Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why I'm afraid the Arrowverse may be jumping the shark

I don't usually critique TV shows on this blog, but I talk about about comic books and superheroes so I thought that it might be fun to jot down my thoughts (and concerns) about the foursome of superhero shows on the CW.

Of the four, I'm least concerned about Arrow, which is funny because if you had asked me last season I'd have said it was about done.  The hero/villain constellation of Damien Darhk and Oliver/Felicity just didn't do it for me and the show seemed poised to lose its edge.  Much like the old sitcom News Radio and Moonlighting, the fans might want to see the romantic tension resolved, but it's not what is best for the show.

Wiping that slate clean and introducing a slew of new characters, both heroic and villainous, brought a lot of new life to Arrow.  The new proteges deserve more time to develop, but they really helped put Arrow back on its feet.  Plus I'm kind of a sucker for non-Batman non-super DC characters.

The show that I'm feeling the most dread about is The Flash, which used to be my favorite.  Barry Allen was a delightfully retro superhero just as DC was cramming darker versions of their iconic characters in the New 52 and the gawdawful movies.  But there's several problems I see developing.  First, the arch-villains are getting tired.  Originally there was the Reverse Flash, and he's a threat because he's deadly and a faster speedster than the Flash.  Then there's Zoom, and he's even faster and more scary.  And now there's (help us) Savitar, and he's even faster and scarier and he looks like someone took the Michael Bay version of Ravage and made him a Flash villain.

And while each sort of has their own agenda, in the end they are all basically the same kind of villain--a malicious speedster.  Lackluster villains are a problem with the Flash mythos in general; they tend to be gimmicky mooks who really don't stand a chance against the Flash, or evil speedsters.  The show needs to find a way to create a compellingly threatening villain cast from a different mold.

They have also managed to give superpowers to every single character except Joe and Iris.  When Wally starts whining about not having powers, I actually thought he was being irrational until I realized that he was virtually the last one who didn't.  It's like the Flash is contagious.

And finally, and I realize that I might be in the minority about this, but I totally dislike Iris West.  It's a perfect storm of poor acting, zero chemistry, and lame storytelling. She's the poor man's Lois Lane, but not the cool Lois Lane, but the simpering Silver Age one.  I just keep thinking to myself, "how have the writers conveyed why Barry should be with her?"  Lois Lane is, in so many ways, Superman's equal.  Not in power, but in personality and conviction.  Clark Kent respects her.  The writers of Flash just figure because she's cute and they can do lots of close-ups of her wide-eyed stare that it'll all make sense.  But she spends most of the time harping, worrying, or getting into trouble.  Bleh.  Bring back Patty.

And finally, Flashpoint.  Flashpoint was a big deal in the DC universe, including a chance to trot out and explore some alternate-reality versions of classic DC characters.  If the TV show it was a two-episode wash to build a lot of dramatic tension about "how dare Barry muck about the time stream!"  The hardest part was having people give Barry grief for changing the lives that they have only known their whole lives.  Actually the really hardest part was watching the Legends give Barry grief about changing the time stream right after they crashed through the Reagan White House.  Pot, kettle.  More on them later.  Instead of having the chance to freshen up some things, or at least explore some off-track plotlines, Flashpoint instead became the cause of a lot of really overblown emotional drama that sometimes didn't ring true.

How to fix The Flash?  Build a villain with a real backstory who is not a speedster.  Give him or her three dimensions.  Introduce a new love interest.  Don't give Joe powers.

And finally, the Legends of Tomorrow (I'll write about Supergirl later).  A lot of people thought they would become the Justice League or the Justice Society, but they are not.  They are the Doom Patrol.  Crossed with Doctor Who.

