• Kingsman: You Are a Bad Movie and You Should Feel Bad

    “Jeeves is a secret agent, starring Colin Firth.” I should love that, right? I mean, I have one or two other buttons you could push, but this should be a slam-dunk “instant favorite” for me.

    Nope.

    I loathe this terrible, awful, no-good movie. Besides not actually being very good at what I would have considered its selling points, it is also deceptively marketed and prurient in its intent and tone. All of the “charm” is not charming. All of the “humor” is not funny. And instead of being escapist superspy fare, it’s just idiotic, hateful, sophomoric violence-porn with no aesthetic or story value.

    In short, it sucks.

    NOTE: There will be spoilers ahead, if it is indeed possible to “spoil” a movie that is already rotten. But you’ve been warned, in any case.

    So we start things with a clear “George Lazenby couldn’t make it” James Bond stand-in being sheared in half by Gimmick Henchman, with one half flopping to the left and one half flopping to the right, Wile E. Coyote style. It’s dumb, but they’re trying to establish an OTT aesthetic, I get it. Amazing how there’s not even a drop of blood in this room full of rubber body parts, but yeah, okay, I get it. CGI dismemberment is fine as long as it’s not bloody, sayeth the ratings board. That enough would have knocked the movie off my faves list, but it isn’t the real problem.

    So then we move into the main meat of the story, where Forgettable Protagonist Boy gets inducted into the Kingsmen, hitting all the same beats MiB did better, while Colin Firth investigates the mystery of Samuel Jackson as Lisping Steve Jobs Wants to Destroy the World. It’s serviceable if a bit dull, but leads to where the real problem is.

    Samuel Jackson as Lisping Steve Jobs has stolen the macguffin from Secret Agent Super Dragon: he has a hate plague app implanted in cellphones all over the world, which makes people go berserk and kill everyone within plot device radius. He decides to run a test of this at the !Westboro Baptist Church; Colin Firth attends to investigate, gets hit by the mind control ray, and then spends the next ten minutes slaughtering everyone in the church, because he’s a badass superspy in a bulletproof suit and they’re all just degenerate hicks.

    And then I walked out.

    I’m told it gets worse from there. I don’t even want to imagine. But let’s dissect this moment of cinematic poo-throwing, shall we?

    First and foremost, it’s clear that the movie thinks that filling the church full of annoying bigots makes it totally okay to spend ten minutes showing them all slaughtered one by one, in close up from almost Colin-Firth-cam view. It’s all super-quick cuts and choreography, and again without a drop of blood. You’re not supposed to be thinking about the horrors being inflicted on these people, you’re supposed to be impressed by what a badass Colin Firth is. (Luckily for us, we were reminded by a PSA at the beginning of the film that if a kid puts on harris tweeds and shoots up a school after seeing this, it’s totally not the movie’s fault.)

    Well guess what, movie? It’s not okay. Do you maybe not understand what makes bigotry bad? The reason these hate group people are awful is because they would think it was funny to have a single person walk into a room full of [group they don’t like] and wipe them all out in gruesome ways. Ha, ha, darn those wacky bigots! …Wait.

    Presumably the movie will then follow up with Colin Firth being all horrified at what he’s done and whinge about not having any choice, etc., etc. (I don’t know, because as I say, I walked out); and while that may theoretically be an out for the character, the filmmakers had a choice. You were the ones who chose to revel in this crap; you were the ones who said, “Hey, who wouldn’t want to vicariously slaughter a church full of crackers?”

    I was shaking with rage when I walked out of the theater. Not just at what the movie had done, but that none of the previews or reviews had objected to this, or even fucking mentioned it. I went in expecting classic superspy escapist fare; instead I got loathsome violence porn. If I’d wanted to watch a goddamn Tarantino movie I would have had my head examined watched a goddamn Tarantino movie. One of my standing policies is to never willingly watch movies in which “murdering people and laughing about it is totally okay, as long as they’re the wrong sort of people” is a core value.

