Sunday, March 22, 2015

On 1000(ish) Days

So it turns out that the answer was 76, which is actually not bad, all told.

And now I'm back in the game(ish)! At least for as many more blog posts as it suits my fickle whim. So let's talk about what the hell has happened since 2012.

Well, just for starters, I discovered that I don't post on my blog much when I'm writing at my job and in my spare time, and I've been doing a lot of both. In three and a half years on the job, I've worked on... uh... a lot of books. Like, well more than 15, if you include the ones I started but later passed off or finished but didn't start.

But my meaningful, real-life personal achievements aren't really what this blog has ever been about, so enough about that.

I've run some RPG campaigns that I'm extremely happy with. In vaguely chronological order since last I reported in:

-Mallach'd, a fantasy campaign using Black Crusade and set in a world of my own creation. Meant as an intro to RPGs for a few new players. Successful in that respect, I'd say. Somebody used a souped-up, armored pet ferret (a Greater Minion, by the end) as an anti-infantry missile. That was pretty cool.
Presented with apologies to both GW and Nickelodeon
-Fate/Crusade, a follow-up to Fate/Heresy delving into the next iteration of the Holy Grail War and exploring the various schemes and shenanigans therein. This one was a doozy. Everyone (and there were six players) wanted to play a Servant this time around, but I believed (and still do) that the Master/Servant dynamics were pretty important to the core of the Grail War concept, and didn't want to roleplay six Masters myself, because that would be insanity. So I decided that the best solution would be to have two parties in alternate weeks. To create an in-universe reason for there being two Grail Wars, I dug deep into my inner Convoluted Nonsense Rules Bullsh*tter (I really didn't have to dig that deep) and came up with the following idea:

After the events of Fate/Heresy, lots of mages turned out to the next Grail War (because not only did it not end the world, but Ishmael might actually have gotten his wish (...?).

The creatively named Group A would be taking part in a Grail War from December 12-December 25th (or so). Everything normal(ish).

The just-as-creatively-named Group B would be taking part in a second Grail War starting on December 26th, with the lurking question in the background: what the hell happened to Group A.

Bridging the campaign would be a convenient plot device: nobody got the Servant they intended to summon. All Masters had intended (or been intended, for the several people with no real understanding of the Grail War). Group B would therefore consist of the Masters who didn't get Servants and the Servants who heard a call and then found themselves answering to... somebody else. As events unfolded for Group A in the campaign, their lingering bonds with the members of Group B would cause each one to see Group A's plot as a serious of visions.

Seemed complex enough for a Nasuverse plot. Actually, it seemed a bit too simple, but I'm just a pale imitator running a roleplaying game.

To my amazement, this format actually worked. I was worried people would be overwhelmed, but my players handled it like champs. They accepted my request that they not try to constantly break the timeline with grace, and I think I gave them pretty good agency despite one group being kind of doomed (?) by canon. I might actually revive the format someday, perhaps for a more formally investigative campaign.

Also, it was an excuse for me to throw super sweet mythological badasses like Thrain and Karna and Cadmus at my PCs in awesome, cinematic tableaus that could only be scored with wailing metal guitars. Which is somewhere between 1/2 and 9/10ths of why I enjoy about RPGs (the other 1/2-1/10th being character-driven banter).
I made some custom Drama Cards for this one. Fate Cards. Get it? Fate? Because...
After that, I ran an Age of Rebellion game which consisted of me aggressively cribbing from Mobile Suit Gundam while hoping nobody would notice because I knew they hadn't seen it. The final scene involved the culmination of an intrepid reporter (PC)'s romantic arc with an enemy ace pilot (NPC) as the crew of the Ghost of Alderaan outraced a gigantic hyperspace bomb. So, mission successful, I guess?

And currently, I'm co-running an Avatar campaign with HTMC, which is easily one of the most fun settings I've had an excuse to tool around in as a GM. Our plot involves civil war in the Earth Kingdom and the rise of a dictatorship against the monarchy, and WE HAVE SKYPE TRANSCRIPTS TO PROVE THAT WE WERE DISCUSSING THIS NOT A WEEK BEFORE SEASON 4 OF KORRA'S PLOT WAS REVEALED, DAMMIT!
How did they come up with such a perfect Mr. Flask character? I mean, really?
The giant robot feudalism campaign still eludes me. Someday.

