Monday, 17 July 2017

13th Doctor. Reaction. And Reaction to the Reaction

Auntie Beeb chose to tell us who the next Doctor is going to be. For some reason it was after the tennis - one could maybe assume thats because there's a big weekend audience glued to the googlebox already. A cynic might suggest this was a date chosen to steal the limelight from Game of Thrones Series Season 7 premier. I'd be very surprised indeed if both assumptions weren't true.

What do we know about the 13th Doctor? Well not a lot. There was something of a nonsense of a teaser...


...and then after seemingly endless internet speculation Auntie dropped this:


#

And we finally get to see that they've cast Jodie Whittaker. She's done a fair bit of telly, you might know her from Broadchurch. Or more likely if you're a nerd you know her from Attack the Block or Black Mirror. She's a competent actress and it doesn't seem a bad call. I mean lets consider Capaldi - if we'd judged him on, say, Local Hero and Thick of It we'd be saying pretty much the same thing, right?

My first reaction? Well, why not? We can't really say anything about her portrayal of the doctor from that little teaser. Like any new doctor, lets see how she does. I've no opinion as to the Doctors gender, I really don't care - Whittaker wasn't on my radar as a potential Doctor but she seems a good fit. Had I been restricting myself to a woman for the role I'd love to have seen Hayley Atwell. As ever, there are the 'is this person a good fit?' thoughts, but I can remember regenerations going as far back as Tom Baker becoming Peter Davison, and there's nothing new there. Every actor stepping in to such an iconic role faces such concerns, this shouldn't be different. 

I scanned through Twitter for anger at this and really I didn't see much. I'm seeing a hell of a lot more whining about 'manbabies' and 'misogynerds' than people complaining about the new Doctor. As always seems to be the case said accusations take on their own momentum and very soon aren't even questioned. Few seem to be put out by this. There are some questioning why a being that's been a bloke 12 times suddenly isn't, suggesting that this seems out of character. And I get that - its a fair point, but they're being roundly (and unfairly) hammered for daring to say so. There are a few saying that the casting choice is pandering to feminists and the like, and yeah, I get why they're saying it - the crowing and gloating we're seeing online about this could certainly give that impression. But that seems awfully unfair to Whittaker - she's an excellent acting record and deserves to be judged on her performance rather than her gender. It seems monstrously unfair to turn her into some political champion - let her get on with playing the role.

The thing that bothers me most is the anger directed at presumed haters - countless tweets ranting at aforementioned 'manbabys'. And the assumptions that anyone voicing more or less exactly the same concerns about the new Doctor that we always see can be written off as woman haters, sexists, etc. Nerds just being nerds are being yelled at for it again - the same old thing really, people coming in to nerd culture and contemptuously pushing the nerds aside.

Doctors come and go. Nerds being hated for being nerds? Sadly, that still hasn't changed.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wonder Woman Review

It didn't suck. Which was, I think, a relief. Its a good superhero film, elevated to really good in places by a strong performance from some actors.



The thing about Wonder Woman is that, for me at least,its actually quite a tough sell turning it into a movie franchise. Its not about the character herself - while conceptually weird from the outset she's great. Its more that in the  DC mythos a hero is very much defined by her or his villains. Batman and Joker, Catwoman, Bane, etc. Superman and Lex Luthor or General Zod. Green Lantern and Sinestro or Black Hand. Wonder Woman and... errm... Well who? 

Superman and Batman have been done both well and badly on screen and, as much as anything else, the quality of the villain is a key part of that. Perhaps the best hero performance was by Christopher Reeve - in his first two outings facing Lex Luthor and General Zod in perhaps the most iconic superhero films of 70's and 80s, where he defines not only how Superman will be on screen but gives us the most convincing Clark Kent we've ever seen. Batman villains on screen are as iconic as the hero himself - with legendary Joker performances by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger cementing for each a place in the superhero film history. Each of the heroes has a catalogue of iconic villains that can tap in and out between stories. But if you ask anyone but a true comic book nerd to name Wonder Womans arch nemeses, they'll struggle. Cheetah?  Morgan le Fey? Not really tripping over themselves as names to get out are they?

So as a franchise its a hard sell. The choice to start with Ares as a foe in this film is solid though, and his portrayal (I shan't spoil the film by saying who by) was solid, if uninspiring. 

