Notes from the Newbie GM

You come here for the video game content, right?  Too bad.  This isn’t a video games blog.  This is an Aether blog.  Usually I talk about video games, because that’s what’s fun to me.  But really, I talk about whatever the hell I want.

And today, whatever the hell I want is a different type of gaming.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Recently, I picked up the role of ongoing GM for the first time.  Building up a campaign, not just a few one shots.  And it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  Most of the group of players I have here are the same group I learned to play with, and they’re all much more experienced than I am.  Most of them are even more experienced GMs than I am.  As it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  And I think GM’ing for this group is even harder that it would be with a group of complete newbies.  These guys, they freakin’ see right through everything I’m doing.

In any case, I’ve got a handful of sessions under my belt, now.  It’s been an odd experience getting this far.  Here’s a handful of thoughts I’ve had on the process the way up here.

All the Resources are Worthless

Everything geared towards the “New GMs.”  All of it.  Absolutely unhelpful.  Even the things that you think might be helpful.  You would think the Dungeon’s Masters Guide would be essential.  That’s what teaches you how to do the whole thing, right?  Nothing.  If it didn’t come with a list of magic items, it would not be worth anything.  Sure, it has a whole bunch of tables if you’re wanting to roll the dice and randomly generate your world, but just like how procedural generation leads to boring level designs in video games, would you ever expect that to lead to something engaging on the tabletop?  Anything else it has, if you’ve been a player, you already know.  You’ve seen it in action.  You’ve lived it.  And it’s easier to translate that experience than it is to try and pick something up from reading.

But that’s okay, we’ve got the whole wide interbutts at our fingertips, right?  Ehhhhhh…………..  No.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a good newbie GM’s guide.  I’ve even yet to see some newbie GM tips that are helpful.  They’re all either floofy platitudes that don’t really give you anything, they’re concepts that are either over your head or too advanced to work in until you learn to manage your players, very specific things that would not work with the way that you or your players intend to have your fun, or they’re so obvious as to be pointless if you’ve ever been a player.  All of it.  Absolutely all of it.  Even the newbie guides I’ve seen from people who otherwise have intelligent things to say about D&D fit everything into one of those four categories.  And for Kord’s sake don’t go into any sort of online discussion on the subject.  For whatever reason, it seems that the only people heading to talk to others about it have absolutely no interest in actually listening to anyone else.  So many opinions going in all sorts of directions, and no way to figure out what’s good there.

So what do you do if you want to learn GM’ing?  Well, first, spend some time as a player.  You may have noticed that was a common theme of what I had above.  It will do a lot for you if you’re wanting to build worlds of your own to spend time in other’s.  It will teach you things.  From my experience, it’s the best way to get at what you need to know.  Beyond that, just look up regular tips for GM’ing.  Go for the ones for more experienced GMs.  For whatever reason, when they’re talking to the newbies it makes people’s brains go all weird, but you can see some solid material that still gets you what you need to know if you look at what they say to some peers.  Thinking your way through that stuff will teach you a lot more than the weird stuff they’re flinging at the fresh GMs.

Your Players Will Follow Your Lead.  Easily.

From what I’ve been seeing from other GMs, it’s a common struggle to get players to follow on your plot strings.  To actually heed the call, pick things up, and go where you’ve got your material.  Either that pesky free will comes into play, or they completely miss all your intricately laid breadcrumbs, and it’s hard to get them to do anything without railroading.

I have not faced that at all.  Possibly, my experience may be different, because although I’m new, my players are outright D&D fanatics.  They throw around terminology that I don’t even know what it means years after playing.  They seem to have thoroughly explored every new piece of official content before it’s ever even released.  And as I said before, they’ve been seeing right through me.  Oftentimes, they’ve been moving in the direction of the quest before I’ve even laid it out for them.

