Monday, December 1, 2014

And there did come a Silver Age

Ah the Comics Code Authority.  What did it really accomplish?  Among other things it gave birth to the Silver Age of Comics, or at least was in the back seat with the Golden Age for the conception.  
See the Golden Age was a varied age of comics when readers included, honestly, our brave troops fighting WWII in Europe and the Pacific.  The Golden Age stories were varied and a single issue might have a dozen different comics in it, some one-page gags, others classic 8 page stories.  There were superheroes, funny animals, detectives, soldiers, sailors, pilots, cops and robbers, explorers, you name it, they had it.
And then came the Science Fiction and Horror comics of the '50s.  The kids didn't so much care for superheroes anymore, they wanted monsters, aliens and cowboys.  But adults just couldn't have that and unwelcome Senate attention led to self-policing and the CCA and the Golden Age ended.  Not that anyone noticed because, frankly, nobody ever knows what historical period they are in until after they have left it.  
The Silver Age covers, among other things, the Swingin' Sixties, and it was during this Age that we saw Adam West don cape and cowl on television as the Caped Crusader*.  It was a fun time.  Which is what comics should be.  Fun, I mean.  Comics should be fun.  They are not fun.  That is a problem.

I like continuity as much as the next obsessive compulsive off his meds, but continuity can be a serious problem.  When you start having to reboot your whole company every 5 years because of your jacked up continuity, you've gone too far.  The Silver Age was not obsessed with continuity.  It was quite fun.  It was obsessed with not violating the Comics Code, however.  Much of the outright violence of the past was replaced by some of the most wonderfully goofy characters to ever attempt to rob the First National Bank of Gotham.  Theme villainy reached all new heights during the Silver Age and nobody had the word "blood" in their name.  Or so I think.  I've heard it said that the Golden Age was a more violent era, that characters like The Bat-Man had darker, grittier, more violent stories than they would later in the CCA influenced Silver Age.  Well it is true, to an extent, but let's put this into perspective.  The Golden Age was not an age of top quality acid free paper stock, tight line art and computer color separations.  It was 4 color printing on cheap paper by artists that were working under deadlines to put food on the table.  Have you ever seen old westerns where the guys get shot and go down clutching their guts?  It's like that.  Yeah, it's violence, but it's not graphic violence.  
"Blazing West" issue 1, 1948, classic Golden Age violence
Anyway, about the fun.  Comics are entertainment.  They are not an art form.  Sometimes art manages to show up in comic form, but comics themselves are not an art form.  They are a visual storytelling medium and they should be fun.  Which is why I am particularly pissed that DC's New 52 bullshit has seen fit to shunt Ambush Bug off into some backpage news reporting bollocks.  Things need to be fun, or at least entertaining.  At least my wife has Harley Quinn, which is a title that, to hear her describe it, is basically fun.  What I am missing is a title, or a few titles, that actively try to be fun and possibly funny.  I don't mean letting Plastic Man loose every so often and then misusing the character.  I mean like the good old days of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew...and not a bullshit darker modern version either, I might add.
Let me break it down for you:
Golden Age-Batman solves a mystery, busts up some gangsters, somebody might die.
Silver Age-Batman and Robin head out to stop the latest threat to Gotham, the Pogo King, a villain that eludes police capture by escaping the scene of the crime on a pogo stick.  Bat-mite decides that Batman is having too easy of a time of it and makes some hot dog carts come alive to help the Pogo King.  That's fun, that is.
Bronze Age-Batman seriously considers how the rank and file criminals of Gotham are underprivileged and talks about how something should be done about it.
Modern/Dark Age-Batman curses.  A lot.  A psycho breaks his damn spine.  Breaks his spine.  All villains are now murdering psychopaths, even the Pogo King.
New 52-Who can say, really?  Pogo King is eluded to in an Easter Egg style cameo, probably on a box of cereal, in the apartment of the latest super villain killcrazy to show up in Gotham.  Yeah, that's respect for the old days there.  Fuckers.

And don't you dare mention Deadpool to me over at Marvel.  Marvel has never been fun.  Funny at times, yes, but not fun.  Marvel, the House of Ideas.  The house that Jack (Kirby) built, has always been the company that brought you more "realistic" heroes.  Realistic meaning that they had money problems and acne and I think one time Reed Richards got herpes from Sue Storm after she'd been love slave to Namor.  You know, real life shit.  If I wanted to read about real life I'd read the newspaper.  No, scratch that.  That would hardly be real life either.


* I am of the opinion that what you call Batman, other than Batman, says much about your personality.  For some he is The Batman, stressing the definite article, for others he is just Batman.  Some like to say Dark Knight, and those are moody bastards that take themselves way to seriously.  I'm a fan of Caped Crusader.  I think it has a more upbeat moral feel to it and avoids the dark, moody, morose attitude, which is unhealthy.  

