Showing posts with label Pulp. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pulp. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Look at the First Flash Gordon Role Playing Game

I recently received my copy of the Flash Gordon Role Playing Game for the Savage Worlds system. I cannot be more excited to crack it open and try to convince my players to game in this wonderful setting. Like Shane Hensley (the creator of the Savage Worlds rpg), I am a huge Flash Gordon fan from serials to comics to 80s cult-classic, and am eager to see the setting emulated in a game system designed with this setting (among others) in mind.

Before I review the new game though, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the first Flash Gordon role playing game, a game that was among the first licensed role playing games ever published.

In the nascent days of role playing game yore -- 1977 to be exact -- Fantasy Games Unlimited published one of the first Science Fiction role playing games to hit the market with Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo. The first two science fiction role playing games were TSR's Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) and Ken St. Andre's Starfaring (1976). Flash Gordon was one of a couple of games Fantasy Games Unlimited published that was co-written by Lin Carter -- yes that Lin Carter, the one who is responsible for most of Appendix N being in print -- with another being Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age.

Where Royal Armies was a set of miniature warfare rules set in the Hyborian Age, the Flash Gordon role playing game was an attempt to create an entirely self contained role playing game complete with campaign setting and campaign in one 48 page volume. That's quite a thing to attempt and I have been surprised at how well Flash Gordon accomplishes its goal -- especially given the low esteem in which the review holds the game.

The book has its flaws, but it also has its brilliance. The flaws lie within the underlying rules for the conflict resolution system. The brilliance lies within the freeform campaign implementation system, a system remarkably similar to the Plot Point and Encounter Generation system mastered by Pinnacle Entertainment Group in their Savage Worlds series of games. More on this later. It's time to look at Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo.

System Mechanics

In a brief note at the beginning of the book Lin Carter sets out his chief objective in the drafting of Flash Gordon. "My own personal debt to Alex Raymond, and my enduring fondness and admiration for Flash Gordon made this set of rules a labor of love. I was dead set against Scott's [Scott Bizar] first idea of doing a book of wargame rules and held out for adventure-scenarios, instead."

Carter wanted a game that was able to capture the excitement of the old Flash Gordon serial through the use of a collection of adventure-scenarios bound by a single rules set. Rules that were intended to "provide a simple and schematic system for recreating the adventures of Flash Gordon on the planet Mongo." With regard to their goals, Carter and Bizar both succeeded extremely well and failed monumentally.

The system is simple...and the same time.

Characters roll three "average" dice for the following four statistics -- Physical Skill & Stamina, Combat Skill, Charisma/Attractiveness, and Scientific Aptitude. It's an interesting grouping of statistics that demonstrated FGU's willingness to look beyond the "obligatory 6" statistics created by TSR. The inclusion of Combat Skill as a rated statistic is in and of itself an interesting choice.

At no point is it explained what an "average" die is. Is an "average" die a typical six-sided die that you can find in almost every board game ever published, or is it one of those obscure and hard to find "averaging" mentioned in the Dungeon Master's Guide? The rules aren't clear regarding this, but the fact that "rolls of over 12 indicate an extremely high ability in the specific category" [emphasis mine] hints that it is the "averaging" die to which they are referring -- later difficulty numbers hint that it might be the regular dice that are used. The new gamer would have only this clue, but wargamers of the era would know that an "average" die was a sis-sided die with the numbers 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5 printed on it instead of 1 through 6. This die was used to reduce the influence of uncertainty on outcomes in wargames at the time. More recent games, like Warhammer, rely on regression to the mean and buckets of dice to reduce uncertainty. It may seem counter intuitive, but the more often you roll the less uncertainty influences outcomes because the likelihood that the total distribution of the rolls is normal increases.

Not that it matters much, as you will soon see.

After rolling statistics, players choose from one of the following roles -- Warrior, Leader, and the Scientist. This leads one to wonder which group Dale Arden fits, but that is another conversation entirely. The primary effect of choosing a particular roll is to add one point to the statistic most related to the profession.

These attributes are later used to determine success based on a very simple mechanic. Stat + d6 > TN. For example, if the players are in the Domain of the Cliff Dwellers it is possible that they will encounter the deadly Dactyl-Bats.

If the players decide that they want to fight off the Dactyl-Bats the success or failure of the action will "depend upon the military skill of the most skilled member of your group. Roll one die and add the result to your military skill. A final total of fourteen or greater is needed to drive off the Dactyl-Bats." Failure indicates the character is wounded and that the party must rest. It's a simple resolution, but one that lacks any significant cinematic quality. It feels awkward, and other mechanical resolutions in the game are similarly weak. Typical punishment for failure on an action is a loss of a certain number of turns. These turns are valuable as players need to recruit enough allies to defeat Ming before he has time to become powerful enough to squash any rebellion. While the statistics of the game are firmly rooted in roleplaying concepts, the resolution and consequence system still echoes board game resolutions. This is a weakness in this game, as is the inconsistency of resolution techniques. Fighting a Snow Dragon is resolved in a different manner than the encounter just discussed.

