Monday, March 13, 2017

Movie Review - Kong: Skull Island

I had a choice last Friday to see Logan, Shin Godzilla, or Kong: Skull Island as a cheap morning show. Logan started too early, actually, and I've heard Shin Godzilla is decent but a bit slow, so I opted for Kong.

Obligatory Warning: Is there cursing in the movie? A little, but your kids probably won't notice unless they're already swearing when you're not around to hear it.

On to the movie. It's a giant monster movie, so you shouldn't really expect an amazing, painstakingly crafted plot, or fully three-dimensional characters. You basically go to these things to see the monsters destroying things and fighting other big monsters, and the human cast trying to survive. And that's what you get. It's not the worst giant monster film I've ever seen, but it's not the best, either. There are plot holes large enough for the star attraction to walk through, unnecessary characters, inconsistent characters, and cheesy dialogue. I was entertained well enough by the CGI spectacle, but some of the other choices made with the production of this film left me nonplussed.

The good points revolve around Kong and the various monsters that inhabit Skull Island. The creatures are interestingly designed, and the monster fight scenes are fun. There's a big cast of human characters, many of whom don't make it to the end of the movie (I don't think that counts as a spoiler, because I won't tell you who). Oh, and seeing soldiers thinking they're on their way home from the Vietnam War only to find out they've got one more mission that involves giant monsters? That was well done.

The bad points include the premise for why no one's visited Skull Island before (ridiculous pseudoscience meteorology that might have worked in a 1930's milieu but seems out of place in a movie taking place in 1973). Characters that mysteriously appear with no introduction in Act 2, serve no important plot points, and are pretty much just there taking up space (although one, Jing Tian's character, does provide some nice eye candy and provides a second female character in a very male dominated cast). Oh, and then there are characters who seem to have no idea what sort of work their job descriptions require. There are veteran soldiers who seem to have no sense of strategy or tactics, a photographer who sees a giant creature rise up in front of her party and after a minute remembers to take ONE photo then lowers her camera, scientists who don't really seem to have much background in science...

There were a few interesting things from a world-building perspective that might be inspirational for a game. That's one reason I love B-movies and big budget but stupid films like this. Somewhat tangential to the plot is a Hollow Earth theory to explain where the monsters come from, that could possibly be a set-up for a sequel.*

There's some cool stuff in this film, and while there are lots of weak points I could point out, you do get giant monsters, Samuel L. Jackson/John Goodman/John C. Reilly putting in amusing performances, and people trying to fight kaiju with M16s and M60s. I'm glad I only paid matinee prices to see it so that I don't think it was a waste, but I'm also thinking maybe I should have left home a bit earlier and seen Logan instead.

*Edit - Just found out that I completely missed a post credits scene (I typically stay to the end of the credits regardless, but really had to pee after this one so left early). Also, this movie is in the same fictional universe as the American Godzilla movie produced a couple years ago and IS setting up a sequel.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Pursuit and Loot

Being a continuation of the journal of the stalwart Green Knight Jack Summerisle, and companions various and sundry, exploring the hidden inner world of Pellucidar beneath the outer world of Eberron.

Having rejoined my companions Rhea, Yuv, and Makarak outside of the Snake Queen's lair, Makarak noticed the trail left by the snake-tail of the Queen through the jungle underbrush, and we set out in pursuit. As we went, we could hear her singing her foul magic songs again in the distance when suddenly, to our surprise, the jungle around us seemed to come to life and reach at us from all sides with grasping vines.

Cassius, my trusty mount, was entangled, as was Yuv. To our horror, we then saw that Cassius and Yuv were being drawn into the grasping maw of a feminine plant horror, the Venus Fly Trap. As she sank her fangs into my faithful andrewsarchus, I set to with my axe. Makarak was quickly at my side with his own axe, and Rhea assisted Yuv in escaping the clutches of the botanical beast.

But, the strange adversary had more and more vines, an inexhaustible supply, so it seemed. I was wrapped up repeatedly, but managed to slash through the vines as Cassius disappeared into the plant's jaws. Yuv and Makarak were also entangled, and Yuv drawn into the creature's waiting maw next. It was a mighty struggle, but in the end we slew the creature.

As I pondered our situation -- we were battered and bloodied but as yet undefeated -- unbeknownst to me, Makarak beheaded the Venus Fly Trap and placed the severed head, both claws, and several of the grasping vines in Rhea's Bag of Holding. We decided to return to the Snake Queen's lair to find the Rod of the Giant High Priest, if we could, as that was or true goal.

