Role Playing Games

Over the past several months my older son has been increasingly spending more time in what I call “solitary imaginative play.” People may disagree with me, but I believe it’s good creative fun.

The trouble here is logistics: it’s hard for him to find space where his younger brothers don’t intrude. And then there are the times I interrupt, however briefly, to ask about what he’s imagining. I don’t get much of a response, which is understandable. He just wants to continue on whatever adventure I had inadvertently pulled him out of. Believe it or not, I get it.

So really, I desire 3 things:

  • A chance for my oldest son to have awesome epic level adventures
  • Him to play with at least one of his younger brothers and genuinely enjoy it
  • A window for me to see into those epic imaginary adventures without distracting him.

Which is where the idea of introducing Role Playing Games started to come in. Then during this year’s Free Comic Book day, we visited a shop that had an extensive RPG section. This year the boys were more curious about the RPGs, but not so curious to ask me to explain it to them. Which is good, because I couldn’t. I participated in exactly 1 rpg session when I was 14 and I had to leave early. So clearly I know more than someone who has never sat down at a table to play, but less than someone who has stayed through one complete session (which may not even be the end of the adventure).

But hey, there’s the internet which makes anyone an expert. Even me. I watched a couple of youtube videos, and showed my two older boys (even though they didn’t ask to see them). And they were really excited about the idea. I was honestly not prepared for how much my six year old was excited for the game.

These Pathfinder videos and I eventually came to the conclusion that Pathfinder is awesome… for someone who knows what they are doing and is at least 13 with a high IQ. It is safe to say that you want someone who has played more than a fraction of 1 game 2 decades ago to be the Game Master.

Someday we’ll play and when we do, I will not be running the game.

So the quest was on (ugh! Dad pun) to find an RPG that met the 3 criterea from earlier, plus these two:

  • A six year old can understand it enough to enjoy it
  • Its level of complexity is one that I can manage

After less then 30 minutes of research, I landed on Dungeon World [Wikipedia]. It has several of the same elements as Pathfinder (and D&D), but is more focused on creating a collaborative story.

The boys were on board and all we needed was dice… the rule book… character sheets… pencils… and wait I have to prep this game? All of which I’ll get into next time. Maybe.

Featured Image came from OpenClipArt.Org

Bargain Bin: Daredevil

Once I shied away from superhero titles, but now I’m on a quest to stretch my comic book budget further… (for a summary of that journey see this post.)

The Acquisition

My first serious endeavor into bargain priced comics was Daredevil. These were primarily acquired through 2 online auctions, for a total of 15 comics priced at about 75 cents an issue. The math works out to about $12 spent for 15 issues. Compared to current issues that are priced around $4/issue the same $12 would have yielded just 3 issues. Regardless of whether I enjoyed reading them, the purchase felt like a win.

I noticed there are not a lot of auctions specifically for the character Daredevil, but there are regular lots for sale in the range of about 6-8 issues. One auction included a complete story arc by Ed Brubaker (one of my favorite comic book writers).

My Familiarity With the Title

I had read a little of Daredevil on comixology (through a sale), This was mostly Frank Miller’s early work and Mark Waid’s recent run. As with most Marvel titles I feel like I don’t understand the larger context so I struggle to understand the story being told.

I also watched the movie and a few episodes of the Netflix series. As a grown adult, I have no shame in saying that I am not old enough to watch the Netflix series. It was gruesome and violent to the point I had my head turned for most of the episodes I watched. Surprisingly, my wife loved them.

How were the Issues?

These bargain additions are about the same experience for me in terms of not getting the broader context of the Marvel Universe. Some of the issues are good and I’d enjoy the others more if I understood what was going on.

The one thing that really struck me about the character is how self destructive he can be and then quite strikingly be overly optimistic. It made me wonder if the character is bipolar, and if that has been explored in the series.

Will I read it to my children?

Nope. Too gory. violent and sometimes just weird. For issues that fell under the Comics Code Authority they wouldn’t be enjoyable for my children.

Favorite Panels

At some point in my bargain reading I started taking pictures of panels that I thought I could sneak into a Facebook comment or two and look totally hip. Haven’t tried it yet, but here are the panels I’m saving for the right occasion.

