Thursday, November 26, 2015

Movie #336: Inside Out

Inside Out is the latest slice of brilliance from Pixar, and stars Amy Poehler, Mindy Kahling, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane, Lewis Black, and Kaitlyn Dias.

We see the birth and early childhood of Riley (Dias) through the eyes of Joy (Poehler), one of the five emotions that drive her. The others, Fear (Hader); Anger (Black, because who the hell else would you cast?); Disgust (Kahling); and Sadness (Smith) all have their own roles to fulfill, but Joy doesn't really understand what Sadness does. In any event, Joy is very much the leader - her goal is keep Riley happy (interestingly, the other emotions seem to have the same goal; Fear doesn't want her scared, he just responds when she should be), and sees Sadness in particular as a roadblock to that goal.

Riley and her family move cross-country, and things are stressful and sucky. On the first day of school, Riley generates a new "core memory" (formative moments that power the islands of her personality), but this one is sad, rather than happy. Joy flips out and tries to prevent it from joining the others, and winds up disconnecting the other five and getting her, the core memories, and Sadness all sucked down into long term memory, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger as the only emotions Riley can feel.

The bulk of the movie concerns Joy and Sadness trying to get back into headquarters, and Joy finally realizing Sadness' role - she needs to be there so Riley can express her grief, work through it, and signal for help from her loving parents (MacLachlan and Lane). Along the way, they get help from Riley's old imaginary friend, Bing-Bong (Kind), who, in one of the movie's most touching moments, sacrifices himself to being forgotten so that Joy can keep going.

At the end of the movie, Riley pulls herself together, cries, and bonds with her parents, creating a new core memory that's both happy and sad. Riley is growing up, and her feelings and memories become more nuanced.

This movie is really amazing, and it's layered like whoa. What does it say, for instance, that Riley's mother is being driven by Sadness? Is that always the case, or just now during a very stressful period in her life? Same question about dad (driven by Anger and Fear)? And considered that we watch Riley's control panel evolve from a single button when she's a newborn to a much bigger spread as she grows up - more than one emotion can drive at once.

What I really like is that it's obvious that, however painful it is watching Goofball Island tumble into the abyss, personality islands are meant to crumble and be replaced. Riley isn't going to have a Boy Band Island forever (probably), but right now it's important to her...and "right now" is all she knows, because she's a kid. The movie captures the experience of being young and making stupid, impulsive decisions not because Riley is actually stupid or impulsive (we get the feeling she's neither, but actually pretty well put together) but because she's stressed, overwhelmed, and (though they don't realize it) her parents are putting her under immense pressure to "stay happy."

Riley reminds me a lot of my daughter (also 11), actually, and this movie is a good one for parents, I think. It's important to remember that we're all of us a work in progress, each of us the sum of our emotions and memories, and time erases parts of those, reshapes others, and blends it all up

My Grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Land of the Dead


I ran this game on Monday, and then a wild Thanksgiving appeared, so here we are.

Last time, the characters had set up a meet with a pack of werewolves to learn a bit about the monster in the lake. This time, that meeting happened.

The characters met up near Edgewater Park, and were shortly approached by a man calling himself Chuck (Miriana recognized him as a werewolf). He chatted with them briefly, and then whistled, and a wolf walked out from the woods and changed up into man; he called himself Neal.

Neal told them, in brief, about how spirit ecology worked, and what they were up against. Specifically, "if the legends are true," he said, there was a very powerful creature called Gagh-Azur (or "the Mouth of the Deeps") that mostly lived in the ocean but made its way around to the Great Lakes every few years. It created creatures like the fish-monster and the giant squid out of raw materials (Neal called them "Mawspawn") and while he wasn't sure of its specific abilities, he did know that a similar creature out in Denver had required multiple packs of werewolves to kill.

The brood, sobered by this thought, chatted with the werewolves a bit more. Neal gave them a little info about the werewolf situation; basically, there was a pack in East Cleveland that didn't get along with other werewolves (they were old money, 1%er types), but the city proper and the spirit-scape was really the Bridge Pack's area. Maia flirted with Neal and eventually he asked her if she was doing anything tonight, and they left together (and she picked up the Family Ties Condition for him). The others headed back to Parma.

