Reading RuneQuest: Chapter II (Character Creation)

RuneQuest character creation was pretty startling for me way back when. Tunnels & Trolls and Dungeons & Dragons were close relatives — sure, you swap out Luck for Wisdom but that’s not a huge change. RuneQuest retained the 3d6 rolls and had a reasonable seven stats, but what’s the bit where the ability to work magic (Power) is a primary stat? And where’s the conversation about classes? The previous chapter did not warn us that there weren’t any classes.

Oh, and adventurers are assumed to be human. There’s a note that elves, dwarves, and dragonewts will be discussed in the section on monsters, which doesn’t make them sound much like playable races.

We also meet Rurik, our sample character. He’s really interesting. It’s clear simply from the explanation of his stats that he’s going to be both engaging in combat and casting spells. I distinctly remember reading this the first time and going “Whoa.”

Next, there’s a section on abilities. Combat abilities first, of course. The system for calculating these is pretty straightforward; add percentage points up based on how high the controlling stats are and you’re done. In another little sign that magic is pivotal to the world, Power figures into almost every ability. There are nine abilities total. This system wouldn’t look weird if it came out for the first time today; maybe a little fiddly but not out of the norm.

We then divert back to characteristics for a moment, with rules on increasing them. There’s a cute little bit in the ongoing saga of Rurik: “Thus we see that if Rurik had the money, he could put 4000 L towards bringing his STR up to 16, and another 15,000 L towards building his DEX up to 21. Where would our hero get this money? That’s what the rest of this book is all about.” And I thought the point of the game was either a radio play or simulation of life! It does make a good segue into equipment rules… no, sorry, that’s just starting equipment. You get a list of things, and there’s no discussion of shopping.

A parenthetical: for the first time, an insert from Wyrm’s Footnotes appears. It’s charmingly old school to run into these little random Q&A sections from the pages of Chaosium’s house magazine. More indie games need house magazines, not even totally kidding.

The total chapter length is eight pages, and two of those are character sheets. Hm, there’s something new there. The abilities appear to have base percentages, and presumably you add the calculated modifications to those? But in the text on abilities, there’s no mention of a base. The boxed text detailing Rurik’s abilities doesn’t give us any clues and there’s no sample character sheet for him, so who can say?

Reading RuneQuest: Chapter 1 (Introduction)

I started gaming back in the early 80s. By “gaming” I mean “reading roleplaying books and wondering what it’d be like to actually play,” with a hefty side order of “running through Tunnels & Trolls solitaire adventures.” Tunnels & Trolls was my first RPG. I think RuneQuest was my third? Hard to remember exactly.

Chaosium just reprinted that 1980 edition after a successful Kickstarter. I backed it. I know that when I read RuneQuest the first time around, the weird world of Glorantha didn’t bewilder me at all. This is more than I can say for any subsequent edition, even the lovely hardcover Guide to Glorantha. I figured, hey, that relatively slim book made sense to me back in the 80s, so let’s check it out again.

Now I’m gonna read it and see what I think.

The introduction is five pages. Page 1 is the obligatory explanation of the nature of fantasy role-playing games, a description of how to use the rules, and so on. As I recall, this is the first use of the improvisational radio theater metaphor. Stafford kind of waffles between saying that you’re simulating life and that you’re telling a story; alas, nothing here will settle that age-old debate.

The second page launches us into the Gloranthaness of it all. The page and a half of history is not at all weird. Gods fight, empires rise and fall, dragons breathe fire. Nothing about the whole bit where heroes venture into the spirit world in order to rewrite the cosmology; it’s just another mythos. I am not surprised that my adolescent self found this digestible. It’s cool history, too.

I’m pretty sure I mentally skipped over the next bit, where Stafford explains that Glorantha is a Bronze Age culture. I remember being really surprised to find out that Glorantha was short on iron and steel later on in life. There’s a picture of an elf with a bow on that page, which is nicely grounding if you don’t know he’s actually a plant. I don’t know if this edition gets into the elven plant issue or not. Time will tell.

And then we get a map — I loved and love maps — and the world is a “slightly bulging, squarish lozenge.” This is another thing that surprised me later in life. I am beginning to suspect that one reason I wasn’t weirded out by Glorantha at the time was that I skipped all the confusing parts. There’s a little hint about visiting the worlds of the gods here, but it’s pretty subtle and you’d never know how important that kind of thing is. What’s heroquesting?

Finally, there’s a nice timeline for the Lunar Empire and Dragon Pass which is just full of hints of weirdness. I was definitely skimming this. “War between hill peoples of Dragon Pass and Ducks.” “God-King of the Holy Country disappears and the Masters of Luck and Death fail to bring forth a new incarnation.” Yeah, it’s all there if you just open your eyes and see.

Next time: character generation. How weird could that be?

