Thursday, August 28, 2014

4 Bards = 1 Useful Character

When I was in college, I belonged to the Table Gaming Club, TGC for short, and it was here I began to really get heavily involved in tabletop gaming. The club room had to be the coolest on campus after the Computer Club's -- which sat across from the Snack Bar. The basement of one of the University's older buildings is a suitable habitat for young geeks after all. The gray, dank, stone walls of the room might as well be the Dungeon of the titular Dungeons and Dragons we so often played many nights.

Along one wall sat a white board that was supposed to be used for club announcements. Besides the persistent, "Clean Up Your Shit" or "Sign up to run a game for con" written in black marker, we had quotes from club members that littered the board. Sometimes it was something witty a character said in game. Other times, just something clever a club member said during a meeting or just when we all hung out in our home away from home.

There was one saying that sat on the white board for an incredibly long time -- so long I can't even remember who said it in the first place.

"4 Bards = 1 Useful Character"

It's funny. We always uttered it whenever someone tried to play a bard. I continued to quip it when I left college and ventured out into the world. I'm not sure how much I believed it, though. I always saw it as a joke not just against Bards but against those who munchkin out their character, finding loopholes in the rules to make their character more powerful. They'd pooh-pooh the weaker classes. If you can't lop the head off Great Wyrm what good is it, they think.

I got thinking back to this joke lately, mostly because I am playing a bard in a friend's upcoming Dungeons and Dragons game (5th Edition). I went overboard like I usually do with character histories and made a family background for Shara and lore she could refer back to. I know perfectly well some people wonder why I would want to play a weak class. It got me thinking on just how so many people hate the support character classes. 

Now, before I continue, I don't want it to make it seem I am putting down hack and slash characters because I'm not. I have Bam Bam the Halfling Barbarian and Malak the Tactical Fighter to point out in my own character line-up. Sometimes it is fun to be the tank and some people only like to be the tank. That's fine. But the support shouldn't be bashed. Support just takes a little more care and a little more thought to earn their place, that's all. 

I met an Airborne Ranger Cook when I was in the army, something that he got a lot of side-eyes for. Then he said something incredibly wise, "Even bad-ass rangers need food." Even bad-ass fighters could use the bonus provided by Bardic Inspiration or the extra d6 damage provided in the Rogue's backstab.

Not shown -- he's cutting those babies in mid-air

The reason why bards (and low level magic users and rogues) tend to have short lifespans is mostly because people don't make them right or play them right. Those classes are not tanks. They aren't meant to be tanks. They are supposed to hang back and provide support. As a bard, you are supposed to be in the back of the battlefield, casting spells through song. And out of battle, the bard is supposed to act like a face -- the negotiator and knowledge gatherer (although a rogue can do this as well). If you are playing a bard and your first act after initiative is to run at the monster, you need to sit down in the corner and contemplate your life.

You can take any 1st level spell and use in the right way to devastating affects. I played an arcane trickster once who range pick-pocketed the arrows from a ranger sniper's quiver. No ammunition, no fighting, and the sniper had no choice but to flee. A 20th level Bard may not be able to slay the dragon with his cross-bow but he can charm the Dragon to be his friend. It is all how you use the abilities you gave your character. And there is more than one way to slay a dragon.

I really enjoy being support. It encourages out of the box thinking and a bit of creativity. Besides, at the end of the day, it feels great to prove that 1 Bard = 1 Useful Character.

I always use this gif and I'm not even sorry

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Weird New England

I'm in New England, the location of my upbringing, for a week of a much needed vacation. Since H.P. Lovecraft has been such a topic of discussion with my gaming group as of late, I've been reading through a copy of his complete works on my Kindle (I'm only about 3% through) and it is my first time reading any of his works. True, I am familiar with what he wrote about -- any gamer is familiar with Cthulhu and the other Ancient Ones. And I know that as someone who grew up in "Lovecraft Country", that I should have sat down and read it by now. I just never got around to it. When you are surrounded by weird legends and folklore -- and Massachusetts has plenty -- you just grow accustomed to it. And you don't necessarily seek it out as just absorb it.

It's hard to see but it is a sign to Danvers -- Lovecraft's Arkham. Note the Do Not Enter signs

Massachusetts has a sordid history and folklore that sprung out of it as if to lay a reminder of the wrongdoings of the original settlers. And parts of the state is no doubt creepy to outsiders. For instance, I have a game called Timeline. Someone drew the Salem Witch Trials. I knew that year like I know my own birthday -- 1692. I could even name some of the victims of the Witch Trials by heart. Or another example. I once worked at a summer camp in which one of the counselors was from California. She remarked how creepy it was that we had so many graveyards. There are five in my hometown -- some reaching all the way back to the town's founding in the 1600s. I used to take a shortcut home from school by going through a graveyard.

This is the cemetery I would walk through to get home quicker

And as a bonus pic, this is the oldest cemetery in my town where the founders rest in peace (I hope)
I'm not going to say Massachusetts has the best folklore in the nation. You'll find some very interesting stories elsewhere too. But Massachusetts -- heck all of New England -- has folklore that really kind of surround curses and being punished for the sins of our ancestors. Something bad happened and there is a ghost now to remind us that we shouldn't do that bad thing. It is like the guilt the Puritans had for being sinful human beings lingers in the forms of ghosts and curses. If you look at other places in the United States that has a rich folklore like New Orleans for instance, there isn't the same level of heaviness. New Orleans has jazz funerals for instance. Death is taken lightly -- even with the creepy stuff. It's very Cest le vie.

