Saturday, January 10, 2015

A few thoughts about role-playing games

Dice! Glorious, beautiful dice! The most heavily-fetishized
object at the gaming table by a huge margin.
Watching the third Hobbit movie got me jonesing to play Dungeons and Dragons again. I know a lot of Tolkien purists hate the films, but I don't, because I'm not. Oh, there's stuff I don't like about the movies; don't get me wrong. It's just that I happen to really like the way they've played fast and loose with Tolkien (two adjectives I'd never use to describe his work, which is why I'm not a fan, per se). Never mind the "video game sequence" that seems to be in every movie. Watch the PCs--excuse me, main characters--fight the wandering monst--I mean, the orc patrols--makes me want to roll to hit in the worst possible way.

So, I've been dusting off my old campaign (and by "old," I mean, like, ancient. I haven't cracked this material in over twenty years), and the results have been both daunting and humbling. Never mind trying to find four players who will work around my wonky schedule in Vernon By-God Texas, I have been embarrassed by the lack of verisimilitude in my old campaign notes (always thought to be golden and sacrosanct).  As a result, I've started a top-to-bottom refurbishment, from campaign map to dungeon door. Worldbuilding, now done with the eye of a writer who has been creating fictional worlds in prose for nearly two decades.

I'm having a blast, I really am, but I can see the rabbit hole approaching. I can tell I'm going to go down it, and throw together a ridiculous amount of material that my players will likely never see, nor need to see, because that's how I always did stuff like this. I burrowed in my youth, when I didn't know no better, and I tend to do it now, as a grown-ass man, when I certainly DO know better.

A first draft map of Riverton, the first city the players
will start out in. Huge, bustling, with three distinct
districts and lots of potential for trouble, both political
and otherwise. I love this stuff!

But let's face it; world building is fun. It's thirsty work, challenging, frustrating, and frequently headache-inducing. But once you start making choices, it becomes a blast. I forgot how much I loved making maps, writing descriptions, and working out things like trade routes, bandit lairs, thieves' guilds, and all of that nit-picky stuff. I really loved making my own tables and charts for things like wandering monsters, encounters, and reactions. And while I have some 5th edition rules (gifted to me from Christmas), and there are some great improvements in the system, to be sure, I have several Old School first edition knock-offs that I am looking seriously at; OSRIC and Adventurer Conqueror King both have a lot going for them with that stripped down, simplified set-up that we used to love so much.

Of course, I usually ran the games we played. And I got pretty lucky in that most of my players liked the collaborative idea of "let's create a story together" aspect of the game. I never had to be adversarial or vindictive. That's just not my style. I like to dazzle you with the world, and let you bounce around in it, or carve your initials onto it, as you see fit. That's the real fun of sitting down with people for literally dozens of hours to create this shared narrative.

My "New World" campaign setting is shaping up nicely. The map is drawn, and there's a lot of blank space for the players to explore. Or they can hug the cradle of the New Civilization and take their lumps there. It's wide open, and I foresee having enough basic info on hand to handle whatever goofy thing they decide to do.

I took a little break from the D&D fix to restart Skyim again. I played it up to the point where I got terrifically bored with the game and let it lapse for a year or so. Now I'm playing with more of an eye towards taking the world apart and critically examining it. I gotta tell you, I really don't like it that much. Not the game play or the way it's set up. All of that works great. No, it's the world. Granted, with all of the expansions, it's perhaps the greatest sandbox out there. But for all its vast scale and scope and size, you're still pigeonholed by two things: the "Main Quest" idea and the limits on what you can and cannot do.

First off, I hate dragons, okay? I hate dragons almost as much as I hate elves. And I loathe elves. So cliched, so broken, so, so, so what. Granted, my elves and dragons are specifically designed to be NOT that. But in Skyrim, not only are there dragons, and right out of the chute, at that, but you find out that YOU are "Dragon Borne." You can beat them. Speak their language. Ride them. Oh, lord, how horrible. Way to take something that's supposed to be primeval and a force of nature and reduce it to a collection of stuff you can loot. Welcome to Skyrim.

