Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"You Don't Understand; These Ghosts Kill People!"

Just saw the new Ghostbusters flick. First off, it’s fun. Not great, not hilarious, but certainly entertaining; I laughed out-loud a few times.

What it’s not is a remake of the original. This is a very, very different film. It’s a lot darker (one character is killed off-screen and another commits suicide on-screen) and far more physical. It’s a lot more slapstick than the original Ghostbusters, and includes actual action-movie action scenes. These new Ghostbusters wade into a sea of ghosts, blasting left-and-right with twin proton pistols or punch ghosts and other things with a proton-cestus.

In short, the new Ghostbusters are actually cool, unlikely the awkward goofballs of the original. Which is odd, because this Ghostbusters is, in many respects, what the first Ghostbusters might have been if Walter Peck, the annoying EPA agent, had been the hero. And, oddly enough, in spite of that, it works.

Don’t take your friends who haven’t seen the original (or haven’t seen it since it came out) until you make them sit down and watch the original; a good portion of the jokes require you to have that film in your mind when you come see this one.

The writing on the new Ghostbusters is very weak. The plot chugs through its points, but you can tell the only reason the Mayor of New York is in this film is because the original Ghostbusters had a run-in with the Mayor. Lots of things happen just ‘cause. The most egregious example is Jones’ Patty Tolan. She joins the Ghostbusters… erm, well, we really don’t know why she joins. We understand why the rest are eager or willing to let her join, but we aren’t given any reason why she’d want to. It’s not like there’s a paycheck in it or anything.

The villain is equally thin. We’re given a vague sort of he-was-bullied, but we’re never really shown that. He comes off and just a genius nut-job nihilist.

The film feels very small, especially compared to the original. Where the original Ghostbusters had that entire firehouse, the new Ghostbusters have a single room above a Chinese restaurant we never see. They test out their gadgets in a trash-strewn alley behind. Yeoman’s cinematography gives this a very made-for-TV feel, and not the expansive, big-screen spectacle the original was. Where New York was a character in the original Ghostbusters, it’s mostly just a setting in this one.

The editing is rough on this one as well, especially the way it cuts around during the action scenes. It’s impossible to tell where anyone is, the jumping camera makes it seem like moments have been cut out, and it just lacks the natural fluidity you expect from a big-budget film.

If it seems like I’m damning this film with faint praise, well, I sorta am. It keeps referencing the original and utterly failing to live up to it in all sorts of little ways. The original Ghostbusters had a great, tight script, a strong sense of verisimilitude, and incredible writing. This one has a loose, paint-by-the-numbers script, feels like a made-for-TV action-comedy, and has maybe two quotable lines (one of which is in the 2nd trailer: “The power of pain compels you!”) It never seems to find its groove. One minute it’s a dark action/horror film (ghosts murdering people, our heroines blasting away ghosts and rappelling into hellmouths), the next it’s a slap-stick comedy (the final confrontation is won with a literal photonic kick to the crotch), and then it’s trying to be a touching story about friendship. Since it can’t settle on its tone, it meanders about, not quite hitting all the notes its aiming for.

That all said, the casting is great. Hemsworth steals every scene he’s in, displaying the comedic talent that landed him the role of Thor; McKinnon’s Holzmann is endearingly awkward, funny, and kick-ass; and you know the laughs are coming whenever you see Jones on the screen. Kristen Wiig gets the thankless job of playing the straight-man, but she does so while giving us a surprisingly likeable character in spite of the obvious stick up her butt. Unlikely the original, this film has actual scary moments (though it does rely on the jump-scare a bit more than I’d prefer). And where the original Ghostbusters were middle-aged schlubs with mortgages, bills, and receding hairlines, the new Ghostbusters are glamorous, gravity-defying butt-kickers who never have to worry about the state of their petty cash.

So if you think you’ll like this sort of thing at all, do go see it. It’s a very entertaining way to spend an afternoon. And do sit through all the credits; there are extra scenes scattered throughout.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Little 5e Under My Belt

Not quite two months ago I finished my first 5e campaign. We met kinda-sorta twice a month, each session lasted about four hours, and it ran for, I think, 14 months. So ballpark it at about 112 hours of gaming. The highest PC level attained was 10th.

I’d call it a successful campaign; the only player dropping out is moving out-of-state; everyone else wants more. And I learned a lot about how 5e works.


This is the biggy: EXP-for-kills turns the PCs into bloodthirsty savages. They don’t look for the easiest or quickest route around a problem, they look for the solution that creates the largest pile of corpses. Solo monsters (your traditional dragon atop a mountain) are nigh irresistible, especially if the players have time to prep and plan in advance. The players threw their PCs at the same problem twice with a head-long frontal assault (granted, the first time they did attempt some subterfuge), failed both times, but came out smelling like roses due to the body count and EXPs collected. EXP-for-kills is the first thing I’ve dropped from the new campaign.

Action Economy

This is the principle reason I stick with 5e. The action economy takes a bit of work to wrap your head around, but once you grasp the concept of bonus actions (and that everyone only gets one), it’s a lovely, elegant little trick to allow neat extras, but not give a single player a dozen actions in a single turn. It also gives all the players an easily understood resource to manage in the middle of combat that is not immediately dissociative. Do you use your bonus action to fight with a second weapon? Use a special ability? Wait for an attack of opportunity? It’s usually an easy choice to make, but it’s also one that has a different answer in different parts of a single fight, and very different answers for different character classes.


