Monday, October 28, 2013

Movie Web Monday: Christian Bale

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Today's actor is probably one of the first that I really started to movie-web consciously. Christian Bale, an infamously great-but-demanding actor, has starred in a whole slew of excellent movies dating back to Empire of the Sun and Henry V in the late 80s, with his mainstream attention ramped up in the past decade after his incomparable realization of Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. With Ben Affleck the mildly controversial replacement to don the cowl in the Superman vs Batman movie, it remains to be seen whether that stays Bale's most recognized role.

Not that there aren't tons of great under-exposed roles in his filmography. I don't feature them below, but I also highly recommend Rescue Dawn, where Bale plays an American fighter pilot shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War. It's brutal, raw, and psychologically draining, but an excellent film. Similarly, The Machinist is one of the greatest psychological films of all time, and Bale's star performance is engrossing in its mundane grotesqueness. The film's inspiration is pure Dostoyevsky, with heavy elements of Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, so that comparison will go a long way to informing whether you might enjoy it or not.

Christian Bale: Unsung Underdog

Movie: Terminator Salvation (Own it)

In the first film to finally focus on the actual Machine War, Christian Bale takes up the role of John Connor, hero of humanity and walking target of the franchise. I'd been waiting to see the Machine War realized on the big screen ever since I saw Terminator as a five year-old (heavily censored by my big brother sitting on me during the objectionable bits). I wanted to see the all-out apocalyptic showdown, firefights in the concrete morass of long-nuked cities, and with John Connor orchestrating it all. Bale's John Connor steps into the grim struggle with the right amount of weight and exhaustion throughout his scenes, even though he's not yet the supreme commander of the human resistance. Action hero gunplay and fighting aside, I think it's the bag-eyed weariness, that drawn and haggard leader of men caught in the midst of successively worse decisions, that elevates the film for me. It's encapsulated in the beat before John broadcasts one of his machine-fighting tutorials over the radio:

The person being referred to is Kyle Reese, John Connor's deceased father and future subordinate thanks to the loopy paradox at the core of the franchise. Setting the causal stupidity of time travel plots aside, it's a superb small moment of Bale pulling back the seams of Connor's armor and showing what drives the exhausted resistance leader--the idea that his loved ones are out there, that he has a family that extends beyond his physical reach that he can't see but that he can protect. Coupled with his wife Kate Connor (played by mesmeric Bryce Dallas Howard) and her baby bump, Bale portrays a man in transition to a point where he is not only about to become a father, but that also his prophetic grasp on the future is catching up to him and he will soon be on his own. It's a chilling thought, in a franchise bound by time-traveling take-backs and cause-effect loops, to imagine being on the verge of true uncertainty once more. If only we could get there--but alas, rumor is that the next Terminator movie will return to the time-traveling format again, and almost certainly retconn this film's continuity.

Movie: Newsies (Own it, but gorram if I can ever find it)

This is the first movie I ever saw with Christian Bale in it, and it still gets trotted out for a viewing every  few months. Heck, as a music kid in high school I knew a lot of girls who liked nothing more than associating with guys able to sing "Santa Fe" soulfully, so this movie has made a lot of hay throughout my life. For those of you who don't know, Newsies is a period musical set in New York City at the close of the nineteenth century and follows the rousers of a strike of newsboys against the mongering gigantic newspapers controlling their fate. Christian Bale plays their charismatic leader, Jack Kelly, and accordingly spends much of the Disney flick brooding in a pop-musical style. Which means, unlike his future Batman brooding, there was a lot of dancing alone and smoldering on iron catwalks and fire escapes--okay, maybe that's a little like Batman, after all. The film is really well done and infectiously catchy if you're even remotely susceptible to the genre, and Bale's portrayal of Jack Kelly is a neat compromise of sort of popular pretty boy charm and self-serving gregariousness--something few actors could capture so easily between musical numbers, let alone a teenager, but Bale does it expertly. It plays so well in the moments where Jack squares off against sinister Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall, or even in the scenes where the impoverished gnat rails against the corporate giant. One of my favorite examples of this:

In a movie full of great, energetic and upbeat performances in a really fairly dark plot, Bale stands out and carries his scenes like a veteran despite how incredibly early this was in his career. It's also a nice flick to watch to see a very different side of Bale--even his more artsy roles are still just in contrast to his action movie blockbusters, and there's very little to compare to a Disney lighthearted period musical.

Movie: 3:10 to Yuma (Own it. THE SPOILERS SHALL FLOW)

The 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma is one of my absolute favorite films. I mentioned it two years ago as a great Father's Day movie. A relatively cozy (in terms of plot analysis) western about a group of men from a small town trying to escort dangerous robber and gunman Ben Wade to a prison train, it contains great period action, great performances by the lead and supporting actors, and is an insane fatherhood tear-jerker. Christian Bale plays the protagonist Dan Evans, a one-legged rancher and family man on the verge of losing everything who decides to join the impromptu armed escort and try to stay one step ahead of Wade's ruthless gang hunting them. Wade, played by ember-eyed Russell Crowe, alternates between a happy rider and opportunistic murderer as they journey along, and the paradoxical role ends with Wade and Evans having an antagonistic but respectful bond at the end. As the rest of the escorts are killed or scared off, only the hobbled Evans has the courage and stubbornness to stay and try to see things through despite his terrible prospects. There's lots of great moments of ragged beauty in this film, but probably the greatest is the pathetic moment in which Evans explains what truly drives him in his suicidal-but-noble quest:

Oh, the sweet, sweet tragedy of this movie is so beautiful. In this moment, Dan Evans' disarming honesty and wounded nobility finally win Ben over, and in the final run of the two to the train station we see that he's also won over his son, William, making his final, sudden demise so much sadder and at the same time so much more admirable and inspiring. The movie's full of these dry bits of underplayed-but-poignant drama, with Bale the hero of the western without ever really trying too hard. Unique, masterful, and engrossing no matter how many times I man-cry through it.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

GM Tips: Scaring Your Players

GM Tips: It's easy to get into any number of RPGs as a new player, but getting started is a rocky, uphill battle for the Game Master, as he must wrangle player personalities, schedules, and the rules of the system in addition to developing his own plot. Hopefully, a few personal lessons will ease your GMing burden, or at least illustrate how one nerd shoulders the burden of the Game Master.

