Monday, May 30, 2011

Another consideration for Conan RPG rules

I mentioned before that I have been looking at systems to use for a Hyborian Age campaign eventually; something that matches up to the weird pulp fantasy feeling one gets when reading Howard (and Lovecraft, and Smith, and Leiber...).

D. and I were talking recently about Labyrinth Lord, and I also want to check out OpenQuest. I need to investigate the damage dice variation for Action Cards, too.

Now, another possibility: Stuart at Strange Magic will be following up on his excellent Weird West RPG with Weird Fantasy. So many good choices!

Friday, May 27, 2011

100 Years of Vincent Price

He certainly deserves more than just this brief posting, but I couldn't let the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price's birth go by without commemoration.

One of my favorite actors--and one of the greats from the second generation of horror movie icons, among such company as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (also born on May 27th). Price was born on this date in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911.

Cinema St. Louis has been celebrating this past week with their Vincentennial: exhibits of artifacts, artwork, lectures and presentations, and screenings of 20 Price films. Check out the program guide here.

I couldn't make it to the Vincentennial, but I could probably host a reasonable facsimile here in the Kaiju Lair with our collection of Price DVDs. I'll try to spin one over the holiday weekend--or check out a movie I don't have via streaming Netflix.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

True20 Freeport campaign wrap-up, part 2

For the next few campaign wrap-up postings, I'd like to show some photos taken during the game. I'll also include scans of some maps and my notes. See the first part of my Shadows over Freeport wrap-up here.



March 2008: My gaming area after the character creation session and before the "official" first session. I added a four-foor table to the end where I sit to allow more room for the players and my notes and other items.

May 2009: The party fights their way through degenerate serpent people on the fourth level of the sunken Temple of Yig, buried under the volcanic rock of Mount A'Val. This location was taken from the module Madness in Freeport, the final chapter of The Freeport Trilogy.

Down to the fifth level of the Temple of Yig.

At the base of the temple, the sixth level, the group splits up to fight more degenerate serpent people in the corridor while others take on the awakened Avatar of Yig who had been sleeping in the sacrificial pit.

Another view of the battle. The worm miniature shown here is far below scale (so is the map); the Avatar was closer to 70 feet long. The d10 in the background marked the location of the only intact egg found in the hatchery.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: First Men in the Moon (1964)

1963 was a good year for Ray Harryhausen. One of his most popular films, Jason and the Argonauts, was in general release; he married his wife Diana; and pre-production started on his next film, First Men in the Moon.

In the late 1950s and 60s, studios produced many films that we could call "Victorian science-fiction adventure" -- Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea are some examples. The advance of special effects techniques and widescreen Technicolor processes allowed filmmakers to realize these fantastic worlds on the screen in a realistic way as never before.

First Men in the Moon was a departure from other science fiction films of the era. Rather than an invasion of Earth by aliens, it documents the exploration of an alien civilization by human beings. Harryhausen was a fan of H.G. Wells' book and had wanted to bring it to the screen for some time (the last film production having been made in 1919) but was unable to convince his partner, producer Charles Schneer, that it could be done in a way that modern audiences would believe.

That changed when he mentioned the idea to British screenwriter Nigel Kneale (creator of the character Professor Quatermass). Kneale proposed the idea of a wrap-around story, in which a modern UN lunar mission finds a tattered Union Jack on the surface and a note claiming the Moon for Queen Victoria. Schneer signed Kneale on to co-write the screenplay.

Unlike most Harryhausen films there are only three instances of stop-motion animation: the caterpillar-like "mooncalf", a Selenite technician and the Grand Lunar, the leader of the Selenites. The majority of visual effects are models, camera effects, forced perspective, and optical-printing layers of mattes together. The majority of the insect-like Selenites are portrayed by children in costume (the same technique used later in The Green Slime).

