Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sufficiently Advanced

May is over, June has begun, and I am way behind on my self-assigned quota of new posts. 

Real life has been busy, I've been kinda down, and when I sit at my computer to write I inadvertently get distracted and lose focus in regards to what I wanted to say. This has been happening more and more lately. It's getting a bit discouraging. Or it would, if I wasn't highly focused in other areas. 

I am working on a new 'Blockbuster' campaign. It's going to be a big to-do with all the stops pulled out. The plan is to run it at The Compleat Strategist, my FLGS here in The Big Apple, beginning in July. I will tell you guys more about it as we get closer to the launch date. 

For now, let me shake out the cobwebs with a another post inspired by my pal Leo Jenicek. I mentioned Leo recently as he did an essay on his blog about preferring smaller gaming groups when it comes time to roll the dice and adventure into the unknown. I on the other hand like larger groups, even going so far as to enjoy a group size many other GMs find unwieldy. Here is his post and my 'counter-post' as it were. 

Now he posts on an subject I find particularly interesting; the idea that for the purposes of entertainment fiction (books, movies, RPGs, etc.), Magic and Advanced Science are essentially one and the same. Once again our viewpoints differ somewhat but I can totally see where he's coming from. Go check it out. It will not only be well worth your time, it will give this post extra context. 

Let's start where Leo starts...with Clarke's Third Law:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A caveat of sorts to this incredibly famous statement is that one must think carefully on the first part and what it means  - 'Sufficiently Advanced'. 

To be 'sufficiently advanced', advanced enough to seem like magic, it would have to be generations ahead of the prevailing level of technology available to the general populace. It would also, very specifically, have to be a technology that is sufficiently advanced to the viewer viewing the tech for that individual to think its magic.

For example, if you traveled back in time to the European Middle Ages with your cell phone you would clearly be marked a wizard, witch, or perhaps even a demon. Even without telecommunications access or the ability to connect to the internet, the small item in your hand may have saved images, videos, or music that could be displayed for the locals to see or hear. There was literally and figuratively nothing like it in the Medieval Period of Europe. Nothing even close. This device is sufficiently advanced to appear to be magic.

However, If you traveled to the late 1960s, the device, while still far beyond the technology of the time, would still be reasonably received as some advanced form of the telephone, walkie-talkie, cameras, computers, or even the television. It would seem amazingly advanced but I would argue that it would not seem like magic. 

Why? Because technology is the product of scientific understanding. It is what we, the Human species, can construct once we comprehend certain particulars in the fields of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, etc. The people of the Middle Ages did not possess anywhere near the level of scientific knowledge that we have today. The people of the 1960s had the fundamentals in the areas that lead to our cell phones, many of which were first developed before their time. 

The modern computer had its origins in the late 1930s. The ancestor of the modern electronic television was first operational in 1927, though not perfected until 1931. Mobile phone technology was first developed in the 1940s, though it would be well after the 60s (specifically the 1980s) when it would become a viable means of communication for the common civilian use. 

My point is that with the existence of practical scientists, visionary and theoretical scientists, and even science fiction authors, for something to seem like magic it would have to be...magic. It would have to be something intelligent, knowledgeable, well informed individuals can not explain. There would have to be no way to analyze it, comprehend it, test it to see if the effect can be reliably reproduced, etc. 

What makes a thing magic and not science or vice versa? My friend Leo is essentially putting forth the idea that for the purposes of narrative, there doesn't have to be a difference. A fire ball hurling magic wand and a hand held, flame-thrower pistol are basically the same.

Sure, they have the same effect - fire damage caused at range by an item - but they shouldn't (in My Humble Opinion) be the same. There doesn't have to be a difference but isn't it more fun if there is?

I am a huge advocate of the idea that things should feel different from each other. If things don't have their own flavor and identity, their own rules, rhyme and reason, they don't hold much interest for me. If Magic is just Science and Science is Magic, why should I get excited or care about either?

Returning to my example with the cell phone, imagine traveling forward in time to the mid-to-late 2100s. Your device is not magic, it's probably junk. It's an outdated antique. The key though is that it is still Science. The Scientific Method can be applied to device. The construction and operation of a cell phone is something anyone can learn. You don't need 'The Gift' or whatever causes you to be 'A Wizard Harry'.

