Monday, June 11, 2012

Matt Evans Photography

While searching for some techniques to put finishing touches on my Sydney pictures below, I stumbled on Matt Evans's work. Yet another lens hero for my books.



Sydney, a set on Flickr.
Didn't spend much time shooting during my recent trip to Sydney, but I'm pretty happy with what images I did take.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Pathfinder, Session 7(ish)

Day 23 for our intrepid party.

We had a discussion about doing something a bit more sandboxy and away from Golarion-- I am vibrating with excitement at the chance to tell a really interesting story in this medium, but for the time being we're sticking with Jade Regent. It makes sense since we're all just getting our sea legs. I haven't run anything since 2003, and these guys are all new RPers, so we may even end up finishing JR.

Last session was simultaneously amazing and a complete clusterfuck. The PCs explored the abandoned town of Brinewall and managed to find a secret entrance into the large castle in the town's northwest corner. The secret entrance led to none other than the BOSS OF THE ENTIRE MODULE. They were really not prepared, and I tried to tell them so, but they trudged on despite my warnings. (For those wondering, I had the druid's bear animal companion, Jojo, express deep concern, and I told the paladin, "You have a really awful feeling about this.")

This was their toughest fight. The half-fiend capophus (or whatever) was a good bit about their ACL, and a couple of the PCs nearly died. Yet they prevailed, largely due to the boss rolling abysmally on his Will save vs. the wizard's color spray. This is the fourth time color spray has saved the party's collective ass. After a beastly color spray against the boss, the wizard delivered a coup de grace for a little more than half the creature's HP. After that point it was only a matter of time before it fell, but not before putting a serious hurt on everyone but the party's rogue.

Anyone who's run a game knows to expect anything from the PCs. They are just there to have fun, and they don't give a fuck about your carefully laid plans. They give so little fucks they don't know what fucks are. I've encountered the situation where PCs mock my adventure preparation with their standard issue intrepidity, but I've never seen them a.) sneak to the final boss of an encounter and proceed to b.) utterly destroy said boss.

One thing I'm enjoying is that everyone's getting a chance to shine. The rogue gets to be shady, the arms classes break things' faces, and the wizard and druid have been laying down long-distance hurt in every game. It's exactly how a group like this should run. I feel like I need to give more love to the druid and the rogue sometimes, but I'm also loathe to venture too far from the Adventure Path for fear of throwing too much at the PCs. Of course, this last situation proved that very little is too much for my guys. I should just have the tarrasque show up next game and see what happens.

I think my favorite part of the game was when the druid used bull's strength on the wizard (before the coup de grace) and said the command words in fucking elven he'd looked up online. I love my players.

Fantasy Grounds is Badass

Last week I had to visit Sydney for my double life, but my landing on Thursday morning corresponded exactly with our standard Wednesday night game time. I wasted no time racing to a cheap hotel that had Wi-Fi and setting up Fantasy Grounds and joining the group's Google Hangout. For about 20 minutes, we were the future. I was in Sydney, the druid was in Pittsburgh, the magus was at her apartment, and the other three party members were in a single apartment. We had Hamachi Logmein serve up a VLAN, and we were off... for about 20 minutes. It turns out data in Australia sucks it hard, and the data at the Cambridge Hotel is Surry Hill is designed with the intent of shoving your credit card down your throat. Nonetheless, for those 20 minutes, I was all tingly with the fact of what we were doing. I'll probably be heading to Asia in January, and I'm excited to keep my appointments with the group on networks not designed by sadistic, doughnut devouring networking fuck sticks.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pathfinder, Session 5. Possibly 6

During the session prior to last night's, the the group dragged their winnings from the skeletal samurai back to the town of Sandpoint to figure out the next step of the campaign. A note on the skeletal samurai suggested one of the character's family secrets was in the town of Brinewall, so they made preparations to make the 500 mile, 16 day journey.