 

Tales From the Comic Book Bargain Bins

It has been a long time since the last post, and there are good reasons.

To recap my comic book adventure, I sort of fell into them as a grown adult looking for something his children could read and finding new an exciting adventures that were tailored… to grown adults. I wasn’t the normal comic book fan, who have a tendency to come across as having collected comics for more years than they have been alive.

I tried to distance myself from that mentality and focused more on the limited series that had self contained plots. Essentially, avoiding superhero comics.

But here’s what I’ve learned. To collect a good series, you need to buy them new. If you don’t then acquiring them in the secondary market is at least twice as costly. And then comes the tricky part… you don’t know which series will be awesome, and which ones will make you shake your head for days… wondering why oh why was that ever printed? Not to mention that you can’t unload them on the secondary market because you are not the only one disappointed with the launch.

Looking back I can see this was my motivation for my 1 vs 1 reviews (where I compared two number 1 issues) and my One Two Reviews (where I reviewed the first two issues of a series as one whole, usually to determine whether I’d keep reading).

These were fun and quirky posts, but ultimately I became uncomfortable with the amount of money I was spending on these issues.

And that’s when I started looking in the bargain bins, which are almost always going to be full of superhero titles.

I’ve learned that a good superhero issue will provide enough of a recap at the beginning or through other writerly devices to make the storyline accessible to new readers. Operative phrase here is ‘a good superhero issue’.

Another thing I try to stick to is to only buy titles that have multiple issues availble. They don’t have to be sequential. I’ve purchased some that are pretty far apart, but I find buying 5 issues for two different titles more enjoyable to read than 5 random issues.

In anycase, when I have time (maybe tomorrow. maybe next year.) I’ll review a couple of those titles. Maybe.

Gotham Academy #14 is like…

…American Idol. Wait am I dating myself? Would America’s Got Talent be more timely?

In either case, the January issue of Gotham Academy reads like a talent show with 3 unique stories from 3 different teams (and the main story to tie all of it together). It appears this format will continue for two more issues.

Quick disclaimer: My posts are usually minimally edited drafts which may have a kernel of insight or humor. If I waited until I had a perfect draft, I wouldn’t find the time and it would stay in my drafts folder hidden away from the world.

I still feel new to comic books, but not so new to know that these types of issues are common practice for comic books. So familiar enough to know what it is; new enough not to know what everyone calls it. I’m going with ‘3 story format’.

After losing two of the three all stars who brought the idea to life, I’m convinced this is the best course for Gotham Academy. Since it’s beginning the art of Karl Kershl has been front and center. Most reviewers love it (including me) or others can’t stand it. But everyone notices it. Still, the series itself is story driven and full of drama, mystery and obscure characters from Batman story lines. It is a fun series from Kershl, Brenden Fletcher and Becky Cloonan.

But now Fletcher is the proverbial cheese that stands alone and the series will need to find an artist to fill Kershl’s spot. Or fans will have to accept a different style.

Gotham Academy #14 showcases 3 very different styles. This is an important distinction from the other time the 3 story format was used, in Gotham Academy Endgame. That was part of a tie-in to a story for a different Gotham character, but #14 (15 & 16) aren’t tied to any other story. I imagine that 15 & 16 will continue to challenge fans with bold and unfamiliar artistic styles.

Cloonan’s influence on the dialogue was missed (or what I imagine her influence is). Olive and Maps are certainly close friends, but Olive is a complex character and shoulders all the emotional weight that comes with that complexity. Maps is a virtuous, imaginative and excitable superfan. The dialogue fell a little short of what we normally see from these two. But then again, it isn’t a normal issue.

It’s worth mentioning that in both 14 & Endgame, the story featuring Isla MacPherson was my favorite.

I’m grateful that this interlude is taking place in between arcs and not being shoe horned into the middle of an arc.

One final note about the artwork of Karl Kershl. Gotham Academy tells the same story in print or digital. But the medium is different and Karl Kershl’s art (more than any other artist) is clearly intended for print. Gotham Academy was one of the titles that convinced me to buy print copies, instead of digital. I was already buying 1 or 2 print comic books a month, but it was the first time I actively tracked down back issues that were not in the store. Meaning… it was the first time I bought comics from ebay. It’s a thing that can’t be undone.

