Monday, December 02, 2019

More Probably Completely Incorrect Musings on the D&D Movie

So we got new info! Joining our hero, Raven Hightower, will be the gnome thief Olivan Trickfoot and the “half-dragon” Hack Karroway.

Olivan is clearly the comedic sidekick here, and probably the “Smart Guy.” Hack is… well, what exactly do they mean by “half-dragon” anyway?

Depending on how accurately they’re using the term, we could be talking about a sorcerer with dragon’s blood in his veins. But with a name like “Hack” that’s probably not the direction they’re going with.

In ye olden days, I’d assume a human sorcerer with some scales on the back of his arms and maybe cheeks, but CGI is so good now they could totally mean a dragonborn. (They could also mean a literal half-dragon, but I don’t think we’ve seen an official version in 5e yet? In any case…) Such a hulking CGI mass of scales, fangs, and horns would obviously be the “Big Guy” and, if the writers have some skill at dialogue, would share comedic duties with the gnome in classic big-guy-and-little-guy fashion.

Our final good-guy is “a masked warrior named Alyssa Steelsong who is set to take over Palarandusk's role [as leader of a group of Triadic Knights] when the dragon dies.”

I cannot express how much this riles up my cynicism, which expects Steelsong to only wear the mask long enough to defeat a gang of villainous flunkies before doffing her mask to reveal OMG-a-woman-warrior-unpossible!!! Somehow, I doubt this option will have much impact a full quarter-century after the debut of Xena: Warrior Princess. (Yep, 25 years ago come 2020!) We will then never see the mask again, and Steelsong will proceed to get her ass kicked in every fight for the rest of the movie, constantly needing to be rescued by Hightower. This will culminate in a climax where the arch-villain male drow Razer Horlbar threatens to kill her in exactly the same way he murdered Hightower’s sister.

In this version of things, Razer’s tiefling ally Damala (probably a spell-slinger of some flavor) ends up travelling with the heroes. Trickfoot and Hack will constantly be going on about how she can’t be trusted, but she won’t actually do anything sinister except behave in a vaguely femme-fatale fashion. In this case, Damala will be the Lancer and Steelsong will be the group’s Heart. If the crew isn’t careful, and they give her enough screen time and cast a skillful actress in Damala’s role, she’ll steal the show from Hightower and there will be clamor for a spin-off solo movie for Damala.

A more interesting option casts Steelsong as the Lancer. The mask will come out regularly, usually when she’s about to do some serious ass-kicking, and it will be quite clear that she’s more skilled as a warrior than Hightower. She’ll keep saying that she ought to be leading the mission, but Hack and Trickfoot will keep reminding her that she hasn’t earned their trust yet. Respect, sure, but that’s not enough to get them to follow her into the Abyss. Her time with the trio will be about teaching her to let go of her mask and allow herself to make real connections with others in order to be a more effective leader. The final climax will have her fighting against the Beast without her mask, possibly forcing her to rely on Trickfoot for survival and victory. 25% chance she chooses to betray the party at the end of the second act for what she thinks, at the time, is the greater good, but returns in the final battle to redeem herself.

In this case, the Heart of the group will be Hightower’s dead sister, who will appear to her brother in dreams and hallucinations (after he’s been knocked unconscious by drugs or blunt trauma to his skull) and impart vague words of wisdom or warnings. 10% chance she’s still alive, serving as a masked or veiled oracle for Razer or something similar. Very slim chance she’s an undead bodyguard for Razer and Hightower is forced to kill her just before he goes mano-y-mano with the drow.

Razer will likely look like Nightcrawler from the X-men movies or possibly like the pale elves from del Toro’s second Hellboy movie. Hack has a 50-50 chance of making it alive to the end of the movie. Too high a chance they’ll try to make Trickfoot into a furless Rocket Raccoon. If they give him goggles, gadgets, and a heavily sculpted “adorable” hairdo, consider it a warning.

