Monday, March 7, 2016

Review: The VVitch: A New England Folktale


Last Saturday, my wife and I went to see The Witch (stylized as The VVitch and titled onscreen with the subtitle A New England Folktale). We went to the late night showing, which seemed appropriate given the subject matter. The film starts with the excommunication of a farmer, William, from a 17th century Puritan plantation in New England. He leaves along with his family—wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas—due to the crime of “prideful conceit.” He seems to have been doing his own interpreting and preaching of scripture in a way that the authorities disagreed with. As a result, the family is exiled. They settle on a piece of land by the edge of a large forest to start their new life. Several months later, they've built a house and farm and Katherine has given birth to her fifth child, Samuel. Then things go very wrong for the family.

I don’t want to give away the twists and turns of the film. It’s not that the film attempts an M. Night Shyamalan kind of surprise ending, but I think the feel of the film will be conveyed best if the ending is unknown and the events are allowed to unfold without foreknowledge. Not surprisingly in a film called, The Witch, there are elements of the supernatural. But the viewer is, to an extent, kept guessing as to what is really going on in the story. As events progress, things go wrong, fear and paranoia set in and this is all filtered through the viewpoint of 17th century Puritans. The film does an excellent job of putting the audience into the mindset of the family. The protagonist is the eldest child, Thomasin, and we predominantly see the events of the film through her view point. The isolation of the family farm parallel’s Thomasin’s growing isolation from her family.

Costumes, architecture, and such seem accurate. The matchlock musket fits the 1630 nominal time period. Though sadly, the match is not used correctly. When we see the match carried by Caleb it appears unlit, at least no smoke seems to be rising from it and the end does not glow. Nor do we see Caleb or his father make any attempt to blow on the match to keep it lit. Only once the match is placed in the gunlock and fired does it finally seem to be lit. It’s a bit of a minor quibble, I suppose, but the Spanish film [i]Alatriste[/i] and the BBC TV series [i]The Musketeers[/i] both do a better job showing how matches worked and I was hoping to see that level of accuracy.

It was interesting to see how well off the family was in a material sense. Even the children all had shoes, their clothes were well made, and jackets had many buttons. Not being a historian, I can’t speak to how realistic that was for average Puritan colonists, but it does seem in keeping with what I know of the wealth and social class for Puritans in general in that period and with the lists of belongings I’ve seen from a few historical sources for the Puritan colonists.

If one is interested in the 17th century, especially if one is interested in Colonial America, Puritans, or contemporary views on witchcraft, this is a movie well worth seeing. It's also a compelling tale told from the point of view of a young Puritan girl who is not Hester Prynne. 

The Good:

  • The film is historically accurate with the sort of clothing one sees in period recreationists and Colonial Williamsburg not cheap knock offs from a theatrical prop rack.
  • The film does a fabulous job of conveying the world view and attitude of Colonial Puritans and depicting their view as real in the film.
  • The acting is quite good.
  • The film depicts the isolation of a single family and a lonely daughter in the period extremely well.

The Bad:

  • The film never really answers the question of what was really going on. It is, as the subtitle says, A New England Folktale, and if you want more of an explanation for who did what, to whom, and how and why, you will be disappointed on that account.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Item: Rockets



In a previous post on Step-Rockets, I mentioned an historical document, a manuscript on rocketry by Conrad Haas. This post is a followup that provides stats in Honor+Intrigue for four sizes of rockets. A Step-Rocket would be either a large or a huge rocket. I've adapted these stats from from the Wondrous Devices supplement from All-for-One: Regime Diabolique. Each L of damage is counted as 1d6. That seems about right as the small rocket does 2L which is 1L less than a falconet, the smallest cannon, which in the Savage World version of All-for-One does a little more damage (2d8+1) than does a musket (2d8). In H+I a musket does 2d6. By treating each L (presumably level) of damage as 1d6 we keep the same ratio of damage for the rockets.

Rockets (adapted from All for One: Regime Diabolique)

While the Chinese, Mongols, and Muslims have used rockets in warfare for centuries, they remain something of a novelty in Europe. Conrad Haas (1509–1576), a military engineer serving the Holy Roman Empire, wrote a treatise on the use of rockets in warfare during the 16th century, but the work has, until relatively recently, remained obscure. (The book exists only in German.) His work concerns not just tactics, but also delves into the use of constructing multi-stage rockets and using liquid propellants. Ironically, Haas was an advocate of peace, viewing war as a waste of both life and money.

Rockets are essentially large fireworks packed with varying amounts of gunpowder. The artillerist aligns the trajectory, lights the fuse, and runs for his life.

