Fate of the North Star: “Designer” Notes

In one recent post I uploaded my little Fate hack of Hokuto no Ken. Here are a couple of issues that are worth clarifying.

I have not included this iconic attack as a martial art stunt:

Why? Because it is pretty unclear that it is a thing at all. First, it is only mentioned once in the manga (much more often in the anime). Second, many other characters (some of them not even Hokuto practitioners) are seen performing analogous attacks: off the top of my head I can think of Shin, Rei and Falco. So I thought that after all it was better left as narrative flavour to a run-of-the-mill Fate Attack.

Also, a clarification on Hokuto’s pressure points. The phrasing of the Pressure Points stunt may be a little convoluted (I have revised it slightly, check the latest draft). The notion, though, should be familiar to Fate players. The idea there is only that the stunt gives you narrative justification for declaring a bit of truth that usually are beyond other characters power. (Perhaps it could have been managed directly through invocations of a Hokuto aspect, but I wanted it to be a stunt because the fact declared are likely to have both narrative and mechanical consequences: blindness, paralysis etc.).

As most things in Fate, it is only used when it is interesting for the player to bring something in the narrative spotlight. If all you need is killing an opponent gruesomely, you do not have to resort to the stunt. It is not necessarily the case that what in fiction is the use of a pressure point must be modeled by this stunt. The use of pressure points in healing, for instance, is explicitly modeled by the stunt Healing Touch. But see what I wrote in the section On “Techniques”: any time your character takes out an opponent, you can assume that you did so by pressing their pressure points. Only, in that case you will not have any of the advantages enabled by the Pressure Point stunt: inflicting mental consequences, making them happen “in three hours” etc. For that, you must know the stunt and pay fate points.


Things that PJ got wrong: Galadriel

When I watched The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, in an Italian movie theater, there was a single scene that made clear that Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth was not mine (or Tolkien’s, if I may). It was Galadriel’s monologue. I could close my eyes to Tom Bombadil’s absence, to the changes to the main characters, to the added combat scenes, but I could not accept the fundamental misunderstanding of one of climatic episodes in the novel.

Here, the changes to the original monologue are not the issue. In fact, unusually enough, Blanchett’s lines are pretty close to the original, if a little simplified. They are acted, though, in a fundamentally misguided way.

Here is a clip from the extended edition of the movie:

In the movie, the whole point of the scene seems to be that Galadriel wants to scare the shit out of poor Frodo. This because, you know, she is powerful, right? and dangerous and so on. So she screams like a damned witch and changes into a monstrous shadowy creature, until she “passes the test”. Then she breathes a sigh of relief and enjoys some post-orgasmic relax.

Is this the best way to represent Galadriel? Not really. Let us read the original paragraphs from the book:

‘You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel,’ said Frodo. ‘I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.’
Galadriel laughed with a sudden clear laugh. ‘Wise the Lady Galadriel may be,’ she said, ‘yet here she has met her match in courtesy. Gently are you revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting. You begin to see with a keen eye. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set to the credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest?
‘And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In
place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’

The book says clearly that Galadriel “laughed”. And it is not your villainous, Skeletor-style laugh: it is loud and clear. She is amused. In her monologue, she is fantasizing. She is tempted, perhaps, but only abstractly. Like other wise characters in the book, when offered the ring she refuses without the slightest doubt. She indulges a bit in the mere contemplation of what she could do with it, and in doing that she tells a lot about herself: she has always longed for Majesty. Gandalf, in a strictly analogous scene, spent quite a few words on how he would be tempted to use the ring for good deeds, and exactly for this reason he must not have it. At a lesser, more mundane level, compare Boromir and Faramir. The latter says that he would not touch the ring if he found it in the middle of the road (Poor kid! Another character badly distorted by Jackson’s adaptation). Is all this so boring? Perhaps. But one thing is clear: Galadriel cannot be taken to be viscerally tempted by Frodo’s offer. This would contradict both her characterization in the novel and Tolkien’s moral geography.

The monologue is also the thing in which Bakshi’s treatment outclasses Jackson’s in the most dramatic way. If you just Google the title, you might happen to be able to watch it. If so, go at min 74 and you will find the monologue. Forget about the questionable character design, and never mind the fact that the voice actress does not hold a candle to Cate Blanchett. The point is: Bakshi got it right. Make what you want of it.

I leave you with this little curiosity, which some of you might not know:

Yes, the lyrics have precious little to do with the character. But that is no mortal sin, apparently.

Things that Peter Jackson got Wrong: Psychology

I am no great cinema scholar, so I will mostly avoid purely directorial aspects. I will focus on writing. The writing in the LOTR movie trilogy is very bad when it comes to characters and dialogue: all characters, but most egregiously Aragorn, Arwen, Elrond and the hobbits.

