Monday, July 15, 2024

Congratulations to All the Summer Lego RPG Setting Jam Participants!

The Summer Lego RPG Setting Jam has officially ended. Congratulations and thank you to everyone who participated! Nineteen people submitted entries between May 8th and July 8th, including my own entry makes an even 20! I'm so pleased and happy to see them all. Let's take a look at what everyone turned in!

Unofficially, if you still want to make an RPG setting based on Lego, there's no reason not to go ahead and do it. I received so many messages from people about how much fun they had writing theirs - you might enjoy writing one, too! And I hope, in the fall, we'll see a few play reports from people who manage to put one of these settings to use at the table.
Legojam Castle Hexcrawl map by Rise Up Comus
The first entry came from Rise Up Comus, who helped get the whole project off to an exciting start! He wrote the Legojam Castle Hexcrawl, a regional sandbox based on Lego's original line of Castle sets. Playing with the idea that Legos are toys, this is a setting where all the NPCs are dressed up in costumes and forced to reenact a child's idea of a rollicking medieval adventure, complete with knights, bandits, and a dragon.
Azure Archipelago map by Tales of Escia

Tales of Escia wrote the Azure Archipelago, a wavecrawl full of early modern pirates and an imperial navy ... and advanced magitech Atlanteans. The three factions are competing for control of the region and access to arcane crystals, and their conflict has the potential to determine the fate of an active volcano on the brink of eruption!
Lego Adventurers Dino Island map by Farmer Gadda
Farmer Gadda gives us their take on more recent theme with Lego Adventurers Dino Island, a pointcrawl setting where freelance archaeologists compete against mustache-twirling aristocratic villains to find treasure on an island full of dinosaurs, and another active volcano.
Canton of Ochesbad by Tales of the Lunar Lands
Tales of the Lunar Lands wrote Cedric the Bull and the Canton of Ochesbad. The canton is a region at war, full of siege engines and war machines. It's medieval, but a very different feel from the Castle Hexcrawl. At the heart of the chaos is Cedric the Bull, a bloody-handed warlord who wants to be an honorable nobleman, which is a nice sort of internal conflict for a villain to have with himself.
6411 Sand Dollar Cafe via Brickset
Switching genres in a couple ways, Prismatic Wasteland wrote a modern-day murder mystery at the beach in Trouble in Paradisa. He treats us to nostalgia for the Lisa Frank neons of the early 90s, and the plethora of vacation-themed prime time soap operas of the 1980s. As a bonus, the whole thing is formatted as a trifold zine! He also wrote a nice retrospective about his design process.
Creatown map by The Lonely Firbolg
The Lonely Firbolg gives us another modern entry, Creatown, a neighborhood designed following the principles in Electric Bastionland, and using a dozen of Lego's multipurpose Creator sets to produce some truly quirky and memorable city encounters.
Challenger Crater by Xandeross
Taking us into the future, Xandeross wrote Moon War 2199, a small setting of warring cities and factions surrounding a large crater on the moon. Xandeross used some of the same Lego Space sets I grew up with, and provides us with a couple tables of random events to help feed the escalating tensions as the situation worsens.
Slizer / Throwbot Planet map by Faber Files
Arch Brick draws on a theme from Lego's Technic sets to bring us the World of Seven Slizers. This is a world divided into seven elemental realms - where two of the elements are energy and city!
Darth Skull, Foreman Mike, Astronaut, and two Ninjas by Benign Brown Beast
Instead of a setting, Benign Brown Beast takes us on a nostalgic tour through The Bootleg Lego Star Wars of My Youth. It's fun getting to see the idiosyncratic way he interpreted Star Wars as a kid, misremembering and reimagining key characters and scenes, incorporating elements from other Lego sets, blending it all with kid logic. Although my own childhood fantasy world looked totally different from this, it was assembled from mismatched parts in exactly the same way; reading this really took me back!
Big Mouth by Save vs Worm
Half Again as Much gives us a deep cut, with The Monster (Pod) Manual, featuring 20 different monsters, all built from one of Lego's short-lived X-Pod sets. Save vs Worm provides some nice illustrations of each of the monsters.
Dragons High map by Seed of Worlds

