Last week sucked for the most part but one not so bad moment was Skyfall.  The latest James Bond movie has been getting widespread critical acclaim although even horrible reception wouldn’t have stopped it from making a ton of money.  While Skyfall is an enjoyable movie, it is also incredibly overrated.  Skyfall is a step up from Quantum of Solace but pacing and writing issues really keep it from being in the top tier of 007 flicks.

One of the first issues with the movie can be seen its opening sequence.  Bond and another agent are trying to track down a man who stole a hard drive containing the names of every undercover NATO agent.  This pursuit eventually culminates on the top of a train, where Bond is shot by his fellow agent (accidentally this time) and plummets off the bridge to what should have been a watery grave.  Never mind that in movies there’s no fall damage for falling into water, the issue here is that this only puts Bond out of commission for a few minutes of screen time.  Next thing you know, he’s reporting back to duty despite enjoying retirement the past few minutes.

A better way to handle this would have been to have Bond fail to apprehend the thief.  One of the themes of Skyfall is that of mortality and decay.  It’s implied heavily that several characters aren’t as young as they used to be.  While age may have granted them experience, they’ve lost the physicality of their youth.  Have Bond fail at his job, casting doubt on his own physical ability and have the introduction revolve around him getting over them.  Skyfall tries to do this but with an injury/post-retirement angle instead of Bond’s own failing.  Instead of something emotionally investing, the first half hour of the film is rather clumsy about getting 007 back in action.

The injuries Bond sustained from being shot crop up occasionally but only when the screenplay calls for it.  For instance, he eventually does track down the thief and takes him down.  His physical condition might make hanging on to an elevator more difficult and a gunshot may impair his aim but 007 can still subdue people physically quite easily.  It’s a little hard to sympathize with a protagonist when they’re not actively dealing with adversity.

Also, said thief was trying to assassinate a woman who is actually an undercover agent with the main villain.  This woman is in an apartment surrounded by henchmen employed by her boss (who, once again, is the main villain) .  Yet, this boss hires out someone else to assassinate her from another building than having a henchman drug her wine or something.  It wasn’t noticeable in the scene initially but when she turns up later and the viewer finds out who her boss is…it results in a big plot hole that can pull someone out of the story.

If the movie’s introduction and first acts is awkward, than the middle section drags.  There’s a long lull in which the woman’s character is attempted to be developed (she never really evolves past standard issue Bond girl), Bond meets the main villain and the villain gets captured.  It’s a really long stretch that is nothing but pointlessness (all that development for the woman and she dies…there’s no feeling in that scene at all except for Bond’s one-liner) and stock Bond tropes played straight.  Thankfully, the climax is pretty spectacular although not enough so to forgive the film’s flaws in the first and second act.

Perhaps this is a secondary complaint but it felt like the Quantum plot from Quantum of Solace was dropped.  It might be a testament to how bad of a movie Quantum of Solace was but that whole organization still seemed to be a threat at the end of that movie.  Instead, they’re not even mentioned in this movie and the main villain has no relation to them.  Casino Royale and Quantum appeared to be telling a single, linear story that Skyfall would continue but instead they pick up somewhere new.

Skyfall has issues like that that keep the film from being one of the classic Bond movies.  A shame because the characters themselves and the actors are fantastic.  Bond’s backstory is actually rather interesting.  A viewer might get George Lucas vibes when Bond’s childhood crops up but thankfully, there’s no flashbacks involving a young James Bond.  The character of his home caretaker seemed a little random but he more than made up for it with his screen time near the end.  Judi Dench’s M actually gets the most depth and development.  She, therefore, has the most impressive performance.  Everyone else is quite good although it was a bit jarring seeing Tia Dalma helping out 007.

Overall, Skyfall is OK.  It’s not in the From Russia With Love / Casino Royale tier of great movies.  It’s not quite bad enough to be ranked alongside Moonraker or Die Another Day.  The film would be ranked strictly in the middle of the pack by my reckoning.  Skyfall is a rather good film but remakes of Live and Let Die and Moonraker would have been more preferable than this and the License to Kill remake that was Quantum of Solace.

