Archive for the ‘It Came From the DVR’ Category

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Innkeepers

February 16, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Innkeepers

This film tells the tale of the last days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old New England hotel with an illustrious past but dwindling clients.  For employees and amateur ghost hunters, Claire and Luke, the hotel’s closing weekend is also their last chance to finally capture proof of the Inn’s supernatural activity.  They will soon wish they had left the old building in peace.

Great Characters, Sub-Par Scares

I had high hopes for the screening of The Innkeepers.  A good old-fashioned ghost story felt like the perfect note to end an incredible festival.  Unfortunately, Ti West’s film falls disappointingly flat.  The shame is, it isn’t terrible and I can’t help but imagine the great movie it could have been.  The Innkeepers has a lot in its favor; it just seems that somewhere along the line West forgot he was making a horror film.
The film benefits from some great characterizations, especially by Sarah Paxton and Kelly McGillis, who are genuinely funny (and in spite of what some people may think, comedy is important in a horror film – it breaks the tension and allows you to sympathise with the characters).  If you’ve ever had to work a minimum wage job in the service industry, you’ll sympathize with Paxton’s character Claire who manages to capture that perfect blend of boredom, resentment, and lack of ambition that comes with the job.  There is a deceptively simple scene in The Innkeepers where Claire has to take out an extra heavy garbage bag to the trash that captures that feeling absolutely perfectly.  The banter between her and her co-worker is great, and helps to pull the viewer into their world.  The funniest lines in the film though are given to McGillis’ character, an aging, bitter icon trying to reinvent herself as a new age healer.  I’m sure she drew on her lifetime spent in film and television to provide the acidic edge that makes the character so memorable.
I appreciate the amateur ghost chaser angle to The Innkeepers, as it makes the film timely (as a comment on recent reality shows like Ghost Hunters), while at the same time linking it to such classic films as Poltergeist and The Haunting (and less classic films like Hell House and Amityville 3-D).  It’s a promising set-up and the back story of the film’s ghost is tragic and interesting enough to hook the viewer in and keep them watching.
The pacing is very slow, which isn’t bad in itself as the characters are interesting, and you definitely get the sense that the film’s energy is building for a big climax.  Unfortunately, West never delivers on that big climax and the buildup is wasted.  Sure, there are some creepy, tense moments in there, but it never culminates in the big payoff you would expect.  In the Q+A after the screening, West expressed that he wanted to create a film where the existence of the ghost was ambiguous, and that the audience could walk away with either a mundane or supernatural explanation.  That’s a pretty cool concept, but one I don’t think The Innkeepers accomplishes, or even tries to.  The film is shot in such a way that the audience sees more than the characters do (and this technique actually generates one of The Innkeepers’ better scares), so there is never a question whether the ghost is real or a figment of Claire and Luke’s imaginations.  Instead of making a psychological horror film where the audience questions their own senses and experiences the fear and doubt of the characters, West has made a slow moving ghost story that isn’t very frightening.
I’ve also got to call out The Innkeepers for its depiction of asthma.  As a person with chronic asthma, it’s always bothered me how the condition is depicted in film and television.  The Innkeepers is hardly the worst culprit (that’s probably The Goonies), but since I’ve lived with asthma for most of my life, I feel a strange kind of ownership of it, and it drives me crazy when filmmakers misrepresent the illness so badly.  First, asthma can be controlled with regular medication.  Attacks that leave you panicked and gasping for air are dramatic and scary, so I understand why storytellers want to make use of it, but should be (if you aren’t sick, and are taking you medication) relatively rare.  If I have several attacks like that in the same day (most movies have four or five), then something is seriously wrong and I’m going to head for the emergency room immediately (the equivalent would be a character with diabetes falling in and out of diabetic coma throughout the film).  That’s a plot point you should only hit once.  But it’s hardly surprising that Claire has so many asthma attacks in The Innkeepers when I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character with ‘movie asthma’ take their medication properly.  After using an inhaler, if you immediately breathe out, you’re expelling the medication from your body before it has a chance to act (which is why some asthmatics use a tube that looks like an ‘inhaler bong’).  I’ll admit that The Innkeepers isn’t entirely deserving of this ire, but West makes use of asthma enough that his film is far from exempt from my ranting.
The Innkeepers is not recommended as a horror film.  It’s not a bad movie, but if what you are looking for is a scary ghost story you’re much better off looking elsewhere (Absentia, Insidious and Paranormal Activity are all great choices).  If you are a huge fan of Ghost Hunters and have a hankering for an hour and a half episode with better acting and good dialogue however, then The Innkeepers may be what you’ve been looking for.

RPG Goodness

Ghosts are one of those creatures that are very hard to translate into D&D terms in a way that emulates how hauntings are depicted in film and television (including The Innkeepers).  Throughout its history, each edition of D&D has dealt with ghosts differently and used different mechanical approaches to representing the tropes associated with hauntings: tormented spirits repeating activity in a loop, unfinished business, and revenge.
Old-School ghosts can possess the living, but are otherwise just powerful monsters (although possession can be used by DMs as a way for ghosts to try and bring closure to unfinished business).  During the 2e era ghosts are given a much fuller treatment in the Ravenloft campaign setting, especially the Castle Forlorn boxed set, which features a castle that loops through different periods of time to tell the story of the tragedy that took place there.  3e reimagines the ghost as a template that modifies existing creatures, which means that the undead spirit more directly reflects its living self, with the same abilities and the addition of ghostly powers.  My favorite part of the template though, is that ghosts reform a few days after being destroyed – the only way to truly rid an area of a ghost “is to determine the reason for its existence and set right whatever prevents it from resting in peace”.  4e abandons the template idea and treats ghosts as straight monsters (which is fine – the ghosts of commoners should be just as scary as the ghost of an adventurer).  The Open Grave supplement for this edition also introduces the concept of using traps and skill challenges to mechanically represent hauntings in the game.  It’s a fantastic idea, but I feel the sample skill challenge in the book is too abstract for the action of a ghostly adventure, and the traps listed don’t give the same sense of unfinished business that the ghosts from 3e embody.  The haunted location trap is my attempt to bridge that gap.

Haunted Locations

Sometimes the location of an especially tragic suicide or gruesome murder becomes infused with the anguish of the spirit of the deceased, too tormented by its own pain to move on to the Shadowfell.  The location becomes a beacon for the undead, and until the tormented spirit is laid to rest, is a perilous place for the living to dwell too long.
A haunted location requires more work on the DM’s part than a normal trap or hazard.  The DM must determine ahead of time what tragic event caused the site to become haunted, what object or set of circumstances will lay the spirit to rest, and what triggers the spirit to become active.
The haunted location can take the form of anything from a single room in the dungeon of a castle to a dilapidated mansion on a lonely hill.  This trap works best when combined in an encounter with a group of undead creatures of the appropriate level.  These monsters are all that remains of the spirit’s past victims, now absorbed into the haunted location’s malevolence.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Woman

February 11, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Woman

This is a disturbing film with a bizarre premise.  When a conservative, small-town family man encounters a cannibalistic feral woman in the woods, he decides to capture her and bring her home to his wife and three children so they can civilize her as a ‘family project’.  Chained up in the barn, the presence of the dangerous feral woman exposes a darkness in the family that quickly erodes its whitewashed, seemingly ‘normal’, façade.

Dark Social Commentary

I should preface this review – I’ve never seen the film that precedes this one, The Offspring, but the two films are only loosely connected.  The Offspring doesn’t contain any plot information critical to this film, and while the movies can be viewed as a series, The Woman also stands on its own.
The Woman cannot be easily classified.  I wouldn’t call it a horror film, though there are moments when it is truly horrifying.  There is humor in The Woman, but I’d hardly call it a comedy (even a black comedy).  I can’t say that I enjoyed watching the film, but I also think it is a movie that is worth watching.  Director Lucky McGee keeps the audience on their toes, playing with our expectations and throwing the audience a curve ball whenever you think you’ve got this strange tale sorted out.
Sean Bridgers’ portrayal of family patriarch Chris Cleek, as a sort of diabolical Ned Flanders who begins to lose control as his monolithic authority cracks, is so perfect for the film it was almost uncomfortable seeing him speak after the screening.  In the Q&A, Bridgers had a very interesting view of his character when asked about the role.  He said that although he was nothing like Chris Cleek, he was still able to draw on some dark, buried part of himself to fuel the role.  It’s the kind of observation that I think applies to the whole film and its relationship with the audience.  There is some pretty heavy violence in The Woman, including a few very uncomfortable scenes of domestic abuse and rape.  Given the way that the ‘torture porn’ trend changed the landscape of horror films a decade ago, I think that McGee is confronting the audience with the ugliness of our dark psychological bits, rather than titillating them the way other horror traditions do.  It’s a fine line between glorification and commentary, and everyone has a different sense of that boundary, but to me Lucky Mcgee accomplished his goals without crossing that line.
Even though her character has no real dialogue in the film, Pollyanna McIntosh gives an equally gripping performance as the titular feral woman.  I was impressed with her ability to occupy the physicality of the role, and her glazed, sullen stare into the camera infuses the character with the aura of a caged animal.   If Chris Cleek stands in for the controlled, oppressive violence that underlies modern society, then the feral woman reminds us of the uncontrolled brutality of the natural world.  Even if the audience is cheering for the woman by the film’s climax, I’m not sure that McGee is presenting her as a viable alternative to the Chris Cleeks of the world.  It’s a grim portrait of humanity that places us in a tug of war between these two poles, as savage hunters who have the choice of preying on our family units or of preying on everything not joined to us by family.
There was some controversy that came out of the Sundance festival regarding The Woman, including people walking out of screenings, which is understandable if the audience isn’t prepared for the content, but I think this has more to do with the context of Sundance than the film being too appalling to sit through.  After a week of seeing decapitations, blood, and zombie cannibalism, the shock of The Woman was blunted, even if I was probably just as disturbed by it as the Sundance crowd (as far as I could tell, no one walked out of the screening at Toronto After Dark).
The Woman is recommended, but only if you’re prepared to be confronted by some alarming scenes.  I can’t say that you’ll have fun watching it (and it’s about as far from being a date movie as you can possibly get), but The Woman is anything but boring and is sure to provoke a reaction.

