Thursday, November 26, 2015

Movie #336: Inside Out

Inside Out is the latest slice of brilliance from Pixar, and stars Amy Poehler, Mindy Kahling, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane, Lewis Black, and Kaitlyn Dias.

We see the birth and early childhood of Riley (Dias) through the eyes of Joy (Poehler), one of the five emotions that drive her. The others, Fear (Hader); Anger (Black, because who the hell else would you cast?); Disgust (Kahling); and Sadness (Smith) all have their own roles to fulfill, but Joy doesn't really understand what Sadness does. In any event, Joy is very much the leader - her goal is keep Riley happy (interestingly, the other emotions seem to have the same goal; Fear doesn't want her scared, he just responds when she should be), and sees Sadness in particular as a roadblock to that goal.

Riley and her family move cross-country, and things are stressful and sucky. On the first day of school, Riley generates a new "core memory" (formative moments that power the islands of her personality), but this one is sad, rather than happy. Joy flips out and tries to prevent it from joining the others, and winds up disconnecting the other five and getting her, the core memories, and Sadness all sucked down into long term memory, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger as the only emotions Riley can feel.

The bulk of the movie concerns Joy and Sadness trying to get back into headquarters, and Joy finally realizing Sadness' role - she needs to be there so Riley can express her grief, work through it, and signal for help from her loving parents (MacLachlan and Lane). Along the way, they get help from Riley's old imaginary friend, Bing-Bong (Kind), who, in one of the movie's most touching moments, sacrifices himself to being forgotten so that Joy can keep going.

At the end of the movie, Riley pulls herself together, cries, and bonds with her parents, creating a new core memory that's both happy and sad. Riley is growing up, and her feelings and memories become more nuanced.

This movie is really amazing, and it's layered like whoa. What does it say, for instance, that Riley's mother is being driven by Sadness? Is that always the case, or just now during a very stressful period in her life? Same question about dad (driven by Anger and Fear)? And considered that we watch Riley's control panel evolve from a single button when she's a newborn to a much bigger spread as she grows up - more than one emotion can drive at once.

What I really like is that it's obvious that, however painful it is watching Goofball Island tumble into the abyss, personality islands are meant to crumble and be replaced. Riley isn't going to have a Boy Band Island forever (probably), but right now it's important to her...and "right now" is all she knows, because she's a kid. The movie captures the experience of being young and making stupid, impulsive decisions not because Riley is actually stupid or impulsive (we get the feeling she's neither, but actually pretty well put together) but because she's stressed, overwhelmed, and (though they don't realize it) her parents are putting her under immense pressure to "stay happy."

Riley reminds me a lot of my daughter (also 11), actually, and this movie is a good one for parents, I think. It's important to remember that we're all of us a work in progress, each of us the sum of our emotions and memories, and time erases parts of those, reshapes others, and blends it all up

My Grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Land of the Dead


I ran this game on Monday, and then a wild Thanksgiving appeared, so here we are.

Last time, the characters had set up a meet with a pack of werewolves to learn a bit about the monster in the lake. This time, that meeting happened.

The characters met up near Edgewater Park, and were shortly approached by a man calling himself Chuck (Miriana recognized him as a werewolf). He chatted with them briefly, and then whistled, and a wolf walked out from the woods and changed up into man; he called himself Neal.

Neal told them, in brief, about how spirit ecology worked, and what they were up against. Specifically, "if the legends are true," he said, there was a very powerful creature called Gagh-Azur (or "the Mouth of the Deeps") that mostly lived in the ocean but made its way around to the Great Lakes every few years. It created creatures like the fish-monster and the giant squid out of raw materials (Neal called them "Mawspawn") and while he wasn't sure of its specific abilities, he did know that a similar creature out in Denver had required multiple packs of werewolves to kill.

The brood, sobered by this thought, chatted with the werewolves a bit more. Neal gave them a little info about the werewolf situation; basically, there was a pack in East Cleveland that didn't get along with other werewolves (they were old money, 1%er types), but the city proper and the spirit-scape was really the Bridge Pack's area. Maia flirted with Neal and eventually he asked her if she was doing anything tonight, and they left together (and she picked up the Family Ties Condition for him). The others headed back to Parma.

Neal and Maia wound up making out in Lakeview Cemetery, when suddenly Neal perked up and sniffed. He smelled something like death, he said, and wasn't sure what. And then the Beasts realized that the Apex in the area had changed, and instead of Wailing, their Lairs were Flooded (not a huge problem for Maia, but not a welcome change for the others). Had Gagh-Azur ventured on land? Was it now the Apex?

And just then, the security company called Tyler and told him his alarm was going off at his store. Neal apologized to Maia, but said he had to go find his pack, and she said that was fine; she was going to find her folks. The brood went to get Maia, then head for the store. Something was up.

Next time, we find out what.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Game as Art: Participation

I ran Monsterhearts yesterday, and as I was drifting off to sleep, I was thinking about why I love the game so much. I mean, sure, "messy lives of teenage monsters" is a cool hook, and the writing is tight, and it's probably the best implementation I've seen so far of the *World system (though Bluebeard's Bride gives it a run for its money). But on top of all of that, it feels like art.

We talk about whether RPGs (or video games, but that's a discussion I'm not really qualified to have because my interest in and exposure to video games is a pretty narrow slice) are art, but it tends to be hard to come up with a good definition of "art" as it relates to RPGs. When I think of RPGs as art, then, I realized, as I thought about Monsterhearts, that to me a game that's art is challenging.

I would argue that most RPGs actually attempt not to be challenging. What's one of the common sales pitches I hear when I'm walking the dealer's room at GenCon or Origins and talking to folks about their games? "The system gets out of the way." Well, that's cool and all, but that's not really what I want if I'm looking for art. I'm looking for something that makes me engage with the game. Games that prioritize breadth - your GURPS, your d20, even (I hate to say it, because I love the system) Fate, don't challenge so much as shoot for inclusivity.

