Thursday, October 26, 2017

Firearms in D&D Mystara: Tinker, Tailor, Dwarf, and Spy's Darokinian Musketeers

As I posted last week, my current D&D campaign "Tinker, Tailor, Dwarf, and Spy" takes place in the "Known World" setting that was originally published in the Cook Expert Set of Dungeons & Dragons. The players are currently adventuring in northern Karameikos, but I have plans to have the players wander into Darokin and Glantri. For those who aren't familiar with the Known World, it is a hodge-podge setting that includes an anachronistic combination of cultures ranging from the Roman Empire to Renaissance tech societies. Karameikos, where the players' characters are based, is a high-medieval culture and thus is an ideal starting society for the "default fantasy" campaign.

As I mentioned above, even though the characters are based out of a default fantasy kingdom, they will be wandering into Darokin and Glantri which are countries inspired by renaissance level cultures. Darokin is based on renaissance Florence and Genoa with a strict plutocratic government. Glantri is based on renaissance Glantri with the country being a "mageocracy" rather than plutocracy. Because the players will likely be traveling into these two nations, I had to ask myself whether or not I wanted to include firearms in my D&D campaign. After some back and forth, I decided that I would indeed be introducing characters who use Muskets, Pistols, and Arquebuses, but limiting them to Darokinian society.

In preparation for this move, I purchased the Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting by Green Ronin in the hopes that it included the rules for the Gunslinger archetype for the Fighter Class. It turns out that it wasn't necessary to purchase the full campaign guide, as Matthew Mercer has been kind enough to provide the Gunslinger rules as a Pay What You Want file. After reading the archetype, I found that it didn't fit exactly what I wanted to have in my games. The Tal'Dorei Gunslinger is closely based on the Pathfinder Gunslinger character class from the Pathfinder Ultimate Combat Guide and as cool as that class it, it comes with all of the "fiddliness" of the Pathfinder system. Matthew Mercer's Gunslinger kept that fiddliness and I wanted a class that fit with the simplicity of 5th edition.

In the end, I read through the existing archetypes and feats in 5th edition and realized that I didn't need to come up with an entirely new archetype or create new feats. All I needed to do was reskin some existing rules to fit the theme.

The first reskin I will be using in my game is the creation of a Blackpowder Marksman feat. The feat will be identical to the Crossbow Expert feat on page 165 of the 5th Edition Player's Handbook. That feat is pretty powerful and makes crossbow using Fighters extremely powerful options in 5e. A key element is the first benefit which lets those who possess the feat to "ignore the loading quality of crossbows with which you are proficient." In other words, it allows crossbow using Fighters to attack more than once when using an Attack action. I thought that it was fair to have a feat that applies all of these benefits to a person who uses black powder weapons.

While I don't want to spend any real time getting into the weeds of the Arquebus > Crossbow > Longbow > Shortbow argument, I will share the reasons for why I am happy with this quick fix. First, as argued effectively by Richard Berg in his wargame Arquebus, while the longbow's effectiveness had been reduced by the innovation of plate armor, "crossbows took more time to wind and fire than an arquebus, which had similar penetrative abilities but a far lower rate of fire." Looking at the stats for the crossbow and comparing them to the longbow, we see that these attributes are taken into account in 5e.  The heavy crossbow does 1d10 damage and requires reloading while the longbow does 1d8 and doesn't. The Crossbow Expert feat allows a Fighter to use a crossbow with the same rate of fire as a longbow, something ahistorical but perfect for fantasy. In D&D a combat round is only 6 seconds long and a high level Fighter can shoot his longbow 8 times in a combat round (and thus a crossbow 8 times). That's not at all realistic, but it allows the damage curve to keep up with mages and hand to hand combatants. This is high fantasy after all and limiting arquebus/musket use to 4 shots per minute might be accurate, but it wouldn't be fun. So long as you keep the damage for the black powder weapons within reason (which the DMG does), game balance is retained.