Use: A successful Gunnery roll means the warhead impacts on the intended target. A failure causes a misfire, which causes the rocket to veer off course and explode harmlessly. On a critical failure, the rocket explodes while being lit. While this is obviously bad for the artillerist, it becomes equally so for everyone nearby if the rocket is part of a battery mounted on the same frame.

Rockets may be fired individually or in barrages from the same launch frame. A cumulative –1 penalty occurs for each rocket after the first fired in the same salvo. Note that the rockets can be angled to hit different parts of the battlefield, even if they are fired collectively.

Area Effect: Accurately firing a rocket requires a Gunnery roll, but called shots cannot be used to increase the damage. When a rocket explodes, it damages everything in its area of effect. Roll the listed damage rating once against all opponents in the area, not for each individual target. Every 5 feet from the center of the blast removes the highest remaining d6 from the damage roll.

Creation: Creating a single small rocket is a Rare Alchemy creation. Larger Rockets have an increased difficulty. It takes 2 hours per d6 of damage the rocket does. In addition to some wood and paper (available for free from various sources), a half-pound of gunpowder is required for each 2d6 damage.

Rocket, small
100 ft.
2 lb.
Area effect
Rocket, medium
200 ft.
4 lb.
Area effect
Rocket, large
300 ft.
10 lb.
Area effect
Rocket, huge
600 ft.
25 lb.
Area effect


Friday, March 4, 2016

Threat Level and Encounters

In a post last June, JD Jarvis of Aeons & Auguries raised an interesting point. Namely, that terrain should not be the only variable in encounter probability. For example, a party traveling along an unforested ridgeline should be much easier to spot (potentially leading to more encounters) than a party who is carefully moving along low spots and using available cover to keep out of sight. A party that is staying hidden in a cave should have fewer encounters than one that has spread out for foraging or hunting. Bad weather - say a cold, hard rain - will cause both sentient and non-sentient creatures to find shelter and stay in it which should lessen the odds of an encounter.

I like this idea. It makes sense and it provides appropriate risks and benefits to player choices about travel. Keep off roads and ridge-lines and you are less likely to be noticed. However you may have to travel through the thick brush by the side of the road or along the valley floor or even wade in the stream that fills the narrow valley floor which slows your travel and may introduce complications due to wet clothing. Unfortunately there is seldom much guidance or mechanics to support the effects of these choices. Rolling an extra wandering counter is one method, but I'd prefer something that allows for more nuance.

In a previous post, I suggested one solution, which was not a rule, but more of a guideline. But it requires a lot of modifier calculation and adjustment on the fly. I can't say that I was very satisfied with my guidelines as a solution. In Thursday's post, JD Jarvis has provided a rather elegant alternate solution that he calls Threat Level that is fairly easy to implement and that allows for considerable nuance. The solution does require the GM to create location specific encounter table(s) ahead of time.

Jarvis is using Threat Level to do multiple things. Since this is a random progressive dungeon, High Threat level leads to more interesting and sometimes more dangerous locations. To reach the Big Boss of the dungeon, one needs to roll a 40 on the table which can only occur when rolling at the highest threat level.
  • Threat Level is a proxy for difficulty similar to dungeon level in classic D&D.
  • Threat Level expands the table for generating dungeon rooms and corridors.
  • Threat Level is a proxy for uniqueness or interest of rooms and corridors. Low Threat generates a lot of the same rooms and not very interesting rooms at that. While high Threat generates interesting or unique rooms. 
  • Threat Level is a counter that prevents the party from reaching the Big Boss or the Big Boss' lair too quickly. 
While this works well for a random, progressive dungeon it will need some adjustment for use in a not entirely random, non-progressive outdoor travel.

I like the idea of generating certain situations in the outdoors randomly e.g. bend in the road, defile, ford or bridge, woods, brush close to the road, mud, etc. So I will try playing around with that. I'm a bit leery of using threat level to control what sort of terrain or situation the party encounters. In a setting with a similar ontology to the real world, there is no reason that a party that makes more noise or attracts more attention will encounter more interesting terrain or road side attractions. So I'd rather avoid that. I think a location table varied by terrain type would be useful as a way of randomly generating situations during travel. So I will want to have that as a separate table.

I do like the idea that a party that is moving carefully and quietly will come across different encounters than a party that is moving boldly and loudly. When I have some time, I'll adapt the modifiers I created for encounters in my previous post to use the Threat Level mechanic. Then I'll create some adjusted outdoor encounter tables based on location/terrain and Threat Level for travel in 1624 France.