29 August 2014

June Podcasts!

Episode 55 - What Was The Best Year To Be A Film Student?

Speaking hypothetically, what WOULD have been a good year to have been a film student? Oh for sure no matter what year you pick you're likely still going to have to endure an awful lot of classes about the history of cinema, with the same required viewing of the flickering screen's established giants, Eisenstein, Lang, Wells, Kubrick, Hitchcock or the beloved Mr M Bay.

And you'll be inculcated, willing or otherwise, into the historical landscape of the collapse of the studio monopoly, the rise of the auteur and new wave this and European cinema that ... but at the the end of the day you still have to toddle off down the contemporary big picture house and see and essay upon films of your day.

With this in mind what WOULD have been a good year to have been a film student? This week our three heroes each throw down their own opinions on just that. Starting with Justin who's choice of year will leave you disenchanted with no clear resolution, except perhaps that the status quo you so rebelled against your youth will be what your lurch back towards in our later years as your dreams of a better tomorrow fade in the light of an unsympathetic reality.

All of this lost innocence might prove to be all the angst and cynicism a Film Student could possibly crave for. Ian meanwhile will have none of this. Armed with his three criteria he has selected the best possible year to have fun mucking about making films with your mates ... a highly enjoyable activity you just can't do once this University thing is over with. Also easily digestible movies who's mechanical workings can be extracted and examined upon by even the poorest student of film ... and for the "Film is art Crowd" Ian's year covers them too.

But then in rocks Leo, last but by no means least, who merely has to read off the menu his year has to offer to whet the appetite of Film fans of any conceivable persuasion. But who's year is the best? Lets listen and find out!

Incidental music by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/055WhatWasTheBestYearToBeAFilmStudent/055-what-was-the-best-year-to-be-a-film-student.mp3

Episode 56 - The Terminator Wears Prada

Since the dawn of time marketers have been very keen to sort products into various categories from which they can then be successfully advertised to whichever demographic is deemed to purchase them the most. And no greater divide in the free market exists than Men and Women. Apparently two entirely separate life forms with few over lapping interests.

This perverse partition is particularly notable in film, where women are deemed to enjoy romance, cartoon's about princesses and 'based on a true story' movies of the week where women learn the hard way that all men are bastards. Men meanwhile enjoy EVERYTHING else film has to offer and really, if a woman enjoys those too it goes to show how board minded she is in her interests.

This week we debate "Women's Films" and to show how even handed we are a full third of our panel is women. We challenge this cruel division of tastes, brought on mostly by male advertising executives failing to figure out why women watch films, and set about blurring the cultural gender front lines.

Instead we learn Sue likes shopping for shoes and Sex in the City ... perhaps undermining EVERYTHING we set out to do ... so Ian bravely admits to liking one or two 'girl' things himself ... for which Leo calls him queer. With everyone suitably embarrassed for challenging social conventions be assured the usual male dominated hetro-normative perspective will reassert itself next week.

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/056TheTerminatorWearsPrada/056-the-terminator-wears-prada.mp3

Episode 57 - But It's Not Even Summer Yet!

One of our continuing missions here at our humble podcast is keeping an eye on the Summer releases and every so often taking some time to comment upon them. Well, it's been a while since we made our predictions on this years hits and bombs and we've certainly already had a ton of movies to get through so lets pause and reflect on what the Cinema Summer season has been like so far ... what with actual Summer nearly being upon us.

It really does feel like we've had a years worth already, with it's now standard heap of Superhero movies, mythic and historical epics with a dash of comedy and actual science Fiction creeping into view. While this year is thus far an improvement on the disappointment of the last year one can't help feel a slight wave of film fatigue at it all. We still have so much more to power through ... is that fair to complain about? Shouldn't we want Hollywood to be giving us exciting reasons to head down the multiplex? And yet in this current movie cluster bomb aren't otherwise decent films getting squeezed?

Regardless. Lets join Leo and Ian as they digest this year in cinema so far! Have Marvel's Powers started to fade or are they still this lumbering caped monster of films today? What about Disney? What about Noah? What about that volcano in Pompeii? Well, grab a nice cuppa and come join us for a good old natter about it all. We promise we won't put the whole Kingdom to sleep.

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/057ButItSNotEvenSummerYet/057-but-it_s-not-even-summer-yet.mp3

Episode 58 - 1995: Conflict At The Heart of the Decade

19 June

The year is 1995 ... and it's WAR! Never before has there been a year so divisive and wrought with opinion battle lines. Really it seems like the whole year has been designed to split opinions even after nearly two decades. We start with "Batman Forever" where opinions are at least somewhat united on loathing it, reasons are of course divided as to why but at least everyone is marching in the same general direction.

Bond returns with "Golden Eye" which in our opinion is just about the only Pierce Brosnan 007 that's worth a damn. "Bad Boys" looms into view with it's definitive example of 90's action ... but the long shadow of Michael Bay passes thought it. Oh well .. "Die Hard with a Vengeance" is another oasis of unified opinion. But then comes "Judge Dredd" which Justin, the greatest 2000AD fan in the building, is actually at peace with after the passing years, Leo and Ian are on hand to shake him.

"Johnny Mnemonic" is championed by Leo ... amazingly. Onto "12 Monkey's" which we can all agree is Gilliam's high point .... Leo disagrees. "The Quick at the Dead" proved to be another rare save point for our trio's unity. "Waterworld" is ranked as not that bad not actually a flop by Leo ... "Se7en" however is crucified for it's dumb ending by some. Furious words and insults are exchanged as the team bicker over "Usual Suspect" which Leo still loathes with a burning hatred ... much to the pain of Justin and Ian.