Once I made this slight concession to fun over fact, I began looking to the character class archetypes to see how they fit the model of Musketeer. What I found was that two of the archetypes in the Player's Handbook reskinned nicely to be gun toting characters. I was especially impressed with how the Battle Master archetype fit for Musketeers. Since only a few of the maneuvers for the Battle Master specified "melee weapon," it meant that these abilities could be used with missile weapons with only minimum change. I quickly wrote up a page using The Homebrewery that included the Musketeer archetype based on the Battle Master. I haven't stated up the Eldritch Knight version, but if one limits the spell list properly it's easy to see spell as "magic ammunition."

Lastly, I created a background that would allow even non-Fighters to be proficient in "simple" black powder weapons and classified the arquebus as a simple weapon with the pistol and musket counting as martial weapons in Darokinian Society.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

D&D Adventures in Karameikos: Tinkers, Tailor, Dwarf, and Spy

A campaign beginning.

Just ran the second session of a new 5th Edition D&D campaign. The campaign takes place in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos where the player characters are members of a secret police force that investigates threats against Duke Stefan Karameikos. The secret police force is called The Tinkers and they answer to a secretive mastermind named The Weaver. This combination of factors led the players to name the campaign "Tinkers, Tailor, Dwarf, and Spy."

The Grand Duchy is one of the main "starting" kingdoms of the Mystara game setting. I've long been a fan of the Mystara Setting for Dungeons & Dragons. One big reason for this is that it was the setting used in the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert and BECMI editions of D&D. The biggest reason though, is that I love the bizarre anachronistic mashup of cultures in the game. You have a culture based on the Roman Empire that is doing trade with a culture based on renaissance Venice. It's got a touch of everything.

Having a bit of everything does take away from the verisimilitude, but when you add the reasons for the Hollow World setting inside the world the setting actually makes sense. The world of Mystara is hollow because the god Ka the Preserver, the first dinosaur to attain sentience and eventually immortality, sought to create a refuge for the societies that collapsed on the surface of the world. One could induct from this that Ka's sponsor builds the surface world from the collapsed cultures of other worlds.

At least that's how it works in my mind-canon, not that it will affect the campaign that all of the kingdoms are actually rescued cultures from other worlds. Though that will allow me to bring in some of the material from Freeport more fluidly.

The campaign begins with The Weaver sending the characters to the town of Stallanford to investigate whether the annual King's Festival is being used as recruiting grounds for the Cult of Halav. After the PCs have been given time to do initial investigations and get a night's rest, Orcs attack the town and kidnap the town's cleric who is also the man the PCs are supposed to spy upon.

I'm using the King's Festival module as the launching point for the campaign, with the following open threads added.

1) Depending on what happens, the surviving Orcs may seek to have the PCs put to trial for murder/wrongful death.
2) Is the cleric a part of the Cult of Halav? Is that cult a threat to Duke Stefan?
3) Is the big bad a part of the Iron Circle? Are visitors to the Orc Caves also members of the Iron Circle?
4) Who is the Weaver?
5) Who is Bargle the Infamous?

Friday, October 06, 2017

Steve Jackson's Classic OGRE is Available on Steam!!!

In 1977, Metagaming Concepts released Microgame #1. Metagaming's Microgame series was an attempt to bring to market complex and playable wargames that had limited components and a low price point and the line was a runaway success. A large reason for that success is the high quality and amazing replayability of Microgame #1, or as it is better known OGRE. The game was so successful that it not only launched a fad, it formed the basis for the early financial success of two companies. Metagaming first, and then Steve Jackson Games. 

Image Source wtrollkin2000 at Board Game Geek

The $2.95 price point of the game made it extremely affordable, and interestingly up until recently you could once again buy a copy of the basic game for $2.95, but what made it a classic was its easy to understand rules and how well they fit the game's fictional concept. It's a concept that is instantly intelligible the moment one looks at the game's cover illustration. It is the struggle of multiple small units against a nigh invulnerable towering giant. It is army vs. Kaiju, village vs. giant, weak vs. strong. Can the weaker force prevail, or will they fall before THE OGRE?

The giant tank rumbles toward its target . . . its guns are destroyed, its movement crippled, but only a few defenders are left. Will they stop the robot juggernaut, or will it crush the Command Post beneath its gigantic treads?

