Friday, May 10, 2019

The Calm Before the Phantom Menace

Image result for Phantom Menace20 years ago from the day I am writing this, I was a ending my Jr year in high school and  culture was different.  We were 9 days away from a major change in pop culture, and little did I know I was 9 days away from the rest of my life ( but more on that later).  We (the self proclaimed nerds and geeks of the world) were excited and were still naive and optimistic about what we would see in one weeks time!  We were all looking forward, barely able to breath, to see Star Wars the Phantom Menace!

Back then Star Wars was how I met most of my friends.  When I went from Elementary to Jr. High, to High School, I made my friends by having conversations about Star Wars.  It’s how I found people who could speak my language.  They were numerous, and for the most part are still my friends now.  Star Wars allowed us to create a language of trust among us.  The story was the same.  It was something we all latched on to.  We trusted in it, we liked it.  It was a part of our lives we all shared.  A jumping on point.   
Image result for Power of the Force figures
In elementary school vintage Star Wars figures were a playground currency, by the time Jr. High came around the Power of the Force 2 figures were on the shelf.  The original 3 movies were re-released with their new versions into the theater again.  It was a little bit of a renaissance.  But it wasn’t new, and George Lucas was promising new.  

He had been teasing in interviews for years.  He talked about his whole saga that he had in his head.  Anytime there was a magazine article that came up in one of the Sci-Fi or Pop Culture publications It caught my attention.  We would get to see the Clone Wars - and see the Jedi, and see Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker.  It would be huge and amazing.  I wanted to see this vision.  We all did.  We were young and we trusted in Lucas.  Why shouldn’t we.  His creations were part of us.  Part of our past, and part of our story.           

The year leading up to the Phantom Menace was was long and arduous.  On a personal note a lot was changing in my life.  A band that I had been in for 4 or so years leading up to that and had been a huge part of my life broke up.  It was, on the surface, friendly - but underneath I think it was emotionally messy.  I was trying to go through those emotions.  I wanted to move on.  During that year I also had 2 or 3 Girlfriends who came and went, as relationships in high school do.  This was 1999, the same year the Columbine shooting occurred, and I don't care where you were or who you were, if you were in high school at that time- it hit home.  All this was causing me to butt up against real life, and when I did that I usually retreated (escaped) with one of two things.  Doctor Who or Star Wars.  It was a good time to prep for a new movie coming out.

Image result for 1999 Phantom Menace Time MagazineThose original 3 Star Wars for me, until more recently, have been perfect.  I could cast aside the flaws that they brought because of the nostalgia they held for me.  They were, for the most part simple, or at least I thought they were.  It wasn't until years later would I truly understand how Nuanced that original saga is.  My Earliest memory of Star Wars is seeing Luke taking off Darth Vader’s helmet and revealing his face.  I was probably about 4 years old.  It was so simple - His dad was a bad guy - but in the end he made the right decision and saved the day!  I remember asking a lot of questions.  I wanted to understand.  I’m not sure I did for years.  But I was interested to see what led Darth Vader down the path he went down.  Again, this is something we were promised.

Now back to 9 days before the release.  I remember sitting under a tree outside the cafeteria at lunchtime, comparing rumors with a friend of mine. Sharing what we had heard.  I told him I had read that Boba Fett would be Darth Vader’s brother (and Idea I still think makes way more sense than what we got) and how George Lucas’s wife had talked him out of it.  He would tell me about how the Millennium Falcon would make an appearance in the movie.  There was no question though, that it would be a perfect movie.  We would love it.  We would finally have more Star Wars.  Again, we were optimistic and naive.  We were not yet jaded old fanboys.
Image result for Phantom Menace Toys sneak preview
In those days leading up to the movie the toy shelves were already selling us new toys from the movies.  The Power of the Force (or Power of the Jedi by this time) had already been giving us glimpses of characters and designs.  At this point it could still all go any direction!  

Those 9 days eventually passed.  The waiting was excruciating.  It is a day I will not forget.  The Day that the Phantom Menace came out was on a Wednesday.  May 19th 1999.  This was also I was working that night.  I worked on a cleaning crew at a corporate office for a nursing home ran out of my hometown.  I didn’t go to see the movie that night.  I did see Phantom Menace the next night.  I went by myself (as all my friends had already seen it).  That first viewing was magical.  The opening Scene was everything I wanted.  My heart raced.  I was blinded by new Star Wars.  by Seeing Obi Wan in action, by seeing real lightsaber battles.  I left the theater and went across the street to get a toy Lightsaber, because I felt like that was what I should do.  I wanted to go right back in and see it again.  It felt perfect.  It was more Star Wars.
Image result for Phantom Menace
It wasn’t until a while later that it all started to wear off.  Maybe it wasn’t as good as it felt.  The plot began to fall apart.  Jar Jar began to be questioned.  It was problematic.  I got on that bandwagon eventually, but for a moment It was perfect.  For a moment I got to relive a childhood dream - of seeing more Star Wars.  It was good enough for that enjoyment. 

