Virtual Tabletop Face-Off – Roll20 Vs. Fantasy Grounds

Guest article by Cohen of the PC Gaming Guru

In recent years, tabletop gaming has experienced a bit of a renaissance – or, at the very least, a surge in popularity. This is partially due to web shows like Critical Role bringing the beauty of tabletop gaming into the public sphere.

There’s no longer a major stigma against sitting down with your friends to talk in funny voices and roll loads of dice for hours on end. Tabletop RPG players are no longer geeks who live in our mother’s basement… Well, for the most part, anyway.

Funnily enough, that’s exactly how I felt about D&D players prior to trying it for myself – as someone who plays primarily video games (mostly single player RPGs like the Witcher 3), it always seemed like a strange hobby to me.

But I’m getting off topic. The point is, I’ve since changed my mind, and come to absolutely love all things tabletop gaming!

With games like Dungeons & Dragons (And various other systems) becoming more and more popular, it’s only natural that in today’s fast-moving culture people would begin looking for alternative ways to play. After all, finding a group in real life can be hard, if not impossible in certain parts of the country. Seriously, if you live in a rural area, are you really going to drive 2 hours out of your way to play D&D every week? Probably not.

Enter virtual tabletops – online platforms that seek to emulate the experience of sitting around a table roleplaying it up with friends. While there are plenty of ways to play tabletop RPGs online, two of the most popular (at the moment) are Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds – both vastly different platforms that offer vastly different experiences.

Being that I’m actually playing in a fairly long-running virtual campaign right now (7 months now), I’ve experienced both of these platforms pretty extensively. Our group first started out with Roll20, and then migrated to Fantasy Grounds after a few months.

But that’s enough background. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this post – the comparison itself!

I’ll be covering each platform individually, going over several key points such as the cost (if any) and a few of my personal thoughts on both platforms. But first, a quick description of both platforms.

What Is Fantasy Grounds?

Fantasy Grounds is a virtual tabletop with a lot of extra features and content that set it apart from Roll20. Whereas Roll20 focuses on simplicity and functionality, Fantasy Grounds offers ridiculous amounts of customization, a beautiful interface, and plenty of optional supplements and rule books that can be purchased. However, it has its pros and cons, like any other platform – but more on that later.

I would say that Fantasy Grounds seeks to immerse its players more fully in their gaming experience.

Once you get used to the interface, accessing various menus is a breeze – your character sheet, party notes, and even magic items can all be organized into handy windows – not to mention the fact that your entire interface can be customized based on what you’re doing. For instance, when creating a new character, you simply hit the “Create PC” button which then switches all of your sidebar buttons over to ones that are more appropriate for creating a new character (Refine this paragraph once you’ve gotten into FG)

What Is Roll20?

Roll20 is another virtual tabletop, but it lacks the sophistication of Fantasy Grounds. Instead, it focuses on being as user-friendly and straightforward as possible. It also tries to be a one-stop shop for all things D&D-related.

Tiles, tokens, etc. can all be purchased from Roll20’s store, groups can be found using Roll20’s on-site LFG functionality, and each game can have its own mini-forum for players to create topics and discuss things (Should they choose to do so).

The Comparison

Pricing – Winner: Roll20

This was an easy win for Roll20, being that it’s totally free! Aside from buying completely optional battle maps, Roll20 doesn’t lock any of its features away behind a paywall. While this comes at the cost of a more limited interface and set of features in general, the lack of any up-front payments reduces the barrier to entry quite a bit. This makes it ideal for people who are looking for a quick, free way to jump into a game with friends online.

Fantasy Grounds is a paid platform, with both monthly and one-time pricing models available. There are 3 main tiers of Fantasy Grounds – Demo, Standard & Ultimate. I won’t go into the details about all of the pricing models here (There’s a LOT to cover), but you can read about it on the Fantasy Grounds website.

The gist of FG’s pricing, though, is that there are 3 tiers – Demo, Standard & Ultimate.

Demo players are only able to play in Ultimate-hosted games, but it’s free for them to do so.

