The Great Battle: A Review

When I saw The Great Battle on the Netflix listings, I was hyped. Most Korean historical movies are set during the Choson era, but I have always been interested in the Koryo period, and The Great Battle takes place during the Gokoryo period, which was a kingdom that could sometimes stand toe-to-toe with the Chinese kingdoms – the last time Korea didn’t accept a junior partner status with the Middle Kingdom.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer up much in the way of compliments to the makers of the film. It allowed “quirk” to replace “character,” and didn’t feel nuance was necessary when you can offer epic battles. The epic battles, though, were epic only in size, and they lacked any real artistry or excitement. Since the characters were so thinly drawn, there were no real stakes. More annoying – for me – every standard siege tactic was dealt with as if no one had ever faced this before.

OMG, they have ladders! How shall we address this completely unique and never before encountered problem?

This is definitely not the worst movie I have seen, though I think it’s the worst Korean historical actioner I’ve seen in my memory. I’m sure there have been worst that I’ve forgotten – as I am likely to forget this in the near future – but nothing comes to mind.

I don’t recommend The Great Battle and give it 2 utterly shocking although totally pedestrian siege tactics out of 5. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

If you are looking for a good Korean historical actioner, head back to Musa: The Warrior from 2001 (more info at Wikipedia and IMDB).

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Buffalo Boys: A Review

I love westerns and I especially love alternative takes on it – I am a huge fan of the Good, the Bad, the Weird, the Korean western set in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s. Buffalo Boys is another alternative western, this time an Indonesian western with the colonizers as the villains of the piece.

There is a lot to love in this movie, especially the action scenes. For the most part, these are fun and very kinetic, with a few imaginative moves thrown in. The application of western tropes was excellent. There’s a delicious irony in the oppressed adopting the style of one type of colonizer while fighting against another.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of poorly developed scenes that aren’t really consistent with the story or characters, rather friction and emotions seem to occur when convenient for the plot. This really bothered me, as I was having a great time with the movie. These scenes would intrude, I would groan, then the movie would move on and I’d get back into it. The climax didn’t hit as hard as I think was intended, but I could forgive that.

The acting was fine for the most part, but not outstanding. The actors gave their characters enough depth to propel me along with the story. I can forgive a lot when I like or at least sympathize with the characters. The script didn’t give the actors much to work with, but they kept me involved and invested.

I would actually recommend Buffalo Boys even though you need to manage your expectations. It’s a fun move with an interesting overlap of anti-colonial narrative and western tropes. I give it 3.5 charging buffalos out of 5. See it for the action, but get ready for some bumps in the road.

Buffalo Boys is playing right now on Canadian Netflix (That would be April 2019).

You can find out more about Buffalo Boys at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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This Captain Is Marvelous

This was first posted on Patreon.

Today the family went to see Captain Marvel. I’m lucky in that my wife and kids are almost as excited about seeing the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie in the theatre as I am. We don’t get to go often, but we try to see those two franchises when they come out.

I’m a fan of the cosmic Marvel comics, and was a huge fan of the resurrected Guardians of the Galaxy before they ever made it to the screen. I didn’t follow Captain Marvel with the same interest, but I’m pretty conversant with the character and the character’s powers. I went in with pretty high expectations.

Without getting into spoilers, I really loved this movie and I love the take on Captain Marvel. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the kind of superhero I love is the one that revels in their power because that power allows them to help people. I love the joyful warrior who seeks to protect the innocent. It’s what I missed about the Netflix version of Iron Fist and it’s what I loved about the Wonder Woman movie.

Thankfully, that’s Captain Marvel. Yes, there is some angst as the character begins with no memories earlier than six years before the movie’s start. Even then, Brie Larson’s version of Veers/Vers who is to become Captain Marvel is a sarcastic smart-aleck, obviously accepting the danger of being an elite soldier with a smirk and a wink. I was invested right from the outset.

The story had some pedestrian elements, but also at least one surprise that I honestly didn’t see coming and kept expecting to be a fake right until the end. Well-played.

The acting is top-notch, as you have to expect from the collection of amazing actors Marvel and Disney brought to this movie. Emotional scenes hit hard, camaraderie came across loud and clear, and I had real empathy and sympathy for the characters. Do you expect the SFX to be anything but . . . stellar? Yeah, they were.

