On a lark, I re-read the old Thrawn Trilogy from Star Wars, albeit in comic book form. It was a fascinating little artifact of the early Star Wars boom.
For those note in the know: Star Wars has always been one hell of a merchandizing operation. Before it was bought by Disney and rebooted with The Force Awakens, the vast majority of Star Wars content came from something called the Expanded Universe—now known as the Legends continuity. It spans at least several hundred different story-based products, ranging from comic books to video games to whole novel series and more. It’s an unbelievably tangled, convoluted mess by any objective standard and it is nothing short of amazing that it’s as coherent as it looks at a glance. The whole thing basically launched with, or at least coalesced around, something now known as the Thrawn Trilogy, also known as the Heir to the Empire Trilogy and just The Empire Trilogy, depending on who and when you ask.
Out of all the old Legends products, the Thrawn books still hold up the best. They were some of the first full-length novels I ever read from start to finish. They’re a master-class on professional fanfiction (a.k.a. IP Development Writing, a.k.a. Pick Any Novelization of Any Movie or Game Ever), and Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn still ranks as one of my all-time favorite villains. He is the Empire at its finest, and leads one of the only versions of it I’ll ever be pleased to read about in any capacity. He’s pretty much Evil Blue Sherlock, with Captain Pellaeon as his Watson. The heroes never even face him head-on, which puts him in stark opposition to almost every other Star Wars villain—and a great many other antagonists all over fiction as a whole.
This is a dude who adapts, runs away when he’s losing, plans in the abstract, lies convincingly, does not rely on superweapons, builds loyalty among subordinates, and can wipe your civilization out by studying your artwork. One of his best tricks early on is to try and capture Han, Leia, and Chewbacca with a fake Millennium Falcon. Another is to drop a twenty-two stealthed asteroids into orbit around Coruscant while firing tractor beams enough to make the Republic think he unloaded close to three-hundred on them. He uses another stealthed ship to trick a planet into surrendering by seemingly firing through their shields.
Bonus points for Zahn paying attention to a lot of the grunt work that gets lost in the rest of Star Wars. Most of Thrawn’s plans and actions boil down to information warfare and logistical wrangling. He does not magically have the means to build most of what he uses; much of his campaign is one big smash-and-grab operation after another. None of the other Star Wars villain ever match that because hardly any of them even try to compete on that level. Thrawn is so ridiculously solid as a character that he’s one of the only Legends creations to survive into the new canon (he’s a major villain in the Rebels cartoon).
But let’s stop yacking about him for a minute and look at the rest of the trilogy. I’m not going to devote much time to Mara Jade, whose passing from canon I mourn. Rather, I’d like to note some stuff that gets overlooked. Two things jumped out at me right off the bat. The first was Winter (eventually Winter Celchu).
Winter is introduced to us as the former Targeter: a Rebel spy who used to slip into Imperial facilities, map them via photographic memory, then lead/coordinate raids against them. She’s an Alderaanian, like Leia, and the implication (confirmed in later stories) is that she and the Princess go way the heck back—they’re actually adopted sisters, though it doesn’t appear Winter ever took the Organa name. She’s got odd hair (stark white despite being young), serves as Leia’s right hand, and will gun you down if you so much as blink wrong at Leia’s kids.
The more I read her, the more I saw the prototype for what became Vice Admiral Holdo. I like Winter more, sorry to say, but the connection between the two made me dislike Holdo less.
It’s also worth noting just how damn imaginative the Thrawn books were in comparison to the rest of non-film Star Wars. Zahn had a ridiculously free hand to build out the universe and he went the whole nine yards with it. This is where we come to the other big thing that jumped out at me: how incomplete the universe was when Zahn was writing it.
Nowadays, if you’re a Star Wars fan (and even if you’re not), you see it everywhere. It’s taken shape. It’s ossified into a conflict between Jedi and Sith, give or take Republic and Empire, and give or take very recent developments like some of the side stories in The Last Jedi. X works like X, Y works like Y, Z works like Z. There is little, if any room, to fill in the blanks.
In the Thrawn books, you can see early elements of how that all came to be, but it’s not there yet. There are no generic ‘Force users,’ for instance; there are only Jedi (regular and Dark). The Sith barely even exist at all. Jedi training is not confined to one temple on Coruscant, nor does it have to begin at early childhood—Jorus C’baoth (the original) didn’t start until his twenties, and he didn’t set foot on Coruscant until after it was over. He was free to be a pompous, human-centric egomaniac from start to finish; nobody fretted over the dogma of a Jedi Code.
Lightsabers? Luke whips one up for Leia like it’s nothing. He even effectively uses one to bat aside blaster bolts while cut off from the Force.
And the Force itself? It’s just a thing that happens to exist; Leia has already learned the ropes well enough to effectively use her Lightsaber, and to effectively communicate with members of her family, and to effectively do battle with all manner of bad guy—and the implication is that she’s only part-timed it on her own because Luke doesn’t yet feel confident enough to take on full-time students, never mind her own political career. There doesn’t seem to be anything special about this at all, give or take the fact that Leia manages most of her badass feats while increasingly pregnant and/or within a week or two of giving birth.
It’s also not taken as a given that everyone knows about Darth Vader being Luke’s father. Mara freaking Jade doesn’t even find out until most of the way through the third book. Fun aside: That bit in The Last Jedi where a couple folks mind-linked across the galaxy? Zahn did it first.
Hyperspace—a thing I harped on The Last Jedi about—isn’t codified in the Thrawn books. It’s referred to as lightspeed more often than not, and the mechanics of it feel fresh, with room for Thrawn to innovate. Even with its presence, the universe as a whole still feels ludicrously big—Luke gets lost in ‘a lightyear’ of empty space and Thrawn contracts out the search for him rather than waste time looking himself.
Stormtroopers actually feel like a threat, as opposed to being expendable mooks. Thrawn, and the whole trilogy, is exceptional in this regard: he takes a smuggler to task over getting just four of these guys killed, and their presence is treated as a Very Bad Sign for the heroes. Compare that with their depiction pretty much anywhere else outside of A New Hope.
