I was pleasantly surprised by this one. On a whim I rented this on iTunes, and was treated to a good action film. No shaky camera ’cause I don’t know how to choreograph a fight scene BS; the fight scenes are beautifully done and feature a nice combination of jiujitsu and gun fu that is fluid, but looks real and plausible. The characters get hurt.

The basic premise: John Wick was a bad ass hitman, Baba Yaga or “the Bogeyman” for an up-and-coming Russian gang led by Vigo Tarasov. He met a woman, did an “impossible job” for Vigo, who let him retire. He married his love, but she apparently had cancer or some similar long-term fatal illness. He’s wrecked by the loss, but his wife sent him a last gift — a puppy for him to grieve with and survive the loss. We get all this is a beautifully done montage that on par with that first five minutes of Up! We get the backstory, we meet his friend Marcus — another hitter still in the game — and learn a lot about Wick by showing, not telling. It’s a brilliant bit of character definition, and its spare. Keanu Reeves even busts his ass in this one acting.

He runs into Vigo son, Iosef, who he doesn’t know (the one strange bit…he didn’t recognize him?) at a gas station and the creepy little gangster wants to buy his ’69 Mustang. Wick says no, Iosef takes umbrage, and later that night, he and his friends tune up Wick, steal his car, and kill his dog…that last gift from his wife.

It is, as they say, on.

Michael Nyquist, the superb actor from teh original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Vigo, and he is the onyl “reasonable” man in the film. He’s a gangster, he’s violent, but he does attempt to head off the bloodbath, then to contain the damage. He obviously respects and fears Wick, and even resents his son for creating the situation.

What follows is the typical revenge flick except for the fantastic worldbuilding. All the criminal element he deals with are, for lack of a better term, the aristocrats of the assassin world. They pay for their hotels, services (like the “cleaner” played by David Patrick Kelley…you remember him, Arnie “let him go” in Commando.), their high-end speakeasy. There are rules — you don’t do business on the ground of “the Continental Hotel”, where the world’s elite hitmen and -women hang out. Everyone knows him; everyone wonders if “he’s back”.  There’s a nice bit of subculture created.

The movie is slick, looks great, the fight sequences are superbly done, and there’s a surprising bit of heart to the movie.

It’s not in the movies anymore, but it’s a definite buy or rent.

The series of tubes is afire with responses to John Wick’s Chess is Not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance in which the game designer gives us a rambling examination of issues with role playing games, gamers, game masters, and why we should get off his lawn… In between his grumpy old man professing, Wick gives us a bunch of good ideas, a few mediocre ones, and a fistful of attitude that was most likely designed to “get the conversation going.”

The main point, however, is “Do these rules help you tell stories?” It’s a good question, and Wick is known for his being part of the artsy indie game community where “role play should win out over roll play.” One of Wick’s tricks is to tailor a game for the setting and the types of stories it is supposed to engender. Strip the junk out and play. It’s a good philosophy for a game master, and one I subscribe to, despite my tendency to create wee rules mechanics for stuff that might not need it.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

And you need to stop it. Because all that crap is getting in the way of telling a good story.

He’s right, it can, but it needn’t, but knowing that the effective range of an M4 is pretty accurate inside 250 yards,  has an effective range of 550 yards, but is still capable of doing some damage at twice that…you’re just really unlikely to hit someone out there. It is useful to telling the story in a way that aids verisimilitude — if the setting calls for it — but reducing the game to that, that’s bad.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters. “Game balance” has nothing at all to do with telling good stories. It’s an archaic hold over from a time when RPGs were little more than just really sophisticated board games. Or, as someone once told me, “An RPG is a strategy game in which you play one hero rather than a unit of heroes.”

Wick doesn’t hold to this idea. Neither do I, which was why I wandered away from the Dungeons & Dragons crowd very early into gaming. It’s why i don’t mix miniature games and RPGs, like i used to back when we played Space: 1889 regularly. I realized that swapping from role playing to busting out the boards and pieces broke the narrative flow. It was cool it it’s own right, yes…but it didn’t move the story along. For our Battlestar Galactica game, where military maneuvers are occasionally very important, I like to set out some of the Titanium series BSG toys and use the little plastic raiders and vipers from the Battlestar Galactica board game to aid in visualizing what is happening, even though the show itself often didn’t really show you the tactics of a battle…it wasn’t important to the story.

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Absolutely…and let’s use the Galactica campaign as an example: if you have a bunch of guys playing fighter pilots, the tactics and the one on one combat is important and should be played out. Or if you are in a spy game where a character has to make a tough, 2710 yard shot at a Taliban commander with your Accuracy International .338 Lapua (thus also gaining the longest shot record)  then that weapons table Wick hates so much actually is useful. For the “mundane” 800 yard shot, though, the specs of the rifle are relatively unneeded.

Having blasted game masters for being too rule-bound and board gamey, Wick then turns his attention to both GM and player with this tidbit:

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where wewalk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

I highlighted that particular tidbit — a unique art form — for a reason. It’s this attitude that takes the fun out of the indie games for a lot of players and GMs. Is role playing an art? Sure — everything can be an art. Changing the oil of your car can be made into art. My last encounter with this “you just aren’t trying hard enough to play correctly,” was playing in a game with Mark Diaz Truman — who intimated that people don’t like certain games (or more specifically his game system) because you haven’t played it enough, or aren’t role playing enough… wick again:

I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”

If you want to get good at playing chess, you play chess.

If you want to get good at first-person-shooters, you play first-person-shooters.

If you want to get good at roleplaying, guess what?, you roleplay.

He’s right — if you just role the dice and let the GM describe what you do, you aren’t getting better at role playing. But thats’ not enough for Wick, or Truman, or the collection of post-deconstruction RPG designers:

…[y]ou are not playing a board game. You’re playing a roleplaying game.

Start acting like it.

This attitude is arrogant, elitist bullshit, pure and simple. Here’s why: for those of us who have to, say, work a 10 hour day, or run all over the f’ing world with our kids, games are a chance to relax and have fun — and sometimes you just ain’t feeling it. Rolling how you do in an encounter is perfectly acceptable because maybe you just aren’t super charismatic, even if your character is; just like you might not be an expert in hacking, though your character is. My response to this artsy crap is, “Well, Mr. Fancy Pants GM — why didn’t you set up a computer system for me to actually hack? Let’s go take our computer science classes together so we can really dig down and make this art.”

The argument that you have to play a certain way is that dumb. Are you having fun? Then you’re doing it right.