Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Movie #414: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a movie directed by Clint Eastwood before he went utterly 'round the bend, and starring John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Allison Eastwood, The Lady Chablis, Jack Thompson, Jude Law, and Irma P. Hall.

John Kelso (Cusack) comes to Savannah, GA to cover the Christmas party of local socialite Jim Williams (Spacey) for Town & Country. He's kind of taken aback by the culture shock ("Everyone here is drunk and heavily armed. New York is boring."), but the night of the party, Williams shoots and kills his lover, Billy Hanson (Law). Williams is arrested for first degree murder, despite claiming self-defense, and the film follows Kelso as he investigates and tries to drum up support for Williams, all the while writing a book on the ensuing trial. At the end, Williams is acquitted on evidence that Kelso helps uncover, but privately confesses to Kelso that he lied in his initial statement: He shot first and staged Hanson's shots at him.

The strength of the movie is the visuals (Savannah is goddamn beautiful), the rather subtle way that people show their prejudices, fears, and jealousies, and of course, in The Lady Chablis being divine (she's playing herself). John Cusack is fine as our leading man, and Eastwood apparently cast him after seeing him in Grosse Point Blank, which is a good decision. The love subplot with Mandy Nichols (Allison Eastwood, Clint's daughter) is fine but felt kind of unnecessary, and really it's her friend Joe Odom (Paul Hipp) who's the more interesting character, but there are so many interesting people in this story that it's hard to give them all screen time and fit in the murder trial. The book, of course, can afford to take its time a little, and puts a lot of what you see on screen in greater context, but it's quite enjoyable enough without that.

This movie does Southern Gothic really well, and has served as inspiration for some of the stuff I've written set in Savannah.

One complaint: The sound mixing is a little off. Some of the dialog is hard to hear, especially in the party scenes.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch Value: Medium-low

Next up: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Character Creation: Strike!

Nope, it's not about bowling.

The Game: Strike!
The Publisher: Jim McGarva
Degree of Familiarity: Some. I've read, facilitated a chargen session, and ran a one-shot (in preparation for writing a review).
Books Required: Just the one.

So! Strike! is billed as "tactical combat and heedless adventure." Having run it, I'll say that it's got a lot of moving parts, and I think it's a game that would take a little time to get the hang of, but I don't mind a bit of tactical in my RPGs (I have more thoughts but I'll save them for the review). On its own, Strike! doesn't have a setting or genre; it's got some suggested settings in the book but they're not terribly interesting (on is Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off, the other one might be Avatar: The Last Airbender but it's hard to know because I haven't watched it). Anyway, for my character I'm gonna make someone who could fit into the crew that my players ran in the game last night - sci-fi, space travel, bandits lootin' shit and sellin' it to collectors.

So, the group had a robot, an appraiser with a cybernetic eye, an accountant with a big gun, and a former professor. We sorely needed a wacky pilot, so I think that's where I'll go with this.

We start with Background, which is what the character is doing now, professional. I'm a Space Pilot. This progresses with some questions that wind up giving me Skills. The first question is how I get what I need, but the question is badly phrased, because it's basically "do you buy it or not?" If you buy it, you get a point in Wealth, if you don't (like you're in a hunter-gatherer kind of situation) you get a Skill. My pilot (his name is "Squeak") is quite happy to partake in capitalism, thanks, so I'll take the Wealth.

Next question: Who can your character call on when times are tough? Again, badly phrased, because there's a whole other Relationship section, but this one gives me either more Wealth (if I buy my way out of trouble) or a Connections skill. I'll take Space Bandit Alliance as a Connection Skill.

Right. Now, "what primary skill do you need to perform the tasks necessary to your Background?" See, that should have been first. Pilot, obviously.

What Skill supports your primary Skill? Navigation, I guess?

What social or business Skill do you need to get ahead? Hmm. I think "Meditation." I picture Squeak as being the one who smoothes things over.

And finally, what Skill do you have from your Background that hasn't been mentioned? How about Spacecraft Repair?

