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Thursday, January 29, 2015

X-Men Days of Future Past

(Arrrgh blogger ate this post so here I go again in rewriting it).

After the craptastic showing that was X-Men 3 (how that piece of "ship" got a 58% on Rotten Tomatoes I'll never know, should be in the negatives...) I had zero hopes that even X-Men First Class would be good, but low and behold it was. So, it was with a bit of trepidation we sat down as a family to watch X-Men Days of Future Past on Blu-Ray after Santa dropped it off over the holidays. I have to say I think its the strongest X-Men movie since X-Men 2, X-Men United.  That's saying a lot as X2 is a damn fine movie. Then Marvel pumps out the Guardians of the Galaxy (I'm a fan of the "classic team" but I digress,

Before I go into the movie however its important to cover the actual story it's based on. Days of Future Past follows (roughly) the same mini-arc of X-Men 140-141. Days of Future past came on the heels of the epic Dark Phoenix Saga (widely regarded as one of the best comic book arcs of all time) and in some ways is well remembered, but overshadowed by such a monumental previous storyline. Issues 140-141 has an adult Kitty Pryde react out to her younger self from a dytopsian future where mechanical Sentinels rule North America and are relentlessly hounding mutants to extinction.

Kitty is able to avert the assassination of  Senator Robert Kelly and thus avert the events of the future timeline. In a way it's outcome is mirrored by the T-850 in Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines, "You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable". Since Rachel Summers also comes from that future timeline about 30 issues later, perhaps "Days of Future Past" is inevitable. (Note there are the Days of Future Present and Days of Future Past arcs but these are not the focus of this post).

On to the movie itself: as with most of my objections with the X-men movies, this one of course focuses on Wolverine as the main character. At this stage I'm majorly over Logan. Unfortunately, the movie studio isn't so they keep milking it for all its worth. It's as if they figure a 6'2" actor really portrays a 5' 4" mutant well... more likely they figure actor Hugh Jackman will get women to go to see this as well... Great we get it, he's the!

So.... with all that said the true star of this movie is the younger Charles Xavier played by James McAvoy who conveys the Professor in an outstanding manner and one can easily see him as the later Patrick Stewart version. From the very first scene as the younger professor he is stealing the show. At first he is walking... which is a bit disconcerting for continuity in the previous movie, but they explain it quick enough. I won't spoil while but they had to do this in order for the story to work given the Professor's prodigious mutant abilities.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the amazing portrayal of Bolivar Trask by Peter Dinklage who is the creator of the Sentinels, 20-foot high mutant hunting  robots. It is the Sentinels who hound the mutant into near extinction in the dytopisian future that Wolverine is sent from. Peter plays a very methodical villain and is a believable one. Then of course after Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw in First Class... yeah....

I won't spoil the main premise of the rise of the Sentinels but lets just say they did a great job with the hows and whys and typing it back to a certain mutant.

They did a great job with continuity in the film tying back to X2, for instance a young William Stryker is in Vietnam just like he alluded to in United and the timeline flows well. The clothes, the furniture, etc. Someone however was paying attention to this did a very, very good job with avoiding continuity errors.

The final battle was well done. When watching it I did notice the rise of tension the fact that you're left thinking that any minute its going to go south. The visuals in some respects were jarring, I think it was the weaponry the sentinels were using that made me notice this. This is probably due to the me knowing them first through the comics in the late 1980s then just seeing them for the first time. The Sentinels of the future likewise are "off" to me. The image I couldn't get out of my mind was that of the machines in The Matrix, bug-like, rather then large lumbering metal giants.

Given the nature of my blog its not a movie review site; I often look at ways to incorporate it into gaming. I think a mutant campaign would be overdone at this stage of the game, but a dytopsian future one would work better. Perhaps a world where every hero is hunted, not just mutants? After all if you are the authorities you never can be too careful right? If going down the road of a Marvel Superheros game, I prefer FASERIP, a setting like this would work well.

There you have it, I give it 4 out of 5 stars. Great story, but would have been better had they used Kitty as the heroine and had flashback scenes a bit different and gritter with Wolverine in the future timeline.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Majorian- the last hope for the Western Roman Empire

Or what could make for a really great campaign setting for AD&D.
A coin of the Emperor Majorian
As I discussed here I'm going to look at another idea for a campaign world, but this time through the prism of our real world history. This time out I'm going to discuss the last great Roman Emperor in the West, Majorian.