And what if I decide to take over the town? Kill the Jarl, take his place, etc. What do you mean, I can't do that? Not in Skyrim. Not unless there's a scripted story for it. Otherwise, you're just hacking up frozen undead and suicidal bandits and waiting for the next dragon to swoop down so you can shoot it from a distance and kill it and loot its corpse.

This is what I emphatically don't like about computer role-playing games. Skyrim is fun, as a Monty Haul Crawl kind of thing, but it's just not the same as looking over your screen at your players, who are hanging on to your every word, as you explain how the dragon lifts himself up...and up...and up...towering higher than anything they've ever seen in their lives, and watching them exchange looks as one another that say, "We may have bitten off more than we can chew."

Damn straight you have. It's called Dungeons and Dragons for a reason.

And those instant reactions, the inspired bits of dialogue, the interplay between player and GM, and the allowances for instant creation of material in the face of players doing the unexpected, is something that computers can never duplicate, or even imitate. Oh, maybe they could, but they won't, because of how much code it would take. That's why I'm making this campaign and starting over basically from scratch. I miss that interaction with other people.

I'll post more from the campaign if you're interested. Let me know in the comments, okay?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Making Schedules

Last year, I used my Google Calendar for the first time, and I mean, I really used it. I added dates, set up timers, the works, and baby, it was glorious...until the big-ass digital projection project landed and disrupted my space-time continuum for seven months. Then it was superfluous.

But for those first five months, I was on task and bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and oh, you betcha, stuff got done. So, in keeping with my stated goal of writing a half million words in a year's time, I'm going to do it again.

That's what I'm working on today, in between selling tickets to The Interview for tonight's show. See? here I am:
Note the Douche-Antenna in my ear, ensuring that whoever
I'm talking to will know how important I am. 

This is what my tentative schedule looks like for 2015. Keep in mind that it's all VERY tentative, especially the National shows, because I have to balance this with travel, the theater, and a bunch of other things. And it doesn't include writing, either, which gets done around all of this. Still, it's a heck of a line-up:

Feb 13-15

STAPLE! in Austin
March 7-8

PCA/ACA New Orleans
April 1 – 4

Robert E. Howard Days
June 11 – 14

June 26-28

July 24-26

Necronomicon Providence
August 20 – 23

Sept 4 – 7

Sept 25-27

As for writing, I have one thing on my plate that will get finished before I do anything else. I was supposed to finish it last year, and it got trampled by a play schedule. So: no play schedule, and I'm clearing the decks for what's coming up. What is coming up, you ask?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's New Year's Eve in 'Murica...

As 2014 drops to the ground, a lifeless, smoking hulk of pain and misery, let's pause for just a second to kick its corpse before moving on to a presumably brighter and more lustrous 2015. Well, you don't have to kick it if you don't want to, but I'm going to throw a few, for all of my friends who are no longer with us, and for their loved ones who are no longer with us, and even for the quantity of celebrity deaths that affected us all. Tough year, man. Tough year.

It wasn't all bad. I co-edited and
contributed two introductions to
this four-book collection of REH's
boxing stories.
I'm here to personally report that I failed miserably in my stated goal of writing 500,000 words this year. I managed to get a lot of writing done, though not nearly as much as I would have liked. And I got MOST of my back list out. Most of it. There's two books yet to come: Bowen's Bluff, the second book of Sam Bowen stories that originally ran on Clockwork Storybook, and The Chance of a Lifetime, the third and final Con-Dorks novel that has never been collected in book form before. These are coming, and sooner, rather than later.

But how much DID I manage to write this year?  I was on pace and looking good, until May. May was when my business came crashing into my writing and more or less took over the year. You may know that my wife and I live over a movie theater that we own and operate. For the past two years (and longer) we've needed to convert from showing 35mm film to digital cinema. This is not an easy nor a cheap project. It took a year of research and planning to put together, and then it took five months to get the financing in place (that would be the end of May). After that, it was all project, all the time.

What should have taken six weeks ended up taking five months to fully implement. Everything from construction hassles, electrical work, you name it. It was all going on at the same time--or it wasn't going on at all--and it drove me fairly crazy.