Neal and Maia wound up making out in Lakeview Cemetery, when suddenly Neal perked up and sniffed. He smelled something like death, he said, and wasn't sure what. And then the Beasts realized that the Apex in the area had changed, and instead of Wailing, their Lairs were Flooded (not a huge problem for Maia, but not a welcome change for the others). Had Gagh-Azur ventured on land? Was it now the Apex?

And just then, the security company called Tyler and told him his alarm was going off at his store. Neal apologized to Maia, but said he had to go find his pack, and she said that was fine; she was going to find her folks. The brood went to get Maia, then head for the store. Something was up.

Next time, we find out what.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Game as Art: Participation

I ran Monsterhearts yesterday, and as I was drifting off to sleep, I was thinking about why I love the game so much. I mean, sure, "messy lives of teenage monsters" is a cool hook, and the writing is tight, and it's probably the best implementation I've seen so far of the *World system (though Bluebeard's Bride gives it a run for its money). But on top of all of that, it feels like art.

We talk about whether RPGs (or video games, but that's a discussion I'm not really qualified to have because my interest in and exposure to video games is a pretty narrow slice) are art, but it tends to be hard to come up with a good definition of "art" as it relates to RPGs. When I think of RPGs as art, then, I realized, as I thought about Monsterhearts, that to me a game that's art is challenging.

I would argue that most RPGs actually attempt not to be challenging. What's one of the common sales pitches I hear when I'm walking the dealer's room at GenCon or Origins and talking to folks about their games? "The system gets out of the way." Well, that's cool and all, but that's not really what I want if I'm looking for art. I'm looking for something that makes me engage with the game. Games that prioritize breadth - your GURPS, your d20, even (I hate to say it, because I love the system) Fate, don't challenge so much as shoot for inclusivity.

Now, that's funny, of course, because a lot of those games have labyrinthine rules rabbit holes, such that only someone who is willing to engage and put in the time to learn the rules actually gets the full experience of the game. I talk about this with regards to NWoD a lot; it's a good system (2nd edition especially), but it gets better if you learn it and use it. Hell, that's true of Chill, too - there are a lot of fun things the game does, but you have to know how they work.

That's not the kind of challenge I'm talking about, though. That's mechanical challenge; it'll be harder if you're pressed for time or if reading comprehension (or math, in some cases) isn't your thing, but it's not art. It's not an aesthetic challenge, it's not challenging attitudes or viewpoints. It's more like a puzzle.

No, when I'm thinking about challenge, I'm thinking Monsterhearts. I'm thinking Bluebeard's Bride, or Misspent Youth. Hell, without meaning to toot my own horn, Promethean works precisely because it's assumptions and challenges are so different than the rest of the World of Darkness - you're on a journey with a specific ending, and that ending is that you leave the WoD behind and become "normal." That's 180 degrees from every other WoD game, and consequently a lot of folks label it "unplayable." It's not, though (as two long-running chronicles will attest), it just requires different engagement than other games in the same world.

A challenging game should do more than make you try and remember what kind of dice to roll and what numbers that generates. It should make clear the relationship between system and narrative. Bringing that back to Monsterhearts, I have a player in my group who is highly system-impaired. Like, actively hates "systems". But even he is aware of what it means when I tell him to bubble in "cold" at the beginning of a session; he's gonna mark experience when he rolls on cold, but he's more likely to fail. That means if he plays to his character's strengths, he'll succeed more often, but he won't get as much out of it in the long run. Character development is therefore tied directly in to what that character does within the fiction of the game, which is a hell of a lot more artistic and elegant than "you killed 80 goblins? OK, at 4 XP each, that's...".

As I was talking about this with +Michelle, she pointed out that A Tragedy in Five Acts might not be art so much as it encourages players to make art. Players don't tend to remember the system (which is a pretty simple bidding mechanic, really), but they remember the play they created. That's actually something I was trying to do with my contribution to Game Chef this year, Unstuckand those it's very much in the preliminary stage, I'd like to flesh it out at some point. That does leave me wondering where curse the darkness falls, but since it's mine, I don't think I'm qualified to judge.

