Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Thorough Thursdays: SENTAI

Prior to this post, I have tagged exactly one entry on my blog with the label Sentai.

Sentai, now officially 'Super Sentai' since 2000 and the fancy new logo, is the name given to the long-running (40+ years now!) Japanese superhero team genre. The word Sentai directly translates to 'fighting team'. This series of shows is identified as live-action, produced by Toei Co., Ltd., and Bandai, although the term Sentai is sometimes used to describe similar series of Anime/Manga, and shows by these, and other companies.

While I am certain I have brought up the subject of Sentai elsewhere, perhaps only in passing, I do not appear to have ever made a dedicated post on the subject.

That's just wrong.





The Super Sentai Series
2016, 40th Anniversay Logo



For those unfamiliar with the shows, they are of the tokusatsu genre, featuring live action characters in color-coded costumes, performing exaggerated martial arts, or other acrobatic combat moves. The shows uniformly feature a giant robot, super-science, or magical powers and showy, but simple special effects (bright flashes of light, colored smoke, etc.). The programs are (generally) aimed at children, or younger audiences.

The Super Sentai Series is one of the most prominent tokusatsu productions in Japan, alongside the Ultra Series and the Kamen Rider Series. Currently the shows air along with the other similar programs in the Super Hero Time programming block on Sundays. Outside Japan, the Super Sentai Series is best known as the source material for the Power Rangers franchise. Note that while not a live action program, Gatchaman, which aired in the United States and elsewhere as G-Force, or Battle of the Planets, is also considered a Sentai show, possessing many of the same qualities, and tropes.

I've been a fan of Sentai for many years, having accidentally discovered it in the early days of cable TV. My father lived on a mountain in Northern New York State, where one neighbor higher up on the mountain had a satellite dish, and one below him had a another set up (I don't recall what it was). Located in the middle, my Dad's house sometimes caught foreign TV programs. 

When visiting him on weekends, I would occasionally catch episodes of Kamen Rider (Masked Rider), Ultraman (Japan's giant sized, Kaiju fighting Superman), and more specifically Changeman (Dengeki Sentai Changeman). 





Dengeki Sentai Changeman!


Some years later I would work for the various comic book/toy/fandom product stores that carried Sentai action figures, robots, and art books, reigniting my interest in the genre. 

The typical Sentai, or Super Sentai, series revolves around five young adults who are granted special abilities and weaponry by some outside force for use in battling an evil entity, or organization. 

The members of the Sentai team may be from different walks of life, or they may have been trained by the military specifically for the purpose of being a Sentai team. They are each given a device that transforms them from normal people into Super Sentai Superheroes, complete with cool, color coordinated costumes, and magical, or high-tech gear.

Each color represents something different, and governs the characters role on the team, and even their personality to some extent. For example, the team leader is always the Red member, and whatever else they may do they are strong-willed, morally good, and great at motivating their friends to battle evil. Blue is typically a scientist, or scientifically minded, etc.

Usually each member has a unique weapon, or device such as a sword, a shield, a lasso, a spear, or some other item of power. Other times, every member will carry the same array of armament, like everyone having a laser pistol, but are given some special feature to make it theirs. 

Another common element is each member having a unique vehicle, which may transform into another shape. Following the third Sentai series, the group can summon a Giant Robot, or combine their vehicles to form one.

The villains of the Sentai genre are typically an alien empire invading Earth, a secret, underground organization such as Hydra, or G.I. JOE's Cobra, or a hidden civilization trying to conquer the world. My favorite bit is that there is usually a main leader, a set of lieutenants - each with their own special abilities, personalities, and agenda's, and a horde of faceless goons. A common weapon/tactic of the enemy is to create some kind of monster to cause trouble, then enlarge it to Kaiju size requiring the Sentai team to battle it with their mecha. 






Around 1990 two good friends of mine introduced me to friends of theirs who lived in New Jersey, and who were involved in a Sentai RPG campaign. It was there that I met the members of my oft mentioned New Jersey Group.

