Tuesday 29 November 2022

Wishlist for a Fantasy/D&D Movie

I was accused of having spent the last 10 years under a rock yesterday when I texted a friend with the discovery that there is a reboot of Willow in the works. Willow, of all things. I am against 'reboots' and remakes as a matter of principle, but even if I wasn't, I still don't think I could quite get my head around what it is about Willow that would justify such treatment in its case. When was the last time you even remembered Willow existed, let alone watched it?

The barrel is clearly now being scraped - the 70s, 80s and 90s having been plundered so thoroughly by the reboot machine that 'creatives' (I use the term loosely) are now being forced to do the cinematic equivalent of raiding the back of the kitchen cupboard for old cans of kidney beans and spam in order to rustle up a meal. When Willow is on the menu, you know that it's been a long while since dad brought home any bacon. I genuinely don't know what could be next - The Ice Pirates?

My friend asked me whether there is a film or franchise from my youth that I would like to see updated. My answer is 'no', but his question did spur me to ask myself what I would like to see in a new fantasy film. If I had my druthers, what kind of film would people be making?

  • Well, it perhaps goes without saying, but while I will tolerate films that are based on books, I really prefer it if people actually - bear with me, I know this is a radical concept - come up with new characters, stories and settings when they make films. I know, mind=blown, right?
  • I really dislike that species of modern special effects which I term CGI Roger Rabbit, where you have real actors running around in front of a green screen and computer generated monsters roar at them and chase them. (I also have a general thing against monsters which roar at people and chase them. I now remind myself of Kevin Smith's description of Scott Mosier as a film critic: 'Listen, this motherfucker doesn't like anything.') I much, much, much prefer good animation, or skilful use of puppets/mechanics (like the tyrannosaur scene in Jurassic Park) in order to show fantastical/impossible things on screen. My ideal fantasy film would be a hand-drawn animation. (I also hate Pixar films.)
  • I like the mood of Miyazaki's film-making but (whisper it) often his plots leave a lot to be desired. Capturing the feeling of watching a Miyazaki film but in a different style of animation and with a good story would be perfect, thanks. 
  • Guillermo del Torro would be nice as director - it's a tragedy he was shunted off The Hobbit, as with him in charge it had a fighting chance of being good, or at least interesting - or, naturally, Inarritu. Inarritu's The Revenant is actually another good touchstone (CGI bear notwithstanding) for the kind of thing I think a fantasy filmmaker should aspire to. 
  • I am also a fan of filmmakers (well, okay, Mel Gibson is the only one I can think of) who will have a stab at having the cast speak in unfamiliar languages with subtitles rather than have people from a very distant and strange culture sound like they're from California, or the English home counties if they're a villain. Creating a new fantasy/alien language for a film and having the cast speak primarily in it is the pinnacle of aspiration here. 
  • Actually, I thought of another director who has done this - James Cameron. And Avatar is another touchstone, come to think of it. It is painfully flawed in so many ways, but you have to give him credit both for the spectacle and for having the ambition to create a genuinely new thing. If Avatar hadn't been so very cliched and had been hand-drawn but on the same scale, it would be remembered as one of the greatest films of all time - by me, at any rate. 
  • A film should ideally have a consistent mood, and one of the things that I most strongly dislike about modern blockbuster film-making is the tendency to endlessly slip between over-the-top melodrama and sledgehammer style 'comic relief' moments and back again without ever finding equilibrium. The Peter Jackson LOTR and Hobbit films were all like this - the death of the goblin king in the first Hobbit film being the classic example. I don't expect the tone to be relentlessly similar throughout, but lurching between registers is a no-no.
  • Fight scenes - I hate anything that is obviously choreographed. My favourite fight scenes in films are David Cronenberg's chaotic ultra-violence (Eastern Promises; A History of Violence), the hyperrealism of McQuarrie's The Way of the Gun, and the down-and-dirty 'real' realism of, say, the final shootout in David Mamet's Heist
If anyone can put all these elements together into a cauldron and serve it up it would be a hearty meal indeed - nothing like the scraps they are forcing you to eat with this Willow bollocks. That said, it would probably only be me in the cinema watching it, so the moviemakers of this world would be wise not to heed even a word of my advice. 