The problem with the psychology of the characters is (a) that such a thing even exists, and (b) that it conforms meticulously to Hollywood tropes. As for (a), some early critics of the LOTR novel blamed its characters of lacking any psychological depth. You know what? They were right. What they omitted to say is that Tolkien’s work, while technically a modern novel, was entirely inspired (thematically) by medieval epic and (to a lesser extent) chivalric romance. These (now defunct) literary genres lacked anything like “psychological development” of the characters in the modern sense. Characters were what they were, there was no medieval Forster or Svevo! It should not be seen as flaw, but as a feature. Did it work? In my opinion, it did. But apparently, Peter Jackson thought it did not, or at least, he thought that it would not work on screen. The result is that he deprived many prominent characters of their (epic-styled) motives and replaced them with new ones (more psychologically rooted), which were more likely to be accepted or even recognized by the movie public. Hence my point (b) above: his characters think and feel like ordinary commercial movie characters.

The most blatant example is Aragorn. He is made into the stereotypical reluctant leader. He is insecure, you know, but everybody knows he is the man, so eventually he will set aside his doubts and lead the good guys to victory. This is entirely (really!) absent from the original. In fact, the opposite was true. Many doubted him, but he was confident. Why? Because he was Isildur’s heir. In an epic mind set, this is no opinion or state of mind, it is a mere fact. Tolkien’s moral is pretty clear from a close reading of the novel. The desire for power corrupts (Gollum, Saruman, Boromir), so the only wise thing to do is resist the temptation (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Faramir). The only good power is legitimate, God-given power (Aragorn), one that you do not look for, but it is yours in spite of you or anybody else. An anachronistic mentality, if you like, but much fresher and less conventional than the usual movie tripe.

Arwen’s and Elrond’s cases are almost as serious. Arwen takes a lot of space in the movies, probably because Eowyn was not enough as a female action hero. Still, her character is distorted to an incredible degree. The love story between her and Aragorn, as narrated in the Appendices to the novel, is charming in style and transparent in meaning. Elrond’s conduct was responsible and honourable. All this is wasted in the movies. In the novel, Arwen just chose to become mortal in order to marry Aragorn and live among Men. That was it. Elrond was sad at the idea, and so was she, but such choice was her prerogative. Elrond never tried to oppose her choice with manipulation and lies. On the other hand, he put as a condition for his consent that Aragorn became King of Arnor and Gondor: his daughter’s hand could not be given to anybody less majestic. In the movie he does all sorts of stupid tricks to force Arwen to give up, then he only reconsiders because for undisclosed, blatantly ad hoc reasons, she falls ill and her life is tied to the One Ring, so it becomes imperative that the good guys succeed in their mission. This does not make the slightest sense, and it also changes the wisest and most authoritative figure in the novel into a petty family tyrant.

The hobbits now. First, the choice of making Frodo younger is unfortunate. It is obviously done to please the prospective demographic, but it destroys much of the meaning in the hobbit characters. Also, the different social standings of the characters is obliterated. In the books, Merry and Pippin are the equivalent of teenagers. They also belong to the elite of the Shire families, so they sometimes come out as spoiled kids. Sam is somewhat older, but most importantly, he is a solid, commonsensical working class character. He is also curious and adventurous, but never one to forget the simple pleasures of life or his everyday duties. Frodo is a middle aged hobbit, a bit of an intellectual, and a prominent Shire citizen. He is a comfortable upper middle class citizen, and is not ashamed of it. Sam is his servant, not his friend’s. Not one time this is forgot in the novel: in the end, when Sam marries Rosie, they move to Frodo’s home to be his servants (more Downton Abbey than Friends, if you know what I mean). In the movies the four come out as a bunch of adventurous teenagers, one of which (Frodo) is a bit of an emo and two others (Merry and Pippin) are your good old stoners, only there for comic relief.

Call them “minor changes”, but this is stuff that alter dramatically the content of the story, and is more than enough to say that Jackson’s adaptation is not a great one. Notice, by the way, that for its many flaws Ralph Bakshi’s partial adaptation was fundamentally innocent of these sins. Yes, it omitted a lot about the characters, but it did not changed them. In the next entries on the blog I will happen to point out various aspects in which Bakshi’s often ridiculed animated movie did in fact much better than Jackson’s.

Things That Peter Jackson Got Right

[I have finally finished rereading my Tolkien. There is much I am tempted to write about and many precious (boring) thoughts I will be happy to share with you. Only some of them, though, are directly related to roleplaying. The first mini-series is about Peter Jackson’s adaptations.]