Perhaps I was primed for this movie, as I have no problem with strong non-cis, white male protagonists, but I honestly think they hit this one out of the park. There is some feminist messaging in the movie, but there should be. Carol Danvers was a competent, capable character before becoming a superhero, and the prejudices of the day restrained her from reaching her true potential. There’s nothing wrong with that message. It’s a fact that so many people have to face every day, and it’s wrong.

This is a fun movie about a great hero who revels in her ability to help the innocent and oppressed. That’s the kind of hero I love.

Spoilers following the image.

Those who have seen the movie will know that Carol Danvers retrieves at least most of her memories, enough to reconnect with her old friend and colleague. Enough to remove the angst of not knowing who she is. And the fun, sarcastic character who existed before that, gets even better as she reconnects with her past. There remain serious issues in the movie, but she gets to be the joyful paragon which is a trope I love. I can’t wait to spend more time with this character.

And the surprise? Okay, maybe others saw the turn with the Skrulls, but I did not. Especially since Talos was played by Ben Mendelsohn, who is having a bit of a run on playing villains. I really liked it, taking the “scary” aliens and having them as the oppressed by the very attractive aliens with the society that tries to avoid emotionalism.

And I really hope Goose is in Avengers: Endgame. Fury should have had him ready during Civil War. Would have changed that movie entirely. 😉

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Dawn of the Horse Warriors: More Like Dusk . . Amirite?

Noble’s Dawn of the Horse Warriors: Chariot and Cavalry Warfare 3000-600 BC discusses the introduction of the chariot and its evolution as an instrument of war in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean region. While the book strongly suggested the author was very well-versed in the subject, I found that it lacked clarity and its structure tended to obscure rather than illuminate the topics it presented.

I am sure that Noble is extremely knowledgeable regarding the development of the chariot and the domestication of horses. That is certainly clear from the text. If I took away nothing else from this book it would be that Duncan Noble knows about ancient chariots man’s interaction with horses. I would imagine that Noble’s previous works must have been well-received or that he is a known expert within the community that studies ancient Mesopotamia. In my mind, there must be a reason for his authorship of this book and the publisher’s decision to present it. I assume there must be a reason because I can find no such reason in the text.

To be blunt, I found this an extremely poorly written book. This work desperately needed an editor. I don’t want to be too harsh, but the best summation of my experience with the book is that if it were not assigned reading, I would have put it down after the first chapter.

From very early on in my readings, I was concerned with what I perceived as a lack of linear thought. Too often in Noble’s writings, pieces were dropped in – a paragraph on a different region, a sentence or two looking at a different era – that has no relation to the topic being developed. While sometimes these diversions had an impact later in the work, there was no apparent or logical reason to include these digressions at the place in which they are presented.

An example of one such diversion is the first appearance of Sintashta (p10). Noble includes a paragraph on the settlement of Sintashta in his chapter on the domestication of the horse. The paragraph before it discusses changes in the region of European-Eurasian interchange. There is no discussion of such changes in the paragraph on Sintashta. The paragraph following is part of the conclusion of the chapter, in which Sintashta plays no part. Sintashta is not encountered again until the chapter on wheeled transport before the Sumerians (p22), but the settlement is not introduced, perhaps assuming one remembers the previous introduction.

There was no logical reason to provide a one paragraph introduction on the settlement that has no bearing on the topic of the chapter, especially when the subject of the paragraph is not again discussed until 12 pages later. I would have assumed the introductory paragraph would have been better placed leading into the paragraph that discusses the settlements significance. And this is only one example of a trend that greatly annoyed me.

Unfortunately, the rest of Noble’s writing does not help to provide clarity to his thoughts or analysis. In fact, I found that the writing obscured whatever information he might be trying to convey. At one point, Noble writes: “The language of the Assyrians was Assyrian, . . . All eight dialects of this Semetic language are now extinct, although well-known to modern Assyriologist linguists who call them collectively Akkadian.” (p41) It seems, from this section, that it might have been more correct to write ‘the language of the Assyrians was Akkadian,’ but perhaps Assyrian was a dialect of Akkadian. I’m honestly not certain, because it seems to follow logically that the language is called Akkadian, but then I am left to speculate on why Noble did not simply write that. As he didn’t, I am left wondering if my understanding is correct.