I liked how this came out. Really,
I think this series is going to
be a stand out, when I finish it.
The work was completed in October, and since then, it's been chaos keeping a weekly schedule and keeping up with everything else. I'm STILL not out of that learning curve yet. But it all conspired to keep me busy and benumbed and my writing output slowed to a trickle. Final tally for the year: 279,368 words. That's not taking the five books that I published, either. Those were already written.

I can do better. I know it. So, starting January 1st, we're going to reset the spreadsheet and start this goal all over again. I can do half a million words in 2015. I'll keep you posted.

And Speaking of Posted...

Starting in 2015, I'm going to be posting WEEKLY on this very blog. Weekly. Yep, you heard me. They may be short pieces of commentary, or longer, essay-style things. Not sure. Depends on the week. But I will be making a conscious effort to engage a little more freely about what's going on, as well as talking about books I'm reading, life, other words, you know, a blog.

If there's something you'd like me to talk about, or if you have questions, you know the drill: email my happy ass, and we'll see what can be done to accommodate you.

I've also been commenting more on Twitter. Mostly just snarky asides. I mean, what else is Twitter for? You can follow me if you want to: @FinnsWake is my handle.

That's it. Oh, one final thing about Sony and The Interview. There is no conspiracy. It's a combination of stupidity and coincidence that makes it seem as though there are connections. There aren't. I'm looking at this from the back end and trust me, none of the players involved are smart enough to have orchestrated such a brilliant scheme that mimics failure so well.

Have a safe New Year's celebration. I'll see you on the other side. Here's to a much, much better 2015.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Comic Book World Building for Dummies (and Studio Executives)

The Flash on the CW. So good. So Very Good.

I have an axiom that I use whenever people want to discuss rumors about upcoming super hero movies, and stuff that “they” have said “they” are working on: Until I see a picture of the alleged actor, in costume, on the set, with a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hands, talking to the Director about the next shot they are lining up, my official policy is, It’s Not Happening.

That axiom has saved me a ton of grief over the years. I’ve used the hours I didn’t spend freaking out about things that ultimately did not come to pass to write books, cherish loved ones, and learning to ballroom dance. It’s added much to my quality of life, and I suggest you all implement it immediately.

I bring this up because right now, there’s a lot of talk going on about Warner Brothers’ plans with the DC Universe. You’ve seen the announcement by now, I imagine, but just in case you haven’t, here’s Entertainment Weekly’s coverage of the press release. Forgive me if I don’t get excited, just yet. This sounds like a fanboy’s wish list, and looks like it closely mimics the Marvel Universe movie line up, like their recently-announced Phase Three Plans.

When you compare the two lists, a couple of problems bubble immediately to the surface. Number one, Marvel is into Phase Three of what is clearly a complicated, overlapping, interlocking network of movies—and in fact, every single one of the movies in Phase 1 and Phase 2 has been made or is about to wrap up. DC, on the other hand, has made, remade, and in some cases, re-remade Batman and Superman origin stories until we are sick to death of them. Their one foray into the wider DC Universe was Green Lantern, and it was a hot emerald mess from top to bottom.

And if you remember the not-too-recent history, Warner Brothers has a habit of starting and then scrapping plans when it comes to their super hero franchises. The Doomed-From-the-Start Nick Cage/Tim Burton/Kevin Smith Superman movie is proof of that. How far down the line did they get? And it never got made, right? So, what does this announcement about two Justice League movies mean to me? Bupkiss, is what.

When we do get a Batman and Superman movie—again, because I’ve totally forgotten their iconic-to-the-point-of-being-imprinted-on-our-collective-DNA origin stories, they are either happy accidents (Nolan’s Batman trilogy) or controversial wedges that divide the Geek Nation (Zach Snyder’s Superman). Warner hasn’t hit one out of the park since Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008), and even then, there was a small sub-segment complaining that the movie was too dark. But it was that success that took us directly to neck-snapping Superman, because Warner Brothers executives don’t understand their intellectual properties and haven’t in decades.  For the reasons why this is so, I’ll point you to this excellent article on how the accountants are running Hollywood these days, as well as why this is so.

