Friday, February 26, 2021

It's 2021 and Wizards of the Coast is starting out of the gates with a lot of really interesting developments for their popular games.

I'm usually not one to talk about news releases, but one that happened on February 25th caught my interest. Hasbro, the parent company of Wizards of the Coast, is giving Wizards its own operating division. Wizards of the Coast is the parent company to Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, both of which are games that I enjoy and love to play. They also have tons of other games, but those are the two big ones that impact my life.

The Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition ruleset is my favorite that has ever been put out. I've played all the versions except the fourth edition one, and that was because I was in a time of my life when I thought I'd try my hand at going to the gym and being a normal person associating with other "normal" people who are not nerds and like to go to nightclubs and date and all that. After I got over this period of my life (with a huge realization that you just have to find people who are into the same things you are and you'll find happiness), I returned to running Dungeons & Dragons. To explain a bit further, I choose to run rather than play D&D (ever hear of the term "Dungeon Master?") mostly because all the people around here suck at it, and I'm a born storyteller. I always advise young people to "play to your strengths."

Anyway, a lot of people apparently think like I do, because D&D is more popular now than it has ever been, literally seeping into the bedrock of pop culture. But none of that happened because Wizards got lucky. Rather, it happened because they are working really hard at doing a great job and making a game that is both diverse and inclusive. The supplements they are putting out right now are of the highest quality that I have ever seen in decades. The game is so detailed and welcoming with mind-blowing art and fleshed out non-player characters. And the adventures are these huge sandboxes that are just loaded with fascinating details and all kinds of things to keep people entertained for hours on end. There is so much world development going on with the fifth edition game that I can only say it is very impressive.

Additionally, the stuff that you can acquire to enrich your home games is incredible. The sky is literally the limit from a basic no frills setup to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I fall somewhere on the lower end of that spectrum, but every penny I have spent toward Dungeons & Dragons stuff has been more than worth it, whether it was miniatures, terrain, or books. So yeah...long story short, Wizards of the Coast has been knocking it out of the park for five years now. Really, the best thing for Hasbro to do with Wizards of the Coast is honestly just to get out of the way of Wizards of the Coast and let them work their magic. So I was really happy to find out that is exactly what is happening.

Other things that were included with the news release had to do with the Magic: the Gathering card game. I guess that Lord of the Rings and Warhammer 40K properties are going to have some crossover in the collectible card game. That should please fans of both of those intellectual properties. They are also going to re-explore the demiplanes of dread in a new supplement called, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. This stuff is going to be all new material based on a boxed set of products that hasn't been touched for twenty-five years or so. However, I loved what they put out way back then. It's going to be nice to have those areas of gothic horror explored in a new 2021 supplement with all new art and updated super villains with recurring characters from the Curse of Strahd adventure that I ran (with great success) to some eager players a couple of years ago.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

This short film of Conan the Barbarian is an excellent fan portrayal of the titular character.

This short film by user MugenMancer that was posted on YouTube is an excellent fan portrayal of Conan the Barbarian. For one, Conan looks like Conan should. In the books he was never supposed to be a clone of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jason Momoa got a bit closer to the actual look of Conan, but the movie in which he starred was terrible. This short captured the panicked and frenetic feel of the Hyborian age better than any of the movies have done with their lofty budgets and paid script writers.

I've only read a few Conan stories, as they are mostly difficult to find these days despite the popularity of the character. And they are (for the most part) short stories as opposed to novels which I tend to gravitate toward in order to sink my teeth into them. So, if you're not really a short story kind of person, getting a little slice of the life of a barbarian here and there, it's probably not something you'd enjoy.

A short story in the world of Conan doesn't have the breadth to explain anything. You just are told that Conan wants a thing, that it might (for example) be in a structure with a weird name like "The Tower of the Elephant," and then you are off and running as he infiltrates said tower and overcomes traps as well as dark sorceries in order to acquire a fabled jewel or something similar. This short below is pretty much the same thing. Conan is running from some orcs that look like they live in a temple to some dark god. And he ends up killing them all. That pretty much sums up what Conan is.

