Haiku: Missing the Bus

I go to cross the

Street, the 5 that motherfucker

Is driving past now

 

The uplifting sequel:

 

I walk the street, ride-

less, but then I see

The 43 bus ahead

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Review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower is the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s epic fantasy/western/weird horror series of the same name.  It fits a plot converted to fit an action movie’s run time into King’s flavorful setting for a quick & fun action/fantasy movie, but some of the magic of the books is lost given the relatively small budget and short run time.

I went in with low expectations despite being a fan of the books after looking at the reviews.  It didn’t blow my mind but the movie is much better than the currently 18% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest and is a good fantasy/action movie in its own right. It is a complete story on its own and feels like the movie could have happened in the same universe as the books.

Matthew McConaughey captured the menace of the Man in Black beautifully, stepping up into the villain’s role that was a great expansion over his often behind the scenes approach in the books.  His was the best performance of the film, transforming a secondary antagonist into a charismatic villain who dominated the movie, giving it clear direction.

Idris Elba feels a little stiff at first as a kinder version of Roland but won me over before the end of The Dark Tower.  Ultimately Roland takes a backseat to the Man in Black and Jake despite being the main character in the books, there just isn’t enough screen time for him.  I enjoyed the addition of the supernatural to his gun play- it fits with the setting and there are no clumsy attempts to explain it or the other strange occurrences in what is obviously a world alive with magic.

Tom Taylor does a good job as Jake, whose role like that of the sorcerous Man in Black is greatly expanded over that of the books, absorbing several side characters.  He is relatable without being annoying and has a good character arc, growing to the point that it makes sense for him to accompany Roland on his quest.

For the most part exposition is handled well; it is obvious that Jake is harried by his dreams, The Man in Black is evil and that Roland is exhausted by their actions rather than because they say so.  The rules of the setting are well established before the finale; no deus ex machina resolution.  Things do slow down in the middle, with the consequences of the Dark Tower falling being told rather than shown.  The action was very well done- Roland’s final gunfight was what Deadshot should have been in Suicide Squad.  His clever use of ricochets and the environment made him seem like a seasoned and intelligent warrior.  The sets are well done, beautifully capturing the post-apocalyptic nature of Midworld without being overly dim.  The Dark Tower works well as a stand alone action movie, hitting the points it needs to and giving us an interesting taste of Stephen King’s world without burying the audience in exposition.

There will be more meaning for long time readers- bits are borrowed freely from throughout the 8 book series and I enjoyed nods like the 13 Bends of the Rainbow in the Man in Black’s office, which would look like crystal balls to a non-reader.  The Dark Tower is loaded with similar references to all of King’s books, so keep an eye out.  It felt comprehensible to me but I know the background well, and it appears based on the movie’s poor box office that people didn’t feel invested even if they did understand.  I enjoyed the new story line which took inspiration from but was not a copy of any of the books, the more positive tone, and seeing elements from the books used in new ways, but I can see why other fans might be upset at the extensive edits and hopeful ending which contrasts sharply with the darkness of the books.

At 1 hour and 35 minutes the movie is tiny compared to the series it is adapting which dwarfs the Lord of the Rings with double the number of books and triple the word count.  In contrast the first Harry Potter movie had double the budget and an extra hour of run time.  The movie was as good as it could have been in the time allotted, and I think it was a good movie, but it didn’t have time to develop Roland fully as a character or dig into the weirdness that makes the Dark Tower so distinctive as an epic fantasy series.

The failure here is a lack of ambition; a lot of love clearly went into some parts of this movie and the acting is good but the script meanders a little while the movie wasn’t given the time to recapture the full glory of The Dark Tower book series.  I’m a little disappointed but I can see why they cut back some- the scene where Roland visits Maine and criticizes Stephen King for the way he wrote him was probably a bit much, and after what happened to Eragon I’ll take what I can get.

