Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Apocalypse Star Wars

Ok, it’s not bad. I did enjoy watching it.

I’m not in a hurry to go back, though.

If you thought the TIE fighters coming out of the sunset was Apocalypse Now, wait until you get a load of this one. Forest Whitaker is Kurtz, complete with paranoid mumblings and devoted followers, with a heavy-handed dash of Darth Vader. The new u-wing isn’t really a fighter, it’s more a combat shuttle, complete with seat-belt strapping and slide away doors with pintel-mounted .50 calibre... er, blasters.

Rogue One is a very Cold War story, which makes its interface with Episode IV feel like an ill fit. The original trilogy wears its WWII on its sleeve. There’s no question the Empire is the Axis powers, with their Stormtroopers, howling TIE fighters, and Japanese-inspired helmets. Lucas famously used dog-fighting footage from WWII movies as filler for the FX starship scenes. The villains are vile and the heroes, even the princess, exude an aw-shucks nobility that personifies the American self-image of what we call the Greatest Generation.

Not so in Rogue One. Even the heroes have been damaged by war, their principles compromised for their cause. The rebel “heroes” are murderers, blasting people in cold blood, and carry the scars of those actions. (Though a few from the gang at the end felt more than a little too green to bear such weights.)

The writing doesn’t help. Listen, I’m one of those softies who loves Babylon 5 and nearly bursts into tears when Sam tells Frodo, “I can’t carry it, but I can carry you!” Purple prose doesn’t send my eyes a-rollin’. But there’s good purple prose and then there’s leaden purple prose, and the constant litany of “hope-hope-hope” just sounded flat. Especially when you consider how so many characters just seem to give up in their final minutes, shrug, and wait for their inevitable deaths.

And the music also isn’t helping. The call-backs are timid, the emotional beats are timid. There’s too much trying to be Star Wars and not be John Williams going on here, and it just doesn’t do the emotional heavy-lifting a movie with this sort of dialogue and themes needs. You can tell that poor Michael Giacchino was working under severe time restraints.

Which all sounds pretty bad, but honestly, as sci-fi space opera movies go, Rogue One was actually entertaining. There’s some neat characters, some fun banter, the comedy is excellent and not heavy-handed. It’s got cool locales, neat ships, and well-filmed action. It’s just not up the standards set by The Force Awakens or the Captain America movies.

Comic by jollyjack.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Doing Star Wars Right

Like Kiel, I’m often bit by the run-a-Star-Wars rpg after watching one of the new movies. (Never felt this way when watching the original trilogy, mostly because I was so taken by what the pros had done with the setting. Not so much anymore.) While I’ve never done as much work on creating a Star Wars game as Kiel has, here are my thoughts on what one would look like:

  1. Heavily Character Based. Everything is about the characters and revolves around them. But not only the characters individually but as groupings. Luke’s faith in his friends wasn’t his weakness, but his strength. These movies, each and every one, have been about relationships. I’d put that front-and-center in a Star Wars game by:
    1. Creating a quasi-class system where each class has a nice little expertise niche carved out for itself, but where the abilities of the different classes have powerful synergies. A pilot and a mechanic working together can make a ship do things neither alone could. A diplomat plus a warrior can play good-cop-bad-cop in negotiations and interrogations. Getting attacked by a Jedi and a sniper is far worse than being attacked by either alone.
    2. Give relationships actual mechanics. Being siblings creates synergies (Luke calling for Lea while hanging from the bottom of the cloud city), being romantically involved creates synergies (maybe by being able to boost each other’s skills a la Han and Lea in front of the bunker on Endor), and being able to call on the aid of NPCs the PCs actually invest time and effort into.
    3. A pile of dice in the middle of the table the group can decide together to spend on any one roll they agree is important enough to warrant it. Yeah, it’s a dissociative mechanic, and generally I don’t like those, but this very much fits the feel of a Star Wars band coming together and supporting one another. Maybe instead it’s dice that each PC has, but that get boosted if given to another player?
    4. Base most of character advancement on this. Sure, Luke becomes a more powerful Jedi over the course of the first three movies, but he’s an aberration. Han’s already a hot-shot pilot; his growth arc has nothing to do with his skills and everything to do with his relationships and moral fiber.
  2. Remember that, while swashbuckling combat is a part of Star Wars, it’s not what Star Wars is about. To that end, I’d avoid fights for the sake of fights and instead of a usual combat system adjudicate every fight with a variation of Daisy Chains of Death & Destruction. The fighting in Star Wars is almost never about killing someone, and almost always an obstacle that must be overcome to achieve a goal.
  3. And I’d keep in mind that the Jedi are mystics first and warriors second, and make the higher plane they operate on mechanically significant to the game. Morality in Star Wars isn’t quite black-and-white, but it’s pretty central to the original stories, and making that work in the rules is important to getting the right feel.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Two Years of A5t!

