Las Vegas Board Games Group Meetup December 12

The Las Vegas Board Games Meetup on December 12 at the Juke Joint was a special holiday occasion. Organizer Stephen Brissaud aka Frenchy raffled off over 20 games early in the evening with every participant walking away with a game. I was never quite sure of what the entry fee was, but donated $5 via Paypal, which seemed to cover my entry.

Cover for board game Commander-in-ChiefUp for grabs potentially were Killer Bunnies, Castle Panic, Bloodsuckers, King of Tokyo, Uchronia, Munchkin, Pokers Wild!, Lost Cities, Reverse Charades, How to Host a Murder, and many other titles. My card got drawn towards the end of the raffle and it didn’t take me long to select Commander-in-Chief. I had seen the game before at the GAMA Trade Show and sat in on several seminars with its creator. Besides containing components to play Checkers and Chess, there is the actual Commander-in-Chief game which is played with large clunky military vehicles that easily double as toys for young children. For a $5 raffle, I was pleased with what I got.


Having played and won Havana from 999 Games once before, I readily agreed to play it again, but was surprised to finish with only 11 points to my opponents’ 17 and 22. One of my opponent’s strategy of playing his Siesta card with a value of 0 over and over again at the end didn’t seem to be that promising to begin with, but he ended up getting more of what he wanted before the rest of us. The Siesta (0) combined with Grandma (9) creates a hand of 09, letting its player get a jump on his competitors. Meanwhile I was going for cards combining to 21-49 at the same and was going second or last. I also wasn’t planning ahead at all, going for the low-hanging fruit rather than saving for the buildings that yield 5+ Victory Points. All of my initial impressions about Havana were right: it is a great little game.

Black table with Havana board game pieces at Juke Joint bar

11 Points of Holdings in Havana While Opponent Switches to Siesta Tactic

Castle Panic

Board Game Box Art for Castle PanicWe moved onto the newly-acquired Castle Panic next. I was put off by its simplistic artwork and cartoony style. Cooperative board games are also new to me. In Castle Panic the players take the role of castle defenders and work together to stop the oncoming rush of monsters from the forests. It’s a turret defense game and a couple of turns into it, I was hooked.

Every turn players draw a new card and have a chance to exchange a card for another or to make a single trade with the other players. Cards allow you to make attacks against the invading monsters who move inwards on the game’s concentric circles, passing through the Forests, Archers, Knights, and Swordsmen circles before they arrive at the castle’s walls and the castle’s towers. Attacking the walls costs monsters 1 HP, but then the walls are destroyed. A combination of two cards, the Brick and Mortar, can rebuild a wall section. The circles are further divided into four color-coded quadrants. A Green Archer can be played to damage a monster in the Green Archer area. The monsters range from the one HP Goblins to 3 HP Trolls, but there are special monsters with special rules. At the end of each player’s turn, surviving monsters move inwards one step and two new monsters are drawn. If the players survive the 40 or so monster tiles, they win. If the monsters wipe out all of the castle’s towers, the players lose.

Castle Panic board game playing pieces at Juke Joint bar with wall sections missing

Not Long After Beginning the Game Our Castle is Taking Damage in Castle Panic

After the first few turns our precarious position was made clear as we began losing walls and special monster tokens were revealed that forced us to draw more monsters. Plague tokens were revealed wiping out all Knights and Archers in our hands. Someone (me) hadn’t shuffled the cards well and we were besieged by rushing hordes of evil. It was a lot of fun. Towards the end of the game we found much more powerful cards at the bottom of the deck. I was having so much fun battling the monsters and just trying to survive that I didn’t care about the game’s one concession to players who have to be the best, the Slaymaster. Simply put, the Slaymaster is the player who killed the most HP of monsters. I don’t know who took it, but I do know that we only had two of our towers remaining at the end of the game and we had been saved by a lucky Boulder that had been revealed and wiped out a mass of dangerous monsters.

I haven’t witnessed much back to back game play at the Board Game Meetups. Everyone wants to try something new, but I would have jumped at the chance to play Castle Panic from Fireside Games again after we finished.

The precarious end of the board game Castle Panic at the Juke Joint bar

Our Castle Towards the End of Castle Panic as We Barely Escape Defeat

King of Tokyo

Since Brissaud is the American distributor for IELLO, most Meetup members have played Richard Garfield’s King of Tokyo dozens of times. This was my second. We were using the new expansion, Power Up! Slowly monsters maneuvered into Tokyo Bay and out of it as I tried to gather energy and use the expansion’s mechanic of Evolution, which can be done once for every three Hearts rolled. I gained powers and Victory Points on my Kraken monster as several of the other players dropped, until it was down to three of us. Like me, my opponent Vincent was attracted to building up power, unlocking new abilities, and seeing what Evolution had in store for him. We both would have been disappointed had the game ended in five minutes, but this game went on and on.