RPG Goodness

Much like Father’s Day, the subject matter of The Woman makes incorporating material from it in an rpg difficult (unless you’re making use of a disconcerting amount of the ideas in The Book of Vile Darkness).  Once its more controversial elements are removed though, I think the conflict in The Woman can be viewed in D&D terms that highlight the game’s alignment system (I’ll be using the nine-pointed alignment system, since that’s my favorite, not the three alignments of BX or the five alignments of 4e).
I think that the struggle between Chris Cleek and the feral woman is a great example of how the Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil alignments interact with one another in D&D.  It would be hard to argue one of the characters was more or less evil than the other, but it’s clear that each represents a very different kind of evil, as diametrically opposed to the other as good is to evil.  For me, this is why the nine-pointed alignment system (that is, an alignment in two parts – the good vs. evil axis and the law vs. chaos axis) works so well – it handles the evil against evil conflict in a way that makes sense and provides clear motivations for NPCs (which makes it useful, the litmus test for any game mechanic).  It also provides clear reasons why two good aligned characters might find themselves at odds with one another or why a good aligned party might make a temporary alliance with an evil creature against a common enemy.
Although many may disagree, I’ve never found the nine-pointed alignment system restrictive.  Instead, I find its two-axis approach a simple and elegant tool to encourage roleplaying by providing clear motivations for the thinking creatures of the game world.  Sure it isn’t foolproof and doesn’t cover every moral quandary a PC might find herself in, but working out the finer points of ambiguous situations is one of the exciting parts of a roleplaying game.
Taking inspiration from the film, here is a sample of practical alignment complications that can be inserted into any version of D&D:

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend… For Now
Both Vault of the Drow and the Temple of Elemental Evil (two of my favorite classic adventures) make extensive use of this complication.  Warring factions of evil creatures will use any means they have at their disposal to eliminate one another, including a temporary alliance with good aligned adventurers.  As distasteful as it is, it might be in the PCs best interest.  The common enemy (the most powerful house of the drow, or an evil tyrant, secure in an impregnable fortress, for example) might be too tough for the PCs to tackle on their own, or the evil creatures might possess needed intelligence in order to proceed.
Chaotic Evil creatures will promise anything to obtain the cooperation of the PCs, and if they feel they can gain from it, will attack them as soon as the job is finished.  Lawful Evil creatures can be trusted to keep a bargain, but will only agree to terms that benefit them, and will constantly try to subjugate the PCs to their will.

Thanks for the Rescue, Sucker!
Just because an NPC has been imprisoned by the ‘bad guys’ doesn’t make them a ‘good guy’.  Obmi, the evil dwarf from the adventure Hall of the Fire Giant King (and reappearing throughout D&D’s history) is the quintessential example of this complication.  Sometimes, creatures are imprisoned by evil societies because they are so deviant or destructive that even the morally corrupt can’t stomach them.
The temptation in this scenario is to have the prisoner rampage as soon as it is freed (which is entirely appropriate in certain circumstances), but the complication works much better when the evil NPC cooperates with the PCs against his captors.  Later in the campaign, let the PCs discover the horrendous crimes the freed prisoner has committed – a great adventure hook since most players will feel at least a little responsible and will be driven to stop the former prisoner.
Try not to use this complication too often or the PCs will never want to free any captives again.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate
Sometimes different good aligned groups just don’t get along.  The different worlds of D&D are filled with good aligned churches that are generally tolerant of one another, but still clash over major philosophical differences (which is fairly optimistic considering how well the sects of Christianity or Islam have gotten along together on Earth).  If there is an established church or state religion in the area the PCs are adventuring in, they won’t appreciate the party’s cleric waltzing into their territory and performing miracles for a rival deity (or worse, actively trying to proselytize).  While good aligned organizations don’t immediately resort to violence, they will definitely make things as uncomfortable as possible while they are in town.  I used the church of St. Cuthbert in this manner in both the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure and its sequel.  In both cases the party contained no representatives from the church and was filled with non-lawful types.  Even though they wanted the same outcome (the destruction of an evil cult), the Cuthbertines viewed the adventurers as a bunch of rowdy troublemakers while the party viewed the church as a bunch of out of touch windbags trying to tell them what to do.

Rival Schools
Old-school D&D often included groups of adventurers in the wandering monster tables – a concept that Ed Greenwood greatly expanded upon in his Forgotten Realms setting (especially during the 2e era) with its predilection for rival adventuring companies.   This concept hasn’t been used all that much in modern D&D (with the exception of the excellent Shackled City adventure path by Paizo), but is a complication worth revisiting.  A rival adventuring company need not be evil to oppose the PCs – good aligned NPCs might pursue the same goals as the PCs (stopping an encroaching hobgoblin army, overthrowing an evil cult, or slaying a terrible dragon for example).  Rather than brining the two groups together, these similarities cause tension.  The rival adventuring company wants what the PCs’ want, only they want to do it first and they have no intention of sharing the spotlight (or the glory and treasure).
Good aligned rivals won’t necessarily attack the PCs, but they aren’t above sabotaging their efforts.  In fact, if they are less capable, their bumbling might make things much harder for the PCs (like a failed incursion into a dragon’s lair that makes the creature extra careful and paranoid).

The Long Arm of Justice
Adventuring often means transgressing laws and taboos (like breaking and entering, tomb-robbing, and murder).  That means that at some point in a campaign a group of good aligned NPCs is going to want to redress one of these transgressions.   There are many remedies these groups seek, but this complication works best if the NPCs aren’t immediately violent or threaten the PCs with imprisonment (they may seek compensation, ask for a favor, or challenge the PCs to complete a gruelling ritual of atonement).
If the PCs are strongly lawful aligned, then the reverse can happen.  A group of xaositects, followers of Olidammara, or tricky fey target the PCs to discredit them and take them down a notch.  They use pranks, rumours, and theft to spread chaos and vex the PCs.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: VS

February 3, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.


This superhero thriller jumps headfirst into the story, opening with former teammates Charge, Cutthroat, Shadow and the Wall kidnapped by their arch-nemesis Rickshaw.  The four heroes awake in a small town, their powers nullified by a mysterious injection and the populace tied to clusters of high explosives.  In order to save the trapped innocents, and themselves, they must complete a series of fiendish tests before Rickshaw detonates the bombs and obliterates the entire town.

Super Hero Action Meets Dark Thriller

VS is another ambitious indie film (I like this trend) that shoots for the moon.  It stumbles, but there is genius there, and its sheer ballsy-ness makes me want to overlook the film’s shortcomings.  Throwing superheroes into a Saw-esque thriller, is an idea worthy of the Joker (in spite of being a Marvel standard bearer, there are a few DC characters that I like) – so is writing, directing and starring in your film, but Jason Trost manages to pull it off without it looking like a vanity picture.
Because of the look of the costumes, it’s easy to compare VS to Kick-Ass.  They may share some similarities, but they are as different as night and day.  Both films draw on the ‘real-life superhero movement’ for aesthetic inspiration (hence the similar costumes), and both are a comment on the superhero genre.  However, Kick-Ass is a spoof that throws superheroes into our world to send up the inherent ridiculousness of the entire genre (that’s not a slam against Kick-Ass – I happened to like it quite a bit), while VS is a straight superhero tale that draws on the language of horror films to showcase a truly sadistic villain.
And what a great villain to showcase.  Veteran James Remar steals the show as Rickshaw, having fun with the role and making it crazy enough to be entertaining but keeping it this side of cartoony (a little over the top is fine – it is a superhero movie).  In the Q+A Trost revealed that Remar is an old family friend and did the film as a favor (he liked the script too), which is a good thing for VS; because in the hands of someone the film could afford, I’m not sure the character would have worked.
The tests that Rickshaw puts the heroes through are fantastically evil, and as I mentioned, are very much in the tradition of Saw.  There’s also a long tradition of these kinds of traps in comics, particularly the kind that involve difficult decisions that put the heroes’ morals in jeopardy – so the mixing of the two genres works perfectly and is the film’s real genius.  Convoluted traps and villains toying with their prey seem completely at home in a superhero film without straining credibility (in fact, the audience expects it), while the dark and gritty horror film trappings tell the viewer that the stakes are much higher than a traditional comic book film and that the body count likely will be as well.  This gives the characters’ actions a lot of weight and boosts the dramatic tension much more than you would expect from a film about superheroes.
VS’ second moment of genius, and the part of the film that makes it required viewing for any Hollywood director looking to adapt a comic book for the screen, is how Trost deals with the heroes’ backstory.  Instead of spending the first half of the film detailing how the characters acquired their powers, and formed their team, VS just cuts to the interesting part of the story (waking up powerless in a town filled with deadly traps) and trusts that the audience is smart enough to fill in the blanks as the story unfolds.  Through short flashbacks and character chatter we’re given all we need to know without lots of boring exposition and wasted screen-time.  With VS, Trost proves once and for all that it is possible to make an exciting superhero film right out of the gate.
With the low budget Trost wisely wrote out the costly use of superpowers, and relied entirely on practical effects and stunt work.  Normally I would have wanted to at least see someone fly or lift up a car in a comic book movie, but the low-fi look really fits with the dark and grimy atmosphere of the film.
Where VS stumbles is in the film’s pacing.  Each of the tests is timed, and the heroes must race against the clock to both overcome the challenges and find Rickshaw before the countdown expires and the whole town blows up.  That’s a great device to create natural tension, but unfortunately, every time the viewer starts to worry VS shoots itself in the foot by having its characters get into a drawn out conversations and arguments.  There were times when I felt like yelling at the screen, “at least walk and talk, you’re all going to die!”  I couldn’t help but wonder as the horrible consequences of the countdown unfolded, that it all could have been avoided if the characters hadn’t been so chatty.
VS is recommended for superhero fans, especially those that are ready for a fresh take on the genre.  If, like me, you‘re also a fan of horror films, then VS is happily a chocolate and peanut butter situation.  It isn’t perfect, but the high points of VS are well worth the lows.