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gaming Options: Wizard Academy

The new edition of Dungeons and Dragons (5e) offers some attractive options for character development, or rather requires them depending upon your point of view.  Fighters select a martial path to follow at level three, rogues do the same with the their class, rangers select a path focus, and so on.  At sophomore year wizards must declare a major.
In previous editions wizards could specialize in one of the schools of magic to gain faster advancement at the expense of a broader choice of spells, usually by loosing access to one (or maybe even two) opposing school of magic.  The unwritten motto of D&D 5e could be summed up as "A penalty is not having a bonus".  Thus in this new edition the wizard class must, at second level, choose one of the schools of magic (e.g. necromancy, divination, transmutation) and specialize in it.  He will not lose access to the other schools at all nor will he get more spells, but rather he will gain special abilities to enhance his magic of that school at points along the career.  It's all gravy.

This opens up an interesting possibility for a campaign that I call Wizard Academy.  This would be a campaign where all the players are wizards attending some sort of academy, which probably sounds a bit like Harry Potter and I'll be honest it might be.  A more traditional RPG campaign features a party, sometimes properly balanced, where each party member leverages the unique talents of their class to overcome threats to the party as a whole.  The class establishes a role, a metaclass if you will, within the party structure and the successful execution of the duties of that role leads to group success.  The fighter melees and holds of the monsters from the weaker party members.  The cleric buffs and heals.  The rogue can piss off.  That sort of thing.
Wizard Academy would require that the DM and the players look at the game a little bit differently.  Despite the fact that all the classes would be the wizard, there is room for much variation.  At present we have stark differentiation between classes thanks to armor, weapon and abilities.  With a bunch of wizards the variation comes in more subtle ways:
1) Race-the players should be allowed to pick any of the playable races.  The natural abilities of each race offer variation even when the classes are the same.  The classic gnome illusionist can go to the same academy as the groundbreaking half-orc enchanter!
2) School Choice-each school carries with it further abilities that mimic roles to a degree, such as the high damage output of the Evoker or the Enchanter's abilities to enslave minions.  
3) Background-rather than stick with the Sage background for a wizard branch out.  Use the background tables to show what the academy student was doing before matriculating.  Was the half orc a soldier?  Was the elven necromancer a noble?  How about a rustic peasant with a keen mind that becomes an evoker?  There are logical choices (guild artisan-alchemist that studies transmutation) and not so logical choices, but no matter what background is chosen in provides bonus skills, tools and abilities to further differentiate one wizard from another.
4) Spells/Equipment-from the start the spells each player chooses will provide further variation.  Believe or not, not everyone learns magic missile first.  As play continues the spells learned and loot found will continue to provide variation in the party despite the fact that all of its members are the same class.
5) Skills-while the Wizard class shares access to the same set of skills, the backgrounds offer different bonuses and the choices of the players will provide variety.  This is a minor bit of variety but again it is subtle.  Sometimes the ability to intimidate is quite a useful way to avoid conflict, as is the ability to beguile.  Nobody brought a spell for making food?  The survival skill is a good mundane way to achieve results.
6) The personal touches-never forget that the players have great control over their characters in many ways.  Physical appearance, alignment, and personalities are all the province of the players' personal choices.  Something as simple as choosing an arcane focus adds a layer of personality to the characters and gives the DM something to work with.  Any two wizards might seem the same when viewed in a macro sense where a campaign looks at them as fulfilling a role in the party, but when the party is made up entirely of wizards then we look at it with the micro view and see the subtle personal touches much clearer.

In order to play a Wizard Academy campaign a few things need to be considered:
1) The Academy itself.  I recommend a university setting.  Let the players be adults, essentially.  Playing as a grade school or high school is fine but requires more modifications to allow for young characters and makes the backgrounds seem out of place.
2) Start the players off at 2nd level.  At 2nd level wizards are a bit more survivable without a fighter around and they get to pick their magic school specialty.  This is necessary to provide the variation we discussed above and indeed is part of the charm of the concept.
3) Quests should be about school matters at first, but after school shenanigans also make for a good night's session.  Maybe the necromancy fraternity wants to initiate a new member and things get out of hand.  There are nearly endless possibilities here.
4) Consider the combat threats carefully.  Wizards aren't as resilient in melee combat as other characters.  Thus the game should be challenging but tailored for the type of party.  That should always be done, to be honest, but I mean more along that lines of not relying solely on the wandering monster table.
5) Use the optional Feats rules.  The Feats will allow even more variation in the characters.  By sacrificing an ability upgrade to gain a feat the players will be able to access some abilities that are normally denied to them by class, such as expanded weapon choices and even armor.  That will allow the players to feel their characters are not just cookie cuter products and all the DM to vary the threat.
6) When it comes to loot you will need to be a little more in control.  Wizards are likely to squabble over scrolls to enlarge their repertoires.  Magic swords are of little use, except to sell, if no character in the party can use them (see Feats above).  Meanwhile a deadly duel might break out over a magical quarterstaff.  You don't have to be Santa Claus and give every whining brat what they want, but don't be heavy handed either or rely solely on random loot rolls.  The players may become frustrated and stop playing.
7) Get comfortable with the idea of NPC henchmen and hirelings.  Wizards can be a bit squishy, so bringing along some muscle/protection is not a bad idea.

