Friday, July 20, 2012

Quick Post: The Dark Knight Rises

Well, I went to see the film of the summer today. Not at midnight or 3am, at 10:40am.

First, let me say that if you're going to see a movie on opening day, 10:40 is a pretty good time to see it. There was hardly anyone in the theater. As I entered the sixteen theater cinema, I was the only person in line for a ticket and the only person in line for a soda (I gave up getting popcorn years ago - I can only afford so much!). The first patrons I saw were in good old theater one and there were about ten of us. I really wanted to stand up at one point and ask them to pause the film so I could go to the bathroom.

I'll keep this short and spoiler-free. I was intrigued by Neil Gaiman's comments that "preferred the last movie [The Dark Knight], but this is a better Batman movie, and, I suspect, a better film." How could you like something more that was not as good a film? I'm not sure. I tried to rationalize it by saying that I prefer  Anchorman, but recognize that The Artist is a better film.

Any way, when it comes down to it, I only slightly disagree with Gaiman. I still think The Dark Knight is the better film. Christopher Nolan is brilliant and takes a decidedly uninteresting villain in Bane (who came across to me as a "cautions on the use of steroids" villain back when he first appeared) and made him somewhat compelling. And Anne Hathaway is great as Catwoman. But neither of them packs the punch of Heath Ledger's Joker. Both movies were epic in their own ways. The Dark Knight played with the entire cityscape and gave us a view of Gotham that was recognizeable, gritty and only minimally cartoonish (even with such a potentially cartoonish villain as the Joker - see Jack Nicholson's portrayal for an example how cartoonish he could be). The Dark Knight Rises does an incredible job of tying together the compelling moments of the first two films into an outstanding climax. In short, I loved it. But I still love The Dark Knight more.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

AAR: Pseudocon 23

We had a huge turnout for Pseudocon this year. Twenty three gamers on Friday and twenty two on Saturday crammed into my humble abode to play games and visit with each other, some of us for the first time in about a year.

Before I get started on my reports, I have to make a quick note. The hits of the con were the space 4x game Eclipse and the new sequel to Here I Stand, Virgin Queen. I probably should learn to play both of them, but I had read some negative things about Eclipse that made it a game that, while I'd like to play, I had enough reservations that I allowed the many players who seemed much more interested take priority. As for Virgin Queen, there were two problems. The first is my mixed history with Here I Stand. I want to like the game, but I feel like every time I play people have to tell me what to do. It's very similar to criticisms of co-op games where it feels like I'm an actor in a play produced by one of the other players. I really believe that, were I to play it regularly, I'd end up really liking the game, but I just always move it down on the list when I'm selecting games to play. The second reason was that Pseudocon is about playing as many games as I can with as many people as I can. So I was reluctant to play a longish game. Maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age.

Any way, here's a quick(ish) rundown of my plays for the weekend:

Friday was a day for evil to triumph.

The first stop, of course, for Pseudocon, is the Game Selection Game. Everybody stands around, waiting for something to play, and it usually takes a few stronger souls (in our group, one of these is usually Scott) to commit and get a game going. Last year, TJ came up with a great idea - using index cards. The idea is simple. If you wish to, propose a game by putting it on the central table (in my case, this is my dining room table). Everyone then has an index card on which they've written their name. They place the card on the game they would like to play. It leads to some funny moments with people moving three games together and placing the card on three games at once, but pretty quickly it becomes clear what has support and what doesn't. People then migrate their cards accordingly. Usually, one game fills up and moves off to get started, then another, then the poor two souls who have chosen Dominant Species either play a two player game or change their votes and play one of the other games being offered.

The first round of this led me to play Runewars with the Banners of War expansion. Kevin, AJ and I were the players (this led Kevin to say "why do we do this again?" because that is our usual summer gaming group). I like Runewars a lot. I think it does the medieval fantasy wargame very well. It solves the multi-player problem by making player elimination an outlier as far as options go and one that will inevitably lead to an immediate victory if you're able to conquer one player, which is much more difficult than the other options available. It also does a nice job of folding in the idea of "heroes" and "questing," making it a key component (the easiest way to get new dragon runes) while not having it take over the game. I think it definitely belongs on my "hot list" and may make it to my top ten one day. The expansion adds some excellent options, especially for the weak elves and I love the new "title" card in the game that profound affects your ability to manage your resources. Great game. Kevin won, unfortunately.

A five player game of Battlestar Galactica, Scott's latest favorite game, was the next one out of the chute. Owen and I turned out to be father-son Cylons (kind of an oxymoron - don't they come from resurrection ships?). The game was fun with Scott recognizing my Cylon nature immediately (this isn't saying much, I don't think he's ever had a game where he didn't accuse me of being one). But due to a great run of luck and a great "megacrisis" or whatever those things are called, Owen and I were able to take the population meter to "0" and win the game. Of course, that makes it a Pyrrhic victory because we without any population, who were we going to crush under the heels of our shiny chrome boots?

