Category Archives: the Helpful Nerd
“If there was a Toys R Us closer than Etobicoke, we’d all have light sabers right now.”
-Alex Kerr, on our enjoyment of The Phantom Menace 3D
“So I saw the new Star Wars trailer last night and at the end, Darth Maul shows up and he strikes this pose,” he took the famous double lightsaber pose, “And then ignited TWO blades. So we’re going to practice our Darth Maul poses.” That sensei was awesome. I’m sure he went on to become Chuck Norris.
The trailer aired before Wing Commander, the atrocious Freddie Prinze Jr/Matthew Lillard space film based on the epic video game which ironically starred Mark Hamill.
But the trailer was incredible. Holy hell was this trailer incredible. The invasion force, the hover tanks, the promise of a two-on-one light saber fight. I didn’t know (or like) this Qui Gon Jinn idea (Obi Wan clearly states Yoda trained him…which is re-explained post-Phantom Menace in books as meaning that Yoda trains all the kids, then at Padawan level other Jedi take over, re-confirmed in Attack of the Clones) and all this talk of a Trade Federation seemed a farcry from the menace of the Empire. Also, my magazine had informed me that the first episode was to be about the Clone Wars, with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting clones. But wait, why was Anakin a child? Didn’t Obi Wan say that “he was the greatest star fighter pilot in the galaxy” when they met? Oh well, everything will be fine.
I was spending a lot of time at this point telling my friends about the prequel outlines I’d read in Star Wars Insider, about the Clone Wars and all the expanded universe knowledge I was bringing to the table, all the stories written, hints given in the films…I was stirring up a teenage nerd firestorm.
Despite how terrible Wing Commander was (and it was so very terrible), when I caught wind of it playing at the Colossus Theatre in IMAX (at that point, one of the biggest screens in Canada), I grabbed my friend Tomo and convinced him we needed to go see it. We were both pumped to see the trailer on the giant screen; it was exhilarating and well worth the 45 minute drive…until the film started without any trailers. We then got to watch IMAX-sized mediocrity and I had to apologize profusely for subjecting my friend to it (incidentally, this was one of the last times he and I hung out together; we had a great time despite the film but drifted apart soon thereafter. He passed away last year; he was a good friend and I miss him.)
When the preview toy, a Battle Droid on a STAP (those stand-up speeders from the invasion, Qui Gon “A-lot-more-fun-if-you-imagine-he’s-Liam-Neeson-from-Taken” Jinn wrecks a few at the start of the film) came out, I bought it immediately and my imagination ignited with all the possibilities of this awesome looking robot on a flying gun platform. This film was going to be amazing.
They released the toys a week before the film: I bought one of each, everyone from Jar Jar Binks (there was a time when I was excited for Jar Jar-was he going to be like Chewie?) to Darth Maul (the most sought after figure) to Ric Olie. Remember Ric Olie?
Of course you don’t, nor should you. He’s the random pilot who tells Anakin how to fly a ship and then is our generic pilot point-of-contact for the space battle. I assumed he was going to be Han Solo. Surely there would be a kick-ass pilot, right? All the action figures came with bases that had voice clips; you had to buy a big reader for them (built to look like a Jedi communicator) which in turn led to an encyclopedic knowledge of random lines.
The graphic novel came out three days before the film; it took every ounce of nerd willpower to NOT read it cover-to-cover before the film. I wanted to wait. And then it opened.
Anyone who’s seen the film knows the problems that followed. The endless exposition, the stilted dialogue, the uneven pacing, the casual racism, the forgettable supporting characters, the vague story, the gut-wrenchingly terrible performance by a horrendously mischaracterized Anakin Skywalker (featuring Jake Lloyd somehow making bad lines worse.), and to a Star Wars fan, flagrant disregard for the established mythology (the aforementioned issues about Obi Wan not choosing to train Anakin, previously established as an act of hubris, now established as fulfilling the wishes of his dying master…vastly different things) and a tonal shift that was quite jarring (although Return of the Jedi was kid friendly, Phantom Menace‘s lazy humour -Jar Jar stepped in poo! A creature farted!- made the Ewoks look like Scarface.). As a kid, A New Hope captured my imagination because it was dark and serious (though still fun and adventurous). This represented (to my audience mind) a fundamental misunderstanding by Lucas of what kids wanted to see and a blatant disregard for the fans.
