Category Archives: Followups

Q&A: Energy Weapons and Penetration

Wouldn’t “lower power” so to speak be desirable to reduce overpenning in urban combat situations? Not necessarily with a large bulky gun, but even SBRs can fit some definitions of “big”.

dogsichub

It depends, but it’s quite possible that penetration may be distinct from overall weapon power. Especially if we’re talking about non-kinetic weapons.

The two examples that come to mind immediately are Babylon 5 and Star Wars. Both settings use plasma based weapons as their dominant hand weapon technology. In B5, this was explicitly stated to be because the PPGs were less likely to rupture starship hulls and cause explosive decompressions.

Of course, in Star Wars, magnetic shielding which turns blasters into a remarkably high stakes version of Pong.

In both cases, you have high power weapons with a low risk of penetration.

This is also often a characteristic of beam weapons in science fiction. Where you have weapons that will selectively discriminately between punching through armor but not burning through unarmored structures or vehicles. In some settings there’s justifications for this, such as advanced computer control systems built into the weapons, or hulls and other objects being constructed out of materials which resist the beam weapons. In others it’s strictly authorial fiat without any in setting justification.

That said, high energy weapons could easily end up in a situation where you don’t have much power, while the weapon is still pretty heavy. This is the reason we don’t have things like hand-held laser weapons in the real world. You simply can’t generate enough power to create a functional weapon with current power sources. If you want a hand laser that can vaporise someone, it will need a power reserve greater than the output of a major hydroelectric facility for each shot. You could carry something very heavy (or vehicle mounted) which would mildly inconvenience (or blind) someone, but it would be significantly less effective than just bringing in a conventional rifle.

That’s part of why, “heavy, low power weapons,” wouldn’t be a thing. If your weapon is heavy and is low power, you’d revert back to the lighter, higher power weapon. If you have a setting where your basic energy weapons are very heavy, and less powerful than kinetics, you’d see people using projectile firearms.

There’s one major caveat to this. If you have highly specialized weapons, like some kind of EMP projector, you might see something that is technically low power, but is being used in a specific support role. Especially in anti-material roles.

For an example of this, you can look at Aliens. If you pay attention to the background details, you’ll see the Sulaco carries a wide range of energy weapons, including particle beams (for electronic warfare) and even uses lasers for its point defense weapons. But, the Marines use M41a Pulse Rifles (which are kinetic auto rifles) and the support gunners use M56 Smart Gun (which are a target assisted autogun.)

Also, in the Aliens example, the kinetic weapons are designed to minimize structural damage. Both the Pulse Rifles and Smart Guns are loaded with 10mm explosive tip caseless rounds, which were intended for dealing with lightly armored foes, but not intended for punching through walls, or armored vehicles. (Though, they still do some structural damage.)

Even in the modern world, it’s becoming possible to separate penetration from power. Frangible rounds, like Glaser Safety Slugs are designed to shatter into dust on impact with a hard surface, making them less likely to cause structural damage, while still being an effective weapon.

-Starke

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Q&A Followup: Assassins and Spies: Famous in Government

I’m not aware if you do part 2’s to Q&A’s but with your other post about being a famous criminal would it be under the same terms if the only the government was aware of the assassin existence?

Yes. Ironically, this can go either way, depending on the structure and scope of your story.

If the government who knows about your assassin is friendly, (as in, the assassin is a covert operative for them), then you have the situation where a character could safely build a reputation privately.

If the government is hostile to your assassin, then you have the normal downsides of your criminal’s behavior being well documented.

The irony is, both of these states would probably be true simultaneously. With the government (or at least the intelligence community) your character works for being aware of their existence, while simultaneously, hostile governments would be aware of, and on the lookout for them.

This is something that is sometimes capitalized on with James Bond. He is incongruously famous for a spy within his world’s British government, but, simultaneously, some of his villains are able to instantly recognize him, even though his cover is technically intact.

I didn’t specify this during the previous post, but that is a real problem for spies (and probably would be for assassins as well.) As a spy engages in espionage, they will get added to databases and official records. Intelligence agencies are notorious for maintaining files on anyone who ever catches their attention. As a spy’s career advances, and they are involved in more and more places, those dossiers will gradually out them, and it will become more difficult for the spy to operate covertly. I don’t know if this would also be true for an assassin, but it seems likely. Especially if they took on targets who were protected by government security services.

To a certain extent, it’s irrelevant whether an assassin (or any criminal) is publicly famous. The real question is whether the authorities know who they are. So, asking if the government knows, is really just cutting this one down the people who matter for the purposes of consequences.

-Starke

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Followup: Damage Decks and the use of Playing Cards in RPGs

Wait what is the “damage deck” rpg called?

hueynomure

I was thinking, specifically, of two games. One was the FFG version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the other was Decipher’s Star Trek: Customizable Card Game. Both games are out of print, (The Star Trek: CCG went out of print nearly 20 years ago, and FFG lost the Warhammer license back in 2017.)

With Warhammer, I misremembered how the damage rules work, and it’s something of a hybrid system. Damage inflicted becomes “minor wounds,” which are tracked by face down damage cards. Under certain circumstances, a minor wound can become a “serious wound,” by flipping the damage card over, and at that point it has a persistent effect until the character is healed. The primary way minor wounds become serious ones is if the character is knocked out, in which case, one of their minor wounds will flip face up.

It’s a little unusual to see a mechanic like this in tabletop RPGs, but the mechanic of taking a persistent debuff after being downed in combat is significantly more common in CRPGs. Both the Dragon Age series and Pillars of Eternity use that exact mechanic to penalize characters who have been downed in combat.