I must say Gal Gadot looked and sounded the part of Wonder Woman and she's a tremendous choice for the role - and her action scenes were well choreographed, reasonably well shot and a real spectacle. I'd say that the problem was that in terms of superhero action they were all a bit 10 years ago - it didn't cover any new ground, it didn't really do anything not already done in a range of other films. Other than (perhaps) the 'over the top' from the trenches scene (that you've all seen in the trailers anyway) there's not an action sequence that sets it above other superhero films - and none of cast from leading protagonists through to the villain really set the world on fire with their performances. Thats not to say there were no strong performances - Gadot, Chris Pine and, for my money the pick of the crop Robin Wright were all good. But no one raised the bar further than that. The story didn't call upon any of the cast to take things up a notch.

Critics have been talking about this being the movie that saves the DC Extended Universe. The truth is that said universe didn't need saving, as for all the critical panning we saw Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad were profitable and sufficiently popular with fans to justify a continuation thereof. But the DE-EU is still safe - this film worked.

I feel I've got to touch on the 'female lead' thing thats often discussed - yes, this film is a reminder (if such was necessary) that it can be done. But it always could be done, its not such a new idea. Its more a question of what kind of action film that will be and how audiences respond to different kinds of action. Is this the 'right' kind of woman action hero for today? Maybe. I think that the time is right for Wonder Woman to be on the big screen now, and its accomplished without asking the audience to endure anything that might make large sections thereof uncomfortable (such as the 'Long Kiss Goodnight' did) in any way.

Go and see it. Don't expect your world to be rocked, expect an enjoyable flick without the hidden depths of the Dark Knight trilogy but also without the endless wasted opportunities of Batman vs. Superman. 7/10. Enjoyable.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Reflections on Game Shops and Nerd Space - Part 2

A profound change came over RPG shops in the early to mid 90's. White Wolf.

Certainly where I was (Lancaster and then Nottingham) the game shops were ever more dominated by the World of Darkness setting, because thats mostly what people were playing. I suppose there were plenty of reasons why this was so, but mostly because it was well written, well thought out, and quite interesting in an era when AD&D was in a catastrophic decline. TSR found they could sell a campaign setting quite well, so they kept producing more of them. Which meant each supplement or adventure for a specific setting was selling fewer and fewer copies. The incessant 'splat books' in the middle of the decade meant that even the die-hard fans were finding it hard keeping up. It seemed for a while that not only had playtesting gone out of the window, but basic proofreading seemed beyond TSR - as each product sold less they created more and more of them the quality declined and margins were squeezed. D&D as a product line had been canned and AD&D was dying.

White Wolf offered a breath of fresh air. Well, a breath of rancid decaying air. The original Vampire game was a superbly crafted thing, a game you were ultimately destined to lose as your neonate vampire character slowly lost a battle to keep their humanity against an inner beast. It was then joined by endless supplements providing character options, and ever more games adding to the mythos (Werewold, Mage, Wraith...). It was interesting, innovative and well crafted - with a system of play so easy even the most casual observer could get it. Gone was THAC0 - in was attribute + skill, and thats how many dice you roll. For everything. 

This became a sort of a juggernaut in game spaces, it became the default game for many groups and this was reflected in what was stocked in the game shops. Everyone suddenly wore black. They had long hair. They were pale. But they were way louder and if not more exuberant at least more talkative than other gamers had been. The nerd-rage one upmanship was still there, but it was a bit louder, brasher, gothier sort. You could buy any dice you wanted so long as you didn't mind that they were dappled black and you didn't want any d10's (all you need in WoD, so it was all they bought). One other thing that the domination of such spaces by WoD did achieve was it brought way more of a gender balance to gaming. Whether it was the mythos, the style, or the codification of a more narrative, social gaming style I'm not sure, but it certainly attacted more women into gaming and game spaces. But there were ways they were like the D&D crowd - they had one system, one setting, that was their thing and they stuck to it.

But they were still nerd spaces - so there were the appropriate tensions between different flavours of gamers, different mythos fans. The strain in game shops lacking a strong Dungeons and Dragons to support sales was apparent though - but with chains like Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man having a half decent array of games and comics they became sort of a successor to Games Workshop. That was still going strong of course (and still is, although I don't like the name 'Warhammer' above the shop door as much as I liked Games Workshop), but they were by now only selling their own products, and unless you were willing to make a substantial investment therein it was by now its own thing, with its own gamers in their own space. 

For the most part gamers went to the RPG section of such shops, comic readers went to the other end, and the two never met. Comics weren't in a healthy state at the time, sales were low (this was before even the X-Men films), and overlap of gamers and comic nerds was relatively low. But there was another new kid in town - the collectible card game. Magic: The Gathering and the like - these games were selling like wildfire. I remember that the guy running one of the game shops in Cambridge hated these games and didn't sell them - that shop didn't last long.