Seeds of Worlds gives us a delightfully thematic conflict in Dragons High. We get a world that's home to nature loving, dragon riding elves, being invaded via interdimensional portals by an unstoppable army of mechanical sea monsters!
Towers of Trumbagar zine by Leviathan Crossing
Leviathan Crossing wrote a very old-school little zine with Towers of Trumbagar, which includes lists of towers, simplified vertical maps of three, as a few encounter tables to liven them up.
Aquanautica map by Old Grog
Old Grog made a zine as well, and it's amazingly professional looking for a first effort! This might be someone to watch. Aquanautica is another wavecrawl, this one based on Lego's undersea Aquazone sets, which look a lot like underwater spaceships, which is to say, they look really cool.
Something Bricked This Way Comes by Rogue Wave Arcade
Rogue Wave Arcade also brought the professionalism when making Something Bricked This Way Comes, a pamphlet adventure that collects some classic monsters for spooky monster-hunting action!
6160 Sea Scorpion from Brickset
VDonnut Valley actually wrote three posts to describe an underwater setting. The first post describes the general setting, Sea Scorpion. In the second post about Sea Scorpion Locations, we see a half-dozen locations, their resources, and how events unfold in each one over time. The third post, Sea Scorpion Crews, introduces us to several different undersea adventuring groups, who again change over time. The temporal component here seems interesting; I'd like to know how it works in action at the table.
A Legend Returns map by Noriksigma
Noriksigma wrote an impressively detailed setting, A Legend Returns, based on the Matorans from Lego's Bionicle line. I think he wanted to write something longer, including barrens outside the city, but there is plenty to see and do here already.
Island of Tyn Mava map by Noise Sans Signal
Noise sans Signal also hoped to write something longer, but still produced the Island of Tyn Mava, City of Weather Vanes, a pointcrawl with a dozen locations. A fuller setting may appear someday! One thing I find really interesting here is that this isn't based on childhood memories of playing with Legos, but rather viewing random Lego sets and using them as sparks for creativity.
Knights on the Borderlands map by Scriptorium Ludi
Scriptorium Ludi put together a zine, Knights on the Borderlands, that pays tribute to Lego's Knights Kingdom series and the classic D&D adventure Keep on the Borderlands. This is the second entry that comes with a helpful companion post describing the design process!
Scary Monster Madness map by Knight at the Opera
Knight at the Opera uses, I think, the same classic monsters as Rogue Wave Arcade, for the pointcrawl adventure Scary Monster Madness. Here the players take on the roles of documentarians, reporting on the way a major movie studio is exploiting a rural, monster-filled European backwater to make horror movies with no special effects. Like Rise Up Comus's hexcrawl, I think this one is playing with the toy-ness of Lego, depicting an environment where many of the NPCs are themselves acting an playing roles.
I will share my own Lego-inspired setting soon, but I wanted to share the list of other entries as soon as possible. I'm so glad that so many people participated, and felt inspired to make something of their own. I also received a lot of messages from folks asking questions, sharing their favorite Lego tips and resources, and reminiscing about their childhood favorite Lego sets. This was no Dungeon 23 or Gygax 75, but it was small, and it was fun, and I'm very happy with the outcome. 
If you have the time and energy and to try want another summer project, why not join Prismatic Wasteland's Barkeep Jam, which is open until August 14th?

Friday, May 31, 2024

Helpful Links for the LEGO RPG Jam

Hi everyone! I have two announcements about the ongoing Summer LEGO RPG Setting Jam, still open until July 8th. First, several people have reached out to me with links that might be helpful for anyone working on their own entry. And second, the first few entries have been submitted!
71469 Nightmare Shark Ship image source
I'll talk about those in just a moment. But first, my friend and colleague Prismatic Wasteland is also hosting an game jam this summer - the Barkeep Jam, which will be open from June 14th to August 14th, inviting you to add your own location (or other contributions) to the already-overflowing Barkeep on the Borderlands.
I wrote one of the original bars, but I'm going to try to come up with another to enter in the jam. I'm thinking of playing with the similar sounds in cocktail and cockatrice, although I'm not sure exactly where that will lead yet...
In the mean time, let's talk about Lego!
6494 Magic Mountain Time Lab image source

I have been using Brickset as my primary interface for locating and looking at older Lego sets. It's not the only way to search them, but I've found it very helpful.

Certified Lego fan Farmer Gadda has a few recommendations! First, Rebrickable is a site where people can post instructions for their own fan designs, reusing old pieces in new ways.

Next, Brick Owl is an online marketplace for buying and selling Lego pieces and minifigures.
BrikWars hosts a community of people who use Lego to play wargames. There's a complete ruleset, a wiki for lore, and forums where people talk about and post pictures of their games.