Now we are expecting the final movie of the Skywalker franchise later this year.  The Prequels are pretty much berated.  The newest trilogy has gotten mixed reviews and toxic fandom has made its stance known about the Last Jedi.  I, however have faith, that if. . . IF. . . a movie can suspend my disbelief for the amount of time I am in the theater and it can give me the childhood joy that Star Wars has always done, I am fine.  The movie is fine.  I love Star Wars - and while the phantom menace does not stand up these 20 years later.  I have pleasant memories of the time leading up to it as well as watching it, and honestly still get joy out of it. 

Fandom and Society changed the night that movie came out - so I have find memories of those days leading up to its release!  

So Why didn’t I see the movie on opening night?  I had a date with a girl who I had been pining for without even knowing it for years.  It was the first available date we could get together.  It was at a coffee shop and we just talked.  I don’t know about what.  I’m sure images of Star Wars were swimming around in my head.  That was our first date.  20 years later we are married and have 2 kids and I get to show them Star Wars and tell them this story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Kids on Bikes and Narrative RPGs

Image result for kids on bikes
Kids on Bikes from Renegade Games 
Recently I had a chance to play Kids on Bikes a role playing game by Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Levandowski and put out by Renegade games.  The game is created to mimic the “Kids on Bikes” genre of movies and TV such as the Goonies, The Sandlot, Eerie Indiana and more recently Stranger Things.  It is rules light and focuses on collaborative narrative play where the rolls you make determine more about the level you get to effect the story than if you succeed or fail a role.

Of course, this kind of narrative story game is different than a lot of other RPGs, specifically the games I have the most experience with.  Games like D&D, or Star Wars historically work in a very different space. You roll the dice you succeed or you don’t and that success or failure drives the narrative.  That is a far cry from a lot of the games coming out of the Indie game scene, more recently were there is a lot more emphasis put on drama and decisions than simple success.  

It is a different way to play, and narrative games do well to equip you with what to expect within the rules. But there is only so much they can provide you when the idea is to see how a story develops at the table.  “Kids on Bikes” specifically falls into this as the game prides itself on the collaborative town building. The game truly begins as a blank slate and the players around the table create a town by answering a set of simple questions and having a conversation about the town.  The same is done with character creation. It is truly a collaborative process that requires everyone to get involved.

Its not like the old days where you grabbed your rules and grabbed your module or your notes you as the GM had worked tirelessly on.  You are at the mercy of the group imagination and your quick wits. It can be scary!

That said there are some thing I have noticed that may be able to help you as you jump into a game of Kids on Bikes or any narrative games for that matter.  I want to share those thoughts with you and hopefully if you are going to try your hand at this you might be able to learn from these.


Finding the inspiration for these games is a big part or prepping them.  Kids on Bikes is a all about playing in an era before smartphones in every pocket. Sometimes it is hard to remember what that is like. Take some time to gather your inspiration as you get closer to running the game.

Kids on Bikes is as much about the mood of the time as it is the game itself.  I found that creating a playlist from the period was helpful to help prep as you begin to create a mood for the game - remember sound is one of the senses and it your job to help evoke  a sense of place and time. There are few things that do that as easily as music.

The game offers several inspirations and each of the settings will offer their own as well, but I am creating a list here of a lot of inspirations from different media that could be inspirational to getting your creative energies flowing.   

Eerie Indiana
Stand By Me
The Goonies
Stranger Things
Paper Girls
Paper Towns
Looking for Alaska
Gravity Falls
The Regular Show


As mentioned above there are few ways you can truly prepare for a game if you are playing the whole collaborative process, but there are some things you can to to assist the process in some cases.  

The most obvious way to do this is to use a premade town, either one of your own or one of the towns that was included in the deluxe edition of the book.  Even if you use this there are opportunities for you to have a collaborative process of setting up events and parts of the town, but it will help the process become more structured, and give you some interactions and hooks that will help you get things started.

Another thing you can do is plan out some possible scenarios.  There is a good chance (a really good chance) that you will not be able to use any of these, as your players will very likely take you for a loop in the town creation process - but it will at least get you thinking about where it could go.  You may even be able to slide in some of your ideas as things get going.

A broader way of doing this is to create a GM playbook that you can pull from and can be plugged in for generic concepts like organisations.  This could include plug and play places, ideas, hooks, maps - go to powered characters, organisations. Think of this as your own personal mythology within your games.  If you need a secret government organisation have one worked up complete with symbols. If a local snack shack exists have a map that can quickly be pulled out. Have some characters ready for the game you are playing that will fit multiple roles.  And as always, have a close at hand list of names that can quickly be dropped onto NPCs that might pop up. All of these things will make your job easier and will actually make for a more immersive play experience.

During the game

Your GM playbook, mentioned above, will go along way to help you during the game.  But there are some things you may need that it and the game may not provide, remember players are interesting beasts and you have no idea where they are going to go so, know your surroundings within the game. . . as best you can.    

The most important thing for game play of any RPG is to keep it going - once the game starts try your best to not reference the rules.  This is accurate for any game but it is especially helpful with this game. Fake it to get through the game if there is something you can’t find in say 30 seconds.  “Kids on Bikes” is extremely rules light, so it’s really easy to get the rules down quickly and navigate through the 60 or so pages of rules that are provided - but don’t sweat it if you forget or overlook something - the game will go on. As long as the game doesn't break - keep going.