By the end of the decade though, nerd spaces were suffering. Even in Cambridge we were about to lose one of our game shops and the other one was struggling for life - D&D was a dead product line after TSR went tits up, and it had been bought out by Wizards (who had made their cash in collectible card games). The White Wolf thing had more or less run its course, and wasn't selling in the volume it had. There wasn't much that was really exciting coming to market, and it felt like everywhere that wasn't Games Workshop was going to fold. Nerd spaces were chugging on, but comic book shops were stocking ever fewer RPG's. And then came 3rd ed, and then came the superhero film craze. And again, everything changed.

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Game Shop and Reflections on Nerd Space, part 1...

So there was a brief discussion on Twitter among some old school pen and paper podcasters talking about game shop memories, and it got me thinking about the game shops and spaces I've frequented over the years.

Now the thing is, as a RPG gamer in the '80s and '90s I had no cash. Like, sometimes literally, I was skint. The '90s was my sixth form and degrees, the 80s was being a kid. But from as soon as I discovered D&D way back in, what, 1983 this was something I was out looking for in the shops even if I couldn't afford to buy anything.

There was a dedicated RPG shop down near the Worswick Street end of Clayton Street in Newcastle, and there were two hobby/model shops Beatties (also on Pilgrim Street) and Liesure World. Today of course there's the splendid little Nerd cluster with Travelling Man, Geek Retreat and Forbidden Planet - they're light, fun, and full of people. But I'd have said that the game shop  back then was sort of was seedy, but it wasn't any more so than many of the other shops around the outskirts of Newcastle. This wasn't a wealthy era, so you'd get a lot of niche shops able to spring up and sort of do ok in the cheaper parts of town (many like Kard Bar and Attica seemed to thrive on the run-down coolness). Run down would be wrong - cheap would be the word. A guy, a counter, and racks of books and miniatures, without a table to sit and play at, or any kind of in-store activities. Beatties and Leisure World were worse, they had smaller choice of games (being primarily model shops) and what they had never seemed to get updated. The D&D modules would sell and you were left with the Indiana Jones modules. For years. 

So there wasn't much of a buzz about these places. You didn't go to game shops to meet other people, you went to buy games and supplements but, mostly, not to. They weren't so much grumpy as un-engaging. Comic book shops (there was one in a double-decker portacabin up in the Haymarket) and second hand record shops had a different vibe - you could hang out, read, talk. Nerd space wasn't well defined - you went, you got something, you left. Or you sat behind the stacks of comics reading old issues of Green Lantern until you were caught.

Then along came Games Workshop - I believe at the same time as Games World closed in Newcastle? Whether that was a buy out of the other shop or whether it was just they guys who'd worked there getting a proper job I never knew - but you could play games. In the shop. And to begin with it wasn't just their own branded games, they sold games by many different companies (its often forgotten these days that GW re-printed a lot of American games to sell in the UK). You could suddenly get copies of Dragon magazine there. Finally there was something approaching a scene for gaming. By the late '80s games like Toon, Paranoia, Middle Earth Roleplaying and of course Call of Cthulhu were all around, and your options were vast. Forbidden planet came along, which in Newcastle meant you had a chance of running in to one or two of the guys who played in the band XLR8R or someone who drew for Viz (still got a signed Big Hard Number 2). Nerd space was evolving, it was changing into somewhere you might actually want to be.

Things went along as they were in nerd space shops with a typical cast of characters - nerdy guys, kids who couldn't afford anything, etc. And the shops were exactly what you'd expect - uncomfortable, a little malodorous at times, and full of competitive geekery. In short, nerd safe spaces. An important and pleasing asset.

I moved to Lancaster in 1992, and there was a little comic/scifi/game shop by the bus station that was just about what you'd imagine. Not a big range, but I did meet a far larger range of gamers at University. Including (shock, horror) girls. Like, in the RPG society and in the SciFi club. Which I thought was great but you could see it was a culture shock for some of the young chaps there. Its not that they didn't want women to interact with. Far from it. Mostly they really, really wanted to hang out with girls. They just had no idea how to - and that was fine because for the most part the women were every bit as clueless as the men. But this was the beginning of gaming slowly dragging itself out of its mothers basement - and pretty much all of the games I ran and played in at University were mixed sex. It wasn't particularly noteworthy, so not particularly comment worthy. And it didn't really change the dynamics of tabletop roleplaying in any particular sense. And, yes, these were kids at college, of course they got up to kids at college things.

Serious gamers played AD&D or Ars Magica. Or (shudder) Pendragon. But there was a change afoot. I think in 1993 I first encountered a new kid on the block that would change nerd space. And its name was World of Darnkess. Gaming, and nerd spaces, were about to change...