Next up was Middle Earth Quest. Scott has now decreed that the game is "a quality game," which is pretty high praise from him. We played a three player game, and I, as Sauron, recorded the win. I've documented my love for this game a number of times. It is my truly guilty pleasure. 

We ended up playing until about 2am and then turned in early (for Pseudocon!). 

Saturday brought a few more plays for me, along with one of those games no one really likes to play.

After everyone arrived (around 10am), we again played the Game Selection Game. I tend to lurk around on the edges of this until the very last minute, jumping into whatever game needs a player that I have at least a passing interest in. Willing to play? Passing interest? Sounds like 1812: The Invasion of Canada. We played a five player of this, ending in, of all things, a tie! I have come to really enjoy playing this game, but, for whatever reason, it is one that I am happy to play, just not excited to play. A lot more games are falling into this category these days.

After this came what can become the most painful "game" of the con or any con which you host, The Lunch Game. This is one of those games that's not really a game, like the Game Selection Game. But, if not done properly, it can really go downhill quickly. I thought it would be great to order subs online, get payment, and go and pick up the subs between games. But a major storm had run through the area the night before and knocked out power to the area (except for Fortress White). This meant that the sub shop was packed with people without power AND that their online order taking system was down. Not the order-CREATING site, just the order-CONFIRMATION. So, after placing the order and arranging payment, the sub shop NEVER received the order. Brutal. Two hours down the drain. Thankfully, Joe jumped in and put together a pizza order (phase two of the Lunch Game). Next year, it's back to paper menus and every man for himself (or at least every "sub group" for themselves). It's the problem to be worked out for next year.

After the lunch craziness, we ended up playing Seven Wonders. We played with a number of new players. I like Seven Wonders as a 30 minute filler. It's fast paced and I love the "pass your hand" mechanic. I can't say I play the game well at all, but I still enjoy it. But over an hour of it? Ugh. And that's what I got on Saturday. The main problem was a large number of players (I think we had 7) playing a game that was new to them. Seven Wonders, though, is fast paced! ... Unless you have extensive kibitzing and strategy talk, and that's what we had. I'll still play the game, I just won't play it under the same circumstances. 

Next up was a round of Battlestar with Scott being a Cylon and the incompetent humans never even reaching Cobol. It wasn't really our incompetence as much as it was some really bad luck from the Fate deck. Battlestar is another guilty pleasure. It's quick, too, which helps.

Next up Scott and I played a game of Hannibal. Hannibal (me) made it into Italy, but wasn't agressive enough. Then he was kicked out and pinned a consul up in Gallia. But that wasn't enough. As Scott pointed out, I needed to use Hannibal aggressively, rather than just using him as a threat with no follow-through. Scott slowly accumulated power and fended off my lesser generals and I forfeited right before the arrival of Scipio.

The last game of the con for me was a five player Age of Empires III. Another interesting game. I think, in a lot of ways, it is a better version of Dominant Species (it's tighter and shorter, which I like). And it's also one of those games that I don't own and, consequently, don't play very often. I thought I was making decisions but I didn't triangulate all of the variables very well. And I ended up coming in dead last. Oh well. 

So, the con on the whole was a huge success. We had the largest turnout ever. The T-shirts were something of a success (we'll see how often they get worn), and, when I was lucky enough to be evil, I won a couple of games (one as Sauron, one as a part of a Cylon team). Next con, WBC! I've already started my scheduling of games. Contact me if you're interested in setting something up in open gaming. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jason White the --- Roleplayer?

All right. Confession time. I did some roleplaying recently. And I liked it.

Well, of course, the first question (after the obligatory "What the --?") becomes "How did this come about?" Even I didn't really see it coming. Most of my peer group are boardgamers at heart. I myself had given up on role-playing years ago (time slips away, but I think it was in the 90's that I gave up). Our group had hit a point where we didn't meet very often (we shot for once every three weeks and failed to meet even that requirement at times), and a point where we were so individualized in our role-playing that we spent a lot of time working out private details of the adventure with the GM in closed door meetings. And whoever was not in those meetings was out in the living room, waiting.

I came to realize that boardgaming scratched my particular gaming itch much more effectively than roleplaying. I felt that I was spending the first part of every roleplaying session catching up because we met so irregularly and the second half waiting while this person or that person went off by themselves. With a boardgame, you all sat at the table and played. No delay, minimal waiting (especially with the innovations going on in boardgaming at the time where players had very little "down time"), and no consistency problems. Every boardgaming session was unique and was (optimally) completed in one sitting. So I dropped roleplaying and honestly wondered if I would ever come back to it.