Now, that's funny, of course, because a lot of those games have labyrinthine rules rabbit holes, such that only someone who is willing to engage and put in the time to learn the rules actually gets the full experience of the game. I talk about this with regards to NWoD a lot; it's a good system (2nd edition especially), but it gets better if you learn it and use it. Hell, that's true of Chill, too - there are a lot of fun things the game does, but you have to know how they work.

That's not the kind of challenge I'm talking about, though. That's mechanical challenge; it'll be harder if you're pressed for time or if reading comprehension (or math, in some cases) isn't your thing, but it's not art. It's not an aesthetic challenge, it's not challenging attitudes or viewpoints. It's more like a puzzle.

No, when I'm thinking about challenge, I'm thinking Monsterhearts. I'm thinking Bluebeard's Bride, or Misspent Youth. Hell, without meaning to toot my own horn, Promethean works precisely because it's assumptions and challenges are so different than the rest of the World of Darkness - you're on a journey with a specific ending, and that ending is that you leave the WoD behind and become "normal." That's 180 degrees from every other WoD game, and consequently a lot of folks label it "unplayable." It's not, though (as two long-running chronicles will attest), it just requires different engagement than other games in the same world.

A challenging game should do more than make you try and remember what kind of dice to roll and what numbers that generates. It should make clear the relationship between system and narrative. Bringing that back to Monsterhearts, I have a player in my group who is highly system-impaired. Like, actively hates "systems". But even he is aware of what it means when I tell him to bubble in "cold" at the beginning of a session; he's gonna mark experience when he rolls on cold, but he's more likely to fail. That means if he plays to his character's strengths, he'll succeed more often, but he won't get as much out of it in the long run. Character development is therefore tied directly in to what that character does within the fiction of the game, which is a hell of a lot more artistic and elegant than "you killed 80 goblins? OK, at 4 XP each, that's...".

As I was talking about this with +Michelle, she pointed out that A Tragedy in Five Acts might not be art so much as it encourages players to make art. Players don't tend to remember the system (which is a pretty simple bidding mechanic, really), but they remember the play they created. That's actually something I was trying to do with my contribution to Game Chef this year, Unstuckand those it's very much in the preliminary stage, I'd like to flesh it out at some point. That does leave me wondering where curse the darkness falls, but since it's mine, I don't think I'm qualified to judge.

One more thought: I've played with a lot of first-time RPG players over the years, and the notion that "you create, control, and speak for a character within this world" is a pretty radical one for some of them. I think it's therefore important to remember that art, even as I'm considering it here, is a pretty subjective measure; what's challenging and new for one person might be familiar or even banal to me. In that kind of case, I think it's important for those of us with more experience to a) remember that there's always someone out there doing edgier shit than we are and b) remember that no one likes snooty, scoffy people who crap on other folks' fun.

Anyway: Tell me more challenging/artistic games! Offhand, my (incomplete) list:

  • Monsterhearts (duh)
  • Misspent Youth
  • Bluebeard's Bride
  • Ganakagok
  • Geasa 
  • Spark (although this might fall into the same category as Tragedy; a game that helps you make art as opposed to being art)
  • Dread
  • With Great Power...
  • Dog Eat Dog
  • Magicians (maybe, I haven't played it)
  • Poison'd (yeah, I know it's problematic as shit in places, but it's definitely challenging)
  • Dogs in the Vineyard

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Monsterhearts: Broken

Today was Monsterhearts! In the interest of not forgetting everything that happened, since next week is Thanksgiving and tomorrow I want to spend the day working on Dark Eras, let's do this now.

Last time, you'll recall, the characters were at Cassi's house. Cassi's mom had seen something terrible in the mirror, and Cassi herself had reached her Darkest Self. Briar had research Emmett, the ghost who'd been talking to them, but Emmett had apparently researched them right back.

The characters talked about what to do. They brought up the notion of a wake or a party, and Rook noted that Cassi could plan parties like whoa, but Cassi wanted no part of it. Briar brought up that the wake should perhaps happen in Oregon, where Emmett was from, but Cassi wanted no part of that, either (Darkest Self Cassi is difficult). Cassi said she was done with parties; people were over tonight and it had endangered her family and smashed her pool house door.

Miguel, who had faded again, gazed into the abyss to learn more about Emmett, but failed. He appeared, cut and bleeding. Cassi took him to the bathroom to get him some supplies, and pulled the cover off the mirror. Miguel tried to put it back, and she shut him down, putting her hand up to the glass, where it disappeared into the mirror. Cassi wasn't willing to let go, but Miguel shut her down, pull her hand back. He gained the chilled condition, she gained loved. She therefore calmed down a bit and got out the first aid stuff and bandages. Skyalr and Romy went upstairs to get PopTarts.

Meanwhile, Briar gazed into the abyss and saw everything around her fade away, until only Emmett was left. She said that they just wanted to help him, and he said he was fucking everything up. He said that they needed to find some way to speak to him other than this (where "this" is gazing into the abyss, it seems). Briar shared this information, with a renewed sense of purpose.

Cassi went to check on her mother. Her mother was dazed, but unhurt, and asked Cassi to help her to bed. After she did, she asked Cassi to look in on her brothers. Cassi did, and saw that they were gone. And then she realized, with a horrified feeling, that the hand that had gripped hers in the mirror was small...

She approached the mirror in their room (which she'd deliberately left uncovered, remember) and stared down her reflection, which obligingly talked back to her. It said that her brothers were gone. She told mirror-Cassi to give them back; it refused. It said that she didn't care about them anyway. She lashed out physically and shattered the mirror (taking Harm in the process).