One more thought: I've played with a lot of first-time RPG players over the years, and the notion that "you create, control, and speak for a character within this world" is a pretty radical one for some of them. I think it's therefore important to remember that art, even as I'm considering it here, is a pretty subjective measure; what's challenging and new for one person might be familiar or even banal to me. In that kind of case, I think it's important for those of us with more experience to a) remember that there's always someone out there doing edgier shit than we are and b) remember that no one likes snooty, scoffy people who crap on other folks' fun.

Anyway: Tell me more challenging/artistic games! Offhand, my (incomplete) list:

  • Monsterhearts (duh)
  • Misspent Youth
  • Bluebeard's Bride
  • Ganakagok
  • Geasa 
  • Spark (although this might fall into the same category as Tragedy; a game that helps you make art as opposed to being art)
  • Dread
  • With Great Power...
  • Dog Eat Dog
  • Magicians (maybe, I haven't played it)
  • Poison'd (yeah, I know it's problematic as shit in places, but it's definitely challenging)
  • Dogs in the Vineyard

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Monsterhearts: Broken

Today was Monsterhearts! In the interest of not forgetting everything that happened, since next week is Thanksgiving and tomorrow I want to spend the day working on Dark Eras, let's do this now.

Last time, you'll recall, the characters were at Cassi's house. Cassi's mom had seen something terrible in the mirror, and Cassi herself had reached her Darkest Self. Briar had research Emmett, the ghost who'd been talking to them, but Emmett had apparently researched them right back.

The characters talked about what to do. They brought up the notion of a wake or a party, and Rook noted that Cassi could plan parties like whoa, but Cassi wanted no part of it. Briar brought up that the wake should perhaps happen in Oregon, where Emmett was from, but Cassi wanted no part of that, either (Darkest Self Cassi is difficult). Cassi said she was done with parties; people were over tonight and it had endangered her family and smashed her pool house door.

Miguel, who had faded again, gazed into the abyss to learn more about Emmett, but failed. He appeared, cut and bleeding. Cassi took him to the bathroom to get him some supplies, and pulled the cover off the mirror. Miguel tried to put it back, and she shut him down, putting her hand up to the glass, where it disappeared into the mirror. Cassi wasn't willing to let go, but Miguel shut her down, pull her hand back. He gained the chilled condition, she gained loved. She therefore calmed down a bit and got out the first aid stuff and bandages. Skyalr and Romy went upstairs to get PopTarts.

Meanwhile, Briar gazed into the abyss and saw everything around her fade away, until only Emmett was left. She said that they just wanted to help him, and he said he was fucking everything up. He said that they needed to find some way to speak to him other than this (where "this" is gazing into the abyss, it seems). Briar shared this information, with a renewed sense of purpose.

Cassi went to check on her mother. Her mother was dazed, but unhurt, and asked Cassi to help her to bed. After she did, she asked Cassi to look in on her brothers. Cassi did, and saw that they were gone. And then she realized, with a horrified feeling, that the hand that had gripped hers in the mirror was small...

She approached the mirror in their room (which she'd deliberately left uncovered, remember) and stared down her reflection, which obligingly talked back to her. It said that her brothers were gone. She told mirror-Cassi to give them back; it refused. It said that she didn't care about them anyway. She lashed out physically and shattered the mirror (taking Harm in the process).

The others came running, and helped Cassi bandage her hand. She haltingly told the others what had happened, between sobs. Briar shut Cassi down to get her calm; she failed, but Miguel spent a String on Briar to boost the roll and so Cassi wound up with the annoyed condition, while Briar got done. Briar asked if mirror-Cassi had the silvered eyes, and Cassi said no. Briar said, "So, again, it's all about you, huh?" Cassi stormed off, upset. Rook followed.

Briar vented to Skylar, and Skylar used hungry ghost and took away her conditions. Rook, meanwhile, found Cassi and talked her down. Cassi said that she wished the mirrorskins had taken her instead of her brothers, and Rook said, "I'd die again if it took you." Cassi collapsed in tears, her Darkest Self resolved.

Skylar went to find them, and creeped on them, and then revealed herself. They went back into the room to figure this out. Miguel gazed into the abyss, and missed; he felt himself fading and realized that getting information meant fading out again. He chose to do it anyway; all the attention was weird for him, he found. He saw himself in the boys' room, the brothers on their beds, terrified, Elijah's hand bleeding.