Friday 25 November 2022

The Phenomenology of Death in D&D

It had been a while since anyone had croaked, but last week saw the 20th PC death in my regular campaign. It hurt, too. Pandion, a Greek Magic-User we fondly envisaged as being played in the movie of the campaign by a late-middle aged Sean Connery, had navigated those difficult early spellcaster levels, and made his way up to level 5. His combination of Web, Fireball, Magic-Missile and ESP had become an important feature of the party's dungeoneering arsenal, and it was always felt by the womenfolk of the campaign world in particular that beneath his salt-and-pepper good looks and suave charm his personality also had hidden, profound depth.

But when you've only got a maximum of 9 hit points, you're only ever a critical hit or so away from death. And so it proved: a random encounter with not-all-that-powerful enemies on level 2 of the dungeon, which should have been relatively easily dealt with, turned tragic in the Steinerian sense, reminding us all of the fundamental incomprehensibility of the universe, and also that even a band of PCs of 5th-6th level are not invulnerable to 2 HD foes in early editions of D&D. 

I am convinced that the way I handle death (ie when you're dead, you're dead, and that's that) is the right way of doing things. PCs are unconscious at 0 hp and permanently dead at -1, and they roll their hp at each level, including level 1. The players know that what happens in the campaign is for keeps, and it gives everything, even the most mundane random encounter, an added frisson - you just never know. 

I don't do this because I'm a harsh DM and enjoy throwing my weight around. Far from it. As soon as anybody loses a PC, I more or less immediately let them get back in the saddle with a fresh character, and integrate them as soon as practicable. I do it because I want what happens to feel like it matters.

In any case, it's important to remember that the death of a PC in D&D is not the same thing as death in real life - although it's annoying and a bit of a bummer, D&D is played by the players and not the PCs, and the player remains in the game. When his PC dies, he just takes on a different form. In this sense, D&D PCs are really something akin to a Moorcockian Eternal Champion - just another iteration of the person for whom they stand in as an avatar. Pandion might have died, but that doesn't affect his player's continued participation. 

This is why I also don't think it matters very much that no matter what kind of PC they come up with (fighter, thief, magic-user, dwarf, elf, etc.) the vast majority of players kind of end up just being a version of themselves during play - same voice, same personality, same priorities. I would be troubled by that if I thought that role-playing should be about exploring the character of the PCs, but as I think it's more to do with exploring a world, it's fine by me that the next PC Pandion's former player takes on will probably be pretty similar ultimately, aside perhaps for some new eccentricity or other, even if it turns out to be a female halfling. (The same goes for all the other players, by the way, and undoubtedly me too if I'm ever no longer the DM.) The important thing is retaining the existence of the player in the ongoing campaign, and what he brings to the table, than having any particular PC or other involved.

Monday 21 November 2022

Scenes from the Ideas Scrapbook

I have a big mental scrapbook of anecdotes, factoids, and little titbits of information that I have never quite manage to find space for in a game or in writing but one day intend to.

Some examples:

1. When Leo Strauss was teaching at the University of Chicago, a doctoral student came to him and said that he had the opportunity to spend a summer at Freiburg University, where Martin Heidegger was an emeritus professor. The student asked Strauss, "Should I meet Heidegger if I have the chance?" Strauss is said to have replied, "Yes, you should meet him, but when you do, do not shake his hand." 

I love the idea of a prominent evil figure, now fallen from power, but retains the ability to win some kind of advantage over people through an everyday gesture like a handshake. 

2. Colonies of giant bullet ants of Central and South America constantly fight wars against each other, and the result is that there are often maimed ants wandering about in the aftermath of skirmishes. These are parasitised by a species of fly, whose females lay eggs in the still-living wounded, and whose males come to mate with the females. Healthy ants are not susceptible as they can find the flies off. 

