Thursday, 3 November 2016

the tao of atom-fucking

nah
I could write a dozen posts on Doctor Strange and its failings but I am doing my best to restrict myself b/c many of these potential posts have nothing to do with D&D. But some of them do - and, like, it’s obviously not coincidence that Strange is maybe my favourite comics character (almost certainly my favourite Marvel character) and that I am a D&D dork. 

Basically, the film is just another superhero movie which, fine, whatever, but it thereby throws away the joys of Strange and the infinite possibilities he offers - by way of being a near-omnipotent mage - for doing all kinds of much weirder shit. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Strange’s fight scenes. There are, obviously, numerous such scenes in the film, and they all involve either two (or sometimes three or four) people whaling on each other with martial arts-y sticks and staves (not even gonna get into the race stuff here, it has been better covered by others elsewhere) or two (or sometimes three or four) people whaling on each other with magical energy condensed into martial arts-y sticks and staves. On a couple of occasions this happens in weird spatial/geographical contexts, though nothing weirder than in, say, Inception (the corridor fight from which is shamelessly ripped off) and generally these weird spatial effects are a kind of generalised hazard rather than anybody’s individual tactic. This while most of the parts of the movie that aren’t men in tunics smacking each other with sticks is men in tunics talking about their fathomless, reality-warping powers.
Like, how little thought do you have to give to scripting a movie about powerful sorcerers to decide that they would interact through spanking each other? And not even from a distance! Hand-to-hand, these guys, all the way. Disappointing. And yet, have we not all been guilty of this too, within our games?

‘Battle magic’ - mage armour, magic weapon, Mordenkainen’s sword - seems cheap to me, Mage armour above all, the way it becomes as automatic for wizards as remembering to put on underwear. Why are you a wizard if all you want to do is use your wizardry to hit stuff? Same question for clerics who are positively encouraged by their patrons to hit stuff with actual weapons and to wear actual armour - your god hath not laid up iron in the earth that you might make blunt weapons from faith instead. There are slight limits on this stuff imposed by concentration, of course, but these limits are not really sufficient.

There is room, of course, for the more inventive, combined-arms kind of battle magic, which actually rewards thoughtful play. This is the approach encouraged by the arcane trickster, the eldritch knight, certain understandings of the sorcerer - well and
good, though the monk suggests that this kind of thing doesn’t really require magic as much as it does a more broadly tricksy approach to combat. But this is the kind of thing I can get behind, the kind of thing one might actually get into the arcane for - the momentary stutter in time that bends you beneath a swinging blade, the crack of sourceless sound that distracts the thug behind you, the twist of wrist a dozen degrees beyond the possible to reach - and
better...
cave in - the knee of the ogre. This is a discipline beyond the kind of spectral sword slinging that is literally a pale imitation of actual hand-to-hand combat.

Of course, this is also not what two reality-warping, atom-fucking masters of the arcane would do if they found themselves duelling. A true wizards’ duel would not be about subtly assisted martial arts, no more than it would be about neon suits of armour and lances made of unbreakable ice, or whatever. It would also not be about lobbing pyrotechnics at one another (or about yelling ‘Expelliarmus’).

A duel between true atom-fuckers would take place in ways and forms beyond comprehension and observation: it would be fought in averted timestreams and through the manipulation of intention and up and down dozens of ostensibly unrelated failsafe avenues seeded across the theoretical battlefield. Its participants might never sight each other, like the great battles of the Pacific War, and the set-pieces and traps of it might continue to spring each other long after both duellists are dead. Entire workings would go by in sorcerously compressed timestreams before rejoining reality only to discover they had been pre-empted by geological gambits that reworked the theoretical underpinnings of an alchemical calculation made three centuries ago. Apprentices would labour mightily at
THIS is your fucking master of the unseen arts.
diversions never knowing who they were diverting or what they were diverting them from: some of them might, in time, learn that they had unwittingly been working the true seam of the war all along. It would be like the very finest John le Carre novels, only subtler. There would be no flashing lights.

That’s the kind of film Doctor Strange should have been. Of course, it’s harder to get your players playing this way, not least because there are always party members who aren’t mages. Hence the arcane trickster-level combats, which are much more game-sized. But just because your players can’t be protagonists in a duel of this nature, doesn’t mean they can’t get mixed up in one...