Last week I mentioned that I wanted to follow up on a search hit with GM tips for scaring one's players. With Halloween this weekend, now's as great a time as any to share my thoughts on the subject and impart a little advice. At first I had planned on sharing tactics to evoke a variety of emotions, but to keep this post focused I wanted to pare things down to scaring your RPG group. Fear is one of the harder emotions to evoke around the game table, so it's all the more important.

When players come together to play a tabletop RPG, they do so to entertain each other and socialize in a shared, imaginative experience. But that means that every role-player is interested in a certain amount of  goofing off and chit-chatting. That's fine, but it makes fear more elusive because your players' mindsets are in the wrong gear. Fear is about anxiety, and anxiety is an emotionally taxing state--it requires your constant attention and imagination. A horror movie or video game can cheat anxiety by throwing a grotesque image or gore at the audience, but in an RPG session this tack can be problematic--and smelly. The GM needs to be deliberate and reactive to his players to keep them afraid for their characters.

While I haven't led a lot of horror-focused games, all of my campaigns have featured fear and suspense as important factors. My current RPG campaign in particular--the one in the Myth setting--is thematically built on three pillars of tragedy, duty, and horror. I've also played and led a few games in a low-powered mortals campaign of World of Darkness, with all The X-Files creepy goodness that went with it. So I've stretched these GM muscles a bit in the past. There's a lot of interactivity in an RPGs, obviously, so anything you do needs to be tailored and responsive to your group. An easy shortcut to tailoring is to find out what other stories your players like. Do they like psychological horror? Throw thought puzzles and philosophical paradoxes at them. Do they like gory violent schlock? Give them a red-shirt or two and have them die in meticulously detailed scenes. Responding to your players is about two things: correcting wrong assumptions you made in the tailoring process and letting your players have a legitimate sway over the direction of the plot. This is the balancing act of fear in an RPG--your players want to exert control over the plot, and in so doing they are out to destroy any atmosphere of horror you might create.

Tell The Story

This is a fundamental issue for most RPG sessions. GMing a campaign involves a lot of work: mapping out locations; plotting out characters and adversaries; hammering out the mechanics of player options in-game. But once everyone is at the table, you're all involved in a storytelling experience, so don't forget to tell the story. Tell the frakking story. Don't give your players a mechanic or stat-value unless they have a description to justify it--and sometimes if you give your players a thorough description of the action, you can make some of the mechanics unnecessary. And don't fall into the trap of describing only the mechanically important elements of the story. It may be important that the room has a conveniently heavy desk near the only door, but does it have pictures on it? What about interior decoration? Do the drawers have paperwork that might entice the player characters to waste time investigating? These details help create a three-dimensional story that draws the players in and helps put them in a place where they're more likely to feel the tension and fear you're trying to create. Yeah, you need to do some legwork to get your players into the right mood for your fear-mongering to settle. Deal with it.

Don't Name It!

By this, I mean don't use the official rules-related name for your game's adversaries. This is especially important when your players might have a good idea of what a NPC is capable of once they get the monster's name (a particular problem for DnD groups), but it applies pretty much whenever that antagonist's name or title will give a hasty shorthand of their capabilities and/or motivations. Nothing kills the mystery of your average monster as much as seeing its Playboy spread. Sure, it might be convenient to refer to that level 3 Ghoul as such, but once your bring your monster into the light, you generally can't convince your players that it's a silhouette again. So don't name your monster unless it's absolutely necessary: that isn't a zombie--it's a twitching, pallid trucker in a torn plaid shirt and broken fingertips; that isn't a ghost--it's a flickering cloud of sighs and soft crunching of bones. This ties in with telling the story, as filling out archetypal NPCs with detailed, unique descriptions are a good way to add depth to your players' investment in the story.

Extending this principal beyond the monster's appearance and name, you can take this as a reminder not to give your players cozy answers to unsettling mysteries. Most serial killers and real-life horrors are scary because of the fickle, unfathomable motivations behind their acts. Only a GM, speaking with the voice of God, can give you that authoritative answer of firmly knowing that person X did for Y reason. Any person speaking with limited knowledge in your setting can only speculate what made your game's bogeyman don a slicker and go on a killing-spree, and that will make the thrill of hunting him down all the more tense for them.

Secret Dice Rolls

This is a simple one. I'm a firm believer in hiding things from players, especially to create a scary atmosphere. This dovetails with not sharing your monster's names with your players, as it's often important that your players don't know what certain dice results are. For example, if your players are making a check to detect whether that suspicious groundskeeper is telling the truth, it'd be pretty pointless if they got to see if their dice results yielded a success of failure in the 'detect lies' skill. Roll those dice in secret and then accordingly lie to the players about how charismatic and helpful the scraggly man is, and about how his offer of hospitality seems totally genuine. One of the potentially most immersion-breaking aspects of a tabletop RPG is getting to see how your dice fare--a meta-game indicator--rather than having to rely on the subjective report of actual effects--an in-game indicator.

I also like to sometimes extend this to making extra rolls in secret--that is, I roll the dice behind my GM screen for no point other than to make my players anxious. What was Ben rolling? Did we just spring a trap? If we did, why aren't we being attacked yet? What's following us? We should explore this room more. Maybe this NPC isn't everything he said he was. It's a way of subverting some of the mechanics of the tabletop experience to create a pavlovian response in your game group--secret rolls are a source of player-based tension, so it can be used to enhance the fear the characters should be exhibiting. Use sparingly--and not too much immediately after blogging about it.

Minimize Mechanics

Dice rolling and game mechanics are fun and deserve to form the lynchpin of your average RPG. But they're logical (hopefully), fair (most of the time), and balanced (somewhat), which are not really conducive to fear. When your players are thinking of game mechanics, they're thinking about modifiers, odds, and binary choices to narrow down the most likely route to success. They aren't thinking about mysteries or the mental image of the floating corpse with its lungs ripped out through his throat. And that's too bad. So do yourself a favor as a GM trying to scare your players by minimizing mechanics. Try not to look into your ten-pound gaming encyclopedia at the game table--if you can't remember a rule, wing it and double-check later. This won't work with some players without a good amount of persuasion, but I find it's a super helpful way to get players invested in the mood you're creating.