A deliciously horrible idea - a type of parasite attracted to wounded people, which lays its eggs inside. What a nice additional reason for PCs to want to avoid not having full HP, and a nice additional threat once combat is ostensibly ended.

3. Lake Vostok lies 4000m below the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The water down there may have been undisturbed for 25 million years. It is thought there could be "unusual forms of life" down there. 

OK, it's a cliche, but come on - the PCs as explorers of such a lake and finding "unusual forms of life" and more?

4. Christian converts in the islands off Nagasaki in Japan kept their religion hidden from the 1600s onwards when it became oppressed by the Shogunate, disguising it with Buddhist imagery and paraphernalia. When religious freedom was re-stablished in the late 19th century most came out of hiding and rejoined the Catholic church, but some kept up their (by now very strange) customs and continued as so called hanare kirishitan or "separated Christians". A documentary was made about them in the 1990s called Otaiya, and it revealed that the only two surviving priests hated each other and didn't talk, and that lots of individual members more or less followed their own separate religions as the last living survivors of ancient lineages.

The whole thing is very D&D-able but I especially like the idea of a community, or communities, of clerics who each has a completely unique religion or interpretation of a religion, and different abilities, treasures, guards, etc. as a consequence.

5. The pithui birds of Papua New Guinea feed off a type of beetle that gets into their skin and feathers and makes them poisonous (perhaps through the bird smearing its own feces on itself). Scientists who have studied them say that merely holding the bird unprotected is enough to completely numb the hand.

Poisonous birds are kind of a cool concept but I also like the idea of smearing one's own shit on oneself (well, I like it in the abstract) in order to make oneself poisonous or derive other abilities from one's food. I could imagine all kinds of humanoid races doing this with all kinds of prey - but hey, why not even the PCs? Just killed a basilisk - now are you willing to eat it and then cover yourself in your own and your colleague's excrement in order to gain stoneskin?

Saturday 19 November 2022

Sketching an OSR 'Apocalypse Wolves'

Since writing this post, I have been thinking about how one might go about running an OSR version of Werewolf: the Apocalypse.

Lots of RPGs allow character customisation to take place through intersections between two sets of variables. Hence in WotC-era D&D your PC has a race (elf, dwarf, human, dragonkin, bat man, woodlouse woman, and so on) and a class (warrior, thief, wizard, warlock) and the two combine to create lots of different variants (dragonkin thief is different to dragonkin warrior; dwarf warlock is different to woodlouse woman warlock, etc.). So if you have, say, 6 races and 6 classes, you get, well...*consults calculator*...lots of different possibilities. 

In Werewolf's case, if I remember rightly, there were in fact not two but three such axes. Your werewolf was from one of twelve clans, but also was one of three breeds and five auspices, so that there were effectively twelve 'races', five 'classes', and three additional variables on top. This allowed a lot of customisation - even setting aside the additional mechanical and personality-based attributes that the rules contained. (All of the oWoD games were like this.)

This is, I think, too much, not least because the twelve clans were all dreadfully corny (even including the obligatory-for-its-time 'this one entirely comprises sexy ladies' clan). But I always liked the idea of the breeds and auspices, which seemed to me to be enough variation to keep things manageable, but which also, crucially, had an authentic 'werewolfishness' in that they concerned, respectively, the lycanthrope infection and the phases of the moon. 

So in my putative Apocalypse Wolves, you would have the five auspices as, essentially, classes - the full moon auspice being roughly akin to a fighter, the gibbous moon akin to a cleric, the half moon akin to a fighter/mage or classic D&D elf, the crescent moon akin to a thief, and the new moon akin to a wizard. And the breeds would be a bit like races - the 'homid' being someone originally human who had been infected with lycanthropy, the 'lupus' being someone originally a wolf, and the 'metis' being somebody fathered/mothered by a werewolf and non-werewolf. The PCs would advance in levels along the auspice metric, and retain various features in accordance with their breed.

