The Alexandrian

I was horribly ill back in December when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. I dragged myself to the theater multiple times to see it through a sequence of flu, strep, and pneumonia, but I wasn’t able to devote the time necessary to write-up my thoughts on it immediately. (And after only a short while, it seemed somewhat redundant.) However, with the film’s recent release to home video and in celebration of the week of May 4th, there are a couple of things I’d like to say.

First, and by way of context: I love the film. I think it’s great. The new characters are fabulous. J.J. Abrams, by and large, is remarkably successful in capturing Lucas’ directorial style while still being true to his own.

There’s really only one thing I don’t like. And it probably won’t be terribly surprising:

STARKILLER BASE

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Starkiller Base

When Starkiller Base first appeared on screen my immediate reaction was, like many people, “Really? We’re doing the Death Star again?”

The most remarkable thing about the Starkiller Base stuff is how utterly irrelevant it is. If you removed it from the movie entirely, virtually nothing would change for the main characters. (Han, Chewie, and Finn still go to the First Order’s base to rescue Rey. Han and Kylo Ren still confront each other. Et cetera.)

There’s also the fact that literally everything to do with the Starkiller Base is poorly done: They fail to establish the stakes for the first time it’s fired (it’s a planet that’s scarcely been mentioned and you see a bunch of people die that you have no reason to care about). The entire thing is a giant plot hole (it needs to consume the system’s sun in order to fire at the end of the film, but doesn’t do that the first time it fires). The off-hand reference to the entire New Republic navy being stationed on the surface of Hosnian Prime doesn’t make any goddamn sense. (It’s as if someone told the story of Pearl Harbour, but for some reason the entire American navy was drydocked in Iowa.) The plan for destroying it is literally the characters saying, “Fuck it. You saw the first film and ROTJ, right?” The attack fleet sent to destroy it doesn’t make any sense. (Why would you only send some of your ships on this mission?) For some reason, after being briefly spied so that Han can suggest bombing the regulator, the X-wing fight is never seen nor heard again by anyone on the ground. And the film couldn’t even be bothered to correctly track the number of ships which had been destroyed during the battle. (Count the number of X-wings that arrive; the number of X-wings destroyed just on screen; and then count the number of X-Wings that leave.)

So, when I’m given the godlike powers to fix stuff that doesn’t make sense in movies, I would probably just eliminate the whole thing. (Because, honestly, we don’t need to go back to the “duplicate of the Death Star” well again. It was already a mistake in ROTJ. The Star Wars universe is big enough that we can explore other cool sci-fi ideas.)

But let’s say that you wanted to keep it. (There’s some cool thematic elements to the whole “light going out” thing with parallels between the sun and Kylo Ren. Plus, I’m guessing the whole “blowing up the government of the New Republic” is probably going to be significant going foward.) Here’s what you’d do:

  1. Starkiller Base doesn’t fire at the midpoint of the film. Instead, the Resistance would learn of its existence through some other means. (For example, Finn reveals the location of the base when debriefed about Rey’s capture. The Resistance sends scout ships — which is something they do in the film anyway — and have the “oh shit” moment of discovering what it is.)
  2. The mission to destroy Starkiller Base at the end of the film is to stop it from firing on the New Republic capital planet. This eliminates most of the grievous continuity errors.
  3. It also gives you the narrative space to add several scenes involving coordination between Leia and her contacts within the New Republic government. These scenes would nicely clarify some of the details on how the modern political landscape actually works in this film; it would also give you an opportunity to learn enough about the Republic and Leia’s allies in the Hosnian System so that its destruction is meaningful to the audience. (This doesn’t take a lot. The first film made the destruction of Alderaan relevant with just a handful of lines.)
  4. Finally, and this is the key thing, the mission fails. You hit basically all the same beats you do during the film as it was released (although with a few tweaks to improve the execution and eliminate the continuity errors), but with the key distinction that they don’t destroy it fast enough. You know how Luke destroys the first Death Star just before it can fire on Yavin 4? You have basically the same moment, except Po Dameron doesn’t manage to destroy the regulator until just after it’s fired.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Destruction of Hosnian Prime

This last point is important not just because it conserves the presumed narrative necessity of destroying the New Republic government, but because it single-handedly justifies the entire presence of Starkiller Base in the movie.

