Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Attack of the Clones: Retro-gaming.

A recent phenomenon that has arisen in the late-to-post 3e D&D era has been the growth of retro-gaming. This is a pehnomenon in which gamers try to recapture the feel of the early days of RPGs by playing either retro-clones of D&D or outright D&D in and of itself. Now, I'm not talking about any current version of D&D, but rather the old version of D&D, as it appeared in the mid-70's (or its relaunch in the early '80s with the Red Box Basic D&D set).

This recently came to the fore-front of my mind by a game I found called Mutant Future. This game essentially tries to capture the mood and feel of the early days of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. Of course this is not the only one. On the fantasy side there is Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Castles & Crusades, and finally Basic Fantasy RPG.

The trend with these games is to make a very basic, rules light RPG, eliminating many of the game mechanics and details that have been added over the years, primarily to the D&D ruleset. A few are modifications of 3e (such as Castles and Crusades) and others very inspirational of 1e AD&D (OSRIC). Looking at the character sheets for games like Mutant Future or Labyrinth Lord, I can almost be looking at Basic D&D character sheets, lifted from a product produced more than 25 years ago. Eliminated are elements like skills, feats, and other factors that differentiate characters, so that what your character is, is essentially based on the character class.

Another important element of retro-gaming is that it appears to be almost a grass roots movement, not being pushed (much) by the big publishers. Although games like Castles and Crusades has "official" support, contrast that with games like Labyrinth Lord which is available as a free PDF (with a print option available via Lulu). In a way, it almost seems like this movement is also moving away from the big corporate model WotC/Hasbro uses, and more to a small publisher/cottage industry model. And I can't really complain about this, since I think most hobbies are served best by a cottage industry, where competition between products is stronger, and the market more responsive to the tastes of gamers. Furthermore, on a more personal level, I think the cottage industry model is also more passionate about the games, since the developers not only have a vested interest in the success of the game (since they are often a sole proprietor, or an alliance of several individuals) but because the passion of a game made not for money but for the love of the game. This is not to say a corporate model can't succeed in putting out good product (I think 3e is still the best version of D&D ever developed), and I don't think the two are neccessarily (or always) mutually exclusive.

Far be it for me to discourage anyone from playing more RPGs, but my question with regards to this movement is: why? What is the appeal of playing a retro game (as opposed to more modern rules light games)? Is it a nostalgia thing, trying to re-capture the feel and mood of early gaming? I'm not a nostalgic person myself (nostalgia often evokes the idea of a "golden age," a meme I oppose since golden ages are often -- not) so the idea of trying to recapture the genie is not only impossible to do, but that genie is wheezing and gray now. Is it a reaction against rules-heavy D&D (such as 3e and -- yes -- 4e)?

More information about available rulesets can be found at Retro-clones.

This is definitely something that bears watching. In the meantime, though, there are a few free games I listed here, so check them out!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Popcorn Entertainment

Over on youtube I happened over this review of the ST: Voyager episode "Threshold." Ignoring the ranting about how bad the episode is in the second half, the first part really needs to be payed attention to. It is essentially this: if your enjoyment of a piece of film/fiction/entertainment requires you to turn off your brain to enjoy, then it really was not good to begin with. Sure, it might be entertaining but so was the nerd fight I witnessed in High School (now that was funny!), but that doesn't make it good either.

New Movie: District 9

Over on another forum I heard about a new movie produced by Peter Jackson called District 9. Here are a few reasons why I think this movie should be checked out, and why I am excited to see it:

  • Aliens that LOOk like aliens. No funny rubber suits
  • Produced by PJ. After LotR can he do no wrong? Even King Kong was at least entertaining (if not top-tier work for him).
  • It looks like it will be speculative.
In a movie industry of gasoline-fuelled explosions and the "pew, pew!*" factor, something that is both SFinal [i]and[/i] speculative is an excitement for me. I know I am looking forward to this...

*Pew, pew!: the sound a laser blaster makes when firing.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Re-imagining a Reboot: Tyrrany of a Construct

This movie summer we are faced with the imminent release of several movies that are essentially a re-imagining of a previous franchise. Coming soon is GI Joe: The Movie. This is of course a re-imagining and a reboot of the previous GI Joe toy line and cartoon/comics franchise. Of greater trepidation is of course the new Star Trek movie coming out in a few short days.