Leaving the theatre, I was riding high from the Darth Maul fight, which was (and is) the realization of everything I wanted and imagined it would be (due in large part to John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” theme, which pretty much justifies the entire new trilogy) And I remember declaring, “That was the greatest movie I’ve ever seen!” But then I started to process it and it all started falling apart. I was passionately arguing to people that Palpatine and Darth Sideous couldn’t be the same person, that it was too obvious. I had a great idea that Palpatine was Sideous’ clone (think about it, AWESOME). My aunt bet me he was Sideous. I still owe her a book for losing the bet.
Hmm…you know, when I cover the top of his face, he kinda looks like that evil guy with the great hood disguise…
I had far more faith in Lucas than was warranted, in large part because I had grown used to the much deeper and better written universe that existed beyond his movies. Having fully immersed myself in the books (particularly the incredible Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn…which introduced Coruscant to the Star Wars universe, incidentally.) I was expecting more of the story than Lucas was willing to give and this bothered me to no end.
It’s taken me a long time to come back to The Phantom Menace but watching it the other night, I really and truly enjoyed it. I didn’t mean to, but there I was. It was fun, funny, exciting, and surprisingly deep all of a sudden…part of this was nostalgia, but there was more than that: what I realized, watching the film was that in the time since that first viewing, I had engaged personally with the world it created beyond the film: I read the novelization, played the video games, played with the action figures-had created my own stories, my own worlds. And all these memories, stories, and adventures in turn folded back into the film. I never realized how deeply I’d engaged with the universe presented, but here I was knowing every line (and the delivery, thanks to the crappy voice toy) and feeling the Battle of Naboo and the pod race more intensely because of the games I’d played.
The 3D doesn’t add a whole hell of a lot to this film, but during the Podrace, I felt like I was playing the game again, which I have done with friends all over the country and enjoyed so thoroughly. I recognized every racer, every pod, how the damage and heating systems worked, and when it was in the cockpit, I actually felt exhilarated. The 3D brought me back to all those great times and though the film hasn’t improved my feelings about it have changed vehemently.
Same goes for the space fight; it’s short and lazy and Anakin presses the wrong button (explained in the book as a subtle suggestion by the Force. Boo-urns) and isn’t fantastic. But there was a great PS2 game called Starfighter set in this period which culminated in chasing the final boss through the droid control ship as it was exploding. It was a fantastic level, very exciting, and appropriately epic. Watching the film, that is what my mind went to and I was flooded with memories of how exciting that level was; in a sense that was the scene I experienced as the lazy film version toddled along.
This experience was repeated throughout, having wandered around a variety of planets in Old Republic I felt like i was visiting a familiar place and enjoyed it. On Naboo, I remembered playing a number of fantastic scenes in Battlefront 2 (an incredible war game set in the Star Wars universe) shooting droids and Gungans with equal glee. I was reminded of my first Dungeons and Dragons game, from the Star Wars RPG starter kit, set during the invasion of Naboo with my cousin and I trying to figure out how the hell the dice rolling system worked. All these were part of my film experience, though they were no where on the screen.
And finally, Jar Jar Binks, that awful, awful creature; when I told my Dad about this experience, he reminded me that the only way he knew the character was from an action figure movie series I shot one Christmas called Han and Jar Jar at the Movies where I used my Han Solo and Jar Jar action figures to act out a variety of film parodies (only children at Christmas away from home…it’s how we roll). The floppy eared mistrial has become a part of my legacy and visa versa (at least for my Dad). The character is no less annoying or offensive, but somehow now I can “claim this creature of darkness as mine own”. (That’s rife with post-Colonial importance too…look it up.)