RPG Goodness

If you play a superhero rpg and want to run a game with the grittiness of the Punisher, but prefer costumes to guns, then VS is the best guidebook you can find.  I can totally picture combining the D20 version of Mutants and Masterminds with the list of traps from the Dungeon Master’s Guide to create an adventure very similar to the scenario in the film.  Even though the movie doesn’t contain any supernatural elements, I think VS would also work as an introduction to set the tone for a mash-up of Palladium’s Beyond the Supernatural and Heroes Unlimited (I’m not sure if anyone has ever played that – but now that I mention it I kind of want to try it out).
Outside of the film’s obvious inspiration for superhero rpgs, I think that VS highlights an issue in D&D that has been dealt with very differently across the editions of the game – nullifying PC powers.  While I don’t think there are any adventures that feature the PCs getting injected with a potion that prevents them from using their abilities, many of the old-school modules are filled with walls that can’t be climbed by Thieves, damage that can’t be healed by the Cleric, and lists of spells that Magic Users are barred from casting to bypass an obstacle (the classic adventure Tomb of Horrors is big on this).  Starting with 3e, this kind of adventure design was frowned on and often criticised.  DMs were encouraged to work with a PC’s powers rather than work around them.  When it comes to this issue I am unapologetically in the camp of the new school.  Having your character’s abilities hamstrung just so an adventure can railroad your actions is not fun.  I would just as soon have choices I can’t use removed from the game rather than have the illusion of choice.
As strong as my stance is on negating PCs’ powers in adventure design, when it comes to monsters I feel differently.  I love the beholder’s anti-magic cone, a ghast’s resistance to turning and the thought eater’s special attacks against psionic characters -even though all these creatures nullify class powers in their own way.  This might seem hypocritical, but I think the difference between a monster and an adventure is that the monsters in these cases are rare (although if you had an adventure with nothing but ghasts it wouldn’t be much fun for the cleric – or anyone really), their powers are discreet, and rather than reducing a character’s options to a single path (you can’t pick that lock or use a knock spell, you have to find the magic key in room 18 to proceed), these monsters interact with each of the classes in a unique way that makes them frightening and interesting (a golem is immune to most spells, but a few thematic ones affect it in unique ways).
In 4e, which introduced the concept of power sources, this is the feature I expected to interact with those classic monsters, an exciting possibility I thought was wasted (as it turns out, power sources weren’t used for much of anything) – something I’ve lamented before.  To remedy this, I’ve created a sampling of traits that can be added to monsters that can transform them into ‘kryptonite’ for certain classes.

Power Sources and Monsters

The following traits can be added to a monster to modify the way the creature interacts with the power sources of the PCs.  These traits are minor enough that adding one as-is shouldn’t alter a monster’s level or experience value, although in certain powerful combinations you may instead use it to replace an existing trait or power.  Care should be used in placing these traits – there is little point giving a monster anti-magic shell, if there are no arcane characters in the party and the turning class feature will seem pointless if every undead opponent the party encounters has turn resistance.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Corridor

January 30, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Corridor

This science fiction/horror story follows a group of old high school friends, drifting apart from one another, as they reunite for a weekend of bonding at an isolated cabin in the middle of winter.  Here they make contact with an otherworldly force, and are unprepared for the indelible changes it leaves on their psyches.  As the strange force’s influence grows, the friends find their sanity stretched beyond the breaking point and their lives in peril.

Indie Horror Done Right, the Canadian Way

The Corridor is one of those films that I wish was made more often.  It reaches beyond its budget, is well written, and makes a unique interpretation of a classic trope (the cabin in the woods) by adding a genuinely Canadian voice to the genre.  That’s high praise, and The Corridor deserves it.
It’s an annoying stereotype to call Canada the ‘great white north’; however, the isolation of the north is something that holds a special place in the Canadian psyche (even a Toronto boy like me knows a few lines from Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee by heart).  The Corridor does a great job of capturing that feeling on film – the sense of being trapped, the cold, and the peculiar way the snow seems to absorb sound.  During the Q&A after the screening, director Evan Kelly admitted what a pain it was to shoot in the snow (once you’ve kicked through a snow bank, you can’t exactly reset the scene), but I’m glad they were ambitious enough to try on the limited budget the film had, because it paid off.  Visually, it sets an appropriate tone for the film, with all that oppressive whiteness pressing in on the landscape and squashing the characters.  Plus, the winter is a natural obstacle to the characters simply walking away from their problems, so The Corridor avoids some of the suspension of disbelief problems that a lot of cabin in the woods movies are burdened with.
I think that The Corridor’s ‘Canadian-ness’ goes beyond its wintry setting to the nature of the fear it explores.  While most (American) cabin in the woods films (like Cabin Fever, or even, if the concept of isolation is stretched, The Divide) deal with the disintegration of groups into fractured, lone individuals, the alien force in The Corridor represents overwhelming integration into a group that violently overwrites the self.  I think the argument can be made that a country’s national values also hold their secret fears, and if individualism is an American ideal/fear, then I think that you can say that collectivism is our Canadian ideal/fear.
Even though it takes a while for the blood to start flowing, Kelly avoids boredom by slowly turning up the tension between the characters.  While most of us don’t have to deal with mental illness in our circle of friends (another credit to the movie is the deft hand with which schizophrenic Tyler is portrayed), the grudges, hurt feelings, and lines of alliance between the characters is something that we can all relate too (especially with a group of people who grew up together).  It all works to make the characters believable, which gives the violence all the more impact when it explodes onto the screen (and there’s a couple of pretty gruesome scenes in there).
Watching The Corridor reminded me of the first half of Dreamcatcher, before it takes a left turn and Morgan Freeman starts chewing on the scenery (he wasn’t the worst culprit, but he was the most unexpected one), but that doesn’t really do The Corridor justice.  I think a better comparison is to H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Colour Out of SpaceThe Corridor doesn’t have any forbidden colors (or any of the trappings of the Cthulhu mythos), but the portrayal of something truly ‘other’, and the madness that force invokes, has a very Lovecraftian feel.  Portraying the ‘unknowable’ is even harder on the screen than it is on the page, but I was impressed with the route that The Corridor took, walking a tight line between explaining too much and leaving things so vague as to be meaningless.  By the end I felt very satisfied with the story, and although screenwriter Josh MacDonald revealed in the Q&A that this was an aspect of the film he labored over, I never once felt the mystery was disingenuous or sloppy (as I’ve said before, two of my writing pet-peeves).
There were a few scenes where I thought the acting could use a little more punch, but in general the performances were good.  Likewise, there were elements that could have been more polished (for example, the character Bobcat, who was supposed to be bald, had pretty visible stubble on his head for a lot of the film), but honestly those are things that I would have completely overlooked in a lesser film.  I only looked for perfection because The Corridor set the bar so high.
The Corridor is highly recommended; watch it to see what Lovecraft might look like completely removed from all the Yog-Sothothery.

RPG Goodness

In my review of The Divide, I looked at how D&D’s class system, constructed for mutual reliance, can create tension and mistrust.  While The Corridor shares The Divide’s isolation and social breakdown, it uses a mind-bending alien force as its catalyst, rather than the exposure of humanity’s base nature.  In D&D terms, I think The Corridor’s approach still subverts the game’s reliance on teamwork, while avoiding the fallout that comes from permanently damaging the trust that holds a party together.  Actually, D&D already does this, and has since 1e’s Monster Manual.  The beholder, succubus, and mind flayer (as well as many others), all have powers that subsume the will of the individual, turn adventurers against one another, and create paranoia and dissent amongst the players.  The key to these monsters though, is that they also remove responsibility from the player for the actions of her character.  I’ve seen some pretty horrible things happen between characters due to these kinds of monsters, all while the players were laughing and having a good time.  As an example, when I ran Rifts, one of my players was mentally enslaved by a mindolar (a giant, mind controlling slug) and forced to try whatever he could to get the other characters into the monster’s lair (so they could become slaves as well).  His attempts almost worked, and rather than the rest of the party being angry, the event is cited as one of the greatest moments my players had in that game.
I think that both the approach I described in my review of The Divide (limited resources, restricted movement, and mistrust), as well as the one suggested by The Corridor can be combined together to make an interesting and memorable adventure (in the form of the adventure outline I promised in the earlier review).

Castaways of the Sargasso Prison

This is an event based adventure that takes place on board the ship Wandering Grail.  After a failed pirate attack leaves the Grail without a captain, the ship becomes becalmed in a treacherous region of sargasso.  The PC’s must deal with dwindling supplies, power struggles between the crew, and with the monstrous creature that controls the sargasso.

Adventure Hooks
This adventure is perfect to stage while the PCs are en route to a different adventure.  Perhaps they have paid for passage to distant continent, or seek adventure in the ruins of a remote island.  If the PCs are mercenaries, the Captain might hire them as guards since he (rightly) fears the pirates that ply the trade routes he must cross.