And the BrickLink Studio is a downloadable program from the official Lego website that allows 3D modeling of Lego pieces and sets, and can output .png files.

Knight at the Opera discovered that the official Lego website also has some great history articles, including accounts of the original Castle, Pirates, and Space lines, along with plenty of other topics.

I also got a great link from Mindstorm -  a really detailed overview of the Lego space factions from the 1990s and 2000s from the almost overwhelming Rambling Brick blog. This covers the period when I was most into Lego as a kid, as well as the time right afterward.

And finally, Prismatic Wasteland found a link to a review of the inspiring 1992 Lego catalog, and discovered that Brickset also has a way to browse old Lego catalogs, from 1966 to 2011.

4970 The Chrome Crusher image source

So far, there have been four contest entries (that I know of! if you've seen others, please share them in the comments!) 

The first past the finish line is Rise Up Comus, who wrote the Legojam Castle Hexcrawl. This is 27 hexes of medieval adventure, populated by people forced to reenact and relive the same heroic drama year after year, with only the player characters able to break free from the eternal recurrence of the same.

The aforementioned Farmer Gadda wrote Lego Adventurers Dino Island, which pits pulp-style explorers and criminals in a race against one another to capture a dinosaur before the volcano explodes...

Dr Curious VII went a different route and found monster designs from a Lego boardgame. In The Monster (Pod) Manual, DC7 offers ideas on how to describe and use 20 of these little beasties as roleplaying adversaries. I'd really like to encourage this kind of creativity! If you don't want to write a setting, but have another idea for adapting Lego to use with D&D, please know that you're welcome.
And in the most recent entry, for now, Tales of Escia gives us The Azure Archipelago, a 36 hex ocean setting where pirates, ghosts, and a royal navy all compete with ancient high-tech Atlanteans to find arcane crystals that will fuel their various factional goals.

There's still plenty of time to join the jam, and plenty of room for more ideas. Don't feel discouraged if you want to write something smaller, or if you too want to write about pirates or knights! I'd love to see what you can make!

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Summer LEGO RPG Setting Jam

I want to officially announce the start of the Summer LEGO RPG Setting Jam! The goal of this game jam is to design a small roleplaying game setting based on the Lego sets we enjoyed in our youth. The jam will run from Wednesday, May 8th to Monday, July 8th, 2024.

6075 Wolfpack Tower image source

What is the Summer LEGO RPG Setting Jam?

A few years ago, I wrote about how the Lego Castle sets that came out when I was a kid formed an important part of my fantasy imagination, and helped to shape what I want from fantasy roleplaying games. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this, and that childhood Lego sets continue to inspire many of us who enjoy designing and playing RPGs today.
So, the goal of this project is to design a small game setting based on a few Lego sets. I encourage you to draw on sets that you remember from your childhood - either ones you owned and enjoyed, or ones you saw and wanted but never got to play with. Now is your chance! 
(Since this is a celebration of Lego's original sets and settings, I think it will be more fun if we don't try to riff off of Lego's licensed interpretations of other company's characters.)
1492 Battle Cove image source
What Kind of Setting Should I Make?
Create a setting where the players can be heroes or scoundrels, and let them decide how to act. Set up rival factions with conflicting goals, make a powder keg, ready to explode, and hand the players a match they can strike. Give them a safe home base, a dungeon to delve, a wilderness to travel, monsters to fight. Make the game you want to play!
I encourage you to think small, to be expressive and concise, and to write a setting that will fit on 1-2 pages of 8½ × 11 paper when printed out. You can reference the game mechanics of your choice, or save space by leaving your setting systemless or system-neutral.
Anyone who uses your setting will have to do additional work to get it game-ready, so help them out by making something exciting and inspirational! Basic guidelines are more important than fine-grained distinctions. Be clear and coherent, use motifs and themes, and trust that the person running the game will make decisions that are shaped by the tools you've given them.
6878 Sub Orbital Guardian image source
How Do I Participate in the Game Jam?
Once you've created your setting, go ahead and put it online! If you have a blog, make it a post. Upload it somewhere as a pdf. Then, share your links here, as comments on this post!
Once the game jam closes on July 8th, I'll write a new compilation post that has links to all the entries. I'll also create a companion document that combines all the pdf entries into a single file.
I'm going to create a setting too! I can't wait to see what everyone comes up with!
6879 Blizzard Baron image source
Anything Else I Should Know?
Please credit the original Lego sets using their official names and set numbers. That way, everyone will know what inspired you, and anyone who likes your setting can look up the same sets you drew from.
Please do not include racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, or islamophobia in your entry. I reserve the right to not share or promote any game jam submission that I think is being used to harass or bully.