I imagine one could build a good game conflict resolution system built around the statistics highlighted in Flash Gordon, but this book lacks that system. I think it might be interesting to try to use a modified version of the Dragon Age pen and paper rpg system as a substitute for the mechanics in the Flash Gordon rpg. They are simple enough that it wouldn't require a lot of work. One could also use the OctaNe system if one wants to stick to the "narrative" feel that Bizar and Carter seem to have been attempting here. OctaNe succeeds where this game fails mechanically -- and OctaNe's system is ridiculously easy to learn and use.

Game Campaign System

This is where Flash Gordon really shines. The game's basic structure is that of a "recruitment" campaign where the players must journey from land to land -- based on how they are connected on an abstract schematic and not based on actual geography though the schematic takes those into account -- where they encounter various challenges and face various foes. For example, let's say our stalwart heroes find themselves in the Fiery Desert of Mongo. If they are mounted on Gryphs he journey will be easier than if they are not. It is possible, though not guaranteed, that the players will encounter Gundar's Gandits who will attempt to capture the players and sell them into slavery. The players may also encounter a Tropican Desert Patrol made up of troops loyal to Ming. The end goal of the area is for the group to recruit Gundar and his men, but that requires role playing and/or defeating the Tropican Desert Patrol. The description of the Desert and the possible encounters are abstract enough that they could easily inspire several sessions of roleplaying -- with a robust system like Savage Worlds -- all it lacks is a nice random encounter generator like the one found in The Day After Ragnarok to fill in the holes.

In essence, the Flash Gordon role playing game includes one or more major encounters for each geographical region of Mongo. As they players wander from place to place, they can/will face these challenges. What is inspired, and ahead of its time, about this structure is that the encounters are "story plot points" that must be achieved but can be achieved in the order of the player's choosing. There is room for exploration of the world at the same time that the players are succeeding at mandatory plot points. It is a narrative campaign without the railroading. Pinnacle Entertainment Group uses a similar structure in their Rippers, Slipstream, and Necessary Evil campaigns. It is a system that allows for narratively meaningful and fun play without the need for extraordinary planning on the part of the Game Master. All it lacks is a method, like the random encounter generator I mentioned above that is used by most plot point campaign systems, to fill in the scenes between the set pieces. Though it should be noted that there is sufficient information within the Flash Gordon rpg to easily construct a set of encounter generators with very little work.


Criticisms regarding the underlying conflict mechanical system, or lack thereof, are spot on when it comes to Flash Gordon. Character generation and conflict resolution lack any feeling of consequence or depth. BUT...If you want a campaign road map to use with another game system, preferably a fast-furious-and-fun one or a "narrativist" one, then this product is a deep resource. It will save you from having to read pages and pages of the old Alex Raymond strip in order to get an understanding of all of the minor details necessary for the creation of a campaign. You should certainly read the Alex Raymond strips, they are wonderful, but reading them should never be made to feel anything remotely like work. Bizar and Carter have done the work in presenting the campaign setting, all you have to do is adapt it to your favorite quick and dirty rpg mechanical set.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why Conan Endures: an Updated Article from the Archives on Robert E Howard's Birthday.

A decade ago, USA Today printed an article by Mike Snider who wrote about Conan's reemergence as a relevant subject in popular culture (hat tip to SF Signal for the story). In response to this article, I wrote a blog post advancing the argument that there are those of us who comment about popular culture who think that Conan has never been an irrelevant figure in society. How can a character who serves as the inspiration for an entire literary genre become truly irrelevant? Every story about a sword wielding barbarian, no matter how trite or bad, is at some level inspired by Robert E. Howard's creation.

At the time Snider wrote his article there was some exciting news for Conan fans. Snider pointed to five recent developments that signal Conan's relevance:

  1. The PS3/XBOX 360 Video Game
  2. The "Conan The Phenomenon" hardcover by Paul Sammon
  3. The Savage Sword of Conan Trade Paperback Collection by Dark Horse
  4. and
  5. The Conan movie by Millennium Films.

Those were important offerings for the Conan fan. Some where better than others, and I wrote some thoughts about how the phenomenon knows as vast narrative hindered the film.  What is also true is that having a plethora of Conan merchandise in the pipeline wasn't a new occurrence. Snider seemd to be under the misunderstanding that 2007 marked some kind of sudden explosion in Conan related material.

