Tag Archives: Games

City of Heroes/Villains: A Homecoming

[Quick Note: I have several partially formed blog posts I’ve been kicking around for months now. Unfortunately, I’m on less solid ground these days to give this blog the attention it deserves. My hope is that this situation will shift in the coming months. Please bear with me; there’s more to come!]

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The Freedom Phalanx

The End No One Wanted:

November 30th of 2012 was not a good night. I went over to a friend’s house to say good-bye to one of my favorite games of all time: City of Heroes/Villains. The community had held out hope that the beloved MMO would find a home, or at least some way to keep running. In a move that many (myself included) found particularly callous, NCSoft decided to kill the game, despite its popularity with die-hard fans. The servers were due to shut down at midnight.

I logged in, ran around for a little while, and finally picked a spot to bid farewell to not only one of my favorite characters but also the game itself (more on that below). I remember leaving my friend’s house, getting into my car, and bawling my eyes out in the cold—and I wasn’t even a regularly active player at the time. I know there are many things to cry about in this world, and a game is not usually one of them, but the tears came all the same. All the memories, all the colorful characters (affectionately called “toons”), the rich worldbuilding, the stories, the battles won and lost, all gone. Just tossed in the dustbin.

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Curses!!!

For years afterward, whenever the game would come up in conversation, I would feel a twinge of pain. I had lost a part of myself that night, and I thought it was forever. I had a  bank of in-game screenshots from way back in 2006, and they had somehow survived more than one computer crash. Whenever I would feel nostalgic, I would revisit them with a bittersweet smile, reflecting on the time I had spent in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles.

A Homecoming No One Expected:

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But then…

Earlier this year, I started hearing rumors of an active server somewhere on the web. Then in-game screenshots popped up in my social feed here and there. I didn’t think much of it. There have been many false starts over the years, and just like occasional rumors of a Firefly Season 2 in the works, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

In late June, however, one of my friends (the same friend whose house I was in that night) found the Homecoming message boards. It took a little bit of finagling, but she got on to the Homecoming server and recreated her signature Corrupter toon, the incomparable Darqueen. Not long after, she came over and walked me through how to make an account. Within minutes a blue banner popped up bearing the word “Loading…” in the City of Heroes font. Then this music started to play, and I felt the old fire rekindle in my heart.

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This screenshot was taken in 2006.

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This one was taken 13 years later.

I spent the next couple of days recreating the Hero and Villain toons closest to my heart. Those screenshots I mentioned? Those became invaluable for reincarnating my long-lost characters. I felt like a digital sculptor making sure I had exactly the right face, the correct color of hair or costume. The game gives you a featureless lump of digital clay to work with during character creation, and so I set about examining my old screenshots in detail to bring these toons back exactly as they had been before.

And when I started playing, I knew why the moniker “Homecoming” was entirely apt. Flying through the bright skies of Paragon City, or negotiating the dangerous back alleys of the Rogue Isles again is glorious.

It’s like coming home.

Why It Was/Is So Great:

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For those of you who’ve played the game, this part might be superfluous. You already know why it was so great. But for those of you who may have never heard of it, or only heard of it in passing, let me tell you why the game was able to evoke such sadness in those who lost it, and why its return has been so uplifting.

The World:

CoH/V really did make you feel like you had stepped into the pages of a comic book world, a literal dream come true for a geek like me. The writers and developers had the herculean task of coming up with an entirely new superhero continuity, along with a new pantheon of colorful heroes and villains to populate it. This was a world that was neither Marvel nor DC, but one which obviously took a strong influence from both.

On the blue side you have the Freedom Phalanx, protecting Paragon City. Their star-spangled leader, Statesman, is not unlike a blending of Superman and Captain America, complete with a propensity for inspirational leadership and defending the helpless. Joining him are Positron, a brilliant scientist who constructed an incredible suit of power armor, and Manticore, a billionaire who stalks the night as an expert archer, and many others.

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An actual clash of titans in progress.

On the red side you have Lord Recluse, the opposite face of the coin from Statesman, who controls the organization of Arachnos (basically Cobra from G.I. Joe if they were at all competent). Ghost Widow, a former assassin turned necromantic spirit, joins the rogues gallery along with Captain Mako, a mutated man-shark, and Black Scorpion, a deranged cyborg.

If anything, this world leans a bit more towards DC than Marvel with its monolithic characters, but there are enough differences and new elements to make this continuity uniquely its own. The lore for the game is also many levels deep. If you like to sink your teeth into a setting, and the stories that have taken place there, the mythology of CoH/V has all of that in spades. This is the world you step into when you don the mask, and I really can’t say enough good things about it.