Epic game of King of Tokyo at Juke Joint bar table

Kraken is Powered Up! It has Dread Maw, Sunken Temple, Jets, Rapid Healing, and Alien Metabolism

It ended up being the most epic game of King of Tokyo that some of the veterans had ever witnessed, going for well over an hour. Vincent and his monster were eventually eliminated, leaving me head to head with Dan. I had special abilities out the wazoo and so did he. His Evolutions focused on doing extra damage. Damage I could soak up with the help of the special Rapid Healing card letting me spend 2 Energy to heal 1 point of damage. Dan also had an ability that could force me to reroll one die each round which was quite annoying. With my victory in sight via Victory Points, Dan’s monster finished me off, but the game wasn’t over yet as I played It Has a Child, letting me return to the game anew, but without all my cool powers, Evolutions, and Victory Points. Despite what seemed like an overwhelming advantage against me, I began slogging it out, going back into Tokyo and accumulating 2 Victory Points a turn, plus another from a special card that gave me an extra VP whenever my opponent had more. I also had a card at some point that took away one 1 VP from my opponent whenever I damaged him and over many turns caught up. The game came down to a single die as I stood at 18 VPs in Tokyo with a guaranteed victory next turn. Dan attacked and stopped during one of his dice rolls because he had done enough damage to kill me, or so he thought. I had a special card allowing me to change a single die roll in the game to anything I wanted, but he managed to roll an extra Attack and I was down.

Power Up! Expansion

Box Art for King of Tokyo Power Up! ExpansionFor me, the Power Up! expansion takes an enjoyable beer and pretzels game and makes it great. King of Tokyo will always come down to some lucky dice rolls and the skill in choosing which dice to keep, but the Evolutions add extra tactics. The new Evolutions are themed to their associated creature which adds more flavor and Power Up! also introduces the new Pandakai monster to trample Tokyo. The monsters have gone from being merely skins with the same abilities as one another to actually developing their own personalities. For Kings of Tokyo owners, I think Power Up! is a must-have.

Vegas Game Day December 8

The final Vegas Game Day of 2012 drew a slightly smaller crowd than normal to the Emergency Arts Building near Fremont Street Experience on December 8. Starting in the new year, Vegas Game Day will be moving to the third Saturday of every month and will also be starting earlier, running from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. As a morning person, I welcome the change. The area isn’t the best either, so it will make for a safer walk to my car.

Savage Worlds: Flight of the Living Dead

Back in November, Jerrod Gunning ran a session of Savage Worlds: Jem that saw the iconic cartoon band from the 1980s bringing a defector in from the cold using their deep cover as a rock band to perform the CIA’s dirty work. Or so I gathered, because I was playing Hellas at the time. Since playing in his My Little Pony and Scooby Doo Savage Worlds games, Gunning has started his own website, where he provides other Savage Worlds fans insights into his own devious mash-ups, adventures, and rules concoctions.

Gunning promised to kill us all in Flight of the Living Dead, his zombie apocalypse adventure set high in the skies on Savage Air Flight 69 from Chicago to Las Vegas. Once we had run through his six prepared PCs we could take on the roles of the flight crew and experience their dismemberment. As usual Jerrod Gunning does insane prep for his adventures and I browsed through Sly Stallone’s picture and Morgan Freeman’s, before choosing the character of Anthony White, Chicago Metropolitan PD. White had the Disadvantage of being Arrogant which suited me just fine. His illustration is actor Anthony Anderson from Law and Order. Fortunately I have been slowly making my way through the police procedural series and am stuck somewhere in 2002 and so hadn’t encountered Anderson yet. Playing Morgan Freeman would have been like playing God, but playing the heavy Anderson seemed within my reach, especially since I have no idea of how he sounds or what he acts like.

RPG character card for PC Anthony White for Savage Worlds zombie game

Gunning Provides Players with Airline Ticket Character Sheet, Plastic Bullet Bennies, Dice, & More

Joining me on SA69 were Air Marshal John Brickman (Sylvester Stallone) and the cowardly architect Timothy Treymore (Jason Statham playing against type). Brickman, who had the advantage of being armed with a Glock, almost immediately got himself into some Mile High Club shenanigans with a stewardess with a very high Aced Flirt or Seduction roll. In Savage Worlds, if you max a die roll you keep rolling until you stopped and Brickman rolled very well. For those of us keeping our body parts to ourselves (for the time being), things got complicated during our in-flight viewing of The Dark Knight Rises. An old lady started to have a seizure or fit and soon was biting into another passenger. While the architect booked it because of his Yellow disadvantage, I asserted some command presence, or at least tried to. I also tried to work in a Snakes on a Plane reference, but for the life of me, couldn’t manage it.

Three gamers playing Savage Worlds at Vegas Game Day with signs

Flight of the Living Dead: Gunning Entertains Perry Snow and Casey Spicer

The old lady and I tussled. Brickman showed up and I returned to my seat. Then things got chaotic as others started to turn. The architect knew that they were zombies, but Brickman and I played it dumb at first. He ended that when he pistol whipped one to death. I was like “Whoa, whoa! Not me, that wasn’t me! That was the Air Marshal,” before whispering to him “Haven’t you ever heard of a civil suit?” Introductions were made and the situation continued to deteriorate until it was hard to disbelieve the evidence before my eyes. I wasted a couple zombies, starting with the one who clawed me.

R.I.P. Anthony White

My weapon of choice was a fire extinguisher. I never sprayed it at the zombies, instead caving their heads and torsos in with it. I must have killed two or three as I made Vigor roll after Vigor roll. We didn’t talk about it at the table, but we all knew it was only a matter of time before Anthony White turned. Perry Snow as Brickman began referring to me as “Chicago” as we did battle with the undead. A zombie’s head exploded, in Gunning’s words, “like a bag of salsa in a microwave.” As I became Fatigued I started feeling it in real life, letting my role play grow more and more exhausted, trying to find a drink in the upstairs lounge to cool off as the fever wracked my body while Brickman conferred with our pilot. We hit turbulence and somehow White clung to life and a seat. Brickman shot more. I found some inner strength and took another two out. There were references to Diamond Shaft and Tango and Cash as we fought on. I spoke my last words to Brickman as he took aim at a zombie with his Glock, “Make every one count.” Then I succumbed, dying.