Standard players get access to everything Ultimate players do (Tokens, battle maps, rulesets, etc.) but they can only play games with other Standard or Ultimate players – in other words, unless you shell out the extra cash for the Ultimate tier, everyone in your party is going to have to pay for a Standard membership.

Ultimate players get access to a ton of tokens, battle maps, and all major ruleset books and data libraries, but the big attraction here is that they can also host games for players of any service tier – including demo players. This means that you essentially only need one player (Probably the DM) to pay for an Ultimate membership, and the rest of the party can play in his or her games for free!

Finding A Game – Winner: Roll20

Another easy win for Roll20. Roll20 offers an on-site LFG system, where you can create your own custom profile and list some of the things you’re looking for in a game. You can filter open games by communication medium (Voice, text-only, video, video+voice), ruleset (5E, 4E, or something completely un-D&D related) and experience level (whether or not they accept newbies).

Fantasy Grounds, on the other hand, lacks this functionality entirely.

Fantasy Grounds comes in the form of a program, and it does not communicate with any major databases or servers – in other words, there is no “LFG hub” available. You will have to find players through more traditional means, such as the LFG subreddit, or various other RPG group-finding platforms. This may not necessarily be a “con” for some people (As it can be difficult to find the right group even on Roll20’s platform), but it’s worth mentioning.

The Interface – Winner: Fantasy Grounds

This is one area where Fantasy Grounds absolutely takes the lead. The interface is highly customizable (By the DM and the players), easy to use (Once you get over the initial learning curve), and really helps immerse you in the game.

The leathery background, parchment-like menus, dialogue boxes, and even the 3D dice (Which can be tossed around your virtual table at will) all serve to make Fantasy Grounds a real joy to use. All in all, Fantasy Grounds offers a more complete and hands-on interface.

Fantasy Grounds allows you to drag gear, spells, weapons and various other things directly from their in-program rulesets and books to your character sheet, where it automatically calculates the effects of everything for you (Including weight and encumbrance). Being able to drag a new spell directly from Fantasy Ground’s spell list to my character sheet, and then instantly use it (If I so choose), is amazing.

Now, on to Roll20.

Roll20’s interface is by no means bad, but it is limited. While you can create character sheets and access basic rules (Such as spells and spell descriptions), you’ll still need physical (Or paid digital) copies of things like the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Player’s Handbook to play effectively. People can manage without, of course, but it might slow down the pace of the game. The fact that Fantasy Grounds handles all that for you is pretty nice.

The downside of Roll20’s interface is just how tedious it can be to set everything up. Spell descriptions and effects, armor, weapons and their functions must all be entered manually – Often requiring you to constantly flip between your Player’s Handbook or DMG outside of the game. This disconnect between playing the game and flipping through rulebooks can be quite a chore, and can really break your immersion at times.

However, as with Fantasy Grounds, you can set up battle maps, filled with custom tiles and tokens – or go the “theater of mind” route and do away with tokens and maps entirely!

Playing The Game – Winner: Fantasy Grounds

Fantasy Grounds also has the advantage here. As I’ve stated a couple times now, interacting with the Fantasy Grounds interface is an absolute pleasure – it’s as simple or as complex as you want it to be, and the 3D dice are way better than Roll20’s.

The DM can download a whole host of user-created plugins  (From the forums) that can change the look and feel of the game, while also adding more features and options for players and DMs alike. Plugins can add mood lighting (Warm screen tint for campfires, or a hazy green for bogs or swamps), in-game calendars with important events marked down and even in-game music (Without needing third-party software!). Not bad!

Beyond that, though, playing the game from the player’s perspective is very solid. As I stated above in the interface section, you can simply drag spells and equipment from the books to your character sheet – since the stats and values are automatically transferred for you (Though you can edit them at will for custom stuff), you just drag a little dice button into the chatbox, and voila! It calculates whether or not you hit, as well as how much damage you do. It does this by checking your rolls against the monster’s AC, and any resistances or invulnerabilities it might have.

