The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

First Time Watcher: Marvel Heroic Role Playing Actual Play Report

This past weekend I had my first chance to run Margaret Weis Productions'  Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game as the game master (the Watcher, in MHRP parlance).  I have played RPGs off and on for over 30 years, but I had not yet run MHRP.

Some friends of ours generously host a game day at their home about three times a year.  The focus is mostly board and card games, but my son and I decided to take MHRP to see if anyone would sit down and play a brief event with us.

Fortunately, last week MWP released as bonus content, a "What if" scenario based in part on New Avengers issue 6, which happened to be one of my favorites from that era of Brian Michael Bendis' run.  The original story had to do with a batch of the New Avengers (Spider-Man, Spider Woman, Luke Cage and Wolverine) ending up having to fight The Wrecker (who is constantly reminding them that he has successfully fought Thor) and having quite a hard time of it.  The mini-event gives you the opportunity to run an encounter with The Wrecker, but also provides datafiles for the rest of the Wrecking Crew, as well as Thor, and provides some ideas on how to run an alternative scenario from how it played out in the pages of New Avengers.  Quinn Murphy wrote the action scene and Cam Banks and Dave Chalker (Dave the Game!) developed the bonus content download.  Amanda Valentine edited.  I mention all these folks, because they provided something that I was able to immediately jump brand new players into with minimal effort and prep and we all had a really good time.

Before I go into how things ran, I want to send a few more shoutouts to the professional and fan community surrounding MHRP.  I have been watching the development of the game by following Cam Banks (lead designer), Philippe Menard (The Chatty DM)  and Dave "The Game" Chalker on Twitter, and I had the good fortune to go with my son, Ian, to a launch event at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC and sit at a table with Dave the Game as Watcher.  I have learned a lot from them.  Further, I have been really impressed and learned a lot from the fan base of MHRP.  Especially helpful have been Dr. Doom and Marvel Plot Points who through posting support materials, actual play reports and events (adventures) have really fired my imagination.

I have to give major prop supports to Plot Points, because I printed out a bunch of their unofficial hero datafiles to add to the official ones from the basic game in order to have an even broader appeal for my potential players. 

One pro-tip on printing datafiles from Plot Points: the image files will kill your printer as is.  They are beautiful and would totally work if you are using them off of a tablet (e.g. iPad), but to print out they are a challenge.  However, here is how I solved it.  I use Picassa 3 (free from Google) as my photo-editor.  I imported the datafile images into the program, and then I transformed them using Picassa's "Pencil Sketch" tool.  Just a little fiddling with the intensity of the "sketch" and I had very legible sheets that did not kill my printer FTW.

So, how about some actual play in the actual play report?  [This is what happened to the best of my recollection]

We arrived at the game day, and immediately, my son, who is 14, looked to recruit players.  He immediately had 3, our hosts' two sons (12 and 9) and the younger son's good friend (also 9).  I sat them down and they all selected heroes.  We soon had a team consisting of Captain America (my son), Mr. Fantastic, Iron Fist and Rogue (thank you Plot Points!).  I started to do my best impression of someone who knows what he is doing (thinking back to playing at Dave the Game's table) and explained how the basics of the game worked and how to read the datafiles.  Then two more boys sat down, each about 13.  We were happy to add them, and they picked Spider-Man and Iron Man.  Aside from my son, I think all the kids were pretty new to RPGs and most I did not know well, if at all.  However, we got everyone up to speed and launched into the mini-event.

In the wake of the Breakout at the Raft, heroes had been assembled to try to recapture the many Super villains who were at large.  SHIELD intelligence had identified a collector of super villain and super heroic memorabilia who might have acquired dangerous technology/gear that belonged to some of the escaped villains.  Heroes were dispatched to secure the items and set up to try to apprehend any evil doers who might show up. 

Captain America had the lead.  Reed Richards was the scientific advisor, since they were unsure as to what they would encounter in this collection, Iron Man was along to provide firepower (both scientific and physical) and Spidy, Iron Fist and Rogue were there for their versatility, experience and ability to punch things hard.  They touched down in a Quinjet on the cul-du-sac near Ed Gross' McMansion.

They quickly split into three groups.  Iron Man was flying over watch, Cap, Rogue and Mr. Fantastic went to the front door, and Spidy and Iron Fist went around back.  Cap asked Mr. Fantastic to do some kind of scan to give them an idea of what to expect.  Dr. Richards quickly jury rigged something and soon had a full schematic of the house and its secure sub-basement filled with all sorts of super-tech and mystic junk.  Also, Richards could tell they some super-powered individual was already in the basement with someone else.

At this point Iron Man got bored, or at least the kid playing him did.  I felt a pang of failure as a watcher for not being able to immediately engage him and keep him interested.  However, no one gave him a bad time about deciding that this was not for him, and he went to find a more conventional game.  Later, my host told me that he actually doesn't like to play games that much, but he comes to the game days because all the other neighborhood kids come and he does not want to be left out.  So, not an epic fail, but, so long Iron Man. 

