Splish Splash

I’ll spare you all the boring minutae of how I’m handling the transition back into public transit, as they get a little squicky if you’re not into the thought of envisioning me naked. Honestly, I don’t blame you; I don’t even like to look at myself naked. Still, there’s something to be said for preparation beforehand, and that’s all I’ll say.

Let’s talk D&D, shall we? I picked up the last of the Essentials books this afternoon, and now I have a complete set of those. The DM kit and Monster Vault proved to be pretty valuable purchases in that if I want to start up a campaign amongst some friends, I can. That’s a pretty big if, but I’m getting sidetracked. The Essentials books seemed a little strange to me, because they’re shallow enough to be considered “starter” kits, but in-depth enough to warrant the thought that this was where 4th Edition was headed. WotC’s marketing of the books didn’t help that, either. For the longest time I resisted picking up the two “class” books, because I thought their content was more or less duplicating the three Player’s Handbooks I already own.

To a certain extent, it is, and then again, it’s also more constrictive. Each of the two class books– Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms– details the basics of a handful of the classes. Fallen Lands provides clerics, fighters, rogues and wizards, while Forgotten Kingdoms offers druids, paladins, rangers and warlocks. That’s where things get tricky, because of each of the classes offered, you’re provided a single buildout path. Your powers are mostly selected for you, your paragon path and epic destiny are also chosen, and it’s all very cut and dried. That’s great for a player just starting out, and each of the books offers a pretty good mix so that a new player can try something different without being overwhelmed, but overall the books aren’t as valuable for experienced players as the hardback Handbooks and (X) Power books. There’s also a handful of changes to the existing races and feats, and a crapton of ease-of-play charts and pointers. Most of the critical stuff in the books are available on the Insider service, and what’s not does sort of lend some value to the paperbound copies.

What I’ve found to be pretty damn worth the cost, though, are the other three core books: the Rules Compendium, the Dungeon Master’s Book, and the Monster Vault. Of these only the RC is available “standalone”; the other two are in the DM’s Kit and Monster Vault box, respectively. Honestly, though, those aren’t bad deals either. For me, one of the things preventing me from DMing effectively was a lack of miniatures or figures to place and block out encounters. Both of the boxes contain cardboard tokens for monsters and players, printed with nicely-detailed artwork. This is mostly because WotC discontinued the D&D Minis game, as (like me) nobody wanted to buy randomized miniatures if they really just wanted a dozen goblins for an encounter.

Right, the books. The RC is basically everything you need, at an absolute minimum, to play the game once you’ve got characters rolled up and a DM ready to go. It’s organized far better than the PHBs and DMG, everything is clear and concise without being terse… Think of it like this: if the Player’s Handbook is a boring ol’ human, then the Rules Compendium is an elf: just plain better, and it knows it. There’s some updated charts here for DCs and suchlike, which may be useful to some players, but for the clarifications and the ability to leave at least one or two hardcover books back on the shelf when you go to a game, it’s a steal at twice the price. Despite the fact that it’s not red, I can promise you you’re likely to find what you’re looking for in the book three times faster.

The DM’s book is less impressive in that it covers a lot of the fluff of the Points of Light setting, but it also goes into some of what makes a proper or thrilling adventure. DM guides and advice are a dime a dozen, but like the RC, the DM Book streamlines a lot of the tedious parts and makes it easier to quickly and efficiently find stuff. (A side note: it bothers me that there’s no real “Trap Manual”– basically, doing for traps, hazards, and dungeon features what the Monster Manual does for the flora and fauna of the world.) The DM’s Kit isn’t a bad deal, honestly, as it includes some dungeon tiles and a few handfuls of character and monster tokens as well as a short adventure to run. The main complaint I have with the DM’s Book, and this may just be a first-print issue or something, is that the cover isn’t made of the same paper or whatever as the other Essentials books. It looks and feels cheap and flimsy… but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Finally, the Monster Vault book is pretty much the Monster Manual, shrunk down and stripped of some of the cruft that served comparatively little purpose. While fewer monster illustrations sounds like a bad thing, the overall effect is that the illustrations now correspond to the tokens included in the kit, and there are in fact more monster listings for each monster type (so for example, under “Elf” there’s listings for Lv2 Scout, Lv2 Minion Hunter, Lv3 Guard, etc. etc. up to Lv13 Drow Arachnomancer). The standard amenities of list by level and so forth are included, but again the chief advantage is the compact size. Upon further inspection, the Monster Vault uses the same flimsy cover that the DM’s Book does, but it’s a thicker tome than the DMB, so it’s a bit harder to notice the cover’s cheapness.

So that brings me to the downside of the line, beyond the fact that two of the most useful elements are saddled with tokens that I realize not everyone might need or want. The Essentials line is bound in a softcover format, along the lines of a mass-market book. It’s roughly 10% or so larger than the standard manga page size (or roughly the same size as the oversized omnibus page size becoming more popular these days), and while it’s a very well-printed book, its binding… well, I just fear for the day when something happens to this book, and I fear that day may be unnecessarily soon. On the other hand, I defy you to find a nicer full-scale RPG manual for a Jackson; when the pages do start dropping out, it won’t be an arduous task to replace the thing entirely.