It does this via complex, interactive battle maps and automatic turn trackers (With optional timers for more hectic encounters). The turn tracker is all about automation. It automatically removes health from an enemy (or player) when someone lands a hit, adds effects like poisoning or burning, and does a few other neat things as well.

I never thought I’d steal a quote from Bethesda’s Todd Howard in an article about Dungeons & Dragons, but, to put things simply – “It just works.”

Roll20’s gameplay flows nicely, too, but it focuses more on being very welcoming to newcomers and more streamlined in general. Unfortunately, the fact that it is so simplistic means that a lot more burden is placed on the DM. Keeping track of NPC health, gear and status effects will all remain manual processes.

As such, it’s not so much that Roll20 is lacking features – after all, all Roll20 is seeking to do is to bring the experience of playing D&D with a group of friends to the virtual world. Since manually keeping track of stuff has been the DM’s job for decades, I can’t count the lack of the automation and ease-of-use of FG against Roll20. But it’s certainly not a plus, so Fantasy Grounds wins by default here.

Final Verdict – Tied

At the end of the day, both Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 appeal to different audiences, and neither is objectively better than the other.

Roll20 offers a free platform that is easy to use. I would say Roll20 is primarily geared towards casual players or people who simply can’t afford to spend money on their tabletop gaming (Which is perfectly understandable, especially when you consider the cost of dice and books). The major drawback of Roll20 is that all of the complicated aspects of the game remain complicated for the DM.

Fantasy Grounds is geared more towards intermediate groups or just people who want to take the game a little more seriously in general. The fact that it automates so many processes leaves more room for the actual playing of the game – RPing, strategizing in combat, and interacting with the world the DM has created. The drawback of Fantasy Grounds is the price, and that the learning curve is a bit high, to begin with (though you get used to it after a couple sessions).

The best thing to do is to simply give them both a shot! If you shell out $10 for one month of FG’s Ultimate membership, that’s plenty of time to get a feel for the platform and see if it’s the right fit for you and your party. And since Roll20 is free, testing it out is as easy as signing up for a free account and starting up a game!

If you’re not reading Rant On Rob, you should be

Robert

Greetings, Game By Nighters! Just popping in to give a sterling recommendation to my friend and colleague, Rob Lashley’s new gaming blog: Rant On Rob. If you don’t know Rob yet, you surely know his work. He’s been writing excellent columns and reviews for MMORPG.com (and now GameSpace!) for some time. He’s also done a bunch of videos, podcasts, and produced a ton of other content. I’ve also had the pleasure of hosting the Game On podcast with Rob for a couple of months now. He knows his stuff! Give him a click, check out what he has going on. If you like it, he has a YouTube channel too. Add him to your readers and sub lists. You won’t regret it.

Dungeons & Dragons Has Found New Homes Online

There have been some huge RPGs and MMOs over the past few years and some of these have seen devoted followers group en masse to witness the games played by the best at eSports events – the annual BlizzCon convention alone attracts 25,000 fans coming to watch WoW, Hearthstone and Warcraft world championships. All the titles that are expected to be huge such as Mass Effect:Andromeda and Horizon Zero Dawn should pay homage to the granddaddy of them all, Dungeons & Dragons. Some might be surprised to know that the original
fantasy RPG is still going strong and there are some new ways to play this classic online.

Dungeons & Dragons: Treasures of Icewind Dale

Never missing an opportunity to develop their gaming around a popular theme, it’s no surprise that the team in charge of bgo slot games has not overlooked the best-selling RPG and is showcasing Dungeons & Dragons: Treasures of Icewind Dale. By combining slot game mechanics with the fantasy adventure theme bgo have found a natural fit and you really are on a quest to avoid pitfalls and collect a jackpot. In this game you take control of adventurers Drizzt, Wulfgar, Catti-Brie and Bruenor and you’ll dispatch monsters, roam through frozen caves, encounter lots of swordplay and sorcery and combat a gruesome dragon. It’s an interesting spin on the classic formula and has proven to be popular with those looking to get a D&D fix while they wait for their Dungeon Master to create a new campaign. bgo have tapped into the increasing demand for role-playing and fantasy games by creating a whole slots section dedicated to myths and legends, with titles such as Lancelot, Medusa 2 and Nordic Heroes likely to appeal to fans of the fantasy genre.

