Unreview: Knives Out

Unreview Rules

  • I have to like it
  • I have to pay for it
  • I do my best to use E-Prime

NO SPOILERS

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. He taught me the value of reason and logic (even if he did mix up “induction” and “deduction”). The quirky detective with all his faults and foibles served as one of my first heroes. Later, I learned of Hercule Poirot through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even later, Dashiell Hammett introduced me to the Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler gave me Philip Marlowe. But my favorite—my all time favorite—has got to be Columbo and his “anti-mysteries.” If you aren’t familiar, the structure of a Columbo movie (they were all TV movies) showed you the crime right up front, making the criminal the main character, and the suspense was wondering how Columbo would solve it. And that’s only half the fun. The other half is watching a seemingly bumbling, clumsy, rumpled police detective wander around from scene to scene. I say “seemingly” because behind that cigar and under that coat was a brilliant mind with a trickster’s smile.

So yeah, I got some game in this market. I sat down in the theater with my small bag of popcorn and watched the seats slowly fill up. For the first time in many months (I go to the movies a lot) someone sat in nearly every seat. I couldn’t remember a theater being that full.

Waiting for the movie to start, I’m thinking about the director, Rian Johnson. I love his work. He has this skill for taking the tropes of a genre and twisting them up. You’ve got expectations, he’ll dash them while maintaining true to the tropes themselves. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and he always pulls it off magnificently.

And this film takes the classic, old fashioned murder mystery (what Neil Simon calls “murder poo!” in his play Murder by Death) and plays that juggling act with the kind of expertise and clever plotting that he used in Brick.

(And if you haven’t seen Brick, you should. Like, right now.)

The audience around me visibly reacted to the movie. They laughed, they gasped, they inched to the edge of their seats and I was right there with them. And as I sat there in the dark, enamored with what I watched, I thought to myself, “This is what going to the movies is all about.” Getting a visceral reaction from the audience.

Benoit Blanc, as played by Daniel Craig, has quickly jumped up in my estimation of private detectives. Taking a little of Holmes, Poirot and Columbo, Johnson created a character I honestly hope to see again on the silver screen. I know sequels are traps, but I honestly love this character. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast chews on the scenery and has a blast doing it. And like Richard Levinson and William Link (the two gentlemen who created Columbo), he’s created a brand new way to tell a murder mystery. I won’t say anything else other than it amused me to no end.

A friend of mine recently said, “Rian Johnson is dead to me for what he did” to The Last Jedi. And while I felt that was probably his weakest film (I still liked it), I feel sorry for him because he won’t see this movie. I’m going back this weekend to see it again and I’d pay for his ticket.

Unreview: Doctor Sleep

 

In 1980, I was twelve years old, reading the books my father brought home and stuck on a small shelf in our living room. There were never more than five or six, but all of them were big. My dad likes to read, but he reads very slowly, and he likes to enjoy books, he likes savoring them. That’s how I got my hands on Dune. My dad was reading it, taking his time. I read it in a weekend. That was one of the few things my father and I shared: reading big, heavy books.

One day, he brought home a book called The Stand by a fellow named Stephen King. It was the first edition paperback with the creepy blue cover, the picture of a half-man, half-bird staring out at you from a dark sky. I read that book over the course of a couple days and went to the library looking for more. I found ‘Salem’s Lot and loved it. I found The Dead Zone and loved it (still my favorite King book). And then I found The Shining. Of all the books King has written, that one scared me. Generally, literature doesn’t scare me, but The Shining had me up at night. And it wasn’t the ghosts. It was the thought of being locked in an old hotel with a creature that used to be my father, chasing me with a roque mallet. That’s what scared me. Now, my father never laid a hand on me, but his temper got the better of him from time to time. And as much as I loved him, I was also scared of him. And King knew exactly how to tap into that love/fear children have for their parents, especially when alcohol gets hold of them.

When I saw the trailers for the movie version, I knew I had to see it. I was a fresh convert to the Cult of King and I wanted to see my favorite writer’s images on the big screen. Back in those days, our movie theater had two screens with the concession stand in between them. The left screen was for G and PG movies and the right screen was for PG and R. My friends and I had a way to get into the R movies. We’d buy tickets for the left theater, go into the men’s bathroom on the right side of the lobby, then sneak into the right theater. It worked one hundred percent of the time. The theater owner either didn’t look or didn’t care. That’s how I saw Conan the Barbarian and Alien. And on that Saturday afternoon, I was going to see my main man Steve King’s creepy novel about ghosts, alcohol and abuse.

I was twelve. Sitting in the theater, a victim of all the dirty tricks Kubrick used in that movie. Kubrick’s manipulations are subtle and genius. One of the most brilliant was the abrupt murder of a character who lives in the book, who is key to the ending. Once that happened, I cried. I mean, I @#$%ing cried. And after that moment, when Nicholson slowly rises up into the camera’s view, that smile on his face, looking directly into the camera, I heard exactly what Kubrick wanted me to hear.

Yeah, you’ve read the book. That’s cute. Now, you have no idea what’s going to happen next.