Cassi picked up a shard of the mirror and gazed into the abyss, too (since she couldn't see Miguel anymore anyway). She saw much what he had, but the room was weird and kaleidoscopic - probably because the mirror was broken. She came back to herself and talked with the others.

They figured they needed to get into the mirror-room and get the boys. Cassi noted that there was an armoire with a big mirror in the attic. Briar told Rook and Austin to go and get it (light the way, which gave them 1 forward), and they went to the attic pull-down staircase to find it was already pulled down.

They ascended and found Cassi's mother sitting on the armoire, very much solid, but with silvered eyes. She made overtures to them, but Rook declined ("I can't sex my way out of this one") and texted the others. He also shut her down, gaining the tempted condition and giving her regretful. The others came up, and her mother smashed the mirror with her elbow. Cassi arrived and told her to give her family back, but she refused. Cassi manipulated an NPC to try and figure out how to get them back, and realized that it would require going into the mirror-verse.

Rook, meanwhile, looked at the bit of the mirror still hanging on the armoire and gazed into the abyss, hoping to contact the Fairy King. He succeeded; the King climbed out of the mirror and talked with Rook. He told him that the mirrorskins were nothing to do with him - to the Fairy King, mirrors were just a door. The mirrorskins lived in unvoiced desire, impulsive spite, trauma, the broken parts of a person.

They decided Briar should knock out Cassi's mom so they could incapacitate her. Briar approached and lashed out physically. She failed, but Miguel and Rook spent Strings. Cassi's mom grabbed a shared of glass and went to jam it into her throat, but Miguel grabbed the shard and Rook yelled a distraction, and Briar sucker-punched her. They took her downstairs and tied her up on the bed, and then brought the big mirror from the hallway into the boys' room.

They decided that Romy, Austin, and Briar would wait (they weren't sure how Mikaela would react to the mirror-verse). The others entered and all held steady. Cassi gained the terrified condition and 1 forward, but everyone else just stayed cool. Briar played "Happy" by Pharrell Williams on her phone, to guide them back. They found the boys and helped them back out of the room slowly, but mirror-Cassi appeared and looked at Rook, asking him if they planned to get Cassi's mother, too. They exited the mirror, but Miguel (unseen) ran into the hallway in the mirror-verse, trying to find Cassi's mother. He found mirror versions of Skylar and Rook lurking there.

Back in the real world, the others covered the mirror. Rook shared with them what mirror-Cassi had said, and they realized that just as Cassi's mom was bodily here but possessed, some part of her was still in the mirror-verse.

Meanwhile, Miguel found everything get darker. The mirrorskins saw him. "He's the one without a reflection," said mirror-Cassi. Mirror-Rook whacked his hand against the wall, shattering his fingers into sharp shards, and lunged. Miguel lashed out physically and punched mirror-Rook, but took Harm in the process. He tried to run away, but missed, and mirror-Skylar shoved him back, cutting him up further. Finally, he reached out, using the voyeur move. He spent a String on Romy and Mikaela realized he was in trouble (he still had the shadowed condition). Mikaela told Romy she could help him, and Romy agreed. Miguel appeared, bleeding, and Mikaela was...gone.

The characters patched up Miguel and he told them what he'd seen. They decided they'd need to go back in, and this time, Miguel would stay out and keep an eye on Cassi's mom. They all walked into the mirror, and Romy and Briar held steady. Romy succeeded, but Briar did not, and found herself wondering if the others could handle a mirror-Briar. She found herself in the pool house, with mirror-Briar pulling herself out of the pool. She smiled with a mouthful of broken-mirror teeth, and attacked. Briar lashed out physically three times, shattering her double. She wasn't sure, though, how to get back without wandering through the mirror-verse.

Meanwhile, the others heard Mikaela call out from downstairs. They found her by the door, with a body (that looked much like Romy's). She said she was afraid she'd fucked everything up. "They're out there, now," she said.

