Archive for August, 2008

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Batman: Gotham Knight

August 31, 2008

If you enjoyed the depth of Dark Knight Returns, you’ll probably also dig Gotham Knight.

An animated movie of 6 chapters, with different directors and writers, but connected, Gotham Knight manages to hit the best kinds of Batman stories and surprisingly gets deeper than what I expected. All of the chapters manage to avoid the #1 pitfall to a Batman story- making it all about the villains. These stories manage to swing the focus back to the real relationships: Batman to Gotham and Batman to himself.

The first two chapters focus on the people of Gotham living and what Batman means to them- skater kids bragging to each other about seeing him, detectives arguing about the morality of a vigilante on the streets. After that, we swing into questions about Batman’s morals, and even throw some grey areas on him (Bruce keeps a gun collection – “Know your enemy. Though I never fired one, I can see the appeal…”).

The best of the chapters is written by Brian Azzarello (of 100 Bullets fame). “Working through the Pain” where we get a flashback to Bruce traveling to India, seeking the training to overcome pain.

Whereas this could have been a simple cultural appropriation montage, instead, we see him get rejected by the Fakirs (“He said you were not being honest with him. You’re not here for enlightenment.”) and instead, learning from Cassandra, an Indian woman (British raised? Hmm. Maybe.) who had to steal the knowledge because she was forbidden to learn the techniques herself. She’s hard, and real, and neither subservient nor a romantic interest- she’s her own character and pretty badass. And she doesn’t spend the chapter spouting mysticisms either. By the end of the story, you even see how broken Bruce is- that which makes him strong cripples him at the same time.

The other thing- all 6 chapters are surprisingly well done in terms of representation- tons of POC (which makes sense if you go with the Gotham = Chicago idea) and they’re not criminals, nor victims. (ETA: also, they called out the corruption of gentrification through “redevelopment”. Nice.)

Overall, this gets 4/5 from me, for being an awesome DVD, and well worth picking up if you’re a Batman fan.

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Baldr Force EXE: Don’t bother

August 30, 2008

So… this short series started off with incredible promise, then completely fell apart.

It’s a cyberpunk Japan, where virtual hacking all takes the form of virtual mecha fights. The mech designs aren’t that great, but the fight scenes are pretty awesome- lots of fast, hyperkinetic fighting, without cheating the animation or doing the “slow motion for saving frams- I mean, dramatic effect”. This part, at least, remains consistent over the 4 episodes.

Episode one, we get introduced to Steppen Wolf- a hacking group that has decided to give up hacking as the whole virtual Wired experience is now full of crooks and anti-terrorist government squads brainkilling each other instead of old school fun hacking for the hell of it. After making this pretty reasonable choice, they decide to do “one more job” for the sake of memory… which of course goes horribly wrong – their leader, Yuuya, gets killed, and the rest are captured by government agents (“FLAK”)

The lead protagonist, Toru Soma, is offered amnesty provided he works for FLAK. He accepts, not to protect his own life, but rather, to try to find out which of FLAK’s agents is responsible for Yuuya’s death- so he can take revenge. We get introduced to a bunch of kickass female characters- Ayane- the maverick badass, Liang – cyber terrorist of the chinese hacker group- Fei Tao, Reika Tachibana- head of VSS, a cyber security corporation, Bachelor, a 13 year old uberhacker, all of whom could basically get their own story.

So at this point, I’m expecting pretty good things from this series… We’ve got an active non-emo protagonist, lots of competent female characters, and awesome mecha fighting.

Then we hit episode two. Toru ends up meeting this mysterious girl (“Ren”)in virtual space, going on a virtual date, she asks, “Can I call you big brother?” (STRIKE ONE: INCEST VIBES. NOT COOL.) Later, FLAK ends up running a mission to stop Fei Tao from a hack job- but Toru has already spent too much time online- the human body doesn’t do too well spending too much time in a 24 hour period- so he’s left out of this mission.

So the mission involves Ayane fighting some uber baddie, Genha, who then proceeds to virtually/mind rape her. (STRIKE TWO, THREE, and well, just keep counting, the most badass/promising character is now declawed and raped, in the second episode. REALLY?). So Toru risks his life, jumps back in, manages to fight off Genha, but then discovers that Ayane is also the one who killed Yuuya. And also his other old Steppenwolf buddy, Akira, now works for Fei Tao.

You end up with a pretty awesome moral choice- he’s supposed to stop Fei Tao as part of his cover, plus Akira is apparently ok with rapists, but on the other hand it’s his buddy from the old days, and well, the murderer he’s after is right here, but then again, she’s just been raped. Toru freaks out, and starts attacking Ayane (they’re both in mecha) and then the rest of FLAK shows up and arrests everyone.

