Monday, September 26, 2011

Off the List: Season of the Witch

Season of the with was my latest impulse pull from Redbox. This movie actually was what I was hoping The Black Death would be - it was a historical fantasy piece, painted in varying shades of gray. (Things like the inquisition and witch hunting get a whole lot less clear-cut when you have actual supernatural evil power being tossed around.) The story was adequate, the characters were fine, and the twist at the end managed to catch me by surprise because it leveraged a supernatural element that had been previously unreferenced. It was merely okay overall; I'd call it a 3-star film, but it was definitely fine for what it was. And of course anything with Ron Perlman in it is automatically that much cooler for his participation.

RPG notes: As usual, this section contains major spoilers and should be skipped by those that don't want them. The twist was interesting - the "witch" was in fact neither innocent nor guilty, because she was a host for a demon that was as guilty as all get-out. This core idea would be very useful in a game (albeit used sparingly) and wouldn't even necessarily have to be limited to demonic possession. Alien parasites, psionic mind control, and even cybernetic implants can all create a similar situation where someone isn't in full control of their actions, but otherwise seems relatively normal. The ruthless church that, while dark and brutal, still wasn't entirely wrong made for some interesting moral complexity - it reminded me a bit of the followers of Sigmar in the Warhammer Fantasy setting. This work is a useful reference for a powerful religion with generally benign goals and teachings, but corrupt and ruthless followers. The demon's "incinerating embrace" attack is going to find its way into one of my games - mark my words. And then there's the whole theme of putting a supernatural or fantasy twist on actual world events, which has been a staple of many a GM toolbox for decades.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Off the List: Shoot 'em Up

I watched shoot 'em up as a research project on a particular villain. (Another recommendation from Aaron Stack.) The movie was okay but not entirely to my taste. It was a little raw and the liberal politics seemed a bit out of place at the end. However, the shootouts (which is why you watch this kind of film) were absolutely top notch. My one gripe with those, which are ludicrously over-the-top by design and don't aspire or pretend to be anything different, is that they suffer from "handguns are better" syndrome. Mr. Smith routinely walks over dead enemies with loaded SMGs to pick up a pistol. Really? The plot basically exists to string shootouts together, and the only real stand-out characters are the ones you'd expect - the central ones. Nobody really comes out of nowhere and steals the show, and that's fine. Paul Giamatti plays an interesting villain - cocky and sneering, but chubby and not very formidable-looking, he is nonetheless smart, ruthless, and lucky to survive a huge number of gunfights that kill everybody around him. I'm not sure I'd recommend this movie, but if you want to see it, I wouldn't tell you not to, either.

RPG notes: If you're looking to create a game with cinematic, over-the-top gunplay all over the place, put this in your to-watch list along with everything John Woo has ever done and Equilibrium. Basing a villain off the Paul Giamatti character would make for an interesting change of pace from the usual "Dark Lord" type villains that show up in a lot of games. Other than that, though, there's not much to pull into gaming here. But really, those two elements are enough from a film like this.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cleared: Limitless

Along with Thor, I picked up Limitless, and I just watched that tonight. Since the comments on my last post have jogged my memory of just how poorly I know my Hollywood actors, I'm going to refrain from any reference to the level of star power in this movie. I will say that the people in it did a very good job portraying an interesting group of characters. I can also say that I was genuinely surprised by the ending. The premise of the movie is that Eddie, a depressed, unmotivated, unfocused writer sliding rapidly towards rock bottom gets a dose of an experimental drug called NZT from his ex-brother-in-law. The drug essentially overclocks his brain. Where it goes from there makes for an extremely compelling movie. The movie ventures into psychological horror at moments, but is probably better called a thriller. It's exciting, suspenseful, and fairly smart. I liked that Eddie is neither perfect nor a complete scumbag. I liked less that some real questions go completely unanswered. The film also gets special credit for having a sympathetic character use a little kid as a temporary weapon and staying sympathetic throughout the use and afterward. I'd definitely recommend this one!

RPG notes: The customary note about spoilers applies, of course. Okay, the obvious idea here is NZT itself. That drug just begs to be in every cyberpunk and later RPG. Interestingly, though, I can think of at least one fantasy one that already has something similar. The Alchemist class from the Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide has an archetype in Ultimate Magic called the Mindchemist that could easily be used to make a character very much like Eddie, though the loss of some physical prowess from the side effects of the Mindchemist's cognatogens means it wouldn't be quite the same. More interesting than NZT all by itself, however, is the implied message in the movie that a sizeable number of the truly elite are on it, and that success and power may well be drug-induced. Any GM worth their salt could easily construct a terrifying dystopian setting around that concept. For bonus points, throw in something like Prozium (from Equilibrium) that's administered via the water supply to the general populace and you have a class of chemically-enhanced super-geniuses ruling over an emotionally-dead population of obedient drones.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Off the List: Thor

