AKA Why One Piece Succeeded While Cowboy Bebop Failed?
It's no secret that I'm a big nerd. I grew up with Toonami as my first real introduction - if you don't count waking up early to watch Ronin Warriors before it got dubbed into Cartoon Network's lineup - to anime. That means that I'm from the Dragonball Z/Gundam Wing/Outlaw Star sensibilities.
It also means that I fell in love with the music of Inuyasha, the magic of Princess Mononoke, and the masterclass of Cowboy Bebop. Especially in the realm of these last three, I've written and published dissertations and analysis' on story structure, musical theming, and music as a character.
Cowboy Bebop remains a pinnacle of modern, compressed storytelling. Sure, there are some silly moments, but the freneticism when it arrives is really a product of the human lens - all these worlds and colonies, filled with interesting, colorful people. Much like the Wild West, you're going to have moments where the characters can regard the crazies, shrug, and move on.
...That DOESN'T MEAN that those moments were the core of the show. In fact, they were essential points of levity in an otherwise jagged and tragic narrative. These are people with vices, lingering pasts, vengeance... I'm going to go into detail on specific story points concerning our main cast, so if you haven't seen the full anime for Cowboy Bebop, I suggest you skip down to the giant asterisk (*).
The plot in Cowboy Bebop assumes, among many things, a passage of time between episodes. The characters grow, but we're not with them moment to moment. So these punctuated vignettes rarely connect time-wise cut to cut, while their themes and character branches are consistent. And that's the thing: CHARACTER. You have to nail the characters; the moment a character acts out of place with their core principles and abilities, a fan will be ejected from the story.
Spike Spiegel - an intelligent, savvy, and quick-witted scoundrel with a good heart. Though he can get in over his head, Spike is quick on his feet and believes in people, even when they disappoint him. He practices both the martial disciplines (Jeet Kune Do) and philosophy of Bruce Lee, easily put on display anytime there's a well-animated fist fight. We learn slowly through a peppering of clashes and a lattice of converging paths that Spike used to be a part of a crime syndicate, and left when he faked his own death. He is haunted by memories of a woman named Julia, who we learn he feel in love with. His rival, Vicious, shows up only a few times in the show; instead of being a prolonged villain, his scarcity breeds intense mystery and malevolence, so whenever he arrives, their confrontation never overstays its welcome.
Jet Black - a tall, muscular ex-cop turned bounty hunter, Jet serves as Spike's foil during the series. Hard-working, Jet thinks himself more of a renaissance man, collecting skills and connections to better catch the bad guys. During a bad job as a cop, he was critically wounded and chose to have a robotic arm replace his own as a reminder of his mistakes - biological replacements were available, but he refused. Jet is very much a man of principles and work-ethic; he hates to see people give in to their base desires, and is the strong "Dad" of the group trying to keep his strange family together.
Faye Valentine - Faye has to have one of the deepest backstories spiraling that I've seen. In the anime, she is often the eye candy without being flaunted (the lens isn't weird about it). A woman who is used to getting what she wants, Faye is resourceful, a great pilot, and an expert in firearms. She also has her own vices: drinking, gambling, lying, and money problems in general. Most of her predicaments revolve around debt and lies. Her main arc revolves around developing trust in her crew, her friends, but especially in Spike. The two with probably the most layered pasts who clash often, also hold unspoken care for one another - though their time is shorter than anyone thinks.
The tragedy of Faye is that she is an amnesiac, who also was cryogenically frozen for over 50 years, and upon waking, felt the immense betrayal of owing debt for an action that was out of her control. So she re-enters a world alien to her, burdened with debt no human could ever pay, and is forced to rebuild her entire identity.
Ed & Ein - everyone loves Ein, the super-intelligent "data dog" and the Best Good Boy around. "Ed" on the other hand, is a genius teenager who is distractible, strange, and absolutely off-the-wall. Abandoned by her equally intelligent, but distracted father, Ed finds a home of sorts with the crew, acting as their hacker and researcher, if she can stop speaking in rhyme long enough to make a coherent thought. The anime's dedicated comedy relief, just as with anything else, Ed carries some intense layers of abandonment, but much like her rarely seen father, doesn't let it bother her.
What I Struggled With In The Netflix Adaptation*
I watched the first episode and though I was giving the show my benefit-of-the-doubt, something felt off. As I reached episode 4 (perhaps longer than others gave it, I know, but I was collecting data), a few things became clear.
1) There's a lot more of Vicious. When Vicious shows up in the anime, he is goddamn terrifying. Faye meets him early in on, and she has no idea who he is...and he horrifies her. The vibe he gives off shocks her into silent fear. Netflix Vicious...is a bit of a whiny brat when he first arrives. He wants a lot of power and has daddy issues, and is easily manipulated by Julia. Sometimes, less is more. In the anime, he's not in charge (at least not yet), but he is certainly confident in his strikes and agendas, staging an elaborate coup late in the show. This version shows a more chaotic depth to Vicious, revealing his own instabilities. We even get some syndicate flashbacks, which I honestly craved from the anime.
2) With more Vicious, they added more Julia. - Julia is an excellent character, but more screen time in this adaptation also created strange interactions in the beginning. Loaded screen time away from other character developments, and padded Game of Thrones manipulations. ...Which I...guess I just wasn't in to at first. And yet, it grew on me.
3) The episodes sometimes feel too long. The writing doesn't feel tight; instead filling scenes with other bloated elements (like Jet's daughter, a fabrication of the adaptation).
4) Julia commits to a pretty gnarly heel turn in the last episode, which cements her character as one fully departed from the anime and manga. Then again, that's true of most of the characters by the close of the season.
HOWEVER, none of these are damning offenses. As the show hits its stride, and viewers (like myself) stop expecting it to BE the anime, you can begin to enjoy what the show does do right, which is quite a lot, despite the vocal minority.
John Cho and Mustafa Shakir have good chemistry, and personify (most of the time) the right dynamic of character. The cast interacts well enough, but feel disjointed until about Episode 8 - Sad Clown A-Go-Go, when they finally begin to jive and the show seems to embrace its style.
Sets and world-building are strong where it counts, and scenes between most characters feel organic after the episode 6 mark, like the show gains momentum as it goes. We even crescendo and build tension with a manner of skill toward the Ballad of Fallen Angels fight. Episode 9 is my favorite of the season, finally offering a depth and lens to the series, like a pre-show short story. A great slice of sci-fi noir.
Cowboy Bebop is lauded as an anime that weaves between multiple genres while offering thematic through-lines. It is clear that this was what they were going for in the adaptation, I just feel that they spun their wheels a little in the beginning. I was rewarded with a satisfying story by the end, but I fear the attention span of the average streaming viewer and their ineptitude to form their own opinions in the face of the angry minority contributed to this show being cancelled. Do I prefer the solo showdown of Spike vs syndicate gunners in a church while melancholy jazz plays? Hell yes. But can't both exist without it being the butcher of your childhood?
Hate on HBO's Velma, not this.
Why One Piece Is An Excellent Adaptation
For mental health reasons, I turned off notifications for Nerdrotic, Critical Drinker, and many more of our complainers upon the inter webs in favor of forming my own opinions upon finished artistic works. It has saved me from both speculation and spoilers concerning new content, so I might be happily surprised when I see a live-action One Piece adaptation!
And let me tell you, as a long-standing fan of the entire anime, that I PREFER the adaptation to the anime.
I - Character First
From the get-go, we are introduced to a world rife with possibilities, and introduced to Luffy (played by Inaki Godoy), who proclaims his dream to become "king of the pirates." This actor successfully embodies the enthusiasm, startling faith in himself and dreams of others, and the carefree anti-stealth of the manga's Monkey D. Luffy. Immediately spot-on rendition. In fact, every character introduced fits the spirit of their portrayal while also adapting. I absolutely ADORE this cast; they are perfect.
II - Setup, Payoff, and Pacing
One Piece is a GIGANTIC manga and anime with over 1000 episodes and multiple films, there's A LOT of...fluff. Let's be honest. As a serial anime weekly shoved out, and airing from 1999 to at least 2019, the animation definitely looks it. Big characters, weird proportions, super exaggerated expressions, crazy world building, and tons upon tons of scenarios to keep the show going. I am a child of that time, and know full well that one piece's animation and style is a lot closer to the 80s structure - everyone knows there are dozens of "beach episodes" sprinkled between actual, thoughtful story.
The first major arc in One Piece is 61 episodes long, and ends with the reclamation of a beloved crew member and the liberation of a town. With tight writing and thoughtful editing...that's the whole first season in this adaptation. You'd think that we'd be cutting out truly important beats, but actually this is a superb example of Beginning with the End in Mind.
When you're producing an anime without an ending, you do your level best to draw things out as long as possible. Dragonball Z did it so much back in the day that it's now a meme. One Piece 10x'ed this crap. Why so many characters that don't add much in the long run squished between characters that do? Padding the runtime. But with the end in mind, a good team can pare down the fluff and get to the best moments, and pace them so that they're earned.
Every character gets their moment - earned tear jerkers, badass reveals, actually seeing character relationships develop and change, and a treasure trove of subtle easter eggs for all us fans without alienating anyone new. In only these 8 episodes, we meet the main cast of Luffy, Zoro (Mackenyu), Nami (Emily Rudd), Usopp (Jacob Romero), and even Sanji (Tan Skylar), with a great long-standing focus on Coby, and get to see the first additions to our "rogue's gallery" with Alvida, Buggy, Kuro, Mihawk, and Arlong. And the best part? It all feels smooth and easily enjoyed. Chemistry is great among these actors, and I couldn't be happier with our villains; Buggy is menacing in this rendition, and his connection to Shanks is put in the forefront of his characterization; Kuro is terrifying here, and the actor has his mannerisms DOWN. I know in the manga that Arlong is HUGE, but here he FEELS big; presence of character translates much better than a CGI mess.
And looking through the writer's lens with the whole of the story to choose from, this team selects perfectly where and when to show an easter egg vs a conversation vs a flashback, all for its momentum; some subtle, others big, and all being important. Nothing feels drawn out or wasteful either, something I felt the anime suffer from often.
III - Action On Point
Roronoa Zoro is my favorite character to watch fight people (fantastic sword work), with Sanji at a close second. Both actors absolutely sell it and have clearly put in tremendous physical work to do so practically. The second fight we see Zoro he's owning a set of marines in a bar using mostly his hilt and a half-drawn blade; it's stunning to witness. In fact, the cinematography and camera work does a fantastic job in applying weight and speed to characters, so you feel every impact, especially from characters like Arlong or Axehand. I have found myself rewinding episodes just to watch the fight again because the actors were so impressive. Cannot wait for a rematch with Dracule Mihawk.