Did someone say "Doctor Doom"?  No?  Okay I'll leave...
Low powered, oft-beligerent misfits of the superhero world?  That's the Doom Patrol.  I would love to see the Doom Patrol in the Arrowverse, as a side note.  But anyways, what I can not figure out is why they whittled out Hawkgirl and Captain Cold (although the latter appears to be an issue with the availability of the actor) and put in another chipper, naive, square-jawed white guy.  Who, by the way, is substantially more powerful than the rest of the team.  And has the dorkiest costume of the Arrowverse, which is saying a lot.  We already had Ray Palmer (and the show has already highlighted their similarities).  Even weirder, Steel appears to be the "tentpole" character, the one that the audience is supposed to identify with.  I never got into Rip Hunter, mostly because he felt a little too much like a bitter, snarky Doctor Who (not helped by having the actor they did, and constantly calling Heatwave "Rory") but there are plenty of other ways to have a historian on the team.  And as the "contrast" character to the hoodlums on the team, well you already had that).

(And can I just say that I actually liked the DC Comics version of Steel.  The dorky mohawk headgear made sense when you realized he was a totally pre-packaged farce of a patriotic hero, forced into the role by a domineering father.)

Then there's the whole time-travel thing.  I find time-travel problematic as a plot device in any genre, and the Arrowverse is saturated in it.  With a new time-frame for every episode, it is starting to feel gimmicky and as a way to pad-out what is often a pretty thin plot.  Plus you're going to run out of options after a while.  Just on the American side you've already had the 1860's, the 1880's, the 1920's, the 1940's, the 1950's, the 1970's, the 1980's, and the dystopic future.  Actually there are several of those.  So what's left?  The American Revolutionary War.  The Victorian era (doubtless with either a gothic horror or steampunk twist).  The Great Depression.  The show already did the archtypical cultural indicator (aka stereotype) episodes of non-American venues with the Russian gulag and Japanese samurai.

My answer?  Ditch the time-traveling gimmick and rename the team.  The Outsiders is available.  Put them on the weird pseudo-science fringe of the Arrowverse, rather than the front-and-center superhero team.  Start bringing in the bizarre wing of the DC Universe.  Not campy (at least, not much), but there is plenty to work with out there. In their second season they have been relying too much on retread villains and time travel, and it isn't working.

And bring Captain Cold back.

Okay, that's plenty of ranting for now.  Comments welcome.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My RPG Cookbooks, and when enough is enough

So Adam and Blacksteel have been talking a lot about why we buy new games.  I noticed about two years ago that my RPG purchases were diminishing in number fairly steeply.  To understand why, let me explain why I buy most RPG's.  I buy them like cookbooks, where I'm not going to cook every recipe out of them, or even any of them, but I get ideas about how to cook.  I take little snippets here and there and throw them into whatever game (or meal) I'm making.

Several factors have contributed to the decline of RPG purchasing.

1. The price.  The cost of a hardcover RPG has risen from around $30 to $50 for a hardcover.  Some run to $70 is they are particular large or have a color interior.  Somewhere in there the price went from "sure, I can buy this a look at it and never run it and that's okay" to "um, no."

2. The closure of the used book store in my town.  Beats me why Half Price Books couldn't make it here, but they couldn't, and discount RPG's were a way for me to continue to indulge while still justifying the expense.  When it closed, the only venue was the small used rack at my FLGS, which was anemic, really.

3. A steady game.  I bought a lot more RPG's when I wasn't running anything.  I bought more when I was running short games.  When I started running the same RPG for two years straight, month in and month out, rationalizing why a game that had nothing to do with what I was playing became more hard.  It made more sense to buy miniatures, or plaster molds, or just save the money.

4. Other diminishing returns.  Honestly, I'm just not getting as much out of those "cookbooks" as I used to.  I realized this when I was pondering buying Blood and Treasure, another Fantasy Heartbreaker.  I've got fantasy heartbreakers.  Also, there is so much material out there now on the internet: NPC's, monsters, gear, story ideas, GM advice.  All the things that I used to read about in books is now readily available on the internet.  Unless the game has something really interesting going on, really innovative, then I'm not that interested.

The last three RPG's I've purchased illustrate my points.  I bought Ninja Crusade, which I had previously bought as a pdf but later as a hardcover because it was a totally different kind of fantasy RPG with interesting dynamics when it comes to PC creation.  I bought Iron Falcon, a tight little OSR retro-clone by the same guy who created Basic Fantasy, because I found a softcover copy of the book cheap at a used book store.  I thought a long time about buying Heroes Against Darkness, another fantasy heartbreaker, because it closely resembled D&D Fourth Edition without all the bells and whistles.  What really put it over the edge was the monster-building rules (which you don't often see in fantasy RPG's, either because there's no real system or the creators aren't interested in sharing).  I had a lot of fun playing 4E with my gaming group, and I'm sure that part of my interest was in trying to reclaim some of that fun.

