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Fishbreath Plays: Masks: A New Generation Review

In Tuesday’s post, I promised a review of Masks: A New Generation, and ended up talking roleplaying game1 history instead. Today, there are fewer distracting topics to soak up a thousand words, so I have high hopes that this post will, in fact, be what the headline says.

Masks is a superhero RPG. It is not, however, an RPG about heroes at the height of their powers. Rather, it’s a game about teenage heroes, in the vein of Teen Titans or the Young Avengers.

This is a brilliant move. Superhero stories are fundamentally about human drama, and what’s more dramatic than a bunch of teenagers2? A game focusing on fully-realized adult heroes leaves a lot of storytelling potential on the table, because the story of growing up is one which resonates with just about every human on the planet, and is one which just about every human on the planet is equipped to tell themselves. Not only does Masks pick good subject matter, it has mechanics which help to push the story it’s trying to tell along. We’ll come back to that.

The rules system is the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, one of the first rulesets in the modern narrative tradition, whose terminology is something of a modern standard.

So, the combination of your character class and character sheet is called your playbook, and it contains just about everything you need to play the game, provided you have a reference for basic moves. Moves, by the way, are the things your character can do. They’re little snippets of game mechanics triggered by fictional events. Do the thing in the fiction, and the mechanics happen. It plays naturally. As a player, you narrate, and your narration makes things happen in the rules. In terms of dice, you roll 2d6 and add a modifier, succeeding partially on 7-9 and fully on 10 or more.

To this winning formula3, Masks adds its own wrinkles, as you do. The most important variations are Labels and Influence.

Masks calls your stats Labels. This is not a mere cosmetic difference. Labels don’t represent physical traits. Rather, they represent how a character sees herself, and how the world sees her. Your Danger, say, is how much you perceive yourself to be a bloody-knuckled bruiser, always ready to charge into a fight, and how much the world sees you as a destructive menace. When you trigger the move ‘directly engage a threat’, you roll plus your Danger. Is it strange that your self-conception changes how effective you are in a straight fight? At first blush, yes, but on reflection, it makes a lot of sense. How many superhero stories are there where the hero loses when he faces the villain the first time, gets his head in the right place, and wins the next battle?

Which brings me to my next point. Because Labels represent a character’s self-conception, they move. A lot. When you’re young, what people think about you matters. Masks models this mechanically. Other player characters and NPCs can have Influence over your character, which indicates that your character cares what they think of him. When a character has Influence over yours, they can shift your Labels (one up, one down) if they tell you what you are or how the world works. Part of character advancement (which, in the game’s fiction, represents growing up, or at least growing into your image of yourself) is learning to shut out what other people tell you and to know who you are, which is represented by casting off other peoples’ Influence and by locking your Labels so that they can no longer be shifted.

As is common in narrative games, there is no separate combat mode, just more narration and an emphasis on different moves off of the master list. Conditions come into play more in combat, as well, where they are a possible consequence of taking a hit. (They’re also possible consequences a number of other places throughout the system.) Conditions are negative emotions, rather than physical drawbacks—you might be Angry, say, or Hopeless. Again, this seems strange at first blush, but makes perfect sense given the fiction. Superheroes get back up after they take hits. The way to knock them out isn’t to beat them senseless, it’s to beat them hopeless. And, of course, we’re talking teenagers here. Emotions running wild is the name of the game4.

Character creation deserves some mention too. Masks leans heavily into its nature as a story game, so when you choose a playbook, you aren’t choosing a power set, but a character arc. The Beacon and the Delinquent playbooks are both relatively low-powered, street-level heroes, but they tell different stories: the Beacon as the hopeful kid who has to fight off allegations that he doesn’t belong, the Delinquent as, well, the delinquent, disrespectful of authority at the same time as she plays the trickster or causes trouble to attract its attention. The Nova and the Legacy are high-powered heroes, but one deals with internal conflict over the destructive nature of her own powers, and the other deals with external conflict between himself and those who went before him.

The rules suggest what modern games call a ‘session zero’, where you go through character creation together. By design, the core Masks rulebook doesn’t provide very much information on its setting, Halcyon City. The players get to fill in some of the blanks. At the end of character creation, the gamemaster asks each player a question, found on the back of his playbook, about the incident which brought the player characters together into a team. This does a few things: it gives the PCs a reason to be together, lets every player put her stamp on the world, and elides the origin story somewhat to get the game rolling faster.

Masks does this a lot, using its rules to incentivize forming bonds between characters. Working as a team has advantages. One of the easiest ways to clear conditions requires two characters to have a heart-to-heart conversation—and the other easy way requires a character to act badly with respect to his team, which is a great source of future drama. At the end of each session, each player gets a free move by which they can trade revealing some of their character’s hidden depths for various positive effects.

All of this makes Masks a joy to run. Even with characters thrown together on the spur of the moment5, the systems sing, driving interesting character interactions with very little effort. The section on advice for gamemasters is useful, too, in particular in two places. ‘Ask questions’ is good advice for gamemasters in any system, but it’s especially good here. Players don’t have to rigorously define their characters’ powers or backstories ahead of time, so asking questions helps to clarify and crystallize. It also keeps the focus on the players and their characters, and pushes the game in the action-packed direction you would expect from comic books.

