Friday, August 28, 2015

Why I Prefer Marvel Movies to DC Movies...So Far (With an Ant Man Review Too!)

I saw Ant Man the other day, and, while waiting for yet another superior Marvel film to play, I saw the trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

What was that crap? It's the only trailer I've ever seen that I felt an innate need to flip off. Well, until I saw this one:

Dark, boring, brooding... yuck.

Now, anyone who's been in any RPG campaign with me knows I don't shy away from dark. Hell, I dive in head first with a gusto that alienates people from time to time. Because who wants to play in a game where the main villain is an aborted god who wants to rape his half (non god) sister so he can take over the baby's body so he can have another shot at the life he was so unjustly denied? Amiright? So what's so different here?

Part of it has to do with the inability of the producers to get what the characters are about. Superman is about God among us. Pure and simple. He's a man who has the powers of a god who believes in us more than we know how to believe in ourselves. He doesn't feel loneliness from being an outsider, because to him all people have a common good that needs protecting, himself included. He doesn't see the differences so much as he sees the similarities, even in the face of overwhelming evil.

Where was any of that in the Man of Steel? Where was Superman?

Sure, he saved people, because it was the right thing to do. But there's a basic satisfaction in doing good for it's own sake that's simply ignored by Snyder and co. Don't get me wrong, some people do respond to being saved by being untrusting and bitter, but that's only one part of the picture. There's a basic commonality we all have that Snyder, in his infinite wisdom, ignored for the "gritty for it's own sake" feel. If you're going to be dark actually be friggin' dark! Do something that requires the darkness be felt! Threaten things and people the characters care about, not this "I'm brooding for it's own sake" crap we got in Man of Steel.

Guess what we got more of in that bloody trailer?

"It's man versus god, night versus day."

Who talks like that? Someone in the theatre asked if that character (Lex Luthor) was the Joker. I almost told her it was. I mean, Luthor may as well have been the Joker. All DC movies apparently think heroes and villains are the same. It's just a mess of gray. And don't even get me started on the Suicide Squad. Monsters doing monstrous work is such a spirit of the age thing it isn't even funny. I guess I could go all Valley Girl and say "That's so 20th Century guys!" because it really is. Yes, I get it, producers: World Wars I and II sucked and we found out that progress for it's own sake creates monsters, and that it takes monstrous acts to sustain our civilization. Thank you for the revelation, the blood of millions of aborted children is heard already, let's move on.

I guess when I think of dark things I think of something like Children of Men or, more aptly, the Nolan Batman films. Now those are dark films that deserve the title! Their protagonists actually have interior and exterior problems. Theo is living in a world where all the women have become infertile and lost one of his babies to illness. That's not brooding for it's own sake, that's plain old depressing. Bruce Wayne lost his parents as a child due to his fear and now refuses to do the same thing with Gotham. He's got a guilt and inferiority complex miles long and the movie reflects his failings as he attempts to be a hero. He accomplishes the impossible, interiorly and exteriorly, and that makes him mighty. He actually does stuff that makes us wonder, whether it be fight ninjas or shut the lights off in Gotham or face down the League of Assassins not once but twice!

That segues pretty nicely into my review of Ant Man. Boy, DC, if you want us to root for your movies don't put your trailers in front of a superior product, particularly Ant Man. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a modern day Robin Hood who got caught, chosen to be the Ant Man by Hank Pym, a hero of WW II. The whole film asks "why this dude?" and then answers the question. Scott Lang is a man who acts because he must, not because he wants to. Everyone in the movie keeps asking the Scott the same question: "What makes you worthy of being the Ant Man?"

The fact is that it's love. Scott wants to be with his daughter who has been separated from him because of his failed Robin Hood antics and he just wants to be near her again. Scott is extremely human in his motivations and is nothing if not rootable. He actually gets something out of his heroism, it's something he actually needs. Being a hero makes Scott a better person, thus completing the heroic cycle that all the Marvel movies have set up.

