Sunday, March 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #45: The Cat Returns

Back in 2002, when Disney released Hayao Miyazaki’s magnificent SPIRITED AWAY in America, it kicked off a nice business partnership between the two companies, a side effect of which has been the release of several Studio Ghibli films on DVD here. THE CAT RETURNS is a particularly interesting entry in their collective body of work, both tying in loosely to a past film and marking a young director’s debut. It’s very cute, whimsical, and imaginative, and fits into the Studio Ghibli tradition nicely while not being a total retread. You sort of know what to expect, but there are surprises along the way.

Our protagonist is Haru (voice of Chizuru Ikewaki), a girl in high school going through all sorts of problems. She’s habitually late, not very popular, and hopelessly swooning over a boy who’s already got a girlfriend. Typical teenage girl drama, until she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat stands up and thanks her, and later that evening an entire procession of cats arrive with their king in tow, informing her that she has in fact saved the prince of the Cat Kingdom. The cats start sending her gifts, and promise that as a capper they will take her to their kingdom to marry the prince. This, needless to say, freaks Haru out, but a mysterious voice and a fat white cat named Muta (Tetsu Watanabe) lead her to the Cat Bureau, a miniature house inhabited by a handsome catman named Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada). He promises to help her avoid her fate, but a herd of cats quickly bears her off to the Cat Kingdom, and Baron and Muta have no choice but to follow her.

This film is technically a follow-up to WHISPER OF THE HEART, a 1995 Ghibli production which introduced the characters of Muta and the Baron. Apparently the original idea was to revive them for a short film for a planned theme park, but when that didn’t go through the Studio decided to expand the story into a feature and use it to test out the directing skills of animator Hiroyuki Morita (by this point Hayao Miyazaki was eager to find a potential successor, though judging from the IMDB his retirement still has yet to arrive.) Once again I have not actually seen the important preceding work and so can’t make any comparisons.

I will say that this is a very sprightly picture, never dwelling too long on one thing or in one place. This is a blessing and a curse; the film can never develop any one aspect in a lot of depth, but at the same time it never gets stuck exploring something uninteresting. It’s light fare, of course, never very serious in the way some Ghibli films can be, and this again has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it makes the film less memorable, on the other,
it’s a film about a kingdom of cats and there’s only so much gravity you can get out of that to start with.

Cat lovers will get a kick out of the film, that’s for sure- though many of the cats here stand on two legs and talk and wear something resembling clothing, they’re not anthropomorphic to the degree most cartoon animals are. They are, in their mannerisms and even dialogue, cats, and their kingdom- originally conceived by author Aoi Hiragi as a kind of kitty heaven- is a weirdly farcical land where the sun is always at its peak and the tyrant king (voiced with great enthusiasm by Tetsuro Tamba) defenestrates subjects who displease him. This is pretty much how a cat civilization would be run, and the combination of cuteness and insanity is appealing.

Like many Ghibli films, THE CAT RETURNS deals with a spirit world separate from our own, and interestingly enough briefly raises the concept that objects that an artist puts his or her heart and soul into gain a spirit of their own (this explains how Baron manifests in this world, sort of.) This, of course, plays off the animism and spirit worship that has long existed in Japanese culture, and as in similar films the spirit world serves as a place where the protagonist can work out her emotional and developmental issues. In this case, Haru is suffering from a lack of identity- she doesn’t know who she is, or believe in herself that much, and in the Cat Kingdom this is particularly dangerous; there she runs the risk of losing herself altogether and actually becoming a cat. It’s an interesting conflict, and Haru is a charming enough character that we enjoy her development.

All in all, a solid first venture for Morita as director, and as such a good sign for Studio Ghibli’s continued success whenever the older guard finally steps down. Parts of it border on forgettable, but it’s entertaining and something I wouldn’t mind watching again. A lesser entry in this particular studio’s body of work, but that’s not saying a lot. By a more objective standard, this is a darn good time.

Adapted from a comic by Aoi Hiragi
Screenplay by Reiko Yoshida
Directed by Hiroyuki Morita

Grade: B+

[Click the image above to purchase the film on DVD.]