What of other classes, you ask?  That's a reasonable question.  Avoid them, if possible.  The idea behind a Wizard Academy campaign is the variations and similarities in the WIZARD class.  Is there room for other classes?  No, I don't think so.
Of all the classes in the 5e PHB only 2 of them are not spellcasters of some kind: Barbarian and Monk.  Even the Fighter and Rogue have Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster paths at third level, respectively.  The Paladin and Ranger gain their spells at 2nd level with the remaining classes have magic spells and powers from level 1.  Yet to allow all of these a place in Wizard Academy changes the nature of the campaign back to regular D&D.  Might as well call it Adventurer Academy, which is really a silly concept and fine for a lighthearted romp.  This is a different idea.
You could, if you liked, expand it to include Sorcerers but not Warlocks.  I could even see a stretch to allow Bards and Sorcerers, although I personally would not do it.  If a player is just dead set on not being a wizard there is a role for the Fighter at the Wizard Academy as a member of the faculty.  A player could, if they just won't get on board with the Wizard concept, be a guard at the Academy that accompanies the students on "assignments".  This spoilsport Fighter will simply have to get used to the idea that he or she will not be the "hero" very often and is likely to have less to do, being primarily a bodyguard, but if that is what the player wants, I'm sure they will find a way to screw up the DM's plans.  They always do.

So there you have it, an option for 5th edition play made possible by the variety of little choices.  Enjoy.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When a stick is not a stick

The simplest weapon in the history of the human race is the club.  It is the first weapon.  Before the spear, before the hurled rock, before the Winchester repeating rifle, there was the heavy stick swung with deadly intent to smash the brains of some poor sap.  Everyone, from junior to grandma can use a club effectively.  It's a lever, you see, to increase the force of the swing of the human employing it.  It also increases reach and adds tensile strength to the blow.
Everyone can use a club-except wizards, it seems.

Now we've seen me discuss the problems with wizards not being allowed to swing swords and the problems of having a limited supply of magic on a given day and the annoyances that not being able to wear anything more protective than a polyester leisure suit bring to me personally in gaming.  I've admitted that much of this is for the elusive "balance" that is bandied about by game enthusiasts and I can generally accept it even when I don't like it, but this club business is just nonsense.  Utter nonsense.

From the beginning the wizard has had a very limited choice in weapons, starting with a simple dagger in OD&D and watching that list grow by a few items here and there until 3rd edition when the wizard had the largest available group of weapons he would ever have.  The 3rd edition was the first edition to include the humble club.  Prior to that the wizard could use a quarterstaff, because we all know wizards love a good staff.  The rationale offered for what we will term "wizard's weapons" is that the weapons are generally light, easy to use and learn, and easily obtained.
Really.
So what are the standard Wizard's Weapons?
Dagger
Quarterstaff
Sling
Dart
Light Crossbow

In 3rd edition this included the club and the heavy crossbow as well.
Consider that crossbows were often considered weapons that required little training, which made them effective for moderately trained armies, as opposed to longbows, which require years of training.  Consider also that a sling, while a simple weapon, does require practice to learn to use correctly and effectively.  A dagger seems like a light, easy to use weapon, but there is a big difference between stabbing a pork chop on the dinner table and being a back alley knife fighter.  The quarterstaff is a special case.  True, the quarterstaff was the common man's weapon in the middle ages.  You made it yourself and it was unregulated.  Unlike a sword, which was a complex and expensive piece of specialized military equipment, the quarterstaff has practical applications as well and it was used as a training tool for "real" weapons teaching movements and improving techniques.  They were also quite deadly against an foe in less than metal armor.  This is not, however, a simple weapon you just pick up and use.  It takes training.  Wizards are often seen with staves, thus the quarterstaff became one of the Wizard's Weapons.  I support this because it was a weapon of the common man so anyone should take the time to learn its use.

That said, suppose your wizard was in mortal combat with some brigands and his quarterstaff were to break into two pieces?  No longer a 7 foot staff it is now, essentially, two clubs.  Suddenly the wizard can't figure out how to use it?
Is that what you are telling me?
Pish and tosh.