In the bedroom, Cassi's mom called out for help. Miguel identified himself, and she asked him to untie her. He refused, telling her that she was possessed by a mirror-demon, and manipulated an NPC to try and get her to accept it and calm down. He realized this would require him going over and sitting down with her, which he did, and patted her on the shoulder. She smiled, her mirror-eyes returning, and Miguel felt a weird, spiritual reverberation. Mirror-Skylar stepped into the room, holding a knife...

Closing credits song:

Movie #335: Lake Placid

Lake Placid is a late-90s horror/comedy written by the creator of Ally McBeal and starring Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Betty White, and Brendan Gleeson. That works about as well as you'd expect.

Kelly (Fonda) is a paleontologist who gets sent to Maine to look at a tooth found in the body of a Fish and Game Warden who got bit in half in Black Lake (yes, the titular lake isn't even in the movie). That premise is pretty flimsy on its own; I'd just about buy it as an in-game justification for getting an RPG group together, maybe, but then she goes out on the lake with the local (surviving) game warden Jack Wells (Pullman) and sheriff Hank (Gleeson), and they are shortly joined by rich crocodile-obsessed nutball Hector Cyr (Platt, clearly loving every minute of this). Like, these are the PCs in a game of Chill 1st Edition, folks.

Anyway, the lake is in fact home to a giant croc, which kills a couple of deputies and some local wildlife (and a cow, generously led to the water by the crazy old lady who lives on the lake, played by 90s Betty White, who likes to say "cocksucker") before the envoys team manages to drug it and trap it, just in time for its mate to pop up and get its head blown off by the sheriff's immense grenade launcher gun.

So, I've long held this movie up as an example of what happens when you spend your minuscule budget in a horror movie on the cast instead of the effects, except that the effects that jump out as a kind of crappy are the CG effects at the end. The practical effects were designed by Stan Winston, and they look pretty baller. But still, the cast. The interplay between Gleeson and Platt is especially fun, as they go from enemies to frenemies over the course of the movie (every time Gleeson's accent slips, drink!). Fonda is appropriate neurotic (according the featurette, this was a concept priority for the movie), and Pullman is his usual laconic self. The death toll in the movie is a whole two, and while there are some grossout moments, as a horror movie it's pretty tame.

This is creature horror in that awkward 90s-transitioning-to-00s phase, but again, the cast kind of makes it, and it's got a special place in my heart.

My grade: B
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Land of the Dead

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Movie #334: Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke is an 80s fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Wood, Leo McKern, and Alfred Molina.

We open with Mouse (Broderick) narrating as he escapes from the dungeons of Aquila, fleeing the area, and then bragging about it to an inn full of people who turn out to be palace guards. As he's about to skewered, Etienne of Navarre (Hauer) rocks up and saves him. Turns out Navarre is on a holy quest to kill the Bishop of Aquila (Wood) and needs Mouse's help to get back in. Oh, and Navarre has a hawk with him. That's important.

At night, though, Navarre disappears, a mysterious woman named Isabeau (Pfeiffer) appears, and Mouse is basically like "wtf" until the hawk is wounded in a fight with the guards and Navarre has him take the bird to a monk (McKern) who explains: Navarre and Isabeau were lovers, the Bishop wanted her for himself, and when she told him to get fucked he made a deal with Satan to curse them (which seems an odd career move for a bishop). During the day, Navarre is human and Isabeau is a hawk. At night, Navarre is a wolf, but Isabeau is human.

The movie concludes with the lovers confronting the Bishop during an eclipse ("a night without a day") and breaking the curse, which is nice. Along the way we get a small role from a very young Alfred Molina as a wolf-hunter.

This movie was very meaningful to me when I was much younger, to the point that I went by "Nevarre" (misspelling deliberate) on various message boards and chat rooms for a long time. The notion of the lovers being "always together, eternally apart" appealed to my love of tragic romance (BTW, ladies, if you find a man who's enamored of tragic romance, maybe think twice before getting in too deep). The movie itself holds up pretty well; no Oscar-worthy performances, here, but it's fun to watch Broderick chew scenery and Hauer be badass and blonde. Interestingly, the villain (Wood) is kinda boring; the captain of the guard (Ken Hutchison) has more to do and more bite.

The soundtrack, composed by Alan Parsons, is bloody awful. Every now and then we get some nice orchestral music, but then the synth and the electric guitar come back and it's like "oh, wow, it's the 80s now."