I informed the players that Iron Man had to respond to an emergency at Stark Enterprises and they were going to have to deal with things on their own.

So, then we switched to Spider-Man and Iron Fist.  They detected the intruder as well, but the old fashioned way, since someone had come in through the rear, ripped out the sliding glass door and stomped through the house and down to the sub-basement.  Spidy and Iron Fist followed the trail and soon heard some mean guy threatening a teenage girl.  The heroes immediately leapt to action.

I chose Spider-Man to act first since he seemed the most tentative of my players and I wanted to give him a moment to shine.  We talked about what he thought Spidy would do and I showed him how to form a dice pool.  He had a great role and he leaped into the room, web-shooters blazing and quickly had webbed Wrecker's face and feet!  I then explained how action order worked in MHRP and he wisely chose to let Wrecker go next, so Iron Fist could bat cleanup.

Wrecker, who can at least go a few rounds with Thor, was not going to let some web slinger do more than annoy him.  He ripped the webbing off his face and teleported away from the webs on his feet and behind Spider-Man, recently recovered magic crowbar raised to strike.  The collector's teenage daughter (being held hostage by The Wrecker) really started screaming at this point.

Into this calmly stepped the Living Weapon of K'un Lun.  I turned to the nine year old playing Iron Fist and said, "What do you want to do?"  "I think I should kick that crowbar out of his hands."


One terrific role later, the crowbar was out of the Wrecker's hands and imbedded in the wall across the room.

Iron Fist graciously picks Spider-Man to act next.  He was not sure what he wanted to do next.  Bullpen style, we all gave him some suggestions.  Next thing he was rolling to grab the crowbar with his webbing and swing it upside Wrecker's head.  "Hey Wrecker, I think you dropped something!"


Spidy K.O.'s the Wrecker with his own crowbar (d12 physical stress). 

Wrecker falls onto a pile of alien technology, mystic artifacts, and superhero fan magazines.  Sparks start to arc and there is a little smoke curling from behind his head.

The teenage girl continues to scream.

Back to Cap's group.  They briefly consider knocking down the door after the house foundation jumped when Wrecker hit the floor, but then they did decide to check the door, and low and behold, the collector's (Ed Goss) daughter has left the door unlocked (much like many a forgetful son and daughter I have known).

The heroes rush down to the basement, led by Mr. Fantastic’s holographic schematic and arrive to find one ex-hostage teenage daughter near hysteria, one unconscious super villain lying on top of some stuff that probably should not have been crushed together, and two very satisfied heroes (Spidy and Iron Fist).

Suddenly, Wrecker's limbs start to spasm, and before anyone can take an action, his right hand grasps the crowbar and he vanishes [yes, this was some mean old Watcher fiat, and I can explain that I had planned to have Loki (thank you Plot Points!), masquerading as the Norn Queen, manipulating things; I was going to follow the flow and decide if he would take a direct hand at all, or if he was just jerking everyone around.  At this point, he was just making mischief and putting Wrecker back into play with the rest of his Crew.

Reed Richards quickly scanned and could tell that Wrecker was being joined by three other like powered individuals and they all seemed to be approaching the parked Quinjet.

Uh oh.

In this brief transition scene, everyone besides Spider-Man decided to spend plot points to make assets based on picking up useful things from Ed Gross' collection.  Everyone made up what it was they were taking.  Cap picked up a Hydra pulse rifle.  Mr. Fantastic picked up a pocket mass canon.  Iron Fist picked up a mystic staff.  Rogue picked up an energy baton.  Then, they all raced topside, except for Cap, who took a moment to calm the distraught teenager who was sure her dad was going to kill her when he saw his collection.

Cap reassured her, and she said he was kinda hunky for an old guy.  Cap beat a hasty retreat and sprinted to join the rest of the heroes.

Spidy leapt from the front door to a lamppost and saw that the other three of the Crew (Bulldozer, Piledriver and Thunderball) had arrived in a huge dump truck.  Wrecker was back on his feet.  Thunderball, the genius, was cracking the code to get into the Quinjet.  Spider-Man acted decisively and leaped to the front of the dump truck and flipped it at Bulldozer and Piledriver.  He only rolled well enough for one effect die (and I got to add a d8 to the doom pool!) and he smashed the engine block onto Bulldozer's head, additionally exploding the gas tank and spraying burning fuel around the neighborhood (DOOM POOL, YAY).

Mr. Fantastic notified SHIELD authorities than an evacuation of the local neighborhood might be warranted.

Iron Fist got himself in position to stop anyone from escaping in the Quinjet.  He was unable to create an effect die to help him by melting into the shadows, but he still was in good position.

Bulldozer said "You are dead Spider-Man!" and attacked.

At this point, Spider-Man's player, unfortunately, was stating that he was tired (I think he spent the morning at the pool) and was thinking about going home.  I told him we would miss his participation, but if he needed to go, we would be okay. 

Bulldozer then hit Spidy so hard he went flying out of the neighborhood and into a nearby playground jungle gym.  The Bullpen decided that Spidy probably would see some folks trying to get out of the neighborhood that needed rescuing and would get caught up doing that before he could get back to the fight.

