The Alexandrian

ElephantAccording to a Scientific American article, the footprints of an elephant each contain dozens and possibly hundreds of different animals — mites, mayflies, backswimmers, leeches, and gastropods. Given proper conditions, such footprints can endure for weeks, giving them plenty of time to turn into little micro-habitats.

Which is super cool.

Now, scale it up for a fantasy world: A breathtaking colossus that slowly bestrides the world, leaving in its wake footprints a half-kilometer wide. Colossi gnomes scurry in its wake, delving into the exposed depths. Demonic creatures boil out of exposed underworlds. Such footprints could last for years or even decades, perhaps coming to support entire communities.

The End of Watchmen

November 29th, 2016

Watchmen

I really enjoyed Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie. I felt that, despite the limitations of its form and the flaws in its creation, it still managed to capture many of the things that were amazing about the original work. (And the opening tableau is jaw-droppingly awesome.)

But he totally prat-falled when it came to the ending.

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

First, the plan from the original story shifts from framing aliens humans will never find but would be able to at least hypothetically defend themselves against (as evidenced by the fact they just made a mistake in their invasion plans) to framing a guy who humans absolutely, positively cannot defend themselves against (as demonstrated by the fact he just casually destroyed two major cities) and who is going to live on Mars. This fundamentally changes the tone of the plan from “humanity will come together to face a common foe” to “humanity will behave itself or the angry god will come back to punish us”.

More importantly, Snyder screws up the execution. What makes the line haunting in the comic book is that you linger in a moment of stillness and silence; the reader basically joined Rorschach and Nite-Owl standing in a stunned silence as the horrible implications of that simple, casually spoken statement. (I’ve also always read the line as being delivered the same way someone might say, “I picked up the groceries today.” But I recognize that that’s idiosyncratic.)

Snyder doesn’t give you that moment. He doesn’t let the meaning of the words settle over you. He doesn’t give your imagination a moment to catch up to the rest of your brain and go, “HOLY SHIT!” Instead he:

  • Cuts away from Ozymandias just before he says the line to a reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl.
  • Has the camera in motion.
  • Has the score rise to a crescendo.
  • Hard cuts away from the line to immediately show what happened 35 minutes ago.

The entire effect is to anticipate (and thus undercut) the line; and then place the emphasis on the action to follow instead of the line itself.

All of that, by itself, would completely ruin the effectiveness of the line. (Which is why you never see anybody quoting the line who hasn’t read it in the comic book: In the movie, it’s simply not quotable.)

He also rewrites the line. The first of these (changing “Republic serial villain” to “comic book villain”) is largely irrelevant to the current discussion (although it does needlessly remove nuance; one of the major points in Watchmen is that in a world where superheroes actually exist, they aren’t perfect heroes — it isn’t the Marvel universe where the Marvel comics are actually published; it’s a universe where superhero comics didn’t exist). But the crucial change is from:

  • “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

to:

  • “I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago.”

And the semantic shift, though subtle, is not insignificant. If you trigger something, you have set it in motion (which inherently means you could still stop it). If you did something, on the other hand, then it’s done. This, too, effectively undercuts the ability for the finality of the line to land.

If I was teaching a class in film editing, I would cue this up along with the special editions of the Star Wars movies as examples of how subtle the difference in editing is between a great film and a mediocre one.

It actually reminds me of the story told by the scriptwriters for Casablanca. That film was infamously being rewritten basically up until the last day of shooting, and they had just written the famous ending to the film the day before it was filmed. (“Round up the usual suspects.”) So the director films it, it gets edited, and then they call the writers to tell them that the ending isn’t working. So the writers head over to the studio and they discover that they’re basically trying to do it in one take, “Major Strasser has been shot.” (looks at Rick) “Round up the usual suspects.”

And the writers say, “No, no, no. You have to say, ‘Major Strasser has been shot.’ And then cut to Rick. And then cut to Renault. And then cut to Rick. And then cut back for, ‘Round up the usual suspects.'” You have to see the thought. And so they recut the scene and, of course, it’s a classic.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Since I’m talking about this, I’d also like to delve a little deeper into what makes the original Moore/Gibbons storytelling in this moment so utterly compelling.

Look at the composition of the full page:

Watchmen - I Did It Thirty-Five Minutes Ago

It consists of three panels, each taking up the full width of the page. (You can click any of these images to see them at a larger size.)

The first panel, of course, contains the definitive quote. The fact that it takes up a full page width causes the perceived moment to extend in the reader’s mind.

The second panel is a completely silent reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite Owl. Their faces are completely blank in shock; like they’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four. Notably, the panel is framed to show a bank of clocks in the background. The current time in New York is shown as being one minute to midnight: Which is where the Doomsday Clock has been for the entire comic. Snyder tries to do the same thing, but (a) puts the reaction shot before the revelation and (b) makes the metaphor literal by showing the the actual countdown clocks of the operation at 00:00 (which also means he cuts away from the moment).

