Ten Great Science Fiction Films

With the release of Blade Runner 2049, it’s time for a sci-fic pick list. Here are my ten favorites. There are no Star Wars or James Cameron films here, just to get that out of the way.

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1. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. When I saw Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. And the scoring is genius, with earworms as compulsive as the themes of True Romance. It’s set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the sun’s core, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission is one calamity after another, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. One crew member is roasted by the sun’s rays when he goes EVA to repair ship damages. They respond to a distress call from another ship, which leads to more disaster, and to being stalked by a disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with (which is my #2 pick, below). Captain Kaneda’s death scene captures the visuals, scoring and dramatic intensity of the film, and a good illustration why it’s my favorite sci-fic film.

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2. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Even after decades and so many viewings I’m still terrorized by Alien. It’s a horror film with science-fiction dressing, and a ’70s product in every way, nothing like the quickfire plotting of the inferior sequels (making some allowances for the underrated Alien 3). Cameron’s sequel was an ’80s film in every way, an action blockbuster that made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens the eggs come from a queen, but Scott had envisioned a horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. It’s a film crafted with the care and discipline that’s rare these days, and it delivers genuine terror. Kane’s chestbursting remains the most pulverizing scene in the history of sci-fic cinema.

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3. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic. It has the ambitious concepts of the original, and it takes them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only criticism you can make are the plot holes which leave glaring coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography — as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Objectively I would call this the best sci-fic film of all time. I doubt there will ever be another as culturally significant. It’s a visual piece; in its two hours and 19 minutes, there are less than 40 minutes of dialogue. Kubrick said he wanted to reach a wide spectrum of people and make them think about humanity’s destiny, its role in the cosmos and its relationship to higher forms of life. I continue to marvel at the interplay between the start and finish. The Monolith appears among the primitive apes radiating its terrifying noise; they surround it, worship it, and learn to kill with intelligent purpose. At the end Bowman is transfigured into the Starchild, suggesting another evolutionary step. In between we are subjected to a visionary epic plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. There are shots of pure genius — like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century — the sort of inspirations that come once a decade in film making. I can think of one film only — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — that has come close to doing what Kubrick did here, in showing humanity humbled by celestial mysteries.

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5. Gattaca. Andrew Niccol, 1997. This film flew under the radar when it was released and it deserves more recognition. It’s not set in space at all, for space is the wishful fantasy of its lead character. He is barred from pursuing that dream on account of bad genes. In the world of 2022 (scary to think that’s only five years away now), it’s not white heterosexual men who are the superior elite, but rather the bioformed. Men and women of all ethnicities are born in test tubes to be engineered for ideal health, high IQs and a long life-spans. People who are born naturally are called “In-Valids” and consigned to a life of menial labor. Vince is one such In-Valid who refuses to accept his lot on life, and manages to work out a deal with a crippled elite. He uses Eugene’s genetic samples to get past Gattaca’s daily security checks, and undergoes training for a mission in space. Gattaca explores privilege by genetic purity in the context of Vince’s personal family baggage, and it’s a very moving drama.

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6. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho, 2013. The film is many things: post-apocalyptic sci-fic, a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. (To get an idea as to how insane, just watch this scene.) It’s set in 2031, long after an attempt to counteract global warming backfired and brought down an ice age. The only survivors boarded a train called the Rattling Ark, and after 17 years it keeps people alive in an extremely perverse state of affairs. The train is powered by a perpetual motion engine that travels a circumnavigational track (around the globe). The wealthy elite live in the front cars and the “low-lives” live in the back cars, in hideous conditions, under watch by guards, and given only protein bars to eat. Each carriage forward presents a deadly challenge for the protagonist who aims to get to the front and put things to right. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller with plenty of rapid-fire action, but also intelligent artistry and off-the-scales craziness.

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7. Event Horizon. Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. I would call this the most terrifying sci-fic film I’ve seen (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil. I watch it almost every year.

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8. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, 1982. It’s hard for me to rank Blade Runner, because the question is which version. The theatrical cut was cobbled together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers; it also contained voiceovers from Deckard to explain his backstory, which in my view condescends to the audience. In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear (a plus), as does the happy ending (a plus), and restores the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates (a big plus). But now there are scenes which call into question whether Deckard is human; he may actually be a replicant. I continue to have mixed feelings about this. Deckard’s humanity was never in question in Philip Dick’s novel, and the only reason Scott ran with the idea is because of a fluke — one of his film crew suggested the idea off-the-cuff. The Final Cut is the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and also happens to align with the tone and style of the sequel Blade Runner 2049; it includes some more violent scenes that were left out. That’s the best version, but weighing all them together, I put Blade Runner at #8. It’s a great film in any case.

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9. Europa Report. Sebastián Cordero, 2013. This came out the same year Gravity did. It was a good year for outer-space dramas, but Europa Report went unheard of, while Gravity got all the praise. It should have been the other way around. It takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t fear the “found footage” format. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a piece like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame (see above image) will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon. It’s that powerful in transporting you.

