Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Movie Review: The Green Knight (with SPOILERS)

We saw The Green Knight in a local cinema yesterday, and I have to say, it is a disgrace to the original. Calling this an 'adaptation' is stretching it so far that the Super Mario movie looks like a win in comparison. The audacity of that director to touch a classic like that without even a hint of an idea what the source is about (beyond the basic premise) to then project some very immature, pseudo-intellectual thoughts unto it (and I'm being generous here), seems very much to be a sign of our time. I want to talk about that a bit. Originally I started writing a comment on MeWe about it, had to stop in the middle to make it a post, as it very much concerns the state of what "art" is supposed to be nowadays and we can make a good example of this. This will contain spoilers and I will rant about this movie. You have been warned.
I have read a prose translation just last week. It had an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien attached where he talks about why this is an important work. I came prepared. If you want my two sentence take on the original (just as far as story goes), I see it as a pre-psychological examination of what is supposed to be the ideal man of the 14th century, measured versus Christian and social morality and values, tempted by seduction and fear of death. How Gawain (the best of knights) acts and why and what that means are themes that the author of the original masterfully played with. Let's talk about what the film did.


So Gawain is still King Arthur's nephew, but not even a knight. Instead the film begins with him waking up in a brothel, not knowing where his shoes are. He has no father, you see, and his mother seems to be a witch (as soon will be very clear, as she summons the Green Knight), so to flee facing this, he makes himself useless by drinking and whoring a lot. On Christmas eve the mother doesn't want to go to King Arthur's court and sends Gawain alone so she can do some witchcraft. Arthur is all splendor and father figure, but weak and decaying (a returning theme here, kudos to the actor actually pulling that off). Enough of a father figure, though, to be present enough at christmas to ask little Gawain if he is the man Arthur hopes him to be. Gawain says no, the queen says 'Not yet'. Then the Green Knight appears with his challenge, and Gawain, primed like that, jumps on the challenge without understanding a single word of it.
In the original Gawain protects the King from himself (Arthur wants to take the Green Knight head on) and takes the challenge willingly. Here? Not so much. Gawain thinks they are playing a game and is surprised that he just beheaded somebody, even more that it didn't take (side note: he gets to use Excalibur for the beheading, which should have done the Green Knight in, since it's all Morgan Le Fay's doing). A year goes by (just like in the original), but nothing changes for little Gawain, just more drinking and whoring and a bit fighting when the mother is addressed. Then the King appears to push him a bit to go to the Green Chappel and find out what's up (which in the film is supposed to be 6 days travel due north). He doesn't want to, but goes nonetheless. Scenes of the brooding mother are interjected throughout. Two days later he meets a stranger on the remains of a battle field. The stranger pretends to help, but sends him into a trap instead, where he is bound and gagged and left behind ... to die!

I kid you not. The camera moves from his concerned face through the forest and back to his dead and decayed remains, then back through the forest and then to the concerned face again. Next thing you see is him encountering a ghost and interacting with it. Actually, this is the point in the film where the quest turns psychedelic and 'magical' (before that magic is shown as something people like Merlin and the witches are the cause for, after that it's the land itself). It is reduced to nothing more than Gawains soul travelling the in-between to face death through the Green Knight's axe. The whole seduction part of the original (the core of the piece, according to Tolkien) is just one more random encounter, again with a massively changed focus. The frame is there, but the picture drawn is something else (and, I'd argue, lesser) than what the original had to offer.

In the end, the fox that accompanied him ushers a warning not to go (a warning like that was in the original, but mainly to elevate Gawain's resolve, here, again, it's all twisted and changed). Gawain chases him away and enters the boat that would lead him to the chapel (there is no obvious reason why the boat or the small river is necessary, he could have walked, again underlining the underworld-character of the scenery ...).

