31 July 2015

ENNIES awarded at Gen Con

Ah, Gen Con. Next year I will be there (I hope). As this year I sit in front of my computer and pretend like I am there.

Anyway, the ENNIE Awards have been awarded. For a list follow this to ENWORLD.

21 July 2015

It's Official: TORG: Eternity is coming!

Doctor Mobius looking all Gangsta!
So, even though Shane Hensley tried to bluff us by saying the dice were not part of the clue, it is confirmed today the West End Games RPG Torg is returing as Torg: Eternity is 2016. It has a some power behind it, both monetarily and talent wise.

It is backed by Ulisses Spiele, a german game company that distributes a bunch of American games to Euro-audiences (BattleTech, World of Darkness, Pathfinder, and more), as well as publishing their own original RPGs and board games. This is their first English language project and you know they will want to impress.

Also on board is Shane Hensley of Pinnacle Entertainment. His first published game piece was an adventure for Torg, and he brings both talent and enthusiasm for Torg with him.

From the press release:
Torg co-creator Greg Gorden has been involved at a high level and given it his blessing: “I really like this re-imagining of the TORG mythos. The streamlining and modernization of the game mechanics feel spot on. I cannot wait to play this game!”
The game’s rights were sold after the closure of West End Games and were eventually purchased by Torg fan and president of Ulisses Spiele, Markus Plotz. “TORG is a one of a kind RPG. The setting is unique and for over 15 years, I dreamed about releasing a new and updated version. Now, with the help of the amazing Shane Hensley, that dream finally becomes reality!”
Will Jon Bon Jovi return?
Shane Lacy Hensley heads up the United States studio where ... Torg: Eternity [is] being created. “Though my plate is pretty full with my own company, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, I couldn’t resist working on the game that gave me my start. I also met a kindred spirit in Markus Plotz who truly loves and appreciates what a turning point Torg marked in RPG development, so I just couldn’t say no.”
Will it be Savage Worlds based? What changes have happened to the mythos. What are the plans for player influence of the story arc? I guess we will have to wait a bit for clarity, as it is let's just enjoy the return of Torg.

19 July 2015

Torg returns? Hints point in that direction

Today on Facebook, Pinnacle Entertain Group's Shane Hensley (creator of Savage Worlds) made an announcement on his Facebook page today, and I find it very exciting:

He mentions a "Storm." I know a game where the heroes were called Storm Knights. Also, those dice are the ones that came with that game. It was from West End Games and called Torg.

The core rules. Yep, it was 1990 fer sure.
Torg was a game released in 1990 about an invasion of Earth from other realities. Each reality had a theme, from Indiana Jones kind of pulp, to horror, cyberpunk, Land of the Lost and more, some really twisted such as the "Cyber-Papacy."

What set it apart was the idea that as groups play adventures the results would be reported and used to advance the storyline. As the game was about "the possibility wars" each group was a bit of that possibility, with the most reported outcomes becoming the winner, and then the timeline was moved forwards. Great idea, did not work well, because it was ahead of its time.

This was 1990. Almost nobody was on the Internet or had even heard of it. Reporting was done by mailing in response forms and waiting for an update to be released. It was slow going. I mentioned Torg to Shane Hensley when I played in his East Texas University demo at Rincon 2014 in Tucson, Arizona, that Torg was made for the Internet. Reporting would be sped up, as would the responses of the world changes. Torg died and is just a good memory to its fans.

Twenty-five years later all the technology is there to make a game like Torg work in all it meta-plot glory, and no one has done it yet. Why not bring it back. I know the rights owners would love to make some money on the good idea they own. Having Shane Hensley on board a new edition would bode well as not only is he a great writer, his first published RPG product was an adventure for Torg titled The Temple of Rec Stalek, which should mean a nice emotional connection for him to the product.

Shane Hensley wrote this. 
Also, he has been at the forefront of making games more playable, as attested to in the Savage Worlds motto "fast, furious and fun." Torg needs that in spades. The original game was built before the push of "story first" gaming that would really catch fire with Vampire the Masquerade. Torg had a late-80s level of complexity yet wanted to be a cinematic game mimicking several disparate genres. Many times the two ideas were at odds in play, with a kind of unwieldy mechanic, way to many skills, and the need to slow down the game to deal with reality crossover effects. A new version really needs to make the game system lighter to concentrate more on story and feel.

It would be nice for  new version to be a reboot in the New Battlestar Galactica sense, so that while it has the comfort of the old game, it can have new ideas and plots to keep it fresh today.


But... a little later Hensley posted an update about the previous post:

Nothing to do with the dice? No! So it looks like we are back at the guessing stage until 21 July (this coming Tuesday). Shane Hensley likes that. I can almost here him echo Doctor Frankenfurter's famous line, "I see you shiver with antici...         pation."

18 July 2015

Dammit. I like Happy Jack's Podcast. And I cannot stop myself no matter how hard I try

The logo for the Happy Jacks podcast.
Digression alert: This is a kind of long introduction with little to do with the main topic. For the actual review scroll down to the next heading.

