Opinion: A Dim View of Bright

This essay is something I don’t usually do, which is dunk on things I don’t like. I try to frame things in terms of why I do like them or what I want them to become. But I wrote this one as a supplement to my blog on imaginary people. I did so not because this piece is at all timely, but because a good friend skilled in literary criticism, and a former colleague at Paizo, Jason Tondro asked me why I’m on about Bright in that imaginary-people post. And listen, please, if you haven’t seen Bright, don’t bother. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus says, “Bright tries to blend fantasy, hard-hitting cop drama, and social commentary—and ends up falling painfully short of the mark on all three fronts.” That’s generous.
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Let's go for a ride! Always wear your helmet.
Let’s go for a ride! Always wear your helmet.

I’ve been playing Fallout 4′s beta Survival difficulty mode. It’s good. The mode certainly meshes with my normal play style, but Survival also improves the feel of the game. How a game feels is paramount. Mechanics have to speak to the genre and the narrative. Survival pumps Fallout 4′s feel up to the right notch, adding a little something I missed without quite knowing it.

See, when I’m not experimenting with a ridiculous, chemmed-up melee fighter or a run-and-gun soldier, I default to careful play style. I use stealth and sniping to avoid “fair” confrontations. (You know, like you would.) When I set up for sniping, I lay mines on predictable approaches to my position. I avoid companions, sometimes even the lovable and helpful Dogmeat, because companions draw enemy attention, attack without tactical cooperation, and sometimes plain get in the way. (The Lone Wanderer perk is all me.) I explore nooks and crannies, and acquire the perks needed to unlock and hack everything. I’m cautious, methodical, and curious.

Survival asks you to be all three of those things. If it asked more of some and less of others, it’d go from being good to being great.Read More »

Mutate Your Game

A lot has been made of the fact that you can “reskin” game elements in the D&D game to make what you want. Reskinning just means taking a mechanical element and changing it cosmetically or in minor mechanical ways, as DM approved, to make it fit your character concept. From James Wyatt’s great sidebar “My Son the Fire Archon” in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (page 21) to Jeff Greiner’s and my little bit on The Tome Show 138, reskinning has definitely been in the air.

I have wondered why more people don’t do it. Then I realized that it isn’t all that easy. Experienced players and DMs might think it is, but reskinning is more than just an exercise in creativity and imagination. Required is a willingness to experiment and to face the possibility that your experiment won’t work. It’s reasonable to be uncomfortable with that type of experimentation when you’re just learning a game or you’re unfamiliar with the game’s boundaries.

Examples serve to an extent. James’s sidebar is a fine case in point. Any number of examples are just that, though, until you do it. You have to reskin something to know what it’s like, and then you have to use that element to see how it works for you.

Well, the new D&D Gamma World game is a freaking (emphasis on that) crash course on reskinning. Character creation, from concept to equipment, is a real-world exercise in putting your imagination’s images over a mechanical chassis in a simple game. Sections in the rules cover the process, from the “Reconciling Contrary Origins” segment to the “What Does it Look Like?” sidebar on equipment.

The awesome thing is that so many of these parts are directly interchangeable. Character origins, which every character has two of, combine to make unique mutants and humans that you create from your imagination based on the mechanical information you’re given. Cooler still is that each origin provides features and powers at the same levels, so it’s easy to imagine swapping these mechanical elements between origins to make a character that’s even more customized to your vision.

Ookla, Thundarr, and ArielMutant Child

I was enamored with the D&D game from the first moments I played it. Brave warriors and mighty sorcerers fighting dragons? Yes, please. More, please.

I imagine that a lot of us longtime D&D fans are similar in that our fandom for the game quickly spread to fantasy and sci-fi of other types. I devoured anything I could that seemed even remotely like D&D and stole it for my game.

That’s really another topic, but it brings me to the point that I liked the show Thundarr the Barbarian when I was a kid. It came out before I owned my own D&D set, but not before I played the game. And it was in syndication for a while after that, so you could catch episodes. I hear you still can on Cartoon Network from time to time.