Some more review haikus of the standouts of 2012-(early)2015

RWBY (Season 1 & 2):

Red like roses fills
my dreams and HOLY CRAP IS

A few more thoughts:
RWBY is a strange show (IN A GOOD WAY!). Its visuals are sometimes rough around the edges, but a really unique artistry always shines through the limited animation budget (which is admittedly visibly higher in Season 2). Its action choreography is really second to none, and many of the work-arounds for talky scenes are actually really clever (silhouette extras, using cartoon physics to avoid doing smooth walking animations, etc). Monty Oum and Rooster Teeth really made the most of what they had, and as a creator, I really have to respect that kind of resourcefulness and passion. Monty will be missed as a creative force, no doubt, and I think a lot of his work will persist because even as technology progresses, the creativity behind the methods will still be visible.

And yet, interestingly, the talky scenes are often some of the most memorable. Rooster Teeth's writing team and voice actors nail natural dialogue, and the strong if straightforward character relationships really pulled me in week to week. As a writer, I'm jealous of how they brought the characters to life fluidly through simple exchanges in the script. I often found myself looking forward to the conversations as much as the fights. Although the time the leads take on a giant robot in hand to hand combat is pretty f*cking standout, I'm not gonna lie.

Jeff Williams' soundtracks for both seasons are also amazing. I'm listening to some of his RvB stuff while writing this.

Because I am fascinated by alternate performances and interpretations, I am inordinately excited for the Japanese dub of RWBY so that I can spend way too much time thinking about what subtly different choices in delivery mean. But I'm a nerd for that stuff.

Psycho-Pass (1 & 2):

In the dark future,
Urobutcher strikes gold again
with all the murder?

Ongoing Blather:
I didn't expect to like Psycho-Pass. Fate/Zero was amazing, but reinterpreting somebody else's IP is one thing and creating a new one is another task entirely. I wasn't sure if Urobuchi was really a creator I wanted to keep my eye on or just one who had done a particular work I really liked.

Psycho-Pass settled that question. Urobuchi's the real deal. And not just because he writes the best villain side-conversations.

But also because he writes the best villain side-conversations.

Of course, a lot of other people were involved in Psycho-Pass creatively, and the deeper I delve into professional creative pursuits myself, the more I have trouble seeing any single strain of influence as the only one worth studying. Production I.G. knocks this one out of the park, showing off some fantastic experience from Ghost in the Shell to create one of the most interesting, believable, and chilling cyberpunk worlds I've seen. As Makishima mentions, the world of Psycho-Pass isn't Gibson's wild vision of the future. It isn't quite post-cyberpunk - much of Psycho-Pass still revolves around the sort of hyperbole-as-reality that drives Stevenson and his ilk - but it's edging slowly toward it. The author and even characters are eminently aware of the cyberpunk genre.

Also, Akane is a badass.

On that subject, I actually liked Psycho-Pass' much maligned second season, too. Urobuchi might not have been at the helm (and it showed in some ways), but overall, it was a solid continuation that explored new ground, showing characters in their new roles in the fallout from the end of the first season in a natural, interesting way. I love that Ginzo chilled the hell out once he stopped caring what anyone thought, becoming much healthier when he stopped worrying that he was "sick." The role of pathology in that show deserves (and has assuredly received) a much better treatment than I'm giving it here, of course.

Blast of Tempest:

Murder mystery
Hamlet, but wait is it
The Tempest instead

More blah blah blah:
Speaking of works of fiction in which the characters are eminently aware of their roles, running alongside Psycho-Pass was one of the hidden gems of 2012, Blast of Tempest. A cleverly disguised science fiction story, Blast of Tempest begins with a generic enough premise: an aimless protagonist faced by a magical crisis that hurls him into battle for the fate of the world. Old friends reappear to become allies in this new conflict, enemies spring out of the goddam woodwork, and one of the characters is naked most of the time for a really contrived reason.

