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Random Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 19:04

Look, you can see the top of Rocket's head!

Unlike most of the movie going audience, I actually knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were before it was announced they would be appearing in a major motion picture.  That being said, I was pretty ambivalent when it was first announced.  Even though I am a Marvel fanboy, the Marvel cosmic characters were never my thing.  I figured I would catch it on Netflix at some point.  Then the quirky marketing campaign started and I decided to take a chance and see it in the theaters.  I am glad I did.

Guardians of the Galaxy is less of a superhero movie and more of the kind of old-fashioned sci-fi romp that they don’t make anymore.  There is more Star Wars in its DNA than Iron Man.  Peter Quill, or Star-Lord as would prefer to be called, is part Han Solo and part Captain Kirk—at least when it comes to Kirk’s penchant for banging alien-chicks of various skin colors.

Despite being the only human in the cast, Peter Quill is not a point of view character.  By the time you see him as an adult, he has been in space since he was eight years old and is fully acclimated to the strange universe he inhabits.  That is one thing I appreciate about this movie, it is confident enough to do its world-building on screen and drop you straight into the middle of the action.  They filmmakers felt no need to put earth in peril to artificially make the audience care about what was happening.  Instead, the spent the time making you care about the characters and the universe they inhabit.

A lot of the credit for the success of this movie goes to Chris Pratt.  I have been a fan of the actor since I first became aware of him on Parks and Recreation, and his charisma and humor come through full force on the screen.  Much like I have trouble seeing anyone but Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark nowadays, I can’t imagine what this movie would be like without him in it.

This is not to undercut the other performances.  Bradley Cooper is amazing as the voice of Rocket and Vin Diesel is able to convey a surprising amount meaning in saying, “I am Groot”.  Even some of the smaller roles, like John C. Reilly’s “beleaguered cop” member of the Nova Corps and Michael Rooker’s “blueneck” portrayal of Yondu were a joy to see on screen.

Most importantly, the movie knows how to have fun.  It is not the full on comedy you might think it is from seeing the trailers, but it had plenty of laugh out loud moments.  Perhaps more surprising is that the movie was just as good as evoking pathos as it was at evoking laughter.  There are many moments where you really felt the pain of the characters in the movie, even if they were a CGI raccoon or a green skinned alien.

This is my favorite Marvel movie since the Avengers, but the impressive thing is I have been a fan of the Avengers since I was a kid and the Guardians of the Galaxy were a group I mostly knew about as a point of trivia.  The fact that I enjoyed this movie so much is an impressive feat.

Dropping skills for backgrounds in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 22:52

I am the kind of guy who writes pages of character backgrounds for my characters.  Some of them probably qualify as short stories.  Sometimes they are written from a first person point of view, other times in the form of a journal, occasionally from a third person omniscient or the point of view of another character in the story.  I feel I need to write these backgrounds in order to properly play my character.  Even in the MMORPG City of Heroes, where I never played with deep role-players, each of my ‘toons’ had surprisingly detailed character backgrounds.

I realize not everyone plays this way.  When I am running games getting character backgrounds from some of my players is like pulling teeth.  Often players will present me with character backgrounds no more complex than “I grew up in a peasant village and when I was old enough I left to find my fortune”.  That is OK, everyone has a different playing style.

Still, I like games that encourage characters to develop their background a bit.  Probably the first game I encountered that did this was Warhammer Fantasy in which your character development was tied to your career path.  Knowing that your character was a rat catcher or a merchant before they began adventuring wasn’t much, but it was something.  Last Unicorn Games short-lived Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG took a similar path, where during character generation you would take a number of ‘tours’ on previous starships to determine your skillset.  Maybe you spent a tour on the USS Hood as a security officer even though you were in command now so you were handy with a phaser.

I think my favorite take on this mechanic so far is in 13th Age.  During character creation you allocate a number of points to backgrounds.  Rather than specific skills you might say you spent time as a cat-burglar, a guild mage, or a merchant.  Maybe you were a poacher (4 points) who was drafted as a soldier (2 points) and then became a animal trainer (2 points) when you got out.  Rather than have a specific list of skills, you roll and add an appropriate ability modifier plus points in your background where you would roll a skill check in D&D.  If the party needed to track someone through the woods and one character had a poacher background while another had a bounty hunter background, both could make the roll using their background points plus their wisdom modifier.  However, if they needed to tie up a captive probably only the bounty hunter background would be applicable.

During the D&D Next playtest, I always thought this system would be easy to implement as a house rule.  D&D Next was already more skill light than D&D 3e or D&D 4e after all.  So I was pleased to hear that at Origins there was talk of an optional module that would use backgrounds instead of skills in a similar manner.  Assuming it is well implemented, I would definitely use that option in any D&D 5e games I run.

Or I guess I could just run a 13th Age instead.  It really is a fun system.

