Saturday, September 27, 2014

To Adapt a Setting or to Not Adapt Setting

I talked about in last post how I love to speculate and entertain how a certain media would work as a tabletop game. I also acknowledged that not all media can or should be translated to tabletop rpgs. I originally put most of this post in the last post but I decided it wasn't much of the topic at hand at the time. I felt it veered of the road and into the woods much like how Mary's thoughts tend to go.

Looks about right

Admittedly, I sometimes get out of the hand when I watch or read or play something. I get excited and begin to think how I could translate it to tabletop rpgs. Very few of these ideas come to fruition and the problem usually lies in the setting itself. After writing last post, I came up with a series of questions to consider if you want to hack your favorite universe into a tabletop game.

Does the world have a chosen one? Harry Potter. Aragorn. Percy Jackson. The world in question revolves around its main character who is not just the protagonist but also the hero of the world that will bring balance to the force, defeat the Dark Lord, prophecied to bring balance, whatever it is.

Or Arm wrestle Satan

The reason why this is important to consider is because the world and the plot revolve around the chosen one. It is up to you as the GM to make sure your players' PCs are the heroes of their own story (or villains or anti-heroes or whatever) and it is a bit hard to do this when everything you know about the universe is tied to the Chosen One.

I'm not going to say the the Chosen One is a plot that is off limits. You can easily play a game in which it is your party's duty to protect the chosen one on a great journey. But I feel it is a bit different when you're in a world in which the established story's Chosen One is the one you're protecting. I mean, how boring would it be to play one of Danaerys's entourage, for instance?  Or how about a member of Dumbledore's Army? That would make it way too easy for the GM to play with himself while everyone watches. And no one wants that.

A counter to this rule is if the Chosen One is but one cog in the massive machine of the internal workings of the world, A.K.A there are other things going on other than the Chosen One's quest. If you can picture the setting without the chosen one or think of a scenario that would take place outside the chosen one's, it is worth considering

Is the world large and detailed? How big is the world the story takes place? Is it something like Westeros with its continent-sized land-masses with deeply described different cultures? Or is it like Attack on Titan in which most of what we know lies inside a walled city? Do we know anything about the politics? How about lands the protagonist never went to?

Tiny World and Shrinking

I'm not saying a small world cannot become a wealth of ideas but a larger, more detailed world gives you a lot more to work with and a lot more options for plot and character development. When making a sculpture, it helps when you have a lot more stone to work with. Larger worlds also give you a lot more freedom to develop your own ideas separate from the main plot in the source material.

There are so many different planets and such in the Star Wars extended canon that  you could easily develop your own adventure on parts of the galaxy that we don't know all that much about. The Tortall Universe by Tamora Pierce is filled with culturally rich countries that may only been mentioned in the book and marked off on the map. Rokugan in the Legend of the Five Rings Universe it is implied that an entire world exists outside the city. Only the Unicorn Clan knows much about it. But even without that knowledge, with the numerous clans and the fiefdoms under their respective leaders gives you many options for settings. It is no wonder this world has already been adapted to tabletop.

Are there opportunities to customize a character's abilities? This one is actually important. Everyone wants to be able to create colorful and original characters that differ from not only canon characters but other PCs in the group. A world has to allow for options to create original characters using the abilities unique to the setting.

Going back to Game of Thrones, there is not a whole lot you can do to create a character that is different enough to be their own person. Special abilities in Game of Thrones are unique to their characters. Sure, we've met quite a few "wogs" but they are rare. Dragons are only unique to Danaerys. And so forth. There really aren't many options to make a unique character in Game of Thrones because all what is interesting in Game of Thrones is unique to an established canon character.

Consider the different types of classes people can be in the setting. It has to be a lot different than just a change in type of sword! What kind of jobs do people have? Are there ways to specialize those abilities and make them their character's own?

Take the Avatar: The Last Airbender Universe for instance. The series did a great job of showcasing characters who were not benders but had useful abilities. Team Avatar in the first series for instance had each of the type of "benders" -- Air, Water, Earth, Fire. But you also had Sokka and Suki who were not benders but had their own specific fighting styles. Sokka fought with a boomerang and a sword. Suki did a specific martial arts style using fans. In Legend of Korra, you have Asami Sato who works with gadgets. Throughout both series, we are introduced to sub-benders like metal bending, lava bending, sand bending, and even blood bending. Right there you have many opportunities to create abilities to make a special type of character all your own.

Air, Water, Earth, Fire, Sword, and Fan! It's the Gaang!

The only exception to this rule is if you want to run a survival game -- a Zombie Apocalypse in which everyone is in the front line for instance. But even then, you can easily customize your character's abilities. You just have to learn how to be creative in using them but that is the point of survival games to begin with.

Specialty -- Eating Pudding and not sharing any of it
 Another example are purely social or dramatic table top in which it is not so much focused on the fighting but the character interactions.

Can you remove all the canon characters and the world would still distinctly feel like that world? This question links to the Chosen One problem explained above. Sometimes, it is the characters that make the setting and all the special magic stuff is just a plus. Sure, there may be interesting concepts introduced into the world that you want to use, but maybe instead of using that world in particular, you can just hack into your own original worlds.

In my last post, I made the example of Supernatural. A Supernatural Cortex RPG does exist out there but it isn't much to look at. What makes Supernatural Supernatural is not the vampires and demons and other things that go bump in the night. What makes Supernatural engaging (or for a few seasons at least) was the characters and the Winchester family drama. The hunt was just a bonus. Even the Monster of the Week episodes you watched because you wanted to see Sam and Dean argue about something stupid and hear Dean make a dumb joke usually referencing a band from the 1970s or 1980s. You take Sam and Dean out and you have White Wolf or maybe a modern day Call of Cthulhu.

