Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"It" Movie Review (We All Float)...

So here's something that doesn't happen every day - a movie review!  You see, every now and again there's a movie event.  Something big based on something bigger that gets a lot of hype in geek circles and either delights or disappoints when it finally comes out.  And this summer, in a season full of lackluster disappointments (my opinion), there's something which, thankfully, succeeds and (interestingly enough) is also a perfect fit for late summer going into early autumn - Stephen King's classic novel IT!

Now, in the name of full disclosure, I'm a rather huge Stephen King fan.  But that's not the big reveal.  We publish fantasy RPGs, so I imagine people think I do fantasy like the Cookie Monster tackles an Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip.  Not so much.  And that's the big reveal.  Aside from a few notables (well, a respectable amount), I don't read an awful lot of fantasy anymore.  Tolkien?  Moorcock?  I love 'em all.  Blood of Pangea is heartfelt.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (get it)...

But when it comes to fantasy, I prefer mine as gaming.  To me, that's where it makes sense and feels right.  Guess I'm a crappy geek.  Book-wise (and despite the fact that my all-time favorite is Kingdoms of the Wall, a sci-fi masterpiece by Robert Silverberg), I prefer literary horror after King, Straub, and (the great) T.E.D. Klein.  This is modern fantasy with all the pretensions of John Updike.  Stories about real people facing off against the innumerable monsters in their lives - only some of them supernatural!

And King has always been about people.  Plausibly real and relatable.  There's nothing like our own world with all its intrigues, and his movie adaptations didn't start getting good until the Hollywood types finally figured that out.  Yeah, King loves his monsters.  And he certainly created a compelling mythology.  But his stories were always about people...

Enter IT.  The 2017 Muschetti IT and not the (inferior) 1990 miniseries.

SPOILER ALERT:  The town of Derry, Maine sees a sudden rash of disappearances, and a handful of kids discover the culprit's a monster.  Read the book or see the film.

Disclaimer:  This is a movie adaptation, so it doesn't perfectly follow the original book, which begins with adult characters in the 80s being summoned back to Derry and recalling their childhoods in the 50s - and the evil they temporarily defeated.  The movie focuses on the childhood end of things, with a planned sequel for the adult reckoning.  That said, a few scenes are missing or changed.  Most notably, a giant bird and the animated Paul Bunyan statue.  But movies flow differently, so I mostly forgive them...        

We all float down here...

OK, first things first.  The movie is well cast and acted.  The banter between the kids is a bit frantic at times, but I imagine my own adolescent ramblings were at least as much, if not worse.  And the decision to shift this portion of the story to the 80s was a truly inspired move by the producers.  Some have made unflattering comparisons to Stranger Things.  But I think the choice had more to do with giving contemporary audiences a sense of nostalgia they could relate too.  Remember, the kids come back 27 years later to finish things, and that works out to being roughly in the present day for moviegoers.

At any rate, there's enough 80s pop culture going around that even youngsters can relate to its imagined yesterday and, really, those days weren't all that different (and the movie would doubtless lose some of its magic if the kids were face down and transfixed by their cell phones all the time anyway).  So younger audiences get both a feeling of familiarity plus a glimpse into a lost, but relatable, past.  All in all, a sound choice.  Now, I straddled two decades (I turned 13 in 1980), so it really hit the sweet spot for this reviewer!

And the cinematography?  Well, it certainly delivers.  Its perspective and timing is eerily effective, and the famous scene with Georgie in the rain works perfectly.  I don't like violence against children.  Not one bit.  And I'm not a huge fan of suffering or splatter flicks that glorify it, so this was a little hard to watch on the face of it.  But it's part of the story, after all.  This scene, to me, was the most important indicator (and an early one at that) as to how well the film would perform.  A clown in a sewer drain is pretty ridiculous imagery, so you have to get into the head of a little boy and create something both seductive and menacing  (I've always thought that the two overlap).  And it works because Pennywise is depicted as just human enough in dark shadows, and because Muschetti wisely retained King's original dialogue.  Let's just say I was both pleased and disturbed. 

What the @#$% is this?  The 1990 
miniseries was a floater of a different kind...

Now, something that stands out is how kid-centric the film manages to be.  Adults exist, obviously, and we see glimpses of them all.  But this is mostly a story about kids at a time in their lives when they stop being appendages of their parents and start forging their own identities and relationships.  And sometimes, the adults become the villains by proxy and, in the case of Beverly's character, actual villains of the worst sort.  We see glimpses of who they are through the effect they've had on their children, and this helps keep the emphasis squarely where it belongs.  It's an approach that only occasionally falls flat.

