Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Wow! It was fun! It was exciting! It was everything Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t!

This was easily one of the prettiest Star Wars movies ever. Maybe a bit too pretty; when we first saw Snokes’ throne room, I thought it looked like a dance stage, something from a ‘50’s film where we’d see a large, choreographed number. “Ah ha!” I thought. “We’ll be seeing a big lightsaber duel in this room.”

I was mostly right. Completely right for certain definitions of “lightsaber duel.”

Yeah, there will be spoilers below.

This film does have issues. It’s embarrassed by lots of things. It’s embarrassed to be an action-adventure movie and self-flagellates over the excesses of the genre. It’s embarrassed to be the movie following The Force Awakens, though I have to admit, the digs it takes at that film are some of my favorite moments.

The point is, it’s not the free-wheeling swashbuckler the original three were. A bit too much of Rogue One’s earnest war movie has rubbed off on it. Still, it’s not nearly as heavy as that one was, and our heroes get to be heroic and our villains get to be vile. It just has to make a big plot point out of the issue of all the people dying for the cause, where a New Hope deftly encompasses the issue with tension in the Rebel control room and a look of fear and shock and loss on Luke’s face when Biggs dies. I understand; there’s been a lot of big blockbuster action films with massive body counts. People die left and right in Valerian and hardly anyone seems to notice most of the time. And it does give Poe a nice arc from hero to officer. But Lucas did it far more gracefully in ’77.

Like Episode VII, VIII still feels stupidly small. In the original trilogy, the Empire was a freakin’ empire, with a military force capable of subduing a galaxy. Entire star systems slipped through Gran Mof Tarkin’s squeezing fingers. The battle of Hoth involved hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, pilots, support personnel, etc.

The First Order feels like its got maybe two dozen starships; the entirety of the Resistance fits in the Falcon at the end of the movie. Neither side has the industrial infrastructure to produce their own armaments and end up buying their weapons from the same dealers. (Kinda makes you wonder why the Order hasn’t just said, “Hey, you know, these tie fighters are totally naff. Let’s just buy a bunch of those totally boss x-wings and paint ‘em black and white.”) When the Resistance sends out its message asking for help and nobody responds, the truth becomes obvious: nobody else cares. The Resistance vs. the Order feels like a slap-fight between the last vestiges of two once-glorious powers now deep into their respective sunsets.

But let’s be honest: the action in this film is top notch. Not only is it obvious what is happening, it’s obvious why it’s happening. We can see the move and counter-move of both sides and we know why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’ll admit, I wasn’t always sure how they were doing what they were doing; the whole hyperspace tracking thing felt odd and full of Geordi-speak, but even worse was the Order targeting the cloaked Resistance shuttles. Maybe they explained how the thief guy learned that while I was in the bathroom? (Hey, it’s a 2.5 hour movie, cut me some slack!) And there’s waaaaaay too much characters not telling each other things for no good reason.

Beyond those little quibbles, we know why the fights take place and the strategies employed make sense. When Kylo turns on Snoke, when the Order brings a big gun to the planet to blast through the massive doors and the Resistance flies out on outdated gear to destroy it first, when Luke strides out to buy time for the escape, we know what’s at stake. Even when Poe launches an attack at the Order’s dreadnaught and then gets castigated by Lea for it, we understand why he did what he did and why Lea took issue with it.

And then there are the lightsaber duels. The one in Snoke’s throne room was lovely and fit in perfectly with the duels we’ve seen after the original trilogy: dance-like choreography and spectacle galore. But it’s the Kylo/Luke duel at the end which is the real thing, worthy of standing beside the lightsaber duels of the original trilogy. It’s not about killing but things far more important than mere life and death. It takes place on a plane elevated from all the military hardware and mere lightsaber technique. For that reason alone, I’m miffed that Luke is relegated to the role of Force ghost in IX. Yeah, ok, moping for however many years on his island is lame, but everything else about this Luke, from his frustration with Jedi tradition to his old-guy been-there-done-that attitude, to his disgust with fame, is awesome! I want more adventures of old-fart Luke and I’m really, really annoyed I’m not gonna get ‘em.

Luke vs. Kylo was not quite the Luke/Darth fights, but wow! The magic is back.

I can’t way to see episode IX!

Next time: Everything wrong with Vice-admiral Purple Hair, where everyone I didn’t piss off with this post gets to hate me. 😉

UPDATE: more thoughts on the teeny tiny stage this movie takes place on.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Cheaters Never Prosper Until They Stop Playing D&D

There’s an interesting discussion about cheating over at the Farsight Blogger. I can absolutely understand a player who’d quit because they can’t cheat. That’s a player who probably shouldn’t have been playing D&D in the first place.

If you must always win, if you find missing boring but don’t find always hitting boring, if the thought of your character being tied to a chair and interrogated like James Bond in just about every movie in the franchise leaves you cold, then you should be looking to games other than D&D and the many, many others built on a similar chassis, for your RPGing fun.

