Volo’s Guide to Monsters

dnd_trpg_volosguidetomonsters_alt_coverIf you have been in the table top roleplaying game scene for awhile, you will have come accross the Monster Manual. It is a mainstay of Dungeons and Dragons and iterates itself across the fantasy genre like a zombie plague from patient zero.

They follow a format that is predictable and leaves one only looking forward to seeing what the artists were able to do with their orders. The variations are organized around settings or play style but rarely provide a book that is enjoyable and satisfying.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters takes a step outside of the lines to try something a little different.

The conceit of the book is that it is a collection of information on the various creatures of the realms gathered by the inveterate adventurer and writer Volothamp Geddarm.

Volo to his friends.

Scattered throughout the book are observations on the various beasts and ecologies from Volo and his longtime friend, Elminster. The tips range from useful ideas for how the creatures could be used in the game to humorous asides on how interactions with the aforementioned creatures went awry.

The change is presentation is refreshing.

The book opens up with a section that talks about the ecologies of several monsters from previous monster manuals. The very first entry deals with an iconic creature of Dungeons & Dragons, The Beholder. The reader is treated to an analysis of how the creature operates and the reasons behind the behaviors that they display. The description of a creature that sees itself as superior to everything, always aware, and yet in a constant state of fear for something trying to come take what it has is interesting. It takes a monster that you drop into a room without thought and gives it a a background and a purpose that is both entertaining and a useful guide in using it in play.

This section covers a large amount of ground in regards to creatures that are ubiquitous in D&D campaigns. In particular, the information presented on the Gnolls and Illithid is enlightening and entertaining. With the gnolls, Their behavior as slavering monster that ravage the countryside is put in the context of being creations and devotee’s of Yeenoghu. Their being is suffused with the savagery and hunger derived from the depths of the Abyss. Rational thought is something that is difficult for the ordinary gnoll to maintain. The illithid are painted as dimensional refugees that have fled their slaves who have risen up to destroy those that had used them so cruelly. Each story provides both hooks to add these creatures into your story, explanations as to why they behave the way they do, and collects information that has been spread over several tomes in previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons.

This book also collects several new options for races for Player characters. In this edition of D&D, player character race options have been few outside of one or two presented in the appendices of adventures. The addition of them here seems a much more natural fit. The options for player characters is increased by seven.  The authors have brought back another favorite of mine from Fourth edition, the Goliath as well as adding in more exotic choices with the Tabaxi, cat people, and Tritons. This section also adds in rules for handling goblins and other monsters as player characters as well. This is something I always like to have as an option and am glad to see it included in this book.

The rest of the book presents more monsters for use in the game as well as collecting a series of NPCs for quick use of any game master. They are exactly what one expects from a book of monsters.

The book itself is gorgeous.

I picked up the special edition which has a black cover with an Illithid on the front and back cover. The book is full color throughout like the previous books for D&D with new artwork throughout. It weighs in at 224 pages with a retail price of $49.95.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters is an excellent addition to the Dungeons and Dragons Library. It goes off script for a Monster Manual and gives the reader a much better read and a much more useful tool. My only quibble is that for $49.95 I expect a bit more page count. Despite this, it is a definite must have for any fan of D&D.

Four out of Four bear paws.

 

Moana

moanaWhen I learned about Disney’s new movie releasing over the Thanksgiving Holiday, I was sold. Moana was based on Polynesian mythology and features songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Nothing else need be said.

I love mythology. It was my one of the first kind of books I checked out of the school library as a child. I am woefully uneducated on the mythology of the polynesian cultures and Moana provides an good introduction to the subject.

I have also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. I listen to the soundtrack several times a week, if not more. The songs he crafted for this show are just wonderful and echo in my head long after I have stopped listening to them physically.

The combination of these things I love is just priceless.

I had my concerns going into Moana, as Disney does not have the best track record at handling these types stories with sensitivity. Pocahontas being the case in point. I can not claim to be fully aware of complaints regarding the sensitivity to the cultural issues that are presented in Moana. If you hear of concerns from polynesian people, make sure to listen as they are better informed than I.  If you stay through to the end credits you will notice a long line of cultural references that Disney utilized to do better in Moana, and it appears to me to show on screen.

Outside of being predisposed to loving this movie for the subject matter and the musical pedigree, Moana is wonderful.

Moana is the daughter of the chief. Moana is supposed to take up her father’s position and lead her people into the future. We quickly learn that her what she is supposed to do and what is necessary are two different things. As a toddler, Moana’s grandmother shares with her the creation myth of the islands. She tells of how the mother island created all the things in the sea and then settle down to sleep. She tells of how Maui sought the mother’s heart to take the powers of creation for himself and in so doing, unleashed a darkness upon the sea.

