Tuesday, May 31, 2016

X-Men: Age of Apocalypse (review)

I think the X-Men movie franchise deserves some credit for getting the idea a superhero team movie off the ground and financially viable, but now Age of Apocalypse represents the ninth X-Men related film to come out since the first in 2000 (which by my count is one every 18 months, I think), and finding a way to continue to get something out of that franchise is a real challenge.

Age of Apocalypse is sort of the third X-Men movie to come out of "First Class" (which took place in the 60's), and "Days of Future Past" (which took place in the 70's).  AoA takes place in 1983, as evident from "Return of the Jedi" showing in theaters.  The movie is some weird way tries to bridge the prequel series with the first movie in 2000 by introducing many of the core X-Men from the 2000 movie, including Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm (all played by different actors than the first film) while at the same time cherry-picking popular characters from earlier films like Nightcrawler (who first appears in X2) and Quicksilver (who was in Days of Future Past).  And if you didn't think that Days of Future Past ret-conning the entire movie continuity was a tacit apology for the direction the first three films went, there's a blatant crack at X3 in Apocalypse that was about as subtle as a brick through a plate glass window.

The movie's villain is Apocalypse, a character almost synonymous with the 1980's X-Men hyperbole that would eventually collapse under its own weight after a time. I was heavy into the X-Men in the 1980's but can not help but look back and realize what a boring, two-dimensional character Apocalypse is, and continues to be in the movie version.  With his giant armor, blue skin, and rather tired "survival of the fittest" mantra that was too similar to Magneto's rants, it is hard to see him as anything other than a weak Darth Vader/Hitler mash-up.  His only real stand-out trait was his corruption of existing PC's into being his "horsemen."  This was a shocking thing in 1986 after Warren Worthington had theoretically killed himself after losing his wings in a fight with the Morlocks, and it was perhaps the most compelling act of villainy in the movie.

It's a long movie with a disjointed plot that spends a lot of time working in a lot of homages to the 1980's like movie posters, music, and references to going to the mall.  Also thrown in there is Jubilee and Weapon X Wolverine (complete with goofy helmet), although both are cameos.

Okay, so all this has been a long-winded way of saying that it's a good movie, even a great offering in comparison to a lot coming out of the X-Men Movie Universe.  I get Apocalypse is a major X-Men villain and there's not a lot of easily-identified characters who could have taken his place, but he's got the same problem I have with Thanos (or Ronin for that matter): he's not developed enough to get your really thinking about him as anything other than an eventual superhuman punching bag.

What I'm really interested in is whether the next movie will be set in the early 1990's, which is sort of the peak of the X-Men's popularity with its Saturday morning cartoon show, et al.  Could a Big Hair Rogue be somewhere in the future?

Other closing thoughts (slightly spoilery):

  • This movie is made for cosplayers.  By my count the main characters sport no less than three costumes in the movie: their "street clothes" which are so contrived as to be intentional, the "flight suit" outfit, and their costumes in the final scene.
  • I do not get the whole "we're stealing your nukes" moment if you're not going to do anything with them.  Seriously.  Unless you're going with trying to answer why governments just didn't take the villains out with a missile, although it seems to me there would be plenty of other ways to do it.
  • Speaking of head-scratchers, here's a big one.  Magneto has a wife and kid, who play a big part in his emotional pathos for the movie.  But, if Quicksilver is his kid (which is canon in the comics) and his younger sister is also his child, doesn't that mean he's already walked out on one family already?  In the comics Wanda is a twin, but in DoFP she's clearly younger.  That would mean that Magneto fathered a child, stuck around long enough to father another, left, and then later on get's all emotionally connected to some other child.  Which is weird, not impossible, but inconsistent.
  • Quicksilver is the best part of the film.  I thought it would be Nightcrawler, my favorite X-Man and thank God he got revisited in this movie, but they know they have a winner with the hyper-speedster mutant slacker.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

From RPG Futurist to Realist

Today Blacksteel wrote a great article regarding innovation in RPG's.  You can find it here, and should totally read it just on its own merit, and not just because this blog post is a response.  If you really don't want to read it, I will tell you that the first part of the article involves the lack of something new in RPG's and the proliferation of Nth Edition iterations of RPG's that have been around for decades, e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, and Call of Cthulhu.

