Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Bigger is Better

Leo Jenicek is a writer, improv comedian, gamer, game designer, and a very good friend of mine whom I RPG with on a regular basis. He was the key force behind the D&D, Actual Play Podcast Comedy series The Pod of Many Casts, and definitely knows a great burger joint when he sees one. 

If you're not familiar with Leo Jenicek and his writing, well, your life is simply not as fulfilling and enjoyable as mine. Pity. It's not too late though as Leo has a blog that is well worth your time to check out.

A recent post on said blog got me thinking and I've decided to put forth my thoughts in a post of my own. My opinion is different from Leo's. This is not because I think that Leo's sentiments are incorrect. Rather, I'm simply of a variant mindset and I'd like to share my viewpoint with all of you just as he did. 

The core of Leo's post is that it can be difficult to get a sizable group of gamers together for a session and that's OK because smaller groups are awesome.

There is certainly more to it then that and Leo gives a number of solid reasons why he feels less is more when it comes to the number of players at a gaming table. All of his reasons make a lot of sense and I actually think that from a practical and logical standpoint most people would have to agree with him. Certain things are just true and make sense regardless of how one feels about them. 

And then there's how my brain works...

For me personally, smaller groups really aren't to my liking. In fact, I prefer a group size many GMs find a tad unwieldy. I have discussed this on my blog in the past but maybe not in as dedicated a way as I am going to do here.

First, what's considered a small group, a standard group, and a large group? While there are no definitive stats, I would say a small group is roughly 2-4 people, a standard group is around 5 or 6, and a large group is 7 or more. 

Throughout my 42 years in the RPG hobby I've run a considerable number of large groups. While standard size gatherings were indeed the...um...standard...I've had numerous campaigns with groups of anywhere between 7 and 11 people. 

Now, let me explain why this was [and is] the case.

From as early as 1978, when players needed a GM, most of my friends preferred to play and handed the reins to whomever was willing to run.  I was one of those people and over time I found I liked Gamemastering more than playing. When my truly formative gaming years came along* - roughly 1980-1990 - the dynamic changed slightly. Most gamers I knew would still rather play but the GMs seemed even more scarce. When you found them, nearly all wanted to run D&D. Furthermore, they weren't all good. 

At the time, I was considered a really good GM. People wanted to be in games I ran. I very rarely ran D&D. People came to my table because they wanted a talented GM to run something different. As it turned out, there were a lot of those people.

If I announced I was running a Star Wars game, a Mekton campaign, or something else popular with my gaming buddies (who were also Art, Anime, Comic Book, and Sci-Fi fans), I could easily end up with 9 people asking to join in. Instead of turning some people away, I just said yes to everybody.

This happened again and again. Over time I developed a style that not only accommodated the larger group sizes I was getting but I also found certain advantages inherent in the greater numbers. Through the process of trail and error over many one-shots, short and long campaigns, I discovered that my games run with large groups were generally superior to the ones with very few players. 

The majority of the plot material I use in any given campaign is based on or connected to the backgrounds of the PCs. I take the plots and subplots of the Player Characters' backstories and intertwine them into the setting, the NPCs, and what is going on in the overall narrative. The more PCs I have, the more material and interconnecting stories I have to work with. The more material I have, the longer I can keep the game going and the more involved and rich it's going to be.

Fewer players means less material to work with. Less material means a world that is less rich, less developed, and less alive.

I also found there is more depth of character when there are more players. I've noticed that with fewer PCs, more NPCs are needed. PCs end up interacting with those NPCs, which really means interacting with the GM, instead of interacting with each other. This isn't how it should work but in my experience this is what happens. In my experience more PCs means less NPCs are needed. As a result we get more scenes of players as their PCs talking among themselves.

Another benefit is one of speed. This is one of those bits that may seem counterintuitive at first but bear with me. Most people feel that fewer players means a faster round of activity, especially combat. It won't take long to get back to the first player if there are only one or two players after them.

In practice I've found that this causes/allows each player to take their sweet time in figuring out what they want to do. It takes each of my 4 players a good while to decide, or at least to describe, their course of action in my bi-weekly Star Trek campaign. In comparison, the 6 guys in my Ghostbusters one-shot a few weeks back snapped out moves at lightning speed. Why? My thought is that with a small number of players, none of them feel the pressure of needing to get their move done so their friend can get a turn. In a big group, being aware that you have a larger number of people to get through, each player keeps it short, sweet, and to the point unless absolutely necessary. 

