Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Creating a crisis out of... Well, nothing

It's funny how crises work. With a possible strike by fuel tanker drivers coming, the sensible thing for people to do is to stick to their regular pattern of filling up the tank. If nothing else, most cars need filled up about once a week, and there has to be a minimum of 7 days notice given for a strike, anyway, so panic buying now is just insane.

In fact, panic buying in general is a bad idea. If we all just keep calm and carry on as normal, then that pretty much gives us the best use of our reserves - people who need fuel can generally get it, until there finally comes a point where there simply is no more fuel left, at which point we'd all just need to adapt anyway. The only people who should be building a reserve are those who genuinely need to stay on the road - the emergency services and the like.

Actually, it's much like the heavy snows of the winter before last - the advice was for people to avoid travelling unless they absolutely had to... at which point almost everyone decided that they absolutely had to. In truth, very often the reality is that no, you do not absolutely have to travel.

Of course, just because that's how it should work doesn't mean that that is how it does work. Instead, at the merest hint of a strike, people started panic buying. As a result, there were massive queues at filling stations (which isn't good for anyone), and some stations ran dry (which isn't good for anyone).

It's madness. Unfortunately, it's also very human, and probably inevitable.

Sadly, as soon as some people start panic-buying, this then flips the rational response to the situation. Suddenly, it is no longer sensible to just keep calm and follow your normal pattern - as soon as people start hoarding in any numbers, you too need to join the throng. Otherwise, you're liable to find yourself the only person who doesn't have a full tank of petrol - and when you're the only person who can't get to work, that's a rather different matter for your employer than when nobody can get to work.

In effect, we're in the process of creating a crisis for ourselves where none should exist. Exactly like we do every time it snows, and the entire road network grinds to a completely unnecessary halt.

Still, it could be worse. It's not like Francis Maude is advising people to stock up... Oh.

Thanks okay, George, I can't remember either

Apparently, George Osbourne is under attack for being "out of touch". Which is fair enough. But the grounds are, frankly, rather ridiculous - he can't remember the last time he bought something from Greggs.

Well, I too have a shocking confession to make: I can't remember the last time I bought something from Greggs, either.

I know, I know. I shall now hang my head in shame.

...

Honestly, is this what it's come to - parliamentary debates hinging around whether the Chancellor visits a particular chain, rather than the actual rights and wrongs of the situation? I would have thought the "pie tax" should be easy to either condemn or defend, without resorting to such idiocy.

By the way, I don't want to give the impression I'm defending George Osborne's policy here. His "pie tax", as written, is completely insane. Not only should VAT not be chargeable on food simply because it's heated (and especially food that has to be heated before it can be served), but the definition of 'hot food' cannot be done using ambient temperature. Because if it is, and I go to Greggs for lunch today they must reduce all their costs by 20%, or else they are charging me a tax that doesn't apply. (Osborne's defence, that the Treasury would pre-arrange with Greggs that VAT would be chargeable on an appropriate percentage of their goods, doesn't hold water for this reason - yes, the Treasury gets the right amount of money, but the customer isn't paying the correct amount.)

One final thing: I had been wondering what to do for lunch a week on Thursday, since I have enough to make sandwiches up to Wednesday. And now I know. Thanks, George!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Treasure!

I had an epiphany the other day - although it was probably a realisation of the bleeding obvious.

The issue under discussion was placement of treasure in D&D. (Those of you who don't care about D&D can switch off now - I'm not working my way back to some more general point.)

In the first editions of the game, treasure placement was haphazard, at best. The DMG had a bunch of random tables that DMs mostly ignored, and (in 2nd Edition at least) included dire warnings against giving out "too much" treasure - a term that was largely undefined. Meanwhile, the published adventures were much more treasure-happy, which created some odd results when trying to use a published adventure in an ongoing treasure-poor campaign.

When they came to do 3e, WotC revised the treasure tables, making them much more robust, and insisted that their published adventures stuck to those guidelines. Furthermore, they formally introduced the buying and selling of magic items (which had been common up to that point, although the rules never really supported it). Finally, they introduced a "Wealth by Level" table for DMs.

On the one hand, this was a massive step forward. Suddenly, the rules were nice and consistent across DMG and adventures, there was a clear definition of "too much" and "too little" treasure, and it was now obvious how much gear a starting PC should have.

However, there were three complaints:
  • The easy market in magic items gave rise to a "Magic Item Walmart" complaint. Now, that wasn't really implicit in the rules as written, but it was a mindset that took hold and was never shaken.
  • DMs objected because suddenly they 'had' to give out a particular amount of treasure - too much or too little would throw off the balance of the game.
  • Probably most significantly, some items gave much better results than others, and those items tended to be really dull. One of the best items for a Fighter was a belt of giant's strength, but that was one you just added to the sheet and then forgot about forevermore.

With 4e, WotC dropped the random treasure tables entirely (in fairness, they had always been largely ignored), and replaced the "Wealth by Level" table with a much simpler formula. Finally, the DMG recommended that the DM ask the players for "wish lists" of magical treasure that they would like to find, and then the players should "just happen" to find mostly those items as they went.

This idea came in for much mockery.