Podcasts are everywhere on every topic, and role play gaming is no exception. There are a lot of them, but one has my constant attention AND IT KILLS ME.

Let me explain. I prefer being a fan of something I know is cool but most people do not. Some would call this a simple character flaw; some might say I am narcissistic preferring to be in a minority group to feel bigger about myself. While I do not know the cause, I know it has gone on a long time.

Back in 1978 I found a new TV show running on my local PBS station (WPBT, Miami), Monday through Friday at six. It was called Doctor Who, and featured Tom Baker as The Doctor, who I would son learn was the fourth in the series. Later, they ran the fifth Doctor and Third Doctor episodes. Watching these, and reading imported novelizations from Target Books in the UK, made me a pretty knowledgeable fan for a Yank. In fact, I was the only fan I knew. I was aware of other fans; often they would appear during pledge drives to beg for money for the station in exchange for those dreamy PBS tote bags.

By high school I had actual met a few fans (some of them I had introduced to the show), but we were outnumbered by the Star Trek and Star Wars fans. In 1986 I went to my first sci-fi con and met a bunch of other Whovians, but  it was still a handful of geeks in the whole fandom thing.

You never forget your first Doctor Who logo.
Flash forward to 2005. The BBC brings the show back from the dead. I was jazzed! It got great viewership in England, but it didn't even air in America during the first series. I had to download them via torrent (which was new back then). It was as awesome as I imagined: Doctor Who was back and I was still a fan in a select crowd of American Whovians.

Flash forward again: It is 2015. Doctor Who fandom is off the roof. Merchandise is in bookstores and chain stores. It is in constant repeat on the TV. People who's parents weren't born yet when the series premiered were cosplaying, making podcasts, and writing the fan fic (BTW: fan writers, I know Amy Pond was hot but there are NO THREEWAYS in the time vortex, okay?). It seems everyone knows who the Doctor is. My special club is not so special anymore.

That is how I am about bands, other TV shows, movies, and so on. The more others are into it, the less I want to be. Heck, I was so thrilled that I hated Star Wars Episode I when I saw it. I thought, "I must be in the minority here... goody." That was ruined for me when everyone was in my anti-prequel club.

This attitude is probably the root of my rejection of D&D/Pathfinder/OSR I am going through these days.

Then there is Happy Jack's podcast. As their motto says, they are "pursuing the RPG hobby with reckless abandon... and beer." They do: no false advertising here. The fact is that it is my favorite RPG podcast for the past few years, and no one else comes close. Of course, they have a lot of fans who feel the same so here I am: I want to hate their popularity and seek out something no one listens to, but frankly, the show is too good.


Stu Venable hard at work.
Happy Jacks started off as a podcast, but over the past few years they have added some very popular Actual Play shows (these are game sessions recorded and released as a podcast, a very hot brand of pod and videocasting these days). Started by Stu Venable, an RPG'er back in the early 80s who left the hobby and then returned in the mid-2000s. While it was D&D that brought him back (4th edition, of all things; at least it was good for something), he has a love of all sorts of games, especially GURPS!

The show is (mostly) weekly, with a few breaks here and there. Each podcast has a bunch of contributors who appear as a panel. The panel rotates its participants, and some are more heard from than others.  Mr. Venable is the rock, always anchoring the show. They usually cover a topic at the start of the show and go into depth on it covering just about all angles of the subject with opinions and observations from the panel. The topics can be just about any including running games or getting the most out of being a player. These topics originate from Stu, members of the panel, listener e-mails, and from the show's forum. With all these sources they always have something to debate.

After the topic section they spend the rest of the show dealing with listener e-mails. These are usually questions, but can have some variety of other subjects. A popular theme is examples of RPG horror stories: when players or GMs put each other through hell. They are pretty funny because if you have played for a while you have your own tales and can appreciate others who tell theirs.

While the banter has a lot of humor (yeah, some childish, some bad language, so what?), you quickly realize the panel is really good at breaking down what makes a game good and fun, and calls out the bullshit that players and GMs can bring to the table. They are all about RPG's being a shared experience, giving the players and GM tools to improve cooperation between all involved with the game. This is, IMHO, a very healthy attitude not seen enough in gaming groups.

That is the whole show, really, but with all the different topics and e-mails it moves fast, which is good because the episodes have been known to rival the length of Major League Baseball extra innings games. Of course, if you listen on your way to and from work, it could last you the whole week, and that can be hellacool. Heck, I have been disappointed to hear Stu call the show after a mere two hours after getting used to longer shows.

Two things they do not cover is industry news and product reviews. However, the show is so rich in material as it is, it isn't needed. Besides, they have a great archive of shows with topics that are pretty timeless; news ages fast and would make the older shows seem a kind of out of date.

