Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lupin III – The Killers Gather in the Wasteland

Who the hell is this?! What is this guy's deal?!


Summary: Lupin turns the tables on the assassins. Ami reveals secrets. Fujiko joins the game.

Lupin the Third Part 4 (AKA The Italian Adventure) cherrypicked the best elements from the long history of the Lupin III franchise, giving us alternately Green Jacket crime stories, Red Jacket hijinks, Pink Jacket meta-commentary, and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine levels of characterization. They even did an out-and-out Miyazaki homage in the humorous yet melancholy episode “Welcome to the Haunted Hotel!” I’d have to rewatch the whole series, but the only element I can’t remember seeing in Part 4 was truly Monkey Punch-style gallows humor.

That is not true of “The Killers Gather in the Wasteland,” which might be the most Monkey Punch episode I’ve seen in any series—even the ones that directly adapted manga stories.

I’m still not sold on the serialized aspect of this series, but this week’s episode is still fan-freakin’-tastic. Admittedly, it’s also really dark, with a level of (largely implied) lethality completely opposite in tone to The Castle of Cagliostro, so one’s mileage will definitely vary.

As a middle-aged cishet white male named after Sean Connery and for whom the men’s adventure paperback revival of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s forms an indelible link to my late father, I loved the hell out of it. The reformed male, progressive part of my being recoils somewhat from the horrifying backstory revealed for Ami in this episode, but it makes an ugly sort of sense. The rest of “The Killers Gather in the Wasteland” is just badass action backed up with bizarre character designs taken right from the manga.

And, honestly, it’s hard to object to Lupin, Jigen, and Goemon killing their way through an army of foes when those foes are top-flight assassins. I just find myself wishing we’d gotten entire episodes dedicated to Captain Bone, Union Mama, Ichigo the fisherman, Akagi and his invisible gun, the Rat Gang, and whoever the hell that weirdo with the dog is supposed to be.

And then Fujiko Mine finally joins the storyline by doing that thing you knew she was going to do but kept hoping she wouldn’t.

Dammit.

A side of hands served with a sick burn courtesy of Goemon Ishikawa XIII.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lupin III - The Lupin Game

Goemon cuts an unworthy object
Summary: With all the eyes in the world on him, Lupin III thwarts the Marco Polo backers by stepping into the spotlight. In return, they change the rules of the game.

Oh no.

Oh no... No no nonononono...

The first episode of Lupin the Third Part 5 ended on a cliffhanger, an obvious set up to keep the action moving into the second episode. I was alright with that—earlier series have done two-part episodes—but “The Lupin Game” also ends in a similar manner. I’m not even going to call it a cliffhanger at this point; it’s really like the first 15 minutes of the episode finish the plot begun in the last five minutes of “The Girl in the Twin Towers” while the last five minutes of “The Lupin Game” belong to next week’s episode.

It’s like a freakin’ Netflix show.

Admittedly, my familiarity with original Netflix content is largely limited to the Marvel shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, etc.) but I really, really hate how those shows abandon proper serialization structure. A properly serialized narrative is presented in discrete segments; each episode should tell a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end while including plot threads that advance the season-long narrative. The Netflix model encourages binge-watching by basically taking a ten- or thirteen-hour movie and hacking it into hour-long portions with no requirement that those portions contain a full story, leaving you unfulfilled and in need of more.

Applying this model to Lupin the Third Part 5 wouldn’t be as much of an issue if this full season was available to stream all at once like a Netflix show, but it isn’t. We’re getting one episode a week, like normal, and the last two episodes have not given satisfaction. I don’t even know what to write about the episode’s plot, given the way it jumbles things up. We get the resolution of last week’s chase scene, a couple of comedy and character-building moments, and then the beginning of what the preview promises will be an extended action scene taking up most of the next episode.

(There’s also a gay panic joke and what might be racism, but it’s mild for the typical Japanese insensitivity to such things.)


Thankfully, Goemon gets to do some cool things and the crazy, themed assassins (there’s a guy with a harpoon and another one’s a fly fisher) introduced at the end of the episode seem like they burst out of the original manga or the first two TV series. Watching them get beaten promises to be fun.

