Looking at the trailer for the latest film in which Johnny Depp’s makeup upstages the titular character, I realise that what I really want to watch is a movie all about disruptive technologies. Or even just about the disruption caused by the train (sorry Johnny and whoever, I don’t care so much about your horse-on-horse action. That opening voiceover totally sold me that you were men of the past, packing six-shooters in an emergent age of machine guns).
It’s debatable how important the railroad was in “winning the West” (though it did supercharge historical change from the cowboys and indians horse-wars to the steel-driving men and mechanized warfare that ushered in the Interstate Highway system), but it’s really not debatable how important it was in Russia’s parallel annexation of Turkestan – rails rolled right over the Turkomans, Uighurs, Tatars and Kirghiz.
So of course, rival railway plans are big news in Tartary’s Tournament of Shadows (movie link!). And following Old Bloody Eyes‘ dictum that “to astonish is to triumph” (shock and awe, 1880 edition), style is just as important as substance. You want your trains to look strong, sleek, inevitable.*
For instance, the Bullet On Steel Shafts (photographs intercepted en route from Far Nihon) causes a lot more buzz around the Khanates’ walled gardens than the prosaic “high speed transportation link” that the Rumis are pushing (as if they could ever marshall the infrastructure).
Still, the project that’s getting most of the hype – that’s been praised by the Seers of Otrar themselves as “distressingly intimidating,” is the Azeri Koblobr:
Its bluff, flat front and nearly-blind pilot’s gallery suggest heavy armouring, possibly the presence of a ram,
but the feature that’s caused the most consternation is the long, narrow slit that runs right down the front of the machine, which appears to conceal some further purpose. Hints of Overworlder collusion in the train’s design has lead to a riot of speculation.
Needless to say, a dozen Khans and Viziers would pay handsomely for a copy of the plans…
* see, there’s a reason why the USSR put its railway museum in Tashkent, lynchpin and starting point of the Turk-sib railway, which allowed troops to be sent at speed anywhere in Russia’s conquered territories turned “friendly Soviet republics.”
This is not a well thought out post. I’m trying to think through some stuff here and would appreciate your help. I’m trying to figure out why I think John Carter isn’t gameable – and I concede that I could be totally wrong about that.
First, the movie is very well done, and if you’re interested in swords and adventure movies with lots of fighting and classic storytelling, I’ll echo what almost everyone else in the OSR is saying: it is worth your time. It’s not great art*, but it is good entertainment, and it’s faithful enough to the source material that I for one didn’t leave the theater saying “what the fuck was that?”**
And I love Barsoom with a great big love. I find it inspiring as anything. I want to run games on it. But from a sandbox DM’s perspective, John Carter’s adventures don’t love me, and the film really points up why. Because I have no idea how to run a game of John Carter with PCs in the starring roles, and when I’ve tried it’s tended to be “minor picaresque adventures around the edges of Barsoom/Mungo.” Maybe because my players aren’t bona fide heroes, but I suspect more because the nature of the conflict, the parameters governing what makes for good decisions in this setting, are basically different from common sense, self preservation and sustainable ambition.
This post is really an adjunct to 2 other posts I wrote recently, on how the PCs should be the stars and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the scenery and how Cowboys and Aliens was the most DnDest movie evar because at least for some of the time it presented a heist-type situation that a bunch of misfits had to figure out a way of cracking. John Carter is the polar opposite of that. In Cowboys and Aliens the protagonists could potentially be just about anyone (ie the players have freedom to choose their PCs), and they’re responding to a universal threat – JC on the other hand has to behave just so to fit the narrative trajectory – to fulfil the role of The One, thrust by events (fortune? Destiny?) into the role of Uniting and Saving all the fairies of another world from The Threat. Sure, the film doesn’t get as explicit as issuing prophecies or anything, but he’s the only visitor from outside, he’s the only one able to unite red and green men, he’s got the crazy jumping ability like nobody else, he always performs… it’s not just Conan, it’s a bit of Superman. And that leads to high-fantasy, high-destiny, high-narrative-control story game fodder, and the trouble with that is…
I was going to say: the trouble is it’s a different aesthetic from what I like, but why not turn up the heat? Or it only works as long as JC acts like a hero, but if he doesn’t then why not let it be about Cugel the Predicted? Or is it that the background continually conspires to thrust JC into exactly the place and situation he needs to be in, to make the critical difference? No, not quite that either, although it speaks to railroading… No, I think the really big problem with it is that actually all the important conflicts are within John and/or in the relationships between the core characters, and consequently all the other big stuff that’s happening (wars, tests, taboos, sacrilege, schemes) is really just window-dressing – background. Which is why it always drapes just so, to frame that soap opera character drama to best effect.