And this is reflected in the contradictions that are far less common, but no less a problem. In discussing Nuzi chariots (or possibly all Hurrian chariots, it is not clear), Noble indicates that that “a chariot” was “rather Egyptian in style” (p38) which, on first reading, I took to mean that the average chariot identified at Nuzi was of the Egyptian style. Later, though, Noble writes regarding the information the Nuzi tablets provide on the Hurrians, and of their chariots he states “. . . we do not know whether their design tended towards that of the light Egyptian pattern, . . .”(p39) This led me to re-read the section and then wonder if the Hurrian chariots were different than the Nuzi chariots, or if there was a specific kind of chariot which was the Egyptian pattern. It is unclear and this is incredibly unhelpful when one is attempting to research the introduction and evolution of chariots in warfare.

In the end, I recognized that there was a wealth of information which Noble could offer and it is unfortunate his is not a strong enough writer or did not have a strong enough editor to make his book less of a challenge to decipher. Noble likely brings exceptional value to the discussion of chariots in ancient warfare but unfortunately, I found his writing unclear, and the structure of the prose unsound.

I’m going to give Noble’s Dawn of the Horse Warriors 2 Hurrian (or is that Nuzi) chariots out of 5. It’s obvious the author knows his stuff, but this books desperately needed a strong editorial hand.

This review is also published on Good Reads, here.

You can read all my Good Reads reviews here.

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The Artificial Dawn Condition Watch

Last weekend my home was without power for over 48 hours. I wasn’t alone – Saturday Ottawa had somewhere close to 145,000 homes without power, 28,000 of them in my region/suburb. The good thing? Along with spending a lot of time with my family (poor them!), I got a lot of reading done. I’ve updated my Goodreads page, and popped in two reviews, which I shall share with you here.

First, a book I finished a week ago, Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, the second of the Murderbot Diaries.

Another fantastic Murderbot story. I really enjoy my time with Murderbot, the mis-named hero (anti-hero? okay, protagonist) of this series. We learn more about the character and the character’s past, something which actually changes how one might consider Murderbot. There are also some very strong supporting characters and what might be otherwise a side-story that kind of doubles as the main plot. Overall, really strong, really fun, and it’s got me looking for the next book.

And the book I ripped through this weekend, the Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff, a book about Joseph Conrad, his works and his times.

This book is an amazing synthesis of biography, history, and literary criticism. The author looks at Conrad’s life within the history and contemporary thought of the time, showing how that influenced his writing and what his fiction can tell us about him. As a fan of Conrad’s writing, this helped me to place it in a context that helped understand some of the aspects of his work – like racism and sexism – that are troubling. It can be hard to separate the artist from his work, but this book helps to show how it can be enlightening not to try, and what lessons we can learn when we do not. A really strong read.

You can find my reviews on Goodreads here and my author page here.

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A Few Short Reviews – Pharaohs, Expanse, Unlocked and Murderbot!

This espionage/thriller was spoiled by really weak writing. Director Michael Apted is a seasoned professional, and the performances here are all solid, but the bedrock just isn’t solid. This has a conspiracy plot that does not bear any level of scrutiny. With some movies, it’s fine to “turn off your brain” (I’m looking at you, Commando), but conspiracy thrillers should expect that audiences will be expecting it to hold together when the truth is finally revealed. In this case, there were very, very few surprises (any? . . . maybe one) and the conspiracy itself was riddled with problems. Basically, it was an idiot plot – it only works if everyone involved is an idiot.

The Black Pharaohs by Robert G. Morkot
This is a seminal work and kind of cornerstone read if one is looking at Kush/Nubia. I would strongly recommend it to anyone researching that period and place. Having said that, it seemed a bit disjointed, in that there seemed to be a lot of diversions and an assumption of knowledge that could leave me confused. I read this book over a very long period, in between academic courses, and that may have affected how I perceived it.

Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey
I’m a huge fan of this book and TV series, but after mainlining the books from Leviathan Wakes to Babylon’s Ashes, I’m taking a break. I still think the books are fantastic, but I do feel that Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes lacked the punch of earlier books. I don’t want the series to end because I love these characters, but by the same token I would be okay if I found out the next book were the last (it’s not, Tiamet’s Wrath is supposed to be coming in March 2019). I will impatiently devour Persepolis Rising when I get to it, but I think I needed a palate cleanser.