Snider neglected to mention:

  1. Conan: The Ultimate Guide by Roy Thomas which released in September 2006
  2. The new Conan comic book series (first released in 2004) written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Cary Nord by Dark Horse
  3. The Mongoose Publishing Conan Roleplaying Game
  4. not to mention
  5. The Age of Conan series of media tie-in novels published in 2005 and 2006
  6. or
  7. Del Rey's publishing of Howard's Original Conan Stories released in 2003
In the years since Snider's article, we've seen:
    1.  A second role playing game which earned over $500,000 on Kickstarter. 
    2.  The Conan board game which earned over $3 million on Kickstarter.
    3.  Pulposaurus's upcoming pre-painted miniatures war game CROM: Conan Rise of Monsters.
    4.  An upcoming feature length film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
    5.  Son of Zorn, a sit-com inspired by Conan, He-man, and Thundarr the Barbarian.
The Conan explosion is perpetual and it isn't a new thing either, I could have pulled numerous examples from the 90s or the 80s of Conan releases. Conan is always lurking in the pop culture subconscious. We do a disservice to Conan fans, both existent and emerging when we use Arnold Schwarzenegger as the archetypal Conan representation, as Snider appears to do in the article. Some like Arnold as archetype, but I find Conan to be one of the most underestimated characters in American literature (with Natty Bumpo being a close second) and the Governator's portrayal -- while fun -- lacks the depth the character actually has as a literary figure.

When it comes to depictions of unreflective low art, one need look no further than the commonly perceived opinions of Robert Howard's Conan stories. If you ask the average man on the street to describe a Conan narrative, you will likely be given a tale of lust and violence. In the tale Conan will rescue some half-naked maiden from some rampaging beast and the story will end with the woman becoming all naked as she swoons at the hero's feet. In fact, a great deal of Conan pastiche has been based on this very simple formula and even a couple of the original tales fit this mold. The largest problem with such a vision is that it is not all that accurate when looking at Howard's tales of Conan as a whole. There are tales of this sort in the Conan oeuvre, but there are also tales of visionary wonder.

Like most authors, whether they write literature or Literature, Howard's writings reflect his own thoughts, experiences, and education. The writing reflects the aesthetic tastes of the author, or his/her understanding of a prospective audiences literary tastes. What makes something worth reading again and again is when an author satisfies those with "lower" tastes while providing them with some food for thought. Howard is no exception. In fact, I was surprised while I was rereading the first published Conan story, Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword to find that the author seemed to be hinting at a theory of the value of literature and its role in society.

Howard's Hyborean Age is a mythic world filled with magic and wonder, but it is also a world based on the history of the real world. Howard combined multiple eras of history so that societies whose "real world" existence is separated by centuries could co-exist narratively. Conan's own people, the Cimmerians, are based on a very real historical peoples. Both Herodotus, in his Histories, and Plutarch, in his Lives, mention the Cimmerian peoples (called Cimbri in Plutarch). In The Phoenix on the Sword, Howard appears to expect his audience to have at least a little understanding of the historical Cimmerians in his conversation of the role of literature in civilization. Conan, as protagonist, must hold ideas which the reader sympathizes with for the particular narrative of Phoenix to work.

So what kind of people were the Cimmerians? According to Herodotus they were a people who were pillagers and raiders, but not rulers.
For the Cimmerian attack upon Ionia, which was earlier than Croesus, was not a conquest of the cities, but only an inroad for plundering.
Herodotus, Histories, I, 6

What did they look like? According to Plutarch:

Their great height, their black eyes and their name, Cimbri, which the Germans use for brigands, led us merely to suppose that they were one of those races of Germania who lived on the shores of the Western Ocean. Others say that the huge expanse of Celtica stretches from the outer sea and the western regions to the Palus Maeotis and borders on Asian Scythia; that these two neighbouring nations joined forces and left their land... And although each people had a different name, their army was collectively called Celto-Scythian. According to others, some of the Cimmerians, who were the first-to be known to the ancient Greeks... took flight and were driven from their land by the Scythians. Plutarch, Life of Marius, XI

What was their temperament? According to Homer:

Thus she brought us to the deep-Rowing River of Ocean and the frontiers of the world, where the fog-bound Cimmerians live in the City of Perpetual Mist. When the bright Sun climbs the sky and puts the stars to flight, no ray from him can penetrate to them, nor can he see them as he drops from heaven and sinks once more to the earth. For dreadful night has spread her mantle over the heads of that unhappy folk. Homer, Odyssey, XI, 14

It is Homer's description of the Cimmerians that Howard uses in Phoenix to describe the mood of the people and to separate Conan from his kin. When Conan is asked why the Cimmerians are such a brooding people, Conan responds:

“Perhaps it’s the land they live in,” answered the king. “A gloomier land never was – all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys.” – Phoenix on the Sword

The average Cimmerian is a dour and towering barbarian who destroys civilization then returns to his gloomy homeland only to begin the process again later. Howard's typical Cimmerian is similar to that of the classical scholars, and presents a figure most unlikely to advance the literary arts. But this is where Conan differs from his kin. In The Phoenix on the Sword, Conan is an older man who has conquered on of the greatest nations of the Hyborean Age expressly to free them from tyrannical rule. He conquered to rule, and to liberate an oppressed nation. A far cry from the typical barbarian. By separating Conan from his kin, Howard simultaneously increases the audience's sympathy for the barbarian king while enabling the character to advance a theory of the value of literature.