Those are the main points I have on the subject. Less is definitely more in many cases but I don't feel player group size is one of them. I've always been a fan of fiction with a large cast of characters and that probably factors into my opinions here as well. 

How about you? What is your perfect group size? How many is too many? Anyone else prefer a large group? Let me know in the comments.


Until next time,

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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Thorough Thursdays : CITY OF HEROES

Prior to this post I have only mentioned City of Heroes, the Massive Multi-player Computer Role Playing Game launched by NCSOFT in 2004, a mere handful of times. It seems only a single entry with that title as a tag has ever been posted and after reading the entry, I really have not idea why that is the one place I decided to place said tag. 

That's just wrong. 






It's difficult to know exactly where to begin in describing what City of Heroes meant and means to me. 

At the time City of Heroes was released I was living with my then girlfriend, now ex-wife, and it was one of the many things we enjoyed doing together. It was very much an 'us' activity. Sure we'd both go on and play solo (by ourselves) every now and then but we generally preferred to operate as a team. 






The Midnight Hour and Lady Touche'

Illustration for a City of Heroes based
Mutants and Masterminds campaign






The Midnight Hour Returns!


One day, fairly early in our progress in the game, our dynamic duo ended up biting off more than we could chew, accidentally drawing in two huge gangs of street thugs. Just when all seemed lost, a machine gun-toting Iron Man look alike fellow showed up and helped us clean the streets of those dirty crooks. 

The player of this character who eventually become a real life friend who remains so to this day. 

When my ex-wife and I separated and divorced, I couldn't bring myself to play the game again for a very long time. Even when I did eventually go back to it, I would never stay long. I had lost my love of the game as it reminded me too much of her and better times that were now over.

Eventually some friends who had also left and gone back for various reasons got me to return from time to time and we had a blast. Sadly, the game itself had changed so much and so many other MMOs had come out to steal its thunder (namely World of Warcraft) that while fun to return to periodically, it just wasn't the same. 

Recently the operators of a private server released the Source Code for City of Heroes, allowing any individual to host their own servers and start the game up again and indeed people have. I jumped at the chance to tussle with Hellions on the mean streets of Paragon City and try to rebuild (or even improve on) some of my favorite old characters. 





This looks like a job for...
Captain Superpower!


City of Heroes was always different from other MMOs in my experience because it was a game for Superhero fans by people who clearly understood Superheroes. While you definitely ran into the typical MMORPG players, you more often than not ran into people like yourself; players who made fun characters in cool costumes with names like Mister Patriot, Neutrino Woman, and Tachyon Flare, who were stoked to fly over the world presented, swooping down to save a citizen from a horde of zombies or do battle with clockwork robots.

That same feeling remains. While I am not the die hard MMO fan I was when City of Heroes was at its height, it was City of Heroes that got me into MMOs and made me a fan, so I can't help but smile as I sprint through Atlas Park, run along the elevated train tracks, and leap around staring at all the great costume designs my fellow heroes are sporting. 

If you were a fan of this awesome game back in the day, come on back and feel the rush of nostalgia. If you've never tried it but you are a fan of Superheroes and Computer Games, what are you waiting for? It's free to download and play and crime isn't going to fight itself!






Tell them Starguard sent you!
Verily!



Up, up, and away!

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Monday, May 6, 2019

Somebody Wake Up Hicks

I recently received a foreboding transmission from Gateway Station. It seems some Offworld Colonists have detected something unusual...





Fria Ligan, the Swedish RPG Publisher known as 'Free League' in English, has the rights to produce an officially licensed Alien RPG and I am so stoked I feel like my chest is going to burst. Wait...

I've already got possible scenarios, NPC concepts; I've got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs; we got sonic, electronic ball breakers! I got nukes, I got knives, sharp sticks...

Sorry. Where was I?

For those of you unfamiliar with Free League's work, they are the publishers of a number of excellent RPGs including Mutant Year Zero and a favorite of mine, Tales from The Loop. I really enjoy Tales from The Loop and it's related products and I'm extremely curious to see how a similar system would be adapted to the Alien universe.

In an interview with Plot Points PodcastFree League Designer and Writer Tomas Harenstam gives some intriguing insight into the upcoming Alien game, including basic mechanics, approach, and supplements. 