And I have only just started it . . . but

All Systems Red by Martha Wells
I just finished chapter five of this science-fiction novel and I adore it. It’s narrated first person by the extremely flawed “Murderbot” – a Security Unit built of tech and organic pieces (cloned?). Murderbot has hacked its own governor unit so it has free will and a whole host of personality quirks that make reading its narration an exquisite pleasure for me. The story is also gripping and the writing is both technically excellent and really engaging. This is the kind of book that make one almost miss one’s bus stop (may have happened). Can’t wait to get back to it.

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Bushido or Bushidon’t

In the last post I made a comment about how the bushido code wasn’t actually used by the samurai when they were warriors. This is the post where I actually back that up to the best of my ability.

While I am very interested in Japanese history, I am very far from an expert, so please feel free to point out where I got it wrong.

Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s. Photograph by Felice Beato from Wikipedia.

So, my understanding of bushido as the code of bureaucrats rather than warriors was formed through the works of Drs. Karl F. Friday, Mark J. Ravina, and Pierre Souyri, which is a limited pool of sources, so I would be thankful for anyone to expand on this. Also, any correct points come from my sources and any mistakes in understanding and interpretation are my own.

Please read everything as caveated with “to my knowledge” and “as I understand it” so that I don’t have to constantly repeat that.

First, the samurai is a class rather than an occupation. It is not dissimilar to how the “knightly” class became the knight – the medieval noble warrior. To say a king is a knight is both correct and incorrect – the king would not come from the knightly class but might undertake the occupation of knight. We tend to think of the samurai as an occupation rather than a class, but the term is properly applied to to the class.

The samurai-class has its roots in late 12th century Japan as power dispersed from the Imperial capital at Kyoto following a series of clan rivalries and outright conflicts. The samurai evolved from the small, landed gentry called jito.

This was the time of the Minamoto and Ashikaga shogun dynasties (1185-1573). While the samurai were not full-time warriors during this era, there were periods of intense violence and these conflicts were more common than they would be during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868). It was also a time when samurai mostly depended on local lords rather than the central government and the shogun. I think of this period as similar to how the legions of late Republican Rome were loyal to their general – who paid them – rather than the state.

Valour for the early samurai is as we generally understand it – prowess and loyalty. Honour was based on martial ability, yes, but it was also service to one’s lord rather than personal valour – so retreat which might make one appear cowardly might be required as one cannot serve one’s lord in death.

Miyamoto Musashi killing a giant creature, from The Book of Five Rings from Wikipedia

The concept of bushido – or at least writings explicitly discussing it – do not appear before 1603. In my estimation, there are two documents/books that generally provide us with our understanding of bushido – the Book of Five Rings and Hagakure. The Book of Five Rings is written by a renowned swordmaster who was actually involved in warfare and dueling, but it was probably written around 1645, when its author, Miyamoto Musashi, was 60 and long after he was a practicing swordsman. He had become a teacher, yes, but this is a memoir of a time long past at its writing. Hagakure, on the other hand, was written by a courtier born in 1659 who did not have Musashi’s experience.

These texts do not come from the era when the samurai were primarily warriors. The idea of bushido comes from a time when the samurai were basically a bureaucratic class. By the 1700s, daimyo were not looking for perfect warriors, they were looking for bureaucrats who could maximize their tax income. The Tokugawa shogunate was a time of insularity, in which the Japanese neither marched to war outside their borders nor faced large conflicts within. The samurai definitely had the trappings of a warrior elite – with swords and armour and martial training – but that was not their actual role in society. Bushido certainly would make them feel better about themselves, it would lend romance to their role, but would be similar to a member of the House of Lords in the UK claiming that they follow the chivalric code – it’s meaningless because it is supposed to be about conduct during war and they are not warriors.

So while bushido might encapsulate a concept of samurai that would be recognized in the Minamoto and Ashikaga shogunates, it was developed in a period in which samurai were generally not called upon primarily as warriors. It was a romantic vision of a long gone age, not unlike Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and chivalry.

This was part of a rumination on samurai cinema, known as chanbara, which led to this.

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Chanbara and Wuxia and Podcasts, Oh My!

This is a rumination based on an interchange with the podcast Jianghu Hustle. The podcast is a consideration of wuxia and adjacent cinema in regards to RPGs. I love it because the hosts are really great at critically and enthusiastically examining wuxia movies and what we can learn from them for application to the RPG design realm. It’s a consistently excellent podcast and I would strongly recommend anyone who finds that description interesting, to check it out.