The Cypher System puts nearly all the mechanical heavy-lifting in the hands of the players, allowing them to effectively purchase success. The Leverage RPG assumes the PCs are hyper-competent individuals who simply do not fail. No matter how badly you roll, you succeed. A poor roll just means a new complication has arisen and must be dealt with. Further along that spectrum are GMless games that give narrative power to the players, allowing the group to dictate what does and doesn’t happen during a game.

D&D, and the many games built in its image, embraces randomness and chaos. As many have pointed out (and complained about) in the past, the d20 is an incredibly swingy thing to build a core mechanic on. Out of 100 rolls, even the best swordsman, the slickest thief, and most knowledgeable wizard is going to roll a 1 an average of five times. Stack critical success and fumble rules on top of that and you’ve got a recipe geared heavily towards the random, the zany, and the unexpected, rather than the competency porn of other games.

D&D is about the unexpected, the unplanned, the curve ball that came out of nowhere. It’s the anticipation as everyone waits with baited breath while the die bounces across the table. It’s the sure-thing that was whiffed and the long-shot that connected.

This is why pages and pages of random tables make sense in D&D. These are the crazy props you toss to the improv troupe that is your game to see what they’ll come up with this time. A world built from randomly generated hobgoblins eating pie and drunk PCs making clumsy passes at witches.

I have often said that when you’re rolling the dice you’re not playing the game. That’s not the same thing as saying the dice are not important to the game. If your game is D&D, the dice, and the randomness they bring, are vital. If you don’t like that, there are many, many games that will be more fun for you than D&D.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Why You Should Pay for Xanathar's Guide to Everything

Which isn’t to say that you must go out and buy it today! This isn’t a review of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. If you’re curious and want to know if the stuff in the book is good for your campaign, well, the first hit is free.

Those links don’t go to torrent sites or dodgy Russian pirate servers. They go to official WotC D&D pdfs. Specifically, they go to what are called Unearthed Arcana articles. They’ve been cranking these out on their web page for years now and while some are fluffy bits of “here’s what’s happening in our campaigns,” most of it is new not-yet-official material to be trialed by players. The WotC team follows up occasionally with surveys asking what folks think of the content, in addition to reading what folks say on forums or just straight email to them, and stuff that needs and warrants it will get revised and republished in a new form.

This, of course, is a huge boon for D&D. The WotC team keeps in touch with their players, material gets a strong shakedown before “official” publication, and the players who want it have a constant stream of new material to inject into their games.

So what’s this got to do with the Xanathar’s book? Just about all the content in that book has seen the light of day before, either in free pdf format (like the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion) or as Unearthed Arcana articles. Which means, technically, you could cobble together your own copy of Xanathar’s from the various free sources still available from WotC.

So why buy the book? First, you’d have to do a lot of hunting for the stuff you wanted, plus you’d have to make sure what you find is the latest version. Second, there have been some “tweaks” to the material before final publication. (Just how serious those tweaks have been, I can’t say, but what I have seen mostly looks fairly minimal to me.)

But more than that, you’d be supporting the ongoing effort to create the content for the book.

Way back when, Mearls told us that they were tossing the old hardback-a-month game plan in the trash and exploring alternative methods for supporting an RPG line. What they have adopted appears to take full advantage of the diversity of D&D players.

Traditionally, we’ve seen two sorts of D&D players. The first set are the young folks with lots of time and no money. These are your pre-car teens and your college students, who have very flexible schedules, lots of time on their hands, and lots of people in their social circles in the exact same situation. These folks are perfect play-testers for the Unearthed Arcana material. Most play at least once a week minimum. It’s easy for them to keep up with the latest UA articles and pump tens of hours into playtesting what’s new.

Of course, it costs WotC money to do this. Material needs to be written and published. Feedback needs to be solicited and combed through for useful data. Then revisions need to be made and republished, and the cycle begins again.

So WotC collects this tested and improved material, commissions art for it, and publishes it as a book. And the other sorts of players, usually older fans with jobs and families and such, who have lots of money but not much time, can pay for all the UA work by buying the book.

I personally love this system. The lots-of-time-and-no-money folks get lots of free content, though they have to deal with the fact that some of that content isn’t ready for prime time (or is, in fact, kinda bad). The no-time-and-lots-of-money folks get a book full of play-tested material focused on content that players can actually use in their games. WotC is using their customers who have cash but don’t have the time to generate tons of their own content anymore to support the games of players with lots of time to try new ideas, crash those ideas hard, and help cobble together better ones from all the bits. And the gamers with cash get the benefit of these improved ideas to plug right into their game.

It’s too early to tell if this is the sort of virtuous cycle you can build an empire out of, but it’s certainly a better way to support an RPG. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.