Wrapping Up 2020

As you may have noticed, I haven't been very active on here lately. Suffice to say, 2020 has really done a number on my mental health.

Back in March, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to go back to my hometown. The idea was that if there was a lockdown, I'd be spending it with my parents rather than on my own in my student accommodation. The only problem was that I ended up staying at home for six months, losing the independence I have at university. When you're getting closer to 30, living with your parents can really cramp your style. Especially when you've gotten used to living away from home. In normal circumstances, I would have gone home for Easter then stayed in my accommodation over the third term. After all, I would have still been paying rent for the term - although they did waive that instalment - and there's more to do in the town than in the country. I just don't have the social life at home that I have at university, so summer gets lonely. Most of the people I grew up with finished university long before I started, and are living further afield now. Those who aren't are working full-time and possibly have kids. 

This pandemic happening on the tail-end of a strike by the Universities and Colleges Union meant that I missed the last month of teaching. Fortunately, the university extended all post-March deadlines and implemented a "No-Detriment" policy to ensure that marks affected by the loss of teaching time would not affect overall grades. I was able to pass my second year, but since I wasn't able to celebrate with my friends on the course, I didn't get much of a sense of accomplishment out of it. I hit a major creative slump after running out of deadlines, but I did finish the first draft of a screenplay for Camp NaNoWriMo in July.

One of my biggest highlights of the summer is my annual visit to the Swanwick Writers' Summer School, but that got cancelled as well. That hit me pretty hard, especially because I wasn't able to do much over the summer. My parents went on a couple of walking holidays, but I wasn't invited. I don't actually like walking holidays, but I was resentful of the fact that they could go on holiday when I couldn't, not having access to a car and public transport being too unreliable in the country.

I went back to university in October, but pandemic student life feels a lot like a soulless 9 to 5, which I originally went to university to get away from. I have one virtual class every week, and another class every other week which was on campus for one session and subsequently moved online. Everything else is my portfolio. Societies have either moved online or haven't gone ahead, and I can't have parties unless they're online.

Anyway, anything good happen this year? Well, I was finally able to (legally) watch The Mandalorian. The second season has been fantastic, and I'll say it's been almost as good as The Empire Strikes Back. I also got to finally experience my favourite roleplaying system, Savage Worlds, as a player rather than as a GM. I've even on occasion been allowed to playtest a setting that's in the works.

I hope this vaccine gets rolled out soon.

Fuck off 2020.

"Covid! Oh Covid!" Rhythmic Screaming Into the Void (Special Thanks to Jack Prelutsky)

Covid! Oh Covid!
I hate you! You prick!
2020 can suck my well-beaten dick.
If only I could
Have pub trips or parties.
Covid! Oh Covid!
My world you did seize.


Done little but eat,
Drink lots, game and sleep,
Curse the hypocrisy
Of the clapping sheep,
Arrange virtual events
That don't go ahead.
I feel invisible,
Just tweeting in bed.


Covid! Oh Covid!
You're on my shit list.
You'll regret the day,
That you chose to exist.
If this vaccine would work.
And this year won't stick
Covid! Oh Covid!
I hate you! You prick!


The Fools Who Follow

I've moved back to my university accommodation now. And trying to build a new social life on Discord. Anyway, I've mentioned before that one of my biggest social activities has been role-playing games. I'm in the university's game society, and we had our online taster session during Freshers' Week.

Always looking to offer players a game which isn't 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I stumbled across a quick game called The Fools Who Follow, a narrative-focussed game by Richard Woolcock.

Taking place in a fantasy world, The Fools Who Follow relentlessly mocks the "Chosen One" cliché found in many fantasy stories. The said Chosen One is Prince Rufus, the wielder of the legendary Starblade who is destined to vanquish an evil sorcerer king. The only issue is that he's an irresponsible plonker who's more interested in having a good time than saving the world.

The players assume the role of Rufus' companions, who have to keep Rufus out of trouble and ensure he stays on the quest. However, the GM assumes the role of Rufus, whose purpose is to do anything but further the quest. There is a table which the GM can roll on to determine what Rufus gets up to, and how it pans out. For example, I had one occasion in which he had wandered off to a nearby tavern in the night and ended up losing his magic sword in a bet. And one of the options involves him ending up butt naked.

The Fools Who Follow utilises a system I've discovered recently called Tricube Tales. As stated above, the system has a greater focus on narrative than on character building. Instead of classes, characters have a "calling". All skill rolls are done with two six-sided dice, with the aim to roll at least a 4, 5, or 6 on one die depending on the difficulty of the task they're rolling for. If the task fits a character's calling, they roll an extra die, giving them a better chance of success. If it's outside the scope of their calling, they only roll one die.

