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Random Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 18:04

Look, you can see the top of Rocket's head!

Unlike most of the movie going audience, I actually knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were before it was announced they would be appearing in a major motion picture.  That being said, I was pretty ambivalent when it was first announced.  Even though I am a Marvel fanboy, the Marvel cosmic characters were never my thing.  I figured I would catch it on Netflix at some point.  Then the quirky marketing campaign started and I decided to take a chance and see it in the theaters.  I am glad I did.

Guardians of the Galaxy is less of a superhero movie and more of the kind of old-fashioned sci-fi romp that they don’t make anymore.  There is more Star Wars in its DNA than Iron Man.  Peter Quill, or Star-Lord as would prefer to be called, is part Han Solo and part Captain Kirk—at least when it comes to Kirk’s penchant for banging alien-chicks of various skin colors.

Despite being the only human in the cast, Peter Quill is not a point of view character.  By the time you see him as an adult, he has been in space since he was eight years old and is fully acclimated to the strange universe he inhabits.  That is one thing I appreciate about this movie, it is confident enough to do its world-building on screen and drop you straight into the middle of the action.  They filmmakers felt no need to put earth in peril to artificially make the audience care about what was happening.  Instead, the spent the time making you care about the characters and the universe they inhabit.

A lot of the credit for the success of this movie goes to Chris Pratt.  I have been a fan of the actor since I first became aware of him on Parks and Recreation, and his charisma and humor come through full force on the screen.  Much like I have trouble seeing anyone but Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark nowadays, I can’t imagine what this movie would be like without him in it.

This is not to undercut the other performances.  Bradley Cooper is amazing as the voice of Rocket and Vin Diesel is able to convey a surprising amount meaning in saying, “I am Groot”.  Even some of the smaller roles, like John C. Reilly’s “beleaguered cop” member of the Nova Corps and Michael Rooker’s “blueneck” portrayal of Yondu were a joy to see on screen.

Most importantly, the movie knows how to have fun.  It is not the full on comedy you might think it is from seeing the trailers, but it had plenty of laugh out loud moments.  Perhaps more surprising is that the movie was just as good as evoking pathos as it was at evoking laughter.  There are many moments where you really felt the pain of the characters in the movie, even if they were a CGI raccoon or a green skinned alien.

This is my favorite Marvel movie since the Avengers, but the impressive thing is I have been a fan of the Avengers since I was a kid and the Guardians of the Galaxy were a group I mostly knew about as a point of trivia.  The fact that I enjoyed this movie so much is an impressive feat.

Dropping skills for backgrounds in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 21:52

I am the kind of guy who writes pages of character backgrounds for my characters.  Some of them probably qualify as short stories.  Sometimes they are written from a first person point of view, other times in the form of a journal, occasionally from a third person omniscient or the point of view of another character in the story.  I feel I need to write these backgrounds in order to properly play my character.  Even in the MMORPG City of Heroes, where I never played with deep role-players, each of my ‘toons’ had surprisingly detailed character backgrounds.

I realize not everyone plays this way.  When I am running games getting character backgrounds from some of my players is like pulling teeth.  Often players will present me with character backgrounds no more complex than “I grew up in a peasant village and when I was old enough I left to find my fortune”.  That is OK, everyone has a different playing style.

Still, I like games that encourage characters to develop their background a bit.  Probably the first game I encountered that did this was Warhammer Fantasy in which your character development was tied to your career path.  Knowing that your character was a rat catcher or a merchant before they began adventuring wasn’t much, but it was something.  Last Unicorn Games short-lived Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG took a similar path, where during character generation you would take a number of ‘tours’ on previous starships to determine your skillset.  Maybe you spent a tour on the USS Hood as a security officer even though you were in command now so you were handy with a phaser.

I think my favorite take on this mechanic so far is in 13th Age.  During character creation you allocate a number of points to backgrounds.  Rather than specific skills you might say you spent time as a cat-burglar, a guild mage, or a merchant.  Maybe you were a poacher (4 points) who was drafted as a soldier (2 points) and then became a animal trainer (2 points) when you got out.  Rather than have a specific list of skills, you roll and add an appropriate ability modifier plus points in your background where you would roll a skill check in D&D.  If the party needed to track someone through the woods and one character had a poacher background while another had a bounty hunter background, both could make the roll using their background points plus their wisdom modifier.  However, if they needed to tie up a captive probably only the bounty hunter background would be applicable.

During the D&D Next playtest, I always thought this system would be easy to implement as a house rule.  D&D Next was already more skill light than D&D 3e or D&D 4e after all.  So I was pleased to hear that at Origins there was talk of an optional module that would use backgrounds instead of skills in a similar manner.  Assuming it is well implemented, I would definitely use that option in any D&D 5e games I run.

Or I guess I could just run a 13th Age instead.  It really is a fun system.