I’m Thinking of a Job: Dragon Heist Campaign Recap and Review Part 1

Author’s Note: I’m going to try something new.  Or rather, new to me…

What is this?

At the end of my initial review of Dragon Heist, I mentioned that I had a plan to review the game when I was finished with it.  I and my play group are about five sessions in and things are going pretty smoothly.  In fact, a recurring refrain so far has been that “there’s just something about this campaign.”  And while I’m pleased as punch to hear my players say that it did give me an idea.  It’s become popular (and theoretically lucrative) to transcribe the story of one’s TRPG (Tabletop Role Playing Game) campaign.  These have many names like “Let’s Play,” or “Long Plays.”  So I suppose this is one of those, but I’ll also be sprinkling my actual critical review of the game in there from time to time.

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Review: Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerard

The title of this article is a lie.  This isn’t going to be a review.  Mister Miracle is my favorite story of 2018.  It’s not even up for dispute across all the media I’ve consumed this year.  The book’s release is something I look forward to every month.  In a world of constant stress and personal frustration, the eleven issues that have come out this year have been soul-cleansing for me, every single time.  But even beyond my personal affection for the book, Mister Miracle might be the most important piece of pop art to be released this year.

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PAM’s Newest is a Story of Artistic History

Author’s Note: As stated elsewhere, I am a regular volunteer at the Portland Art Museum (PAM).

On Saturday the 12th of October, 2018, the Portland Art Museum opened the doors onto its newest Featured Exhibit: Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art.  The entire featured exhibit is brought to us from the collection of Mary and Cheney Cowles, purported to be one of the largest private collections of Japanese art in North America.  But when building an exhibit from such a large collection, it pays off to stick with a specific theme, something I’ve espoused upon several times before.  In the case of Poetic Imagination, that theme provides quite a strong through-line and the exhibit benefits for it.

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Movie Review: Bad Times at The El Royale

Author’s Note: I’ve been holding off on writing movie reviews because so much of what I read, watch or otherwise consume is stuff on film.  What’s more, I was waiting for a movie to come along that I really felt worth reviewing, especially if I felt I could add to the conversation.  And then I saw Bad Times at The El Royale. So, let’s do this.

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Book Review: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis’ newest nonfiction book gets its title about 70 pages in.  A Department of Energy risk officer is discussing the various different avenues for disaster at the department.  Given that the DOE oversees the nation’s entire stock of nuclear weapons, and the materials used to make them, risk is at the forefront of the Department’s mind at all time.  The officer, John MacWilliams, outlines how he considers risks.  By his estimate, there are essentially four types of risk.  These four types are actually organized on an X and Y axis where one axis represents likelihood of occurrence and the other is based on the cost.  So something like a nuclear weapon exploding in transit would be very unlikely but it would have extreme consequences.  MacWilliams elaborates on his system while giving Lewis a tour of a facility in what used to be Hanford, Washington.  The Hanford site used to produce the vast bulk of plutonium in the United States Arsenal, right up until the late 80’s.  Today, the Hanford Site is in decline and largely unkempt despite the fact that it still holds vast, almost incalculable amounts of nuclear waste and is near the Columbia River.  MacWilliams uses the site to illustrate his “Fifth Risk:” Project Management.

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OMSI’s Exhibit on King Tut Aims to Ignite the Spark of Discovery.

King Tutankhamun’s visage looms large over the entrance to OMSI.  It’s a fitting introduction to the most famous pharaoh in history.  In death, King Tutankhamun has been made larger than life despite being a minor player in history himself.  The boy king was at one time something of a “lost Pharaoh,” before the rediscovery of his tomb.  In this regard, the exhibit from Premier Exhibitions isn’t really about Tutankhamen.  Instead, it’s about the discovery of his tomb and the contents thereof.

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OMSI Harvest Festival Displays State’s Bounty and Some Fluffy Friends

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Harvest Festival (held on September 30th) was very much what one would imagine when given the phrase “Portland Harvest Fair.”  The majority of vendors were local producers who were there to sell their wares.  There were not one but two beekeepers selling honey and two door-to-door vegetable delivery services.  And what Portland outdoor gathering would be complete without Rogue Brewery selling craft beers in a small beer garden?  But perhaps the most popular stall was the one set out in front of the rest of the Festival, where the Clackamas 4-H Club had a quartet of Alpacas on display:

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Literary Review: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

Have you ever stayed up until midnight to read a book?  I have before and I intended to do so for Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward.  I didn’t have to, since the eBook of the nonfiction work was released at 9 PST on September 10th, letting me sink my teeth into this whirlwind political drama as soon as possible.  This is my review:

Bob Woodward is an associate editor at the Washington Post, where he has spent 47 years as a journalist.  Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein were the first reporters to break the Watergate scandal in 1972.  Since then, he has published 8 books about sitting presidents.  In short, he is the presidential reporter.  And Fear: Trump in the White House (Aha, I see what he did there) is the next in this pedigree.

