with physicality).
And Action! gets Rash (this is a problem because And Action is the basic "act despite danger" move, and my guy's not terribly good at it because he tends to shoot from the hip).
Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!, therefore, gets Soft by default (which is OK, because despite being an athlete my guy isn't much for actual fisticuffs, he'd rather trashtalk).

Cool, now I pick a Hard-Boiled Egg move. I want Get Mad, Get Even because it allows me to use Hard to use any basic move, though there are consequences.

That's basically all the mechanical stuff that I can really do without a group, said the stuck record, so I'll just do the character stuff and call it a morning.

Harold Hall was nicknamed "Hall the Wall" his freshman year; he played goalie for the high school soccer team. And then one of his teammates, during a very chaotic set piece in the fourth quarter, stepped on his ankle and it snapped, requiring surgery and pins. He can run a little now, but he can't push on it harder enough to play soccer anymore.

While he was in physical therapy, Harold met a PTA who was under threat of losing his job because equipment was going missing. Harold, not having anything better to do with his evenings, ran it down and cleared the guy, though he wound up having to climb through windows and get punched in the face in the process. Since then, it's kinda become his thing...

Harold might look like a jock - he's tall, blond, handsome, and ripped - but he's sharp and incisive and deliberate (he's a goalie, remember). When he acts impulsively things tend to go badly because he doesn't improvise well, or when he does, he errs on the side of taking the licks himself. Someday that's going to backfire.

(I could, at this point, choose a personal mystery, but honestly neither of the ones listed for Hard-Boiled really inspire me for this character, so I'm gonna skip it and assume that if I had a group I'd have something interesting to work with.)

And that's done!

Movie #467: The Natural

The Natural is a sportsball movie starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley, Kim Basinger, Glenn Close, Darren McGavin, Michael Madsen, Barbara Hershey, and probably other people I'm forgetting.

Roy Hobbs (Redford) is a gifted baseball player who, upon getting to Chicago to try out for the cubs, get shot in the stomach by a crazy woman who kills sports stars (Hershey). Note that upon until this point in the movie, it's all very standard sportsball stuff; gifted athlete, leaving his girl Iris (Close) behind until he gets signed then he'll marry her, takes on an arrogant sportsball star (Joe Don Baker) and wins...and then bang. My comment to Michelle was "this is some Black Swan shit right here."

Fast forward 16 years, and Pop (Brimley) is the manager of the Cleveland Indians New York Knights, and gets Hobbs assigned to his team. He eventually decides to actually play Hobbs, discovers he's great, and then the movie becomes a more recognizable sportsball movie - Hobbs get popular, people are intrigued by his mysterious past, he falls in with the wrong woman (Basinger), who immediately cools his hot streak with...the power of being a bad influence, I guess? But then Iris comes back into his life and he starts winning again, he gets poisoned, plays in his final game and makes many score-points!

This is one of those movies, like Enter the Dragon, that even if you haven't seen it you've kinda seen it. In particular, BASEketball takes a bunch of moments from it, which was surreal. It won a bunch of Oscars when it came out, and sure, it's that kind of movie, but eh. I was nonplussed.

Part of the issue is that it's about baseball, objectively the most boring sport, and I can't believe they make movies about it as though it's exciting (said the guy who stayed up late watching DVR'd soccer matches). Part of it is that the whole way through the movie Hobbs refuses to say anything about himself, and there's a guy who met him and had what was probably a memorable moment with him (Duvall, playing a sports writer) who now has no idea who he is. And, Hobbs is completely terrified that his true past will get out, and like, dude, you got shot. (They do actually address this, though far too late in the film - Hershey's character threw herself out the window after shooting Hobbs, so it's a dead girl on the sidewalk and a guy shot on the floor, which doesn't look great for anyone.)

Anyway, it's a well-made movie, the performances are good, and the score is actually great, so it's definitely a classic. But like, baseball.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch Value: Low

Next up: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Origins, GMing, and Stuff I Bought

Origins was last week (I didn't get to this before now because I'm working a summer session at the ol' day job). I'm not gonna do a detailed blow-by-blow, but I did want to talk about some of the games I played and how they came out.

First of all, I want to note that Origins' event reg system is crap, and that's having some effects on the kind of gaming I like. For example, this year the event reg system went up...and promptly crashed...and then went up again, but a full third to half of the events (including all of the IGDN ones) weren't there. They did eventually get added in, yes, but that means we lost out on those initial few hours, and who knows how many people said "screw it, I'll just use generics" in disgust?

