Bandcamp find: Spellcaster



It’s amazing what you can find on Youtube, Bandcamp, etc. just clicking around once you start on another band’s page. I don’t even remember how I got to Prosthetic Record’s homepage (I think I was looking for info on what Revocation has been up to, but later realized they were on Relapse Records before signing with Metal Blade Records), and the featured video on their page is for Spellcaster’s Night Hides the World, their first release with Prosthetic Records. I was bracing for crazy growling vocals, overly-busy drums and ridiculously-downtuned guitars. But holy shit, what I got pouring into my ears was unbelievable! It’s classic thrash/power metal, from a group of young guys. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of them before. July needs to hurry up and get here so I can hear the rest of these kick-ass songs!

Bulldogs!

Note: when I started writing this review there was only one version of Bulldogs! using the FATE rules. While there’s an updated edition that builds upon Fate Core, my review will stick with the now-classic FATE version.

When I reviewed Fate Accelerated and Core, I had mixed feelings about those games. I could grasp the general concept of the rules, and it seemed to be exactly the kind of game I wanted to play and run. However, the actual writing, layout, and design were not that good, especially for Core. By the time I had trudged my way through the Stunts and Skills chapter my head hurt. Too many terms, too much word spewing, and still had no clear idea how to play. And that was about 100 pages in. Not good.

In contrast Bulldogs! comes in at 170 pages, about halfway between Fate Accelerated and Core. It does use a slightly-older version of the FATE rules, as well as some tweaks of its own. A new edition has recently been released to make it in line with┬áCore, and I’m curious if it does indeed improve and simplify the rules or just adopts Core’s mess.

Bulldogs! is pitched as a game of high-flying, fast-shooting space action. Think Hans Solo meets Firefly. This isn’t high-brow hard sci-fi, nor the politics of interstellar systems and what it means for the “future of man/the universe”. This game is about YOU, and your survival, to fight another day and maybe earn some money.

The first thing I noticed was the outstanding design and layout of this game. Not just compared to the hot mess of Core, but any RPG at all. Bulldogs! was extremely easy to read and glance at any needed headings, tables, etc. So far so good. I also commend the authors for releasing the majority of the game’s text under the OGL license!

The Galaxy

At 7 pages the setting of the game is very light on details. The galaxy is basically split into three regions: the Frontier Zone (in the middle), the Devalkamanchan Republic, and the Union of the Saldralla. Most of the action is intended to take place in the Frontier Zone, but it’s likely your ship will cross into the other two regions at some point. Each region, and key locations within them, have their own invokes and compels (explained in the rules later on). This chapter also includes a few key organizations and corporations, as well as some snags, namely border crossings and weapon laws (all of these also have their own Invokes and Compels).

FATE Basics

This chapter is only 4 pages; basics indeed. The authors do an excellent job of explaining how FATE works (with tweaks for their game) in a very brief and engaging fashion. Of course later chapters will dive into details where needed, but for now it’s easy for any FATE new-comer to start learning how to play and learn a few key vocabulary terms, rather than being over-whelmed with everything thrown at them at once (once again, looking at you Fate Core and Accelerated!).

Alien Species

A sci-fi game is only as interesting as the world and the people/species you can meet within it. Near-future, human-only sci-fi sounds terribly boring to me! Luckily Bulldogs! has a nice variety of species, each with their own unique traits as far as looks and abilities go. In total there are 10 species, each with suggested names (male and female), aspects (invokes and compels included), and abilities. The chapter ends with a few pages for creating your own species.

Crew Creation

Here in this chapter the players get to the heart of the matter, creating their characters and how they work together on a ship. In Bulldogs! the default assumption is that the players are part of a ship’s crew, working for TransGalaxy in Class D Freight. That of course can be changed, but for now let’s “fly” with it (lol see what I did there?!). The GM will normally be the captain of the ship, but everyone gets a say about the captain as well as the ship. But it is a cargo ship, no sleek starfighters! Next the power level needs to be chosen; this will determine the refresh points as well as skill points and skill cap. Starting higher can certainly be fun, but I personally would want to start out at the lowest level and work my way up.

After choosing a species each player will then to choose or create the 10 aspects for their character: 2 from their species, 4 from their background, and 4 from their current berth. The latter aspects should involve at least some collaboration with the other players. Aspects are the most important part of any FATE game, so players may want to read the next chapter before starting work on their character. After aspects we’re on to skills. This chapter doesn’t list them nor explain them, instead it merely lists for each power level the number of skills that can be chosen and at what proficiency. Finally the chapter covers stunts; this very short section explains that stunts cost refresh points, otherwise details are left for their own chapter as well.

Aspects

This chapter covers a lot, as aspects are once again a very important part of a FATE game, and they’re utilized in almost every aspect of a typical session. Introducing new vocabulary and concepts, this chapter goes over how aspects are invoked, declared, compelled, tagged, and even created and discovered during play. While it’s still not too many pages, theses are likely the pages that most readers (including myself) will need to re-read before and during a game to get things to truly click.

Doing Things

While aspects and skills cover a large part of the FATE game and what a character can do, there’s still plenty more to be covered, and that’s where this chapter comes in. Included here are sections on shifts, time, actions, conflicts, situations such as environmental hazards and zero gravity, explosions, and minions/companions. Whew!

Advancement

A very short 2-page chapter, this covers how characters improve over time, namely with milestones. These can include more proficient and/or new skills, stunts, or even re-worded or replaced aspects.

Skills

Here all 28 skills are listed and detailed. Each skill can possibly be used in up to 7 different ways: Overcome Obstacles, Assessment, Declaration, Place Maneuver, Attack, Defend, and Block.

Stunts

This decent-sized chapter is mostly filled with example stunts for each skill. A player is welcome to choose from them or create their own, similar to aspects.

Gear

As noted in the beginning of the chapter, gear is second fiddle to natural ability and skills, but it’s still necessary to earn money and win a fight. Instead of tracking a character’s actual wealth of credits or other monetary unit, Bulldogs! uses a Resources score. Each item available for purchase has a cost rating, which is the difficulty for a Resources roll. This is an ingenious way to do it, and I may have to actually import it to my fantasy game (rather than relying on the traditional but somewhat-ridiculous gold-based economy). The chapter also covers debt and trading. Next we have listings for gear, including weaponry (gun, archaic, and explosive), personal defense (armor and shields), and personal items. There’s not a whole lot here, but it’s very easy for a GM or the players to come up with new items. Finally the chapter ends with a section on creating new items from components, improving existing items, and even purchasing a workshop.

Ships

Despite the name of this chapter, it’s not just space-faring ships that are covered. Any vehicle can be created with the rules and guidance in this chapter, though certain items may only apply to one or another. Each vehicle/ship is created by setting its cost, speed, shields, weapons, and improvements. In addition to the creation of a ship/vehicle, this chapter also covers maintenance, ships/vehicles in play, and even ship-to-ship conflicts and combat (including repairs). These sections aren’t too long, and the rules look quite simple and straight-forward, something many other FATE games, let alone other RPGs, would need dozens if not more pages.

Running the Game

The final short chapter in Bulldogs! is addressed not only to the GM but the players as well, and includes advice and suggestions for keeping the game running smoothly, including success and failure, setting difficulties, conflict design, and keeping things exciting. There’s a lot of little ideas that may help your game, but like the rest of Bulldogs! it ultimately depends on the group’s creativity.

Conclusion

Compared to most other FATE games as well as other modern RPGs, Bulldogs! could be considered outright slim. Each chapter is fairly short, and there isn’t a terrible amount of rules, vocabulary, or tables that must be studied before a game can be played. No doubt it’s not quite as straight-forward as an OSR or early-edition D&D game, but it’s pretty close. The notion of aspects will take the most time for everyone to learn and fully click, and like any RPG game an experienced GM will greatly help.

Would I utilize the universe of Bulldogs! even if I didn’t want to run it with Fate? It’s hard to say. Originally I was quite excited about it, but as I re-read through each chapter for this review I realized that there really isn’t a whole lot of setting or fluff, hence the low page-count. That’s certainly nice as far as getting into a game and running it, but what if I’m not that creative of a person, or at least having an off day and need help creating something? Yes there’s some interesting species and a rough sketch of a universe included, but I might do better modelling the scoundrels of Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly.

In that case would I choose Bulldogs! over Fate Accelerated? Both rely on aspects, though far fewer in FA. FA also axes skills, so there’s even less rules/foundation to really rely on. It might just be a little too bare-bones. Bulldogs! is quite the contender for a sci-fi game, let alone wanting to run FATE at all. Unless something better comes along, it’s certainly staying on my shelf.

Bandcamp find: Robert T



I’ve seen several posts on /r/synthesizers pointing to Robert’s music, and it’s only recently that I’ve sat down and really taken the time to listen to it. Some of his tracks are very ethereal and ambient, while others will invoke Deus Ex and other near-future/cyberpunk worlds. Most of his releases are name-your-own-price, while the rest are very affordable, so check it out!

Re-visiting Houston (and Galveston)

It’s been 10 years since I moved from Houston, and I haven’t returned for a visit until recently. Most of the people I knew have moved away, while the few others have traveled to visit me, so I never really had an incentive to go back. With a wedding of a wife’s friend nearby, I decided to take the opportunity to see what has changed and what hasn’t.

Galveston

We first drove down to Galveston. When I heard my wife wanted to stay a day in Galveston, I immediately remembered the San Luis, as we had stayed there several times when my family visited Galveston many years ago. I’m not sure it was always called a resort, but it is now, and it certainly is! Needless to say my wife and I were spoiled. If you’re visiting Galveston, I highly recommend it.

Before checking in to the San Luis, we visited the San Jacinto Monument and the Battleship Texas. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen them, and they have not changed at all. These sites certainly as touristy as some others we visited, but they are vital to our state’s history, and I think they’re worthy of a visit.

After the night at the San Luis, and enojoying a great breakfast in bed, we headed back towards Houston. On the way we visited the Space Center Houston. This was a very crowded and hectic place with numerous schools having field trips the same day. I think I had visited here on a field trip in late elementary or middle school, but I honestly can’t be sure. There was a fair amount of things to see and learn about, but all in all I felt for the space of the buildings it did seem a little lacking. I didn’t get a real sense of history or the actual accomplishments of NASA and the brave men and women who have risked (and unfortunately in some cases lost) their lives for the pursuit and progress of our species. I remember far more exhibits and better designs way back at the Houston Museum of Science.

Houston

It’s pretty amazing, but also not very surprising, how much can change in 10 years. Coming into Houston, I started to recognize street names on the freeway exits, and then buildings here and there. But for every building I did recognize, there were easily 4-5 new buildings or entire complexes (homes or commercial) that I didn’t. Oh and the traffic; oh man I had some refresher courses on traffic from visiting Austin and San Antonio over the years, but for the sheer density they don’t compare. After we checked into the hotel, we made our first car trip around to see some of the places I had on my list. First there was St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. I always loved the Gothic architecture of the main church building, and it still stands out as unique as ever. The other building, where we usually met for youth group, has changed somewhat; more has been added on the back part, and the street in front of it has been closed off. But for the most part it’s the same, and for some reason that’s a comfort for me. Yes, the ministers and I’m sure most of the congregation has changed, but that’s OK as well as inevitable.

Next we drove by MD Anderson Cancer Center. As part of the Houston medical center, that it’s a large complex isn’t surprising at all. But that there’s already 2 new buildings, well that is. Of course those aren’t the only new structures, and I’m sure more are already planned. Next we drove through the Rice University campus. Oh I remember all the summers I spent here for classes, as well as the basketball games we went to after the Rockets became way too popular, crowded, and expensive. There’s a few new buildings, but most are the same. I had forgotten just how many trees were on campus and the surrounding streets, and it was sublime to be under them. Next we headed to the nearby Rice Village to have a beer and snack at The Ginger Man. If you enjoy a beer on tap, you need to visit here. There’s almost too much to choose from, but in the end Real Ale won out. For dinner we drove not very far to The Raven Grill, where I enjoyed a grilled salmon and a glass of my favorite wine, Cline Zinfandel. We even had time afterwards to visit Nan’s Games and Comics Too. It hasn’t changed too much, although comics and board games have encroached on RPG’s space just like any other gaming store. On the way back to the hotel we drove by Rockin’ Robin. But that visit would have to wait.

After a well-needed night of sleep, it was day 2. Since it was likely to get hot and humid later in the day, we decided to visit the Houston Zoo first thing. It was as large as I had remembered, and there was a nice variety of animals. I wish they had a black leopard like the San Antonio Zoo, otherwise I was pretty happy. After the zoo it was time to cool off with a cold beer and a buffalo burger at Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack. No-one believed me when I told them it was literally a shack under the freeway, but it is! And the burgers are just as tasty as I remembered. Before heading back to the hotel to change for the wedding, we drove and walked around the outside of the Minute Maid Park. Unfortunately it was closed for a private event, so we weren’t able to go inside. Due to the bad weather we left the wedding early, but it ended up working out as we were able to have dinner at Sullivan’s Steakhouse. Like any steakhouse it costs an arm and a leg, but oh man what a well-seasoned and well-cooked cut of beef! The sides were also very tasty, and the house red wine was a perfect accompaniment. It was the perfect end to another very well-packed day, so it was then off to bed.

Finding a place to eat breakfast in Houston on Sunday morning is no easy feat, especially when you’ve slept in and have to deal with the after-church crowds. My first choice, Baba Yega, was way too crowded, but that also worked out as we then decided to go ahead and visit Romano’s Pizza. I knew it was going to be good, but I had forgotten just how good! We split the garlic bread knots, and I got 2 pizza slices. I was seriously ready to either order more food to go to snack on later, and/or come back the next day. We didn’t, but damn if I didn’t want to! After eating we went to Rockin’ Robin. This was probably the place I was most looking forward to visiting; I think the unique charm and atmosphere, the smell, everything about this place just made me happy. And I was very pleased that it’s still the same. I couldn’t buy a new guitar to bring or ship back, but I still made out with some accessories and may order some items online to keep giving them some business. Since I got to go to some of my “dream stores”, it was only fair for my wife to visit one she would like, so we then headed to High Fashion Fabrics. This was certainly an impressive place, and there were a lot of neat fabrics and prints. After a short break and nap we got to visit some old family friends, the Martins. It was nice to see their first home was still there, and there newer/current home was a bustle of activity as both Megan and Erin are married and have kids. It was a bit surreal to see them older and with their own kids, but in a strange way it was also a comfort to see life continuing with a new generation. Since they lived near my old home in Bellaire, we drove by there on the way. Many houses in Bellaire have been torn down to be replaced with overly-huge monstrosities, but I was very happy seeing our house still there. It’s obviously been well-taken care of, and overall isn’t too different. It’s a far different story for our first rental house, as it’s now gone and part of the property of the house next door.

