Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Live Action Superheroes and Settling for Less


It's a classic!
I put up a post about the new Flash series yesterday and after watching the first couple of episodes I started thinking about the terrible record of live action superheroes on TV and the signs of a bad show. That's today's post...

My introduction to superheroes was through the live-action batman series when it was on re-runs in the early 70's on TV. Some of my earliest memories are watching that and Speed Racer and then going and playing with toys and friends and talking about what we had seen. I saw this stuff before I ever picked up a comic book or saw a movie or watched a cartoon with caped heroes. That makes it important to me.

In some ways the Adam West Batman started the whole idea off on a peak it has never been able to match again: Costumes! Sets! Villains! Vehicles! Gadgets! Narration! It looked remarkably like a comic book on-screen. Sure there was some camp to it, but they played it with an amazing mix of straight yet sly and it worked.

I later saw the 50's Superman series and looking back it was pretty decent too. The effects worked. the actors and characters were decent, and though most of the plots were (again) thugs and gangsters there was enough super-stuff to keep it interesting.

Underrated
Later in the 70's it looked like we were headed for an amazing run: Captain America, Spiderman, and Hulk, and Wonder Woman all had live action shows in prime time.

  • Captain America was terrible - look it up on youtube if you're in a bad mood. The costume looked cheap, there were no supervillains, and the actor just didn't do it for me. It's a guy in a costume fighting thugs every week.
  • Spiderman was similar but I thought the actor was a better fit. The effects were limited by the time but I can forgive that, and the costume looked better. It still tended to be costumed guy vs. thugs, no supervillains in sight.
  • Incredible Hulk was a step up from these first two, I suspect largely because of Bill Bixby and an effort to treat it as a more adult show. It still didn't really live up to comic book expectations - no supervillains, lots of thugs and anti-corruption fights - but it was interesting in some ways. The effects were better too.
  • Wonder Woman looked far more like a comic book show, even approaching the old Batman in  a lot of ways. It wasn't turned into a sci-fi story, she kept the magic lasso, and she kept the invisible jet! The costume looked right! The actress fit the part! There was at least one storyline involving aliens - hey something like a real superhero plot! To me this is the high point of the 70's live action shows. 
This would work today
The 80's didn't have much in the way of straight-up superhero shows. Knight Rider was sort of a comic book show but still suffered from the "thugs & crooks" problem until Garth, KARR, and Goliath showed up. There was also a syndicated Superboy series that was just a mess though it does have some fans and did get into supervillains and more comic book style plots. I still rate it below Batman and Wonder Woman.

The 90's seemed hopeful as well as pretty early on we had Lois and Clark and a Flash series. 
  • I loved that Flash series as it took come cues from the Tim Burton Batman movies and made the setting a timeless environment with (for example) 50's cars next to 90's cars, all of them bright and shiny. It also was unabashedly a comic-book show with costumes, supervillains, and plots right out of a superhero story. It was great for the whole one season it lasted.    
  • Lois and Clark was the show that your parents thought was cool to watch. It was fun in many ways, but it wasn't very comic-book focused. There were some elements, but it always felt to me more like a romance novel with some super-color, rather than a full-on superhero show.
  • There were some syndicated shows like Superforce and Viper that were super-ish but never really achieved enough of an audience, or enough quality, to make a big impresison
So much potential
The new millennium brought us Smallville, among others. 
  • I wanted to like Smallville - hey it had powers and villains and interesting characters -but it had no costumes and a heaping helping of teen angst drama. Despite that the episode where Clark gets his heat vision for the first time remains a favorite.
  • Birds of Prey - well half a season looked like it might turn into something. Then it didn't. Oh well.
No, it's not the passage of time - it looked bad in the 70's too.
Having experienced most of these shows for most of their runs I thought I would share some pointers on How To Tell You're Being Fed A Crappy Superhero Show:
  • The costume looks cheap. This is one of the centerpieces of your show! It should look as good as you can make it!
    Even Worse: No costume! You're not even trying at this point! 
  • The only superhero in the universe - no other heroes, no other villains. The hero is always fighting thugs, crimelords, corrupt corporate types, or "agents".
  • Mundanity - everything else in the setting is perfectly, boringly, normal. No mutants, no aliens, no super-science, no magic, no time-travel - none of the weird stuff that sends comic books into overdrive
  • Name-dropping, references, and hints alluding to a bunch of characters, places, events, or organizations from the comic book but no actual appearance of those things in a meaningful way. It's a visual medium, remember? Show, don't tell. Allusions without a payoff are pointless and cheap. Hi "Gotham".
  • "It's a kid's show!" - the last defense of poor quality productions for decades. Know how to make a good kids show? Don't present it a a kids show. Just make a good show with the material you have and the kids will find it.
Not a bad show and it got a lot right
Beyond this, here are some signs that it might actually be trying to get things right:
  • One or more Super Vehicles
  • Superhero (or supervillain) base or lair
  • Storylines that are recognizably comic book stories and not something that could show up on a half-dozen cop series that are on the air at the same time. 
  • Usage of other elements from the comic book universe - STAR labs, Wayne Enterprises, SHIELD - in meaningful ways and not just name-dropped.
  • Humor beyond winks at the camera. If it looks like they're having fun making the show, they probably are.
I suppose one of my main points in all this is that so very many of these shows have been bad - really bad, apparently with the assumption that putting a superhero in it makes that OK. It doesn't, as the short runs of most of the worst shows proves. Especially nowadays when people are used to seeing decent superhero movies on the big screen. People like this stuff when it's done well. If you're going to spend the money and make the effort, how about making a good one - it could pay off big time.