Still at least we can all rally around "Toy Story" and have a group love in on that ... well no .. Justin has harsh words for it. We end with "Hackers" and "Strange Days" which are both rated in turn as 'Terrible' and 'Too Long'. Really that's the year in a nut shell.

Incidental music by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/0581995ConflictAtTheHeartOfTheDecade/058-1995-conflict-at-the-heart-of-the-decade.mp3

Episode 59 - La Vengeance Du 80s Enfants

Our humble podcast focuses primarily on the genre films of our era, that being the Horror, Sci Fi, Action and Fantasy. Descending down ... or is that up? ... through our years the observation was made that the foreign language films often take a year or two until they filtered though to us, making a review of them in their year of origin feel just slightly incongruous.

Thus in the wisdom of Leo THIS podcast has been put aside to to reflect and remember those classics. Unfortunately Justin must be off leaving poor Leo and Sue having to make do with Ian, a man who for various explained reasons has barely seen any subtitled films, and those he did were some time ago now and short of buying "Violent Cop" off Amazon or something he doesn't feel like he has many options for watching them legally. Or at least not easy or inexpensive ones.

So sit back and enjoy as Leo leads us on his remembered journey of encountering those foreign language films while Ian again and again assures him he hasn't seen any of them.

Incidental music by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/059LaVengeanceDu80sEnfants/059-la-vengeance-du-80s-enfants.mp3

30 July 2014

Podcast Archive A Go Go

Episode 51 - It's Highly Controversial!


Throughout the land people have been wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth about it. Angry letters were written to the editor and questions asked in parliament because of it. Newspapers demanded action and people took to the streets in numbers to protest over it. It was the only things spoken about in bars and over the water coolers. It divided neighbours, broke families, partitioned whole communities and parted the Red Sea!


And no matter your opinion on it we all agree if nothing else it was very controversial!

This week our 80s crew throw caution to the wind and weigh in on the thorny topics of their cinematic era. From Video's controversial beginnings, to the infamy of the Video Nasties, the use of controversy to fill cinema seats in the 90s and beyond into today's post internet fragmented world, where what is offensive depends on the individual more than any kind of collective moral standard.

We would issue a warning about the controversial content of this week's show but we're betting you're so thoroughly desensitized to all things shocking and profane that the lack of drug taking, sex and casual violence in our podcast is likely the most disturbing thing about our show. Still, at least we have our ingrained racism to fall back on if the need requires.

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/051ItSHighlyControversial/051-it_s-highly-controversial_.mp3

Episode 52 - 1993 - Super Jurassic Demolition Hog Day Before Christmas

The gang are then lost forever as the podcast loops over and over again with "Groundhog Day" which can only mean one thing ... This week our 80s quartet have found themselves in the Dinosaur ridden land of 1993 where they try to stave off cinematic extinction with the films of the year.

The first fossil to be uncovered is the not so faithful adaptation of the popular jumping plumber video game "Super Mario Brothers" although Sue would rather just talk about it's soundtrack. On the subject of Dinosaurs we come to Schwarzenegger and Stallone. The gang eagerly take to their seats with magic tickets in hand and get sucked into the land of movies where The Governator takes the piss out of himself to the apparent amusement of few. Meanwhile Sly strikes back with a double whammy of "Demolition Man" and "Cliffhanger" amazingly taking the 'Best Action Hero of the Year' title off Arnie despite his last offering being Terminator 2. Nevertheless be assured Schwarzenegger will be back!

Did you know the "Three Musketeers" was this year? And actually it was quite good fun? Well it was. Maybe you were too busy being wow'd by the CGI of "Jurassic Park" and getting all excited by dinosaurs and the potential of the visual imagery that was yet to come. Little did we realize then how tiresome both would soon become. Meanwhile the rest of Hollywood is hiding from the Raptors in "Tombstone" apparently.

Then our gang go on the Run with a grumbling Harrison Ford in the "Fugitive" which was very exciting at the time but these days who wants to watch it all again? It's enough to drive you into a killer rampage like in "Falling Down". Ian wishes to gush over his award winning Plasticine and it's celebrated wardrobe malfunction and many agree. Justin massages his Tim Burton gland with "Nightmare before Christmas." Leo rounds off with "The Vanishing" where he attempts to discover why this film is so totally forgotten.

The gang are then lost forever as the podcast loops over and over again with "Groundhog Day" which can only mean one thing ...

Incidental Music "Hidden Agenda" by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com 'Super Mario bros' game theme copyright Nintendo and used under fair use.

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/0521993SuperJurassicDemolitionHogDayBeforeChristmas/052-1993-super-jurassic-demolition-hog-day-before-christmas.mp3

Episode 53 - The Wasteland of Early 90's TV

This week our Trio rummage deep into their old, dog eared copies of the TV Times and cast their minds back to the Genre TV series of the early 90s. For the UK it was a poor offering, having axed Dr Who the BBC deemed it unnecessary to replace it with anything. Red Dwarf seemed the only game in town, that and the cripplingly dire "Crime Traveler" or the misshapen "Bugs". Science fiction seemed to bubble out on anything but actual drama, surviving on game shows like "Interceptor" or "Crystal Maze."

The doctrine was clear, post Star Wars people expected special effects with their Sci Fi and TV couldn't do that, it was American imports like "Star Trek - The Next Generation" or do without. Thankfully Next Gen was prospering quite well, along with "X Files" and any other half way decent Genre show on Sky Satellite channels. For terrestrial viewers they had to make do with the lack lustre also rans like "Sea Quest" or the "little low budget show that could", "Babylon 5".

