Posts Tagged ‘D&D’

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Resolution

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

Resolution

When Michael receives a disturbing video of his childhood friend Chris in the throes of meth psychosis, he decides to track Chris down and give his estranged friend one last opportunity to clean up and seek treatment for his addiction.  Michael finds Chris in a derelict shack in the middle of nowhere and executes his plan; he handcuffs his friend to the wall to wait for the seven days it takes for the meth to leave Chris’ system.  At the end of that time Chris can decide whether or not he wants to accept rehab.  In the meantime, some sinister force is toying with the friends, leaving them a series of clues that seem to tell a story.  A dark mystery is about to unfold…

Intelligent, Creepy, and Funny – Like a Club Sandwich of Awesome

I find it very difficult to give Resolution a description that does the film justice.  It’s creepy, but it isn’t a straight horror; it’s often hilarious but isn’t a horror comedy either; and it ties everything together with some compelling character drama… not a film that’s easily pigeon-holed.  If this review seems annoyingly vague at times, that’s because Resolution is also a film that hinges on a mystery and going into some of the details risks spoiling the movie’s best parts.    Indeed, Resolution is a bit like the show Lost, except the ending was actually good and looking back all the weird little components of the story made sense.
The strength to pull that feat off lies in the writing and directing duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (hard to believe they teamed up making beer commercials).  The film is very smart, but never pretentiously so, and is subtle enough that it avoids the temptation to call it out to the audience and say ‘look what we did here’.  It’s that subtlety that gives Resolution the re-watchability of a Memento or Inception.
I was impressed with the naturalistic dialogue, which is important since it forms the backbone of a film that spends a lot of time with two characters in a room.  After the screening the filmmakers were asked if it was primarily ad-libbed, but apparently almost everything came from the script – a testament to Benson’s ability to write authentic dialogue (he could get a lot of work as a script doctor).  That might not seem like a big deal, but the writing goes a long way in making the whole thing believable, which is one of the qualities that helps bring all of Resolution’s parts together.
It doesn’t hurt that the script is in the hands of the film’s two stars, Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran.  The chemistry between these two guys is perfect and convincingly captures the genuine affection between old friends as well as the baggage years of addiction can burden a relationship with.  In spite of each of the characters’ problems they are instantly likeable, punching up the drama of their turbulent friendship and investing the audience with concern for their well-being when things take a darker turn.  They are also hilarious.  Given that the film deals with meth addiction and doesn’t turn it into a joke, it doesn’t seem like there would be a lot of room for humor; surprisingly there’s quite a bit and Cilella and Curran pull it off brilliantly.
Resolution is definitely a slow burn in terms of pacing, but I never found myself getting bored (and at this point in the festival I was pretty sleep deprived, so kudos).  The layers of the mystery are added on at regular enough intervals, drawing the viewer in deeper while getting progressively creepier.  There is a steady buildup of intensity with the appearance of some truly memorable side characters breaking up the dialogue between Michael and Chris into digestible chunks.
Resolution is highly recommended.  Watch it with a friend; because it’s the kind of film that you’re going to want to discuss with someone as soon as it ends (it’s killing me not to discuss the spoilers).

RPG Goodness

During the Q&A the filmmakers revealed that part of the reason they made Resolution, was because they were dissatisfied with traditional ‘cabin in the woods’ type horror movies.  In their experience, the only people who went out into the wilderness to spend the weekend in a shack were meth heads and religious weirdoes, not frat boys and bikini models.  This struck a chord with me and made me think of the kinds of NPCs that adventurers would run into as they traipse through sewers, hang out in graveyards, and camp in crumbling ruins (there is a great scene in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that demonstrates this well).  Sure there are captured villagers to rescue and slaves to free, but, let’s face it, adventurers are pretty liminal characters who spend most of their time in places that well-adjusted and self-respecting people wouldn’t, so most of the people they’ll meet on their travels are going to come from the fringes of society.  The problem is, when a random encounter is rolled or I’m planning on inserting an NPC into an adventure that isn’t central to the plot, I find my mind reaching for convenient and easy ‘stock’ characters (wily merchant, friendly barkeep, bullying guard, etc.).  Resolution has some great side characters, and much like NPCs in a D&D adventure, not all of them are integral to the plot of the film, but all of them are what I like to call ‘memorable weirdoes’ – not a stock character in the lot.  In order to help foster the kind of creepy atmosphere that Resolution cultivates I present the following random sampling to draw from when memorable weirdo NPCs are needed (I’ve kept them as rules neutral as possible so they can be grafted onto any NPC statblock the DM has).