The campaign itself was...well...let's just say it's one of the few RPG campaigns I've ever encountered that required one of those PTSD Support Groups afterwards for the players to deal with their experience. I never played it myself, but after watching an entire session I went to go sit alone in a dark room, contemplating the thought that perhaps this whole RPG thing had been a waste of my time and I should consider taking up stamp collecting as an alternative hobby.*

*Shudder*

While I have run a few Sentai one shots here and there, and I did run a short Tokusatsu** campaign, I've never gotten the chance to run a full on Sentai game.

I recently learned of a RPG produced by Stupid Dice Studios called Super Happy Sentai Hour. My friend Leo alerted me to it when he discovered there was a Kickstarter for a new improved version. 

This got me thinking...

I will be meeting up with the old NJ crew again sometime this summer in celebration of our long friendships and the memory of our friend Allen, who passed away this past March. I have been asked to run a one-shot game for the event, and I can think of no better subject than Sentai, returning to the genre that introduced us to each other over twenty-five years ago.

Lime-Green Wombat***, this one's for you. 


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*This actually happened. My friend Martin found me downstairs in the house we were in sitting alone in the dark. When he asked if I was OK I replied, "Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe RPGs...aren't a good thing. Maybe...hmmm...stamp collecting seems appealing." He proceeded to run over to me, lift me up by my shoulders and shake me saying, "Snap out of it man! It's going to be OK!"

**Tokusatsu is a general term for Japanese live action programs, or movies with lots of special effects. Sentai is it's own entity, as are Giant Monster/Kaiju features, so when I refer to Tokusatsu I am generally talking about non-Sentai Japanese superheroes such as Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Kikaider. 

***Allen was not in the original Sentai game, but there was a running gag that he would join as an additional member of the color-coded team as...The Lime-Green Wombat! He owned a t-shirt so shockingly bright green that it hurt to look directly at it. 





Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Breathe...Just Breathe

The holidays are over, my lovely lady has gone home to the Northern part of New York State, and I am now free to review what's been going on in the world of fandom. What has been going on you ask? Well for starters, Star Wars has celebrated its 40th Anniversary, and since that coincides with my own 40th Anniversary in the gaming hobby, I thought I'd focus on addressing the big Star Wars news, and revelations that came out last week.


It's time for the Jedi to end.


WHAT?!?

OK...Breathe...Just Breathe...







Holy Hammerheads on Hoth! This past week Orlando, Florida was the site of the 2017 Star Wars Celebration, and big news came out of that event like a flaming A-Wing through a Star Destroyer command tower. 

First, and foremost there was a panel on the upcoming film, Star Wars - The Last Jedi, that included this trailer! Take a look...







Now before I get started with my thoughts on Star Wars, the trailer, the other news, and whathaveyou, can I just say - 







There is usually one moment in each of the new teasers, and/or trailers that captures my imagination more than any other, and for some reason this one and the subsequent, related images are just it for me. Wow. Just...wow. So cool.







Anyway...the new Star Wars - The Last Jedi teaser trailer doesn't give us very much actual information, but in my humble opinion it does a fine job of doing what teaser trailers should do - it gets you excited for the film.

In addition to neat imagery, and classic Star Wars sounds, and music, it shows each of our heroes, new and old, engaged in activities that clearly press on from the previous film. Well, except maybe Finn. In the end of the last movie, The Force Awakens, he's pretty banged up and he seems to be taking his time healing his injuries here. My guess is that they don't want to show too much. Personally though, I can't wait to see John Boyega back in action. I like him, and I like Finn.

Rey is training with Luke Skywalker to be...wait...hold on a second...a Jedi right? Something else? Luke's ominous line at the end of the teaser makes my fanboy mind explode with possible meanings! Could this be alluding to a new type of Force wielder? I can hardly wait to find out!

As for Poe...poor Poe...he is the typical Star Wars RPG pilot character. The GM is always messing with him by taking out his ship. He isn't even in them when they get trashed! Damn, that's cold.

Oh, did I mention how freakin' cool those speeders racing over the ash, and red dust planet look? I did? Well they do. 