However this online casino isn’t the only one working to connect slots and RPG as Freeslots.me has developed Scatter Slots with RPG elements and Tower Quest developed by Play’n Go will also be a noticed by RPG fans.

Roll20

Roll20 is a handy suite of simple digital tools that allow you to move your favourite tabletop fantasy RPG online for the benefit of Dungeon Masters planning quests and connecting players. There is a whole online community available to help you make the transition with tutorials, blogs and forums, but it’s a very simple system to get started with.

Roll20 is really just an aid to enhance the storytelling and gameplay is still dependent on the creativity of the dungeon master, but the virtual tabletop, background music, dynamic lighting and character sheets all augment the experience. The critical part of playing D&D is being with your companions on the journey and the voice and video chat options are great and support Google Hangouts. Those who don’t have a group can also easily join an adventure and there are other games to play such as World of Darkness and Pathfinder.

IMG_7648 by majcher, on FlickrIMG_7648” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by majcher

Fantasy Grounds

Fantasy Grounds can be expensive, but is officially licensed and will provide you with all the pre-loaded content you need to embark on an epic quest with your friends. The Dungeon Master will install the application and select the game system and rule set of choice, which will come with some basic library modules of spells, abilities, monsters and items. Then there are masses of downloadable content to be selected by the Dungeon Master, which although pricey, adds hugely to the gaming experience and doesn’t take away from the necessary storytelling. For the players it is simply a matter of connecting with the session, reviewing your saved character sheet and progress, and entering the map to move your token, roll the die and initiate attacks. With lots of modification options and a mammoth online community, this is the option for the more serious D&D gamers.

D&D is still going strong and the move online has simply enriched the gaming experience and provided powerful tools for connection and storytelling. Many are even playing the game over Skype as the best thing about it is that all you really need is a little imagination.

Book Review: Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

little-heaven-9781501104213_hrLittle Heaven is the latest, and perhaps greatest, horror novel from the mind of Nick Cutter. Like many readers, my first encounter with Nick’s work was with his fantastic debut, The Troop. Even having finished that novel a good four months ago, scenes from it still bubble up from my memory from time to time and make me uncomfortable all over again. That’s a testament to how unsettling his work can be, and I’m not the squeamish sort.. The Deep, his sophomore release, was also creepy to the core. Reading those books, I recall thinking that, while perhaps not as deep or complex as other writers whose names get dropped in discussions of great modern horror, they read like really, really well done horror movies; they’re page turners, at points pushing you on to see what will happen next and at others to see just how dark things can possibly get.

This novel was no different. Having not read The Acolyte, I can’t compare it to that book, but I can say without reservation that Little Heaven stands up to the high horror standards set by those novels. On my personal ladder, I would go so far as to say that it goes so far as to challenge The Troop for Nick’s best work.

[Mild Story Spoilers to Follow — everything is general, but if you want to go in completely blank, skip past this part]

The story follows three mercenary’s across more than a decade as they face terrible evil that has come home to roost. When I read the description, this setup didn’t excite me much since mercenaries inherently feel a little one note to me; macho, grim, militaristic. You get the picture. I was happy to see that’s only partially the case. By breaking the story between multiple time frames, Nick is able to develop these characters into interesting, flawed, human beings. By the back third, only one of them is still the chilly mercenary-type and even he has a thaw by the end.

Much of the book takes place far in the New Mexico wilderness, which adds a wonderful sense of isolation to the events of the story. This is a Cutter tale, so you can safely go in knowing that there are monsters and they are wholly evil. It must have spoke to the inner woods lover in me that I found these events much more creepy because so much of it took place removed from society in the woods. You can also assume that things are going to get gross at one point or another, and they do, but I found most of it was in service to the story and not simply to skeeve the reader out [there is a scene toward the end of The Deep with sausage links that struck me as pure, 100% gross out].