And I’ve never been able to make that work around a gaming table. My games have always been about exploring the world, finding out about plots and doing something about them, saving the city or surviving its destruction These are actually the point in my games, and getting the support of some tribe of people would be the main event, if you could somehow manage it, because it would radically change what you could do. But they’re not the point for JC and therefore they’re trivial for him – the main point is getting together with DT. And although I’m trying to imagine playing a game where that was true (Amber, I guess) I’m drawing a blank on how to avoid the use of such huge resources immediately changing the nature of the game into something entirely other.
Maybe I should just relax about that. This session, since the green men decided to follow you, we’re playing Horde Wars. Next session the Plague will come and we’ll be play postapoc, and the week after it’s up-close-and-personal jumping assassin wars in Helium. Maybe that would be great. But I worry about totally losing focus – the sense of the campaign – because so many problems would become trivial when you have a horde with you, and so many others come up to swamp your previous goals, like how are we going to feed this army?
Have you ever tried to play a game like this? Did you manage? How did it work out? Do I just sound like these guys, saying “horror is hard”?
* They sure spent a lot, and the art direction is obviously enthusiastic and skilled and has really nice touches. Still, it didn’t look as good as, say, The Fifth Element. I don’t know why, really. Too generic? Too familiar? Zodanga’s awesome, the flyers… are merely ornithopters. Somehow I wanted more surprise.
** It was both nice and peculiar to see Posca, Caesar and Mark Antony from HBO’s Rome in basically the same roles – a nice reminder of the early Roman Warrior cover art, and the costume design was gorgeously Art Nouveau. If I were called Kitsch I’d change that, but I guess it’s working for him. At least in this role.
Did you all write about Cowboys and Aliens and I just missed it? I may have, I was awfully busy last August, but the only trace I can find in the archives is a casual mention on Roll for Initiative – and I find that strange, because for anyone who groks that DnD is really a western game, it’s just about the most DnD movie ever. More obviously it’s absolutely the most Weird West movie and just about the most Encounter Critical! and with a few tweaks it could be seriously Carcosa, too.
Here’s why you should watch it: it presents a kick-ass OSR adventure module, ready to be ripped off [edited to add: hwrnmnbsol informs me that this might actually be an old module – Legion of Gold for original Gamma World – worked into a film script. I’ve never played GW (alas) so I cannot confirm], with relatively few of the Standard Hollywood Tricks that would invalidate the whole setting for gaming purposes. It has a couple of monsters, a magic item which is only a bit McGuffiny, and a classic bait-and-switch NPC. And most amazingly for a movie, the situation it presents is pretty open-ended, at least up to about half way through Act 2. You could totally run it, pretty much straight off the reel.
It also works like a little history of DnD. Explaining that will involve spoilers, though, so this is your warning right now (plot synopsis for the weak/impatient).
The opening of the movie is pure Old School Golden Age. You wake up with no memory and a mysterious space-bracer. Our hero’s credentials are established in a fight with a low-level murderhobo gang: he is clearly at least a 5th level fighter (Jake, Chaotic Neutral). From there we go Boot Hill just long enough to introduce the rest of the party: a fish-out-of-water Normal Man/Scholar (“Doc,” LN), an undercover druid/MU (Ella, LG) and another high-level veteran, this time a Warlord (Dolarhyde, NN or CN). Then all hell breaks loose with the first attack and the adventure’s parameters are set: dependents are stolen and must be got back; the magic item works against the baddies; tracking a wounded alien is the obvious first task; getting back the fighter’s memory is the second. Best, most DnD feature of all – let’s imagine that like the average murderhobo you have no dependents, no compassion, no social ties of any kind – why would you pick a fight with these aliens? Because they’re after the exact same thing you’re after: gold. And they’ll steal it from you just like they steal dependents, so sociopaths can get on this plot train too.
Tracking leads to a set piece in an ingeniously imagined strange environment, then to information leading to the dungeon entrance, which presents a daunting challenge.