As for the actual plays, I have not listened to any of them. To me they are like porn movies: yeah, they can be fun, but frankly I would rather be having sex than watching. Same with these types of shows. I'd rather play than listen. My wife does listen to them gives Happy Jacks high marks, along with Role Play Public Radio.


Yeah, they do. In fact, I got to see Stu Venable in action at Gateway 2013 in Los Angles and he practices what he preaches. I played in his GURPS one shot. We players had spotlight moments and always felt like our choices had an impact on the story. He even had to think on his feet when the group decided a plan of action 180-degrees from what he anticipated. He handled it excellently, kept the play moving forward, and there was fun for all.

I have to say I have been a GM for a long time myself and I have learned much through trial and error, and wished I had a show like Happy Jacks to listen to back then to help explore concepts (this was the dark ages of the early 90s, when I got serious about telling good stories, USENET was the big way to discuss topics and MP3's were unheard of). Even now, they have taught me some new things I am integrating into my games.

Moment of Truth Pre-Release Cover. GROIN SHOT!
I am excited that Mr. Venable and his crew are playtesting their own game engine, called the "Moment of Truth." Because of their knowledge of what makes a game session good, and hope it will imbue the product, I am looking forward to its release. I have not read it yet, nor have I listened to the actual play episodes of the play sessions of it (as I mentioned above, homey don't play that), but I intend to catch up with it soon.


Another thing that I like about the show is Stu's devotion to making the show sound good. He has a pretty neat setup in their studio: everyone has their own mic, and the quality is pretty pro. He is always trying to improve quality with new equipment, and adds new features to the shows and the website, such as video versions of the show filmed multi-camera via Google Plus (see them on YouTube), and streaming the podcast recording session live with listeners able to join a chat that the panel can see! They also have the ability to go portable and have recorded shows at the Strategicon conventions in front of live audiences.

Digression alert: This will not mean much to many people, but Stu is a kindred spirit to me as he is a fellow user of a digital audio workstation called Reaper. It was created by the guy who designed WinAmp (it whips the llama's ass), and is nto only feature rich, it is affordable, especially for home use. I have done several movie soundtrack projects and personal music on that platform and I am not going back to any other, even after experiencing ProTools HD when my partner and I owned a project recording/video production company in Hollywood, Florida. Sure, Pro-Tools had the DSP chips for the  cards, but I bought a new 8-core computer and I really don't have problems with running out of processing power, even with the fact I exclusively use VST instruments for all my composing so I always have a ton of plugins going. Also, TDM was overpriced compared to VST for the same plug in. It was a bit of a rip. Digression over.


Stu has a band and writes music. Several of his songs can be heard in the show, especially the ones about the RPG hobby. He has a band that plays at Ren Fairs in a kind of Celtic vibe. His productions for the show vary in genre (though his techno-rapping can use a bit o' work).

Also, I have written the show a few times with questions and have been un-mercifully poked fun of because my career moniker is N. Eric Phillips and it comes up on my e-mail. They have a real problem with the N. I finally let them in on what the "N" stands for: "None of your damn business." (I am not really complaining, its all in fun. I hope).


Life is short. Listen to the podcast, dammit.

15 July 2015

History lesson: An update on Designers and Dragons

In June I published my review of Shannon Applecline's Designers and Dragons,  and very interesting history of the Role Playing hobby in four volumes, one for each of the decades from the 70s to the '00s. In it I was a bit critical that promised updates to the history were supposed to be posted on RPGnet, but that the topic had been touched in a while.

Well, button my shorts! There is an update and it is well worth waiting for. This article covers the latest changes at Chaosium, with founder Greg Stafford and writer Sandy Peterson back in control. It is a pivotal time for Chaosium, and a must read from Applecline.

Click to read the Designers and Dragons update at RPGnet.

Click to read my review of Designers and Dragons here on Broccolifest.

Review: Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering

There are a lot of books on the market about how to be a better game master, especially in the e-book age where even my cat could get a book published on Amazon. The quality varies a lot, from good to bad to just plain ugly. Most deal exclusively with "the big game," D&D. As I play may different games, I prefer something system agnostic. Which leads me to a very good book on the subject: Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin D. Laws, published back in 2002.
Read me. Drink me. Eat me.

Mr. Laws is well known as a damn good writer, from role-play games (Ars Magica, Unknown Armies, Fung Shui and so much more), articles on RPGs, novels and short stories. Some of my personal favorites by him are Over the Edge (the coolest and weirdest background plus a rules light system years before this became trendy) and a supplement for GURPS called Fantasy II: The Mad Lands which is set in a primitive world where gods are everywhere, and they are easy to invoke, but they are also insane and f--- everything up. You don't worship them, you fear them! Especially the cute bunny- he's the most dangerous.

Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering is a series of techniques a GM can use to hone his campaign and make it fun for all. The techniques start with knowing your players and what they are looking for in a game. From the power gamer to the casual gamer and a bunch in between, you use these tips to hone the campaign so each gets something they want out of an adventure.