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10. The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers, 1999. Few people know that The Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with Tom Baker in Doctor Who. That story is The Deadly Assassin, which first aired in 1976, and the Matrix is even called that in the story, functioning exactly like the model we know — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. The Doctor subjects himself to the Matrix and enters a horrifying virtual reality to learn the identity of a political assassin. The Wachowski brothers took the idea and made a blockbuster franchise from it, but if you ignore the trashy sequels, the first Matrix still holds up well. The idea that we’re nothing more than batteries powering machines who rule over us (see above image), and that our lives are just dreams, is something I’ve found eerily plausible.

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Cone of Cold vs. Fireball

D&D players often wonder why cone of cold is a fifth level spell, while fireball is third level, when they do equivalent damage over multiple targets. The main advantage of cone of cold is that it’s completely safe to use. A fireball will explode and fill an area, and in a closed room that can just as easily kill you and your friends. If the room is smaller than the area of the fireball, you’ll get fried by the blowback. This is also true of the third level lighting bolt spell — there’s rebound potential if you judge the distance wrong. There are no rebound concerns at all with a cone of cold. It’s a ray of frost that can be shot at someone only 10 feet away, and with a wall behind the target, with no chance of damage being inflicted on the spellcaster.

Also with a cone of cold, you don’t have to worry too much about collateral damage. It’s far less likely than a fireball to destroy things. The saving throw vs. fireball for most items is extremely hard to make (17 for ivory, 18 for jewelry, 25 for scrolls, etc.), which means most items and valuables will be destroyed. Those same saving throws vs. frost tend to be ridiculously low (1 for jewelry, 2 for scrolls, 2 for ivory, etc.). Magic potions are really the only things you have to worry about (which need a 12 to save vs. the 15 for fireball).

Even outdoors there are advantages to using cold. Fireballs and lightning bolts can easily start forest fires, and burn down houses. Sometimes that might be desired, of course, but in most cases probably not.

Basically, cone of cold is a safe spell to use, and I suspect that’s why Gary Gygax made it higher level than fireball, even though the spells are equivalent in terms of the damage they inflict on their targets.

 

“No Separation of Church and State” in Medieval Europe: What it means and what it doesn’t

We’re often told there was no separation of church and state in medieval Christianity, and to an extent that’s true. Christian thought influenced political decision making. The church legitimated monarchs; secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

But — and this is a big but — there was a very clear divide between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other. In some Christian lands that distinction became so sharp you’d hardly guess this was the time before or during the crusades. In England, for example, common law derived from local judges, and no priest or church figures were involved in it. Or in Castile (the Christian part of Spain), where local tradition-based law was written down in the fueros (town’s rights), confirmed by the crown in royal charters, and administered by popularly elected local mayors — with again, no priestly or church involvement in the law’s creation or application.

Everywhere in Catholic Europe, civil law was administered by the laity. Priests stuck to their own law: canon law. That wasn’t true in the Islamic world, where sharia law was both religious and civil without distinction. Religion was the law (and still is today in many Islamic countries), which meant that Islam was the law. Sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from a the private to the public, and Muslim clerics ruled over the daily life of the Muslim population. The public spaces (in this so-called “golden age” of Islam) were regularly patrolled by religious functionaries who had the powers of a judge over the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior. One looks in vain to find an equivalent judge in medieval Catholic Europe — that is, a dispenser of the law who was also an expert in the New Testament and could officiate, lead prayers, and deliver homilies. Such priest-judges did not exist. And because common law evolved independent of royal or priestly power, it could have a politically liberating effect (long before the Magna Carta), not least in the ideas of people’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law. Freedom, in this sense, was wholly antithetical to sharia law in the Muslim world.

Something to bear in mind, the next time you hear that “church and state were inseparable” in medieval Europe. As far as the statement goes, it’s true, but few people understand what that means and what it doesn’t.

 

 

An Alternate View of the Kids’ D&D Classes

Yesterday I imagined the Stranger Things kids as D&D characters. I found a different take by Bob Al-Greene from last year. Our only point of agreement is Lucas.

According to Al-Greene:

  • Mike = paladin. The idea apparently being that as the group leader, he’s like a knight who acts in the cause of order and good. I got more creative with Finn, giving him a split personality. Unable to cope with Eleven’s sacrifices, he acquired a neutral evil alignment alongside his lawful good one. I made Finn a dual class wizard/ninja.
  • Lucas = ranger. Check. The hunter who uses wilderness skills to hunt down enemies is exactly what Lucas channeled when he split from the group and tried to find the gate on his own. I knew without thinking to make Caleb a ranger.
  • Dustin = bard. This is admittedly a good call. Dustin has a way with words and diplomacy, and uses those skills to keep the group united in the face of discord. But I’ve never had any use for the bard as a class, so I made Gaten a warrior.
  • Will = rogue. He was good at hiding in the Upside Down, which saved him, unlike Barb who was killed. I think that’s a rather superficial reason to make Will a rogue. Given everything he’s survived through the Upside Down — captivity and possession — I see him as rising from the ash anew, and so I made Noah a cleric.
  • Eleven = sorcerer. The idea being that she can use powers innately without needing to study. That makes sense, but I made Millie a wizard anyway, since I’ve always considered the sorcerer class to be redundant. Besides, I preserved her telekinetic and extra-planar powers as innate psionic abilities.