The Phoenix on the Sword is the tale of a plot to assassinate King Conan, a plot organized my a Machiavellian figure named Ascalante who desires to assume the throne. Ascalante is the product of civilization, but he is the antagonist of the story and so Howard uses his opinions of the Arts as a way to separate him from the audience's sympathy. When he describes a poet who has been brought into his conspiracy he describes the poet in pejorative terms. These terms evolve as the narrative moves from unpublished draft to final published form. Ascalante originally expresses his disdain for Rinaldo (the poet) in a long description:
“Rinaldo – a mad poet full of hare-brained visions and out-worn chivalry. A prime favorite with the people because of his songs which tear out their heart-strings. He is our best bid for popularity.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

By the time the story is published the description is changed to the very brief, "“…Rinaldo, the hair-brained minstrel.” [Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword(published)]. In the published form, Howard leaves out the value of Rinaldo's participation in the plot because it is redundant with information presented later in the story. When Ascalante is asked what value Rinaldo has as a conspirator, Ascalante's response is similar in both the published and unpublished text, but his hatred of Rinaldo is made more clear in the draft than in the published text:

“Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they openly sing The Lament for the King in which Rinaldo lauds the sainted villain and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but the people snarl.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“Rinaldo – bah! I despise the man and admire him at the same time. He is your true idealist. Alone of us all he has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a peaceful land. He thinks he sees barbarism triumphing over culture. He already idealizes the king Conan killed, forgetting the rogue’s real nature, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils under which the land groaned during his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they open sing ‘The Lament for the King’ in which Rinaldo lauds the saintly villain, and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but at the same time wonders why the people are turning against him.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

In both descriptions the poet is shown to be a blind idealist. Rinaldo, it appears, cannot look beyond the Cimmerian stereotypes as presented by Plutarch and Herodotus. Howard doesn't require the reader to have those preconceptions, but for the reader who has read Herodotus and Plutarch the stereotype becomes even clearer. Also by editing down the prose the author, either willingly or at editorial command, displays an amount of trust that his audience can reach the proper conclusion that barbarism typically destroys the valuable within civilization. What is interesting is that while Rinaldo is a conspirator, the poet is an antagonist, he is not a villain. He is a blind a foolish idealist, not acting in his own self interest. Ascalante even goes on to describe Rinaldo's motivations:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism, rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“Because he is a poet. Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and the future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism and he sees himself as a hero, a stainless knight – which after all he is! – rising to overthrow the tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

Ascalante specifies what kind of idealists poets are. They seek an imagined perfect society, and will always look for it no matter how good the society they are currently in happens to be. But this is Ascalante, the Machiavellian civilized man, and his opinion about what the value of the poet is. For him the poet is an easily manipulable puppet. What about the barbarian turned king, the protagonist, and oft argued proxy for the author? (It should be noted that many argue that Conan often reflects Howard's own views, this is not an original assertion on my part.)

Conan adores the poet, and understands the criticisms. He is aware that the poet's plays are leading many among the people to despise him, but he too is persuaded of the need for justice. When his chief adviser, Prospero, discusses disdain for Rinaldo, Conan comes to the poet's (and poetry in general) defense. The text is near identical in the published and unpublished format.

“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rhymes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter, for he has hear ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I will die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished first submitted draft)

“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rimes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

For Conan, the atypical Cimmerian, poems and the arts have more power than weapons or royal authority. Not only that, but it is right and just that this is the case. Conan, the barbarian, is the defender of the value of literature, while Ascalante, the civilized man, sees literature as only a tool used to manipulate the foolish. Conan would seek to discuss the past and future, the ideal ones, with the poet, while Ascalante would merely use Rinaldo to destroy what he opposes. Conan's conflict between desiring a free press and swift justice, and the eventual melee that will result because of his favoring of the press, are made clear in the poetic prologue to the final chapter of the narrative.

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs – I was a man before I was a king. – The Road of Kings Phoenix on the Sword (published)

Surprisingly, Conan's love of literature and the arts, and his defense of them, is so deeply rooted that he initially refuses to kill Rinaldo when Rinaldo attacks him. He still believes he can reason with the poet, it is only when he is left no other alternative that he kills the poet (the text is identical in both published and unpublished forms).