That's probably enough for one post. I'll look at the shows on-air right now in a future post but these are the concepts I like and dislike when it comes to them.

This almost looks like a costume ... maybe I should give it another chance

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why "The Flash" Doesn't Suck



Live-action super hero shows on TV have a mostly bad history. From decades ago through today most of them have been mediocre to terrible. I'm working on another post about that history, but today I thought I'd spend a minute praising a show that (surprisingly) is pretty good: The new Flash TV show. Why doesn't it fail when so many others do?


  • Origin knocked out in about half of the first episode - Thankfully we're not trying to make the entire first season or a multi-part arc about how Barry Allen got his powers.
  • Supervillain with super powers present in Episode 1 - We're not dealing with the tired, tired trope of the main character being the only one in the world with powers, fighting only thugs and corrupt rich people. Nope, here we have another super-bad guy in the very first episode, and open discussion that there are more.
  • Superhero in costume in the first episode - Yep, he looks like the Flash before the first show is over. That matters when you're promoting it as a show about a known super hero. 
  • Writing is fine - They're treating it seriously without a bunch of winks and nods or making it more serious than it needs to be.The tone so far has been refreshingly straightforward, and the characters in general are not stupid.
  • It doesn't look like a low-budget, cheap effort to play on the name. The locations are varied, there are quite a few supporting characters, and the effects are good. I actually like the super-speed effect and to me that's always been a tricky one to make look "super" on a screen.
  • Overall, it's not embarrassed to be a superhero show! This is key as so many other shows of this type want to claim the "superhero" connection and trappings but are afraid of tackling it straight-up. It has to be a sci-fi story or a psychological drama or have some other spin on it. So far this show is not trying to do that, and after 14 years of continuous big-time superhero movies I think it's high time.
So yes, I am, somewhat surprisingly, a fan of the new show. I didn't like what I saw of Arrow but I may have to give it another chance as this show sort of spun off from that one. That one is more "closeted superhero" while this one is openly and triumphantly a full-on colorful superhero production. I'm looking forward to more.

Superhero Week




I have some ideas on superhero stuff this week so coming up: a series of posts about superheroes! Also: I might get back to 40K on Friday.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Slow Week Due to Star Trekking




It was a little slow last week and it may be a little slow this week as the latest expansion to Star Trek Online comes out today, and there was a lot going on leading up to that. I've been  ... ah ... "focused" ... on that in my limited free time but once things settle down there then I expect the posting will get back to a more routine schedule.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Grab-Bag II: The Follow-Up

I put up a post about some new arrivals last week and since there was some discussion around it I thought I would follow it up this week with the next chapter in the story:

I really like the Mekton II covers - there's no question as to what these books are about, unlike some RPGs that seem determined to keep that a secret until you open up the book.
That wraps up the core of Mekton II. I know there's an adventure or two and I believe the techbook was for Mekton II but I always thought of these three books as giving you the main system, an option for a smaller scale game in Roadstriker, and an option to blow it wide open with Empire.