In short, I have no faith, nor any confidence that Warner Brothers Studios will be able to fulfill or deliver on any of the promises made in their grand announcement. It would be great if they could, but if you’ll look closely at me, you’ll notice I’m not holding my breath. I feel like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football, only instead of trusting Lucy one last time, I’m walking off. I’ve got better things to do.

I told you all of that to tell you this: I am in love with what Warner Television is doing right now.

Arrow. It's gotten much better.
I wasn’t, for a long, long time. Arrow did not grab me, initially, and that’s mostly because I suffered through an excruciatingly long marathon of Smallville—nine seasons, in fact—to get to the “good stuff,” only to find that I really didn’t like where Smallville ended up. I hated the soap opera elements of the show, and I really hated the casual name drops that showed someone in the writer’s room googled “Superboy” but that didn’t always connect with an actual in-show concept. It was too intense, too apologetic about the source material, and way too back lit for my tastes. But for a decade, it was the only live-action super hero show in town.

Yes, I know, there was Birds of Prey. I stand by my original statement.

The first season of Arrow looks and feels exactly like 2001 Smallville, only 30% more Grim and Dark. The Geekster Eggs are dropping like drone strikes, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. “See? We named his SISTER Speedy! Eh? That’s what you guys like, right? Lots of in-jokes?” Then there’s the back story... However, despite all of that, Arrow covered a lot of ground for a show that had nothing more powerful in it than guns, arrows, and martial arts.

The second season felt like a response to the Internet, and so here come the super powers. Nothing major, just yet. Super soldier stuff, mostly. I suspect this toning down of the Four-Color Hero stuff was a way to pitch it to executives that didn’t quite get what the show was about. “Green Arrow? Why is it green? You know, studies have shown that Orange is trending with the kids right now. Let’s call him Orange Arrow!” Hey, I get it; you had to get the show on the air. That’s why the soap opera elements are cranked up through the roof and there’s not a lot of trick arrows flying around. But it got better. And it continues to move closer to what we wanted to see in the first place: super heroes doing super hero shit.

But in the middle of the series, we get to watch the Flash’s origin play out, and then suddenly, the kid gloves are off, and they never come back on. It’s still Grim Dark, and major characters are dropping like flies, because that’s how you keep people’s (and hero’s) interest; by slaughtering everyone around them.  Somewhere in there, it was announced that they were spinning off a Flash TV show. Helmed by the same guy that did Arrow. Very cool, but...will it be Grim and Dark? I was initially worried, because in the new, retconned, and thoroughly unnecessary origin written by Geoff Johns, young Barry Allen witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of a super speedster dressed in yellow. Because we can’t have nice things, apparently. Everyone has to die, or there’s no reason to be a super hero.

Aside from that, the show has been a real breath of fresh air, throwing villains out into the show, nilly-willy, and with alacrity in its heart. Actual super powered villains. Captain Cold, for example. Granted, he’s not dressed in the blue and white parka, but you didn’t really expect him to be, now, did you? And instead of reworking his name, they kept Leonard Snart. No stupid fake Easter Eggs here that go nowhere and do nothing. When one of the characters says Ralph Dibny (and he does), he’s talking about the guy who will become The Elongated Man. Really? How cool is that?

And you can really appreciate the difference in tone from the two part, two show crossover (one of which was named The Brave and the Bold) and see these two characters working side-by-side. It’s striking at just how different the shows are. But the more important thing going on here isn’t the transformation that has taken place in just two and a half seasons of Arrow and a half season of The Flash. No, the thing you need to be checking out is the world building going on.

Those two shows are building the DCU right under Warner Brothers Studios’ noses.

So far, in the two series, Arrow and The Flash, we have been introduced to, among other minor and lesser and non-powered characters the following DC staples:

The Huntress
Count Vertigo
Black Canary
Amanda Waller
The Suicide Squad
Deathstroke, The Terminator
The League of Assassins
Ra’s Al Ghul
Brother Blood
Bronze Tiger
China White
Captain Boomerang
The Atom
S.T.A.R. Labs
The Flash
The Crisis on Infinite Earths event
Captain Cold
Reverse Flash
Weather Wizard
Simon Stagg (and Java)
Gorilla Grodd
Firestorm, the Nuclear Man

