Thursday, May 21, 2015

Movie Review -- The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Minor Spoilers)

I liked The Avengers, though not as much as many others. I felt that it (perhaps unavoidably) ignored the character development that had defined the other Marvel Studios movies and the best superhero films in favor of action. The main arc in terms of the characters’ relationships to each other was the team’s struggle to overcome their bickering and work together as a team to defeat a powerful enemy.

The good news is that there is more character development in the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron. Among the protagonists, the relationship between Black Widow and the Hulk is explored, we learn more about Hawkeye’s background and his life outside of the team, and the complex personal failings of Tony Stark/Iron Man play a central role in the plot.

There are also a few new wrinkles, though they are arguably underexplored. First is the question of whether artificial intelligence should be created, and what kind of care should be taken in that endeavor. You can argue that the creation of the titular villain Ultron replays the issues with the creation of Frankenstein’s monster in the space of a few minutes. In both cases, a new intelligence is created by someone who has underestimated the complexity of the process and their responsibilities to guide their creation (in the case of this movie, because the creator is too busy partying). The creation of another new character, the Vision, raises all sorts of potential questions about what qualifies an entity as a living being and whether living beings have the right to live, but these questions are never really explored (or even asked). After all, the movie was running long and Joss Whedon was contractually obligated to include a certain number of action sequences.

Unfortunately, Age of Ultron repeats a lot of the motifs of the first movie. The most noticeable example is repeating the sequence of an outside force manipulating the Avengers to bicker among themselves, forcing them to discover the value of working as a team. This angle was so prominently played up that it gave me a sense of deja vu. It is the single biggest weakness of the movie. What’s worse is that, with two-thirds of the team replaced at the end of this film, we can probably look forward to seeing this kind of arc repeated in the third installment, as the new members learn the value of working as a team. Captain America seems to be setting that up in the final scene....

Overall, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an enjoyable movie, though it sometimes feels less like a sequel than like the first movie remade and done better.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: White Star

This week saw the release of White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, by James Spahn, published by Barrel Rider Games. It has already become a bestseller at RPGnow, apparently shooting up to Electrum status (however many units sold that means) incredibly quickly. It's safe to say it's the most popular OSR product to come out recently.

What's all the fuss about, you might ask. The game's biggest selling point is that it faithfully recreates tropes from classic sci-fi movies from the late 20th Century, the time period when many old-school gamers were growing up. I use the shortened form "sci-fi" for a reason. The game's seven core classes owe a great deal to the original three Star Wars movies (now known as Episodes IV-VI), and that influence means there are a lot of low-level fantasy elements.

White Star is based on the Swords and Wizardry Whitebox Version, so it uses only a few classes, a few of which are actually races. The human classes are:
       Aristocrat (Princess Leia)
       Mercenary (no obvious equivalent among the Star Wars heroes, though one reviewer has suggested Boba Fett)
       Pilot (Han Solo)
       Star Knight (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker after finishing his Jedi training)

There are also three non-human classes:
       Alien Brute (Chewbacca)
       Alien Mystic (A less powerful Yoda)
       Robot (the droids, obviously)

The two alien classes are meant to be broad-based, so it's up to the player whether their hulking brute has fur or scales or a hard shell, for example. by contrast, the robot class is divided into three subtypes with specific abilities.

Both the Star Knight and the Alien Mystic gain powers (called Meditations for Star Knights and Gifts for the Mystics) that are prepared and spent like D&D spells, though the effects are all fairly subtle and small-scale. However, the GM can always eliminate these two classes to play a science-fiction game without magical or psionic effects.

There is also a brief list of aliens and creatures, who fill the function of monsters in old-school D&D. Most of the aliens are thinly disguised versions of races from sources like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who. The creatures are somewhat more original, though a few (like the sandworm) are instantly recognizable from famous sci-fi works.
Your opinion of this game will depend on how you feel about the rules-lightest of OSR offerings . If you're content to have many aspects of the game hand-waved with phrases like "whatever fits the style of the campaign," with little guidance on what campaign style considerations might go with what rules, you'll probably like White Star. If you need more guidance from a ruleset, you may want to try another game or look for supplemental rules systems from other sources. I find myself somewhere in between, loving the flav or of the rules and itching to design not only my own settings, but my own subsystems to fill in the gaps.

If you like the system, the core book also includes a short sample setting (including one reasonably detailed space sector) and a prewritten adventure, allowing you to jump into running a session right away. This kind of value added in the base product makes White Star a bargain at $9.99 for the PDF, at least for a certain kind of gamer.