Saturday, September 23, 2023

Play: Bromance

 Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers, Directed by Zenaida Rose Smith, Arts West through October 1, 2023

The play season has begun for us in West Seattle. Actually, it begun two weeks ago - we usually catch opening night but misplaced the online tickets in a file folder, so we showed up to the theater two weeks late, but did get a great dinner at Mashiko almost-next-door-to-the-theater (and who remembered us from previous times - so I guess we're regulars now). 

The story about how the movie Good Will Hunting came to be is covered in detail in the Wikipedia article. This isn't that story. It's nowhere NEAR that story. Instead this is a story about how buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, struggling slacker actors, suddenly had the copy of their future masterwork literally drop into their laps, and the stresses that promise of future success puts on their friendship. They are a nineties oddish-couple. Matt is the plotter, achievement-driven and control freak. Ben is the pantser, goofy sidekick, and good luck charm. They argue about stupid things. They are visited by famous spirits. They screw up, fight each other, reconcile, and are ultimately rewarded with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Feel good story.

And it did not work for us (yeah, the Lovely Bride agrees with me on this one - usually we get a split decision when one of us doesn't like something). Maybe its the fact that she and I have been collaborators IRL, or simply that neither one of us saw Good Will Hunting, despite its many awards. Maybe the only idea I had of Matt & Ben's personal chemistry was their turn in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Maybe we're just, you know, OLD. But the play felt unmoored (shifting between story-telling and living in the events) and at the same time predictable (a lot of sequences ending in someone saying they will leave, but not leaving). It was OK, but simply OK.

The actors, though, were really, really good. Nabilah Ahmed was an excellent Matt, recognizing his tendency to overcontrol but not able to handle when things are not organized his way. Jacquelyn Miedema has a tougher row to hoe in the goofy sidekick Ben, the lesser of the two. Matt is the brains, Ben is the heart, and the play needed the chance to show that more. Both of the characters are goofs, and the physical comedy as they fly around the cluttered apartment set are the highpoints of the play. Miedema also creates a slinky Gwyneth Paltrow and Nabilah a world-weary JD Salanger, ghosts of future and past who visit the two. The actors? Just fine.

Ultimately, this was average. I made my peace early on in the performance that this was not going to be a play about writing the movie, and Matt & Ben were at best caricatures of Damon and Affleck. But with all that stripped away, the core relationship was kinda light, and barely sustained its 90 minute run time. 

More later, 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book: Damp Squib

Uncle Dynamite by PG Wodehouse WW Norton & Company, 1948

Provenance: Half-Price Books. This was a whim purchase a few months back, while I was looking for something else. That happens sometimes. OK, that happens a LOT.

Review: It is a well-known fact that I am a big Wodehouse fan, but even I must admit there is greater Wodehouse and just-average Wodehouse. Greater Wodehouse just drips with class-system wackiness, sly banter, and preposterous situations. Wooster and Jeeves stories are the hallmarks of this, but we also see good examples out of Blandings Castle as well. Greater Wodehouse thrives in the interwar years, where makes a fanciful portrayal of a world a short train trip or tram ride from the city hustings of the author and the audience.

Just-average Wodehouse still has the brilliance of language and the twistiness of plots, but it feels like the pilot-light has gone out. And part of it is that Wodehouse created a space in which he could write stories, and those stories in turn have defined his output. Having built his own personal genre, he was now bound by it. He could write gloomy reflections on the intangible nature of the soul, but it probably would not sell in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post

Anyway, the story at hand. Uncle Dynamite is Uncle Fred, a local lord (Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton , 5th Earl of Ickenham) of WC Fields disposition (though of slenderer build), and notable for drinking, gambling, creating a general nuisance, and getting up in other peoples' business. He uses that last talent for what (he presumes) is good, such as trying to put lovebirds back together and pilfering statuary busts containing gems that a young lady hopes to smuggle into New York without those bothersome tariffs (such Macguffins abound in these stories). Uncle Fred lies effortlessly, takes on false identities, and then imposes additional false identities on others. Uncle Fred is a recurring a number of stories by Wodehouse. If it was reincarnated today, the entire canon would be called the Wodehousiverse, and get five separate shows on Netflix.