IV - Music On Point
From the anime, I barely noticed the show's music, save for it's opening theme, but I've purchased this score (by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli) for myself and listened to it multiple times. I love the theme, and how the composers honored the anime opening as a literal track in at least two episodes, plus made a specific stinger for ever-changing title card at the beginning of each episode. They explore numerous instrumentations and have a penchant for guitar, as well as variations on the main theme, so much that one can just listen to the soundtrack on its own and still tell a story. Just solid.
V - Keep the Details, Center on Character Arcs
No filler episodes. What can you accomplish when you know what's coming? What relationships should be cultivated, and others minimized? What story points are central motivating factors for each character and their dreams, while still being compelling?
I prefer this approach. The story feels stronger and smoother, and in an age where we look for story beats and arcs, for setup and payoff, this delivers over and over again while never sacrificing the spirit and integrity of these characters.
It's worth it. Give it a watch.
...And no one cares about Luffy's sandals...
Sometimes it's okay to just like things.
Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast-
My favorite summoned-demon-to-a-victorious-ravenous-war-band-of-gnolls is on the table this week!
A Shoosuva is a hyena-demon gifted by Yeenoghu (the gnoll god) to an especially powerful Gnoll (typically a Fang). A Shoosuva manifests shortly after a Yeenoghu-centric war party achieves a great victory, emerging from a billowing, fetid cloud of smoke as it arrives from its "air dnd" in the Abyss. In battle, the Shoosuva clamps its jaws around one victim while striking out with the poisonous stinger on its tail to bring down another. A creature immobilized by the poison becomes easy pickings for the savage gnolls nearby.
Each Shoosuva is bonded to a particular favored Gnoll of Yeenoghu and fights alongside its master. A gnoll that has been gifted with a shoosuva is second only to a Flind in status, and carries with them a sense of dread for any who oppose the approaching slaughter.
Let's Go A Little Deeper
Shoosuvas have a history deeper than 5th Edition.
With the prevalence of the gnoll in Dungeons and Dragons legacy, the Shoosuva went hand in hand, though their art has certainly evolved.
An artist's example of the emaciated, nearly humanoid Shoosuva from 1st Edition Dungeons and Dragons.
By 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the Shoosuva are much more...furry.
But I prefer its most recent rendition in 5th Edition. The patchwork fur, as if striated from a living corpse; the exposed rib cage, with light emanating from within, so when the thing opens its maw, the nauseating yellow glow from within pours out, the last thing a victim sees before it chomps down on their head. Leprous throats, glowing and bloated eyes, and vicious, jagged teeth...don't you just wanna' hug him?
You'll have to stand on your tippy-toes - these good boys are 6 feet tall, with a series of bony spikes and ridges running up the spine, ending in a glistening, barbed tail with a poisonous stinger (which causes paralysis). Super fun. You want one of your own? Then you'd better stock up on spare carrion, as this thing's favorite food is rancid meat. Though you might be able to coax it with your wit and wiles, as, especially by gnoll standards, these things are pretty smart (Int 6-8), but not THAT smart.
Getting a cleric on your side to turn or tame one might be a wasted effort, too. Though they look undead, their forms seemingly powered by that necrotic light within their torsos, their demonic lineage grants them the tell-tale resistances to such radiance, along with the standards of energy damage - most are resistant or immune to things like Lightning, Fire, Poison, and Cold, not-to-mention that ever-tricky "damage from non-magical weapons" deal.
By the numbers, a Shoosuva is a hefty beast for most middle-level adventurers, and a deadly encounter for young parties. Thing is, they're rarely alone; fighting alongside a gnoll war band and, most likely, a seasoned gnoll warrior who's a cut above their fellows. Their demonic nature cuts most damage in half and you can kiss that charm spell goodbye. Their natural armor isn't amazing, but they make up for it with a boatload of hit points and an extra attack. Plus, they share the gnoll's iconic Rampage ability, so the moment the wizard goes down, you can bet he's coming for your cleric next. The thing to really watch out for is its Tail Stinger - it's got a 10-15 foot reach, rocking d8s in damage, and a nasty Constitution save or be PARALYZED (hits become crits, yo). Creatures can repeat the saving throw at the end of their turns, if they survive that long.
How Much Is That Demon In The Window?
Alighted in the face of battle, Shoosuva charge in with savagery and wild abandon, pulling in as many foes as possible to rend asunder. A Shoosuva fighting alongside their bonded Gnoll will coordinate dangerous and vicious tactics, alternating from riding and vaulting the wild Gnoll into foes, feinting with their poisonous tail while the Gnoll fells attackers immobilized by the venom. Nasty stuff.
In a war band's hierarchy, a Shoosuva's companion answered only to a Flind, but even that could be usurped in the loose tribal nature of a Gnoll pack.
If you were to summon a Shoosuva directly, without the chosen of Yeenoghu, a powerful shaman could acquire instructions on how to summon their hyenadon companion - some induce visions by gorging on bad mushrooms and wandering the wastes, while others keen on linguistics may yet uncover the sparse written tomes on slabs of rock in the deep, dark caves of precursor war bands. Often the ritual involves taking the skull of a previous shaman or witch doctor, carving it into the shape of a hyena skull, then smashing it onto the ground; if it's favorable, the current shaman may utter Yeenoghu's name, opening a gate to call the Shoosuva. But these fine puppies only hang around for an hour or until slain, and do not bond to any favored warrior.
You could, of course, attempt to just ask Yeenoghu directly. Pray really hard, and maybe he'll port in a Shoosuva to hang out and solve a little problem you've been having. You could do that...though even the most faithful will get silence, or worse, they get a Shoosuva who promptly kills them for being unable to solve their own problems. If you are graced with a new puppy pal, the thing would only stay for minutes or even seconds; just long enough to maul a paladin or two, and then he's outsville.
Shoosuva in Ionian Lore
The gods are tricky beasts, and Yeenoghu is one to involve himself in the lives of his followers through portents, visions, and signs. To his sovereign best, however, a Shoosuva was crafted as a personal bodyguard and intermediary to his favored warriors. Shoosuva in Gnoll translates directly as "returner", and were believed to be the reincarnations of Yeenoghu's greatest disciples; a glimpse of the honorable next step for his favored here in the material. Die in glorious battle and return one day in this new form to fight again.
As the tides of time passed and Asmodeus led his mythic Consolidation, Yeenoghu and his disciples fled a collapsing Abyss and held court among the stars. This disruption led to the ascension of another demigod to bless the Gnoll tribes...and free them from their fiendish hunger, a ripple that erupted across the magical bindings of a Shoosuva and their companions. Suddenly, a demon bound for life began a journey all their own.
Would they wander the wastes of this new world? Find packs of their own, or evolve into something new? Only time (and games), will tell.
See you at the table.
The massive Girallon is something I have unleashed upon unsuspecting players, lumbering out of tundra caves and ruling over cursed, temperate forests.
For those unfamiliar, a Girallon looks like an oversized ape with pale tan skin and white fur. Sharp fangs threaten from their bulbous heads, and vicious claws seek to rend. The most surprising element many will notice, however, are its two additional arms protruding from the torso, a feature that cements this as a dangerous monstrosity.
Kings Of The Broken Tower
The giant white apes reside as the sentinels of warm forest environments teeming with life. Adept climbers, the Girallon only nests in trees or structures that can support its nearly half-ton weight. Ruined cities retaken by the forests of the world, shattered towers, and abandoned castles are the jungles they rule (and are the best "branches" to support them). Scaling battlements and walls, a Girallon will perch on tower tops and lookout hooks, anything to keep an eye on the surrounding landscape.
When branches cannot abide, Girallons stalk the forest floor. They lurk in narrow ravines, under natural bridges, and in shallow caves. Despite their size, a Girallon can be quite stealthy while awaiting prey.
Band Of Brothers
However, Girallons rarely live alone.
Forming loose bands of several individuals, including mates and offspring, led by an alpha elder, Girallons create conclaves deep within a lair. While on the hunt away from their band, they use roars and body language to communicate over great distances. While each individual typically hunts alone and far from the others, each successful kill is shared among the group, the best spoils going to the caregivers. The alpha leader may organize members to work together to make a big kill or defend the lair, and in both cases, a success is blanketed among the group. The Band and its survival always takes precedence.
Seeing the peaceful nature among their own kind, other intelligent observers have sought to establish relationships or alliances with the creatures. Beings will learn how to approach their leader, and offer food or shiny gifts as appeasement, but every Band is different. It would take quite a scholar to learn the sophistication required to move from Band to Band, without angering rival groups.
Less enlightened folk have tried to tame or subjugate the monsters. For instance, some crime lords will send wood elves to capture a young Girallon, training them up to serve as the guard to a city's thieves' guild. But care be to one that would keep a Girallon in bondage, for the creature could revert to its predatory nature at any moment.
By The Numbers
A Girallon is a Large Monstrosity without an alignment, but just because they're neutral doesn't mean they won't rip you limb from limb. With hit points ranging from upper 50s to low 90s, these guys will fight for the long haul at mid-level. They've got natural armor, so even your dagger wizard can hit them, but the real question is what happens after.
FOUR ARMS. Count 'em, four! And each one gets an attack. Also, they bite. So that's five attacks each round, with Bonus Actions that allow extra movement. These guys move like monks, and they climb at the same speed (40-50 feet). When they hit, we're talking D6-D8 damage with a solid +4 Strength bonus. If you're fighting one of my Band Elders, double those dice and expect a +5 modifier.
Despite their immense overwhelming attack economy, a decent party with even marginal balance will be fine in combat with one of these. However, if ever they find themselves on the unlucky end of a GROUP HUNT, this can get bad very quickly.
Girallons In The Ionian Worldscape
The original sage's lore for the Girallon paint them as so much more than gigantic apes. Their hereditary affinity for ancient ruins and their strange anatomical appearance lead many historians to believe that they were created or manufactured through magical means - a guardian for some lost empire long ago.
In my worlds and others, the Girallon lost this purpose whenever that civilization fell, turning feral and spreading out into the realms at large. However, tales of intelligent Girallon tribes have made their way into the bardic lores. These mythic monstrosities communicate through sophisticated sign language and evolved vocalizations, their own form of Beast Speech. Some bards even say a few can lurch their way through Common. More importantly, they have learned to use their superior strength and dexterity to industrialize - creating armor, weapons, and simple tools.
If you're keen on a death wish, one can try to find them in the fog-covered continent of Vysoria, beyond the Great Expanse to the east from our central continent. A few have ventured there; wayward, plucky scholars with dreams of discovery glinting in their eyes.
...None have returned...
Now go eat a banana.
Let's talk about Mercy.
Overwatch, after its numerous snowflake "scandals" on showing athletic busts and butts in a fantasy world, remains one of the top tier titles in the first-person team shooter world. All of the assembled heroes cover distinct roles to help fill out an effective team: Defense, Offense, Tank, and Support. These are pretty straight-forward, but let's cover our bases.
Defense: defensive units excel at holding down a location and laying out damage to DEFEND a position. Widowmaker, Bastion, and other sniper types fit this model.