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Random Movie Report #44: High School Musical

I was curious. HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL was a surprise smash hit for the Disney Channel and has become a major tween phenomenon. Hearing about this, I wanted to know whether it was any good. Was it the kind of kiddie entertainment that parents gladly watch alongside the youngins, or the kind they barely tolerate? Was it SESAME STREET or BARNEY? (Okay, it’s aimed at a slightly older audience but you get the idea.) So I eventually rented it, and eventually watched it, and have come to the decision that it’s kinda good. Not great, but I can see what the appeal is and have to admire its spurts of cleverness. It’s nice to see the kids getting enthusiastic about music considering how bored the rest of us have become, and this appears to have been near the center of that explosion. So, let’s take a look.

The heroes of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL are Troy (Zac Efron), star basketball player for the Albuquerque East High Wildcats (their motto: “Get Your Head In The Game”, which makes for a good song but is not the most inspiring slogan- rejected ones presumably included “Try Not To Fall Asleep Out There” and “Yo, Neil Armstrong, Wanna Come Back to Planet Earth?”), and bookworm transfer student Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, about whose personal life I will say absolutely nothing, just watch me). The two share a karaoke duet at a New Year’s Eve party, and when they meet at the start of the next school year, it sparks memories and inspires them, after substantial hesitation, to sign up to audition for the school’s winter musical. This causes two problems (or three, depending on how you count it.) Firstly (and potentially secondly), both Troy and Gabriella’s respective cliques don’t approve of the star athlete and star pupil both becoming drama geeks. (The Wildcats in particular are worried that auditioning will distract Troy from the upcoming big game.) And it’s not like the drama stars- in this case, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), who have headlined every drama production the school’s put on since kindergarten- are keen on having competition. Of course, in the midst of all this, Troy and Gabriella start to like each other, which causes no end of problems.

“Cliques” are an odd trope. Every high school-related thing made in the past twenty-five years or so has dealt with them, usually as a major focus. While I definitely remember cliques existing in high school, I don’t recall them being terribly rigid- the prom queen was on both the drill team (sort of like cheerleaders but not quite for some reason) and the school paper, while her boyfriend, a soccer player, took the same creative writing class I did and acted more skaterly than jockish. There was some division, but most of the time it took a backseat to the sheer soul-crushing grind of getting through the school year. So it’s always a bit weird for me to see characters in high school act totally defined by strictly codified and exclusive groups, all easily distinguishable by their mode of dress. Of course, this movie isn’t aimed at high school students so much as kids who will be going to high school later, and generally speaking it’s nice to stress the importance of not getting hung up on cliques before they start to become a problem. Not that having a good message gets this a free pass or anything, but it does lead to some fun scenes, the musical highlight easily being an elaborate production number in the school cafeteria wherein various students start confessing hidden desires based on Troy and Gabriella’s audition.

Ah, yes, the music. I was kinda worried when I started watching that it would be the kind of generic American Idol fare that anyone can warble. The songs are actually written by a few different teams, but they mesh pretty well, and though they’re teen bubblegum by nature they’re pretty good for it. The lyrics have their clever snatches, and alongside the aforementioned cafeteria number the closing song is appropriately big. The cast are strong singers, though for some reason the lip-synching is sometimes off.

I do have to say that even for a Disney Channel movie this is a remarkably good natured little film- the film extends empathy and sympathy not just to our two young lovers, or even their immediate friends, but to virtually everyone in the cast. The playing is broad and enthusiastic, especially by Tisdale who gets a brilliant post-credits gag. There are a few slow patches, and I was really disappointed that Kelsi, the pint-sized songwriter (ably played by Olesya Rulin), doesn’t get a lot to do. And I was wanting to see more of the actual musical, even though it’s a MacGuffin. What can I say, I loves me some metafiction.

It’s easy to see how HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL appeals to its target age group, and it’s a job well done. For the rest of us, it’s not unpleasant either- it’s cute in its sincerity and surprisingly smart. I’m grateful that I liked it because a negative review would doubtless have unleashed a firestorm of tween rage the likes of which the world has never seen, and I’m not sure when I’ll try an experiment like this again, but it was worth it this time.

