I have a pretty goofy first “roleplaying game” experience. I’m a little surprised to realize I was this young at the time, but I was eight when The Lost World came out. (Bear with me, I’ll get to the point soon enough.) I’d already been obsessed with dinosaurs for as long as I could remember, and I had already been terrified of the raptor kitchen scene in Jurassic Park, and I’d read the sequel novel and got my mom to buy me a magazine issue or two showing glossy behind-the-scenes photos of the actors and animatronics from the upcoming film. I was really excited, and then The Lost World was finally out in theaters, and I loved it. It doesn’t hold up well, I suppose, but it was a great adventure movie for eight-year-old me.
I already had a collection of assorted Jurassic Park toys and other memorabilia, and some products related to the sequel followed. I remember two games in particular. The first was a board game, simply titled The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in which you maneuvered cardboard standees representing human survivors as they navigated a board complete with 3D building set pieces representing the InGen compound as they tried to stay ahead of the miniatures representing the Tyrannosaurus and the Velociraptors. I remember the game was fun and exciting, but I was eight. I have no idea what I’d think of it now!
The second game was my first paper “RPG” experience, I suppose. That was The Lost World: Jurassic Park Role-Playing Game Book. It was a trade paperback with a glossy green cover highlighting a mottled brown Tyrannosaurus, and the pages inside contained a narrative that, as I recall it, was somewhere between a traditional RPG structure and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure title, with cut-out cards highlighting stats for specific dinosaurs that you might encounter. As I recall, the entire point of the adventure was to evade hunters and dinosaurs and find a way to escape the island. I must have been the game’s target demographic in terms of age, interests, and predisposition. But I also believe I never played it with anyone else. Was it a solo game? Or was I just being a sad sack? Hard to say.
I can’t imagine that I’d find much engagement in the simple children’s RPG now. But many, many times over the years, I’ve daydreamed about what an RPG in the Jurassic Park franchise would look like. With the events of Fallen Kingdom, it would seem that Jurassic Park stories can be more than tales of death and survival on a distant island. Perhaps it’s getting robust enough to support a TRPG with a variety of stories to tell.
Of course, there are already TRPG options that incorporate prehistoric animals, including dinosaurs. Even the most iconic game, Dungeons & Dragons, has incorporated dinosaurs. I know that Cadillacs & Dinosaurs had an RPG that was apparently bogged down with overly complicated combat rules. Then there’s the Predation campaign setting for the Cypher System. Pretty sure I’ve said these things before, maybe multiple times. Point is, I suppose there are options. It would still be cool to see something in the Jurassic Park setting, I suppose–or one that took its tropes, bringing prehistoric creatures back into the modern world through wild scientific advancements, resulting in inevitable chaos.
Onward‘s trailers didn’t seem very funny or interesting to me. But it came out so quickly on Disney+, and enough people seemed to enjoy it, so my wife and I watched it over Saturday afternoon. I haven’t been so surprised by a film in a while; it was a cathartic, emotionally satisfying, delightful movie that I didn’t expect in the least.
In a very broad sense, Onward is to tabletop roleplaying as Wreck-It Ralph is to video games: an animated family film that takes a pop culture subgenre and builds a mythology around it. Both movies also become stories about sibling relationships (one a found family, one by blood), told over a quest narrative full of zany adventure. I feel that Onward is the more heartfelt film, perhaps because it is a more tailored tale that doesn’t fixate too much on winking references to its pop culture subject matter.
In the world of Onward, the fantasy setting of games like Dungeons & Dragons is the actual history of the realm. Magic was a powerful tool, a gift only present in some and difficult to master. Developing technology made things easier for everyone, however, and magic was gradually phased out. The film’s story picks up in something resembling our modern world, if it was built atop such a rich fantasy setting and populated by elves and cyclopes, goblins and trolls, manticores and minotaurs, pixies and centaurs, unicorns and dragons. The big tabletop RPG of this world, Quests of Yore, is if D&D were a historically accurate wargame.
The protagonists of this alternate-universe story are awkward high-schooler Ian (Tom Holland), his uninhibited (and Quests of Yore-obsessed) older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, in a role that can best be described as early aughts Jack Black), and their supportive mother Laurel (Julia Luis-Dreyfus). The family has done its best to adjust since father Wilden passed away even before Ian was born. However, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel brings down a gift from Wilden that had been stowed away for the day when both of the boys had come of age. That gift, it turns out, is a wizard’s staff, an elemental enhancement known as a Phoenix Gem, and a spell that should allow Wilden to return for one day.