No mention of good-guy spell-slingers. They don’t say what Hack is, so he could be a wizard, but that’s not the way to bet. Steelsong could be a paladin, but in any incarnation she likely won’t be slinging too many spells. Honestly, while it’s insane to consider a D&D party going after the relics of Vecna without a cleric, by keeping the spell-slingers to a minimum they reduce the need to explain how D&D magic works to casual viewers.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Sci-fi Treasure

Treasure is easy in fantasy realms. Usually, it's great piles of gold coins, gleaming gems, and works of art. If you're doing a more Bronze Age thing, it can be cauldrons and tripods and drinking vessels like you see in The Odyssey. But what's treasure in a sci-fi universe? Large stacks of credit-vouchers just don't have the same feel as tumbled piles of doubloons and ancient crowns.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when the future was nuclear, space powers feuded over fissionables the way 20th century powers fought over oil. Later, when the power of the future shifted from fission to fusion, He3 became the thing to fight over.

There's been all sorts of unobtaniums associated with power generation or FTL travel, such as Star Trek's dilithium crystals or the floaty magic rocks in the Avatar movie. This is a common and accepted way of expressing great value in space opera these days.

Mass-to-energy conversion makes this sort of thing difficult (unless the unobtanium is a key component in the process). Energy-to-mass conversion essentially makes anything dirt cheap. At that point, your treasure is going to be works of rare art, especially if you can verify the authenticity of original works. (While AIs might be able to churn out amazing art at astounding speed, the assumption here is that the original creations of idolized artists will still command great value, though potentially only to eccentric collectors.)

There's also the secrets-of-ancient-antiquity version, whether that's the knowledge of a lost (often but not always Golden) age (like the STCs of the Warhammer 40k universe), or dead alien civilizations.

While gemstones can still work (especially if you have a magical tech that can distinguish between natural and artificial) it takes more work. Keep in mind that diamonds are worth as much as they are today in the real world due to the bulk of the natural supply being dribbled out slowly by the principle mine-owners. They're actually quite common, just not in circulation.

Finally, while there's lots of gold and other precious metals potentially floating about, if you're talking about a galaxy-spanning civilization(s) with a population measured in the vigintillions, and most especially if there are practical applications for these metals (conducting electricity is still a thing), demand could still drive up price. This can be especially true if something is disrupting mining efforts; local pirate activity or warfare could drive up the price locally, double so if your FTL travel isn't instantaneous.

I've been casting about for other ideas of what future treasure might look like. If anyone has other suggestions, please feel free to share in the comments.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

They Were Wargamers

It’s a fact that the earliest players of D&D were wargamers, and that D&D sprang, not full-fledged from the brow of Gygax, but rather as variations on fantasy medieval wargaming. It’s easy, therefore, to extrapolate some assumptions based on what we know about wargaming. But if you don’t do much wargaming, or you’ve only been exposed to certain flavors of wargaming, the keyhole you’re looking through might be too skinny for you to get the full view of things.

Let’s take a look at one of the most popular wargames (at least in the US) out today: Warhammer 40,000. Thing is, when it was first released, it wasn’t really a wargame. Rogue Trader was billed as more of an RPG. Today we’d recognize it as a skirmish-level, campaign focused wargame with RPG elements. The idea was you’d create these stories of the 41st Millennium by playing out clashes between freebooters, criminals, space marines, and orks on the backworlds and seedy alleys of a dark and distant tomorrow. And stories need characters. In order to create interesting stories, you need interesting characters. That requires a certain amount of customization, if only in the ability to name and outfit your dudemans to personalize them. So if you flip through a copy of Rogue Trader, you’ll see all kinds of weirdness: Space Marines wielding shuriken catapults and rolling after a fight to see if your character was just laid up in a medical vat for a week or is truly, really, completely dead.

That’s likely what the first iterations of proto-D&D were: rules for personalizing your fantasy army’s captains and lieutenants, so you could create your own Elric and Conan and Aragorn and pit them against each other. They would acquire a history and rivalries and bosom companions and such from the stories of their battles, which would spin off new adventures (very much the way The Temple of Elemental Evil was spawned by the wargaming of a fantasy siege).