That said it is also important to familiarize yourself with the book as a reference document. set the book up to where you can reference the parts you need quickly - specifically if there is any advice on monsters etc. . .  Kids on Bikes does not provide a list of monsters, nor does it provide any kind of sample stats in the main book, (it’s not really that kind of game), but there are some included in the settings section of the deluxe version of the book.  I found this super helpful to be able to turn to one of the settings and quickly be able to skin a Were Rabbit from one setting into a menacing Chicken Man in the setting that my players had created. This was super handy.

The same thing could be done quickly with the Tropes that are the base that all of the created  characters. Take advantage of this as you need NPCs in your games and quick stats. Having a few extra character sheets from the playbook could be helpful as well.   

Ultimately don't be afraid to reskin and allow things to be fluid so that it can fit into the direction the players take you into.

Keep the story moving. even if the story is focusing on the players - there should be movement in the town - be that other towns people - or a shadowy government organisation as they put their plans in motion. remember the plans and schemes of the villains don't stop while the players are in motion.

After the game

Every time we do anything as humans we want to improve. playing games should be no different. spend some time at the end of the game to wrap up. If the game was a one shot - allow the players to narrate how it ends. let them close it out. If it is a part of a longer game let them close out the scene and set up for the next game - perhaps a cliffhanger.

Once the game ends spend some time asking the payers how it went. What did they enjoy - but also what they didn't enjoy. This is important - I would venture to say perhaps the most important part of the game. This is the step that allows all of the other steps work. it lets you figure out what you need to improve the next game (or keep it how it is if you are running an awesome game).

Ultimately these things we play are games - so we should be having fun. We should be telling stories, and enjoy being with like minded people. Don't get too caught up in the ins and outs of the game and just enjoy. Once you get to the table you are there - and you are in as much control as you should be. If you are playing a narrative collaborative game for the first time - enjoy its gonna be a fun ride. If Kids on Bikes is just another narrative game in your repertoire - you are going to come at this from a very different place - but I still think this game will bring you a very different experience.

Enjoy and tell some great stories!!

Check our Kids on Bikes at Renegade Games at
Pre-orders are being taken now!   

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Its Not for you! - a look at rebooting your childhood.

There are a lot of 80s cartoons being rebooted of late.  Voltron started a while back.  We have new TMNT ( again) new Thundercats, and new She-Ra cartoons all premiering later this year or next year.  They all appear to be drastic departures from the versions so many of us grew up with, so its understandable that some of my fellow 80s kids have a hard time with this change.  I did too for a long time, but in this post I want to to talk about how I became OK with the reboots and my new philosophy on Life, the Universe, and Cartoons.

Much of my life has been inundated with thinking about the things I loved as a child.  The cartoons, movies, and toys of the 80s are all such a huge part of what I loved about growing up.  They were important to me.  I have fond memories of lounging around and watching the mid afternoon cartoons on my families woodgrain TV with very persnickety tuners.  These cartoons were how the kids of the day formed a lot of their social interactions.  It was the water cooler talk of Kindergarten and first graders.  

Of course, watching the cartoons led to buying the toys and playing with those.  The characters and the franchises were on the screens as well as down the toy aisle.  I saw some of these characters more than I did some of my family members.  You form connections unwittingly to these characters and franchises. 

And this is where fandom gets tricky - you see, we love these things.  We have supported these things for years - often when no one else did, we support them so much that we often feel like they belong to us, That we own them, and that the franchise owes us something for our support.  We compare everything to that original version that we saw as kids.  If it does't touch that nostalgia space in us -  it sucks and had destroyed our childhood ( one of the worst phrases in this whole debate of reboots - also something a reboot can't actually do). It’s broken and it doesn’t deserve to exist.  It is worth less than the value we have put on it in our minds.

But here is the thing-  we don’t own it -  and honestly what we think doesn’t matter.  Let’s be real for a minute .  The original Thundercats is excruciating to watch.  The remake in 2012 - was good - but kids (still the target audience) - didn’t like it.  So honestly what do we know anyway.  Its important to accept these shows aren’t made for us -  but - it’s still there and they represent a new way for us to interact with the franchise.  These new shows are for our kids.  It provides a new way for our kids to interact with the franchises we loved when we were kids.  It is a way for us to connect.  Our kids will love these -  this will be their Thundercats or Ninja Turtles, or She-Ra.

The same ultimately goes for movies -  for all of you who are disheartened about the direction of the new Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker was your hero - he was mine -  but it doesn’t mean he should be redirected in a saintlike stature - because our kids don’t have the co. Action to him.  Like it or not these new movies aren’t for us.  Once again they are for our kids - and those who did not grow up with warn out VHS copies of the movies.