It’s also worth pointing out that FFG is primarily a tabletop game publisher. This is very apparent in their Warhammer RPG, which features a lot of items you’d normally associate with a tabletop game, rather than an RPG. Player characters, their items, their skills, and the things they’ll fight are all tracked with cards. Keeping track of player characters between sessions was accomplished with custom tuck boxes. There are also a mountain of tokens for tracking many other things. So, in that environment, the use of cards to track damage isn’t that strange. It’s also why the box was nearly $100 USD when it was still in print. It’s beefy, and there’s a lot of stuff in there.

The Star Trek: CCG was one of the first imitators of Magic: The Gathering, and significantly, one of the first to really depart from the game structure of Magic. Where M:TG is about dealing 20 damage to your opponent before they do the same to you, Star Trek’s victory condition was acquiring 100 points from completing missions. Combat was not a primary focus of the game, and there was no direct victory condition through combat.

Over the years, Star Trek reworked its ground combat to be almost passible, but ship combat got a significant rework with the Blaze of Glory expansion. This saw the introduction of the “Battle Bridge side deck,” constructed from Tactic cards. Tactics had two parts to the card, the top was a combat modifier that you would select, and the bottom was the damage effect. Ship combat occurred once per turn, with your ships having the opportunity to attack your opponents, at which point, both players would draw the top two Tactics cards from the BBSD, select one, place the other underneath the deck, and then both players would reveal them at the same time. Tactics had varying effects, frequently increasing attack and defense values. If your attack was greater than the target’s defense, that was a “hit,” and if your attack was greater than twice the target’s defense that was a “direct hit.” At the same time, your opponent would make the same checks with their attack against your defense value.

Tactics cards would define what you did on a hit or direct hit. The default was to deal the top two tactics from your deck to your opponent’s ship on a hit, and the top four on a direct hit, but there was some variation. For example: One Tactics card (“Maximum Firepower,” I think), would deal the top three cards on a hit (if you were using one of a small subset of ships), but also had a defense penalty instead of a bonus. An entire subset of tactics (“Target Weapons/Shields/Engines”) would direct you to deal the top card off your deck (or top three on a direct hit), but was also placed on the target as a damage card when used.) (In the case of Target Shields, it would be applied even if you didn’t score a hit.)

As with Warhammer this is, technically a hybrid damage system. Each Tactic card’s damage section had a small text box which indicated what it did to the ship, this included disabling systems (such as the transporter or tractor beam), killing a crew member, causing the ship to be vulnerable to boarding parties, ect. It also applied penalties to the ship’s stats, and applied a “-%” to the ship’s hull. If the cumulative damage exceeded -100% hull, the ship would be destroyed. So, there is a health pool, but it’s gated by cards.

Now, significantly, this was not in the RPG that Decipher developed for Star Trek.

The use of cards as a game component in RPGs is pretty rare overall. The most prominent example I can think of is Deadlands, which used cards during character creation, and also when casting spells. Though, that was with a (mostly) standard 54 card poker deck. The only unusual element was the Jokers which were distinct from one another, and one had a special significance. Including, if I remember correctly, killing the player character if it was drawn during character creation.

The reverse is also unusual. You don’t often see card games which trend into roleplaying territory.

The (also, now, long out of print), Babylon 5 card game actively encouraged players to roleplay as their various characters during sessions session, and many of the cards in that game are primarily only useful as roleplaying aides. (There is a serious difference between competitive decks and casual ones.) However, there is no persistence between sessions. The game (unsurprisingly) has a card based consequence system, but, damage is just points assigned against a character’s highest ability.

FFG’s Arkham Horror card game is the inverse of B5 in many ways. You’re not actively encouraged to roleplay at the table, but your characters (or at least their decks) are intended to grow and change over the course of a campaign. Additionally, the game structure is more in line with an RPG, it’s cooperative between the players, with, “self-playing,” scripted scenarios that you work together to overcome. As with B5, there are persistent card effects that can linger on a character, but damage is simply measured against a health pool. (Technically two distinct health pools, Health and Sanity, but, this is H.P. Lovecraft inspired title.) (Also, there is an Arkham Horror board game. Same publisher, same setting, most of the same characters, but it is a different game.)

Now, my background with board and card games is not absolute, so I could easily be missing some other examples. (In particular, I haven’t played the board game version of Arkham Horror.) But, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Star Trek CCG’s ship combat are the two examples I was specifically thinking of when I mentioned that system.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Diversity of The Sword (and the Road to the Rapier)

im confused so did the rapier superseded the lo longsword (or what we call a longsword)?

Sort of, but saying, “yes,” would be a little misleading.

You can draw a direct evolutionary line from the 11th century arming swords (also sometimes called the, “knightly sword”) (which, you might identify as a longsword) to the Spanish sideswords, to the rapier. This can get confusing, because you could be forgiven for mistaking a sidesword for a longsword. It’s a specific blade, intended for use as a sidearm, but, “it’s a sword,” and long enough that you could easily call it, “a longsword.”

By the same logic, you would not be (completely) wrong for identifying a rapier as a “long sword.” This is why things can be difficult to parse, especially if you think of a longsword as a specific weapon.

Modern historians break medieval straight swords down into, roughly, 12 categories, named after the late Ewart Oakeshott. (Technically, is, I think the total is 27, because some types have multiple variants.)