    To hell with you, movie, and to hell with your poisonous mindset. You are absolute garbage, and you’ve brought shame to everyone involved in the production.

    -The Gneech

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  • Monsters! RAR!

    I received my 5E Monster Manual yesterday and spent the evening and part of this morning devouring it. (Mmm, wood pulp! :d) It’s a seriously impressive book, giving almost every monster a page which includes lovingly-rendered art, several flavorful bits of monster lore which the DM can use or ignore freely, and a stat block. This book, like the Players Handbook before it, has just that touch of whimsy (from the “delicious squishy brains” disclaimer buried on the facia page to the outhouse mimic sketch in the index) that both 3E and 4E lacked and I have missed. (Go back and look at the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and you’ll notice that at least half the illustrations were single panel cartoons nicked from Dragon magazine!)

    It’s not without its quirks, of course. Many of the creatures I find the most interesting have been shunted off into “Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures,” by which they basically mean “beasts.” But since the category includes such staples as blink dogs, giant spiders, worgs, and all of the swarms, you’d think they’d merit a little more respect.

    Also, much has been made of the lack of an index by CR. Personally, I find this a non-issue, since the DMG is probably going to have all kinds of encounter tables and the like, but WotC has since published said index on their website, and Blog of Holding has done one that’s probably more useful if you’d like such a thing.

    But on the topic of CR, wow did CRs trend down in 5E! Creatures that have traditionally been unholy terrors at the “heroic” tier [1] such as manticores or wights, tend to top out around CR 3. [2] CR 5 is home of the “big league” monsters such as trolls or gorgons, and then the eldritch nasties such as mind flayers or hags start appearing in the CR 7-8 range. This is clearly a deliberate design decision, which I have a few theories about.

    First of all, the encounter budget models that WotC have released so far all indicate that the number of monsters shoot the difficulty up quickly, which means that while a single CR 2 ogre would be a “hard” encounter for a 2nd level party, a pair of them would be considered a “ludicrous” encounter. [3] Since many DMs love to throw groups of monsters at the party, keeping individual monster CR down keeps the difficulty from going through the roof too fast.

    Second, D&D has always had a certain “When do we get to the good stuff?” problem. The game’s iconic monsters, things like adult dragons and beholders and mind flayers, don’t tend to appear until 5th level or higher, while many campaigns struggle to get past 3rd due to player attrition, DM burnout, or whatever. Skewing the CRs down makes it more likely that the average group will advance to a level where the bigger, badder, “cooler” things can start showing up, hopefully sustaining interest in the game and opening the campaign to more varied scenarios than another March of the Goblins. [4]

    Finally, bounded accuracy rears its head again: low level baddies can still hurt higher level PCs. One on one, a lower level critter will certainly run out of hit points long before a higher level PC will, but when you get a room full of them, that’s another story. Lower CR monsters fill the niche that minions were intended to in 4E, without the “meta” aspects (“Why does this goblin have 33 hp, and that one only have 1? They look exactly the same…”) So a creature’s CR is not really as important a factor in encounter building as it was in previous editions, it’s just a general indicator of a creature’s toughness.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in play. And after this weekend, there’ll be a two week break in my gaming schedule, so I’m also looking forward to retooling my Silver Coast game with a full range of monsters, rather than just what was available in the Starter Set. Now then, where on this map could I put the Tarrasque…?

    -The Gneech

    [1] I’ll rant about tiers some other time. When codified as they were in 4E, I find them horrible metagamey constructs; fortunately, 5E just uses them as handy labels for the DM, which is fine.

    [2] This means that my Summoner Conversion will need a serious retooling, probably topping out the eidolon’s form at CR 4 or so.

    [3] I’m not sure I agree with their assessment of encounter difficulty: my players have so far waltzed through multiple “hard” encounters without breaking a sweat. But then again, my players all have years of gaming experience, so it might just be a testament to their playing skill.