This brought the players to a somewhat odd section of the campaign, where the players have to travel in a caravan with four major NPCs, and the caravan has experience- and gold-granting encounters that are all determined by single d20 rolls. These rolls determine some of the caravan's survival along with adding and subtracting food and trade stuffs from the caravan wagons' supply. Maybe you're the type of gamer who thinks that sort of adding and subtracting is a cause for pure, steamy, unmitigated joy. I am not. I play for exciting dice-based combat and character interactions restrained by the rules and the stats as listed. Fortunately, the player behind the halfling rogue, Kasham, finds it pleasurable, and he seems to be handling all the numbers scrupulously.

Normally I'd just make the caravan their wandering village (which is the point of the caravan) and send them packing, except the PCs are supposed to all be "well into Level 3" by the time they explore part 3 of the the Jade Regent's first chapter, The Brinewall Legacy. They need XP, and that means they need to caravan it up.

Or not.

Whenever I read through Pathfinder/D&D source material, I find my brain exploding with adventure hooks, and while I've been shoveling effort into preparation for the Jade Adventure sessions, I've been a little sad from the lack of my own personal touch during the sessions. Last night, I fixed it.

And boy did it work.

I sent the party away from the caravan-- it was a bit hamfisted, but they got the idea and left the safety of their mobile village-- and into a town I'd made up called Whisperden. In Whisperden, a mad fighter named Soldekai was slaughtering non-human villagers because his elf wife had taken up with a halfling. It was a grisly scene, with elves, half-orcs, and halflings crucified around the village, some of them decapitated, some disemboweled. Soldekai and his sympathizers had struck in the night, and they'd been fast and effective. Guards outside Whisperden tried to shoo the PCs away, but combat started when the PCs heard a blood-curdling scream from within the village. They questioned one of the racist guards and got the gist of what was happening inside. They set off after tying the guard to a tree-- the paladin wasn't okay with murdering an unarmed captive.

Inside the village, the party was in for a fight. They dispatched the armed men easily-- color spray is their go-to spell of ass kicking-- but Soldekai himself was incredibly tough to kill, even though he only had 1/3 HP from fighting that had gone on before the PCs arrived. The PCs were whiffing most attacks, but they had numbers. It's a good thing I took his HP down because every time he hit with one of his dual katanas it was like the end of the world. Both the 2nd and 3rd level arms characters (magus and paladin) took more than 1/3 of their overall health.

In the end, he tried to escape with a potion of invisibility, but the halfling rogue stabbed Soldekai in the neck despite his minus to Strength and Soldekai's invisibility.

After untying the survivors-- humans who had sided against Soldekai-- they saw two odd things. First, Soldekai's armor made anyone good recognize it was an evil item. Second, he bore an enchanted tattoo that seemed to leer at the wizard who identified it as strongly necromantic before it disappeared from Soldekai's body.

After deciding to let the remaining sympathizers flee into the woods, the party left Whisperden to its own devices. When they returned to the tied up guard, his throat had been slit. Although the party didn't know it, this was the reason the halfling had arrived late to the brawl: he and the half-orc wizard resolved not to let the racist live.

It was a powerful session. Everyone was pretty uncomfortable with Soldekai's monstrous actions, and the non-humans in the group played their anger to the hilt.

I made a decision I'm still not entire sure of, though, which was that I decided Soldekai wasn't evil... yet. The way I see it, he was on the way, and this would have surely put him over, but he hadn't made the leap to an official alignment switch yet. It was sort of like Alan Moore's Killing Joke, where this was his particularly bad day.

Any adult who's played D&D can see the seams in the alignment system. There are major ontological issues at play in a world where you can "detect good/law/chaos/evil" or where the gods themselves grant their followers power. The paladin's attempt to detect evil came up nil because the guards were following orders and as angry as their commander, and the man himself was enraged with the grief and disappointment of infidelity. Obviously his actions were evil, but if we are not all capable of evil why does anyone need redemption?

It was such a morally grey session that the paladin's player e-mail the group and told us he'd been up all night worrying about the consequences of his character's actions or inactions. It was a major turning point for the paladin, Lady Magthyra, who had never had to wade through suck morally murky waters before.

