Monday, December 6, 2010

Castle Ravenloft

What second edition Dungeons and Dragons did well was settings, and my favorite of all time has to be Ravenloft. A strange land surrounded by mist, populated with gothic villains from Dracula to Hill House to the Alien Queen, where every town seems to belong in a Hammer Horror movie and every wicked deed leads you further down the path to becoming a monster yourself. Thanks to the evil god Vecna in-game (and a few changes of edition in the real world), the D&D universe has changed a great deal since those days. However, I'm happy to report that Ravenloft has managed to sneak into a fourth edition boardgame (or at least, one of its most iconic villains has!)

Castle Ravenloft is the boardgame I always wanted in my teenage years when I had no one to try out roleplaying games with (my third edition D&D boardgame still sits sadly unused.) Not only can you play it by yourself, but it's simple enough that it can be used to ease the uninitiated into the complicated world of D&D, or enjoyed for its own sake as a fun adventure game. I also appreciate the fact that its makers have taken into account problems in traditional dungeons games- you can no longer huddle on a single square, safe from monsters but refusing to advance the blot, or you'll trigger an Event Card, typically deadlier than most of the monsters themselves.

What plot the game has is as follows: You (and possibly your friends) are adventuring into the castle of the wicked vampire Strahd van Zarovich. There are several adventures with different goals to choose from: Kill the monsters. Talk down the golem. Save a boy from vampirism. Or even take down Strahd himself- and trust me, by the time you've wandered through his castle full of traps and pet zombies, your health points draining every time he appears from the shadows to hurl a fireball at you and then vanish, you'll want the guy dead too.

Possibly the most fun for my playgroup was the slow hatred we built up for Strahd. With each Encounter Card, his whole damn castle proved more and more intent on murdering us. Everything was out to get us, and when we finally managed to put down Strahd and his zombie dragon, it felt like a victory well earned.

And as a bonus, here's an Encounter Card we were expecting to pop up any second:

Marked By Strahd for Death
The player holds on to this card- not the character, the player. Keep it after the game is over. Strahd is waiting for you...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mainstream and Indie Games, Part 2

Sorry for the long hiatus. For those of you interested, here is the long-awaited conclusion to my analysis of the gaming industry...

Mainstream Games
Streamlined and popular with plenty of supplements.

The Upside
If a game has lasted for over thirty years, through countless editions and company changeovers, it obviously has a fanbase supporting it, and you can bet they're fans for a reason. Why has Dungeons and Dragons kept going since it was just Gary Gygax and a couple friends in his basement? Because it's good. Sure, each of the editions has its own problems (which each subsequent edition tries to fix), but the basic idea of playing Conan-esq adventurers in a Tolkein-esq world has proved time and again to be fun. Dungeons and Dragons is mainstream for a damn good reason.

Another bonus mainstream games have is versatility. Much as I love indie games, they're usually designed to do one thing and one thing only. If you're playing My Life With Master and decide you want your character to abandon his vampiric overlord and lead a revolution in the next town over, guess what? It ain't gonna happen. On the other hand, games like D&D or GURPS can cope with it. They've got lots and lots of options, and can cover just about any sort of situation your characters can blunder into.

On the other hand, this leads to the major downside of the mainstream...

The Downside
If I were to make a broad and unfair generalization, I would say that a great indie game does one specific thing really well, while a great mainstream game does a bunch of things pretty well. The drawback to versatility is that without focus, all those wonderful options you've created can start seeming bland and same-y.

Mainstream games want to appeal to everyone and turn off as few people as possible. You want a game of espionage? Sure, we can do that! You want a game specifically about your spy dealing with her repressed memories? Sorry, that might bore too many customers. You want your hack and slash monster killing campaign to be psychologically complex but filled with dark humor? You'll have to rely on your players for that, because our main game books have to be a bit more broad.

Obviously, good players will add all the flavor you need for any sort of campaign. But if you want to push them in that flavorful direction, you might find it harder to do with mainstream games.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mainstream and Indie Games, part 1

Let's say you and your friends want to try this roleplaying thing you've heard about. You're not in the mood for any particular genre- you'll play anything as long as it's good. You've even decided to see what the world of games has to offer outside of Dungeons and Dragons. So, what do you want and where should you look?

One important distinction in the world of RPGs is that of mainstream versus indie games. Mainstream games- Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, GURPS- are published by large companies, have huge amounts of supplementary books, and are often available at good bookstores. Indie games- Dogs in the Vineyard, Unknown Armies, My Life With Master- are put out by smaller companies, sometimes consisting of only one or two people, and generally have to be purchased online or at a game-specific store.

As you'd expect, there are good things and bad things about both types of game. Let's take a look.

Indie Games
Artsy, quirky, offbeat and other such adjectives.

The Upside
In a word, innovation. Indie games are where you go when you're tired of the same old sword and sorcery you've played a million times and want something different. You want to be a Mormon gunslinger, the henchman to a mad scientist, an incompetant crook caught in a heist gone wrong, a lunatic whose magic is powered by obsession? Indie games have you covered. They've been designed to give you a unique experience you won't find anywhere else, and to make you think a little more about how you want to play. There's a reason most of my favorite games are indies- they tend to be the products of writers with a vision, not drones churning out by the book installments for corporations.

Sometimes the risks idie games take pay off and sometimes they don't, but they almost always offer an interesting experience. A writer can do literally whatever they want, and as generally happens in such cases, works of true beauty and art come out of the indie world.