And in addition to all these things running through my head, I was with good company and that, too, made all the difference. We’re all twenty-something guys raised on Star Wars and we engaged in the film like it was a pantomime. It was more like watching a cult B-Movie than a theatrical re-release. We knew all the lines, we laughed at the terrible bits, cheered the good bits (lightsaber fights, the Podrace, Samuel L. Jackson, our mutual love of Natalie Portman…also, note to Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan in 3D…we’ll buy a million tickets.) and groaned frequently at awful things. It was closer to a screening of Rocky Horror or The Room (Jake Lloyd and Tommy Wiseau might be related, they deliver lines the same way) than Star Wars, but that made it great. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Star Trek: The Original Series‘ cheesiest moments (the double punch, the Gorn captain, Clint Howard, that horrific Shore Leave episode) in that it seems like a less refined, sillier version of the original Star Wars movies (original Trek is, of course, much deeper and better than Phantom Menace, but there are still those laugh-out-loud LOL moments of wackiness and bad performances or lines; Phantom Menace is like if you cut all those scenes together into a film). This is, of course, ironic since Phantom Menace was made so long after the original trilogy that it should, in theory, have benefited the way Next Generation did, but instead it’s best to view these newer films as the campy counterparts to the classics. If taken like the Adam West Batman, it can be quite enjoyable, whereas my original viewing had me expecting Christopher Nolan Batman.
So, my advice if you’re a Star Wars fan or a campy B-Movie/Sci-fi fan, grab some buddies and go see the film. Be vocal, relax and revel in the terrible writing. Let yourself have fun. The big learning that my 1999-era self taught me was that the film itself will not bring a great experience; but if we bring our fun to the film, if we engage with it and merge our experiences with it’s presentation, we can have a great time experiencing The Phantom Menace.
You need to engage the film, not watch it.
Hey-ho, faithful reader! This is the start of the new format for the Helpful Nerd; since I realize a lot of you might be familiar with the subject matter of the Nerd Topic in question, I’ve decided to separate my personal experience with said Nerd Topic into the first section of the post while going into the gritty details of the Topic afterwards. So, if you’re just curious to hear my take on the Nerd Topic, feel free to ride off into the sunset after the first section, or, if you are here for help understanding why the hell your boyfriend/girlfriend/roommate/delightfully-eccentric-uncle/Siri-enabled phone is so into this particular Nerd Topic, read on into the second section for terms and a basic breakdown of what the damn thing is. Enjoy!
How I learned to stop worrying and love Magic cards.
Requested by Nyree Macpherson
It was the summer of ’96 (not a dyslexic moment), and I was visiting my buddy Russ in Vancouver. Russ was always one step ahead of the curve in my eyes, he liked Metallica before I did, bought me my first rock CD (Big Shiny Tunes 2, an eternal favourite; Song 2 -which is also track 2, incidentally- by Blur was the coolest thing I had ever heard in my life, ever.) and I would always glean new interests from Russ that I would quietly stow when I got back to Mississauga, as my friend groups had other interests. In ’96 it was all about the marbles. Russ had gotten me into them the year before (I visited every summer) and we’d spent the summer of ’96 rocking out with said marbles. It was pretty sweet.
But there was a dark cloud on the horizon. I distinctly remember still being super excited about the marbles I only busted out once a year in Vancouver, but Russ was out of sorts.
“No one at school wants to play marbles anymore,” my world began to shake, “They’re all into these stupid magic cards now.”
My first thought:
At the end of the summer, I took my marbles and went home. The next summer, Russ had defected. The magic cards, as it turns out looked like this:
Magic: The Gathering to be precise, by Wizards of the Coast (whose success with this franchise allowed them to later buy the rights to Dungeons and Dragons). It is a collectible card game that casts the players in the roles of powerful wizards (called Planeswalkers) who draw power from the elements (using Land cards to produce ‘mana’) to summon creatures and cast spells with the goal of defeating the other player by reducing their Life total to zero. At its core, that’s the game. There are a shit tonne of extra rules that have been layered on over the years (Wizards of the Coast quickly realized that they needed to make each edition of the game make the prior one obsolete so as to continue to sell cards). But ultimately, that’s it. There’s also the joy of trading and hunting rare cards, often by flipping through binders at comic book stores or buying ‘booster packs’ of random cards and hoping for gold.