I just need to hint “hey, there’s a thing there” and they’ll be making preparations for it.  Unless I’m unknowingly being railroady, they’re all actively reading into my intentions and making sure they’re playing along with it.  I’ve gone in some rather off the map directions, and they still keep on top of it.  I had a part where I had the guys basically taking over a town, allocating workers, distributing resources, working out policies, things like that.  I was expecting to actually have to explain this, to more mechanically prompt them into doing it, but no.

I didn’t feel like I even had to suggest it, they picked it up right away. That was a good feeling.

And it makes sense. The game’s not about having the GM against the players. Well, I mean, it kind of is, given that the GM controls the enemies in combat. But it’s not really. They’re working together. And yeah, railroading is no fun. But if players go outside of where the GM made the game, well, there’s really no game. They’d have to sit there while the GM just hammers something out on the fly, and it won’t be as well-thought as the stuff they put prep into. And they know that. So they’re not going to go marching to the east if the adventure is in the west, because that’s not fun for anybody.

That said, you do still have to know their character motivations. Had one player recently who decided that a villain marching through their town wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. Was totally in-character for him, but not super helpful. So sometimes you do have to make the call something that connects with them. In this case, I set his house on fire to get him to do something.

Take that sentence out of context.

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Eyes on Antihero

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So, in general terms, an antihero is a bad person who’s really a good person.  It turns out, an Antihero is also a video game.  Who knew?!

Me.  I knew.  Man, I rule.  And now you do too, because I’m telling you about it!

So, Antihero is a turn-based strategy game in which you run a thieves guild.  In said guild, you manage a team of units to help you yank, gank, and shank, all in the name of robbing the rich to give to… yourself.  You’re like half of Robin Hood, here.  To be honest, the ‘hero’ part of Antihero doesn’t really show up in the game.

Antihero is one of those games that’s simple in concept but really solid in execution.  It plays a lot like a board game, honestly.  Except it’s a video game.  It’s a video board game.  Yes.  You play in a semi-randomized section of one of the three types of Englands that show up in fiction (it’s the Sherlock Holmes-type, for reference) and they have you and a CPU or other player facing off against each other, racing to collect enough victory points to win the game before your opponent does.

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One of the things that I really like about Antihero is the way that your strategy has to evolve as you go along with the game.  Each game moves really quickly, and is over in about 15-20 minutes at most, yet there’s a really clear progression in strategy there.  In the early game, you might be able to make a really strong showing of it by denying your opponent access to resources and blocking them from scouting into your side of the board, while you snatch up and burglarize as much as you can.  If you just stick with that, though, you won’t be able to keep up as they start being able to move units through more territory and the places you’re stealing from run out of stuff to steal, so you’d better have built up a solid base of resource generation to keep you going by the mid-game.  And then in the end game, it becomes very difficult to keep units on the board but both sides should usually have enough to keep pumping more out, so it turns into a very aggressive war of attrition, and the guessing game of where to hit them hardest and where to place your own traps ends up ruling the day.

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There’s two major resources to secure; lanterns, which buy you upgrades, and coins, which buy you units.  Upgrades give you access to more units, improve on their capabilities, and boost your resource generation.  You’re not typically limited as far as how much you can get per turn, but every upgrade makes additional upgrades that turn more expenses, and buying units increases the price of other units of the same type.  Another layer of strategy there, sometimes you’re going to be best served by spending your wealth on a number of units, while other times you should spread them out between turns.

I particularly like the way units are designed to deal with the way strategies change throughout the course of the game.  To start with, you’ve got your master thief, who’s basically the queen of the chess board.  This guy/gal is the lynchpin of everything you’ve got going on.  They’re in charge of scouting, stabbing, and stealing.  One of the big strategic keys of the game is working out just when to upgrade their capabilities over the capabilities of the guild as a whole.  Your units can only operate in the locations you’ve scouted, burglarizing is your man source of resources in the early/mid game, and your attack capabilities without the master thief’s contributions has a strict application limit, so a lot of your momentum swings on how you use your master thief.  This unit gets the most upgrades, as well, and you’re able to increase the amount of moves you can make in a turn, the damage they do, the amount of coins you get activities, the types of places you can steal from, etc.  They’ll get progressively more powerful as the game goes on.  And, they retreat back to your hideout at the end of every turn, making it impossible for the opponent to attack them directly.