Offense: offensive units are fast, mobile strikers with high damage output, but don't do well in heavy fire. Folks like Reaper and Tracer do best here.
Tank: with shields, crowd-control, and high health, tanks pull aggro from enemies and keep the fire on them cuz they can take it. The big boys and girls of Reinhardt and D.Va are your go-to's here.
Support: support is the backbone of a team. Buffing, building, and healing, characters here keep everyone up while bogging down your foes. Mercy is the easy example here, but folks like Symmetra and Zenyatta fill in too.
Now, just like in any decent game, these roles serve merely as a guideline in and not a concrete directory of what hero to pick in any given round. Meaning, not unlike Dungeons and Dragons and others of its ilk, characters can pivot when the situation deems it necessary. However, Mercy shouldn't be relied on to make kills. Sure it's possible, but that's not really the thing to do.
Now, I've been a Mercy main before, and the weird thing is that...not a lot of people are. In fact, the majority of players are the other three. I go in order of priority = Support, Defense, Offense, Tank. I LIKE being the healer when I'm playing with others. Same thing happened in City Of Heroes (back when it was good). Of my 6 characters, 3 were healers, and 2 were built to be the best support characters in the game. I could stick myself in the melee and burst low healing to allies, while I cue large healing to the tank, and prep resurrection for the strikers that went in over their head. And, if someone pulled aggro and died in a tunnel somewhere, I could teleport their body next to me and queue their resurrection next. Every battle was a tactical switchboard between positioning myself enough out of harm's way to keep healing, and tracking the output of my allies to keep them moving, which in turn pulled enemies off of me. MUCH grinding later, I could burn area buffs on top of everyone else, making my team way more effective at their jobs. It was a lot at once, but I need that kind of strategy stimulus.
Being "the healer" had a bunch of social benefits, too. I'm never without an invite to an adventure. EVERYONE needs a healer, and you learn quickly what kind of group you're signing on to. Some are obnoxious, others are happy to play, but everybody gets in over their heads at some point. You learn to manage the group's needs while cueing them into threats; a few times I was gifted the "team leader" mantle after running with a specific crew, because I was good at recognizing where the AI would move and would at least offer my two cents to keep everyone alive. (Resurrection has a countdown timer, so you can't wait around to get folks back into the fight - if it goes to zero, they return to the HQ spawn point and it takes FOREVER for them to come back to y'all). There are jerks in every party, but most of my interactions were positive, and when I was playing a lot over the summer between college breaks, I found and kept a solid crew of 3-4 other players that vibed well on missions. It was a good time.
Psychologically speaking, I'm sure my therapist has a few things to say, so I'll paraphrase.
Support classes are acts of service at their core - their main goal is to make the team around them better and to make their foes worse (buff/debuff). They are absolutely essential, but they require checking your ego at the door, at least in the beginning. They don't feel heroic, despite making the hero even better...in the background. They're also the main healers in a game - later levels net powers that can SAVE encounters in a single round, but the majority is still mitigating damage. They also have to be protected, and sometimes it's hard to prioritize defense over offense, so a support character needs to also take care of themselves...something I needed to learn in the real world, but that's another story.
My point is that for all their benefits, people still look down on the Support characters in any genre. They're a lot less flashy, lacking on NOVA, and often get to be the butt of the joke for no discernible reason (until you need a medic, that is).
Clerics Are Machines
There are two board game types I excel at: Deck Builders and Machine Builders. Deck Builders involve starting with a base deck of cards (or some shuffled resource) and buying/trading for other cards to add to your deck. The cards you add make your deck more efficient, effective, and versatile, until you are unstoppable. Machine Builders are similar - start with a basic flow of resources and production, and use that production to upgrade your "machine" until it "comes online" and you really start wrecking shop.
In Dungeons & Dragons, Clerics have been a staple of the experience. Early in the editions, Clerics were the only class to tap into healing abilities, but in a lot of cases that was ALL they could do. Later editions expanded on the Cleric's role, and they became the quintessential Control-Support, especially in the first two tiers of a campaign. In 5th Edition, it is important to consider that, yes, healing is great, but the power of the Cleric is found more consistently in the rolling buffs and debuffs they can lay on the battlefield, and the consistent "chip damage" of spiritual weapons and guardians. Thing is, they take a couple rounds to come fully online. Here's how to do it.
Get Your Priorities Straight
Ruling Initiative is hard with this class. You tend to have low or even negative Dexterity, prioritizing Wisdom and Strength instead, so without an Alert Feat to help out, you are at the mercy of the dice here. However, make a Twilight Cleric and use their Vigilant Blessing to grant Advantage on initiative for one creature (including you, which is what I'm saying here). Going first or close to it lets you turn on your buff and debuff abilities early, before enemies start restructuring your priorities. If you go later in the initiative, chances are that you might be putting out the fires they set on your allies instead of getting the ball rolling into a boulder.
Priority 1 - Raise the Fallen/Fix the Broken: notice I didn't say "heal the party." Damage is negligible until a character is unconscious. We know this to be true as players; you are just as dangerous at 1 Hit Point as you are at 100 Hit Points. The difference lies in how much punishment you can take until you go down. On your turn, if anyone is down, get them up if you can. Healing Word is clutch not for its healing amount but for its RANGE and economy. 60 feet, Bonus Action, get your people up, that's the BEST use of that spell. Keep it locked and loaded for emergencies. If you need the character up AND very healthy, you'll have to burn your turn getting them up instead with an "upcast" Cure Wounds (and at later levels, the obvious Heal). In later levels, spells like Lesser/Greater Restoration, Revivify, and the Mass Cure Wounds/Heal live here. In other words, always put out the fires first.
Priority 2 - Prepare the Field: IF your peeps are healthy or at least standing, you can risk popping off a Bless or Bane as your Action on the party or the enemies, respectively. Personally I would use Bless over Bane, as Bane requires a Saving Throw on your opponents (if they fail, they take a -1d4 penalty to all Attacks and Saving Throws, which is just embarrassing), meaning they can succeed against the effect, while Bless JUST WORKS. Three allies add a 1d4 bonus to all their Attacks and Saving Throws. The more you all hit, the faster the fight ends.
Subsequent Turns need to be spent taking care of Priority 1, while stacking on benefits (without compromising concentration) from Priority 2; spells like Sleep and Command are very powerful in early game, use them to effectively remove key enemies from the encounter for a round or two, or altogether if you don't kick them while they're asleep. As you gain levels, though, your options get much more awesome.
Turn By Turn (Levels 1-4)
Early game you will likely be nervous about allies going down. Characters have low hit points, low defenses, and all it takes is a lucky shot to knock out your tank. Having a spell slot saved for Healing Word is going to be your main focus, which means you might have to clock a few fools in the face with your warhammer and draw some fire. Lucky for you, a decent DM won't push a dragon on you at this stage, so your enemies should be in a similar boat as your party in terms of power level. For the following, let's assume that the encounter is at least a little balanced.
TURN 1 - fulfill Priority 1; otherwise pop Bless (concentration) for three buddies. Yeah, you didn't hit anything, but THEY WILL.
TURN 2 - fulfill Priority 1 (this is always first, I'll stop saying it*); otherwise use your Bonus Action to cast Spiritual Weapon, then use your Action to Toll the Dead on the enemy that's taking the majority of the damage.
+ Spiritual Weapon conjures a floating, flying translucent weapon that can be moved and swung on subsequent turns as a Bonus Action (including the turn when you cast it). It moves 20 feet, and it can't be hurt (can't flank, mind you, but it passes through objects and creatures). It also deals Force damage, which a lot of our monsters aren't resistant to. Plus, it is one of the few spells in the game that adds your Wisdom Modifier to the damage. Best part? It isn't concentration, so it's a perfect cog in your machine; it stays around for its duration - a lever you can always pull once it's out.
+ Toll The Dead is a cantrip that does more damage to enemies that have already TAKEN damage. It requires a Wisdom Saving Throw to avoid the damage, but on a success, you're rolling 1d12 of necrotic damage. (if they are uninjured, it's 1d8). Counterpoint - a creature suffering from Bane is easy to gang up on with this spell in tandem.
Subsequent Turns - keep yourself out of direct damage lines to avoid concentration checks, and keep knocking them out one by one from a distance. If you have the spell slots, use Command (1st level) to knock out an enemy for a round.
Turn By Turn (Levels 5-9+)
TURN 1 - *; pop Spirit Guardians (concentration) for the field, with you at its center. Then wade into range. Sorry, my fellow DMs.
+ Spirit Guardians summons a 15 foot sphere of spirits (you at the center, 10 feet out surrounding you). This field requires enemies entering it (like when you cast it) or starting their turn there to make a Wisdom Saving Throw. On a failure, they take 3d8 radiant (if you're good) or necrotic (if you're evil) damage. On a success, they still take half damage. This spell is arguably the most effective radial chip damage in the game. By now, your allies are beefier than early game, so switching to an offensive concentration, again, ends the fight faster. And casting it even one level above 3rd, will give you an additional 1d8 per level to the damage (4th is 4d8, and 6th would 6d8). Remember, they still take half damage on a success, so if they're in the range, they're guaranteed getting hurt!
TURN 2 - *; use your Bonus Action to cast Spiritual Weapon at the highest even spell slot you can afford (I mean it, I'll explain in a moment), then use your Action to Toll the Dead on that unfortunate soul.
+ If you cast Spiritual Weapon at an even spell slot above 2nd level, it does an extra 1d8 of damage per even level. So, if you cast it at 4th level (which you gain access to at character level 7), it deals 2d8 + Wisdom Modifier every round you swing it AS YOUR BONUS ACTION. Baller. 6th level = 3d8, 8th level = 4d8. That's not nothing, and it perpetuates. However, if you have defensive spells ready to go that use those even spell slots, buff the party first.
+ By now, Toll the Dead is dealing 2d12 of necrotic damage. Given that most offensive cantrips for the cleric require saving throws, and it's got a long range, this is still an effective slam for damage output.
TURN 3+ - *; you are officially online. If your allies are being forced to make a lot of saves and failing, it is still worth it to drop Spirit Guardians to bring up a higher level Bless (casting it at higher levels grants the effect to more creatures).
+ If YOU are under direct fire, it is also worth it to try the following "hack": Use your Bonus Action to cast Sanctuary on yourself (it forces enemies to make a Wisdom save in order to swing at you), then take the Dodge Action (leaving Spirit Guardians active, and Spiritual Weapon waiting to be triggered). As per RAW (Rules-As-Written), Spirit Guardians is a spell that was cast prior to Sanctuary, so its damaging effects are already in play, and therefore would not break the Sanctuary effect (if you attack, directly damage a creature, or cast a spell on a creature). Coupled with Dodge, IF the enemy beats the Wisdom Save, they still swing with Disadvantage due to you Dodging. If/when you are no longer a main target, use your Bonus Action to swing the Spiritual Weapon, breaking the Sanctuary, and return to business as usual. [If your DM won't allow this in RAW, taking the Dodge Action while you bop enemies with your Spiritual Weapon is still super effective to buy time].