But note that this is a desire to imbue these characters with personality and hang stories on them. This is not the disposable cypher miniature of just another grunt in your horde. So how do we reconcile this desire for story with the very disposable nature of early D&D characters?

Quite simply this: the story a wargamer is telling isn’t so much the story of any particular individual, but rather the story of a battle, a campaign, an army, or a family. The death of any individual doesn’t end the story, but merely marks the ending of a chapter in a broader, possibly multigenerational story.

This is why AD&D has rules for things like constructing strongholds, for stat adjustments when characters age, for followers and henchmen and the like. Early D&D may not have been about fighter Joebob III, son of Joebob II, son of Joebob, but it could very much be about the dynasty of Joebob, the effect it had on the Gran Marches, and its eventual corruption and destruction at the hands of the black wyrm Mavelant.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Movie Review: Color Out of Space

I got to see Color out of Space at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon last night. While I’m not a connoisseur of Lovecraft adaptations to film, this is the best I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of movies like The Thing, this is likely right up your alley. This is also the best Richard Stanley film I’ve seen, but again, not a connoisseur, so take both of those statements with a grain of salt.

Still, this has all the hallmarks of a solid film. The fx are good, the casting and acting are excellent across the board, and the writing is top notch. Note that this is not a scene-for-scene adaptation of Lovecraft’s story. Instead, Stanley puts the focus of the film on the Gardner’s, the family that owns the farm the Color lands in, and sets it in the modern day.

The result is something potent. The Gardner’s are a family with a surfeit of life happening to them. Mrs. Gardner, who appears to be a financial consultant who works out of the attic and is the family’s breadwinner, just survived a cancer scare. The movie version of the family has three kids: an elementary-school aged son named Jack, a teenage stoner son named Benny, and a gothy Wiccan daughter named Lavinia. Mr. Gardner is played by Nicolas Cage and, honestly, I’ve enjoyed him in so many movies, good and bad, but this may very well be the role he was born to play.

We first meet them through the eyes of the kinda-sorta narrator of the film, Ward Phillips, a hydrologist from Miskatonic U. doing surveys for a water reservoir project. He stumbles across Lavinia in the middle of a ritual, and it’s not creepy in the slightest. Instead, she comes off as almost the stereotypical nerdy girl teen, and the target audience is likely to fall in love with her from the start. And while the family has its issues (actually, likely because the family has its issues), you fall in love with the whole quirky bunch of them. Which is a bad idea, because this is based on the freakin’ Lovecraft story and…

And this movie doesn’t play by the traditional rules. It doesn’t show animals dying but it literally kills them by the truck-load. This is not Spielberg’s Poltergeist where everyone gets out scared and scarred but alive. This isn’t an ‘80s style horror film where people who have sex get killed while those taking noble risks survive. The Color is a Lovecraftian horror and doesn’t give two flips for human morality. The result is a brutal and disturbing horror flick that draws out the tension almost perfectly before punching you in the gut. It’s not shy about splattering even its youngest cast members with ropy splatters of blood.

It’s Nic Cage who really nails the Lovecraft feel, however. He’s the one we get to watch descend into madness. And he does it perfectly, going from a mild-mannered mildly neurotic middle-aged father trying to shepherd his family through modern life to a gibbering wreck of a human being. And the story supports his descent; near the end, events happen that make you question if some of his delusional ravings were really delusional, or if he was seeing things others couldn’t. He’s not Jack Nicholson chasing his family with an axe; he’s Joe Everyman watching something utterly horrible and alien warp and destroy the land he grew up on and his family.
The creature effects are excellent and disturbing and will draw comparisons to Carpenter’s The Thing. The soundtrack is subtle and broody, but does at times step on the Foley, especially when the Color is making whistling sounds. It’s hard to tell at times what’s the soundtrack and what’s a sound the characters can actually hear.

The writing gets a bit soft at the end, but that’s hard to avoid. The opening is so solid, and the events in the last 20 minutes come so fast and furious and bizarre that they couldn’t really keep up the quality. When the Color is resolved, we really don’t know how or why, and it certainly doesn’t appear to have anything to do with what our characters do. There’s a joke for the fans involving a Chekhov’s Gun that doesn’t go off, and because it doesn’t go off the timing is a bit off, but you’ll recognize it later when you’re thinking about the movie. And the movie is peppered with little nods to the Mythos, from the frequent calls of whippoorwills to the logo of the local TV station to Ward’s choice in reading material.

