Friday, December 15, 2017

What I Would Have Pitched to WotC If They Would Have Asked Me to Pitch

Some weeks back, a job listing popped up on Hasbro’s site for a designer position at Dungeons & Dragons. I threw my hat into the ring—I qualified, after all—but yesterday received notice that Wizards of the Coast did not want to interview me. I’m disappointed, but slightly relieved at not having to throw my life out of whack by moving to Washington. I sincerely hope they’re taking this opportunity to add some increased diversity to the D&D crew.
If—IF!—I had gotten the interview, and if—IF!—the good people at Wizards had asked me for pitches for new books, this is what I would have pitched:
Against the Lords
For levels 1-15
An urbancrawl adventure intended to reestablish Waterdeep as the premier city setting of the Forgotten Realms, Against the Lords puts the adventurers at odds with the very Lords of Waterdeep! Discovering the Masked Lords infiltrated and subverted by various enemies of Waterdeep—such as the Xanathar’s Thieves Guild and the Zhentarim—the adventurers must scour the city and root out corruption, taking them to such iconic locations as Blackstaff Tower, Mother Tathlorn’s, Skullport, and Undermountain. Along the way, the adventurers build their own network of political allies, emerging at last to become Lords of Waterdeep themselves!
Legacy of Champions
For levels 15+
A new age of heroes begins as old heroes step down! With the retirement of the Forgotten Realms book line in 2016, the chance arises to allow Dungeon Masters and players to truly make the Realms their own. Featuring denouements by Realms luminaries such as Ed Greenwood and R. A. Salvatore, this adventure provides the last chapter in the stories of legends like Elminster and Drizzt while providing the chance for the player’s own characters to step into the legacies vacated. Who will be the new Sage of Shadowdale? Who will become the Open Lord of Waterdeep? Who will wield Twinkle and Icingdeath? A series of interconnected adventures allows high-level characters who have beaten D&D’s previous epic adventures to advance to 20th level—and beyond!  
Man, I wish I had the time to write these for the DMs Guild.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

I Want Edopunk

I didn’t back 7th Sea: Khitai for three reasons: 1) I honestly haven’t gotten much use out of my 7th Sea 2nd Edition books so far; 2) I already own all of Cubicle 7’s Qin: The Warring States line for my wuxia needs (not that I’m not capable of making that up myself); and 3) I just didn’t like the preview material for Khitai’s version of Japan. While the blending of Ainu and Japanese culture was intriguing, I’m just not interested in another pseudo-Sengoku Jidai. I want an Edopunk setting.

I want a setting that looks like a Wagakki Band video. I want a setting that delves into the non-samurai side of Japan—the colorful world of courtesans, fireworks makers, freelance “police,” geisha, sumo wrestlers, ukiyo-e artists, and yakuza seen in such works as Miss Hokusai, Oh! Edo Rocket, Sakuran, and the Zatoichi series. If there’s going to be the supernatural, then I want it to be the weird, wacky world of yōkai folklore, with all of its banal yet bizarre monsters. I want a game that kicks the myth of the samurai in the nards. I want a setting that could be illustrated by the person behind the Edopunk Tumblr.

Frankly, it drives me kind of nuts that in a world where the equivalent of Louis XIV (1638 - 1715) is running around, the version of Japan that exists is set prior to 1600—but I realize John Wick probably wants a chance to revisit and create his own definitive version of Legend of the Five Rings. I also realize that the world of 7th Sea also has Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) and Louis XIV as contemporaries, so it’s not like presenting a cohesive version of alt-history is a priority for Wick and his crew. I do think that there’s something lost in presenting an ahistorically fractured Japan as contemporary with the developing nationhood of England and France; if the setting is going to focus on samurai, I’d rather see courtiers in ruffs confronting the Tokugawa bureaucracy than a land in the middle of civil war.

I realize that World of Dew (which I really need to get around to buying) presents a Tokugawa Era setting, and that Wick has a good relationship with the creator of that game (which is, after all, based on Wick’s Houses of the Blooded rules). But, again, I’d rather see a game about the common people of Edo Japan, the people who resisted and rebelled for two hundred years. (Yeah, that’s right, the history of Tokugawa Japan was riddled with peasant uprisings and even samurai rebellions; the idea that Japan is a land of peace and harmony is Meiji-era propaganda.)
Man, I guess that means I'm going to need to write it myself. I'll put it on the schedule for 2023.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

New Campaign: 5e Winter Fantasy

Art by Wayne Reynolds, obviously.