I do vastly prefer how Spaarti cloning works in the Thrawn books, as opposed to the Kaminoan cloning from the Prequel Trilogy. It just makes more sense overall, and provides for a far larger force than the ‘million clone army’ that allegedly went toe-to-toe with infinite robots and won in the prequels. The dreadnoughts of the Katana Fleet are also cooler than most of the drek from the various Clone Wars-era media. Luke vs. his clone? Some people might laugh at the extra U in Luuke’s name, but I still flip the hell out at it twenty years later.
More than all the gadgetry or any particular scene though, I think I just love how the universe itself feels in the Thrawn books. There’s an air of untapped potential to the whole thing that just doesn’t exist in later additions to Star Wars—not even in the recent movies.
It’d be nice if Disney took its tolerance of the Legends continuity and bumped it up a notch. The products still sell, and they’re sometimes better than what Marvel has been pumping out the past couple of years.
Japanese anime has OVAs—Original Video Animations—that can basically be anything from made-for-TV movies to ten-episode mini-series. See Ghost in the Shell: Arise for a recent example, or Legend of Galactic Heroes for the one so bafflingly huge that several generations of voice actors collaborated on it in Japanese and hardly anyone’s even been willing to take a crack at it in English.
In other words: Hey, Disney. Adapt the Thrawn Trilogy into an OVA series.
I’ve had time to digest The Last Jedi. So here’s a short, blunt, spoiler-free review: It had its problems but it was a good movie and you should go see it.
Now here’s a much longer review riddled with spoilers and nitpicking.
It’ll be a ramble; don’t expect much coherence.
I probably won’t even hit everything. Still gonna try though.
By and large, I loved the movie but it was a difficult sell. The biggest thing for me was just how freakin’ long it ended up being – by the time it’s finally over, the film’s gone through at least three to four major story arc climaxes, two of which feel a bit tacked on.
For the most part, I get why, and I forgave it for dragging in a few places, but two and a half hours in a movie theater seat kinda sucks. I think part of the length of the movie is because this was the franchise clearing out most of what remained from the Original Trilogy. Lando is somewhere out there, Leia’s almost certainly dead in the next movie; Chewie and the Droids are pretty much it, and none of them would be able to hold down or contribute to a plot arc the way the human members of the cast do.
The other main reason for the length of the movie is that Poe got promoted from being Finn’s Lancer to a main character in his own right. I’m okay with that to a point, but Finn himself felt like he got downgraded in the process. His character arc continued apace from The Force Awakens, and I was mostly okay with how it played out (give or take a few things I’ll go into momentarily), but Poe’s arc sucked Finn’s oxygen right off the screen. It didn’t help that Poe’s arc itself was kinda boring. They were basically trying to split Han Solo between him and Finn, and it works with Finn but it doesn’t with Poe. Couple this with Holdo, who left me conflicted as all get-out from start to finish.
I think my issue with Holdo is that she’s flat, and that the movie itself is almost proud of her being flat. I was expecting her to be a spy, and the movie sets this up to be a contest between her and Finn right up until he exits stage left to find a codebreaker. But then we get her just running out the clock without telling anyone why, with wooden acting, and a couple nods to Leia that literally feel like something a traitor would say to distract gullible good guys while gaslighting the protagonist.
Holdo’s arc goes something like this: We’re introduced to her as a hero, yadda yadda, she highlights Poe’s reckless heroism, blah blah, mutiny, oh wait she’s actually right isn’t that awesome oh wait now she’s dead but it was so freaking cool.
Something I only noticed after the fact was that even the look of Holdo clashes with Rebel aesthetics. Almost everybody else is in some kind of uniform or else some kind of outfit you could go brawling with, with a mostly brown/orange/red color palette. Holdo’s ambling around in a flawless Imperial green/grey dress with perfect hair forever.
Admittedly, Mon Mothma did it first. But Mon Mothma wasn’t accorded a military rank in every single scene; she was a senator and a civilian political leader, contributing to the military elements of the Rebellion on the intelligence side. She didn’t even get much screentime in the movies except to explain how people died to get the Death Star plans. Leia herself didn’t wear a uniform this movie, but she was rocking one in The Force Awakens and she spends most of The Last Jedi injured or in a coma; in the Original Trilogy, once she transitioned from Princess Politico to Shoot You in the Face, she mostly sported the same civie-guerrilla aesthetic most of the other Rebels have in every movie.
Holdo also shot first when quelling the mutiny. Han Solo could get away with that in his intro. Hell, most of the Rebels could. But not when firing on other Rebels, even if the guns were clearly set to stun. That irked the hell out of me.
Now, having said all that, I’ll note that her death utterly redeemed her for me. I did not give a damn about her emotional arc, flatline that it was, and I didn’t care about Poe learning a tragic lesson from her noble demise. But for sheer unbridled coolness, she went out like an absolute champ. Luke stole the show from her later on, sure, but he only pulls that off because he’s got a thirty-four-year head start on forming a relationship with the audience and Mark Hamill was allowed to really throw down on-screen. Holdo’s death was so cool that for all of a minute, my inner neckbeard was able to overlook that it breaks the logic underpinning much of Star Wars.
Looping back to Finn, I think my biggest issues with his arc in this movie all boiled down to the same stuff: He got downgraded.
To be clear: Finn was and still is pretty badass whenever the movie allows him to be. But it does not allow him to be badass very often. He gets to beat down Phasma, who doesn’t get nearly enough buildup, and who he pretty much already beat in The Force Awakens. Most of his arc is basically New, Naïve Guy Learns About The Universe (And Also Gets A Love Interest?). Could work, doesn’t do so well here. The parts I loved mostly had to do with Benicio Del Toro’s DJ and the complexity he added to the universe as a whole. For those of you who don’t know: X-Wings and TIE Fighters being made by the same company has been a background element of the setting for decades, but this is the first time it landed on the big screen and became relevant to how the universe itself is set up. The fact that the Rebels vs. Empire war is gray enough for there to be profiteers who aren’t plucky good guys, like Lando or Han were, is at times refreshing and at times dispiriting in a way that is almost as good.
The fact that the conflict has elements going deeper than Light Side of the Force vs. Dark Side of the Force is almost unquestionably good. Almost.