So basically my take on Mike and Will inverts that of Al-Greene. In my imagination, by the end of season 2, Finn/Mike has become the more roguish figure, and Noah/Will the more clerical. Our other differences are minor — except for the fact that Al-Greene gave the kids invincibly high levels.

The Stranger Things Kids as D&D Characters

Imagine the Stranger Things kids as a blend of their real-world personalities and their fictional ones on TV, and that they somehow became high-level D&D characters. That’s what this exercise is about.

It’s fun to watch interviews with these kids and see how different they are from their TV characters. It got me thinking. D&D is about playing the role of a character you are not. I’ve played many roles in my time, good and evil characters of almost any class and race. But I’ve never played a kid, let alone a kid juggling two personas. I ran with this idea. Namely, that the Stranger Things actors have found a way to a D&D world in which they suddenly have the abilities and talents of high-level characters. They’ve also acquired the memories and personas of the characters they play on TV, which blur with their real memories and personas. So for example, Noah “remembers” being trapped in the Upside Down, and later possessed, though that never happened to him. Finn is in love with Millie, because Mike loved Eleven. He remembers Eleven vanishing/dying, and so thinks of Millie as someone who is both dead and alive. Their identities overlap to the extent they call each other by their fictional names as often as their real ones — like they’re in a David Lynch film. Role-playing these kids should be challenging and a bit surreal.

Here’s how I imagine the kids. In a future post I will outline an adventure scenario suited to their high levels. (Hint: it will combine two of my six prize modules.)

1. Finn

Sex: Male
Age: 14
Class: Wizard/Ninja
Level: 9/11
Hit Points: 51
Armor Class:
# Attacks/Round: 1 (2 as ninja)
Alignment: Lawful Good/Neutral Evil
Str 9 Int 16 Wis 12 Dex 17 Con 13 Cha 15

Finn is the soul of the group and its nominal leader. He hides a deadly secret: an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder. The end of both seasons in Stranger Things saw tragedy on the character of Eleven (she either died or vanished, the second time maybe even for good), which was more than Mike Wheeler could handle. It gave Mike a split personality, causing him to alternate between a slightly depressed version of the Mike known by his friends, and a psychopathic murderer of bullies, scientists, and police officers. So Finn has acquired not only Mike’s persona (the lawful good one), but also Mike’s secret alternate persona (a neutral evil one). Most of the time he is in the former, but during times of stress (like D&D campaigns), he has a 20% per hour of sliding into the latter for 1-6 turns. No one is aware of Finn’s alternate evil ninja persona. They believe he is a dual class wizard/thief. While he uses his “thief” ninja abilities at will, he uses his “pure” ninja abilities (and his two attacks/round) only when in the evil persona and his friends can’t see his actions. All they witness in the evil persona are what appear to be mood swings: he speaks even less, and seems to mistrust everyone, no longer showing any signs of depression but rather hyper-alert.

He retains the group’s respect despite the toll of his depression and mood swings. He is in love with Millie, but afraid of being intimate with her for fear that she will either vanish or die on him “again”. In his more ineffectual moments, Millie will essentially take over by telling him what to do, becoming the group’s effective leader by proxy. Gaten mistrusts this, while Caleb is almost ready for a Millie takeover. Noah is completely devoted to Finn (he’s in love with him, on which see below), accepts his word even if it’s by Millie’s counsel, and would rebel only potentially if Finn’s evil side were to become clear.

Finn’s homicidal urges come from Mike Wheeler’s traumas. He hates bullies, thanks to Troy in season one and especially Billy in season two. He despises scientists for the way Eleven was abused as a lab rat. And he loathes police officers for the treacheries, as he sees them, of Sheriff Hopper, who in season one gave up Eleven’s location at the school (so that Hopper and Joyce could rescue Will), and then did even worse in season two. At the sight of any bully, scientist/alchemist/etc., or police official, he has an 70% chance of flipping to his evil side and staying in there until he assassinates (or tries to assassinate) the offender. If either Millie or Noah are threatened by anyone (beyond taking damage in standard combat scenarios), he has an 85% of going homicidal against the offender. If either Millie or Noah are killed, it’s a 100% guarantee. Going homicidal to protect Millie or Noah would not likely be taken as evidence that Finn has an evil side. But murdering pathetic bullies, innocent scientists or police officers — or demonstrating any overt ninja abilities — would obviously be a tip off that something is wrong, which is why Finn has to be circumspect in how he enacts on the urges of his evil personality.

