Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dracula Test

Given that criticism is what I do here, I enjoy reading professional literary and film criticism from time to time. When I pick up a critic's work, though, if it involves Victorian literature, horror, monsters, or anything of that sort, I have one simple test: do they understand Dracula?

For a culture with a huge backlash against Freud (some of which is unfair, I might add,) we sure do love talking like him to dismiss things! Dracula presents a pretty easy target; it's Victorian, so of course it's about repression! The female vampires are hot, so of course it's about how slutty women deserve to die! The heroine fights to escape the villain, so of course it's about how the only good woman is one who has no sex drive! The heroes kill the villain, so of course it's about how men need to keep their wives in line from dangerous foreign influences!

I know the phrase "you're wrong" is frowned upon in literary criticism, so let me put it this way: if you say the above, you have nothing more to say to me about books. I will neither agree with you nor find your opinions interestingly different; you may be brilliant, but I am unlikely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Notice I didn't say you have to like Dracula. You can think it's the most boring book in the world, that the letter format is cliched, that Bram Stoker couldn't write dialogue to save his life, or that it could have stood to lose a couple hundred pages. And if you do like it, your interpretation doesn't have to be the same as mine. You can obsess over aspects I find trivial, or focus on implications that I can't see at all.

What matters is that you didn't take the easy way out, and that you actually paid attention to what you read.

Jane Smiley passes this test. So does David J. Skal. My beloved Kate Beaton fails it, but then I go to her for humor rather than criticism. And honestly, this could have been The Maltese Falcon Test (can you watch film noir without dismissing it all as male chauvinist anxiety?), The Romeo and Juliet Test (can you read Shakespeare without dismissing love at first sight as him signalling that characters are stupid?) or even The Video Game Test (can you appreciate that a medium can produce art without dismissing all of it as murder simulation?) All of these tests would indicate that a critic gives some thought to what they write, and has opinions I can share or at least respect.

For now, though, I still think of it as The Dracula Test.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How Gaming Made Me Like Country Music

I've always liked to think that I'm flexible when it comes to musical, with a few genre exceptions. Country was one of them; maybe it was family vacations where the adults chose Garth Brooks CDs that did it for me, or maybe it was radio stations playing borderline racist Toby Keith songs. Sure, I liked bluegrass, but that was folk music, not country. I was a liberal middle-class city girl, and I knew I wasn't country's target audience. So be it- not all music works for all people.

And then it turned out I was wrong, thanks to a couple of supernatural western RPGs.

My groups have always liked to have a gaming soundtrack, put at low volume during the entire session or just climactic scenes; dragon-killing is even more fun with Nightwish on in the background. It's a common practice among roleplayers, and some game books even make suggestions as to what music you should listen to while playing. Such was the case with Dogs in the Vineyard.

I've mentioned this game before, but it's something of a noir-western where you play Mormon gunslingers battling demons of sin (who are either abstract concepts or physical monsters- our GM always chose the latter.) The book reccomended putting on some spirituals and murder ballads on while playing, with maybe a little Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. My group went through our music collections and contributed songs for the playlist; Johnny Cash was there, Ennio Morricone was there, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack was prominent, and a few tracks came from Nick Cave's album of murder ballads.

Johnny Cash was better than I expected; after listening to God's Gonna Cut You Down, I understood why he had such a following. The game was lots of fun, the soundtrack was a hit, and when it came time to play Deadlands, I decided to look for things to make another monster-western soundtrack.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia...hey, that's a really good song! So are these Appalachian ballads. And so is some band called Sixteen Horsepower. This page says they fit in the goth-country subgenre; does that mean there's more like it?

I had discovered the worlds of traditional and alt-country, which were much more to my taste than Toby Keith or Garth Brooks. Just as I discovered when Lupe Fiasco broke my preconceptions about rap, the good stuff doesn't always end up on the radio.