What I have read so far into Lovecraft, one thing that stood out for me was how he wove this residual guilt that lingers in local New England folklore from the Puritans. It poisoned the earth. He's not the first author to make this observation. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote considerably about the early days of Massachusetts in such novels like The Scarlet Letter. And The House of Seven Gables is about a family believed to be cursed by the actions of their ancestors during the Puritan era. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a direct descendent of Judge John Hathorne who presided the Salem Witch Trials, sentencing many innocent people to their deaths and never repented. The Hathorne family added a 'w' to their name to disassociate themselves from the judge yet quite plaintively, Nathaniel Hawthorne carried the guilt and it shows in his writings. The Puritans of New England may have become Congregationalists but the folklore remains as a reminder.

Below, for old times sake, I am listing three of my favorite places of New England Folklore.

Salem, MA As I mentioned above, I know the date of the Salem Witch Trials like my own birthday. My grandfather used to live in Danvers (and I'll even note he used to be a college professor) and towards the end of his life, my mother and I used to visit him every weekend. Sometimes, we'd make a stop into Salem. Back in those days, Salem was a tourist place, sure, but it was more like a secret that only people from New England knew about. Now, it has become a lot bigger than it used to be.


It is interesting to see how much has spun off of the events that took place for not even a full year starting in March of 1692. Hawthorne obviously wrote about it and H.P. Lovecraft pulled both from the Salem Witch Trials and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Arthur Miller wrote the Crucible to mirror the McCarthy Era. And then we got some good early-90's camp from Hocus Pocus. Truth is often stranger than fiction and the Salem Witch Trials are a great example of this. A man was pressed to death. Never forget that.

More... weight.

Also, it is worth noting that there are so many theories circulating academia about what exactly happened. There is a certain group that maintain that those people were truly spell casters (Mainly some Wiccans and New Age types) but also others think it may have been Ergot poisoning or bored, oppressed little girls out for a lark. Then there is the political conspiracy theory, that the people targeted had huge swathes of land that the girls' parents wanted.

Still with terms like spectral evidence and girls claiming they were cursed, it is no wonder that the Salem Witch Trials continues to capture the imagination of the populous to this day.

The Bridgewater Triangle I didn't really hear about these tales until college in which I had a roommate who was from the area and she told me all about it. She even wrote a paper on it in High School. I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts (Mass speak it means I grew up on the ocean south of Boston. Salem is located on the North Shore) and I didn't venture into Bridgewater often and I didn't know anyone from Bridgewater to learn the tales from. The internet changed all this, no doubt.

Why is it always triangles?

But oh are they there. In this geometric space with the towns of Abington, Freetown, and Rohobeth as its spokes there have been ghost sightings, demonic sightings, UFO sightings, Satanic Cults, Cryptozoological animals like Thunderbirds, and anything else paranormal you can think of. In the center is Hockomock Swamp (early settlers called it the Devil's Swamp) which is Wampanoag for "Place Where Spirits Dwell." Metacomet used it as his military base during King Philip's War -- which segues into my next point.

Yep, highly defensible. No way in hell I'm going in there. That is where I lost Artex

I mentioned above how Massachusetts folklore is heavily tied to the guilt left by the Puritans. The tales of the Bridgewater Triangle might as well be another. But the guilt here is tied to early treatment of the Native Americans, which is probably why the Bridgewater Triangle is not as well known.

When the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts, the colony's leaders reached out to Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoags and the two made a deal. Massasoit gave land to the settlers and asked they leave the land of which is modern day Bridgewater and thensome alone for his tribe. The Puritans initially agreed and the two peoples lived together in reasonably well for a little while. Then Massasoit died and the Puritan settlers began to expand into land not previously agreed upon. It upset the tribe for obvious reasons so Massasoit's son, Wamsutta, tried to negotiate. However, shortly after he left the negotiating table, he mysteriously died. Then John Sassamon, a "Praying Indian" (a Native American who converted) who was an emissary, was murdered. All these points were catalysts which led to King Philip's War when Wamsutta's brother, Metacomet led his people into battle with the Puritans. Metacomet's men almost wiped out the settlements but disease held his forces back. They eventually became overpowered.

Metacomet died in Rhode Island, killed by a "Praying Indian". His wife and children were sold into slavery

Many of the tales of the Bridgewater Triangle involve Native American spirits, including one that drags people into the water until they drown. Hockamock Swamp is supposed to be the origin of strange happenings as it is in the center of the triangle. As I mentioned above, it is where Metacomet held his forces. Perhaps the reason of tales persisting for so long is the sense of buried guilt that "we don't belong here, we acquired this land by breaking a promise."

The Bridgewater Triangle remains the sight of my most favorite folklore and often overlooked history.

Dudleytown This one is not located in MA but in Connecticut. It always brought a sense of fascination to me because I am intrigued by abandoned places. I love reading about the history of ghost towns and how and why they disappeared, leaving only skeletons behind. That will probably be another topic I will go on about in the future.

