Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Last Shout Before GenCon: Monsterhearts

Had hoped to do a chargen post, but I don't think it's happening. Instead, the Monsterhearts session from the other day.

Recall that last time, we started off Season Four with a class schedule, and at the end of the day, everyone decided to go and see The Book of Life. After the movie, they decided to head out to Scoop, this little ice cream place. They sat there eating their ice cream and chatting; Miguel used she's not there to be able to order and interact a little. And then they saw smoke from across the street - something big was on fire.

Briar, being Briar, started heading over and asked the others if they were coming. Rook called 911 and got the fire department on the way. When the students got across the street, they found that it was an abandoned house in flames, but there were people standing around watching it burn. They were hairless - no eyebrows, even - and pale and utterly silent. Their eyes were pure white. ("See," said Rook to Romy, "this is what you get into if you hang out with us.")

Skylar decided to check the house, and used dissipate to walk through the fire. She found a corpse in the middle of the house, singed but not burned, surrounded by some bottles that smelled of gasoline. Had this person started the fire? Skylar saw something move out of the corner of her eye and followed it - and found clothes matching the ones the corpse was wearing, walking around like someone invisible was inside. It reached out for her, and she tried to run away, but failed. The creature touched her, and she became her Darkest Self.

Meanwhile, outside, Briar tried to talk with the strange, silent people. They looked over her shoulder and "spoke" to each other, but made no sound. She manipulated an NPC to figure out how to communicate, and touched one - and everything went white, like a photo negative. She could see them more clearly, and hear them. It told her that they didn't start the fire (go ahead, make the joke, we did), they were just watching it. She asked why, and it said she'd know soon. She realized her hair was starting to fall out, and she let go, popping back into visibility.

The fire department arrived and, apparently not able to see the strange beings, hosed the building. When the firelight died, the beings vanished. Skylar was invisible and unable to communicate, so she wrote her name in the grass in soot, revealing to Romy what she really was. She reappeared, and told Romy how she died (giving her the morbid condition). She also tried to turn her on, but failed...Mikaela, Romy's head-voice, was immediately smitten and pressed Romy to get with Skylar.

Cassi invited everyone back to the pool house to talk about this. When they arrived, Cassi's mom was waiting for them and told her to have everyone out by 11:45; this was new, but after the year that Cassi had last year, it wasn't unexpected. They talked, and Miguel used she's not there to whisper to Romy (who successfully holds steady). No one was sure exactly what they'd seen - was the invisible person a ghost? What were the hairless things? All they knew for sure was that something was going on and Romy seemed to be taking it more in stride than would be expected.

The phone in the pool house rang, and a voice asked for Skylar. It said it wanted to be with her, and that it had seen her at the house. Why Skylar, they wondered? And how did it get the number?

Next day, Romy, Rook, and Cassi went out to the ecology class field trip. They did their worksheets, and Cassi and Rook laid down on the dunes to snog a bit. One of their classmates, Becky Thompson, saw them, turned to leave, and fell and broke her leg. Rook went down to help her, and Cassi went back to get the teacher. Becky pointed out people standing around her, also hairless, but with black eyes. They watched as Becky cried in pain, held hands and breathed heavy. Rook called Cassi and told her to hurry.

Cassi brought Mr. Patrick out, and he called for help. Rook manipulated an NPC and convinced him to get a Life-Flight; he was convinced Becky was going to die without help. Worth nothing; Mr. Patrick couldn't see the strange, mute people, and walked right through them.

Back at school, Briar went into the bathroom between classes and heard a fight between two girls. She exited and saw that their reflections were watching them, and the reflections eyes were silver. Briar shut them down (giving them the cowed condition) and they left; the reflections stared at Briar a bit, and then reached out for her reflection. Briar ran away.

Romy went to the bathroom, and Skylar followed to creep. She said Romy's reflection with the silvered eyes, and it looked at Skylar and said, "kiss her." Skylar, creeped out, left.

The characters regrouped in drama class, where Mrs. Law told them to get audition pieces ready for Monday. At lunch, they went to the library to hit the books, and learned that these creatures were lonesome spirits from the Void. Miguel used she's not there to talk them, but always managed to get distracted before he could answer any questions about why he was normally unnoticed. They could see them because they'd touched death in some way, or were otherwise apart from the world. This, again, left the question of Romy - and Mikaela wouldn't shut up about banging Skylar. She said that if Romy had sex with Skylar, she'd tell Romy all about those creatures - some of which she called "hexmutes."

When told about the incident in the bathroom, Romy asked Mikaela, but Mikaela (who also insists that the others not know the truth about her) said that she'd kind of lost some time, there. So was it really Mikaela who'd stared back Skylar? Something riding Mikaela's mind? And how many different lonesome spirits are there, anyway?

End credits: "Country Death Song," Violent Femmes.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Character Creation: Men in Black

Man, I was doing so well, too. I had like four in a row, and then I got busy with Demon stuff and it just slipped off the damn radar.

Well, anyway, I'm gonna try and do one more character before GenCon, and then do a few after I get back in between finishing development of Promethean, and then maybe try and do one a week after school starts.

Anyway, today's selection is:

The Game: Men in Black: The Roleplaying Game
The Publisher: West End Games
Degree of Familiarity: None. I've read it.
Books Required: I thought you needed the Masterbook core, but apparently not, so just the one.

I asked for song suggestions a while back over on Facebook and got a bunch of good ones, but holy shit listen to this.

That's a mashup of "Peter Gunn" and "Every Breath You Take," and it's freaking slick. I like it, and it seems appropriate to a Man in Black, someone who's left behind his life but, like K in the movie, hasn't quite given it up.

Well, this game is meant to be light and funny, so I won't get too deep into character backstory, but that's a decent starting point. I get 24D (dice) to build the character, starting with Attributes. Each die can be broken up into "pips," totally 0, 1, or two. I've got eight Attributes, and they're basically the standard spread: Reflexes, Coordination, Endurance, Strength, Knowledge, Perception, Confidence, and Charisma (seems weird to split those last two, but whatever).

Oh, wait, I get 24D to do Attributes, but then I get more for Skills. So I could split these up evenly and wind up with 3D - about human average - in everything. I like that, but I'm not gonna do it.

I do need a basic concept, here. Let's take witness protection and really freaking run with it. My character was an average guy living in Chinatown, second generation American, making a living doing deliveries for his uncle's store while he worked his way through college. He had a girlfriend, and things were going pretty well. And then he witnessed a triple murder (Triad related) and his girlfriend (who isn't Chinese) pressured him into testifying. He was put into protective custody, and his WitSec handler, as it happened, is from Neptune (well, one of the moons). Recognizing the guy's untapped potential, he pulled some strings and got him the black suit. Now he's just Y, but he wants to go back to his old life. It's just not safe.

OK, that's not bad. I can split things up pretty close to evenly, since Y is a fairly normal guy. I'll put 3D+2 into Reflexes, 3D into Coordination, 3D+1 into Endurance, 2D into Strength, 3D+0 into Knowledge, 3D into Perception, 2D into Confidence, and 4D into Charm (Y is personable and a good talker, plus he can play the "I don't really speak English" card to great effect; he's actually fluent in several languages, some of them extraterrestrial).

Now I get 7D to split up among Skills. I can break these up into pips, too, and given that there are a lot of Skills I guess that's what I'm meant to do.

This is interesting. "Linguistics," which lets you figure someone's general intent in communicating with you, is Knowledge Skill, while actually knowing Languages (which you have to buy individually ugh) is a Perception Skill. I think I'd have reversed those.

Anyway, I have to have 2D in a language to speak it fluently, which is fucking stupid, but OK, fine. I'll take 2D in English (since Y's native language is Cantonese), and since that's basically a third of my points, I'll put 2D into Linguistics so I can at least fake it. Better put something into Marksmanship; I'll break up a die and put +2 there. I'll put my +0 into Dodge (another stupid Skill), and my +1 into Streetwise. I've got 2D left. Ugh. I'll put 1D into Disguise and then split the last one; +2 into Charm, +1 into Scholar, and +0 into Running (worked for J).

I start with 5 Character Points and 1 Fate Point, so that's easy. Because this game is pre-1999, I roll to get my hit points (Body Points), so hang on, need entropy. I roll my Endurance and add 20. I roll 10, add my +1, and that gives me 31 Body Points. My Speed is 30.

I can have two Useless Skills at the whim of the Director, but since I don't have one let's assume I can take those, because they're fun. I'll say that Y can fold paper cranes expertly, and can make good dumplings.

And that's pretty much it, because I've already done the backstory stuff.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Board Game: VCR Clue

The Game: VCR Clue
The Publisher: Parker Brothers
Time: An hour or so
Players: Me, Al, Will, Teagan, and +Michelle

I played this game pretty frequently as a lad with my parents and sometimes my brother. In fact, some of the detective sheets still have our old notes on them. Kinda nostalgic.