Written by Peter Barsocchini
Directed by Kenny Ortega

Grade: B

(As always, this film is available through the link in the image above.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Random Movie Report #43: The X From Outer Space

Image from
(Starting today I'm also going to be crossposting stuff to the Film & Discussion blog some friends of mine started up. Enjoy that.)

Whoever’s scheduling obscure monster movies on TCM’s late night lineup needs to keep it up; seeing something as shiny and groovy as THE X FROM OUTER SPACE pop up out of nowhere Sunday night was an unexpected joy. It wasn’t my first time seeing the film- I have an unusually strong memory from my childhood of renting it from Blockbuster (back before I knew it was evil), waiting through the rest of the family’s choice of the inexcusably long CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (a children’s movie with an INTERMISSION? The HELL?) before I was able to see- well, part of it before it was finally too late to be allowed to stay up. I finished the rest tomorrow, but it was a surreal viewing experience. I obviously wondered whether the film would begin to live up to my memories of it, but it’s just as insane today as it was back then. I honestly suspect the best way to describe it would be to point out that it’s a movie about a giant space monster that starts with a peppy, up-tempo song about how the universe belongs to mankind.

It’s the near future- never quite caught the year- and the FAFC (which stands for, um, I forget, but they’re an international space program) launches a voyage to Mars with the express purpose of finding out what happened to the other ships they sent. The crew- the gruff-yet-handsome Captain Sano (Toshiya Wazaki), the comical techie Miyamoto (Shinichi Yanagisawa), the spacesick Dr. Shioda (Keisuke Sonoi), and hot blonde possibly-German scientist Lisa (Peggy Neal)- are strangely optimistic and laid-back about their mission, and after jetting off (to more jazz music) in their snazzy-looking space boat, they quickly encounter the apparent root of the problem. A UFO shows up and starts futzing with the ship’s systems, and the crew are forced to make a brief stopover on the FAFC’s moonbase, where Sano runs into old flame Michiko (Itoko Harada) causing a minor love triangle to form between her, him, and Lisa. After cocktails and dancing (you think I’m joking) the crew head off to Mars again, but the UFO returns and sprays the ship with mysterious spores. Everyone barely makes it back to Earth, with a sample of one of the spores in tow. It escapes its vacuum chamber, as spores are wont to do, and quickly grows into a giant alien creature who roams across Japan, smashing buildings and sucking up power.

First things first, let’s have a look at that monster- I chose a good shot of him specifically for this purpose. Again, you can sort of tell whether this is the kind of movie you’d enjoy based on looking at this critter, who’s been called a giant space chicken, but if anything that doesn’t do justice to the sheer conceptual oddness of this thing. As bizarre and not terribly threatening as Guilala looks, I think of him as iconic- he is the classic retro alien monster, complete with antennae, glowing multifaceted eyes, and a weird warbling cry. His look signifies “alien” because it’s tossed together from wildly unrelated parts of the animal kingdom, resembling nothing on Earth as a result. The effects here aren’t up to what Toho was doing over in the Godzilla series, and the Guilala suit suffers from a certain stiffness (as well as chubby arms which make him look even smaller than a man in a suit.) Still, they do their job, and some shots are fairly elaborate. The spaceship our heroes use is a great example of 60’s swank design triumphing over practicality- we never quite figure out what the craft needs ski treads for, but they’re a change from the standard rocketship fins. The entire film has this same aesthetic, similar to the bold contours of the 50’s space race but with a more relaxed, more jazzy feel. It’s very colorful and the people seem to be having fun.

Now, as a monster movie, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE suffers from the fact that it takes a substantial amount of time for the monster to actually show up- around the first half of the movie is simply concerned with the voyage into space and all the shenanigans it entails. Maybe it was just that I knew it this time and was prepared, but it didn’t bother me at all. The space action is fun in itself, even when it gets into something as obligatory as the random meteor swarm. It helps that the characters are reasonably likable, even if they’re not developed that much.

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE is more obscure than it should be; it was the first monster film produced by Shochiku, who didn’t produce many, and so Guilala never returned to fight other beasties. That is, until now; the company has decided to make a brand new Guilala picture after a little over fourty years, which is nice. The film is still unavailable on DVD in the US (and the Region 2 version costs about $120), which is odd seeing how many of these monster pictures have found their way into release; there may be rights confusion. But if you do happen across a VHS copy (there's a link in the picture above and on the sidebar), well, you know what you’re in for. Personally I’d snatch it up in a heartbeat. There’s something so damn perky about this film and so stylishly weird that you have to forgive its other flaws.

