Art & Arcana

From Empire of Imagination author Michael Witwer, joined by Kyle Newman, Playing at the World‘s Jon Peterson, and Michael’s brother Sam, Art & Arcana is a very comprehensive look at the visual history of Dungeons and Dragons. Starting from the beginnings of the original game and going up through the current 5th edition, this book is absolutely crammed full of artwork! The accompanying text is not too bad a read, though the text size was a tad small for me. Also, I did appreciate the slight ribbing at the 3rd, 3.5, and 4th edition rules and the exaggerated artwork that came along with it (seriously, I CANNOT stand Wayne Reynold’s artwork!), but glad it wasn’t too overbearing. I bet there’s plenty of artwork you’ve never seen before, and it was nice to re-visit some of my favorite pieces from David Trampier, Erol Otus, and Jeff Easley!

Apes Victorious

Introduction

One of Goblinoid Games’ recent releases, Apes Victorious, arrived with very little if any hinting or fanfare. As a one-man operation (although now often with additional writing by Tim Snider and even material from original Starships and Spacemen author Leonard H. Kanterman) Dan Proctor rarely promotes/updates his work on the now-bare GG website, let alone the blog and near-dead forums. Once the shining star of the OSR, so many others have risen in popularity and taken over where the founding OSR authors began. Is it worth taking a look or even purchasing this recent Goblinoid Games RPG, especially something in as niche in genre as intelligent apes?

Initial Impressions

In contrast to all previous releases, the first thing I immediately noticed about Apes Victorious is that it’s set in 6″x9″ rather than U.S. letter-sized. Moving to this size (and 1 column) will certainly make this easier to read on a tablet, though it does of course bump up the page-count.

Like most other recent GG releases this game is exclusively illustrated by Mark Allen; thankfully I haven’t tired of his work and think it works perfectly, though I would still love to see stuff from Peter Mullen and/or other (perhaps even new!) artists as well. I know artwork isn’t cheap; perhaps Dan and Mark have a great deal worked out, who knows. Sadly this is somewhat addressed in the game’s forward, where Dan notes this is the first game to come after Steve Zeiser’s death, and that he would have otherwise contributed artwork.

The title and header font is unique, if also a tad hard to read at a brief glance. The rest is the traditional B/X Souvenir, which is fine if a tad boring at this point. Tables are fairly easy to read, although they utilize a multiple-row highlighting/shading which still throws me off.

Introduction (Game)

Apes Victorious is a post-apocalyptic game. But unlike Mutant Future and so many other similar games in that genre, it doesn’t focus too much on radiation and doesn’t mention mutations, etc. A third world war devastated the planet and brought in a nuclear winter. The end of that winter brought about many changes, both to the planet itself and its inhabitants.

Humans were split at the onset of the nuclear winter: those who remained on the surface, and those who retreated underground and were safe within their constructed homes and shelters. These latter human evolved differently than their primal cousins, advancing in technology and even developing PSI powers. Meanwhile apes, gorillas, orangutans, etc. also evolved and have gained intelligence as they built their own settlements and societies, coming into conflict with both human groups.

Of course the planet has changed as well, much of it either still radiated from the nuclear winter or left as barren desert. Only small areas have regained plants and foliage, but where there is more water and plant life has seen animals and other features return in both familiar and unexpected ways.

The rest of the game’s introduction goes over RPG basics such as die rolls and terms used. Of course in this game the person running things is called Ape Master; ugh I’ll just stick to Gamemaster, thanks!

Characters

The basic Abilities (I still tend to call them Attributes) are the same as in other OSR games, with the addition of Psionic Potential (PSI). So far it seems pretty simple, then I look at the Ability dodifiers table; it’s not just the standard one column of -3 to +3 or such; there are five different columns/categories of modifiers for the range of Ability scores! Whyyyyyy?! At first I thought it negated the need for saving throws, but I looked ahead and nope those are still in the game. So that’s another table I’ve gotta bookmark and/or put on a GM screen to remember…

Apes Victorious has seven classes: Astronaut, Bonobo Agent (total nitpick but this should have been page-breaked), Chimpanzee Scholar, Gorilla Soldier, Humanoid, Orangutan Politician, and Underdweller. Like other OSR games there’s a Ability requirement for each class, as well as a 1E-like Ability adjustment. All but one class (Astronaut) also have a maximum level. After getting used to BRP RPGs and Stars Without Number Revised, it’s almost comical to see the tens if not hundreds of thousands of experience points needed to advance in levels.