What digital offerings I want from D&D 5e

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 22:26

Bad digital tools make me want to burn the whole place down!My gaming group makes extensive use of digital tools when playing.  We have vast PDF libraries that keep us from breaking our backs hauling books back and forth.  We use various character generation tools to assist with character creation and tracking.  We use virtual game tables both for ease of play and to allow members who cannot attend locally to join in the fun remotely.  Digital tools are an essential part of our game.  Trapdoor Technologies, a new licensee for Dungeons & Dragons digital tools, asked on their website what we want out of Codename Morningstar.  Here is my wish list.

Affordable PDFs

This is more in Wizards of the Coast court than Trapdoor Technologies.

Wizards of the Coast has a spotty history when it comes to PDFs.  In third edition PDFs were priced exactly the same as the physical book.  This meant that they often cost more than you could get the physical books for off of Amazon and even most local game stores.  It also meant that at $30 or more a pop that most gamers had to make a choice between buying a physical book or buying the PDF.  Personally, I enjoy reading a physical book but love the convenience of a searchable PDF during game play.  By offering PDFs at a reasonable price Pazio and other publishers have encouraged me to purchase both.

In fourth edition Wizards of the Coast moved away from PDFs and offered up the D&D Compendium as a digital alternative.  The D&D Compendium was great, but it didn’t allow you to see the rules in their original context.  There is a place for a tool like the D&D Compendium, but I does not replace PDF versions of the books.

Of course Wizards of the Coast has made great strides in their PDF offerings with the D&D Classics site.  However, they still tend to be a bit pricey on the newer stuff and don’t tend to release PDFs concurrently with their new releases.  I hope that this will change with the release of fifth edition.

A robust and customizable character generator

I like character generators and I even liked the D&D Character Builder offered through D&D Insider.  It had a major flaw though, as it did not handle house rules very well.  This is why I prefer a character generator like PCGen.  The ability to load my own datasets far outweighed the occasional quirkiness of the program.  Strong support for house rules is a must.

A useful virtual game table

There are a lot of great virtual game table products out there.  Personally, we use MapTools, but Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds are great products as well.  A great virtual game table must be customizable, allow easy access to remote players, and provide useful management tools for the DM to run encounters.  All three of the virtual game tables I have listed above do this.

To be honest the opportunity here is almost closed.  Where there is still opportunity is to integrate this in with the vast stores of data Wizards of the Coast can provide.  Making it seamless to drop in monsters with full stats and seamless integration with character sheets would make all the difference.  I know it would convince me to switch.

Campaign management tools

There is probably a lot of room for improvement here.  Realm Works is great for campaign prep, but  Obsidian Portal is probably the leader here.  It bills itself as a campaign wiki site, but it provides a lot of tools for game masters to keep track of the locations and characters while only surfacing to the players what the game master wants them to know. 

Outside of the gaming software world, I have found both Workflowy (an outliner) and Evernote (a robust note taking program) to be invaluable tools for organizing campaigns.  I have also been considering trying Scrivner, which is intended for authors who are organizing a novel, but would probably work just as well for a campaign.

I would look to all of these tools for inspiration.

It is more than just a Windows world

D&D Insider ran on Microsoft Silverlight.  While some of my group members use Windows laptops, some use MacBooks, Ubuntu Linux laptops, iPads, and Android devices.  Silverlight did not work very well for them.

Please make sure that whatever digital solutions are created are multi-platform.  Make sure that these solutions are mobile friendly as well.

Wizards of the Coast’s new model?

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 21:20

Wizards of the Coast is working with a new licensee, Trapdoor Technologies, to deliver digital tools for Dungeons & Dragons 5e.  In May, Wizards of the Coast announced Kobold Press designed two of the adventures to support the Tyranny of Dragons storylineDriveThruRPG has been powering Dungeons & Dragons Classics for awhile now.  I think this may represent a subtle shift in how Wizards of the Coast is handling Dungeons & Dragons.

I’ve already talked at length about how I feel Wizards of the Coast should focus on their core competencies and let others develop tools for the game in the context of the OGL. It looks like Wizards of the Coast is doing this, except instead of an open source model they are planning to work with specific licensees to fill the void.

While I would personally prefer an open source model, this makes sense from Wizards of the Coast’s point of view.  They can focus their internal resources on the rules and farm tasks that go outside their core competencies to other groups while still maintaining a tight control over how their intellectual property is used.  Seriously, this is win-win for them.

Hopefully, they will open things up a bit more down the road, as Mike Mearls said they would in 2015.  I still maintain that a robust gaming license is good for the hobby, and that what is good for the hobby is good for Dungeons & Dragons.

Mike Mearls (briefly) addresses the gaming license.

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 00:44

At the end of my last post, where I expressed my concern that D&D 5e might not have a gaming license, I stated that “for all I know Wizards of the Coast will announce a liberal gaming license tomorrow and I will look like an idiot”.  Well, that didn’t exactly happen but I was quite surprised to see Mike Mearls bring up this very concern in his post today.