Memorable Weirdoes

  • Green Thumb: An attractive spellcaster has set up permanent camp near a hidden grove of yellow musk creepers.  She reeks of a strange, musky perfume.  Her lover was killed by one of the plants years ago and she is convinced his soul still remains in the dangerous growth of vines and flowers.  She lives now only to lure others into the grove to become infected with the creeper’s seeds and be transformed into yellow musk zombies – which she believes are short-lived reincarnations of her lover.  She is friendly but reserved with strangers, reading them in order to discern what deception will convince them to enter the grove unprepared.
  • Grave Diggers: A group of five sullen laborers are at work with shovels and picks digging evenly spaced, deep holes in a clearing.  Nearby is a mule drawn cart stacked with lacquered, darkwood coffins.  The gravediggers are standoffish and tight lipped about what they are doing.  Unbeknownst to them, the coffins contain a coven of staked vampires.  They were paid good coin by an elderly patrician to bury the coffins and given a map to this specific location.  The patrician’s family succumbed to vampirism and he couldn’t bring himself to completely destroy them.  The clearing has sentimental meaning to him, and he plans to visit in the future to pay his respects.
  • Mad Hermit: Amidst the chaotic wilds a lone hermit tends her incongruously orderly garden.  Her clothes are threadbare but clean and her long grey hair is bound in a single braid down her back.  She removed herself from civilized society many years ago to live a life without compromise or negotiation of any kind.  She will not speak to the PCs (or interact in any way) unless they speak to her first.  She speaks only in statements and any interaction that involves an exchange or offer of quid pro quo (which she considers a compromise) makes her progressively angrier.  The hermit is a wealth of information about the area, but gleaning that treasure is difficult at best.
  • The Mushroom Growers: Three wild-eyed, unkempt men with mud on their clothes and filthy hands grow hallucinogenic mushrooms in a nearby cave.  They are friendly to strangers, offering to share their campfire and provisions, but become cagey and paranoid if asked what they are doing in the wilderness.  They are fiercely protective of their discovery – they believe that eating the mushrooms allows them to perceive beyond the planes to the heart of reality.  Normally they grow the mushrooms on the carcasses of dead animals, but if they fear their discovery is in jeopardy are not above adding a few humanoid corpses to the pile.
  • The Narrator: A cloaked figure sits cross-legged in front of a large, heavy bound tome reading aloud.  He appears to be narrating the story of his life, describing in flowery prose the sights and sounds of the wilderness.  If the PCs approach, he includes them in his narration, even quoting their speech a few moments after it is uttered.  The cloaked man will not respond to the PCs and will not stop narrating, even if threatened with violence.  If attacked he does not defend himself, and uses his last breath to describe his own death.  The book that he appears to be reading from is blank.
  • Hunting Party: A party of young, decadent nobles crosses the PCs’ path, laughing loudly and drinking freely.  They are a hunting party, complete with local guide, porter and tracking hound.  They are moving cross country in pursuit of some animal, but are evasive about the nature of their prey.  If the PCs seem of similar social station and like mind the nobles invite them to join in on their hunt.  If not, they are rudely dismissive.  Tired of hunting for bear and boar they abducted a young pickpocket from a nearby town and released him into the wild.  They are eager for excitement and diversion – if the PCs agree to the hunt the nobles are willing to wager a large sum of money that their hunting party will find and kill the boy first.  If the PCs antagonize them, they are quick to fight but even quicker to back down if the fight turns against them.
  • The Gift: The PCs are approached by a mephit, leprechaun, or similarly devious creature.  With as much sinister fanfare as it can manage, the creature offers to grant a single wish to the group.  Suspicious PCs will likely suspect caveats, of which the creature is entirely forthcoming: the universe must be balanced, so a stranger will have to pay the price for whatever the PCs wish for (i.e.: if they wish for gold, someone will lose a like amount); and the bigger the wish the longer it will take the creature to complete the task (even a small wish is not instantaneous).  In reality, the creature has no power to grant wishes, but loves to torment burgeoning heroes with moral dilemmas (as well as fostering strife between friends).
  • The Hunted: A woman stumbles across the PCs’, her clothes and skin branch-torn.  She is on the run from a horde of monsters and is desperate for help.  The hounded woman is half-starved and looks as though she hasn’t slept in days.  If the PCs agree to help her she describes a menagerie of fantastic creatures that have been pursuing her for the past few days.  There is no sign of the monsters at first, but after the PCs bed down for the night their camp is attacked by a random assortment of creatures that explode in a shower of ectoplasm when slain.  The woman’s subconscious harbours tremendous psionic power, which manifests the monsters as a latent suicidal urge every time she goes to sleep.  The monsters will continue to attack every evening, until either she dies or somehow manages to come to terms with her inner demons.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Citadel