Written by Moriyoshi Ishida, Eibi Motomochi, Kazui Nihonmatsu
Directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu

Grade: B

Monday, March 10, 2008

In Theaters: In Bruges

Poster from
As great as it is when a film’s story is finely and precisely constructed, it’s also nice when it doesn’t seem that stressed about such things. IN BRUGES doesn’t have a bad story, by any means, but it unfolds with an endearing shagginess that implies it’s not making too much of an effort; for all I know the plot is put together like clockwork, but it’s concealed under a veneer of casual ease. It’s a fun black comedy, sharp and sad and funny, but mostly loose-limbed and deliberately sort of gangly. At its core there’s some very clever stuff about sin, death, redemption, etc.- the kind of material you normally see in gangster and caper pictures, but not like this.

Colin Farrell stars as Ray, a hitman working for British crime boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), and he and fellow assassin Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have just completed a hit in London that went rather bad- Ray shot a priest, for reasons that are never fully given, but one of the bullets went and killed a young boy waiting to take confession. Ray and Ken are told by Harry to lay low for a couple of weeks in the Belgian town of Bruges, a well-preserved medieval town that’s a minor tourist attraction and pretty much Ray’s idea of Hell. Ken, on the other hand, quite likes the idea of sightseeing for a little bit, and for a time it seems like the only problem is having to wait for Harry’s call. When that call comes in, however, the situation changes.

Now, reading that summary, you’ll come across the reason this film won’t be for everyone; it’s not many films that have as a protagonist who has killed a child (even accidentally), and even fewer that try to make said character charismatic. It does not help that for a considerable time Ray acts as though in denial of what he’s done, and it’s a while before he finally breaks down from the burden of it. Of course, this is the kind of film where nobody’s really that good, and it’s not for nothing that the film’s picture of Bruges emphasizes religion and medieval images of apocalypse and sin and punishment. Ray’s obviously putting up a sharp facade, trying to get past what he did by lashing out at everything around him.

Meanwhile, though I’m trying not to spoil much, the film’s world becomes rather sprawling and surreal, as Ray picks fights with tourists and gravitates towards a film production and two marginal figures, a jaded dwarf (Jordan Prentice) and a drug moll (Clémence Poésy) who runs a weird kind of staged mugging operation on the side. This leads to all sorts of side-alleys and cul-de-sacs, though in retrospect things fit together a lot more than they appear to. There’s a scene where the two hitmen are in an art gallery, looking at Hieronymus Bosch’s “Last Judgement”, and not only do specific images from that end up coming into play, Bosch’s style of controlled chaos seems to have been the guide for the entire picture. Despite Ray’s dislike of the place, Bruges comes off rather well, part fairytale village and part medieval nightmare.

The dialogue in this is really sharp; writer/director Martin McDonagh has substantial experience as a playwright, and the banter is sharp and funny enough that even the more predictable “gangster movie” moments are entertaining. But it’s in the moments when he strays off the beaten path of the genre that IN BRUGES really comes into its own. He keeps the cast sharp as well, and the atmosphere is pretty thick on top of everything. I’d say the film’s a bit slow in places, but there’s something so innately pleasurable about the experience of viewing it that it doesn’t matter that it takes its time.

I’m liking IN BRUGES more than I did right after I’d seen it; it’s got substance and a bit of thought behind it, and things seem to fit together better upon reflection. None of this gets in the way of the fun, and the overall impression is one of well-controlled chaos. A nice little film with which to shake off the last chills of winter, and a good sign that the moviegoing year is finally underway.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Tabletop: Promethean: The Created

This review, like the other I've posted here, was first put up over at You can buy the book by clicking the above image.