Grodd! Grodd! I swallowed my gum when I saw this.
This is not every single reference in both shows: I specifically omitted characters whose names were appropriated in a stupid way and never used (Arrow, seasons 1 and 2) and that list of characters we all heard, but haven’t seen yet (The Flash, season 1) I ended with Gorilla Grodd and Firestorm on purpose. Show of hands, here: who among you ever thought in your wildest dreams that we’d ever see Gorilla Grodd and Firestorm on live-action TV? If you actually raised your hands, then take a well-deserved victory lap, because the rest of us just snort-laughed and said, “Sh-yeah, that’ll be the day. We can’t even get a Wonder Woman movie.”

That list above encompasses some very large concepts and real estate in the DC Universe. First of all, I want to point out that the League of Assassins and Ra’s al Ghul are Batman Family concepts, and pretty big ones, at that. So Star(ling) City and Central City are in the same world as Gotham and Metropolis. That means, Bludhaven, Hub City, Coast City, and in fact, they’ve already mentioned Keystone City. Pick your favorites, place your bets, ladies and gents! The Question? Nightwing? Who’s up next in this collection of shows? Another spin-off? Sign me up, man.

Greg Berlanti, the creator of both Arrow and The Flash, is in a unique position at the moment. He’ll have two full seasons of Flash and four seasons of Arrow under his belt before the next turgid, overblown Zach Snyder movie trundles in and splits the comic con hall in twain again. Considering how fast (forgive me) The Flash is developing, how much extra world building do you think he can get done between now and then? Firestorm? Metamorpho? The Atom? 

Granted, it’s not Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, but at this point, who would you rather have helming those projects? The movie studio that gave us that last Superman fiasco, or the guys who just pulled off a Two-Part Green Arrow/Flash Cross Over that introduced Prism (formerly known in the Silver Age as the Rainbow Raider, I swear to God) and Captain Boomerang? You heard me, Captain Boomerang, and he was a bad ass from start to finish. I’ll take door number two, every single time.

I should be the target audience for this. Instead, I'm
dreading it worse than a trip to my German Dentist.
So stop worrying about the DC movies. There’s nothing you can do to save them, except, you know, stop thinking they are going to be great. The odds are not in your favor, here. And they won’t be, either. Let them go. If you want to see them, fine. But if you don’t like them—and you probably won’t—the worst thing you can do is contribute to their bottom line. The only way to get what you want in today’s culture is to loudly explain why you’re not giving the company any money, and then, you know, don’t give them any money.

Better instead to loudly talk about what you DO want. For example, Grant Gustin is currently owning The Flash. Likewise Stephen Amell as Green Arrow. If you think they deserve to be in The Justice League Part 1 and Part 2, then boost that thought to the rafters. Dangle money in front of that idea. That’s what the studios will reply to. Kvetching about what’s maybe going to happen online is akin to building a moat around your house in case the Visigoths ever decide to attack you. It’s a big waste of time, and there’s no guarantees about anything anyway.

The really sad thing is, Warner Brothers Studios could use the television shows to its advantage. After all, Arrow and The Flash are doing all of the heavy lifting, right now. They could swoop in after two more seasons, scoop everyone up, and announce a JLA movie with all of the current cast members and get not only the movie-going crowd, but every single person watching any of the TV shows. And they would spend exponentially less money on marketing, salaries, and so forth. But they won’t do that. They are incapable of playing nice with others.  So we’re going to see this weird TV versus the Movies thing play out, and fans are going to try to convince themselves that it’s Earth 1 and Earth 2 and this was the plan all along, and yadda yadda yadda. And it’s not any of that. It’s willful ignorance and petty jealousy propping up tent pole movies and counting the bottom line and calling that movie-making. 

I’ll stick with Berlanti, thanks all the same.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Don't Tell ME What to Think About the New Star Wars Trailer...

