Friday, July 25, 2014

Chatting with The Big Bang Theory Screenwriters on Geekerati

Sometimes I forget how blessed my life is, living as I do in beautiful southern California. There are times when I need to take a break from grumbling that not enough people listen to the Geekerati podcast I do with Shawna Benson, or wondering why no one has spontaneously noticed that I would be perfect as a voice on their latest animated series. Today is one of those times when I remind myself that no matter how challenging and intimidating my life might be I pretty much live in "Pops Town" as depicted in one of the Hallmark puzzles by Robert Blair Martin. A heavily populated version of Pops Town, to be sure, but one none the less. The Los Angeles area can be a scary place if you don't know anyone, but it also happens to be filled with wonderful people who can make this megalopolis feel like it's just the right size.

Let me walk you on a brief tangent about this aspect of L.A. before we get back to the main point of this post...getting you to listen to the Big Bang Theory interviews Shawna and I did on Geekerati.

My wife Jody and I moved down here so that she could attend film school at USC and I could begin pursuing graduate education. We moved to Los Angeles from Reno and we immediately experienced culture shock. Let me tell you, unless you are from a big city it is quite shocking to be surrounded by so many people. The Reno/Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area has a population of roughly 425,000... or roughly 3 Comic-Cons. The Los Angeles Combined Statistical Area - or as someone who lives in Glendale and commutes to Riverside for my Ph.D. classes calls "L.A." - has roughly 18 million. That's roughly 120 Comic-Cons. That is a lot of people and when Jody and I first moved down here it was mind-boggling. We lived in Crenshaw at the time, and finding any place that wasn't crowded was a quest suitable for 16th level Rangers and not wide eyed newbs from the Sierras. Though we did discover that the "vacant lot" where Elizabeth Short' body was found is a 9 minute walk from the Crenshaw Krispy Kreme.

How crowded is Los Angeles you ask?

There is so much light pollution in the area that Jody and I describe the Los Angeles day as having two parts, "Day and Dim." There is no night, only dim. There are so few stars visible that we wondered why they bothered to maintain the Griffith Observatory, though at the time the Observatory was closed for renovation.

Our first Christmas in Los Angeles, we made the mistake of heading over to Universal City Walk to get a feel of L.A. at Christmas-time. For Jody, who grew up in Nevada City where they have Cornish Christmas/Victorian Christmas every year, venturing into a pseudo-mall that has a Santa hat wearing King Kong as its only acknowledgement of the season was horrifying. It was anti-Christmas for her. There was no snow. There were no Christmas carols. It was 70 degrees. We later learned that the Southland celebrates Christmas - and so many other wonderful celebrations - magnificently, it's only Universal City Walk that is terrible...except at Halloween when it is appropriately horrifying.

For our first year, we were very lonely in a very large place. Then something magical happened. We wandered from our cave and managed to meet some Angelinos. Some where natives, but most - like us - were transplants. Some of them were semi-famous, but most were normal people getting by. I'd like to take a moment to highlight a couple of lynch pin people who have made our day to day lives in L.A. wonderful: Bill Cunningham, Shawna Benson, Wes Kobernick, Joel Allan, Eric Lytle, Luke Y. Thompson, David N. Scott, Julie Scott, Kate Coe, Dale Launer, Scott Kaufer, Caryn Mamrack, Kevin Burke and Nicholas Santillan. These names only scratch the surface of people who have been more than generous with their time and energy to both Jody and me...and are people I can name without feeling like I am "name dropping." I would mention some of the people in my gaming group, but it is my hope that I have been able to do for them what the above people have done for me and Jody.

These people make Los Angeles feel like a very small town. Small in the cozy way and not in the gossipy loss of privacy way.

It is through these people, and some of un-named individuals, that I have had the ability to get some great guests on the Geekerati podcast that Shawna Benson, Bill Cunningham, Wes Kobernick, Eric Lytle, and I started in 2007. Of the many great guests, the "gets" that most surprised me in that I was able to get them at all were writers from the biggest comedy on television...The Big Bang Theory. There are really only three "gets" that I would geek out more over, William Shatner, Bruce Campbell, and Nathan Fillion. I'll add them to my bucket list.