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

Citadel

After losing his wife to a violent assault from a group of hooded youths, Tommy is left to raise their daughter on his own.  In the aftermath of the crime, Tommy is gripped by crippling agoraphobia, convinced that the ‘hoodies’ are waiting outside to steal his daughter.

Pure, uncut, 100-proof, fear.  Plain and Simple.

Citadel was simply the most frightening film of Toronto After Dark.  This movie is proof that there are untapped, original voices in horror and if that doesn’t sell you on this festival gem, I don’t know what will.
While completely different in terms of story and theme, Citadel in many ways reminds me of last year’s Abesntia.  Both films were made on modest budgets, but don’t look like they were; both are almost bloodless but still very threatening; and both left me very creeped out (both also have terrifying pedestrian tunnels – honestly why do city planners keep making those?).
There is a perfect storm between writer/director Ciaran Foy and lead actor Aneurin Barnard that captures an atmosphere of absolute dread and makes Citadel so effective.  If you have ever been the victim of crime, or lived under the threat of violence, there is a certain kind of fear that infects your life.  I can’t remember a movie that captures this quality quite as well as Citadel does.  It’s hardly surprising that Foy himself was a survivor of random gang violence.  He really lays it out in Citadel, and there are scenes that feel so raw and exposed they’re hard to watch (the group therapy session with the counsellor speaking about re-victimization struck a chord).  Despite fear being the stock and trade of horror films, rarely do they feel so genuine.
I mentioned the film is relatively bloodless, which will disappoint gore hounds, but that doesn’t mean Citadel is non-violent.  The portrayal of violence in the film is like a car crash: it happens quickly, with no fanfare and no spectacle.  What makes it so shocking is the horror of how utterly mundane it is to snuff out a human life.  It stands in such stark contrast to the theatrical deaths of other horror films and Foy smacks you with it right in the gut.  It’s used sparingly, but the threat remains, driving home the fear in Barnard’s performance (and I’ll tell you it stuck with me on my late night ride home alone on the subway).
The ‘hoodies’, Citadel’s villains, are well done and frightening.  Foy wisely leaves them as enigmatic, violent question marks for most of the film.  One of the signs that I am getting older, is that I find myself suspicious of groups of loitering teenagers.  I am sure that I’m not the only one, and the film plays nicely into that particular irrational fear (at least I’m not so old that I don’t think it’s irrational anymore).  When he does reveal the nature of the hoodies, the payoff is worth it.  Foy creates a nice urban mythology and social commentary all in one.
What must be the worst social housing development in Glasgow provides an excellent backdrop for the story and Foy puts it to good use.  I’m struck by how post-apocalyptic visions of urban decay have become in recent years (Crave, also in the festival, uses Detroit for similar effect).  A sign of global economic crisis perhaps?  Oh, and as I mentioned earlier Citadel pushes one of my fear buttons by including a very scary pedestrian tunnel (seriously, put one of those in your film and you are guaranteed to raise my anxiety level a notch).
Citadel is highly recommended.  It’s the kind of film that will have casual fans and jaded horror afficionadoes alike looking over their shoulders long after the credits roll.  I can’t wait to see what Ciaran Foy does next.