Returning to the lair, we searched the tunnels until I noticed a crack in a wall where none should rightly be. Using our artifact magic rock drill, Makarak made a tunnel past the secret door, causing a minor cave in, but opening our passage. At then end of the corridor we came to a finely worked door, covered in the demonic symbols of the Demonic Invaders of the Ancient Past, of whom my sect the Greensingers allied with the Gatekeepers to defeat long ago. The door was of stout workmanship, possibly bound with spells in ancient times, but after several hours of axe-work by myself and Makarak, the door was breached.

Inside was indeed the treasure chamber of the Snake Queen, but much of her "riches" was made of worthless (to us) sea shells, polished rocks, and the like. We did locate the Rod, as well as a Giant's Battle Axe (too large even for Makarak to wield), a magic wand of undetermined use, a broken lute also magical in nature, and three carven masks which also detected as magical. We decided to rest then, and examine our newly acquired loot as time allows on our way north to the City of the Giants, where with the aid of the Rod, we hope to wake the slumbering Mountain Spirit.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Snakes and Rods

Being a continuation of the journal of the celebrated Green Knight Jack Summerisle, and companions various and sundry, in the hidden realm of Pellucidar, deep below the Khyber underworld of Eberron.

Having ascertained that the Rod of the Giant High Priest was being held by the Serpent Queen in the eastern mountains beyond the Great River, our band, consisting of Rhea the Human Witch, Yuv the Dragonborn Cleric of Bahamut, Flagan the Halfing Pugilist, Makarak the Half-Orc Barbarian, Thea the Elven Storm Cleric, Jade the Half-Elf Archer and myself, sought out the serpent lair and managed to locate it, and dispatched the land-based crocodilian guardians outside the entrance. Yet, flying reptile creatures still guarded the entrance, circling above it in the air. After much debate in which I staunchly urged my companions not to desecrate the corpses of the slain guardians, we managed to distract the flying creatures and made our way inside.

The cavern led us to a pit full of snakes. Thousands of serpents writhed around in what I can only describe as a most likely delicious and nutritious mush of confectionery dinosaur cream. Unsure how to best proceed, I called up on the Greensong to let me converse with these snakes, who informed me that their Mother would not want us to cross, and that we should leave. As they would not willingly let us pass to treat with the Serpent Queen, we used flaming brands to create a pathway through their midst, and crossed to the other side.

Shortly thereafter, we came upon the Queen's Chamber. I attempted to negotiate, but the foul beast was already singing her own foul magic songs, which were affecting my companions, forcing them to stand helpless, or even transforming them into serpent creatures. Our band set to, and met her guardians in battle. These guardians consisted of an enormous serpent which swallowed Flagan whole at one point, and several crocodilians armed with poison darts. Our spells and weapons proved superior, and the guardians fell dead while the Queen made her escape out the back.

The escape tunnel was much too narrow for Yuv and myself to follow in our armor,  but the remainder of the party crawled up the tunnel, and were pelted with rocks, acid, and other forms of hindrance before they reached the top. I set to work looking for the treasure trove, as the Giant's Rod was our goal, not slaying its guardian. Yuv doffed his plate-and-mail and followed after the others. As they reported back to me later, they followed her trail to another chamber with an entrance to the surface, where she escaped into the jungle.

I had no luck in discovering her treasury while my companions were so occupied.

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This is actually last month's session. I forgot to write it up. The write-up for this past weekend's session will be posted tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie Review: The Great Wall

Last Monday I went and saw The Great Wall, but I've been busy so I'm only getting to blog about it now (Wednesday). I was looking forward to watching this film. I've enjoyed Zhang Yimou's work in the past, and this is "Ancient Chinese fantasy" which is pretty much what my little RPG is all about.

I was a bit hesitant, though, because here in S. Korea, they've oversaturated the market with ads for the film. I mean, try to watch anything on YouTube, and you have to sit through a 10-second ad for the film. I've got a bit of a contrarian streak from my dad. He hated Elvis and the Beatles back in the 60's when they were super popular (he prefers Elvis but doesn't mind the Beatles today). Because of the annoyance, I almost just waited to watch it on VOD later. But I thought, hey, I'm kinda the intended audience for this sort of film, so I'll go see it.

