PART 1 - PART 2
crap, it's the 21st century."
|August 1st, 2008
KEEP ON THE SHADOWFELL - COLLECTED
The DM's Cheat Sheet is a PDF file featuring the 47-page packet of notes and handouts that I used, in conjunction with the published adventure, to run my playtest sessions. It basically compiles all of the material from the "Analyzing Design" and "Remixing Keep on the Shadowfell" articles, sans the design notes and other theoretical discussion.
|August 3rd, 2008
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S BATMAN
Before I say anything else, let me say this: The Dark Knight is probably the best superhero movie ever made. It may also be the best movie of the year. It may even deserve a spot in the Top 100 movies of all time (but that depends on a few more viewings and some reflection).
I'm not one of those fanboys who confuse geekgasms with quality (although there's nothing wrong with a good geekgasm), but The Dark Knight really is that good: The scripting, directing, and acting all come together to create something that's thematically, dramatically, and cinematically complex and rewarding. Heath Ledger's performance, alone, would make the movie worth watching again and again -- and he's just one jewel among many.
With that being said, however, I did have one major problem with the movie: The ending, while thematically powerful, makes absolutely no sense.
Oh, wait. I'm sorry. That's not the actual ending of the movie. That's just the Way It Should've Ended.
But, seriously, the ending of the movie bugged me. This type of logical plot hole usually bugs me, but I think it particularly stood out in the case of The Dark Knight because the rest of the movie was so unmitigatingly perfect. It's like the difference between seeing a fly land on your hot dog during a picnic and seeing a fly in your soup at a $100-per-plate restaurant.
But I think it also stands out because this particular plot point was being used to tie together the thematic content of the entire film. And that thematic content was rich and powerful, so seeing it become fatally flawed at (literally) the last minute was very disappointing for me. It was like watching Achilles get shot in the heel.
And, to be sure, it would be very difficult to have corrected this problem without losing the thematic closure of the film. Off-hand, I think the only solution would have been to have Two-Face bring together everyone he felt was responsible for Rachel's death in order to determine their fate. (This would have put Batman at the scene of the murders, made it more important for a scapegoat to be found, and allowed for the creation of a plausible narrative -- mobsters and crooked cops kill Harvey Dent, Batman takes revenge.) By opting for the more streamlined approach of having Two-Face kill them (or spare them) in a series of encounters, the narrative is simplified... but, unfortunately, it's simplified to the point of making it nonsense.
Is this a nit? Yes.
But I can also draw a direct line between this foible of The Dark Knight and a similar problem with Batman Begins: Specifically, the scene in Ra's al Ghul's compound at the end of Bruce Wayne's training when he's asked to execute a murderer and refuses. Again, this is a thematic lynchpin for the movie. And, again, it makes no bloody sense.
... say what?
I guess we're supposed to give him a pass because he saves the life of Ra's al Ghul. But, oddly enough, the theme of the movie is a little less powerful when interpreted as "I'm different than the criminals because I won't kill anyone played by a recognizable movie star".
I have similar problems with the end of Batman Begins, which suffers from two gaping holes in its logic:
(1) You have a machine which vaporizes water inside metal pipes buried underground... but has no effect on any of the fleshy bags of water wandering the streets of Gotham. (By "fleshy bags of water", of course, I mean "human beings".) I don't have a problem swallowing super-technology in a superhero movie, but could you at least try not to insult my intelligence?
(2) Batman seems to consistently suffer a lobotomy at the end of these movies:
These were not my only problems with Batman Begins: The character of Rachel -- although powerfully redeemed in The Dark Knight -- was a complete waste in Batman Begins. Batman's willingness to engage in mass property destruction with seemingly little regard for the consequences or the lives that might be lost was not only disturbing, but also unnecessary and thematically inappropriate. Also, the destruction of Wayne Manor seemed wasteful and pointless.
But there's also a part of me that feels a trifle Scrooge-like in making these (perfectly legitimate) critiques, because there is so much to love about both these movies. Batman Begins may be a significantly flawed film, but it's also a very good film. And The Dark Knight, as I have already mentioned, may have one glaring imperfection, but is otherwise one of the best movies ever made.
I am particularly entranced with Nolan's thematic exploration of the Batman mythos.
