My Week That Was, 21 October 2016

The best thing I read for class this week was Thomas Fingar’s Reducing Uncertainty, all about the role of intelligence analysis.

I’ve been reading Hyena Road, the novelization of the Paul Gross movie I have not yet seen.

I ran some Sword’s Edge in the campaign I’m calling the Nor’Westers, which uses Western themes and tropes for an adventure set in 1810 along the North West Company’s fur trade route into Canada’s interior.

Favourite podcast listened to this week has to be the Slate Political Gabfest discussing – who could have guessed – the US election, although regular host John Dickerson wasn’t on it.

I’ve actually played about 30 minutes to an hour of computer games a couple of nights after I finish my coursework. I feel guilty, but generally I’m too tired to do anything more productive. This week, I played Darkest Dungeon. Kind of hooked.

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The New Normal

This is a bit of a personal post as well as a kind of situation report. Those of you following me on G+ are probably aware that my family bought a new house. We moved in on 9 Sep and it’s a massive change from what we used to live in. It’s a real house in a real neighbourhood and we’ve already established pretty good relations with almost all our neighbours. The school isn’t as good as the last one (for those in the Ottawa region, Agincourt Public School is superior to Barrhaven Public School in most measures, at least from our experience). This is something we can help to change if we get involved, otherwise we are just whiners.

The big difference is finances. We have gone from being able to pretty much spend however we want to requiring a very tight budget. The finances are in, and based on all indicators, we’re going to be just scraping by and probably significantly dipping into our savings. Now, this will change because I am in line for a couple of raises (waiting for a contract to be signed and then a statutory increase in a year’s time) so this is a temporary matter, but it is something that has created some stress.

What this means is that until our finances change, I’ll only be buying beer on special occasions. I won’t be backing Kickstarters any longer. I won’t be able to pocket-finance projects. I won’t be buying any games, any comics, or really much of anything. Some of this I could have avoided, but I’d rather cut down on my consumption than stop our charitable donations, which aren’t sizeable, but amount to pretty much half of my discretionary spending for a month.

This has a direct effect on my involvement in the RPG community: no conventions except for Breakout Con to which I’ve already committed, but that will be it at least for the next few years. Production at SEP is going to take a hit as I don’t have the time to run Kickstarters when I am studying for a masters (and I may be put on French language training through my job) and I won’t have the money to invest in art, editing, layout, etc.

This is unwelcome but not terrible. We’re looking at a horizon of about three years. At that point, we won’t be exactly back to where we were, but we’ll be pretty far ahead and I’ll be back to having some money in my pocket.

So, if you see some changes, you know why. I’ll still be around virtually and I’ll still be gaming, but what I do and how I do it might change.

Just so you know.

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13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

After a day of pool-closing and hedge-trimming, I had some hours and decided to take a break from Luke Cage – which my wife isn’t watching yet – to watch 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

I’m not going to comment on the politics of the movie, but it is a bit difficult to ignore them, given the proximity of the event. There are a lot of similarities between this movie and Black Hawk Down, but Black Hawk Down was a decade away from the event and didn’t touch on the main political disagreement from it – the pullout after the release of CW3 Michael Durant.

Instead, what I’d like to comment on is that in Black Hawk Down, every character death – and this does not include the Somalis, except for a particular scene with a father and son that actually made an impact – was significant. I don’t know if Michael Bay was trying to make his own Black Hawk Down, but given the similarity of some of the scenes (the chaotic drive through the middle of a hostile city, the medical triage scene, the philosophizing just before going back into the heat of battle) I tend to think he was. The deaths in 13 Hours that were supposed to be so emotional lacked any real strength. No real effort had been put into making these characters human, only superhuman – having a wife and kids doesn’t a great character make.

Michael Bay will never be Ridley Scott, but even Scott is uneven and performs poorly when he has a poor script. The script for Black Hawk Down – also based on a book with the participation of those involved in the event – was a lot stronger than that for 13 Hours. Bay’s usual pyrotechnic display cannot save the movie, especially when everything else is in such broad strokes. The good guys are completely good, the bad guys are moustache-twirlers, and the bureaucrats are complete idiots who are also complete assholes.

The action is fine, but frankly Strike Back does it better on a lot smaller budget. Strike Back is also better at characterization . . . unless one is speaking of women or minorities, but I’ve made that complaint elsewhere.