    [4] Mind you, I love me some goblin invasions. But you can’t do that every time. Nor can you make every campaign about Tiamat trying to break out of her extra-dimensional prison. Tyranny of Dragons, I’m looking at you. Didn’t Red Hand of Doom kinda sew up that idea for a while?

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  • EXPLOSIONS????

    I finished Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage add-on for Borderlands 2 last night. It was a lot of wild, over-the-top fun, up to (but not including) the big fight at the end against the Badassasaurus Rex and your ultimate foe. This is because, for all the things the Borderlands team does right, they really suck at making interesting solo boss fights.

    It’s a thing that can one-punch you. With area effect attacks. Which you can’t effectively dodge. In the middle of a large, open, completely empty and featureless arena. The strategy for soloing any boss in Borderlands is “Get killed so you respawn just outside the fighting zone, find the one corner the boss can’t hit you but you can just snipe at them, stand in it and plink away until they die ten minutes later.” It’s not fun, it’s not exciting, it’s just grindy.

    It was particularly disappointing in the case of the Badassasaurus because it was such a visually nifty boss– I wanted to be able to see it while I fought it! But no. Because if I could see it, that meant I didn’t have enough cover, and got one-punched. Sigh.

    But I don’t want to harp too much on that, because the rest of Mr. Torgue was all the best stuff Borderlands has to offer: action, a lot of loot-and-level fun, and wry satire/spoof that goes from being smirkingly humorous to break-your-furniture funny.

    On finishing that, I started the third add-on, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt, but so far I can’t say I’m impressed. As charming as Hammerlock himself is (“That’s just a bit of ribald humor for you. Ha, ha! Quite ribald.”), the whole “white guys vs. savages with some Heart of Darkness riffs” thing is way too creepy for me to enjoy. Also, there’s a really huge and annoying difficulty spike, in the form of the “witch doctor” enemies that buff their allies, insta-heal upgrade them to tougher versions just as they’re about to die, and do piles of damage to you, all simultaneously. Even the random encounter wandering-monster types have huge hit points and do tons of damage; I’m guessing the developers were like “Oh, you think the game was too easy, eh? TAKE THIS! Heheheheheh!”

    Ugh. If Torgue has all the good stuff from Borderlands, Big Game Hunt seems to have all the worst. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to sustain my interest in it long enough to finish; what I might do is go back to the regular story and finish getting up to the level cap, then come back and power through BGH at +5 levels over, just to get through it.

    -The Gneech

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  • Ain’t No Place For a Hero: Thoughts On “Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in Borderlands 2”

    It’s hardly a secret that in real life I’m a big woobie neutral good Boy Scout kind of guy. Sometimes, tho, it can be refreshing to put that aside and be a wiseass, letting out my internal Bugs Bunny (who spends most of his time being thwarted) in an environment without consequences.

    Borderlands 2 is all about that; it’s one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying it. Even within the context of Borderlands, anybody you shoot, melt, or slice in half can just be revived at the nearest “New U” station– presumably getting blown to bits still stings, but mainly it’s just annoying and eats up money.

    It’s a weird psychological line to walk; I don’t generally like “dark comedy” and roll my eyes at things like Pulp Fiction, but I thought the quest to shoot “Face McShooty” in the face was hilarious and always chuckle when my siren character shouts “That was awesome!” after one-shotting a foe. What’s the difference? I’m not sure.

    I did find an interesting discussion of the issue however, called “Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in Borderlands 2. From the article:

    It’s important to note that this is not an instance of ludic dissonance, when the gameplay and the story contradict each other. Instead, you’re participating in two parallel stories: the story of you against Jack and the story of you against the planet of Pandora. In one story, I’m clearly the good guy, but in the other story, it’s not so clear. Killing the other bandits can’t be justified the same way that killing Jack is justified since the bandits never tried to kill you (and in fact, whenever they do shoot at you, it’s because you’re in their territory). We have no personal motivation for these fights, so instead the game gives us external motivation. We’re told that the two gangs are vicious and cruel—they are gangs after all. This is the justification for most of what we do: The bandits are bandits, that semantic “fact” alone makes it okay to kill them.