It took me a long time for me to get to this place in my life.  I was there, specifically with Doctor Who.  Weathering the wilderness years between the classic and new series was hard.  When I came out of the other side of it- it did feel like I was owed something.  and in a way that I was superior.  that I knew what was better for the series.  As it turns out I didn't, and the BBC still owns it.  Do I think they have made some odd choices - yes I do.  do I think the show will go on. . . Yes I do.  Do I still watch every single episode. . . Yes I do.  You see that show - isn't made for me any more.  it is made for a different audience, but it is still mine to support if I choose to.  So, Bring on Jodi Whittaker and here is to her being the best Doctor yet!

Now don't get me wrong, we are all entitled to our opinion.  you are perfectly fine to not like something.  You should be proud of the things you don't like and you should be able to vocalize why you don't like it.  That is what fandom is about.  In the end though - say your peace and let those who like it like it.  If you are able support it, because of what it was.remember most of those who are making these things now are like us.  They grew up with it and are putting that lense on it as they are creating it.

Ultimately it is time for us 80s kids to appreciate that we have grown up and that we are no longer the audience for these cartoons - That these new versions are being made for someone else.  You should watch these shows in support of what they once were and what they will be for the next generation.  We owe them that support.  Buy the toys for the kids in your life - and remember what it was like when your parents or loved ones bought them for you.  Remember that feeling and be happy that you can share it with your kids.  This will create the next generation of creators, animators, comic makers, and generally good people!

You can view images, trailers, or intros for some of the upcoming reboots below:
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The new She-Ra upcoming from Netflix coming later this year!

(P.S. I'm secretly looking forward to all of these reboots - and the action figures that will come with them!)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Gateway Role Playing Board Games

I have a fascination with late 80s and early 90s gateway board games.  That's what I call them at least.  These were games that took on tenets of  of role playing games without actually being role playing games.  It was a way for the mass market Toy companies cash in on the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role playing games without gaining as much of the Ire from the Satanic Panic backlash that Dungeons and Dragons (and the company that made it, TSR) had felt during the 80s.

These Games were were typically board games in which players took on the role of a character (or took a role in the game) often these were cooperative games, and sometimes they even had a "game master" to play the bad guys in the game.  Typically these were Dungeon Crawl games, meaning the players were exploring dungeons or castles.  The dice were typically more akin to the polyhedral dice used in Role Playing games at the time than other board games.  Sometimes the dice were 6 sided but they had special symbols.  The games also made use of miniatures as pieces. Not only were the players pieces represented by these, but so were the monsters and villains that they would fight.  If anyone had glanced into a game store and seen miniature games being played before, these games  would have felt similar to that experience.  It was an easy way to experience something with a low buy in price.

These games also had fun components and looked complicated.  While these games may have acted as a gateway to Role Playing and other thematic gaming experiences.  They were also designed to combat the perceived immersion that video games were providing.  That was definitely a factor in the development of these games as well. 

The games I am going to talk about here, are mostly fantasy themed.  In some cases it felt like the company was more interested in selling the theme than they were a game.  Most of these games had boxes with paintings of warriors and wizards fighting dragons and other monsters.  Right out of the gate they conjured images of heroic quests and mighty fantasy heroes.  All of that was right on the cover.  It was the promise of adventure.  But it was still confined to the bounds of a board game!

The front box art for HeroQuest - Image taken from


The first of these games I am going to look at is probably the most popular and sought after.  HeroQuest was a collaboration between  Milton Bradley and British game company Games Workshop.   The game focused on 4 generic heroes (Barbarian, Dwarf, Elf, and Wizard) as they traversed dungeons and fought monsters (such as orcs, Goblins, and Gargoyles)  placed by Zargon (played by the another player)

The game is played on a board with castle or dungeon rooms.  Zargon (the game master) places furniture, doors and other provided objects around according to previously laid out  maps provided in the book.  The players then move around the grid on the board into and out of rooms fighting monsters and finding treasure. 

HeroQuest made use of special dice with Skulls and Shields printed on them.  These were used by all of the players to make their attacks and to defend against other attacks.  To hit, you were looking for skulls, and to defend you were looking for shields.

The HeroQuest setting was loosely based on that of the Warhammer property that Games Workshop produced.  The grim world of that dark fantasy worked translated well into the game.  The most specific tie to the setting were the Chaos Warriors that served as monsters in the game.

This game was a lot of kids first experience with fantasy gaming.  I have heard more than one story  of kids getting their start with RPGs with this game.  Which makes sense as it could be purchased at retail and there was no need to go into a specialty store to purchase the game.

The game was also expandable as there were expansions released with more miniatures and new adventures to be added to the game.  This was a fairly new concept to big box store games, and was pulled directly from the hobby gaming and RPG model.  It created more playability and replay ability of the game.

Check out the amazing commercial that was inundating kids on Saturday morning!  What kid wouldn't want to take a crack at this game! 


Milton Bradley and Games Workshop had another collaboration called Battle Masters which was a skirmish game made for a mass market.  This game more closely resembled WarHammer in terms of set up, and theme.  It was less role playing but maintained the thematic piece to connect to the modern RPGs of the time.
Once HeroQuest ceased publication games workshop continued the game with "Advanced HeroQuest" it was a similar concept but with a more complex set up and rule system.  More recently they brought a similar system and game back with Warhammer quest.

