Thursday, May 14, 2015

Of Black Widow and "Boy's Toys" #WheresNatasha

It has recently been reported by Jenna Busch at Legion of Leia that Hasbro opted to solicit a toy based on one of the more exciting scenes in the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron movie. In this particular scene, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Avengers member Black Widow springs into action by dropping out of the Avenger's Quinjet on a suped up motorcycle.

It's a pretty amazing sequence and a scene I look forward to watching repeatedly in the future. It's one of those ideal moments when film manages to capture the magic of the comic book page and translate it into real life. Throughout a progression of Marvel inspired films, Scarlett Johansson has managed to bring the Black Widow character alive on the screen with a nice balance between snark and charm. This moment was created to give her character a well-deserved action spotlight. This makes the scene an ideal choice for a toy play set based on the film.

There's only one problem.

Hasbro's play set based on the scene doesn't include Black Widow. It doesn't include her in the box as an action figure, and it doesn't feature her as a member of the Avengers on the cover of the box. This is a huge problem that has been discussed at length on a number of Feminist and Geek sites. If you are interested in their discussion, and you should be, I'd direct you to start with the Legion of Leia  and The Mary Sue and move on from there. Even though I'm the father of seven year old twin daughters who adore Black Widow as on of the - too few - female super heroes featured on a regular basis, I don't have anything to say from that perspective that hasn't already been said better.

Instead, I thought I'd take a moment to address what I believe is an underlying assumption that informed Hasbro's decision to exclude Black Widow from their offerings. Surprisingly, this isn't the assumption that these toys are "for boys." That may be one of the assumptions over at Hasbro HQ, but I think this falls into the "boys wouldn't want to play with girls as toys" sub-category of that assumption. I think that Hasbro not only assumes that these toys are for boys, but that boys would have no interest in pretending to be Black Widow battling the minions of Hydra and Ultron.

They are wrong on so many levels. Way back in the before times, in the not now, when the consensus view of the 21st century was Zardoz... Okay, that time never existed, but let's stick to the before times, in the not now. A time we will call "The Eighties." During this dark and mysterious age, action figures were a relatively new phenomenon. Sure, full sized GI Joe's had been around for a while, but the smaller action figures that would come to dominate the action figure market were relatively new. I don't know if Star Wars action figures were the first of this new line of toy, but they were an early one and they inspired toy makers to create new action figures for kids to play with. 

Those toys included a new and exciting line of GI Joe action figures that tied in with an animated TV show of the same name. The first "series" of Joe figures included three characters who were then, and are now, my favorite characters in that line. I played with those toys for hours on end. I pretended to be these characters as they battled COBRA and its nefarious plots. To me, these three characters are my "core Joes." They define who I most liked imagining myself to be. They were Snake Eyes, Stalker, a turn that makes Hasbro's decision to cut a character played by Scarlett Johansson all the more ironic.

What was the name of the company that made this mysterious female toy that both boys and girls (ages 5 and up) could play with? 


As I mentioned earlier, Scarlett was one of the characters I most liked to role play when I was fighting against Cobra. She had an awesome skill set, just look up and check it out, and she had a hand crossbow. A freakin' hand crossbow! 

So I'd just like to add to the chorus of voices that are pointing out that young girls just as valuable as consumers, fans, and players. That it is also true that there are probably young boys out there who would be eager to pretend to be Black Widow as she defends the world against the forces of Hydra. Heck, I even know a father of seven year old twin girls who would jump at that opportunity.


Thursday, May 07, 2015

A _SnarfQuest_ Adventure Game is on the Horizon

I've been a fan of SnarfQuest for quite some time. Larry Elmore's comic tale of a young warrior's quest for fame and fortune as he aspires to become king of his tribe is one of the classic comic strips of Dragon Magazine's heyday. The character first appeared in issue #75 of Dragon. That issue also included a breakdown of some of the Nine Hells and a brief Orcish to Common dictionary for use in your D&D game.

Looking back at that issue today, I'm struck by how good this era of Dragon was. Like the first 100 issues of White Dwarf, this era of Dragon magazine was in a period of "pre-professional" creativity. That doesn't mean the magazines weren't professional in presentation, they were, rather than they included content from fans as well as who would become reliable designers in the future. Magazines during this period were melting pots of creativity, and remind me of the Old School Renaissance and Savage Worlds communities. It was also a time when you might find gaming articles written by Fantasy and Science Fiction authors like John M Ford or Katharine Kerr. Many of today's authors discuss how D&D shaped their literary development and allow their creations to be used as game settings, but early gaming was also shaped by authors in a very direct way.