What I think is wanted from treasure in the game is the following:
  • The players should have a sense of wondering: "What are we going to get?"
  • When they find out what they've got, the response should be, "Cool!"
  • You probably want the players to actually use the items they find... but don't necessarily want to enforce this.

Now, what I have traditionally done in the past is to place treasure largely in the form of gold, plus a small number of 'cool' items, and a small number of 'tailored' items - these being those "dull but powerful" items I mentioned previously. However, I've typically assigned treasure to a budget - the WbL table says they should have X gold; they currently have Y gold; I will therefore assign (X-Y) gold in treasure.

I think that's the wrong way to go about it. Instead, I think a much better solution is probably:
  • Over the course of the level, about a third of treasure should take the form of non-magical valuables. (That is, (X-Y)/3 should be valuables.)
  • Of the valuables, only a small percentage should take the form of raw gold. Instead, as much as possible, it should take the form of more interesting items - a gold crown from the giant empire, a set of paintings by some famous artist, and so on. Ultimately, these are going to be liquidated into gold, but they're worth a moment or two to lovingly detail.
  • When placing magic items, you shouldnot place the perfect item. So, no belt of giant strength, no ring of protection, no +1 flaming holy bastard sword, bane against evil outsiders (which is probably the most powerful melee weapon in the game).
  • Instead, when placing magic items, assign double the value in items that are useful and interesting, but not quite what the PCs would choose for themselves. (Or, in 4e, or indeed my house-ruled game, assign five times the normal amount - because items can be traded in at only 20% of their purchase cost.)
  • One more thing: it's okay to assign an item that the party simply can't use. Since they're likely to take such a thing off a defeated NPC, that only makes sense. However, such items should be considered as part of the "non-magical valuables" part of the treasure assigned.

That way, the items that are found are suddenly nice, powerful items, likely to elicit the "Cool!" response. Additionally, they're more likely to be kept and used (until the party outgrow them, but that's fine too). And if they choose to trade them in for the "powerful but dull" items, well, that's their choice, but it's not exactly efficient!

The consequence of this will immediately be being felt in my "Eberron Code" campaign when it returns. Up until now, the PCs have not really been receiving enough treasure, so it had been my intention to give them additional funds to boost them up to where they 'should' be. However, I wasn't looking forward to doing that calculation. But now I don't have to - I can just give them a flat 8,000 gold pieces and not worry about it (since that takes them well past the 13,000 value on the WbL table). Additionally, it means that when they go on their quests from here on out, I can start assigning more treasure than before.

Somehow, I can't see anyone complaining about getting more treasure...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rule-lawyering Lent

So, I got to the bottom of my Lent issue. It turns out that the reason the "40 days and 40 nights" runs for more than six weeks is that Sundays aren't included. Apparently, these are always considered celebratory days in the Christian calendar, and so cannot be included in Lent. Which has both an upside and a downside. On the one hand, it means that Lent does not finish on the 6th of April (as previously believed), but rather at dawn on the 8th. On the other, this presumably means that the prohibitions associated with Lent don't apply on Sundays - I could have been drinking Irn Bru all along.

And therein lies my issue with the whole notion of Lent, at least as it is currently practiced. Or, perhaps rather, at least as it is currently practiced by me.

I've given up Irn Bru for Lent. It's really hard. Except... I've adapted by drinking Sprite instead. And Pepsi. And Coke. And many other drinks in the "sugar-water" genre. Some sacrifice!

Plus, of course, there isn't any nutritional value in these drinks at all. Giving them up shouldn't be any sacrifice - it's a pure gain. In effect, the 'sacrifice' of giving them up amounts to stopping slapping yourself in the face on a daily basis - it's good for you.

Besides, here in the West we live in absurd luxury, at least comparitively speaking. The sacrifice of giving up Irn Bru is absurdly trivial, especially when you consider that a single can has a higher calorific content than a great many people get in an entire day.

I think there is some small benefit in simply maintaining the discipline over the six weeks. And there's some small benefit in the symbolism, especially if it makes you more conscious of your comparitive wealth. Finally, there's a very significant benefit if this gives rise to a genuine lifestyle change - a six week break from some bad habit could potentially be enough to break it permanently.

But, considered purely as a sacrifice? No, it's trivial.

Anyway, I'm now pondering the notion of an "Extreme Lent" for next year (or, as people who actually observed it would call it: Lent). To whit, for the period from Ash Wednesday through to dawn on Easter Sunday, giving up:
  • Eggs
  • Cream
  • Butter (and margarines)
  • Bacon
  • Chocolate
  • Irn Bru, Coca Cola, and all other drinks in the 'sugar water' genre
  • Sugar
  • Chips (well, real chips, anyway. Oven chips would be fine)
  • Cheese
  • Cakes

And whatever else I've forgotten.

Basically, my philosophy (as always) amounts to: do it properly, or don't do it at all.

That sounds like a challenge...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Weekend of Fear... but it was okay

Yesterday I popped out briefly, to drop off a bag of clothes to a charity shop, and then into Glasgow to take a last look before the apocalypse.

When I returned home, I found a letter from HMRC waiting for me. Uh-oh, I thought. I don't trust letters from HMRC, since they're always a risk. Still, I opened it...

