Friday, July 24, 2009

John Adams

TMGS Update
I'm pretty excited about "The Maimed God's Saga" right now because the end is definitely approaching. I've worked out the module transitioning issues and have heavily debugged the scenes that bridge the second act which takes place in Navatranaasu, and the third which takes place (nominally) in Waterdeep. In addition, I've worked a bit on the intro into Act III to sharpen the opening moments and fix a couple issues that must have been introduced with the later patches, and I'm now ready to really buckle down and finish up the play-testing of Act III. As long-time readers may remember, I've already done serious work on the final act, so it should go faster than previous acts. And when that's done, I move into campaign-level beta testing!

I also made one other decision. Originally, the adventure started at 5th level and would take the PC to 8th level, meaning that 8th level would be achieved right after beating the final bad guy and gaining the last big chunk of experience for the adventure. After some play-testing, I realized the full adventure was going to last around 14 to 15 hours. After some thought, I concluded that 3.75 hours per level advancement struck a better balance between leveling too fast (and levels not meaning anything) and leveling too slow (and players becoming frustrated) than 5 hours per level. This decision then necessitated increasing the difficulty of the later encounters including virtually all of them in Act III.

I will be slowed next week, though. I have a week-long trip for work to the Baltimore area (Fort Meade), so work will be zero for several days. Bummer.

John Adams
Looking at the IP map of my readers below, the heaviest concentration - no surprise - is from North America and Europe. However, it is interesting to see the spots from some more exotic locales (from my perspective). Hello to whoever's in Sri Lanka, Siberia, Iceland... And it looks like there's only about one person each in New Zealand and Mauritius that cares, but they come back a ton by the size of their dots. But I digress...

Where I was going is that John Adams will be of limited interest to half my audience, but for those who have no reason to know, he was the second President of the United States. Among the first few Presidents and their associates, collectively called the Founding Fathers, he is among the lesser known even to Americans. His administration, the only one of the first five to last just a single term, is nestled between two of the giants of American history: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

To briefly place Adams a bit more into historical context, several of the first few Presidents are generally considered among the best there have been. Washington, of course, established the basis of almost everything that the office entails, and his revolutionary credentials as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army lends him additional historical weight. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and, as president, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which gave the geographic impetus to the unofficial U.S. policy for most of the 19th century known as Manifest Destiny. James Madison wrote the Constitution and, as president, oversaw the efforts in The War of 1812, which confirmed the results of the American Revolution, even fleeing into exile as British soldiers burned Washington D.C. James Monroe was the youngest of the group and had limited Revolutionary credentials, but his eponymous doctrine set the philosophical basis for American foreign policy in the 19th century. In between all these is John Adams, who did what, exactly?

Several years ago, David McCullough wrote the definitive biography of Adams, and his reputation has seen steady improvement over the last decade. It was this book that led to HBO's production of John Adams, a seven-part miniseries that details the events of Adam's adult life. Last night, I finished the seventh part and have mixed feelings on it.

The series opens during the Boston Massacre of 1770. I did not remember until I watched the series, but Adams was the lawyer who defended the British soldiers in the incident, eventually winning their acquittals. This made him tremendously unpopular among Bostonians at first, but it eventually played into a reputation that he was a man of principal, a reputation that helped him get nominated as a Massachusetts representative to the First Continental Congress where he would meet and befriend many of the men who would become the core of the Revolution only a year or two later.

Up front, my biggest gripe with the series is that it was too short for the subject matter it wanted to cover. From 1770 to Adams' death in 1826 is a long time to cover in seven episodes of an hour and a half each. This results in break-neck pacing that makes the episodes feel more like a series of vignettes than a complete narrative. The producers made the choice to cover all the important stuff, but as many of these events were years apart, it means the viewer often careens wildly from one situation to the next, often with very different political backdrops that aren't well explained. Friends in one scene are enemies ten minutes later without any explanation as to the events that led there.

I also think there were some pretty horrific casting choices, the worst of which was Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton. Now, I've seen Sewell in other work, and he's a competent actor, but Hamilton he is not. He simply fails to convey the notion that he's a financial wizard, instead appearing flighty and intellectually vapid. Incidentally, Hamilton's relationship with Adams is the basis for my comment above about friends becoming enemies in literally ten minutes for no apparent reason.

As bad as some casting decisions were, others were brilliant. The two leads, Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail, completely nail their roles. It is their relationship, more than any other, that defined Adams and his career. In a series that too often took a strictly factual approach to its narrative, these two managed to get the lion's share of characterization moments, and they made the most of them. The two laugh together, argue, exchange knowing glances... in short, do everything necessary to show that, whatever we may think of marital relationships in the 19th century, these two were both the best of friends and intimate confidants. They cry with each other through the bad times (the deaths of two children) and bolster each other through the darkest days of his administration. It is not for nothing that Abigail Adams is considered among the most influential first ladies of the 19th century.