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Then you’ve got your urchins.  Urchins are pretty much the worker units of other strategy games.  Have them invade businesses, and they’ll get you benefits for it.  Usually that’ll be resources you get every turn, but sometimes it can be upgrades to your units, reduced costs, or even victory points.  They’ve usually only got one application, but it’s one that’s useful the whole game through.

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Your gangs are another one of your backbones.  These are the things that make people hurt.  Got some goons blocking your way?  Give them a good drubbing.  An assassination target?  Send the gangs after them.  They can kick urchins out of buildings, too, paving the way for you to take hold of it yourself.  You get to upgrade them every time they succeed at doing something, building up the damage they do, the amount of urchins they can remove at once, or the amount of money they make when they succeed at something.  These guys are kind of funny, so absolutely vital in the early game, but they end up dying by the droves in the late game, so it’s hard to build them up much then.  Even so, the ability to remove urchins from locations is vital to managing your opponent, and even when they can only do one before dying, it’s still the most cost-effective way of doing so.

Thugs can block off areas.  Neutral thugs will pop up randomly or around assassination targets over the course of the game, but if you want to keep your opponent from scouting out a certain area or reaching a certain resource, you can send a thug of your own to block it off.  They don’t have any offensive capabilities of their own, but you can make your opponent waste some moves in dealing with them, which is crazy effective in the early game.  As your opponent scouts more and more territory, their usefulness starts to wane, but you can always also add them to a gang to boost its health.

Saboteurs are one time use units that are pretty cheap.  They’re the only other unit other than the master thief that can scout, so if you need to extend your reach but the head honcho is busy, they can at least reveal some more street for your other units to prowl.  Their true utility, however, comes in the traps they lay.  Got a business where you just need to make sure your urchins are unmolested?  This guy can plant a bomb there.  It’ll last for a couple turns, and the first unit that tries to mess with that building will be stunned.  It makes the master thief lose all their remaining moves, and it leaves gangs and truant officers helpless in the streets, waiting to be picked off, all while your happy urchins are still there, unfettered.

And then you have truant officers and assassins.  Both one time use units, the best at what they do.  Both the most expensive units available.  Truant officers will roll up, and in the creepiest way possible, remove all the urchins from a building.  Assassins will strike for a whopping six damage, more than any other unit in the game and enough to slay almost anything except for the later assassination targets, before vanishing.  Both are only available by the time you reach the late game, and the economy on them isn’t great, as given enough time you could have a gang do the same work for much less cost, but smart use of them can really turn the tide for you.

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To win the game, you usually need to secure six victory points.  There’s a bunch of ways to do that, but there’s three that’s available on every map.  You can spend lanterns on bribing someone to get a victory point, although the cost of doing so increases each time you do.  You can fulfill contracts for assassination, taking out random targets with more health than you typically have available at that point, although again, the amount of health they have will increase every time one of them falls.  And you can fill a church with urchins, learning enough from confessions to secure blackmail, but this is the only type of victory point you can lose, so you’ll have to defend those urchins until the game is won.  Scenarios may also present you with other means of scoring victory points, such as by stealing a ship’s cargo, sneaking into a masquerade, or overcoming a palaces security and burglarizing its jewels.

The game has a campaign mode that’ll take you through all of these, as it tells the story of master thief Lightfinger as he ousts all the other thieves guilds from NOT LONDON and establishes his control over the city.  It also has an exhibition mode that I spent a fair bit of time in, and a multiplayer mode that might mean something to me if I ever played these things with anyone else.