After this, pretty much the series bites it. Turns out Ren actually was Toru’s sister (INCEST VIBE? YEP, I CALLED IT), she also now only exists virtually, her body having died years ago, most of the kickass characters were experimented on as kids, Ren is harboring an ubervirus that’s flatlining people in virtual space, Toru emos and can’t kill his sister and, apparently also not do much else while moping about it (If you didn’t count strike three back up there, the emo hero finishes any hope at this point), and Ren goes the fuck off and starts consuming all virtual space and blowing stuff up in realspace.

The only reason I was watching? Ayane gets revenge, but not before getting more violation (this time, at least, it’s not graphic, but…), and the revenge is so short and unsatisfying that if the animators only spent one fourth the effort and love on the revenge that they clearly spent on the mind rape I could have said, “At least, some minor bit of justice”, but alas, no.

Doing some research online, turns out the entire anime was based on a Japanese shooter/porn game, which at least explains the fucked up focus on the rape scene in episode two, and the brother/sister incest vibe, as well as the general harem anime feel.

GAARGH. What pisses me off the most about this stuff is that if they didn’t give me any empowered female characters to begin with I would have not gotten my hopes up. Of course, maybe that’s the lesson in that- if you’re empowered, you have to be “put back in your place” until the hero can rescue you. Even if he’s weaker, wimpier, and falls apart under stress.

Bleh.

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Spaces pt. 3

August 22, 2008

The Con Anti-Harassment Project

Cons are where folks go to have fun. But also, people pay to go to conventions- they’re expecting a minimal amount of effort on the part of the con organizers to help facilitate the space for that fun. Like, safety, for instance- you know, knowing that you’re not going to be randomly groped, as if you were at a frat party.

The sad thing is that when people have to organize like this, it proves the deeper underlying problem, and smashes the myth that it’s “a few bad apples”. No, it’s more than a few, and they keep doing shit because the rest of everyone lets it slide and be ok.

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In Thy Name- a D&D hack

August 22, 2008

This is a hack to put Flags into an older D&D game and shift the focus from raiding for loot into political and social struggles. It’s more focused than what you get with Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes or Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys. (You could probably easily tweak this for the traditional rpg of your choice, as well).

Struggles

Each player character can have up to 5 Struggles at one time (you can swap them for other ones, the limit is just so you don’t end up with a page of 200 of them). A Struggle is a personal motivation that the character believes in, is willing to take risk, to struggle for.

Struggles are broken down into three types:

Reign

Reign is about recognized authority you possess or authority you want to have over a person, people, place or thing. It’s about having control and doing what you need to protect your authority and control or expand it. This could be recognized authority- such as being Captain, you might have Reign over the troops in your unit. This could be unspoken but assumed authority- if you think as father you have the right to dictate who your daughter can marry… It could be more abstract- if you are a slave, maybe your ambition is to have Reign over your own self.

Vassalship

Vassalship is about willingly serving a person, group of people, place or thing. It’s about protecting and furthering it’s interests, if any. This could be recognized- being a knight serving a king, or it could be something you’ve taken upon yourself but told no one else – “I’ll protect my nephew, since my brother isn’t much of a father”. Vassalship could be to an ideal- Justice, Love, the Honor of the Ksari Clan.

Honors

Honors is about honoring another person, not because of power, position, or duty. It’s about honoring your friends who you would call sister, or brother. It’s about honoring a wise teacher, whom you respect. It’s about honoring a Lady whom you are in love with. Honor is the most willing of the Struggles, because it has no power, and no position involved whatsoever. It’s not about control or furthering interests- its about respecting the person for who they are.

What they do

When you take action to pursue/protect a Struggle, you gain 100 XP and an Action Point (to spend to get 1D6 bonus to any of your D20 rolls). Each Struggle can provide this once per scene.

Struggles are voluntary- your character has them because she or he believes in them (rightly or wrongly). Struggles can also be conflicting (which can be a good way to get multiple bonuses in a single scene, especially if you like drama).

Players should decide from the outset if they want to have a lot of conflicting Struggles, a few, or none at all amongst the characters- as this can determine whether you have a band of heroes united in ideals or several characters against each other.

As a GM, these give you a good idea of what to offer, what to threaten, and where to focus the flow of play for interesting things for your players. It also shifts the focus of XP gain from gold and monsters to acting on beliefs and interests (as has been done in other games – Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, Shadow of Yesterday, etc.)

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Mike Mearls 4E Interview

August 21, 2008

Theory from the Closet Interviews Mike Mearls.

Mike hits a ton of good points, from design, setting, what happened in 4E design, what goes on in the table, and more. One of the things I love about Mike, is that he’s straight up – like the difficulty on Keep on the Shadowfell being better suited for advanced players, or that GMs really don’t like being told what to do, etc.

It’s a good interview, even if you’re not a D&D head, if you’re interested in design on any level.

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Dark Sun

August 20, 2008

A week ago i picked up the old Dark Sun boxed set and finally started looking at it. There’s a lot of neat, and weird things about it- and I get why it’s both one of the most clamored for, and low on the list, of campaign worlds for folks to update.