The original Werewolf allowed five different levels of transformation, but I could never see the point in the one that was man-but-a-bit-like-a-wolf or the wolf-that-was-a-bit-bigger-than-a-wolf, so I would just have the basic three: a werewolf can turn into a a human, a wolf, or a wolf-man. As a wolf-man, you get souped-up class features, so somebody with a full-moon auspice gets more strength and HD, but somebody with a new-moon auspice can use magic (or whatever). 

More tricky questions concern the methods for gaining XP and the handling of immunity from non-silver-based attacks. More on this over the weekend, perhaps.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

The Importance of Being Earnest

Like any parent of small kids I think quite deeply about children's entertainment. By far and away the most important lesson I have learned is that kids really respond when they can tell that what has been created for them is being taken seriously and unironically, no matter how ostensibly absurd it is. 

Take, for example, this track. Note the passion and commitment that the singer, Patrick Stump (last seen as the lead singer of Fall Out Boy) brings to the lyrics He is a scientist/he's an inventor/he built a robot friend:

Or, to put things into perspective for us old fogeys, think about the Thundercats theme song:

This works in other languages too. This is a song celebrating the virtues of, among others, Toothbrush-man, Uncle Jam, Rice ball-man, and Sliced Bread-man. Yet it is sung as though it matters:

On the contrast, attempts at humour or efforts to make a kids' show appeal to an adult audience rarely work. The best example of this, for British viewers, is I think Hey Duggee, which is full of tongue-in-cheek references and often pretty funny, but which I have found is something that only the adults in the household really want to watch. It seems to leave most kids I know a bit cold.

What does this have to do with RPGs? Only that if you're going to do something well, you probably have to take it seriously on its own terms and not hedge it with humour. 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

How Creativity Works, or 'The September Kingdom'

September man is standing near

To saddle up and leave the year

And autumn is his bridle

- From 'The January Man', Bert Jansch (written by Dave Goulder)

For a long time I had the phrase 'The September Kingdom' rolling around in my mind. It came to me earlier this year as I drove through the countryside to a backdrop of trees showing their first tentative flourishes of autumn colour. Naturally and unoriginally enough, this caused me to ruminate on the passing of the seasons and in particular the texture of the month of September, tinged like no other with feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, and the sensation that something important is somehow leaving.

This, in turn, put me in mind of the 'The January Man', a song which personifies the months in a cycle, and the way it captures this 'Septemberish' quality in its description of the September man 'saddling up to leave the year' - a perfectly apt and beautiful metaphor for the feeling I'm referring to. I found the song on Spotify and put it on. And instantly I began to envisage a D&D campaign setting made up of 12 different regions or 'kingdoms', from January through to December. I eventually discarded that idea as a bit hokey, but I was stuck with the impression that 'the September Kingdom' in itself would make a great title for a book.

September is always associated in my mind with the Suffolk coast, where my family used to holiday at the end of August each year - a tradition which I've resurrected for the last five years. The place is for me totally imbued with the feeling of transition from summer to autumn, and, again, with that sensation of leaving; of holidaymakers and tourists, myself included, gearing up for long journeys home. Migrating away with the summer itself, gone for another year. 

Last year, the cottage we rented had a huge poster on the kitchen wall displaying a zoomed-in Ordnance Survey map of the east of the county, and ever since I've harboured ambitions of putting out a hex-map setting of equivalent detail based on the region - detailing every settlement, farmhouse, bridge, pond, ruin - every fold of the landscape. The connection was obvious and totally fitting: the September Kingdom should be based on Suffolk. 

For months, though, that's where it ended. I had the title. I had a very rough, basic concept. But all I could do with them was knead them in my mind like lumps of dough - I had nothing to add to them to give them spice, and nowhere to put them to heat them up. 