The others came running, and helped Cassi bandage her hand. She haltingly told the others what had happened, between sobs. Briar shut Cassi down to get her calm; she failed, but Miguel spent a String on Briar to boost the roll and so Cassi wound up with the annoyed condition, while Briar got done. Briar asked if mirror-Cassi had the silvered eyes, and Cassi said no. Briar said, "So, again, it's all about you, huh?" Cassi stormed off, upset. Rook followed.

Briar vented to Skylar, and Skylar used hungry ghost and took away her conditions. Rook, meanwhile, found Cassi and talked her down. Cassi said that she wished the mirrorskins had taken her instead of her brothers, and Rook said, "I'd die again if it took you." Cassi collapsed in tears, her Darkest Self resolved.

Skylar went to find them, and creeped on them, and then revealed herself. They went back into the room to figure this out. Miguel gazed into the abyss, and missed; he felt himself fading and realized that getting information meant fading out again. He chose to do it anyway; all the attention was weird for him, he found. He saw himself in the boys' room, the brothers on their beds, terrified, Elijah's hand bleeding.

Cassi picked up a shard of the mirror and gazed into the abyss, too (since she couldn't see Miguel anymore anyway). She saw much what he had, but the room was weird and kaleidoscopic - probably because the mirror was broken. She came back to herself and talked with the others.

They figured they needed to get into the mirror-room and get the boys. Cassi noted that there was an armoire with a big mirror in the attic. Briar told Rook and Austin to go and get it (light the way, which gave them 1 forward), and they went to the attic pull-down staircase to find it was already pulled down.

They ascended and found Cassi's mother sitting on the armoire, very much solid, but with silvered eyes. She made overtures to them, but Rook declined ("I can't sex my way out of this one") and texted the others. He also shut her down, gaining the tempted condition and giving her regretful. The others came up, and her mother smashed the mirror with her elbow. Cassi arrived and told her to give her family back, but she refused. Cassi manipulated an NPC to try and figure out how to get them back, and realized that it would require going into the mirror-verse.

Rook, meanwhile, looked at the bit of the mirror still hanging on the armoire and gazed into the abyss, hoping to contact the Fairy King. He succeeded; the King climbed out of the mirror and talked with Rook. He told him that the mirrorskins were nothing to do with him - to the Fairy King, mirrors were just a door. The mirrorskins lived in unvoiced desire, impulsive spite, trauma, the broken parts of a person.

They decided Briar should knock out Cassi's mom so they could incapacitate her. Briar approached and lashed out physically. She failed, but Miguel and Rook spent Strings. Cassi's mom grabbed a shared of glass and went to jam it into her throat, but Miguel grabbed the shard and Rook yelled a distraction, and Briar sucker-punched her. They took her downstairs and tied her up on the bed, and then brought the big mirror from the hallway into the boys' room.

They decided that Romy, Austin, and Briar would wait (they weren't sure how Mikaela would react to the mirror-verse). The others entered and all held steady. Cassi gained the terrified condition and 1 forward, but everyone else just stayed cool. Briar played "Happy" by Pharrell Williams on her phone, to guide them back. They found the boys and helped them back out of the room slowly, but mirror-Cassi appeared and looked at Rook, asking him if they planned to get Cassi's mother, too. They exited the mirror, but Miguel (unseen) ran into the hallway in the mirror-verse, trying to find Cassi's mother. He found mirror versions of Skylar and Rook lurking there.

Back in the real world, the others covered the mirror. Rook shared with them what mirror-Cassi had said, and they realized that just as Cassi's mom was bodily here but possessed, some part of her was still in the mirror-verse.

Meanwhile, Miguel found everything get darker. The mirrorskins saw him. "He's the one without a reflection," said mirror-Cassi. Mirror-Rook whacked his hand against the wall, shattering his fingers into sharp shards, and lunged. Miguel lashed out physically and punched mirror-Rook, but took Harm in the process. He tried to run away, but missed, and mirror-Skylar shoved him back, cutting him up further. Finally, he reached out, using the voyeur move. He spent a String on Romy and Mikaela realized he was in trouble (he still had the shadowed condition). Mikaela told Romy she could help him, and Romy agreed. Miguel appeared, bleeding, and Mikaela was...gone.

The characters patched up Miguel and he told them what he'd seen. They decided they'd need to go back in, and this time, Miguel would stay out and keep an eye on Cassi's mom. They all walked into the mirror, and Romy and Briar held steady. Romy succeeded, but Briar did not, and found herself wondering if the others could handle a mirror-Briar. She found herself in the pool house, with mirror-Briar pulling herself out of the pool. She smiled with a mouthful of broken-mirror teeth, and attacked. Briar lashed out physically three times, shattering her double. She wasn't sure, though, how to get back without wandering through the mirror-verse.

Meanwhile, the others heard Mikaela call out from downstairs. They found her by the door, with a body (that looked much like Romy's). She said she was afraid she'd fucked everything up. "They're out there, now," she said.

In the bedroom, Cassi's mom called out for help. Miguel identified himself, and she asked him to untie her. He refused, telling her that she was possessed by a mirror-demon, and manipulated an NPC to try and get her to accept it and calm down. He realized this would require him going over and sitting down with her, which he did, and patted her on the shoulder. She smiled, her mirror-eyes returning, and Miguel felt a weird, spiritual reverberation. Mirror-Skylar stepped into the room, holding a knife...

Closing credits song:

Movie #335: Lake Placid

Lake Placid is a late-90s horror/comedy written by the creator of Ally McBeal and starring Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Betty White, and Brendan Gleeson. That works about as well as you'd expect.

Kelly (Fonda) is a paleontologist who gets sent to Maine to look at a tooth found in the body of a Fish and Game Warden who got bit in half in Black Lake (yes, the titular lake isn't even in the movie). That premise is pretty flimsy on its own; I'd just about buy it as an in-game justification for getting an RPG group together, maybe, but then she goes out on the lake with the local (surviving) game warden Jack Wells (Pullman) and sheriff Hank (Gleeson), and they are shortly joined by rich crocodile-obsessed nutball Hector Cyr (Platt, clearly loving every minute of this). Like, these are the PCs in a game of Chill 1st Edition, folks.