What makes it different and unique is also what makes it not fit in so well with the rest of D&D’s extra bits- which is also kind of key for WOTC to sell more books. It’s not very dungeon crawl-centric, few of the monsters are really going to fit, and pretty much the only extra set of rules it seems well suited to sell are the psionic ones (which, generally don’t see common play throughout all their versions.)

Dark Sun takes 2E’s idea of different classes get rewarded XP for different things and gives it even more spin, and then includes in demi-human races- rewarding them (or even taking away XP) for following certain behaviors. While this is not expecially strange these days, the fact is that the behaviors seem somewhat at odds with the idea of a party, and probably changes the focus of the game to “Why am I hanging out with these weirdos?” Actually, a lot of the demihuman cultures seem like they’re set up to interact with each other and humans tangentially, which kind of increases the effect. Though, the half elves getting points for trying to fit in both with humans and elves is a great touch.

There’s a neat setup for multiple characters- with the understanding that the setting is lethal enough that you might need extra PCs ready so you don’t end up not-playing for hours on end. Though, I’m curious how that is much different than any low level D&D (“Carrion Crawler, RUN RUN RUN”), and whether it’s an encouragement to more ruthlessness on the part of the DM?

Finally, there’s also the idea that most weapons and armor are not made of metal- this actually gives a pretty good incentive to specialize in quarterstaves and other wooden weapons- or at least knives, you’re not likely to be able to afford real metal weapons anytime soon, and the penalties for using other materials makes it rarely worth it.

It also sets up an interesting way for characters to wear less armor and not be woefully underprotected- yeah, you’re wearing lighter armor, but your opponent has a penalty to hit and a penalty to damage since he’s using an obsidian axe.

The magic/ecological aspect is the most interesting to me. It’s cool that magic can literally rip away the life force of the planet, though, it has a big chart of how much vegetation turns to ash which doesn’t really tie into any kind of larger sense of scale for the amount of effort you put in. In many ways, to actually track what kind of damage that means in the big scale would be more effort than any GM I imagine is putting in.

Color-wise, it’s very Brom, very 80’s, very european comic fantasy (most of which, we only see in Heavy Metal out here in the US). Imagery-wise, it’s a bunch of white folks in the desert, women who have 80’s hair styles and weird pseudopunk gear, oh, except the Athasian Giants, who fit the black brute stereotype in image and are the sketchiest thing in the books.

In many ways, I feel that the kinds of conflicts beyond “survival in the desert” would probably be best served by another game system- Shadow of Yesterday or In a Wicked Age spring to mind. Maybe even HeroQuest.

It’s an interesting setting, and in it’s difference, it highlights very well a lot of the issues of D&D setting logic (as well as other games that ride the supplement treadmill, Palladium I’m looking at you). As a smart business decision, you want as much of your products to encourage the customers to Pokemon collect’em all. Products which are narrow in what they work with in your product line, are not so good for that.

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The Business of Fancydancing

August 17, 2008

A good friend brought over The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie.

Damn.

How to even talk about this? This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Period. One of the hardest, but still.

The basic plot is that Seymour Polatkin, a Spokane Indian poet, who now lives in Seattle and makes the Oprah circuit, etc. selling books of his poetry about Indian culture, life on the rez, and so forth to the cultural appropriation crowd, finds out his childhood friend on has died and is coming back home for the funeral.

All of that, is basically set up for an intense, and complex look at several childhood friends, identity, and culture, without ever cheapening out… to anything.

The characters are immensely complex, and real. I imagine some folks being completely at a loss at how to even deal with this movie. On the other hand, marginalized and third culture folks should get all of it, all too well. The characters never fall into easy categories and are both humanly flawed and deeply sympathetic.

The plot doesn’t cheapen out either. At no point do you get a pat, closure or catharsis that you’d expect. Issues are left unresolved, histories murky, confrontations never finished. When the movie dives into emotional space, it’s always ambigious, always unclear. You never get answers about what happened, you get answers about who the characters are.

Which is ultimately what this movie is about. People who’ve had to wear masks so deep, so long, both to outsiders, insiders, and the lies you tell yourself to rationalize your life to yourself, it’s that multiplicity of identity, of being, navigating contradictions, that’s what makes this movie. And living with all of this, unanswered questions, as life.

And saying that, I have to be very clear it’s not the usual trite, “ZOMG! I live between two worlds!” Disney crapola- I mean, where each relationship is another layer of identity to juggle, another set of personal feelings overlapping with political, overlapping with history.

It’s a beautiful movie that speaks so much truth to so much, I’m almost at a loss for words about what it really is.

(Completely small notes: It has great music. And it’s actually filmed in Seattle, Spokane, and Vashon Island, and not Vancouver. Like most movies about Seattle are. And Seymour Polatkin blows Heath Ledger’s Joker out of the water. No joke.)