Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tim Eats Paste

This is Tim
Tim loves paste

But when he tries to eat it, it makes his tum-tum hurt
"This paste tastes like burning!"

Then one day, Tim's prayers were answered, 
 and he could eat all the paste he wanted

The End!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Compassionate Conservatives

As readers of this blog will know, I'm pretty liberal.

On Monday, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, announced that he was activating 1,000 members of the National Guard to prevent children seeking asylum from gaining entry to the country.

Today he posed for this picture.

I remember in the 2000 Presidential election, Ralph Nader kept saying that there is no difference between the two political parties.

The Democratic Party has its issues, certainly. However, as far as I know, none of us have implicitly advocated using a helicopter-mounted machine gun to murder children fleeing genocide.

A friend on Facebook made the Full Metal Jacket reference, so here's the appropriate caption to the picture.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Pacific Rim, Snowpiercer and Mr. Nanny

My friend Tim visited over a long weekend and we watched three movies of note. I'll review them in the order that we watched them.

The Bad: Snowpiercer

I didn't know a lot about this movie, other than it was getting positive buzz, and that it had Chris Evans in it, which is usually a very good sign. I was somewhat favorably inclined towards it, and under such circumstances, I tend not to dig much deeper. I'd rather be surprised. 

Hobos on a train

Snowpiercer was awful.

The biggest problem was that it was entirely by the numbers. It was your basic dystopia movie, where the have-nots revolt, and they're defeated, but the big bad likes their gumption and offers them a position among the elite. Stop me if you've heard this before. No surprises at all.

Among the lesser problems with the movie: I haven't read the comic on which its based, but some of the scenes are framed so artificially that I have to assume that they are reproducing specific panels from the comic, a la Sin City or Scott Pilgrim. It's particularly egregious near the end, where close up shots of Ed Harris cutting his steak are interspersed with those of him calling Captain America "Dear Boy". A lot of it is just bad. Tilda Swinton's speech about the shoes is just fucking dreadful. There are lines that work in comic books, and lines that work on screen, and Bong Joon-ho needs to learn the difference.

I could have enjoyed the idea of a train powered by a perpetual motion machine, on a track that loops around the world, if they had fun with it. But no! It's important! It's social commentary! The movie wants to be taken seriously, but it never thinks through the ramifications of what it presents. I've seen defenses online along the lines of "That's not a plot hole! It's dream logic!" or "It's a thousand car supertrain powered by a perpetual motion machine! Your argument is invalid!" I tend to think that "Don't think too hard about it" is rarely a good excuse for crappy plotting, and doubly so when the movie wants to be taken so seriously. Bong Joon-ho wants to be treated like Terry Gilliam when his skills are closer to those of Brett Ratner.

Additionally, everyone jumps to most extreme resolution possible:
Captain America: I am hungry, so I am going to eat this babby.
Other Guy: Don't eat that babby! I will cut off my own arm and you can eat that instead!

Ed Harris: We've noticed that the population keeps growing beyond the point where the ecosystem can suppport it. We could institute some family planning...or I could just send my goons in with machine guns to murder a bunch of people at regular intervals. I have been doing this for 18 years.

The ending is dreadful. Terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad. Ed Harris has a dark secret. Fortunately, one of the characters is psychic (and the only instance of any kind of supernatural power in the movie) and just magically knows his dark secret and uses it to undo him. I can't imagine a lazier resolution, barring some kind of actual wish-granting genie.

(The dark secret is that he's using little kids as slave labor. When Cap sees the kid performing maintenance on the mechanisms below deck, he sticks his arm between some gears to stop the train, which, I remind you, is big enough to house every remaining human being in the world. Fortunately, the presence of his puny little meat and bone arm is enough to stop the entire train. He saves the kid, but causes an avalanche that derails hundreds of cars and presumably kills many, many other children.)

The survivors, all two of them, exit the wreckage and see a polar bear, which I suppose was supposed to be some kind of hopeful sign, because it shows that life has returned to the frozen wasteland,  but what it said to me was they're either going to be eaten by a polar bear, or that the the two of them, who spent their entire lives eating protein bars on a magic train, will be competing for extremely scarce resources with an alpha predator adapted to that environment.

There's a line on an episode of 21 Jump Street, when Richard Grieco goes undercover in a performing arts school. He's challenged about what his talent is, and he spouts some off the cuff stream of consciousness "S&M Haiku". Later on, one of the students who saw it, and saw through it, comments that's what he likes about art, that it's hard to tell the difference between art and bullcrap. I was reminded by that while watching Snowpiercer.