For example, in part 6 Adams is contemplating whether his course of neutrality between Britain and France is wise. (In Europe, Napoleon was quickly rising, and the two nations were already openly hostile to each other.) He is contemplating giving in to those in his party who want war with France and is wrestling with the decision during a sleepless night following news of the American ambassadors' humiliating dismissal by Talleyrand in Paris. News of the dishonor is rapidly being disseminated in the press by those who desire war and are trying to apply pressure to Adams. Yet it is Abigail in the dark of the night who hugs him and urges him to stand firm in his conviction.

But the support also goes the other way. In one scene, Abigail reads an editorial in the paper to John as they sit for an afternoon tea together. Ever more irritated, Abigail is practically screaming as she gets to the finale, in which the writer calls Adams (essentially) "an ugly, vain, toothless, and condescending cripple." She throws the paper down in disgust, at which point Adams only peeks out over his teacup and proclaims wryly, "Well, I'm not crippled." Abigail smiles but is not really mollified. She returns that they would never have said the same about Washington, to which he again looks at her over his teacup a bit mischievously and replies, "They would have called him toothless." (Washington had notoriously bad dentures.) The tact finally works, as Abigail looks him in the eye, realizes he's winding her up a bit, and then the two begin to laugh together. These scenes are just two of many that illustrate the deep bond the two share.

However, as good as these two were, on a personal level I was most struck by Stephen Dillane, who played Thomas Jefferson. While he obviously got no where near the screen time that the leads did, he nevertheless stole what time he got. Most amazingly, he did so without saying very much. Jefferson was notoriously quiet, choosing to listen much and speak little. A shy man more inclined to introspection and solitude, he still managed to achieve the Presidency, a fact which argues for incredible personal magnetism. Dillane managed to achieve all of this, conveying most of it with very few words and a quiet, yet powerful, voice. I had never heard of Dillane before, but if his other work is anywhere near the quality of this, I'm a fan.

There are many striking moments in Dillane's portrayal, but I'll pick just one to illustrate. In an early scene, Adams and Benjamin Franklin argue over the words of Jefferson's initial draft of the Declaration of Independence. They eventually decide that Jefferson's phrase "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable..." should be rewritten as "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." and then look to Jefferson, sitting some ways off apparently lost in his own thoughts (see the last picture), for approval. He only shrugs nonchalantly. Taking this as an affirmation, they turn to the next phrase before he quietly inserts, "Every phrase was chosen with utter precision." Dillane manages to deliver the line with a subtle sense of authority that perfectly conveys a sense of how the quiet Virginian would become the basis for a political party and an entire movement.

I don't normally comment about make-up in my reviews, but the work here was striking in this case. Seeing as how the actors all had to portray their characters from the thirties on up in some case to their nineties, the make-up artists had their work cut out for them, and I must say they did a spectacular job. (Of course, the actors all did a good job as well.) With only a single exception in the last episode, I was overall amazed by how seamlessly and believably the characters aged, and the last episode gets a pass a bit as it covered the time after Adams' presidency (almost 26 years.)

That said, I do look forward to the historical series that doesn't feel the need to show how grubby life was by having the obligatory surgery scene where some poor soul is getting a body part sawed off without anesthetics. Liquor him up and have him bite on a rag while we saw through bone... It was new in "Gone with the Wind," but eighty years on I think I've got it. We should all be thankful we live in the 21st century. Ah, well... Two scenes, but mercifully, they were both short.

The costuming was plush, although not on a scale of "The Tudors" or "Rome," but then it never could be. Life in colonial America was never going to possess the color or richness of life in the Tudor court. It certainly got the job done.

The music didn't stand out for me. I'm noticing that this is a common note in my reviews, which is strange seeing as how I love music. That said, most of the time I notice music is when it detracts from the show, and it certainly didn't here. I thought the main theme was suitably majestic and "colonial American" sounding, but my wife didn't care for it at all. So the vote there's 1-1.

As a side note, to any who watch the series, there's an especially well-done scene about midway through when Adams is appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain (under the Articles of Confederation). I didn't realize he had been, so when this scene came up, I looked to my wife and said, "Boy, is that going to be awkward!" And it was. The point where he is first introduced to King George III, played by Tom Hollander, was one of the most deliciously pregnant pauses followed by a series of unsure glances and exchanged "ummms" in the history of television. Who knows how the moment actually went, but the two participants in the scene certainly provided a memorable moment that will stick in my mind for a while.