Even better is the advice to narrate not merely according to comic book tropes, but even as though you’re describing a comic book itself. I started my first session by talking about the cover of the issue. I finished it with a full-page, divided-in-three panel showing a slice of life for each of our characters6. In both cases, it rooted the world in its comic book heritage, helped keep the players focused on the same, and finally, gave them a moment in the spotlight to shine and to reveal a bit more about their characters.

There are some downsides, which I’ll hit on quickly here.

First: like all narrative games, it takes a gamemaster with a penchant for rapid improvisation. There’s very little theme written down ahead of time, so you have to be familiar with what your players come up with and quick to build plot hooks. Happily, there’s advice for gamemasters on improvising.

Second: because the game focuses so heavily on relationship mechanics, you all but need three player characters, or at the very least, two characters and a robust cast of near-permanent NPCs. Four or five players is better.

Third: as in most narrative-heavy games, the players have both great power over the world and great responsibility to it7. It’s not the kind of game that stands up well to people trying to win it. Collaboration is key, along with players willing to limit themselves for the sake of drama8.

Fourth: it’s not as open-ended as, say, D&D. If you play for a long time, eventually your characters will advance to the point where they’re left with the choice of retiring from the masked life and going back to being a normal citizen, or turning into a paragon of the city and joining the ranks of Halcyon’s leading heroes. In both cases they turn into NPCs. It’s not the kind of game where you can play the same character forever. The flip side of each playbook having a clearly defined character arc is that character arcs eventually draw to a close.

In the final reckoning, I think it’s obvious that I give Masks the thumbs-up. It does exactly what it says on the tin: generates engaging stories about a team of young superheroes, with clearly-defined beginnings, middles, and ends9. It makes playing out inter-character drama mechanically rewarding, captures the essence of coming-of-age stories, and remains a playable, entertaining RPG.

If you don’t like teenagers, if crunchy combat is more your speed, or if you don’t like what I’ve said in this post and Tuesday’s about narrative games, you might want to give it a pass. Otherwise, I say it’s worth your time.


  1. Over on Discord, Kilo Sierra pointed out that ‘RPG’, in the context of the Soapbox, generally means something else. 
  2. I would apologize to our teenage readers if, according to our analytics, we had any. 
  3. At least, industry awards and player happiness suggests it’s winning. 
  4. I recognize you may be skeptical—I was, too. Playing the game disabused me of my skepticism. I won’t go any further out of my way to convince you to change your mind, but I will at least say it’s worth your time to try a session even if you doubt it’ll work. 
  5. An Incredibles knock-off, a guy who wants to kiss the Stanley Cup before his impending doom arrives, and someone ripped from the pages of a piece of fiction I’m working on. My wife and I were visiting family, and we played with my brother-in-law for two and a half hours one afternoon. You will note there were only three people involved and yet there were also three characters. I ran one as a GM PC, because Masks is iffy with only two players, for reasons I’ll get into later in the review. 
  6. In the upper left: Sam Skipper, a.k.a. the Shadow, my masked darkness-controller, wearing a big smile and asking asking an off-panel customer, “Do you want fries with that?” at his day job. In the upper right: John Zigel, my brother-in-law’s doomed memory-manipulator, brooding on his couch watching hockey. (He’s the one who wants to kiss the Cup.) In the bottom: Jill-Jill Parr, my wife’s acrobatic short-range-teleporting type, ignoring a stack of homework while she works on her original manga and ponders putting a streak of orange in her hair with an illicit bottle of hair dye. 
  7. You didn’t think you were getting out of here without something like this, did you? 
  8. If you want a game of a similar character (but a very different theme) which can better stand up to players who want to win, have a look at Blades in the Dark. It’s similar to Masks in terms of play style and ethos, but has tighter constraints for the players and leaves more power in the gamemaster’s hands. 
  9. Like a lot of games in this genre, it falls down if you push it too far outside its comfort zone. Masks would not make a very good game about adult superheroes, because adults aren’t as malleable as youngsters are. 

Fishbreath Plays: The History of Narrative RPGs

But first, a report Fishbreath the Web Lackey: there are some problems with the VPS on which Many Words runs, one of the symptoms of which is intermittent kernel panics on heavy network traffic. Not a great problem for a web server to be having, right? We are, by which I mean I am, working on it. If you notice any instability, blame the kernel grognards. And now, we return you to Fishbreath the Correspondent for today’s article.

You may know us primarily as defense affairs nerds, gun nerds, and occasionally video game nerds, but really, we’re multirole nerds. Full spectrum nerds. Joint nerds. So, on those grounds, and on the grounds that parvusimperator hasn’t scheduled anything for today and therefore has no basis for complaint, herein I will briefly review Masks: A New Generation, a tabletop roleplaying game from Magpie Games (n.b. affiliate link).

Except I’m now about a thousand words into this post and haven’t made it to actually reviewing the game, so we’ll make it a two-parter instead.

Masks belongs to the narrative game genre. To understand what that means, we’ll have to take a little trip through the history of the hobby, and of the tradition that narrative games are distancing themselves from. That’s what we’ll do this time out.

The year is 1974. For some time now, miniatures wargames have been popular. Some enterprising nerds asked themselves, how can we raise the stakes? First among these nerds was Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons1. The answer was simple: what if, instead of controlling a small army of guys with very little detail, you controlled instead a single guy with lots of detail?

