Friday, August 22, 2014

D&D 5th Edition


I never played the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but I've heard quite a few stories and flipped through some of the rules. It was released in the late 70's, just a few years after the original D&D box set, and - as far as I can tell - it was a bizarre mishmash of ideas and directions. The infamous "random harlot table" was from this edition (in their defense, its inclusion was clearly intended as a joke), and this was the era when a book had to be reprinted because they'd included Lovecraft's pantheon prior to it actually reaching the public domain. There were utterly baffling rules, particularly around dual-classing, that defied explanation or narrative sense. But there was clearly also a desire to push into more complex territory, and to this day its fans reminisce about the tone and feel of the game in that era.

The 2nd Edition was the first I ever played, not counting a session or two with one of the 90's versions of basic D&D. Opinions about the 2nd Edition are mixed, with me liking it and every other gamer alive considering it abysmal. To their credit, the rules as written are unplayable. But that's not what AD&D 2nd was about. The rules were (at least somewhat) intentionally contradictory. It wasn't a system of rules, but a system for building rules. It was an overdue acknowledgement that "house rules" weren't exceptions to playing D&D, but rather a defining aspect of the game, at least at that time. 2nd Edition was a series of recommendations, suggestions, and options for ways those house rules could be compiled and customized. The downside was that a lot of those recommendations were messy. DM's had to monitor new kits (sort of sub-classes) carefully or risk watching players exploit poorly written manuals and become extremely powerful.

The 3rd Edition attempted to correct this by coalescing the many rules into one set that could actually be played. Essentially, they wanted to distill the essence of the game down to something that worked, was fun, and captured the feel of the game. It was a good direction; too bad they failed miserably. The rules were usable, but too many issues from prior editions remained. In addition, the "essentials" they boiled the game down to were narrowly selected. In the tug-of-war between a system used for narrative story-building and a dice-driven war-game, 3rd Edition took a major step towards the latter. I've never disputed that D&D should work as tactical rules if desired, but I believe strongly that any D&D edition that can't also support a narrative story-building fantasy game is a failure.

Of course, this was only a harbinger of what was to come. I don't know if its fair to call the 4th Edition the worst, but it's definitely the least D&D Edition to bear the name. To the designers' credit, it was also the most ambitious. They threw out an unprecedented number of rules and rebuilt from the ground up. For the first time ever, the game was somewhat balanced. It was also extremely dull. The class abilities boiled down to different combat tactics. Characters were less fictional people with desires, goals, and skills than a collection of combat powers. And those combat powers were all astonishingly repetitious. Regardless of your class, every round you selected a power, made an attack roll, dealt damage, and had some other simple effect that could always be defined in terms of movement, position, or status. Fantasy elements like enchantment and illusion were absent or reduced to these same principles. There was nothing in the core rules that couldn't be programmed into a spreadsheet. That's fine for a war game, but like I said before, Dungeons & Dragons needs to be able to support more than that.

So. Let's talk about the 5th Edition.

A few disclaimers first: I just got a copy of the new Player's Handbook a few days ago. I've gone over all the basic rules, more or less. I haven't read through the spells yet, and I skimmed over or skipped a lot of the flavor text and descriptions. Also, I haven't actually played the game, so this is all theory, not practice.

All that being said, I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be the definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a system capable of running games heavy on narrative, focused on combat, or both. It contains a sense of freedom for DM's looking to modify the system, while simultaneously providing a set of rules that work out-of-the-box. In short, this is damn near everything I'd hoped for and maybe a little bit more.

The Player's Handbook has 4 core races (eight counting variations, like mountain dwarf and drow), and five optional races (plus a variant on the gnome). The four main races are elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. All of these contain significant features and abilities, as do the subdivisions. The other races include gnomes, dragonborn, half-orcs, half-elves, and tieflings. The variations are significant, including additional bonuses (and occasionally penalties). None of the races feel under-powered, including humans (does +1 to every ability score sound interesting?). The optional races include a disclaimer that they're not all in every campaign world, in case you want to disallow dragonborn without an argument.

Oh, and speaking of campaign worlds... the PHB talks about Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, Krynn, Greyhawk, and Sigil, so fans of those settings probably have a lot to look forward to. Here's hoping they include an updated Spelljammer down the road.