I give 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi 2.5 jugs of oddly flammable diesel out of 5. Mediocre action and cardboard characters make this poorly scripted bulletfest a poor choice unless you are a Bay-fan or looking to add fuel to your Benghazigate fire.

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Kill Zone 2 (aka SPL II: A Time for Consequences)

Having finished unpacking and having (relatively) settled into our new home, and with the readings and discussion topic for my MA course not yet posted, my wife and I had time on Friday evening to watch a movie. Netflix indulged us with a Tony Jaa movie we had not yet seen. This was serendipitous as I had just been in a discussion with the eminent, Enny-award winning local designer (and friend) Todd Crapper about Ong Bok 2 – a huge piece of crap with a few good action pieces scattered within it in my estimation.

Kill Zone 2 inserts Tony Jaa and Thailand into a pretty standard Hong Kong actioner with Wu Jing as the HK counterpart to Tony Jaa. The story includes an organ smuggling ring, a sick daughter, and plenty of coincidence – standard HK fare. The plot and action aren’t bad, and are relatively engaging if you dig on HK action cinema – very similar in the need to inject melodrama and suffering into the action as South Korean actioners.

The action is superb. This is not the best Tony Jaa outing – I think that’s the Protector, but I’ll need to watch it again to see if nostalgia has coloured my perception – and it’s not up to some of Donnie Yen’s best insane action performances, but those are pretty high bars. Anything would suffer by that comparison. I liked the action a lot more than some of the movies I’ve seen recently, and I think both Wu Jing and Tony Jaa deliver satisfying performances. These guys are master thespians, but I wasn’t groaning in the emotional scenes. There were a couple of actual touching moments that I really appreciated, and that’s saying a lot.

I would give Kill Zone 2 4 hidden crescent knives out of 5. This is a solid, enjoyable actioner that delivers good performances from its leads, and allows Tony Jaa to crack heads with elbows and knees. A definite recommendation.

You can find more information at Wikipedia and IMDB.

The Ong Bak 2 discussion.

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Wreck Age

These days, I’m busy getting Sword’s Edge RPG into shape and dealing with getting back into my MA program after a couple of months off, but I am still always interested in other games. I was pointed toward Wreck Age. This is a post-apocalyptic RPG, and while it isn’t my thing, I think it looks pretty interesting. The presentation is great, and the quickstart gives a good idea of how the mechanics work.

I’m a fan of simple systems, and this one looks pretty robust. That said, I like what I see. I think the mechanics look good. I certainly haven’t run it or read through the main rules, but if someone were running this, I’d probably be interested enough to play it.

The art and trade dress gave me a very Rage (as in the computer game) feel – and that’s a good thing. I actually liked Rage quite a lot.

So go have a look and see what you think. If you are into post-apocalyptic games, and dig robust systems, I think this might definitely be worth a look. The quickstart can help you decide if this is something you want to investigate.

Now, back to my own work. Allons-y!

You can find out more about Wreck Age here.

You can find the quickstart rules here.

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More Craft Beers with BBQ

My buddy John who had been transferred to Halifax is back and so we had a bbq with him and his family, which meant a chance to try out some new beers. On the way from our old house to their place takes us right by the LCBO – the liquor store in Ontario, the place where one generally finds craft beers – on March Road (), which generally has a great selection of beers.

First up was Collective Arts State of Mind. State of Mind is a session IPA, and Collective Arts Rhyme & Reason extra pale ale had been a favourite of mine as I was transitioning into hoppy beers. State of Mind is very much like I remember Rhyme & Reason, hints of citrus with just a touch of hops. Very refreshing and great character.

I really wanted to like Whiprsnapr Root of Evil. Whiprsnapr is right around the corner from my old house. Unfortunately, although the smokiness of this “pre-prohibition lager” was interesting, the beer itself was overwhelming. It may have been a problem of having it after State of Mind with nothing to cleanse my palate, but Root of Evil didn’t do much for me.

Beyond the Pale’s Pale Ale Project was the winner of the day. This American-style pale ale had everything that made State of Mind enjoyable, but with an even better balance and smoothness. Again, this may have been because of my disappointment with Root of Evil, but when this hit my tastebuds, my eyes opened a bit wider and I had to smile. Very satisfying.

