July 30th, 2011

sunset samurai

Butler Versus Grant.

Last night Jenny & I watched Sucker Punch & it was incredibly terrible. I was hoping for some sexploitation ultraviolence, something like a Charlie's Angels or Kill Bill, but it is instead the opposite of that? There are scenes where the cast of attractive young girls kick the crap out of stuff...but those scenes? Are metaphors for stripping & prostitution. No, like, literally, what we see on the screen as Baby Doll-- Emily Browning, who I adored in the flawed A Series of Unfortunate Events-- & the rest of the girls pilot mecha, fight with katanas, blow away clockwork Nazi zombies with machine guns? Those are transcendental visualizations of a frame story where Baby Doll strip teases for men in power, & the rest of the girls use their sexual charms on johns to steal their lighters or knives or what have you. Or at least that is part of story-- the movie has too many stupid frame stories. In reality the girls are in an insane asylum, which only book-ends the plot. Because inside that frame is a metaphor where the insane asylum is portrayed as a bordello. Yep! & then inside that nesting doll are the fight scenes. I almost stopped watching it several times, but figured I'd stick around for the next sparkly combat scene...each of which was undercut by the fact that no, it isn't a sweet bunch of pretty women kicking ass & taking names, but rather them using their "weapons"-- their sexuality-- to manipulate men. Seriously. & for icing? There is the final "a strong woman is a martyr!" moral. It is like a perfect collision of misogynist fantasy, dressed up as "empowerment." Note to Zack Snyder: you aren't fooling anyone. At one point one of the characters even says something like "the school girl thing, I get. The bondage thing I get. Even the asylum thing is creepy, but I get it. But the lobotomy thing?" The problem being-- that isn't an indictment. That is the text & the subtext. This isn't satire, this is the thing itself. The actresses all give a surprisingly good performance-- I don't blame any of them, & they manage to put a little pathos into this piece of drek film, especially Jena Malone's character Rocket & Jamie Chung as the Amber, piloting exoskeletons in one world & crying in the other. Oscar Isaac plays a petty, terrifying slimeball really well & John Hamm manages to breathe some life into a spooky cameo. No, I put the onus solidly on Zack Snyder's shoulders. This is his concept, his story, his screenplay, his direction. When I was seeing teasers for this, I hoped it would be good; I wasn't impressed by 300 & while The Watchmen was faithful to the art of the comic, it wasn't any good at telling the story, but I was excited to see if Snyder could make a movie when he wasn't dealing with an adaptation. The answer seems to be no, which makes me despair for The Man of Steel. So yeah, I wouldn't even bother seeing this as a fluff film, which is what I'd hoped for; any interesting visual spectacle is undercut by the seething cauldron of rape culture underneath the bright trappings.
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Oubliette: Armor & Weapons, again.

I just can't stop thinking about weapons & armor. You know how it is-- or at least, I do, this happens to me all the time-- when your brain gets into a rut, & keeps turning over the same problem. Over & over. I'm stuck in a loop thinking about gear & equipment. I blame the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons, partially-- obsessing over the differences between a scimitar & a longsword or field plate & plate mail is built into that game. Some of it is George R. R. Martin's fault, since he is able to write about the perils & perks of armor really well. Ultimately, it comes down to my philosophy about roleplaying games-- the rules are little white lies, sure. A framework lurking behind everything that should be hidden under the umbrella of suspension of disbelief. That is one side of the yin yang, but the other is that a well crafted rule can actually add to the story. Elegance in design is important, & how the rules portray things like Sanity or Honor or Humanity can create a genre practically out of thin air. The same goes for more mundane applications; if you build a system with robust martial arts mechanics, the game is going to be more kung fu than a game that advantages heavy brawlers encased in steel, lugging tower shields. I want Oubliette to fall on the "realistic" side of the fence, but I don't want to bypass the charm of a more cinematic approach entirely. I want to have enough oomph to the rules to suggest a plausible & naturalistic world, but at the same time I want them to be abstract so that the game doesn't get bogged down with bean counting & number crunching. Oubliette isn't a combat simulator, but combat is an important form of narrative conflict-- & some Players (like Radarless) really respond when you spice up a story with a fight.