It was a letter saying that they'd decided I had either underpaid of overpaid taxes. Which was even more worrying. So, I started to dig through the numbers...

I checked it twice, just to be sure, but apparently they're going to send me a cheque for £16 that I have overpaid in tax. Result! Granted, I'm not sure it is worth that moment of panic when I thought I might have to pay them huge amounts of money.

Then, in the afternoon, I listened to the football, and say my fear confirmed. Motherwell lost, which meant that Celtic could win the league at Ibrox today. Since I fully expected Celtic to go and win that match heavily, and I expected a... reaction... from the Rangers fans, it seemed the apocalypse was imminent.

And yet, fortunately, it is not to be. Celtic have played really badly, Rangers have played really well. And so Celtic won't win the league today. The apocalypse is on hold.

(In the final analysis, it doesn't matter. Celtic will still win the league. But it's better it happens anywhere else, and on any other day. Also, it's rather a shame - if the league was close, this could well be a sign that Celtic might not have the mental strength to actually seal the deal. But, with what has happened to Rangers since January, it's not close, and so not as interesting after all.)

So, it's been a good weekend after all.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Should I Join the Army?"

A young man of my acquaintance asked for some advice yesterday. It transpires that he has recently been laid off from his job (a shame - it had seemed promising), and he was now seriously considering joining the Army with a view to spending four years there, soaking up as much training as possible, and seeing how that would set him up. What did I think?

Well, what I really thought was: oh crap, don't ask me!

But that's not a terribly helpful answer. So, what answer to really give? It's not a clean-cut issue. There are some very significant pros and cons:

Con: Let's not dance around it: the massive, massive downside is the risk. We've lost too many men in Afghanistan, and we're still going to be there for another little while. It looks like there may yet be some sort of a conflict with Iran, which could be very nasty indeed. There's all sorts of sabre-rattling going on over the Falkland Isles. There have been cut-backs in funding of our armed forces, but there don't seem to have been many cut-backs in the demands we place on them.

(Plus, the Tories have traditionally not been averse to making use of our armed forces. So I wouldn't want to assume that the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan implies a reduced risk.)

Pros: The Army is a solid, reputable employer. The pay is decent, the discipline would probably suit this young man pretty well, and the training that is on offer would stand him in good stead. I daresay the experience would do him a world of good (subject to the con...).

And, again, let's not dance around it: the opportunities available for young men in Falkirk, and especially young men without much by way of recognised training or qualifications, are painfully slim. Too many jobs require formal qualifications (or, rather, there are too few that don't), and that's going to get worse rather than better. Faced with several years of bouncing from one job 'opportunity' to another, picking up bits and pieces here and there but no recognised qualifications... the prospect of four years of solid employment looks really attractive.

(Of course, all of this assumes he could get in, which is by no means guaranteed.)

Ultimately, all I could advise him to do was to think about it very carefully. He asked me what I would do in his position, but I couldn't really answer that - my path was always fairly clear from school, to uni, to career; I never faced the problems facing too many of our young people today.

It was flattering to be asked my advice. I hope I was able to help, even if only a little. But, damn, I wish he hadn't!

The Best of Voyager

We arrived at the school last night to discover that they wouldn't let us in. Apparently, they sent us a psychic message that there was a drama production on (or something like that - my telepathy is somewhat rusty). Anyway, we weren't getting in. And, of course, it being such short notice, we couldn't arrange another hall either, and so band was cancelled.

On returning home, all set to work on the emergency one-shot for Saturday, I first checked my email and discovered that that game also has had to be cancelled. And so, suddenly, I had a whole lot of free time.

So, having gained a considerable amount of unexpected free time, I did something considerably unexpected.

Some weeks ago, I stumbled across a website discussing "Star Trek: Voyager", and making the argument that for one shining two-part episode, it actually live dup to its promise. That episode was "Equinox", rather than the "Year of Hell" two-parter that is usually cited as the series' best.

As it happened, back when Voyager was first on, the last episode I watched was the first part of "Equinox". The show then went on a season-break, and I missed it when it came back. Having missed an episode, I decided not to bother with the rest. As it also happened, Sky are in the midst of another repeat of all of Trek, and were just coming to the end of the fourth season. And so, when I discovered that those two episodes were repeated again on Sunday, I set them to record.

Well, I watched it, and it was awful. I suppose I should have expected nothing else.

The problems with the episode are the problems with the show as a whole - bad characters, actors who either can't act or just aren't being given to work with, idiotic plotting, and a lack of critical thought about the utility of their technology.

Was it better than "Year of Hell"? Well, probably, but not for a good reason. See, "Year of Hell" was a lot closer to what Voyager as a whole should have been - the ship and the crew seriously deteriorate over the course of their voyage, in a way that is genuinely interesting to watch. But it's a time travel episode in a show that always handles time travel incredibly poorly, the climax involved Janeway crashing the ship again, and of course it is then followed by the dreaded "reset button" ending - effectively, it was all a dream.

For all it's faults, "Equinox" avoids all of these. It features neither time travel nor the Borg (being pretty much the only Voyager episode post season 4 or so about which this is true), at no point does Janeway blow up the ship (although her captaincy is in it's traditionally awful style), and there is actually a (very minor) change at the end of the episode.

