Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Consider Phlebas? I'd Rather Not, Thanks.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

I’ve been hearing about Banks’ Culture novels for some time now. Whenever someone brings up neat future cultures or anthropology in sci-fi, Banks gets mentioned right along C.J. Cherryh, so I’ve been meaning to get to these for a while. I’ve also been warned that the first one, Consider Phlebas, isn’t very good. It’s Banks’ first sci-fi novel, and pales considerably next to the other books in the series. I’ve been told it’s more “Culture adjacent” rather than a true Culture novel itself. I’ve been told I can skip it.

I was told I should skip it.

I should have listened.

It starts off promising enough: a shape-shifting secret agent is chained to the wall of a dungeon after having been found out while impersonating an important member of a planet’s ruling gerontocracy. Looks like a great opening to a rollicking Planetary Romance, right?

Only the dungeon is built beneath the privies of a great feast, and he is sentenced to be drowned in the poo of those attending the feast. It’s a death as impractical as it is juvenile. Just how many people are attending this feast?

It doesn’t get any better. You’d expect the special agents of dueling star empires to ooze competence, if not a certain savoir faire (especially since one is from the magical and amazing Culture). Nope, everyone in this story is a bumbling incompetent. One character attempts to disguise themselves by doing nothing but changing their hair color. Another character nearly manages to escape. I can’t remember if that failed escape attempt results in any deaths, but nothing is done to prevent further attempts, which do lead to the death of a handful of characters.

Nearly everybody dies gruesome, ugly deaths. Even the “victor” of the novel’s events is so disgusted with the whole mess that they commit suicide.

The world building is pretty meh as well. Twice, Banks throws up his hands at attempting to explain why the characters are behaving they way they are and just blames it on religion. What these characters are doing is, in one instance, stupid, self-destructive, painful, and literally counter to basic biological instincts, but hey, it’s ok, because religion makes people that impossibly stupid. And what in the world does retirement even mean to a nigh-immortal AI living in a post-scarcity society?

The result is a long, rambly mess that feels like an attempt to write Heart of Darkness as a sci-fi novel. Yeah. It’s that bad.

I will eventually get to later Culture novels, as I’m still curious. But this one put me off my feed enough I’m going to wait a bit before I do so. Blah.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Witcher Series

I was going to call it a TV series, but since it's on Netflix is it really TV? I suppose the format is very similar.

The series is ok. I've not played the games or read the books, so it might be goring sacred cows left and right. I've watched six of the eight episodes. The tone is all over the place. Bits are so baldly comedic they feel like they were lifted from that old Wizards and Warriors TV show. Other parts have that ugly darkness you'd expect from the IP's reputation. The CGI ranges from nicely subtle to laughably bad. Ditto for the casting and for the costuming. It keeps trying to have emotional payoff without actually earning it. I fear fans are going to be horribly disappointed, but I'm enjoying it (though chiefly as fun but disposable entertainment).

Henry Cavill's a bit one-note as Geralt, but he oozes charisma. He's not nearly as interesting, however, as either Ciri or Yennefer. Though watching Yennefer flail about with sword and dagger seems a bit meh after you've seen her do all this. I mean, how the heck is Netflix supposed to top death by magical raven punching its way through someone's skull?

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Stat Blocks and Table Space

On a post from 2015, Ruprecht recently asked:

I'm curious what people think about the way the modules are handled. They just say Knight (for example) and the DM is expected to look up the Knight statblock in the back of the monster manual. This is brilliant to save space but seems less useful at the table.

This is easily one of the areas where OSR publications stomp all over WotC's stuff: ease of use at the table. An A5 size book with a good binding is easy to use and doesn't eat up nearly the table real estate that 5e's core books and adventures take up. Plus, in the best OSR stuff, the stat blocks and maps are all there on one page for you.

Compare to trying to run an official 5e adventure. You'll have the adventure itself, a big coffee-table tome with the adventure itself. And you'll be flipping back-and-forth because the maps are pages away from the keyed descriptions. And, as Ruprecht points out, you'll also want the MM with you to look up any foes the PCs might encounter.

But wait, there's more! Because you'll also need the PHB so you can look up the details on the spells everyone is going to be casting. And maybe Xanathar's as well, if someone is using stuff from that book. Luckily, you'll only need to flip back and forth in the MM if the encounter includes more than one type of monster. You'll be flipping a bit in the adventure book, and a LOT in the PHB. (Gift idea for the DM in your life: a pad of post-its they can use to mark important pages in all these books!) Which means your DM is going to be taking up twice to three-times the space of a player. Oh, wait, but we forgot about any notes the DM might have written down. Or space to roll dice!

This is extremely sub-optimal, but unlikely to change. Current RPG tastes dictate the complex stat blocks and rules, as well as the honkin' big books as the standard for AAA RPGs (and this is after WotC made a big deal about simplifying D&D).

Due to the extreme unwieldiness and generally meh contents, I've not felt the need to run one of the official adventures. But I do know people who are, and I can probably get some more info from them on how they're finding it.

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?