We get to watch as Moana grows up striving to embrace the role that is set out for her yet still enraptured by the call of the ocean. She struggles to live up to the expectations of her parents while still listening to the songs and teachings of her grandmother. When the effects of the darkness finally encroach upon her island, Moana questions her grandmother and is shown the history of her people that has been hidden. Moana learns that they had been a people that had explored the ocean at great length but had stopped once the voyagers stopped returning. To save her family, and her people, Moana trusts in herself and takes to the sea to find Maui and return the heart to the mother island.

I love that we get a Disney Princess that sets out upon the hero’s journey. I love that Moana keeps moving forward despite the pressure from her father, her people, and Maui telling her that this is something that she can not do. I love that we get to watch as Moana learns the art of Wayfinding from Maui and then use that mastery to overcome the last guardian on her journey. One of the funniest moments for me is when Moana is arguing with Maui on her canoe and he calls her a princess. He walks through a checklist of things that make this so and it is hilarious yet accurate for a Disney Princess.

I mentioned the Lin-Manuel Miranda earlier and would be remiss in talking about the songs. I can hear his hand in each song that is given voice. These songs range from the pop style of “Shiny” sung by the villainous crab to the rap done by Dwayne Johnson entitled “You’re welcome.” Mix into these excellent pieces songs that blend english and Tokelauan language lyrics to create wondrous soundscapes that flow with the animation. A veritable treasure trove of songs that kids and adults alike will be singing for a long time to come.

There were a few things that stood out for me in particular in Moana. I loved that Maui’s tattoos told a story and were themselves alive. They both showed the story of Maui and held him to a higher standard than he himself sometimes adhered too. This was a unique approach to the tattoos and held up the idea that they were badges of honor that sometimes the wearer may fall short of. I also loved that one of the bosses that Moan faced were coconut pirates. They were both cute and fierce and allowed Moana to show her capabilities to their full extent fairly quickly in the movie. They are memorable without overshadowing the main characters which is a delicate balance to achieve. I also loves Hei Hei, the chicken. This is the animal sidekick that Maui talks about and is one of the funniest yet dumbest animal sidekicks in Disney history.

you should definitely see Moana in the theater. The music is wonderful, the action is entertaining, and the story will introduce you to a culture that everyone should know more about.

Four bear paws out of four! I can not wait to see this movie again.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver15As I mentioned in my review of Doctor Strange, I love magic.

I love reading stories that have it and watching movies that embrace it.

I came late to the Harry Potter books. I started reading them after the first movie came out and a friend bought me a collection of the first five books.

I was enraptured. I read through them quickly and awaited each new addition to the story with much excitement. I awaited each movie with the same excitement.

After the series ended, I was sad that there would be no more.

When I heard that there would be a new movie based on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was conflicted. I was overjoyed that I would be getting back into this world that fit me like a pair of comfortable socks. I was disappointed that the characters I had come to love would not be taking the stage yet again. I was worried that the magic that I had come to love in the previous movies would be absent.

My worries were unfounded and disappointment overwhelmed with joy at this new entry into the Harry Potter universe.

Fantastic Beasts takes the audience to 1926 America. Newt Scamander has arrived via steamer to complete some unfinished business. He has been traveling the world cataloging the varied magical beasts to better educate the wizarding world about their value and the need to not exterminate them. Newt has come searching for information of creatures here in america as well as to travel further into the country. In his short time here, he runs across a street preacher that speaks out against the witches that hide among the populace.

He runs across an affable no-mag, american for muggle, Kowalski at the bank. Kowalski is looking to get a loan to open a bakery. While Kowalski is speaking with the bank manager, Newt must find a creature that has escaped from his luggage. It is this frantic search that leads to Kowalski becoming entangled with Newt and bringing Newt to the attention of the congress of magic for America.

What follows is an adventure of magical proportions. Creatures run rampant, conspiracies are exposed, and villains thought escaped are captured and brought to justice.

I loved it!

The four main characters are solid. They are all likeable and give the audience an excellent entry into the story. Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Ben Fogler, Alison sudol all turn in solid performances. Each character has a heart that reaches off the screen and connects with the audience. They are far from the top levels of power but endearing in their own way. Newt is socially awkward yet intelligent, quick, and caring. He does not want to offend his american hosts but will not give up his search for his missing creatures. Kowalski is a the friendly muggle that is both in awe of the world that he has stumbled upon as well as providing a grounding for rest of the group as they pursue their various agenda. Tina Goldstein is a failed Auror desperate to get herself back into the good graces of the congress. She is earnest and eager with a heart full caring that sometimes overrides the need for discretion and circumspection. Queenie, Tina’s sister, works as a secretary and servant at the congress and dreams of doing more.

The effects on display in Fantastic Beasts are simply stunning. The magical combats that occur are fast and furious. They encapsulate what I imagine when wizards settle in for a good fight. The creatures that are on display range from the cute and cuddly to the awe-inspiring. Each is given a personality that jumps off the screen and makes you connect with the creature in almost the same way that you connect with the characters. I also loved the method in which the creatures were transported. It echoes Doctor Who and makes me love a piece of luggage as much as I love the Rincewind’s luggage.