***Slight Spoilers for Robin***
The globetrotting cat burglar campaign came to an end (or, at least, a hiatus) because we just ran out of ideas. That happens in multiple-times-a-week duet campaigns. Personally, I kind of think of it as a feature, not a bug, because I have too many ideas for campaigns and too little time—but this time was bittersweet because we really didn’t want to end it. We just couldn’t think of ways to keep it going.
Because we skipped our quasi-tradition of doing a short horror campaign in October, the successor to Bev Slick’s adventures is a winter holiday-ish, fey-themed D&D 5e campaign. (We’re a little burnt out on Savage Worlds at the moment, and Robin already knows how to play 5e, so we don’t have the growing pangs of learning a new system.) I have this very vague idea in my head that it’s going to have a romance novel plot about Robin’s character unthawing an icy fey lord’s heart as she rises in levels as one of them newfangled Glamour bards, but I’m trying to leave myself room to maneuver.
So far, the game is set in a seemingly low-magic, vaguely Germanic world (specifically not my beloved Forgotten Realms). Halflings and dwarves mix freely with humans but are regarded with suspicion; elves and gnomes exist, but haven’t appeared yet. I suspect both peoples dwell apart from humans, closer to the fey than other mortal races; in fact, that is now officially canon. Elves dwell on the fringes of the equivalent to the Feywild, subject to the archfey; that should actually work pretty well to bolster the relatively sparse fey in the various 5e books (I can at least cannibalize drow stats). Gnomes live closer to the forest edge, trading with human and halfling communities.
Our heroine, the human 1st level bard Orianna, belongs to a human ethnic group that dwells primarily in the east of the kingdom (the game is set in the west) and which uses Celtic names taken from the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything tables; they are the original inhabitants of the area, and other humans think of them as the “Old People.” The “Young People” use English and Germanic names, but certainly contain their share of dark-haired, dark-complexioned people.
Orianna is on the last leg of her yearly wandering, hoping to make it to a large town or city to while away the winter when the snowdrifts trap everyone inside (it being easier for a minstrel to make a living amid a larger population who won’t all hear her playing the same songs every night). The first game session began in the small village of Hartshold, and she’s trying to make it to Ramsford, where both a duke and a bishop reside.
In Hartshold, she met three traveling companions who are working their way north with her. Hans is probably a 3rd level Monster Slayer ranger with more than a little of the fairy tale woodsman to him; he’s a burly human that I imagine looking a lot like Joe Manganiello, with a scar above his left eye into his hairline (a scar that presumably has something to do with his left eye being amber-colored and his right eye being blue). He also drinks a suspicious medicine made of wolf’s bane. Corrin and Bree are two married halflings on the run from disapproving parents; they’re shy and cautious, and Orianna has witnessed what was apparently some kind of shapeshifting spell affect them during the night.
(They actually switched genders, each assuming the other’s name the next day in an attempt to keep up the ruse that nothing’s wrong or weird about them. Orianna hasn’t figured out exactly what’s going on yet because she barely saw their faces the previous day; she just knows something is off.)
On their first day of travel together, a sudden winter storm came from the east, driving the characters to seek shelter in the forest beside which the road winds. While huddling around a fire, they witnessed a large, black hare with red eyes bound out of nowhere and watch them for a bit. The hare was chased off by frost sprites (or something similar) that were either blown along the winter winds or were causing/escorting it. When the travelers returned to the road, Orianna saw the black hare eating one of the sprites. (It should be noted that I’m describing the sprites as more like the fairies in Fantasia than their traditional D&D description.)
After rescuing a stranded carter, Orianna and her companions got a lift to the next village and found room at the crowded inn. While Bree and Corrin stayed in their rented room, Orianna and Hans were joined at their table in the common room by Lapin, a mysterious weirdo who resembles a spaced-out version of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (and who also has boundary issues). Clad in black fur and leather, the intensely-curious Lapin invited himself to join their group on the next day’s journey—a journey that will be complicated by heavy overnight snow.
And that’s where we left this barely-begun adventure before going to see Lindsey Sterling in concert last night (the middle act of her show providing renewed inspiration for the “winter fey” theme). I think I’ll probably award Robin a level the next time we play, and then work on getting her whisked off to fairyland so that she can get the proper infusion of fey-ness before she starts getting her college’s abilities.
Right now, the whole of everything is pretty deliberately nebulous. I want to mix the wondrous and the beautiful and the creepy and the weird into something that’s more than an extended remix of Labyrinth. You can’t mandate love interests in a duet game—we know from experience that this robs the game of delight—so I need to set up a few more potential beaus for Orianna. (I don’t plan on Hans being a central love interest, but I could be surprised about that.) I also need some proper villains; the antihero bad boy leads of romance always reveal their true goodness by combatting something worse than them (sometimes pride, sometimes prejudice, sometimes a cult of debauched aristocrat pedophiles). Has anybody done 5e stats for any of those 4e archfey?
Comments and suggestions are welcome!

Monday, November 20, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE is the Movie the Rest of You Wanted

