Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows review

Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr.
The game is afoot -- again!

On Friday, 16 December 2011, I picked up the registration for my new car and got it inspected. I also handed over the title to my old automobile. The next day, Janice and I met role-players Sara F. & Josh C. for lunch at Whole Foods at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts.

We then went to the Showcase Cinemas de Luxe to screen Sherlock Holmes [2]: A Game of Shadows with Sara & Josh’s friend “Viking.” We enjoyed the steampunk movie, which had even more action than its 2009 predecessor and was somewhat faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective stories.

Director Guy Ritchie is still fond of explosions, Gypsy music, and slow-motion fisticuffs. Actors Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson appear to be having a blast playing up their “bromance.” Downey Jr.’s comedic chameleon owes at least as much to Peter Sellers‘ manic Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther flicks as it does Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett’s sleuths.

Jared Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris and already a villain on Fringe, acquits himself well as that “veritable Napoleon of crime,” Dr. James Moriarty. As with the original serialized fiction, women are merely in supporting roles in Sherlock Holmes 2. Mrs. Mary Watson (Kelly Reilly), Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), and fortuneteller Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) are involved in Moriarty and Holmes’ chess game as attractive pawns.

Noted Sherlockian Stephen Fry does get an amusing turn as Holmes’ older (and smarter) brother Mycroft. In A Game of Shadows, Sherlock Holmes, Watson, and Mme. Simza race across Europe to investigate anarchist bombings and a profiteering scheme to plunge the continent into war. This plot is surprisingly faithful to “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Final Problem,” and the historical facts of how the Victorian era eventually led to World War I or the so-called Great War.

I’m not sure that Conan Doyle would recognize his world in this latest cinematic adaptation, however, with its steampunky emphasis on grime, crime, and pyrotechnics over erudite detection. Still, it’s worth remembering that the late 19th century was an era of technological change to match our own, with electrical street lights, the horseless carriage, telegraphs, and machine guns all changing daily life.

Fans and practitioners of the steampunk subculture will no doubt find inspiration in A Game of Shadows, which includes swordplay, waltzes, and fights aboard a rushing train. Both Tim M.B.‘s GURPS “Arth” and my GURPS/D20 “Gaslight Grimoire” scenarios used similar elements, as do recent role-playing games such as Airship Pirates and the FATE 3e Kerberos Club.

More serious Holmesians (Janice and I have been to 221b Baker Street) may prefer the upcoming second series/season of the BBC/PBS Sherlock, coming soon. Despite its modern setting, I’ve also enjoyed the latter adaptation. Like other enduring British icons, such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, James Bond, and Doctor Who, the great detective can be interpreted in many ways.

Overall, I’d give Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which is rated PG-13 for violence and innuendo, a B+, three out of five stars, or 7.5 out of 10. The movie is good popcorn entertainment, and another sequel is reportedly in the works, even though its box-office performance could have been better.

We also saw promising trailers for the actioner Haywire and Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale The Dark Knight Rises, but even the previews for Marvel’s Avengers, sword-and-sandals sequel Wrath of the Titans, and Disney/Pixar’s animated fantasy Brave didn’t excite me the way those for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey have. I look forward to returning to Middle Earth, and genre film fans have a lot to look forward to in the coming year!

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“Fortune’s Fool” one-shot notes

Giuseppe de Cellini
Halfling swashbuckler

Josh and fellow role-players, thanks again for your and Sara’s hospitality this past weekend! I enjoyed your Fortune’s Fool one-shot on Saturday, 29 October 2011. Here are some notes from the alternate history/fantasy game:

>>Player Characters for Josh C.’s Fortune’s Fool scenario:

-“Giuseppe de Cellini” [Gene D.]-male Italian Halfling, gentleman rogue and swashbuckler

-“Ziva Avram” [Sara F.]-female Middle Eastern Goblin, merchant

-“Tatiana Du Lupin” [Ginger]-female French Sylvan Elf, aristocrat and pagan, with hawk

-“Farouk ibn Alahad” [Rob]-male Moorish Orc, duelist and demon hunter

-“Pierre Lefew” [Robyn]-male French Halfling, pauper and thief

-“Santidio Ravoche” [Bruce K.]-male French Elf, duelist and scoundrel

-“Axbeard Beardaxe” [Rich C.G.]-male Italian Dwarf, wealthy merchant with wolfhound

>>”Paris, 28 to 31 October 1546 A.D./C.E.:” My dear brother, while you attend to family matters back in Roma and Firenze, I have had an eventful vacation here in the City of Lights. As you well know, I first arrived in the French capital without prejudice, and I have found its people and cuisine tres magnifique, if occasionally obtuse.