Two PCs and GM for Savage Worlds playing role-playing game at Vegas Game Day

Jerrod Gunning Throttles a Phantom Zombie

In undeath, Anthony White truly was a monster. The architect Treymore came out of the cargo hold, where he’d been hiding and fighting off a zombie by himself for most of the game. Somehow there was a pitchfork aboard the plane and the architect wielded it against White as Brickman shot at his former short term partner, having abandoned his first method of execution. Originally Brickman was trying to go for the “ironic mercy killing” by clubbing me with my own fire extinguisher saying, “White, you were a good man. I wouldn’t want you coming back.” Instead, the other PCs fought against my character, now an NPC, round after round, but still White refused to go down. Brickman was missing easy shots. Plastic bullets used as Bennies were flying off the table. Eventually it happened and there was possibly another bag of salsa description as White fell.

Carrying On in White’s Footsteps

With Morgan Freeman still out for me as a possible PC choice, I had to select from between the Scarlett Johansson bail bondswoman and the social media happy blogger Jason Vaughn played by Ashton Kutcher. Since I like to play assholes the choice was pretty easy.

Ashton Kutcher as Jason Vaughn in Savage Worlds

Replacement PC, Coward, and All Around Douche: Jason Vaughn

Vaughn spent most of the flight cowering in the bathroom tweeting to his followers about the unfolding drama and getting the scoop on the architect by posting his Nikon Coolpix footage while the architect’s smart phone content was still uploading. Treymore tweeted at me. I tweeted @treymore. I cowered. I failed Fear checks to get out of there. I decided my SIM card was getting full and dashed for it. Just then, with tears in his eyes, a flight attendant rushed to the emergency exit and opened it. WHOOSH! We all made a series of checks to avoid getting sucked out as zombies and hapless passengers flew past and joined the despondent attendant in his plummet. Then unbelievably we were landing at McCarran. We had survived! Well, most of us anyways.

Pathfinder Society Silken Caravan No Go

For the evening session I was scheduled on Warhorn to play PSS 00-03 Murder on the Silken Caravan. While waiting for the afternoon Pathfinder Society session to end and get our third and fourth players, I started to pick Venture Captain Chris Clay’s brain on what sort of equipment I might buy and how to otherwise improve my fighter Asir. I ended up getting a Wayfinder and a good deal of advice from Clay and the other player. The Wayfinder provides magical light, serves as a non-magical compass, and can also house ioun stone, provided I live long enough to acquire one. I learned that my skills were off by a good deal (much to my benefit) and went back through and reconfigured them. After an hour of this and BSing, Clay apologized and called the game off because Murder on the Silken Caravan is a long and involved adventure and we wouldn’t be able to finish it in the remaining three hours before the hard deadline of midnight at the Emergency Arts Building.

Nonstop Flights from Chicago to Las Vegas

Meanwhile Jerrod Gunning had been running the second session of Flight of the Living Dead with the same basic structure and events. Brickman was taken as a PC again and blasting away at zombies as well as hitting the Morgan Freeman character, a retired Vietnam vet and airline pilot with a prosthetic leg. The passengers seemed to be just as dangerous as the zombies as I sat in on the session and listened as Gunning described their stampede. I left with a feeling of hope that Las Vegas would be protected from the brainless zombie menace thanks to the PCs’ heroics and made my way safely home through the drunk tourists on Fremont Street.

Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands DVD

Heavy Gear Battle for the Badlands DVD Cover with Mecha GearsWanting to get deeper into Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear: Blitz! game and setting, I ordered Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands from Netflix with low expectations. Friends had warned me that the animated series isn’t very good and they were right. They maybe should have said. “Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands? We don’t talk about that.” Released in 2002, Battle for the Badlands is a collection of five episodes from the second act of the 3D computer animated series, presented as a single film with one opening sequence and one set of credits at the end. Besides the lacking animation and uninspiring stories, there is also little attempt to explain any of the action onscreen to the viewer. You either understand a traveling arena with mecha whose pilots are trying to kill each other in between sanctioned tournaments or you already follow Heavy Gear. But then there’s very little for a Heavy Gear fan to get out of Battle for the Badlands except to see the Gears in motion, but for that, there are video games which I bet are far more entertaining. The question I kept asking myself throughout the DVD’s hour and 39 minutes was “Why was this ever made in the first place?” Most of the other movies involving gaming I’ve seen are worth seeing at least once, but I suggest staying away from this dull stinker. If you have to see it for yourself, watch any five minutes of Battle for the Badlands; it will never get any better. That said, if you are a fan of the podracer scene from The Phantom Menace and its double-headed announcer, this may be the film for you.