Anyway, The Game: This game includes a VHS tape, but we found the videos on YouTube because the tape is old and probably would have skipped. The movie introduces all of the characters and runs you through an introduction game, hosted by the butler, Didit. The tape then has three chapters, with five scenes each. You watch them one at a time, pausing between each one to play a round of cards.

The object is to figure out all of the murders in that particular act (so who killed whom, where, and with what), and to figure out the identities of the other players (everyone draws a card at the beginning of the game). Once you've figured all that out, you can make an accusation and win, verifying your accusation with a nifty red filter to red in the clue book.

Playing the cards involved drawing a clue card (and learning a fact about the round's murders), playing investigation card (doing things like forcing another player to read a clue card, burying a clue card where others can't get at it), or getting a personal identity fact (forcing someone to reveal something about the character card they drew).

The clue cards tell you facts about the murders, but you need to pay attention during the movies and note what the characters are doing. Of course they get more involved and more intricate as you play through the harder murders.

Opinions: I kinda like this game, but it requires patience, deductive reasoning, and memory, and I'm good at those things. There are a lot of details to remember, and so a crucial part of the game is sifting through the shit you don't need to remember. Also, the game has lots of replayability (three chapters with six games each), but if you aren't playing with the same people you'd have trouble ever advancing past the first chapter.

All in all, I like it, but I rather doubt I'll get to play it again. Which is kinda sad, but hey.

Keep? Sure, what else would I do with it?

Movie #321: Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park is a sci-fi movie starring Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Bob Peck, and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Stephen Spielberg!

John Hammond (Attenborough) is a rich dude who's created cloned dinosaurs on an island, and plans to open the place as a theme park so people can come see them. However, when a worker is killed, he needs some experts to endorse the park, so he recruits paleontologist Alan Grant (Neill), paleo-botanist Ellie Satler (Dern), and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Goldblum). They take one look and say, "are you fucking crazy?" but it's not until a disgruntled programmer tries to sell out some embryonic dinosaurs (Wayne Knight - the programmer, not the dinosaurs) that everything goes haywire, the fences go down, and people start getting eaten.

It's a pretty standard "technology goes nuts and kills us" kind of setup, except holy shit the dinosaurs. I mean, sure, dilophosaurus isn't really venomous and velociraptor isn't really that big and they all probably had feathers, but whatever. This movie came out in 1993, before the general public knew that, and nobody had seen effects like these. Some of it CGI, sure, but some of it is practical, and it holds up pretty damn well for a 20-year-old movie.

The script is pretty tight, the dialog is fun. It annoys me that Arnold (Jackson) gets to smoke the whole time, because characters that smoke around other, more sensible people annoy me because ew, and because smoking is so uncommon now that it looks weird that he's smoking indoors around others, but that's just a relic of the time. I love Attenborough's wide-eyed enthusiasm, and I love that Grant gets over his discomfort around kids as he takes them through the park. (By the way, I just now caught that parallel between this movie and the recently Jurassic World, and holy shit, that's just another way that movie is a clumsy clone of this one.)

Ellie is one of the high points for me. Teagan loves this movie, and she notices when there are women characters in movies who, like, do things. Ellie stands up and is an active, equal part in the proceedings, and when someone sexistly mentions that, she calls him on it. More than that, though, I enjoy how the tough game warden Muldoon (Bob Peck) never even comments or tries to stop Ellie from being helpful, he just gratefully accepts the help (and, later, sacrifices himself for her, though not intentionally).

It's a fun movie, just scary enough to be kid-appropriate without being grim (which is another place Jurassic World falls down).

My grade: A
Rewatch value: High

Next up: Kill Bill vol. 1

Friday, July 24, 2015

Movie #320: Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending is an entirely underrated space opera directed by the Wachowskis and starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton.

In this world, human beings originated on a faraway planet, and "seed" other worlds with human DNA mixed with the genetic material of similar species. When the planet reaches a certain population, it is "harvested" - everyone there is killed and the resulting material is rendered to a jizz-like substance that keeps people alive and young. The most important family doing all this, the Abrasax house, sees a three-way power struggle between siblings Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Middleton), and Titus (Booth).

Meanwhile, a girl born to a Russian woman and a murdered Englishman grows up in Chicago, cleaning toilets and generally hating her life. This girl, named Jupiter (Kunis) is the "recurrence" of the mother of the Abrasax siblings, and is being pursued by everyone, including a former space-soldier named Caine (Tatum), who's basically half wolf. He gets help from a former comrade (Bean) who's half bee, and...

...this movie is fucking insane.

When it came out, there was a lot of waffle about how stupid it was. Roller-skating space werewolves? Reincarnation on a genetic scale? Dense family-drama on a Shakespearean level? But here's the thing: It's space opera. It's not more dense and ridiculous than Star Wars, and it's got a female lead who doesn't "win" by murdering everyone (still plenty of fun action, though). The world is beautifully realized and rendered, the characters all have understandable and even somewhat relateable motives.

What I find interesting is Jupiter deciding, at the end, to return to her life but to own it. She still loves the stars and still wants something more, but she can have it. She literally owns the world. She has the power to change everything, but she takes some time to live the life she knows (while, y'know, snogging her space-werewolf boyfriend and hover-skating through the skies of Chicago, because holy shit why wouldn't you) and figure out what it all means. It feels like the ending is earned.

And then there's other stuff I like, like the fact that the Aegis (space-cops) aren't entirely stupid and once they figure out what's going on, they act like decent, intelligent people. I like that Jupiter doesn't become a magical fighty badass over the course of the movie; she does fight, but badly, and she relies on Caine for the heavy stuff. She's the heroine of the movie, but that isn't demonstrated by martial prowess.

Michelle calls this "sci-fi for girls," and after seeing Teagan's reaction to it, I kinda agree. I don't think we'll get a sequel, since it kinda bombed at the box office, but I'm glad we have it.

My grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next Up: Jurassic Park

Part-Time Gods: All Things in Moderation

The other night I ran a quick game of Part-Time Gods, in preparation for a review I'll be writing for RPG.net (I'm running the Fate version tomorrow). I figured I'd better do the write-up before I forget. I had been planning to do it before I went to Chicago, but then I was gone an extra day, so anyway.

The game was set in Nashville, TN. Our characters:

  • Laquetta Johnson, Goddess of Doors: She runs a no-kill shelter and helps the local homeless get back on their feet ("doors" as in "transitions to new places/lives"). Phoenix Society. 
  • Jasper Stone, Goddess of Sound: She's a sound engineer. She used to be in a band called Violet Crush, but she left when she realized her real interest and talent was behind the scenes. Phoenix Society. 
  • Maxwell Black, God of Wandering Performers: Performs as a porn star under the name "Morgan Snow." Travels around a lot doing shoots. Drifting Kingdoms. 
  • Melody Spires, Goddess of Wine: She owns a vineyard outside of Nashville, called "Devotion." Phoenix Society. 
Our characters are a concert at a club. Violet Crush is performing, and Jasper is running sound. Maxwell is there with some of his fellow performers. Laquetta is there because the bassist in Violet Crush is a girl she helped get back on her feet, and Melody is there because the club is selling Devotion's wines as a promo. 

Jasper notes that the stage manager is drunk - like, missing cues drunk. Maxwell notices that some of his friends are getting inebriated more quickly than he'd think, and Melody, likewise, notices that people are sipping her wine and coming away drunk-er. The gods note this and take stock as best they can, but then the curtains on the stage catch fire. 

Maxwell teleports the band outside using Banish, and Laquetta uses Aegis to make the curtains invulnerable to keep the fire from spread. The show is over, though; everyone evacuates. Jasper checks, and realizes that the fire started because the curtains weren't raised properly; they were situated over a light that got too hot. In other words, the drunk stage manage missed a cue. 

Melody uses Oracle to try and narrow this down, and realizes that this is due to Divine influence, but not hers. There's a new god around, but not someone they've met. 

They set about tracking down the power they're feeling. Laquetta finds a dog (she has the Beast Tongue Entitlement) and asks it about seeing drunk people. The dog says he's seen people coming out of that building over there acting drunk. The gods expect this to be a bar...but it's a center where AA meetings happen. Too weird. 

They approach the place and find someone still in residence. They knock and find that he's a) one of the counselors and b) drunk. Melody can tell, however, that he hasn't actually had anything to drink. They question him a bit, and learn that at a meeting last week, a guy came into the building, very ill, and died, apparently of alcohol poisoning. Since gods can pass on their Spark when they die, the characters figure that must be what happened. Jasper uses Oracle to listen back in time to the meeting in question, and hears the drunk guy come in, the shock and consternation from the folks there, and someone say, "Galen, you've got medical training, right?" Galen agrees...and now Jasper has heard his voice.

