Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Good, The Great, And The Greatest

I have had the pleasure over the past few weeks of partaking of a fabulous selection of films, both in theaters and at home.  Along with finally getting around to watching Children of Men, as well as re-watching District 9 last night, I saw three movies multiple times on which I would like to comment.  They are Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a good movie that achieves exactly what it was going for, Inception, a great movie that fails to achieve what it was going for, and Let The Right One In, a great movie that seems to achieve what it was going for superbly.

Scott Pilgrim is the most straight-forward to write about, so I will cover that one first.  I fell in love with the graphic novels a few months ago, and as such was primed to love this movie.  And love it I did, although I have no delusions that it is, in and of itself, any sort of classic, nor will it even achieve cult classic status.  It is a fine adaptation of the comic, and by-and-large nailed the tone and style perfectly, while making necessary sacrifices to the pacing in order to fit seven evil exes into two hours of film.  Like most reviews that I read, I found the action to get a bit tedious by the end, but the film seems to know when it’s starting to overstay its welcome.  I do highly recommend it to people who aren’t afraid of a little off-the-wall action and intelligent-sarcastic humor.

Inception, from what others have said, seems to be the most mind-blowing thing since the Matrix.  It is a strange film for me, as most films like it (ostensibly high-minded action films, such as the Matrix movies, V for Vendetta, Dark Knight and the like) seem to leave me emotionally satisfied directly following my first viewing, but break down upon closer examination.  Inception bucks this trend by leaving me wholly unsatisfied upon leaving the theater, feeling betrayed by what appeared to me to be an emotionally manipulative ending which lacked true profundity, while at the same time the pieces manifest into a cohesive whole in my head as time goes on and I further discuss the film and read reviews.  There are two ways I can look at this admittedly supurbly directed and acted film (although Christopher Nolan cannot direct vehicle sequences to save his life).  Either the director, Nolan, knew exactly what he was doing, and put the utmost care into placing every detail and bit of imagery, in which case I pretty much proscribe to the interpretation posited by this reviewer (warning, link contains spoilers), or he is extremely sloppy in his execution and description of the film’s internal logic, as he was with Dark Knight and, to a lesser extent, Batman Begins, and the ending is left ambiguous not because it carries any meaningful significance to the filmmakers, but because those kinds of endings are proven to illicit emotional responses from most audiences, regardless of their depth of meaning.  I may not be too cynical yet to give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here, although I feel that Shutter Island explored similar themes better, with a deeper performance by DiCaprio, and I trust Martin Scorsese to put more thought into the details than Christopher Nolan.  Regardless, Inception is a great film that should be seen, although I would urge you to watch it with a more critical eye than you might otherwise.

Now, and this is what I really wanted to get to, we move on to Let The Right One In.  Do you know the feeling of falling in love with a work of art?  Where after reading a book or watching a film or experiencing a piece of music for the first time, that piece permeates your mind, forcing you to look through the world through the lens of said work?  I believe the last time this happened to me was when I saw Psycho for the first time, almost two years ago, and fell in love.  I had similar experiences with Fritz Lang’s M, Isaac Asimov’s The Mule, and the entire Beatles’ catalog on that fateful night some years ago when my dad let me stay up well past my bedtime to listen to those records.  It’s an overwhelming desire to experience nothing but that work.  You wish that every movie or book or album were as good in all the same ways as Psycho.

This is what happened to me with Let The Right One In, the 2008 Swedish vampire film which deserves none of the scorn or apprehension that might come with the label “Swedish vampire film.”  This is a film that is not about vampires, at least not in the Twilight or even Dracula sense of the term.  It is not about what vampires do, or how people fight them, or what happens when a vampire moves in to the neighborhood.  It is more of a tone poem than a narrative, a meditation on what a vampire might represent, rather than how it might act.  It is the best directed film I have seen since Psycho and features a similarly tight economy of action, with nary a wasted frame.  It is an absolutely brilliant film, and I do not want to spoil anything in this so far relatively spoiler-free post, but I will say that I first watched it at 1 in the morning, and was very worried that I would have trouble sleeping after it.  Two hours later, I felt not dread or fear, but euphoria.  I have since watched it two more times, and plan on showing it to anybody who will watch.  It is, quite simply, a film that you can not afford not to see.

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World Action and Adventure (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pointless Tables)

On a recent visit to the mall to go see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which was very entertaining, despite including nothing from the last volume of the comics) I stopped in to one of those sports memorabilia stores that also has a small section of comic books and Magic: the Gathering cards and their ilk.  While there, I discovered this wonderful roleplaying supplement from 1985 for a game called World Action and Adventure.  This book is so obscure, I couldn’t even find a picture of the cover on the first 14 pages of Google Images.