Piledriver then went after Iron Fist, saying he was going to plant that old Bruce Lee wanna-be six feet under.  Iron Fist easily evaded.

Thunderball declared that Mr. Fantastic was clearly the most serious threat given his intellectual superiority, so Thunderball put everything he had into catching him with his huge ball and chain and flinging Reed Richards out of the neighborhood.  Despite a valiant attempt to evade the attack, Reed Richards soon found himself having avoided damage, but under the complication of "hurled far away".

Rogue went after Wrecker directly, flying straight at him (gloves, literally off), grabbing his face, flying up with him, leeching his strength, and then pounding him into the ground.  How do y'all like that Sugah!

Wrecker's attack was ineffective against Rogue. 

Reed Richards halted his flight, crashed into someone's skylight, but then (again literally) began to spring back to the action.

Then, Captain America hit ALL the bad guys with his shield.  He made sure that he put two effects on Thunderball.  One was physical stress, but the other translated to mental stress.

While I could spend from the Doom Pool to activate invulnerability for Wrecker and Thunderball, I had to sacrifice and take some stress on Bulldozer and Piledriver.

Iron Fist then continued his fight with Piledriver.  Somehow, the battle took them up onto the Quinjet where Iron Fist swept Piledriver's feet out from under him and made sure that Piledriver's crotch hit the wing (hey, this was a nine year old narrating).  More physical stress to the Wrecking Crew.

Wrecker then teleported behind Captain America and laid him out with the crowbar.  Cap was down, but not out.  Rogue in turn took Wrecker down with his own stolen strength. 

Iron Fist easily leaped over Bulldozer’s charge, but could not counterattack. 

Cap caught his second wind and threw the shield to hit Bulldozer and Thunderball again.  Bulldozer went down, but Thunderball sucked a die from the Doom Pool and ignored the physical stress. 

"I'm smarter than all of you put together" declared Thunderball.  "You'll never take me down!"

Ian, playing Captain America did a facepalm and said, we have to stop hitting him and stress him out mentally!  We need Mr. Fantastic!

At which point, in sprang Reed Richards!

"Take him down with SCIENCE!" yelled Cap!

Cut to brilliant and funny nine year old playing Mr. Fantastic: I make my head really big, and I explain to him what the many probable outcomes of his continuing to fight with us.  I tell him he is going back to maximum security and tell him his intellect is nothing compared to mine!  Also I shoot him with my pocket canon.

One roll later, Thunderball collapses in a pile of overwhelmed nerves and neurons.

Cap: "You talked that guy into unconsciousness!  Way to go!"

After that, it was all cleanup.

“When do we fight Loki?” asked the kid playing Iron Fist (who had noticed the sheet in front of me). 

“Not right now,” I had to say.  We needed to break and everyone wanted to try some other games.

There was a lot of interest in doing some more, but we did not have time then.  But, I would totally sit down with those kids again, probably in one or two action scene and one transition scenes at a time.  My core group of 4 totally understood the game and really got into it.  They were uninhibited, creative and enthusiastic!

My Reed Richards proudly declared "Mr. Fantastic is definitely my favorite superhero ever!!"

For me, these kids epitomized why I play RPGs.  We went to a different world and had a whole lot of fun by cooperating together to tell a really interesting and exciting story.

It was a blast.  I don't know when my next opportunity is going to come, but I am definitely running this game again!

Finished "Alpha"

I was able to finish Greg Rucka's "Alpha" yesterday.  It was a painful eight days, not because of reading the book, but rather all the time I had to NOT read the book.  This is easily a book you can sit down to read a chapter or two and find yourself reading all afternoon and into the night.  Rucka has always written terrific page turners and this book is no exception.

So, after putting down the book each day with regret that I was going to have to wait to pick it up again, I finished yesterday.

All the good things have been said already about the book, but I will say them again.  The book is a classic character driven piece.  Yes, there is a BIG ACTION plot.  But what happens in the book is not dictated by the flow of the plot from point A to point B.  Instead, the action is driven by the decisions of the characters, big and small.  Rucka puts us in the perspective of several protagaonists and antagonists so that we see who they are, how they thing and we understand why they are doing what they are doing (and we see at what costs).  The book is compelling because the characters are compelling, not because it is about the possibility of a dirty bomb going off at a major American amusement park.

The writing is very taught.  The action builds and builds, and each chapter end demands that you turn to the subsequent chapter. 

The hero is a flawed paragon.  Jad Bell is someone you want on your side, but he is complicated, and may not be the best friend, husband or relative to have.  He chose early on what was most important, and it is the duty to his service and his country, and when it comes to personal relationships, that can be pretty brutal.

Jad has the most complicated relationships with his teenage daughter, who happens to be deaf, and his estranged ex-wife.  Both characters are fully realized and even though you are on Jad's "side" as he does his job, you can see why the choices he has made destroyed his marriage and make his daughter really mad at him (more than your usual teenage daughter).  The relationships are earned and painful.  They are not just there for "feel good" moments, like some sentimental relief.  They are there because they throw into sharp contrasts the contradictions of our hero and legitimately up the ante on the events of the plot.