But it has all the same problems as Voyager has had from the start. It's the best, but that's the same as being the best football team in Scotland - you'd rather be that than nothing, but you'd rather not be in that league at all.

Sadly, the worst thing about this episode, and the worst thing about Voyager as a whole, just as with the Star Wars prequels, is not that it's bad (although it is), but rather that there's obviously so much potential there. And it's just wasted. Shame.

#11: "Towers of Midnight", by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The much-anticipated night off

So, the much anticipated "night off" came and went. How did I use it? Well...
  1. I made dinner. Exciting stuff, I know, but necessary. Most weeknights, dinner consists of something I've cooked some months ago and have reheated for the occasion. This offers the twin benefits of being able to eat home-cooked food almost every night and also not having to spend a long time cooking. Indeed, while doing this I was able to...

  2. I made lunch. Again, not terribly interesting, especially since lunch consists of exactly the same thing as every other weekday, but a necessary task all the same.

  3. TV. I'm told that watching TV shouldn't count as one of my daily tasks, but rather should be something I do to relax. And, indeed, I was somewhat relaxed while watching the night's episode of "True Blood". But, as with so many other things, if I didn't make sure to allocate time for it, it wouldn't get done, and so it gets added to the task list.

  4. Practice. I'm supposed to practice some tunes every night. After all, it is only through doing this that I'll ever get halfway decent at playing them. At the moment, the tunes in question are a hornpipe and two reels for our "Grade 3 Medley" that we're hoping to compete with next year. They're getting a lot better, but they're still rather poor.

  5. Cleaning. The band were out on Tuesday, which meant that I didn't have time to do the week's cleaning then. With the unexpected night free, I took the opportunity to clean the two bedrooms and the Purple Room, those being the rooms next on the cycle. This was another of those dull but necessary tasks; it was really good to get it out of the way, since I'd otherwise have had to do it on Saturday morning.

  6. Reading. Again, this is allegedly not a task, but still needs time allocated to it. I'm now five chapters and an epilogue away from the end of "Towers of Midnight", the penultimate book in the "Wheel of Time" series, which has surprisingly become excellent once again. I'm looking forward to getting that finished this weekend.

  7. Character Creation. In a surprising twist, it looks like the Saturday game is going to be on one last time this weekend. However, it equally turns out that I may have to run an emergency one-shot on Saturday, and that means I need characters. So, yesterday I put together the first of these characters, an old-school Dwarf Fighter named Baredd. More on all of this in a later post.


In truth, items #2, #3, #4 and #6 were things I would probably have done anyway, even had my previous plans not been derailed. Since the original plan included going out for dinner, item #1 would not have been necessary, while items #5 and #7 would have had to wait for another day.

It turned out that the "night off" really wasn't as exciting or useful as it might otherwise have been. Still, it was good to have a bit of time that I could redirect to other things, even if it ended up getting eaten in necessary, rather than fun, things. Besides, time is a zero-sum game - the things I got through yesterday are things that I would otherwise have had to do at some other time; the free time I could have had yesterday is instead turned into more valuable free time at the weekend.

Or something.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

900th post

This is the 900th post on this blog. By now, it should be obvious that there's no way I'm going to hit 1,000 posts by the 12th of April, so I'm not even going to try.

In honour of reaching this milestone, here is a list of five things I'm looking forward to (other than the obvious):
  1. Tonight: Night Off. In each of the last several weeks, I've been out five nights during the week, and quite often at the weekend. While most of the activities I've been involved in have been entertaining enough, there's no denying that they've been tiring. Due to a combination of factors, I unexpectedly find myself with a night off this evening. I'm looking forward to getting a bit of a rest.

  2. Thursday 5th April: Finishing Work. Two weeks tomorrow is my last day of work for a whole month. It's been a long hard run from Christmas, so I'm definitely looking forward to getting an extended break. I'm also, strangely, looking forward to coming back from that holiday, and hopefully making something of a fresh start back at work - I haven't done by best work in the past year, so hope to change that going forward.

  3. Friday 6th April: Irn Bru. Lent ends on the 6th of April, and with it my self-impsoed ban on Irn Bru. Am I looking forward to it? You betcha!

  4. Thursday 12th April: The end of the first dance. The obvious thing I'm looking forward to is, of course, the wedding itself. But I also find myself looking forward to the end of the first dance, that marking the point at which my public obligations for the day come to an end. Up to that point, there's always the next thing to be looking to; beyond that point I should finally be able to relax a bit.

  5. Saturday 14th April: Mexico! Lady Chocolat and I fly off on Honeymoon on Friday the 13th, but the first leg of our journey only takes us as far as exotic Manchester. After a night in the Premier Inn, we're off to Mexico on the Saturday. Huzzah!

Inspiration Strikes

I never thought I'd play "Vampire: the Masquerade" again.

All through high school, there was only one role-playing game (Dungeons & Dragons). And when I went to university, I thought this would remain the case. But when I joined the gaming society I was shunted into the one and only table with a free space (which is a whole other rant...), and at that table they were playing Vampire.

Which turned out to be great fun.

Anyway, over the next several years I played huge amounts of Vampire. I have played much more Vampire than I have any other RPG, with the sole exception of D&D. And, in that time I have run a huge number of campaigns, including one epic that ran for 2,300 years (game time), and 5 years (real time).