We'll have to make due with Quasimodo (page 13)

The supplement, which is subtitled “Actor’s Book of Characters,” is not something that I would typically associate with a product named “World Action and Adventure.”  I mean, that’s a title that you look at, and you know exactly what you’re getting.  There’s gonna be action.  There’s gonna be adventure.  They’re going to be together.  The action is going to be… worldly?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that you can’t go about calling a game “World Action and Adventure,” and duping people expecting some manner of Indiana Jones-style romp through – well, the world, I guess – into purchasing a book filled with bland descriptions of different careers throughout the ages and various tables to aid players in selected said careers for their characters.

That’s right, it’s not enough to decide “I want my character to be a baseball player.”  Nope, you have to choose to be an athlete.  Then, you get to either roll on a table, or choose on the table, depending on the results rolled on a completely different table at the beginning of the book (of which there are seven, one of which the DM specifies at the beginning of the whole process).  Then you get to read such brilliant descriptions as, “Basketball can be a rough game.  The players there have the same span of years that they can play as their football counterparts.  But when a top basketball star is on the court, he is the highest paid professional athlete in the United States.  Earnings of one million per year are the rewards for the best of the basketball athletes.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love randomized character generation, but this whole thing is an exercise in pointlessness.  In “World Action and Adventure” (which, by the way, calls its players “actors,” calls the GM the “Action Guide,” and features a back-of-New-York-Times-bestselleresque picture of the game’s creator, Gregory L. Kinney, on what appears to be his yacht, wearing what appears to be an epically douchey expression) I want to roll up a character capable of taking on Nazis or fighting evil voodoo witch doctors, not accurately filing tax reports or executing a bitchin’ triple-axel (that’s a thing, right?).

If anyone has any information on this game or how it came about or who this G. Kinney guy is, it would be very much appreciated.  To give you the ultimate sense of how pretentious this book is, I leave you with the following quotes, which are taken in order, in their entirety, as presented on the “World Wisdom” page, which comes just after the table of contents:

“The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.” – John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

“One man with courage makes a majority.” – Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)

“Act well at the moment, and you have performed a good action to all eternity.” – Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) [I have this sinking suspicion that Kinney though he was talking about acting in the sense of theater, but I could just be projecting]

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island . . . and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” – Walt Disney (1901-1966)

“Patriotism is the same as the love of humanity.” – Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” – Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

“As life is action and passion, it is required of man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. [so perhaps Kinney used Action in the title simply in the sense of the act of doing anything, be it exciting or or otherwise?]

“God so loved the world . . .” – excerpt from John 3:16

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Red Boxalypse Now

[As a quick off-topic preamble, I am ridiculously proud of the title of this post.]

Mentzer's Basic D&D

While statistics tell me that apparently the best way to draw pageviews to my blog is to do nothing and let it stagnate in days-old posts, I’m afraid that that, in and of itself, is not a viable long-term approach to a successful blogging experience.  So I am forced to make comment on some recent events.  Namely, the upcoming release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, scheduled for September 7.  And I would just like to comment and how much that description has sparked my imagination already.  Group adventure material?  Several different character races?  6 polyhedral dice?  (Well, at least they have a little bit of Gygaxian verbosity in there, considering, you know, dice are polyhedral kind of by definition.  But that’s just the mathematician in me talking.)

So yeah, Wizard$ of the Coa$t (man, it’s so much easier to do that with T$R) have recently decided that the only good products, or at least the only products which will sell, are old products.  Along with that Starter Set, which harkens back to the classic Basic Set as compiled by Frank Mentzer, they have plans to release a Castle Ravenloft product and have already put out a book bearing the title Tomb of Horrors.  On the latter I have little to say, aside from the fact that it apparently has absolutely nothing to do with its namesake.  Of the former, I will note that the original Ravenloft was one of the first, if not the first, published modules that was heavily based on a plot rather than a mere dungeon crawl, with actual developed characters and motivations and possibly even roleplaying (well, as much as is possible to cram into a 32-page or so module).  So the natural way to pay homage to this classic is of course to release Castle Ravenloft as a mother-effin’ board game.

Sometimes WotC can be seen on their widow’s walk gazing out into the sea for hours on end, praying that the point will return.

So that’s that for classic modules.  But what about this Red Box thing?  I personally have very mixed feelings about this.  Trollsmyth seems excited at the prospect that the new set might attract older gamers who will then be led down the rabbit hole into the OSR.  I’m not so sure.  One of the problems facing the OSR is the general lack of coherency.  Note that this isn’t a problem just in and of itself, it is actually a very good thing in many respects, but for purposes of attracting converts, it is.  There is no hub around which we all gather, but merely a hodge-podge collection of blogs and products with, very broadly speaking, similar philosophies with respect to gaming.  Some (such as myself) might stumble upon one of these sites and find themselves intrigued, clicking around until they are following [quick check-up on my OSR bookmarks folder] 34 blogs and playing, or at least wanting to play, one or two old school products themselves.  I believe the majority, however, will be overwhelmed with the shotgun approach the OSR has towards its public face.

WotC's "D&D"

WotC's "D&D"

Which is totally OK.  If it were any different, it would not be the OSR we all know and love.  Dragonsfoot is the closest thing we have to a communal hub, and that is fine.  That’s what we are.  It is very difficult to market the OSR to those who are not already in the know, and it will always be until we have some product that is fairly consistently on the shelves in gaming stores alongside D&D and World of Darkness.