Five Changes To Ruin Them All

With The Hobbit being released next month, people are surely overjoyed that Peter Jackson is returning to direct the prequel to one of their favorite series of movies.  There are others that are a bit more cautious, however.  While I’m not pessimistic about the films, I do wonder what changes Peter Jackson will make to The Hobbit trilogy that will infuriate fans of Tolkien’s work.  Perhaps he’ll have Legolas be the one who shoots down Smaug instead of Bard?  Maybe Bilbo will meet 10 year old Aragorn in Rivendell?  Maybe Peter will go the George Lucas route and have that same 10 year old prequel character be a major player in the story?  I jest with these suggestions but it is worth wondering what liberties will be taken with the source material.  After all, The Hobbit’s a shorter book than Fellowship of the Ring and yet it’s going to be a film trilogy.

Despite this, there’s not much reason to be pessimistic about Jackson directing The Hobbit.  The majority of changes in Lord of the Rings actually made a good bit of sense.  Having Arwen find Frodo and take him to Rivendell instead of Glorfindel?  Makes sense.  No reason to introduce a minor character (Glorfindel’s a more major player in the mythos altogether but in Lord of the Rings, he’s a minor character) for a one-off sequence when that role can be filled by someone who needs more on-screen characterization.  Faramir taking the Hobbits to Osgiliath because he wants the Ring for Gondor?  OK.  Don’t like the change (especially to a character Tolkien likened himself to) but the reasoning for it is sound.  They already had one Man prove worthy enough not to take the Ring for himself (Aragorn at the end of Fellowship), two would weaken the influence of the Ring.  Frodo telling Sam to go home?  The moment itself added a bit of drama, it was Sam’s reaction that ruined that change.

And that’s what this blurb is going to be about:  changes Peter Jackson made to the movie from the book that make absolutely no sense and could have been handled better.  I realize Mr. Jackson is the one who has all the money and fame…but that doesn’t make him immune to criticism.

These changes will be listed chronologically and first up is Aragorn not getting Anduril in Fellowship of the Ring.  Aragorn’s entire motivation for reclaiming the throne of Gondor was so he could marry Arwen.  So in that scene where they pledge their love to each other before the Council of Elrond, I figured Aragorn would recant his previous reluctance towards becoming King.  Instead, the sword is not forged until the 3rd movie.  This leads to an awkward scene where Elrond rides to Dunharrow just to deliver a sword.  There also never seemed to be a moment in the movies in-between that Aragorn decided that hey, maybe he should give this whole “King of Gondor” thing a try.  As it is in the movie, Aragorn never seems to evolve beyond reluctant heir who would actually be quite a good king if he bothered to.  Despite being a major protagonist, he feels like a very stagnant character.  Instead of this awkwardness, let’s have the sword reforged in Rivendell before the Fellowship leaves.  Aragorn can then take it, intent on being King so he can marry the one he loves.  The rest of his character development would focus on being a leader.  This leadership learning experience would not only come from leading the Fellowship post-Moria but also in Rohan, where he advises King Theoden and inspires the men at Helm’s Deep.

The Two Towers might be my favorite movie but that doesn’t it exempt it from some critique.  Towers is home to the most egregious changes, one of them being the Lothlorien Elves arriving at Helm’s Deep.  Perhaps it’s cheating to include knowledge of the books but Lothlorien was under attack from Sauron’s forces in Dol Guldur.  It’s really nice of the Elves that they are able to send a company of archers under Haldir’s command to Rohan.  Haldir speaks of an alliance between Men and Elves that existed long ago and the reason for him being there is to show that long-dead alliance has been resurrected.  Perhaps he’s speaking in broad terms but Rohan did not even exist as a nation the last time Sauron was around, so technically speaking, there’s no alliance between the Men of Rohan and these Elves.  An alternative to this scene would be having Aragorn give a moving speech to rally the Men of Rohan (similar to the one he gives at the Black Gate).  Show that while the odds are against these Men, they’ll fight to the last and have hope and faith that things will work out (which it’ll eventually do, as Gandalf shows up with Eomer).  Perhaps if Dol Guldur is destroyed in The Hobbit, this change will be less irritating.

