Category Archives: Moving Pictures

Aquaman 2018

Here are some disorganized thoughts about the new Aquaman movie. There will be some light spoilers, but who are you kidding? Nobody goes to this movie for the plot. More below the big image of Atlantis, in case you want to bail.

Atlantis (Image source)

There is a copy of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror on the coffee table that that camera ostentatiously caresses during the prologue sequence. You know that you will be getting a Hollywood take on deep ones or something along those lines. And you do. Deep ones and scary friendly Cthulhu beast.

There is a scene quote of a Tie Fighter dogfight pursuit, underwater, with Ocean Master standing in as Vader.

Ocean Master (Image source)

Speaking of Ocean Master, the actors are, how do I put this, visually enhanced using digital means. It was well done generally, and presented no distraction for me during the movie, but afterwards I went to see who played Ocean Master, and (no shade) but Patrick Wilson is not the blond I was expecting.

Cool helmet (Image source)

The plot is in structure highly similar to that of the recent Black Panther movie, but with Atlanteans rather than Africans, and an error of commission rather than an error of omission on the part of the wicked king. There is a kingdom with magical technology hidden in the modern world, a ritual gladiator challenge of kings, and a big battle scene at the end that I swear Peter Jackson stealth-directed. (I found the battle scene in Aquaman more entertaining than the one at the end of Panther, though.) There are, among other things, crab mecha, giant incendiary catapults that are also seemingly crabs, fish people in power armor, and what look like an underwater crustacean take on space marines. Ocean Master jousts to battle on a colossal caparisoned barracuda rather than use his underwater spaceships with lasers.

Atlantis, with more spaceships (Image source)

Yes, the movie is probably too long, and the plot is 90% predictable, and sometimes you can see it in the actors’ eyes—Do I really have to say this line?—but there are a few sequences of close to cinematographic brilliance, such as the descent into the trench during the storm with the swarms of deep ones, revealed by the light of a red flare, or the chase/fight over the roofs of Sicily. The architectural spectacles of old and new Atlantis are stunning at times as well.

Aquaman (Image source)

The scary friendly Cthulhu-beast is 90% Smaug. Which is fun, I suppose.

This Aquaman clearly checks the box for the “rugged” Grindr Tribe. I get the angle, and Jason Momoa pulls it off. I could do with the stylist turning down the Rob Zombie dial slightly for the next movie though.

And finally, if you ever wanted more Joseph Campbell in your superhero movies, Aquaman has you covered.

More Atlantis (Image source)

Hack the meme: 20 movies

Far be it from me, that I should tell anyone else how to social media. But here is a mutagen that can transform diversions of self-disclosure into game fuel. The input: 20 films that had an impact on you, for the next 20 days. The catalyst: …related to how you game. The result: Show me 20 moving pictures that influenced how you play tabletop RPGs. Presto! There, much better. (No judgment regarding self-disclosure, but this is a game blog.)

  1. Die Hard and every other complexcrawl action movie. The Rock (Die Hard on Alcatraz) comes to mind, but I honestly can’t recall if it is any good. See also: Dredd.
  2. Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy. Honestly, I think I want this series to influence my games more than it actually has, which is why it is up here at number 19. I have come to appreciate the structure of Westerns for adventuring far more as an adult than previously. And, borderlands-style D&D is basically the wild west with swords and spells:
    “People want to play in a historical setting like the dark ages, but they don’t want serfs, they don’t want an all powerful Church dictating the rhythms of daily life, they don’t want any social constraints on free movement and agency. They want to play Vikings and still let that one guy in the group be a ninja. They want the wild west, with swords.”Beedo paraphrasing Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean involves more swashbuckling than tends to happen in my games, and I find pirate tropes somewhat tiresome, but Sparrow is a wonderfully Vancian character and there are skeletons. Maybe the best skeletons in any movie? I also have a weakness for Depp. (Only the first movie is really worth it though.)
  4. This is really a placeholder for some other post-apocalyptic movie, though I am going to go with Waterworld for now, because that is what comes to mind despite all its weaknesses. The original Mad Max is a greater cinematic classic, and Fury Road is the genre masterpiece, but neither have substantively influenced the way I game. That said, D&D is the apocalypse, and Waterworld would make a much better D&D campaign than it did a movie. Here is Wayne R. on the implied setting of 1974 OD&D:
    Cities in such a place are probably small affairs. This is not the world of grand cosmopolitan wonders; it’s downright post-apocalyptic and probably has a few thousand people per city. Trade is downright perilous, given that you’re likely to run into dragons, or giant crabs if you follow the river, or many other horrid things.
  5. Blame! is an anime technomegadungeon based on the aesthetic vision of Tsutomu Nihei.

