Monday, November 28, 2011

Song of the week

I hope everyone who celebrates it had a nice Thanksgiving.  On the way home from dinner my brothers Bob and Donald were discussing with me random stuff, and the conversation came to Mtv.  And the conversation turned to what our first music video was.  I honestly can't recall the first music video I saw on Mtv (although statistically it was a Rod Stewart video; the first couple years Rod Stewart got ridiculously high airplay because he made a ton of music videos.  A man truly ahead of his time).  For me my first video was not seen on Mtv but on a horrible variety show called Pink Lady and Jeff.  It was Cheap Trick, The Dream Police:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Study in Evil, part one

In a majority of campaigns the driving force is The Bad Guy.  The Bad Guy is the dude who killed the hero's parents, or is ruling the kingdom with an iron fist, or has some other nefarious plot the heroes must thwart.  The Bad Guy is often the lynchpin your campaign relies upon.  He could be a faceless force like Sauron, acting through intermediaries, or he is up close and personal like Darth Vader.  So what makes a good stupendous Bad Guy?  To answer this question I thought I would take a look at a series of fictional villains and analyzed them, see where writers got it right and where they got it wrong.  And I wanted to start off with one of my favorite Bad Guys of all time.


Who?  You might ask.  T'Pring appeared in the Original Star Trek series episode Amok Time, one of my two favorite Star Trek episodes.  If you have not seen it, here it is in four parts.  Watch it.  Watch it now.

I could write an entire article about how utterly awesome this episode is (among the high points: Kirk makes a rare but huge blunder, McCoy is written as awesomely clever, and T'Pau might be one of the greatest 'Trek guest stars of all time.  I love how she just knows what McCoy is doing but lets him do it anyway because she gets what is going on and can't stop it, but at the same time isn't going to get in the way of someone else trying to stop it.  In fact, she becomes McCoy's willing accomplice!), but I will focus on one part: The Bad Guy, T'Pring, one of the most awesome Star Trek villains of all time.  Yes, I easily stack her up against Khan any day and here are the reasons why:

She only appears once.  Wait!  You may say.  If she is so awesome shouldn't we get more T'Pring?  Nope.  Part of what makes T'Pring so amazing is her one and only appearance (I am not counting her appearance in Diane Duane's book Spock's World, which while it was a good read I feel it did not do T'Pring justice.  Really it just felt like Duane needed a Vulcan bad guy and used T'Pring because there were no others available.) because there is no opportunity to screw her up.  She shows up, kicks ass all over the place, then rides off into the sunset, leaving devastation in her wake.  Look at characters like Marvel's Doctor Doom-

Your repeated use of Doom grows wearisome, fool!
or Deep Space Nine's Gul Dukat.  Repeatedly using these characters means writers run the risk of diluting their potential awesomeness.  Worse, it provides more and more opportunities to get the characters wrong.  Even worse than that, characters like Doctor Doom have to fail; if he won Reed Richards would be dead and he would rule the Earth (although there was a neat graphic novel where Doom did in fact conquer the Earth and discovered becoming the world's biggest bureaucrat kinda sucked, so he let the Avengers defeat him.).  So Doom has to lose.  Repeatedly.  He spends months coming up with an awesome plot to defeat Reed Richards and Mister Fantastic makes him look like a chump in ten minutes.  Just once I would love to see a comic book character confront Doom on his win/loss record and point out for such a smart guy he sure am dumb.

Look at another awesome Star Trek villain: Khan Noonian Singh.  He only appeared twice and both times were terrific.  Had he appeared a third time I am certain someone would have botched it.  It was  rare instance where lightning struck twice, and that is due in large part to the fact that Khan really in many ways is two different characters (I will touch on the awesomeness that is Khan next time) in his two different appearances.  So yeah, while recurring villains sound great, the one shot bad guy, especially one who wins, can be very refreshing.

She is highly intelligent.  We all know Vulcans are supposed to be smart, right?  Look at Spock; he is the smartest guy in the room regardless of whatever room he is in.  Yet that fact does not strike home until Amok Time and you meet other Vulcans and you realize that Jesus Christ, if Vulcans decided to go to war against the Federation, the Federation would be doomed.  Because T'Pring is a helluva amateur strategist.  Consider:

Spock is suffering from Pon Farr, the Vulcan biological urge to mate which hits every seven years.  If he and T'Pring do not have sex, Spock will die.  T'Pring wants this arranged marriage to be over so she brings her lover(!) to the ceremony, intent on challenging the marriage, having her lover kill Spock in the duel and to living logically ever after with her man.  (Now you may ask, if she wants out of the marriage couldn't she just not have sex with Spock and let him die?  Then she would be guilty of murder.  It is important to consider she must work within the boundaries of the law because she wishes to still live in Vulcan society.)