While the Elves at Helm’s Deep is a more nitpicky than some of the other changes, having the Entmoot sequence be completely pointless is a silly deviation.  In the books, Treebeard and the Entmoot deduce that they do need to go to war with Saruman.  In the movies, they decide not to and Pippin has to trick Treebeard into taking himself and Merry south to Isengard.  When Treebeard comes to the freshly-made clearing of all his dead tree friends, he lets out a shout and the Ents all come out to sack Isengard.  If all Treebeard has to do is shout to overrule the Entmoot’s decision, then what was the point of the Entmoot?  Does Treebeard have some sort of supreme veto power that he can exercise?  If the idea is to give the Ents a character arc, there were better ways to do this.  If the Entmoot has to be stubborn in the films, why not have Quickbeam and some other younger Ents voice their frustration?  Have them make arguments that’ll persuade the older Ents to fight.  Merry does this in the film but Treebeard ignores him.  Why the change?

Notice how all the changes mentioned in Two Towers so far have come towards the end?  This is what happens when you have to rewrite the ending to it.  The last change is a result the sequence of Faramir taking the Hobbits to Osgiliath.  Now I sympathize with fans of the book who complain about the change in Faramir’s character but I see the logic behind it.  We already saw one Man reject the lure of the Ring’s power (Aragorn near the end of Fellowship).  If Faramir had done so, the Ring’s influence would have been lessened because now we have two guys who can reject it.  While I don’t like the changes made to a character Tolkien compared himself to, the logic of the film makers’ wins out here.  Faramir taking Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath is not a problem, it’s the scene on the bridge where Frodo nearly puts on the Ring in clear sight of a Nazgul!

This scene raises all kinds of question.  This Ringwraith could fly back to Barad-dur and tell Sauron he saw a Halfling with the One Ring and give him a full description of Frodo’s likeness.  This is the same Frodo who was stabbed in the wraith world on Weathertop.  Wouldn’t this discovery prompt Sauron to send all his available forces to assault Osgiliath, instead of biding his time and only sending “enough” like he does at the Pelennor Fields battle?  Why would Sauron be fooled by thinking Pippin had the Ring when Pippin uses the Palantir in the next movie?  If changes are going to be made to the source material, they need to make sense from both a writing standpoint and character perspective.

It was mentioned earlier that Frodo telling Sam in to leave in Return of the King wasn’t a bad change, it was what resulted from it.  I will stand by that statement because the scene of Sam going down the stairs of Cirith Ungol sobbing is a blatant out of character moment.  Of the entire Fellowship (including Frodo himself), Samwise Gamgee is the most steadfast and loyal.  If Sam didn’t listen to Frodo when Frodo told him to go back at the end of Fellowship, why would Sam listen to Frodo on the border of Mordor?  Sam nearly drowned in the river just to fulfill the “Don’t you leave him” promise he made to Gandalf.  If Sam was willing to risk his own life to stick with Frodo, why would he change his mind in the 3rd act?  Cut the scene of Sam going down the Stairs of Cirith Ungol out.  The next time Sam is on-screen, he’s back to fight Shelob, save Frodo and prove that he’s sticking with Frodo to the bitter end, regardless of whether Frodo wants him to or not.  Instead of a scene that damages Sam’s character, we now have a sequence that reinforces it.

Now the movies are well-regarded.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is both a critical and financial success.  That said, even the greatest movies have their flaws, some of which could have been easily addressed.  Each of these changes damaged the movies in some regard, either by creating a plot hole that pulls the viewer out of their immersion in the movie or by needlessly damaging a beloved character.  There appears to be a solution to each of the above changes that would have fixed those problems but then it’s not like I was part of the process.  Anyway, careful (or even eager) fans should keep these changes in mind when The Hobbit is released next month.  Maybe people won’t be surprised if a drastic change to the source material is made for film.  It’s not like there’s a precedent…

How to DM: A Creative Process

A quick online search of “how to DM D&D” can lead to some interesting results.  The information is not bad per se but it also might not be terribly useful.  Specifically, this search was looking for help on the creative process behind Game Mastering.  The search could have been made more specific but I figured such a basic issue would at least be addressed in a rudimentary search.  Alas, no.  Since this advice is nowhere to be found, there will be an attempt to provide such information here for would-be DMs who might like the idea but struggle with putting it in practice.  I’m going to pick on a friend of mine (Gabe) because he’s flirted with the idea of GMing but never committed to the idea outside of a session or two.