The thing is America was also having a hand in special effects lite fantasy shows like "Early Edition" or "Quantum Leap" which frankly made a mockery of the idea Genre TV was too expensive. Anyway ... "New Adventures of Superman", "Hercules" and "Xena" also rolled about being objects of enjoyment for at least some period of their run. But really this is the bit in history that TV makers of the future would refer to as "Before Buffy" and after that everything changed. But that's a story for another time. For the moment it's very much mend and make do.

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/053TheWastelandOfEarly90sTv/053-the-wasteland-of-early-90s-tv.mp3

Episode 54 - 1994 - Mary Shelly's Pulp Fiction and other Comic Books

It's hard not to sum up this '1994' Episode as 'Just another one in the 90s' and saying it with a deep sigh. So to shake things up a little we open with Leo's thesis on the state of comic books in the 90s and the result film offerings we have to enjoy this year, "The Crow" and the "The Mask" are the more well known adaptions, "Time Cop" was a surprising adaptation, "Blankman" was not an adaption of anything other than one man's Nerd-phobia that never should have seen the light of day and "The Fantastic Four" which didn't. Which is a shame we feel.

'Was this a good year to be doing a Media Course with Film studies?' Ian asks, remembering back to that fateful year when he and Leo were doing just that. Oh the sweet memories of arguing over "Mary Shelly's Frankenstein" with a lecturer. And of course "Pulp Fiction" the movie that enchanted film students of the period, much to their current shame.

Sure, we might have bitter words for Tarantino now, but as a film in it self what do we make of it? "Natural Born Killers" was Oliver Stone's bastardized Tarantino script, which induced a bitter headache in Leo. Good times.

Onward we go for our action hit with Schwarzenegger's "True Lies" to the glee of Justin and Stallone's "Specialist" which no one can remember in any detail at all. Then they all hurry past "Speed". Ian beams up to the doomed Enterprise D to give a good telling off to all involved in "Star Trek Generations." "Stargate" And "Leon" were also this year and we note their presence as their long term effects were not felt or appreciated at the time.

Also a glut of 90s turkey is ready for our gang to eat with "Street Fighter" and "Blown away". We round off by musing on "Interview with a Vampire" which apparently is not as good as people thought at the time ... and really that sums up the 90s in a nut shell.

4 July 2014

Assassin's Creed III - Vision vs. Reality

Kotaku is, obviously, following the chequered alt-history of the Assassin’s Creed franchise as it stumbles from episode to episode trying to give the players what they want. It hasn’t always worked out, as the largely negative reaction to Assassin’s Creed III demonstrated.

There’s been some early speculation about the anticipated awesomeness of this year’s AC:Unity which I shall be commenting on anon. However the article telling us all the things that would be awesome in Unity made the mistake of linking to a previous article that told us all the things that would be awesome with ACIII.

Some of these features were there, but not really all that awesome either way; some were not there, but nearly there and this article just seems to highlight how not awesome the finished product is in comparison to the brash assurances of the pre-finish dev team; or just not even there at all in the end and hence a bit irrelevant, leading to the obvious question “why lie?”

Before we go any further I should point out that I ended up rather enjoying ACIII, although the story team had been given, maybe, way too loose a leash and ended up in a self-indulgent land called “The Land of Let’s Do Things In A Video Game Story That People Never Do In Video Game Stories”.

Unfortunately their excursion deep into this dark continent did not produce a clever, immersive story that thrilled its way to an epic conclusion. Instead it produced a lumpy, slightly pretentious, difficult but ambitious story that was lovable but, tragically, hard to love.

I provide this short list of gripes about promise versus reality as a counterpoint both to the giddy anticipatory tone of the linked article but also as a counterpoint to a similar article looking forward to the next major chapter in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, comments on which will follow shortly. In the end I just find it curious that a laundry list of broad general aims can have been missed in so many different ways. The first and most obvious misdirect in the linked article is a simple picture of Connor in a canoe.

*Canoes not included.
Connor never uses a canoe in ACIII. Aveline uses a canoe in Liberation but the code and whatnot never made the transition. I can kind of forgive this, the canoe stuff in the bayou wasn’t really all that fantastic and there was no real point to it honestly. Still, it seems strange that as they had an engine lying about for it that they didn’t just shove it in.

Except, of course, most memorable bodies of water in the game were rivers and maybe the physics of white-water canoeing just weren’t feasible. It is a great shame because being able to leave the reservation at the beginning by canoe instead of hoofing it across the unmapped frontier would have been pretty cool. Also it might have made more fast travel options possible.

In the rest of the article there are a few more things that are just plain wrong, many are trivial but then you get the odd one like:

There is some sort of system involving ice, possibly involving hiding below it to ambush troops, but the developers aren't getting specific about it yet.

Nor, indeed, do they ever, because I never once encountered ice. Snow, yes, loads of bloody terrible snow, but ice, I believe it is possible that ice maybe never made it into the game? Not sure. At the very least it would appear that if you wanted to use the ice mechanic, if such exists, you will need to seek it out. A quick google reveals that no-one particularly has.