It’s OK, My Lawn is Your Lawn

My perspective: veteran Ingress player, no previous experience with Pokemon Go, a fair bit of mobile gaming work experience.

I’m not gonna do the whole “wow, look at the wild news story!” thing. Hot take: geo-located gaming generates interesting behavior patterns. I do have one item I can’t resist sharing, though. Pokemon GO chauffeur services are here. (But don’t buy egg hatching services, since you’re not allowed to let someone else use your account even if they’re carrying your phone.)

I am happy to see lots of Pokemon Go players. More money for Niantic increases the chances that Ingress will have a long lifespan. Some Pokemon Go players will try Ingress, most won’t like it, it’s all cool. A lot of Ingress players will quit to play Pokemon Go. I worry a bit about viable Ingress populations but time will tell.

Some things I do think are interesting:

Pokemon Go hit #1 grossing game in the US App Store on the first day. It was not featured by Apple in any way. As far as I can tell, Niantic and Nintendo did no user acquisition — no Facebook ads, no mobile adds, nothing driving players to the game. #1 without any of that is unprecedented. Flappy Bird had to build to #1 downloaded. Clash Royale was featured and had a robust in-house user acquisition network.

A good geo-located game has strong virality because human interactions are the core driver of any viral loop. It’s also sticky for the same reasons. The problem has always been getting critical mass. Apparently Nintendo’s IP is pretty good for that.

Second, it’s worth comparing Pokemon Go to Ingress. In Ingress, you can’t do anything meaningful till you hit level 5 or 6. If you’re playing by yourself that’s a long grind. In a busy area, you may be unable to capture portals, which is the core of the game. The new user experience sucks.

In Pokemon Go, the new user experience is still pretty bad — no good tutorial, easy to get lost. But it’s also easy to muddle your way up a few levels and you feel like you’re making meaningful progress immediately. You can always capture Pokemons.

The next interesting question for me is the elder game. Is it dense enough to sustain continued stickiness and monetization?

Port of Call

Port of Call: A

Excellent Hong Kong drama based on a real murder case from 2008. Aaron Kwok was superb in this; he goes old, with grey hair and a mustache, and really vanishes into the role. It’s a tough part, full of damaged psyches grating against each other in an endless cycle. He plays it whimsical with a ton of pain showing right under the surface: comedy as defense mechanism.

The movie is set in seedy Hong Kong, where low-lives and desperate souls live. Occasionally we see glimpses of privilege and wealth. Christopher Doyle is the cinematographer, and he’s unsurprisingly perfect at showing us the contrast between those two places. It’s as if wealth was a source of light, and unwise phototropic souls reached out to it like a lifeline, only to find it was sterile. (Doyle always inspires me to clumsy light-based metaphors. Love his work.)

Other than Aaron Kwok making sad jokes which fail to dispel his pain, there’s very little humor in the movie. There are sequences of explicit death and violence. People are not nice to one another. It gets a lot of power from being unflinching.

The Ninja War of Torakage

The Ninja War of Torakage: B

This was the weirdest thing I saw at Fantasia. Underneath it all you’ll find a pretty standard historical ninja epic about Torakage, this poor guy who just wants to retire from ninjaing and raise a family, but there’s a lot of insanity between the surface of the movie and the core. I don’t know Yoshihiro Nishimura’s work but he’s a special effects/makeup dude who occasionally directs, I guess. This is perhaps obvious from the opening shot in which our protagonist cuts off a couple of heads and we center two spouting fountains of gore for a very long time.

Once we’ve gotten the sense that it’s going to be a reasonably violent action film, Nishimura proceeds to demonstrate that it’s going to be supremely weird by cutting to a Portugese scholar named Francisco who narrates the premise of the movie with the help of shadow puppets. Visually awesome, by the by, once you get over the Japanese actor in Euroface. Francisco shows up to explain the movie all the time, although he doesn’t explain any of the weird stuff.

Other awesome things: the weird creature with wings made of hands and eyes everywhere; the bamboo mecha; the way Torakage’s wife Tsukikage also kicks ass; the Greek chorus in jars. I appreciated this one a lot.

Tales of Halloween

Tales of Halloween: B+

This review is maybe a bit of a placeholder; I did not take notes during the movie and I’d like to come back to it when I can find some better data on who directed what. For now, I will note that this was a totally fun horror anthology with ten segments. They’re very loosely linked insofar as they all take place in one town during Halloween. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a place you’d want to live. Neil Marshall’s closing segment ties together some of the other bits, but otherwise they’re just related by theme and locale.

If I had to bet, I’d say one of the thematic elements the creators decided to work with was revenge. There’s a lot of that going on. Also trick or treating, which is kind of a gimmie for Halloween. Also gore — this is probably going to win my personal Best Gore award for Fantasia — but that’s just because it’s a total love letter to 80s horror.