Finally, I get a Trick, something I can always do (though I have to spend an Action Point). I'm gonna say I can always out-maneuver a single enemy in a dogfight (keyed off of Pilot).

So now we move on to Origin, which can be race, but can also be upbringing or a demographic. I think Squeak was "Raised on a Colony Ship", so he grew up on a spaceship and learned to fly by watching. That gives me two Skills and a Complication. The Complication is going to be "Unsteady Planetside;" things like "real air" and "real gravity" fuck with Squeak a bit. Skills, though. Hmm.

Well, I'll take Security Systems (it sucks being a teenager with cameras and trackers everywhere) and Robotics (kinda the same issue).

Now there's a section on gear, but you know I don't care and the system isn't very robust; it's pretty much "what does your character have." Well, he's a pilot. He has a flight suit, a laser pistol, and some of those cool foot-jets like Star-Lord uses. There, done.

Relationships! I get one friend, one enemy, and one somewhere-in-between. Sure thing.

So my ally is Bubble, my best friend (get it? Bubble & Squeak?). Bubble and I grew up on the same ship, but then we both took jobs on different vessels. We keep in contact, and we're willing to do stupid favors for each other, even if that means catching hell from our captains.

My enemy is Frint X2. Frint was a security/nanny-bot on my home ship, and since that ship has landed and the population been broken up into society, Frint has taken other gigs in security. Frint bears a grudge, though, because Squeak disabled his sensors and left him bumbling around in the cargo hold for a while.

My "frenemy" is Lady Xing. Oh, man. Xing and Squeak have this on-again, off-again, will-they-won't-they thing going on (so far they've come down on the side of "won't"). Xing has her own ship and really wants Squeak to fly for her, but Squeak is more than a little intimidated and besides, it's not wise to crush on your captain.

OK, then there are these "kits." Kits are optional, and they're mostly (but not entirely) combat-focused, which is weird because Strike! has this entire subsystem devoted to combat, as well. I think I'm gonna take the Protagonist Kit, because it's interesting to me; I get Hero's Journey (every time I completed a step on the Journey I get an Action Point) and Bumbling (I can get Oaf Tokens when I fuck up and then trade them in for a successful roll).

So that's the first half of chargen. Now we do the "tactical combat" half.

First we pick a Class, which is the "primary way of interacting with the combat system." The titles are kinda aspected toward fantasy, but they're easy enough to reskin. I see Squeak as a support-type character, I think, maybe a long-ranger fighting, definitely not up-close. Warlord actually looks pretty cool; Squeak could totally be the "man in the chair," as Spider-Man puts it. Hmm. I kinda like that. I'll take Warlord as my Class.

I get a Class Feature from that. I can give allies Buffer Points (which come off ahead of Hit Points), I can get folks extra movement, or I can give them extra damage. I think I'll take Incisive; I can spend Support tokens (which I get in various ways) to give folks extra damage, plus I get Support tokens when I assess, which would play to my tactical style, I think.

And then I get three at-will powers and one encounter power. For my at-wills, I'll take Morale-Boosting Punching Bag (I attack someone; it does not damage, but the next ally to attack that target gets HP back), Knock Him Off Balance (I attack; next ally to ally that target gains Advantage), and Come Help Me Over Here (I can shift an ally one square and then attack an adjacent target).

For my encounter power, I'll take Don't Give Up (triggered when an ally drops below 0 HP; they stay standing at 1).

Neat! Now I pick a Role, which is "place on the team and goals in combat." Which, like...OK. I like the intersection of Class and Role in practice, but it's kinda redundant if you just read it.

Anyway, for Squeak, I think his Role is Striker. It's a little more offense-based, but it also helps with mobility and that'd be helpful. So I gain Damage Boost and Quick Shift, which are both pretty meh at first level (oh, yeah, this game has levels, too) but Damage Boost is nice in place.

Now, Feats (oh, yeah, Feats, too). I get a Feat. I just get one to start. I'm gonna take Flying (those boots I mentioned); lets me avoid Melee attacks on the ground and call out plays with a bird's eye view.