 

Chewbacca in The Force Awakens

Been a while since my last post, but since then I’ve read some awesome stuff and seen Star Wars Episode 8. This post contains spoilers, but if you’ve arrived here chances are you have seen the movie or are actively seeking spoilers (even if you say you aren’t).

My own feelings are that 1) the movie was fun, 2) I’ll probably see it in theaters again, 3) I’m looking forward to the next installment, and 4) if I think too hard on it the plot falls apart. But I’m okay with that (see reason #1).

I guess you could call this post a counter point to some of the reviews that are out there. Many of the reviews are positive, but some very detailed ones are extremely critical.

 

One the common criticisms is Chewbacca’s behavior in the movie, which I am here to defend. Specifically the complaint is that that Chewbacca would never have let Han into that situation.

Let’s level set here. Chewbacca is a fictional character. I’m not defending the actions or inactions of a fictional character. If I were, then Chewbacca shouldn’t have let him onto a narrow bridge over a bottomless cavern not because there was an emotionally stunted force wielder on the bridge. But because there were no hand railings on the bridge! So ridiculously easy to fall off.

Again, I’m not defending behavior; I’m defending the writing. Better yet: I’m answering the question if the previous body of work supported the characters actions.

For starters, it has been some 30 years in Star Wars time since audiences have last seen the character. It’s fair to allow some latitude in his behavior. In real time, it’s been a lot less than 30 years because Chewbacca makes an appearance as a General (I think) in Episode 3. A General. Not a rank giving to a youngling. So basically, Chewbacca’s old. Really old. I read a blog that estimated he was over 200 years old. That part of the writing I’m not happy with, but I’ll deal with it.

Even with a geriatric Chewbacca factored in, was his character inconsistent from previous installments? Was there a time in the previous movies where he allowed Han to go to his certain doom without a fight? You betcha. In Empire Strikes back, Han ventures off by himself on a ton ton in search of a missing Luke Skywalker with minimal chances of survival. I know at least one person reading this will know the odds C3PO translates from R2D2.

Chewey’s character doesn’t shield Han from making high risk decisions. He helps Han deal with some of the consequences of those decisions. Chewey’s storm trooper tossing freak out in Cloud City was that Han was truly and completely defenseless.

The other thing we need to know about Episode 7, is whether Chewbacca knew that Han wasn’t coming back? I raise this question because Han’s character was acting as if he knew he was not coming back from Star Killer base. What actions am I speaking of?

I can think of 2 from memory of the a 6am showing several days ago:

  1. Abandoning his winter coat. Chewbacca is the one who gives it back to him and Han isn’t pleased about it. At the time, I thought it was a joke. Chewbacca acting as the parent and saying it’s cold outside, and Han rolling his eyes as if he were a child caught… going outside without a jacket. But Han hates the cold. Remember his obnoxiously huge winter coat in Empire, and his disdain for the planet Hoth in general? On reflection, Han was busted. Not because he had forgotten his coat, but because Chewbacca knew he wasn’t planning on coming back.
  2. Handing all the charges over to Chewbacca. As someone I know mentioned, “There was only one reason to do that.” (Granted the discussion we were having was centered on when we… audience members… knew that Han was going to be killed.)

At least to me this seems like enough evidence that Chewbacca knew what was up. And that Han had made a decision.

After Han’s murder at the hands of Kylo Wren, I think it was Chewbacca who fired the shot that injured Kylo Wren. That part of the scene I take issue with because Wren had force stopped a blast early on in the movie and now allowed himself to be hit. One person commented to me that this is believable because of the emotional turmoil going through Kylo Wren. And in that case, I will give equal measure to Chewbacca’s emotional turmoil influencing his aim. Also… Wookie’s like 200 years old and doesn’t wear glasses. I really shouldn’t nitpick about his aim.

Drawing my meandering thoughts to a close. The details of the writing is consistent and supports Chewbacca’s actions. But perhaps it would have been easier for the audience to be more in the moment if Chewbacca had been more emotional at some point.

What do you think of Chewbacca’s character in The Force Awakens? Let me know in the comments.

 

Review: Halting State

halting state

Another book review that isn’t a comic book. Don’t worry everyone, I’m still reading comics but I’m pushing to add novels back into my life.