The Downside (Warning: Not entirely worksafe)
Individual indie games may have problems such as pretentiousness, trying to ape a mainstream game or misery tourism (more on that in a later review, hopefully), but the one plagueing them all is the lack of quality control. Big companies like White Wolf or Wizards of the Coast can hire multiple editors to ferret out the typoes and project managers to decide when something's a good idea or not. Indie games don't have that luxury.

Along with this issue comes a problem I like to call Unscreened Craziness.

For example, let's say a young game designer has an idea he wants to put into practice. He takes his idea and marches into Wizards of the Coast with it.

"In the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons," he proclaims, "I think you should force female characters to be stupid and weak, give your players access to spells that let them rape corpses, and have weapons be able to impregnate people!"

Wizard of the Coast calls security and has our protagonist bodily ejected. Undaunted, he goes into the offices of White Wolf.

"In your next supplement about villains," he says, "you should devote lots of time to talking about how Jews, blacks, Asians and Italians are the scum of the earth."

"Nah," says the White Wolf executive. "The PC police already rammed us hard when we made up shit about gypsies. Not doing that again."

Disappointed but determined, he meanders over to Steve Jackson's GURPS headquarters.

"Your next game should be called GURPS: Rape. I know you like tables and charts, so you should have ones that give the option of a 152 inch penis that kills your victim upon penetration if they don't have the right anal circumference!"

Steve Jackson sighs heavily, and attempts to teach our hero a little bit about how the human body actually functions. When this fails, he stops talking to him altogether.

Disillusioned with the mainstream, the young gamer goes home. He will see his vision come to light, one way or another! He will make indie games, and publish whatever the hell he wants! And if he wants to make F.A.T.A.L., something which is now known as the worst RPG ever written, then by gum, the free press allows it!

Such is the danger of Unscreened Craziness.

Coming soon: the ups and downs of mainstream games!

Monday, January 11, 2010


Exploitative. Progressive. A classic. A hack job. It's not often that you can agree with both sides of a controversy regarding a movie.

Its name is Freaks, and this oft-banned tale of revenge by deformed sideshow performers was director Tod Browning's follow-up to his earlier film, Dracula. As a former circus man himself, he decided he would terrify the world by showing them real live human oddities rather than mere movie monsters. Of course, he got exactly what he wished for in that regard, and not only did the movie flop, but it also ruined his career.

Declared a classic long after it would do anyone involved with it any good, Freaks is now known as part of the horror canon. But is it really a horror movie? It may well be a thriller, and it may well be unsettling to watch 'freaks' whom we know are not the product of special effects, and it was markteted in a way that suggested a monster movie. However, Freaks belongs in a category of its own, and I cannot think of any other film that falls under it.

Freaks is pehaps the only Reverse Monster Movie.

The classic structure of a monster movie is as follows: a creature is created or discovered, and is the only one of his kind among the 'normal' world. He possesses incredible power and strength, but either because of the humans' cruelty or his own derangement, he turns violent. The monster kidnaps a beautiful human girl, for reasons which are not always entirely clear. The humans come after him, torches and pitchforks in hand, and put an end to this monstrosity.

Strangely for a movie so early in the history of cinematic horror, Freaks takes this formula (which was still in the making- it was only 1932) and turns it on its head.

In this circus world, 'freaks' constitute a large percentage of the population, making the 'normal' people seem out of place. A strong man and a beautiful woman use their undeserved advantages against their abnormal coworkers, all of whom have been nothing but kind to them. The woman purpously seduces one of the freaks, attempting to lead him to his death. When such treachery is discovered, the mob comes after them bearing not torches and pitchforks, but knives held between their teeth...

The ending has caused many people to turn away from Freaks, as the titular characters are no longer portrayed as kindly and human but as monsters and killers. I would have to disagree on this point, though, and I feel the movie wouldn't have even a half of its power if it had ended any other way. We have watched these innocent people being mocked, cheated, humiliated and nearly killed by the villains, and these villains get just what they deserve from their own victims. It's not a pretty sight, but for at least this one viewer, it's a very satistfying one.

The weakest part of the film is easily the acting. The freaks were cast because they looked, well, freakish, and not because they could act. This fact shows, and at times it's hard not to laugh. The mere fact that the film was made to capitalise on the audiance's biases against the abnormal is also unpleasent, and make no mistake: Tod Browning may have been sympathetic toward his subjects, but what he had on his mind was the money coming from people they could scare, not on what a sensitive portrayal he could create of society's rejects.

As with Dracula, a simple truth must be faced about Tod Browning: he was a hack who happened to luck into great projects. You may say it's unfair to complain about directoral skills this early in the history of film, but if you look at what his contemporaries were making (such as the brilliant James Whale and his Frankenstein movies) this excuse falls apart. Browning never grasped that a movie is more than just a filmed play, nor did he care about anything except getting the punters to pay up, just as he had in his carnival days. He was not an artist, and his films suffer for it.

And yet, in a way Tod Browning was still a craftsman. He knew what worked on the most basic level, and he used it. And both of his major movies are still perfectly watchable, with Dracula saved by the performances of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, and Freaks by its pure strangeness and surprisingly sympathetic approach, unintended as that may be. Freaks may not be a great movie, but it is an important one to any student of the macabre, for it teaches two lessons better than anything else I can think of.

Firstly, don't count on abnormalities to tell you who the monster is (preachy and trite as that message may sound in print.) And secondly, don't assume this first lesson will be a comfortable one for your viewers, or a profitable one for you.

Freaks still has the capacity to shock, and is undoubtedly not for everyone. But if you think you can take it, check it out for an update on that old Sesame Street song: the monster in the mirror just might be you.