Only what happens?  Spock brings Kirk and McCoy along, and T'Pring can tell right away that these two human "outworlders" mean a lot to him.  Ah ha!  T'Pring challenges the validity of the marriage via kali-fi and instead of picking Ston, she chooses Kirk as her champion .  Remember she has no idea Spock is bringing Kirk and McCoy to the ritual, she comes up with this change of plans right then and there.  And it works perfectly in her favor.  Because as she explains it:

1) If Kirk won he would not want T'Pring because he killed Spock (Yes, go ahead, insert Kirk space booty call joke here), so she gets Ston, her man, all legal and proper.

2) If Spock won then he would not want her because he killed Kirk, and she still gets Ston.

3) If Spock won and he did not release her from the marriage she still gets what she wants because Spock would be elsewhere, either with his career or in prison, and she still gets Ston in some way.  The status quo is maintained, she risks nothing.

T'Pring cannot lose!  How utterly awesome is that?  Whereas before there was a risk of her losing her man in the challenge, she sees her chance to completely change the game in her favor and she wins.  Even Spock compliments her on her flawless logic.  You want the model of an evil super genius?  You look at T'Pring.  And speaking of which...

T'Pring does not look like your normal villain.  T'Pring is lovely, but we have seen lovely bad guys before.  The X-Men's White Queen, for example, was a classic case of an ultra-sexy villainess.

And speaking of characters ruined by too many appearances...
But more often than not villains look villainous.  Like The Wicked Witch, for example...
I have flying monkeys!  Monkeys, that fly!
...who through repeated appearances goes from Bad Guy to being just misunderstood hero of the downtrodden.  And hot:
Snide comment aside, I do dig the music to Wicked and would love to see the musical, but it can get annoying when bad guys are sometimes turned into anti heroes (I'm looking at you, Venom and Sabertooth!).

Back to T'Pring.  T'Pring does not look evil or vamped up.  She looks very attractive but she is almost demure in those Vulcan slippers, being overshadowed by all those big, strong men.  No way she is the puppet master, manipulating everyone around her.  No sir...

T'Pring does not look evil.  She looks sober and cold, but evil?  Like a woman willing to force men to kill one another to get what she wants?  She doesn't look that way to me.  And finally...

T'Pring's motivation is wonderfully understandable.  Forget world conquest, or the promotion of some alien ideology, or enslaving the human race, or even a hunt for treasure.  T'Pring is sick of being married to Spock and wants out.  She wants to be with her man Ston, free and legal.  It is motivation based on passion and she uses logic to achieve her aims.  This is in so many ways a wonderful interpretation of Vulcans, as alien in thought processes, yes, but still very relatable (interesting how there is a dictionary entry for that word, and yet my spell checker denies it) in some fundamental ways.  Viewers can understand what motivates T'Pring, especially men and women trapped in loveless marriages, who may feel powerless, their options limited.  In some small way T'Pring may even be a sympathetic character...if you ignore the whole manipulating men into killing one another thing.  But even that is excusable to a degree.  T'Pring is bound by strict laws and to get what she wants she must work within the confines of those laws.  She did not write the part where death matches are a perfectly acceptable means of conflict resolution.  If she had a choice I am certain she would hire a good divorce attorney and hash it out in court.

So there you have it, one of the best villains I have ever had the pleasure to watch.  Intelligent, does not look like a traditional bad guy, possessing understandable motivations that might even in some small way make her a sympathetic character, and above all else, used very, very sparingly.  Theodore Sturgeon wrote the screen play for Amok Time and judging from this and his other Trek contribution Shore Leave, I find it a real pity that he did not have more of an impact on Star Trek as a whole because I think his two efforts are among Trek's best.

Next time I will look at Khan and what makes him work as a villain.  Both of him...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Song of the week

Batman and Robin is an abomination, a horrible film that was the creation of Joel Schumacher's "creative genius" and Warner Brothers merchandising greed (And while I have often complained about Joel's hatchet job on the film he cannot take all the blame.  Directors are employees of both producers and the studio system, so anything Joel did the studio either approved of or made him do.).  Despite Chris Sims' impassioned and amusing review nothing can convince me this movie is anything but an utter waste of two hours of my time.  True story: I saw this movie at the dollar theater at my brother Jon's insistence (and I paid him back by making him see Battlefield Earth with me. Vengeance is mine!) and we went with a bunch of our friends.  When the film let out Herb Harris had this expression on his face I can imagine survivors of the bombing of Dresden must have shared. He turned to us and said, "I feel so...used."

