Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bonus: Best Comics of 2013

I haven't written about comics here in a while, and I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about the best stuff I've been reading this past year.

So, without further ado...

Astro City. I've been a big fan of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's superhero comic with a difference since it first came out. It's a great inspiration to me in gaming, because it's entirely character-focused, rather than spending all of its time on the big spectacles (the fights, the giant aliens, the gods, the crossovers) that often distract the Big Two publishers. It's still great after all these years.

Pulp Dynamite! Dynamite Entertainment has quietly been knocking out a lot of great comics lately, and a lot of the time I buy more of their books than anyone else. Why? Because I'm a sucker for the great pulp heroes, and Dynamite has acquired the rights to a lot of the big names -- the Green Hornet, the Shadow, the Spider, and now the granddaddy of them all: Doc Savage. They're all solid books, with good creative teams working on them (Mark Waid's Green Hornet and Matt Wagner's The Shadow: Year One are particularly great) but my favourite is probably King's Watch by Marc Laming and Jeff Parker. Parker manages to give us the definitive modern characterization of the old "Defenders of the Earth" characters -- Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician -- wrapped up in Laming's gorgeous art. This guy deserves to be a superstar. If you like your heroes pulpy, check out Dynamite.

Everything's Comin' Up Chaykin! After a long period of turning out work for the Big Two, an old favourite of mine -- Howard Chaykin -- really swung his output into high gear this year. His black & white Satellite Sam (written by Matt Fraction, but it's Fraction channeling Chaykin's signature style) is a return to greatness -- a sordid tale of the early live era of television, sex (of course), and murder. Chaykin's art is terrific, and he's the perfect man to render this world of jazz clubs, dirty deals, and leggy dames. Image released this one, as they did an older piece of Chaykin's that I'd never heard of: Century West, a rollicking tale of the West in its final days, when the frontier was quickly disappearing. The art in this single volume gem is absolutely beautiful, and it's full of Chaykin's witty dialogue. Thanks for giving the world more Howie, Image!

New (Old) Teen Titans! I think it probably came out last year, but it was new to me -- Games, a long, long, LONG gestating New Teen Titans graphic novel by George Perez and Marv Wolfman. Reading this book was like a trip back in time, and I was quickly reminded of what made NTT and Uncanny X-Men great books, back in the day -- like Astro City, they used to be about characters. It's sad to me now to see how far the mighty X-Men have fallen, into a trackless sea of pointless "events" and new costumes. Marv & George show us how to do it right, with a story that is as moving as it is tense and dangerous. Thanks for this one, guys; it was worth the wait.

Fearless Defenders, We Hardly Knew Ye. One of the year's biggest surprises was Fearless Defenders, by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney. Yes, this was a big, over the top action book full of team-ups and slugfests, but at least this book had a new twist on the formula: it was a book all about the female characters of the Marvel-verse. I've long been a proponent of the "Why can't women just kick ass?" argument, something that is sadly still necessary to point out about the comics landscape of 2013. Here we have a huge roster of Marvel's awesome women characters going on rollicking adventures around the world, cracking wise and kicking faces in. An absolute delight from beginning to end, featuring a wide variety of Marvel women who deserve more attention: the bionic badass Misty Knight, Valkyrie (who got a very dark makeover here, in addition to a new Don Blake style arrangement with a mortal lover named Annabelle), and Dani Moonstar to name a few. Perhaps the high point of the series was an issue that shifted the focus to the heroines' male acquaintances, who have gathered in a bar to talk about how worried (and jealous) they are about their lady friends going off on exciting adventures without them. They are hilariously put in their place by the bartender, who turns out to be a long-forgotten heroine from the early 80's, Shamrock.

Fearless Defenders was not a deep or philosophical book, just a rollicking good time with a message. Of course, it was cancelled after issue 12. It will be missed.