And I guess that's the thing that Marvel gets right that DC still hasn't figured out: being a hero can actually make you happy. Is it easy? Is the burden light? Will things go smoothly? No. But, in the end, there is happiness. It's what they were meant to do. And, in DC's just randomly awful universe, power has no good use. It's just something you're burdened with until it either drives you insane or you die from it or you run away from it, giving it to the next poor sap. And yes, that can be true. But someone as powerful as Superman has a reason for saving the human race instead of destroying it, and I'll be darned if Snyder and Co. know what it is. I'm fairly certain they don't, and never will. That would require them knowing what a hero's about.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

St. George and the Dragon, ISIS, Planned Parenthood, and Why I Might be Turning Into a Pacifist

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was St. George and the Dragon. Beautifully written, gripping, and I suppose it shaped a lot of how I expected wrong things were to be dealt with: head on, with God's help, and a whole lot of blood. My poor action figures never made it past a year they were manhandled so roughly. But that was the price of fighting evil in my little five year old mind. You generally got broke doing it. Not that divine help wouldn't come. In my childish wisdom I'd tape the action figures back up and send them back out into the fight, where they fought just as hard as they did before. It wasn't until every last bit of that action figure was useless that I threw the thing away, and even then I'd probably hang onto it.

Yeah, I was a weird little kid.

Now, sometime in my childhood one of my friends molested me. I didn't know what I was doing, who does at the age of eight? But that's what had happened. Once I realized that something was wrong with what we were doing I stopped it and the "friend" turned around and helped start up a neighborhood-wide five year stint get-Nathan-campaign. For five years they tormented me and my siblings and for four years I tried to get them to stop. These had been my friends, after all, and I wasn't quite ready to give up on them. Somewhere along that way I finally put two and two together and realized that not all dragons look draconic but wear human suits. By that point I'd had training in Muay Thai and used my abilities to my advantage. By the end of my time there I stalked my neighborhood, not the other way around.

It was one of the most profoundly hollow experiences I've ever had. What did I gain by hurting, cajoling, and threatening the people who had hurt me and mine? After that quick satisfaction anyone gets from righting a wrong there really wasn't much to be satisfied over. I had become someone who could scare a neighborhood. Wonderful. Some Saint George I'd turned out to be.

Sometime after that I finally (after three tries!) read The Brother's Karamazov, which answered a lot of the questions I'd had for awhile. They weren't new answers, just repackaged in a way that I could get: we're all one family and the response to wrong doing has to be love and forgiveness, for everyone's sake; judgment and violence really get us nowhere. It's not a pill I've swallowed the whole way, it still needs a lot of water to wash it down, but it's stuck in my throat somewhere, uncomfortably.

That's when this whole thing with ISIS started happening, and women and children started getting raped on massive levels. Oh, I won't pretend to know the depth of despair that they're going through but, as a sexual abuse carrier who still grieves the event, I feel desperately sorry for them. If the pain and anguish I feel some days over what happened is any indication of what they're feeling, any indication at all, I don't blame them for wanting to commit suicide. I don't blame them for losing hope because what's more hopeless than having your own sexual autonomy destroyed? There ain't much. And yes, I'll admit it, a part of me wants to go over there personally and blow those ISIS animals to hell and back. Who deserves death more than a sexual molester? Particularly a whole army of them?

Sometime after ISIS started it's terror campaign (that our fearless leader ignores) we had Micah. My goodness, I can't believe how amazing it is to have a baby! Every day he's just happy that I'm bloody there in his life. Me. His dad. There's something profoundly humbling in that all he cares about is if I'm happy and if I love him. The lack of symbols to distract him from that love is incredibly disarming, because I can't talk useless words with him. All I can do is show him that he's loved. And he knows when he's being lied to, so I'd better mean my smile from the bottom of my heart. Nothing has changed my life more than becoming a father.

And THEN the Planned Parenthood videos came out. I will admit it flat: I haven't watched them. I've read transcripts, reactions on both sides, and got sick just from doing that. As a Catholic I believe that abortion is wrong. I have prayed in front of abortion clinics, held up the signs of bloody dismembered babies on Good Friday on the highway, and attended two Pro-Life Marches on Washington D.C. So don't get me wrong, I've done something. It ain't much, but it's something. In the face of those videos it became a whole load of bunk. Every image and account I read I saw Micah's face and it prevented me from getting all the information that I, an adult, should get. But I really don't care. That's a step I can't take, not yet.

