Oscar Wilde, who would play in a Monsterhearts game. If that couldn’t generate major humour and drama, nothing could.
[Note: If you’re not familiar with games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the terminology in this post will likely make no sense.]
This weekend I took my turn as game-master for the second duty station in our Night Witches campaign. Published by Bully Pulpit Games and Powered by the Apocalypse, Night Witches is a role-playing game about the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. (Edmund’s notes on the campaign are here.) By default, it assumes that the GM duties will rotate every time the regiment switches duty station or when someone’s player character is taken out of the action by events, injuries, or death.
I was willing to take my turn despite my current work load because I know that there was pretty much no preparation involved, and because I’ve run other PbtA games. To be honest, the Apocalypse-based games are not that different from the way I approach GMing in general, except that its techniques are codified and integrated into the mechanics, whereas I just use them free-form. I’m referring, in particular to idea of not planning where the action will go but letting it unfold by itself, generated by the PCs’ actions and the dice rolls.
In my typical games, this involves focusing the story on the consequences of the players’ choices, a logical if-then-else loop iterating constantly. In PbtA games, this is anchored mechanically by the results of certain moves triggering other moves; Vincent Baker called this, in his original Apocalypse World, the “Moves Snowball.” Night Witches is designed to have a lot of that snowballing, especially with the night (bombing mission) moves. Once a PbtA game starts snowballing, you can just let it roll down to its logical conclusion, which makes the GM’s job easy.
In our first episode at the training duty station, Engels Aerodrome, we rolled plenty of middling or low dice results which kept us snowballing. But at Trud Gornyaka, the dice rolled magnificently for the first two missions, which unfolded in textbook fashion (flight manual kind of textbook, not GMing!) The snowball simply wouldn’t start rolling because the airwomen succeeded at every piloting and navigation roll.
But at least, they had lower dice rolls during the day, which got me a chance to start brewing a conflict between Maryam and Sveta on the one hand, and the Deputy Politruk on the other. We wanted to go through a third mission during the episode so we could be halfway through the stay at this duty station, and we wanted it to be one of the two missions for Trud Gornyaka which provide advancement for the PCs.
To shake things loose and provide some adversity, I use the Deputy Politruk’s enmity and the poor supply situation described as reigning at Trud Gornyaka to send the Section out during daytime to fetch supplies, thus limiting their opportunities to gather mission points, forcing them to deal with lack of sleep and German flights, and generally putting the airwomen on the defensive a bit.
Sure enough, the last mission (with only one point in the mission pool!) was a nail biter. As soon as they fell short due to lack of mission points, the snowball started. In the end, all three planes that had gone out on that mission were totalled, three NPC airwomen were killed, and all three PCs (Maryam, Sveta, and Elena) were wounded. They earned their advancement, and the undying resentment of the Deputy Politruk…
The thing that I found interesting as a GM is that despite the mechanical elements favouring the moves snowball, I still had to nudge it along (like a real GM and stuff.) It suddenly felt a little arbitrary to make a hard move without being specifically directed! Yet it was in fact relying on the results of (disastrous) daytime moves, so it was in the spirit of the game. I had no guidelines for how to treat daytime flying, which moves to use. Since they didn’t have any bombs to drop during the supply run, I had them roll Tempt Fate to escape the German patrols.
The conclusion from all this is that even with the built-in moves snowball, the GM has to remain mindful of the fiction, of its cause-and-consequence flow, in order to provide sufficient challenge to make the game fun for the players.
Happy New Year, peeps! On the 1st of the year we had a wonderful Japanese-style dinner with our friends, on the 2nd I worked, on the 3rd we played board games with another friend visiting from Seattle. But today—today we kicked off the movie year! We went to see Tsui Hark’s new movie, The Taking of Tiger Mountain.
TL;DR: It’s awesome.
This sounded like a somewhat improbable endeavour: it’s based on a piece of Cultural Revolution-era propaganda. First a book by novelist Qu Bo (a.k.a. Chu Po), Tracks in the Snowy Forest (1957), itself based on a real 1946 incident, which became the basis for a sanctioned Peking opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, that became one of the Cultural Revolution’s eight model plays.
I don’t know about you, but Maoist propaganda does not usually rise to the top of my list of things I want to watch, so I was a little wary, but hey—Tsui Hark deserves being given a chance, right? So we went to a matinee show in; we’re lucky that the Daly City Century 20 theatre shows international blockbusters, not just American ones.
The plot: in 1946 during the Chinese Civil War, a small reconnaissance force of the People’s Liberation Army (communist) fights a local gang of bandits in the northern mountains and protects the local villagers; one scout poses as a bandit to infiltrate Lord Hawk’s gang and set up the final fight.
Tsui Hark does a wonderful job of meshing the Chinese tropes of action films, traditional storytelling, and communist propaganda. There are homages and send-offs, adaptations and transpositions, and excitement throughout. The acting, photography, fight choreography, sets, and special effects are impeccable. The music combines swelling suspense movie music with corny-as-all-hell but rousing patriotic anthems.
There is not only ample bullet time but knife time, grenade time, mortar shell time, etc… So yeah, this is a violent movie and you don’t want to bring kids there. But it’s stylish violence, if you see what I mean. And the heroes are good, merciful, dutiful, and brave; there are lots of interesting support characters to follow. The villains are classic wuxia villains, over-the-top and all very distinctive.
