Thursday 28 July 2022

Further Questions Regarding D&D Movies

Two interesting questions popped up in the comments on yesterday's post, and I felt they merited further discussion at length. 

The first is: why would the creators of this new D&D film create a new storyline, world, and cast of characters, when they could have made (say) a Dragonlance or Baldur's Gate movie and garnered a bit more name recognition?

I think the answer to this question has to be that while there is a certain amount of recognition of those names among old farts like us, we're not really the people this film is being marketed to. Middle-aged male neckbeards are nailed on to watch a D&D movie, irrespective of how it is titled. Non-middle-aged male neckbeards will need to be coaxed into it, and I can easily see how associations with fairly obscure artefacts of 1980s or 1990s nerd-dom would be off-putting or alienating to those potential audiences. D&D: Honour Among Thieves just sounds friendlier and more down-to-earth than Baldur's Gate (or whatever). 

The second is: why is it that D&D films always seem to be so bad? 

This is a good question, but one which could be broadened out to: why is that fantasy films in general always seem to be so bad?

It's difficult now to remember, but prior to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the landscape of fantasy film-making was an absolute ocean of cringeworthiness. No self-respecting actor or director would want to be seen dead in a fantasy movie, unless it was being played for laughs; the idea of pretending to be an elf or wizard and spouting hey-nonny-no lines would have struck anybody with an ounce of awareness as being deeply silly at best. The suspicion I always had as a fantasy reader back in those days was that almost any fantasy film you could name had been made to try to cash in on the genre's popularity rather than out of any authentic love for the field on the part of writers or directors. They almost universally displayed an absolute tin ear for what fantasy fiction is really all about, and were imbued with an atmosphere of faint embarrassment among all concerned. 

The surprise me for is not that D&D films are always bad, but that The Fellowship of the Ring was able to capture the imagination of mainstream audiences so successfully. Peter Jackson's LOTR project turned into a monster, but he caught lightning in a bottle with Fellowship, and it changed the way the fantasy genre was conceived of forever. This has caused us to forget what things used to be like. If the new D&D film is crap, it will really just be (yet another) reversion to the mean.

Tuesday 26 July 2022

13 Reasons Why the New D&D Movie Will Be Terrible

 (Never let it be said I can't write good clickbait headlines when I want to.)

So, there is a new D&D film coming out. I am so thoroughly and profoundly outside of its target audience (I don't even really watch films per se anymore, let alone big blockbustery ones) that I feel like a churl even expressing an opinion about it. So, sorry for the disappointment; I'm not actually going to do the 13 reasons thing. What I will do is express some reservations about the aesthetic on display in the trailer.

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are responsible for a lot - and above all for staking out a particular highly influential mood and look, which I suppose one could call 'Dimly Lit LARP with CGI Andy Serkisface Monsters'. When I was a university student, there was a 'Scandinavian Society' on campus who would get together on Sunday morning to hold re-enactments of viking raids. My friends and I used to watch, hungover, from our dorm windows; it was on the one hand impressive (a lot of time and energy went into all the costumes) and yet on the other very anticlimactic - an awful lot of fuss and shouting over essentially nothing. If you were to take that basic framework and bolt on lots of CGI creatures participating in all the fuss and shouting over nothing and make them all look a bit like Andy Serkis, and then shoot the whole thing at night when it's raining and visibility is poor, and possibly hire a Hollywood actress to stand in the middle of everything looking very serious while waving a sword and mouthing important-sounding gibberish, you capture this aesthetic perfectly. You all know what it is intimately; you know it the instant you see it. It is just what modern fantasy cinema and TV looks like.

D&D: Honour Among Thieves looks as though it is moving us into new territory, and for that we should be grateful. It appears as though the viewer will actually be able to see what is happening clearly and there may even be some sequences happening during the daytime. There is also a distinct lack of baddies who look like Andy Serkis. This is all very welcome.