As I have been wont to do of late, I swung by a Redbox kiosk on my way home and picked up a couple of DVDs. One of them was Thor, which I just finished. To be honest, I went into this not expecting much. I've never been a huge Thor fan, and the trailers made it seem really corny to me. And, to an extent, it was sort of corny, but it was also absurdly well written and acted for something as potentially ludicrous as it was. The filmmakers did an exceptional job making the elements of Norse myth fit into a science fiction (rather than fantasy or straight comic book) take on a comic book setting. Of particular note was their treatment of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which was actually (incredibly minor spoiler) a star map. The other thing I thought was remarkable was just how well a batch of little-known actors did with the film. Natalie Portman was really the only movie star in this film, and she was in a supporting role. I'm amazed I'm saying it, but it was a legitimately good movie, and worth seeing.

RPG notes: Surprisingly, there's not all that much to be cribbed from Thor, except the old trope of "Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic." (Arthur C. Clarke) This manifested itself in some subtle and interesting ways, such as the aforementioned example of Yggdrasil and the Rainbow Bridge. Asgard itself seemed to almost be a space station of sorts. The rest of the film was fairly standard fish-out-of water tropes as Thor had to cope with being "merely human," though that part of the film does do a lot to make the case for a god stripped of his powers and cast down to live amongst mortals until he atones for some misdeed as a fun story element. Also: Loki is a fantastic example of a sympathetic manipulator villain. Those wanting to create such adversaries should watch with a notepad handy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Off the List: The Princess and the Frog

On the recommendation of a friend (the inimitable Aaron Stack of Stacked Deck Entertainment) I fired up Disney's The Princess and the Frog on Netflix streaming tonight. Mr. Stack's recommendation did not go awry - the movie was quite entertaining. It was also one of the two darkest Disney movies I've seen (the other being The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I also really love) which kind of surprised me. Disney set the tale in New Orleans, which added all sorts of fun elements (Cajuns, voodoo, etc.) into it and made the story very enjoyable. The animal sidekicks were very enjoyable, and the Bokor villain was dealing with actual demons (with no punches pulled on the consequences for either him or the people who dealt with him), though the word wasn't used. The characters were also refreshingly three-dimensional and flawed, too, particularly Charlotte, who grew up into a character that didn't HAVE to do the right thing at the end and, once she knew what was going on truly had no reason to, but tried anyway. I'd heartily recommend this one, and I promise the next thing I do will be less kid-oriented!

RPG notes: As usual, this is the spoiler section, and should be reserved for consumption by readers who have either consumed the media or don't mind spoilers.

The Shadow Man, while a fairly straightforward Bokor villain, was a very slick and well-executed one. In particular, his shadow was a nice touch. It was a separate entity from him and able to affect the physical world by interacting with the shadows of other things was both effective and creepy. I'm almost certainly going to poach that for a fantasy villain. The film also had a very solid multi-threaded story AND a solid internal mythology, both of which are useful for any RPG campaign or setting - the mythology in particular took very solid advantage of a the setting and demonstrated how sometimes where a story takes place can deeply impact the story in important ways. That particular story wouldn't have worked anywhere else but New Orleans. The one last element that this movie provided me with wasn't actually in the movie itself, at least not entirely. In the process of "selling" me on the film, Aaron Stack mentioned that they "straight up murder a good guy" in the film. This took my viewing experience from "standard Disney movie" to "standard Disney move + Anyone Can Die." That "impending doom" feeling I had actually made the movie all the cooler and got me thinking that a good prophecy of doom from a reliable source can be a great story wrinkle in a game. All through the movie, I was trying to guess - was it going to be Ray? Louis? Mama Odie? Big Daddy? Naveen? That, coupled with how truly pull-no-punches supernatural evil The Shadow Man was, really made the film for me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cleared: Despicable Me

I realized I needed to get cracking on clearing out some stuff, so I grabbed Despicable Me from a Redbox kiosk on the way home for just that purpose. The movie works on several levels. First of all, it is actually effective at what it sets out to do - the humor is actually funny, and the parts intended to be heartwarming are actually touching. The antics of the little minion creatures were cute and funny without getting obnoxious. Gru and Nefario made likeable antihero protagonists, and there was plenty of humor for adults. (Gru's trip to the Starbucks Coffee Shop towards the beginning of the film springs to mind as an especially effective example, and the whole Gru vs. Vector thing seems like a thinly-veiled reference to the whole Mac vs. PC squabble that's been going on for years.) There's a very real, if not very dark, redemption story in there, too. All in all, I liked it. It's not Great Art Cinema, but it is a quality, charming animated movie.

