What’s New: Warrior Nun, Theros, Agents of Mayhem, and More

I find myself with a number of topics I wish to discuss — many of which I’d have devoted full posts to back in the day — but I am once again knee deep in my latest project for Dungeon in a Box, and I just don’t have the spoons, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to get the Coles Notes version.

Kinzie "Safeword" Kensington in Agents of Mayhem.Firstly, the last of the birthday presents I bought for myself have arrived. Among other things, I bought myself a bunch of D&D rulebooks, including the newest entry, Mythic Odysseys of Theros.

I was interested in Theros because of the Greek mythology inspiration, but it’s turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, even for reasons beyond the mythological angle. It’s a fascinating setting with tonnes of cool ideas and fresh takes on all kinds of standard fantasy concepts. The fluid line between thought and reality in Theros, in particular, is really exciting. I need more RPG writing projects like I need a bullet in the head, but I’m more than a little tempted to write an adventure or two in Theros — I already like it much better than Forgotten Realms in many ways.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched through season one of Netflix’s new series, Warrior Nun. Between the goofy name and the less than inspiring trailer, I probably never would have bothered with this show, save for the fact it’s brought to us by Simon Barry. Simon Barry also created Continuum, which is one of the best TV series I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch, so anything he’s attached has got to be worth a try.

It’s not Continuum, but I did enjoy Warrior Nun.

Here’s the thing: In most ways, this could be considered a pretty mediocre show. The plots are serviceable, but not remarkable, as are most of the characters. The series is almost entirely carried by the strength of its lead character, Ava, and the actress who plays her, Alba Baptista.

The incredible Alba Baptista as Ava in Netflix's Warrior Nun.Ava is delightful. The “ordinary person thrust into the role of hero” concept is a very common trope, but rarely is it executed effectively. It’s very hard to make a character both heroic and convincing as a normal, relatable person, but Ava nails that balance. From her dorky sense of humour to the palpable sense of joy she has at discovering what is to her a whole new world, she is incredibly relatable and overwhelmingly lovable, even when she’s thrown into the most outlandish of situations.

The are some other positives to Warrior Nun — most notably the character of Sister Beatrice, who is the only cast member who can share a screen with Ava and not be totally eclipsed — but let’s not mince words: Ava is what makes this show worth watching. I haven’t loved any fictional character this much in a long time.

Also on the subject of Netflix, I watched the Charlize Theron film The Old Guard recently. It was okay; a pretty by the numbers action flick, but it works. Don’t expect anything more than a popcorn flick, and you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointment, though, I also tried Netflix’s Snowpiercer series. I’d heard some friends raving about it, so I decided to give it a try, and… man, it does not live up to the hype.

Snowpiercer is a cartoonishly unsubtle parody of grimdark, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian tropes. It’s so over the top it’s impossible to take it seriously.

A shot from Netflix's Snowpiercer series.I realized I have the same problem with Snowpiercer I do with Star Trek: Discovery. They’re both really dumb shows that think they’re really smart. Being dumb on its own isn’t a dealbreaker; it’s the lack of self-awareness that ruins it. Lucifer is also a very dumb show, but Lucifer knows it’s dumb. It’s all presented with a wink and a nod; everyone is in on the joke.

With Snowpiercer (and to a slightly lesser extent Discovery), there is no self-awareness of how absolutely cartoonish and absurd the series is. It’s all presented with such deadly seriousness. With a few tweaks, it could work as a dark comedy, Tarantino style, but instead it’s a joyless, bleak slog.

On the gaming front, I’ve been working my way through a backlog newly bolstered by the last Steam sale. I recently finished an action RPG called Shadows: Awakening. It was decent, but could have been better. The setting and characters were interesting, but the plot never quite clicked the way it seems like it should have.

Gameplay-wise, it’s main gimmick is its unusual character-swapping mechanic. Essentially, it’s a party-based game, but you can only have one member of the party on the field at the time, so you’re constantly switching between them.