It would be interesting to see a series developed around Conan (as opposed to a movie). There wouldn't need to be a lot of dialogue, and the main character could travel around a savage world stealing things from ancient temples and killing monsters. Also, I want to give a well-deserved clap in this post for MugenMancer. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to animate something this good all by yourself. I bet it was really difficult to do. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

The key to effective world-building may lie with developing powerful characters first to establish a framework for stories about the meek.

I've been working on a pet project as of late: updating my Dungeons & Dragons homebrew world to fifth edition (which is the newest of the rulesets that is available to purchase). The word "homebrew" simply means that it is my own world that we all play in (I have a group of six players) as opposed to a prepackaged one that comes from Wizards of the Coast. There's a lot of work to it, but there's a lot of work to running a game in someone else's world too because you have to do a lot of reading and memorizing of details in order to make it real. There is no shortcut to downloading that information into someone's brain. Oh if only that thing from the Matrix were real and you could just connect yourself to a computer and download kung fu.

Anyway, I've discovered something interesting about world-building. It is really beneficial to flesh out in detail the super-powerful characters of my fantasy world. For me, it has made me realize that certain things would click together. There would be consequences for the actions taken by these characters. For example, knowing who was at the head of a fantasy empire allowed me to visualize their allies. And if they had allies, then there might be embassies or trade happening between countries. The exercise became a rabbit hole that I could follow down with all of these branches that go this way and that way, and they intertwined to become a kind of supporting network for my whole fake world.

So, I ended up discovering a way easier method to create stories for new campaigns, rather than starting with the low-powered folk and wondering...what can I do with these guys? Or...what are they doing in this whole made-up universe. If I could visualize a super-powerful character in charge of a kingdom or something similar going to war with another kingdom, then it made sense that these events on a huge scale would impact someone very small in the scope of things. So I could tell a singular story about a peasant or a farmer, who was impacted by the events of this huge war.

Having done some of these exercises for my Dungeons & Dragons world, I now wonder if the same kinds of exercises would bear fruit in creative writing. I also wonder if famous authors like J.K. Rowling started with a concept around their most powerful characters. In other words, I wonder if Dumbledore and Voldemort were the first things that popped into her head, and then she created a whole world around these characters. When all the table dressing was set, well Harry Potter would just naturally pop out and that's where she decided to start telling her story. In other words, I'm suggesting a very top down approach to world building, rather than starting with a character like Harry Potter, and then trying to find all the answers as to what he is and what the world is like that he inhabits.

Anyone else use this kind of approach when building a world for your characters? Please let me know as I'm curious.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The red band trailer for the new Mortal Kombat movie looks like great fun

Two months before the film is to be released, Warner Brothers has put out a trailer for Simon McQuoid's Mortal Kombat video adaptation. When I was in college, the first Mortal Kombat was very popular in these things that we called "arcades" that existed in malls. During my junior year at college, I remember that Mortal Kombat 2 came out and they put one in the area under the cafeteria where all of us went to check our mail. I spent several hours there distracting myself with that dumb game (but I was really good at it so it wasn't expensive).

Well, there have been other Mortal Kombat video game adaptations, but none of them have been good. The one that came out in 1995 had a really metal opening title song by (I think) Rage Against the Machine. I could be wrong though. It's just what I remember.

Anyway, the effects for this thing in the red band trailer I have linked below actually look good. Sub-Zero looks great, as does Liu Kang and Kung Lao. It almost makes me want to learn how to play the newest release of the game on a gaming platform, but I think I have better ways to waste my time. However, it does bring back fond memories. My favorite character to play was Liu Kang, and I just really liked his story.

Anyone else have some Mortal Kombat thoughts? Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Zack Snyder's trailer for Justice League shows the man knows how to market.