Anyways, Dudleytown was supposedly founded by a cursed family called the Dudleys back in 1740. Everyone who moved there either died in a tragic accident, went crazy, or killed themselves. There was talk of demonic forces poisoning the earth there so nothing grows (and nothing does grow there but it probably has to do with the type of soil the town was founded on). All that is left are just foundations of the houses that once stood there. It is considered a gold mine of ghosts and the like by Ghosthunters. To me, it is just a very interesting, creepy story.


Anyways, those are my top favorite tales from New England. I have many more. Maybe there will be a New England folklore part II. But we'll see.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Season Finale -- Character Arcs and other things

Firefly ended today and I'm almost as devastated as when the show itself got cancelled. I know that I will see my friends in future campaigns and we'll continue to have lots of fun. But it is just the knowledge of putting that character sheet away for the final time that can be just as sad as seeing your favorite show ending.

I felt the session ended well. Each character got to close up their character arc and it ended with a kiss. What could be bad about that? Q got to save at least one of his academy friends, carrying on the lessons Jack taught him. He got to protect his captain. And Ira and he finally worked together putting behind their Academy days.

There are very few games I played to completion and when I mean that, I mean completion in that my character grew, being shaped by his or her experiences, and by the end, they were a different person. I am not talking about having everything tied up in a neat little bow. I'm okay with my character riding off into the sunset certain their story continues, but this is just the last we see of it.

There is something satisfying of coming to this point. There is only one character I ever played in a roleplaying game from level 1 to level 20. There is something just so satisfying of reaching the end of the array and erasing that 19 and replacing it with a 20. This character was a half-elf sorcerer named Rhys. He started with 4 hit points and one hit could have easily killed him. By the end of the game, he could rain down fire from the skies and that just happened to be only raw power.

Rhys as a character grew up. He began the campaign as a snarky, young man who sought for social change and he grew into a kind person who wanted nothing more than a quiet existence with his family. He sought revolution through knowledge rather than blunt force. Of course, it took a detour down a path of evil to get to that point but yes. Rhys's ending was him opening up a magic school and I am sure he became that world's Dumbledore-- even though that didn't play out at the table.

Not all my characters had happy endings. My vampire character's thirst for knowledge caused him to lose memories to acquire rituals. It never played out in game but we all knew that in the future, there would be a day in which Claude would forget all his human memories...

I guess what I am saying here with this entry after meandering a bit is just that I love games with closure. It doesn't have to be perfect Harry Potter epilogue-like closure in which everything has a bow on top. But I can feel satisfied putting that character sheet away to know my character developed into something different from where he or she started. I look at tabletopping as, yes, a medium in which you kick kobolds around and such but also as a social activity in which we share a story. And for a good story, you need that development and closure is always good.

Thanks, Ed, for sticking through to the end. I look forward to your next game when I pass the baton back to you after I finish my own game. Running a game after you is like going on stage after Sinatra. :P The fact we all had some difficulty choosing which episode we liked and some even just going for the weakest (but still pretty good) instead really says something about your abilities as a GM. :)

5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is coming out and a friend of mine is running a campaign. I am crazy excited for it. I'll be playing a Bard. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. 4 Bards = 1 Useful Character. That formula was on the white board in the UMF TGC forever. But I can make it work! Shaera is here to entertain.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Roleplayers -- More Superstitious Than Athletes

I wrote this on tumblr some time ago and I decided to post it here where it makes more sense.

I bought a pound of dice a few months back, even though I have about five sets already in my dice bag. It was of no surprise to me that my new dice didn’t all fit. So what did I decide to rectify this problem?

If you said, "Hey, Mary, did you go out and buy a new dice bag?" You're wrong.

 Instead, I spent about an hour testing out my new dice (and my old) to determine which deserved to be in the bag. It was rather ritualistic. I laid out all my dice, separated them by type. Then I rolled them-- different groups at a time depending on type. If they met the DC, I put them in the leather bag. If not, I determined they lost this round and set them aside until next round. For d20s, they had to roll a 15 or higher. For d12, 7 or higher. d10s, 6 or higher and so forth. I did this until I could not squeeze a single dice back in the bag. I feel absolutely silly about it but that is how I determined it.

The funny part is after playing D&D for 10+ years I noticed that gamers are the most superstitious group of people I have ever encountered.  I observed there are certain types, species if you will, of dice rollers in a tabletop setting.

The Ritual Casters. These are by far the most common. These people require a period of time before the game starts to dig through their own collection of dice to determine which they will use for the evening. Sometimes, they do what I just did with their d20s to determine which one is rolling hot that night. Sometimes, they determine by which d20 falls out first. Other times, they fondle their favorite d20 before the game starts to make it lucky. During game, Ritual Casters usually have a specific way of rolling, like they need to have it fall on a particular surface for instance, or just do the classic blow on them before you roll. I knew of a gamer who would have his girlfriend blow on his dice when he was making a risky roll.

Switch Hitters. These types are pretty common as well. They tend to view their dice like players on a baseball team. They usually don’t have a pre-game ritual and just start rolling and keep on switching dice per roll until they pick up a die that is rolling really well. They will continue with ‘old bluey’ or ‘marble face’ until it seems like the die had run out of its luck for the evening, then they switch to the next one from the bull pen. Wash, rinse, repeat.