So, the the Oakeshott Type X evolved into the Oakeshott Type XIII sometime during The Crusades, which in turn would evolve into the Spanish Sideswords (which, as far as I know, don’t have a Oakeshott Type associated with them, though the XVIIId and Type XIX aren’t far off, and are from the right era.)

The issue is, an Oakeshott Type X, and a Type XVIIId are both swords. However, those swords were manufactured based on the technology and materials available, the skill of the smith, and the intended function.

The sidesword was intended to be used as both a cutting and thrusting blade. It was intended to be light, and easy to carry, as it was a backup weapon. The rapier accentuated those traits. A lightweight blade is desirable, it’s easier to carry. The thinner blade may be aesthetically appealing, but if you have the technology to make it, the result is lethal.

So, looping back to the beginning, the real mistake is thinking that the longsword is a standardized weapon. The Oakeshott Typology allows us to categorize them into different groups, and it’s useful for tracking the changes in the designs over time, however, it’s important to remember that Oakeshott’s work was retroactively categorizing these weapons into groups. There’s no single moment that a smith sat down, stopped making Type X blades, and started making Type XIIIs. That transition happened over time. (They also would have been completely unfamiliar with the terminology, as Oakeshott was publishing in the 20th century.)

It’s probably, slightly, more accurate to think of the rapier as the result of people tinkering with, refining, and improving the longsword over the course of 600 years. (Or, longer if we include first millennia swords, in which case, you’re looking at more like 800 years of European sword design.) The rapier did not supersede the longsword; the longsword became the rapier.

If there was a weapon which superseded the longsword in Europe, it was the saber. For an extremely abbreviated history, the saber first entered Europe sometime in the first millennia, and found a home among cavalry in Eastern Europe. They started gaining popularity in the 17th century (both the sabers and the Polish Hussars who wielded them), which would eventually lead to the saber becoming the dominant military blade in Europe. You can actually see a replication of some of the transformation which lead to the rapier in how Western European saber deigns favored thinner blades. Smiths (and by this point militaries) took a design they liked, and modified it to better suit their goals. Now, the other thing which changed was the transition to gunpowder infantry. Sabers still saw battlefield use (partially among cavalry) into the 19th century, but the combat role of a sword on the battlefield was rapidly coming to a close.

So, the short version is, no, the European longsword became the rapier, and then was eventually replaced by changing fashions.

-Starke

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Q&A Followup: Storm Warning

If you included this and I just missed it, really heavy rain affects your visibility and even your ability to breathe normally, especially if it’s cold or windy. Keeping the water out of your eyes/nose/mouth can be a pain even if you’re just walking or standing there. If you have long loose hair it’ll get plastered to your face and get in your mouth or eyes.

Sort of. I intended for for this kind of context to get bundled in under, “it’s rain.” In fairness, that was already a fairly long post, because it was split between talking about adapting spectacle fighters to prose and the weather.

A lot of your suggestions ended up under the general header of, “conditions.” So, let’s talk about that for a moment.

When you’re writing, “conditions,” are an abstract concept.

Things like the weather, time of day, time of year, can all be described as, “conditions.” These modify the scene. However, as a writer, you only need to actually write about them when the have an effect on your characters’ actions or events.

If it’s a clear day, that establishes both the time of day, and the weather. So, clear weather basically means the weather doesn’t matter, while day tells you that everything outside is well lit.

If you have a heavy thunderstorm outside, that will have a lot of effects. It will darken the environment. Light from artificial sources will fall off far faster. It will add significant noise pollution (from the rainfall itself), and also from thunder. The rain will further reduce visibility. Natural surfaces (like dirt or grass) will become soaked and soft, while smooth artificial surfaces (like metal) can become slick (this is less likely with concrete or pavement, but it can happen there as well.)

It’s rain, and if you’ve lived anyplace that experiences heavy storms, most of this should be fairly second nature.

As for hair getting slicked down over your face, that’s never been my experience. Granted, I almost never wear my hair down in public, the single exception of if I’m out during a snowstorm. However, I’ve always found that my hair gets slicked down out of my face when it’s raining heavily enough for that to be a factor. Now, granted, I don’t generally get into fights in heavy rain to see what my hair will do, but even engaging in strenuous physical activity in the rain has never offered this experience.

Similarly, with the mouth and nose. Yeah, if you stand with your mouth open in the rain, you’re going to end up with rain water in your mouth (which is actually a minor health risk, as rain water is not safe to drink), however talking or breathing (even, heavily) isn’t going to fill your mouth with water. With your eyes and nose, the natural contours of your face should shield you from the worst of the downpour. (I’m actually not sure how you’d end up with rainwater up your nose, unless you were prone, or suspended upside down.)

The one time this would become a major consideration is if the rain water is so toxic as to be directly harmful. This is possible, and examples of things like acid rain are real. Needless to say, if this is severe enough to be a consideration, your characters should probably avoid skin exposure to the contaminated rainfall entirely.

Now, as a related concept, rain can be an absolute pain if you wear glasses. Your forehead doesn’t protect your glasses, and this can result in rainwater splattered across your lenses.

Part of the reason I didn’t go too into depth is because there are other potential weather conditions, and I was trying to make the post as generally useful as possible. I may have failed that one. So with that in mind:

Winter storms are a little different. If we’re talking about snow, the initial snowfall has a similar effect to rain, it will muffle noises (though this is different from how rainfall will create overwhelming background noise.) It will reduce visibility, however, it won’t cause light sources to drop off. In fact, snow can sometimes amplify artificial light, bouncing it around. Meaning, you can still see in a snowy environment, when it would be too dark under other circumstances. This is especially true if you’re in an urban environment with ambient light pollution. However active snowfall still obscures vision. Someone in the snow can still see an artificial light source, but they won’t be able to determine what’s going on around it, because that will be obscured.