Okay, maybe not Call of Cthulhu.

The same is true for Teen Wolf. Teen Wolf is among my guilty pleasures. I know it is crap but there are some aspects of the world I find interesting -- in particular how packs work and how one becomes an alpha. But really, what causes me to come back every week to watch the stupid thing is Scott's attempt at holding onto his humanity and his friend Stiles who has great comedic timing.

Also, shirtless guys even if their character is emotionally constipated
 Take out Scott and Stiles and once again, you have White Wolf -- with a pack hack.

Westeros (sorry keep on picking on it) if you take out all 50 million characters George R.R. Martin created, the remains is just a low-magic D&D world. Maybe even Pathfinder.  Granted, that could be cool to just use the Westeros map as your world in question but really, what you'd be playing would be D&D.

Going back to my Avatar example, you could take out Team Avatar (both versions) and the world could still be its own unique universe. The world still exists and it is like no other.

Why do you want to play this setting? Is there an already established alternative? For this one, let me give you an example. When I first read the Percy Jackson series, I had an urge to adapt it. Percy Jackson for those who aren't familiar is a Young Adult Modern Fantasy series written by Rick Riordan focusing on Percy Jackson, the Son of Poseidon. There are also two poorly adapted movies floating around.

Although the Nathan Fillion cameo as Hermes almost made it worth it

The world is modern day America and the Greek (and Roman) Gods exist and are still doing their thing but most of the world is unaware of their activities. So they still pork humans which make demigod babies who are hunted by monsters their entire lives. So Chiron forms a summer camp to help train the demigods so they can fight back -- and also train them when their godly parent will inevitably give them a quest. There is a lot of options there -- even if Percy Jackson is the world's chosen one (arguably). Imagine a game in which you are just regular American teens who have to go on some quest for godly parents that essentially abandoned you since you were a kid? Oh and you have demi-god powers. Sounds awesome right?

White Wolf Did It First

Well, White Wolf thought the ideas of demigods sounded cool too and created a setting called Scion. I own all three books and it is a pretty solid setting. It is also not limited to just the Greek Pantheon but incorporates many different ones too from Egyptian to Norse to Shinto and so forth. You can easily use the setting and provide a hack from Percy Jackson for the "summer camp" if you wanted to. The game recommends you begin your character at the point in their life when they are just beginning to develop their powers and focus on the Hero's Journey. 

White Wolf didn't also just make Scion but also what I feel is underrated Exalted which is less this modern world but more of a high fantasy setting in which you are marked as demi-gods.

The point I'm trying to make here is don't make more work for yourself if the setting is essentially written for you. You should also consider why you want to run that setting. I wanted to run a Percy Jackson game because I love mythology and mythology in a modern setting sounds pretty cool. Why would you want to run a Supernatural game? Because you want to fight demons? White Wolf or Call of Cthulhu is the answer to that itch.

There are also some systems that are highly adaptable to any setting you want to use like Cortex Plus or Fate or GURPS. There is also nothing wrong with creating your own setting and incorporating aspects from your favorite books/movies/TV shows. Sometimes, that saves you a lot of trouble too.


In my next entry, I intend to apply these questions to a setting I absolutely love to see how it plays out. But for now, that is all I have for now :)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

FU Gundam and Naruto Game -- When the RPG Surpasses the Source Material

My friend wrote about a phenomena called the "imaginary ceiling" in which a RP setting based after an expanded universe can't surpass the original and can be downright uncomfortable playing in as a guest star in someone else's world. I understand his point and I can see instances in which it is true, but I generally don't feel that way. Granted, I played in two long running games set in rather large franchises and they surpassed the source material. One of the games completely ruined the franchise for me because I realized the potential of the setting, all of which the author did not.

I understand his point is mostly is subjective. He sees stories as belonging to the writer and all of us are just the audience- guest stars at best -- and I know a lot of people feel the exact same way. And that's completely cool by me. I just feel a little differently. Once a story is delivered to the masses, to me the story now belongs to the world. Everyone is going to walk away from the experience touched in a different way. I'm not saying the writer shouldn't get credit or paid for his/her work but everyone is going to perceive that writer's world differently from the next person. 

There is so much here I would love to play with!

 I got it, though, some people love a franchise so much, they feel they somehow could not do it justice or maybe unworthy to even consider it.  I also understand when people feel constricted in order to stay true to the world and the world's rules. I completely respect that because we're all different. But when the story's world is huge and small parts of said world are barely touched, I can't help but wonder what happens in said place and I see those blank spots as fair game to develop your own head canon.

 I have fun speculating. Like I speculate what happened to my cat before I got her (I adopted her when her name plaque said something like "~2 years old"). I may or may not have asked her this. I'll let you fill in the blank there.  When I play in a franchise, I worry less about getting it right and more wonder about what could be included to make it better and have it still fit within the rules of canon. Maybe this is arrogant of me, I don't know. It sure is fun, though! It is just as fun as creating my own universe! 

As I said, I was in two long running games based on franchises in which I did not feel limited. Of course, I think there are different reasons why they succeeded.

The first game, I played in college during my 3rd year was set in the Gundam Universe borrowing heavily from Gundam SEED. The system used was the anime inspired Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM). Our GM Chris, who had kind of a dark, self-disparaging sense of humor, called his game FU Gundam and our group played 3 iterations of this setting -- one remains unfinished but only because our GM decided to go to school closer to home. Also, his laptop died and he lost all his notes.