She uses her mastery of sound to track him to a bar. The characters enter, though first Melody uses her Aegis to shield them from becoming drunk. They see Galen in the bar, and everyone, including him, is soused (except the bartender, how strange). They talk to him, and realize that he's become the god of drunkeness.

Through judicious use of Soothing Aura and creating a bubble that no sound can escape from (so that the other folks in the room can't hear them), the gods talk to him and help him realize that his influence is getting out of control and he needs to tone it down, or people might get hurt. As a former alcoholic himself (it's hard to think of the god of drunkenness as an addict; he kind of gets a pass?), he can understand that. The characters pledge to help him figure out how to control his powers, and they all decide to go out for a drink.

Of coffee, perhaps.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Matt's GenCon 2015 Schedule

Just in case you want to find me at GenCon and, like, hug me. Or talk about gaming. Whichever.

Matt’s Schedule

Wednesday: Running a game of Chill for our Indianapolis Regional Coordinator backers.
Thursday: From 3PM to 6PM I’ll be at the Indie Game Developer Network booth. That’s booth 734, it’s right near Indie Press Revolution. I’ll be happy to talk about Chill, sell you books, sign books, and hear about your characters. From 8PM to Midnight, I’ll be running Beast: The Primordial in the Downtown Marriott, ballroom 9. The game is full, but you never know. Show up with tokens and see if a slot opens!
Friday: From 10AM to 2PM I’ll be running Chill at the Indie Game Developer Network’s game HQ (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7, which is a really good place to stop and see a bunch of awesome games in action). Again, it’s sold out, but that doesn’t always mean anything. At 3PM, I’m on the What’s Up with the New World of Darkness? panel for Onyx Path Publishing, in Crowne Plaza Central Ballroom D. From 5PM to 6PM, I’ll be at booth #1103 (Onyx Path) to sign books and talk about World of Darkness stuff (but I’ll probably talk about Chill if you ask me, too). From 6PM to 8PM, I’ll be at the IGDN Game HQ (Marriott Ballroom 7, remember) to sign books and talk about Chill (but if you ask me about World of Darkness stuff, I’ll probably talk about it, too).
Saturday: From 2PM to 6PM, I’ll be running curse the darkness at the IGDN Game HQ. Again, game’s sold out, but show up if you want to play and we’ll see what we can do.
Sunday: From 10AM to Noon-ish, I’m running Clay-o-Rama. Yeah, the one where you make monsters out of Play-Doh and make them fight. Sold out, might still have slots, etc. That’s in the ICC Family Fun Pavilion. And then from noon to 2PM, I’m in the IGDN booth (#734) doing Chill demos.
If I haven’t said where I’m going to be during a time, it’s because I’m a) playing in a game somewhere or b) unaccounted for and will probably be eating. Downtown Marriott Ballroom 7 is a pretty good place to look for me.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Night's Black Agents: End of the Op

Last time, the characters kidnapped Wolfgang's brother Fritz (well, truthfully, they saved his life from folks who were going to kidnap him) and then took him to Berlin to make contact with Wolfgang.

Fritz called Wolfgang and told him what had happened. Wolfgang sent them a safe house and gave Fritz the code to get in ("Make sure you enter it correctly, or it goes boom"), and then told them that once Fritz was there, they could call him and he'd meet them at a secondary location. They agreed, delivered Fritz, and called Wolfgang, who told them to go to the art museum and ask for Dr. Peter Lang.

Benbow and Parker went, with Gambone tailing, while Fuchs watched the safe house (and noted that watching both the front and back entrances at once was impossible; Hanover had chosen this spot well). At the museum, Hanover met with the two agents and made Gambone immediately, so they all went down the street for coffee. Hanover wasn't interested in running.

Fuchs joined them after he decided nothing was happening at the safe house, and Hanover told them about his experiences (at length). Parker tried to nail down his motivations for all the crazy shit he and his people had been perpetrating across Europe, and Hanover summed it up in one word: Vampires.

(cut to commercial)

Hanover explained what had happened, from their initial job in Sarajevo to the snafu at the hospital in Szeged. He recognized Davor Klobucar as the paymaster who was supposed to pay them for the initial job (and who was now running this op to try and find Hanover). Hanover showed them the thumb drive with the data they'd collected, and Fuchs looked through it briefly - medical reports, financial reports, human trafficking... And then, in the middle of the conversation, Hanover's phone sounded - someone had tripped the explosive charge in the door of the safe house.

They headed over there right quick, and found a phalanx of police cars surrounding the place. Fuchs tapped the police channel and learned that they'd been ordered to stay out of the building (which was still intact, just with some broken windows). Benbow and Gambone went in, while Hanover, Fuchs, and Parker ran interference. Hanover warned them that there might be vampires, and to aim for the head.

Inside, they found a man lying on the floor near the door. His right hand was mostly gone and he was full of shrapnel, but still horribly alive somehow. Benbow noted that he wasn't bleeding; blood was falling out of him, but not like it should (she didn't not lose Stability, however; good roll). The man flopped over and started crawling toward them, and Gambone put a bullet in its head, dropping it.

They entered the flat. Another man was pounding on the steel door to the panic room...and denting it. Gambone knew this was impossible, and doubtless thought of Hanover describing a vampire ripping a sink out of a wall and throwing it. He shot the man in the back of the head, and dropped him, but then watched as he pulled himself up on the table. He tossed a homemade grenade at the thing's face, and blew it's head mostly off. That seemed to do it.

They got Fritz out of the panic room and fled, rejoining the group a few blocks away. They talked a bit about their options; Fuchs still wasn't sure what to believe, but Benbow and Gambone had seen something they couldn't explain. Parker got a call on her burner from Klobucar, who asked for Hanover. Parker said he needed to call off the other team(s), and Klobucar said that he could do that, but she needed to contact him before 7AM. Parker agreed, but then ditched the burner.

They all agreed that just turning over Hanover wasn't wise - whatever this was, it was bad, and the characters decided it was better to bug out. Fuchs suggested Monte Carlo. It was warm, and it was far away. Parker set up a fake swap to keep Klobucar busy, and the characters left Berlin for Monte Carlo.

And that's the end of the op. Next time, they dig into the data and try to figure out what to do next.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Movie #319: Jungle Book

The Jungle Book is one of several versions that have been made over the years, and it isn't the more famous animated version. This version, by the Korda brothers, stars Sabu and a bunch of white people in brownface.

Not having read Jungle Book, I'm not sure how closely it sticks to the material, but my Wiki-research leads me to think "not very." Anyway, the movie is framed by an elderly storyteller called Sikh (Noble Johnson) tells a story about a boy lost to the jungle during a tiger attack and raised by wolves who grew into a feral child called Mowgli (Sabu). He lives with wolves for a while, including some amazingly cute footage of him as a little toddler playing with puppies that are totally not wolf cubs, and then as a tween he gets captured by the villagers and mostly accepted, except for Buldeo (Joseph Calleia), who thinks he's a savage or something.

So Mowgli leaves and hangs with his animal pals and takes his new human girl (Patricia O'Rourke) to an ancient ruined city, and he kills Shere Khan and skins him, and then Buldeo learns about the treasure in the ruined city and sets the whole place on fire.

A few things stand out. One is that holy shit, everyone is a white person in brownface except Noble Johnson and Sabu. The other is that the effects are really cool, because they used tigers and panthers and wolves, and it's often shot in such a way that you think the actors are right near the animals, but if you know what to look for it's pretty clearly done with perspective.

Sabu's performance is nice, the rest of the folks are appropriately awed, outraged, or stupid as necessary. Sometimes the brownface isn't quite as obvious as others (Ralph Byrd as Durgaived is fucking painful). The movie retains the feel of a fable being told to an audience even when there's no voiceover going on, so that's kind of neat. In general, though, I think I prefer the Disney cartoon.

My grade: C-
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: Jupiter Ascending

Movie #318: Jumanji

Jumanji is a 1995 family comedy starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, and Jonathan Hyde. It's what I refer to as a "chips n' salsa" movie; I'm happy to watch it and snack, but it's ultimately pretty forgettable. My kids like it, though.

Anyway: Young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd), after a rough day of getting the shit kicked out of him by bullies after his father (Hyde) gives him the old "face your fears!" routine, plays a board game he found buried in a lock chest (you can tell this kid isn't an RPG player) in a construction site, along with his crush, Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy). On his turn, he is sucked into the game, and Sarah freaks out and runs just because some bats try to eat her.