If I was a Warner Brothers exec right now, I’d have to conclude that the problem with Justice League is that it wasn’t dark enough. After all, this is the brighter-colored, happier, chummy DC film that people who don’t like Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman claim they’ve wanted all along—and yet it’s performing much worse at the box office than either of those films. By Hollywood logic, that means the film lost money by straying from the formula established by the first two movies, so the logical response would be to course-correct back toward darkness.
I know most of you guys don’t want that to happen, so you better get out there and see Justice League this week. Otherwise, I’ll be getting back the version of the franchise that I like.
I’m slightly exaggerating, of course. There are other reasons Justice League could be failing, but they’re not the kind Hollywood execs are going to comprehend. It could simply be superhero fatigue; perhaps all the casual fans already saw Thor: Ragnarok and they just don’t want to spend money on another superhero movie before Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes out. It could be backlash against Zack Snyder by fanboys who have decided this is the one time they’re not going to hate-watch a DC movie, or it could be backlash against scummy bastard/quasi-director Joss Whedon for the way he cheated on and gaslighted Kai Cole for years. (I’ll admit that Whedon’s involvement bothered me beyond what I knew were going to be inevitable changes for the worse that he was going to make to the film.) Or it could be the reviews.
If it’s the reviews, then I’m completely confused by both the reviewers and those who listened to them. As much as it is not the film I wanted to see, Justice League isn’t bad. It’s a blandly competent superhero movie in the same mode as most Marvel movies, no better and certainly no worse than Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. There’s humor and action and colorful costumes and charming leads. All of the characters get at least a little bit of an arc and nobody except Steppenwolf is dull, and if you’re going to fault superhero movies for dull villains, then I’ve got an MCU you might want to get earthquake insurance for.
Some of the performances are even great. Amy Adams is, as usual, brilliant as Lois Lane (even if she gets little screen time in an overcrowded film). Jason Momoa is fantastic as an Aquaman that treads a fine line between Peter David’s brooding, hook-handed hero and Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s over-the-top super-bro; my only complaint is that he never shouts “Outrageous!” Ezra Miller gives the movie its heart as a Flash who might be on the autistic spectrum, while Ray Fisher gives his best as a Cyborg still struggling to accept his machine side (and who does get a “Booyah”). I personally didn’t notice Henry Cavill’s CGI upper lip very much, and Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot shine in their roles just as they did before.
If there’s any real problem with the version of Justice League that Warner Brothers released, it’s that CEO Kevin Tsujihara’s mandated runtime of two hours and one minute is just too short. Ten or fifteen minutes more could have given every character a little more space to breathe, a little more time for us to get invested in them before throwing them into battle. There are lots of neat little bits—Flash’s wide-eyed surprise at realizing Superman can not only see him but also catch up to him when he’s moving at top speed is pretty cool—but there’s just not enough space for this many characters.
(Frankly, I feel the same way about Whedon’s Avengers films, too. There’s a reason I don’t own them on home video.)
Again, despite these flaws, Justice League is a perfectly serviceable tent-pole superhero movie, and I’m deeply confused that moviegoers have tuned it out. Seriously, people, most of you will like it!
As for me… I didn’t hate it, but I mourn for the movie that might have been. Unfortunately, a lot of my complaints derive from factors beyond anyone’s control. Assuming that Zack Snyder really did bow out to spend time with his family after his daughter’s suicide—and that he wasn’t forced out by the WB execs—then I can’t complain that the replacement director retooled things to better fit his style. (I mean, I can, but it’s not Warner’s or Whedon’s fault that a new director was needed.) While I can be mad that Warner Brothers dumped Hans Zimmer’s former co-composer Junkie XL in favor of Danny effin’ Elfman, I have to keep in mind that Zimmer himself decided to stop composing superhero scores.
(And, yes, I agree with Elfman that studios should carry superhero themes throughout franchises in the same way that the James Bond films reuse that character’s theme. I even got a little bit of a thrill from hearing Elfman’s Batman theme again. Unfortunately, the rest of the score was uninspired and weirdly muted. It might just be my hearing problems, but I had a hard time even hearing the music over dialogue and explosions. I guess we should blame that on the sound mixer.)
My problem with Justice League is that it has no subtext to dig into, no deeper themes to analyze and explore.  This was true of Thor: Ragnarok as well, but at least that movie had so much comedy that I never stopped laughing long enough to think. Snyder haters will never believe this, but his previous two DC films have depth. Man of Steel dares to reimagine Superman as a character created by our modern world, asking if he would really be the good person we want him to be if he was raised in the Koch brothers’ Kansas, asking how he could learn to reject killing his enemies in a United States that has been at war since 2001. Batman v. Superman satirizes both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan by saying that maybe previous film versions of Batman are kinda fascist, and maybe he’d be more truly heroic if he went out and made some friends instead of punching the mentally ill. I know my mix of fandom and healthy skepticism isn’t prevalent among superhero geeks, but I genuinely love the deconstructive elements of Snyder’s films.
Of course, Justice League was always going to be a brighter, more optimistic film. That was set up from the end of Man of Steel, when Superman cries out in anguish at having to kill the only other Kryptonian on Earth and learns (implicitly, I admit) that he must never kill again. It was set up in Batman v. Superman, when Alfred complains about the dark path Bruce is walking, when Clark desperately tries to reach out to Bruce before their battle, when Wonder Woman arrives in all her glory, when Bruce Wayne freaking says out loud that he screwed up and wants to be a better hero. While I’m sure the particulars changed dramatically as the suits demanded Batman be in the Man of Steel sequel, as they clamored for brighter colors in Justice League, I have no doubts that Zack Snyder intended all along to create a story arc that took us from the pessimism of today to something greater.
But that was always something you had to construct out of the dialogue, out of subtle hints, out of text and subtext. Justice League just doesn’t have that. The closest it gets to that is Aquaman getting over his bad self when he sees that the threat of Steppenwolf endangers the sea and the land, and Cyborg accepting his new condition. It’s not bad—it’s the movie so many wanted—but I’m just a little disappointed.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters

Well, that was weird.

I jest, but Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters is not the book I was expecting, presenting strange and twisty turns in Kim Newman’s long-running vampire mythology. It’s also literally not the book I was expecting when it was originally announced as Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju. The promotional synopsis for that book was the following:

In 1899 Geneviéve Dieudonné is working as a doctor on a ship of vampire refugees from Dracula’s Britain, as Christina Light, a vampire who can literally turn into light, persuades the Emperor to cede a section of Tokyo to her as the Vampire Bund, a Shanghai-like international settlement of the undead and her own power base.

New Year’s Eve 1999 in the Vampire Bund in Tokyo, and Christina is on the cusp of completing her hundred-year plan to become an ascendant power in the world. Only vampire samurai Nezumi stands in her way…

In this fifth gripping novel in the acclaimed alternative history vampire series, Newman takes his story to turn-of-the-century Japan and a world of cyberpunk, kaiju, and yakuza.

Evidently, the sprawl of time and bifurcated setting proved impossible to jam into one volume, as One Thousand Monsters covers only the first paragraph of that summary, limiting the action to Geneviéve’s and Christina’s struggles to establish a vampire refuge in Yōkai Town, a walled and guarded ghetto in Tokyo to which the folktale monsters of Japan—the yōkai—have been banished by order of Emperor Meiji. In the expected Anno Dracula manner, these yōkai are vampires themselves and the novel follows the cross-cultural intrigues of vampires both European and Japanese as they struggle with the terrifying mortal sorcerer who keeps them prisoner.

Given the original press release’s overt reference to Nozomu Tamaki’s manga franchise Dance in the Vampire Bund, I expected One Thousand Monsters to delve deeper into the rich vampire lore of Japanese animation and comics. Instead, major supporting characters are drawn from the works of Henry James (with perhaps a winking nod to Stephenie Meyer) and E. C. Segar, with many (but not all) of the Japanese references taken more from traditional folklore and the golden age of Japanese cinema (including unexpected appearances by Akira Kurosawa’s most famous anti-hero and anachronistic references to Nikkatsu’s exploitation films).

