Saturday, October 14, 2017

In the Red Lord's Reach (1989)

In the Red Lord's Reach (1989) by Phyllis Eisenstein reads like the fantasies a decade earlier, which makes sense because the stories were first published in 1977 and 1979 in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. That makes this book seem a fix-up, but I think that the short stories were always intended to form a complete arc. Each chapter of the novel reads like a complete short story.

This particular novel is the sequel to Born to Exile, being the second book of the Tales of Alaric the Minstrel. I hadn't read the first, but that didn't matter. While his past history got quite a few nods, this set of stories forms a distinct stand-alone tale, assuming nothing of the reader.

Because the novel is broken down into stories,  you almost always get a feel of progression and advancement, as each story isn't so long that the action bogs down or that it gets lost in its own descriptions. It's a good trick and I'd like to see more modern authors using it. Where it falls down compared to modern novels is in its loose story arc. The ending doesn't come across quite as rousing as if an entire book has built up to that point.

The action here is very low key as action isn't the focus of the story. If you're good with that, the story moves, but if you crave good action, you'll find that many sections drag.

The primary character, Alaric, has one good power, teleporting, and much of the novel explored that one good power, what it means, and what advantages it can be put to. While some advantages of teleporting are obvious, many are situational and not quite as obvious. The character of Alaric himself is a bit of a pacifist and a bit of a self-doubter. He's not an oozing testosterone fighting hero. Everything doesn't go right simply because he's a good guy doing right. The world is a bit more complicated here than good and bad, a little larger than it seems at first.

While I happily recommend the book to anyone, as I rather enjoyed the read, I can't say that anyone in particular would enjoy it. In this novel, much depends on your taste.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

I hate color grading. Color grading must be destroyed.

Aside from the color grading, Wonder Woman (2017) made for an enjoyable film whose issues weren't big enough to hurt it. It waltzed through all the appropriate tropes with a diverse cast of characters. The general arc was one where Diana goes from idealist to worldly wise, where the world goes from black and white to shades of gray. I guess that color grading helped show that, with Themiskyra, a place in rich color, while the world of humans was washed out, less clear, less distinction between good and evil.

The inherit issue of the film was that it had to power up Wonder Woman through the entire movie, enough for the audience to get her powering up, but not enough for us to explore where we were or enjoy where we are. And those places where she was? I really liked those places. A non-Superman powered Wonder Woman in World War One London had the making of a fantastic series setting. I wanted more of that Wonder Woman, not less. The idealist in an imperfect world made for a great setup. As Wonder Woman continues powering up, we get another great setup, Wonder Woman with a real team, each character of which seems to have a story worth telling. But all these things get left behind to get her to apotheosis, to the ultimate Superman equivalent Wonder Woman. There's nothing wrong with that level, but I just didn't enjoy her as much when she was all powered up. That more human-level Wonder Woman seemed to have more story in her.

Powering up Wonder Woman is where the film worked well because if that hadn't worked, the film would have sunk. We as the audience don't know just how powerful Wonder Woman will wind up, so every time we think that we've got how able she is, she exceeds herself and we notice. It's that dynamic of the predictable, followed by the unpredicted, that makes these sequences work so well. Those jumps give us a "whoah" moment.

Like most female written story, the romance turns hot in the middle of the story, not the end.

Steve Trevor generally worked, even with the power disparity. The usual story approach in such situations is to give the most powerful person a threat that can't be ignored, while another terrible problem is brewing which the less powerful people must handle, and they use that technique here effectively. He's also the morally stronger of the two leads because he knows the stakes far better than she. To her, the stakes are about Ares, a pure win, but to him, the stakes are about people.

The film got to breathe as well, to step back from its mayhem and enjoy the characters as characters. This was important to us, the audience, to get to know everyone, and important to Diana to connect with the outside world, to learn that gray existed in inexhaustible supply, where even the good guys did bad things. 