  Loyalists. These gamers don’t like switching dice mid-game and stick with the same set of dice throughout the evening through good and bad rolls. They can also be a Ritual Caster but they don’t have to be. They have a fatalistic way of looking at rolling 1’s -- that it was supposed to happen that way. Your character is supposed to struggle. One bad dice roll is okay. Your dice let you down this time but good energy is bound to come back to it. It's karma. If not, oh well.  Loyalists look at the Switch Hitters with a bit disdain because of that. “If you pick up a new dice, it won’t roll well for long.” I tend to fall into this category.

Clairvoyant Roller. Some may say this isn’t a clairvoyant but I wasn’t sure what to call this group. This group is constantly trying to read the signs around their rolls. The die fell on the floor! That means you have to switch dice! It rolled on a bend in the table! That is also bad luck! The DM touched my dice! That means it will roll bad against me and the other players for the rest of the night. The dice chucker threw my dice! I'm never touching it again!

The Motivational Speaker. There isn’t much more to add about this type in that these gamers talk to their dice when they roll them. Sometimes they whisper sweet nothings to their dice. Other times it is the classic, “Come on, old bluey! Daddy needs a crit!” Yet still, they may talk to it like a Drill Sergeant and try to get the dice "highly motivated".

The Territorial Roller. This can be summed up simply as, “Don’t fucking touch my dice, asshole! Your hands have bad ju-ju!”

As I mentioned above, I’m more of a Loyalist. I find my dice for the night and stick with it. It will roll well eventually. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Meta-gaming -- the good kind

Meta: A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.- Urban Dictionary

This past Sunday, my friends and I had fun meta-gaming. Okay, not that kind of meta-gaming in which you use information your character doesn't know -- one of the biggest taboos one can commit at the gaming table.  No, it was meta in the fact that we played actors playing our characters on the second season of a beloved franchise. Confused yet?

For the last few months, my friends and I have been playing a Firefly setting RPG and it has been one of the most memorable games I played in. As usual, about 75% of it was the people involved. We could play any scene and make it work and this last session was no exception. Our GM has mentioned in his blog posts that he is running out of steam (although admittedly, this is impressive because he has self-admitted GM ADD) making the "season finale" is next week. Perfect time to get one silly episode out of the way before then!

In the dream of the mind of one of the characters, we were all actors for a show called Firefly: the Reboot and it just got cancelled... AGAIN. Throughout the episode, we had to do our best to finish up the remaining scenes while our characters' actors' egos clashes constantly. We also had to dodge fans and reporters. We played Celebrity Gameshow in which we played charades against the old cast of Firefly. And it all ended at a convention.

Originally, I decided that I would model Q's actor after Jewel Stait -- Canadian and performed in a lot of Nickelodeon shows as a youngster and this would be his big break. However, I had picked an actor way back at the beginning which I used to describe Q. I pictured Q to be half-white and half-Asian (I mean, Firefly culture is so heavily influenced by Chinese culture I decided to incorporate it). I also wanted someone scrappy looking. So while thinking about an actor, I landed on Eiji Wentz.

He's 1/2 German and 1/2 Japanese for the curious

Of course, the acknowledgment that I chose him for the representation of my character uncovers one of my more obscure hobbies -- Japanese Dramas (I also like some Korean ones too). How I got into them is a long, arduous story best saved for another blog post. Anyway, one of my friends told me to just play Eiji.  The difficulty here had to do with I am very unfamiliar with what the real Eiji Wentz is even like. I knew he played guitar (or maybe it was bass) in a duo group called WAT and he did a bunch of dramas and movies and I knew his background but that was it. I felt uncomfortable about "misrepresenting him" for about five seconds and then I just dived in, right along with Bitchy Evan Rachel Wood and Drunk Paul Giamatti.

I decided to take a cue from one of Eiji's roles. I have only seen two things Eiji was in. One was Gokusen; a drama about a Yakuza Princess who becomes a high school teacher and gets assigned the trouble classroom. Eiji played a hikikomori (a recluse) who refused to leave his room and go to school. The other one was Nodame Cantabile; a drama about a Music College. When the main characters finally reach their dream of studying in Europe, they move next door to Eiji's character who is French and a complete weeabo. He is obsessed with anime and manga and a hardcore fanboy.

 Eiji having fanboy feels during a scene in Nodame Cantabile

It is the latter I got my idea for the actor. Eiji would be a Joss Whedon fanboy and Firefly was his big American Debut. It seemed he was the only one who would work with Joss Whedon again. I really liked Evan Rachel Wood and her hating on Jim Sturgis; Enzo's actor playing up how important he is because he has a show in Starz; And Cricket's actress constantly plugging neutrogena whenever possible (Here buy these Japanese mints I think they are?). We also played up in-jokes we had with each other during the actual game. Q and Jack also got their scene in which they were all brotherly. Yay! Also got a fight scene with Ira! Yay!

I had a lot of fun yesterday but I would never want to try a meta episode like this again. At least not with these characters.

The whole episode got me thinking about meta in general. It has been a popular lately on TV. Supernatural did an entire episode in which Sam and Dean wake up on the set of Supernatural as Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles and had to figure out why. The movie This is the End had plenty of meta with Seth Rogan and James Franco and the rest "playing themselves" dealing with the apocalypse. Then there is my favorite from Avatar: The Last Airbender in which our heroes have an episode in which they watch a play about themselves. The play read like bad fan fiction and the characters provided commentary.