I had already been doing a similar thing with my group, though I did not have the characteristics of the players as well defined as Mr. Laws. For example, my wife loves to play a character but is not into rules at all; another friend was the power gamer of the group looking to prove he could beat any challenge, while another was a bit of a masochist who loved action and being injured. He was the butt of many mean sneak attacks that left him injured. Giving players the experience they wanted made for a good experience all around.
Here is a good example of a group with all types
After knowing what types of players you have, the book moves on to building the game including picking your rule set, how to build a campaign everyone will enjoy (including honing published settings), building adventures (and the many possible structures they may take), and getting the characters into the action but making it deeper by getting their goals involved as well. Then it hits on actually playing the adventure covering good dialog between PCs and NPCs, and keeping the pace going while keeping the focus on the story. It even covetrs the art of improvising full adventures, which can be useful for when the characters go off the rails or for running a sandbox game.

I found so much useful in this book its hard to believe it is only thirty-eight pages. It feels like nothing is missing or unexplained, a tribute to concise writing. As such it is not a huge time commitment to push you away, so there is no reason not to read it.

The book is available in PDF from Steve Jackson Games' Warehouse 23. It used to be available in print and comes available on Ebay and used books websites every now and then if you want a physical book. Though thirteen years old its information has not aged at all, and no matter how much experience you have as a GM, you will find something to inspire you in it. I fully recommend it.

13 July 2015

RPG's at the movies III: Mazes and Monsters- the Tom Hanks Classic

The 1980s were an amazing time to be a role player. The whole hobby was new, and when a new game came out it was like manna from heaven. It was also an amazing time to be a religious nut with a whole new moral panic to unleash on your followers. I watched some of the programs on our local religious station, as shows like The Eagles Nest devoted whole shows to the dangers D&D held for kid's souls. It also fill our newspapers, with this being typical:

Click to read- and be amazed at the stupidity.

There was even some former witchcraft devotee turned born again Christian named William Schnoebelen who claimed that during his dark times he was paid by TSR to make sure the rituals contained in the rules were realistic. He also went from show to show claiming that D&D was "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft."

Jack Chick, famous for his cartoon books that people hand out to others to teach them about God and being saved, made a tract called Dark Dungeons which showed a D&D like game being used to indoctrinate young people into the occult. When one of the characters died in game, the player is ostracized an commits suicide, while her friend continues to play and in then shown how to cast real magic.
This never happened to me. Sadly.
Interestingly, this strip has been made into a pretty good (and funny) short film with permission of Crazy Jack Chick himself.

Yes, the moral panic was in high gear, and it accomplished what all moral panics do: it made more people aware of D&D and sales of the games multiplied.

This was just one in a ling line of moral panics about the latest abomination that is ruining our kids which has included comic books, rock and roll music (and Elvis Presley's hips), long hair, video games, TV shows, and so on. The list can go on forever. Basically, one of these nutto's kids is into something that did not exist when they were young is must be bad because they don't understand it.

Click to read.
One of the big panics at the time was caused by an actual tragedy that was exploited by the moral police. A student at Michigan State, James Dallas Egbert III, disappeared from the campus in 1979. He was known for wandering the steam tunnels of the school. A private eye named William Dear discovered Egbert played D&D, and when Dear discovered this  (plus the steam tunnels) and, it being something Dear did not understand, led the private "dick" to tell every news outlet that he felt the game was the cause for Egbert's disappearance, and that he may have been playing a live version of the game in the tunnels and something went wrong. 

It did not take long for the moral police to pick it up and spread the danger to their flock: Dungeons and Dragons caused a kid to disappear.  Well, it turned out that Egbert did run away, but D&D was not the cause. He was a sixteen year old in a university with kids two or more years his senior and had trouble making friends. His parents were overbearing, and he was depressed (probably clinically) and lonely. Not only did he play D&D, he was also using drugs. The night he disappeared he tried to commit suicide, then ran away to New Orleans where he tried again. He ended up calling Dear to bring him back home, but finally managed to end his own life the next year.

Of course, the problem with the moral panic here was that the moral police get cause and effect backwards. Playing a game does not make you depressed and suicidal because the person gets lost in it like an addiction. The game becomes the addiction because the mentally disturbed person want to lose himself in it to escape his life. The same with the drugs Egbert took. People have escaped into such diversions before and will again. Many depressed people have turned to the bible and religion to lose themselves in, though none of the moral police admit that, in fact they encourage it.

The media loves a controversy though, and the disproved D&D connection was a common topic on religious and mainstream media. Rona Jaffe was a popular author back then mainly noted for having books with strong working women during a time when women were fighting for liberation. When she read the stories about the Egbert disappearance she wrote a fiction book based loosely on the story called Mazes and Monsters. It even incorporated four college students and players of Dungeons and Dragons Mazes and Monsters having live action versions of the game in steam tunnels. It was published in 1981, and capitalizing on the panic, CBS bought it and made a movie of the week based on it.