One of the great things about Star Wars is its use of narrative leitmotifs. (Something which is echoed in John Williams’ leitmotif-based scoring.) George Lucas, whatever his flaws as a filmmaker may be, was ingenious at taking common moments and, in mythic fashion, changing the perspective of them so that they commented on each other. (For example, despite the myriad flaws of the prequel films, the telling of Anakin’s fall and its parallels with Luke’s story radically transform the ending of ROTJ: In the context of the original trilogy, you really don’t believe there’s any risk of Luke falling. He’s the Hero. He’s going to be the Hero, right? But once you’ve seen Anakin — who was also the Hero — fall, that tells you something about Luke and adds tremendous depth to that final confrontation in ROTJ which is otherwise absent.)

But when you use a leitmotif you can’t just do the exact same thing again (only bigger!). You have to transform the moment. And I think transforming the destruction of the Death Star into the failure to stop Starkiller Base would definitely have a deeper thematic resonance here. (A lot of The Force Awakens reminds me a Shakespeare quote: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” And nothing would feel more out of joint than this twisted mirror of A New Hope.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Destruction of Starkiller Base

STAR WARS – FURTHER READING
The Plan of Palpatine
Star Wars: Episodes VII, VIII, and IX

Kitchen Sink Brust

May 4th, 2016

Jhereg - Steven BrustSteven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels are absolutely delightful and frequently brilliant fantasy series which starts as a simply marvelous urban fantasy and then remarkably transforms itself into something completely different and utterly thrilling. I’ve previously reviewed the first eight volumes in the series:

This is the first installment of our kitchen sinking series, where I’ll be using Brust’s stories as an inspiration for brainstorming for a variety of unique magic items.

RUBYGAZER: A rubygazer takes the form of a tube that can fit snugly into one hand. Each end of the tube is fitted with a lens crafted from ruby crystal. If one places the tube against a wall no more than 10 feet in width, they can look through the tube as if their eye were placed upon the opposite side of the wall. The properties of the rubygazer distort both depth perception and, for reasons of complicated arcane geometry, a sense of proper scale. This imposes a -5 penalty to Perception checks while using the rubygazer and prevents the use of magically or supernaturally enhanced senses, although the view is still generally clear enough to teleport safely.

Moderate divination; CL 5th; Craft Wondrous Item, clairvoyance; Price 7,500 gp

GAZELENS: A gazelens can be fitted to a pair of spectacles or designed to be set directly into the user’s eye. In either case, the gazelens can be used in concert with a rubygazer that is within 600 feet, allowing the wearer of the gazelens to look through the rubygazer as if it were in their possession. A gazelens is essentially useless (although very pretty) without a gazer to use it with.

Moderate divination; CL 5th; Craft Wondrous Item, clairvoyance; Price 7,500 gp

FLASHSTONES: A flashstone can be thrown as a ranged attack with a range increment of 20 feet. (Since you don’t need to hit a specific target, you can simply aim at a particular 5-foot square.) When the flashstone strikes a hard surface (or is struck hard) it triggers the spell effect stored within it.

Creation: Flashstones are created by alchemically infusing them with brewed potions. As such they require the Brew Potion feat. Unlike a potion, there is no limit to the level of spell which can be infused into a flashstone, but only spells which affect an area can be usefully triggered. Flashstones have a base price of the spell level x caster level x 50 gp.

CANTRIP STICKS: The name “cantrip stick” is something of a misnomer because these items are not limited to containing merely cantrips. A cantrip stick is essentially a cheap, single-use wand (except that they use a command word activation and can be used even by non-spellcasters). Their cheap, easy construction makes cantrip sticks somewhat unreliable, however, and there is a 1 in 20 chance when they’re used that they will simply fail to trigger. (If this happens, there is an additional 1 in 20 chance that the cantrip stick will suffer a backlash: The cantrip stick explodes causing 1d6 points of damage per spell level to the character holding it (Reflex save, DC 15 + spell level, for half damage) and expending the stick’s charge to no effect.)

Cantrip sticks are often used by armies. In the military, it is customary to snap a cantrip stick in half once it has been expelled (because otherwise someone else might assume that there was still a charge in it).

Creation: A cantrip stick requires the Craft Wand feat and can contain any spell of 4th level or lower. Cantrip sticks have a base price of the spell level x caster level x 25 gp.

LEYRIPPER: These spiral, fluted, hollow tubes – often carved from ebony – are designed to latch onto the ley signatures in magical items and disrupt them (literally ripping them out of the item). As an attack action, leyrippers can be targeted at any potion, wand, staff, or other item which has charges within 120 feet. On a successful ranged touch attack, the targeted item (or its wielder) must succeed on a Will save (DC 18) or lose 1d6 charges. In addition, these charges are unstable and cause a micro-explosion inflicting 1d6 points of damage per charge lost to the item’s wielder. An item cannot lose more charges than it currently has. Potions are considered to have a single charge.