Mmm... Connor loves snow. Press O to build a snowman in this
winter wonderland. Lies.
This is most probably because wading through snow was one of the most irritating frontier experiences of ACIII. Winter on the Eastern Seaboard was no fun at all. I get that I was supposed to be tarzanning my way through the trees but the environment did not always support that. Indeed that whole aspect existed and was pretty good fun but when it comes to statements like this:

"Our goal with the assassin was to make him as capable in the wilderness as Ezio and Altair were in cities, to do this for a forest," [the game's creative director, Alex] Hutchinson said. "For us, trees are 3D navigable space. You'll be able to go up trees, along that branch level, moving around. Some of the early fantasies we were talking about—it's fun to reference movies to get the team to paint a picture in their mind-if you think of the Predator, the original movie, not being [Arnold Schwarzenegger's soldier character] but being the Predator and the Redcoats being Arnie and [his] guys. This unseen force picking them off one-by-one from the trees? This is what we wanted. We want you to be a terrifying force of nature in that spot."

This points to a place where there was such fail, much desultory, terrible fail. I don’t know whether this was because of my mistrust of the enemy AI but I always assumed that if I picked off a guy in a column of redcoats from the trees the AI engine would have all the others see me, start shooting me etc. Maybe I’m wrong. Trees, though, are not stalking zones. You aren’t hard to spot up there, at all. Maybe if they had introuduced the idea of a tree-level stalking zone this would have worked a lot better.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, to date I have not actually tried to do this. I may pop the disc in over the weekend, head off to the frontier and see what happens... I will, of course, report back here.)

Yeah, that's right biznatches I am your hidden doom and...
NO! Don't look up! That's not fair *cries*
I can actually see the mechanics now. Tree level stalking zones, vantage points for clear visibility and swing/climb only zones, making a forest canopy fun zone from which you can take out the guys below.

Of course, then you’d have to tweak the enemy AI. You’d have to program these guys so when you took out the first one they huddled and grouped. Scanning the forest for signs of your approach. Then once you’d managed to pick off a couple more they would scatter. Many panicking running off through the trees, another couple trying to watch one another’s backs. What would be even better there would be if, in their panick, they got turned around, running in circles. Then you drop in or whatever and pick them off. Alternating high stalking zones with low, dividing, conquering, becoming one with the forest.

Needless to say, none of this is the case. You can clumsily slaughter a bunch of soldiers, you can run across pre-determined canopy obstacle courses and, as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself, you can stalk to a degree. But it’s nothing like the stated aim of the development team.

I had to loose a chuckle when I continued on to read:

Connor has a rope dart that he can use to hang people from trees with. It's more of a lure than a projectile weapon. An earlier, more aggressive version was more of tethered knife that was thrown from a standing position and then reeled in. "It felt too fantasy, " Hutchinson said. "It started to feel like Scorpion in Mortal Kombat."

But then the rope dart was pretty much just that in the finished product. You could lose them, and they made a mess of hunting kills, but they were pretty fantastic in their operation. They were a fun weapon, ruined partially by the unimaginative way the enemy AI reacted to them e.g. you could rope one sucker but then a sword fight was bound to follow.

Oh goodie... I've managed to provoke yet another
un-stealthy bloodbath...
The Batman: Arkham series did a much better job of this stuff, building in a panic aspect to enemies, so they changed their behaviour when they knew you were near. So I know such a thing is possible. It just seems like a lot of fluff in a game when it’s added with no real consequence.

Finally, there was this gem:

The highlight of the Boston section is what is called a chase-breaker. Connor has barged past some Redcoat guards, who give chase. What would be a standard run through an Assassin's Creed city's street changes radically when a woman in a second-story window opens some shutters to breath in the fresh air. Connor, clambering over a stall in the middle of the road, turns 90 degrees to his right and runs through the open window, shocking the woman. He zips through the interior of her house and out the window on other side, losing his predecessors in one of the coolest moments an Assassin's Creed development team has ever shown to the press.

Ahem, yeah, whatever. I never zipped through an upstairs room, I did see women in second story windows but in forty hours of game play I never got the impression that they, you know, did anything other than provide scenery. I did occasionally trigger a ground floor cut-through, but never in an actual chase. The mechanic was definitely there (at least on the ground floor) but ultimately not useful for much.

The problem here is the old “accidentally run up a wall” thing that has always been the unpleasant side effect of the parkour mechanics. As a seasoned AC player during a chase you attempt to do precisely nothing that will lead to your assassin accidentally running up a wall by accident, bouncing off an unclimbable arch and hastily drawn into combat that you really just wanted to avoid.

Eyes front, avoid the walls... avoid the walls...
OOOH Pretty wall! (attempts to scale, gets shot, desync)
Over the franchise’s development time the notion of running away almost seems to have become more and more shameful to the development team. In ACI the whoosh of the successful escape signal was as much of a victory as slaughtering a dogpile of city guards. Over time it’s come to feel more and more like a sort of grudging shrug as the game puts away its fighting mechanics and slopes off into the background again.

Overall the reasons one might eventually end up liking ACIII are nothing to do with these supposed innovations many of which were half-baked or simply non-existent. As to why, despite these misdirects, I did like ACIII is a topic for another day.

All images are (c) Ubisoft of course and are used for illustrative purposes.

30 June 2014

Weird Magical Items and Narrative Reactivity

So, to take a break from podcasts or talking about Assassin’s Creed I recently caught up with an article on io9 called “The 20 Most WTF Magical Items in Dungeons & Dragons”. The intention of this article was to poke fun at some of the more apparently ridiculous items to be found in D&D’s extensive back catalogue of quest minutiae. I don’t know quite how this all works, as in, I’m not sure how these ideas come to be included in official D&D stuff.