First Men in the Moon is a fun movie. It's very much in the vein of other family adventure films of the era like Journey to the Center of the Earth. I don't recall ever seeing First Men... on TV growing up, certainly not as often as Journey... was shown.

I watched the 2002 DVD release. The print used for the DVD looks good, and is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The DVD also includes a photo gallery, trailers for First Men... and two Harryhausen Sinbad films, a three-minute featurette on the optical print/stop-motion process Dynamation, and the hour-long bio The Harryhausen Chronicles.

Trailer with John Landis commentary available at Trailers From Hell.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Silverado (1985)

I had not seen Silverado until this past week. It was popular at the time of its release, particularly among the gaming and movie geeks I knew at the time. I just never got around to seeing it at the theater or on video.

After surviving a pre-credits ambush, ex-con Emmett (Scott Glenn) meets Paden (Kevin Kline) in the desert, left for dead by the bandits who stole his horse, hat and gun. They catch up with the bandits at a cavalry outpost, where they also encounter Cobb (Brian Dennehy), who used to run with Paden in earlier lawless days. Cobb offers Paden work, which he refuses. Emmett and Paden continue on to Turley to find Emmett's younger brother Jake (Kevin Costner) so they can both travel on to California. While in Turley they meet Mal (Danny Glover), an African-American gunfighter who left work in the stockyards of Chicago to find his family. Mal is thrown out of town by the sheriff (John Cleese) and the other three escape after busting Jake out of jail. The four of them find their way to Silverado where the son of the cattle baron Emmett killed in self-defense and Sheriff Cobb (something he forgot to mention to Paden earlier) control the town with intimidation and violence. 

Lawrence Kasdan directed, produced and co-wrote the movie along with his brother. I wonder if there's a parallel between the Kasdan brothers and the characters of brothers Jake and Emmett: which one is the solid, steady loner, and which is the talented but wild and undisciplined one?

Kasdan had struck gold with several hit films before this. He completed the screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back with Leigh Brackett, wrote and directed Body Heat, wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, and wrote, directed and produced The Big Chill.

There seem to be two schools of thought among movie buffs concerning Silverado. One viewpoint holds that Kasdan works too close to the old line in the Western genre. The movie uses many of the classic Western movie cliches but doesn't do anything new with them. The second opinion is that it's Kasdan's adherence to these tropes that are its strength. Silverado is really one of the Last Great Westerns of the classic Hollywood studio era. There wouldn't be another major Western until Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992, which would then usher in a new round of Westerns including Tombstone and Kasdan's Wyatt Earp (again with Costner) in 1993.

I agree with the second viewpoint. It does use many classic Western tropes we have seen before but they are used here in a new way. Not in the revisionist way that we saw in Westerns of the 1970s--many of the Hollywood Westerns in the 1970s portrayed the End of the West as a historical idea but also as the End of the Hollywood System and the rise of independent filmmakers, heavily influenced by the spaghetti Westerns of Italy and Spain.  

Silverado is a return to the ideas of the '40s, '50s and early '60s Hollywood Western. It's idealistic but not sappy, fun but not comedic. The events of the film and the obstacles put in the paths of our heroes are taken seriously by the characters (and by the film itself) even though there is still an optimistic tone that is reminiscent of the best classic Westerns. The difference is that here Kasdan is using a more modern method of storytelling that really became standard in Hollywood films at the end of the Eighties. We have multiple heroes with multiple storylines going at once and we see how these threads spread out and converge again. Kasdan uses classic filming shots and camera setups with a more modern story and editing style to create a new "old" Western. I understand the argument of its detractors, but the film has such heart and is such fun to watch. The four lead actors--most of them fairly early in their careers--really shine and work well together. I especially enjoy the fun and youthful Kevin Costner seen here, in contrast to the more serious demeanor he displays in much of his later work.

Silverado is also notable for the construction of the largest standing Western town set up to that time (later destroyed by fire during the filming of Will Smith's Wild Wild West, also co-staring Kevin Kline) which was re-dressed to portray both the towns of Turley and Silverado.