As of 5th edition the club is no longer on the list of Wizard's Weapons (nor is it allowed to Sorcerers either).  What in the figurative coitus is that about?  It's a club.  Anyone, and I mean anyone, can use a bloody club.  It's not like some guy is making a fighter and says, "I want to be a weapon master of the club!"  Okay, maybe some tosser decides to make a character inspired by Ireland and decides he wants to be a shillelagh master, sure, and to be perfectly honest stick fighting is a long established tradition in cultures across the globe, but much of stick fighting is also considered to be part of practice for war itself.  Add to that the fact that whole self-defense systems were developed for using walking sticks, canes and umbrellas and those too were based on older stick fighting practices, but it remains that most gamers aren't going to make a Fighter, clothe him in full plate and then dual wield a pair of light clubs.

This, by the way, is why we mod.  Every gamer I have ever known has played their chosen game with a few rules modifications, call them house rules if you like.  It's in the gamer's nature, possible simply in human nature.  We mod because we don't like a rule, or we feel a rule is incomplete, or we feel the designers were simply high and stupid.  Regarding this club nonsense I'm leaning toward the last one.

It's a stick, you dumb bastards.  If you can figure out how to properly flourish a 7 foot staff, blocking and attacking to good effect, you can certainly pick up a stick half that size and bash some bugbear over its noggin.




Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Daryl, you pussy


What happened to this guy?

Alright, that title is unfair.  Daryl is still cool...for now, but he's getting too into his feelings of his abused childhood and shit.
Look, I'm being critical here.  I don't not like The Walking Dead, I really don't; it's just a little slow.  I'm a plot guy.  I really am.  I promise.  I didn't read all those Harry Potter books because I shy away from story, plot or character development, but dammit, why can't you be more like Z Nation?

Have you seen Z Nation?  Holy shit that show is good.  But then what do you expect from the Asylum, the studio that brought you not one but TWO SHARKNADOES!  The studio that said, "Hey, if a sharktopus kicks ass how much more ass will a sharktopus kick when it fights a pteracuda?"
12 times the ass, that's how much.
I love you Asylum.  I mean that.
Seriously.
But back on topic, The Walking Dead is a pretty good comic book.  Being the continuing story of Rick Grimes and a small group of survivors that are in his orbit.  We see the dark and gritty world of a zombie apocalypse and what people will do to survive in glorious black and white.  And then there is the television series which is, well, not the comic book.  If I haven't said it before, and I probably have, the problem with The Walking Dead is that nobody laughs.  Not intentionally, that is.  Everybody is always tense, on point, and so...bloody...melodrafuckingmatic all the bloody time.  The reality (yes, I said reality) of it is that humans in high stress situations make jokes.  It is our first line of psychic defense.  We mock things.  We crack wise.  We fart at inappropriate times and then laugh about it.  Over on Z Nation we have zombie apocalypse entrepreneurs.  Yes, people making a buck off the zombie apocalypse because THAT IS WHAT PEOPLE DO.  Oh and fart jokes.  Just this past Friday.  Surrounded by corpses, the smell of rot and unwashed human bodies and people still cover their noses for a fart...and we laugh about it.
You know those stories of pioneers and westward expansion?  Yeah, see people left behind civilization and the creature comforts to be found there to strike out across often hostile terrain full of animals that wanted to eat them and natives that were none too happy to see those Conestoga wagons sailing across the prairie (see that's what we call a metaphor; I was using poetic speech because covered wagons, of which the Conestoga is one type, were called "prairie schooners" back in the day) bringing an end to their way of life.  Those pioneer types needed things that the plains and prairies were none too quick to give up, like fresh water and shelter, and when they settled they built lean-to sheds to live in while they gathered the raw materials to build small cabins and, essentially, rebuild their city way of life as best they could in a hostile environment.  You think a zombie is bad news, at least it doesn't crawl into your bedroll while you are drinking coffee by the fire and then bite you on the ass pumping hemotoxin into your bloodstream leading to death by anti-coagulation.  There ain't no rising up as a rattlesnake-human hybrid after that, let me tell you.  Although that would be as cool as Yeti shit, now that I mention it.