It’s a cool idea, and overall I liked it, but it could have been even better. I would have liked to have seen each character feel more complete and be a viable fighter on their own, making the choice of when to swap more about the tactical needs of the moment. As it is, the limited toolkit and long cooldowns of each character made it feel like the optimal way to play was often to simply cycle through all your characters, spamming all their abilities on cooldown.

Princess Evia delving Kogog'Aak in Shadows: AwakeningI’ve now moved on to open world shooter Agents of Mayhem. The reviews were lukewarm, so my expectations weren’t terribly high, but I’ve found it extremely addictive. It’s pure junk food gaming — thin plot, dumb jokes, mindless action, and an endless firehose of loot and rewards — but damn it, it works. It’s fun. It can be a bit repetitive, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s exceptionally bad offender on that front relative to similar games, and the moment to moment gameplay is so enjoyable it doesn’t really matter.

I didn’t realize it going it, but Agents of Mayhem actually has largely the same character-swapping mechanic as Shadows: Awakening, though I feel it works a bit better in this case.

I’m mostly playing Kinzie “Safeword” Kensington, a hacker focused on debuffing and mind-controlling enemies (apparently a carry-over from the Saints Row franchise, which I’ve never played). She’s full of personality, and her mind control ultimate is hilarious. I’m mainly backing her up with Braddock, a tanky ex-marine with a versatile toolkit, and Oni, a Yakuza assassin with an aura that debuffs nearby enemies.

I like the gameplay and aesthetics of Rama (a DoT-heavy archer) and Lazarus (an even more DoT-heavy nanite-wielder), but they’re both too squishy, and I like Daisy’s aesthetics, but she’s a bit of a one-trick pony mechanically, so they don’t see as much play. The other characters don’t really interest me much, though I will grant Hollywood’s ultimate is pretty fun.

As for what’s next after Agents of Mayhem, I still have plenty of other options in my backlog, but I’m also considering springing for Horizon Zero Dawn when it launches on Steam next month. What I saw of the gameplay during the brief time Moiren streamed it didn’t entirely blow me away, but the setting and aesthetic seems so unique I think I still want to check it out.

Combat in Agents of Mayhem.Finally, as I’m writing this I’ve just finished off the final season of Alice Isn’t Dead, the mystery/thriller podcast from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale. The ending felt a bit too sudden and a bit too simple, but overall I think the final season was probably the best. The way they shook up the formula really added new life to the show, I think.

Take a Walk on Wyrd Street

Recently I discovered an absolutely amazing online tool for making fantasy maps called Inkarnate. I was so impressed by the free version I paid for a year of subscription the very first night. I’ve always loved drawing fantasy maps, but I lack the artistic talent to do them with any quality. Inkarnate lets even someone like me make fantastic looking maps.

A map of Wyrd Street, the titular setting of my upcoming tabletop role-playing game. Map created via Inkarnate.I swear they aren’t paying me to promote them. I just really, really love this tool.

One of the first maps I made was a map of Wyrd Street, the titular setting of the table-top RPG I’ve been designing for about a year now.

I’ve mentioned Wyrd Street in passing before, but it occurs to me I’ve never really taken the time to go into any depth. Now seems as good a time as any.

It’s still a work in progress — it’s more or less “feature complete” in terms of races, classes, and core systems, but it still needs a lot more content — so I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but I can give a general overview.

My two favourite ways to describe Wyrd Street in a nutshell are “if that bit at the start of Dragon Age 2 where Hawke iss a nobody just trying to feed their family was the whole game” or “if the song What It’s Like by Everlast was a fantasy RPG.”

Or if you want the long version, here’s the blurb I have at the start of the core rulebook:

The world moves toward war. The armies of the Seven Holy Kingdoms of Tiahn move south, subjugating all in their path in the name of their divine law. Xandria and the Rusty Peaks have already fallen, and now the Holy Kingdoms turn their attention to the Free Holds. On both sides, legendary heroes rise to determine the fate of the world.