    Image by Nihei (source)

    Do I need to say more?

  6. Season of the Witch owns exactly what it is without any ironic dodges, and is not badly made either. Inspirational for Lamentations of the Flame Princess style fantasy.
  7. Brotherhood of the Wolf is also Lamentations relevant, as pseudo-historical dark fantasy, and is medieval European wuxia (“action horror” according to Wikipedia, for whatever that is worth). Monica Bellucci plays a significant role, and the biggest badass is Mani, an Iroquois martial artist brave. Obviously an adventuring party.

    Mani (from somewhere on the Internet)

  8. Trigun. The emo vibe is somewhat adolescent, but the setting would be pure gold for adventuring. It is an archaeofuture wild west of mostly isolated settlements on a desert world where energy and water are scarce but bullets are plentiful. Trigun would probably rank higher if the tone was less goofy, though I do appreciate the cleverer touches of absurdity: the reward for Vash’s capture is sixty-billion double-dollars $$, the supporting protagonists pursuing Vash are insurance company functionaries whose company is sick of paying out for Vash’s disasters, Wolfwood’s cross bazooka, and so forth.
  9. Star Wars: A New Hope. Rebellion against an oppressive empire remains one of the better starting scenarios and is a welcome alternative to buccaneers meeting in a bar to plan dungeon heists (though I do love dungeon heists). See also: Final Fantasy VI for a similar setup in another medium.
  10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the paradigmatic dungeon heist, with traps and everything. I would still like to find a way to turn it belongs in a museum into an XP incentive mechanism.
  11. Masters of the Universe (cartoons). Some brief, disorganized observations. Summon He-Man is a spell, cast by the power sword, that binds an extradimensional entity into your body, transforming it in the process (credit to Roger B. for that particular recent insight). Hordak is a cosmic space cyborg vampire dictator. By my preferences, the best Carcosa so far is through the lens of Eternia. See the gallery of Earl Norem Masters of the Universe art at Monster Brains for associated inspiration.

    Art by Earl Norem

  12. Vampire Hunter D. Monster hunting in a cyborg gothic future. Quoting Wikipedia: western, science fiction, horror, high fantasy, H. P. Lovecraftian mythos, folklore and occult science. The visuals were also inspired by Yoshitaka Amano’s art. Cousins with Castlevania and Bloodborne.
  13. Stargate blended genres into a sci-fi action movie which could serve as a workable adventure sandbox or collection of adventure sites. It avoids submitting totally to the tyranny of Chekhov’s Gun logic, where the only point of anything is narrative development, which I find unsatisfying. I may have had a fantasy campaign with esoteric stealth bombers shortly after seeing this the first time.

    Jaye Davidson as ancient astronaut demon Ra

  14. Lost is a low level adventure party shipwrecked and building a stronghold to survive while confronted with mysterious supernatural challenges. Good settlement development systems remain an open challenge for OSR designers. I would stop at the first season now.
  15. Jurassic Park is still one of the better dungeon crawls committed to film.
  16. Alien & Aliens. See everything I need to know about GMing I learned from Aliens. The fireteam in Aliens maps slightly better to a D&D adventuring party, but to me Alien is a tighter construction overall. John Carpenter’s The Thing is another relevant survival horror monster crawl, but it influenced me less.
  17. Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (& most of Miyazaki’s other output, which is aesthetically and structurally similar) is unparalleled for evocative, wondrous adventure setting. Miyazaki’s work is occasionally flawed by didacticism and transparent messaging, but Nausicaa is about as perfect a final creation as I can imagine. Some specific highlights are the fungal grotto underworld, the airship invasion, and the monsters. Hideaki Anno, who later gained recognition as the creative impetus behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, animated the god warrior sequence. For me next in line would be Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (for all the wonderful kami), but no Miyazaki is quite as inspirational for games as Nausicaa.

    God Warrior (source)

  18. The Walking Dead is one of the better depictions of an adventuring party exploring a dangerous, monster-haunted world, struggling to survive, and, if possible put down roots, though there is too much soap opera for my games. The development and periodic loss of settlements also presents a challenge to developers of OSR systems to manage stronghold developments. Most of the existing approaches to building settlements realize Strongholds as culmination, unlikely to be reversed, and a shift from exploration into a domain game. This has some appeal, but I would like a system which remained closer to boots on the ground, a Batman-level system rather than a Superman-level system, to misappropriate the metaphor from Finch’s Primer.
  19. The Abyss. Trapped in an underwater complex. Threatened by mysterious entities that are both terrible and wonderful. The darkness of the deep in The Abyss is the darkness I want to evoke in the fantasy underworld. That’s why nonsense like torches and resource management matter.