Items of note

Sword of sharpness — short sword +3, on an unmodified roll of 17+ (or the required “to hit” roll, if it’s higher), the sword severs an arm or leg
Leather armor +3
Bag of holding
Crossbow, 24 bolts

Items kept secret

Shurikens — when used as an assassination weapon, increases kill likelihood by 10%
Telescoping pole (for pole vaulting)
Disguise kit

Magic Items:

Ninja Abilities

Open abilities (standard thief) — pick pockets (98%), open locks (82%), find/remove traps (80%), move silently (96%), hide in shadows (80%), climb walls (95%)
Secret abilities (exclusive to ninjas or assassins) — disguise (60%), tightrope walk (80%), pole vault (13.5′), fall (50′), escape (60%), backstab (x4), assassinate*

* Assassination: when a surprise hit is scored, Finn has a 99% of instantly killing a 0-3rd level target. His chance is 90% against a 4-5th level target, 80% against a 6-7th level target, 65% against an 8-9th level target, 50% against a 10-11th level target, 40% against a 12-13th level target, 30% against a 14-15th level target, 15% against a 16-17th level target, 5% against an 18th level or higher target. If he uses a shuriken (ninja star) as his weapon of choice, the chance increases by 10% (but can never be higher than 99%).

Wizard spells

First level — hold portal, identify, magic missile, obscuring mist, sleep, unseen servant
Second level — dark vision, darkness, ESP, invisibility, mirror image, web
Third level — dispel magic, fireball (x2), stinking cloud, vampiric touch
Fourth level — nightmare, phantasmal killer, remove curse, shout
Fifth level — cone of cold (x2), passwall

2. Caleb

Sex: Male
Age: 15
Class: Ranger
Level: 10
Armor Class: 1
# Attacks/Round: 1.5 (3 every 2 rounds)
Hit Points: 82
Alignment: Lawful Good
Str 11 (19) Int 15 Wis 14 Dex 15 Con 14 Cha 13

If not for the intrusion of Lucas’s persona, Caleb would be the group’s ideal leader. He’s gracious to a fault, understanding of people’s shortcomings, knows how to make people work together, and has the steel to make hard decisions. That caliber has been diminished somewhat by Lucas’s impatience and judgmental streak. His jealousy over Eleven in season one was forgivable. His treatment of Mike in season two less so.

The strained relationship between Caleb and Finn owes as much to one as the other, and the sort of thing that happens between best friends (which is what Mike and Lucas are). Caleb is unsympathetic to Finn and all but fed up with him, wishing he would stop being a pussy and get his shit together, while Finn has been downright nasty in his retaliations, going so far as to “bench” Caleb on one occasion at the most critical point during a campaign. (An incident which took all of Gaten’s reconciliation skills to smooth over.)

Caleb’s favored weapon is his Sword of the Bear, which twice per day allows him to run on level ground or uphill at twice his normal running speed for 20 rounds. It also allows him to roar as the fourth level wizard shout spell — an ear-splitting bear-like roar that deafens and damages creatures in its path. Any creature within a 30-foot range is deafened for 2-12 rounds and takes 5-30 hit points of sonic damage. (A successful save negates the deafness and reduces the damage by half.) Any exposed brittle or crystalline object or crystalline creature takes double the amount of sonic damage. A close second favorite weapon of choice is his Slingshot of Hyper-Inertia, which causes ammunition to do more damage the further it fires, up to a 40-foot mark.

Items of Note

Sword of the Bear — +2; allows running on level ground or uphill at twice normal speed for 20 rounds (twice/day); wielder may roar as a shout spell (twice/day)
Slingshot of Hyper-Inertia — range 40 feet, 1d6 damage at 10′ range, double at 20′, triple at 30′, and quadruple at 40′
Leather armor of underwater action — +3, confers the abilities to breathe in water and see in water (five times what normal light conditions in water allow)
Gauntlets of Ogre Power — confer a strength of 19
Rope of Climbing (120 feet)
Shield +2
Bag of holding

Tracking Abilities

Underground or Inside

  • target goes along normal passage or room — 65%
  • target passes through normal door or uses stairs  — 55%
  • target goes through a trap door  — 45%

Outside: base 90% chance to follow a creature, modified as follows:

  • for each creature above 1 in the party being tracked    +02%
  • for every 24 hours which have elapsed between making the track and tracking    -10%
  • for each hour of precipitation    -25%

 

3. Gaten

Sex: Male
Age: 15
Class: Warrior
Level: 10
Hit Points: 91
Armor Class: 0 (-4 if parrying with bracers)
# Attacks/Round: 1.5 (3 every 2 rounds)
Alignment: Lawful Good
Str 12 (18) Int 9 Wis 14 Dex 10 Con 13 Cha 11 (15)

Gaten’s Stranger Things persona isn’t so far from his own. Like Dustin, he’s a glue that keeps friendships together when they’re put to the test, and often the mediator between Finn and Caleb when they go at each other.