Chris Evans is pretty good, it looks nice, it has one or two well put together scenes, but it's not the thought-provoking science fiction movie that the advertisements suggest. The Emperor really has no clothes. The best thing I can say about it is that the title gives the folks who make porn parodies of mainstream releases a lot to work with.

The Ugly: Mr. Nanny

Rather miraculously, Snowpiercer was not the worst movie I saw that weekend. That distinction would go to Mr. Nanny. While we were driving home, Tim put on the How Did This Get Made? podcast. That week's episode covered Mr. Nanny, and they made it sound so hilariously awful that I had to see it.

This image tells you everything you need to know about the movie.


It's the poor man's Pacifier. Ponder that for a long moment.

I guess I kind of assumed that Hulk Hogan would be a better actor than he was. (Hell, Rowdy Roddy Piper was the best thing about They Live. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I am all out of bubblegum.") We all know that professional wrestling is fake, but it does require an awful lot of physical skill, and no small amount of stage presence, and I thought the latter would translate to the Silver Screen.

Um, no. He's terrible.

While the movie has some moments of unintentional hilarity, it's mostly just bad. Sherman Hemsley gives a respectable performance, but he can't save this movie on his own. And to add to the squick factor, the cute little kid in the movie

grows up to have sex with David Duchovny in Californication. Ew.

The Good: Pacific Rim

I had always intended to see Pacific Rim, but I had just never gotten around to it.

How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways!

Idris Elba: Idris Elba is awesome in everything he does, and he delivers here. But other than Ron Perlman in a small role (It's a Guillermo del Toro movie, so he's practically obligatory), Elba is the biggest star in the production, and he's really not that famous. Well regarded, sure. A superstar, no. Apparently his role was originally offered to Tom Cruise, which just strikes me as insane. He's called Stacker Pentecost, which is a delightful name.

The rest of the cast: We get Burn Gorman of Torchwood and Charlie Day (of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). The supporting cast is consistently excellent, and ethnically diverse, which is always a plus.

No Artificial Romance: It would have been the easiest thing in the world to write a predictable romance subplot between Mako and Raleigh, but they didn't. Dredd is one of the few movies to avoid this, and I'm extremely pleased that Pacific Rim did too. Del Toro said of Mako: "I was very careful how I built the movie. One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead who has the equal force as the male leads. She's not going to be a sex kitten, she's not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it's going to be a real earnestly drawn character."

It's a new property: I'm sick of sequels and revivals of 80s properties. It's nice to see something new once in a while. Del Toro said that his intent was "The film was to honor the kaiju and mecha genres while creating an original stand-alone film, something 'conscious of the heritage, but not a pastiche or an homage or a greatest hits of everything'. "I didn't want to be postmodern, or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, something madly in love with those things. I tried to bring epic beauty to it, and drama and operatic grandeur."

Internal Consistency: Snowpiercer, take note. My buddy Tim said that Snowpiercer's biggest problem was "A complete non-adherence to even its own flimsy logic." Good stories, even ones about giant robots fighting alien kaiju from another dimension, tell a story within the framework they've established. You can break these rules in the service of the story, certainly, but breaking them willy-nilly because you couldn't think of a better resolution is just lazy story telling.

Background: There is a tremendous amount of thought and detail put into the design of the Jaegers and the Kaiju. I'll steal this from wikipedia: Gipsy Danger, the American Jaeger, was based on the shape of New York City's Art Deco buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, but infused with John Wayne's gunslinger gait and hip movements. Cherno Alpha, the Russian Jaeger, was based on the shape and paint patterns of a T-series Russian tank, combined with a giant containment silo to give the appearance of a walking nuclear power plant with a cooling tower on its head. Crimson Typhoon, the three-armed Chinese Jaeger, is piloted by triplets and resembles a "medieval little warrior"; its texture evokes Chinese lacquered wood with golden edges. Striker Eureka, the Australian Jaeger, is likened by del Toro to a Land Rover; the most elegant and masculine Jaeger, it has a jutting chest, a camouflage paint scheme recalling the Australian outback, and the bravado of its pilots.

It reminds me of something Hemingway said, that the author should know more about the story than he reveals to the reader. It hints at a deeper world, and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.

"Hannibal Chau": Ron Perlman is Hannibal Chau. When the character was introduced, I said to Tim, "I don't think that he was the first choice for the role," and they do kind of address that, when the character says he took his name from his favorite historical figure and his second-favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn. He's a lot of fun.
And this is absolutely glorious

The Message: The movie reminded me of Robotech, at not just because of the giant robots. Robotech actually had a pretty strong anti-war message, which I would sum up as "War is shitty, but sometimes it's the least of evils." Del Toro said:  "The pilots' smaller stories actually make a bigger point, which is that we're all together in the same robot [in life]... Either we get along or we die. I didn't want this to be a recruitment ad or anything jingoistic. The idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together."