In addition to all the basic requirements (paper, pencil, players, books, knowledge of rules), the first step of the creative process is the idea.  It need not be original but it does need to be something worth sharing with players for a session (at least).  These ideas can come from a favorite movie, book, video game, whatever.  The d20 ruleset is incredibly versatile, so it’s not hard to find something worth playing.  Gabe was thinking of running a pirate campaign inspired by Assassin’s Creed, so he has that base covered.

Next up would be looking at all the tropes and flavors of a pirate campaign to include.  This is where TV Tropes is such a nice guide, as it provides a comprehensive list of all those things.  For instance, the top of the page shows the two differing types of pirates.  Choosing between these two types can affect the tone and play-style of the campaign and involves a certain degree of knowledge of the players involved.  Will the campaign depict the PCs and fellow pirates as the true to life vicious bandits of the sea?  Or will the campaign have a more idealistic bent and romantic flavor?  Who’s the real villain of the campaign:  the PCs, other pirates or a deserving antagonistic government?

Once those basics are addressed, the GM can start thinking about how the campaign begins.  Instead of worrying about being original, take a favorite story involving pirates and boil the story down to its most basic components.  Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, is ultimately about a well-meaning man who has to team up with an unsavory rogue to track down the pirates who stole his love interest.  This plot need not be copied outright.  Both characters could be like Jack Sparrow, who does not care about Will’s problems and is only motivated to get revenge for being marooned and mutinied upon.

Campaigns are more of a preference because there’s more longevity to them but if a “session by session” basis is more the reader’s style, here’s something to try:  one idea I had was to run a Zelda campaign where the PCs would be pirates.  They’d start off as orphans and after deciding that life on their home island sucks, they’d steal a local pirate ship.  Said ship would be captained by a penny-pincher kind of guy, a man so cheap that he wouldn’t even buy his own crew oranges to starve off scurvy.  The PCs would have some freedom to determine how to take the ship.  They could try stealing it in the dead of night or they could just kick the crap out of the pirates and take the ship by force.  The references used to create this opening session are from Zelda:  Wind Waker, Final Fantasy I (which has a party of 4 facing off against 9 very weak pirates to acquire a ship they access the rest of the game world with) and 8-bit Theatre (where Captain Bikke provides his own crew with Cheetos instead of oranges to fight off scurvy).

Once on the sea, the PC pirates would engage in each trope associated with piracy and sea travel in general.  They’d encounter sea monsters like Octorocks and Kraken.  The players might choose to sack one of Abe’s merchant ships or a Moblin fortress.  If the PCs treat their crew bad, they would have to deal with a mutiny and possibly marooning the traitorous sea dog(s).  Perhaps they’d hear rumors of a buried treasure and spend the session fighting off other would-be treasure hunters to claim it.  Those NPCs could be based off real or fictional pirates.  Maybe I’d take a page from Pirates of Dark Water or Wind Waker itself and have a PC be of noble birth who must reclaim certain magical artifacts so they can restore an ancient kingdom.  These ideas would be run by the players the moment they set sail from their home island and whichever one they liked most would be what they’d encounter next week.

Other session ideas would involve addressing the setting.  Wind Waker showed the player what happened when the sea level of Hyrule was raised a few thousand foot but what about Termina?  How would a flood shape the map and inhabitants of that realm?  Answering that question would lead to further encounter ideas.  I could also take ideas from other fictitious settings involving pirates.  Like, what happens to Veggie Tales‘ Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything if we deconstruct the idea that those vegetable pirates really don’t do anything…maybe the PCs encounter a ship full of vegetables dried-up from exposure to a humid tropical sun?  Or perhaps they come across a ship with animated vegetables who don’t resist when the players decide to plunder their ship.

For even more ideas, a GM could think to twist those tropes around to create something even more interesting.  For instance, the buried treasure map the PCs acquired from some guy in a tavern and have spent the entire session fighting other pirates for possession…turns out to be a fake!  A GM could even mess around with the setting itself.  Instead of a campaign set somewhere based off the 17th century Atlantic, the campaign takes place in space with all those 17th century tropes played to full effect.  Hell, have the setting take place in the sky with literal airships with a Victorian steampunk flavor.