Strong abjuration; CL 12th; Craft Wondrous Item, greater dispel magic; Price 72,000 gp

LIGHTROPE: A lightrope is a six-inch length of cord which, when twirled slowly in the hand, illuminates. The amount of illumination provided by the lightrope can be very carefully controlled by the speed of the twirling. During combat, the amount of effort required to twirl the lightrope at varying speeds is represented by the type of action used to twirl it (see table.

As a full action, the lightrope can create an intense burst of light which will slowly fade over the course of five rounds (as shown on the table).

Faint Evocation [light]; CL 6th; Craft Wondrous Item, daylight; Price 8,000 gp

ActionBrightShadowy
Free (Burst 5th Round)n/a5 ft.
Free (Burst 4th Round)15 ft.30 ft.
Move (Burst 3rd Round)30 ft.60 ft.
Standard (Burst 2nd Round)60 ft.120 ft.
Full (Burst)120 ft.240 ft.

LIGHTROPE, BLACKLIGHT: A blacklight lightrope operates in a fashion similar to a lightrope (requiring a free action to twirl each round), but instead of casting illumination it creates an emanation of blacklight in a 20 ft. radius. The area is filled with total darkness which is impenetrable to normal vision and darkvision, but which the person twirling the blacklight lightrope can see through normally.

Faint Evocation [darkness]; CL 6th, Craft Wondrous Item, blacklight; Price 36,000 gp

WEB ROPE: Crafted from the thick strands of giant spider web and alchemically stabilized for durability and long-lasting use, web rope is tacky to the touch and possesses an uncanny grip. It grants a +4 circumstance bonus to Use Rope checks and a +2 circumstance bonus to Climb checks. It can also be used as a grappling hook (with the sticky end of the rope attaching itself securely to exposed surfaces). This requires greater skill (DC 15, +2 feet per 10 feet of distance thrown), but has the benefit of weighing less and creating less noise in its use.

Cost: 50 gp (50 ft.); Weight: 2 lbs. (50 ft.)

FORM-FITTING BOOTS: Footwear modified to become form-fitting magically adjusts its size and fit to the wearer’s foot. (This is a physical process which can be felt by the wearer, often with the first boot adjusting itself even as they don the second.) This is mostly a matter of comfort and styling, but such footwear does make things a little easier on the feet, reducing the damage from forced marches by 1 point (minimum 1).

Cost: This minor effect can be placed on any footwear for 25 gp.

TELEPORTATION KEYSTONES: A teleportation keystone allows its carrier to teleport into the area affected by a teleport block spell. (If multiple characters are teleporting at the same time, only one of them needs to carry a teleportation keystone in order for the entire group to successfully penetrate the block.)

Each keystone is linked to a specific casting of the teleport block spell and has no effect on other teleport block spells. Before the teleport block spell is cast, the keystone (or keystones) that are going to be associated with it must be prepared. This requires ten minutes of work per keystone and a Spellcraft check (DC 15, preparer can Take 10). When the teleport block spell is cast, the caster can make a Spellcraft check (DC 10 + 2 per additional keystone) to associate a teleportation keystone to the teleport block. If the check fails, the teleportation keystone doesn’t function.

A single teleportation keystone can be associated with multiple teleport block spells. It only needs to be prepared once, but a separate Spellcraft check must be during each casting of teleport block.

If a teleport block is made permanent, the teleportation keystones associated with it can be simultaneously made permanent by expending an additional 50 XP per keystone.

The physical form of a keystone can be almost anything (although small, smooth, oval stones marked with runes are common).

TELEPORT BLOCK
Abjuration
Level: Sorcerer/Wizard 5
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 full round
Range: 0 ft.
Area: One 10-ft. cube/level
Duration: 1 hour/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

You create an area in which no teleportation spell will work, either coming in or going out.

Material Component: 10 gp worth of gold dust.

This material is covered under the Open Game License.

