Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What is Generic Fantasy Now?

So, I have to somewhat disagree with this:

As far as I am aware it has long been established that the game worlds of any Dungeons & Dragons game is essentially a quasi-Medieval world wherein the concepts of Arthurian and Tolkien fantasy hold sway over the possibilities available to the players.

This has not quite been my experience, though what was my experience may be leading me to split hairs.

Ok, I believed it, or hoped it could be, when I first started playing in the early ‘80s. My games were a mish-mash of Saturday-morning cartoons, Tolkien, Lewis, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. Problem was, the only part of that mish-mash that really worked was Saturday-morning cartoons.

Tolkien and Lewis depend on a setting where morality is literally woven into the landscape. The alignment system kinda helps to achieve that, but it’s a clunky tool that few love and fewer enjoy. Otherwise, TSR-era D&D was too enamored with looting and WotC-era D&D is too enamored with combat to map well to either Tolkien and Lewis, whose heroes spend most of their time avoiding combat whenever possible. And there’s waaaaaaay too much magic, even in early TSR-era D&D, to get anything like the Robin Hood or King Arthur feel.

I spent years trying to pound the square peg of AD&D into the round hole of Tolkien and A Young Boy’s King Arthur. Finally, in junior high, I played with a DM I hadn’t trained. He’d clearly read Fritz Leiber (which I hadn’t yet), and his adventures flowed smoothly, working in harmony with the rules. It was an eye-opening experience and completely transformed the way I played the game.

D&D has always been more of a Saturday-morning cartoon, kitchen-sink sort of assumed setting. In spite of everyone talking about “a quasi-Medieval world” the assumed setting described by the equipment is actually late Renaissance, with its pikes and halberds and plate-mail armor, lacking only the occasional arquebus (which was in 2e’s basic equipment list) to complete the picture. And variations far from that theme have always been a part of D&D, from the spaceships and lasers of “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” to the katanas and ogre-magi of “Oriental Adventures” to the genie-folk and mamluks of Al-Qadim to the pseudo-Victorian slang of Planescape to the steampunk art-deco stylings of Eberron.

Still, the author is correct in that most folks don’t want those out-there settings. They want something more familiar, more plug-and-play with everyone’s expectations. However, those expectations have little to do with Tolkien or the Arthurian legends. Yes, there are some trappings lifted wholesale from those sources, but they are only two sources, and they look nothing like our games. As the author says:

Tavern,
Dungeon,
Orcs,
Goblins,
Dragons,
Treasures,
Repeat.

So, which taverns did King Arthur and his knights hang out in? Trick question; they didn’t. They stayed in the castles of other knights when they were not roughing it in the wilderness in magical silk pavilions that provided for all their needs. The only tavern I can remember being mentioned by name in any of the Middle Earth stories is the Prancing Pony. The only dungeon is Moria (maybe Shelob’s lair, though the movies made far more of that than the book did). The Knights of the Round Table almost always met their foes in the open, at crossroads or on the list field. They dared the occasional magical castle, but these looked far more like old-school funhouse dungeons, with bridges made of swords and fighting animated statues.

Orcs and goblins are found in profusion in both Tolkien and D&D, but they bare only surface resemblance to one another. D&D’s orcs completely lack the metaphysical implications of Tolkien’s twisted elves, and have morphed into a weird, green caricature of British soccer hooligans, slow-witted jocks, and tribal Nazis with maybe a sprinkling of noble savage.

Dragons are few and far between in Tokien’s popular stories, having only one in The Hobbit and being completely absent from The Lord of the Rings. You find few in most tellings of the Arthurian legends.

As for treasures, D&D’s generic gold pieces, swords +3, and healing potions are blandly utilitarian compared to storied blades like Orcrist and Excalibur, enchanted girdles that protect from all harm, the Arkenstone, the Palantir, Morgul blades, Isolde’s love potion, or the Holy Grail.

What most folks expect in a D&D game isn’t Tolkien or King Arthur, but instead a brand new thing sometimes called “gaming fantasy.” It’s pretty much what you find in World of Warcraft and the like, and it’s heavily based on the bare-bones, utilitarian basics of D&D. It’s also got a healthy heaping of Ren Faire tropes, Greek and Norse mythology, and an endless parade of Tolkien knock-offs that were pale imitations of the original (Shannara, I’m soooo looking at you). These are worlds where combat is frequent, looting bodies is a steady job, and anti-social behavior is shrugged off, so long as the “right folks” are doing it.