“He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open hand sent him reeling to the floor.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back, lifting his ax.

‘Rinaldo!’ his voice was strident with desperate urgency. ‘Back! I would not slay you ..’

‘Die, tyrant!’ screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.

Rinaldo dropped with his skull shattered and Conan reeled back against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which gripped his wound.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

What is interesting in the narrative is that of all the conspirators, there are twenty in all, none are able to injure Conan with the success of the poet. The poet has both damaged Conan's regime and his body and yet Conan was ever reluctant to, though in the end capable of, slay his greatest enemy.

“’See first to the dagger-wound in my side,’ he bade the court physicians. ‘Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus.’

‘We should have hanged him long ago,’ gibbered Publius. ‘No good can come of poets..’” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

What does this tell us of Howard's thoughts regarding the arts? We know that Conan loves them, but we also know how they were used to manipulate the populace and how his own love for them almost cost him his life. Is Howard trying to discuss how Plato's critique of the poets is a good one, while at the same time defending the possible nobility of the poet (as Aristotle does in his Rhetoric)? I think these are questions intentionally posed in the narrative (I know...never guess at intentionality), and make it clear why Conan's first story The Phoenix on the Sword was so compelling to readers when they first read it.

It should be noted that the story was originally submitted as a Kull tale, though I have yet to analyze that draft like I have these two subsequent writings. The Kull version was rejected by Weird Tales and the final (rather than the first) Conan version was the first appearance of what has become a culturally iconic figure.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

When Pulp Meets Urban Fantasy

I love a good urban fantasy yarn. I'm a regular reader of the tales of Harry Dresden, Atticus O'Sullivan, and Detective Inspector Wei Chen. There is just something about the combination of noir tropes with magic that excites my literary appetites. I'm also a big fan of Pulp heroes like Nick Charles, The Spider, Doc Savage, and Billy Byrne. In my opinion, these two genre are too rarely combined. Manly Wade Wellman's tales of John Thunstone are among some of the most imaginative fiction I've read. The Thunstone tales combine the cool atmospherics of a Thin Man film and add a wonderful layer of sinister mysticism. Thunstone faces fantastic foes who lurk on the edges of human society, seeking our destruction.

The Complete Thunstone from Haffner Press. Image by Raymond Swanland.
Given my love of these kinds of stories, and my love of Angry Robot Books, it is surprising that I missed the release of Alyc Helms' The Dragon of Heaven which is the first entry in her Missy Masters/Mr. Mystic series of books. This July will see the release of The Conclave of Shadow, a title that echoes Wellman's School of Darkness, and it looks to be an intriguing entry.

The books tell the tale of a street magician named Missy Masters who had inherited magical powers, and a job as the vigilante hero Mr. Mystic, from her estranged grandfather. Missy soon discovers that it takes more than a snazzy clothes and a talent for witty banter to combat the forces of evil effectively, it also takes experience.

From this basic premise, it appears at first glance that Helms brings in narrative elements that might be inspired by Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds series and dials up the magical power dial up to 11. It's hard to tell where on the scale of Savvy Scholar outwits the Forces of Evil to Sorcerer Supreme obliterates Cosmic Threats this book series lies, but the premises are intriguing enough for me to find out. I'll be checking out this series in the next couple of weeks, so I'll let you know. I might even throw in a Savage Worlds and Shadow of the Demon Lord write up or two for characters in the series.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

THE AVENGERS (1952) -- Pre-Make Trailer

I've been a fan of the "Premake" series of You Tube videos for some time.  They display a nice combination of deep knowledge of older pop culture with a genuine desire to show that awesomeness to a younger generation of viewers.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials at my Oma and Opa's house on the weekends.  My Opa loved these old serials and he instilled in me nostalgia for stories that had been filmed before my parents had been born.  I still love these tales, and they have shaped the types of genre fiction I still enjoy today.  I blame these old serials for my seeking out of Edgar Rice Burroughs and that led to a discovery of Leigh Brackett, and the rest is as they say "history."

I cannot wait to share the old serials with my lovely twin daughters History and Mystery.  They already love super heroes and Star Wars -- even if they think that Yoda is Darth Vader's personal Goblin.  It won't be long before they are watching Buck, Flash, and Emma Peel.  Speaking of Emma, I hope that I can give my daughters enough knowledge of the show THE AVENGERS that they will appreciate how awesome a Diana Rigg version of Black Widow would have been.

For your viewing pleasure...THE AVENGERS 1952.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why "The Brave" Trailer is Superior to "Wrath of the Titans" Trailer

Before I post the two trailers in question and critique the "Titans" trailer, I just want to state for the record that I am jazzed to see both of these movies. They both look like fun and appeal to my inner child.

Now take a minute to watch the trailer for "The Brave." It's only a couple of minutes long.