Lego trademarks of the LEGO Group. The names and images of all Lego products are copyrights of the LEGO Group and are used here without permission. All names and images of Lego products used here are intended to represent Fair Use under the 1976 Copyright Act. Their use is non-commercial, and is part of a transformative artistic project, which is not a substitute for the original products, and should not affect those products' value.

So please, share your Summer LEGO RPG Setting Jam entries in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Actual Play - Death by Dragon in The Incandescent Grottoes

My regular Friday night gaming group has been playing through Gavin Norman's The Incandescent Grottoes. It's a dungeon that's full of caverns of glowing crystals, which is what it's named for, and also classic D&D monsters like fungi, slimes, and the undead. And, oh yeah, a dragon!
Leighton Connor from Akashic Library volunteered to be our referee for this one, since he's run this particular adventure before, for a group of kids and teens. Peter Kisner from Fantasy Heartbreak Workshop is the other player besides me in this game. 
I want to shout out a fun incident that happened in one of our recent sessions. As ever in these kind of situations, it's not possible to tell this story without spoiling a few possible surprises from the adventure, although I've tried my best to keep that to a minimum.
After our initial party of four got cut in half by some early dangers, Peter and I each rolled up two characters to accompany Gone Girl the thief and Gildur the dwarf. One of my new characters became a terrible wizard, and I made the other into a pretty good elf. The elf got a bonus language, which I rolled to select at random, and the dice decided he knew how to speak Dragon. I decided to make that a focal point for his personality. I gave him magic missile as his lone spell, used his remaining cash after getting armor and weapons to buy oil, and named him Flamethrower. (The wizard also got a bonus language - Regional Dialect. Like I said, terrible.)
So, when our newly enlarged party learned that there might be a dragon living in one part of the dungeon, obviously I had Flamethrower suggest that we should go visit it, so he could try talking to it. Peter agreed, because why not? How often do you actually encounter the monster the game is named after? Plus, we hoped it would go well. I thought Flamethrower might be able to engage the dragon in conversation, offer to do it a favor in exchange for treasure, that sort of thing.
We experienced one ominous omen on our way to the dragon's lair - a random encounter with a shadow monster. This was a pretty tough fight. Gone Girl used her only silver arrow, Flamethrower used up his one casting of magic missile, and Gildur made very good use of the magic sword he found earlier. I can't honestly say that this encounter changed the outcome of what happened next, but like, it was a very bad sign, and depleted us of resources that theoretically could have been useful.
Okay, so we leave the tunnel and enter the cavern where we think the dragon will be. It's not there, but we see another tunnel exit at the far end. In a loud voice, Flamethrower starts declaiming a polite greeting, "Well met, noble dragon, allow me to extend our most felicitous greetings to your royal eminence," and so on.
The dragon Kramers into the room, rolling up looking absolutely crazed with hunger and fury. It turns out the thing has only bestial intelligence. It shouts the only phrase it knows "EAT YOU!" and lunges for us, causing everyone to try to scatter.
I imagine this dragon looking like this angry weirdo from Shin Godzilla

We all wanted to run away, but unfortunately, the dragon won the initiative, and let loose with its breath weapon - a cloud of knockout gas. Everyone lost their saving throw except for Peter's gnome, Schnoz, and they all fell unconscious to the floor.
It turns out there was one spell left that the party didn't cast when we were fighting the shadows, and Peter had Schnoz cast it now, an illusion spell called spook that inspires temporary terror. And, in what I can only describe as a Looney Tunes moment, it actually works! Picture Droopy the Dog holding up a grotesque Halloween mask, and this big angry dragon suddenly recoiling in horror and scampering away at top speed, whimpering like a scared dog.
Who knows what terror lurks in the hearts of dragons? The spook spell knows.