Major NPCs
Captain Maraver Fleetwind (female human fighter; Lawful Neutral/Unaligned) – The ornery and unpleasant Captain Fleetwind takes an instant dislike to the party (even if she hired them).  She is an unforgiving task master, and works the crew beyond their limit.
First Mate Bellray Copper (male human rogue; Neutral Evil/Evil) – On the surface Bellray is pleasant, accommodating, and completely subservient to Captain Fleetwind (while apologizing to the PCs for her behavior).  In truth, Bellray is an ambitious and bitter man who will go to any lengths to take control of the Wandering Grail (including the murder of his captain).
Quartermaster Quill Urthadar (female half-elven sorcerer; Neutral/Unaligned) – Although she has the official title of Quartermaster, under the controlling leadership of Captain Fleetwind, Quill is little more than a glorified cook (not that she minds).  Quill is quiet and unassuming until the supplies begin to run low; then she begins secretly hoarding food and water as a tool to control the crew.  Although she justifies this as a more reasonable alternative to Bellray’s rule, she is a little too comfortable choosing who will live and who will starve.
Abbhortha (advanced kopru; Lawful Evil/Evil) – This powerful undersea creature has recently learned a ritual to calm the winds above the sargasso-choked reef it uses as a lair.  It hopes to stop passing ships in order to mentally enslave their crews, spread its influence and build a new kopru empire with Abbhortha at the centre.

Event: Pirates
After a few uneventful days at sea (during which time Captain Fleetwind undoubtedly earns the party’s ire and Bellray tries to befriend them), the ship is attacked by a group of opportunistic pirates.  This encounter should be difficult, not only to reinforce the dangers the sea has to offer, but also to keep the party completely occupied by the fighting.  While the party is defending the ship, Bellray takes the opportunity to backstab the Captain during the confusion.  Depending on the actions of the PCs, one or more may witness Bellray’s treachery (although he is exceptionally sneaky, so he tries to avoid committing the assassination within their line of sight, and even if he does should be allowed a Hide or Bluff check opposed by the PC’s Spot or Sense Motive to cover it up).

Event: Alliances
Few mourn the loss of Captain Fleetwind, and protocol dictates that command of the ship falls to First Mate Copper.  The PCs may oppose this, or try and take control of the ship themselves, but it is extremely difficult to convince the rest of the crew to support them (and the ship won’t run without their support).  Even revealing the assassination does little to turn the ship against Bellray (give him a +5 circumstance bonus to opposed Diplomacy checks at this point).
Bellray knows the PCs are powerful adversaries and attempts to woo them to his side, all the while working out the best way to get rid of them.

Event: Becalmed
Not long after the death of Captain Fleetwind, the Wandering Grail’s course leads it above the reef of Abbhortha, who uses a magical ritual to calm the winds and strand the boat (magical or nature oriented PCs might notice the weather is unnatural with a difficult skill check: Nature or Arcana).  Rowing the ship is possible, but is made increasingly difficult due to the sargasso weed in this region (it fouls the oars and applies either a cumulative -2 to skill checks or increasingly reduces the ship’s speed until it cannot move).
During this period Bellray’s twisted nature becomes more and more apparent as he inflicts cruel and barbarous punishments for the slightest infraction.  Bellwind won’t actively move against the PCs until he is sure he has the superiority of numbers on his side and can win the fight with acceptable losses.  Control of the crew is best resolved as an ongoing skill challenge between the other events, or as a series of opposed Diplomacy or Intimidate checks.  The breakdown of the crew into opposed factions should evolve throughout the adventure (in this conflict all sides should be aware that killing too many of the crew is virtual suicide, since the ship needs a minimum amount of people to operate).

Event: Food and Water
Although the PCs and the crew might fish for food, water reserves quickly begin to run low (and the fishing is meagre at best).  This is compounded by Quill’s ongoing theft of supplies.  When one of the PCs begins to suffer from the effects of thirst or starvation give them an opportunity to catch Quill stealing, find her secret cache, or have her approach the PCs with the offer of rations for loyalty.  How this plays out is entirely up to the PCs.  They might side with Quill to depose Bellray, or the ship might split even further, into three competing camps.  As long as she controls the supplies, Quill gets a cumulative +2 circumstance bonus to opposed Diplomacy and Intimidate checks for each day the crew goes without food or water.
Keep in mind if the party has access to magic that can create edible food or drinking water it can drastically alter the outcome of this encounter.

Event: The Testing
At an appropriate time, perhaps when the Grail’s crew are at an impasse, the ship is attacked by a motley assortment of aquatic monsters (merfolk, sahuagin, a sea-lion).  These beasts are the thralls of Abbhortha, and he is using them to attack the ship with the intent of thinning out the Wandering Grail’s most capable defenders.
If they are still alive, both Bellray and Quill might take this opportunity to try and consolidate their power.

Event: An Offer from the Depths
With the crew weakened by infighting and the attack by its thralls, Abbhortha begins to personally venture onto the ship at night, using its mental powers to enslave and influence lone members of the crew.  The compromised crew members will act strangely (and the PCs might detect the magical influence through appropriate spell or skill), cajoling and forcing their shipmates to submit to their ‘sea god’ (and bringing them before the monster during his nightly incursions for indoctrination).  If enough of the crew are converted, Abbhortha will come aboard the ship permanently – sending out his minions to capture or kill any remaining crew members.  Depending on the actions of the PCs, it is entirely possible one or more will fall under Abbhortha’s sway.
If Quill is still alive during this event, she desperately wants to be on the winning side of this disaster and willingly converts to Abbhortha’s cause – even going so far as to dump her stores of food and water overboard, since she believes the new sea god Abbhortha will provide and is eager to prove her faith.  Bellray (if he is still alive) on the other hand, will never submit to the sea monster’s will.  The first mate would rather die fighting than give up his hard won control of the Wandering Grail.  Despite his vile nature, Bellray may be the PCs’ best ally in the fight against Abbhortha.

Concluding the Adventure
If Abbhortha is prevented from enslaving a critical mass of crew members, the creature cuts its losses and cancels the ritual of becalming, waiting for a more likely target to pass through its territory.  If Abbhortha is gravely injured, the beast abandons its plans (cancelling the ritual) and flees back to the inky depths.
Either Bellray or Quill, if they are in charge of the Wandering Grail by adventures end, are eager to send the PCs on their way and never see them again.


For a higher level version of this adventure simply replace Abbhortha with an advanced aboleth.
Traditionally, kopru are listed as Chaotic Evil, but I like to think that the prehistoric empire of the kopru, before their degeneration, was Lawful Evil – a part of its racial history megalomaniacal Abbhortha would be drawn to.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: Manborg

January 26, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.


In this comedic love-letter to eighties b-movies, the world has been conquered by Draculon and his demonic armies.  The nations of earth have fallen, and only a rag-tag group of freedom fighters stands between Draculon and absolute, eternal power.  Just when things are at their bleakest, a new hero rises to aid the freedom fighters and save the human race – enter Manborg!

More Wacky Retro-sploitation from Astron-6

I’ll admit up front that without the festival pass, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see Manborg, and even with the pass I almost skipped it.  I figured it would be a laugh, but I’ve seen enough real bad movies that I’m not that keen on fake bad movies.  I won’t say that Manborg completely converted me, but I had a good time watching it; and what more can you ask for?
Director Steven Kostanski prefaced the screening with “Do you guys like crappy VHS movies from the eighties?  If you do, I think you’ll like this.”  I can’t think of a better statement to prepare viewers for the madness that is Manborg.  When I was a kid looking for affordable Christmas presents for my brothers, I discovered the bargain VHS bin at K-Mart (yes VHS and K-Mart, I am old).  Out of this treasure trove of schlock I picked out an obscure title featuring a very young Jackie Chan called Fantasy Mission Force.  It featured sub-par acting, abysmal effects, awkward slap-stick humor, the craziest, most random storyline I have ever witnessed – and my brothers and I watched it a dozen times.  Manborg is the spiritual inheritor of Fantasy Mission Force; it’s a tribute to the movies we watched as kids, which ignited our imaginations before we realized a lot of those films were pretty bad (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone also comes to mind).  Kostanski plucks his characters directly from that childhood repository.  You’ve got your martial arts master (“only a ninja can stop a ninja”), your angry Australian (remember Jacko?), your badass future chick (like Melanie Griffith from Cherry 2000), and of course the manborg himself (if it didn’t have ninja’s in it, you can be guaranteed a b-movie from this era had a cyborg).
The visuals are appropriate, with lasers and digital effects circa Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, but after the laughter and nostalgia wears off, are pretty difficult to watch.  On the other hand, most of the monsters were created using some very nice stop-motion animation, which helped to sustain my interest throughout the film.  There are some brief uses of this technique in Father’s Day (for which Kostanski did the effects), but seeing it used throughout Manborg reminded me why I love stop-motion so much and why films like Clash of the Titans still hold up to modern viewing.
Manborg’s greatest strength, and what sets it apart from other spoofs, is that you never get the impression Kostanski is on the outside looking down at his subject, but is right in the thick of it, reveling in every cheesy, glorious minute.  You could almost call this self-depreciating humor, since the laughs are generated by a love of the subject matter and a knowing wink between Kostanski and the audience that we’ve been caught enjoying a guilty pleasure.
At the end of the day though, I’m not sure if the joke can sustain a film for even Manborg’s shortened sixty minutes (not matter how nostalgia-laced those minutes are).  I think the movie would have been better in a more condensed form, with the weaker material cut out, leaving it thirty minutes of concentrated mayhem.  Given that I’m not exactly the target audience of Manborg, this might not be a fair assessment – I am sure there were those at the screening who wished the film was a full ninety minutes or more.
Manborg is recommended for diehard fans of schlock cinema – this is pretty much as perfect a tribute as you can make to 80’s b-grade sci-fi films.  For everyone else, the stop-motion animation is fantastic, and the movie is genuinely fun to watch, I’m just not sure you’ll be able to endure how true Manborg is to the source material from start to finish.