RPG Goodness

The hoodie creatures in Citadel are freaky, and reminded me of one of D&D’s creepier monsters, the semi-obscure meenlocks from Fiend Folio (just in case there was any question that I’m always thinking about D&D monsters).  The movie is excellent, but if that wasn’t enough of a pull to get you to see it, if you ever even think of running an encounter with meenlocks, Citadel is the blueprint.  While the hoodies don’t really share the insect look of meenlocks, the stooped, shambling throng of random violence that Foy presents paints a perfect scene to steal for the tabletop.  Add in the baby snatching plot (and a disturbing origin story) and you’ve got a pretty nice self-contained adventure.  In fact, the kinship between the hoodies and meenlocks is so strong that I wonder if there isn’t some common folklore that the creators of both creatures were drawing on (or the less likely but more intriguing possibility that Foy was inspired by D&D – without giving any spoilers there’s a connection between the 2e version of the monster and a certain scene in the film).  Internet legend holds that the made for TV film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was the inspiration for the meenlock (and the case is pretty strong), but I wonder if there isn’t also something older in its DNA?
My first instinct was to update the meenlock for the Pathfinder edition of the game, but I decided to stick with Citadel’s monsters because there’s an aspect to them that is extremely common in horror films (and nature) that I’ve never seen in D&D and wanted to try and re-create myself – the ability of predators to see (or smell) fear.  In fact it’s such a common (and awesome) motif that I can’t believe I haven’t seen a mechanic for it in any rpg that I’ve played.  Based on the way the ability works in the film, I figured that the mechanics for the faerie fire spell were a good place to start.  The ability to see fear wouldn’t be that useful without the ability to instill it though, so any monster inspired by the film would also have to have a fear aura…
Just a word of warning, even though I’ve adapted the mythology of the film for a fantasy setting (as well as changing the name – ‘hoodies’ just doesn’t seem to fit)it contains serious SPOILERS for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet – and why haven’t you?

Hoods

“There was something about the way the gang of small, ragged humanoids lurched and jerked towards him that the captain of the watch found threatening.  They concealed their faces beneath a collection of grimy cloaks and hats but he could see their shrivelled and misshapen hands reaching for sticks and loose cobblestones.  The captain had seen his fair share of combat and still these creatures unnerved him more than a charging ogre.  Maybe it was how the one on the left, although stooped and twisted, reminded him of the Wainwright boy who had gone missing not a fortnight ago…”

Hoods are violent fey creatures that thrive in the worst slums of large cities, infesting abandoned buildings and emerging at night to terrorize locals and kidnap the young.  In their darkened lairs they cultivate a loathsome black mold that serves as both a foodstuff and a method of propagation.  Force-fed to their captives, the black mold slowly and irreversibly transforms its victims into stunted, twisted versions of themselves, new members of the next generation of hoods.  If their nest is not found and destroyed, a hood infestation can spread across the whole city, ultimately causing its collapse.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Lloyd the Conqueror

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

Lloyd the Conqueror

College student Lloyd and his slacker roommates are on the cusp of losing their financial aid, all thanks to a failing grade in the dastardly Derek’s English Lit. class.  Taking advantage of their misfortune to further his own twisted goals, Derek offers the trio a deal: they can pass the course if they agree to join Derek’s LARPing (Live action Roleplaying) league.  With the help of the sage owner of the local game store, a beautiful martial artist and a full complement of foam weaponry, Lloyd must navigate this new world and put an end to the dark forces of the evil Derek.

These are the Lines You Will Hear at Game Tables for the Next Year

Lloyd the Conqueror isn’t perfect, but at its worst, its heart is in the right place, and at its best it will have you laughing your ass off.
I’m not a LARPer myself, but given that I write a blog about rpg monsters, I’m no stranger to nerdly pursuits, so I know how ridiculous my passions can appear to the outsider.  Even given the natural rivalry between tabletop and live-action role-players I didn’t want to see Lloyd kick sand in the face of my brothers in arms.  A few cheap shots aside, I was impressed with how writer/director Michael Peterson handled the subject matter.  Hanging out with your friends and pretending to be an elf (whether dressed up or gathered around a kitchen table) is inherently absurd and rather than just pointing and laughing, the film runs with it wholeheartedly, taking it to its ridiculous extremes (and no one’s better at laughing at themselves than nerds).
Lloyd is the typical nice guy hero, familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an 80’s comedy, trying to grow as a person and get laid in the process.  That journey provides a solid framework and gives the film’s secondary characters a chance to shine.  Derek, the villain, played by Mike Smith (familiar to fellow Canucks as Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys) is suitably mustache twirling and over the top.  He’s got some great lines, but the true comedic gold of the film is concentrated in comedian Brian Posehn’s character, the wise game store owner who takes Lloyd under his wing and acts as Yoda to his Luke (though anyone who’s seen the film should know better than to compare ‘epic fantasy’ to Star Wars).  Posehn delivers classic lines in trademark deadpan style.  I wish the rest of my gaming group had been at the screening because they are not going to know what I am talking about when I repeat Posehn’s jokes ad nauseam at our next session.  Harland Williams is also hilarious in a scene stealing cameo role as a Vulcan (completely unscripted according the Q&A after the screening).
The problem is that these guys are so funny Lloyd’s roommates end up seeming dull and flat.  As Lloyd’s comic foils these characters are wasted and I hate to say I spent most of their screen time awaiting the return of Smith, Posehn and Williams (the unicorn was pretty awesome too).  It might just be the gamer in me, but I also wanted to see a little more of the imaginary setting the LARPers adventures were set in (there’s a pretty sweet looking map of the city in full old-school style during the opening credits).  There’s a lot of random banter but you never really get the impression of how the world hangs together as a whole (now I’m absolutely sure that’s the kind of thing only a gamer would worry about).
The big action sequences are suitably silly and fun, simultaneously mixing the melodrama of high adventure with the absurdity of throwing little tinfoil balls at people.  The thing that’s most surprising about Lloyd though, is that it made the whole hobby seem like a blast… I came that close to reconsidering my opinion about running around in the woods with foam swords (I didn’t change my mind, but I doubt any movie would).
Lloyd the Conqueror is recommended for a night of shameless nerding out.  It’s a must see for rpg players of all stripes – you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t get the reference when someone in your group asks for the ‘1000-sided die’.