Also (and this is deeply stupid), you can't search the database by game title. You can search by the name of the game session, but that means that if you were to log on and see if, for example, anyone was running Chill, you wouldn't see anything. You would have to search "High Tide" or "Cold Dark Earth", and why would you know the session titles?

The effect that this is having is that folks who are doing the kind of gaming I enjoy (that is, not D&D, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu or the other big-name games) are doing it at Games on Demand. Let's be clear, I love GoD and what they do, but it leads to a problem where the only way to get players for your indie game is to run it there, which means all the indie players wind up there, which just perpetuates the issue, and that room will sooner or later run out of space. If Origins events was a little more competent, I'd say they'll increase the space, but eh?

But in any case, I got to play more games this year than I usually do, so let's talk about them.

Thursday: Overlight. I backed Overlight on Kickstarter because I liked the art, which is rare for me. Teagan was interested to play it, so we signed up for a session together. I'm happy to report that the game is a lot of fun. It's your basic fantasy game inasmuch as there's a bunch of history, things got borked, there are different races, etc., but I found the history and the races interesting and compelling, which is pretty uncommon for me. Also the system is interesting (usually you wind up rolling three dice for a stat, three for a skill, plus a d4 that does good things if it comes up 4), and intuitive enough that both Teagan and I picked it up pretty quickly.

As for the GM: The game was well-run. I felt like he listened to the players and got enthused by what we did and how we interacted, and he backed off and let us roleplay a bit. He was a little too quick to suggest things for Teagan to do, which is something a lot of adults do to younger players, but he was nice and attentive about it, which is better than it could be. My Grade: B+

Teagan's character did not actually have tentacle fingers.

Friday: Bedlam Hall. I...backed this game on Kickstarter, too. It's PbtA and kind of Addams-family/gothic inspired, dark humor with very Downton Abbey sensibilities, so Michelle and I signed up to play. I hadn't had a chance to read the game first, which is a shame, but I read through it while playing, which should be a bit of a warning sign.

Bedlam Hall commits to its premise - it constantly apologizes that you've chosen to play or read it, reminds you what a horrible choice that is, and tells you about all the weird and terrible things that happen. That's fine. I've read a lot of PbtA games and I'm reading more all the time (as I'm writing my own), so what different games choose to include and what they don't is interesting to me. Bedlam Hall doesn't focus quite as heavily on the "this is a conversation" aspect of PbtA, nor does it make the players' agenda or principles clear up front (at least not that I saw, but again I didn't read it real carefully).

However, none of that matter in this particular case because the GM wasn't prepared to run a PbtA game. He was very much attempting to run it like he was introducing new players to a trad game - instead of the characters being the established house staff, we were all on our first day. That meant that we didn't get to answer the questions that rooted us in the house and with the family:

Which means that the GM was coming up with all of this stuff for us, which just further pushed us out of the moment. Add that to the fact that we were given no chance to establish our characters; the second any of us got together and started to roleplay, the GM jumped in with an NPC to start the next "plot point" or whatever. And the whole notion of "moves" was hard for him; more than once he treated them like actions in a standard RPG, which means he didn't engage what they were supposed to do, and made our choices invalid by doing whatever came into his head and running the game like it was, well, D&D. He seemed to like performing for us and doing silly voices, but gave us very little chance to be part of the story. He admitted that he was not familiar with the game, this particular scenario, or PbtA in general, and apologized for that, so that was good, at least. My Grade: D

Also Friday: Numenera: Hey, one for which I didn't back the Kickstarter! Michelle wanted to play this, so we signed up for a late-night session (look, for me 8PM-midnight is "late night"). We had a full table, so that was cool. The game itself was a lot of fun and I like the system; I like any system that's forgiving of the players and gives them resources to manage in order to succeed. I felt like in general there wasn't a lot of threat, but it could be that it was a simple scenario for beginning players, which would have been appropriate. In general, though, it's a game that encourages players to buff each other and share resources, which, again, very much my jam.

As for the GM: Overall I thought he did really well. A little too over-reliant on reading shit off a page, but the real complaint I had was that he would ask what we wanted to do, half-listen to the answer, and then narrate for a full minute. This was actually something that the Bedlam Hall GM did, too, and you'll see this complaint again for the Saturday game. And like, I get it; you're pressed for time, you know what's going to happen next, you want to get into the plot.