Are D&D coast wizards constantly scribbling down ideas for these things in notebooks they keep close at hand day and night? Or do they, in fact, create new items in their own campaigns and then submit the best ones for inclusion in whatever volume of stuff they’re currently compiling? I tend to think the latter as the vast majority of insanely detailed plots, locations, NPCs etc. rise out of play sessions, response to, you know, actual players and the like.

So I guess that we can be comfortable in the notion that these things were not just summoned wholesale from the basement of imagination, made, as it were, from whole cloth. While some of the items seem, quite clearly, to be cursed objects intended to provoke a particular howl of simultaneous disbelief, horror and delight from players others, maybe, bore the marks of a thing I’m going to call “Narrative Reactivity”.

What is this new thing that I have created? Well, it’s less of a creation and more of an observation really. It’s about the nature of lazy creation when it comes to problems where your characters won’t behave in a story. Many times when this happens in role play it comes from the feeling the host has that managing the demands of the players is somewhat akin to herding cats. Maybe that feeling demands some more time in another post at another time, but right now we shall move swiftly on.

In writing the same thing can happen, and is possibly more upsetting for featuring characters dreamed up within your very living brain itself as opposed to being centred in the brains of other people who might be forgiven for not psychically understanding what you want to achieve in the story world you have built for them.

If the characters who come from your own mind start misbehaving, though, that can be, well, troubling. It puts forth the notion that you are not quite in control of parts of your mind, that people you dreamed up can have their own agendas. There’s something dark and mystical about your characters engaging in acts of sabotage against your story. In those cases you might find that the solutions the inexperienced or desperate author comes up with to fight against the tide of mutiny are more desperate, leading to the lazy introduction of plot-hole tearing technologies and surprise deus ex machinas and the like. So my hope with considering a few of these D&D items is to reveal something of the wiring under the board with regards to such incidents in the hope of guarding against such lazy story making.

Exhibit One: The Ring of Contrariness This “forces the wearer to disagree with everything anyone says” the author of the linked argument concludes that given the difficulty of forging magical artifacts this represents “a prime example of some wizard wasting his time.”

This is actually quite an easy one to unpick. It smells like a GM consulting on a D&D expansion met a player who was quiet and unassuming, someone who just appeared to tag along behind in every session. So in a GM ambush this player ends up with this ring on their finger and is magically required to stir up trouble, the peacemaker has become the agitator. Was this fun, or torture, for the player targetted? We will never know.

So, yes, the idea of a wizard inside the narrative bothering to make such an apparently useless artifact is troublesome. So much so that the meta-purpose of the item appears for more clearly than an in-story reason for someone to forge such an irritating artifact. However, the existence of such an item would appear to be a great opportunity for a budding story teller. How did this ring come to be? That is a tale to be told.

From a gamer’s perspective, of course, the item is a curiosity, leading to some sort of game outcome of no major import. If the reasons for its inclusion were indeed as stated above it may have arisen out of a misplaced desire to see all players fully participate in the game. GMs feel that if someone seems not to quite be in the game that this is necessarily a problem in need of resolution when, in reality, some people just like to be along for the ride.

The up front way to deal with a player who doesn’t appear to be participating to the fullest would be to just ask them if they’re happy with the way things are going and only try to change things if they are not. Of course, role playing is a particularly delicate form of social contract so your mileage in such circumstances may vary.

Exhibit Two: Bell's Palette of Identity
Bell the Wizard [made] this magic art palette, which, when used to paint a self-portrait, allows all status effects — basically anything you'd make a saving throw for — get transferred to the portrait instead. Users of the Palette must carry their self-portraits around wherever they go; if they don't have the paintings literally on their body, its powers are useless.
The linked article’s author speculates as to why the portrait must be kept in the possession of the character, tied around their left leg with fishing twine or whatever (rolled up around the inside of a knee-high boot?). The conclusion is that the Wizard Bell was just a bit rubbish not to have fully embraced this offshoot of the Picture of Dorian Gray.

There is, however, a simpler explanation for the item’s strange properties. Firstly, D&D characters have no real homes, they live in campsites and sleep in taverns. The party must never be split and must never stop moving. So the idea of an item that only works when placed on a shelf in the character’s home might lead to some awkwardness.

Also, what is the risk of an item that will make someone immune to whole swathes of rules in the game that cannot be accidentally ruined by a sword slash in the wrong place or accidentally landing up to the waist in swamp water? The properties of the magic palette are a quite obvious trade off of utility and plot convenience.

Exhibit Three: Ring of Bureaucratic Wizardry
When a wizard casts any spell while wearing the ring, a sheaf of papers and a quill pen suddenly appear in his hand. The papers are forms that must be filled out in triplicate explaining the effects of the spell, why the wizard wishes to cast it, whether it is for business or pleasure, and so on. The forms must be filled out before the effects of the spell will occur. The higher the level of the spell cast, the more complicated the forms become. Filling out the forms requires one round per level of spell.
This must have seemed like a cracking gag when it was dreamed up. Indeed it is a very good joke, it works on both a narrative and a ludic level. The joke transfers through the intra-digetic up to the meta level and actually means more things the more levels on which you appreciate it. If I understand correctly the advantage of the artifact would appear to be that the spell being cast is not subject to failure, just to bureaucratic delay.

To make a super-powerful spell operate guaranteed if the rest of the party can just hold off the enemy whilst the wizard does the necessary paperwork is a fantastic mental image. This leaves only one question. How did this item come to be? As I noted I imagine the sudden appearance of artifacts like these is likely to be reactive.

Maybe there was a wizard who was pretty pedantic and always cast low-risk spells leading to a situation where they just weren’t pulling their weight in the party (plus annoying pedants are annoying). This item seems like a cracking way to help address the balance in a way that gets people laughing about the situation.