For example, the concept of "fear" has always lain at he heart of Batman's origin. In Detective Comics #33, the original telling of that origin, we can read:
And so it was perfectly natural for Batman Begins to put the words "I shall turn fear against those who prey on the fearful" into the mouth of Bruce Wayne. But giving Wayne himself the fear of bats as a young child and then having that fear create the situation that results in the death of his parents is a master-stroke. It allows Nolan to thematically ground Batman's origin story into a character arc of overcoming and then inverting that fear.
This achievement by itself -- taking an existing theme of the character and deepening it -- is impressive. But Nolan doubles down again and again by exploring the concept, theme, and use of "fear" from as many angles as possible: Ra's al Ghul, the Scarecrow, and Carmine Falcone all use fear in different ways. Gotham City itself is described repeatedly as a place of fear. And, of course, the entire plot is driven by fear in its many aspects.
When you create a work of art that explores a theme as deeply and richly as Batman Begins explores the concept of "fear", the work can take on a life of its own. Beyond whatever statement Nolan himself might have been trying to make, the work itself is so complex and comprehensive in its treatment of the subject that the audience will find its own meanings reflected in the material. Different people will find different aspects of the movie resonating for them in different ways. And this also makes it a movie that's not just fun to watch again, but rewarding to watch again.
We see a similar thematic exploration and expansion on multiple levels in The Dark Knight. The title itself alludes to this as the movie creates a contrast between the White Knight (Dent) and the Dark Knight (Batman).
Even the rivalry between Batman and the Joker is deepened. There has, of course, always been a sick and twisted dance between the two characters. One doesn't have to look any farther than the Joker's death in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns to see that. But when Ledger's Joker says, "I think you and I are destined to do this forever." It's a haunting moment that rings painfully true.
And I think the reason it rings so painfully true is because Nolan has done such a remarkably effective job, throughout the entire film, of establishing this as the confrontation that happens when "an unstoppable force meets an immovable object" in the "fight for this city's soul".
When Nolan plays these themes -- the Joker vs. the Batman; the White Knight vs. the Dark Knight; the corruptible vs. the incorruptible -- against each other, the resulting tapestry is woven together into a deeply moving and deeply meaningful narrative.
I've already seen The Dark Knight twice. But it's a movie that I will need to see many more times before I'll be able to truly appreciate the depth and subtelty of Nolan's accomplishment. And it will always be a movie that rewards another viewing... no matter how many viewings I've given it.
A GENERAL UPDATE
I've spent most of the last week attending the Minnesota Fringe Festival. There were a lot of really exceptional shows this year, and I found myself being unavoidably drawn into the addictive nature of the festival. It's actually quite intoxicating to spend an evening attending five different plays; bumping into friends and acquiantances; comparing notes on what you've seen; and then getting drunk as the evening winds down.
On the health front, the Lyme disease appears to be behaving itself. I did have a bit of a relapse at the end of July, which prompted my return to the hospital. Once there, I discovered that the doctor I had previously seen had made several incredibly bone-headed mistakes, the most notable of which was under-prescribing my medication.
According to every medical text my new doctor could find, the standard treatment for Lyme disease is 14-21 days of antibiotics. The original doctor, however, had only prescribed 10 days of antibiotics. Which explained why, a couple of days after finishing my medication, I started relapsing.
Unfortunately, at that point, I had been off my medication for five days and, as a result, had to basically start over from scratch.
I am really, really tired of swallowing horse pills.
In any case, I seem to be on the mend and my brain is significantly less fuzzy than it was for most of July. I'm planning to turn my attentions back to Legends & Labyrinths and you should be seeing new previews beginning to appear within the next few days.
|August 11th, 2008
PLAYTESTING 4th EDITION - COMPILED
The complete set of Playtesting 4th Edition posts have been compiled into a single essay for easy reference and linkage. This pretty much constitutes my definitive statement on the system. I have a couple more sessions of Keep on the Shadowfell to play through with one of my groups and, if anything of note comes up during those sessions, I may post a coda of some sort.
But both of my gaming groups have decided to return to 3rd Edition and stay there. And, at this point, I don't anticipate that I will ever be returning to 4th Edition. The game is, in the final analysis, not only poorly designed, but designed specifically with a philosophy which is antithetical to my roleplaying.
Other people may find enough interest in the game to spend the time necessary to fix the fundamental design flaws, but I don't see any reason to waste my time with it.
(Oh, look! WotC just changed the DCs for skill checks again. I'm so glad they took such great pride in fixing the math with 4th Edition.... and fixing it... and fixing it... and fixing it... They're like the Energizer Bunny of math fixing.)