SnarfQuest isn't a perfect comic. It's snarky and plays around with Fantasy tropes and featured a less than noble hero. Sometimes the humor works, sometimes it doesn't, but it was clearly a labor of love and I enjoyed it's high concept story filled with Dragons, Orcs, and Androids.

This week, I noticed an advertisement on Steam promoting an adventure game based on the classic comic. The initial graphics capture the feel of the strip pretty well, as can be seen by the image below, and the adventure game format is one I enjoy.

I am mildly concerned about some elements of the game, from a "will it be fun?" perspective. While the character modeling captures the whimsy of the comic, the animations of movement and dialogue seem a little off in the game play trailer for the game. Speaking of dialogue, the voice acting for the characters in the trailer is not at all close to what my mind's ear created. The dialogue is delivered in an almost emotionless fashion. If this game is going to capture my imagination and get repeated play, that will need to be fixed. The game will get my money regardless, as I want to see a good Snarf game, but it may not get my fervent recommendation if it doesn't change the voice acting. I'd rather just read the dialogue than here the current actors.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

[Classics Revisited: The Best Old D&D Modules for 5th Edition] A Preliminary Discussion

This is the first in a series of posts. The majority of the subsequent posts will focus on recommended modules, but this one focuses on whether old modules are worth using and how to use them. If you are an experienced DM, you can feel free to skip this entry in the series and wait for the others.

During the build up to the release of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, Mike Mearls and the rest of the D&D team often claimed that one of the guiding principles for the 5th edition team was to make the game backward compatible. Put another way, players who loved prior editions of D&D should be able to still "play that way" with the new edition.

Now that I've been playing 5th edition for about a year, I can say with some confidence that I think this is true with regards to the 1st through 3rd editions of the game. Old school (Moldvay/Cook, BECMI, and 2nd Edition) modules are extremely easy to run under the new system with minimal prep on the part of the Dungeon Master. Modules from 3rd edition are similarly easy to convert as well, though the play will "feel" different. This is because high level 3rd edition characters, of the 3.x and Pathfinder variety, are EPIC in their capabilities where 5th edition characters are more modest. It might seem strange to say that high level 5th edition characters are "modestly" powerful, but in comparison to 3.x it's true. I haven't attempted to convert any 4th edition modules, but I think that should be easy as well especially if one uses the "post-Essentials" adventures.

As similar in style to older editions as 5th edition is, it has a nice mathematical core that echoes 4th edition but is toned down and has greater variation. In fact, it manages to add the variation of 1st and 2nd edition while maintaining some of the rigid predictability of 3rd and 4th edition. That's quite a feat. I'll focus a future post on some of the elegance of the mechanics of 5th edition for a later post, but it should be stated that the new edition makes "stat inflation" and "magic item proliferation" less important than any edition since 2nd. The amazing thing is that it does so while lacking the Dungeon Crawl Classics-esque funnel effect at low levels.

There are a few keys to adapting older edition adventures to the new system.

1) Stick to the more narrative modules.
2) Have your Monster Manual handy.
3) NPC are more work than Monsters, but often make the best opponents.
There are reasons for each of these recommendations.

Narrative modules scale better with 5th edition's experience system. If your players are willing to remain at low levels for extended dungeon crawls, and there is nothing wrong with that, you can run the earlier modules. You will just have to guesstimate when to give advancements. A module like The Keep on the Borderlands scales fine with regard to the encounter difficulty, but players advance in level much faster than old editions and the players might end up with a cake walk if you use the current xp guidelines.

Most old adventures, and the Paizo adventures in Dungeon, use very simple stat blocks for monsters. In fact, the stat block is often [Skeletons HP: 8, 6, 9, 3; see MM pg. XX]. You can either make copies of the information before hand, which is what I typically do instead of opening the book, or you can have the book handy. Either works just as easily and requires no conversion. When there is no 1:1 monster, just substitute one you like or use stats for one you like while keeping the monster description from the module.