D&D was the first tabletop roleplaying game. It was played very differently then than it is now: the older you go in the D&D tradition, the more lethal fighting is, and the less there is to do outside of what is today referred to as the loot treadmill2. There are islands of civilization. You venture outside those islands into a vast, dark sea of uncaring wildnerness filled with vicious monsters, whack the monsters until they yield their stashes of loot, and return to civilization to sell it all, enjoy your wealth, and prepare for another trip. Many of the early D&D adventures don’t make very much sense outside of this framework.

By being first, D&D cemented its place at the center of the RPG ecosystem. Settings grew more varied and left more room for intrigue, the degree of combat-centeredness in the rules ebbed and flowed (and ebbed and flowed), and modern live-play podcasts and web video series pushed the storytelling aspects of tabletop roleplaying to center stage3, but at its core, D&D’s DNA never changed. It’s a miniatures wargame4 with a dash of improvisational theater.

The two aspects, however, don’t always play well together. Oral storytelling has a rhythm to it which is easy to interrupt. Questions like, “How much taller can I make myself with Disguise Self?” or “Am I able to cast Teleport from here, or do I need to be in a teleportation circle?” slow you down at the least desirable time: moments of high drama. If that’s bad, combat is worse. Effectively, it’s a second mode of play, where the roleplaying largely cuts out and the focus switches to fight tactics5.

That’s the tradition narrative games aim to break away from. If D&D and its family tree are miniatures wargames with improv theater shoehorned in, why not write games as improv theater with rules shoehorned in?

Narrative games are in vogue at the moment, but they aren’t a recent trend. Apocalypse World, one of the major English-language trend-setters, was released in 2010. Ryuutama, a Japanese storytelling RPG with many of the genre’s common features (gamemasters with intentionally limited power, for one), came out in 2007. You can even make an argument that old versions of Paranoia belong more nearly to the narrative tradition than to the classic RPG tradition6.

So, what’s the difference? Narrative games are, not to put too fine a point on it, all about narration. Apocalypse World and its rules engine Powered by the Apocalypse are the archetypal examples. On your character sheet is a list of moves. These moves have fictional triggers. When (and only when) the ongoing narration matches the trigger, the move happens7.

Other features you might find include a collaborative worldbuilding process, a ‘session zero’ plan which involves building up the party and its history, and gamemaster moves which limit (or at least indicate the intended boundaries of) GM power.

What’s the upshot? Less staring at character sheets trying to figure out what to do next, more storytelling; less mode-switching to rules-heavy contexts, more natural interplay between story and rules.

Masks in particular does a few things very well. It also illustrates some of the shortcomings of narrative games better than I could describe them. I’ll cover both topics next time.


  1. Trademarked ampersand intentionally left out. 
  2. This image isn’t a perfect fit, but eventually you get to the point where the world itself trembles before you. 
  3. To the point that it’s entirely feasible to play a long and satisfying campaign of Dungeons and Dragons without encountering either dungeons or dragons. 
  4. Whose complexity has varied over the years. You could probably play a fighter-rogue-wizard party in 5e solo. It would be much more difficult in 4e, and you probably wouldn’t even make it past character creation in 3.5. 
  5. Don’t read this to mean that I think crunch or tactical combat are bad. In fact, I enjoy them for what they are, and my own game system, RPJ, uses moderately crunchy rules and combat. 
  6. It’s easy to miss this with Paranoia 2e, because it predates the modern narrative trend by three decades and therefore doesn’t use the same language, but it fits on several counts. Super-simple combat rules which the game more or less encourages you to ignore? Check. A focus on ruling consistently and fairly, within the constraints of the setting where the gamemaster is mostly playing an insane computer, rather than in perfect alignment with a Most Holy Rulebook? Check. (Put another way, it fails gracefully.) Ingenious use of in-character incentives to drive player behavior? Check. (Attempting to rules-lawyer out of character is taken as some expression of treason in-character, and traitors deserve the same treatment as mutants and commies.) It’s not a perfect match, but it’s closer to a modern narrative game than it is to D&D in a lot of ways, 20-sided dice notwithstanding. 
  7. There are variations on the theme. Blades in the Dark, another very popular entry in the genre, gives players a list of broad action ratings (Consort, Prowl, Skirmish…) rather than moves (‘engage a dangerous threat’, ‘assess the situation’…), and gives players more agency both in choosing which action rating they’d like to use and in shaping scenes to make a given action rating fit. 

Parvusimperator Reviews Suicide Squad

Yes, I know it’s old. But I wondered to myself, “Self, how could they screw this up? There are a ton of Dirty Dozen ripoffs out there. This one has Will Smith, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and The Joker. This should be easy to at least get to mediocre.” Well, here at the Soapbox sometimes I watch awful movies so you don’t have to.

And it is just as bad as the critics say. Sometimes they get it right. This is trash. And it’s sad, because this should be lots of fun. Dirty Dozen with comic book villains is a great premise. I’d greenlight that for production. And it’s not like DC doesn’t have any cool villains. So what went wrong? All kinds of stuff.