In fact, I was initially so impressed by the court of King Francois I that I’ve considered buying a small chateau. The High Elves have renewed interest in classical art, and painting, music, and sculpture have flourished as they have at home.

However, dark dealings shadowed my stay, and I must confide in someone in our family. We have yet to fully plumb these murky depths, but I want word of my misadventures to reach your eyes before foes add slander to our injuries.

Bishop Victor Garceau, a fellow Halfling and highly placed cleric, summoned our motley group. He asked us to look into rumors of a cult that supposedly planned to summon demons beneath Paris on All Hallows’ Eve. As indulgences were offered, I happily accepted, but others needed gold or other favors to be convinced.

I hired scruffy Pierre to be my manservant, but only after he got a bath. Unfortunately, it would take me too long to acquire proper tools for the Halfling rapscallion, but I could at least share my love of fromage, truffles, and pasta. Pierre was most eager and helpful.

I found Mlle. Du Lupin to be an excellent representative of le ancien regime, with Elven knowledge deep of things in the woods. By contrast, Mssr. Ravoche’s freebooting attitude is a good match for my own, and he engaged in verbal duels with a Dwarf countryman of ours, Axebeard Beardaxe.

Indeed, even peoples beyond Christendom were represented in our band, including the quiet but clever Goblin Ziva and the looming but impressively civilized Orc Farouk. With such a diverse collection, it should come as no surprise that it took us some time to decide on a course of action.

I, Giuseppe, went with Farouk to the Sarbonne, but the Inquisition (whose very name I even hesitate to commit in ink) had preceded us in scouring its tomes of land records and demonology. At least we knew we were on the right trail.

Ziva and Axebeard made discreet inquiries with their underworld contacts. I later learned that they even posted a bounty for information on cultists, but that instead drew the attention of one “Merlin,” an Elf met at one of Paris’ many cafes.

He claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, which is in league with the crown, sent us to persecute dissidents hiding beneath the city. This Merlin said that those we actually needed to worry about were preparing for Samhain in the woods to the north. A man named Giles and a dozen followers were the cultists we sought, Merlin said.

Meanwhile, Santidio, Tatiana, and Pierre snuck into the mines near the metropolis. They observed men in aristocratic garb copying various manuscripts. Tatiana made herself invisible, but unfortunately not inaudible. Pierre managed to grab a book and run out, and Santidio slipped away and reported their findings so far to the bishop.

My companions and I reunited at a café for strong drinks and stronger words. Axebeard took the book of witchcraft that Pierre had seized and put it in a safe. With nearly three days before the holiday, we ultimately decided to first check out the mines, which I understand would make fine catacombs like those in the Eternal City.

Farouk, Santidio, Axebeard, and Ziva led the way, while Tatiana with her hawk, Pierre on Axebeard’s dog, and I waited outside to prevent any foes from escaping. In response, the people hiding in the mine retaliated with a Fireball spell and summoned a gargoyle or drake!

Drawing his blade, Farouk’s first lunge was a miss, as was Axebeard’s first swing. Santidio dropped his weapon belt in an attempt to parley, but he soon had to chase after the leader. Ziva fired her crossbow at the winged beast.

Pierre went to see what the noise inside was about, and Tatiana and I soon joined the fray. Farouk and Axebeard’s luck improved only slightly, with the Dwarf’s axe cutting the imp in twain. Santidio caught the leader, whom we threatened to turn over to the Church unless he explained.

In fact, Merlin was correct: The scribes were copying books of demonology in desperation and an attempt to discredit the ruling authorities. They had no plans to summon any monsters around All Hallows’ Eve, so we had to make haste toward the woods….

Despite a slow start and the arrival of this past weekend’s Nor’easter, I thought the Fortune’s Fool scenario went fairly well. It was nice to play alongside people I normally don’t get to do so with, and I look forward to other one-shots, such as Jason’s Fvlminata or Rich’s Call of Cthulhu! I hope you had a Happy Halloween….

P.S.: Here are my character‘s stats…

>>Fortune’s Fool Player Character: Giuseppe de Cellini

>>Role-player: Gene D.