My experience with Magic was great most of the time, but then went a bit sour. My friends in Vancouver and I (and then a couple intrepid folks in Mississauga) spent countless hours hunting cards, choosing what to put in our decks, and playing games and making occasionally heartbreaking trades. Then the updates started coming fast and furious, and we realized we were being had by the company (which would render our favourite cards and decks useless every other month) so we quit, for a time.
Then they started releasing pre-made decks and all my friends in Mississauga got back into it. I reluctantly followed suit, vowing not to buy any more cards…and then ate my words, diving back in head first. For a time this was awesome, but then the problems began: since my previous brush with Magic this new-fangled thing called the Internet had become much more accessible and thus strategy was not longer found through trial and error, or passed about through word-of-mouth, but looked up. Cards had also become easier to find, for better or worse, and my love of hunting for that one awesome card you’d heard about was killed by an increased supply. Instead of luck, now you needed money; which in turn led to a pretty sharp division amongst my friend group. Some had disposable income at their disposal to stack their deck with anything they wanted, others of us (myself included, as I was also spending cash on video games and Warhammer…yep, rock star.) who spent little on buying specific cards and thus began to fall behind the curve. The cards also became increasing absurd, as Wizards of the Coast tried to one-up their previous cards: it went from old cards with powerful, but limited, powers to a particularly memorable: “If this creature damages you, you lose the game” card essentially declaring the Age of Reason dead and the era of Absurd Super Bullshit a go.
And then came the ‘proxy’ cards, which were cards my friends would print themselves (eat it, SOPA), that stuck it to the system and made the game affordable, but drained any last remnant of scarcity, making every combination possible; with balancing the game through scarcity of the best cards gone, the ‘now I have infinite life’ combos began…which basically broke the game. It became a game of one-up-manship as professionally designed tournament decks became the norm, rather than the patchwork labours of love that my earliest decks were. It was a disappointing commercialization of the game and stripped away the individualistic quality I enjoyed so much. That did it for me.
I’ve still got my cards, though-if anybody wants a game…?
The Helpful Nerd Presents: A Primer on Magic the Gathering
There are a number of card types in Magic, but the two I’m going to go over are creatures and lands.
Here’s the breakdown of a creature card:
A lot of these are tiny works of art, with beautifully painted dark fantasy images and often witty flavor text. For a long time, there was a running plot in the Magic universe that played out on the cards and in books, some of which were incredibly fun fantasy epics. They’ve since redesigned the cards to more closely resemble their major competition, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! which is a damn shame. In the early days, I liked feeling like I was part of something more mature and dark, now it’s a bit too cartoony for my taste.
The casting cost refers to how many land cards (see below) need to be used to cast the creature. The icons refer to specific types of land (the water drop means islands) the grey can be any colour.
The special abilities affect how the creature works; in this case the creature has Flying which means only a flying creature can block it.
The flavour text is a little passage to flesh out the story of the game and the cards.
The attack/defense scores refer to how much damage the card does when it attacks and how much damage it can receive.
These are essentially the currency of Magic, you ‘Tap’ these (the most common action in Magic, involving turning your card on its side to denote that it has been used, or what you aim to do after picking up a hot Magic card after a few drinks at the bar) to generate mana which is spent to cast cards from your hand. There are five basic types which correspond to the different deck colours:
Colours of Magic
There are five, associated with different elements and themes:
-Black: Swamps, necrotic and undead, destruction based spells
-White: Plains, Healing and defense, angels and knights
-Green: Forests, Abundant creatures and mana, jungle creatures and elves
-Red: Mountains, Fire, destruction, goblins and dwarves
-Blue: Islands, Spells, water, tricks and illusions
Players draw a hand from the deck they have constructed beforehand and then each take turn playing cards. Each turn you are able to put down one new land card and then as many things as you have mana to cast. Turn by turn, you play creatures, enchantments, and spells and use them to either attack the other player (who is given a starting life value of 20) or to attack/interfere with the opponents’ creatures. If a player is attacked, they can opt to block with a creature or cast immediate effect spells to stop or reverse the attack and all manner of hijinks result. The game ends when only one player remains. Then comes the grumbling, changing of decks, and commencement of another game, or possibly the purchasing of many, many more cards.