And yes, it’s so cliché as to be boring now. But if you want to escape it, you could just simply run something with more fidelity to Tolkien or the Arthurian myths. But after my personal experience, I’d not suggest you use D&D in those games.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder (Why They Bothered) Woman

Back when the trailers for the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie were embedding “Hooked on a Feeling” in everyone’s ears, there was a joke making the rounds in nerd circles:
DC: Well, we’d really love to do a Wonder Woman movie, but her background is too complex and would confuse audiences.

Marvel: Look, a raccoon with a machine gun!
Clearly, DC never overcame their fear of confusing the audience, because the Wonder Woman movie we got is painfully paint-by-the-numbers:

  1. Introduce Diana as a cute, precocious child who wants to fight! But her mom is a worry-wort stick-in-the-mud. Diana learns to fight anyway.
  2. Diana has a mysterious past! A past that remains mysterious through the entire movie because everyone who tells the story has an ulterior motive for doing so. Yeah, I know, golden lasso. Tell that to Saruman and Denethor with their Palantirs.
  3. Diana rescues handsome man of questionable behavior but with a heart of gold who just happens to be of suitable age for marriage. Awkward sexual tension (mostly played for cheap jokes) ensues.
  4. Diana defies! She defies everyone (her mom, early 20th century propriety, the military realities of the first World War) except modern-day Hollywood’s sensibilities.
  5. Cute guy dies in noble self-sacrifice! (Because only Supes is allowed a long-term relationship.)
  6. Reflecting on handsome guy’s self-sacrifice suddenly makes Diana’s special effects more powerful than generic upper-crust-brit villain’s special effects.
  7. The struggle continues (but just what it is she’s struggling against or for remains impenetrably vague).

Script-wise, this movie just doesn’t cut it. Which Is a shame because a lot really works well here. You’re always entertained. The performances are a lot of fun (often in spite of the lame script). The action sequences are top-notch. The pacing is good. Runtime is 2.5 hours, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

But the script never does the heavy-lifting to support its ending. At no point do we feel a strong enough connection between Diana and the Yank to justify the act of simply dwelling on him giving her any sort of insight or opening untapped wells of inner strength. Hell, at no point do we get the feeling that Diana trusts, respects, or even really likes the guy much. There’s a kinda-sorta hinted-at sex scene in the second act that you’d miss if you blinked, and it never comes up again in any way, shape, or form. We don’t even get the usual morning-after sweet-awkward smiles or anything.

So his sacrifice leads her to slaughter a bunch of faceless Germans. But when she’s presented with a German who very much has a face and a name, suddenly she decides she believes in love and her FX are more powerful than the villain’s FX because… reasons?

It doesn’t hold together at all. Maybe if the Yank had been more respectable, or had a family he was leaving behind, or we’d seen some sparks between him and Diana, the sacrifice thing might have made sense. But he’s none of those things because one of the big themes is that humanity is deeply flawed.

Which is the other fumbled ball of this movie. The whole time, they keep hinting that Ares isn’t a completely unreasonable jerk, that he understands humanity better than the other gods did, that perhaps he even has a point. But nope, he actually is just a jerk who gets off on goading humanity into larger and more destructive wars.

(Which, incidentally, makes the post-fight scenes very confusing. Everyone’s friends now? So it really was Ares clouding everyone’s minds? Does that mean the second World War never happens in the DC universe? It’s certainly implied in those moments of everyone helping each other as the sun rises behind a victorious Wonder Woman.)

So Ares is defeated when Diana decides humanity is worth saving because… reasons. Reasons never explained and certainly not supported by the rest of the movie. Especially since the movie very clearly says that Ares is right about humans, but apparently wanting to wipe them all out for it is wrong because… reasons.

Philosophically, the movie is a complete mess. Which renders the end nothing more than a clash between special effects, visually interesting but incomprehensible. How and why anything happens is utterly hidden from the audience, and you’re left with nothing but the needs of the paint-by-numbers plot. At the very, very end, Diana gives us a generic, “I must continue the struggle!” monologue, but as she’s leaping out of the Louvre, flying through the air, we have no idea what she’s going to fight against. There’s vague talk about creating a world that could be, but the only visions of such a world are the all-female paradise of the Amazons and Ares’ dream of a human-free Eden. Exactly what Diana’s goals are in the modern world and how she plans to achieve them… Nope! She’s a super-hero. Doing super-hero things. Because… reasons!