I’m glad this film got made. I appreciate all the work and craft that went into it. I don’t think I ever need to see it again. Can there be greater praise for a movie adaptation of a Lovecraft film than that?

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Muir

I was really ready to adore this book. Humanity has spread through the universe and (at least part of it) is currently ruled by a necromantic god-emperor who apparently at some point resurrected humanity from extinction (or, at least, a sizeable portion of it?) The Emperor instituted Nine Houses, ruled by powerful necromancers, each with its own character and bailiwick. The empire is tottering, shot through with rot and decay (as you’d expect from an empire built upon necromancy) and most of the Emperor’s champions, super-powered necromancers called Lictors, have fallen over the myriads since the founding of the Empire.

And yes, “myriad” is the right word here, used frequently in the book in its archaic meaning of “a unit of ten thousand.” My inner word-geek squealed in delight at this.

And our heroine spends most of the book running around wearing an almost-kinda black trench coat, totally ‘80s mirrored shades, and a rapier. And she spurts ‘80s quips like a gay action-hero.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Grade A Brian bait.


You knew there had to be a “but,” right? Brian only giving three stars to a story that looks like it was based on notes by Clark Ashton Smith but strained through ‘80s action and anime tropes? That blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy? What gives?

What gives is the plot. It’s a mess. Our heroine is enslaved by a sadistic necromancer princess. Their relationship is… plot-convenient? It’s not so much that I didn’t buy it, but rather that I picked up the wrong signals. Our introduction to their relationship felt less like the opening to a romance/buddy cop thing and more like setting the stage of a nasty revenge. Rather than helping us to like both of these characters and straining at the antagonism that separates them, I started off hating the princess and never really warmed to her.

These two are summoned by the Emperor to a conclave of the scions of the Nine Houses (each accompanied by a body-guard/champion and no one else) to a decaying palace on a distant world. Once they get there and we’ve met the other scions and their attendant cavaliers, things devolve quickly into Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

Things are made worse by the antagonisms of the various scions. Instead of working together (something that should be the obvious move once you understand the rules of the game, since it’s nearly impossible for anyone to succeed without cooperation), they assume (for no good reason I could discern) that only a few can rise to Lictor in spite of being told outright that it’s the Empreror’s dearest hope that they all achieve that status.

But you can’t really blame the scions, because the Emperor himself set this up in an incredibly stupid way. Shuttles we are told are “valuable” are tossed into the ocean and sunk instead of merely being flown away. The rules are poorly explained and even more poorly enforced. Once the secret of attaining Lictorhood is understood, the most devout house of Emperor-worshippers declares that such a thing is blasphemy and does its best to prevent anyone from becoming a Lictor, to the point of actually attempting to murder the other scions.

It’s a neat premise described with excellent word-smithing that falls utterly apart if you poke at it at all.

Still, it’s a fun read for all that. Just understand that this is a romance/mystery/thriller sort of thing, much more Ten Little Indians meets Jane Eyre in space with skeletons than Dune. Also, it’s of the more prudish sort of romances, where things never get to the point where fade-to-black is necessary. Don’t let the frequent references to dirty magazines and the course language of our protagonist fool you on that point, either. This romance is headed towards a union that is purely symbolic and spiritual, so if you’re looking for torrid lesbian shenanigans, this ain’t your book. If you’re cool with all that, and turning off your brain to avoid “fridge logic,” there’s a fun little romp here for you.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

It Doesn't Make Sense to Make Too Much Sense

So you'll often hear, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," and it usually means that you shouldn't destroy a project trying to achieve perfection when all you really need is something that's better-than-serviceable. In other words, a good book that actually gets published is vastly superior to a "perfect" book that's never finished.