Finally, the rest of the supporting cast is amazing.  This is one of Rucka's most cinematic books (like I said, BIG ACTION), but everytime you see a character and, based on your experience perhaps with action movies, you say, oh, I know who this character is, it turns out that you are wrong.  There are no cardboard villans, spies, corporate jerks, military guys.  There are characters who are believable and complex, even if they only have slight "screen time."  You don't even think that you are dealing with some idiot from central casting who could not really do the role he or she is portraying and who only exists as some kind of straw person or foil.  For a BIG ACTION book, this is a true study in characters.  And the characters are smart and competent.  Everyone makes mistakes and has imperfections, but no one is portrayed as an idiot just to make Jad look good.  The twists and turns of the book are sharp and earned through the logical actions, sacrifices and gambles of three dimensional characters.

It is a pleasure to read.

I highly recommend it.  It would be a great way to spend a summer day or two.

Justin Peniston also has some interesting things to say about Alpha and Rucka as a writer in general.  I recommend checking out what he has to say (and he has two great web comics, so you could check those out as well!)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Very nice review of Greg Rucka's Alpha over at "Thinking Too Much"

Here is a really thoughtful and interesting review of Greg Rucka's terrific new book Alpha.  I am only part way through the book, so I have no comprehensive review yet, but this blog entry really captures well the depth, fun and complexity of the book.  It is a great page turner, but it is far more than that too.

Read it!

What I saw at the 28th Science Olympiad

Before this last year, I only had the vaguest notion about the kinds of scientific competitions that happen for school age kids around the country.  This year, I got quite an education.

In particular, my son, whom we have homeschooled the last two years, joined a Middle School aged Science Olympiad team this last fall.  We have been homeschooling because of particular educational needs that my son had, both in being able to self-pace his work (some things he could do very fast, and others veeeery slooow), and in terms of being able to focus on things he really needed to have ready for high school.  Science is one thing that can be quite challenging at home, since outside of kitchen science, you rarely have safe lab space or equipment.  So, when we learned about this team, it seemed like another way to make sure my son got exposure to a lot of scientific knowledge and concepts.

Somewhat ironically, and at variance from the stereotype, this was a seriously Christian homeschooling team, lead and taught by folks from the local Mennonite Church (where the meetings were held).  We were and had always been quite secular in our approach and certainly were not homeschooling for any kind of religious purpose.  So, there goes my highly smart, highly skeptical, secular positivist agnostic kid into study and preparation for competition in the Science Olympiad with a diverse group of very religious Christian kids (though not just Mennonite, but from several denominations).  It was certainly going to give him lots of experience and knowledge, and not just about science. 

The group, Pilgrimage Homeschool, was only together for its second year.  It had competed in the state of Maryland the year before and done respectably well, but there were big schools from well to do communities which had built track records in the competition.  I had no expectations except that we would participate in the regional competition, and might go on to state (because nearly everyone in our small state with only 40 teams does). 

It was, however, going to be a surprising year.

A few words about the structure of the Olympiad.  In most states, they compete in 23 events.  Each event takes a small group (2-3 students) for the competition.  The concepts behind the events might be biology, forensics or thermodynamics, and the events themselves usually have clever names like "Keep the Heat" or "Disease Detective."  Some events require building devices ahead of time, some require knowledge for a test, some require preparations to do a lab, and some require some combination of all three.  These events are really challenging, and I have to say I was completely impressed with the kids who competed, and with the teachers, coaches, parents, and volunteers who very generously gave of their time to prepare the kids for the competition.  Every team that manages to get to a competition stands on a bedrock of people who are helping and pushing the kids to achieve.

My son started with three events.  Often this can change as schedules and the needs of the team shift, and so it was for us.  But going into the Central Maryland regional competition, he had prepared for one lab/building event ("Keep the Heat"); one pure building event, based on simple machines ("Mission Possible"), and one knowledge event ("Forestry").  For two events he had a partner, and for one he was part of a group of three.  No one achieves things alone in the competition, you always are depending on your team mates, which provides a pretty good model for research science and engineering it seems to me.

So, about February we head to the regional competition, held at the University of Maryland in College Park.  We spent a whole Saturday there, and I nervously escorted him from event to event.  Some things went better than others.  In Keep the Heat, a ruling on the device he and his partner made knocked them out of contention (later it was reversed, but not such that they placed).  The ruling came before they started doing the lab and 50 question thermodynamics test and I think they were both upset and did not do as well as they could.  Forestry seemed to go well, but he and his partner had a little difficulty working together optimally.  Finally, Mission Possible just did not work the way we had hoped (curse you Rube Goldberg!) and so, I thought that was pretty much it.  What a great opportunity and learning experience.  Now we can wind down.