Most interesting to me was that the focus of the game seems to be on the original film, 1979's Alien, with options that expand the setting to the 1986 Aliens sequel. They aren't saying the other films in the franchise didn't happen but they aren't really covering them either (at least when the game releases). One way to look at it is that the game covers a particular part of the Alien universe timeline, possibly based on what was known by a particular corporate or government body at the time. 

Personally this is fine by me. In my mind only the first and second films are canon. I was disappointed in the subsequent films and really didn't like the Prometheus and Covenant movies at all. 




Box Art for Alien: Isolation Video and Computer Game
Produced by SEGA

I would probably include the computer/video game Alien: Isolation as canon (semi-canon?) as I really enjoyed it and felt it had the right feel. Beyond that I would be really picky. 

Part of what Harenstam mentioned in his interview was that the game would have two different 'modes' of play. In Cinematic Mode, good for one-shots, convention games, and streaming, the PCs are likely to die with maybe one or two survivors a la' a Horror Film type situation. In Campaign Mode, longer term play is possible and the Xenomorphs are not the only threat or scenario one can encounter in the universe. 

Early information on the initial supplements for the RPG cover books on Space Truckers (The Nostromo crew), the Colonial Marines (Another glorious day in the Corps!), and (get this) Explorers. That last one would be new but would also make sense. Who are the Survey Teams and Scientific Research Groups who study exoplanets and their ecologies for possible colonization or any resources to benefit the corporations? I mean, Space Exploration + Alien Universe = Count Me In!





So talk to me, who's excited? What would you do with it?


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A Happy Refrain

It's no secret that I love The Orville







Now that the second season of the show is complete, I am even more excited and motivated to run an Orville RPG campaign. Before I discuss the specifics of that idea, I like to take a look at the why of it and how Season 2 really cemented my interest. 

Now some might say, "Here he goes again, taking someone else's creation and making a post about using it as a game setting instead of creating his own."

To those people I say, "It's OK with me if you are not interested. There are other blogs you can check out that may be more to your liking. You are always welcome to come back any time."

After all, I totally understand that some people would rather read about adventures in a mind-blowing-ly original umpteenth pseudo-Europe with orcs, elves, and Conan-copies. Who wouldn't want to discuss initiative again? (And again, and again, and again...Zzzz)

This is what I like. I like Exploration themed Space Opera Sci-Fi. I like Social Commentary mixed with Starship Battles. I like Bright, Positive Futures. I like Humor. 

This is my jam. It need not be yours. If it is, cool. Let's chat.






Season 2 of The Orville was a very different animal from Season 1, though not so different as to be unrecognizable. It was clearly a continuation of the characters, setting, ideas, and style the show-runners developed from the beginning of the series but with the 'dials' adjusted to improve the overall product.

The second season turned the Science Fiction and Action/Adventures elements way up and the Comedy way down resulting in a balance that gave the show it's own unique identity and feel. More than a homage to Star Trek (and never a parody as some mistakenly assumed), The Orville Season 2 told episodic stories that nonetheless tied into several over-arching narratives introduced in the first season. 



WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Now let's engage the Quantum Drive!
It's time to wash your mouth out with Gordon!


Characters

The show's characters are perhaps it's strongest asset. Unlike another starship focused Space Exploration Sci-Fi show that shall go unnamed, this one actually spends time getting to know the ship's Captain and crew and letting us grow to like them. We even get to know the ancillary characters outside of the main crew, be they civilians, villains, or whathaveyou.

As the show progresses we understand each individual better and better and like or dislike them more. Yes, I said dislike. Not every character on the Orville is going to be your favorite character and some are actually going to piss you off sometimes. That said, by making you angry, the character in question still achieves the goal of making you want to see more of them. Will they go too far? Will they change their ways before it's too late?

Each character is different, flawed, and relatable because like us, they aren't perfect. 



Setting:

As a guy who loves World Building, I thoroughly applaud Season 2's efforts in that regard. Using what was introduced in Season 1 as a base, Season 2 expands upon practically every aspect of the Orville universe. 