A pitfall like unto it is being overly clever. We've all seen the elegantly designed RPG that is a thing of beauty, with its perfectly symmetrical stats or elegantly designed resolution system that just doesn't work at the table. Well, that sort of thing isn't just for game designers; it can strike GMs too.

The fact is, the real world is full of wonky little things that make no sense. The highest and holiest of Christian holidays, Easter, is named after a pagan deity we know almost nothing about, but we're pretty sure all the rabbits and eggs point to Oester being some sort of fertility deity. Obviously what happened is that Christians piggy-backed on Oester's popularity and just co-opted one of her more popular holidays for their own. But the eggs and the rabbits persist, long after we've forgotten just about everything there was to know about Oester.

This is why it's a sure comedy hit every decade or so when some comedian will go onto college campuses to ask our "best and brightest" why Jesus wants us to hide eggs on Easter. If there's one thing college students learn, especially those of us who tackled the liberal arts, its how to create sense out of the jumbled nonsense of reality, especially if there's no sense their to be found.

Our days of the week are the same. Sunday through Friday, the names are Germanic/Norse, referencing gods like Tyr (Tuesday), Wotan (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), and Frigga (Friday). And then, boom, Saturday, named after the Roman god Saturn. What's up with that? We really don't know. There's been lots of conjecture that the Norse were mapping their days of the week over the Roman ones and just didn't have a god they liked to replace Saturn. There's others that think Saturn was close enough to an Anglo-Saxon word "sætere" that means "seducer" or the like that they just kept it as-is. But the truth is, nobody really understands what happened there.

The point for you, my fine world-building friends, is that things that make too much sense, that are perfectly rational, are not terribly realistic. To make your world feel more real, make it less perfect. Throw in that one odd halfling drinking custom in your dwarvish culture. Create a perfectly rational solar calendar, but for one month a year that runs lunar and can swing between having as few as 20 days and as many as 36. And don't feel you must explain it (in fact, come up with three mutually exclusive explanations that scholars in your world feud over, just for that added hint of authenticity).

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Diegesis, Dissociated Mechanics, and You

This is good and useful stuff (if a touch esoteric), as we've come to expect from Cavegirl:

Diegetic (adjective): Actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted.

Non-diegetic (adjective): Not actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted, an external thing to the fictional world depicted that the audience percieves.

These are handles you can use to grip game rules or ideas and manipulate them in interesting ways:

Are the powers a D&D 4th edition PC has diegetic or not? Do the different weapon strikes, moves, spells and so on represent distinct techniques a PC has been taught? Can a 4e fighter talk about the different techniques they use? Or are they a non-diegetic abstraction that simplifies the chaos of combat into maneagable gameplay? Or is it somewhere between the two?

This, of course, takes us directly to The Alexandrian's discussion of dissociated mechanics:

For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt.

The mechanic is dissociated because the decision made by the player cannot be equated to a decision made by the character. No player, after making an amazing one-handed catch, thinks to themselves, “Wow! I won’t be able to do that again until the next game!” Nor do they think to themselves, “I better not try to catch this ball one-handed, because if I do I won’t be able to make any more one-handed catches today.”

This sort of discussion is highly important to me because verisimilitude is one of my primary goals when I do the RPG thing. I want my players (or even myself) to be as much in the headspace of our characters as possible. The more our decisions map directly to the decisions made by our fictional characters, the easier it is to see our fictional setting from the point-of-view of the characters in it.

Which is a long and fancy way of saying that I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics in my game. Does that mean I also want to minimize the presence of non-diegetic elements. Not necessarily. As Cavegirl points out, the soundtrack in most movies is non-diegetic; the characters can't hear it. But it helps us in the audience to interpret what the characters are doing, adding emotional context to their actions helping us to see inside the characters' heads to the emotional states they're experiencing. Music and lighting in the room where you're playing, and the layout of a character sheet are all things that are non-diegetic but which can actually improve the verisimilitude of the experience.

(Note also that, while I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics, that's not the same as eliminate them. Abstraction of the boring and the unpleasant can make an experience more immersive by not inviting, or even forcing, you to flee the experience you're supposed to be immersing in.)