Money and coins are expressed as simian copper, simian silver, and simian gold. Can you hear me roll my eyes? Just keep it copper pieces, etc. jeeeez. Of course if you’re an Astronaut you’ll have some equipment to start out with. Among the equipment available to purchase are guns, but personally I would exclude those kind of weapons, as they would likely have been used up, destroyed, etc. in a nuclear winter and associated “fallout” (not the literal nuclear kind).

Psi Powers

The PSI system seems pretty simple to run, but I personally wouldn’t use this in my game. At just 5 pages, this chapter might seem more like an afterthought or little add-on than an integral part of the rules/game.

Adventure Rules

Similar to any other OSR game, this chapter covers the rules to run the game, including combat. None of this section is new or different if you’re familiar with those kind of games.

Dangerous Evolution

Here we get a quite-small selection of creatures and opponents to use in the game. All but one stat-block is single-column (the other 2-column presumably to fit the artwork on the same page) and shows the same/normal stats as in any other OSR game (with the addition of PSI). A note at the end states that additional creatures can be brought in from any other Goblinoid Game product (there is a conversion section near the end of the book).

Ape Society

As the chapter name is self-explanatory, it covers ape governance, religion, science, and technology. This chapter will of course be more useful to those whose games will give most (if not all) attention to an ape-centered game, whereas my game would feature very little of this. It also assumes a caste system, with orangutans and bonobos rule over chimpanzees (still considered intelligent) and gorillas (presumed to be all brute strength and very little intelligent). While there may be a biological basis to some of those assumptions, I would again ignore most of that. What if I did want to play an intelligent gorilla?

The Underdwellers

Should 3 pages even be considered a separate chapter? Anyways, here we learn a little more about the humans that survived the nuclear winter underground as well as some example technologies that might be found/utilized by them.

The Ape Master

The last “actual” chapter of game rules, it’s also the most useful. It covers many things including running a game with a 1970s view, adventure themes and locations, ruins and artifacts that can be found there (including 2 very useful tables of random objects as well as random book subjects), along with tables for male and female ape names. The chapter concludes with an example outdoor/wilderness map.

Escape Ape Planet

Something I REALLY wish other Goblinoid Game products included, this is an introductory adventure. This is a nice small, quick adventure that can absolutely help out new players (and new GMs as well!) get a feel for what kind of game is possible with these rules.

Conclusion

The book ends with a Conversion chapter (covering Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, and Starships & Spacemen 2E), a character sheet (very plain and symbols are a tad annoying for double-digit numbers), and the OGL license. I must commend Dan for making the large majority of the book Open Content, including the example outdoor/wilderness map as well as the adventure!

This was a tough game to review. I’m a huge fan of Goblinoid Games; I still consider Labyrinth Lord the ground-breaking and pinnacle OSR game. I really like Tim Snider’s continued involvement; his material for Mutant Future and Cryptworld have been great and I think he helps encourage Dan to develop more material, as busy as he is in other aspects of his life. In this game I like the new 6″x9″ single-column layout, and Mark Allen’s artwork continues to be a perfect fit, as much as I miss Steve Zeiser and would love to see more varied material from others. The rule-set is pretty close to other OSR games, with a few little changes that I personally think are more annoying than innovative. I would need to have the right group to run and/or play this, and perhaps I need to brush up on my movies in this genre to generate a little more understanding and excitement.

Nevertheless, I’m glad to see new games from Goblinoid Games, and I do like seeing those that cover other genres besides the standard fantasy and sci-fi, and not just simply retroclones. I look forward to seeing what else comes down the pipeline!

Life is Strange 2 Episode 1

Introduction

It really doesn’t seem that long ago that the first game came out (2015!), but it’s probably more that I didn’t hear about and play the game until later on. Before the Storm then came in 2017, and finally the short demo The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit earlier this year. Now we have the first episode for Life is Strange 2, so I’m writing this as my memory is still fresh. Instead of one long review I’ll be posting a review as each episode comes out.