You are not one of them.

In the slums of Morhold, refugees from the war mingle with the city’s own poor. Here, a small haven has been carved out among the desperation and the gangs. Here, all outcasts and rejects have a home.

In this place walks a different class of hero. Brawlers and Scoundrels, Drifters and Fortune Tellers, Quacks and Street Preachers, Dreamers and Heretics. No songs will be sung of them, but it is they who bring hope to the hopeless, who defend the innocent from those who would exploit them. Not everyone can save the world, but anyone can save someone’s world.

This is Wyrd Street. This is your home, and you will do anything to protect it.

It’s a game of (relatively) ordinary people doing their best to protect those close to them. While the option to create your own characters exist, the game is built around the idea of playing pre-made “Iconic” characters who have close ties to each other and the world around them. You’re not fighting to save the world; you’re fighting to feed and protect the people you love.

Mechanically, it’s a fairly standard D20 system, but with some tweaks. I wanted to fix some of the things that frustrate me when I play Dungeons and Dragons.

For example, in D&D, I don’t like the wild disparity between classes when it comes to decision-making during combat and the action economy.

Personally I can’t play a D&D character without spell slots. I like making choices between casting a spell or not, and if so which spell. As a more physical character, you just attack nine times out of ten.

In Wyrd Street, every class uses focus, a resource analogous to spell slots, to activate their most powerful abilities. Class identity is established by how each class interacts with focus.

For example, Fortune Tellers and Scoundrels have very low maximum focus pools, but they have multiple ways to quickly regain focus, so they’re encouraged to spend it almost as fast as they earn it. Meanwhile, a Street Preacher has a larger maximum focus pool but doesn’t get focus back as quickly, so while they can use a lot of focus-spenders, they have to be a little more strategic about it. And a Brawler has a low focus pool and low regeneration, but they have access to a lot of powerful passive bonuses, so they don’t necessarily need focus to be a terror.

The unbalanced action economy is also something I find frustrating in 5E D&D. A monk will use a bonus action almost every turn, but paladins almost never have any use for their bonus actions.

To address this, in Wyrd Street the concept of bonus actions has been eliminated entirely in favour of simply giving every character two actions per turn by default.

Other features of Wyrd Street include a unified system of buffs and debuffs for greater clarity and eschewing traditional subclasses in favour of giving every class a choice of multiple new abilities at each level. You can still build towards certain specialties — a Drifter can focus heavily on their pets, or split their abilities between improving themselves and their pets, or not use pets at all — but it’s more flexible.

The exceptions are Quacks and Vigilantes. Uniquely, those classes each have a choice of two distinct subclasses that define their playstyle from level one. Quacks can specialize as an Anatomist (a melee burst damage build) or a Chemist (a ranged support build), whereas Vigilantes may gain some support abilities by choosing the Pursuit of Justice and wielding the Beacon of Hope, or maximize their damage and terrorize the wicked with the Brand of Hatred by choosing the Pursuit of Vengeance.

Even racial abilities are based on choice. Everyone can choose one of three abilities unique to their race once they hit level three.

There are other unique features too — like missed attacks being converted to more of a glance system so turns are never fully wasted — but I think that covers the broad strokes.

But at the end of the day, Wyrd Street is about the stories and the people more than the mechanics. It’s about outcasts doing their best in a hard world.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with another excerpt from the core rulebook:

Wyrd Street is different from other popular table-top RPGs in that the focus is less on grand heroics or world-changing events and more on intimate stories of ordinary people doing their best to protect their homes and the people they love. The heart of the game is found in the bonds between characters and the intricate details of the setting.

An effort has been made to make the cast of Wyrd Street as inclusive as possible in the hopes that anyone can feel represented within this world. If there is one rule in Wyrd Street that trumps all others, it is this: Anyone can be a hero.