RPG a Day: Missing links

28. What film or novel would you be most surprised that a friend had not seen or read?

Because I move between various game groups both in person and online, as well as play at conventions and game days, I have a lot of people in my gamer circles. They come from diverse backgrounds, a spread over decades in age, so there is a lot of variety in favourite movies and books. I’m generally slightly surprised when a role-player says they have not read The Lord of the Rings or seen Star Wars, but it’s not exactly shocking, especially with younger players.

No more can we savour this.. LotR-cover

#RPGaDay2016

 

 

RPG a Day: Inspirations?

CreativeProcessPieChart15. What types or source of inspiration do you turn to most often for RPGs?

[Repeated from a similar question last year.]

Everything. Books, television, movies, music, comic books, art, even food. As I answered last year to a similar question, you could say my source is immersion. Whether creating a new character or planning to run a gain, I like to surround myself with sources of inspiration: music, books, movies, images, online sources, etc.. I browse the ‘Net for related materials, I scour my creaking bookshelves, I cook recipes from particular cultures, and so forth.

#RPGaDay2016

 

 

What makes a good horror RPG?

FearJeremy Kostiew asked on Google+:

What makes a good horror RPG? Rather, what has made a good horror RPG?

Was it atmosphere? Something about the mechanics? Hammer Horror soundtrack? Creepy GM? Haunted playspace? […]

I posted my answer there but it go so long, I realized I should turn it into a blog post! This also gives me a chance to provide links.

I’m not a fan of horror in general because it rarely reaches me. In movies in particular, it usually pairs violence and gore with repetition and cliche. For me, well-done horror is something like Identity (2003) or even some of the better X Files episodes: a lot of atmosphere, and threats that are not just about brutality and death.

Atmosphere: I’ve been in a few successful horror role-playing games, and many unsuccessful ones. The best I played was a campaign based on Clint Krause’s Roanoke game (Clint Krause Games 2006, out of print). My husband Edmund was the game-master and ran it at our local game club; we had a large ensemble cast that could change from week to week based on attendance, and a group of players known for their banter and kibitzing (including me), so horror was a challenge. Edmund payed a lot of attention to atmosphere. He talked to us beforehand about the genre, and asked us to play only if we were willing to get in the spirit, not goof around; the mood of the game was described as Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Lost. He had a soundtrack, sound effects, props, low lighting, etc. I posted detailed actual play reports on RPG.net, where you can get a better sense of how the game felt.

Tension, Transparency, and Temptation: It’s useful to have some sort of mechanic to keep track of and ratchet up the suspense. Examples include the Humanity/Taint/Corruption tracks in a number of horror games, which generally apply to individual characters; or the countdown clocks in Apocalypse World (lumpley games 2010). It’s most effective if the players see their fate coming incrementally closer, and if they have an incentive to court danger.  Roanoke uses the Doom pool, which allows players to gain a maximum success on a die roll at the cost of adding one Doom point to the pool that will determine the endgame phase of the campaign: Heroic Escape, Tragic Escape, Heroic Death, or Terrible Death.

Threats: Successful threats may vary from person to person. If you’re not familiar with the “passions” as used in Unknown Armies (Atlas Games, any edition), you should go take a look, I think they provide a good model. Basically, every character’s personality in UA is defined by three passions: a rage passion (what will unfailingly get under their skin); a noble passion (even a monster may love animals); and a fear passion, which is codified into five categories (violence, helplessness, isolation, the Unnatural, and the Self.) Reading about the types of fears can help a GM think of more varied threats, and identify ones more likely to get a response from the characters and players at the table. In Roanoke, each player has to pick a fear as one of their character’s traits, so they’re directly telling the GM how to draw them in.

Misinformation: A lot of the mood and tension rely on the characters’ imperfect understanding of what is going on. In our Roanoke game, the GM used the Bag o’ Rumours: he wrote little snippets of rumours and had us draw them in secret at the beginning of a game session, as something only that player’s character would know. Some were true, some were false, but most were a little bit of each. They worked very well to sow doubt, provide foreshadowing, and serve as bargaining chips (“I know a secret!”)

Clickable relationship map, Roanoke
Clickable relationship map, Roanoke

Tangled Relationships: A lot of the player buy-in, the spread of uncertainty, and the ratcheting up of suspense comes from or is greatly enhanced by a web of relationships — positive and negative — between the cast of characters. Even if the game is planned as a one-off, I recommend taking the time to establish some allies and antagonists among player characters as well as with primary NPCs.