But like...the players aren't here to watch you dance or listen to you talk. We're here to roleplay and be awesome, and that means you need to listen to us so you can respond to what we do. This is old, old, old, GMing advice, but you must be prepared to scrap your carefully-prepared plans in order for us to be awesome, or at least be able to fake that that's what you did.

Anyway, like I said, the game was fun and it definitely got on my list to buy (this was apparently a sneak-peek of the new edition, so I'll wait until that's out), and I'm being harsh but the GM was actually pretty good. My Grade: B-

Saturday: Trail of Cthulhu. This was the only game I played over the weekend that I was really familiar with; I ran it a few times and I've overall pretty solid on the Gumshoe system. I didn't notice when we (Michelle & I) signed up that it was based on a product called Cthulhu City, which takes the game and puts a Dark City kind of spin on it, but I'd have signed up anyway. The characters were pretty cool, and all of them had a couple of questions on the back about the strangeness of Arkham and how they'd encountered it; you chose one answer from an array of four for two questions.

The red flag, though, was that the GM didn't ask what we'd chosen. Here's a fact about GMing: If the GM doesn't know, it doesn't happen in-game. If the GM doesn't ask, it doesn't matter. So we all had these cool character bits that were actually pretty important, but they made no difference to the plot.

There were some tweaks to the system that I thought were pretty interesting, but honestly I remember very, very little about the game and I was falling asleep through a lot of it. That's bad. Now, some of that was because the group (4 players total) split up a bit (along gender lines ha ha, which turned out to be a problem), and the fella I was paired with was about as interesting as a wet sock; I tried to roleplay and he was giving me nothing back. But the larger issue was, again, the GM just kind of ignoring what the players did to keep the session going along its rails, and while he listened to me and the other guy, he all but completely ignored Michelle and the other woman at the table. (This, guys, is the sort of thing that women tell us happens but that we don't notice until we look for it, so look for it.)

Overall the game felt like it was an hour longer than it actually was, and the payoff at the end where Michelle's character sacrificed herself didn't have much impact because we'd never gotten to interact. My Grade: D

Sunday: Rockerboys & Vending Machines. You heard me. This is a hack of John Harper's Lasers & Feelings, run by Phil Vecchione of Encoded Designs and Gnome Stew. It's a cyberpunk game where you're playing a team of mercs/runners/whatever, and it's focused on the flash and the neon and the job. Michelle, Teagan and I all signed up because we figured it would be a nice, light game for Sunday morning, and we were not wrong.

I remember more about this game than anything else I played all weekend. Granted, it's the kind of game that's built on player input, and so that helps, but Phil slowed it down, let us play with each other, let us talk, asked us what were doing and listened to the answer, and fit the events of the session around that, rather than trying to shoehorn our actions into his idea of what the session was. At the end of it all, we stole the Ultimate Meme from a corporation, defeated a rogue AI named Mark Anthony, and escaped (my character was an AI named MASHUP; I provided the soundtrack for my team looking awesome).

High praise: Teagan was engaged enough that they asked everyone for a description so they could draw the characters later. My Grade: A

Stuff I Bought: Check it out!

Smaller haul than most years, because I'm strapped for money this year. I'm planning on buying more at GenCon, finances permitting, but I couldn't pass up a least a couple of purchases from the IGDN booth (gotta support my peeps), and the other two books were things I found at IPR that looked cooled. The board game is a legacy game about building a village that I showed to Michelle and she got bouncy, so that was that.

Overall, Origins was a good time. I know it looks like I complain about GMs a lot, and I do, but that's because I'm interested to watch other GMs work, so even when it's not awesome, it's still interesting. Plus the con was bookended with fun games, so overall it's a win.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Movie #466: The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the novel by Umberto Eco, and starring Sean Connery, Christian Slater, F. Murray Abraham, Ron Perlman, Helmut Qualtinger, and Valentina Vargas.

William of Baskerville (Connery), a Franciscan monk, arrives at a Dominican monastery with his young novice Adso (Slater) in preparation for a debate. He discovers, though, that there has been a death - a young monk fell from a tower to his death, and the circumstances make the other monks think "the Devil" because they're, well, monks, and sciencey things don't really occur to them when magical things are available. More deaths follow and Baskerville contends with the increasingly gruesome and macabre murders, all of which seem to hinge on a book written in Greek, but into all this, the debate begins, the fucking Inquisition (in the personage of Bernardo Gui, played with merciless intensity by Abraham) shows up, and Adso gets seduced by a young village woman (Vargas) and has to contend with what that means for his faith.