The Good in the Badlands and the Gaming Connection

The only reason I would consider watching Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands again is to study the Gear designs up close and in action. The beauty of Heavy Gear really comes down to the wonderful aesthetics of its Gears and they fortunately are in 95% of the movie. It is easier to spot what a particular Gear’s part does when it is blown up on screen as opposed to trying to figure out the detail on a 28mm figure. MRFs or Medium Rifles are just as ineffective in the animation as they seem to be in the game and there are plenty of Light Rocket Pods (LRPs) and Medium Rocket Pods (MRPs) in the film, though when the rockets and missiles fire on screen, they’re slow and kind of impotent. There’s not much variety in the Gears themselves with the Southern pilots using a variety of Jagers plus one Cobra and a Rattlesnake. It looks like the Northern Gears may be Hunters with a Mad Dog thrown in. One cool detail in the DVD is the existence of “Gear Beat” magazine, which is Terra Nova’s version of “Tiger Beat”. Something I’ve also not encountered in Blitz is a Vibro Naginata, which is wielded by the villainess Yoji in the show. While I’m unfamiliar with the Heavy Gear RPG or miniatures game of the early 2000s, the current iteration of the game is far, far superior to anything in the animated series. I would not even have this DVD on in the background while painting because the animation and dialogue are really that bad and distracting.

Plot, Characters, and Dialogue

No matter how wonderfully designed the Gears are, if the story is subpar and the characters are flimsy, it all adds up to a steaming wreck. The stories could be lifted from RPG adventures or Heavy Gear scenarios, but poor ones at that. The good Shadow Dragons from the South battle against the cheating Northern Guard team, Vanguard of Justice. First they do it aboard a gigantic Mag Lev train, then in the mysterious MacAllen Tunnels and Waterloo Arena, then twice in the main tournament in Trash City Arena to see who will become Heavy Gear Tournament Champion, and yet again, in a third tournament (with a twist) in Trash City Arena. Along the way young Marcus Rover is shown to be far superior to his older teammates, a teenaged ace who fights with honor. Despite being the protagonist, he’s also nearly as shallow as the GREL soldier Sebastian or his Japanese ally Tachi who fights with his great grandfather’s Vibro Katana. They are all cardboard cutouts and the Battle for the Badlands makes no attempt to even have a moral of the story, except for “Don’t cheat!” As for the cheaters themselves, they’re drawn from old clichés, ranging from the Russian sniper Serge to the Dreadnok-like Rank. They certainly cheat and double-cross at every turn with zero consequences from the Heavy Gear Championship Tournament organizers and with the complicity of announcer Maddox, who even remotely pilots a gigantic dragon Mega Gear against Marcus Rover during one of the arena combats. In a setting where Southern Gears derive their names from serpents and other reptiles, it’s odd that no one comments on this draconic Mega Gear or even on Major Drake Alexander Wallis III’s first name.

“Hot metal-munching mama!”

The dialogue is horrible stuff. I love some pretty bad puns, but “This is what I call a Gear death experience,” is pushing it. “Goodness gearacious!” is over the line. Marcus Rover has a constant refrain throughout the film, “Dragons forever!” What this means and who it inspires is anyone’s guess. There were a few little gems. One character exclaims, “Hot metal-munching mama!” My favorite lines though followed a character’s apparent death. After one character mourns, “He was like a father to me,” the other responds “He was like a commanding officer to me.” Very dry and these came from the villains’ team.

This is Heavy Gear? Animation and World

When not in their Gears, the characters’ animation from Mainframe Entertainment ranges from barely passable to awful. I was surprised to see that motion capture was actually used. Faces are usually expressionless and resemble mannequins. The shot of the crowd cheering is especially obnoxious. I know this was 2002, but World of Warcraft introduced /cheering that was much more lively two years later in 2004. Every environment in WoW also has more depth and occasionally the only texture in Battle for the Badlands is a skin applied to one of the surfaces in the background. By the end of the disc I would have settled for static frames with voiceover as is sometimes done to save money in animation. At the same time the directing and visual narrative is consistently strong. The animators went for cinematic shots found in Hollywood blockbusters, eschewing simpler shots common in 2D animation. Make no mistake about it, a lot of effort went into Battle for the Badlands with battle damage on gears and attention to lighting sources and shadows, but to no avail.

The other sad part of the animation to me as a fan of Heavy Gear: Blitz is that while I am aware that Gears have multiple movement modes including Walker or Ground (wheeled), I really hadn’t realized how much like roller derby Heavy Gear actually is. At times in the animated series, they are actually skating by crossing their Gears’ legs over and not just moving directly forward on their wheels. The world onscreen is also a puzzling one. I know it’s the Badlands and it should be a rough place, but where do the tens of thousands of spectators actually live? What do they even subsist on in the desert landscape? What powers the huge arena video screens? Why in such a desolate area are there giant roller coaster cars that seat six 25-foot tall Gears each? Obviously so the Gears can race each other for the audience’s entertainment. Phantom Menace podracing indeed.

DVD: The Dungeon Masters (2008)

Blue skinned cartoon drow on cover of 2008 DVD Jacket of The Dungeon MastersThe Dungeon Masters is a depressing documentary from 2008 about the depressing lives of three gamers. In form and style, The Dungeon Masters is everything a documentary should be. The visuals are excellent, with good establishing shots, steady camerawork, and zero confusion in transitions. As far as content and its subject matter, The Dungeon Masters is deceptively titled, especially for existing gamers who would imagine that the movie might actually capture what the role of being a Dungeon Master or Game Master is all about. The movie doesn’t go there. There aren’t topics like “Dealing with Problem Players” or “How I Became a DM”. Even if “Dungeon Master” is taken to be about being a master of Dungeons & Dragons, the title is way off and sure to arouse the ire of even casual D&D players.