Exhibit Four: Druid's Yoke
If you're in a D&D campaign where you need to do any kind of farming, you have bigger problems than any magical item can fix. But this yoke allows characters to — when they put it on themselves — turn into an ox. Not a magical ox; a regular ox. Then you can till your field yourself! You can't do it any faster, because again, you're just a goddamned ox, but it does allow you to… do the horrible manual labor… instead of the animal you've bred for this exact purpose. So that's… something someone would totally want. The best part? Once you've put it on, you can't take the yoke off; someone else has to do it for you. Because you're a goddamned ox.
Of all the artifacts that seem to have been created in reaction to a particular situation this one would appear to be the most specific. I can picture a campaign where, in order to get access to a particular bad guy, the players had to get access to a cattle market but the entry is restricted to people who had something to trade. They have money, but of course, the only place to buy a cow in time for the market is, unfortunately, the market: catch 22.

So they do find this Druid’s Yoke thingie which leads to an argument as to which team member will be, er, beefing up, for the market. After all anyone who can’t see the clear downsides to this not-so-genius plan must be a bit dense.

Obviously the plan goes sideways, how could it not? Now the rest of the team have to fight to reclaim their en-oxened party member in order to remove the yoke. Meanwhile the ox itself is trying to shake the yoke, or get it removed, by any means necessary. Hilarity is all but guaranteed to ensue.

Anyone who doesn’t see the narrative potential of this item isn’t thinking very hard. All you need to do is manufacture a reason for someone to put it on and let the rest of the plot flow from that circumstance.

Exhibit Five: Puchezma's Powder of Edible Objects
Interestingly, this odd item is one of the few D&D magical items that does have a back-story; apparently the unfortunately named Puchezma was a cheapskate who inadvertently created a powder that allowed him to eat any chewable material while trying to make a spice that would allow him to eat cheaper and cheaper food. With it, people can eat anything from cotton to tree leaves instead of bread and salted beef! Now, I would say if you're carrying around cotton, you might as well be carrying food. I would also say that if you plan on your player-character eating tree leaves to save fictional money you are very much missing the greater point of D&D.
This, along with another item called “fish dust” seem most obviously created in order to solve a pernickity problem. How to expediate the delivery of food to the players in unusual circumstances or, without exhaustive checks for success in a given activity.

Fish dust is a dust you sprinkle on water and it stuns the fish it touches causing them to float to the surface. Essentially it’s a kind of quiet way of dynamiting fish.

I can just see, in either case, that a party were either a) able to fish but the GM did not want to waste time on having them do so instead of getting on with the story or b) wandering through an ancient tomb of stuff with no food and in danger of starving to death. In each case the GM produced an item which mitigated the immediate problem and allowed the story to move on. No big mystery.

Exhibit Six: Mirror of Simple Order
"When a character steps in front of this mirror, he sees a strangely distorted image of himself. … There are eyes, a mouth, and a nose, but all lack character. Although the figure moves as the character does, it is shorter or taller than he is, adjusted in whatever direction approaches the average height of the character's race. Any clothing worn by the character is altered as well. Bright colors will be muted, appearing to be shades of grey. Any ornamental work on armor, weapons, or clothing will be gone. … He retains his level and class, but is not as exceptional as he might have been. He is bland and boring. The character's alignment changes to lawful neutral, and he becomes interested in little else other than setting order to the world." So there's a magical item that turns you into a soulless bureaucrat. I guess that's whose making those damn rings.
This is a fascinating artifact as, like the Ring of Contrariness, I can see it having been created as a “trap” for a particularly flair heavy and flamboyant player character, but the implications of the device reach far beyond this one usage. In fact, coming to think about it I cannot help but wonder if this is a reaction to a group losing a player who turned in a “unique” performance as an extrovert exhibitionist with bags of charisma.

Not wanting to kill the character or pass it along to another player the Mirror accomplishes the job of leaving the character largely as was but removing all of their individuality. Possibly there was a chance that the player would return, making the restoration of the player’s “true” character a subject for a twist in the narrative.

Essentially, in game terms, this artifact would seem like the perfect tool for turning an individual character into a bland back-up NPC for an uncertain duration and for this reason it is an object that only has its true meaning revealed in its meta-purpose. Intra-digetically to the narrative, of course, the effect of this mirror would be a terrible, subtle and deeply unsettling curse.

25 June 2014

Editing, Outlining and the thin line between.

It's not often, like, once or twice before to my memory, that I feature other people's writing tips but sometimes you come across something that you just have to share because it nails some kind of process or whatever.

This post on io9 about editing is one such tip. Enjoy.

Archived Podcasts Galore!

Episode 47 - A Trip down the Playstation Memory Card Solid

20 years ago the Playstation was a new thing and the 80's Kids suddenly found themselves to be console owners and felt very pleased with themselves about being at the forefront of contemporary popular gaming. The PSX (for this was what it was called back then) was a wonderful unassuming grey box that dispensed 3D polygon entertainment and also played your CDs.

It's dizzying host of games came in charming square boxes that went 'clack' when you thumbed your way through the second hand bin at "Electronic Boutique". The controller was an iconic friendly grey colour and third party peripheries where everywhere. Who didn't own a play station back in the day other than really bitter people who clung on to the Saga Saturns or N64s?

It was a revolution in popular gaming and everyone, everywhere seemed to be having fun and SONY was a magical, wonderful company. This week Leo and Ian look back on those times and games through their rose tinted glasses and gush over the games that sucked time away from doing something productive with themselves in the 90s.