Be Who You Want to Be:

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I’ve only ever fallen in love with an MMO once. I tried a number of them, but only this one could keep my interest for very long. A lot of that stems from CoH/V’s extremely robust character generator. It was so good that it ruined other games for me in that respect. CharGen for every other game I’ve played, online or otherwise, has always seemed lackluster by comparison.

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Oh, that’s not good…

CoH/V accomplishes this by adhering to a simple principle: What you look like has no bearing on your stats. In a lot of games, including WoW, your character is essentially a dress dummy for equipment. You might find a look you really dig and then level out of it. You might piece together a gear set that is statistically superior…but looks ridiculous.

In CoH/V you can look like an absolute badass at Level 1 if you want, and your ability to further modify your appearance is truly staggering. Want to match the color of your super powers to a specific costume? Done. Want to be 8-feet tall and wear full plate-mail right out of the gate? Done. There are so many options, and so many combinations, it really gives players the ability to bring their characters to life in a way that no game has accomplished before or since. In fact, if I were a comic book artist, this would be the ideal tool for getting a character’s look down quickly without ever putting pen to paper.

An Enduring Experience:

Going Rogue

This game came out in 2004, and was subsequently revamped a few times to improve its graphics. The last time this happened was somewhere around 2009 or 2010. Of course the graphics can’t compare to the photorealism and ultra detail of games we have now in 2019. But as I’ve said before, graphics aren’t everything. Anthem looks stunningly beautiful, and it’s…well, yeah, you know the rest.

To me, a game that is still fun to play, even after the graphics are hopelessly outdated, is still a good game. Two of my favorites, to this day, are Heroes of Might & Magic III (1999) and Lord of Realms II (1996). The game play, the story, and how engaged I am in what’s going on are all factors that can make or break a game for me. Star Wars: Battlefront, for instance, was gorgeous, but I was bored after about an hour.

City Scape

To CoH/V’s credit, the developers created a visual style that closely resembles comic books. It holds up remarkably well. While the powers and leveling mechanics get more complex over time, it starts out with game play that is elegant in its simplicity. Anyone can pick up it up quickly. Plus, there are so many power sets, and combinations of power sets that you could easily play the game for years still not explore them all.

And that’s just the base game. The Homecoming Team has already created new content for the game, and it is excellent. It’s made by fans for fans, and it shows. All of which is to say that, even though CoH/V isn’t quite old enough to be considered retro, this is a game that has some serious longevity. If it remains available, I foresee that I’ll be revisiting it again and again for many years to come. If it is something you are at all interested in, you should definitely check it out.

Final Thoughts:

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In a lot of ways, 2019 is a year of endings for the Geekosphere. Game of Thrones. Big Bang Theory. The MCU ended its first major arc and now Spider-Man is out, moving forward. ThinkGeek no longer exists. The Tick ended with Season 2. We can also see the end of other fan staples on the horizon with Supernatural, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, Man in the High Castle, Gotham, My Little Pony, The Good Place, and many more.

Often when we lose something in the geek and nerd arena, we don’t get it back. But sometimes, just sometimes, we get a resurgence of something we thought was gone. City of Heroes/Villains is that for me. It’s getting the movie Serenity when Firefly had been cancelled after only half a season. This is seeing Captain Pike walk onto the stunningly gorgeous bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek: Discovery, or getting to play the original NES Final Fantasy and Metroid with my son.

The return of this game is nothing short of reclaiming a little lost piece of my life, and to return to a place I love. For opening up the way to the Rogue Isles and Paragon City again, I would like to give the Homecoming Team a heartfelt thank you. Please keep the fires lit.

If you are interested in checking it out for yourself, follow this link to get set up:

https://forums.homecomingservers.com/forum/53-getting-started/

My universal chat handle is @Nights-Watchman. If you are on the Indomitable server, hit me up.

A Villain’s End: An Epilogue

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On the night in question, Night-Watchman left his comrades for the last time. Despite his villainous ways, he had come to think of them as his family, the only one he had ever really had. They wished to face their end in battle, but Night-Watchman was through fighting. It was time to take his final bow.

For a magical assassin in the service of Arachnos, he had found himself cast in a hero’s role more than once. He had saved the world no less than three times, joined the crusade against the alien invasion of the Rikti, and fought against dark gods and unspeakable horrors that might have consumed reality as he knew it.

Yet despite his many victories, the innumerable close-calls, the momentary triumphs and defeats, he now faced the true end of the world. Worst of all, the cause of this doom was not something he could not fight against, not an enemy he could bring low. Staring down his own extinction, the elite operative was suddenly something he had never been before: powerless.

He passed through the pillar of ice and flame, donned his ancient armor once more, and traveled to the Roman island of Cimerora. There, upon a narrow peninsula, he landed next to the sybil, Sister Airlia, the very image of his own beloved patron, Ghost Widow. Side by side, they stared out into the wine-dark seas in silence until the sun set on them.