Seriously, I can't figure out if this is racist or just reflecting the reality of someplace the creators visited or saw on TV when researching the episode. Maybe they're a dance squad or a volleyball team?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

New Edge: Soft Style


For some reason, recently I’ve found myself thinking about soft style martial arts—traditions like aikido and judo—and how to model them in Savage Worlds.


G. I. Joe Special Missions #4 by Larry Hama and Herb Trimpe
Oh, yeah. Now I remember why they've been on my mind.
The philosophy behind these schools (at least, the one that action movies and comics taught me) is that they’re supposed to be about redirecting the opponent’s momentum to throw them or knock them off balance. Particularly in the case of aikido (sold to Westerners as the “pacifist” martial art), modeling this with Fighting skill attacks seems contrary to the underlying philosophy.
The answer looks to be pushing, an underutilized part of the Situational Combat Rules. If we accept that the Bash maneuver also incorporates throws and that “knocking” someone prone can also mean flipping them, then the Bash and Knock Prone maneuvers perfectly encapsulate the kind of redirection of momentum espoused by soft styles. Unfortunately, pushes rely on opposed Strength rolls, so unless your martial artist is Hercules, he’s not going to be throwing a lot of people.
Therefore, we need a couple of Edges.
Soft Style
Requirements: Novice, Martial Artist
You practice a soft technique martial art such as aikido, hapkido, judo, or t’ai chi ch’uan. The philosophy behind your school emphasizes redirecting your opponent’s momentum, putting yourself in an advantageous position and leaving your opponent off-balance.
You may use the Push maneuver (see Situational Combat Rules) to Bash or Knock Prone opponents through flips, trips, and throws. When you Bash or Knock Prone, you use Fighting instead of Strength for the opposed roll. Bashing and Knocking Prone count as Fighting and martial arts attacks for Edges that modify such abilities (such as First Strike and Martial Arts Master).
Improved Soft Style
Requirements: Veteran, Soft Style  
You have learned to truly turning your opponents’ own power against them. When you Bash or Knock Prone, your opponent suffers damage equal to their Strength. If your target ran at least 3” toward you before you attacked, you add +2 to your roll.

For Freedom Squadron, I'd convert this into an aspect of the Fighting Style Edge, while for it could get added into Superior Kung Fu for Deadlands: Reloaded.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Lupin III – The Girl in the Twin Towers



Summary: When Lupin robs a dark web marketplace, the owners turn the eyes of the world on him in an attempt at revenge.
I was out of the loop when The Woman Called Fujiko Mine and Lupin the Third Part 4 aired in their initial TV runs, so this season’s Lupin the Third Part 5 is the first chance I’ve enjoyed to watch a Lupin III series while it airs. The anticipation of waiting a week between episodes promises to be both painful and delicious.
The new series begins where Part 4 left off, with Lupin and gang relocated to France from Italy. A cold open showing mysterious figures pondering Lupin’s elusive origins gives way to a raucously cartoonish opening sequence and a new version of the iconic theme played on the accordion (giving it aural echoes of French café music and the theme to A Shot in the Dark, one of the best Inspector Clouseau films). We then cut to Lupin and Jigen planning a heist targeting Marco Polo, a dark web vendor of drugs and guns that’s more than a little reminiscent of Silk Road.
The pair (and Goemon) infiltrate Marco Polo’s server farm/headquarters in an action sequence that’s half Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation, half Road Runner cartoon. This leads to the introduction of Ami, one of the season’s new characters and the latest in a line of slightly-too-innocent-for-his-taste young women whom Lupin III rescues. Though the theft is successful, Lupin and gang find themselves on the run when the owners of Marco Polo gamify tracking the thief down and turn everyone with a smartphone into unwitting bounty hunters.
Lupin the Third Part 5 charges out of the gate with a smart, thoroughly modern take on the Lupin III heist-adventure formula. While the art isn’t quite as delightful as the previous two TV series (mainly due to flatter colors on the characters), the animation remains expressive and action-packed. Morose, withdrawn (possibly chronically depressed) Ami is amusing in her initial appearance, though it’s far too early to see if she’ll have the impact of Fujiko Mine’s Oscar or Part 4’s Rebecca Rossellini. Inspector Zenigata’s new partner, Yatagarasu, makes no impression, making me wonder if he’s intended for a romance with Ami, almost like one of those bland leading man-types teamed with the Marx Brothers in their later films.
I’m excited by the technological bent of the new series, even if I’m completely indifferent to its promises to explore Lupin’s origins. I hadn’t even heard of Silk Road until reading reviews of the first episode, so I’m hoping the rest of the series continues to educate me about 21st century twists in the heist genre. Even if it doesn’t, Lupin the Third Part 5 will give the thrill of watching a Lupin series unspool in real time for the first time in my life.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Freedom Squadron


