Posted by: markfender | March 8, 2016

Wrong Tools, Pt II

Man, that was a long, unexplained break. What happened? Boredom? Vision quest? Long illness? Drug-induced stupor? We’ll never really know…

badluckAnyway, Joe commented on my last post, saying:

“So what *is* the experience you want to create? And if you can’t get it through the means you described, will you seek out alternative methods?”

Good question(s), Joe. Also, congrats on being the 500th comment ever made on this blog, a number that is far less impressive when you consider how long I’ve been doing this and how often I post (I choose to interpret it as everyone just agrees with me).

I guess part of the issue is that the experience I’m wanting to create depends. Sometimes I want to make an action movie at the table. Sometimes, I’m just curious what people will do if I present them with different scenarios. Sometimes I want to explore the psychology of my players’ characters. And sometimes I just want to prove something to myself. All of those experiences require different tools, I think, and not every game offers those tools.

The action movie one is pretty easy to grasp, so let’s explore that one. RPGs are pretty bad at replicating this experience. Combat in RPGs takes forever, slows everything to a crawl, and doesn’t replicate the experience of watching a movie at all. Even games specifically designed for action movies, like Feng Shui, still suffer a bit from the simple fact that they have rules to govern things and rules take processing time. So, it seems to me that RPGs are inherently bad at replicating this experience. And yet, that seems to be the most common touchstone for our hobby – seeing as how practically every game spends the majority of its time describing combat.

Now, I think tactical combat games can be pretty fun. There may be a lot of “game” there to play, but that “game” bears no relation to the action I’m trying to emulate. Which is where the disconnect arises.

As for alternative methods to capture those experiences, isn’t that the eternal question? I mean, if we’d solved every problem in gaming by now, we’d only have three systems and no new games would ever come out. Everyone thinks they’ve got a better/funner/faster way of doing what this hobby says it does, and so we keep seeing systems. Which is cool and all (I like new systems), but it does point to a fundamental problem – none of us can emulate what we’re actually after from RPGs.

Of course, the easiest solution is to just not try. If I want to make an action movie, I should just get a video camera and make an action movie, not try to recreate it in an entirely different medium. Which could be the problem at its core – instead of accepting that RPGs are their own thing with their own rules and experiences, we try to recreate other experiences in them. And maybe we shouldn’t.

Posted by: markfender | February 9, 2016

Wrong Tools

Maybe the issue is that we’ve been using the wrong tools.

brokenRoleplaying has had brief flashes of interest from the public at large, but has never really broken out in a big way. Instead, other games just co-opt the working bits and forge ahead into new genres.

So, maybe the experience that I’m trying to get from roleplaying just isn’t possible. And that I’ve been using the wrong tools for years in an attempt to make it work. Maybe rolling dice is a terrible way to conjure up a world within the minds of multiple people at the same time. Maybe a piece of paper with a whole bunch of obscure acronyms and some numbers is the worst way to convince people to invent interesting and unique characters.

Maybe the only thing our books full of fantasy art and mathematical formulas are really good for are spawning more charts and tables, with even more obscure fantasy weapons statted out. Maybe the only thing this artform was ever any good at was dramatizing killing monsters. And while that’s fine, it was never really what I wanted. So maybe roleplaying games are the wrong medium – the wrong tool. Maybe I’ve been attempting to make stained glass windows with only a hammer. Whereas lots of people are happily bashing their hammer into the table over and over, I’m just sad that my hammer doesn’t turn out beautiful butterflies (That metaphor got pretty mixed).


Posted by: markfender | February 8, 2016


terrainwalkersMini-mechs are cool, too.

Posted by: markfender | February 3, 2016

Mad Dogs

I’m not even sure why I started watching this.

maddogsIt’s another in a long line of “vacation from hell” stories (and, have you ever noticed that, if these “vacation from hell” stories involve four guys, they’re always classified as “black comedies”?) with all the dude-shenanigans that always start these particular stories off. It didn’t help that it involved Steve Zahn, who might be my least favorite actor (I don’t know. He’s almost always good in his roles. But something about his general demeanor annoys me. I just find myself wanting to punch his affable face half the time).

But, the weird ending of the first episode kept me around for the second episode. And, wouldn’t you know, it all escalated pretty quickly in an entertaining way. The music is at times a bit too ominous for the action occurring on-screen and there are occasional camera moves that felt like someone saying, “Well, we’ve got Amazon money. Might as well.” But the characters, plot, and acting were all pretty good.

In the tradition of the Coen brothers, of course, everything that can go wrong does through the course of the show. Every episode builds upon the previous ones, introducing another in a long line of odd characters, strange situations, and ratcheting tension. Taking place in a Central American country, you can imagine the obstacles – corrupt officials, drug traffickers, and the CIA (All my media consumption has taught me that Central America is rife with these things). Meanwhile, the four main characters have their own baggage with each other, which explodes at various times.

The pacing at times felt off, but overall, I enjoyed this show. It’s nothing you haven’t already seen on Terriers or Fargo (Assuming you watched Terriers…not many people did), but it’s told in an entertaining way with good acting and some beautiful scenery.