This movie had a lame plot. Of course, I don’t exactly expect anything wonderful from this sort of movie. The problems run deeper though. The structure is bad. It seemed like the writers couldn’t figure out what tone they wanted, and kept changing the serious/cheesy balance. And they felt the need to put in a lot of badly-structured backstory. It just didn’t work, and it was hard to follow. And it’s unnecessary. This is a superhero movie with relatively well-known villains as protagonists. Give everyone a quick establishing bit with a touch of voiceover and call it good. Honestly, you could probably run the script through a bunch of rewrites and eventually get something good. But you’d have to redo the whole script. I’m told this movie had some reshot sections in order to fix things, but that didn’t help anything.

I want to make note of a few things regarding casting and dialogue. Will Smith seemed kinda wooden and decidedly unfunny, which usually takes some effort. Plus, Deadshot’s fight work hasn’t aged well. We still have lots of jump cuts, and John Wick is just better in every way. On the decidedly positive side is Margot Robbie, who did a great job as Harley Quinn. Really, she’s one of the few who looked like she was having fun in this awful movie.

Parvusimperator Reviews: Marvel’s Spider-Man

I am sick to the back teeth of giant ensemble cast superhero movies, and I’ve played a ton of bad superhero games in my youth. For a game to stand out, it needs to be amazing. Spectacular, even. Insomniac Games has stepped up with their take on everyone’s favorite web-slinging hero in Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Things the game does right: damn near everything. First, pitfalls avoided. It’s not a rehash of the origin story, thank God and Stan Lee. We’ve got a somewhat-experienced Peter Parker here who doesn’t have to “learn how to be Spider-Man” for the millionth time. It’s not a redo of any other story either. They’ve gone and made their own story for you to enjoy.

Let’s talk about that story some more. It is brand new, but it checks all of the boxes that you would expect from a Spider-Man story. We’ve got complications. We’ve got good characters who are going to TURN BAD. We’ve got touching moments with MJ. We’ve got financial woes. We’ve got perpetual tardiness. We’ve got Spidey Quips. We’ve got famous villains that you know and love to hate. We’ve got J. Jonah Jameson (now with a radio show) calling you a MENACE and accusing you of being in cahoots with various evildoers. We even have a cameo appearance from the late Stan Lee himself. And there’s a brassy, awesome soundtrack that feels very ‘comic book movie’.

Being a Spider-Man game, this is set in New York City, and the devs at Insomniac did a great job of giving you a lovingly recreated Manhattan to play in. Thanks to modern processing power, you can web swing from Harlem to Wall Street without any loading screens. There are tons of recognizable New York City landmarks for you to see, plus a whole bunch of appropriate Marvel landmarks, like Avengers Tower. And you get around via web-swinging, which is the right mix of simple controls, dynamism, and just a bit of imprecision to be tremendous fun. It’s very easy to get the hang of, and it looks right out of a good Spider-Man movie.

On to combat! Combat feels like a somewhat more refined version of what we see in the Arkham games. More refined in the sense that Spidey’s gadgets are a lot better integrated into the fighting. It’s a lot easier to select gadgets, and they fit into your other attack and evasion work really nicely. Another nice feature is the combo bar. Fill it, and you get a finishing move, but you can also use it to replenish your health.

I would also like to praise the randomized minor crime mechanic. In each section of Manhattan, there are various factions who might do some crimes like try to hijack an armored truck. And, of course, you can go stop them. The timers are such that I never felt that I was overwhelmed by crime, or had somehow gone back to pre-Giuliani New York. Plus, after you stop a set number of crimes (five per faction, usually) those stop. Which is nice, because I get really sick when those become never-ending like the dragon encounters in Skyrim.

And now, things I don’t like. Happily, it’s a short list. First, there are sidequests that seem to require more precision in the web-swinging than the system is capable of delivering, which makes them a giant pain. Those quests were both frustrating and verisimilitude-breaking, as I felt like some sort of useless tetherball, not an amazing superhero. Happily, those quests are both few and number and entirely optional. The other annoying bits are the parts where you’re playing as Peter Parker (i.e. not costumed) and you have to walk around between cutscenes. With the exception of the bits in the lab, where there are plenty of things to mess around with, these felt entirely superfluous. Just work it into one cutscene, guys. It’s ok.

Overall though, it’s a great game. Highly recommended.

Fishbreath Watches: Alliance of American Football Review

If you’re a regular here at all, you’ll recall that I’ve been watching and enjoying the AAF, the current player in the spring football scrub league space.

The thing is, spring football scrub leagues have rather a fraught history. There was the XFL1. The less said about that, the better. The USFL puttered along for three seasons in the 1980s, then tried to go toe to toe with the NFL and immediately folded. There are a bunch of minor leagues listed on Wikipedia, none of which I’ve ever heard of.

There were are2 arena football leagues. The Arena Football League is down to six teams, but still trying its very best, while the American Arena League (est. 2017) is actually expanding to Pittsburgh3. There are other leagues, too, according to Wikipedia, which comes as something of a surprise. Arena football has some novelty, at least, with its smaller teams, smaller field, high scoring, and backyard-style rules (you can motion toward the line of scrimmage, and the nets are in play!).

Arena football lives, yes, but nobody has ever built a successful, enduring spring football league playing with substantially NFL-like rules. There’s one obvious reason: you’re competing with other, more meaningful sports. Hockey season is starting to get interesting, baseball fans wait on the edge of their seats for spring training news, basketball both pro and college is in full swing. Fans don’t have unlimited attention. You need buy-in, and you need a good product.

Does the AAF have it?