Despite this, there's so much forgettable about this film. It's an entertaining few hours, but I already don't remember large stretches of it. It thrilled me while it showed, but it didn't stick with me. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Power Trifectorate Redefined for D&D

In D&D, power basically comes from yourself (magic), somebody else (divine magic), or your own technical skills. That's very limiting, because you can do anything that you want with the first two magics, but you can't do much with technical skill because that doesn't really go anywhere, with any extraordinary thing always being out of "realistic" reach. (In this case, I posit that realism means "consistent with understood world physics.")

Let me posit the standard breakdown another way:

  • Power In Yourself
  • Powers from Others
  • Power through Secrets
Power in yourself is something that you can tap. Some powers everyone has, but some powers you must be born with. Whatever the origin, you have that power to tap.

Some powers come from outside yourself. These beings or energy flows or whatever are accessible to you, and you manipulate them into new shapes.

Still other powers are about knowing secrets, about actions or things that alter the course of the world. These are skills, systems, and arrangements.

Taken together, these three ideas can express any class, and any ability that any class could develop, in addition to allowing any class to "break the rules" via acceptable world physics.

Let's begin with the wizard. Magic may be an intrinsic thing that the wizard has, but some of that power may come from outside himself, being in the environment, but he can only truly master that power through skill and research, acquiring the secrets of the power.

A barbarian has innate strength, a rage that drives him, which comes from himself. In later additions, he gains power from totems, powers outside himself. Finally, his battle experience forges him into a fierce and implacable warrior, able to stand against the toughest foes.

In the previous system, a fighter could only swing a sword and that didn't go anywhere. With this explanation, a fighter uses his innate strength and fortitude to combat his foes, developing his skills through secret techniques, some so extreme as to be superhuman. His inner spirit learns to draw and redirect the very magic of the universe itself so that he can challenge and slay even the most dangerous foes. With that explanation, this class now has a world physics reason for doing the incredible.

A way to enhance this proposal would be to package caster levels into broad categories, more like affinity levels than caster levels. Clerics and Paladins would both have divine affinity, so both classes would synchronize well, but Clerics and Fighters wouldn't share affinities at all. In broad strokes, you'd have Divine, Natural, Arcane, and Martial affinities. I might do more with that, but that's another essay for another day.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983)

When I first read Moreta (1983) by Anne McCaffrey, I was quite a fan and very excited for that new Pern book. I had read The White Dragon thirteen times. Yet, Moreta failed to move me at all. McCaffrey, who could do no wrong, had produced a fairly bland book that I didn't care for. First she produced Dragondrums with Piemur as the lead character, and now this.

This should have been a rocking good book. It should have given us all the excitement of The Ballad of Moreta's Ride. Instead, I found tedium.

McCaffrey wrote the book during the Reagan revolution and the AIDS crisis. It was a time that we seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards, and that many now feared a slow and invisible disease that always killed.

On rereading, I can see how this novel disappointed me. It's a novella that been fluffed into a novel. There's just not enough story here to sustain an entire work. It starts excruciatingly slow, progressing along with shallow ups and down, then peters off into something resembling an ending. I found little to pull me into the work, and even less to sustain me along.

The Pern of the past is a Pern that we recognize, filled with people just as dumb and hard headed as those in the future. (Dumb and hard headed people are the bane of Pern's existence.) It's pretty much the same place, just with different characters. In that, Anne wasted a huge opportunity, because the past gave us a chance to see a different Pern, rather than just shuffled deck chairs. They knew a few things that the future didn't, but they are astonishingly dumb about what they do remember. Really? The healers forgot basic immunology? Are you kidding me?

The biggest problem of the work is a brand new, expansive set of lead characters, most of whom we don't care about and never care about. They're all part of an explosion of names that hits our eyeballs as all proper historical epics should have, which makes the narrative more a documentation of what happened rather than the story of a few characters in a turbulent time. Because of this, the story lacks quite a bit of emotional resonance, quit a bit of emotional arc. Almost all characters exist in the here and now, having no sort of arc whatsoever. I can't say that Moreta has grown, changed, or overcome anything in any meaningful way through the course of the entire work.