I wonder if perhaps, for once, copyright got in the way of the usual “spot-the-reference” game—which would be weird, since Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Drusilla appears rather nakedly as herself—but it could as easily be simply the result of Newman not being a fan of Rurouni Kenshin, Peacemaker Kurogane, the Hakuōki series, and other series I hoped to see referenced. Thankfully, the book does include a call-out to Teito Monogatari—the seminal dark fantasy series known in the West from such adaptations as Tokyo: the Last Megalopolis and Doomed Magalopolis—and its charismatically evil villain Yasunori Katō (visual inspiration for M. Bison) and a few soft lob references to the most famous characters in Japanese horror cinema.  

Instead, Newman digs deep into the history and mindset of Geneviéve Dieudonné, telling the main plot of the book from her point of view and providing flashbacks sketching in the early days of Dracula’s rise to power, providing an interesting counterpoint to the original Anno Dracula. Come to think of it, this is the first Anno Dracula novel in which Dracula himself doesn’t appear. Former Carpathian Guard Kostaki acts as the focal character for the more traditional vampire B-plot, tempted by new darkness and questioning his identity.

This reduction to two viewpoint characters emphasizes the claustrophobia already inherent in restricting the characters to Yōkai Town, an artistic choice that left me squirming even as I couldn’t read One Thousand Monsters fast enough, anxious for the characters to break free of their confinement. Release finally comes in the form of an apocalyptic battle, a conflict thrilling enough that I didn’t mind not getting Geneviéve visiting the Asakusa Jūnikai or meeting Saitō Hajime.   

The end of One Thousand Monsters promises the 20th century half of Daikaiju is still on its way, so perhaps I’ll get more anime and manga references then. Despite my disappointment at not getting quite the story I longed to read, I still couldn’t put this book down. Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters is a strange and unexpected novel, a layered look into the mind of Kim Newman’s favorite heroine peppered with unexpected pop culture references. Fans of the Anno Dracula universe may not get what they expected, but there’s still much to like.

Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters by Kim Newman was published October 24th, 2017. This review is based off of the Kindle version of the novel, purchased at the reviewer’s own expense.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Monster Hunters’ Club (Preview)

The Monster Hunters’ Club is an upcoming setting for Savage Worlds inspired by ‘80s movies such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies and retro fare like Stranger Things. Produced by Darren G. Miller of CCS Games in cooperation with my occasional employer Fabled Environments (and edited by my internet buddy Tommy Brownell), The Monster Hunters’ Club lets players take on the roles of neighborhood kids discovering a world of supernatural horror just outside their doorsteps.

I have very little nostalgia for being a child in the 1980s. I fondly remember the toy lines and pop culture—G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Knight Rider, Transformers—but that’s an artifact of how far out of tune I was with other kids. A combination of anxiety disorder and undiagnosed food allergies meant I spent most of my childhood in a haze of confusion and embarrassing decisions, spending more time playing with toys and watching TV than hanging out. I went on one woodland hike with neighbor kids and everybody got ticks in their hair except me. I saw E.T. during its opening week and liked Megaforce better. I’d happily play a roleplaying game about listening to alternative rock and smoking clove cigarettes as a college student in the ‘90s, but I’m the exact wrong audience for a Stranger Things-inspired RPG.

Which probably makes me the perfect person to evaluate one.

First off, the free preview of The Monster Hunters’ Club available on DriveThruRPG is physically beautiful. The graphic design and layout by Karl Keesler—famous in the Savage Worlds community for his beautifully-rendered character sheets and gorgeously-detailed convention games—perfectly evokes an ‘80s paperback horror novel (the aesthetics of which I do have nostalgia for, even if I never read any). The digital paints of Veronica Jones (who has also illustrated the similarly-themed Little Fears) are some of the best art I’ve ever seen in a Savage Worlds licensee product, rendering everything in a pseudo-charcoal sketch style that perfectly matches the tone of the game—full of childhood wonder, but turned foreboding with a wash of gray and black.

Darren G. Miller hooks me in the introduction by turning literature nerd and giving us a brief history of children’s adventure fiction, beginning with The Swiss Family Robinson. By emphasizing the long history and universality of kids’ adventure lit early in the book, Miller provides an “in” for those (presumably few) of us who remember our childhoods (especially our ‘80s childhoods) with less than fondness. I may have spent my early years usually inside, playing with action figures alone with my brother instead of with the neighbor kids, but it’s not like I didn’t read Encyclopedia Brown.

Those bats are so cute.
The preview does not present a sample adventure and pre-generated characters, as I would usually expect, but instead a couple of sample archetypes from the 18 promised to be in the full book: the Brain and the Clown. These archetypes are not the simple set of stat blocks and line or two of explanatory text seen in most Savage Worlds products, similar to character creation in Streets of Bedlam. This gives the archetypes a depth usually only seen in Powered by the Apocalypse game playbooks.

A significant advantage to this approach is that Miller is able to stick to the spirit of the core Savage Worlds Young Hindrance while providing a means of creating more competent heroes. The painfully-familiar Brain archetype, for instance, gets the Young Hindrance’s 3 attribute points, but also starts with a Smarts of d6 while the 10 points to distribute among skills are enhanced by a free d4 in two Knowledge skills. Additional color is provided by bonus Edges and Hindrances (a more-forgiving requirement for the Scholar Edge, an adult mentor, and a weakness to bullying) as well as a choice of background. Because of these bonuses, players can only choose either a Major Hindrance or two Minor Hindrances for additional character points.

The backgrounds move the character creation process into the enhanced levels provided by The King is Dead’s secret societies or Rifts® for Savage Worlds’ M.A.R.S. packages, but still remain balanced with the intent of The Monster Hunters’ Club. The Brain can choose between the Academic (gaining Jack-of-all-Trades for Knowledge skills only, but also becoming a Doubting Thomas), Hacker (gaining bonuses to rolls involving technology but becoming even more socially awkward), and the Sleuth (gaining bonuses to investigatory activities but becoming blind to danger). Each background also modifies the starting equipment characters get (encyclopedias for the Academic, an early PC for the Hacker, and a magnifying glass and “junior detective set” for the Sleuth).