TL,DR: A decent fantasy action movie that’s worth a viewing.  If you aren’t a huge fan of the books or genre give it a look once it hits streaming.

Review: Castlevania Season 1

Netflix’s Castlevania is an anime style dark fantasy TV show based on the universe of Konami’s Castlevania games.  While short Season 1 is an interesting start that paints a beautiful picture of a lurid fantasy Wallachia.

The plot is solid, focusing more on the characters and their motivations than any complicated schemes.  Castlevania’s portrayal of the Catholic church as an antagonist is rather heavy handed but I felt invested enough in the protagonist that the conflict was satisfying.

Trevor Belmont and Dracula himself  are both charismatic and easy to sympathize with; the high quality voice acting helps here.  The other characters are not particularly memorable but they are likable and I cared about the fate of the supporting cast.

Castlevania’s animation is high quality, and the world seems alive and colorful despite the gothic setting.   There are some stills used but nothing egregious and the key scenes are beautiful and detailed.

The show is very gory in the pulpy anime style- limbs are casually severed,  deaths number in the hundreds if not thousands and at one point demons festoon an open air market with entrails.  It fits with the gritty and dark nature of the setting but if you strongly dislike gore I would not recommend this show.

Despite the darkness Castlevania never feels overly intense or like a downer.  The characters are funny which provides a nice foil to the darker moments.

The fight choreography is great- the characters feel like they have a real weight to them  and the environment is both well established and incorporated into the fights.  Things are well paced and I never felt bored or like Castlevania was trying to fill time.

My only real complaint is the length.  “Season 1” is four episodes of what feels like at least an 8 or 12 episode season.  It ends at a natural stopping point but similarly to Under the Dog it feels almost deceptive in its shortness, the difference being Castlevania is already getting a 2nd season.  If there had been more episodes I would have kept watching and I look forward to the next season, but you might want to wait for more of the series to be released before getting invested.

TL,DR: A colorful and entertaining dark fantasy TV show well worth keeping an eye on.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e: A Review in Perspective

I was looking at reviews of DnD 5e recently and most of them were published shortly after the system was, sometimes before even all the core books were out.  I’m a firm believer that you don’t really know a game system until you’ve played a campaign with it, possibly more than one, and I thought I would take a look at what 5e did right and wrong after a campaign in the Dungeon Master’s chair and as a player.

Fifth edition has returned to the game’s roots while keeping some of the improvements made in 4e and making major quality of life improvements that make the game easier and more fun to play.  Most of the balance issues decried at the beginning, notably the large health pools available to moon druids, have turned out to not be issues in practice, at least in my experience.  With more features for martial classes, concentration limits keeping spell casters from rendering other characters obsolete, and a more balanced implementation of former prestige classes and sub classes, things tend to run smoothly.  Some of the launch options such as the beastmaster ranger and four elements monk are as lackluster as they appear, but all classes have at least one viable implementation, usually more, and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide & Unearthed Arcana releases have some good fixes and options,  showing that the design team has learned from their mistakes.

Feat taxes have been removed so dexterity based characters are no longer a pain in the ass to run, and much of the system has been simplified or turned over to DM discretion so that you don’t run into the 3.X and 4e problem of needing to constantly consult the rules, while still having enough crunch that the structure of the game is easy to follow.  I wasn’t originally a fan of the 4e style skill system where you pick a few broad options instead of spending a mound of individual skill points, but it makes managing a character much easier and with the choice of background skills it offers more customization both narratively and mechanically for your character than 3.X or 4e where players are penalized for going outside class skill lists; I recommend letting the players put together custom backgrounds from the features and skills available.