I agree with his assessment, although I might be less critical about it.  It mirrors the trend in movie making, and I suspect for the same reason: trepidation.  Why go out on a limb and create a bomb like Jon Carter: Warlord of Mars (which wasn't even that terrible) when you can create a complete waste like Dawn of Justice and still count on eight hundred million dollars in ticket sales and merchandising because it has Batman and Superman in it?  Not a great reason, just a reasonable one from a business perspective.

The second thought I had about the continuing trend of rehashing old material is that in some cases it just works.  Dungeons & Dragons as a core game concept works because it
  • has a familiar setting (especially since most contemporary fantasy is heavily influenced by it in turn)
  • has a pretty straightforward plot (kill evil things, steal their stuff, lather, rinse, repeat)
  • has enough specialized roles to support a typical gaming group without much overlap
  • has a pretty simple dice mechanic
So it isn't surprising that a game that is pretty accessible to new players and works for a lot of veterans players has been retread over and over again and had a gazillion "retro-clones" that are essentially house-ruled versions done by people with access to word processing programs.  And while the game has plenty of detractors (I'm looking at you, Adam) there's no arguing with its success on the market.

I can make a similar-but-not-identical argument regarding licensed products, such as Star Wars, that have had rules systems that are radically different, namely that the use of a pre-existing universe both guarantees some sales to devotees of the source material but also makes it easy for players to "plug in" to the game.  If I have a choice between introducing a Firefly RPG or Savage World's Necropolis to a new player, I'm going to be thinking about how I'll need to introduce the setting in Necropolis.  If they don't know Firefly, then there's some bigger problems.

Where I thought Blacksteel hit the nail on the head with a 20 is this quote:
What are the main constraints to a tabletop RPG? 
  • Big rulebooks that take time to read and can be expensive. 
  • Complex rules that often get in the way of a good time
  • Need for multiple players to get together in person for hours at a time on some kind of regular schedule
How do we mitigate these barriers?
  • We're already seeing simpler rules systems as a trend and PDFs are usually a more budget friendly option
  • Some kind of a system where the rules are just built in to the medium of the game, whether everything you need to know is on your character sheet - period - or  there is technology involved. Have you seen the manuals for MMORPGs? They have complex mechanics behind the scenes but they do not publish 300 page rulebooks.
  •  There has to be a way to let people participate in a meaningful way that doesn't require 4-10 hours around a table per week or month.
A-flipping-men. As I've been thinking about the Hufflepuff game I have considered often the question of the "price of entry" and the level of complexity of rules, a factor that has precluded games like Dark Heresy.   It almost precluded Shadowrun but they did a nice introductory booklet in conjunction with Free RPG Day a year or two back, as has other games like the Valiant RPG and Battletech's Time of War.

One innovative and fairly simple game that Blacksteel didn't mention is Fragged Empire, which has a unique setting and some fascinating rules regarding in-game economy in a post-cataclysmic star-spanning science-fiction setting.  The rules are also fairly simple, both in terms of PC creation and playing the game. I would strongly consider it for my own campaign except that I am not convinced that it handles large numbers of players well; there's not as much PC differentiation and large numbers of PC's can bloat the "Influence" pool.

But where I really think he's onto something is the issue of having people participate in a meaningful way outside of table time.  Back in the old days when we were gaming constantly while in college but before all this telecommunication technology was around, we "bluebooked" with actual blue books, stealing the idea wholesale from Aaron Allston's Strike Force.  Side note: I realized when discussing this article with my children that the term "bluebooking" is in their gaming lexicon, and in the lexicon of my entire gaming group.  This is an issue my gaming group is facing right now, as several players have summer schedules that preclude participating at the regular times.