We had Executive Producer David Goetsch on our show in early 2008. In that episode we discussed a number of topics, but I remember one thing fairly distinctly. It was Goetsch's kind tolerance of me telling him that TBBT had better not commit a BOSTON COMMON. For those who don't know, BOSTON COMMON was a sit com starring Anthony Clark who played a geeky hick who is madly in love with much cooler Traylor Howard. Needless to say, they get together in Romantic Comedy fashion at the end of the short - due to it being a mid-season pick up - season. The show was picked up for another season, which apparently made the writers panic because they broke the couple up in order to "recapture the magic." As an aside, Traylor Howard went on to star in TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA JOINT which starred two geek favorites (Nathan Fillion and Julius Carry), someone geeks love to hate (Ryan Reynolds), and a highly under appreciated comic actor (Richard Ruccolo).

Since its launch, TBBT has been Jody and my favorite modern sit com, it falls somewhere behind FRAZIER and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW on the all-time list. Jody has even written a spec screenplay for it, which is a double edged sword for a struggling screenwriter. You've written for what you love, but you don't tend to have people read specs for their own show. This isn't for "IP" reasons. It's more due to the fact that if you don't get the characterization perfect - in the minds of the shows creators - they might be very resistant to your interpretation. This is true even if your screenplay is funny. That's one of the reasons writers submit screenplays for similar shows, or other popular shows. You want to demonstrate you can write in the genre, but you don't want to claim you understand the characters better than the show's creators.

Anyway, enough of the build up. You will find the two episodes we interview TBBT writers embedded below. If you need any proof of the show's geek cred, just think about the fact that they were willing to spend time with a fellow geek to chat for over an hour...twice...and hopefully again.

Interview with David Goetsch

Find Additional Blogcritics Podcasts with Geekerati Radio on BlogTalkRadio

Interview with Maria Ferrari

Online Entertainment Radio at Blog Talk Radio with Geekerati Radio on BlogTalkRadio

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy in D&D Gamma World: Rocket Raccoon

Like most geeks, I am extremely excited about Guardians of the Galaxy. The latest Marvel Studios film is a brave leap into the lesser known characters of the Marvel-verse. Until Dan Abnett, Keith Giffen, and Andy Lanning's run on Annihilation the Guardians -like Alpha Flight - had been an acquired taste of a small niche of comic book fans. Abnett and Lanning populated the new Guardians with a strange group of characters - otherwise comical characters - and put them in extreme circumstances. Following after Tolkien's model, the Guardians' narrative within Annihilation is that of the "common man." Sure Rocket and Groot are a competent pair, and Drax has been a Marvel heavy hitter in the past, but none of them match the cosmic might of Firelord, Silver Surfer, or Nova.

It made for compelling stuff and now that same band of misfits - and not those who bear the power cosmic - are going to be featured in the upcoming film.

I asked my friends in the Social Network-verse what game system they would use to run a Guardians of the Galaxy campaign and received some very good answers. Some would run it in Hero System, others in Savage Worlds, and still others in Bulldogs!. I am intimately familiar with two of those systems, and almost chose to create statistics in Savage Worlds, but in the end I chose Wizards of the Coasts' excellent D&D Gamma World as my game of choice. As I was thinking how to stat the characters in as simple a fashion as possible, the ideas just leaped out at me. Groot was a "Giant Plant" and that's all I needed to know to stat him. I'll likely attempt a Savage Worlds conversion in the future...and a Marvel Saga and Marvel Heroic as well as purchase a copy of Bulldogs!...but for now, I'm using D&D Gamma World. It should be noted that all characters will be 10th level as most Gamma Supers should be.

My first entry is none other than my twin daughters' - History and Mystery - favorite Guardian...