The Thundarr show had the coolest intro for a a 9-year-old D&D-nut kid. In fact, that intro isn’t bad entertainment fiction today:

The year: 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction! Man’s civilization is cast in ruin! Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil. He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

Back then, this was cool D&D stuff, since it was before I was exposed to the Gamma World game. Today, I catch Thundarr’s similarities to Conan and classic characters such as John Carter of Mars. Thundarr’s was a post-apocalyptic world full of old technology, bizarre creatures, and weird magic. It’s still great D&D stuff, but it’s fantastic D&D Gamma World stuff.

This recently got me thinking that if the current Gamma World is so good for reskinning, I should be able to put it through its paces in reverse. Yeah, it’s not lost on me that I’m imposing something on a system that more freeform. It’s also clear I’m just giving more reskinning examples. Let’s just pretend this is proof of concept rather than me reliving some of my childhood fantasies. When you get your hands on Gamma World, you can tell me how well I did.

Thundarr is clearly human, and he’s an ex-slave warrior with simple drives. See, he is a post-apocalyptic Conan. If I were going to make up Thundarr as a D&D Gamma World character, I’d take the Engineered Human (swap Intelligence for Strength) origin and mix it with Hypercognitive. I’d roleplay Hypercognitive as less psionic “I see the future” and more “I’m so good at combat, I see what’s coming and react instinctively.” Thundarr uses his fists and his fabulous Sunsword, which is clearly a piece of (Ishtar) Omega Tech Thundarr has salvaged, probably with Princess Ariel’s (see below) help.

Ookla the Mok is Thundarr’s buddy, kind of like if Conan had a wookie sidekick. Thundarr and Ookla escaped slavery with the help of their other ally, Princess Ariel. The moks are feline in derivation, and they’re big and strong, so Ookla is easy. He could be Felinoid (if we want Dexterity instead of a focus on Strength) or Yeti for his first origin, then I’d use the Giant origin for Ookla’s immense strength and great size. Ookla opts for nontechnological weapons, such as bows (see, Dexterity), clubs, and whatever he rips out of the ground or off the wall . . . like a lamp post or 400-pound gargoyle.

Princess Ariel, stepdaughter to the evil wizard Sabian who enslaved Thundarr, is harder. She’s a sorceress with great knowledge of Earth’s past. Since Ariel looks human, we could start with Engineered Human. Ariel can do plenty with her magic, though, and she rarely used any weapon. Maybe a better model is Telekenetic plus Mind Breaker. Those origins give Ariel a good potential array of powers and skill bonuses that make sense. To reinforce her human appearance and lack of constant telepathy, I’d swap in the Engineered Human origin’s Tech Affinity in and lose the Mind Breaker’s Group Telepathy feature.

Ariel also got me thinking that one could use a D&D character in Gamma World ala Thundarr. Ariel is likely to be a D&D Essentials mage specializing in evocation. It’d be fairer, though, and maybe more interesting, if the DM and player worked together to give Ariel her sorcery by paring down the evoker into an origin-like format. I haven’t done that . . . yet.

Adult Fallout

As you might know, I really like Fallout 3. How can I think about the D&D Gamma World game without thinking about Fallout 3? You’re right, I can’t. Besides, I’ve thought about using the Fallout setting with Gamma World for a long time, and I’ve read of others having the same thoughts.

Gamma Terra, Gamma World’s setting, and the world of Fallout are very different, but who cares. I say embrace the strengths of both. Steal from Fallout to make your Gamma Terra better. Fallout kind of has the same spirit as Gamma World, anyhow. It’s post-apocalyptic ruination with a dash of the absurd. Gamma World just takes the far-out a little further out, that’s all.

As an aside, I strongly advocate the idea presented in the Gamma World rulebook that you set your first campaign in your home town. The juxtaposition of the familiar with the wonderfully bizarre realities of Gamma Terra is just too priceless an opportunity to pass up. That doesn’t mean you can’t loot Fallout for ideas. You should.