I also loved Rose. I didn’t care much about her sister in the opening, but Rose herself grew on me. At times I questioned her – she’s introduced as a fangirl mook who mostly seems to exist so Finn can have a guilt trip; from there she’s pretty much omnicompetent and develops new skills and insights as the plot demands – but by the end I was onboard with her. The thing that irked me about her was the tacked on, hopefully one-sided romance at the end.
A friend of mine speculated, after the movie, that it was an attempt to keep Star Wars from having an interracial leading couple (re: Black Guy/White Girl). I’m more leaning towards them attempting to gin up competing love triangles (Rey/Finn/Poe, Finn/Rey/Rose) so the fandom rips itself to shreds in shipper wars and the controversy boosts ticket sales.
The main reason I think the romance is one-sided is that Finn himself didn’t seem super keen on kissing her back. Admittedly, much of Finn’s character arc in these movies is him recovering from having his life stolen. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi both are not even remotely subtle about Finn basically being a runaway slave turned freedom fighter. He is very much learning how to be human here. The Force Awakens was him learning how to fight for his friends and his conscience. The Last Jedi is him learning how to fight, and even to die if he has to, for ideals. My aforementioned friend thinks this poisons the potential relationship he could have with Rey – they’re both newbies learning about the universe and their place in it. I think it strengthens them. We’ll see who’s right in, like, two or three years.
I just hope they don’t downgrade Rose too badly in the next film. I’m not sure where her story can go now. She isn’t like Finn and Rey with the built-in need to learn about everything, and she isn’t like Poe with the need to rein in his crazy antics and be a decent leader.
Now let’s sidle on over to the actual main plot of the film, yes?
Rey’s story arc was the absolute best of the main three in the film, hands down, fight me in the street if you disagree. Her scenes with Luke were among the best in the entire franchise, and while I was bitterly disappointed that she did not end up being his and Mara Jade’s daughter (re: I was bitterly disappointed Mara Jade herself doesn’t exist in this continuity), I ended up being okay with her as a nobody-turned-somebody. That friend from earlier did a bang-up job of pointing out the symbolism of it: You no longer have to be a Skywalker to be a powerful, significant hero. Obi-Wan kinda proved that in the Prequels, the Rogue One Crew kinda hinted at it in their own movie, but Rey being the daughter of absolute nobodies from the ass-end of nowhere and then developing crazy-epic Force powers and saving the universe?
Hot damn. The mic did not get dropped so much as it got blown in half.
It was also fascinating to see how the Force really got fleshed out in this movie. It was almost a line-by-line rebuttal of the midichlorian magitechnobabble bullcrap of the Prequel Trilogy, restoring the Force to the weird pseudo-religious mysticism it was in the Original Trilogy. To me, it felt like there were a lot of very positive elements of Buddhism in how the Force was portrayed here. We got the cycle of life and death, and we were reminded that any given death is just another new beginning. Luke’s character arc rolled into this flawlessly, give or take the weird CGI when Yoda first showed up.
Special nod goes to the scene where Rey dives into the Dark Side cave. It wasn’t as good as her flashback/connection to Anakin’s Lightsaber in the original, but the finger snap sequence alone was one of the most randomly discomforting things I’ve seen in a SciFi movie this year. I didn’t like the blatant CGI when she moved the rocks out of the way, but I’m assuming the budget was shot all to Hell at that point and the production crew just wanted to be done with it already.
I will also say I wasn’t a huge fan of how Rey met Poe. Refer back to the earlier speculation on dueling love triangles and/or racism behind the scenes. Draw your own conclusions, but they put too much weight on that for my comfort. And I just realized that, going by actor ages, Poe is, like, thirteen years older than her. Skeeb factor increased, even if their character ages don’t quite match (Star Wars Wiki indicates the same age gulf exists between Poe and Rey as Oscar Isaac and Daisy Ridley, but both characters are younger…).
That said, Rey and Finn meeting up again was a beautiful moment, and I feel like their hug had more emotional weight to it than any number of on-screen kisses in the franchise to date. I hope they follow through on that.
I will also say that I adored her interactions with Kylo Ren this go round. They were a bit nonsensical at first (the bridging of the minds; I’ve read one too many fanfics with that drek but they made it work here), but they did the job of establishing, greying, and then solidifying their conflict with one another both emotionally and philosophically. Kylo Ren got to become the villain he was meant to be in this movie, and he isn’t Vader. He’s something worse, and nobody wants to redeem him, and he knows he doesn’t deserve redemption, and he’s still an evil shit, and I love that. It’s a stark conflict with room for minutiae, and it’ll hopefully end with Kylo Ren getting sliced in half and chucked down a bottomless pit.
Their arc was about as subtle as a sack full of sledge hammers. It was an abusive older man (Kylo being ten years older than Rey) trying to lure in and emotionally break a young woman through every manipulative trick in the book. They made clear that Rey wasn’t comfortable with it (especially during the shirtless scene), that it came nightmarishly close to working anyway, and that she rejected both it and Kylo unequivocally at the end. There were hope spots, there were high spots, there were low spots, and it all topped off with what felt like a gigantic redemption of Kylo as a badass villain.
I’ll pause here to note that my friend and I were in agreement on the one downside to this depiction of their enmity: People shipping them anyway.
We live in a monumentally fucked up society where it is completely and utterly impossible to portray any two characters on a screen having emotional chemistry without someone wanting them to be in a romantic relationship. To be clear, this is not a new problem. But we get to see it trotted out all over the place nowadays. It’s one of the reasons why I’d be okay with Rey and Finn being good friends at the end of this trilogy; why I want Finn to reject Rose; why I’d be fine with Rey herself ending the series alone and happy with it.
I’m told there’s a massive war on places like Tumblr between people who like Rey and Kylo together and people who don’t. I avoid Tumblr like the bubonic plague, but I’m with the people who don’t.
Now, having said that: Kylo Ren as a badass villain. Which he was. Specifically during the scene where he killed Snoke and then proceeded to mulch through Snoke’s body guards. These two moments did more to differentiate Kylo Ren from Darth Vader than anything else in the movie. Vader, we get to see slaughtering helpless Rebel soldiers. In the Prequels, we get hints of him slaughtering other Jedi during the Temple Purge. Here, we see Kylo Ren getting his hands dirty; and he’s not able to effortlessly slaughter his enemies as Vader does. He has to work at it. But he still takes people out left and right. In the process, we get to see the gulf between his skill and Rey’s: she does her fair part, but Kylo is a walking body bag factory by comparison. When they finally do fight as equals, it’s a tug of war between the Dark and the Light – no actual combat, no need for skill, it’s just them throwing their willpower at each other. And it works.
