The Importance of Symbols, Science Fiction and the Many Problems of Star Trek: Into Darkness

I’m not what one would consider a Trekkie. The only Trek series I’ve watched fully is Deep Space Nine and I have no plans on changing on that anytime soon.  As a kid it rubbed me the wrong way and as I’ve grown older the promise of episodic series doesn’t really excite me. That being said, as a general fan of sci-fi I appreciate what Star Trek symbolizes: it’s bright shiny future where humanity has conquered its demons and is going out among the stars to push the boundaries. While in practice it was a bit more nuance and rougher than that, that’s not really important for this discussion. The ideals of Star Trek, without a deconstructionist view, matter. That’s what is and it plays a role in the media landscape. So with that idea in mind, let’s talk about the latest movie, Into Darkness.





Alright, having gotten the intro out of the way and given some space for those who wish to avoids spoilers, let’s get started. If you’ve seen Into Darkness then what I’m saying next should come as no surprise: I really, really dislike Into Darkness.  While the beginning and the ending are quintessential Original Trek that’s much prettier, the middle of the film is something else entirely. The problems become apparent once Section 31 comes up.

Section 31, for those who don’t know, is a paramilitary organization of questionable legality that operates within Starfleet Intelligence. Among other things, they engineer a plague that is meant to win the Dominion War by committing an act of xenocide. It comes up as little more than an off-hand remark but it’s ominous for what is to come.  The idea that an Admiral is in bed with Section 31 isn’t surprising, the DS9 episode Inter Armin Enim Silent Leges used that as part of its conclusion. But again, it’s a throw away line, a bit of world building, why does it matter?

The answer is simple: the metatextuality of the line. The only reason to invoke Section 31 is to tie into the continuity of the franchise. The problem as mentioned before is that Section 31 is unambiguously evil, at best they’re represented as a necessary evil, an evil nonetheless. There’s a certain…coziness to the way that it’s brought up and serves as a prelude to the even seedier elements that are coming up.

The extraterritorial extradition and assassination plot gets accepted rather easily by just about everyone. On one hand, you can make a case that this is a rather human reaction by seizing onto something to get even, to get revenge after what happened. The problem is that this is never shown, any sort of moral dilemma or objection is placed primarily on Scotty’s shoulders.  It’s almost as if Scotty is a sacrificial lamb, meant to bear the weight of this moral murkiness.

This doesn’t have the same problem the the Section 31 issue does above, but it is close. If Sta Trek is about moral issues then it requires the characters to interact with these moral quandaries in order to give them any weight. One of the most memorable episodes of DS9, In the Pale Moonlight makes a point of showing Sisko’s struggle as he goes deeper and deeper into the realm of immorality. Instead this serves to be a amorphously topical and nothing more, presenting the illusion of addressing the issue. Not really what one would expect.

The final issue that’s worth discussing is the alliance that Kirk makes with Khan. Kirk makes an alliance with Khan, a man who in Star Trek’s history is actually worse than Hitler. It’s mindbogglingly stupid on every level, not just a moral one but a common sense one as well. Yes, it is a matter of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it’s just a matter that the lack of questioning or hesitation makes this sequence questionable at all.

Not really establishing who Khan is also highlights how hackneyed the concept of the film’s multiple homages to Wrath of Khan. Part of that film’s success was that it relied upon one of the memorable episodes of TOS as a launching point for the plot. Here it serves as the perfect example in one single example of how this movie is drifting aimless from the franchise.

All in all, those are the major problems with the film from this perspective and it serves as a good basis for the rest of this discussion. I started this post off by talking about the importance of symbols, and as I already stated Star Trek’s symbol is being the bright, shiny future an while it may not come easy it’s always the goal in mind. It is also to keep in mind that Star Trek doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in relation to other works in the canon.

When you look at the film in this context, it comes off much worse. The reason for this is that all the issues that Into Darkness raises, other works do that better. If the morality at hand interests you at all, you’re better off watching Babylon Five, Deep Space Nine and NuBSG.* Simply put, it can be argued that film doesn’t do anything, it has murky morality and a murky placement within the canon. It’s just there and it doesn’t do anything new or interesting, which is probably it’s biggest sin of all.

IF you have any comments or feedback, leave it in the comments, otherwise see you next week

*This raises an issue of how the newest series I named started over a decade ago, but that’s a discussion for another week.




Impressions of Demon: the Descent

I just finished running a Demon: the Descent campaign and I figured I would share my impressions. This isn’t quite an Actual Play or a review, if anything it’s somewhere in between.  I’m also going to take a glance at the God Machine Chronicle rules, as I never played with them before. Let’s not waste anymore time on introductions and get started.

