Friday, November 20, 2020

Loki is an LGBTQ+ Icon (And Actually, Always Has Been)

 Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. 

If you'd like to read a light-hearted and validating post about Loki, the character of Norse mythology, Marvel comics, and Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, check out my most recent post  published by the Grand Geek Gathering on November 18th.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

“You Look Like Death” Prequel Breathes Life Into Umbrella Academy Series

 Originally published by Grand Geek Gathering, Nov. 11.

If you discovered the Umbrella Academy comic book series through the Netflix screen adaptation, and only picked up the source material afterwards, you might have found yourself confused or disappointed.  The Netflix series is only a loose adaptation of the graphic novel by Dark Horse, and the truth is, the comic is very different.

A recent spin-off focusing on fan-favorite Klaus premiered this year, and it’s clear the Netflix show helped writer Gerard Way sharpen his vision.  You Look Like Death is a prequel that occurs about a decade before the events of Apocalypse Suite (from which the Netflix series draws its inspiration), and after reading the first two issues, I have to say, it looks promising.

My impression of the original graphic novel was that the story was choppy, poorly paced, and often confusing.  The characters weren’t very well-defined and the story seemed to move between action sequences without much glue to hold it together.  I did get the impression that the writers and illustrators had spoken, at length, about the plot… but that plot was lost in translation, as the comic seemed desperate to highlight the coolest action sequences without investing much in back story.

You Look Like Death builds wonderfully on both the original graphic novel and the TV series.  The story arc and pacing has a much cleaner, well-defined quality.  The issues are short, but what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality.  The linework is less “sketchy,” the colors brighter, the backgrounds more detailed.  One of my biggest complaints of the original graphic novels was that all the characters look alike; in You Look Like Death, the characters manage to have actual faces that one can readily tell apart, complete with expressions and noses (something that was occasionally conspicuously missing in Apocalypse Suite).  And it’s not just their faces that are more distinguishable; the personalities of the characters are, too.  Perhaps it’s because we are focusing on a cast of one instead of a cast of seven (well, six, since poor Ben is dead throughout the series).

In Issue One, Klaus is kicked out of the Umbrella Academy due to his drug use and general delinquency.  Sent out into the wide world, he engages in a series of zany gimmicks to try to make his way, including such hijinks as putting himself up for adoption.  He steals a massive stash of drugs and experiences a high like no other, unaware that he just ripped off an incredibly powerful chimpanzee vampire drug lord, The Shivers.  Moving to Hollywood, he happily discovers a wider world of mind-altering substances than he ever could have imagined.  The issue ends with Klaus dancing at a Hollywood party, having recently made the acquaintance of a wealthy but washed-up actress, Vivian.

In Issue Two, Klaus basks in the attention of the Hollywood elite, summoning long-dead sensations to dance the lindy-hop at parties and impress various creative types with “his” talents.  Unbeknownst to him, Shivers the vampire chimp is hot on his trail, and is moving in to take his revenge.  Meanwhile, Vivian, Klaus’s patron, introduces him to heroin and begins making demands for Klaus to summon various ghosts for her.  We’re treated to some flashbacks of Klaus’s childhood and Reginald’s A+ parenting, and the issue ends with Klaus possibly making a big mistake with his powers.  (No spoilers; you’ll have to read the issue if you want to know what happens!)

Although I was never a fan of the original Umbrella Academy graphic novels, You Look Like Death: Tales from the Umbrella Academy is a fun series.  The attention to detail, color, and design is far superior to Apocalypse Suite, and perhaps because of the influence of the screen series, the characters seem better written and well-rounded.  There’s more humor (Klaus, of course, has always been the comic relief) mixed with intense angst-filled darkness (Reginald scraping up Klaus’s dead cat is nothing short of hair-raising).  For the price, I would definitely recommend You Look Like Death.  It’s an improvement upon the original comic series and, for those who prefer the Netflix series, a faithful expansion on a beloved character, with explorations of both his lighter clown-like side as well as his disturbing, traumatic past.

You Look Like Death doesn’t take itself too seriously, one other complaint I have about the original Umbrella Academy comics.  The dark themes are present but they are only lighted upon, which, in my opinion, gives them a little more impact.  Apocalypse Suite and subsequent issues of the central series read, at times, like a soap opera, with the comedic backdrops feeling out of place and poorly timed.  You Look Like Death makes comedy the main focus, with Klaus’s trauma always lurking just out of reach, giving it a rightfully ominous feel that doesn’t bludgeon the reader over the head.  Given the short length of the issues, and the limitations of the medium, sometimes, less is more, and suggesting meaning is better than showing it outright.  The fact that Gerard Way was able to accomplish this in You Look Like Death demonstrates a degree of maturity in his writing, and I’m hopeful that it might carry over to the fourth volume of Umbrella Academy, currently in production.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Perfect D&D Homebrew Formula I Never Realized I Was Using

 Originally written and published on the Grand Greek Gathering.