Anyway, the lake is in fact home to a giant croc, which kills a couple of deputies and some local wildlife (and a cow, generously led to the water by the crazy old lady who lives on the lake, played by 90s Betty White, who likes to say "cocksucker") before the envoys team manages to drug it and trap it, just in time for its mate to pop up and get its head blown off by the sheriff's immense grenade launcher gun.

So, I've long held this movie up as an example of what happens when you spend your minuscule budget in a horror movie on the cast instead of the effects, except that the effects that jump out as a kind of crappy are the CG effects at the end. The practical effects were designed by Stan Winston, and they look pretty baller. But still, the cast. The interplay between Gleeson and Platt is especially fun, as they go from enemies to frenemies over the course of the movie (every time Gleeson's accent slips, drink!). Fonda is appropriate neurotic (according the featurette, this was a concept priority for the movie), and Pullman is his usual laconic self. The death toll in the movie is a whole two, and while there are some grossout moments, as a horror movie it's pretty tame.

This is creature horror in that awkward 90s-transitioning-to-00s phase, but again, the cast kind of makes it, and it's got a special place in my heart.

My grade: B
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Land of the Dead

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Movie #334: Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke is an 80s fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Wood, Leo McKern, and Alfred Molina.

We open with Mouse (Broderick) narrating as he escapes from the dungeons of Aquila, fleeing the area, and then bragging about it to an inn full of people who turn out to be palace guards. As he's about to skewered, Etienne of Navarre (Hauer) rocks up and saves him. Turns out Navarre is on a holy quest to kill the Bishop of Aquila (Wood) and needs Mouse's help to get back in. Oh, and Navarre has a hawk with him. That's important.

At night, though, Navarre disappears, a mysterious woman named Isabeau (Pfeiffer) appears, and Mouse is basically like "wtf" until the hawk is wounded in a fight with the guards and Navarre has him take the bird to a monk (McKern) who explains: Navarre and Isabeau were lovers, the Bishop wanted her for himself, and when she told him to get fucked he made a deal with Satan to curse them (which seems an odd career move for a bishop). During the day, Navarre is human and Isabeau is a hawk. At night, Navarre is a wolf, but Isabeau is human.

The movie concludes with the lovers confronting the Bishop during an eclipse ("a night without a day") and breaking the curse, which is nice. Along the way we get a small role from a very young Alfred Molina as a wolf-hunter.

This movie was very meaningful to me when I was much younger, to the point that I went by "Nevarre" (misspelling deliberate) on various message boards and chat rooms for a long time. The notion of the lovers being "always together, eternally apart" appealed to my love of tragic romance (BTW, ladies, if you find a man who's enamored of tragic romance, maybe think twice before getting in too deep). The movie itself holds up pretty well; no Oscar-worthy performances, here, but it's fun to watch Broderick chew scenery and Hauer be badass and blonde. Interestingly, the villain (Wood) is kinda boring; the captain of the guard (Ken Hutchison) has more to do and more bite.

The soundtrack, composed by Alan Parsons, is bloody awful. Every now and then we get some nice orchestral music, but then the synth and the electric guitar come back and it's like "oh, wow, it's the 80s now."

I think, personally, that this movie would be good to remake now with a better soundtrack and better effects. They have to keep the "Are you flesh or spirit?" "I am sorrow," exchange, though, because that's the best line in the movie.

My grade: B-
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: Lake Placid

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Character Creation: OmegaZone

Yay, post-apocalyptic RPG! You know I like those.

The Game: OmegaZone
The Publisher: Brooklyn Indie Games
Degree of Familiarity: None yet; I'm running it in a couple of weeks. It's Fate Accelerated, though, which I'm quite familiar with.
Books Required: Just the one. There's also a setting deck, which isn't required but it's very helpful.

So, first thing's first: I promised +Filamena Young that the next character I made would use this as a theme song (beware, nudity):

Sounds good to me.

So, OmegaZone focuses on a post-alien-invaded Los Angeles. Unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic settings, it doesn't do a tedious world tour or exhaustive history. We're focused on one particular city, and then it gives us some details on the heavy hitters and the troubles going on in this weird new world.

Given the song, I want to create a character who's a badass debt collector. I'm thinking he could work for Apeman Tony or someone, but I'll do the chargen thing before I make a lot of decisions.

Like other Fate Accelerated games, OmegaZone uses approaches rather than skills, which I greatly enjoy. Unlike other FAE games, character creation is as simple as drawing a few cards, which provides aspects and stunts. I'm meant to draw two character definitions and one mutation, so let's see what I get.

I draw Mundane, Unique Animal Hybrid, and (for my mutation) Radioactive Vampirism. OK, then. The interesting thing here is merging Mundane and Animal Hybrid. Hmm. I'd almost get a "Boy and His Dog" vibe off this, but I'm not sure I want to effectively have two characters.

Actually, I have an idea. We'll say that my character's mutations are invisible. He is an animal-hybrid, but it's all internal; you'd have to dissect him (or at least do a blood test) to detect that he's anything other than human. He's actually more leech than man; he doesn't eat solid food, but can feed on the flesh and blood of irradiated creatures (or eat normal food that's been irradiated, I guess, but that's boring).

Now, the cards are treated as Aspects, but does that mean I have "Mundane" as an Aspect? 'Cause that's a shitty Aspect. I think we'll call it "Stealth Mutant" instead. "Unique Animal Hybrid", too, is kinda dull as Aspects go, so I'll call it "More Worm Than Man." Finally, "Radioactive Vampirism" actually is kind of cool, so I'll keep that. I note down my three stunts, too (one from each card).