Since then, I’ve seen it probably one hundred times since that first time, shivering in the darkness. I’ve studied the movie from beginning to end, nearly memorized it. And I know King hated the film and his fans are divided about it. I love both of them. They’re different creatures with different endings. Both were designed by masters of their craft to scare me, and both succeeded. Damn, did they both succeed.

So, when I heard King was writing a sequel to The Shining, I got excited. While I’m no longer a huge fan of his work (I love his prose, his characters, and hate-hate-hate his endings), I looked forward to what he promised: a look at Danny Torrance at 40. He promised the cycle of alcoholism and violence. And while I was suspicious of the ending, I decided to pick up the book and read it all the way to the end.

I didn’t make it.

Around page 150, I got bored. The plot hadn’t even started yet. He was jumping around between multiple characters and it seemed Dan Torrance was the least important and least interesting. I didn’t care about his gypsy vampires, I didn’t really care about the little girl with magic powers…

Okay, I have to explain something.

In The Shining, Danny’s “power” emerges in subtle ways. He can’t “push” people nor can he start fires (like Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie). He’s just hyper sensitive to things most people don’t notice. In Doctor Sleep, the little girl (subtly called “Abra,” as in “Abracadabra,” you know) has magic powers. She’s a wizard. She has telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, psychometry… I mean, she’s really Doctor Strange. And honestly, it turned me off. I didn’t like it.

Also, I felt that I knew what was coming. The plot was so clear: Dan Torrance gets himself clean so he can protect a magic girl from psychic gypsy vampires. And yeah, I know the tale is in the telling, and King’s plotting isn’t his strong suit, but this time, I felt I knew where it was going and didn’t see any turns or twists in the road. So, I got on Wikipedia, checked out the Plot header for the book and read what I suspected. Yeah, that’s exactly what I suspected. Okay, don’t need to read this one. I dropped the book off at my local used book store.

So, you may ask, Faithful Reader, why I went to see the movie?

Well, I like the director. I like Ewan McGregor. In fact, I thought the casting was pretty smart. I liked what the director had to say about the differences between The Shining book and movie and how his biggest challenge was reconciling the two. He wasn’t going to be entirely faithful to either of them, but make a movie that addressed both. And then I heard him say that he changed the ending and King himself approved. The last time that happened was The Mist (one of the very few very good King adaptations). All right. I’m in.

A few weeks before, Ken St. Andre and I went to Harkins Classic Movie night and we saw Kubrick’s version. Ken had never seen it before and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since 1980. I wanted to see it on the big screen again and I wanted Ken to see it so we could watch Doctor Sleep together. The audience was full of old and young people: those who had seen it and those who had not. Kubrick’s film had its desired result. The audience did not scream. They didn’t jump. They sat in quiet horror. This isn’t Friday the 13th or Halloween. This isn’t jump scares and gross outs. It’s being that frog in the pot of water slowly heating to a boil…

Armed with that recent viewing, Mr. St. Andre and I went to see Doctor Sleep. After the credits ran, we sat quietly. Finally, Ken said, “I really liked that.” I nodded. “So did I.”

And the more I think about it, the more I like it. The director, Mike Flanagan, turned the gypsy vampires that seemed so kitch and cliché to me in the book into a startling, terrifying pack of wolves. Clever, hungry and deadly. Ewan McGregor was exactly what I wanted to see from a mid-40’s Danny Torrance. The perfect mixture of his father’s rage and his mother’s empathy. And Rebecca Ferguson transformed Rose the Hat into a creature both beautiful and terrible. And yes, even the magic girl—played by the charming Kyliegh Curran—won my heart.

Now, those who have both read and seen The Shining know there’s a huge problem. The fate of the Overlook Hotel. The director was right: that was his biggest challenge. The way he handled it impressed me as both a storyteller and a fan.

I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. If you want to see it, let me know. I’m more than willing to go again. But watch The Shining first. And, if you can do it in a weekend, read the book. Both will only amplify your enjoyment.

Unreview: The Lighthouse

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I do my best to use E-Prime.

 

Jennifer and I were married once. We live different lives now, but we keep up with each other, send book and movie recommendations, chat about this and that. She loves a good ghost story, and has exceptional taste, so when she told me to see The Witch, I knew I should check it out. When I was done, we chatted for an hour, talking about the different implications of the ending.

That started me on a binge of movies that I liked to call “new horror.” They all seemed to have the same philosophy: lots of mood, beautifully shot, absolutely terrifying, but no jump scares. Because I hate jump scares. They’re easy and cheap and predictable. What I want is to feel the horror of the movie long after the lights come back up. The Witch gave me that. All the way through the film, I felt the tension I saw on the screen, creeping under my skin. And the ending… just floored me. The whole movie was a build up to the final scene. That final shot. I was weeping. I was terrified. The film accomplished its goal.

(When I talked to my friend Jaz Colbath about it, they told me, “I love that movie! And it has a happy ending!” I’m not going to tell you why they think it’s a happy ending—that would spoil the ending, and you should absolutely see The Witch—but when they told me, I laughed so hard, I almost choked.)