I just wanted an Honor gif, okay?
I know meta episodes/movies tend to sometimes draw mixed reviews but also at the same time they also tend to be the most quoted. It is because meta humor is designed so only those who are familiar will get it in a *wink, wink, nudge, nudge* sort of way. Meta jokes often act like a secret handshake or an inside joke that get you into a fandom community. Just like inside jokes become the marking point of friendships.

 And the fact that the seven of us could play a roleplaying game made up of so much meta signals the strength of our group as a whole. It is great to belong to a group in which not only can you play games together but also to be surrounded by people who don't take themselves seriously enough to laugh at themselves. After all, if you can't act completely ridiculous around your friends, who can? 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why Guardians of the Galaxy Appealed To Me

I did not expect to like Guardians of the Galaxy as much as I did, but here I am.

After all the criticism it got from the whole "out of all the stories in the Marvel Universe, why did they decide to make this one" to the very valid jokes about how Chris Pratt is "the third blond-haired Chris to star in a superheroes film," I expected to feel how I generally feel for a majority of super futuristic sci-fi movies -- Meh.

Maybe this is a form of geek blasphemy when I say this but I've never been a huge fan of the heavily "sci-fi" movies or TV shows. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Firefly and I probably will still see the new Star Wars movies when they come out. And Futurama remains one of my most favorite TV shows. But in general, I don't get overly excited about the genre. I'm less "ooo spaceships" and more "ooo interesting plot with spaceships."

I know logically does not make much sense. Astronomy happens to be a great interest of mine for instance. I think it has to do with the fact that, like most of the Action genre, I find these storylines to be all flashy special effects and no story or character development. I get bored when a movie is just about one explosion after another. For these reasons, Guardians of the Galaxy on the surface looks like it would be the kind of movie I'd hate. But it wasn't. I loved it.

Originally, this post was going to be a movie review but I decided to instead to talk about why the movie appealed to me as someone who is normally not a huge fan of the genre. Spoilers below!

The movie addressed my biases as a person. Slight Campiness, a kick-ass soundtrack of classic hits from the 60's and 70s, and Chris Pratt to name a few.

The movie is about the Power of Friendship. Besides the classic bros before hos or hos before bros storylines that make up the majority of Romance Comedies, it is rare to see a movie that draws its strength from inter-gender (and inter-species!) friendship. Hollywood has got it into their minds that romance is the most powerful force in the world. It is used as plot devices to MacGuffins to tiresome subplots. I always feel like friendship is treated like as an afterthought by many writers -- probably because it is not sexy enough or gets high enough ratings (unless it is a friendship with UST). I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but if my friends were in trouble like the kind love interests tend to get into, I would still rescue them. You can love someone platonically enough that you would go to hell and back for them. True friendship is a powerful force and in some cases just as special and rare as romance.

That is the lesson our band of misfits learn in Guardians of the Galaxy. At the beginning of the movie, what each character has in common is they only work for themselves and don't need anyone else, or so they think. Each member of the team keeps everyone around them at arms length for whatever reason -- afraid of losing someone again, overcome with anger and revenge, or sees themselves as a freak. The only one who seemed to understand the importance of comradeship is Groot.  Our merry band originally team together for mostly monetary reasons. It is through the adventure they grow to like each other and realize there are other things to life than money or revenge. They have each other and at the climax, it is their bond of friendship that saves the planet.

Romantic Subplot was practically non-existent. I'm sorry, I don't mean to bash romance as it seems like I'm doing here but honestly, I get tired of it. In most big blockbusters, there is always a romantic subplot and about 9 times out of 10, it makes me groan -- mostly because it is so formulaic. But also because the subplot does not propel the main plot in any way or it does so by using tired cliches. It is just there. For Reasons. There is a romantic subplot between Peter Quill and Gamora but it is subtle. It is not overly encompassing. In fact, what makes up the UST is a few glances in each other's direction and a couple almost kisses. Yeah, Peter does save her from death but there were many times in which Gamora kicked ass enough to save his.

It is also noteworthy to mention that Gamora does not exist to be purely Peter's romantic subplot. She is highly capable and on her quest for redemption, never does she deviate away from that to do things "for him". She is a woman with agency and also, notice how she has relationships growing with each of the other "Guardians" throughout the movie.  She has a world that exists outside Peter that we see and has her own character arc.  The male gaze was still strong with Gamora but it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

The story was incredibly character driven. This is a pet peeve of mine. I hate watching a movie or reading a book and a character does something because plot demanded it. It is lazy-writing and lazy storytelling. I want to see characters screw up and make bad choices that their characters would make. Groot would totally go for that yellow blinking light. Drax the Destroyer would totally call Ronan to come and get him. And in the end, it is their poor, very much in character choices, that made the story more interesting. I wanted to continue to watch because I wanted to know what the characters would do and how they would resolve the plot.

Rocket could have been a gimmick but wasn't. I was expecting to hate Rocket. All I could think was, "Oh! A talking animal! I am sure THAT will go over well." I expected him to just say wise-cracking things and be the comic relief and not be much else. You know, like Donkey in Shrek. Admittedly, the first quarter of the movie, Rocket and Groot reminded me of Timon and Pumbaa but by the half-way point, I realize that did not do Rocket or Groot justice. Rocket has a character arc! Quirky talking animal side-kick characters do not.

