Saturday, September 29, 2007

Engel, Pt 1.

I'm going to skip, for now, the comparison of World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online; firstly, because Sam changed his vote, and secondly because I haven't played LotRo in over a month, since my trial ran out. I may be playing it again soon, and if I do I may write the comparison again, but it's no longer fresh enough in my mind to do the subject justice. I will say, though, that my first impression was that I would have at least a slight preference for Lord of the Rings online were it just me playing; but since all of my friends are on WoW, it was the obvious choice instead. For now.

That said, I'm going to take Bekka's request, and tell you about my Engel roleplaying campaign. I'll warn: This may take more than one post to get through.

Some of you started to play an Engel play-by-post game with me a while back, but we didn't get very far in it (as with most play by post games that I've been in). So I'll recap the broad details. Engel is a pen-and-paper RPG, like Vampire: The Masquerade or Dungeons and Dragons. It was originally published in Germany and was then translated into English by White Wolf, the same people who do the World of Darkness line. Essentially, Engel is a post-apocalyptic game involving the battle between Angels and Demons. The Angels (or Engel) and demons (or Dreamseed) in the game are actual physical creatures (as opposed to being strictly beings of spirit). The human population is largely controlled by the religion that has grown up around the Engel, which calls itself the Angelitic Church. Because only fragments of the Christian Bible have survived into the post-apocalyptic world, the Church has the trappings of the Catholic church (only taken to a totalitarian extreme), without the benefit of its doctrine. It is heavily implied that at least certain aspects of the church are corrupt, if not the entire thing. For example: the church has an office referred to by the commoners as the Grimriders, who will show up in a given village once every few years to collect the "Tithe", which is essentially a tenth of the children of the village, who will be set to work in the church. The Grimriders are also the only ones allowed to possess firearms -- for most anyone else, owning or being too interested in the technology of the past is considered heresy. In extreme cases, laypersons learning to read is considered heresy.

In the rulebook for the game, it is largely assumed that the players will play the part of the Engel, and to go about the European countryside righting wrongs, battling demons, and so forth. If the church is corrupt, the Engel (or at least the assumed Player Character Engel) are genuinely concerned with helping people and doing God's will.

Well, reading the book, which contains one of the most detailed, atmospheric, and otherwise well-drawn game settings I've seen, I found myself thinking that if I were to ever run the game, I wouldn't focus on the Engel but on the humans of the setting. Really, what is it like to live in a religion where God's favor is a living, breathing reality? The Engel exist: what affect does that have on someone?

Then I came across a short paragraph in the rulebook that mentioned that the Angelitic Church has an Inquisition running to make certain that the population stays orthodox and to weed out the heretics that spring up. I grew excited: the player characters would have to be Inquisitors! Faced with the incontrovertible proof of God's existence and his approval of their religion, but also in the middle of the corruption gnawing at the church's innards. It was here that the interesting choices were to be made.

...Of course, I only had that one short paragraph to go on: the Inquisition isn't mentioned anywhere else in the book. (Come to find out, there is information on it in one of the German books now, but White Wolf has stopped translating the series, so I'm out of luck on that end. my college german is all but gone by now.) So, for the play by post game we almost kind of started, I read up a bit on the general practices of the real Inquisition, as well as stealing liberally from the World of Darkness' version of the Inquisition.

Then our game didn't last very long. I put the idea for the campaign onto the back-burner, because I was convinced that there could be some good stories here, some compelling choices, some interesting characters and ideas to explore. It sat back there for a good year or so: I had other games to play, and the groups I played with never seemed to vote for Engel for our campaigns (though I would always mention it as a possibility).

So, last year I was running a Planescape game for our regular group, and there was a string of evenings when only Bekka and I were able to make it. The thing about Bekka is, she always makes it to RPG sessions. I think she's missed maybe one scheduled session in the entire time that I've known her. So Bekka and I decided that, for nights when the rest of the group couldn't make it to the session, or for random times when we were just hanging out, we should have an alternative RPG to the main one I was running. So I listed off some ideas I had for a one-on-one campaign. Bekka told me hey all sounded good, and that I should just pick whichever one I most wanted to run. I, of course, had been wanting to play Engel for over a year.

Now, (this part won't make much sense to you if you don't play RPGs) the original German version of the game involved using something like a Tarot deck to resolve uncertain outcomes. Interpreting the cards was supposed to aid in creating the narrative somehow. When White Wolf brought the game to America, however, they must have decided that the whole Tarot thing was a bit too far out to get a wide audience; so they converted the rules over to the d20 system, which is the system of rules that Dungeons and Dragons uses. Why they didn't convert it to the World of Darkness system (which would have been a much better fit, in my opinion), I have no idea: except that the d20 system is the most popular system around, thanks to D&D being the most popular RPG ever. But the d20 system is pretty much my least favorite system ever. I find it clunky, slow, and over complicated. I'm not going to say I haven't ever had fun with it, because I have (especially when Shane is GMing), but it is always a chore to run or to play, and certainly I don't have the rules memorized like Easterling or Lauren or Will. Also, the D20 system is all about making your character more and more bad-ass -- it's the whole concept of "leveling up". But in Engel the setting just didn't seem to be about that at all (especially if I was going to make it be about the Inquisition instead of the angels.