RPG Goodness

There’s more for gamers to take away from Lloyd the Conqueror than just a boatload of in-jokes.  At its heart, the film is about a group of friends getting together and bonding while playing let’s pretend.  Amidst the edition wars, simulationist vs. gamist arguments, and sandbox vs. adventure path debates it’s easy to forget that, and I’m happy Lloyd the Conqueror is there to remind me why I’m so passionate about this hobby after so many years.  It may sound corny, but the friends I have made through gaming have been the strongest and longest lasting in my life.  At the risk of waxing poetic, I think that we reveal a lot about ourselves when we pretend to be other people (there’s a Shakespeare quote in there somewhere).
One of the things I’ve always loved about D&D is how much the game has supported that ‘anything you can imagine’ attitude.  Like Lloyd the Conqueror, Gary Gygax fully embraced the absurd nature of the game when he created D&D, but always presented it as-is rather than as a joke (since really, the entire game could be taken as a joke).  Sometimes the results stayed in the realm of the absurd, such as the pair of adventures based on the writing of Lewis Carol (Dungeonland and The Land beyond the Magic Mirror).  What I find really interesting are the other times, when the absurd became canon and a ‘serious’ part of the game.  The thoul is such a case, one of my favorite monsters from B/X D&D.  The name first appeared in the ‘little brown books’ of OD&D as an entry in the monster table, but wasn’t given a detailed write up.  The reason for this is simple, it was a typo.  However, fans of the game demanded to know more about the creature, and rather than admit the mistake a new monster was invented for the game (a magical crossbreed of hobgoblin, troll and ghoul).  It is in that spirit that I present the krakentroll, born of a few lines of throwaway dialogue from the film but never pictured (at least I don’t think it was – it’s hard to tell with the LARP costumes).  I’m pretty sure the word ‘kraken’ was used to invoke the otherworldly and give the monster a Nordic flavor, not actually associate it with the giant squid monster of the same name… but where’s the fun in that?

Krakentroll

Lumbering monstrosities with rows of shark-like teeth and barbed tentacles for arms, krakentrolls are creatures of insatiable hunger and capacity for violence.  Krakentrolls share the regenerative power and strength of common trolls, but are possessed of a wicked intelligence.  Tribes of their lesser brethren often gather to worship a Krakentroll as a living god, scouring the land for tributes of meat.

Lore
Nature DC 20:
The first krakentrolls were created in the aftermath of the battle between the gods Deep Sashelas and Panzuriel.  When the elven deity severed Panzuriel’s foot, his troll soldiers, overcome by hunger, descended on the limb and devoured it.  The deific flesh reacted with the troll’s natural regeneration and twisted them into new, more powerful forms.
Although they have many aquatic features, krakentrolls are just as comfortable on the land as they are underwater.
Nature DC 25: Elder krakentrolls are rumored to have the power to invoke Panzuriel and call down vengeful storms capable of capsizing ships.