For those keeping track, you've got fourteen races, counting variations. The class rules leave that number in the dust. There are twelve classes, each of which includes specializations you pick up around 3rd level. I count 40 in all, though a large number are Wizard schools and Cleric Domains. But even these are extremely versatile and include specialized abilities and traits. Hell, Diviners are awesome in this edition.

Structurally, these variations are similar to a blend of prestige classes and 2nd Ed kits. There are optional rules for multi-classing, too, but I can't imagine wanting to use them: the sub-divisions of classes provide an extensive range of character types. And I do mean extensive. Every class has an option to branch off and learn some kind of magical ability. You want to build an armored knight who casts fireballs? Easy. How about a thief who masters illusions and charms and can literally steal spells as they're being cast? It's in there.

The Monk class, which I've never had much interest in, has some particularly interesting builds. I can think of no better summation of this game's versatility than to point out you could create a small group entirely consisting of 7th level Monks, and have each feel more distinct than any two characters you could create in 4th Edition. You want an unarmed fighter who's studying to learn the touch of death? There's a path for that. You want to make a ninja? It's in there. How about any of the main characters from Avatar: the Last Airbender. Doable.

The magic-users are even better. Mages have been divided into three separate classes: wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. Miraculously, this doesn't feel redundant. There's enough variation in how they cast magic and where their power comes from to justify the split. In particular, I love this version of the Warlock, magic-users who receive their power from demons, fey, or elder forgotten gods (in case there's any doubt, Cthulhu is mentioned by name). Someone really needs to tell Jack Chick.

Wizards, while remaining extremely close to their original concept, have been substantially improved. They've got a few more hit points, and damage-dealing cantrips have been added (meaning wizards will never run out of combat spells). In addition, the spell memorization system has been tweaked to retain some of the feel while correcting decades-old issues with utility and narrative flow. Oh - there's also a "rituals" system, allowing you to cast unprepared spells slowly outside of combat. This a good way to access Comprehend Languages that one time it comes up. Lastly, they've finally consolidated the extraneous "Advanced" versions of spells by allowing you to cast the original spells as if it were at a higher level. It's a small improvement, but one that's been a long time coming.

Not every class fits in as well as it should. Clerics remain tonally out-of-place, in my opinion, but I've always hated that class. Druids are now essentially shape-shifters, which feels a little odd (then again, it does differentiate them from Rangers). Meanwhile, the Bard class feels redundant, since there are numerous way to create a similar effect using other builds (historically, the class has always been more a fighter/mage hybrid than a distinct entity). But these are minor quibbles. The classes, at a glance, look much more appealing here than in any previous edition of the game.

The combat system is mostly just a modified version of the old D20 system from 3rd Edition, though I feel like there's more room for narrative-heavy campaigns to work. It's built around 5' x 5' squares to accommodate miniatures if desired, but it doesn't feel like they're required.

On the technical side, there's a new Advantage/Disadvantage system that provides characters and monsters an opportunity to heavily adjust the odds. Rather than just adding another modifier, having Advantage means you roll two dice and use the higher roll (with Disadvantage, you use the lower). It sounds like an interesting dynamic, and it seems to be well integrated into class abilities and spells.

On the role-playing side of things, 5th Edition includes some good guidelines for building up rounded characters. There's a lot of work on backgrounds and personality in the rules. While those of us with some experience with RPG's can safely ignore this stuff, it should do a good job giving new players a lesson in building a character who's more than a collection of their combat potential. I especially like the "bonds" concept, which encourages players to build characters embedded in the world.

The alignment system is still around and has reverted to the old 9x9 grid. They've cleaned up the definitions to make the alignments less constrictive, and they've also removed restrictions from the various classes. Even the Paladin description refrains from setting any hard rules, instead saying it's rare for a Paladin to be evil. Alignment is a controversial legacy element, one I'm usually eager to drop. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have much game impact anymore.

The art is also the best I've seen in D&D at least since 2nd Edition. In several way, it's far superior from even that: the female characters aren't sexualized, and the characters are far more racially diverse than I ever remember seeing. A lot of attention has been paid to the new Edition's liberal approach to gender and sexual orientation - it's pretty clear they're betting an inclusive system will pay off for them in the long run. I can think of a few comic book companies that could learn a lot from that approach.

I'm not sure I'd call D&D 5th perfect, but after the first read through, I'm far more excited about its potential than I ever was for 4th Edition. Dungeons & Dragons has always been the most iconic role playing game out there, but it's never really lived up to its potential. I realize this is far too early to make a determination, but based on what I just read, I think they finally might have gotten it right.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Movie Review: Dark Dungeons


What are the general guidelines for disclosure when you're about to review something you backed on Kickstarter? I doubt anyone really cares, but consider that information disclosed.