The stock characters are here, a commedia dell'arte set in the green and pleasant lands, a day's motorcar drive from the Smoke. Here we find the headstrong young woman, the young man who can't quite figure out how he got engaged, the shy, blundering lunk, the petty tyrant lord of the manor, the long-suffering wife, and the stiff-necked constable. There are mix-ups and false identities and numerous petty burglaries. One of the charms of the book is watching Dudley dig himself out of one obvious prevarication while setting himself up for the next.  

And it works. All the pieces slide into place, one lie leads to another leads to a third effortlessly, and the clueless young man finds himself dancing around exploding revelations. If this was a sitcom, it was a very nice episode.  I would not say that the author is coasting, but I think he has tamped on the brakes a bit too hard. 

This was written after the war, after Wodehouse soiled his reputation by doing light, airy radio broadcasts from a German POW camp. Post-war Wodehouse tends to be nostalgic, pining for an age that no longer exists in a land the author cannot return to. Manor houses, train stations, smuggling diamonds all belong to another era, a black-and-white film of a lost period where serialized stories lived in the glossy magazines. It's good, but not Greater Wodehouse.

But even OK Wodehouse has its moments - this is worst pun I have encountered yet:

"Yes, my dead wife, I am glad to say, continues in the pink. I've just been seeing her off on the boat at Southampton. She is taking a trip to the West Indies."


"No, she went of her own free will."

Try the fish, and remember to tip your waitstaff. More later,

Thursday, September 14, 2023

New Arrivals: Green and Pleasant Lands

A large collection this time, as Kickstarters resolve and I take another quarterly trip to Gabi's Olympic Cards and Comics down in Lacey with Stan! And in the time I've taken to write this up, two more Kickstarters have shown up, so I need to write these up before I am buried by them.

One of the ongoing challenges to Kickstarters is shipping. I grumbled previously how there are now added costs in Kickstarter as everyone tacks shipping on later in the process. And that sadly is part of the modern world. But another component of this is that everyone seems to have a different method of finalizing fulfillment. I've already dropped the ball on a couple Kickstarters where I got the process gumbled up, and am dropping one which requires me to use Paypal (sorry - very untrustworthy platform, would not link it to my bank account). That's more than a pity.

Looking over this season's crop of games, I am struck by how many of them are in England. I have King Arthur's Britain, Queen Victoria's Britain, Mythos Britain and Roman Britain (with a good chunk of Mythos on the side). There are also five projects in the Mythos/Horror vein as well. So I may have a "type" in my gaming purchases. 

Anyway, here's a bunch of games.

Old Gods of Appalachia Roleplaying Game, by Shanna Germain and others, 416-page hardbound, Deep Nerd Media/Monte Cook Games, 2023. Kickstarter. The game is based on the impressive and award-winging horror podcast of the same name from Cam Collins and Steve Shell. It is set in an alternate Appalachia (the mostly-rural mountains which run between Tennessee and New York State), where dark things dwell in the runs, creeks, and glens. Several colleagues worked on it, including some that have a heritage from that part of the world. The book looks fantastic and the rules are MSG's Cypher system, but backgrounded in favor of the flavor and color. This is one I've been looking forward to, since I am a native of Pittsburgh (A metropolitan anomaly in those mountains), I've hiked some of these regions as a boy scout and as a surveyor, and I still have all my Foxfire books in the basement. Looking forward to digging in.

The Book of The New Jerusalem, An Occult Miscellany of England by Paula Dempsey, 264-page softbound digest, Pelgrane Press, 2022. Olympia Cards and Comics. Call of Cthulhu has always have been heavy on the handouts, which is one of the pluses for the setting. Pelgrane Press's Trail of Cthulhu (similar universe, different mechanics) issues entire BOOKS as support material. This heavy little tome supports their Fearful Symmetries campaign, and in addition is a sequel/prequel to another volume, Book of the Smokes, which involves ANOTHER campaign. I have none of these other works, but find Book of the New Jerusalem to be an excellent tour of rural England in the 1920s, which is filled to the brim with supernatural encounters and adventure hooks for potential GMs (and it was the second encounter of "headless bears" in a single week). How much is pulled from existing folklore and how much is made up for moment, I really don't care - it is pretty darn impressive. 