When confronted by the knight, he offers his neck to be chopped off, but flinches the first time (like in the original, but not with the same effect or for the same reason ... again, twisted and changed). The second time around, Gawain flinches again and asks "Why like that", just to get a "How else" as an answer. Before the third attempt goes through, he flees, screaming he can't do it, runs home, gets his low-status fling pregnant only to have the baby taken away from her (she wanted to be his lady, ended up being his brooding station ... many witches and a Merlin had been involved), he becomes king, gets married to a princess (witches and the mother, again).
He stays a coward long enough to see his son die on the battle field (the kid, for sure, believing the lies about the great Gawain, thinking it would make him invincible as well, because blood and all that ... that's only implied, though), and in the end, before "they" run down the gates to get to him, he sees all the women excerting power over him, leave him. Sitting alone in the throne room, realizing his unavoidable doom ... his head falls of and the scene cuts back to the chappel, before that last attempt with the axe.
Gawain is in the know now. He has been dead all the time, his life would have led to nothing. He gets rid of the garb that is supposed to protect him and tells the Green Knight that he is ready. The Green Knight says something to the effect of "Good boy, and now off with the head ...", which is how the movie ends. You don't see the actual death, the original ending is off the table, too, at this point.
If you disagree with my take on this being a dead Gawain, travelling to the great beyond, I'd just like to add that there is actually a scene where he sees himself decaying AND he brings it up in a discussion with the lady in the castle, where green is associated with decay. The director also uses the the old 'god shows the character how his life would have turned out to let him find peace'-trope*** to bring that shit home. So yeah, you can disagree, but dismantle that for a hot second ... 
Analysis (light spoilers)

What we have here is the story of a loser boy that believes the stories about knights and heroes enough to be forced into a quest by his mother and a sick father replacement, dies two days into the quest due to his naivity only to get tormented some more and get killed in the end again, this time accepting his fate, because being alive would have sucked way more (he came to this conclusion himself?).
It inverts and perverts the Heroe's Journey, which should be bad enough, but it also categorizes the relationship between men and women as evil and toxic. The mother is a witch, love doesn't exist, only obligation does, the idea of maturity through trial and initiation is a lie, institutions are a lie ... They went as far as having Gawain's shield, in the film a portrayal of the Holy Mother instead of the pentagram in the poem, splintered in front of him (which he laments, for unexplained reasons, more than anything else in that scene).
Now, in Symbolism, Mother Mary is The Throne of Wisdom, she is a positive influence on Jesus, helps him finding his way and bear his cross. A positive representation of the relationship between men and women. Psychology has caught up to that, actually, so it's not only the Bible talking about this. All of this is shat upon in that movie.
It'd be the hip thing to say "it is deconstructing Christianity and its cultural influence as a lie", but I don't think it does the harmful ideas given air in this movie any justice at all. This is, plain and simple, an aestheticization of Satanism*, and not the cute kind of Satanism people like to flirt with, but the serious kind that aims to pervert you towards uselessness.

The methods to convey those ideas are the most effective propaganda tools available to humanity: the film is drowned in music, the scenes are hypnotic, always aesthetically highlighting something irrelevant to veil the interaction and intentions between the characters (something you can see quite well in the discrepancy between Arthur's gravitas and his decay, for instance).
It's one sleight of hand like that after another. You don't question what you see because the film never asks those questions. It rather takes your attention to something else, something 'magical', and lets the interactions stand as something 'given', as if it is reality. That is some powerful psychological manipulation right there!

Really, just take all the glitter and lights on face value. What does it add up to? Beautiful noise, nothing more. Abusing the original like this only adds to the diversion by claiming the story is in dialogue with something bigger, but it only pays lip service to that (or attempts to corrupt it).
We need to start looking closer ... (no spoilers here, I think)
In the end, it's either very shallow and nice to look at, or it's hiding something very ugly while trying to inject certain values into an unassuming viewer. I tend to believe it's the latter, for the reasons I state above. 