But Yoshino is no passive schlub. He has loved and lost already, and faced with challenges, he unleashes torrents of wit and resourcesfulness, outfoxing mages in believable ways without ever actually developing supernatural powers of his own. No character is what they seem at first blush. The leads might be Hamlet and Laertes or Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but they might just as well be Rozencrantz and Guidenstern, and it's really fucking hard to tell which episode to episode. Secondary characters might actually be the leads. The narrative structure refuses traditional tempo, shifting from the potential end of the world to an awkward first date in the span of an episode and building to a climax that is a foregone conclusion...maybe? Also, it was funny watching Kiritsugu's VA have just THE WORST day as his plan was shattered by meddling kids.

Although I haven't rewatched, at the time of viewing, I enjoyed Blast of Tempest more than Psycho-Pass for most of its run. Ultimately, Psycho-Pass' slow build allowed it to pull ahead a bit, and on rewatch I have warmed more to some of the more seemingly anecdotal early episodes. Still, Blast of Tempest made me want to reread Shakespeare with some incredibly innovative and weird allusions.

Captain Earth:

Super robots fight
space vampires with love and...
real life space physics?

Captain Earth is one of two shows that have forced me to reevaluate my grognardy, sour, Universal-Century-elitist attitude toward Super Robot as a subgenre. This attitude started forming when I realized that all new Gundam series were very... flashy, shall we say, with the abilities of anything with the word "Gundam" on it, and calcified around Code Geass's awful [DATA NOT FOUND].

So when Captain Earth came out, I was dubious. But sh*t, it was Bones, the last holdouts of non-CG robots. It couldn't be worse than Xam'd or Eureka 7 AO, right?

Wait, did that three-part combining robot powered by willpower just have to correct for fucking inertia while fighting in space? Did it just run out of ammo and suffer meaningful damage that had to be repaired over... weeks? Not mere instants when the hero wished it fixed?

Captain Earth walks a bizarre line, throwing (seemingly) unknowable space horrors against super robots... that have surprisingly realistic and frequently-enforced restraints.

So to reflect a bit, I think what bothers me about more traditional Super Robot stuff is that, because the will always trumps the physical, there are no meaningful indicators of tension or progress in battle in the story. It's very transparent that a hero can only lose if the story demands it (of course this is always true, but it's just so damned obvious in most Super Robot stuff). What this means is that all struggles are internal ("I believe I can, therefore I can!") rather than external - circumstances, including enemies, are window dressing, not obstacles to be overcome.

This wasn't the case at all in Captain Earth save perhaps (forgivably) at the very end. Details *mattered*, usually a lot. Resources were relevant, distances were relevant, and the powers that enemies possessed were more in the vein of puzzles to be solved than walls to be punched through.

Captain Earth also broke pattern for my tastes in being a highly fanservicy show that nonetheless entertained me. But despite the number of gratuitous swimsuit scenes (and there were more than a few), it paid attention to things that most other shows would ignore during these sexy digressions. The plot moved forward. The guys got undressed and, more surprisingly, were shot in ways usually reserved for shows with a very specific target demographic (clearly Free! was on the animators' minds, given how often they went swimming). It wasn't 100% equitable or anything, but I was suitably impressed by how classy and largely non-creepy the fanservice was. Even Code Geass' fanservice was mostly crass and annoying by comparison, it's just that there were never fewer than four things going on onscreen at once, so you could mostly ignore it.

Also, it was funny watching Kiritsugu's VA have just THE MOST FRUSTRATING day as his plans were shattered over and over again by his teenage daughter and her meddling friends.

Buddy Complex

This is so trashy
Why am I still watching it
's over already?


Super robot tropes,
real robot physics, plodding
with a plot to match

MOAR: Another one concurrent with Psycho-Pass and Blast of Tempest. I enjoyed Robotics;Notes, but it sure took its damn time going anywhere.

That said, a mecha show about mecha fans was pretty damned interesting to me, so the metacommentary kept me entertained where others would probably have been bored by the otherwise fairly unremarkable visual novel plot progression. The characters were likeable enough, but I probably wouldn't have been interested enough to finish if it hadn't been compelling as a contribution to a wider conversation about mecha.

The Legend of Korra Seasons 2-4

Incoherent glee
[foaming at the mouth] to the rescue!

More stuff: I am withholding real judgment for a rewatch. The question isn't "will it rank highly" but "what won't it rank above?" (even money is on Fate/Zero, ATLA, and even those aren't certain).

Was there other stuff in the interim? Oh, absolutely. And maybe I'll get to it later!