All posts by Mark

D&D: GM Advice

Being a Dungeon Master in any tabletop role playing game is a unique position with responsibilities and duties that players do not have. It can be daunting for people new to the systems or the concept and a reminder of what a Dungeon Master should focus on can always be helpful. These are in essence the job of the Dungone Master.

  • Foster the relationship between the players, the game, and keep the play session moving.
  • Arbiter of the rules
  • Set the stage for the adventure, but not dictate it.

Fostering the relationship

Dungeon Master’s are the glue that keeps the game running by engaging the players in some form of adventure. They are checking if the players look to be engaged with what is happening, enabling hero(or villain depending on the nature of your game) moments where each player has a spotlight based on their actions or decisions. A competent Dungeon Master constantly evaluates if members of the table are lost and bored while the other are having a drinking contest or shopping trip. React to your players and embrace the content that they seem to enjoy, challenge them to expand their interests, but let them point the compass.

You will find recommendation after recommendation that a session zero should be done to establish ground rules, the tone of the game, and the focus of the players. I do not want to undervalue this tactic, but for a new Dungeon Master, you simply don’t have the experience and knowledge to know how to run a session zero. Instead, the best recommendation that can be made is to develop the skills to be self-critical on the game. After every session, take notes on what felt like it went well and what did not to evaluate and research why this might have been.

Are half the party bored unless there is combat, loot, and rewards or are players begging for role-playing moments that do not occur because you are not engaging with their requests? Are they asking for a reason to care about the plotline you are pushing?

Did you nearly kill the party in a fight you did not expect to be so difficult? Do a post mortem on whether it was just a result of bad tactics/luck(dice rolls) or did abilities get used incorrectly resulting in a harder conflict then intended.

The point of this self-evaluation is not to be self-destructive but learn from any mistakes (intended or unintended) to improve for the next session or campaign. React and shift your priorities when presenting the content.

Rule Arbiter

Dungeon Masters are the final word at the table about how to apply rules, but they must strive to apply them consistently and fairly. Whether you adhere strictly to a system rule book (D&D 3E, 4E, 5E, Pathfinder, or any other system) or you have custom rules you implement the rules need to be the same between each session.

The Critical Role Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer has a great saying “You can certainly try” in response to player questions and requested actions. The point of the Dungeon Master is not to tell the player how to play or what to do, but explain how they can attempt to do each action. If the player wants to do something most would consider impossible, you determine what they need to roll to see if they succeed or not. The harder the task the higher they need to roll, but this keeps the player from blaming the Dungeon Master from blocking their actions and role-playing and the failure rests on the player instead of due to the Dungeon Master saying “No!”.

There will be times where you realize that the rules are providing unfair advantages or unbalanced situations in the game. Evaluating these situations and deciding if there should be changes to the rules can occur, but are best done outside of play sessions with clear communication between the players and the Dungeon Master. It could either be a discussion or the Dungeon Master explaining the rule change and communicating this is how it will work going forward consistently for future game sessions.

Depending on your game there can be benefits to “fudging” dice rolls as a Dungeon Master from behind the traditional Dungeon Master Screen. This can be in the form or changing rolls, ignoring rolls, ignoring hit points of creatures, and other changes to the standard rules. The most important aspect of this tactic is to never use these actions against the players. If the players think the Dungeon Master is cheating against the players it just leads to mistrust and a broken party. If these are selectively used, but only done so to the player’s benefit it can help the game run more smoothly. If it is too common the player’s can think they can do no wrong and you might need to re-evaluate the style of game you are playing and what level of risks are involved in player decisions.

Staging the Adventure

You have spent weeks of time planning the perfect adventure, the best plot hooks, and the perfect set pieces for glorious life and death battle between your players and the biggest enemy in the game, but your players are spending all their time away from the action playing pirates! At the end of the day this is not your story to tell, it is the player’s.

Whether your adventure is homebrew or straight from a published adventure you must understand that your job as a Dungeon Master is to set the stage and let the players decide what happens. You cannot force their hand and direct where the party is supposed to go on the predetermined path. The party might simply be inclined after playing their characters that instead of being the noble heroes that they might instead be the villainous bad guys.

The Dungeon Master should solicit the feedback of the players and collect their back story information, but after that, it is the Dungeon Master’s job to set the stage for the players to make decisions. These can be informed or uninformed decisions based on the situations, but the consequences of actions must always come from the decisions the players make. You might have presented 3 side quests for the player to interact with, but they simply don’t care and want to rush to find something related to their backstory or the main focus of the campaign.