Image by Igor Kovalchuk / 123RF Stock Photo

Anyway, there was an interchange about chanbara or samurai movies and the intersection with wuxia. Yes, these are very different genres with very different needs, expectations, tropes and paradigms, but I think the main characters – at least of the movies I have seen and remember – are very, very similar. That isn’t surprising, because it’s also true of chivalric romances and Westerns – the heroes are wanderers who serve a higher morality and operate within a society linked to but separate from the civilization in which they live.

The issue is the conception of the samurai as a warrior serving a lord and the representation of the samurai in mass media, which is generally a wandering hero – often a ronin. Is there a movie that represents the samurai rather than the ronin, one that places the samurai in the milieu in which we expect to find him?

What follows is my ruminations on this, and I am far from an expert, so this is also a call for counsel and direction – let me know where I am wrong and how because I would be very interested to learn more.

The bottom line? Just as wuxia is not about individuals in China acting within their expected roles and undertaking expected tasks, most chanbara isn’t about samurai doing their job or following their societal role as expected – just as most action movies aren’t about police officers in a routine investigation and most swashbucklers aren’t about ships’ crews getting tea to market during an uneventful voyage.

by Wan Chiang Tan / 123RF Stock Photo

That’s kind of the TL, DR – and this is way, way too long, so understood if you bail right here. . . however, here are my thoughts on samurai cinema as I understand it, and I am very far from an expert. Please read everything as caveated with “to my knowledge” and “as I understand it” so that I don’t have to constantly repeat that.

One aspect of this that I think is enlightening if not entirely explanatory is that the idea of bushido as the code of the samurai comes from a time when the samurai’s main tasks did not involve war. I’ll write on that later, but for now, rather than belabor you suffering readers with my imperfect historical knowledge, I’m going to move forward with that as a “given.” I will present my “proofs” – as it were – later in another post so they don’t get in the way.

Even more than the a-historical nature of bushido as it relates to the samurai of cinema is the idea of a tale about officials doing their job as expected. Movies and stories tend to be about heroics or about black sheep. The Three/Four Musketeers were rebels who constantly created problems for their captain. Zorro isn’t about a Spanish nobleman governing Spain’s American domains. John McClane doesn’t Die Hard during his day at work, but rather is an unexpected wild card in a situation explicitly outside his regular capacity. Captain Blood is a freakin’ pirate . . . which leads to questions about his application of the Hippocratic Oath, but that’s for another time.

In the same sense, there are movies about samurai’s fighting and dying for their lord, but usually these are movies about that lord – whether it’s Throne of Blood (Kurosawa’s take on MacBeth) or Ran (his take on King Lear), we see the samurai fight and die for their lord, but they are not the anomalies, so they aren’t exciting. Even in the theatre of the Edo period, popular kabuki – the theatre of the masses – wasn’t about samurai serving lords and dying in their beds, it was looking back to earlier periods in which samurai bloodied their swords or it looked at extreme examples that removed the samurai from their common frame.

And that leads us to the 47 Ronin, which honestly is about samurai even though it is about ronin. It is about samurai because it is focuses on martial prowess and loyalty to one’s liege. This is – to me – the most pure samurai tale I can think of (with standard caveat that I am not an expert). Forget the recent movie 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves – though I think it has elements that would be very gameable and is bad because it stole the name 47 Ronin and then did not deliver a movie about the 47 ronin but about 47 other ronin who fight sorcerers and monsters.

In conclusion, I would not expect movies to be made about samurai acting within the expected role of a samurai except perhaps as a postmodern deconstruction of that conceit, something more like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead than Seven Samurai.

You can find the Jianghu Hustle patreon here.

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Status Quo? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Status Quo!

Please be warned, this is kind of a political rant – not about current politics – that is long and tedious. Basically, in my games, I ignore the political status quo in fantasy and historical games because doing so would mean the heroes either support the status quo – interested only in bettering their own condition – or fail to upset it, since this is almost always a long, torturous process that can take centuries to achieve. Better to ignore the likely implications of the setting’s form of government and pretend that our heroes can be heroes in a status quo that does not impose suffering.

Also, I’m examining something that I have identified in myself, and if this doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or ill-informed or anything else. It’s sad that I have to include that, but GD do I get emails every time I write something like this – which is, therefore, rare.

So, you have been warned. On with the rant/thoughtful introspection.

