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Monday 28 July 2014

DM Tips - What I Learned Out On The Road

I've acted as DM/ST for a few RPGs in my time. Not quite twenty years yet, but still, it's deep in the second decade right now. During that time I've come across some little sayings that - while only sometimes true - can make one's life in charge of an entire world that much easier.

1) Never throw a stick you don't want chased.
It might seem like a trivial throw-away detail to you - something that isn't worth worrying about, a minor piece of flavour to lend a hint of exoticism to your world. Be careful, though, because players pick up on details. They think - they overthink - they form conjecture. They'll chase that stick you just threw, whether it was an important stick or not. That movement in that shadow? They will want to take a look at it. The cursive handwriting of this note? They'll want to look into that. Be sure you know where a party will end up going if they chase that stick before you ever throw it - or at least be confident that you can think on your feet fast enough to keep the game going.

2) Never assume the stick will be chased.
On the flip-side of the previous point - don't be surprised if sometimes that juicy plot hook is actually passed up as apparently being a trivial throw-away detail. Sometimes it won't even be that players miss the potential story - sometimes they just don't want to go down that route. That's fine. Gaming is an exercise in character and journey, after all. Make sure there's alternatives or that you're prepared for a divergence - multiple sticks can sometimes be useful.

3) Detail and saturation are not the same thing.
It's very tempting to flood a setting with detail to try and give it that extra bit of depth. Don't. You only need so much - a hint here and there and people's imaginations will do the rest. Work the detail of the setting into the interactions the characters have with it, and you need never drown your players in exposition. It's like tricking people into learning - make it fun and it stops being a chore.

4) Be prepared, think fast.
The twofold strategy at handling anything your players do is thus: plan until just before you think you have enough, then freestyle the rest of the way. As long as your setting has a foundation, and you have good NPCs you can fall back on, then making it up as one goes along is no great crime. It can be pretty fun, too. That said, if you are thrown a huge curve ball, never be afraid to take ten minutes to rethink your plan or work some notes for a new approach.

5) Always have a surprise up your sleeve.
Things moving too slowly? Players plodding through a town they don't necessarily need to be in? Surprise them. Do something they aren't expecting. Stir up the status quo. Throw in a non-plot-related encounter with something they couldn't predict. As an added twist - work it into your plot in a way that isn't obvious yet. The life of an adventurer is filled with surprises.

6) They aren't your Sims.
It isn't you versus them. You have literally the entire world at your command, and they are a group of individuals within it. If the story is going to be about persecution and grossly unfair odds, tell the players beforehand - because most players come to the table expecting fairness and fun. They're people, not digital representations of people.

7) Don't be a dick.
This should be obvious. Randomly being an asshole to your players, constant bad jokes, mockery for no good reason - these things aren't acceptable in real life, they shouldn't be acceptable at your table. Banter and witticism between friends is okay. Abusing your position as DM to get away with being a dick is not. Learn that line - we have to do it in real life, after all.

There may be more to this later...but for now this will have to do.

Have fun.

Thursday 17 July 2014

My New Tattoo

When its carnival season and the nights are long, the big light-up displays strung in between buildings downtown comes into its own. The parades pass under a shooting star brightly lit by dazzling lightbulbs, a symbol of hope and exploration and discovery in a small town held together by hope alone.

The tourists see that light - the brilliant display put on to muse and decorate and entertain. It allures and attracts, sheds its glow on all those that pass underneath it, laughing in the late evening. Then as the night wears on it becomes a beacon for those wending their way home, something to be pointed at and revelled in when one's state is slightly altered.

But then the tourists go home; the little shops close their doors and the outside starts to move a little slower. The posters come down. The lights stop being turned on, and instead of a pulsing gleam of a shooting star - we see its dark outline, a frame where our hope used to be. We see everything that made the illusion possible without the illusion.

A shooting star - a comet - a bright arc that flashes across the sky. Now dark and hollow, and shut down until the world turns warm again.

How could I not want this on my skin?

It's the cover of Recovering The Satellites, Counting Crow's second album - an album which as a whole, and in particular the titular track, speaks of a life in a small town. Talks of the lives of people from somewhere that is just smaller than most, with a few more walls than the average. It's about those people that manage to get away, that stay in orbit for a moment of time before coming back down again. Always drawn back to that little insular place we call home.

That's why I got it.

Friday 11 July 2014

Rage Of Extinction

As many of you may know...I am a Transformers fan.