Rest in Peace, Chris's laptop along with all of my character's family members

I've never been a big fan of huge mecha robot anime. I know there are some people whose eyes glow and sparkle like a 5 year old on Christmas whenever they see big mecha clashing against other mecha. I just need a little bit more than that to get excited. There are just other things I'd rather watch. I need something like a revolution against an occupation like with Code Geass or an incredible mind-fuck like Neon Genesis Evangelion or a Stealth Parody like Martian Successor Nadeshiko.   I joined this game because the GM was a friend and he had asked me.

I have no idea what the hell I'm looking at
I ended up enjoying it immensely. Chris used the common Gundam/Big Mecha tropes and weaved in political intrigue along with epic battles, spiced with a dose of young adult angst. I never left a gaming session in which I didn't have my mouth half open in shock. Every little detail that he mentioned in the description of the scene, to what seemed to be miniscule reactions to events, to grains in our characters' back stories he wove with ease into his story. He could be a bit of a troll sometimes -- he loved to kill off NPCs we grew attached to, for instance, then cackle about it -- but he just really wanted to get this sense that the world rested on our characters' shoulders. He used everything he had to enhance the experience -- and loved mind-fucks.

Our group could not get enough of FU Gundam. We looked forward to every game and we speculated what Chris would do next which he would never divulge.  It was like an interactive TV show.

As I mentioned, I never liked Gundam or big mecha. My friends did. And Chris did. Although I remember him saying once he had a love-hate thing with Gundam. I don't think I could blame him. There are many different Gundam series going all the way back to the 70s and each series is more convoluted than the last. I tried watching Gundam Wing and it wasn't my cup of tea so in all honesty, I have nothing to compare it to. My friends to this day still talk about how FU Gundam is their favorite Gundam.  And FU Gundam is my favorite mecha series.

The other long running game set in a franchise happened to be one I liked and watched a couple seasons of before it went down the Hole of Shonen Boring Filler, this one being Naruto. Originally, all this madness started at the UMF TGC convention. I ran a one shot BESM game at it called the Chuunin Exam.

For people reading this who are unfamiliar with Naruto, the series is about hidden ninja villages (each village represents an element) and follows young Naruto as he trains to become "the greatest ninja of all time", typical shonen anime motivation. The second season deals with the Chuunin Exam -- a test novice ninjas take to go to the next rank. I created some pregens, including a ninja I made up who used paper as his primary weapon (think origami).

The game was successful and my friends asked me to run a couple more sessions which I did and then I just didn't feel up to continue it. My friend Tom asked if he could take the setting, remake it for GURPS and run it. I told him to go right ahead and then I asked if I could join.

Then things got serious

That happened to be a great idea. Tom had a style of GMing that fit the Naruto-verse very well. He mastered humor and lightness but he knows how to tackle serious and dark and heavy topics too. Even his dark moments have a touch of whimsy. He took Naruto to a place better than where the manga/anime went. And we loved it so much, we ended up playing two generations of characters. The first game, I played a character whose family's specialty was bamboo. She fought with a pole not too different from how Oberyn Martell fought the Mountain (except she... uh lived). Then, I played her son who had no sense of humor and was super intense.

Actually, this scene could have totally played out at the Chuunin exam

The interesting part was in the first iteration, half the players never even watched Naruto and they adored the game and picked up the nuances to the setting pretty easily. In the second iteration, the players all watched Naruto and by the end of the game, we had stopped watching it because Tom's interpretation of the setting just happened to be that much more interesting. He handled Naruto by saying he went off to some far off place to continue his goal to become the world's best ninja but other characters from Naruto made appearances. Our team had its own story not connected to Naruto's.

Having completed that Marydote, I do agree with some aspects of what my friend said. Some worlds just do not translate over to tabletop very well or not much longer than one game. I toyed with the idea of running a game based on the anime Attack on Titan. That anime/manga is about mankind in the future in which most of the world is overrun by giants that eat people. All of humanity live in this small walled city. The premise is cool but the world is not all encompassing. It is a tiny world with an insular cast. Unless you take out all the canon characters and just play with the setting, you won't get very far. But oh right, Eren, the main character has a key to all the world's mysteries.

Damnit, Eren, find the lock already

This is why the Naruto game worked. The world was vast and detailed and while Naruto is the main character, there is enough going on in which side characters could be going on their own adventures independently of Naruto. Just the story the author chose to tell was about Naruto's typical hero's journey of finding himself.

I think the reason why FU Gundam worked was because the world was less Gundam-verse but more of a Gundam-inspired universe. Chris just took common mecha tropes and played with them and took a lot of the nuances from Gundam itself. The game could have been called Mega-Mecha Shitstorm and nothing wouldn't change. In that case, I think FU Gundam doesn't apply as much to the imaginary ceiling as the Naruto game does.

It is like deciding to run a Walking Dead game but without any of the main characters. What you have is just a basic zombie survival game set in Georgia. You want to run a Supernatural game without Sam and Dean? Well, just go to the White Wolf website and download Hunter: the Vigil and hack some aspects/rules from Supernatural into the setting. It is not really Supernatural because it is the characters that make the setting. Otherwise it is just a world with demons and vampires that you happen to be fighting.