Add variety to the stakes

I hate saving the world. It seems like every movie, television show, comic, and game out there is interested in saving the world. Don't get me wrong, the world has some nice things to offer, but it's pretty boring to have stakes that are consistently raised to the max all the time. And it's also kind of hard to imagine what saving the world feels like, really. It ends up just being a ham-handed way for GMs to say that the players are now "Over 9,000!!!" How do they know they've reached the final boss? The GM gives them a narrative that it's all come down to this, the armies of the world are arrayed, and the final battle is about to begin. Then Shang Tsung descends and says "Fight!" and the players wade into a big arena fight with an over-powered yet obviously flawed boss character.

No thank you. How about a campaign to save only yourselves? That's a great horror objective. Or to save a loved one, if you have characters who aren't orphan-murder-hobos like those that are typically played in your average RPG? Or what about when the stakes are uncertain? Is this hostile trying to rob us, mug us, murder us, or kidnap us? Making the objective of the enemy uncertain throws a wrench into what retaliation is acceptable for the players, and that not only makes them hesitate but makes them internalize the details of the plot to digest the fearful elements better.

Also, the big bad doesn't need to be more powerful than the players. Making a threat boil down to someone who's simply more ruthless than everyone around him, or who has a better plan, or is more tactically cowardly, can be a lot more interesting than the huge thing that trades blows with the four champions of the free peoples of the world.

Control (or at least be mindful of) Ambience

I never GM a game without music in the background. I use it to set the mood of the game and also to fill in the silences in the action of game sessions. It's important to pick music that is spooky, scary, or terrifying and queue it up as needed to give your players the creeps, but I also think it's equally important to pick something that isn't too on the nose and overly popular. The Halloween theme is chilling, but everyone knows it and is inured to it, whether from seeing the movie too many times or from going to one too many Fright-Fests at Six Flags. Pick something relatively obscure and let it fine-tune your ambience. Also, remember that ambience is about more than just music. If you can, think about changing around your game room to make it spookier--dimmer lighting, closed doors, and even what's on your game shelf behind you can modify players' moods in your gaming space.

So those are my quick and dirty tips for GMs interested in scaring their players. Take your time to tell your story, go out of your way not to label your threats, use secret dice rolls, minimize the game and maximize the story, add variety to the stakes, and remember your ambience.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The SHIELD That Could Have Been

I think I've done a fair-to-decent job of confirming my status as a Marvel fan. I've now written detailed reviews of five of their movies (Thor, Captain America, X-men: First Class, Avengers, and Iron Man 3), and I've plugged their Marvel Unlimited online comic service. In my haul of swag from my C2E2 2013 roundup, you saw that I'd bought a half dozen pieces of Marvel art and literature, and that's only a modest addition to my collection of Marvel stuff that I haven't mentioned on the blog before. I have at least a dozen Marvel t-shirts, and I'm proud to say I have Captain America plates, coasters, and even boxer briefs. And if anything ever were to drive me to exhibitionism, I'm pretty sure it'd be my love for those Captain America undies. Except when I'm changing at the gym and I forget I wore the Cap skivvies that day--then it can be awkward. But you get the idea.

I love the Marvel characters, the major arcs (even when I don't), and I love what they're doing with the cinematic universe. But sometimes loving someone means caring enough when to tell them when they suck. Marvel made the movies Daredevil, Wolverine Origins, and Ghost Rider; there's no escaping that. But that's nothing compared to that one time they tried to make a SHIELD television series.

Yes, that's right. Agents of SHIELD is not the first attempt to bring the Marvel espionage organization onto the small screen. In 1998, Fox aired a made-for-television movie starring the director of SHIELD when he was but a mere agent. It's clear that the film was meant as a television pilot, but thankfully the world dodged that bullet and nothing more came of it. It did get released on DVD a decade later, becoming instant bargain bin fodder for Marvel nerds with $5.28 burning a hole in their pocket, and thereby allowing me to inflict it upon you.

"Except when I'm changing at the gym and I forget I wore the Cap skivvies that day--then it can be awkward. But you get the idea."

Let me stress that this DVD that I own is a total cheap cash-in on the success of Iron Man. How bad of a cash-in? Well, it goes right down to the fundamentals of SHIELD--an acronym that remains constant despite representing five or more titles over the years. In the plot of Iron Man, they established the current full title for SHIELD: the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. This is the full name that is dropped on the back of the DVD case. But, being made in the late 90s, this explanation for SHIELD hadn't been used yet, and in the very movie they drop that it stands for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-enforcement Division (and that was actually outdated in the comics as of 1991, too). So the people blurbing the back of my DVD of this little gem didn't even bother to pay attention to the movie, and that's assuming they had the cajones to actually sit through it.

Now before you think about how intensely critical I can be, let me give you a rundown of the movie. First we have a terrible call-to-action scene, in which it seems two SHIELD mooks--one of them a traitor working for Hydra--are the only guards for a detention facility that houses the cryogenically frozen remains of Baron Strucker, a Macguffin-cicle whose DNA is the secret to a biological holocaust weapon called the Death's Head. When the shady mook shoots the legitimate SHIELD guard, Hydra waltzes into the base and shows how this is the easiest key-to-doomsday in the history of the genre. Five minutes into the film, with no protagonists introduced, the villains already have everything they need to accomplish their terrible goals. Fortunately for Nick Fury, the bad guys want to dick around and showcase staggering incompetence on both sides for 80 minutes, which leads us to our hero...

Pick-axing in a cave. No one else around, no visible machinery to process whatever he might find. No explanation other than the hand-waved assumption that Cold War badass spies must find manual mining a therapeutic retirement hobby. Plus, Nick Fury is played by David Hasselhoff, and it's a great opportunity to establish one of the primary themes of the show: Nick Fury sweats pretty much all the time. At least by setting Fury's golden years (hehehe, see what I did there?) in the Yukon, this movie departs from bad television form by at least having one scene filmed in the right country. Everything is clearly Toronto forests and studios, whether it's the European op or the eventual attack on New York--or generic American city with buildings up to three stories high and a really fuzzy New York skyline dropped in.

