D&DNext: The Cursory Examination

Since like a hundred people cared what I thought about Gatsby, here’s a much more contentious topic that everyone is weighing in on – the D&D Next playtest rules. I had a quick look because I still don’t care, and my thoughts here are based on the quickness of that look. Your mileage may vary, product subject to change without notice (this is a playtest, after all)

– It’s still D&D. D’accord.

– They have somehow done a good job of bringing together a lot of ideas from all the different editions, which must have been tricky as hell. Most pleasingly, I see the simplicity of redbook here, with the one line stat line. They’re kobolds, they have 2 hit points, they have an AC of 14, they do X damage. Done and dusted. If you’ve ever felt that D&D lost its way around the time it became AD&D, there’s something for you here – but it doesn’t have THAC0s, so you come out ahead – AC goes upwards, thankfully. There’s also Weapon Proficiences back from 2nd ed, but also a proper skill list from 3rd, but simplified right down to what you’re trained in, like 4th. There’s still Saving Throws but now they’re just Ability Checks (welcome to 1977, D&D!).

– Probably the worst idea is what they did to DC checks. In 3rd, it was 10, 15, 20, 25, 30. Now it can be anything from 1 to 30. More flexible to the needs of the situation, but good luck remembering that the DC for resist poisons is 17, not 19.

– Backgrounds are a nice idea although again, it’s a stone-age one by gaming standards. They give your character a sense of identity beyond class. We have two priests in the set: one who was a knight and one who was a priest. You get different trappings, skills and world impact. It’s like Warhammer (they even made the Halfling a commoner). Welcome to 1985, D&D. Big hi to Rob Schwalb, Warhammer maestro now working on 5e, perhaps showing his hand.

– Themes could be a nice idea, because they provide an extra vector for a class. My class as a fighter means I get weapons and hit points, but then I can be a killy fighter (striker) or a defendy fighter. This allows for an extra place to put many of the fun powerups from 4E (others are in class abilities – maybe? It’s hard to see where the level powers come from). Problem is, the only themes we get to see in the same class for the two clerics: one is defender, one is healy. The fighter is a slayer, the rogue is a lurker, the wizard is a magic user. It’s only going to be really interesting if you can swap themes (and backgrounds) across all classes, if mages can be lurkers and clerics slayers and rogues healers. That’s hard to balance but otherwise we’ve just got kits back again. Which is okay, but it loses the fun of 4e where you could fill the same party role with a completely different ethos. The most boring thing about D&D is that clerics are healers and fighters are fighters, and clerics really need to heal here again, because healing surges etc are gone. If it turns out we can have lurker clerics, this will be more interesting. Right now, we don’t know.

– No sign of so-called modularity in mechanics.

– I have no idea if it has balance issues ala 3E. By making it a lot simpler, they may however just dodge that issue a little bit because it’s harder to care.

– Everything else is pretty much the same. It’s D&D. You go down a tunnel and hit gelatinous cubes with axes until they die. You search for secret doors. Elves are immune to charm and sleep. Yadayadayada.

Overall, if you like D&D but found 3E too fiddly and 4E too fiddly and too high-powered (or too mechanical), you’ll find this one up your alley – it’s like 0D&D cleaned up ala 3e with lots of the toys from 4e. But if you have no problem with 2E or 3e, there’s no great benefit to changing over that I can see. But familiarity may be what the market really wants – it would explain why they keep making clones of the game, after all.

Diablo 3 and WoW: a financial perspective

A friend I cannot name works for a major Australian bank as an actuary and share-wrangler. One of his jobs is to collect financial info from international sources to track stock market trends. His most recent North Korea report made mention of the dent Diablo was creating in other companies. NCSoft (makers of City of Heroes, Guildwars and Aion MMOs, and Mount and Blade) had sales drop 8% when D3 went live, and added in their report:

 

In its second day of releases yesterday, Korea PCcafe rankings revealed that Diablo 3 market share surged to previously unseen levels of 26%, up from 16% on the first day. Based on our visits to PCcafes yesterday, we think the Diablo 3 phenomenon will continue in the next few weeks placing further negative sentiment on NCsoft, which is expected to release Blade & Soul on June 27. 

Meanwhile, Activision dropped 3%, partly due to resolution of a lawsuit, but also because of Diablo 3 errors. And in a sign of possible desperation, Blizzard was offering a free copy of Diablo 3 to anyone who prepaid for World of Warcraft for a year. WoW is beginning the big decline.

Do the money people know the score? You decide.

I looked nothing like a rose

Since The Great Gatsby is my go-to answer for my favourite book, I suppose I should weigh in on my thoughts on the new trailer just released. But the short answer is that it told us very little; it proved all my predictions while only allaying a few of my fears.