Incidental Music "Basement Floor" is composed by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com "Codec sounds" and "MGS Game over theme" Copywrite Konami and used under fair use.

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/047ATripDownThePlaystationMemoryCardSolid/047-a-trip-down-the-playstation-memory-card-solid.mp3

Episode 48 - Raiders of the Lost Fridge

With Justin freshly rescued from his Tomb the 80's Kids reckon this is fine time time to discuss that most prolific of grave robbers and his exploits on the silver screen. That's right, Indiana Jones! So shake the dust off your hat, throw on your brown leather jackets and act like you really do know how to use a bull whip. This week is like an out of control Mine cart and it stops for no one.

'Raiders' might belong in a museum but that doesn't stop Justin and Ian stealing it and gushing over it with nostalgia saturated love . Then Leo breaks up the party by informing them he doesn't quite "get it" causing many heads to explode. The powers of Spielberg and Ford are mused on as well as 'Raiders' rolling bolder like impact on the films and culture that came afterwards. Then comes 'Temple of Doom' and it's many traps made from political correctness gone mad. While Ian might have found it a bit grim its eat your heart out time for Justin. Then it's off to rescue Dad in 'Last Crusade' where deep and meaningful questions are asked like ... should Nazis be funny? You know, with the holocaust and everything. Whatever you might think we all agree it was a fine end to the series.

Only it wasn't ... yes ... we talk about that other film too.

Once again Lucas proves there is no part of your childhood you can possess, that he cannot take away. "Labeouf, I hate that guy."

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/048RaidersOfTheLostFridge/048-raiders-of-the-lost-fridge.mp3

Episode 49 - 1992 Reservoir Kids

There can be no clearer symptom of 90s rot that to examine the sad turn the Alien franchise took this year with it's bleak, nihilistic descent into death. A further example of a beloved 80s film series going off the boil would be "Batman Returns" although a more appropriate title might have been "Penguin Arrives".

Fortunately the 80s kids are here and more than ready to mete out some well deserved revenge. Lurching out blinking into the moonlight comes "Bram Stoker's Dracula", presumably named such to avoid confusion with all the other Dracula films based on the same book. Despite fleeting moments of brilliance the Prince of Darkness staggers disappointingly back to it's crypt once again, allowing younger, fresher vampires a stab at the jugular. They sadly ran headlong into "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and much like how Buffy deals with Vampires this film is badly executed.

All the same, this is the year of "Reservoir Dogs", the film that put Quentin Tarantino on our map. Sadly the passing years have not been kind to his once loyal 80s kids fanboys who do little but stand and watch while Sue and Leo give our once loved writer director a real ear full. And not in the Mr Blonde way.

The dark connection between Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes its mused on but really everyone was far too distracted by Sharon Stone crossing her legs in "Basic Instinct". Then things go a little surreal as David Lynch proves beyond any doubt that Twin Peaks fans have in fact been wasting their time all along. And thus the "Candy Man" was summoned to dispense his usual hook/bee based justice upon the transgressing films of 1992!

Incidental Music "Cool Vibes" by Kevin Macleod of incompetech.com

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/0491992ReservoirKids/049-1992-reservoir-kids.mp3

Episode 50 - The Aniversary Behemoth!

Yee Gawds! Has it been a year since the 80's Kids began this odyssey? Apparently it has. Oh well any excuse for a party. And the theme of this one is marvellous, wonderful favourite things. And in this weeks double length bumper podcast we tackle THREE each. So let the speculation begin! What are our Number one choices?

Sue's first choice involves a prolonged tea break, Justin will gush over the joy of nepotism, Ian's will either kill your or dive you insane and Leo's first favourite thing involves many happy memories reading the Shakespearean obituaries.

Our second batch of much loved things ups the game. Sue's choice is very heavy, Justin is delighted about his gateway drug that left him spoiled for choice, Ian speaks at length about his love for convoluted time travel plots NOT involving Dr Who but rather something else with more bite and Leo proudly unleashes his wheel of fate powered by cogs.

And the Third? Well... Sue likes playing god with the lives of ordinary people, Justin has famous last words to the puzzlement of many, Ian decides to end it in a bloody shoot out in which all our heroes die and Leo's final choice sends the surviving 80's kids to sleep. Really. What more could you ask for?

Incidental music composed or available from Kevin Macleod's invaluable website incompetech.com

Direct Link: https://archive.org/download/050TheAnniversaryBehemoth/050-the-anniversary-behemoth.mp3

18 June 2014

Working On Your Characters - An Approach (Mine)