What led to this blog post isn't the first six videos, but the seventh, where a baby's face is hacked into to get at a brain and the heart is still beating. Yeah, I'm glad my stomach was empty, because just reading about it makes me nauseous. Such a profound disregard, which looks so familiar... what makes them any better than ISIS again? As Christians we're supposed to defend the weak and some of us believe in Just War theory. Forty years of dead children and why haven't we leveled every abortion clinic in America? We don't believe we can convince those ISIS monsters to change their ways, why do we somehow think the abortionists are any different? And why do we still teach our kids about St. George if we're not going to do anything about it?

(For anyone from the U.S. government reading my post and looking up my unit to let them know they have an extremist in their ranks, please put down the phone. I'm not finished yet. Cause I know someone from the government's reading this going "And we have an abortion clinic bomber in the making!" No you don't. Put the phone down and leave my bloody unit alone. Finish the blog post.)

I've been wondering how on earth to reconcile all this in my heart. This is a level of evil I find so staggering I can barely comprehend it, nevermind do something about it.  The fact that things are going on to stop it is irrelevant to me at the moment, because I think I actually have a much larger decision to make. Does violence solve anything? I have to answer a cautious yes. Defending the weak can literally mean just turning aside the blade ad nauseum. Shattering a limb is not the same as taking a life. Kneecapping may have a use. But killing? Revenge? I've never killed anyone, but there was a time I profoundly wanted and thought I needed to. And, from everything I've learned since then, I'm glad I didn't. It wouldn't have taken those awful experiences away, just given me a new one to deal with.

Besides, dragons aren't in human suits, they're much worse. We do have an Enemy and we can't kill him. Do I pray for him? I know some do. But do I? That's a completely different question. I'll ponder that at some point.

I guess that makes me a pacifist then. Those people who are murdering babies in the womb and then dismembering them and selling their body parts so they can get cars out of the deal are my brethren. They're in need of saving just as much as me. So's the kid who molested me. He needs saving too. Prayer does work, clinics have closed and hearts have been opened. Abortion was already being attacked on a massive level before these videos. I'll do what I can to make sure it ends and help those who have suffered from it, regardless of the blood. It wasn't too long ago that I wanted blood on my hands too, so it's not like I can judge.

Yup, that makes me a pacifist. Heh, my mom's gonna kill me. The irony of that previous statement is not lost on me, either. Good thing I'm twenty seven, long out of the womb, so now it counts as a murder in this barbaric nation. Now please excuse me, my wonderful son is awake and wants to munch on my prayer rope. If anyone's looking for a toy for their children Eastern Christian prayer ropes make the best toys. They're nice and soft with a tassel that you can use to tickle your child's nose. Micah adores it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

My Approach to Making Tabletop Campaigns

How my players see me.

 Designing a tabletop RPG campaign is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and it's something that's devoted a bunch of my time over the last eleven years. After fumbling around for about eight years I found something that works really well for me. Always remember that, if your players don't have fun with my approach that's OK. Different people have different priorities, so you really have to cater to their tastes. My method's pretty simple: I decide what type of story I want to experience with my players, find a song that gets the feel that I want to experience with my players, pick a game that make that type of story work the easiest, decide what the major themes of the game are, design a world that reinforces those themes, and come up with an opening scenario that'll kick-start the group into the adventure. These steps aren't necessarily in order, although I like to believe that I work in this order, more or less.

When I first start making a campaign I ask myself  what sort of story I would like to experience with the players. Contrary to popular belief a huge load of pre-session prep work does not help all that much if you don't know what you want the game to be about. Decide what it is about your concept that grabs you. This is what we will call the theme of the game. Make sure it's something specific so you know what you want to go for. "Trying to make the best out of a bad situation" is better than "hope", since with one you now know you'll be throwing really crappy situations at the players that they'll be unable to completely solve, whereas with the other you're a bit unfocused. And while that meandering sense may be fine for some players and games it's not really what I like to GM. I like to get right to the point and hammer it in as hard as I can.