As is my wont, before we delve into the AD&D aspects of this lets review a few basics of the historical Majorian to set the stage. I'm also going to delve into counter factual history as from there its a great place to set a campaign.

Much has been written about the other areas of the Empire during the decline of the 4th and 5th centuries. A good example is Jack Whyte's excellent Camloud Chronicles which starts around the time Roman Britannia is crumbling, the Groan of the Britons, et all. To set a campaign there use the excellent resources for Heroic Britain from Dragon, namely Dragon #257 and #263. To my knowledge however not much has been written about the last Roman who had a chance to save the Western Empire, Majorian. Certainly not in a gaming sense.

Majorian or more properly Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus Augustus, lived circa 420 – August 7, 461. He reigned as Emperor in the West from 457 to 461 while Leo I was Emperor in the East. At this time the west was in a deep state of decline and the Eastern Emperor held far more power. It's ironic that Majorian's rise to the imperial office was in that typical Roman fashion: the unresolved chaos of Imperial succession. Rome never properly established a unified method of succession and attempts throughout the preceding two centuries resulted in varying degrees of disaster and success.

At the time of Majorian's rise, the true power in the West was the Ricimer, a Romanized Germanic barbarian. Ricimer was able to overthrow the Emperor Avitus with the help of Majorian and the tacit complicity of the Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian. He initially wanted to replace the office of Emperor fully, but the Senate and Roman aristocracy balked. With the overthrow of Avitus he and Majorian were the two most figures in the west. Ricimer who was friends with Majorian apparently thought he could bide his time with no leader in the west with the tacit approval of the eastern Emperor, but eventually Majorian is elected Emperor by his armies. No matter Ricimer thought he could control Majorian. unfortunately for him Majorian showed himself to be a very effective ruler. 

Its also to note the condition of the Western Empire at this time. Through any number of factors the West was disintegrating or near non-existent.
  • The West was in dire straights by this time; The Western Empire had lost most of the main provinces: Mesopotamia, Hispania, Gaul and Britannia had been overrun by barbarians and the legions withdrawn resulting the the Groan of the Britons. Barbarians are pressing everywhere. 
  • Rome is sacked in 410 by Alaric and 455 by Genseric.
  • The late period Roman Legions: The Roman legions were a shadow of themselves and were being pulled from the frontiers often to fight dynastic struggles.
  • Most importantly the West's lands by 455/456 is a few provinces in Gaul and the Italian peninsula. This has the practical effects of reducing taxation to a fraction of even a few decades prior.
  • Little aid was flowing from the more prosperous Eastern portion of the Empire.  Little cooperation was talking place further hampering efforts.
Thus the stage is set for the Emperor; Majorian begins to rollback the barbarians to the point of having retaken large swathes of the the traditional Western Roman Empire in a relatively short period of time. In this Ricimer becomes more concerned as Majorian is breaking the cycle of weak: puppet Emperors in the West that have been on the throne for decades and thus easy to control.

Now we arrive at that crucial counter-factual crossroads: what if the Vandals don't get wind of the plans of Majorian, Majorian acts against Ricimer before he does or both? Its a tantalizing one that begs a lot of questions and makes for a great campaign world (more on that later). It is Majorian who seizes the initiative and has Ricimer silenced. With this a cowed the Senate falls into line.

What then? The Vandals don't get wind of the immanent invasion of Byzacena (area and province around Carthage) perhaps it is reclaimed. This is not entirely unreasonable. Majorian was already showing signs of greatness and pluck, The Vandals who have only recently taken over the area don't as of yet have a firm hold on the territory. So it is that Majorian's enterprise to Africa bears fruit and with the riches and grain shipments of the area secured, the western Empire is back on solid footing, or at least on better footing then before. As an aside Britain is going to be a lost cause for some time, but is more of an outlier of the Empire anyways.

Looking further afield the Eastern Emperor is in his 50s, Majorian in his 30s. Majorian is a dynamic Theodosius did. This is entirely plausible as Leo I was succeeded by Leo II who ruled for only 10 months and then Zeno, neither of which were exceptional and barbarian lineage in the case of Zeno hampered him to a great degree. Majorian is a Roman through and through and a capable one. Perhaps Majorian is skilled enough at the political game to have Leo the Thracian overthrown by the time Majorian is say 40.  Now free of the threat of Ricimer,  Majorian has the at least opportunity to combine the Empire into one again.

So it is with these assumptions that we have a period ripe for a AD&D campaign: lots of intrigue, political infighting, small scale and large wars/raids. economic chaos and so on. Who wants to adventure in the boring, sedate lands of Cormyr??? The late Roman period offers a wealth of opportunities that a good DM can have a field day with. 