Disclaimer: I have worked for Sean Patrick Fannon on Savage Rifts® and with Evil Beagle Games on several other projects. I am, however, not involved with Freedom Squadron in any capacity.

It doesn’t come up much, but I’m a G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero fan. In fact, I’m an ARAH snob. As far as I’m concerned, the pinnacle of the franchise is the original Larry Hama-written comic book series and every other aspect—the live-action films, the reboot toy lines Sigma Six and Renegades, the separate Devil’s Due and IDW comic continuities, and especially the Sunbow cartoon—succeed or fail based on how close they come to replicating the mixture of action, espionage, politics, and satire that Hama writes.

This disadvantages any ARAH cartoon-derivative Savage Worlds setting trying to gain my favor, especially when one of its touchstones is the G. I. Joe animated movie—a film that appeals to me only because of the snappily-animated opening credits and the fact that Duke nearly dies. (Hama fans do not like Duke.) Thankfully, Freedom Squadron transcends its inspiration and the weaknesses of G.E.T. Into Action and Strike Force 7, the other two G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero-based Savage settings.

Freedom Squadron—based on Spyglass Games’ board game VENOM Assault—presents a setting for military fantasy action set in 2051 CE. In the aftermath of World War III, international anti-terrorist and rescue team Freedom Squadron fights a fiery cold war with VENOM, a mysterious organization with ties to all the major conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. This futuristic setting helps Freedom Squadron leap the major pitfall Strike Force 7 falls victim to: modern politics. Jumping ahead into a world of new alliances and international cooperation creates a renewed innocence to the military fantasy genre, allowing for a battle against clear-cut bad guys without the spectre of extraordinary rendition or torture scandals.

The art assets inherited from VENOM Assault easily best the limited budget of G.E.T. Into Action (a petty complaint about the other setting, admittedly), but Freedom Squadron also gifts players with the chance to really…um…get into action. Players build their Freedom Squad heroes using Vocational Frameworks that provide hefty bonuses to skills and special abilities, providing an opportunity to charge headlong into the “high-octane” action writer Sean Patrick Fannon promises.

As one of Fannon’s Patreon backers, I’ve already read an early edit of the Commando’s Manual, the player’s handbook to character creation and setting background. The new Vocational Frameworks strike an excellent balance between the bombast of the Iconic Frameworks and the relative reserve of the M.A.R.S. packages found in Savage Rifts®. They neither turn player characters into superheroes nor do they require an additional Rank’s worth of Advances to make them viable out of the gate. Supplemented by the new Skill Focus rules, Flash Gordon-inspired narrower skill list, and Savage Rifts®-style Heroic Journey rolls, Freedom Squadron characters start the game ready to take on difficult odds—just like the small, specialized G. I. Joe team did against the faceless legions of COBRA troops in the comic.

As an example, let me build a character I made up when I was eleven. The mysterious mercenary Catamount was created by painting tan an original 1982 commando Snake-Eyes figure after the 1985 ninja version rendered the first toy redundant. Conceived as an honorable opponent in the vein of Kwinn or Storm Shadow, Catamount wore a ridiculous amount of throwing knives (because I thought throwing knives were cool back then) and had a mountain lion as a companion because of course he did.