The Movie: It's just fun. (And it looks beautiful) It doesn't have any pretensions about being anything more than giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, but somehow it's a more believable and understated study on the human condition than the bloated and self-important Snowpiercer could ever hope to be.

Monday, July 21, 2014

First Quest, or the family that slays together, stays together

Lily played her first game of Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday. Role-playing games have been a big part of my life since I was her age, and they were something that I wanted to share with her. I didn't want to be the jerk parent who forces his kids into his favorite activities whether they like them or not, but it was something that I thought we could enjoy together. So I approached Lily, and boy, was she enthused!

Me: Do you know what Role playing Games are?
Lily: No.
Me: They're games where you pretend to be someone else.
Lily: Like playing House?
Me: Um, I suppose.

She was initially reluctant, because she thought I was talking about Double Dragon.  Once I explained a little more, she agreed to give it a shot. She said she wanted to play a ninja, so I gave her the rogue character, which she customized to her liking. She grew more enthusiastic as the date drew near, even asking for her good art supplies so she could make a character sketch.

I asked her to think of a reason that she would be traveling into town, and she suggested that her crown had been stolen, and she had heard it was in town, so she was on her way to retrieve it. I thought that was a pretty decent motivation.

Also on the team we had:
  • Tim: Nedstark Orcstomper: He played the dwarven cleric pregen mostly as written, aside from giving him an outrageous accent. Tim is my best friend from way back, and the guy who introduced me to role-playing when we were kids. He lives up in New Hampshire, but I'm really glad he could be here for Lily's first game.
  • Dave: Bob the Fighter, the fighter. Dave is another long time friend. He was the DM from my second edition days.
  • Jen: Hagatha the Wizard:  Not my wife Jen, but my friend Jen. She's a lifelong geek who has somehow never previously picked up a twenty-sided die. But she was saying "I cast...magic missile!" before the night was through. 
Dave and Tim also did character sketches, but they were not as awesome as Lily's.

We played the first part of the adventure in the boxed set. Our team got really lucky, and they played extremely well. I don't think that anyone took a hit until the third or fourth fight. I was surprised at how well Lily did. She played better than some adults with whom I've played. She was certainly better than I was at her age, I think in part because she's been exposed to a lot of the game concepts through video games and such. She stayed focused and used her characters skills to sneak around and scout. She even mastered the art of passing notes to her fellow players.

I like your cloak, classic majishon. Very fashionable. And yes, I am a ninja.

I think I should have helped Jen prepare a little more, because she was lost in the way new players can get and didn't know what to do. Sleep is still a devastating spell at low levels, and that gave them some early victories (to the point that Dave called her character "Sleepspell"), but she had used all of her magic by the time we got to the final encounter, so she was forced to spam cantrips for the final fight.

It was heavier on combat than I would have liked, but not so much that it ruined the adventure for me or anything. The more I read 5th edition, the more I like it. I was also happy with how well Lily did. I would take her with my to play with my grown up friends.  She was losing interest near the end, but I think that was a function of "Blahblahblah, flavor text, and this room has SIX goblins in it! Roll for initiative!" sameness of the encounters.

Tim has gone back home, but Lily has expressed interest in continuing to adventure, to see if Kairi can find her missing crown. If she does, I'll be sure to post about it here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: Edition Wars

I ran my my first game of Fifth Edition (D&D Next) Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday for a small group of friends and family.

D&D has been a part of my life for years. I was born in 1974, and, as hard as it may be to believe now, Dungeons & Dragons was once pretty mainstream. It's what the kids in E.T. were playing, after all. You could go in to just about any store and find the books on the shelf. I remember looking through the Monster Manual for the first time in a local hardware store in about 1982.

My friend Tim moved to my town when we were in the second grade. He had already played D&D at his old school. For our first adventure, I played his 10th level ranger ("Strongbow") through the Tomb of Horrors. I managed to avoid killing myself with the Sphere of Annihilation,

Me: I stick my torch in the gargoyle's mouth.
Tim: It is "completely and forever destroyed"
Me: All right, then.

but Strongbow's came to an ignominious end when he touched some trap that reversed his alignment and gender, which effectively ended his her career as a ranger.

We played a little bit, but he moved away when we were in the fifth grade, so that mostly marked the end of my time playing first edition.

Second Edition: I found some fellow gamers in high school. We were those kids with more money than sense, who bought every expansion that came down the pike. There were days in the summer when we played D&D every day for a month. After my last day of high school, I walked directly to a friend's house, and we continued our campaign.