McCAIN'S ENERGY PLAN
There is a pretty fundamental political mistake being made when it comes to McCain's energy plan and it sounds a lot like this:
What Obama says there is absolutely true. And the broader point he made a few sentences later was equally true: "They're making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3 to 4 percent. It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant. They think it's funny that they're making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business."
But there's also something very important that's being missed here. You can see it being missed even more widely in this frontpage Daily Kos posting where the author mocks McCain for being for both wind power and off-shore drilling.
Here's the problem: There is absolutely nothing incompatible about being for both off-shore drilling and wind power. And nuclear power. And biofuels. And solar power. And proper tire pressure.
The defining quality of the energy plan McCain is selling is, quite simple, "I will try absolutely anything if it might reduce energy prices."
There is a real and growing sense of desperation in America right now and, if McCain can successfully sell that message, it will find resonance with that desperation.
Of course, anyone with half a clue about these things knows that off-shore drilling is a joke. It isn't going to have any impact on gas prices for at least 10 years and, even then, the effect will be minimal and very short-term. Al Gore delivered this message as a powerful political punch on July 17th when he said:
But this is not the consistent message being sent by Barack Obama, the Democratic party, or the progressive blogosphere.
McCain is, on the one hand, openly embracing every possible solution to the emerging energy crisis in this country. (Whether or not he'll actually follow through on anything not approved by his lobbyist buddies in the oil industry is another story, of course.) On the other hand, the Republicans are successfully turning off-shore drilling into a wedge issue.
And the result, as seen over the past couple of weeks, is that, according to national polls, McCain is now considered the better candidate on energy issues than Obama -- a result so absurd that I wouldn't have believed it possible two months ago.
The problem here is the false "either-or" argument being used by progressives. As long as progressives keep framing the issue as "either you're for renewable energy or you're for off-shore drilling", then McCain's message of "I'm for both and for anything else that will help lower energy prices" is going to win. And win big.
And the reason he'll win big is that, if off-shore drilling were truly a viable solution, then we probably should be doing it.
The reality is that it isn't a viable solution. And, therefore, the correct response to this nonsense is to simply point out that it is, in fact, nonsense. Accurately attack the viability of the non-solution.
Because in the battle between the guy saying "you can have a piece of cake or a piece of pie" and the guy saying "you can have both cake AND pie", the guy with the bigger dessert tray is going to win... unless you point out that that the pie is actually a mirage masking another handout to the big oil companies.
DISSOCIATED MECHANICS - COMPILED
While putting together the compiled version of the Playtesting 4th Edition essay, I realized it probably made sense to compile the essays I wrote on Dissociated Mechanics, too. So I went ahead and did that.
As a reminder, these essays were originally written in May of this year, before the 4th Edition rulebooks were released. My general analysis, it turned out, was pretty much right on the money, even if there are a few individual mechanics which aren't precisely the way they were previewed or the way I assumed in the final product.
And, of course, my general conclusion vis-a-vis dissociated mechanics (they're bad and they're antithetical to roleplaying) remain as valid as they ever were.
|August 15th, 2008
KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
I thought I'd written this on here before, but apparently I was just imagining that. In regards to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:
I would like to thank George Lucas for making the Star Wars prequels. Without the valuable training I have gleaned from those films, I would have found it much more difficult to ignore all the ridiculous foibles of this film and enjoy it as much as I did.
The trick, you see, lies in being able to instantly assess that something is both incredibly lame and completely irrelevant to the film. You then jettison that information instantaneously and go back to enjoying the rest of the film (which is rather good).
Michelangelo is quoted as saying, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
I have a theory about George Lucas: He's like Michelangelo. Except he's gotten lazy and he doesn't bother carving away all of the marble necessary to reveal the angel. The portions of the angel that you can see are still pretty awesome, but there's all this other marble -- the absurdities, the bathroom humor, the extraneous nonsense -- getting in the way.
And, as I say, the Star Wars prequels trained me pretty well in the "fine art" of ignoring all that excess marble Lucas leaves lying around. So Lucas throws in some stupid scene with Shia LaBeouf swinging around like Tarzan and leading a tribe of monkeys, and I promptly reach into my brain, grab that idiocy, throw it away, and pretend as if the film existed without that scene (or the many other scenes like it).
And I'm happier for it.
Of course, the film itself is still flawed. But at least this way I can enjoy -- in a somewhat marred fashion -- the angel that could have been.