When I was thinking of reskinning plunder from Fallout for Gamma World, my mind went to two races prevalent in the Fallout setting: super mutants and ghouls. I’d want both to be monsters, sure, but I’d also want them available to players. The unusually sane super mutant and nonferal ghoul are great character concepts that Fallout 3 itself uses.

Super mutants are actually easy to model. They’re giant asexual humans with radiation immunity. That means if you mix the Engineered Human (swap Intelligence for Constitution) origin and Giant origin, you arrive at a good base. I’d then lose the human Skill Bonus and Tech Affinity features and replace them with the Radioactive origin’s Skill Bonus and Gamma Tolerance features. I might also replace the human’s expert power with the Seismic origin’s expert power. Done.

Ghouls require a little more tinkering. I’d still start with Engineered Human, then I’d throw in Android, playing on the idea that ghouls are created, not born. Again, I’d replace the Engineered Human Skill Bonus and Tech Affinity features with the Radioactive origin’s Skill Bonus and Gamma Tolerance features. I’d rework the Android origin powers to fit the semiliving ghoul form, and I’d replace the Machine Powered Android feature with Two Possibilities from the Doppelganger origin. It just makes sense to me that Gamma Terra ghouls might have more alpha flux given that they were made “undead” by super doses of radiation.

Go Flux Yourself

Much like I was sold on my first D&D game as a kid, I have been sold on the D&D Gamma World game since my very first playtest. Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell hit one out of the park with this game, and I can only hope future supplements live up to this high standard. The potential for amusement within the book and related cards cannot be described adequately in print. Everyone in the room laughed enough to have tears in their eyes the first time I played, and the laughing started during character creation. It’s not a serious roleplaying venture, but it is fun. Try it at least, since Gamma World Game Day is coming up. I doubt you’ll be sorry, even if your character is eaten by a yexil or dissolved by radioactive slime. If you need some more incentive, Dave the Game has a thing or two to tell you, as does Penny Arcade (click through News for more from Gabe).

Fiasco, It’s Not

Critical-Hits has run a review of Fiasco and an Origins report that included it, but I’m here to report as a Fiasco player. I played with four other veteran gamers, a few among us industry pros. Logan Bonner got us together and learned the rules with us. For the record, I have read on bits of the Fiasco rules, so this report is purely experiential and relies heavily on my memory of events. I’m also trying out a Chatty DM style post for a change. (Mimicry is flattery, Chatty.)

The Setup

First, we chose the “Tales From Suburbia” Playset. Guided by that, we had to make up characters and their related accouterments. Here’s a sketch of what we came up with.

Toby Grace (Logan Bonner)
The teenage Toby is gaining some fame as YouTube’s Bat’leth Boy, filming and uploading his mad Klingon sword skills. (I liken him to Kazookeylele.) He’s, more or less, a typical teenager, shy, with a part-time job at Max Reginald’s women-only costume shop, the Well-Dressed Lady. He dislikes his stepdad, Gerry. Toby desperately wants to be famous. Although he has no girlfriends, past or present, he’s pretty sure he’s not gay.

Gerald “Gerry” Grace (Derek Guder)
Gerry is a self-loathing gay man who married Toby’s mother, Bethany, for the money and a life of leisure. He drinks way too much, and he acts out of desperation and instinct more than reason. (Read: He’s an idiot.) Toby is the object of Gerry’s idle ire, because Gerry hates himself and suspects Toby, who has never had a girlfriend, is gay.

Alex James (Chris Tulach)
Alex is Gerry’s former lover. Impeccably dressed and groomed, Alex drives a black Cadillac and has all the latest gadgets. Something suggests he doesn’t really need money—maybe he made some cash in the 90s dot-com boom. He wants Gerald Grace out of suburbia and back in his arms, so he has gotten involved in a plot with his cousin Rory James.