So there was never really a chance that I was going to play with the D20 rules. When we were trying the play by post game, I converted the World of Darkness rules. But by the time Bekka and I decided to play, I'd discovered the perfect match in an independently published RPG called Dogs in the Vineyard. DitV is a game where the player characters are young men and women charged with keeping peace and maintaining the authority of a sort of frontier religion (largely copied from early Mormon history). The rules include an ingenious escalating conflict resolution system, which I won't bore you by describing at the moment: suffice to say that the system is largely concerned with themes of judgment, and constantly asks the players what they feel is worth arguing for, fighting for, or even dying for. It was, in other words, a perfect match for my envisioned game of Engel: The Inquisition.

I mention this (rather long) prehistory of the game because I think it brings the game into a good context. If I'm going to tell you about the plot of the campaign, you have to understand the pieces that go into it: the setting, the fact that I had a year to let the ideas percolate, the fact that the Dogs in the Vineyard system was practically tailor-made for the game, the fact that I was playing it with my most dedicated player. Another factor that played into it was that I didn't know how long we'd keep the campaign going -- who knew how many sessions we would actually get? So that led me to not hold back my ideas for later; after a short introductory town to get the feel of things, we launched right into the big concepts I'd been excited about.

So, for the next post I'll actually get into what the campaign was like, the characters, the towns, and what's happened.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review: Mystery Men

Esther says, "I'm curious: We all know Mystery Men was just awful, but what's your unique take on it this time around?"

This time around was also the first time around for me: I had never seen Mystery Men before this summer, and really, when it first came out I didn't really have any desire to see it. As a rule, I don't go in for superheroes (though recently my explorations of the comic book medium have led me to some exceptions to this rule. Also, the spectacular TV show Heroes, which breaks both my aversion to superheroes, as well as my aversion to TV shows.) In school, when Mystery Men first came out, my main take on comic books was that it was a novel and promising medium which had been utterly wasted 99% of the time due to Superheroes. I find that still sums up my feelings fairly well, though there are a number of people doing their level best to change the situation, and a fair number of people who are working to redeem the Superhero genre as well. Partially, too, I find the situation made more complex from learning the history of comics, particularly the bit where people afraid that comics were corrupting children effectively castrated the entire medium (in America), via the self-censoring Comics Code Authority; which also managed to excise virtually every burgeoning genre apart from the Superhero comics (horror comics, for example, were right out in that environment), *and* also so limited the story possibilities that for the next few decades the superhero comics (which had never been particularly compelling storylines, mind) descended even further into the realms of the ridiculous.

I mention this as background, but also because I note a particular analog being played out with another novel and promising medium, the video game, and the recent attacks on it by the like of Jeff Thompson and Hillary Clinton. If you'd like me to go into more detail on this, just ask.

But I should get back to Mystery Men. The term Mystery Men is actually taken from the early days of comics, before the term Superhero came into wide usage. The movie concerns the lives of "wanna-be" superheroes, trying to create a niche for themselves in a city where the most famous superhero has practically eliminated all crime.

I hadn't actually realized that Ben Stiller was in the movie, despite him being prominently on the cover of the dvd case. (Not that knowing this would have increased my desire to watch the film at all). Mostly what I knew about the movie was that it was "VeryOdd", and that whats-his-name that played PeeWee Herman was in the movie. Actually, most of what I know about PeeWee Herman is that he is "Very Odd", and that the actor was arrested for some embarrassing crime or another. So you can imagine that going in, I was not anticipating much. In fact, I expected the film to be, "just awful."

So, really, I was pleasantly surprised when the movie didn't suck. Let me hasten to amend: the movie is not great cinema. As a film snob, I have some sense that I'm not allowed to like comedies o'er much, at least comedies not directed by Wes Anderson, if you can really call his films comedies (I'm not sure what else you would call them: clearly, they are meant to be funny, albeit in a sad kind of way. Sadly funny? Anyway, they usually have positive resolutions of some sort, though bittersweet sometimes.) Certainly Ben Stiller comedies are right out, at least Ben Stiller comedies not, yes, directed by Wes Anderson. One won't catch me lining up to see There's Something About Mary on opening night, and if one does one should be polite and warn me, since I'm probably trying to see The Thin Red Line and have wandered into the wrong queue by mistake.