I watched Silverado using Instant Netflix. The menu screen suggests that it's in HD, although I couldn't tell if Netflix used a high-def transfer or the DVD transfer. The film is also available on 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray with several great extras, including a commentary track by Western historians.

See the theatrical trailer here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shadows Over Freeport: True20 campaign wrap-up

It's been a little over two weeks since our Freeport campaign finished up. Freeport is Green Ronin's fantasy/pirates/Lovecraftian horror setting. The main book is systemless and GR has released or licensed rules companions for most of the major systems. We used GR's True20 system.

In total, we had sixty game sessions over three years and two months of real time. The final three sessions involved the party fighting a group of skeletal pirates at the bottom of the ocean, exploring a pyramid temple of serpent people on a sunken island while looking for the lost treasure of the legendary Captain Francisco, and fighting Deep Ones and their god who was imprisoned within the temple.

I'm still putting together my thoughts about the campaign. I think everyone enjoyed it. I often second-guess my game-mastering style, so I try to look over how the sessions went and what things I can improve on for the future.

Some ideas so far:

Talking with my hands: I tend to use my hands quite a bit when I talk. I hope that it isn't too distracting, but I'd like to cut down on it.

Speaking about the environment from my perspective: During this campaign, I noticed myself doing this and I tried not to make it a habit. When I describe a scene or location, I imagine it from the players' perspective and try to describe it as such. Unfortunately, I sometimes use directions from my point-of-view; that is, if I describe a tunnel to the left of the party, I would talk as if it was on my left--the opposite viewpoint of the party--which could get confusing for them. Perhaps even worse were the couple of times that I drew out maps on our miniatures grid mat facing me instead of the players.

Forgetting to use NPCs in combat: Often I found that I would forget about the allied NPCs that were with the party during combat. Usually I would have the NPCs take their actions before any of the group's adversaries. Missing their turns was never a determining factor in any of the combats so it wasn't an important issue but it could have lead to more interesting scenes. In my defense, one of my general guidelines is that NPC allies should never upstage the player characters.

Spending time looking up obscure rules: Part of this campaign's purpose was to try out True20, kick the tires and see how it works under actual play conditions. I'm still thinking about that and how it went. What I'd like to avoid is spending valuable time checking rules. At its heart, True20 is simple: roll a d20, add an attribute, and roll against a target number. With the additions of the Companion book, the Freeport Companion, the Bestiary, and the Handbooks for each of the three classes, there were some occasions where it became necessary to look something up. I was often torn between wanting to get the rules right and making a temporary ruling so that play would not slow down.

Not enough detail vs. too much detail: This is a tricky one. I tried to add enough detail to descriptions to make the campaign world seem real but without overwhelming the players with detail that wasn't significant to the game. I can recall describing some less-important NPCs with only the barest details.

These are only a few items that I've been thinking about. I'm sure I'll come back to this later. The next post about the Freeport campaign will have some photos of miniatures, maps and terrain from various important scenes. I also want to post some scans of my notes, charts and other notebook jottings.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Gaming blogroll update

I've been meaning to do this for some time now: I converted the majority of static links on my gaming blog list to an auto-updating blogroll. You'll find it at the bottom of the left sidebar. It's not complete so I'll be adding more as time goes on.

To new (and current) followers of the blog, thank you! I hope you find what I post here interesting and useful.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Reptilicus (1961/1962)

Reptilicus is a bizarre little movie. It's no wonder that clips of the monster were used as stock footage during the more chaotic moments on The Monkees' television show. Being the only Danish giant monster film, it was quite popular in its home country. I do remember it being shown on TV quite a bit when I was a kid, although I only remember seeing it fully once or twice. I remember it mostly from those clips on The Monkees.