The basic story, if you haven't been over-inundated with ads, is that a pair of foreigners arrive at the Great Wall to "trade" just on the eve of a monster attack that happens for a week once every 60 years. And since the main character, William (that would be the Matt Damon character), is an excellent archer, he helps out. Oh, and it helps that he thinks Commander Lin (Tian Jing) is cute.

So yeah, it's not really wuxia, but it does play out a bit more similarly to how my Flying Swordsmen games have actually turned out in practice. Lots of combat, some cool stunts, monsters here and there, but not really a lot of interpersonal relationship development. In that department, it's more like a typical Hollywood film, although as far as the visuals go, it's very Zhang Yimou. This is a hybrid film, designed to try and appeal to both mainstream U.S. and mainstream Chinese audiences, after all.

And finally, my opinion of the film? I liked it well enough, but I can't say it was great. The beginning was pretty solid, but when the Nameless Order (the Chinese army defending the Wall) are first introduced, the very brightly colored armors looked like something out of a Koei strategy game. But again, it's Zhang Yimou. He loves to play around with colors in his films, and in this one the backgrounds were pretty stark, leaving only costuming as an area to use colors symbolically. The first attack of the creatures (tao tei) was fun to watch. Commander Lin's Crane Corps was very wuxia.

The second half of the film, though, was a predictable and not so exciting playing out of a typical Hollywood cliche. I don't want to spoil things, but we've seen this plot a hundred times, and they didn't really bring anything new to it. It's by the numbers.

I did appreciate that at the ending, they used a more traditional Chinese style ending than a traditional American style ending.

So, not the best film I've ever seen, but not too bad, either. A more creative plot would have really helped this film, along with a bit deeper character interaction (William and Lin spar about Western individualism and Eastern communalism, General Shao and Strategist Wang spar a little over how to deal with the tao tei, William, Tovar and Ballard disagree about how to get what they want and escape, but it's all fairly tangential to defeating the tao tei).

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Poison in Chanbara

While in general I'm fine with "save or die" poison in RPGs both as a GM and as a player*, my recent foray into reading Mentzer Basic cover to cover (many monster venoms in Basic have a time delay before death, but potions/spells seem to be immediate), some reading up around the web about actual effects of poison (wracking pains, vomiting/diarrhea, muscle spasms, impaired cognition, nerve/tissue damage), and Alexis's musings on poison back in November got me to revise how I handle poisons in Chanbara.

I'm not 100% sure this is the best way ever to handle poisons in game, or anything like that. But it is a bit different, allows for a few different types of effects of different poisons, and tries to remain simple enough. It does require a bit of reference-checking for me still, but I think if I played with these poison rules long enough, I'd probably get them down in my head without needing to look them up.

I have divided poisons into four types (the names are not really relevant to their real world meanings, necessarily). Each does some damage over time, but also has another "side effect" such as sleep, paralysis, sensory deprivation, pain/vomiting/diarrhea/other hindrances, mental stupor, and yes, instant death. It may require a bit of extra book-keeping, but it also allows GMs to ignore any of the types they don't like. If you don't want Vizzini to just keel over a few seconds after drinking iocaine-laced wine, don't use the deadly poisons in your game.
No save-or-die poisons? Inconceivable!
In addition to having four broad types of poison, each one is listed with a strong/normal/weak dosage, which affects the duration. For most, a stronger dose has a longer duration, but for the deadly poison it's reversed (it kills you quicker). Characters take damage based on the strength of the dose over the duration of the effect. This is one area I like in concept, but I'm not sure if it works well in practice. The stronger doses of non-deadly poison deal more damage, but less frequently. Weak doses could be unbalanced as written due to the fact that the damage is concentrated into a short time, even though the dice being rolled for damage are smaller. Some people also may not like the fact that "sleep poison" doesn't only put the victim to sleep, it also deals damage to them. Well, nothing's perfect about this game, and Marilyn Monroe and plenty of other people have died from taking such poisons.

And to quit rambling on about it before anyone besides me really knows what I'm talking about, here are the snippets of rules from the draft. First are the players' side prices and types of poison commonly available (at least for criminals or Shinobi) from the equipment lists (mon is the standard silver coin of the realm, equal to a normal D&D gold piece).

The actual game effects are kept "behind the screen" so GMs can choose to add a bit of uncertainty with respect to duration/damage dealt when PCs use poison on monsters if they choose. Or, if they want they can reveal the mechanics behind the poison to the players. Those mechanics are (as they currently stand) found in the Combat Rules section of the text:
Finally, to help you gauge how useful or not it might be to rob a monster or NPC of their senses, paralyze them, etc. I present rules from the Combat Rules section that describe a variety of conditions or "status effects" to borrow the video game nomenclature.