It took until this afternoon to get a breakthrough. Sitting on the bus, I got a text message from a former colleague who I hadn't heard from in a long time, and I suddenly remembered that I had once lent her a collection of Shirley Jackson short stories, Dark Tales. The last story in the book, I recalled, was called 'The Summer People'. Set in a tourist town in, I think, New England, it concerns a holidaying couple who decide to stay a little longer after the season ends, and find themselves getting into hot water as a result. It's a beautifully chilling little story, but it also captures perfectly the sensation of summer drawing to a close and the cold weather and dark nights returning.

Now I have it: the concept is crystal-clear in my mind. 'The September Kingdom' is about a place with a mostly human population, but which for generations has been governed and protected by a race of powerful elves or fae. These fae entities have not only kept evil away, but have presided over an era of plenty - an (apparently) endless spring and summer of bounteous harvests and long evenings of drink and dance and frolics. Everybody thought this would go on forever. But it didn't, and now these supernatural guardians have left - and, with them, the good weather. Autumn has arrived. And so have the hostile, evil, cruel, cold things that have been kept at bay for so long. And they're hungry. 

Creativity is the result, mostly, of happenstance. It's a maritime salvage operation. Your conscious mind is like a small boat, buffeted around on the waves that the broiling subconscious churns up. You can't control any of this, or the flotsam and jetsam that bobs along your way. All you can do is stay alive and alert enough to fish it out of the water and hope it's of value. 

Monday 7 November 2022

Reviewing the Work of People I like: Demon Bone Sarcophagus and Dungeon Babies

Patrick Stuart, of False Machine fame, is what now has to qualify as an old friend - I first met him in I think 2010. I have vague memories of our first meeting. It would have been in a grimy basement, lit by eerily bright fluorescent strip lights and stinking of sweat and unwashed bodies, underneath a nondescript building at the bottom of an alleyway full of bins in Liverpool's gay nightlife district (the kind of place where you would expect, on any given Friday night, to find people dealing smack, having sex, or murdering each other). This was the home, somewhat incongruously, of a club for wargamers and RPG enthusiasts, and Patrick and I were I believe players in a d20 Modern or Call of Cthulhu campaign (I forget which) that would take place there every Saturday afternoon. 

It had a surreal mixture of attendees. Some, like Patrick and I, were vaguely normal or at least normal-adjacent and able to pass in polite society. Others, shall we say, less so. It's hard to remember now, but in 2010 it was still possible for a gaming group to consist of SWP-voting academics, firearm enthusiasts, cosplaying lesbians, crypto-fascist Nazi-memorabilia-collecting weirdos and black Labour Party activists all enjoying being driven insane by Yog-Sothoth together. But it was so, and the sessions were fun, all punctuated by semi-regular trips to the local chippy and/or local off-license. 

Later, I ran a campaign for which Patrick was a regular attendee and, later still, we decamped to a slightly more salubrious location (it wasn't that much more salubrious - sessions were often disrupted by the hijinks of the local prostitutes) for various different weekly campaigns that were run over the course of about 2-3 years among friends, sometimes with him as DM, sometimes me, sometimes others. The place served burgers and also had a deep fat frier; we used to come out reeking of the stench of oil and covered in a thin layer of grease, our ears ringing from the absurdly loud shouting of the Magic: The Gathering players we shared the space with. We also did some 'guerilla gaming' in more upscale establishments like a posh cinema and even my own workplace, in the days before RPGs had gained any hipster kudos whatsoever. Now, we live in different cities but been in many online campaigns together; I currently run a weekly game on roll20 and Patrick is a player in it.

This is all a lengthy preamble to establish the basic point that Patrick and I go way back and it is impossible for me to be remotely objective about his work as a result. So there doesn't seem much point exactly in me reviewing Demon Bone Sarcophagus just to say it's brilliant. That wouldn't tell you much at all.