Posted by: markfender | February 2, 2016

The End of the Tour

Occasionally, Hollywood makes a movie for English nerds. This is one of those movies.

endoftourDavid Lipsky’s book about his interview with David Foster Wallace doesn’t quite translate into cinema. After all, it is mostly just two people talking, and one of those people wrote the longest, ramblingest sentences in the English language. So, be prepared for a lot of literary speeches.

But when one of those people making the speeches is DFW, I’m inclined to listen. Because his general attitude towards the world matches my own – questioning of basic human foibles, a preternatural awareness for the artifice of modern life, and a general awkwardness that translates into overly analyzing the most minute of human experiences.

DFW, of course, was a weird character. Jason Segal does a good job portraying him. I only know Segal as that big, schlubby guy who really likes the Muppets, so it could seem like an odd casting decision. But, he did a great job, taking on DFW’s vocal mannerisms as well as the more obvious costuming (He’s a big bigger than the real DFW, so there were occasions when he seemed more looming than he probably should have been). Eisenberg was good, too, but I guess you sort of expect that from him at this point. Eisenberg had an annoying verbal tic of laughing at almost everything DFW said. But, since the entire script was based on some recorded interviews, I’m assuming Eisenberg was doing his research and laughing every time Lipsky did in the original tapes. So, I’m actually going to blame Lipsky for that.

As a fan of postmodernism, DFW is one of my literary idols. Not everything he wrote was brilliant (In fact, I tend to dislike his fiction), but his observations about modern life were always spot-on. I expected to get the howling fantods about a movie based on his life, but was pleasantly surprised. There’s not much plot – just long speeches from some genuinely interesting thinkers. But, you know, thinking’s good for you.

Posted by: markfender | February 1, 2016



It’s a life-size version of everyone’s favorite new droid.

Posted by: markfender | January 27, 2016

LotR LCG Part 2

Yesterday I talked about the cool stuff in the Lord of the Rings LCG. Today, it’s the bad stuff.

lotr storageFor one, there’s the glut. Fantasy Flight has never been shy about making expansions and there’s a ton of them for LotR. Now, this does mean you’ve got more quests to go on, but it also starts to become a nightmare to store. Because you’ve got to keep your quests separated and your encounter decks separated…and that’s before you consider how to store the cards that actually make up your deck.

With all those expansions, Fantasy Flight smartly reuses the encounter decks. If they decide to publish a new spider-themed quest, for instance, they’ll give you new quest and encounter cards, but they’ll also reuse the previous Spider encounter sub-decks. This does mean, however, that if you buy the latest pack and don’t have access to earlier packs, you might not be able to play that quest. The packaging makes that pretty clear, but, you know, it could be a problem.

Luckily, there’s a fairly decent solution to all this…buy the packs in the order they came out. This will gradually expand your game while also making sure you have access to everything you’ll need to play with what you own. It’s a popular game (I’m assuming…they keep coming out with expansions) so there’s quite a back catalog, which can certainly be intimidating on its own. But the slow accumulation of sets in order can help with that.

That glut has other downsides, though. Because, while there’s more and more cards to play with, they keep returning to the same well. There’s like four different versions of Aragorn at this point. And while it’s cool to see the character’s evolution (since he gets a new thematic ability every time), it also means that everyone’s options are lessened when deckbuilding. Because two people can’t both bring Aragorn, even if it’s a different version of Aragorn. At this point, there’s like 70+ heroes, but a lot of repeats. So, it can mean a lot more coordination between players before playing to make sure everyone can play their deck legally. It gets even more annoying when they make ally cards for some of the heroes, meaning that someone could be playing with Legolas as their hero, which makes that Legolas ally card in your deck unplayable. I mean, there’s only so many members of the Fellowship to remake.

I’d almost prefer that the game wasn’t LotR themed so that FFG had more room to create original characters instead of just remaking the same old ones. I mean, sure, they would lose that sweet, sweet license. And you do lose some thematic tension that way (We had a game the other day where we were traveling through the Caradhas mountains, losing several heroes along the way. After the game ended, we decided that Grima Wormtongue (who was one of our heroes) had convinced everyone else to eat those particular dead heroes, which seems like something he would do. That story wouldn’t have happened in a property that everyone’s not as familiar with). And since they only have one card game based on an original property, it’s obviously not something they’re terribly interested in doing. But I would be fine with a Midnight-themed version of this game (to pick a property that FFG owns).

Another issue is that some of the quests aren’t all that fun. In fact, I’d say that the quests in the main box are some of the worst ones in the game. It took FFG a bit to really get how to make a good quest. They’ve made print on demand “Nightmare” versions of all the early quests to make them better, which is nice. But that also means there’s more cards to buy if you’re a completist. And, as the card pool for players has deepened, players have gotten some better tools in dealing with quests. This means that the quests have gotten harder and harder as the game has progressed. In fact, sometimes you need to bring a very specific deck to beat a particular challenge. This is both good and bad. It’s good because it keeps the game challenging and makes you really think about deckbuilding. On the other hand, I sort of prefer building a deck and then seeing how it does, rather than building a deck to take on one specific challenge. And it can be frustrating to bring your current fav deck to a quest and get your ass handed to you because the quest was built around a mechanic that punishes your current fav deck. With most other games, you build decks based on the current card pool and your local meta. But the “meta” for LotR changes every game.