Well, to be honest, Futurama did this character arc first :P

I found it interesting how the movie illustrates Rocket's story. You get a bit of exhibition from the police about each of the characters and it is here you learn he was an illegal experiment and escaped from the lab. Later, Peter sees Rocket's back which is covered in scars and cybernetics. Rocket, using his super intelligence, breaks them out of jail even though the rest of the guardians doubted he had the capability of being so brilliant. His story takes a dark turn when while drunk he yells at the guardians about how much it hurts him to be called vermin. He didn't ask to be made! I even felt guilty at this point  for thinking earlier that he was like Donkey or Timon. By the end of the story, I realized I saw Rocket not as a dog who can do a cool trick but as an intelligent being, like any other alien race. And the rest of the guardians saw him as an equal too.

The movie turned an overused trope on its head. Fridging refers to the horrific death of a character, usually female, that gives a male character motivation. I'm referring to Drax's storyline. He joins up with the Guardians because Ronan killed his wife and daughter. We don't see a flashback or anything, and therefore don't witness the fridging itself, but it is their deaths that motivates Drax for everything he does.

Then Drax tells Rocket about it and Rocket laughs at him saying what a ridiculous motivation it was. People have dead people in their lives and they move on, Rocket explains. It is later Drax changes his motivation. He would kill Ronan to help his friends and the galaxy.

The movie is gritty but oddly very colorful. "Gritty" has been a term used a lot lately when talking about media. "Gritty reboots" or "Gritty envisioning". It is everywhere -- it speaks to the pessimistic times we live in. I love grit as much as the next person, don't get me wrong, but this movie felt like a shower. The main characters in this movie are among society's lowlifes, that is where the grit comes from. They come from tragic existences -- Peter was abducted by alien slavers as a kid, Gamora saw her family slaughtered  then tortured by her family's murderers into becoming an assassin against her will, Drax lost his family, Rocket was an illegal experiment, and Groot is... well I don't know what his baggage is. However, despite their sad beginnings, they find hope within each other. Even as they held onto the sphere of death and destruction, it is the hope they found within each other that kept them together.

In many ways, it was a breath of fresh air. Due to this new age of grit, we see bittersweet endings in which our gritty heroes get down in the dirt to accomplish the task at hand in a cold, unforgiving world. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have people who came from dirt and crawled their way out of hell and found each other and found hope and optimism. The movie had its dark points, but it was surprisingly very light in others. I know a lot of people have compared this movie to Star Wars-lite but I actually think it is more similar to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in terms of tone. It's funny, even when it's dark.

Another aspect worth noting is Groot's presence is the embodiment of optimism and hope. He brings life to the set. We are all Groot.

Benicio Del Toro.

I'm just gonna leave this here

As you can see, I really enjoyed this movie. I know it is not perfect but there was plenty about it that made it probably my favorite movie of the year so far. I recommend it for anyone who wants a slightly campy but fun romp into the stars with a kick-ass soundtrack. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My love of NPCs

I've run many games since I started tabletop roleplaying in college way back in 2000 -- holy crap, it has been 14 years. I'm by no means a perfect GM. I have many flaws. I sometimes choose favorites. I can be crap at explaining things at times. I also sometimes drown in details. Granted, the last one goes with my writing in general. I have a very cluttered mind. Sometimes following a thought I had is like walking through a hoarder's house. This is why for my current campaign, I've written out everything that needs to happen in the next session.

"Drowning in details" sometimes takes on the form of creating NPCs. I love creating NPCs. Well, I really like making characters in general. In different gaming groups, what I'm known for in each one of them is I write very long character backgrounds. Yeah, I partly do this because I need to get some of that detail out of my head so I can find it later. Another is because I just like writing them. Character creation has always been my strong point as a writer and a roleplayer. I struggle to describe a forest or what is in the room, but I can turn out character action and dialogue pretty easily.

Anyways, NPCs give me the opportunity to scratch that itch of character creation I love so much. And while I call it a flaw of mine, many of my former gamers have complimented me on how complex my NPCs are. I do get peeved by stories in which the background characters only exist for the main character in media. The only thing you know about them is what they contribute to the main character. Otherwise, they are waiting backstage to wait to be of use again. Or they follow a specific path and not deviate from it like in classic rpg games.
But I just want to get to the Golden Saucer *whines*

I really like when background characters have their own story and there are hints to that story but you only get glimpses of it because the story is not about him/her. It just happens at that moment in time, whatever quest or goal he/she is on just happens to overlap the goals of the main character. In many ways, I view my NPCs just like that. They have their own stories going on and maybe it will overlap with the main one or not.

So I don't drown in details, I decided to talk a little about the NPCs in my current game. Ed inspired me to write this post because he made one about his character's band. Since I can't draw, I usually find actors to represent my characters in the game. So without further ado, some of the NPCs in my game.

Before anyone is like Luke Pasqualino is Italian not Latino, calm yourself. Mateo's mom is from Argentina

 Mateo Rodriguez is a senior and lives on Galileo Street which means he is the son of one of the six families in the city who might as well be royalty. He's the oldest of six kids. His father is the head of administrative stuff and his mother is the head of IT. He's a troublemaker who slums with the Shop Kids and just loves to get people going. He's a bit of a Karma Houdini because he knows how to play his dad like a fiddle to get out of any real punishment. He's bffs with the PC Jocelyn Keys who lives behind him and together, the two like to cause trouble. There is also UST. When he mutated, he got super speed. To be honest, Mateo is pretty much the "GM's character" although I haven't fit him in with the group yet outside Jocelyn.