Nick has a way of description that gets under your skin and creates images that hang in your mind. Here, you see that with both with both the supernatural and the natural. Many writers craft scenes that are haunting in the moment and then fade into the ether. Little Heaven has at least six that I don’t think I’ll be forgetting any time soon, when most books struggle to create even one. They way he describes The Long Walker or Cyril at the fence or Eli at the window (I’m being intentionally ambiguous)… they’re images that are horribly vivid. And that’s why Nick Cutter’s books feel like really great horror movies. You can see these things. Nick gives you just enough to paint a good mental picture and expertly lets your mind fill in the blanks to wonderful effect.

That said, Little Heaven falls short in the same way that The Deep did: there’s just not enough character development in the supporting cast. We’re treated to a good amount of scenes for our three main protagonists and our villain, but the rest are painted fairly thinly, which robs some of the event of their weight.

I also felt that the protagonists didn’t quite develop enough throughout the novel. When you meet them, they’re bad people. When you leave them, they’re still bad people, but aren’t completely unlikeable anymore. The story seems to want you to root for these three, but then never lets you forget for long that they’re terrible people who’ve done terrible things. They even question whether they think they’re worth saving. Cutter never quite redeems them enough to make them truly sympathetic. If the book wasn’t so insistent on how terrible they are, I think they would have been easier to connect with. This would have been a major problem, but there is an underlying current of debts paid throughout the text, so even if they’re never truly relateable, it’s easy to see that they want to be better, and here that’s enough.

[Now leaving minor, maybe not even spoiler territory]

I was very excited when I discovered Little Heaven was on the way and even more so when I was approved for a galley in exchange for an unbiased review. It more than lived up to my expectations and has solidified Nick Cutter as one of my favorite new horror authors. He consistently brings the dark and pulls no punches. Little Heaven kept me enthralled, and I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

The only downside to getting a galley so early is knowing the next book is so, so far off.

Book Review: Death Follows by Cullen Bunn

Death Follows is unapologetically dark. Based on the title and cover art, I expected this, but it even surprised me. Having never read Mr. Bunn’s work before (this graphic novel is based upon a short story), I went into the tale not knowing what to expect. I left feeling unsettled because of it, so I’ll refrain from many spoilers here. Some will be unavoidable, however, so be warned.

Still with me? Good. The basic outline of the story looks something like this. On a farm in rural North Carolina, a farmer, his pregnant wife, and two young daughters do their best to live a happy life taking care of their animals and crops and school work. Until Cole arrives, wandering alone down their empty road, looking for work. To the girls, he looks frightening. To their father, he looks like a man down on his luck.

Well, all is not as it should be with Mr. Cole and before long, the dead, literally, start stirring. It starts small but Death Follows quickly expands into a full-blown rural horror.

I enjoy the stories like this, those that don’t rely on gore so much as the unseen; stories that lean on terror instead of torture and the easy gross-out. Death Follows doesn’t disappoint there. And once things take a turn for the creepy, they don’t let go.

The writing of Cullen Bunn is well done. I read the relatively short graphic novel in two sittings and didn’t want to put it down either time. There is a sense of foreboding that supersedes even the supernatural elements, which is answered in a culminating ending that is unexpected and, frankly, packs a punch. Many horror stories pull the punch and let the reader sit a little easier knowing that the evil is settled. Death Follows pulls no such punch. When the story ends, you’re left feeling slightly ravaged.

Which, quite honestly, has kept me thinking about Death Follows long after I would have moved on. from most other stories. It is brave in its unflinching willingness to make you stare into its black pool. I don’t know if its possible to enjoy an ending like this because I don’t think enjoy is the right word. But good horror leaves you with that lingering unsettledness that has you questioning what you just read.

Death Follows does that. I would not recommend this book for the squeamish and would caution anyone that Death here really doesn’t let up. But if that doesn’t scare you away, there’s a good that this might be a book you would enjoy.

