Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Brief Meditation on Marvel's Doctor Strange

Saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange last night in IMAX 3D. Totally worth the expense: this is the very rare film that makes effective use of 3D. In fact, I'd probably rate the film as one of my top three superhero picks, primarily because director Scott Derrickson actually connects the form of his film to its thematic content, playing games with sequentiality and time that gesture toward the ways that the comics page does the same. He doesn't make the valiant but doomed attempt to replicate the simultaneous spatiality of the comics page that we saw in Ang Lee's Hulk—instead Derrickson makes the linearity of cinema's temporal experience a means of exploring the plot's interest in immortality and causality.

Put another way, in Doctor Strange, this iconography:

Equals this iconography:

The bar has been raised for the filmic realization of comics, folks!

Friday, November 4, 2016

[Uncharted Worlds] James Holden

Right now I'm obsessed with two things: James S. A. Corey's Expanse setting (in both its novel and TV forms) and Sean Gomes's Uncharted Worlds RPG. And because I like to test out RPGs by seeing if they can replicate characters from other media, I thought I'd take a shot at using Uncharted Worlds to create James Holden, "the luckiest dipshit in the solar system" (episode 6, "Rock Bottom").

Unlike other RPGs in the Powered by the Apocalypse family, characters in Uncharted Worlds are not created using preestablished archetypal playbooks (e.g., the Gunlugger of Apocalypse World or the Spectre of Urban Shadows). Instead, UW characters are generated by combining two careers with a single origin and then selecting a combination of skills from those packages (three from the careers, one from the origin).

In Holden's case, his upbringing on a Montana farm would give him the Rustic origin. There are four skills associated with each origin (as well as with each career). The choices for Rustic characters are Hard Labor, Construction, Survival, and Chemistry. Hard Labor's description ("You can perform long grueling hours of physical labor with minimal rest") seems most suited to the Holden of the novels, so I'm going to select it. When I get around to selecting Holden's attributes, I will receive a +1 bonus to Holden's Physique stat.

On to careers. Holden's time serving as a First Lieutenant in the United Nations Navy makes Military an obvious choice here. Picking a second career is a bit harder: Holden could take Commercial or Industrial or Starfarer to reflect his time serving as XO on the Pur & Kleen ice-hauler Canterbury—all three seem thematically appropriate. He could also take Personality since that's what he becomes over the course of the series: the most notorious man in human space. But I think it's best to hold off on Personality (and the Fame skill that comes with it) until later in the notional Expanse campaign. Looking at the other three careers, I'm going to reject Commercial as too financial (Holden isn't anymore particularly adept at business than the rest of the crew) and Industrial as too much in Amos Burton's wheelhouse as the group mechanic. That leaves me with Starfarer, which seems perfect for Holden and his system-roving ways.

The skills I select from Holden's Military and Starfarer careers are (from Military) Toughness and Authority and (from Starfarer) Weightless. Toughless lets Holden suffer two injuries of each severity level instead of one (necessary for our much beaten-on protagonist) while Authority reflects Holden's innate charisma, allowing him to convert even resistant NPCs to his latest righteous cause. With Weightless, Holden can ignore the Clumsy trait that otherwise comes with zero-gravity movement.

Time to distribute stats. UW has six stats (Mettle, Physique, Expertise, Influence, and Interface), and characters have an array of +2 / +1 / +1 / 0 / -1 to assign to these stats. Influence (personality and charisma) is the definite home for the +2 value. As the generic protagonist figure, Holden is generally an all-rounder, so I'm going to put the +1 values in his Mettle (courage, reflexes, discipline) and his Expertise (education, cleverness). Then I'm going to leverage Holden's Hard Labor skill to turn a 0 in Physique (strength, fitness, good lucks) into a +1. That leaves me with a -1 for Interface (technological aptitude, programming). Holden's not a total ignoramus with tech, but really he has Naomi, Amos, and Alex to handle all the beep-boop-beep stuff.