Buy-In

So far, there’s a surprising amount of buzz around the AAF. The games aren’t heavily attended by NFL standards, but they do seem to be drawing reasonable crowds—north of 10,000 in just about every game so far, and more than 20,000 in some instances like San Diego where the local football fans have been robbed or starved of their live football fix.

I’m talking about it, for another, as are the local sports radio personalities and a few of my football-related follows on Twitter and Youtube.

The Rules Changes

Now we get into the question of product quality. At least on this front, parvusimperator and I agree: the AAF’s changes are brilliant.

First: no TV timeouts. They do some product placement and fit in ads during natural stoppages in play, but they never outright stop the game for the purpose of advertising.

Second: fewer natural stoppages in play. Primarily, they’ve eliminated kickoffs. You start at your own 25, or you can elect to try a 4th-and-12 play from your 28.

Third: no extra points. You always go for two points, the effect of which is likely to reduce the number of ties in regulation and therefore of overtime. One of the AAF’s goals is to have games over and done in 2.5 hours. So far, they’re hitting that mark.

Fourth: simpler overtime. Each team gets one possession each, first and goal from the 10. No field goals. After each team gets a crack at it, the score stands.

Finally: the Sky Judge, a referee who watches from the press box and corrects bad calls.

The On-Field Product

The rules don’t matter if the football is crap.

So far, it hasn’t exactly been uniformly good, but it hasn’t been crap either. For every San Diego Fleet quarterback situation (two different starters through two games, combining for a less-than-50% completion rate) there’s an Orlando or Arizona, whose offenses seem to be firing on all cylinders and generating high scores and good football action.

It’s a little early to say if it’ll stay middling or trend one way or the other, but it’s a decent start for what it is, ultimately: an NFL minor league.

The Viewing Experience

One thing the AAF is doing right is streaming their games. During Week 1, you got the CBS commentary teams. Not so during week 2—instead, the stream was a commentary-free, graphics-free skycam, typically showing plays from the Madden-esque behind-the-QB perspective. Situation and score information comes from the web page surrounding the stream. You can decide for yourself if that’s good or bad.

Obviously, I haven’t been to a game in person, given that I am in Pittsburgh, where it is cold, and the AAF is largely located in the south, where it is warm. (Or warmer, at least.) Ticket prices are pretty reasonable. If you want a season pass to the club level, with (at least in some stadiums) all-inclusive food and drink, that’ll run you $800 or so a seat. If you don’t mind sitting at the top of the stadium (or the top of the lower bowl, for larger stadiums), you can find season tickets as cheap as $75, which (like some Browns games a year or two ago) is less than you might pay, per game, to get into a high-end high school game.

Concession prices seem to vary. They’re expensive in San Diego, because they’re playing in the Chargers’ old digs and don’t have full control over prices. I can’t find anyone talking about prices one way or another for the other teams.

The Intangibles

The team names feel a little strange right now, but I suspect that’s familiarity as much as anything. ‘Orlando Apollos’ may not be very poetic, but then, I come from a town with Steelers and Penguins, neither of which is much of an exemplar of the beauty of English.

Already, the league’s financials seem shaky—they needed an emergency infusion of cash to the tune of $250 million, which is half again as much as they’ve raised to date. $750 million in total is a big initial investment to recoup. For comparison, in 2015, the Packers’ total revenue was $376 million, between their share of the league pool and their own tickets, merchandising, and concessions income, of which $40 million was profit. If the AAF as a whole is as big as the Packers, which I doubt, that’s a lot of years before they make their money back.

Which is why it seems the AAF is going all in on gambling. They’re already part owned by some casino or another, and there’s been talk of next-play betting and daily fantasy built in to the AAF’s mobile apps. I understand that move, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

Maybe it’s because the league, teams, and future gambling operations are all one organization. Look at last Sunday’s San Diego Fleet game. They were up 21-12 with 30 seconds to go in the game, and were 9.5-point favorites. They kicked a field goal. If I were a gambling man and I had money on an NFL game with that outcome, I would grouse, but not seriously. It’s a little more suspicious when my bookie also employs the players and coaches.

That’s awfully conspiracy-minded of me, isn’t it? Let me be clear: I don’t honestly believe that the AAF will get into the game-fixing business when they can already print money with above-board gambling. In the final reckoning, I like the AAF so far. Will it have staying power? Only time will tell. The football is half decent, though, and for the fan who’s already itching for the NFL preseason, it’s good Sunday afternoon comfort food.


  1. Apparently, they’re trying again, launching in 2020. I’ll believe it when I see it. 
  2. News to me! 
  3. They play at the massive 1200-seat RMU Island Sports Complex Dome. 

Fishbreath Plays: Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun

The clunkily-named Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun is, at its core, a turn-based tactical wargame set on the battlefields of Asia during the Sengoku period, developed by Byzantine Games and published by Slitherine.

That sells it short, though.

The Sengoku period is a fascinating time in Japanese history, familiar to anyone who’s played a Total War game with ‘Shogun’ in the title. Competing daimyo fought for the title of shogun, de facto ruler of Japan. Usefully, at least for wargame designers, it was a century or so of near-constant war.

Sengoku Jidai has a number of expansions which extend it well beyond Japan in the 16th century, to China and Korea in the same era, all the way back to Japan in the 12th and 13th centuries. With the exception of gunpowder, warfare in those eras was broadly similar, so I won’t make too much of the differences. (Also, my interest in the era mainly runs toward the Sengoku period, and that’s what I’ve played extensively, so I’ll stick with talking about it.)