Which, let me tell you, this movie wears its heart on its sleeve. Lots of horror character actors you’ll recognize, a couple of even more amusing cameos, and so on. The Neil Marshall segment plays like a John Carpenter tribute in the most loving of ways.

I think this will roll into theaters around Halloween this year and if you like gory horror you should see it.

Full Strike

Full Strike: B

This was pretty much OK. Very broad Hong Kong sports comedy with all the usual bits. There’s a drunken master, there’s an evil magistrate, there’s familial tension, and so on. Oh, and a random alien who lands in a UFO that looks like a badminton shuttlecock. Don’t pay too much attention to him, since he’s not actually part of the movie.

Right — the sport is badminton. Serious business! The producer, Andrew Ooi, introduced the movie and explained that they’re all big fans of badminton so why not make a movie about it? Fair enough.

Josie Ho was a standout; her transitions from washed up ex-champion to fierce competitor were a nice bit of acting. That’s the extra effort that you don’t always see in a farce.

Cash Only

Cash Only: B

Cash Only is a competent movie. I’m reluctant to call it a crime movie, since it’s not really about a crime per se, but it’s certainly about criminals. Mostly it’s about a repeat loser, Elvis Martini, and the variety of scams and desperate measures he uses to get by. One day, in a fit of bad decision making, he overreaches. Things get worse.

The movie is set in the Albanian community of Detroit, which is what I liked most about it. I don’t think I learned a ton about Albanian immigrant culture but I did get a distinct sense of a community living mostly on the edge of failure with both deep and painful ties holding them together. One of the minor characters is a cop; he doesn’t judge the criminal enterprises of his friends, and they don’t much care that he’s supposed to arrest them.

If it wasn’t for the grand guignol of the climatic scene, it’d almost be a slice of life movie. I kept thinking of Michael Moore, perhaps because of the Detroit connection. One of the reasons I didn’t rate this one an A is because that climax didn’t totally pay off — the threat was there, as was the horror of the circumstances, but I wanted more from the antagonist.

So, hm. Held my attention but didn’t earn my passion. Worth watching if you get a chance.

Anguish

Anguish: A

Sonny Mallhi’s Anguish was excellent. There’s a teenage girl, Tess, with serious mental issues. Her mom is raising her alone while her dad is serving overseas. The question in this taut rural gothic is pretty simple: mental issues, or more?

The movie reaches a conclusion on that one but the journey is good enough not to spoil. In fact, I want to see it again soon for the sake of one relevant cinematographic decision that Susan pointed out to me. It’s not perfect. There’s a subplot that distracts from the main narrative and I think ultimately casts a bit of unnecessary confusion on various motivations, but the movie is strong enough so that it doesn’t detract significantly.

Without a really spectacular performance by Ryan Simpkins as Tess, the movie wouldn’t have had much of a center. She’s got a really tough job playing a quiet, conflict-adverse teenager. Tess hides behind thick hair and silence; Simpkins reveals with her eyes and reactions. The whole cast is strong, but Simpkins is amazing.

I also thought the realist indie aesthetic was great. It’s filmed like one of those documentaries about the death of the heartland, all long shots of cars and pickup trucks and close shots of people struggling with debt and each other. When Mallhi permits himself a horror jump scare, it’s way more effective because of the realist aesthetic.

Definitely worth seeking out if/when it hits theaters.

Jeruzalem

Jeruzalem: D.

This was a lot of wasted potential. You’ve got a promising if somewhat goofy presence — American backpackers trapped in Jerusalem during the apocalypse. The found footage twist is pretty good: everything’s being filmed on Google Glass by Sarah, our viewpoint character. It’s a nice way to explain why she doesn’t just drop the camera and run away, plus the Paz brothers added some really clever moments around facial recognition and other wearable features.

Unfortunately the acting was really, really bad. I’m not going to pick on anyone in particular, because everyone was fairly wooden. If you’re doing helpless Americans abroad, you’ve got to have sympathetic characters and none of the main foursome was up to that task.

The writing didn’t help. Towards the beginning of the movie there’s an excellent chase scene which uses the Glass conceit to full advantage. You get disoriented right along with Sarah as she runs, you get a real feel for her lack of perspective, and it’s easy to understand how she gets lost in the warren of back alleys. Excellent stuff. It’s undermined by the ceaseless repetition of “hey, stop, hey, you, stop, hey, come back, hey, stop!” It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid of silence.

I could go on. The prelude, which is not presented as found footage, winds up being played for Sarah later. So if you’re going to present it within the found footage context anyway, why start the movie outside the frame? Hold it for later, don’t repeat it, and as a bonus you get to save your demon reveal rather than giving it up in the first five minutes.

Whoops, I went on. Done now. Don’t watch this on cable if you happen to trip over it some day.

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