Barnstormer Flight Delay IPA was a fair enough IPA, but given how many I’ve had, and the quality of my three present favourites (Mad Tom, Red Racer, and Headstock) it’s up against tough competition. It was fine, more like Boneshaker than Mad Tom, but wasn’t particularly distinctive.

And the final was Northwinds Rainmaker, which I had the pleasure of trying at the Northwinds Brewhouse in Collingwood, Ontario. Rainmaker is certainly enjoyable, but also has that touch of pine I taste in Boneshaker. It was a good IPA, but doesn’t break through my top three favourite IPAs.

But I will say that Northwinds Three Stroke extra pale ale is up there against Red Racer ISA and Naughty Neighbour as an excellent, enjoyable pale ale if one is not in the mood for something strong like an IPA.

Of the day’s drinking, I would recommend Pale Ale Project (which may no longer be available) and State of Mind. Both of them were really refreshing and enjoyable. Although summer is coming to an end, these are both outstanding bbq beers.

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When She Was Five

In case you weren’t aware, my flash fiction “When She Was Five” is up at Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. It’s funny, this was the first time I purposely wrote flash fiction and I sold it to the first market to which I submitted it. Not sure what that says. To be honest, I tried again with a different outcome, so I don’t think it’s the form. Perhaps I just had something to share.

There is also a positive review available that makes some interesting conclusions about the message of the story.

You can find “When She Was Five” here.

Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Issue 234 is here.

You can find the referenced review here.

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Screenplay: the RPG Review

Caveat: I am a friend of the designer and was part of the playtest for this game. Also, this is part of a round robin review process, meaning that a bunch of designers got together and agreed to review each other’s games. I don’t know if the author of Screenplay will be reviewing my game or not, but he might. This is the third review, and I will be reviewing two other games between now and the end of August.

A review? Sure, let’s call it a review. Those of you who have been around for a bit know that I’ve been part of the playtest crew for Todd Crapper’s Screenplay and that I have been singing its praises. Right now, not only is Screenplay out and available, but so too is Ironbound, its first subgame/setting.

Screenplay is a simple system that provide extensive narrative control to its players. Characters are built from Potentials – which are qualities/description that provide dice for conflict resolution – and resources – which provide bonuses to resolution. The character’s Stamina (a kind of health/stress rating) and Milestones (kind of like experience) are also resources used to effect resolution. The die provided by a character’s Potential and modified by a Resource is rolled against a target number – defined by the opposing Potential. Success allows the character to remove Stamina or apply Complications to an opponent. All the mechanical effects derive from this simple system.

The system does provide the GM with plenty of mechanical means to control the situation, though none of these are absolute. GMs have a special resource called Challenges that allows the GM to increase the difficulty or create some kind of new obstacle. This means if the GM feels the game is too easy or the players are too confident, a Challenge or two in a scene can really spice things up.

This game is for cooperative groups, not competitive ones. If the mentality of your group is GM vs. players – as in the GM is actively trying to kill the characters while the players are attempt to subvert or undermine the GM’s efforts in order to beat them – this game won’t run smoothly for you. However, if you are playing a competitive game, I’m not sure you are having as much as you possibly can with role-playing games.

Screenplay works both for action heavy games and quieter investigative ones. I’ve used it to run a one-shot based on Korean action movies and I’ve participated in a 1940s style horror game set in a museum which evolved into a very quiet character study and investigation. In both these games, Screenplay succeeded in replicating the action with a few minor hiccoughs.

Is it a perfect game? No. Of course not. I haven’t met one of those yet. For a simple set of rules that can be used for a wide variety of high narrative games, Screenplay does the trick.

I give Screenplay 4.75 high plains samurais out of 5. This is a great game for those who like their systems simple, but with mechanics robust enough to even handle high action adventures.

You can find Screenplay at DTRPG.

Right now, Ironbound is “pay what you want” at DTRPG.

You can learn more at Broken Ruler Games.

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Star Trek Beyond – A Review

I was very lucky yesterday to get to see an opening/advanced screening of Star Trek Beyond (does it have a colon? It should probably have a colon). Although among those I viewed it with, mine was the minority opinion, I really liked this one. I’d hazard to say it was the best of the three new Trek movies.