After Barley fails to get the spell to work, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of magic from Quests of Yore, the family dejectedly moves on. But Ian inadvertently discovers that he has the magic gift; since he’s untrained, the spell only works halfway, bringing back the bottom half of their dad and destroying the Phoenix Gem. Barley and Ian team up on a quest using Barley’s old van to track down a new Phoenix Gem and complete the spell so that they have at least a few hours to see their dad. Laurel soon gets involved when she returns home to find her sons missing, and her urgency increases when she learns that the gem they’re hunting carries a lethal curse. The movie deftly juggles between the boys and the pairing of Laurel with The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a former warrior turned frazzled restaurant owner. Added to that mix, Laurel’s new centaur boyfriend, a bland, middle-aged cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) finds himself thrust into the middle of things.
The movie possesses a basic quest frame narrative, and so achieving or failing the quest is of course its central focus. The boys will either succeed or fail; since it’s a family movie, it should be no surprise that they succeed, although how exactly they succeed, and how the movie resolves its various plots, is far more surprising, heartfelt, and interesting than I ever would have expected. The brothers grow a lot and learn more about their own relationship. They both are tested in different ways to prove themselves. Ian becomes a really cool wizard (and learns how to drive!). Barley is a really cool mentor. Laurel is a true warrior at heart.
We had a lot of fun watching the movie, which is genuinely touching and hilarious in equal measures. I laughed a lot. And something about the movie’s emotional heart got me to cry several times throughout. It was a beautiful family movie and just what I needed. I hope you get something special out of it too.
Despite some delays, we’re still holding out hope for a closing at the end of this week on our first home. While a delay of a few days or a week wouldn’t be a big deal, it would be especially nice to close and take possession this week because it’s also the week that my work site has a summer shutdown. Regardless of whether we can actually start moving this week, we’ll at least be getting ready for it, packing and removing some of the stuff we won’t be taking with us.
It’s also a good week for catching up on other things I’ve been putting off. One of those things has just been keeping up with the Clone Wars rewatch, so last night I was binging several episodes, and tonight will get me back on pace with the once-a-week recaps on the official Star Wars website. In the rush of episodes, one small detail stuck with me.
In the episode “R2 Come Home,” R2-D2 must rescue Mace Windu and Anakin Skywalker from a lethal trap by escaping pursuing bounty hunters and contacting the Jedi Order. In the beginning of the episode, R2 is briefly partnered with Mace’s droid, R8-B7, before the latter unit is destroyed. But wait. R8? It looks like an identical model to R2. Why the different designation?
It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but droid designations have long been really confusing to me. In the films alone, it’s easy enough to decide that the designations might be partial serial numbers or something to that effect. But at least in the old Expanded Universe, droid designations came to represent both the model and unit. For instance, there was a whole R-series of astromech droids that included R2 models, R4 models, R8 models, and so on. (Higher the number, newer the model release.)
Again, there’s nothing in the films, at least that I can think of, that would dictate this interpretation. I think it’s an artifact of the Expanded Universe’s impulse to extrapolate general characteristics from very limited anecdotal film details–like that all Hutts are gangsters, all Rodians are bounty hunters, all Twi’lek women are dancers, and so on. (Thankfully the EU moved more and more away from that, and the new canon doesn’t seem too guilty of that outside of casting the Hutts once more as a Space Mafia race.) And I’m sure that a lot of those generalizations are a result of the need to gamify elements of Star Wars; so much of the broader lore originated with West End Games and was spread in supplements created by WEG and the publishers who filled the tabletop publishing niche in the following years.
The idea that a droid’s name always starts with its model number doesn’t even really make a lot of sense, unless one assumes that there are a lot of droids designated R2-D2, or that owners are picking random elements of a much longer serial number to supplement the droids’ names. It feels more right to imagine a generic droid series, the “R-series,” for instance, with many models and unique designations under that. (Still, I bet there are other so-called R2-D2s rolling around in that galaxy far, far away.)
I got hung up on R8 in particular because that would have been a model released much later in the old EU, but also because the designation seemed to have no practical effect on the droid’s appearance. As usual, I seem to be late to the party. Wookieepedia’s Legends page for R8-B7 has a behind-the-scenes section referencing an old Star Wars Insider issue (58) that apparently explained that droid names are fragments of longer designations. (Without a copy of that issue, I’m just going to have to trust the accuracy of the source. For my purposes, seeing the existence of the proposed theory is sufficient, even if the source is incorrect.) That was before the unified canon reboot, but that seems like a very plausible explanation.