However, we seem to have reached a point of technological advancement at which, while it is possible to make CGI monsters look 99.9% real, they still don't quite - with the result being a viewing experience taking place at the bottom of uncanny valley. When watching a cartoon, or a Ray Harryhausen film, one's imagination works overtime to paper over all of the obvious differences between what one is seeing on screen and what it would really 'look like', and the result is a satisfying amalgamation of the director's vision and the viewer's. When watching real people do real things, the viewer's imagination is largely irrelevant, and he or she can enjoy the director's vision unfiltered. What we seem to have achieved with modern blockbusters is a (to me) undesirable middle ground, in which the director is able to realise a vision which is very close to what a real owlbear (say) would actually look like, but not quite; the consequence is the viewers spend most of their time simply studying the behaviour of the CGI creations on screen and being aware they don't look altogether real. This communicates a feeling of weightlessness and lack of consequence, and ruins immersion - what is taking place in the film comes to appear like, well, a film. 

I personally would prefer watching a very brilliantly realised animation to a bunch of real actors running around playing make-believe amidst not-quite-real-looking monsters. But maybe this is why I am firmly beyond that target audience, as I mentioned.

Monday 18 July 2022

In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard Issue 1 - PDF Released

Issue 1 of my new 'zine, In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, is now available for purchase in PDF at the noisms games website. A print edition is soon to follow, but bear in mind that many copies are spoken for by Kickstarter backers. 

The PDF is 222 pages long and contains 95% OSR materials (including my "The Devil in the Land of the Rushes", an experiment in creating gameable stuff that is also enjoyable to read as fiction), 5% OSR-adjacent short stories, and beautiful art. 

Contents include:

  • The Well at the World's End by Roger Giner-Sorolla - an essay about the William Morris book of the same name, and how to use it to inform old school play, complete with a usable hexmap and key.
  • Offspring of the Siphoned Demon by Ben Gibson - a dungeon based on that oldest of old favourites, the prison of an ancient demon. 
  • The Chevrelier by Brian Saliba - a clever piece of flash fiction, or a micro-story; if I described it in any more detail, the description would be almost as long as the story itself. 
  • The Beloved and Oft-Recounted Tale of the Marvellous Birth by JC Luxton - a story I recently described to a friend as being "Like Little, Big but good". 
  • The Cerulean Valley by George Seibold - a genuine old school hexcrawl, containing everything one could possibly need in such an offering: a near-perfect example of its type (and worth the price alone for the beautifully evocative monster name, "The Nightening Beast"). 
  • The Black Pyramid by 'Terrible Sorcery' - a jungle temple built over the cave of a gigantic carnivorous worm which was worshipped by an ancient cult; D&D's answer to a Werner Herzog film? 
  • The Hollow Tomb by Harry Menear - described by its own author as "if Chekhov or Gorky wrote as part of the OSR (and were much, much worse) they might have written this". Be that as it may, it's an extremely well-written and put-together module. Again, a near-perfect example of its type. 
  • A Turn of Fortune by Jose Carlos Dominguez - an excellent example of an almost non-violent puzzle adventure. 
  • She Who Came Once to Oldgraves by Autumn Moore - a really exceptionally good entry in the "dungeoneering fiction" genre I seek to nurture; it has shades of Gene Wolfe, I thought. Whoever Autumn Moore is, they've got talent. 
  • Winter in Bugtown by J. Colussy-Estes - it's an underground city inhabited by various sentient insect races and it has "mothman necromancers". YOU HAD ME AT MOTHMAN NECROMANCERS.
  • The Garden of Khal-Adel by Zane Schneider - a whimsical-in-the-right-way adventure, about music and sorrowful giants and...flumphs. 
  • The Thirteen Dwarves by Jason Blasso-Gieseke - anything I say about this story will spoil it, so I can't say anything, really. 
  • Moonrhythm Mire by Dave Greggs - a bizarre and brilliant feast for the senses; OSR DIY D&D turned up to 11.
  • And more!

Please spread the word if you find it a worthwhile purchase.

Friday 15 July 2022

Theorising What Is and Is Not Permissible - Lines and Veils

There is a lot of theft and murder in my games. There is never any on-screen torture, though it might be implied. There is categorically no rape or sexual abuse, and indeed that would be a red-line for me: if you think that kind of thing is fair game as subject matter at the table, then we're probably not going to get along.  

