Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Gamer ADD: Adventures in Middle-Earth 5e

I have long been tempted by the call of Adventures in Middle-Earth 5e. I have read good things, it uses D&D as a chassis, and I have been extremely curious as to how these guys mechanically expressed the breadth and depth of Tolkien's world. Unfortunately, I have never been a big fan of Tolkien's works. I slogged through the Lord of the Rings because I felt I needed to, but it took me years and several aborted attempts. Thus, the price tag was always too high for something that emulates books I was never in love with in the first place.

That all changed when Cubicle 7 offered up their Middle-Earth 5e library on Humble Bundle. I grabbed it and have been reading through the Players Guide. It is as good as advertised and I am very impressed. In order to explain why I love this so much (especially given my own dislike of Tolkien's books), I have to explain my relationship to baseball.

I do not like baseball. It is boring. The season is way too long and no one game seems to matter all that much, even in post season. I have tried to like it for both family and friends. Back in the day, I would try to watch Atlanta Braves games on TBS and Chicago Cubs games on WGN. I even went to a couple of live MLB games. I just couldn't bring myself to care.

Here's the thing though: I completely understand and appreciate why baseball fans love this game. I have always wished I could do the same because I love watching people who love baseball talk about baseball. Of all the 30 for 30 documentaries ESPN has produced over the years, my favorite is still the one about how the Boston Red Sox came back from three games down in the ALCS against the Yankees. It is one giant homage to Boston Red Sox fans and their love for their team. I love it because it is about everything I love about people who love baseball.

I have a similar relationship to Tolkien as I have to baseball. I don't like reading his books and I have no intention of reading them ever again, but I love to hear people talk about them and why they love them. This is why I actually slogged through the Lord of the Rings — I wanted to be part of that conversation. I wanted to love and talk about Tolkien that same way people who love the books do.

What I am trying to get at here is that what makes Adventures in Middle-Earth 5e so good isn't that it is Middle-Earth or Tolkien. What makes it great is that they get what people love about Tolkien: the themes, the ideas, the archetypes, the literary forms, the values, the world-view. Everything that I love hearing people who love Tolkien get excited about is in this game. It allows me to participate in that love in a way I could never have imagined myself doing.

Here is one of the highest praises I think I can give any game: I want to play this. Badly. Interestingly, I don't want to be the Loremaster/GM/DM/Referee whatever you want to call it like I do with most RPGs. I want to be a Player. I want to create a character and play.

To that end (and because I feel I have to whinge about something), I created this Character Sheet to replace the awful, boring, uninspired CS that comes with the game:

You can download it here.

One last thought. From a mechanical POV, I really appreciate what Adventures in Middle-Earth does with 5e. They push the concepts of Race, Class, and Background in the kind of experimental ways that I tried to with ba5ic. It has got me thinking of new ways to frame ba5ic — specifically in a Lovecraftian direction. Hopefully, these ideas will see the light of day prior to next New Years.

BTW I hope 2020 brings many blessings to us all.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men! — Luke 2:14
As a kind reminder (especially to myself) the peace offered today is not man's peace. It is not the peace we make by signing treaties or settling old feuds. The peace offered today is God's peace.

We all make war on God every day. We are the ones who opened fire. We are the ones who created the dividing wall between ourselves and God. We are the ones who chose darkness over the light.

Christ is born today in order to eradicate all of that. Sin has been forgiven. Death no longer has its sting. Only love and forgiveness remain, despite everything we are and everything we have done.

Today, Christ reminds us of everything He was willing to do in order to give us a path to His loving embrace.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Meditating on The Witcher

Let’s talk about the new Netflix show The Witcher. Note: I do not play a lot of computer games, so I have absolutely no knowledge of the game other than it exists. Therefore, I am coming at this purely as a sci-fi/fantasy fan.

Also, Spoiler Alert.

I really wanted to like this. I really did. It has all the fundamental building blocks to be a great show, but the folks who wrote/produced/edited this thing didn’t trust the material, leaned on a bunch of unnecessary crutches and ruined what could have been great TV, let alone great fantasy.

Let me start with the good stuff. From the perspective of lore, world-building, and ideas I can steal to include in my fantasy RPGs there is a lot here to like:

1) The magic system is really fascinating. Spell casters take pure Chaos and shape into into spells, but there is always a cost — a balance. For the most powerful, this involves becoming mutated and becoming sterile. Some have a choice in this transformation, others (the Witchers) do not. Regardless, this sacrifice yields a much longer life than that of a non-spell caster. This reality was a central theme of the show — the choice between the creative power of parenthood vs. the political and physical power that magic brings. Unfortunately, this theme was grossly under developed.

2) The politics of magic is really interesting, as well. There are a couple of institutions that represent magic-use in the Witcher world. One was destroyed (the source of the Witchers) and one is what amounts to a Wizard’s Guild. They find and train all the sorcerers in the world, give them access to their power, give them a family and a home, and then send them out as advisors to various political posts around the continent. Thus, they maintain their own power by influencing the politics. At the same time, they are in a position to mitigate the destructive force of war. Thus, there is a lot of room for good, evil, chaotic and lawful sorcerers to rub shoulders, be friends, allies and political adversaries without the need to kill each other. Fascinating stuff.

3) The Witcher plays with a newer fantasy trope of elves and humans being enemies because the humans learned/stole elven magic and then drove them out of their traditional lands. There is an interesting twist hidden in the lore, however. The humans, being the creative and adaptive beings that they are, learned to use magic better than the elves. This actually helps explain elven level limits in older rulesets of D&D. Humans just do this stuff better. There is also this dark undertow with magic (as represented by some interesting set designs) that all of humanity’s power is built upon the skulls of elves.