Who is that young lad?
The film is the story of four young college students. It starred a popular actor at the time, Chris Makepeace, who was well known from his role in Bill Murray's Meatballs and the excellent film My Bodyguard (with Firefly's Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillion and Jennifer Beals). You might not remember him because by the late 80s he had pretty much disappeared. However, another young actor in his second big role (after a part in a b-grade slasher movie) named Tom Hanks. He has had one or two films since then. Maybe you have heard of him?

Robbie (Tom Hanks) was kicked out of a high school for becoming to obsessed with the Mazes and Monsters game and he gave it up. At college he becomes friends with Kate, JayJay (Makepeace) and Daniel. They all have personal problems (but hey, don't we all?). JayJay has the overbearing mother and is the youngest of the group because he was pushed so hard by her to get to college young. Kate has had a series of failed relationships. Daniel's parents rejected his plan to become a video game designer. And Robbie (Hanks) has slightly worse problems. His mother is an alcoholic, he fights with his father, and his brother Hall disappeared. 

So the gang convinces Robbie to join the game. The sessions become intense and they devoted too much time to it (whatever they were playing because was obvious no one on the production had played D&D. It was more of a board game in this film. It looked like a crappy game and a laugh to anyone who had played real RPGs before. Then again, this film was not aimed at actual role players but instead to scare the common folk). 

So Kate and Robbie become a thing. Seeing them all touchy feely,  JayJay feels realizes his budding sexuality is not budding enough and driven by loneliness and blue balls, decides to commit suicide in the steam tunnels but ends up not doing it when he realizes how cool it would be to play a live version of the game in them (in a way the game saved his life! The game is a hero!). 

Forrest Gump, aka Pardieu, in the steam tunnels.
When they play in the tunnels they are thrilled, but then found it too real and scary after a plastic medical school skeleton with a flashlight taped in its mouth drops in front of them. Everyone make a sanity roll! Well, Robbie misses his and hallucinates he is fighting a "gorvil." At this point Robbie ceases to exist and he instead becomes his character, a cleric called Pardieu. He breaks up with Kate because of his character's celibacy. Then, in a dream, Robbie's brother, now called the Grand Hall, comes to him and tells Robbie to go to the Two Towers.

Later Robbie disappears and the gang needs to save him as they realize he is completely flipped out. They track Robbie to New York where he lives in an all woman apartment building by dressing as a woman travels to the Two Towers (the World Trade Center, aka Twin Towers) where he will cast a spell, jump off the building and join his brother Hall in eternity. The gang shows up and stops him. 

Fighting the Gorvil
It has an epilogue where the gang visit Robbie at his parents house. He is undergoing counseling but it has been little help as they discover he is not Robbie, but still Pardieu. They join him on a last imaginary quest together.


This film is not as anti-gaming as some think (the book is far worse in this regard). I watched it recently and found that the game was not the big villain and cause of the problems; the characters were all troubled and lose themselves in fantasy as an escape. It does make a point that in order to grow up games such as Mazes and Monsters need to be rejected, like how Susan Pevensie could no longer go to Narnia when she matured. Of course this is bull; I am in my 40s and like many of my peers love to play games. It is a hobby, like golf, but no one ever tells a golfer to grow up. Another negative light is that all the players have emotional problems, and "normal" people are never shown playing, implying you need to be a little off kilter to play. 


It is a typical movie of the week from the 80s: not good. The acting is fine, though pace of directing is slow, and the writing shows a complete misunderstanding of the role playing community. As a gamer you will see the humor in the film, so you might as well see it once. Actually, do not waste your time. Watch the far superior My Bodyguard instead.

Interestingly, Tom Hanks remembers the film well and talked about it on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me radio show. In fact the host, Peter Segal, introduced Tom Hanks as the star of Mazes and Monsters and other films! What a hoot.

10 July 2015

RPGs at the movies II: The Gamers series (plus Gamers: The Movie)

Back in the day (2002), Matt Vancil wrote an produced a low low low budget film ($1000 budget) about a groups of role-players called The Gamers. It became a phenomenon and has led to a series of popular sequels. All are direct-to-video. Are they worth it? Also, I talk a look at another movie about role-players, called Gamers, released in 2006, and not related to The Gamers


This is the story of a group of fantasy role players enjoying their weekly game in their dormitory at college. As they play the film jumps into the game to show the events happening to the characters. They wander through a generic RPG adventure to defeat a villain known as "the Shadow." I'll stop with the plot description here (though the ending is a bit of a surprise) because this film is not about story. It is a send up of how stereotypical gamers approach play. It did fill a niche in entertainment for the RPG community. I wish I had thought of it first.

The thief has high skills so he tries outrageous ideas to test his mettle: pick pocketing a person's underwear and backstabbing someone using his high stealth to bring a ballista  (a huge crossbow used in siege attack on castles, it is so big it weighs in at over 100 pounds). Meanwhile, the party is more interested in how much ale they can drink rather than the adventure that presents itself.