In case you've never seen rural Canada before, this is what it looks like.
Also a good substitute for every television location ever...

Fury also gets to show off his remarkably-adroit-but-toothless combat skills. Angry at having his daily communion with the rock interrupted, good ol' Nick runs out into blinding daylight and proceeds to kick the keester of the poor prissy schmuck standing there: British agent Alexander Pierce. Nick kicks the guy in the low chest for an opener, lays a fist across the face of the dry-skinned buffoon, and then flips him hard onto the rock-strewn ground. Pierce gets up and has not a mark to show for it. And besides a slight pant that may be from getting the faintest drubbing of all time or may simple be British indignance, Pierce is able to then hold up a conversation perfectly fine.

Our titular hero wastes no time in establishing that this Fury is so badass he isn't afraid to sound stupid, provided he confines his language to a hard-G or soft-PG rating. "You're gonna have to tell SHIELD to shove one up their collective end-zones," in response to Pierce letting Fury know he's been reactivated. He uses the classy term "sexpionage" to introduce female lead Contessa Fontaine to the audience and establish that he is too masculine to think that using that sort of terminology might inhibit his chances to suck the beauty mark off her face by film's end. Later, to mock the over-accredited Pierce he chest-kicked as a d-bag howdy-doody, Fury cracks, "How's your needlepoint?" Or "When the Iron Curtain was sent to the cleaners I was suddenly out of style." And when he's in the scariest MRI machine envisioned by man:

So...much...chest hair.

And, best of all, when he's introduced to the team's completely useless psychic and she mentions that her powers are heightened by implants, he conspicuously checks out her mammalian bits so that she has to specify that her telepathy is heightened by neural implants. Oh well, if the setting has Jean Grey, Emma Frost, and Betsy Braddock, you could understand how he might think bra size might correlate to ESP potential.

Also let me take a moment to mock the realization of the helicarrier in this boondoggle. The SHIELD mobile headquarters looks like that of an helicarrier-via-erector-set, or more accurately like a model badly cobbled together from sets of two or more different scales. It's dumb, ugly, bulky, and gives no sense whatsoever of how big the helicarrier actually is since no useful details can really be discerned.

Anyways, back to the plot, as it stands. About forty minutes after the baddies waltzed in to secure their Death's Head freezer pop, they issue a demand for one billion dollars or they will unleash their super-virus on Manhattan. Now, I don't know how money transfers of this scale work--I never worked that high up in banking--but I do know that the national deficit of the US at the time was around five trillion dollars. So in my mind a one billion dollar demand is fairly easy when you're threatening to kill off about three percent of the nation's people in one blow (later they suddenly inflate the bad guys' scheme to imperil forty million people, so that's more like one-sixth of the US population at the time). Nobody talks about paying the amount anyways, and they immediately have their psychic Agent Obvious tell them that the crazy blonde daughter of Baron Strucker has no intention of accepting the ransom anyways. So they give a ransom demand only to immediately invalidate it as irrelevant to the plot in the same scene. Well, at least they padded the movie with another two minutes while giving the bad guys a chance to tip their hand to their enemies.

The good guys follow the recommendation of Nick Fury, their dunce-in-the-hole, and seek out Arnim Zola so the bad guys can boost him under their noses and then give the Hoffster a poisoned kiss. Hitting all the bases here. Nick gets a terminal diagnosis that conveniently has no cure but Madame Hydra's blood and on a deadline that neatly coincides with Hydra's doomsday plot anyways.

Hot on the heels of Nick's bad judgement getting him sally-straddled by a one hundred-ten-pound blonde with poison lipstick, the rest of the protagonists still decide to follow his plan and split into two teams for the finale of this movie. Contessa "Do-these-lips-make-my-face-look-small" Fontaine leading a bunch of redshirts in a search for a deadly virus-carrying refrigerated garbage truck, while Nick, Irrelevant Psychic, and Agent British go after the enemy command center. Contessa's team basically owns by fiat after she surprises a Hydra goon playing wall-ball instead of guarding by substituting his ball with the world's weakest hand grenade. Seriously, the grenade barely disintegrates itself and does like no damage to the goon, but he and several adjacent guards go down anyways.

Nick's team gets all the excitement. First, the two junior agents watch as the ailing Fury takes out multiple guards with his fists while they have (apparently) silenced weapons handy that they use later on. Then the trio get held up by laser sensors for about two seconds before Agent British busts out his Laser Repellant and they slip through to meet a lone goon waiting for Fury to ask, "How's Hydra's dental plan?" A few more unexciting exchanges later, the eponymous hero is confronted with the dreaded does-the-doomsday-password-end-in-six-or-nine puzzle. As the final twenty seconds on the countdown burn through precious moments of my life that I'll never get back, Irrelevant Psychic is no help and allows Fury to heroically waffle on the six-nine decision until the timer hits maximum drama. The villainness is then caught, Arnim Zola shoots himself with the most fiddly booby-trapped gun ever, and Fury gets to drop a "pop-cicle" joke before Madame Hydra escapes with her father in the world's slowest elevator.

Eat this, Adam West's Batman!!!

What's most amazing to me about Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD is how many recognizable names are in the credits of the movie. David S. Goyer wrote the script--about the same time he was doing the original Blade script and seven years before Batman Begins. Director Rod Hardy has captained episodes of The Mentalist, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, and JAG, so it's not like he hasn't met with televised success before or after this particular feature. And there are several forever-supporting actors that you're likely to recognize. Ron Canada, Tom McBeath, and Gary Chalk, for instance, all have significant television resumes that include Stargate SG-1, for whatever nerd-cred that presents in your opinion. And yet this movie blows so completely that no one thought to make it a DVD until ten years after the fact when it was certainly forgotten and could cleanly trade on the name established by the first Iron Man movie. Does the Hoff really drag a production down that much? Specifically, does chest hair and peculiar sweat scenes drag a production down that much?