J.J. Abrams dropped a 90 second bombshell on everyone today when he released a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in select theaters and also online, where the world suddenly ground to a screeching halt. Without even checking, I am confident that the Internet responded as it always does: DeviantArt users are even now painting Milennium Falcons with My Little Pony art stenciled on the side and slapping them on T-shirts; 4Chan users have drawn penises on the droid; Buzzfeed is currently compiling a list of 27 reasons why the Ewoks are still better than Wookies (and over one-third of the reasons will involve the word 'cute'); Reddit users have made gifs out of the images and leavened them into the other pop culture memes making the rounds this week, which means Dr. Who is flying the Falcon, now, as is Bill Cosby; and of course, the Geek-Universe-Blog Sites all have dutifully posted links to the trailer, along with some commentary.

They look like the cool aunt and uncle
now, don't they? I dig the beard.
I haven't read any of the other commentary, and I don't have to. I'm 45 years old. I was 7 when I saw Star Wars for the first time in the theater. I'm a card-carrying member of Generation X, you dig? I make the commentary about Star Wars movies. Not the twenty something who grew up watching Episode I. Not the thirty-something whose first Star Wars movie was Return of the Jedi. This franchise belongs to me as much as it belongs to George Lucas. I made him what he was. I propped him up, swallowed his Kool-Aid, and made him a billionaire. And I promise you this: me and my people have spent more time thinking about Star Wars than any of the blog sites currently operating, with the notable exception of The Nerdist and RevolutionSF, which are both run by fellow forty-something GenXers.

All of that was simply to tell you that I have a very different perspective on this. I've been a vocal and outspoken critic of the franchise over the years, especially with regards to the prequels. Despite all that, I took the news that Lucas sold his creation to Disney very hard. I knew it meant that we would get three more movies, because Disney doesn't leave any money on the table, ever. But I wondered and worried that what we got would be a watered down feel-good family friendly mess.

J.J. Abrams as director restored some of my confidence, as well as the recruitment of the old stars, now in the role of sending the youngsters out to do battle and have adventures. Smart. Very smart. And it's in keeping with what I thought the next trilogy should be.  And sure, we've gotten some teases along the way (no offense, but if you were worried that the Millennium Falcon wasn't going to make an appearance in the movie, you know nothing about Disney, merchandising, or modern movie promotion).

At first glance the teaser trailer appears to be just that; images, seemingly at random, with the only constant being a sense of movement. No pictures of the old-timers. Only these new guys. At the end, a familiar sight, but otherwise, what a bummer, right?

"Rogue Group? I've found them. Repeat. I've--oh, wait.
Wrong movie. Yeah, I need my line, please. Line?"
Not at all. What I found interesting was the number of shots in the trailer that seemed to evoke (and by that I mean, 'are lifted directly') from the original series. Whether it's the Speeder Bike chase sequence, or the Snowspeeder patrol looking for Luke and Han on Hoth, there's a real familiar feel to all of the shots. I suspect this is intentional and purposeful, to make us feel more comfortable.

Why do we need to feel comforted? Because for the first time since 1977, none of us have the faintest idea of how this will play out. This is something that didn't happen with the prequels. In fact, the problem with the prequels was that there was no way Lucas could make a Clone Wars saga that matched what the first generation Star Wars fans had cooked up in their imaginations over the course of 25 years. Unfair? Probably. But Lucas made exactly the movie he wanted to make, with zero apologies and quite a bit of derision. This pushed me and others like me away. And speaking of Lucas...

This droid literally encapsulates the fusion of the first
trilogy (Astromech head) and the second trilogy (rolling
droid bottom). Designed to appeal to everyone.
This is his creation (some would say "collection of other people's intellectual properties he cunningly appropriated") after all. And he shepherded six films through. This being the first Star Wars that won't have his name and fingerprints all over it, there's a real need to soothe some savage beasts right now. How better to do that than to show a collection of scenes that look like they are straight out of the George Lucas playbook?

It's a smart trailer, and make no mistake about it. Finished shots, the obligatory lightsaber gag, a flash of something familiar (but not necessarily integral to the story) and pictures of the newcomers. No hint of story, aside from some things we can guess. This is more than just a teaser. This is the teaser that brings two generations of Star Wars fans together for the first time since Episode I opened. We, together, will get to experience Episode VII with no pre-conceived notions, no expectations, and no baggage. Just pure fun and excitement.  This is as it should be.

Hi. My name is Mark. And I'm a Star Wars Fan.