The aggressive, antagonistic, religious zealot species, the Krill, are revealed to have enemies beyond just the Planetary Union. In a twist, a rudimentary treaty between the Union and Krill is established to deal with the even greater threat of the highly advanced, artificially intelligent Kaylon! Who are they? Well, one of their species, Isaac, has been serving aboard the Orville since the first episode. Whaa? That's not all! A further fleshing out of the Moclan culture reveals just how messed up it is and leads to them potentially seceding from the Union rather than recognizing and granting freedom to a portion of their populace. 

That's only the species we've already established. We're introduced to new species, how first contact works, how the Union deals with peace talks and times of war. New aliens enter the setting all the time, usually portrayed or at least voice but a notable guest star. 

We see more Union Fleet vessels (including Fighters!), the Union Council, new enemy ships, more alien worlds, time travel, new and ultra-cool uses of the Holographic Simulator, and so much more. 

Oh my gosh - I need them to confirm Season 3 so I can start preparing for an Orville campaign. Sorry. One track mind sometimes. 


Plots:

What impressed me most of all in The Orville's second season was how they kept making new episodes that reconnected with old ones from Season 1; they told new stories but simultaneously furthered long standing arcs. 

For example, the episode 'Primal Urges' deals with Moclan Second Officer Bortus experiencing a case of addiction to porn. It is revealed he developed the addiction after the Season 1 episode 'About A Girl'. When his mate Klyden wanted their newly born daughter changed into a male (as all Moclans are male except for rare 'defect' births) Bortus was angry and disappointed in Klyden and didn't want to be intimate with him (though clearly still felt the urge to be intimate). A later Season 2 episode, and one of my favorites, 'Sanctuary' stands completely separate from the previous episodes dealing with the issues between Klyden and Bortus and yet ties into them very strongly if not very directly. 

Basically there are some four or five episodes between the two seasons that deal with the Moclans and while each is it's own story, each is also part of the 'Moclan Plot Thread' as it were. 

This is awesome and reminds me very much of how I establish a narrative in my RPG adventures. There are different sessions with different encounters and goings on but many of these events tie into one or more greater 'meta-plots' developing in the background. 


All this just scratches the surface of how amazing this second season was. In addition to the more well developed characters, universe, and stories we got to see new alien Union Officers, incredible starship battles, fantastic VFX, great music, and so many guest appearances it blew my mind. F. Murray Abraham, Jason Alexander, Ted Danson, Marina Sirtis, Patrick Warburton, and Bruce Willis! Are you kidding me?! So cool. 

My desire to run an Orville game is stronger than ever, further aided by the announcement that WizKids is doing a set of The Orville HeroClix. What? You heard me. They are due out in September of this year. 

The only dark cloud as of this writing is that the series has not been officially picked up for a Season 3. There are many factors that may contribute this, most notably the Disney Fox Merger and the upcoming end of Seth MacFarlane's contract and the negotiations that go with that. 

Still and all, things look good. Clues, hints, and many a rumor point toward the series getting renewed. I have high hopes but like millions of other fans of the show, all I can do is wait.

I look forward to sharing good new with you all in the future.

UPDATE: First announced by an article on Entertainment Weekly's website and later confirmed by several sources including Deadline Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety, The Orville has been renewed for a 3rd Season! 

Congratulations to the creator, cast, and crew of The Orville and a deep, heartfelt thanks to the fans who kept the faith and spread the word. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Ja'loja!

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*The post title comes from the 6th Episode of Season 2, another absolute favorite of mine. 









Saturday, May 4, 2019

Rise and Shine

Happy May the 4th Everyone!






Star Wars Celebration 2019 took place in Chicago on April 11th through the 15th. 

As has been the case for the past 10 years, the event gathers fans from all over the world in one place to discuss, see, purchase, and just plain love anything and everything that is the Star Wars franchise. Including the European and Japanese events, there have been 13 Star Wars Celebrations to date. 

While I have never been able to attend myself, I am there in spirit. In spite of my feelings about The Last Jedi and some other elements of the Post-Disney acquisition films, I am still someone who just freaking loves Star Wars. 

According to what I heard and saw coming out of Celebration this year, there is a lot to love.







After the disappointment that was Episode VIII, I wasn't sure how excited I would be for Episode IX. I mean, it would be impossible for me not to be at least curious but real excitement was not guaranteed. Then I saw the trailer...

The thing is, no Star Wars trailer is going to be bad. These are professional movie making people who are good at creating exciting trailers. No trailer so far has been unexciting but clearly a great trailer doesn't guarantee a great movie (this is true of all trailers for all movies). 

