Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Brief Meditation on Marvel's Doctor Strange

Saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange last night in IMAX 3D. Totally worth the expense: this is the very rare film that makes effective use of 3D. In fact, I'd probably rate the film as one of my top three superhero picks, primarily because director Scott Derrickson actually connects the form of his film to its thematic content, playing games with sequentiality and time that gesture toward the ways that the comics page does the same. He doesn't make the valiant but doomed attempt to replicate the simultaneous spatiality of the comics page that we saw in Ang Lee's Hulk—instead Derrickson makes the linearity of cinema's temporal experience a means of exploring the plot's interest in immortality and causality.

Put another way, in Doctor Strange, this iconography:

Equals this iconography:

The bar has been raised for the filmic realization of comics, folks!

Friday, November 4, 2016

[Uncharted Worlds] James Holden

Right now I'm obsessed with two things: James S. A. Corey's Expanse setting (in both its novel and TV forms) and Sean Gomes's Uncharted Worlds RPG. And because I like to test out RPGs by seeing if they can replicate characters from other media, I thought I'd take a shot at using Uncharted Worlds to create James Holden, "the luckiest dipshit in the solar system" (episode 6, "Rock Bottom").

Unlike other RPGs in the Powered by the Apocalypse family, characters in Uncharted Worlds are not created using preestablished archetypal playbooks (e.g., the Gunlugger of Apocalypse World or the Spectre of Urban Shadows). Instead, UW characters are generated by combining two careers with a single origin and then selecting a combination of skills from those packages (three from the careers, one from the origin).

In Holden's case, his upbringing on a Montana farm would give him the Rustic origin. There are four skills associated with each origin (as well as with each career). The choices for Rustic characters are Hard Labor, Construction, Survival, and Chemistry. Hard Labor's description ("You can perform long grueling hours of physical labor with minimal rest") seems most suited to the Holden of the novels, so I'm going to select it. When I get around to selecting Holden's attributes, I will receive a +1 bonus to Holden's Physique stat.

On to careers. Holden's time serving as a First Lieutenant in the United Nations Navy makes Military an obvious choice here. Picking a second career is a bit harder: Holden could take Commercial or Industrial or Starfarer to reflect his time serving as XO on the Pur & Kleen ice-hauler Canterbury—all three seem thematically appropriate. He could also take Personality since that's what he becomes over the course of the series: the most notorious man in human space. But I think it's best to hold off on Personality (and the Fame skill that comes with it) until later in the notional Expanse campaign. Looking at the other three careers, I'm going to reject Commercial as too financial (Holden isn't anymore particularly adept at business than the rest of the crew) and Industrial as too much in Amos Burton's wheelhouse as the group mechanic. That leaves me with Starfarer, which seems perfect for Holden and his system-roving ways.

The skills I select from Holden's Military and Starfarer careers are (from Military) Toughness and Authority and (from Starfarer) Weightless. Toughless lets Holden suffer two injuries of each severity level instead of one (necessary for our much beaten-on protagonist) while Authority reflects Holden's innate charisma, allowing him to convert even resistant NPCs to his latest righteous cause. With Weightless, Holden can ignore the Clumsy trait that otherwise comes with zero-gravity movement.

Time to distribute stats. UW has six stats (Mettle, Physique, Expertise, Influence, and Interface), and characters have an array of +2 / +1 / +1 / 0 / -1 to assign to these stats. Influence (personality and charisma) is the definite home for the +2 value. As the generic protagonist figure, Holden is generally an all-rounder, so I'm going to put the +1 values in his Mettle (courage, reflexes, discipline) and his Expertise (education, cleverness). Then I'm going to leverage Holden's Hard Labor skill to turn a 0 in Physique (strength, fitness, good lucks) into a +1. That leaves me with a -1 for Interface (technological aptitude, programming). Holden's not a total ignoramus with tech, but really he has Naomi, Amos, and Alex to handle all the beep-boop-beep stuff.

At this point, players select an advancement method from a career they wish to pursue. These are triggers that allow the group to check XP when set off by any character. For example, Starfarer's advancements include such triggers as "A passenger reaches a destination" or "A piloting maneuver causes a reversal." The expectation is that characters will start off looking to advance one of their beginning careers, but this is not mandatory—and that's good since I want Holden to pursue his "famous troublemaker" ambition right from the get-go. One of the Personality triggers is "A statement starts or ends a fight," and that seems ... appropriate for the man whose broadcast message on the destruction of the Cant begins an intersystem war.

The remaining steps of UW character creation focus on gear. Characters can add a workspace from one of their careers to a ship, station, or city (based on the scope of the campaign), and they can select  a package of personal assets (clothing, weapons, and other gear). I'm not going to bother with these steps at present.

Overall, I think UW does an excellent job of representing Holden in game terms. The other members of the Rocinante crew fit the system as well: Naomi is a Galactic Industrial Technocrat (i.e., a Belter engineer and coder); Amos, an Impoverished Scoundrel Industrial (a mechanic from the mean streets of future Baltimore); and Alex, a Colonial Military Starfarer (origin aside, the Martian pilot is the closest in skill set and archetype to Holden). Toss in Miller as a Crowded Academic Clandestine (Belter neo-noir detective), and you've got the main characters down cold.