Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Of Linguists and Linguistics

In D&D, and to be honest every RPG game I've played where I can remember the rules for languages, it comes down to a binary distinction regarding languages.  You either know the language, or you don't.

Of course, as a language teacher and language student, this it completely unrealistic.  I'm at the moment studying to take the TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) next Sunday, and my goal is to pass Level 3 of 6.  Not super high, but I'm about at that level despite living in Korea for just shy of seven years. 

My parents both speak Spanish (they met at a Peace Corps recruiting seminar, where they were both speakers about their experiences - Dad in Bolivia and Mom in Peru), so I picked up a smattering as a kid.  Slightly more than the average American picks up due to what's been appropriated into U.S. English.  Not a lot.

In High School, I took two years of French.  I don't remember much, but every now and then I can figure out a bit of written French on the side of a cafe's mug or on someone's t-shirt.  [I may be a 4th level Thief?]

In college, I took a year of Spanish, but I was in the non-major/minor course, with all the soccer players and whoever just needed some language credits to pass.  Using my childhood vocabulary and high school French vocab/grammar, I got "A"s for two semesters, and my Spanish is about as poorly developed as my French.

After suffering/coasting through those two Spanish courses, I switched to Japanese.  Talk about a change!  Japanese was a challenge, but I persevered through three years (six semesters) of Japanese.  Then I went and lived in the country for a decade.  During that time, I managed to pass Level 2 of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) [In Korea, high is better, while in Japan low is better].  Not too shabby.  If I hadn't been lazy, I probably could have improved to JLPT Level 1 (near-native level).  But I was lazy and Level 2 is pretty darn good for someone not working in translation or other fields where mastery of the target language is necessary.

When I hit Korea, my first son was just about to be born (my wife, who is Korean, wanted to be with her family when she gave birth so we left Japan), and I entered an intensive Korean language course.  For 20 weeks, I crammed two years worth of Korean study into my head.  It was too fast of a course, and spending three months back in the States after it didn't help cement what I learned in my mind.  I've struggled to improve my Korean, but the struggle is mostly one of motivation.  Koreans don't seem as willing to help foreigners learn their language as the Japanese are, and with my wife as a crutch, I can get by on my just barely TOPIK Level 3 language ability.

Why all the personal history of my language study?  How does this apply to gaming?  Yes, I'm finally getting back to that.

If I were an RPG character, which of these languages would be on my character sheet?  I'm functionally fluent in Japanese, so that would definitely be there.  How about Korean?  I'm able to perform basic functions in my day-to-day life, sometimes with a bit of effort.  But I only get the gist, if that, of what they're talking about on the news or the plots of TV dramas.  Is that enough to count in a binary "know it/don't know it" system like D&D?  French and Spanish are languages I'm only passing familiar with.  They probably shouldn't be on the sheet.  But yet, every now and then, I can understand a bit, or remember a song or a few basic sentences.  If I were to travel to a country that speaks either language as a tourist, I'd have few troubles shopping, finding landmarks, etc.

Now, here's the real question.  In an RPG, is this level of granularity of detail worth the effort it takes to implement?  Does it add to the fun of the game? 

Miscommunication can be a good tool for creating dramatic tension or comedy, but is it fun at the table?  Would a system of unfamiliar (0), familiar (1), functional (2), fluent (3), native (4) be worthwhile?*  How to adjudicate it? How to keep it fair when the DM can just decide that while my Harpy is "functional" the harpy's Common is "native" so we just use Common?  How do we adjudicate miscommunications when the goblins are yelling at us, but my Goblin is only "familiar"?

I think the answer lies in the fact that for forty years now, D&D games have been going on just fine with a binary "know it or not" system of language.  Just like how on TV, the aliens or foreigners always seem to speak English, it's a convenient time-saving device that allows us to get on with the fun, rather than stop the action to figure out just how much of your broken Giantish the Frost Giant understands before he tries to pound you into pulp.

*I remember reading a system like this either in a d20 game, or just as a home brew system to implement for d20 games on, I think, the forums back in the heyday of d20 System.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Year in Movies

I don't remember if I got around to this at the beginning of 2014 or not, but I do like to take a look ahead each year and post my thoughts about the upcoming sci fi, fantasy, horror or martial arts movies that I'm looking forward to, or that are getting talked a lot about. 