I had huge amounts of fun playing that game, and I learned a huge amount about storytelling, characterisation, and writing more generally. But, eventually, I burned out on it all. We reached a point where we were just going through the motions - here's vampire society; the PCs do this, this and this; now they're ruling Vampire society. Rinse and repeat... Plus, Vampires became horribly over-done, and that was even before they went all sparkly!

So, I decided to step away, and indeed took the view that I had told every story I cared to tell with the setting*, and so I wasn't going to run it again. Time to do other things, like lots of Serenity, Star Wars, and even Hunter (which is essentially the flip side of that coin). Plus, lots and lots of D&D of course! It was a shame, somewhat - they'd done a very nice "Victorian Age" version of the game that I kinda wanted to try, but never would.

That was the state of affairs for the past five years or so, and seemed set to stay that way. But then, a couple of months ago, Lady Chocolat loaned me the first season of "True Blood"... On watching the show, it was interesting to see the parallels. Some aspects of the show seemed to be direct lifts from Vampire; other things would be a perfect fit for the game. Suddenly, I got to thinking...

And then, there was an Idea. Hmm, I thought. Hmm...

* Incidentally, this was never quite true. I had had this one great idea for a "reverse trilogy" of stories, in which in the first chapter the PCs would be newly-minted characters in the modern era, then in the second they would be the sires of those same characters back in the Victorian Age, and then in the third they would be the sires of those characters back in the Dark Ages. But, in truth, I suspect that might have sucked anyway...

Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?

Apparently, the next piece of our childhoods that Michael Bay is setting out to destroy is "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". Apparently, he's going to turn them into space aliens, because that's obviously so much more realistic than the magical mutating goo that is the existing origin. Which suggests that he might be missing the point just a tad.

Amazingly, all this gives me cause to fondly reminisce over the decision to cast Vanilla Ice in the second movie.

Go Michael, go Michael, go!

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Very Busy Weekend

I had a spectacularly busy and productive weekend. On Friday night, we supplied our travel company with the required information to allow us to fly anywhere near the US, thus ensuring we can actually go on honeymoon. Then, we completed one of our top secret projects.

On Saturday, having gotten up bright and early, I launched into my epic list of tasks. Over the course of the day, I made the final arrangements for the final present to be given out to the wedding party; I purchased Mum's Mother's Day present; I acquired the last of my Christmas presents (trading in a book token to do so); I got Lady Chocolat's Birthday present; I cleaned the kitchen; I rearranged my bookshelves with much more efficient stacking, so that when Lady Chocolat moves in there will at least be some space for her books; I made the final arrangements for the ceilidh band for our wedding, and paid the outstanding balance; I sent an RSVP for another wedding; I finished off the pipe band's annual charity return (which was horrible); I got caught up on "Spartacus: Vengeance", watched an episode of "True Blood", one of "How I Met Your Mother", and two of "Battlestar Galactica". Oh, and I threw out several boxes that had been cluttering up the place, moved the boxes for our new TV and the PS3 down into storage, and made a call to arrange to donate our old TV to charity. And, since I always forget something when I make up the list of what I did on Saturday - yeah, I did something else too. (Oh yes, and I washed through all my bedding.

On Sunday morning, having gotten up even more bright and early, I proceeded to watch another episode of "True Blood", made lunch for today, and then cleaned the bathroom, thus finally catching up on all the outstanding cleaning tasks that had built up over the past several weeks. I then finally fitted the replacement toilet seat (having held off on this until the rest of the bathroom was clean). And then I headed over to LC's for lunch. On arriving, having remembered one of the tasks I had forgotten, I checked the tyre pressure on the car, and blew up one of the tyres that had actually had become dangerous.

So, it was an immensely productive weekend.

Anyway, a few minutes later we were chatting, and I said, "I got quite a lot done yesterday..." all set to launch into my great list...

"Have you...?" Lady Chocolat asked, citing one of the three (three!) things that were still not done. She then proceeded to chide me for not having found the time to complete this task.

Aaaargh!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Inspiration

Speaking of inspirations...

It seems likely that the "Flash Gordon" comic books and serial were inspired by ERB's writings, notably the "Barsoom" and "Venus" series.

"Star Wars" was most definitely inspired by "Flash Gordon". In fact, George Lucas apparently wanted to make a "Flash Gordon" film, but couldn't get the rights to do so, so made "Star Wars" instead. (And, incidentally, the same is true of "Willow" and "Lord of the Rings". Now, wouldn't that have been interesting...?)

After "Star Wars", there was a flood of other sci-fi produced, including "Battlestar Galactica" (the original), the "Flash Gordon" movie, "Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century" (the TV series - the original stories predate SW of course), and so on. Plus, of course, the "Star Trek" movies, "Next Generation", and the rest.

Then there's "Babylon 5", which is clearly sci-fi, and clearly inspired by SW, ST, and others, but is also inspired by fantasy writings, including "Lord of the Rings", Elric, and probably the Cthulhu mythos. Oh, and the King Arthur legends.