I suspect a lot of people at this blog are already familiar with Jack Chick's comic tract, Dark Dungeons. Like Reefer Madness, it's a cautionary work that gained cult status among the group it was created to oppose. Dark Dungeons warns readers against the Satanic, seductive lure of Dungeons & Dragons, urging its readers to call on Jesus for salvation. To say its portrait of the game and subculture are misleading is an understatement of Biblical proportions.

If you'd like more context, there's no better source than the short comic itself, which you can read here.

The comic is somewhat legendary in gaming circles, the source of numerous in-jokes and references. Back in college, I used to run a D&D tournament called Deathfest. One year, as characters died, I apologized to the players and handed them a copy of the tract. I think I've still got a bunch of extras around somewhere.

It's not at all surprising that someone had the idea of doing a live-action version. What is surprising is that he was able to receive permission from Chick to make it an official adaptation.

The movie's producer, writer, and promoter is JR Ralls, who has insisted all along that the movie is a serious adaptation, not a parody. I've had a great time reading some comment threads over the past few months from gaming enthusiasts who took that at face value without watching the original Kickstarter video. He made a similar pledge there, but between his tone and the readings of lines from the tract, it was pretty clear his appreciation of the tract was, at the absolute least, multifaceted.

I find it difficult to imagine anyone with a D&D background not appreciating the finished project. As promised, it's a faithful adaptation of Chick's work, albeit one with a bit more comedy than Jack might have wanted. The tone is certainly comedic, regardless what the producers claim. But make no mistake - it's a great comedy.

The actors, all of them fantastic, deliver the lines with a mixture of sincerity and camp. The characters are either astonishingly true to the original comic or re-imagined in ways that added layers of humor to the premise. Ms. Frost is particularly impressive: the comic's least grounded character is brought to life completely. The other two leads, Debbie and Marcie, were likewise fantastic. I also found Nitro, a new character, a lot of fun. I could easily keep going - the cast was universally great.

The quality of the movie was also impressive, particularly given the movie's budget. The effects were silly and clearly inexpensive, but - like most great low-budget productions - they managed to turn this from a weakness to a strength by utilizing them to their fullest.

I also want to mention the movie's brilliant closing song, performed by "Of the Book." I'd be shocked if it doesn't become a favorite of gamers along with the movie.

The movie is available as a digital download or on DVD here. It's pretty much guaranteed to become an RPG classic.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy


If Guardians of the Galaxy had been awful, it would still represent a staggering accomplishment. The mere fact that in 2014 - when every other film company has committed to gritty, realistic fare - Marvel is unveiling the scope of their galactic setting is astonishing. And they don't seem to be backing away from the fantastic elements: the terms "mad titan" and "celestial" were both used, and the cameo in the post-credits sequence... well... I've already said too much.

This demonstrates courage, vision, and a real faith in their Universe at a time Marvel's main competitor is timidly toning down one of their most iconic characters in order to make her more palatable to a mainstream audience. For that reason alone, even it if had been one of the worst movies of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy would be deserving of celebration.

It almost feels like an afterthought to point out that, at present, it's tied for my pick for the best movie of 2014 (I'll really need to see both this and Winter Soldier again to decide). But you already knew where this was going. 92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, critically acclaimed, great word of mouth.... I'm not exactly the first person saying it's awesome.

The movie delivers the kind of comedy adventure that's been more or less purged from the world, and it does so with style, love, and skill. As much Goonies as Star Wars, the movie delivers light suspense and hilarious one-liners.

Also, it's going to appeal to damn near everyone with a pulse. Kids are going to going to have the time of their lives with Rocket and Groot, teenagers are going to appreciate the dynamic of the circle of friends, and adults are going to appreciate the nostalgic look back at a bygone era in entertainment.

That's not to say it couldn't have better. I felt like Drax and Gamora didn't get featured in enough fight scenes, and the overall power level was lower than I'd have liked. But those are pretty minor complaints in the scope of things. This is the easily the most fun I've had in a theater since seeing the Avengers. I definitely recommend checking it out on the big screen at least once.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


If I were to make a list of everything that the two new Apes movies did right, it would be a very, very long list, and the number one spot would be reserved for realizing that the interesting aspect of this franchise isn't the humans. It's notable that the apes from Rise are back, while all the humans we met mostly likely died from disease and war. If the same strategy is employed for the third movie in this series, I doubt there'll be many complaints. The human characters were clearly the weak link in this movie, which is less a shame than an observation no one should really care about.