    James Cameron’s The Abyss

  20. Berserk: Golden Age Arc because Berserk is the foundation of my dark fantasy trinity (along with Dark Souls and Kingdom Death). It effectively calibrates mythic resonance with novelty and brings intensity without ever descending into parody or ironic detachment.

I can extract a few trends from this list. The first is that exploration and survival horror inform my gaming far more than the trappings of fantasy. A good sewer crawl with monsters in modern LA would probably get me more in the mood to game than some epic fantasy. Jackson’s Fellowship is almost there, but feels too linear, and the characters are too reactive, to be particularly inspiring as a D&D adventure to me. (That said, I am fond of the movie as a realization of Alan Lee’s visual imagination of Middle-Earth and it is hard to imagine a better casting for any of the characters.) I prefer the aesthetics of fantasy for gaming compared to science fiction or modern settings, but some large part of that preference is the constraints provided more naturally by the narrow horizons of a fantasy world.

The second trend is the presence of a wondrous, distinctive setting which begs exploration, with aspects of the frontier or points of light, which means that civilization exists in isolated outposts scattered throughout a dangerous wilderness. … Between outposts lies only monster–haunted wilderness dotted with the ruins of a once glorious past and darkened by the ever-present shadow of the unknown (Rob Conley’s 2008 Points of Light supplement).

The list here only overlaps slightly with what I would say are my favorite movies. The Berserk Golden Age Arc, The Abyss, the two Alien films would be favorites, and probably Nausicaa, but that might be it.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending delivers fantastic visuals, including lepidopterous attack ships, galactic palaces, refinery cities inside gas giant planets, and gothic cathedral styled battle cruisers. The last I suspect were a conscious homage to 40K, especially given that at one point the protagonists need to “break through a field of war hammers” (some sort of geometric space mine). Warning, there may be some mild spoilers below, though I do not think they would really spoil the movie.

The plot is somewhat ridiculous, though not nearly as bad as some reviews I read made it out to be. The Wachowskis retain their fixation with harvesting human resources as seen in The Matrix. The universe is apparently ruled by giant space cartel noble families that live for millenia due to youth serum harvested from subject planets after they have marinated in DNA diversification for long enough. I actually enjoyed the over the top performances of the antagonist Abrasax siblings. Eddie Redmayne’s Balem Abrasax in particular was suitably Harkonnen with his decadent rasp, though his final behavior was not really believable for a semi-immortal space magnate.

Channing Tatum, unfortunately, does not sell the space wolf character at all. Someone with more believable sense of violence and threat was required, and the primary impression I got from his performance was tranquilized. Further, he looked soft, clearly not having trained very hard for the role. Chris Evans, Henry Cavill, and Hugh Jackman as action heroes have raised the bar and Tatum just does not cut it here. This is especially clear in his shirtless farmhouse fight scene where the camera seems to recoil from ever focusing on his midsection. It does not help that he has zero chemistry with Mila Kunis, who also does not seem particularly committed to her role as Russian immigrant housekeeper turned space princess (yes, you read that correctly). Her character is not particularly competent or clever and seems to be largely carried along with little agency of her own.

The major plot arc is essentially the navigation of galactic inheritance law. The process of claiming her title requires Jupiter to proceed through a host of kafkaesque and ridiculous official requirements. The source of this bureaucracy is unclear, but the sequence itself is enjoyable enough, and it culminates with Terry Gilliam himself playing some sort of heraldic functionary, in a clear homage to Brazil. There is a capitalist exploitation theme under all the action, with the Abrasax heirs being primarily concerned with the profit from their youth serum business.

The combat, both in terms of style and power level, looked on screen like how Numenera reads, especially the gravity parkour boots and materializing energy shield. The gravity surfing is not something I think I have seen on the screen before, and it was genuinely kind of exhilarating to watch, especially since much of the action happened in my city, Chicago. I think I could even see my apartment building in a few of the scenes.

Overall, the parts are more interesting than the whole, but we do not get many big budget space operas. The vistas are probably worth it alone, though occasionally the style overwhelms the substance so much as to be distracting.

Oh, and there are dragonborn (which, surprisingly, I can not really find any good pictures of).

jupiter-ascending-005-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-0030-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-00390-970x646-c(Images from here.)

Ghosts

You're going to die in there (source)

Cropped image from here

I just recently watched the first season of American Horror Story, which was way better than I expected (Jessica Lange in particular is wonderful, but the entire cast does a good job). Rather than discuss the series in detail though, here is a review in monster form.