PROMETHEAN has been a long time coming. White Wolf has tackled vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and mummies, among other supernatural beings, and in this twisted version of the Universal horror movie line up it was inevitable that the Frankenstein monster would get a look in. PROMETHEAN: THE CREATED, one of the more recent entries in the new World of Darkness line of games (all requiring use of the WORLD OF DARKNESS core book), is a bit broader than that, expanding on the “artificial life” premise to incorporate golems, muses, mummies (again, though their last incarnation was in the old WoD so it’s not really overlap), and shamans (shamen?). It’s a strong game, one with a few odd quirks here and there but a great central conceit, putting the players in the role of tormented creations in search of a soul.

A Promethean is a resurrected corpse, gifted with life by the mysterious alchemical fire of Pyros. Their history stretches back to five individual acts of creation: the killing and resurrection of Osiris by Isis, Pygmalion’s construction of Galatea (not through sculpture, as the myth says, but through the assembly of particularly good-looking body parts), the resurrection of Tammuz over in the Babylon region, the strange birth of the shaman Ulgan in Siberia, and of course Victor Frankenstein’s unusual experiments with lightning. These five experiments created five unique Prometheans, gifted with the Pyros, and they in turn created many descendants, each retaining the distinct characteristics of his/her lineage. Thus, we have the Wretched (or Frankensteins), the Galateids (or Muses), the Tammuz (or Golems), the Osirans (or Nepri), and the Ulgan (or Riven). The Frankensteins are ramshackle assemblies of body parts given life by lightning (and tied to the element of fire), the Galateids (tied to air) are beautiful and social creatures whose inherent otherness nonetheless creates problems, the Osirans (connected to water) are priests of the god of the dead intent on mastering their condition through knowledge, the Golems are born slaves whose strength comes from the earth itself, and the Ulgans are mystics, tied to the spirit world despite their own lack of a soul. Most Prometheans- including the PCs, one presumes- are on a quest to become human, an achievement they know to be possible but only after a long journey of self-actualization and mastery of the forces that rage within them, including the morally questionable act of creating another Promethean.

Of course, being a hideous supernatural monster always seems to come with perks, and through mastery of their Pyros, Prometheans can attain various “Transmutations”, powers reflective of their natures- this can range from detecting electricity to temporarily animating the dead. Starting characters start out with three dots’ worth of Transmutations, and the ones you select are based on your Refinement, a weird kind of template regarding your current emphasis in your quest for humanity as expressed by alchemical elements (the Refinement of Gold is about learning to understand humanity, the Refinement of Copper is about understanding yourself in relation to the world, the Refinement of Iron is about strengthening the body, etc.) You can change Refinement, but you have to roleplay the shift in philosophy and it usually takes a bit of time.

Character creation is mostly run by the guidelines of the WoD core book, except that in this case you’re not creating a human who is changed by the supernatural but someone who is a supernatural being to start with. The WoD Morality trait is replaced by Humanity, a 10-point scale which shows how well you understand (or at least can imitate the behavior of) the mortal world around you. Monstrous behaviors (like throwing little girls into ponds and the like) reduce your Humanity and make it harder to resist the Torments of being an inhuman creature. Promethean characters also have Pyros which they can spend to power Transmutations, and Azoth, a form of purified Pyros which functions as the strength of the fire contained within you. Having lots of it makes it easier to spend Pyros and ultimately attain humanity, but also makes the mortals who meet you more unsettled and can attract Pandorans, misbegotten creatures who feed on the Pyros.

This is probably getting confusing. There’s a lot to absorb with this game, which is typical of World of Darkness stuff- it’s a matter of becoming used to the specific terminology of each little subculture. Unfortunately we’re not quite done yet- there are plenty of capital words to follow. It does get a bit simpler, though.