Other news out of the Star Wars Celebration was that Star Wars Rebels, the CGI animated series on Disney XD will be receiving a fourth and final season. That's right! Four seasons and done! What's up with that? I guess it makes sense. End while you are still hot. End on your own terms. OK, I like it.

Check out the trailer:








But what will the animation team do next, eh? Unclear is the future. Difficult to see. 


Finally, Star Wars Battlefront II, a sequel to the popular reboot of the Battlefront franchise is also coming soon, with a story mode focused on a heroic female character on the side of the Empire. Hold on. Did I read that right? I did. Wow. OK then. Nice.






I have to admit I was really excited about Battlefront, but gave up on it pretty quickly as I am not especially good at those kind of computer games, and found this one in particular to be frustrating and very difficult. I probably won't get Battlefront II, but I do like the idea behind it. I will probably check out some of the streaming videos of people playing it who, unlike myself, know what they're doing.

Does this rekindle my desire to run a Star Wars RPG? Yes.

Will I get around to doing so? No. Not anytime soon.

With too many other projects on my plate, and the new film still roughly 8 months away, I think I'll hold off any plans to start prepping for a game I could barely get off the ground even if I wanted to. My current crop of players just don't get jazzed about Star Wars the way my old groups did.

Still, pretty excited for all the upcoming material and to follow up on other rumors, and such that came out of the show (more on those when I have more solid information).


Until then...May The Force Be With You!

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Character Study

And we're back!

I have been thinking a lot about Character Creation lately.








I use the term 'Creation' and not 'Generation', but only because that's the prevailing objective for me as both a player, and a Gamemaster; I want to create a cool character.

Before I ever played a table top RPG, I had made up my own Superheroes, and put the uniform of a spare Mego Scotty action figure on the Andorian action figure from the same line, came up with an original name, and played with a character I had created.

When designing a character for an RPG nowadays, I try to come up with someone who we haven't quite seen before, but who is at the same time easily recognizable as an individual who fits into that given universe. I want them to have a goal, something they enjoy, something they dislike, and most of all a reason for doing what they do in the campaign they're a part of.

What I don't give a damn about [generally speaking] is whether or not they are the best at their job. At least not initially. I also don't care if they are super effective in combat. Effective yes, as I don't want the character to die, and rip-roaring battles are fun to be a part of. I never want to be a character who can't contribute anything during a fight.

That said...

I really dislike character creation systems where you have to take 'Feat A' now to get 'Feat J-7' at some later date. Nothing turns me off of a system so much as that. The idea that you need to pick the 'right' skills, and abilities in order to not only qualify for others, but to be in anyway effective runs completely counter to the organic growth that can only occur in a pencil, paper, and dice RPG.

Since there is no way for me to know what is going to happen a dozen sessions from now - what might happen to my character, my team, what I might do, what I might need - how the hell am I going to plan, and plot what skills I am going to need so far in advance? Why would I want to? How can my character evolve over time if I have to decide its ability progression months, and months before the character reaches the point where it can take a given ability?

What I mean by that last bit is that to plan that far ahead means I would have to know what was going to happen in the story, and campaign, and that sort of sucks. That's like skipping ahead and reading Order of the Phoenix when you're not even done reading Prisoner of Azkaban just so you know what ability to give Harry now so he can use it later. 

Yes, when writing a book, or a series, some writers will indeed do that, but in a game it leeches the anticipation and surprise out of it for me.

Spoilers ya'know?

Now the flip side of building a character to be 'effective' is rolling up one who is completely ineffective. I have seen people happy, excited even, to play a character who is simply not good at their job. They are jazzed to have a character who is not good at fighting (a key element of Action/Adventure RPGs), and who is basically bad at pretty much anything else they would need to make their character work in the game. 

Usually an ineffective character occurs in games in which you roll randomly to determine your stats, skills, and whatnot, and it just so happens that luck isn't on your side that day. It happens. Thems the breaks in those kinds of games.

However, I have also seen players produce such characters on purpose. The mind set seems to be, "Look how nuanced, and deep my character is! She has to overcome her lame leg, being a drunkard, and parents who don't love her just to get through the day. She'll show them though! She's going to prove she can strike it rich using her mediocre fighting skills, poor knowledge of wilderness survival (she's a scout by the way), and the lack of any singular, truly remarkable ability. Yeah!"