God Machine rules: These are really good. While there are a few things that I didn’t end up using and am given to understand that the combat math is off now, it’s not something I dealt with as the game was combat light. In paticular, the revised Merit list and Beat system; in conjunction with dramatic failures is really solid. There’s no reason to not use these rules asides from some compatibility issues that you don’t want to bash out, and even then I’d pick and choose the rules.

Demon’s premise:  In short, Demon’s premise is that the God-Machine is the enemy and the PCs are Demons, fallen Angels who are now engaged in a Cold War called the Descent. At face value it’s equal measure Le Carre, the Matrix, and Ghost in the Shell with the ability to do games themed after so many other properties. It’s evocative, it’s flexible, it’s awesome.

Demon’s setting:  Like any other NWoD game the setting is agnostic for lack of a better term. It lays out how Demon society works in broad strokes and then has the city of Seattle written up.  The more freeform nature of Demon compared to say Vampire or Mage means that it’s easier to tailor each game to your needs. Also the vignettes of cities that aren’t Seattle are really good, they resulted in me doing write ups for a bunch of cities that were all different.

Demon’s mechanics (PCs): Making Demon PCs is fun, the character concepts are interesting and the mechanical options are pretty diverse.  The thing about Demons is that they have a lot of innate powers and while Aether is incredibly useful, it isn’t all that essential. So from a min/max point of view Suborned Infrastructure is a very powerful Merit and the fact that it’s capped in the book is for a reason. Also, Demons are incredibly powerful, the box in the book about Demons’ goals being very high and only stopped by the power of the God-Machine isn’t kidding. Demons need proper antagonists, mortals are assets to be used by things far more powerful. This is mainly from Embeds and Demonic Forms. With so much power available up front, it means that a ST has to be a bit more thoughtful in antagonists in a way that othe splats haven’t in my experience.

Demon’s mechanics (Other stuff): In a lot of ways, these are how you’ll shape the game to be more specific. Some games won’t care much about Ciphers, others won’t care much about Pacts etc. Nothing really stands out from here either way to be honest.

Stuff I disliked/didn’t make sense: The big one is that Demon’s Virtues and Vices sound good on paper and serve as a good way of conveying the alien nature of Demon. The problem is that neither my players or I could really figure out how these worked in practice. Following on that, there were a few other things, like how Pacts and taking parts of lives works out in play. These issues aren’t insurmountable but do require some improv from the ST.

Overall: I still really like Demon. It handles well for the most part and my main gripes can either be houseruled or require more familiarity with the system. While supplements will no doubt flesh out the game, I don’t feel like they’re really needed. All told,I highly recommend Demon.

Some thoughts on the forthcoming BSG movie

In case you missed it, Universal is rebooting BSG as a movie…for reasons. Remaking something that’s only five years past it’s finale seems suspect.  What is the point is why reboot this at all and why make it a movie?

Well first of all, I’m thankful that this is a reboot and not another appendage on the RDM series. it was getting very cluttered, as the reveal of Blood and Chrome showed; as well as the fact that I found Caprica far more enjoyable when I treated it as more of a spiritual prequel than a literal one. This means we have a clean slate, although this does raise the question of how clean is it? By that I mean this is the third iteration of the concept, what do you include and what’s exclusive to each series?

In terms of characters here’s what you have for sure: Adama, Tigh, Apollo, Zak, Starbuck, Adar, Baltar. The reason this is the core is that all of these characters were used in both series and aren’t named Cain, who was a guest star in both. Everything else is really up in the air. Especially when you consider how amorphous the setting can be: there are Cylons, they wiped out most of humanity, now the remnants have the Battlestar Galactica to protect them as they search for the 13th Colony of Kobol, Earth. The salient details are totally up in the air. Although given how influential nuBSG was, there will be some sort of civilian government and associated tensions.

The military/civilian tensions and the other topical issues from nuBSG that made it linked to its cultural zeitgeist is part of the reason why it gained the following that it did. Updating it for 2014 isn’t that hard. The reason I say this is that nuBSG laid out a fairly good way to do so in the episode “Hero” also known as one of those episodes from season 3 that you forget cause nothing happened.  The concept of an effectively rogue military organization and the ramifications thereof is a rather good starting point.  Not only that but it’s concise, it favors the movie format. Make a drone analog the reason that tipped the war in the Cylons’ favor and you’re good to go.

There’s not much to be said about the other elements. The special effects will no doubt be amazing, given what the show was able to do on a tv budget with things like the Battle of New Caprica. I’d like it if Bear McCreary was again the composer, but that’s just as much a factor of I really like him as a composer. As someone who actually likes shakycam,  I wouldn’t mind more of it.

In short, I”m cautiously optimistic about this. It could be good and there’s a lot of good material to use as a springboard. If it’s bad, then it’s bad, can’t say I really care.