In the end, the monastery is destroyed, all of their beautiful books burned, a bunch of people are dead, and Adso and Baskerville ride off, leaving the girl behind to her poverty. Adso, writing his memoir in the future, notes that while he loved that girl all his life, he never learned her name.

So, I've seen this movie a couple of times, but I think the copies I saw before were not great because I remember the movie being visually hard to process; I think it was just that I was watching on crappy VHS. This time was better, and I could make out the differences between characters a little better, but it doesn't help that most of the background characters are old white men dressed identically, which makes telling them apart hard. It's not a big problem when it comes to, say, Perlman (who's distinctive anyway, and his performance as the near-toothless heretic Salvatore is...memorable), but it does make some crowd scenes hard to follow.

But beyond that, the movie has a lot going on. The Franciscans are concerned that the Pope is going to abolish them, which probably means they're screwed because they'll be declared heretics, and here's Baskerville running off at the mouth and arguing that maybe, just maybe, people are capable of killing each other just fine without Satan getting involved. The local villagers are desperately poor, but they give tithes to the monastery in the form of food, and then get food given back when it's poured out a chute like garbage. The movie does a good job, in my opinion, of highlighting how privileged and arrogant these folks are, even Baskerville, who's a lot more thoughtful than most of the monks.

It's a heavy movie, it's well-shot and well-acted; I actually think it's one of Connery's better roles. It's also, as I recall, a pretty good adaptation of the novel.

My Grade: A-
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: The Natural

Monday, June 11, 2018

Alas for the Awful Sea: Character Creation & Setup

Saturday, we made characters for Alas for the Awful Sea, and then played Rock Band and drank. You're really only interesting in the former (although if you're interested, I do a pretty killer rendition of "Miami 2017" by Billy Joel).

Alas for the Awful Sea is a PbtA game in which you play the crew of a fishing boat in 19th century British Isles. It's about economic hardship and tradition and perhaps a little folklore, low fantasy but definitely some fantasy.

Anyway, the ship is called The Tempest. It used to be a whaling vessel (it's a two-masted schooner) but it doesn't do whaling anymore. The harpoons are still intact, though. The quarters are converted and still smell of whale, and there's a collection of whalebone scrimshaw decorating the ship. The officers have private quarters (the surgeon's quarters are where blubber used to be rendered, so it effectively has a fireplace). The whole ship is overrun with a doubt of cats, and they keep the ship surprisingly rat-free.

The captain, Theodosius, is a man who loves his drink. He took over the ship from the previous owner, who stipulated as part of the sale that women be allowed to work the ship without hassle.

The crew includes:

  • Violet MacKenzie (Scholar/Believer): She is studying weather patterns, and is a fervent Non-Conformist. She's from money (father is a trader in Scotland). 
  • Blythe (Boatswain/Creature): The crew doesn't know her last name, or really anything about her. Blythe maintains the scrimshaw. She's...strange.
  • Fanella MacCallan (Surgeon/Confidant): Not officially a doctor, of course; she followed medical students around to their classes in Dublin, and listens carefully to everyone's secrets.
  • Connor (Strider/Outcast): Knows the sea well, drinks and refers to a former lover when drunk, but never by name.
  • Berylis "Berry" Beer (Cook/Kinsman): Fanella's "sister in law", and her late "husband" (actually wife) owned the ship before. She sends money home to put on her spouse's grave, but the ship is her true home now.

That's all we've got so far; next month we'll see what shenanigans these folks get up to.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Mechanical Cows and Pre-Teen Aloofness: A One-Shot

Last night I ran a one-shot game for my kids, my stepson, and Michelle. I put notes in this post. I've kind of fallen out of the habit of doing write-ups for one-shot games, but I want to start doing it again so that I can remember them a little better.