And that's it, actually! I think Squeak is tall, lean, favors open shirts and tight pants, wears his black hair bleached pink and spiked, and speaks with a pretty deep voice. If asked about his nickname, he says either "my mom was a lion, my dad was a mouse" or "IT'S PERSONAL" (a la Strong Mad). Really, there's nothing to it - his best friend was nicknamed Bubble, so they were Bubble and Squeak.

Board Game: Chrononauts

Card game, really, of course. Let's go BACK IN TIME!

The Game: Chrononauts
The Publisher: Looney Labs
Time: Varies pretty wildly. As much as an hour.
Players: Me, Teagan, Cael

Behold the timestream.
Game Play: That picture up there is 32 cards, each depicting an event in history from the assassination of Lincoln in 1865 to the Columbine Massacre in 1999. Some of these cards (the purple ones) are Linchpins, which means they affect the ripple points (lighter blue).

Every player has an ID, which is a time traveler trying to get back to their own timeline. To do that, you need to invert certain linchpins, which then causes the associated ripple points to flip. Linchpins have alternate events already built in (Lincoln Assassinated becomes Lincoln Wounded, for instace), but the ripple points just say "PARADOX" on the back. That means in order to make the timeline work, you need a "patch" card. Columbine Massacre is patched by "Guns Banned," f'rex (and is a response to the 1981 linchpin "John Lennon Murdered" being inverted to "John Lennon Nearly Killed").

Every player also has a mission, which has some flavor text associated with it, but at the end of the day the missions mean you need to collect three particular artifacts and have them face up in front of you.

Teagan contemplates eternity.
The timeline cards are out on the table as shown, but everything else - the inverter cards used to flip linchpins, the patches used to fix paradoxes, the artifacts, and "timewarp" cards that let you do things like steal artifacts, rifle through the deck for a particular cards, pass everyone's hand, and so on - are in a draw deck. Every turn you draw one and play one, but you can also discard two cards and draw one more (which keeps your hand static).

Whenever you patch a paradox, you draw a card, increasing your hand size. This is important because if you get 10 cards in your hand, you win! You can also win by getting back to your own timeline or completing your mission.

Cael contemplates chaos.
Opinions: I always enjoy this game. It takes a bit for new players to catch on; like a lot of Looney games, there are a bunch of moving parts and though you can start the game trying to focus on one strategy, it's really good to keep your eye on all of them. I like this game better with more people (the game says it can take up to six), because then shit really gets crazy and you have to be careful patching paradoxes so that you don't inadvertently cause someone to win...or cause 13 paradoxes and end the universe (making everyone lose).

Keep? Yep.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie #413: The Mexican

The Mexican is a crime caper/rom-com starring Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gadolfini, JK Simmons, Bob Balaban, and Gene Hackman. It's a kind of weird movie, but it's one I enjoy.

Jerry (Pitt) and Sam (Roberts) are having relationship problems, stemming mainly from the fact that Jerry is working off a debt to a mob boss named Margolese (Hackman). As his last job, Jerry is tasked with going to Mexico and retrieving an orate pistol simply called "the Mexican." Sam leaves him (since his last job was supposed to be his final job), but is almost immediately abducted by a hitman (Gandolfini) in service to Nayman (Balaban), Margolese's traitorous henchman. Meanwhile, Jerry is just kind of bumblefucking his way through the job, dealing with a stolen car, a crooked cop, a feral dog, and the fact that his buddy Ted (Simmons) has been sent to kill him.

Hands-down, the best thing about this movie is Gandolfini. His portrayal of "Leroy" (actually Winston) as a highly competent, professional heavy who is dealing with relationship problems of his own - he can't seem to find a man he can really connect with - is really touching, and his sexuality is dealt with pretty well, considering when the movie was made. Him opening up to Sam is clearly a risk, and he slips back into hardass professional mode (but with some regrets) when things begin to go south. And then of course Jerry shoots him, which makes perfect sense in context (Winston did kidnap Sam and kill Leroy, the guy that was acting on behalf of Margolese), but is still really heartbreaking as it happens.