Now, I think all of these downsides are fairly minor, with the biggest downside really depending on your budget and storage solution. It’s still a good game. Just not quite perfect.

Posted by: markfender | January 26, 2016

Lord of the Rings The Card Game

Fantasy Flight Games has many fine products (I’m assuming). One of them is The Lord of the Rings Card Game.

lotrlcgLotR is unusual in the card game space because it’s multiplayer. There aren’t enough CCG-type games that offer support for more than 2 people at a time, so, for a group like mine that likes customizable card games but also wants to play with the entire group, it and the Game of Thrones LCG are about it for good multiplayer.

But you can also play it solo. Which is really unusual. It’s also cooperative, making it ideal for groups that don’t necessarily get along with the cutthroat nature of competitive card play. It’s an odd beast in the card game field and one that I wish had more competition in that space.

In LotR, you are playing some of the characters from the books, going on adventures. Each card pack contains a new adventure that’s made up of some quest cards and an encounter deck containing locations that must be explored, monsters that must be fought, and events that must be overcome. The methods of resolving each quest are the same, but the rules and flavor text make each one a unique experience.

In order to do all that, you’ll need a deck. You have three heroes that start in play. Besides being your heavy hitters that you’re probably familiar with from the books, they also generate resources each turn in one of four spheres. There’s the Tactics sphere, which obviously deals with killing things, the Leadership sphere, which boosts allies, the Spirit sphere that excels at questing, and Lore, which offers several utility abilities like healing and card draw. Finding the right balance between the spheres is critical for completing quests and it’ll require coordination between all the players to bring the right sort of decks to complete each quest, especially when you start factoring in the special keywords that allow your fellow players to defend or attack enemies engaged with you.

You play allies, attachments, and events from your card deck as is pretty standard. In the game itself, you’ll need to exhaust (tap/kneel/bow – whatever the terminology is) allies and heroes to send questing (which helps you complete the quest cards), defend against enemies (which keeps your people alive), and attacking (which obviously kills those rude enemies who were attacking you earlier). Managing which of those three things you do with each of your heroes and allies is where the tactics lie. And you’ll be making some hard choices about these every turn, as it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed.

The clever bit that makes the varying number of players work and the random nature of card games is Threat. Each enemy played to the staging area (the area where all the things you need to overcome in the game live before they swarm you) has a Threat rating. If their Threat rating is less than yours, they won’t come down and attack you and you can (mostly) safely ignore them until your Threat rises to the level of theirs. Your Threat rating is determined by your starting heroes (the balancing mechanic for deck building- you’re much more of a Threat to the bad guys if your Heroes consist of Aragorn, Gandalf, and Boromir vs. a couple of innocuous hobbits) as well as how well you’re completing quests. Because the encounter cards are just randomly drawn, its possible to, say, draw the big bad leader of the orcs in the first turn, a time before you’ve got the proper cards and resources in play to deal with him. But, because his Threat will be higher, you can safely ignore him for a few turns until you’ve built up your allies. It’s a clever way to still have the randomness of a card game, making every playthrough different, while also making sure that the game has a building progression.

Since it’s LotR, you already know the world and characters. And it’s the typical FFG flavor for those things…the characters and their special abilities “feel” appropriate. For instance, Frodo can take damage as Threat, raising the chance that more enemies will swarm you while at the same time keeping Frodo alive, which seems just like that first book where Frodo spent most of the time being a burden on the rest of the party due to his injuries. And with the rich lore of Tolkien behind it, there’s a lot of excellent rules flavor baked right in.

As this is a living card game, it also gets regular expansions. Each of these card packs includes a new adventure, as well as new cards for your decks. So, if you get bored of the main box’s adventures (which I’m sure you will), you can get new quests. FFG also publishes bigger expansions that include more quests and character cards. The Saga expansions, in particular, mirror the books, letting your players see how they’d fare in Moria.

LotR is a fun game. It’s got a good blend of tactics and nail-biting choices. Some of the quests are hard and will challenge both your tactical acumen and your deckbuilding abilities. The fact that you can play solo, as well as bring your friends along, makes it a unique experience in the card game space. But it’s not perfect (stay tuned)…

Posted by: markfender | January 25, 2016

OMGWTFLEGO – Undercover Base: Starkiller Base


We’ve reached peak meta.

Posted by: markfender | January 20, 2016

I Love You

My family never mastered saying “I love you.”

i-love-u-so-much-images-and-wallpaper-2At least, at the end of conversations.

It’s pretty standard, I think, to express feelings of love at the end of phone conversations, especially between loved ones. I think the script is supposed to go like this:

“Okay, I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”




But that’s not how it happens with my family. Instead, it’s more like this:

“Okay, I’ll talk to you later.”



Somewhere in that conversation ender, I’m supposed to insert “love-you-too-bye” but I think people have already hung up by then. And so I’m never actually sure if anyone heard me or not. Our Midwestern awkwardness at expressing emotion strikes again.

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