Episode 1

Compared to the first Life is Strange, this sequel starts out a little on the slow and uninteresting side. We play another high-school age student, this time a Hispanic male named Sean Diaz. He lives in Seattle (although it feels like a small town, so I really thought we were back in Arcadia Bay) with his younger brother David and his dad Esteban. Like any teenage boy Sean has a crush on a girl and acts indifferent to his brother and dad. Walking home from the bus stop with his friend Lyla, Sean is trying to invite his crush Jenn to a party, but only succeeds with Lyla’s help.

Upon Lyla’s departure Sean is in his room when he sees the asshole neighbor Brett confronting David. Sean goes out to intervene, and apparently the cops have already been called, as when Brett is shoved by Sean to the ground they arrive. Brett has apparently fallen onto something and is gravely wounded. Ordered by the frankly-hysterical under-trained cop to kneel, Esteban comes out wanting to know what’s going on. Of course nobody can just chill out, because before we know it Esteban is shot. Sean is left stunned and David yells, which seems to set off the energy blast hinted at in the beginning.

Proceeding with the sirens of the approaching back-up in the background, Sean picks up the unconscious David and they flee. The game cuts to 2 days later, as they are walking along a highway (yeah because that won’t get you noticed…) and David already pissing and moaning (if we’re supposed to be sympathetic I don’t have any investment in the characters) about being tired and hungry. After walking further and camping near a lake for the night, they come to a roadside gas station. The lady at the cash register is reasonably nice, as is Brody, the man hanging at a table with his laptop. After brief conversations with both Sean pays for their items (unless you choose to steal, but you’ll likely have the money from earlier) and they head outside to eat and figure out what to do.

This is when racist-McGee rolls up and hassles them. I just don’t get what the point of any of this is. He’s a racist asshole who has no qualms hitting kids. And yet no-one else around sees or does anything apparently. Sean ends up handcuffed to a pipe in his office while waiting for law enforcement to show up. David comes back and helps Sean escape, with the help of Brody. Brody is pretty likable, but this is Life is Strange, how do we know he ain’t a Mr. Jefferson? Driving through the night, they end up at a small motel near the coast. Brody has graciously paid for a room for the two for the night, heading off on his own adventure.

After winding down a bit and starting a bath for David, Sean goes to get a soda when all hell breaks out again. David finds a news report on the TV and learns the truth about their dad, sending him into another emotional rage and causing the telekinetic waves to start swirling around. David barely manages to talk him down, and the next day they are on a bus, continuing their trek. The game ends with a very small hint, a large rock in snow that begins to hover.

Conclusion

As this write-up no doubt shows, I’m not too impressed nor happy with the start of this game. The first Life is Strange is a watermark for storytelling, music, and emotional investment. Before the Storm stumbled a bit, but many simply attributed that to the different developer. But with this sequel and back to Dontnod, unfortunately so far it seems the lightning escaped the bottle. Episode 2 will have a LOT to do if this game is gonna even come close to comparing to the first one. I certainly hope I’m proven wrong, but with such a slow, confusing, and frankly boring start I’m not holding my breath.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Note: spoilers ahead!

Introduction

A little over a year after playing the first game, I returned to Arcadia Bay for its prequel, Before the Storm. Taking place about 2 years before the first game, in this one you play as Max’s friend Chloe. Max has recently left Arcadia Bay for Seattle, and Chloe is feeling alone and abandoned. Unlike the original game which was developed by Dontnod Entertainment, Before the Storm was developed by Deck Nine.¬†While my review of Life is Strange was fairly short, in this one I’d like to go into a little more detail regarding the characters.

Plot

Chloe is a student at Blackwell Academy. Still reeling from the death of her father, she lashes out at seemingly everyone and trying to find her own way in life, everyone else be damned. One night while trying to sneak into a concert of her favorite local band, Chloe gets into a heated argument with two men; it is about to erupt when she is saved by Rachel Amber, a fellow Blackwell Academy student that she knows only by reputation.

Meeting back at school the next day, the two of them decide to ditch school, riding a train and ending up at a lookout point. Looking through a viewfinder, they happen to see a couple kissing; Chloe makes a joke, but Amber becomes very upset. It turns out the man is Amber’s father, but it’s not his wife he’s kissing. In a fit Amber kicks over a trash bin after burning a family photo, starting what becomes a sizeable wildfire.