Woodward is famous for the sheer amount of research that he puts into his presidential books and this creates a distinct style.  Fear is a distant book, with a god’s eye perspective.  The best and most interesting comparison to be made might well be to Michael Wolff’s Fire and FuryFire and Fury was regarded as a lurid, tell-all about the Trump Administration, especially because it was released so soon after the 2016 election.  In contrast to Woodward’s more distant style, Wolff wrote as a fly on a wall.  In many ways, Fear reinforces some of the themes of Fire and Fury.  On the former’s publishing, critics lambasted it and Wolff for exaggerating both his own importance and the events he depicted.  And while the first is up for discussion (Wolff has claimed that he essentially had free reign in the chaotic White House of 2017), the second one is somewhat put to rest by Fear.  The Trump White House was in a ongoing state of chaos in 2017.  That said, while Woodward’s writing reflects the same climate as Wolff, he rightly avoids some of the more salacious elements that the former touched up.  Wolff drew flak from critics for his focusing on the relationship between President Trump and former Press Secretary Hope Hicks, as well as a controversial comment near the end of his book about the relationship between Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

The result is that while Fear does reinforce several of the observations made in Wolff’s book, it also shows the difference between good reporting and great reporting.  Woodward goes to great lengths, in Fear‘s preface, to outline his system of Deep Background, wherein a full picture is assembled from hundreds of hours worth of interviews.  This dedication to research has always been lauded by Woodward’s readers but in this particular instance, a new form of criticism has emerged.  Many notable news sources like the Columbia Journalism Review have commented on the efficacy of using Deep Background when focusing on the Trump White House.  If the members of the Administration are as self-serving as they appear to be, goes the logic, then why trust what’ll they have to say?  And there’s something to this argument.  The book itself is structured in a series of anecdotes, tied together in chapters based on themes.  And between stories, certain figures come off as different, clearly indicating different sources.  John Kelly, for instances, goes from being an island in the sea of chaos that is the Administration to being a hard-line member of the faction within the White House focused on immigration.  Not all characterization is like this.  Gary Cohn and Rob Porter (the former Director of the National Economic Council and former Staff Secretary) are the closest things to “protagonists,” in the overall story of the Administration’s first two years.  That is to say, the book’s perspective is frequently sympathetic to Cohn and Porter more often then it isn’t.  But Cohn and Porter are the exceptions that prove the rule.  The anecdotal nature of the book mean that most of stories and the people involved in them are mercurial.  And while this inconsistency is noteworthy, it’s always worth remembering that these are real people and not characters in a fictional story.

And I think that gets to the heart of why Fear isn’t just a good book but an important one.  When I read Fire and Fury, the thoughts that went through my mind were ones of justification.  It was an indulgent book, selling the idea that the Trump White House wasn’t just an ill-organized house of horrors but a living soap opera defined by the base nature of the actors.  At the time, I was willing to accept those characterizations because it was the first book out of the gate to catch America’s imagination (and terror) about the current president and his cabinet.  What’s more, it seemed to confirm what many people were already willing to believe, myself included.  But Fear isn’t about selling any particular vision of the Administration.  Like all good journalism, Fear is about elucidating the truth and building upon it.  The few times that Woodward inserts himself into the story play into this.  Woodward admits his own regret in regards to how he handled the initial release of the infamous Steele Dossier in mid-2016 but not before elaborating on why he went on CNN and admitted (then credible) doubt as to the Dossier’s veracity.  Similar is the book’s take on the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  At first the book seems to be ambivalent on the investigation and uses the viewpoint of Trump’s then personal lawyer John M Dowd to tell the story of its progress.  Dowd himself doesn’t believe there was any collusion with Russia and since his is the viewpoint these sections of the book inhabit, it’s hard not to see sympathy within this assessment.  But the book ends with Dowd’s resignation and a final denouement that casts the whole thing in a different light that I’ll refrain from spoiling here.

