Monday, September 13, 2010

Gilding the Lily

You have got to be shitting me...

So, I've got this thing where I see wonder in relatively ordinary things. When you look around, you can find a lot to be amazed at in your surroundings. Little things like the fact that this computer I'm working on has more computing power than was used to put a man on the moon or build this beautiful thing, and big things like, well, the fact that we put a man on the goddamn moon. I've said it before, but if you look at something hard enough you can always find something about it that's fascinating. I find more beauty in the gaunt symmetry of a turbofan engine, and more terror in the simple thoughtless, workaday evils that we perpetrate on one another, than in a million horror movies or sci-fi epics. What drives me crazy is the tendency some writers and game designers have of embellishing something that is already perfectly awesome and, well, ruining it frankly.

You know what's awesome? Dinosaurs. I can't even begin to put words to how much I love dinosaurs. Seriously. It's like I'm eight years old whenever the subject of dinosaurs come up. Carnivore or Herbivore? Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus? Allosaurus or Tyrannosaurus Rex? Doesn't matter. I have my favorites sure, but in my eyes a dinosaur is a dinosaur and all are welcome in my house. So it goes without saying that I fucking love dinosaurs in my games and in my fiction. Especially in my games. I've mentioned it a few times here, but Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is my favorite game I've never played. It's got that mash-up thing going for it that I like so much, dinosaurs in a quasi-modern setting, and just look at that cover! It's got dinosaurs right there in the name! 

GDW, and the original creators of the Xenozoic Tales comics, got it right. They popped the dinosaurs into their setting as is, and let their intrinsic awesomeness do the heavy lifting. They're big, violent animals with short tempers who can take thirty or forty rounds from a .50 cal and keep coming. Only the brave or stupid will tangle with the big carnivores. You know why? Think about it, can you imagine the kind of carnage a hunting pair of Allosauri could wreak, say, among infantrymen mounted in light vehicles? How about a pack of small raptors run rampant in a town? See, dinosaurs don't need embellishing. Even in their grade-school banality they're fearsome, implacable, and nearly un-killable eating machines. They're totally awesome as they are.

I'm sure you can see where this is going. Back in the day when I still played Rifts, I was stoked for Dinosaur Swamp, a world book written by my good friend Todd Yoho. Written by a Southern paleonerd, DS was chockablock with awesome hooks, dense Mid-Atlantic jungles, haunted playgrounds, sunken cities, and lost spaceports. Oh, and dinosaurs. Tons of dinosaurs. See, dinosaurs had been members of the Rifts charismatic megafauna club since day one, along with allusions to Dinosaur Swamp. There was always a chance if you were traipsing around the eastern seaboard or out west that you'd run into some hard-charging thunder lizard from Earth's past. And it was awesome. 

Sadly, thanks to Rifts over reliance on the badly designed and poorly implemented MDC mechanic, every living thing (save humans) had to be a MD creature so that they could pose a threat to the characters, including dinosaurs. I didn't care at all seeing as how it gave me the opportunity to do things like stampede a panicked herd of Stegosauri through my players' encampment one night, wrecking their shit and then leaving them to deal with the hungry raptor pack that was chasing the herbivores. So when Dinosaur Swamp dropped, giving me even more big-assed lizards with which to hassle my characters, I was stoked. Until, that is, until I saw the magic.

Oh yeah, didn't I mention? Dinosaurs in Rifts can use magic! This is, in technical terms used by Rifts designers, ZOMFG AWESOME! Yes. In dinosaur swamp our ancient friends could do shit like turn invisible and throw fireballs or breathe cones of ice. Like dragons. Which were already in the IP. Right. See, like I said earlier, dinosaurs don't need embellishment. They can already do things like have mouthfuls of foot-long, razor sharp teeth, and weigh sixty tons, and have two brains, and generally be dangerous and beautiful and awesome right out of the box. They don't need to spit fire or turn invisible. Being alone in a dark forest being stalked by a smartish, stealthy, very fast carnivore the size of a horse while you're armed with a rifle that has more of a chance of pissing the thing off than killing it is already terrifying. Giving it the ability to use magic on top of that doesn't make it better, it makes it a farce. The whole Palladium "Just add magic and TA-DA instant awesome" design philosophy does more harm than good here. It doesn't make the dinosaur any more dangerous or frightening, it makes it a joke. A clown in a dinosaur suit with a pocketful of squibs and sparklers. 

This is what I mean by gilding the lily. A lily by itself is breathtakingly beautiful. Dipping it in gold kills it, cheapens it, makes it a gaudy parody of itself. Magic using dinosaurs are in the same boat. It's a trap that writers and game designers fall into easily as imaginations run rampant and we all sit there and ask, "What if?" Don't do it. Don't gild the lily, you'll just ruin it. I've been accused more than once of "not getting it" or "limiting my imagination." You know what? If thinking something is beautiful despite its lack of gewgaws and trinkets and magic bullshit is wrong, then I don't want to be right.


Eric said...

I also disliked the fact that the dinosaurs used magic, and the fact that they were MDC creatures, but I still count Dinosaur Swamp among my favorite Rifts books because the rest of the book wasn't as ridiculous as a lot of PB's other releases over the last few years. There was some good info in the book among other fauna and flora. It also didn't overwhelm you with new gadgets and tech. In my opinion it was a bit grittier than anything since the core book 20 years ago.

Jason Marker said...

Oh indeed. This isn't so much an indictment of DS, it's one of my faves as well, right behind Warlords of Russia, but more an indictment of bad design and immature writing.

Mikey97D said...

Thank you! Although I still want lasers on missiles. LOL

Eric said...

@Jason. I understood where you going with it. It really is a great book, and it's funny that mentioned WoR because that's my second favorite as well! It was nice to see a complete setting that could be played virtually independent of the rest of Rifts without all of the unlikely tie-ins. Some of Ramon's best art in that one, in my opinion.