WotC’s been releasing more and more Dungeon Tiles sets and flogging their overpriced dice sets alongside the books, but overall between the Essentials, the new Red Box set (which, I kid you not, I saw at Target once, and when I went to get another copy later on, the clerks said they couldn’t keep it in stock), and just some general nice press here and there, I think they’re doing a damn good job of opening up the hobby to more and more mainstream people. It doesn’t hurt that the generation that’s taking the reins of the world now– mine– is on the whole more receptive to nerdery than peoples past, either. I’m really impressed with the concept behind the Essentials books, but I wish WotC had made it clearer on the “where do you go from here?” aspect.

Ciao, kiddies.

A Discful of Sugar

So I’ve managed to come down with my annual cold a little earlier this year. In order to accelerate the process of getting over it, I’ve taken the steps of taking medicine, sleeping off most of the worst of the fever, and watching through Hidamari Sketch x365. Because as we’ve previously established, little else heals as much as overpowering cuteness.

Winter Warring

So I happened to catch Summer Wars‘ showing in Pittsburgh today, at the Harris Theater. On one level, I want everyone reading this to go see it if it happens to be in your town soon (and I mean that, Zeitlers and Duffys). On the other hand, don’t watch too much of that trailer on the site linked above. What it doesn’t spoil outright, it completely misrepresents. This is a complicated movie, so bear with me while I try to get it all down before I go into what I hope won’t be a Tim Rogers-esque stream-of-crapciousness steaming pile of paragraphs.

Okay, so the first thing that the movie is about is OZ: a virtual world, along the lines of our reality’s Second Life, which has permeated society to such a great degree that it has supplanted the bare-bones World Wide Web. Think what would have happened if computer technology jumped from command-line telnet and GOPHER straight to the Matrix, or the Metaverse, or The World. It’s still all just people sitting at terminals, but the implication is that the electronic realm is still just a communications tool: e-mail, teleconferencing, and other applications we’re using today, in our world, are in the movie’s world under the purview of OZ.

However, at first the fact that OZ exists is seemingly brushed aside in favor of a couple of high school students, Kenji and Natsuki. Kenji is a part-time telecommuter working for OZ administration, and is noted to be a talented mathematics student who just barely missed being able to represent the nation in a global competition. Natsuki convinces Kenji to accompany her to her family’s reunion in the countryside as July winds down to an end, initially not telling him that he’s to pose as her fiancee in front of the family’s matriarch, Sakae. Sakae’s 90th birthday is coming up as well, and the family is quietly afraid for her health. Well, about as quietly as about a zillion relatives can be. Sakae is Natsuki’s great-grandmother, and so the celebration is for the extended family. Of course, Sakae herself is sharp enough to see through Natsuki’s deception almost immediately.

What nobody counts on is the black sheep of the family, Wabisuke, returning after a ten-year stint abroad in the United States. Pittsburgh, in point of fact– he’s supposedly a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. (This got a lot of laughs and applause at the showing this afternoon.) Anyway, he’d been in the bad books of the family after selling off a plot of land to fund his education, then running off to the US. Moreover, Wabisuke is adopted, and not everyone in the family takes a kindly eye to it. Natsuki, of course, is infatuated with him, and in fact modeled Kenji’s cover story on him.

After a chaotic first night at the reunion, Kenji gets an odd e-mail on his phone: a string of numbers and the phrase “Solve Me”. It’s late and Kenji’s searching for some way to keep from feeling completely hopeless, so he solves the problem– a ciphertext puzzle along the lines of the “Squeamish Ossifrage” puzzle of yore– and goes back to bed.

And that’s when everything goes to hell.

Suffice it to say, everything is connected, and while it may just have been a coincidence that Kenji has arrived at the door of the Jinnouchi clan, he’s practically part of the family by the end of the story. But getting there involves the world almost ending.

Seriously. It’s better than I make it sound. Trust me.

Anyway, from a technical standpoint the movie is a glorious change of pace from even the most beautifully animated series of late, mostly due to MADHOUSE’s ability to use CG in an anime and not have it look horribly out of place, but in no small part to the use of the Superflat design aesthetic. Think Andy Warhol taking a critical eye to generic manga and anime, and deconstructing it by exaggerating its fakeness. Scenes set in OZ are completely unreal, both in their technical complexity and in the sheer whacked-out-there character designs. Even still, the avatars are animated fluidly and stay on-model, except to prove the point of how fake the world really is; most of the combat involving the Harvey-like rabbit-man King Kazma highlight this very well. Scenes set in the real world of Ueda and the environs are, on the other hand, amazingly well done. The human character designs are diverse, but with some familial similarities that make certain characters look a little too much alike (in more than one case I couldn’t tell Natsuki and an aunt of hers apart, even though I had made a mental note of one of the ‘hints’ in the design).