RPG notes: This is, as usual, where the spoilers live, so tread carefully if you haven't watched it yet. The movie contains a number of ideas that could be poached for gaming campaigns, the first of which that popped out at me being the Bank of Evil. While on its surface, the concept is silly, it barely takes any effort at all to imagine an amoral financial institution bankrolling shady goings-on around the world. In fact, they made a movie about that very concept called The International a while back, and it most certainly was not a comedy or for children. The shrink weapon (and its side effects) might be fun in a weird science or supers game, and the little minion creatures (or other critters that act like them - small-sized fantasy "cannon fodder" races like goblins and kobolds could easily be hacked to act like the minions) would be a great addition to a lighthearted campaign world. Finally, Gru demonstrates a number of times throughout the movie that you can be intimidating without actually resorting to a demonstration of violence or even direct threats, and that's a useful tool for a player or GM's storytelling toolbox.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cleared: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Well, it's been a very cyberpunk Labor Day weekend this year. As I suspected it wouldn't, it didn't take me very long to get through Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Buying games right when they come out is a fairly rare thing for me to do, but I felt this one warranted it, and I'm happy to report that I was right. Part of the decision to purchase this game was a philosophical one as well: I like freedom to pursue goals in a variety of ways in my games, and the Deus Ex series has always been fantastic towards that end. You can be stealthy or charge in the front door, you can kill your enemies, sneak past them, or knock them unconscious. You can hack your way into computer systems or find the password and log in directly. The game offers you a lot of options to do a lot of things while playing. A lot of people have complained that the unavoidable and always lethal (to your enemy) boss fights break immersion, but I just don't see it. The bosses you fight are monstrous in a variety of ways - the first one you encounter is so augmented as to virtually be a mech with a face (like Robocop) and having to expend entire magazines, plural, of ammo on him to bring him down didn't really strain my suspension of disbelief. A couple of the others did a little bit more, but that was no huge deal. The boss fights were certainly no worse on my entertainment experience than commercial breaks in a TV series I loved would have been, but in the interest of fairness it should be noted that I made no effort whatsoever to spare everybody I fought. In particular, some of the pitiless monsters that killed innocent people right in front of me were put down pretty hard. (An attitude I shared with Jim Rossignol over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.) It also bears mentioning that the game was smart in way that had nothing to do with the gameplay itself. The story and world were very fleshed-out and interesting and there were some real philosophical concepts up for grabs in this one. Also of note: I really appreciated that not everybody who worked for a corporation was cold-blooded, amoral jerk. The growth and development in your relationships between you and Pritchard, Sarif, and Malik was a cool element to be sure.

RPG notes: As usual, this section contains big heaping piles of spoilers. Wow. Where to begin. Obviously, if you're running a cyberpunk game, you owe it to yourself to play through this game at least once and probably twice with a notepad handy. There are tons and tons of ideas for interesting cybermods, societal attitudes, and technology. Some of the interesting highlights that stuck out to me:
  • The Typhoon system. That mod basically makes you into a walking cluster bomb, and you're not the only character that has it.
  • Barret's gun arm was pretty awesome in its execution; it didn't permanently replace his hand, but he couldn't use the hand and gun at the same time.
  • Jensen's arm blades. I don't know who at Eidos thought those up, but those were awesome. They could easily become an iconic videogame weapon.
  • The Icarus landing system. Fall from any height and either just land softly or send out a shockwave. Very nice. The glowing gold sphere was a great visual touch, too.
  • The way newspapers are handled. They still exist, but they're full-color wafer-thin things that can be interacted with. I'll bet recycling is especially important in the Deus Ex world if for no other reason than to just keep costs down.
  • David Sarif's beautiful gold filigree-inlaid cyber-arm and Hugh Darrow's renaissance-style cloak to cover his missing arm.
  • The famous news anchor that's actually an AI.
  • Yelena Federova: instead of being a plodding, up-armored wrecking machine, she was almost like a cybernetic ninja. She could jump HUGE distances, cloak, and so forth. A very cool contrast to other cybered-up warriors.
  • The prejudice towards augmented people. On the one hand, it struck me as exceedingly unreasonable. On the other, it's not like humanity has always been reasonable with its prejudices.

Cleared: Tron Legacy

I grabbed Tron from a Redbox on Friday evening on my way back from work and watched it this weekend. There's a lot to like about it. Fist of all, the visual effects were utterly stunning; the movie is gorgeous. The story was pretty solid, too; it definitely makes me want to go back and watch the original again. The acting was also good, but that's not terribly surprising. What I did think was cool was that two characters were portrayed by the same actor, which doesn't often happen, and even more rarely happens in a way that's as impactful (and makes as much sense) as it was done here. Definitely one to catch if you like cyberpunk at all.

RPG notes: The idea of a virtual world that threatens the real one was done particularly well here. I also was somewhat intrigued by the idea that the portal worked both ways. However, instead of trying to go into any real depth on this one, I think I'm going to instead refer any interested parties to Episode 41 of Postcards from the Dungeon. They did a far better job of breaking this one down and discussing its merit as both a piece of media and as a source of gaming inspiration than I could in a short blog post.