The concept for campaign number one is pretty simple: the players are in a sequel to a previous campaign we'd played through, living in a city that was built to imprison an arch-demon. My twist on this idea was very simple: what if the arch-demon they thought they were imprisoning was free and there was a completely different demon they were guarding? That's a pretty horrible situation, so I figured that the game would be about coming to grips that they had the wrong dude and needed to adapt if they needed the save the city. I thought about it being sort of like the first season of Arrow or Eden of the East: how do you save a city? What actions must you do to save a city? What must you become to save others?

This is example number two. In this example the game comes first, not the concept: I really wanted to DM a 4eMOD game. DnD games have always been a very difficult thing to nail down: character classes make character creation much a more individual than group activity and it's always been one of the challenges of the d20 system. So this time I wanted to make a game where that was the strength of the story: disparate characters finding a common cause. 

My next step is to pick a game that mechanically reinforces the theme I just outlined. This usually means that I start with a game that I own  and, if it generally fits, modify it to until it gives me what I want. I modify with extreme conservatism unless I'm very familiar with the system. And, if I am familiar and need to hack it to bits, I do so. I never ever pick a game that doesn't have what I need at the core, however.

Since the previous game was a Burning Wheel game and since this one centers around character development and growth the obvious go-to is Burning Wheel again. This means that Burning Wheel is the defacto game to go to. I usually use every single bloody optional rule in Burning Wheel, so that's pretty much all the thinking I need to do about that. 

In the second pitch I hit a snag: all the stuff that I really wanted to do story-wise just couldn't be done in any version of 4th Edition. Heartbreaking as it was to do, I realized that I couldn't get the cooperative story-telling that I demand as a part of my games and play 4th, not without a whole lot of extra work that really turned 4th into 13th Age. So that's what I decided to do: play 13th Age instead. The good news is that anything from 4th that I really want mechanics-wise is very easy to port over to 13th Age, as opposed to the other way around, where 4th (even 4eMOD) would be unrecognizable to me. 

Now that I have actions that I want my players to do and a game that'll give them the ability to do those actions to the fullest extent I go and find songs for an interior soundtrack to help me keep the mood of those actions going. This is pretty loosey-goosey, but generally I'm starting to find that the song I start with is rarely the song I'll finish with.

For the Burning Wheel game I found a song that really inspired me in ways that I'd never even counted on: Falling Down by Oasis. It was so influential that I even named the campaign after the band! The game really fell into focus here: this was a tale of the miseries of trying to be a savior when you yourself needed saving. And that feel has stuck with the campaign ever since.

In the 13th Age example I've only just begun to think about the concept, but the song Politicians by Switchfoot really strikes me. It's not so much a case of finding something that "fits" as it is about finding something that inspires me to process the game more. And who couldn't get fired up from this song, really? I think I'll name the game "C'mon and Break Me". Certainly captures the feel that I want!

This is when I start working up a world that will facilitate the actions that I want to have the group do. To make players do the actions you want you need to create a universal need for that action in the world around them. Want a game of intrigue? Make the problems more subtle, harder to suss out without going into serious information delving and thus doing a lot of talking and politicking. Want high falutin' action? Blowing up stuff frequently and often, while introducing villains who don't want to talk, and you're on the right track.

In Oasis the setting is a long-running project that I've been working on for years: it's set in your "typical" pseudo-medieval world, but the catch is that there is a giant blue flame in the center of the planet keeping all good things alive.  Other flames exist that for various reasons, but the Flame is the reason why everyone gets to stay sane for another day. I decide that, in order to drive home the idea of interior corruption, to design a "zombie plague" that, as the players progress, find out really isn't necromancy, but is something much more sinister and terrifying. The central conceit of the setting is how to save a city, and thus yourself. So the threats need to be more centered around how to save people. Obviously the characters are gonna need some friends to save.

