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.

But…

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.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Taghri's Prize

This novel (link is an Amazon Affiliate link) is of the genre of not-so-young-man-does-good stories that were fairly common in days of yore. Writers like H. Beam Piper and David Drake used to give us lots of these. They deviate from the young-man-does-good stories of authors like Alan Dean Foster in that our protagonist has at least a decade of adult life under his belt. He's done his time in the trenches (often literally) and is ready to wed his worldly experience with youthful energy to carve out his place in the world. He'll use restless initiative and wits to shock the world and his enemies, along with a strong sense of justice and an almost present-day morality to earn the loyalty of his followers and comrades. There's almost always a young woman who's only just entered adulthood but who also exhibits maturity beyond her years to win, usually by climbing the social ladder (if the society has nobility, he'll be a commoner or close to it at the beginning of the story, but fairly elevated up the noble chain by the end). A large component of his success will be based on this character seeing what others cannot, often by finding new and innovative ways to use whatever tech is cutting-edge for their culture. Piper's Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen is probably the pinnacle of this genre, though you can absolutely see how it grew from books like The Count of Monte Cristo and A Princess of Mars.

This book posits a world like ours, but where the monotheisms that came to dominate the world never developed. Taghri's world is one of many gods, and even the gods of a single pantheon can be jealous of one another. It's a world where the gods also take a hand in things, though slowly, and often through agents. It's also a world of gunpowder and, but for the lack of faiths like Islam and Christianity, looks like our own in the 16th century.

Taghri is an experienced campaigner, a veteran of the Sultan's wars who tries his hand at being a merchant. He's hardly gotten started when he finds himself fighting for his life again, this time against pirates. He slays the pirate captain and claims his ship. Among the treasures stowed on board is a princess and a knife that tingles with magical power. These treasures bring him to the attention of both this world's secular and divine powers, and he uses this opportunity to work his way to greatness.

This is a decent book of its type, but not a great one. The writing is engaging and descriptive, Taghri is sufficiently sympathetic (the dude never misses an opportunity to save a cat), and the action is written with gusto.  A sea battle about midway through the novel is especially fun.  However, you rarely feel much tension; suspense for our hero or his friends is frequently undercut when they quickly show that their hard work and cleverness has made them far and away better prepared for any encounter than their foes. The world-building also feels fairly meh. We get just enough local color for this to feel like a modern retelling of a story from the 1,001 Nights, but little else. Our hero doesn't help matters by never failing to exhibit modern sensibilities towards issues like slavery. While he doesn't give any impassioned speeches about the evils of slavery, he never fails to free any slave he comes across, nor does he show any interest in enslaving his enemies. And, while the setting strongly implies that Taghri's friends and allies own slaves, we never, ever see even one. This and a few other choices by the author leads to the setting feeling a bit like a Hollywood back-lot more than a real place.

That all said, this is a fine book of its type, and if you're spoiling for a book along these lines, you'll probably enjoy Taghri's Prize.

Gamers will appreciate Taghri's gung-ho cleverness, and the relationships between the gods and their worshipers feels very much like what you'd expect in a D&D world. The magic item in-and-of-itself isn't terribly exciting, but DMs will be intrigued by the way the plot is woven around it, and by how it launches our hero into a world of political intrigues and results in moments where the gods literally steer our hero in the right direction.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Wherefore Gorgeous Hardcovers?

Noisms asks, “How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?”

For the larger industry, the answer lies in the fact that most professional RPG shops are really more book-publisher than game-maker. The glossy, full-color, door-stopping coffee table tome looks more like quality than the thin booklets or magazine-like specimens that dead-tree RPGs have alternatively looked like. You can get away with charging $50 for these coffee-table monsters; you couldn’t do that with thinner, “cheaper” books, forget PDFs. And, while the coffee-table tomes are more expensive to produce, they’re not that much more expensive to produce. On top of that, the industry is so comfortable with this sort of thing, both as publishers and consumers, that nobody questions the choice and everyone feels they know what they’re getting into. So if you want fancy downtown Seattle office space and medical insurance and full-time staff, this is your tentpole product. It may not be the only way to go, but it’s where the “smart” (meaning “cautious and not-rocking-the-boat”) money is going to go.

But what about the OSR? Well, therein lies a tale. Actually, many tales, which can still be read on the old blogs, including Noisms'.