And there he died.

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I recreated this moment as close to the original as possible.

But it was not the end…

Siren’s blared all around him in the Zig. The prison meant to hold super-powered criminals had been breached, and the prisoners were already in a full-scale riot. He was back at the very beginning. Things were different now, though; he was weak, weaker than he could recall being in many years, but he was alive. Somehow.

He had been reborn—to live again, to fight again.

This time the world would be his for the taking.

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Bwhahahahahaha!


My Gamer Origin Story

When you hear that someone is a gamer nowadays, it conjures up all sorts of images. Maybe a TWITCH gamer doing livestreams with a headset, or someone who enters a Call of Duty tournament and plays competitively at a local con. In almost all cases, the term ‘gamer’ deals specifically with video games.

Well, when I hear the word, I tend to think of someone who enjoys tabletop role-playing games first, then board games second, and then video games. Maybe I’m just weird that way. Or old-school. Or both.

When I played original NES games back in the day, I didn’t really consider myself a gamer, per se. It was really when I got into tabletop RPGs that I felt that I was truly a “gamer.”

Let me share with you how it all went down. This is my origin story, if you will.

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Don’t forget to add all your miscellaneous modifiers.

The spark that started the bonfire was a set of choose-your-own adventure books called the “Fighting Fantasy” by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. These differed from many of the other books of the day because they had a dice-based combat system to go along with the adventure. You had a character sheet, magic items that you could collect that boosted your abilities or healed you, and all sorts of other cool stuff that really set them apart from the rest.

Being in a small town, I didn’t have access to many of them. Both of the ones that made an impression were obtained through ‘book club’ newsletters from my school, in this case TROLL and ARROW. Through them, I got my hands on two Fighting Fantasy titles: Demons of the Deep and Rebel Planet.

The former dealt with a brave sailor’s trials in Atlantis as he attempts to settle the score with the murderous pirate, Captain Blood-Ax. The latter was about a secret agent among the stars who attempts to unseat humanity’s conquers, the Arcadians, armed with his wits and his trusty lightsaber.

I loved the interactivity of them, and the vibrant writing style. You could play through different endings if you messed up and died, horribly in some cases. The concept really captured my imagination. When I was in 7th Grade, I happened upon a book in the Eustace Junior High library. This one:

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I have a copy of this book in my personal library. It was the gasoline poured on the fire.

The ENDLESS QUEST series didn’t have the combat system, but it did have some compelling story lines. I remember reading the introduction where you, the main character, are sent to find a way to defeat a dragon whose very shadow can kill all life. When Shen, the eponymous dragon of doom, takes flight across the countryside, you can follow the trail of withered planets and dead animals.

If you look at the cover art, you’ll notice something else. It reads “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS” in bold letters across the top. My grandmother certainly noticed this, and promptly made me take it back to the library, and explained that I shouldn’t attempt to check it out again.

Dungeons & Dragons barely registers today in popular culture as a thing itself, outside of a few Gary Gygax memes, references in the Big Bang Theory, or Wil Wheaton videos. It still has a geeky connotation to it, but understand that at this time, Dungeons & Dragons had a vaguely sinister reputation. There were some who thought it was outright Satanic.

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Do you want Demogorgons? Because that’s how you get Demogorgons.

Yep, it wasn’t cute and adorable and nostalgic like in Stranger Things. Some groups used to think it was a (and I kid you not here) a way for teenagers to sell their souls to the devil. Movies like Mazes and Monsters or the Chick tracts at the time didn’t help, either.

Of course, when my grandmother told me to take Dragons of Doom back to the library, she virtually guaranteed that I would go learn more about it. And I did. I was no stranger to comic-book shops, and many of them sold D&D products, as well as a host of other RPGs. I talked with some of the guys there who played them, and it didn’t sound like my curiosity was endangering my immortal soul.

And then, out of the blue, I found out that one of my friends, Dan, actively ran different RPG games after school. Some of them he made up himself, and others were published, of-the-shelf games. I soon began hanging out at his house after school with his older brother, Jay, and another guy we knew, Donny. Dan was instrumental in forming my early understanding of how RPGs work. He was the first one to explain to me what a d20 was, and what went into building a character.

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The first time I made up a character, it was a home-brewed system that Donny had made up called “The Blade Lords.” It was loosely based off of the Palladium RPG systems, using many of the same races, but had a focus more on sword-play and arena fighting than magic. The character was a “swordmaster” named Ulfric and he was from a race of humanoid canines called the “Wolfen.” I only played him a time or two, and his character sheet is sadly lost to the sands of time.

