Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dungeons & Crafts: Dice Tower

I've been a tad obsessed with D&D ever since skimming through the 5th Edition PHB. I haven't had a chance to play yet, but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. A significant portion of my miniature collection was collected and painted when 4th Edition was released, and I didn't even like that game. You can imagine what I've been up to this past week.

If you don't play tabletop RPG's, you probably don't know what a "dice tower" is. Actually, I suspect a lot of gamers aren't familiar with the concept. Simply put, it's something that you drop dice into that funnels them to the table. In other words, it's a construct for rolling dice.

If you're unclear why anyone would need such a thing, allow me to clear it up for you: no one needs this or anything like it. It's entirely superfluous but kind of cool. Think less tool and more decoration. Sort of the geek equivalent of a nutcracker.

That brings us to Michaels. And to this "birdhouse," which would have been five dollars full price had I not had a 40% off coupon. It was fun as-is, but it wasn't about to roll any dice until the ceiling between the top and bottom floors was removed.

I can think of several ways I should have done this that don't include painstakingly carving out the top piece with a pocket knife, then just as painstakingly cutting the floor out of the now separate top piece. For instance, I could have just separated the entire top floor beneath the battlements by cutting through the glue, which would have saved me the trouble of carving the piece out on both sides of the wall. Also, a pocket knife - even a good one - isn't the ideal tool this job.

Oh, well. It's what I had handy.

When this was done, I realized the top window wasn't large enough to fit a D20, so I enlarged the opening.

I then cut out a piece of loose plastic from the package of an action figure to form a half-funnel to channel the dice out the front door. Once I verified this would work, I painted it to look like stone:

It works well, though D4s sometimes slide down the chute without rolling if you drop them in flat. I'm not too worried: everything else seems to work pretty well. Besides, I don't think this will see much use other than D20's.

Also, the tower has an added feature. Because the top piece is carved out, it can be popped off and flipped around. This means the entrance window can be positioned behind the tower (for DM rolling) or in front (for players). Neat!

Here it is in action:


I'm pretty happy with how it looks and functions. Not the most practical project, but it's a cool piece.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summer Does Not Belong to You

So, did anyone else notice American audiences became irrelevant this summer?

Let me show you what I mean. Here are the top ten opening weekend US totals for 2014 so far. These are pulled from Box Office Mojo, by the way.

Transformers: Age of Extinction $100,038,390
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $95,023,721
Guardians of the Galaxy $94,320,883
Godzilla $93,188,384
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $91,608,337
X-Men: Days of Future Past $90,823,660
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes $72,611,427
Maleficent $69,431,298
The LEGO Movie $69,050,279
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles $65,575,105

Six movies opened between 90 and 100 million (well, rounding Transformers to the nearest 100K), and nothing got more than that. While ten million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, it's not really a significant difference, particularly with something like movie receipts. A 10% difference could have more to do with the weather than actual audience preference.

There's obviously a second tier in the 65 to 75 million range, and if we kept going, we see more tiers. I should probably add that there's almost certainly also a top tier missing from 2014 due to the lack of any major event movies (at least so far - it'll be interesting to see how Mockingjay does this fall).

What we can take away from this is that big-budget movies are now more or less now guaranteed to make a certain amount of money in the US, and that amount is mainly determined by the tier they fall into.

Obviously, getting a movie into the highest tier possible is important, but I don't think studios have all that much control over that, at least not after they've greenlit a project. Sure, several of the movies in the 90-100 range were well received, but a 90% Freshness rating wasn't enough to push Dawn of the Planet of the Apes into the top tier, and Transformers's 18% didn't stop it from having the highest opening weekend of the summer.

The main factor that separates the top six from the bottom four (and pretty much everything else) seems to be brand. Four of the six are Marvel Comics properties, another is the most famous monster in the world, and the last is Transformers. These are hot brands with built in fan bases and widespread interest. Like it or not, that seems to trump quality.

But it doesn't actually equal success. The highest movie with the highest US opening of the year is, based on domestic returns alone, a monumental failure. Transformers 4 has made a little less than $250 million in this country (it's on track to fall behind Guardians soon). While that sounds like a lot, keep in mind its budget (according to imdb) was 210 million, plus whatever they spent on marketing. The studio's half of that $250 million suddenly sounds like a lot less.

In fact, it starts sounding like a net loss. Until we add in the $811 million it's made internationally. And, of course, the largest international market is China. Here are the top 4 highest grossing US films in China this year, along with their current totals:

Transformers: Age of Extinction $301,000,000
X-Men: Days of Future Past $116,490,000
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $115,620,000
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $94,430,000

Keep in mind several top US movies haven't opened there yet. Also, several of these movies are still open (and obviously haven't all been open for the same amount of time).