Snow creates mobility issues, similar to rain. It takes considerably more effort to move through it as it accumulates, and you’re having to break through a layer of snow. However, it applies uniformly, regardless the surface. It can also conceal sudden drops in the terrain, as the accumulation will have a roughly uniform surface. If the snow has been getting compacted down over time, and this isn’t the first storm, you can end up with a layer of ice under the snow. This isn’t immediately apparent, but, of course, it will be very slipery.

Snow has two very specific side problems. Being out in the snow will cause it to accumulate on you, but your own body heat will cause it to melt, leaving you wet, in the cold. Second, if you wear glasses, your glasses will fog up, either as a result of your own breath, or if you move out of the cold and into a warmer space.

As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the only times I wear my hair down, as hair provides excellent insulation. The downside is, of course, when the snow melts, it will you with soaked hair.

It’s important to remember the conditions your characters are in while writing a scene. So, on one hand, the descriptions above may sound overly systemic, it’s almost more important to keep in mind the sensations they’d experience, than sitting there and thinking, “well, it’s raining, so the character’s vision is cut by 20%. This is also where you may want to tweak conditions to create the situation you’re looking for.

If you want the rain to be ominous, then an approaching storm which may be several hours away, with possibly some light drizzle may be all you want. This won’t affect your characters in any systematic way, but it may offer the tone you’re looking for.

If you want your characters to be at a serious disadvantage, then semi-frequent lighting strikes, rain pouring down, possibly even power outages from downed lines, can all provide that. As the writer you have control over the exact nature of what’s happening.

Best of all, those both exist in a continuum. As your characters are working ahead of the storm, you’ll have the first droplets of rain, the sky getting darker. Maybe the early lightning strikes that come well in advance of their thunderclaps. But, as the storm moves in, and the weather worsens, you gradually transition towards what you want from the weather. You’re the writer, you control this.

Tracking conditions isn’t something you need to do as a writer, but if you’re struggling it can help. You can even sketch out little cards or notes describing the conditions for a scene (sort of like stage directions), if it helps you. Just, remember to take that out during rewrites, once you’ve internalized the scene.

You can even extend this idea further, if it is helpful. Such as writing up condition reminders for character injuries, or the consequences of character’s prior actions. So long it helps you. If you don’t feel you need to write up any conditions, don’t worry about it, you don’t have to, and no one will judge you for that. However, if you’re struggling, this may be a helpful system to consider.

-Starke

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The Mafia Gas Tax Skim

Didn’t the NY Mafia sort-of try this, I may have the details wrong but in the mid-late 70s they began operating “fake” gas stations. Something on the order of close to a billion dollars in unpaid taxes? Correct me please, it’s late and I’m too tired after work to be bothered googling

dumnhpy

You’re very close, and the details are pretty interesting. There have been multiple rounds of this, the one you’re talking about was the late 70s early 80s. It popped back up around the turn of the millennium, with Russian mobsters.

The issue wasn’t fake gas stations, it was fake gas distributors. These are the companies that sell gas to the stations themselves. At the time, they were responsible for collecting any sales taxes on the gasoline. So, a real station would buy gas from the distributor. The distributor would keep the 9 cents a gallon, to hand over to the IRS and any relevant state revenue services.

In the mid-70s, some people in the distribution industry realized that there was a potential loophole. If the distributor that collected the tax money no longer existed or was bankrupt by the time tax collectors came for their payout, there was no money to take.

There were (at least) four geographic areas where this scam started gaining traction, Southern California, Southern Florida, Houston, and New York City. I don’t have firm numbers on how long this continued undetected. By the late 70s, a couple of The Families had learned about this, and muscled their way in. At that point, the Mafia started skimming off the stolen tax money, so for roughly five years, the Mafia was getting one cent for every gallon of gas sold in the Tri-State area. (I’ve seen some conflicting numbers for how much money was taken, though estimates put this at a billion dollars over the life of the skim, though I’m unsure if that was the Mafia’s cut, or if that was the total skim.)

So, it wasn’t a Mafia plan, so much as the Mafia sniffed out corruption (which they are very adept at), and then inserted themselves into the processes. (It’s also worth noting that the operations in SoCal, Florida, and Texas never came under Mafia control. Those remained independent operations.)

It’s a little unclear whether Mafia involvement accelerated the skim’s discovery. There were already criminal investigations going back into the 70s, trying to figure out where the money was going. At the same time, the Mafia brought their signature degree of violence, and lack of subtly.

By the mid-to-late 80s, this was mostly exposed, and shut down. There were changes to make this kind of skimming operation more difficult. As mentioned earlier, it didn’t completely prevent this kind of skim, and there was a brief resurgence twenty years ago, again in the Tri-State area, but it failed to take hold and remain undetected.

It is an interesting footnote and worth digging up. As I mentioned, the Mafia had a real knack for sniffing out corruption or graft and then inserting themselves into the process.

-Starke

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Q&A: Critical Veracity

I apologize if this seems too blunt, but this is a blog about writing. I would have hoped to see you address criticism in a way that is less reactive and more open. Your last post in particular seems rather angry when I felt there were better ways to deal with the topic that invited understanding and education.

If it makes you feel better, I can assure you, I’m not angry. In fact, posting while angry is a bad idea, and something you should want to avoid.