Overall, it's a fun game and good for chaotic scenarios. However, it may be difficult to prolong the humour for a campaign. Granted, I haven't tried running a campaign, but I think it's probably suited towards one-shots.

I especially like finishing scenarios with some Looney Tunes style cliffhanger. For example, the quest in the one-shot was to recover a magic gauntlet with a gem that glows when it's wielded by the Chosen One. At the end of the scenario, I narrated how Rufus puts on the gauntlet, admires the glowing gem...which stops glowing after he starts scratching his crotch with the gauntlet.

The Fools Who Follow is a free download, available from Richard Woolcock's website here. I highly recommend it after a few drinks.

Franchise Reviews - Pirates of the Caribbean: Wrap Up

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a strong film, and remains one of my favourite films to this today (not quite my top ten, but a strong contender in my top 20). It's a fun revival of the Hollywood Swashbuckler, with an interesting moral: Just because someone is a criminal doesn't mean they aren't a good person. They had a breakout character audiences loved, and a franchise to give him more adventures.

The only trouble is that the later films were marred by complex stories and lore, along with lengthy diversions. I still love the action and humour, but even that begins to become more cartoonish and slapstick-heavy as the films went on.

I'm going to steal "borrow without permission" something from The Nostalgia Critic which pretty much fits the view I hold of the franchise, albeit slightly tweak it:
  1. The Curse of the Black Pearl: Awesome.
  2. Dead Man's Chest: Kind of awesome.
  3. At World's End: A little less awesome.
  4. On Stranger Tides: Hey, let's see what the ninjas are up to.
  5. Dead Men Tell No Tales: There's a fifth one?
I feel that the filmmakers wanted to keep escalating the fantasy elements. There's supposed to be another one in the works at some point, but I sometimes wonder if it's time to scale back the fantasy. To paraphrase another critic; "Why can't Jack Sparrow just go after buried treasure or something?"

In conclusion, I'd say just watch the first one. The rest don't add much.

Franchise Reviews - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

 

I got so bored that I gave up on my first viewing. Dead Men Tell No Tales (also known as Salazar's Revenge) is the latest instalment in the franchise, released in 2017 (six years after On Stranger Tides). And I can tell they're out of ideas.

The film takes place 22 years after the events of At World's End, introducing a new protagonist in the form of Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner. The son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, Henry seeks The Trident of Poseidon, which he believes will free his father from his service as captain of the Flying Dutchman. To that end, he seeks the aid of Jack Sparrow, who is looking to recover the Black Pearl after finding it in a bottle from Blackbeard's magic. Unfortunately, Jack has been abandoned by his crew after a failed robbery in Saint Martin. When he barters his magic compass for a drink, he unwittingly frees Captain Salazar - an undead Spanish pirate hunter played by Javier Bardem - from the "Devil's Triangle" he'd been imprisoned in many years earlier. Salazar begins attacking Captain Barbossa's privateer fleet and enlists his aid in hunting Jack down. Meanwhile, Jack and Henry also team up with Carina Smyth, an astronomer and horologist played by Kaya Scodelario.

A lot of this film seems to be a re-hash of the previous films: Jack is trying to recover the Black Pearl; Henry trying to save his father from being Davy Jones is pretty much the same thing as Will trying to save his father; David Wenham plays a carbon copy of Norrington without the sense of honour an sympathy; and even Salazar's undead crew has pretty much been done before. I do quite like Salazar's backstory though, and it even serves as an interesting origin to Jack Sparrow. So why didn't they just make the film about that? I'd love to see an origin story story for Jack Sparrow. It just doesn't make sense that Salazar would escape from the Devil's Triangle if Jack ever relinquished his compass. He's done it before, in the previous films.

They also reveal that Carina is actually Barbossa's long-lost daughter, but he's reluctant to acknowledge it. I think they could have done more with that as well. I also like Jack's introduction: when the new Bank of Saint Martin is being unveiled, they find Jack asleep in the vault. With the governor's wife. His crew attempt to pull the vault away on horses, and end up taking the whole bank with them. I do quite like the action sequence, but I think it's gotten way too cartoonish at this point.

All in all, I think this one can be passed.

Franchise Reviews - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

 

I've heard it be said that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was the film people were afraid The Curse of the Black Pearl was going to be. At World's End had a pretty solid ending but left some scope for more stories; Cutler Beckett is dead, Will Turner has taken the place of Davy Jones as captain of The Flying Dutchman, and Barbossa has stolen the Black Pearl (again) with the intention of finding the fabled Fountain of Youth using Sao Feng's navigational charts. Except Jack Sparrow had managed to steal the charts and go off himself.