Jennifer’s second suggestion, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, found me trembling and weeping at the end as well. It Follows sent a cold shiver down my spine, amazed at how easily it made me feel alone and vulnerable. I stumbled on Happy Death Day which left me both scared and laughing. And I liked this trend. A new kind of horror movie, unreliant on cheap scares, but long, deep creeps aimed at my heart.

When I heard the director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, was working on another film, I got excited. Out of all the new horror I watched, The Witch stuck with me more than the others. When I heard the movie was inspired by The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy, I could not wait. And tonight, I sat in a dark theater of strangers (more full than I expected), and watched The Lighthouse.

I have no intention of trying to tell you what the film is about or even what happens. I don’t want to tell you anything. I’m loathe to tell you even simple facts about the film, such as Eggers shooting it in black and white with a perfectly square ratio (rather that widescreen), which adds to the authenticity of watching it. The Lighthouse doesn’t feel like a film, but a journal entry or a window into the event, and both elements add to the claustrophobia the characters experience and Eggers wants you to feel as well. No jump scares. No seemingly immortal maniacs with masks or costumes. Just two men with disparate tempers on a small island for weeks with no other company and nothing but painful, exhausting, back-breaking work and what happens when one (or both) of them start to crack.

The performances from the two leads kept me on the edge of my seat. I expected no less from Willem Dafoe, but Robert Pattinson really stood out to me. Both bring an authenticity that made me feel they were real men stuck in a bad situation. The language both men use is thick with accents and jargon that forced me to pay attention. Dafoe sounds exactly like an old sea dog full of stories that are equal parts truth, lie and exaggeration. But the camera sticks with Pattinson’s character, giving us a…

… you know, I should shut up now. And there’s a reason why.

I want you going into this movie knowing exactly as much as I did. You can google the real story and know that much, but that’s it. The trailer won’t give you anything and neither will I. Don’t read any reviews. Don’t look it up on Wikipedia. Just pay the cash and see it in a dark theater with strangers. Then, after you’ve seen it, you and I can talk. 

I can’t wait for Jennifer to see it. I want to talk for an hour about that ending.

My D&D Character: Barbarian

My name? I do not have a name. I am called The Heinig.

My people were a peaceful tribe living in the mountains. We abhorred violence, but we understood its necessity. That is why I was chosen to carry the wrath of the tribe. When I was old enough, I went with the other children of my tribe to stand before the shaman. I remember it now. A dark night, we sat around the fire and drank what she gave us. We went before the Goddess, and we were tested. When it was done, the Goddess chose me. And I became the wrath of my people. I was given this axe. I would be their protector. So my people would not need to commit the Gravest Sin, I carried this axe.

What is the Gravest Sin? It is murder. Why do you not know this? Why do your people and your gods not teach you this? Is there any sin greater than that?

This is why I am The Heinig. I carry this axe so no other in my tribe needs to.

But I failed them. A horde of humans ran through my village with steel and fire, killing them all. They left me alive. They thought it was a game. They were all dead and their protector is still alive. And that is how they left me: with my axe and my tribe bleeding in the snow.

When I am very quiet, at night, I can see them. Trapped in this world, unable to pass into the next, for their spirits are unavenged. They sing to me. They do not sing me songs of shame, for they are too kind for that. They sing me songs of strength, so that I may carry on. To let me know that I do not carry this shame alone. They are still with me. And when I am weak, they carry me. When I weep, they laugh. When I doubt, they remind me of what I am.

That is why I shaved my head and my beard and that is why I travel the world. Not for riches. Not for magic. All these things are a means to an end.

I hunt those who murdered my people for sport. And when I find them, I will kill them. Because I am The Heinig. The wrath of my people.

And they will be avenged.

Gencon 7th Sea Larp

 

At Gencon this year, I ran a 7th Sea LARP for about 40 people. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback and people asking me exactly how it worked, what game design process I went through and a bunch of other questions. Since I’ve gotten so many questions, here are some answers.

Now, just to let you know, this is a behind the curtain essay. If you’re the kind of person who watches a magic trick and doesn’t want to know how it works, I highly suggest not reading after a certain point. I’ll let you know when that is. But first, just a quick summary of how the rules worked for the folks who played the game in Indianapolis. Also, if you’re gonna be at Strategicon in Los Angeles around the end of August, this is the larp I’ll be running, so you may also want to avoid the spoilers listed below. I’ll be making some changes, and the game literally changes at the players’ whims, so don’t expect too much “advantage” from reading ahead. Besides, this is a live action roleplaying game. Who the @#$% tries to win a roleplaying game?

(Psst: vampire larpers.)

Oh, that’s right. Never mind. Forgot I asked.

How the Game Works

I set the game in the city of Five Sails. Now, Five Sails is an independent city-state. It belongs to no Nation. “The City where everyone is a king, but nobody wears a crown.” (I stole that line, by the way.) Now, the city is divided into Districts, each “governed” by one of the Nations. There’s a Vodacce district, a Castille district, a Commonwealth district, etc. Every year, the governors of each district vote on a mayor.

