The Price of Power – A Trio of Fantasia Reviews

By Sunday, July 29, 2018 0 Permalink 0

Power and what it demands has preoccupied human storytelling since time immemorial.

What we currently call “genre” films, that heady mix of horror, sci-fi, superheroes, and fantasy, have always engaged that question, struggling with what the price of power is – how it isolates as well as empowers.

Over the last week, I saw three films that struggled with the question of power and how to use it, each from a different cultural tradition – Russian, Korean, and Japanese – that nonetheless all coalesced around the point that while intent does not erase the fallout of your exercise of power, intent is crucial to the ethical use of power at all.

The Scythian is a Russian film that slides along the edge of Sword and Sorcery, and absolutely feels drawn from a wellspring of love for Robert E. Howard. My friend Matthew Surridge of Black Gate described this film as “Metal as Fuck” and he isn’t wrong. The film is a pile of “Noble Savage” tropes, with a Christian Warrior and an Honorable Savage teaming up to save the Christian’s Wife (who is just a Sexy Lamp). I will always have a soft spot for a film that knows exactly what it wants to do and nails it, regardless of other considerations. This film is two badasses fighting. There is a tribute to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s best fight scene redone in a medieval context. Marten, the Scythian, is played by someone who seems like Tom Hiddleston’s central asian clone – all angular cheekbones and screen presence. This is the second film I’ve seen recently that feels like Russia took the 80’s love of cheesy Sword and Sorcery and reinterpreted it with a modern level of special effects and dedication to theme. It’s not the most sophisticated storytelling, but it is damn enjoyable. Vengeance, the price of power, and the cynicism of wanting to rule rather than govern are themes that work extremely well in this genre, and the Russians seem to be hitting these themes out of the park.

The other two films that make up this trilogy of power and vengeance are both East Asian and both drawing on the theme of the Witch – a woman breaking the rules of proper behavior by wielding any power at all is dangerous.

Laplace’s Witch is a film by legendary director Takashi Miike starts quite well, but falls apart under a slavish desire to adhere to the novel, as far as I can tell. Adapting a novel to the screen is an art, and requires a certain courage to throw out elements that work in text but not on screen. As the last act of this film unfolds, it becomes painfully evident that courage was lacking. Story beats fall apart as they aren’t properly set up by the film, although I suspect they made sense in the novel. It is shame, as it wastes a two lovely performances by Suzu Hirose (as the titular witch) and Tamaki Hiroshi (as the dogged cop just trying to solve an impossible mystery). Miike has audacity to spare, but none of it is evident in this film, which is a shame, as the themes of alienating power, what it means to make a mark on the world, and what it means to be a good person or hold responsibility are all solid ones. My sister speaks often of taking the heart of a story and respecting that even as one transforms it into another form, medium, or genre. This is a case of respecting the trappings more than the heart, which is almost invariably the wrong choice.

The final third of my trio is Witch Part 1: The Subversion, an unabashedly over the top love letter to late-80s post-Watchmen comic-book and anime-style “everything is just going to get worse” storytelling sensibility.

Ja-yoon (a stellar Kim Da-mi) is a local farm girl with a sick father and a mother suffering from dementia. She agrees to go on an American Idol-like reality competition to get some money, at the behest of her delightfully over-the-top best friend Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi). Appearing on TV brings her back into the sights of the sinister scientists who experimented on her as a small child, and everything escalates from there.

I compare this to the post-Watchmen era of comic book superhero storytelling, dovetailing with the Akira/Ronin/Elfin Lied style of power and consequence. I can nitpick the pacing of reveals in the film, but that is more about personal aesthetics of what to reveal when. I may prefer specific forms of pacing but that doesn’t mean other choices are objectively wrong. One thing I can say is that I appreciate the film stating upfront that is part 1, or the ending would infuriate me a lot more. In the end, this is a lovely superpower (not necessarily hero) origin story that delivers, and I recommend checking it out.