The only parts of The Dungeon Masters I can recommend are the opening Gen Con sequence and the filming at a LARP in Mississippi for four minutes. Otherwise the movie has little to do with gaming and too much to do with the dysfunctional lives of its three subjects. Even though it is only an hour and 27 minutes, The Dungeon Masters has the emotional impact of Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor and seems like a much longer film. At the same time, director Keven McAlester and editor Christine Khalafian vary the shots and cut between the subjects enough that the despair and loneliness never get tedious. Just when you think that you have a handle on each GM’s life and problems, there’s another horrible revelation or another misfortune waiting in the wings. Having seen it multiple times now, I would rather watch Precious or The Human Centipede again before I shoulder the burden of another viewing of The Dungeon Masters. Comic relief is sparse, unless you are laughing at gamers’ expense. By comic relief, I mean that I chuckled when I saw that some school children were following the costumed Scott Corum along outside his son’s school, obviously fascinated by his strange outfit.

Keven McAlester’s film is so unflattering to its subjects and gaming as a whole that I give credence to claims that McAlester may have approached and edited the film with an agenda other than portraying the truth, but that is a subject for another day.

Gen Con

The first 13 minutes of Dungeon Masters is a captivating look at the three GMs in the context of the 2006 Gen Con and manages to capture as much of Gen Con in that brief time as Hobocon does in its entirety. The gloom of the rest of the movie is also absent in the Shangri-La that is Gen Con. Besides introducing the three DMs, there are interviews with many other gamers, gamers who do not appear later in the movie. For the most part, it’s also the most colorful and action-packed part of The Dungeon Masters, as the camera focuses on costumed attendee after costumed attendee, Gen Con’s opening balloons, and Cardhalla in an accurate encapsulation of the Best 4 Days of Gaming.

The LARP Segment

“When you played Cops and Robbers, you were LARPing. When you were playing dress up with your mom’s clothes, you were LARPing. When you were hiding them from your mom after you were done, you were LARPing and learning how to lie, which is a great LARP skill.”

– Jeffrey Ingram

The LARP segment is much briefer at only four minutes or so, but also embodies the sights and sounds of a LARP. Based on the reference to a Celestial column of magic and the called damage, the Live Action Role-Playing sequence seemed like a NERO LARP or an offshoot, which in fact it is. The LARP is Cerroneth, which is part of the SOLAR rules system. LARPer Jeffrey Ingram describes LARPing inclusively: “When you played Cops and Robbers, you were LARPing. When you were playing dress up with your mom’s clothes, you were LARPing. When you were hiding them from your mom after you were done, you were LARPing and learning how to lie, which is a great LARP skill.” In particular, I love how the camera captures the PCs spilling out of the tavern, surging forward as they do battle with the four undead who have come to harass the town. The drow of The Dungeon Masters, Elizabeth Reesman abandons playing her character to serve as a Monster Marshall; it would have been great if she had been asked to compare GMing tabletop games with GMing a LARP, but the closest the movie comes is Reesman’s love interest Jack Penton’s praise for her devotion as a DM.

The Dungeon Masters Themselves

GMing and role-playing are deeply personal and criticisms of one’s RP can be devastating. Players’ creative and intellectual reputations can be on the line. With that said, I have to imagine that any tabletop gamer watching The Dungeon Masters has had more meaningful and entertaining roleplay than the scant bit the film portrays. These are not masters of their craft. I think they would say as much themselves, despite their vanity. Role-playing is ultimately about FUN. D&D didn’t sell millions of copies without being fun, yet none of that is apparent watching the film’s three GMs at work.

Richard Meeks

Seattle-based Richard Meeks has what appears to be the most stable home life, working a 9 to 5 in the King County Waste Water Treatment Division and serving as a US Air Force reservist one weekend a month. His second wife doesn’t share his interest in gaming, much less seem interested by it. Meeks ranges from eccentricity to downright villainy. What will viewers remember him for? His nudist lifestyle, the emotional abandonment of his stepchildren from his first marriage, or for being a self-important party-killing DM? Meeks describes his party’s encounter with a Sphere of Annihilation as, “somebody got stupid and just decided to run through a door.” This is punishment from the DM though because Meeks “was just really mad that they were being so greedy” and therefore put an end to 7 real life years of adventuring for his Florida players. The camera catches Meeks’ journey out to Florida years later as he makes amends with a final game, letting his former players save the world of Greyhawk. Later though he sends a pissy email to his Washington players ending his campaign with them.

“You do not play Dungeons & Dragons to win or lose it in the Monopoly sense… You play the game for the experiences that you’re going to go through, not where it’s going to end up.”

– Scott Corum

I have only encountered Meeks’ brand of GMing once and it came as a shock. For most role-players, Scott Corum’s description of RPGs is accurate: “You do not play Dungeons & Dragons to win or lose it in the Monopoly sense… You play the game for the experiences that you’re going to go through, not where it’s going to end up.” Despite what Meeks says to the contrary about a GM not flaunting his power, for Meeks it is about winning or losing. His gamer friend questions whether he’s going to kill the party as Meeks reviews a Greyhawk module on public transit; he smirks in response. “Because If I don’t kill you by midnight then I haven’t done my job,” Meeks threatens his Washington players. While player death is a great motivator, for Meeks it seems to go much deeper psychologically. “But if I really wanted to, I could kill any of you and I know that,” he has to point out to his players, who admittedly seemed to be enjoying themselves. One of his Florida players finds this style to be fun, saying “Richard is a very entertaining Game Master. He has a real knack for making the player characters feel that they’ve accomplished something in some way.” In character taunts are one thing, but most players I know would have nothing to do with a GM who taunts them out of character.

