Saturday, January 11, 2020

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker review (spoilers)

I finally had a chance to see Rise of Skywalker on the big screen today. It came to Korea late, opening last Wednesday. And I'm teaching an intensive English camp so no time to see it until this (Saturday) afternoon. Well, as I mentioned, to avoid spoilers (from my son mostly, but general internet spoilers as well) I did view it previously in a very poor format. But Disney, if you're reading this, yes, I did go spend my money on it. And I may do so again.

I didn't hate it. Yes, that is damning with faint praise. But the movie has a lot of problems. And since it's been out long enough, I feel I might as well go all spoilery in my discussion.

Oh, and for parents doing a Google search for "Rise of Skywalker curse words" and ending up here, there are a grand total of one mild swear that I remember. And C-3PO gets all prissy about it.

So, where to begin? I guess I should start, since this is the end of not just its own trilogy but the whole Star Wars Skywalker saga of 9 films, with a bit of a recap of my thoughts on the previous films. And I've also seen a bit of other criticism of the film which will probably influence my thoughts (especially that of Marc Bernardin, co-host of Fatman Beyond with Kevin Smith).

The Force Awakens - the first time I saw it, I was just thrilled to get a SW film that felt like SW. Later, I was less than impressed with J.J.'s blatant riffing off of the beats of the original film, and over-indulgence in fan service. It's not a bad film. It sets the stage well. Gives us lots of questions we want answered (which J.J. is good at, he just often fails at answering them).

The Last Jedi - unlike many others, I don't hate this film. I find it a mess, with four narratives that don't mesh well (and the Po/Holdo and Finn/Rose/DJ narratives are boring and kinda pointless), but it does an amazing job of answering the questions J.J. posed in a way no one expected, and also seemed to be setting up a new SW paradigm that I liked.

The Rise of Skywalker - takes the satisfying (to me anyway) answers that Ryan Johnson gave us to J.J.'s original mystery box questions and threw them all out. It again reverted to riffing off of beats from the original trilogy and blatant fan service. The narrative isn't as messy as TLJ, but it was lacking in substance. It's a fun popcorn movie, which is all SW really needs to be, but it could have been so much more.

I think I mentioned this the other day in my brief comparison of RoS and The Mandalorian, but the first third of this movie seemed poorly edited and paced. It's too manic. I know that a lot of screenwriting advice is to cut exposition and show instead, but in this film, a lot of the exposition is of the blink and you miss it type. And the action in the scenes doesn't make things clearer. That makes it a bit hard to follow the characters' motivations. They seem to be doing a lot of stuff in a rush, but brace yourselves, Macbeth quotes are coming! Lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Who is this informant Po and Finn are meeting? We see him for like 10 seconds then we're supposed to feel bad later when his head is plopped on the First Order command room table. Why him? Why was he significant enough that he was not just killed but brought back as a trophy to show the FO commanders?

Why has Lando been camping out on that desert planet for a decade or more? Why did the Sith-cultist that he and Luke were tracking have a dagger made (and I assume he was the one that made it) after the Battle of Endor so that it would match up with the Death Star ruins? Or did Palpatine do that to show him how to get to Exegal with baby Rey? If Palpatine is on Exegal and there are only two Sith Wayfinders, how did one end up on the Death Star and the other on that planet of unknown aliens that Kylo Ren slaughtered at the beginning?

Why were the Knights of Ren so lame? They were set up to be cool Boba Fett style side characters, but in the end they were just chumps.Very underutilized.

Why were every main character's emotional reactions so muted? Everyone's sad about Chewie "dying" for about 10 seconds. Same with Leia's passing.

I understand that the scenes with Leia had to be the way they were. J.J. was working with limited archival footage of Carrie Fisher. They were awkward, though, and future generations who don't know that Fisher passed away before the film was made will find those scenes hard to like, I think. It's that the emotion behind the delivery doesn't always match what is intended within the context of the scenes.

Why destroy the planet Zori and Babu Frick come from? I mean, other than that we just saw it and it's fresh in our minds. It seemed like it was a First Order controlled planet. There were already stormtrooper patrols, the spaceways were blocked (why Zori needed the captain's coin she gave to Po), etc. You'd think they'd pick a planet that they didn't control yet to make their point. 