A few notes: AC is of course armor class, TD is Tactical Defense - like AC, but for special maneuvers like disarm/trip/wrestle etc. (borrowed idea from Pathfinder). TN is target number.

*Save or die is simple. There's not really much you need to worry about remembering during an often messy, chaotic battle, or typical rambunctious RPG session. You get bitten by a giant spider and test your luck. Done.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Ultimate OSR Franken-Setting?

One of my well-read posts from last September (currently over 1200 page views) but with no reaction (0 comments or plusses, other than the one I gave it for promoting it on G+) was a book review of Ernie Cline's second novel, Armada. In it, I (like most of the reviewers of the book I'd read before picking it up) invariably compared it to his debut novel, Ready Player One. RPO is the superior book, and since I'm on winter break and the dissertation is complete, a few weeks ago I re-read RPO. I likely could have gotten through it in a day if I didn't have family obligations. As it was, it took me two. It's a quick read the second time through.

If you're unfamiliar with it, the book takes place in the near dystopian future, where peak oil and global warming have pretty much ruined everything. But the world's first true persistent VR, the OASIS, has become for most people their means of escape from the hell Earth has become. It has its own economy, and game credits translate into real money. People work there, aside from just playing. Pretty much every internet service is delivered through it. And from the way it's described, it's amaze-balls awesome.

The original designer/coder was a geek roughly the same age as me (born in '72, I was born in '73) and loved to throw in all the stuff he could referencing pop culture from the late 70's to the early 2000's, but mostly from the 80's. Within the VR there are countless planets. Some allow high technology. Some allow magic. Some allow both. As with any MMO, there are PvP zones and safe zones.

There is a zone with planets based on Star Wars, another on Star Trek, one on Firefly, etc. Every D&D module has been coded in there as a 3D environment you can explore, most on the planet Gygax. There are giant Japanese robot worlds and cowboy worlds and Middle Earth, Zork, Hyrule, etc. Whatever cartoons you grew up watching in the 80's? There's probably a world in there for it.
Acererak challenges you to Joust (by J. Delgado)

Basically, it's the Mother of All Kitchen Sink Settings.

So I'm imagining (some day, when time is no hindrance, which will probably never come) setting a game there. Players would start with Classic D&D (or Labyrinth Lord or whatever) on a D&D style planet, but once they've got the funds or means to teleport or travel through space, other worlds open up, and each world has the potential to add new options for the players' character races, classes, equipment, spells, etc. based on other OSR rule sets.

So visit the world of Tombstone, and Go Fer Yer Gun or Boot Hill cowboy characters, sixguns, etc. become available. Visit Gamma Terra, and mutant characters and recovered high tech "artifacts" enter the game. After visiting planet LV-426 (if you survive the face huggers), colonial marines and pulse rifles enter the game. Visit Smurf Village and um...try to catch them and turn them into gold like Gargamel? Or something.

Basically, I'd just be giving myself cover to throw in any sort of interesting pop culture references I feel like. And I'd be forcing myself to actually read through and implement stuff from lots of these OSR games I've collected on my hard drive, but haven't bothered to look at other than a cursory glance or two. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cartography for Chanbara

I've got a hand-made map of the various provinces of my "Jade Islands" setting for Chanbara that I've been using in my play test games. I've been meaning to get it converted to a digital map for over a year now. Last night, I finally got that done.

If you've got Flying Swordsmen, the Jade Islands, or Yu Archipelago as the Zhongyang Dalu residents call it, is in the upper right hand corner. Here's the zoomed in version I finally completed last night. The coast lines, mountains and rivers are all hand drawn. Everything else I added to it using GIMP.

I've also been using this completely hand drawn map in my games. It's of Enzan Province in the middle of Tatsuo Island (18 on the map above). I'm including both maps in the game, with a brief overview of the nation as a whole, a few notes about the Spirit Realm, and extra details about Enzan, which has been fleshed out a bit from my two play test games.

It's not a very detailed rundown of the setting, but that's intentional. I think I've mentioned before that the bits of the "Known World" from Mentzer's Expert Set (Threshold and Karameikos) and X1 The Isle of Dread (a paragraph or two about each nation on the map) was enough to run years worth of games in that setting.