Apply with Care: Houserules

House rules can be tempting things, they can be a panacea to any problem you may have with a game. Sure this game may be fun but if we just alter this one element then wouldn’t it be even better? My thinking on this can be split into three broad categories: 1. it’s a bad game and you should just do something else that’s inherently good 2. The game is fine, and your experience is insignificant and biased 3. The game is actually good and you have a keen understanding of what the problem is and how to fix it.  The underlying assumption throughout all of this is that these games were made with care and by intelligent who knew what they were doing.

Before continuing, it’s important to note that this is all about non-rpgs. Mainly in that my opinion on the rules of rpgs is that they only exist to facilitate the game and serve as an arbiter, change them however you want as long as everyone knows about it.

Some games are just bad, they might have certain things going for them but overall they are not fun to play. Given the abundance of good games, I’d rather play one of those instead of sitting through more sessions of this now modified game in order to see if the game actually works now. Life is too short for that.

This second category is far more important. A well designed game will have all the pieces matter and messing with them can have unforeseen consequences.  Playing a game once or twice and having a negative experience shouldn’t prompt a response of ‘Oh, we’ll just house rule that” cause the game is either bad, in which case see the above point, or it’s good and your experience is biased and based upon faulty information. Unless you can clearly articulate what the problem is and how your rule is going to fix it and how it interacts with the other parts of the game, then don’t do it.

So if I oppose house rules so much, why do I play heavily house ruled BSG almost exclusively at this point? Cause the rules I play with are by and large well thought out and fix actual problems with the game. Even the most well designed games can have problems, whether’s it’s a predominant strategy or an imperfect balance that only become apparent after multiple plays. A perfect example of this is Twilight Struggle. The game with no modifications has a 55/45 Soviet/US winrate. There are any number of variants that exist in order to balance this out: optional cards, Chinese Civil War, bidding.   These rules help clean up a game and allow it to reach it’s full potential.

Overall house rules are something that I’d approach with caution but aren’t inherently opposed to, only the kneejerk reaction of implementing them. Until next time.

SolForge Draftcap no. 2

Rise of the Forgeborn has been out for two weeks now, I have some drafts under my belt, so let’s look at another draft and hope I do better than last time.

Pack 1: Alright, we have our first pack. Metasculpt is not first pick worthy unless you really want to lock in Alloyin. Ebonskull Knight is a really solid underdrop. Xrath’s Will seems fine, although it’s full value pushes me towards a direction I don’t know want to go in very much. Scrapforge Titan is still solid as always. Everflame Evoker is a decent card, although I really dislike Tempys in this format and try to actively avoid it unless I have a good reason to go into it(read: legendary) or have no choice. Ferocious Roar is also a solid card as well. Considering that creatures are better than spells, scrapforge titan is one of the best heroics and I did Uterra with Roar for my past few drafts, I go with the Titan.












Pack 2: Cypien Steelgraft is meh, in the cycle of targeting two creatures it’s in the middle. Gloomspire Wurm is bad, even if the ability does trigger you invested leveling a card that is going to hurt your deck later on. Conflagrate is solid but has the problem of being Tempys. Energy Surge is a card I like having when I have a way to skip it’s level 1 and later on in a pack. Lightshield Patrol is solid, spend a little bit of investment in him and it pays off very well, easy pick here. While this does put off locking into a faction, it does leave open the possibility of being Uterra, which is worth considering.












Pack 3: Or I can get pushed into Nekrium. Zombie Infantry is just a solid vanilla creature and is perfectly fine.












Pack 4: Gloomspire Wurm is bad, but at least it’s a creature was my thinking at the time. In hindsight, I should’ve taken Metasight, while it is highly situational I’m not passing anything of value to do so. Aegis Pulse doesn’t do much and pales in comparison to Cypien Steelgraft now.












Pack 5: Gloomreaper Witch is meh, it’s ability is rarely going to trigger and it’s body is bad. Grave Geist is a good underdrop, easy pick here.












Pack 6: All of the Allied Cards are good in their respective faction combination, so Byzerak Drake is out. Fell Walker is meh. Ghastly Touch and Group Meal are both powerful effects(well Ghastly touch is, I assume Group Meal is but I’ve never seen it played) Charnel Titan has a similar problem to Gloomspire Wurm in that consistently getting the ability to trigger is tricky. Nightgaunt is just stupid good, this early on there is no reason to pass it up, easy pick.












Pack 7:All of these cards from Alpha haven’t changed in value with the addition of Rise of the Forgeborn. Corpulent Shambler on the other hand is really powerful and a happy pick up here.












Pack 8: Stasis Warden isn’t really playable in draft, Touch of Blight isn’t really playable. Metamind Explorer seems solidly meh. Death Current seems comparable to Bonescythe Reaver in that you don’t have to invest anything up front but don’t get a body later on. Also I haven’t used it much so figure learn by doing.












