Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Greatness of the Game of Thrones Dragons

I was talking to a friend the other day about fantasy TV and movies and one of the things that came up was dragons - mainly how poorly done dragons have been in most TV and movies yet they are somehow still cool. The outcome of this was that dragons Game of Thrones has really amped up the presentation of dragons over the last few seasons, to the point that I think it has the best dragons ever presented on film.

Warning: There are many spoilers and many pictures in this post. If you haven't seen seasons 6 & 7 and want  to enjoy them naturally, do not continue. 

Think about the major movies that have used dragons in some important way. I can think of four main movies:

  • Dragonslayer (1981) - Vermithrax is pretty well done and appropriately impressive in size and violent capabilities but is limited by the technology of the time, mainly that its glory shots are all done in stop motion animation. Now I grew up on this kind of thing but my kids just laugh at it and it does detract just a little bit from the spectacle. 
  • Dungeons and Dragons (2000) - This terrible movie, the first with a shot at CGI Dragons, did nothing to make dragons more impressive. After Jurassic Park I know my own hopes were high, and they were dashed pretty quickly. Lots of dragons in the finale, but all of them look terrible.
  • Reign of Fire (2002) - It's not a great movie to me, but the dragons are almost right. I initially thought it was the design here, where they don't have forelimbs, just wings and back legs like a bird, but I think it's that they are too skinny - altogether it just puts it "off" some for me. The D&D'er in me says they're big wyverns, not dragons. 
  • The Hobbit (Desolation of Smaug - 2013) More than a decade after the D&D movie and done by the team that did the Lord of the Rings movies you would think the dragon would be the showpiece of the trilogy. Sadly, you would be wrong. Smaug in these movies looks so cartoony I thought it was some kind of joke in the theater. "Underwhelmed" is the nicest way I can put it. Sure, he thrashes Laketown nicely but the wyrm himself ... sigh. 
Honorable Mentions:
  • Smaug in the animated Rankin-Bass Hobbit movie is really cool. That cat-like face really sells that he's something different than just a big animal and the fire spiraling around him and the screen in many shots almost makes it seem like he can control it. He's just more magical, more of a fantasy creature, then the later movie version we saw. 
  • Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty - so much scarier, meaner, evil looking than a lot of the presentations over the years. 
So Dragons have been ... iffy ... over the years as far as being fearsome magical fantastic beasts, at least in movies and TV. 

 Game of Thrones has completely overcome this and set a new, much higher standard. Daenerys has three dragons who started out as eggs, then hatchlings, then dog-sized, then horse to elephant-sized, and in this last season or two are finally the awesome army-smashing beasts they should be.

The first time we see one in action is Season 5 episode 9, "Dance of Dragons" - The Queen and her companions are trapped in an arena as a rebel faction that dislikes the changes she has been making seize this moment to try and assassinate her. It looks pretty grim - then she closes her eyes and seems to be concentrating and then we get that awesome moment with fire, a roar, and an angry dragon making his entrance ...

Even here he's say elephant-sized. Big enough to ride but not humongous. It also demonstrates that they can be hurt by weapons, at least a little. He gets hit by several spears and clearly feels them but they don't really seem to slow him down. It's a great scene and marks the emergence of the dragons as an actual, not just a theoretical, threat.

The next time we see them in a glory segment is in Season 6, episode 9 "Battle of the Bastards". Everyone remembers the other big fight in this episode but the dragons get a nice sequence here where everyone learns that wooden ships are not a great weapon against fire-breathing opponents,

This is the kind of stuff we didn't see as much in the early seasons of the show. It's the kind of thing that makes it a fantasy show and not an alternate medieval history series.

The next big scene for them is in  "Spoils of War", Season 7 episode 4 where we learn that supply trains and foot armies are vulnerable to even a single dragon - oh, and a screaming horde of barbarians.

It's just spectacular.

They're huge, they're terrifying, they're nearly invincible ...

Even a hero can have a hard time facing one down:

The whole thing is just really well-done.

Sadly, they are not invulnerable, and about the time they start fighting, you know they're going to get hurt. Mortal opponents and weapons seem to be painful but not all that dangerous to them. Then, they had up north for the first confrontation with the Night King in a sort of Black Hawk Down scenario.

The white walkers have been really well done here too. Also - flaming swords! In combat! Plus an undead polar bear attack! It's a great episode. So much more fantasy than most other shows or even movies ever get too. Easily the best look and best story and characters since Lord of the Rings.

Surrounded and facing the ultimate bad-guy-lich-thing of the setting, what do you hope for?

Air Support!