NPCs make the best villains. In 1st and 2nd edition, making NPCs was pretty quick. You decided on a level, rolled HP, picked spells and magic items, and DONE! This process got more complicated with 3rd edition because of all the feats, prestige classes, and item proliferation required to keep the NPCs competitive with the PCs. Not to mention spending all those skill points. Pathfinder, while being merciful on the skill point side, has a lot of options for DMs to resolve. Options are fun for players who get to use their characters for months/years, but for a one to three shot NPC the work isn't often worth the reward for DMs.  Making Wizards, Demons, or Dragons for high level PCs could be hours of prep in 3rd edition. There are fewer decisions in 5th, but there are still some meaningful ones, but it's a more enjoyable DM experience for the working Dungeon Master. I put it that way because making characters can be a wonderful time, but when you are time constrained due to work, school, and family a faster process is preferred and 5th edition is faster than 3.x.

Having talked about the relative ease with which the modules can be adapted, and providing 3 guidelines with regard to adaptation, it's time to talk about why you should consider using older modules.

1) There are several available on DriveThruRPG.
2) They are inexpensive and average $5.
3) There are some genuine classics.
The rest of this series will be a series of recommendations of modules to use and include discussions of how these modules play in action. The modern player is often different in style to earlier gamers and no module plays "as written." I'll discuss some curveballs that I've seen during my sessions and how they made for even more enjoyable experiences.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Hugo Ballot Pre-Ranking -- A Very Preliminary Review of the Ballot with a Touch of Self-Promotion

This may surprise many of my readers, or at least one of the two people who read my infrequent posts, but I have never been to a WorldCon nor voted for the Hugos before. This is slightly embarrassing for me, since my mentor and dear friend Susan Palwick was one of the organizers for Reno in 2011. At a minimum, that should have been my first WorldCon. But my wife and I were busy in 2011 with 3 year old twin daughters and unable to make the trip up to Reno.

That WorldCon marks an interesting demarcation in the history of the convention. It was the last convention before the creation of the Sad Puppies coalition that is now in its third year. I'm not going to comment about Sad Puppies in this post, but I will say that if they did one thing positive it was informing me that I could be a part of the process without attending the event. I had assume, and we all know what happens when we assume, that one had to attend to vote. I thought it was like the Origin Awards where a committee selects the nominees and then the attendees vote. I was wrong, and so this will be my first time voting for the awards. 

I wish that I could attend this year, as I am a big fan of this year's presenters and my mentor will likely be in attendance as well. It has been too long since I have spoken with Susan in person, and the fan boy in me giggles with glee at the chance of chatting with David Gerrold (whom I interviewed on Geekerati) and Tananarive Due. I had the great honor of interviewing Tananarive and her husband Steven Barnes at a library event in Glendora.

I haven't received my packet from Sasquan yet, but I am eager about participating and I wanted to share my Pre-Rankings. There will be a lot of "No Award" votes pretty high on the lists. This is solely because I haven't read the material and not a statement.

Best Novel
  • Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK)
  • The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson (Tor Books)
  • The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books)
  • Skin Game, Jim Butcher (Orbit UK/Roc Books)
  • The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator (Tor Books)
I've only read Skin Game and Ancillary Sword so far, so I don't know what my final vote will be. The lack of Frostborn by Lou Anders is highly disappointing, as is the lack of Steelheart. So far, my ranking would be:

1) Skin Game

2) Ancillary Sword
3) No Award -- because I haven't read the rest.

Best Novella
  • Big Boys Don’t Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House)
  • “Flow”, Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014)
  • One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  • “Pale Realms of Shade”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
  • “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)
I haven't read any of these yet, but will when they come out in the packet.

1) No Award -- because I haven't read any.

Best Novelette
  • “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014)
  • “Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014)
  • “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014)
  • “The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014)
  • “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014)
I'm not a IGMS or Analog subscriber, so I've only read one of these stories.

1) "The Day the World Turned Upside Down"
2) No Award

 Best Short Story
  • “On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014)
  • “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
  • “A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books)
  • “Totaled”, Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014)
  • “Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)
I've read the Big Book of Monsters, because monsters, and most of Riding the Red Horse (because Pournelle). I haven't read "Turncoat" yet, it's a couple of stories down. Outside of the Burnside article and the Pournelle writings that anthology has been mixed.

1) "A Single Samurai"
2) No Award -- still have to read the other material.