Anyway, the film opens with Jack in London, attempting to save his first mate Joshamee Gibbs. After getting captured, he's brought before King George II and offered a place in an expedition to find the Fountain of Youth before the Spanish can. Leading the expedition is Captain Barbossa, who has become a privateer in the Royal Navy after losing his leg and the Black Pearl. Jack refuses to serve under Barbossa and escapes, when he learns that someone has been posing as him to assemble a crew. Said impostor is a former love interest named Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz. She kidnaps Jack and reveals herself to be the first mate and long-lost daughter of Blackbeard, the notorious captain of Queen Anne's Revenge, played by Ian McShane. Blackbeard is also seeking the Fountain of Youth, because he fears a prophecy that he'll be slain by a one-legged man.

At this point in the series, I sometimes wonder if they could break up the fantasy quests with something a little more down-to-earth every once in a while. Going after the Fountain of Youth is all well and good, but they have to make it needlessly complicated. The quest involves finding two silver chalices which belonged to Spanish Conquistador Juan Ponce de León, and one of those must contain the tear of a mermaid. Two people must drink water from the Fountain with those chalices, and the person who drank out of the chalice without the tear ends up giving their life to the one who drank from the chalice with the tear. I suppose it illustrates a sense of immorality in immortality. Compare this with the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: You have a temple with several traps serving as trials, and the Grail is hidden amongst many false grails which drain life.

Blackbeard seems too similar to Barbossa and Davy Jones, especially with his magic sword which controls his ship.

Jack Sparrow is still fun to watch, and the action is still entertaining. I think they mainly want to focus on what kind of creative action set pieces they can conceive. Which renders the fantasy elements unnecessary.

All in all, I think you can skip this one. I originally did.

Before I go, I'd like to state that this film borrows quite heavily from On Stranger Tides, a 1987 swashbuckler fantasy novel by Tim Powers, mainly its use of Blackbeard and The Fountain of Youth. The book is often credited as being one of the original inspirations for both Pirates of the Caribbean and the Monkey Island series. I sometimes wonder if they should have done a straight-up adaptation as a stand-alone film, rather than attaching it to an existing franchise.

In conclusion, skip the film, but check out the book.

Franchise Reviews - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

 

How long is this movie? And where did all this lore spring up from? Released in 2007, At World's End was filmed back-to-back with Dead Man's Chest.

Anyway, here's a recap; Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl were dragged to Davy Jones' Locker (an afterlife) by the Kraken. Norrington has stolen Davy Jones' heart and delivered it to Lord Cutler Beckett. Will, Elizabeth, and Jack's crew seek refuge with a voodoo priestess named Tia Dalma, played by Naomi Harris. She reveals that they could rescue Jack by making a journey to the World's End (not the pub in Newton Haven). As they need a captain who knows the way, she has resurrected Captain Barbossa.

Okay, that's a decent setup for a sequel. But they've added more plot on top of that: Beckett seeks to eradicate piracy, and is using the heart to leverage Davy Jones into serving the East India Company's fleet now commanded by Admiral James Norrington. He carries out summary executions of anybody remotely associated with pirates, which prompts a summoning of the nine pirate lords who comprise "The Brethren Court". Unfortunately, Jack happens to be one of those pirate lords, and had never appointed a successor. Which means his crew have to rescue him from Davy Jones' Locker (which was their plan anyway). But to do that, they have to go to Singapore to obtain navigational charts from Captain Sao Feng, the Pirate Lord of the South China Sea played by Chow Yun-Fat (even though Barbossa was supposed to know the way). On top of that, there's supposed to be some goddess called Calypso, whom Davy Jones once loved, and Sao Feng believes that Elizabeth is Calypso bound in human form, and wants to release her to help fight off the company. Just get to the bloody final battle we've all been waiting for. And whoever kills Davy Jones has to take his place (ferrying souls to the afterlife).

Yeah, I wasn't keen on this one. They crammed more story and characters into it, on top of an already complex story set up in the previous one. It just results in even more exposition. Meanwhile, Will and Elizabeth have a tense relationship because Will saw Elizabeth kissing Jack when she left him to die at the end of the previous film. That didn't really add much to the last film either.

However, I still like the action, especially the explosive finale, and all the characters are still fun to watch. I'd have loved to see the other pirate lords involved more in the story, but the film's long enough as it is. There's even an interesting cameo by Keith Richards as Captain Teague, who keeps the record of the Pirate Code and is also Jack's father. Apparently Jack Sparrow's mannerisms and design were based quite heavily on Keith Richards. That's kinda hilariously meta.

I'm dreading the next one.

Wrapping Up 2020

As you may have noticed, I haven't been very active on here lately. Suffice to say, 2020 has really done a number on my mental health. B...