Anyone who makes fun of Gaten’s cleidocranial dysplasia (the disease which gives him a mouthful of baby teeth with gaps) invites ironic justice. He wields a Sword of Toothless Vengeance, which strikes as a +1 weapon against opponents who have already struck him once, +2 against those who have struck him twice, all the way up to +5. With each increase, there is a cumulative 10% chance (up to 50%) that the opponent’s teeth will fall out. In the case of creatures who attack by biting, that renders their bite attack harmless. Alternatively, if Gaten wants to use only the “toothless” function of the sword without causing hit point damage, he may strike with the flat of the blade and bark the command word, “Trash Mouth”. In this case, if he scores a hit, the victim’s teeth automatically fall out unless a save vs. petrification is made at -3. The sword’s command word can be used like this twice/day. None of this is to suggest seriously that Gaten will take out someone’s teeth for simply making fun of him — he is lawful good after all.

His Ring of Disease Management, on the other hand, has a mind of its own. The ring benefits a wearer who has a non-life threatening disease (like cleidocranial dysplasia), conferring a +4 morale bonus and charisma bonus on the wearer while the ring is worn. Anyone who bullies or makes fun of the wearer’s disease triggers a reaction in the wearer that the ring recognizes, and it lashes out at the offending bully with an orange ray of light. The ray automatically strikes, and the bully must save vs. spells or be inflicted by a random non-life threatening disease as follows:

(1) cleidocranial dysplasia
(2) psoriasis (scaly patches of skin grow all over the body)
(3) tourette syndrome (suffers rapid facial tics, and uncontrollable swearing)
(4) long tongue (tongue elongates to twice the normal length, hanging out the mouth)
(5) warts and hives (tortuous and rupturing growths break out on the nose, cheeks, arms, and legs)
(6) apert syndrome (skull and face distortion; webbed hands and feet)

The victim also suffers a -6 charisma penalty from the disease. Gaten has no control over this function of the ring, so woe to any bullies who can’t control their mouths. The ring also allows Gaten to lay hands on a subject who suffers naturally from a non-life threatening disease, and bestow a permanent +4 morale and charisma bonus to him or her. If the wearer of the ring is cured of his own disease, then the ring becomes powerless to him. For example, Noah could easily cure Gaten’s dysplasia with his cleric spell. Gaten has no wish to be cured of his disease at the present time. He does outreach on his home world to motivate diseased kids and make them feel good about themselves, and the success of that outreach depends on being a role model by example.

Items of note

Sword of Toothless Vengeance — long sword +1 against opponents who have struck the wielder once, +2 against opponents who have struck the wielder a twice… up to +5; chance that opponents’ teeth will fall out (see more above)
Bracers of strength — confers strength of 18, can parry blows for a +4 armor class bonus (cannot attack while parrying this way)
Ring of Disease Management — +4 morale and charisma bonus, plus special (see above)
Bag of holding
Platemail & shield +2

4. Noah

Sex: Male
Age: 13
Class: Cleric
Level: 9
Hit Points: 45
Armor Class: -1
# Attacks/Round: 1
Alignment: Lawful Good
Str 7 Int 15 Wis 17 Dex 16 Con 9 Cha 14

The youngest of the four boys is the wisest by far. Some of that wisdom was forged in the fires of the Upside Down: Will Byers barely survived captivity in season one and possession in season two; he stepped out of hell wise beyond his years. But Noah is smart and discerning even apart from the supplement of Will. He’s genuinely nice, sees the good in people, without a trace of naivete. Modest but not falsely so. Will’s trials have also yielded certain benefits. For one, he’s completely immune to fear effects cast by 9th level spell users or lower, and to fear that naturally emanates from creatures (like undead, demons, dragons, etc.) under 9 HD. This is because of the pulverizing horrors Will endured in the Upside Down and then as a possessed victim, after which most horrors are trivial. Second, he gets +3 bonuses against threats and creatures from either the shadow realm or the lower planes — combat bonuses to hit and damage, as well as saving throw bonuses.

Noah is in love with Finn, but this doesn’t come from Will. The fan theory that Will Byers is gay is baseless. Noah himself is gay, or at least bisexual, and he has made overtures to Finn which have been spurned in the kindest way Finn could manage. But if Finn cannot return Noah’s affections, he is extremely protective of Noah, and has a good chance of going homicidal against anyone who threatens him (see details of Finn’s alternate evil persona above). Noah will accept Finn’s word and decisions as law, unless perhaps he were to become aware of Finn’s evil side. Even then he would stand by him as much as possible. Noah’s view of evil is considerably mature for his age; he believes that some of the greatest good in the world comes by those able to overcome their own evil, or by those (like Will Byers) who survive violating assaults of evil at their worst. On his home world, he loves horror films, especially the hard-core classics with nihilistic endings.

Choosing a deity to worship was a tough call involving plenty of research on Noah’s part. He finally decided on Donblas the Justice Maker from the Melnibonean pantheon (see 1st edition of Deities & Demigods, p 88). Donblas is the only major god in this pantheon aligned with forces of law and good. He was driven off the Melnibonean world by the gods of chaos and evil, and waits in exile (in the Seven Heavens) to be summoned back and deal justice to that turbulent world. Noah is fascinated by this world and the stories of Elric, who is a complicated hero. Elric fought the forces of Chaos as an agent of Chaos himself; he had to destroy his world, and himself, so that humanity could start over; that’s how badly the Melniboneans had fallen. On some level, Noah sees a bit of Elric going on in Finn. Even if he’s not aware of Finn’s evil side, he does sense something subterranean in him that he believes (hopes) will out for the better.