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All in all, I want to call back to what I said earlier.  It’s a really simple concept with a very solid execution.  I had a lot of fun with it.  There’s not a whole lot of meat there, though.  The campaign mode will take you maybe 3 hours, and when you’re done with that, you’ve seen pretty much all the game has.  Short games don’t bother me at all, and it’s really good for a quick bit of fun, but if you’re expecting something with staying power, this is not it.  It is really satisfying to get a good strategy going, and although you will probably use the same basic model throughout, the different scenarios and actions of your enemies will require a fair bit of variation to that.  It’s good for my thinking cap, is what I’m saying.

Project G-Godzilla (1954)

We’re going to be doing things a little differently with this one than I’m planning on doing with all the rest.  There’s reasons for this, of course.  I never do things without reason.  Even if that reason is just ‘because I feel like it’.

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In this case however, frankly, the original Godzilla is a little bit different.  It’s incredibly different in tone from what the series would become, or even the rest of the genre it helped found.  Although it’s considered a Showa era film, it has continuity and repurcussions among all the rest of the Godzilla films of every era.  And really, this movie is a lot more serious, haunting, and downright reverent for its subject matter than what’s to come in this series.  So I’ll be treating this one different than the rest of what’s to come.  Usually, we’ll review in bulk, but here, Godzilla stands alone.  I’m planning on snarking up the place, but this film deserves more than that.  So let’s go.

Godzilla (1954)

Memorable Title: The OG Godzilla

Before we start proper, I should mention, I am horrible with names.  I’m especially horrible with names that aren’t in one of the languages I speak.  And I’m super horrible with names that only come up a few times over the course of my run with a film.  So, as will be common with these reviews, I’ll only call people by the names I remember.  If I don’t remember a name, I’m making one up.

Anyways, we’ll lead with a synopsis.  At least, as best I can remember, some time after watching the film and with a drink in hand now.  The film opens with a vaguely seen monster wrecking some boat near some island.  Another boat goes there to check it out, and the monster wrecks that too, leaving few survivors, including, if I’m remembering correctly, Some Guy.  Some Guy will be important later.  In any case, the monster proceeds to also wreck a fishing boat because it’s there, and it turns out that even when he’s not out wrecking boats, he’s still eating all the fish near an island.  This is important enough to get a film crew in the area to investigate.  They learn that the island used to sacrifice it’s nubile maidens to a sea monster named “Godzilla” in exchange for a good harvest of fish.  Godzilla decides to crush the island that night, reporters see, then everyone goes to Tokyo to ask them to do something about the giant monster breaking all the stuff.

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The government sends a mission to the island, consisting of, among others, Dr. Dinosaur, Some Guy, and for some reason the Dr.’s daughter, Daft Tart.  Seeing them off is Dr. Serizawa.  Dude’s a scientist and is really married to his job, but it’s an open relationship, so he’s also engaged to Daft Tart.  Daft Tart and Some Guy are schtupping on the fly, but Serizawa knows about it and is cool with it, because again, open relationship.  Anyways, the mission heads there, takes a look at some footprints.  Dr. Dinosaur notices some extinct creature living in the footprint, notices that it’s radioactive as all hell, and also notices that a bunch of kids have gotten a fatal dose of radiation in them.  The group continues exploring until they spot Godzilla in broad daylight, screaming at them from over a hill.  Dr. Dinosaur takes his knowledge back to Tokyo, presenting that Godzilla’s this still-living dinosaur who had been residing in an evolutionarily and biologically isolated underwater pocket until he was mutated by an errant H-bomb test.  This leads to a bit of furor as some insist that Godzilla’s existence should be hidden to prevent panic and protect Japan’s international relations, while others insist everyone has a right to know.  Either way, everyone agrees that the big giant thing that has killed tons of people should probably not be alive to kill a bunch of other people, except for Dr. Dinosaur who wants to keep the big guy alive so he can do science stuff on him.