Why I Read It

Halting State has been on my ‘to read’ list for about 5 years now. I was doing research on sci-fi novels that were set in the near future, and with more focus on how society has adapted to new technology (not necessarily how the tech works). By research, I was really comparing a manuscript I was working on to something in the sub-genre.

Halting State fit the bill precisely, and unsurprisingly I’m not as good of a writer as Charles Stross. There is a heavy emphasis on role playing games and gamifcation in general. It’s set in 2018 and was written in 2007.

What Others Think

A lot of reviews I’ve read about the book focus on three primary detractions:

  1. The story is told in the 2nd person. Which means, “You” are the character. It is pretty much how I remember every RPG I played in 90’s (all 3 times I played one), so I viewed it as a nod to the fan base. Others have viewed it as a joke, that missed its mark.
  2. The point of view rotates between 3 characters. Compared to William Faulkner’s My Mom is a Fish   As I Lay Dying which many hold up as the gold standard for multiple point of view story telling, Halting State was way more enjoyable. Multiple points of view is difficult to master because it requires each narrator to have a distinct voice. Which Stross nails. Layer on top the narration in the 2nd person and you’ve got some exploratory story telling.
  3. The author’s vision didn’t come true. Well duh. I used to be this snooty about sci-fi too, but then I became more interested in stories told in the comic book medium. Inaccurate visions of the near future are common place in comic books, and no one really cares because it’s accepted as a future vision of an alternate reality. So now I look at these complaints and think, “Well Duh, of course he didn’t get everything right.” This particular vision of the world had wide spread use of augmented reality via Google glasses, driverless cars, and a distributed gaming platform by Microsoft that allowed gamers to create one avatar but play it in many different realms (each run by different companies).

What I Think

More than anything, there is some genuinely great storytelling here. Even when I didn’t understand what was going on (which was plenty of times) I enjoyed the way the language of the story was crafted.

However, some of the plot elements have been done before and this story did not elevate them above the existing body of work. In fact, having read some of that existing body of work is what made understand the plot. Had I not read read Simple Genius by David Baldacci or Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson I would have been hopelessly lost. But maybe that’s modern storytelling. Most readers have access to the internet so if they’re confused on something they’ll look it up themselves.

The part of the story I enjoyed most was how the author ramped up the suspense at the halfway point. And by halfway point I mean it was literally page 175 in a 350 page book.

Also +10 for accurately working in financial derivatives.

After reading some of the hang-ups reviewers have with the author’s ability to predict a very exact future, it dawned on me that they missed the point entirely. While never mentioned explicitly, I distilled that in order for some of the games envisioned in the story, specifically SPOOKS, to exist in 2018 development would have had to have started in or around 2007. Which makes some of the ideas in the book all the more chilling and some of Charles Stross’s vision of the future more accurate than it appears at first glance.

One Two Review: Americatown

archaia_americatown_001_main_2_1

One Two Review looks back at the first two issues of a series and reviews them as a whole. (more details).

Like most of my reviews, this one is about 70% complete. I’m hitting publish now, because if I don’t it will wind up sitting in my drafts folder long after its expiration date.

I’ll be honest, the story fell apart for me in the second installment. At first, I thought it was because I didn’t re-read the first issue (I try to re-read the previous issue before reading a current one). So I paged through issue one and nope, I didn’t find anything that would have made issue 2 feel more cohesive.

Also, absent in issue 2 for me were those moments where I would go back a few panels to see if there were any visual cues to set up the current panel I was on. This contrasts with the first issue, which had a lot of those moments and each time I made a small discovery.

As most second issues do, it introduces new characters, possibly too many for a second issue. It also tries to flush out some of the key characters from the last issue. This comes at the expense of building on the main character (a man who had been smuggled into the country and barely escaped a government raid on a safe house).

This is not to say that the entire mini-series won’t be enjoyable or spectacular, just that the first two issues don’t stand as one whole (which is an imaginary standard I have set).

Review: Angry Birds/Transformers

Few things have captivated our household the Angry Birds/Transformers has. Ever since the day I mentioned the title my children were fascinated. That was a few months before issue #1, and oldest (age 7) asked at least twice a week if the title had come out yet.