Knights Hits 200. And speaking of books that don't get enough love, Knights of the Dinner Table hit 200 issues this year. That's nearly 20 years of indie goodness from the little company that could, who have now become the makers of unapologetically Old School games like Hackmaster and Aces & Eights. KODT is a comedy comic book about gamers, but that's just the surface of what has become a rather broad and complex affair over the (many) years. The cast has become massive, and the storylines have grown long and complex. It's still a burlesque of gaming-gone-bad, but there is enough genuine warmth and truth in this book that it's not a one-joke affair. The characters have genuinely grown over the years, and the book has grown with them in addition to cranking out the laughs. Oh, and for grognards like myself, the recent addition of Larry Elmore's SnarfQuest as a back-up feature is just the icing on the beholder-shaped cake.

That's it for 2013 from HTHD Central! Happy New Year, gamers and comic lovers!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

HTHD Year in Review (Part Two)

Two posts in three days? Outrageous. 

Part two of my year-end wrap-up is focused on goings-on at my own table, as opposed to general stuff in the industry worthy of my .02 cents. And I have to say, this was a year that was crammed with gaming, much of it good, some of it GREAT. It's a happy thing to have been in the gaming hobby for thirty-odd years and be able to say that I'm consistently playing the best games of my life right now. 

Game I’m Most Sad to See Go – SUNSET EMPIRE

Last summer, I closed the curtains for the final time on my four-year alt-Victoriana vampire slaying epic, SUNSET EMPIRE. The jams were thoroughly kicked out, the bad guys were thoroughly whupped, the price was occasionally gut-wrenching, and the world was left utterly changed. 

I loved this setting, loved the characters, loved the way my players really tore it up and made big, ambitious moves, loved the ability to go for broke and really smash up all my toys good. Bringing an epic story like this to an ending is tricky business, and I think I may have stuck the landing and brought the crowd to its feet. I feel pretty proud of this one.

Outstanding Achievement in Gaming Ambition – TIANXIA: THE BOOK OF CHANGES

Although it was a much shorter affair, and occasionally wracked by external problems, our playtest game of TIANXIA was a different kind of delight. We had a small, high-functioning group that were really in the driver's seat, staging bold, dramatic scenes and dovetailing them through three time periods in a way I've never seen before at the roleplaying table.

We learned a lot playing this game, and now the question is -- what's next?

Game That Was Totally Not For Us (But You Should Buy It Anyway) – TIANXIA: BLOOD, SILK AND JADE by Jack Norris

A wise person once said, "A man's got to know his limitations." For myself, I know that mastering the various moving parts of a crunchy system is not a strength I possess. Keeping track of a large number of elements in a rule-intensive situation during combat is an overwhelming, sometimes baffling, sometimes frustrating experience for me. So the extra layer of complexity that TIANXIA brought to FATE CORE (which was still quite new to us when we played this game) was a little more than I could comfortably handle. It may be that a longer-arc play experience would have meant more familiarity and more ease of play, but that is no longer the way we play games at my table (notwithstanding stuff like SUNSET EMPIRE). 

However, this book is still one of the best I've seen this year, and I am proud to have been a participant in a playtest for it. Jack Norris has produced what seems to me the perfect expression of what a core book should be -- it sketches out a setting in broad strokes, with lots of ideas, tools, and toys for the GM to play with, but doesn't bury you in unnecessary detail. The martial arts system is clear and evocative. The artwork is stunning. And the layout is gorgeous, clear, and readable. If you aren't already one of the people who bought into the Kickstarter for TIANXIA, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy when it is released. It's the bee's knees.

Game That Didn’t Happen (But Totally Needs To) – WILD TALENTS: TRUE BELIEVERS

I was literally ready to print out pages and make up characters for this game, which uses my beloved (yet dusty and unused) WILD TALENTS system to tell a story of "real-life superheroes", when we got the offer to participate in the TIANXIA playtest. It was a bittersweet decision to set TRUE BELIEVERS aside, but likely the correct one based on the amount we learned playing TIANXIA. 

One day, one day.

