Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I know, I know. There’s nothing I can say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. Most people hate it, a few people love it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any other movies recently, so this is what I’m going to talk about today. My perspective may have been a little different than most, so I’ll tell you what: regardless of what you may think about the movie, you’ll probably disagree with me. So, since it’s been several weeks, and nobody in the universe is going to read a review about a Star Wars movie at this point if they haven’t already seen it, there will be spoilers ahead.

Before I get into likes and dislikes, some background. My close family, (at least the people I spend the most time with) are all nerds. That said, I’m also the youngest of six, so sometimes I can be left out of the loop with things. Such was the case with the Star Wars franchise. The first Star Wars movie I watched in its entirety was Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in theaters. Before you bust out your pitchforks, though, know this: I was eight at the time, and while I knew vaguely about the characters and the premise, I didn’t really know anything. The literal eight year old I was liked the movie for the action, but since it was just one of many movies for me at the time, I all but forgot the entire thing within a year.

Fast forward to now. I’ve since seen every Star Wars film, and the first movie I got to really see and appreciate in theaters as a valid audience member was Rogue One. For as much as I liked it, I couldn’t give you more than two names of any of the characters in that movie. It was just too much, too fast for me. A solid war movie overall, and you can read my review of it here. (Plus if the entire movie was made just as an excuse to put the Vader scene in theaters, it would still be worth it).

Anyways, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, was the first time I really got to sit down and watch a new story unfold in this universe. I was ecstatic, and I’ll be honest, I loved it. I walked out of the movie theater thinking it was the best Skywalker film made yet. That isn’t to say it didn’t have flaws, but overall, the choices that were made in the movie worked really well for me. At the time.

I’ve since watched YouTube commentaries on the film, and have read up a bit on a lot of things, and it’s opened my eyes a bit to really see what the current trilogy is doing wrong. The Last Jedi is not a masterpiece. The side-plot with the planet only serves to further a love interest that I hated (which was my biggest gripe immediately after watching it) and narrative-wise makes things worse for our heroes, there were lots of silly character choices that were either meaningless or contradictory, and nobody in this movie ever learns anything.

But I did enjoy a lot of the scenes. The “silent scene” was astonishing to me, because everyone in the theater managed to be quiet, and it was a great moment. (It did make me wonder, though, why wasn’t that choice made half an hour ago? Or, heck, why aren’t spaceships used as missiles all the time? One cruiser for one flagship? Deal.) I actually really enjoyed Rey’s character arc, and the complexity of her character in contrast to Kylo Ren was pretty neat. It was an interesting new twist, and I liked it. I also didn’t mind things like Leia using the Force to save herself and the kid using the Force at the end. Sure, you can make the argument that nobody can use the Force until you’re trained to use it, but the Star Wars universe is a big place that encompasses a very long period of time. Lots of strange and unexpected things can happen. Besides, a character saying “This is impossible” in a story should not be taken as absolute, 100%, unavoidable truth. Things change.

As I said, the movie isn’t without it’s faults. There’s a lot of valid complaints about it, but I still think the movie is overall great, and certainly quite enjoyable. Maybe not for diehard fans that have trouble suspending disbelief for new content in familiar mediums, but still.

As for me, I’m just hoping that whatever trilogy what’s-his-name got approved to direct after Episode IX is an Old Republic trilogy. That would be sweet.

 

D&D — Dialogues 4: Do You MIND?

Sometimes, things just don’t go as well as you expect they might. Or sometimes they go just as poorly as you feared. It all depends on the dice with D&D. This one isn’t a funny story, but instead was a great moment of just how frightening some moments can be if done right.

 

This is the same campaign of Dialogues 2 and 3, only my character, a human priest named Kallos, has since died. In the session immediately after Dialogue 3, in fact. After getting knocked unconscious, he was thrown across the room (1 failed Death save) and then he rolled a 1 on his turn immediately after, so… dead. It happened really quick, and the party was only level 3, so there’s really no coming back from that.\

My new character is a halfling barbarian named Xiuhcoatl (pronounced Shee-uh-ko). She’s something of a monotone character, deadpanning everything, but she’s also a sadist, so it’s an interesting combo. This Dialogue, however, isn’t really her story.