In theory, I ought to have felt concern for the runner beasts and the great herds getting wiped out, as their fate will influence Pern's future, but the horses only really matter in the beginning and at the end. In between, they're absent so completely that I completely forgot about them and their fate.

The work sets up a lackluster romance between Moreta and Allessan, lacking all the tension that makes a great romance, and pretty much lacking in all the tension that makes a mediocre romance as well.

One would think that the tale of Moreta's Ride would begin with a crisis, push the planet to the brink, and with great courage, one queen rider takes responsibility to do what must be done, ultimately sacrificing herself for the good of the world. It's a well known story arc, one that works. Yet, McCaffrey gives a wandering tale, where the worst of the crisis is seemingly over, yet there must be one last push for vague reasons that really don't hang together, resulting in a death for our protagonist that's rather more anti-climactic than courageous. If she had been a day or two later, people would have died, but the population was no longer in immediate jeopardy.

We see a bit of Nerilka's story, but not enough to matter. Her appearance in the book feels rather more forced that organic. As a reader, she had a feeling of being inserted in despite the narrative.

Anne got a little braver about homosexuality. Rather than hinting at the relations between men, she has a clear homosexual couple as secondary characters. That was pretty brave and daring as far as Anne goes, appearing at a time when the AIDS crisis was hitting and the young generation was learning how to accept homosexuality rather than beat it up. It's also from a time where preachers said that AIDS was a punishment from God.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Chaos Knight (Prestige Class) Thought Experiment

I haven't attempted to save the Fighter Class in a long time, so here we go again.

A Chaos Knight is perfect for a Fighter that needs to break out of his own dull character path. The focus in this imagined 10 level prestige class is making the fighter fun rather than making the Fighter useful. So, can I design a prestige class that encourage recklessness? Let's try.

Prerequisite: Non-Lawful, any six Fighter feats, Power Attack, Cleave

In Over My Head - When within threat range of two or more creatures, all your hits trigger Cleaves as if the hits were kills.

We want the Chaos Knight wading heedlessly into battle.

Wild Swings - You excessive combat style prevents flanking.

We really want the Chaos Knight wading heedless into battle.

Kill or Be Killed - When you are hit by a critical, gain an immediate attack of opportunity against the opponent that just hit you with a critical.

We really, really want the Chaos Knightw ading heedlessly into battle.

I Dare Ya - Any attempt to grapple you triggers an attack of opportunity, even improved grapple.

We really, really, really, with sugar on top, want a Chaos Knight wading heedless into battle.

Deflect Magic - If you succeed in your save, as a swift action, cause a spell or spell effect coming in your direction to veer towards somewhere else. The final target should be completely random.

This guy is the embodiment of chaos.

Rebel With A Cause - You may substitute you BAB + Strength for Diplomacy when acting against or opposing legitimate authority or lawful powers.

The Chaos Warrior should incite riots and breach the peace.

More Bang for the Buck - Any spell cast on you adds your Strength bonus to its spell level.

Of course the Chaos Warrior is the best person to throw a spell on. Look at all the free spell levels.

I'm Not Dead Yet - As a swift action, you take Strength damage to heal hit points. For each point of Strength damaged, heal 8 + Con hit points.

Battle on to the bitter end, baby, just like all those bad 80's movies!

With Friends Like These - When affected by spells or spell-like effects of your allies, you may subtract your BAB from their spell levels.

Hey, Joe! Explode that fireball here!

Army of One - For each party member unable to act (dead, unconcious, paralyzed, asleep), you gain one additional 5-Foot Step and one additional attack.

The worse things get, the more dangerous the Chaos Knight gets.

Chaotic Mind - When in battle, roll twice for all Will saves.

Channel Chaos - When affected by any spell or spell-like affect, gain the spell's caster level in hit points and a +2 Strength Bonus until the end of the combat. The strength bonuses stack.