I like, too, that both Sam and Jerry have their issues. Sure, Jerry is a bit of a schlub, but Sam is so saturated in psychobabble that she can't always communicate with words, and as much as she accuses Jerry of being selfish, she does seem to miss that they're dealing with people who are happy to shoot him. Through all that, though, I think you buy them as a couple and they have some chemistry when they're together.

All in all: It's funny, touching, and the action scenes are fun. It's a weird movie, but it's a good one.

My Grade: A-
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Monster of the Week One-Shot: The Sack-Man

Last night I ran a one-shot of Monster of the Week. I liked it well enough; I think it's a decent treatment of the monster-hunter genre with the PbtA rules (of course I have a mighty love for this genre of horror in general). Here is the write-up!

Our characters, first of all.

  • Melissa played Heather, the Mundane. Heather is 25 and not quite sure what she's doing with her life. She's got a new car, now...largely because her old one got possessed, probably because of something Craig did. She babysits for Craig and Annie and is Seamus' cousin. 
  • John N. played Father Seamus Bray, the Divine. Seamus is a priest who has received a Sign that the End of Days is coming, and he needs to do what he can to usher it in. Annie, he figures, is the anti-Christ, so he needs to help her get as powerful as possible. He grapples with some decidedly un-priestly feels for his cousin, Heather. 
  • Travis played Adelia Blackthorn, the Expert. Adelia owns a big house here in southern California, and took in the twins when they were orphaned. She's also overseeing their magical training. 
  • Jerry played Annie, the Spell-Slinger. Annie lost track of her brother when they were orphaned and sent into foster care, but they were reunited thanks to Adelia. Annie is the slightly more responsible of the twins, but that's not saying a whole lot. 
  • John M. played Craig, the Spooky. Craig, like his sister, wields powerful magic, but unlike Annie, his comes from a decidedly unsavory source. It makes him...do things. He once broke Heather's arm with magic because she tried to make him go to bed. 
We decided that this crew doesn't necessarily go out searching for monsters, but monsters happen and they wind investigating. Today's mystery starts at school. Annie and Craig get there and realize that their classmate Miguel is missing. Craig listens in to the conversation between the principal, Miguel's mom, and the cops, and learns that Miguel left for school but never arrived (which his mom discovered when she came to drop off his lunch). 

The twins, as it happens, like Miguel's lunches (they've been known to steal from them), so they figure this is worth looking into. They go to the nurse and tell her they've got a tummyache, which of course is code for "mystery/monster" and gets Adelia to pick them up. 

They start retracing Miguel's steps. Adelia uses magic to scry and figure out where he is. She does that by dripping a bit of blood into a skull and adding fire; there's a puff of smoke and then she sees Miguel walking down the street, towards a playground on the block. He pauses, and heads to the playground instead of school.

This is all very well, but Adelia's car is now full of smoke, and she nearly runs into Heather, who is walking home after crashing with a friend after a late night. She whacks the car and yells at Adelia, who gets out and explains the situation. Heather, not thrilled at having a perfectly good hangover hijiacked by hijinks, goes along to help watch over the kids.

They get to the playground and the twins look around. Annie investigates a mystery and finds Miguel's backpack buried in the wood chips under the jungle gym. There's nothing in it of note, but he was definitely here and someone tried to cover it up. Heather stumbles over something important and finds a path leading out of the playground back into the neighborhood, and the kids follow her. Meanwhile, Adelia calls up Seamus - God may need to be involved here.

Heather and the twins find a rickety, broken fence around an overgrown yard. Craig skips ahead and hears a dog snarl and launch itself at him, but he uses jinx and the dog is stopped short, still on its chain. The dog sits stock-still, staring at the characters, and looks Heather up and down as though judging her. It then turns around and goes into its doghouse.

Annie, perhaps unwisely, follows it in and it bites her on the shoulder. She responds by kicking ass with her blast spell, blowing the doghouse apart and forcing the dog out into the open. Heather steps in and protects Annie by bopping the dog on the nose, and it backs off. Craig, seeing the dog has hurt his sister, uses his big whammy spell to kick some ass, and the dog falls over and starts twitching. About then Seamus and Adelia arrived, and Seamus soothes Craig to calm him down.