The preview ends with a partial overview of the Arcane Backgrounds available in The Monster Hunters’ Club. Instead of the usual Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Super Powers, and Weird Science, the child heroes may instead select Belief, Gadgetry, Psychokinesis, and Storytelling. Similarly to the conflict over consensual reality and Paradox in Mage: The Ascension, these abilities are powered by childlike wonder and innocence, and are thereby harder to use in the presence of adults. Belief and Storytelling are previewed; Belief is the make-believe of over-imaginative daydreamers while Storytelling is a bard-like ability to lift spirits and spook people out by spinning yarns. It’s a genre-savvy approach to Arcane Backgrounds that veers sharply into the magical realism side of kids’ adventure, reminding me of The Bridge to Terabithia and The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Drama Queen.”

With such an auspicious preview, I can highly recommend keeping an eye out for news on The Monster Hunters’ Club. Even if I personally can’t see myself ever playing in a setting like this, I can’t imagine a better product for this niche coming to Savage Worlds. The art and design are gorgeous and the writing is genre-savvy with the perfect tone. It all adds up to a project I’m eager to see succeed and which I heartily recommend to fans of ‘80s kids adventure.


BONUS: My Stats
Ok, I was probably five or six in this picture, not ten.

Sean Tait Bircher, Age 10
Brain (Academic)

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d4, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Belief d4, Fighting d4, Knowledge (Monsters and Mythology) d8, Knowledge (Zoology) d6, Persuasion d4, Riding d6, Stealth d4, Throwing d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Bad Eyes (Minor), Doubting Thomas, Outsider, Young
Edges: Berserk, Luck, Scholar
Gear: 10-speed bicycle, bookshelf of literary classics, set of encyclopedias, valid library card
Special Abilities:
  • Power Points: 10
  • Powers: Healing (plush lion named Sylvester)
  • Bookworm: Whenever you make a roll for a Knowledge skill you do not have, you roll a d4 instead of d4-2
  • Malicious Envy: -2 to Tests of Will to resist Taunt
  • Mentor: Joseph Sullivan (grandfather, high school principal)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Thoughts on Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

Camouflage isn't flattering on you, Fujiko.


Last night, Robin and I went to the Fathom Events special screening of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. It was an amazingly pleasant evening. The theater seats reclined. There were only about three other people there (two women and one man, making women the majority of the audience), and they were all quiet and enrapt; I was probably the loudest person in the theater because I was almost the only person laughing out loud. The movie was, as always, a joy.

I mentioned a couple of posts back that The Castle of Cagliostro is far from my favorite piece of Lupin III animation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good movie. It’s obviously a great movie, and probably the best piece of the Lupin III franchise if you’re not someone, like me, who prefers the impulsive, lecherous anti-hero of Monkey Punch’s manga to Miyazaki’s noble rogue.* With that said, my opinion of the film actually went up last night.

I realized shortly into the film that this was the first time I ever watched The Castle of Cagliostro subtitled. I’m not the kind of anime purist who demands subtitles over dubs; in fact, some dubs (Cowboy Bebop being the legendary example) equal or surpass the original Japanese vocal tracks. Since Japanese voice actors record after primary animation is already complete, they’re basically just trying to match their performances to the lip flaps the same way English-language actors do when dubbing anime; it’s not like most western animation where the vocals are recorded first and the animators incorporate the actors’ performances into the cartoon. Despite that, watching the Japanese-language version of Cagliostro was a revelation.

It was, after all, performed by the classic Lupin III red jacket series cast—Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, etc.—and hearing them play the parts largely wiped away most of my objections about mischaracterization. The Streamline and Manga Entertainment casts seemed to go out of their way to instill a weariness, an ennui into Jigen, Fujiko, and (especially) Lupin that the animation and script support but don’t actually require.

Yasuo Yamada’s Lupin III is still the same clownish yet capable rascal he was in the red jacket series and The Mystery of Mamo even when he’s denying himself the chance to live happily ever after with Clarisse or reflecting on his nearly disastrous attempt to break in ten years earlier. Fujiko might look dowdy and warn the princess off of the man she was “maybe lovers” with over a year ago, but with Eiko Masuyama’s voice, she still sounds like a vivacious femme fatale. Kiyoshi Kobayashi’s Jigen is his normal grumpy self—a slightly-older peer of Lupin’s, not the old man the Manga dub turns him into. Yes, there’s an undeniable air of wistfulness throughout the film, but the core cast are still themselves with the Japanese cast voicing them.

(The effect would probably still be the same if Tony Oliver and the rest of the Phuuz cast were playing the roles, but I sincerely doubt anyone’s going to do yet another dub of The Castle of Cagliostro.)

(Also, Zenigata and Goemon come off fine even in the dub versions.)

Other notes:

  • I genuinely got chills when the car chase started and Yuji Ohno’s classic Lupin III theme started playing. I could probably fault Miyazaki for not using the theme more, but that’s probably a reflection of the divide between what I want out of Lupin and what Miyazaki wanted to create.
  • In the context of the late 1970s, it’s interesting to see Miyazaki pivot Fujiko away from being a femme fatale and toward an ass-kicker; within that context, it seems downright liberated to make her more than eye candy. Nearly forty years later, though, it just feels like a wrongheaded attempt to clean up a fascinatingly messy character. Y’know, I think the only adult, sexy woman I’ve ever seen in a Miyazaki film is Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke—the quasi-villain who gets her arm bitten off. I’m not saying Miyazaki has issues, but… (I kid, I kid.)
  • Before the show, they played an introduction by/interview with John Lasseter of Pixar and Disney. He spoke about analyzing every frame of the film, but I don’t know if he’s ever actually listened to it. He pronounces “Lupin” like the flowers Dennis Moore steals in that Monty Python sketch and Cagliostro with a hard “g” instead of the proper silent Italian “g.”
  • The authors of the Wikipedia article identify a number of previous LeBlanc Arsène Lupin works and foreign films that presumably influenced Miyazaki and team, but I binged the original green jacket Lupin III TV series before going to the movies, and it really looks more like Miyazaki self-plagiarized. Episode 10 (“Target the Cash Counterfeiter!”) involves counterfeiters, a clock tower with gigantic gears, and the aristocracy while Episode 11 (“When the Seventh Bridge Falls”) has Lupin saving an innocent maiden from a bad guy who lives in a castle with an entry via boat.
  • After the film, there were interviews with Monkey Punch/Kazuhiko Kato and one of the animators who worked on the film. Monkey Punch’s comments were amusingly polite, saying that he “never gets bored” of watching The Castle of Cagliostro, that it’s his favorite Miyazaki film, and that Miyazaki was important in helping the franchise make the transition from “men’s magazine” manga to family viewing television… before then praising the blue jacket films and show for being the first anime to really capture his own cool and stylish vision of the character. Ha!
  • [EDITED TO ADD] Also, if Miyazaki can get away with Ruritanian romance in 1979, why can't I do the same thing in My Middle Name is Larceny? I've been debating this for a bit. I couldn't get over the idea that the original imaginary Mitteleuropean countries—Ruritania, Graustark, etc.—would presumably be behind the Iron Curtain in 197X, but that didn't stop Hayao Miyazaki. I'd just need to put it in the Alps or the Pyrenees.
*No, scratch that. The Italian Adventure is better.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Middle Name is Larceny

Text boxes are your best friend for throwing together character sheets.

Just over a month ago, Robin and I realized we just weren’t having that much fun with our Blue Rose AGE duet campaign; despite our mutual sympathies toward the setting and themes, neither of us has actually read any romantic fantasy novels nor has the time to learn the setting that the game demands. We’d also bought a Roku and started up a Crunchyroll subscription, so we were finally watching the 2015 Lupin III series. To my great surprise, Robin suggested starting a Lupintic cat burglar campaign and My Middle Name is Larceny was born.

Some readers of the blog requested additional information about the campaign, but I’m afraid there isn’t that much information to share. I improvise our duet games to such a degree that I often don’t even make notes before a session starts; this has its drawbacks, but we’ve learned from experience that we both get bored if things are too structured. With that stated, I can at least make a bullet point list of highlights.

  • Our heroine, Beverly “Bev” Larceny Slick, is the master thief child of a pair of deceased phantom thieves; she was raised to a life of globetrotting thievery and is an expert in her field. As the protagonists of this kind of fiction—characters like Lupin III, Modesty Blaise, and To Catch a Thief’s Charles Robie—are cinematic-style polymaths, she was created as a Legendary hero with the Pulp Hero Power Point spread from the Super Powers Companion (said points limited to purchasing super attribute, super edge, and super skill). Frankly, I’d recommend this for any duet Savage Worlds campaign; if you spread around skill points to get at least a d6 in most skills, there’s still plenty of room for improvement at Legendary Rank.
  • We’ve been using that Carry Forward hack (not setting rule) I wrote about a couple of posts ago as a way to weaponize intelligence gathering—but with that said, we often go several sessions in a row without rolling dice, just narrating things instead. Dice are for when you want to introduce the element of chance, or enjoy the tactile fun of playing with toys. A game like this where there’s an explicit understanding that the protagonist will overcome and survive physical threats hinges on emotional stakes, and you don’t really need dice for that.
  • The setting is sometime in the 1970s, partially as an homage to Lupin III, partially as an excuse to set some cool funky jazz/rock playing in the background while we game. I have both Damnation Decade and Spirit of ’77, but I haven’t made much use of either, instead largely relying on childhood memories and film and TV of the period. For the most part—like Lupin IIIMy Middle Name is Larceny is more grounded than either of those published settings… except when it’s not, and then it’s more of an homage to Philip Jose Farmer’s sexed-up pulp homages and the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams Batman run.
  • Admittedly, there’s a lot of borrowing from the late ‘60s as well. I’ve joked about it being set in the Funk Age, somewhere vaguely between 1965 and 1975, but it’s mainly the ‘70s.
  • Lots of Dramatic Tasks. They're a nice challenge for Legendary characters and a fun way to simulate the complexity of the obstacles (a safe you can crack with one roll just doesn't seem as cool as one that takes five successes, even if they're both relatively easy for someone so skilled).
  • Ranges in Chases don't need to mean actual physical distance. "Long" and "Medium" range can actually just indicate the amount of cover the target has. I need to do more Chases.
Part of the goal with the campaign is to hit a variety of Funk Age genres, works, and tropes. Some of the adventures have been generated using that Globetrotting Cat Burglar Adventure Generator I posted; others have just emerged spontaneously. The adventures so far have been mashups of:

  • “Killer Queen” + “A Scandal in Belgravia” (yeah, it’s anachronistic, but so is Sherlock) + the X-Men's original Hellfire Club
  • Hammer horror + Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu
  • ‘70s surf and counterculture outlaw movies + yakuza + Code Name: Diamond Head + a proto-A Team
  • Richie Rich + New York real estate mogul + KGB + Xaviera Hollander
  • Diabolik + The Godfather + car chases + Olympic decathletes
  • Invasion of the Bee Girls + Wonder Woman (1974) + Aguirre, the Wrath of God + Rio de Janeiro
  • Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter + Golgo 13 + Battles Without Honor and Humanity + pink eiga   
  • The Pink Panther (1963) + Batman (1966) + hot tubs + scavenger hunts + disco
  • Ra’s al Ghul + Carlos the Jackal + Gaddafi’s terrorist training camps + zombies

I expect Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster will show up eventually, but we’re going to try segueing back towards more grounded, lighthearted adventures after the zombies. Also, a lot of these references are secondhand; it’s not so much that I’ve seen all the films I’ve namedropped so much as I know about their existence and/or have read summaries.