An Autobot from an early age you might say. I owned the original movie, and half of the original series, on VHS; I even had several episodes on Betamax. I could at one point name every single Autobot in seasons 1 and 2, and almost all the Decepticons, and this was before Wikipedia was even conceived of.

I watched a lot of cartoons. A lot. I watched almost the entire US run, two thirds of the JP run, all of Beast Wars that I could stand, somewhat less of Beast Machines, the entire US runs of Armada, Energon and Cybertron, the JP run of Robots In Disguise, almost all of Transformers: The Animated Series, and all of Transformers Prime. I read a significant proportion of the classic comics, most of the modern ones, and I played every Transformers game I could lay hands on.

When I heard of a live-action Transformers film - back in 2005 or so - I was so terribly excited, you have no idea. I was boiling over with excitement. Then I was invited to a wedding in the US around the time that the movie was due to be released - and as it was being released in the US long before the UK, I was totally psyched. I damn near exploded with joy.

I went to see it with my buddy Dan and several of his compadres. It was amazing, a great night, and even all of us getting ditched at a garage in the middle of butt fuck nowhere MD couldn't dampen my spirits. Dan and I went back to see it again two days later. Then when back on UK soil I went to see it twice more.

I was so in love with the idea that what was actually wrong with it passed me by. For a while.

It was when the second film came out that I started to ask questions. The Bay-isms started to become apparent. Despite going back to see it again, I had my doubts. Where before I had defended the Bayformers movies blindly, I started hearing some of the criticisms levelled, and recognising them as being far too valid.

The third film cemented the cold, hard truth of the matter.

Objectively, the live-action Transformers movies are terrible.

There's some action scenes that we can all approve of, some dumb comedy that we can appreciate. The robot fights - what few of them we see - are generally well-choreographed, and the soundtracking is on the whole not so bad.

None of that can save the trilogy from actually being awful.

And then, out of nowhere, we are treated to the announcement of Age Of Extinction, and we wait with baited breath to see who is directing it; and then we exhale, because yet again, it's Michael Bay.

Having just been to see this movie, I am not confident that I can sum up absolutely everything that is wrong with it from memory; but I am unwilling to see it again to find out so you will have to trust me. I know full well the only bits worth watching will be on YouTube the moment a DVD release happens, so I don't think I will be missing much.

Before the tear-down occurs, I will touch upon its several good points, because I believe in credit where it is due.

  • Shia LeBouef, Megan Fox, John Turturro and The Twins aren't in it.
  • Some of the soundtrack was pretty good.
  • What little 'bot action one actually saw was, on the whole, fairly well done.
  • There's several moments where Bumblebee makes a funny noise.

Now that's over with...

The plot is dire. It's just dire. It is littered with inconsistencies, poorly developed, and makes precious little sense. It seems to be an excuse to convey the characters from action scene to action scene, and it doesn't even do this particularly well. Fully half of the movie is totally unnecessary. It can be cut and nothing will be lost, the plot will remain whole. Equally bad, just shorter, which would be a plus.

The movie is about the wrong characters. It, like all of Bay's other efforts, chooses to follow several generic humans who are forcibly mixed up in the machinations of the Transformers the franchise is named after. I do mean forcibly. The term contrived was invented for moments like this. This is a criticism of both plot and focus - and that focus is, likewise, misplaced. At least half a dozen times, the Transformers in question are doing something interesting off-screen - and we are watching human beings running away. Again, and again, and again. Human beings doing things that should make no difference to the plot of a movie named Transformers, being shown to the viewer rather than the Transformers in question.

That focus is an issue. We're forced to sympathise with ultimately unlikeable and hollow characters that are all forgettable (I don't even remember their names), to the point that the film-makers can't stand the idea of us watching them actually get hurt (despite at least half-a-dozen high-velocity impacts that would shatter bones like dry twigs, let alone scratch Mark Wahlberg's chiselled face) - but they will happily make us watch the Transformers be literally torn to pieces without mercy. The Transformers that, I remind you again, the movie is named after. Humans existed in the cartoons and comics as very distinctly side characters - though RID and the Minicon trilogy had the Irritating Child Sidekick issue - and that works just fine, because the actual Transformers themselves are developed characters with personalities, empathy, urges, drives, and depth. They SHOULD be the characters the movie is about, and if you can't make them the main characters, then you SHOULDN'T be making the movie at all.