I put this as an answer to a question Writer's Stack Exchange

First, crack dialogue.
Why? There's this weird ouroboros effect between characterisation and dialogue. Dialogue establishes character BUT dialogue emerges FROM character. Weirdly, you can exploit this by swimming a little against the tide.
Take two character stubs that you have in mind. They really don't need to be all that developed, could be as little as:
Jake: Fussy, lazy, prim.
Tony: Sharp, fidgety, sarcastic.
Then put them in a room and make them wait for something. This is an exercise I like to call "Rosencrantz and the Dumb Godot in Bruges" after scripts in which a pair of characters famously fill in time whilst waiting for something (note that in three out of the four the characters are spies/hitmen).
Now your brain is marinated in that free association space where you can let the dialogue flow. Two characters is enough to just get the focus right and allow them freedom to express themselves a bit better than in a crowd.
Tony is clearly going to be the one most ill-at-ease with waiting around so we'll give him something to do:
TONY is looking at his shoes. (NOTE: Why is he looking at his shoes? Well, he's fidgety. So I could have decided to have him be prepared and to bring a small rubber ball with him or something, or lucky and have him find a set up for a small gallery of targets at which to pitch rocks. I decided to make him both unprepared and unlucky so he is reduced to examining his shoes for inspiration.)
JAKE is laid out with a newspaper over his face, as if napping. (NOTE: So JAKE is more prepared than TONY. He brought a newspaper. He can probably tell that TONY is uncomfortable with nothing to do but is using his newspaper as an eyeshield. This indicates that JAKE is selfish.)
TONY: I think my shoes need cleaning.
JAKE (Under the newspaper): So get them cleaned.
TONY: I will. Not now, obviously, but I will, as soon as we get back to the city.
JAKE (Under the newspaper): Good idea.
TONY: I'd do it myself. I'd do it now. But, one, I don't think I do as good a job as a professional shoe shiner and two, I don't have any polish. I mean, who'd bring polish along on a job like this.
JAKE (Under the newspaper): Only a lunatic, for sure.
TONY: That's a terrible job... shoe shiner. Of course, there hasn't been the type of war that puts shoe shiners on the streets in a while. It's hard to find someone who'll shine your shoes. I think people regard the job as menial and humiliating. It's a shame. Most shoes just go around scuffed and dirty these days.
JAKE: Shoes are a lot cheaper than they used to be.
TONY: I know, right? I'm not sure that's a good thing. Shoes are important. They cushion you as you walk. Walking is vital to communication. If we couldn't walk then we couldn't have got here.
JAKE: We could have teleconferenced.
TONY: Mister Black didn't want to teleconference, he wanted face to face. He's old school, Mister Black.
And just pootle on like that for as long as you can. There are even dialogue writing exercises that can help you out with that.
Next, mix it up a bit.
Repeat the first process for a number of natural character pairs. The character pair is the basic atom of show-don't-tell character development and revelation.
Your next stage is to mix up the characters you have paired and put them in new situations. You might want to generate or acquire a number of situations where the two characters could be forced to wait. Also change up the pre-existent relationships between them. Make a male and a female character husband and wife (even if you don't intend that they end up that way in your proposed novel), have two characters who know each other well talk as if they have never met. Note that there is, in any two-handed conversation, an actor (the person who proposes the topic and trajectory of the conversation) and a reactor (the person who fills in with their own reactions to the actors actions).
After that you want to start widening the circle. The number of people involved in a scene up to about eight largely dictates what will happen between them due to the rules governing permutations thus:

  1. A person alone: with a completely dedicated and individual agenda. By default an unreliable narrator.
  2. Actor and Reactor: feeding off each other, pressing one another on, seeking companionship for its own end. A partnership is, by default, accepts a level of intimate intensity. Most prosaically this manifests as romantic love, but could equally well be obsessive hatred, or any other kind of odd thing in between. Each partner in a duo will tend to reveal more of themselves to the other than they intend as neither of them can be distracted by anyone else.
  3. The couple and the lodger: Always two people will be united in purpose and the last will be identified as "other", "outsider" or "leader".
  4. The double date: People pair off and a love of symmetery makes two couples who police each other's status for some kind of equilibrium obsessively. Unlike a couple left to their own devices any point of conflict will be deflated or defeated by the other unit. Subtext begins to become a thing.
  5. The troublemaker: As this is an odd number the "spare" character is free to sow chaos among the other four people's stable set up. The "outsider" can prevent couple A from stabilising couple "B" or vice versa. The fifth party is always likely to be a source of contention.
  6. The dinner party: Three couples mean that each person in any de facto couple takes an opportunity to stand on their own, the number of permutations of one-to-one interaction here is large but finite. Although friction in certain actions may lead to much ado about very little this party is ultimately static in its bonds.
  7. The King or The Fool: Here the odd person, introduced into the dinner party scenario, has an opportunity to unite everyone (either in ordered placidity or in terrifying hatred of them), or to sew the seeds of ultimate chaos splitting the party into smaller subdivisions.
  8. The Gathering: A bigger dinner party. The larger the group from this point the more that each person present has to shout louder and be clearer to "control" or "own" the conversation. Now people will be very careful about things like social norms projecting an image of someone as "the type of person they want to be", idiosyncrasy in character will decrease, the wisdom and madness of groupthink will emerge, interaction becomes increasingly pageant like. There may be a "leader" but instead of emerging naturally through personality and charismatic dominance the leader is more likely to be, in some sense, elected and therefore take on the mantle of governmental power rather than personal charisma.

From that point on the behaviour of crowds and leaders just multiplies. Two leaders and a crowd make a war, three leaders and a crowd suggests a courtroom, four leaders and a crowd suggest some kind of cold war. Always, the more people are added the more difficult it becomes for people to be established as "leaders". The tendency of large mobs is always towards chaos.
Given that overview I would tend to practice with scenes involving up to five characters. After that you're entering the realm of "crowd scenes" which are easier tackled when you have a lot of context.
Finally, to the matter of plot.
Some people, Elmore Leonard famously, have a very woolly idea of what the plot actually is, they like to assemble patchworks of character scenes into a narrative and leave it at that. This could be your thing.
If not, you should work out how your characters, who you should know quite a bit about by now, will achieve the ends of your initial plot. Some "plot problems" may seem intractable but I have never yet found one that can't be thought about until it is tweaked out of existence.
Anyway, the first two parts of this answer will probably get you going in the right direction. After that it's all about sewing up the plot holes.