Zack Snyder knows how to put together a movie trailer. He really does. This spot for the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, which (if I remember correctly) adds two hours to the film's original run time, is packed full of goodies that make me want to watch it. But I didn't really enjoy the original Justice League movie. I getting suckered in again? Hmm. I guess. I'm actually kind of fascinated at how radically different it seems to be from what we got with Joss Whedon in the theatrical release a few years ago. One thing it has going for it? It seems to me that the big studios don't really spend this kind of cash on parody projects these days. So, it's interesting that Warner Brothers is making a leap of faith like this for Snyder to release his own cut.

I actually wonder how successful this movie will be. Any of y'all out there got any thoughts and care to weigh in? I put the trailer below for those who may not have seen it yet. But at first glance, the thing looks epic.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Stand on CBS All Access proves that certain ideas have an expiration date and are best viewed within the context of the era in which they were released.

I've been watching The Stand on CBS All Access. I haven't ever read the book. But given that there are many adaptations of this book now, I don't think that the story has aged well. And this probably means that I won't be reading the book, like ever. My reasons are based in the reality that entertainment is much more exciting now. And that's just the march of time, I think. It's not any fault of Stephen King. Rather, my brain just requires more stimulus these days to hold my interest. Allow me to tell you a story.

My mother (who was born in 1933...she passed away in 2016) would always tell me that Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the scariest movie she had ever seen. When I watched it as a teenager, I wasn't scared at all, because the bar had been raised so much higher on "thrills." But I had the intelligence to know that it was a masterful film, and I knew why my mother was so impacted by it. The horror of the mental illness, coupled with the reveal of a mummified body kept in hiding within the old house, was something audiences had never seen before. So it was ground-breaking and terrifying. To was boring. So I only watched it once.

Anyway, I think that The Stand is also suffering from this kind of age-inflicted banality. It's a forty-year-old story, and it unravels much the same as it always has in its other adaptations. Only this time, I noticed how boring everything was. A disease wipes out humanity (we've seen this before now so many times it is cliche). Mother Abigail is a prophet, but as far as prophet's goes she's just basically wise and has the power to project herself into people's dreams. Flagg can use illusions and float and survive fatal damage. We live in an entertainment world where Wonder Woman soars and Thanos snaps people out of existence. Sure, Flagg also appears as a kind of undead thing or as an animal depending on his mood. However, he technically has fewer powers than Dracula, and I just wasn't impressed.

The characters live mostly in and around two locations: Boulder and Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, they do what sinners do, and nothing is shocking anymore, because entertainment has filled all of those holes in the decades since The Stand was published. We see people having public sex, doing drugs, gambling, and killing for sport. This is pretty much run of the mill now in shows that just want to feature any level of debauchery. Game of Thrones was honestly more edgy than anything we saw in Las Vegas in those scenes. There's nothing unusual about it. In Boulder they hold meetings until five people need to travel to Las Vegas to make a stand. The hero of the story, Stu, falls and breaks a leg. So he can't go on. Meh, seems legit. The trip there is boring, and what happens in Vegas really doesn't register any blips on my emotion reader. Nadine pregnant with an evil baby jumps out of a window and kills herself along with evil baby. We've all seen "evil baby in woman" before, and there's nothing special. Prometheus did it better. And then Trash Can man blows up Vegas with a nuclear weapon, which is about the most exciting special effect you get in this series.

Now...I'm not saying The Stand isn't a good story. It is. But it feels like it belongs in another era. It's "frights" are like Edgar Allen Poe's Fall of the House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum. It's like reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I'm sure audiences when these things were first released, were shocked and frightened. There are plenty of accounts that Frankenstein when it was new, scared the bejeebus out of its readers. I have no doubt that it did. But no one who reads Frankenstein in 2021 finds it even remotely interesting. It's boring. The thrills just haven't aged well.

I think it's sad that I found The Stand to be so slow and plodding. I didn't feel emotionally invested in any of the characters, because they were essentially just real people who had real jobs and were somehow immune to a world-ending disease. It was like watching a show where Joe from 7-Eleven now has to help other survivors figure out how to turn the lights on (because the people who did that before have died). So you end up watching the show, and they get the lights on, and yup...that's pretty much it. It would be like you inviting me to watch you do your laundry, only it's harder because a lot of people died a year ago and soap and fresh water and electricity is harder to find. But there aren't any supernatural monsters like zombies complicating things.