The party has ventured deep into a tunnel, chasing an evil duergar who attacked our town. We have to find him to stop him from telling his people of the surface’s defenses. As we delve further into this cave (we’ve been in here for hours), we find a man sitting in the middle of a pile of bodies, all cut in half. He stands in darkness, mumbling to himself, and in walks my brother, who then joined the party. (This was a welcome surprise to the half of us who hadn’t been told he was coming.) His character seems a little… unstable. We warily accept him into our fold as we continue on.

Now, the party didn’t rest before following the dwarf down here. We fought him, he ran off, and we gave chase. My level 4 barbarian is at 18/53 health, our other warlock is tapped out for spells, and we’re all but spent as it is.

So our DM was surprised that, when we find a crumbling door and some tents nearby, we don’t rest and plan. In fact, we don’t even take the sneaky approach.

I accidentally alert the dwarves to our presence, and the party takes cover. Theren, our spent warlock, casts Grease at the choke point in the doorway. Jod, the crazy warlock, and I hide behind the doors and whack them as they walk through. There’s three duergar. Then, three more show up. Things are going well. The duergar are rolling pretty low and, miraculously, we haven’t taken any damage yet (in this fight, that is).

But as I said, we’re already tapped out. By the time we take out three of the dwarves, a mind flayer steps out of the third and last tent. As soon as all the players see this, we decide it’s best to retreat. We can’t take on three more duergar and a mind flayer. And while Kollin the player knows how dangerous they are, Xiuhcoatl has never seen one, and she likes to grapple people. If an illithid is grappling you it can eat your brain, which will kill you outright. So she might unwittingly get herself killed just because she doesn’t know what she’s up against.

On Theren’s turn, he takes out Remnant’s Necklace (as mentioned in Dialogues 2). We’ve since learned that this necklace will “greatly empower a single spell cast through it”. We haven’t been told what that means, exactly, so Theren casts Eldritch Blast through the necklace at the mind flayer. He does this to push him back and to discourage him from following the party as we make our escape.

The DM asks him to roll 5d10, as opposed to the normal Eldritch Blast damage of 1d10.

A giant beam blasts through the fray, slamming into the mind flayer and throwing him back into the tent. The party sort of mutually misinterprets this as a signal to go in, so we do.

Jod walks up to the mind flayer and casts Arms of Hadar, thrashing tentacle-like wads of paper (part of his backstory) wildly at him and the three remaining duergar.

On the illithid’s turn, he casts a wave of psychic energy outward, and the DM asks all of us to make an intellgence saving throw. If I recall correctly, our rolls were 3, 4, 4, 5, and 6. Our best score against this save was 10, and we needed to beat a 15. Think about that. Out of 5 people, all of us failed what could be considered a fairly average spell save DC. This also dealt about 12 damage, if I recall correctly.

So all 5 of us, in addition to the duergar, are stunned for 1 minute, or until we make the saving throw on our respective turns. Our monk has fallen unconscious. I’m at about 4 health. Theren’s almost down, too. All of us are stunned, and since Kallos died, the party no longer has a healer.

At this point, I would have said the chances of a TPK right here and now would be over 70%.

Jod and Xiuhcoatl make their save on their next turn. Theren and our artificer are still stunned, and our monk is unconscious.

On the mind flayer’s next turn, he walks up to Jod and grapples him with his tentacles. Really bad news.

On Jod’s turn, he casts Cloud of Daggers at 3rd level. This spell deals 4d4 (6d4 at 3rd level) damage when a creature enters the cloud or starts its turn in the cloud. So he deals 6d4 now.

Xiuhcoatl is too far away to get to the illithid without using a dash action. Instead, she rushes over to the monk and gives him a healing potion.

On the monk’s next turn, he jumps up and runs over to the mind flayer and starts clobbering him. He’s looking rough.

Everyone else is stunned. Theren would have cast Eldritch Blast to knock the mind flayer away. Our artificer could have dealt tons of damage, but they can’t.

I’m panicking because this is only the second time my brother has played D&D. I don’t want his character to die after him barely playing, but I’ve done all I can.