 I tried incorporating Leverage-style score names, but gave up.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Eternal NPCs

Cross-time Lupins converge in Lupin III: Green vs. Red

There’s a recurring NPC in My Middle Name is Larceny (the 1970s-set caper duet campaign I’m running with Robin) called Monkey Mask. He is, bluntly, Lupin III with the serial numbers filed off and a rubber ape mask pulled over his head.

And this is probably the fourth or fifth campaign he’s appeared in.

Like Michael Moorcock with his Eternal Champion, Eternal Companion, and all the rest of his recurring, fractured, fragmented, prism-split characters, I’ve got NPCs who recur in similarly-themed campaigns, especially the 20th/21st-century intrigue settings. Monkey Mask first appeared as the modern incarnation of Journey to the West’s Monkey King in our first duet campaign, more or less set in the Old World of Darkness and using the Land of Eight Million Dreams spin-off from Changeling: The Dreaming. We actually rebooted and restarted that campaign after several months into one powered by Werewolf: The Apocalypse (turning Robin’s character from a nyan hsien into a homebrewed nekomata Bastet), keeping Monkey Mask as a hanuman hsien but adding in expys of the rest of his crew as various other supernatural types.

I believe that second campaign (which was 15 or so years ago) introduced another pair of recurring personas: the Gargoyle and the Rook, my stand-ins for Batman and Robin (the Boy Wonder, not my wife, obviously). I forget the given name I assigned the pseudo-Bruce Wayne, but I know I gave him the last name Wright, playing off a local ambulance chaser named Wayne Wright (and also the name/profession “wainwright,” which I probably picked up from Tolkien). Robert Wright, the retired original Gargoyle, is a background character in My Middle Name is Larceny, while the grown-up original Rook, Hal Graustark, has surfaced in the narrative as a substitute for Adams and O’Neil’s “hairy-chested love god” 1970s Batman (and also Daredevil and Earth-Two Robin at the same time).

I’m pretty sure I’ve used “Grimalkin” as the name for the Catwoman homage before as well, but I’d have to dig through long-buried notebooks to be sure.

I remember for certain that a “Bruce Wayne, Jr.” version of the ‘70s Gargoyle showed up in an earlier ‘70s-set campaign notable for being another case where we basically rebooted Robin’s character. Tamsin Mackenzie began as a Victorian adventuress, but after we got tired of 1890s mores, we skipped ahead to the decade of our birth and reintroduced Tamsin as an immortal secret agent who encountered a mashup of Ken Washio and Tommy Arashikage, an ersatz James Bond, and probably a pseudo-Shang-Chi.

Probably. I’m not sure. I can’t believe I would skip the chance to play with that sandbox. I know a clone of the Master of Kung Fu is lurking around the edges of My Middle Name is Larceny, where he’s known as Huang Feng. In any case, I’m nearly positive Tamsin encountered Monkey Mask.

I don’t really do this as much in other genres. The most frequently recurring character in fantasy games I run is Elaith Craulnobur of the Forgotten Realms, as created by Ed Greenwood and perfected by Elaine Cunningham. His combination of danger and charm makes him a useful substitute for a Lupin III type. Most of the other recurring fantasy characters are more types than Eternal NPCs: the barbarian who is smarter than he looks, the charming evil dragon, the thief who isn’t Lupin III...

An intelligent, sympathetic (and often heroic) Frankenstein’s Monster is the only recurring Victorian character I can think of (inspired years ago by Geof Darrow’s, Steve Skroce’s, and the Wachowskis’ Doc Frankenstein rather than Penny Dreadful) while we don’t play enough sci-fi for me to have developed any recurring NPCs for that genre.

The other most important recurring NPC is my personal multiverse’s version of the Eternal Companion. She doesn’t have the same fixed identity as Monkey Mask, instead transforming as needed to fit the campaign. If I was going to give her a name, I’d call her Kohana after her first occurrence alongside Robin nyan. She usually serves as the protagonist’s friend and confidant, sometimes as a rival in love or a frenemy, occasionally as a friend with benefits. She’s almost always shorter than the heroine, cute rather than beautiful (often in a fuller-figured way), and flirtatious to the point of aggression. This time around, the Kohana-figure is Bev Slick’s English gopher and secretary Angeline Fripp.  

Huh, it never occurred to me before that I accidentally invented my own Etta Candy. Les Daniels’ history of Wonder Woman came out in 2000, so maybe I subconsciously based her on reading that book. Probably not; the original Kohana started as a rival and pest before becoming devoted to Robin’s character, so she was probably an amalgam of various anime characters.

I enjoy playing the various Kohanas almost as much as Monkey Mask, but the two character personas don’t get along in most campaigns. I wonder why that is?

Sean’s Totally Subjective, Under-informed List of His Favorite LupinIII Stuff

As drawn by Monkey Punch (AKA Kazuhiko Kato)

Discussing Lupin III is like discussing the Godzilla or James Bond franchises: everybody has their own take on which parts of the franchise are best, and those opinions are usually formed around which version or actor a person encountered first. I tend to be an outlier in these situations, favoring more recent incarnations because of their sophistication (which, admittedly, is often because they’ve synthesized the nuances of a franchise’s long history); Daniel Craig is my favorite Bond (though Casino Royale is his only really good film) and the Millennium design is my favorite look for Godzilla. I also acknowledge that taste is subjective, so I try to always couch my opinions in the term of “favorite,” not “best.”