Disclaimer: I am not an artist.

Catamount is an obvious fit for the Ninja Vocational Framework—which, thankfully, is the one Fannon has shared with the public as part of Freedom Squadron publicity, so I can go ahead and reprint the framework’s bonuses without giving away privileged information. Ninjas get:
  • Hero's Journey (One Roll): Ninja may take their single roll on any chart in this book except Command, Mechanized, and Tech & Engineering. 
  • Martial Training: Ninja study many forms of combat, starting with a d8 Fighting and the Martial Artist Edge. They also start with one of the following Fighting Styles (per the Edge): Accurate, Evasive, Fast, or Power. 
  • "Ninja-Like Reflexes:" The old adage comes from truth. Ninjas begin with a d6 Agility and the Quick Edge.
  • Shadow Masters: A Ninja is not worthy of the name without firm training in physical movement, obfuscation, and infiltration. All Ninja begin with a d6 Athletics, d6 Stealth, d6 Thievery, and the Thief Edge.   
Most other Vocational Frameworks start with fewer front-loaded abilities and more rolls on the Hero’s Journey tables, but this fits my needs very well. I’ll take Catamount’s single Hero’s Journey roll from the Infantry table (also publicly shared) and roll:
  • Advanced Infantry Training: You get five additional Skill Points, which can be spent on any of the following: Athletics, Fighting, Healing, Shooting, and Survival.
Aw, yeah. Put that all together, and we get:

Catamount
Novice Human Ninja
Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Athletics d10 (Focuses: Climbing, Throwing), Driving d8, Fighting d10, Healing d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d10, Survival d6, Thievery d10, Tracking d6
Charisma: –2; Pace: 6; Parry: 7; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Turncoat, Loyal, Quirk (hates using guns)
Edges: Beast Master, Fighting Style (Fast), Martial Artist, Quick, Thief

Now, the frustrating thing here is that the Kickstarter is still short on unlocking the Friends/Foes Manual, the supplement that details the heroes and villains of the Freedom Squadron universe. When that unlocks, a new backer level will open up that allows backers to buy their characters into the universe (complete with professional illustration)! Even though I doubt I’d be able to afford it anyway, it would be cool to have the chance to make Catamount the Storm Shadow to Blindside’s Snake-Eyes.

With that in mind, you can back Freedom Squadron here.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Please Support Olympus Inc: The Pelion Report on Indiegogo



Right here, right now, a war rages unnoticed. The twelve mega-corporations of the Olympian gods fight the schemes of the unleashed Titans in board rooms and back alleys, with the fate of humanity as the prize. The half-human beings of Greek myth—centaurs, cyclopes, dryads, nymphs, satyrs, and more—lurk hidden in plain sight, selling their services to both gods and Titans. Highly-trained black ops demigods use their powers to engage in corporate espionage and covert warfare on behalf of their patrons—but they must keep their battle hidden or the goddess Nemesis will shut them down.  
Fabled Environments is back with a new expansion for Olympus, Inc, the Savage Worlds setting of “Olympunk” intrigue! The Pelion Report, by Charles White and Gilbert Gallo, contains five more godly bloodlines—introducing the paragons of Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Hephaestus, and Hera to the setting—as well as the ability to play cyclopes and centaurs. Also included are new Slosi (AKA magical items), weapons, equipment, and rules for working with the magical metal Orichalcum.
The goal is $2,500, which seems pretty reasonable for a print-on-demand book. The first stretch goal (available at $3,000) is an adventure by me. My previous adventure for the setting, Poison Drift, concentrated on the paramilitary aspects of Olympus, Inc., so I think I’ll go with a more espionage-tinged approach if I get the chance this time.
Additional stretch goals unlock new adventures by Charles and Gilbert as well as minor gods like Nike, goddess of victory, and Hecate, goddess of magic. Personally, after Wonder Woman last year, I’m curious to see what White and Gallo do with the Artemis and Athena paragons.
The backing tiers have some great perks. $40 gets you the PDF, a POD coupon to order a hardcover or softcover book at cost, PDFs of Poison Drift and another module, and any three floorplans from Fabled Environments—and $50 gets you all that and the POD + PDF option for the original Olympus, Inc! Higher tiers allow contributors to help design elements of the setting, like corporations, monsters, and NPCs.
Support Olympus, Inc: The Pelion Report by following the link to Indiegogo!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Batgirl: Seriously, Joss?