After that, Dan ran a round of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, also by Palladium Games. Yes, they made a TMNT-themed RPG, and it was really good. Only this wasn’t the happy-go-lucky ’80s cartoon version of the Turtles. No, this was the original Eastman and Laird version, harsh and unforgiving.

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Everyone wears red around their eyes, yo.

My character was a mutant alligator named Spike, who was also (of course) a ninja. I went on to play many different games with Dan, Jay, and Donny. Sometimes my other friend Cody would run a game. We played all through junior high and high school. I made up many different characters during this time, including one time in the Batman RPG where my character accidentally-on-purpose killed Batman. A dubious honor, to be sure.

I also began running games of my own at this time. One of them I ran in the lunchroom before the bell rang with my friends Robert, Keith, and Cliff. What made this one different was that I had made up the game system. It was a simple d6-based game with heavy emphasis on roleplaying, which I called “RPG To-Go.”

It was also during this time that I realized that my cousin Travis was big into these games. He lived up in the big city of Dallas. Well, big considering the small town I was living in at the time. When I got a car my senior year, a silver ’84 Isuzu Impulse I called the Millennium Falcon, I was able to head up to Dallas on the weekends to game with his group. There, I made many friends that I’m lucky enough to still have today.

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I always thought it looked vaguely like a DeLorean.

Since then, it has been a rarity to not have a game to go to at some point during the week, either playing or GMing. Palladium, Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Superspies, Kulthea, Forgotten Realms, Vampire: The Masquerade (I played a Werewolf. Big surprise, huh?), Traveller, MegaTraveller, OMG DRAGONLANCE, Netheril, Valeriand, on and off again, Neverwinter, Storm Watch, The Mean Streets of Thebes, Game of Thrones, Transformers, and hopefully soon…Fallout!

That’s just to name a few.

And now I know enough about RPGs that when I want to play or run one, I kit-bash what I need out of existing systems, or just make up what I need out of whole cloth. Yeah, I didn’t choose the game life…the game life chose me.

Of course, I am a gamer in every sense of the word now. It’s not just tabletop stuff, but also board games, and video games. And while the original NES had a big part to play in fostering my love of video games, I didn’t really accept games as a being a part of who I am until tabletop RPGs came into my life.

True story.


Backwards Compatible – Part 1: Genesis

You knew it was coming…the inevitable post about my novel. This is, in fact, the first in a series of posts explaining how my novel came about.  The road from its inception to execution was a long and twisting one.

Well, let’s start at the beginning.

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No caption required, really.

In the mid-90s, Games Designers’ Workshop (hitherto referred to as GDW) launched their expansion to the popular Traveller RPG universe, entitled “Traveller: The New Era.” Unlike previous milieus of the game, which centered around a massive star-spanning Empire, this one was post-apocalyptic. Now I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill Mad Max/Tina Turner post apocalypse. No, this was devastation on an interstellar scale.

In the time period of The New Era, the great Empire is toast, laid waste thanks to an insidious, self-aware computer virus that makes Skynet look like shy and retiring by comparison. The virus (appropriately named “Virus”) has ravaged the Empire and its citizens, leaving trillions dead in sector after sector of smashed and ruined worlds.

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Geez, I’m bad, but not that bad.

Yet not all hope is lost. There are little islands of civilization among the vast ocean of cemetery worlds and boneyards that struggle to recover in the wake of the worst calamity in all of human history. It’s an uphill climb for the survivors to avoid a descent into barbarism and darkness.  If that weren’t enough, Virus is still out there, waiting to finish what it started. Civilization itself hangs by a very thin thread.

Pretty bleak stuff, huh? Well, many fans of Traveller thought the same thing, including yours truly. The epic scope of the previous settings shrank dramatically. Instead of focusing on an empire of 11,000 star systems, the new setting introduced the Reformation Coalition, a small polity with a little over 20. It was a controversial move and one that would divide fans of the ‘classic’ Traveller universe from those of the New Era to this day.

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Welcome to the new age, to the new age.
I’m radioactive, radioactive.

To promote this new setting, GDW added a trilogy of science fiction novels to their lineup to explore the setting in detail.  Paul Brunette was chosen to tackle this project.  He produced The Death of Wisdom and To Dream of Chaos. Before the third novel − The Backwards Mask − could be commissioned, however, GDW went out of business. The New Era trilogy went into limbo.

Years passed, until I happened to meet Marc Miller (the creator of the Traveller universe) at a convention.  At the time I was working as a writer for a game company. Though I was just a fan, Marc took the time out of his busy schedule to sit and talk with me. There was a great richness to the Traveller universe that I felt lent itself to fiction, and Marc agreed. After the convention, we started an email dialogue where we discussed possible Traveller fiction ideas. It was during this time that Marc dusted off the unfinished TNE trilogy and offered me the chance to write the third installment.

Of course, I jumped at it.

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]