Or it is just Buffy-verse

I do feel the imaginary ceiling exists for me when you tabletop existing characters that aren't your own. I am running Cortex Dramatic using Smallville, but I could not imagine playing Clark Kent or whoever. Characters always feel a lot more personal to me than settings do but that is a matter of preference. The imaginary ceiling also exists for me in which you play in a world in which the NPCs are the main characters in said franchise and your characters are more side characters in another's adventure but I think that is more tied to poor GMing than to the franchise tabletop game itself. 

In conclusion to this ridiculously long post, I find my friend's concept of an imaginary ceiling intriguing and I see where he is coming from. I just don't entirely agree that roleplaying games can't live up to the franchise it comes from. I played two games that discounted that. However, I do think it exists in some ways with certain franchises.

I would like to end on a disclaimer that in general, I do like to create my own worlds and I don't think there is anything wrong with it. I get lost in world building all too easily but sometimes it is fun to speculate about other settings and play with the tools given to you. I don't think that would necessarily hinder you from making a great game, even if the franchise is amazing. I also get this is all a matter of opinion and no one is really right. I just wanted to toss my two cents in. If I came off as condescending, I'm sorry. XD

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Mary Rambles About Dungeons and Dragons

Strap in, kiddies! It is time for another Marydote. All this, inspired by this amazing game. D&D has been a journey for me and the state of it reflects my social life in some ways. When I didn't have time for friends or my friends were limited, I didn't play D&D. As one of my friends pointed out, a D&D game is only as good as the bonds between the players out of game. And I think that is true. 

The first time I played Dungeons and Dragons was in 2000 when I was a freshman in college. 3rd Edition just came out but at the time, I had little to no understanding of what that meant. I knew the basic concept of Dungeons and Dragons and it sounded like improv (theater geek here) and video gaming (something I wanted to get more into -- I played at friends' houses but didn't have a console of my own yet) and writing (I've been writing "stories" since I was at least 10, maybe younger). For those reasons, I always wanted to give it a shot. I just didn't know what it entailed or how I "got into" the hobby. Like where did people do it? Did you have to know a password to get in with the cool people like in those 1920s speakeasies?

"Password -- Gary sent me"

Luckily, one of the friends from my dorm happened to be into D&D and he asked me if I wanted to try the new edition. I jumped at the opportunity. And so, I created my first character which I think was a Half-Elf Fighter. I don't really remember. I had no idea what I was doing. And the mechanics came off as scary and mathematical. Nothing ever came from that one shot game but I liked it enough, I looked to play again.

The opportunity arose when I became friends with three seniors who ran the Otaku Club. They invited me to play in their long running D&D game at their apartment. At this point, they were high level so I created my first long running character (not the longest, that would come later). I played an Elven Rogue/Bard named Skyler. Ever since then, I've been partial to rogues. I had a lot of fun with this group and the four players showed me the ropes without growing impatient. I still didn't know what I was doing but I eventually got the hang of it. The campaign concluded right before they graduated when the five of us spent the weekend at Lake Winnipesaukee.

The lake was nice -- so I hear, I wouldn't know I spent the whole weekend indoors gaming, like a true nerd

From there, the following semester, I knew the ropes of D&D enough that I wanted to try running it.  I don't remember the details of the campaign except that my roommate played a character who had a doll that he talked to like it were a real person. Also I had a chaos mage who was quirky and fun. The origins of the game started after September 11th. Not to sound somber but the day after, my roommate and I had a long talk and decided fuck the world, let's make a new one. We drew the map of this world on a card table my roommate owned and it was in this world and with this map I began my stint as a DM.

The people I met through this game, I am still friends with today. Elements of this group would eventually branch off to include non-D&D players and we'd go on real life adventures together. We call ourselves the Michael White Conference

It started with a sign and an evil wizard named Tim...

After my D&D game concluded, I joined the Table Gaming Club more formally. DMing was exhausting. I wanted to play again. After taking a break from D&D, I dabbled in a little White Wolf, GURPS, and Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM). But I could never resist the siren's call of Dungeons and Dragons. I joined a new game with people I only knew through other people and what blossomed from that are some of the closest friendships I have ever had and still have even though I do not talk to them as much. Don't get me wrong, I made some important friendships in my non-D&D games too.

For this new long running campaign, I created a halfling rogue/wizard/arcane trickster named Foxthorn. I had a lot of fun with her causing chaos where ever she went. I started with Foxy at a high level so up until this point, I always played strong characters. Even so, Foxy had her own story and character arc. I fell in love with Halflings. I fell in love with rogues. And oh, how much I miss the Chaos Twins. Foxy was friends with another halfling named Bazaliee who I think was a cleric. I do remember one scene in which all the big people argued how they would get an important NPC out of jail, the chaos twins just went in and did it. They came back with said NPC just as the planning by the big people concluded. Foxy told them their lesson was just because they were the size of human children didn't mean they had poor ideas (the two of them were being ignored).

This was them gloating afterwards

The next D&D campaign I played in was with the same DM as the one above and she used the same world, just set in the future.  The world happened to be a different place -- darker even. The elves became increasingly xenophobic and magic got a bad reputation (probably indirectly Foxy's fault no doubt).

Accidentally blowing up an entire city will not come back to bite us. Nope.

This game would be the only time I played the same character from level 1 to level 20 and it was absolutely awesome. This character was a sorcerer/warlock, half-elf because I like being mean to my characters. He had a long, complicated elf name but I shortened it to Rhys. Rhys was the bastard child to an elven cleric and a human who liked to mess around with demons. He was hated by his stepfather for being part smelly human and also hated him even more when his sorcerer abilities began to pop up.