I think it's kind of cool to bring back Palpatine, but as Bernardin and others have pointed out, it really robs the original trilogy of its impact. Vader returned to the Light Side, but failed to kill Palpatine. Or killed him, but he was somehow resurrected. Anyway, the whole deal with Palpatine at the end was odd. He's got this plan to make Kylo Ren the next Sith Lord (that he can possess), but also to make Rey the next Sith Lord (that he can possess). And then when he finds out Rey and Kylo/Ben are a "diad" he just steals their energy to regenerate himself? This is the mastermind behind 60 years of evil machinations in the galaxy? Spitballing new plans by the seat of his pants? George Lucas is terrible at writing believable character dialogue, but he did an awesome job in the prequels of showing just how cunning and crafty Palpatine was. Maybe dying took something out of him after all. Despite his awesome Force abilities on display, he's depicted as kind of an idiot in this film.

And when Rey started reflecting his Force lightning, why didn't he shut it off? Then she probably would have "struck him down" with her lightsabers and then his plan would be complete and he could possess her and become the Emperor again.

I mean, I could go on. This movie was fun to watch. Lots of fun action scenes. But again, as Bernardin pointed out, it was a lot of fan service. Things happened in the movie not because they made sense from the needs of the narrative, but because we the audience would have a reaction to them. The Force Awakens was similar in this regard. And the Mandalorian, while having a lot of fan service as well, isn't as blatant about it.

The Rise of Skywalker is a decent enough space opera film. It's a decent if not great Star Wars film. But as a capstone of a 40 year, 9 film saga, it falls flat.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Caves of Chaos in the Bag, Plus Gundark Hunting!

I'm about to start teaching another intensive English Camp tomorrow, so I got in some extra gaming this weekend. Last night I ran a second session of d6 Star Wars and today I ran West Marches.

In the previous session of West Marches, the party found a magic bag. Today, almost all of the treasure went into it. And it was a bag of devouring, not a bag of holding. Just shy of 3000gp worth of treasure and a shield +1 disappeared. Still, the party still got the XP for the treasure they earned, and they managed to strike bargains with both orc tribes (after eliminating most of the warriors from Cave C and the leaders of Cave B), took out the ogre, and then negotiated with the goblins, who were already weakened from previous losses and the elimination of their hobgoblin and bugbear allies. So at least one PC leveled up, and anther is less than 100xp shy of leveling, and they're happy about that.

Last night's Star Wars game was a blast to run, too. I'd started out with the basic Seven Samurai idea -- defend the village. But instead of bandits (or stormtroopers), I decided the threat was gundarks -- not realizing just how tough they are in d6! Plus, instead of being hired by villagers, I had them working for an ore mining company -- company spaceport, company shop, company mining village, etc. In typical 19th Century style, the company owned everything, and the gundarks needed to be driven off to protect corporate property (oh yeah, and the ugnaught technicians who operate the machinery and repair the mining droids). The party had a tough time with the gundarks, until in one round a few good rolls completely changed the tide of battle in their favor. And we played for nearly 5 hours with only that one battle.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Checking My Achievements

I was looking over my posts from last year. I was surprised that I'd put out seven whole posts in February last year, since I spent almost all of February in the US with my family. But in that last week, I managed to crank out those seven posts.

One of them had this list of goals for 2019:

Now, here are my potential RPG related projects for this year:

  1. Converting my West Marches 5E game to Labyrinth Lord. Some players won't like it, but I'm ready to get back to basics. Fewer classes, fewer spells (but often more powerful in effect), and a lower power level; but hopefully more action/interaction.
  2. Starting an online Chanbara campaign. Probably with the usual Hangouts/Roll20 gang (Busan Gaming Group plus any of Dean's 5E gamers I can lure into it). If any blog readers are willing to make time on Saturday evenings East Asia/Australia time (Saturday morning North America, midday Europe/Africa), let me know.
  3. Finishing up my next set of paper minis (just need to format the book then get it online). It has the Isle of Dread module monsters plus the creatures in BX that aren't in BECMI's Basic and Expert books. 
  4. Moving on to the Mentzer Companion Set for the next set of paper minis? Or making a set for OA/Flying Swordsman/Chanbara? Or AD&D monsters? Or AD&D/later edition character types? 
  5. Releasing the dungeons/locations of the Chanbara game, plus some for more standard D&D type play, as cheap modules for sale through Hidden Treasure Books.
Overall, I did pretty well with this.

1. I did, sort of. I converted to my house rules Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins, which is BECMI with the serial numbers filed off and some more content inspired by AD&D and 5E. And I couldn't be happier with the game now. Why did I wait so long to convert?

2. I did start the Online Chanbara campaign. Snow Pine Island. I made a map. I made several dungeons. The players made characters. They explored one dungeon. And honestly, I lost interest. I realized later that I'd tried to set up too many factions on this tiny island full of monsters. The players picked the factions they thought would suit their characters, and they were all over the place. Trying to figure out all these conflicting motivations, and goals for each PC that were at cross purposes to every other PC, was just too much work.