First up, in February, is Jupiter Rising.  Now, to be honest, I've not seen the trailers for it, or read much about it, but I've heard from friends that it looks good, or at least interesting.  Military sci fi is something I enjoy so this should be a no-brainer for me.  We'll see if the child care schedule allows me time to go see it, as I'm not sure it's something I'd take my older son (just shy of 7 by the time this comes out) to see.

Unless I'm missing some info, there isn't anything else I'm primed to see coming out in the Spring until Avengers: Age of Ultron (May in the U.S. but I think the Korean premier is scheduled for late April).  This is pretty much the big, gotta see it movie of the year for me (yes, even counting that other major franchise piece coming in December which I'll get to shortly).  And my older son, as well.  He was born just before the first Iron Man movie came out, and pretty much from the time he was old enough to watch movies, he's been watching the MCU.  If Whedon and crew do as excellent a job with Age of Ultron as they did with the first Avengers movie, I'll be in heaven.

Right on the heels of Avengers 2 is Mad Max Fury Road.  This also looks like it's going to be an adrenaline-pumping action extravaganza, and well, I'm in that "prepping for Gamma World" post-apocalypse sort of mood.  The only hang-ups will be that it's so close to Avengers, and that I doubt I'll take my son to see it as it looks too intense for him.  While I'd love to see this on the big screen, I'm afraid I may have to wait for a small screen viewing at my leisure later in the year or sometime next.

In June, B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations looks like a good kid-friendly movie to take my son to (although the plot seems to be heavily reminiscent of RIPD).  However, the big June movie is Jurassic World.  My boy has only seen the first Jurassic Park so far but he enjoyed it.  Maybe I'll find some time to work in JP2 and 3 before this comes out so he'll be up to speed (not that you need to be to enjoy dinosaur rampage movies).

July gives us Terminator: Genisys.  A soft reboot of the franchise, using the built in time-travel/manipulation of time lines theme of the originals to recreate the first movie with a meta-twist?  That's actually a great way to do it, IMO.  Plus it will be fun to see Arnold as the Terminator again after all these years. 

Ant Man is also coming in July.  Not sure on this one.  It's MCU, so I'm sure Flynn and I will go see it.  And they're using the second Ant Man, the thief/electrician rather than Hank Pym, which I guess is because it will make the character more sympathetic.  Hank Pym is a royal ass in the comics, which is why I'd love to see him in the MCU, but maybe it wouldn't fly in the 21st Century with wider audiences.  Not super high on my 'must see' list, but I'll probably try to check it out just to stay up to date on the MCU's "stage three."

Oh, and they're remaking Poltergeist.  I'd rather rewatch the original than waste time on an "update" of this classic.

In August, we have the Fantastic Four movie.  From everything I've heard about this, it's going to be a piece of shit that makes the Jessica Alba/Michael Chiclis/Chris Evans/whoever it was that played Reed FF movies look good (I found them just barely entertaining enough to not feel cheated, but not overly impressed).  This new one is the first movie from a Marvel-related franchise that I'm skipping on purpose since Amazing Spider Man.

Now later in August, will come Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: The Green Destiny.  That's a major must see on my list, but I'm afraid I'll have to wait a bit.  Locally I'm sure it will only play in Chinese with Korean subtitles.  I'll have to wait for an English sub or dub (preferably sub) version.  Bummer.

September, nothing looks like a must-see.  October as well.  The Frankenstein remake with Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) as Igor might be interesting, but I'm guessing that will be a "wait for VOD" type movie for me. 

In November, we have SPECTRE, Daniel Craig's latest Bond flick (his last, I think rumors have it).  I still haven't seen the previous one.  I'm kinda over Bond.  I was big into him in the years just after college.  Now, meh.  Then again, if they're bringing back SPECTRE them I may just want to see it anyway, but again probably not until VOD.

Finally, in December, we get the other "biggie" of the year, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  Hell yes I'm going to see this, with Flynn of course.  I'm looking forward to it.  The prequels were crappy, but had a lot of fun elements to them.  I'm not overly fond of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, but hopefully he can do better with Star Wars.  Fingers crossed this will be good, and get Star Wars fever going in a new generation of kids.  And not having invested much mental space in the "expanded universe" of comics, novels, games and what-not, I couldn't care less how much it meshes or not with all of that.  It'll be Star Wars on the big screen again, and I hope it's fun.  It'll be Flynn's first chance to see a Star Wars movie on the big screen as well, so how could I miss it?