So 5e’s been out for a few years now, two this January to be exact (counting the DMG), and it’s finally been graced with its own general-purpose rules addition in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. (I’m not counting Sword Coast because it’s very setting-specific and, frankly, appears to go largely overlooked, at least in my neck of the woods.) Now seems to be a good time to look back at the evolution of the art of 5e’s hardbacks.

The first thing that’s obviously different is the utter disappearance of the Robert-Howard-esque, checklist multi-culturalism that was everywhere in the PHB and largely gone by the DMG. It’s still gone. Instead, D&D art direction appears to have fully embraced the post LotR-movies “generic gamest fantasy” trappings you see just about everywhere these days. We’re a far cry from the Dungeonpunk look of 3e; weapons are armor look serviceable and realistic (except for dwarven armor which apparently revolves around sculptural paldron ornaments). The clothing and gear looks worn, sometimes even stained or tattered around hems. The further you get from the PHB, the more careworn the look and feel is. Also, the more practical it looks, with pockets, pouches, straps and hanging gear, without going full Wayne-Reynolds-kitchen-sink, and certainly not like the pants-made-of-belts Dungeonpunk of 3e.

Still, we’re not seeing a resurgence of ‘80’s you-are-there, either. What we’ve got now is a very digital look with a soft focus and lots of color effects, clearly inspired by Frazetta but with the heroics tamed down. The proportions are strictly human, the heroics more Aragron-with-his-feet-planted-on-the-earth than Legolas-leaping-through-the-air. It’s kinda reminiscent of the reskinned 2e with Jane and Bob from accounting, but instead of a near-photorealistic painting of them in their late-‘90’s renfest garb, the wardrobe’s up to Weta Workshop standards now.

Nor are we seeing the WoW-inspired, ultra-cool of 4e. The palette is muted, almost muddied to the point of ‘90’s-era computer games like Morrowind or Quake. There’s lots of browns, umbers, and sienna with very little crimson or royal blue. When we get bold, brilliant colors, they’re atmospheric effects like lava, or a magical effect inspired by a monster, and almost never on a PC.

In short, the WotC focus has moved from who you are and what you’re doing and into concept-art style moods. The wall-of-action is gone; in its place are almost contemplative scenes that promise that action is imminent, but not happening just right now. Unfortunately, the moods tend to be things that art conveys very clearly, but can be more of a challenge in an RPG. The eminent attack of this giant is neat, but PCs rarely wait around for the monster to strike, not when there are buffs to cast, weapons to poison, and plans to make.

The other very common piece of art is the head-shot and full-body portrait, very reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen Paizo do for their adventures. Unfortunately, while this sort of thing ought to be extremely useful to DMs running adventures, my own experience with the art has been very hit-and-miss. It’s pretty rare that I see one of these pics and get a good sense of personality. These portraits rarely tell me anything useful about the people they represent. The most interesting thing about the headshot of Out of the Abyss’ Sarith are the bright orange spots that blatantly give away the most interesting thing about him.

The end result is art that feels like it’s attempting to justify its inclusion through utility, attempting to be informative and inspiring, but stumbling due to the traditional limits and expectations of RPG art. NPC portraits should come on sheets that can be handed to the players, with ample space for the players to jot notes on. Mood pieces should accompany tools and tips for DMs to create and maintain that mood to useful effect at the table.

On the one hand, I appreciate this respect for the consumer. The art’s not there just to be pretty, it’s not there just because there needs to be art, the art is actively trying to make my game better. On the other hand, I think WotC needs to be even more experimental, or, at the very least, pay attention to the experiments of others. Why are the end papers in their books still blank? Why don’t their full-color illustrations have the vibrancy and life and character of their sketchy line-art? Where are the visual puzzles? Where are the hand-outs of items and locations that contain visual clues for the players to pick up on?

All-in-all, I’m finding 5e’s art to be ok. Not great, but not off-putting either. It’s just kinda there. I don’t mean to be damning with faint praise, but yeah, it doesn’t really inspire or excite me. I won’t be rushing out to purchase poster-sized versions of any of it. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m having to fight against it, either, which is a step in the right direction for me.