Gameplay

I can’t find a solid source to confirm or deny that the battlefield rules in Sengoku Jidai are based on a tabletop wargaming system, but it feels like they could be. They’re clean and simple.

Movement is on a square grid. Combat is pretty mathy, but comes down to Points of Advantage which affect the result, and which are gained or lost based on many of your typical wargame conditions. (Think spears against horses, rough terrain and disorder, morale, and so on.) Turning units is hard, as is shifting them long distances; they’re fairly slow, and 45-degree turns are about as much as you can manage without running out of action points. Units outside of their generals’ command range are even less mobile, an unusual but sensible design choice. Rather than stack up more combat modifiers, generals simply yield a more flexible, better-coordinated force. Works for me.

When units get into melee combat, they usually stay there for a few turns, wearing each other down and slowly inflicting losses until someone breaks. Once units get into close combat, you lose control over them, and even if your unit routs its opponent, you may not get control back—units automatically pursue routers, and may charge enemies in their paths.

There are good tutorials, both in the sense of tutorial missions and in the sense of tutorial popups explaining events as they happen, and between those and the elegance of the rules, it’s easy to get to grips with the system and start with the generalship.

Finally, for the cost of entry, you get a random map generator, a random battle generator, some historical scenarios, and some dynamic campaigns (simple ones, but enough to contextualize battles). Even the base game gets you the Sengoku Jidai campaigns and the Imjin War, I believe. If you enjoy the gunpowder- and artillery-heavy armies of the latter, I’d recommend picking up the Mandate of Heaven DLC, too, which buys you expanded Chinese factions and four more dynamic campaigns.

Presentation

I don’t have a lot to say here. The sounds are competent but uninspired, though the music is pleasantly atmospheric. The unit graphics are little groups of men and horses, more in the vein of counters than anything else. The landscapes are quite pretty, to the extent that they can be given the square grid they have to fit, and have a whiff of Japanese landscape painting about them in color palette and design.

One notable trouble spot is the lack of anti-aliasing, which is a bother for a game featuring spearmen aplenty. Another is that units don’t shrink as you batter them. A 1500-man unit of yari ashigaru looks the same at full strength as it does after losing 600 men, the only difference being a more tattered flag. As far as I’m aware, there’s no game mechanic which requires easy knowledge of a unit’s original size, so I count this as a flaw.

Verisimilitude

If you’ve read any of my previous wargame reviews, you’ll probably remember that verisimilitude is just about my favorite word in this kind of article. The point of a wargame is not to simulate every arrow and every man down to the smallest wound. The point of a wargame is to evoke a sense of place.

So, what is evocative about Sengoku Jidai’s gameplay? What puts me in the mindset of a field commander in 16th-century Asia?

First: deployment is crucial. On the scale of a battlefield, infantry is slow. Even cavalry takes a while to get where you want it. If you deploy your main body poorly, you can easily lose a battle you should have won. If you deploy your main body well, taking advantage of the terrain and the strengths of your units, you can win battles you might otherwise have lost.

Second: loss of control is rapid. Once the lines crash together, the outcome is largely out of your hands, except insofar as you contribute to key points with flanking maneuvers. As the general in command of an army, your responsibility is to deploy your forces well and, on the approach, meet weak points in the enemy’s deployment with strength. That seems accurate to me.

Like all the best wargames, when I get into the groove, it doesn’t feel like a game, in spite of the tabletop feeling of the rules. I give it my recommendation.

Miscellaneous

It’s available on Steam, but doesn’t work with Steam Play/Proton/Wine on my Mint 19.1 system, and as far as I know, doesn’t have high-DPI support.

Parvusimperator Reviews Yakuza 6

I picked this up mostly because I heard from a couple friends that this series was great. I only found out after the fact that it might have made more sense to start with the prequel Yakuza 0. No matter. I have Yakuza 6 and that’s where I started the series. So what do I think?

I love Yakuza 6.

There, that’s out of the way. Now, let’s get down to the why. Yakuza 6 is one part soap opera about criminals, one part fantastic beat-’em-up, and one part sort-of-open-world game. Let’s look at each of those.

The story is very much dramatic soap opera. I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m doing a lot of reading of subtitles. I don’t really mind. I think the story is loads of fun, mostly because it’s so different. It does have a bit of an anime feel to it in the ‘awesome drama trumps some realism’ department, but that’s ok. If you want to skip the cutscenes, you can. You’re missing out on some great story though. Just because it’s a little stylistically different doesn’t mean it isn’t well written. And fun. It’s lots of fun.

I also want to take a moment to commend Yakuza 6 for doing a great job of bringing someone totally new to the series up to speed with a minimum of fuss. And I didn’t feel like I was being lectured to. That’s rare.

Combat is pretty fantastic. There are some combos, but they’re pretty simple. It doesn’t feel like an old-school fighting game with giant lists of button press sequences to memorize. What sets Yakuza 6 apart from say, the Arkham games, is that the environment is full of weapons for you to use. There’s a lot of fun in picking up random things and beating your foes with them. Plus, there’s a “Heat Mode” which lets you power up, punch with awesome blue flames, and use larger blunt objects to smash people in the face. Things like mopeds.