I also appreciate that, despite a standard plot, Fantastic Beats avoid some common tropes. The expectations is for the heroes of the story is for them to transform across the breadth of the story into something approaching the standard cinematic hero. Newt remains his shy and awkward self, just a little more aware of those around him. Tina does not transform into a glamorous bon vivant that is the toast of the town but just get up the courage to show her affection for Newt. The changes the characters undergo are subtle yet powerful which was refreshing to see on the big screen.

My one quibble with the movie is the lack of diversity in the cast. If you look at the line up and compare it to The Cursed child, Fantastic Beasts is fairly disappointing on this point. the only major character to step outside the norm is Seraphina, played by Carmen Ejogo and her time on the screen is minimal. It is very disappointing and I hope this is something that the studio will aim to fix in future movies.

As I mentioned earlier, I loved Fantastic Beasts. It hits all the Harry Potter buttons that I want while providing an entertaining story. I easily lose myself in this world and love these four characters. My hope is that we get to revisit these characters while adding a bit more diversity to the cast.

Four bear paws out of four and well worth seeing a few times at the theater.

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-2016-poster-impossibilitiesDoctor Strange was one of the most anticipated movies of the year for me.

I love the mystic heroes of Marvel and DC. The movies of each universe have neatly sidestepped the concept of magic and kept it off of the screen. Doctor Strange takes this idea and places it center stage.

I will admit, my expectations for Doctor Strange were high. I wanted to see so much from his backstory make it up on to the screen that it made it nigh impossible for me to come out of the movie rapt in adoration.

I enjoyed the movie but it missed the mark at making me love it.

Doctor Strange does an excellent job of introducing the audience to another quirky character from the marvel universe. Benedict Cumberbatch takes up the mantle of Dr. Stephen Strange with ease. He captures the arrogance and mastery that is a hallmark of Doctor Strange before he begins his journey of discovery. Cumberbatch has no difficulty walking the line between arrogant asshole and master of his craft. He is able to embody a character that is both maddening in his self-absorption and likeable for the way he is willing to help out those that he cares about.

The movie does a great job of presenting Strange’s supporting cast as well. First, I liked that they change the Ancient One to a woman.  In the comic, The ancient One comes with a lot of baggage. These issues are sidestepped to give us a female character that is both powerful and relatable. Tilda Swinton does an excellent job being the enigmatic Ancient One. I also enjoyed the changes made to Wong. Wong suffered from the same treatment as the Ancient One in the comics. He was the long-suffering servant that placed the needs of his master above his own. Here, Wong is a Master of the Mystic arts and defender of the library. He is played ably by Benjamin Wong who provides a an excellent foil for our gifted soon to be sorcerer. Finally, The casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo was inspired. He carries himself with such strength and grace that he just radiates power. He dances the line between earnestness and melodrama with style and grace and avoids falling into the stereotypical villain-to-be.

The cloak of levitation was also a pleasant surprise. In the comics, it is just a magical artifact of minor consequence. In the movie, it is a sentient item that has definite ideas about whom should be wearing it and how they are best served. The scene where Strange is trying to retrieve an axe to defend himself and the cloak forces him to make a different choice is priceless. I also loved how it tried to clean his face when he was preparing to get back into the fray and had to be told to stop.

Hilarious!

The movie fell short for me in how it treated magic. The many scenes where spells are being cast had beautiful mandala designs but put them to no use. The battles between sorcerers involved running a lot over an ever changing field of battle. The assumption was that this change of environment was caused by magic with the indicator that this was caused by a wizard was that he waved his hands. Why not have the sorcerer in question create an amazing mandala and then incorporate it into the environment? The magical battles were martial arts set pieces. This is fun to watch but why not have magical duels be similar to the things that we have seen in Harry Potter? The effects are beautiful and well done but just don’t seem to capture how magic would be done in the Marvel cinematic Universe, much less how it is portrayed in the comics.

The movie also falls a bit shot in acknowledging where it borrows. The mandalas abound yet and explanation of where they come from and why magic looks that way are in short supply. Taking the time to point out the significance of the symbols used would not have taken any time and been an excellent way of educating the audience.

Doctor Strange was an entertaining movie. It finally brings magic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and gives us a hero that is trying to do no harm. The performances of all the players are solid and the effects are top notch. A definite three bear paws out of four from this geek bear. If you have a chance, get to the theater to see this movie. Also, well worth seeing in iMax 3D if they have it where you live.

Court of Shadows

courtofshadowsWhile at GenCon, I make a lot of impulse purchases. I was at the Catalyst Game Labs booth to see what was new for Shadowrun. I noticed that they had done something for Shadowrun that I had not seen before. It was an alternate setting book.

Court of Shadows.

I did very well in that I did not scream take my money, now!

The Court of Shadows provides a setting in the Shadowrun universe that incorporates faeries, the seelie court, and all the magic and intrigue that these things entail. It was at the top of the pile as I made my way to complete my purchases.