Pack 9: Tower Scout is a meh aggressive card, this deck isn’t really looking to be aggressive. While Darkheart Wanderer can get huge, this isn’t really looking to be that deck. Grimgaunt Specter is an underdrop and has clear utility to the deck.












Pack 10: Gloomspire wurm cause it can trade if I’m totally screwed maybe?












Pack 11:  While Vyric’s Embrace is pretty powerful, I feel it’s better than Ghastly touch in that the slight upfront difference and life gain cancel out the fact that it doesn’t get as big. However, Matrix Warden is still the best Alloyin common and is fairly relevant given our Scrapforge Titan, Nightgaunt and Lightshield Patrol.












Pack 12: This isn’t really a Forgeplate Guardian Alpha deck I feel at this point. Ghastly Renewel is not great, the regen is tricky to get it to work. Cypien Inflitrator is powerful on his own and if his ability does trigger then it’s just gravy.












Pack 13: Nether Embrace isn’t a card, Tower Vanguard asks a lot for little pay off. Scavenger Scorpion isn’t a stellar underdrop but it is an underdrop. Metamind Operator basically trades with everything on level and is a good way for us to go long enough to get our Titan down.












Pack 14: We’re not in Nekrium/Uterra so the utility of Corpse Crawler is pretty low, and if Corpse Crawler is low than Grave Pact is even lower. Alloyin General while not great is worlds better than the other two.












Pack 15: Wanderer is better than Crawler and we can expect to pick up some more spells down the line.












Pack 16: On one hand, I’m not sad to see another Matrix Warden. On the other hand, I am a bit sad to pass a second Group Meal. Nexus Tahitian is solidly meh, he himself is fairly bad and doesn’t really impact the board in the same way that BT does.












Pack 17: Aetherguard is not happening in this deck at all, with our total of two spells; although it can be a good target of Voltroning up I suppose. Nyrali Ooze is fine, it’s not impressive except in it’s ability to fulfill a role I feel. Nexus Pilot is a really good way to either get aggressive or as an underdrop and we don’t have anything that cares about the center lane.












Pack 18: Oriean Peacekeeper is bad, his level 1 is still going to die to most things and his level 2 and 3 aren’t that great. Ossuary Spirit can be super annoying, and with two Matrix Wardens already you can make a good argument for taking it.  An argument that admittedly hadn’t crossed my mind. I take the scorpion for the underdrop but I should’ve taken the Spirit instead.












Pack 19: Anvillion Enforcer is pretty good if you can make him huge, I just take him cause the other two cards are terrible.












Pack 20: 2nd Grave Geist is better than the 2nd Specter.












Pack 21: Vault Technician is a solid card and the best one here by miles.












Pack 22: Ghastly Touch and Fell Walker are the two best cards here and given how low my spell count is I figure I’ll have more utility than a Fell Walker.












Pack 23:None of these spells are terribly exciting and Xithian Hulk is a creature who is in a perfect but not great spot on the power/toughness curve at all levels.












Pack 24: This pick was interesting in that they more or less do the same thing. I go with Digitize over the Hintermind although this was wrong. While I am spell light, the fact that digitize is only for the turn and Hintermind is permament is far more relevant. And while I do like Pulsemage it wasn’t in consideration cause new cards/not as powerful.












Pack 25: Hulk is fine, ghastly doesn’t do anything for me.












Pack 26: This is a stacked pack. Cypien Augmentation, Ionic Warcharger and Alloyin Strategist are all fairly powerful cards and I would be happy with any one of them. Strategist wins out for me in that I feel it’s the most powerful out of them.












Pack 27: I will happily take that Matrix Warden and not think twice about it












Pack 28: Given that we have a Scrapforge Titan as well as a host of generally good cards, I happily take the Technosmith here.












Pack 29: Reaver wins out for more power overall although in hindsight a very strong argument can be made for vengeful spirit as it weakens the massive dudes my opponents will no doubt play.












Pack 30: 2nd Technosmith gives me more consistency.













Round 1 was against an Alloyin/Nekrium deck that would’ve killed me had it not been for a lucky Death Current killing his Nightgaunt. He played a fair amount of spells early on hoping to kill me quickly and his deck soon fizzled out. 1-0

Round 2 was also Alloyin/Nekrium and a matter of me getting my Nightgaunt online and he had no way to deal with it. 2-0

Round 3 was Nekrium/Uterra and a very good deck. Nightgaunt and enough support to not only make it massive but also maintain overall board control. This game was over before PL3. 2-1

Round 4 was Alloyin/Nekrium. In a truly epic game, I managed to stabilize at 6 life with a level 3 Scrapforge Titan when he was at 100. The card advantaged I generated by him responding to it allowed me to deal with his other creatures and live long enough to draw it again. 3-1

Overall the deck performed very well. If you any comments either on the draft, the games or my somewhat different approach to this draftcap over the last one then feel free to comment. Otherwise, till next time.