As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA don’t miss the main event, October 18-26). Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration. Most of the films the festival 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.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop). This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).
It is the worst day of high school student Riley Jones’ life: her leg is broken, her IPod is stolen, dreamboat Clapton Davis has fallen for a cheerleader and she’s now officially the second most unpopular teen in the history of the school since that girl was caught having sex with the school’s stuffed mascot. On top of that, a murderous psycho dressed up as horror movie icon ‘Cinderhella’ is slashing his way through the student body. With a little help from her friends and some judicious use of time travel, Riley just might survive long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery, get out of detention and make it to the prom.
A Relentlessly Funny Work of Mad Genius
I had a criminal amount of fun watching Detention. Thankfully the rest of the audience at the screening agreed, because I was laughing so hard I was in danger of creating a Homer Simpson-esque spectacle of myself(like that’s ever stopped me). I love comedy, but it’s rare for one to connect with me as personally as Detention did. Given that the film is a crazy mash-up of teen movies, horror, and science fiction, that might seem a little strange, but there you have it. It doesn’t look like Detention will see any kind of theatrical release in Canada, but I don’t think that will stop this film from finding its audience. For nerdy, pop culture junkies of a certain age (that’s thirty somethings for those who are counting), this is the film we have been waiting for since Heathers.
Here’s the thing though. You can compare the film to the dark social commentary of Heathers, or the horror meta- humour of Scream, or the nod and a wink genre playfulness of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – and Detention is like those movies – but it is also very unlike them at the same time. The comedy in Detention is extremely dense and extremely fast. Writer/Director Joseph Kahn works multiple levels for a machine gun pace of laughs. By the time you finish laughing at one thing, the script has already moved on to another joke, and you are also now just getting what one of the characters was referencing two minutes ago. Rather than wear the viewer down, this approach infuses the film with an infectious, manic energy.
Detention is at times incredibly clever (seriously, when was the last time you saw a movie that used The Smiths and Morrissey song titles as part of a running word-gag), and incredibly stupid in the best possible way (there’s some excellent physical comedy and a silly segue about an intergalactic space bear). A bastard child of the wiki-age, it reminded me of getting lost clicking through the links on tvtropes.org. Never mistake Detention as random, though, even if it feels chaotic. Where Kahn shines as a filmmaker is how well constructed the movie is amidst its seemingly kitchen-sink approach. There’s a strong (if convoluted) plot, and things that seem funny for one reason at the beginning take on a whole new meaning by the end (the film’s obsession with the 90’s at first seems to be a comment on the accelerated self-cannibalizing nature of pop culture but then transforms into an actual plot point once the time machine enters the story). Unexpectedly, even the time travel works in terms of Detention’s internal logic, and there’s a nice homage to Heinlein’s classic short story “-All You Zombies-“.
The best trick Kahn is able to pull off though, and his real genius, is Detention’s ability to simultaneously celebrate and critique everything it touches. The constant riffing on other films, from Breakfast Club to Back to the Future, reminds the audience why we love the filmic universe of teenagers, chasing it with a shot of nostalgia that blurs the line between remembering when we first watched that world on the screen and remembering when we lived it. At the same time Kahn also reminds us why we hate the (annoying) teenagers of today (the introduction is especially brilliant in this regard), and lets us glory in that judgement with some over the top slasher style kills.
Predicting the fickle set of circumstances that create a ‘cult classic‘ is impossible and ultimately futile. However, I’m going to be a hypocrite and say that Detention has cult classic written all over it (at the very least it’s deserving of the title). I highly recommend this film, especially for fans of Heathers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Grab it when it’s released on DVD (I’ll be doing that just so I can go back through it and catch the parts I missed). But do get the friends together – otherwise you’ll feel strange laughing that hard alone.
For all its craziness, Detention reminded me of an ambitious campaign idea that’s been kicking around my head for years, one that I have always wanted to run but never had the chance – the time travel campaign. Now I’m not talking about a game where modern characters wind up fighting the Battle of Britain or hobnobbing with Romans (the Doctor Who – adventures in time and space rpg is probably the best suited game for that). I’m talking about a campaign that centres on a group of characters moving back and forth from past to present, changing things and dealing with the consequences. For example, in the original Neverwinter Nights game, you have to travel back in time to the age of the Old Ones in order to alter dungeon features to bypass an obstacle in the present. In a time travelling campaign, this sort of thing would be happening all the time.