The book itself is a gorgeous artifact. It is a full color hardbound book that comes in at a respectable 192 page count. The cover art is gorgeous and very evocative of the faerie and faerie courts. The art is very suggestive of the Morrigan of celtic mythology which is a definite plus for me. This art is used again as the end pages of the book which I found to be a nice touch.  I also enjoyed the art throughout the book. It does an excellent job of highlighting the feel of wonder and strangeness that should be associated with the fae.

The pieces of fiction that are found throughout the book are a key piece to the book. They provide and excellent picture for how the faerie and the seelie court would function within the Shadowrun universe. In particular, I like the opening piece where the runners have been doing jobs for one particular Johnson and the last job sees them being told whom they had been working for and how the tilt has changed the game and brought them into the court.

Similar to previous Shadowrun books, Court of Shadows is presented like a collection of data that has been drawn together by Shadowrunners to keep their friends informed. The information gathered is designed to give an overview of the seelie court, how it functions, as well as descriptions of major players, places, and things of interest.

Having read the book, I have mixed feelings about it.

Let’s start with the positive.

I like the idea of an alternative setting for Shadowrun and I love that they would start out with the seelie court. The book does an excellent job of capturing the feel that I would expect from a seelie court setting. It has the high magic that I would expect from the faerie and it ties the faerie and their lands into the Shadowrun universe in a wonderful fashion. I appreciated how they tied the fae to the different ages and the cycle of mana. Having played through Harlequin and Harlequin’s Back, the writers have definitely done their homework. The descriptions of the court and how it works gives a good picture of the byzantine diplomacy that is an everyday fixture of the setting. The ever shifting panoply of signs an signals and the many layers that any one thing can hold is inspired. In particular, I like the side bar that talks about color. It addresses how the court itself is so overwhelmingly colorful and yet the meaning behind the use of color is not so simple to suss out.

I love the descriptions of the factions. Each faction has many layered agendas that provide both excellent hooks for play as well as providing points of reference for how and why each faction exists. In addition, I like that each faction is somehow tied to the material plane. The means can be simply that the faction is named after a card from the Sixth World Tarot. These are magical artifacts that have unknown abilities that are appearing on the material plane. Other factions take a stance somewhere on the spectrum as to how the fae should eal with the world now that the connection has been reforged. These ideas run from integration to isolation and points in between. This provides excellent points of ingress for players as well as jumping off points for game masters to create adventures.

The stylistic change to hacking is also inspired. The fae live long lives and memories become the anchor that drags them down into ennui and madness. To combat this, they strike deals with mortals to hold large chunks of memories. These mortals are called Coimeadai. They are the targets of hacking because everything is remembered, you just have to know who saw what happened. I like how these beings are treated as technomancers even if they were not before striking the bargain with the fae. It creates a unique obstacle for hackers as well puts a different spin on this idea in the game.

One of my problems with court of Shadows is that the style of play that it supports is not something I have ever found in a game of Shadowrun. The closest I have come has been the afore mentioned Harlequin and Harlequin’s Back. The book itself mentions a rules set that is being released for Shadowrun entitled Anarchy that fits much better with this setting. With it feeling so different, I felt like it could have done with more advice around running games here.

The book also feels a bit thin for an alternate setting. Court of Shadows gives lots of flavor but it is light on details. The book mentions that this setting is a metaplane. This implies that characters get here are either brought by the fae for some purpose or are powerful enough to get here on their own. Other means of ingress are mentioned but little detail is actually given. The geography of the realm is hinted at but, outside of the castle, everything is painted with a broad brush. A listing of people of import and creatures is also provided but it suffers from the same lack of more information.

the books gives tantalizing bits of information on the who’s and what’s of this new realm but leaves a lot of work in the hands of the game master to provide the flesh to the bones that are provided.

Overall, I still give three bear paws out of four to Court of Shadows. It provides and interesting setting for Shadowrun that supports a very different play style than your standard run. I love anything that handles the fae and the Seelie court and this book does a good job of capturing the feel that I would expect. I just wished that it offered more in the way of actually setting information or guidance to the game master that was planning on using this as the basis for a new game or a way of expanding an existing game. A great addition to library for any fan of Shadowrun or the fae.

Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound

bloodboundI finally had the time on my journey to Big Bad Con to sit down and read a book. I took F. Wesley Schneider’s Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound with me on the plane as it is a long journey with several layovers. This ensured plenty of time to immerse myself in the realm of Ustalav.

I am so glad that I did as I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I have mentioned repeatedly that I am a fan of vampires and other monsters and this book features vampires, dhampir, priestess of the goddess of death, and many other features of Gothic horror. I was in heaven.

Bloodbound follows the story of two heroines.

Larsa is a dhampir, half-vampire, special agent of the prince of Ustalav. Her job is to maintain the tenuous peace in the city of Caliphas. She is an enforcer of the treaty between the ancient vampires of the city and the human nobility. The vampires are allowed to live in an undercity and thrive but their spawn must not upset the citizenry. When this happens, Larsa ensures that these restless dead are returned to the grave.