My point being that Z Nation keeps it fast, fresh, fun and manages to still tell stories of human drama without dragging out every single action for 14 minutes and then dumping a commercial break on you.  Seriously this past Sunday it took Daryl 7 minutes to light a cigarette.  It's like reading Anne Rice.  It is visually verbose to no good end.  Is there a term for visual purple prose?  Because that is what The Walking Dead is.  If somebody can come up with a term for the visual equivalent of purple prose, I'd be much obliged.  Right now I'm just going to call it Walking Dead School of Cinematography.  And what happens after that?  Right after that?  Chris Hardwick engages in real purple prose for an hour on Talking Dead.  Why?  Aftershows are the televisual equivalent of cock-teasing.  First they recount shit YOU JUST WATCHED then they speculate about shit you won't get to see for another 7 sodding days.
Let me just give you a comparative run down of last Friday's Z Nation versus last Sunday's Walking Dead, just so you know I'm not making this shit up.
Z Nation-Our heroes, minus Mack and Addy who pulled a Samwise and Frodo two weeks ago and split the party, run out of gas in South Dakota, see a graffiti defaced Mount Rushmore and discover that they are on the grounds of a nuclear power plant that is 48 hours from full meltdown which will destroy a 300 mile radius, including themselves.  They fight GLOWING RADIOACTIVE ZOMBIES to help the one man that can shut down the reactor.  The man in question heroically sacrifices himself all Terminator 2 style to save our heroes, the hope for humanity, and find his personal redemption.  Doc makes a Star Trek joke, "Dammit, I'm a doctor not a nuclear physicist!"  The heroes, the sole human survivors of the experience drive away in an electric service cart from the plant, continuing their heroic struggle to get to California with the cure for the zombie plague.  Awesome.
The Walking Dead- We open with a flashback to Carol's leaving Rick a season ago, banished from the tribe, and her survival shit, then quickly flash to Daryl and Carol chasing the sedan that we know leads to a hospital of twisted survivors and Beth, then they hole up for the night and talk about their feelings and stuff.  Then they slowly walk around, fall in a van off a bridge, walk around some more, find a building, get their weapons stolen by young Chris Rock.  Then they meander a bit and Daryl pretends like he is going to let young Chris Rock die, takes 15 minutes to light a cigarette, then Carol gets hit by a car.  It took a whole episode to do what should have taken, maximum, 20 minutes.  At this point the show feels like an episode of Lost.  We flash forward, we flash backward, we flash sideways.  We have people having half-conversations.  I get it.  I do.  They are saying more by what they are not saying.  Bullshit.  Subtext requires SOME BLOODY TEXT.  That's why it is called "sub" text.

Next week on the Walking Dead...a Rick Grimes motivational speech.  I bet you are peeing yourself in anticipation.

Next week on Z Nation...ZOMBIE GRIZZLY BEAR.  I shit you not.

Oh, and Addy would totally fuck Carol's shit up.  Addy is like my wife.  She don't play, but she does enjoy the task at hand.

This woman will cut a bitch, I promise you.





Monday, November 3, 2014

The Tiers of a Clown

That pun is intended to incite interest in what promises to be a not so interesting subject.  The new D&D 5e has been built along a line of balance reminiscent more of the OD&D era than the modern era, but the use of a decidedly MMO term like tiers might make it seem otherwise at first glance.
Previous editions of D&D did not discuss tiers of play.  Levels told the players and DM what sort of threats were appropriate.  Whether those threats were monsters, dungeons, or modules, the levels acted as a guide.  Indeed the Basic edition (1981) lays out that the level of the monster should match the level of the dungeon such that a weaker (lower level/hit die) monster, when found on a deeper (higher numerical level) level of a dungeon would be found in larger numbers to account for the increased threat.  In that same edition the classes (fighter, magic user, cleric, & thief) shared the same "to hit" value for their first 3 levels.  At level 4 the fighter advanced by 2 points followed by the cleric at level 5 and the magic-user at level 6.  In a way the tiers were already present but nobody was calling them tiers.
MMOs call things tiers.  An MMO might group its levels into bands of levels all of which have a similar success rate and chance of survival as determined by the game developers.  Let us say that an MMO has 50 levels.  The developers might determine that levels 1-10 were Tier 1, levels 11-20 were Tier 2, levels 12-30 Tier 3, levels 31-40 Tier 4 and 41-50 Tier 5 (also called Endgame).  The argument would then be made that every character in a Tier was on relatively equal footing.  It's not true in a micro sense, of course, as hit points and hit bonuses can vary wildly, along with powers and abilities, but in the macro sense the threats in the Tier 1 zone will be matched to be a challenge for those levels.  Once the player's character moves to the next tier the threats of Tier 1 zone are no longer a challenge.  If a Tier 1 character enters the Tier 2 zone certain death awaits.  That's the MMO way.
Tabletop has always been, basically, the same as the MMO concept, except with more freedom to exploit those tiers.  A group of 1st level characters typically know better than to go hunting an ancient wyrm red dragon.  Good DMs know better than to force their Tier 1 players into going after an ancient wyrm red dragon.  The tiers have always been there, people just weren't calling them tiers of play.