I love these in concept. In play, they can create lots of neat opportunities for RP; almost all give you a neat out-of-combat/RP “power” that can help drive a campaign forward and give players interesting spot-light opportunities. However, it’s easy to forget about them. Normally, I’d just rely on my players bringing them up, only…


… 5e is just on the bad side of the complexity line.

Yes, I know; it’s not nearly as complex at 3.x, the latest edition of Shadowrun, 4e D&D, any version of Fading Stars and Vampire, or just about any mainstream RPG you care to name that’s been released in the last 20 years. So how simple do I need it?

Apparently, simpler than this.

My players are not dumb. They’re not even mentally slow. The youngest was in her late 20s, most had college degrees and even those who didn’t had at least a few years of college under their belt. These were, almost without exception, white-collar professionals or successful entrepreneurs. One dropped out of the game briefly to teach opera in Paris. There wasn’t a dim bulb in this bunch.

And yet, even in the final session, I was holding hands, reminding people of their powers and abilities, describing how simple mechanics worked. And I’ll be shocked if half of them understood the action economy.

Those who were interested in the mechanics picked it up pretty quickly. They understood their powers, how they could leverage their background, what it meant to use a bonus action. The others were eager to dive in and try things, but they didn’t understand how to make their wishes work within the system and often forgot opportunities their race, class and background created for them.

A good part of this I blame on not playing every week. I think a weekly schedule would have kept things fresh in everyone’s mind, and there would have been less remedial education from session to session. But playing weekly isn’t an option when people have lives and money. And that means we need a simpler game, with easily grasped mechanics. 5e is almost, but not quite, that game.


As I’ve said before, it doesn’t feel very magical. The spell-slot system works, but it feels more like loading bullets in a gun, or apps on your phone. The spells themselves don’t really help, being fairly straightforward in their applications. The most mystical character of our bunch was probably the min-maxer’s druid who freaked the more arachnophobic players out by turning into a giant spider and webbing spell-slingers in the face.

When I abandon 5e, it’ll probably be because the magic is just too dishwater-dull.


It works, but even with the elegant action economy, it’s not interesting enough to hang a game on. 4e’s probably was, but 5e’s only got a bit of 4e in the shape of its fenders. If you want a fun, successful campaign, you’ll need to bring a lot more to the table than just some bog-standard fights. And 5e isn’t going to help you much in achieving that by itself.


Meh. I’m not a huge fan of balance; I’m fine with some classes being less interesting, but also less complicated than others. But I do prefer it when the players know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

There’s definitely a simplicity gap between spell-slingers and everyone else. There might be a fun gap there as well, though that’s largely going to depend on temperament. The thief is a good class for someone who wants to really dive in and try all sorts of lateral thinking and wacky hijinks, but if you want to play it as straight DPS you’re better off with a spell-slinger, and certain flavors of monk are far better at the sneaky thing. The bard is struggling to find its niche in a system where three other classes also have Charisma as their most important stat, where the high-Intelligence wizard is blowing away the History and Arcana checks, and the high-Wisdom cleric is the party’s face due to her excellent Insight (and, in our group, nearly as good Persuasion) rolls.

Rangers are a hot mess. They’re kinda-sorta DPS, but they’re not as good at it as other classes and kinda squishy. Their abilities are cool and useful when they’re in their favored terrain, but otherwise… meh. Their combat powers are just weird, and clearly work best if you’re using a battle-grid and minis. The one player who took ranger did ok with the character, but they were dissatisfied and have opted for a sorcerer in the new campaign.

A shape-shifting druid is hard to take down and extremely flexible, in and out of fights. Wizards remain the big guns, but more than ever it’s clerics that win combats, principally by keeping the rest of the party on its feet and buffing their attacks. Clerics are a potent force-multiplier in this game.

Every class has a magical option. People are going to be whipping out magical abilities left-and-right in your 5e games. However, they’re likely to be reaching into the same bag of tricks, time and again. The result is something that feels a lot like an ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon, where everyone has their flashy, signature shtick and occasionally gets to do something really clever with it. The result is something that looks more like He-man and less like Jackson’s LotR. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is going to depend on your tastes.


All in all, I’m fairly happy with 5e. The mechanical changes are largely positive, streamlining the game and keeping the rules out of the way of the fun. There’s a lot less you-can’t-do-that-by-the-rules and a lot more sure-roll-a-d20-and-we’ll-see-if-you-succeed.

Backgrounds can bring a lot to the table, but only if people remember that they exist. The races are decent, but not terribly exciting. The classes are a mixed bag and will result in a magic-heavy game if only because nearly every member of the party is going to be slinging a few spells or spell-like abilities.

The game benefits from some light rules-tweaking. The rules-as-written EXP-for-kills definitely encourages the players to embrace their inner homicidal maniac, but is easily replaced. It’s fairly simple to create new backgrounds and races customized to your campaign. Creating your own classes, however, will require some serious research and effort.

The game is fun, my players are eager to continue in a new campaign, and 5e is fairly easy to run. This gives it a big thumbs-up in my book.