But in the meantime there are countless RPG's I've looked at, thought about, and passed.  Games like Oz Dark and Terrible, Mutant Zero, and Iron Kingdoms.  Not bad games, just so unlikely to be played and so expensive that they just were not worth getting (at this time).

And so I find myself thinking less and less about what to buy, and more and more about how to play.  Less money spent on books and more effort put into building up rich campaigns.  I stopped trying to buy my way into doing something fun and creative, and more time actually getting there.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Heroes Against Darkness review


For my birthday I picked up a print copy of Heroes Against Darkness by Justin Halliday.  Why, might you ask, would I spent hard currency on a book that is offered as a .pdf for free?

First, I like real books.  I read them better, and can do so in places other than in front of a computer monitor.

Second, it's worth it.  Beats me if Halliday makes any money off the sale or not, but I hope he did, because offering this game for free was a very generous gift to the gaming world. Heroes Against Darkness is worth owning. (At least if you are me.  Your mileage may vary.)

Heroes Against Darkness is, by its own admission, a "fantasy heartbreaker," which is the usually derogatory term used by someone's homegrown version of Dungeons & Dragons.  If I had to summarize HAD's genetic heritage, I'd call it an early edition of D&D done using Fourth Edition mechanics.  If that early edition had 11 character classes.

HAD has the standard D&D stat layout (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) and the archtypical fantasy races (human, dwarf, elf, etc.) with the usual add-ons like half-elf and half-orc.  Add to that an ersatz tiefling race and you have the idea.  The eleven PC classes mostly involve expansions of the core D&D classes.  There's a warrior, barbarian, and berzerker (separate from barbarian) as the martial classes.   Rogue and hunter for the stealthy guys.  Five different magic-wielding classes to reflect the typical schools of magic: necromancy, healing, blasting stuff, enchantment, and protection.  And finally one cross-over martial/healer that's not called "cleric" but "hospitaler."  That's not a bad breakout.  The magic classes are by design specialized, which is good because you can't really specialize in a class itself.  What makes this feel a little older-edition while still like 4E is that as your PC advances in his or her class, new abilities are unlocked (like 4E), but you don't get any choices about what those abilities are.  All berzerkers get the same tricks at 3rd level, or 6th, or whatever.  That will likely be a turn-off to players who like to game the class system to come up with whatever "character build" they are seeking, but lately that's been my biggest turn-off in recent D&D editions.

Another Fourth Edition quality that HAD has that I like is its use of creating encounters using a budget of XP that is spread over multiple monsters who have different roles, like Brutes or Casters.  I liked the "monster ensemble" quality of 4E encounters because they gave mobs of orcs, et al diversity instead of being eight carbon clones of each other.  They also helped negate the advantage PC groups tended to have in their strength of numbers.  Where Halliway really shines in this edition, and arguably his best game feature, is that he provides an extensive framework for building your own custom monsters, including scaling them up by encounter level and monster type.  The process seems much more organic than Pathfinder's system of adding PC levels.  If you have any craving to create your own monsters but weren't sure how to build them using a ruleset, HAD is right for you.

The magic system is the biggest break from D&D, insofar as they eschew the Vancian "fire and forget" spell structure and instead use a system of "amina points" which are burned to cast spells.  That follows a lot of non-D&D fantasy systems,

Finally, it's worth reading the introduction.  Most of the time I skip these, but this one is brief (a quality exhibited throughout the book).  In it Halliway gives probably the best argument for the existence of "fantasy heartbreakers."  I was thinking about this essay of his just a few days ago when I read a blogger engaging in some pretty blatant "badwrongfun" ranting about how other gamers get it wrong because they don't like what he likes.  I won't re-phrase it here--it's worth the time it takes to download a free game and read it for yourself.  But the bottom line is that Heroes Against Darkness hits a lot of my sweet spots when it comes to heartbreakers, and for a great price, .pdf or hardcover.
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