Now I do a High Concept and a Trouble Aspect. Hmm. My worm-man doesn't feel like an Apeman Tony guy, actually. I think he works for Jacobite Jones or Baron Junkpile. Let's go with the Baron. When someone tries to cheat Junkpile, trading him crap or otherwise taking advantage, sometimes the Baron calls in Hunny Bother. Hunny looks like a pretty normal guy, which makes him stand out a bit in this world of gelatinous people and uplifted cats. His preferred tactics involve getting ahead of his quarry and waiting, and if people can't pay, he's not above irradiating them and eating their organs. I think since "Bitch Better Have My Money" is too on the nose for a High Concept, I'll make it Patient Shylock.

And now Trouble. Hmm. Hunny is hungry (actually, hell, that's probably how his name started and then it was mispronounced by some drunk or terrified welcher). Sometimes he's been known to pocket money that should go to a higher-up just so he can eat someone/something. He doesn't do it much, but... Hunger Gets the Better of Me.

Filling in the approaches isn't specifically called out as part of character creation (though it should be, and there's no example, garrarargh). I wind up with +0 in Careful, +4 in Clever, +0 in Flashy, +2 in Forceful, +2 in Quick, and +1 in Sneaky. That's interesting; I think most of the time in FAE, you don't get approaches over Good. That also means when I can use my Mundane stunt, I'm starting at Fantastic, which is pretty baller.

Right, I think all I need now is to collect three Fate points and name myself, but I did that last bit. I could spend refresh to buy additional stunts or gear, but eh. Having a stunt for creating an advantage when I track them for at least a day might be cool, though. Yeah, I'll do that.

And that's me done!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movie #333: The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid is an 80s teen drama/quasi-action flick about a boy who learns karate in two months in order to get a gang of bullies off his back. It stars Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, and William Zabka.

Daniel (Macchio) and his mother (Randee Heller) move to Los Angeles from Newark. Daniel is salty about the move, but that's probably to be expected. He immediately meets a group of guys and makes friends, and at a beach party, lays eyes on Ali (Shue). All goes well until her ex-boyfriend Johnny (Zabka) shows up with a gang of his buddies from Cobra Kai, the local dojo, and Daniel starts some shit (in fairness, Johnny was being an ass), and gets his ass kicked.

From there, we get a couple of months of cat and mouse; most the older kids screwing with Daniel when they get a chance, until they throw him down a hill on his bike. He also meets the handyman at his apartment complex, Mr. Miyagi (Morita), who teaches him how to clip bonsai trees and is generally cool. Then one night at the Halloween dance, he pranks Johnny by spraying water on him, and the Cobra Kais chase him down and beat the shit out of him. Miyagi jumps in and takes out the gang, and then agrees to teach Daniel karate so he can compete against the gang at a tournament. And then, of course, Miyagi trains him using household chores, he deals with Ali's family being rich and his poor, he wins even though the Cobras cheat, roll credits.

This is one of these movies that years of overanalysis has kind of ruined. Like, for instance, much is made of how Daniel learns karate over the course of two months (assuming that the Halloween party was late October and the tournament is December 19th). But it's not like he's an expert. He's trained in a different style than his opponents and he's terrified, so he's paying attention. And it's not like he wins decisively, he fucks up quite a bit. In a real fight, he'd probably have lost.

Also, there's a video floating around about how Daniel is a bully and Johnny is the real hero, and on a watch, it seems convincing...but then watch the movie again. Johnny talks about how senior year he's going to quit being a screw-up, but he hasn't learned important lessons like "respect the girl's wishes when she wants to be left alone" and "if she's nice enough to grant you a dance, don't kiss her just to fuck with the other guy," not to mention "getting water poured on your head is no excuse for assault." So, no, Daniel makes some stupid choices, but he is by no means a bully.

And finally, there's a stupid meme going around that Daniel shouldn't have won the tournament because he kicks Johnny in the head, and that's against the rules. Except Ali says quite clearly in explaining the rules to Daniel that anything above the waist is a point (that's why the knee strike is a big deal and disqualifies the Cobra that employs it).

Anyway, with those points out of the way, I think this movie holds up decently. The soundtrack is kind of awful and the score is worse, but the movie itself was a cultural touchstone, spurred a lot of imitators and lazy memes, and apparently launched an interest in kids learning karate, if some of my more martial-artsy friends are to be believed.

My grade: B+
Rewatch value: Medium-low

Next up: Ladyhawke

Thursday, November 12, 2015

And Also Beast!

Right, and then we played Beast on Monday. Here we go!

Last time, the brood had gone to Put-In-Bay to get out of town for a while, and so Maia could swim around and investigate the lake. Tyler called Dr. Bones and asked her what was up with the whole "dude is trying to kill me and can't die" thing; she said she wouldn't have helped him if she'd known his last actions would be so violent and promised to look into it. She also agreed to call in a favor from someone called "Robert" and have him watch Tyler's store, so that Dillon didn't burn it down or anything.

The brood went out on a boat, and Maia dove in and looked about. She taste squid ink, which was weird because squid aren't native to Lake Erie. She tracked it for a while, and then found it - a large squid-monster with barbs on its sides. It attacked her, but you don't attack a Makara in a lake. She opened a Primordial Pathway to her Lair, merged with her Horror, and ripped the squid in half. She tossed half into her Lair and half up onto the boat.

She and Miriana examined it, and they noted that the barbs were more like bird beaks. This was the same level of weird that the fish-man creature had been. They decided to head back to land and check one of the islands in the morning.

Needing to feed, Maia had John open a bunch of cars in the parking lot, and squeeze dead squid-juice in them. She wound up feeding deeper than she meant, and made it to Sated.

Next day, they brood got back on the boat and headed out. They found the caves, and Maia went diving again. She found a little underwater cavern, and a human skeleton tucked back on a ledge. Not being any great shakes with investigation herself, she called the others in. John and Miriana noted that the skeletal individual had multiple wounds, and had apparently crawled back on that ledge to die. There were also scratches on the walls, scratches that Miriana recognized as werewolf in origin, though she couldn't read them.

