Monday, November 24, 2014

Steven the Great

Every business has its luminaries. In the business of roleplaying games, those luminaries are people like Monte Cook, Steve Jackson, and Robin Laws. I don't personally know any of those people. But I do know one guy who is, without question, a gaming luminary, and that guy is Steve Long.

Steve rejuvenated Hero Games and the Champions RPG with his book Dark Champions, which became an instant classic and the cornerstone of a whole series of books that kept Hero Games more or less in the black for years. Marked by exhaustive research and filled with enough story for many campaigns, the Dark Champions line perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 1980s 'dark and gritty' comics, what many people now call the Iron Age. Champions was my game throughout high school and my undergraduate years, and I went back to Steve's books constantly. They were a well that never ran dry.

You'd think that would be enough for one guy. But it was not. Steve re-invented himself, joining the design and writing team for both the Lord of the Rings RPG and the Star Trek RPG, two of the biggest intellectual properties in the world. These are projects millions of fans would give anything to participate in.

As Brandon Blackmoor instructed me once, the only way to make a small fortune in the gaming industry is to start with a large fortune, and Hero fell victim to economic pressures and collapsed. And this is when Steve started what, to me, seemed like the third great phase of his career in gaming, because he got together with a couple of other gentlemen and they bought Hero Games. Famously prolific, Steve proceeded to rewrite the product line from the ground up, in the process creating a single "Heroic Universe" in which all of the games of the Hero System fit. So, for example, Fantasy Hero's "Turakian Age," a sword-and-sorcery setting dominated by an evil lich, was actually the same world as the pulp adventures of Justice, Incorporated, the modern-day superheroics of the Champions, and the far-flung adventures in Star Hero. Film audiences are used to the idea of a shared universe now, thanks to Marvel's success, but this was ground-breaking stuff in the '90s. I myself wasn't entirely sure it was the right way to go. But it had vision, and I don't think anyone other than Steve could have pulled off a project so damn big so damn well.

Somewhere in all this, Steve allowed me to join Rogues Gallery, which was the Hero System fanzine, and I humbly contributed my occasional pieces, surrounded by people like Steve and Aaron Allston and so many other amazing talents who graciously gave me helpful advice. When I applied to grad school, I applied to the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and was accepted. Steve lobbied hard to get me to move there, where I could join his gaming table and, potentially, help write on the sprawling new line of Hero Games products. I didn't take him up on his offer. Maybe I should have.

This week I learned that Steve has developed colon cancer. As I think you can tell by now, this is a guy for whom I have nothing but admiration. If there is anyone in the world who can kick the shit out of colon cancer (you have to laugh, people. You have to laugh) it's Steve.

He could probably use some help paying medical bills, but no one's asking you to throw money away. Steve has written and edited more game books than most of us will ever own. Whether your interest is in organized criminal networks or Mesoamerican mythology, Steve has written something that you are interested in, even if you don't know it yet.

Take a look at his books on Amazon.
And here's the Hero Games store, where you can browse tons of other books he has written.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Birdman is a complicated film. There's a lot going on in it, and it is saying a lot about a lot of different things. In all this, it is strengthened by technical virtuosity and truly remarkable performances by pretty much everyone involved, but especially Keaton who, to be fair, is certainly given more opportunity than anyone else.

Alejandro Inarritu has called the superhero genre "cultural genocide" and "very right wing." This second accusation is pretty old and has been maintained by a large number of comics critics and creators since at least the 1950s. When Frederic Wertham and Gary Groth both agree on something, I'm not certain they're right. I've spent some time arguing against this idea that there is something inherently fascist about superheroes, so I'm going to pass on it here, partly because -- among all the things Birdman is saying -- this is actually not even close to the most interesting.

Even the accusation that superhero films are "poison" and "cultural genocide" is not really the focus of this film; the criticisms directed at superhero films are really more about action films in general, and America's obsession with the big box office weekend, the entertaining "popcorn film," the blockbuster. Birdman has a very clear argument about these movies, and that is that these movies are illusions. They are distracting phantasms which indulge our desire for psychological numbness. There's a very good reason why we all want to be numb: because we are all basically alone and our existence has no larger meaning. We all know this, but we don't want to confront it, and so we go into narcissistic denial over this simple cosmic truth. We fantasize about incredible power (and here's where the superhero genre is the best example) because, ultimately, we lack all power. Much of this is explained in a key moment in the film by Emma Stone's character Sam, when she, fresh from rehab and so at least briefly inoculated against psychological numbess, shouts to her father, in a rage, that he has no value, that the universe does not care about him, and it never will. The dread which haunts Keaton's character Riggan Thomson is basically existential, and his various hallucinations (and despite what some critics like to say about reality being inseparable from illusion in this picture, Inarritu actually makes everything pretty clear, at least until the very end) are his mind's attempt to impose order and some measure of control on a chaotic and oblivious world.

There's a second point being made in this film, one much more intimate and not existential at all, and that is about confusing love with admiration. This, too, is spelled out in the film, a film which is filled with people who want love but accept admiration instead, who want to love but instead offer praise, who want admiration and end up accepting love, and who admire but, in giving voice to that, instead offer love. In all these cases, the people involved can't tell the difference. To be popular is to be wanted, to be desired is to be looked-at, and everyone is confusing respect with intimacy. Which isn't to say we don't want both; we do. But they scratch different itches and love and admiration work differently. The first is basically private. The second is basically public. And as our 21st century social society becomes increasingly public, intimacy becomes increasingly hard to find and preserve ... or even recognize. We all want love, but it's so hard to make and keep a one-to-one personal relationship. Instead, we embrace circles of a thousand facebook friends or twitter followers. And the craziest part is that those social networks are actually easier to create and maintain in our new world than an honest personal relationship based on intimacy and, yes, respect. Who has the time for THAT anymore?