The spell has a very short duration, so we only had a couple combat rounds of safety while the dragon ran away, came to its senses, and then came thundering back, even angrier than before. Schnoz managed to wake up Gildur the dwarf, and they each lugged another character to safety by retreating down the tunnel we came in. They took lucky Gone Girl and Peter's third character, leaving my other two behind, including Flamethrower, because this was all his fault.
The dragon came back into its main lair and started savaging my two unconscious characters, I think starting with the terrible wizard. Schnoz tried to wake up the two he rescued we are still sleeping, but to no avail. Gildur lights a torch and throws it across the cavern onto Flamethrower's supine body. You'd think being lit on fire would wake him up, but no.
The dragon wins initiative again, finishes killing Flamethrower, and starts advancing toward the rest of the party. When the initiative passes to us players, the torch lights Flamethrower's collection of oil on fire, and he explodes in a giant ball of flame, harmlessly, a safe distance behind the dragon.

I should note that at no point have we made any attempt whatsoever to actually fight this thing. After our attempted diplomacy failed, Peter and I have just been trying to get our characters to run away. Everything that's happened so far has been based on saving throws and initiative rolls. The dragon didn't even need to roll to hit our unconscious characters, just for damage, and even that was mostly a courtesy, considering they're defenseless.
As the enraged dragon stomped toward them, Schnoz and Gildur lugged the other two down a side passage toward and underground river, hoping that the current would quickly carry us far enough away, as long as we could all float until we got to shore. In the first bit of good luck we'd had in awhile, the shock of the cold water woke the two sleepers up. 
Now, swimming in armor is dangerous. Gone Girl was wearing leather, and got lucky again, so she survived to make landfall with Schnoz and Peter's remaining character. Gildur the dwarf was wearing plate armor, and he did not get lucky, so he sank and drowned, taking the magic sword (which was almost our only treasure up to that point!) with him.
This session was an absolutely magnificent failure, and I loved it!

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

My 2023 in Review

This is my third annual Year in Review post, so I think I can officially consider it a tradition! Here are my favorite things from 2023.
The Best Things I Read
Fiction - Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
My favorite novel last year was Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, a work of literary fiction about two childhood friends who grow up to become video game designers together. The pair are very close friends as kids, then have a falling out and lose contact. They reconnect in college and begin making video games, first as class projects, later starting their own company and growing it into a major studio. They grow apart, then have another falling out. And then, tentatively, they begin to reconnect again. 
Parts of this book are very sad. The characters struggle with poor health and damaging romantic relationships, even as they find artistic and commercial success. The saddest part though, I think, is simply the very real pain of growing apart from someone you care about, or having a fight that means you don't talk to one another for years. Zevin did her homework on the video games too. The fictional games she describes sound realistic, and would be appropriate to each era. And impressively, the structure of each section of the book mirrors the game the friends are working on at the time. It was inspiring and encouraging to read.