Those Transformers are another problem. The already established characters - Bumblebee and Optimus Prime - don't seem to have anything in common with their previous incarnations. Optimus veers wildly between hyper-aggressive and vaguely philosophical, like if Dr Jeckyl took a course in ethics. He utters several lines that speak of vicious intentions, that simply aren't something that he would say. Bee seems to have had a personality transplant; we're not witnessing the actions of a veteran of several wars and a capable infiltration and evasion artist, we're watching a teenager that transforms into a muscle car. Entertaining for cheap laughs, yes. Good character writing? No.

Then there's the new hires. We won't go into the Decepticon side of things (HAH! HAH! OH JESUS!), and ignoring the Dinobots as thoroughly as the film-makers seem to have, we'll just deal with the Autobots.

Hound is an overweight bearded gun-toting militaristic soldier-type who seems to veer wildly between competent and idiotic. He drops his entire compliment of guns (which is at least eight) several times. Somehow he survived the Cybertronian wars. Another surprise survivor is Crosshairs, who is a mercenary dickweed that enjoys a bit of a scrap but complains ceaselessly about "what's in it for me", leading one to wonder why he's actually an Autobot.

Then we have Drift.

Originally in the comics, Drift is a superbly competent fighter who used to be a Decepticon - back when being so was a statement of martial pride rather than being actually evil. As such, when the intent of the Decepticons became clear, he defected. He is a swordsman, as many Transformers are, and his earth-mode car form is a Japanese drift racer. Despite this, he is not a samurai... Age of Extinction, he speaks with a heavy Japanese accent, is clearly modelled after samurai armour, fights in a similar fashion, speaks in koans and haiku - and transforms into a Bugatti Veyron. Thus turning the entire character into a bad Japanese racial caricature, whilst removing the one thing from the character that was actually Japanese.

Which leads us onto racism, which this movie has plenty of. The two Chinese characters on-screen for longer than ten seconds demonstrate world-class martial arts skills. The Black American robot is the "old cantankerous black man" stereotype (who is on Death Row at one point, his words, not mine), the Black African robot is a pitiless mercenary bounty hunter with a pack of wild dogs, and of the four or so black human beings that the movie deigns it necessary to show us - one is horrifyingly stereotypical, and two more are members of an apparently evil CIA division. Needless to say all of the important fleshy good-guy characters are white folks. Though one of them is allegedly Irish.

One thing that a friend of mine I saw it with said that actually stuck with me - "I forgot it was a Transformers movie". You'd be forgiven for doing so. When the giant robots are on the screen, sometimes, they are doing things you want to see them do. Sometimes. They are on the screen for between one half and one third of the movie's run time. This isn't a horror movie in which less is more. This is an action movie with big colourful stars that transform into cars. We can take it, Bay. Show us what we paid to see.

Speaking of what we paid to see, we paid to see a movie written by a scriptwriter. I am unsure if the entity that arranged letters in a document that was later mislabelled "script" qualifies, in much the same reason as I am not sure if a goldfish can count as a brain surgeon. The script contains several lines that were actually so bad that I almost left. I actually moved to get up. The dialogue is stilted and cliche'd at best, and at worst, actually criminaly incompetent. So bad is it that I am actually surprised that old staples like Optimus Prime saying "Roll Out" even happened, as that would imply an IQ of greater than 40 being behind the fingers that wrote that script - an implication that is rubbished by 95% of the movie.

The product placement is sickeningly overt. Putting aside the fact that the Transformers franchise is here to sell toys, the advertisements for Bud Light, Beats By Dre and even My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic are so in-your-face and down-your-throat that you feel somewhat dirty afterwards. I can't remember what kind of car Crosshairs transforms into, but I do remember the CEO of a multi-billion dollar technology company apparently being overjoyed by the fact that he can make endless amounts of Pill speakers. Perhaps this is because the movie is so busy trying to sell me Bud Light that they didn't have time to show me any Transformers. (Which it's meant to be about, remember.)

At the very beginning of the movie we are treated to watching the enforced extinction of the dinosaurs, which I suppose is why this movie is called Age of Extinction (that and the forthcoming imminent extinction of Transformerkind, while somehow managing to magic new Autobots out of seemingly nowhere). There is no temporal transition between 65 million years ago, and the following shot, which is the present day. Literally none. It is simply one shot followed by another. It's not that I found this hard to follow - it's just grossly poor film-making, it's literally bad technique.

The worst thing? The very worst thing? The ending. But I won't discuss that here. If you want it to be spoiled, just message me on Facebook and I'll tell you all about it.

In summary:

This movie is very, very bad, and you shouldn't watch it unless you feel you have to.