So far so OSR. And I’ll pause here for 2 digressions:
#1: No less than 3 DCC adventurer-funnels are introduced at various stages (Jake’s Gang – a Carcosan band under a 4th level fighter-tyrant if ever I saw one; the Injuns-who-must-be-convinced; and the abductees who must be unhooked from the BadGuyMachine). BTW, did you know Sandy Petersen invented the funnel? Obvious, really.
#2: my favourite moment in the story – the point where things are widest open, where I for one wasn’t exactly sure where we were headed – is this one shot where our murder-revenge-hobo posse rides into a gulch and they’re viewed from above, from what just might be the runaway alien’s perspective, and suddenly I’m reminded of the opening of A Princess of Mars only our “heroes” are the murdering Indians and the alien is the innocent prospector… But then the moment passes and the aliens are Giger’s creeps but less creepy and we’re back in good old Colonialist Adventure mode.
Anyway, back to the point of the post. It’s here, with the stakes set, that the movie heads in a Dragondance/Ravenlost direction and loses its dramatic premise and gamist focus of these are ordinary folks facing a crazy threat what will they do? Because it turns out that Ella’s another kind of alien (with Raise Dead on demand!) and Jake has amnesia-recovery insights and the Fate Of The World rests on their actions and most of all the aliens always attack right at that moment when Jake would otherwise have to face the roleplaying challenge of actually trying to convince people of anything and so now all choices are obvious and you gotta do what you gotta do and so it’s all dramatic scenes from here on out: stuff must happen in the nick of time, people must have the right backgrounds and secrets, all parts of the key must come together in the lock and it’s Hollywood’s Usual Business, which lead us down that whole Adventure Path Destiny Screenwriting 101 rabbit hole. And you can see how that’s crack to a certain kind of gamer/viewer, because when the scenery is set up just so you can get the light to fall where you want and it’s wow and ooh and aah and “surprise” and plucky orphan stabs the monster and boom at just the right moment for the hairsbreadth escape and every action has a Moral Meaning.
Only the movie doesn’t quite give in to it, like Favreau’s a little ashamed of the formula or something (sure, you knew Craig and Wilde were going to have Romantic Tension but it’s not quite what you were thinking because she’s not that kind of sexy alien chick but this kind), and that’s what keeps it all applicable to OSR gaming. Remember the funnels? They’re really funnels. Extras cop it like they were Raiding Innsmouth. Most of all, although the elements are there for a Magic Key railroad, it doesn’t at all have to work like that if you’re a slightly creative DM – nobody has to make stupid decisions in order for the plot to work. So the bracer can be set to explode as well as fire? The PCs could learn that without needing aliengirl to tell them. Let them have 2 or 3 bracers: it won’t invalidate the challenge of taking on the aliens’ ship/base, although it may make the possible tactics more varied. So you have to get the exploding bracer into the powercore to make it all go boom? Show the core. If you’re feeling generous you could even let Jake remember it all well enough to draw a map, so you can run the dungeon as a proper heist (“they got their power from this glowing ball – I remember it swung out on an arm – I guess it’s kept high up in the tower”). In fact, dump the whole amnesia thing, say the fighter previously escaped but from a moving vehicle and that’s why he doesn’t know the way back to the base at the start. Same result, allows for more heistable background, less serendipitous recall.
Aliens: the fact that I can’t find a screenshot of these guys tells you that you should just use Giger’s original chitinhead instead, or whatever would fit your campaign. They’re pretty much reskinned blink dogs, but they have Powerful Jump instead of actual teleporting. 5 HD, AC 3, claw/claw/bite for 1d8/1d8/1d4. In their flying machines they totally show off Favreau’s lust for Gulf War news footage – they have exactly the quiet creepiness and sudden destructive power of A10s. AC goes down to 2, speed goes up to airplane but somehow a running horse can still keep up with them.
Bracer of Lightning Bolts:
seems to have unlimited charges, but maybe it’s really only 1d20 and we just don’t get to see it run out. Glows and beeps when aliens are near (unclear why, but there you are), destroying surprise for both sides.
Finally, Filmdrunk may have provided the title for Joesky’s fantasy heartbreaker: EXPLOSIONS & VELOCIRAPTORS & BOOBS.
So this is currently the idlest of idle questions. I won’t be running a game at least until I’ve got back into playing more regularly, and given my schedule I shouldn’t be running a game at all, and I’m in France so for all you US people my game would probably be at an annoying time, like 4am EST (1am in LA) on Thursdays. But IF I were to run a G+ flailsnails game…
a) might you be interested?
b) what would you most want to play?