I doubt it. As much as I want to pan Hasselhoff specifically, I can't. This movie/pilot was a conceptual failure from the start. SHIELD exists as the interconnecting web of global plots in the Marvel universe, and trying to make a story about SHIELD when there was no established greater Marvel universe to connect was inherently dumb. Like trying to interior decorate a house that's under construction, SHIELD has no place without a stable of superheroes hedging them in. With one very irrelevant exception, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD had no superpowers whatsoever, and made no references to any superhumans of either good or bad moral persuasion.

"Fortunately for Nick Fury, the bad guys want to dick around and showcase staggering incompetence on both sides for 80 minutes..."

But I'm thankful for Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, and I'm glad I own it. As a fan of the Fox-aborted television series Space: Above and Beyond, Firefly, and Drive, it's nice to see that at least one decision to pan a new television series was not only justified, but may have saved the free world. Consider: if this show had been allowed to continue instead of purged with fire, the mainstream Marvel movies that would be coming out in the next few years, X-Men and Spider-Man, would've had to cater to the show's creative decisions in some way. Those movies would have suffered for it, Marvel's comic-distribution wouldn't have gotten the boost it did from those movies' popularity, and they never would have been in a position to take a risk to the tune of $50 million on Iron Man or any of the other Avengers-related films. Robert Downey Jr. wouldn't have been thrown into the public light as an all around awesome human being and nerd despite his Hollywood chops. Samuel L. Jackson's highest profile nerdy role would remain Mace Windu. Hugh Jackman would still be kicking around the Australian stage. And Scarlett Johansson would be flitting around art movies getting paired up with creepy old men for romantic interests instead of becoming a genre-crossing meta-hottie.

My goodness, I am thankful for Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. And I'm thankful for David Hasselhoff--without him, somebody might've decided the show was worth picking up, and that would be an evil too dark and terrible to imagine.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Kickstart: Rayguns, Space Frontiersmen, and White Russia in Space

Kickstart Your Weekend: A series in which I occasionally spotlight Kickstarter projects that are ending soon and deserve a little nerd love. Also, I'll highlight some past projects as well, as you never know when these enterprises are going to turn up again.

Today we're getting back into regular articles, with a laser-zap back into Kickstart Your Weekend. And these three are a particularly fun selection of games for fans of very different science fiction sub-genres. We've got a miniatures wargame-powered reboot of a classic pulp sci-fi series, a PC management game with a crude frontiersman angle, and finally a space epic computer RPG with a galactic empire inspired by pre-commie Russia.

Yeah, you heard me.

Before we dig into it, though, there were several awesome Kickstarter projects that wrapped in the past few months. And while you can't pledge, I thought I'd name-drop a few of them just in case you wanted to follow their development and release.

There were several interesting movies successfully funded this summer: Bound, a Lego brickfilm with a spiritual theme and made by a brother and sister team; the brickfilm Melting Point also funded successfully, and I can't wait to see this feature's take on the wry humor the creator, Jonathan Vaughan established in his other short films; Man vs. Snake, a quirky documentary based on a man trying to reclaim a video game record from the early days of arcade games, helmed by two editors from Battlestar Galactica; MMPR funded quite well, and so they'll get a shot at making a couple of episodes to snare all the grown-up fans of the original three seasons of Power Rangers. The Devil Walks in Salem looks kind of cheesy, but its remarkable distinction is that it's adapted from an RPG--not from the rules or setting--but from an actual play session between some honest-to-goodness role-players. Even if the end result turns out clumsy, I think it'll be worth a watch for anyone who ever looked around their gaming table during a really gripping session and thought "Why can't they make movies like this?"

(And if you don't know the feeling I'm talking about, watch this episode of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. You're welcome.)

On the sad-to-see-it fail side of things, Stephan Frost, the creator of the intriguing and beautiful Mortifera graphic novel, failed to get funding to create the animated pitch for Hell Mary--a Weird War One-type setting about a redheaded femme fatale offing Black Hand goons and Kaiser Wilhelm cronies. It could've been great, but conventional animation still proves to be a big hurdle for Kickstarter projects--you have to raise a lot of money for relatively small rewards. Plus, Frost's offered incentive for success and stretch goals were probably too quirky and off-the-wall to serve their purpose--enough funds would have seen him get a second middle name of "Bonertown" and get a tramp stamp of two unicorns in...conjunction. I know I wouldn't want to inflict that on any man or beast, unless it was part of a really weird court sentencing.

And finally, probably the coolest film project I didn't report on this summer was definitely Fire City: Interpreter of Signs. A horror-fantasy story with a noir mystery flavor and really grotesquely interesting practical effects, Fire City feels to me like the sort of film I wanted the director of Pan's Labyrinth to make--rather than a thought-lite smash 'em up full of forgettable robots and monsters and with the only interesting characters thrown into the background while cardboard cut-outs subjugated them with their plot protection. (Oh snap: that dangerously run-on sentence really tore Pacific Rim a new one, huh?) Anyways, Fire City had the advantage of already having a really creepy short that shows off the subtly disturbing characters, and let them raise twenty grand over their one hundred grand campaign goal. That, and the sentimental daughter-focused thematic behind the production really gets to me as a father, and I'm really curious to see how this world of starving demons and dealers turns out. Just make sure the kids are fast asleep before watching it--even the sounds can make your skin crawl. Check out their webpage for more tastes of their unnerving aesthetic and eerie style.

Games, glorious games. Kickstarter is always good for game-nerding-out. The Long Dark, a first-person post-apocalyptic game with an emphasis on Grylls-esque survival, just recently finished a successful campaign. I love gritty survival games that aren't afraid to punish players with hunger, disease, and sleep dynamics, and the promised tension of making meaningful survive-or-social choices is too cool. Golem Arcana, a miniatures wargame powered by a tablet app and specialized stylus for rules and stat reference, squeaked by with full funding after a personal plug from Chris Roberts. Personally I'm not too keen on a wargame with forces composed of nothing but golems, but...Chris Roberts. (Blogger, how the frak do you not have golem in your spell-check dictionary?!) Alien Uprising, a cooperative sci-fi board game where players try to hold off savage alien natives while repairing their wrecked spaceship. I didn't pledge for it, but I'll be keeping an eye out to play it at conventions. Belle of the Ball, a card game with fantastic art and a princess-party-conniving-set-collection-gimmick, almost snared me into its grip, but I was much too masculine for such sissy stuff. That, and the game mechanics didn't seem as entertaining as the card art. Then I turned around and pledged for Marrying Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice card game produced by a Wisconsin local that has players trying to court the bachelors of the Austen book. My wife didn't even talk me into it.