One thing (among many) that is lovely about Fantasia is watching storytelling tropes interpreted through lenses one may not be familiar with. There is a universality to story and theme, and a vast plethora of difference in execution and emphasis that reminds anyone paying attention that the human condition is universal in theme, and diverse in detail. Every story is worth retelling from another point of view; each grid one overlays on an essential plot highlights different aspects of the various truths underlying the human condition. Unless all you crave is a story to tell you the status quo is appropriate, every variant adds some small truth to the mix, every lens highlights a different part of the essential.

More stories and more storytellers appropriating, remixing, and recasting stories in a thousand forms may be the only way to approach truths too difficult to look at directly.

The Kakos Universe

By Wednesday, February 15, 2017 0 No tags Permalink 0

I’m not convinced it is the worst universe, but it is a bad one.

One theory about the “Alternative Facts” the Trump Administration has been stating is that they are, in fact, from another universe.
The Mandela Effect made manifest. Fringe finally fact.

So let’s go with that.

I’m trying to pull together clues about the universe the administration came from, based on the facts they’ve let slip.

I’m going to keep this as close to specific statements from the administration about things. Not just general attitudes or views, but flat statements of facts not true in our universe, but presumably true in theirs.

This may stay master post I build on over time. Or maybe it just becomes the start.

What We Know

  • There was a Bowling Green massacre
  • “I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized‍—‌and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre.” <-- Kellyanne Conway on Hardball with Chris Matthews. (Note, this is separate from the actual massacre of Lenape refugees in 1643 during Kieft’s War, which took place in what is now Bowling Green, NY.)

  • The news does not report on terrorist attacks such as the one in Atlanta Sean Spicer referenced
  • The above is among the many terrorist attacks the news does not report on. Does the news report on other subjects? Is it 1984 propaganda? Is it just there is no news reported at all? It’s all entertainment? (I suspect the latter given this may be a Reality TV universe.)

  • The murder rate is the highest it has been in 47 years
  • The amazing drop in murder from the high of the 80s and 90s did not happen in the Kakos Universe. For all we know, Escape from New York is a documentary in that world. Instead, murder is at a record high.

  • Chicago is a war zone
  • Related to above.

  • All Black people live in urban hell holes
  • Related to above.

  • The prime minister of Canada is Joe Trudeau.
  • An interesting small variation. Is Joe more serious than Justin? Less prone to selfies? No one knows.

  • 3-5 million people voted illegally in the election, all of them for Clinton.
  • Seemingly these voters were concentrated in California, although the plan also involved bussing voters into New Hampshire from Massachusetts.

  • “One of the biggest electoral college wins of all time.”
  • Tied to the above. Trump seems to have the same understanding of how many electoral votes he won, but in his universe, that win is actually one of the biggest of all time, rather than somewhere in the bottom 7th of wins.

  • “Huge inauguration numbers.”
  • The crowds in the Kakos Universe were much bigger, and it stopped raining.

  • The holocaust was not about genocide against Jews.
  • An interesting historical note is that the Holocaust was not about Jewish genocide. It seems the overall numbers of people killed seem similar, but rather than a targeted extermination of Jews that also included other groups, it had no ideological basis in the Kakos Universe.

  • The Yemen military raid was “a successful operation by all standards”
  • The question here is which part of the universe is different? Is it that the death of one serviceman and many civilians, including children, actually does qualify as a success? Or did the events in the Kakos Universe differ substantially?

    The Kakos Universe seems more dangerous and volatile than our own, dating back at least to WWII. More details will surely surface over time.

Mass Effect – 10 years on and some early thoughts.

By Tuesday, February 14, 2017 0 No tags Permalink 0

A decade after it came out, I finally decided to try Mass Effect. (Playing on an Xbox 360).

I’ve been talking with people of late about text and subtext and the kind of base assumptions stories make. In our charged political environment, there is a push by many people for entertainment to be “nor political”. There is, in many ways, no such thing. Those base assumptions are always around. The question is which ones are you accepting and which are you rejecting or subverting. But if you aren’t preaching at people, then it tends to be less irritating.