When attacking, you select a creature or creatures to attack with and declare that you are attacking. Creatures have an attack and defense score, denoting how much damage they can give and receive. So, if I attack you with a 1/1 and you fail to block, you will take 1 point of damage. When you defend with a creature, the two deal damage to each other instead of to the player, so if my 2/2 attacks and you defend with a 1/1, my creature deals 2 to yours, yours deals 1 to me, so your creature dies and mine wins, but deals no damage to you as a player. If yours was also a 2/2, they would destroy each other. If a creature survives a fight, it heals back up to full defense following the fight, so my 2/2 that took 1 damage in the fight is back up to a 2/2.
There is a huge variety of ways to go about winning, whether it’s hammering your opponent with a blitzkrieg of tiny monsters or just messing with your opponent’s ability to play cards while you whittle them away. The style and tactics are up to you and chosen before the game by altering the structure of your deck.
To sum up:
Magic is a collectible, competitive card game, where two players face off with epic powers and abilities, in an attempt to destroy each other.
Like the Republican Primaries…but with cards.
Dungeons and Dragons. There is perhaps no greater mystery to non-nerds than what would possess someone to play D&D; but at the same time the game itself is often a mystery. A lot of people I’ve spoken to about it just know that it involves dice, nerdiness, and possibly takes place in a basement. Here’s my experience with D&D: Dungeons and Dragons is an experience in mutual storytelling, where the players themselves help shape and craft a fantasy story, world, and characters often by verbally acting out scenes. It’s part board game, part improv, part storytelling ritual, but all very social. When it’s done right, it’s an incredible experience that creates awesome tales of adventure and intrigue written and experienced collectively by you and your friends. So how do you play the damn thing?
In a word, dice.
Thanks for reading! Next week, on…I guess there’s more…
D&D is a co-operative game for an indeterminate about of players (although 4-6 is ideal) and a referee known as the Dungeon Master or ‘DM.’ The DM sets the scene and then the players describe what they would like to do and then the dice, rules, and everything else exist as conflict resolution devices, whether there is a battle to work out (did you hit the enemy? Did they hit you? How much damage did you do?) or in conversation (did you convince the guard to give you the keys? Tell you the code?) or in adventure (did you diffuse the trap? Did you manage to climb the wall?). The actual dice rolls are used to determine success or failure of a particular task. If you roll above a certain number (adding the bonuses given to you by your skills, abilities, powers, and weapons) than you succeed. These numbers vary from situation-to-situation, with some rolls being easy, some rolls being difficult, and some being downright impossible. The dice used include everything from a 4-sided die (D4), a standard six-sided die (D6) right on up to the most commonly used die in D&D the twenty-sided D20. Using these rolls and their own narrative voice, the players move through the scenario the DM has set up and gain experience points, which allow the characters to level up and become better, adding new skills, powers, and abilities to their character.
So, what exactly is a DM and what does she or he do?
THE DUNGEON MASTER
The DM’s role is to craft a series of scenarios such as battles, dialogues, puzzles, and events for the players to experience. The DM also establishes the story of the game, either by using a pre-written ‘module’ (sold by Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D) or by writing their own. This is a very creative and incredibly important role, equal parts living rulebook, referee, storyteller, and opponent. It’s a tricky balancing act, particularly since the DM controls all the enemies; your goal as a DM is to ensure that the players have a great experience which often means that you lose. A good DM stows their ego at the door, but maintains a competitive attitude to challenge the players without dominating them.
Sorry to disappoint you, the Gimp.
The players have each used the rulebook to build a character. This is done by choosing a race and gender for your character, skills they excel at (such as athletics, languages, stealth, etc), feats (special abilities that help customize your character), and powers (such as spells and special attacks), as well as weapons and armour. The player also determines their character’s statistics, which will affect how good the character is at various things: are they strong? Wise? Charismatic? Once all of these details have been sorted out, the player brings their completed characters to the game session and begin to develop the character’s personality. This is usually done through an initial ‘introduction,’ where the players describe their characters, what they look like, and what their basic personality is. This is one of the many things that separates D&D from a regular board game; it asks its players to assume the psychology of the character’s build and apply that to their in-game actions. Only fairly recently has this ability to alter a character’s trajectory started figuring into mainstream video games, with multiple choice options such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age (with previous games of this type often being D&D related, such as Neverwinter Nights, Baulder’s Gate, and Planescape Torment.)