It took me a lot longer than I would’ve preferred to write this piece.  Fear gives the reader a lot to think about.  This has certainly been the most difficult review I’ve written since I started this site.  We live in a world right now where we want to news to confirm to our beliefs.  I mean, that’s the entire origin of the Fake News controversy, the idea that if we don’t agree with it or if it doesn’t fit our worldview, it’s “Fake News.”  So along comes a book by one of the most influential journalists ever and it opens with a shocking scene of what the book itself calls “an administrative coup.”  It’s the perfect opening for a book about the incompetent Trump Administration.  But as the story progresses, the opening becomes almost forgotten under an ever growing rap sheet of smaller moments of dishonesty, selfishness and amorality.  Sobering is perhaps the best word to describe Fear: Trump in the White House.  Incisive in his honesty and unrelenting in his reporting, Bob Woodward’s book will go down as one of the most insightful windows into a dysfunctional government.  When we look back on this period of history, Fear will form the bedrock on which we build our perspective.

Thanks for reading.

Fear: Trump in the White House is available through Simon and Schuster.

Preliminary Book (Game?) Review: Dungeons and Dragons: Dragon Heist

Author’s Notes: This one is a bit out of left field, even for me.  But, given my prior output on this blog, some of it about books (fantasy or otherwise) and some stuff about TRPGs, this seems fitting.  Also, this adventure book releases on September 20th, I bought a copy early at Rose City Comic Con from a store that was selling advance copies.

Tabletop RPG fans are living through something of a renaissance these days.  The medium is more popular than ever.  A lot of that has to do with accessibility, and a gradual change in image.  In the past, Tabletop RPGs used to be played on their namesake in person.  But with the advent of certain technologies like the website Roll20.com and the Discord App, it’s easier than ever to put together a group of players.  Even more important though are the games themselves and the game leading that charge is the grandfather of the entire medium, Dungeons and Dragons.  Now in its fifth edition (called DnD 5e), Dungeons and Dragons has never been easier to learn or more accessible as a product.  On September 20th, Wizards of the Coast will release the newest in a long line of adventure books for Fifth Edition: Dragon Heist.

Over the past several years (since about 2008 if we’re being exact), Wizards of the Coast has adopted a business model of releasing one big adventure every year.  Since the launch of 5th Edition in 2014, Wizards has released 4 epic stories that follow plots to save the world of Faerûn.  These stories (which include entries like The Rise of Tiamat, Storm King’s Thunder and Tomb of Annihilation), are big, grandiose things that cover world-spanning adventures and follow characters from humble beginnings to heroes.  These archetypal plots admittedly play into Fifth Edition’s philosophy of accessibility but in a lot of ways, Dragon Heist represents a distinct shift in this priority.

Firstly, the game is not nearly as long as those prior adventures.  Where The Rise of Tiamat covered characters from level 1 to level 15 (incidentally, if you don’t know Dungeons and Dragons, levels are how you determine the strength of a character, new abilities are usually unlocked at every level), Dragon Heist only covers one third of that.  And instead of an adventure that sees the players tromping through a variety of biomes, Dragon Heist takes place in one city, Waterdeep.  Granted, Waterdeep is a pretty big city and it’s easily one of the most famous cities in modern fantasy (it even has its own board game).  But it can’t help but be stated that this is a $50 dollar book that contains only about four chapters of adventure.  And given that a sequel is coming out this fall, it’s worrisome that Wizards is beginning to flirt with exploitative sales practices.  What’s more, if you intend to run the game online through Roll20, and want a hard copy of the book for reference, you’ll be paying twice, which is frankly inexcusable.  I’m a fan of comic books so I’m already used to digital products costing the same as physical ones but there’s still no excuse for this gouging, especially when the Roll20 resources are sold as a “bundle,” and could be dished out a la carte if the publisher so desired.

In terms of design, Dragon Heist feels like a bundle of contradictions. In a more positive light, you could say it’s an scrappy mutt of an adventure.  On one hand, the setup could not be more classic Dungeons and Dragons.  There’s a dungeon hidden somewhere in the city of Waterdeep and inside is a fantastic treasure.  The players are tasked with finding it that treasure before someone else does.  On the other hand, the game feels like a pretty big departure from its predecessors.  Instead of one predetermined antagonist, the game presents players with four distinct options for antagonists and all four (technically five since one choice is a couple) feel wholly unique.  What’s  more the motives of the villains run the gamut, ranging between egomaniacal and pragmatic, with at least one choice being almost sympathetic. While the villains of Dragon Heist are all movers and shakers on the world stage, they aren’t threatening the world.  They’re crime bosses and corrupt politicians instead of warlords or apocalyptic cult leaders.  Despite having access to more combat prowess than your low level party can handle, most of them will fight you using their accumulated clout, and resources.  I can see a more hands-off antagonist being a challenge for someone running the game, especially a first timer looking to cut their teeth.  But at the same time, it makes the villains feel like a distinctly different threat when compared to Tiamat, or Acererack from prior adventures.  I’ve genuinely had a difficult time deciding which foe to throw at my friends once I start running the adventure.