Monday, July 07, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons: 5th Edition and "Zones of Control"

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post discussing how every edition of Dungeons & Dragons had miniature use as a part of its default mechanics assumptions.

Let me repeat that in clearer language. Every edition of Dungeons & Dragons is a miniatures based tactical role playing game.

As I wrote in the earlier post, this doesn't mean that those playing without miniatures were "playing the game wrong." I've played in at least one adventure in every edition of D&D and there are plenty of rules my gaming groups have either ignored or added to make our own experience more fun. Here are just a few ways my groups have modified game play:

1) None of the 1st Edition AD&D campaigns I've played in has ever used the Weapon Speed Factors or the Modifications for Armor Class.
2) I've played in 1st Edition games that used "Spell Points" for spell casters.
3) As a Game Master, I've disallowed non-Lawful Good Paladins in 3.x and 4e.
4) I had a DM who used Arduin's Damage System in his AD&D Campaign.
5) I've never used the initiative system from Eldritch Wizardry.
6) I give every race a second wind as a minor action (Dwarves get it as a free action) to speed up play.
7) One campaign I played in had us set our miniatures on the play mat in "Marching Order." No matter the shape of the room our characters were attacked based on that formation in Bard's Tale-esque fashion. We could have been in the center of a room 100' x 100' and all of the melee attacks would have been targeted at either the front row or the back row without anyone attacking our Magic Users in the middle.

Every one of the games I played with these groups was fun and thus none of these groups was playing "wrong." None of these groups played games to the rules as written either. No one - with the exception of organized play - should play to the rules as written. Role playing games are written to be adapted to play for your local gaming group. There are two key elements that allow for this without "breaking" the game. First, there are no winners and losers in D&D. The only way to win is to have fun and changing the rules for your local group is one way to create fun. Some changes are fun for a short time before they create more boredom than fun - in general - so there is room for advice regarding power scaling and Monte Haul campaigns, but the aim is to maximize fun. Second, most role playing games - excepting a couple of innovative Indie games - have a Game Master who moderates the game and who has absolute authority in rules interpretation in the local gaming group. So long as the Game Master is fair and focuses on keeping the game entertaining for the players in his or her group, then what rules are included or left out don't matter much.

Man...that's a lot of prefatory information. You can read the older post to see how each edition of D&D has implemented the use of what are called "Zones of Control" or "ZoCs" in great detail in the older post. The short version is this:

Original Edition (Chainmail): Once engaged in melee a unit was stuck until death or a failed morale check.

Original Edition (Alternate Combat): Not locked in combat, but adds "flanking" rules in Greyhawk Supplement. Swords & Spells supplement adds attacks of opportunity.

D&D Basic (Holmes): Attack of Opportunity against those leaving combat.

D&D Basic (Moldvay): Adds "Defensive Withdrawal" similar to "5 foot move" or "shift" in later editions.

1st Edition AD&D: Attack of Opportunity for withdrawal and Rear Attack Rules (Page 69 & 70 of DMG)

2nd Edition AD&D: Similar to 1st (Pages 81 to 84 of Revised DMG)

3rd Edition D&D: See image below.

3.5 Edition D&D: See image below.

Pathfinder: See image below.

4th Edition D&D: See image below.

Each of these editions demonstrates the influence of tactical wargames on the combat systems of each edition. It should also be noted that each edition of the game adds new layers of complexity regarding what affects whether you are in a Zone of Control and whether you are flanking an opponent. Pathfinder, 3rd Edition, 3.x, and 4th edition all have creatures with reach that expands their Zones of Control and each of those games has specific rules regarding how conditions influence your ability to flank other combatants. If you read the earlier article and examine the pages of the 1st Edition DMG you will see that there are rules similar to those implemented by later editions, but you will also wish that the earlier edition had created cool graphic representations like those of later editions.