Best Related Work (1150 nominating ballots, 346 entries, range 206-273)
  • “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)
  • Letters from Gardner, Lou Antonelli (The Merry Blacksmith Press)
  • Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth, John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  • “Why Science is Never Settled”, Tedd Roberts (
  • Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson (Patriarchy Press)
"The Hot Equations," while in a mixed bag anthology is a pretty radical piece of writing. Not radical in the sense that it is political, but radical in the way that it changes the way you read something. By focusing on Thermodynamics in space ship combat, Burnside revolutionized the way I think about the genre. I'm going to be much more critical of star ship combats in the future, and writers will have to find ways to get me to suspend my disbelief when writing about "stealth" in space. Haven't read the others.

1) "The Hot Equations" -- Which you really should read. It would be a shame for Ken Burnside to be overlooked because of politics. He's been an active member of the table top gaming community for years, and his Attack Vector game is remarkable.
2) No Award

Best Graphic Story
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt, (Marvel Comics)
  • Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery, written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch (Image Comics)
  • Saga Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics))
  • Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick, written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics)
  • The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate, Carter Reid (The Zombie Nation)
1) Rat Queens -- Because it's great.
2) Ms. Marvel -- Because it's very good.
3) Saga --  Because it's also really good.
4) No Award.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier, screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, concept and story by Ed Brubaker, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Entertainment, Perception, Sony Pictures Imageworks)
  • Edge of Tomorrow, screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, directed by Doug Liman (Village Roadshow, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, 3 Arts Entertainment; Viz Productions)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, directed by James Gunn (Marvel Studios, Moving Picture Company)
  • Interstellar, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan (Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Lynda Obst Productions, Syncopy)
  • The Lego Movie, written by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, LEGO System A/S, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, Warner Bros. Animation (as Warner Animation Group))
This is a remarkably strong category. I might add a film or two, but I wouldn't take any away. It's much better than last year's list which left off About Time a slight that demonstrated that the community doesn't watch enough movies. Probably because they are doing so much reading.

1) Edge of Tomorrow -- This was not only a very good movie, but it was directed by one of this generation's great directors. Doug Liman inserts a touch of magic into everything he works on.
2) Guardians of the Galaxy -- One of my daughter's favorite movies, and a testimony to how Space Opera still matters.
3) The Lego Movie -- This film is amazing.
4) Captain America: Winter Soldier -- Another fantastic film.
5) Interstellar -- A film I really liked, but have you seen the competition?

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • Doctor Who: “Listen”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Douglas Mackinnon (BBC Television)
  • The Flash: “Pilot”, teleplay by Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, story by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, directed by David Nutter (The CW) (Berlanti Productions, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television)
  • Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper”, written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, directed by Alex Graves ((HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
  • Grimm: “Once We Were Gods”, written by Alan DiFiore, directed by Steven DePaul (NBC) (GK Productions, Hazy Mills Productions, Universal TV)
  • Orphan Black: “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”, ” written by Graham Manson, directed by John Fawcett (Temple Street Productions, Space/BBC America)
A good list, to be sure, but my own biases are going to show here.

1) The Flash -- I cannot praise this show enough. It's hard to capture the tone of this character, especially in an era of GrimDark. Leave it to Geoff Johns, one of the best writers in the comic book run of the character, and Greg Berlanti to get it right. This just demonstrates how TV writers have more control than movie writers. 
2) Game of Thrones -- Great episode.
3) Grimm -- A wonderful episode from a show that alternates between brilliant and "what the?!" episodes.
4) Orphan Black -- Very good show.
5) Doctor Who -- It's won enough don't you think? Still a good episode.

Best Editor, Short Form
  • Jennifer Brozek
  • Vox Day
  • Mike Resnick
  • Edmund R. Schubert (Withdrew after ballot finalized)
  • Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Jennifer Brozek both gave me the honor of participating in a Geekerati interview discussing their Shattered Shields anthology for Baen. The lack of Johnathan Strahan in this category disappoints me.