Cards on the table – I am a great fan of Baz Luhrmann’s work – he manages to continually be bold, idiosyncratic and unconventional, in an industry that heavily punishes all three. I’ve always felt he was a good match for Gatsby, and Gatsby generally a good match for him. Luhrmann excels at creating textual worlds, dense in their hyperreality: he did it spectacularly with Verona Beach in Romeo and Juliet (where billboards offered up Prospero Cola) and with the illusory remembered Paris of Le Grande Epoque in Moulin Rouge; creating the impression of the Jazz Age just as Fitzgerald did is a task perhaps only he is worthy of tackling. Naturally, then, his Jazz Age New York is centre stage and the grand star of the credit’s opening, living large, in the same hyper-colours and clean lines as Peter Jackson’s in King Kong, but with more swing. Moulin Rouge also showed he knew how to film excess in a way that was both vulgar and enticing; naturally his version of Gatsby’s revelries are the most exciting we’ve seen portrayed, inviting the viewer for once to actually want to be there.

The typical criticisms have already appeared about using rap music, and should be ignored for being as infantile and racist as they always are. Modern music is no more out of place in a period film than it is to have Spartacus speaking English, and rap music has so many parallels to jazz it would be ridiculous not to use its language in a film like this. And Baz is not simply jumping for the obvious – most of the trailer is underscored with a fairly obscure U2 song, “Love is Blindness” which is lovely in its thick, despondent sense of menace, its portrayal of the destructive, toxic nature of affection, naturally undercutting the vivacity and playfulness of the images, hinting with the camera angles and pauses of the shadows beneath the style. Which we needed because, along with the dazzling Art Deco and gorgeous cityscapes, it was beginning to look like there would be no rotten veneer underneath at all. But Baz is building to it, and he seems to get there.

We can also be sure Luhrmann will handle the symbolism deftly – if we can have Prospero Cola and the green fairy of absinthe appearing literally, the Eyes of Dr Mecklenberg will be child’s play. I liked seeing Nick and Gatsby on the dock itself, bringing the metaphor onto centre stage. Again, Luhrmann goes beyond just the obvious.

I’ve been worrried about DiCaprio, but he looks to be strong in the role. His great curse as an actor – his inescapably boyish looks, that made him look so clownish as an old J. Edgar Hoover – are here an asset to highlighting the Peter Pan nature of the character. He also looks sufficiently small and humbled in the presence of Daisy. The weak parts come where (as in Edgar) he must play the villain, because he has so little menace. That may, however, end up being a virtue. It depends on how much romance Baz demands of the story.

Script-wise, we hew closer to the book than ever – if we can judge by the trailer, Jordan has the largest role ever in this version, Owl-Eyes and Klipspringer get a showing, Daisy seems constantly about to stumble over in confusion, which is an improvement on Mia Farrow’s stunned-mullet approach, Wolfsheim is pulled forward to provide the menace DiCaprio can’t – but in tone, the trailer still seems quite romantic. Romance is where Baz’s head lives, and even his dark endings are epic tragic ones, and as such tend to ride very close to farce. Many chuckled when DiCaprio wept in the dirt in Romeo and Juliet, and I never felt the tragedy of Sabine’s death in Moulin Rouge was really honest because the first half of the film had worked so hard to clothe her in cartoonish style. It is so easy to miss the point with Gatsby and turn it into a tale of good versus evil, of dreams dashed and love pure and untramelled even when it loses against the foul cheap dust of the world, and Lurhmann is easily seduced by such tragic tales. But in the end it is common humanity that ties the book together, that reveals the jazz age as a tawdry sham and exposes even the glittering Daisy as a monster, in the pettiest and most pathetic sense, that turns the end from a romantic tragedy into a slideshow holocaust of banality. Edgerton is talented and seems to know to play Tom down but we have images of him and Gatsby coming to blows, and the whole point is Tom doesn’t need to do that. He wins without firing a shot because he has money, and Gatsby doesn’t. I think Baz wants him to be a moustache twirler like all his other villains – Richard Roxburgh and Bill Hunter, for example. But Tom is far too much a vacuum to be a melodramatic beast, and any suggestion of it usually takes away Daisy’s culpability in all of it.

In short, Baz is like Gatsby, he believes in love, in the orgiastic future, that even when facile, even when dangerous there is power in dreams; but I always felt the book was about hate, about the smallness of people, about the shallowness of even a brilliant, glorious dream – yet hopeful because of that, because beneath the artifice are a few simple human things worth caring about. Finding that in a film would be difficult for any director; and while Baz has got a great cast and a gorgeous eye, I feel his mountain of gold and glamour will make it hard to find a heart of anything, no matter how shadowed and shallow he makes it.

But the shirts – the shirts made me smile.