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It’s All Kung Fu to Me

I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness over the weekend. A good movie – I had a lot of fun and that fun far outweighed the parts of the movie I found a bit silly (the Enterprise hiding underwater, for instance). This post, though, is only tangentially inspired by the movie, and I only reference it as a way to indicate how pervasive the issue under discussion is.

What I want to talk about is kung fu. Well, not real kung fu, but movie kung fu. The kind of martial arts action sequences that have been slowly permeating western cinema for the past 40 years or so to the point where, currently, it has completely taken over. “But,” you say, “not every fight scene is a kung fu thing!” True enough, but the various unspoken tropes of the kung fu fight are still very much present. The piped-in punch sounds, the dramatic pauses between exchanges, the acrobatics, and the duration of most fights, whether traditionally ‘kung fu’ or not, are pretty much everywhere. I would count Benedict Cumberpatch’s take-down of the Klingon patrol in this latest Star Trek as kung-fu in style, as was his thumping of Kirk and his brawl with Spock.

Now, I’m not here to say that the average kung fu style fight is an inherently bad thing, but there is another way to do things. The kung fu battle is something of a dance – we watch to see the grace and ingenuity of the combatants, even though the end is not inherently in doubt. We don’t spend the fight on the edge of our seats, we nod along and applaud the good maneuvers just as we might when watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers skip across the floor. This is not ‘real’ fighting or even a facsimile thereof – this is performance art. It’s fun, but it isn’t really intense most of the time. It’s a precisely timed routine with beats and rhythm, and you know when it’s about to end based on that. There isn’t much surprise in the Kung Fu fight, because surprise and shock are not its purpose.

As an example of the Kung Fu battle, consider this classic:

This fight is about five minutes and change, and it’s a richly choreographed and impressively performed scene. It has as much to do with real combat, however, as Grand Theft Auto has to do with actual crime. Here is my counterpoint, and, for my money, one of the most intense fight scenes in cinematic history:

From Russia With Love: Train Fight


This fight is ugly, brutal, and spontaneous. It doesn’t look choreographed (even though it is) and it’s hard to tell who is getting the worst of it. Is it real? Well, no, obviously not (I doubt the train compartment window would break so easily, for instance), but it isn’t a dance. This fight means business, and I find myself holding my breath every time I see it. Why? Well, it doesn’t have any signals that indicate what’s supposed to happen next. There are no piped in sound-effects to tell me who hits who harder, there is no dramatic music to tell me how I should feel. I don’t know if Bond is going to get strangled or not, despite his mile-thick plot armor. The old movies of the 60s and 70s have a lot of fights like this. Check out the old 1973 Three Musketeers with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Raquel Welch if you don’t believe me – some of the most intense swordfights in history right there, and all because they worked to keep them away from the kind of stage stylization that has become common in modern movies. The violence is spontaneous and unpredictable, ugly and fast, and it’s hard to tell when the battle is going to end and how. I like that. I honestly miss that stuff in movies today, since it seems everybody needs to have their five minute ‘I punch you but it doesn’t hurt until the music’s right’ scene.

Let’s have a little less theatrics and a bit more drama in our fight scenes. That’s all I’m asking.

Villain Chic

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Table of Contents

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Cool Like Bond

Before we go any further, let me alert you to Adele singing the theme song to the new Bond flick.

If you don’t think that’s awesome, it’s probably best for all of us if you leave the room.

For as long as I can remember, the word ‘cool’ has been defined by a single, solitary figure: James Bond. Even before I was fully cognizant of that character’s influence over my development, it was still there. Bond was the lone, heroic, confident, unflappable individual that summed up what my idea of ‘cool’ was. I was pretending to be characters like him even before I can remember seeing a movie about him.

Corollary : Does Bond make the Astin Martin cool, or does the Astin Martin make Bond cool?

This, of course, leads one to an inevitable Chicken and the Egg problem: which came first for me, Bond or my idea of cool? To put on my psychology hat for a second (psychologists, please understand that my studies in psych are rather limited –  just enough to get me into trouble, as per usual), the answer to this question depends on whether or not you buy into Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious. In brief, it’s the idea that all of us share a kind of unconscious pool of psychic information that, while we aren’t consciously aware of it, is somehow inherited or passed along by our ancestors and joins us with the rest of humanity.