The game's success led to more Microgames, some of which expanded the Ogreverse and others like Melee and Wizard formed the foundation for complex and fan adored role playing games. When Steve Jackson left Metagaming, he made sure to bring OGRE with him and it helped launch his new company's success as did a continuation of Microgame style games including Car Wars and Battlesuit. Eventually Steve Jackson Games moved on to other ventures like GURPS and Munchkin, but when an OGRE Kickstarter raised almost a million dollars in revenue it proved that there was still demand for battle in the Ogreverse. One might even credit OGRE with Steve Jackson Games' recent non-Munchkin revival. That Kickstarter has led to a revival of the OGRE line, the return of Car Wars, and now a newly released video game on Steam. The game has been developed by Auroch Digital, who's earlier adaption of Games Workshop's classic Chainsaw Warrior demonstrated their ability to do quality adaptations of classic table top games.

I'll be playing and reviewing OGRE this weekend, but you can buy it on Steam today.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

BIRDEMIC (2010): Capsule Review

Birdemic: Shock and Terror ½ 

BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR is an attempted homage to Hitchcock's classic film THE BIRDS. Following in the footsteps of many nature gone awry films, BIRDEMIC's story links the crisis at hand with mankind's ill treatment of the environment. In NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, it was genetic research. In KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, it was farmer's use of pesticides. Here the birds are responding to global climate change.

While this kind of political commentary puts BIRDEMIC strongly within the "nature attacks" genre, it also moves it away from Hitchcock homage and into drive in theater formula. Hitchcock's film is about interesting personal relationships, but BIRDEMIC's attempts at these kinds of storylines fall flat as the screenplay spends more time discussing stock options than it spends time letting us get to
know the main characters.

A skilled film team could have turned BIRDEMIC into an entertaining film along the lines of ARACHNOPHOBIA, but filmmaker's amateurism prevented that from happening. Ironically, the film's charm is rooted in the filmmaker's amateurism. The filmmaker and crew were clearly excited to make the project and this shines through the awkward camera angles, bad editing, and terrible digital special effects.

The film is a sincere film, even if it is a bad one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (Film Review): Is AMERICAN ASSASSIN a Film Franchise in the Making?

Creating a new action franchise is a difficult process. It requires some combination of strong IP, star power, compelling narrative, and innovative action sequences. As was demonstrated ably by John Wick in 2014, it does not require a giant budget. CBS Films' recently released American Assassin featuring Vince Flynn's CIA "consultant" Mitch Rapp, has many of the requisite components, but are they enough?

In 1999, Vince Flynn's first Mitch Rapp novel Transfer of Power hit the bookshelves and rose to number 13 on the New York Times best-seller list. While Transfer of Power was subject to some mixed critical reviews, it was strong enough to build an audience big enough to support fifteen more novels and a movie deal. Though Mitch Rapp has a dedicated following are many reasons that Transfer of Power was not the book selected by Hollywood to introduce the character to a wider audience. The first and foremost reason is that Transfer of Power is about terrorists hijacking the White House and that storyline has been played out with Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. The second is that the critics were right to complain that Transfer of Power takes a long time to get to the action. Films are a visual medium and they need stories that are suited to visual storytelling. Long scenes of Mitch Rapp and a retired Secret Service Agent discussing how they are going to slowly scout out where the terrorists have hidden bombs and booby traps makes for a plausible narrative, but it's not the stuff of a great action film. In the end, producers selected the 2010 novel American Assassin, which details Mitch Rapp's origin, as their franchise entry.

One of the things that makes Mitch Rapp a good literary character is that he is what author/screenwriter Steven Barnes described as "a nerdy guy who suffers a tragedy and turns himself into Jason Bourne to get revenge against 'the terrorists.'" While Mitch Rapp is a very physically capable character, NCAA Lacrosse player in the books, he is first and foremost a thinker. In the books, he speaks French like a native and a number of other languages. In the film, he's taught himself Arabic. He's an autodidact of the highest order. It's a quality that makes him difficult to cast though because the actor must be both athletic and "geeky." Dylan O'Brien fits the bill perfectly. The charm that he displayed in Teen Wolf is still evident, but it's suppressed a little as the filmic Mitch Rapp is suffering from a severe case of PTSD.