Some reviewers have expressed surprise that Hark was doing propaganda, but I see it differently; it’s classic Hark, where duty is more important than authority, and the heroes actually fight for one another and for the people.
In case you can’t tell because I’m being too demure: I loved this movie.
Edmund and I just saw the South Korean epic, The Admiral: Roaring Currents this afternoon. Right now it’s only playing in a few North American theatres (fewer than 50), despite having done incredibly well in South Korea — more than 15 million admissions and the first local film to gross more than US$100 million. If you have a chance to catch it, I highly recommend it.
I found this movie exciting, vivid,and easy to follow despite its large cast and Korean and Japanese dialogue. The visuals are impeccable and meticulous; there is so much to see, so many details to notice and enjoy. Every frame has a tactile quality to it, you feel it must be real — even the CGI parts.
This is an unusual movie for me to like so much, because it’s a war movie, and it only has one female character (mute, at that!) Yet it was so well paced and so gorgeous that I was swept along (ha-ha.) I’ll be honest, I usually get very confused when I watch war movies; after a while, I just can’t remember who is who and why they’re so angry (viz.: Saving Private Ryan.) But here, in part thanks to the distinctive uniforms and banners of the Korean and Japanese forces, I had no trouble at all despite the complexities of the naval battle. Speaking of which, I felt that Admiral Yi Sunshin’s plans and tactics unfolded at the perfect rate for my brain to catch up with: “Oh, yeah, so that’s what he’s trying to do!”, step by step.
A small detail that helped: the subtitles were very clean, crisp, and legible, and scrolled at the right rate for me to read. There were a few grammatical errors and typos, but nothing egregious. The sound quality was excellent, with a rich auditory landscape that added to the visual textures to complete the sense of reality, of being there. The music was epic and perfectly supported the mood. I felt that this was a momentous time, in a way that few would-be epic movies convey so thoroughly.
In short, I really enjoyed this movie. Good for: history buffs, fans of epic action sagas, those who love portrayals of great leaders tormented by doubt. Bad for: viewers who flinch at gore, people who hate subtitles.
Another of those memes on Facebook, just a little thing to get people talking about their favourite directors and pay homage. Dominick DiGregorio assigned me Akira Kurosawa, that’s a true friend!
So four things I have to say: (1) Akira Kurosawa was a master of his art, incredibly creative and perfectionist, who influenced the film medium so much that every time I (re-)watch one of his movies I feel I’m understanding more about the development of cinema in the mid-to-late 20th century. (2) He made 30 movies and I have not seen nearly enough of them. (3) Every one I’ve seen, though, has been well worth it. (4) My favourite is Seven Samurai (1954), it’s one of those movies which I never get tired of, along with Casablanca, Amadeus, or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
This weekend I sat down with five friends to play Fiasco; since the game is for 2-5 players, Edmund was kind enough to act as facilitator for the rest of us. We played Pete Douglas’ free playset “Bravazzo”:
Bravazzo! is set in the Italian city-state of Ferrara in 1435 at the dawning of the Renaissance. It fuses together the vain ambitions of the nobility, the desperate brutality of the peasantry, the venal profiteering of the merchants, and the mystical corruption of the priesthood in a con-fuse-ion of double-dealing, back-stabbing, empire building, and courtly intrigue at a time when the Reason of Man was slowly emerging from the darkness of the Middle Ages. Players will assume the roles of corrupt bishops, murderous nobility, ambitious bankers, pious priests, desperate brigands, virginal maidens, and coarse peasants, in a sordid medieval fiasco.
We set up the following characters: Father Benedetti (Steve W.), confessor to the rich and powerful.
François de la Porte (Paul), spy and duellist.
Lady Armida di Aramonte de Firenze (Maureen), artist and spy master.
Count Luigi Bacciagalupi (Steve P.), noble dilettante.
Contessa Teresa de Sinterra de Cavole (Sophie—that’s me), schemer always purporting to be acting on behalf of a husband never seen.
Today’s topic is “Prophet.”
What exactly does that mean? Wikipedia opines: “In religion, a prophet is an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine, and to speak for them, serving as an intermediary with humanity, delivering this newfound knowledge from the supernatural entity to other people.” Well, shoot, that leaves me nowhere: I’ve more chance of seeing a unicorn than a prophet.
We also use the word in daily language to mean a visionary, someone who accurately predicts things to come. But Wikipedia has one more thing to say, and it’s more useful to me: The English word prophet comes from the Greek word προφήτης (profétés) meaning advocate.”
So here is my prophet: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 19th century advocate of the women’s right movement and abolitionism.
[W]e declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself—to all the opportunities and advantages life affords, for her complete development; and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the codes of all nations—that woman was made for man—her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will.
—Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States by the National Woman Suffrage Association, July 4th, 1876.
I deliberately picked a photo showing Stanton as an older woman, because older women—no longer sexually desirable—get the least respect to this day in our society.
Today’s topic is “Justice.”
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
—Martin Luther King Jr., “Where do we go from here?”, 16 August 1967.
I’m done with the exams, and expanding and updating the list of games I’d like to run or play as posted last week.
Obviously, way more games than I’ll have time for, but at least the ideas are not lacking.
Since I’m supposed to return to a more normal schedule after this weekend, I thought I’d make a wish list of games I’d like to play or run via Skype ove the next few months.