But what about the film's titular villain?  Pennywise the Clown is played with fiendish enthusiasm by Bill Skarsgard and is both closely human and horrifically, well, off.  The depiction works.  One thing I didn't like about the 1990 miniseries (aside from pretty much everything) was how common Pennywise appeared.  He (she/it) just looked like a clown with bad oral hygiene.  And the garb was too similar to what you might see at the circus today.  But Muschetti's version achieves something positively baroque; an outfit from another century that's creepy and profane in the way early black and white pictures are creepy and profane.  It's the grotesque imagery of 1865's advertising.   

And, of course, CGI helps.  Pennywise is portrayed as the cosmic entity "he" truly is (read the book, people), deadlights and all (really, read that book).  And there's something vaguely spider-like in its movements, which also plays into the story, albeit in the inevitable sequel.  This isn't Freddy Krueger or some other lame (and generalized) thing of earthly evil (I like literary horror and not the swill served up in most horror films).  And because the original book began in the so-called present, with a grown-up Loser's Club returning to Derry to end things for good, we know the sequel isn't destined to be some cheap extrapolation of a superior original.  This, alone, gives me high hopes... 

Now, a word about scares.  A few have complained about the lack of them.  I find this absurd because the scenes where each character individually encounters Pennywise are pretty frightening and, in the case of Bill Denbrough, atmospheric and spooky.  But it's doubly absurd because scares are cheap thrills.  Scares are bullshit.  Going to war was scary.  So what?  I can't stand the vapid "jump-scare" crap (some of which was advertised in the trailers) being served up these days.  No, this is a story about people.  Young people facing off against evil and ultimately winning.  And the intended effect is more that of a knight entering a dragon's cave.  Scary, sure, but also rather heroic.

The film has its flaws.  Bill Denbrough's stuttering is shown, but never referenced.  Same with the spoken device used to counter it.  Likewise, Richie's penchant for silly voices is shown in dialogue, but the "beep, beep" reference (used only once in the movie) is likewise never explained and would doubtless fall flat with the uninitiated.  Hurried editing, perhaps?  Maybe an extended DVD release can fix this, and maybe that's the plan.

At a little over two hours, IT never drags.  The film does what it needs to, although I found myself wishing for just a little more.  Movies aren't books.  They can't achieve the third person deep King is known for, leaving the audience to rely on their eyes and the dialogue to get the point across.  And this one pulls it off where the miniseries failed.

And so Stephen King gets what he deserves.  A movie franchise (of sorts) and an adaptation that actually works.  And no John-Boy as Bill Denbrough either.  Yep, that's a bonus!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Five Things We've Learned by Being Humans Who Also Happen to Play Tabletop RPGs...

Earlier on, we posted an article about the role of the GM/referee, and it prompted some discussion (and questions) about what kind of GM I might be.  So instead of flogging a dead horse, here's five simple rules we try our best to live (and game) by:

Disclaimer:  The following is our opinion.  It might differ from yours, but that's not a high crime or misdemeanor, so take it with a grain of salt and humor us.  

(1) Games are great.  But actual people and relationships are (almost) always more important.  You can stop here if you want, cause' the rest is just fluffy window dressing...

(2) Hopefully, the people in your group are also your friends.  And if so, hopefully you value these relationships for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your hobby.


(3) If one of your players offers to sacrifice their +2 plate mail to keep a cherished character alive, it's the a good-faith negotiation that's well worth honoring.  In these situations, just balance the fun everyone had when the character was alive against any reservations about propriety.  The integrity of the rules takes a back seat to these considerations, especially when a player is volunteering to lose something to keep something else.

Really, challenge is about risk and uncertainty.  But it's also about making sacrifices and understanding that everything costs, so don't turn away any paying customers!  

(4) Sometimes, the spouse or significant other of one of your players will join in just so they can feel part of what their loved one is doing.  Please understand that in these situations, the dynamic has clearly shifted, and the emphasis should change as well.  The goal now is to keep everyone involved, because the death of a newcomer's character immediately excludes them.  People before make-believe games.  Live it.  Love it, etc.
  
Going easy on a non-gaming guest isn't gonna break your game, and if they become a regular (always a good thing), they'll obviously need to adjust their expectations.    

(5) As long as games are played by people, said people will need to negotiate and resolve their differences in a way that scales to the setting and the things at stake.  I haven't seen a rulebook yet that can prevent bad behavior.  It all comes down to relationships, folks...