The mind flayer’s turn begins, and before anything else happens, Cloud of Daggers deals its damage.

The numbers on these d4 were 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4. He dealt 21 out of 24 possible damage, and because he rolled so well, the mind flayer dies, and Jod lives to see another day.

We were pulled to the brink, and as far as Jod’s life was concerned, that fight could not have been any closer.

 

Needless to say, we rested after that fight.

Review — Wildcat

I recently got through Wildcat, by JP Harker, sort of in between all the physical books I’ve been reading lately (I’m still in between books two and three of Lord of the Rings, and have been thinking about picking up a new series by Samantha Shannon). So I picked this one up and resolved to finish it before the end of the year, and I did! I’m pretty proud of myself on that front—while this is no Stormlight Archive, the book is pretty thick.

To my knowledge, this is the author’s debut novel, and I’ll admit it, it kind of reads like one. There’s a lot of choices made in the book that seemed off, and a lot of the plot can be called simple. That’s not to say the book is bad—it does have some awesome scenes that I thoroughly enjoyed—but it doesn’t knock anything out of the park.

I think a big part of the problem is the fact that really, I’m not the target audience for the book. I would have trouble pinning this one done to a genre, since some subplots get a lot of attention and the main conflict doesn’t come into the foreground until more than halfway through the book. There’s lots of action and threat of physical conflict towards the beginning and end, but it slows down a lot in the middle, and there were times where I wasn’t sure if this book was actually a romance in disguise.

The biggest problem is easy to diagnose, though: There’s just too many characters that are named. As in, 70% of the characters that this book considers “important” enough to name shouldn’t have been. It makes things really confusing for the reader when they have too many names to juggle. (I’ve found that the author often doesn’t see this because in their mind, the name is used as a label for a character they’re already familiar with. The reader doesn’t have this luxury.)

Imagine that every character name used in a story is a marble. Every time you introduce a name (even if its an alias of a familiar character), you grab a new marble, and set it on the table. Realistically, your table can see about thirty to fifty marbles (names). But eventually your table doesn’t have enough surface area to be able to lay them all flat across the table, so you have to get a bowl to hold all your marbles. Except, now you can’t see some marbles, so when you come across that name in the book, you don’t have any idea who it belongs to, because now the book assumes you remember.

I’ll use a quote from the book to show you what I mean: “The town was now heaving with people and Rhia saw that her Aunt Eleri and Uncle Aeron had arrived, along with her cousins Pryder and Merrion, and their wives Eluned and Kira. Cerridwen, their sister, was chatting with her own husband, Natan, who was looking as red-faced as Rhia felt after her climb up the hill.” Now, as both a reader and a writer, I know none of these characters are important. They’re just furniture. This paragraph of nine unique character names has eight too many, because the only one that matters is the protagonist’s. (Side note: if these characters had actually turned out to be important, and the author had expected me to memorize who was who, that would have been even worse, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.)

In all honesty, there were times where a character that was in the beginning of the book didn’t get any scenes in the middle, but became important at the end of the book, and I had no idea who they were. The name was so unfamiliar to me that I didn’t even know where their name had come up before, so I couldn’t even use the book as a resource to figure out who this character was. I’m not exaggerating when I say with full confidence that there are probably over 200, maybe 300 unique names in the book. No, I didn’t go back and count, but realistically there shouldn’t even be 100 different names, especially since scenes like the one I described only serve to confuse the audience.

That said, that’s the most glaring issue with the book. If you have a notepad and write down all the character names and a short snippet of who they are as you read the book, it’ll be much more coherent. It’s a shame, because there are some awesome moments in the book.

So, final thoughts? While the book isn’t the best, it shows promise. Having the willpower to see a book through from start to finish is no small feat, and especially with a book this long, it’s commendable. To me, that says “I’m in it for the long haul”, and I can easily see future books really starting to shine.

D&D — Dialogues 3: The Law of Averages, Pt. 2

Two (in-game) days later. Our party had been rescued by a stranger (the paladin’s new PC), and taken to the secret base of the resistance. The leader, a ripped dwarf lady named Boulderback, says that she could use our help toppling the ruthless leadership of the dwarves currently in command. We owe the resistance our lives, for rescuing us in the first place, but its also personal. We lost a friend in that fight. They would have their help.