At this point, players select an advancement method from a career they wish to pursue. These are triggers that allow the group to check XP when set off by any character. For example, Starfarer's advancements include such triggers as "A passenger reaches a destination" or "A piloting maneuver causes a reversal." The expectation is that characters will start off looking to advance one of their beginning careers, but this is not mandatory—and that's good since I want Holden to pursue his "famous troublemaker" ambition right from the get-go. One of the Personality triggers is "A statement starts or ends a fight," and that seems ... appropriate for the man whose broadcast message on the destruction of the Cant begins an intersystem war.

The remaining steps of UW character creation focus on gear. Characters can add a workspace from one of their careers to a ship, station, or city (based on the scope of the campaign), and they can select  a package of personal assets (clothing, weapons, and other gear). I'm not going to bother with these steps at present.

Overall, I think UW does an excellent job of representing Holden in game terms. The other members of the Rocinante crew fit the system as well: Naomi is a Galactic Industrial Technocrat (i.e., a Belter engineer and coder); Amos, an Impoverished Scoundrel Industrial (a mechanic from the mean streets of future Baltimore); and Alex, a Colonial Military Starfarer (origin aside, the Martian pilot is the closest in skill set and archetype to Holden). Toss in Miller as a Crowded Academic Clandestine (Belter neo-noir detective), and you've got the main characters down cold.

Monday, October 3, 2016

2016: What a Year (and It's Still Not Over)

It's been a long time since I last updated this blog—nearly a year in fact! The Spring 2016 semester turned out to be just as labor-intensive as the Fall 2015 semester, and then my mother broke her right hip at the end of Finals Week. Summer 2016 was thus devoted to figuring out where my parents were going to be living (end result: in my house for 75% of the year) and then getting their stuff sold and/or packed for the move. I've only just been able to get back into the office, well over a month into what was supposed to be a research leave.

But ... my parents are settling in, my wife and kids and I are adjusting to the 50% increase in the size of our household, I'm starting to get work done, and I'm still gaming:

Barbarians of Lemuria

My Thursday night group is playing BoL whenever we don't have a sufficient quorum for Supers! Revised. The character I'm playing is a Mythic Edition update of Quaris the Fallen, the Legendary Edition character who was the subject of the very first post on this blog. It's a nice change to be playing a BoL hero instead of their opposition for once.

Supers! Revised

Our Supers! Revised GM (also the BoL GM) wasn't feeling the vibe with our Earthside campaign, so he retired it (along with Brute Squad, my duplicating brick hero, and a newer character, the arrogant Sasquatch geneticist Big Thought). The new campaign is set in outer space, and my new hero is a tribute to Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity Mesklinites:

"Legs," as his teammates call him, is a sentient millipede the size of a mastiff. His already substantial strength and toughness (he's a heavy-worlder) have been amplified by an ancient ritual, so all of his many limbs pack a powerful punch.

Uncharted Worlds

I've been doing a great deal of science fiction reading for the last several months, and my thoughts turned to SF gaming as a result (aided and abetted by the Supers! campaign). A little research into available, rules-lite SF TTRPGs turned up Sean Gomes's Uncharted Worlds, a Powered by the Apocalypse system that occupies (for me) a happy medium between traditional RPGs and the more thematic, story-driven games that epitomize the PbtA ludosphere. I was actually able to play in a G+ Hangouts game while I was closing up my parents' house at the end of August, a one-shot that ended with my shady astrophysicist activating an experimental hyperdrive and (with the aid of a roll of snake-eyes) killing the entire party in the process. Huzzah! I'm now thinking of how to go about running an UW campaign of my own ... I hope to post more along these lines soon!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

RIP Steve Zieser

Just heard that RPG artist extraordinaire Steve Zieser passed away yesterday after his long fight with cancer. I didn't know Steve personally, although we followed one another on Google Plus and were clearly reading one another's posts. I love Steve's line-work, and one of the things that the Old School Renaissance will always have to its credit is that its preference for art in the Grand AD&D tradition gave Steve a platform to display his talents. Condolences to Steve's family and friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Masters of Umdaar [Fate Accelerated Edition]