Twenty-six years later, the old Parrish mansion is bought by a young woman (Bebe Neuwirth) and her niece and nephew (Dunst and Pierce, respectively), children of her late brother. They find the game and start playing, releasing Parrish, now grown (and Robin Williams!), and they go find Sarah, now grown (and Bonnie Hunt!). The game releases rhinos, giant mosquitos, killer plants (we'll get to L soon!) and all kinds of other whacky shit, including an 18th century great white hunter (also Hyde) who wants to shoot and kill Alan.

Of course they finish the game, and since all the consequences vanish once the game ends, we're back in 1969 with young Alan and Sarah. But they remember their lessons up through the years, eventually marrying and saving the lives of their young friends' parents, which, as Cracked points out, would make for a pretty interesting movie on its own.

So, it's not terrible. It's a pretty good argument for practical effects because the CGI was never convincing and it looks like crap now, and it's Robin Williams at his most family friendly, so that's kind of dull. The "lessons" of the movie are kind of muddled, because "stand up to your fears" is an objectively stupid lesson at every turn (whenever Alan does it, someone either punches him or shoots at him), but the really fun bit of the movie is when the characters roll the dice and then a rhymed couplet emerges and fucks everything up. I do wonder if the remake, Zathura, is any better, but I haven't seen it.

My Grade: C
Rewatch value: Medium, maybe medium-high if the kids are around and there are chips

Next up: The Jungle Book

Monday, July 13, 2015

Movie #317: Judgement at Nuremberg

Judgement at Nuremberg is a 1961 drama starring (deep breath) Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, and Montgomery Clift. Oh, and a very young William Shatner. It was nominated for a whole slew of Oscars, won one for Schell, and lost Best Picture to West Side Story (what the shit).

The movie depicts the trial of four German judges for their part in the Holocaust, the most important of which is Erst Janning (Lancaster), who was Minister of Justice and an influential jurist the world over. Dan Haywood (Tracy) is brought in from Maine to act as judge on the tribunal, and spends eight months in Nuremberg listening to Col. Lawson (Widmark) and Herr Rofle (Schell) present for the prosecution and the defense, respectively. During that time, he becomes friends with the wife of a (now executed) German general (Dietrich; the wife, obviously, not the general) and learns the context and the history for what these trials really mean. In the end, the tribunal find the judges guilty and sentence them to life in prison. They're out in less than a decade, as Rolfe predicts.

That little summary does not in any way do the movie justice, but that's the guts of the plot. Really, though, free up an afternoon and watch this movie. Every single character has a motivation and a position that, if it isn't quite defensible, makes perfect sense. Watching Haywood come to grips with the reality of Holocaust, but also the reality that the atrocity wasn't something that happened all at once, and that happened in the context of Germany being wasted and Hitler coming to power the way he did...it's really amazing. Do note, though, that the movie shows footage from the liberation of a couple of the concentration camps (Buchenwald and Dachau), and that footage is really hard to watch.

We watched this movie with Michelle's sons, and I hope they got something out of it. World War II is a long time gone, and Nazis in general are mostly "villains in movies and video games" now. But I went to a Holocaust museum when I was in 8th grade, and it's never left me. Watching this movie brought a lot of that back, and you can learn all the stats and facts you want about the event, but nothing compares (for me) to see that pile of eyeglasses, and knowing what that meant.

Anyway. The performances in this movie are fantastic, and the transition in the beginning to "German people speaking English but in the fiction they're all speaking German" is really well done.

My Grade: A
Rewatch value: Low. It's heavy and long.

Next up: Jumanji

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Character Creation: Streets of Bedlam

I missed a day yesterday, but I spent some of that day reading this game, so there's that. 

The Game: Streets of Bedlam
The Publisher: Fun-Sized Games (I think)
Degree of Familiarity: Quite a lot with the system, none with this particular game
Books Required: The core and the Savage Worlds Deluxe book (well, it recommends Deluxe, though it'd work with other versions). 

I backed this game on Kickstarter, and I like the way it's turned out. It's basically a neo-noir, ultraviolent setting with the Savage Worlds system, taking inspiration from Sin City and similar properties. It's basically what Haven wanted to be and failed. The writing is good; there are some grammatical issues here and there and I kinda think a pass for clarity would have been helpful, but the book is easy to follow, the world is well-realized but not detailed so heavily that your eyes glaze over, and the game is highly focused on the tone and genre it wants, and I like that. 

One weird thing: "God" is written as "G*d" in the book. Now, I'm aware that some religions traditions demand it, and if this is a requirement for the writer of the book, OK. But it shows up in areas that clearly aren't talking about the Abrahamic god (one of the Edges is called "Modern God," and it's spelled that way), but it's written normally a couple of times when "god" is used in a general sense. The predominant religious influence in-setting is Catholic, too, so it's not like it's an in-setting thing. I don't get it, and I find it jarring, but maybe that's just me. 

Anyway, let's make a goddamn character. 

First thing we do is pick an Archetype, which replaces "race" in most Savage Worlds games. Hmm. You know, as tempting as it is to make a Boss (as in crime), I find myself attracted to Drifter. I like the "unrelated outsider who gets swept up in the events and is generally decent" kind of character - the title character in El Mariachi springs to mind, though you could make an argument for Clive Owen in Shoot 'em Up. My guy is just passing through Bedlam (that's the twin cities of Bedford and Lamrose, by the way), but he's going to wind up staying longer than he expected. 

Attributes: d4 in each to start, plus five points to spread around, same as it ever was. I kinda want my character to be a fighter*, because a) I haven't made one in a while and b) it's in-genre. I'll put Agility in Strength up to d8, and put the other die into Vigor. Low Smarts and low Spirit, but that's life. 

*I mean, apart from the MMA fighter I made the other day, but that's different. Shaddup.

Skills: I'm supposed to take Drive, Fighting, and some kind of trade. There are new Skills in this book, too. 

Well, I don't think I'll bother with Drive. My guy hitchikes. Or train jumps, how about that shit? Bedlam totally needs a trainyard. But I will take Fighting. And, oh, blimey, the Skills aren't written on the sheet. Boo. 

Anyway, I want Climbing, Fighting, and Lockpicking. Actually we'll say this guy was a locksmith - that's how he knows how to pick locks, thanks very much. I'll take Notice and Streetwise at a d4 because going higher would cost more. Taking the three I mentioned plus Shooting and Stealth at d6 puts me at 12 points spent, so I'll jack Fighting and Lockpicking to d8 and add Intimidation at d4.

Edges & Hindrances: I get World Traveler, with the effect that I get two Knowledge Skills at d6. OK, sure. I'll take Knowledge (Hobos) and Knowledge (Engineering). I get Permanent Outsider; I have a low rep with Authority because I'm a drifter. Plus, I'm a Big Ol' Softie; I take a -2 to resist someone giving me a sob story.

Backstory: I'm either running from something or running to something. Hmm. If I'm running to something, it's not that I couldn't get there, it's that I just... don't. Weird example, but think of John Candy's character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - he wants to go home, but he doesn't have one. His wife has been dead for years. 

The alternative is that I'm running from something and I get into trouble to calm the nightmares. I think I like the first idea. My guy (Manfred "Manny" Clay) had a kind of life, once. He had a girlfriend and a home. But he was largely dissatisfied with his life, got to drinking, and wound up doing time somewhere north of Bedlam. When he got out, one of the guards (who was always a dick) gave him a postcard that he'd actually received four years prior, from his ex-girlfriend. It said "Come and meet your daughter." His daughter would be just six now, and he can't quite seem to get it together enough to get on the train back home. 

Now, I can, if I wish, take more Hindrances and get some more points, so yeah, I'll do that. I'm also gonna change my Engineering Knowledge to Prison Culture, because that makes more sense. I want the Priors Hindrance, because that makes sense. And, screw it, I'll take Heart on Your Sleeve (anyone playing on my sympathies gets +2 to the roll). And I'll take Poverty, so I start with half the money I normally would. That'll make Priors a Major Hindrance, but I suspect that's because that guard really talked me up as a holy terror in the joint. 

That gives me four points. I'll spend two and bump Spirit to d6. It doesn't look like I get a free Edge; the example character doesn't seem to get one. I'll assume I don't, so I'll spend my other two points and buy Ready for Action - I can't be ambushed (combination of living on the street and having been to prison).

Derived Traits: See? After you've done Edges and Hindrances! Parry is 6, Toughness is 5, Pace is 6, Charisma and the other two kinds of Rep at 0. 

Gear: I have a duffel of old clothes, $100 to my name ('cause Poverty), a set of lockpicks, and I would get an old truck or car, but I'll forgo that since I jump trains to get around. 

And now I do three descriptive sentences, one for physical, mental, and social. So:

Physical: Manny is lean, wiry, always has a few days worth of stubble and always keeps his hands free. 