I saw this in a game store when it first came out. The group loved it, laughing at the gags. Me, I was not laughing (except the ballista part) because this was a film about what I hate about most role playing groups. The players did not take it seriously, they do stupid things during game play, and they could care less about immersion, instead it is all about rolling the dice and kicking ass like some kind of video game. To me it was all about making fun of all the crap I hate from bad gaming. Others though laughed their asses off. Maybe I was a bit harsh on this piece of parody but I thought those kind of players were bad enough in real life, I did not enjoy watching them being glorified on the small screen. I know I am the odd man out here because of the universal enthusiasm for the video from those all around me.


"Crap, a sequel to The Gamers," I thought when I heard this was out. My wife bought it and she made me watch it. I was ready for some more of the same as the first film and was just trying to get through it for my wife who liked it a lot.

Dammit, I liked it too.

The "sort of" sequel to the first, written and directed again by Matt Vancil, was heads and tales above the previous film. While the first was about stereotypes and gags from games, this was about a group of people and their interrelationships.  Sure, it still had some of the gags, but they were not the focus.

The story was about a game master and his varied crew of players, a varied bunch (you had the munchkinizer who tries to "beat" the game, an new player who is a girl and cars more about story than rules and has to prove herself, a player who's characters always dies but has a good attitude- until he loses it, and a male player who plays a female character and appears as both a female in the "in game" scenes as well as his male self in the woman's costumes.

The main themes of the game are role playing versus roll playing, seen as constant bickering between the muchkinizer; the female player who has to prove herself and becomes a strong ally (and romantic interest) for the GM; and the idea that a role play adventure can tell a good story and not just be hack and slash as he struggles with writing a module for publication.

The acting is much stronger. Carol Roscoe, who plays Daphne the female gamer, is a great addition and the attraction between her and the GM (Kevin Lodge) is excellent and low key as they try and keep their attraction from the others. Brian Lewis as Cass, the power gamer, is a bit over the top but works because in the film he is the antagonist, not the many monsters and villains seen in game.

Not bad, Dead Gentlemen.


The third film was financed by a Kickstarter project (which is why my wife proudly shows off her name, Sandie "Warkitteh" Phillips, in the credits) , and was shot mostly at GenCon (the biggest game convention around) and had an actual card game based on the one in the movie produced by game company AEG.

I think some fans of the previous films may not have been as happy with this film if they are in the RPG's rule, CCG's drool camp. While Dorkness Rising was all about role playing, this one focuses its main story line on a card game championship. It puts many of the characters from the second movie into supporting story lines, while taking the bad boy from Dorkness Rising (Cass, played by Brian Lewis) as the main character.

Cass is a game player but meets a pretty and confident woman named Natalie (Trin Miller) and wants to date her. She is a part of a tournament for a collectible card game, and though Cass is not a fan, he buys in to get near her. He approaches the game like he does RPGs as if it is just a bunch of mechanics to exploit, but she loves the stories. Cass' friend coaches him and he eventually makes his way to the championship.

The dance of attraction between Natalie and Cass works and they make a nice on screen couple (Vancil seems to get how to write believable romance). However, even though Cass is winning and she is obviously attracted to him, she does not like that he is only playing the game to win her, much like he only plays games to win. Instead, she wants him to understand and live the story of the game that she loves so much, and to not treat her like a prize.

The villain this time is a group of players who have found a loophole in the rules and are dominating the tournament with the purpose of ruining the story that has been built up over the years. Of course Cass is in the position to be the savior once he embraces the story of the game. His dedication to the story and his powerful tactical skills win the day, and having accepted Natalie as a person and not a prize, ends the film with a hint of their future.

Other plots are interesting. One of the gang hates that a Pokemon like character knocked his favorite anime off the air and goes a little nuts, eventually kidnapping a guy dressed as the character and going Reservoir Dogs on him. Also, Daphne and Lodge are in love and have a little gamer on the way. While these subplots were nice, they were somewhat a distraction from the main plot for me, which is why I like the shorter edit of the film, as it is more concise and flows really well.

The big surprise here is Brian Lewis as Cass. His character was kind of a jerk in the second film who redeemed himself in the end, but here the character's bad traits are more sympathetic and fleshed out showing off a more emotionally complex interior. I found myself rooting for him early. Lewis is good, reminding me a bit of Jason Lee and his edgy but likable characters in Kevin Smith films like Chasing Amy.

I recommend this film (the shorter version especially).


The next film in the series is coming. This time it is about a bunch of fantasy characters as they take time from adventuring to play their own role play game. In the game they play the part of poeple living in the modern world. Some episodes have been released, but I have not seen them yet. I mention it because it sounds like an idea from a one-panel comic in the First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide on page 111:
Good idea, finally executed after all this time!


This is another film called Gamers, written and directed by Chris Folino. It was his writer/director debut and is a well made, well written film. Somehow, it is not well known in the RPG community, and it should be. Its very good.

