This morning, my wife and children joined me in the earliest showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The important question, the first one my friends asked: “Was it worth it?”
Yes, Precious, yesss…
Smaug fixed much of what I saw as flaws in the first film.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but An Unexpected Journey was certainly not what I expected. The emphasis on humor, the frenetic pace from one seemingly unconnected peril to the next, and the adventures of Radagast and his woodland creatures… it wasn’t just the unconventional framerate that had my eyes rolling. That said, we saw Unexpected in 3-D, and we are not fans of 3-D to begin with, so that skews my perception a bit. And the Rings trilogy set a very high bar.
From the first few moments in dingy Bree’s most famous inn, to the familiar chase across lush fields toward refuge with pursuit hot on their heels, to the lofty spiraling underground architecture of the dwarves… this felt like home.
Jackson does a wonderful job transporting viewers into a variety of settings across Middle-Earth. Just as in the book, there are details throughout with no real explanation given other than that this is a fantastical and mysterious world. There’s fan-service as well, or perhaps Jackson is letting us see his own self-directed fan-service. It’s clear he loves his work.
The Tombs of the Nine Ringwraiths? Who doesn’t want to see that? Let’s throw that in.
Exploration of Dol Guldur and hints of the upcoming conflict of Lord of the Rings? Why not tie it all together?
Legolas joking about a hideous dwarf boy named Gimli? Heck yes. Everyone chuckles, an inside joke meant for all to enjoy.
Freeman’s Bilbo is magnificent and believable, and Sir Ian McKellin is incapable of disappointing audiences. In fact, everyone gets to show off some awesomeness. Gandalf goes toe-to-toe with dark forces; Legolas and new addition Tauriel the strong female character both engage in orc-slaying that is literally beautiful to behold; dwarves put the smackdown on several foes; even Bilbo gets his stab on not once but several times.
And then there’s Smaug. Oh, he’s a beauty. “Truly the tales and songs fall utterly short” of his magnificence. It’s fitting to worry when a main villain is pure CGI, but if anyone can pull that off, Jackson’s a good bet. Smaug comes across as transcendent, so above the hobbit burglar and his dwarf companions, so without fear… until they push the right buttons.
There were a few moments I wondered what the dwarves were thinking. Their grand first plan to thwart the dragon isn’t really explained; suddenly it happens and you realize, “Oh, that’s what they were trying to do, I guess.” It leads to some great visuals of an enraged dragon and the destruction in his wake, but that’s about it.
Also, if you haven’t heard, it ends on a cliffhanger. People are still surprised by this. The book has been out for a while now, and Lord of the Rings makes it clear certain people survive, so there’s a limit to the suspense in a few cases. Spoilers: Legolas does not die in this movie. Neither does Bilbo. More spoilers: They don’t die in the next movie either.
Come understanding that the story won’t be over when the credits roll, and you’ll be fine — and fans will be in rapture from the start. Jackson throws wide the gates and waves us in to enjoy the wonder and splendor of Middle-Earth. I love being there; I can’t wait to go back again.
Real life has been hectic and complicated, forcing me to adjust priorities and pay time and attention to some important things…
…Like family game night!
(Not really, but we did make time Monday night to get our game on for a bit.)
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I discussed her character. Jami likes the idea of Bethrynivere the military leader, but the character bores her. Likewise, Deborah loves Beastly Tiger, the dim-witted wall of muscle. But she doesn’t care so much about the panther companion that comes with a beastmaster ranger.
We looked into some other options while leveling up the kids’ characters.
Deborah selected a marauder ranger, which basically means combining various actions in order to capture a sense of “You’re the fastest character out there, rushing around the battlefield, charging into your enemies.” She plays to Beastly Tiger’s strengths (namely, his Strength stat) by chucking throwing hammers and then running up to smash faces with her larger war hammer.
We finished the character, and I couldn’t help but hear, “Stop! Hammer time!”
Meanwhile, Jami is trying to choose a class and race for a new character. She doesn’t want to duplicate any of the roles in the party, so a magic user is out. A rogue is out. A burly up-close fighter is out, because that’s basically what Beastly Tiger is no matter what the class says. On top of that, the party has no healer. Jami is convinced she should make a healer just because they need one, but that’s not what she wants to do.
I assure her not to worry about healing. I have a plan for an NPC of sorts, an angelic being that grants healing to the characters (in a limited fashion) when they get their butts handed to them in combat.
I don’t know how exactly I’d explain its presence yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! I just don’t want Jami feeling forced to play something she’s not interested in. So she ignores the healing classes and looks at a few options.
And maybe it was excitement about the upcoming Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria… or maybe it was inspiration from Gollum’s total rage assault on Frodo at the end of Return of the King… or maybe none of the above. But Jami settled on the idea of a Monk, and she decided her monk had to be a Halfling.
Yeah. You heard of Frodo, now meet his cousin Judo.
I kid, I kid. The monk’s name is Lily-Ann. The heroes met her in a session a while back where they fought that Dire Bear.
Once the bear was vanquished, the team gathered all available clues and figured that the thieving merchant they needed to find was probably holed up in the abandoned cathedral near the town. They set off to chase him down, and encountered an assassin who also sought him for reasons known only to her.
There was a brief tense moment–Beastly Tiger threatened to eat the assassin for dinner, and she responded coolly, “I think you’ll find my meat too tough for your tastes.” (I was proud of my off-the-cuff cheesy retort!)
Then the heroes realized the assassin shared the same short-term goal–stop the merchant, recover the gem–so they agreed to work together. They stepped into the cathedral and found the merchant holding the gemstone, protected by a large bubble of energy. Goblins surrounded the bubble, clawing and scraping to no effect. The merchant raised the gem, revealed his true demonic form, and exerted control over the goblins, turning them against the heroes.