I'm not the only one who likes alt-country better than its pop equivalent. Columnist Chuck Klosterman argued that such banjo-filled ballads are made primarily for hipsters, and that pop-country is "real" because it reflects the actual experiences and preferences of rural Americans. Triggerman from Saving Country Music argues the opposite, that pop-country isn't real country, but a dumbed-down mess that reflects the truth of no one's life, while alt and traditional tap into the rich musical traditions of genuine Americana.

I'm not really one to speak on this matter as an aforementioned city girl; my mother fled the South as soon as she could, and it's never been a strong part of my heritage. Still, perhaps the fact that bands like O'Death and the Carolina Chocolate Drops can reach my jaded city heart counts for something?

All I know is that just as bringing in outside sources such as soundtracks can give a greater appreciation for the gaming experience, it can also work the other way around.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Of Frankenstein and his Monster

As a youth, I had very definite feelings about Frankenstein, both in book form and in film. These feelings were those of a lonely child who felt a kinship with outcasts, who thought being a weird kid meant she was on the same level as a creature stitched together from cadavers, and whose first published writing (thank you, Teen Ink!) was an essay on the fundamental sadness of the classic monster movie plot. Hell, I even got into college on the strength of a different essay about the relationship between monster movies and Greek Tragedy, and on the exhaustive earful I gave the phone interviewer who asked me the follow-up questions. (After listening to my explanation of the American racial politics that allowed Frankenstein's creature to be portrayed more sympathetically than Fu Manchu, the interviewer's reply was something to the extent of "You must give movies a lot of thought!")

So imagine my surprise when I re-watched the films and reread the book this past year and finally noticed how many children my beloved monster murdered.

Let's back up a little here. For those lacking familiarity with the book and movies, Frankenstein tells the story of a scientist who revives a creature made of dead bodies and brains. The book has him immediately abandon his creature when it jolts to life and he sees how ugly it is, the movies have him pressured by his colleagues to destroy his creation after they realize he mistakenly gave it the damaged brain of a madman. In both cases, the creature escapes and wreaks havoc, especially when the doctor refuses to create a mate for him. In the book, he is a rational and sensitive being, well aware of how cruel his rejection is, taking a very deliberate revenge on a society that has no place for him. The movies have him as an unspeaking (except for a few lines in the second movie) brute whose primal loneliness turns to bestial rage when he finds nobody can look at him without fear. Bride of Frankenstein has the doctor finally cave to him (and a flamboyant fellow mad scientist a little too interested in the mating habits of monsters) and build a wife; this wife takes one look at her husband and screeches, leaving him even more abandoned than before.

How cruel the doctor was, I thought as a girl. How could a man build a child and then not love him? How wicked the townspeople were, rejecting him because of his looks! How heartless the bride was for doing the same! And how tragic was my poor monster, who could have been so much more.

And now a few facts from these same media: in the book, the monster knowingly murders Frankenstein's brother and wife for the crime of being connected to him, and may have framed an innocent woman for the former crime. In the films, he has probably the highest bodycount of all the Universal monsters (or not- I haven't seen all the Wolfman movies, so let's say the jury's still out.) Some are accidents, some are clearly not. And the Bride's first moments of life are to look around and have strange men pushing her to the arms of large, hulking man with desire in his eyes.

I still feel sorry for the creature, who was given no chance. And I still feel that Frankenstein himself was monstrously (haha) irresponsible towards the fate of his creation. But things are no longer quite as black and white as they once were.

Rereading the book, I felt a great deal of pity for the doctor, clearly brilliant but consumed by impulsivity and obsession that tip into madness (if he were real, I might label him as a sufferer of severe bipolar disorder.) What a waste his genius went to! If only someone could have told him he was heading in the wrong direction in his search for immortality and artificial life. "Nanotechnology, dear boy! That's the way to go!" He'd have to invent the Difference Engine first, but what a story that would make...