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tekumel and the Power of "Maybe"...

We're back from a much-needed break - and maybe we go to a monthly format again.  But until then, we do have a little something to start the week...

So, getting to it, we stumbled upon this old article on the Hill Cantons blog and were immediately reminded of what a kindred spirit M.A.R. Barker was.  Not only did he imagine the weirdly exotic world of Tekumel (which should have been more than enough to secure his place in gaming history), but he also seemed to have the "right" ideas about how gaming should be approached.  I mean, if we're gonna look at a game; any game, under the pretense of adventure, then story matters.  Even if it's just the story created when people get together and make decisions in the heat of whatever battle they've stumble into....

The party flees an approaching band of orcs and finds their escape cut off by a collapsed tunnel.  Now this is a tactical problem.  But it still implies story.  Why are the characters underground?  What are the orcs doing there?  And how did the two parties find themselves at odds?  And, more importantly, how do they get themselves out of it?  At this point, we haven't invoked rule one and really, we shouldn't have to.  If gaming is a participatory social exercise, then the narrative, meaning what happens in the course of an emerging story, is what matters most.  Rules are needed.  But only stories are fun.

In Tekumel, the setting (and story)
overshadowed the system, which is how it should be...

Rules are great (and admittedly, rather necessary).  But I, for one, could never entertain myself just by toying with game mechanics.  The rules always need to map to characters and events.  And story isn't just something built into the background.  Story can also be forward looking - and really should.  In the above example, the characters might hide themselves among the fallen rocks or simply surrender to the orcs and hope to reason with their leaders or successfully escape once a suitable opening reveals itself.  Both make for a great story, but both are only fun when we understand them as a story about characters.

And with that in mind, we're convinced that rules (and dice) are only necessary owing (and ultimately reducible) to the following core principles:

(1) Special powers and abilities necessarily modify outcomes and operate under certain conditions and/or with specified (and generally, quantifiable) effects.

(2) While some actions are always successful and others doomed to fail, many can go either way, and rolling dice creates excitement because an action might succeed, perhaps by the barest of margins.  That is, dice emulate risk and uncertainty.

(3) Moreover, the element of risk and uncertainty is more convincing (and seems more objectively fair) when even the referee doesn't know the outcome in advance!

So let's imagine a hypothetical game where everyone is just a person capable of a general range of actions.  Dice are minimized and the "challenge" lies in thinking up a suitable strategy in the first place.  Melee is easy.  Roll 4 or better on 1d6 or suffer 1-3 hits based on the target's size and/or power (10 hits is fatal).  Success kills the enemy and failure forces another round with the potential for even greater injury.  Non-combat actions, in all their variety, are easier still.  Just roll 4 or better.  If the characters and story are interesting (and if the players get caught up in events), they'll have a blast despite the lack of rules because, ultimately, we don't play to tinker with dice.  We play to become legends!

Of course, precedent would eventually kick in, certain rulings codified, and additional rules developed to account for the stuff of the setting, and at this point, the above becomes a proper game, complete with detailed charts, tables, and source books.  But our hypothetical game simultaneously reveals not only the hobby's biggest strength, but also its inherently self-limiting nature.  Because ultimately, all we need to know is that success is either yes, no, or maybe - and then have 'em roll for the maybe part!  Everything else is just the story...    

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Homunculi (for Diceless Dungeons)...

OK, no dissertation this week, just a little something for Diceless Dungeons; a sorcerous companion that can be magically fashioned, albeit with difficulty, from a forbidden tome that will only be found on adventures (a dragon's hoard perhaps)...

Click on the above link to get this creature (item?) in pdf form.  But also read on to consider the special role of the homunculus in a quasi-medieval world setting...  

Now, this ruleset doesn't go into too much detail about its implied setting, and this is by design (the referee should be free to create whatever they wish).  However, it does suggest something vaguely medieval; a place where magic is rare and, more importantly, widely feared and mistrusted.  That said, any magical writing is going to be exceedingly rare and probably forbidden, and while the homunculus so created offers obvious advantages, clever referees should avoid the tired assumption that magic (and at the very least, magic of this sort) can be practiced with impunity.  All power comes at a price.

That being said, going about in public with a miniature demon on one's shoulder is sure to attract the wrong sort of attention, and even the act of hunkering down for days at a time performing strange rituals will doubtless alert religious authorities!  None of this has anything to do with special rules and everything to do with proper role-playing, which we've always maintained was diceless to its very core.  So roll your minds and get busy playing!