The Player’s Handbook is streamlined, has examples, and is actually written in such a way that a new player could pick it up, read it, and make a character following the instructions, rather than serving as an encyclopedia for someone who already knows how the game works.  The player experience in general is much better, with a range of balanced and interesting classes to choose from, simple and easy to follow rules, and less bookkeeping than previous editions.  The changing of feats to powerful but rare options, removal of preparing individual spell slots, and consolidation of a horde of floating bonuses into the advantage/disadvantage system and proficiency removes all the tedious chores of previous editions and leaves a smaller number of more meaningful choices for the player.  From eliminating the mandatory 4e battle mat to speed up combat, hit dice healing based on the 4e healing surges removing the need for healbots or carts full of potions, to ritual casting so you don’t have to manage a long list of utility spells almost every aspect of the game has seen quality of life improvements.

In contrast to the PHB, the great flaw in 5e is the Dungeon Master’s guide, a confusingly laid out reference tome of magic items and random tables.  Originally I was going to write a rant in the style of the Angry DM’s critique of earlier editions, but my attitude has softened somewhat.  Games like The Witch is Dead make good use of random tables, and I’ve made good use of the ones in the DM’s guide, especially the chase tables, but it is not a replacement for instructions on how to run a game, which are largely absent.  In contrast to the easy to follow layout of the PHB, the DM’s guide opens with advice on organizing the planes and cosmology of your campaign, which is not necessarily relevant and a terrible place to start.  There are no instructions for how to set up a first session, no full session examples, and no example dungeons.  5e is an improvement because it in part returns to the lighter rules of earlier editions, but nothing in the DM’s guide gives suggestions on how to use this new discretion- it is assumed the reader already knows how to run the game.  In light of robust instructions for setting up a session in single author games such as Monster of the Week the Dungeon Master’s guide is pathetic and probably has limited 5e’s growth by barring all but experienced players from the Dungeon Master’s chair.

The suggested adventuring day of 6-8 encounters remains difficult to fit into a 4 hour session, and its failure skews the suggested challenge rating and encounter compositions; I will probably test out the optional longer rest rules the next time I run a game- they look promising.

Dungeons and Dragons was not originally meant to be played at high levels and it still shows in this edition.  The wheels start to come off of bounded accuracy with armor largely becoming meaningless in the face of growing proficiency bonuses as levels go into the double digits, and while martials remain relevant in combat the utility gap yawns wide with spellcasters often having more skills and utility spells such as teleports and flying, while the thief subclass can’t even get a climb speed.

I leveled my players up to 20 for our final session and it just wasn’t interesting; nothing threatened them.  Dungeon World‘s system for retiring characters might be a useful house rule, as is Tim Kask’s suggestion that characters retire after founding a stronghold.  I’m looking forward to Matt Colville’s house rules on the subject.  There are experimental mass combat rules in the Unearthed Arcana and based on my limited experience with them DnD is not a system that functions well in mass combat- FATE and Savage Worlds handle it better- and Dungeon World has more robust mechanics for building cities.  At some point it stops making sense for high level characters to be vagrants rummaging through ruins, and the system does not handle it very elegantly.

At times it feels like DnD has been re-purposed into something it wasn’t meant to be; the original TSR editions were based on exploration and treasure-finding as much or more so than combat.  The Dungeon Master’s handbook supports this in saying that a game should rest of a triad of combat, social interaction, and exploration, but few rules, examples, or suggestions are given for the latter two.  5e works despite this but it feels like aspects of the game have been abandoned, and I wonder how much better it could be.  The absolutely lackluster ranger that the game launched with might be worsened by wilderness exploration falling to the wayside.  Combat, skills, and magic all feel tight and well written; I just wish the exploration and social aspects had gotten a fraction of that attention.

I figured it out on my own eventually but the first campaign I ran could have been much better, and I had been a long time player before stepping up to run a game.  My complaints boil down to the weakness of the first time DM experience.  I’m now comfortable with the system and can improvise what the rules do not cover, in part from learning from systems with more guidance such as Dungeon World and The Sprawl, but I have lost a lot of time and the game has lost a lot of players to that initial rough patch.  Wizards of the Coast claims that 5e is selling well, better than previous editions, and my own experience matches that- many of the people I have played with are sitting down at the RPG table for the first time, more so than when I played Pathfinder, but while it may be doing well, I think it could have been done better.  Maybe the purchasable adventure paths solve these problems, but I had a taste of them in Adventurer’s League and didn’t care for them.