Furthermore, he had good reason not to build the poor creature a mate. She rejects him in the film, and can I really blame her? What would this creation think, forced to mate with a beast, knowing her own ugliness and inability to join society? What would she do, bound by a bargain she had no part of? Would she really be a loving and faithful companion to her husband's travels, or would she strike out at him as he did at his creator, blaming him for her miserable existence?

The monster is a pitiable figure (and as long as I'm handing out armchair diagnoses, probably suffers from PTSD or Borderline Personality Disorder caused by childhood abandonment.) His troubles make his villainy understandable and relatable, but they don't make it excusable. In a kind society, he would be given counselors and rehabilitation, but perhaps not exoneration. If he's a morally complex character, it's because he plays the aggressor in addition to the victim.

I'm not sure what we can take from all of this. Maybe it's that moral ambiguity is better understood when one is older, or a good book or movie can give you different things each time you come back to it. Or maybe the only lesson is that romantic ladies and gentlemen of all ages like to overthink our monster stories.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Dracula Day! (Or: Vamps in RPGs)

On this day in 1931, Dracula was released in theaters. What better reason needed to talk about vampires in rpgs? In addition to that, Holly's Horrorland is hosting a collection of Valentine's Day vampire posts, and such things are a perfect excuse for me to get off my ass and actually blog.

So let's take a look at some of the ways roleplaying games have handled such a classic monster, starting with probably the most famous example- and let's see what entirely subjective thoughts I have to offer.

World of Darkness (Vampire: The Masquerade, Vampire: The Requiem, etc.)
In the World of Darkness games, the world around you is one filled with secrets. As Tom Waits once sang, "everything you can think of is true," or nearly everything- the supernatural lurks around every corner and in every shadow, hidden from mortal eyes but visible in the trail of mystery and bloodshed they leave behind. Vampires, werewolves, changelings, mages, ghosts, even mummies and demons in Old World of Darkness- all exist, all are playable, and all are part of the way the world works.

Vampires are one of the main attractions of the World of Darkness games, and it's not hard to see why. They are powerful and immortal, and come with a range of archetypes you can play with. Old World of Darkness especially emphasized this, with separate clans allowing players to take inspiration from any number of classic vampire images and characters, from Renfield (Malkavian,) to Lestat (Toreadore,) to Count Orlock (Nosferatu,) to Dracula himself (Tzmisce.) New World of Darkness simplified things and whittled the clans down from thirteen to five, making the archetypes less restrictive though perhaps less characterful. Which system was better can be argued all day, and I'll leave that to other blogs.

My central problem with World of Darkness games in general can be found in the Vampire games- namely, that politicking can take precedence over all else. This isn't true of all the games (especially not Mortal ones,) and I imagine good Storytellers can and have found ways to use the feuding clans as backdrops for personal stories, rather than making the players simply powerful bureaucrats- or has found a way to make the latter fun. In any case, I tend to go to World of Darkness books for writing inspiration rather than game basis; with the powerful archetypes they draw up (especially their Middle Ages supplement,) many an idea or new twist can come to light.

Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons is pretty broad when it comes to vampires. They can be an enemy species in third edition, a player class in fourth edition, and who knows what fifth edition will bring. But for my money, the best place to find D&D vampires is in Ravenloft.

I've talked about the Ravenloft setting (and board game) before, so I'll just quickly touch on a few things. Dark powers have entrapped the most evil men and women from various worlds in a dark and misty landscape, possible to stumble into but near-impossible to escape from. The innocent live lives of fear, the wicked live lives of mixed power and torment, and those who fight against them have a long and hard road to travel. The most interesting aspect for me about their monsters (including vampires, which they give as an example) is that they go back to an old and little-used bit of folklore for them- while bites and curses can turn you, what's more likely to make you a monster is your own sins.