Well, then there was the awards ceremony.  Pilgrimage was winning a lot of medals.  My son and his partner won a third place for Forestry.  The other kids had done really well.  Also, the way the points are counted, every finish is totaled, so that the places add up to a score (e.g. 23 first places would be a score of 23; 23 third places would be a score of 69, etc.).  Unexpectedly, our little homeschool group beat the Central Maryland Division powerhouse, North Bethesda Middle School.  We were division champions, and suddenly there were expectations on our state competition, where we would face North Bethesda as well as other past state champion schools (North Bethesda had gone to nationals in 2010 and 2011).

The coach rebalanced the team and took Ian off of Forestry and contemplated moving him off Keep the Heat.  We had some tense moments.  I won't say that this level of competition always allows for pleasant interactions, and sometimes interests, intentions, and perceptions add up to a toxic mix.  We all got through it, because it is about the kids and trying to do what is right not just for the individuals, but for the team as a whole.  In the end, Ian competed Keep the Heat and Mission Possible at State.  Despite the challenge, what happened next has to be credited to the teaching and coaching that had been given tirelessly and voluntarily all year.

We went to state at the end of March, and those kids competed their hearts out.  Ian's two events with his groups went very well.  We had a heady expectation of winning some medals.  We competed on the Baltimore campus of Johns Hopkins University.  It was a nice day, and the energy was very positive.

Of course we knew in the back of our heads that the two teams from North Bethesda who had competed at Regionals had been combined, so that the best students from both teams were competing for State.  They had the experience and a lot of talent.  We wanted to make a respectable showing and keep Pilgrimage growing.

At the awards ceremony, we did indeed do well.  Ian and his partner received a first place for Keep the Heat, and his group received a second place for Mission Possible.  I thought those were great validations and what a wonderful way to end the season.  While we garnered medals, North Bethesda clearly had more first places than us.  However, for final scores, it all depends on how well you do overall.  One disastrous finish in an event can seriously damage your ability to win.

In the end, it came down to one point.  One point between us and the powerhouse of Maryland.

And we won.

And that was kind of a "oh no" moment for us in many ways.  We had not really ever expected to become Maryland State Champions.

And now we were. 

We had to carry the program for Maryland forward, we had to represent and do our best.  And we had to get us and our stuff to the national competition.

In Florida.

In May.

We had no sponsorships (hadn't considered them), no plan, no organization and no experience to do any of this.

And yet, in six weeks, we pulled it off again.  Some people flew and carried precious equipment with them.  Others generously drove and carried big machines and devices packed between the luggage.

A generous anonymous donor provided enough money for the kids to have team shirts so that they could appear in uniform during the opening ceremonies and on competition day.  A state senator provided us with a flag.  Our team created a beautiful banner, hand sewed and embroidered by some of the young women of the team.

Also, we had to prepare an extra event.  Often the Olympiad will announce a "pilot" event that it is testing.  It does not count in the main competition, but it is scored and medals are awarded.  Some teams skip it (15 middle school teams did so this year), but we added a new team member and she took the lead in competing in Egg Drop Helicopter.

And, so it was, just a week ago my son and I flew down to Orlando, Florida.  The competition was to be held at University of Central Florida.  My parents generously helped us defray the costs, and my father met us in Orlando to help participate and observe.  It was hot and sticky when we arrived, and prone to raining buckets at the drop of a hat too.

But we had made it.

Nationals, of the 28th Science Olympiad; I could not have been prouder.

Friday was opening ceremony day.  In the arena, they had the teams in sections.  Parents and other observers had to organize their own seating in the non-assigned seats.  My dad and I managed to snag a whole row for our team parents.  The ceremonies were somewhere between a rock show (lights, VERY LOUD MUSIC, videos, etc.), an advertisement of UCF (hey, after all, they were providing all the facilities and had a captive audience), and a graduation ceremony with lots of inspiring speeches (particularly from sponsor Progress Energy (who had to sub their speaker in at the last minute, and he was really good); the Director of the Kennedy Space Center; and Dr. G (Jan C. Garavaglia), the Chief Medical Examiner for Orange-Osceola (who has her own show on medical forensics on Discovery Health)).  Some of it was sublime, some a bit silly.  Some of our more conservative parents were offended by some content which I had not even thought about. 

Nonetheless, a couple things really stood out, besides the motivational speeches.  First, when our kids came down the aisle carrying our state flag and the big banner some of our kids had made with their own hands, it was pretty special.  Next, the Olympiad, which competes both Middle School and High School teams, had an "Ambassador" high school team from Japan.  Now, when all the other teams had marched in, the people of that school or that state cheered enthusiastically (we sure did) and others would applaud politely or sit quietly.  However, for the guest team, the entire arena erupted in enthusiastic cheers and applause of welcome.  Further, after the team representative bowed, the students from all the state teams spontaneously stood to give a standing ovation, and this brought the entire arena to its feet.  As the Japanese students walked down the aisle, the students on the end of the chair rows gave them enthusiastic high fives.

I felt proud then, not just of my child, or my child's team or state.  I felt proud of the children of the United States.  Somehow, despite all that goes wrong, these kids were coming up all right.  I felt a deep and profound hope for the future in that moment.  It was a good moment.