The new D&D 5e has a section in the Player's Handbook that expressly defines the tiers of play.  Levels 1-4 are the apprentice tier where the characters are being defined, learning the ropes and finding their footing in the world.  Levels 5-10 represent the second tier where the characters "come into their own" in terms of who they are.  Spellcasters start to get those cool spells like Fireball that really tip the balance in the clinch situations.  Levels 11-16 are the third tier where the player characters are actually a cut above regular adventurers.  They've made names for themselves and to ordinary people they are legends.  The final tier, levels 17-20, a mere 4 levels are the truly legendary levels.  The players are now movers and shakers on a cosmic scale.  Scale; it's all about scale.
Which is what makes this system work.
Starting around the time of AD&D 1e a considerable and ever-widening gulf appeared between the classes with the two extremes being the Fighter on the physical end and the Magic-User on the mental end.  By the time of 3e the "to hit" potential in melee combat, not to mention hit points, of the Fighter was so far beyond the Mage that a Mage had no hope should his spells run out.  You could, with careful feat selection find a way to give your Mage a fighting chance against a goblin with a gammy leg, but otherwise he'd best stay far away from melee.  In the 5e rules every class has the exact same base bonus to hit: the proficiency score.  That score starts at +2 for 1st level and increases at 4 level intervals by +1 until finally arriving at +6 at level 17-20.  Thus a Fighter with no strength bonus (I know, it wouldn't happen) and a Wizard with no strength bonus (far more likely) each holding a dagger (both classes are proficient with daggers) both have +6 to hit.  Yes the Fighter likely has far more hit points and better AC, so the melee advantage is to the Fighter, but the gulf is not so immeasurably wide as it has been in the past.  It looks a lot more like OD&D in that respect, which is probably a good thing.  The theory of adventure design, much like dungeon design, says to start simple and work toward the epic.  Let the party cut their teeth on kobolds and goblins, then lead them to the bigger challenges before baiting the epic quest hook.  Let's face it, the DM's job is hard enough as it is, the Tier system is a useful tool to help the DM scale the appropriate threats for a challenging, but rewarding adventure.


It's A Thankless Job...

But someone, apparently, has to do it.
What job, you ask.
Dungeon Master, that's what job.

We gamers have been told for years that the DM is not our enemy.  The DM's job is to craft the game in which we, the players, will enjoy ourselves.  The DM is not a player.  The very name Dungeon Master separates the role from the players.  The DM has the hardest job of all as it is the DM's responsibility to create the setting, populate the adventure with monsters, traps, encounters of all kinds, and to adjudicate the rules.  The DM is also all the NPCs in the game.  Yet for all of that the DM is not a player.  It is, we are told, not a "me versus them" game and if the players feel that it is, the DM is supposed to accommodate the players such that such feelings are not disruptive to the enjoyment of the group as a whole.  All of which leads me to ask a simple question:  What's in it for the DM?

If the DM has a burning desire to tell some epic story then the DM should just go write a novel.  Epic fantasy tales as RPG adventures are, inevitably, railroad adventures and players usually don't like that.  Indeed they will quickly wreck that train, and given the attitudes and skills of most players that is easily done.  It has been my experience that about 50% of the time the DM ends up shouldering an unfair amount of the game burden in terms of the creature comforts: DM hosts; DM ends up supplying the Mt. Dew and Cheetos;  DM still has to kick in for the pizza even though the DM is going to end up having to wash plates at the end of the night.  That one player clogs up the DM's toilet every time and somebody always forgets the essentials of gaming gear like dice, character sheets or a players handbook, thus the DM's copy ends up stained with Cheeto dust and pizza grease.  All of this for the joy of being verbally abused because some player made a series of lousy decisions that led to a well-deserved and timely death.

Again I ask: What's in it for the DM?

Now as I see it you have three basic types of games:  Co-operative, Passive Competitive and Active Competitive.
Co-operative games are games where players work together to achieve a common goal.  RPG is supposedly co-operative.
Passive Competitive are games where each player is trying to win but is not allowed to interfere with their opponents in any way.  Golf is such a game.  In geek gaming terms these are games like the original Dungeon, where each player is trying to beat the others but can't attack or otherwise mess with opponents and may occasionally help each other when there is a reward.
Active Competitive games are like football or chess.  There can only be one winner and the way to win is to do your utmost to defeat the other player(s).
RPG is supposed to be co-operative and to varying degrees it is (there is always that one guy, however, that asshole who gets his jollies from "beating" the other people on the team).  A classic dungeon crawl involves a group of players delving into a labyrinth of some kind that seems designed for no other purpose than killing player character explorers.  They need to work together, but as the DM is rolling for all the monsters and traps and such he would seem to oppose them.  He is the Dungeon Master and they are in a dungeon.  But the rule books keep telling us that the DM is not the enemy.
Bollocks.
In 1989 Games Workshop and Milton Bradley joined forces to create Heroquest.  A game for 2-5 players, Heroquest was a reconfigurable dungeon crawl boardgame with RPG elements.  The party consisted of 4 classic hero archetypes: barbarian, wizard, dwarf and elf.  The remaining player was the evil sorcerer (DM really) Morcar (I prefer that to the American name Zargon).  It was Morcar's job to set up the board, read the adventure, read out the descriptive text, move all the monsters and attack the heroes.  The game made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the heroes were trying to WIN and to do this they had to complete the quest goal.  Morcar too was trying to WIN, by killing all the heroes.  Competition is fun.  The rule book gave advice to Morcar players on how to kill the heroes.  Advice to WIN, because essentially this is a home invasion and Morcar needs to do everything in his power to defend his property.  Those orcs and goblins and mummies the heroes are fighting were not doing anything wrong.  They weren't marauding around the countryside looting peasant villages.  They were in their home and these ruffians that should probably get a real job burst in and started smashing the furniture.
The ruffians in question.
Now if we look back to the 1981 D&D Basic Set (the Tom Moldvay edition) we can read how the dungeons that are to be explored are ACTIVELY TRYING TO KILL THE PCs.  Actively.  Doors are always locked and once the lock is picked the door still must be forced open.  Open doors will close of their own volition if not spiked open but will always open for monsters unless spiked closed.  That dungeon is trying to kill you.  A DM that spends the time and effort to craft an exciting dungeon worthy of your talents is in a bit of a tight spot, isn't he?  If you beat the dungeon, and I say BEAT THE DUNGEON because as we have just established, it is "alive" and trying to kill you, then you can feel proud and say to the DM, "good game".  How is the DM to feel?
If you don't beat his dungeon he "wins" because he designed a hellakilla dungeon.  If you do he wonders if it was too easy and he still has to clean up after your Cheeto and pizza munching ass.