 

Book Review: The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman

FitCotDoMFThe Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch is an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story, first published in comic form in 2008. At the time of its release, I, sadly, had not yet discovered Mr. Gaiman. In the years since then, he has become one of my favorite authors in any medium. There is something terribly unique about Mr. Gaiman’s work; it’s as if his (prose) stories are meant to be read out loud, lending them a style and tone that is all together his own.

Even if you have never heard of Neil Gaiman, there is a good chance you’ve heard of his work. Whether it is stop-animation classic, Coraline, the incredibly esteemed Sandman graphic novel series, the Robert DeNiro featuring fairy tale film, Stardust, or radio play/BBC TV series, Neverwhere, Gaiman is a superstar in the literary world.

Much of this is because his stories, separate from their tone and voice, interweave genres with an ease that is all together remarkable. Neil Gaiman’s stories weave together classic or all-but-forgotten folklore, magic, mystery, horror, romance, and fantasy. His characters are universally well developed and interesting, coming to life with each passing page. What’s more remarkable, however, is that Gaiman avoids steeping himself in horrors and shock value; he does not wade into needless violence, sex, gore (though doesn’t shy away from adult themes if it serves the story). Across the board, Neil Gaiman’s work is rooted in amazing ideas and rich storytelling that hews much closer to the adult fairy tale.

Such is the case with the Departure of Miss Finch. The story was originally published in the UK version of his 1998 short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors. Partnering with artist Michael Zulli, Neil has adapted the story to graphic novel form, and it works exceedingly well.

The novel is short, hovering right around fifty pages, so to say to much would be to spoil the tale. In a nutshell, however, three friends gather in London and are joined by the rigid Miss Finch. Together, they go out for an evening of entertainment and find themselves exploring a subterranean circus of haunting displays. What first appears to be shtick soon proves to be something more, and so the mystery unfolds.

The narrator never tells us his name, but I was struck at the visual similarity to Mr. Gaiman himself. As I read, I couldn’t help but interject his voice into my head. More broadly speaking, Mr. Zulli’s art is rich and refined, but also sketch-like and impressionistic. It is thematically dark, but also evocative, and works wonderfully to sell the skepticism being shared by the party of circus-goers.

The storyline is quintessential Gaiman. What seems normal on the surface – an author’s getaway to focus on his work – quickly turns into something else entirely. Like much of his work, Miss Finch relishes the idea that there is more to our world just brimming under the surface. We experience this alongside our narrator, sharing in his bewilderment. Yet, at the same time, we are given a peak of the ending before the tale even begins, so even more than he, we know that there is more to the macabre circus than first meets the eye.

It should be clear at this point that I very much enjoyed The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch and would recommend it to anyone who is even passingly interested at what I’ve described here. It is a good introduction into the themes Neil Gaiman weaves throughout his work, and a short read that can easily be finished on a day’s commute. Fair warning, though, that there is a touch of nudity, so I wouldn’t open the e-version at work.

Happy reading!

Book Review: Paleo – The Complete Collection by Jim Lawson

paleoI went into Paleo with high hopes due to the author, Jim Lawson’s, pedigree. I didn’t quite what to expect, however, because the concept was rather hard to wrap my head around. A three hundred page graphic novel focusing on real-life dinosaurs. No anthropomorphizing them. No applying human thoughts or attributes, or breaking from the likely reality that these massive creatures experienced. It’s an easy enough concept but seemed like a doozy to make a lengthy storyline out of. It also seemed terribly, compellingly unique, so I jumped at the opportunity to see what exactly Jim Lawson has been up to and why the fans of this series were so ravenous.

Let’s not bury the lede. Lawson keeps this book interesting by breaking it up into a series of vignettes. Each vignette focuses on a day, or series of hours, in the life of a single dinosaur. I was worried there would be a lack of drama but was very wrong. The line between life and death is only minutes, or even seconds, when the focal ‘saur becomes the hunted — even if they begin their day as the hunter. Likewise, Lawson avoids humanizing his subjects, but also narrates from inside their heads, letting us peek into what each dinosaur may be thinking. These are creatures you can empathize with and root for, which is no easy feat to pull off.