IF THINGS GET BAD
+ Word of Recall is one of the best GTFO spells in the game. Period.
+ Channel Divinity is your Superpower. Twilight Clerics use Twilight Sanctuary, which buffs their allies with Temporary Hit Points that scale well (and if they lose them in the duration, they can get more) and end debilitating effects like Charm or Fear on them. It also lasts for 1 minute without Concentration, so it doesn't interrupt the machine. Look at your additional Channel Divinity options for your Domain to consider your "superhero moments."
+ Heal (6th level) has other benefits. On top of healing 70 HP, the creature is cured of Blindness, Deafness, and any Disease.
+ Mass Heal (9th level) is freaking amazing. 700 HP divided as you like within range.
+ When you need someone up and completely reset, Power Word Heal is your jam. 9th level spell to heal a creature up to their full HP and end any charm, fright, paralysis, or stun condition immediately. They can also use their Reaction to stand if they like.
STACKING THE MACHINE
Once you are online, stacking your machine with other spells becomes a mini-game in and of itself. When and how to debilitate foes while still smacking them around with your Spiritual Weapon and Spirit Guardians is kind of bonkers. Some spells to consider (with warnings and recommendations).
GUIDING BOLT (1st) - Clerics aren't big damage dealers, so Guiding Bolt helps us feel powerful. If you hit, it's 4d6 radiant damage, with a temporary boon - the next attack made on the creature has advantage. Great way to setup the Rogue. Honestly, though, if damage is your goal, might I suggest:
INFLICT WOUNDS (1st) - nothing complicated. Melee spell attack, 3d10 necrotic damage. BUT, every spell level you cast above 1st adds another 1d10. You can do 7d10 with a 5th Level spell slot. When you need to take somebody out, THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT (also, it's an Attack roll, meaning it can CRIT).
GUARDIAN OF FAITH (4th) - a great "salt in the wound" effect stacked on top of Spirit Guardians, the Guardian of Faith floats in a fixed point. When enemies enter its range (10 feet), they have to make a Dexterity Saving Throw. On a failure, they take 20 radiant damage, or 10 on a success. The Guardian is 10 by 10 and spectral; put him right on top of you, and his range equals that of your Spirit Guardians. Only downside is that the Guardian vanishes once it has dealt a total of 60 damage (but at least it didn't burn your Concentration!)
HOLY WEAPON (5th, C) - imbue a weapon, like that of an ally, to have them deal an extra 2d8 radiant damage when they hit with it. You can also choose to end the spell and have it burst with radiance, which deals 4d8 radiant damage and can blind nearby foes. It does, however, burn your Concentration (so there goes Bless or Spirit Guardians), but it DOES make your DPS offense just a little stronger.
HOLD PERSON (2nd) - devastating against Humanoids because it can Paralyze them, which means every melee attack has advantage, and if it hits...it CRITS!
DEATH WARD (4th) - costs an Action and lasts 8 hours. Put this on an ally, and if they drop to 0 HP, they instead drop to 1 and the spell ends. An excellent insurance policy on an unlucky ally that buys you some extra action economy.
BLINDNESS/DEAFNESS (2nd) - though Constitution saves tend to be pretty strong, a Blinded opponent is a major boon in your favor.
I hope these recommendations add fun and flavor to your table.
Political Hollywood is entering its death spiral - flailing and ripping at every thread on the way down.
The Writer's Strike pulls a particular lens of reflection on recent works in particular. Something happened post-Covid; true, our collective lens illuminated sincere acts of justice, civil rights, and the human experience. But it also lent a voice to the delusional minority, and once that pedestal was erected, the tolerant gifted this minority with a megaphone.
It meant that while silent voices can finally be heard, that we can all stop and think for a second, such a pause gave momentum to new ideas.
I'm a creative person. I like looking at things from many angles, finding new and innovative solutions, and for a time, being "woke" was a good thing. We were checking our privileges, reaching hands across invisible gaps, acknowledging the collective human experience, and raising the awareness of social, cultural, and environmental issues. Inclusion, diversity, and representation are not a bad thing in and of themselves. These moments I like to think are our glimmers of hope; the instances where we evolve as a species, and collectively acknowledge fundamental truths of our time:
1) LGBTQ+ people ARE PEOPLE, and deserve the same rights as everyone else. If you're not hurting anyone, who you love does not dictate your worth as a human being.
2) My body, my choice.
3) Healthcare is a right, not a privilege.
4) It is okay to change your mind.
5) Fear is the mind killer.
6) Sexism and racism are wrong...in every instance. (including against men, and white people)
7) The truth, taking responsibility, and showing integrity are the building blocks of a powerful society.
8) Art will always be relevant.
9) Change is constant.
10) "...and then we die." Life is too short to be spent on petty squabbles. Commit to the future work.
The Pendulum Swings
Then we went too far. (I'm about to be very honest)
Sexism is wrong. Except, apparently, when it's against a man. Instead of writing compelling female characters alongside their male counterparts, let's re-write those male heroes to be staggeringly flawed, broken, stupid, and overly emotional...and write our women to be stoic, flawless, and super-intelligent at all times. Have them fill the traditional male roles...every time. No exceptions. Make a fleet of girl-bosses; unstoppable, allied with all other females, unified against the blatant oppression of the male hero, with no struggles to overcome and no arcs to journey through - because you were always perfect, Queen. But male characters can be belittled, subservient, outclassed in their own expertise, and emasculated for a laugh.
...This was novel once. It is now the norm. And I'm exhausted.
Captain Marvel and Mulan were...strange. I actually think that Captain Marvel *mostly* worked in its first two acts, but the payoff felt unearned (she was always mega powerful, her powers were just being dampened). Unfortunately, this film's message now appears subtle in light of current trends.
The modern character of Mulan (the remake) BEGINS the film perfect - SHE has no arc. It's just the supporting cast that needs to recognize how awesome she is. In fact, she's NEVER actually defeated; the only time she comes close is against a witch (another oppressed female character). She doesn't even struggle. There is NOTHING for her to overcome.
What message does this send actually? "Feeling down, little girl? It's okay, just START at perfect. No big deal."
This wouldn't be such a slap in the face if the animated film didn't already exist. The original Disney Mulan doesn't know how to be a soldier or a lady; she doesn't fit into either category. But we identify with her nonetheless. She's witty, likable, interesting, and we can see some of her strengths beginning to shine through - she's determined, she rallies for what is right, and she thinks outside of the box. For all those good traits, though, she needs to be tempered; there are skills she lacks, and when she takes up arms to save her father, she has to LEARN how to be a soldier (a great musical montage, by the way). You SEE her progression from a girl to a soldier, and the Mulan we see Act to Act is a different version of herself, each one learning new lessons from struggles and defeats and challenges, bringing all that she has learned and cultivated to bear at the climax of the film when she squares off against Shan Yu.
And that's an intense fight, too! I remember seeing such an imposing force; Shan Yu is a BIG GUY, and is WRECKING the palace as Mulan flees from and dodges him. She doesn't go toe to toe with him on the physical stage - that would be impossible given her build and strength. Instead, she outsmarts him; outmaneuvers him. A skill that she has fostered throughout the film. She didn't start her journey at this level; in fact, the Mulan of the first act would probably have died a horrible death at the hands of this guy. But this Mulan grew; she leveled up to fight the boss.
That's a character. I love that character. And I'm a white dude.
Which, by the way, DOES NOT MATTER. My race and sex has NO BEARING on what I enjoy. I'm allowed to like things. That is all.
Fat Mice Don't Know What They're Doing
And I wouldn't be so defensive if actual, multi-billion dollar studios weren't weaponizing their fans against each other, gaslighting their audience trying to rewrite history (looking at you, Woman King and Cleopatra the "documentary"), or accusing their audience of racism or sexism just for not seeing a bad film. If a film looks bad, I won't see it, regardless if it's lead by a female ensemble (Ghostbusters, 2016). Make a good film first, focus on your checkboxes later.
This roiling landscape of shifting blame and shattered integrity, gaslighting and gatekeeping, crushing otherwise decent humans for the simple sin of not being interested - terrifies me on the grand scale of the entertainment industry. It is rare to find something without an agenda.
To which you reply, "It's entertainment, everyone has an agenda!" And yet, in the quiet corners of Hollywood, far from the bastions of scandal and woke, we get a Top Gun: Maverick - a film that makes no promises other than to be entertaining (and it delivers). Or a masterpiece like Puss In Boots: The Last Wish - a beautifully animated fairy tale with a lot to say on life, death, and happiness, if you just take the time to watch it. And though it was released before this string of years that feel like an eternity burrito wrapped in guilt, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse is STILL lauded as one of the greatest animated films of all time. No messages or agendas...just stories.
And that is why I am so sad for Hollywood. The mainstream studios are precise and ironic examples of having so much potential, literally BILLIONS of dollars in resources, and not knowing how to use them. Disney walked into Star Wars without a plan, and it SHOWS. How embarrassing for them. How shameful. After decades of entertainment, the execs didn't think far enough ahead to avoid becoming a laughingstock in the industry.
Disney's stock dropped by 50% and HAS NOT RECOVERED. If you feel the same as I on their business practices, we could literally collectively buy them out, and start over. It is baffling the rate at which the fandom has turned on Disney and others like them; no matter the remaining projects, it is clear that one of the biggest studios on the planet is mishandling a beloved franchise, and burning the other to the ground.
Remember, inclusion and diversity are not a bad thing. Vilifying specific groups to raise up others...is.
Thor is now a moron to laughable levels to pave the way for...Taika Watiiti? Valkyrie? I actually don't know. Just seems mean-spirited for no reason.
Loki has been reduced to a moron to make way for Female Loki (Sylvie).
The Mandalorian has been reduced in intelligence, agency, and resourcefulness to make way for Bo Katan.
Hawkeye is a side character in his own show (even though I like Kate Bishop).
Bruce Banner, a literal genius, who has gone through over five films of character development and personal growth, is reduced to a montage of jokes and outclassed in every way by She-Hulk because "Go Women," I guess.
The list, unfortunately, goes on, and the House of Mouse's hate boner for their legacy characters is baffling. It's also COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. You don't have to diminish or destroy one character to lift up another. You can retain and respect where a character has come from AND usher in the next generation. That way, you don't alienate fans.
Instead, what we're getting is a push too hard and too fast toward certain "woke" ideologies to the point of brow-beating, scolding, and pandering. As if we should all feel bad for liking Phase 1, 2, or 3. That because we identified with a flawed character who grew over time (ya know, with an arc), that we're "part of the problem." That if we can't connect with a flawless, superpowered, rude heroine that belittles and conquers the weak men around her with little effort...then we're just sexist, and should shut up.