PCs nearly died, a powerful enemy was laid to rest, and everyone got uncomfortable for the precise reason I had designed for them to get uncomfortable.

I fucking love Pathfinder/D&D.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pathfinder, Jade Regent: Session 3 and 4

"I activate my smite evil."

"Okay," I said. Both Lady Magthyra's player and I fussed over our screens to account for his new bonuses.

"What's your AC?" I asked.

"17," the player said.

"Okay. The skeletal samurai snarls something in Tien, but it's incoherent to you. His sword is a beautiful blue steel blur that arcs through the air and slashes into your stomach. You take 12 points of damage."

A collective gasp ran through the players. This was the hardest hit any of them had taken.

"Wait, wait, wait," said the Magthyra's player. "I forgot to add in the Charisma bonus to my AC from smite evil. My AC is 21."

I sighed. The skeletal samurai had rolled to hit an AC of 19. "Then the beautiful blue blade arcs over your head and misses entirely," I said. I didn't even have the creative spirit left to change the description such that the blade was subtly warded off by the holy aura pressing against the blade. This was their ninth opponent of the night. They had chewed through eight other skeletons, three dire rats, and a skitterling-- a rat with a human face. While the skitterling had given them some difficulty by casting two ugly fear spells on their heavy hitters, the party still made short, quick work of the little bastard.

This was our fourth session. Our third session was really short but especially so because the party's half-orc wizard, Jarek, had successfully color sprayed the entire final encounter in the goblin village the party had been commissioned to exterminate. I am always mindful of my players' good time, and even though everyone likes becoming a raging badass in Pathfinder/DnD, no one likes feeling like they didn't earn that badassery. I had no special attachment to this skeletal samurai, but I was pretty upset that none of the monster encounters as written could effectively challenge the PCs.

Searching on the Paizo forums, people advocate giving creatures different feats or using advanced monster templayes, but there's not a lot a CR 3 creature can be given that will overcome a +4 bonus to a character's Armor Class. Sure, I could toss creatures and NPCs more powerful than CR 3 at my people, but they only just got to level 2! Death is only a die roll away in D&D/Pathfinder's low levels, and while I'm not opposed to PCs dying, it would really suck if they died because I sent in a monster who was too powerful. Yes, I can kill the party if I send them against a graveknight. Or a pit fiend. Or Asmodeus. Who has fun then?

I think I have two more sessions of the PCs mowing down my monsters before I just boost the CR for all encounters by 1 or 2.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day, Creeper!

A few months ago I purchased a spy camera for my Love Systems work. It's been an interesting piece of gear, although the video fidelity is not as crisp as the $50 price tag might lead you to believe. In case you didn't click on that first link, I picked up said camera from a reputable vendor called Dyna Spy ("The Ultimate Spy Shop"). A man can never know when he's going to need another clandestine camera, so of course I opted in to their sales letters. "More spam!" I have been known to shout, even in my sleep. 

So I had to share the latest comedy gem Dyna Spy handed me on a platter:
For that special lady who has everything but healthy boundaries.
Yep. Dyna Spy's having a Mother's Day sale. She gave you life, so give her the reassurance that your dad hasn't grown tired of her yet. I'm just sad they didn't really run with this. 

Alright. That's enough reading. Go call your mom and thank her for doing what she did to get you here. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Big, Wide, Beautiful World of Model Photography: Tardy

From Lollapalooza, August 2011
I've been snapping a few dozen to a few hundred pictures a week with my Nikon D7000 since I purchased it late last year. The catalyst for my picking up such an extravgant camera was discovering Trey Ratcliff's work, so it makes sense that almost all the pictures I've poured my energy and effort into have been landscape shots.

Stuck in Customs

It's only been recently that I've been tiptoeing into the world of model photography.