All change in the plot, environment, politics, or rewards and risks should all flow from the decisions of the players. Keep in mind that choosing not to act is still a decision by the players, so if the players decide to rest their next battle might be harder because the enemies had time to heal or go get reinforcements. The Dungeon Master has to juggle the consequences of direct decisions, the unknown ramifications of time in the game, and non-player character perceptions of what has happened. The more you can ground these impacts in the various personalities of the factions, environments, and characters the more you will have a living and breathing world that your players want to inhabit.

If you are using a campaign book or even if you created everything from scratch you need to know options of where the party might go to prepare in advance. You don’t need everything detailed out, but at least a vague concept of where the party might head.

Additionally, the valuable skills of improvisation are key to having a world that the players are impacting. If they take actions that you are not expecting you should address the immediate impacts at the moment, but it might be practical to take a short break or end a session on the cliffhanger to enable you to chart out new branches of the story that you had not considered.

Let the players chart the course and you merely update them on the impacts of their route through the world. Their reputation can grow or shrink depending on if they ran towards the fight or away to save their own skins. The impacts on the world can be averted, subverted, or avoided entirely depending on how they tackle the problems.

There can even be a real possibility that you need to turn the campaign into something entirely different from what you planned or was in your purchased adventure because they are interested in other things. Salvage what you can, inform them of their choices, and you can even punish the characters in the game, but never punish the players for being honest about what they enjoy about the game.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is an enjoyable movie, but not one that stands on its own. In effect, it serves as an origin movie for both the character Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) and Nick Fury.

Starting on the Kree planet Hala, Vers is struggling with dreams and memories that don’t match her current world view. Struggling against authority, training, and the AI leader of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence, leads to a mission against the Skrull, alien shapeshifters. The mission starts to unravel her understanding of the universe, her place in it, and her history as she eventually lands on Earth in the 1990s.

Crash landing in a strip mall in the Blockbuster store and given directions to a Radio Shack (all defunct brands) she reaches out to her Kree team as Nick Fury and SHIELD enters the fray and the connections to earth and the mystery deepens. Captain Marvel comes into her own, regains her memories, and understands her past and establishes a place in the universe as an unmitigated badass.

The acting was great with the highlights being Samuel Jackson, Annette Bening, and Ben Mendelsohn. Brie Larson acted well, but honestly, the writing did not give her enough of a character arc to really stretch, fall low, and rise above.

The issues with the movie are structural. This movie fits as a prequel filling in the gaps of the 20+ movie cinematic universe that marvel has established. Scenes with Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson and his interactions with Nick Fury are great if you already know about the characters, but without that knowledge they don’t have any kind of impact. You care about how Nick Fury loses his eye because it has been such a mystery for decades outside of this movie.

Vers, the protagonist starts the movie implied to still be in training after 6 years and is apparently getting her first mission which happens to lead to whole scenario. This movie could have benefited from a short montage of her working with the Kree team on various mission and then finally the plot critical mission that targeted her comes up. Possibly this is an misunderstanding on my part, but if so it was so weakly implied it reinforces my complaint.

The movie also suffered from self imposed drama with the release on international women’s day and the internet imposed drama of women empowerment and reaction against this as seen on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie itself was not overtly sending a message and with a character backstory of a female pilot fighting to fly and to do combat missions the personality and reactions felt honest without being preachy. The music on the other hand just felt out of place because it leaned too hard into the 90’s vibe and didn’t fit well. Playing “Just a girl” by No Doubt during a key fight scene felt jarring.

For comparison sake, I watched Wonder Woman again and thought it was just a better female empowerment movie that stands on its own. You do not need to know about Justice League or Batman vs Superman to learn everything you need in Wonder Woman. The movie stands on its own and it establishes through excellent use of music a Wonder Woman lyrical theme and fight accompaniment.

Using dated 90’s music misses the opportunity used by Marvel so many times in the past to establish identifiable character themes and use them again in the future when that character has their moment in the ensemble movies of the future, Avengers: Endgame.

In closing, I am glad to have seen Captain Marvel filling in the missing pieces and prepare for Avengers: Endgame, but I recognize some of the deficiencies in the quality and expectations set up by Marvel the company. Simply put it was a good movie, but it wasn’ Black Panther the Marvel movie that took this spot in the schedule last year.

Top Gear – Season 23

With the departure of the headliners of Top Gear for the last 22 seasons and their new Amazon show, Grand Tour, and the recast Top Gear the interest is high and success is a high bar to reach. The inevitable comparison of Top Gear season 22 versus Top Gear season 23 is such a dis-service because season 22 was in stride knowing what they were and right now season 23 is trying to find their footing.