What’s the difference?
Carcosa-Barsoom is a high-colour, high-sci-fantasy rayguns and battleaxes interdimensional romp through Emperor Ming’s closet and salt mines, with a kinda-serious plot: you start as members of slave races. What are you going to do about it?
Encounters on the Sea of OS’r is the Odyssey/Sindbad with minimal packaging, adapted to the contextlessness of flailsnails – you wake up on a raft with stuff you can carry on your person and you encounter stuff – hopefully highly creative, weird, opportunity-laden stuff – and you take your treasure away at the end of the session to spend it elsewhere. If you wanna stick around for multiple sessions and grow independent goals and set down a home base that’s awesome but the game is made to work without any of that.
Vikings and Pirates of the Spice Islands is my southeast Asian pirate game I’ve been doodling on for years. You could be European explorers or native slave-raiders or Chinese pirates right at the birth of the East India companies. Worlds are colliding, history is being made, it’s dangerous and piratical in the classical sense, but with silk, spices and transvestite spirit-mediums.
First Zak said You have a time machine. It can only be used for the following purpose: you may go back in time and change one rule or one other detail of any game. The rest of RPG history will be as if it had always been that way forever. What do you pick?
And Matthew Miller replied: In 1974, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created the world’s first roleplaying game. Inspired by their fanatical interest in ancient China, coupled with a love of Chinese mythology, the classic novels The Water Margin and Journey to the West, wuxia cinema, and the weird tales of P’u Sung-ling. It took the gaming world by storm.
And then Roger the GS posted about wisdom and that made me think:
how could you fit the essence of Monkey into a DnD game?
The key is Wisdom. In this version WIS models your enlightenment and possibly harmony with the Tao. You work to increase your WIS, just as you would increase your level. But increasing WIS usually means pursuing goals directly at odds with those suited to increasing level – you have to practice non-attachment, restraint, judgment and moderation. You should still take decisive action, even fight when it’s absolutely necessary, but you should always seek the non-violent path, which provides the best outcome for all. Like humanity in Vampire, it can go down as well as up. Unlike humanity, it’s not just a wet blanket rating – it conveys some benefits (TBD, but at least a “turn” like ability on low-WIS creatures; yogic flying; speak with various things) and sage-like insights. Most of all it’s needed for interplanar Ascent to Nirvana and other related realms. No clerics (or, maybe, everyone’s a cleric), but yes to INT, CHA and CON-based spellcasters.
Monkey’s character sheet (first draft). But I’m not running this for flailsnails because the WIS mechanic is too unbalancing. And I’d have to mess with standard DnD clerics. And other spellcasters might be borked on the WIS-collecting front. There’s still a lot to figure out.
This is and will remain a gaming blog. Still, I figured at least some of you would want to see this.
Teahupoo, Tahiti is widely known throughout the world of surfing as having the most powerful break on the planet. On Aug 27th 2011… is what many are calling the biggest and gnarliest Teahupoo ever ridden.
Chris Bryan was fortunate enough to be there… on a day that will go down in the history of big wave surfing. The French Navy labeled this day a double code red prohibiting and threatening to arrest anyone that entered the water.
So he rode the waves and filmed it and left a document of some mighty stylish law-breaking.* Don’t try this at home, even if your home happens to be at Teahupoo. How can I possibly justify putting this link up here? Some crack about saving throws, maybe? How about by saying: there’s a lot of talk in the OSR about not “balancing” threats or encounters, about the game really testing player skill, sneakiness and grift, about levels not mattering all that much. That’s all true of course, but still, the whole leveling schema puts a heavy emphasis on what a hero can expect when they wade in with their sword, on their box of tricks and their resilience and their luck all increasing with dungeon-delving experience.
Well, here’s what a Normal Man can do.
I confess, I don’t understand where the cameraman is standing At All.
* law? In the end I don’t know, but I’m willing to concede that, provisionally and for all practical purposes, the French Navy on that day functioned as a Leviathan, whether their authority would have been subsequently upheld or not.
Also, need a Cthulhuclava? Brutal knitting provides. Via Toilet World! I feel kinda cheeky posting that, because you probably know her site a whole lot better than you know this one, but I’d never followed that particular link, and now I have, and you’d probably like it too.