Government sends a bunch of ships out to sea to go bomb Godzilla.  They fail to do any serious damage.  This will be a theme in future movies.  They do, however, manage to lead Godzilla back to Japan, where he destroys a train and some other stuff before heading back to the ocean.  Government gets with Dr. Dinosaur about what to do about Godzilla, who tells them that Godzilla is unkillable and also don’t shine lights at him.  Dr. Serizawa shows Daft Tart what he’s been working on, the Oxygen Destroyer, which…. destroys oxygen.  Good name, I guess.  Literally eliminates oxygen molecules from whatever it comes into contact with.  Serizawa is a WW2 vet, saw the impact of the atomic bombings, and is absolutely distraught that he’s created the world’s next great super-weapon.  He resolves to keep his discovery an absolute secret until he’s found a peaceful, truly helpful application to it, worried that if anyone else finds out about it, it’s just going to be used to kill.

 

Japan builds a giant electric fence around the country, thinking that it will stop Godzilla if he ever attacks.  Godzilla attacks.  It bothers him for a second, but then he unleashes something nobody ever expected, his atomic breath, to melt his way through it.  He then lays siege to Tokyo.

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Absolute siege.  I feel I can’t understate it enough.  By the modern day, we’ve seen Godzilla go on a rampage tons of times.  Even compared to that, the destruction he inflicts on Tokyo in this film is absolutely brutal.  And you see it all from the people affected by it.  Those fleeing.  Those hiding.  Those who can go no more, and know that they’re going die.  Moreover, the military is absolutely ineffective against him.  There is nothing they can do that is not futile.  Yet they keep trying, because they have to, and they die by the ton for it.  A big theme in this film is the consequences of the atomic bombing, and you see it heavily here.

The day after, every single place that can care for the injured is absolutely flooded with the wounded survivors.  Daft Tart sees this, and tells Some Guy about Dr. Serizawa’s new potential superweapon.  They confront Serizawa about it, expressing the need to kill Godzilla before he does this again.  Serizawa begins destroying his work at this, leading to a confrontation with Some Guy in which Some Guy gets bloodied, and Serizawa hates himself for the violence.  Then he watches TV, sees what’s going on, and agrees to turn his invention into a weapon, but still destroys all his work so it can never be replicated.

Even with the knowledge that the Oxygen Destroyer is going to wreck the local ecosystem, the government’s behind the plan.  Some Guy and Dr. Serizawa head out to sea, where the military has tracked Godzilla.  Contrary to his previous appearances, here, Godzilla is completely peaceful, and makes no move against the two.  Serizawa plants the Oxygen Destroyer, sends Some Guy back up, then severs his own ties to the ship and his oxygen line, taking the only surviving knowledge of how to create the Oxygen Destroyer with him and keeping it from being unleashed on the world.  The Oxygen Destroyer goes off, and strips Godzilla to the bone.  With Godzilla dead, and Serizawa with it, those above have a bittersweet moment, remembering the heroic scientist and the potentially tragic beast, while also realizing that, if the world keeps on the path it’s on, more Godzillas may well be created.

And let the credits roll.

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Godzilla could have just been another of the stupid fun monster bash movies that I’ve gotten so hooked on, exactly what the series became.  The original film, though, is far, far deeper than that.  You can’t enjoy this film the same way you enjoy the rest of the Godzilla movies.  Overall Godzilla fans may not enjoy this film, and fans of this film may not enjoy the rest of the franchise.  It’s very, very different.  In particular, it’s the themes of this film and the mindset of the people who made it that makes this special.  This is a film about war, about destruction, and about the atomic bomb created by the survivors and veterans of World War II who were witness to its most devastating events and lived through the aftermath.  This type of film could only have come from this creative team and at this time, and it offers a unique perspective into the mentality of the Japanese populace in the years they spent recovering from the end of World War II.