    This is the exact same reasoning that Handsome Jack uses to justify killing everyone on Pandora. From an objective point of view, there’s no difference between us. Despite all of our talk of saving the world, we slaughter our bandit enemies without a second thought. Despite Jack’s dream of a crime-free Pandora, he’s really just slaughtering his enemies without a second thought as well.

    What’s interesting about Jack is that he represents the traditional gamer morality turned back on us. The only reason that he is the bad guy in this scenario is because he is not a playable character. If the plot of Borderlands 2 stayed the same, and we simply took control of Jack instead of the Vault Hunters, we would see him as an antihero, not a villain. We wouldn’t question his horrible actions, just as we don’t question the actions of the Vault Hunters. Both parties are antiheroes in their own story, both parties are wronged by each other, and the ultimate justification of everything that they do is that “the other guy deserved it.” But to be perfectly honest, I don’t hold this against Maya, my character. Yet I hate Jack so much. Why?

    Because Jack is a jerk.

    This train of thought doesn’t come out of nowhere: in the game, Jack is constantly having a sort of meta-discussion with your character about this very topic. He repeatedly refers to himself as “the hero of the story” and your character as “the bad guy,” and gets very upset about the fact that you’re not falling into line with this. Even in his very final speech in the game, he’s ranting about the fact that the player character isn’t following the expected “bad guy” behavior of getting killed at the end.

    Furthermore, a lot of the random NPC dialog explicitly calls you out for what you’re doing on any given mission, from the Hyperion combat engineers who say “Dammit! I was almost done with my shift, you bastard!” as they die, to the A.I. gun you pick up halfway through the game that shrieks “THEY PROBABLY HAD A FAMILY!” when you shoot it at someone (or “Now you’re just wasting ammo!” when you reload). The writers very clearly want these issues to be on your mind as you play.

    To what purpose? That’s a harder thing to pin down; it’s not like the game takes a real stance on the issue. Like everything else on Pandora, the exploration of themes seems to be done with a kind of sophomoric smirk. It may very well be that the writers don’t really have a stance on the issue, they’re just messin’ with you. But at the same time, just the fact that the issue is there for analysis and discussion, adds a kind of depth that makes Borderlands 2 much more enjoyable than just another round of watching this set of pixels blow up that set of pixels.

    -The Gneech

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  • InterventionCon and Borderlands

    So this past weekend was the third (already?) InterventionCon. It’s a fun, if smallish, local con put on by an impressively small staff who nonetheless manage to give it a “big con” professional feel. The basic theme of the con is “your online life, offline,” basically giving it a “meta-geekery” vibe similar to Dragon*Con (but on a much smaller scale). There’s a bit of comics, a bit of anime, a bit of cosplay, a bit of technogeekery, even a tiny hint of furry, but no one element really jumps out. This big tent approach is good in that everyone is welcome, but it also has its downside, in that there’s no really strong pull for any group. Despite being open to everybody, InterventionCon is not a “must-go” con for anybody, at least not yet.

    Granted, I see most of the con from inside the Dealer Room (or “Artist Alley/Vendor Room” as the con refers to it), which possibly colors my perceptions. On the other hand, the Dealer Room is also usually the main hub of activity. There are several breakout panel rooms which usually have a double-handful of people in them at any given time, a videogaming room, and an open gaming room, and several corridors. Although the Marriott where the con takes place has a huge and impressive restaurant/lounge area (which at a furry con would be overrun with fursuiters and artists), as far as I can tell InterventionCon doesn’t go down there. What crowds there are to find, are in the Dealer Room.