Boundaries: Because horror gaming relies so much on (A) playing with our darkest fears and (B) shared mood, it’s prudent to have some way of controlling content so that the players will have fun even as the characters are being put through the wringer. In Roanoke we used what we called a Veto card (that was before we had heard the expression “X Card“). Each player got a card they could flash when they felt someone was bringing in elements inappropriate to the setting or the group. It didn’t matter whether it was for mood, story, or personal reasons, it was non-negotiable (although it was okay to ask questions to clarify the scope of the veto.)

Women as Action Heroes: Supply and Demand

ST1

We’ve heard about a number of prodigiously insulting marketing decisions at the intersection of merchandising, pop culture and genre fiction, such as the disappearance of Black Widow from lines of Avengers merchandise and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise. It’s been made clear that boys are the target market for toys. But do you ever wonder if it’s not also a deliberate ploy to manipulate supply and demand for price gouging?

We just learned that to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, CBS has licensed toy company Mattel to produce a line of Barbie-style dolls based on Lieutenant Uhura, Captain Kirk, and Commander Spock. I immediately checked on Amazon, because I want Lt. Uhura on my desk! But I discovered that she’s unavailable, even though the other two can be purchased just fine for $34.99 each.

Uhura-doll

StarTrek50th-dollsWhat gives?

But Amazon went on to offer me other lopsided-deals on memorabilia Barbie-like dolls. How about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman figures based on the recent movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Hey, good news: all three are available. And priced at…

Wait, what? Continue reading “Women as Action Heroes: Supply and Demand”

Core Memory

Inside-Out-Core-MemoriesA few nights ago I finally had a chance to watch Pixar’s movie Inside Out. (Pico-review: I loved it.) One concept it uses (not a spoiler) is that some of our memories are “core memories” that anchor our personality, things that become central to the person we are; they are not immutable but they are very strong.

I assume we can all think of a few moments that stay with us through life, to which we turn back repeatedly either to recapture them or with the burning wish to redeem them. I can think of several, but there is one in particular that for four decades has been central to me. It’s the one that I think reflects the best that is in me, that represents the person I want to be, I try daily to choose to be. (So yeah, it’s a core memory that makes me look good, but rest assured that I have some that are not as proud. Another day’s tale.) Continue reading “Core Memory”

Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)

Up-front warnings: (1) This review contains spoilers. (2) I didn’t like the movie.

ex_machina_posterNot spoilers: The premise of this movie is that Main White Guy Character Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Antagonist White Guy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test, charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence — Sexy Fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander).

[Edit: A couple of friends have told me that Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic, doesn’t read as white to them. That really surprised me, I read both the actor and the specific character of Nathan Bateman as white, but you may have a different impression. I have to add that if Bateman is supposed to read as a person of colour, it doesn’t help the movie for me, on the contrary.]

The movie tries to be a thriller but all the plot twists are predictable for science fiction aficionados. Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere. It also tries to be visually stylish and to feel intellectual; your mileage may vary. Mostly, Edmund and I spent our time asking the characters on screen: “Really? You didn’t see this coming?”

But I’d like to focus on the things that creeped me out, and not in a good thriller way. Spoilers begin here. Continue reading “Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)”

Women-y Bits in Action Movies: Irreparable Harm

Trigger Warnings: Feminism, Sarcasm, Social Justice

Hey, it’s time for dude derision! A couple of days ago the trailer for the Ghostbusters reboot was released and unleashed a wave of anger, sorrow, and reportedly flaccid penises among the U.S.A.’s most vocal minority, Insecure White Men. The new movie’s four female leads, which do not even include any bikini babes, in lieu of the 1986 all-male line-up have left the MRA contingent weeping tears of impotent rage.

A masterpiece forever ruined...
A masterpiece forever ruined…
... by this desecration.
… by this desecration.

This is not the first time in recent years that a cinema classic has been completely stricken from loving memories after a sequel or remake made the original completely unwatchable. There is too little attention paid to this phenomenon, which has left the lives of too many IWMs joyless and tragic. How can true fans find any satisfaction in re-watching these classics, knowing that out there someone is enjoying a different version?

But the harm is far more insidious. These are not, in fact, merely different takes on the fictional universes so savaged: they represent visions unapproved by IWMs. Please take a moment to consider the pain of a self-respecting dude, a real man, a genuine bro forced to see headlines, images, friends’ Facebook statuses and perhaps even entire minutes of movie trailers containing fully-dressed, normally proportioned female characters with speaking parts. And not only that, but the lack of a strong central white man as the focus of the plot, which may irretrievably shatter fragile IWM psyches.