Items of note

Flail +2, +4 against devils
Platemail +2
4 Healing potions
Bag of holding

Cleric spells

First level — cure light wounds (x3), endure elements, remove fear, sanctuary
Second level — cure moderate wounds (x2), find traps & secret doors, hold person, remove paralysis, silence
Third level — create food and water, cure disease, remove curse, searing light, speak with dead
Fourth level — death ward, detect lies, exorcise, neutralize poison
Fifth level — break enchantment, plane shift, raise dead

Turning Undead

Times/day — 3
Range — 60 feet
Turning Damage — 2d6+9 HD turned/destroyed (undead 4 HD and under are destroyed instead of turned)
Duration — 1-6 turns (for those turned); permanent (for those destroyed)

5. Millie

Sex: Female
Age: 13
Class: Wizard
Level: 12
Hit Points: 36
Armor Class: -2
# Attacks/Round: 1
Alignment: Neutral Good
Str 6 Int 13 Wis 15 Dex 14 Con 11 Cha 12

Eleven’s quietude has done wonders for Millie’s irrepressible spirit. The introvert balances the extrovert; the traumatized lab-rat qualifies the self-assured girl of privilege. The result is a girl of remarkable duality and focus. Millie has Eleven’s uncanny stare, and conveys as much in her silences as in speech, while retaining her natural born confidence in whatever purposes drive her. She’s the same age as Noah and one of his closest friends. She has mixed feelings for Finn, on the one hand liking him as a good friend, on other occasions feeling the pull of Eleven’s more serious feelings for Mike.

Like her television counterpart, Millie is the most powerful of the five kids. Even the boys’ high level D&D abilities can’t compete with her psionic powers. Of course, she pays for overusing those powers as follows:

  • Whenever Millie performs a telekinetic or extra-planar power, she gets a mild nosebleed. She must save vs. paralysis or become fatigued. The save is made at +2. If she uses another telekinetic or extra-planar power within the next two hours, the save is normal. If she uses another power within two hours from the most recent power, the save is at -2. Etc.
  • When she is fatigued, she can’t run and takes a –3 penalty to strength and dexterity, has a 50% of botching a spell casting, and needs 3-12 (d10+2) turns of rest to recover (i.e. a half hour to two hours). If she performs another telekinetic or extra-planar power while fatigued, she does so normally, but must save at -2 or become exhausted.
  • When she is exhausted, she moves at half speed and takes a –6 penalty to strength and dexterity, cannot cast spells or work her special abilities at all, and needs an hour of complete rest to get out of the exhausted state into a fatigued state.

Telekinetic powers

Millie can move objects or creatures by concentrating on them. This ability is psionic, not magical, which means that she can perform telekinesis even on outer planes (like the Inferno and the Abyss) where fly spells and magical telekinesis don’t work (unless used by devils and demons native to the plane). She can use telekinesis in three ways: (1) sustained force, (2) violent thrust, or (3) combat maneuver.

(1) Sustained Force:  This moves a creature or object weighing up to 10,000 pounds up to 20 feet per round. An unwilling creature can resist being moved with a saving throw vs. paralysis. The weight can be moved vertically, horizontally, or in both directions. The object or creature cannot be moved beyond 1000 feet. The effect ends if the object is forced beyond the range or if Millie ceases concentration for any reason. An object can be telekinetically manipulated as if with a hand. For example, a lever or rope can be pulled, a key can be turned, an object rotated, and so on, if the force required is within the weight limitation. So Millie can do things like untie simple knots, though more complicated activities might require an intelligence check. (Examples from Stranger Things include Eleven’s flipping of the van, which easily weighed more than 5000 pounds; and her rescue of Mike from the cliff fall.)

(2) Violent Thrust:  This expends telekinetic energy in a single round, by hurling a creature, a large object, or as many as 20 small objects in a 50 foot radius toward any target within 100 feet. A creature can resist being hurled with a saving throw vs. paralysis. A creature hurled against a solid surface takes damage as if it had fallen 10 feet (1d6 points) and is stunned for 1-4 rounds. (Examples from Stranger Things include Eleven hurling Lucas away from Mike when they were fighting over her; and hurling Mike away from her when he tried to stop her from sacrificing herself against the Demogorgon.) Objects hurled cause damage ranging from 1 point per 25 pounds (for less dangerous small objects) to 1d6 points of damage per 25 pounds (for hard, dense small objects) to as much as 2d20 points of damage (for a hard large object). (An example of an object hurled in Stranger Things is Millie’s ferocious slamming of Mike’s bedroom door when Lucas threatens to reveal Eleven to their parents. No damage done there, but that qualifies as a violent thrust of a large object.)