After death, sometimes spirits remain trapped partially in the material world, unable to cross over completely to the next phase of existence (be that some unknown Elysium or only pure nothingness). This can happen either due to black magic or spontaneously out of a particularly horrific death. Ghosts are trapped in incompleteness, forever yearning for that which they sought in life, be it companionship, insight, victory, or something else.

Ghosts have free will but are stuck, to some degree, in the mindset they were in at the time of death. The longer they remain bound to the material world in ghost form, the more extreme this becomes, until they become, to a mortal perspective, insane and completely fixated upon past concerns. All ghost actions should be performed with an eye to the ghost’s longing. Most ghosts are not immediately violent (though some are), but instead are manipulative, seeking to extract from the living what is needed to fill their hollow, unending existence.

Within their domain, ghosts may use minor telekinesis and telepathy at will. They may also physically manifest. This material form should be listed in standard stat block form, and will generally match statistics in life, with several minor adjustments, as noted below. The material form of a ghost will often reflect the method of death (visible wounds, and so forth), though such marks may be suppressed by the ghost with effort or occasionally forgotten. When material, ghosts may be hurt, and even slain, exactly as if they were mortal, though such a death will not permanently destroy the ghost. If slain by mundane means, a ghost will reconstitute within one exploration turn (10 minutes). Despite being dead, ghosts can still feel pain (though it is muted somewhat by their alienation from the warmth of life), and thus being killed often puts them in a foul mood. If slain by magic or mystical means (including holy water and turning), a ghost will take a full day to reconstitute. Every decade of bondage adds another hit die (usually to a maximum of 10), and the difficulty of turning a particular ghost should be proportional to its hit die total.

Ghosts may only leave the location to which they are bound once per year, on All Hallows’ Eve. Otherwise, their influence is limited to the place of haunting or actions taken by mortals in proxy. If this location is a structure, destroying the structure itself may temporarily prevent the spirits from affecting the world directly, but any new structure built on the remains of the old will slowly come to be haunted by the previous location’s spirits. And anyone living long near the ruins will feel a strange compulsion to build on the site.

Anyone slain in a haunted place becomes a ghost themselves, bound to the same location eternally. Such places can become quite crowded. Some ghosts may be laid to rest by righting some past wrong, or satisfying their hunger finally, but others are insatiable, especially if things have been stolen from them that are irreplaceable.

Prometheus

I saw Prometheus over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been many overly critical reviews going around, so perhaps this can function as a dissent. In addition to suspending your sense of disbelief (something necessary for engaging with any work of fiction), you must also be willing to accept a story which can support multiple interpretations, as not everything is spelled out. If you don’t like any kind of symbolism or theme in movies, this is not the movie for you. If you are irritated by characters that go to investigate dark hallways alone in horror movies, this is not the movie for you.

Some of the characters made bad (even stupid) decisions. Many reviews I have read latched onto these plot elements as flaws in the movie. However, people can be stupid, vain, greedy creatures who don’t necessarily think things through, even when they are spending trillion dollar space ship budgets (and this is when they don’t need to make split-second decisions). Consider Christopher Columbus spending Queen Isabella’s money (and all the other explorers that were not as successful). And speaking about some of the mercenaries, what kind of person rents their life to a megacorporation and risks death in a two-year suspended animation in order to make some money? Apparently, some people are only satisfied with stories about people who always make smart decisions (see The Alexandrian’s take, for example).

That being said, there were some problems with characterization in the movie. It was hard to feel sympathy for many of the characters, and some motivations were not terribly clear, especially for Charlize Theron’s corporate ice queen. Why was she there? What did she hope to get out of the mission? And, the captain’s final action. The motivation did not feel authentic to me for the captain, and it felt even less so for his subordinates, who, as far as I could tell from what came beforehand, were basically just hired technicians.

It is possible that Prometheus is one of the better cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft that has yet been produced, despite the fact that it is not directly based on any Lovecraft story. It is certainly more in the spirit of Lovecraft than either Alien or Aliens. I would also add that many of Lovecraft’s protagonists also make “stupid” decisions, and that this is part of the point. Humans tamper with an unknown and dangerous cosmos. To quote from Joe the Lawyer’s list of D&D rules broken by characters in this movie: “Never trust the unknown. Everything in the universe is fucking hostile.”

There are a few minor problems of pacing. I could have done without the entire section near the beginning depicting the android teaching himself about human culture while everyone else was in stasis on the ship. I feel like more mileage could have been gotten from the exploration of the alien ruins. And the writing was not spectacular, though I didn’t feel like it was bad enough to negatively affect the rest of the movie.