To some it up as it's already gone longer then planned, there is nothing wrong with Magic and Science being interchangeable, but for me that isn't my preference. I prefer them to be different, perhaps very different. I want separate rules (both world-building and mechanics wise) that makes each a unique element of your game. 

I end with a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson that helps define Science for me...

"The good thing about Science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

See you soon,

Barking Alien

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Whatever It Takes

A little thing came out in the Superhero genre you might have heard about. I think it's called...

Avengers: Endgame by Michael Change

I will start out by saying I absolutely loved Avengers: Endgame, which is doubly enjoyable for me since I really didn't like its predecessor, Infinity War


Moreover I will definitely be spoiling Avengers: Infinity War, so if you haven't seen that one yet...what is wrong with you? Why are you even here?

Anyway, the issues I have with Infinity War are many but they basically boil down to the film pushing hard on my ability to suspend my disbelief. 

As I may have noted before, I go into most films ready and willing to immerse myself in the story and setting. I try to absorb and process what is happening, why it's happening, and in the case of a known franchise/series, how it works with what I already know about the characters and the universe.

Whereas most people these days seem to enjoy looking for 'plot-holes' and consider everything that isn't clearly broken down for them to be a continuity error, I try to reason out how it makes sense and works given what I've seen and know.

Sometimes however, I can't. Sometimes there are elements that just don't sit right with me. Sure I can excuse them or come up with excuses for them but they just don't work for me as a moviegoer.

Such was the case with Infinity War and I was bothered that the filmmakers made a movie that even I couldn't avoid deconstructing. Basically if the guy who doesn't deconstruct, and doesn't want to deconstruct, has not choice but to deconstruct your film, well then you let him down. 

After watching our heroes be clever and competent for 22 movies over the course of 10 years, they were suddenly immature, inept, poorly organized, and failed to take actions at key moments that I had seen them take before, even within the same motion picture. Other abilities and moves which might have helped were completely ignored. Then it hit me...

The bad guy was going to win. Not because he was more powerful than the heroes or smarter but because that's how the writers wrote it. It felt like I was watching a RPG session where the GM had predetermined the outcome. You know how much I love that. Yeah, I despise it even more in my movies (if that's even possible). 

So the remainder of the movie (a little after the half way mark) I sat wishing I had a remote to fast forward it to the end. Nothing mattered after the realization that the story was going to make (not have or let but make) Thanos succeed. Everything else was a waste of time. 

Worst of all it made glaringly apparent something I had managed to forget up to that point - no one was really going to die either. Spiderman, Black Panther, they had sequels coming out. They were obviously all coming back so damn you Infinity War why couldn't you have made the journey less transparent and predictable?

 Yada yada Thanos snaps, yada yada everyone's dust for now, blah blah is it over yet?

Let's just get to Endgame.

Avengers: Endgame is, for me at least, the superior movie. More than that, it stands on its own as an incredibly enjoyable installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. 

I was really, really impressed that the film was not a mile-a-minute rollercoaster ride throughout. Character development, story beats, and tension (a lost art in modern cinema) were allowed to do their part in the movie, giving the action more meaning and purpose.

Each character got to do something special, even if it was only briefly. We got to know relatively secondary characters such as Ant-Man, War Machine, and Nebula much better, not to mention a chance to shine. 

The forced emotions and hollow drama of Infinity War's telegraphed, meaningless deaths were replaced by real stakes, actual feels, and permanent changes to the make up of the MCU. The ramifications of Infinity War are handled in the second part of its story. The ramifications of Endgame will be felt for years to come. 

One part of particular interest and amusement to me was their explanation of time travel as told to us by Bruce Banner/Professor Hulk. I was beside myself with happiness when he let everyone know it was Back to the Future or Bill and Ted style time travel but rather...wait for it...The Time Travel of 1970s Marvel Comics! OMG how cool! Seriously, if you got confused by any of the time travel bits in this film, it's because you didn't grow up playing with MEGO action figures and comics being 25 to 35 cents.

Well, those are my feelings and thoughts on Endgame. I considered using this post as a springboard to discuss how to end a long-running, successful Supers game with these movies as a framework but I am just not in that headpsace right now. Perhaps in the near future. 

Half the month is already over and there is still many others subjects to address. 

Until then, Avengers Assemble!

Barking Alien

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'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,

Barking Alien

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!

Up, up, and away!

Barking Alien

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?

Barking Alien