Organically it does a poor job of setting any foundation outside of trying to be Top Gear. They are trying to recreate what previous hosts had perfected and it shows. They really don’t do enough to establish their credentials and love for cars. The episode comes across as celebrities and cars, but not anyone who has a deep found respect and love for the automobile as art, technology, power, and toys. The episode only tried to establish a friendship between Chris Evans and American Matt LeBlanc, but nothing to establish Sabine Schmitz who had the most love for the automobile that she was not afraid to insult the corvette Z06 she was driving.  Matt sounds like he is doing a documentary and comes across as very dry in his voice overs. Chris is the better of the two and has personality in his presentation. They need to find their own groove and they could grow into it, but it will be a while before it gels together and the ratings will suffer as a result.

The change to a rallycross track and off road combination for the stars in the reasonable price car was a unique twist and having two stars as the first show to establish some competition was wise, but it appears this might be a trend to have 2 stars each week and if they continue to fail to have any commonality in their promotions then it will just continue to be dry segments.

Production wise the show was not quite up to the expectations of Top Gear fans. The audio was just mixed poorly with crowd and music being too loud compared to the presenters and commentary. The picture quality is excellent outside of an oddly too bright Stig lap with the Dodge Viper ACR that I suspect is a combination of abnormally great weather and higher quality filming (4k maybe), but it just felt like it missed the traditional Top Gear blue tint on their track filming.

The first show just felt like an odd combination of segments, rough production values, and personalities that are still finding their voices. The show should be unapologetically British and Matt’s presence might not have the lasting appeal.

 


Extra Gear the additional show presented by Rory Reid and Chris Harris showed more personality, comfort about discussing cars, and actual car humor as they insult the mentality of having a phone app to open your door when handles still work. Extra Gear did a better job trying to recreate the feeling of Top Gear then Chris and Matt were able to pull off.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the culmination of the story of Nathan Drake and his misadventures searching for treasure, his identity, and his place in the world. After discovering the legacy of Francis Drake his claimed namesake in El Dorado, braving the risks of Shambhala,  and the hidden voyage of Francis Drake into the Rub’al Khali desert Nathan Drake is found living a domestic life working for a marine salvage company.  Nathan is doing his best to live the home life and sharing moments with his wife Elena Fisher like betting each other over video games to decide who does the dirty dishes. Surprisingly Nathan is greeted by his brother Samuel Drake, someone he thought  dead, and after brotherly comradery and catching up he thrust into a new adventure searching for the infamous pirate Henry Avery, his treasure, and the key to saving Samuel Drake’s life.

Through various flashbacks, this journey explains the backstory of the Drake brothers, the strains of honesty in relationships, and what it means to be family. The traditional gameplay elements of cover shooting, climbing, puzzle solving, and amazing set pieces carry through into this entry. New features are the rope grapple for climbing, swinging, and mobility based combat as well as an enemy tagging system to assist with stealth efforts. The bones of The Last of Us, the previous Naughty Dog release are visible in this game and it is best described as a hybrid between the Last of Us and Uncharted. The crate moving for accessibility to higher areas is straight from The Last of Us. The follow system by the non-player characters is the same. and only your actions can result in enemy alerts.

New enemy AI is visible with enemies pairing up to investigate disturbances. I was verbally shocked when pulling an enemy down a ledge when hanging there and the enemy actually grabbed Nathan’s leg on the way down leading to a grapple break scenario.  This random element showing the evolution of enemies are the delights and surprises in playing these games.

The callbacks in the game are lovely between playing Crash Bandicoot and referencing Monkey Island were highlights.

Plot wise the story is fraught with danger, betrayals, surprises, and death-defying escapes we come to expect from Uncharted, but the mystical elements of the first three games have been replaced with the scarier elements of human relationships and emotions of greed and betrayal. For someone new the series starting on this penultimate entry it would be accurate to complain that the third act of the game can drag down the pace, but for someone who has grown up with the story of Uncharted and Nathan Drake the understated plot that allows the characters to breathe and live is a fitting and appropriate conclusion of the Uncharted Saga. While that last stage is slower paced than previous entries third act due to what the player and the game has shared over the lifespan makes it all the more meaningful.

In hindsight, it was a good thing for Naughty Dog to release the Nathan Drake collection to allow all of the games to be playable on the same system. With the story, I strongly recommend playing the Nathan Drake Collection of games first before to fully appreciate the plot.

 

More and more, ‘learn to code’ is looking like bad advice

An interesting article from LinkedIn on the skills of coding.