Well, that's all well and good, but I am not sure I would want to sign on to a team that included that character without some serious motivating factor. Really, do I totally despise the same villain she does? Am I getting paid a ton to bail her worthless butt out trouble? Are we related, or something? Otherwise, is anyone else hiring?

Don't forget, when creating a character, unless you're in a Solo game, there are other players and they don't want their characters to die because you made up a tragically useless character. It's a team sport after all.

Look, Character Creation is simple, at least for me.

Look at the setting. The genre. Get an idea in your head of what it's all about. Come up with the kind of character you'd want to be in that kind of milieu. What career, or calling appeals to you there. OK, start with that. Any intriguing, playable species other Humans? Cool. I'll be one of those. Now I need an angle. A reason for my PC to do what he does. Trying to rescue his family from a tyrannical ruler? Rescue his whole species? Something smaller, more personal - revenge against a single individual? That could work. How about obtaining a set of artifacts and handing them over to the parents of a female I like so they will bless our union? Sure, why not.

Now, on to the career/class/job. I pick one because it gives me the skills I need to do the thing I want to do in the game. I'm going to make myself good at that thing, or at the very least I'll be good at the key talent that defines that job.

My pilot is going to be good a piloting. He's going to be OK at other starship related skills. He's so-so at skills un-related to his ship.

My Knight is going to be good with a sword. He'll be familiar with courtly etiquette, and can recognize heraldry. He is unfamiliar with magic. He can't move particularly stealthily. He can ride a horse.

That's it. That's all. That's my big process. I don't write tons of background - just a few key points so I have an idea who they are before I start. As the game goes on, the character's back story will develop. I don't give them a few skills at uber high levels, but rather a few key skills at an above average rating, a few at decent ratings, and a few at 'well, at least I have these if I need them'. 

My favorite systems are ones where I can create the character I want to play. I don't need to roll for ideas, though certainly I sometimes get ideas while rolling. I can create a character without a system, so all I need the rules to do is show me how to apply numbers to my concept.






Games with Character Creation Systems I like include:


Ars Magica, and Pendragon

Here are the parts that make up characters in this world. Pick the ones you like, discard the ones you don't, add a trait here, tack on a flaw there, adjust the numbers...and...you're good to go. Really the only great medieval fantasy character creation systems I've played, and/or run.

Star Trek, FASA and Last Unicorn Games versions

Near perfect character creation. Start with a species, add the job you are going to do in the game, fill out some background - What did you do before joining Starfleet? What did you study in the Academy? Where were you assigned when you graduated? Any other assignments before your current one/the start of the campaign? Modify the numbers a bit, and done. Love it.


Star Wars D6 by West End Games.

I love being able to slap together a cool character in a matter of minutes. Pick a template, allocate some points, write a few notes, done. 


Champions, Mutants & Masterminds, and Other Supers games

Here's some points. Build what you want. Anything. Not enough points? OK, give yourself a weakness - fear of enclosed spaces, arch-enemy out to get you, allergic to a rare, alien mineral. Fly the way you want to fly, zap the way you want to zap. So much fun.


Traveller (Classic)

I also really like Traveller character creation even though it's mostly random rolling, something I generally dislike when making up characters. I like it in this instance because as I've noted before, character creation in classic Traveller is a mini-game onto itself. Having an imperfect image of the kind of character you want to play, then going through the process to get as close as you can is interesting. Plus, you sometimes get little inspirations along the way when you don't get exactly what you want. 


Character Creation systems I could do without...


Dungeons and Dragons (any edition), Pathfinder (ugh - the worst), and Savage Worlds. I know, I know, but Savage Worlds just feels like a mess to be. It has a ton of unnecessarily redundant abilities, and skills, and it feels so 'gamey' in play that I just can't take it. The system feels like it's looking over your shoulder, or sitting in your lap the whole time. 

So that's my humble opinion of the good, and bad of character creation. I don't think I really addressed what I wanted to say, and I certainly I could've given more constructive advice on what constitutes a 'good' character, but I got out a lot of creative blockage that has been clogging up my chest lately.

