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.

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...