As far as actual campaigns I've never run or played more than a session or two of Mekton. I have had what I thought were some pretty solid ideas for campaigns years ago but I think I tossed my notes when I sold off the books so I'm starting with a blank slate at this point. I have been rolling a few ideas around in my head:

  • Star Wars with mecha instead of fighters and ground vehicles. Not terribly original but I think it would be fun. The trick is making it different enough while keeping it at least somewhat familiar.
  • Take a western like Silverado or Tombstone (or one of the older classics) and use that as a plot and character outline but dress it with tech. Throw in some Firefly for good measure.  
  • Space cruiser on a long quest with mecha as it's main means of interaction with planets and other spacecraft - a mix-up of Star Trek (probably a lot of Voyager, which is not my favorite but it could work here), Star Blazers (the first series), and Battlestar Galactica. I need to work on this one some more but I think I could make something of it, and lord knows there are a lot of resources out there for planets and races. I might use Stars Without Number for some of the sandbox system.
There's not a lot of danger of any of these ideas being called into service in the next few weeks so I have time to work them out. I may have a need for them one of these days as I think I have 2-3 players now who are interested enough to at least give the game a try. I may put together a "pilot" that would take a session or three to play through and see what kind of reception it gets. WHo knows where it might lead?

Anyway that's the latest on the gaming front here. More to come.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

5E: A Review of Hoard of the Dragon Queen



As a DM who runs a fair number of published adventures I knew I would be picking this up and I wanted to write out my thoughts on it as an adventure I might run. I did not read any other reviews of this to avoid groupthink, but I have read some since I finished it and I have links to those at the end.

 I read it, thought about it, read parts of it again and ... I'm just not particularly excited about it. It's nicely presented in full-color hardback but it's the same length as a single Pathfinder AP installment so it feels a little light as "half" of what is supposed to be the first big published campaign for 5th edition.

At a big picture level, Tiamat has been the center of Red Hand of Doom and War of Scales, so she's not exactly underused when it comes to big D&D adventures. I've run all but a final wrap-up of RHoD converted to 4E so I've seen plenty of dragon cultists. That doesn't automatically mean the theme is tired - there's a lot you can do with dragons & cultists - but I'd like to see something new & interesting.

I'll break it down by chapter:


Chapter 1
New party arrives in a new town, which is under attack by dragon cultists and a dragon.This is presented reasonably well, timing and various environmental conditions are covered and there is a random encounter table to help show the chaos of a town being raided. Instead of feeling like a mini-sandbox though it feels very structured as the governor directs the PC's to accomplish various missions around town. There is also the dragon who doesn't engage directly but performs drive-by breath weapon shots that can kill a starting character in one shot. I'd probably run this a little differently as I don't like the heavily scripted feel to it but I think a party with some initiative won't need the heavy direction the adventure somewhat assumes. I also think an old school group, if less heroic in some ways, is going to watch from a distance until the whole thing blows over.

Chapter 2
Party is recruited to go after the raiders to get information and to rescue a missing citizen. It ends up leading to a bandit camp type encounter. This is interesting as options are discussed from stealth to infiltration to straight-up combat. This seems pretty thorough but it continues the heavy emphasis on NPC's as the rescued NPC has an agenda of his own and an ongoing role in the adventure.

Chapter 3
Party is asked to return to the place they just left where they find the camp mostly empty but discover another "level" to be explored. I don't like the backtracking part of this. It leads to the first true dungeon of the campaign, but I suspect many parties will investigate both the camp and the cave in one trip.