>>Game Master: Josh C., 29 October 2011

>>Attributes:

Agility: 9

Body: 4

Heart: 7

Perception: 7

Status: 9

Martial: 3

>>Race: Halfling

Gender: Male

Size: Small (-1 movement on foot)

Age: Youth

-Birthright: Eldest

Environment: City (Roma)

Social class: Nobility

Wealth: Rich

Religion: Roman Catholic

Fate pool/twists: 2 (from religion) — Harbinger of Death (pull Death card), Prudence (minor Arcanum)

>>Skills (and source; out of 12; +1 expertise point from youth):

-Art (class): 8

-Charm (class): 8

-Culinary (race): 7

-Driver (gender): 7

-Etiquette (environment): 9

-Languages (birthright): Italian, French

-Latin (religion/arcane): 10 (advanced)

-Literacy (birthright): N/A

-Scholarship (class): N/A

-Traps (to get?)

>>Martial skills:

Fencing — allows use of half Agility rather than half Body to determine Hand Combat with a fencing blade; can put opponents on point if foe blunders, disarmed, or stunned

Instinctive Parry — can parry ranged attacks (not firearms)

Toughness — may ignore Incapacitation and Stun effects on successful Heart draws

Weapon Expertise: +1 to hit

>>Derived attributes:

Dodge: 9

Hand Attack: 5

Ranged Attack: 7

Movement: 6 (before the -1 size penalty)

Initiative: 8

Stealth: 8

Hit Points: 19

>>Weapons:

-rapier: 7 to Hit, 3 Parry, Type: Lethal, Damage — Frowns 5, Smiles 10, Shines 15

-parrying dagger/main gauche: 7 Hit, 2 Parry, Type: Lethal, Frowns 4, Smiles 9, Shines 12

-pistol: 7 Hit, Type: Lethal, Range: Short, Frowns 7, Smiles 17, Shines 21

>>Armor: leather jerkin, Light, 1

>>Fortune (race):

Smiles: Cups, Swords

Frowns: Pentacles, Wands

>>Major arcana shines (and source):

-Chariot (VII; environment)

-Hanged man (XII; environment)

-Hierophant (V; environment)

-High Priestess (size)

-Justice (XI; environment)

-Lovers (VI; age)

-Star (size, age)

Snow on the scarecrow

 

This just doesn't seem right
Happy Halloween 2011!

After an optometrist appointment on Saturday, 29 October 2011, I drove to the spacious apartment of Josh C. & Sara F. in Abington, Massachusetts, for Josh’s one-shot of Fortune’s Fool. I enjoyed the alternate history/fantasy game, in which I role-played “Giuseppe de Cellini,” an Italian Halfling gentleman rogue and swashbuckler.

I was joined by Bruce K. and Rich C.G., who are in one of my FATE 3e “Vortex” space opera teams, as well as Josh & Sara’s friends Rob & Ginger and Robyn, whom I had met at a cookout. The scenario involved our Player Characters looking for demon summoners around fourteenth century Paris. Despite a slow start, we enjoyed the Fortune’s Fool session, Josh’s punch spiked with mist-making dry ice, and the Chinese food that we ordered. Janice had also baked brownies for the potluck.

We did find Fortune’s Fool‘s rules, which use Tarot cards rather than polyhedral dice for conflict resolution, to be overly specific for combat (reminiscent of D20). They were also a bit “swingy,” granting only about a 50% chance of success for anything, given our average skill levels.

History buffs like Jason E.R. and I also had some questions about why a Renaissance would even be necessary in a world whose demihumans had long lifespans and memories of classical culture and technology, but such details would be more of a concern in a long-term campaign. I’ve tried to blend fantasy and alternate history in my own GURPS Steampunk/D20 Etherscope: “Gaslight Grimoire” adventures.

Bruce, Rich, and I left around dinnertime, before Josh & Sara’s Halloween party, to avoid the worst of an early Nor’easter. Boston’s inner suburbs got only a few inches of wet, heavy snow, but areas north and west of us got as much as a foot. Most of our autumn leaves haven’t even fallen yet, but raking will have to wait until after the snow melts.

Janice and I lost power briefly on Sunday night, but our Verizon FIOS (telephone, Internet, and cable television) was disrupted. Fortunately, we have more than enough to read and watch on DVD in the meantime. For instance, we watched some more 1940s Superman serials, Batman: Year One, and a few episodes of the anime Case Closed.