As a film, Birdman is very "meta." Keaton, who resurrected the role of Batman for American cinema back in '89, is playing a former Hollywood superstar who was famous for a superhero trilogy twenty years ago. Ed Norton, whose public reputation as a prima donna is based on his dedication to the art of acting, plays an incredibly talented egotist who can't get it up unless he's on stage, because that's when he is at his most "real." And although the movie is called "Birdman," it's really based around a production of Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a story I teach every semester in my freshman English class. In a movie which is always showing us multiple versions of itself, Carver's story is also one with multiple versions, one which was famously altered by its editor before being published, and one which Keaton's character Riggin has obviously altered yet again for his stage performance. All of this is very intricate and will no doubt give critics, scholars, and readers much to talk about in the year to come. About ten minutes into this film, I realized it was, like the Watchmen graphic novel, basically made to be the subject of a dissertation.

But, amidst all the black comedy and the suffering, there's also some pretty simple, pretty straight forward messages in this film. First, good art, Inarritu maintains, is about reality, depicting the human condition in a way so sincere that it is painful and, in this way, helping us to learn something about that human condition. Second, what we learn is that human beings are desperate for affection. And that, in turn, is because we sense our oncoming mortality. We understand, deep in our bones, that we are a quintessence of dust. Our life -- and these lines are quoted in the film -- is a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Is it so surprising that we seek shelter in larger-than-life heroes? And is it so terrible? Inarritu may find any suggestion that superhero stories might be meaningful to be pretentious posing. But I can respectfully disagree with him on that score while still finding much in Birdman to admire.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Yes, that is a rat in a pointy wizard hat. I couldn't help it!

"Rats Magica," my alternate campaign setting for Ars Magica, has been published by Sub Rosa magazine. In Rats Magica, players take on the role of six inch rats with incredible (at least, for rats) magical powers. They contend with unhinged cat familiars, an expansionistic Bee King, hired rat catchers and, of course, the Order of Hermes, who wants to use them for arcane experiments and make them all pet familiars.

The art for this article is just so wonderful. I couldn't believe how awesome it all looks. You can check out Sub Rosa here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Comic Books to Film: Gotham

A decade and a half ago, the X-Men film made a gajillion dollars in its opening weekend and, as a consequence, the "Young Bruce Wayne" television series then in development was abandoned in favor of the pot of gold surely waiting at the end of every summer blockbuster rainbow. Today, with plenty of failed super hero movies behind us, we seem to have made a 180: television can't get enough superheroes. Arrow is popular and, from what I hear, smartly written (it takes more than Green Arrow to get me out of my cave). Agents of SHIELD was widely panned by fans last year (and by critic Andrew Wheeler in a bewildering example of narci-masochism penned for the otherwise-excellent ComicsAlliance) but hit storytelling gold when, the very week Hydra was revealed on big screens in the Captain America, we discovered Agent Ward was a wolf in sheep's clothing. It felt like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was moving forward in real time. I was hooked. This season we're getting Gotham, Flash, and Constantine, Daredevil and three other shows are in development for Netflix, a Supergirl series was just picked up, and even Powers got off the ground. What's next? Not even Plastic Man would surprise me at this point.

This week Gotham debuted and Agents of SHIELD kicked off its second season. I watched both and really enjoyed both. Today, let's talk about Gotham.

Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and, especially, Year One, made me a member of the Jim Gordon fan club, so I'm a soft sell on Gotham. Ben McKenzie's Gordon is a bit too clean-shaven and crew-cut for me; Miller always drew him with that great Tom Selleck stache. But he totally sells this role and his performance is both nuanced and compelling. Donal Logue is great as Harvey Bullock, a more famous replacement for Gordon's original partner, Flass. I'm used to thinking of Bullock as a good guy not a corrupt cop, but I'm totally prepared to go with it in this case as long as the show keeps Logue on screen.

There was a lot going on in this first episode, and that was probably the only thing I didn't like. A young Selina Kyle had bookend scenes and her constant cat-posing was just silly. I suppose that's exactly what a kid who styled herself Catwoman would do -- walk around posing like a cat even when no one is watching -- but I don't think the director wanted me to laugh at those scenes. Poison Ivy and especially Riddler get better first appearances, but most of the criminal world-building this time focused on Penguin. Other than the fact that Oswald doesn't like his Penguin nickname, a writing shortcut I find overdone, this is the most interesting version of the Penguin I've ever seen. When a show can convince me the Penguin, of all people, is interesting, they're doing something right.

Penguin's boss is Fish Mooney, an original character created for this show. I like her, and creating her is a great decision. We know she's going to die, because she's not a famous character (they certainly aren't going to kill off Penguin, for example), but she is tough, glamorous, and dangerous. There's something weird going on with her character as well; one of her first lines establishes that she is vain about her hair, but when she nearly clubs Penguin to death with a baseball bat (!) I swear I think I saw her check to see if her wig was in place. I definitely want to see more Fish.

Barbara and Rene Montoya were unexpected. When I first saw Barbara on screen, my first thought was "That had better be Sarah Essen," because Erin Richards would have made a phenomenal Sarah Essen. But no, she's Gordon's fiancée instead, who was something of a non-entity in the comics, a mousy, brown-haired, stay at home mom completely overshadowed by the blonde, tough as nails, and brilliant (remember: the first person to deduce Bruce Wayne was Batman), Sarah. This Barbara is going to be a much stronger character, while Sarah has been promoted into obscurity. She's now Gordon's boss, but never leaves her desk and doesn't seem at all interesting. And then there's Rene, who apparently has a history with Barbara! For those new to Gotham City, Rene Montoya is lesbian, and when she walks into Barbara's art gallery and Barbara responds with a testy, "I'm engaged now..." this can really mean only one thing: Gotham's writers have shifted the love triangle off of Barbara-Jim-Sarah and onto Jim-Barbara-Rene. Wow. That is gutsy.

We also got Alfred. Now, it would be hard for me to pen a better paean to Alfred Pennyworth than those already written by Chris Sims, but let's just sum it up with: Shakespearean actor, Special Forces soldier, part-time surgeon, and Batman's butler. Alfred is so cool, you have to get someone of Michael Caine's caliber to play him. And while what we got of Alfred was all right in this pilot, I definitely would like him to get more screen time. What I don't especially want is to see more Bruce. He's finely played and actually well written. I have no complaints with that. But this isn't a show about Bruce Wayne and I don't want it to become one. Is it possible to have a show with more Alfred and less Bruce? I don't know. But I hope so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monster Manual Podcast

Last week I got to talk with Steve Townsend, one of the freelancers who helped write the newest Monster Manual for D&D. Steve wrote half the background text for the book, every odd letter (A, C, E...) which means he got to write Giants but not Dragons. Still, pretty jealous.