However, Transformers has still made more money in China than in the US. Also, it's made significantly more than X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man (all of which opened in China before Transformers).

While the differences between these movie's grosses in the US have been relatively minor (with the exception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which just opened, the ten movies listed earlier have all made between $200 and $260 million domestically), the differences in China are momentous - there's more than $200 million separating Transformers from Spider-Man.

The fact that appealing to Chinese audiences is important certainly isn't news. What we've learned this year is that you really don't need to worry about the US audience. If your goal is to make money, the evidence suggests you're far better off investing time and effort into making your film more palatable to a Chinese audience than worrying about Americans. Our behavior controlling whether or not we see a movie is driven largely by the franchise; China's is driven by content (specifically content featuring their country).

In short, it no longer matters what your age, race, or gender is: if you are American, you are no longer the target demographic for film producers. Unless you move to China.

Friday, August 22, 2014

D&D 5th Edition

I never played the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but I've heard quite a few stories and flipped through some of the rules. It was released in the late 70's, just a few years after the original D&D box set, and - as far as I can tell - it was a bizarre mishmash of ideas and directions. The infamous "random harlot table" was from this edition (in their defense, its inclusion was clearly intended as a joke), and this was the era when a book had to be reprinted because they'd included Lovecraft's pantheon prior to it actually reaching the public domain. There were utterly baffling rules, particularly around dual-classing, that defied explanation or narrative sense. But there was clearly also a desire to push into more complex territory, and to this day its fans reminisce about the tone and feel of the game in that era.

The 2nd Edition was the first I ever played, not counting a session or two with one of the 90's versions of basic D&D. Opinions about the 2nd Edition are mixed, with me liking it and every other gamer alive considering it abysmal. To their credit, the rules as written are unplayable. But that's not what AD&D 2nd was about. The rules were (at least somewhat) intentionally contradictory. It wasn't a system of rules, but a system for building rules. It was an overdue acknowledgement that "house rules" weren't exceptions to playing D&D, but rather a defining aspect of the game, at least at that time. 2nd Edition was a series of recommendations, suggestions, and options for ways those house rules could be compiled and customized. The downside was that a lot of those recommendations were messy. DM's had to monitor new kits (sort of sub-classes) carefully or risk watching players exploit poorly written manuals and become extremely powerful.

The 3rd Edition attempted to correct this by coalescing the many rules into one set that could actually be played. Essentially, they wanted to distill the essence of the game down to something that worked, was fun, and captured the feel of the game. It was a good direction; too bad they failed miserably. The rules were usable, but too many issues from prior editions remained. In addition, the "essentials" they boiled the game down to were narrowly selected. In the tug-of-war between a system used for narrative story-building and a dice-driven war-game, 3rd Edition took a major step towards the latter. I've never disputed that D&D should work as tactical rules if desired, but I believe strongly that any D&D edition that can't also support a narrative story-building fantasy game is a failure.

Of course, this was only a harbinger of what was to come. I don't know if its fair to call the 4th Edition the worst, but it's definitely the least D&D Edition to bear the name. To the designers' credit, it was also the most ambitious. They threw out an unprecedented number of rules and rebuilt from the ground up. For the first time ever, the game was somewhat balanced. It was also extremely dull. The class abilities boiled down to different combat tactics. Characters were less fictional people with desires, goals, and skills than a collection of combat powers. And those combat powers were all astonishingly repetitious. Regardless of your class, every round you selected a power, made an attack roll, dealt damage, and had some other simple effect that could always be defined in terms of movement, position, or status. Fantasy elements like enchantment and illusion were absent or reduced to these same principles. There was nothing in the core rules that couldn't be programmed into a spreadsheet. That's fine for a war game, but like I said before, Dungeons & Dragons needs to be able to support more than that.

So. Let's talk about the 5th Edition.

A few disclaimers first: I just got a copy of the new Player's Handbook a few days ago. I've gone over all the basic rules, more or less. I haven't read through the spells yet, and I skimmed over or skipped a lot of the flavor text and descriptions. Also, I haven't actually played the game, so this is all theory, not practice.

All that being said, I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be the definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a system capable of running games heavy on narrative, focused on combat, or both. It contains a sense of freedom for DM's looking to modify the system, while simultaneously providing a set of rules that work out-of-the-box. In short, this is damn near everything I'd hoped for and maybe a little bit more.