My runners up this year are Corienne Hoex's Gentlemen Callers, which is like Invisible Cities, but for sex, literary and playful and phantasmic; and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris by Leanne Shapton, which tells the story of a couple getting together and then breaking up entirely through objects, presented in the style of an auction catalog with photos and descriptive captions. Shapton accomplishes what every museum curator and dungeon designer hopes to, creating a narrative entirely through
Nonfiction - Islands of Abandonment
My favorite nonfiction book in 2023 was Islands of Abandonment by journalist Cal Flyn. Flyn visits and writes about places that humans no longer use, and looks at how the ecosystem has regrown and recovered there. In a few cases, the abandonment is for political or economic reasons, but mostly it's because of pollution or poison - these are places we've made so toxic that we can no longer work or live there. A recurring theme is that the simple fact of human occupation is worse for the local ecosystem than anything else we can do to it - worse even than tons of unexploded ordinance, buried neurotoxins, or radiation. 
The ecosystems that grow back represent a kind of feral nature, different from what was there before, or in any of the few remaining places we've never touched. Flyn shows places that were abandoned for many possible reasons, and that have recovered in different ways. If the future involves fewer people, or even just more efficient land-use, there will probably be more abandonment, and Flyn helps us imagine what that might look like. This is probably the most D&D-able book I read all year.
My runners up are Ace by Angela Chen, which offers a look at asexual identity, its complexities, and what it illuminates about other sexualities that we might otherwise not see; and Adam Nicolson's Life Between the Tides. Nicolson builds his own tidal pools and reports on the ecosystems in miniature that spring up inside, talks about the biology of some of the most common tidal species, and gives a history of the Irish coastal region where he's working. It felt like a unique and very holistic view of both the niche and the system that contains it.
Comics - Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow and Ducks (tie)
My favorite graphic novel this year collected the Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow miniseries, written by Tom King and illustrated by Bilquis Evely. It seems like DC might be giving each of their heroes a chance at standalone superhero adventures out in space, and if so, I am fully in support of this project. A young Supergirl goes to a planet with a red sun so she can get drunk when she celebrates her 21st birthday, and ends up on a star-hopping adventure with a young farm girl, who narrates the series, in tow. This is science fantasy at its finest, real sword-and-planet stuff, and I liked the contrast between the physically-powerful but emotionally immature Supergirl, and the politically-empowered criminal she pursues.
My favorite graphic nonfiction was Kate Beaton's Ducks. Beaton is best known for her whimsical Hark! A Vagrant comics, but her memoir of her two years working in the oil industry to pay off her student loans is a serious and mature work. Beaton's experiences with sexual harassment were harrowing and persistent; any counterbalance within the piece comes less from humor and more from the awe of nature and her briefer encounters with human kindness.
My runners up are the Forest Hills Bootleg Society in fiction, and Flung Out of Space, which is technically fiction but grounded in biography. In Forest Hills, Dave Baker and Nicole Goux give us a story about four girls at a Christian high school who try selling bootleg hentai movies to boys so they can buy cool jackets and hopefully the approval of their peers. You just know it can't end well. Space is about the author Patricia Highsmith, by Grace Ellis and illustrated by Hannah Templer, covering the period where Highsmith was working in comics, beginning to experience success from Strangers on a Train, trying to sell Carol, and struggling with her own lesbianism and the self-hatred from her internalized homophobia.
The Best Things I Watched
Live-Action Television - Kleo
My favorite live-action show in 2023 was the German revenge thriller Kleo. I'm beginning to realize that I might have a soft spot for revenge stories. Show me a righteously angry person willing to suffer unlimited punishment for the chance to murder their way up the org chart until they can confront and kill the boss who wronged them, and I am on the edge of my seat the whole time. In real life I'm a pacifist, but on film, the more brutal and morally complex the revenger is, the more I'm enthralled. And Kleo, the character, is enthralling. She's an East German spy, who got burned and sent to prison. Then, when the Wall comes down, she's released into the rapidly reunifying German, with exactly one goal - to find out who in her own government framed and imprisoned her, and make them pay. 
Kleo is delightfully unhinged, with tactics that made me wince even as I couldn't look away from them. It helps that the show itself is very aesthetically pleasing, with bright colors, excellent action sequences, and a soundtrack that mixes synths with 80s New Wave and actual Red Army patriotic music. And actress Jella Haase plays the role with the kind of manic enthusiasm we usually associate with Nicholas Hoult or Nick Cage - absolutely committed to a character who is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and always compelling.
My live-action runners up is Irma Vep, which is much more high-concept. It's a prestige miniseries about the making of a fictional prestige miniseries. The fictional miniseries is a remake of the 1915 French film serial Les Vampires, and the real show, Irma Vep, is also a kind of remake or sequel and expansion of an earlier film with the same name and same concept by the same director. But if you can sort of set all that real-life complexity aside, then Irma Vep is a behind-the-scenes look at how prestige tv gets made today, the way the artistic and creative ambitions of some of the people involved can use, be used by, or simply clash with the purely financial motivations of others, and a kind of surreal exploration of the lead actress - played by Alicia Vikander - getting back in touch with her identities as an artistic and romantic person after an ugly breakup and an unfulfilling starring role in a superhero blockbuster.

Anime - Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Sailor Moon (tie)
I only started consistently watching anime again in the last few years, and I feel like I'm embarrassed by the riches laid out before me as I sample some of the treasures from the past that I missed when they first came out. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is at least from this century, and like Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, it's about people making something they love. In this case, we follow three high school girls who form their own tiny animation studio as a club. Across the brief series, we see them make and screen three short films, and learn about each step of the process along the way. The characters dream of feature films and international success, but the show is realistic about how much work they have to do, and what kind of results they can produce.

What makes Eizouken really enjoyable is the absolutely irrepressible enthusiasm of the lead character, the bucket-hat-wearing Midori. She has an unstoppable imagination, looking at the real world and imagining it filled with robots and hovercrafts, and filling notebooks with drawings of her ideas. Midori imagines the kind of things I used to daydream about when I was a kid, and the way the show depicts them really captures the feeling of that childhood excitement; I've never seen it portrayed so accurately before, in any medium. The theme song is also a banger, and sets the mood with its infectious energy.
Eizouken has a somewhat non-traditional animation style, especially for anime, and it makes me want to shout out a few other short series I watched that used unconventional visuals, all of which I really enjoyed, including Kayba, Mononoke, and Fire Hunter.