At their hideout in the junkyard, Chloe discovers an abandoned pickup truck, which she’s able to fix up. Talking with Amber, they decide to leave everything behind and go away together. Unfortunately complications arise when the woman Amber’s dad was supposedly cheating with is actually Amber’s biological mother, Sera, a drug addict who has problems with both Damon and Frank.

Confronting Frank and Damon at the junkyard, Rachel is stabbed by Damon. Thankfully she survives and recovers at the hospital, while Chloe searches for clues in James’ home office. Using his phone she convinces Damon to meet her, agreeing to pay a ransom for Sera’s life. When she meets Damon she learns James had paid him to kill Sera. Frank arrives and fights Damon. Sera begs Chloe to never tell Rachel about what James did. Visiting Rachel at the hospital again, Chloe is left with the choice whether to tell her everything.

Characters

While not quite as rebellious or outright bitchy as in Life is Strange, in Before the Storm Chloe is still carrying a sizable chip on her shoulder, and it only grows once she meets and starts hanging out with Rachel. While she does reference the more-recent occurrence of Max leaving, she doesn’t really show how much she’s affected and hurt from that.

It’s not long into the game before Rachel Amber makes her appearance. Just like Chloe we are taken aback by her brash behavior and apparent bravery dealing with criminals and other notorious characters. We see her interact with her parents, and it’s evident there’s tension there, although for a teen it’s not that surprising at face value.

In the first game it was very briefly hinted at that Frank had feelings for, let alone a relationship with Rachel. In this game we see Frank as an “understudy” to Damon. Unlike Damon we’re shown that Frank is not all bad, and that perhaps his attitude in the first game is almost justified. We don’t actually see Frank interact with Rachel, and we don’t know if they even know each other yet.

In this game Damon Merrick is the classic bad guy and asshole. Frank is his “apprentice” and keeps him in check; Damon certainly doesn’t seem to care about anyone else besides himself and getting paid. He’s unfortunately a bit one-dimensional. It’s fine to be bad and threatening, but by itself it’s cliche and not very realistic. I would’ve liked to seen just a sliver of humanity, a crack in the armor that showed there is or used to be something in his life that’s not ruined by his way of life.

It hasn’t been as long since William has died, but Joyce has been dating David for awhile and has already seemed to fully accept him into her life and soon home. This is perhaps the biggest surprise in character origin and development compared to what we saw and knew from the first game. In this game David is dating Joyce and later on they announce to Chloe that he will be moving in. Obviously Chloe doesn’t like that, but Joyce basically ignores her. In his defense David seems to try to make an effort to connect with Chloe, as night and day they are in their behavior, opinions, etc. We see more about David, and it certainly puts him in a different light than what’s merely hinted at or perhaps the different way the original developers intended for him to turn out. This is absolutely one of the highlights for the game, and I commend Deck Nine for fleshing out this character.

Rachel’s parents, James and step-mother Rose, certainly come off initially as normal loving parents. At dinner with Chloe they make small talk and help each other in the kitchen. They try to act their best around Rachel, but as I mentioned before there’s something clearly lurking beneath the surface. That comes up later with the reveal of James meeting with Sera, Rachel’s birth mother.

Music

Let’s face it; the soundtrack and original music for the first game set a monstrously high standard, and I was going to be very damned pleased if the music for this game came even close to it. Well, it has gotten close, and while there aren’t any standout tracks or wholly emotional songs to go along with the extremely pivotal moments in the game like there was in the first one, overall I must commend Daughter for their work on this game, building layer upon layer and always knowing when to ease off and when to bring the guitars and other sounds swelling into the foreground. Yes, in contrast to the first game that featured a multitude of indie rock and folk musicians, for this game one band took on the task!

Writing an entire album for this game, Music From Before the Storm (Amazon | Apple¬†| Spotify) is the third album from Daughter, and I really can’t believe I haven’t heard of them until now! It took me quite a few listens to really get into the album and really appreciate it, and stop comparing it to the previous game’s music. Like the game it’s definitely a “slow burner”; it’s something you really should put on a pair of headphones, lay back on the sofa and close your eyes, and just let it seep into you.

Conclusion

Learning the news of a prequel coming so soon after the first game, and from a different studio, my expectations weren’t too high. The original game and soundtrack had a monstrous impact on me, and I was really hoping for more of the same, as hard or even impossible as that would be. Before the Storm somewhat succeeds. Yes it follows the general visual and play style of the first game, but there’s no doubt that Deck Nine have put their unique stamp while still giving us a dramatic and emotional story. I think my only real letdown was the ending, which seemed to come up sooner than I expected, as well as not tying into the first game besides a small end cutscene alluding to Rachel’s disappearance. Why didn’t this game deal with Rachel’s disappearance and how Chloe handled that? Or even Frank?

My Setup – 2018

My original setup post was five (!) years ago. Since that time almost as much has changed as has stayed the same. Let’s go through everything and see where things were, are, and may be headed towards…

Who Am I?

I’m still Christopher, and my day job is still in IT. Music and writing are still my passionate hobbies, but that’s where they’re likely to stay. Doesn’t make them any less important to me!

Hardware

I built another desktop about four or five years ago, and it still handles everything I need it to just fine. Like the previous system it has a dual-core processor (this time a cheap low-power Intel Pentium) and 8GB RAM (I’ve thought about bumping it to 16, but it’d cost just as much as putting 16GB DDR4 into the next eventual system). The system drive is a 256GB SSD, while /home sits on a 2TB HDD. That’s primarily for Plex server, and it’s a little over half full. At the rate we (rarely) buy any new movies and shows, it will last well into the next system. Or by then a 2TB SSD will be cheap enough, that’d be nuts. The next system may get an AMD Ryzen or Intel i5; it’ll have a LOT more cores.

After starting out on Windows 7 and getting the free upgrade to 10, I moved it over to Linux Mint 18.1 when it was released. Everything just works, and I really like Cinnamon (seriously have you tried Gnome 3 on Ubuntu 18.04? Lol what a dumpster fire). No it can’t run my audio software, but that’s its only negative. It’s since been upgraded to 18.3. I may upgrade/re-do it once 19.1 is out, but since it runs Plex it’s definitely become a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” system, while the HP laptop can be the Linux distro guinea pig. The monitor is due for an upgrade, but I don’t know if I want to jump to 4K yet; I do want at least 27″ of screen space. I’m still using a plain mouse and an Apple keyboard. The latter may one day be switched out for a mechanical keyboard with brown switches (I have blue ones at work and they’re wonderfully clacky, but my wife would kill me lol).

The 2 older Mac laptops are long gone. Their limited RAM support and dying batteries spelled the end of their days. Now we have a 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina screen. My god is that great to work on. Its battery is still going strong, it has a decent 8GB RAM, and the SSD is still fairly fast. It just recently got upgraded to macOS Mojave, and for a .0 release it’s almost shocking how smooth everything is. Finally dark mode!

We have an HP Spectre laptop with Linux Mint 19 on it. It’s much faster than even the MacBook Pro. The only downside is its battery stopped working, which I removed. A new one just isn’t worth the price and its small size wouldn’t give it anywhere near the battery life of the MacBook Pro. It’s still nice to use, and it may be good for road trips and the like.

The iPad is also gone, it was just too slow to run even the basics. The new ones look great, especially the Pro, but I’m just too cheap and I have a phone that can cover most of that stuff. I do have a Kindle (cheapest one w/o a backlight) that I like to read from, although I’m not impressed with its battery life, even with keeping it on airplane mode most of the time.

Not that long ago I moved from the iPhone 6S to 8+. The battery was starting to crap out on the 6S, and I wanted the bigger screen and newest (at the time) processor. With the newly-released iOS 12 (like Mojave it’s crazy good for a .0 release) the 8+ still feels brand new, and provided its battery holds up I won’t be in a rush to upgrade for quite awhile. But, weirdly enough, I’ll likely go back to a smaller screen, if only for the weight reduction (trying to work out with a large phone in your pants is a pain!).

We have Rokus on all of our TVs, running Plex or Netflix. The living room also has a PS4, which doesn’t see a whole lot of use. It does stay for being the back-up Blu-Ray player for those that refuse to be ripped. Besides a larger-sized TV I did setup a receiver just to have 2 nice Klipsch bookshelf speakers. To me sound is more important than visual quality (seriously we stream Netflix at 480p, take THAT data caps!) and it still blows me away how much more enjoyable films are with that setup.