Evil Hat has just released Dave Joria's Masters of Umdaar, the latest "World of Adventure" for use with the Fate system (specifically the Fate Accelerated variant of the rules). As Joria notes in his introduction to the book, Masters of Umdaar is more or less a love letter to Planetary Romance; he mentions John Carter, Thundarr, Kamandi, Flash Gordon, She-Ra, Thundercats ... you get the picture. Players take on the identity of brave Archeonauts, freedom fighters protecting the Lands of Light from the evil Masters of the Dark Domains by seeking out the lost technologies of the Demiurge. The game's motto: "When in doubt, dinosaur!"

I did not take much convincing to fork over the recommended $4 PWYW price.

The real selling point, though, is the random "bioform" generator. If a player is willing, they can roll up their character's bioform—mostly inspiration for Fate aspects and stunts, but also a way of suggesting what one's best approach should be. I see this system as "Fate char-gen meets Gamma World char-gen," and I give it an Incredible Hercules thumbs up:

Results range from your bog-standard Humanoid through Energy Being and Mutawarrior to Chimera and Cytyr (a cybernetic satyr). Many of the bioform results direct you to make additional roles on the Animal Kingdom chart, which is in turn divided into sub-charts for Invertebrates and Marine Life; Reptiles, Amphibians, and Dinosauria; and Birds and Mammals.

You then select one of several classes. Joria suggests that the FAE approach attached to your bioform guide you in selecting your class: e.g., a Sneaky Mutant would do well to become a Rogue or Illusionist, while a Flashy Energy Being might make an effective Swashbuckler or Courtier. Note that this is only a suggestion, not a requirement. Your Mutant does not have to be sneaky, roguish, or illusionary. But her class choice will determine her ratings in the six FAE approaches. (New classes are as easy as assigning one approach to Good +3, two approaches to Fair +2, two approaches to Average +1, and one approach to Mediocre +0.)

Characters have just four aspects. The first is the high concept aspect (referencing the character's bioform, class, and lead approach); the second is the motive aspect (phrased as "I must [fill in the blank]"); the third is a personal aspect related to the character alone; and the fourth is a social aspect linking the character to at least one other member of the party. (The decision to pare the number of aspects down to four is a good one for a quick-playing variety of Fate.)

Finally, you are encouraged to pick two stunts. These fall into three categories: Powers (mystical and superhuman), Weapons (technological and item-based), and Adaptations (biological and evolutionary). You can randomly determine your stunts, and you are also given three very simple verbal formulas for making more. Since stunts are always the hardest part of Fate for me, I appreciate both the charts and the formulas.

There are also rules for Cliffhangers (a pulpier version of Atomic Robo RPG's already pulpy Brainstorming system) and charts for generating beasts, monsters, and artifacts. Plus a pre-generated adventure (which I want to test-drive). All in all, an awful lot for what's effectively a free product (although I do think the recommended $4 charge is fair to the creators and a steal at that).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Escape from Satarla! [Barbarians of Lemuria, Actual Play]

As close as I'm ever going to get to an image of three Satarlan
sky-boats battling it out (detail from Gino D'Achille's cover
to  ERB's Swords of Mars).

The heroes barely had time to take in the sight of their rescuer when one of her underlings reported a pair of approaching sky-boats. She called out to Gallius: "Now it's time for you to show me why I went to the trouble of breaking Satarlan law to rescue you—get this boat out of the city!" Gallius didn't hesitate, rushing to the helm and setting the boat in motion. Ralak found the boat's arbalest and aimed it at the pursuers. Koth slumped onto the deck; the wound he had received from the jemadar in the Great Arena was not as serious as it had initially seemed, but he was still losing blood. The mysterious woman called out to one of her companions as she moved to assist Gallius in operating the ship: "Zedrek, tend to the big one's injuries!" Clad in the humble garments of a street priest, Zedrek began to clean and dress Koth's injury.