I would think that between texting and Facebook Messenger and all the other things that are available there would be some easy solutions to modern-day bluebooking, if the GM was willing to do the multiple-ball juggling that is required.  Heck, you could still use bluebooks if you really wanted to, provided you had enough face-to-face contact.

Anyways, this has gone pretty long, but I thought that Blacksteel's post deserved some thought.  Comments about my comments welcome.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Supers Hufflepuff Game?

As I try to pull together the gazillion threads of thought in regards to what I want to run next, the second and fairly obvious thing to consider is whether I want to run a superhero RPG again.

There's a lot to things that suggest that a supers RPG would be a good option.  It is really, really simple to justify the rotating cast of characters, particularly if you are building the game around a large group of PC heroes who are in a "Justice League Unlimited" kind of situation.  As I try to set up a schedule for the other two RPG's my group is doing, I'm acutely aware of how different everyone's schedule is, and the unlikelihood that everyone can make every session.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the genre is that it is a personal favorite of mine.  I'm less likely to burn out I suspect if I am really enjoying the game.  This is a double edged sword, however, because I'm what Aaron Allston called a "genre fiend" when it comes to superhero games, which leads me right into the next point...

One of the biggest issues with the superhero RPG option is the problem of tone.  Every major literary genre has a wide spectrum of tone.  Take fantasy for example.  You have the grimdark and very adult fantasy popularized by The Game of Thrones, and you have the lighthearted whimsical fantasy of Willow or The Hobbit.  The same is true for science fiction, which spans from the gritty, hard sci-fi to the space operatic.  But, and you can argue this point with me if you like, the superhero genre has a massive spectrum in place because the genre can get downright cartoony (literally) to the disturbingly gritty.  Furthermore, because I think as a genre comic book superheroes are less well-known than other genres, many players only have a fairly limited sense of what the genre can look like.  If all you know are the Superfriends, then you'll go into a superhero RPG thinking Superfriends.  Maybe I'm overstating this, but in conversations with other people who have tried to run supers RPG's, I hear about this problem all the time.

Related to this is the issue that as a genre it isn't as popular with some people.  I think superheroes have the stigma of being somewhat juvenile, despite the massive popularity of the MCU movies, Arrow, and the Flash.  There are players in my own group who will jump on board any fantasy or sci-fi RPG I throw against the wall but give me a turned-up nose regarding superheroes.  Maybe it is a sense that the genre is campy, or defies logic, or lends itself to crypto-fascism--I have no idea because I'm on the inside loving the genre.

Thoughts always welcome!

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Fantasy Hufflepuff Game?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about what I might want to run as my "Hufflepuff" game, meaning the RPG that is open to a large number of players including several new and inexperienced ones.  In full disclosure I've probably spent too much time ruminating about this instead of just running something, but I've got time and I don't want to botch it.
So obviously the first question is which game, or really which genre from which I can then select a game.  I thought I would tackle each major genre separately, weighing pros and cons.  First up?  Fantasy.
The biggest upside to running a fantasy game is that it is the game everyone already owns.  Or more specifically, 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is the game everyone already owns.  I considered some other fantasy RPG's, like Fantasy AGE or Heroes Against Darkness, but teaching a new system or asking people to but a new rulebook would mean foregoing a big asset to running fantasy.  Plus I'm not sure the benefits of a different system are all that great in the long run.
As a general rule, it is a system that accommodates large groups well. Fighters fight and wizards cast spells and clerics heal people and everyone feels like they have a job to do for the group.  Sometime being a support role isn't as much fun as doling out huge amounts of damage, though.
In addition, I have lots of toys for running fantasy games.  I've been building up two modular dungeons: one a classic style stone block dungeon and the other done in a natural cavern style.  Plus there's loads of painted miniatures that I've been working on over the years, etc.
On the downside, I've been running a lot of fantasy lately.  It was the last RPG I ran, and that campaign is still currently going on under another GM.  Now that GM doesn't mind another fantasy campaign in the mix, but there's something to be said for offering something different, both in terms of my own creative "freshness" and not muddying the waters.