Whatever. I don't mind your small-mindedness. I was excited for Marrying Mr. Darcy even before they hit the stretch goal that adds undead elements to the game.

Predictably, the music-powered fantasy MMORPG Anythmn failed to meet its funding goal. Which means that for the time being if I want to combine role-playing games and trumpet-playing, I'll have to find a very tolerant LARP group in the midwest. Fairytale Games: The Battle Royale funded with more than $100,000 over their original goal. I pledged for the project and want to play the game but my enthusiasm has been severely muted since they censored Esmerelda (of Hunchback of Notre Dame) to be an alchemical assassin instead of a gypsy assassin for some vague political correctness concerns. I mean, the game is Hunger Games murder fantasy with fairly cheesecake interpretations of many of their characters--and they're afraid of using the word gypsy to describe a character for whom being a gypsy is a plot point?! Gugh, I say. Plus by the end of the campaign the list of miniatures coming my way has gotten so confusing that I'm just trying to forget the project until I actually have everything in front of me. Massive Chalice did well by pulling in a cool half million more than their initial goal, but the controversy over Double Fine's previous game has me grateful that I passed on this campaign. I'll wait and see if they can actually deliver what was promised.

Projects I backed during the past three months

The summer also had a few neat print projects funded through Kickstarter. Men vs Cosplay was a 2014 cosplay calendar that eschewed boobs for biceps. I would've pledged, but I'm a jealous nerd. Also, you may recall I'm a big mammalian fan. Kids, Eh?, a web-comic annual print book, funded with triple it's $2,000CAD goal. The author is a stay-at-home Canuck dad with a one year-old and three year-old always providing comedic fodder for his weekly strip. Check it out. And FUBAR, the zombie alternate history comic series, funded it's most successful installment yet: Mother Russia. It's about a Soviet lady sniper in Stalingrad saving a toddler from uncounted Nazi zombies. I pledged on this one hard, as even my wife wanted to see more of the viscerally violent cutie-pie story.

On the mint-y side of things, there were two projects for nerdy numismatists. First, the Futuristic Metal Coins project from Minion Games brought us a great selection of uniquely sci-fi tokens for use in board games and RPGs. Between having these shiny creds to serve as cashy money and the upcoming Firefly RPG, I think I'll be doing some gaming in the 'verse in the next year. For more fantastic gaming, Conquistador Games funded The Best Damn Metal Gaming Coins Ever! Seriously detailed, high-quality coins, many of these pieces are inspired by historical examples. They're also non-denominational, meaning that they don't have a prescribed value printed on them, so if you want to throw odd pence-shilling-crowns around in your gaming, you can.

And probably one of my favorite projects of the past three months has to be the Hollow Earth Expedition: Revelations of Mars. Hollow Earth Expedition (HEX) is an RPG by Exile Games that I've followed for a while but never got into. Built on a cinematic system based on dice pools, HEX is founded upon Jules Verne and E.R. Burroughs imagery as they populate the center of the 1930s earth with a land full of weird science, dinosaurs, and savages. If you ever watched the Aussie show Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, you're on the right track. Revelations of Mars expands that setting to the red planet, with beautifully bejeweled alien princesses and big bug aliens needing stomping in grand E.R. Burroughs fashion. Since my wife and I enjoyed John Carter (of Mars!) so much, she actually mandated that I pledge on this particular RPG campaign. Well, who am I to look an RPG mount in the mouth? I pledged to receive Revelations of Mars when it releases next year and the preceding HEX books digitally right away. Wow. I'll do an in-depth article on HEX at some point, because I don't think I've had so much fun just reading an RPG sourcebook since the Serenity RPG came out.

So that's it for catch-up, but what's out now and worthy of a nerd's radar?

Mars Attacks

What it is: Mars Attacks began life in 1962 as a trading card series. A somewhat linear series of cards featuring alien invasion, slaughter, and torture before the eventual human counter, Mars Attacks was a violent, gory romp in pulp sci-fi, with rayguns, flying saucers, and swooning women at their mercy on a lot of the cards. Now, hot on the heels of their Kickstarter successes with Kings of War, Dreadball, Loka chess, and Deadzone, Mantic Games is producing a licensed miniatures wargame adaptation of Mars Attacks. The game is a lighter treatment to wargaming than their previous projects, evoking quick violent skirmishes between Martians and human resistance without a ten pound rulebook to slow things down. Even movement and ranges are based on a coarse 3-inch grid to eschew the all-but-ubiquitous measuring tape of other games.

Why it's exciting: This game, based on a well-known classic license by a seasoned producer of wargames products, stands poised to be Mantic Games' greatest hit yet. With three weeks to go, the game is already at $438,000 pledged out of their original goal of $50,000 so there's already dozens of stretch goals, updates, and add-ons unlocked. Being an old-salt and game snob myself, I tend to turn up my nose at rules that don't let me pull out my tape measure and have fewer than five stats per model, but I can't deny that the quality miniatures in this set--and the insanely good deals attached to the campaign's success--are extremely enticing. If nothing else, I might be seduced by the promise of their plastic US soldiers and flatbed truck-turned sci-fi transport/technical.


What it is: Rimworld is a sci-fi colony sim game for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Players must coordinate the survivors of a crashed colony ship on a procedurally-created world rife with natural disaster and other hazards. Colonists can be directed to mine, farm, build free-form buildings and facilities, and defend the colony from raiders. The game has developed a number of dynamic, interesting features that are coordinated by an AI director that can be selected to suit your play-style--whether looking for an exploration-focused game, a life or death struggle, or a relaxing buildup experience. Right now this is a one-man project with a lot of promise, but the campaign seeks to let the creator, Tynan Sylvester, hire a dedicated artist to add nice graphics to his ambitious game.

Why it's exciting: With over $140,000CAD raised of an original goal of twenty grand and two weeks to go, Rimworld is definitely going to be a success. Creator Tynan hasn't set any stretch goals for the game, wanting to work on it organically without imposing artificial goals leading to development bloat. That's a promising, healthy attitude for a small indie game, especially since so many games that succeed on Kickstarter fall victim to development bloat (Double Fine being the flagship example of this pitfall).