Next time, I'll mandate ONE faction that all PCs must have allegiance to, and then let them choose a second one of their choice for some conflict. That way, I can use the shared liege to give them adventure hooks, but let them decide whether to support that goal or try to subvert things for their secondary liege's goals. Make the players do the work on that.

3 and 4. I not only finished the BX Extras/Isle of Dread minis, I also put out a Chanbara minis book. More paper minis this year? Probably not. They're fun to make, but time consuming, and don't really sell that well. What I should do is finally get around to reformatting the Basic Monsters pdfs to match the Expert books, with multiples of monsters usually found in groups to save people the effort of having to print multiple pages to get more than one figure.

5. This is the only one I didn't get done. But I did start in on East Marches, which will likely have recycled content from my earlier Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara campaigns. Hell, even from my old AD&D OA game from 1997, and my 3E OA game from 2006-7. Because as I posted before, there's a lot of stuff that needs to go into this thing. Might as well save myself a bit of effort and self-plagiarize, when things fit.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Year in Review/2020 Looking Forward

After five years of very little blogging, 2019 was a productive year for me. Or maybe that it wasn't so productive allowed me to blog more?

Actually, the secret is that my wife and sons spent most of the year in the USA. They're still there now. I'm flying to the US for a vacation in a little over 2 weeks. I'll be there for a month. So don't expect any posts here in the tail end of January and most of February.

Living by myself has given me more time to blog, but also just more time to think about game stuff. And more time to read others' blogs, which often spurs a topic in my mind.

Not counting the Flying Swordsmen page, my most popular posts this year were:
1. Man, Gygax could be Wordy [Two paragraphs? Not my most thrilling content. Was the title good clickbait? I didn't intend it as such.]
2. Roleplaying, Metagaming, and Differing Opinions [Now this one spawned a conversation both here and at at least two other blogs, so I'm not surprised it was popular.]
3. The Action Economy is a Bad Concept [This one was intentionally given a click-bait title, and it worked. Spawned a really good discussion, too.]
4. Traps, Are We Thinking About Them Wrong? [Another one that got some traction and discussion on other blogs, so again, not surprising that it was read often.]
5. The Secret Roll [One in which the idea was inspired by other bloggers, and initiated posts on the subject at other blogs as well as a lot of discussion here.]

Personally, I set a record of returning to the US on three different occasions last year. I'm going to repeat that, or if I can swing it, make four trips this year, to visit my wife and boys as much as possible. We video chat twice a day, so we're not completely separated, but even 21st century tech is no replacement for being there.

Gaming-wise, in 2019, I didn't produce much for all of you (other than blog posts), but Chanbara and paper minis sales continue to trickle in every month. My West Marches game (both face-to-face and online sessions) are going well. I did some play-testing of Caverns & Cowboys, which probably could be cleaned up and released relatively soon if I set my mind to it. And I've done a lot of tweaking of my Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins house rules for Classic D&D, including, as I've blogged about recently, TSR-East, which is more of a Pan-Asian fantasy game than Flying Swordsmen or Chanbara. TSR-East is about ready for play-testing. I think I'm going to just allow it in my West Marches games and see if anyone bites, and how the classes stack up.

I've also been putting in the ground work on a module for TSR-East/Chanbara/Flying Swordsmen (or Labyrinth Lord or BX/BECMI, or whatever) module East Marches. I made a map, and there are 120 keyed locations on there. A few will be simple interesting encounter locations, but most will be dungeons of various size. And the map is divided up into zones appropriate to characters from 1st through Name Level+, so thinking up all these dungeons and encounter sites will take some time and effort. I had foolishly blogged about releasing it in 2020, but I know that's not going to happen. It's gonna take me longer than that to write this thing up. It's ambitious. And this is for spare time, along with normal planning for my West Marches campaign, not to mention academic writing for work.

My plans for the new year are to keep blogging, for one. I may start in on the Mentzer Expert Set Cover to Cover. People liked the Basic CtC posts from a few years back.

I want to get as much done of East Marches as I can. I may release this thing in serial format.

And I should probably spend some time cleaning up a few issues in Caverns & Cowboys, and release it as well. The game mechanics are borrowed from a well-tested system. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but, well shoot, Pardner. Ain't ever'one gots t'like it. But if'n yer want t'take on dragons 'n' goblins 'n' such with Remingtons, Colts, 'n' sticks a' dynamite in a phoney 19th Century frontier, this-here game may well just scratch that itch.