5e fixed what was broken from past editions but was too afraid to make some needed structural changes to help the DM and lessen the focus on combat after the commercial failure of 4e.  There are fan made resources to fix these issues- Youtubers such as Matt Colville, message boards, reddit, tumblr, tg, and other communities all can offer a lot of help.  This is the edge that DnD has over all other games- its community is huge and picks up the slack.

TL,DR: 5e is a system that has learned from Dungeons & Dragons’ past mistakes and successes to make a good low fantasy experience; problems from previous editions remain but are greatly diminished.

Review: Spectral

Spectral is a 2016 Military Science Fiction & Action movie released by Netflix.  The premise is US special forces have been getting picked off by an insubstantial creature that can only be seen on their new night vision goggles- the designer of said goggles gets called in to help figure out what is going on, and things develop in standard action-movie fashion that if not ground-breaking is not stale or too predictable.

The plot is not noteworthy but serves ably as a vehicle for some impressive visuals and well shot action sequences.  The pacing is flawless, it never feels like this movie is wasting your time.  There is a fair bit of exposition dump but the movie goes to great lengths to keep it brief and have things moving quickly afterwards.  Character development doesn’t really happen but the acting is good and the characters have enough personality to engage you with the movie.

The science is mostly technobabble but with a thicker veneer of plausibility than usual, and the film is at least internally consistent- solutions are foreshadowed in a satisfying way even if they aren’t very well grounded in actual science.  Spectral has no aspirations to complex plots of motivations and instead devotes its energy to good cinematography, actions scenes, and a fresh monster concept.  The setting is very reminiscent of recent shooter games- bombed out industrial spaces in a ruined city, but the movie does a good job making it feel eerie in a way a lot of games can’t.  It’s not a horror film but it has elements of one in the beginning, giving the movie some good flavor.

It’s nice to have a fun movie without any of the baggage attached to most theater releases these days- no complex franchise to be familiar with or an add campaign that spoils the major plot points and cost more than making the thing did.  It can just be a popcorn movie, and not compromise itself as a unit like Suicide Squad.  And that is what Spectral is, a well executed popcorn movie.  It isn’t going to win any Oscars but it is entertaining, well paced and works well as a stand alone unit.

No time is wasted teasing a sequel, all the effort in this production is simply put into making the movie good.  I have avoided spoilers in this review because in a movie market overrun with sequels and remakes Spectral retains an ability to surprise.  There’s no “What a twist!” moment from the blue but the start of the movie leaves you genuinely unsure of the creature’s origin or exactly how things will develop, and since it’s not obviously borrowing from a prequel or another film you don’t know the script going in.

Rossatron(minor spoilers in link) makes some good points in his review, though in my opinion he is a bit harsh on the movie itself.  It’s fresh but doesn’t have enough spectacle, intricate plot, or franchise investment to justify a theatrical release, but fewer and fewer movies are hitting that bar these days.  I was disappointed in Under the Dog after the hype and the cost of the Kickstarter, but it was an entertaining short film.  Spectral is better and doesn’t have any of the baggage.

TL,DR; A standard but well executed action movie with some good military science fiction flavor, give it a watch if you have Netflix and have any interest in action movies.

Drink Recipe & Review: Radler

Radler is a refreshing and easy to make drink made by mixing beer with lemonade, or some other fruit juice and soda.  I recently went on a trip to Germany and this was a common item on the menu.  Instead of of a small selection of national beers and local craft beers like you would find in the States, a German restaurant would usually have several types of beer from the local brewery as well as mixes such as Radler or Colabeer.  I never had the guts to try the Colabeer- a mixture of Coca-cola and a lager or Witbier- but I liked Radler and started making it for myself when I got back.