At this point the characters are spending levels 1-3 roaming around one smallish area but there is not much information on the town they are using as a base once the attack is over and the whole adventure so far could happen in about 3-4 days. It's not a lengthy period of time but a little more town development would have been nice for the first adventure of the new edition. There is also no "area map" that covers this region in nay detail other than the large-scale map at the beginning of the adventure that shows the entire Sword Coast

Chapter 4
The party heads out on the road for a lengthy trip up the Sword Coast. First in another town (un-detailed but has important NPC interactions), then on to Baldur's Gate where they join a caravan for a two-month trip to Waterdeep. BG gets a whole paragraph of detail but there are other sources out there is one wants some official material. The meat of this chapter is the setup for the caravan trip. There is quite a bit of information on who else is a part of the caravan (both backgrounds and cargo carried) and there are encounters to be found along the way. There are also some set events which are interesting and could have consequences for the future. Despite the amount of time that will be spent here there is no detailed map of the route, just the large scale map.

Chapter 5
The caravan arrives in Waterdeep, disbands, but the cultists the party is following are headed even further north towards Neverwinter (yes it's a grand tour of "Famous D&D cities" alright) so the PC's join up with another (smaller) caravan headed north. This is all of 3 pages and the primary goal here is to let the PC's discover a secret tunnel leading into a swamp and a trail that leads to a ruined castle. If the players aren't watching things pretty closely then this could turn into a dead end pretty quickly. I see a real chance for the PC's to be at a loss and the DM to have scramble to come up with a way to connect the end of the caravan to the ruined castle.


Chapter 6
This section is a trip through a swamp to the ruined castle which is a good-sized dungeon full of several different creature types. There is dissension between some of the various power groups so allies can be found and deals can be made. There's no area map of the swamp so the assumption is a fairly linear journey following a trail or being guided to the castle. This is probably the most traditional D&D part of the whole adventure. It seems fine in general. The bottom level has a teleportation portal that leads to a hunting lodge in some mountains that are quite a distance away.

Chapter 7
The hunting lodge is both a crossroads for several other portals and serves as an HQ for part of the cult. Theoretically there is a chance to talk to a major villain, possibly cut a deal with a cult leader, and otherwise take advantage of internal cult politics. What it looks like to me is that the first combat will bring everything in the lodge down on the party in a massive melee brawl. There is another tenuous link to the next chapter here as well.

Chapter 8
The party proceeds to a village nearby which is more detailed as far as NPC interactions than the first village in the adventure. This is an odd choice, because the real goal of the party is outside the village and the PCs are only expected to spend an hour in the place!

Outside the village is a flying ice castle built by cloud giants, sitting on the ground making preparations to leave with a load of treasure for the cult. Once aboard the party will encounter a wild mix of exotic foes including giants, undead, wizards, and dragons, along with some powerful cult leaders. This is a potentially spectacular finale as the characters could end up dead, in charge of a flying castle, or bailing out as it crashes into a mountaintop, depending on how things go. Even here there are allies to be made so wholesale slaughter is not the only option.

The Next Book
There's a little bit of information about what happens in the next book and it looks like it commits the major sin of assuming the PCs fail at stopping the cult's activities in order to keep it's big finale intact. I hope that it doesn't, or that it has some good reasoning as to why. There's no real clue as to how the next adventure will pick up, so for now a DM won't know if there's anything particularly plot-important that needs to be taken into account. Most likely the party ends up in the Spine of the World, waiting for book 2 to begin.