The World of Darkness system has a good rough shape for what I want out of a system, but I can't help wanting to tweak & fiddle with it, especially because it is largely aimed at modern day storytelling, & my campaign is a post-historical retro-futurist uncanny valley of a setting. I want to hover around swords & shields, with black powder firearms as a regular feature. That means I have to look at what we're working with. Chew on it, mull it over. I haven't quite come to any conclusions, but I don't think my thought processes are in vain. In my last post about armor, kromelizard brought up shields, which are an important point. I think very few RPGs give enough emphasis to the shield-- in Dungeons & Dragons you might pick up a few points of AC but mathematically you are often better served by wielding two weapons or one big one, two handed. Which is exactly what I mean by rules serving genre-- a samurai dual-wielding her daisho or a berserker with a huge claymore is pretty cool in a high fantasy milieu, but it isn't very plausible from a historical perspective. World of Darkness didn't have any shield rules until Armory came out, & when they did the rules were fairly prohibitive. Shields gave you a +2 to Defense but a -2 to your attacks. Ambidextrous characters took only a -1, but I think ambidextrous characters are goofily omnipresent in fantasy. Maybe a Merit that negated the penalty? One dot, then two dots? I'm not opposed to the penalty system, but as I've said before, I tend to prefer systems that reward Players for remembering the odds that are stacked against them.

I think that, from a rules point of view, you only need to address three kinds of shields: small, large & tower. If you go with a bonus/penalty system the way WoD does, all you need to do for small & large is say +1/-1 & +2/-2, right? Done. Wood, wood wrapped in leather, steel, bronze, who cares? Kite-shaped, fiddle-shaped, round, square, six of one, half dozen of the other! Since Defense scores are going to tend to be around 2 or 3, that is a fairly significant boost. I also kick around-- well, okay. One thing that DnD Fourth Edition did well was create the "standard action, move action, minor action" schema. It makes me wonder about porting some of those ideas over. In World of Darkness, you can double your Defense by foregoing your "standard action." You know, rather than attacking, you duck & weave. What if a shield granted you the same ability, but only cost you a "move action?" Is that a reasonable notion? It diversifies character options, which is always a good thing, if you ask me. Just something I'm kicking around. As for tower shields, those are an exceptional case. I don't think there needs to be a very good system for them, because they aren't really applicable at a Player Character level. I mean, "tower shields" that are actually of use in a melee are just "large shields," while anything bigger is effectively a piece of siege weaponry, & outside the scope of what I really care about.

One problem endemic to the World of Darkness combat system is that of strength requirements. The "average" attribute in the World of Darkness system is 2, but many of their weapons have extraordinary strength requirements. Shields, for instance, has a strength requirement of 3. That isn't so bad-- especially if "light shields" exist (they don't, but that is fixed easily enough)-- but there are far worse offenders, if you ask me. A halberd, for instance, has a strength requirement of...4!? Isn't the whole point of a polearm that you can slap it in the hands of a peasant conscript & be like-- "point it at that guy, maybe try to trip him"? Now, slavish devotion to the rules could allow you to come up with a no-prize-- "well then most people in history were fighting with those weapons with the penalty for low strength!"-- but that doesn't fly with me. Assuming a penalty as a default is bad game design. Then again, a lot of the weapons in Armory are unbalanced; it is a good jumping off point, a good place to dig for brainstorming, but I wouldn't take it as gospel.