Social: Manny doesn't make eye contact unless he intends to fight you or kiss you. He speaks clearly and in short sentences.

Mental: Manny wants to go "home" and meet his daughter, but he has no idea what that would actually mean. It's just something he says.

And that's me done!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Board Game: Murder of Crows

Told ya we played two last night.

The Game: Murder of Crows
The Publisher: Atlas Games
Time: 10 minutes, maybe more depending on how many players
Players: Me, +Michelle, Al, Will

Al considers MURDER.
 The Game: You've got a deck of cards, all of which (except for a few wild cards) have one of the letters of the word "MURDER." They also have a line of a murder story; Rs have characters, Ms have beginning lines, and so on. If you're the first to spell MURDER, you win, and get to recite your story!

Each card also has an effect. "D" is "Drain", for example, and you can drain a card away from other players' Murders. "R" is "Reap," so you get an extra card. Each card also has a number of crows, if someone plays a card on you, you can cancel it by playing a card with the same number of crows.

Opinions: I like this game a lot. The rules are really simple and intuitive, the art is fun, and the cards are varied enough that there's probably some replay value.

My winning Murder.

Keep? Yep!

Board Game: Cranium

We actually got through two games last night, one with the littler kiddos and one with the adults/teens. First up: Cranium.

"That," says Cael, "is Cranium."

The Game: Cranium
The Publisher: Hasbro
Time: Half hour or so
Players: Me, Teagan, Cael, Will, +Michelle

The Game: Cranium consists of a board with two tracks, a fast track and a "scenic" track, with stops of four colors. The colors corresponding to four types of tasks: Star Performer has you doing charades, humming tunes, or impersonating famous people or characters; Creative Cat has you draw pictures or sculpt with clay; Word Worm has you spell words (sometimes backwards) or define them; and Data Head asks trivia questions. You need two teams, so minimum of four players.

Everybody loves the clay, though it's weirdly lemony.
You move around the board trying to get to the center, at which point you need to get one of each type of card to win. If you miss a question, you stay were you are, and you have a few chances to get onto the fast track at various points around the board.

Teagan and Cael both enjoy Star Performer.
Opinions: It might seem like kind of a kiddie game, but the tasks actually vary in difficulty. Sure, you might get asked to spell "hippopotamus", or sculpt "two peas in a pod," but you might also need to know that the first woman on a US stamp was Queen Isabella of Spain or that an "oxbow" is a U-shaped bend in a river (I didn't know that). The game is actually designed to be played with kid and adults, and it does that pretty well.

We used to play this game with my family and quite enjoyed it, and last night I remembered why; it varies the tasks so it doesn't get repetitious, and it's got enough hands-on stuff that the kids don't get bored.

"Claw-foot tub."
Keep? Yes.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Character Creation: The Aegis Project

Not screwing around this summer, man.

The Game: The Aegis Project
The Publisher: John Wick Presents
Degree of Familiarity: Not much. I read it.
Books Required: Just the one.

The Aegis Project has an interesting story behind its creation. Evidently +John Wick had someone request a game about mecha in a Facebook comment one day, and he said "raise me $100" and I'll do it. This game was crowdfunded before that was really a thing, and in fact, some of the games that have ads in the back include The Play's The Thing, World of Dew, and my own curse the darkness. I got my copy, skimmed it, and then put it on my shelf for a while, like I do a lot of games.

I read through it last night, and actually, it's pretty interesting. The system is similar to World of Dew (and therefore, I assume, Blood & Honor, which I don't own) - you roll a bunch of dice (d10s), you gain privilege and therefore narrative control if you succeed, and every even or "bang" after privilege gives you the right to make declarations. I can say from experience that this sort of play works really well for players that get into it, and applying it to a grittier sci-fi setting would be interesting.

Said setting is also pretty well-realized. The game has three different eras, all corresponding to a different war in humanity's history - war against aliens, where we developed mechs, a civil war where the Colonists tried to break away from UNEC, and a war for humanity's future after AIs basically take over. The first one is the one that grabbed me the most, so I think that's the one I'll make a character for.

So, the chapter that talks about character creation only covers human characters. Mecha, however (Aegis Armor) need a pilot, an engineer, and an AI. It looks like AIs are meant to be playable, but they're covered in their own chapter, and nowhere in the character creation chapter does it say "character creation for AIs is cover in Chapter Whatever." So there's some organizational stuff that could be cleaner. I'm supposed to be able to pick from five commissions: Grunt, Special Forces, Apollo, Hades Op, and Civilian. Special Forces is never mentioned beyond that one line, and none of the character choices following the commissions (Apollo Soldier, Apollo Pilot, Grunt Squad, Veteran, Hades Op, Aegis Engineer, and Civilian) mention Special Forces. Likewise, the character creation section says that you need to make a character for the right era, but the chargen differences between era are covered in their respective chapters.

Well, anyway. On the one hand, it's a game about mecha and it would seem silly not to play a mech pilot. On the other, that's another character sheet I'd have to fill out, and it's late already. I think I shall make a Hades Operative character, as they looked fun. Hades are basically black ops/secret police. They can command Apollo soldiers using neural overrides and get a secret agenda for every mission. Sounds fun.

Oh, wait, actually, first thing I do is decide on my homeworld and declare three true things about it. I'll say my guy is from Primus, the first moon of a planet called Null. The planet Null is lifeless and resistant to terraforming (hence the name) but Primus took to terraforming perhaps too well. So three true things about Primus:

1) Vines and moss cover every outdoor surface in a matter of hours and have to be scraped away daily.

2) During the "spring," everyone has to wear special masks to keep spores out of their lungs.

3) It's become common to try and conceal your identity during spring, and to indulge unspoken desires.

I get a +1 to any trait and a +2 to any Specialty from my homeworld. I'll save those for now.

Because I'm Hades, I have one +3 Specialty and three Specialty points, plus my +2 from Primus. I don't get Camaraderie at all. This is a pool of points that the soldiers can draw from to help with rolls; I'm a spy and a blackguard, so I'm just not involved. I do get access to special equipment, and I can command Apollo soldiers.

So here's a thing: Traits go to a maximum of 4, if I'm reading this right, but two of my five traits are already at 4. So I have to raise Strength, Ops, or Weapons. Hmm. Well, I'll raise Ops. Primus is a difficult world to live on, and you need to know how to use various kinds of lifesaving devices when spores get into eyes or other sensitive areas.

Now Specialties. There's a list, but I'm encouraged to make up my own. Well, I like Scout and Stealth. I'll also take Disguise. Those are all at Casual. Huh. "Casual" is a difficulty setting for the game in general, but it doesn't have any meaning with regards to Specialties. I assume it means +1, since that's listed as "a basic understanding."

I get a +3 Specialty and then I can add 2 to a given Specialty from my homeworld. That +3 one seems to be on top of my 3 points. Well, I'll add the +2 to Disguise, I'll put the +3 into Scout, and that means I actually get 2 points into Stealth. So that's fine.

And then rank, which I assume corresponds to "Command" on the characters sheet. I'm a Commander, since I'm Hades.

And now equipment. Not normally my favorite thing to do, but this isn't "spend a bunch of copper pieces," it's just "pick your stuff." So that's nice. And heck, I have my Hades stuff listed in a special section. Groovy! I have a bomb in my head that goes off if my heart stops. I also have some grenades.

But mostly, that's me done. I need a name, of course.

Giles Phillips was born on Primus. His family was one of the first to come to the Moons of Null (Primus, Secundus, and Tertius). His family also all but died out after the spores started up. Giles is a natural spy; he's used to being careful and circumspect, and used to being in places where the air can literally kill him. When the aliens attacked, his plans to become a doctor got put on hold; a family friend recruited him into Hades. He knows that Hades Ops have a (deserved) bad rep, but he makes a point not to use his ability to command Apollos or override Aegis Armors unless it's a life-or-death, mission critical situation. That's what all the records indicate, at least.

Movie #316: John Carter

John Carter is a sci-fi movie starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, and Mark Strong. It's based on the A Princess of Mars novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it's really underrated.

The titular Carter (Kitsch) is a former cavalryman who just wants to find his cave o' gold and retire and bad all sad. He winds up accidentally getting transported to Barsoom (Mars), and is immediately captured by the four-armed, green Tharks, the chieftain of which (Dafoe) spares him because he's a compassionate sort. Carter, superstrong and agile due to mumblemumblegravitysomething, makes a nuisance of himself, makes friends with an awesome Martian dog-thing, and saves the life of the Princess of Mars, Deja (Collins). Just so happens she's also a scientist, and tries to send him home to Jasoom, but really just wants to use his kickass fighting prowess to win the war against Sab Than (West), the evil overlord of the Predator City.