The name of this actress is Pegah Ferydoni and I wish I could find the show she's in with English Subtitles

Shirin Zanjani is also a senior and is from Galileo Street. She is one of the six royal families of Apache Springs. Her father heads the Scientific Research Branch of the company. Much about her family is source of speculation of the town gossips as they are the newest of the six. When they first moved to the town, Shirin and her older brother Naveed were children and they just came with their father and lived on Tesla (the middle class street)  but within a few years, they were on Galileo after the previous head of the branch quit his job and the city. Shirin is classified as a "floater" clique-wise and is in many ways, a Renaissance Woman with many interests. She makes her own clothes (and makes costumes for the drama club), plays clarinet in the band, and is a member of the technology club where her programming skills are top notch. She's kind of a silly girl who laughs at dumb jokes and funny pictures, and always seems to be smiling. Video gaming is also another one of her hobbies. She is also a big sister type (even though she is the little sister in her family) and always has her ear available for anyone. She has taken a liking to PC Ashley Williams, mostly because Ash does not have a mother and neither does she. So naturally, they should stick together.

I can't believe I heard about this from JACKIE RODETSKY

Sparrow Johanssen is a junior. Her parents are both nurses at the hospital and both of them are stereotypically Wiccan. She has a little sister named Robin and a little brother named Jay (that is his middle name). She's an artsy person and hangs out with the Performing Arts Clique. She often complains she never gets the main roles in the musicals because "Musical Theater has a hatred towards altos." Nevermind she is a little over the top with her acting. She is just over the top in general. She also has the habit of stretching the truth so she is not the one to tell a secret because it will be exaggerated and all around the school in a day. She's loud and kind of hostile. She used to date PC Brock Bauer and sang back up in his band. After the break up (which she may still have hostile, tsundere feelings for Brock), she started her own band, A Bunch of Assholes, in which she is the lead singer and guitar player. A Bunch of Assholes is the rival band to Brock's Fungal Bloom.

I joined these to together because they make up A Bunch of Assholes. On the left is Alex Khan and he's a junior who plays bass guitar. He is the total opposite of Sparrow. In fact, he's kind of a wet blanket. He rolls his eyes a lot and just kind of a gloomy gus. He plays the cello normally and also acts in the school plays and sings in Glee Club. His parents are low level lab techs. On the right is Kelly Page who plays drums. She's Sparrow's BFF and is generally cheerful and hyper but not nearly as abrasive as Sparrow is. She is a very talented singer and often gets the leads but she is so modest, she is surprised EVERY SINGLE TIME she gets the ingenue.

I put these two together because I can and mostly what can be said about one can be said about the other. The two are the twins Devlin and Declan MacGowan who are seniors and live on Galileo Street. Unlike Shirin and Mateo who don't really care much about their status, Devlin and Declan revel in it. Devlin is the head off the Student Activities committee and Declan is the captain of the football team. Both of them are smarmy and know just what to say to get people to do what they want. Devlin is very much a Regina George. And Declan is just... kind of a tool who is an asshole to everyone just because he can get away with it. Mateo will play a prank because he thinks it is funny, Declan is out for your humiliation. Their mother is head of security. And their father... well, he does a whole lot of nothing as he is the heir to some oil fields in Texas. He is a man of many hobbies and loves the outdoors. He's actually a nice guy, if a bit out to lunch, and it is hard to believe he produced these two monsters. Oh I should say the twins have two older sisters and a younger brother and sister.

In a world in which Rachel Berry is the Popular Girl

Tatiana Selnik is also from one of the six families on Galileo Street. She is Devlin's right hand woman and is purposely an expy to Gretchen Weiners in Mean Girls. She's a gossip. She has to know everyone's business. She's also spoiled and thinks the kids from the circle are supposed to serve her. I wouldn't say she's necessarily "mean" just out of touch in the "let them eat cake" way. Her father does something with "analysis" and her mother is a guidance counselor at the school.  She likes to boss around PC Anna Novak the most, however.

There is a few more background characters but these are the main STUDENT ones that the PCs have had some interaction with so far. I have adult ones and I think there will be a NPC post part 2 and so on as the game progresses.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

First Gaming Session


This was my first roleplaying session as the GM in a very long time. I think the last time I did so happened when I was in AIT back in 2007. I ran a basic dungeon crawl with some battle buddies and we even practiced our Military Symbology in the process. The Drill Sergeant walked by as we played out on the pad and called us a bunch of nerds. One of my friends quipped back that we could either be playing Dungeons and Dragons while practicing our symbology or we could be downtown getting drunk and probably into trouble. His retort impressed the Drill Sergeant so much, he left us alone afterward.

That marydote actually is a perfect segue into the roleplaying game I started to run today. The setting is actually one I had in my mind for awhile -- that I actually came up with while I was in AIT. I went to Arizona for AIT and a fictional town in Arizona happens to be where this game takes place. Everyone one in this town works for the mysterious corporation called Apache Springs Industries. There is a weird corporate, social hierarchical structure in the town, with the most wealthy families living on the top of the hill and the poorer families living at the base. My players took on the roles of high school students whose parents work for this mysterious company. In between homework and teenage angst, their characters have developed mysterious powers.