The Player's Handbook has 4 core races (eight counting variations, like mountain dwarf and drow), and five optional races (plus a variant on the gnome). The four main races are elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. All of these contain significant features and abilities, as do the subdivisions. The other races include gnomes, dragonborn, half-orcs, half-elves, and tieflings. The variations are significant, including additional bonuses (and occasionally penalties). None of the races feel under-powered, including humans (does +1 to every ability score sound interesting?). The optional races include a disclaimer that they're not all in every campaign world, in case you want to disallow dragonborn without an argument.

Oh, and speaking of campaign worlds... the PHB talks about Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, Krynn, Greyhawk, and Sigil, so fans of those settings probably have a lot to look forward to. Here's hoping they include an updated Spelljammer down the road.

For those keeping track, you've got fourteen races, counting variations. The class rules leave that number in the dust. There are twelve classes, each of which includes specializations you pick up around 3rd level. I count 40 in all, though a large number are Wizard schools and Cleric Domains. But even these are extremely versatile and include specialized abilities and traits. Hell, Diviners are awesome in this edition.

Structurally, these variations are similar to a blend of prestige classes and 2nd Ed kits. There are optional rules for multi-classing, too, but I can't imagine wanting to use them: the sub-divisions of classes provide an extensive range of character types. And I do mean extensive. Every class has an option to branch off and learn some kind of magical ability. You want to build an armored knight who casts fireballs? Easy. How about a thief who masters illusions and charms and can literally steal spells as they're being cast? It's in there.

The Monk class, which I've never had much interest in, has some particularly interesting builds. I can think of no better summation of this game's versatility than to point out you could create a small group entirely consisting of 7th level Monks, and have each feel more distinct than any two characters you could create in 4th Edition. You want an unarmed fighter who's studying to learn the touch of death? There's a path for that. You want to make a ninja? It's in there. How about any of the main characters from Avatar: the Last Airbender. Doable.

The magic-users are even better. Mages have been divided into three separate classes: wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. Miraculously, this doesn't feel redundant. There's enough variation in how they cast magic and where their power comes from to justify the split. In particular, I love this version of the Warlock, magic-users who receive their power from demons, fey, or elder forgotten gods (in case there's any doubt, Cthulhu is mentioned by name). Someone really needs to tell Jack Chick.

Wizards, while remaining extremely close to their original concept, have been substantially improved. They've got a few more hit points, and damage-dealing cantrips have been added (meaning wizards will never run out of combat spells). In addition, the spell memorization system has been tweaked to retain some of the feel while correcting decades-old issues with utility and narrative flow. Oh - there's also a "rituals" system, allowing you to cast unprepared spells slowly outside of combat. This a good way to access Comprehend Languages that one time it comes up. Lastly, they've finally consolidated the extraneous "Advanced" versions of spells by allowing you to cast the original spells as if it were at a higher level. It's a small improvement, but one that's been a long time coming.

Not every class fits in as well as it should. Clerics remain tonally out-of-place, in my opinion, but I've always hated that class. Druids are now essentially shape-shifters, which feels a little odd (then again, it does differentiate them from Rangers). Meanwhile, the Bard class feels redundant, since there are numerous way to create a similar effect using other builds (historically, the class has always been more a fighter/mage hybrid than a distinct entity). But these are minor quibbles. The classes, at a glance, look much more appealing here than in any previous edition of the game.

The combat system is mostly just a modified version of the old D20 system from 3rd Edition, though I feel like there's more room for narrative-heavy campaigns to work. It's built around 5' x 5' squares to accommodate miniatures if desired, but it doesn't feel like they're required.

On the technical side, there's a new Advantage/Disadvantage system that provides characters and monsters an opportunity to heavily adjust the odds. Rather than just adding another modifier, having Advantage means you roll two dice and use the higher roll (with Disadvantage, you use the lower). It sounds like an interesting dynamic, and it seems to be well integrated into class abilities and spells.

On the role-playing side of things, 5th Edition includes some good guidelines for building up rounded characters. There's a lot of work on backgrounds and personality in the rules. While those of us with some experience with RPG's can safely ignore this stuff, it should do a good job giving new players a lesson in building a character who's more than a collection of their combat potential. I especially like the "bonds" concept, which encourages players to build characters embedded in the world.

The alignment system is still around and has reverted to the old 9x9 grid. They've cleaned up the definitions to make the alignments less constrictive, and they've also removed restrictions from the various classes. Even the Paladin description refrains from setting any hard rules, instead saying it's rare for a Paladin to be evil. Alignment is a controversial legacy element, one I'm usually eager to drop. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have much game impact anymore.

The art is also the best I've seen in D&D at least since 2nd Edition. In several way, it's far superior from even that: the female characters aren't sexualized, and the characters are far more racially diverse than I ever remember seeing. A lot of attention has been paid to the new Edition's liberal approach to gender and sexual orientation - it's pretty clear they're betting an inclusive system will pay off for them in the long run. I can think of a few comic book companies that could learn a lot from that approach.