High about the Arctic Circle (in a sunny tree-filled forest), a group of copper miners collect core samples from below the permafrost. The drill bit comes back up with thick leathery flesh caught in the threads... and fresh blood. Scientists from the Danmarks Aquarium are sent to inspect and dig up the fossil--or whatever is down there. They find part of a giant prehistoric reptile's tail. Keeping the sample frozen, they ship it back to the aquarium for study. The freezer door is left open one night, and it's discovered that the thawing tail is still alive and regenerating. Later, two UN representatives join them: a stern US brigadier general and a beautiful female scientist from UNESCO. Just in time, too, as the combination of increased nutrient flow and an electrical storm cause the regeneration to rapidly accelerate...

The real-life drama behind the making of the film is perhaps more entertaining than the movie itself. American producer/director Sid Pink developed the idea for the story, and co-wrote the screenplay with novelist and screenwriter Ib Melchior (who was born in Copenhagen). Pink set up production for the film in and around Copenhagen. The original version was filmed in the Danish language by Danish director Poul Bang and released there in 1961.

Pink directed the English version for American-International Pictures--twice. The first English version was filmed with many of the same actors, none of whom spoke English. They recited their lines in English phonetically. The execs at AIP, particularly Sam Arkoff, hated it. They had the film re-cut, with American voice actors dubbing the lines in English. They still had to match the stilted mouth movements of the Danish actors, however.

Several scenes and parts of scenes were cut for the AIP release, including the infamous Reptilicus flying scene (or this link). It's set at night so the crude nature of the effects work isn't as obvious. Compared to the rest of the creature effects in the movie, the flying scene really isn't that bad. The model for Reptilicus itself appears to be a marionette puppet.

One aspect of the film that was kept is the inclusion of popular Danish comedian Dirch Passer. He plays the night watchman hired on to keep an eye on the frozen Reptilicus tail in the aquarium. His scenes are played for laughs, of course. The officer he talks to at the police station was one of his frequent comedy collaborators.

For the AIP release, Reptilicus' green acid slime spit was added. This takes the form of hand-drawn animation added into scenes where the monster attacks crowds at the beach or on the streets of Copenhagen. Apparently many, many locals were used for the crowd scenes, and members of the Danish military and their equipment were provided for the films use. These scenes and the stock footage are carefully edited together. It's really not bad at all for a lower-budget production. And, as previously noted, it was a source of pride for the Danish people.

Before the monster attacks, the American general accompanies his Danish counterpart and the UNESCO representative for a drive and a night on the town. This part seems almost as if someone slipped a tour package film into this monster movie. For someone who seemed to hate his new assignment at first, the brigadier general now appears to know all about the history, architecture and public sculpture of Copenhagen.

I watched the out-of-print Midnite Movies DVD from MGM. The print used is in decent shape, considering the history of the film. The film was shot in 1.37:1 35mm, so the DVD is full screen and non-anamorphic. You can also watch the 10-minute version. For more details, I recommend the reviews and background at Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension or The Monster Shack. It's goofy fun, and really inspires the viewer to provide an ongoing MST3K-style commentary.

Update: Thanks to io9 for linking to this review!

Update 2: Shout Factory released a four-movie Sci-Fi Classics disc in September 2013 including Reptilicus, presumably using the same print as the MGM disc.

Update 3: Scream Factory, a sub-label of Shout Factory,  will release a Blu-ray double-feature of Tentacles (1977, also previously released in the Midnite Movies series) and Reptilicus on June 16th, 2015.

Update 4: Reptilicus is the experiment for the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000's 11th season, now streaming on Netflix (listed as Season One).

Conan (2011) Theatrical Trailer

The first theatrical trailer for Conan was released into the wilds of the internet yesterday. I'll have more to say about it later after I've watched it a few more times. I will say that, based on just one viewing, I'm slightly more encouraged about the film than before.

There's some talk that this trailer will be attached to Thor when it's released this weekend. If not, it should be.

Loud speakers warning: the video starts playing as soon as the page loads up.