So, even though then it would have been best to get the kids to bed and prepared for the next day's competition, instead they had a "swap meet."  Each child had been encouraged to bring at least ten things to trade, hopefully something from the home state.  This was to be fun, to get kids circulating and at least seeing the other middle and high school kids, and maybe having some exchange between the various state teams.

It started as TOTAL BEDLAM. 

I mean, 2000 kids suddenly released and sent into the corridor that rings the arena to try and find trading areas, and another several thousand parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, et al, just trying to find a quiet spot and not be run over.  My first thoughts were "this is a disaster!"

Concerned for my child, I looked for him in the crowd.

I was not prepared for what I saw.

There was my son, wearing a pink plastic fedora (where he got that, I will never know) and bargaining like a fishwife.  He had 11 Maryland themed magnets, and he quickly parlayed them into any number of wonderful things like license plates, state pins, pencils, gum, Doctor Who notepads, etc.  He started at the team table, and then suddenly took off and circled to all the other tables, around and around and doubling back.  Everywhere he was trading (soon the pink hat was gone (at least I have pictures)), and he would have traded ALL NIGHT LONG.  He was not like the kids trying to get a stack of pins, or license plates, or hats.  He was in it for the DEAL.  If he could not get one person to trade, he found another person, traded with them, and went back to the first person and made the trade.  I only saw him hit one wall.  He could not talk this one girl out of her hat, as much as he tried.

Still, my wife and I are considering putting in charge of our retirement account, because, hey, how could we do worse than what has happened in the last few years?

In any case, pumped up and wide awake, my dad and I took my son back to the hotel and tried to get him settled in, because we were going to have a very early rise, and he was competing in one of the earliest time slots.

Morning was not fun.  He complained of not sleeping a wink (in that plaintive voice that only a boy with his voice changing can achieve).  He got not sympathy, but tough love.  Up, into the shower, GET DRESSED!

Once he got moving, it was all okay.  He had three donuts at breakfast.

We delivered one of the competition devices to "impound" and then checked in at the team room.  Then, from there, it was to the Keep the Heat competition.  My dad and I dropped him, they closed him and his partner in the room with the other teams in that time slot, and off we went for an hour.

One fun fact: I saw a high school kid out on campus with a red fez made of duct tape.  Some of you will be impressed.  I got a photo of that too.

After an hour, we picked up my son.  Things seemed to have gone well.  We had to take equipment back to the team room and pack it up.  We had to make phone calls.  We had to have lunch (one thing Science Olympiad and UCF did not do well (among many things they did well) was organize and price the box lunches; total waste).  We also got to see some of the competitions (Bottle Rocket, Egg Drop Helicopter).  Everywhere we went, we met nice people.  Nice kids, nice coaches, nice parents.  I am not an extrovert at all.  I am rather socially shy.  I can go to a function and not talk to anybody, and that is sometimes just fine with me.  All this to say, I could have met a lot more people and liked them, because as far as I could tell, there just was a great positive energy over the whole competition.  Just a lot of great kids and lovely, smart, dedicated people.  At least, that is what I saw.

Then, finally, it was off to Mission Possible.  The competition was a little rocky for us, and we definitely came in as a lightweight, whereas others had trained for this as a heavyweight division.  Still, we did not embarrass ourselves and the device, with some prompting (under the rules) completed its task.

We were done.  All over but the crying, as they say.

So, we got cleaned up off campus and then came back for dinner and the award ceremony.

Though Science Olympiad has been around for almost three decades, it is still a growing program, and there are radically different levels of participation in different states, as well as different links between school’s curriculums and the competition.  The states that field the most state teams get to send two teams to the national competition.  States with less participation only send one.  For the last four years, there have been 60 teams that compete at the national level, from the 50 states (Washington, DC has not sent a team recently and is still growing into participating).  In 2009, the Maryland team that went to nationals placed 60th out of 60 teams.  In 2010, Maryland placed 51st out of 60.  Last year, in 2011, the first year our homeschooling group participated at the state level, the Maryland team (not ours, a team from North Bethesda Middle School that went to nationals (also the 2010 MD State Champs) placed 36th out of 60.  Their highest place event was 3rd, and their lowest was 58th, with a score of 749.  They placed twice in the top 10 (a 3rd and 6th place) and four in the top 20 (a 15th and a 19th in addition to the two top ten scores).

With that history, here is how the Maryland State Team did and how my son figured into it.  We had a team of 15 middle school students with an alternate who participated in the optional extra event which not all states competed and which did not count in the final score.  We placed 38th overall in the nation out of the 60 teams.  Our highest placed event was 2nd (Awesome Aquifer) and our lowest was 59th (Meteorology).  Our total score was 765.  We had two top 10 finishes (2nd and 8th) and seven top 20 finishes (an 11th, two 12ths, a 13th and 18th as well as the two top ten).  Also, in the optional event (Egg Drop Helicopter), we placed 15th out of a field of 45.  I was incredibly impressed with the team, which is overall quite young and probably has a great future in the competition.