HeroQuest is still one of the most sought after games of this era.  The game is often found going for over $100.  It is a desirable piece for the collection, especially for those who want to relive the experience of their gaming hay day.

Dragon Strike

Dragon Strike Bx Art - Image from
Dragon Strike is a little more on the nose.  This game came out in 1993 and was TSRs attempt to bring people into the hobby (read bring people into playing Dungeons and Dragons).  It was designed as an entry level game to get a younger audience interested into Fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons.  TSR had the full force of its machine behind this game.  First, the game was packaged with a VHS that boasts that it is made in "Hyper Reality", which basically means they hired some oiled up "actors" and set them up on a green screen and put some animation behind them.  This was meant to demonstrate how a game of dragonstrike should run, and how the roles of the characters could be taken on.  TSR also employed marvel comics to create a one issue comic to promote the game.  Also the adverts for the game were extensive in the nerd culture of the time, including in comics etc. . .   And don't forget the obligatory Saturday morning cartoon commercial.

Of course like all great obscure videos you can find the "Hyper Reality" video on youtube now for your enjoyment

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Marvel Comics Dragon Strike one shot issue 

The setup is not unlike HeroQuest.  The players take on the role of a Warrior, a Wizard, an Elf, a Thief, or a Dwarf as they take on monsters on boards that are set up by a player who plays the role of the dungeon master and controls the monsters of the game. These monsters include Dragons, A Scorpion Monster, Skeletons, and orcs.  The setup and feel is very reminiscent of HeroQuest - with the biggest difference being that there is a timer for the game.  After a number of rounds the Dragon will fly in and attack the players.  This helps speed the game along for the players.

This game mechanics was an extremely simplified version of the basic Dungeons and Dragons rules.  It used a D12, D10 and D8 that were color coded.  Each characters card had a different colored die next to the different abilities,  When the player wanted to use that ability, they simply had to find the die that corresponded to the color next to that ability.

Thematically it was very generic fantasy - The video that is included leads off with a very medieval esq castle with a jolly king having a feast.  It is not really an established Dungeons and Dragons.  Actually that is one of the odd things about this game.  They game is very obviously an entry point into D and D, but the game is called Dragon Strike.  No where on the cover of the box do the words "Dungeons and Dragons" appear.  The only thing that connect the two products is the dragon in the logo is the same dragon that was appearing on the basic D and D sets at the time.  At the bottom of the box it actually said it was part of "the Adventurevision Game Series," which doesn't appear to have actually become a thing after this, but this kind of thing was not uncommon for TSR at the time.


While this is a game that I have pined after ever since I remember seeing the commercials on TV, I can't say the game itself has left much of a legacy.  It was mildly successful and a few years after HeroQuest, so it is not remembered quite so fondly.  Of the four games I am talking about in this post this is the one you find most inexpensively.  Of course Dungeons and Dragons and the TSR properties have a huge legacy- this is a product that is part of that family, so the legacy is pretty astounding if you include that. 

Key to the Kingdom

Key to the Kingdom Box Art - Image taken from
When Golden puts out a fantasy themed game you know there is something to the fantasy trend.  Yes that "Golden" the same company that put out golden books.  That is who put out "Key to the Kingdom." in 1990.  While still very much a fantasy game that could lead to role playing it takes a slightly different track.  There are fewer miniatures, actually just identical player pieces and a "Demon King" miniature.  The game is also competitive as opposed to the collaborative play of the other games. Key to the Kingdom uses 8 sided dice, and the players have equipment cards that they will used to defeat monsters or traps that they meet along the way.  While we are discussing "The Way" the pieces are move around on a board that appears to be something out of a traditional board game.  There are squares and players move their piece along the paths not unlike you would in candy land.  Then it gets interesting.

There are 6 parts of the board.  there are the front two panels, then it opens out into 4 more panels.  The board opens as players move their characters to one of two portals.  Characters who have not reached the portal have 3 turns to do so.   It is a fascinating point of game play.  It literally turns the game upside down.  This throws kinks into the other players plans, as you are all looking to find the Key to the Kingdom, but you still have to escape the board with the key before you win. 

This is a fantasy trope that is not often picked up on for board games.  the idea of planes, or dimension travel.  It is worked right into the mechanics, an it is exciting!

This game is hard pin down.  It walks a line of traditional board game and thematic fantasy game.  There are elements of role playing like equipment management and fighting monsters, but it doesn't feel as ingrained on the experience as some of the others do.  Still this is a game that I hear people talk about how it was their first experience with fantasy gaming and later got them excited about trying RPGs.  It is also a great example of fun thematic game design.


Dark World

Dark World Box Art - Image taken from
Dark World was put out in the US by Mattel in 1992.  It seems like a direct response to the success of Heroquest.  It feels as if tries very hard to be more than HeroQuest in a set of overproduced components. This game continues the thematic journey of dungeon crawler complete with a girded dungeon board, hero and monstrous miniatures, and dice with odd symbols on them.  Similar to hero quest and dragon strike one player, called the "Evil Lord" plays the role of the monsters.  That part is simple, but this game offers an oddity.  It is extremely overproduced.