They got back to the boat, and Miriana called Niki, a werewolf friend of hers. They sent Niki pictures of the carvings, and Niki seemed concerned. She offered to hook the brood up with the Bridge Pack, a pack of werewolves more knowledgeable about this kind of thing, but advised they not get snarky - the Bridge Pack takes this seriously.

The Beasts headed back into town, and Tyler met Robert at his store (Robert was a Sin-Eater, like Dr. Bones). Robert said that he'd owed her a favor, but that the Sin-Eater community at large didn't care much for what she was doing and indeed, they weren't sure how she was doing it. Robert also wasn't crazy with the notion of setting people on fire for stealing shit, but he had fulfilled his obligation, so he left.

Next time, the characters get to meet a pack of werewolves. That'll be fun.

Dragons & Eels

Last Saturday we played Epyllion, and it's been a busy week, so I'm just now getting around to it. Previously, the clutch had passed through a forest of strange narcotics before heading to White Falls for the feast. There, they were expecting to see their fifth member.

We finally had our fifth player back, and he's playing the Daredevil, called Hawley. He'd gone down to White Falls early to explore the Serpent Caves; it's the kind of thing he does. Before the clutch arrives, Nova uses true warrior to prepare herself for any coming battles, and Veris uses haunting visions. He sees the waters off the cliffs by the Serpent Caves, and sees something huge swimming in the water. He makes a note of that for later.

The clutch arrives and stakes out a campsite. Nearby is another young clutch, so Veris askes if they'd seen his friend Hawley. The other dragons are haughty and standoffish; Veris studies them to try and figure them out a bit, and then convinces them to engage in a riddle contest. He fails that last, though, and they laugh at him.

Nova, stepping up, challenges them to a drinking contest, which takes the form of eating fermented fruits called star apples (which leads to a condition the dragons called being "starry eyed", if you eat too many). Nova acts despite danger for the contest, and wins, but does so by finishing her barrel too quickly and getting very starry eyed indeed.

The dragons tell the clutch that their friend Hachiro had gone off with Hawley and his friend Biscit to investigate the caves. Veris convinces them to watch their campsite, and the clutch heads for the cliffs.

Freja uses scent of a place to figure out the best way to gain access to the caves, and realizes that diving into the ocean and swimming up through the caves would be the most direct route. She also uses spirit guide (which she picked up recently; her spirit guide is one of those little sap-builder birds, which the clutch names Oodle) to help her figure out whether to go now or wait until dawn. Oodle tells her that if the dragons are still alive, they almost surely won't be by dawn.

The clutch finds Hawley lying near the caves, and he reveals that he and Biscit and Hachiro were doing their daredevil thing, but got separated. The clutch decides they'd better go diving. Veris calls on the storm moon to make them all faster, while Nova calls on the liberty moon to sober up. Both magics are exceptionally powerful, and all of the clutch dives down into the water, swimming too fast between the giant stone pillars. Everyone acts despite danger. Nova, Azrael, and Hawley all take harm from hitting pillars and being tossed by the current. Veris, leading the way, emerges unhurt. Freja lags behind and avoids the pillars.

All of the dragons emerge into an underground lake. Freja sees horrible little shadow eels, and acts despite danger to fly out of the way as they bite at her. She emerges from the water with the eels nibbling her wings. She lands, and uses wild speech to talk with these creatures. The eels make it clear they would like to eat the dragons, but the ones that the clutch is looking for aren't in the water. The clutch figures this to mean that they've crawled out into tunnels somewhere.

Hawley, since he's been here, looks around and finds a path for the clutch. He follows a foul smell, acts despite danger, and slides down a tunnel too fast into a pit of rotted flesh. The others follow him, but don't jump into the pit right away. Hawley acts despite danger again to pull himself out of the charnel pit, but gigantic eel-creatures start attacking. Nova flies down to battle the darkness, but is pulled down through a hole under the flesh-pit into another chamber. She uses battle plan to find the most dangerous enemy, and realizes that it's the thing below all of this that's the deadliest.

Freja attempts to battle the darkness, and trades harm but take a Shadow Point, but Hawley shares the load and takes the point for her, pull her back up out of the muck. Veris calls upon the stone moon to solidify the muck, and does so, making the eels more visible. Azrael battles the darkness using her special obsidian rock, and Hawley battles the darkness, but winds up taking extra harm from the massive eel-creatures.

Below, Nova battles the darkness and crushes the eel that was attacking her, but then she finds a strange object - an immense black throne, designed for a serpentine dragon.

Freja calls on the liberty moon to find Nova and finds the hole in the ground, and the dragons crawl down into the lower chamber, and all behold the dark throne. Veris helps Azrael to battle the darkness, again using her rock, but she fails. The rock strikes the throne and drops, and then shatters. Azrael marks Anger and lashes out at Veris, berating him for his "help" which cost her a special object.

The dragons decide that this throne is pure evil, and Freja calls on the void moon to negate its power. It shatters, and Azrael's rock fragments are lost amidst the broken throne. She uses bag of potential to grab a sack to grab up some of this obsidian to craft later.

Veris, meanwhile, looks at the dead flesh that was in the pit, and finds a chewed up dragon wing. He examines an object and realizes it belong to Hachiro - he's dead. The dragons, sobered, realize they need to find Biscit, if he's still alive. Freja asks her spirit guide to help, and Oodle marks five tunnels leading out of the main column. He advises that the dragons split up. They recognize the danger, but also the wisdom, in doing so.

Veris calls on the storm moon to make them faster, but fails, and the column begins to flood. The dragons, grumbling a bit, split up, and all act despite danger to find Biscit and get out.

Freja fails, and gets swept along by the current and out of the caves. Nova also fails, and finds herself in a large cavern. She sees an immense, black, serpentine dragon, surrounded by thousands of writhing shadow-eels. Recognizing the Darkness when she sees it and not foolish enough to take it on herself, she flees. Azrael, on her way out, drops a stone that Hawley had given her - an invitation for a private event later.