RPG Goodness

Manborg had me thinking about (what else?) cyborg characters in rpgs.  The setting of the film, taken at face value and removed from its retro-cheese,  is about as close as we are ever going to get to seeing Rifts on the big screen (given that Palladium books has been trying to make it happen since the nineties, the forecast doesn’t look promising).  You’ve got the world overrun with demons, high technology, and a group of heroes that seem picked at random from the Palladium megaverse: a Ninjas and Superspies chi master, a gunslinger, a special-ops mercenary, and of course a full-conversion ‘borg.
I always thought that bionics and ‘borg characters in Rifts games were missing something.  The game has a great modular bionics building system, but is missing a key element in the place cybernetics would hold in the game world.  There are a whole lot of rules for replacing lost limbs and organs, but there are no mechanics in the game to inflict that kind of damage on the PCs.  Other than just wanting to chop off your arm to get one with a gun attached, there is very little reason to become a cyborg unless you start the game as one.
The problem with characters beginning the campaign as a cyborg is that in most of the popular culture cybernetic heroes are reborn as a ‘borg.  The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Robocop, and Manborg, all feature cybernetics as a technology that either saves the main character’s life, or resurrects them.  This bothered me when I ran Rifts, so I used a house rule that mega-damage in excess of a character’s armor, blew off a limb rather than completely atomizing them (it also helped to mitigate the problems of the mega-damage system in general).
Of course Rifts isn’t the only game that is guilty of missing a great story opportunity for cyborg PCs.  Gamma World is my preferred post-apocalyptic rules system (see my articles on Gamma Rifts), and it also features PCs who start as cyborgs from day one.  Given that Gamma World tends to be more deadly than regular D&D (because of the lack of consistently available healing), and since the game has no method of bringing dead PCs back to life (unlike D&D’s raise dead) a post character creation cybernetic option seems like a perfect fit.
Here’s how it would work.  When a PC dies, give the player the option of resurrecting the character as a cyborg.  Perhaps the rest of the party finds a hidden Ancient medical facility whose cybernetic repair bays can be jury rigged with some cannibalized Omega Tech to rebuild their fallen comrade (a perfect opportunity for a Skill Challenge); or maybe the PC’s corpse was discovered by a mysterious cryptic alliance who transforms the PC as a part of their own shadowy agenda (which is why the PC now unwittingly carries a tracking device).  A cyborg PC removes their secondary origin, as well as any traits, powers or critical effects tied to that origin.  The PCs’ new secondary origin becomes Android (or AI if you are using Famine in Fargo).  Add any traits, powers and critical effects a character of the PC’s level is entitled to.  Changing a character’s secondary origin may also result in new ability scores (as a result of the character’s new mechanical components).  If the ability score associate with your old secondary origin is different from your cyborg origin, roll 3d6 and assign the total to that ability score.  Change the ability score associated with your cyborg origin to 16, unless it is the same ability as your primary origin, in which case it is raised to 20.  Resurrected PCs should also lose any Omega Tech cards they are carrying and draw a new card.
There is no reason that PCs should be the only ones to benefit from bionic technology.   Cyborgs make great Gamma World opponents, and the ‘Borg template allows you to create cybernetic versions of Gamma World’s already deadly list of monsters (as well as modifying the library of traditional D&D monsters – imagine alien cyborg beholders invading the earth retro flying saucer style!).  The rules for using templates in Gamma World can be found at the end of my review for War of the Dead.

‘Borg Template

“It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

Apply this template to a creature that has been transformed into a cybernetic killing machine through the use of Ancient or alien technology.  ‘Borgs fight using the same weapons and abilities they possessed before the change, only they are tougher, faster, and their machine minds possess a level of emotionless, single minded focus most organic beings find frightening.
Some ‘borgs show occasional flashes of their former personalities, haunting the crumbling buildings they once called home, searching for something they can’t quite remember, before resuming their program of systematic extermination.
“’Borg” is a template that can be added to any humanoid or beast.  It works best when added to a creature with a strong melee attack, like a brute, skirmisher, or solider.  This template represents the most common type of cyborg encountered across the wastelands of Gamma Terra; it is doubtless that other versions exist.
Prerequisite: Humanoid or beast; level 5.


I cribbed some of the ‘borg template’s powers from the cyborg monsters in Legion of Gold (and since that adventure is all about cyborg marauders on an aggressive campaign of ‘recruitment’ they really should have been given the template option there), but I prefer a Steve Austin style bionic leap to a jet-powered one.  I also wanted the ‘borg to have the single-minded focus of the terminator, so I gave it a power similar to the fighter class’ ability to mark in D&D (but couldn’t use it exactly since there is no marking in Gamma World).

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Divide

January 20, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Divide

This bleak science-fiction drama opens with a massive attack (possibly nuclear) on New York City, as residents of a high-rise apartment flee to the basement for safety.  Only a few are able to make it inside before the bomb shelter door shuts the group off from the world: married couple Eva and Sam; Delvin; single mom Marilyn and her daughter Wendi; brothers Josh, Adrien and their friend Bobby; and the building’s superintendent Mickey.  What follows is the harrowing tale of the survivors as their tiny society breaks down and the worst parts of humanity come gushing to the surface.

Post-Apocalyptic Lord of the Flies

I have very mixed feelings about The Divide.  It features excellent character driven drama, but suffers from very sloppy storytelling.  The problems don’t ruin the strengths, but neither do the strengths redeem the problems.
Director Xavier Gens takes the viewer on a journey to uncover the heart of darkness that beats within us all and, if that was all he set out to accomplish, he succeeds.  The lighting is perfect, tepidly holding back the darkness of the bomb shelter.  The sets are cramped, with walls of stained, rotting concrete full of the cast off furniture Mickey has collected from former tenants – just the kind of decoration to stage the collapse of humanity.  It is in this environment that Gens throws the characters of the film into crisis and against one another, in full on No Exit style, until all traces of civilization are wiped away as devastatingly as the atomic attack outside.
There are some scenes that are truly horrifying, and I found hard to watch, but that’s kind of the point (I think I would have been worried if the audience hadn’t squirmed in their seats).   Gens confronts us with our most barbarous instincts as a challenge – can we face that part of ourselves and deal with it, or do we hide from it and let it destroy us?  Thankfully, the director has a good instinct for timing, and sprinkles the film with a little bit of dark humor to keep the viewer from complete despair.
The Divide also has the best performances I have ever seen out of both Michael Beihn and Milo Ventimiglia (I’ve also got to mention relative unknown Michael Eklund whose descent into madness was so convincing he got an ovation during the Q&A).  Gens shot the whole movie in chronological order, and forced the actors to subsist on the same diet as their characters.  While I’m sure this made for a difficult production, the hardships were well worth it for the performances they elicited.  Combine this with Gen’s bold decision to essentially throw out the script and let the actors evolve their own characters made for a transformation that was all the more disturbing for its organic nature.
Unfortunately, abandoning the script is also (I’m guessing), the main source of the film’s problems.  Within the first fifteen minutes The Divide sets up a mystery as the focus of the plot, a mystery that is completely abandoned by the film’s midpoint and never answered or dealt with again.  I kept waiting for the thread to be picked up again (even hoping for something, anything, after the credits, or in the cool comic book they gave out as swag); but it seemed like everyone in the movie had forgotten it had ever existed.  Since being burned by both Lost and Battlestar Galactica, this kind of sloppy storytelling has become a pet peeve of mine and I have no patience for it.  Either Gens is just messing with the audience and had no intention of pursuing the mystery (which I think is in bad faith), or he had no idea what the answers were.  Either way, why put the mystery in there?  I can think of a dozen ways it could have been excised and the rest of the plot kept intact.  If Gens just wanted to make a character study, then that’s what he should have stuck to.  Keep in mind this isn’t a sub-plot I’m getting ticked over, this is pretty much the driving force of the first third of the film.
The Divide is recommended as a disturbing post-apocalyptic version of Lord of the Flies with the caveat that you should only watch it if you can overlook the evaporating plot.  If that’s not something that bothers you, The Divide has a lot to offer.  Otherwise, look elsewhere to scratch that itch.

RPG Goodness

One of the cornerstones of the D&D adventuring party is teamwork.  This assumption is ingrained in the mechanics of the game itself.  Each class is designed to complement the others and contribute to the group (this is true of all editions of the game), with each class’ strength compensating for another class’ weakness.  The fighter won’t last long without a healer, who won’t last long without someone disarming traps, who needs a magician to wipe out large groups of foes, etc.  But D&D is more than a set of mechanical tools, it’s also a role-playing game and, in playing out different roles, conflict between the characters is sure to come up.  At some point every DM (and some players) wants to subvert this, and The Divide lays out a strong blueprint for doing so: limited resources, restricted movement, and mistrust.
I set up a Planescape campaign when 3e was released with this exact goal in mind.  The game started with the PCs in the mazes (a sort of prison demiplane), completely amnesiac.  Each found they were carrying a note, written in their own handwriting, which gave them a clue about the plot and implicated one of the other characters in the party.  I learned very quickly that with the added stressors of limited resources and restricted movement, it doesn’t take very much mistrust to have the characters at each other’s throats.  Perhaps if I had seen The Divide back then I would have known better.  Thankfully, no characters died, and no out-of-game feelings were hurt.  Once the characters found resources and their way out of the mazes open animosity cooled – but the most important thing I learned was that the trust between the PCs never completely healed from the wounds it had suffered at the beginning of the campaign (out of character things were fine – we were all friends after all).  This had such a big impact on everyone at the table that once the campaign concluded several years later, we all unanimously agreed that the theme of the next game would be ‘working together’ (later amended by the players with ‘to get gold’).
I think one of the reasons for this is the very teamwork-centric game mechanics I mentioned.  Since each class has to rely on another in order to make it through an adventure alive, there is an inherent tension there.  You have to trust that someone else will do their job properly or your character probably isn’t going to survive.  When suspicion breaks that trust, it’s very hard to mend.
That doesn’t mean the themes brought up in The Divide aren’t worth exploring in the game.  The fracture and disintegration of a social group is an event that has countless opportunities for roleplaying, political maneuvering, and high stakes combat – just the sorts of things that make for a memorable D&D adventure.  Fortunately, DMs have an option that never really worked out for the characters of The Divide: the PCs can be a cohesive unit within a larger group that falls apart.  When the infighting begins, you still have all the juicy bits that make this scenario interesting, while at the same time preserving the fragile trust between the PCs.
As I mentioned before, The Divide provides the blueprint for such an adventure: restrict the movement of the group, limit resources and sow mistrust.  I can’t think of many published adventures that follow this pattern (the only one that comes to mind is the Dark Sun adventure, Last Stand At Outpost 3 from Dungeon 110), but the template can be applied to many scenarios: a becalmed ship threatened with mutiny and dwindling water, an outpost keep filled with mercenaries cut off from supplies by an impassable snowstorm (The Thing would work as great inspiration here too), or a Noble’s villa in the middle of a lavish party that must close itself tight to protect from a plague that has struck the city.
I’m saving a concrete example, in the form of an adventure outline for The Corridor, a similarly themed film.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: A Lonely Place to Die