The party is instructed to go attack a guard tower at the same time as the rest of the resistance. A coordinated attack meant to be swift and decisive. Our rescuer, a female artificer, joins us for the battle.

Now, it’s worth noting at this point that out of character, I’m telling the monk in our party that Kallos is going to destroy these guys this time around. I (jokingly) argue that since Inflict Wounds rolled so low the first time it hit, the second time I hit with it it would have to deal at least 30 damage. It’s called the Law of Averages. Our monk remains skeptical. Plus, I tell him, it’s my birthday, so the universe has to cut me some slack. Kallos (and I) want revenge for being humiliated in that last fight. And this time, Kallos has a plan.

The party is in an open, garden-like area with statues placed throughout. These provide half-cover, and if we’re careful we can use them to sneak up on the guards.

Kallos casts Invoke Duplicity, making a perfect copy of himself behind a nearby statue. Then he sneaks towards it and fumbles a stealth roll (-1 Dex is a real killer).

As soon as the guards come out to investigate, however, our artificer engages. She deals an incredible amount of damage in the first round, nearly killing a guard right off the bat. The rest of the party moves in to engage while Kallos sneaks around the statues, still not quite involved in the combat.

While the guards are distracted with our warlock and artificer, Kallos sneaks up to the nearest one and casts Inflict Wounds. This time, with Invoke Duplicity right next to me, I have advantage on my attack roll, meaning I roll twice and take the higher number.

I didn’t need the advantage, though. I rolled a 20 on the first roll. I believe this is also Kallos’ first crit.

Now, in this particular session, the way our DM rules crits is “Double dice roll, then max damage”. So, if your attack would deal 1d6 damage, it would turn into 2d6, and immediately take the max without needing to roll, meaning it would automatically deal 12 damage. Inflict Wounds, of course, deals 3d10, so when it crits by these rules, I deal 60 damage.

Now, I didn’t have enough movement speed to get to the boss-man. This guy was just a lackey. He gets disintegrated. Literally.

At this point, the DM has me roll initiative, as I’ve entered the combat. I don’t roll very high, but I still move before the boss. So when it creeps up to my turn again, I walk over to him, and realize it is the same guard captain that killed my friend.

“Thought it tickled last time, did you?” Kallos says, casting Inflict Wounds at 2nd level again. I still have advantage, but again, I don’t need it. I roll another 20 on the first throw. 4d10*2, maxed, equates to 80 damage. (Again, for perspective, Kallos has 27 health. That amount of damage would take him down nearly 3 times over.)

So, having crit with Inflict Wounds twice in a row, he’s dealt 140 damage in one turn. Our monk is at this point nodding sagely. “I didn’t realize how powerful the Law of Averages was.”

Now, this guy doesn’t die. Instead, he does what anyone else would do when faced with certain death at the hands of dumb luck. He turns into a demon.

That’s pretty much the end of the exciting part of the tale. He turns all of his buddies into husks as he mind controls them using lampreys (which was, may I say, exceedingly gross). He keeps fighting Kallos, unwavering, and with his two attacks a turn (and terrible armor due to my wanting to be more sneaky this combat), he doesn’t do so well. And, I kid you not, the die that rolled two crits (not technically back-to-back, since I had advantage) proceeds to roll 4 2’s in a row.

So, needless to say, Kallos doesn’t last long against him. He falls unconscious, and I legitimately thought he was going to die that session. The rest of the party manages to pull through, however, and the would-be valiant end of Kallos Mortani instead became “That time Kallos wasn’t useless in combat”.

D&D — Dialogues 3: The Law of Averages, Pt. 1

(Story isn’t ready yet. Will post it tomorrow!)

 

This is one of those stories that prove insanely strange and awesome things can happen just by how you roll the dice. Hilarious characters and circumstances are great and all, but there’s something to be said for the occasional instances where statistics just… no longer applies. In short, this is the story of the time my level 3 cleric dealt over 100 damage in one turn. (And by coincidence, this session took place on my birthday, so I consider it a literal gift from the gods.)