Wikipedia says this is called shandy in the States but it’s all pre-bottled and harder to find in my experience. I’ve been mostly disappointed by what I have been able to find in the craft beer isle- mostly a slew of low quality pumpkin beers around Halloween priced like a decent brew.  Traveler’s grapefruit shandy is an exception- I’m not personally a fan of their lemon shandy- but again it’s priced like a craft beer and appears infrequently, at least where I live.

I prefer to mix my own to better control the taste and because it works well with less expensive beers like Yuengling, Miller and Pabst.  I’ve made Radler with Indian Pale Ales and wheat beer but you lose some of the flavors of the craft beers by mixing it.  It works better with less intense lagers.  Yuengling is darker than what is normally used but I think it works well, though I would not recommend going to a porter or stout, the flavor doesn’t complement what you are adding as well.

20170218_215353
Beer Stein not necessary, but you will want a larger glass than usual if you intend to mix the whole beer in one go.

To make this drink you will need

  1. A beer
  2. A fruit juice or soda- sparkling or straight lemonade, grapefruit juice, etc.

I would personally not mix these 50/50, you end up with a fruit drink with mild beer tones, and I prefer to keep the flavor of the beer front and center.  The mix varies; with a fairly light lager like Pabst, you still get a lot of lemonade flavor with ~1 part lemonade to 4 parts beer, and obviously you can adjust to taste or to control the alcohol content of the finished drink.

20170218_215514
12 oz of beer with enough lemonade to give it flavor without dominating the beer’s own flavor.  Completion of the previous picture, just fills a pint glass.

Grapefruit juice is another good mixer. A ready-made version called Stiegl Radler is available in some grocery and liquor stores in the States- I see this more frequently than the Traveler shandy; it’s a good mix but fairly expensive.

stiegl_radler
Made with sparkling grapefruit juice.

Again, you can also mix your own- I find the grapefruit juice dominates the flavor of the beer more than lemonade does.  I’d recommend a lighter mix unless you are OK with that.  The drink works well, the sweet and sourness of the juice complementing the beer nicely.

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I’ve tried doing this with orange juice but I don’t care for how it tastes, the orange doesn’t seem to work as well with the beer as lemon or grapefruit does.

In Germany sparkling juices are used for the mix but these are less common in the United States, and I don’t think adding Sprite or an equivalent will give the desired result.  I haven’t experimented with finding sparkling juice brands or adding tonic water; despite the beer’s carbonation the drink made with flat juice is noticeably different.

TL,DR; Radler is a refreshing drink made by mixing lager with citrus juice or soda; give it a try this summer.

Review: The Sprawl

The Sprawl  by Hamish Cameron is my favorite RPG and a Powered by the Apocalypse System like Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, focused on cyberpunk missions and heists.  While the basic mechanics and moves are familiar, there is more focus on the meta game – for example players have access to moves that allow retroactive decisions and focus heavily on meta mechanics like threat and mission clocks – and the game is significantly more lethal.  My campaign in The Sprawl is the first time I’ve had player deaths that were not directly the result of friendly fire.

As a PbTA game, the familiar 2d6 dice mechanic to resolve all rolls returns- 10+ is an unqualified success, 7-9 is success with a complication, and on a 6- the Game Master makes a move.  There is an emphasis on partial success and “failing forward” that keeps every mission fast-paced and uncertain.  Players take on the roll of skilled agents in a cyberpunk dystopia, pursuing their profit and ideologies via social manipulation, stealth, and violence on the backdrop of a high-tech world dominated by corporations and a decaying society.

What stuck out to me about The Sprawl, perhaps because the genre is close to the original Apocalypse World, is how everything in the game fits together so well.  All the mechanics work well together and are inter-related, referencing each other- nothing feels unnecessary.