Yesterday brought the welcome news that Joss Whedon has stepped down from writing and directing Warner Brothers’ Batgirl movie. As a Whedon apostate—first turned off his work by the needless cruelty of Serenity (who the hell rewards the fans who fought to bring back his show by killing off beloved characters?!), and then vindicated by Kai Cole’s accusations of infidelity—I am immensely relieved that he won’t be screwing up another DC movie, and especially relived he won’t be screwing up a female-led movie.
While many suspect his departure has more to do with bad buzz from the aforementioned infidelity and the failure of Justice League, Whedon’s stated reason for leaving the project is that he couldn’t come up with a story… which is ridiculous. For one thing, all you have to do to come up with a story for a comic book movie is adapt some freaking comic books. I’m pretty sure there’s some good stories to be found in Barbara Gordon’s 51-year history; just bury your damned ego, stop reinventing the wheel, and adapt someone else’s work, asshole. For another thing, Robin and I cracked a basic (admittedly rough) story outline last night during two or three hours of sporadic conversation.
Batgirl is a character with built-in dichotomy—an independent, brilliant woman defined by the way she reflects the men around her. In the comics and on TV, Batgirl began and largely operated her vigilante career by imitating Batman but working independently from him. A film about her can’t ignore that vein of co-dependence.
Graduate student Barbara “Babs” Gordon hasn’t found her purpose in life. Torn between the law enforcement legacy of her father, Commissioner James Gordon, and her own intellectualism, she’s studied acrobatics, criminology, dance, library science, martial arts, and several other fields—but has yet to decide what she’s going to do after school. For now, she lives in the hip Burnside neighborhood of Gotham, working as a community activist and sharing an apartment with her transgender friend, Alysia Yeoh. Barbara’s latest project is saving the historic Burnside clocktower.
Hot on the heels of an inappropriate come-on from her [criminology or computer sciences] professor, Noah Kuttler, Babs learns her father’s been arrested by internal affairs. I haven’t quite cracked what the crime would be, but it probably has something to do with his too-cozy relationship with the recently unhinged Batman. In any case, Batman appears to be doing nothing to help his erstwhile friend.
Babs begins to investigate. She discovers one of Batman’s batarangs and begins practicing with it. She has an angry encounter with Batman, during which he dismisses her concerns; she fashions the “Batgirl of Burnside” costume in retaliation (and maybe defeats the flashy if ridiculous Killer Moth). Babs discovers Clayface impersonated her father during the crime; this leads two set-piece fights, one of which Babs uses her wits to barely survive and the second of which she handily wins using her new-found vigilante skills and brilliant mind. Eventually, she discovers the plot was set up by Noah Kuttler, secretly the criminal mastermind the Calculator.
Babs uses money reappropriated from the Calculator to purchase the clocktower. If the film is released prior to the Nightwing movie, the film ends with a handsome young delivery man showing up at the apartment to deliver an unexpected package. Alysia comments that the delivery guy had a nice butt; Babs opens the package to discover a proper Waynetech Batgirl suit. If the film isn’t going to beat Nightwing to theaters, then the suit is delivered by Alfred (or maybe an apologetic Batman). A montage of villains and heroes across Gotham reacts to the emergence of this new vigilante (Catman is intrigued, the Joker is menacing, Black Canary is enthusiastic). Batgirl stands triumphant among the computer monitors in her refurbished clocktower.
The End
Again, it’s rough and missing most of the plot points in the middle bit, but we came up with that last night. (And it leans heavily on the Batman: The Animated Series episodes "Shadow of the Bat" and "Holiday Knights.") Give me a year (Whedon was hired last March) and I could have a full script. It ain't hard, Joss. 


EDITED TO ADD:


And here's a couple of scenes I couldn't help myself from writing up.