The trailer is essentially 2 minutes, or so, taken straight out of the film. Two minutes that encapsulate a story on their own, that hint at the stakes surrounding the situation, and that entertain. I now want to see the movie now more than ever, and have the sense that the film will make me weep as its twists are revealed.

Now take a minute to watch the trailer for "Wrath of the Titans."

From the opening BWAAAAAM -- straight out of "Inception" -- there is cut scene after cut scene of ever escalating action that reveals that our hero will have to battle many mythical beasts over the course of the film. Never mind that a releasing of the Titans, and their war against humanity, would make for an exciting series of films let alone a single picture. A fact that makes it appear as if this film will be trying to do too much in too little time, and at the expense of creating an actual narrative. The action scenes are compelling, and heighten my desire to see the spectacle of the film, but they do little to invest me emotionally in the film.

Both trailers make me want to watch the films, but one demonstrates that the film I will be watching will make me feel something emotionally while the other bludgeons me with spectacle.

I can't help but feel that the reliance on a spectacle oriented trailer, rather than an emotional one, for the upcoming "John Carter" film is a bad move. There is action in the John Carter series of tales, to be sure, but there is also a great romance. It is a mythic romance and the trailers have done little to convey that fact. I would even go so far as to say that the Super Bowl trailer made me want to watch the film less.

Compare the "John Carter: Virginia" clip to the Super Bowl ad. The Virginia clip makes me want to watch the movie, the Super Bowl ad makes me believe that Disney doesn't really believe in the story or that the characters are worth highlighting. Thankfully, the Virginia clip exists and lets me know that there will be character development -- even if it is apocryphal -- and not just spectacle.

I'll take Virginia over spectacle any day, and I'll take a short continual glimpse into the world over clips featuring the soundtrack of "Inception."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It was the Best of Conans, It was the Worst of Conans

Do me a favor and give a quick look at the Conan poster below.  It shows Conan battling against some tentacled horror.  Think about it for a few seconds.  Do this because the review and discussion I am going to write below may not be exactly what you are looking for.  I'm not going to write with great ire about the Neo-Nihilism of the film, or how it fails to meet Howard's vision.  Nor am I going to blog about how it perfectly captured the "Panther like grace" of Howard's epic hero with a visually stunning world that for the first time has captured Hyboria.  

If you want to read reviews by other passionate Howard fans, you can find Leo Grin's here, James Maliszewski's here, and John R. Fultz's here.   All three are people who have written critical comments about Pulp, Howard, and/or Role Playing Games that I have found thoughtful.

I want to write about Conan: The Barbarian (2012) from a different perspective, from the perspective of "vast narrative," and how the phenomenon of "vast narrative" doomed this particular theatrical adaptation of Conan to be a troubled film at best.

Keep your thoughts about this image of Conan in your mind as I discuss "vast narrative" below.

What is "vast narrative" and why is important when discussing an adaptation of a character who has his roots in the pages of a much admired Pulp magazine?

In Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin's book Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (published by MIT Press in 2009), they discuss certain types of "vastness" that might appear in combinations for some narratives.  In particular, there are the following types of vastness.

First, is vastness of "narrative extent" which is akin to The Wire taking a single season to cover one investigation, or Patrick Rothfuss taking 600 pages in order for his fantasy hero to go to college and acquire student loans -- thus beginning his journey to greatness.

Second, is vastness of "world and character continuity" where characters "operate withing less cyclic narrative models" and where "often ingenious methods [sustain] open-ended narratives are a major theme of the project."  Think of a narrative that attempts to adapt the stories in order to keep up with the times.  Soap operas have this kind of vastness.

Third, is vastness of "Cross-media Universes."  This is the kind of vastness we will be most discussing regarding Conan and Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin describe this vastness as follows: "Though it is now typical for a blockbuster narrative (e.g., The DaVinci Code or Harry Potter) to sprout multiple instantiations (e.g., novels, films, games, comic books, or narrated tours of real locations), one narrative form is generally still considered "canonical," from which the others are derived.  On the other hand, some narrative 'universes,' such as those of Doctor Who and Star Wars, instead treat contributions from many media as authorized (often elaborately authorized) elements of a vast fictional quilt." (emphasis mine)
Fourth, is "procedural potential" which represents how computational power has allowed interactive narrative techniques to far exceed the paper forms of Choose Your Own Adventure books. The Fabled Lands novels achieve high vastness in this area, as do many interactive video games.
Lastly, there is "multiplayer interaction" where fan culture creates vast narrative universes around many types of media. This includes online fiction, any fan created art, table top rpgs, and MMOs.  -- (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009, 2)
As I mentioned above, we are most concerned with issues of vastness that arise from "Cross-Media Universes."  Like Star Wars and Doctor Who -- possibly moreso than either -- Howard's Conan exists in a vast Cross Media Universe.  What is Hyboria?  For Leo Grin, James Maliszewski, John R. Fultz, and Me it is Robert E. Howard's world in its purist form  We go back to the "canonical" texts as we find them to be the most rewarding.  They are rich tales that we, or at least I, consider to be among the great works of the American literary tradition.  You can read some of my thoughts on Conan's importance and subtlety here (I quote Plutarch in that essay).