Let me be clear about it: most of the following posts are going to be pretty harsh on the LOTR movies. First, though, credit must be given where it is due: Peter Jackson did remarkably well in many ways. In fact, I suspect, this is precisely the reason why many old Tolkien fans (even self-described “Tolkien purists”, which I am not) were comparatively happy with the Fellowship of the Ring when it was released. In short, everything looked right. Everything looked like most reasonably smart, imaginative readers could have imagined it to be. Not necessarily like the author meant them to be: in fact, it is no secret that consultants Alan Lee and John Howe were the de facto authorities in matters of scenography and (to some extent, I guess) costumes. These two illustrators did contribute in shaping our Middle Earth imagery, at least since the mid-Eighties. So when I watched FOR in a theater, I felt that most places looked more or less right: the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Moria, Lothlorien. The influence of the above mentioned artists, plus the occasional inspiration by Ted Nasmith or Roger Garland, was obvious and beneficial. The costumes were also right or at least good-looking. I have already pointed out on the blog that weapons and armour were definitely not what Tolkien had in mind, but that is a minor flaw for anybody who is not a rabid archaeologist.

The casting was also fundamentally right. The actors were all very capable (not to be taken for granted in an adventure movie franchise, not at the time at least) and most of them were perfectly suited to their respective characters. Mortensen had the physical presence, but also the right degree of grunginess to interpret Strider/Aragorn. McKellen and Lee were the perfect wizards, Weaving and Blanchett two imposing and charming elf-lords. Bloom and Gimli’s actors were given stereotypical (and unfaithful: Legolas was pretty surely dark-haired in the books) looks, but look pretty decent nonetheless and are, obviously, competent actors. As for the hobbits, Bilbo was outstanding, and Merry and Pippin looked plausible (they were horribly written, though). Sam was fine, I shall say. The only problem was Frodo, and was pretty closely related to the flawed writing choices that I will discuss in future posts. Frodo was made dramatically younger than he was supposed to be. In fact, the four hobbit are shown as roughly equal in age. In the novel, they were not, and it showed. So in terms of Tolkien’s story, Frodo looked wrong. In terms of Jackson’s screenplay, though, he did not. So I will not blame it too much for this here.

Is that all? Well, yes. But it is a lot! These days, we are pretty accustomed to see fantasy novels adapted in movies or TV series. We know that many changes happen in such cases, but we also expect some (modest) degree of regard for the fanbase. At the time, nothing could be taken for granted. Being a fan himself, Jackson made the effort to make movies that were at least superficially faithful to Tolkien, but this was not the way the studios usually worked. That was a surprise, and was great.

A Club of Fate Hackers

[ADDENDUM – June 2016: The links down there are still active, but are made obsolete by this revised draft:

Fate of the North Star (Revised)

This one is for FAE only. I am not the greatest fan of FAE, as you might know, but I have come to think that it might suit the genre better.]

When I first read Fate Core, I realized that many people were producing “hacks” for the widest range of settings and characters. Since I was curious about the system and insecure about my understanding of the rules, I decided that I wanted to give it a try myself.

I had recently reread the Hokuto No Ken (Fist of the Nort Star) manga, and browsed through the (extremely interesting) Italian RPG from the Nineties, so my choice fell on HNK.

I will post my provisional writeup of the rules, which I will correct and update irregularly in the future. Pretty interestingly, I roughly managed to model the series without so many real rule changes or additions. It is the sign, I think, that the great abstractness of Fate Core is in fact an advantage whenever one wants to model bizarre or over the top effects, which would otherwise require extensive rule tweaks in more simulationist systems.

Notice that I wrote this stuff before I had a chance to read the outstanding wuxia rules of Tianxia – Blood, Silk & Jade. Genre differences aside, that game truly shines in inventing martial art rules that stay very faithful to the abstractness of Fate Core while being nevertheless mechanically interesting. My approach is much more rudimentary, both for lack of skill on my part, and because there is  a certain vagueness in the source material that I did not want to amend arbitrarily.

I am no great expert of the HNK universe in general, so many things might strike you as unfaithful. For reference, and for those who have never read the manga, this wiki is everything you need to know on the setting and more.

I have produced a pdf in A5 format, to emulate the small format of Fate books. You can print it two pages in one, if you like.

It can be downloaded here:

Fate of the North Star

Fate (Accelerated) of the North Star

On adaptations

I did not play Call of Cthulhu, back in the day. I knew it, though, and greatly respected both its game system (the likable Basic) and its setting. Recently, I have noticed people who lament that CoC was not very keen (or very effective, at that) at recreating Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and typically resulted in more action-oriented pulp fiction. The rule system itself was not explicitly tailored for the purpose (it was a solid, generic skill-based system). This is closely parallel to MERP with respect to Tolkien: Rolemaster (Spell Law especially) did not suit particularly well the source material, and the adventures (while very well documented) had a distinctly sandboxy, wilderness adventuring feeling.