(3) Combat Maneuver:  This allows Millie to telekinetically engage an opponent, whether by disarming, grappling, holding, or tripping the person, causing his or her body to lose control in some way, breaking an arm or leg, or even killing the individual by snapping the neck, caving the head in, etc. The opponent must be within a 50 foot radius, and gets a saving throw vs. paralysis. (Examples from Stranger Things include Eleven’s paralyzing Troy and making him piss his pants in the school gym, and then later breaking his arm at the quarry. And being trained in the lab to crush things, like the head of a cat and objects like a coke can.) Millie can engage multiple opponents at once (no limit, as long as the opponents are all in range), but for every person above 1 she stands a cumulative 10% chance of passing out for 1-6 turns after using her power. So ten opponents or more would make her unconsciousness automatic. (The example from Stranger Things is when Eleven killed the eight Hawkins goons — four in front of her, and four behind — by caving in their eyes and bursting their brains out.)

Extra-Planar Powers

Millie is attuned to both the Shadow Plane (the Upside Down) and the Outer Planes, and she can interact with those planes in three ways: by (1) dream visions, (2) planar windows, or (3) gates. As with telekinesis, these are innate psionic abilities and not magical spells.

(1) Dream Vision:  Millie can send a soothing vision to a mortal who is in the Shadow Plane or an Outer Plane (even if she is on a different plane, like the prime material). The dream conveys a general message (for example, “we’re coming to get you”, “we have succeeded at our end”), enhances the person’s restful sleep and heals 1-10 points of damage, leaving the person refreshed and with a +2 to all saving throws for the next day. If someone casts dispel good on the recipient while Millie is sending the dream, then the dream is thwarted and Millie receives a forceful blowback on her end and is stunned for 10 minutes per level of the caster of the dispel good. If the recipient is awake when the spell begins, Millie can enter a trance until the recipient goes to sleep, whereupon she becomes alert again when he or she goes to sleep. When Millie enters a trance she is not aware of her surroundings or the activities of others. Needless to say, creatures who don’t sleep or dream (like elves) cannot receive a dream vision.

In order to perform a dream vision, it helps if Millie is immersed in either a sensory deprivation tank (filled with salt water), and also if she knows the subject or has some sort of physical connection to the subject.

Sensory deprivation tank or tub — Base chance 70%
Without sensory deprivation tank or tub — Base chance 30%

Knowledge modifiers:

No knowledge of subject: -20%
Secondhand (she has heard of the subject): +/- 0%
Firsthand (she has met the subject): +10%
Familiar (she knows the subject well): +20%

Connection modifiers:

Likeness or picture: +10%
Possession or garment: +20%
Body part, lock of hair, bit of nail, etc. +40%

Millie’s chance of sending a dream vision can be a low as 0% and as high as 100%. (The example from Stranger Things is when she used the bathtub to reach out and comfort Will in the Upside Down.)

(2) Planar window:  Millie can communicate, and allow others to communicate, with a mortal who is in the Shadow Plane or an Outer Plane. She does this by causing a translucent window to appear in any hard fixture, like a wall or table, which must have a surface area of at least 2 feet by 2 feet, and a thickness of at least 2 inches. Eleven was able to do this at a long distance for Joyce, but that was with the advantage of radio waves. In the D&D world, Millie must open the window within a 50-foot range of her. Her base chance of success is 30%, with the same knowledge modifiers and connection modifiers for the dream vision ability (see above). If successful, a blurry image of the subject appears in the window, and can be vaguely heard. Millie and anyone with her may then communicate with the subject, but they must yell in order to be heard clearly by the subject, who must yell in return. The window stays open for 5-10 minutes (d6+4). (The example in Stranger Things is when Joyce and Will yelled to each other through the planar window in Joyce’s living room wall.)

(3) Gate:  Millie can open a gate from the Prime Material Plane to either the Shadow Plane or to an Outer Plane. Conversely, if she is on the Shadow Plane or an Outer Plane, she may open a gate to the Prime Material. Alternatively, she can use her power to close an already existing gate instead of opening a new one. She can do any of these twice per week. (In Stranger Things Eleven used this power twice, first on Sunday, November 6, when she opened the gate to the Upside Down, and then on Saturday, November 12, when she closed the gate.)

Opening a gate creates an inter-dimensional connection between the two planes, allowing travel between those them in either direction. It’s usually circular in shape from 5 to 20 feet in diameter, and appears at a fixed point within 100 yards of Millie when she creates it. It functions as a plane shift spell, except that the gate opens at specific points on each plane. Unlike the ninth level wizard spell gate, which lasts 1 round/level of the spellcaster, the gates that Millie opens are permanent until closed.

Also unlike the wizard spell, Millie does not have the ability to summon creatures through the gate. Instead, she has the opposite ability — to banish a creature back to its shadow or outer plane. She essentially uses her telekinetic power to “push” the creature back home. (In Stranger Things this happened when Eleven banished the Demogorgon at the very end.) Millie can banish a creature or creatures whose collective hit dice total 24 or under. If they fail a save vs. petrification, they are whisked away to their home plane. She may do this once per day. However, the telekinetic force required for an extra-planar banishment is so great that it has a 60% of sucking her into it and whisking her away too. Needless to say, if a gate remains open, any banished creature(s) could well come back. (Which is why in Stranger Things Eleven used her ability to close the gate on top of banishing the Demogorgon.)