1) Jennifer Brozek -- Not only has she long been an editor of fiction, but she's a great editor in the rpg industry too. Her gaming connection puts her over the top for me.
2) Bryan Thomas Schmidt -- His and Jennifer's selections in SS were strong and he has a long history in the genre. Besides, I did mention I got to interview him right?
3) Mike Resnick -- Hasn't he won everything?
4) Edmund R. Schubert -- What are you doing withdrawing?
5) Vox Day 

Best Editor, Long Form
  • Vox Day
  • Sheila Gilbert
  • Jim Minz
  • Anne Sowards
  • Toni Weisskopf
1) Sheila Gilbert -- She's never made the ballot before? What?!
2) Toni Weisskopf -- David Drake, Lois McMaster Bujold, Eric Flint, and a list of other reasons.
3) Anne Sowards
4) Jim Minz
5) No Award -- I haven't read any long form fiction edited by Vox Day.

Best Professional Artist
  • Julie Dillon
  • Kirk DouPonce
  • Nick Greenwood
  • Alan Pollack
  • Carter Reid
There was a time when two people would alternate this award, so it's nice to see some new artists.

1) Julie Dillon
2) Nick Greenwood
3) Kirk DouPonce
4) Alan Pollack
5) Carter Reid 

Best Semiprozine
  • Abyss & Apex, Wendy Delmater editor and publisher
  • Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Association Incorporated, 2014 editors David Kernot and Sue Bursztynski
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies, edited by Scott H. Andrews
  • Lightspeed Magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams, Stefan Rudnicki, Rich Horton, Wendy N. Wagner, and Christie Yant
  • Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison, editor-in-chief
I subscribe to Lightspeed and none of the others.

1) Lightspeed
2) No Award

Best Fanzine
  • Black Gate, edited by John O’Neill (Withdrew after ballot finalized)
  • Elitist Book Reviews, edited by Steven Diamond
  • Journey Planet, edited by James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, Colin Harris, Alissa McKersie, and Helen J. Montgomery
  • The Revenge of Hump Day, edited by Tim Bolgeo
  • Tangent SF Online, edited by Dave Truesdale
I'm a big fan of Black Gate and have even been given the honor of writing a post there in 2013. I'd like to write more, but PhD studies and work conflict. The others I don't know about. I do know John withdrew, but I don't recognize his withdrawal as I disagree with his reasoning.

1) Black Gate
2) No Award -- but I'll check the others out.

Best Fancast (668 nominating ballots, 162 entries, range 69-179)
  • Adventures in SciFi Publishing, Brent Bower (Executive Producer), Kristi Charish, Timothy C. Ward & Moses Siregar III (Co-Hosts, Interviewers and Producers)
  • Dungeon Crawlers Radio, Daniel Swenson (Producer/Host), Travis Alexander & Scott Tomlin (Hosts), Dale Newton (Host/Tech), Damien Swenson (Audio/Video Tech)
  • Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Presenters) and Andrew Finch (Producer)
  • The Sci Phi Show, Jason Rennie
  • Tea and Jeopardy, Emma Newman and Peter Newman
Since Geekerati was never nominated in this category, I'm going to be totally sour grapes and Nuclear No Award this category. I couldn't event get 100 fans? Jeez.

Just kidding. I just haven't listened to any of them yet. I may end up as a huge fan of one of them.

1) No Award

Best Fan Writer
  • Dave Freer
  • Amanda S. Green
  • Jeffro Johnson
  • Laura J. Mixon
  • Cedar Sanderson
Don't read any of their writings, but will before I vote.

1) No Award

Best Fan Artist
  • Ninni Aalto
  • Brad W. Foster
  • Elizabeth Leggett
  • Spring Schoenhuth
  • Steve Stiles
Will have to check them out.

1) No Award.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (851 nominating ballots, 220 entries, range 106-229)
Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2013 or 2014, sponsored by Dell Magazines. (Not a Hugo Award, but administered along with the Hugo Awards.)

  • Wesley Chu*
  • Jason Cordova
  • Kary English*
  • Rolf Nelson
  • Eric S. Raymond
Wesley Chu stopped by my Geekerati podcast, and I enjoyed his debut novel. The others I will have to read.

1) Wesley Chu
2) No Award

Any and all "No Awards" are preliminary. I want to vote for those I think best represent the SF/F field that are on the ballot. Looking at past ballots, like last year's film category for example, none are a "perfect" ballot of things I would have nominated. But I've used the nominee process to inform my future reading in the past and will continue to do so. Those things I am familiar with on this ballot, with some small exceptions, are things I respect and enjoy.