I still want to put too much emphasis on those model numbers, though. I remember as a kid reading about them in Star Wars Gamer issue 3 (“DROIDS”!) and the “Droids” chapter of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook during the publishing reign of Wizards of the Coast. Something about that was formative enough to lock it in as a thing I “knew” about droids. It’s a hard thing for me to unlearn–even though nothing says that those model numbers aren’t still canon. It’s easy enough to reconcile model number designations with inconsistent droid names under the serial number theory. Searching keywords related to this subject, I stumbled on a Reddit thread that points out that the personal designation of a droid could be pulled from anywhere in its serial number. So even the apparent rule-breaker R8 could really be R2-B17998R8-B7743, or something like that. Still, if that’s true, why even grab random numbers at all? Why not just name your droid “Frank” or “Scruffy” or just call it “Astromech”?
It’s really not something that needs more explanation, because there’s not something truly broken here. It’s just silly, is all.
Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!
One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.
Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).
These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.
That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.
“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.
“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.
“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.
“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.
“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.
Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.
All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.
Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.
Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.
On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was PokemonConquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).
Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.
A Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.
We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule Historia, Art & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.
One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.
Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&D, Pathfinder, Blue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)
Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.
Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.
All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.
I first became exposed to Star Wars roleplaying games with Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system. I collected many of those sourcebooks and intermittently played with friends. I dabbled with Fantasy Flight’s newer, narrative-focused system, as well. But the original West End Games version had preceded me; I was born about a year after the publication of the first edition. Yet it held an important place in Star Wars history, keeping interest in the franchise alive at a low point and helping feed the re-ignition of popularity in the early nineties, so I’ve long been aware of it, though never involved with it or truly knowledgeable about its systems.
When Fantasy Flight announced a special anniversary edition over a year ago, I was pretty excited to get the chance to explore this game system. While the release was delayed, that delay was well worth it; this is a worthy addition to the various sourcebooks and systems on my shelf.
There are two books included in this anniversary set: a rulebook and a sourcebook.
The rulebook offers a fairly simple game system oriented around six-sided dice. I imagine that this helped its popularity in the late eighties and early nineties: not only was it more Star Wars to play around in, but it was incredibly easy to throw together the materials to play! Creating player characters (or, for the GM, NPCs and monsters) seems quite simple, with a quick distribution of abilities and a focus more on skills. Plus, any new player could simply grab one of the templates from the back and start with an archetype that allowed for room to role-play while requiring only a few minutes to prepare for the game.
Some of the modifiers and more advanced rules, as usual, got a bit math-heavy and convoluted, but the most complex of those rules were condensed into compact tables across a few pages at the end of the book. And more importantly, the rulebook consistently advised a focus on fun, cinematic, creative, narrative play that prioritized player experience over strict adherence to rules. A GM with a healthy knowledge of the rules and willingness to let things slide as needed, focusing more on working with players to craft a fun collaborative experience, could thrive with this system.
It was funny, then, to see the advertisements in these new editions promoting Fantasy Flight Star Wars game systems. Their narrative RPG is fun, but the need for custom dice plus the necessary learning of the various dice symbols and how they interact seems to actually result in a more exclusionary, rules-heavy environment than that offered by the WEG game, even if less numbers are strictly involved.
The sourcebook was the volume that I enjoyed the most. Even though I knew it influenced a lot of the tone, lore, and language of the EU, I was still surprised and impressed to see how much was still relevant. Even with the new canon, the sourcebook only seldom was directly contradicted. It wisely limited itself to extrapolations from the movies, so even the most specific Clone Wars references can for the most part be easily integrated into the current canon. In contrast, most character descriptions are now outdated and at least somewhat contradicted, and I actually preferred most of the new versions over the old; of all characters, Boba Fett’s remained one of the most accurate still, given the mysteriousness of the character at the time and the lack of hard answers.
Other unique lore elements I actually preferred: droids (or at least the more advanced droids) are definitely treated as sentients who are cruelly held in bondage, and the Force is a mystic religion that allows access to its secrets to just about anyone willing to train diligently under a Jedi Master (downplaying bloodlines and the like, though still keeping Jedi abilities quite limited because it is very clear that the universe intended here has virtually no Jedi left to learn from). Interestingly, the EU and the prequels moved away from some of these ideas, but the newest properties are coming back around to some of these interpretations.