Return with me now to those heady days of yesteryear. WotC had saved D&D from the sinking ship that was TSR but something just wasn’t right. The 15 minute workday, the assumptions of a combat-focused design erected on a foundation that really didn’t support it, the terribly demanding math of encounter design that resulted in a single fight taking up a whole evening of playtime. There was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something wasn’t right. It was probably ’03 or so when I first heard someone say they’d rather be playing B/X if they could. (And Ferrus Minx, if you’re out there, you were a man ahead of your time!)

But then 2008 happened, and with every sneak peek at what D&D 4e would be, someone new experienced a visceral recoil from what they were seeing. The to-the-foundations transformations of not just the rules, but the setting info, of how parties were built and what adventures were about was bad enough, and it was coupled with an insulting ad campaign that literally drove people to seek other options. It had been fun back then. It wasn’t fun now. What had changed? Could we recapture the magic?

Yes, as it turned out, we could. And, when you read those old blogs, there’s a sense of shock and wonder when the old games were dusted off and played, followed quite often by a sense of betrayal and anger. It wasn’t something TSR or WotC had purposefully set out to do. They’d simply tried to improve the game, but they’d done so based on a set of assumptions very much not shared by fans of those older games.

The OSR knew that the old games were better (for certain definitions of better, sure, but as far as the OSR was concerned, those were the definitions that mattered). And the OSR wouldn’t just bring those games back, they would do it better than the Industry was doing! The rules would be better, the adventures would be better, and yes, the production values would be better.

James Edward Raggi IV was one of those making the most noise on this front. He was vociferous in denying all the “conventional wisdom” of the time. And he was right to do so; there was a lot of BS floating around that everyone “knew” was true about the hobby. (And keep in mind, among these was that RPGs were a dying hobby that could never recover; eventually, it would all be cheap little pamphlets printed from home, or deluxe luxury products like Ptolus, following the same pattern as the slow decline of the model railroad hobby).

James was determined to outdo the big companies, especially WotC. And, to him, this meant tossing aside what was expected. His books would be works of art. When his printing of McKinney’s Carcosa came out, it was shocking! Here was a beautifully bound book. The embossed cover felt decadent in your hands. The endpapers were not blank, but had hex maps on them. The high-quality binding meant it stayed open to the page you turned it to, and it didn’t crack and loose pages (like a certain PHB and MM of mine have done, not naming names, *cough*5e*cough*). It wasn’t full-color, and yet it still felt luxurious compared to the industry standard at the time (or even today, to be honest). It was a book that was meant to be used at the table and look gorgeous on a shelf. This was a book that was special, and you could tell that just by looking at it.

And Raggi wasn’t alone in this. We were told you could only hope to break even with six-digit print runs; OSR publishers printed high-quality books in the handful-of-thousands. We were told that print magazines were passé so Fight On! and others were created. We were told that boxed sets were too expensive and had lead to the death of TSR, so we got the Swords & Wizardry White Box, two boxed sets from Raggi, and, finally, when WotC got into the act, their boxed set looked like this!

The books of the OSR were experiments in usability, shrines for what we considered to be important in our hobby, and shots across the bow of a staid industry wallowing towards obsolescence. Probably the ultimate expression of this was Raggi’s hard-cover Free RPG Day offerings, each chock full of new, never-before-seen material, when everyone else was sending meager quick-start rules or thin pamphlet adventures.

I think there’s still a lot to be done with the book. I think Kiel’s Blood in the Chocolate is an amazing start, but I think we can push the functionality of the hardcover even further. I also think that electronic formats have been neglected by the OSR, and there’s lots of room for amazing things in that arena.

As for Noisms, he appears to see the high prices for these books as a gauntlet to be taken up. I very much look forward to seeing what he does as a shot across the bow of the rest of the OSR.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Why BX is the Best!

Got a copy of Moldvay's Basic D&D? Turn to page B16 and check out the Charm Person spell:

Any commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted, and an order to kill itself will be refused.

Emphasis added for what I hope are obvious reasons. This, I tell the young'ens, is how we differentiated between two fighters back in the day. If your character was a mercenary who'd gut his own grannie for a shaved copper, or a paragon of virtue who never raised a hand against the defenseless and the weak, mattered mechanically, and was specifically called out in the rules.

(Compare this to the rules in Gygax's AD&D Players Handbook, which do not reference habits or personality at all in resisting Charm Person or Mammal.)