And when he wakes up, Kylo has to struggle to conquer the First Order. The moment he Force Chokes Hux is the moment he finally became what he was supposed to be. We’ve seen him in action, we’ve seen him be cunning, we’ve seen him bifurcate his Sidious, and now, we see him dominate a formidable subordinate without even looking at the guy.
All of which sets him up to get his ass kicked up between his teeth a couple scenes later.
I cannot overstate my love of Luke Skywalker’s last hurrah. I didn’t want him to go, but if he was going down then there was no better way for it to happen. His growth in this movie was a culmination of my childhood hero, and a redemption I didn’t know I needed as a fan. I didn’t get weepy during his final scenes, but I cheered, I laughed, and I was on the edge of my friggin’ seat from start to finish. I knew he was playing some kind of trick the moment I got a good look at his lightsaber – Rey and Kylo destroyed it just minutes earlier, and Luke’s lightsaber was green. I initially hated that they gave him the blue one at the end, but I’ve come around to accept it.
Luke’s last appearance in front of the galaxy was how he saw himself at the end: black-clad, carrying his father’s sword into battle, cracking all the one-liners Han no longer could, and dispensing all the mind tricks Obi-Wan ever wanted. He made his nephew look like a chump and almost certainly sewed the seeds for his downfall, then denied him even the illusion of a victory. I’ll take it.
There are a couple things I’d change, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned. In no particular order:
More of Phasma. She was cool in The Force Awakens, here she’s kind of a deus ex threat that gets introduced and dealt with too quickly. It would’ve been better for her to chase Finn and Rose down at the casino and be their opposition there, then chase them back to the First Order flagship.
Better use of terminology. The only time it was “lightspeed” was a throwaway line in the Original Trilogy; otherwise it’s always been “Hyperdrive.” I guarantee you a certain class of Star Wars fan screeched like a banshee at that.
Some logic band-aids on why the Rebellion and/or First Order don’t just program cruiser-sized Hyperspace Missiles and throw them at each other. This was my one issue with Holdo’s death.
Similarly: Don’t dwindle the Rebellion to four-hundred freaking people. The Star Wars galaxy is huge. The original Rebellion was able to go head-to-head with the Empire using nothing but X and Y-Wings, most of which were in fine working order even if they were old. The new one fits neatly onto the Millennium Falcon and most of their gear is falling apart at the seams. Screw that.
Bring in Lando. The casino would’ve been perfect for him, even if only as a cameo (although I do get why Rian Johnson chose not to, especially in light of the casino’s connections to slavery and failure).
A little bit of backstory on Snoke couldn’t hurt, but it probably wouldn’t help much either.
Build out the seedier elements of the galaxy just that little bit more. We see slavery as A Thing on an allegedly civilized planet full of rich arms dealers. We’re not given enough exposition to know how common it is or how it figures into the galactic economy. Was the First Order able to get away with abducting Finn and kids like him because that’s freaking normal under the New Republic?
Leia should’ve died from getting spaced. In a better world where Carrie Fisher is still alive and can play the character in the next movie, I’d be fine with her survival. Here, with the context we have, it feels like her death in the next movie (if she even appears in it) will be meaningless compared to the shock value and narrative weight of her getting sucked out into space that first time. I was a little perplexed at her conscious use of the Force since we never saw or heard of her training with it, but then I shrugged and just remembered she’s an autodidact with the same potential as her twin brother, just applied differently.
I’d also offer a critique here at the end, aimed at the whole franchise rather than any one movie: I’m sick and tired of Star Wars being marketed around the Empire. Enough with Darth Vader. Enough with Stormtroopers. Enough even with Snoke’s bodyguards. I want more Rebels. Especially right now, at a point where American politics feels a wee bit too fascist for comfort.
“You’re all, like, sort of lined up on the banister and the knight’s just barely been knocked down to the third step. Shump’s in front, Lenne and Hingle are rounding the rail to get at him, you’re a little further back.”
“Cool. I’ma go WWE on his ass.”
Three rolls later, Crux had jumped over the safety rail, vaulted onto the steps behind and below the knight, swept an arm up between his legs, and threw him down two long flights of stairs. Several rolls after that, a note goes up behind the GM screen. Twenty minutes later, the knight – really just an empty suit of armor – can be seen hobbling up the steps with a spear as a crutch. Five minutes of Shumpian bullying after that, Crux stops and apologizes to the monster as a single greasy tear slicks down its visor.
This is Ravenloft. Mind the haunts.
I’ll open this review with a confession: I’ve never liked Dungeons and Dragons. Which is mainly to say I dislike the culture surrounding the game so much that it poisoned the actual game itself for me for years. The nuts and bolts of why are some other blog post for some other day – what matters is this: Last night, I finally had fun playing D&D.
It was 5th Edition Ravenloft. For those not in the know: Ravenloft is D&D’s attempt at a Gothic Horror setting. It began as a one-shot adventure module way back in the early ‘80s and eventually grew popular enough to have its own setting, sub-settings, and spin-offs. It’s spawned a fair number of tie-in novels and a video game or two. Its central villain, Strahd von Zarovich, is iconic to D&D as a whole, and was one of the earliest examples of a ‘smart’ antagonist – basically an AI in a roleplaying game – that actively sought out and attacked the player characters if they spent too much time lollygagging around. Its sub-settings have overlapped with Dragonlance (to Margaret Weis and the Hickmans’ great disdain) and with both Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms (re: the “core” D&D settings for most people).
Most player characters aren’t native to Ravenloft, at least not at the outset, and at least not as the game is more-or-less meant to be played. Ravenloft exists within something called the Demiplane of Dread – basically a collection of ironic personal hells for really powerful people created and maintained by the ultra-vaguely defined Dark Powers. Player characters bungle into the Demiplane through thick, shrouding mists, and then they either stay on forever or until a specific task is completed. The aforementioned really powerful people? They also stumbled into this place, where they became Darklords, with whole countries built around the idea of dangling what they want just out of their reach.