The art certainly helps. While I am partial to full color, the black and white sketches are well done and do a good job of setting the scene and allow us to settle into the pre-history before us.

All of that said, Paleo just wasn’t for me. It is absolutely unique, and dino-fans will go ga-ga for it, but the side-effect of keeping the dinosaurs true to life is that the narration often feels like a National Geographic documentary. It’s interesting, and some stories are better than others, but I often found myself returning to it just for the sake of finishing, not because I was consistently compelled by what I was reading.

This isn’t a knock against Paleo. It accomplishes its goal with exceptional grace and style. Graphic novels just aren’t the medium I turn to for that type of story. I’m happy to have read it, but caution new readers that this is a truly different type of story for the medium. Whether that’s a plus or minus depends entirely on you.

 

New Content Incoming

Hi All,

Just a brief update to let you know, again, that most of my games writing can now be found at MMORPG.com, though I will continue to try to update here as well. In the meantime, I will be posting more book/graphic novel reviews. As you may know, I’ve been reviewing games and other media for some time at a number of different outlets. A small selection of that can be found at the reviews link above but certainly not all — I’ll get around to updating that list so it’s comprehensive sometime soon. Anyway, on to the subject of this post.

One of my greatest passions is reading, whether it’s the traditional novel, short stories, audio books, graphic novels — the works. I’ve recently decided to expand my critical scope and start covering literature and graphic novels. I love them, and spend a lot of time thinking about them, and poring over my most recent literary adventure. I post on Goodreads and go through far too many Amazon reviews, so why not go full boat and start sharing these thoughts in a more structured way? If you’re not into that kind of thing, I understand. Feel free to skip on by those posts.

If this is something you’re into, feel free to comment. If you’d like to get into reviewing, I highly recommend checking out NetGalley. It’s a great free resource for ARCs (Advance Review Copies) of books on the condition that you write a review and publish it on a consumer site like Amazon or Goodreads, or with your own audience. You have to make a profile and be approved, but it’s not all that hard, and the selection is wonderful.

With that said, I hope you enjoy the added content, and be sure to check out what I’m up to in my weekly RPG Files column at MMO and hosting their official podcast!

Book Review: Martian Manhunter: The Epiphany

25810152I had never read Martian Manhunter before, so I was hesitant about picking this book up. I’m glad I did. Without any background going in, The Epiphany does a good job of introducing J’onn J’onnz, the titular Manhunter, who he is and what he stands for. This would be a typical superhero introduction if not for the fact that internal conflict is at the center of this graphic novel.

Without treading too deeply into spoilers (this is nearly all in the book’s description), the book begins with J’onn J’onnz on earth being called into to help NASA investigate a lunar base that has gone silent. We meet him as a superhero, already helping the people of earth, even if they don’t know quite what to make of him or if he should be trusted. What he finds there changes everything and begins a series of alien attacks on Earth that draw into question his true allegiance.

I hesitate to go much further as it will spoil some of the big questions and events of the story, but that is where we begin.

As a series newcomer, I came in without expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Knowing nothing of the Manhunter’s abilities, I was most surprised by his ability to completely transform himself, from limb to limb or completely into another creature. I was worried that it would become over the top, the kind of heroic one-upmanship that makes a hero essentially unstoppable. Instead, author Rob Williams kept J’onn grounded. In fact, the internal conflict and all of that raging guilt made him feel more human than many other characters in the DC Universe, even without his level of superpower.

The story was a page turner, and I completed it in just two short evenings (just over 160 e-pages). It’s absolutely science fiction, what with the alien invasion and all, but there are elements of horror here too. Some of the main villains, are truly horrifying and would give Cthulu a run for his money. Eber Ferreira and Eddy Barrows’ art do a great job of capturing William’s story beats and bringing them to sometimes horrifying life. The themes of Evil Among Us and the horrors just outside our vision are also present and create a looming sense of unease and, occasionally, dread.