Gaming Takeaway of the Year – The Three-Round (Or Less!) Fight

Even in FATE, fights can really drag on sometimes. Part way through TIANXIA, I came up with the idea of abbreviating fights in much the same way that FATE runs Contests -- instead of letting two characters square off until one drops, essentially let things play out for three rounds and the person who has gained the upper hand (the best of three falls, essentially) "wins". This gave us the opportunity to get back to the drama quicker, and I think it's a handy trick for those of us who aren't really interested in the particulars of long fights. 

This doesn't work quite as well in a large-scale fight, but I think the principle is sound. 

As an honourable mention in this category, I think using the Bronze Rule to model larger-scale fights by statting them up as a single antagonist is a much easier, more streamlined way to manage a big donnybrook. I did that for the finale of TIANXIA, and it went much better.

HTHD Takeaway of the Year – Dovetailing Scenes

I've written on this earlier this fall, and I think it proved to be the most important storytelling tool we learned in TIANXIA. In playing out our story that involved elaborate flashbacks to different time periods in the lives of our three heroes, we developed the technique of riffing off things that other players had set up in their own scenes. When Quiescent Mountain was forced to care for a baby, another player set up a scene where the younger Mountain has just spoken to his lover expressing his desire to have a family. 

This technique really gets the whole table calling for scenes with a GM-like eye toward the overall story and creating an amazing storytelling harmony.

Game That I Totally Bungled - SHERWOOD

There's no getting around it. Although I still like the idea, my heart was just not in my tale of Rocket Robin Hood Redux. By the time the game swung into action, I was already dreaming of the third season of SUNSET EMPIRE, and that was pretty much that. 

Creepiest Line of the Year - “Hello there, Sugarplum.

I think I managed to push the pedal marked CREEPY all the way to the floorboards in our holiday finale episode of SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA. My character, Cole -- who is the lead singer in a Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque southern rock band -- surprised everyone by eliminating the creepy groupie California who had been messing with his sister and his best friend's heads. It was a scene that started out sexual, and ended with cold-blooded murder. I wasn't sure I had gone the right way with it, but the rest of the cast seems to agree I've pushed the stakes way, way up and that's okay with me. 

Meanest Line of the Year – “I hoped you were."

Speaking of cold-blooded, Megan's character Death Onyx was undoubtedly the paragon of cruel and callous violence at our table this year. The last few sessions of TIANXIA were absolutely filled with scenes where Death Onyx said unbelievably hurtful things to her old friends, in a bid to get them to abandon her or kill her. In this case, her old lover Mountain had just said "I thought you were dead." Then, the stone-cold response. DAMN.
Darkest Character of the Year - Death Onyx

It's really saying something when the DEADLANDS campaign filled with characters with mass murder in their past (and in my case, my present) were just grey clouds compared with the pitch black killer called Death Onyx. What do you say about a character who murders her employers -- including children -- and then kills an entirely unrelated, innocent person to make sure there are enough bodies (because the Governor's teenage daughter was not in the mansion at the time, and Onyx won't let her be hunted down too)? There's dark, and then there's Death Onyx dark.

Largest Player Character Body Count – Yuri Brekhov

I'm not sure my character Yuri ever used a gun in our COLD CITY game, but he was an absolute terror with a big skinning knife. Yuri went through rooms full of KGB agents and East German soldiers like a buzzsaw, and even smacked down vampires. Hardcore.

Squickiest Fate of a Player Character – Yuri Brekhov

...but then again Yuri ended up warming Baba Yaga's bed for all eternity as a riff on Koschei the Deathless. So yeah, not all wine and roses for the immortal Ghost of Stalingrad. 

“Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Baby” Award – Quiescent Mountain

One more TIANXIA moment that deserves mention is Quiescent Mountain's long ordeal as the custodian of a baby, an element that entered the story at random (as the result of a bad roll by Colin) but had huge ramifications for the way the game ended. Mountain only had one functional arm, you see, so the fact that he had to carry a baby around with him meant that he was constantly at a disadvantage. He tried to pass the baby off on his mother (she refused), place "Little Monk" out of the line of fire during the big battle in the streets of Bao Jing (inadvertently placing him in the path of a poison dart), and ultimately played "keep away" with a room full of shadow vampires wanting to feed on the child. But keeping the baby safe meant saving his old lover, Death Onyx, from herself. This was an instance of serendipity completely changing the outcome of a game. And it was delightful.

So many other moments, so many great games. But I could go on for a long, long time about these things. And I think I'll save some of them up to tell you about in the new year. So until 2014, happy gaming. 


Bill Templeton

Friday, 20 December 2013

HTHD Year in Review (Part One)

            First, let me apologize for my long absence. It’s been a busy few months, and I’ve let my blog slip a bit. I will, as Warren Beatty once said to the Academy while receiving a lifetime achievement award, try to do better.
            This has probably been the busiest four months of gaming and gaming-related activity of my life. In addition to our “regular” groups on Saturday night and Wednesday night, and my online game alternate Mondays, I have been running a game on the other Mondays with players who mostly aren’t part of my usual gaming troupe. We’ve had some great games, but it’s also worn me down. All this on top of the burdens of full-time employment and the release of our podcast, Shake, Rattle & Roleplay, have been keeping me away from the keyboard. (Oh yes, and I’ve been working on my own storygame, Lost Pines, which I promise to tell you more about at a later date.)
            After some soul-searching, I’ve made some changes to my schedule which I think will give me a little more me-time and relieve some of my obligations so that I can do stuff like write blog entries and storygames. I already feel less like I’m about to blow a mental gasket, and that’s good for everyone who’s had to put up with my craziness over the past couple months. Again, I will try to do better. 
            I thought a good way to get back in the swing of things was to write a little wrap-up – a Gaming Year in Review, to go along with so many other columns out there in the blogosphere summing up the best movies, books, and embarrassing political gaffes and scandals of 2013. My wonderful wife Megan is producing a series where she pits the books she’s read this year in gladiatorial combat against one another to decide the best book of the year. There aren’t enough strained analogies to combat featuring gladiators, road warriors in the Thunderdome, kaiju, Pokemon, or martial arts masters for my liking, but you should totally check that out.
            So, without further yap-flapping…

            High Trust, High Drama

            2013 Year in Review

            I think the most sensible way to go about this is in two parts, the first addressing general trends in gaming, products I’ve liked, and such, and the second part will reflect on some stuff that’s happened at my own game table.
Most Game-able Movie of 2013 (Tie) – PACIFIC RIM / THOR

            There were some duds in the “nerd movie” sweepstakes this year, with Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 both underwhelming me thoroughly. But Guillermo Del Toro’s robust PACIFIC RIM more than made up for a dull summer, and as I’ve already observed, it provides a model of a very gamable mecha universe.
            I have to say that I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed THOR: THE DARK WORLD, but it managed to improve on the first film in almost every way. Asgard was full of rollicking action and derring-do, much closer to the high adventure exploits we expect from a superhero comic book than dour fare like Zack Snyder’s take on Superman. Is this so hard, people?

Gaming Thing Most Likely to Suck My Wallet Dry – BUNDLE OF HOLDING

            Just in case you haven’t already discovered it and seen your bank account depleted mightily because of it, Bundle of Holding puts together themed packages of indie RPGs and sells them at a pay-what-you-want price. The spoils are divided up between the bundlers, creators and the charity of their choice, and if you pledge more than the average you get bonus games. Not only is this a great way to check out a bunch of new games, it’s a great way to spread around some money in the industry and support good causes.

Shiny New Game System We’re Digging the Heck Out Of – DRAMASYSTEM

            I bought in to the Kickstarter for HILLFOLK, the new game from Robin Laws that acts as the flagship title for his new DRAMASYSTEM line. It’s a very sleek system that feels very close to Primetime Adventures, with a few extra bells and whistles attached (the procedural system, which gives a little more mechanical heft to things like combat or investigations). It’s also got a very insightful character creation method that builds characters who not only have strong relationships with one another, but fraught relationships. If you read Hamlet’s Hit Points, this is the game application of those ideas. It’s really nifty stuff, and we’re enjoying it.