Ravenloft’s core sub-setting is a country called Barovia. Basically: Take Gothic Victorian England, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania, and that weird high fantasy/proto-steampunk Mainland Europe that seized mid-to-late 2000s Hollywood (see: The Brothers Grimm, Van Helsing, and the late-to-the-game-but-come-on-it’s-got-Amanda-Seyfried-in-it Red Riding Hood). Throw them all in a blender and then sprinkle in some unfortunate old school Romani/Gypsy stereotypes. Voila.
Player characters generally arrive not knowing a damn thing about it, and the game itself can be as much about exploration of the setting as it is cat-and-mouse with Strahd.
Our party bungled in through the mists and arrived at a creepy village late at night. Long story short: A haunted house lured us in with concerns about the family of two children crying out in the front yard. It wanted to eat us. We probably looked pretty tasty.
That poor house never knew what hit it.
Over the course of an eight-hour session, we proceeded to conquer the place in spectacularly disorganized, often violent fashion. Our Paladin tried to befriend everything, up to and including converting a psychotic nanny poultergeist into a reliable (if put-upon) ally with a fondness for smutty literature; our Barbarian destroyed a mirror, mutilated a mimic, and chopped chunks off an undead idol worshipped by a ghost cult; our Druid revealed himself as a master of both slick negotiating and magical legalese (re: he literally stole the house from its undead owners); and my Fighter went on enough of a rampage to effectively Rebuke Undead with mundane Intimidation rolls.
For all that D&D players bitch and whine about Fighters vs. Wizards, and for all that dual wielding characters with dark pasts are trite and played out, I had a good time. I played Crucious Constantine, a.k.a. Crux, a Chaotic Good Human Fighter suffering from a Haunting. In his past, he survived a harrowing event where a terrible monster slaughtered dozens of innocent people and left him alive for no apparent reason. The trauma broke his marriage and his wife left him. He took up monster hunting as a coping strategy, along with a fondness for poetry (Edgar Allen Poe, y’all – and not just The Raven). Until the session, he had no compassion for the dead, viewing them as ‘the lucky ones.’
By the end of the session, Crux had basically become a third father to two ghost kids, Rose and Thorn. He’d lugged their corpses through ghastly caverns and done some truly horrifying things to carry out a promise to get them out of the house and bury them in open air. While Shump the Barbarian went off to make bank and Hingle the Druid went off to get dank, Crux and Lenne the Paladin buried the kids out front with a borrowed shovel. As a group, we plan on turning the house into our base of operations. Crux is gonna build a little shack in the front yard to keep an eye on the graves.
In hindsight, I probably should’ve buried my Gothic Trinket with the kids. It’s a wineskin that refills overnight if you bury it with a dead body.
There are a lot of things that separate this game from my prior experiences with D&D. The big ones are as follows:
The GM let us have fun. We weren’t inhibited from doing crazy shit just because it was illogical at a glance or above our level (see: the crazy WWE slam from the intro, Lenne befriending everything, Shump bullying monsters, Hingle’s entire Grand Theft Haunted House hat trick).
We were allowed to point buy our stats. RPGs have a long-term love-hate relationship with the Random Number God. Frankly speaking, I’m mostly opposed to it in character creation outside of Call of Cthulhu. Yes, you sometimes get people with phenomenal rolls…and they have an irksome tendency to lord it over other players, while the players who don’t get phenomenal rolls just get kneecapped and don’t have anywhere near as much fun. Point buy kept us all relatively even and eliminated the risk of players being dicks to each other out of jealousy (as opposed to the time-honored tradition of being dicks to each other because it’s funny).
Pretty much everything else was window-dressing. That’s the big stuff.
I find, as both a player and a GM, you can get a lot out of just letting people have fun and build characters how they want to within a certain set of constraints (ie character levels). It’s a way of getting buy-in: players feel empowered when they can just make something without getting screwed over by a bad dice roll. When they feel empowered, they feel invested. When they feel invested, things in the game actually matter.
The one place where I did enjoy rolling dice on character creation was in determining Crux’s backstory. 5th Edition D&D has several spots on the character sheet dedicated to Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. These can be chosen from various tables in the rulebooks or made up from scratch, depending. Crux’s Flaws did a 180 by the end of the night, but the Traits, Ideals, and Bonds selected via dice were solid and remained unchanged. It helped that the GM rewarded us for playing to these things.
One other thing I really liked about 5th Edition was the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. Anyone who’s experienced D&D has at least one story of having to Google, houserule, or sift through a billion books trying to find rules governing one situation or another. 5th Edition neatly eliminates most of that by giving you Advantages or Disadvantages – you roll the dice twice and go with the lower or higher roll, no need to sweat the eleventy billion modifiers and penalties you used to worry about in older editions. That streamlined the hell out of things and kept the action frantic and enjoyable.
D&D is never going to be my favorite tabletop roleplaying game. But it’s getting better, and I like what they’ve done with 5th edition. If you’re new to the hobby, it’s a good gateway. If you’re already entrenched, it can still be a fun playthrough. I give it a solid three and a half out of five.
Five minutes separate the point where a bullet entered Charlie Zheng’s head and the point where his cousin, Riley Zheng, gently pulled the black tie from his neck and put it on. Two and a half minutes separate that point from the earlier collision of Guanyu Sun’s body with spinning helicopter blades, two minutes and twenty-five seconds from the gore-spattered helicopter crashing into the side of the building and tearing its way down to ground-level, and two minutes and forty seconds from Riley’s friend, Connor Macklin, jamming his hand into the side of Guanyu’s neck to stop an ambush. Two minutes exactly separate the crash of the helicopter into the ground and the Russian mutant, Leia, crushing two men’s skulls to a pulp while Riley soars past. One minute and fifty-five seconds before Riley puts on the tie, they throw a ninja star through the side of Chin Lu Man’s head. One minute and fifty-four seconds before Riley puts on the tie, the star careens over the side of the building and is lost to the ages. One minute and fifty-three seconds before Riley puts on the tie, a Pokémon trading card sticks out of Chin’s right temple as his body slams into the ground.
It’s a bloodstained Ratata.
This is Guicheng.
Welcome to Feng Shui 2.