 

The first-ever D&D game I played was homebrewed, and I didn’t know that this was unusual.  I was a poor college student and I didn’t have the money to shell out for modules.  What’s more, my college was in a small town and there was no local comic book shop that would have sold them, anyway.  So when I began DMing my own campaigns, years later, I too made homebrew campaigns, unaware that pre-made modules even existed.

I was lucky in that my first DM was a talented storyteller.  They say that one of the marks of an expert is to make their craft appear easy, and my DM certainly did.  It was only after I became a DM myself that I discovered the enormous amount of work he must have put into his campaigns, which, from a player perspective, ran so seamlessly.

No easy feat when players insisted on such allowances as “being a sentient chair.”

It would be well over a decade before I discovered the formula both he and I had unwittingly been using in our homebrew campaigns.  I stumbled upon it while trying to coach a friend of mine (a seasoned player but a new DM).  I’ve named this formula the Triple Diamond Structure, and you’re about to see why.

 

THE TRIPLE DIAMOND STRUCTURE

A good homebrew follows a thread, but the thread cannot be too obvious or the story feels rail-roaded to the players.  D&D is ultimately a sandbox game, so the players should be able to explore and have plenty of room to breathe.  But aimless wandering gets old, fast, so the role of the DM is to facilitate the characters through a choose-your-own adventure story.

Like all stories, the DM needs to establish a conflict, rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  I have found that every single-session quest I’ve ever taken my players on was a play in three acts.  Identifying the acts allowed the story to be paced properly, to offer changes in scenery, and to offer three separate win conditions (one per act).  Each act begins with the conflict, then bulges into potential actions, then resolves at a single node.  In other words, the flowchart of the action looks like a diamond.  And if there are three acts to the story, the story will look like three stacked diamonds, with the nodes being “known” plot points that the players will light upon as they play.

This is a single-session arson quest. More on this later. Note that I write out my campaigns by hand, but you might prefer to use a digital tool to create neater structures.

In other words: the players, as they interact with the world, will go in all sorts of directions.  The DM offers them a hook, and if they take it, the subsequent action can go in many directions.  But since the hook has outlined a clear objective, the players will come back to that objective.  The story will bulge and pinch.

For some DMs, the “bulge” is where the campaign unravels and becomes a meandering mess.  To keep the players on track, anticipating actions and how those actions will lead to the next node can help.

In order to build a Triple Diamond Structure, the two most important things for the DM to be able to articulate are what type of quest the players are on (because this will determine the win conditions), and what type of actions they can perform.

 

TYPES OF QUESTS

I’ve heard it said there are anywhere from three to seven basic “types” of quests.  I believe there are fundamentally four:

  • Kill quests.  (This includes killing a beast, subduing a wizard in battle, or beating up a bad guy.  The win condition involves winning at physical combat.)
  • Retrieval quests.  (This includes collecting items, finding items, or fetching items.  The win condition is that an item is obtained/moved/interacted with.  Note that the item might be an NPC; for example, rescuing a princess from a dragon.)
  • Movement quests.  (This includes escort and delivery missions.  The win condition is locating and/or going to a place.)
  • Information quests.  (This includes mysteries, lore, and background quests.  The win condition is obtaining information.)

Needless to say, quests can be mixed-and-matched.  For example, an information quest can easily devolve into a kill quest, and a movement quest might be combined with a retrieval quest.  (Some call a movement-and-item quest a “push the button quest.”  Players go to a place and interact with an item.)

The point of outlining these basic quest types is to determine what the story arc and win condition is.

For illustrative purposes, let’s say the mage in your party, who enjoys using fire-based spells, was recently accused of arson.  This quest is an information quest, whose ultimate goal is to clear the mage of the charges against her.

Now let’s identify the three acts in our play.  In act one, the mage will be accused and the guards will attempt to take her to jail.  In the next act, the characters will (hopefully) attempt to clear her name by investigating the crime scene, questioning witnesses, or lawyering up.  In the final act, the party is likely to have a confrontation with the real arsonist.

Identify the conflicts of each act, and what actions or triggering events will lead to the next act.

As I have written the story, there are now three mini-quests with three mini-objectives.  Note that the type of quest changes based on character actions.  If they decide, in act 3, to obtain evidence and take it to the city guards, then the mission is a retrieval quest whose win condition is the taking of the evidence to the city guard.  On the other hand, if the party decides to kill the arsonist outright and then turn in his body later, then it’s more of a kill quest.

Identifying types of quests and their respective win conditions will help you construct your diamond and anticipate player actions.