That which does not defeat you makes you stronger.

Would I play that? Sure, why not? It's a bit crazy, but if you're playing a high-powered game where abuse of the rules is no object, then this prestige class just might work for you.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Batman vs Superman Extended Cut (2017)

I went into Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2017) expecting an agonizing film experience. The talk of how utterly bad it was convinced me that I was in for agony. A-GONE-EE. And that's what I wanted and expected, because I'm a veteran of bad genre cinema and I know how to take my coffee black What I found did not meet my low expectations.

In most ways, I found the film a middle of the road action blockbuster, with all the messiness and Hollywoodisms that that entailed. The idea mostly worked, but had problems. The plot mostly worked, but had problems. The motivations sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't, but mostly stumbled along just well enough to get you where you were going. The plot was too big, the number of plot lines too numerous, and the number of dangling thread too copious, but not so much that the plot turned into mud.

Mostly, the film had a zen quality to it, an evenness in tone and intensity that barely varied from one end to the other. Beat followed beat followed beat like a man walking down the street, occasionally interrupted by stepping off the curb or moving around someone, but always, the steady beat returned.

As of this date, 6,450 reviews on Amazon rank the film as follows:
  • 5s 38%
  • 4s 18%
  • 3s 14%
  • 2s 12%
  • 1s 18%
A full 50% of the viewers rated the film as 4 stars or better, and 70% as 3 starts or better. That's not great, especially for a $100 million+ film, but it's also not worst film of the decade territory. We could say that the viewers are wrong or they're ignorant, but that number is too big to blame on ignorance. No, there's got to be something to why many find this film entertaining, while others don't.

This film was all over the place, filled with many good ideas, but those ideas competed with each other rather than complicated each other. The film raised many good question, answering none, then bringing up more good questions. The film had character arcs obscured by other characters arcs. The film had metaphors stacked on metaphors, some of which punched in you in the face, while others paced quietly in the background. Because of this, you were either paying attention to the film as an active participant, or you weren't. If you were paying attention, you put together all the unsaid pieces in your head before the film told you (or didn't), but if you weren't actively participating, if you weren't busy managing all the data coming at you, then the film would degenerate into a series of nonsensical scenes barely connected by something self-identifying as a plot.

For the watcher, this is no casual film, which is the exact opposite of what you'd expect from a super-hero blockbuster.

I found Superman and Batman's arc interesting. How does Batman (and thus, in extension, how do we, the audience) see Superman? Is he a god, an alien, or a hero? The much maligned "Martha" line uttered by Superman is the key to the entire arc, and possibly the entire film. By itself, it's stupid, but in the arc, it's the hinge on which Batman changes his understanding of Superman. "Martha" is Superman's mother, and a mother makes Superman not a god, not a devil, and not an alien, but a human in a hero's outfit. Martha is the name of both their mothers, both Bruce and Clark, meaning that those two share a common humanity. It's exactly this moment, when Batman stops seeing Superman as god, that he can accept Superman as human rather than an invader or a ruler, and that he understands why Superman won't destroy the world.

I found Lex Luthor interesting as his character was always performing. For most of the film, I interpreted Lex as a person who was always on stage, where everything that he said and everything that he presented was an act. This made all his characterizations and grandiose statements make far more sense, because they weren't there to make sense, they were there to look good and distract you from his real intentions. Even in the end, when he acted insane, was that an act? Lex liked asking questions and providing no answers. Even at the end, you don't know a single real thought of his. In the end, the law shears him of his good looks, revealing him as the skinhead that he'd always been. Racist. Fascist. Zealot.

What I never quite understood was Lex's motivation. I could see how getting rid of Superman and Batman would allow him free reign of the world, but that is the one point where I as the audience needed to know his motivation and stakes. They weren't forthcoming. So why did Lex put out all that effort? Why did he bet everything? It's not space aliens taking over the world that we should be looking at, it's the worst of us that aspire to be god kings. Considering that all modern villains seek to take over the world, this is no large leap of faith. It's more like jumping off a curb. The trope is so well used that its presence could just be assumed.