I recently got to run my first session of Atlas Games’ Feng Shui 2 Roleplaying Game. It’s an over-the-top tour de force of players being lunatics in the spirit of Hong Kong action cinema, along with anything that echoes it, including Korean, Japanese, and certain Hollywood flicks.
I’ve played Feng Shui 2 twice now and fell in love with it. My first session’s highlights included Pele kicking a guy through the side of a mountain temple after an epic one-on-one duel in Hell. My second session was all about playing a pro-wrestling buff who did things like surfing up the side of a tornado and Van Daminating a sorcerer with first century Chinese temple furniture.
I’d go so far as to say that it’s a better system at being Exalted than Exalted itself is.
Naturally, I had to run it. I didn’t want to use the scenario in the book so I threw together one of my own and set it in Guicheng, which Google Translate kindly informs me means “Ghost City.” China famously has several of those: whole cities built from scratch, nearly or completely uninhabited. Reality is more complicated than that. Most of the ghost cities that sprang up in the 2000s-2010s now have populations ranging from a few tens of thousands to a couple million. But the idea of an almost empty city that serves no purpose other than to host crazy Kung Fu shenanigans? Sign me up.
I had four players for my first session: Reilley (rendered above as Riley), Leia, Connor, and “Twilight,” respectively The Scrappy Kid, the Gene Freak, The Everyday Hero, and the Full Metal Nutball. The players took it a notch farther than their archetypes: Reilley was agendered, drawn by their player to look like Dave Strider in a business tutu with a crazy hoverboard, Leia was a Russian Terminator reject, the Everyday Hero was basically just a Connor MacGregor clone (and that was his actual name in game), and “Twilight” had a mullet.
In his defense, “Twilight’s” player was twelve.
They got through the first two fights I had planned before we ran out of time.
Incidentally, that’s the one real weakness I’ve observed in Feng Shui 2: Time management. Fights can drag in any RPG, but for a system designed to be almost nothing but combat hysterics, this one can lag a bit. Part of that is me being new, but part of it is also the Shot Counter mechanic. It does the work of managing initiative, and I like it since I’m usually terrible about that, but slower characters tend to be screwed over by how long it takes to get to them. I had one poor guy waiting while everyone else (even the mooks) went twice for each of his turns.
My houserule fix, starting in the second fight, was to allow slower characters two initiative rolls (if they didn’t like their first one). Fixed the problem right out the gate, didn’t have him killing time on his phone and looking bored.
The other snag was keeping the players from falling into the trap of not trying new stuff and not going over the top insane. I’m gonna level with you, dear reader: I like it when players do crazy shit.
A lot of roleplaying systems – and I’m not naming names here – almost seem as if they’re designed so that players can’t do awesome things. Sometimes that’s part of the appeal (see: any horror RPG worth playing). More often than not, it’s grounds to skip the system entirely and try something else (or, at the least, ignore anything about it that makes you start at level one). The problem is that the systems where players can’t do awesome stuff right out the gate are way more prolific. Players get trained to think certain ways and it gets really hard to break them of it.
You need buy-in. Y’know. The thing that changes “I punch him” into “I set the tips of my fingers against his forehead, glare into his eyes, and then deliver the one-inch-punch that caves his skull into his brain.”
Feng Shui 2 runs on the latter. “I punch him” can be useful at times, but it’s nothing compared to giving someone a Bruce Lee lobotomy. To get around that, I’m pretty freewheeling with the bonus dice, to the point that there’s almost no real challenge in the game. It’s something to work on. My other big thing is to go completely, ludicrously over the top myself. Feng Shui 2 is a system that thrives on your GM hamming it up at least a little bit, or at a bare minimum not getting in the way when you ham it up yourself. The fact that my first FS2 game master let me go crazy is probably one of the reasons I like it so much.
And there’s a lot to go crazy with. The game runs on six-sider dice, usually no more than three at a time (one good, one bad, one bonus). Roll high enough and you can do just about anything; the game itself gives the example of running up a stream of bullets to get at the person behind a machine gun. Most of the enemies are literally mooks with one hit point. If you succeed at touching them in just about any way, they die (or just get taken out, if you’re merciful). If you slip and give one a nickname though, it instantly becomes a Featured Foe – half a player character’s worth of hit points and whatever else he GM feels like throwing at you. The damage table includes specific values for getting run over by a Chevette or thrown off buildings of varying heights. There’s an ability that allows villains to literally use their mooks as sacrificial armor. One of the character archetypes is a transformed crab. Another pretty much has Being American as a superpower.
I plan on completing the Guicheng scenario within the next week or two, time permitting. I added another fight to it so that I could introduce some new players (and their characters) to the existing crew (if any of them return, and I’m sure at least Reilley and Connor will).
If you’re one of said players, here’s a good spot to stop reading. If not, carry on.
The goal of the scenario is to introduce players to the Chi War, Feng Shui 2’s driving meta-conflict. Without going too far into the weeds, the gist of it is this: a bunch of powerful factions seek to dominate the timestream via feng shui – the actual pseudoscience of Chinese geomancy, realized here as a mystical art. They harness chi from various points in time and space, known as Junctures, which are in turn connected by the Netherworld, an elaborate city made of tunnels and vast chambers. Some Junctures are stable, such as the four that provide the backbone of the game’s setting, respectively Ancient China, 19th Century Hong Kong, Modern Hong Kong, and The Future. Most Junctures are temporary affairs that fade connect and disconnect from the Netherworld on a whim.
Guicheng, as I envision it, is actually in one of those temporary Junctures. That’s why it’s a ghost city in 2017. The ‘real’ one goes by a different name and has a population of about two and a half million people. Its Charlie Zheng is not only alive and well, but using other versions of himself as proxies in the Chi War. His goal for the scenario is for the players to stop “Ensa,” the high-tech backers of the Hundred and Eight Stars Triad. Ensa is actually the New Simian Army, a bunch of evil, jacked-up cyber-apes from The Future looking to conquer the world (give or take). That the players then happen to wind up in his world is an added bonus.