Readers might be inclined to think this is about Christianity since I talk Symbolism and Satanism and what-not. They are mistaken**. This is about the values we held high in our society and culture for a long time.
Those values are, naturally and to some degree, influenced by the religions surrounding us, and as far as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is concerned, an early idea of Christianity is a key element and needs to be considered. However, we, as a society, had been on a good way to transcend religious values into a set of staples that exist independant to religion (at least I'd argue as much).
It seems we are learning the hard way now that these values need to be upheld and protected. Taking movies like The Green Knight apart in public is part of that process. I know my reach, so this is of no significance for any Hollywood type out there ... still had to say my piece. But I see this happening again and again. Star Wars is a good example, Wanda Vision seems to be another one (see where the * leads). The US Comics scene has massive problems with telling 'good' stories, and the successfull ones seem to hide questionable messages. 
In a discussion on MeWe an online friend wrote that a lot of the public discourse today isn't about right or wrong, it's about having values or not having them. I agree with that a lot and I believe it applies here. Could I be off with my assessment? Maybe. You've seen me argue my case, I can provide sources for all of that (if I haven't already), so to take that apart, you should at least be able match that. I'm confident I can hold my ground, but would be happy to hear some great counter-arguments about it.
So would I recommend seeing this movie? Well, actually, yes. Avoid paying for it, if that possibility arises (in a legal way, of course), but yeah, if you've read the above (even if you disagree with my take), see the movie. The visuals are often stunning, as is the soundtrack, and there are some nice little story bits in it, all things told, so you'll most likely not be bored. I'd use some of the visuals for my games, for sure (and some of the ideas to portray evil, heh).
Far more important, though, would be trying to see what I saw, verifying it, if possible (it maybe all in my head, after all). If nothing else, I believe it can help creating an awareness for some ugly trends and ideas manifesting in our culture. Just because something is nice to look at, it doesn't mean it's virtues or 'true'.

If you have seen the movie already, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on it. Can you see my points? Where am I off?

I'll leave it at that (although I'd have to say more, I think I said what I needed to say).

* Jonathan Pageau has a great take on Satanism like that. See the video here on yt.

** I'm not a Christian, but I appreciate the positive influences Christianity had in our culture (there's lots of bullshit, too, mainly stupid politics, but anyway). If pressed, I'd say I'm a Daoist. If I were pressed to explain that, I'd say it's like Zen Anarchism (in that Zen is the little brother of Daoism, and thinking like that makes you an anarchist, it seems). 

*** Only thing is, where that insight comes from is not explained. If that's something the character is alluding to, it's even more stupid than I assume it is.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Your Gold is no Good Here: Fortune Tokens in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (Design Post)

Time to do one of those again, I suppose. LSotN is a bit on the backburner here at Disoriented Ranger Publishing, since we aim to bring some bunkersploitation Christmas presents to your tabletop. Nonetheless, the brain goes where it goes and I just now had an idea that might solve a (minor) gripe I had with what rules already exist: the prices of wares and services. It's an interesting topic, historically speaking, but full of problems, as far as design goes. Unless ...

On the arbitrary value of money

This is not a commentary on current political events, but as it is, we need to have some basic understanding of what's happening around us and why and how that might inform the designs of our games. So bear with me here. It'll all come together in the end. Pinky promise.

We are learning right now what it means to have so called Fiat Currencies running our economies (that is, currencies that are not backed by a commodity such as gold), as the big banks all over the world flood the markets with money and you can see almost in real time how the value is diminished the further it trickles down, leading to inflation, ending in (potential) collapse.

(Good that the rich are getting richer by the minute as well as a side effect ...)

Anyway, I digress. However, it is the biggest shift of wealth since the invention of printed money (or so they say), so it's something that comes to mind. That said, the people who lived roughly 1500 years ago did not have to worry about money in the clear terms we do. I say 'clear' in the sense that we have an economy based on a virtually generated value in relation to our net worth and the available goods and services (or something like that ... I'm no economist).

Benefit of a system like that is the superficial transparency of worth and value. We have an idea what an article should cost, or at least, what we are willing to pay and what selection that assessment leaves for us to invest in. You don't expect to get something exceptionally good for a small buck, and you certainly expect something great if you spent the money to warrant it.

There is wiggle room, of course, but it's mostly (if legal) within a set of rules everybody more or less agrees upon.