Well, the mayor is gone. Presumed dead. Presumed murdered. And one of the governors is responsible. May not have done it themselves, but one of them has the mayor’s blood on their hands.

The players each represent a faction of Heroes working for one of the governors. In the Indianapolis game, I let the players choose which governor they wanted to work for. (This is the first thing I’m changing for the Los Angeles version: players will get divided randomly by drawing numbers out of a hat.)

First Economy: Traits

The game had a number of economies going on (things the players could use during the game.) The first was Traits.

Each player had an index card sized character sheet. The card had only the five 7th Sea Traits: Brawn, Finesse, Wits, Resolve, and Panache. Heroes had scores of 2-5 in their Traits. I also gave some return players (folks who had played in previous 7th Sea larps and brought the same character) and folks who dressed in costume a bonus ability they could use during the game. I had a half-Sidhe pirate, a Montaigne Porté mage and an Eisen mercenary who all got bonus stuff on their sheets.

Next, I introduced the players to the Clues on the table behind me. Each Clue was in a manilla envelope with a cryptic description. Each envelope also had a number of Trait points the players needed to spend to open the envelope. Brawn: 10, for example. That meant the players needed to get enough players to agree to spend 10 points of Brawn to open that envelope and read the Clue. Some Clues were cheap (Finesse: 5) and some Clues were expensive (All Traits: 5). The value of the Clue corresponded to the number of Traits the players had to spend.

Each Clue read similar to this one:

The Governor of ___________________ District owed the Mayor 10,000 Guilders.

I told the players they could fill in whichever governor they wanted. It could be the Vodacce governor, the Castillian governor, etc. And they didn’t have to fill it in right away. They could keep it, show it to the players representing another governor’s interests, and bargain for a trade of some kind.

The clues were deliberately vague for a purpose: at the end of the game, everyone would vote on which governor was responsible for killing the Governor. More on that in a bit.

Second Economy: Guilders and Improvements

The players also had a number of Guilders (coins) they could use as they saw fit. They could use the Guilders to buy Clues, for example. But each district also had a number of Improvements it wanted built in its part of the city. Montaigne wanted a new opera house, Eisen wanted a new garrison, etc. Each Improvement cost 10 Guilders. Once a player–and it had to be a single player–gave over the 10 Guilders for the Improvement, they got the card. Completing an Improvement was worth one Trait refresh. That is, a player could turn in an Improvement card and completely refresh one Trait (Brawn, Finesse, etc.).

Third Economy: Hero Points

Players also had Hero Points they could use like Style Points in my Houses of the Blooded larp. In short, I offer you a Hero  Point and ask you a question: “Isn’t it true that I beat you in a duel two years ago?” You can either say, “Yes” or “No” to this question. If you say, “Yes,” you get the Hero Point. If you say, “No,” I can offer your more Hero Points or just move on to another player, offering them the Hero Point.

Players can also ask me questions about the city, the mayor, etc., by offering me (the Host) Hero Points. If I say, “Yes,” I add it to a list of truths about the city at the front of the room. If I say, “No,” I can’t be bribed. It’s just one and done with me.

Hero Points give the players the opportunity to create stories and backgrounds between themselves, create rivalries, allies and enemies. You cannot force someone to take a Hero Point. It’s 100% consensual. (Because RPGs are more like sex than most people realize.)

The Artifacts

Finally, there’s the Artifacts. Hidden in the game were four Syrneth Artifacts: relics from a civilization that walked Théah before humans. If a group found an Artifact, they could use it to establish whether a governor was a Hero or a Villain. Of course, this significantly influenced the question of which governor was responsible for killing the mayor.

The Pirates and My Ringer

Oh, and in addition to the city factions, I also had a pirate faction. They were in town and offering their services to help solve the murder. I made up the pirate faction as soon as I saw so many people dressed appropriately. They turned out to be a loud, rowdy group who sang shanties and did their best to cause trouble.

I had Jessica along as a ringer. She was playing the half-Sidhe pirate. Jessica is perfect for this job. She’s helpful, knowledgable and when you give her the ability to do anything, she uses it responsibly. So, I gave her the power to do anything. She is a Sidhe, after all.

How It Played

The players made their character sheets out–a total of two minutes–and listened to the description I gave above, the whole spiel took about ten minutes. That included questions. After that, we were ready to play.

Each group started haltingly, testing the waters. Except the Eisen bunch. They went straight to work.

Two duelists–one a Montaigne and the other a pirate–seemed to start a kind of rivalry. They came to me and asked me how the system would handle a duel. I told them, “Offer each other Hero Points. Whoever accepts gets to say who won the duel.” They apparently decided to spend the game collecting as many Hero Points as possible to offer the other at the end of the game to win the duel. That meant they had to say “Yes” to a lot of things to get those Hero Points. And, at the end of the game, they offered each other a mass of Hero Points and agreed on a winner. But more on that later.