What I am confident in saying is that Patrick (and I'm sure he will hate me saying this) is a bit like the Quentin Tarantino of the RPG industry in that you can have faith that whatever he releases will be eccentric and brilliant. Is that the same as saying it be perfect? No. But will it be much, much, much better than 95% of anything else that is getting released and which people are backing for £60 or whatever on Kickstarter, in much the same way that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still being talked about a hundred times more frequently than any other film released in 2019? Yes. I mean, I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember what D&D modules used to look like and what RPG companies used to get away with releasing. Demon Bone Sarcophagus is the kind of thing one couldn't even dare to dream of owning in those days. Buy it.


I know Jason Thompson less well, but well enough to vouch for him as a good bloke. I've written a biggish setting chapter for a major new relevant-to-your-interests game he's created, hope to work with him on other projects in future, and rate him highly as an artist, writer, and person. So, again, I can't really be objective about Dungeon Babies, a supplement for 5e in which, yes, you play a dungeoneering baby (well, toddler really), and which, to quote Jason himself, 'is a real thing!'. And it really is - yes, the concept is more what used to be called 'beer-and-pretzels' on rpg.net, but to his credit, Jason hasn't just come up with a fun idea and thrown it out there on a single page PDF. He's adopted exactly the right approach and played the whole thing with a relatively straight bat, putting together a proper 76-page release with variant rules, new spells, new feats, and the like. In other words, he's taken the concept as seriously as it needs to be taken and followed through on it to make the game playable, safe in the knowledge that the humour is something that will be generated at the table (see my thoughts on this kind of thing here). The result is a really charming little product that any parent (or grandparent) is going to have great fun with. Again - buy it. 

Friday 4 November 2022

In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard - Printed and Ready

As backers of the Kickstarter will know, Issue 1 of my zine has finally been printed and is ready for distribution.

I got quite the surprise this morning when this arrived on the doorstep unannounced, conveniently right in the middle of the front and rear gardens to my house being entirely re-landscaped (the delivery guy also helpfully broke our wheelie bin - cheers, mate):

1000 books looks bigger than you think. 45 boxes of 22, and another box of 10. They take quite a bit of carrying too. Here they are waiting eagerly to be distributed:

I'm really pleased with how the zine looks and feels and it's great to have it ready at last.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

Is "Apocalypse Wolves" Too Cheesy a Title?

Six years ago now, I wrote a post about mashing up Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Cyberpunk 2020, with the aim of bringing out the game that was always latent in Werewolf but could never quite speak its name: the PCs are terrorists, fighting for gaia. (See also here.)

For perhaps understandable reasons, White Wolf always covered Werewolf in layers of guff about controlling one's anger and taming the beast inside, not to mention an unnecessarily overcomplicated and vague mythology and metaplot, and also watered down its aggressively environmentalist message with the notion that the garou were actually supposed to be the spiritual defenders of mankind as well as protectors of the natural order. There was just far too much going on in it, and not enough effort made to properly explain things in a coherent fashion (a common problem with the Old World of Darkness books in general). 

One day I would like to 'OSR-ize' the game and strip it down to something more streamlined and straightforward to understand and run. Cut the crap about spirit worlds and "the impergium" and what not: the PCs are werewolves, and werewolves hunt and kill humans in order to protect the natural world. They are essentially eco-terrorists, and a werewolf campaign would hinge around plotting and executing violent escapades in order to stave off development, make exploitation of natural resources economically unviable, and "send messages". 

At the same time, the threat facing the PCs would not merely be the reactions of law enforcement, corporate security and the like; it would be the forces of "spiritual war" - the digital, anti-natural armies of drones, AIs, cyborgs, coders and technocrats bent on divorcing humanity from the physicality of the world and subjecting nature itself to quantification, calculation and ultimately control. For such forces, the werewolves, as the embodiment of the unknown and uncontrollable, would be the ultimate enemy - to be hunted down at all costs. 

The "apocalypse" here would therefore be very real - on the one hand, the extinction of species and the destruction of ecosystems, and on the other, the subsumption of "the natural" itself into a governable, legible, commodifiable and exploitable resource. In this, I think the game would fit with the current zeitgeist rather well, but if you don't want to think about the wider context, you still get to do the David Naughton routine and go apeshit with big dice pools.