    The other thing I’ve noticed about InterventionCon, is that there isn’t much of an art culture. Most people in the Vendor Hall are there as vendors, selling books or crochet ponies or what have you, not doing art at the table– and the attendees don’t seem to be expecting it, either. I was never asked to do a badge or a sketch (my primary profit-makers at most cons), even by people who seemed very taken with my work. Furthermore, those people who were offering sketches at the table, were undercutting themselves badly. One artist wanted to charge me $10 for a fully inked, elaborate sketch; another $15 for an inked and shaded pair of characters. In both cases, I shoved $20 bills at them, just to drive the lesson home.

    gneech_chanWhile sitting around at the con not doing any badges or sketches (le sigh), I decided to noodle around with new persona ideas for myself, including this cute little guy, who combines the whole “dapper lion” thing with my little buddy Keroberos. Only problem is, I still can’t figure out how to get more of the sea green and similar colors I wanted into the design without becoming garish. I’m an autumn, and if the persona is to reflect me, he should totally be dressing in gold and burgundy.

    Also, I think way too much about that kind of stuff.

    But Enough of That Art’n’Creativity’n’Stuff. Let’s Blow Shit Up

    As InterventionCon rolls up its sidewalks at 3:00 on Sunday, that left me with all of last evening to occupy myself. I could have watched that Doctor Who we’ve got on the DVR, but instead I downloaded BorderLands 2 to give it a try. Mrs. Gneech and I are forever on the lookout for brainless shooty games we can play together, and this one is about as brainless and shooty as they come. Gung Ho FPS in a quasi-post-apocalypse SF setting with a soundtrack by Escape From LA, Borderlands 2 is snarky, sarcastic, and winks at you from the other side of the 4th wall to make sure you don’t take all the explosions and bloody head-shots seriously.

    Does it work? Eh… sort of. The snarky humor and Wile E. Coyote violence are basically there to punch up pretty cut-and-dried FPS gameplay… go here, kill baddies, pull lever, kill baddies, find boss, kill boss, rinse and repeat. The loot is completely randomized, which does sometimes make for strange and amusing results. I picked up a gun which does something like 70+ points of damage and has a sniper scope (as opposed to the more common ~20 points of damage on the first level), so I spent a lot of time starting a battle from far distant cover and going “Boom! Headshot.” Borderlands 2 also floats around somewhere between FPS and MMO, with quest-givers, side missions, and explorer deeds, and encourages you to hook up with other players (via Steam) and take on missions together. However, your character model is determined by your class (all the women are “sirens,” for instance, and all the sirens are women) and the character models only vary by means of three different heads and palette-swaps. So it won’t be long before every character looks exactly identical to every other character.

    Correspondingly, the difficulty seems to be all over the map, too. There’s a giant set-piece battle at the end of the first section of the game where you’re in an open area fighting a giant brute of a guy who is not only on fire, but who keeps setting you on fire as well as opening up giant fire pits all over the level. If you die, you simply respawn around the corner, which is handy, but every time you do, he goes back up to full health again. This led me into a loop for the longest time where I could just get to him, nick him a little, and then run out of ammo and get killed. Over and over. I finally defeated him basically through an exploit– I left the arena all together, which lured him over to one corner that stuck out so he could shoot at me, and he got trapped there by the AI pathing. So all I had to do at that stage was peek around the corner, snipe at him, and duck back until my shield recharged, then do it again. Since he was an otherwise unbeatable boss, I didn’t feel too bad about this– I figured that if the game is gonna cheat, I’m gonna cheat right back.

    On the plus side, I do like the animation-esque art style and the western-bluesey soundtrack, which give me (positive) associations with Full Throttle. And I can see how the game would be fun with a full party, although I haven’t had the chance to try it yet. However, I suspect it’s going to be real hard to find a group that isn’t made up of four sirens, just because she’s the most appealing character design. We’ll see!