So the film is as bad as modern film making can be with a terrible script, bad acting, and horrific direction.   All that being said, it has an awesome Smashing Pumpkins song on the soundtrack.  And now some super genius has married this song with scenes from Nolan's two Batman films:


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Creative Short Cuts

There is a comic book called Knights of The Dinner Table, it is about five friends who play a Dungeons & Dragons type game called Hackmaster (a game that was later actually created, partly based on the original D&D engine).  I used to buy it but I 1) was running out of room to store comics and 2) I could not justify the price because once the Hackmaster game was created KOTDT became a Hackmaster supplement magazine and the price went up.  So I could not see why I should be a magazine where half the material was stuff I was not interested in.

Anyway, in one issue one of the players, Dave, decides to take a  crack  behind the GM screen and the results are...less than stellar.  The dungeon, you see, was just the layout of his house.  Because Dave was a first time GM and had difficulty coming up with something he fell back on something he knew.

As silly as the plot was, as funny as the strip struck me, the principle used is not.

First time, or even veteran GMs may be hard pressed to come up with original material and can find running a game to be very intimidating.  In an earlier post I referenced online sources for pre-generated adventures and this is one avenue.  But what if you want to run a longer lasting campaign and are having difficulty creating supporting characters, kingdoms, plots and these online sources are not helping?  The fact is there is plenty of material to pick and choose from, be it old television programs, motion pictures, books, history, etc.

I am not talking about ripping off a plot whole, but there is nothing wrong with being inspired.  For example, Star Trek's Balance of Terror is obviously inspired by The Enemy Below, but it is still very much a Star Trek story.  And sticking with Star Trek, the writers and producers were obviously influenced by modern events at the time, with the Klingons and Romulans playing the part of the Soviets and Communist China.  There were episodes where the Klingons and Federation were indirectly involved in conflicts much like the Soviet Union and United States were during the Cold War.  Looking at other fictional worlds, even a legendary writer like Robert E. Howard has gone this route; he used ancient Egypt as the blueprint for the Hyborian kingdom of Stygia.  Hell, Harry Turtledove does not even hide the fact that he has used the American Civil War and World War II as the basis of two fantasy series.

EDIT: I completely forgot about George Lucas, who has admitted that two of his inspirations for Star Wars were Flash Gordon (he actually wanted to do a Flash Gordon movie but was unable to because someone else had the rights) and The Hidden Fortress.

What do you know about the region where you live?  Here in Michigan there are two interesting stories that could make for good one-short adventures or long or short campaigns.  During the height of the logging industry there were guys who would steal logs as they floated down the river: log rustlers.  It might sound silly but at a time when wood was the number one construction material in places without quarries logs were a very valuable commodity.  Perhaps your adventurers have stumbled into a situation where loggers, frustrated with the loss of revenue, have hired the wandering adventurers to put an end to the rustlers?  It is a change of pace from the standard dungeon crawl and PCs might have to deal with unusual environments to fight in (imagine a pitched battle on logs snarled in a river.  The wet, uncertain footing, the possibility that the wrong move could shift the entire pile and send people falling into the water, PCs crushed between logs or trapped beneath the pile, drowning!).  Another incident is the "Toledo War" where a conflict erupted between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan over the city of Toledo.  In the late eighteenth through early nineteenth century Toledo was a thriving and important town due to it's geographical location on Lake Erie and the creation of the Erie canal (before railroads the canal systems played a major role in the movement of goods, with mule-pulled barges floating up and down them).  Imagine two kingdoms warring over a small town due to it's economically important location.  The town is split into factions, factions eager to hire adventurers to protect their goods as they ply the river.  Perhaps the PCs must come up with some way to find a resolution to this conflict?  What if the loggers from the earlier idea run their logs down to this town?  So just by using two pieces of Michigan history I have come up with a possible long term campaign.  Sure, it might not be to everyone's taste but not every adventure should revolve around abandoned dungeons and bags of gold and jewels that are just laying around.  Too much of that sort of thing and players run the risk of growing jaded.