A few overall points:
  • There are detailed maps of each action location, from the first village being raided to the bandit camps and each of the buildings, This is good, even if you don't play with a grid.
  • There is a serious lack of regional maps for an adventure that involves so much travel. There's no detail for the starting area in chapters 1-3, there's no map of the caravan's travel route in chapter 4 or chapter 5, there's no map of the swamp in chapter 6, nor of the area around chapters 7&8. Players sometimes wander, and if you're going to include some random and some set encounters for an area, it would be nice to have a map to help focus on the travel and exploration parts of the adventure.
  • The maps have some missing keys, a pet peeve of mine as it plagues way too many published adventures. This could have been a lot better.
  • The monsters for chapters 1-6 are fairly mundane - I suspect players will be pretty tired of fighting cultists and kobolds. There are other creatures in the mix in different chapters but these two things are constant. For a dragon-focused adventure, there's not a lot of actual "dragon" in this one, basically one at the beginning and one at the end. In most other editions of the game dragons come in different sizes, so an encounter somewhere with a smallish one might have livened things up.
  • There is a lot of repetition in this adventure. Chapter 3 is "go back to chapter 2." Chapter 5 repeats some of chapter 4. Chapter 6 is a castle full of bad guys, chapter 7 is a house full of bad guys, and chapter 8 is a flying castle full of bad guys. Some kind of NPC meetup or visit to a friendly town (for longer than an hour) would help break this up.
  • There is also railroading. A lot of NPC type railroading, where NPC's either make offers that must be accepted or possess information that must be acquired for the rest of the adventure to make sense. Most of this I think I could handle in play well enough but that doesn't make it right. There are a lot of places where assumptions are made, particularly regarding NPC's, and those are tough sometimes. If you have a contrarian PC (or player), or an anti-authority type, or a no-compromising-with-evil type (none of these are particularly wrong or particularly uncommon) then they may shoot off of the rails pretty quickly. 
Modifications I Would Make
  • I would encourage the party to hit the camp and the cave in one go.
  • I don't think the village at the beginning of chapter 8 is necessary.  I would just have the castle grounded near the lodge -or- I would just have a teleport link from the lodge to the castle directly.
  • There are weak links between chapters 5&6 and 7&8 so those need to be shored up or handled in a very different way. They're far enough in that I would have to play it on the fly and given the right party this might be a total non-issue. The 7-8 link is easier to handle - just let the party see the thing landing near the lodge or give them a clue that one of the teleport gates leads to it.
  • Magic items seem pretty weak and pretty boring for a party that's supposed to be hitting 8th level at the end but that's easy enough to solve. The big showpiece from a dragon's hoard at that point shouldn't be a +1 sword - bleah. Give it a name and a description, at least. 

Conclusion
I wanted to like this adventure but it takes an interesting premise and doesn't really do anything exciting with it. The flying castle at the end is the coolest part but you have 6-7 levels worth of  "blah" leading up to it. I'm looking at it now asking myself  what parts of this are going to generate stories we will be telling years from now? I can't see anything other than maybe the finale. The Sunless Citadel for 3E is not my favorite adventure but at least it had Meepo and the dragon hatchling that a lot of people seemed to enjoy. With the Kobold Press name being thrown about I expected more than this.

I think the structure is a big limiting factor. instead of having NPCs ask or tell the PCs to go and do things how about letting players discover some clues in Chapter 2 & 3 that lead them to other areas in whatever order they choose, even if they're spread all over the Sword Coast? Let the players have some say in where they go and what they do. With the new mechanics and "bounded accuracy" of 5E a more sandboxy approach should be easier, as the system is more forgiving of level differences.

My main feeling about this is "missed opportunity" and that's a shame.

Other reviews (looks like I'm a month behind but oh well):

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Old Game Bag

I try to cover the Big Topics here on the blog - I've talked about dice, I've talked about notebooks, I'e talked about binders - clearly all very important topics. Today I thought I'd bid a fond farewell to an old friend that I have not mentioned on the blog before - the gaming bag.


The picture above is what's left of my old reliable bag that I have used since the late 80's. From sometime in high school, through college, through the first real job, and on through singlehood, married-hood, and fatherhood it's been the Main Bag. When it was time for a game, I loaded up the bag and headed out.

It's seen a lot of miles, a lot of houses, apartments, and dorms - mostly on the floor.

It's been stepped on by people many times. Animals too - dogs, cats, gerbils, ferrets, a hedgehog, and at least one falcon.

It's transported many books, notebooks, character sheets, dice, snacks, drinks, pens, sheet protectors, markers, miniatures, and probably some other things I'm forgetting at the moment.

It's been overstuffed, probably more often than not.

It's been transported in at least 10 different cars over the years, mine and others - possibly a bus too.

It's had a long and very useful life but the last few years have not been kind to it. In the last move it was pressed into service as an emergency transport for last minute stuff and it's spent the last couple of years in semi-retirement in the garage and in the closet. Age has finally caught up to it and it's coming apart. Something leaked inside it, staining it. The inner layer is falling apart, and the previously nigh-invulnerable exterior has ripped in several places, the zipper on the external pocket has come apart, and it's clear that it is no longer up to the role of Main Bag or even really Reserve Bag.