The New Simian Army is kind of a joy to play with, by the way. Mostly because the game itself encourages you to come up with silly names for them. In my first session we had Gorilla Grosse, while the second includes such luminaries as Grimpan Zero (cyber chimp), Orang-Ichi (cyber chimp with ball and chain), High-Rise Aldo (Kung Fu Planet of the Apes cyborg), and my personal favorite: Andre the Gigantopithicus. The book itself includes Battlechimp Potemkin (one of the good guys) and Furious George (the NSA dictator). It plays them completely, utterly straight in the most humorless, deadpan way possible and you can just hear the writers giggling when they do it.
The plan now is for the next batch of players to go through a crazy urban street chase/battle sequence, follow up with a blitzkrieg sequence on the ground floor of the sky scraper at the city’s heart, then wrap it all up with a nod to King Kong as they battle Andre atop the Chinese knockoff Empire State Building. From there, if it all goes anything remotely close to my plan, the session will end with the Real Charlie cryptically welcoming them to the Chi War.
Players being players, it’ll probably go even more off the rails than when Connor used a bus as a golf club. In fairness to Feng Shui 2, they’d probably do that anyway.
All in all, I give the system an 8 or 9 out of 10.
I’m a sucker for anything that lets me use garbage wrestling moves against wizards.
A friend recently asked me to both run some games and teach kids how to run games themselves. It went pretty well!
For starters, I dusted off a relic of my own childhood: Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
It was probably one of the most anvilicious, ridiculous, flat-out stupidly over-the-top things on television back when it aired but it also covered some ground that kids really don’t get nowadays. Especially American kids. It’s a cartoon about an international, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-everything band of heroic teenagers trying to save the world. Beyond simple, moralistic plots on the environment, it also tried to deal with HIV, gun violence, drugs, the impact of capitalism on poor people, and god only knows what else.
I can fault it for a lot of how it covered those issues, and for a lot more besides, but I can’t fault it for trying and the basic ideas behind it are still sound.
So I adapted it to Evil Hat’s Fate Roleplaying System, with a handful of updates, then I tossed out Captain Planet himself since that’s basically the game master’s player character that nobody else can compete with. This would be a game about the Planeteers themselves.
While I’m happy enough with the setup that I might polish it off and upload it somewhere, it went off the rails by the second half and never recovered. Running a roleplaying game is all about knowing your audience – as I’ve written before. I didn’t know mine.
Unfortunately, this was also my first time running for a group composed entirely of kids and I had a rough patch thanks to a trifecta of boys playing off each other in all the worst ways. If it had been any one of them in the game without the other two, it would’ve gone off without a hitch, but as anyone who’s ever dealt with young boys can and will tell you: they can be demons of chaos. I could see the dynamics forming but I couldn’t figure out how to stop it and keep them on point – that’s on me. Pretty much every trick I tried short of booting them from the game just did not freaking work. It didn’t help that one of them was just watching, not an actual player. I also had to keep shutting another down when he kept trying to play for other people.
Even with that, they all did good during the opening vignettes. Not coincidentally, this was where I put most of my planning and research in. The second half of the scenario was supposed to build off all that but I wasn’t aware of how much handholding I’d have to do (another failure on my part, considering the age group here). That’s one thing I’ll clean up before I upload it anywhere.
Everyone also learned some things in spite of themselves. Within the first five minutes, those kids opened up to environmentalism, current events, political science, and geography. They stayed hooked in for all that stuff throughout the first half; any scenario I put together for kids in the future will probably also try to hook players in with new info rather than just dumping them into the action. If I could figure out how to cram a class’ worth of New Info into a session from start to finish, that’d be gold.
I didn’t dump any horribly visceral details on them, but I didn’t sugarcoat it. They responded amazingly well. And to be fair, none of their parents probably know about this stuff either. There’s a lot to keep track of these days and not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with goings-on in our own country, let alone anything international.
I myself didn’t know about the Ukrainian reactor tidbit until a few days ago, although I definitely need to do more research than Michael Chossudovsky’s Centre for Research on Globalization; slick looking website, and the fact that it’s Canadian had me off guard (Canadians supposedly being more reasonable than us in the States), but craaaaaazy bullshit is crazy and should not be a source of info for anything when dealing with kids.
It was also interesting that four out of five players – boys and girls alike – were playing outside their own gender, national origins, and three played outside of their race. These are little things, yes, but that’s one of the key ways you can build openness and empathy in people: take them out of their own skin and put them in someone else’s.
For all that they wrecked the game, two of the problem boys shut down the third when he tried to make a snide comment about one of them playing a girl. The player didn’t hide behind insults, he didn’t make excuses, he didn’t try changing the character in question; he just plain told the other kid to shut up. He liked playing as her. His buddy backed him up without a moment’s hesitation.
Here’s my hot take Wonder Woman review in a nutshell: It’s a good movie, not without its flaws but easily the best one to come out of the DC cinematic universe to date and probably the best DC movie since The Dark Knight. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman and it shows; you can see where the executives were brawling and biting nails, but you can also see where the actress was given free rein to just be Diana, Princess of Themyscira. There are moments and scenes that have more emotional weight than just about any other superhero film to date, there’s a clear progression of plot and power escalation, and more clear character arcs than any DC film since they started the drive towards a shared universe.
It’s the equal or better of more than a few Marvel movies, especially during Phase One. Most of my gripes have more to do with special effects and the constraints of keeping it PG-13. I give it a solid 4 out of 5.
But as I was talking with my fiancée afterwards, she brought up a pretty damn good point about what was wrong with it. Namely, Steve Trevor’s role. We went back and forth a couple times before coming to the joint realization of why he was kind of a weak point.
Below be spoilers.
I was and still am mostly okay with Trevor’s role in the film. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it did a good job of being the short-lived tragic romance that brings Diana to the mortal world and introduces her to the handful of good, redeeming characteristics of it.
My initial beef was that he was just too good, too central in a film that wasn’t about him, but as the movie went on it was continually established just how out of his league he was in having anything to do with Diana. The role he and his fellow soldiers play is to help establish Diana as a unique kind of superhero: She is not above the fray, like a Superman or a Batman. She’s a hero of the people. Her allies are men, yes, but they’re relatively diverse, complicated men and they’re the folks who’d be on the front lines in that era.
His character arc comes to a natural conclusion with a heroic sacrifice; this sacrifice gives Diana the rage and then the clarity needed to take out the film’s Big Bad.