I've been playing the new D&D a little and I enjoy it. It looks like a solid game.

You can hear our podcast here:

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the Closing of BigKatt's

Friend, colleague, and -- most importantly -- my fellow nerd Nicholas Yanes has written a great piece on the history and closing of one of Florida's most important comic shops. His focus is on the place BigKatt's had in the community: how it was a family-friendly place for not just a generation of readers and gamers, but a place where they could bring -- and raise! -- their kids.

Being the kind of guy that he is, Nicholas did not ask me to repost his article all over the internet, so I'm doing it anyway.

Check it out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"I Don't Think Anyone Is One Hundred Percent Dick"

Mike Lafferty invited me back for the BAMF podcast to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy. We were also joined by Walt Robillard of SUPERS fame and Ade Smith, who brought his usual jaded British cynicism. How we ever get by without that, I cannot tell you.

I was really helped by reviews I read which noted the film's dependence on science fiction films from the '80s. I'm talking about the post-Star Wars era. Do you remember there was a time when Star Wars was dead? Before Tim Zahn's influential books opened the Expanded Universe? Anyway, we got SF films like "The Last Starfighter" and "Enemy Mine" and similar flicks, and there's a lot of those pictures in Guardians.

You can check out the podcast here.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Latest Podcast: Super-Villainy. (Is that even a word?)

This week I was a guest on Mike Lafferty's BAMF podcast, along with Chris McGlothlin (just nominated for his 8th Ennie, this time for work on the Emerald City sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds), Walt Robillard (author of the SUPERS RPG and Zenith Comics), Chuck Rice (distinguished game designer and author of Too Many Things To Mention) and Ade Smith, whose accent needs no introduction.

Our topic was super-villains: good ones, bad ones, how they differ between companies, and so on. I talked a lot about by current writing project, the Super Villain Handbook, and Chuck's new zombie apocalypse RPG got me into a conversation about The Walking Dead.

As always, I learned a lot, and it was a real pleasure to be invited.

You can listen to us here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

We Need To Talk About The Ape Movies


Last night I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with a group of perfect strangers, and I had a good time. The film is technically awesome and well-performed. There are sincerely touching and affecting moments. But as I sat surrounded by a boisterous crowd who hooted and howled every time an explosion sent chimpanzees flying through the air, I knew that there was a conversation we would all need to have, and it's not going to be pleasant.

The original Planet of the Apes came out in 1968, the same year MLK was shot. Its sequels spooled out over the years that followed, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. The new Planet of the Apes movies have been made in the years of our first black President. People, this is not a coincidence. The Planet of the Apes movies are about race.

Most of you know this already, but we have chosen not to talk about it because talking about race makes Americans very uncomfortable. And sometimes very smart people will pretend something is not true because they don't want to talk about it. So if you're one of the people insisting that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just a summer blockbuster action flick about monkeys who ride horses, and can't we just pass the popcorn and enjoy it -- why do I have to ruin it! -- my only answer is that this movie is art, good art poses questions, and I'm just trying to answer the questions this movie has asked me.

One of the oldest insults leveled against blacks -- whether in America or elsewhere -- is to compare them to monkeys. And the makers of these pictures are not shy about their metaphor either. There is precisely one gorilla in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes; his name is Buck. Now, they could have named that gorilla anything. Kong, Magilla, or maybe Bob. But they named him Buck, which is a derogatory term for a young black man.

These movies are not just "about race," they are absolutely grounded in our current conversation about race and President Obama. One of the most remarkable things about the criticism of Obama which comes from the right is that it seems to hold two drastically opposing viewpoints: on the one hand, President Obama is a fascist dictator with a cunning plan to overthrow America. But on the other hand, he is an impotent idiot, unable to accomplish anything. These contradictory stances are held at the same time. I hate to soil Ken Hite's wonderful gaming term "biassociation" with political usage (SEE NOTE 3), but it seems appropriate here. Rise of the Planet of the Apes solves the problem of this conflicting interpretation of the President by splitting him off into two people, a tactic that was old when Spenser used it four centuries ago in the Faerie Queene. In Rise, the fascist dictator black man is represented by Caesar -- who is not just named after a dictator, but who straight-up explains fascism to Maurice the orangutan using the fascia, the symbol of Rome, a bundle of sticks tied together in order to go unbroken. And the impotent idiot-in-chief black man is represented by the well-groomed and handsome David Oyelowo, who prods James Franco's character into unethical research that ends up wiping out everything that walks on two legs but which isn't black.

But Rise of the Planet of the Apes was three years ago; let's get back to the present. Dawn depicts a war, a war between apes and man. And, once we acknowledge that these are movies about race, that means that what we are watching is a movie about race war. There are some ugly truths about America that this film is pandering to. There are millions of Americans who see that the white majority in this country is shrinking, who see a black President and a rising Latino population, and they are afraid. They say things like, "This isn't my country anymore," or "This isn't the America I used to know." And what these sentences mean -- and this can be very difficult to admit -- is that "This country isn't as white as it used to be." These people are afraid, afraid of change and a racial uprising, an America in which their position of privilege is gone. They may even be afraid of a role reversal, in which white Americans are the minority, oppressed and discriminated against by the angry young bucks who want revenge.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes all these horrifying, irrational, and ugly fears and puts them on the biggest screens in America. Those chimpanzees in war paint? That's a metaphor for African primitivism and all the trappings of African culture which black Americans maintain. (Yes, Annalee, it's African. It was just too uncomfortable for you to go there in public.) When a chimpanzee tricks a couple of white rednecks by pretending to be a stupid monkey, he's performing a minstrel show. When an ape is shown carrying a white woman over his shoulder, her calves pumping as she kicks, that is a miscegenation rape image. When the human beings in this movie, traumatized by the "Simian Flu," experience a primal revulsion whenever they see an ape, that is the trained reaction of the bigot himself, who sees a black man and recoils in unspoken loathing. When apes put human beings in cages, that's white folks being made into slaves. When an ape is walking on the American flag, that's the blacks, "taking over the goddamn country."