I like to see that sort of risk taking coming out of a well-established game design studio like Wizards of the Coast.  While I’ve played in and enjoyed their prior adventures, I’ve never wanted to run one of their games.  As a GM, I like to keep my players guessing  and while Rise of Tiamat and Storm King’s Thunder were fun adventures they didn’t leave a lot of room for improvisation or surprises.  In contrast, Dragon Heist is versatile, and highly modular.  It gives game masters options that have an impact and there’s more than enough room to make the story your own.  An entire quarter of the book is given over to giving the players a chance to build relationships with Waterdeep’s various factions.  In turn, this really lets the game master cut loose and add his own unique flavor to the adventure.  While I haven’t started running the game yet, I can’t imagine any point in Dragon Heist where the game master is reduced to being the computer spitting out enemies and calculating damage, the fear of all GM’s when running a module like this.

All of this freedom never feels like it comes at the expense of tight, effective game design.  Despite the modular nature of the adventure and the expansive options for customization, it never feels like Lead Design Chris Perkins or his team lost sight of their goals.  Chapter 4 of the adventure in particular reads like a very impressive exercise in game design efficiency, ensuring that no matter what choices the GM made, all players will get to experience most of what Dragon Heist’s climax has to offer.  That said, it’s impossible to see everything that Perkins and crew put into the game in one go, making Dragon Heist easily one of the most replayable games in recent memory, if not ever.

If there’s a distinct problem to be had, then it’s in the book’s tone and construction.  The game’s primary goal seems to be making the city of Waterdeep as much of a character as any of the actors in the story.  There’s definitely shades of Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork in this version of Waterdeep, a city on the cusp of modernity and dealing with the fallout of decades of fantasy disasters.  But while the plot contrives means for the players to find themselves integrated into the city, game masters might find themselves high and dry.  The book itself is divided pretty clearly between game adventure and tour guide to the city and for what it’s worth, it’s a very good tour.  The book explains the ins and outs of Waterdeep in a comprehensive and fun way, while staying in character since the section is literally a tour guide written in-character by one of the city’s many colorful locals.  But the fact that it’s more or less completely separate from the story makes it hard for a GM to weave that flavor into the tail.  This isn’t a problem unique to Dragon Heist, and indeed could be considered one of the biggest hurdles from most TRPG rulebooks and adventures.  Still, it’s a minor quibble for an overall solid book and adventure.

So to the question of if you should buy Dragon Heist, the answer is…it depends.  I don’t know if it’s a great game to run as a first time game master.  The complexity of the villains’ motives, and the conspiratorial plot could be a bit confusing for a first time game master.  There are a lot of plates to keep spinning in this plot.  That said, as an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons I think Dragon Heist might be unparalleled.  This sort of goes back to why I recommend that fans of superhero movies get into the comic book source material.  Because comic books have been going for a long time and have a smaller audience, creative writers and artists can do interesting things with classic characters that go against the grain of popular conscience.  Nobody’s going to make a blockbuster about Batman fighting against a secret cabal of Gotham’s rich and powerful, but in 2011 Scott Snyder did just that in the comics.  The same goes for Dungeons and Dragons.  While the idea of a world-spanning adventure might be fun, where else can the average person experience an urban adventure in a high fantasy setting with as much history as Faerûn?  It’s not necessarily Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t need to be.  And if you’re a long time fan of Dungeons and Dragons or an adherent of fifth edition with an established group?  Well, you’ve probably already preordered a copy and set up a group for September 20th.

It’s worth noting that this is all a preliminary review.  I hope to return to Dragon Heist in a few months, after I run the adventure for a more complete and thorough review.  Hopefully, in the mean time you can pick up the game yourself and experience the urban fantasy fun for yourself.  Thanks for reading.

Dragon Heist is available as a piece of physical media on September 20th, and now on both Roll20 and the DnD Beyond Marketplace.