Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan of the Apes is a book I haven't read in decades. I'd actually thought that the Disney version was much closer to the written material than it is. Tarzan is a prototype of the savage hero, more outcast than even Conan in terms of civility and equipment. His reliance on training and instinct couped with awesome intellictual gifts and a few trusty weapons, make him a fierce lord of the Jungle.

I'll be pinging some thoughts from reading the book that will contain spoilers but it's not like this is a new story. Indeed, I got my latest version free from Amazon and their Kindle books. Remember how I keep harping on price points for e-books? It's because of some great free literature like this, that well, I'm able to. If several Tarzan and other Edgar Rice Burroughs books are free and available, what's to stop someone from having weeks ir not months of reading enjoyment for free?

Anyway, onto thoughts of the book.

Orphan Outcast. One of the standards of most characters, Tarzan is essentailly an orphan for most of the book. Sure, he initially has his parents and even his ape mother, but she's taken from him relatively early in the tale.  This gives Tarzan a bit of freedom that characters 'burdened' with family don't necessarily have, but in time, the action revolves around him saving outsiders who essentially become his new family. Ties are what makes characters interesting. Without them, games like Final Fantasy VII just become pretty pictures on a screen and Tarzan just becomes another savage.

Technology. I'm not saying Tarzan is running through the Jungle with Phase Plasma Rifle with a 40 Watt Range or anything, but even something like his knife makes a huge difference when he finds himself pitted against the strongest adversaries the jungle can throw against him. And this is something that doesn't automatically grant success mind you, but a well equipped and armed party, especially with missle weapons, shouldn't necessarily have much to fear from normal animals as the opportunity to finish them off before a single blow can be struck in retaliation should be fairly high.

Physically Gifted: Tarzan, like many heroes of his era, is simply not human. He is capable of straight leaps into the air of something like twenty feet at a stretch. He is able to carry more than four people put together. Not only that, but he is the owner of an awesome intellict as well. With no mentoring, he teaches himself to read and picks up information like an insatiable sponge. And he isn't the only one of this era. Doc Savage is the 'perfect' human who has a group of gifted allies and he's better than all of them. These guys really make Bat Man look like some little bored rich kid who decided it'd be a gas to dress up and fight crime. The problem with them is they can set some highly unrealistic standards when players try to use them for inspiration. When doing something like a Champions or GURPS game, and the GM wants to emulate their physical abilities and weird talents, be generous with the points.

Rogues Are Everywhere: Tarzan's parents are stranded in Africa because the people who they took passage with were lead by an unkind captain who in turn, is murdered by his crew. Jane and her father and cohorts are stranded on the same island because... well, untrustworthy pirates! Tarzan's first meeting with another group of men is stained because those men has in turn been mistreated and have taken it out on all they then meet. It doesn't matter the time or distance, the civility or the savegry, rogues are everywhere.

Scars: Initially there are a few fights that take Tarzan months to recover from but leave no blemish upon his 'brown skin'. Later on though he almost has his scalp ripped off and whenever he's pissed that scar shows red in contrast to the rest of his face. Think about some defining characteristics for your characters, both as a player and as a Game Master. I know that in some of his Conan writings, Robert Jordan wouldn't even name the thug villains that Conan battled, merely referring to them by their scars and other physical afflictions.

Evolution: Tarzan in some instances and incrantion is popular for his "Me Tarzan you Jane" bit, but by the end of the first novel, he's speaking multiple languages, knows how to drive a car, and fully understands the value of money and its ability to influence the world about him. Characters that don't change or evolve can indeed be fun to play, but stretching those initial character concepts and letting the game play take you to new places can test out different role playing muscles.

Tarzan has inspired many artist like Joe Jusko, as well as many writers, and many movies and cartons and other media. It's worth giving the original a read not only to see where it all started, but what people have done with it since.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cooks Illustrated August 2012 Number 117

"The route is a series of twists and turns and requires a sharp memory. The problem was, as soon as we got high up, we found that loggers had clear-cut the mountaintop and the landscape appeared ragged and unfamiliar. After leading our horses trough a large field of felled tress and swamp, I set out searching for the way forward. At one point, I got within a few yards of the trail but turned back, thinking it was a dead end. Eventually, we trotted home, disappointed and bone tired." The editorial by Christopher Kimball.

