Saturday, February 28, 2015

Friday game recap: frogs and skunks

My group has been exploring the Tomb of Abysthor, from Goodman Games, converted to 5E by Yours Truly.  The first go-round last week was a bit of a slow, riddle-laden slog.  This time they made more headway, doing quite a bit of exploration and making their way down a few levels (although leaving a lot behind them unexplored--always dangerous!)

Some of the denizens of the Tomb are giant frogs, and in the group's first encounter one of the clerics cast Charm Animal using his Channel Divinity power and turned two of the frogs on the other two.  Some of the PC's expressed a little discomfort at this...
Time for that hot giant frog-on-giant frog action...
Things were chugging along and we took a break to celebrate one of the player's birthdays.  We always do this with the traditional gift of a very geeky shirt (this time, featuring the comic book character Deadpool).  While eating cake, my dog rushed in through the dog door, smelling horrifically of skunk!  The group beat a hasty retreat from my house while my family struggled to get Lucy (and now, my house) free of the stench. Unfortunately it is very cold outside, so we couldn't keep her out or open windows to air everything out!

Oh my God, the smell!
Not the most glorious end to a gaming session, but a memorable one....

Thursday, February 26, 2015

My Favorite Things are becoming other people's Favorite Things

So, a bit of personal information.  I work in a private high school, and recently for Valentine's Day one of the teachers asked all the faculty to provide a favorite item to put in a display case for a collection called "My Favorite Things."  The items were numbered, and the students were given a sheet with the list of faculty members and had to try to match each item to its owner.  I contributed my copy of the 1st Edition AD&D Player's Handbook.

Humorously enough, most students actually ascribed the book to the Head of School, who had loved RPG's as a youth (thus proving what a cool school I work at).  But since three students at the school actually play in my current game, they began to quietly tell people the book was mine.

I don't have an advising group of my own, but usually sit in the Head of School's group on Wednesdays during Morning Meeting and yesterday he and I were joking around about the book (since the contest is now over).  One of the students began to animatedly ask me about my gaming background and, having learned that I had a game going on, said, "well, I can download the 5E rulebook from online and build a character for your game on Friday."

At which point I had to gently point out that I had not invited him to the game and that I already had a full table of players.  Oh, his crestfallen face.  When I shared the story with my son, Mac, he told me that another student had asked about joining the game as well!

Now, interestingly enough, another one of my players invited a friend to one of our gaming session recently.  This friend then came with his wife, who was also interested.

This poses a real conundrum for me, because I'm already juggling ten players, and really can not manage fourteen on my own.  So I'm considering some options here, including breaking the group into sections and seeing if other people want to GM.  My desire to expand interest in roleplaying games is hitting a hard wall of reality here.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Young Justice vs.Teen Titans (the new 52)

My daughter and I have loved the Young Justice TV series ever since it hit Netflix and helped us transition from Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, even though they don't share the same universe (Young Justice appears to be about one alternative dimension over, what with Wally West being the Flash in the older series, and Kid Flash in Young Justice).  Now we are working our way through Season 2 of Young Justice just as my son has finally gotten on the Season 1 bandwagon.

While all this is going on, the Teen Titans comic book is poised to join Justice League in my "how to save six dollars a month not buying bad comic books" list.

What makes one teen DC product so good (possibly superior even to JLU, and maybe one of the best animated superhero series ever) and the other similar title called by some the worst of the New 52 (and that's saying a lot)?  And more importantly, what can superhero RPG campaign makers glean from both of those things?  Let's take a look.

Recognizable properties.  In the first season of Young Justice, you had three first-generation Teen Titans: the aforementioned Wally West, Speedy, and the Dick Grayson Robin.  To that you had two slightly-modified characters from the comic books (Miss Martian and Superboy) and two brand new characters (Artemis and Aqualad).  There had been previous characters named both Artemis and Aqualad in DC comics, the latter part of the original Teen Titans, but now both changed to fill in some roles on the team, not to mention add a little racial diversity.  That's a wide spectrum of source material.