The flow of the game was groups of players trying to work together to get as many people they could together to “find clues.” One by one, they opened them up and decided on how to fill the blanks.

They exchanged Hero Points establishing relationships with each other, creating rivalries and friendships. And they showed the Clues to each other as they opened them, asking rival factions how much they wanted to pay to keep the Clue from pointing at their governor.

And I… did… nothing.

Honestly. I’ve heard so many people tell me how busy a GM is at a larp, and during my larps, I largely walk around and listen or sit down and watch. That’s because with Hero Points (Style Points in Houses of the Blooded and Blood in my little vampire larp), the players make the drama. I don’t need to do anything. I just toss the pitch and let the players hit the ball, and let them field it.

Because every player has Hero Points, they’re all empowered to make decisions. They can see a player they want to engage and can offer them Hero Points to engage them. I give them the power to do it. But more importantly, I give them the permission to do it. Hero Points are abstract, they aren’t just GM encouragement. They’re a mechanic. And because of that, it’s okay for you to spend them any way you want, so long as you can convince someone else to say, “Yes.”

In a matter of an hour, three of the four Artifacts were found. The players decided which governors were Heroes and which were Villains. The fourth was in Jessica’s possession, and I knew she’d have it show up when it was appropriate. One group who found one of the Artifacts asked if they could use it on the captain of the pirate faction. I told them, “You have to get his permission.” So, they went to him, offered him Hero Points, and he agreed to become a Villain.

And speaking of Villains…

These were mine. My friends I met in Italy. They were the representatives of the Vodacce district. I asked if they would play Villains for me, and they jumped at the chance.

I gave them Villain Points instead of Hero Points. And I said, “Tell the players that Villain Points act exactly like Hero Points, but when you spend them, something awful might happen. Be sure to tell John when you spend them.”

They asked me, “What do Villain Points do?”

I told them. And they smiled. But that’s for later.

I also told them, “Your job isn’t to thwart the players. It’s to get thwarted by the players. You are obstacles to overcome. Let them do it.” They agreed.

So, I gave them Villain Points, a bunch of coins to bargain with, and they were off.

(And that’s Jessica grinning in the background.)

How It Ended

The players managed to discover all the Clues and Artifacts and get all the Improvements made. (That tells me I made things too easy for them. I’ll change that for Los Angeles.) Jessica gave out a few faerie gifts and it looked like the Eisen were in a clear lead for “most productive faction.”

The two women (Pirate and Montaigne) who wanted to perform a duel did so. I set it up like the pro wrestling larp my friend Dan and I run: I had them sit in two chairs just out of reach of each other and asked them to narrate the duel to the other players. They offered each other Hero Points to determine the winner and the Pirate came out on top. They narrated the duel with a lot of pantomime and drama and because the other players didn’t know who was going to win, they were cheering and booing the whole way.

After considering all the Clues, each faction voted on who was responsible for the mayor’s death: the Montaigne governor. And then, when it was all over, I had everyone vote on which player would take his place. Then, we all cheered, I closed the game, and we took pictures.

Spoilers: Behind the Scenes

Like I said, a lot of folks asked me to break down how I pulled all this off. It must have seemed like an incredible feat of game design engineering. At least, that’s what I’m told. People asked me how I kept all the players so entertained. “I’ve never been to a larp where I wasn’t bored at least part of the time.”

Well, here’s the big secret, folks. And, like I said, if you don’t want to know any spoilers or see how the trick is done, turn away now. Just stop reading. And now, with no further ado…

 

 

 

 

 

… I made it all up.

Seriously. I just made it all up.

I sat down on the morning of the larp and wrote down 30 Clues. Took me about forty minutes.

Then, I thought about what kind of cool thing the players could do with the Artifacts. I took a shower–the source of all good ideas–and thought about it. I decided, “The Artifacts let the players decide which governors are Heroes and Villains.” That worked.

How many coins did I give each faction? Eh, I made it up. I had a bag of coins and I decided some factions should get more than others. I knew the Montaigne faction was the smallest, so I gave them the most coins. Seemed to make thematic sense. (Also, the Montaigne faction came damn close to winning the election. They were good players.)

And finally, while I was running the game (which was me pretty much walking around and watching), I rewarded players with Hero Points and Kewl Powerz. Like giving some folks a free Trait Refresh. Or giving others bonus Brawn.

But the most important thing I did was trust the players. I gave them the ability to be GMs themselves (with Hero Points) and let them go. And when one of them got a little over-eager with the idea, I reminded them, “This is just a game. There’s no winning or losing. It’s about telling a story.

Now, you may argue that “winning” is figuring out who murdered the mayor. Yeah, sure. I guess. But really, everyone was going to vote on that anyway.

You may say that getting the Artifacts was winning. Yeah, sure. I guess. But it wasn’t zero sum winning. You didn’t win because someone else lost. You wanted to say something true about the governor, and you did. Great! You set a goal and you got it. But that really doesn’t count as “winning,” does it? At least, not at another player’s expense.