Kickstarter Most Jam-Packed With Gaming Goodness – FATE CORE

            Evil Hat really knocked it out of the park with their Fate Core Kickstarter, which provided so much gaming goodness it’s absurd. Not only did it fund the core game rules, but a light version (Fate Accelerated), two books full of ready-to-run settings (Fate Worlds), a Fate System Toolkit, supplements for FC versions of Freeport and The Day After Ragnarok, and a totally awesome new Spirit of the Century supplement (Strange Tales of the Century) by epic nerd scholar Jess Nevins. Right now, Fate Accelerated is my go-to game, but with all this stuff you could build pretty much any version of Fate you like.

Indie HTHD Game of the Year – MONSTERHEARTS

            I am a latecomer to the *World line, but Joe McDaldno really produced what is for me the definitive HTHD version of that ruleset in MONSTERHEARTS. It refines the basics of the system down to focus tightly on high school drama with lots of sex and angst and bad behaviour. With apologies to Vincent Baker, this spoke to me in ways that Apocalypse World did not. If you’re interested in games with lots of drama and high emotional stakes, this is the place.

Most Game-worthy Game of the Year – FATE ACCELERATED EDITION

            FAE strips down the Fate Core engine to its sleekest, sweetest stuff and wraps it all up in a tiny $5.00 package that should be in every gamer’s bag. It’s clearly aimed as an entry level product, but for those of us who have been playing Fate for a while and like the game sleek, this is just what we’ve been dreaming of for a long, long time. If you don’t own a copy of this, you mustn’t have any interest in narrative and character-centric gaming. It’s boss, applesauce.

Coolest Monthly Injection of Awesome – KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF

            I was lucky enough to get a subscription to Ken Hite’s superlative series of articles through a Bundle of Holding. Each month, Ken takes a topic, monster, or setting and writes 8-10 pages of material jammed with the wild ideas and historical awesome that Ken does best. Absolutely unmissable for anyone who loves Mr. Hite or plays a game with the word “Cthulhu” in the title.

Most Awesome Game My Players Would Never Agree To Play – DARK STREETS

            Another goodie that came in a Bundle of Holding. This is a game where players play the Bow Street Runners in Georgian London, with a Lovecraftian twist. Definitely not an era that I’ve seen Cthulhued before, and one that sounds like a lot of fun. Kudos for Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton for finding a small corner of the world that hadn’t already been overstuffed with tentacles.
My players: NEIN.

Coolest Free Thing of the Year – MYTHENDER

            Ryan Macklin is a guy who doesn’t get nearly enough love and respect in the gaming industry. This year, he released a game he’d been working on for a very long time – MYTHENDER – for free. It’s a big, ambitious game about wailing the hell out of gods, and it’s well worth a look. It was an amazing and humbling gesture for the esteemed Mr. Macklin to release a game this amazing for free, and he deserves to be lauded for such a generous contribution to the gaming community. Also, he’s on his way to being married in the near future – so congratulations, Ryan!

Biggest Gaming Nuisance of the Year – GOOGLE+

            Most of these are raves, because nobody really wants to see any more bandwidth wasted on bitching about something that I don’t like. However, Google+ has been on my shitlist for a long time. I use Google Hangouts to run an online game, and Google+ does its very best to make it impossible for me to find a simple button that will take me into this feature. Although its online performance has improved over the last year, it’s still buggy and frustrating. The apps sometimes work and sometimes don’t, for no discernable reason. Players are kicked out of the Hangout or don’t receive an invite to begin with, entirely at random.
            It’s a little like being close enough that you can see the Dazzling Future World, just over the next hill, but for now you’re stuck in Sean Connery’s musty old red shorts from Zardoz. And they itch.

(To be continued)