The third panel shows a street in New York. Utterly silent. It is, in fact, the fourth page in a row which has the final, page-wide panel depict that New York street:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

The previous instances had Ozymandias talking over them in captions; but this one does not — it further extends the moment of silence that persists in that room between Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Nite Owl. And it simultaneously reveals that all those shots of New York you were seeing were, in fact, in the past… which inevitably leads you to imagine the destruction which is about to happen.

And then you turn the page and there it is. But you still don’t actually see a giant explosion. You see people react to it. And then you see them vaporized by it:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

It’s absolutely brilliant visual storytelling in every single way.

Snyder, of course, goes for the disaster porn instead.

Ten Candles: The Dig – 1939

November 16th, 2016

Ten Candles

THE DIG: 1939

In 1868 Frederick August Klein discovered the Mesha Stelae at the site of ancient Dibon. One of the stelae told of the anger of Chemosh, god of Moab, who returned to his people in a time of trouble in order to overthrow the Israelites who had oppressed them. The other told of the bleak artifact which Chemosh – the squamous, aquatic destroyer who had raped the goddess Ishtar and pillaged Mesha Steleher flesh; who had feasted upon the flesh of children given as molk fire sacrifices in the valley of Topheth; whose blood flowed through the abominations of the children of Ammon – left behind to crush the Jews if they should ever threaten his people again.

When the Bani Hamida – the local Bedouin tribe – discovered that the stelae had been recovered they seized them. When the Ottomans ordered them to be turned over to the German consulate, they heated the stelae in a fire, threw cold water upon them, and broke them into pieces with boulders.

Fortunately, just before their destruction, Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau – the noted French orientalist and archaeologist – had manged to obtain papier-mâché impressions of the stelae. So deeply disturbed was he by the content of the second stele, however, that he secreted it away, reporting only the existence of the first to the wider world in a paper written for the Revue de l’Instruction Publique. (He might not have done even so much if George Grove of the Palestine Exploration Fund had not announced the find in a letter to the The Times.)

The second stele was recovered by the Ahnenerbe in 1936. After it was translated in early 1937, Heinrich Himmler decreed that the recovery of the artifact it described was of the utmost importance. A number of subsequent investigations – following the clues contained in the ancient stele – were undertaken.

It is now the summer of 1939. As Nazi agents of the SS, you have been hand-chosen to lead an archaeological expedition into the Middle East and conduct a dig near the ancient city of D’Khesh where it is believed the artifact was interred. Upon arrival in the region, you obtained the necessary permits, organized a crew of native diggers (mongrel half-breeds and the like), established your site, and commenced work.

Initial results have been promising, but the telegrams coming from Berlin have grown increasingly urgent and demanding. It seems that there is some great undertaking afoot in Germany, and the bane of Chemosh would be of untold benefit to the ultimate undertaking of the Aryan race.

Areas of Note: Officers’ tents, native labor encampment, the latrine, vehicle pool, supply tent, the dig site, the acacia tree, the endless dunes of sand, the seal of black stone, the crypt beneath

Goal: Retrieve the bane of Chemosh

Special Note: The scenario starts normally, but when the vault of Chemosh is breached the Sun, Stars, and Moon are blotted out by the Dark. Shortly thereafter, They will arrive.

Thule Society

Go to Part 1

Battlestar Galactica - Starbuck

GM: Okay, you come up over the horizon of the station and you can see the trench up ahead. Three rebel fighters go roaring past.

Annie: I signal my co-pilots to follow my lead and drop in behind them.

GM: Sure. You fall into their 6 o’clock and hit the thrusters, zooming up behind them.

Annie: I target the lead rebel pilot and take my shot!

GM: He’s dancing around in the ray-trace of your targeting computer.

Annie: The Force is strong with this one. I pull the trigger!

GM: The walls of the canyon are really racing past you. All this amazing superstructure just whirring by in a blur.

Annie: Great. I take the shot.

GM: Suddenly that old YT freighter you’d planted the tracking device on earlier comes roaring out of deep space! It shoots! [rolls some dice] One of your co-pilots explodes!

Annie: What?!

GM: What do you do?

Annie: I… take my shot?

GM: Your other co-pilot, distracted by the appearance of the new enemy, loses control! They smash into your wing, careen wildly, smash into the wall of the canyon, and explode! Your own stabilizers have been damaged and you go hurtling out into deep space!

This kind of resolution dithering – where the players have declared their actions, but the GM isn’t allowing them to actually take and resolve those actions – is incredibly frustrating.

Sometimes the dither is caused by the GM prematurely asking the players what they want to do – after hearing the proposed action they realize that there’s additional information that they want or need to convey. (Or, if they’re improvising, details or cool ideas which popped into their head during the time that it took for the player to respond.)

Other times the dither occurs because the GM is waiting for someone to say the thing he wants them to do: Something cool is going to happen when someone tries to open the door, so any other action people propose will be put on pause until somebody in the group opens the door. (This also naturally leads to a narrower case in which only actions that would disrupt what the GM has planned are ignored – you can do anything unless it gets between them and that door.