Caesar is, of course, at the heart of this, but the debate is now over whether or not he is, himself, a racist. His vengeance-crazed right hand man Koba(ma) (SEE NOTE 1 BELOW) accuses him of loving humans more than apes, pointing out Caesar's mixed-race heritage as a chimp raised by a white dude. But it is Caesar himself who answers the question of his own racism at the end of the film when he admits that, yes, he thought all apes were better than all humans. Yes, the black super-smart dictator thinks his own kind are better than All Of You.

Okay, so, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the fear of race war which millions of American hide deep inside them, and puts it on the big screen. But what does it say about this war? Yes, it's about race, but what does it say about race?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes says racial war is inevitable and destructive. (SEE NOTE 2) It says that there are basically three kinds of people: violent bigots who will stop at nothing, naive idealists who are doomed to be overwhelmed by events, and the sheeple, who go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do, largely out of fear. The idealists are sympathetic and kind, even brilliant, but intelligence is not what gets shit done in these movies. It's the violent bigots who get shit done in these movies, and the rest of us are just going to be drug under. It's a very depressing message. This is not a film which outright encourages the racial war it has chosen to depict in eye-popping digital glory -- it never claims that race war is a Good Thing -- but it is a film which over-indulges in racist imagery. It is race porn; something you watch so that the silent screaming of your threatened id can be released, and your fears about the collapsing nation can all be confirmed.


I appear to have suddenly gotten a lot of traffic, almost entirely from people who disagree with me (which is cool) and who think I am a "raving nutter" (which is not cool). These comments have been Anonymous and are difficult to reply to on my blog, but I'll use this column to do what I can.

1) One Anonymous writer took issue with my "Koba(ma)" reference. I did not expand on this idea because I was not sure what to make of it. This poster thought it was ridiculous, and also noted that Koba was a nickname for Stalin. I did not know that! That is very useful, and I thank you for the tip. This anonymous poster also argued that Koba acted a lot like Stalin in the film, but I see Koba as a pretty one-dimensional hate-filled bad guy.

2) Other writers have noted -- and they are absolutely right -- that the portrayal of the apes in this movie is sympathetic. Yes, it is. So is the portrayal of most of the human beings. Yes, we are "rooting for the apes", but we are also rooting for the humans. We're rooting for the smart, kind, sympathetic people regardless of race in this movie. And those people -- Man or Ape -- all lose. An anonymous poster said, "The apes win." No, they do not. No one wins. Because Caesar's goal, and the goal of the apes, is to avoid war. But they are forced into it by radicals on both sides. This is one of the complicated aspects of this film, and that's why I call this film depressing.

3) Ken Hite helpfully corrected me, that "bisociation" (which I apparently spelled wrong) originally comes from Arthur Koestler, and perhaps "doublethink" would be more workable in this case. Thanks, Ken.

I've had to enable comment screening to filter out anonymous and hateful posts, but I want to thank the people who wrote constructively. You have made my argument better and I am grateful for that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Return of D&D

As friend of the blog Tommy Brownell pointed out last week, you can tell that a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is dropping because the nerd-rage and the Edition Wars have hit a fever pitch.

I've played every version of D&D, and I've always had fun. I was introduced to AD&D in junior high before the DMG had even been published. I brought my copy of Unearthed Arcana to college with me, more out of sentimental reasons than anything else, because by then I'd discovered Champions and GURPS. When the Player's Handbook for 3.0 came out, I remember driving through the Wisconsin snow to be at the game store when it opened. And when 4e arrived, even though I'd sworn off D&D, I ended up DMing a wonderful group of players all the way to level 24 over two years. It was the game everyone wanted to play.

This has always been D&D's great power. Sure, fantasy has been done to death, and there are foundational design elements that are not to everyone's taste (classes, hit points, alignment), but when a gamer is looking for a group, the easiest way to find one is to play D&D. Love it, hate it, or shrug your shoulders in a resounding "meh", it is the lingua franca of RPGs.

I picked up the Starter Set last week, I've already DM'd about a third of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, I've got a full group waiting to play through the whole thing starting this weekend, so I thought I'd give my initial thoughts on the latest iteration of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game.

The Tactical Board Game Is Gone

While optional rules for miniatures and tactical movement are included, gone are flanking, combat advantage, measuring everything in squares, spell area templates, and most of the rules for monster size and reach. Personally, I think this was a financially-driven decision based on the fact that Hasbro and Wizards has gotten out of the miniatures business, licensing it out to Wizkids. But even if that's true, the results are largely positive. Yes, we are losing the fun that comes from moving your cool mini around on the board, and the tactical players out there are going to have a lot less fun. (An old grognard asked me if I wanted to borrow his minis on launch day. "I've got four hundred of them!" "Thanks, but we don't need them," I replied. And I genuinely felt sorry for him. I felt like I'd kicked his dog.) But 3rd and 4th edition D&D was chained to the map in a way that dominated play. Encounters became set pieces that commanded too much time, dominating the session. We counted how many encounters you could work through in a session, considering four to be a strong showing. Roleplay had to fight for oxygen with the battlemat. No longer.

Now, this is going to be a tough thing for players to get past; after all, D&D has required minis and a grid for fifteen years. War gamers are used to flexing their muscles on the map, and minis just look cool. On launch day, the table next to me dutifully drew out every encounter and pushed minis around, carefully ensuring flanking on every goblin... For absolutely no mechanical benefit. It took them three times as long to play through the adventure as it took my group, and that wasn't because they were engaging in sustained roleplay. Old habits just die hard.

Simple Rules But Less Homogenization

The new edition is just simpler to learn and play. There are fewer "fiddly bits." Remember in 3rd edition when players would cast a bunch of buff spells on themselves before combat? Yeah, gone. Because most of those modifiers have been rolled into simple "advantage" or "disadvantage" which you either have or you don't. We don't have to add up modifiers any more. And because most buff spells require the caster to concentrate on them (which does not impede actions but which does prevent other concentration spells), you'll seldom need to bother with more than one such buff at a time. Attack bonuses and AC do rise as you level, but at a fraction of the speed. That means less math, monster which remain useful over a broader level range, and faster play.