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Myconids, Vegepygmy and others...

Pretty much every kind of living thing has '-man' put after it in some way in gaming. You know the kind of thing, an anthropomorphic tree, cat, hippo, rock... You name it, its probably been done in D&D or some other game. Even ducks.

It can be done well, and there's nothing inherently wrong with this. Lets be honest, when running tabletop RPG's we've all included one or more of these at some point. But what are they for? Are your players really so bored of hacking and slashing their way through orcs, kobolds, hobgoblins, goblins, and bugbears that you need to start putting frogs heads on humanoids for a bit of variety? I can't help but think that monster manuals in every version of D&D have got ever bigger largely for DM's to give more and more variant things for adventurers to beat up. But the games themselves are so much more fun when your games antagonists are more than just another set of stats with a different head.

And of all of the anthropomorphic weird shit, the ones that most annoy me in this regard are the mushroom men. Myconids, vegepygmies, it doesn't matter what you call them, the only thing that makes them different to other humanoids is that they look funny and, maybe, the DM will use some freaky spore power. Why would you bother? In that context they're almost interchangeable with orcs with funky gas grenades. I think in part this is because few people ever look at fungi for inspiration - Because fungi are, in reality, way freakier than Myconids have ever been...

So here are my top 5 picks for new fungal folk, and combinations to liven up your games....

(1) Explosions and Light!

Have you ever heard of hat-thrower fungus? No? Well watch this video I've embedded. Yes, really, watch it. I'll wait.


Pilobolus is an amazing little fungus, growing on poo and making high-pressure jelly packets underneath a spore cap, which then explode. They point up at the light, blow up, and fire a packet of spores into the distance. Yeah, I know, musrhoom men with exploding heads, I'm right up there with you. Its awesome and you can immediately imagine kamikaze-head exploding myconids. But we're also talking about mushroom men with light-sensitive exploding heads. You know where I'm going with this...



A front rank of mushroom men with jelly heads that the glow-in the dark vegepygmies behind can focus light on to/through to make their heads explode? Well, yes, now that you mention it, thats precisely the encounter I used in my game on Monday...

(2) Lasso Fungus

The PCs have been trapsing through the dense underground fungi forest for hours, braving the cold, damp conditions until each mushroom looks pretty much like every other. The mage turns and looks back, then forward, and slowly a worried look crosses his face... "Guys", he calls out, "Where's the hobbit?". The party looks around, calls out, and then, finally, thinks to look up... How did the halfling get up THERE? And what are those tendrils?



Yes, there are species of fungi that, quite literally, lasso animals as prey. Typically its nematodes (little round worms) being caught and digested, but in a fantasy world why wouldn't they be going for larger prey? The myconid as an ambush predator...

(3) Parasitic Myconids

This has sort of been done previously in D&D with the gas spore/blast spore. But, again, real life is ever so much weirder...



So for example the adventurers are sent to investigate whats happening in a village that hasn't been heard from for weeks. When they arrive, they find the locals are all there, and accounted for, but they're all acting really strangely - can the PC's work out why in time to save them before the myconids they're gestating burst out and become a whole army? If this is how your mushroom men reproduce you've got a distinct incentive thats different to simply raiding or killing - it becomes a unique humanoid race with a real difference, and a disturbing edge. 

(4) Eco-Myconids

Of course there's no reason to suppose all the mushroom men have to be antagonists - there are several kinds of fungi with really amazing abilities to degrade, store or otherwise alter dangerous compounds in the environment, and there are scientists who have for a long time been looking to exploit that, a process called mycoremediation.

If this is your version of fungus-people, they're likely among the creatures who turn up after whatever world-changing cataclysm the PCs have averted (or caused!). They might work with druids, elves of fey folk to repair the harm done to your game world by whatever big-bad has wrought damage most recently. Or maybe they turn up on the spoil heaps of mines and clean up the mess - and the problems for a town really start when something happens to them. An adventure hook might be to accompany mushroom people who have absorbed all of the pollution or harm from a site (an old mine, a place of great evil, whatever fits for your campaign) and take them to somewhere to release this again, or to store it away.

(5) Myconids are Eloi!

Humans think they're so smart, but among the many things invented by animals countless aeons before we came along was farming. Specifically, fungus farming...



In this scenario the myconids are a kind of slave race - they're kept by giant ants - fed, housed, looked after... And preyed upon. The relationship might be akin to that of the Morlocks and Eloi in H. G. Wells classic The Time Machine. One might envisage the fungus people as timid, shy, naive, and vulnerable - would it be right for the PC's to kill off those who both enslave and protect them? Then what do the PC's do with the fungus people?