This is backfiring while these studios double down. It is appalling, and a complete waste of time. Better scripts, better films, better plans. That's how you win us back. I will not be guilted into watching a crap product.
Most of what I see, I'm not excited for. I don't look forward to many films. The system is currently broken.
But there are glimmers; rays of possibility, stretching outside the echo chamber to actually make art again. And, as I've stated, that is one of our fundamental truths.
Thank you for reading this long.
Stay safe out there, nerds.
In 2002, shortly after wrapping filming on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, acclaimed Irish Actor Richard Harris passed away. Known for numerous rolls dating all the way back to the 1950s, Harris was fondly remembered in his later years for his stoicism and calm, commanding presence - most notably featured in his roles as Albus Dumbledore and Marcus Aurelius (Gladiator, 2000). His fellow actors mourned his loss with reverence and respect.
In 2004, Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban released and Michael Gambon took on the mantle of Albus Dumbledore. He received expected criticism and praise for his rendition, and he did his best to honor the groundwork laid by the late Harris. The collective audience also mourned Harris, and we understood; it sucked, but the show must go on.
Actors are people. And sometimes those people die.
Characters are immortal.
On August 28th, 2020, accomplished and iconic actor Chadwick Boseman passed away. Unbeknownst to the larger public, Boseman had been battling colon cancer throughout most of his career. His charisma and professionalism was intoxicating on and off the set, landing iconic roles of heroes real and fictional alike. Most notably before his death, Boseman was instrumental in bringing a faithful and powerful face to Black Panther in 4 films, one of which his own flagship.
Black Panther both as a film and a character were startlingly successful. Not unlike Robert Downey Jr., who no one could see as anything but Iron Man, many people had cemented Boseman in the role of Black Panther. At the eve of his death, amidst the mourning, came the question: Who would replace him? The character's story was meant to continue - who could wear the mantle?
But in Modern Hollywood, actors are intrinsically bound to their characters. If Boseman weren't around to play him, then there would be no T'Challa.
Now, comics offer storytelling branches too numerous to count. Ways to lift the mantle of Black Panther and place it upon another; these stories do it all the time. The character of Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), for example, takes on the mantle at some point in the character's history - so this is certainly an option, and, spoilers, is precisely what happened.
However, in the 20 years between Harris's death (who was beloved as Dumbledore) and the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in 2022, something fundamentally changed. I think Wakanda Forever still did its best to honor Boseman and what he brought to the character...but something just didn't sit right about it.
Actors are NOT their characters.
In Star Trek: Beyond (the third film in the Abrams reboot franchise), the character of Hikaru Sulu was shown to have a husband and a daughter. It wasn't a big deal in the film, just a few passing shots, but it struck a strange chord with people. John Cho, the new Sulu, leaned into the idea without issue. However, the change was in homage to George Takei, the original actor known for the role, who is now openly gay. Thing is, Takei calls the adjustment, "unfortunate." Hikaru Sulu is canonically straight in the original Star Trek series. To make him gay just because the original actor is, is weird and misplaced. In fact, Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the reboot, is openly gay, but his character is in a heterosexual relationship with Nyota Uhura. The former is strange, the latter is fine. The difference is in blurring the lines between actor and character.
Now, it's a reboot, so romances, sexualities, even genders can be changed, swapped, whatever. It is not, inherently, a bad thing. But it did set a strange precedent.
Blurring The Lines Between The Screen
I wonder sometimes on the parasocialism of television and film. How engrossed some of us are in the visions depicted on screen: who is acting, who they are, their lives and struggles, separating them from the character they portray, or mixing it all together. When a portrayal really connects, do we unconsciously place an undue weight upon it? We enjoy them so much, that if they were to ever leave...it would be akin to a death in the family. And that to live through that pain would fill us with fear that we may never connect in such a way again.
I understand the difference between life and fiction. I grew up in the theater - I was an understudy often, stepping up and stepping in when others were sick. I did scene work, and props, and sets. I sang backup, I sang lead, I harmonized. Portrayals change all the time. Each one is a gift and a curse, and each one I welcome.
There is a nuance to acting, and there are many actors.
Am I sad that Chadwick Boseman left us? Absolutely.
Do I think he is the only person on this planet that can play T'Challa? Absolutely not.
And I am concerned about the death grip that some studios tighten on actors for the characters they play.
For 17 years, Hugh Jackman depicted the role of Logan/Wolverine in all X-Men films. His star power became the key draw to the franchise, launching the character to center stage. After Logan (2017), it seemed that Jackman could put the character to rest. Currently 54, Jackman had been undergoing intense physical training just to MAINTAIN the strength and aesthetic of The Wolverine, which has only become MORE insane as time has gone on.
Jackman, during a late night talk show after Logan's release, was asked how he achieved the "ripped and beaten" look of his character, to which Jackman replied, "Well, there's thing called dehydration..." I laughed, but the audience was silent, so Jackman continued to explain to the idiot audience that he would DEHYDRATE himself to the point where the layer of moisture in his skin would deplete, so we can see all his muscles. The extra bit we don't get in the interview is the fact that he would act in his scenes and then take a tiny thimble of water so as not to PASS OUT. (the male fitness standard for Hollywood is mile-high stupid)
Not until the announcement of Deadpool 3 did we think Jackman would return.
But here's the thing: Wolverine is a character. What happens when Jackman is really done? Can the mantle be passed?
This viewer hopes so - give the guy a break, would ya? Let him drink some water, too.
When Robert Downey Jr. announced his last hurrah as Tony Stark, his character was killed. When Chris Evans moved on from Captain America, his character passed away. I don't know if that's an act of respect, like "no one could replace you," or an act to avoid the vocal minority of a fanbase that grew too attached.
Or MAYBE. We just need a break. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark had one hell of an arc; no question. Endgame put a powerful, and graceful bow on that. I'm pretty satisfied with it. AND. If they were to return, could I see another actor wear the shield or put on the suit - unequivocally YES.
I just want to make sure that our actors can be ACTORS first, and characters when they want to be. It is our job as audience members to keep them separate; they have lives too, and we would want to grant them the grace we all deserve. To step down from a role, to pass the torch with a blessing, to keep their lives separate from their work, and to pass on with peace and grace.
I don't know what my point is today, or tomorrow, but thank you for reading.
Let's take a moment and talk about the Fighter.
A standardized class across multiple fantasy tables, the Fighter solidified its home in Dungeons & Dragons as the quintessential bruiser and battle king. You had the best armor, the best weapons, and you could take it as well as you could dish it. Though that identity would fracture with the induction of the Barbarian and Paladin classes of 5th Edition (why hello there, NOVA damage), the core concept would remain the same.
My favorite Fighter version is easily found in Pathfinder 1E, where I'm rocking Feats at every level, building a shield wall monster that blocks everything and hits harder than a blunderbuss with a buckler. That's my jam. Customizable visionary characters who personify the idea of TANK - shrugging off blows while the wizard wrecks fools in the back row.
Fast-forward to 5th Edition, and I think we can all agree that Fighter took a nerf arrow to the knee. Subclass options, at least at the onset, left a bit to be desired in execution. Overall concepts were promising, but once we started playing, adjustments in the name of game balance turned us off to future prospects.
A little overview of our initial options:
The basic fighter with a little more basics. Big fan of increasing your threat range by +5% early on, rocking critical hits on a 19-20 at Level 3. Blend that feature alone with a Barbarian mix with Action Surge and Reckless Attack and you've got a "crit-fisher" in 5 levels (plus, add on some Rogue levels and you won't be sorry when that Sneak Attack feature doubles).
You'll get some nifty athletic and Dexterity buffs, and finally grab that sweet, sweet 18-20 critical at level 15. In my honest opinion, that happens a bit too late, considering the wizard is about to be dropping Meteor Swarm on your dumb ass.
The Battle Master
AKA the "good one", Battle Master has been played quite well at a number of my tables. You have sweet, versatile combat and utility options to trip, pull, push, and goad opponents, all while stacking on damage and forcing saving throws. And the suite of Battle Maneuvers to make that happen is a big enough pool that you won't have the same Battle Master often. Clearly the tactician of load out, a good Battle Master involves themselves intrinsically in the landscape of battle, scoring key moves and hits, and setting up their allies for greater success. It keeps you in the action, and it was clearly made with this in mind.
The Eldritch Knight
The Fighter with a "blasting hand", the Eldritch Knight in concept is freaking awesome. A sword-swinging badass with just enough magic for a sick one-two punch of arcane might and hard steel. You get access to 4th level spells at max level, but I ain't complaining, and you can shoot off cantrips while still hacking into fools with your multiple attacks...per...round.
Hey, wait a minute.
So. In case you weren't paying attention.
The defining feature of a 5th Edition Fighter is that they can attack more often than any other class. While everybody else caps at 2 attacks per Attack Action (shut up, Monks, those extras are your Bonus Action), Fighters cap at FOUR times per Action, and they get Action Surge to rock me Amadeus four MORE times if they so choose in a round.
So you saunter into this class archetype, wind blowing in your Maybelline hair, and you summon a Firebolt as you brandish your sword, ready to kick ass and take names - and you get to swing once. ONCE. You burn your Action on the Cantrip, and you swing ONE FREAKING TIME. And that's at SEVENTH LEVEL - where every other martial class is hitting at least twice, and your Wizard has access to 4th Level spells. Feels a bit late, doesn't it?
"OH. BUT IT GETS BETTER," he said mockingly.
ARE. YOU. SERIOUS!?
Not to sound ungrateful, but let's break this down.
Eldritch Strike sounds nice on paper. Hit a dude, they have Disadvantage on a Saving Throw from a spell YOU cast before the end of your next turn. That's nice, I guess. Snag Hold Person and you've got a clutch setup for you and your allies; in fact, because you can switch up the order (in most cases) of your Bonus Action and Action economy, you can achieve this debut in the same round. ...Still only hitting once, though, as that Bonus Action.
Arcane Charge is pretty nifty. Wreck somebody sideways, then teleport to another across the battlefield and do it again. That's cool - I admit it. Still feels like something's missing, though.
Improved War Magic - at 18th level, you can now cast a Spell (which you've been doing anyway, maybe), and attack ONCE as a Bonus Action. FACE. PALM.
*Not featured in the screen cap is a neat little flavor perk where you can call your weapon to you as a Bonus Action. ...More on that later.
Talk about a lackluster reception, and it isn't for lack of players trying.
The flavor text of the Eldritch Knight sounds like the BEST TIME playing as a Fighter. The versatility of low-level Wizard magic and blasting power, and all the standard Fighter perks, plus more Feats than anyone else (so customization options). I've had a few players go for this build, only to be sorely disappointed by the extra features, to the point that they RARELY used their arcane abilities, defaulting to vanilla fighter most of the time (you know, the one that can attack eight times in a round?).