There were very few lore elements in this early version of Star Wars that I actually disliked. The primary element that I found unpleasant: this version of Star Wars is very anthropocentric, and there’s almost as much of a divide between all of humanity in contrast to Aliens as there is between Rebellion and Empire. In a large galaxy, of course there are unaffiliated, unknown, and lost societies out there, and I wouldn’t want that removed from Star Wars. But the newer canon has integrated aliens into a much more diverse version of the galaxy–heck, the prequel trilogy really started that shift. I wouldn’t want to go back to a view where aliens were always so other, where the various non-human races were lumped together simply by being non-human, classified broadly with a capital-A Alien designation. (This version also leans hard into the roleplaying tradition of assigning fairly rigid personality and cultural traits by race.)
In a similar vein, I prefer the newer, more nuanced approach to the Mon Calamari and the Quarren. Their involvement in larger galactic society, rather than being newcomers, makes them less “Exotic.” Still, it’s impossible not to recognize how much has been carried over from the WEG sourcebook. The Mon Cal and the Quarren still shared a homeworld, and the Quarren still felt jealous of the Mon Cal. The Quarren joining with the Separatists, and later realigning with the Mon Calamari, and the Mon Calamari’s oppression under the Empire and early support of the Rebellion, are clearly drawn from elements of their original story. In all things, later Star Wars owes a significant debt to this early attempt at a Star Wars RPG–not to mention that so much of the weird nineties Star Wars short fiction that I love so much emerged out of communities oriented around the game.
Finally, I must point out the charm of the use of movie stills and a wealth of concept artwork to illustrate the various races, equipment, vehicles, and concepts described within.
The original WEG game holds up to the test of time. And this beautiful anniversary edition, with hardcover core rulebook and sourcebook contained in a slim black casing with beautiful cover art, is an excellent version to introduce oneself to it.
I sure hope that I have the opportunity to play soon. David Schwarz’s recent advice on Eleven-ThirtyEight for leading your own RPG campaign certainly got me thinking about the possibilities just as I was reading through these WEG books. Plus, I’d already accumulated some fun WEG companion books from past convention sellers, providing additional lore and examples of NPC stats to me well before I’d even read the core books…
I don’t know if I’ll have the time, or even an interested group of friends who would have the same time available, but we’ll see.
I wanted to talk about what I really liked about Gen Con, and about this past week in general. But you’ll have to use your imagination a bit. Believe it or not (given the absurd number of blurry bird pictures I’ve posted here), I don’t really take that many pictures. I typically just try to enjoy the moment. So pictures from Gen Con are sorely lacking. No cool pictures of cosplayers, for instance. Then again, if you want pictures of Gen Con cosplayers, I’m pretty sure IndyStarhas you covered.
As usual, my wife and I went to a lot of the panels and seminars, especially related to the Writer’s Symposium. It’s been refreshing that every year there is new and different programming; these events haven’t begun to feel stale or repetitive. Highlights this year included a discussion of tabletop game development with transmedia in mind and a fairly intimate panel with authors openly discussing their struggles with depression. As usual, there were interesting panels about diversity and about the writer’s craft, as well: my wife and I especially liked a session on the representation of Arabs and Muslims in tabletop gaming and an early panel on producing novel synopses for popular fiction. Outside of writing panels, I got a kick out of “Metal Church,” a mid-morning Sunday event that explored the intersecting history of heavy metal and fantasy roleplaying games.
Shockingly, one of my favorite events of the convention was the Glitter Guild’s “Nerdlesque” burlesque show on Thursday night. I haven’t really had an interest in burlesque, but my wife has an interest in things like burlesque entertainment and contemporary pin-up art (one of our big purchases from last year’s Gen Con was a massive pin-up print of Leia), and as I mentioned before, I like to encourage her to pursue her passions, so we went. Great show. I think I “get” burlesque more now, as a disinterested observer, than I did in the past. It’s very body-positive, welcoming of people of various ethnicities, body types, and genders. And it’s obviously exhibitionist, but it truly feels empowering to those on stage. Oh, also, it ended with one of the hosts doing a bit as the late great Carrie Fisher as Leia, and I lost it when she strangled an inflatable Jabba the Hutt on stage (okay, maybe you had to be there).