If these characters die, it's not through anything unusual. They fall, or they get shot, or they die with the fragility of being human. There's nothing supernatural or spectacular. A person that falls ten feet is probably going to die without a doctor. So yeah...that part is very real, but it seems weird when contrasted with how other shows do death. Like Daenerys Targaryen has a fire-breathing dragon burning people to ashes. You just don't get anything cool like that at all from this show. When "god" shows up in the finale (I think it's god), it's just in the form of a smoky cloud with a bright pinpoint of light that throws lightning bolts around.

Anyway, it was an interesting thing to watch. Would I recommend it to anyone? I would if you are someone who doesn't watch a lot of television. If you are someone who cannot handle a lot of stimulus, it is perfect for you, because it isn't very stimulating. There's hours of people walking, and you see them talking about stuff. There's a deaf and mute character who seemed interesting but he didn't do anything at all except walk places and then he just died. I think if you are under forty, it will bore you to tears. But in its day, I hear it was quite the thriller. It's just more proof that certain ideas have an expiration date, and they are best viewed within the context of the era in which they were released.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

I feel so much empathy for what Wanda Maximoff is going through and it is painful to watch.

I've been watching WandaVision like many of the rest of you out there. For me, it hasn't been all that enjoyable. As a caveat, I'm not saying that it isn't good. It is, but it's the kind of painful entertainment that Marvel seems to be embracing to tell its stories that I may not be the biggest fan of. Spoiler's ahead as I continue to discuss what I'm talking about.

So, it's this idea of trauma. In Avengers: Endgame it was "fat Thor," which I found to be an extremely painful character. It was played off as funny, which I didn't appreciate. It's one reason why I have not rewatched Endgame, and one huge reason I didn't like the movie. Thor was in incredible pain. He had suffered tremendous trauma, and none of his friends bothered to check-in on him in five years. Thor had essentially been abandoned to become an alcoholic, as he sought out drug abuse as a means to deal with the horrible things he had experienced. I absolutely loathed and hated what they did to Thor in this show.

Well, Wanda Maximoff is next on the list it seems. I always felt that Wanda should be incredibly damaged by the trauma of both losing her brother and then watching Vision die and then herself being "dusted." What WandaVision is doing is examining what happens when a goddess (a person with god-like powers) goes through extreme trauma, sadness, and grief. When I watch this show, it is painful. All the laugh tracks, her mind-controlling everyone, and her anger... it's all incredibly sad. This character is in unfathomable emotional pain, has the power of a god, and none of her friends care. They are all gone; there is no one from the Avengers trying to console her at all. In fact, it seems to have taken everyone by surprise, because no one expected her to go off the rails like this.

It's an incredibly good story, but it's also incredibly uncomfortable too. Elizabeth Olsen is doing a tremendous job in playing this character. I see the pain in her eyes every time she is confronted with a thing that breaks with her "suspension of disbelief." At this point in the season, these "fourth wall breaks" are manifesting multiple times in an episode. At some level, you know that she is aware that she has become unhinged. But it's what she wants. She tells people to leave her alone, because she is finally happy. However, that isn't an option because she's hurting people. Wanda has become the villain.

It reminds me of the same arc that Daenerys Targaryen took in the Game of Thrones series. Here was an incredibly capable and intelligent character who just had so much trauma that by the end, she became the mad queen. I wonder why this kind of madness seems to only hit female characters. Why trauma just seems to build and build on these kinds of characters, and (because they are female) they snap and the whole world has to pay for it.

Most of these kinds of stories all have a character eventually learning to deal with their trauma, and then moving through it to get to the other side. I don't know what Wanda's "other side" looks like at this point. But I don't think there is a cure for madness when it happens to a god. Most of these kinds of stories end very badly, and I wonder if this is just another way to "put down" a character after they have gone crazy. I am invested in the series, and I want to see it through its conclusion. But's a painful watch for anyone with empathy who actually can see what's going on.