So, at the guts of it, it's pretty much a "white savior" movie, except that the culture that the white dude comes in and saves isn't a real one, and he doesn't do it by adopting their ways and becoming better at them but because he has super powers.

This movie was a box office disappointment for Disney, but I really do feel like they fucked themselves out of the money. The movie's a little long, but not so much that it drags, and the plot is a little convoluted, what with the Therns and the bad guys and good guys all being vaguely red white people, but my kids followed it just fine, and you get enough exposure to the various cultures to get a sense of them. I think that Disney really just didn't put enough time into appropriately marketing the movie, and, of course, A Princess of Mars or even John Carter of Mars would have been a lot more interesting a title than John Carter.

I think Kitsch is OK as Carter, though perhaps not exceptional. I like Collins as Deja Thoris, who manages to convey someone who's trying to hold on to her life and her integrity even if she's in a circumstance she can't stomach. Mark Strong is appropriately, calmly menacing as Matai Shang, the lead Thern. The movie's effects are a lot of fun, and Woola, the Martian version of my dog Si, are always good for a laugh.

It's good pulp fantasy, and it's a shame the Disney didn't know what to do with it.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Judgment at Nuremberg

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Character Creation: One Shot (Also, Why I Chargen)

So, back when I started this project, I was doing a character a day. That was in June 2008 (yep, seven years!), and that was the month Cael was born. It was also the year I graduated from grad school, meaning it was the first year I worked at Gallagher. Work from White Wolf was in something of a dry spell; I was working, but it didn't have nearly the pace or load of my current work. And of course, curse the darkness was but a twinkle in my brain, so no Growling Door stuff.

Over the years, I've gone through various degrees of productivity with this project. The people that started it with me back in the day (+John Kennedy+Stew Wilson+Mark Stone) have all let it lapse. BUT NOT ME.

I'll never finish. But this chargen project does a couple of important things.

One, it keeps me aware of my biases. I get trends in the characters I'm making, and that shows me where my brain is. Two, it makes me do research. I don't really know shit about shit, but a few minutes on Wiki and I can bluff it, and that's useful to me as a GM and a writer. Three, it keeps me reading games. I can't tell you how many people I see who have never played anything but d20/GURPS/Fate/WoD, and man, broaden your goddamn horizons. A friend of mine started a thread on RPG.net saying that his group wanted to play Night's Black Agents, but that they refuse to learn any new systems so he wanted advice on converting it into (hurl) Spycraft 2.0. I couldn't post my response, which was "don't."

Anyway! Yesterday I told +Michelle to say "stop" at a random point while I ran my hand over one of my bookshelves, and we stopped on...

The Game: One Shot
The Publisher: Sand & Steam, now reborn as Exploding Rogue
Degree of Familiarity: None.
Books Required: Just the one.

One Shot is a game designed for two people, a player and a GM. That's a style of gaming that I very much see the need for, but that I personally don't have much use for. I feel weird roleplaying with just one person; I've done it, but usually in the context of a Seeking for Mage: The Ascension or something similar.

One Shot asks you to create a Shooter, a person who has been wronged and has been given the opportunity by the otherworldly Forces to right that wrong by shooting someone. It's a story of revenge and blind rage, and it's a really cool, simple, idea. I think it works perfectly with the notion of a single player and a GM. Again, not my thing, but this expression of it is a great idea.

The implementation, to my mind, is a little lacking. The book is all of 22 pages (6x9). It doesn't include an example of play, and while there is a fiction example running through the book that's pretty nice, I don't come away with a solid idea of how the game would run. The GM (or "Forces") gets very generalized advice, mostly "put obstacles in the Shooter's way" and "relationships are important," but there's very little concrete instruction on how any of that should look in play at a table.

With that in mind, I think the idea of putting a group of Shooters together (having already fulfilled their obligation to the Forces) and having the Forces use them as a kind of hollowpoint-esque strike team would be pretty badass. Great, like I need another game idea.

Anyway, character creation is simple (has to be, game's only 20 pages long). We start with Name, which is usually where I end, but I'm good either way. My guy's name is John Blaisdale, aka "Blaze." Blaze is a former MMA fighter, so that can be his Expertise. He's studied jiu jitsu, Krav Maga, karate, and whatever else would look cool. I get a +2 whenever my Expertise applies.

I get three Tags, which are little details and aspects about the character. They can apply positive or negatively. Blaze is Inked (lots of tats, which I promise won't become a theme); Hot-Tempered, and Quick.

Now I get three Relationships. These are supposed to be relationships that stand in the way of Blaze getting his revenge. Well, shit, let's make this hard. First up is his daughter Amethyst "Amy" Blaisdale. Amy lives with her mother most of the year, but was staying with Dad when it happened (what happened? I'll get to that). She's 12.

Next, Rodrigo Montes, his trainer and manager. Rodrigo is half-Brazilian, and was a contender himself until his knee got broken in a car accident. He took Blaze on as a pupil.

Finally, Dr. Christie Mayer. Christie lost her license a few years back after she got caught selling prescription pads, but does underground work for fighters and gangsters and so on. She and Blaze had an affair, and that was what ended his marriage.

Now the Target. Who is Blaze gonna kill? Hmm. The obvious choice would be, like, a drug dealer or a rival fighter or something. But I keep thinking, what if this were a movie? I'd want to see Blaze beat ass before he gets to the Big Bad, and the final fight with said Big Bad could either be a final fight with some serious bone crunching, or it could be a Kill Bill-esque conversation-followed-by-one-strike. So I'm gonna say my Target is a fight promoter. Her name is Glasia "Glacier" Erlington. She was a fighter herself, and retired before she got her brain knocked loose to become a fight promoter and arranger. She was called "Glacier" partially as a play on her name, but also because she was slow and patient in the ring, but solid and strong like whoa.

She tried to recruit Blaze, and she wasn't nice about it. Blaze refused; he liked his arrangement with Montes and he was thinking about getting out anyway. She got insistent and talked some shit about his daughter, and Blaze (hot-tempered as always) got in her face. Her boys grabbed him and threw him out a window into a dumpster.

(And now Background, but I'm already rolling, here.)

Blaze woke up on Dr. Christie's table. His legs were broken, so were his wrists. But then a man walked in the door with pretty blue eyes and a bullet, and offered Blaze the deal - take the bullet, be healed, and kill Glacia Erlington.

Glacia is behind a phalanx of experienced fighters. Blaze doesn't care. He's got one bullet in a revolver, and that's the only shot he's going to take.

Of course, Christie thinks he's nuts. Montes wants him to go to the police. And his daughter just wants him to come home.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Character Creation: Verge

Best-laid plans. I'd really meant to do more characters, but then I always do.

Ah, well. As always, all we can do is better.

The Game: Verge
The Publisher: Peril Planet
Degree of Familiarity: None, really.
Books Required: Just the one.

Verge is one of the many games I got from the Haiti bundle a long time ago. It was created in a "make an RPG in 24 hours" challenge, I think the same one that gave us Shambles.

So, Verge is a quick little game, which the Peril Planet site says is getting developed into a larger one. It's billed as "fantasypunk," and unlike a lot of games that use the -punk suffix, this one actually tries to live it. The setting has an industrial revolution, and people rebel against conformity and erasure by trying to make themselves stand out visually.

The game explains the City, and the Cage (a huge-ass wall going around the City). Everyone is crammed into the City like sardines and it's making shit tense. There are monsters outside the walls that hate the City's inhabitants because of all the clear-cutting they've been doing. And graffiti talking about someone called "Keeton" shows up around the city periodically. Is Keeton a revolutionary? An evil spirit? Who knows!

Well! Having dug out the character sheet I printed off, I'm ready to get to work. I have the beginnings of a character concept.

Fittingly, I'm asked to start with a Concept. The book gives a few examples, but I want to play a tattoo artist. I note, though, that the Concepts listed don't all deal with professions; most of them define how you engage with the City and its issues. I think I'll play a Creep, kind of an information broker/trader. That doesn't preclude me being a tattooist. I figure people talk a lot when they're in pain.

I appreciate that the author mentions making characters together. It's such a simple thing, and it makes such a difference.

Right, now Stats. I have 15 points to split up between Strength, Wits, Grace (manual dexterity and such), Attitude (charisma, willpower, etc.), and Prowess (fightin' skill). I can't go over 5 in any one Stat.

Well, as a tattooist I think I want a high Grace, so I'll put that at 5. That leaves me with 10. I'll put 3 into Attitude, 2 each into Wits and Prowess, and that leaves 3 for Strength, right? Right!

Now, Edges. Edges are kind of like Aspects in Fate games or...characteristics, I think, in Dogs in the Vineyard. They're either reputations or secrets, and I have to have at least one reputation. I get five points to split up among them, so I could take five one-point edges if I wanted. Interestingly, although edges can be objects or tools, they're still reputations or secrets, so I guess it's a thing people know you have vs. a thing they don't know you have?