I wish I could believe he was aware of my tiny little blog, but the reality is it shows how important the concept of a gaming license is to the gaming community as a whole.  Obviously my concerns were shared by many.

Parsing Mearls post we can only be sure of a couple of things.  First is that there will be some kind of “mechanism” that will allow fans to create their own gaming materials.  Second is that whatever this mechanism is that it will not debut until sometime in 2015.

This doesn’t alleviate my concerns, although I am glad to see that it is on Mearls mind.  I did notice that he was careful not to use the word “license” in describing how fans would be able to create their own materials, although I am not reading too much into it at this early stage of the game.

Whatever mechanism Wizards of the Coast provides I doubt we will ever see anything as broad as the OGL again.  Maybe they don’t have to.  In the comments of my last post it was noted by Nicholas Bergquist that the OGL is broad enough to make material that is functionally compatible with D&D 5e even if it can’t technically be billed as such.  Ultimately that genie is out of the bottle already.

Regardless I hope that Wizards of the Coast does this right.  Beyond simple books, it would be nice if they were willing to open things up a bit on the digital side.  The D&D 4e’s GSL was much more restrictive, about how the license applied to digital tools than the OGL was.  This isn’t surprising since Wizards of the Coast launched D&D Insider at the same time. 

Unfortunately, software is not what Wizards of the Coast does best.  Rather then control the tools I think it would be a smarter move to create API’s to allow others to create the tools while controlling access to their intellectual property.  I believe having robust digital tools supporting D&D, even if they didn’t create all of them, would help fifth edition reach its full potential.

D&D Basic is free, so how can I ask for more?

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 21:15

Mike Mearls revealed today that Basic D&D will be a freely downloadable PDF.  This is big news.  I thought it was genius when during the fourth edition Wizards of the Coast made the Keep on the Shadowfell module alongside the standalone character generator (which allowed you to create characters of levels 1-3 without a D&D Insider subscription) free downloads on their website.  It was a great gateway into the new edition for those who wanted to give it a try but weren’t ready to plunk down $35 a piece on the 4e Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual.

Obviously providing Basic D&D as a freely downloadable PDF is an even bigger deal.  According to Mearls’ post, “It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options.”  Frankly, this is awesome.  It really lowers the barrier to entry for those that are even vaguely curious about the fifth edition.  When the price is free, if you are at all curious there is no real reason not to try it out!

So why am I disappointed about this?

Well, while I appreciate “Free as in Beer”, I really appreciate “Free as in Freedom”.

Nice, but not the best kind of free.

For those who are unfamiliar “Free as in Beer” versus “Free as in Freedom” (see also “libre” versus “gratis”) is used by the open source software community to explain the difference between “free software” which is built on closed source but given away free of charge and “free software” that has a license that allows others to build on what you created.

Since D&D 5e was first announced I wondered if there was going to be a license that would allow others to build upon it.  When D&D 3e came out, the most revolutionary thing about it were the Open Gaming License (OGL) and D20 license.  I could not believe that Wizards of the Coast had open sourced D&D!  With the D20 license, as long as you didn’t violate the terms anyone could create content compatible with D&D.  Perhaps more importantly, the OGL allowed an even greater variety games to be created from the same basic set of rules.

True, there was a lot of crap in the initial glut of material that was created after D&D 3e was released.  However, amazing games like Mutants and Masterminds and (much later) Pathfinder were a direct result of the freedom the OGL allowed.  There were also a variety of software tools, such as PCGen, which took advantage of this license.  It is amazing how much this license helped the hobby thrive.

Unfortunately, this may not seem like such a good thing from Wizards of the Coast’s point of view.   After all, one of their biggest competitors now is Pathfinder, a game that is really just a refinement of their own D&D 3e rules.  It must be hard to explain to the bean counters why another game company is outselling you with your own rule set.

There is really no reason to expect D&D 5e will have a license like the OGL.  No such license existed for AD&D 1e or 2e.  D&D 4e had a Game System License (GSL), but it was much more restrictive and much less used.  I get the feeling that Wizards of the Coast feels they gave away the crown jewels with the OGL and is determined not to make the same mistake again.

I cannot be sure whether or not the OGL was the best move for Wizards of the Coast.  However, I do feel it was good for the hobby, providing a robust base that people could build on.  As talented as the game designers at Wizards of the Coast are, they can’t fulfill every need.  Ultimately, I feel what is good for the hobby is good for D&D.  It may be hard to prove, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that D&D was at the top of the heap when the OGL reflected their most recent edition.

Of course, for all I know Wizards of the Coast will announce a liberal gaming license tomorrow and I will look like an idiot.  I tend to doubt it though.  I think Wizards of the Coast feels giving away D&D 5e Basic for free (as in beer) will be enough to keep their fans happy.  It is both a shrewd marketing decision and a genuinely nice move for the fans.  I even feel like a bit of a jerk complaining about it,  after all who doesn’t like free beer?

I guess I was just hoping for a bit more freedom.