Cults of Runequest Vol 1:The Prosopaedia by Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard, Dandy Peterson & Katrin Dirim, 152-page hardback, Chaosium Inc, 2023. Olympia Cards and Comics.  Runequest is my favorite RPG that I've never played, and I have been following its projects off and on ever since White Bear/Red Moon. Its cosmology is so peopled and varied that it often leaves me mildly confused (yeah, and I'm the guy behind Manual of the Planes). So this is a welcome start to sorting everything out. It is a simply a listing of all the gods/divines/powers of Glorantha, and is an good overview of the grounds, before they drill down into the various pantheons and portfolios.

Dragonbane: Mirth and Mayhem Roleplaying by Tomas Harenstam and others, Boxed set, Free League. Kickstarter.  Free League Produces some of the best-looking products in the business, and Dragonbane is no exception. This is a good-sized box with 112-page rules, 116-page adventure book, stand-ups, maps, a solitaire adventure, and special dice. The game is a German descendent of an adaption of Chaosium's Magic World (itself an early BRPG product), and I am very interested in knowing more about the intermediate evolutionary steps, as there is a lot here that echoes development in both CoC and D&D over the past 30 years. It bills itself as a "Game of Mirth and Mayhem", though I'm not sure if that is quite on target (It does have sentient ducks, which are likely a heir to early Runequest). But its approach is hardly that of "grimdark" fantasy, and it echoes the early D&D boxed sets with a positive, heroic, and active approach to adventuring. Perhaps I need a new word for this type of play - Brightheart? Shimmerlight?

Pendragon Starter Set, by Greg Stafford, Boxed Set, Chaosium Inc. 2023.  Boxed set.  Olympia Cards and Comics. An excellent introduction to the upcoming Pendragon revision, which I have played, and have enjoyed the support material as well. The thin box is packed with a46-page solo adventure, 66-page rules/setting book, a 50-page adventure, appendices, pre-gen characters, battle cards, and dice, and is an affordable (Thirty dollars, compared to 60-buck hardbacks) entry into the world. It looks like they have tidied up the mechanics of the elder versions, while keeping concepts unique to the game like seasonal play (creating multi-year campaigns) and paired traits. Probably will spring this on my regular group.

Cthulhu Hack by Paul Baldowski,156-page softbound digest, Just Crunch Games, 2023, Kickstarter. The Cthulhu Mythos gets a lot of gaming variants. There is the original CoC, a d20 version, Trail of Cthulhu, and this one, which is a Hack. Hacks are a subgenre in themselves, and tend to shorter, self-contained game, with limited scope, and easier mechanics. This one has built on those base principles, in that it uses the standard abilities as saving throws, adds depletable investigative resources like "Smokes" and "Flashlights", and various die sizes for resolution, similar to Margaret Weis's Cortext system. But to be honest his one leaves me a little off-put, though, in that it arrived with AI art in the credits. Now, the lead (sole) artist is also the art director, they made a donation in kind to an artists fund, and if you're going to make lumpy, unspeakable, uneven-looking creatures, Midjourney fits the bill nicely. Still, it makes me feel uncomfortable, and not in a rugose and squamous way. And yeah, it wasn't mentioned in the original Kickstarter, and (checking) they did address it in the comment section, but it opens up a can of worms for me about artistic responsibility in these purchases, and will affect future purchases from this group. 

Britannia & Beyond: A Setting Guide to the Province of Britannia and the Barbarian Lands of Caledonia and Hibernia for Cthulhu Invictus by Stuart Bloom and others, 142-page softbound, Golden Goblin Press, 2023, Kickstarter. This one has been a little late, for a number of reasons including illness from the guy running the Golden Goblin Press, which is a challenge to all operations large and small (Hope you make a smooth recovery). Britain itself is a effectively a Subgenre of Cthulhu subgenre, and Roman-era Cthulhu is a sub-sub-genre (see projects like Lex Arcana, for example). Golden Goblin picked up the Cthulhu Invictus torch and has been producing excellent material, and in this case takes its OWN tour of supernatural Britain. This can work well with New Jerusalem, I think. It is texturally dense, as most Invictus books are, though the font is a little thin and they've gone from a glossy stock of the original book to a non-gloss stock. Still, well worth the wait. 

Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game Core Rulebook by Matt Forbeck, 320-page hardback, Marvel Worldwide, 2023, Midgard Comics. Midgard is my local comics shop, and carries games as well. Like a lot of stores, it manages a large playing space for gaming and runs Magic and D&D games. It's a good place, and the have a new puppy (Miles) but that's not relevant to the current discussion. I talked about the Alpha version of this a few months back, and this is the finished draft. And there is a lot here, and a lot more that can be here. We're talking about 130 characters from the Marvel Universe, and, the way they have defined super-powers (specific applications within broad categories) means there are a dozen different super-powers all gathered within the heading "spider-powers", (including using your webbing to make a glider). And that doesn't cover everything - there will more to come with expansions and adventures. One disappointment is that the hardback lacks an initial adventure, but that should show up soon as well. [Update 9/19 - Ask and ye shall receive, true believer. Here's a free adventure, which is an update of the Playtest adventure. Also Errata and a FAQ.]

StokerVerse Roleplaying Game by Chris McAuley and others, 208 page hardback, Nightfall Games, 2023, Kickstarter. I am spending way too much time in England, apparently. Here we are in London of the 1890s. Gaslight territory. Set in an world evolved out of the classic Bram Stoker novel by the author's great-grandnephew, Dacre, the game features the Famous Monsters of Public Domain - Drac, Frankenstein's Monster, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, all given a unified backstory.  The game uses the "S5S" system using d10s for task resolution. The presentation is solid with a full-color interior that is mostly red. A lot of red.

Venture Maidens by Celeste Conowitch, 224 page hardback, 2C Gaming, 2022, Kickstarter. Good campaign settings come out of long-standing campaigns. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk are good examples. With the explosion of live-play and podcasts, we have a lot more personal game campaigns that turn into published campaign settings. Tal'Dorei comes to mind, and now Venture Maidens, which blossoms from a "femme-forged podcast." The world has a couple interesting angles, in that it has a more morphic, dynamic cosmology, where the the mortal world is slowly being consumed by the fae lands. In addition, there is a "heroic destiny" mechanic which creates some interesting long-term play effects, which makes sense for social, multi-season adventures. Even without these, the book is crammed with backgrounds, treasures, and beasties, and the production values are at WotC-levels. I picked it up on a whim, and am glad I did.

And that's it for now. Wait, SOMETHING ELSE just showed up on my doorstep? OK, we'll save that for next time.

More later,

Sunday, September 10, 2023


I've been thinking about how we played the game under REALLY Old School Rules:

The DM kept track of your hit points

It mattered if dungeon doors were push or pull.

You could spend 5 minutes of game time trying to open a dungeon door (badly).

Adventuring groups with 12 or more people.

Classroom dungeons.

Caller. Mapper. Party Leader. Three different people at the table.

There was no saving throw for Level Drain.

You paid attention to encumbrance.

You paid attention to weapon length.

You paid attention to weapon speed.

You tried to work with segments. Briefly.

If you had a 2-handed broadsword in a corridor, you were fighting alone.

Fumbles hit an available ally.

You never fired a missile weapon into melee.

You had group initiative.

You told the DM what you were doing, THEN rolled initiative.

You went through multiple characters in a single night.

3d6, no rerolls.

You traded strength for intelligence.

You got an XP bonus for a high primary stat.

Cleric, Fighting Man, and Magic-User.

Thief was a new thing.

No new classes – only subclasses.

Every new subclass is now a kit.

New subclasses just happened to be the characters on the cartoon show.

Someone really was willing to play a Cavalier.

Someone wanted to play a new class from DRAGON.

Someone wanted to play a new class from The Strategic Review (TSR).

Witch was a character class.

Alchemist was a character class.


Reincarnation was pretty much a career-ender.

Players kept a bank account with the local temple to cover resurrections.

The dungeon was within walking distance. Sometimes it was in town.

Dungeons sorted their monsters by level beneath the surface.

Overland encounters were not.

It was safer to adventure in a dungeon than overland.

Level meant the character level. Also the spell level. Also the level of the dungeon floor.

You ran a Magic-User with one hit point.