Items of note

Ring of armor class 0
Wand of magic missiles (42 charges) — shoots up to four missiles/round for 2-7 damage each
Bag of holding

Wizard spells

First level — color spray, comprehend languages, identify (x2), read magic
Second level — dark vision, detect invisibility, ESP, locate object, resist cold or fire
Third level — dispel magic (x2), lightning bolt, non-detection, tongues
Fourth level — illusory wall, locate creature, rainbow pattern, scrying
Fifth level — dominate person, fabricate, sending, wall of force
Sixth level — disintegrate, true seeing, veil

Stranger Thursdays Posters Rearranged

My obsession with the Stranger Thursdays posters led me to realize they could have been released in a different order. Each poster happens to fit the theme of a particular episode, but not the one it was released with. (See all of the posters here.) They came in the following order:

Episode 1. Stand by Me.
Episode 2. A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Episode 3. The Running Man.
Episode 4. Alien.
Episode 5. Firestarter.
Episode 6. The Evil Dead.
Episode 7. Jaws.
Episode 8. The Goonies.

Allow me to re-arrange as follows.

Episode 1: Stand by Me. The only one they got right. The poster is perfect for the premiere, as it introduces the boys and establishes the overall tone of the series.

Episode 2: Jaws. Released for episode 7, it would have been more suitable for episode 2, in which Barbara’s finger bleeds into the swimming pool and draws the Demogorgon to attack her.

Episode 3: The Evil Dead. Released for episode 6, it’s an excellent metaphor for the extreme horrors Joyce suffers in episode 3. Her mental breakdown gets out of hand as she speaks frantically into Christmas lights to contact Will, is derided by Jonathan for her efforts, and then finally forced to run like hell out of her house when the Demogorgon emerges from her living room wall.

Episode 4: The Running Man. Hopper goes into detective-overdrive in episode 4, and that’s where the Running Man poster belongs. He breaks into the morgue and finds that Will’s corpse is a fake, and starts to put more pieces of the puzzle together.

Episode 5: A Nightmare on Elm Street. This one is tailor made for episode 5 (certainly not episode 2), where Nancy and Jonathan brave the forest at night and are assaulted by the Demogorgon.

Episode 6: Firestarter. Made for episode 5, it fits episode 6 like a glove. It’s where Eleven comes into her own, rescuing Mike from the cliff-fall, and facing herself as a monster for unleashing the Demogorgon into the world.

Episode 7: The Goonies. Released for the finale and I can understand why, as it gathers all the characters together. But for that very reason it should have been released with the penultimate episode. Episode 7 is the only episode where all the characters do in fact come together. The three story arcs of the kids, the teens, and the adults intersect as they put Eleven in the bathtub to locate Will. In episode 8, they part ways again to play their special roles against the Upside Down threat.

Episode 8: Alien. Honestly, how can the Alien poster not come last? (It came with episode 4.) It conveys the horror of the Upside Down where Will is being held captive, facehugger style. Perfect for the finale.

Dying Words: Jesus and Muhammad

In a video about the famous last words of Jesus and Muhammad, David Wood suggests that we learn a lot about someone by pondering his dying words, especially if the person’s death is painful and agonizing. He’s a Christian apologist but makes an interesting point.

Jesus died by crucifixion, obviously a hideous ways to die, and as he hung on the cross, skin dangling like ribbons from his scourging, he said of his tormentors,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Lk 23:24)

Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies (Mt 5:44), and he practiced what he preached. If you can love and forgive your enemies while being crucified, you’ve pretty much outdone yourself. His words had an impact, as we see when the first Christian martyr Stephen was being stoned to death; he cried out similarly, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60)

Muhammad’s death was also agonizing. He was poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslims, but the poison worked slowly, eating away at his organs. He said:

“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians, for they built the places of worship at the graves of the prophets.” (Sahih al-Bukari 1:8:427)

Muhammad’s dying prayer was not a forgiveness petition like Jesus’, but a curse. He was forbidding his followers to build a mosque on his grave, and made his point by calling down Allah’s curse on Jews and Christians, who were known for doing this sort of thing. Note the irony: Islam’s second largest mosque is in fact built over Muhammad’s grave in Medina. So if Jews and Christians are under Allah’s curse for building places of worship and the graves of their prophets, then so are Muslims. Muhammad in effect cursed not only unbelievers, but Muslims themselves.

For present purposes it doesn’t matter how historical the accounts are in the Christian and Islamic sources. What matters is that this is how Jesus and Muhammad are depicted, and it’s what many Christians and Muslims believe about their savior/prophet. Dying intentions speak volumes, and in these cases one is an act of extreme charity, the other a parting blow.