I have only three things to say about the John Carter trailer.*
1. When I first heard the director of Finding Nemo was making a Barsoom movie, I thought it was possible that something new could come into this world. Apparently I was wrong: it looks like a Conan remake remake.
2. Led Zep? Really? Is that a witty quotation now, or are we supposed to have forgotten them?
3. “Where am I?” – I can help you there: Arizona. Somewhere around Crested Butte, I’d guess. I’ve never been to the American Southwest and even I know that. Who wants to get into a $10 bet that Vasquez Rocks features prominently at some point?
Really, I’m not usually this negative. And I know out here in OSRland there’s big love for anything that smells faintly like a Conan movie, and a Barsoom movie would be a gem beyond price. I get it. But this is not what I go to Barsoom for. My abiding memory of Princess of Mars is a sense of exploration, not epic LoTR battles – a sense of a really alien place, where all those lame colour-coded men weren’t lame if you scratched the surface, because they were actually entirely different things with their own concerns and worlds and ecologies (there, I said it). Not knowing what’s powering the air machines or how Barsoom works or if there’s some other power behind it all and wanting to find out. Apparently I was wrong about that too.
ETA: st_rev made me realise which film I really wanted to watch: Genki Sudo of Mars.
Who among you does not know of Genki Sudo – martial arts gladiator, philosopher, calligrapher, musician, avant-garde formation dancer, local government advocate? Consider this my Joesky payment. And what, after all, is the message of John Carter – or Flash Gordon, or even Tarzan?
* Thanks OEF.
I’ve said before that AD&D is perfectly adapted for wuwei adventures (without really needing OA at all): the whole levels/magic items/powers mix is much more appropriate to Hong Kong cinema than it is either to De Laurentiian bare-chested bravado or to John Boorman/Ridley Scott shiny metal epics. All you need to add is a “jump” skill to every character class: 5 feet per level should cover it, ignore armour.
And that was before I saw the ultimate D&D movie – Red Cliff* – which I think I might be able to translate straight into a mass battle module. Both the sins and the strengths of D&D are front and center. The generals are obviously name level fighters and operate as such, soaking up arrows and cutting dozens of level 0 or 1 mooks in half in single swings of their swords. There is a whole essay on the shield as a straight -1 to AC in there – as well as another contradictory one on the shield as an important player in formation fighting. Wars are decided by druidic weather sense. There’s even a Houri who clouds the mind of the Big Bad. But most of all, it’s really not about the characters but about the strategic/tactical situation: odds are weighed, plans are set in motion, forces and spies deployed. The tension comes not from the negotiation of the plans, nor from the interactions between the plotters, but from how the plans unfold in the situation, making it much like a classic heist.
And if there is an important difference between Tolkienesque and D&D-esque fantasy, I don’t think it revolves around whether the quests are epic or picaresque, nor whether the heroes are hapless, fallible beings or pure-hearted indestructibles, nor whether the ending is encapsulated in the opening conditions. Instead I think it might be found in the difference between The Two Towers and Red Cliff . In the former, all the military strategy is secondary to the heroic agency of a few individuals: the castle is held through sheer dogged grit (which orcs lack, natch) but it’s the cavalry-as-avenging-angel that turns the tide. It’s a sublime vision of effectively divine forces: man is at best the butterfly that can occasionally fan a hurricane. In Red Cliff the outcomes of battles are decided by human planning and execution. And you have to play every trick you can muster to storm the castle, and even if you get to the final confrontation nothing is certain – you have to make it work in the moment. You are, in brief, rolling the dice at every turn. And there’s a sense in which the heroes and the mooks in Red Cliff are made from the same stuff – a sense that’s central to LoTR but only really manifested in the figures of the hobbits.
…all that said, it’s not that great a film (at least in the 2.5 hour cut I saw – there’s also a 2-part marathon version). As my wife observed, there isn’t a single really well drawn character, nor any convincing inter-character tension. And during the battle sequences I often didn’t know what particular scenes were supposed to be telling me. When I said I could dip out for a couple of minutes because all I would miss would be a lot of wood flying around she said “but that’s the whole movie.” And she was right. But I reckon that very mediocrity as drama is vital to its gameability.
* I refer specifically to the short cut, all-in-one-movie version rather than the 2-part original, because that’s what I saw. Apparently the long version has a whole load of interpersonal drama between allies, which carries it away from the kind of roleplaying party solidarity that White Wolf, for instance, thought was unattractive about the characteristic D&D table.