The author of that torture question annoys me. She comes back a couple times a year, and more often than not we simply deep six her posts without comment. We’ve gotten pretty familiar with her writing, and can usually recognize it on sight. In particular, any asks where she tells us to direct our followers to her blog will not see publication.

It’s important to understand that, not all critique is valid. Not all opinions have merit. In this particular case, this is a very significant factor. As I’ve said, my degree is in political science. When you get into international politics and the use of coercive force, torture comes up a lot. In contrast, the ask author’s background did not prepare them to address torture.

I made an off-hand comment comparing them to an anti-vaxer, and that analogy is more solid than it initially appears. They are, literally, telling an expert that he’s wrong because they prefer their cherry picked, and intentionally misrepresented source.

They are an amateur telling an expert to sit down, shut up, and let them do the talking because they feel morally superior.

To which, I said, “no.”

Similarly, when someone accuses you of something you didn’t do, that critique is invalid. They’re not criticizing you, they’re inventing a version of you that they can attack. This is a dishonest debate tactic called a “straw man fallacy.” They cannot win in an actual argument, so they create an artificial, and untenable position, and attempt to force their opponent to defend it.

To be fair, they’re not very good at setting up straw man arguments. Most of their fabricated positions fail to appear legitimate if you have a functional memory. Several of them can leave you scratching your head going, “where did you get that idea?” More often than not, it leaves the impression that they have very poor reading comprehension, rather than that they’re intentionally dishonest.

For example, their accusation of, “you’re a torture apologist!” as a response to, “torture is evil.”

The expectation is that you won’t realize you’ve been maneuvered into defending a different argument, and won’t be able to evaluate the weaknesses of that new argument.

Except, they’re not that subtle, and as a result, their attempts to manipulate the discussion tend to be more baffling than effective.

Remember, there were a lot of accusations in that ask regarding behavior that never happened. That’s pretty solid tip off that the author is coming to the discussion with unclean hands. They didn’t want an open and honest discussion.

Their entire goal is to get us to shrink back into corner, and allow them to speak for us because we’d be too afraid to offend someone, or too busy pleading, “please don’t hit me anymore.” If you’ve spent any time reading our work, you can understand that their goal wasn’t realistic.

There’s merit in saying that there are better ways to address asks like that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe the best in people. However, in this case, that ask was not what it appeared to be. If you wanted to say that I simply should have nuked the ask without comment, that’s valid. Michi almost did until I stopped her.

In an environment like Tumblr, you are under no obligation to give someone a platform to attack you through misrepresentation. If you get someone in your inbox who is accusing you of something you didn’t do, you can simply block them.

I chose to respond, because I felt there were meaningful comments to be made along the way. Not because I was upset.

Personally, I really enjoyed writing that post. In your defense, I don’t often go for the throat on this blog, so there’s no fault in being surprised by that response.

-Starke

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Followup: Runtime

The False Flag story involving a South African was from The Fourth Protocol by Fredrick Forsyth. They made a film of it with Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan.

Thanks, I couldn’t remember. I think I’ve griped about this before, but there’s something really unfortunate about The Fourth Protocol‘s film.

It’s fairly common for multiple edits to exist of a given film. Usually we think about this in the context of theatrical and extended cuts. The former is the version seen in theaters, while the latter is a longer version saved for home video release.

Sometimes there’s dependencies between the director’s preferred version of the film and what the studio releases to theaters, resulting in a an eventual director’s cut. Ironically, these have become something of a marketing ploy to drive home video sales. The marketing idea is, “this is what the director intended for you to see,” even in films where the theatrical cut really was the director’s vision.

In rare cases, the theatrical and director’s cuts will be radically different films. Payback (1999) is one of the rare examples where we can see both versions of the film. The studio, at the direction of Mel Gibson, fired the director and reedited a crime film into a borderline comedy. DVD releases exist for both films, and director Brian Helgeland goes into detail in his commentary track. If you want to see how much editing and some reshoots can change a film, this is an amazing example.

Beyond that, there are also frequently multiple TV or broadcast cuts. These will trim the film so that it can broadcast with commercial interruptions and fit in a standard time slot. These is they have very strict time requirements. In the US, the film needs to be in increments of 45 minutes. (45m, 1h30m, 2h15m, 3h, ect), in the UK the magic number is 50 minutes. (So, 50m, 1h40m, 2h30m, 3h20m.) Once you add commercial breaks, these will lock down to full hour time slots. So, in the US, if you have a film that runs for 1h43m, and you want to put it on network TV, you need to cut thirteen minutes to fit into two, one hour timeslots.

There are extremely rare exceptions. In ’97, there was a (mostly) unedited airing of Schindler’s List (1993) on network TV. From what I remember, the only advertising were unique 15 minute commercial slots from Ford before and after the film. They may have also run one during an intermission.

Outside of that kind of exception, you can’t cut the ads. That’s how the networks make money. So, if it’s a choice between cutting parts of a film that are necessary for it to make sense, or cutting back on ad buys. The film is a secondary consideration.

In rare circumstances a film will run longer on TV than in theaters. Usually this is because the film is running close to moving up a bracket. So, if you have a film that’s got a run time of 1h28m, and you’ve got some random footage you can splice in, you might add two minutes of material to the film so can be sold to TV markets. One example of this was Heat (1995), where Michael Mann was offered the option to add 17m of material to bring it up to a four hour time slot. Mann declined, and the network cut 40m to take it down to a three hour slot.