I can’t say for certain that the makers of Prometheus consciously meant to allude to Dungeons & Dragons, but there certainly seemed to be a number of references. For example (paraphrasing from memory here), near the beginning there is the following dialogue: “Before the adventure begins, Ms. Vickers would like to speak to you.” There is a “skull mountain” vista which looked like it was straight out of Holmes. I suppose these could just be coincidences. Also, the mapping robots. All I could think of here was that this is a DM with players who clearly don’t like mapping. Did I mention that the entire plot revolves around what is essentially an alien megadungeon?

In total, I think the visual power of this movie is enough to carry it for a viewer that appreciates such things. The score was good too, in an unobtrusive sort of way (I generally don’t like scores that call too much attention to themselves, with the exception of Kubrick, but then all bets are off with Kubrick anyways). And, if you play D&D-style adventure games about exploring dungeons, you will see a lot in Prometheus that is familiar, and probably get some ideas from it too (I certainly did).

Holmes cross section, just because

TV Adventuring Parties

I’m not a big fan of trying to ape other media in RPGs, especially to the extent that some games do by appropriating terminology like scenes and episodes. I’m not saying that there is nothing to be learned from other art forms, but tabletop RPGs are really their own thing, and have their own different potential. An RPG can’t do everything that a novel can do, and the reverse is also true: a tabletop RPG can do things that a novel or movie can’t.

That being said, other media can be amazingly inspirational for tabletop RPGs (hence the proliferation of “Appendix N” style lists). They can serve as examples for settings or characters. They can provide a common language. There are not that many movies, TV shows, or even books, that really capture the dynamics of a D&D party though. Even The Fellowship of the Ring, which was probably the most direct inspiration for the D&D adventuring party, doesn’t really capture it.

There are a few TV shows that come pretty close though. The ones that come immediately to mind are Lost and The Walking Dead. These two shows both feature a group of disparate characters that don’t necessarily share a common purpose, but that are thrown together and forced to cooperate in order to survive a hostile environment. Much of the story revolves around exploration, survival, and resource management. Another thing these shows share with D&D is (mostly) a lack of dependence on any single character. Characters can and do die, and the story continues.

Lost, of course, follows in a long tradition of castaway and lost world stories (Robinson Crusoe, The Lost World, Land of the Lost, etc) and I think this tradition is worth revisiting for tabletop RPG inspiration because of how well it fits structurally. I might even include the post-apocalyptic genre within the lost world genre. Can anyone think of other TV shows that fit the experience of a D&D party well?

There are two other common TV show structures which are often copied for tabletop RPGs, but usually to poor effect in my experience. The first is the “ship crew” approach (Star Trek, Farscape, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, SeaQuest DSV, Stargate, Firefly, etc). The second is the “department” (or police procedural) approach (X-Files, Fringe, Law & Order, any legal or police drama you can name). These setups are commonly used for genre shows, and so are often inspiration for fantasy and sci-fi games. The department structure works particularly well for episodic presentation because each show can be a self-contained case with beginning, middle, and end. Thus, people can follow the characters over episodes if they want, but don’t really need to start from the beginning of the series to follow an individual episode.

The dependence of the ship crew approach on specific characters makes it an awkward fit with open-ended scenarios. Such a show can’t really survive the loss of too many characters, as generally the meat of the show is the soap opera interaction of the characters, not the plot or setting (some people might disagree with me here, but I stand by the point, even for shows like Star Trek). How long would any Star Trek (or clone show) last if the characters started to drop like flies? One thing that can be profitably learned from the department approach though is starting and ending at the same place, thus making shows (sessions) self-contained. This is very similar to the “start and end at the tavern” trope of much traditional play.

Season of the Witch


Playing tabletop RPGs again has started to change, or maybe widen, what I look for in movies. Specifically, ideas and inspiration for my games are beginning to be just as important as other more common measures of quality in film. By this measure, Season of the Witch was a great success (and was not a bad movie apart from that either).

I would highly recommend it especially to fantasy game players. In fact, in some ways this story is a model for how to run a weird fantasy scenario. It is set during the Crusades. Right from the very beginning, it is clear everything is not quite right, but the day to day existence is still mundane. And I think every D&D player will recognize the small troupe of main characters as an adventuring party.

There were a number of small touches that I greatly appreciated. For example, everyone doesn’t speak in a British accent just because the movie is set during medieval times. A standard American accent was used by most actors throughout, which I enjoyed. More period movies should take this approach. Accurately representing accents is impossible, so why not make it feel natural?

Once the movie decided what kind of story it was going to tell, it didn’t dick around with you and keep making you second guess what was going on. It just went for it, and didn’t make any apologies.