I thought that Year One was very faithful to the influential Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli graphic novel, which depicts Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and Selina Kyle at the start of their crime-fighting careers. I also look forward to the all-star voice cast (similar to that of the videogame Batman: Arkham City) for the upcoming direct-to-video release of Justice League: Doom.

Without connectivity or quorum, my Pathfinder/Skype: “the Vanished Landstelecom fantasy game again didn’t meet last night, and the “Vortex” group is skipping a week because of the holiday. I look forward to greeting trick-or-treaters tonight. Have a Happy Halloween!

P.S.: Verizon will be sending a technician out this coming Thursday, so I won’t have land-line phone, Web, or TV until then. Still, my situation is better than those of the many people still without power. Stay warm!

Role-playing roundup: Science fiction, fall 2011 edition

My favorite author
Favorite author Isaac Asimov

Continuing my look at recent role-playing supplements such as The One Ring, I’ve managed to squeeze in reading some sourcebooks in between work, travel, and running games. Fantasy may be the primary genre in which I’ve played — and superheroes, steampunk, and time/dimension travel have yielded many memorable characters — but science fiction is still my first literary love.

As I’ve mentioned before in describing my “Vortex” game, my sandbox setting is largely inspired by classic space opera such as the novels of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and David Brin. It’s no surprise, then, that I liked the PDFs of Star Frontiers Remastered, StarCluster 3, and Stars Without Number so much that I ordered hardcopies. Stars Without Number is about to get a revised printing from Mongoose, publisher of the latest incarnation of Traveller.

The detailed “future history” of games such as Stellar Horizons and Ashen Stars is similar to that of “Vortex.” (I took a class on the topic back in college.) In these settings, humanity has colonized the Sol system and beyond but faces new threats such as alien horrors, as well as old ones like infighting. I like the political and technical extrapolations of Stellar Horizons and the idea of Player Characters as interplanetary troubleshooters in Ashen Stars.

At the same time, I’ve incorporated elements of more recent cyberpunk and transhumanist fiction in my campaigns. I’ve already used ideas from Panopticon, a supplement for the excellent Eclipse Phase, in recent sessions. I also still regularly refer to GURPS Terradyne, Blue Planet, and Jovian Chronicles for megacorporations, genetically engineered species, and descriptions of colonial life, respectively.

Speaking of mixing genres, the fantasy/cyberpunk Shadowrun has endured even as fashions have changed in the past few decades. I played and ran the game briefly in college. The Fourth Edition and the 20th Anniversary Edition — even though Shadowrun has been around for longer than that — are slick and straightforward, with solid rules (point-buy character creation, dice pools using D6s). I would have preferred more thorough location and faction descriptions rather than “flavor-text” fiction, but that was the style of games from the late 1980s and most of the ’90s.

Similar to Ashen Stars in time period is Chthonian Stars/Void, which has a strong horror bent. I haven’t yet gotten it, and Cubicle 7 did reply to my query about supplements for Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer and Legends of Anglerre. They’re delayed, but I look forward to eventually using them for “Vortex.” I’m also enjoying the lean FATE version of Bulldogs in the meantime.

After grabbing nearly every star map published for RPGs in the past 30 years, I recently ordered the excellent poster maps from Project Rho Productions. I’ll eventually need every human-habitable system within 100 parsecs, but this is a great start!

Perdido Street Station review

Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This steampunk novel is a must-read for fans of the mashup subgenre. I’ve enjoyed Mieville’s later The City and the City, and while his writing and ontological approach have matured, Perdido Street Station has his social consciousness, interesting characters, and mythical realism.

Mieville helps attune our senses to a city reminiscent of Dickensian London, with fantastic, horror, and steampunk elements. New Crobuzon is squalid and crowded, with bits of glitter and glory surrounded by strange ruins, nonhuman ghettos, ornate industry, and quasi-organic growths. It is dangerous, maddening, and impressive in scope and scale.

If you don’t mind gothic prose, occasional sex and gore, and truly horrific monsters, you’ll enjoy Mieville’s descriptions of peoples suffering from crime and oppression and a scientist whose discoveries threaten to unhinge reality. Mieville takes fantasy tropes — the band of adventurers, the magical aid, the obstacles to enlightenment — and he adds enough suspense and sacrifice for a rewarding page-turner.

I’d love to see the role-playing game based on this completed!
[This review is taken from my GoodReads profile.]
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