So having gone just to the point where I am about to get my own ship, I have a few thoughts.

1) It is almost absurdly pro-military.

You are a special military person. The military alliance is unabashedly the hero side. The military secret police is only a risk if they go rogue, and the implication is they should have powers above the law. (There is some push back from the police force, but not much.) The assumption is the military is above the civilian population, should be given free reign, and are generally default heroes.

2) It really does feel like they needed a replacement Star Wars. Spectres feel like Jedi with the serial numbers filed off.

The Spectres operate alone or in pairs. They council sends them places to handle operations the council can’t do openly. They are super soldiers, and also have awesome biotic (telekinetic) and tech control powers. Everyone is kind of impressed with them and they are mysterious, initiating people they choose who fit their criteria. They do track pretty well to the Jedi.

3) I really like a morality bar where both sides can go up.

I hear they get rid of it later, but I do like a system where you gain points in Paragon and Renegade separately, and actions don’t just move on one base scale up and down. I’m not sure right now if you can lose points in a given side or not, or if it just always additive. But I do like the sense of a more mixed system, allowing you to react in different ways at different times. I’d love games that have more of this sort of mixed morality system.

4) I’m not fond of bonuses for being more extreme. It would be nice for options favoring the even handed as well.

This is why I want a more mixed system. Bioware games seem to want to encourage role playing and consistent character by given you mechanical bonuses for being at the extreme edge of whatever morality you are at. (They do this with the relationship bars in Dragon Age as well, but it seems a bit less intrusive when it is tracking intensity of feeling.) It encourages being either a cartoonish Dudley Do Right or a vicious, rude jerk. Being a normal person who gets mad at some people and is more forgiving to others actually makes you less effective. I hate that.

5) I’m tired of “sex workers in space” as a trope.

There is a strip joint. You can even sit in a chair and watch a dance. I don’t think they would do that now, or if they did it wouldn’t only be sexy female aliens dancing. There is also the “Consort” who all species respect for her amazing companionship which isn’t just physical. It just feels tired as a trope. It can still be used well, but it needs a break, I think.

6) Kaiden is no Alistair.

I’m playing a female Shepard, and so far the obvious romance option (I presume Ashley is an option for a male Shepard) is not too interesting. They seem to have gotten better with this later.

7) Putting an annoying finicky mini-game in for lockpicking just makes things frustrating.

They give you a lockpicking skill, but then it makes you play a DDR-style minigame that is incredibly finicky. If you fail, you have to waste some of the magic omnigel to open it. It kind of cripples playing a support character because you don’t seem to really get the kind of benefit you should to open doors and storage. It just feels like extra padding in the game aspect, like additional level grinding or filler.

Heroic: The Role Playing Game

The big announcement out by Zenith Comics is that we’re putting out the HEROIC! The Role Playing Game .

The game is part of the Old School Revival (OSR), which for those of you who don’t do tabletop RPGs, is throwing back to very early versions of the hobby, games such as the original D&D, and in this case, Villains & Vigilantes as well. That means classes and hit points and AC, but we’ve done some interesting things with those, and mined inspiration from V&V for powers.

Zenith Comics’ Fearless Leader, Andrew Collas, explains the design thinking in his announcement video here. He’s assembled quite the team of people from the tabletop hobby to help out, so this should be an interesting ride. We’re in playtesting now, hammering out enough to get a solid basic edition in your hands quickly. We will do a kickstarter in the end, but it will just be to pay our artists.

For those of you who have heard me talking about it, this is not my personal system I’ve been toying with of late. That is born from a different tradition than OSR. I have every intention of getting back to that, but this has some serious people behind it, as well as a built in universe, and it will be fun to put something out and also get some RPG input from a very different perspective as I go back to my own personal design.

The HEROIC! The RPG tag is going to follow development and design thoughts as my first project for 2016, as I try to do more interesting stuff and make sure it gets recorded here.  Look for regular updates.


