Review: Game of the Year

I’ve discussed the topic of roleplaying games and films on this blog before. Traditionally, marrying the two has produced impressively hideous fantasy films, such as Dungeons & Dragons and The Mutant Chronicles. Though I try to keep an open mind, whenever I hear of a new film project that’s based on a roleplaying game property, I start calculating if my liver can take the strain. The trailer for the third D&D film just hit the web this morning, so I’ll be heading out to the training camp with a case of beer for the weekend.

Recently, though, we’ve had an influx of roleplaying films not about roleplaying games, but about the gamers themselves. Films like Astrópia, Knights of Badassdom and the topic of today’s post, Game of the Year. (Or This is Spinal Tap D20, as it might also not inaccurately be described. The film owes a huge debt to it, but hey, if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best.)

Game of the Year is a gaming mockumentary directed by Chris Grega. It tells the story of a gaming group preparing for Game Con, where they will join the qualifiers for the Game of the Year, a reality TV series where the winning team will get to run a gaming company for one year.

Primarily, that is an excuse used to point a camera at a group of gamers and watch how the act of observation changes the observed.

The group is a collection of basic gamer archetypes. There’s Richard, the DM, who runs D&D 3.0 (judging by the PHBs his players have) but uses an AD&D 1E DM screen. The core of the group is the DM, Richard, who’s dedicated to the game and wants to get in Game of the Year. Then there’s Shawn, the group’s “leader” and sort of a normal person. The rest of the group is John, whose basement they play in and who fights with his wife over the time spent gaming; Mark, who’s “cool” and doesn’t want his girlfriend to find out he’s a gamer; Mark, who can quote the rulebooks chapter and verse; and Billy, John’s cousin, who has the attention span of a caffeinated kitten. Rounding out the cast of characters are Jennifer, the document’s sound girl, and Gary Elmore (heh heh), a shadowy figure from the past that nobody games with, for good reason.

The characters in the film are rich and interesting, and their interaction rings true. Many of them remind me of people and situations I’ve seen in the hobby, even guys I’ve played with for many years. (I even know a guy that Gary could’ve been based on.) Yeah, we gamers can be a weird and funny bunch.

Of course, the characters wouldn’t mean jack if the actors weren’t up to scratch, and I am happy to report that they perform admirably. Acting tends to be one of the things where indie films often fall flat for some reason, but Game of the Year has a capable cast. (Of course—and this is terribly mean of me—it’s possible that they’ve channelled their nervousness of being in front of the camera to their characters’ nervousness of being in front of a camera.) The performances feel very realistic. There is one instance of hilarious overacting, but it is, shall we say, diegetic.

The arc of the story is predictable. They game, there’s drama, the group breaks up, they conclude playing with other people sucks (my favourite is the group Billy and John end up during this time, where they have developed an entire dwarven language and mock the newbies in it), they come back together. I’m not giving away what happens then. Anyway, the plot is not the movie’s point, the plot is an excuse. The point is the characters. The characters deliver, and therefore the film is good.

In the beginning the film occasionally slips into cringe comedy, which is definitely not my cup of tea, but once the characters are all introduced and the action gets rolling, the film manages to be interesting and funny. It’s not high art, and it’s not that funny, but it is good enough. At its most profound, Game of the Year captures pitch-perfectly that same feeling of sympathetic embarrassment you feel when one of your fellow gamers makes an ass of himself and lacks the social awareness to realize it and the nagging suspicion that at one point or another, it has been you.

I can recommend the film. Being indie, its availability is suboptimal, but Amazon.com carries it. Note that the Amazon website claims it’s R1, which is bollocks. The DVD version is region-free (since it actually costs quite a bit of money to add in that particular piece of user-hostility), although us Europeans will still have to contend with the fact that it’s NTSC, not PAL. Then, computers don’t care.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the production company.

Review: The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary

I recently got my hands on a most curious book. The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary is perhaps a unique work in that it discusses the World of Greyhawk, an intellectual property owned by Wizards of the Coast, yet it is self-published by Casey Brown (and available print-on-demand and for Kindle from Createspace and Amazon).

Brown himself has described the book as more of an academic work discussing the campaign rather than something copyright-infringing. Indeed, a certain remarkably disagreeable member of the Greyhawk fan community mailed about the book to WotC’s legal department, who issued a DMCA notice and got the book removed from Createspace. It looked for a moment that my copy, then winding its way over the Atlantic to me, might become a rare collectible indeed. It was not to be, however, and Mr. Brown was vindicated, the notice withdrawn, and the book returned to Createspace.