Hawley escapes, but sprains his wing in the process. Veris, however, succeeds, and finds Biscit and tries to drag him out. Veris calls on the liberty moon to escape, and winds up destroying the rock face of the cliffs, dropping much of the cliff into the sea.

The clutch heads back to White Falls, where they deliver the bad news about Hachiro to his friends. They stay up late into the night, eating star-apples and having a wake for the fallen dragon.

Meanwhile, at the cliffs, an immense black shape slithers out of the sea, clutching a special stone in its paw...

Monday, November 2, 2015

Movie #332: Halloween

Halloween isn't the first slasher movie, but it's close. Directed and scored by John Carpenter, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Nick Castle, and Charles Cyphers.

The story is pretty simple: A young Michael Myers (Tony Moran as a child, Castle as an adult, credited as "The Shape") murders his sister (Sandy Johnson) for no particular reason. He's put away for 15 years, under the care of his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Pleasance). Then he escapes, steals a car, and zips back to his hometown just in time for Halloween.

There, he runs across a trio of girls baby sitting and having fun (or not) on Halloween, and proceeds to murder two of them (plus a boyfriend). The last, Laurie Strode (Curtis in the role that made her), manages to..."outwit" him is the wrong word, because mostly she just dodges his knife and hides from him, so maybe "outlast" is better. Then Dr. Loomis shows up and shoots him a bunch of times...but he still gets up and vanishes.

Halloween is one of those movies that you can appreciate if you like the genre, but it's probably not going to scare anyone these days. The dialog is stilted, the story is dated (and has been improved and retouched like whoa), and it's worth remembering that as brilliant as Carpenter is, this was a very early movie for him and he's stepped up his game since. But as an aficionado of the slasher genre, Halloween is crucial, and seminal. It shows us the faceless killer with no motive. Myers doesn't have a history of abuse, he's not possessed, he's just...evil. We talk later about how the Final Girl is the "pure" one, but while Curtis' Laurie is certainly more responsible and school-focused than her friends, she smokes weed with them and she's obviously crushing on a boy at school. Are the others punished for their conduct on the night? Maybe, but it's hard to believe that's Myers' motivation.

The telling shot, I think, for Myers is after he kills Bob (John Michael Graham) and just...stands there, admiring his work. I know later movies in the series gave Myers a backstory, like they do, and I haven't seen the Rob Zombie remake, but for me, the essence of the genre is right there. Myers, staring at a dead body. Proud? Satisfied? Or just...interested?

My grade: B+
Rewatch value: Medium-high, depending on the audience

Next up: Ladyhawke

Night's Black Agents: Deja Vu All Over Again

Last night was the end of the op in Night's Black Agents. We were down a player (Benbow's player didn't show), so that was something of a wrinkle. But then it all got much worse.

See, last time the agents got into a big fight at the farmhouse. Fuchs and Gambone were injured, but not critically, and the place was pretty messed up, but their assailants were dead. Benbow patched up the injured (I don't like playing peoples' characters while they're out, but needs must), and they discussed their options. Gambone speculated that Jens must be bugged, and a deeper inspection found an incision under his arm, and a very small mass under his skin.

Fuchs went to the kitchen to get some liquor, and felt a gun to the back of his head. A man with an American accent told him to put his hands behind his back; he did and they were zip-tied. The man asked him where Wolfgang was, and Markus refused to tell him, but grabbed his phone (using Preparedness to have put it in an accessible pocket) and hit the panic button.

The man...stabbed him? Something hit his back, and he fell over in pain. Parker crept down the hall with a shotgun, but botched that up (she doesn't actually have any Infiltration, so we used the optional rule that says if you roll on a General ability you don't actually have, a roll of 1 is disastrous...and yep, 1). The man heard her, shot Fuchs (but non-fatally; guns are a joke). Parker popped around the corner and shot him, but all it did was drive him back.

The others came running (except Benbow, who stayed with Jens), and took up positions. Fuchs hobbled out of the room, and Gambone cut his bonds. The man (whom Wolfgang recognized as Frank, who he'd last seen with tentacles coming out of his mouth) shot at them, wounding Parker. Gambone tossed an explosive into the room, but the moved too fast to follow and popped in front of him...and then unleashed those tentacles and stabbed Gambone in the chest, dropped him. Parker grabbed a knife and went to work, but he disarmed her and smacked her around. Wolfgang grabbed a sabre off the wall and swung at him, Weapons, rolled a 1. Frank grabbed Parker and put her in the path of the blade, and Wolfgang stabbed her, wounding her and dropping her to the ground.

Frank stabbed Wolfgang with his tendrils again, dropping him, and Fuchs turned and shot at him, but missed. Frank walked up, opened his mouth, and that was the last thing Fuchs saw.

Wolfgang woke up in a hospital. It turned out to be St. Mauritius, in Dusseldorf. He learned that Parker, Benbow, and Gambone had survived, but Fuchs and Jens were dead. The survivors talked with Father Diego Calderon (whom you may remember from earlier in this series, back in Rome). He said he'd been tracking Wolfgang, but had gotten there too late to help; Benbow and Jens had shot Frank and driven him off, but not before he laid Jens low. The agents were now being hidden by the Vatican; while Calderon couldn't promise them support, he could at least keep them safe while they healed.

They decided to go with their original plans - head to Osijek, track down and eliminate Dr. Radovan Macan. The device implanted in Jens hadn't been able to listen in, so the vampires shouldn't know the agents' plans. Calderon also made arrangements for a young member of the Knights of Malta, a Swede named Colin Esses, to join them.

Next time, back to Osijek (and we'll see if Benbow's player rejoins us).

EDIT: She did not, so Benbow didn't survive, either.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Con on the Cob - Now With Pictures!