Fast forward to 2011. My friend TJ and I had been playing boardgames for a few years. He had come into our gaming circle through the podcast and his great personality and willingness to play anything meant that he had quickly become a regular gaming partner. As I said, TJ would play anything. He still has his CCG's. He has the most complete collection of Up Front cards that I have ever seen (do you have that desktop published set of cards that "corrects" the Italians? I didn't think so!). He plays Descent and Hive and EastFront and Hannibal. After we had played a number of board games together and had set a regular playing schedule for a few months, he broached the subject of roleplaying.

He had his own issues with roleplaying. I think they mostly stemmed from roleplaying's dependence on the people with whom you play. One of roleplaying's major weaknesses is that every group has its unique flavor. It is very easy to fall into a really bad roleplaying game. TJ had decided that if he were to try roleplaying again, Joe (formerly Friend of the Show Joe), Tom the Tinker (another player TJ was playing with regularly) and I would be the guys he thought would have the right attitude and demeanor for such an endeavor. I responded with as tepid a "maybe" as I could safely muster. I was careful not to say "yes" and honestly thought it sounded like one of the pipe dreams where, if you wait long enough, it would just go away.

But it didn't. TJ kept bringing it up. He brought it up with the others and they tentatively said "yes." We spoke about it at Prezcon and Joe and I rode home from the con together and discussed character ideas. This just might happen.

Of course, as you can see from the regularity of my schedule in posting, it was hard to arrange a time where we could all meet. We had a number of delays. Some were from dragging feet in character design. Others were from things like coaching soccer getting in the way of scheduling. Finally, after a number of emails and a couple of false starts, we locked our schedules in for mid-May to mid-June. Three sessions in two week intervals. And after much prompting from Joe, I half-heartedly designed my character, a part-thief, part shepherd named Oswald. He would be the party's scout and "thief" (don't worry, I won't tell you a "character story," but there was this one time...)

We played that first night. And...

I had a good time.

I exited the first session with much more excitement than I had entered it. I actually looked forward for the two weeks to pass and for us to rejoin our attempt to rescue our old "hedge-wizard" friend. The second session involved quite a climactic combat with a nasty that was more powerful than any one of us, but not more powerful than all of us (Joe actually said at one point that he was worried he had made the creature too powerful, but we defeated it -- sounds like a sweet spot for monster design). The third session picked up at the cliff-hanger on which the second session had ended, a "hair-trigger" situation where negotiations with the local goblins had started to go bad.

Another risky combat ensued and we emerged victorious. We returned home in relative triumph. And I realized that, among all the other gaming I was to do, I needed to fit in some roleplaying. Not a lot, not regularly, nothing that would interfere with a somewhat busy boardgaming schedule, but a few sessions every year or so.

This also made me reflect on what it is that I want out of a roleplaying game. We hear some gamer stereotypes thrown around: min/maxer, munchkin, goth vampires, one of those larpers who gets lost in a steam tunnel. I'm none of these. I think what I need out of a roleplaying game is that unpredictable tactical situation that a boardgame can only give you for a short amount of time.

I love boardgaming. It is by far my favorite hobby. But when playing a game, the time I love is that time where you've gone through the rules and everyone knows how to play and you're exploring the game's tactical nuances and possibilities. Some games have a consistent vision combined with a certain strange combination of knowing what is coming while still maintaining a level of surprise and excitement that extend this golden period for a good long time. Napoleonic Wars, here is your obligatory mention. Other games are fun at first, then quickly devolve, either because the randomness overwhelms the tactical possibilities (as in a game like Munchkin or, to a lesser extent, A Most Dangerous Time), or because the game becomes so scripted as to become about proper opening moves and correct reactions to predictable problems (which is one of my frustrations with simpler Euros).

Roleplaying games, when run well, always leave us in that process of becoming. That is, a roleplaying game should always be somewhat unpredictable with the character's knowledge of the rules and a bit of creativity being their main tools in responding to the tactical situations put forth by the GM.

Joe is particularly good about this. This time, the unique challenges were a creature with poison and a prehensile tale and goblins who had prepared an ambush as we exited a cave. Each situation presented its own challenges and we had to be somewhat creative in solving them. And not everything was combat related. In the combat with the goblins, at a certain point, we had to turn a small advantage into a larger one through intimidating dialogue. Boardgames rarely offer this kind of opportunity, usually giving a particular way out of a bad situation. If it's a wargame, fight your way out. If it's a diplomacy game, negotiate. If it's a trading!

So at this point, I don't know how often we'll meet and play a roleplaying game. There was discussion of meeting a few times a year, and I could see myself doing that. Joe's game scratched an itch that I had forgotten I had and it played to some my favorite aspects of gaming, the tactical situation and the creative solution to a problem. So, while I'm still a boardgamer, and of that particular species of boardgamer called the wargamer, there's a small part of me that is a roleplayer. Don't look for me in a steam tunnel and don't look to this blog to discuss my acquisition of a +5 Holy Avenger, but, periodically, especially if I get a chance to talk abstractly about what a roleplaying game brings to the table, you might see this blog discuss roleplaying.