Rory James (Chris Sims, me)
Rory is fresh out of the army and the Middle East. He’s a young, ex-military anti-tax Libertarian radical educated by conspiracy rags, first-person shooters, and Fox News. Rory believes not only that certain liberals are leading this nation to ruin, but also that the government is against the people. The IRS is after Rory, who needs money quickly to stay ahead, collect guns, and keep his jacked-up 89 Bronco running. Rory has a single usable grenade.

Max Reginald (Andrew “Doc” Cunningham)
A community activist and local Freemason Worshipful Master, Max Reginald owns a women’s only costume shop (the aforementioned Well-Dressed Lady) in the heart of the historic downtown area of this suburban town. He seems to have a penchant for teenage girls, which he hides behind a mask of overzealous vigilance against pedophiles. He knows Rory James through the local Masonic Lodge.

Other Characters
Here are a few important non-player characters that made their way into the plot.

Bethany Grace: Toby’s mom, who’s dying of cancer. She’s bedridden and lives upstairs in the old Grace house, a historic site on the edge of downtown. She’s also addicted to pain meds.

Randy James: An aging hippy lawyer who lives on the outskirts of town. He works for the Graces, and he’s Rory’s estranged father.

Holly: The teenage grocery checkout girl whom the younger Toby has the hots for.

Mister Bubbles: Rory’s yellow lab, named for the character in Bioshock.

Act One

The movie opens in the morning with Gerry—half naked, and carrying an adult toy like a weapon in his drunken rage—berates Toby while “Bat’leth Boy” meant to be filming his kick-ass moves. Instead, he gets the indelible record of his inebriated stepfather’s tirade. Toby uploads the film. Was it a mistake or fate?

Gerry later sits by Bethany’s bedside, failing to notice she drops a syringe on the floor. He hears a noise and goes to the window. A black Cadillac drives away from across the street. Gerry thinks nothing of it.

Alex drives away from the Grace house, a medical phial rolling on his floorboard. He receives a phone message from Rory and pulls over to catch it. It’s Bat’leth Boy’s latest film, starring Gerry Grace. Then Alex calls Rory, cryptically saying, “It’s done.”

In a rented house bereft of much in the way of furniture, Rory is sitting—barefoot and shirtless, in camouflage pants—at his computer after talking with Alex. Mister Bubbles scratches at the door to herald the coming of the mail and all Rory’s past-due bills. Rory gets the mail and curses at the Mexican gardener across the street.

Meanwhile, Max comes out of his house and notices Alex parked in front, just across the street from a playground. Max confronts Alex, accusing him of “watching the children” because “nobody parks to take a phone call.” Alex drives away. Max notes the pedophile danger for later.

Each of the above represents a player’s first turn, with that player setting up the scene for other players to resolve or resolving a scene others have set up. The outcome is good or bad, success or failure, for your character, resulting in you taking a white (good) or black (bad) six-sided die. In Act One, you give the die to another player. You keep it in Act Two.

Without telling the whole story, the rest of Act One played out. Salient details include Toby finding out Holly likes him. Gerry discovers Randy James is helping Bethany write Gerry out of her will. He doesn’t know James is also working for Max. Rory and Alex are working for Max to ensure Bethany dies shortly after her will is changed. Max alone knows that the Grace house is the final point of a geographic pentagram he is building. He needs to own to property to seal his occult power over the entire historic downtown area.

Tilt, Act Two

Elements of the plot go awry, of course, in what the game calls the Tilt. Randy James, pothead that he is, was lackadaisical in making Bethany’s will official. He hadn’t finished finalizing it by the time Rory and Alex manage to kill Bethany. Gerry finds Bethany dead at the same time he finds the new will. Smart guy that he is, he attempts to eat the document. Max becomes infuriated when he learns Randy James failed, and Rory and Alex were a bit too efficient. Alex discovers that the money envelope Rory provided is stuffed largely with grocery coupons. Toby, it turns out, stole the money from Rory to help Max buy the Grace house.

Like a film that Tarantino directed the first half of and Rodriguez directed the second half of, the character development and interaction degenerated into bloody conflagration by the end. All the main characters, in one way or another, end up in a serious confrontation near the Grace House. Mayhem ensues.