Length is also a serious consideration for the theatrical runtime. The longer a film is, the fewer times a theater can show that film on a given screen in a single night. This is why theatrical run times over three hours are exceedingly rare. A theater needs have time to run the film, clean up the theater after a showing and prepare for the next showing. When films get above 3 hours, that starts to seriously cut into how many times a given film can be shown per screen, per night. Meaning, the less money the theater makes. You can see this in action if you look at the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. Fellowship and Two Towers are two minutes and one minute short of three hours long, respectively. Return of the King coming off the previous two blockbusters managed to sneak up to 3h21m, but by this point the theaters were comfortable with the idea that the film would be a reliable moneymaker for the 2003 holidays, and was worth losing screenings.

Lord of the Rings is also an example of how studios could break away from that requirement by having extended versions released on multi-disk sets after launch. Now, the specific example was a bit complex, because the three films were shot together, there was a three year release schedule to begin with, and the extended cut DVDs were a blatant marketing tactic to keep people paying attention to the films throughout the year.

So, what does all this have to do with The Fourth Protocol? I really want to be able to recommend the film. In my, entirely subjective, opinion, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen from Pierce Brosnan. He plays a better James Bond here than in the actual Bond films. (And, by that, I mean, more in keeping with the literary version of the character, rather than the cinematic version.) This is a film where he’s playing the villain, and delivers an excellent performance.

Michael Caine is great. That shouldn’t be a surprise, he is a fantastic actor, but he is in his element here as an aging intelligence officer who’s being pushed to irrelevance.

So, it’s a really good film. But, it’s impossible to see. Or, at least, it was the last time I went hunting for it.

The version of The Fourth Protocol available on DVD today is a seriously shortened cut. I watched a cable TV version back in the mid-90s, and there was a lot of material that was completely absent from the DVD version when I tried to introduce Michi to it a few years back.

I don’t know what happened. My original thought was that the version I saw on TV must have been extended for an extra hour. This is plausible, because the film’s official runtime is 1h59m, meaning it would need to split up over a third hour, with an extra 16m of footage for American TV. Except, I think the version I originally saw, on TV was close to the theatrical cut, while the version available on DVD is (for some reason) a TV cut. It edits out a lot of important plot points, and the entire film suffers for it. One specific example that comes mind was Matt Frewer’s character basically just disappearing without warning. In the 2012 DVD cut, he literally stumbles off screen drunk, and disappears from the film entirely. There is a lot of missing content, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that version of the film is missing 30 minutes of material. (I can’t find the disk to verify the run time, and Amazon insists it’s a complete cut, which is not the case.) Which sucks. It’s definitely a product of the mid-80s, but there was a lot to recommend the film. It’s just really unfortunate that there’s a garbage cut getting passed off as the theatrical version. Among the things that were cut, we lose a lot of interesting depth to Brosnan’s performance, and even Caine’s character gets reduced to more of a cliche.

In case it’s not apparent, this disappoints the hell out of me. A lot of times, this kind of thing happens because no one checks the data. A production company has, “a copy,” of a film or TV series they released, and then doesn’t check to see what the state of that is. This isn’t even situations where the originals were lost, it’s simply a substandard version got added to the pile as, “the official,” copy.

So, this doesn’t mean that original cut of The Fourth Protocol is gone forever. Just, the last time I went looking, I was very harshly disappointed. I would have chalked this up to a faulty memory. It wouldn’t have been the first time I misremembered the plot or individual scenes from a film I caught on TV once. However, when I went looking for it, I found I was not the only one who remembered a longer cut of the film.

If you can get the full cut, I do strongly recommend Protocol. It’s a better film than you’d expect. It’s certainly a product of late Cold War anxieties, but it is a solid film. Unfortunately, I’m not sure you can find an intact copy today.

-Starke

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Follow-up: Rey is Kinda a Problem

If you wanted to highlight a Mary Sue/Gary Stu style character on your blog, you could have chosen Luke instead, as his instant skill with lightsabers/the force is much less believable than Rey’s. The fact that you went after a rare sci fi female lead and echoed the voices of so many misogynist male fans is just disappointing to me. This is not what I’ve come to expect from this blog.

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Luke is, actually, a pretty good counter example. His, “instant skill with a lightsaber,” consists of pointing it at his own face as soon as it is handed to him.

In A New Hope, the height of his demonstrated ability is to avoid lopping off his own limbs while trying to learn how to parry blasts from the remote. In the first film, Luke’s preferred weapon is an E11 Blaster Rifle. The first time we see him use his lightsaber in combat is a single swipe with it on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Luke doesn’t use his lightsaber in combat in the first film.

So, in ANH he gets limited training from Obi-Wan. This is enough for him to start learning Force Pull, though he clearly struggles with it. Having been, “learning on his own,” for three years, he still struggles with very basic Jedi powers, and this is as someone who has been told that The Force exists, and received some introductory training. He barely manages to pull the saber to him in time to save his own life from a wampa.

Rey has the ability to override a Sith Lord’s Force Pull. She has the ability to use Affect Mind, and she has lightsaber proficiency on par with, again, a Sith Lord.

So, back to Luke, he goes to Dagobah receives training from Yoda, a Jedi Master, and returns with a slightly stronger grasp of how to use The Force, and operate a lightsaber. Vader immediately hands him his ass.

The duel on Cloud City is a bit of a sham. It fits what I said about balancing your challenges against the strength of your heroes. Vader knows Luke is his son. He spent decades cleaning up the remains of the Jedi Order. He’s able to go toe-to-toe with Obi-Wan without issue. Luke has a couple weeks of training under his belt. The only reason he’s able to survive is because of two conflicting factors. The Emperor wants Luke alive, “as a prize,” and Vader is having conflicting ideas about killing his own son.