If you buy Jung’s theory (and lots of people do), then Bond is very much plumbing ‘the Hero’ Jungian Archetype from the depths of our collective psyche. He is the guy who’s iron willpower, courage, and inimitable skill enables him to prove his worth and improve the world. Anyone who is predisposed to admiring the ‘hero’ or similar ideas would be drawn to Bond, since he is the concentration of those traits.

That’s not all there is to him, though. Bond isn’t cool because he defeats bad guys and outwits villains – every hero does that, and not all heroes are cool. Bond has something else going on, too. He’s both sophisticated and down-to-earth, both military and civilian, both educated and street-smart. He’s able to seamlessly adapt to any social situation and comes off well in any contest. In a world full of social stratification, cliques, and labels that limit one’s confidence, Bond cuts through them all. He is cool in all possible situations, even when out of his depth, in trouble, or suffering. He forces guys to compliment him while they are torturing him. His enemies admire his skill even while trying to destroy him. His boss loves him even as he is breaking very, very important and sacred rules of engagement. Bond is, essentially, the essence of freedom – able to go where he wishes, do what he wishes, and come out of it spotless and making out with a gorgeous woman on a life raft. Few other heroes can do this with the same level of panache.

I find it interesting, sometimes, the extent to which Bond can get away with doing and saying things that other characters couldn’t. When Pierce Brosnan manages to fall faster than a falling plane in Goldeneye, we immediately know (or should know) that he is violating the laws of physics as demonstrated by Galileo. More than any other hero, though, Bond can get away with this without too many of us rolling our eyes. Why? Well, our subconscious requires him to succeed so that we may invest our own egos in his behavior. We are just so willing to be impressed by a character we have defined, at essence, as impressive that we must forgive the story it’s slights against reality so we can escape with him. This is what I have come to call the Coolness:Reality Ratio. The cooler the character is (i.e. the more he fills in some insecurity or gap in our own emotional or psychological needs and/or weaknesses), the more he can get away with before we call BS on the whole affair. Now, I don’t have a specific numbering system set in place, but it can be safely assumed that James Bond, more than any other character I can think of, has a ratio that’s off the charts.

It is telling, then, that one of the novels I’m trying to sell (The Oldest Trick, set in Alandar) is my attempt at creating a Bond-like character in the person of Tyvian Reldamar, criminal mastermind and smuggler forced to reform his ways by a conscience-reinforcing magic ring. I’m trying, somehow, to catch a bit of that lightning that pulses through Bond’s blood and bottle it up in a fantasy setting. I hope I’ve been successful, but only time will truly tell. In the meantime, I’m going to be humming the tune to “Skyfall” while concocting additional adventures for my own Bond-esque hero to negotiate with skill, wit, and panache.

Our Man in Havanna

So, I’ve just had an idea. It’s one of those ideas which is probably going to eat up far too much of my spare time (wait…I have that?), but could potentially be enormous fun. It’s also one of those ideas that, now that I’ve had it, it is pretty much guaranteed I’m going to do something about it, so I may as well start now.

The idea is a role-playing game inspired by 1960s spy movies. I’m calling it ‘Our Man in Havanna’, but the exact title doesn’t matter so much right now. What’s important is that it is supposed to call up the image of cigarette-smoke filled nightclubs where dangerous men in dark suits play the intelligence game with their wits, a garotte wire, and a .32 caliber automatic. All of this was inspired yesterday, while my daughter and I were listening to this song by Pink Martini.

Anyway, here’s the idea, as it stands now:

One Hero: Most RPGs are ensemble pieces–because there are usually 3 or more players and everybody wants to be a hero, you wind up with a team of experts a la The A-Team, Mission: Impossible, and so on. This is great and all, but I want to shake things up. There is one spy in this game, he/she is the hero, and the story is about him or her. The players actually take turns playing the spy (more on that later) and the idea here is not so much to make your own character shine so much as to make the collective story awesome. Far from being competitive, this game is intended to be collaborative. It is, to my mind, one of the only ways you can have a single-hero story in an RPG without making people feel left out.