Scott Corum

Scott Corum overlaps with Richard Meeks in his own grandiosity. The creative and charming Corum is shown working on his modern day fantasy adventure book manuscript throughout the film. He also pursues his own program on the local cable access show in Torrance, CA. Besides a Strategicon DM t-shirt, Corum also has plenty of stories, divulging his teenage nickname “Sherlock”, his $50,000 in educational loan debt, and a background in puppetry. McAlester captures moments of domestic strife between Scott Corum and his more down-to-earth wife. When they’re not disagreeing with each other on camera, Corum has to ask whether the family can afford $20 so he can get new shoes at Payless. This trouble is compounded by his close attachment to one of his player’s wives, which comes to a head on camera when the player confronts his wife about something involving her “best friend” Corum. Corum is vague about what the exact trouble is. These unflattering moments could be studied in a psychology or sociology class and the term “emotional affair” might be used.

Corum is full of hopes and literary dreams, shedding tears when literary agent Denise Dumars telling him that she fell out of her chair after her professional reader read seven page’s of Corum’s book and told her “Buy it! The people who love The Da Vinci Code will love it.” Dumas continues to blow smoke up Corum’s ass, praising the first hundred pages of With a Single Wish Forever as “really, really good.” She goes on to relate a meeting she’s supposedly had with a Del Rey acquisitions editor who is looking for a series of books to buy and how she was thinking “Three book deal!” Consequently Corum praises her as the best agent in the world. In true Dungeon Masters fashion though, she calls and informs Corum that she hates his book. How she couldn’t have realized that from the first 100 pages, if she’d actually read them, is beyond me.

Elizabeth Reesman

It’s easy to forget that Elizabeth Reesman is a Dungeon Master, since only two minutes of her DMing are ever shown in the documentary. Instead McAlester focuses on her drow alter ego and her pillows stained with her black makeup. Living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Reesman is recovering from Hurricane Katrina and there’s many shots of her environment to remind us of how far from cleaned up the region was in 2006. Why does Reesman play World of Warcraft in her full drow makeup in a motel room, the viewer may wonder as she does just that on screen. It’s one of the more puzzling scenes in the movie that hints at a fuller untold story. Almost every segment featuring Reesman, in fact, seems to center around her costuming and her putting her makeup on. Despite two boyfriends’ praise of Reesman’s gaming skills, she is never treated as Meeks’ or Corum’s gaming equal, though she shares in their cup of misery. Reesman’s ex-husband was violently abusive and she had a miscarriage the day after her wedding. She also fends off her employer’s sexual harassment and has trouble finding new employment.

The Mirror of The Dungeon Masters

Don’t we all know some fellow gamers like the three in The Dungeon Masters? If your pool of acquaintances is large enough, Meeks, Corum, and Reesman should be vaguely familiar. These are all people I would game with, even PK-happy Meeks. I have questioned when exactly it is that some gamer friends see their wives or children or have been startled to learn that they actually have them in the first place. I’m open to the idea that one of the reasons I might dislike The Dungeon Masters and find it so disheartening is that it hits fairly close to home. Meeks and Corum are both self-important and vain; I share in their egotism. I have ended a D&D campaign angrily, frustrated by competing distractions and I have to admit that in his aspirations, Scott Corum is a kindred spirit. Hell, I love UHF and have even dreamed of my own horrible public access TV shows over the years. Fortunately I just don’t have a documentary film crew capturing me at my worst (I leave that to my own writing).

In the end, I would rather escape and laugh along as fictional characters’ lives fall to pieces in movies like Observe and Report, Super, and Foot Fist Way than watch reality play out on screen as it does in McAlester’s film. The Dungeon Masters is worth visiting once, but then belongs safely below ground, locked away like the Tomb of Horrors that it is.

Vegas Game Day – November 10

Normally playing tabletop RPGs for me is just about having a good time and isn’t about escapism, but it was nice on Saturday November 10 to be able to get into playing two different characters and not have to think too much about real life while at Vegas Game Day.

Hellas: The Keeper of Souls

Greek Sci-Fi Hellas Hoplite in armor with shield and spearAs far as I know, I have only played one other RPG with its creator GMing (Tunnels and Trolls with Ken St. Andre), so getting to play the Greek space odyssey Hellas with creator Jerry Grayson in charge promised to be good. Since interviewing Jerry back in May, Hellas successfully underwent a Kickstarter campaign to bring out the second edition of its rules. Joining me at the table was Jerry’s wife, Renee, and first time roleplayer Jack Weill. Jack took Iolaus, the re-occuring protagonist within the Hellas rulebook’s fictional stories. With Renee playing the Amazoran Niobe quickshooter, I took the warriorly dispenser of justice, Leander the Bold.