There you have it folks.  Movies I'm likely to see this year, and a few I will skip or wait to see.  Lots of sci fi, not much fantasy.  How are your expectations for movies this year?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Tale of Trees

Last night, I participated in my first gaming session of 2015, and the first game I'd gotten to play at all in a while.  This was Dean's 4E Eberron Game, which is a weird, fractured fairy tale Eberron, using 4E rules but without a grid.

I reprized my character from...what, a year or two ago?...Ryuden Kenjumon, a Githzerai Swordmage whose Astral Monastery has materialized in Eberron.  One nice thing about 4E, it really allows you several options for wuxia style characters.  The Swordmage is a Fighter-type class (Defender) with the ability to spontaneously enchant their sword with elemental magic effects. 

Jeremy was playing an Orc...surprise!  He was using the 4E Essentials Fighter/Slayer build to be more of an "orcish assassin" with a huge honking blade.  If you know Jeremy's art work from his Omegapointilist Studios, you'll know what sort of vibe he likes.  Big muscles, bigger weapons.  [And I like to tease Jeremy on this.  I'm actually cool with him playing the big muscle-bound dude with big weapon almost all the time.]

The other two players have been playing in Dean's game a long time, but it was the first time I'd played with them.  Brad plays Rhea the (Human?) Witch.  Not sure which actual class he plays, but she's ancient and feisty and swears like a sailor.  Jason plays Jade the Half-Elf Ranger. 

Our adventure had us on the road to the Tower of Prophecy, but there was this huge, semi-unnatural tree along the path.  The tree had leaves with arcane symbolism on it, and after much debate and experimentation, we finally climbed the tree (well, Jade and Ryuden did) and we saw an enormous bear heading toward another tree in the distance.  We collected some leaves and acorns and headed on our way.

That next tree was all sparkly and "fae."  It had a sickeningly sweet odor to all but Jade, who thought it was excellent.  This was an oversized apple tree with glowing rainbow colors and firefly-like sparks in the air around it.  We gathered some fruit from it and continued on after a brief debate about whether to camp under that tree or not (we decided not, obviously).

The third tree was a strange, dead thing with screaming faces in the trunk.  Surrounding it were ghosts, including that of Ralex the haughty NPC Fighter from our Vaults of Ur game and one of Thidrek's chickens.  Rhea's ghost also appeared, as did a drow that attacked the Orc (trying to remember his name, Azog or Atrog, or something like that).  The attack froze him in ice, but a timely assist from my Swordmage and a critical hit ended the ghostly threat.  We gathered a branch and set out to the next tree.

This one was a hellish, burning thing.  And it was inhabited by demonic birds.  There was a crane-like ground runner, a gorilla-owl, a flying squirrel-turtle, two baboon-sparrows, and two monkey-birds.  This was the big set-piece combat encounter for the night, and true to form for 4E, even without the grid the combat took a long time.

In fact, it took so long that Jason had to log off (we play on G+ Hangouts) after only one round, so Dean decreed that his PC ran off, horrified by the tree, and one monkey bird thing followed him.  That left three of us versus the remaining six bird-demons, and it was a tough fight.  We were all low on HP at the end, with Ashrog having dropped and recovered due to a 20 on the saving throw.  We put our various powers to good use, though, with Rhea "controlling" the enemies, Atorg "striking" for big damage, and Ryuden "defending" with his good AC and high hit points.

The Prophecy in the game involves the "Seven Realms" and these trees were obviously representative of the first four, Eberron, Faewild, Shadowfell, Underworld.  So we've got trees for the Dreamlands, Far Realm, and Celestial Realm coming up before reaching the Tower.  While I don't like how slow 4E combat can be, I think I'm going to try and make it for the next session just because I dig Dean's quirky take on Eberron.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: The World of D&D Gaming

This is the final installment of the series for the Players' Manual.  I'm just squeaking by on my promise to myself to finish this part of the Cover to Cover project this year.  Two days left.  Well, this final semester was a bear with the strength of ten bears.  Glad it's over and I've got a break before the dissertation process commences.  It'll give me time to get well into the Dungeon Master's Rulebook.  And not to get too ambitious, but maybe I can finish that up faster than the Players' Manual and move on to the Expert Set in 2015.  We'll see.

On with the review!

The World of D&D Gaming!