This is coming from someone who found Star Trek through pre-dinner/after school reruns of the original series. I’ve been a fan of Star Trek for as long as I can remember. I saw ST:the Motion Picture in the theatre and – this may taint your opinion of me – I loved it. ST: the Wrath of Khan, of course, blew it away. Still, ST:TMP had so many aspects of ST:TOS while providing characters who had grown since the end of their five year mission that I remain a fan.

I had low expectations going in to STB. While I enjoyed 2009’s Star Trek, I was disappointed with Star Trek Into Darkness. I expected STB to focus on action – especially given the director, Justin Lin, known for his work on the Fast and the Furious franchise – and I expected that focus to be to the detriment of the character.

My expectations were – thankfully – dashed.

I am very aware that among the people with whom I saw the movie, I had the minority opinion, but I believe this is the best of the reboot movies. The first act of the movie set the same tone as ST:TWOK, and, for that matter, some of ST:TMP. Kirk and Spock are at turning points in their lives, questioning their choices and their purpose. McCoy is there as a sounding board and support. Finally the deniable friendship between McCoy and Spock is explored while McCoy’s role as Kirk’s friend is cemented. Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy is my favourite part of the reboot and I am so happy he was given plenty of chances to shine.

Justin Lin proved as adept with the close and personal scenes as he did with the action. And, don’t worry, there’s plenty of action. For me, though, the groundwork done with the characters – and not just the big three – paid off when that action happened, because I was much more invested with these characters than I had been in the previous two movies.

Here’s where I am again going to complain about 3D. Maybe it’s just me – I do have an eyeglass prescription, so my vision isn’t the best – but the action is always blurred and muddled in 3D. It’s very noticeable in parts of this movie. I would love to have the chance – which I won’t until Netflix! – to see the movie without the 3D. I don’t think it added anything for me and ruined some of the action scenes.

In the end, I have to give this movie a big recommendation – at least for those who loved ST:TOS, ST:TMP, and/or ST:TWOK. There are issues with this movie, yes, but they are issues shared with the previous two of this iteration. Unlike those others, though, this movie delivers strong characterization, and stakes that aren’t just external. This is as much about Kirk’s future as it is about his survival and that of the Federation.

That made it much more satisfying for me.

I give Star Trek Beyond 4.5 yelly, shouty classical tunes out of 5. This has all the action of its two predecessors while also delivering on the characterization and drama that made the best of the TOS movies so good.

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Krendel Core RPG

It is very difficult for me to review Krendel by William J. (B.J.) Altman. The text reveals a thoughtful designer who cares deeply about the role-playing experience and how mechanics impact on that, and the central mechanic is elegant in its simplicity. The difficulty lies in its complexity. I am a fan of simple systems. As much as I like D&D 5E, I would never run it. The same goes for True20, Savage Worlds and Fate Core (but not Fate Accelerated). As much as I like all these games as systems, I feel that my play style is hindered rather than helped by robust systems.

Krendel fits into this category. Its core is simple but each action is almost its own sub-system in that the standard mechanic provides for multiple successes, and each action has some unique uses for these successes. Krendel also includes modifiers such as range, area, and conditions as well as mechanically relevant equipment – so certain weapons are optimal. Each character also has a plethora of different attributes applied to it – traits and skills, powers and artificer equipment, all of which have a mechanical effect on the game. With these specifics in play, one might pay a mechanical price to create a specific character concept. However, as with many robust systems, this game would likely reward skill mastery, akin to how d20 or D&D 4E did.

I know there are gamers who would love to dig into all the details and specifics of this game. I have played with them and run games for them. I definitely think there is an audience out there for this game, and I do really like its core system. The complexity that is a bonus for others is a detriment for me.

That said, the writing is quite good – though there are certainly areas that could use clarification, which I have found is common with robust systems – and the book includes both a table of contents and an index.

I would say that if you dug the layers of a game like d20, GURPS, or Rolemaster, this is a game you should examine. Like GURPS, it is a universal system, although with things like Traits and Powers one could certainly adjust it to fit a more specific need. The pieces seems to fit together pretty well, but I have never played the game so that is more of an assumption than an assessment.

In the end, I think you’ll need to look and judge for yourself. Right now it is free, so that is not an issue, and I would recommend everyone who plays or runs games to grab it just to read the “Getting Started” section. While there are pieces of this that references the game’s mechanics, there is a lot of advice here that is more universally applicable to gaming in general, and I think the author reveals some excellent insights into the social contract at the table.

You can find Krendel at Drive Thru RPG.

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