Overall, I'd recommend the series to those interested in the subject matter. It's certainly not flawless, but it is entertaining and well worth the ten or so hours you'll sink into it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Places I've Visited

As I surfed the net, I found a couple cool applications that allow one to track the places he or she has been. On a whim, I checked off my travels and included them at the bottom of my blog. What I learned is that there are so many more places to go. Actually, I already knew this, but a graphic representation really brings it home.

This coming November, I'll hit Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. My wife and I have gone to Europe a number of times (and I went several times before I met her), but we're excited to be going somewhere a little different this year. Eventually we'll get to Asia. But the Atlantic seems to take forever to cross; I can't even fathom the boredom associated with crossing the Pacific.

John Adams
As a heads up, my wife and I have been chugging through the HBO miniseries "John Adams" on DVD. I'll review it when we've finished. Thus far, I'm impressed. It might be of limited appeal to those outside the U.S., but then again, good TV is good TV, and if you like history...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I Hate Cutscenes!

I hate cutscenes worse than any other part of mod making, but I sucked it up and finished the major one I spoke of last time. It's still not quite what I envisioned, but it certainly works, and I think it remains pretty compelling. That finished my work on all notes I had from my last playthrough of Act II.

I then turned to Act I again. I rewrote a couple dialogs, cleaned up some scripting, and added another encounter. Then I started another play-through from the start of Act I intending to go through the end of Act II and even into Act III. As it turns out, I need to look into some issues regarding changing between modules within a campaign. It should be easy to figure out.

During the play-through, however, I managed to find about twenty issues, mostly misspellings or bad punctuation, and I wiped all but one out already. I still have a little polishing of Act III that I know needs to be completed, but the bottom line is I'm getting into campaign-level testing at last. The light at the end of the tunnel is definitely approaching!

So I have another screenshot from a recent playthrough. Nothing exciting, but it's part of the dialog the PC has with Tancred as the two investigate an especially grisly scene. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Taking Stock of the Situation

It's been about a while since my last update on TMGS. Unfortunately, my progress has been somewhat slow, but as it has been a month, there's still quite a bit to talk about.

Up front, there've been a couple tough decisions. The first is that I'm about 99% sure that my hope for original music is gone. I'm not going to go really in-depth on my rationale, but I will say that given the current economic outlook as well as my own shifting priorities, I just can't justify spending the kind of money on the software that it will take to get it done. I'm going to try to find some suitable music in the public domain instead. Frankly, I took a long time to come to this decision, and I'm not thrilled about it. Most of the major themes for TMGS are running around in my head even as I write this, so it's not a matter of not being able to come up with them. Disappointing, but life goes on. Maybe one day...

Second, I've not looked incredibly hard, but I have looked a bit and I followed up what leads were suggested to me in various forums. However, I've not found a 2D artist that's willing to contribute around 15 drawings for free, so the intro and final movies are in jeopardy. I've been looking through online images to see if I can get enough to cobble together a movie that looks to have a unified drawing style. I'm close, but there are a few gaps. Amazingly, the gaps are actually what I would think are the easier drawings. For example, I'd like to find a silhouette of a man and woman walking into the sunset holding hands. There are several that I've found online, but all of them have people wearing what is obviously modern clothing, and that won't work. It makes it kind of hard to have a movie that depicts the PC and companion "living happily ever after," and without that slide, the ending movie would be really lame. So, if anyone reading this is willing to try their hand at about 4-5 pictures (and can draw), I'd appreciate it if you piped up.

So what have I done? I finished the play-through I talked about last time and took down 163 notes, 162 of which I have now corrected. The last one is a big one that will take some time. Just yesterday I finished the 162nd note, which concerned a nagging doubt I had in regards to the final dungeon of Act II: namely that it was too short. Initially, it was just a series of three rooms, each of which had an important encounter, but that seemed a little too rushed. After playing it a couple times, I finally gave in and redesigned the whole dungeon, including adding a couple more encounters, a new puzzle (of sorts), and some hopefully interesting things to investigate. To give you an idea, I've included the overhead map of the renovated dungeon. In the top left, if you look hard, you'll see three rooms surrounded by a red box. Those were the original dungeon, and all the rest, including area design, dialogs, scripting, etc. has been the task of the last week or so. I am much happier now with the final product.

The final note from my last play-through is in regards to a crucial point where the PC finally uncovers the identity of the opposing deity. It's done via a complicated dialog that's supposed to be full of pyrotechnics and very dramatic... only I have to admit that it falls completely flat. The idea in my head absolutely does not translate at all into the NWN2 medium, so I'm going to have to do a lot of rework. It might even require a whole new rewrite of the scene. I'm not looking forward to it, but it's necessary.

Other than that, I'd say Act II is now in a pretty high state of polish and fairly bug-free. Of course, I'll probably never be happy with the polish, even after release, but it has to be done some time...