5th edition (in the Basic Rules) takes a big step away from the trend and is even more abstract than the earliest editions of the game with regard to flanking. I would argue that 5th edition is the first edition with takes "no position" with regard to miniatures and carefully crafts descriptions so that combat can be run either way without house rules or dropping rules -- though it does still refer to "squares" from time to time. The new edition still includes Opportunity Attacks - a firm Zone of Control concept - as described on page 74. But instead of listing a specific amount of distance moved as in Moldvay, 1st AD&D, and later editions it merely lists the need to use the "Disengage" action. The Disengage action can be used with a tactical map, but doesn't require one as it is more narrative in its description than the older "Defensive Withdrawal."  The Rogue class on page 27 hints at the flanking rules for 5th edition which does not seem to entail a good deal of examining to see if combatants align properly on opposite sides of an opponent in a way that require illustration. Under Sneak Attack, the Basic rules state that you can deal extra damage if you have advantage OR "if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn't incapacitated, and you don't have disadvantage on the die roll." That's a pretty big shift toward simplicity and away from map use. While it could be argued that the 5 foot rule implies the use of maps, one could easily assume that a creature engaged in melee has an enemy within  feet. If this replaces needing opposite sides for advantage, this is a boon for mapless gaming. It is easily adaptable regardless. So what does this make 5th edition's Zone of Control rules based on the Basic Set?

5th Edition D&D: Attacks of Opportunity (strong ZoC) and potentially with Flanking if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Marvel Villains & Vigilantes [Civil War]: Ant-Man

While I am in the process of researching my article on the first edition of Villains & Vigilantes, I thought that I might try to emulate something that the early writers of Different Worlds Magazine did and adapt some Marvel characters to the system. While the article I am researching is the second in my series of reviews of the games in the history of superhero rpgs -- the first can be found here -- discusses the first edition of Villains & Vigilantes, all of the adaptations I make will be for the more commonly available 2nd edition of the game. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the 2nd edition is more widely available on ebay, from FGU, or a "revised revised" edition from Jeff Dee and Jack Herman at Monkey House Games. The second is that the revised edition is an easier game to play than the first edition.

My hope/plan is to emulate the Friends and Foes from the excellent Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Civil War Sourcebook to see how well the V&V system represents the characters in that product. This being the first of the adaptations, I've already notice some major differences in how V&V works versus the mechanics of Marvel Heroic. In this case, the way that Growth works. The Size change power is one of the wonkier powers in V&V because of the way that weight affects hit points and carrying capacity. As adapted, Eric O'Grady would be a pretty effective Solo character against many of the characters published by FGU and Monkey House Games.  If you are wondering, here are the guidelines I used to adapt.

1) As much as possible translated powers on a 1 to 1 basis. If a hero has Energy Blast, then they will get V&V Power Blast. The only exception might be if they have Energy Blast at the d12 level, then I might increase the damage capacity from the base V&V power.

2) For "Enhanced" statistics of up to d8, I give the Heightened "x" power at the "A" level -- +2d10 -- as opposed to the B level which is +3d10. For characters that have d10, they get B, and for those of d12 they get both A and B.

3) Base statistics tend to be in the 10 to 16 range. For example, O'Grady is a covert expert etc. so he has a 16 Agility. Most of his other stats were 10 to 12 before the bonus from powers/training.

4) Specialties are treated as Heightened Expertise and give +4 to the area on attack rolls or "saves" that are related to the expertise. Ant-Man has "Vehicles" expert and so any rolls he makes to drive - Agility Saves most likely - will receive a +4 bonus to his Agility for those purposes.

5) All Heightened Statistics results will be rolled and not selected in order to emulate the way that V&V works.

Those guidelines will be used in all cases. I will minimize my own editorial decisions to add powers or increase them, because Cam and crew did such a good job adapting the characters for Marvel Heroic and I thought it might be nice to be able to play through the campaign they developed with V&V stats.

You can access a PDF of these stats here.

As you can see, O'Grady is kind of a power house. We'll see how he compares to Araña in a future post.