Con on the Cob was a couple of weeks ago, but blah blah excuse here's the damn write-up.

I really like this little con. It's grown from a loose collection of nerds in a smoky-ass hotel in Hudson, OH, to a larger collection of nerds in a hotel that really does not want you to smoke in Brecksville, OH. The gaming schedule wasn't bad this year, though if I had it to do over again, I'd have played with +Sean Patrick Fannon instead of some of the people I did play with.

As an side, there was a time in my life when I could schedule RPGs back to back from 10AM until 2AM and feel no ill effects. And the other folks over 40 in my circles, I'm sure, read this and think "well, duh," but it's actually something of a shock when your body doesn't do the things it used to do. What that means is that I have to be circumspect when I schedule games, which makes it all the more disappointing when those games get cancelled or simply suck. But more on that later.

We were running a booth for the IGDN, as we do ("we" being me, +Michelle Lyons-McFarland+Eloy Lasanta, and +Ryan Schoon). This is only picture I have from the booth, but I think it speaks volumes:

Eloy is very excited to be here
Thursday, we set up the booth, and worked it for a bit. And then I had an evening game scheduled; I was playing something called Ghostories (that's pronounced "ghost stories", not "go stories" or "goss tories", so I have no idea why it's spelled that way).

Gettin' ready to tell some 'tories.
The game is a supernatural investigation kind of game, and that appeals. Basically it's not dissimilar from Chill insofar as you're normal people (perhaps with some low-grade psychic ability) who go out looking into supernatural shit because someone has to. The system didn't leave much of an impression one way or another, though I do vaguely remember feeling at the time that it was too easy to fail rolls.

The scenario set-up was decent, and the GM got out of our way as we roleplaying and figure out our approach. We wound up doing a little ghost-power time travel and, best of all, toward the end the GM didn't try to drag the resolution out into a big thing; no combat necessary, just a broken mirror and the characters could pick their way home. I like investigative games that focus more on the investigation and the creepy stuff, because horror doesn't really have combat the way action/adventure does.

So: Kinda ambivalent about the game itself, but this session was fun. My grade: B+

Oh, one other cool thing: A game of curse the darkness being run out in wild! Not by me! That makes me happy.

Damn, that's a lot of cards.

Friday, though! We arrived, opened up the booth, got to work. I had a game of Chill to run in the evening, but during the day it was all booth. My kiddos were also there for most of the day on Friday, and dressed up because they weren't able to be there for the actual costume parade on Saturday.


Teagan as Cruella de Ville.

That evening, I ran Cold Dark Earth, which you can download for free here. I had lots of people during the day ask if I was running Chill, but both my games were full. I wound up adding a Sunday morning game, so that was encouraging. No pictures from the Chill game, though.

And then sleep. We stayed at the con that night so the kids could get some extra time in doing con things. Saturday morning, and Cael scared the bejeesus out of my by scampering off with a friend and disappearing for a while, but we resolved that, and I had a game at 10AM to play...

...except the GM was hung over and didn't show. OK, folks, if you sign up to run a game at a con, and it's at 10 in the goddamn morning, maybe exercise a little restraint the night before? Anyway. I wound up hanging out with a friend for a while (she was signed up for the same game as me), and then I had a game scheduled at 2PM that actually did happen.

The picture is blurry, sorry. The game was blurry, too.
So, the game was Everybody is John, and the idea is that you're all playing facets of "John," who wakes up naked somewhere and has multiple voices in his head, all trying to get him to do something. When creating a character, you wind up deciding what that "something" is for your "voice," and also what skills you bring to the table. I signed up for the game because I thought the premise was interesting, and I thought it might be kind of like Bluebeard's Bride or Vox. I was...wrong.

The game was played for maximum silly. The first guy to take control of John (I'll get to that) took John down to the grocery store (naked), grabbed a bunch of blue frosting, and started smearing it on the walls because his goal was to paint a room blue. Then the police got involved. Oh, and we had a friend who was an alien. So this is the level of discourse we're on.

I'm fine with that. Silly is good, especially on Saturday afternoon at a con. But there were a few problems. First, the game mechanics are...not so great. You've got five tokens, and everyone bids for control of John whenever someone makes a roll and fails, or whenever 30 minutes of game time goes by with no rolls happening. If people tie, you roll off with d6s. But when you make a roll to do something in game, you've got to roll a 3 or better on a d6 if a skill applies, or a 6 if it doesn't. That all but guarantees you'll be passing control of John off a lot, which is great, except once you're out of tokens you're...out. You can do nothing to influence the game.

Also, there is no group cohesion. You don't get to talk to the other voices (I mean, table talk happens, but there's no effect, it's just talk). It's not like Bluebeard's Bride where it's actually like a shared story. It's six people all trying to tell their own stories, while the GM...well, that's the other problem.

The GM laughed at her own jokes a lot, and her own jokes were problematic. We ended the game with a shootout between "rednecks" and "gangstas" in the "inner city" or "hood" as she called it. I think I may have facepalmed once or twice.

All in all, not impressed. My grade: D, since the initial bits of the game were at least silly enough to be funny.

Right, so, done with that, time to run Chill, which again, I didn't photograph, but I did see some other strange and beautiful things at the con.

Just act natural and switch to a garlic shampoo. 
They've upgraded Ecto-1.

OMG, it's +Andy Hopp! And a cat burrito!
Santa and a goblin chatting with dudes in suits. It's a con!
A very dapper octopus.
Dread, one of my favorites. 
And then sleep. Sunday!

I wound up running another session of Chill Sunday morning, which was fun. I ran Cold Dark Earth again, and the group wound up nearly getting Melissa killed, but saving the day last minute in a very tense graveyard standoff. And then it was back to the booth for a few hours, and then breaking it down, and then home.

All in all, Con on the Cob is a great time. It's a little later in the year next year (November sometime), so if you can make it, come play games with us.