 

TYPES OF ACTIONS

While every DM knows that improv is critical to the game (everyone has that one player who likes to wander off the map or kill a town guard just to see what happens), anticipating fundamental player moves can be hugely helpful.

Actions can usually be broken into either-or conditions.  For example:

  • Physical v. mental.
  • Non-magical v. magical.
  • (If physical): Outright brawling v. stealth.
  • (If physical): Ranged weaponry v. melee combat.
  • (If mental): Intimidation v. seduction.

DMs who have a feel for their players’ characters will be able to anticipate their actions to a degree.  Reggie the Rogue is going to try to break into the library to steal a forbidden scroll with the arsonist’s confession written on it, while Hans the Bard is more likely to walk in the front door and try to charm the librarian.  Characters without money are unlikely to try to bribe the guards (unless, of course, they’re experts in transmutation).  What happens next is up to the dice.  But if the win condition is to retrieve the confession, then that is what the DM should be anticipating will happen, one way or another.

Breaking down the most likely actions your characters can/will take will help you react accordingly. Before you say it: yes, “charm” should be under magic, not mental. I know, I know.

 

LOSE CONDITIONS

For more inexperienced parties (or any party with a barbarian), missions that require finesse may go sideways.  Never fear.  Anticipate the most likely lose condition and construct a new diamond.

Let’s say Reggie destroyed the confession scroll by accident, making it impossible to clear your fire mage’s good name.  New win conditions might include finding a copy of the confession, repairing the original, and/or keeping your mage from murdering Reggie with a fireball.  The nice thing about the Triple Diamond Structure is that, just like a real crystal, it can be built upon thanks to its regular, predictable shape.

In this example, the possibility of fleeing is added on as a diamond between act 1 and act 2, but it still flows back to the central pathway to allow for eventual resolution of the main conflict.

If your side quests or story arcs seem too linear, tack on some new diamonds and let the party follow those threads.  Since the diamond is really just a fancy flowchart, you can break down either-or actions into increasingly tiny nodes to create elaborate stories.

Here, the either/or condition depends on whether the party wants to act lawfully or chaotically, and then further breaks down potential actions and outcomes. There are diamonds within diamonds!

Ultimately, the goal is to give your players the appearance of ultimate freedom while still following an anticipated storyline.  The characters aren’t being railroaded, because they can choose how to get to the next node of the story… but the story has designated waypoints that create a natural, satisfying story arc.  They choose their own path and consequences, but within a framework that is designed to give the story a natural rise and fall, and lead to a satisfying conclusion.

 

MULTIPLE RESOLUTIONS

If DMs don’t like the idea of having a designated outcome, then the diamonds can be separated.  For example, in act 3, the players are expected to solve the mystery.  But they might instead prefer to just skip town.  This is still a resolution and when diagrammed out, will still create a diamond-esque story shape.

Here we have a triple-diamond in which players have chosen NOT to clear their friend for the crime of arson and have instead elected to skip town. There are two potential resolutions now, but if you squint, you’ll realize it’s still three diamonds.  The final node is a resolution which can vary based on player-character actions.

 

VoilĂ ! There is more than one resolution to our quest, but all outcomes lead to a resolution. This allows the characters to feel a dopamine-rush of satisfaction for completing the quest, and to collect on that sweet, sweet XP.

It is not necessary for players to come to the resolution, only a resolution.  This can include abandoning the quest entirely (see above) or getting the entire party killed by a Minotaur.  The possibilities are endless.  The first node of a story diamond, at its most basic, can simply be called “hook” or “conflict,” and the last node can be thought of as “resolution” or “ending.”  The bulges of the diamond are the player actions; the DM should be ready and able to respond without leading the players to any particular path, with the awareness of how actions will flow down to nodes of the story to eventually reach a resolution.

 

IN CONCLUSION

Just as a single-session side quest can be broken into three parts, a larger campaign can be created, with each “diamond” representing a part of the story.  People are often naturally attracted to the rule of threes, but any number of diamonds can be stacked, and the DM can focus in or out as needed on their story structure, with all either-or options creating smaller and smaller diamonds within the central story structure.

Of course, not all styles are created equal, so your mileage may vary.  I never drew out a diamond until I began trying to help my friend with his campaign.  I’m a highly improvisational DM, and I reacted to unexpected player actions instinctively.  Different people will get more or less out of using this tool to help plan out their campaigns, and some may prefer not to diagram out their story at all.  But if you’re new to homebrew and finding that you’re having problems visualizing your campaign or pacing your stories, try the Triple Diamond Method to simplify how you present your quests.  It’s just another item for you to put in your pocket, and who doesn’t want a handful of diamonds in their coin-purse?

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Why I'm Not Canceling Netflix

I watched the controversial movie Cuties so that you wouldn’t have to.