Jump ahead to Return of the Jedi, and we see that Luke learned force choke, and has learned affect mind by this point. However, the finale still runs into another duel against Vader that’s a sham. Again, the point isn’t about killing Luke. Vader doesn’t want to kill his own son, he wants to turn Luke to the dark side, turn on The Emperor together, and take control of The Empire. Luke doesn’t want to fight his father, he’s trying to turn him from the dark side. Palpatine wants Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but he’d be fairly happy so long as one of them takes a dirt nap.

Again, this is not about Luke being a godlike fighter, it’s about him working through his incredibly dysfunctional family issues.

Rey’s got none of that. Kylo is a psychopath who has no qualms about waxing his own father. He doesn’t care about her. He’s a weak, and whiny villain on his own merits, but he is still A Dark Lord of the Sith. He has completed force training. He’s gone toe to toe with with trained Jedi and somehow avoided dying. There is nothing to keep Kylo from killing Rey in the first film except her inexplicable use of active Force powers and specific Force related combat skills (like fighting with a lightsaber) at odds with every other screen canon protagonist.

Let me break this down:

Luke: minimal training, struggles against wildlife, captured by possessed teddy bears, loses his hand in domestic argument. Dude never has his shit together.

Anakin: significant training, holds his own against other Jedi and Sith, but can’t beat Sith without a tag team. Loses limbs during academic dispute.

Rey: no training, no prior knowledge of the Force, defeats Sith Lord on first outing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Rey are the only characters in screen canon who can beat Sith Lords in single combat. I don’t know about you, but something is off with this list.

This is unfortunate because Daisy Ridley is actually really good. So is Adam Driver. There was a lot of excellent casting in those films, but they’re undermined by shoddy writing. There’s roughly two thirds of a decent film there, and then everything derails.

J.J. Abrams and George Lucas have something in common. They’re both extremely fond of emulating material they found elsewhere, repackaging and re-purposing it. This where you’ll find a lot of Kurosawa “homages,” in the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens is almost a beat for beat retread of A New Hope. In the process, something got seriously scrambled.

The version of Luke that you’re thinking of, the egregious Mary Sue, doesn’t actually exist on screen. It’s pop culture gestalt, conflating the original trilogy into a jumbled clip show bereft of context. Parts, the duels with Vader lose their narrative context. Parts from Anakin in the prequels may get meshed in for good measure. (There is a legitimate argument that Anakin is a Mary Sue in The Phantom Menace, and the only reason I don’t want to delve into that topic is because it involves thinking about TPM for more time than is absolutely necessary.)

The worst part is, those misogynistic shitheads aren’t threatened by Rey. Rey doesn’t have the potency to hold their attention. They’re pissed with Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drives them into a frenzy, because she is a very powerful character, and their only attack is to accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

The point we’re at now, a small cadre of fans who’ve gone off the deep end have no response to critique of Rey beyond crying about how it’s misogynistic. Which, doesn’t help your case.

You can do better. There are much better female leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Off the top of my head, Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Sarah Conner (Terminator 2) set a much higher bar for female protagonists in science fiction who completely own their space. I already mentioned her, but Captain Marvel is easily another example from recent years. Moving beyond that you have characters like Aeryn Sun (Farscape), Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5), and Captain Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager). And if one second you think Aeryn or Delenn aren’t leads, because they’re not getting top billing in ensemble shows, you really need to sit down and actually watch those.

If you want to see why old guard Star Wars fans are pissed with Rey, grab a copy of Heir to the Empire, and then realize that Disney erased all of that from existence to pave the way for Rey. We lost the version of Leia who became the leader of The New Republic. We lost Jaina Solo and Mara Jade. They destroyed all of that so J. J. Abrams could regurgitate a stale rendition of A New Hope without competition.

So, no. Fans who lost decades worth of characters they loved are going to be a little upset, especially when the replacement is breaking all the rules in a setting they adore and still can’t manage to make the stage. More importantly, if a female character needs to break the rules to appear powerful in their setting that’s not feminism or girl power.

This is an exceptional post, but perhaps consider that Rey raised herself on a desert planet? She probably learned to tap into the force to survive, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was doing. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue for that. Unless you’re going to call Luke a Gary Stu for being able to destroy the death star while flying an x-wing for the first time. If a character is believable if you switch the pronouns, the character isn’t the problem.

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The irony here is, there’s elements for both parts. We know from the three untrained Jedi we encounter in the films that force sensitivity manifests with heightened skills. Being force sensitive makes you unusually talented at the things you focus on. Of those three, Luke is the least egregious. If we were to ignore the active force powers and lightsaber proficiency, (and inexplicable piloting skills), Rey would be fine, unfortunately, we can’t.

With Rey, we do see that she has an unnatural aptitude for finding and maintaining scrap on Jakku. That she’s been able to survive as long as she has is a pretty good sign that she’s force sensitive, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen before. That part is absolutely fine. The problem is the situations where her skill hasn’t been set up.

When we first meet Anakin in TPM, he’s already a supernaturally skilled podracer pilot. I’d like to be able to purge the entirety of the podracers from my memory, but we’re all here together now, and I’m pretty sure Sartre only said what he did about hell because he didn’t know that TPM would exist one day.

All these years later, I still have issues with Anakin piloting a fighter for TPM‘s finale, but, I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of that film isn’t a massive, painful blur for me.