Rhys felt unlucky, which he dealt with with a self-disparaging sense of humor. He and Foxthorn shared the same alignment but it was exhibited differently. While Foxthorn just went by her whims and her gut, Rhys was chaotic good like a revolutionary was chaotic good. He wanted to bring fairness and equality to the world outside of law. He took a detour through evil town doing this but where he ended up at level 20 was as a headmaster at a magic school in which anyone was welcome. He settled on change through education. And I love how Rhys grew as a character. As he grew in power along the D&D grid, so did his character.

I kind of feel Enjolras fits Rhys nicely, except if Enjolras had a sense of humor

That's the thing. Playing Rhys made me long for long campaigns. I find it frustrating as a reader and a writer when characters don't grow and evolve. Same is true for roleplaying. The best GMs I had allowed for this to happen. Not saying I don't like a good one shot. I do. They can be a lot of fun with the right people. I just like that sense of satisfaction a knitter may feel when they finish a sweater when I start at level 1 and end at level 20. To see where they started as a jumble of yarn and see where they end up as a fluffy sweater is wonderful. It is more satisfying than starting at level 10 or 15 and diving right in to the more scary monsters. I want to know their origin and how difficult it was for them to reach this point.

Anyways, after the Rhys adventure, I didn't play much D&D or not any games that lasted more than five sessions. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed those games very much too.  I also played a couple long running non-D&D games for instance. I admire the creativity my friends in college have. One of my good friends ran a Naruto themed adventure using GURPS. We played two generations of that game. Another friend ran an absolutely amazing long running game set in the Gundam universe -- that had two iterations and an unfinished third. I felt satisfied by those games. I will probably dedicate a separate entry to just those two games -- when games based on beloved series are actually better than the original.

Although to be completely honest, I'm not a fan of Gundam but I am a fan of FU Gundam

After college, I would not pick up a d20 again until I made it to Germany when the controversial 4th Edition came out. This was the USO gaming group I mentioned a couple posts ago. We mostly stuck to one shots and small adventures. Also, 4th Edition ... well... actually, 4th Edition went with the people I played with. I never got really close to any of them, however, I could settle with them.

It also ties into how I treat games in general. I'll play anything as long as you don't treat me like an idiot when I'm learning the rules (that will usually turn me off to a game). I'm not difficult to entertain and I very rarely say no. Sometimes I do get into moods in which I just feel ... contrary (quote the nursery rhyme and you die). But those are rare times and are usually tied to a lack of sleep/being burned out.  The same can be true about movies and TV. I can be entertained by bad/corny things just like I can be entertained by amazing things -- I'm just entertained for different reasons. Only exception is books. If a book is bad, I will stop reading it (seriously, don't bring up Divergent. Just don't).

Having said that, I did not hate 4th Edition as a roleplaying system. I found it interesting and I could find ways to have fun with it at least. However, it just did not feel like D&D. I would call it a good roleplaying system but a cheap version of D&D, like those imitation Disney DVDs you pick up at gas stations and supermarkets. You know it is not the Little Mermaid but it still will shut the kids up for an hour.

Look! A princess blondes can look up to!

I still created an interesting character using 4th that I called Spica. She was a Tiefling Warlock with the Star-pact. She had a creepy obsession with the stars and who she called the star people. The DM took liberties and said her patron, "has gray skin, black bug-eyes, and a huge head with spindly arms." She would have been a character I would have loved to expand and could continue playing her with 4th Edition rules just fine. But the game with her ended after only a couple sessions.

Still, I longed for old D&D (old for my standards as I never played 1st or 2nd edition). When I moved to my next duty station and literally had no time to play a game, I bought the Pathfinder sourcebook just because I missed old D&D so much and it was there at the NEX begging for a home. I know, that probably sounds like a junkie getting his hands on paint thinner or cough syrup but I missed that kind of creative social interaction. It also didn't help I had practically no social life after my initial roommates moved out of the house.

After I got out of the Army, I didn't roleplay for a while. Most of it had to do with the fact that I said good-bye to my only familial and friendly connections and moved down to Virginia for work. I knew no one. I knew the guy who hired me, that's it. And outside of work, I had no one to really talk with. I'm not a very extroverted person and I do have social anxiety issues. As a result, I fell into the internet which probably wasn't a good thing.

Finally, a cousin recommended me I checked it out and found several roleplaying focused meet-ups in the area. I joined one and I met this one guy who wanted to run a long-running game with 4th. Most of the players flaked but we formed a friendship and it was through him, I met a wonderful group of people. We played Firefly Cortex Plus that lasted several months. That hit the roleplaying spot hard. He also ran many incredible single adventures here and there.

I found my group.

After Firefly concluded, another of my friends in the group decided he wanted to run Dungeon World which he eventually changed to 5th Edition D&D for as soon as the PHB came out. I became excited for D&D again. He worked super hard on his world -- seriously, it is amazing, professional level amazing. I hadn't seen so much thought in a setting since Foxthorn/Rhys universe or FU Gundam. After reading the D&D PHB for 5th edition, I've realized just how much I missed D&D. 5th Edition felt like a return to form -- getting the old coke back after trying the new coke. My enthusiasm for the up-coming game was at such a level, the night before, I suddenly became 5 again and the next day, Christmas.

Merry Geekmas

Of course, the DM happened to be one of the most enthusiastic I have ever played with and that kind of enthusiasm is contagious. So his on top of mine just caused... many mini-explosions going on in the inside. I had written off D&D, the first tabletop roleplaying system I ever played, but 5th Edition revived it. It feels like D&D and it is much easier to learn and not as crunchy but still crunchy enough.