January 17, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

A Lonely Place to Die

In this nail-biting thriller, Allison brings her new boyfriend on a mountaineering adventure to meet her three climbing partners and tackle a challenging peak in the Scottish highlands.  There they stumble upon a small girl buried alive in a makeshift prison and attract the attention of a group of murderous criminals who will stop at nothing to get her back.  All that stands between the mountaineers and escape from their pursuers are the highland’s raging rapids, bone shattering falls, and impassable chasms

Grabs Hold of You like an Angry Rottweiler

A Lonely Place to Die is one hell of an intense film, and does for rock-climbing what The Descent did for caving (although seeing as I’m afraid of heights and don’t like confined spaces the likelihood that I would have tried either, even before seeing the films, is pretty slim).  The Gilbey brothers don’t waste a lot of time on bloated backstories, giving the audience just enough that they care about the characters and understand the group dynamics.  The film gets to the set-up fast, and as soon as the mountain climbers find the kidnapped girl, the unrelenting action begins.
I’m not kidding when I say ‘unrelenting’.  In most action/thrillers the tension tends to come in waves – there’s a chase scene, and then a rest; they’re caught again, and then they get away (The Bourne Identity is a good example of this format).  This is not how A Lonely Place to Die works.  Once the chase down the mountain begins, it’s cranked up to 10 until the credits roll.  No one gets a break – not the characters, and certainly not the fool in the theatre who ordered the biggest drink and has to go to the bathroom (thankfully that wasn’t me).  The sheer energy that drives this film forward is what makes it work.  Like the characters fighting for their lives, there is no time to stop and think, and possibly question the actions of the film’s villains, because the camera is now hung out over a dizzying ledge and we’re too busy worrying the protagonist might not make that jump.  But honestly, who cares about the plot when the Gilbey brothers have set out a clear goal (make it off the mountain with the girl alive), and keep us on the edge of our seats, biting our nails over what’s at stake (and what action/thriller doesn’t have some silly plot elements?).
A Lonely Place to Die uses violence in a way that mirrors and complements the pacing.  It’s unglamorous, brutal, and before you can deal with it, the film moves on.  It does an excellent job of putting the viewer right in the middle of the frantic scramble for survival, which is exactly what you want from an action/thriller.
The movie draws obvious comparisons to Cliffhanger, only A Lonely Place to Die takes a handful of Cliffhangers, boils down the best parts and distills the mix until its 100-proof.  Where Cliffhanger is (fun, but) overproduced, the Gilbey brothers and the cast spent a few weeks learning how to rock climb so they could film right on the side of the mountain and do the stunt work themselves.  The directness of this kind of filmmaking infuses A Lonely Place to Die not only with believable action scenes, but also some breathtaking vistas of the Scottish highlands that would have been impossible to achieve (or cost prohibitive) with traditional filming techniques.
Unfortunately, given how strong the first three-quarters of the film are, A Lonely Place to Die trips up a little near the end.  I don’t want to spoil anything (see below), but it almost seems as if the Gilbey brothers forgot why the bulk of the film is so awesome.
Overall, A Lonely Place to Die is recommended, especially if you want to see a raw version of Cliffhanger without the cheese.  Watch it to snap you out of mid-season television and get your heart pumping again.

There were two things I want to comment on, but they are definitely spoilers.
First, I really love how the Gilbey brothers establish early on in the film (in a spectacularly unexpected death that will snap you out of complacency Tropic Thunder and Deep Blue Sea style) that absolutely no character is safe.  This was an incredible tool for amping up the tension, as I genuinely thought that any of the characters could go at any second (and with a child involved, that’s a pretty heavy threat).
Second, I’ll explain my criticism a little more.  Once the protagonists leave the mountain, the film loses the singular focus that drove the narrative forward so strongly.  I appreciate the filmmakers playing with my expectations on an intellectual level, but this film is all about visceral engagement, so I have to call the last quarter of the film a failed experiment.

RPG Goodness

A Lonely Place to Die is a fantastic resource for rpg players.  Besides being the perfect film to use as research for an alpine adventure (or just to get amped up before a game session), there are elements of the film that wouldn’t be out of place in a session of D&D.  See if this basic plot sounds familiar:

A group of people band together (some of whom know each other and some of whom don’t) to go on an adventure.  Along the way they stumble upon a prisoner and decide to take up the quest to bring her back to the safety of civilization.  With limited resources they must navigate their way through a dangerous environment and fend off attacks from the villains who captured the prisoner in the first place.  Cue death and mayhem.

Sounds like your average game session, doesn’t it?  Thinking about A Lonely Place to Die (and reading Blog of Holding’s latest post about the ‘star labyrinth’), made me rethink my notions of overland travel and wilderness encounters in D&D (I’ve always been more interested in urban and dungeon settings).  There is a tendency to view the wilderness as a two dimensional plane, where the characters can travel anywhere they please (I think D&D’s, and my own, fetishization of mapping encourages this, as does the venerable hex-map) with a die roll to avoid getting lost, but the world off the road is as full of ‘walls’ as any dungeon.  The main difference between the wilderness and the dungeon is that every party has at least one member highly skilled at climbing (or swimming) or with access to some terrain avoiding magic (like levitation or fly); so, instead of a wilderness adventure’s walls being restrictions, they are highly advised suggestions.  Rather than directing travel, a wilderness corridor funnels it (not everyone is going to want to scale that cliff or swim across that river).  This makes the wilderness ‘dungeon’ especially well-suited to a dynamic adventure where the choices of the players have a huge impact on the actions of the monsters (which is pretty much how it plays out in the film).  A map can still provide areas with location based encounters, only the players have more control over which route they take and how they get there (weighing the danger of the terrain against a shortcut or an avoided encounter).  This means that DMs are going to have to do a little extra work in determining how the monsters will react to the PCs (and the PCs’ movement through the territory), but is the perfect opportunity to throw in some of those creatures whose Monster Manual description has them using hit and run or stalking tactics that are rarely ever replicated in actual table top play (like displacer beasts, doppelgangers, and minotaur).
As an experiment I would love to transform a classic dungeon map into a wilderness adventure using the ideas I’ve mentioned, but that is something that will have to wait for a future blog post.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: Absentia

January 13, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.


The story begins with Tricia, grappling over the decision to declare her husband ‘dead in absentia’, after he mysteriously vanished without a trace seven years ago.  The legal declaration seems a first step to healing and moving on with her life but, instead of helping Tricia put her life together, she is tormented by the apparition of her missing husband.
Things are complicated by the arrival of Tricia’s younger sister, Callie, come to lend moral support but has problems of her own.  It isn’t long before Callie finds an eerie pedestrian tunnel that she believes is connected not only with Tricia’s missing husband, but with a much older pattern of disappearances.

Creepy, Instant Indie-Horror Classic

I’m not one of those jaded horror fans that claims not to be frightened by movies.  When they are good, scary movies scare me, which is why I go and see them (honestly I’m not sure why people who aren’t scared like horror movies – it’s a little like being an aficionado of tear-jerkers but never feeling sad).  A good horror movie gets your blood racing in the theatre, but a great one stays with you as you leave and makes you walk a little faster on your way home from the subway station.  Absentia had me hyper aware of all the weird little noises my house makes for a few days.
Part of what makes Absentia so effective is Mike Flanagan’s blending of the best parts of a ghost tale and a monster story.  The ghost story elements give the film its melancholic atmosphere and sense of building dread, while the monster provides the clammy handed fear and jump scares only a creature skittering in the dark can.
Flanagan also knows how to really take advantage of the isolation one feels in the suburbs.  Speaking as someone who grew up in the ‘burbs, I can attest to the strange quality they possess – at certain times of day, even if your rational mind tells you the rows of houses are filled with people, you feel like the last man on earth – a quality Absentia captures.   Incidentally, my neighborhood also had a scary pedestrian tunnel (which I had to brave in order to get to my friend’s house), so the focus of the film had my inner childhood fears working overtime.
With a tiny budget (the movie was funded by kickstarter, which should be familiar to gamers as the funding source of choice for rpg start-ups), Absentia wisely leaves the heavy lifting to the excellent cast rather than special effects.  I was especially impressed by the portrayal of sisters Tricia and Callie.  Actresses Courtney Bell and Katie Parker did a great job filling their portrayal with the kind of knowing barbs (as well as loving support) only adult siblings can throw at each other.   It had the added benefit of having their relationship to unfold for the viewer rather than artificially laying it out at the beginning of the film.
The concept of Absentia’s monster is very clever, and it unfolds in much the same way as the characters.  Flanagan could have easily used a long expository scene (complete with a convenient scholarly expert opening up a giant tome full of woodcuts) in order to drive his ideas home, but thankfully resisted the temptation and took a much less forced approach.
Absentia is strongly recommended to all horror fans.  The creep factor is in high gear and reminded me of the best parts of Insidious (the parts before the spirit world).  Watch it with the lights off, and see how long you can sit in the dark alone when it’s finished.