    -The Gneech

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  • I’ve Never Forgiven the Barrels for Killing My Son

    So a while back, a friend gave me his copy of Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerfaildale, because he couldn’t get it to run on his computer. And since I’ve been jonesing for a little goblin smackdown, I decided to give it a shot. [1]

    Daggerdale is basically like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or Everquest: Conquest of Norrath, a multiplayer action game with the trappings of D&D … throw yourself at goblins and mash buttons ’til they die. Theoretically it should be prettier than those, being newer, but it’s basically the same thing. The only problem is, the makers seem to have decided that instead of just making a similar game in the same genre, they would just do a wholesale copy/paste and call it a day.

    These games don’t generally mess with a complicated plot, right? Well, the makers of the game apparently decided to go with that “etcetera, etcetera” mindset and really just phoned it in. There’s some evil guy named Rezlus in a tower who is gonna do some bad thing or other. He’s always the evil Rezlus. Or maybe “The’Evil” is his first name. What is Rezlus like or about, other than evil? No idea, except that he’s blue. And apparently worships Bane. But really, that’s enough, right? Anyhow, obviously, y’all gotta knock off all that evil, so !Galadriel teleports you into a dwarf mine so you can smash barrels and even occasionally fight a goblin. (Presumably !Gandalf was busy.)

    Barrels. Really. Why. They even have the “barrel-maker crying that people keep smashing his barrels” joke. Didn’t Bard’s Tale put that bit to bed, like ten years ago? Maybe they’re depending on gamers having a short memory. The first level past the tutorial consists of nothing but a bunch of dwarves standing around while you smash all their barrels. (Smashing barrels is optional, of course, but you’ll want those health potions later.)

    So you have your choice of four characters in the game: the burly white fighter guy, the white elf archer chick, the white dwarf cleric dude, or the androgynous white halfling wizard. [2] Each one is lovingly rendered in shades of sepia, and looks like they’d rather be doing anything else than going on this adventure. I kinda want to gripe about the lack of options here– I’m partial to male elf fighters and female human clerics (for instance), but none of the other games in this genre really give you a choice (Gauntlet II at least gave you color options…), so I guess there’s no point in that.

    I should point out, that you don’t necessarily stay sepia. The high point of the game, in terms of low points, had to be when my character picked up a suit of armor that turned him into the Iceman from Marvel Comics. And by this I don’t mean he was wearing blue armor, I mean his entire body turned bright blue, including his skin, eyes, and hair. I know, fantasy game, magic, yadda-yadda, but wow. Even D&D usually tries to at least keep a little grounding in its quasi-medieval setting. Did some designer really want to be working on a superhero game instead? It was here that it went from “playable if weak” to “just plain silly.”

    Anyway, the game’s nomenclature is all lifted from 4E, but it doesn’t mean anything. I fought “level one minions” with 24 hit points, “controllers” who just stood there and beat up on you, and so forth. You have all the usual Strength/Dex/Con stuff, but it’s all pre-set and doesn’t seem to actually do much. You fight by clicking the attack button until everything around you is dead, and defend yourself by guzzling health potions. I don’t know what the multiplayer is like, because that would have required getting another copy for Mrs. Gneech and I wasn’t willing to actually spend any money on it. We can do the same thing only better by pulling out the old Baldur’s Gate platformers or Gauntlet: Legends.

    In short… meh. Don’t waste your time.

    -The Gneech

    PS: Oh, did I mention that the disk appears to contain nothing but an installer that downloads the game from Steam? Whee!

    [1] I more or less hung up my dicebag earlier this year, at least as a gamemaster. I’d still love to play if I could find a local game, but I haven’t exactly been actively searching.

    [2] Halfling wizard, really? I don’t get the gaming community’s fervent desire to include halflings but OMG can’t have ’em be hobbits, no, no! Really, guys, the only reason to include halflings is because they’re hobbits. If you don’t like hobbits, leave halflings out all together. They’re superfluous otherwise.

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