What it is: Mandate is a sci-fi PC RPG with an epic scope. Set in a galactic empire inspired by 19th century Russia, Mandate is going to place the player in command of a Mandate ship at the outbreak of a civil war, giving the captain tactical control over their crew and boarding parties and maneuvering their ship in battle as well. Apparently, the game's campaign will grow from commanding a single ship to controlling outposts and stations and building up to having a subordinate fleet of their own. It's being developed on Unity engine, which means that not only is the game going to support Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, but they're already releasing preview modules of the game on their website for fans to sample--right now they have a build-a-ship module that allows players to customize and then destroy a flagship of their very own.

Why it's exciting: I have a few different buttons that can easily cinch my support for a Kickstarter. Sci-fi role-playing game with tactile elements? You got me. Cross-platform support planned? Nice. Preview modules of the game? Cool. Dynamic choice-based gameplay? Yes yes. Russian space empress voice-over for the intro video? Easy buddy, you've already made your sale. I'm in for this game, and I haven't been this anxious to see a Kickstarter succeed since Interstellar Marines (mentioned in a previous post here),  which was another cross-platform Unity-based sci-fi game. At $135,000 right now, Mandate has a long ways to go to reach their half million goal, but they also went for a longer campaign and so have well over a month to get there.

Holy moly. Not only did I just touch base on more than twenty Kickstarter projects in one post, but this is also the third article this week, which means that it's knocking off a point from my 31 post deficit.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

ODST Corpsman, Outbound

So here's the finished product of the Extra Life 2013 ODST. It's packaged up and on its way, first-class, to Steelheart of Grievance Gaming, along with a little note to whomever will be the lucky recipient of this fun decoration.

You’re the recipient of a 3D printed model. This model is composed of a composite plaster powder, 3D printed in color, which has been bound and cured in a cyanoacrylate (similar to super-glue) bath. The parts were then sanded, assembled, and painted by hand to achieve a finer finish before finally being waxed.

The composite material should be about as resilient as modeler’s resin. It can withstand a moderate amount of heat without any issue—temperatures of less than one hundred fifty degrees should not be an issue, and higher temperatures for short periods of time can be withstood—so keeping it on a desk beneath a normal desk lamp is perfectly fine.

For a cursory and humorous overview of 3D printing, feel free to visit my blog on the subject here.

Thank you for helping Grievance Gaming support Extra Life and help the Children’s Miracle Network of hospitals. Doing good for others isn’t always easy, but sometimes it can be fun.

Ben’s Nerdery

I really hope you'll support Extra Life. As a father, I'm really sensitive to the mission of the Children's Miracle Network, and it's a pleasure getting to do something, however small, for them this year. To help you appreciate this piece, here's an overview of the work that went into this miniature.

The computer data related to the miniature has to be prepared and transferred to the right format. In most cases, there's a lot of cleanup to do, and this was no exception. Fortunately, I'm a big Halo fan--or was, before the dark days of Xbox One loomed over the franchise (and seriously, a mobile game!?). Anyways, that meant that I'd already spent a lot of time tidying the data into something easy to use and modify. This particular data is also highly accurate and high-resolution, being able to be scaled up to life-size just fine, so I didn't have to fill in or add any details, which is unusual for such parts. The base I designed in Blender (a powerful, free app for drafting, rendering, and animating 3D data), including the Grievance Gaming logo and a label commemorating the event itself.

The data cleaned and reformatted, I hollowed out the data to make the part lightweight, faster to print, and a little more secure. It's a counter-intuitive truth that models like these can be too thick to be resilient: it's easy for a thick part to become too heavy in relation to its tensile strength, since interior volume is printed with lower density binder.

Okay, you should probably just skip over those last couple of sentences. Might be a little too much information. I make data good to make good miniature.

Once the model was printed, I dipped it into an infiltrant of cyanoacrylate (CA), a thinned out superglue that gets into the sandstone-like pores of the model and cures quickly to make the part stronger and watertight. This is also the fun chemistry moment of building a part. All adhesives result in a chemical reaction that generates heat. The faster and stronger the chemical reaction, the more heat is generated, usually. So if you take a baseball sized model in hand and dunk it in CA, you might burn the holy feldercarb out of your digits--cheap-ass gloves or no. Chemical burns are unpleasant, kids.

When the fume-bombs are done throwing around their migraine-smoke, you have a sturdy part that feels even rougher than the sandstone part with which you started, so then you sand. Sanding cuts down on the gritty feel of the powder-based model and helps to reduce the layered-cake effect of 3D printing, without reducing the detailed accuracy of the part--if you do it right.

With that, I decided to re-prime and paint the parts. Priming a 3D printed miniature helps only slightly to cover the layer effect I mentioned, but most importantly it adds the slight grit to the part that you need to paint--otherwise a well-sanded print will be too smooth to take paint nicely. Now even though the 3D print was in full color, there's a couple of reasons why I wanted to hand paint the part. First, a full-color print can have color streaking and inconsistency in the color matching. Hand paints eliminate that. Secondly, the paint used on the visor had a slightly metallic glossing effect that you can't get with 3D printing.

After painting came assembly. I'd made the base and helmet as separate parts to speed up build time, make painting easier, and to ensure that if anything broke in the process I could reprint and replace it. Once everything was painted, I glued the base and helmet together again and stuck it in a hot wax bath to give it that nice, fresh-off-the-lot feel. The final part weighs 163 grams (about .36 pounds), and is about 4" wide x 4" deep x 5" tall. The base is hollow, so you could conceivably weight it or insert a little goodie of some kind in the cavity. The material itself is about the same strength as a thin, dense hardwood, meaning that if you ever find reason to modify it you can always dremel it to suit yourself.

So that's my little contribution to Extra Life 2013. And if any of you are interested in Grievance Gaming, check out their impressive list of represented games. They also have a wide-ranging series of Youtube videos that feature guild news as well as general gaming news and hype. And Grievance Gamer Girls is a subset group that focuses on the ladies, which is always nice.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What the heck was that? (Plus cosplay, charity, and campaigning for the year's end)

Blech. So another fat pause in posts, and when I finally bring myself back into the habit, it's with much less fanfare than I'd hoped.