Even when male actors are given a heroic title role, as in last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the damage done is considerable.

Can we ever enjoy this again...
Can we ever enjoy this again…
.. while millions are watching this?
.. while millions are watching this?

Sure, a white man may have the title role, but is it even worth it if he is forced to exchange lines of dialogue with women as if on equal footing? If we are forced to consider women’s points of view? The mere fact that he had to go through this ordeal somehow robs us of all satisfaction when the woman actually agrees with the man’s arguments.

And those who suggest that IWMs simply not watch forget once again that this does not address the problem: these offensive movies would still exist.

It’s not just about women given *shudder* major roles either: while the two examples above generally steer clear of this additional outrage, sometimes these remakes and sequels have also included people of color in speaking parts other than criminal, victim, or enabler.

No more can we savour this..
No more can we savour this..
Doing the unthinkable -- twice.
… with vandals doing the unthinkable — twice.

But IWMs remember that the Star Wars universe never had people of colour before (or women), just like Mad Max’s barren wasteland was never polluted by strong female protagonists.

Figments of your imagination. Never happened.
Figments of your imagination. Never happened.

And it’s not just among main characters either; while a brodude can be generous and tolerate your occasional chick, usually a cool girl, and the token minority, perfidious SJWs have made incursions among supporting cast in disruptive ways. Sure, it’s fine to have women and visible minorities in support roles — but they should be just that, supportive. Not all, you know, assertive and threatening. How can stormtrooopers be feared and respected throughout the galaxy if units can be led by women?

This...
This…
Not this!
Not this! Where is the strength, the leadership, the action?

Mark my words, this undermining of everything that makes action movies cool and exciting was foreshadowed by so-called “fan works” years ago.

Can you see the difference between Troops...
Can you see the difference between the manly Troops…
... and the girly stormtroopers in the later IMPS: The Relentless?
… and the girly stormtroopers in the later IMPS: The Relentless?

Hell in a handbasket, gentlemen. That’s where this is all going. Action movies are dying.

The Martian: Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

martianWe saw The Martian and found it as advertised. We liked it, it was a good choice for thrills, fear, humour, and hope.

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It feels real through and through. I don’t recall a single moment when effects made me disconnect, and the motion shots in low gravity are very nice.
  • Soundtrack: 4. Orchestral stuff is appropriate and works fine; plus they found a way to add some songs I hate and make me like them. For a bit. In context.
  • Writing: 4. This made me want to read Andy Weir’s book, which had not made my list. It’s got vibes of Apollo 13 and Castaway, of course, and The Lonely Astronaut. It also resists the temptation to create villains when none are needed; the opposition of an uncaring universe is faceless. As a bonus, homages and Easter eggs are buried throughout for viewers to measure their nerd cred. (This is where it’s hardest to resist spoilers, when I feel like comparing notes!)
  • Casting: 4. Good choices, and I thought some of the actors might feel pleased to get some roles so different from what they often play.  Lots of familiar faces and great actors.
  • Direction: 4.5. Like in (nonfiction) Apollo 13 before, the movie steers clear of one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes, the Great Man or supergenius who single-handedly makes everything all right.  The central character of Mark Watney is obviously extremely smart, resourceful and tough, but you soon realize that he’s pictured that way not because he is supposed to be the Chosen One but because of the selection and training process that brought him to Mars.  It’s necessary that he be an exceptional individual but so are all involved, and they are all needed.  As a bonus, the right touch of humour (which I understand is in the novel) is preserved.
  • Editing: 4. Tight. The passage of time is handled pretty well; good and relatively sparing use of techniques like montages and voice-overs.
  • Science: 4.5. The most hand-wavey portions happen in the opening scenes; the reason protagonist Mark Watney is left on Mars is out of whack with what we know of the planet.  Amusingly, some of the criticism levelled at the science in some later scenes seemed to me to show the commenters’ lack of grasp of the context.
  • Diversity: 4. Some excellent choices, reflecting a good deal of real-world racial and gender diversity.  Bonus points for international cooperation.  Still centers on a white man, of course, but strong, significant roles to non-white and/or non-male people. Alas, I noticed no hint of disabled, non-hetero, or non-cisgendered characters. Only one non-white woman, with no lines in English.
  • Feminism: 4.5. It passes the Bechdel test within minutes, as well as the Strong Female Protagonist benchmark. Lead female character makes life-and-death decisions and they are respected.
  • The Bart Sibrel Award for Verisimilitude goes to Ridley Scott, Arthur Max, and Dariusz Wolski. We’ve finally reach the point where we can make really good hoax expeditions, as long as no one on the filming crew, post-production, and support team of hundreds talks, and no one notices the large mobilizations to Hungary and Jordan.