A little hokey, but sure, whatever, love interests dying to motivate heroes ain’t exactly new and I’m kinda cool with it being a guy for once.
The problem, which my fiancée and I hit upon during the end credits, is that this was pretty much the first time a love interest in a superhero flick had that kind of arc – a near-equal role with the hero. And it was a guy. In the first superhero movie dedicated to a female lead.
I’m not tooting my own horn here, but I’m a comic book nerd and I’ve seen most of the superhero movies released in the past ~30 years. I’ve missed a couple that might have similar arcs (the second Garfield Spider-Man movie, arguably Suicide Squad, etc), but this was the first one where I really saw anything like Steve Trevor.
Most superheroic love interests get solid screen time in one to three movies, then drop off the face of the Earth to probably never to be seen again. See: Natalie Portman, whose Jane broke up with Thor off-screen for no apparent reason, or Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Pepper Potts didn’t show up at all in Tony’s recent outings. By comparison, Mary Jane made out like a bandit in the original Spider-Man movies. The less said of Famke Jensen’s Jean Grey, the better, and that’s not even going into her own nominal husband’s fate.
Their arcs, if they have any, are basically filler. They’re usually there to give a male hero something to work for or something to risk; difficult things to do when your hero is bulletproof (re: Lex Luthor throwing Lois off a building in BvS or Jane being a plot device in Thor 2).
Steve Trevor ain’t like that. Steve runs after Diana through No Man’s Land and washes out German trenches with a shotgun. Steve’s a spy, an international man of mystery, someone who could practically be a superhero in his own right – and he is in several comics, as DC treats him like Captain America Lite sometimes.
The closest parallels to that are Natalia Romanov and Gamora, both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t really count Gamora since she’s part of a clear ensemble cast and has to carry more narrative weight than Token Love Interest for Peter Quill.
That leaves Romanov, whose arcs in Civil War and Winter Soldier are both roughly comparable to Trevor…except that in both she’s still reacting to and being shaped by male leads. And let’s not even talk about the Age of Ultron. Or the fact that Natalia’s been the #2 or #3 character in around five films now. They might finally give her a movie after Infinity War, but I have my doubts, and after Ghost in the Shell I’m not exactly a ScarJo fan.
What I’m saying is that Trevor himself isn’t the problem. He’s fine. It’s the fact that he’s a one-of-a-kind that’s the problem. And he probably only manages that because he’s an American military man. There need to be more Stephanie Trevors out there.
Give us Pepper Potts wrangling corporate jackasses and mastering fire powers or something else that inspires Tony to finish out a character arc. Give us Jane having the awesome revelation that lets Thor save the day, assuming she doesn’t verbally mangle Loki herself.
Hell, give us more female co-stars who aren’t love interests.
It took us a billion years about a year and a half but my group finally finished Season 1 of Pandemic Legacy. We started off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the halcyon days of January. By March, we were plague-hardened. By December, half the planet seemed like it was rioting and Chicago had burned to the ground.
Real World Time, that means we were playing from December 2015 to April 2017. So our game did an adequate job of paralleling a pretty awful year!
I played Hiro Watanabe McCain Mercer Piper Mercer, the dispatcher who ended up with a Shady Background and a terminal grudge against the Powers That Be, along with at east four sketchy marriages including two to the same person. One of our players went through three (technically two) characters, including one that went Paranoid from the early game twist and was lost to us with the late game twist. She recycled the identity of her first one (Catherine Mercer) for her third.
Our Researcher, known only as Señorita Blanco, ran on the power of Bullshit.
Our Medic, Randy, was better known as Jesus.
Things were a little rocky early on. We lost the first halves of January and February, then had a win streak from March to the first half of October. Since this was a Legacy version of a game, our successes and failures both haunted us.
North America and Europe became disaster zones following the first twist in the game and stayed that way until our second try at November. That win streak cost us any Funded Events – re: lucky breaks – for seven games straight. We won by the skin of our teeth and lost cities to rioting that we didn’t need to lose at all. Chicago in particular became a dumpster fire. I’m still boggling that Atlanta didn’t turn into a similar disaster area since Washington also popped multiple times, going all the way to a level 3 riot by the time we got North America under control.
All in all, it was a fun game. I’d recommend playing it.
Looking through the cards again, I’m pleased at how diverse the game’s cast is just at a glance – obviously you can name them anything and their histories are an irrelevant blank slate, but there’s a lot of women and minority representation in the artwork for this game. It also strays clear of the usual stereotypes by virtue of everyone being some kind of STEM professional. In a hobby range that desperately needs more people who don’t look like me, that’s pretty damn cool.
This game, along with its non-legacy counterpart, is also good for its representation of the CDC – they’re not just faceless healbots, they’re actual heroes ensconced in battles for lives, with resources diminishing every time they actually do their jobs. A lot of agencies, including the real world CDC and my favorite, the Coast Guard, get hit with that stick. The only way that could be more realistic at this point is if the resources diminished regardless of the outcome.
Minor spoiler here but I was also pleasantly surprised to see a 90s/early 00s throwback in the game: The military as an obstacle for the civilian good guys.
It doesn’t pop up as often now, after sixteen years of the Pentagon funding blockbuster movie hits and politicians demanding that war critics separate soldiers from the conflicts assigned them, but the military used to be one of the go-to groups for Bad Guys With Power. Combat PTSD was, and often still is, the easiest (and most inaccurate) way to have someone Go Mad From The Revelation.
Ever watch the X-Files? There are whole episodes dedicated to showing how much of an asshole a senior officer could be or how barbaric the system is to the men and women serving in it, and they’re some of that series’ best. The Hunted is all about a civilian contractor having to fix a military screw-up. The Abyss famously includes a Navy SEAL going insane and trying to kill everyone. Dr. Strangelove was one long absurdist condemnation of the whole military-industrial complex. In the original Half-Life, the military shot you and every other civilian on sight just for being in Black Mesa.
And hey, sit down and watch The Siege sometime.
Point is: We don’t get the Military Is Evil trope all that often in American entertainment nowadays. It’s kind of refreshing anytime it pops up at all. Not because the military actually is evil – that’s a whole ‘nother chain of philosophic discussion – but because it’s variety and nuance. I’m a sucker for variety and nuance.
I’m also a sucker for Chicago not burning to the ground.