Where is the reward?

The solution is not, however, to become a killer DM.  You can kill player characters fair and square, but putting 463 orcs into a cavern, then having a dragon be in the very next room is not the sort of thing that allows good tactical play on the heroes' part.  Ah, I said it, didn't I?  I said "heroes".  Everybody wants to be the hero instead of being a hero that is part of a group of heroes.  So even if the DM is not the enemy when a player's dice go cold and the game just seems to be abusing the character and then the player does something really stupid and fails, the DM just became the enemy.  He's the face behind the screen.  It doesn't matter if it was the fall that killed the hero.  "You're not supposed to let a guy fall down a 146' shaft, man!"  Well I didn't tell the guy to jump off the edge of said shaft, did I?
Not the point, really.  You built the dungeon so you put the shaft there so it was your fault, screen Nazi.  You just became the enemy.

I'll ask one more time: where's the reward in being the DM?

I've done it and I don't much like it.  As DM you end up trying to run the game you want to play.  That's a very telling thing.  It's not that you weren't enjoying some other DM's vision, it's just that maybe that guy wasn't doing the pirate adventure the right way and you are going to show him how it's supposed to be done.  Ultimately I've found that to be a poor motivation.  Those times I have run a game and enjoyed running it I've divested myself of having a stake in the game itself.  I've got a decent little plot, fairly clever execution, and let the players do their thing, but I don't really enjoy the grind of it.  Near as I can tell there is just no reward in running the game, but somebody has to do it.

Just so long as that somebody is not me.







Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Little Science Fiction Monster Love