In "C'mon and Break Me" I decide that  I want to pick the 4e Forgotten Realms Setting, a vastly under-appreciated gem in 4e's crown that lets me screw around while sticking this story inside of the same universe as Oasis (the blue flame from the Spellplague ain't a coincidence). Threats don't care about salvation, they have a goal to accomplish that means everyone's death. Enemies are then nameless entities that you can knock over.

The opening scenario is the hardest part of this whole process for me. You have to make something that'll kick it off in the right direction. This sometimes means taking the time to set up a good situation, even more than what you spent prepping the rest of the game!

Prepping the opening situation for Oasis took a very long time! I had a lot of ideas but couldn't figure out how to best set up the situation. Eventually I decided to go with the grenade approach: threaten everyone and everything all at once. The town the campaign's set in riots after taking in so many zombie survivor refugees that the locals have had enough.

The 13th Age game is a bit easier to gauge: it's a combat game, therefore it should probably open up with a fight! I'd want the nature of the threat showing pretty quickly, so I'd just open it up with a fight with ghosts from the Shadowfell, intent on fulfilling their evil schemes. Right out in the daylight. Yeah, shades in the daylight. That'll work.

The last thing you have to do? Be ready to change your plans on the turn of a dime. No campaign scheme survives contact with the players, and frankly their plans combined with your plans makes for more fun than just one or the other. Learn to incorporate their actions and reactions into your long term plans, because you'll seriously enrich everyone there for doing so. Do not forget: you are not the writer of the story but the director. You take what the players do, add your own vision to it, and make it all one cohesive whole. Never, ever, ever, go against the players for the sake of story unless they're trying to destroy everything out of spite. Then you have a different problem altogether. But that's for another blog post.

Friday, August 7, 2015

4eMOD: The Terror Track and Escalation Die

Surprise! This column's back! It's been awhile, but I wanted to put forth one of the best elements from 4eMOD that my buddy Marty came up with. I didn't design this particular mechanic, but I made it a part of 4eMOD and kindly thank Marty for designing it.

When I was ten I played Ocarina of Time for the first time. I went into the Deku Tree and all was going well when Gohma showed up. That's when I froze. I couldn't hurt her with my sword! Why couldn't I? What was going on? As my Uncle Peter told me over and over again to calm down and think I jumped in and got my butt handed to me. The next time I faced Gohma, 8 years later, I almost did it again, but this time I stopped, thought, and avoided Gohma's attacks until I analyzed her weaknessness and devised a plan.

That's the essence of the Terror Track, to put the fear of God into players of solos in 4th Edition. You'd think they'd be terrifying as they are, but solos are actually a pretty tame breed in the game. Out-actioned and out-damaged, solos are usually just bags of hitpoints that take way too long to kill to remain interesting. So Marty proposed a solution: at the beginning of a combat with a solo it gets a +5 to attack, defense, and damage. Each round and successful attack the bonus decreases by 1 until it dissipates.

I can guarantee you from experience that this houserule changes everything. Now, instead of rushing at the solo, the players are forced to go into defensive mode and try to survive. Maybe they'll start looking around the battlefield, trying to find an advantage, any advantage, that can be exploited against the solo. Because for all intents and purposes the solo is unhittable, will hit you every time, and will mess you up big time.

Another suggestion is to steal the Escalation Die from 13th Age and throw it into your 4th Edition battles. It's really simple: put a d6 on it's 1 face on round 2, and march it up every round that the players make headway against their opponent, all the way up to 6. In a solo battle don't give them the escalation die until the Terror Track has run out and allow the solo monster access to the Escalation Die as well. This creates a natural ebb and flow to the battle. The solo comes out big and bad and forces the characters to strategize and examine the solo, looking for weaknesses. Right when the players begin to catch their wind the solo gets his second win and the battle begins in earnest.

Just the Terror Track alone makes for exhilarating solo battles. I know 4th Edition isn't exactly "in favor" anymore, but honestly? I don't care. I'll finish putting out 4eMOD and if people use it then that's great. If not, at least I continued working on something that I love.