This is a comedy about a group of four role play gamers that have been playing one continuous game weekly for so long they are about to set a world record. However, they are also kind of a stunted bunch, each in jobs they hate, and each having not quite grown up because they like their lives as is. However, when confronted by this dubious record, they face the truth of their lives.

Now, this is not a slap at RPGs. Sure, the characters are stunted, but they are not victims of a game. They are victims of themselves. They could just have easily been a group of young biker enthusiasts who used the hobby as an excuse to not fully join the real world. It is not a Mazes and Monsters demonizing a game.

The direction, writing and acting are pretty damn good. Folino is obviously a role player, as can be seen in the authenticity of the story. The script won award for Best Screenplay at the 2006 Melbourne Underground Film Festival. Folino was a film student and then worked for years in the video game, film and TV industry in production and acting. He self produced it for $60,000 dollars financed on his credit cards and shot it in six days. The rapid shoot does not show on screen, which tells you something about his directing talent.

He also had a series of guest cameos including William (The Greatest American Hero) Katt as a boss who used to play RPGs but now likes playing the Madden Football video game because "you can suck, but you can't die." John Heard and Beverly D'Angelo play one of the character's swinger parents, and Kelly LeBrock plays a MILF.

The best acting comes from Kevin Kirkpatrick as Gordon. He is not happy where he is in life, and when faced with a bit of immature betrayal in the group decides to grow up and save the day. He is consistently in the moment and owns this role, keeping him real and likable. The actor has a few more credits under his belt, including the TV show Greek on ABC Family, and guest appearances on some other shows including a personal favorite, Modern Family (which really needs to have a D&D episode with Phil and the kids).

02 July 2015

RPGs at the movies: Dungeons and Dragons on screen

They made a movie out of this? WTF?

A new Dungeons and Dragons film will be coming to theaters... someday. In the midst of a movie licensing mania for Hasbro (owners of Wizards of the Coast and Parker Brothers) that has brought us the board game to motion picture Battleship, the horror film based on Ouija, the soon to be made Monopoly movie, and the future adaptation of Risk???

In order to be a success to Hasbro, D&D revenues need to be very high, much higher than other competitors. If they do not make enough management will demote it to a lesser property and there goes the high quality we expect. Already Wizards is disadvantaged as none of the money generated from video games counts towards D&D's annual gross. A movie would be a big influx of cash, and is part of the plan for the game.

However, licensing issues are hampering development. Back in 2000, Warner Brothers released a movie called Dungeons and Dragons to universal failure. There have been two made for TV sequels. Courtney Solomon, who produced the trio of films, says he still has the rights to make another film. Hasbro disagrees, saying that Solomon's deal ran out because TV movies did not count as sequels as they had no theatrical release. Solomon disagrees, saying his contract just specifies sequels with no mention of the need for them to be theatrical. Hasbro says that in the film industry it is understood that theatrical film sequels are theatrical releases. As yet, almost a year after the trial, I still cannot find if this has been settled.

Hasbro wants the rights back to sell it for big money to Universal Pictures who wants to do a multi-picture project, while Warner Bros. is looking to revive the franchise and bring it back to the theaters. Solomon's Sweetpea Entertainment bought the film rights for cheap back in the 90s when TSR was in financial straights and was desperate for any money they could grab, and Warner Bros. bought Sweetpea.

Time will tell who wins this. In the end, will movie goer's win? The three movies so far have not been the big hits everyone wanted, so this next movie will hopefully buck the trend.

UPDATE! The lawsuit is settled. Movie on the way. See my post about it.


Dungeons and Dragons (2000)
This is no game? This is no good!

Dungeons and Dragons (2000) was a failure. The story of two rouges (Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans) who are thrust into a plot to stop an arch-mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) from overacting using a macguffin to control dragons and take over the kingdom. Along the way they team up with an apprentice wizard (Zoe McLellan) and the most stereotypical D&D dwarf you will ever see (Lee Arenberg). They face off against Profion's henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne). Later, a ranger (Kristen Wilson) joins the group for no other reason than to say to fanboys "look, a ranger!" Finally someone dies, the bad guy gets the macguffin, and the heroes save the day while a bunch of poorly rendered CGI dragons fight each other (ror even worse CGI, watch the first scene where the dragon is killed, it is as bad as CGI could be).

A movie starts on the page, they say. The script has poorly written characters, especially the bad guys who are so cookie cutter. Throw in some cringe-worthy "for the fanboys" dialog, such as calling the wizard a "low level mage," and you have a disaster. The writer failed to understand what a D&D movie should be (see below for some of my ideas on what a D&D movie should be). 

Also, where are the clerics. Everyone is amazed when Tom Baker (the former Doctor Who star) has a cameo as an elf who can heal, and everyone is so amazed he can heal. In D&D healing is everywhere, heck you can buy it in bottles.