Before we get to that particular session however, some background. Kallos (my cleric) and friends had just cleared out a tunnel to a nearby dwarven village. Upon arriving there, however, the half dozen guards at the gates immediately attacked us, after a brief and pathetic attempt at a peace talk.

The guard captain attacks first, and he has two attacks, meaning he is (at least) two levels higher than us. Considering that, and the fact that they also outnumber us, this sends some serious red flags. So what do we do? The same thing any respectable D&D party does. We charge right in.

Kallos tries fighting toe-to-toe with the captain, since he can easily heal himself if need be. With 18 AC and Mirror Image up, he can also soak up quite a bit of damage, hopefully giving the monk and warlock some time to pick a few off. Our paladin, who was right beside Kallos in combat, takes some savage blows dealt by the captain, who doesn’t seem interested in the many clerics running around right in front of his face.

The battle rages on, and our paladin is forced to disengage. It comes to my turn, and I have exactly one spell slot left. I can cast Cure Wounds on my ally, or…

Hoping to end things then and there, Kallos rushes towards the captain and grabs him, channeling powerful necrotic energy as he casts Inflict Wounds at 2nd level.

I don’t have high hopes for his ability to hit. Kallos has literally never hit with this spell, try as he might. It’s high damage potential (3d10 baseline) is pretty high, but you have to land the attack, and you have to be close enough to touch the guy.

Kallos, miraculously, rolls a 17. So he hits! And since the spell is 2nd level, he gets to add another d10 to the damage. So he has a potential of dealing 40 damage here. And for perspective, at this level Kallos has a maximum health of 27.

In order, the dice I roll show these numbers: 1. 2. 3. 4. A total of 10 damage. Less than half the average amount of damage 4d10 would normally roll. I could have swung my hammer at the guy and dealt more damage, for crying out loud!

Hopes and dreams crushed, the captain snickers. “As reward for fighting so well,” he says, “I’ll only kill one of you if you surrender now.”

We have nothing left. I’ve got no spells, and most of us are on the brink of death as it is. We’ve killed exactly zero guards. Having no other options, (and honestly getting the hint from the DM that this is the way he wants it to go), we accept. Our paladin’s throat is slit then and there, and we’re taken to the dungeon.

 

D&D — West Marches “Guild Hall” Campaign

I have a grandiose idea for a Dungeons & Dragons setting. Something that, if executed well, could hold an amazing standard for how the game is run among my group of friends. It changes the dynamic of the game a great deal, because it screws with the fundamental “game night with a group of friends”.  The idea behind the West Marches campaign is that you have a small community of people that set up periodic events.

Now, I won’t simply elaborate on what a “West Marches campaign” is supposed to be, though I’ll leave a link to the video I found on YouTube where I learned about it. Instead, I’ll just talk about my ideal implementation for the “Guild Hall” campaign, which has strong synergy with the concept of West Marches.

Imagine this. You and thirty or more people you like to hang around all want to play D&D. So instead of splitting off into five different groups that meet at various times, you make a group. (A Facebook group, a Discord channel, whatever. Ideally, though, I would want an entire website dedicated to it, complete with maps, forum channels, etc.) That’s step one.

Collectively, you all make a guild. The worldbuilders in the group can also get together and start to put together a cohesive map. Then, everybody makes characters. Every person in this 30+ group is a member of the guild. For this post, let’s call the guild ‘Froststar’. They all start at Level 1, with basically nothing. They have an abandoned warehouse that serves as the guild hall, sleeping on bedrolls and probably making friends with various rodents.

The goal of this campaign is to build the guild’s renown. You want Froststar to be the most popular guild in the entire city. Maybe even kingdom or continent. They have to pool their earnings, upgrade the guild hall, compete in Guild tournaments (not unlike Fairy Tail, if you’ve read/seen it). The guild starts at the bottom, but over time will acquire followers, build up their headquarters, and make a name for themselves.