Maybe I'll take another swing at this again in the near future.


Happy Easter Sunday everyone.

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Barking Alien














Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Matzah and Colored Eggs

Posting will be even lighter than usual this week my friends, as the Passover holiday lands, and my girlfriend is coming in from out of town to stay with me for a few days. I'm really excited, but it means I won't be able to get to the blog very much, if at all. I will be checking messages and comments though. 

In the meantime, a very Happy Passover to my Jewish friends, and a Happy Easter to my Christian friends, and any, and all other observers. 





The unleavened bread of the Jews, often written Matzo, 
was always Matzah, or Matza in my family as my grandparents
spoke Yiddish, and that spelling is closer to their pronunciation.







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Barking Alien





Wednesday, April 5, 2017

PARADISE FLEET - THE LONG WAY HOME - Part IV

In Part I I gave the origins of the campaign, and the player characters of the Main Story.
In Part II I talked about the PCs of the Side Story.
In Part III I gave you some background, and pre-campaign history of the Paradise Fleet universe.

Now we can address the campaign itself...


Synopsis: Main Story





The Main Story PCs' home, and headquarters - A Corporation Alliance Light Cruiser.



Our campaign opened with the Player Character Mecha Squadron, accompanied by some NPC Mecha Pilots and support craft, flying at high speed through space on approach to an unexplored planet. 

Communications went back and forth between the squadron's command ship, a Corporation Alliance Light Cruiser, and the team letting them know what sensors had revealed about the planet they were heading for. The planet was terrestrial, but hot, with large expanses of rocky desert and dusty mesa. There were very few large, standing bodies of water; nothing like an ocean on Earth had been detected. Small seas, and lakes were scattered across the surface. There was a thin atmosphere, lighter than Earth gravity, some flora, and little fauna. 

The group banters about how sick they are of encountering useless balls of rock, and dust. "At least this one isn't frozen solid", says someone. "Or on fire", cracks another. The NPC commander tells them to quiet down and keep it together. There could be some much needed resources down there, and it was their job to make sure the survey team can land in a safe place.

There was a mood of mild tension at the unspoken implication that although they haven't yet encountered any intelligent life, there remained the possibility that they were not alone, and the others might not be friendly.

The mecha squadron rocketed towards the atmosphere as the support ships, mainly research, and mining survey craft, fell back and entered planetary orbit. Seconds later re-entry caused heat, and flames to lick across the heat shielding of the robots. They descended toward the planet's surface, 'skating' across a wide expense of desert with their foot mounted vernier thrusters. Up ahead, they could see a series of low, rocky hills. Many of these hills were covered with crystalline speleothem-like formations (such as stalactites, and stalagmites). 

Going in for a closer look, and hoping the crystals were similar to the type they needed for their energy weapons and force field generators, the pilots were startled, and their mecha damaged by a sudden, surprise attack! The crystal spines that had formed on the hills launched off, flew through the air at high speed, and pierced through the armor of some of the mechs.

As the team members scrambled to figure out what had happened, one of the hills 'unrolled' itself into a monstrous, Kaiju-sized creature with rock-like, armor plated skins. Then another did the same. Then another...

This was the gist of many of our sessions - the team of Mecha Pilots and their highly advanced humanoid machines would land on a mysterious planet and deal with whatever that world had going on. Maybe giant rock monsters were protecting important crystal deposits. Perhaps vital water, or food supplies were found on a planet about to be wrecked by a geological disaster, and the heroes had to race against time to get what they needed. 







In addition to the aforementioned situations, the PCs heroes had to deal with a variety of other obstacles, and enemies. Key among these were dangers from planetary bodies, and other astrophysical issues, as well as renegade elements within the fleet. 

The latter became an issue around the third, or fourth session and continued throughout the campaign. Dissident groups within the Combined Operations Space Fleet periodically let their differences of opinion be known by attacking the PC group, the command ships, or disrupting various operations. 