The game is full of moving parts.  There are physical walls that are propped up on the board that are complete with hinged doors and secret passage ways.  There are treasure chests that open to reveal weapons than can be added to the hands of the players miniatures to increase their ability.  The end of the board represents the throne of the evil lord where he waits for the intrepid adventurers ready to attack.  Speaking of heroes, their hit points are kept very similarly to how heroclix work.  The base of the miniature twists to act as a counter for hit points.  One of the strangest components of the game is a piece that sets up initiative order.  It is a plastic sword with 4 colored beads inside.  you shake it - then resolve turn order by moving the characters based on the order in which the beads line up in the sword.  It is innovative for sure, if not a little odd.  Under all of the moving parts however are extremely simple mechanics that do not benefit from the extra plastic included with the game.  The characters move very linearly around that girded board.   Once doors are open they are open and have no game effect.  While it looks great it doesn't seem to add to the mechanics.

There is, however something to be said about immersion, and the immersion factor of the production of this game.  These days it is nothing for D&D players to spend thousands of dollars on Dwarven Forge components to create the very experience that this game created out of the box.  So, it is relevant to the conversations.  Like the other games Dark World offered many a kid in the 90s an exciting entry point into role playing games.  It had all of the thematic action that a 90s kid could want.  In a very elaborate package.

There were several expansions put out for this game over the next few years.  While the game now has a cult following it did not have the popularity of staying power that heroquest has had.  The pure amount of components made it slightly more difficult to allow it to stay together, so now finding complete copies is harder.  It was a game that tried very hard - and it shows with the sheer amount of components.             

Other Thematic Games 

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This era was rife with the big companies putting out very thematic games.  While the games above were all firmly rooted in fantasy themes, there were other themes that were jumped on as well.  All of these could easily have led to more in depth gaming.

I mentioned Battle Masters above, this game was all in fantasy war gaming.  It was a great way to get your feet wet into that style of game.  It was also very large and took up a lot of floor space as it had a 5ft X 5ft battle grid to lay out.

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Omega Virus was a sci-fi themed game that dealt with a space station that was taken over by a bad mouthed computer virus.  this was in the hay day of electronic games.  There was a base in the center that codes would be typed into and the virus would talk to you and tell you what is happening as you entered different rooms of the space station.  it was a little component heavy with key cards and droids, but for the most part it was quite fun.

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Space Crusade was another games workshop property that Milton Bradley brought to market.  This time they were bring the world of warhammer 40K to a broader audience.  This did not last quite as long as the HeroQuest success, but all the same it was a fin gateway into another type of gaming.

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HeroScape is a game that came out a little later.  It ihit in the early 2000s.  It was highly produced with interlocking terain and was more of a skirmish game than a RPG.  It was produced by MB and it had a very similar dice system to heroquest.  I always felt it a kind of a distant cousin to that game.  It lasted for about 8 years on the shelves to varying success with lots of expansions and new master sets available. 

These kinds of games still come around from time to time, but most of them are now produced by companies that produce specialized games, and there are fewer thematic games sold at the big box stores (although that is beginning to change as the game specialized game industry begins to become more mainstream).  Games like Decent by Fantasy Flight games seem like a direct relation to these games.  These newer games owe a lot to these games that made their way into the game aisle back int he 90s.  

These 90s gateway games informed a generation who would later become gamers.  They would inspired them to continue telling stories, and to find the next game when they outgrew this one.  They would lead these gamers to find Dungeons and Dragons, or WarHammer or the Star Wars RPG or some other game that would lead them to the next.  It is an important part of the history of the hobby, and are still really fun to play now if you can find them!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Tom Baker and the Mortality of Heroes

When I was young the Doctor was my hero.  Not just any Doctor but Tom Baker as the Doctor. There was something soothing about his melodic tones.  Something that reminded me that everything would be all right.  He was in the universe defeating the monsters and the injustice so that I didn't have to.  He inspired me to be strange and goofy if I wanted to, but also reminded me that I could be serious too.  He convinced me that I should keep full pockets of trinkets because you never know when you might need one of them.  He taught me how to make an entrance at the most inopportune time.  He taught me there was a time to fight for what you believe in, but also to make the best decisions I could while doing it.  He taught me all of that in season 12.
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The Fourth Doctor - Image Copyright BBC

Tom Baker defined the role of the Doctor in my mind when I was very young.  He defined it in season 12. That is a near perfect season of the show.  For me it is what I judge all other seasons against, and to be honest, all other actors who are in the role.

Last night I had the opportunity to watch the Directors Cut of "Genesis of the Daleks" at my local theater.  The cut was put together in 1975 and it is rough, the edits seem hastily put together, incidental music is cut off, and the story is mostly able to be followed.  That said it did take a story that is nearly 3 hours long and condense it down to 90 minutes, which is no simple feat.  Its not perfect, but it was super fun to see it on a big screen.  Its great that we live in a time that you can go to a theater and see a 43 year old Doctor Who serial presented in a way that hadn't been seen in some time.

The thing that has been bothering me though, is an interview with Tom Baker at the end of the production.  We get the opportunity to see Tom be candid about the show, people involved in it, and more importantly, his mortality.