Krakentrolls in Combat
Krakentrolls are deceptively intelligent, using strategy far beyond what one would expect from a troll.  Their favorite tactic is to distract enemies with a savage mob of followers while the krakentroll lies in wait.  Once their foe’s resources have been depleted, the krakentroll wades into combat, destroying leaders and healers first to prevent its prey from mounting a counterattack.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: [Rec] 3: Genesis

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

[Rec] 3: Genesis

It is the happiest day of Koldo and Clara’s lives as they celebrate their nuptials with a lavish wedding reception for a huge crowd of friends and family.  Unfortunately, one of the guests has brought more than just a wedding present – he’s infected with a deadly virus that turns its victims into flesh eating zombies!  In the chaos that’s unleashed Koldo and Clara are separated, beginning a desperate fight to reunite the lovers.

Funny, Scary, Bloody, Fun.

[Rec] 3 is a radical departure both in terms of format and style from the previous films in the series, so there are bound to be some strong feelings from fans of the franchise on this one.  Now, I am a big fan of the first [Rec], it scared the hell out of me, so when I heard that the latest installment in the series was a comedy, I was wary.  That said, [Rec] 3 really surprised me, not only for how much I liked it, but for how scary it was.
First, I should talk a little about what makes [Rec] 3 so different from its predecessors.  In spite of being the third installment in the series, [Rec] 3 doesn’t pick up the storyline from the first two films, although it is set during the same zombie outbreak (it’s not a prequel either, don’t let the ‘genesis’ in the title fool you).  You definitely don’t need to have seen the first two films to enjoy this one, but [Rec] 3 does add to the mythology of the franchise’s zombies (which is a smart move, making the film accessible to newcomers and rewarding for fans).  The biggest change is in format and tone.  While [Rec] 3 begins in traditional ‘found footage’ mode (as with the previous two films), once ‘the zombies hit the fan’ it switches gears from first person to third person POV in dramatic fashion.  Given that writer/director Paco Plaza uses the opportunity to poke some fun at the conceits of the found footage sub-genre, I get the impression he was feeling a little constrained by it as a storyteller.  The first [Rec] films, while they have their humor, are pretty serious affairs (deadly serious).  [Rec] 3 on the other hand, proudly flies the tongue-in-cheek banner, with plenty of laughs aimed at lampooning all the foibles of modern day wedding ceremonies (the choreographed bride and groom dance, family relations, the politics of wedding invites) and over the top kills.
As funny as the movie is though, it’s not a straight ‘zomedy’ like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland either (where much of the humor comes from the zombies themselves).    The zombies in [Rec] 3 are (like its predecessors) truly scary.  For every scene I laughed out loud, there was a jump scare or tension filled chase that had me gripping the armrest.  That weird mix of laughs and scares carries on the tradition of films like The Evil Dead and Return of the Living Dead (which as a kid I didn’t realize was a comedy at all).  Perhaps it’s better to classify [Rec] 3 not as a horror/comedy, but as a horror and a comedy.
The action is bloody and well executed and, I have to be honest, as much as I like the immersion of found footage, I didn’t miss the shaky cam at all when the screen was filled with nice big shots and fantastic set-pieces.  Plus, seeing wide eyed Leticia Dolera as the blood spattered bride with a chainsaw giving it good to the undead (in heels no less) is worth the price of admission (and got a suitable cheer from the crowd at TAD).
In between the blood and chuckles there’s also a love story lurking in [Rec] 3.  Apocalypse movies, especially zombie ones, have a tendency towards cynicism (what with them being about how our society and morals are built on a house of cards).  Maybe that’s why I found the unabashed romantic elements of [Rec] 3 refreshing and sweet – even parts that in another light would have been a major downer.
[Rec] 3 is recommended, and would make a great double bill with Return of the Living Dead for a night of light hearted Halloween viewing.  Die-hard fans of the first two [Rec] films will have a problem with [Rec] 3 if they are looking for more of the same.  However, if they watch with an open mind and are willing to let the shaky cam go, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much fun this latest installment is.