I don’t see any way around this.  Let’s set the scene here.  Pre-WW2, Japan was one of the most vicious, cruel, and inhumane nations on the planet.  World War 2 was the cap for them on at least 30 years of continuous aggressive action and numerous war crimes against China, Korea, Russia, and beyond.  Active and expansive slavery, comfort women, the Rape of Nanking, the Asian Holocaust, the list of horrors that they committed goes on and on.  As the war turned against them, they turned against their own citizens as well, committing to the use of kamikaze pilots long after they ceased being any sort of effective, aggressively encouraging families in soon-to-be Ally-controlled territories to commit suicide in order to keep their populace from finding out that life under Allied occupation is not near as horrible as they’ve been saying, or press-ganging millions of their civilians into military service, arming them with suicide weaponry, and telling them to make their deaths count.  Nazi Germany may be getting the most focus for WW2 horrors, but Imperial Japan was right there with them.

And the atomic bombs hit them so hard they turned into a nation of pacifists.

Granted, there was a lot more involved in their societal change than just that.  Saying it that way makes for a way more dramatic picture, though.  And it’s really hard to understate the impact the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japan.  The film Godzilla gives you a bit of a glimpse of it, though, wrapped up in a much more palatable fantasy horror shell.  Yes, you’re watching a movie about a giant monster terrifying Japan.  But, the monster Godzilla is the atomic bomb.  And that takes things to a deeper level here.

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Director Ishiro Honda, if memory serves, was in the Japanese military during World War II, and returned to see the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima.  He drew from those images in creating Godzilla, and I imagine a fair bit of the feelings of the time, too.  The military is helpless against Godzilla, much like they were against Fat Man and Little Boy.  The aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage sees hospitals overcrowded, medical staff overwhelmed, and even the immediate survivors aren’t safe, as radiation poisoning grabs hold.  As was common following the atomic bomb.  Godzilla, who, as the film points out, was mutated by the H-bomb himself, has skin that’s scarred and warped much like that of real-world survivors of the atomic bombings was.  It is not subtle in its metaphors.

Given that the initial American version of this film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, cut out some “anti-American” scenes, the Japanese Godzilla has picked up a bit of a reputation.  However, I didn’t really see much in the way of anti-Americanism in the original version I watched.  Granted, my copy of it is by Criterion, whom I know retranslated the subtitles from earlier versions, but given their reputation for maintaining movies in their original format, I would think it would be more accurate.  In any case, I just didn’t see it here.  It is strongly against H-bomb testing, and frankly, given that this came out shortly after the Lucky Dragon incident, I can’t blame them for that, but anything that’s really targeted at America is only by extended implication.  Hell, it’s at least as anti-Japanese government as it is anti-American, as you see some mindset to leave people vulnerable and keep Godzilla hidden in order to protect their own interests, and they lead the assault against Godzilla that ends up leading him back to them and provoking even worse devastation.  It is against the advancements of the new biggest, baddest weapons and the use of science to kill people in general, as seen in basically everything to do with Dr. Serizawa.  Even then, though, it doesn’t make a flat statement against them.  I don’t necessarily know if this was the intended statement or not, but there did hit a threshold in this movie where it was necessary to use the new big, bad superweapon to keep the nation from being wiped out, even when that did have lingering effects.  The message ends up being more “only use the superweapons in the direst peril, and even then take care that they don’t develop further” rather than a simple “atomic bombs=BAD!”

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As far as the quality of the movie, well, I know I enjoy my films very differently than your average consumer.  I had a very fine time with it, however.  It’s typical in Godzilla films to have a long time building up tension before Big G appears while they develop the human interest side of things, and that’s definitely the case here.  It’s a very different tension here than you usually see, though, building up fear and danger rather than the thrill of impending chaos.  Several of the characters have a surprising amount of nuance, moreso than was typical for this time period.  And I really have to applaud it for making you feel its themes.  This film has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and it would have been very easy for it to end up basically screaming what the developers really thought at you without any hope for absorption, as so many attempts at “thoughtful” media end up doing.  But this film doesn’t do that.  Godzilla exhibits a high level of “show, don’t tell” that makes its themes, blunt as they are, way more impactful, and really promotes an understanding of them.  This is a monster movie at its core, sure.  But it’s a monster movie that makes you think, and it’s one that has lingered with me well beyond when I finished watching it.