I do have one criticism of Absentia, and I hate to bury it under a spoiler tag (like I did with Some Guy Who Kills People) since it has nothing to do with the plot, but I really don’t want to take any of the threat of the monster away from those who haven’t seen the film yet.  Absentia left me needing to see more of the monster, enough that after the last scene I felt a tiny bit ripped off (just a bit – nothing like how ripped off I felt not seeing any aliens in Contact).  I didn’t want to see the creature in broad daylight, I think that would have ruined it, and I understand why Flanagan didn’t include the traditional monster movie ‘reveal’.  I’m not sure if it was entirely an editorial decision or a budgetary one.  I just needed a little bit more.  I realize a love of monsters is one of my idiosyncrasies, so it might not bug others like it did me.  Ultimately, showing too much would have weakened the film so, even though Flanagan was stingy with the creature, he came down on the right side of that decision.

RPG Goodness

There is a definite trend in modern D&D products to move the fey away from their 1e roots as benevolent (or at worst neutral) forest spirits toward something much more dangerous and sinister.  This trend can be seen in WOTC’s recent Heroes of the Feywild, but stretches back at least to the end of 3.5e with Paizo’s Carnival of Tears adventure.  It’s a trend I happen to like, and one that might also be playing out on the stage of popular culture if Absentia is any indication (as well as Grimm and Lost Girl).
Without spoiling the clever ideas that I alluded to in my review of the film, Absentia is required viewing for any game master that wants to see how frightening the fey really can be.  At first I thought the move to make fey dangerous was purely a pragmatic one – combat is a major component of the game, so it seems a waste to include game statistics for a bunch of flower sniffing pixies you aren’t going to get in a fight with.  Other than harassing my players with some leprechauns (they appeal to the same side of me that thinks Snoti the snotling champion is awesome), I don’t think I’ve ever used a blink dog, brownie, or killmoulis in any edition of the game, so there might be something to that theory, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.  While watching Absentia, I was reminded that the recent thematic transformation of the fey might actually be a revival of a much older view of faerie creatures.
Gary Gygax’s (and the rest of western culture’s) perception of the fey was probably informed by their Victorian interpretation (he did include Lord Dunsany in his list of inspirational reading, appendix N) as whimsical, fun-loving, child-like beings.  However, there is an older interpretation of the fey, one that places many of the faerie creatures in the same mythological niche as vampires, ghosts, and demons.  It is that tradition that I think Absentia and recent D&D products are tapping into.
Through this lens even the most benevolent fey of D&D’s past are transformed from innocent practical jokers to wild creatures filled with alien emotions and dangerous magic.  As a DM you can play this up for full effect.  Perhaps there is a sigil, or special herb the common folk put on their doors to ward against Eladrin, whom they view as unpredictable and dangerous – barely a step up from the murderous drow.  A leprechaun’s legendary treasure is actually a pot filled with gold teeth, pilfered from corpses during the faery’s nightly grave robbing (a habit that puts them in close associating with ghouls).  Brownies may help a desperate cobbler make shoes, but there is no telling what payment they may demand later on (anything from a silver plated laugh to the cobbler’s first born).
In such a world, making a pact with an arch-fey is just as dangerous as signing a contract with a devil or studying the maddening portents held in the movements of the stars and planets.

Random Fey-Pact Events

For those who have seen the feywild, its colours and smells are so vibrant and real it makes the mortal world seem like a sad reflection.  It is no wonder the immortal beings that thrive in that atmosphere, the arch-fey, are so difficult to understand.  Whatever their inscrutable motives for doing so, the arch-fey are known to lend some of their arcane secrets to mortals who interest them.
Unlike devils who frequently draw up well delineated contracts (if confusing and opaque) to entice mortal Warlocks, the unpredictable and mercurial arch-fey hold little stock in formal agreements (and frequently have a different understanding of them than mortals).  More often than not, fey Warlocks aren’t even aware of the agreements they’ve entered into.  The boundary between the worlds is thin in some places, and at these locations a mortal may accidentally leave a ritual offering or violate a sacred space, attracting the attention of an arch-fey.  The fey Warlock walks a dangerous path.  The relationship responsible for their newfound arcane powers is governed by alien whims and strange protocols.  There is little the mortal mind can do to predict these fluctuating patterns.  Instead the fey Warlock must learn to cope with the intrusion of the faerie world into their life, just as an infernal Warlock must learn to live with the eventual loss of their soul.
DM’s should roll on the following table every 2d6+2 days to determine the effects of the warlock’s arch-fey patron on the mortal world.  Optionally, this table can also be used for Witches and other characters that have attracted the attention of an arch-fey, such as those with the Tuathan and Unseelie Agent themes (all from Heroes of the Feywild).

It Came from Toronto After Dark: Midnight Son

January 7, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

Midnight Son

In this urban vampire tale, Jacob is a security guard stuck working the long, lonely hours of the nightshift, thanks to a rare skin condition that has left him dangerously sensitive to the sunlight.  After a chance meeting with a troubled and beautiful woman named Mary, it looks as though Jacob has finally made the human connection he longs for.  Unfortunately, Jacob’s disease hasn’t finished with him yet, and avoiding the sun is only the first stage of the illness’ metamorphosis.  As Jacob’s condition and his relationship with Mary evolve, things quickly begin to spiral out of control.

Engaging, Low-Fi, Addiction Drama

Whenever I think that vampire stories have been played out and are as bled dry as a buxom blonde in a Hammer film, a movie like Midnight Son (or a few years ago, Let the Right One In), comes along and reminds me why these monsters stay relevant and will continue to be in the years to come.  Vampires, even with their generally accepted genre conventions (rules if you will), represent a whole grab bag of subconscious fears and, with a little tweaking and liberal recombining, there is no limit to the stories they can be featured in.  I blame slumps in vampire culture not in the limitations of the potential of the vampire story but in the limitations of the vampire stories that are made.
With all that out of the way, I found Scott Leberecht’s Midnight Son refreshing.  The film doesn’t totally reimagine the vampire (although there are aspects to Midnight Son’s nosferatu that are unique), but it does reject the storytelling of at least a decade of Hollywood vampire movies.  Midnight Son is low-fi in the very best sense of the term.  There are no flying vampires, super speed, animal metamorphosis or over the top effects.  Instead, my interest was held by the characters – not beautiful and brooding dark princes, or fake angsty teenage heartthrobs – believable, lonely people trying to cope with their problems.  The plot is simple and straightforward and, although some characters may make bad decisions (it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t), they are understandable decisions that still make sense (refreshing in a horror film).
You really feel as though you could run into the characters of the film on the street, which speaks both to the actors’ performances (again, it’s refreshing to see good acting in a vampire film), as well as the look of the film (no impossibly leather clad models posing and pouting in a club filled with choreographed dancers).  In the same vein, I have to comment on Leberecht’s ability to capture the atmosphere of a city at night.  Sure you’ve got plenty of darkness, but there is just as much light; just not the kind of light that leaves you comforted and safe – washed out fluorescents, and yellow tinted sodium streetlights that give even the healthiest specimen an unearthly, undead pallor.  It isn’t a look that many films get right (the lighting reminded me of Collateral – love or hate that film, the look of the nighttime lighting is spot on).
Midnight Son has plenty of horror, but isn’t what I’d call a scary movie.  Jacob’s vampirism works as an exploration of addiction and the sometimes crippling baggage we bring to relationships, with a little bit of body horror thrown in there as well.  There’s blood, but gore hounds will be disappointed by the low body count and unspectacular kills (which, as much as I love a splattery neck bite, would feel out of place in Midnight Son).  The second half of the film is quite tense and builds up to a nice climax, but some viewers might get bored by the slower pace at the beginning.  It didn’t bother me, but if you’re expecting a certain kind of vampire film, you’ll be disappointed.
If I had to compare Midnight Son to other movies, it would be to the addiction dramas of the nineties like Rush and the Basketball Diaries… only with vampires (if that makes sense).
Midnight Son is recommended, especially for those fleeing certain overwrought, sparkly undead and are looking for something a little more grown up and gritty.

Note: I have to mention this, because I collected the comics in the nineties, that the film Midnight Son has nothing to do with Marvel’s team of supernatural heroes, the Midnight Sons.  When I saw the title I was excited to see an indie version of Ghost Rider, but about two seconds of reading the description set me straight (although Jacob and Morbius do share some similarities).  Fans of the comics have to hope that Nicolas Cage’s next kick at the can is better than the first.

RPG Goodness

Midnight Son is a great example of a protagonist transforming into a monster and trying to cope.  It’s an excellent resource for anyone running a World of Darkness game that is looking for pointers on role playing a newly transformed kindred trying to understand their powers and place in the world.  I talked about players’ desire to ‘be the monster’ in rpg games as part of my review of Dead Heads, so I won’t retread that territory here.  Where Midnight Son takes the discussion a step further is its use of transformation through contagion – specifically the spread of vampirism through lapses in judgement in the pursuit of addiction (HIV spread through shared needles perhaps?).  Not only is the protagonist transformed into a monster, but he risks transforming others into monsters as well.
This seems like an excellent plot device to incorporate into a campaign using the vampire class from last year’s Heroes of Shadow.  While the method for spreading vampirism is pretty cut and dried in other games that feature vampires as PCs (I’m thinking about World of Darkness and Rifts in particular since I’ve played them), Heroes of Shadow leaves it intentionally vague.  This can work to the DM’s advantage.
Instead of telling the player how vampirism works, have them be unsure exactly how they became what they are (and how it is spread).  Maybe the PC has had the memory of the bite that infected them psychically wiped from their brain, or perhaps they were simply born a vampire and now act as a Typhoid Mary, spreading the disease to others they come in contact with.  Whatever the case, start having major villains who die after being targeted by the blood drain power return to the campaign as vampires, out for revenge against the party who slew them.   The players might not immediately clue in to the cause (they might suspect a rival vampire or necromancer is rejuvenating the undead villains), but once they do, will likely begin to take precautions against further vampiric resurrection (which is fine – it rewards problem solving and prevents the plot twist from becoming stale and overused).
Vampirism as an infectious disease can be just as useful in the reverse direction as well, to introduce material from Heroes of Shadow into an established campaign.  Instead of breaking immersion and introducing a new PC into the storyline, have a character who wants to try out the vampire class become infected with the ‘haemophage disease’.