Jadain is a young priestess of Pharasma, goddess of death. She is struggling with the dictates of her religion as well as what she sees as the will of her goddess. She is confronted by zealots of all stripes while she wends her way through the labyrinthine paths of power in her church.

Larsa is sent to investigate the mysterious happenings to a noblewoman whom had lived at the outskirts of the city and had been found incoherent on the road into town. Her investigations at the manor house uncover a slew of vampire spawn and the head of a servitor of her grandfather, whom rules the undercity. She also discovers a painting in the home that looks suspiciously just like her. Her grandfather and the nobles she represents would like to discover the cause of this atrocity. This leads Larsa to the asylum that houses the poor noble woman.

Jadain is heard counseling a penitent in the church and chided for her softness on the faithful by the high exorcist of the faith. To test her faith, he takes her to the asylum to remove an unquiet spirit that is plaguing a cell. Instead of assisting her in this task, Jadain is left to fend for herself against the undead and is not entirely up to the task. In a fit of pique, the high exorcist leaves her at the asylum to ponder her failure and await what fate has to offer.

Luckily fate has Larsa in store for Jadain.

Larsa arrives at the asylum to interview the lone survivor of the assault on the manor house and requests aid in her interview. The director of the asylum allows Jadain to assist Larsa in her interview and is there when the poor woman mistakes Larsa for her sister, Ailson Kindler. The mystery deepens as we learn that Ms. Kindler is a much-lauded member of the Pathfinder Society. She created a name for herself by finding and destroying the monsters that haunted Ustalav. The asylum had records in regards to her health and the head of the asylum had become privy to the knowledge that a fiend from Kindler’s past sought to do her harm. The good doctor requests that the Larsa investigate the connection between the patient and Ms. Kindler and deliver his warning in the process.

Some of the information necessary to the investigation is stored within the records of Jadain’s church so her place on this adventure is sealed. It is discovered through a discussion with Considine, a vampire sired by Larsa’s father, that the trouble being caused is from their shared progenitor. This adventure is now sealed and the hunt for the father that abandoned Larsa and fomented rebellion among the vampire is begun.

Schneider has done an excellent job of capturing a gothic tale of horror and combining it with the action and adventure one would expect from Pathfinder. There are points in the narrative where the dread builds slowly and quietly to reveal a horror that is not worth facing head on and there are moments where our heroine’s fight for survival is fast paced and filled with sword-swinging, spell-slinging action. Schneider has an excellent sense of timing for using each thing in this story.

There are a few things that put this book over the top for me.

I love that the two main characters in this book are women. It is not often that I have seen tie-in fiction for a game where the protagonists are female. Both are well-rounded characters that are struggling to find their place in Golarion. I love how we get to get glimpses of how the world works and the ways that these two unique women do not fit in. Watching them struggle with the desire to fit in and being comfortable as themselves was fun.

I also loved the addition of Considine, Larsa’s vampiric brother. He is a  villain but he is allowed to be a character with wants, needs, and motivations which makes him relatable. On top of that, he is also allowed to be a gay vampire that actually cares for one of his thralls and we get to see the consequences of that loss.

Finally, I really enjoyed the glimpses that Schneider gives us into the religion of Pharasma and the country of Ustalav. I am a complete geek for world-building and this book plays into that. Larsa’s story both past and present provides an excellent look at how the ruling class of Ustalav works currently as well as what had happened to this country in the recent past. She also provides an excellent lens through which to view the capital city and it’s accord with the vampires that hide beneath it’s surface. Jadain provides the same service for Pharasma. Every fantasy world seems to have a god or goddess of death. These deities are not often discussed but tend to play a part in larger stories though. Jadain shows how the personal faith works in Golarion as well as how this gnostic could be interpreted and affect the religion as a whole.

Excellent stuff.

Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound is definitely four bear paws out of four. It gives gothic horror with action adventure without ever dropping a beat. It has two wonderful heroines that I hope to see more of and a villain that both is both a monster and more than that. A book well worth your time and money.

Big Bad Con 2016

BigBadConThis was the second year that I have attended Big Bad Con.

It was, like last year, an excellent experience.

As I was leaving the convention this year, I was contemplating how to talk about my experience. My feeling about this convention are complex which made jumping right in a bit difficult.

Big Bad Con is both a convention and an experience and I was torn on how best to present this. I’ve tossed out several ideas while I was processing everything and decided to go with talking about it as a convention, as an experience, and as a learning moment.

Let’s start with looking at Big Bad Con as a convention. From a high level perspective, Big Bad Con functions like most conventions. It has a period when you can buy your badge online, a time period when you can sign up for games, and then the time period when everything has to take place at the convention itself.

Big Bad Con stands out from ordinary conventions in many different ways.

The first major difference is that it is centered around charities. The convention supports a local food bank as well as Doctors without Borders. In further pursuit of this charitable outlook, Big Bad Con has become a 501(c)3 organization. This charitable focus starts the convention off in the service to others and this feeling is carried through to everything else at the convention.