In contrast, the Dungeons and Dragons mechanics in Dungeon World, while part of its charm, don’t quite feel like they belong.  The multi-page spell lists feel exceptionally clunky in a game engine where most characters run off their character sheet and the basic moves, no other references needed.  Monster of the Week’s mysteries, which must at some level be scripted, frequently clash with the improvisational nature of PbtA games.  This may be my perspective – if you’ve read my Monster of the Week review you’ll know my group wasn’t really buying into the whole mystery thing.

And that is the great strength of The Sprawl, is that its unit, the mission – which is for it what dungeons are for DnD and Dungeon World, and mysteries for Monster of the Week – is so robust to players trying to burn it down.  It provides structure while being flexible to the group’s desires.  A mission can be a smoothly executed spy operation straight out of Burn Notice, a mission to avoid the mission, or a bloody dumpster fire like Reservoir Dogs, and the game still feels like it is running smoothly and as intended.  The mission structure works without being on rails, this Let’s Play has a good example of how flexible things are- the party cobbles together a job for itself rather than getting one from a corporation.

The system has to be robust- players have access to a lot of firepower, both narratively and mechanically.  Tanks, helicopters with missile launchers, large gangs, control of corporate security systems, infiltration secure locations off a single roll, retroactively chosen gear and information- all of these things are available without a level up and a smart group will tear apart planned opposition.  Game Masters should be prepared to raise the stakes and players should know the system is high powered and relatively lethal for NPCs and PCs alike.  Like all PbTA games, the players have a great deal of agency in shaping the story, down to picking the corporations that shape the tone and feeling of the campaign world.

Meta – gaming is supposed to be a dirty word, but I found the ways it is incorporated into The Sprawl made for a better game play experience, at least for my group.  The mission and corporation clocks are counters that tell how close the party is to blowing a mission and inviting retribution from the all-powerful corporations, respectively.  I found they give both the players and GM a clear idea of what was happening, make it easy to run a session with little to no prep and are highly responsive to player actions.  It makes expectations for the length of a session and its difficulty clear from the get go.  The Gear and Intel mechanics, which are currencies that can be spent to have an item or piece of information retroactively, makes bookkeeping simple and lets the characters be competent without combing through an equipment list before every mission.

In contrast to Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, the moves give a great deal of structure and good cues to the GM.  Outcomes of 7-9 rolls are listed instead of the Game Master being forced to improvise repeatedly, weapon tags are clearly defined, and clear limits are set out for NPC help and equipment.  Flexibility is the great strength of PbtA games, and The Sprawl strikes a good balance between clear rules and leaving room to maneuver.

Basing experience on mission success rather than failed roles along with the high lethality change the tenor of the game, creating a focus on playing more carefully than in Dungeon World and MoTW where easy access to magic healing, luck points, and experience awarded for failed rolls encourage taking risks.

It’s not all perfect – for instance, rules on how to keep track of damage to vehicles are non-existent, but it’s a small point to improvise on.  The one great flaw of the Sprawl is rules for the Hacker, which is not just a class but also a clunky Matrix subsystem dealing with the structure of computer networks.  Obviously the Hacker has to be in a cyberpunk game, but in trying to capture the hacking sequences from Neuromancer, Cameron has bolted on an unintuitive subgame that excludes everyone but the Hacker, forcing awkward switch-offs and makes DW’s spellcasting seem perfectly integrated.

Compared to the elegance of the rest of the system, it feels like it was inserted by another person at the printers.  The Flake from Monster of the Week is an example of how to handle this better- the  Netfriends move gives hold that can be spent for information from consulting online allies.  The Hacker needs a little more flavor than that but the Matrix rules sheet is longer than the basic moves; it’s in need of downsizing.  I would recommend not using the Hacker playbook or the Matrix unless you rework it, compressing the Matrix moves into a few Hacker moves- something like the optional conduct operation rules which abstract a lot of setup.

TL,DR: If you like cyberpunk, heists, PbtA games, or fast paced urban games pick this elegantly simple game up.  Image from my copy of The Sprawl, source & purchase link at the start of the article and here, and my thoughts on some actual play here.