The players set their own agendas and had the tools to accomplish them…as long as they got consent from other players. And that’s really how the game runs. That’s the big secret:

 

Give players the power to be the GM and trust they’ll tell stories with it.

 

If you tell players that’s what your game is about–like I did–they’ll generally do it. Didn’t Mr. Miyagi teach us all that? Let me paraphrase: “No such thing as bad player. Only bad game. Game say, player do.” The game says, “Here’s narration rights. Be responsible.” Do that, and players will, generally, do what they’re told.

A bunch of larp people were at the game and they commented on how it seemed there was no system. No formal dueling mechanic, no mechanic for sorcery, no mechanic for mass combat. “Yeah,” I said. “We don’t need it.”

And that’s the truth. In a cooperative storytelling game (like RPGs and larps), what mechanics do you really need? I’ll tell you what you need: a mechanic that encourages people to cooperate and tell stories.

Everything else… it’s just nonsense.

 

 

Oh, and what do Villain Points do?

My Vodacce players know. Ask them. I’m sure they’ll quote you a fair price.

 

My Superman

 

(With acknowledgement to Mike Curry without whom this story wouldn’t exist.)

A bank robbery. Six suspects, all with incredible, inhuman speed and strength. Their eyes glowing an eerie cobalt blue. Fortunately for them, they decided to rob a Metropolis bank and not a Gotham bank. If they had chosen the latter, they’d all have broken bones and possibly brain tissue trauma. Fortunately for them, they chose Metropolis.

About one minute and fifteen seconds after the robbery starts, he shows up. Like a blue and red blur, he moves through the bank, grabbing guns and bending them around the robbers’ bodies. He does this so quickly, cameras can’t catch it.

When he gets to the last robber, the man has a hostage: a man in his sixties who looks like he may fall apart at any moment. The last robber–Reggie Spenser–is a black man with a crew cut. He moves like a professional soldier because he was one. Reggie makes a couple of threats, then finds himself in the same position as his comrades: his gun melted and bent around his body, immobilizing him. Reggie looks up and sees the clear blue eyes and black hair. But what he doesn’t see is malice or hate.

“@#$% you!” he shouts at the Man of Steel. But instead of more violence, the soft baritone asks him a question.

“What led you here?”

Reggie looks confused. “Whuddyou mean?”

“I mean, what led you to the decision to rob a bank? You’re strong. You’re smart. What brought you here, this day, to aim lethal weapons at people and threaten their lives?”

That’s when Reggie realizes that the Last Son of Krypton isn’t just super strong and super fast, but there’s something in his voice that…it isn’t mesmerization. It isn’t anything forceful. It’s just…

Empathy.

Reggie looks into those eyes and hears the voice and realizes, He actually cares. 

“We were Marines. They did something to us. Put us in a box. This blue smoke filled it up and we passed out. And when we woke up, this is what we were. They said we were a mistake and tried to kill us. We’ve been off the grid ever since.”

Reggie hears sirens. And the baritone voice again.

“What’s your name?”

Reggie tells him.

“Reggie, you’re going to face the criminal justice system. More than likely, you’re going to jail. I can’t help you with that. Tell your story to your lawyer. Trust him. I know the woman who runs the Public Defender’s Office. They’re overworked, but they’re good people.”

The sirens get closer and he continues.

“You’re probably going to jail.” He puts his large hand on Reggie’s shoulder. “But when you get out, I’ll be there. And we’ll both make sure you get a fresh start.”

 

Three years later…

 

Reggie Spenser walks out of Metropolis Prison. He’s carrying only what he carried in with him. Standing outside the prison is a tall man in a blue suit with a red cape.

“Hey man,” Reggie says. “Thanks for the visits. I don’t know if I could have made it without ’em.”

The man in the blue suit says, “You’re strong. You would have made it.”

Reggie smiles and says, “Those cookies really come from your mom?”

“They sure did.”

“Tell your mom she makes great cookies.”

The Man of Steel says, “I found the men who did this to you. They’re in custody. The District Attorney says he needs your testimony to finish off his case.”

Reggie thinks for a moment. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll do that.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” Superman says. “You’ve got a hard road ahead of you. There are people who want you to fail.”

“@#$% them,” Reggie says.

“Not the language I’d use, but I appreciate the sentiment. Come on. I’ll fly you over.”

 

Meanwhile, across the river, Gotham Central Hospital just admitted four bank robbers with cranial fractures. Two of them might make it.

 

* * *

 

Mike Curry and I were talking.I had just watched a documentary on Mr. Rogers and was commenting on how decent a human being he was, all the way through. That got Mike thinking about how to introduce Superman to a group of roleplayers. He said “I have Batman, but I haven’t gotten Superman figured out.”

Then, he said, “What if Superman was like Mr. Rogers?”

And thus, this story.

Thanks, Mike.

 

Unreview: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

 

I think it’s safe to say that one of the reasons I love Tarrentino movies is because he always seems to be ahead of me. Catching me off guard.