The moral? Maybe I should not say so, being as fond as I am of “genre”, but the fact is that it is not by any means obvious that everything that works in fiction should work in roleplaying. So maybe one should content himself with having RPGs that participate to some extent in the atmosphere of his favourite fiction, and enjoy games in and for themselves. It is a fact that some of the most iconic and influential tropes of RPGs were not inspired by any specific genre of fiction (at least, not directly and recognizably). It is the case with much of what we call “classic fantasy”. It is D&D that made today’s fantasy genre, not vice versa. And this is also why D&D still retains its appeal, even to people that could not care less about Old School Renaissance: D&D is attractive because it is its own thing, it made the rules rather than following them. So who cares if the game system does not make much sense? Same with the World of Darkness: it did not try and recreate one specific genre or the other, but it invented a new blend of dark fantasy/horror/mysticism which is uniquely its own (and largely sucks, IMHO: more on this in future posts).

Why I like the Rules Cyclopedia

[Sorry people, I know the blog is slowing down quite a bit. I have in preparation a good bunch of posts on LotR (both novel and movies) and quite a few on Fate and GURPS. In the meanwhile, a little old D&D.]

Historically, D&D manuals seem to have suffered from bad writing. I am not talking content here: of course, one could have countless bones to pick with this or that D&D edition, or even with all of them. I mean the plan of the work, and its style. I remember lending all of my AD&D2e manuals as soon as I stopped DMing (and never recovering them to this day), precisely because they made such a poor reading: having them for reference when you played was one thing, but otherwise they seemed a waste of space.

The Rules Cyclopedia, on the other hand, has none of these flaws. It is concise, well organized, and lively written. It does not indulge in preliminaries, nor it displays self-importance. There was no room for such things: RC was born to be the first and only comprehensive one-volume D&D rulebook. It includes everything one needs to run not only an adventure, but in fact a campaign that could last years or even decades. Of course, the crunch was the same as the BECMI boxed sets, so many things were simplified with respect to AD&D or later D&D editions: fewer classes, races-as-classes, fewer spells, fewer monsters and so on. And yet, it also included much that would never been included in core rulebooks again: rules for acquiring and governing a domain, rules for mass combat and sieges, not to mention the (however sketchy) guidelines for characters to attain immortality. So, while RC had everything somewhat simpler, it also has the grandest scale ever in forty years of D&D manuals.

And, to be precise, not everything was actually simpler than in AD&D2e: the weapon mastery rules (presented as optional) are actually much more detailed than the weapon proficencies in AD&D2e. Whether this is for better or worse, it is up to the reader to decide. Suffice it to say that while the rules complicate the (extremely, almost irritatingly) elementary nature of BECMI combat, they have at least two strong points. First, they greatly increase the offensive capacity of PCs: while this might posit some problems at medium to high levels, it is a welcome change at the lowest levels (PCs have now better chances to survive encounters with low level monsters, and we know that nobody likes to be stabbed to death by a kobold). Think of a poor first level magic user: now, if he spends both his weapon mastery slots on the staff, he becomes a skilled staff fighter, who can attack and defend effectively and inflict considerable damage. Second, it makes it possible to differentiate greatly between individual PCs, which is precious in a game that has always had the tendency to look at PCs as stock members of the respective classes. Two warriors can be finely differentiated not only in terms of their “liking one weapon over another”, but of having entirely different tactical roles and special features: in this sense, RC does not pale in comparison to D&D3.X. Even at first level, you can now create heavy cavalrymen, crossbowmen, archers, skilled halberdsmen or whatever you feel like. Not that the system is without its quirks: the very smart, and valuable, intuition that experts of a weapon are more effective against some opponents than against others ends up giving counterintuitive results, since users of missile weapons have been conflated with monsters with natural weapons (i.e., a swordsman has the same bonuses when fighting an archer as when fighting a dragon, but better bonuses when fighting another swordsman). Does it sound right? I am not sure.

Since we are very much talking Old(-ish) School here, I will go for something nerdy now. RC (like BECMI before it) has, as far as I know, by far the most powerful version of the Meteor Swarm spell: it inflicts an astronomical 32d6 damage on impact plus 32d6 of blast damage, against which a saving throw for half damage is allowed. A high level magic user has thus the potential to inflict up to 384 damage, which would be enough to wipe out the vast majority of opponents in one blow. In Pathfinder, for comparison, Meteor Swarm does not exceed a maximum of 192 damage. One might say that the RC version is “unbalanced” but hey, when DMs let 21st level wizards in their game world, what did they expect…?

[EDIT – 28/06/2016: I was wrong on Weapon Mastery rules. First-level characters cannot allocate more than one mastery slot to the same weapon, so a magic-user would have to wait to do her kung-fu. By the way, the RC as written is not super clear about this, unlike Dark Dungeons, which I strongly recommend for other reasons as well.]