In 1954 Universal released the film that would debut the last of its great Classic Monsters to the world.  I'm talking about the Gillman, the titular Creature From the Black Lagoon.  Now the fact that the Creature is included among the Classic Monster heavy hitters is very telling of his overall impact on the youth culture.  To be fair it was only three years later that the Shock Theater package was sold to television stations and a new generation of children that had not even been considered when Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster first saw the glow of the silver screen were being made into fans all over again.  In fact the Gillman would appear 3 times (1954, 1955, & 1956) before disappearing from the cinemas.  None of his films were included in the Shock Theater package, no doubt because they were too new, but an association must have been made for the Creature stands tall as one of the iconic 6: Dracula, Frankenstein Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Mummy, and the Creature.
Come to think of it, the Gillman is our Countdown mascot this year and adorns all the Cryptkeeper badges in one form or another.  He's a great character and he deserves more love than he gets from the industry.  I have held hopes for a reboot Creature for decades now and always been disappointed.  It seems that every few years somebody gets a greenlight to write a script or sign a director then it goes into limbo then it is canceled.  A part of me does not want a reboot as reboots often do great disservice to the original (I'm looking at you, Rob Zombie) but after Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992 and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein two years later, I thought we were on to something.  1999's Indiana Jonesesque The Mummy seemed to suggest there was still an interest in the Classic Monsters.  Universal certainly thought there was as they went big budget with Van Helsing and that should have revitalized their monster properties.  Sadly it did not.  Some abysmal Mummy sequels probably did not help matters.  In 2010 they gave us a rebooted Wolfman and this year we get Dracula Untold.  Will this herald a return of Universal Monster glory?  More importantly, will I ever get a Creature update?
And despite my fears that a reboot would suck (mostly because of my love of the original films) I want that validation on the big screen.  Even more than that I want the Creature to stop being treated like Universal's Aquaman*.
What do I mean by that?  Well the Gillman is primarily an aquatic monster, which is part of what makes him so cool to me personally as it combines to things I love: monsters and the water.  Sure he can move around on land but with his huge webbed hands and huge flipper feet he's a bit clumsy and slow.  While he is strong enough to flip automobiles, which should put him in the Frankenstein category of power, he really shines in the water.  Unfortunately this means that when you have the big monster get together movies he's going to be used for some weak water gag or a one-shot swamp/bog scare and that's it.  We can add to that the sad fact that old Gillman, save his appearance on the Munsters (which did him credit, I thought), is verbally inarticulate.
From the Munsters.  I don't know if I love the superfluous hat or scarf more.
That lack of speech can be a problem in monster terms for how often you get picked as focus monster in a group picture.  Dracula's a vampire and vampires talk.  Sometimes they talk too damn much.  Depending on the screenwriter old Frankie can talk to varying degrees, which can make him quite charming in a walking concussion sort of way.  He's a bit sympathetic.  Strictly speaking the Mummy is supposed to talk, and as Karloff portrayed the Mummy he did speak, and quite well.  Later Mummy characters do not talk, but then they are unliving weapons of a villain with an agenda.  Your basic Wolfman talks when he is human, so at least you get some concept of where he is coming from, but not Gillman.  He's a body language sort of monster.  Thus, unless it is a comedy romp we are going to get the silence of the underwater monster.  We don't really know his motivations but they seem limited to mate with girl and escape from hairless monkeys.  And if you know anything about non-selachian fish reproductive processes, that first motive should raise some serious questions.  Thus Gillie is treated like the monster team's Aquaman.  Dracula occasionally gives him something to do on monster missions, but since most monster missions don't involve much swimming Gillman just hangs out in the moat at Dracula's castle or in the Jacuzzi eating sushi and watching Bay Watch reruns.  In such scenarios where we actually get to see him with the other monsters in action it is like watching Flipper (which is apropos given that Ricou Browning played the Gillman in the underwater swimming scenes in all the films and he co-created Flipper).  "Gillman?  What it is, boy?  Is there a problem in the moat?"

In terms of his physical presence he is pretty awesome.  He is amphibious but more comfortable in the water, shrugs off bullets and has a lightly armored hide.  His webbed fingers terminate in deadly claws as well.  If you threw some shark or barracuda teeth in the mix he would be the perfect killing machine.  He is supposedly an evolutionary dead end that still survives to this day (or into the 50s to be more precise).  I can link the Creature to aliens, if you like.
The cover art is the best thing about this novel.
In the novel Time's Black Lagoon by Paul Di Filippo the Gillman of the 50s was the last of his race.  A scientist who is convinced that global warming means we should study the Gillman to mutate the human race to survive the climate changes (it may not seem apparent but said scientist is the HERO of the book) time travels to the Devonian Age with his girlfriend, an outdoor sports enthusiast, to find the original species.  He time travels via an iPod that his buddy, another scientist, invents.  Already you are thinking, "If they can invent time travel with an iPod why can't they fix the climate problem?"  I don't know.  They invent time travel.  In a fecking iPod.  Time travel.  Can't work out how to adapt human biology to a warmer climate or build floating cities should the ice caps melt or build a better HVAC unit or make more efficient engines or reduce greenhouse gasses but they can build a thrice-damned time machine out of an iPod.  And they made two of them.  
Sorry, I got distracted by the gaping plot hole.  Let's just fall in, shall we?
So HERO and GF go back to the Devonian Era and find the Gillman race, a smooth-skinned, lithe, telepathic race of gentle aliens whose ship crashed into the primal seas of Earth and who now call our little mudball home.  They have a weird beard hippie sea worshipping religious system and are very friendly and intelligent.  Then some archaebacteria infects one of the gentle Gillpersons and it spreads it with a scratch to another and they start mutating into the form we all know and love.  The new form is much, much stronger and hardier but less graceful and loses its gentle nature and hippie knowledge.  Eventually, as always happens in time travel stories, the monsters get loose in the modern era and wreck shit.  
It's shit pressed between cardboard covers, but such is my love of the character of the Gillman that I read the whole thing.  I won't be doing that again.  

I wasn't going to show you that picture because it is super-geek stuff, but the Creature directly inspired an AD&D monster.  Think of it as a palate cleanser.

The Gillman is a great character and is worth a quality reboot.  He's a science fiction monster but still feels like a classic monster.  He's the total package and if handled correctly a new take on this old classic would be a guaranteed win.  Why not make him heroic?  Sure, let's have Gillman save some people at a lake camp that are running from zombies.  He could be from lost Atlantis!  We have options here, people.  Maybe even go with a Swamp Thing angle.  He's a being with a noble soul in the body of an aquatic killing machine.  Gillman lovers, and I know you are out there, this is the age of social media.  We have a voice, let it be heard.  


*I say that for its pop-culture angle because, as we all know, I love Aquaman.