By the end of Act Two, Alex is wounded at the hands of bikers who are helping Max (it’s complicated). Half a dozen bikers are dead or dying. Mister Bubbles has given up the mortal coil, along with Rory’s Bronco, thanks to that grenade mentioned earlier. A flying tire from the exploded Bronco hit Toby’s new girlfriend, Holly. Toby is unconscious on the street, Holly’s d’k tahg next to him, thanks to Rory hitting him with a shotgun butt. Gerry, half-naked again, is bleeding on the street. The Grace House has been blown to cinders. Rory is speeding out of town on a stolen chopper. Max turns into an occult master right before everyone’s eyes.


Each player has a small pile of dice by the end of Act Two. Turns out you use these dice to find out what happens to your character in the end. This was the most confusing and unexpected part of the game to me. See, you roll the dice, subtracting the black form the white. The result determines how well it goes for your character in the end. I expected that my small “white” result to mean a minor victory for my character. Nothing to the contrary prepared me otherwise, but as is common when one is first learning a game, especially without having read the rules for oneself, my expectations were wrong.

It turns out that the closer your result is to zero, black or white, the worse it is for your character. Had we all known that, we might have played differently. We stacked a lot of negative results on Gerry, thinking he’d pay for his idiocy in the end. He didn’t, as you’ll see.

As an aside—reminding readers I’ve read only portions of rules, such as in this preview, because I don’t own the book—I wonder why lots of black  dice result in a positive outcome for the character? It seems counterintuitive to me, the uneducated novice player. Maybe it makes sense for genre reasons or something else, but I still fail to get it.

So I was expecting to tell the story of how Rory rode that stolen Harley, eluding the cops, all the way to Central America. Maybe he spent the rest of his days in Paraguay as an American exile. His views on American politics became irrelevant. Maybe he married a nice mestizo woman and got over himself. But, no!

Instead, my low white result meant Rory fled the scene only to attract the attention of a traffic cop on a motorcycle. Rory took a shot at this “fascist,” and the officer jumped clear of the bike as it flipped and hit Rory’s cycle. Rory died in a blaze of glory, the last thing seen of him being his burning rank patch. Good night, sweet corporal. I like to think life would have been too dismal without Mister Bubbles anyway.

With a similarly low result, Alex died at the end of a Bat’leth in Max’s hands. All the other players got high black or white results. Toby, with Logan’s higher result, goes to physical therapy with Holly, and they later start a costuming company together. Bat’leth Boy becomes famous. Gerry’s wounds cause him to need organ replacements, including his suffering liver. He survives, accepting himself and his stepson, as well as enjoying the provisions of Bethany’s older will. He also sells the Grace house property to Max, who gets away scot-free and completes his pentagram.

After the Aftermath

Fiasco sells itself well and truthfully. We five newbies played a highly entertaining game in about three hours, some of that spent stumbling around the rules clumsily. (The rules aren’t clumsy. We were a little.) The outcome does depend heavily on who you game with, though. It seemed like we all enjoyed the darkly ridiculous nature of our imaginary movie. We were all up to the freeform nature of the roleplaying and storytelling.

Either of these elements might turn some off. For instance, my wife enjoys playing a barbarian in D&D 4e, but she dislikes Coen brothers’ films (okay, she dislikes sad endings, full stop) and is new enough to roleplaying to want some guidance. She’s also not partial to dark stories and foul language. Fiasco is definitely not a game for her or someone like her. Part of the book I did read (“One Last F[edit]ing Thing”) spells this out, which is a fine bit of honesty.

For me, despite my feelings about the resolution system in the aftermath, it was a cool way to spend a few hours with buddies. Fiasco tests your spontaneous imagination and invites you to take chances. It rewards player trust and going with the flow. I can’t help but wonder if it could be a useful tool for honing roleplaying skills for players of other games that have more structure. It could work well as a team-building exercise.

It’s certainly worth a look-see . . . if you have the stones.