So, long story short vis-a-vis Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A decent enough flick. I was hoping that Spielberg would be more successful in reining in Lucas' excesses, but despite that it's enjoyable enough. I mean, it's not even close to being a Raiders of the Lost Ark or an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it's fun enough.
August 17th, 2008
PENIS ENVY AND PSYCHO
Recently, for project I'm intermittently working on, I've been reading a lot of primary feminist theory. Since my thoughts on such matters have been getting regularly stimulated by this reading, it means you're going to have to put up with me sharing some of them... particularly the ones which little bearing on my project and, thus, have no other outlet.
So let's start with Freud's concept of penis envy. Boiling it down to its most basic form, Freud's theory goes something like: At some point during puberty, girls figure out that they don't have penises and boys do. The girl, discovering this, becomes jealous that the boy has a penis and she doesn't.
This is stupid enough -- since it implicitly assumes that a vagina is the mere absence of a penis -- but Freud isn't done yet: Because the girl wants a penis, she naturally wants her father's penis. This translates into a sexual desire for her father. And since this sexual desire for her father is forbidden, she defensively shifts her sexual desire from her father to men in general.
Freud had issues. This much is clear.
(Please note, I am not making this up. It should also be noted that, since a vagina is not the mere absence of a penis, it would make just as much sense -- using Freud's logic -- to say that men are possessed of "vagina envy".)
Which brings me to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Friedan makes a pretty much indisputable argument that Freud's theory is abject bullshit: If a woman in Victorian Europe envied a penis, she did so only insofar as it represented the social justice and opportunity which was automatically afforded to men and denied to her.
In other words, Freud was a product of his time... and a sex-obsessed one at that.
However, insofar as Freud was describing in sex-obsessed and metaphoric terms a legitimate psychological facet of women in Victorian Europe -- i.e., their envy of the social opportunities men possessed and they lacked -- there can be valuable insight gleaned from Freud's theory.
Because, in point of fact, Freud still isn't done: Penis envy persists after the woman matures into a socially acceptable sexual love for men who are not her father. (I feel silly just typing that.) A woman eventually satisfies that penis envy by having a son, and thus coming into possession of a penis of her own. (I feel even sillier typing that.)
Okay, let's strip away Freud's sex-obsessed silliness. Metaphors aside, what the heck is he talking about?
Friedan makes the very compelling argument that, when a woman finds her own growth as an individual cut off by social injustice, she will attempt to find other outlets through which she can express herself. And one of these outlets is through her own children: Unable to live her own life fully, the mother tries to find fulfillment through the accomplishments of her children.
In truth, we can strip the words "woman" and "mother" out of the preceding paragraph entirely: It remains equally true for all human beings. And certainly we are all familiar with both fathers and mothers trying to make their children live out their own thwarted dreams.
This is bad enough in itself, but Friedan makes the wider point that -- in post-war America -- the oppression of woman had reached a point in which the common housewife was becoming literally infantilized. (Her argument is lengthy, well-documented, and, frankly, horrifying to my modern eyes, even though I was already largely familiar with the societal injustices she was describing.)
In that environment, the natural impulse for women to try to live out their thwarted dreams through their children becomes even more severely damaging to the child's psyche: The dreams and goals of the mother, having become infantilized, arrest the child's ability to mature into an adult. The result can be grossly summarized as a "momma's boy".
Which brings me to the relatively random thought I wanted to share with you: I wonder how much of this emergent social phenomena in the late 1940's, 1950's, and early 1960's -- as revealed in painstaking detail by Friedan -- resulted in both the creation and popular resonance of Psycho. In Psycho, Norman Bates is so literally trapped in an infantilized state as an extension of his mother's will that he becomes her to some very real extent. When a woman becomes desirable to him -- a symbol of sexuality and potential maturity which would break his pyschotic connection with his mother -- he kills her.
To what extent did Psycho grow out of the deep social discontent that Friedan documents in The Feminine Mystique? And to what extent did audiences, experiencing that social discontent in their own lives -- whether they recognized it for what it was or not -- find the traumas of their own lives writ into the tragedy of the film?
Of course, on the other hand, the film can also be read as subconsciously supporting the darker side of the culture which gave it birth: Norman's victim is portrayed, however briefly, as a successful and independent woman pursuing a career outside of the house... a direct threat to the feminine mystique of a woman finding her complete fulfillment in the duties of wife and mother. Having posed that threat to "proper womanhood", she is violently "put in her place" by the male killer.