There are also a good number of cool unlockable moves. Not so much that it ever felt grindy, but you can definitely unlock some fun extras.

Yakuza 6 has some open world elements in that there are a lot of optional sidequests and minigames that you can do. Some of these can get annoying, so it’s good to space them out. However, I never found them to be anything but fun. I think my favorite was running around trying to befriend stray cats by feeding them. Or perhaps the spearfishing rail-shooter minigame. In any case, these are all nicely optional.

Overall, there’s a good, fun story, an excellent combat system, and a solid grab bag of minigames. I give it a thumbs up. Definitely worth the asking price.

Parvusimperator Reviews the Vortex Razor Gen II-E 1-6

Kind of a mouthful of a scope name, but it’s high time I review it. The Gen II-E is the lighter version of the Gen II that three gunners have been loving for years, and that SOCOM has been slapping on their carbines when they want a low-power variable optic. The II-E is basically the same great scope, but four oz. lighter. Subtract one Royale with cheese. Great. I’m always down for lighter weight.

I went with the JM-1 reticle, because I’m buying this scope for competition, where a simple BDC-type reticle will do nicely. Other reticle choices are MOA-dots and mildots. So if you want ranging references, go with those. All reticles have a 0.5-MOA illuminated dot in the center of the crosshair. It’s small enough not to cover stuff up, but bright enough to be easily seen just about anywhere. “Daylight bright” is a frequently abused term in optics reviews. I will say that it’s as bright as my Aimpoint. Or, if you prefer, there are settings that are entirely too bright to be without blooming on an sunny Pennsylvania day. So it should be bright enough for anything.

The illumination dial is nicely thought out. Pull out to adjust and then push in to lock, just like a locking turret. Also nice is that between each setting there’s an off position. So you don’t need to go all the way back to zero every time you want to shut your scope off. It’s a nice convenience feature.

The adjustment turrets are capped. Once the caps are removed, the turrets themselves are adjustable with your fingers, not a screwdriver/cartridge case. The adjustment increment, in my case 1/2 MOA, was printed right on the turret, which was also nice. I didn’t need to consult a manual, so I didn’t have to worry about forgetting it at home. For this scope and its intended uses, capped turrets are ideal. BDCs are not for dialing range on.

Looking through the Razor, we find very clear glass. Even at the edges. The scope has a really wide field of view and a very forgiving eyebox. The wide field of view means that the scope body will very nearly disappear on 1x. Up close, the Razor is fantastic. It’s fast as my Aimpoint, and that’s high praise.

Letting the scope stretch its legs a little, it also does well at range. The field of view is great on 6x too, and the reticle doesn’t get in your way. I like simple reticles, and you can’t argue with good glass.

I don’t have any complaints about the Razor. It’s a little heavy, but not inordinately so. It has a second focal plane reticle, which means that the subtensions are only accurate on the maximum magnification. That’s fine by me; that’s the only time I really expect to need them. It also means that it’s easier to design a reticle that works across all magnification ranges when the reticle doesn’t change with magnification. Technically, it’s also way easier to make a second focal plane reticle brightly illuminated. I’d rather have the simple reticle and bright illumination.

Is this the right scope for you? That depends on your application. For 3-Gun and other action shooting disciplines, this scope is the gold standard. Understand your needs before you go buying, especially if you can’t look through it first. All that said, I’m extremely happy with my purchase, and I love my Razor.

Parvusimperator Reviews: Rise of the Tomb Raider

A video game review! Yes, from me! I know, I don’t usually do these.

I picked up Rise of the Tomb Raider (20th Anniversary Edition) during a labor day weekend sale. I got it for my PS4, mostly on a lark. I figured that with all the DLC, and having a bunch of patches, I could probably get the $15 of enjoyment out of it.

I was skeptical because I am not a fan of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by Square Enix. I hated the fact that it’s an origin story, because I loathe origin stories, and I hated the QTEs. I can’t stand QTEs. They’re one of the worst parts of modern gaming, and I wish they would die1. Give me agency or make it a cutscene, game developers. It’s not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with cutscenes. Also, in addition to being a stupid, unnecessary origin story2, the 2013 game was populated with a bunch of other characters whose job is to die to prove the situation is serious and torment Lara.3

So, with all that in mind, what did I think of the sequel? It’s great. In fact, it seemed like they fixed a lot of gripes that I had with the first one. Good on you, Square Enix. Let’s do a deeper dive.

Are there QTEs? Yes, but they’re fewer in number, more spaced out, and the “windows” for button presses seem more forgiving. Also, a lot of them come up in the dodge-and-then-melee combat bits, but many of these are easily bypassed by those of us who can pull off a good headshot. So that’s a big plus.

Combat is much improved this time around too, with more weapons and a bunch of craftable ammo options. I will say that as a guy who has played shooters for a long time, I would have liked to have seen more difficult combat that wasn’t also tied to the survival mechanisms. Mostly because I want auto-heal on for all those times that I screw up the platforming and faceplant on a rock. I found combat satisfying overall. I thought some of the ‘boss fights’ could have been tougher.4 Or maybe that’s just because I like firepower, picked up the “easy button” and got on with life.

