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.
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.
“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).