Catchy title for the section, isn't it?  What do we have here?  Basically Mentzer marketing just about everything from TSR related to D&D, but be careful not to get the more complex and detailed AD&D stuff for this original D&D game...except for the miniatures and official D&D paints! 

Yes folks, you heard it here.  TSR had their own official paints for painting their own official miniatures for the official original D&D game.  No wonder my generation and later gamers are often stuck on the idea of "official" products handed down from the almighty game company!  "Why should we do any more of your imagining for you?" became "The other game systems do not use the same characters and monsters." 

Alright, it's not all negative.  The first section provides some useful information to new players on how to find groups to play with.  Of course, there's the mandatory plug for the RPGA.  But there's also advice to ask around at school, the local library, or the local hobby shop.

Also, the next section talks about the Expert, Companion and Master sets.  Boy, did that get my imagination pumping for the stuff contained in these sets!  It's been 30 years (and I should have done a "30 years of gaming" post on my birthday two and a half weeks ago...maybe I'll get around to it tomorrow) but I can still remember how the game opened my mind to the possibilities, and the hints of things to come made me hungry for more. 

In addition to the sets, the modules for the various sets and AD&D are explained in brief.  We also get sections explaining about other (official!) play aids such as character sheets, more dice, the above mentioned miniatures and paints, and of course the big-boy-pants AD&D game, which this is NOT.

Of these other things, I really wanted miniatures.  I sometimes got TSR's "Mail Order Hobby Shop" catalog, and loved looking at the pictures and reading the descriptions of the figures, making wish lists of which ones might be good for my characters.  It wasn't until I was in Japan in the early 2000's, with 3E fresh and new, that I finally started my minis collection.


From Alignment to Turn (undead), we get two full columns of basic game terminology explained.  There are exactly 50 headwords in the glossary, and cover game mechanics and concepts.  While none of the definitions appear especially noteworthy on their own, I may keep this section in mind in the future when debating minutia with others.  There are some simple breakdowns of some game concepts that get over-analyzed (like alignment: The behavior of monsters and characters).

End Papers

The final page of the book is a full-page ad for the B series modules B1 through B5 plus M1 (solo adventure), Geomorphs, Character sheets, and the Monster and Treasure Assortment.  The page gives some brief descriptions of the modules.  B1 and B2 are just marketed as helpful for beginning DMs, while the other modules give a taste of the adventure contained within.  I find the latter to be better marketing, personally.

On the inside back cover, there are more ads for TSR stuff: 

And of course, on the back cover there is a photocopy-able character sheet.

That sheet is responsible for one of the biggest mistakes we made as novice players.  Because the "to hit" numbers are printed on the page, even after we got the Expert set, we still continued to use those numbers to hit opponents.  Of course, it was only fair that we also used those numbers for monsters.  This made our Fighters, Clerics and Demi-Humans quite durable as most had plate and shield.  But even our Thieves were fairly sturdy in combat due to leather and Dex bonus.  We had plenty of PCs die in those games, but many many more surely would have if we'd used the attack matrices properly. 

And there it is, folks.  The end of Part One of this series, on the Mentzer edited Red Box Basic Set's Players' Manual, cover to cover.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Prepping for GamMarvel World

Now that my grad school papers are finished, I've got a short break before I need to revise one of them for publication.  That means I've got some time to work on GamMarvel World.  Yesterday I went to snag some nifty maps from Dyson's Dodecahedron blog (go check it out if for some odd reason you haven't).  I like that many of these maps are small, less than a dozen rooms.  Just about right for an evening's entertainment and simple enough to stock as a DM.

I've just about got the character creation document hammered out (some house-rules needed to be worked in/revised a bit) so players can start making characters soon.  With that done, I need to get cracking at fleshing out some of the locations on my map.  The above mentioned maps will help with that.  I've also got a pocket notebook full of ideas for factions, settlements, and ruins.  Just need to add some descriptions, monsters and treasure to the maps and decide where on the world map each location is.

I've also got some ideas on some religions of GamMarvel World.  With the Marvel Age of Heroes as the pre-Fall civilization, and possibly an Age of Apocalypse or Days of Future Past type setting as the Fall itself (mutant vs. non-mutant conflict will play heavily into it either way), there's plenty of ideas for who might be worshipped as a god/goddess or heroic demi-god in this future world.  I doubt there will be a Pope or anything, the world's a semi-Bronze Age world so most religions will be local and not so heavily organized.  But who worships Whom (or What) will play a part and could help the PCs make friends or enemies.