Michael Keaton portrays Mitch Rapp's mentor/tormentor Stan Hurley in typical Keatonesque fashion. Which in this case means that Keaton turns a relatively unlikable character in the books into a character that is kinder and gentler than the literary version while somehow managing to retain the cold lethality that Stan Hurley embodies in the books. Sanaa Lathan does an effective job of portraying Irene Kennedy, Mitch Rapp's handler and the person who recruited Rapp into a secretive off the books CIA program. Taylor Kitsch chews just enough scenery as "Ghost" that audiences will believe that he's blinded by a need for revenge, but not so much that he spirals into farce as a villain. Much more could have been done with the back story between Hurley and Ghost, but there is enough presented in the film to make Ghost's motivations clear.

Where the film begins to falter is in it's selected narrative. The underlying premise of the film is that some Iranian hardliners are unhappy with the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. These hardliners have come into contact with a former US operative (Ghost) who has agreed to deliver nuclear material to them that they can use to make a nuclear device. What the hardliners don't know is that Ghost plans on using the device himself and in doing so get revenge on the country that abandoned him behind enemy lines. There are some twists in the plot that aren't given as much time to sink in with audiences as they deserve. Chief among these is that the Iranian government itself has been monitoring these hardliners and has sent their own agent to infiltrate the CIA's investigation. This is played off in a "OMG we have a traitor...oh, wait...not a traitor, but valuable resource" sequence that lasts all of five minutes.

Typical of many modern films, American Assassin isn't satisfied with smaller stakes. It takes what could have been an effective kidnap revenge story, which is one of the narratives in the book (though not with Ghost), and dials it to 11 with the addition of a nuclear device. Instead of learning from John Wick, Casino Royale, and The Bourne Identity that personal stakes can drive an action movie, the film relies on the staid ticking clock to maintain dramatic tension. This particular ticking clock falls flat and the story has other events that could have been used. One is reminded of how effectively Guarding Tess utilized one during the final kidnap and rescue sequence. In better action narratives, the personal drives the drama. In American Assassin, there are personal reasons for all the drama, but they play second fiddle to McGuffins.

Similarly, many of the action sequences of American Assassin lack aesthetic and emotional punch. Fans of martial arts films know that martial arts battles are beautiful dance sequences and they require similar attention. The fight, like the dance, must tell a story and viewers must be able to see what's going on. John Wick incorporated grappling techniques into the film in order to minimize the number of cuts in an editing sequence, a choice that resulted in some very elegant fight sequences. Mitch Rapp, in both the books and in the film, is a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which has been featured in John Wick and Red Belt in some wonderful action sequences but is underused in American Assassin. Michael Cuesta's direction of the fight scenes fails to convey the dance the stunt team is providing. These scenes are over edited and confused and this more than anything is the film's biggest failing. An action film can be cliched and derivative, but the action it portrays must be compelling.

American Assassin has many of the components for a solid mid-budget franchise, but future writers and directors would do well to remember that the best action stories are personal and that fight scenes should be treated like beautiful dance numbers around which the rest of the film is structured.

Images: CBS Films

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN and Hollywood's Frequent Spectacle Problem

When I first saw the trailer for American Assassin a couple of months ago, I was blown away. Here was a spy film starring Michael Keaton, Dylan O'Brien, and Taylor Kitsch. Michael Keaton has long been one of my favorite actors because of his ability to provide convincing performances in films like Clean and Sober even as he worked on classic comedies like Mr. Mom . Taylor Kitsch's career has been more mixed than Keaton's, but his strong performances in Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor and many other projects more than make up for his less successful work. Dylan O'Brien is a star on the rise who is well known enough to younger audiences that he might just be able to launch an action franchise.