Go to Kitchen Sinking

Kitchen Sinking

May 4th, 2016

One of the things I find notable about roughly the first decade of Dungeons & Dragons is that it was truly a kitchen sink of fantasy tropes. And, most importantly, it was an active kitchen sink: Anybody and everybody could dump stuff into it and it never really felt like it would make anyone blink an eye. Some of this was new and original content, but a lot of it was being drawn from whatever the author’s favorite fantasy novel of the moment was. And the resulting mythic goulash was pretty awesome with a lot of unexpected synergies

Then, at some point along the line, the D&D kitchen sink slowly coagulated into an immutable canon and it became increasingly unacceptable to add new elements to the milieu. Even when new items and the like were created, they often seemed to exist within the existing parameters of the game instead of pushing the boundaries of D&D’s fantasy palette.

One place where this is really obvious is the planar cosmology of the game: If you look at the early years of TSR modules, it’s pretty clear that whenever somebody wanted to include a new plane of existence they would just toss it on the pile and roll with it. Then, at some point, the Great Wheel was codified and that particular kitchen sink was sealed.

4th Edition kind of shook things up with new PC races an all-new planar cosmology… but it quickly became apparent that they they’d replaced one sealed canon with a different sealed canon.

To make a long story short: Recently I’ve resolved to rip the lid back off the kitchen sink and start pouring stuff into it. I may not be able to shift the core approach of the D&D or Pathfinder supplements, but I can make it so that my personal campaigns aren’t quite so strongly defined by the “official canon” of the core rulebooks. I can infuse my game with all the cool stuff from whatever fantasy novel I’m currently reading. And I can make a point of including cool stuff in my adventure modules without feeling artificially shackled to the “known facts” of what the D&D multiverse is supposed to look like.

I’m going to be starting with some of the nifty keen stuff from Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, because (a) there’s a lot of awesome stuff that’s easily transplantable in there and (b) it’s what I happened to be reading when I decided that this was a thing that I would be doing.

If you want to do some similar kitchen-sinking featuring your favorite fantasy authors (or films or television shows or heavy metal albums), throw it up on your blog or post it to a messageboard and then throw a link in the comments below.

(I’ll also be adding links to this post as my own kitchen-sinking efforts go live.)

As a general disclaimer, I will note that my goal with kitchen sinking is not necessarily to faithfully replicate the material from which I’m drawing inspiration. (Similarly, rangers in AD&D are gifted in the use of using crystal balls because Aragorn was gifted in the use of a palantir. But AD&D’s crystal balls aren’t palantirs.) I’m also going to frequently take the seed of an idea from the source material and freely riff upon it in order to create entirely new things.

KITCHEN SINKS
Kitchen Sink Brust

Go to Part 1

I’ve previously dismissed the dogmatization of the old delve adventure format due to the limitations of its one-size-fits-all approach. (Both in Part 1 of this series and, at greater length, in Are We Really This Stupid?) But the delve format does have one really good idea:

Everything you need is on the page.

When you’re using the delve format, you don’t have to open your Monster Manual to find a creature’s stat block and then open the Player’s Handbook to figure out how one of their spell-like abilities works: It’s all right there on the page.

This is great from a utility standpoint, and can really smooth out the experience of running things at the table (because the GM can focus on running the encounter instead of flipping pages). It’s also a good rule for layout. (Whenever possible, try to arrange your layout so that information that needs to be referenced at the same time doesn’t require a page turn. For my keys I’ll frequently use page breaks to place the entire description for a room entirely on one page even if it means leaving a ton of unused white space on the previous page.)

When you’re working on a project destined for publication and a general audience, figuring out what needs to be referenced and what doesn’t can be a tricky balancing act. When implementing a similar method of simulating system mastery for the sidebar reference system used in Legends & Labyrinths, I dealt with this issue by defining a very small set of “core concepts” that didn’t need to be referenced because it was assumed that players would be familiar with them, and then including a single page explaining those core concepts that new players could reference when they needed to. You can achieve a similar effect at your game table by using system cheat sheets.

When prepping material for your own use, however, you should be able to very precisely calibrate your personal level of system mastery. For example, I know how the magic missile and fireball spells work in D&D, so I can just jot down their names. But if I’ve plucked an obscure spell I’ve never used before, I’m going to include a reference for it.

I’ve actually spent more than 15 years now prepping material for the 3rd Edition of D&D, and when I look back over that material I can clearly track my growing mastery of the system. For example, my earliest scenarios feature monster stat blocks with text like this frequently appended to them:

SPRING ATTACK Can move both before and after attacking without AoO. (PHB, pg. 85)

It didn’t take long before I no longer had to remind myself how the Spring Attack feat works. But when I recently ran an adventure with monsters which extensively used new feats from Monte Cook’s Book of Experimental Might, I was still using the same technique:

Elude Blows: Subtract number from melee damage rolls and add it to AC vs. melee attacks (up to BAB). (Book of Experimental Might, pg. 36.)