Reading up on armor some more, I noted one thing I'd been overlooking-- I'd noticed it before but subsequently forgotten about it-- "bulletproof" armor downgrades lethal damage from gunshots to bashing. Now, I've chucked the "ballistic/melee" armor rating dichotomy of World of Darkness out the window. Not out of anger-- it is a good system in a game where firearms are the default-- but out of a reasonable desire to simplify. I don't need it; guns are extant but not prevalent, & black powder firearms aren't exactly high velocity armor piercers. Heck, breastplates used to be "proofed" by pistol shots, with the dent reinforced as a badge of authenticity. I am comfortable applying the same Armor Rating across the board. Or, well-- am I? It isn't gunfire & melee weapons that keeps me thinking, but rather maces, picks & swords. Bashing, Piercing & Slashing, those were the damage types in the d20 Oubliette campaign, & they allowed a pretty evocative "rock, paper, scissors" approach to the realities of antique armor. You know, chainmail is great for stopping a sword (or a shark) but when getting clobbered with a warhammer, it isn't going to be all that helpful. Armor had damage reduction, & that reduction was bypassed by a certain weapon type. Slashing weapons would cut through leather & hide, Blunt weapons would ignore chain & scale & Piercing weapons would get through plate & other heavy armors. In the more skirmish intensive system of d20, it worked well, but I think it would be the wrong approach for World of Darkness. Far easier to give warhammers some kind of ad hoc armor piercing property, don't you think?

My point was-- it got away from me!-- that there is precedent for "downgrading" damage. That is nice to see. It can be interwoven into the armor system very nicely-- it provides an upper echelon. You know, light armor can be +1 & include studded leather, kevlar-like spider silk, a chain shirt; medium armor can be +2, your chain mail, ashigaru lamellar, alchemist's brigandine; heavy armor is the +3 like the full samurai suit, your ceramic reinforced encounter suit or a man-at-arms in mail & cuirass; then topping it out you've got your full suits of custom made plate armor, your exoskeletons, the truly top of the line stuff that encases the character & downgrades damage from lethal to bashing. This is all stuff that I would need to balance out, though. On some level World of Darkness adheres to the philosophy that "the real world isn't balanced, why should the game be?" which is a question that I've always though answers itself-- because it is a game. I don't buy social station or cost as a balancing factor-- I have a hard time believing that any game will actually hold up those barriers. Again, that is probably the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons talking, but characters are always finding hoards of gold or the corpses of ancient heroes. They befriend empresses & kings. If you want a system that keeps things flowing, you've got the balance it at the roots, keep the fundamentals even. Otherwise you are building an uneven landscape, which will channel the story in directions you might not want it to go. Things like social penalties are as much a problem for the Narrator as the character-- they shouldn't be ignored, by any means but if they are the sole factor you rely on to keep things even keeled, you'll be sorry.

Behemoth the Pig.

As usual I've fallen behind talking about what I actually did with my time, instead keeping tabs on RPG magazines, episodes of Doctor Who & what I think about armor. You're welcome. I blame the DDoS attacks, since that has kept me from being able to fiddle around with this thing too much. Thursday was a going away party for a co-worker, with the usual clique-- Matt, Jocelyn & Brian, Kat-- with cross over with new friend Terra, Vicki & Jasmine. Plus a whole slew of other people. I came home from there to a sick Jenny! She was so sick, she hadn't even gotten herself dinner, so I went back out, grabbed some Thai, & we ate it while watching pieces of Leverage. It took us three days to watch that episode of Leverage, but it was a pretty cute episode with a fun MacGuffin-- genetically engineered super potato-- lots of role swapping & charming character growth. Friday Jenny & I were supposed to go to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but alas, Jenny was too sick. We came home, I made her a cucumber & fennel salad, some blanched kale & beet greens sauteed in butter & olive oil, & then went out to get her frozen yogurt & dumplings. I'm very nice. We watched the insulting Sucker Punch, & I went to the gym. I've started doing my bicep curls with the eighty pound bar when I use the bench, which is coming along nicely. I still use the seventy for my triceps though. Then today. Today I finally finished ninety percent of Lego Harry Potter, &...yeah, that about does it. I cut my hair? Which I've been meaning to do. I went to the gym again-- I had to double down in order to meet my three times a week quota-- & did more work with the eighty pound bar, & some calf work since I failed at climbing stairs on Thursday. Instead, I was getting lunch at Rye House with Terra & Vicki, flirting with the bartender & all that. & that is that. That just about does it. I guess.