You ran a Fighter with one hit point.

Someone started identifying a characters with a number. Same name, different number.

You could leave your equipment to your next character in your will.

The Paladin was obligated to kill a Thief.

Someone played an Assassin. Once.

Your Ranger got followers. And got them all killed.

Lightning bolts bounced.

Fireballs filled the available space.

Rot grubs as anti-thief door protection.

Pits killed player characters.

You ran, the monster got a free attack on you.

Only Thieves could open locks. Or climb walls.

Thieves could climb walls like Spider-Man.

Demons had types.

Negative armor class.

There was a beautiful witch, but no stats.

Someone at the table had read John Carter of Mars and understood references to Thoats and Green Martians.

There were no stats for Thoats or Green Martians.

You could definitely NOT swim in full plate.

You could DEFINITELY swim in full plate.

You got ONE AD&D hardback rulebook a year. And you LIKED it!

You'd go to GenCon just to get the latest AD&D hardback rulebook.

You had to wait for the DMG to come out to know the official XP for a monster.

You used original books from the little brown box with your new AD&D Monster Manual.

Taking one hit point of damage was a “shaving wound.”

Zero hit points was DEAD. Dead, Dead, DEAD.

You only got XP from killing monsters.

You only got XP from killing monsters and getting gold.

You divided gold by level for XP.

Gold from selling magic items didn’t count to XP.

You discovered what potions did by tasting them.

You would go down the list of potion types, trying each in turn.

You played with a Deck of Many Things.

You discovered that sword was cursed by going into battle with it.

Percent in Liar.

You would find no treasure for a monster with Treasure Type H.

A random bunch of stirges would have massive treasure.

High-roll gets it!

Whether dwarven women had beards was definitely a thing.

Exploding oil.

Kamikaze mules.

The engineering student built a remote chest-opening device.

You had lightsabers. Briefly.

You used critical hit locations. Briefly.

You could see an ogre from a mile away. Then realized it was Steve Jackson's Ogre.

It wasn’t a greatsword. It was a 2-handed broadsword.

Bastard swords were called Hand-and-a-half swords. Also, called Bec De Corbins.

Pole arms.

It wasn’t two-weapon fighting. It was fighting Florentine.

Doors always opened for monsters unless spiked shut.

You brought dungeon rations to drop when fleeing

You brought iron spikes to drop when fleeing rust monsters.

Fighters were afraid of rust monsters.

No one knew was a rust monster looked like.

Bugbears had pumpkin heads

Orcs looked like pigs. Until Jabba the Hutt starting using them.

Leather, Chain, Plate. That’s it. 

Oh yeah, and shields.

If you ran a gnome, it would have been a gnome Illusionist/Thief (or GIT)

If you could make the required minimum stats, you would be an elf.

If you ran an elf, it would a Fighter/Thief/Magic-User.

If someone wore leather armor and had a shield, they were an Assassin.

Standing order - shoot the guys without armor first. They're usually magic-users.

Level limitations on non-humans didn’t matter if you weren’t going to live to 3rd level anyway.

Hirelings with torches.

Horses that disappeared when your group went into combat.

The dungeon was safer than the wilderness.

Clerics only were useful once they reached 2nd level.

High-Level Fighters wearing motorcycle jackets. Mithril studs on the back spell out "10th Level Lords".

Pronouncing "paladin" as "pah-LAY-din".

Pronouncing "chimera" as "Shimmer-rah"

Arguing about the pronunciation of "drow".

Random teleporters inside the dungeon.

Random-rolled dungeon occupants.

Random-rolled spellbooks.

Alignment languages.

You used alignment languages as a de facto Know Alignment spell.

Thieves could spoof magic items.

Skeletons that were animated objects.

Skeletons with electric shocks.

Gas spores.

Neutral Beholders.

Giant Weasels/Hogs.

The Extension spell.

It mattered if the spell was clerical or magical.

Spell descriptions that read "Same as the Clerical spell of the same name, except where noted".

To Hit Armor Class 0 (THAC0) was a new thing.

Different combat tables for different classes.

No one knew what a holy water sprinkler looked like.

Not only were elves immune to ghoul paralysis, they could “unfreeze” fellow party members.