My other favorite season 1 of the original Sailor Moon anime, the one that first aired in America television in the 90s, where I watched it sporadically after school. It turns out that my clearest memories are from the plant alien arc at the start of season 2, but my heart belongs to the first and best season, which in my opinion did the best job sharing the spotlight across the ensemble, and doesn't include Sailor Moon's difficult daughter from the future. An ordinary, imperfect high school girl discovers that she is also the superhero Sailor Moon, the guardian of an ancient Moon Princess, and defender of Earth against aliens who want to steal the life energy human teenagers, usually Sailor Moon's friends from school. As the show progresses, she meets a team of other guardians, and they become real friends out of costume too.
Yes, this is absolutely a formulaic, monster-of-the-week action show, but within that framework, there's a great deal of creativity and love that went into the series. The combat sequences, for example, often use a series of splashy still-frame images in lieu of full animation. This was almost certainly a cost-saving measure, but it's also an artistic choice, one that amplifies key moments in each fight, and the splash images are always really good. The show also deploys exaggerated, Looney Tunes style expressions to convey strong emotion; a deep knowledge of the art form and its history really shows through in those moments.

My runners up are Princess Jellyfish (for slice of life) and Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury (for action). Princess Jellyfish follows a group of nerdy girls who live together in an all-women apartment building. When the city starts threatening to tear it down to revitalize the district, the girls are forced to confront their shyness and social awkwardness to advocate for the building at government meetings. One of the girls also makes friend with a crossdresser (someone who, I wonder, might be portrayed as a trans girl if the show were made today) who helps her practice acting confident and assertive, even when she just wants to hide. That crossdresser reminds me a lot of myself when I was that age.

The Witch from Mercury is not in continuity with any other Gundam series, although it uses the same giant robots and the same conflict between humans who live on Earth versus humans who live in space. This series focuses on the students at an elite academy, mostly the children of the richest and most powerful government and corporate leaders in the solar system. A cold-war conflict among the adults is acted out among their kids in the form of ritualized dueling (with mechas, of course) and high school romances. The stakes continue to ratchet up throughout the series, until the system is right at the brink of a real hot war. And I really liked the central relationship between Suletta and Miorine.
Films - The Creator
Probably my favorite film of the year was The Creator, which is exactly the kind of scifi film I hope they'll make more of. It's an original story, but in conversation with other works about robots and AI; it's visually stunning, seamlessly mixing CGI with practical techniques to make something that looks much better than either could produce alone; and it has something relevant to say about the contemporary world that's not simplistic, trite, or nihilistic.

At the end of an alt-history 20th century, where sentient robots became citizens of every country in the world over the course of the 60s and 70s, America suffers a terrorist attack, an atomic detonation in LA that kills a million people, and responds by outlawing robotics, and waging a global war on robots and any country that harbors them. Visually, the scenes of combat in Southeast Asia are reminiscent of the Vietnam War, but everything else about the war is obviously inspired by the War On Terror. What The Creator makes you feel, viscerally, is that even after an incident as severe as that, America's reaction is a catastrophic over-reaction, and that killing civilians abroad will never make anyone any safer at home. I watched this film over the summer, but its portrayals of racism and unconstrained military violence are even more relevant now, as the Israeli military is engaged in mass killing in Gaza.

My runner up is Vesper, which has like, all the same good qualities as The Creator, just on a smaller scale. In the climate and genetic engineering post-apocalyse, the self-contained cities known as Citadels control the supply of seeds to anyone living outside, and they only sell crops whose own grains will be sterile, forcing the hinterlands to purchase new seeds every year. Vesper is an ambitious girl on the cusp of puberty. She wants to be a scientist and move into the city; her uncle who owns the farm next door wants to ensnare her in debt and take ownership of her body. Then a small personal airship leaving the nearest Citadel crashes within sight of the farms, and Vesper suddenly has a new opportunity, and new dangers. After Islands of Abandonment, this might be the second-most D&D-able thing I enjoyed this year! It's actually very easy to imagine a version of this film that's just a Western, albeit one that center's women's experiences on the frontier, but I think the science fictional elements are improvements, they make the film better, certainly better-looking, and more impactful.