Well, I'll take "Inked Pig Tattoo Shop" as a two-point reputation. I'll take "Creep Diary," a leatherbound book in which he writes all the secrets people tell him, as a 2-point secret. And I'll take "Life displayed in tattoos" as a reputation; he's covered in tats, head to foot.

Health is Strength + 1, or 4 in my case. Reputation is (highest Stat - lowest Stat), or 3 in my case.

And then I need an Agenda, something I want to accomplish in the City. I think my character wants to sell his Creep Diary, once it's full, and retire to the comfortable, rich section of town.

And that's it, other than a name. Let's call him Orson.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Beast: Session One

This chronicle needs a name. I'd use "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," but that's already taken. Hmm. As you'll see, the game is doing what I wanted; characters are getting established in their neighborhoods, events are unfolding slowly. It's clear from last night's session that I'm probably gonna need to have a man with a gun kick the door in at some point, but I actually have an idea on that. I think Roots in the Community hits the note I want.

Anyway! Our story begins on May 22, 2009. It's Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and folks are gearing up for a little break. Miriana Kyle is packing up her car to go camping. John Dawson is coaching his Little League team. Tyler Townsend is closing up his curios shop for the weekend. Maia Wallis is getting ready to go out.

All of them are doing normal things. All of them have monsters in their souls. For the moment, all of their Horrors are Sated.

Tyler leaves the light in the display case on as bait, and goes to the hookah bar across the street. He waits for a while, and sees a slim figure in a hoodie walk by his shop, stop, walk up to the door, try it, take a picture with a cell phone, and then walk away. Tyler tails the individual to an apartment a few blocks away, and notes the number. Maybe this person is just interested in buying something. Maybe Tyler will have to punish a thief.

Dawson finishes up the practice, noting which parents are there cheering for their kids and which ones stay on their cell phones the whole time, ignoring what's going on. He doesn't need to feed right now, but he notes which of his charges might need to get lost for a few hours at some point, just enough to make their parents take notice.

Maia goes down to 4th Street, where crowds are already drinking and partaking of the hip new restaurants beginning to spring up (this trend continues, by the way; Cleveland has a fun food scene). A young man named Ryan approaches her - suit and jacket, tie tucked into a pocket, obviously a young capitalist type. She flirts and accepts his offers. She doesn't know yet if he's going to be her next boyfriend; it depends on what he needs to learn. They eat and flirt, and then head over to the warehouse district to go clubbing. Maia notices posters on the wall with a picture of a woman in a top hat, and the words "DOCTOR BONES - I CAN HEAL YOU" underneath, along with some tear-offs with a phone number. She grabs one.

Miriana hears a knock at her door. Her neighbor, Elle King, asks if she'll come over and discuss something with her. She agrees, and Elle asks for her help in finding homes for her cats (she has...more than a few). Miriana agrees, but asks why she's getting rid of them. Elle says she doesn't want to, but at her age (82) it's good to plan. Miriana gets the feeling something else is going on, but she agrees to help out. She goes home and makes some calls, lines up some no-kill shelters who will take the cats, and as she does, she realizes that Elle looks healthier than she's been in a long time. Musing on that, she goes back over to Elle's and tells her what she's learned.

Tyler goes over to John's house and watches the Indians game with him, drinking beer and chatting. They talk about John's Little League team and any Beast-related actions John might be; Tyler points out that the kind of trauma John inflicts doesn't always have the intended effect of bringing families closer. John agrees, but at least it gives them the chance.

Maia and her new beau Ryan are waiting to get into a club, and hear sirens. As they watch, they see a man round the corner on foot, fleeing a squad car. Maia surreptitiously trips the guy, figuring he'll just be arrested, but the cops jump out of the car and immediately taze him, and then whack him with nightsticks a couple of times. Maia, outraged, films it, but the cops don't take much notice; they cuff the guy and toss him in the car. Maia expresses her feelings to Ryan, but he shrugs it off. Probably a drug dealer, he says. So what. Maia realizes this guy might actually be something of a schmuck, and is cheered by that thought.

The night progresses. Tyler and John continue drinking and chatting. Miriana builds a fire in her yard and watches for Elle's lights to go out. Maia and Ryan get to the club and dance, and Maia sees her friend Mikhail (a Ventrue). They chat a bit; Maia mentions what happened with the cops, and Mikhail points out that the Cleveland PD has a horrible track record with violence against civilians, one of the worst in the country. They part ways, and Maia goes back to dancing.

Back in Parma, Elle spends evening on the phone with various people, laughing and occasionally crying, and then goes to bed. Miriana breaks in (not that the door was locked) and snoops a bit. She finds a stack of papers on the desk, including a will, and letters to family and friends. Elle is definitely putting her affairs in order, but she seems so hale and healthy - even her arthritis is clearing up. She finds a tear-off slip of paper next to the phone, and takes it back to her house to call it.

A woman answers. Miriana stalls a bit, and the woman asks if she needs a doctor. Miriana arranges to meet her near a homeless shelter downtown. When she meets Doctor Bones, she realizes immediately that she is some kind of supernatural being, but not one that she has met before (to Miriana, she kind of smells sweet and floral). They talk, and Bones talks about how people have a flow of energy through them, like light, but injury and sickness acts like mirrors, reflecting it out of its intended path. She can correct that. Miriana, noting that this sounds a little New-Agey, asks if there's a cost. Bones says there isn't. Mirana asks why she does it, then. Bones says, "because I can."

That seems kind of suspicious, so Miriana heads back to Parma and drops in on John and Tyler, and tells them about what she saw. Maia rolls in short after and she and Miriana note they both have Bones' number, so they decide to meet her the next day. For now, though, it's late. Tyler swings by his shop on the way home and sees someone has broken in and stolen a brass spyglass in the front display. Perfect.

He visits the presumed thief, and sees her on the phone. He knocks on her door, but she tells him to go sleep it off somewhere else (he doesn't say why he's there), and he decides to wait and hit whoever she fences the object to.

The next day, he waits until she leaves and trails her to a dive bar. He watches her sell the spyglass to a man, and then Tyler waits and tails him. This guy notices him, though, and leads him into an alley to warn him off. Tyler tells him to give back what he took, the man says he bought it and refuses to give it back. He pulls out a sap.

Tyler, in no mood to fuck around, uses his Dragonfire Atavism and sets the guy alight. He runs a little ways before he remembers to stop, drop, and roll, and Tyler picks up the bag and leaves. Unfortunately, his Horror isn't interested in this meal (player failed the Satiety roll and took the dramatic failure), so Tyler is even hungrier now. Fortunately he knows someone else to punish.

Meanwhile, John does a little digging. He uses the cell phone number to look up who Doctor Bones really is - her name is Grace Macintyre, and up until a couple of years ago, she was a teacher at Cleveland Clinic and a respected doctor. Then a former patient kicked in her office door and shot her in the chest. The article says it was a "miracle" she survived. John knows better; he met Alistair Hodge once, and knows a few things about Sin-Eaters.

Knowing that these folks help people pass on, the Beasts feel a little better about Doctor Bones. They go downtown and meet her again, and John confirms upon seeing her that she is, in fact, a Sin-Eater (Maia has never met one). They talk a bit, and Miriana reveals that she's not a normal person (but doesn't get into the specifics). They ask about Grace's intentions, but she says that when people die and leaves ghosts, they are typically consumed by negative emotion. Wouldn't it be better to put some things in order before it reaches that point, free of injury or illness? The Beasts are OK with that, and John and Miriana start the process of establishing Family Ties with Grace (it takes some time; they get one roll per day).

Meanwhile, Tyler goes back to the thief's house. She's on her couch, smoking a bowl. He breaks in and hits her with the You Cannot Run Nightmare, and then grabs her head and carves a T into her cheek (for thief). Hungry and pissed off, he spends a Satiety to inflict the Fugue Condition on her, as well, grabs the money she got, and leaves, his Horror happily feasting (he's up to six Satiety; didn't quite crack out of Sated).

He goes downtown and meets up with the others for lunch. It's a nice day for it.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Movie #315: Jewel of the Nile

Jewel of the Nile is the sequel to Romancing the Stone (we'll get R eventually), and stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Spiro Focas, and Avner Eisenberg. It's so 80s it hurts.

Jack (Douglas) and Joan (Turner) have retired to a life of sailing around the world, following their pulpy adventures in the first movie, but Joan is dissatisfied and Jack is stubborn. Joan, stuck on her latest crappy novel, gets an invite from Omar Khalifa (no reference at all to Momar Gadaffi) to write his biography. Turns out he's about to take over...Africa, I guess? He does that by kidnapping a holy man named "the Jewel of the Nile" (Eisenberg), who I guess is supposed to be Sufi. In the mix is Ralph (DeVito), Jack's frenemy out for revenge and profit.