One of the few Roman inspired 1st ed images.
In the D&D sense the Roman Empire certainly got the short end of the stick. While the Greeks with their corresponding pantheon in Deities and Demigods have enjoyed support throughout the run of 1st edition and probably earlier, the Romans have been largely not represented. Sure there are a few Dragon magazine articles here and there (like #133) but not much else*. I think in most of the campaigns I played in from 1982-1987 the Greek of the Norse pantheons were utilized but again not in the Roman sense.This changed with 2nd edition for at least we have HR5- The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook. Some do not like the historical series, but I think they are one of the better products released during 2nd Edition; certainly suitable for game play.

 (* Yes I know the Roman gods are largely/mostly based on the Greek but that's not the point I'm trying to make here).

In terms of wizardry and magic a fantasy Roman campaign will be lower powered and certainly not high magic. Superstitions abound and magical could be a powerful force especially in the hands of NPCs but unlikely for the PCs properly played. Likewise, the campaign is going to be very human centric with next to no demi-human PCs or even NPCs for that matter. Most likely any demi-humans will be thought of as barbarians from the mist filled woods of Germania or Hibernia.

To add a fantasy aspect the barbarians at the gates can be swapped for another race. Instead of the Huns, how about hobgoblins as Huns? From the sea instead of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes sweeping through present day Holland and Belgium on their way to England, how about sahuagin? Don't want to go the Roman route? Have the PCs barbarians on the other side of the Rhine.

Chapter 6 of the Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook gives great examples of monsters suitable for a fantasy inspired Roman campaign. With the Empire bordering the wilds of Africa its entirely possible to have any number of magical beasts along with the steppes of Russia and the wild barbarian haunts of Germania. After all it was said by Aristotle in ancient times: "There is always something new coming out of Africa".  The oceans are often thought to hold unimaginable horrors for further sources of monsters.
A 5th century legionnaire.

Of special note the Imperial Navy will not be as great of a force as they were in the proceeding centuries so piratical raids are a problem in addition to the a fore mentioned monsters. The Imperial Legions and the army as a whole are far different as well. They are no longer what one thinks of in terms of the "classic legion" but more infused with barbarian recruits who have been at least partially "Romanized. They are effective but again a different fighting force then the proceeding  centuries. More so then in most any other campaign the article from Dragon #154 "For King and Country" would work exceptionally well with the PCs are part of the Roman Legions.

Need further inspiration on a military based Roman campaign? While set in earlier times movies such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and other "sword and sandal" epics can whet the appetite. For closer to the period, King Arthur or The Eagle will work, but is more applicable to Heroic Britain campaigns. On the book front the previous mentioned series by Jack Whyte and others like "Eagle of the Ninth" can be drawn on for further inspiration.
5th century legionaries fighting barbarians.

So, tired of the same old traditionally inspired pseudo Europe circa 1300 campaign? Consider the Late Roman period. In this case it doesn't quiet become the Dark Ages, but certainly can be harsh. Just because Majorian might meld the Empire back together it doesn't have to be a smooth or pleasant process. Conflict is going to be ever present, political intrigue and backbiting , double crossing is at its height particularity in the Western Empire.

To close if you are  looking for a different campaign setting you could do worse, a world under Majorian offers of wealth of possibilities and is certainly going to be action packed and deadly. A dash of counter factual history, some logical inferences and some imagination and you off and running.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Star Wars Trailer Episode VII

Star Wars Trailer Episode VII- "The Force Awakens"

Given the theme of my blog its probably surprising to some that I haven't commented on this sooner. To be honest with the part time job and the holidays life was just a tad difficult. Enough excuses, here I go. I'm not going to go into a long, drawn out post about this, but hit the high points.