“But wait,” you ask. “How is a group of 30+ people play D&D all at once?” Well, you don’t. That’s what the website is for. Here’s how it works. One member in the group calls for a session, and anyone that wants to jump in is welcome to. The games don’t happen weekly, but instead are handled on a case-by-case basis. This campaign could easily have three dungeon masters, as well. The only thing you’d need to do is compare notes after a session. (I imagine the DMs wouldn’t have characters in the guild, but I don’t see why it isn’t doable. All they have to do is be able to separate player/DM knowledge from character knowledge and you’ll be fine.)

By virtue of how this would work, pretty much all of these sessions would be one-shots. Everything starts and ends in the city, where the guild hall is, because you can’t have these five characters go to a neighboring city and have them also be a part of the next session. Because of this, a calendar where the DM(s) keep track of who is where and when would be essential. (Plus, a guild tournament where they compete against each other would be a yearly thing, so it is something Froststar should be planning around, and it can be the “topic” of those sessions.)

The number one danger with this set up is that people will inevitably gravitate towards specific people. Probably people they know better than others in the group. You don’t want the same people inviting each other to sessions over and over again, because that is the opposite of the hive mind mentality you want the Guild Hall campaign to be. You want to invite people that have abilities or characteristics suited to your goal. If you’re going to an ancient crypt, invite the hunter whose favorite enemy is Undead and the cleric who can Turn Undead. But if the group of 30+ people start splitting off into teams, that defeats the entire purpose of the campaign. So, how do you solve that? Simple: you can’t invite the same people twice in a row.

So, that’s the gist of the West Marches inspired “Guild Hall” campaign. The best part about it is that people can leave or join the guild without disrupting the flow of the in game world. Theoretically, you could set up a website with all the original members, and have it’s community be completely different ten years later, but thriving all the same. That fantasy really speaks to me, because that’s what Dungeons & Dragons is all about.

D&D — Who Tells the Story?

There’s something that a lot of beginning players don’t understand about D&D, and it can cause lots of problems based on the experience of the group, especially if your dungeon master is new to the role. In fact, this was perhaps my biggest problem when I first tried my hand as a DM, and since I wouldn’t consider myself to have been fun to play with until I had learned this lesson.

In a typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, who tells the story? For the purposes of this, it is completely irrelevant what the story is. It doesn’t matter if the dungeon master is using a campaign they bought, or downloaded online, or if they are making something up themselves. Who tells the story? I’ll give you a hint. It isn’t the DM.

This is the problem many aspiring dungeon masters have. They write out their characters, they make a map, they set up a conflict. They might as well be the author to the story, and they certainly would be if they put all of their preparation into words on a page. But there’s a variable they often misidentify: the players. New DMs consider players the audience to the epic tale of elves and wizards. Of trolls and orcs. Of dungeons, and… well, dragons.

In most D&D campaigns, there is no audience. An audience implies observation with no interaction, which certainly isn’t what the players are. The player characters aren’t, or at least they shouldn’t be, obvservers of events and occurrences they can’t influence. Influencing an open and full world is pretty much the reason to be playing D&D in the first place.

Many novice dungeon masters consider the players to be crew members of the ship, while they themselves are the captain. The DM/captain steers the ship (well, more accurately the helmsman, but you get the idea), and the players/deckhands follow orders as the DM guides them to interesting lands.

That’s not what D&D should be. Instead, the players are the entire ship. Self governed, in fact. They may declare somebody captain of the ship, or they may otherwise take turns steering it. Point is, the DM doesn’t tell the boat where to go, the players do. So, what is the dungeon master in this metaphor? Simple: they’re the entire ocean. They’re the monsters that halt their progress. They’re the ports they stop at when they reach shore. They are the storms they brave when the skies aren’t clear. The DM isn’t the narrator. They are the driving force for the characters, who are narrating their own story.

If they’re anything like me, a new DM might feel a little attacked at this idea. Dungeon masters spend time out of the game preparing ahead of time, isn’t it more their story than the rest? My answer to that is, sure, it is your story. (That’s why, when I talk about the two campaigns I’m involved in, I refer to one of them as my campaign.) But it’s also their story. The dungeon master and the players are not against one another. It’s not (necessarily) an adversarial relationship.

The DM isn’t the captain of the ship ordering the players around. The DM is the ocean a ship of players must interact with and handle in order to survive.