I also dig my character a lot. Her name is Shara Hayashi'kami and she's an elf that grew up outside the elven lands. I had the basic concept for her for a while. I went through a period about a year ago in which I was obsessed with everything Ancient and Medieval Welsh -- especially bards and their history. I even wrote a short story about Welsh Bards during the Middle Ages. I just like the idea of a bard whose focus is not just music to entertain the peoples, but those whose sole purpose is to record history of their people and their stories. I wanted to play that kind of bard.

Then, when I read through the setting, I saw how elves were dying out and thought how awesome would it be to have a bard who has more of a reason to preserve the lore. These thoughts gave birth to Shara. Her family's duty is to protect the lore of the elves. As for her personality, she went through many different iterations. I thought of making her a guy. Then androgynous. Then, I settled on female and I wanted to give her traits that are common on swashbuckling types. I wanted her to be witty and the type who just likes to poke people to get them going. She's a little roguish and does not take anything too seriously.

In our first session, I love playing her. We started at level one (well, if you started with a magical item and level two if you started with none) and seriously, after the session wrapped, I felt this is what D&D is supposed to be. Just like this is how friendship is supposed to be.

I am so excited for the next game and the many that will continue after that.  D&D is back, bitches!


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hana Kimi: The Dorama That Started It All

A couple entries ago, I mentioned how I am a big fan of Asian Dramas. It is one of my niche "geekdoms" if you will but I like it enough that I can't run a geek blog without talking about the ones I really like. I plan in the future to write reviews or other thoughts on series I enjoyed but before I do that, I want to talk about the drama that started it all -- Hanazakari no Kimitachi e or as it is called colloquially by the fandom as Hana Kimi. Translated, the title means, "For You in Full Blossom".

Let's play a game of spot the girl

I stumbled on this magical craziness pretty much on accident. In college, I got really into anime and manga. It wouldn't be that far to call me a weeaboo (an internet term indicating someone obsessed with Japanese culture to the point they think Japan is the best place on Earth. Granted, I never felt like THAT). Then I joined the army and I fell out of anime. I remember the last series I watched before shipping off to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri -- Ouran High School Host Club. That series is still one of my favorite animes I sometimes revisit.

Welcome to my world of Jdrama obsession

Anyways, I'm in Germany and in the army having difficulty adjusting to being so far away from my friends/family when I see an online friend of mine post some funny gifs that I didn't know what they were from. So I asked her. She told me it was from Live Action Hana Kimi. I was immediately floored. Hana Kimi happened to be one of my favorite manga and is the longest full series I own(all 23 volumes). I asked where could I get this magic and she showed me where and thus began my journey.

I loved it so much it gave me a nose bleed

Hana Kimi follows the misadventures of Ashiya Mizuki (as a side note, I will be giving the names in Japanese convention so last name first), a Japanese-American who transfers to a school in Japan called Ohsaka Gakuen. The reason for this big move across the Pacific has to do with the fact Mizuki is a huge fangirl to one of the students who goes there -- a professional high jumper named Sano Izumi. Sano recently retired from the sport for seemingly unknown reasons and Mizuki transfers to his school in hopes she can use her American optimism to get him to jump again (typical American amirite?). There is just one catch; Ohsaka Gakuen is an all-boys school. Oh, and Mizuki and Sano are roommates. And there may be feelings developing between the two of them. You know, typical Shojo stuff.

I was going to put one of the accidental kisses but here is Sano waking up Mizuki instead

I am not quite sure why this manga appeals to me so much as it does. I think part of it is the fact the dialogue is very witty and the side characters are very fun and interesting. The story is absolutely silly but there is something charming about Mizuki's pushiness and Sano's aloofness in the 23 volume long will-they-or-won't-they saga that kept me coming back for more. I also happen to have a weak spot for gender humor in which Mizuki's cross-dressing antics provides much of that.

So Mizuki is cross-dressing as a guy cross-dressing as a girl and oh just forget it

I kept on hoping they would do an anime adaptation of Hana Kimi but instead they did a Live Action -- Four Actually. Taiwan did a version, South Korea did a version, and Japan did two. I'm going to be talking about the 2007 Japanese version starring Horikita Maki, Oguri Shun, and Ikuta Toma.  It is weird I got so into this because when I was into anime, I never ventured into the live-action realm of things. I never got into J-pop or J-rock or the anime adapted into live-action. But now, I don't watch much anime these days but I do watch a lot of variety shows and dramas.

Anyways, I watched Hana Kimi and absolutely fell in love with it. It was silly and light and fun, exactly what I needed at the time. I watched this drama many times -- an embarrassingly large amount. I have scenes memorized in Japanese. It is no masterpiece but it is incredibly entertaining. The first episode opens on a disclaimer "This Drama is fictional. Pardon the Foolishness". And this drama is so unapologetically foolish and silly and it is because it doesn't take itself so seriously-- that you just have a lot of fun watching it. In fact, you can tell the cast just had a lot of fun filming it and you have fun with them. I can't think of an American equivalent. Except maybe Glee if you take out all the random musical numbers. Wait...

The style you could tell the drama went for was manga or anime come to life. The set is very colorful which is only dressed with an equally colorful ensemble cast. The use of symbols commonly used in anime and manga were applied to the screen and also anime-like special effects. Maybe in hindsight, this jdrama worked like a gateway from anime to live-action.

Those are hearts in his eyes.