This trailer did something a bit different from its predecessors though. It wasn't exciting so much as interesting and interesting is exactly what it needed to be to catch me. Following the film that snuffed out further development of some characters, eliminated reveals, and killed off legends, I wasn't sure there would be anything to make me say, "Boy oh boy, I can't wait to see this next one". I mean I really need to know what...um...who...er...I can wait. 

Now, well check out the trailer if you haven't already. The Rise of Skywalker looks really intriguing. What the heck is Rey doing with that TIE Fighter? Is that a piece of The Death Star?!? That laugh...What's up with that laugh?!?

Well played Star Wars. Well played. 


But that's not all...not by a long shot. There is also...






Even more than the next film, I am waiting with bated breath for the upcoming streaming series, The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian is something we've never seen before. It is a live-action TV series set in the Star Wars universe, featuring a character we don't yet know, in a time period we've not yet visited in film or animation. At the same time, it's all familiar.

We know the greater universe setting because we've seen it before and we love it. The Mandalorian looks like Boba Fett, who we know, because Boba Fett is a Mandalorian. The design, the feel, the atmosphere; it's all just like it's always been in our imaginations for decades. 

I can hardly wait to see this series. Oh yes, one last point, it is indeed a series and in my personal opinion I think that will benefit the concept and the fans. Instead of a movie which must introduce you to a bunch of characters, get you to care about them, deliver a plot, action, and a satisfying conclusion in a relatively limited period of time, a streaming series allows the people behind The Mandalorian (and we are talking about some very talented people) the time to truly flesh out all the elements and deliver a more thoroughly engaging product. 


Speaking of a series that delivers...






The incredible Clone Wars CGI animated series, which ran 6 seasons before being cancelled due to...um...I have no idea...corporate stupidity I assume...will be returning on Disney's Disney+ streaming service (the same home as the aforementioned Mandalorian series) with a full 12 episode Season 7. 

This makes me very happy. I am a huge fan of this series and it honestly somewhat makes up for the weak Prequel Trilogy. More so than that however is that it stands on it's own as an incredibly well done depiction of the Star Wars universe. It covers many elements beyond the Fairy-Tale-with-Spaceships theme (which for me is what Star Wars is really about) and yet it doesn't lose that aspect in favor of going too dark, too gritty, or too 'realistic'. I suppose one could say it is just dark, gritty, and realistic enough for a Star Wars story. 

I am seriously excited. Plus, more Ahsoka Tano! You can never have enough Ahsoka. 


There are certainly other interesting things happening in the world of Star Wars that I could talk about - from the Galaxy's Edge additions to the Walt Disney Theme Parks to the upcoming video game Fallen Order - but I am going to stop here for now as I've other subjects to get to. 

I tried to start a new Star Wars campaign a few months back but sadly I lost interest in it rather quickly. I thought some of the PCs and ideas were cool but my enthusiasm waned and never really built back up. Part of this was do to the common adult gamer problem of  scheduling issues but if I'm being honest I might have tried harder to make it work if I was really into the campaign. 

Maybe with some of the these new and revived projects coming out, my zest for running Star Wars again will also return. That's my hope anyway. It isn't A New Hope but at least there is a chance of a Return of The Jedi.

See that? See what I did there?

Ahem. 

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On a final sad note...




Peter Mayhew, the gentle giant of a man who portrayed Chewbacca throughout many incarnations of the Star Wars franchise, passed away of a heart attack at the age of 74 on April 30th of this year. 

Mayhew took the character of Chewbacca and made him not only a part of the team but a part of the film's family and our own families as well. The character couldn't speak English and the costume did not allow for much facial expression, but somehow Mayhew emoted. A tilt of the head, great body language, and a well place growl told us all we needed to know about Chewie. 

As a kid, Chewie was my favorite Star Wars character. Like Mr. Spock in Star Trek, Chewbacca was an alien hero fighting along side the Human heroes and treated as one of their own. This is an idea I find endlessly pleasing. 

Mayhew played the character not only in films and television appearances but at charity events for hospitals and other such venues. He wrote two children's books using his own experiences as an unusually tall individual to address bullying and being different. 

Rest in Peace Good Sir. No one is really gone as long as we remember them.