Acting is bad all around (a sign of poor direction by Courtney Soloman because I have seen some of these actors do better), though Justin Whalin tries hard with what he has to work with. Jeremy Irons seems to know the movie is bad and decides to make the most over the top performance of his career because of it. Irons is a terrific subtle actor, so you cannot help but laugh with him in the final scenes as he chews the scenery on purpose. The worst of the worst acting comes from Thora Birch as the Empress. She sleepwalks through every scene  When you get her lameness and Irons' overacting in the same scene, it just makes both look more extreme. Contrast this with her terrific and award winning performance in American Beauty the same year. She is frankly un-watchable here. 

If you have not seen this film, even if you are the most die hard D&D or fantasy fan, do not bother. If you like to laugh at cheesy B-movies though, at least you will get some chuckles from a viewing. Try drinking some grain alcohol first.*

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005)
Run away!

Five years on and the first direct to cable sequel hits our TVs. Surprisingly, this one is not bad. While not good enough to have been a successful theatrical release, being a TV movie we do not expect greatness, this movie turns out kind of fun. Just remember to lower your expectations a little.

The script is decent, except for having to shoe horn the villain Damodar (Bruce Payne) into this film, thus connecting it to the previous failure. Acting and directing are better. Though it is low budget you expect that from a TV movie, so no big deal. Acting is good all around in a party made of a fighter (Mark Dymond), elven wizard (Lucy Gaskill), barbarian (a kick ass woman played by Ellie Chidzey), a cleric (Steven Elder, who does not fare well against an ice dragon... ooops, spoilers), and a rogue (Tim Stern). They are all interesting characters who each have their moment to shine, and also have fun and interesting interactions with each other, especially the respect earned between the barbarian and rogue. 

Rounding out the cast is Clemency Burton-Hill (actress and a highly renowned political journalist in the United Kingdom). She is good as the wife of the fighter who gets infected by an evil magical sickness, and Roy Marsden brings some gravitas to the part of the leader of the Mage's Council. 

The writers got the roles right, letting them do iconic class functions while not making it too much of a fanboy wank time, which is a hard feat. There are a couple of shout outs for the fans, however, such as referencing an adventure into the Barrier Peaks, and the cleric worships the Greyhawk god Obad-Hai (two Greyhawk references? But this is Izmir, a made up world. Why not just make it in Greyhawk?). Also, magic items abound from a gem of true seeing and ring of the ram, among others.

In this one the heroes join up to stop Damodar from waking up a dragon and destroying Izmir. Why? Because he is angry at the people who did him wrong a century before who are all dead. I guess their kids could do. The gang battle illusions, decipher puzzles, disarm traps and have some well choreographed fights. I especially liked the surprise appearance of a lich. 

While nowhere Lord of the Rings good, there is not much to point out that is really bad. If you have 90 minutes, I say watch it. Its a far better TV movie than anything Lifetime shows.

Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)
Even the poster sucks.

Short review: A thousand times worse than the first film.

Longer review: I will try and be polite here: The writing sucks, with a plot that does not hold together, a bunch of "heroes" that are very unlikable (even the lead character who is supposed to be a paladin or something), and the dialog is worse than most porn films. The direction (by Gerry Lively who did the previous better film) is inept, and the set design and costuming are atrocious. All the actors phone in performances (led by unknowns Jack Derges and Charlotte Hunter). The leads were supposed to be love interests, they had no chemistry at all, and the sex scene makes sex look boring. 

While it has a mind flayer at the end, which is too cool for school to put in a movie, I did not make it that far, stopping about two-thirds of the way through.  As for fanboy shout outs to D&D, I did not see any, but then again I did beat my head against a rock after seeing this thing to try and forget it. What a waste of time. Do not even consider watching. At least the first movie could be laughed at; this has no funny moments to make it on the level of even a B-movie. It was, as advertised, 90 minutes of vile darkness.

BTW: Did I mention it sucked? No redeeming qualities here, folks.


Whoever gets to make the next D&D film, here are a few hints:

Forget that it is a movie based on a game. License Forgotten Realms, and make a Forgotten Realms movie. Faerun is full of cultures and history that rivals Tolkien in its depths, and is the most popular campaign setting in role playing. Sure, D&D is a game but thinking of this as a "game movie" will poison the well. 

Drizzt. Yes!
Possibly base it around known characters in the Forgotten Realms story line. Imagine Drizzt Do'Urden and his big cat on the big screen. Film is all about characters and plot, and Drizzt has it in buckets.
Hire someone who has written for D&D novels to work on the screenplay. They know what makes a good D&D story. R.A. Salvatore would be excellent; he did write a pilot script for a Forgotten Realms television series, and his novels rock, and he also created Drizzt.

Have I mentioned Drizzt yet? No? Okay then: DRIZZT!!!

Finally, do not dumb it down to make room for more action. Watch Lord of the Rings again, there were many times there was no action, just character development, and audiences liked it. Put another way: fantasy does not mean "for kids."

Do this and I think we have a hit, though I doubt they will do it right.

* Kids, if you are underage DO NOT DRINK the grain alcohol. Leave it to college kids.