The next way that it stands out for me as a convention is the staggered way it allows for game sign-ups. I am most familiar with GenCon which has a lottery style game registration system. You create a list of games you want to play in and submit them when registration opens. What you get is determined by your place in line. thus, some never get any games they want. Big Bad Con’s staggered roll-out of sign-ups allows everyone to get two games in the first session and reserves the teen games for age appropriate attendees. The second wave allows everyone to sign up for two more games. The third wave allows everyone to register for whatever you like. I love this idea! It ensures that you should be able to get at least two games that you have your heart set on.

Big Bad Con also stands out for being an inclusive convention that strives to make everyone welcome. It has a community standards page on the convention website. These same standards and the no harassment policy were posted as a large banner fight in front of the registration desk for all to see. In addition to this, there were pronoun ribbons available at the registration desk to make all feel comfortable when speaking with each others. The convention also designed a social metagame for the convention in the vein of PbtA games. Each play book rewarded convention-goers with experience for getting to know someone, checking in on people, working to make others feel comfortable, and so on.

What an excellent idea!

I also love how Big Bad Con has private game rooms. If you have been to a game convention, you will have been put into a large room filled with tables. Your game will be competing with the conversations of several other games which creates a wall of noise that can be distracting to downright alienating. The private game rooms create the intimate experience of gaming at home at a convention. You have your own space in which to create a game unhindered by the other games around you. This makes the games that more fun without having to exert all the more energy just to be heard by those at the table.

Big Bad Con also crafts a wonderful experience.

It is a small intimate convention where you have the ability to get to know the people that you are gaming with. There is this feeling of camaraderie that seems to permeate every activity that happens there. I was volunteering this year and worked at Games on Demand and was granted a brief glance behind the curtain as well. As I expected there was plenty of frenetic energy as the staff and other volunteers worked to get things up and running as well as making sure that everyone had a good time. Despite this elevated anxiety and activity level, everyone remained friendly and caring. Sean took the time to check back with me on one of my shifts to ensure that he hadn’t left me feeling overwhelmed or unneeded. This meant a lot to me.

Another way this stood out for me was on Thursday night before the convention began. I had went to Endgame Oakland with a friend and we had returned to the convention hotel to find many games taking place. We did not make it far into the lobby before someone came up to invite to join in a game that was taking place. Being a shy person, It was amazing to be asked to participate in a game. I ended up getting to play in a game of Ravenloft using the Saga system with Renee Knipe. It was a great time and wonderful to get to talk to her about projects she was working on as well as getting to game with her.

These were small moments in the convention but they loomed large for me. They had a large impact as I am a shy individual and always worried that my presence is not wanted or appreciated so I hang back. It was nice to feel included, and accepted.

Big Bad Con also provided me with a teachable moment. At this convention, I see groups that get together and play games. These groups are diverse and accepting of others despite their differences. There are designers here that work to create games that also have this same aim. It makes me want to see this community to the greater hobby as a whole. It made me take a step back to look at the tables that I play at both at the convention and at home and view them more objectively. I asked myself a question, would I feel comfortable bringing someone new to this game? Would the new person feel welcome at the table? At Big Bad Con, the answer was yes. The GM’s running the games took the time to be welcoming and open to other ideas, used lines & veils, and the X card to create a more welcoming environment. I could not say the same for all of my home groups. big Bad Con gave me the impetus to try and change my home games to be more welcoming and inclusive. It also made me want to try and find a way to make the hobby as a whole more welcoming to those of us that don’t fit the stereotypical gamer mold.

Big Bad Con 2016 was once again a rousing success from my perspective. I had a wonderful time with old friends and met new people whom I hope to call friends soon. I was able to play in fun games with a great groups of people. I was able to play games that I don’t get to play at home. I was able to help out at the convention which made me feel like a part of the community. Big Bad Con is definitely a convention you need to get to at least once if you are a gamer and want to feel welcome and include.

Four bear paws out of four from this Geek Bear!

National Coming Out Day

240px-Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skiesOctober 11th is the day that has been chosen for National Coming Out day.

You may wonder why there is even a National Coming Out day when it seems that things are coming up Milhouse for those of us in the LGBT community?

It is because we still live in a society where those in the LGBT community are marginalized and looked down upon. This is changing but it is slow and filled with terrible extinction bursts that leave teenagers homeless, adults beaten, and transgendered people murdered. Until this changes, there will be a need to acknowledge that we have to come out and that it isn’t just once that we have to do this. We do this all the time and  how difficult this is depends on the individual and the time and place.

This will be my fourth year out of the closet. I am glad I came out and regret that it took me so long to make the choice. So, I thought I would take a moment and share my story here on Geek Bear’s Den so that you would understand a bit about this Geek Bear and hopefully encourage others in coming out.

The impetus to come out was pushed by my own health issues four years ago. I was at 325 lbs. I had diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. I was on over eight pills for all of these conditions. I went in for a quarterly check up and was at the point that I was going to be put on insulin.