The book itself, then. It is 81 pages in length, with a cover illustration from a 14th-century illuminated manuscript that I’m afraid is rather pixellated. The contents are what it says on the tin, an overview of the approximately 150 rounds of adventures that the Bandit Kingdoms region produced in the eight years of Living Greyhawk.

It begins with a discussion on the tone of the region, titled “I had to save the bad guys from the other PCs,” quoting a paladin player from another region upon his first foray into the Bandit Kingdoms. The BK is rather like our own Principality of Naerie was, in their lack of clear-cut heroes and focus on moral grey areas. While Iuz was always the bad guy, the PCs might find themselves in the employ of, say, the church of Nerull, the death god. The BK player characters don’t seem to differ a lot from Naerie PCs, except that ours dressed better.

This is followed by a critical analysis of the Average Party Level system, experience and Encounter Levels in Living Greyhawk and their problems.

The majority of the book, however, 52 pages, is taken up by a variety of summaries for the adventures produced by the Bandit Kingdoms. The book is not comprehensive in this—it includes only those scenarios that somehow affected the Bandit Kingdoms plot arcs. This mainly excludes special missions, only one of which is discussed in the book, and mini-missions. There’s a general listing of modules; longer summaries of each with their level ranges, adventure series, blurbs and Casey Brown’s comments; and listings of the modules according to location and adventure series. The book is rounded out by a timeline of Bandit Kingdoms events, a reproduction of an in-character letter sent by a player character to a major villain, a selection of quotations from Bandit Kingdoms (my favourite is “This would get your PC pulled in most regions.”), and a listing of Bandit Kingdoms Triad members.

The book is tagged “BDKR1” and promises to be the first of a trilogy, followed by BDKR2: Rogues’ Gallery of the Bandit Kingdoms and BDKR3: A Mercenary’s Guide to the Bandit Kingdoms.

So, it’s a book full of information on a campaign that ended four years ago, whose scenarios are no longer easily available and which includes no rules items whatsoever. Is it of any use?

Well, the timeline will be handy for DMs wishing to run a game in the Bandit Kingdoms. However, what the book is about is documentation. It details and discusses a slice of the largest roleplaying game campaign that ever was and sets the information in print before it is lost. It is about the history of our hobby (and more than a little about nostalgia), and it is well made. The production values may not be all that, but the writing is good and the book has been edited with an admirable attention to detail, with a hundred footnotes. Some of them are impressively long. The only things I feel are missing are a complete scenario listing, including those mini-missions and special missions that did not warrant longer summaries (turns out even my collection has one, a Year Four mini-mission titled Two Gentlemen of Veluna), and perhaps an entry in the longer summaries for the original designation of the module in question. For the purposes of clarity, the author has dropped the original, often discrepant, module codes for intro, special, interactive and mini modules and introduced his own.

It’s good stuff. I would never try to do this for the Principality of Naerie, but it does give me some ideas for the next revision of the Principality of Naerie Gazetteer that I’m still occasionally working on. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the trilogy.

More Crowdfunding Goodness – LotFP, Lovecraft, Goblins

So, the next Lamentations of the Flame Princess crowdfunding campaign has been announced. The Grand Adventure Campaigns are eighteen in number, each featuring a different writer and artist (except for Jason Rainville, who’s illustrating two). Among them are Monte Cook, the author of the 3E Dungeon Master’s Guide; Vincent Baker, the designer of games like Poison’d, Dogs in the Vineyard and In a Wicked Age; James Malizsewski of Grognardia; Mike Pohjola, a larpwright, author and game designer who wrote Tähti, a game about teenage mutant Maoist girl bands where the rules are based on interpreting fortune cookies; Juhani Seppälä of Blowing Smoke; the strange and frightening adventure writer Richard Pett, who may or may not brutally murder and eat all the dignitaries at PaizoCon UK every year but who certainly did write The Skinsaw Murders and The Sixfold Trial, some of the finest adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read; and me. I’m not quite as intimidated by the lineup I find myself in as I was last time. Also, this time there’s also a chance that my work will get funded. I have something very cool in the works, you’ll see.

So, that’s starting next month, and it will be all sorts of awesome. More on that later.