While this article mainly focused on pirates, this logic could be applied for pretty much any idea.  Start with an idea, be familiar with the themes and tropes associated with it and have fun messing around with them.  It can be a little daunting to think of how much this involves but the truth is, if you’re familiar with the idea, it won’t take nearly as long as you think.  And just think of the reward when the GM and players end up crafting a worthy tale that all involved will talk about for years to come.

Worst Lord of the Rings d20 Game Ever: Lessons Learned

After reading through the previous two posts, one might be surprised to know that most of those players have still kept and that I’ve continued to GM for them.  Not only that but we managed to get two campaigns (one Star Wars, one D&D) to a stopping point that could be considered an ending.  Prior to that, there hasn’t been a single campaign that our group has finished.  So how did the lessons of the worst ever d20 game ever result in two rather successful campaigns?

The first takeaway was to evaluate my players and figure out what they wanted.  I could have asked but then, these are people I’ve been playing with for a few years.  Shouldn’t I know them by now?  So, I thought about their individual tastes.  Steve tends to like silly, comically dark settings littered with pop culture references (in our previous D&D session, he just got done hunting the eldritch creatures of the Hundred Acre Wood).  Gabe has a preference towards characterization and likes his encounters to have a bit of a challenge to them.  Knowing your players and what they want to do goes a long way towards a successful session.  This is opposed to my previous method of “I’m the DM and while I’ll consider your wants, we’re most likely going to do this since I’ve got a monopoly on the process.”

Unfortunately, knowing your players might not be possible for a new group.  That said, it is possible to find some common ground between each other.  While it’s important to let the players be the main focus of the game, the campaign needs to be something the GM is interested in.  So I proposed a list of campaign ideas to my players with a bunch of parameters that each involved.  Ideas like “epic high fantasy,” “low comically cynical fantasy,” “zombie apocalypse,” “steampunk Victoria,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and “Legend of Zelda.”

Each campaign would have a different setting for the following categories:  fantasy, magic, power level, tone & mood and character freedom.  It’s worth noting that “fantasy” and “magic” do not always go hand in hand.  Magic usually correlates to fantasy but fantasy does not always mean magical.  Lord of the Rings is full of fantastical elements (walking and talking trees, dwarves, elves, etc.) but the actual magic is subtle.  Wizards aren’t plentiful and they don’t go around spell-slinging fireballs.  So, I defined fantasy as how real the world felt.  A low fantasy campaign would be lacking in many fantastical elements like elves, dwarves and would feel more real.  The campaign would almost play like an alternate history.  A high fantasy, on the other hand, is a world where almost anything is possible.

The level of magic would determine how common spellcasters were.  Since magic is often a game breaker, this could also affect a campaign’s power level.  A low powered setting would have nearly every encounter being a fight for survival, whereas a high powered one would have the players feeling they could take on the world.  Tone & mood were used to dictate what kind of story would take place.  A light tone and mood would be rather silly and not meant to be taken seriously.  A dark one, on the other hand, could be deathly serious or comically cynical.

The last category was character freedom.  Not wanting to repeat the Lord of the Rings disaster, I let some players know there could be certain restrictions on a campaign I was willing to run.  Star Wars, for instance, had a limit on the number (1) of PCs who could be a Jedi.  The Zelda campaign would have everyone being Link in a Four Swords campaign.  Some of the fantasy campaigns would have a restriction on spellcasting classes.  The epic high fantasy idea would have the players playing as one of four pre-created archetypes (King Arthur, Merlin, Aladdin and Santa Claus).

So, I submitted the list of campaigns I was willing to run, the parameters in which they would be run and let them choose.  They opted for a comically cynical dark fantasy, which has now begun its 2nd act.  We’ve also played a Star Wars campaign with a more fantastical flavor that has reached the end of its first act.  We’ve also played a zombie apocalypse one-off.  In short, it’s been a lot more fun and easier to GM now.

Also, being able to play for once has improved my GMing.  Normally, I’m the only person who does but we had a nice stint going where other people stepped up.  Ian GM’d a Star Wars campaign and Brandon ran a pretty awesome Pathfinder setting based off Season of the Witch (the Sean Bean Dark Ages movie, not Halloween 3).  Being able to play allowed me to recharge my own creative batteries, see things from a player perspective and was also a wish granted that I’d been hoping for sometime.