There are three mechanics which reflect the difficulty of being a Promethean in a mortal world. Prometheans can generally give the illusion of a normal appearance, but something about their soulless nature causes Disquiet in humans- mortals have to roll a test of Resolve and Composure, against the Promethean’s Azoth, and failure places them in the first stage of Disquiet, initially suffering strange dreams about this odd person in their lives, moving on to dark fantasies, paranoia, and finally destructive action. Disquiet can also spread from person to person, turning entire communities against the Prometheans and causing everyone to break out the pitchforks and torches. This is perfectly in tune with all kinds of “artificial life” stories, from A.I. to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and the mechanics leave a lot of room for interpretation. Then there’s the psychological pressure on the Promethean, represented by Torment. Various conditions and occurrences (including being damaged by fire, which is especially dangerous to a Promethean- fire BAD, if you will) trigger an unopposed Humanity roll, failure throwing the Promethean into a state of rage and temporarily smothering his or her humanity. Frankensteins get vengeful and violent, Muses take on a stalkerly attitude, Osirans become detached and almost sociopathic, Golems go on mindless destructive rampages, and Ulgans become dominated by the spirits they contact. This has some good potential, though obviously Storytellers have to be delicate about guiding PC behavior. Finally there’s Wasteland, the corrupting effect Prometheans’ Pyros has on the world around them. When a Promethean spends longer than a day anywhere, the Pyros starts to degrade and twist things for a mile around, and over a period of months the landscape develops in a way relates to the Promethean’s lineage (and the element connected with it.) A Wasteland can also spread if things get too bad in the center area, and there seems to be no upper limit on how big they can get. Now, I like the basic idea of the landscape where Prometheans live changing to look like something out of a James Whale movie, but at times the effect seems a bit severe, especially when the land starts spreading Disquiet and perhaps subtly prodding mortals in the area to do something about the taint. It makes sense for Prometheans to be under pressure to keep moving, but it also seems like these rules would make it difficult to run an urban campaign (and lower the value of the Lair merit.) Wasteland stages run from one to five, but for some reason the description of effects by lineage only goes from stages two to four. Wasteland probably isn’t too bad in practice since it does spread on a monthly basis, but it seems like it could have been limited and simplified a bit. It just seems weird to me that you could theoretically create a Wasteland the size of Rhode Island by staying in a shack for long enough, especially in an overall setting where humanity is largely ignorant of the supernatural forces that surround them.

Both the Wasteland and Torment rules have a weird addition that also seems to force a certain style too much. A party of Prometheans is, most properly, a branded “throng”, in which the characters make an alchemical connection in order to help each other. Being part of a throng with Prometheans of other lineages makes Torment easier to resist and slows the spread of Wasteland- however, having one of the same Lineage as you makes these problems worse. Encouraging diverse parties is one thing, but I’m not sure why the designers went out of their way to discourage there being two Ulgans, two Golems, etc. in a given group. I think it’s at least possible that players can come up with interesting variations on the basic archetype behind each Lineage (say, one Galateid with a naive Pollyanna attitude who fancies herself an actual Muse, and another who more cynicaly manipulates her good looks and unearthly charm to get what she can from the mortal word before it turns on her), and that two characters of the same type can be played in different and entertaining ways. The carrot makes sense, the stick is unnecessary.

Fortunately, despite all the things the system sets against Prometheans, the rules also provide a lot of support for guiding their progress towards humanity. There are rules for the creation of new Prometheans (or Pandorans if something goes wrong), and the journey of each Promethean is laid out as a series of milestones which the Storyteller specifically determines based on the character and what vision the player has for him or her. It’s about understanding humanity on intellectual and emotional levels, and basically becoming a well-rounded (though not necessarily well-adjusted) individual. Personal development is really the theme of this game, which is an interesting one.

Of course, there are enemies, and not just humans suffering Disquiet. The chief antagonists are actually the Pandorans- corrupted vessels of the divine fire, lacking any sense of humanity from the start and often completely mindless. Pandorans feed off the Vitriol that Prometheans accumulate as they refine themselves, and are attracted to the natural Azothic radiance that all Prometheans exude. Pandorans get created when a Promethean tries to make another one of his or her kind and fails spectacularly, and can also reproduce by division when exposed to an excess of Azoth. They are divided into five mockeries of the Lineages; the Ishtari, the anti-Tammuz, lurk deep in the earth and enjoy capturing their victims and feeding on them at leisure, the Renders, a twisting of the Ulgan creation ritual of being pulled apart by spirits, actually do the ripping and tearing themselves. Sebek, the Osiris mockeries, are savage crocodile-like creatures lurking in the water. The Silent mock the Galateans through stealth and mutilation of their prey; the Torch-born, born of fire like the Wretched, seek to burn their victims to death. Most of these things are mindless, but some, the Sublimati, are born as intelligent as human beings or Prometheans. There are also Centimani, Prometheans who follow the “Refinement” of Flux, embracing the chaotic forces within them and abandoning any search for humanity. There are also clones, mindless psuedo-Prometheans created by unethical scientists (are there any other kind in a White Wolf game?), and some vague hooks for a new, barely understood Nuclear Promethean born from an accident either in Los Alamos, Bikini Atoll, or the USSR.