Another common form of dithering occurs when a GM responds to a declaration of action by discussing other options that are available. For example, I was playing in a cyberpunk game where I said I wanted to hack an electronic lock. The GM responded by pointing out that I could also kick the door down or just send my slither-bot under the door or physically pick the lock or…

Ultimately, when a player declares an action the GM needs to resolve that action and then describe the new situation: They need to move forward so that the next set of actions be cleanly declared. (The only exceptions are if the GM doesn’t feel they have enough information to resolve the action or if the declared action appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the current situation. In either case, the GM should still be seeking the necessary clarification as quickly as possible and then driving forward into the resolution.)

Resolution dithering often becomes obfuscated when the GM can jump between multiple PCs, leading to a muddle where the GM can get an action declaration from one PC, not fully resolve it, move onto the next PC, get another action they don’t fully resolve, and then repeat cyclically – kind of bouncing around the group without ever moving the action forward. This seems particularly prevalent with neophyte GMs (possibly because their lack of confidence manifests as an unwillingness to make the sort of definitive declarations required of action resolution), and the resulting quagmire can be difficult to diagnose.

GM DON’T #3.1: THE REVERSE RESOLUTION RING

What I refer to as the reverse resolution ring is a kissing cousin with resolution dithering and, for me, is even more frustrating to experience as a player.

For example, I was playing in a game of The One Ring. The GM would described a situation – like a guard dog growling as the party drew near – and I would say something like, “Okay, I’m going to grab some of the fresh venison from the deer we killed this morning and I’ll toss it to the dog to distract it.” The GM takes note of that, but then proceeds around the table collecting action declarations from the other players.

So far, this is probably fine: Getting a collective understanding of what everyone is doing before figuring out how it would all play out together can actually be a really good technique for a GM to learn.

But where the reverse resolution ring kicks in is when a form of recency bias causes the GM to resolve the proposed actions in the opposite order from which they were declared (starting with the last person they talked to and then working their way backwards to the person who actually kicked things off). This is a problem because, at some point during those declarations, the other players will often say something like:

“Oh! That sounds good! I’ll dig some meat out of my pack, too!”

Or:

“I shoot the dog with my crossbow.”

The latter negates the original declaration by solving the problem in an alternative way. The former ends up basically stealing the original idea (even when the player saying it was just trying to support what they saw as a good solution to the problem) – the copycat gets to be the one to actually do the cool idea.

In either case, the GM is essentially stealing spotlight time. They’re punishing the player who took initiative, which is directly problematic because that’s demoralizing and unfair to the play affected, and indirectly problematic because it will eventually have a corrosive effect on the willingness of the entire table to step up. Even if it’s just a subconscious reaction, eventually you’ll end up with something that could easily be misidentified as analysis paralysis, but is actually just a hesitation to pull the trigger when it’s just as likely to end up shooting you in the head.

(It actually reminds me of something that crops up in live theatre: One actor will come up with a funny bit of business or line reading. Other actors will see it and think, “That’s hilarious!” And then they’ll end up duplicating the bit in their own scene, which can often happen earlier in the play than the original actor’s bit. These derivative bits are often not as funny and only serve to sap the riotous humor of the original – which is often built on the straight takes which are supposed to precede it. It’s the director’s responsibility to make sure that this sort of undercutting does not happen. But I digress.)

The reverse resolution ring can get truly cancerous when it turns into an endless ring: The GM goes through the ring once asking declarations, goes backwards through the ring resolving actions, and then – since they’re back at the beginning of the ring – they ask that last player, “So, what do you want to do next?” … only to then go forwards through the ring again getting everyone else’s declarations. The GM can even convince themselves that they’re “balancing” things – this guy went last, so let’s find out what he wants to do first. But that player is now systemically screwed, doomed to forever get upstaged by the rest of the group until something disrupts the current pattern.

In closing, however, I will mention the exception which proves the rule: A reverse resolution ring can be an effective technique when it’s used to model initiative. In other words, when the GM asks those with the lowest initiatives to declare their actions first and then resolves from highest initiative down. The “punishment” is now modeling the poor initiative result, and grants a strong benefit to those with a high initiative result.

Ten Candles: Apocalypse Dark

November 7th, 2016

Ten Candles - Stephen Dewey

APOCALYPSE DARK

The world ended awhile ago. At least, the world as you knew it: Famine and drought created desperation. Governments crumbled. Cities turned into wastelands. Marauders roamed the countryside.

But you survived. And you weren’t alone. You and a small group of others formed a compound. You secured it. You rebuilt your own little corner of civilization and for the first time in a long time each year was a little better than the last.

Then the darkness came. Those on watch that night said that the stars swam before their eyes. The moon winked out. The sun never rose. The scavenged solar panels became worthless silicate, of course. It was decided that the gas for the generators would be conserved, but that changed when They came.

Your friends. Your family. Those you saved and those who have saved you. One by one they’ve been taken by something out there in the dark. Now only a handful of you remain. The walls haven’t kept your safe, but they’re the only defense you have. Can they be reinforced? Or would it be better to abandon them and hole up in one of the buildings? You’ll figure it out. After all, if the Apocalypse couldn’t kill you, then you can find a way to survive this, too.

Areas of Note: Ramparts, the locked armory, barracks, the cornfields, the solarium

Goal: Hold the fort

Fortifications

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