You seldom see much love for Second Edition online. When it was released, it was scarcely different from first edition. It cleaned up the weirdest of the rules (1st edition Bards, I'm looking at you), but it was a small change, at first. The big differences came with the supplements, The Complete Fighter's Handbook (and Complete Thief's, Paladin's, Ranger's, Druid's, Cleric's, Bard's and Magic User's Handbooks as well) There were so many option to customize your characters.

Also, Second Edition marked a sea change in the presentation. In First Edition, you were just assumed to be wandering murder hobos, kind of like off brand Conans or Grey Mousers, who didn't have goals any more grand than looting the ruined castle down the road. Second Edition assumed you were important and had grand goals and plans.

This is the edition which I have played the most. In addition to the campaign during high school, there were several after I graduated and moved out. I played with my friend Dave, other friends, and briefly with my coworkers when I worked at the comic book store.

Third Edition: This was a pretty substantial revision of the game. First and Second edition were cobbled together with a million legacy systems and special case rules and this was a big move towards a unified system.

I own a ton of third edition books, but I played only a handful of times. I still played RPGs; just not D&D. The reason that  I have so many third edition books is that a couple years after it was released, it was followed by Edition 3.5.

I might be getting some of the details wrong, but my understanding of the situation was that third parties could produce supplements, but they had to be compatible with the current version of the game. When 3.5 was announced, they realized that the wouldn't be able to sell those supplements written for 3.0, so they dumped them on the market at fire sale prices. It didn't matter to me. 3.5 was still largely compatible with 3.0, so I bought a bunch of books for prices as low as $1.

Most of my exposure to 3rd edition comes from video games. Neverwinter Nights was based on 3.0 rules and Temple of Elemental Evil was based on 3.5.

Fourth Edition: I was not a fan of this one. My friend Eric quoted someone as saying that Third Edition killed a couple of sacred cows, but Fourth Edition slaughtered the whole herd. I bought the books on Amazon, because they were cheap, looked through them and lent them to a friend a couple day. He returned them while we were hanging out with other friends, and I immediately lent them out to somebody else. I'm not sure where my books are, and I don't particularly care.

Part of my problem was the presentation. Other people have called it a tabletop MMO, and, while MMOs were certainly one of the influences on the game, they weren't the only one or even the dominant influence. The rules tended to explain things using MMO terminology because that's something with which the reader will be familiar. First edition used wargaming terms for much the same reason. That's not bad, in itself, but I think it does tend to skew the mindset of players towards that playstyle.

Also, the promotional material was aggressively negative towards earlier editions. "You know that game that we've been making and you've been playing for eight years? It's crap, and you suck for liking it! Luckily, we're releasing Fourth Edition to give you a second chance."

I don't like it, because game balance went too far. The characters seem homogenous in a way that wasn't true for earlier editions. The powers seems so banal and mechanical. I'm going to quote Grognardia, a blog that articulated my problems with Fourth Edition better than I could.

Take, for example, the old standby -- and something even I will admit is a rip-off from Tolkien -- the elven cloak. This is what OD&D has to say about it: "Wearing the Cloak makes a person next to invisible." Next to invisible? What does that mean? Contrast this to AD&D, whose description of the item, now dubbed the cloak of elvenkind, is much more specific:
A cloak of elvenkind is of a plain neutral gray which is indistinguishable from any sort of ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when it is worn, with the hood drawn up around he head, it enables the wearer to be nearly invisible, for the cloak has chameleon-like powers. In the outdoors, the wearer of a cloak of elvenkind is almost totally invisible in natural surroundings, nearly so in other settings. Note that the wearer is easily seen if violently or hastily moving, regardless of the surroundings.The description then goes on to give specific percentage chances of how invisible the wearer is, from 100% in heavy growth in natural surroundings to 50% while underground and illuminated by the continual light spell. I'm not keen on this degree of specificity, but, even with it, there's still some wiggle room for the referee -- and players! -- because what constitutes "heavy growth" as opposed to "light growth" is a matter of opinion. You can see, though, that, even with all the expansive physical/metaphysical description of the cloak, its functioning ultimately comes down to a D100 roll.

Third Edition, as it so often does, pares down Gygaxian flavor text and reduces AD&D's baroque mechanics to banality: "This cloak of neutral gray cloth is indistinguishable from an ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when worn with the hood drawn up around the head, it gives the wearer a +5 competence bonus on Hide checks." Fourth Edition is even more laconic: "Gain an item bonus to Stealth checks equal to the cloak’s enhancement bonus." There's not even a nod to flavor text.
I suppose that emphasis on mechanics is what soured me on the edition. I like tabletop games, but I like computer and console RPGs too, and 4th edition seemed to be emphasizing elements that are handled better in computer games. So, while I can respect certain elements of its design, I'm never really going to like it.