INT. JOKER’S WAREHOUSE. NIGHT.

Inside a garishly-decorated disused warehouse or factory—filled with buzzing, blinking pinball machines, smoking acid vats, evil-eyed dolls and other paraphernalia—the JOKER stabs a stiletto into the picture of Batgirl on the front cover of The Daily Planet.

JOKER:

Bat…girl? Bat-GIRL? BATGIRL?! Batman’s my toy! Mine!

He continues to stab away as a bored HARLEY QUINN flops onto the couch and turns on the TV. A news talk show comes on. Footage of Batgirl fighting Clayface plays. Graphics ask “Who is Batgirl?” and show her favorability rating.

HARLEY QUINN:

Puddin’! The TV’s talkin’ about Batgirl!

The Joker spins, pulls out a revolver, and shoots the TV—which explodes in a crackle of light.

INT. TV STUDIO. NIGHT.

The blazing lights of the studio shine down on LOIS LANE, CAT GRANT, and VIC SAGE, debating the meaning of Batgirl.

VIC SAGE:

This “Batgirl’s” debut is definitive proof of the Superman Theory. The government is recruiting—creating—building super heroes as part of covert efforts in the first step of a fascist overthrow—

LOIS LANE:

Superman was not created by the government. He’s a refugee from an alien world—

VIC SAGE:

So you claim, Ms. Lane. And we’re supposed to take your word for it?

CAT GRANT:

Lois is intimately familiar with Superman, Mr. Sage.

LOIS LANE:

What’s that supposed to mean?

Our POV slides around to view the squabbling commentators through a camera monitor.

INT. SHABBY APARTMENT. NIGHT.

The talk show continues to play, reflecting in the mirror over the sink in a really crappy hovel of an apartment. THOMAS BLAKE, a ruggedly-handsome, athletic man in his early 30s, lifts his head into view as he washes his face. Three ragged, claw-mark scars run across his broad chest.

CAT GRANT (TV):

Everyone knows you’re the world’s foremost Supermanologist, Lois. Vic, do you really think this Rule 63 Batman is part of a government conspiracy?

VIC SAGE (TV):

Is there any doubt she was trained by the same program that produced the Bat? Look at her gear, at her techniques—

A cat yowls near at hand. Blake looks down. An upset black-and-white tuxedo cat glares back at him.

THOMAS BLAKE:

I heard you.

LOIS LANE (TV):

Early photos of her showed what looked to me like a homemade costume. This someone inspired by the Batman—

CAT GRANT (TV):

Sisters are doing it for themselves!

The cat yowls again. Blake picks him up and nuzzles him.

THOMAS BLAKE:

It’s OK, Sylvester. I’m not going to be out all night.

Blake puts down the cat and goes to the bed. A Kevlar vest, a yellow-orange sweatshirt, and matching orange cape, cowl, and gloves lay on the bed. We see Blake is already wearing boots, tights, and a utility belt. The camera lingers on his body as he puts on the rest of his costume. Sylvester the cat hops onto the bed.

LOIS LANE (TV):

Um… Thanks, Cat.

VIC SAGE (TV):

It’s a prototype, not homemade. A field test of the new agent before she’s fully commissioned.

LOIS LANE (TV):

Is it so hard to believe private citizens could be inspired to do good?

Sylvester yowls again.

THOMAS BLAKE:

I hear you, buddy. I’m going to pick up the good stuff for you tonight. Chicken pâté.

VIC SAGE (TV):

So you’re suggesting this “Batgirl” is a copycat vigilante—another unsanctioned, untrained lone actor?

LOIS LANE TV):

Would that make you happier, Mr. Sage? You don’t seem to like government oversight.

Blake crosses to the window, opens it, stops for a moment half-in and half-out. He pulls on his Batman-like cowl.

THOMAS BLAKE:
Daddy just has to rob a few people first.

Lupin III – The Killers Gather in the Wasteland

Who the hell is this?! What is this guy's deal?! Summary: Lupin turns the tables on the assassins. Ami reveals secrets. Fujiko ...