That said, I would firmly place Mystery Men into the category of Guilty Pleasures. It is predictable. It is sentimental. It is cliched in places. It is occasionally crude. Its faults are many, and to list them all would probably be unnecessary, and they are so obvious they it may even be impolite.

But Mystery Men is also witty, and clever, and original. It is Very Odd, but in a way that I found novel. The characters are endearing (even though at some points they edge toward the Too Endearing of which comedies are often guilty. The archetypal example of this for me is the Disapproving Relatives Who Suddenly Turn into Approving Relatives as They Watch the Protagonists Succeed at their Dreams on TV. There are a couple instances of this here, but I'm always reminded of the end of Zoolander, where Ben Stiller's coal-mining father is in the Smoky Bar surrounded by other coal miners and, watching the fashion show on TV, proclaims "That's my son!" I felt in that context that it was ridiculous enough to be funny rather than touching, and so didn't mind it as much; though I did get the uneasy feeling that it was intended to be touching.)

An example of this is when the characters are talking about the big, famous superhero from whose shadow they want desperately to emerge.

The Shoveler: Oh yeah, well, maybe if we had a billionaire like Lance Hunt as our benefactor, then we could afford some advertising.
Mr. Furious: That's because Lance Hunt is Captain Amazing.
Blue Raja: Oh, here we go.
Shoveler: Oh, don't start that again! Lance Hunt wears glasses. Captain Amazing doesn't wear glasses.
Mr. Furious: [Long-suffering] He takes them off and transforms.
Shoveler: That doesn't make any sense. He wouldn't be able to see!

It's that sort of wacky cleverness that I think makes Mystery Men a fun popcorn movie. The other strength, I feel, is the cast. (I almost said "major strength", but that might be going a bit too far in relation to this film). While no-one is going to be considered for an oscar for their performances in the film (and really, what was the last comedy that earned anyone an oscar for acting? Even Wes Anderson comedies, really. Comedies are archetypal, and the Oscars like "realism" in the sense of specificity, at least insofar as awards for Acting are concerned) I thought that the characters were well established (if that's the right word choice). They were sympathetic, by which I don't mean that I felt sorry for them, but that I understood them and felt like I knew them. Anyway, I thought the acting did the material justice. And Geoffrey Rush never hurts a film.

I would also be remiss if I didn't at least mention the Disco-themed street gang, which was a constant joy.

So. Bottom line is, Mystery Men is not great cinema. It's probably actually mediocre cinema, but it is fun mediocre cinema, and deserves, if not a wide audience, at least a cult following. Perhaps to those not familiar with comic books or superheroes (which, after the recent string of Marvel and DC films, I can't imagine anyone being nowadays) it would be more obscure and thus less accessible; but I found it -- endearing, if not without its flaws.

Thus, I award it: **1/2 stars.

Go see it, if you are of the appropriate audience type and have an evening where you're more interested in fun than art.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Review: Final Fantasy (band)


How am I ever going to get people to listen to the band Final Fantasy if I can't find any samples of it anywhere? Bah.

Here is the problem. Final Fantasy is a series of video games. Owen, the guy who is pretty much the band, named his music project after the video game series. BUT. That does not mean that you have to like the video game to appreciate the music. I know that a surprising number of you will resist listening to the music because of the video games (even those of you who recognize that they are good video games). DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN.

Apparently, Owen learned how to play the violin while at college, and the music of Final Fantasy, the band, is largely based around gorgeous violin arrangements. Owen's voice itself is soft and delicate, and he breathes out (most of) the lyrics at a volume just above a whisper. Probably the closest comparison I could make is Sufjan Stevens, though with a narrower range of instrumentation.

In conclusion, Janelle likes the music very much, and since she does not like video games at all, you can rest assured that the music has a broader appeal than simply those who share my penchant for "nerdy" fringe media art.

The album I've been listening to is entitled "he poos clouds." We can talk more about it, perhaps, after I get some people who have never played Final Fantasy to endorse the band a bit in the comments section.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Some recommendations, and You Choose a Review!

I have a list of media I have experienced recently, and would like to write reviews of all of them, but I find that I probably won't have time for them all. So here is my list, and you guys tell me what you want me to review:

1. Stardust (Film)
2. World of Warcraft (V. Game)
3. Lord of the Rings Online (V. Game)
4. Junebug (Film) (Again)
5. Mystery Men (Film)
6. X23: Innocence Lost (Comic Book)
7. Naruto (Anime)
8. Mushishi (Anime)
9. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (TV)

Or, there are these ones that I promised a while back but haven't gotten around to writing yet:
11. 300 (Multi)
12. Sin City (Multi)
13. Pan's Labyrinth (Film)

Or, I could talk about:
14. Engel (RPG campaign)
15. Middle Earth Cthulhu (RPG campaign)

What's yer poison?