So without sounding too verbose or long-winded, I propose the following adjustments:
Let Go Of The Action Economy Lawyering AKA "Let Fighters Fight"
Let's address the first Treant in the room - War Magic is downright mean to the Fighter's primary ability set. Just swap it around. Change the language like this: "Beginning at 7th level, when you use your Action to make a weapon attack, you may cast a Cantrip as a Bonus Action."
"But what about spells that have a casting time of 1 Action!?" I hear you scream.
Don't care. Sorcerers get Quickened Spell, Eldritch Blast fires multiple separate rays, and Fireball has been around for three levels. Get over it and let the Knight swing their weapon into a skeleton twice and rock a Firebolt on the sabertooth tiger gnawing on your Cleric. It's their job - let them do it.
And later, just upgrade the Bonus Action to a spell of 1st or 2nd level. Yes, you're effectively "quickening" those spells, but the Fighter still burns their VERY LIMITED resources in the form of spell slots. By 18th level, they hold no ability to be a more effective Wizard than the Wizard, but they CAN hit 3-6 times a round and unload a Hold Person beforehand. Don't lie to yourself, you WANT that on your side.
Side Note: if you REALLY feel like they should sacrifice more to get that spell off, have them lose ONE of their attacks. But not more than that.
Let Arcane Charge...Charge
Action Surge is most often used to put a little extra punishment on a single target - whether they're looking rough and ready to fall, or as a means to pull more threat your direction and lay in some extra damage - so Arcane Charge mixes that up beautifully. By RAW, teleporting doesn't provoke Attacks Of Opportunity, so bamfing elsewhere doesn't get undermined by things like Sentinel.
To sweeten the pot a little more, I propose that IF you teleport, your first attack against the new target has Advantage. Teleporting is not the same as running up on somebody - it's surprising, so let's give them something for it. Nothing crazy here, but SOMETHING that sets it apart from, say, Misty Step.
Let Flavor Be...Flavorful?
Early DnD gets a little obsessive about picking things up and putting them down.
In previous editions and iterations, things like Swift Actions were burned to draw and drop, and, depending on WHAT you were interacting with, it would cost more. According to 5E RAW, you can draw a weapon as part of making an attack, and picking up a dropped weapon can be done as part of your movement. In fact, according to combat rules, the whole concept of drawing, dropping, and retrieving is very much UP TO THE DM in any circumstance. The Player's Handbook provides examples of what you COULD do, but no grounded rule.
...So WHY is Eldritch Knight so specific?
Weapon Bond is actually super cool. You're up against a gaggle of Rogues trying to get the jump on you at a gala (no weapons allowed, see?). It gets to your turn as they scoff at you...and you just re-summon your weapon back to your hand. That's awesome! What a great "gotcha." Do that with two weapons, and it's a massive hero moment!
Except it burns your Bonus Action. Now, here I'm sort of torn. On the one hand, it's still special; it's magical, only you can do it, and sometimes cool stuff should cost something. On the other hand, the Eldritch nature of the archetype is its whole flavor - a subtle summoned weapon for free feels cool enough to wave. HOWEVER, those poor Warlocks have to burn a whole Action to summon their Pact Weapon and they gave up their whole-ass soul to an Eldritch muscle mommy.
Hmm. Tell you what - keep the Bonus Action cost. Cool stuff can cost something (it's just for a round, anyway). BUT I propose adding one other benefit to your Bonded Weapons, a thing that is sorely lacking for Fighters, especially in a low Magic Item campaign.
"Starting at 9th level, your Bonded Weapon strikes count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage." No +1 longsword, but considering that Monks get that for their FISTS at 6th level, I'm not breaking anything that wasn't already cracked.
Also. What's Up With That Spell Progression Freeze?
You read that right.
Take a look at levels 17-18. No new spells known, no new spell slots, NO CHANGE WHATSOEVER.
True, 16 gets a feat, and 18 is your archetype capstone, 17 nets you another Indomitable... But NOTHING? Even the Champion is owning fools on the battlefield with 15% crit-range, but you? You just sit tight.
Far be it for me to upset the laws of magic, but how about we allow the Eldritch Knight to replace a spell in those levels? They've been playing for some time by then; they should know what works and what doesn't - so let them "re-spec" their power set a little. "When you reach level 16, and again at 17th and 18th level, you can replace one spell you have learned with another spell equal to its level. This spell cannot be changed once it is learned."
These tiny adjustments I ensure will make your Eldritch Knight more effective, exciting, and FUN to play, while still honoring the spirit of its origin.
For every failed dynamic, I used to throw myself into a complete overhaul of a class or archetype, or worse, made my own; flawed and devastating in ways I could never have imagined - all in an attempt to fix what was only minutely broken. Grace (and age) have taught me that subtle adjustments carry the most elegance, and truly make all the difference.
There ya go. Eldritch Knight to Eldritch King.
These proposed adjustments, though allowed at my tables, are indeed HOMEBREW. Be sure to ask your DM for approval before utilizing them.
The monsters of Dungeons and Dragons sometimes fall into the swirling cyclone of the diametric. Two sides of an arcane coin, unequivocally linked to one another. Some grow out of opposition, while others are twisted transformations of one - a dark miasma of spitting fire and screaming madness.
With all my talk of pendulums swinging and balances shifting, my lens lingers on creatures of this influence. They are fascinating to consider - beyond our stats and alignments, to explore the STORY of their nature and what gives way in the imagination's gates when you do.
The Purity Of The Pegasus
The white winged horses known as Pegasi soar through moon-touched skies, a vision of grace and majesty. When glimpsed by mortals, they linger only for a moment, touching down for a drink from mountain springs or crystal lakes. Intelligent and vigilant, any sound or sign from the local wildlife will send them back into the safety of the clouds above.
Born in dens of starlight in the realms of Arborea, the overwhelming positive good of a newborn Pegasus would spill out into the astral sky, alighting new stars and sending the nearby plants to bloom. An equine marvel hatched from an egg, a Pegasus embraces flight almost immediately, its feathered wings glinting with astral efflorescence.
Pegasi nests are commonplace in Arborea, and the wondrous sentience of the creatures makes them loyal mounts to the Seldarine - the pantheon of Elven gods. Faster and calmer than any wyvern, a Pegasus must be persuaded to serve their rider, entering a partnership that can last millennia. The Seldarine will sometimes send Pegasi to the Material Realms to aid their followers or serve as messengers of their will, but depending on the forces in play, sending these faithful creatures has its own risks...
The Twisted Amalgamate Of A Nightmare
A visage of hellish terror, a Nightmare often appears in a cloud of roiling smoke, its mane, tail, and hooves wreathed in fire. The creature's onyx form moves with a wraith's speed, vanishing into the night in a burst of brimstone.
Though it can be ridden by the occasional antihero on a redemption kick, the Nightmare is a prime mount for creatures of exceptional evil. Demons, devils, death knights, and liches all call this fiendish horse a steed, and many more repugnant souls seek to claim their own by summoning one from the Lower Planes. Thing is, if you don't feed that hell horse a worthy sacrifice upon its arrival, it has no reason to stay loyal to you. A good many cultists have been burned to a crisp due to this small omission in the fine print.
The Story Between The Two
This is where things get interesting.
According to Dungeons & Dragons canon, a Nightmare isn't BORN, they are MADE. It takes a dark ritual involving the torturous removal of a Pegasus's wings, the more brutal the better. Literature is mixed, but the theme here is cruelty; the slower and more horrific the removal, the greater the Nightmare produced. And this isn't a bait and switch situation; the Nightmare IS that tortured Pegasus, driven insane by brutality and dark magic.
t's sick. And I kind of love it.
Because this relationship raises a few pathways that I want to consider:
First, the inner circle of the Seldarine would be indirectly responsible for the creation of a Nightmare in most cases, as these dark rituals often take place at the hands of mortals - or those directly tied to them. To send a Pegasus as an avatar of the Seldarine opens them to possible capture through dark forces, perpetuating a dangerous silent war of astral attrition. How insane to fathom an Archfey riding into battle only to come face-to-face with their old trusty mount, twisted by darkness and brutality.
Second, the Nightmare retains the intelligence of Pegasus form. This is no mindless beast bent to one's will, and though the rituals require sacrifice to link the mare to the rider, I would venture that a mental or verbal bargain is still required. In fact, I could see the maddening steps of a certain ritual play out deliciously - fool a Pegasus into believing it is making a heroic pact and companion, only for the creature's true nature to slowly twist the poor being into its Nightmare; like a frog slowly boiling in the pot.
You're not breaking down a pet, you're convincing a sentient creature - this requires more nuance. I like to think that every Pegasus has a name, a personality; hopes, dreams, goals, not unlike a heroic PC. How does one twist and manipulate a hero into becoming a villain? If the Star Wars prequels taught us anything, it was how NOT to portray one's turn to the dark side (sudden is bad writing) - what if this process could be more insidious? Slow and manipulative, with a grand payoff.
Finally, the monster lore stated that the more brutal the shift, the STRONGER the Nightmare. Which pulls me down the jackal hole. If you have a particularly twisted or prolonged "ritual", could you create a "greater" Nightmare? I'd imagine that Pegasi under the Seldarine would make names for themselves similar to their heroic riders. Perhaps the greater the renown, the harder the fall. Such a change might yield something along the lines of a Night Terror (or "Knight Terror"); the twisted mirror of a once great heroic steed.
And if this is possible, could a Nightmare be redeemed? Perhaps its flight is never restored, but its good nature and starlit white coat, with blue fire for its crest, restored. What story could that creature tell?
As I research, I leave you with one more idea through the ether. A Nightmare canonically can pass through the Ethereal Plane, carrying its rider and several others along for the journey. Imagine what it sees in the mist of the dead. Old soldiers failing to pass on? The spirits of lingering beasts and the wisps of old sages? Or do they see themselves...the Pegasus inside, a haunting specter of their past life.
And does a Pegasus dream of its other possible lives? Does its innate senses of fate and danger paint the picture of its dark future, its Nightmare, in cool reflections of mountain springs.
The pendulum swings.
Take care, lovely people.
A Shadow Betrayed
A cursed mix of wings, talons, and a vampiric stag's head, the Peryton is a monstrous entity. It is depraved relentless in its vicious pursuit to maim and devour the hearts of other creatures, holding a specific hatred for humans and elves. Even injured, these creatures will hunt down detected foes, until at least one of them is dead.
Their feathering from a distance could be considered beautiful, and with wings tucked, settled upon the ground, the Peryton might pass for a lesser woodland being. The moment one gets closer, though, you'll notice a good many things are off.
First, actually, would be the smell. In this case, a lack of one. Less sensitive noses would identify the creature as human, but those with a modicum of training or enhanced primal senses would pick no smell at all, coupled with an overwhelming sense of dread.