Why is it that most people are okay with depictions of looting, violence, arson and the like in games (and indeed often see such activities as the most enjoyable element of the entire enterprise) but not rape? To extend the question a little further: why is that we do not see anything particularly concerning about cinema audiences getting excited about watching, say, swathes of Zulu warriors being mown down by Welsh riflemen gleefully singing 'Men of Harlech' while being egged on by Michael Caine, and yet we would (quite rightly, for reasons which we will come to) be very worried indeed at the prospect of people being entertained by sexual violence?

The answer I think is relatively straightforward, though not often articulated. It's that while we can envisage circumstances in which violence, or for that matter theft, is morally ambivalent or even justified,  rape is simply always and unambiguously a moral enormity. It is absolutely right that people should be squeamish about it: it is disgusting and horrible and there is no situation in which it could possible be deemed as having any redeeming features whatsoever. 

This is probably also why torture occupies a bit of a grey zone. I'm not persuaded that torture is ever justifiable even in the classic 'ticking timebomb' scenario. But I recognise that there is some fuzziness about that and there are some people who would take the opposing view. So while I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of PCs torturing an orc merely to find out where the tribe's treasure is hidden or whatever, I couldn't envisage imposing a blanket ban. Instead, in that kind of scenario I have usually accepted a statement to the effect of 'we torture the orc' and then moved on. (Thankfully, it doesn't often come up.) 

I was intrigued to discover that the 'yoof' of today have come up with a way of systematising what is and is not permitted, and in what form, in a game, with the concept of 'lines and veils'. The idea here, at least as I understand it, is that a 'line' precludes a particular thing from cropping up during play entirely, whereas a 'veil' is something that can happen, but only ever, as it were, 'off-screen'. As is often the case when  mainstream gamer nerds try to parse their way through normal human interactions the concept is always framed in an intensely cringeworthy way - like Martians trying to explain to each other how to get along with earthlings - but this is one innovation I can see some merit in. Sexual violence is a line. Torture is a veil. That works for me: I get it.

Thursday 7 July 2022

The D&D Campaign as Shaggy Dog Story and Biography

It's often said that OSR campaigns eschew narrative, or indeed are not "narrativist". This is wrong. A better way of putting it is that OSR campaigns are not like novels, but are more like shaggy dog stories - or biographies.

A shaggy dog story is one which has no identifiable overarching plot or climax, no purpose, and which involves many digressions:

I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois–got him of a man by the name of Yates–Bill Yates–maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon–Baptist–and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west. Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson–Sarah Wilkerson–good cretur, she was–one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was–no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all–it was a galoot by the name of Filkins–I disremember his first name; but he was a stump–come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul–had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow–the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear”–and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again–wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig–Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife–a ratty old buzzard, he was...

-From Mark Twain, Roughing It...

Almost any OSR campaign you care to chronicle rapidly takes on this quality. This, for example, is an account of just a portion of the weekly campaign I've been running for the past 18 months. The idea that there is no narrative per se to an OSR game is therefore wrong; there is one. It's just not directed.

I think it was Robert Caro - the exact quotation escapes me - who said that you can only really understand a person's life story by reading it in the order in which it was lived. It's no good writing a biography of somebody divided by theme. You have to begin at the beginning and go through to the end, because that's how the figure in question encountered the events of his life. History in general is like this: thematic histories usually suck, because the point about human affairs is that they are chronologically ordered. Events follow one another, and to therefore to get a grasp on one you have to know what happened before it and what happened afterwards. This may allow one to identify themes retrospectively, but the actual telling of the tale has to happen in chronological order.

A biography is very like a shaggy dog story in this sense. It's one damned thing after another, the only coherent thread really being that the narrative follows what happens to one person across time. There is no necessary climax, no discernible plot, and many digressions. 

Very few people do this, but it would be possible I think, once a long-running campaign is over, to - like a Robert Caro or Charles Moore - go back over it and identify themes that emerge; to write, as it were, the biography of the game. It's probably important to do this once the whole thing is over, to avoid pre-empting things, and requires some sort of a log to be kept. I'd be interested to know if anybody has ever attempted this.