The key effect of B5 was to change the way TV shows told stories. Suddenly, you didn't just get a bunch of standalone episodes; shows had to have an ongoing plot. "Buffy" refined this concept, switching to a season-long plotline (as opposed to B5's five year epic), which spawned "24" and other shows.

But, importantly, B5 also gave rise to the new "Battlestar Galactica" and also to "Lost", neither of which could have done anything of the same scope had not someone showed the way - and both have distinct stories with a beginning, middle and end (even if "Lost" gets, well, lost about halfway through, and neither show ends very well).

Meanwhile, we get the "Star Wars" prequels, which build on much that has gone before. Those get mixed receptions, but do better than the last few "Star Trek" movies, which kill that series. But that, in turn, works out quite well, because we then get a reboot of the ST movies, which sensibly go for a much more action-movie vibe to them. By embracing that aspect of the series, they don't make the mistake of trying to be something they're not - much of the success of ST:TNG is due to Patrick Stewart in the lead role, but while he's a great actor, an action hero he is not.

And now we get back to "John Carter", which is adapted from those original stories (of course), but which features scenes that look very much like they were just lifted directly from "Star Wars" (and, actually, "Lord of the Rings" in at least one place).

There isn't actually a point to this post, you understand. (Maybe I should have said that at the outset.) I'm just intrigued at the way everything is now feeding off of everything else in a big symbiant circle. Plus, now I'm wondering what's next in the chain.

John Carter (of Mars)

Last night, Lady Chocolat and I went to see "John Carter" at the cinema. Lousy title, good film.

(Originally, it was called "Princess of Mars", which would have been a good and accurate title, and also serves as the title of the first of the Barsoom stories on which it is based. Apparently, though, marketing felt that boys wouldn't go to see a 'princess' movie, so they changed it to "John Carter of Mars". This would also have been a good and accurate title, albeit less good than the original. Apparently, though, marketing felt that girls wouldn't go to see a 'Mars' movie, so they changed it to "John Carter". This is an accurate but utterly bland title, which has managed not to alienate any particular groups - but has utterly failed to attract anyone. Good work! Next time, try "John Carter and the Princess of Mars", which isn't a great title, but at least has a little bit of an "Indiana Jones" vibe to it. Or just don't meddle.)

Anyway, the film was certainly pretty, and rather better written and performed than the last film I saw at the cinema. It told an entertaining story, and it told it pretty well. Which is about what was wanted, really.

But... I don't know...

It had sort of the feel of a modern "Flash Gordon" vibe to it - Earthman gets catapulted into an alien society, where he proceeds to ally with an alien species to bring down a great tyrant. Sure, there was a bit more to it than that, but that was my overriding sense of the film. (Probably because "Flash Gordon" was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs work, rather than the other way around, but still.)

The problem is that that story is, to be frank, more than a little silly. "Flash Gordon" dealt with this by embracing the silliness. It's pretty hard to be all serious when you're wearing those outfits, when spouting that dialogue, or when you're Brian Blessed. Plus, Queen.

"John Carter", on the other hand, took itself oh-so-seriously. Sure, there were a few humerous moments, but it just lacked the sheer absurdity of "Flash Gordon" (or "Pirates of the Carribean", for that matter). It was good... but it just wasn't as much fun as the earlier film.

And yet, at the same time it just didn't have the gravitas needed to pull off the "Lord of the Rings" vibe, either - the one that gives the impression that "all this stuff actually happened". Good as the story is, it is always going to be pretty lightweight fantasy, and the film just didn't carry that off.

Ultimately, I had fun. It was a decent evening. And I would recommend going to see the film, or at least catching it on TV when the time comes (depending on how allergic you are to the cinema's rip-off prices). But don't expect to be blown away - it's much better than any of the Star Wars prequels (and have some very similar scenes done better), but that's not really saying a lot.

Monday, March 12, 2012

No Longer Legend - wait for it - Dary

"How I Met Your Mother" has jumped the shark. In truth, it has been ailing for a while - the show depends on not wrapping up its main storyline, but it has now been in a holding pattern for some years; the writers ran out of things to do with Robin about two years ago; and they're now determined to have Barney 'grow up', and given that the best thing about the show was his determination not to do so, that's a big blow.

But the episode that I watched on Saturday (a repeat from the first half of the seventh season, but not one I'd watched previously) was dire, and I think marks the point of no return.

Part of the plot of the episode was another instance of "Ted dates a woman who is not their mother". Or, rather, it was a case of the writers and the cast yet again going through the motions of that storyline. But, while tedious, that was not the worst thing about the episode.

Neither was their use of Robin this episode, who serves solely as a means for them to include their special guest star du jour, Kal Penn. Again, they don't know what to do with the character... so they make use of her to include her boyfriend? Bad stuff...

But the major problem with the show, which has been ongoing for the past season and a quarter, and which is guaranteed to run for at least the rest of the season, is the 'baby' storyline. Which I wouldn't mind so much, except that it's exactly the same as every baby storyline in every other sitcom ever - the parents to be start thinking about having a baby, then they wonder if they're ready, then they decide they're ready but for some reason one of them delays, then they finally go ahead and run into fertility problems. This then leads to the episode where they consult a specialist, and we get to vicariously go through the pain of wondering if they maybe can't hace children (spoiler: they can). A few short episodes later, and the woman is pregnant. Yay!