If any of you DM'd epic level play, you know exactly what I'm talking about: level 20+ monsters with hundreds of hit points each, each managing a dozen powers at once, players using calculators to figure out the damage of their own attacks... The game was a slow-moving train wreck. All of that's gone now. Small numbers and far fewer modifiers means more fun.

And yet, at the same time, a lot of the homogeneity which was imposed on the rules in 3rd and 4th edition is gone. Spells no longer have the same three ranges and durations (a 3.0 innovation). Advancing in level doesn't grant the same power selection to every class (a famous 4e development). The rules are simple, but not at the expense of customization and uniqueness.

The Magic Item Economy Is Gone

3rd edition introduced the idea that buying a magic item was like buying a car. They were expensive but ubiquitous, and if you were willing to shop around long enough in a big enough city, you could be pretty sure of finding exactly what you wanted. At the same time, the idea of "magic item slots" on the body was reinforced. Before, there might have been a limit to the number of items you could use, but now you were expected to use as many items as possible. You could wear two rings, for example, one on each hand, and anyone who wasn't wearing two rings was underperforming. There was an expectation that, as characters leveled, they would gradually fill in every magic item slot they had, and then upgrade them. 4e reinforced all this. In both editions, player characters walked around with a "net gold piece value" attached to them, a sticker price for all their magic items, and this was a factor -- indeed, second only to character level -- in balancing encounters and adventures.

All that is gone. You can still buy potions and scrolls and so on, but all the important magic items are not for sale. The magic item slots keyed to the human body -- boot slot, arms slot, and so on -- all gone. Instead, magic items either need to be attuned or they don't need to be. If they don't, you can carry as many as you want, but if they do, you can only have three. Magic items have become rarer, impossible to buy, and although you are no longer expected to be a walking Bazaar of the Bizarre, magic items have also become more character defining.

What Edition Does This "Feel Like"?

If you were involved in the D&D playtest for this edition, you know Wizards was obsessed with player surveys and the question of comparing the new rules to previous editions. Players are doing this too, insisting that the new edition "feels like 3rd edition" with the implication that 4e was a giant boondoggle and Wizards has recanted, or that the new rules "still have all of 4e's problems," implying that the game still sucks so why bother playing it? Both of these analyses are incorrect.

By removing the tactical game and the magic item economy, the new D&D is fundamentally different than either 3rd or 4th edition. Encounters play out like they did pre-3.0 and characters are no longer the sum total of the crap they're carrying. The numbers have been flattened out to a degree not seen since 2nd edition, though it's not as flat as 1st. (We're not going to see Asmodeus back at 66 hp any time soon.) What you're seeing here is the influence of people like Friend of the Blog Kirin Robinson and many, many other people who are part of the Old School movement. The new D&D is a simpler game, but it's also incorporating flexibility and roleplaying. This is the first ruleset of D&D to include a mechanical benefit for good roleplay (the "inspiration" mechanic). That alone makes it feel different than previous versions of the game.

I'm easy to please when it comes to D&D. As I've said many times before, if I can swing my +1 flaming sword at an Owlbear and roll a 20, I'm playing D&D. The specifics have never really gotten in my way. But this is a good ruleset. I can do a lot with it. And it's simplicity makes it attractive to new players. It's not going to win over the haters, who -- let's face it -- gotta hate. But if you sit down and play the thing, you're going to see its eminently workable and in many ways a deep improvement on the game we've been playing for fifteen years.

I am going to miss Minions though.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Transformers 4: Or, Why Michael Bay Should Be Ashamed Of Himself

I've been in the habit lately of avoiding movie trailers and spoilers. This is easier than it sounds, because I don't have a TV, so the only thing I knew about the new Transformers movie was that it had Mark Wahlberg and Dino-bots in it. Now, Wahlberg is a very talented actor and what could possibly go wrong with giant robot dinosaurs? So, you know, last night when I was bored and wanted to get out of the house, I figured let's give it a whirl.

The parts of this movie that are not boring or trite are actually downright offensive. Not only should you not see this movie, this movie is Truly Bad, by which I mean it's bad for society. It reinforces some of the worst habits of our culture, and we would all have been better off if Transformers 4 had just never been made.

A lot of the Truly Bad I'm speaking of has to do with the film's treatment of women. While there are a couple of token women in this movie, the woman with the most screen time and plot significance (such as it is) is Nicola Peltz as Tessa Yaeger, Wahlberg's daughter. Peltz is an object in this movie: an object to be rescued and fought over, and in the worst of the film's Truly Bad scenes, she is a commodity which is exchanged when her protective father hands her off to the boyfriend whom he has disliked until now but, through the process of exchange, now can relate to. I've had to sometimes explain to my students the worst aspects of "courtly love," the way in which it sometimes functions not as a way for a man and woman to love one another, but instead as a way for two men -- one of whom is higher in status than the other -- to forge a power relationship through the use of the wife/lover as object of currency. In this reading, Guinevere and Lancelot's story isn't about them at all. It's the story of Arthur, who needs Lancelot as an ally, and gives Lance his wife to secure that alliance. In other words, it's once again All About Men. And when Whalberg's father hands his daughter off to her boyfriend after making him promise to take care of her for the rest of her life, it's just another version of this terrible exchange.

Compare X-Men: Days of Future Past, when Raven is placed in a position to choose her own fate. Peltz never chooses anything in this movie. She is entirely without agency.

The other Truly Bad aspect of this film is its blatant marketing. Now, I understand that a movie based on toys who turn into cars is going to have a certain amount of product placement, but with Transformers: Age of Extinction we have officially reached the tipping point. This is not a movie which happens to have some product placement in it. This is a 2 1/2 hour commercial break strung together with a plot. It's not just the cars and the toys. I listened as characters name-dropped Red Bull, as Wahlberg conspicuously guzzled a Bud Lite, as a rampaging robot somersaulted over a Victoria's Secret bus stop. The entire last reel is set in China, not for any particular reason except that China is a huge market with millions of paying viewers.