Thanks to Ridley Scott’s own Alien movie and its, ahem, progeny, we’ve had a lot of space horror movies in the last three or four decades.  But in the end, the thing that should really scare us is that the universe doesn’t give a damn.  If we are to survive, we need each other. That’s the message I took from this movie, anyway.

I will leave you with two images I really like: the cast poster, and the good ship Hermes (my new screen background).

the_martian_47_a

martian-hermes

Ant-Man: Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

Ant-Man posterWe saw Ant-Man and really enjoyed it. I would never have expected I would like this movie so much, but I had a great time. Viewers are advised to stay until the very, very end for the last Easter egg.

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It’s as slick as all the previous movies in the franchise, and shows creativity in the visual use of the hero’s powers interacting with the sets.
  • Soundtrack: 4. Largely what you’d hope for in terms of score, plus some really fun choices of pop tunes.
  • Writing: 4. It’s a simple storyline told cleanly, with a great comic-book feel. (If you don’t like comic books, I advise not seeing Marvel Studios movies, just sayin’.) Snappy dialogue, good short-cuts through background materials.
  • Casting: 4. Good, endearing choices. I could do with a more charismatic villain; he wasn’t bad, just not as good as some. Then again, it’s tough being compared to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or even Lee Pace’s Ronan.
  • Direction: 4. Snappy, generally injecting the right mood into various scenes, keeping everyone focused.
  • Editing: 4.5. Tight, cuts through unnecessary material, trusts the viewer to follow interpolations.
  • Superheroics: 4. Completely in genre with the action, drama, humour and histrionics. Of course it also has comic-book physics.
  • Diversity: 3.5. It has some persons of colour as fun characters but in support roles. I was also initially concerned that they would be just comic relief but they get more depth. I really hope we see them again with more spotlight time.
  • Feminism: 2.5. It fails the Bechdel test, and underplays Evangeline Lilly as far as technically feasible. On the other hand, the two most visible female characters are endearing, resilient, smart, likeable.
  • Reese’s Pieces Award for product placement goes to Baskin-Robbins, with a special mention to Apple’s iPhone.
  • The movie also earns the Academy Awards for Best Use of Tilt-Shift Photography and Best Use of Dialogue Dubbing. You’ll know what I mean when you get to these scenes.
  • Also, the award for most ill-advised target for a bit of “science-y” exposition.

Mini-Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World logoOK, this is definitely spoiler-free if you have seen any of the movies in the franchise before. The only spoiler here is that there is no spoiler. Jurassic World is exactly what you think it will be: visually stunning, and apparently written in cooperation between a pre-teen fan fiction beginner and an Internet bot.

Yes, that’s what I expected. No, I had not intended on paying money to see it in theatre, but after a shitty week I felt like seeing dinosaurs smashing stuff, so I changed my mind and woke my poor husband early-ish on a Saturday to catch the matinee. I had fun, but in exactly the way I was expecting. Here is my quick-score overview, all rated from 0 to 5 for worst to best:

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It looks really sharp throughout.
  • Musical score: 2. John Williams on his slowest day, cloying Disney theme-park soundtrack.
  • Writing: 0. It’s profoundly derivative, inconsistent, and the dialogue makes George Lucas at his worst sound like Joss Whedon on a good day.
  • Casting: 3. Eh, it’s OK.
  • Direction: 0. The characters are weather vanes and it’s damned windy. “What’s my motivation?”
  • Editing: 3.5. Not bad, but could have been greatly improved by cutting out all the spoken lines.
  • Property Destruction: 4. Not a Pacific Rim or a Mars Attacks!, but respectable. However, I would have liked more buildings smashed and fewer extras chomped.
  • Diversity: 2. It has some intriguing non-white characters but only in support roles and without much agency.
  • Feminism: 0. It has no redeeming feature in this regard.
  • Carrie Fisher Award for salvaging dignity (a mere shred) despite awful lines goes to Chris Pratt.
  • Steven Seagal Award for inexplicably exiting the movie early goes to Irrfan Khan, who probably decided partway through that he had to save his career from this movie.

In short, you should only see this movie if, like me, you are really in the mood for this:

fthis