Set Roles: As mentioned above, the Spy is played by various people throughout the campaign. So what does everybody else do? Well, we’ve all seen spy movies–there are roles to be filled. Here they are:

  • The Dealer is the GM, essentially. He/she controls the deck, sets the scenes, introduces the mission, and so on. He/she keeps his role throughout the game.
  • The Spy is the person sitting to the right of the Dealer (at first). The Spy is the hero, as described.
  • The Sidekick is the person sitting to the right of the Spy. They play the various assistants to the hero (which may change throughout the session of campaign, as the story dictates).
  • The Spoiler is the person sitting to the right of the Spy. They play the wild card characters–love interests, double agents, important secondary characters, and so on. Again, these characters may change as the session or campaign progresses.
  • The Extras is the person sitting to the right of the Spoiler. This player plays all the goons, civilians, and nameless whoevers populating each scene. This is a role usually reserved for the GM in a game, but I’ve often found that players can do it just as well if not better than I can, anyway.
  • The Villain is the person sitting to the right of the Extras. This player plays the main bad guy–Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, whatever. Again, a typical GM role, but hilarious fun nevertheless.

If you have fewer than 5 players, you can whittle out roles as you see fit. Extra roles can be played by the Dealer. The objective of everyone is to make a cool spy story together–to entertain one another and have fun playing their roles. In this regard it’s almost like dinner theatre which, incidentally, I think the best RPGs are like anyway.

No Dice: Rather than using dice, the game will use a standard playing card deck (or decks–still thinking about that) in order to adjudicate the kind of things that dice usually decide. I want the game to play sort of like blackjack/poker/baccarat–high stakes, plenty of strategy, reading facial expressions, etc. I haven’t fully decided how the system is going to work yet (I just thought of this yesterday, after all), but I’m thinking it will work sort of like War, in general. If a player wants to do something, the dealer drops a card that represents the difficulty of the task and, to some extent, the nature of the obstacle. If the player can furnish a card that beats the value of the card laid down (aces low, but ace beats king), they succeed and may describe what they do. If they can’t, they fail. The suits of cards exhibit the ways which an obstacle can be overcome. So, for instance (not set in stone, but what I’ve got so far):

  • Clubs is the use of force to solve a problem: beat up a thug, break down a door, leap a pit, etc.
  • Spades is the use of stealth, subterfuge, or trickery: sneak past a guard, pick a pocket, spot a hidden door, shake a tail, etc.
  • Diamonds is the use of resources or equipment: bribe an official, use a pocket laser to cut through a safe, slip knock-out drops in a drink, snipe a target with a high-powered rifle, etc.
  • Hearts is the use of charisma, personal magnetism, and charm to solve problems: seduce the villain’s wife, impersonate a general, intimidate a contact, bluff in a card game, etc.

So, by way of example, if you want to break into the villain’s hotel room and I (or the villain) drops a 4 of clubs, that means the doors are locked tight and, possibly (if the Extras player feels like it) there’s a goon outside the door. The Spy would then refer to his or her hand and see if there’s anything of a 5 or higher. Depending on what is there, that determines how the spy can solve the problem. If all he’s got is a 5 of Hearts, he needs to charm his way into the room somehow (perhaps by speaking to the chambermaid), otherwise he can’t do it.

Face Cards will have additional crazy effects, but I haven’t determined what, yet. I’m also thinking that direct confrontations (like fights, chases, and the like) might involve more complicated contests, but I’m not sure how yet.


The idea here is to create a game that is stylish, cool, collaborative, and fun. I’m using cards because I want the players to feel like they’re gathered around a table of green felt in Monte Carlo, stuffed cheek-and-jowl with men in good suits, women in sparking gowns, and dark strangers with eye patches and the uniform of a third-world dictator. I intend to break the game into phases–the Briefing (wherein the Villain and other characters are created), the Investigation (wherein the spy figures out the Villain’s plan), and the Confrontation (wherein the Spy tries to defeat the Villain). I want death traps and car chases and snappy dialogue, goofy gadgets and, most of all, fun.

So, whaddya think? Sound cool? Suggestions? Advice?