Fifth Edition: Well, I ran the first part of the adventure that comes with the boxed set. But that will be its own post. Look for it soon.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Retro Review: Terra Primate

Terra Primate is an extremely odd duck. It was produced under Eden Studio's Unisystem rule set. Eden once held the license to produce the Buffy RPG, which I touched on briefly, here, but these days they are better known for their flagship game, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, which ranks up there with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream as one of the all time great titles. 

As the title suggests, AFMBE is a zombie game. The core book is extremely solid, and has several "deadworlds", each of which have a different type of zombie. There are the classic Romero zombies who started it all, but that's not the only possibility. Maybe they're alien parasites, a la Night of the Creeps. Or maybe it's some kind of bloodborn pathogen. Or fertilizer inadvertently tainting the soil and causing the dead there to reanimate.  Or the Wheel of Reincarnation There were a lot of possibilities, and Eden Studios explored them as only fans who really believe in their property can.

Then there were the expansions. Enter the Zombie is one of the all time great sourcebooks, in my opinion, and it was followed by rules for Pulp, Wild West, Future, Fantasy, Professional Wrestling.  You name it, they had it.

AFMBE arrived in 1999, at the perfect time to take advantage of the zombiemania that is still sweeping pop culture. I don't know if this was calculated, or just a fortuitous coincidence, but it worked out great for them, with timing, quality and enthusiasm all combining to make a product that still sells well today.

In 2002, they released Terra Primate. It's like All Flesh Must Be Eaten, but with apes. Maybe they were hoping to capture the zeitgeist with what they expected to be a similar "Ape-mania" in the advent of 2001's Planet of the Apes movie.

I don't know how it sold, only apparently not well enough to justify additional support for it. (I couldn't find a picture of the cover much bigger than a thumbnail anywhere on the internet. What you see at the top of the post is a scan of my copy.)

There are "Apeworlds", but a big part of the problem is that there's not a whole lot of mechanical differentiation between the Doctor Moreau apes compared to the Post-Apocalypse Apes or the Planet of the Apes apes. Certainly not to the extent that there a mechanical differences between PHADE zombies and Sacred Soil zombies.When you've seen one ape, you've seen them all.

It's not a bad game at all. I happen to like Unisystem, and I think it's pretty great for a generic resolution system. I think, now that I'm looking at it twelve years after its release, that it would have worked better as a big supplement to AFMBE rather than a standalone game. It's an interesting footnote in the history of RPGs, however.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

On Marriage and Marriage Equality

I like the idea of weddings more than I like actual weddings. I like the optimism and the chance for new beginnings and better tomorrows that go with weddings.

When I get there, I remember that the ceremonies are often really, really boring and brevity is the greatest virtue to which they can aspire.

We attended our first same-sex wedding in April. I wasn't sure what Lily would think when we first asked at the dinner table, "Miss X and Miss Y are getting married. What do you think of that?"

She thought about it. One of her friend's parents is in a same-sex relationship, but I don't think she personally knows any other out gay or lesbian people. (Or more specifically, she's seven, and doesn't tend to think about that aspect of people's lives) When we mentioned that so-and-so had two moms, she initially didn't believe us. ("That doesn't make any sense! That would mean that she was born twice!")

She answer she gave after she thought about it for a little bit was, "I guess it's okay, as long as they love each other." And that's a pretty good answer. She's seven. She doesn't have much experience with same-sex relationships. Mommy and Daddy tell her that we believe people should be allowed to marry anyone they love, and that things weren't like that when we were little. This parallels conversations I've had with my parents, about how black people were denied certain rights by the majority when they were little.

I think that any uncertainty she has is the skittishness anyone has, when faced with something outside of her realm of experience. She just doesn't know what to think of it.

The African environmentalist Baba Dioum said, “In the end, we will only conserve what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will only understand what we are taught.”

I think our children should be taught that being gay is as normal and healthy as being anywhere else on the spectrum. That gay people exist, that they are human beings, that they are entitled the same worth and dignity that every human being deserves.

(And I'm sure I could find some conservative talking head saying "Parents like JOSH want to indoctrinate our children into homosexuality!", but no point in giving those guys a bigger soapbox.)

Jen's a Unitarian Universalist, and I'm not, but I've attended enough services to know their principles. The first is "The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person", and that's a pretty good thing to believe in, in my opinion.