Angry Birds/Transformers

 

And then one day, it did. My children had previously been obsessed with another (less mind boggling) Transformers cross-over.

To date there have been 3 issues and each has been more treasured in our house than the previous. Just the other day our 4 year old brought one of the issues into our basement entertainment room to read because he enjoyed it more than television. Television people (and to him that means Netflix). The 4 year old has spoken.

I honestly don’t know what type of magic the writers and artists have conjured to produce this comic book, but so far it is the only comic that my wife has audibly laughed at while I was reading it to the boys (I totally caught her listening to us when she was pretending not to).

One final note on the last issue. On the ride home from the comic book store, my 7 year old asked if we could hold off reading it for a week or two. I was caught off guard and a little bummed that he had potentially lost interest. I asked if he wanted to take the title off our pull list. His response was priceless. No. He still wanted to keep it, but he just didn’t want to wait an entire month between reading issues.

WOW! (BTW he could only hold out 3 days).

Will I Read it to my Children?

The essential question asked in all of my reviews. Asked and answered, whether I have read it to them already or not. Yes, I will read it to them. Yes, I will read it to them again. And I will probably wind up buying a copy of the trade paperback for them also.

 

First Comic Book Convention

Last year my boys and I participated in Free Comic Book Day. This year we attended our first comic book convention. We had no idea what to expect, other than my wallet would be lighter by then end of the day.

Before going I texted a friend who is a veteran convention attender and learned:

  • Having the kids bring a backpack was a good idea
  • Conventions offer good deals so I should be prepared (ie bring enough money) to stock up. (See our haul below)

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My boys are early risers so, we left for the convention about the same time it opened. I figured it would be pretty empty at 10:15 am. I was wrong. Very wrong.

I had also assumed that the ticket I had purchased would allow us to enter the building. No, the ticket allowed me the privilege of waiting in one of about 6 lines of people that were 80 people deep for a wrist band. I’m sure this was to prevent a dangerously large of crowd entering the main building at once. But still, it was unexpected and hard to explain to a 7 and 4 year old. They reminded me on more than once that it was their least favorite part of the experience. In return I reminded them that if they hadn’t waited in line they would not have seen or done all the other awesome things they did.

Shortly after getting into the convention floor, my 4 year old started saying he was hungry. It was 11:30 by that point and the refreshments line was 3 people deep. Having worked in a theme park, I knew that line would steadily grow until about 3. So pretty much the first thing we did was eat. There weren’t enough tables and chairs so we ate on the floor (not off the floor). Next the boys spotted ice cream, so the three of us split a cup of mint chocolate chip. Sharing food is basic theme park practice for me, as it saves a little bit of money (and these were theme park food prices).

I definitely recommend parents spending money on food before other things, because those other things are awesome and expensive so it is easy to blow through cash leaving nothing for food.

So here are a couple of other things I witnessed:

  • Almost no one wore jackets in below freezing weather. I can only assume that this was to avoid the hefty coat check fee of $1.
  • There was beer at the convention and I’m pretty sure it cost more than a dollar.
  • People literally jumped out of moving cars in the parking lot. Not something I endorse.
  • Everything costs money. It adds up. While there may be deals on comic books, I wouldn’t recommend going only for the deals. Go for the atmosphere.
  • I had a hard time finding titles I was looking for and the prices were nice, but not fire sale prices. I was focusing on the trade paperbacks and hardcovers. No clue on single issue deals.
  • My kids had an awesome time, but at one point I wondered if there was enough for them to see at their eye level.
  • The organizers could have also called it “Sword Con”. Sooo many vendors selling swords.
  • Tip: Don’t try to meet someone there. Meet them before and drive over together.

I missed out on a couple of talks, and Q&A’s that I was interested in attending. Honestly, I don’t know how long my boys would have sit still in them. But next year I’m tempted to get the full weekend pass so I can have a little more freedom.

This was the first time this convention was held in my city. From what I gathered from others the first year always has problems, but the next year and the year are almost always better. With as crowded as it was I hope it returns next year.

One last thing: Special thanks to the car dealership that brought in a mini cooper and let my kids climb play in it. I think it may have been the only free activity for them. At least the only one we found.