The New 52 Teen Titans had the Tim Drake Robin (now called Red Robin, an harkening to Kingdom Come), a gritty Superboy, Impulse, and Cassie Sandsmark Wonder Girl.  Solstice was around beforehand, to my surprise when I researched this.  To those characters who had some pre-retcon history you add Skitter and Bunker.  Raven and Beast Boy join the group later.

So right off the bat you are working with newer, less familiar characters for people who might have some idea of whom the Titans are, and no one from either the original Titans or for that matter the second 80's era team until you get Beast Boy and Raven.  There are also difficult continuity issues between the New 52 Batman universe (which seems to not have been all that reset) and the Justice League universe (which had an almost complete overhaul).  In fact there is much confusion over whether this Teen Titans group is the first or not.  A lot of that goes to the unmitigated hash that the New 52 was for DC Comics, but Teen Titans seems to have it in spades.

Story continuity.  In Season One, Young Justice is slowly discovering an elaborate conspiracy by a group calling itself "the Light."  Almost every episode references this conspiracy, even as the individual plots seem unconnected.  In Season Two the story transitions fairly smoothly (even with a five year gap) to uncovered an alien invasion of Earth.  There are some sub-plots, mostly involving individual character development.  Orbiting in the background is the Justice League, a constant presence and occasional plot element, but they are mostly off fighting other, bigger, more public battles.

By contrast, the Teen Titans has had about five major story arcs: the Culling, Death in the Family, Trigon, the Trial of Kid Flash, and the latest Manchester Black/S.T.A.R. Labs story. The fact that DC Comics still hasn't figured out that Manchester Black was a satirical, throwaway character is beyond me.  But in any case, Teen Titans suffered from having major issues involving cross-overs with most of these story arcs, leaving people who just read this title often missing major plot points, if not resolutions.  Again Teen Titans wasn't the only title to suffer this way; I'm still not sure exactly how "Forever Evil" actually ended, mostly because I stopped caring.

Characterization, especially regarding youth.  In Young Justice, the team is composed entirely of young proteges of established Justice Leaguers, and each wishes to impress their mentor in their own way.  The relationships vary with their mentors from highly-supportive to downright dysfunctional.  There are romantic intrigues and coming-of-age elements to the plot.  Most importantly, the different team members seem to like each other and are easy to relate to.

Which again lends itself to a negative critique of the Teen Titans.  Honestly, I'm not sure which of the Teen Titans I'm supposed to like.  Bunker seems like the most heroic one.  Red Robin is the stressful leader, Wonder Girl a semi-reformed criminal, Superboy is a violent jerk, Impulse is lying to everyone.  Skitter and Solstice hardly got any story time before being shunted out.  Raven is inconsistent and Beast Boy is a PTSD case.  There is no in-comic interactions with other heroes (possibly because of continuity issues).  But mostly, there's no sense of why these people are even together as a team.  It feels like the writers are sort of going for that reluctant teammate vibe but instead you end up with people for whom if they went their separate ways tomorrow you wouldn't blame them.

Two more complaints about Teen Titans, and then I will lay off.  Time and again the covers of the Teen Titans did not match the story inside.  I'm not sure if this was because the covers were done separately and perhaps there were timing issues involved, but repeatedly the cover would state one thing in terms of story and the comic book provide something else.

Then there's the "Trigon possesses Red Robin" thing.  During the Trigon plot line Red Robin is possessed and is used to sow discord among the group.  In the middle of this Red Robin has sex with Wonder Girl and kisses Solstice, a seduction that puts him at odds with Kid Flash/Impulse.  That plot seems to get very close to rape, both by having Red Robin have sex against his will, and Wonder Girl have sex under false pretenses.  I'm not sure why DC Comics would even want to get even close to a story with rape in it (again), especially involving "teens," and really especially as a passing plot point.  All that is doing is opening the comic book up to criticism from people who are (rightfully) sensitive to those kinds of stories, and that is exactly what happened.

So, what from all this can superhero RPG GM's learn?