So this was my son's first and last year with the team.  He will be going into high school at a public magnet next year.  His two events dealt with thermodynamics and engineering called Keep the Heat and with simple machines and physics (through the medium of building a Rube Goldberg device) called Mission Possible.  All the events were small group events, so he did nothing alone.  For Keep the Heat he had one partner and for Mission Possible he had two. 

In Mission Possible, the team finished 43rd out of 60 teams.  The always twitchy set of machines did not work quite as planned, but it did complete it’s task, and everyone I met from different states constantly talked about how hard an event it is.  We got outclassed, but, the kids did great.

In Keep the Heat, which requires two things: first, designing and building a box that will insulate a beaker of water, then mapping its properties so you can predict how the device will work under certain conditions, and second, taking a high level test on thermodynamics, Ian and his partner scored 8th place out of 60 teams.  Let’s just say that I could not be prouder.  He and his partner worked incredibly hard and probably know more about thermodynamics than most college graduates.  While they did not mount the stage to be presented with a medal, they did the state of Maryland proud and I am so glad that Ian got this opportunity to compete at this level.

So that was it.  I got to see some of the best and brightest kids from all over the United States.  And I got to see my own child as one of those kids.  And I got to do this with my father, who turned 75 this year.  It was an awesome and humbling experience.  It was hard and required a lot of work and sacrifice to do it, but I certainly could not have planned for things to go better as an experience and example for my child.

Whatever the future holds, I know, despite ups and downs, my son is going to go out in the world, and he is going to do really great things.  They might be quiet or they might be loud, but I know that he will see their value, I will see their value, and the kids and parents and coaches and people like them out in the world will see and understand their value too.  And even though this experience and homeschooling was never about religion, the gift it has given to me is faith, in humanity, for my country and in my children's future.

That is a rare gift.

And that is what I saw at the 28th Science Olympiad.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Punisher Issue #11-Thoughts and reviews

Hey, another month, another Wednesday, and Greg Rucka has another issue of The Punisher out.

Once again, I picked it up from my local place, Beyond Comics.  While my nearest gaming store is not so near, I am fortunate to have a great comic book place not so far.

So, I have a few thoughts.  The short review is probably not surprising.  I liked the issue.  After the conclusion of The Omega Effect crossover, it tooks us in a new and unexpected direction, while still keeping the storyline going.  I recommend the issue, and the entire run so far.

To discuss in slightly more detail I need to mention . . .


So, as you may have read in the reviews (including mine) of the end of the Omega Effect, the big transformation was not in what Daredevil did with the Omega Drive, but instead in the effect of Spiderman, Daredevil, The Punisher and Sgt. Rachel Cole-Alves forming a temporary alliance had on those characters.  Chief of which was Cole-Alves.  It seemed that Daredevil had perhaps convinced her to step off the path that Frank Castle had walked, and to choose a new destiny.

So, we get neither Cole-Alves directly, nor anything to do with the Omega Drive (or Megacrime) in this issue.  Instead, we get a very interesting story about Detective Bolt and some major changes for him and his relationship to The Punisher.  However, hidden in plain sight in the story is also the evolving storyline of Cole-Alves and The Punisher, but we get distracted by the Zombies, so you might not pick up on it at first.

Yes, Zombies.

Actually, as gonzo as it seems, it is actually a great set piece, which really works for the character development that Rucka is putting forward.  Detective Bolt starts the issue in an interview room, talking about a shooting in Times Square.  However, he decides to come clean and admit that the earlier shooting in which he was involved (Punisher #1) did not go down the way he had described.  He admits that all the bad guys he supposedly shot were killed by The Punisher using Bolt's gun.  He admits to covering it up and accepting the praise for actions he did not take, and he explains that the encounter had turned him informant for The Punisher.  He explains that this is why Frank Castle approached him in Times Square, while Bolt was on a date, but before he can respond to Castle's demands for information . . . Zombie Attack!

As it turns out, some nutty supervillain/necromancer, Black Talon, from New Orleans is hoping to take on the Avengers.  Instead, Punisher systematically blows away about 20 Zombies with Bolt watching his back, mostly afraid to shoot, concerned with hitting civilians (he admits to taking down maybe one zombie at most).  Then, when Black Talon starts monologuing, Punisher puts a couple of round sthrough his chest.  End of bad guy.

Punisher exits the scene in the ensuing confusion, and Bolt ends up making his statement and confessing his past misdeeds.

Then, the twist. 

Despite serious misconduct, Bolt was on the scene and did do his duty (albeit with the lion's share of the work done by Punisher) during a supervillain attack.  The brass in the department decide that sweeping things under the rug and putting a good face on things is better in Bolt's case than going after his badge.

Bolt completely expects to have thrown his career away, but at least he won't be living a lie.  At the end, when they toss him back his badge, you can almost taste the bitter ashes in his mouth.  Things did not go the way he thought.

This is a great character piece.  I really liked it.  Also, there were, for me, some key nuggets of how the Exchange storyline may develop, especially in the wake of the Omega Effect.

Bolt says that they were looking at Cole-Alves as a suspect in some of the deaths of Exchange members, however, the fact that The Punisher wanted files on her, had made Bolt reconsider whether they might be working togehter.

