Monday, June 20, 2011

The Gentleman Vampire

First, a disclaimer- this is not a Twilight review. Whether you love the books or hate them, you can already find a hundred online reviews that bear out your opinion. I would, however, like to talk about some cultural notions about vampires its criticism has brought up.

Some say that vampires should never be romantic or attractive, that they're monsters and should be portrayed as such. Others say that vampirism has always been about sex, and that it makes perfect sense to use them in romance novels. The former often argue that romantic vampires aren't "real" vampires, if such a thing exists. Beast or lover, predator or protector- which is it?

As you've probably guessed, the answer is complicated. The idea of the gentleman vampire has always been a strange one, but its roots go back far beyond Twilight. Let's take a look, shall we?

Picture a year without a summer, a young doctor cooped up with a bunch of temperamental poets and their female companions, all of them thinking up ghost stories to relieve their boredom. One of the female companions writes a story about a tragic monster, which she titles Frankenstein. The doctor looks across the room at Lord Byron, then writes a story about a Byronic monster, which he titles The Vampyre. It's not a very good story, and rumors will persist that he plagiarized it from Byron, but it becomes quite popular, and the image it presents of a handsome, seductive vampire will forever change how people think of the creature.

More vampire stories are written as the years go by. An Irishman writes a breathtakingly beautiful novella about a vampire named Carmilla and her romantic obsession with an innocent young girl. The amusingly titled Varney the Vampire: Or the Feast of Blood will also be published, showing a vampire who hates his condition and commits suicide by volcano. And then, the same year that a German doctor coins the term psychoanalysis, another Irishman writes Dracula and changes everything.

The title character is not a romantic, but he is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word- a man with wealth and a title. He enjoys beautiful women, but doesn't much care about their consent (his attack on Mina is written almost explicitly as a rape scene); he feeds on his peasants and their helpless children, literally sucking the lifeblood of the working class. He is everything evil and corrupt about the old world, and it takes enlightened science, American cowboys, and the "new woman" to destroy him.

When the movies came, Dracula came with them. When Max Shreck played him, he was a dried up corpse, his fingernails still growing, who spread plague and could barely pass for human. When Bela Lugosi played him, he was an off-putting but strangely fascinating foreigner whose eyes and voice hypnotized the unsuspecting. When Christopher Lee played him, it was the sixties, and Dracula was a suave British creature out to lower everyone's necklines and break up respectable relationships. When Gary Oldman played him, his relationship with Mina had gone from one of rapist and survivor to one of true love.

Somewhere along the line, the meaning of the word "gentleman" changed- it became something anyone could be, so long as they held the door for ladies and drank expensive wine. What once meant you trained as a soldier and were better than the lower classes now meant you were polite and good looking. Being pursued by a gentleman vampire didn't seem like such a bad thing after all.

Anne Rice popularized the conception of vampires as brooding and misunderstood, and while not every vampire author has followed suite, they have all had to respond to her. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had vampire love interests, but separated the times when they were romantic from the times when they were vampiric. Now we have Twilight, with a pro-abstinence gentleman vampire; many teenage girls swooned, and many nasty things were said on the internet about the intelligence of females.

With all that said and done, where does that leave us? Is the gentleman vampire the only way to go, and has the vampire in general been thoroughly domesticated?

Of course not. If you want bestial and ugly vampires, there are writers and directors who agree with you (Guillermo del Toro wrote a book with that in mind, and from what I hear it's quite good.) I don't think we should give up on the gentleman vampire, though; after all, the Victorians sanitizing stories about fairies hasn't stopped the Fair Folk from being used to chilling effect in modern fiction.

Maybe we need to go back to Dracula and Carmilla to understand it. Think of someone wealthier and more powerful than you, who still wants what little you have- your loved ones, your body, your blood. Think of a relic of the past that refuses to die, dragging bloody tradition into the civilized world. Think of something devouring you while dressed in fine clothes, all because they hunger and will never be sated- and as a lord or lady, they have every right to do so.

I don't know about you, but I think that sounds pretty damn scary.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

But Why Would You Play That?

Many people have their own personal definitions of what a roleplaying game should be. To some it's improv theater, to other's it's an exercise in storytelling; some say it's art, and some say it's just a chance to bash a goblin in the face and take his stuff. Whatever desires and expectations you have of games, though, one thing is for sure: you want to have fun.


This would seem a simple question, until you take into account the sort of experiences some games produce. Gamers can decide to imagine themselves as Polish child soldiers during World War Two, or as helpless innocents battling the personifications of child abuse, or as chain-smoking teenage runaways. It's not just the indie games that offer these opportunities; look no farther than Vampire: The Requiem for characters often full of self-loathing and misery, or Call of Cthulhu for sessions that nearly always end in death and madness.

At this point, many non-gamers (and some actual gamers) are tempted to ask "But why would you play that?"

Aren't roleplaying games supposed to be about escapism? Why would you want to spend your free time indulging in someone else's misery? Above all, why wouldn't you want to have fun?

I've asked these questions before, both of other people and myself. And I suppose the answer must be that the word "fun" is something very hard to pin down. Sometimes people enjoy having bad things happen to their characters in and of itself (Call of Cthulhu is infamous for the fatalistic glee it inspires, with players taking bets as to whose character will hold out the longest.) Some people feel that rare happy endings are even more precious because of how hard they are to earn, and that it means more for a frightened child to conquer the darkness than a six foot armor-clad warrior. Some people find painful experiences cathartic, and some enjoy exploring characters in situations good or bad.

If these things sound strange to you, think of another medium that's supposed to be fun: movies.

Why should people watch gritty dramas or tragedies when there are escapist popcorn flicks aplenty? It could be for any of the reasons I've already mentioned, or it could be because art doesn't have to be warm and fuzzy to make us feel satisfied. The Manchurian Candidate, one of my favorite movies of all time, is nothing if not bleak, but I'm always so wrapped up in its world that it took my boyfriend to point out to me how depressing it was.

Are roleplaying games art? I'd say they can be, but that's a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that they can provide moving experiences in the hands of good players and a good DM no matter what system you use. And to some, moving experiences aren't always bright and sunny ones.

Let me make one thing clear: just because more 'serious' art can provide deep experiences doesn't mean that other art is inferior. I hate movies where people die of slow, lingering diseases, and I'll probably never play Grey Ranks. I love a good action movie, and I love an escapist dragon-bashing dungeon crawl. Ideally, I like my games to have the best of both worlds; escapist fun and a deep story. That isn't always achievable, but it's a nice goal to set.

If my rambling has any sort of a point, it's this: every group has it's own desired light-to-dark ratio for maximum fun (if fun is even the desired product- some have said it's not.) If other people's ratios are different than ours, it may confuse us. But it shouldn't surprise us.