Learning to Code Yields Diminishing Returns

The premise of the article tackles a number of diverse subjects that are outside the scope of whether learning to code is good advice or not.

Fundamentally learning to code is a good skill to have. It is a skill that if you want to have a coding career must  be developed and cultivated.

The mistake is to think that simply having a skill makes you indispensable and guaranteed of gainful employment. Employment is much more complicated than just simply having the correct skills for the position.  Relationships, personality, personal drive, politics, geography, and no small amount of luck are all factors that contribute to your employment status.

Whether you utilize the skills in your daily tasks or not the understanding of logical processing is applicable to every aspect of life if you are so inclined.

 

New Adventures

The last couple of months have been quite busy. Between purchasing a newly built house, setting it up to be barely livable, adjusting to a new commute and responsibilities, enjoying the lack of noisy apartment neighbors playing trampoline on the horribly degraded subfloors, the holidays, another year of BBQ (1st place Bloody Mary Competition for Curtis), and returning to raiding in World of Warcraft.

I have also been getting excited about Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. A MMORPG being developed by Visionary Realms. With the namesake of Brad McQuaid and trying to revitalize the legacy of the original Everquest. They did a twitch stream on the 11th proving that it is far from vaporware.

Incidentally coinciding with the announcement that Everquest Next was cancelled to very little surprise, but much disappointment, this rekindled a rose colored glory of Everquest in my heart and a passion of sorts.

So the latest adventure is the creation and launch of a fan site for Pantheon, The Frail Age. The good news is that I have gotten past the concept to a functional website and it is up and running. It is not everything I was thinking of when envisioning it, but it is a good starting point to grow into since the game is not yet out. It will be a new adventure of branding, promotion, and content development to build this into a resource players will actually want to use. That is a challenge no doubt, but right now I have the energy and drive to find a way to succeed if the game delivers as expected. I am not fooling myself that even in the best of situations the game may never see the light of day due to business realities, economies/markets, and hardships regardless of the best of intentions. Either way the experience will be one that will be positive and enable personal growth.

The Expanse

The Expanse is a darn good TV show.

Based on the novel Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey it is set in a pre-diaspora space travel humans in our solar system. Earth and Mars are colonized, but Mars is still restricted to dome life without a natural atmosphere. The rings of Saturn are mined for ice and taken to the belt (asteroid belt) where industry thrives feeding the rest of the solar system. Living in the belt however has consequences due to lack of natural gravity and generations of evolution in this unique environment.

During a cold war between the UN (earth, belt, and colonies) and Mars the ship Cantebury, an ice hauler, is taking water to Ceres an asteroid in the belt when they receive a distress call from a ship named the Scorpuli  starting the sequence of unfortunate events leading to revolution and the discoveries about the larger universe.

Casting is actually very well done with Thomas Jane as a film noir detective with just as much dirt in his past as alcohol in his liver quite a bit unsure about his place in life.  Jared Harris as Anderson Dawes is absurdly good as you just want him in almost every scene as the OPA resistance leader on Ceres.

The investment in the production values are well spent on sets, costumes, and special effects.

Having only read the first novel and not the follow up in the Expanse series there are some new characters in the TV show I am not familiar with that might be in subsequent novels.  Some deviations are occurring with some characters and past actions that are natural with a TV show adaptation.  Some are logical and I do not question, but a few others are changing some character motivations and methods that I do question. Specifically the character Fred Johnson, played very well by Chad Coleman, and his methods to deal with an insurrection in the recent past earning him the title “Butcher of Anderson Station”. If they simply changed the methods then I can understand this, but if they actually give him an out and do not make him responsible and a victim then it neuters the character choices he made in the novel and the moral convictions (both good and bad) of the character.

Worth watching and I hope this kind of quality show continues.

 

Walking Dead Season 2

The game continues the story of Clementine as she navigates the post zombie apocalypse after the heartbreaking loss of her protector Lee in the first season.

The animation is excellent and controls continue to work well. There was a momentary issue where the graphics slowed to a crawl, but I think it was an issue of my console heating up since a restart of the game corrected it.

The writing is still interesting and has some honest decisions where it comes from their perspectives and motivations.

The curse about Telltale games and more specifically the walking dead, there are just no good choices. There is no happy ending, but more a character story of how people react to, handle, and respond to impossible situations. The story is crafted to specifically place you between two characters having to pick a side when people are angry, frustrated, and rarely wiling to listen to reason. Sympathetic characters have secrets to hide. Bastards have some backstory or secret that gives better explanation of their motives.