Musical instruments haven’t changed at all, and I don’t foresee any new additions or such. I still like my Yamaha acoustic, but admittedly haven’t played it very much. I also rarely play the Strat, even after having its bridge fixed. I still like the feel of the Les Paul Studio the most, and aside from experimenting with heavier strings and tuning in D standard it’s pretty much set as-is.

The Stingray bass is also still fun to play. I tried a set of tapewound strings and loooooved the feel of them! Unfortunately the G string wouldn’t stay on the tuning peg so I left it off. I’ve since gone back to roundwound strings, and hate them. I’ll eventually get another set of tapewounds and have the luthier give it a full setup. Otherwise the Stingray is a joy to play on, even if it weighs at least twice what the Les Paul does (no joke, holy shit). I did replace the small guitar amp in the living room with a larger Fender bass amp, and it’s unbelievable how light it is! Yeah it weighs less than the Stingray, jeez. I still have the other bass amp in the garage, and like the drums would prefer to donate rather than try to sell it.

I still have the drums, but I’ve had no urge to play them. It may be worth it to try to sell it for at least a little money, but honestly I’d rather donate it to a school or church.

While I’ve posted twice about searching for a synthesizer, I don’t foresee ever purchasing one. It’s gonna take up too much of what little room I have or could make, and since I already use headphones for Reason I just won’t want to be so “closed off” in the house. It’d bad enough I have to keep the door closed because I can’t trust the cats! I’m likely just going to get a nice compact 25-key MIDI controller to use in Reason. It already offers enough instruments and sounds, and I did also purchase MiniBit for some retro goodness.

Software

For writing there’s a mix of writing in plain text as well as formatting, whether for short stories (and perhaps novels) and screenplays. While I championed doing as much as possible in plain text for years, I’ve recently relaxed and used what I feel is the best tool/software for each aspect. For plain text I use just about anything, switching daily between Notepad++, Sublime, Visual Studio Code, and iA Writer. Due to all the writing for Basic Fantasy RPG being done in LibreOffice, that’s what I’ve tended to use for short stories (and that novel fragment); I even uploaded a short story template for it. I also made one for Apple Pages; if I’m using the laptop for an extended period of time I’ll use that instead of LibreOffice; it just runs so much smoother and really isn’t that overkill for basic writing needs. I do want to try it out on the phone as well.

For the little amount of screenwriting I do, I’ve honestly gotten tired of Fountain, despite the enthusiasm I used to have for it. I didn’t mind writing in a text editor (Visual Studio Code even had an extension for text highlighting), but I grew weary of the little things in Highland that didn’t work, and the newer 2 release didn’t fix them. It also pushed itself more for other kinds of writing, which I didn’t agree with. Yes it can be good to write “distraction free”, but the page structure and length DOES matter in screenwriting, and in Highland particularly I was constantly switching back and forth to the preview. Plus, in 2 it now by default centers character names and dialogue, so it’s already contradicting itself. ANYWAYS, I spent more time testing out Fade In Pro, and my goodness I can’t believe I didn’t go with that sooner. Plus, when I had an issue with something I emailed Kent and he not only replied within a day or so, he incorporated some changes in the next release, which didn’t come too long after. Amazing! Oh yeah, it’s also the ONLY screenwriting program to run on Linux. Boom.

For file syncing I’m still on Dropbox. It’s never had a problem, and again it’s the only one in its category to run on Linux. I don’t have my pictures on it anymore, so I have more than enough space for documents.

For web browsing I’m pretty split between Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. The latter is just due to the battery life on the laptop, while I prefer Firefox overall for its open nature, plug-ins, and bookmark syncing.

For audio I’m still Team Reason. I finally upgraded to 10, and overall have been pretty happy with it. It is a bit hard to work on the laptop’s smaller screen, while at work it’s amazing to have it all showing or still split off parts of it to hide when not immediately needed. It still looks meh on a high-res screen, and there is a lot of newer items that can put off those new to Reason and DAWs period. But, it’s still the easiest for me to work with, and I hope to spend more time with it.