I went in prepared to tear this movie to shreds, and instead, discovered a beautiful, realistic tragedy that has been unfairly represented in the media. Here's my honest review of the "Cuties" movie:

I accepted Netflix’s challenge to watch the movie [before judging it], and I’m glad I did.  I concur entirely with Tessa Thompson’s opinion: it gutted me.  It’s a beautifully done movie about a sensitive topic.  It’s as tasteful as it can be, considering that the POINT is to make you, the viewer, squirm a little.  The discomfort of the movie speaks to a very real issue not often talked about: how girls grow into women, and how various influences (pop culture, traditional cultural expectations, and peer pressure) guide them.  My takeaway from the movie was that the single biggest problem with Amy’s coming-of-age was the utter lack of guidance.  It was the blind leading the blind; she took her cues from her friends, from online videos, from her own misinterpretation of the world around her.  At no point did her mother (or any other woman) in the movie sit her down and have a frank conversation with her.  She was unable to ask for questions or for advice.  She was isolated, and alone.

The beautiful tragedy of the controversy surrounding this movie is that, by boycotting it, by demanding that it be silenced, the cultural conversation it begs to have is being shut down.  Amy experienced what too many young girls do: a nosedive into an empty swimming pool, from childhood to womanhood, with the nuances of sexuality and maturity being closely guarded, shameful secrets that she is expected to figure out on her own.  The attempts to cancel the movie is, essentially, mirroring the very problem that the movie highlights: that by ignoring a problem or refusing to confront it, we allow it to grow worse.  Yet another case of life imitating art.

For more information about the #CancelNetflix controversy, as well as a play-by-play of my reactions while watching the film, check out my full article on the Cuties movies here.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Rest in Power, King: A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman

 [A/n: This post was written last weekend and supposed to be published on another site Wednesday, but as it is still not out and I feel this is timely, I am reproducing it here.]


"You are a good man with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king." - T’Chaka to his son T’Challa, Black Panther, 2018.

When I saw Black Panther in 2018, I called it “one of the most important and relevant [superhero] films of our generation.”  In my opinion, that sentiment has only grown stronger.  Behind every great movie is a great actor to carry it, and Black Panther owes its success, in no small part, to Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last Friday from colon cancer, which he had been battling in private for four years.

In a statement to the press, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, described Boseman as a man who “radiated charisma and joy, and… created something truly indelible.”  Former President Barack Obama, quoted in People, said: “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.”  Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, described Boseman as "a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith.".  (You can read his full, official statement here.)

"Always and Forever," by BossLogic

Chadwick Boseman starred in an incredible 15 film roles over the course of his career, seven of them following his cancer diagnosis in 2016.  In addition to starring in fictitious roles, he also took on the mantle of some of America’s influential Black citizens, from major-league baseball player Jackie Robison (42, 2008) to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Marshall, 2017).  But perhaps one of his best-known and most-cherished roles was that of King T’challa, aka Black Panther.  The recurring role (Civil War, 2016; Black Panther, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War, 2018; Avengers: Endgame, 2019) left an impact on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as on the sociopolitical impact of superhero films as a whole.

With a box office at $1.347 billion, Black Panther was the first of the Marvel movies to win an Academy Award (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design), as well as the first “superhero” film to get a nomination for Best Picture.  Its commercial success speaks to a deeper cultural impact.  The first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly Black cast, Black Panther offered a generation of Black children the superhero representation that had been lacking from the prior 17 MCU films.  It was a nuanced, emotionally impactful movie that did not shy away from racial topics but treated all of its characters (even the villains) with dignity and honor.  Boseman, as T’Challa, gave power and emotion to a performance that represented important political and social questions within the context of a fictional world, and in doing so, transcended the superhero genre into something more meaningful.  He brought depth and soul to his characters, and in turn, allowed his characters to speak to modern issues and real concerns about racial justice in modern America.

Boseman’s death, at the age of 43, came on August 28th, which is, fittingly enough, Jackie Robinson Day.

At the 2018 Howard University commencement speech, Boseman describes struggles in life as being “meant to shape you for your purpose,” and encouraged the graduating class to “press on with pride and press on with purpose.”  Remembered as curious,  kind, inspiring, and driven, Chadwick’s death leaves an absence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that cannot (and perhaps should not) be filled.  Yet his legacy remains.  With regality and gravitas, Boseman’s performances left an impact that will survive him for generations to come.  He gave audiences of all colors something to aspire to and embodied his role as the King of Wakanda with the bearing of true royalty.  Graceful, inspirational, and humble, Boseman was not merely a fictional hero, but a cultural one.  He famously said he’d “rather have an action figure than a Golden Globe.”

Chadwick Boseman is survived by his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, and his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman.

His death has impacted countless fans.  To those fans, we offer this wisdom from King T’Challa himself: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Yimbambe.  Wakanda Forever.