The rest of this movie is just boring, not Truly Bad. I did not know Stanley Tucci was in it, and I always enjoy watching him, though in this movie he's playing Evil Steve Jobs and has been kept on a very short leash. Two things surprised me about this movie: first, it is conspicuously "more serious," and you can tell because they kill off the comic relief character in the first hour. And second, this film was free of the fetishization of the American military which is so prevalent in action movies, most recently in the otherwise-laudable Godzilla.

Speaking of which, the Dino-bots were cool.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Wherefore Art Thou, Owlbear?

Prompted by Steve Long's personal encounter with Owlbear Fever, I am obliged to chime in with my love for this, perhaps D&D's most cherished oddball monster.

Few things say D&D better than the Owlbear, and one of the things that makes it so distinctive -- that makes it a creature that would not, could not, exist in any other universe -- is the ridiculousness of its nature, which we can allow Varsuvius to sum up for us: Why would anyone crossbreed a perfectly serviceable bear with an owl?

If you think I am going to let that question stand unchallenged, well my friends, you do not know me well at all.


#1: You Want A Nocturnal Predator

Bears are omnivores and they sleep half the year. They'll kill a man, sure, but they'd just as soon break into his tent and eat his garbage. Owls are hunters. They eat meat, have famously good night vision, and specialize in the ambush. They are masters of the hit-and-run. They don't hibernate, so they work year round. You don't have to be Stephen Colbert to know bears are scary; now imagine a bear who stalks you by night, can see by starlight from miles away, and who doesn't stick around to fight your well-armored pals but instead grabs you so hard and fast he snaps your neck, then runs off faster than they can follow, climbs a distant tree, and eats you.

#2: The Mythical Associations of Owls

For pretty much as long as mankind has looked up into the trees and seen enormous eyes peering down on them, we have associated the owl with the supernatural, with darkness, and with death. They are banshees: whoever hears their voice is going to die, and Dido, Queen of Carthage is only their most famous victim. They are the companions of Mictlantecuhitl, the Aztec god of death; Mayans considered them messengers from the underworld; Lakshmi rides an owl. But in western culture, the owl is associated with intelligence and wisdom, and if you were a wizard who wanted to breed a more lethal monster to stand in the path of greedy adventurers, breeding your bear with an owl can have only one certain result: that thing is going to be smart. And if it ends up with a save-or-die death spell linked to its hoot? That's just gravy, man.

#3: You Need It To Be An Owl

Imagine for a minute you're the chief cleric of the Temple of Athena. Thieves are constantly trying to break in, and you need some guardian monsters for this dungeon. Well, what are you going to use? Athena's signature animal is the owl. But owls are small and they fly. You could use Giant Owls, but now they need even more room if they're going to be effective. And what about the halls and rooms inside the temple? You can't park a Giant Owl in a 20 x 20 room and expect it to have a fighting chance. But dude, what if your owl was also strong as a bear! It's still part owl. It's got big old owl eyes and it's covered in feathers. Athena is not going to hate it. In fact, she may even be flattered. Now you've got a monster that can TPK four 1st level adventurers without offending the Goddess.

If you put all these things together, you'll see the real question isn't, "Why are there Owlbears?" The real question is, "Why aren't they higher level?"

Mystique is the Loathly Lady: My review of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is an entertaining film. I still have to give the nod for "best film in the X-Men franchise" to X2, but it is certainly the best film since.

Random observations with no regard for spoilers follow.

I was really interested to see Peter Dinklage on screen as Trask. In terms of the script, Dinklage's height was absolutely irrelevant. It was never mentioned once. On the other hand, visually, it was absolutely relevant. There is a certain shot you do with Peter Dinklage, apparently. It involves him being surrounded by seated figures in a U shape. And he is on trial. And whether it is Tyrion Lannister insisting he is on trial for being a dwarf, or Bollivar Trask insisting that the human race is the new Neanderthal (boy, I wish Chris Claremont was getting some money from this movie) to a Senate subcommittee, we have to get a shot of him sitting in a chair with his feet not touching the ground. You don't make that shot when you're dealing with a 5/10" actor. That shot is about the Little Guy Speaking Back To Power. I could write a 5,000 word article on that shot.

Going into this film, I have very fond nostalgia for the original Days of Future Past issues (only two of them! Consider for a moment how influential those 44 pages have been) so I was initially rather grumpy about the fact that a story about Kitty Pryde had become a story about Wolverine. But Singer understood the original story, he had a crush on Kitty Pryde the same way every other adolescent Marvel fan did at the time, and he does his best to say, in this film, "Yeah, I know we had to mess it up a little bit to get this on screen, but, you know, Hollywood." Kitty has an important role in the plot, even if she has few lines and hardly moves, and her ability to send people's consciousness back in time is never explained and has nothing to do with her actual mutant power, but what the hell. It's not like they were going to introduce Franklin Richards or Rachel Summers.

And, honestly, Wolverine's role in this film is downplayed. I consider that a good thing. He goes back into his pre-adamantium body so he's just not as unstoppable as he would later become; Singer balances the film with the rest of the ensemble cast, and this is really not the Wolverine Movie that I was afraid it would be. The fact that Logan has a traumatic flashback at the precise moment he was sent back in time to act was a little ham-handed. I probably would have tried a different direction for that scene. But Jackman did not steal the show, there was even some fanservice buttshot, and basically its a win for everyone.

And let me say that I really did not think that they would bring Cyclops back at the end. I really thought we were going to get the "Everyone lives happy ever after" ending, and Logan would get his dream girl as the music came up and he put the smooch on her. When Scott's hand came up and we heard him go "Whoah," that may have been the gutsiest move in this movie. Because very few people in that theater see Cyclops as anything but a buzzkill, and endorsing his relationship with Jean, and her choice of him over Logan, is not something most fans of the X-Men movies want.