One of my current D&D campaigns was to be set in historical, early Anglo-Saxon England. It was going to be tinged with fantasy, but hewing relatively closely to the period. Of course, once one injects magic, without a Herculean suspension of disbelief, consistency tends to be difficult. So, we moved to a second-world setting that shared geography, some place-names, and a lot of history with our world.

Injecting a little magic in a setting can have unbalancing effect if one cares about consistency and believability. I’m not talking realism, because I don’t think that’s achievable (but that’s another discussion), rather I’m talking about verisimilitude, I mean a setting with which the players can interact without causing them to wave off inconsistencies with the excuse “this is D&D.”

And in many ways, for me, politics is the same. I was reminded of this when listening to Dr. Bob Brier’s History of Ancient Egypt from the Great Courses (I carry a lot of water for the Great Courses because I think they are so amazing). It was the discussion of the end of the Hyksos reign in Lower Egypt and the rise of the New Kingdom. Dr. Brier was, understandably for an Egyptologist, on the side of the New Kingdom and its pharaoh.

I guess I understand, but one of the jobs of a pharaoh was to lead the army and impose Egypt’s power on the lesser states that surrounded it. While the Hyksos invaded and conquered Lower Egypt (which is how the pharaohs became pharaohs as well, but I digress), there wasn’t really a discussion on how they then exported force, imposing their will on trading partners. So maybe they didn’t? That’s what Egyptian pharaoh’s did . . . so who were the good guys again?

I look at fantasy and I kind of divorce it from the politics of the time. See, if there are kings and nobles, there are almost certainly serfs. There is certainly an underclass which the propaganda of the age is telling that they must keep their place in some kind of hierarchy – the great chain of being or whatever other euphemism is used for the status quo. Heroes of the age generally are only interested in bettering themselves and their families – Robert the Bruce was made out as weak and even a bit of a villain in Braveheart because his family is acting pragmatically rather than for the “good” of Scotland, and this is only one of the many incredibly tone-deaf choices made for the movie, given that Wallace, even in the movie, is basically doing the same thing. Addendum: I love the movie and own a copy but the history and context is excruciatingly bad.

To be a world-shattering hero who accepts a status quo that is observably unjust is to be a villain in some ways – especially in a game with clearly defined morality like D&D. I always contend that most of us do not play characters of the age and place in which the adventure is set, but figures of our own age and culture in that situation. One can argue that the PCs should see the world as it has been defined for them – they should believe in the great chain of being – but then one should have no issues with other actions which they undertake which would be culturally acceptable. I generally cannot – I specifically removed the historical context from my Viking RPG because it is honestly repugnant for me. I like the saga renditions of Vikings as heroes, and I think they make great protagonists for stories, but I cannot find enjoyment in torturing members of a religious community in order to achieve material gain. This is basically the same approach of most modern Westerns – the hero needs to be disassociated from the common practices of the time.

And the problem with playing heroes who rebel against the status quo is that, really, they’re going to fail. I mean, their goals might succeed in the long run, but unless they are the last of a long line of heroes who have been trying to change the status quo, they are almost certainly not going to be the ones to bring about change, any more than the Gracchi brothers in later Republic Rome did – or Spartacus, for that matter.

In the end, too often heroes just decide on which side they want to play rather than trying to upset the board. It’s the same in my Anglo-Saxon campaign. The PCs exist during one period that has been put forward as the time of the historical figure whom we now generally identify as King Arthur. I don’t have a roundtable of noble knights, but since we’ve not got magic, I’ve got Merlin, and Merlin is fighting against the influx of Saxons. Saxons like the PCs. Merlin is also using means the PCs find questionable – slavery. The PCs encounter a fey spirit whom Merlin had bound, forcing it to act against its wishes. This – to the PCs – made Merlin the enemy.

But the PCs serve under Cerdic, a Romano-British leader who has imported large numbers of Saxon mercenaries. Cerdic is carving out his own kingdom and seeking causus belli against other leaders in order to go to war and take their land. He, however, is hiring rather than burying Saxons, so he’s the good guy.

Depending on one’s view of history, one might see one or the other culture at this point in British history as the romantic ideal of Britain, but both practiced slavery, both had a wealthy overclass enforcing its rights through the use of physical and political power, and both believed in the material gain through violence and oppression.