The likes:
  • I really liked the look of the new designed X-Wings. I noticed it the first time through as they skim the water. Their helmets look about four sizes too small, just like Peyton Manning's helmet...
  • The Millennium Falcon scene I liked. Others I know did not but I liked the action.Even accounted for the new deflector dish that was snapped off by Lando in Return of the Jedi. 
  • Also with the Millennium Falcon scene I like the cut to the theme music at just the right time.
  • The placement of the villain? In a deserted, dark, snowy forest? Thumbs up here.
The dislikes:
  • The droid with the soccer ball? Really?
  • Not sold on the "light saber" not even sure its a light saber per say. I put it in the dislike column for now until the next trailer or we know more. It may be that the knowledge of forging actual lightsabers is now fairly scarce. I don't think the wielder is a Jedi or Sith so that may explain it.
  • Trying to make the storm troopers seem fearsome. Stop, give it a rest, these mooks couldn't hit the side of a Sand Crawler, oh wait they actually did hit that. These guys got their asses kicked on Endor. "An entire legion of my best troops await them..."- Emperor Palpatine. If these are your best I'd hate to see your worst..
The "I'm not sure":
  • The "uproar" of  Jango Fett being the progenitor of the clones and thus the storm troopers? I wonder what plot twist this might entail so I'm not upset, more curious then anything else. Then again its not like the Star Wars franchise is internally consistent on points regarding the storyline anyway... For one its never really cleared up as to just how we get from Clones to Storm troopers so who the Hell knows (note I haven't watched the Clone Wars cartoon). My guess is that with the fall of the Empire clones are hard to come by or non-existent, thus John Boyega's character; perhaps the storm troopers are now mercenaries?
  • The narration... first time I can think of a Star Wars trailer having narration. It sounds like they got Benedict Cumberbatch to do it, probably while they were filming Star Trek- Into Darkness... 
And of course no pop culture moment would be complete if that meme of all memes didn't have something to say.  This might be better then the trailer, you decide:

In closing I'm going into this open minded. In the back of my mind I can't shake the notion that Disney is going to "Disney it up...

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The New Shadow- Middle Earth

One of the things I noodle around with from time to time is campaign world concepts; I sometimes draw maps, jott notes or otherwise brainstorm. So it was in that vein that I came across Professor Tolkien's ideas on the New Shadow.
Middle Earth in the Fourth Age from
Before getting to the main idea itself consider the story we know: after Frodo and Sam haul the One Ring to Mt Doom and Gollum does his part in the story the is essentially over; everything that comes after is wrap up. While I like the Scouring of the Shire it's not vitally important to the story as a whole. While the interaction after the Downfall and the crowning of the King is interesting, it's also epilogue.

Considering the publication history of the Lord of the Rings trilogy the only thing the good professor would (nearly) finish afterwards (in the major book sense) is the epic Silmarillion (published in 1977 four years after his death). I say nearly as his son Christopher had to edit it a lot to make it into a story.

Before the Silmarillion however he contemplated a story about the transience of good and the flawed nature of Man, he called this idea The New Shadow. Again, to me the idea has some merit which he apparently wrote in the 1950's and again near the end of his life in 1968. In this we have the Professor's own words on the matter:

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a 'thriller' about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.
- J.R.R Tolkien

I bring this up because with the proper fleshing out this could actually be a very good campaign world, consider:
  • The New Shadow storyline eliminates the "War of the Ring Problem" as I call it. It's the issue of THE event hovering over the world. Dragonlance also suffers from this problem. The New Shadow means a familiar world, but not encumbered by the War of the Ring per say.
  • A world likewise far enough into the future means that none of the "personages" of the Third Age and specifically the War of the Ring are going to be around with the possible exception of Gimili and Legolas. This a new, wide open tableau to work with.
  • Along with very few if any of the main characters There is going to be very few elves left, and the dwarves retreating further into the mountains.  That leaves humans and hobbits. For evil a reappearance of orcs and undead (like skeletons and barrow wights) works for evil.
  • Middle Earth isn't all that of a clerical world, at least in the D&D sense. Because of this it makes undead that much more of a fearsome foe.
  • The New Shadow Cult could be greatly expanded upon and taken in any number of directions. 
  • The High King of the Reunited Kingdom is Aragorn's (Ellesar) son  Eldarion, Going with some of the points above it allows for a great latitude as the Tolkien didn't write too much about the Fourth Age. Plus due to his elven parentage through Aragorn its possible to place Eldarion's reign even further into the future. A small but added bonus is he's not "really" in the movies other then the dream sequence of Arwen.
In short I think a Middle Earth a few centuries after the Downfall could be a very viable campaign setting for your favorite RPG, it doesn't necessarily have to be AD&D, I simply used it as a guide. ICE MERP could work as I think 1st or 2nd edition Warhammer role-play rules would work very well. Clearly overall it needs to be made much more grim for most people's taste but there are some good hooks there to build upon.

For more info on the New Shadow story begun, but not finished by the Professor click here.

For more info on the New Shadow story itself look here. The actual text appears in The History of Middle-earth, specifically the The Peoples of Middle-earth I have only ready excerpts and it is on my list to read this year (at least sections).