Look, fire breath works just as well on the undead as it does on the living! All 3 dragons are in full action here, flying and flaming. Unfortunately for our heroes, the Night King knows about dragons and is not without a means to deal with them.

It's a shocking moment as the dracos have been unstoppable so far on the show,  It's sad, amazing, and one of the highest and lowest points on the entire series to date.

Even more amazing, you know it's not going to end there. I mean, he animates the dead, you know?

To conclude: Game of Thrones is an amazing show and has only gotten better over time. These last few seasons, the last two in particular, have really turned it into an epic fantasy show with dragons, undead, giants, magic weapons, and barbarian hordes fighting knights ... it's just the most fantasy thing on TV now or ... really ever. It's just spectacular. The dragons are at the heart of it, awesome and inspiring - as they should be.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The New Campaign or "What do you do with an entire Saturday Free?"

Lately my group had been in a low spot as far as RPG activity - schedule changes and conflicts meant we had not been able to gather for a few weeks for Star Wars or anything else. I'm still getting in 40K time with Blaster but RPG time had really died off. I'm not part of the cult of "The Busy" that loves to go on and on about how they don't have time to do anything and wear it like a badge of honor - I actually do get annoyed when everything else gets in the way of fun time - but it's something we all deal with at some point.

Miraculously the schedule wheels aligned and we discovered that I, Blaster, and Paladin Steve all had Saturday free of all obligations. We realized we would easily have a nice 10-12 hour window. Naturally we started figuring out what we could do. Now we don't lack for campaigns around here - see sidebar at the left - but each of those is tied to a certain group of players. Still ...

  • I looked at Mutants and Masterminds but none of my college players were free and I didn't want to split the campaign or spend a bunch of time making new M&M characters. 
  • I considered trying out the new V&V game but I didn't want to burn this rare opportunity on a new game. 
  • Considered Champions for about 30 seconds - again, do not want to start a new system and campaign and make characters in a fairly complex system.
  • Marvel Heroic was on the table but I really wanted to do something different given a big block of time like this.
  • We talked Runequest briefly - I just wasn't feeling it and wasn't sure I had the right material for an extended session anyway. That's something I need to revisit.
  • 3rd place went to Savage Rifts. Dave wasn't available or we probably would have done Deadlands and I like Savage Worlds so this seemed like an option but I want more players for the Rifts kickoff.
  • I really really dug into my ICONS material. It plays fast, it's a lot of fun, and just generally fits our style. Plus it has been quite a while since we played it. In the end I went a different direction - ICONS is a great game for smaller windows so I decided to save it for one of those - but I do at least have an outline now for an extended ICONS run using a mix of published stuff and homebrew fun. ICONS was the runner-up /Plan B
  • I started looking at D&D 5th edition and getting that going again but the unavailable Dave was a pretty big part of that group too and had never played through Keep on the Borderlands which is what we are doing there. So what to do?

Well, what the heck - let's start a separate 5E game! Instead of old school sheets/roll up your stats/play in Greyhawk we will go new school modern sheets/point buy/run it in the Forgotten Realms. I've read thru most of the new 5E adventure books and I really liked Storm King's Thunder so let's do that! Why do I like it?

  • It has an option to start at 1st level or at 5th level. We ended up going with 1st but I like that they presented the option.
  • I like giants in D&D. They can be just big bags of hit points if that's all you want or they can be as interesting and complex as any fantasy race/
  • Its not a linear, world-saving plot. It's a regional issue. It makes a fair amount of sense. They included a flow chart! Yes, a visual layout of how the different parts of the adventure relate to each other! In a published adventure this kind of thing is tremendously helpful when trying to actually run the damn thing.
  • Big chunks of it are optional. See that map up there? All of those red pins represent a location that is discussed in the adventure. It may only be a paragraph noting some interesting geographical feature, an organization, a monster, or some NPC's tied to that place but it means the entire region has things to do, things to explore, and people and groups to interact with that may not have anything to do with the main plot of the adventure. Even within the main plotline there are optional pieces. It's really flexible, far more so than most other published adventures by design and I like that. 
  • I like the area. The northern end of the Sword Coast, or "The Savage Frontier" is one of my favorite areas of this setting and the prospect of running a campaign here looks like a lot of fun.
So that's what we did and ended up going from 1st to 3rd in this one session. It was tricky with just a few days prep but then again it is D&D and I've been doing that for a pretty long time.

The other new wrinkle was that Paladin Steve's 10 year old has been wanting to play and has gotten his feet wet with some Pathfinder games at home and so we had an eager new player joining us in this one. More on this and the particulars of the session later.