The drama differed from the manga in many ways. I could see how it could because the manga is 23 volumes long. By the time the 13th episode rolled around, I felt disappointed in that they didn't use my two favorite plots from the manga -- Nakatsu's Kansai stereotype mother coming to visit and Mizuki's American bff Julia coming for a visit. But then came the special in which both these plots were used and the special was epic in of itself because of it. However, otherwise, there were a couple changes from the manga that bothered me ... not enough for me to hate the drama but enough that I have to point them out.

 For one, the drama opens up that the school only accepts good-looking boys and it shows them walking to class with girls from the nearby schools watching them go, cheering like fangirls. This concept wasn't in the manga. Ohsaka Gakuen is just an all-boys school and it is near an all-girls school called St. Blossom's. At its best, it is annoying and at its worst, it is a little patronizing. However, Hibari and her gang of girls (students at St. Blossoms) do such a good job of eating up the scenery I can't hate them too much.

I mean come on -- they have their own rehearsed entrance!

The other change that kind of annoys me is the Dorm structure. In the manga, the Dorms are set up almost like Hogwarts Houses. Where you live is directly in relation to your extra-curricular activities. Dorm 1 is the Physical Activities like Martial Arts or any other sport. Dorm 2 is involvement in both arts and athletics. Dorm 3 is if you are involved in the arts. The drama has Dorm 2 be affiliated with sports while Dorm 1 is just Martial Arts. I can't hate it too much because Dorm 1 is absolutely hilarious with their RA treating all of them like samurai going off to war.

Sorry about using a jdrama confession but it only further shows why it annoys me

The last change that kind of annoys me is the character of Akiha, a nosy reporter and photographer who wants to know why Sano quit the high jump. In the manga, Akiha is a guy who has a past relationship with the school nurse, Umeda-sensei. Umeda is openly gay in both the manga and the jdrama. In the jdrama, it is implied they did use to date until Umeda decided he preferred the company of men. Akiha still follows Umeda around despite this fact and the two are pretty funny together, especially since Umeda acts like Akiha has a gnome down there. But still, I felt the sex change wasn't necessary. It was almost like the drama writers thought, "We can have Umeda still be gay, but not too gay."

Besides we already have Oscar, the Dorm 3 RA for that

Despite these three nitpicks, even when you have to suspend your disbelief over some of the antics our heroes get into, I just really adore this series. The plot isn't anything special -- very typical shojo. But the power behind the themes and how it is presented is really well done. I still hold my breath every time Sano jumps and wonder if he will succeed or fail this time. That is what is so well done about this drama. The story is about not giving up on yourself. True to shojo formula, Sano is a closed off, damaged individual but by the end, he learns to believe in himself and open up to those he cares about. But what is perhaps different from the usual formula is that it is not just the love interest, Mizuki, who helps him. His friends in general get behind him.

Mizuki trying to use her power of persuasion and optimism to get Sano to jump again

That leads to one of Hana Kimi's strongest theme which is the power of friendship. At the end of the day, everyone in Ohsaka Gakuen are out to help each other. It examines what it means to be a friend. Mizuki at the beginning is pushy and nosy but she learns that when it comes to something like learning to jump again, that has to be on the individual in question. All you can do is just indicate you are there for them. I know the power of friendship is something that everyone looks at as an Aesop as something that is just kids' stuff but I think adults can stand to revisit what it means to be a true friend.

Hugging your friends even when they say no -- number 1 rule of friendship

Hana Kimi is nothing without its quirky cast. Without it, it would be just any other shojo story. It is an ensemble show and even the characters who have one or two lines have distinct personalities that you can track in the background of each episode and notice their own stories are going on at the same time the main plot is. Every time I watch the drama, I attach myself to a different side character. I feel I have to say something about each of them.

You can't have too many Nakatsu gifs

Nakatsu Shuichi ignited my interest in Ikuta Toma, his actor. I consider myself a big fan of Ikuta and I have seen most of his work in which he continues to impress me as an actor. Everything he's in, you can tell he is trying extra harder than he did in his last role. I saw an interview with him in which he said his goal in life is to be a perfect actor. Even if that concept didn't exist, he still wanted to strive to it.

Anyways, Ikuta's performance as Nakatsu made me realize how much I liked him. In the manga, I liked Nakatsu okay. Nakatsu is a loud mouthed, soccer-loving fool. He is a stereotypical person from the Kansai region. has a page about it called "That Idiot from Osaka"  Nakatsu is not bright. He also develops a crush on Mizuki which sends him into a spiral questioning his sexuality. In the drama, Nakatsu doesn't change much from the manga but it is Ikuta's performance and interpretation of Nakatsu which made me really love drama!Nakatsu.

Japan -- Because if there isn't a scene with someone with panties on their head, why bother?

Nakatsu is the only character in the show (besides Sano in the special) who has scenes with internal monologue going on. His lines of reasoning are ridiculous. Like he justified jumping into the shower with Mizuki by saying it would conserve water. This never happened in the manga. In fact it is Sano who has internal monologues. Even so, Ikuta sells it and chews the scenery while doing so.

She's so adorbs

Ashiya Mizuki played by Horikita Maki, I feel like I can't continue without mentioning her. What I really liked about her in the manga and in the drama is that she honestly tries to be a good person, even when she screws up. I also like how she's kind of an American stereotype from the Japanese standpoint (she's a big eater, loud, and nosy). But I can't complain about Horikita's performance. I felt she captured the essence of Mizuki rather well.