It's an intimidating world because there are a lot more moving parts, and some of those parts attached to other human beings. When you're trying to capture a landmark or vista, you either get the shot or you don't. You set up the tripod, aim the lens, and trust in your machine. The photographer's taste is the catalyst for a beautiful shot in all matters of photography-- that's why it's an art-- but within about ten seconds of taking serious pictures it became rapidly apparent that there is considerably more agency involved in producing the kinds of pictures you see in fashion or girly magazines. Getting images like Rey Trajano's is hard.

Rey Trajano takes seriously beautiful pictures

There's a fusion of craft, social fluidity, and artistic flair on display in the best model or glamour photography that is a lot more interesting and a considerably higher hurdle than ever occurred to me before 2011. My enthusiasm for pictures of gorgeous women is not a new thing, of course. But before falling in love with photography my interest was considerably, shall we say, utilitarian. That my enthusiasm for photography took it took me three years after graduating my fancy film school is a sad and expensive truth, but better late than never I suppose.

Oh, and some people will look at an image like that stunner of Nicolette Lacson above and make snide comments about Photoshop or whatever. Yeah. Fine. Whatever. I mean, a.) you don't know what you're talking about and b.) there's a lot to be said for skill at artful, slick, seamless photo retouching.

After just a few shoots, though, I've discovered a pleasant truth about shooting landscapes over trying to ensnare the essence of concupiscence with an image sensor: the Capitol building will never be late.

"I'm so sorry! I couldn't find my shoes, and my dog ate my metro card!"

I've dated a bit, so I'm no stranger to young women's punctuality challenges, but I've now started planning other work concurrently for any time I ask a model to come over for a shoot. Some or all of this is, of course, because I'm free and they're free, and we're only adding to each other's portfolios in the hopes of one day getting paid. Since one of the hallmarks of professionalism is whether you can get somewhere on time there's just no way these sorts of shenanigans would fly if money was riding on these girls making it to a place on time. Is there? I mean, do fashion shoots always have to happen at 3pm? That seems unlikely.

Nonetheless, it's all part of the journey. There's a girl I'm waiting on right now who inspired this little screed, and no matter what's happening to my precious light outside, I hope the resulting shots are worth the extra time I waited for her to get here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Love, Adulthood, and Marvel's The Avengers

First of all, I'll start by saying I loved the Avengers so much I saw it twice in the same weekend. I haven't done that in a long time. If you dig superhero movies at all, this is unquestionably the best one I've ever seen. It's better than Watchmen, better than 300, better than all of the Spider-Man movies, and better than either the Burton or Nolan Batman movies.

To me.

Here's why.

(N.b. As I wrote this, it became increasingly clear that the only real other contender for "best superhero movie" was The Dark Knight, and the document reflects that. On the off-chance someone wants to argue another movie, I'll respond.)

When I was a little kid, we pretended we were superheroes while we jumped on the trampoline. Sometimes we would play strange variants on Tag or Do Impossibly Dangerous Things Like Leap From the Rooftop, but much of the time we would pretend we men of enormous power throwing spaceships and planets at each other. When a friend showed me the admittedly terrible X-Men cartoon for the first time, I didn't know it was terrible. Kids are idiots, you see. I'll come back to that. If you don't click that link, and watch the video embedded there, I will spoil it for you: at 0:14, a woman in a blue unitard claps her hands together and fires laser beams out of them. At 0:28, a man runs through a corridor that seems to be rearranging itself to smash him into a wall. Fear not, reader, because he turns into steel. I saw that when I was 12, and I understand my logic for not caring much about sports then. John Elway was a sports hero back then. I know this because he had his own Nintendo game. To my young mind it seemed insane to idolize Joe Montana when Spider-Man could so obviously do anything Montana could do, whereas Montana would have been in a world of hurt had he found himself going ten rounds against even the lowliest Spider-Man enemy.

Okay, not any Spider-Man enemy.

You might be thinking they spent a sweet mint on that lavish animation in the video you didn't click above. Bad news, reader. The episode that follows was not enough to sell a full TV series to a network, but it succeeded in selling me on the idea of Wolverine having an Australian accent. I had to read that he was Canadian about a million times before I was able to untrain my mental ear.