I've also decided how to handle magic.  One of my houserules is that instead of a class, each character can pick a specialty which grants a few minor abilities (like BX/LL demi-human abilities).  One of them allows 1st level spellcasting ability.  I'll allow the player to pick any spell from the MU or Cleric list.  When they gain levels, instead of rolling on the "what improves" table, they will just move up a new level of spellcasting ability following the MU advancement tables.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Movie Review: The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies

Yesterday, my son and I went to watch the final Hobbit movie on the big screen.  We'd recently watched all of the LotR trilogy on DVD, and although he hadn't seen parts 1 and 2 of the Hobbit, he really wanted to go, so off we went.

Now, I enjoyed the first two installments while watching them, but on reflection found them tedious, drawn out, and full of sound and fury signifying nothing for a large part of them.  But then it's Peter Jackson's (and Weta Workshop's) vision of New Zealand-turned-Middle Earth, which is worth sitting through just for the amazing cinematography, IMO.  Anyway, I wasn't exactly anticipating the final chapter, but I knew I couldn't miss it either.  I'm that sort of completionist nerd.

And before we get to the interview proper, as always the title of the blog brings people wondering about swear (curse) words in films any time I do a review.  Here it is: Dain, Lord of the Iron Hills (Billy Connoly) has a few mild swears.  My son's favorite swear being "bastard," when Dain uttered it, he turns to me and laughs, "Did he just say 'bastard'?  Ahahaha!"  That's it.  And if you know Billy Connoly, you'll know that's pretty mild for him.

Now, what did I think of The Hobbit Pt. 3?  Well, as usual it was visually stunning in some parts, but the vast majority of the film happens on Erebor (The Lonely Mountain) which to be honest, looks really cool from far away but isn't that interesting up close. 

The story was more focused (mostly the eponymous battle, plus a short bit where the White Council confronts the Necromancer at Dol Guldur which was surprisingly brief considering the bloat in the first two films).  But that doens't mean it was necessarily better.  For some reason, the movie felt a bit underwhelming.  Where the first two were going out of their way to diverge from the book to "pump up the action" this one felt subdued in a sense.  There's some over-the-top action in it, but it wasn't quite as heart-stopping as some of the action scenes in the first two installments. 

Maybe I need to sleep on it a bit more to pin it down (thanks to the baby, I didnt' get much sleep last night).  Something seemed off about the movie, though.  It still had the PJ touches you'd expect (crazy decapitations - watch for Thranduil on his elk for a good example; modern cliches being mouthed by Middle Earth residents: "think of the children!" in this case; gratuitous fights with a video game feel to them).

Anyway, it was thankfully only a bit over two hours long, rather than three.  And it was Middle Earth on film.  If you enjoyed the other Hobbit movies, don't let this disuade you.  It's alright.  It just lacks the emotional oomph that The Return of the King had.  It's a weak climax to an overdone film series, but it's not completely terrible, either.  If you're on the fence about seeing it, though, I'd say you may want to wait for a cheaper option than a full ticket price.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I am NOT an ANIMAL!!!

I've been working bit by bit on my Mutant Future house rules for char-gen in GamMarvel World.  At first, for mutant plants and animals I figured I'd use what's in GW4.  But I had second thoughts. 

GW4 has about fifty animal types which can be used as is or as models for other types.  Well, the ability score cap is lower in MF (a good thing IMO) so I adjusted all the scores.  I was already not so fond of the fact that there are so many feline types in perticular on that list.  So I started making up a more general one.

My new list has forty or so animal types, mostly pretty broad, with some sample specific species.  So instead of having fox and wolf separate, there's one entry for Canine.

I still need to add specific animal abilities (senses, movement, etc).  When I do that, some types will get a choice of special.  So if you choose Snake, you might choose a poison bite or constriction attack.  If you choose Marsupial you get a pouch, and can choose from jumping, climbing or prehensile tail (kangaroo, koala, possum).  Something like that.

It may be more work than strictly necessary, but it is helping me consider just exactly what it means to be a mutant animal in the post-apoc future of the Marvel Universe.  Some may be uplifted animals (Rocket Raccoon types) while others may have originally been descended from humans with animal-like mutations (The Beast, Wolvesbane, Squirrel Girl, etc.).

Mutant plants will be closer to the GW4 rules.  "I am Groot!"