For others though, this might not be the case.  For some the real Hyboria, and the real Conan for that matter, might be the Conan "resurrected" by L. Sprague DeCamp.  De Camp's interpretation and adaptation of the Barbarian are scorned by most modern Howard fans, but the character might have fallen into obscurity if not for his efforts -- and the efforts of Glenn Lord made sure that the harm DeCamp did could be limited.  But many only know the DeCamp literary Conan, or the Robert Jordan (yes that Robert Jordan) Conan.  Many hands have written books about Conan, often featuring Boris Vallejo covers, that many readers have enjoyed -- for all that they are depictions of Conan that lack any of the depth of the character as Howard wrote him.  For these fans, the Thrud and Blunder tales provide enjoyment, and they are what they expect to see in a Conan film.

Still others have fond memories of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's Comic Book adaptation of the character is "canonical."  This audience doesn't come close to covering all the different Comic Book interpretations of the character which are as vast in their interpretation as Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's are different from Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord's and includes dozens more interpretations of the character.

There have been television series featuring Conan, including a children's cartoon, a couple of role playing games, and a number of video games.  Then there are the two Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

That is a very vast array of source material to draw from, each appealing to a different audience.  To which audience should a director or producer appeal?  That may seem like an easy answer, which will certainly be based on ones own biases, but the real answer is "the one that seems to appeal to the broadest audience."  Ideally, this would be one that combines elements from some of the most populous fan groups -- and this seems to be the strategy that the Conan: The Barbarian team undertook.  In an interview with Empire Magazine, Jason Momoa -- the actor playing Conan -- stated, "if people are really stuck on Conan being their own one thing, I think it's time to address it. We wanted to give respect to Robert E Howard, but you can't just focus on his fans. There are eight decades of stories and comics and movies since him, so Conan is different things to different people. You can't please everybody, but you can re-imagine Conan every couple of generations, like Batman or Bond."

Momoa's response is straight out of a description of the dilemma I presented, and presents the thought that one can "re-imagine" a character.  Sadly for Momoa, and for the filmmakers, the recent success of Batman and Bond as marquee titles has been due to a return to emulation of "canonical" material -- even when presenting entirely new stories the "new" interpretations "feel" like the literary companions.

Combining the interpretations of multiple audiences is a tremendous challenge, but it can be done and done well.  In Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign, Greg Stafford manages to interweave disparate Arthurian sources into what may possibly be the greatest role playing game products ever written.  In these texts Stafford uses material covering "Celtic Arthur," "Historical Arthur," "Early Romance Arthur," and "Late Romance Arthur" with great love and tremendous talent. (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009, 94 -95) 

It is possible to achieve greatness while taking into account a variety of narrative audiences, and while incorporating a vast narrative.  Stafford carefully eliminates things that occurred after a certain point, and stresses certain Arthurian themes that repeat across narratives to create his game.

In translating Conan though, the obstacle isn't as easy to overcome as it was for Stafford in presenting Arthurian tales.  Stafford had the benefit of centuries of academic scholarship to aid him.  The Conan production team had no such allies, though they had some they seem to have underutilized.  Instead, they were faced with what John Clute described in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy as follows.

Given the fact that something like 200 story fragments were found in [Howard's] papers, and that his style was very much heavier on heroic action than on the delineation ofcharacter, it is not perhaps surprising that many of these fragments were recast and "finished" as Conan tales: in some cases, a simple substitution of Conan's name as the avenging hero probably sufficed. As a result, the Conan bibliography is quite extraordinarily jumbled...These assortments of exfoliating texts constitute a genuine assault upon the perception of the reader, and the original figure of Conan tends to become more obscure...

Granting the challenges that the Conan team faced, how did they do and what did they do?

As the title of this blog post suggests, the created the Best of Conan films and the Worst of Conan films.  The story is fractured and confused, as is the character, and the motivations of the character are mixed.  He both is and isn't Howard's Conan and this is a direct result of some of the film's inspirational choices.

They "honored" the filmic audience by taking the revenge motif and slaughtered family from the John Milius film, and by having an overarching story that echoed Conan: The Destroyer's quest to awaken a dead god through the acquisition of an artifact and the sacrifice of a "pure blood" to activate the artifact. Just looking at their filmic influences they chose elements from both what was already the best Conan film, flawed as it was, and the worst.