I was terrified.

I sat down and put in some time with analyzing what was keeping me in that place. I knew I didn’t want to be on shots and that there was something preventing me from improving my situation. I can be very myopic and it was no more evident than at this moment. I had used weight and health issues as a convenient way to hide that I was gay from myself and, I thought, from others.

It took a bit of time to come to this level of self-acceptance. A person incorporates the hatred they see for themselves out in society and this makes them not accept who they are and. After this epiphany, I began the work to take better care of myself as well as accept this part of me that I had kept compartmentalized and hidden away.

It was like a weight was lifted and I could breathe.

This was back in 2012. I didn’t really tell anyone that was close to me at the time. I did go to the seminar Queer as a 3 Sided Die at GenCon and began using the apps like Growlr to try and meet people.

It was not until 2013 that I decided to begin telling my friends and family.

I had a plan. The objective was to start with the people that I felt safest telling and work my way to the ones that I felt the least safest. I would tell them over dinner so that I was in a public space and would have a way out.

I was very lucky.

All of my friends who I told were very accepting. There was no need to have gone through all of the worry that I had done and the need for an escape route ended up being effort without reason. It was a relief to come through the first round of coming out with minimal repercussions.

The process of telling my parents was different. I sat them down and had the conversation about being gay. Saying their reaction to the news was different would be an understatement. My father cried and my mother said things such as “What have I done to deserve this?” “You’re going to die of AIDS!” “I can’t live with this!”  They asked me to not tell my brother until they had time to process the information themselves and then told him a day later without my knowledge.

It was rough.

I came out the experience rather well.

I still had a place to work, to live, and, despite their reaction, I still had my family. There are many that are not so lucky. In the end, I only ended up losing three friends coming out. It was not easy accepting it but I realized that I was better off without them.

I also still learn about reactions to my coming out as people feel more comfortable sharing their initial reactions now or share the reactions of others with me now that time has passed. These revelations though are bit rough to take when people are revealed to have been uncomfortable around me or disgusted and then they got over it.

On this National Coming Out Day, I hope that those out there that are thinking about coming out are lucky enough to have friends that will listen to them when they let go of the fear and share the truth about themselves. I hope that they are lucky enough to be safe and supported when they take this big step. I also hope those that fear this action understand that this is okay as well. I understand that fear and know how difficult it is to overcome. I hope that they keep working on themselves so that they can overcome the fear soon enough to enjoy their life and not succumb to the fear and pain that living in the shadows can bring.

If you are still struggling with the idea of coming out, Check out the Human Right’s Campaign’s Resource Guide to Coming Out. It is a very helpful guide.

Zombies, Run! Fall 2016 Virtual Race

zr-vrI am a runner.

I am not the fastest nor can I run the farthest, but I am still a runner.

One of my favorite apps for running is Zombies, Run! I did a review of the app earlier and you can find it here.

One of the recent trends for runners has been the advent of the virtual race. They allow runners that may be self-conscious about their speed, pacing, or the sheer number of people that show up at 5 and 10K races participate. These races very on the amount of tracking that they provide for your participation and what you receive for the money you put into the event. I was interested in the idea but put off participating until recently.

The note that comes in the race package from Sam Yao.

The note that comes in the race package from Sam Yao.

I love the Zombies, Run! app as it provides and excellent story line mixed with music for any length of run. I saw that they had done two virtual races and saw that both had been well received by the community. When I received the notice on the app about the fall 2016 race, I finally decided to take the leap and give it a try.

The price for the fall 2016 Virtual Race was not prohibitive and is inline with the prices for a normal 5 to 10K run. The basic race was $35 and this gets a runner the race, training missions, access to the race forums, a medal, bib, badge and certificate. The next price point is $55 and includes a tech shirt. The third tier of pricing is $65 and includes a long sleeve pro-spec shirt with zip collar. There are further tiers which allow for multiple race entries at multiple levels. I chose the third tier as I wanted the long sleeve shirt to see what it’s quality was like.

The shirt for the mission.

The shirt for the mission.

I have to say that I am impressed. The forums that they provide for the race are filled with people that are discussing the story line that is running through the game. They are also supportive of each other in their quest to become more physically fit and active. This type of community is an excellent addition to a race as it helps one build up to the race as well as providing a community in which to participate for an activity that is normally done alone.

The first training mission dropped the same day that I received my race packet. I complete the mission before I opened it. The training mission dovetails nicely with the items that you receive in the package and makes the race feel more immersive. I don’t want to spoil it but was cool to open up the envelope and to see the spoils of the training run there before me!

The long sleeve shirt is a of excellent quality. I wore it on a mission one cool evening at it kept me warm for the beginning of the run and did an excellent job of wicking the sweat away after I had been running for a bit. I especially like the thumb holes in the cuffs as they kept my hands warmer and less sweaty to make it easier to access my phone during the run.

I know that they sounds small but it is really helpful.