Last night saw the first US theatrical showing of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, the beloved feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki. This film was Robin’s and my introduction to the world of Lupin III, rented from the local Hastings back when we were living in San Marcos, TX in 2001-2004. Frankly, it was kind of bewildering; whatever The Castle of Cagliostro’s merits may be as a family-friendly action movie, it makes little attempt to introduce viewers to Fujiko, Goemon, or Inspector Zenigata (which, frankly, wasn’t needed in Japan since they already had the manga, the first two TV shows, and two previous theatrical films).

We skipped last night’s showing to wait and see the subtitled version on September 19th. We can only afford to see one showing and—since The Castle of Cagliostro is not one of my favorite versions of Lupin III—I’d rather see the subtitled version so I can hear Yuji Ohno’s music better.

Yes, that’s right. The Castle of Cagliostro isn’t my favorite Lupin III film—even though it was the first version of the franchise I encountered. It isn’t even in my top 5 favorite aspects of the franchise. Keeping in mind that I still haven’t made my way through all of the clunky green jacket TV series, the lengthy red jacket series, or the off-key pink jacket series*—and that several animated films, OVAs, and specials haven’t been released in the US—here’s my top 5 from what I have read or watched:

  1. The Mystery of Mamo (AKA The Secret of Mamo AKA Lupin vs. the Clone AKA Lupin III)  
    The first Lupin III animated film is undoubtedly my favorite self-contained movie or TV special. I’m one of those people who enjoys Lupin at his most roguish (just as I enjoy Bond at his most bitter); the scene where Mamo examines Lupin’s mind and discovers he’s some sort of idiot savant who thinks about nothing but naked ladies epitomizes why I like this roughhewn, sprawling, psychedelic film more than Miyazaki’s introspective gentleman thief. Also, as a fan of Tony Oliver and the Phuuz Entertainment cast, it’s a joy to hear them really dig into their characters.
  2. The Italian Adventure (AKA Lupin the Third Part Four AKA the blue jacket series)
    As much as I enjoy Lupin behaving badly, I’m not immune to the charms of more genteel versions of the character. Thankfully, with The Italian Adventure, I don’t have to choose. This series from 2015 was made with the intention of synthesizing all the best of the series so far: the original Monkey Punch rambunctiousness, Miyazaki’s poignancy, the red jacket series’ humor, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’s stylishness, and Yuji Ohno’s score. In fact, the only reason this is number two on the list is because the English dub doesn’t have Ohno’s score due to using the original Italian TV version of the show instead of the cleaned-up Japanese version, which means I’m going to have to buy two different versions of the series on home video. Argh.
  3. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
    As ribald as anything Monkey Punch created in the manga, but bolstered by deeper, weightier characterization, this show comes so close to being my favorite TV series that I almost feel bad awarding that title to the cheerier blue jacket series. Intensely psychosexual and revolutionary in its design sense, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was almost my least favorite TV show despite its style and heft, as the series makes a play at giving Fujiko Mine a backstory ripped from the worst excesses of Joss Whedon-style “strong female protagonists”—but then it rips away the veil and shows that’s all been a fakeout. If only it had a Yuji Ohno score…
  4. Lupin the Third Part II** (AKA New Lupin III AKA the red jacket series)
    The red jacket series, airing on Adult Swim beginning in 2003, was my proper introduction to Lupin III—just as it was the Japanese public’s proper introduction after the failure of the original green jacket TV series. Cartoony and crazy, alternating wildly between adaptations of manga stories, adult-oriented capers, maudlin kid-friendly episodes, and almost plotless, surrealistic stories that show how the grind of a Japanese anime series can break even the most creative wills, this show remains the benchmark by which all other Lupin anime is judged. It’s not always good by any means, but there are 155 episodes, so that’s to be expected; one of the two episodes I watched this morning sent Lupin to a shockingly white 1970s Harlem where he got totally obsessed over Superman (1978), got bamboozled by a blonde street kid named Chico, wound up in a scene-padding motorcycle chase with Zenigata, and finally ended up in front of a firing squad of decadent millionaires dressed like DC and Marvel superheroes. Nonetheless, the best episodes remain amazingly entertaining, and I’m so fond of Tony Oliver’s Lupin III voice that I’ve incorporated it into my repertoire of game mastering voices.
  5. The original manga
    Like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, Monkey Punch’s original manga series is raw and direct, the author’s id spilling all over the page. Given my own complicated relationship with my own inner life, I appreciate the darker, weirder, less likable places both book series go. It doesn’t mean I always agree with manga Lupin’s actions, but he lives in such a fourth wall-breaking, self-mocking, MAD magazine-inflected funhouse mirror of spy and heist films that it’s impossible for me to not be entertained. Maybe it’s hypocrisy or even doublethink to enjoy such unreformed adventurism, but I cannot deny how much I enjoy manga Lupin’s self-confidence and competency.

  For the record, here’s a brief rundown of where everything else fits:

  1. Jigen’s Gravestone (I’m sure Goemon Ishikawa’s Spray of Blood will sit equal with this once I get the chance to see it.)
  2. The Plot of the Fuma Clan
  3. Episode 0: First Contact
  4. Green vs. Red
  5. The Castle of Cagliostro
  6. The soundtrack albums
  7. Almost everything else (The other two TV series are clunky but not bad. Most of the specials have their moments and the 2014 live action movie is only as bad as the average TV special. Strange Psychokinetic Energy is too weird to not at least appreciate, and I don’t hate the Detective Conan team-ups. I wish I liked Dead or Alive more and I haven’t seen the infamous Legend of the Gold of Babylon.)
  8.  **Episodes 145 and 155 of the red jacket series (Miyazaki’s version of Fujiko is an acquired taste and 155 in particular seems like Miyazaki used it to finance proof of concept art for Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky.)

*I’m a fan, not a fanatic. For better or worse, I’ve never been motivated by any fandom to binge watch or collect everything in a franchise.

Wine and Savages Team Now Co-Lead Developers for Savage Rifts®

While most interested parties already know this, Robin English-Bircher and I have combined forces with Sean Roberson as Lead Developers...