I hope this has given you some food for thought! If you're happy with your vegipygmys and myconids the way they are, thats fine, but I'm all for using whats actually there in nature as inspiration for gaming. Feel free to say how you handle them...

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Zombicide: The best Zombie game you'll play

Great playing pieces - Zombicide looks and feels a quality game
In some ways I'm an old-school gamer. I like my D&D classic, and I enjoy the risk of PC death as I strive for a more powerful starting space pilot (10 life points for whoever gets that reference). But I'm not opposed to a new board or roleplaying game when its well made, and for my money probably the best such game in recent years has been Zombicide.

Cool Mini or Not started out as a sort of rate-my-miniatures website, where people would paint up their minis and submit them for judging. A bit of fun that led on to a desire to create simple to play games packed full of beautiful miniatures, and Zombicide fits that bill. Somehow between kickstarter and release the game became the child of Guillotine games, and the rest is history.

There are three core Zombicide games (referred to as 'seasons'), each can be played individually or mixed up with any of the other core games, or the three main expasnsions, with a multitude of smaller add-ons and kick-starter promos avialable (sometimes at bewildering cost on Ebay). The game is good with anything more than three to as many players as will fit round your table, and you play one or more 'survivors' in a zombie apocalypse. Every turn, each survivor takes three actions (which can be moving, searching for weapons and equipment and attacking), and every time a survivor kills a zombie they gain experience. And, of course, as they gain experience they can go up in level and get more abilities. After the player turns we the zombies get to go - they shamble at you to attack, and then more spawn. And the more experienced the characters get, the more zombies spawn, making the sense of crisis rises right through the game. Each survivor is represented by a well crafted mini, and has its own range of available skills. Yes, you'll soon have your own favourite character to play. 

Each game session is a 'mission' (although there's a short campaign version of the game called 'ultimate survivors') - you have defined things to do on the game board made up of tiles representing parts of a city, shopping mall, prison, hospital, etc. You may have to find specific resources, clear out certain buildings, etc. Each time you open up a new building more zombies appear - so you'll need to coordinate with other players to decide when and how to get in to the buildings (which you'll need to do, to find weapons and resources).

Try not to wear your curlers for the Zombie Apocalypse - you'll look stupid


The variety of zombies in the original game is limited, there are the normal shambling kind, a fast kind who can get to you and attack, fatties who take more killing, and the abomination who's a massive creation who's the hardest creature on the board to kill. Subsequent sets kept those basic categories but brought in different species - toxic zombies who'll spray you with poison if you kill them hand to hand, berserkers who are immune to bullets, skinners who have a nasty habit of crawling after you even after mowing them down, and the fast, unpredictable seekers. They add flavour without too much complexity - and they're conveniently coloured to make identification of the game pieces easy.

What maintains the interest in this game is how varied it can be - you can download or devise a limitless number of missions, and each game will be different as you unearth different weapon and equipment types and face zombies coming at you in different orders. And if that isn't enough you can add in dog companions, assistant survivors... As few or as many add on's as you like.
The A-Bomb abomination. If this guy shows up you're in trouble


There are four things that, for me, set this apart from other similar board games. Firstly, the quality of the pieces - the minis are colourful, detailed and distinctive. The board pieces are fun and give a good feel for the field of play, and each new expansion brings more distinctive minis without overly complicating play. Secondly, it takes very little experience playing the published missions before you can come up with your own, which means you can tailor individual game sessions to the tastes of your group - the producers even provide a free software tool to draw up a map using their tiles. Which takes us to the third point; there's a good range of fan made material online, including custom decks, survivors, playing tiles, missions... Google for Zombcide fan sies and you'll find plenty. And, lastly, its simple - it grows and expands based on a very easy set of mechanics, so as you add more you don't lose the point of the game in the complexity.

There's a lot to like about this game. My only concern is the cost. It isn't cheap, but each main set is a weighty thing, I don't feel robbed paying more money for something stacked with good components.

If modern day zombie apocalypses aren't to your taste, then there is also Zombicide Black Plague. Its a good game, but I've neither the space nor the will to maintain two expanding versions of this board game. But check it out if thats your thing.

So all in all, this is one of the favourite games in our gaming group - its got enough about it to remain fun for the long-haul, while most other board games quickly lose interest for us. When we're short for D&D its one of our favourites, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

What this blog is about...

I find myself craving an outlet for, well, nerd things. And thats what this small web-space is going to be for. I've been putting off sharing thoughts and ideas about various RPG and boardgaming things, sci-fi stuff, etc. So, here it is. Watch this space...