Tom drives home many of the answers to the interviewers questions with fun anecdotes from when he got the job and how the people around him reacted.  He looks back at how much life he had - how exciting it was to be him at that very moment.  He also mentioned mistakes he made toward the end of his tenure as the Doctor.  It is clear he has thought a lot about his time on the show quite a lot over the last 43 years.

And that brings me to his thoughts on his own mortality.  This is hard to watch.  Tom is well into his 80s at this point, so he is not young.  He knows this.  It seems to be a part of his whole being when he speaks.  It feels like he is jumping back in to the Doctor Who world long enough to get his feet wet and to enjoy some of that youthful exuberance that he once had.  He has been pounding out the Audio Adventures with Big Finish over the last several years, and of course he made that beloved appearance in the day of the Doctor -

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Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor in the recent
release of Shada- Image Copyright BBC
Taking a step back and thinking about a much younger version of myself watching and re watching VHS tapes that were recorded off of our local PBS station.  I watched Tom Baker story after story, week after week,  fight tyranny and stand of what what was right.  I realized then (and now) that these are stories, but it doesn't change the fact that it is difficult watching this fictionalized hero that walks in eternity age. and watch him be tragically aware of this own mortality.

Tom Baker defines so much of my character.  The time I spent watching his adventures as a child and into adulthood is immeasurable.  I was inspired by him.  I continue to be a fan of Doctor Who, in no small part, because of his contribution to the show.  So much of what I latched on to comes from him.

Don't get me wrong, I think we have a lot more Tom Baker to come. But it is difficult to watch your childhood hero be so aware of his mortality, but I know there is a small part of me that is so heavily inspired by the man.  I will always appreciate him for that!     


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Overstreet: The Geeky Secret of My Hometown!

Last week I wrote about the show I am helping to put on in my home town. This week I want to talk a little bit about the geeky secret of Cleveland, TN.

I live in a town called Cleveland, TN.  Its small and quaint, but it has a strange connection to geek culture that most people don’t know.  Cleveland, TN is the birthplace of the Overstreet Comic Book Price guide.  That's right, Robert Overstreet created the standard price guide for comic books right here in my home town.  Its one of those odd little facts that older men tell you when they hear you like comic books. “Oh well you probably know about Bob Overstreet” they say. They would tell me stories about how he used to ship the the price guide out from the company he worked at and get a laugh out of it.  That is when I get to tell them the story that I am going to tell you, dear reader, right now.

Back in 92, the comic book boom was in full force.  This is the era when comic companies were printing things like “Instant collector item” right on their books, and putting things in poly bags to entice people who thought they could make a buck.  My 12 year old self was into the comic boom deep.  My dad, my uncle, my brother, and myself would each get our pull folders and drive all over the place looking for back issues.  If we heard there was place that had comics, we went.

It was during this time that I suspect an old man said to my day, “Oh you like comics huh, well you probably know about Bob Overstreet”  I don’t think he did, I mean We had the guides but I don’t think he knew he lived here.  My dad is never one to be afraid of a phone call so he did what my dad does, he looked Robert Overstreet up in the phone book. . .and he was listed!  There he was in the white pages, the creator of the Overstreet price guide.  His number was just there.
Mr Overstreet was happy to sign our book!

Let me break in here to put things in perspective, For me Robert Overstreet had his name on a book.  This was fame to me.  I had never been to a convention, I didn't know this was normal.  Someone like this seemed like they were above humanity. . . (I was a very sheltered child).  

My dad called him.  Had a nice conversation with him, and we were invited over to his house.  Just like that.  We set a time, It was a Tuesday if I recall.  When the day approached my dad, my uncle, my brother, and myself loaded into the car to go to the Overstreet house.  It was a big house, I can’t remember where it was in town now, but I remember it was in a nicer part of town.  The house looked like a castle, It had a spiral staircase and everything.  

As we got there we were greeted by him and his wife, they were incredibly nice, they brought us in and took us to the living room, where we got to ask him questions.  We talked about Comics, and artists and the history of comics.  It was a great time.  Then he did something amazing, he started pulling out his collection.  Amazing Fantasy 15, Fantastic Four 1, He just kept showing us these comics that we would probably never see again (at least I thought so).  

After he showed us these books he took us upstairs (yes up the spiral staircase) and up stairs there was a long hall with odd paintings of the Salem witch trials.  To this day this still confuses me.  But then he opened a door and let us see a huge room that was just filled with long boxes.  This was a man where comics were his business.  He knew about them, he lived with them, and he loved them.
After this he signed our price guides and we left and it was a great experience.  A few months later we went back to the house for Halloween, because he told us he gave out comics for Halloween (the publishers send so many of them to him).  I think my brother and I both got archie books, but it was ok, it was from Robert Overstreet.

I think more recently Robert Overstreet, has moved out of Cleveland, from what I gather, he does still work on the guide (though he has long since sold it off).  During the 80's and even early 90's Cleveland was a hotbed for collectors, there were shows going on all the time.  We had a regional distributor near by, and there were a really hoping comic book shops all over the region.  Then it just kind of fizzed out, but I think a lot of that energy can be given credited with The Overstreet price guide.