I think, personally, that this movie would be good to remake now with a better soundtrack and better effects. They have to keep the "Are you flesh or spirit?" "I am sorrow," exchange, though, because that's the best line in the movie.

My grade: B-
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: Lake Placid

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Character Creation: OmegaZone

Yay, post-apocalyptic RPG! You know I like those.

The Game: OmegaZone
The Publisher: Brooklyn Indie Games
Degree of Familiarity: None yet; I'm running it in a couple of weeks. It's Fate Accelerated, though, which I'm quite familiar with.
Books Required: Just the one. There's also a setting deck, which isn't required but it's very helpful.

So, first thing's first: I promised +Filamena Young that the next character I made would use this as a theme song (beware, nudity):

Sounds good to me.

So, OmegaZone focuses on a post-alien-invaded Los Angeles. Unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic settings, it doesn't do a tedious world tour or exhaustive history. We're focused on one particular city, and then it gives us some details on the heavy hitters and the troubles going on in this weird new world.

Given the song, I want to create a character who's a badass debt collector. I'm thinking he could work for Apeman Tony or someone, but I'll do the chargen thing before I make a lot of decisions.

Like other Fate Accelerated games, OmegaZone uses approaches rather than skills, which I greatly enjoy. Unlike other FAE games, character creation is as simple as drawing a few cards, which provides aspects and stunts. I'm meant to draw two character definitions and one mutation, so let's see what I get.

I draw Mundane, Unique Animal Hybrid, and (for my mutation) Radioactive Vampirism. OK, then. The interesting thing here is merging Mundane and Animal Hybrid. Hmm. I'd almost get a "Boy and His Dog" vibe off this, but I'm not sure I want to effectively have two characters.

Actually, I have an idea. We'll say that my character's mutations are invisible. He is an animal-hybrid, but it's all internal; you'd have to dissect him (or at least do a blood test) to detect that he's anything other than human. He's actually more leech than man; he doesn't eat solid food, but can feed on the flesh and blood of irradiated creatures (or eat normal food that's been irradiated, I guess, but that's boring).

Now, the cards are treated as Aspects, but does that mean I have "Mundane" as an Aspect? 'Cause that's a shitty Aspect. I think we'll call it "Stealth Mutant" instead. "Unique Animal Hybrid", too, is kinda dull as Aspects go, so I'll call it "More Worm Than Man." Finally, "Radioactive Vampirism" actually is kind of cool, so I'll keep that. I note down my three stunts, too (one from each card).

Now I do a High Concept and a Trouble Aspect. Hmm. My worm-man doesn't feel like an Apeman Tony guy, actually. I think he works for Jacobite Jones or Baron Junkpile. Let's go with the Baron, actually. When someone tries to cheat Junkpile, trading him crap or otherwise taking advantage, sometimes the Baron calls in Hunny Bother. Hunny looks like a pretty normal guy, which makes him stand out a bit in this world of gelatinous people and uplifted cats. His preferred tactics involve getting ahead of his quarry and waiting, and if people can't pay, he's not above irradiating them and eating their organs. I think since "Bitch Better Have My Money" is too on the nose for a High Concept, I'll make it Patient Shylock.

And now Trouble. Hmm. Hunny is hungry (actually, hell, that's probably how his name started and then it was mispronounced by some drunk or terrified welcher). Sometimes he's been known to pocket money that should go to a higher-up just so he can eat someone/something. He doesn't do it much, but... Hunger Gets the Better of Me.

Filling in the approaches isn't specifically called out as part of character creation (though it should be, and there's no example, garrarargh). I wind up with +0 in Careful, +4 in Clever, +0 in Flashy, +2 in Forceful, +2 in Quick, and +1 in Sneaky. That's interesting; I think most of the time in FAE, you don't get approaches over Good. That also means when I can use my Mundane stunt, I'm starting at Fantastic, which is pretty baller.

Right, I think all I need now is to collect three Fate points and name myself, but I did that last bit. I could spend refresh to buy additional stunts or gear, but eh. Having a stunt for creating an advantage when I track them for at least a day might be cool, though. Yeah, I'll do that.

And that's me done!