The film was well written and well performed and well shot. This is a pretty classic Bryan Singer X-Men movie, with all his tells. In particular, I noted that while Marvel Studios movies tend to make a head-nod towards relevant social issues (like Winter Soldier's recent gesture towards the issues of the surveillance state and the never-ending War on Terror), Singer's really got no interest in that. I found it interesting to see how he took the X-Men work done on things like Last Stand and First Class and reshaped it to say what he wanted to say. Some elements of these past films he ignored, some got name-drops, and a few people had a scene and some lines, but he really embraced the new history of Charles and Raven and he made that non-romantic, familial, relationship the core of the movie. Again, I think that takes guts. Hollywood has trained us to prioritize the romantic relationship; that's what movies are about. But in this film, the romantic relationship which is implied between Eric and Raven is bankrupt, and when Eric decides he needs to kill Raven to preserve his species, it's a great plot twist which I totally did not see coming and which suddenly answered my question, "Well, they've stopped Mystique, so now what are they gonna do for the next hour and a half?"

It's a good film. Quicksilver's musical number is HILARIOUS. Oh, and tons of mutants get killed. Most of them multiple times. So all the guys that liked Man of Steel will still like this too.

POSTSCRIPT: On the drive realized I had more to say about this film.

I think it's very interesting, and great actually, that the key moment in this film is literally about a man recognizing that a woman has to have agency. Young Charles means well, but Raven scolds him because, even when he means well, he keeps talking about what she "has to do." That is, he is giving orders. Rational, moral, and good orders, but orders nonetheless. What he needs to learn is that this behavior cannot be sustained and is itself on very weak ground. Raven is, in this sense, a bit like the Wife of Bath crying out for "sovereignty."

In fact, if you look at that Tale, Raven is TOTALLY like the Wife of Bath or, rather, her story of the Loathly Lady who offers a choice: she can be beautiful but cheat on her husband all the time, or she can be ugly and be true to him. The choice Charles sees, like the anonymous knight of that Tale, is that Raven can either be Raven (a good person, but hiding her monstrous appearance) or Mystique (wicked, and ugly). But at the critical moment, Charles learns. Again, like the knight of Alisoun's Tale, he realizes there's a third option: LET THE WOMAN DECIDE FOR HERSELF. And he recognizes her agency, and lets her decide. And, like the Loathly Lady in the Tale, she smiles and chooses the best of both worlds: I will be both good and honest. I will not kill, and I will not hide myself.

Crap, now I have another article to write.

"I've Had Worse Times": My review of EDGE OF TOMORROW

EDGE OF TOMORROW is an entertaining popcorn flick that demonstrates Tom Cruise is A) a capable action hero even when cast in the role of a man half his age, and B) is still The Most Charming Man on Earth.

Spoilers Follow.

At its core, Edge of Tomorrow is almost classic science fiction. It takes one idea -- "What if a man could live the same day over and over again as long as he died at the end of it" -- and explores that idea in a lot of depth. I say "almost" because if HG Wells was doing this film, that would be the only science fiction element in it, and everything else would be the world we live in. But in this case we have an alien invasion and chaingun-equipped combat exoskeletons which, knowing most of the people on my friends list as I do, you are probably willing to forgive.

One of the things that struck me about this film is that Cruise is basically playing Jerry Maguire (a master of marketing and charming bastard) and his character from A Few Good Men (child of privilege and charming bastard) who finds a path to becoming a better man when he is thrown into the deep end. I guess I never realized that this is why you cast Tom Cruise in your movie. Your main character is a guy who has been able to coast on good looks and privilege for his whole life and is a jerk, but he's a redeemable jerk, and your movie is about that jerk figuring out how to be a good person by, and here's the trick, connecting with other people.

Emily Blunt underplays this entire movie. Her character used to have the same "Groundhog Day" powers Cruise's character Tom Cage has now (get it? Cage! Because he's trapped in time!), and ends up a mentor to him. Now, that's a cool role, and it's neat to see Blunt as the ass-kicking alien fighter. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I wish Tom Cruise had been "the guy who used to have these powers but doesn't anymore" and Blunt was the protagonist who was on screen every single minute.

The film is not as monotonous as it sounds. For example, Cage despairs of his struggle and flees the war at one point (that doesn't really work out), and the script robs him of his time-reset powers for the final reel. The quiet moments between Cruise and Blunt are quite effective, and the script is fairly smart, because we don't get the customary exposition of their feelings. Instead, actors are allowed to actually, you know, act. And I respect it when filmmakers allow things to go unspoken.

I only have one other beef with this film, and I don't know if the film could escape it, so it's not really fair to criticize it. But I weary of alien invasion movies in which the invasion can be stopped if we can only Kill The Big Boss Alien or Use This Superweapon. Wars are not resolved with anything this simple. There is no "I Win" button for a war, but boy oh boy does America wish there was, and so we get movies like this. A story in which the heroes simply gain an advantage, or take a big step forward, or tip the scales, is not enough for a 2 hour movie that must wrap up neatly at the end. (Starship Troopers being the only alien invasion film I can think of that breaks this rule, and it even has to apologize for it at the end.) So I really wish defeating the invader was messier than it is always in these movies, but I suppose that's just not going to happen. Especially in a movie which is playing off of video game tropes, of which the Big Boss is certainly a part.

This especially struck me as I sat in my cushy chair on the 70th anniversary of D-Day and watched the Good Guys invade France's beaches. This was not a coincidence. This movie's opening weekend has clearly been chosen to resonate with the Normandy invasion, which its extensive beach scenes clearly reference. See, if we made a movie about World War II today, it would be about Tom Cruise sneaking into Hitler's command center with a bomb and ...


Monday, March 24, 2014

Tolkien's Women

This week I finished Tolkien's "The Fall of Arthur" and noted, in the obligatory Facebook capsule-review, that Tolkien's portrayal of Guinevere is entirely unsympathetic. This led Friend of the Blog Kody Lightfoot to suggest that Tolkien "succumbs" to a patriarchal habit of writing women solely to articulate a male "Heroic Journey." Accusations of misogyny or patriarchy in Tolkien are not, of course, new, and Kody (with whom I share a deep abiding love for the character of Eowyn) was not trying to indict Tolkien's body of work so much as this particular text. I think she's basically right, even if I am hesitant to use the phrase "Hero's Journey" with Tolkien because, as soon as we do, we have entered The Land of Joseph Campbell, where every tale is essentialized and we lose everything that makes LotR unique in favor of an all-consuming monomyth. But Kody's prompting has led me to confront Tolkien's portrayal of women in his published fiction, by which I mean Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Readers of Tolkien know that the problem is not that Tolkien writes poor female characters; Galadriel, Eowyn, and Arwen have personal, moving, and very compelling stories, even if Arwen's is largely limited to the Appendices and Galadriel's saw print only after Tolkien's death. The problem is rather that there simply aren't enough of these women. If we add Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Goldberry, Shelob, Rosie Cotton, and Ioreth, the "eldest of the women" who serve in Gondor's Houses of Healing, we may have covered every single female character who actually appears in LotR's primary narrative (that is, who isn't dead or mentioned only in the Appendices). Consider for a moment the staggering size of the male cast in this novel.