Adelia investigates a mystery and realizes the dog is a guardian; maybe it's a real dog that's been enchanted or maybe it's a summoned being, it's hard to say, but it's the house, covered in vines, that's really significant. They start approaching the house, but then they see a man on the sidewalk in a Neighborhood Watch cap peeking over the fence. He demands to know who they are and what they're doing.

Adelia manipulates him, but misses (as does Seamus trying to help), and Wes (the dude) walks away calling the cops. Craig hexes his phone, though, and he drops and breaks it. Heather follows him and tells him the truth, and asks if he's seen Miguel.

Wes did, in fact, see Miguel this morning - Miguel was on the playground and Wes was headed there to tell him to go to school, but before he got there Miguel apparently left. He did see another adult on the playground, though, but can't remember anything about him.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Seamus lays on hands to heal Annie, and she uses magic to heal the last of the dog bites. They decide to enter the house, or at least look into it. Seamus knocks, and the silhouette of a man appears in a window in the door. It talks to them, and asks about the children, and seems entirely too eager. Craig reads a bad situation and realizes that the doghouse is back, completely intact. Adelia tells the kids to get into the house

The dog emerges again and charges the group. Adelia protects the kids and gets bit. Seamus banishes the dog, but it doesn't take effect right away. Heather steps in to kick some ass, and the dog bites her leg. Annie, pissed at the dog, uses magic to summon Tibbers, her monstrous teddy-bear creature. It appears and throws the dog upwards, and as soon as it clears the fence, it vanishes. Seamus lays hands on Heather and probably enjoys it far too much.

Meanwhile, Craig uses magic to break the lock, and the door opens. His dark side, though, warns him against entering, and since his dark side turns off his powers if he disobeys, the stays out. The adults enter the house and the door slams, leaving the kids outside.

Craig's dark side tells him to "burn it," and Craig, not really thinking twice, agrees. Annie uses magic and adds her fire effect, and Craig helps, and the door catches fire. It spreads, and the house starts to burn.

Inside, the adults, see a man upstairs. He's tall and robed and carrying a sack. They talk to him briefly, but he's clearly not human. Seamus manifests his flaming sword and kicks some ass, but the Sack-Man touches his chest and chills him to the bone. The man then vanishes...

...and appears outside. He reaches for Craig, but Craig uses the big whammy and Annie kicks ass with magic, blowing him apart and leaving the yard signed and burnt.

Inside, Adelia grabs the door to get out, but it burns her hand. Seamus acts under pressure and kicks the door out, and the adults escape. Adelia investigates a mystery and realizes they're dealing with a (the?) Sack-Man, a boogeyman that steals children. They aren't really vulnerable to mundane weapons, but can be harmed or killed by protective herbs and plants. Adelia isn't sure which one, but she's got a bunch back at the house.

They head back to Blackthorn House, and decide to call up the creature, trap it, and destroy it (though Seamus argues for transferring its power to Annie). Craig's dark side whispers that "Heather is the key," but they aren't sure why - Heather's just the babysitter?

They make a binding, and Craig uses big magic to summon the Sack-Man. He appears, and sucks Craig into his sack. Adelia has her stock of protective herbs: rowan, yew, ague...heather. She burns some and wafts the smoke at the Sack-Man (and kicks ass), and the Sack-Man collapses, weakened. The sack opens, and Craig - and Miguel - crawl out. Annie kicks ass and pulls the sack down over the Man, and he vanishes, banished.

Miguel, a little confused, asks what happened. Annie hugs him, and whispers "tell your mom you want empanadas for lunch tomorrow."

Miguel can only nod.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Character Creation: Monster of the Week

I'm running this game for the first time on Saturday as a one-shot, so I figure I should make a character.

The Game: Monster of the Week
The Publisher: Generic Games
Degree of Familiarity: Haven't played or run it, but I'm very familiar with the genre and I've played and run other PbtA games.
Books Required: Just the one.