Batman had an arc to go through, one that begin with being a loner and abusive vigilante, transforming him into a team leader. Through the course of the film, Superman taught him how to be a new sort of hero, one that he hadn't been before. Before Superman, Batman took down criminals because vengeance, because the world is brutal, and there's nothing good about it, but at the end, he sees the world as worth saving and protecting. That plot line didn't quite work for me.

All these themes and plotlines, and there are so many themes and plotlines, come at a price. What's important gets lost in a sea of other things that are important, meaning that very little gets the screen time and development that it begs for. The film sets out with a incredibly full agenda, so much so that a single film struggles to handle the whole enchilada. Even incredibly well written, producing this film would have been a challenge, so any issue in the script or design gets amplified, requiring even more screen time, or else feeling hollowed out because these pivotal themes didn't get screen time.

The film itself is paced more like a comic book than a work of cinema. I think that this is the biggest issue. The film does too good of a job homaging the source material. In a comic book, these fight scenes would have worked, these plot twists would have worked, this character development would have worked. They were appropriate to the medium. For film, these beats don't quite land the same.

In the eternal struggle of "show vs. tell", the film may have tilted too far into "show" territory. To a great extent, the director showed whatever he could, but if you missed it, you missed it. There are certain things that are usually told in film because it's easier and clearer, so much so that they're convention. When those things aren't told, they feel absent even if they're shown or are otherwise present.

So in its tendency to almost work in so many ways, but to not quite work in any of them, the film feels far worse than it really is. And because what's bad isn't pervasively bad, but merely continuously annoying, the bad slides by pretty quick. Much of the audience says "okay" and moves on, but much of the audience can't move on. In the end, you get either an entertaining film with numerous transient flaws, or a mass of transient flaws that override whatever else the film may provide.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tender Is the Night (1933)

I don't know what to feel about Tender Is the Night (1933) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. To quote the Beatles, "It's a dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn't understand."

How far we've come from 1920 where kids fooling around was seen as scandalous, or the wife who turns out to have been virtuous the whole time while the husband wasn't. No, now literature has degenerated to the point where everyone is having affairs, EVEN WOMEN, and getting away with it. There's even mentions of (in a whisper) ho-mo-sex-u-als.

Who is this the story of? Is it the story of Rosaline, the young movie star? Of Dick, the socialite psychologist? Of Nicole, who seems well but really isn't? Of all three at the same time? I get the feeling that the novel was supposed to be about Rosaline, the young movie star, but as Fitzgerald's life wandered, so did this book. About a quarter of the way in, focus changed to Dick and Nicole and their challenged marriage. Although Rosaline shows up later, she's never the same presence is the book as she is in the beginning, making her place rather confusing.

Fitzgerald often has a simple overall idea behind his books, a game that he plays with structure or tone. He may have begun with an idea, but it's clear that his initial ideas were abandoned as he grew more interested in Dick and Nicole's story, which takes us through the remainder of the novel. Unfortunately, because we met so many characters through the eyes of Rosaline, when we get to the same characters later on, through the eyes of Dick or Nicole, we don't feel the same about them or their fates. I think that we could have followed all three characters, but the novel would have worked better if we had only switched between Dick and Nicole, following their scissoring paths.

That scissoring path is my best idea for a theme in this book. Dick is the well adjusted and healthy psychologist while Nicole is an unstable mental patient. By the end, Nicole has come into herself, fully realized herself as a person, while Dick has deteriorated into a weakened alcoholic. His moral weakness and his physical weakening go together. Yet, even that overall theme and trajectory doesn't quite fit, doesn't quite work.

This would be a terrific novel is Fitzgerald went back and rewrote the whole thing as a united piece rather than piecemeal. As it stands, I find it only a passable novel, where my own investment in the characters deteriorates as the novel progresses. By the end, I care for no one, find no joy in their character growths, and walk away without a fight, just like Dick.