It will surprise no one to know that I have a theory about this. What I see when I look at LotR is great psychological anxiety around the creation of female characters. That is to say, Tolkien seems unwilling to create female characters that are not burdened with great meaning. He is reluctant to create a woman with a supporting or cameo role, especially if the character's female gender is not essential to that role. There are no female characters in LotR or The Hobbit who just happen to female, and whenever a minor character does appear, that character is presumed male. Male is the "normal" in Lord of the Rings, and that's a textbook definition of anti-feminist literature, but the female characters we do have spit in the face of misogyny and patriarchy in very obvious and even confrontational ways.

Quite simply, I think that Tolkien was nervous about his female characters. I think he lacked the confidence required to write women "naturally," and he was more than a little uptight about making sure the women in his book all "say something." I think he felt the eyes of potential critics in a way which he himself would have almost certainly denied. And this led him to, whenever he needed a new character, assume that character was male unless he had a really good reason for thinking otherwise. Knowing what we do about Tolkien's Roman Catholic faith, Tolkien grew up and embraced the worldview that men and women are not fundamentally the same, but that they are fundamentally different, that God gave women different virtues and graces than men and that feminism, in what is often and mistakenly perceived as a desire for gender blindness, is misguided. (1) In our post-feminist era it is often possible for a male writer to skate by female characters by relying on their human-ness rather than their woman-ness -- by showing the things we all have in common regardless of gender -- even if the harder task of grappling with their woman-ness is judged too difficult or, mistakenly, inappropriate. But Tolkien is writing from a religious understanding that emphasizes the differences between men and women, and I think that although he wanted to present admirable and compelling female characters, he didn't have the confidence to write them casually. If they weren't serving some Higher Purpose, he cut them.

Lets use some examples.

Fans of LotR know that the introduction of the character of Strider was fairly spontaneous. Originally a hobbit who wore wooden shoes and who was named Trotter, Strider is mentioned in a letter Tolkien wrote to his son confiding that this new character had suddenly appeared in the novel, and Tolkien didn't really know what his story was, and was more or less making it up as he went along. Now, we have a tremendous advantage when we write about and analyze Tolkien's writing because we have so much material relating to his drafting and revision process. And we can see now, with hindsight, that the revision process was absolutely critical to Tolkien and frequently included major changes to the plot. It is hard to imagine LotR without Aragorn, the King Elessar, whose origins grow out of this humble hobbit named Trotter. And there are many more examples of Tolkien doing this: introducing a new character who, over the process of revision, gains a distinctive voice and character and role in the story.

Compare the character of Idis. Most of you are not going to know who Idis is, with good reason. In the first draft of "The King of the Golden Hall" -- the chapter in which Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and Gandalf arrive in Rohan -- there are two women, not one. Eowyn is Theoden's niece, his "sister-daughter," but there is also another woman, Idis, who is Theoden's actual daughter and, therefore, a princess, Theodred's sister. Again, this is from a very early stage of the work, and you can tell because, in this version, Aragorn and Eowyn eventually marry. That's because Arwen has not been invented yet, and the whole Tale of Aragorn and Arwen cannot exist. In any case, Idis has no lines in this first draft of "King of the Golden Hall", and exists for only a few pages before she is summarily written out and merged with Eowyn.

Imagine for a minute what we might have gotten if, instead of excising her, Tolkien had left Idis in and worked with her, given her the same time to develop and change as a character that he gave to Trotter or to so many other male characters in the book? We would be celebrating Idis alongside Galadriel and the rest. But, instead, Tolkien cut her. Why? I believe (and it's only a theory) that he just wasn't sure what to do with her and, rather than leave her in, let a good idea come to him, and risk her being boring -- as he was confident doing with male characters -- he felt it was safer to cut her entirely. He just could not risk a female character that wasn't compelling. It was better to have no women than boring women.

There are plenty of moments in LotR where we could have gotten more female characters, either as walk-ons or in supporting roles. There are no female servants anywhere in the book, for example. Wouldn't Eowyn have a female servant, and wouldn't a conversation between those two women have been illuminating? Wouldn't Galadriel or Arwen have a lady's maid? Remember Bergil, son of Beregond, who kept Pippin company after he arrived in Minas Tirith, and who stood on the walls with him as the Muster rode into the gates. Would that chapter have been richer or poorer if Bergil had been a daughter instead of a son?

I have a confession to make: the first time I read LotR, I thought Merry was a girl. In my defense, I was only 12 and "Mary" is clearly a girl's name. Other than the fact that everyone kept referring to "Mary" as a he, the novel worked perfectly well with her in it, even at the Scouring of the Shire when that kick-ass girl "Mary" summoned the hobbit folk and routed Sharkey's men. I liked that book. I still love it today. And whenever I write fiction, I invariably begin with a female protagonist, something Tolkien never seemed to have the confidence to attempt. But although contemporary authors are far more comfortable writing female characters, that doesn't mean Tolkien didn't do it well when he felt he had something worth saying. For Tolkien, men are allowed to be without meaning, but women -- recipients of a divine grace a man can recognize but never own -- cannot.

(1) EDITED: It is absolutely important to clarify that "gender-blindness" is not the goal of feminism, and critics who maintain that feminists want to tell stories in which "It doesn't matter if a character is male or female because the story will read exactly the same" are misrepresenting feminism. The fact is we live in a world in which being a woman has enormous consequences, and telling a story in which a woman's experience is not affected by her woman-ness is just as fantastic and imaginary as a novel with Orcs, Elves, and magic rings. My thanks to Kody Lightfoot for helping me to attain better clarity on this point.