So! The characters all attend the Academy for Advanced Science and Esoteric Studies. They are:

  • Bing, the school's uplifted corgi mascot, fitted with a special collar that lets him talk.
  • Brass, the statue that stood at the front of the school until it got bored and went to class, and the faculty just shrugged and enrolled them.
  • Chip, a student at AASES who's very interested in creating robots and hella into school spirit. 
  • Wanda, a recent transfer from James K. Polk Middle School who's naturally gifted at magic.
As we begin, the three students are part of a search party looking for Bing - the mascot ran off! (That will happen, he's very excitable.) They find him down a well, running in circles. Chip rigs the pulley to lower them down, but doesn't rig up a brake (he's Too Smart for His Own Good), but Wanda uses magic to uncover rungs on the side of the well and Brass reaches out and stops the platform before it lands on Bing.

Bing, meanwhile, has discovered a tunnel over grown with roots and dug it out. The group, curious and not really wanting to try and climb back up, follows the tunnel.

They emerge in a great big chamber. It's obvious been a long time since anyone was down here, but the floor is polished marble with the school's crest inset, and the walls are lined with shelves. Wanda checks them and finds they contain school projects going back to the 1950s, when the school started. 

Chip makes a little scout-robot and sends it off to look around, while Brass uncovers a portrait. It's of Dr. Lucinda Bramblefort-Meyer and Dr. Greta Meyer-Brambefort, the married couple who founded AASES back in the 50s. They're flanked by two corgis ("Granda! Gramma!" exclaims Bing)...but behind them is a sinister-looking mechanical cow with glowing red eyes. 

At this point, the little robot comes scooting back toward Chip with its screen flashing "NOPE NOPE NOPE." Five mechanical cows charge at the group from out of the darkness. 

Bing springs into action, herding the cows and turning them away from the group. Brass runs up behind two of them, grabs them uses magic to overpower them and send them crashing into a wall. Wanda takes one of them down with magic, but another charges Brass and knocks them back (but not badly; Brass is tough). Chip attaches a device to Brass to make them strong, and Brass tosses the cow to the side. The peril has passed...?

The characters go back to looking around, Chip starts to dismantle a cow, but Brass (who is Easily Bored) wanders off toward where the cows came from. They find a group of pre-teens from James K. Polk Middle School sneaking in. When they seen Brass, they dismiss them as a robot, which Brass finds pretty offensive (they're a construct, there's a difference). Brass shows off their magic prowess, which gets the pre-teens' attention but also summons Brass' friends.

Wanda recognizes one of them, a kid with funny-looking orange hair whom the others called "Bleach", as Charles Sponder, a former classmate of hers. They argue and taunt each other, and Bing makes good use of his BORK BORK BORK stunt to scare of some of Bleach's buddies. Bleach teases Wanda about not being able to hack it at Polk, but Wanda employs her Vortex Inside Me stunt to throw the whole place into magic chaos, and Chip refashions a mechanical cow-head into a Scarebot, which finally sends Bleach packing.

The characters show the faculty this place, which was a storage unit for student projects and as such as a lot of magic laying around. They're all given extra credit, and this is gonna make the soccer game against James K. Polk Middle School next week really interesting!

Movie #465: My Neighbor Tortoro

My Neighbor Tortoro is a Studio Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki and starring (2005 English dubs) Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, Frank Welker, and Pat Carroll (there was also an English dub in 1993 or so with a different cast, but I haven't seen that one).

Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) move to the country with their father Tatsuo (Daly), while their mother (Salonga) recovers from an unnamed illness at a nearby hospital. While there, they discover that their home is...infested is the wrong word, maybe inhabited with soot-sprites, and then Mei discovers that the nearby woods are home to spirits she calls "Totoro."

The Totoro are generally friendly and the sisters treat them respectfully, and then Mom has a relapse and Mei (who's only 4) tries to walk all the way to the hospital with an ear of corn that she thinks will make her mother better, gets lost, the whole community comes together to look for her, and Satsuki goes to the Totoro and asks their help. So Totoro calls up to take Satsuki to Mei and then the girls to the hospital.
You think I'm kidding about the damn catbus?

I really love this movie. It's simple, it's quiet (except for Totoro's roars, but eh), and it shows children being children in a way that very few other movies get right. The conflict in the movie, such as it is, is perfectly scaled to the rest of the movie, there's no overarching conspiracy or evil corporation that's coming in to tear down the trees or whatever, it's just the family coping with an illness and then asking for help from magical beings. And while others find it interesting or humbling that the Totoro exist and are willing to talk to the girls, no one is shocked or disbelieves them. (Have I mentioned I love magical realism?)

My Grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: The Name of the Rose