There are many classic overarching storylines that can be used to bring a time travelling campaign together. Perhaps a Lawful Evil tyrant researches a time travelling dweomer and is using it to subtly damage the timeline in such a way that they are the undisputed lord and master of the game world in the present. Only a group of time travelling PCs has any hope of defeating such a unique threat. A different take on this would be that the characters are caught in a feud between several power groups, each with their own philosophy on how history should unfold (and if the players aren’t averse to a little inter-party conflict, one or more of those groups might be sponsoring select PCs). DMs can also use a time travelling campaign to add a twist to the tried and true ‘adventure to prevent the end of the world’ scenario. In this case the end of the world is already happening, or cannot be stopped, and the PCs must make a series of trips to the past in order to prevent the catastrophe that afflicts the present.
A time travelling campaign presents DMs with a set of unique opportunities and challenges. These guidelines should help the campaign run smoothly:
Open Temporally, Focused Geographically
Since tracking the PCs movements through time is going to be enough work for the DM, it’s a good idea to focus the campaign on a tight geographical area like a large city or mega-dungeon. This will help keep the players focused on a clear set of goals (which will discourage random wandering in the timestream), and allow the DM to easily resolve the effects of the PCs intrusion on the timeline (the wider the geographical area, the more kingdoms, political groups and deities are involved, which makes the DM’s job exponentially more difficult).
One area where you’ll be able to save on work is by re-using location maps with only minor changes. Part of the fun of a time travel campaign is getting to see different ‘versions’ of the same encounter areas in different contexts and with different opponents.
Plan Only in Broad Strokes
It’s best to think of the time travel campaign as a sandbox style game, only the PCs are exploring different periods of time instead of hexes on a map. Other than the overarching motivation for the campaign, specific planning should be left session to session to account for the sometimes unpredictable changes the PCs are going to be making (and unmaking) to history. Even more so than other campaigns, planning too far ahead when dealing with time travel can easily result in a lot of wasted work (or worse, shoehorning results out of the PCs actions).
Throw Away Canon
If your game world has a developed history, or you are playing in a published setting, accept now that time travel is going to ‘wreck’ the world. That’s the whole fun of time travel. As soon as characters are able, they are going to want to go back in time to kill D&D’s equivalent of Hitler (that could even be the goal of the entire campaign). Let them. If you are too attached to maintaining canon history, and don’t let the PCs change significant events, there is no point in running a time travel campaign.
Catastrophic, Unexpected Consequences
Of course that doesn’t mean things always work out the way the players expect. Don’t be afraid to throw a few curve balls of your own into the campaign in the vein of A Sound of Thunder (although don’t make it happen because of a crushed butterfly – it will seem a little too arbitrary and, with the mayhem that follows typical PCs, you’re going to have a lot to work with without resorting to that). If the PCs decided to assassinate the young warlord Iuz before he becomes a demigod, then have them return to a present where Vecna has risen to reclaim his spidered throne – the plot succeeding because his rival wasn’t there to stop him.
Use Time Travel Against the PCs
At some point in the campaign, the PCs should be on the receiving end of meddling time travellers. It helps to keep time travel from becoming trivial and reminds the players of the tremendous amount of power they have over the campaign world. The classic such scenario is a race against the clock to protect the PCs’ parents from a murderous time travelling villain before they are erased from history and completely disappear (see Back to the Future and Time Cop). For a slightly different challenge, have the PCs witness changes to history in real time in the present. This could play out in a climactic encounter that begins very easily, and changes as the battle progresses, with new opponents appearing, monsters increasing in power or equipment, and by having the environment altered in the enemies’ favour.
The effects of time travel can also be used as an ace in the DM’s sleeve if things get out of hand. If you’re like me and try your best to avoid ‘total party kills’ (especially as a result of a few bad rolls or over-caffeinated bad judgement), you could have a future version of the party suddenly appear to pull the PCs’ fat out of the fire. This kind of thing only works once, but it can be fun for the characters to briefly meet themselves and provides a nice in-world solution to the mulligan.
I had originally intended to include a bit of crunchy time travelling magic for Pathfinder in this article (a useful spell and a time travelling artifact), but seeing as the length of this It Came from the DVR article got a little out of hand, I’ll save it for a post later in the week. I like to think of it as evidence of the creative wellspring these films represent to DMs rather than my increasing tendency to long-windedness as I get older.