And speaking of sort of off-kilter events, as usual, the Sun King Wednesday evening street party before the official Gen Con opening was great fun. Dragon’s Delight, a “Belgian Golden Ale,” was an enjoyably smooth beer. And “Lez Zeppelin,” the (I kid you not) all-female Led Zeppelin cover band, was actually really good–more than anything else, your mileage may vary depending on how much you like Led Zeppelin to begin with.
Now, this is the third Gen Con we attended (we first went in 2015), and every year we’ve focused more on panels and events than games–even though it’s promoted as the best four days in gaming. That’s not to say that we avoid games; it’s a gaming convention, after all, and we are there because we enjoy tabletop gaming. But we have enjoyed focusing a little more on the writing/design elements of the convention. We always make at least one grand tour through the exhibition hall, though, and we always try to demo some games. This year, our favorite game was 1754, and we bought it after playing (though in full disclosure, I think this was the only game we played in full this year). Great fun, and it manages to capture some of the complicated politics and ultimate futility of the French and Indian War. Plus, it’s easy to pick up, and we already look forward to teaching some of our friends to play.
Funny enough, we got to 1754 because we passed the Academy Games booth in the exhibition hall, and my wife was really interested in their Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal game. The guy at the booth sold her on trying it out and told us that we could demo the game over in the big game hall space with some generic tickets. So when we finally made it to the game hall, trying this game was our top priority. There was an opening when we got there, but we realized we didn’t have any generic tickets on us. By the time we had the generic tickets, there wasn’t a free game. But we walked around and waited and eventually 1754 opened up. We decided to try it out and loved it.
As usual, a healthy dose of whimsy can lead to exciting discoveries (we love the used roleplaying game store set up in the exhibition hall the past couple years because we always make some serendipitous finds). But on the flip side, we never actually did play Guadalcanal. We finally made a decision for next year. Next year, we’re going to be more proactive. Next year, not only will we get badges early, we’ll actually research some games in advance and sign up for some play times (and so will actually register for the wishlist and buy specific game tickets) so we can try out the games we’re most interested in and maybe play some games we already love.
Outside of Gen Con itself, I had some other fun, geeky things to be excited about this past week.
First, as some or many or most of you may know, Fantasy Flight is publishing a 30th-anniversary version of West End Games’ original Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game! Pretty cool! No, I didn’t play this game. The first Star Wars roleplaying game I got into was the Wizards of the Coast version; I still have mountains (or at least carefully exaggerated molehills) of those source books and supplements. WEG’s version was before my time. But it was such a monumental part of developing early Star Wars expanded lore and keeping the franchise alive between Return of the Jedi and Heir to the Empire (and of course it framed a lot of the lore of Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy). And what a great time for it to return, with the Star Wars universe still relatively fresh post-reboot. The only thing I’m disappointed about? There was a “30 Years of Star Wars RPGs” panel at Gen Con, with Bill Slavicsek, Sam Stewart, Sterling Hershey, and Pablo Hidalgo, and I completely missed out on it. I only became aware of it about an hour after it was over! So that’s another reason why I’m actually going to plan next year’s Gen Con itinerary out a little better…
Second, we live so close to downtown Indy that we just walked to and from the convention center, and this gave me time to play Pokemon Go with my wife. I actually haven’t played in a while. She introduced me to the new raid system, and I familiarized myself with the new gym battle and defense system. Both things are a lot of fun, and I think Pokemon Go is a lot better game now! Even the same tap-tap-swipe combat system feels a bit fresher, as lagging seemed a lot less significant, so I could actually get my combatants to respond to my commands in a timely and useful fashion.
Third, in related Pokemon news, my wife and I also tried out Magikarp Jump. My god. That game is so cute and so addictive. It’s just a clicky sort of game, no real skill involved, but boy, it can suck you in if you cultivate time and resource management techniques. The combination of feeding, training, and competing, cycling with random events and special encounters to regenerate your ability to do all three, can keep me going for a half an hour or more at a time. Not bad for a stupid little game like this. I had to turn off my notifications for the game so that I wasn’t constantly being tempted for “just a few more minutes” of training.
Fourth and finally, all the extra walking from the past week yielded a new bird sighting for me. A lot of little birds were freaking out with alarm calls, flitting all over a tree. Naturally, this caught my attention. Sitting up on a branch was what appeared to be a massive owl, just chilling out in the middle of the day. Frustratingly, I couldn’t get a great look at him, and the pictures turned out even worse. Like that’s going to stop me from sharing, though! To end this post, look upon this owlish majesty: