Geek Proud, GeekOut.

Author Archive

The Dungeon Master’s Curse

Ok, so we have another late article, but for once it’s not because I have very little to talk about, I have a great deal of RPG things I would love to be discussing right now. I’ve started a new home campaign, I have a Hallowe’en game coming up, and I’m staring at a list of plans for a whole year of games at Oswestry Library ready to submit some extra dates because people are desperate to start booking in advance… which sounds like a complaint, but I’m actually really pleased.

Add to that a long list of subjects that are bit-by-bit being turned into YouTube videos, I’m sitting on a lot of scripts, preliminary notes, and a folder of images for simple video creation purposes (not that it’s making the job much easier or faster), and I don’t want to duplicate too much work.

This is something I can’t believe I’ve not addressed in the past. I’m a Dungeon Master, most of my friends are players, most of my social circle includes players in various games and campaigns, so all of the ideas that I would really love to talk about, I simply can’t because if I do I give too much away. I mention a great idea for a narrative point or a trap, or clever monster design in anything less than the most general terms, then suddenly I have no surprises left in my arsenal.

But oh dear god do I want to talk about things! I can’t help that, I’m a writer with a lot of ideas that I want to talk about, and that’s a good thing! Narcissistic, sure, but talking about ideas helps you and other people because it encourages them to share their ideas with you, ultimately building better writers and creators, we’re all learning from one another ultimately, by reading, watching, listening to anything created by anyone you learn something from them… y’know what, I’m wittering, you get the idea, art is a collaborative and nebulous thing.

So here’s a shallow dive on some of what I’ve got in the pipeline with very little context:

Killing with Confidence – I’ve been playing some Call of Cthulhu of late, a game that one expects to lose, you can only strive to do enough before you lose your mind to… I don’t know, protect the world, keep a tenuous grip on reality. It takes conviction to kill a player character, one should never be afraid that a character’s death will impact their enjoyment, and it takes some practice and confidence to kill someone’s character. Depending on the game, the death could be a glorious, noble, and heroic, or perhaps gruesome and unpleasantly descriptive, so long as the fallen player appreciates what has happened and why.

Collaboration – An idea I rather blatantly stole from Matt Colville, because “Wooh! Sharing ideas!”. Some of us have players who have left us for the other side of the country or maybe to another country, or continent. And yeah, maybe you miss playing with those people but don’t like normal online role-play, or maybe time zones are just against you? Not a problem, employ them as a powerful NPC so that your villains have distinct motivations, and might kill your party with far less remorse than you might have. Delicious verisimilitude…

Roll for Knowledge – Most games with a list of skills include a diverse range of skills that describe a character’s studies and learning in particular fields, like history, anthropology, the natural world, technology, you get the idea. You can roll multiple skills while studying the same thing, and that can and should yield different results. For example, if you are analysing a mechanism, rolling technology when looking at a computer would tell you how it works and what part serves what function, rolling psychology might help you learn something about the person who owns the computer by perusing the files, rolling arcana would lead you to every kind of wrong conclusion but all of them involve magic in some way, and as a result is fundamentally flawed.

There’s a lot of these, I stop now or I give too much away. Besides, I have to get back to work on this…


Review – Joker

A Spoiler Warning is in effect throughout this whole article, I want to do a deep-dive as best as I can, and it can’t be done without discussing some huge plot points.

Todd Phillips’ Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man trying to be happy in the 1980’s at a time when the world doesn’t care about him or anyone like him. He’s beaten down just far enough, that during the events of the film we get to watch him break. Combining elements of the Killing Joke with a subtle hint of the Court of Owls (like, a tiny hint, really small) and creating a version of the Joker that we can really empathise with… a little too much. (more…)


In The Tall Grass vs. Triangle

Stephen King never really goes out of style in the film industry, he waxes and wanes like the moon, his work is prolific, and readily adapted for film, although it can be a little variable in quality. Certainly with IT Chapter 2 forefront in everyone’s mind, now is definitely the time to adapt some of his lesser known work, and here we have In The Tall Grass popping up on Netflix, and while I’m watching, I can’t help but be reminded of another film with a concurrent theme. And then I think, hey, haven’t done a film-versus in a while. (more…)


Gloomhaven on PC

You may remember I chatted about this one, and about a year or two before that it was all over the board game social groups. In short it’s a leviathan board game in a box the size of a couple of breeze blocks, it has a foot firmly in the RPG camp in the same way that Diablo and Grim Dawn are RPGs, all the stabbing, easy on the character moments, incidental decision making with pretty direct fallout, but damn it does the hacking and slashing well.

Characters are diverse in appearance and collection of powers building to tactical combinations with the rest of your party, clever but frustrating action economy, and so many possibilities, status conditions, and moving parts that the whole thing is far easier to manage with an app or three on the side. And actually with that electronic assistance Gloomhaven becomes an incredibly fun game, without it you’ve really got to enjoy your bookkeeping.

Borne on its popularity, Gloomhaven now has a video game version, all of the heroes fully animated, the modular board pieces turned into deep, rich scenery, and all of the numbers handled for you from behind the proverbial curtain.

Almost.

The video game version is still in early access stages so that players can help test the hell out of the many features to make sure that every character is ready and waiting to go. Currently the only playable characters are the Brute, Scoundrel, Spellweaver, and Cragheart, and after a recent update, the Tinkerer, which means that of course, my character has to wait until last. It’s almost like the Mindthief’s deck is filled with complex strategies, different mechanics, and like huge swarms of rats are hard to animate! Vermlings will not be sidelined!! Although apparently he gets released some time before the end of the year.

The board game has a mass of other characters who are unlocked over time, and given the pace of updates we might not be waiting all that long for the full release as it’s the characters and their management who are the most intricate part of the game. If their actions can be managed properly then so can all of the creature actions.

Oh, and on the subject of the creatures, the creatures in Gloomhaven always looked pretty in the artwork, but seeing them brought to life is something truly incredible. Demons, elemental undead take on a far more haunting aspect when they float and shamble their way towards you to kill you. “Elite” creatures also take on a better visual aspect, rather than being the same cardstock token inserted into a different colour stand, cultists change robes, bandits gain subtle armour decorations, and while the differences are not dramatic, they do add a little depth to the design that sets it apart from the tabletop version.

The gameplay is practically identical, you have your deck of cards, each of which with two options, in combat you choose two cards per turn, and you execute the top of one card and the bottom of the other, typically the top half will be more offensive, the bottom will be more tactical. For a turn based strategy you can easily take your time mulling over your options, and because you can play alone you’re not rushing to ensure you’re not holding everyone else up. When using those abilities, there is always the extra step of “confirming” your moves, which can be skipped by double-clicking, and there’s also a lot of confirming the end of turn, confirming how you take damage, and while it’s all necessary, it does jar the flow of the gameplay a little. Better I think to have played the board game to appreciate the reason for each feature, or maybe in-game tutorials will help advise new players after the proper release.

Early reports are naturally mixed because this game is early access, but fixes have been swift, broadly successful, and expected features are being released at a respectable pace. Whether you decide to jump on in the early days or wait for the full title, I think it’s safe to say that this will be a worthwhile investment for fans of the original board game. Whether or not it will translate to a broader audience… I’m going to suspend judgement for now.


Three Horror Reviews

It’s October, and there’s things I have found on Netflix and simply not talked about. Actually a lot of my watch list and to-watch list is horror films, and while I’ll get round to From Beyond, Troll Hunters, and maybe even Errementari at some point, there’s also a few new favourites.

Time to get into the mood for some serious fear, here’s a collection of quick-fire reviews of some of Netflix’s selection of horror films.

Ghost Stories

Let’s kick off with a horror anthology which – aptly – tells three stories of hauntings and fear, but the truth is that the framing device is the film. An investigator dedicated to debunking psychics is summoned to the hiding place of an old hero, a man who faked his own death decades ago, who leaves him with a handful of case studies that he believes prove the existence of an afterlife that he’d been dedicated to debunking. A night watchman, a nervous teenager, and a boisterous landowner, beset by stories that have traumatised them to their core, each barely capable of talking through their experiences, each forces our investigator to confront something about himself.

I’m a big fan of anthologies, not that I think one can accurately call this an anthology as such. Meeting the protagonist of each story helps build some of the tension ahead of time, seeing how deeply each player is impacted by their part. This is also a parade of British talent at its best, Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, and Martin Freeman are tentpoles of the cast. At times Ghost Stories get’s a little reliant on jump scares, and yes they’re often exaggerated by cheesy musical stings, but it uses them to solid effect, and supports it with magnificently built tension, a little well-placed humour, and subverts the format of the anthology by turning it wholly on the main character for the finale.

“Why is it always the last key that unlocks everything?”

The Descent Parts 1&2

Ok, this is cheating, only part 2 is on Netflix right now, and I’d seen them both anyway. Let me clarify as well that I sincerely think that the two are inextricable and that we should not offer one without the other, so do not watch it on Netflix, find some other means. Actually distribution of these films when they were created may not have done it many favours, release dates four years apart (’05 and ’09) when in fact they tell a single, unified story, but that may be about the only criticism I have. A claustrophobic tale of potholers, cavedivers, and thrillseekers who go deep underground in the Appalachian mountains and discover that something has been down there for quite some time.

Use of pure red lighting is very du-jour for the mid-00’s but it’s used to great effect as personal tensions in the group build, and spot some of the camera work and set building that really betrays the decade. But they do a great job of creating a fear of the hidden places below ground, create a genuinely horrifying monster, and mix them with a horror that lurks above ground. It’s very Lurking Fear in it’s inspirations, and is easier to appreciate if you’ve read/listened to the book, but The Descent takes a slant on the idea of subterranean humanoids and makes monsters of some of its main cast at the same time.

Apostle

For some reason Dan Stevens is not listed as being famous for Legion on imdb? What the hell is Downton Abbey?

Anyway, he and Michael Sheen headline a Wicker Man-esque horror that delves a little more directly into the supernatural while still keeping the focus on the horrors brought about by humanity’s own bad habits, our tendency to abuse a resource, mysticize what we can’t understand, and lean towards totalitarianism in the pursuit of freedom. It also fits most solidly within the modern horror oeuvre of mounting tension above overt fear, and manages to insert a rather complete thriller amongst the more terrifying elements.

A girl is held to ransom by a charismatic cult leader in a bid for money to keep his flock alive, all while maintaining a facade of normalcy. From the perspective of the mysterious stranger come to rescue his sister, normalcy is highly strange practices of bloodletting, strange scriptures, and unmerciful practices, along with visions of a strange figure that roams abroad. A cunning trick played by the soundtrack includes the sound of dripping liquid into glass, or very similar, to drive home the sanguine nature of the fear.

I’d say the ending takes a turn for the aesthetically wonderful, but starts to detract from the fear so wonderfully conjured by the first and second acts, but don’t take that as too harsh a criticism. Apostle is still a great film, just one that coasts through its finale, rather than rises through it.


GeekOut Shrewsbury September ’19 – Wizard Club

In shadow, we find the light
Safely sealed in darkest night
So make sure y’all keep it tight
Wizards only fools!

Do you wanna beef in the eye of Glob? Do you wanna reach the highest initiation of the secret schools? Well too late, we already disbanded Wizard Club and we’re not supposed to talk about it. Magic was on the table, in the air, magic was in the fudge cake! Or maybe that was chocolate? Certainly wasn’t in the ice-cream, that was… fine I guess.

Anyway, here’s how GeekOut Shrewsbury went this month.

Premeet – Palmer’s

Six of you voted… about a dozen turned up. Dear Palmer’s, apologies for dominating half the room, but hey, at least people were eating and drinking, and at least Gemma brought her dog in for a while to say hi and steal some panini. Oh and thanks to Chris for helping me complete my Omnath commander deck, because as per usual we took the opportunity of the pre-meet for a grand card swap and social session.

Moving on!

Monty’s

I think it’s official, we now average thirty people per event, which means we’re occupying more and more of the pub. This month we were, quite literally wall to wall, expanding further and further. Some of you may recall that – when we began – I was offered that entire half of the pub, and I thought to myself “Yeah, sure, if we get enough people, on a Thursday, sure? Maybe in a decade!” but we are two and a half years of GeekOut Shrewsbury and… well suddenly that doesn’t look quite so unreasonable.

Oh, and if you’re looking at the projector and thinking “Hey, didn’t Joel say that there’ll be no quiz on the projector anymore because of a projector issue?” and yeah… yeah I did…

Magic, experimental chess variations, and EPIC SPELL WARS OF THE BATTLEWIZARDS: ANNIHILAGEDDON (still not available in the UK, thanks Gen Con). Suzie rightly pointed out that towards the end of the evening GeekOut abandons the board games and descends into a casual chat-group… and… good! That’s a sign we’re a casual and friendly atmosphere.

Spells

Winners included (in reverse order), a spell that slightly overboils an egg, a spell that guarantees a full and bad night’s sleep, and the winner, a spell that turns a beloved animated film into a live-action remake! Potent, terrible, useless, and yet there are people in this world who would cast that spell all day long!

Lost and Found

The headphones have been claimed by their rightful owner, but does anyone recognise the umbrella? It’s with me and going nowhere until someone asks about it. You can claim it from me next month, and on the subject:

Next month is the Bad Costume Competition!! Moreover it’s on Hallowe’en itself, October 31st (in case there was any uncertainty). Keep an eye on Facebook and Meetup for more information, and watch the countdown timer at the side of the page.


Disenchantment Season 2

Matt Groening’s foray into fantasy dropped its second season this week.

Wow do I wish I had more to say. Usually when I review something I’ll be watching it again on the other screen while I write, but Lego Batman’s on Netflix now, so is the Between Two Ferns movie and those are two things I would rather watch! It’s nothing against Disenchantment… no, wait, it is, it’s definitely something against Disenchantment because so help me I do not recall anything that happened in the series that I watched three days ago!

Continuing the storyline that began in the first season and wrapping up the cliffhanger we left in in which Princess Tiabeanie “Bean” leaves Dreamland with her evil mother, oblivious to the fact that said mother is evil. Elfo the elf is dead, Luci the demon is stuck in a bottle, and all the people of Dreamland have been turned to stone, leaving King Zog alone to go mad. All of the above is wrapped up within a couple of episodes, and we learn who the shadowy figures were, Bean’s aunt and uncle.

We now get new plot threads, an elf conspiracy that goes nowhere except now all the elves have moved into the kingdom despite the fact that the city is a terrible place for them, and there’s an ever growing mess with the mother’s side of the family. But… I mean we’re not here for the story, right, we’re here for the comedy? Not sure what happened to that either to be honest.

In season one, Bean was a troubled and rebellious teen, she seems like she’s lost a lot of her zest, becoming a wooden peg on which the plot hangs. Elfo’s incredibly upbeat attitude has been tempered by cynicism with an upbeat delivery, which suits his character progression but loses his naive obliviousness. And Luci, who had been the main source of cynical comedy suddenly takes a backseat. King Zog is beaten down and humbled and clashes less with Bean which was half of his schtick. The first season was rife with jokes that didn’t so much subvert fantasy expectations as shine a massive spotlight on them, mixed with some excellent wordplay, with comical situations and characters.

This time around the jokes are few and far between, and the watering down of the characters only makes the whole thing more bland, and that’s the worst of it, it’s just underwhelming. Secondary characters are thrust forward to negligible effect I felt like Disenchantment was building to something, and I feel like it burned through a lot of the interesting questions pretty easily and left us without much to drag us into season three, if such a thing is coming.

And the worst part is… if it does, I still think I’ll watch it. There’s a cliffhanger, a mystery or two, and a likeability to the cast of characters that makes viewing all too easy. This is passive viewing at its most passive, while the humour is weakened, fewer laugh out loud moments, but it remains watchable and vaguely entertaining, especially if you watch both seasons back to back because there are a handful of running jokes that are forgettable but still kind of humorous, and there’s enough interesting narrative to keep you just barely engaged while I do something else on the other screen… like complain about what I’m watching!

It all nets to somewhere around “watchable”, or perhaps “bearable” but given the legacy it’s come from that makes it something of a disappointment. From the creators of Futurama and the Simpsons comes “more of the same”. Enjoy it if that’s what you want in life.


Shropshire Dungeon Master Events

And Diary XIV

Last time I talked about life as a DM for hire was only July, but hotdamn have these last two months been full of stuff!

Insomnia 65 shortly after Gen Con, three games a day in which I had to shout over the e-sports stage about a hundred feet away with whooping and cheering Overwatch fans and the commentators talking over the action, it’s a hard life but ultimately worth it. Not only are the games booking out, but extra games are having to be laid on, and we’re in the process of inducting another GM to help ease the burden and get a few more people to the tables.

Huge thanks to the photographer who sent me some of pictures he took mid-game, some of your work will end up on a roller banner at some point in the future:

Twitter @JordHeathcote
Instagram @jordheathcotefilm

Following a short break in Machynlleth it was straight back to the library, and this week just gone, Staffordshire, specifically a charity event with the Staffordshire Wargaming Guild in support of PWSA for Prader Willi’s syndrome, and military charity SSAFA. I was invited by Harriet who I met very briefly at UKGE in June, and while my communication was slow over the busy summer, I went, I ran a couple of games, I did so far faster than I intended because my players proved to be ruthlessly efficient. Also, I apparently won some dice in the raffle! Thanks everyone, hopefully see you all again.

Ok, so, the future. I am most definitely up to something, for a start I have another Hallowe’en game in the wonderful surroundings of Whittington Castle, and the interest has already been so incredibly high that I’ve added a second day of play! The first event on the 30th of October, the second on the 1st of November (with obvious exception for Hallowe’en itself it being GeekOut Shrewsbury’s Bad Costume Party). In my last horror spectacular I killed everyone in the first hour… this time around, they’ll wish I had.

I’m not offering links for the event because at this point they look set to sell out some time this Saturday.

Finally, I’ve been up to something… I’ve been up to something for about three months, maybe longer, and I still can’t talk about it in full but much of it will be a continuation of the DMing 101 series from when I first started here many, many years ago, and requires learning how to turn all of this long winded rambling into vocal rambling, I ranted about this the other day, but now I can show you that it’ll look something like this.


Unearthed Arcana – Class Abundance

So Wizards of the Coast are busy pouring out Unearthed Arcana articles, their playtest material articles that give us access to things like new spells, rules, magic items, races, and subclasses that allow us to make an ever more diverse cast of characters to bring to the table. And currently subclasses is the key term, the pace of articles has picked up with a new subclass introduced for two classes a time, so far: (more…)


Magic: the Gathering – Drafting M20

So, same as last year, I picked up a box of the latest core set from Magic, because while Throne of Eldarine looks very pretty, I can’t say I’ve seen enough to draw me in past the hydra-turtles. Usually for me that’d be enough, but finances are what they are.

M20 has a very particular theme. Actually it has several, elementals, goblins, birds, wolves, knights, the recurring leylines and cavaliers, a conspicuous return of Theros favourites and temple-lands, and a definite lean towards the commander format, all shine through in the setlist, but there’s a bias here that’s impossible to ignore, especially when you reach the list of red cards.

While each colour has a Planeswalker to represent it, red has three, all of whom are Chandra Nalaar at varying stages of her rise to power. Four of her key spells immediately follow in the set list, and much like with the return of the Theros cards, it rather feels like a nod to Magic’s future, as the upcoming TV series by the Russo brothers is expected to be heavily centred on the pyromancer.

My Deck

A quick reminder on how to draft cards if you weren’t already familiar.

Here was my first draw:

Unusual to grab a land as your first card, but scrying is a useful mechanic no matter the deck, and it does set the colours for my deck… so I was hoping. Unfortunately both of my opponents were keen on white and black, seemingly both throwing in a healthy dose of green just to scupper me. No one went blue… at all, until I started coming up with some beguiling options:

Ok, so I guess I’m building an elemental-heavy deck, I’ll put these with a collection of my red picks, heavy on the goblins to supplement the goblin deck I’ve been assembling. Surprisingly it wasn’t too difficult to assemble a synergistic draft based on the Temur colours: red/blue/green, and something that does what those colours do well. The deck I ended with filled the ground with creatures that support and feed off one another.

Lavakin Brawlers make the Creeping Trailblazer far more daunting, Scorch Spitter and Scampering Scorchers make it cheap and easy to bulk up the bonuses on each, and having drawn a Ripscale Predator and some goblins, it wasn’t too hard to make a rather daunting red-heavy deck, with green and blue supporting heavily.

The Game

I’d like to say that I won… we played four games between three players, of which I think we each won a game, but most of my experience was brief moments in which all of my horrible elementals worked together to swing for tremendous amounts of damage… before losing it all after one glorious push and dying horribly before I could rebuild. Overgrowth Elemental helped give me a drop of durability, and those Cloudkin Seers made it easier to keep a hand together and make plans round to round. But it took a genuine balance of good luck on my part and bad luck for my opponents for me to squeeze out a meaningful win.

Feral Abominations held me at bay, giants with deathtouch always blunts someone’s will to dive in to slaughter, and Griffins made it hard for me to slip flying through to their life totals. I was also facing down some green giants like Silverback Shamen and Thicket Crashers that dealt with a lot of my bigger nastier horrors, and while they left the battlefield for trying to get in my way, they took some of my teeth out as they fell.

Next

I like M20, and while I didn’t see many of the more interesting cards come out of my booster box I did pull Gargos, Vicious Watcher for whom I have the perfect deck, and Yarok the Desecrated who I immediately fell in love with for the sake of the mechanics, lore, and the colour combo that suits my playstyle to a tee… and yet still very easily traded away. While Yarok was right for me, one of my opponents pulled this:

Based on the colours I’d just put together, how could I not?

Now, Omnath howls Commander to me, and while I have about half a deck built in front of me, I still have a long way to go. I think there’ll be some awaken spells from Zendikar added to bolster the ranks of elementals from my land pool to make Omnath all the more powerful, maybe some flicker mechanics to have him bouncing in and out, some more land-draw effects to ensure that landfall ability of his comes into play.

I also foolishly passed on the Lightning Stormkin as a friend would benefit from having her in a wizard deck, and I’ll need to keep an eye out for a Thunderkin Awakener, and there’s a host of other mechanics that I’ve been mulling on that could really support a Commander. Apparently the Yarok deck I pitched against myself is already completed… guess I have some catching up to do.