I don't think that is a mistake on The Punisher's part.  I think at this point, he would like to see her out of it all.  First, she has proved to be an unreliable ally, given her departure from their plan during the Omega Effect.  However, he may, in some way, share Daredevil's hope that Cole-Alves can get out of the revenge game and escape Frank Castle's fate and mission.  One way he can do that is by covering her tracks and muddying the waters of any investigation on her.

Of course, the narrower interpretation would be that he just wants to find her again after she disappeared at the end of DD #11.  However, that would contradict what he said to DD and Spidey, which was that she would be found if she wanted to be found by him.

I am intrigued by what it all means for the future of the long term story.

I don't pick to much on the nits with things I like, even when they are imperfect.  However, I did want to get on record on a few things.  First, this month, and almost every month, the cover of Punisher either has nothing to do with the contents of the book, or even when related, is not great art.  There have been exceptions in the last 11 issues, but they are the minority.  It bothers me, even if it is unrealistic to coodinate cover art, because the guy on the cover has pretty much nothing to do with the character as portrayed in the book.

Second, the art is not great.  I don't mean any disrespect to Mirko Colak and the color artists, but I am totally spoled by the way most of this run has totally rocked out to the art of Marco Checchetto.  Colak is fine, but not up to the task of really making the visuals sing the way Checchotto has, and that is a disappointment in an otherwise good issue.

So, don't just take my word for things.  Here is what some others are saying:

Read/Rant (B+) "I feel like I should put this to a beat and sing it for you by now, since it seems to be the week’s theme, but… not bad, but not the best the series had to offer. It does resolve, or at least begin to resolve, one of the book’s ongoing plots, albeit in an appropriately cynical manner, and it does so using zombies and sudden, unpredictable violence."

D&J Comics (Book of the Week) ". . . Rucka gives us a perfect jumping on point for new readers with a fresh story arc.  Just like Frank, this series is methodical and will hunt you down."

iFanboy (Story 2/5 average, Art 2/5 average) "Disappointed. There was almost no relation to what was solicited or hinted at in the recap page to what was present in this issue. . . . Punisher is a great comic because it feels grounded. Even with the intro of characters like Daredevil and Spiderman, Punisher feels very street level and crime-focused. To suddenly have him randomly shooting zombies with zero questions asked before, during or after felt out of step with the previous tone of the book."

More as I find them.

Update May 11

IGN (7.5/10) "Overall, while the art doesn’t exactly do much for the visual tone of the series, Rucka crafts another engaging – if out-of-left-field – story that illuminates the world of the Punisher within the regular Marvel Universe like few have done in the past."

Punisher Central (B+) "The issue isn’t extremely entertaining but it does a decent job at keeping the reader engaged. The dialogue flows well and the decision for Rucka to tell Bolt’s story through the flashback convention, while being interrogated is an interesting one. Not all issues can be full of action and can move story forward at a lightning pace. Sometimes it is essential to have an issue here and there that provides backstory or setup for things to come. In that regard, this issue performs that purpose admirably."
The Comics Journal (no rating; unfavorable) "The comic ends with one of a Ruckan staple–undergraduate political skepticism, drink it in–but not before he rips off the best gag in that War Zone movie, strips it of its timing, and uses it to fill up two full pages of comic. Speaking of pages, the Punisher speaks on only two out of the seven he actually appears on, so at least there’s a bright side: you can finish reading this issue very quickly."

The Gathering (included on the Buy These Books list) "Greg Rucka has been writing what may be the best 616 run on Punisher ever."

Geek Hard (no rating; favorable) "I don’t like Marvel. I don’t like the Punisher. There I said it. But you need to read this book. Greg Rucka is on fire here."

Update May 14

Weekly Comic Book Review (A-) "A fantastic, psychological read of how the Punisher myth erodes one man’s identity.  So far, the smartest read of the week."

CBR (3.5/5 stars) ""The Punisher" is a consistently good series, and #11 continues that streak. I appreciated the end result of Bolt's encounter with the zombies and his subsequent outing to the police force; it provides a lot more story fodder for the months to come. This is a good example of a series that has found just the right pace, not only for collected editions but for the serialized format too. As always, "The Punisher" is a pleasure to read."

The Weekly Crisis (Verdict: Buy It) "This issue is kind of the perfect storm for me.  I really like Greg Rucka, I really like done-in-one comics, and I really like this iteration of the Punisher.  Taken all together, I can't help but ask what's not to love?  It's not quite as good as the Ozzy-centric issue, but it still makes for a great read."

Points of Impact (BULLSEYE!) " . . . one thing is sure: the framing device in THE PUNISHER #11 does more than bookend the story; it is a story in and of itself.
. . .
Sure, you can use a framing device if you want to present your story in a cool way. But why stop at that when you could have a consistent framing device instead and tell two stories (and be the envy of all the other comic writers)? All you need to do is make sure your framing narrative has more than a token presence throughout the comic, that it can stand on its own as an independant story and that its plot leads to long-lasting effect on the regular cast of the comic."