Did those supporting the malfunctioning society of the 1950s find as much satisfaction in the film as those who were consciously or unconsciously rebelling against it?
|August 18th, 2008
THE CLONE WARS
Well... that was mediocre.
Okay, here's some background:
(1) I am quite willing to stand up and defend the prequel trilogy films as being diamonds in rough. I feel that watching those films is roughly equivalent to watching the Special Edition versions of the original trilogy: There are good-to-great films buried in there, but they've been ruined by George Lucas' inability to edit himself. The only difference is that we've seen the original versions of the A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi -- that makes it (relatively) easy for us to ignore the crap Lucas has shoveled on top of those films. With the prequel trilogy, we've never seen the version without the fart jokes.
(2) The original Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series was broadcast on the Cartoon Network. It had a story by George Lucas, but the project was largely spearheaded by Genndy Tartakovsky. This series was single-handedly responsible for rekindling my love of Star Wars. After years of abusive mediocrity, I had literally forgotten how much I loved this universe. After watching Clone Wars, I tracked down high quality versions of the original versions of the original trilogy and, watching them, I realized just how much I still loved these films and how much damage George Lucas had inflicted on his own creation.
(3) I wasn't alone. The Clone Wars series was so popular it got extended for a second series. And when that was a success, Lucas decided to turn it into a full-blown TV series. The animation was "upgraded" from 2D cell art to 3D CGI, and then Lucas felt that was going so well that he took the first several episodes and packaged them into a feature film for theatrical release.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line Genndy Tartakovsky didn't make the cut. (He's apparently working on the sequel to The Dark Crystal, a fact which fills me with glee.) The loss of Tartakovsky is unfortunate because, frankly, Star Wars: The Clone Wars doesn't capture the same magic as its progenitor. (Note the difference between Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Thanks for the crystal-clear titles.)
Basically, here's the run-down:
(1) Visually, the animation style is surprisingly effective and often incredibly beautiful.
(2) Unfortunately, from a cinematic standpoint, the directing and visual storytelling just doesn't cut it. There are lots of battles, for example, but none of them are particularly compelling or memorable.
(3) But certainly part of the problem the director has is that the script just isn't that interesting. The story never manages to make me care about what's going on (which is largely because nobody in the movie seems to care all that much), the dialogue is cliche-ridden, and the whole thing is riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. Plus, while there's often a lot of sound and fury, the author doesn't find anything particularly unique to do with it. So in the battles, for example, there are lots of lasers being fired and lightsabers being swung around... but it's just visual noise. Very pretty visual noise, but still utterly forgettable.
(4) Perhaps most disappointingly, the characters are largely flat (with one exception which I'll note below). The only reason I even vaguely care about any of them is because of their previous appearances in other films. The argument could certainly be made that it would be difficult to do anything meaningful with characters who's stories have already been told from beginning to end in the original six movies, but I can literally point directly at Tartakovsky's work in the original animated series as an example of how you can always find fresh dramatic material.
(5) The pacing of the film is also very poor. But that leads me to a larger point, which is that this material was not originally intended to be a single feature film... and I think it shows. Amidala, for example, doesn't show up until the third act of the film, and then plays an almost deus ex machina role in wrapping up the plot.
I suspect that if I had been watching this as three episodes of a television series, my reaction might have been more positive. (So I'm probably going to give the TV series a shot when it premieres.)
(6) It's almost as if Lucas intentionally tries to find something incredibly stupid to put into his films. In this case, it's Jabba the Hutt's flamingly homosexual uncle. I just... I wish I was making that up.
(7) On the other hand, the one thing I did like was Anakin's padawan, Ahsoka. Her initial introduction left me skeptical, but she rapidly grew on me despite the weak and repetitive nature of the script. She's the one character that the film, on its own merits, makes me care about. And I'm mildly interested to see if the series can develop the serious dramatic potential in the relationship between Anakin and Ahsoka.
I've seen a few people trying to defend the weaknesses of this movie by saying that it's "aimed at kids".
Well, even if we ignore the PG rating of the film: So what? There is a difference between "aimed at kids" and "stupid".
When I was a kid I could tell the difference between the stuff that I actually liked and the stuff that was created by some adult trying to patronize me. I don't think I was alone. And I reject out of hand the flawed logic that "it's OK that it's bad because it's just for kids".
Star Wars: The Clone Wars isn't a mediocre movie because it's aimed at young teens. It's a mediocre movie because it's a mediocre movie.
PART 1 - PART 2