Standing over 7 feet tall, the Peryton's demonic stag face smiles with rows of razor-sharp teeth. The plumage of their chest might tell you their gender (males tend to be blue, while females are a pale white), but soon you won't care. Their antlers, jet black and harder than steel, are used to rend and impale, and their depraved form is resilient to all but magical weapons.
As their eyes of orange flame pierce through the fog, any light that passes over them lies about their true form.
For you see, the most peculiar element of a Peryton is their shadow. This winged, evil beast will hiss before you, but its shadow will present as human. Always. Human.
This oddity presents a plethora of curious theories, but few had evidence to match.
Some Loremasters believe the false shadow to be an echo of the last creature the Peryton killed. Given its penchant for violence against humans and elves, this was the prevailing theory for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the haphazard findings of one Grenaldi Mayweather, a gnomish priest under the cover of twilight, who one night happened upon a nest of the creatures in the Ghastshadow Mountains. She observed the flock tear into a pack of roaming Aarakocran, ambushed or set upon as they slept. Just as history told us, the Peryton ripped open the chests of their victims, consuming the still-warm hearts with grim satisfaction. Mayweather watched in dread curiosity, eager to solve the riddle of the shadow... But the humanoid echo remained. No winged shadows manifested.
Mayweather was lucky to escape with her life, but returned soon after for more observation, this time with an elite guard to watch her back; the knowledge was too important not to be careful...
Hearts and Minds
It would also be Mayweather that would witness the first instance of a Peryton being born. Though there are documented family units of a male and a female Peryton (though they'd be hard-pressed to care for their young, if not kill them), this instance within the nest involved two females.
Both left to hunt, smelling blood on the wind. They were gone for hours. When they returned, blood dripping from their claws, they delivered several chunks of flesh to the next to feast upon, and a still writhing human man! Mayweather watched as her lookout - a young brown-eyed ranger - was clutched by one of the pair and pulled toward the other, like it was presenting a gift. Firey smoke and twisting gray tendrils spilled from the one in waiting, before its teeth sank into the man's chest, ripping his beating heart from the cavity. His body went limp, and Peryton female scarfed down the heart, her eyes shifting translucence in the penumbra.
Then Mayweather heard a sound that sent chills down her spine.
Like an echo of a child's laugh. A giggle in the gloom, small and innocent. Then it grew, warping and dancing along the walls, raising in pitch and warble, until it is a chorus of cackling. The other eyes in the nest rise and join in, their necks convulsing and twisting backward with the sound, a malevolent inversion of mirth and satisfaction. The sound becomes a beast in and of itself, a roiling mass of whoops and hollers, striking chords and stark dissonance. Vibrations spill out the mouth of the cave, whispers at the ears of the hidden spies, and shouts upon the walls that surround them.
The guards around the gnome begin to clutch and claw at their ears, the cacophony bringing a few to tears. Mayweather instinctually covers the sob of her closest ranger, insisting that he get himself together.
The smell of dread hits Mayweather's nostrils as she dares to peer into the nest. All the Peryton stare straight ahead, their mouths gaping open - a frozen, terrifying smile. Until they all snap their eyes...to her.
They made it out with one casualty. Her second blue-eyed scout, snatched by a rogue talon before he could slip into the wooden door of a magnificent mansion.
Safe within the dimensional space, Mayweather vigorously wrote down her conclusions:
1. New Peryton are born by a female consuming the heart of a freshly killed humanoid.
2. Their shadows flicker into monstrous forms during the process of incubation.
3. When incubation begins, nearby Peryton gain heightened senses to protect the pregnant female, becoming even more violent. The more there are, the stronger the pack's senses.
Her fourth note she added weeks later, when her guards - while out hunting - were set upon by a pair of Peryton, seemingly tracking them for miles. When they finally confronted the creatures, they were surprised to see two young Peryton, newborns - one with brown eyes and the other with blue, both with shadows of human form. ...Felling the creatures was tough, but much worse for their psychology. Poor guys.
4. Newborn Peryton share the eyes of the creature whose heart they were born from. As they get older, and kill more for their own survival and pleasure, the blood tarnishes the eye color, shifting it to match the orange-red of the others.
Mayweather and others theorized that the first Peryton was a cursed human or elf, twisted by a god of chaos. The bards of old expanded upon this, marking its origin to infidelity, curses, and carrions feasting on cursed corpses.
Given Mayweather's most recent expeditions, however, the clearest line exists through pure vehemence. These aren't cursed humans - they were MADE by something. Sometime in the first age, when great magics could be wielded by mere mortals, a wizard general - whose name is lost to time - sought a tactical edge against the elven and human alliances. So he juxtaposed what he had on hand with fiendish blood. An intellect unmatched, the alchemist rivaled the gods for a moment - before his heart was ripped from his chest...
Mind the shadows. Watch the skies.
See you next time.
Obi-Wan Kenobi had some problems. Let's talk about it.
(Spoiler Warning for: Seasons 1 & 2 of The Mandalorian, Season 1 of The Book Of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi)
Disney Has A Problem With Connective Tissue
There is a reason we connected so strongly with The Mandalorian.
We didn't know him. He had no connection to other canon lore in any direct way. We got to learn who he was and how he operates through his actions, words, and interaction with (at the time) The Child. It became a deep space-western of high stakes and interesting characters, most of whom are just regular-ass people, Mando included.
I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to hang out with this regular guy (who is an excellent warrior, mind you) as he gets beat up, thrown around, shot up, and has to think his way in and around his threats. He ain't got no magic floaty crap; this bloke has to figure this stuff out with context clues, connections, and a quickdraw blaster holster.
It took its time like a new age western, settled in to the quiet spaces between planets, and we didn't know where it was headed.
Season 2 did well enough, but I could feel the bloat. The intimate concentration was beginning to rip and tear as we were introduced to other fan favorites like Ahsoka and Boba Fett (I'm coming for you, bounty hunter), both played well by their respective actors...but if you've got Ahsoka and Boba Fett, then the hooks of connection are being pushed into the skin. It's hard, because it can feel good to see them, but they always threaten to overstay their welcome, and make Mando a sidecar in his own show.
I loved the introduction of the Darksaber at the close of Season 1, and the implications it presents. For Mando to claim it at the Season 2 close is epic and intriguing. Even the introduction of The Heiress herself, Bo-Katan, didn't bother me one bit. It expands the setting to other possibilities rooted in Mandalorian lore, and remains unconnected to anything in established canon. ...I knew a Jedi needed to show up to get Grogu. And seeing a Jedi ripping through droids was also awesome.
Did it HAVE to be Luke?
Sure, we KNOW Luke. We know he's a good guy, fans like him, and he's a canonical throwback.
But hear me out here... Did it HAVE TO BE HIM?
We have established through multitudes of extra media that numerous Jedi did indeed survive Order 66. One of my favorites, Plo Koon, a Kel-Dor Jedi, was killed when his ship was shot down in Episode III...but when has that ever stopped anyone? Dude can breathe in space and force-healing is an established power among old force users, plus Bacta Tanks exist. Heck, make him half-droid if you want him scarred in some way (characters have come back from worse). HE would have been an interesting choice.
...Because (and say it with me now) WE DON'T KNOW HIM. There are enough fans out there that know OF him, and that rarity breeds creativity and connection. It also opens the door for new stories to be told.
Luke Skywalker...everyone knows. He's the "safe" option.
Except he isn't safe. If episodes 7-9 are canon, we KNOW what happens to Luke, but Disney's pretty embarrassed about parts of those films, so they won't try to connect things, but then they will, but then they won't. All the while their special effects artists are bending over backwards to bleed money into their deep fake technology to make a Luke Skywalker that's 30 years younger. Yeah, Luke was the SAFE option.
If they went with Plo Koon, or any other B-list Jedi that could have survived Order 66 (and there are a few), or shoe-in Mara Jade for no apparent reason, it would have opened doors to new storytelling possibilities. Instead they closed the loop...only to rip it open later in the only episode of Boba Fett I was actually 100% engaged in (sorry Boba). You know the one I'm talking about - the one that starts with Mando wrecking shop, cutting folks in half with a blade he doesn't know how to use, cuts himself with it, then limps through a casino in one great long take. The one dripping with cinematography, atmosphere, quiet, and excellent performances.
I thought Boba Fett was a hit and a miss. I enjoyed his flashbacks, and waited patiently for him to be a badass...and was disappointed at almost every turn. I enjoyed how he would gather the outsiders into his employ...if only they didn't look so ridiculous given the rest of the city's aesthetic. I enjoyed his relationship with the Tuskens...unfortunately someone murdered them all and he never questioned his information. I was waiting for him to get a few steps ahead of his enemies...it took a long long time, and he still wrecked half the city he was ruling. What a guy. AND I enjoyed the show start to finish. It did some things remarkably well; I wasn't disappointed...I was just waiting for the writers to push the envelope. Boba Fett is honorable, which is awesome, but he doesn't have to be "good." They touched this line, but they didn't walk it. Still playing it more safe, less interesting.
Maybe we don't need to explore pre-existing characters. Maybe what we crave are new stories; new possibilities. Disney has a bad habit of bleeding the same cow dry, then pumping it full of necrotic energy just to get a little more. It can create stories devoid of tension, ideas, and creativity - mountains of missed opportunities in the face of playing it "safe".
Kenobi Starts Strong
Obi-Wan Kenobi (sorry, his name is Ben, he gets mad about it) joins the long string of tired old men no longer at the peak of their combat performance. He's lost most of his connections to the Force, he's buried his lightsaber, he smells bad, and he hides in a cave. He's also lost his moral center, content to watch injustice play out in front of him.
Now, before I harp on the guy too hard, he has good reason. The show sets up our main antagonists immediately - The Inquisitors. A bunch of Sith enforcers under Darth Vader with propeller double lightsabers. First seen in Star Wars Rebels and the Fallen Order video game, they are cruel and sadistic, and their leader speaks to one of the core themes: Jedi hunt themselves through their actions. Jedi cannot stand by and allow injustice to rule; they must act, they must help, they must fight - so they are caught by their actions. As if on cue, they out a young Padawan on the run, but lose him in the crowd. He goes to Obi-Wan for help, but is turned away; our protagonist finds him hanging from a scaffold in the town square later.
Obi-Wan is doing what he needs to stay hidden. He isn't helping; he doesn't fight for the people, he stays out of things. At this moment, he isn't a hero. Which is frustrating for us - but that's the point. His arch is established; we're going to see him RISE.
The Lack Of Stakes
He rises through his relationship with a young Princess Leia, who is kidnapped by The Inquisitors in an attempt to out Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Inquisitors are playing off the idea that Kenobi fought with Senator Organa in the Clone Wars, so he'll help him out by getting his daughter back, but it's an interesting gamble.