Just look at the brooding, damaged glare of the typical Shojo hero

And if I talk about Mizuki I might as well mention Sano Izumi played by Oguri Shun. I always really liked Sano. I felt he was a highly complex character dogged by his own insecurities connected to a domineering father and letting down women he tried to help (his mother and Mizuki). He comes off as brash and harsh but he is just broke inside. I've seen so many male heroes in Shojo go down that road of being aloof but to the point they're really mean. Sano never goes over that line. He can say some things out of line but his good side comes out in what he DOES versus what he SAYS. He is never malicious in his actions and actually is a good friend and a good person.

Pictured -- Umeda mentoring

Umeda Hokuto (played by Kamikawa Takaya) is my favorite character in the manga and was kicked off number 1 by Nakatsu in the drama, not that Kamikawa did a bad job. Umeda is the school nurse and his role is that of mentor to Mizuki (and is one of the people who knows her secret from the beginning) -- heck, pretty much anyone. I really like mentor characters which is why I like Umeda-sensei. He provides good advice but can be bluntly honest at times. And while he knows everyone's problems, he doesn't ever get directly involved. He'll slip something in his advice to people but that's it. As I mentioned above, Umeda is openly gay and I like how he goes against stereotypes. His story is not marked by some torrid love affair that makes him dark and angsty. He doesn't have the gaynst. No, Umeda-sensei is very comfortable in who he is and doesn't care if you aren't.

I don't know about you guys but I want them as my RAs

The RAs of Dorms 1, 2, and 3 are worth mentioning. Tennoji Megumi, Nanba Minami, and Himejima "Oscar" Masao are so over the top, you can't help but love them. Tennoji, the Dorm 1 leader, as I mentioned runs his dorm like he is shogun and his kohai are his soldiers. He is a big, tough guy except when his betrothed Kana-chan is in the picture, then he is butter. Nanba (which is a play on words of Nanpa, meaning flirt), is Umeda-sensei's nephew and a total ladies' man. He is always hatching schemes. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Ferris Bueller in a way. Then there is Himejima, the over-dramatic, narcissistic head of Dorm 3 who steals every scene he's in with complete and utter ridiculousness. I think what I like the most about these three is that they spend most of the series squabbling with each other and getting into competition with each other but when it comes to the school and their kohai, they will put that aside.

"I detect a rainbow aura around you, Nakatsu!"

Probably my second favorite character in the manga and in the top five for the drama is Kayashima Taiki played by Yamamoto Yuusuke (who I share a birthday with). He's Nakatsu's roommate and also can read auras and fortunes and sees ghosts. He kind of belongs in the Addams Family. But also, like Sano, he's not what he seems on the surface. He is actually extremely soft-spokened -- when not talking about ghosts and things like that. He uses the softer word for I "boku" while most of his classmates tend to use the stronger "ore". In the manga, his backstory is revealed in which he expresses that his abilities scare people away, which makes him feel lonely. The drama doesn't particularly address that but Kayashima is a very good friend to Nakatsu, the only person who doesn't seem frightened of him.

Oh yeah, Sekime somehow can talk to dogs -- which is never addressed

I may be one of a few people who adores Sekime Kyoga who is played by Okada Masaki. He's in Mizuki's class. In the manga, he's kind of Mizuki's Lenny -- he's always there with his roommate Nao and he provides comments here and there. In the drama, they give him a run-on gag that no one can get Sekime's name right. He also has a romantic subplot in which he pretends to like Gundam to get the girl he likes. Basically, nothing ever goes right for Sekime. 

Haha, she's so over the top
Even though their existence is problematic, I can't help but like Hanayashiki Hibari and the rest of the Hibari 4 (plus Komari, that bitch). Hibari has the hots for Sano and she and her girls get into shenanigans because of it.

No one cares, Komari. Shut up.

You can tell the actress who plays Hibari just had so much fun going over the top as this universe's answer to Regina George. I didn't like her the first time I watched the series but the more I watched it, the more hilarious she became.

Presented without explanation

Not only did I discover the awesomeness that is Ikuta Toma in Hana Kimi, but I also discovered Shirota Yu who plays Kagurazaka Makoto who is Sano's rival in high jumping. What I like about him as a character is that he comes off as a big tough guy who is the antagonist in a couple episodes. And he plays the role. However, as Mizuki points out, Kagurazaka misses the rivalry he had with Sano and the two don't hate each other. They have respect for each other's abilities. They only talk smack because what is sports without smack talk?

Shizuki is not a panty thief -- Mizuki on the other hand...

I also have a soft spot for Mizuki's brother Ashiya Shizuki (I know their names rhyme). In the manga, Shizuki is actually Mizuki's half-brother who is like 15 years older than she is. Also, unlike Mizuki, whose mother is Japanese (her father is American born), Shizuki's mother was white and he has blond hair. They didn't incorporate that part of his story into the drama. But I guess what I liked about Shizuki is the fact that there is such a huge age difference between Mizuki and Shizuki and they have a close relationship. You don't see that too often. Also, Shizuki is played by Okada Yoshinori who is in everything. Seriously, he is like the Japanese Judy Greer. He has a lot of roles and plays them well enough but he is never the lead.

Wow, this entry turned out to be longer than I intended it to be. I just really love Hana Kimi. I know it is not for everyone but it may be for you if you just like off the wall silliness or need to take a break from the Breaking Bads and Game of Throneses of TV and just need a feel good romp into a magical place called Ohsaka Gakuen, where logic takes a holiday. Maybe one day I will revisit Hana Kimi with my top ten favorite moments but for now, I'm closing up.