Also, it looks like Paizo’s Pathfinder Online Kickstarter is completely out of control. Regardless of whether you actually care about the game, the stretch goals are quite worth the investment. The hardcopy Thornkeep book, which you get at the $50 reward level, has bloated from its original 64 pages to include additional dungeon levels by Jason Bulmahn, Erik Mona, James Jacobs and Ed Greenwood. Someone mentioned it’s over 100 pages, now, so that’s some bang for your buck.

Lastly, there’s The Shadow out of Providence: A Lovecraftical Metatext. It is a metafictional work about Lovecraft as a cultural phenomenon, which looks tremendously interesting. It’s two short stories and a play, and seems to avoid tangling in the Cthulhu Mythos, focusing on other aspects of Lovecraft’s work. The play is framed as the work of Lovecraft’s half-brother, the Harlem Renaissance writer Albert Jermyn and one of the stories is illustrated by Erol Otus, which sold me on the project. The Shadow out of Providence approaches Lovecraft from an angle that may not be exactly original (he’s been approached from pretty much every angle imaginable at this point, plus a few that cannot be imagined), but it is somewhat fresher than most of the stuff I’ve seen. Presented for your consideration.

Finnish Games Then and Now

From yesterday to the 10th of June, the media museum Rupriikki in Tampere is hosting an exhibit titled Finnish Games Then and Now. Free admission. In a rather small area, it showcases the history of Finnish game design, from board games to Angry Birds. Somewhere, they also managed to fit in a couple of roleplaying games.

Over half of the exhibit is taken up by electronic games, and the selection is commendably large, from big titles like Angry Birds and Max Payne to the freeware classics of bygone years like Wings and Stair Dismount. Many of the titles are also playable on a selection of consoles and computers. There’s even a late-nineties Nokia model for playing Snake, which was a nice touch. On the electronic games side, the guys who assembled this knew their stuff.

There are also board games, such as the hilariously politically incorrect Afrikan tähti (Star of Africa) and the Reds versus Whites board game from the days of the Civil War. Also, Kimble, which I don’t regard so much as a game as an overpriced vehicle for a gimmick die roller. I cannot deny its strangely enduring popularity, though, and cannot protest its inclusion. Also on display is Eclipse, last year’s hit board game that’s been making waves at BoardGameGeek.

Yet, I must criticize. Before going to the exhibit, I composed a list of three roleplaying game items that should be there: Miekka ja magia (Sword and Sorcery), the first Finnish roleplaying game, by Risto “Nordic” Hieta; Nordic Larp, for its documentation of the Nordic larp tradition and its masterpieces in Finland and elsewhere; and Stalker, the sci-fi RPG named one of the great cultural deeds of the year by Helsingin Sanomat when it came out. Unfortunately, the people behind the exhibit had agreed with me on only the two former.

Commendably, the larp Dragonbane had a lot of room dedicated to it, with costumes and props on display.

There was also Mordheim, a skirmish battle game designed by the Finn Tuomas Pirinen and published by the British Games Workshop. It had most of a large display case all for itself, with Miekka ja magia shunted off to one corner. Personally, I can sort of approve including Mordheim, since to my understanding Tuomas Pirinen wrote most of the game by himself, but it is still a British game and it takes up an inordinately large amount of space in there, which could have been used for other deserving hobby games, such as Stalker. Other worthies would’ve been Praedor and Myrskyn aika (The two most sold Finnish RPGs. The titleholder depends on how you count them. Of course, if you allow for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it blows them both out of the water.), Star Wreck (a tie-in RPG released by the film company)Zombeja! Ovella! (the first Finnish RPG to be translated to English), Ikuisuuden laakso (widely regarded as the best spaghetti western penguin roleplaying game out there) and perhaps some of the Finnish sourcebooks written for Twilight: 2000.

This also irks me because the folks behind the exhibit are the Tampere University Game Research Lab, who really should know this stuff.

But hey, you don’t have to take my word for all this. It’s there, it’s free of charge, and if I found myself in the centre of Tampere with time on my hands, I could think of worse ways to spend it.

Last Hours at Hand for LotFP IndieGoGo

As I write this, there are less than 20 hours to go until the end of the LotFP IndieGoGo campaign. The amount raised is now nearly $14,000, and Jim has declared the Kenneth Hite adventure funded! Now is your opportunity to pledge! Perhaps you’ll be lucky and a last-minute rush will get us over the Mentzer line as well…

I’m mildly disappointed that my adventure didn’t get funded and even more disappointed that Richard Pett’s didn’t, but so it goes.

Jim has also announced another series of campaigns in July for even more adventures by a different set of writers, some of them very interesting.