Leander is also a Myrmidon, a literal ant warrior made up of a teeming colony of ants. I put my Myrmidon abilities to use as the three of us were hosted by a rich merchant at a symposium, by splitting part of my body off to eavesdrop on our dying host and his Nymphas major domo, trying to gain further details on our adventure. Basically the old man’s son had fallen head over heels in love with a criminal woman and had even been spent to Hellas’ version of Alcatraz with her. Our mission was to rescue him from this prison world of Olinos, this Keeper of Souls. I agreed, but having looked over my sheet, pointed out that I had sent many of the criminals to die on Olinos myself and that surely I would be recognized.

The details of how we would get away from the inescapable prison planet were always pretty hazy to me, even as our supply ship dropped down and we abandoned all of our weapons and equipment to better blend in with the world’s prisoner inhabitants. We traded some fish sticks and fish shakes for information, learning that King Forbus was nearing apotheosis and would soon be leading his followers in their escape from this world and it seemed like the merchant’s son would be with him, so we headed into the main city to where some sort of contest was about to begin in an amphitheater.

Moving into the crowded prison city’s amphitheater, I decided to invoke one of Leander’s Disadvantages. I knew I might blow the mission or be killed, but it seemed worth the risk (and in my opinion it’s better to invoke a Disadvantage before the GM can do it to you). Leander was indeed recognized by one of the criminals he put away and we began to fight over his dagger using my skill at Greek wrestling or pankreation as it is known in Hellas. Meanwhile my comrades located our quarry as well as his malicious lover. I took some damage as I continue to choke out the criminal and there was a warning shot from a laser pistol as I was now beginning to interfere with the ceremonies, but I didn’t stop, until I was pulled away from him, my new dagger in hand.

Ligers, Oh My!

While Iolaus heroically offered himself as a substitute for the merchant’s son, I competed with the claim that I wanted a spot on the leaving spacecraft. Meanwhile our Amazoran approached the son on the sidelines, trying an entirely different tact of wooing him over to her. I tried to surreptitiously slip Iolaus my newly-acquired dagger because I looked his sheet over and saw that he was good at Melee, meanwhile I was very good at Pankreation. Even as the criminal kingpin was announcing what we would face I received a glorious visit from the god Apollon himself! Jerry Grayson really knows how to stroke an ego! Apollon praised me (quite deservedly I might add) and promised me glory on the battlefield. We were herded into the amphitheater and then the beasts were unleashed: two enormous ligers!

I had a hard time subduing my Napoleon Dynamite impulses at this point, but Iolaus knew what to do, ripping one open from gullet to gut with one heroic sweep of the dagger I had loaned him. Iolaus is bad ass. I struggled with my own liger, but the next turn using a Teamwork card played by Iolaus, we made short work of the other as well, earning us a place in the Big Boss’s pleasure suite. I felt like Boba Fett in Jabba’s Palace as toothless prison hags flocked to us. Iolaus pressed Forbus for a spear and the boss took one from his henchman, Bolgo, who began grumbling. From the comfort of the skybox we watched as the killing of the mimes and clowns began. We also learned more of the villains’ plans, but then I set out to get myself a new spear in the company of Bolgo.

Player Jack Weill listens to GM and Hellas Creator Jerry Grayson at Vegas Game Day

Hellas Creator and GM Jerry Grayson Explaining NPC Action to PC Jack Weill

We invaded a potter’s crappy hovel and Bolgo started threatening the poor wretch. Something gave way in my crunchy insect heart and I retorted to Bolgo, “Here’s your spear!” and really gave it to him hard, possibly spending some Hero Points to try to finish him off, but not quite killing him. I fended off his return blows and then finished him, swearing the potter to secrecy and rejoining the others in the pleasure suite where we conferred, after I’d explained away the missing Bolgo.

While I normally wouldn’t make such a choice due to fears of splitting the party or because I actually want my character to live, Leander turned to his companions and made it clear that there was no way he was going to allow the criminals to escape their just sentences, even if that was not part of the mission. I would remain behind if need be. Fortunately we all agreed and Forbus took the decision out of our hands of when to ambush him when Jerry played a card himself. Jerry took his inspiration for the Hellas cards from the TORG RPG’s destiny altering cards and played one which brought Bolgo back to life. He wasn’t dead after all.

There was a heroic melee and firefight that saw Forbus beheaded and Bolgo using a Hero Point to run away vowing to return in the future as an NPC as Jerry decided that he liked Bolgo. Iolaus, Leander, and Niobe acquitted themselves well as heroes and the criminals were left safely on Olinos to eat fish sticks, while we got to reunite the father and son. For Jack Weill, our first time role-player, it was “fun”. He normally plays strategy board games like Risk and Axis & Allies, but seemed to have an easy time understanding what was expected of him and said that he would do it again. I would too. As much as I enjoy the two Hellas one shot adventures I’ve been on, I would love to play in a Hellas campaign and accumulate glory and fame myself and work towards apotheosis.

Pathfinder Society: The Brutal Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment

We had a full table for Pathfinder Society as we sought to explore the Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment, devoted to the god Korada. One of the catches is that the temple is inside a tapestry, so the Society would be transporting us there on a mission of peaceful exploration with four parts to it. As we explored the serene temple, attuning our chakras, humming mantras, and playing with our glass balls, something seemed slightly amiss. We were exposed to a special ritual testing the purity of one’s soul, the Kiss of Korada. The turtle statue could either bestow enlightenment or sever a finger for those with impure souls. I nearly clubbed our party’s paladin when he leapt in line in front of me for the test, but he received no effect (a foreshadowing of his soul’s weakness, as it became clear later). From my previous encounter with Apollon in Hellas earlier, was it really too much to think I would get a vision from Korada too? I was disappointed when I only felt pain, though I did begin to see swirls of lights and feel tingling. My party members seemed non-plussed by both my bravery and my Kiss of Korada.