Start with Reservoir Dogs. A bunch of clearly criminal elements sitting around in a diner talking about Madonna. I did not see that coming. Then, the credits followed with a smash to a backseat full of blood. Nope. Didn’t see that coming.

Pulp Fiction kept me on my toes the whole time. Honeybunny and Pumpkin suddenly jumping up with guns in their hands, “Royale with Cheese,” and exactly how far are Marcellus Wallace’s wife and Vincent Vega going to let this sexual tension go? The non-linear storytelling forced me to think, “Okay, where are we?” The divine intervention and Jules re-thinking Ezekiel 25:17. That last moment, by the way, still gives me chills and sometimes chokes me up.

It seemed every subsequent QT film would take a left-hand turn straight out of the ballpark whenever I got settled in. I never knew when it would happen or how it would happen, but it would happen. My favorite is the stunning climax of Inglorious Basterds with two Jewish-American soldiers pumping rounds in…

… well, I really shouldn’t say anything else, should I? I don’t want to steal that moment from anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

A friend of mine once said the joy of reading a Philip K. Dick book was “that PDK moment when the protagonist becomes absolutely certain that everything around him is a lie.” I’d make the argument that the Quentin Tarrentino moment is when he hits you upside the head with something that was both inevitable and surprising (Aristotle’s key to an effective plot). If anyone can do it, it’s QT. Moreso, I don’t think anyone working in Hollywood does it as well or as consistent as Tarrentino.

Which is why this movie… well…

I’m not going to say I didn’t like it, because I did like it. I think it’s one of my favorite Tarrentino movies. On one hand, it contains everything I love about QT’s movies. Rock solid dialogue. The language of the camera. My favorite directors—like my favorite authors—have a distinct voice. When you’re watching a Tarrentino movie, you know it’s a Tarrentino movie.

But there are other things that seem distinctly different. QT’s characters are cool, sometimes to the point of caricature. They’re all consistent. Even when they are archetypal, he spends enough time so you feel you know the character, so when they make decisions, all those decisions make sense. The advantage of archetypal caricatures is you can use them to move plot forward, and Tarrentino doesn’t do that.

(Recent Marvel movies could take some lessons here.)

But in this film, he spends the entire first two acts taking a deep dive into the lives and thoughts of three characters: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, and Margot Robbie’s  Sharon Tate. We spend nearly two hours with these characters, following them around, watching them as a dark aura of doom creeps over their heads. We learn to love them, and that means we begin to worry about them. Of course, we know what’s going to happen to Sharon Tate, but the doom lurking over the shoulders of Booth and Dalton is just as present. And for the first two hours of the film, that doom remains, but quietly. Waiting for the right moment to strike. The moment we know cannot be avoided.

As I said, I’ve loved QT’s films because I’ve always felt he’s been ahead of me. But this time… not so much. Granted, I don’t think that was his intention with the first two acts. It’s a hang out movie. He’s not trying to keep us on our toes. He wants us to settle in, get to know these people, get to like them, maybe even fall in love with them, because in the third act, something truly awful happens.

(Although, to be fair, there is a moment at the Spahn Ranch that put me right on the edge of my seat, holding my breath. That was the first time in the movie that I felt I was watching a QT movie. I had no idea what was going to happen next and I… yeah, enough about that. You’ll see it.)

So, sitting back, doing what was expected of me, the movie felt like a QT film and didn’t feel like a QT film. I like when directors stretch and try things they’ve never tried before, and that’s what the first two acts felt like to me: Tarrentino saying, “I don’t have to keep pulling rabbits out of my hat. I’m going to do this instead.”

And after getting to know these three characters well enough to care about them, QT set the third act into motion…

 

Okay. Here’s the thing. I respect stories, sometimes more than people. When I say that I won’t talk about spoilers, it isn’t so much out of respect for the storyteller (although there is respect there), it’s more out of respect for the story. And in this case, talking about the third act at all is a spoiler, so I’m not going to talk about it. However, I will talk about my reaction when the film was over.

 

When the film closed, I had mixed feelings. I loved the experience and will probably see the movie a second time. However…

Mr. Tarrentino,

I loved your movie. Sincerely loved it. I agree with you when you say this was your most personal movie. It shows. I fell in love with your characters and I remember the love I used to hold for Los Angeles when I lived there. (I’ve since gotten over it, but I encourage you to never lose it. I miss LA from time to time, the same way you miss an ex-, but then I remember how happy I am with my current love and that reminiscence fades.)

I loved your movie. But there’s this thing about magic tricks. As Penn & Teller say during their cups and balls routine: “The first rule of magic is, never do the same trick twice.”

That’s twice, sir. You don’t get a third time.

 

With admiration and respect,

JW

The Map is Not the Territory

Someone asked me about my Unreview rules recently:

  • I have to pay for it,
  • I have to like it,
  • I do my best to use E-Prime.

Well, here’s why.

 

Imagine someone who reviews movies after only seeing the trailer. Or reviews books after reading the back cover. Or reviews games after only reading the rules.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody does that. Those people don’t exist. Well, you’d only be partly right. The first two don’t exist. But the last one is actually commonplace. I see it all over the internet.