The one true bastard Carver, voiced by James Marsden, is well acted and is a clear villain.

What I take away as chain playing all 5 episodes in 2 days is that in the apocalypse you need to keep a level head and try to understand people’s emotions and reasons. Discussion needs to happen to avoid the group shattering problems that occur. There are no saints in this wasteland of zombies. Forgive, but do not forget people’s actions (both good and bad). You need to help others and the help of others.

The lessons I took from the game is that I hope I can be true to my convictions and maintain my humanity and believing in the better nature of others despite the numerous betrayals and unrewarded sacrifices that are likely to happen.

 

Uncharged: The Nathan Drake Collection

The Uncharted Series of games was the definition of PlayStation 3 games as they grew and adjusted over the life of the console. The recently released collection is a nice addition to PlayStation 4 library and good value for the purchase price.

Including the single player games of the previously released PlayStation 3 Games:

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

All have been changed to 60 frames per second and fit on a single disc. The multiplayer features are gone, but this logistically makes sense due to the shift to PlayStation 4.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

The game was new and the formula was not quite established yet. The graphics probably experienced the largest improvement due to age, but it stays very true to the original. The aiming feels a bit off, but I cannot tell if this is due to the change to 60fps or just my memory failing.

Graphical achievements:

Dynamic wet clothing up to what is submerged and Flowing water.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

This game had the best pacing among the trilogy and refined the formula of the crazy set pieces, the interplay of character banter with rotating on screen cast, and great escalation of danger and risk.

The supporting characterization that Nathan Drake is a realist and is not above giving up on the treasure as the hero comes out of his hidden core. He plays the hero because he feels he is the only one who can, not because he wants to be a hero.

The only complaints with this game is there two spots of intense difficulty spikes and sometimes it is due to the AI of your teammates who decide to break cover and just start shooting while you were letting your enemies thin themselves out. The first is the water passage late in the game as you struggle between and RPG firing enemy far away and a closing group of armor clad shotgun wielders (head shots are only way to kill them). The other is the end boss fight and this fight gets me yelling at the screen every time. The execution is so tight due to facing a double barrel shotgun that reloads faster then anything in the real world.

Graphical Achievements:

Snow accumulation on clothing,

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Pacing just felt poorer in this installment. The locations were more varied and efforts were made to improve the characterization with some new additions. This fits with a story that returns to Sir Francis Drake and the resulting back story of Nathan and Sully.  Where the first game was focused on Nathan and Elena, the second game on Elana, Chloe, and Nathan, the 3rd game has vignettes with the others but the focus remains on Nathan and Sully. Their meeting and what they mean to each other.

Complaints however need to be leveled at Marlowe, Talbot, and their endless army of men in suits. Their motivation is left completely blank outside of “POWER” and the abilities of Talbot are unexplained. The hallucinogenic powers of the water I can except, but when people unaffected by mind control darts see a man disappear into thin air it breaks down.

The set pieces are grand, but the level design suffer believability at times and seems more intent on making you slog through enemies more so then because they would actually be there. It is ultimately due to the combat encounters they want you to experience, but some of the combat waves are just out of sync and the checkpoints feel like they make you suffer if you screw up and have open combat when stealth fails. The pirate levels in the ship graveyard are the best examples of this.

Graphical Achievements:

Fire burning buildings and Sand environments.

—————

I am certainly looking forward to Uncharted 4 on the PlayStation 4 next year. The previews look wonderful and they seem to be focusing on some mud effects.

Leadership in Syria

President Obama had an interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes

The following exchange struck me as amazingly delusional.

Steve Kroft: A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now it’s also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States– America leads. We’re the indispensible nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.

President Barack Obama: In what way? Let– let’s think about this– let– let–

Steve Kroft: Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II–

President Barack Obama: So that’s–

Steve Kroft: –bombing the people– that we are supporting.

President Barack Obama: So that’s leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine–

Steve Kroft: He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership–

President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we’ve got a 60-country coalition that isn’t suddenly lining up around Russia’s strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.

The style of Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly one that uses more force then politics, but it is leadership regardless. Denying this fundamental fact is incompetence.

Certainly it is not how President Obama would have chosen to led either in method or direction, but it is leadership. Russia is moving the United States out of the airspace and they are dictating their will. This is after the Annexation of Crimea and the ensuing proxy civil war in Ukraine.

I can accept someone who has different values or fundamental positions from me and how this influences their interpretation of events. Applying this to the question of leadership then you can argue it is poor leadership with costs that will not succeed in the end, but it is leadership none the less. This leadership is working right now.