But the most important thing is: most of it is arbitrary, if only for the one major reason that in a very large economy way too many pieces shift way too much and way to fast to calculate a proper in-time value of almost anything, while value itself, from an individual point of view, isn't necessarily the result of a rational or even mathematical evaluation.

Value has always been a compromise, of sorts, between quality and power (some would say 'supply and demand', but I think that falls somewhat short, at least for the design I have in mind ...). Our monetary system only manages to mask that fact, and only to some degree (which becomes obvious as soon as no one has an idea what something should be worth, for instance the work of an 'influencer').

That's quality losing vs. power, I'd say ... [source]
 All this describes more of a road map than, say, a railway system of rules, and while most stay on the road, there are still ways to sidestep the system (or leave the road, so to say). Still, it comes with a specific frame of mind, a specific idea how things work.

D&D shows a vanilla system of the above

Vanilla D&D has a mighty vanilla take on the subject of money. Gold is the standard, silver is argued to be the more 'realistic' standard, but overall you get one price system (with little variation) that applies to almost everything one would encounter in the game.

I'm not saying that is a bad thing, not at all, but it's a very specific flavor, and it changes the narrative, imo, significantly towards a very modern take on a mostly medieval setting. It is a better fit for eras that already experienced some form of industrialisation, but it works just as well for D&D if magic is understood as a driving force very similar to industrialisation (in as much as it is able to change and alter a society).

What I'm saying is, that high fantasy like that goes well with our understanding (or rather 'intuition') of how economics work. If those things move within our realm of expectation, we have an easier time to dismiss it as a necessary dimension of a gaming world. Something that has to be as it is to elevate the other parts of a world within a comfy shadow of a system everybody dreams to overcome ...

Actually, if playing D&D is categorized as a game allowing to live a fantasy of 'playing the system' by all means necessary (which certainly was a huge part of the game in the early editions*) to get rich and famous, the economy needs to be a vanilla, but ingrained part of the system to make it work.

D&D life goals in a nut shell? [source]
Fittingly, many I know play to get to a point where so much wealth is accumulated that caring about it becomes obsolete, which could be one more indicator that the early D&D economy is successfull design**.

The more 'historic' your game attempts to be, though, the more problematic will the D&D approach turns out to be for the flow of the game.

It's all about expectations!

If you want something to happen in the game, it needs to be reflected in the rules. The more you want something, the more consequential need the rules to be for the game. You want character death? Have a system for that. You want them crippled as well? Have a system for that. You want people to use the rules at the table? Make them essential.

A good example for what I'm trying to say here would be Skills in Lost Songs. If the players want to evoke an ability asociated with Rank, they need to describe how they do it. No roll necessary (for the special abilities like 'earning one's keep'), but the player needs to describe how the character uses their skill to benefit from it. This simple necessity helps enriching the narrative with little stories how the characters use their skills and how society respects that, both help creating the feel of a more grounded and 'historical' game.

Ø2\\'3|| (that dysopian sf rpg I wrote) might be another good example for the argument I'm aiming for. The game features a credit system that strongly links what you are able to buy to your social status. Not only that, it also considers what the player does on social media as well as uncontrollable spending a character would do if exposed to advertisement 24/7 (something citizens with a lower socialt status have to content with ... higher up ads can be regulated or even ignored).

Regardless of what players want to do, then, this (far more oppressive) system will rear its ugly head regularly and sidetrack them as they fall in debt or try to get more famous or fall from grace or hit a lucky streak with a system they can't entirely controll themselves. That way, tropes become part of the narrative that are necessary to manifest a feel of dystopian science fiction by exposing the characters to it, not by having them come up or interact with it themselves (which they'll do as well, just with a different set of motivations, which is just as important!).

You see? Systems can give impulses that manipualte a narrative on different levels and with different directions of impact to achieve a certain feel a game needs to manifest, for instance, a genre or a historical mindset just by making them natural occurences of playing the game. Side effects, basically. DMs and players will bring this to the table to some extrent, but it is important to understand the power that is in a system that produces an ambient noise floor lie that to begin with. Something to carry the game and keep its themes present.