So that is Cleveland Tennessee’s connection with geek culture.  Does your city have a secret connection to geek culture?  Tell me about it in the comments.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is the Doctor a good man? Taking a look at morality in the Doctor Who Universe

In the latest episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor asked Clara a simple question.  He asked “Am I a good man?” He asked the question in a way that was almost challenging the audience to answer the question as well as Clara.  He asked us to reach back over the last 50 years and judge the character of the Doctor.  Well. . .maybe I am reading a little too much into that, but I did begin to think about it.  The morality of the Doctor is something that has always intrigued me.

On the Surface the Doctor is a hero, and of course we relate heroes to good people.  People who fight for truth, justice . . .and the way of the people they are fighting for.  A hero is judged in the context of their own society.  Thus I may think of a hero or a good man differently than say someone from England.  We all have a different cultural definition of morality, and thus so should the Doctor and the universe he lives in.

The question of morality and the Doctor is not a new one.  Back in the 70s when the Doctor as traveling with Sarah Jane Smith, he reminded her that he was different.  He didn’t percive things the same way she did. . .He walks in eternity  and is NOT human.   So should we judge if he is a good man on the scale of human morality.  In the same episode (Pyramids of Mars, 1975) the doctor is faced with Sutekh the Destroyer, who for all intents and purposes is an evil entity that is above humanity and even above Timelords (or so he believes).  Sutekh tells the Doctor that “Your [the doctor] evil is my [sutekh’s] good.” This sets a landscape of the lack of a single moral code within the universe, and also tells us a little more about the doctor, because as he feels he is above humanity he is still willing to fight for it.

And Check out this out at about 4:48

The Doctor wants to be good.  He wants to do the right thing, but he is torn.  He finds himself with knowledge that does not always allow his let him follow the moral code that many of his companions have, but he does try to give the appearance of holding to that code.  Many times that is by surrounding himself with companions who have no problem being morally gray.  The best
Ace isn't afraid to use a weapon! 
example of this is Ace.  At first the Doctor and Ace seem to have a typical companion/ doctor relationship, but while the doctor objects to her more violent ways he rarely does anything about it.  Even to the point where he begins to anticipate that she is carrying explosives.  She become useful to him, a means to an end to do the things he can’t.  this continues on into the virgin new adventure novels.  At this point he is becoming something more than a hero.  He no longer believes a human moral code is any code to live a life.  This is where it becomes apparent that the doctor is really only interested in the greater good.  He has to be the champion of time he finds himself on a different level battling beings that have different scales by which they weigh morality.  These are Beings like Cthulu, or the Celestial toy maker, and the eternals. He begins to place himself on their scale of morality.

The cause of the greater good is something that  has resonated throughout the series.  Often

times the doctor is fighting against monsters who for all intents and purposes know no better or who are doing what they feel is right.  The cybermen are a great example.  They felt (well not feel so much) they thought that they were doing a service to humanity by coming to convert them.  They would make them better, stronger.  Of course the Doctor saw it as a violation of humanities rights.  The doctor chose a side that most resembled his moral code.  He had spent time with humans at this point and decided that they were worth fighting for.

These concepts lead me to think about the other side. in season 5 of the new series we see the fight against the doctor at the pandorica, where all of the monsters ganged up on the doctor because he was their monster.  He was charged with crimes against the daleks the cybermen and any number of other races.  This, of course, is because he broke their moral code.  So if you asked a dalek if the Doctor was a good man it may first say “WHAT IS GOOD” but in the end it would communicate the doctor is the opposite of what it stands for, because they have a code that they relate to . . . and that code is Evil.  Or at least it is to us.

There may be a chance to ask an interesting question here though.  Why does the doctor try so hard to meet the human moral code.  Why does he want clara to answer this question?  For this, we can take a several lines of thinking.  First, he is with humans quite a bit, so perhaps it has just been easy to adapt to that for him.  Next we could look at time lord society and I think it would be safe to imagine that the their society isn’t COMPLETELY dissimilar to ours.  Perhaps there is a prevailing moral code that goes around the universe that mirrors ours.  Or maybe it can be answered by the TV movie. . . perhaps the Doctor really is half human - and so he battles between this high flying universal code of morality and the deep humanity that he has running through his blood.

Regardless of what we think I have a feeling that question is going to strive to be answered over the coming season, and I think it will be fun to see how it plays out.  In the end the thing to remember is that the Doctor is an alien!  While he looks like us, and sometimes acts like us, he is not human (unless of course you think he is) and therefore it is hard to judge him against our idea of what a “good man” is or what a hero is.  Does he usually make the choice that we would make, yeah usually, but not always.  Sometimes he comes from the side and chooses the greater good, because he is on a higher level.  He believes at his core that sacrifice a few for the many is probably OK.  He has made himself an equal of osirens, and old gods, and guardians, and eternals.  He can’t be expected to share our morality!

What do you think?  Is the doctor a good man, am I over thinking morality in a fictional universe.  Let me know in the comments!