With a little homework I could adapt Detroit politics into the political framework of a fantasy or sci-fi city.  Have you heard of Tammany Hall?  There is a fantastic blueprint to create a corrupt political machine.  Why knock yourself out trying to create all that material?  Unless you love it, of course.  If that is the case then knock yourself out.  I am just saying for those of you hard pressed to create this stuff, there are avenues to pursue, resources to exploit.

This principle does not necessarily have to apply only to an adventure or a setting.  Perhaps you are simply having trouble coming up with NPC names?  My friend Dave, for one of his campaigns, named the members of one mighty house after characters from an anime.  You could use famous people from a historically important event like the battle of Thermopylae, perhaps modify their names a bit.  Leonidas becomes Leon, Demophilus becomes Demo, Themistocles is now Themi (the latter possibly even being a good female name).  Xerxes?  Zerk, maybe.  There, I just came up with the names for a cyberpunk biker gang, the Chrome Spartans.  Maybe use foreign boy and girl names for the names of regions and cities.  Aimery, Arbogastro, Zosime, Chace are all French boy names, ones likely not known to English speaking players, they would be ideal names for cities and countries. Italian girl names?  Ghita, Perlita, Zoila. Three of the members of the super villain group the Company of Wolves were named after my brothers, that was done more simplicity's sake because at the time their first names were not that important.

What about villains?  When I began my Vindicators campaign I created a lot of poorly defined background because I wanted to give the players the feeling that they were not the first heroes in this world, that paranormals had been making an impact on it for decades.  So I worked up a timeline and sprinkled numerous fictional events in it (I was very much inspired by the Watchmen comic, where Alan Moore succeeded in showing how the existence of super heroes would impact the real world).  With some I had some ideas that would be addressed in the game eventually, with others I just put them there for color.  One of them was a guy named Lord Dread.  I had never intended Dread to be anything more than a Doctor Doom knockoff and I had never intended to use him.

Not without giving Doom royalties!
But then I came across an image online and I thought they were so cool that I simply had to expand on Lord Dread, only what could I do to make him unique from Doom?  Two things sprang to mind.  The first was Dread's numerous defeats have worn him down over the years.  When you look at Doctor Doom the guy loses.  A lot.  Seriously, has any of his successes had any lasting impact on his enemies or the world at large?  Not really.  You would think a guy who has lost so many times would just give up, right?  And that is what Lord Dread did.  He gave up.  Beaten once too often, he has ceased in his attempts to conquer the world and as a result he has become forgotten, a punch line.

And then...he got old.  And now he is dying.  And now he has decided to go out with one last gasp.

So while I was inspired by Doom-hi tech villain who wears armor and has his own country-I have taken it someplace else.  I added my own twists.  And yeah, maybe some comic book writer has done the same thing, but if they have I have not read it.  Believe it or not, but it is very difficult to come up with something new.  I thought my friend Joe had invented the idea of the super hero reality show when he ran his Avant Guard PBeM, then I discovered DC had done it during the nineties with some of their New Blood characters.

Chances are you are surrounded by inspiration: historical texts, paperbacks, comic books, DVDs, the internet. You have at your fingertips entire worlds to adapt to your campaign.  The hard part is to give it enough of a spin that makes it yours, make it fun for you and your players.  Just try to have more vision than to simply use your house layout for your dungeon, or your brothers as the bad guys. :)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Song of the week, Delays

Well, after that cathartic series of posts I had planned on jumping in with another...eventually.  But one of my players, Earl, and I spoke and it turns out I am running a second adventure in my Vindicators game (which really makes sense, as suddenly the game's number of players swelled due to past members returning and the thought of all those guys going on one adventure would be...messy).  And I am not complaining because I hope Maidenquest will be as fun a ride as Dylanquest should be.  So those two combined with the Behind The Veil game has got me a little busy.

And yeah, City of Heroes.  It's the cowled monkey on my back.

So I have a couple ideas for some posts that I will try and get to this weekend. In the mean time your song of the week comes from A Perfect Circle, the song is Counting Bodies Like Sheep To The Rhythm of War Drums.


I heard the song when I saw a commercial for the video game Rage and it stuck with me.  What I find funny is when you look at some of the comments on the YouTube page how some Perfect Circle fans are upset that people were drawn to the song due to it's commercial use.  Me, I would love it if a video game (a good one, of course) used a Kate Bush song in it's commercial.  I guess maybe some Perfect Circle fans were upset because the band "sold out" or something.