The little evils that player characters commit add up in Ravenloft. Every time they commit one, they must make a Powers Test, rolling to see if the dark powers have taken notice. The chances are higher for crimes like torture than they are for telling lies, but if you fail the role, you take one step in the direction of the monstrous. Perhaps you gain the ability to see in the dark, but find that direct sunlight causes you pain. It might not seem like much- your teammates might not even notice. But the more Powers Checks you fail, the more changes you go through- your teeth turn to fangs, you can only eat raw and bloody meat, your reflection vanishes from surfaces. Commit enough crimes and fail enough checks, and there will be nothing left of your humanity. You are a fiend from legend, a living nightmare, and a non-player character; only the DM can control you now, and only as a villain. The player will have to roll a new character, but what a bang the last one went out with!

My Life With Master
And now, on to the indies! My Life With Master is a narrativistic game, and cares more about storytelling mechanics than about stats for individual monster species. Nevertheless, the game provides suggestions for vampiric Masters, and with a few tweaks, player characters could also fall into such roles.

As I believe I've mentioned before, the premise of My Life With Master is that the players are minions to an evil tyrant, living in a world that resembles the movie version of Eastern Europe (preferably in a castle.) Your Master has needs and desires, which they rely upon you to provide for them. You have your own desires, though, chief among which is love. Can you find acceptance and common cause with the Master's victims and rise up against him, or will you come to a tragic end appropriate for gothic horror?

The rulebook gives a few examples of vampire Masters, and what their desires and personas might be. Feeder-types would be concerned primarily with the exchange of blood, but this could be either a purely dietary practice (the authors conjure up an image of Bela Lugosi swabbing his victim's necks with alcohol to prevent any nasty germs getting in the way) or it can be a sensual sort of feeding, with the Master playing the role of seducer, interested in draining more than simply blood. Your Master could also be a Breeder (wanting to create vampiric brides and progeny, perhaps even to spread their curse across the world,) and it's not hard to imagine one who's a Collector (adding up thralls and brides as if keeping score of their own power.)

It's also not hard to imagine vampiric player characters. Each minion has More Than Human and Less Than Human traits, which the vampire archetype could probably fit into. "Impervious to weapons, except those blessed by a priest" and "must kill and drain humans of blood, unless the blood is given freely" might work, but it's ultimately limited only by the players' creativity. It's not a game to go into if you're out of ideas, but if there was ever a game to play around with classic monsters, this is the one.

Unknown Armies
Remember what I said about World of Darkness games? Well, they are to urban fantasy games what Anne Rice was to vampire novels- not every game has to copy them, but every game has to accept their existence and define themselves next to them. Unknown Armies had to define itself as an urban fantasy/cosmic horror game separate from both World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu, and one of the first things it did was scrap the concept of supernatural entities outside of humanity itself. Gods come from human imagination, magic comes from human madness, demons are dead humans with only their obsessions left in them, werewolves are attempts at possessing animals gone horribly wrong, and vampires? That's just a blood condition found in a few noble families from Eastern Europe.

But if Unknown Armies doesn't have any traditional vampires, it certainly keeps some of their basic concepts alive in some of its magic. Dipsomancers, magicians powered by drunkenness, can suck souls from unfortunate victims to keep themselves alive (an NPC novelist named Dirk Allen has been doing this to many of his unfortunate fans.) Epideromancers would certainly agree with Renfield that "the blood is the life"; they get power from ritualistic bleeding and self-harm, a hideous primal magic that tests the boundaries of life and death. Various spells exist for sapping the life or luck from a person, and to the mysterious Ordo Corpulentus, the difference between their "communion" and a vampire's would be small indeed.

Furthermore, think about this- vampires are popular right now. Girls like them, boys like complaining about how girls ruined them (a generalization, but that's how UA composite reality works.) Movie studios and booksellers are crazy for them, and subcultures exist that model themselves on them. With all that going on in the world, can the ascension of The Vampire be far off?

Food for thought!

Check out more vampire posts over here, and thanks to Holly's Horrorland for the theme!