I really enjoyed the different characters, particularly Mr. Biscuits, who provided some much needed comic relief. I was also surprised to see members of the Justice League make an appearance, right down to t-shirt and jeans Superman. Some could have stood some extra character development, however. The FBI agent, Wessel, for example, makes some questionable decisions with a young murderer that left me wondering. One second he’s running from him, the next he’s rescuing him from a hospital and taking him on along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I can piece together some of the motivation here, but not quite enough to clear the logic gap. A small issue overall.

Finally, I am at a loss for what to make of the ending. Suffice it to say, one of the main heroes does a complete 180 in the last pages. In the few pages that follow, Williams does a decent job of connecting the dots for why this occurs, but it doesn’t quite go far enough to explain why a character would contradict himself and the trajectory of the story arc so thoroughly. Then again, this is the stuff that cliffhangers are made of.

Even with these looming unanswered questions (and it is again worth noting that this is the first volume in a larger series predicated on cliffhangers), I very much enjoyed The Epiphany. I am a huge fan of the DC Universe but came to this book mainly as a Batman and Superman fan. What I found was an ironically human alien character – and not like Superman, J’onn J’onnz is a straight up green skin, bug eyed Martian – and a storyline that neatly hit the notes of science fiction, horror, and, of course, the world saving superhero. I noted a couple of logic gaps here, and at least the last feels intentionally vague to fuel the beginning of the next volume. Overall though, this book is a cut above many and avoids the trap of “comic book logic” that can so easily drag a graphic novel down. I will be picking up the next book.

The Epiphany made a Martian Manhunter fan out of me.

Steam Link/Controller – The Couch MMO Solution?

Oh, hello there! It’s been a while! No, I’m not dead or lost, just inundated with work and parenting (like many of you!). That said, there’s always time for a game or two, right?

Which brings me to this point: It’s hard to play MMOs with little kids in the house! These days, I find that my time is far more precious than ever before. During the day, I teach third grade, plan and grade after dismissal, come home for an hour or two of daddy time, another hour of husband time, and then you can stick a fork in me because I’m done. Maybe somewhere in there, I squeak in a half an hour or so of game time, but not every day. And friends, the whole late night gaming thing — you know, Game By Night — just doesn’t work as well as it used to.

Enter the Steam Link and Steam Controller. I convinced my wife that the Link was a worthy birthday present at the beginning of the month and Fedex tells me it should arrive tomorrow. The controller is backordered, so it looks like December may be more likely for that end of things.  Amazon actually sold it to me “in stock” and notified me today that it was sold out, which was a bummer but so is life. I’m just happy that my library of Steam games will finally be available! More importantly, I’m excited to be able to play MMOs from the couch. RPGF-Oct31-4The Steam Controller has the neat ability to emulate a mouse and keyboard. The track pad can be customized to act like a trackball or touch pad with a mass of different customization options. The other buttons can be programmed to act as stand ins for key strokes. Using mode switching, you can hold one button and assign the rest a whole second set of commands. It’s imperfect but certainly workable for many games. I do worry that the action bar heavy may prove to be a bit much, but couch MMOing is a viable option now!

Obviously, there are drawbacks. I’m not convinced of the Steam Controller’s keyboard interface for text chat. It looks workable but also more than a little confusing. There’s also the obvious issue of having too few buttons, so game choice is more limited. Initially, I thought MMOs like World of Warcraft would be totally off limits, but it seems someone has developed a controller addon to fix that problem. With mode switching, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 buttons that can be programmed. When you factor in basics like clicking, jumping, and navigating the interface, it’s probably closer to 15. Still, with some trade-offs, or a willingness to simply use the mouse to click on interface panels, that’s enough for many, many MMOS!

I can’t wait to try this out. I have visions of Wildstar or SWTOR on my TV. If it all works out, I’ll be back in the MMO world full bore by Christmas! We’ll see what game but, at this point, I’m thinking Wildstar!

PS: If you haven’t heard, I write for MMORPG.com now. You can check out my weekly RPG column here.

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