This element of role-playing is one of the things that attracts both nerds and actors in a big way: for nerds, it’s a chance to slip on a different persona. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean “everyone plays a one-line slinging ladies’ man” it simply means getting to speak, think, and act (in game) in a different manner than yourself. Like reading a fantasy novel, it’s escapism, but self guided. In a sense, like a lucid dream, where you are in control of your actions but often in a more fun and exciting way than day-to-day life. It offers a large degree of control and achievement and can lend a sense of power and guidance to a player who feels they lack it in their personal life. When I was most directionless in life, just after moving to Toronto, feeling overwhelmed by the sudden freedom of being out of school and lacking both routine and an immediate goal, I found myself playing a lot of D&D. That certainly isn’t to say the only reason people play the game is to fill various voids in their life; it’s a fun, involved board game, and rarely fills all these roles in people’s lives as described, it’s merely one of the facets of the game and its popularity. For actors, it’s a chance to improvise a lot and to get to apply all their character work skills to something fun and self written. I have seldom laughed nearly as much as I have playing D&D with actors. It adds a lot of flavour and depth to the narrative.
THE AVERAGE SESSION
Well, there isn’t one. D&D can be played in many ways, from a straight board game, to a fully involved, in-character session. Usually, they fall somewhere in the middle; in my experience with D&D different players each have a style to which they like to adhere, some engage in conversations in-character, others describe what their character would say (“So, my character asks the barkeep…”)
There are a lot of barkeeps in D&D.
And similarly, DMs have differing styles as well, with some preferring to run the story as written, or others creating vast worlds of their own invention.
For me, I’ve played everywhere from a cafe in high school, to a friend of mine’s apartment where he cooked us a gourmet, three course meal, while plying us with exotic beer all whilst throwing dragons at us to kill. A lot of people, who can’t find a game session amongst friends, play at hobby stores. I even played over MSN Messenger once (which was horrendous). So there really is no rule for an average game, style, or group of players. It’s whoever you have a good time playing with that matters.
IN CONCLUSION: IT’S ALL ABOUT…
Monica would be a terrifying DM.
For me, a successful session just requires are good friends, good food and drink, and a good time. The social element has always been the most important, in my view, and one often lost on outsiders. It’s not just about rolling dice and moving through a board, it’s about getting together with your friends an engage in an adventure together. To this day, friends of mine and I who I have gamed with will recollect ridiculous things that we made our characters do, or epic things that happened in game. These stories are memories we share and recall like favourite moments from a movie or tv show.
It’s a great time to be a nerd right now, with everything nerds love becoming mainstream (Star Wars Adidas gear?) but what’s always been funny to me is how nerd interests are so often viewed as anti-social. For me, D&D has always been an incredibly social game, a chance to hang out with my friends and invent a story together.
Like TJ discovered in that Daggers and Dungeons episode of Recess.
I’ll be touching on this more in future posts, but I think it’s an important concept to earmark now: Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in collective storytelling and without the other people, it just couldn’t happen.
And so ends our primer on D&D. The Helpful Nerd is a brand new segment, so please let me know if this answered your questions about D&D and what you would like to see covered in future!
Wizards of the Coast: These are the guys behind Dungeons and Dragons these days and have tonnes of things they’d love to see you on their site!
Community s2 e14 “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”: This episode is actually a perfect depiction of how D&D should work and is all kinds of awesome forever, because this show is like that. Here’s a clip.
Penny Arcade and PVP Dungeons and Dragons Podcast: Want to know what happens when hilarious people (like Will “Wesly Crusher” Weaton!) play Dungeons and Dragons? Listen to these epic, hilarious adventure to understand how awesome D&D can be. (Start with the earlier ones, they’re better).
Star Wars Adidas Ad: This blows my nerd mind.
Recess s3 e10 “Lord of the Nerds”: TJ gets to know the ‘Pale Kids’ who stay inside at Recess playing Daggers and Dungeons. Awesome.