By Thursday, February 19, 2015 0 No tags Permalink 0

The SlamTastique Story Slam returned last night, with a new locale, the wonderful Cafe Mariposa. The locale is an intimate and supportive venue, and really suits storytelling, with almost no barrier between teller and audience.

As per the rules, I did not win. (Yes, that is a rule.) That honour went to the highly deserving of Kym Dominique-Ferguson – who produces Madpoetix and The Art of Aural Sex. He won with the Jamaican version of Anansi and the tar baby (specifically version c – the grave), and did the story proud.

No recordings of the performances this time, although I suspect Hobbes will get back to recording the evening as the new venue takes off.

We were blessed with a musical feature act for the first time, Sam Cave, who I think will be making further appearances at the Slam, Madpoetix, and probably the Voix de Ville at the Wiggle Room.

It was nice to be back on stage, and I will be back on March 25 for the next show, probably with a feature tale in the second half, at request.





Saying Yes (But…)

By Monday, January 19, 2015 0 , , Permalink 0

I had a chance to run an RPG of my own design Saturday.

I’ve always loved tabletop roleplaying, I’m a D&D kid from way back before it split into Advanced and Basic (and I like what I’ve seen of 5th Edition, although I haven’t had the chance to play yet.).  Since then, I’ve drifted in and out of the hobby over time, as many adults do. It’s still a fine way to tell collaborative stories, though, which is always a great chance to see

Over time, I realized that my play style prefers something light and fast, with limited mechanics. I found Robin Laws’ HeroQuest in the early 2000s, and really liked it, as it introduced me to the idea of freeform abilities, conflict resolution vs task resolution, not giving combat precedence by way of the dynamics, and working from a position of letting your players lead rather than positioning yourself as the enemy. In the back of my head, as I read the clever rule systems of so many indie games, was the idea to hack together one of my own.

And finally I have.

While HeroQuest and FATE were major influences, the big shift in emphasis came from to Nathan Russel’s FU: The Freeform/Universal RPG system, which frames results in terms of yes and no, with possible results for “And” or “But”. Thus rather than simply tracking success, or even quality of success, it encourages narrative motion by adding these conditionals.

I threw just about everything else from FU out. I don’t like its die system, I want characters described differently, I don’t like how it handles hits and damage. So I’ve been banging around, pulling elements from other games I like to encourage play in the style I want, and I tried a rough draft out with my sister and three friends.

It worked really, really well.

They were in the mood for some space opera, so I ran a one-shot based in the ‘Verse of Firefly/Serenity, which works out nice and easy for a one shot of  “find a job, get it done, get paid”.  I assigned them some pre-gen characters, and let them have at it. It was a blast.

There quite a bit of work to be done.

  • I tweaked the dice system to allow for degree of success as well as the But/And dynamic. It mostly works, but there are a few too many fiddly bits and we never really used the degree of success/effect on the modifiers (But or And) themselves. I still like the idea in theory, but it may just be overkill.
  • Exactly how many traits/abilities to put on the sheets. I riffed off of HeroQuest’s “use the character description itself” idea, but it might do to focus it a bit more.
  • Clarifying how conflicts end needs some work.

Overall, however, I’m very happy with it. It plays fast and loose, and rolls with players’ tendencies to come up with wild tactics and ideas very well. It encourages the GM to just let their players be awesome whenever they can, and let the dice only come out to make the story more interesting by adding twists (“Say yes or roll”, as the concept was so elegantly put in the excellent Dogs in the Vineyard) . It is abundantly clear that it needs a group who wants to run games in this style, and who trust the GM and each other. The mechanics aren’t there to settle disputes with lots of strict rules judgments, nor do they produce the kind of all-encompassing dynamic of something like the excellent Apocalypse World.

The next step will be to take the adventure my sister and I wrote to come out with her novel Tin Star last year, and re-tool it to run with this instead of True20. It will give me a chance to hammer out some more of the rough edges, and we can re-relase the adventure for the release of the sequel, Stone in the Sky.

But I do think I have a workable system, and an excuse to try and rustle up some of my old gamer friends and tell some stories.