When I read that bit in the new Cook's Illustrated, I had to share. You see, in the dreaded 'real world', someone I know recently suffered a terrible loss of a loved one in the woods. The police were unable to find the loved one but a search party did and not that far from where the police, with dogs were searching.

When taken out of the familiar, well, EVERYTHING is different. Directions no longer matter. West and near west and landmarks and old familiar terrain are gone.

Even a quick travel through the woods can turn into something disastrous and its not something that springs from fiction or fantasy but the fact that outside a certain comfort zone, those who are not trained in specific wilderness survival skill survive only through those who have it.

If dealing with some 'city folk' style players, have their caravan ambushed or destroyed in the deep woods and see how long the players can survive.

Mind you, this only works if you're going for a change of pace. If you're running a dark and gritty campaign like the old Fantasy Flight Midnight Setting, well, its an easy standard to abuse. "Make an Endurance check! You're freezing to death!" It's a good way to showcase how a setting is different, how its more dangerous, how it doesn't follow the standards, but if your idea of adding atmosphere is making skill checks and ability score checks and saving throws versus the elements without any of the drama that goes with them, we'll, we're roleplaying differently.

Christopher then suggests the Searcher and Lonesome Dove, so I think I'm off to see what Netflix has to say about these movies.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thor (movie 2011)

If one were to say I was slightly behind the times, well, they would not be wrong. Thanks to the wonderful magic of Netflix, I finally managed to watch Thor.

I'll be pointing out some spoilers below as I ramble about my thoughts on the movie and the comic character and how Marvel has treated him and what that could mean to a game.

In the movie, as in the origin story, Thor's arrogance is what leads to his downfall to Earth. In a Dungeons and Dragons game, amnesia is a standard way to represent a character that once was very powerful and 'remembers' (gains experience points) his abilities as the game progresses. This whole banishment and weakening bit, could be another good example of how to take a character concept and bring it to the table. Sure, the character might have memories of vast power or used to own artifacts, but now? He's got to struggle alongside everyone one else.

Another potential bit here that is often used to good effect in the comics, are the ties of family. Walter Simonson owned Thor for many years in terms of art and storytelling ability. His tales were epic and involved many different aspects of Thor and his family's relationship.

One of those interesting aspects, is his brother Loki. When you have relatives, well, things can get messy. The closer the relative, the more messy it can be. The writers for the movie, do a great job of at first making Loki look very compelling as a character and even a bit tragic but his various double crosses and the depth of his animosity towards his brother quickly banish those things. Jealousy is a powerful motivator and it is one that the Game Master should use for his own PCs, especially if they are related to the characters.

But anyway, when looking at one bit Walter did for Thor, it's a scene with Odin in the middle and his two sons moving forward to protect Asgard. Odin shouts out, "For Asgard." Thor shouts out, "For Odin." Loki shouts out, "For Myself." The motivations of the characters can go a long way in providing numerous gaming sessions with them. By making them relatives of the characters, you also provide a bit of rational as to why the player characters wouldn't necessarily kill them. Mind you its not a card you can use too often, especially if you never use it to the player's advantage.

What do I mean? There have been times when Loki has been beneficial to Thor. Mind you, they were almost always for Loki's own benefit and for his own reasons, selfish often, but Thor did benefit from them. By allowing these family members to come to the aid of the player characters, you give the players another reason not to simply kill them when push comes to shove.

Another aspect to the family here though, is Thor's father, Odin. In Thor and Loki Blood Brothers, first a comic then a motion comic, Loki accuses Odin of using Loki to make Thor look better. Of providing Loki as a foil that the Realm may gather again, as a singular force which all may heap their scorn on. At the end even as Loki has a change of heart, Thor escapes from what is supposed to be certain death and ends the threat of Loki but sets Loki on his course forever more after that.