It's okay to connect dots.  In my own Marvel Heroic campaign, all of the supervillains were brought together at the end into one mega-group, the Zodiac.  I watched the players' eyes light up when they started seeing the pieces fall into place.  But continuity also matters when it comes to keeping the same roster of PC's.  Switching out one PC for another might be great for the player who is constantly tinkering with the rules, but it doesn't allow PC's to breathe and grow.

Connection the dots in terms of persons also is a real plus.  That's both PC-to-PC, and PC-to-NPC.  Wildly disconnected PC's and a lack of NPC interaction I feel detracts from the players' emotional investment, the figurative and literal "why are we here."

And finally, don't do rape storylines.  Ever.  Just don't.

30,000 Pageviews

Well, my funny little gaming blog hit 30,000 pageviews.  The last time it appears that I kept track was in December 2012, when I hit 5,000.  Looking at the graph, readership has steadily increased, not including the odd outlying spike apparently caused by Russian gambling website robots attracted to words like "games" and "gaming" (and possibly "Russian gambling robots").

"I'll raise you 30 rubles, comrade."

Over the last year or so I've noticed that aside from participating in a "answer the daily question for a month" thing my blog posts are largely quick re-caps of my gaming sessions and the odd thought about this, that, or the other when it comes to RPG's.  I think there is some value in being a person who is publicly admitting to not only gaming but gaming often and with a lot of people who are new to the hobby.  But I also realize that there's not a ton of usable content by other GM's.

Some of that is circumstantial.  I only took the reins of the gaming group back a few months ago, and I have spent most of that time running a semi-sandbox D&D game.  Since my players visit this blog on occasion, I can't create posts like "here's the cool map I made of the Tomb of the 99 Mad Monks" because they haven't been everywhere in that tomb and I know for a fact that their own map is incorrect (not a spoiler--they realized it too when rooms started to overlap on the graph paper) so the last thing I want to do is ruin it for them.

The other reason is more about my own situation.  I'm honestly not creating much right now.  Oh, I borrowed a locale from a previous D&D campaign and put together the odd dungeon layout, but that's about it.  I'm still using monsters from the Monster Manual and magic items from the Dungeon Master's Guide.  So there very little in the way of original material.

I'm less troubled by what I provide to my readership (although I want to be an interesting author) and more sort of depressed that I'm not being more creative in my hobby.  As I figure it, I have two tasks.  First, to make my D&D campaign I'm running more interesting to me, since the players seem pretty engaged in it and wanting me to continue.  Second, I can look for creative outlets outside my campaign that will feed me intellectually and emotionally and make for interesting content here.

Thanks again for reading the blog.  I always appreciate it.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Friday Gaming Recap, Speed Grapher Edition!

No pics, unfortunately, because I was too busy running the action!

This was the group's first foray at third level, having blasted through second level with one high-XP session.  The gaps widen between XP benchmarks in 5E, so they'll be at third level for several sessions.

The group returned to Dewalt Manor, where they were searching for the kidnapped angel Meloniel.  In an underground complex they discovered a sect of the Larvate Sublimity (the masked rulers of Grimfest) who were combining the blood of the tarrasque with the captured angel's blood to make even more mutative concoctions.  Despite being almost completely exhausted of spells the group went up against a group of opponents that were way out of their league but managed to handily defeat them instead.  What's weird is that they had real trouble with a CR 2 encounter  featuring two gargoyles earlier.  What made the difference?  Easy, and one of the strange things I've noticed about 5E...

There are a lot of low-CR opponents (such as gargoyles or will-o-wisps) that have damage resistance against non-magical weapons, but the treasure tables in the DMG don't give out magical weapons very often, favoring one-shot potions and scrolls instead.  So the group was struggling doing half damage against CR 2 monsters, except for the cleric and paladin who had access to spells or class abilities that turned their normal weapons to magic.

On the other hand, spells that target saving throws seem to be highly effective against powerful monsters, because saving throws don't seem to scale all that much because monsters lack proficiency bonuses.  So in the final battle there were five humanoids, all viable targets for low-level save-or-fail spells and non-magical attacks, despite there being almost 3,000 XP in the room.  Make sense?