It began, as so many things do, with the birth of my son, the beginning of many epic projects, and an all-but-inevitable slide into insomnia (or in-zomb-nia, as my loving wife insists I pronounce it). I saw several movies that I'd really wanted to write Nerdviews on, but things kept piling up and most of the movies this past summer were more disappointing than anything else. Perhaps in the coming weeks I'll write-up mini-digest Nerdviews, with just a couple of sentences (heh--yeah, sure--just a couple of sentences) to sum my feelings on a lot of the movies I've neglected over the life of this blog. I think the superhero sequel to the Dave Lizewski movie (keeping it family-friendly, yo), Oblivion, Pacific Rim, and Despicable Me 2 all merit mention, but I've also been kicking myself for not reviewing Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-Man. And with Agents of SHIELD officially picked up for a full first season, I need to give that a write-up with a special surprise element tacked on. Filmatleven.

Most importantly, I've still got to get my most important new article series started: Nerds of Interest. Intended to be a series of features on different nerds I've met and taken an interest in, I should've posted the first article in this series months ago. I've already interviewed the really nice ladies behind Horsefeathers Cosplay as the first in this series, and I owe them (and you) a big apology for not getting that put up post-haste. They have helped inspire me to finally bite the bullet and get into cosplay fully and truly, and I definitely want to honor their influence and that of Cosplay4UsAll in my hobby insanity.

Along those lines, I made my first foray into cosplay. And as one should expect of me, it's been intense, grueling, full of mistakes and petty triumphs, and way too rushed by conservative cosplay standards. You see, October 10th was the one year anniversary of Star Citizen being revealed to the public and opened up for crowd-funding, and they made a modest event out of the observance. On September 19, they announced a photo contest to coincide with the event, which would close a mere two weeks later. Never one to let reason bar me from setting a goal, I decided that I would make a Star Citizen cosplay in that time. The (sorta) end result was a pretty feldercarb picture of a frakkin' awesome work-in-progress cosplay that didn't even place or get mention in the photo contest. I'll post more about this costume and my progress towards completing it later, but for now here's the underwhelming photo:

Those who follow me on Facebook or Google Plus can see some of my other pictures as well.

I'm not cowed from the hobby, but I don't think I'll put up any more pictures without taking the time to get some decent ones taken with a decent camera and photographer. No offense intended to my wife, but I felt like a motorized tripod with a remote would've been a better setup. Alright, I guess I intend a little offense with that comment. Anyways, the point is that this first frustrating entrance in no way dissuades me from cosplay. Expect to see a lot more on that in the future.

Another article series that needs posting: Nerd Level Up Program. A simple series of fitness and general wellness goals I've set for myself, I've already hit enough of my modest goals that I've essentially backlogged two or three level up posts. This actually dovetails with my interest in cosplay, but working out regularly was one of those things that was always a part of my holistic life goals.

My RPG muscles are starting to atrophy. I haven't sat down for a proper tabletop session in well over a year, and the lack of RPG goodness in my life is really unacceptable. On the homefront, I'm this close to actually doing verifiable work cleaning out my dungeon basement game room and facilitating game play down there. On the blog front, though, I've been planning a couple of things for a while. The GURPS Centurion project is still under way--more character write-ups and eventually several comic pages.

I try to keep a bead on the search terms that bring people to my blog, and every once in a while I come across a really unusual set of search terms. Months ago, I found a particularly interesting phrase on my stats page: "GM tips for scaring their players." My my my. I just love that there is a GM out there looking for tips to scare their players. So at some point in the future I want to make an article of tips for getting emotional reactions from your players: fear, sadness, awe, and elation.

On the back of my embarrassing cosplay failure, I decided to throw myself into the concerns of others, like an infested Terran from Starcraft. In the middle of my clumsy cosplay sprint, I got in touch with one of the fine members of Grievance Gaming, Shrivasta, about helping their group with a charity drive for Extra Life. Here's a little statement from Shrivasta about the event, coming up November 2nd:

As many of you know, Grievance will be participating in Extra Life next month on November 2nd, 2013.  Extra Life began in 2008 as a way of honoring a young lady named Victoria Enmon. Tori’s battle against acute lymphoblastic leukemia inspired the Sarcastic Gamer Community in a way that is difficult to describe. Members sent in video games and bought gifts to keep Tori’s spirits up despite numerous hospital stays and three bouts with the deadly disease.
Tragically, Tori lost her battle with cancer in January 2008.
Since then, the gaming community at large has participated in the Extra Life project, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in the US as well as Canada!  This year is no exception.  In November, thousands of gamers will be participating in a 25 hour marathon gaming session for charity!
This will be the first Extra Life team for Grievance, and we aim to make it an annual tradition.  We’ll not only be taking pledges for the hours played, but we will also be auctioning off items to the community to raise additional money for Extra Life as well.

I've been a fan of Extra Life for some time, and the Grievance Gaming guild is a fun group of gamers, so when I happened across Shrivasta on Facebook, I decided to do a little something myself. Since I'd made some paperweight-sized ODST (from the Halo franchise) helmets in the past, I thought it'd be great to make one with a custom base and a medic paint-job and add it to the Grievance auction. Here's a picture of the early print of the model, before I got really hands on with the piece.

Visit Extra Life to see about pledging, and check out Grievance Gaming.

Please spread the word about this worthy cause and seriously consider donating. And if you want your own ODST medic sitting on your desk, be sure to get in touch for that auction.

So all this stuff is nice enough, but it doesn't mean too much if I'm not going to post regularly, does it? Well, the number of followers I currently have means I need to post at least twice a week, but over the past three months or so I figure you readers have a back log of 31 posts. So as I get back into blogging here, I'm going to try my level best to put in an extra 31 posts (in addition to the two weekly you've already earned), so that by December 31, 2013 you should have just as many posts in the past year as though I hadn't been MIA the past three and a half months. I don't know how reasonable that will be, but it's a good goal to close out the year, and it's quite obvious I've got enough content lined up to fill those spots.