It's something like that I'm aiming for here as well (seems to be something I like to have in my designs). Oh, yeah, so systems actually do matter, btw. Because if you design elements of a game on purpose or not, they will have an impact just by using them. It's better to have a firm controll on what exactly those elements do, then, right?

Anyway, a different historical frame of mind, right?

The Dark Ages are not known for being a 'global village'. Not by a long shot. Still, the Roman Empire was no more at around 500 AC, and there was lots of movement at least on most of the Eurasian continent to get an interesting mix of people and values.

In a sense, though, that would have devalued lots of things people would cherish in their culture, for (1) the simple reason that those values don't translate well over thousands of kilometers and (2) hardship brings its own, very basic set of values as a priority. Considering this, many had to start from scratch to formulate valid worth as new communities formed across Europe, while fighting to keep what they accumulated.

As far as desings go, this is actually pretty nifty, as characters can take part in creating those values, individualize them, in a way. Of course one would have something like the Roman Coin and valuable items from the Old Age that would be recognized by many. Naturally you'll have legendary smiths, and in Lost Songs you may add magic or holy items of renown. But all this would have to find a place in an organically growing value system of a community.

Visigoth coins, 568-586 [source]
Furthermore, we'd have to let go of the idea that a piece of paper carries a certain 'fixed' value, or that currency is the end-all-be-all of every imaginable bargain. It'd be an exchange of wares to some extent or another. I'd also wager that travelling merchants would have been a rare occurance during the Dark Ages, as it'd have to be quite dangerous to travel with goods through unstable regions (people would still do that, of course, just heavily protected or connected, and not everyone could do that).

Sure enough, the Romans (Antiquity in general) had travelling merchants and you will have local trade, even import and export. Just not to the extent we'd see before the fall of the Roman Empire or in the Middle Ages. Between 500 and, say, 900 AD you'll most likely have a ever-changing patchwork of arrangements, with some stable regions or market places developing over time in cities, near castles and with monasteries (here's the Wikipedia entry, with nothing specifically about the Dark Ages, hah!).

Hence, what we'll need is a system that allows ballparking values of everything one living back then would value to the degree they'd value it and why, at best while generating a little story about an item and without having tons of tables with varying values of items in different cultures over time ... because that'd be never complete enough to be satisfying (the game would feature examples, of course, which would come in tables, of course).

The abstract for the arbitrary ...

Okay, we have our parameters, we know what we want this to achieve. The trick to make this work is to go as abstract and basic as possible so that every possible scenario a group would come up with could apply the rules to the same effect.

It helps that a lot of this is arbitrary to begin with and the basic axis we formulated in the beginning, quality versus power, should help producing a dynamic that is consistent and somewhat within the historical context.

So here are the basic rules (preliminary version, naturally):

The smallest Narrative Unit (NU) of a thing is worth 1 Fortune Token (FT) and Honor Points (HP) spent multiply the value of FT needed for the next transaction. 20 HP spent will give a character what they desire. Skill value act as multiplier for the NU from Master Rank upwards if the creator is known or present (if several high rank skills are necessary, the values stack). If a thing is connected to layers above normal level, they also function as multipliers.

So one could say, a horse is worth 1 TF, and there should be situations where this is true. That said, a horse, if you think about it, is composed of more than one narrative unit, isn't it? Ancestry can play a huge part, the trainer might be a master or grandmaster even (both act as multipliers), it might have won prizes (another NU) or have a famous owner (NU), maybe even magical properties (more NU)!

So a horse (1 NU) with famous breeds as parents (2 NU) that is bred and trained by a Master (at least 2 skills, let's say a multiplier of 12, the least possible) and owned by a king (1 NU, Epic Layer = 500) would be worth 24.000 FT. A truely royal price for a horse!

That's what a 1 FT horse looks like ... [source]

There is a lot one can do with this, and most importantly, all of it tells a story. A copper piece from the legendary Roman Empire might be worth more than a gold piece from an unknown source, unless an alchemist can be quoted that verifies that gold's purity, for instance.