It's time for one last ride - to the trash can.

So thank you Great Grey Bag of Gaming! I don't know what brand you were nor do I remember exactly what birthday or graduation marked your arrival, but I deeply appreciate your long and reliable service.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Grab-Bag - Recent Arrivals

I've had an interesting mix of old stuff (below) and new stuff (mostly Pathfinder and D&D 5E) arriving lately. They've been stacking up though so I'm going to have to pause and spend some time reading them. This round looks like I've subscribed to the Barking Alien Collection for some reason.

First up: More Star Trek!


Now I have written about LUG Trek before and the short version is that I wanted to like it but the mechanics just didn't do it for me then, being a die-hard fan of FASA Trek. The last few years though I have become a lot more interested in simpler mechanics and I've come back around on this game. In light of that I am rebuilding my collection of these books.

  • I owned the Original Trek by the end of the week it came out back about 15 years ago and it suffered even more in comparison to FASA because it was covering the same ground. I sold it too somewhere along the way, but now I have it again and I am reading it with a different attitude than I had then. So far so good, but I think I could run a better game with it using a lot of the material from the FASA system - setting, species, ships, etc. It's on the one-of-these-days list.
  • I never owned the DS9 game but as the third incarnation of the rules I figured I ought to get it, plus it adds some new material for a Next Generation era campaign. I've only flipped through it at the moment but I'll be hitting it eventually. I can;t see running a specific DS9 campaign, but as an extension of a TNG campaign using a new ship and crew I think it should be useful.
  • The Players Guide is another one I have not read previously but I like what I see in side it. More of everything is good, right? It's another resource for the GM when a player wants to play something unusual.


Mekton!I actually owned a pretty solid set of Mekton II and Mekton Zeta books about 10-15 years ago but just never could get anyone interested in playing and so I eventually got rid of them (it happens occasionally). With the Apprentices I might have some interest in a giant robot game so why not grab a copy? I had Roadstriker and Empire as well so those may find their way back onto the shelf sometime soon too. I have a rough idea for a campaign here but it needs some refining before I would try to do anything. I'd probably run something short or a one-shot to see if there's any interest first.  


Ars Magica - Never owned it, read it, played it, or saw it being played, but I've been hearing good things about it from people whose opinions I respect for years. I decided I should pick up a copy and see it for myself. There seem to be about a half-dozen editions and a pretty good pile of supplements for each one. I have no idea what the optimal set of those would look like so I picked a fairly inexpensive copy of the core book for 4th edition as my entry point. 


In a way, all of these are more about filling in the bookshelf with things that interest me than any immediate plans for a campaign, but that's part of the fun. Sometimes it takes time for things to percolate and develop into something that says "run me!" at the right time. It's good to have options. One of these days someone may offer to run one of them online and now I am prepared!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Spirit of 77 - Game & Kickstarter

I had a post last week about some other RPG Kickstarters but for this one I wanted to showcase it solo.


Kickstarter is here.

I really like this one. The overall approach from the style of writing to the look of the game to the kickstarter video - take a look at it - is just really well done. The Atari cover on the extra book just kills me. They mention everything from the Dukes of Hazard to the Six Million Dollar Man to Smokey and the Bandit and Columbo as influences. It looks like a lot of fun.

I downloaded the sample adventure which has quite a bit of rules material as well, enough to run a game, and it's pretty interesting. It's more in the FATE/Marvel Heroic school of design than Hero or Pathfinder, but there are still dice to be rolled, fights to be had, and things to be jumped over in cars. I don't know how quickly we will be trying it out. It's set on a cruise ship where interesting things start to happen. Among the sample characters is the "captain of the Texas Tornados cheerleaders" and I have to say I cannot recall the last time I saw something like that presented as a viable character choice in an RPG. They also note that down the road they will be doing conversion rules for FATE and Savage Worlds too if that floats your boat.

Anyway, I think it's cool and there are still a few days left to jump in if you're interested too.