The big misunderstanding throughout the movie is that the "Jewel" is a literal jewel, rather than a man, and that actually becomes a plot point when Joan refuses to tell Jack the truth because she thinks he'll hit the road if there's no profit, which isn't terribly charitable of her. The group goes through various misadventures until the Jewel returns to his people, Omar gets knocked off a building into some fire, the Flying Karamazov brothers, inexplicably playing Arabs, juggle some knives, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This movie is a really good example of "ah, fuck it, let's make a sequel, we've got all this coke." The plot is pretty thin, the notion of the "Jewel" being a holy man is kind of interesting but it never really goes anywhere. Jewel doesn't have anything deep or interesting to say, he just does a couple of magic tricks ("miracles") and all the men in Kadir worship him (the women are apparently there, judging by the screams, but are never shown). There are some fairly significant plot holes, and Omar's obviously never read the 101 rules of being an evil mastermind, but hell, at least Whodini is on the soundtrack.

Joan doesn't quite get damseled; she gets captured and otherwise inconvenienced a lot, but no more or less than Jack, so it's got that going for it.

My grade: D
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: John Carter

What Do Characters Do?

I hear this question a lot during game design. In a lot of circles, it's kind of a gold standard - what do characters do? It's a shorthand way of asking what the point of the game is, I think, or a way to encapsulate the play experience in an easy sentence.

I think it can be a useful question, but I also think that not every game is set up to answer it. Interestingly, the games that I hear it about the most often (World of Darkness games, because those are the games I spend the most time working on) are some of the games that the question isn't terribly useful for.

I started running the World of Darkness with Wraith: The Oblivion, and one of the issues I had was "OK, what does a session of Wraith look like?" It wasn't that I didn't know what characters "did". I got that from the text; characters could do any number of things. They could interact with their Fetters, pursue their Passions, or they could become involved with the politics in Stygia if messing with the Skinlands wasn't their thing (I very rarely dealt with Stygia politics, for the record). Finding things for the characters to "do" wasn't hard, but figuring out how to start, and what might happen within a session wasn't immediately intuitive.

Some of that is because the two RPGs I started with (Marvel Superheroes and Chill) were very genre- and mission-focused. Marvel was a superheroes game, and I was playing it in elementary school and high school, so we were doing basic comic emulation. Lots of fights, lots of grandiose scheming by villains. Transitioning to Chill was kind of strange because when I started, I wasn't as familiar with horror, but Chill had an awesome bibliography/filmography section, so I wasn't hurting for reference.

Plus, both of those games had something that later games really don't - prewritten scenarios out the wazoo. Chill included at least one in every sourcebook, and Marvel had all kinds of "modules" published. Sure, they were usually written with particular heroes in mind, but that was easy enough to fix (one of the reasons I didn't buy more books for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, despite being a big fan of the game, is that I don't have any interest in running or playing established comic characters), and some of the best ones focused on a sub-genre (street level, cosmic power) and let you use your own characters. Chill, meanwhile, showed good use of timelines (as in, how things progress if the characters don't get involved).

Getting into the World of Darkness was jarring, then, because it gave me a much more intricately imagined world, but asked me to populate it and decide what was important. Where the games I'd been running were plot-focused, now I was being asked to make the games character-focused. I didn't know it, but this was part of a larger evolution happening in RPGs, moving from the "go out and kill things and get XP and gold" mindset of Dungeons & Dragons into the "tell a cool story" mindset of later games.

Bringing this back to the question of what the characters do, I think that question is actually more useful for XP-focused games like D&D or mission-focused games like Chill. Both games are about the events that happen to the characters, rather than the characters themselves (and yes, I'm aware that either game can focus on the characters, but I'm talking about the games as presented in their books).

World of Darkness games, generally, ask for a more character-focused experience, and as such I think "what do the characters do?" isn't as useful a question. I saw someone on a forum recently posit that Changeling: The Lost has trouble with that notion, because the answer to the question is "hide from the Gentry." That's a really reductive analysis of Changeling, but it does kind of highlight what I'm talking about. You can cook any World of Darkness game down to a one-sentence mission statement to answer the "what do they do?" question, but it rarely provides enough of a hook to get players involved, at least in my opinion.

Let's take Vampire, for example. Vampire has, in most of its incarnations, been a difficult game for players to wrap their brains around, because vampires are monsters. So, "what do vampires do?" Vampires feed on people, and they play politics.

Now, I've run a lot of Vampire over the years, and those statements don't even come close to covering what I've seen players do in the game. They feed, sure, but that's an atmosphere-establishing scene at best. Playing hunting and feeding scenes was fun when we first started playing Vampire (back in 1997 or so; remember I started with Wraith), but after a while you just start abstracting feeding scenes because they just take a bunch of time if you play through them. That's interesting, though; it's an answer to "what do characters do?", but the novelty wears off.

How about "play politics?" First of all, that doesn't tell you much on its face. It's not like "play politics" is an activity with much definition. Vampire: The Masquerade had a particular feel politically because the characters were all Camarilla (I mean, Sabbat games could be political, but the politics tended to be different and involve more beating people with shovels). Requiem, on the other hand, brings in different covenants and asks the group to figure out what's true in a given area. In both instances, though, "play politics" is a very general thing, and the specifics, the answer to "what do the characters do?" need to be determined in play.

I think that's actually the crux of it. The relevant question for a lot of games, World of Darkness in particular, isn't "what do the characters do?" but "what do these characters do?" That might seem like a cop-out, but I think it focuses the attention on the parts of the game that need it. It tells you that it's not enough to make characters and drop them into a setting and let them go. You need to create enough of the setting that they have something to interact with.

This is why I like games that include collaborative setting creation. Dresden Files RPG has a really good city creation system, but most Fate games actually fall into this category, as do *World games and a lot of the indie stuff I enjoy. It's not just because it takes some heat off the GM, although I definitely do appreciate that, too. It's because if the players help create the setting, they know it. They're already hooked in. They know what there is to know. The alternative is to be told, either in a big infodump at the beginning of a game (which the players promptly forget, in my experience) or to be told during play (which leads to awkward moments where characters don't know things they should know, because the players haven't been told).

I've always been of the opinion that RPGs are best when the players become involved, when they make decisions about the setting and the world, and when they take their characters and apply them to the setting, rather than having the setting happen around their characters. I think if you look at the design work I've done (curse the darkness, Promethean: The Created, Demon: The Descent, and now Beast: The Primordial), it's always been a priority for me, even if I haven't articulated it as such. Get the players involved. Make the game about these characters, rather than any given group of characters. That means giving more weight to the setting and the themes of the game. Maybe the question is better phrased as "what is there for the characters to do?"

Beast: The Primordial - The Skull Beneath the Skin

I'm running this game at GenCon, so if you're one of the six people playing, or you're thinking of, like, subduing them Hitman style and disguising yourself as one of them, don't read this.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Movie #314: Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire is a drama starring Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jay Mohr, and Bonnie Hunt. It's got some sports in it.

Jerry Maguire (Cruise) is a sports agent and kind of a sleazeball. He has a bit of a breakdown and writes a "mission statement" that encourages fewer clients, less money, and is, obviously, immediately fired. He tries to take his clients with him, but his even sleazier protege Bob (Mohr) snakes them, leaving him with only Rod Tidwell (Gooding Jr.), a football player who...is good but loud-mouthed, I guess? The only employee who follows Maguire out is an accountant named Dorothy (Zellweger).

The movie follows Maguire's attempts to get Tidwell a better paying contract and his relationship with Dorothy and her young song (Jonathan Lipnicki). He marries her for convenience, and then realizes he actually does love her, and has the sweet speech that ends with her saying "You had me at hello."

But really, what makes the movie work is the relationships, and that's kinda what the movie is about - Maguire, and Rod, Maguire and Dorothy, Rod and his wife Marcee (Regina King), Dorothy and her sister (Hunt), and so on. Cameron Crowe plays with light and focus, too, to the point that when Maguire and Dorothy are together and happy, they're glowing. It's a sweet movie.

What's funny is, I saw it years ago, and I remembered the mission statement and I remember Tidwell's "injury" but almost nothing else. I still couldn't tell you why Tidwell is suddenly offered a big contract - because he...scored in an important game, I guess? I don't understand sports at all, really.

Anyway, Gooding Jr. won an Oscar for this role, Cruise was nominated, Zellweger got her career on track, and so it's kind of a notable movie in that respect. Also Patton Oswalt has a funny routine about it.

My grade: B+
Rewatch Value: Low

Next up: Jewel of the Nile