Both of these movies are an attempt to reboot a franchise that has either had a different focus (GI Joe, mainly kid oriented) or languished due to running out of steam (the case of Star Trek). The thing about reboots is that how good it can be is entirely dependent on how much you liked the old series. The vast majority of people don't care about either Trek or Joe, and more than likely will find anything escapist to be of value. It's the fans I am talking to here.

One of the chief conceits of a reboot is to take a good idea and for a creator to put their own "spin" on it. Battlestar Galactica is a classic example of this. The original series, which came out in the late '70s had the issue of being very much a product of its time. In other words, watching it today some 30 years after it first aired, one cannot escape the kitch and corny-ness of it's '70s outlook. It has not aged well. With the "re-imagining" of the series much more recently (2000's, assuming this blog is read by people decades from now!) took the core concept (caravan to the stars, refugees looking for "paradise") and changed it to fit their vision. This is a conciet, and the new BSG series owes nothing (no legacy, no continuity, etc) to the original. There might be a few nods here and there, but that's about it.

The thing of it is though: old BSG was corny; new BSG was so much better.

We've seen it before: the old Batman movie series descended into its own camp death-spiral (unavoidable in my opinion, since the first Keaton Batman movie was campy in its own way). With the franchise reboot recently (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) the first movie tenatively shrugged off the campiness te franchise had been afflicted with, and the second movie is, in my opinion, probably the greatest, most intense, and otherwise best depiction of Batman on the big screen.

But then this does not always work. Lost in Space ended with one movie, which was mediocre despite the awfulness of the original TV series.

With GI Joe, it doesn't matter so much, and the reboot might breath new life into the series. I fully expect it to be nothing more than another Transfomers style movie -- popcorn for the brain. The original cartoon was pretty campy and aimed at kids, just like Transformers. So perhaps it might get better.

Star Trek, however, has a much greater legacy to live up to. I will go on record by saying Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the best Trek movie to date, and probably one of the best SF movies ever made. Looking past the terrible costumes, it has the elements to classic speculative fiction: the Mystery, the Exploration, the Conflict, and of course the Resoution. For those bored with the V'ger fly-bys, get the Director's cut. Similarly, movies like Wrath of Kahn rank up there in the minds of a lot fans (and not just Trek fans) as one of the greats.

Abram's Trek has to live up to this.

One of the most common arguments I've seen with regards to the critcisms of the new Trek movie (uses time travel to an alternate universe, so that the director can "reboot" the series and do whatever he wants with it) is that its just a movie, watch it and judge it on its own merits. Here's the thing, and why this is such a worrisome time for a Trek fan: any sort of fandom requires a large investment in time and money into the franchise. Star Trek had 10 movies, 5 TV series, one cartoon series, hundreds of novels and other supporting media. For someone to really be a fan, this is a huge investment into the franchise. While there is nothing wrong with a new "entry level" movie to get fans into the series, by effectively ignoring all that past material, it essentially says that the fan's efforts were wasted and all that material doesn't matter anymore. Sure, you can go back an re-watch TMP, or the original series, but that's it: if the new Trek movie is a success (and everything indicates it will be), that previous continuity, legacy, and materials is effectively "dead." There will be no more. Perhaps it gets revisited in novels or comics, but no more movies, TV series, and the like.

I'm intending to see the movie with as open a mind as possible. But the film already has 2 knocks against it (time travel, one of the most overused plot devices in Star Trek, and here we get it again, and the fact that there will be a cameo at least of every single original crew that it feels like its going to be Trek Babies; this sucked in the Star Wars prequels (C-3PO just happened to have been built by Anakin-future-Vader?). That being said, it better be good...not just for the general public, but for the fans as well.

Change of Focus

One of the points of this blog was to chronicle the books I read. This would include both historical works (I just finished Henri Pirenne's Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe), but it occurs to me that reviewing historical works by a non-professional (or to be charitable, non-practicing professional historian) is sort of pointless since a layperson is probably not going to read much the heavyweight historical research I've been reading, and people who are already either historians, or history buffs probably already have access to professional grade book reviews.

With that said, I am going to change the focus of the blog (narrow it down, so to speak) to speculative fiction. And perhaps not just books. I'm also going to include gaming articles when I feel the need (I have already done this), and other content. I'm going to also continue with historical fiction too, since well I like that and I consider it a branch of speculative (that is, speculation on how people lived in the past).