Maybe I hadn’t fully succeeded because of the negative energy I had brought with me from the Prime Material Plane as I became increasingly rude with some of the temple’s priests, questioning whether they knew that they existed within a tapestry or not. What I’m sure of is that 90 minutes into the adventure I was suddenly failing a Will save and stabbing myself with a pointy piece of wood for 13 damage. So much for exploration! Life wasn’t worth living any more and I was determined to end it, but fortunately I was Level 2 and not dying from my initial impalement. There was a “Wait a minute,” from our GM, and then some close party members were given the chance to try to interrupt my suicide attempt, but I had a hard time not chuckling as another and possibly a second also became despondent. Someone hit me with Sleep or Chromatic Spray though so I was out of it and didn’t have to worry about how the party eventually overcame this sudden pit of despair.

Venture Captain Chris Clay with 5 Pathfinder Society Members at Vegas Game Day November 10

Venture Captain Chris Clay Works from a PDF of the Adventure on a Tablet

As I recovered, the culmination of the adventure began as some of the other PCs came up with a plan to sneak into the high priest’s chambers. There was some Invisibility involved as well, but things went from bad to worse pretty quickly as our stealthy invisible ranger discovered that he was quite visible to Korada’s Chosen, who began shouting at the hapless ranger and the rest of the party, ordering our expulsion from the temple, as our party threw it into chaos. Having prevented the desecration of Abadar’s temple in Abasolm, I wasn’t about to desecrate the Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment and headed to the library to check on a possible source of the poison that we had all been exposed to for the last several days in the tapestry.

Essentially what happened next is that one slightly manageable encounter rolled over into a separate encounter, creating a near TPK. The Level 1 Ranger was the first to go, getting knocked out an hour and a half before we finished and remaining that way. While one party member distracted most of the NPCs, others went to finish the last of our quests at the temple. I would not break and enter and stayed in a hallway to help hinder the temple guards. Then there was the paladin who tried to teleport away. When the chips were down, our paladin fled. There was quite a commotion then as some of us tried to wrap our minds around the full health paladin fleeing. Maybe there was a little swearing directed at the sneaky paladin. Half of our healing was quitting the fight when we knew we already had at least one PC down! I don’t know how it got fixed, but we managed to tether Captain America to his post, but I am still shaking my head about it.

Miniatures on Dry Erase Map of Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment for Pathfinder Society

Miniatures Spread Throughout the Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment

Is it any wonder he failed Korada’s Kiss? Even with the paladin’s help and healing, for several rounds we were down to 2 injured PCs on the board with the rest of us unconscious. I was gone for the second longest as the temple’s aasimar guards didn’t care to argue the finer points of Korada’s enlightenment with me. They started attacking me and then I was Cleaving into two of them, downing one of them and severely injuring the other. “Tend to your comrade, I will not strike. I give you my word of honor,” I offered to them, but they knocked the crap out of me instead. So much for peace-loving.

I will say that the game was so close that every bad roll on the villains’ part resulted in a sigh of relief. Once our faithful cleric started rolling 5s and 6s on his healing channeling rolls we were cheering and hollering. Finally I could get up again and finally our odd Strength rogue with the polearm could get up as well. Time became the critical factor as we were rushing against the real world midnight closing of the Emergency Arts Building, which hosts Vegas Game Day. Finally we managed to overcome the evil and hurriedly packed up to leave. Phew.

The Published Adventure vs. Our Experience

Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment PDF Cover from PaizoAfter reflecting on our party’s near death experience on the drive home and trying to unwind from the tense adventure, I was dying to know some of the temple’s secrets that had eluded us despite successfully completing the adventure. Like all of the Pathfinder Society adventures, PSS 03-21 The Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment, is available for purchase and download as a PDF straight from Paizo, so I ponied up the $3.99 to see what we had missed. Had GM Chris Clay screwed us over? Were my suspicions about the nature of the poison correct? Had I really failed Korada’s Kiss or could I have ever succeeded?

The answers, it turns out, are like peeking behind the curtain at the real Wizard of Oz. Whatever I had imagined was grander and more exciting. As usual, our GM had presented exactly what was there, which was fairly humbug and humdrum. More than anything else, what this Pathfinder Society module highlighted was how important the mixture of Skills and Factions are to an adventure. Our 6 PCs represented only 3 Factions between us and none of our Faction-specific missions helped in exploring and uncovering the mystery at work in the temple. Likewise, the adventure makes repeated use of certain skills, skills which we mostly lacked to begin with or did poorly on when checking them. Consequently we were in the dark about most of the facts of the adventure until it was over.

I actually take some comfort in the fact that Pathfinder Society adventures are so rigid that it is possible to miss many important details in them. It means that every choice of a Feat is an important one that could potentially be rewarding. It also emphasizes the need for smart tactical decisions and thorough role play, while reassuring me that nobody is being singled out by the rules to be penalized for not playing how the GM thinks we should be playing. Though in the case of cowardly paladins, I might welcome some GM intervention.