Zedrek of Lysor, Servant of the Twenty

Attributes: Strength 1, Agility 2, Mind 2, Appeal 0
Combat: Initiative 1, Melee 2, Ranged 0, Defense 1
Careers: Farmer 0, Priest 2, Physician 2, Beggar 0
Boons: Detect Deception, Healing Touch, Savant
Flaws: Cloistered (a variation on City-Dweller), Landlubber

"That's a nasty cut, friend," the priest said in Koth's native Festrelian, "but I think I can keep the scarring to a minimum."

Meanwhile, Gallius was weaving his way around Satarla's numerous towers, trying to put more distance between the heroes' boat and those of the pursuing Satarlan Sky-Navy. Suddenly one particularly high minaret appeared in the boat's path. Cursing, Gallius had to turn back toward their enemies to avoid crashing into the building. At the same time, the arbalest's string broke, knocking Ralak to the deck. (The heroes' players had just rolled two Calamitous Failures in a row.) Enemy bolts struck the boat, killing one of their rescuer's party instantly and damaging a flight vane. The ship began to lose speed—until a now bandaged Koth put his back to the task and singlehandedly bent the vane back into place.

Gallius swiftly regained his equilibrium and threaded the sky-boat through a particularly twisty maze of streets. The pursuers fell behind, eventually losing track of the stolen craft. Gallius was then able to fly the ship out of the city and into the Jungles of Qush. They anchored the vessel in the canopy; while Koth and Ralak covered the fuselage with camouflage netting, the mysterious benefactress revealed some magical talents, casting a ritual of concealment to help hide the ship.

When she was finished, she turned to the heroes and identified herself as Sharangara of Oomis, a collector of rare antiquities. "There's an ancient artifact of the First Age that I want, and I need a sky-boat to get it. Which means I need a sky-pilot, and that's where you come in, Gallius." "Where are you going," the suspicious pilot asked, "and what exactly is it that you're after? Don't tell me it's some hideous weapon that will melt our flesh and send our souls screaming to hell!"

"It's nothing that dramatic, my friend," Sharangara answered. "It's a small cauldron in the shape of a bird. The ancient records call it the Kartal, which my friend Zedrek here tells me is Yggdari for 'eagle.' It may have mystical powers, but it may also just be a beautiful relic of a better age. Whatever it is, I want it for my collection, and I'm willing to reward you all handsomely for assisting me."

"What sort of reward?" asked Ralak. "To begin with, once we have the Kartal, I'm more than willing to turn this vessel over to Gallius. He can sell it to one of Satarla's rival cities, or travel around in it himself, whatever he desires. The rest of you will get more than enough gold. What do you say?" Gallius answered: "I'm intrigued, but you still haven't said where we're going to find this Kartal."

"In the Flying City of the Winged Men, somewhere over the Axos Mountains. You're my pilot, and Zedrek is my translator—he's one of the few Lemurians who speaks Windsong, the language of the Winged Men. Before we can bargain with them ..." "You mean rob them," Ralak observed with a smirk. "... bargain with them," continued Sharangara, "we have to find them. And I think that the wizard Jesharek Jool may be able to help us with that."

"Jesharek's tower is somewhere in the heart of the Qush!" exclaimed Ralak, "We'll be lucky to find it, and even luckier to leave it in one piece. Can't we take a safer path to the mountains? Say, Shamballah?" Sharangara shook her head: "If you want to risk getting scooped up by a Satarlan patrol or shot down by Tyrusian guards, sure. Flying straight north through the Qush will have its dangers, but it's a faster path, and I have some ideas about how to bargain for information with Jesharek."

The heroes agreed with the plan, and everyone settled down to sleep. It would be an early start for the flight north through some of Lemuria's most deadly jungle, and they needed to be sharp for the journey.