All in all, I am very impressed with the Zombies, Run! virtual race. What you get for the money is very nice and the sense of community that builds around the race is a great thing that I wish every race had. If you are wanting to try out a virtual race, I have to say that you should give the Zombies, Run! virtual race a try. An excellent story line, wonder props, and a great community that makes it well worth the money.

Four bear paws out of Four for the 2016 Fall Virtual Race from Zombies, Run!

Wasteland King

wastelandkingI have talked about the Gallow and Ragged series before. I have reviewed both Trailer Park Fae and Roadside Magic. Wasteland King brings the trilogy to it’s conclusion.

Wasteland King begins where the Roadside Magic left off. Robin and Gallow are struggling to survive while trapped between two worlds. They are both half-blooded fae whom are capable of living in this reality as well as the more real sideways realms. The machinations of the two courts have put in motion a tsunami of violence that awaits the declaration of a time and place to come crashing in.

Robin and Gallow each move through the story struggling with their own pasts as well as attempting to envision a future beyond simply surviving the next encounter. Gallow, in his battle to ensure the safety of Robin, his dead wife’s sister, looks behind for the future. He is caught in his head as he tries to determine analyze the feelings he has for Robin. Bundled with this are his own self recriminations about his relationship with Daisy and how he had failed her. His plans are laser focused and leave little room for his own survival. Robin looks to the future, though through a glass darkly. She seeks revenge on the Queen of Summer for the death of a child, the manipulation of her life, and the torture undergone in the white tower. This vision in not all consuming as survival is the main barrier to her success and her resources are put into this endeavor.

Saintcrow continues her exploration of the Fae from those marginalized by the court. Instead of the grand pomp and circumstance trotted out in fairy tales, the reader is given the view from the cheap seats. The beauty of these nigh immortal creatures is shown to be the illusion that hides a deeper darkness that is smoothed over in more modern stories of faeries. Instead of tinkerbell, the pixies are revealed to be ephemeral creatures of light and magic with sharp teeth and pricking knives. Robin gives some perspective on how they are always around those of great magic yet none deign to take the time to notice them let alone understand these tiny beings.

I love tales of the Fae and find Saintcrow’s perspective on them and their society refreshing.

Robin is my favorite character of the book. She is called Robin Ragged by puck and others throughout the series. Her status a half-blood is brought up and thrown in her face at every turn. Her use to the Queen of Summer is in her ability to perform real-making which is a magical ability that is both rare and much sought after. Despite suffering these many slings and arrows and lacking the strength at arms displayer by Gallow, she still takes a stand against Summer. Despite the forces arrayed against her, she never truly gives up. Robin will struggle with finding the path forward and succumb to the crushing doubt that comes with such grand foes yet still get up and pull herself forward. In Wasteland King, I loved watching Robin struggle with her feelings surrounding both Gallow and Wren. Her distrust of other Fae runs deep and yet these two have both strived to protect her and have failed at this task as well. As she push forward with her desire to have vengeance on Summer, these thoughts serve as both a distraction and goad. Her concern for their motives helps her overlook the insurmountable odds she faces. These same odds give her the ability to work through her own issues and see Gallow and Wren’s actions as something other than crass manipulations for their own ends.

I also love that Saintcrow continues interlacing the story with vignettes about how the random mortals whose paths cross with those of the fae are affected. on the one hand, we are given the story of the truck driver who stops to give Wren a ride after he was deposited in the desert far from anything civilized. The journey is not long but the conversation is pleasant and provides a bit of perspective to the assassin about the nature of home. This chance encounter and bit of kindness to a fae in needs leads our trucker to find a more permanent home that allows him to find a deeper happiness. In stark relief is the story of the child and the oak tree. Robin is fleeing pursuit and happens upon a piece of the sideways realms anchored in the desert by a majestic oak. Here she finds a bit of solace and rest. A poor girl in a nearby trailer park leaves her home to find food which is not present their due to her mother and her friend’s drug habits. In her wanderings, the child is led to this same island in the more-than-real. She is brought in by the image of the sleeping fae and beauty of the tableau before her. She seeks shelter as well amongst the roots of the giant tree and falls to sleep there on the earth and surrounded by pixies. When Robin awakens, our view of the scene changes to show the skull of a child sinking into the loam surrounding the roots of the tree.

Chilling.

I love Wasteland King. The characters are so well done. From Robin and Gallow down to those that only are give a few brief moments on the stage. They are given given a depth that is welcome in the genre of urban fantasy. Saintcrow is a master of pacing and showcases her abilities in this realm with Wasteland King. The story feels like a boulder rolling down hill. The pace builds and builds while still allowing the characters time to breathe and grow. Despite the path of destruction being foreshadowed, there are surprises aplenty in both the journey and the final battle.

Wasteland King gets four bear paws out of four. It is a wonderful cap to this story. It only makes me sad that I will not longer get stories of Robin, Gallow and Wren. This is a world I would like to revisit and hope that we will be given this opportunity. Definitely a book and a series you should try.