Carrion crawlers were the worst opponent for their hit dice

Psionic player characters meant encountering psionic monsters.

Psionic monsters were horrible for non-psionic players.

Needed a 17+ Charisma to be a paladin.

Percentile strength scores.

No one knew what a kobold looked like. Other than they were short.

Attack Matrixes.

Named Character Levels.

No good 2nd level Magic-User spells.

Paladins with holy swords were immune to magic.

Cloudkill could specifically be used to clean out ant colonies.

Thor had 275 hit points.


Sneak attack for double damage!

A random encounter with 300 bandits. Or 400 gnomes.

Mars mounted upon Talos’ shoulders.

The good old days - they were terrible.

More later,

Friday, September 08, 2023

Game: Critical Response

Critical: Foundation  -  Season One by Yohan Lemonnier and Kristoff Valla Gigamic/Hanchette Boardgames, 2022.

It is the distant, dystopian future of 2035. You are an expert in your particular field (Scientist, Data Analyst, Mercenary), recruited to be part of the Icarus Project, an organization whose goal is to ferret out a high-tech conspiracy. It is a corporate-owned world. You stand on the edge of advanced cybertechnology, nanobots, and AI. And it is always raining.

Critical Foundation - Season One is a self-contained boxed RPG designed to be played in a series of short adventures. Think of it as a TV show, and the subtitle of "Season One" makes sense. Each adventure should run about 30 minutes. Think of it as binging an RPG.

The game is minimalist in design. Character generation consists of choosing one of four characters classes, and which side of the character card you want to represent you (Changes only in gender and some personality traits). Task resolution uses special dice listed one to three, with one face being an auto-fail. Roll dice and add the appropriate skill plus any bonuses for weapons, tools, or traits. It is a pretty simple system. There is no real character advancement after the intro adventure.

The presentation, on the other hand is maximumalist. This is a deep box filled with toys. In addition to the custom dice, the is a GM screen with slots to display cards, a deck of card/handouts presenting scenes and clues from the adventure, and all manner of chits and counters for the game itself. There is a lot in the box, and the GM does not need to reach for outside materials (pencils, scraps of paper) in running it. It is self-contained.

The art is key part of the game, and makes extensive use of hand-out and illustrations to sell the mood and feeling of the game. This art is copious but not always useful. Some of the cards hold vital clues (the note in the lab coat in the card showing the lab) while others are just thematic (Here is a car chase in a rainy city, followed by a car chase on a rainy highway, followed by a car chase in a rainy industrial zone), and some feel extraneous (fold-out of the air ducts of a skyscraper). The GM Screen shows a rainy, neon-lit street scene with a prominent sign declaring "Feet In Your Face!"  Needless to say, this became our team's rallying cry.

The adventure itself is linear and episodic. Your team gets an assignment, you get handed cards for equipment, you go to the location(s) of the episode, discover/fight stuff, and hand the cards back in. The guard rails are up and there are a couple places where only one action can move the plot forward. Failure is not published by death, but merely by a less-satisfying conclusion (someone else comes and rescues you). 

But of course, playing games with game designers is like driving with mechanics. We're continually stopping the car to check out that noise from under the hood. We make suggestions. And we kept trying to go off-road. So for us Critical: Foundation played out over three leisurely nights, which is just a tad longer than advertised. We also forced the GM to check between multiple episodes as we jumped the linear track and got ahead of ourselves, and there were places where he said "Yahknow, the game doesn't have an answer for that". And part of the game is set in Seattle, which we know better than the designers, so we are bringing more to the table than usually expected. 

The adventure's ultimate reveal is a blend of Neuromancer and Casino Royale (the one with Woody Allen). It comes up on you suddenly, and you don't have that much of a clue that it is coming. It definitely feels like a setup for future seasons (which aren't talked about on their site yet). 

All in all, Critical; Foundation - Season One is a good, "lite" RPG, and pushes the lower boundaries of what can be called an RPG. You have character identification, minimal character generation, task and combat resolution by a randomized system, and defined roles of GM and players. It does not require a lot of preliminary work by the GM, and does not require a lot of personal engagement by the players in their characters. It is a pleasant break from more involved RPGs, and good for a couple evening sessions. Go have fun.

More later,