Okay, so better realized human characters would have made watching this an even better theatrical experience. But - again - this is a minor detail; a trivial oversight. Because this was already a fantastic movie, a story of a burgeoning civilization coming into contact with the remnants of one in decline.

The apes were amazing. I don't just mean the effects work, though that was nothing short of incredible. The motion-capture acting was stunningly complex, and the writing (at least as it pertained to non-humans) was nuanced and subtle.

This isn't the first movie this summer where I've applauded digital creations while complaining about the human characters, but this has a few points over Godzilla. First of all, the humans here felt a little flat; they weren't annoyingly idiotic. Secondly, they were the movie's B-plot: this, like Rise before it, was Caesar's movie. I didn't clock time on-screen, but he was far more central to the plot than the well-meaning homo sapiens protagonist.

All in all, this was a great science fiction movie. It fit in nicely with the larger franchise, while still managing to deliver a satisfying story of its own. Definitely one of this year's better genre movies.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow


So there is no confusion, this is not a review: it is a postmortem.

It's not uncommon for a movie to falter at the domestic box office. What makes Edge of Tomorrow notable is that it was a great movie. But it was a great movie passed its time; a film released too late. It offers a product that no longer interests the American public, and the results were quite brutal.

Thanks to the film's time-loop gimmick, Tom Cruise was able to die dozens of times in Edge of Tomorrow. But that's make-believe: in reality, summer movies are only given a single life. And Edge of Tomorrow died at the box office in less than three days.

Having seen the movie, it's not difficult to understand why. Edge of Tomorrow was very good, but it wasn't summer blockbuster material. The movie was exciting, funny, clever, and entertaining. It was, in fact, more exciting, funnier, more clever, and more entertaining than anything I've seen since Winter Soldier. But it wasn't really anything new, nor was it particularly big. I'm using "big" in its most literal sense, by the way - the aliens were physically small compared to the monstrous creatures we're used to. If these distinctions seem superficial, it is only because you're paying attention. There's nothing this movie lacks that successful summer movies have that isn't superficial in nature.

Compare Edge of Tomorrow with Godzilla. Edge of Tomorrow was a better movie in almost every respect. It was better written, more suspenseful, and far funnier. As an action movie - ignoring everything else - the prize still goes to Edge of Tomorrow.

And yet, if you were come to me and tell me you were going to see one of these movies in the theater and one on DVD, I'd tell you to go watch Godzilla. While Edge of Tomorrow was a far better movie, it's less relevant. Godzilla offers some novel effects and design work. The aliens in Edge of Tomorrow were extremely cool, but we've seen things like them dozens of times.

That doesn't mean Edge of Tomorrow isn't worth seeing in the theaters. The action was great, and only some of that will translate to the small screen. If you have the opportunity to see this before it leaves the theaters, you should do so. But it's certainly not mandatory.

Also, you'll want to go soon.

For better or worse, this wasn't a summer movie. Which begs the question, why release it in June? This would have made a lot more money in spring or fall. The simple fact is Tom Cruise can't compete with giant monsters, superheroes, or dark fairies. This time of the year, audience expectations are dictated by spectacle, not strong structures and witty dialogue.

This was a great science fiction action/comedy. It's a lot of fun and is absolutely worth seeing. But if anyone at Warner Bros. still thought Cruise's name was sufficient to sell tickets in June, they just got a much-needed reality check. This isn't 1996, and this kind of film - no matter how good - can't compete in the summer.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent


Step 1: If you have any expectations for this movie - any at all - you should lower them. The movie makes baffling decisions with its source material, has major tonal issues, and contains one of the most intrusive, unnecessary, and annoying voice-overs I've ever heard.

And yet. I still kind of enjoyed it.

For all this movie does wrong, it actually does a few things well. That's why I'm saying you should lower your expectations: because if you do, you might be able to enjoy this for what it is, instead of hating it for failing to be what it should have been.

Actually, let's start there. This movie clearly should have been an R-rated dark fantasy-bordering-on-horror; a nightmarish examination of madness and rage from the point of view of a character consumed by those emotions.