What is working is the juggling of ten players into groups of six.  We had a last minute cancellation by one player who was scheduled for the evening and another was able to take her place.  The different permutations of the party create some interesting dynamics, and keep people from getting too much into a rut when it comes to their role in the group.  A cleric, for example, might move from a behind-the-group support character to a front-line tank depending on the composition of the party.

In the end, the angel was rescued and a possibly re-occurring villain introduced, so it was all good!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

My tri-ennial discourse on non-violence

What brings this on?  Two things, actually.

First, Doctor Who went off Netflix at the end of January, so I was binge-watching quite a bit of it over the weekend.  Doctor Who is pretty much the ultimate in romantic science fiction that suggests that intellect and personal character are superior to violence (especially the mindless variety).

Second, I don't talk much my work as a clergyman or religion in general because that's not what most people come here for.  But every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary (a list that dictates what passages of Scripture are read in Episcopal Churches, not to mention several other Protestant denominations) a certain rather obscure reading from the first epistle of Paul to the church in Corinth comes up.  This passage is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and concerns, of all things, the question of whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to purchase meat from animals that have been sacrificed to pagan gods.  You see, temples back in Paul's day would sell the meat from butchered sacrifices as a sort of fundraiser, usually at below-market value since the animal was donated by the faithful.  Sort of a polytheistic Costco.  Paul, who isn't a big person on dietary restrictions, says that since the gods in question aren't real, there's no spiritual peril per se in eating meat sacrificed to them.  Except, he then adds, unless the patronizing of these temples for meat could be construed by novitiates to the Christian faith as an endorsement.  Even though buying and eating the meat isn't technically sinful, leading people astray in their faith is.

Not too relevant to today's world, it might seem, until you think about fictionalized violence.  I know that when I watch a violent movie or play a violent videogame no one is really getting hurt.  It's fiction, and entertainment.  But there are been studies about the effect of viewing fictional violence on the developing brains of young people, including desensitizing them.   This really isn't that big an issue for most gaming groups, but I've got three minors in mine.  The youngest doesn't like violent TV programs or movies, and I'm often confronted with a moment of self-awareness when she says, "that's really gross/scary/horrible" and I have to acknowledge that she's right.

The prevalence of combat-as-solution adventures in my gaming life is probably three parts game system, gaming group, and my own laziness regarding creating game sessions.  D&D, for all its nattering about roleplaying, still breaks things down into "encounters" which connotes that you're supposed to be meeting monsters and likely battling them.  They haven't really created a sourcebook full of NPC's with which to interact, have they?  My group seems to favor combat-oriented games, although that might be a chicken-and-egg situation of that being the kind of game with which they have most often played.

Then there is my part.  Combat encounters are easy to plan.  You pick monsters, cobble up a semi-interesting environment for them to live in, and then lead the PC's there.  They'll see the monster, rarely talk to it, and after you do that five or six times you've killed an evening with hack-and-slashery fun.  There's an old Knights of the Dinner Table where B.A. (the GM of the group) has the PC's bump into an obnoxious guy in a tavern.  A fight is picked and ensues, and as the players begin tossing dice around B.A. thinks "ah, the old tavern brawl.  Just the thing when you haven't planned anything for this session."

I'm not going to flagellate myself too strongly about this.  I'm a very busy person with a huge gaming group that meets three weekends out of four now.  During the time I was hoping to do most of the campaign planning, I got the flu.  Now I'm playing catch-up.

But I also know that this is one of the reasons why I hate fantasy sometimes.  It's so easy, and so expected, to do a combat-heavy game.  In science fiction, for example, there's enough variance in the general sense of style and plot in the genre to be able to field a Star Trek or a Doctor Who or a Warehouse 13 where the answer is out-thinking or problem solving or whatever else other than just guns-a-blazing.

Well, enough rambling, what are your thoughts?

Over at Strange Vistas