That’s where we left off about two weeks ago.
While plotting the big fight, I thought about incorporating vampires into the plot line. I liked the idea of this merchant-devil guy gaining power from the blood that is drawn on the pre-made map. (Eevil Paizo, including little hooks and plot ideas in your simple map drawing!) But then he’d have to be a merchant-devil-vampire guy.
Devil vampires? Yessss…
Come to think of it, I had a campaign that was headed toward an arc about toppling a vampire clan. We had to stop due to various military deployments and such, and we never got to realize that portion of the story. Maybe these devil vampires could be a similar arc for family game night.
And the need to stop their evil would certainly explain the angelic being’s presence and interest in the heroes. Bonus!
So, with all this in mind, I set up the fight. I throw in a heap of goblin minions. In game terms, they’re the cannon fodder, the scrawny little losers that die as soon as they take damage. Minions give the players a sense that their characters are really powerful heroes, crushing all opposition.
They serve my purpose as well; the devil vampire has a healing buff that grows with the blood of each goblin slain.
On top of that, Lily-Ann and the assassin NPC both take bleed damage early in the fight. Bleeding sounds like something else that might give the devil vampire strength, so I describe the power he gains. Now they really want him to die.
Of course, with all the bleeding, they need a healer. So I tell them there is a flash of radiance at the back of the sanctuary, and an angelic being appears, hovering above the ground. She starts shooting beams of warm light at the heroes, and their wounds are healed. They want to know what her deal is, why she’s there, but they’re content to let that wait until after the fight.
The heroes smash their way through many goblins, while the assassin tries to distract the devilish merchant. The kids and Jami focus exclusively on the goblins, but the devil vampire remains completely protected behind a powerful shield. I set about 13 black token stones in an arc inside the cathedral, marking the boundary of the shield.
Deborah describes the various ways she wants Beastly Tiger to attack goblins… usually something like playing Leap Frog over a friend and then landing a crushing shot with the hammer. At some point, Jonathan decides that his not-sneaky-at-all Dragonborn Wizard is going to try to slip around the goblins by creeping through the shadows behind the pillars of the cathedral sanctuary. I can’t believe he wants to do this, but that’s the beauty of the game.
They can do whatever they want, or at least try.
As the kids and Jami beat up the goblins, Justin misses his attack by a very narrow margin. I describe how his crossbow bolt flies through a goblin wizard’s robe instead of hitting the goblin. And I think, “Well, if it flies through his robe, it’ll hit whatever is behind it… namely the shield.”
I describe the impact on the shield, and I replace a black token with a red one. This piques Jonathan’s interest.
On his next turn, he abandons his sneaking plan and decides to start attacking the shield directly. I end up replacing another token or two with red, and I explain how the shield flickers or wavers with each hit.
Suddenly no one cares about the goblins.
Like, not at all.
All of them are focused on the shield, to the extent that they’re ignoring the attacks of little goblins standing right next to them.
Justin has Clayface firing one crossbow bolt after another into the shield, trying to bring it down. The heroes are close to breaking through. One of the little pesky goblins runs up to harass or attack Clayface, and rolls a 1. I pick a card from the Critical Fumble deck.
The goblin ends up with something like, “Return to Sender.” It means the attack failed so bad that the opponent grabs and keeps the weapon the attacker just used. The goblin essentially runs up and hands Clayface his knife in the middle of the fight, while Clayface remains focused on the shield.
The goblins didn’t last long. And once the shield was brought down, the heroes were quick to pile on the devil vampire. Jami’s monk has a powerful move she can do once per fight, called Open the Gates of Battle. It does extra damage when you attack a target that has full health. Throughout the fight, we were discussing when she could or should use “Open the Gates.” She really really wanted to use it on the big devil vampire, and the moment finally arrived.
She says, “I wanna OPEN THE GATES!” Deborah and Jonathan cheer with her, “Yeah! Open the Gates! Open the Gates!”
Justin yells, “AND THEN CLOSE IT ON HIM!”
The heroes surround the devil vampire and beat on him with everything they’ve got. My assassin NPC manages to snatch the gemstone from the monster’s hands, and jumps away. (I’ve been trying to get her to grab it the whole time, but unfortunately I’ve been rolling a string of 3s and 4s.)
He responds by spraying acid and bile all around him a la Exorcist, pushing the heroes back. Then he rushes at the assassin and tries to get the gemstone back.
With everyone unloading their best attacks, the devil vampire is in a bad way. I get my turn, and he takes the gemstone back, raising it up into the air triumphantly, calling on its power to aid him and cackling in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.
Justin declares, “I want to shoot him IN THE FACE!” and attacks with a crossbow shot that I know will kill the vampire. And it’s really late at this point, and we need to finish.
Always finish with a hook, if you can get away with it.
The devil vampire’s grin turns to open-mouthed confusion and he looks from the gem to the assassin at his feet. Something has gone wrong. “NOOOOO!” He screams at her. “WHAT HAVE YOU DO–”
I tell Jami and the kids, “The crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s mouth, killing him and triggering the explosive power of Clayface’s weapon. The devil vampire explodes, sending the assassin sliding across the ground. The goblins under the vampire’s control fall dead. Aaaaaand… we’re done. Time to get ready for bed.”
Deborah and Jonathan shout, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
And the next day, Jonathan is already asking, “Can we play more tonight?”
They can’t wait to see what happens. Thinking of the silliness they come up with, I can’t wait to see what happens either.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.