The story is better this time too. Lara is still “developing” as a tomb raider/adventurer/badass, but she’s got some skills and drive this time around. And there’s only one friend that hangs around the story. He’s a pretty ok guy, and we get to know him a bit. More time getting to know him would have been better, but this wasn’t awful. Lara is fundamentally a loner, and it’s nice to see us getting back to that.

I think the platforming was a little better in this one compared to the last, but it’s still not as good as Uncharted. One of the things I really liked in Uncharted 4 is that Nate will reach for ledges if and only if he can jump to them. I thought this was a great subtle hint as to what I shouldn’t waste time/restarts from checkpoints trying to reach. Alas, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t do this, and I really missed the feature. I did like that as Rise of the Tomb Raider progresses, you get some toys to let you zoom around the environment more, and that was fun. Any game that lets me make my own ziplines is welcome.

Graphicswise, we’re long past the era when games would try to blow their competition away in terms of prettiness. The game looks good. There are plenty of spectacular scenic vistas, as befits an adventuring game. And I’m not much of a sound connoisseur, so I’ll merely state that the sound was never a problem. Not noticing it seems about the highest compliment I can pay, since my noticing it usually means it’s awful. Music was also good, though it lacked a kickass theme to really stick with me.

Overall, go for it. You’ll enjoy it.


  1. While I would love to see this be an agonizingly painful death, I am not a Bond villain, and am not choosy when it comes to the manner of termination with extreme prejudice. 
  2. Highly redundant, I know. 
  3. God forbid we reduce the number of characters and build attachments to them so the player gives a shit when they die because this situation is SRS BIZNIZ. /sarcasm 
  4. Protip: Grenade launchers are your friend. 

Parvusimperator Reviews the PX4C

Okay, this is Fishbreath’s gun, it’s true. And I’ve been pestering him to review it, but he hasn’t.

Fine. I’ll review it.

Don’t worry, Fishbreath. I’ll do my best to be impartial.

The PX4C (Compact) is a newish double action pistol from Beretta. Well, certainly newer than the Beretta 92, which is what you probably think of when I say “Beretta handgun”. The PX4C doesn’t have a ton of market share, partially because Beretta is bad at marketing, partially because Beretta hasn’t kept market share amongst law enforcement departments (see: Is Bad At Marketing), and partially because the PX4s came out a bit too late. The PX4s were released in 2004, when double-action triggers were going out of vogue. And there they have more or less stayed. If they came out in the 90s, back when double action triggers were Still Cool, they would have sold like crack, and you would hear lots about how nice they were.

Which brings us to an obvious point. These are double action semiautomatics. I am not a fan of these, personally. If you are not either for whatever reason, then (1) these will probably not make a convert out of you and (2) these can’t be turned into something that they aren’t: a striker-fired or single action only pistol. If you want something else, get something else.

On the other hand, if you are a fan of double action pistols, then the PX4C is a great choice, because it is about Glock 19 sized and polymer framed. The Glock 19 size (roughly) is big enough that you can easily get a good grip on the gun, but small enough that most people won’t have too much trouble concealing it with a modicum of effort. You can get good shooting smaller pistols, and you can conceal bigger pistols with a little more effort, but the Glock 19 is the sweet spot of balancing concealability and firepower. This gives you the same size package, the same fifteen round capacity, but a double action trigger. It’s also the only game in town if you like the double action trigger and want something in the Glock 19 form factor (and don’t feel like giving up a couple rounds). That’s really cool.

Oh, and polymer framed because it’s nicer to carry less weight around on your belt.

The PX4C has the Beretta-standard safety/decocker on the slide. I’m not a fan of this location, but it’s easier to reach with your strong hand than on a Beretta 92. You can convert it to a decocker-only lever with a really easy parts swap, and these parts are easy to come by.

I’ve also heard some occasional stories of issues if these pistols get dry, like in high round count classes. To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened to Fishbreath, but he doesn’t do 2,000 round marathons of shooting. The PX4C might be a little needier of lubrication than, say, a Glock. I don’t know enough about this to know how big an issue it is. The occasional story comes up. I can’t confirm the cause either. The rotating barrel system is different, for better and for worse. It does make the pistol a bit softer shooting, but 9 mm isn’t all that stout to begin with. It might be more interesting to try one in .40, but I don’t have access to one.

The PX4C comes with interchangeable backstraps, which is nice. They could be grippier, but I say that about everything. This is easy to fix with some stippling or skateboard tape. Or maybe you like a smoother grip, in which case the PX4C is perfect for you as-is.

There’s actually a decent amount of Beretta parts support for these. There are low-profile safety/decocker levers, low profile slide releases, and a variety of sizes of mag catches. You can also use the mainspring from a Beretta 8000D to improve the double-action trigger pull by a significant amount. And, unfortunately, there is where the support stops. With searching you can find holsters. It is very difficult to find sight alternatives, though Trijicon does make both their standard three-dot tritium sights and their HDs for the PX4s. Stock sights are three-dot units.

So there you have it, readers. The PX4C is a great option for you if you like to carry reasonably-sized double action pistols. In which case, you owe it to yourself to give these a go. They’re pretty easy to overlook given all of the fancy Beretta 92 variants of late, but these are quite a bit easier to carry.

Also, if you’re on the fence, there’s an Ernest Langdon Custom Carry Edition, with actually good sights and all of the low profile controls added right out of the box. It also even comes with some grip tape. This is the version I would suggest you get, dear reader.