The next day was the last full day to see and visit, so I had to check to make sure I didn’t miss anything. We slept in pretty late, so for an early lunch we went to Picnic Box Lunches, right next door to The Raven Grill. The chicken salad sandwich was just as good as I remembered. Next we went by Bethany United Methodist Church. Now there’s somewhere that hasn’t changed at all! Its future does seem to be in question, but I do hope the building remains in some fashion. The houses on the surrounding streets are quite lovely. Next we went by Mrs. Wagner’s School. This was something I was looking forward to, as I don’t know if I had driven by there more than once or twice long after I went there for kindergarten through 3rd grade. The outside has changed a little bit. For whatever reason the sign in the front (I’m pretty sure there was a sign…) is gone. It looks a little less like a house now, and it’s been painted a darker color. In the back the smaller playground area is still there, but the large field behind that has been partially taken over by a parking lot. And Trafton Academy has expanded quite a bit past that, all the way to the next street. Still, I’m glad the school where I undoubtedly had my best years is still there, and new generations of kids are hopefully receiving the same care and learning. Alright, enough with the sentiment! Now it was time to head back to the Bellaire area! Since I had already been by my homes, I wanted to see if the house of my best friend Justin was still there. More-so than the streets around my house, driving towards Justin’s street the ratio of new to old houses was incredible; it was hard to spot original houses! Turning onto his street, my hopes weren’t good, as new house after new house took over each lot. But sure enough, there was his house! Almost literally the only original house in the area, it almost looked like it cowered between the two new houses on each side. There weren’t any cars in the driveway, and for whatever reason I didn’t try to call the number I still remember all these years later. I have no idea if his parents even still live there, and if he lives in Houston or not. Maybe later on I will try, but for now I was just glad to see his house again. On the way to Justin’s house I saw the Evergreen pool and Russ Pitman Park. Then we saw the Bellaire firehouse, city hall, library, rec center, and pool. The firehouse is huge now, with a 2nd story and several additional garages added on. The pool has also expanded quite a bit, and the street in front of it is almost completely gone in a similar manner to St. Paul’s. Everything else hasn’t changed much at all, and especially for the library I was happy to see it that way.

Next we braved the crowds at The Galleria. It took forever to remember where we could park, let alone to get into the building! Definitely not designed in a cohesive fashion like the malls in San Antonio. There were a few neat stores to check out, namely Apple, but nothing unique to set it apart. For dinner we met with Kate and Dan and went to Paulie’s, across the street from Lanier Middle School. The salmon was just as good as I remembered, and there were so many other good-looking items on the menu. They also carried the Real Ale Brown Ale, so additional kudos to them. On the way back we drove by the University of St. Thomas. They have some additional buildings under construction, but the main campus/quad is the same. It was hard not to remember all the fun classes and evenings I spent on that campus.

That evening concluded the visit, and we went back to the hotel exhausted and happy. We got to visit an incredible number of places, and drove around a good portion of the areas I frequented when I lived here. It may be quite a number of years before we come back to visit again, but I think it won’t be as long next time.

And Then There Were Fewer

 

I remember watching Family Guy way back in the day when my brother had purchased the first volume on DVD. I had never heard of it before, but it was quite funny and I became a fan, buying a few of the additional volumes released over the years. Eventually my interest waned, but would still occasionally watch it either on DVD or Netflix. I didn’t watch many of the later seasons, even as Netflix added more and more of them. I’m not sure how I found out about the episode And Then There Were Fewer (spoiler alert!), but as soon as I learned it was a riff on And Then There Were None crossed with Clue, I HAD to watch it, and thankfully it was already on Netflix.

Simply put, I love this two-part episode! The music, the lighting, the genuine mystery of who the actual murderer is, it’s all here and works perfectly together. Now this is a Family Guy episode, so there’s a lot of characters making appearances and doing their spiel for a joke fairly often; luckily it doesn’t fully detract from the mystery at hand. I was both very happy and pissed off when the episode ended, because I wanted more! A few other shows I’ve watched have done a similar mystery-centered episode, but I can’t remember one ever being as well-constructed as this.