So this is a Powered by the Apocalypse take on monster-hunting, and I quite like it. First thing I do, obviously, is pick a playbook. Hmm. Maybe it's just because I finished watching Iron Fist lately and I didn't hate it, but I kinda like the Initiate. I'm a member of a sect dedicated to fighting monsters, and I'm potentially good at using magic to do it. I dig that.

I'm meant to start with a name. I don't want to make a member of a Biblical sect, I don't think, but I'll think about the sect more later. My character's name is Simon Harlow.

Next up is look. Simon's a man. Body...hmm. Tattooed appeals, as does agile. Hmm. I'll go for tattooed. And then I'll go for unfashionable clothes, I think (I don't want formal or ceremonial).

Ratings. Well, my Weird is high no matter what I do, so that's good. I'm fine if my Charm is low, I don't see Simon as being real manipulative. I'll go with the third line (Charm -1, Cool 0, Sharp -1, Tough +2, Weird +2).

Now, my sect. Awesome. Simon's sect is urban. He lived in Chicago, but was kept in an apartment building, close to the beating heart of the city but forever apart from it. The sect operated a tattoo parlor on the first floor, and whenever you passed a test or gained a new skill, you got more ink. The sect (The Painted Walkers of the City) takes in very young children from family members, and doesn't let them leave - you leave when you're 16 or you get your first ink. They stay secret because, um, that's fucked up.

So we get two good traditions and one bad one. I'll take Modernized and Magical lore as the good ones, and Paranoid & Secretive as the bad one.

Moves! I get one based on being in good standing with my sect, but it's a Charm roll, so that sucks. Then I get three more. I'll take Fortunes (I can look into the future, probably by staring into the eyes tattooed on my palms, Helping Hand (I help other hunters well), and That Old Black Magic (when I use magic I get get information).

Gear! Ooh, because we're modernized, I get two modern weapons. I pick a .38 revolver and a shotgun.

The last thing is Introductions, but I'd need a group for that, so I'm pretty much done!

Movie #412: Logan

Logan is, supposedly, the last movie featuring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. It stars Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephan Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook, and Eriq La Salle.

Logan is working as a limo driver near the Mexican border, caring for an ailing Professor Xavier (Stewart) with the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Merchant). He's also dying - his healing factor is failing and his skeleton is poisoning him, so he's drinking to dull the pain and trying to raise enough money to buy a boat and go live on the ocean (it's unclear if he intends to blow his brains out with his one adamantium bullet once he gets there, but it's implied). And then a woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) finds him and begs his help to get a little girl named Laura (Keen) to North Dakota, and Logan embarks on a brutal journey that leaves pretty much everyone dead.

I've seen a lot of people saying this is the Wolverine movie we should have had all along, but I dunno. I grew up with Wolverine in yellow spandex and the comic writers trying vainly to have a dude with claws who didn't messily dismember everyone (before the 90s came along and said "fuck it, messy dismemberments for all!"), and who didn't curse because no one did. And that's basically how Jackman portrayed him in the first X-Men movies, minus the spandex, so seeing a Wolverine here that spits f-bombs like it's a Tarantino movie and goes for visible killing shots is a little jarring.

With that said, it's a testament to how well Jackman knows the character that it still feels very much like the Wolverine we got to know in the other movies. Stewart, likewise, falls back into Professor X perfectly, and does a heart-breaking job of taking this educated, distinguished, intelligent man and breaking him down into fragments (I have seen this happen firsthand, it sucks, and the filmmakers did a great job with it). I like that we never quite find out what happened to the X-Men, and that the exposition of where all the mutants went gets cut short because Logan gets impatient. This film pulls exactly no punches, and if you're going to go full western-noir (I guess), that's how you do it.

For my money, I'd have liked more time with the kids, seeing their powers, and I could have used a little more attention to continuity with the other films (like, is this the same timeline as Days of Future Past? If so...huh?), but taken on its own or as a trilogy with X-Men Origins (ugh) and The Wolverine, it works nicely.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: The Mexican