When I originally envisioned this game, I pictured using the system tri-stat Big Eyes, Small Mouth or as it is more colloquially called, BESM. Even though this system is geared more towards anime/manga roleplaying settings, I enjoy the versatility and the simplicity. But then, a friend of mine converted me to Cortex Plus, particularly the dramatic rules, and I feel it fits my setting really well.

For those of you reading who are unfamiliar with Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplay, the system is more focused on relationships and why you do things as opposed to how. Instead of physical stats, you have value stats like Justice, Duty, Love, Glory etc. which each has an assigned dice rating (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12). You also have relationship status which you also have a dice rating to (the higher, the stronger you feel). You also have statements defining each one. For values, you could have a d10 in Duty which says, "I am obligated to protect the weak" or for relationships, "I want to make sure she reaches her potential."

 I know some types of roleplayers probably see rules like that and run the other way. But I wanted my game to be about relationships. I wanted my game to be about the story. Sure, there are powers and stuff like that but I'm more interested in the mystery and the characters. This first session didn't disappoint on the character side of things.

It took a few hours to set up everyone's Leads. Everyone came in with ideas or rough sketches in mind. When I sent the e-mail invite, I asked everyone to choose an archetype from the six student clique (The Head, the Smart One, the Quirk, the Muscle, the Wild One, the Pretty One) to avoid overlaps. I am pleased that my players created unique concepts branching off from their archetype. It is interesting to see how someone could take the Pretty One and make him basically similar to Puck from Glee or someone take the Quirk and interpret that as a Luna Lovegood like character -- all concepts that fit the archetype but would not be the first when people think about that archetype.

But I digress. Once we were all together, everyone had to think about their relationships with each other which took longer to do than to pick Distinctions (which are like Cortex Plus's answer to Feats). But just with this, you already had interesting stories developing. For instance, Alan, Jocelyn, and Ash's story about how they grew up as neighbors and friends but Alan decided to focus on his grades and Joce became a bad girl and poor Ash who is in the middle. Or the tale of the two fish out of water-- California native Brock and Hawaiian new kid, Iggy-- and how they became friends.

This is what I think is the strength of Cortex Plus Dramatic. Sure, it took a couple hours but the relationships in the end allowed everyone to jump quite easily into their characters. It is excellent for character development and easily cements the dynamics of a team. 

I didn't plan on running today, just plain character-gen, but then after all that work, I think people wanted to jump in and enjoy the fruits of their labor. I had ideas for how the first session would go but I didn't have my notes about it. And oh man, I was rusty! As I described the opening scene, I already felt like a creaky gate! But I was impressed with how everyone took to my cues and even ran into a direction I didn't intend on them going. It's been so long since I GMed, I forgot the most basic rule of GMing -- The players WILL ruin your plans; be flexible.

When it came to powers, I gave them out randomly. They had to choose a number between 1 and 25 and the number corresponded to a power. I did plan to keep it a secret for one session and have the characters gain them in the next session. I wanted to do this because I wanted to nail down character voice first. But character voice happened almost immediately with this group. They are amazing roleplayers and they constantly surprise me as a player and now as a GM (don't worry, good surprises). It is interesting to me that the powers drawn were Illusions, Density Control, Power Leech, Shadow Control, Technopathy, and Electrokinesis -- all of them, with the exception of electrokinesis, are support powers. I'm looking forward to see what my players do with them. They are a great creative bunch. 

And I must say, I love how varied the characters are. They don't agree with each other. They have very clear goals that differ from each other but slightly overlap enough that they can work together. And this is something I noticed when I played Dungeons and Dragons or other similar systems -- it helps to have the focused individuals who see the prize and aim for it (Alan and Anna and Iggy to a lesser degree) but it also makes things interesting to see the chaos factor (Brock, Joce, and Ash to a lesser degree). The chaos factor keeps things interesting but too much chaos, nothing gets done. Brock, Ash, and Joce's players are focused and skilled enough to play chaos without completely derailing the story. Their characters still have focus and goals but they are still "chaotic". And that is what I think works about this group.

Of course, I also just like the characters themselves. I love to see Joce mouth off to people. Iggy's go with the flow personality. I love Anna's energy into her causes. I love whenever Alan insists the adults know best. I love Brock's sleeziness and how much he does not get girls although claims otherwise. And I just love Ash's off the wall comments.

I think, despite me feeling a bit rusty, that this game has a great set of characters and great set up. I now have to figure where to go from here. I'm in a Firefly game in which the GM frames each episode as a character centric episode (in which each person has an episode dedicated to them) and I really like how that works. I am just not sure how that would work for this setting. I have ideas for character centric plots and ways in which relationships would be at odds. I still have some time to think about it. I already know that next session will be a lot of teenagers with super powers and figuring them out and, knowing this group they will want to roleplay this out (which is a good thing). I have a few strings people can chase after if they want to.

 A few lessons I learned is I should have everything written down. I need to bring Shirin in (Sorry Ash's player). And more for a personal thing -- writing the hilarious quips of my players. Seriously. It is pure gold.