The book closes out with an introductory adventure- any potential players might want to skip this paragraph, but basically, a human alchemist summons the characters together and promises to help make a dose of aqua vitae which will help one of them on their journey towards humanity. They have to gather a few symbolic ingredients, and there’s some intrigue involving other Prometheans, and some business with Pandorans as well. It’s kind of slight, and didn’t really stand out to me that much, but some GMs might find it a decent campaign starter.

The book is well produced, with an above-average bit of fiction scattered through a few separate sections like a magazine article, and attractive black and white art. The arrangement is sometimes a little weird- the detailed listings of the Refinements come before those of the Lineages, which are more likely what you’d want to know first. Character creation involves looking back and forth between this book and the WoD core, which is annoying since I’ve only got the latter on PDF, but such is the nature of the line.

Appropriately enough, PROMETHEAN has entered this world a little rough around the edges. The writers as much as admit that this game is harder to run than most because of the level of character involvement required; you could argue the same for many of the World of Darkness games, but this suffers the curse of being new and not having had any default play models evolve yet. But there’s a lot of potential here, and the system seems to back it up. The game captures the tropes of isolation, rejection, and need to connect with humanity that underlie not only the Frankenstein story but many other myths of artificial life, and they’re able to make what seems like narrow subject matter offer a real range of possibilities. The rules will need some tweaking, I think, but if you’re interested in the subject matter (or the burning question of what would happen if the Frankenstein Monster, Imhotep, and Kira from XANADU rented an apartment together), this is definitely worth taking a look at.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

E. Gary Gygax, 1938-2008

The man who started it all.You know, if I make a habit of tributes to recently deceased creators, this is going to become one very maudlin blog very quickly. This year has gotten pretty cruel only three months in. But this one I have to do.

Where the journey began
When E. Gary Gygax created DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS together with friend Dave Arneson, he probably didn’t know just what he was doing. D&D was actually released first as a rules supplement to the pair’s miniatures wargame CHAINMAIL, suggesting rules for taking individual figures and using them to represent heroic adventurers exploring caves and forbidden labyrinths full of monsters and treasure. It sold like hotcakes and was quickly published as a stand-alone game, and with that, the entire hobby and medium of the role playing game was created. D&D wasn’t the first RPG I ever played, but when I discovered what these games were it was one of the first I had to have. It was the touchstone, the center of this weird new world, and I’ve followed it from that bright red box to the game it is today, and the one that’s just on the horizon. Gygax had tapped into something big- the desire to identify with the heroes of fiction and myth and to put oneself in their shoes- and placed it in an appealingly straightforward package. However complex the rules may become, the appeal is direct and visceral; fighting orcs and ogres, dodging traps, casting spells, and swiping vast hoards of gold and maybe finding a magic sword or two.

Where I came in.
It’s all so wonderfully geeky, and for a brief period in my life I thought this was something to be a bit embarassed about. But let’s face it, fun is fun and there’s no point in being ashamed of a hobby that encourages creativity, imagination, and getting together with friends. Despite being almost perpetually a niche hobby that gets mainstream attention sporadically and rarely flatteringly, the industry that D&D started has survived increasingly intense competition from video games offering the same heroic thrills with less math and more pictures, and seems unlikely to ever truly die. And there’s a unique value to what RPGs do which goes beyond the trappings of genre- at heart, a roleplaying game is one where you can try anything, where the only limit is how generous your game (or dungeon) master is. Any situation not specifically covered by a rule can be winged, and competition takes a backseat to just enjoying oneself.

Where we are now.
Gary Gygax’s contribution to pop culture and the lives of young geeks everywhere is a remarkable one, and really the rest of us can only hope to have that kind of impact. It’s sad to see him go, but comforting to know that his legacy continues unabated.

And the journey continues.