One sure can lie and cheat to add NU or multipliers to a thing, but it might come back to haunt a character. One might, for instance, swear upon the gods that it is true, and the gods don't take kindly to lying in their name (and something like hat woud be common place with bargains, so cheating would be dangerous). Again, it creates narratives that fit the setting and make value something that is elevated by the stories defining it. Connecting this with Honor is only fitting, as it might be an honor to give a king something for only a small price (or as a gift, even).

My guess is that it'd shift a group's drive to loot somewhat towards following up on legends, actually caring about the items they won. Another welcome effect, of course.

And that's it, so what do you guys think?

This will need to connect with several sub systems the game features, so I might have a little bit of work ahead of me to make it fit, but my guess is it'll fit quite nicely and maybe even help figuring out a couple of kinks of the other systems (lower levels of random encounters will need another dimension now, for instance, but that's a good thing!).

This post about gold and honor will need an update as well (quick fix would be to just exchange gold with FT, but I'd have to see if the values I go with in 2015 match with what the system produces ... it might, given that characters can spend HP as multipliers, still seems steep, though).

It's all still very much a WIP, but piece by piece I'm inching towards  finished game. I'll keep you guys updated, of course, as I get to work on LSotN.

Anyway, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on this.


* Nowadays, with the characters already starting rather mighty, it's more like living a power fantasy, which is a significant shift in narrative focus, but of no interest here in this post, I'd say.

**  It is not without faults, I think, as there need to be rules for characters flooding an economy with the loot they gained, but that's neither here nor there. I wrote my thoughts on this here, though, if you are interested.


In other news,  you can check out a free preview of the Ø2\\'3|| (that rpg I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). This will be with the general populace for a little while now, but we will do some sales in the future, of course.

If you need more convincing, maybe this post might get you there. If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here ...


Tuesday, August 3, 2021

My OnePageDungeon Contest entry: Opik's Magnificiently Damning Door Bravery

I ended up having the time and energy to throw something together for the OnePageDungeon 2021! It's a full page, and trust me, every millimeter was fought for. Naturally, I sent it in on the last possible day (with a couple of hours to go and I wasn't the last, but still, cutting it short). I'll try and talk a bit about it here (sharing it as well, of course, as that seems to be the custom), but this might end up being my shortest post in a long while ...

Opik's Magnificiently Damning Door Bravery

It's the nature of the beast that I'd rather share the page itself before saying anything about it, as it should all be on the page, really, not needing any context. If you know the blog, you know I'm quite verbose. I think that's alright for the medium, but other formats need other types of writing or a layouter cutting corners. Guess what I did. Ha!

Anyway, here we go (open in new window for detail):

What can I say beyond that? For one, I actually aimed to have three puzzles in there instead of two. Good thing I only had a vague idea what that third module could have been and time was the deciding factor to just go with what I had. Thankfully so, since I barely had room to do those two modules justice (close call, but I managed ... I think). Still, maybe something to expand on?

As per the guidelines, this is system neutral, and that turned out to be a challenge as well. How to scale something like that in a way that is easily adapted to every imaginable system without ending up being arbitrary was something that needed lots of consideration. I tried :)

Oh yes, but doing the dungeon modules was the hardest part, btw. Who'd have thought? Lining up some squares is easy enough, for sure, but making them presentable from scratch was harder than I thought (I looked into online variants, but even there some work would have been necessary). I aimed for 'playful' in the end, I guess.

Anyway, I hope this will give a couple of people some joy. I sure had fun writing it and putting it on the page (using inkscape has a very meditative quality, for me at least). Not sure if this has a chance for anything but being in the publication in the end, but I'm happy with the result and hope I'll get another chance next year.

So, what do you guys think? Useful? Too much? Fun?! I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on it!


In other news, I will keep the discount on Ø2\\'3|| (that rpg I published) up until tomorrow and you can check out a free preview of the book right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). This will be with the general populace for a little while now, but we will do some sales in the future, of course.

If you need more convincing, maybe this post might get you there. If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here ...