There are many myths and superstitions regarding the spread of vampirism.  Most hold it to be a supernatural curse of some kind.  Few realize it is a terrible disease, spread like rabies or filth fever, through the bite of the infected.


This is a difficult and deadly disease by design – after all, if the PC wants to try out the vampire class, they want the disease to progress.  I considered having vampire characters spread the disease to fellow party members through the blood is the life class feature (emulating the film), but it takes away one of the vampire’s few avenues for healing (and before long would result in a party filled with vampires).

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Theatre Bizarre

December 24, 2011

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Theatre Bizarre

The Theatre Bizarre is an old-school horror anthology and pet project of some of the genre’s most recognizable names.  A young woman is mysteriously drawn to a broken down old theatre where a disturbing half-man, half-puppet presents six spine-tingling tales: The Mother of Toads (Richard Stanley), where a newlywed couple encounter an ancient Lovecraftian religion dedicated to a horrible monster; I Love You (Buddy Giovinazzo), a meditation on a relationship poisoned by mistrust and obsession; Wet Dreams (Tom Savini), features an unfaithful husband getting his just deserts in this reality and others; The Accident (Douglas Buck), a glimpse of the life and death horror of the mundane world as told to a child;  Vision Stains (Karim Hussain), follows a junkie who chronicles the memories of her murder victims, which she re-lives after injecting their vitreous fluid directly into her eye; and Sweets (David Gregory), where a couple find that their relationship based on binge eating takes a strange turn.

Horror Buffet – Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

I’m not sure why anthology films have fallen out of fashion in North America, but growing up Creepshow, Creepshow 2, and Tales from the Darkside: the movie had a big impact on my imagination, and I miss the format (I even saw Creepshow 2 in the theatre – which not only dates me but also how long it’s been since an anthology movie got wide release).  Because of that, I was looking forward to the Theatre Bizarre and only slightly concerned that the movie’s six stories would be too short for the filmmakers to do anything with.  While I didn’t enjoy every tale, I liked the majority.  I suspect most of the crowd felt the same, though I’m sure everyone had different opinions on which segments they liked and disliked – that, I think, is the strength of the anthology structure.
The other strength of anthologies is that they are the filmic equivalent to short stories, a format perfectly suited to the horror genre (and not just because it’s my favorite way to read horror stories – I love Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Stephen King’s Night Shift is the book that got me interested in horror).  I like to think that horror is about infecting someone with a disruptive idea, an idea that hides in their brain and won’t go away (often remembered at such inopportune times as walking down an empty street in the middle of the night).  Short stories are such an effective delivery for horror because they deal with a single idea, stripped of any distraction, and freed from the need to dilute it over the course of an entire novel (or film).  During the question period after the screening, it was nice to hear the filmmakers were given complete creative freedom over their segments, and I think each of them took advantage of the format to tell focused short stories (even the ones I wasn’t crazy about).
The wraparound story (featuring genre perennial Udo Kier) that ties the segments together does its job of moving from one section to the next smoothly.  It doesn’t stand out, but I think that’s the point, as it would distract from the other stories.
The Mother of Toads is a great little monster story.  The set-up is creepy (with an excellent performance by Catriona MacCall as the old woman), the monster looks fantastic, and the ending pays off.  That it has a liberal helping of Lovecraft mythos is just icing on the cake.
I Love You is also a strong entry.  It reminded me of the clever storytelling of the Twilight Zone – only with good acting, and modern dramatic sensibility (no offense to Rod Serling – it will always be a classic).
I didn’t care for Wet Dreams.  Maybe it was the similarity in theme to the superior I Love You that makes it seem flat in comparison, but I felt Tom Savini’s entry lacked any emotional depth and came off cheesy (it looked good though).  If I Love You is a great chapter in the Twilight Zone, Wet Dreams is a bad episode from Tales from the Crypt (which is why I’m sure some people will love it).
The Accident really stands out from the crowd for its complete rejection of any supernatural or traditional horror elements (and for that audacity alone this might be my favorite segment).  The story is so simple, but so effective at reminding the viewer that we tell scary stories to distract ourselves from the terror of everyday life.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who had painful images from childhood come bubbling back to the surface after watching this.
Vision Stains has one of those ideas at its heart that you absolutely want to steal, and completely lived up to its promise (the double edged sword of any great idea).  Its narrative, about our obsession to know everything, hit home (as I’m sure it will for others in our Google and Wikipedia age).  Vision Stains also boasts some of the gnarliest (and well done) eye injuries I’ve seen, so fair warning to the squeamish (and those who have a hard time watching others put in contact lenses).
I’m on the fence about Sweets.  On the one hand the vivid, surreal feel of the segment is fantastic.  On the other, I felt the impact of the ending was blunted by relying on a series of gross-outs.  At this point in the day of screenings, I was starving, and in spite of my hunger Sweets had enough of an effect on me that I didn’t make a trip to the concession stand, so in the final analysis I guess I have to judge David Gregory’s work a success.
The Theatre Bizarre is recommended (especially for those who remember films like Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside with fondness).  The film’s discreet segments make it perfect to throw on next Halloween, and watch between bouts of handing out candy.  I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy every part (or even that you’ll like the ones that I did), but there’s enough quality storytelling in the Theatre Bizarre that it hits more than it misses (and the segments are short enough you won’t mind sitting through the misses).

RPG Goodness

Watching Vision Stains, I couldn’t help but think the whole eye-injection thing would make a very creepy way to cast the spell speak with dead in a dark steampunk game or a twisted version of Eberron.  With much of D&D fandom, myself included, showing a renewed interest in the game’s pulp fiction/sword and sorcery roots, there’s a general feeling that D&D’s magic system (of any edition) is too ‘high fantasy’ to gel with that approach.  Rather than scrap the whole magic system, I think Vision Stains demonstrates that something as simple as cosmetic changes to the way that spells are cast (the somatic and material components in 2e and 3e) can completely alter the tenor of even the most innocuous magical effect (in the case of the film, humble information gathering).  The following are a small sample of common spells altered to add an element of the dangerous, weird and horrific to magic in D&D games:
Bear’s Endurance, Bull’s Strength, Cat’s Grace, Eagle’s Splendor, Fox’s Cunning, Owl’s Wisdom – the recipient of the spell consumes a pickled organ (usually a heart to improve physical attributes or a pineal gland for mental attributes) belonging to a creature with a higher score in the appropriate statistic.  This makes finding suitable component sources difficult for individuals who want to improve an already fantastically high score.
Cure Wounds – the wounds of the living are healed by grafting chunks of flesh from the bodies of the fallen.  Discoloration due to a difference in species between donor and recipient fade after twenty-four hours.
Detect Magic and Identify – the caster enters a deep trance through the use of an inhaled or injected drug.  This drug is harvested in an unsavory manner or from an unpalatable source such as illithid brain juice or powdered grave mushrooms.
Floating Disk – the material focus for this spell is a metal or wooden lip disc that must be worn for the spell to function.
This wouldn’t be much of a monster focused blog if I didn’t mention the Mother of Toads again.  While watching the film it struck me that the creature in Richard Stanley’s segment was a lot like a D&D bullywug, and a Cthulhu mythos connection to this monster (which I’ve always felt was under-appreciated) would go a long way in redeeming its appearance on the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (where they were lamely defeated by giving them giant flies to eat).  Well, after a little research, it turns out there is a connection (that’s actually a little tangled back and forth).  The Mother of Toads is inspired by a Clark Ashton Smith story of the same name, written as a part of his Averoigne cycle, a collection of tales that also inspired the classic module Castle Amber.  Just as likely, bullywugs could have been inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s more famous addition to the Cthulhu mythos, the frog-like Tsathoggua (the man liked his frog beasties).
Either or, the best way to make the connection concrete is to immortalize the mother of toads in monster form…

The Mother of Toads

“Pierre awoke in the ashy dawn… Sick and confused, he sought vainly to remember where he was or what he had done. Then, turning a little, he saw beside him on the couch a thing that was like some impossible monster of ill dreams; a toadlike form, large as a fat woman. Its limbs were somehow like a woman’s arms and legs. Its pale, warty body pressed and bulged against him, and he felt the rounded softness of something that resembled a breast.” – Clark Ashton Smith, Mother of Toads.


Nature DC 10: The mother of toads is an agent of the fetid and swampy primordials that created the bullywugs, and is worshipped as a deity by all the batrachian creatures of the marsh.
Nature DC 15: Some rumors hold that the mother of toads is incredibly ancient, the first bullywug hatched from the original god-egg that spawned the race before it could breed true.  Since she is unable to reproduce with other bullywugs, the mother of toads mates with degenerate cultists and human captives.

The Mother of Toads in Combat

The mother of toads takes perverse pleasure in using illusions to lure unwary travelers into her embrace while her pets and servants hide nearby.  In the event of combat she reveals her true, disgusting form, immobilizing foes with swarms of frogs, and weakening them with a spray of secreted slime.  The mother of toads usually chooses the strongest and most virile looking male to control with her hallucinogenic saliva – committing unspeakable acts with the mind controlled slave once his companions have been eaten.


The mother of toads dwells in a rustic cottage at the edge of a wild and dangerous swamp where she poses as a friendly herbalist and healer.  The swamp is littered with weird and sinister primordial idols from the time before the dawn war.  The mother of toads children (bullywugs, as well as giant frogs and toads) are never far off and always heed her commands.