They honored the comic book audience by including shots and costumes that seemed pulled out of Cary Nord's illustrations.

They honored fans of Howard by providing us with Easter Egg references to stories and by pulling lines of dialogue straight out of the fiction, sadly these lines were some of the worst performed lines in the film.

They also included the Giant Monsters from the God of War inspired Conan video game, and I swear one of the sets looked just like the game -- the temple where Conan fights the "sand warriors."

The Conan team didn't seem to have a coherent vision for the character, or the world.  Some of the shots of Hyboria are spectacular, and Cimmeria looks like Cimmeria should, but others look straight out of the Milius film.  It all points to lack of overarching artistic vision.

It seems clear that the team wanted to make a good film, and you can see the money on the screen as they say.  It seems equally clear to me that they lacked any overarching artistic vision.  Given the patchwork and collaborative exercise that film making is in its nature, this can destroy a production.

Is the film worse than an Uwe Boll film?  No.

Is it Neo Nihilism run rampant?  No.

Is it crap?  No.

Is it good?  No.

I'll still buy it when it comes out on DVD so that I can watch it again, but that's because I think modern Sword & Sorcery film fans are spoiled.  Those who are overly harsh need to go back and watch Deathstalker, Gor, Yar, Ator, Zardoz, She, Deathstalker, Beastmaster 2, or one of a hundred other films from the 80s.

Those were miserable.  Conan the Barbarian was merely flawed.  I think those that are reacting strongly against it are often doing so because thy can see glimpses of just how good the film would have been with a consistent vision.

I think they should have gone back to "canon" only for inspiration, but then again I don't know how much I'd enjoy watching Conan run away from what might be a giant frog -- as he does in "The Scarlet Citadel." (To be fair it's likely Clark Ashton Smith's froglike demon/god Tsathoggua.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SyFy's Mercury Men -- "Skyscraper Saboteurs"

"Skyscraper Saboteurs," the second episode of the intriguing Mercury Men web series, went live this morning. The episode builds on all the qualities that worked in the first episode, and features fewer of the drawbacks. It appears that the series is quickly getting past the sense of "pilotitis" I felt regarding the first episode.

The series takes place in Pittsburgh in 1975 where Jack Yeager (Curt Wootton) -- a character wonderfully inspired by classic pulp figures -- discovers a sinister plan by Venusian invaders, a plan that only he can stop. Lucky for the Earth, Jack is a combination Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, and Blackhawk:

Daring League captain, aerospace engineer, and former US Air Force pilot, Jack travels the galaxy to explore unknown worlds, new alien races, and advanced technological wonders. Always at Jack's side is the LumiƩre, his trusted revolver which fires bolts of condensed light. Jack is dispatched to Earth to investigate the glowing men of Mercury.

Like the pilot, I do have some complements and criticisms regarding the episode, but watch the episode first. It is well worth your time. Join me in discovering the sinister plan of the Mercury Men!


I've got to give the production team at Mercury Men Pictures credit for their focus on sound design. Poor design can really tank a feature, particularly a genre feature, but the MMP crew have added some interesting environmental sound effects that add depth to the feature. I am particularly fond of the "fuzz" sound of the Mercury Men themselves.

The visuals continue to be fairly impressive. I was particularly impressed by the scene where our heroes were on one side of a wall constructed of glass bricks, and the Mercury Men were on the other. The image where we look through Jack's looking glass was also impressive as it included "warping" around the edges and was more than a mere "circular cutout" image. Jack's hologram projector was a nice touch, and a nice effect.

Like the serials that Mercury Men is based upon, the MMP crew use a lot of visual storytelling. When the Mercury Men's plan is revealed, it is shown and not told. Very nice!


I still find Mark Tierno's performance as Edward Borman a little forced. He seems to be acting in a style more akin to silent films than talkies. He isn't bad, but his movements have an odd fluidity that seems natural in a purely visual story. His line delivery is good, but I'm on the fence. If Edward gets blasted by the invaders I won't be overly distraught.

When Jack and Edward are walking down a stairway there is a wipe effect -- a nice homage to the serials -- that goes against the movement of the action taking place. This has the visual effect of slowing down the pace of the story and decreasing urgency. It almost feels as if the action is being rewound. I think wipes should follow movement, not run against the grain. Just a personal opinion.

Now that I've seen the story so far, I am more convinced than ever that I need to lift ideas from it for a short term Savage Worlds or Cortex+ campaign. I will certainly be statting up some of the characters as the show goes on and we learn more about them.

The MMP crew have captured the tone perfectly. This show is obviously done of love of the material and lacks the kind of ironic distance that too often seeps into the gaps and ruins a good story. Let's hope they keep it up. If their website, and their digital props, are any hint I think they will.

I already wish they'd build a flash based game based on their fictional Atari 2600 game.