The earliest teaser trailers focused on the origins of the "American Assassin" Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien), giving audiences a glimpse of his ruthless capabilities and the tragedy that inspired him to become a killer. It was these early teasers that convinced me to begin reading the Mitch Rapp books by Vince Flynn. I'm a fan of spy films and novels, but given the breadth of my pop culture tastes I usually need some catalyst to get me to start up yet another long running series. I was grateful to those trailers, because the Mitch Rapp books I've read - Transfer of Power, American Assassin, and Kill Shot - are engaging and plausible stories. Mitch hasn't knocked John Wells out of first place for my favorite modern spy, but he's starting to get close.

What impressed me most about these three books was how they never presented Mitch as superhuman.  In the first book written in the series, Transfer of Power, the White House is taken over by terrorists and it's up to our hero Mitch to "save the day." Except it isn't up to him at all. Transfer of Power was published in 1999, before Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, so the premise was fresh at the time but that book could not be used as the franchise launching film. It was also very different from those other White House has been taken over films. Instead of being a "single man against the small army" tale inspired by Die Hard that Olympus Has Fallen portrayed, Mitch spent most of Transfer of Power sitting in a closet with a retired Secret Service agent trying to figure out how to turn off a communications jamming device and locate explosives the terrorists set throughout the building. Mitch is doing this so that Delta and Seal Team Six can come and save the day. The book focused more on surveillance and planning than on action and dealt with Beltway Politics more than witty one liners after kill shots. There were no "Ho, Ho, Ho, now I have a machine gun" or "You've had your six" moments. It was as plausible as this implausible story could be.

This veneer of plausibility continued through the next two books I read. In American Assassin (the book), the main story line after Mitch's training is about an op gone bad and how Mitch adapts to the situation. Mitch's team is supposed to attempt to free a CIA agent who has been captured by terrorists and things go awry. Much of the book details the effects of emptying bank accounts and the paranoia this causes within the espionage community. There is action in the book, but there are also "follow Mitch as he pretends to jog in order to do surveillance" sections. The highest the stakes get is that the "bad guys" capture Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton's character in the film) and the danger of what will happen if they are able to interrogate him and find out everything the US has done. Very plausible stakes.

These plausible stories, minus Transfer of Power because Hollywood has done explosive versions of that movie, are the kinds of stories that make the best spy films. The best Bond film is Casino Royale and it's one of the most down to Earth of the series. My second favorite On Her Majesty's Secret Service is similarly plausible in its stakes. No giant space battles or massive underwater cities in those two films. When the Bourne films work best, it is because the stakes are personal. Similarly, Body of Lies works because it is realistic to the layperson and Hunt for Red October is so good because even with very high stakes the story doesn't go for too much spectacle.

American Assassin is directed by Michael Cuesta and his work on Kill the Messenger (which is exactly this kind of story) and Homeland seem a perfect fit for a plausible actioner similar to the books. Add to that a modest budget of $33 million, and we should be getting a "street level" spy story right?


Apparently not. It seems that CBS Films wants American Assassin to have SPECTACLE, so they incorporate a nuclear device. A nuclear device that by all appearances they blow up at sea in a manner that causes mayhem during a hand to hand battle. At least that's what the most recent trailers seem to be showing me. I haven't seen the film yet, and reviews by the Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire are good enough that I still will, but I really wish that the producers hadn't gone for the big bang. Hollywood has been overly trapped by the big bang in recent years. Almost every superhero movie is a big ticking clock protect the castle from the big bad movie lately, and let's not even start on how Transformers movies have become all spectacle and no narrative. Every Star Wars movie seems to be about blowing up yet another Death Star or mega huge spacecraft/shield generator. This year was the worst summer for box office in a long time. Maybe it's because producers don't trust audiences with smaller action stories. That's too bad, because what made the first John Wick movie work was how personal it was. Not every story needs to be a ticking clock to save the world. Sometimes it's enough to have the clock be to save one's self or even a friend.

That's what the books are about, and what I was hoping the movie will be about. We'll see if it delivers. I hope it does, but fear that Hollywood is going through one of its "Bigger is Always Better" phases.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Tom Lommel's #Ironkeep Chronicles and Disorganized Play Are a Masterclass in Game Mastering.