Conclusion: fantasy is a strong option, especially if I can do something a little different than what's been done before.  It's not without its faults, however.

Comments welcome!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ethics and the Civil War

I went and saw Captain America: Civil War recently.  I enjoyed the movie for its introduction of even more classic Marvel characters and its superhero action, but I couldn't help but wonder if the movie wouldn't be more critically examined if it weren't in the wake of the gawdawful hero-versus-hero movie Batman v. Superman.  Because even as I was watching it I could feel myself slowly grinding my teeth over the plot even as I enjoyed the MCU's iteration of Black Panther and Spider-Man.

Spoilers follow.

Here's why.  In the original "Civil War" story arc in Marvel comics the flashpoint of the Super Human Registration Act which curtails the vigilante activities of superhumans was the flagrantly irresponsible acts of the New Warriors (my favorite 90's superhero team).  The New Warriors flamboyantly jump a small group of D-list supervillains who are basically just hanging out in their own backyard, while a TV crew films the Warriors as part of a reality program.  The teen heroes are reckless, arrogant, and are unprepared for the predictable response of the villain Nitro (who admittedly was juicing on Mutant Growth Hormone, making him even more powerful).  All of this was against a thirty-year history of the Avengers having a complex relationship with the US government, the United Nations, and SHIELD, best outlined during the "Peter Gyrich" era.

So it makes some sense, a semi-natural evolution of the Marvel Universe (the "semi" being cleaned up by having it revealed that the Skrulls have been stoking the fires for a long time).

In the Civil War movie, the impetus behind the attempt to put the Avengers under the control of the US government with the blessing of the United Nations seems less tenable.  In the dramatic scene where Ross rattles off this litany of venues that have been devastated by superhuman conflict, I kept thinking to myself, "that wasn't their fault."  New York?  That was an alien invasion.  That's like blaming the US Navy for shooting up Pearl Harbor.  Washington DC?  That was SHIELD, and would have been a lot worse if it wasn't for Cap & Co.  The only real argument is Solokovia-or-however-it-is-spelled because that was Ultron, who was created by Tony Stark, whom I can not figure out is not under criminal prosecution for creating and unleashing what is for all intents and purposes a malicious computer virus and mobile weapon platform.  And hey, we already have laws that are about people doing that.  Why do so many people, including several superheroes, engage in the intellectual disconnect of blaming the people who curtailed the damage?

And you know which one really doesn't make any sense to me?  The Vision.  At this point I'm convinced that the only reason he could lift Thor's hammer in Avengers 2 is because he's an inanimate object, and that the hammer obeys the laws of physics (sort of) when it comes to being affected by inanimate objects, and only drops anchor when a person tries to move it.  Because here's the thing: I'm pretty sure lying to people and detaining them against their will is a no-hammer-lifting-for-you kind of activity.  Because if Cap can't lift it (and he can in the comic books), then the "hey little lady you got to stay prisoner here while I try to get my android lovin' on" Vision sure as hell can't.

So the premise is thin (let's not even get into the whole thing with Bucky Barnes.  He was brainwashed.  It's established in The Winter Soldier.  That means capture if you can, because he's innocent of wrong-doing.)  There's no real dramatic tension about who is right and who is wrong in this, like their was in the comic book series.  In the movie it is the emotionally-damaged Iron Man, the ridiculously passive War Machine, the confusingly naive Vision, the vengeance-obsessed Black Panther, the underage and easily-manipulated Spider-Man, and the Black Widow.  The other side is clearly the heroes.  In the comic book series you saw the gradual progression of the outcomes from the Registration Act, culminating in the death of Goliath.  The "casualty" of the MCU movie has nowhere near the same emotional gut-punch.

All of which is my saying that while Civil War is a good movie, and even a strong offering in comparison to the other MCU movies out there, and leagues better (pun intended) than what DC is putting out, it deserves some critical attention when it comes to its breezy and at times confusing plot.

Over at Strange Vistas