Father figures are very powerful figures. In this case, both literally and figuratively. In role playing games, that may also be true. In the Greek and Roman Pantheons, Zeus is the father of several of the gods and is also one of, if not the most powerful deity.

When reading comics or watching movies, be on the lookout for things that you can crib for your own game. You never know when they may come in handy.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Centurion (2010)

One of the nice things about Netflix, is that occasionally I get a couple of days off to watch it! I'm a fan of the 'bad-good' movies where I can shut my brain off and try to enjoy some violence and blood shed in the name of killing a few hours.

Up to the plate Centurion, a movie about the massacre of the 9th Roman Legion. the costumes and makeup are pretty good but the special effects? It's like they saw some exploding blood from some of those Japanese and Chinese martial art and samurai movies from the 90's and said, "We gotta get some of that!". It's funny in its own way.

Plot wise and story wise? Its pretty thin but there are things you can drag out of it for your own gaming. I'll be discussing some of the spoilers and other bits below so if that sort of thing blows your mind, look away now! Save yourself!

1. Its The Military Life For Me. One of the things that being in the military does, is provide a quick framework for adventurers and campaigns. In adventures that meet every few weeks due to the dreaded real life issues, the game master can provide a few quick things that the military needs done and send the players off to take care of it. In a longer term campaign, the players may find themselves rivals of other members of the military, may brush up against nobles who dislike their rising star, and even come to the attraction of the gods like Ares, the god of war! Their rise in the ranks and in the social sphere can be played up as much as the game master likes.

2. Behind Enemy Lines. So what happens if you're part of a huge group of soldiers and your army gets wiped out? Try to rescue any senior officers and failing that, run like hell eh? In this movie, Olga Kurylenko best known for her role as a 'Bond' girl among other roles, plays Etain, a mute hunter whose hatred of Romans is unquenchable. She is a master ranger and wielder of spear. She is the 'Nemesis' factor here. She also has a lot of help and a few other 'named' characters who would be worthy of past minion status.

3. Betrayal. Speaking of Etain, she's initially sent with the 9th to scout out the positions of the Picts. Turns out that as a child her village was destroyed, her mother raped and put to death and her raped and her tongue cut out. She survived, found allies, became super bad ass and then went to work for the Romans. What? How? Well, it's seemingly an old trick. In Dreadstar, a similar thing happens where Dreadstar suffers a tragedy and then joins the army that did it so he can get in nice and close and take care of things personally. Of course by that time other things pop up as they so often do but it's old hat. The interesting thing here, is it's not the the only betrayal. See, the Romans aren't necessarily painted as the bringers of salvation and civilization here. No, rather, they are... well, a growing empire that does thing such an empire does, especially the soldiers and the politicians. See, when the main character makes his happy way back to camp, his thanks is that they try to kill him so that the fate of the 9th can be a mystery. This leads us to...

4. Exile. During the escape from the Picts, the Romans come across a 'witch' woman who helps them. She does this despite being a Pict herself because her own people have put a cut on her face and marked her as exile. She trades with the Romans and the Picts tend to avoid her, especially as she goes out of her way to 'goth' up the place with skulls and skins. The Roman himself? Well, after you've killed a few guards and beaten a noble's mistress, what else is there for you but exile? In a role playing game, especially a campaign length one, well, there's potential for a return of the exile and perhaps even opportunity during the initial betrayal to take things to the finale right there. In terns of the Pict exile though, when you place your NPCs around and thing about their motivations, for some, loneliness can be a powerful factor. If they see in the PCs equals or potential allies, there may be the chance for long term relationships to blossom.

Centurion isn't the best movie I've ever seen but for a gamer, well, it's grimy. The characters have scars. Everyone is dirty. The 'good guys' get their asses handed to them several times. It makes for an interesting change of pace. If you're a gamer and can shut the old brain off for a few hours, it might be worth your while.

Quick Note on miniatures

I blather about miniatures too. I used to use them a lot in my RPGs now I mess with them because I enjoy painting them and trying out different ways to paint them. If miniatures interest you, my yakking can be found over here.