What we see from Luke is reasonable. We’re told he wants to be a pilot, and it’s something that he’s been training for. His initial goal is to leave Tatooine, and enroll at The Imperial Academy. He claims he’s “not such a bad pilot.” We’re later told that he’s been practicing precision shooting at high speed using a sub-orbital fighter. (It was later stated in background material that the T-16’s controls and handling were similar to the X-Wing, though I suspect Lucas was thinking of piloting as a kind of universal skill, and the connection between the T-16 and X-Wing were retrofitted on later.) We see Obi-Wan teaching him to use the force in a way that specifically sets up the trench run. The biggest offender here is, simply, that there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. When you dig into earlier drafts of the script, there were scenes outlined that couldn’t be shot in ’76/’77, so the resulting development was dumped back into exposition. As a writing decision, this is something you’d want to avoid, but when we’re talking about a film, shooting considerations may require less optimal solutions.

Switching the pronouns doesn’t fix anything. There are plenty of male Mary Sues, just like there are plenty of powerful female characters who are not Sues. A female version of Luke wouldn’t be a Mary Sue; a male version of Rey would still be one.

I don’t fault Rey for having an intuitive grasp of The Force. I fault her for having fully developed Force powers, and lightsaber proficiency, without training.

But…Rey does do force training? What the fuck? This is a strange post

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With whom? Han may believe in the existence of The Force, but he’s no Jedi. He can’t teach her how to use the force. She has no one to train with in The Force Awakens. You’re thinking of the second movie, That Which Shall Not Be Named, the rough draft from Rian Johnson where she gets her training with Luke. She fights Kylo in the first film completely unaided. This is where her Mary Sue rep comes from and why she never shakes it.

What she does is spontaneously manifest Force abilities. By that point, we had six films that hammered home the idea this not how you gain force powers. If that was the case, Vader’s crusade to exterminate the Jedi Order would have been fundamentally impossible, as the Order would be reinforced by spontaneous Jedi popping up. This retroactively makes all of Palpatine’s plotting from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi both pointless and incomprehensibly stupid. Makes you wonder why the Jedi need to recruit kids young if Jedi just pop up fully formed like daisies.

This is before we look at the lightsaber. That is an incredibly difficult, and dangerous to use, a weapon, which Rey has no problem operating, in spite of having no formal combat training of any kind. Much less fighting on an even keel with a trained Sith Lord who has been handling one for most of his life.

This is like a character who hears about the existence of martial arts, and then instantly gains advanced combat proficiency… by shadow boxing for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s a Mary Sue. (And, the comparison of Jedi training to martial arts comes Lucas himself.)

My point is: Rey is not the representation you’re looking for. There are a lot of fantastic, well-rounded, and well-acted female characters with a wide variety of personalities and outlooks in the science fiction genre if you’re willing to look for them. Daisy Ridley does her best, but she can’t save Rey. That’s unfortunate, but crying misogyny or trying to rewrite the films doesn’t help your argument stand up to scrutiny.

-Starke & Michi

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Followup: Practical History

Thank you for breaking down the types of martial art schools. My brother and I attended the same school, but our focus made us take different classes with different instructors. I was being bullied and hit every day, so I took a lot of sel-defense and practical applications classes. I still learned katas, but they were secondary to my goal. My brother learned how to do beautiful katas, but he hated getting in a ring. Outlook and preparedness is everything, and something people overlook.

You’re illustrating something that I accidentally skimmed over; almost any martial art can be taught with a practical outlook. This isn’t just things like Muay Thai, where the application is obvious, it includes martial arts you wouldn’t expect, like Tai-Chi.

The key here is having an instructor who can teach you to apply what you’re learning in a real world context.

Karate is an easy example to dogpile on. Almost all practitioners you’ll find today will be recreational ones. You will find a great many who can’t apply what they know outside of the Dojo. Except, Karate wasn’t developed for self-defense, it was developed for guerrilla warfare.

Karate is not a Japanese martial art, it’s Okinawan. It’s easy to conflate these now, but this becomes a very important distinction when you look at Karate’s history. Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan in the Nineteenth Century, and the original Japanese invasion and vassalization of Okinawa dates back to the early Seventeenth Century. (I’m skimming over a lot of the history; if you’re interested, you should read up on this.)

Because of this, the Japanese were seen as an occupying force, and Karate was specifically adapted to kill Samurai. (Okay, I’m being a little reductive here, Karate technically dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, though, much of what we have today is a result of these adaptations.)

The modern incarnation, dating back to the Japanese vassalization of Okinawa, is designed to interdict and preempt entire segments of a Samurai’s combat training. Not all of this will be relevant today, and I wouldn’t recommend a low strike to prevent your opponent from cross-drawing a gun, but it will directly block an Iaido practitioner’s draw. (Note: I’m extending the definition of, “modern Karate” further back than normal. “Modern Karate,” usually starts with the founding of Shotokan in the mid-twentieth century,)

When we’re talking self-defense, Karate’s probably not going to be the right tool for the job, But, this is a martial art that was originally developed to kill people, and some of that can still be applied to interrupt and disable an assailant. The underlying combat philosophy of preventing your opponent from attacking with preemptive strikes has real applications. If you can understand how to bring this stuff into the real world, it’s viable. However, because it requires staying ahead of your opponent, you really need to know what you’re doing. That’s the weakness, this was designed to deal with foes who would act in very predictable patterns. If you don’t know what your opponent will do before they act, the value suffers.

That’s an example I’m personally familiar with, however, there are a lot stories like this, where a martial art started out as a method to kill or incapacitate your foes, and has gradually transitioned into something else. Again, if this stuff interests you, read up on it. Some martial arts have fascinating histories.

-Starke

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