4) For those following JB’s meditations on the 1e Ranger class over at BX Blackrazor, the Witcher is a fascinating archetype for the Supernatural Ranger.

5) The Law of Surprise is a really interesting cultural quirk that becomes potentially deadly when backed up by the threat of Destiny, where Destiny is a force that one can follow or resist, but the latter comes with a cost. The Law of Surprise is a favor given to someone who does another a great favor (such as saving a life). The one who invokes the Law of Surprise is owed whatever unexpected windfall next appears in the life of the one owing a favor. This includes children (which is a major plot point).

Unfortunately, all of this fertile soil was left fallow by the creators of this show. Maybe it was fear of the computer game to TV/Movie curse, but they leaned heavily on a bunch of crutches that just ruined the show:

1) Gratuitous violence, nudity, and sex. None of this was necessary. It drove no plot. No narrative point hinged on any of these scenes. It was all done because they could. The problem is two-fold. First, we live in a post-Weinstein and #metoo world. This stuff no longer is titillating, it is down-right uncomfortable. Secondly, it undercut a lot of the themes that are present in the story. Witchers are not supposed to have emotions, so why does Geralt seek out so much sex?

Yennefer wants to be loved and not treated as an object to be sold for a mere 4 crowns. So, why does she so freely sleep around? It cheapened her character to the point of making what should have been one of the most sympathetic characters into one of the most unlikable. This was especially true when later in the show, she was seeking a way to become fertile again so she could have kids. Geralt rightly mocks her because she would make a horrible mother. If, however, all that nudity and sex had been absent and had she been rejected despite the beauty she obtained through becoming a sorcerer, then her quest to be accepted and loved by her own child would have not only been understandable, but relatable and tragic. Geralt’s words would have stung rather than just being the truth.

I daresay, that if the creators of this show had given themselves the challenge to make this G-rated, this show would have been far, far better. The necessary plot points, the violence off-screen, and the creativity required to pull all that off would have had the potential to make this show great.

2) The flashback. I DESPISE the trope of using the first 5 to 15 minutes of a show to set-up an exciting, in-your-face moment to grab an audience’s attention and then spoil everything by doing a flashback to “PICK YOUR TIME FRAME HERE earlier.” I will grant that in the right hands it can work really well, but 9 out of 10 times in just robs all dramatic tension from the rest of the show because we all already know what is going to happen, because we just saw it.

Credit where credit is due, The Witcher tries to play with this trope by neglecting to tell its audience that there is a flashback. Thus, they avoid immediately robbing the audience of dramatic tension. The problem is, telling three tales simultaneously that are 30+ years apart just ends up being confusing. There were several moments when I was completely taken out of a scene because I was trying to figure out if these were the same people I saw die several episodes ago. This feeling was only made worse by introducing a doppelgänger into the “future” timeline.

This show would have been much, much better had they trusted their material and made one of two decisions. The one more easily done with the material they shot for the show would have been to tell parallel stories of Yennefer and Geralt playing on the themes of choice and the desire/lack of desire for love and children. Yennefer wants to be loved and wants children. Geralt largely does not. Yet, it is Geralt who falls in love with Yennefer only to be rejected because Geralt is destined to Ciri because of the Law of Surprise. That would have been awesome. The harder option would have been go chronologically from the opening sequence (which, I assume is going to be the story told in Season 2 coming in 2021).

3) The Serendipity Syndrome. This is a name I have for the romantic comedy trope where two people are shown to be destined to get together, but don’t actually end up together until the last minute of the story. This is exemplified by the 2001 movie Serendipity. Rather than being satisfying and fun, this trope is excruciatingly frustrating. It is easy to keep a destined couple apart. It is much more difficult to write a relationship well. Therefore, this whole trope is more of a cop-out than trope. Geralt and Ciri do not actually meet until the last 30 seconds of 8 hour-long episodes. By the time I got half-way through the series, I was fast-forwarding through a lot of scenes because I just didn’t care and I was increasingly aware that this trope was most likely going to rear its ugly head. If this were a book, I would have thrown it in the trash to save someone the frustration of having to read the thing.

4) Anachronism. Finally, we come to the character of Jaskier the Bard whose introduction is a blues riff being played on a lute. This stuff just completely ruins the suspension of disbelief and every time he showed up on the screen I was taken out of the show. If you are going to have a bard character, take the time to place that character inside the world, instead of ours. This character was not only awful, but succeeded in getting me to hate the bard class even more than I already do.

That’s my take on the show. I can’t bring myself to recommend it, despite being a fount for a lot of good FRPG ideas and inspiration. My guess is that you would be better served just playing the computer game or spending some time looking through a Wiki.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Bugbear

I have created a title for the purpose of publishing variant rules for ba5ic and 5e. I call it The Bugbear. The first two have gone live on DriveThru. You can check them out here.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Life Update

I am acutely aware that my presence here on the blog and any activity in regards to ba5ic has been nil over the last few months. My youngest ended up in the hospital, had a major surgery, and I have been doing the back-and-forth of going to the hospital, labs, etc. that always accompany the post-op reality of pediatric surgery. Thus, blogging dropped off of my priority list.

The surgery went well, the post-op madness has gone well, and we are all adjusting to the new realities of the post-op life. Nothing we haven't done before, but it is never easy.

I haven't not been thinking and doing things in terms of gaming, when my free time allows it, I just have spent more time writing off-line than on. I want to update everyone and also to put a fire under my own self by announcing a couple of projects which are in the pipeline:

1. An urban hex-crawl ostensibly for use with ba5ic/5e but can easily be adapted to any system.
2. A series of short publications where I play with re-skinning the mechanics of 5e to hopefully give players more freedom in the way they play the game.

I pray these will see the light of day sooner rather than later.