And these references can be terribly esoteric and entirely personal in nature. For example, even after 15 years for some reason I constantly forget to take advantage of the Point Blank Shot feat for my NPCs. For some reason my eye skips right past it in a list of feats. So I’ll frequently drop it into the special abilities reference section I include after stat blocks even thought I know what it does.

THE HIERARCHY OF REFERENCE

In general, there’s a hierarchy of reference:

  • Include the full text.
  • Include a brief summary of the most important factors (and probably a page reference if you end up needing specific clarifications).
  • Include just a page reference.
  • List the keyword, spell name, feat, etc.

Basically, you move down the hierarchy as you gain more and more mastery over the system you’re running. It’s like the vocab cards you use for learning a new language (except you never need to spend time memorizing them; playing the game does that for you organically) – as you master each concept you cycle them out of rotation.

Including the full text for something has become really easy in an era of copy-and-paste. But having such a large bulk of text is not always the best option for quickly referencing something during play. And if you’re dealing with lots of different abilities or effects, including the full text for every single thing will often bloat your content to the point where it becomes more difficult to use (because, for example, you’re having to flip between multiple pages in order to run an encounter).

UTILITY OF REFERENCE

In addition to streamlining your reference material, you can also manage this bloat by keeping in mind how you’ll actually use your scenario notes (and the references within it) and then organizing it accordingly.

We’ve already broached this subject by talking about using page breaks to keep entire key entries on a single sheet. But you can accomplish a similar effect by “outsourcing” blocks of information onto separate sheets that you can reference simultaneously at the game table.

When I’m GMing, I’ll frequently have my end of the table organized so that I can lay out multiple sheets of paper out in front of me. I’ll also use folding tray tables set up to my left, right, or both sides to hold additional reference material (including rulebooks and the like). I’ll occasionally be asked how I manage to keep the game running so smoothly when I’m juggling all these different pieces of paper, but the reality is that the game is running smoothly because I’m using all of those sheets: My eyes can skip rapidly from one reference to another, making it trivial to (for example) run an encounter featuring a half dozen different complicated stat blocks which would become a massive headache if I was instead trying to flip back and forth between six different pages in a Monster Manual.

Monsters are, in fact, one of the easiest things to outsource onto their own sheets. (Often, of course, you can fit multiple such stat blocks onto a single sheet.) I’ll even include a quick visual reference when I can, which is both useful for describing the creature and also makes it really easy to quickly find the stat block I need to reference. Here’s a typical one:

Shoggti Demon - Sample Monster Reference Sheet
 

Outsourcing monsters like this is also an essential component of using the advanced technique of adversary rosters, which is what we’ll be discussing next.

Go to Part 4: Adversary Rosters

Spider-Man - John Romita, Sr.

The core of it is that he’s a geeky teenage Everyman that the core reading audience of comics can either identify with, dream about being in 5 years, or can reflect upon with fond nostalgia.

But that’s not enough.

Steve Ditko gifted him with one of the Top 3 rogue’s galleries in the biz. (Batman and Flash are the only ones to give him competition.)

Stan Lee gave him the wisecracking wit that makes him beloved.

Still not enough.

The core philosophical principle of, “With great power comes great responsibility.” carries a lot of weight here. Very few heroes come packaged with a core thematic element which can be used in so many deep and meaningful ways. (Superman used to have this with “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, but those values don’t lend themselves easily to resonant storytelling and they’ve mostly been turned into a joke over the past couple or three decades.)

The importance of the tragic element can’t be understated. It provides a persistent emotional weight that counterbalances the wisecracking. (It’s not coincidental that the three most popular superheroes — Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman — all have dead parental figures.) The death of Gwen Stacy was a major thing, too. It was a unique angle on the superhero tragedy that nobody else would get until, arguably, Batman lost a Robin.

The fantastic supporting cast from Ditko, Lee, and Romita in the ’60s also can’t be undervalued. Simply richer and larger than any other superhero at the time (and most since). And, as with Gwen Stacy, they’re essential for emphasizing both the central theme and the tragic losses.

But what really pushes him over the top?

It’s the webslinging. It’s so goddamn cool. But, more importantly, it’s so utterly unique: There’s a bajillion Batman-esque and Superman-esque characters. There’s exactly one superhero who can do the webslinging thing.

It’s your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

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