I think the filmmakers knew that's what they should have made. But they also knew they were making this for Disney, who might be more interested in selling Maleficent dolls to six-year-old girls than in traumatizing them for life.

Pity - this generation needs a Secret of NIMH. Well, besides Coraline, ParaNorman, Where the Wild Things Are, and.... okay, okay. This generation already has a bunch of Secret of NIMH's. But you can never have enough.

Where was I? Oh yeah. The movie wanted to be dark but was penned in by a PG rating. Jesus - even most animated movies pull a PG-13 these days.

The upshot of all this is that instead of a dark fairy tale, we got a comedy/fantasy adventure. In addition, the movie seemed to be of two minds regarding its relationship to the Disney classic. The celebration of Aurora's birth almost feels like a shot-for-shot recreation, which becomes problematic when they deviate from the script (stupidly, I'd add - the story and scene would have been better if they'd stuck with the original there). On the other end of the spectrum, the entire last act is rewritten to provide an ending happier for the film's protagonists. In the middle, characters are re-purposed in radically different ways (fans of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather will likely be particularly angered by the fairies' portrayal).

Assuming you can accept all this - and for fans of the original, that's a big assumption - this movie delivers a surprisingly solid product. The comedy isn't brilliant, but it is legitimately funny. And while the character at the center of this story only feels like Maleficent for a few scenes, she's still interesting. More importantly, they sell the character's arc well. We see her evolution into and (unfortunately) out of the Maleficent who curses Aurora, and it's a decent story.

The movie's licence with King Stefan was even more clever. They went in some wildly different directions with his character, but the seeds for these changes are in the classic movie and the source material.

I'm really only scratching the surface of what's right and wrong with this movie. There's some gorgeous imagery... and some idiotic design. The movie delivers several key scenes... then resolves with an ending so sappy you cringe in pain. And, while I'm complaining, if you're doing a version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, you should damn well use Tchaikovsky's score. That's just common sense.

I've seen quite a few live-action reinterpretations of classic fairy tales, and as a rule none have been great. This is certainly better than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland or either of the Snow White movies we got a few years ago. I'm not sure I'd call it a good movie, but once I accepted what it was, I found it genuinely enjoyable. If you can't do that, well... I don't blame you in the least. They tore down just about everything that made Sleeping Beauty into the masterpiece it is. But the fact they managed to patch together something decent out of the pieces deserves some recognition.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Give Us Your Worst, Part 25: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


The first Ghost Rider movie reduced the character to a joke, an approach I was perfectly okay with. You won't find many people in this world who will defend part one, but I had a lot of fun watching it, flaws and all. Most comic fans agreed with the critics, however, and a sequel seemed unlikely.

But while very few people believed in him, Nicholas Cage wanted to demonstrate that he did understand the dark, tormented character and that he could bring that version to the screen. I'll let you judge the results:


Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is an odd movie, to say the least. It's difficult to imagine there was any point during production when the directors weren't high on something.

The movie oscillates wildly between intense moments of unintentional humor and bland stretches that threaten to put you to sleep. The action sequences are extraordinarily bizarre: they were clearly aiming for surrealism, but the results feel more like a music video than a dream. In addition, the power levels are ridiculously uneven, even more so than in the first movie. There's really only one super-powered villain, unless you count the devil (you shouldn't count the devil, by the way: Ghost Rider kicks his ass without effort). The less said about this movie's take on the other villain, Blackout, the better.

There are some entertaining moments, largely thanks to Idris Elba, who plays by far the most interesting character in the film. Also, the parts that aren't painfully boring are entertaining. Not necessarily for the reasons the filmmakers intended, but that's a trivial detail. The movie includes a sequence where Ghost Rider's powers transform a gigantic crane into some sort of hell-contraption. There's a scene where a kid vomits lava onto Nicolas Cage's face. And, yes, he pees fire (it's just imaginary, but it's still in the movie).

I'll remind you once more: this was supposed to be the SERIOUS Ghost Rider movie.

Like it or hate it, the first one at least achieved the tone it set out to create. This is just... weird. Cage's unrestrained take on being possessed by a demonic entity was clearly meant to be disturbing and dark, but it winds up feeling like an old Looney Tunes short. Only, you know, not artistic or nuanced.

I've seen worse, but I don't recommend anyone track this down, though it's almost worth a trip to YouTube to see some more of Cage's overacting. There are some hilarious sequences in this movie.