Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Clash of the Tweedledums

We went 3D crazy over the Easter Weekend and saw two (count 'em!) films at the cinema - the execrable Clash of the Titans (which incidentally proves that even high-budget "good looking" films can be hilariously bad) and the slightly less execrable but still not very good Alice in Wonderland. Why on earth either flick got made is entirely beyond me - without the Harryhausen monsters the original Clash was paper-thin, and the idea that you can improve on Alice in Wonderland by "reimagining" it seems like a prime exercise in tilting at windmills if ever there was one. But that's by the by; I liked two aspects of the films if taken as an unholy duo of sorts:

1. The Gods Are People Too

The core concept of Clash of the Titans - war between men and the Gods - is an interesting one, no matter how poorly conceived and executed in the film itself. The idea that mortals can defy, challenge, and even kill the Gods is an idea that was present in early D&D but has since seemed to fall by the wayside, and more's the pity; if I have one criticism of Planescape as a setting it's the idea that "the powers" will always remain beyond the capacity of the PCs to defeat. (This is incidentally another reason why BECMI is great, and why Planescape would probably work even better with that system than with 2nd edition AD&D.) Having a goal to aim for is part of what adventuring is all about, and what greater goal is there than to cast down the very powers that rule the universe?

(Critical as I am of the Dragonlance line, it must be said that the second trilogy, (the one where the titles all end in "...of the Twins") had quite a compelling theme at its core, what with Raistlin trying to cast down the Gods and become one himself. Pity about the writing.)

A long while ago I wrote the following, which seems germaine:

One of my favourite D&D tropes is the idea that if an individual being gains a group of worshipers, it can attain divinity. This makes religion a very chaotic, ad hoc, and above all tangible thing; unlike in the monotheistic religions of our world where Gods stand aloof, D&D powers' fate is inextricably bound up in the fortunes and vagaries of their followers. It also means the interplay between believer and deity is balanced, with neither having the ultimate power; okay, so High Blierophlat the God of Death can squish any follower he so chooses, but if he does that too often he'll eventually find his disciples running off to some more amiable deity like Jethro the Gardener. Unless of course he's willing to offer some serious compensating benefits.

This approach allows for a much more localised, cultish and fertile religious climate, something akin to how I imagine a trawl through pagan Europe would have been: each group of villages has its own local deity, each cave its shrine to the mountain spirit, each river its sprite, and each boulder its guardian - the major difference being that in a D&D world, those things are real, which is infinitely better. The local village deity really will provide summer rains - if the populace are willing to sacrifice a first born. The mountain spirit will kill travellers with an avalanche unless he is properly placated. The river sprite needs just a few more believers before she can attain demi-goddess hood. The boulder is really a galeb duhr who has had divinity thrust upon him by unwanted worship; all he wishes is that his devoted disciples would just leave him be.

2. Things Don't Have to Make Sense

One of the things (probably the biggest thing) that I disliked about Burton's image of Wonderland was that he seemed to be trying too hard to make Carroll's world have a comprehensible form and function - with a past, a future, a political background and an emotional reality at least vaguely like our own. The Mad Hatter is not the brainless cipher he appears in the book, but an emotionally scarred victim of war; the Queen of Hearts is not the image of passion and blind selfish impulse that she is in the novel, but a scheming dictator aiming for global domination (again with added emotional depth: "It is better to be feared than loved"); the Caterpillar is not a capricious know-it-all but a helpful oracle. Unlike the novels, where there are no rules or logic to either the behaviour of the characters nor the physical world itself, the film has a much more conventional worldview. This is to its detriment - indeed it's what I think M. John Harrison railing at when he talked about "tam[ing], colonis[ing] and putting your cultural mark" on a fantastical setting. (He was wrong about this when it came to Tolkien - whose world was meant to be tamed and colonised by the author himself - but spot on when it comes to Carroll.)

It can be tempting to get worked up over details when you're creating a campaign setting - the need for things to make sense and fit together in a logical and "realistic" way can take over, especially if you're of a certain frame of mind. (Not all DMs worry about things like that, but I think it's fair to say a large portion do.) In fact there's surely nothing wrong with going the whole fantastical hog and letting the imagination and the subconscious run riot, if the players are willing to buy-in; who cares about realistic politics, economics and race relations if you can eat a cake which makes you 100 feet tall and walk through a mirror?


  1. I haven't seen Burton's Wonderland yet, but it sounds like it has the same problems as that made-for-SyFy miniseries of Alice. Which, incidentally, is what I was afraid of, and why I haven't seen Burton's Wonderland yet.

  2. > Things Don't Have to Make Sense

    This is one of the hardest things for me to overcome. And the core difference in game styles(as I've seen them played) between 2e and say LL or 3.x and 4e. Both classic D&D's and 4e have thrown "sense" to the wind (at least to start both suffer(ed) suplmentitis). 2e and 3x tried to nail down every option/rule, create a all encompasing "it makes sense" rule system / world.

    Neither style is wrong. Unless of course you strongly prefer one style (as many do) in which case the other style is wrong ;) hence endless arguments/wars.

  3. As an aside:

    (spoiler alert)

    Alice in Wonderland isn't a re-imagining its a sequel to the Disney Cartoon.

    That said for clash of the Titans. Cheer up, for any movie that bad, you know they'll get a chance to redeem it with how they handle the sequel (and there will be many of them, of ever decreasing budgets).

  4. Funny point you make about gods, because one of the other common opinions about the D&D line is that it was terrible that it made gods fightable, because many people thought they should always be untouchable. I think I've read many criticisms of Deities and Demigods along these lines. I can see the benefits of both perspectives, and obviously in order for both perspectives to be "officially" supported, a book full of God stats needs to be written. Plus, it's impossible to run an "authentic" Greek magical campaign without being able to kill the gods.

    I also like that trope of questing to become a god. Cool campaign material!

    I too thought the new Alice movie was meant to be a sequel rather than a reimagining. Haven't seen it yet but definitely will. Have you played the dark and nasty computer game? I started it and it seemed quite cool.

  5. Thanks for the warning. I'm off to see one or other of these cinematic abominations on Thurs.

    Things Don't Have to Make Sense

    You have no idea how long I struggled with this idea. I've only recently internalised the whole "mysteries endure, explanations don't" thing.

  6. Should have gone to see How to Train Your Dragon instead. Is that out in the UK yet?
    Very good, solid fantasy, and by far the best example of the "A Boy and his Dragon" subgenre I've ever seen.

  7. Talysman: You're not missing much.

    Norman Harman: Yep. I like the "it makes sense" approach in general, but I can see the value in both.

    Zak: You like all the post, or you like all the films mentioned? If you like Clash of the Titans you're officially sick in the head.

    Zzarchov: Is that the official line? Anyway, the original Disney Alice got it right inasmuch as they kept the nonsensical flavour of the book.

    faustusnotes: The only computer games I play are generally 8 or more years old, so no.

    Becoming a God should be the goal of all PCs, I feel.

    Chris: Alice is the better film, though you may enjoy Clash's nostalgic crap-ness. It was like one of those crummy 80s films for 8 year old boys - Biggles, Highlander, etc.

    Rach: It is out, but I don't really like Pixar films that much. I might rent it when it comes out on DVD.

  8. noisms, I think it was about 8 years old...

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Noisms: It's Dreamworks, not Pixar. Which is bizarre because it's better than Dreamworks has done since before they made the jump to CGI.