At one point it seemed that a particular band of renegades was actually on the trail of the big secret, but their understanding of what was really going on seemed to differ (see the Side Story) from that of the main PC team..On a few occasions the Main Squadron PCs, and the Renegade Squadron PCs crossed paths. At least twice they teamed up. At least once they fought. 

Occasionally, the Main Mecha Squadron would encounter a sentient alien species, such as the iron age lizard-frog beings the team met on a dying swamp world, or the mid-20th century, um, things that captured them in an Area 51 type situation. Very Star Trek.

Before long the PCs uncovered a few major, reoccurring plot elements.

First, they met an intelligent alien species with technology slightly more advanced then their own called the Michians (a play on Michi No, Japanese for 'Unknown').

These cold yet curious, almost 'knowledge hungry' humanoids were like a cross between Vulcans, and capricious Fae. They were seeking information, and artifacts belonging to an ancient civilization of beings far more advanced then either Humans, or Michians. The ancient ones, long since gone from our cosmos, may yet remain, albeit in a different form...

The big reveal - discovered only after piecing together numerous clues, hints, and some serious digging - was that the anomaly that transported Paradise Fleet across the galaxy was actually a gestalt consciousness of the ancients! Specifically, the anomaly was formed from all of the psychic energy connected to the species' positive emotions - compassion, hope, altruism, etc.

The gestalt entity had arranged the original cease fire between the three interstellar governments, and set up the formation of Paradise Fleet as a means of getting the peoples of the three nations to work together. When that didn't seem to be working, the entity transported the Combined Operations Space Fleet to the other end of the galaxy so that they would be forced to unite in order to survive.

There appeared to be an additional reason as well...

There existed a second entity, a dark reflection of the first one made of negative emotions, and out to ensure the destruction of the Paradise Fleet, and the positive natured anomaly. 


More still on the way...

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Barking Alien






Monday, April 3, 2017

The Start of Something Special

No, it's not the A-to-Z Blog Challenge. Skipping that this year.

Rather, my monthly group, and I - The Barking Alien Group - have finally come to a verdict on our next campaign. 






TRAVELLER: THE HINTERWORLDS



We are returning to classic Traveller with a game set in the same 'universe' as our previous one, but 20 years later.

The PC founded company from our three year long prior campaign (which ended in December of last year), The Independents Incorporated, is sponsoring an exploratory mission into the no man's land frontier sector known as The Hinterworlds. This region is not currently claimed by any known political power.

The overarching purpose of the expedition is to seek out resources, potential colonial opportunities, potential security threats, or governments hostile to the Imperium, in hopes of further Imperial interests, as well as their own.

Although technically employees of the corporation, the new PCs are free to go about their mission in any way they choose. The deal is that the more they discover, and the more useful what they find turns out to be, the more money the company will pay them. 

We had a character creation session where we also discussed the relations between the old PCs and the new ones (if any), and what the individual motivations of each character are for going on this expedition. 

There is some good stuff here, and a lot of potential. We are toying with the idea of troupe play, wherein each player has two characters - one that remains with the ship, and another that goes on landing party/away missions. 

I'm pretty excited as I know Traveller works well for this group, those that were in the previous game loved it, and I have wanted to run an exploration game setting in The Hinterworlds for many years. 

I will keep you all posted.

In other news...

After reconnecting with a lot of my old friends from New Jersey, and Pennsylvania last week at the funeral for my dear friend Allen, we decided to meet for a big one shot get together sometime between now, and mid-summer. My ex-wife suggested that I run a game, and others concurred. I am deeply touched, and of course happy to do just that. 

I have several ideas already (because, ya'know, when don't I?), including a prequel of sorts to the above mentioned Traveller game. Other ideas (some from requests, and suggestions) were Galaxy Quest, Star Wars, and something with giant robots. 

Lastly (at least for the moment), I am planning a second (roughly) monthly game with some old NJ and NY friends that may also be set in the Traveller universe. We are considering playing another ship in the same sector competing with the first one. The result would make the overall narrative much larger in scope.

It is also possible we may opt for something else, but for now this is the prevailing idea.

Kind of a mini-'State of The Game' address, no? 

What have you got in the works?

AD
Barking Alien