They were my gateway superheroes, though, and superheroes were my gateway comics. X-Men led to other comics. That led to Piers Anthony through some circuitous path. At some point someone handed me a copy of Watchmen, and it was like someone peeled smooth slivers from my blinded eyes and flooded them with a dirty, dusty light that burned a little too brightly against my mortal eyes. It was a new lens, a tool with which I could reflect on my place in the universe using a medium I had already learned to love.

(I narrowly dodged a brush with Comics as Art long before I discovered Watchmen in my senior year of high school. Kids at camp tried to share Sandman with me when I was in seventh grade, but I was too obsessed with the girl doing the giving to pay attention to what she had in her hand. Obviously it was no good, though; where were the special moves, the fights that unleashed torrents of kinetic energy? No thanks. Ironically, this was at Shakespeare camp. No, seriously. I was doing close readings of Shakespeare every day, but I somehow thumbed my nose at Sandman for not being enough like Batman. Remember: kids are fucking idiots.)

And so it goes. The maturation of tastes, to a point. Anna Kerenina and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Planescape: Torment and Die Zauberflote, Nabokov and Invincible.

Who gives a shit about all those fancy names, anyway? Who gives a fuck whether Joss Whedon or Homer would win in a cerebral swordfight? I want really badly to say that you should, but if you're smart you've probably learned to be skeptical of anyone who tells you you "should" do anything outside of murder and rape is usually wrong.

The more you experience and the more data you collect, the fuzzier the lines get. If you're a normal, well-adjusted person you realize there's a difference between right and wrong, but you probably also get that the lines aren't as clear as they were when you were younger. Some people think, for instance, worshiping Allah will not send them to Hell. Others believe that raising taxes will hurt/help the economy right now. Wherever you stand on any of the real world issues adults fight about, you eventually start to understand things are more complicated. Hopefully it didn't take you as long as it took me to hit these milestones of understanding.

Joss Whedon's magic trick is handling outrageous and occasionally immature things and lending them the weight of a nuanced perspective on humanity. Sometimes he falls on his face (Dollhouse) and sometimes he knocks it out of the park (umpteen episodes of Buffy, Toy Story). With the Batman franchise, Nolan's magic trick has been making indie movies with superheroes in them.

Nolan's Gotham is a dark, mean, ugly, unpleasant world, and Batman is the hero that fits there. There are motes of optimism, but when the credits roll in The Dark Knight, hope is barely left in the box. The Avengers takes place in our world, mostly, but with the saturation slider moved a bit to the right.

And that brighter palette, blended with Whedon's trademark wit, is what redeems The Avengers when it takes a turn for the dumb.

That's the thing about comic book movies. They are filled with heaping piles of stupid. Some is in the dialog, some is in the plot, and some is in the physics. But we're used to stupid movies with impossible physics. The superhero genre even gets a pass on all matters of seriousness because the source material is a comic book. I'm not allowed to complain about the inertial problems of Iron Man's jaunt into space during The Avengers because it's a comic book movie, for instance. If you go into a superhero movie, you are expected to check some of your brain at the door when you pick up your 3D glasses.

That's why I forgive The Avengers for being occasionally moronic, but not The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is a movie trying to appeal to grown up Thompson. Voting Thompson. Dark Knight's tone suggests that by including the Prisoner's Dilemma as a plot point it now stands on the same narrative turf as The Brothers Karamozov. It does not. The more you watch The Dark Knight, the dumber it is. The fun in The Dark Knight comes from the Joker smashing a pencil into a goon's eye. The fun in The Avengers comes when the Hulk... uh... pretty much every time the Hulk is on screen after he first appears. The serious moments in The Avengers work very well, and the fun moments are pitch perfect.

And that's why I say it's the best superhero movie yet made. It finds a perfect compromise between the side of me that reads hard literature and the side of me that jumped on a trampoline pretending I was Nightcrawler. It has dark character moments and juggles subjects of real gravitas, but it never forgets that one of its characters is wearing an American flag and uses a shield as his primary weapon.