Nonetheless he finds her, gets her out, and rekindles some of his connection to the Force by saving her from falling off a building. It's a good string of scenes, but I KNOW that nothing happens to Leia, so any time she is in danger...I'm just waiting for it to end, or someone to save her, because she CAN'T DIE. She literally has plot armor; and hurting kids just wouldn't be cool anyway, so she'll be dandy. Those moments act like puzzles; it isn't IS SHE going to make it out, it is HOW she is going to make it out. Luck, and stupid guards, most of the time.
Kenobi is also equally safe, though he can certainly get beat to hell. In fact, any scene involving Vader (you heard me) and Kenobi, is pretty good, and Vader ain't playing around; he is there to torture his old master. And where Kenobi has been aging and losing connection to the force, Vader's been (presumably) hunting down Jedi and killing them (lore pre-established in some games and I am HERE TO SEE IT please).
Let's talk about Vader for a second here. Dude's powerful, like super powerful. He's been juicin' on Dark Side gains in the off-season and it shows. Guy can sense folks inside ships, force choke through screens, pull ships out of the sky like it was nothing... But conveniently has a hard time sensing his old master when the plot deems it so. When he IS on screen, hoo boy is it cool, but you just feel bad for Kenobi - who's outmatched, outgunned, and only a shadow of who he once was. So instead of two old masters clashing, it's a cat and mouse.
Now, a "cat and mouse" works well to illustrate the depth of threat here, but Disney messed up the delivery. Imagine for a second that Kenobi believes Anakin dead, begins getting pursued by the Inquisitors, closing in, then is forced into a corner, dispatching them one by one and getting messed up in the process...only at the end for Vader to show up...and Kenobi doesn't know who he is! At least not at first; he'll sense him, be confused, and then the shock hits him - Anakin is alive inside this twisted machine of malice and hate, and he's here to kill him.
WHAT A REVEAL THAT WOULD BE. Crushing, terrible, and dangerous. Just barely escaping to regroup. Oh, it would have been beautiful!
What we got? Still menacing, but no gauntlet of Inquisitors. Lots of running and hiding, because dude hasn't swung a lightsaber in years (and it shows). And he knew it was coming - the concept of Anakin alive was fed to him by another Inquisitor. It sets up some cool flashbacks, but they could have come later; there was no imperative reason that pushed those elements to the fore. Which brings me to my other major gripe.
Setup and Payoff
There is a term in film referred to as Chekhov's Gun. It is a dramatic principle coined by one Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. It states that all significant details introduced into a story should serve a narrative function, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements that never come into play act as "false promises" to the audience, eroding their trust and enjoyment.
Now, Kenobi is pretty tight for its runtime, and does a decent job in setting up elements to be used later. A Jedi's entire power set is a framework for Chekhov's Gun. Show them studying a new power? It should show up later in an impactful way. They retrieve their lightsaber? They better pull that sucker out when it matters.
And it works for everything. Want a character to have an impactful, dramatic sacrifice involving a thermal detonator? Show them clipping that detonator to their belt, or talking about it. A character mentions their undercover experience? Time for an infiltration!
These aren't cheap tricks. It's filmmaking 101. A more broad term for this is Setup and Payoff. If you introduce an element, there should be a satisfying payoff for it. Time isn't usually a factor - some elements play the long game, some are a few seconds of sequence. A change of lighting can be its own setup, and the flare of a blade summoned into being is the payoff. Subtle and elegant, loud and obnoxious, it fits all types.
But you have to plan for these things. It requires time, practice, and follow-through. Unfortunately, it seems, Disney built many setups and either haven't paid them off yet, or forgot about them altogether (and considering there's no real reason for a Season 2, my money's on the latter).
Below you'll find a few instances that stung - wonderful setups with either no payoff, or something less than satisfying:
1. In the first episode, we're shown Kenobi slicing meat in an assembly line and walking down the line to get his wages. The poor guy ahead of him notices that the wage is half from the day before, but the boss is aggressive about it, so he just takes it. Kenobi watches, gets his pay, and doesn't cause trouble. My thought: Kenobi's in a dark, repressed place, but he's a good guy; maybe he'll check up on that guy's family later and send them some food that he caught in the wilds, or we'll see him back on the line at the end and he sticks up for the guy, using his Jedi Mind Trick to help out the workers subtly. REALITY: we never see that old gentleman again. Can this still work to illustrate Kenobi's state of mind on the surface? Of course! But it feels like a missed opportunity.
2. Somewhere near the middle of the run, Leia gets captured, threatened, and then strapped to some machine. The Inquisitor gets called away, leaving two Stormtroopers to guard her. Then the lights go out. My thought: we're going to see a lightsaber blur into being just long enough to watch a trooper get cut down, the other's gonna' freak out and fire, either hitting his buddy and then getting a blaster bolt deflected into him or get cut down just as fast. Kenobi's cut through droids and blast doors like butter before, this is going to look so cool! REALITY: a blue lightsaber springs into being and clocks a Stormtrooper, bouncing off of him like a baseball bat (what?), then cuts him down in 3-4 swings. The other guy, apparently too slow to notice or shoot, shouts into the darkness before Kenobi reappears and baps him around a bit before we finally see a streak through his armor. My issue: Lightsabers don't behave like that. They never have. They deflect blaster fire, which isn't stopped by trooper armor. They punch through blast doors feet thick. Those troopers aren't my man Mando in bescar plate; lightsabers cut through them like butter. This fact is compounded by at least three other instances where higher level soldiers are straight up STABBED THROUGH THE CHEST by a lightsaber, and a door is sliced open. Just...why? Stabbing's no big issue, but slicing's bad?
3. Our Inquisitor of spoilers goes by the name Reva. She is ruthless, rageful, and trying hard to get that sweet sweet Grand Inquisitor title. Turns out (SPOILERS) she's actually a youngling who lived through the purge at the Jedi temple. She says she played dead, but it's unclear if Anakin just missed her or didn't deal a killing blow. Reva has joined the Inquisitors and risen through the ranks in order to kill Vader herself; revenge for those he slaughtered during the purge. Kenobi guesses this with previous clues and the two hatch a plan where Kenobi can get some rebels to safety and she can get her revenge. My thought: Vader's coming and he's coming fast; I can't wait to see him wreck shop! I heard that he can pull ships, so maybe he'll grab onto their runaway ship and Kenobi will resist him, which distracts him long enough for Reva to strike. She'll get a few good hits in, Obi-Wan escapes, and then she's done for, but it'll be a poignant duel. REALITY: Vader wrecks shop, ripping a ship from the sky faster than anyone I've seen, and starts tearing it apart like a cat on meth. Then, a SECOND ship that we've never seen before lifts off at blinding speed and zooms into space (looked janky as hell). Dude can sense everything, but couldn't tell that the ship he just turned into tissue paper was empty or that the one 5 feet from it had his old master. So...after Kenobi and company are long gone...Reva finally makes her move. He stops her, toys with her, it's not even a fight. Then he stabs her through the chest and she dies. What did she think was going to happen? Kenobi gave her an opening and she didn't take it.
4. ...Reva doesn't die. Lady gets stabbed literally through the chest by a freaking lightsaber and just...walks it off. My thought: ...okay. Well, maybe she can spin a little redemption and join Obi-Wan in the final battle; maybe she fights off the other Inquisitors so Kenobi can get to Vader! REALITY: (In a move that feels like a quick re-shoot) Reva learns that Vader has a son on Tatooine, gets her broken ass up and over there in record time, BEATS UP UNCLE OWEN AND AUNT VARU, chases little Luke into the desert and makes him slip on some rocks and get knocked out, then draws her lightsaber with the intent to kill him. ...Except she can't do it, she LITERALLY CAN'T. So what stops her is that she sees herself in the boy and returns him to his family. Not sure what they'll tell little Luke about his harrowing experience... What a waste.
The most frustrating thing about these is that if someone just took some time and thought about the whole package, the internal consistency of their own series, took one more sweep in the writer's room...all of this could have been cleaner, stronger, and more satisfying. In the end, it feels so rushed for something that needed to feel thoughtful and genuine.
In a nutshell, episode to episode, the series still delivers on its emotional beats. It does a lot of things VERY well (showing a galaxy actually occupied by troops, Imperial sympathizers, spies, and the beginnings of a rebellion), and our young Princess Leia has Carrie Fisher's tenacity down pat.
Was it truly necessary to include Luke and Leia to this degree?
Luke's inclusion, from a distance, makes sense. Kenobi and Owen are friends, or at least used to be. By the time Episode IV rolls around, Owen wants Luke to have nothing to do with "old Ben", and Luke doesn't have any relationship with the guy. He's supposed to protect from a distance and be a recluse; that makes sense.
Leia on the other hand... If she shared this beautiful friendship (and it is quite wonderfully done, mind you) with Obi-Wan Kenobi...then why does she feel nothing when he dies in Episode IV (it barely registers for her). She knows OF him through her father, Senator Organa, but if this whole adventure happened in the first place, did she just forget all about him? Do they visit, do they talk, do they learn of each other as Leia grows up? (if they're trying so hard to connect relationships, this one hits strangely for me, like we're missing something)
And how does Luke have no knowledge of the force or lightsabers if a literal Sith chased him into the desert. Now, Owen knew she was coming and told Luke that it was a Tusken Raider, and you could argue that perhaps he never saw the lightsaber, but again if THIS happened, other events don't add up.
Now a lot of these gripes and elements are the product of a changing landscape and an expansion of creative content. Not everything can line up perfectly all the time, wrapped up in a nice neat bow. I should be happy we got the show at all. And, considering that what they're connecting is nearly a 50 year span of creative content, including sweeping changes to film and television technology, how we consume and discuss media, and how companies react to those discussions.
WHAT IF YOU JUST DIDN'T INCLUDE THEM?
The show is about the Inquisitors hunting down Jedi and Vader seeking Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's about Kenobi's realization that Anakin is alive, but actually dead, and that the idea of Vader killed what he once was. It's about their clash, and Kenobi's rise from a man in hiding back to a Jedi Master. It's about him subduing threats to himself and the boy quietly in the sand, or across the galaxy in the forests of Alderaan. I am here for THAT story; where he can never find true connection, but must protect while he struggles with his guilt over Anakin.
Sure, Leia did great. Props to her. Excellent performance.
Sure, Leia's new droid will sell a million toys. It's adorable.
Sure, Kenobi and Vader's duel will elevate other Star Wars content because it really was that good.
It just didn't push any boundaries. Everyone acts the way you expect them, lines written that we've heard a million times before, and outcomes that MUST work out...because other content exists. The need for Disney to CONNECT every piece of their Star Wars universe has pushed them into difficult corners. For now, we can shrug and let it go. But how long can they do this before they have drained every last ounce of story from known characters and they must (GASP) head in a new direction? (let's hope they actually plan it this time)
It was good enough.
It was safe.
And not very interesting.
May the Force Be With You.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Honestly, I write what I want when I want. Often monster lore, sometimes miniature showcases, and the occasional movie/show review.