Even if one does something truly extraordinary how long will it last? As an Egyptian example, Pharaoh Akhenaten upset the status quo by imposing a monotheistic religion on the kingdom. That lasted until he died and the priesthood – inextricably intertwined with the nobility – forced Tutankhamun in his minority to return to the old religion and old ways. In any case, none of that helped those who suffered under the political status quo.

I can’t help but root for the underdogs during the Scots Wars of Independence – that would be the Scots in case you are playing at home – but I realize that while Robert the Bruce may have freed Scotland from English rule, he certainly didn’t free the vast majority of the population. He just changed the head of the state and the nobility whom everyone else had to serve.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

So, yeah, I try to ignore the political context of the games I run. Roman legionaries are fighting for the legionary next to them and divorce their service from the aims and intent of the Senate/Emperor – otherwise they’re likely the villains. Vikings are adventurous spirits who find themselves in the position to fight supernatural threats and seek long lost treasures, not reivers and raiders who murder without a thought and prey on the weak. My Egyptian princess and her entourage are heroes of the age whom the populace love, and that populace doesn’t include slaves and everyone has access to justice and upward mobility.

I guess there is a political status quo in my games, but it is a mere fantastical sheen that would not withstand the pressure of the slightest scrutiny. I try to ignore it because I find it difficult to buy into without questioning the morality of the heroes.

But that’s just me.

You can find Dr. Bob Brier’s History of Ancient Egypt here.

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Black Panther

I’ve been writing lots of game stuff, so haven’t been focused on my blog. If you are one of the few that pops around here regularly, my apologies. You can always join me at my Patreon!

But that’s not the reason I’m here. The reason I’m here is Black Panther.

I really liked Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, so I’d been following the roll out of the movie with interest. Everything that I saw got me excited. As the date approached, I figured out a crafty way to ensure I saw it in the theatre (my daughters love the Marvel movies, so I told them if they did good on their report cards, we’d see it as a family . . . win-win).

I went into the theatre with very high expectations, but I really tried to restrain them. I was expecting too much. Part of this was fed by my love for Thor: Ragnarok. It had exceeded expectations and try as I might, it was hard for my logical brain (if your expectations are too high, you won’t be able to enjoy even a great movie) to overcome my emotional brain (but it looks so awesome!).

Let me tell you, without any risk of hyperbole, this movie taunts my expectations from orbit.

Everything I loved about Boseman’s Black Panther in Civil War was cemented here – the restrained nobility, the wary optimism, the determination, not to mention the sweet, sweet moves. The characters around him reflected that, they each shone with conviction, no matter how tarnished they might be.

I love Boseman’s Black Panther for the same reason I love Chris Evans’ Captain America – they make nobility believable. But Black Panther inhabits a world of tarnished nobility, of political compromise, of strength through fear. He is on the cusp of a changing world. How will Wakanda face this new world? Shall it continue the policies that have protected it for so long? Shall if find a new path for a new generation?

The movie’s backbone to me was the difficulty of grasping and defining a national identity. As a Canadian, I know this all too well. The arguments from the various factions and friends for how T’Challa – not just a superhero, but a king – will move forward all have merit, even those of the villain.

And let us never forget Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. This is the best villain since Loki – whom I would count as the villain of Thor and the Avengers. This is a villain with whom one can sympathize. We can condemn his methods and means, but not his intent – free the oppressed. Is not the motto of the Special Forces (Airborne) “de oppresso liber?” I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but I think his back story explains so much of how the movie turns out – how he achieves what he achieves and why he burns so brightly.

I could go on and on about the action scenes, the SFX, the vistas, but just trust me in saying so much of this works. Yeah, I’m sure there were problems with it, there always are, but like Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy, this movie held my interest and my emotions so well, I missed the flaws.

I ain’t an actual critic, so cut me some slack!

It’s important to note, though, that unlike those other two examples, while Black Panther has lighter moments this is a serious movie. This is closer to Civil War than Ragnarok. It’s hopeful and optimistic, but there is comic relief rather than outright levity.

If you were excited by the trailers, go see this movie. If you liked Boseman in Civil War, go see this movie. If you like inspirational heroes, go see this movie. If you are fan of Jagalchishijang, go see this movie.

I give Black Panther 4.75 heart shaped, purple shiny hero plants out of 5. It delivered on expectations and then some with a thrilling version of the standard Marvel movie that went a little bit deeper and had a little more heart than usual.

You can find out more about Black Panther at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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