The story isn’t bad either, and that’s where I’m going to have to put an end to the “professionalist” portion of this post and start getting subjective. I mentioned up there that I hoped that my own extended family would see this movie, and it’s not just because I know they’re keeping an eye on the blog and that sort of thing. The scenes where the entire Jinnouchi family is sitting down to dinner are something that, if you happen to have a large extended family like we do, will seem so very familiar to you. Between the kids and the food, the conversation and the community… it’s very hard for me to describe just how much that can mean to someone. A line late in the film highlights this, but sadly it’s way too much of a spoiler to mention here. (Seriously, knowing it’s coming wrecks the entire film.) There are other elements to the movie that sort of echoed with what I know of “family”. You’ll see, I hope.

If there was any doubt that people can be affected by even the silliest, most inconsequential little bits of fluffed-up entertainment that we can find, this film would erase it. I didn’t find out until later, of course, that the director came to this project after doing The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which is another fantastic movie that I think everyone should watch at least once. It’s strange, thinking that even now we have to defend the artistic merits of a medium.

Which brings up another interesting point about media. Throughout the film, OZ isn’t referenced negatively or positively. It’s simply a fact of life by that point, like how we view the radio, or television, or movies. As a society, humanity doesn’t think that a television is an inherently evil thing. It took quite a while to get to that point, but the point is that the method of communication is a neutral thing. A voice on the radio commands no greater influence than a voice in person. If we can afford that level of acceptance to a select few media, what makes newer media– newer ways to share and convey information– so scary to society? What causes people to be so afraid of a computer, a video game, a text message?

In the end, Summer Wars is a fantastic movie that warrants a lot more attention than I think it’s going to get. The film never descends into melodramatics, and it remains cheekily self-aware even as the fate of the world rests on this peculiar yet not unknown to us family. If it made the art-house circuit a few more times, I would line up every time it came back here… then again, technology has caught up with us yet again, and the DVD is slated to be out in February. If it can’t make it to a screen near you, I highly recommend at least trying to grab the disc.

Void

I have to question the validity of the serving sizes on some of the foods I eat. In general I’m trying to eat less monstrously-sized portions, in an effort to again control my weight back down to reasonable levels, but at the same time when the “serving size” of a bag of tortilla chips is “6 chips”, that kind of casts into doubt either if I should be eating them at all, or what size chips these people were using.

“Enlarged to show texture” can only be used as an excuse for so many things, you know?

The Elastic Clause

Facebook represents a very strange dichotomy for me. On the one hand, the concept of the service is a wonder to behold: it is a very strongly-focused social networking site allowing vast numbers of people to congregate and collaborate, facilitating events and all that wonderful stuff. It brings people together, which is a goal that at the 50,000-foot level I can appreciate and get behind. But how they have gone about the dirty business of paying for all that wonder, to merely touch upon the subject, sticks in my craw. Specifically the “we own your data and throw the details of your personal life around like a one-dollar chip at the World Poker Tour” bits. So, for the longest time, I avoided using the service, while at the very least just maintaining a profile so I could say “I’m on Facebook, in the same sense that I am on ibuprofen”.

This may have to change in the coming year as I start to, y’know, have a social calendar. I know, it frightens me, too. And not just the whole Big Brother-ness of it, but the fact that I’m not an almost-hikikomori anymore. This shakes up my whole worldview.

Makes Me Wanna…

So let’s see here, it’s what, 2011 now? Okay. Let’s say that you are a late twenties, early thirties person who grew up in or around the Western New York area. You remember, how for the longest time, the Buffalo Bills’ theme song was a touched up version of “Shout” by the Isley Brothers? You know it. I can hear some of you humming it right now. I bet some of you even hear Van Miller in the background, too. Okay, well, I’m sure you’re also aware that the Bills lost the rights to use that song late in the 90s. Kind of a shame, really, ’cause that seemed to be the only thing keeping the team together. Well now the Bills have ended their 2010 season, and there’s been talk that the team may just pack up and leave Buffalo without a major league football team. We’ll set aside the fact that they barely have a major league football team right now as it is, so that we can come to the point of this post. The Bills need a new theme song, and I can think of no better one than “Shout”.

By Tears for Fears, of course.

Okay, maybe “The Buffalo Bills” by Wesley Willis. Hey, it fits.

Encounters

Today was very interesting, for a number of reasons, but the most important one was more of a personal thing than a world-shaking change. It revolves around running into a friend at the grocery store, and talking for a good long while about various degrees of nerdery. It might seem sort of, and I hope you’ll forgive the slight gag, inconsequential, but for me, the odds of something like that happening were remarkably low until a few months ago.

It’s weird, thinking that for all I do, I don’t have too many local contacts outside of work or a small circle of friends. But then again, I do kind of keep to myself quite a bit. Or did– that’s been changing recently. I think, really, that’s a good thing.

Of course, it was still a little embarrassing for him to see my cart full of junk food. But hey, we’re nerds.