On the other hand, it may be that we underestimate the kids these days.  While it is true that many of the people that make up the current OSR grew up with the Mentzer Red Box or earlier games, this is not a requirement to be a successful old school roleplayer.  Take me for example.  I am young (19), particularly by OSR standards.  Many in the OSR seem to believe that the only people who love old school products are old grognards who grew up with those games and only know better because they weren’t spoon-fed all the newfangled shite that WotC has been putting out.  But this is my Red Box.

The 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons “Adventure Game.”  And it sucked!  It came with about 8 pre-generated characters, and rules to bring them all the way up to level 2 (Level 2! In 3rd Edition!  That’s 14 encounters, by the book!)  There was one poster-sized foldout map that had a dungeon on one side, and a blank grid on the other.  There were six supplied “adventures,” which were all just monsters set up in certain places within the dungeon where the PCs could come and kill them.  There were no rules of character creation.  The grid-map and the little counters that came with it cemented in my mind for years that D&D should be played with miniatures on a grid, and combat could not possibly be played out any other way.

But I loved it!  There was a blank dungeon map that had all the same rooms as the fold-out version, and I would make copies of it and key it in so many times.  I created dungeons, towns, I believe I even did a tavern once, all with the exact same layout, just with different monsters.  When I later got the three core rulebooks, I simply added new monsters from the Monster Manual.  Never traps though.  For some reason, to this day, I am utterly incompetent when it comes to setting up traps.

But eventually, I grew out of this.  When reading through the books (and yes, I read through those books cover to cover, even the Skills and the Feats section, something for which I would never have the patience or time today), I was promised that I could do anything I wanted, that I could write adventures any way I wanted.  But for my ideas to work, I would often find that they required something very specific to be done with the rules, requiring either a very specific combination of powers or spells, or in the case of campaign building, specific races and classes that had to be included or the game would become “unbalanced.”  I grew increasingly frustrated with not being able to do what I wanted because of the rules.

Somewhere along the line, probably during one of my early forays into researching the history of the hobby (I am kind of obsessed with knowing the origins of everything I am interested in), something clicked, and I realized that just because there are rules, does not mean that I have to play by them.  This is the mindset that ultimately led me down the road into the OSR, which is filled with likeminded people who often change or completely ignore rules to fit their campaigns.  I became, as a result of my own personality and the constrictiveness (constriction?) of WotC’s rules, a 19-year-old grognard.

So I believe that, for people with a certain personality, they will find a way into RPGs.  If that way happens to be WotC’s latest tabletop MMORPG that happens to be called Dungeons & Dragons, that’s fine.  If they are the type of person who would prefer the old school, they will find the old school.  As long as the published D&D products inspire just enough to get people excited about endless possibilities, while simultaneously stifling that excitement with the rules as written, the OSR will have initiates.

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Noble Intentions

In the October 1986 issue of Dragon magazine (issue #114), one of the letters to the editor voices concerns about the upcoming second edition of the game and how it will make all previous products obsolete.  Here’s a little sample of Zeb Cook’s (lead designer for 2E) reply:

I know many players have made a sizable investment in the AD&D game and that we are asking you to change your investment. We are looking at ways of keeping your costs down.  Central to the current plan is to keep the core of the game down to two books, one of player’s information and one for the DM. . . The 2nd Edition is in no way an attempt to rob you.

Yeah, because if there’s one thing that 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons represents it’s devotion to the customers and the love of quality, thoroughly playtested and not-at-all-money-whoring product lines.

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Variant Rules: Curvy Battleship

Here’s one for all you Battleship afficionados out there.  A nice set of variant rules to spice up an old classic and add all new levels of strategy and depth to an already highly entertaining game.  Battleship, I feel, is an underappreciated gem of old school wargaming, and one with a general lack of variants and mods.

The way Curvy Battleship works is thus. Each player still has the 5 classic ships (I will use the following names and numbers of pegs, Patrol Boat – 2, Submarine – 3, Destroyer – 3, Battleship – 4, Carrier – 5).  However, rather than representing the ships with the traditional game pieces, each ship is represented by white “miss” pegs. This requires that the player remembers exactly which peg corresponds to spots on which ship, but this is a mild inconvenience, and it is necessary considering the one major difference between Classic and Curvy Battleship.

Curvy Battleship ships, as may be deduced from the title, need not conform to the traditional straight shape, but can turn, at will, to any adjacent square.  That is to say, a carrier may occupy any 5 squares, as long as each peg is adjacent to the previous peg. This path can curve diagonally as well.

I played a great game of this earlier today with Kevin, with whom I developed this variant, and lost handily, falling to his strategy of mostly ignoring the curvy rules, and misleading me with straight ships (which quite goes against his character). The fact that my ships resembled a certain recognizable yet mostly inappropriate pattern probably also helped spell my demise.

I am only half-joking.

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