I'm not sure I'd call D&D 5th perfect, but after the first read through, I'm far more excited about its potential than I ever was for 4th Edition. Dungeons & Dragons has always been the most iconic role playing game out there, but it's never really lived up to its potential. I realize this is far too early to make a determination, but based on what I just read, I think they finally might have gotten it right.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Movie Review: Dark Dungeons

What are the general guidelines for disclosure when you're about to review something you backed on Kickstarter? I doubt anyone really cares, but consider that information disclosed.

I suspect a lot of people at this blog are already familiar with Jack Chick's comic tract, Dark Dungeons. Like Reefer Madness, it's a cautionary work that gained cult status among the group it was created to oppose. Dark Dungeons warns readers against the Satanic, seductive lure of Dungeons & Dragons, urging its readers to call on Jesus for salvation. To say its portrait of the game and subculture are misleading is an understatement of Biblical proportions.

If you'd like more context, there's no better source than the short comic itself, which you can read here.

The comic is somewhat legendary in gaming circles, the source of numerous in-jokes and references. Back in college, I used to run a D&D tournament called Deathfest. One year, as characters died, I apologized to the players and handed them a copy of the tract. I think I've still got a bunch of extras around somewhere.

It's not at all surprising that someone had the idea of doing a live-action version. What is surprising is that he was able to receive permission from Chick to make it an official adaptation.

The movie's producer, writer, and promoter is JR Ralls, who has insisted all along that the movie is a serious adaptation, not a parody. I've had a great time reading some comment threads over the past few months from gaming enthusiasts who took that at face value without watching the original Kickstarter video. He made a similar pledge there, but between his tone and the readings of lines from the tract, it was pretty clear his appreciation of the tract was, at the absolute least, multifaceted.

I find it difficult to imagine anyone with a D&D background not appreciating the finished project. As promised, it's a faithful adaptation of Chick's work, albeit one with a bit more comedy than Jack might have wanted. The tone is certainly comedic, regardless what the producers claim. But make no mistake - it's a great comedy.

The actors, all of them fantastic, deliver the lines with a mixture of sincerity and camp. The characters are either astonishingly true to the original comic or re-imagined in ways that added layers of humor to the premise. Ms. Frost is particularly impressive: the comic's least grounded character is brought to life completely. The other two leads, Debbie and Marcie, were likewise fantastic. I also found Nitro, a new character, a lot of fun. I could easily keep going - the cast was universally great.

The quality of the movie was also impressive, particularly given the movie's budget. The effects were silly and clearly inexpensive, but - like most great low-budget productions - they managed to turn this from a weakness to a strength by utilizing them to their fullest.

I also want to mention the movie's brilliant closing song, performed by "Of the Book." I'd be shocked if it doesn't become a favorite of gamers along with the movie.

The movie is available as a digital download or on DVD here. It's pretty much guaranteed to become an RPG classic.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

If Guardians of the Galaxy had been awful, it would still represent a staggering accomplishment. The mere fact that in 2014 - when every other film company has committed to gritty, realistic fare - Marvel is unveiling the scope of their galactic setting is astonishing. And they don't seem to be backing away from the fantastic elements: the terms "mad titan" and "celestial" were both used, and the cameo in the post-credits sequence... well... I've already said too much.

This demonstrates courage, vision, and a real faith in their Universe at a time Marvel's main competitor is timidly toning down one of their most iconic characters in order to make her more palatable to a mainstream audience. For that reason alone, even it if had been one of the worst movies of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy would be deserving of celebration.

It almost feels like an afterthought to point out that, at present, it's tied for my pick for the best movie of 2014 (I'll really need to see both this and Winter Soldier again to decide). But you already knew where this was going. 92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, critically acclaimed, great word of mouth.... I'm not exactly the first person saying it's awesome.

The movie delivers the kind of comedy adventure that's been more or less purged from the world, and it does so with style, love, and skill. As much Goonies as Star Wars, the movie delivers light suspense and hilarious one-liners.

Also, it's going to appeal to damn near everyone with a pulse. Kids are going to going to have the time of their lives with Rocket and Groot, teenagers are going to appreciate the dynamic of the circle of friends, and adults are going to appreciate the nostalgic look back at a bygone era in entertainment.

That's not to say it couldn't have better. I felt like Drax and Gamora didn't get featured in enough fight scenes, and the overall power level was lower than I'd have liked. But those are pretty minor complaints in the scope of things. This is the easily the most fun I've had in a theater since seeing the Avengers. I definitely recommend checking it out on the big screen at least once.