Then we have the inevitable run of episodes focussing on pregnancy. So, there's the goofy midwife (every time). There's the "shall we find out the sex of the baby" episode (spoiler: they do, and spoiler: it's a boy), then the "what shall we name the baby" episode (spoiler: whatever they choose, that's not the name), then a fairly quiet spell, and then the inevitable "hilarious" episode where one or both parents have to rush to the hospital (spoiler: they make it, just barely in time).

(Occasionally, you also get a subplot where the parents discover there's a chance the baby may inherit some genetic disease, and get all worried about that. Spoiler: the child is perfectly healthy.)

Now, the spoilers above aren't for "How I Met Your Mother" - after all, we're only part way through the baby plot in that show. But they seem to apply incredibly widely to sitcoms (and, indeed, TV in general). Eventually, they all seem to do the 'baby' storyline, and then it's plotting by numbers.

Incidentally, regarding the "spoiler: it's a boy"... You'd think that there should be a roughly equal possibility of either a boy or a girl. But, actually, on any given show you can be reasonably sure that the first child born will be a boy. Then, if there is a second child, she will be a girl. This seems to be an almost universal pattern. (The biggest exception I could think of was "Frasier", where the first child born is Roz's daughter... but that doesn't really count - years before "Cheers" had done the 'baby' storyline, and the child born was Frasier's son.)

I wouldn't mind the 'baby' storyline, if they actually gave us something new. But now that so many shows have done it so many times, and since the storyline plays out in an almost identical manner each time, it's become something I dread. It's repetitive, lazy storytelling - better almost to write the parents out of the show for a while, if only to avoid the same tired jokes being told yet again.

Oh well. It had a good run. But it's now time for "How I Met Your Mother" to wrap up - it's done.

#10: "Pathfinder: The Empty Throne", by Neil Spicer

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Forty Days before Easter...

Yesterday, I managed to get all confused. See, I've given up Irn Bru not-quite-for-Lent (that's a whole other rant). And, with the wedding being five weeks today, I'm much more conscious of the passage of the days than normally at this time of year.

So, yesterday I said that I'd done 15 days, so there were 25 to go (since the one key fact about Lent that everyone knows is that it is the 40 days before Easter). But then, that couldn't be right - Good Friday was 30 days away. I know this well, as I finish work the day before.

So then I considered that perhaps Lent ended on Easter Monday. Actually, that would make sense - it starts on Ash Wednesday, and 40 days is "six weeks minus 2 days", which does indeed take us to a Monday, so...

But I was absolutely sure that I'd not had Irn Bru for two weeks. I was sure I'd done two weekly shops since. Plus, I distinctly remember a discussion about pancakes for breakfast that took place on a Saturday within Lent, and it certainly wasn't last Saturday. Perhaps I was just going mad?

It turns out I'm not mad (or, at least, that that isn't an example of it). Lent does indeed start on Ash Wednesday, but it runs through to Good Friday, six weeks plus two days later.

So, that's a relief. Only now I feel rather aggrieved - I had to get rid of some perfectly good Irn Bru on Ash Wednesday, and now it turns out that I was giving it up under false pretences. Plus the "thought I was mad" thing, of course. But mostly false pretences.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Return to a Galaxy Far Far Away

I went to see "The Phantom Menace" in 3D last night. For some bizarre reason, Lady Chocolat had declined to accompany on this particular masochistic trip, so I went alone.

The cinema was rather less busy than any previous time I'd been to see a Star Wars film. Indeed, when I went to see TPM on opening day back in 1999, I was forced onto the front row by a near-complete lack of other seats. This time, there were seven of us in the audience.

Anyway, there were the interminable adverts, followed by trailers for a bunch of films I'm mostly not going to bother seeing, and then the film started.

Sadly, TPM is really not a good film. Previously, I've said that it's actually pretty good up until Nute Gunray's first line... but actually, it doesn't get that far. Just like Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons", it starts to fall apart even before we get to the film itself, because in the opening crawl the film starts droning on about taxation of trade routes. Oh dear...

Anyway, the film then proceeds onwards, and we get some nice visuals, a couple of lines of dialogue, and then a real clunker: "With all due respect..." It was a bad line in 1999, and it isn't any better now. And that's three lines into the film!

Then we get the aforementioned Nute Gunray. Frankly, I'm amazed that in all his tinkering, George Lucas hasn't made one easy change that would massively improve TPM - subtitle the Neimodians! As it stands, they are speaking English, but the prosthetics on their mouths just aren't expressive enough to do the job. They look ridiculous. (And it doesn't help that they sound like a bad racist caricature, too.)

(I'm not sure how you could have a good racist caricature, to be honest...)

Anyway, enough with the nitpicking about the film. If I were to detail everything that was wrong with it, this post might never end. Indeed, I have seen reviews of the film that are actually longer than the film itself, which don't even cover everything!

TPM is not particularly helped by the switch to 3D. It's not harmed, noticably, but it's not helped either. It's likely that live-action films (at least) probably need to be made with 3D firmly in mind in order to see any benefit.

What does help TPM immensely is the return to the big screen. Simply put, the film is gorgeous. Indeed, if you ignore the actors, ignore the bad dialogue, and just watch the scenery while listening to John Williams' amazing score, you can actually get a really good film out of it.