The fact of the matter is, reviewing a game after only reading the rules is exactly like reviewing a restaurant after only reading the menu. One of my favorite little lessons I learned from studying Zen (stolen from Alan Watts) goes like this:

 

I can give you the recipe for baking the cake.

I can give you the ingredients.

But I can’t tell you good it will smell when it comes out of the oven,

Or how it will taste.

 

Let me give you a couple of examples.

In many editions of the World’s Most Popular RPG, rolling a 20 gives you a critical hit. It’s also an automatic success. That’s a rule. There it is. Look at it.

 

Of course, that doesn’t tell you at all about the emotions rolling around the table when the DM says, “You have to roll a 20 to succeed.”

It doesn’t show you the tense moment before someone rolls that d20.

And it doesn’t show you the cheer that rises from a table when it happens.

 

Those moments cannot be written down in rules. They’re what James Joyce called “sublime moments.” A short period of time that words could only fail to describe. Even now, writing it down, have I really captured that cheer? Has anyone? I can tell you about it. I can even try to show you that moment with lyrical prose, invoking your own memories of that one time you needed to roll a 20 and you did it and saved everyone’s lives.

But does it really capture that moment?

Gaming moments are sublime. That’s why gaming stories are so boring. Okay, for one, they’re usually told by people who don’t know how to tell a good story, but the other part is the moment was so magical…you just had to be there.

I’ll use a video game as an example. I used to play a lot of Left 4 Dead 2. That’s two teams competing for survival. Each round, they take turns playing the survivors and the zombies. The heroes want to move from one safe house to another and the zombies want to stop them from doing it. Pretty simple, right?

Except in the world of L4D, nobody is Master Chief. You need a team of four to make it, all working together, fighting for every damn step you take. It is an intense, brutal and merciless game. And there’s one mechanic that makes it all sing.

When you get knocked down, you need someone else to get you up.

Now, I know this mechanic has been lifted in other games—I’ll talk about one of them in a moment—but this is the point. When you go down in that game, you know there’s a good chance you’ll be…left for dead. Because going back in a game that’s all about going forward means you’re losing. When you play the game as the zombies, the whole point is to keep them from moving forward and pulling people back. So, when you go down, the whole team has to stop and get you back up.

As zombies, whenever you get one of the survivors down, it’s progress. Getting two down…oh, buddy. That’s the end.

So, here’s the situation. I’m playing online with strangers. Just two of us have made our way across the map, fighting for every step, like I said above. There’s just two of us left. The safe house is in sight. We get to the door and…my buddy gets pounced. I have a choice. I could stay in the safe house and score points, or I could go back and get him, and thus, score more points. But if I go back outside, there’s a whole host of baddies waiting to jump me. So, the obvious choice is staying inside.

I don’t take the obvious choice. I use a med pack and heal myself up. I take a shot of adrenaline so all my actions are fast-fast-fast. I grab the grenade launcher.

All the while, I’m saying over the mic to my buddy, “I’m coming back for you.” And my buddy is shouting, “Don’t you come outside! Don’t you come outside!”

I just tell him, “I’m coming back for you.”

I open the door. Fire the grenade launcher to kill the zombie that’s on him. (For fans of the game, it was a hunter.) Then, fast-fast-fast­, I get him back up and fire the grenade launcher again, just in case. And together, we shut the door.

“Holy shit!” the other guy shouts. “You come back outside whenever you goddamn want!”

Another story. I’m currently playing Mass Effect: Andromeda multi-player. Similar deal. Four players against waves of baddies. We have to work together to win. And, like in Left 4 Dead, if you go down, someone else has to get you up.

When you’re playing with friends, chances are, folks will run to pick you up. But when you’re playing with strangers, your odds are 50/50%. So, when you go down and you see someone running across the map to get you…there is nothing in the world like it.

I can show you the mechanic, I cannot tell you how the cake will taste.

Anyone who reviews a game without playing it is missing 90% of the game. And that 90% only happens at the table. I’m not talking about player banter, I’m talking about seeing a mechanic in play and how it affects the table. You can’t tell those kinds of things by only looking at the rules. You have to see them in play.

And until you do that, you’re just reviewing the movie after reading the script. Sure, you may get to see the best lines, but you’ll never see the actors or the special effects or the editing choices.

Or, you’re reviewing the album after looking at the sheet music. I’m sure Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah looks pretty boring on the page. But hearing it…now that’s something else.

I’m going to Italy later this year. I plan on seeing Michelangelo’s David. Because seeing the pictures doesn’t do it justice.

When I went to Scotland, the thing I wanted to see most was Rosslyn Chapel. Why? Because I had seen pictures and I wanted to see the real thing. Watching your favorite band in concert on video is not the same as being there, watching them live, surrounded by a few thousand other fans who are just as excited to see them as you were.

And saying that someone who saw a concert on video is the same as seeing a band live, well, that’s as silly as…oh, I don’t know… maybe…

…reading the rules and thinking you’d played the game.