I've been a fan of the team at the Saving Throw Show for quite some time. I didn't jump on the Saving Throw Show bandwagon as early as their Kickstarter, but I did become an ardent fan soon afterward. One of the key reasons I jumped on the Saving Throw Show bandwagon was that they brought on The Dungeon Bastard and Lady Vorpal, Tom Lommel and Amy Vorpahl, as two of their recurring castmembers. This appreciation has only increased over the past few months as I've been watching Tom Lommel run the #Ironkeep Chronicles on Wednesday nights. On that show, Tom has managed to do something that isn't replicated by any other online streaming role playing game show. He's managed to both replicate the home game play experience and fused that with a series of interactive tutorials on Game Mastering where the audience helps shape the campaign.

What Makes #Ironkeep Chonicles Work

While there are many great live play rpg streams on the internet, the primary thing that sets #Ironkeep Chronicles apart is that it replicates the average home play experience. Many of the professional rpg-streams feel more like you are watching a television show or listening to a radio audio drama than they feel like the game play around your tables at home. While Tom has fantastic players, which like many rpg-streams includes actors/Twitch streamers/YouTubers, the show never loses the home game feeling. One great example of this phenomenon is the character creation episode of #Ironkeep Chronicles when Tom incorporated elements of John Harper's proto-rpg The Wildlings into the character design session to facilitate character creation.

 Unlike Wil Wheaton's excellent Fantasy Age run on Tabletop, which used a very scripted adventure and where the character creation was focused on elements native to Fantasy Age, Tom did what many Game Masters do and mashed up game mechanics from multiple games right from the start. This trend of bringing in elements from outside of D&D, and not as original game design content, demonstrates to players and Game Masters how they can incorporate their large gaming libraries even when they don't get the chance to play anything other than D&D. Tom runs #Ironkeep like a home campaign and not as an IP generator. He's not trying to create new rules from scratch that will be sold by Saving Throw Show at a later date, though he probably should be, instead he is showing what busy but good GMs do. Busy but good GMs incorporate and improvise.

Speaking of improvisation, that's another part of what Tom does that mirrors the home gaming experience. Like many online shows, #Ironkeep Chronicles uses pre-published materials as its gaming foundation. In this case, the players are playing through Tales of the Yawning Portal, but due to time constraints and player tastes the actual adventure content wanders away from the written page. Take a change he made to White Plume Mountain as an example. In some ways, the classic deathtraps of the adventure don't make narrative sense. So Tom makes a significant change to the environment and turns it into a sort of amusement park prison that has Blackrazor as its key.

This is a significant change to the narrative of this classic dungeon, but it is the kind of change that one frequently sees in a home game. I've used The Veiled Society as the starting point for my D&D campaigns several times. I love the urban setting and the politics of Specularum society. It has yet to run the same way twice. Not just because the players make different decisions each time, but also because I change who the real villains are each time in response to the players' actions and preferred style of play. Are my players "democrats" who want to see the end of feudalism and see Duke Stefan as a threat to free peoples? If so, then one of the old families might be heroic. Is the Veiled Society the actual threat? These things and more change in my game and by the time I'm done, the many changes I've made are often so significant that even rerunning the adventure for the same group, the players don't notice. They only notice they are in the same setting. This is the kind of thing that happens in all of our games, and that is what Tom shows the world.

The Secret Engine Behind #Ironkeep Chronicles is Disorganized Play

As good as #Ironkeep Chronicles is, the real secret to its charm and benefit to Game Masters is Tom's supplementary show Disorganized Play. This show is filled with tips on how to prepare for role playing game sessions with minimal prep time. Tom goes over all aspect of preparation including: crafting of NPCs and combat encounters, designing battlemaps that provide interesting challenges for players, and how to use Kanban style Plot Radar charts to improve your ability to script a campaign . It's a simple method of note taking that will help keep your games on track, especially if you are like me and only play once a month. Additionally, Disorganized Play is also a place where you can interact with Tom in real time as he brainstorms the campaign and answers questions from viewers. You have to be watching the Live Stream on Twitch to get the full benefit, but I highly recommend it. It's a perfect place for experienced and novice GMs to go to learn. In fact, his episode with Vana preparing her to run her first session is a great example of how fantastic an advocate for our hobby Tom is.