Speaking of acting... I feel Jake Lloyd gets a raw deal out of this one. Sure, Anakin is really annoying, but that's not his fault. After all, he didn't choose the words to say. And he does the job he's asked to do - he's cheerful when asked to be cheerful, he's sad when asked to be sad. Honestly, he's better than Keanu Reeves in most of his films. (Not high praise, I know, but he is very young.)

Also, there actually is some good acting on show in the film. Liam Neeson is actually pretty good, while both Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor are okay (but no better than that). But what surprised me was the performance by Pernilla August as Shmi Skywalker - the scenes between her and Qui-Gon Jinn are actually surprisingly solid. (Also, Samuel L. Jackson isn't as awful as I remembered, although he has almost nothing to do here. I guess it's the next two films that just suck.)

All in all, TPM is about the same as I remembered. It's certainly not a good film, nor anywhere near as good as even Return of the Jedi. However, I continue to maintain that it's the best of the three prequels - it doesn't have an actively painful romance in the middle like Attack of the Clones, nor does it drag to a halt for about 90 minutes like Revenge of the Sith.

Unfortunately, next up will be Attack of the Clones, which is my least favourite of all the films (and which has the weakest soundtrack as well). But I'm actually quite looking forward to Revenge of the Sith in 3D - there were some scenes that seemed to be shot specifically for the 3D version, and really didn't work in 2D.

Unlamented

So, Terra Nova was cancelled. This was not exactly a shock, nor indeed was it a shame.

Actually, on this one I find myself in the slightly odd position that I was actively hoping for it to be cancelled. In general, I don't do this, because even if I don't like the show, other people probably do, and I can just as easily go watch something else.

(Although I have absolutely no interest in Twilight, them making the movies doesn't affect me in the slightest. Except the fifth one - the notion of splitting a single book into two movies is fundamentally wrong, and should be stamped out when encountered. And that goes for "Harry Potter", too - a good edit job would have eliminated any need for that awful seventh movie.)

But Terra Nova was a bit different from the norm. See, it was a show with a great concept, which was after all the reason that I watched. It was just that the execution of the show was pretty lousy - by the third episode it was already actively annoying me.

The thing is that that makes the show almost perfect fodder for an RPG campaign. It allows the GM to steal the things that work, ditch the things that don't, and then take the solid concept in whatever direction they want.

The only other prerequisite for this to work really well is for the show to last just long enough to give a sense of the setting, so players can easily get onto the same page, but also getting cancelled soon enough that the amount of lore doesn't become unmanageable. This is especially important if the GM wants to throw the existing material out - the more of it there is, and more tightly woven, the harder it is to discard.

(This is what separates Terra Nova from Star Trek: Voyager, in fact. Voyager also had a really strong concept and a lousy execution, but because Voyager lasted for the full seven years it is nearly impossible to 'reset' it for a campaign. The best you could do is have another starship thrown across the galaxy and have to make their way home... and I did that particular campaign back in high school.)

So, the cancellation of Terra Nova works out really well for me. And now I have another campaign concept to add to my list...

Monday, March 05, 2012

Relieved

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that there was a distinct risk that Celtic would win the league at the next Old Firm match at Ibrox in a couple of weeks. Under the circumstances, I felt that this was extremely worrying, and that it would be better if they could win the league absolutely anywhere else. (That they will win the league isn't really in question - it's just a question of where and when.)

Fortunately, Celtic dropped points at the weekend, and although Rangers lost their match the mathematics has changed.

If Celtic win the Old Firm match, that will now place them on 78 points. If Rangers win all of their other matches, they could (in theory) also reach 78 points. Furthermore, if Motherwell win all of their remaining matches, they too can reach 78 points.

In order for Celtic to win the league at Ibrox, then, they need Rangers to first drop points at Dundee United, and for Motherwell to drop points against either Aberdeen or Kilmarnock. (Plus, of course, they would need to win the match at Ibrox.) Granted, that's not a hugely unlikely sequence of results, but it seems much less likely than the previous "win all your games, and expect Rangers won't win all of theirs" - this now depends on two teams dropping points rather than one, and is almost entirely out of Celtic's hands.

Of course, there's still virtually no doubt that Celtic will win the league - any two wins and a draw in their remaining games will guarantee that. It's just now more likely that they'll do so at Celtic park on 1st April (against St Johnstone) than at Ibrox. And that's much less of a powder keg.

All in all, it's a bit of a relief.

Two not entirely unrelated facts

On Saturday, I had my Stag Day, which was fun.

On Sunday morning (well, afternoon), I had to go to B&Q to buy a new toilet seat.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Ruined

My car was in for repair on Friday. Originally, it was supposed to be another short-term job while they arranged to get the replacement parts in. However, they were able to find a good substitute and do the work 'properly'. I got the car back, and it should be fine now.

But I don't like it.

Every time I get in my car, I expect to see that engine management light come back on. Every time I press the accelerator, I expect to discover I just don't have the power I should. I expect the same problems to come back, if not in the next couple of weeks, then most likely in the next few months.

I just don't any longer have any confidence in my car. This ongoing issue has just ruined it for me.