RPG Goodness

The undead of the [Rec] series are very different from the monsters of traditional zombie films.  Although they spread their plague through biting, implying some kind of biological virus, they trace their origin to a supernatural source, a victim of infernal possession.  This brings the zombies of [Rec] 3 more in line with the undead of D&D than any movie I have seen in a long time, and I have to admit that gave them an undeniable appeal.  There is even a scene in the movie where a priest ‘turns’ the zombies using prayer (for all intents and purposes) so, at a minimum, gamers get to watch the Cleric’s signature ability on the big screen.
The explicit link between the demonic and the undead in [Rec] 3 got me thinking.  In most folklore, demons, vampires, ghouls and ghosts are all a part of what could be called the ‘spirit world’.  I really like the flavor of having a close relationship between that group of monsters (call it spooky), even though as a DM I think I have been moving farther and farther away from it over the years (subconsciously encouraged by later editions’ emphasis on monster ‘types’).  That’s a shame, because the classic D&D cosmology (pre-4e ‘great wheel’) can totally support it: the spirits of the departed move to the outer planes where they are eventually fashioned into fledgling demons and devils, sent back to the Prime Material to torment and haunt the living (while those that fail to move on become trapped on the Prime as undead).  It’s definitely an approach I will use the next time I run encounters that centre on possession (is it a ghost or shadow demon’s use of magic jar?), haunted houses (the lair of a vampire or bone devil?), or cemeteries (stalked by a pack of ghouls or grave oozing lemures?).  It helps that in most editions of the game demons and devils can be turned like the undead (either explicitly in the turning rules or through the application of the right feats).
[Rec] 3’s priest turns the zombies in a very creative way that I’m sure any Cleric player will be jealous of.  Given the limited selection of channelling feats in the Pathfinder edition of D&D, I thought I would add a few in the spirit of [Rec] 3.

New Channelling Feats for Pathfinder

Far Channel
You can unerringly throw your holy symbol to affect creatures with your channelled energy across the battlefield.
Prerequisite: Ability to channel energy.
Benefit: When you channel energy, you can choose to center the burst on a space up to 50 ft. away that you have line of sight and effect to instead of on yourself.  Use of this feat does not return the holy symbol to your hand, it must be retrieved normally.

Reliable Channel
Your practice channeling energy makes the results more predictable and dependable.
Prerequisite: Channel energy 4d6.
Benefit: When you channel energy to heal or inflict damage, you may reroll any result of 1 of your channel energy’s healing or damage dice.  You must keep the result of the reroll, even if it is another 1.

Widen Channel
You can concentrate the power of your channel energy to affect a larger area.
Prerequisite: Ability to channel energy.
Benefit: When you channel energy, you can expend 2 of your daily uses of that ability to create a 60-foot radius burst instead of a 30-foot radius burst.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Crave

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

Crave

In the grimy streets of Detroit, freelance crime photographer Aiden listens to his police scanner and tries to eke out a living documenting the aftermath of the city’s most violent crimes.  To escape the bleak realities of his life, Aiden retreats within his own head, filling the time with elaborate revenge and power fantasies.  After a chance fling with the beautiful Virginia, and a firsthand brush with crime, the barrier between Aiden’s fantasy and real lives begins to crumble.

Dark Crime Drama Takes You through the Looking Glass

Crave is the kind of film that could have flown under my radar with its understated trailer, and I’m glad it didn’t.  The film has already won awards at both Fantastic Fest and Fantasia, and I hope it wins more.  Crave has the potential to attract a wider audience than most genre films and, in my view, it deserves this attention.
Writer/director Charles de Lauzirika clearly infuses Aiden with a healthy dose of Travis Bickle DNA (even going so far as to have him practice comebacks in front of a mirror), but there’s more going on here than a simple tribute to Taxi Driver.  There’s a black humor in Crave that sucks the audience in, convincing you to go willingly on Aiden’s journey before realizing it’s too late to turn back when things start to get crazy.  The best way I can describe the relationship between these two films is to use analogy: Crave is to Taxi Driver as Brazil is to 1984 (clear as crystal, right?).
One of the things that makes this humor work so well is how easy it is to identify with Aiden.  Who hasn’t used fantasy to escape the powerlessness of everyday life (given that this is an rpg blog, I’m guessing that most people reading this will agree)?  The casting of comedian Josh Lawson was an excellent choice, as he brings a kind of sarcastic and awkward charm to the character that makes him instantly likeable, even when his fantasies are of the bloody variety (later in the film it’s another story, but by then it’s too late – de Lauzirika has you).
Ron Perlman also gives a standout performance as Aiden’s only friend Pete.  It’s a very different role from the big bombastic characters he is usually cast as.  As much as a fan as I am of Perlman’s, his subtle take on the worn down police detective was refreshing and reminded me how great an actor he is (as opposed to just being awesome).
De Lauzirika does a great job distinguishing between the violence of fantasy and real life.  He contrasts the gloriously bloody, over the top action of Aiden’s mindscape with the unceremonious and bland crimes of the mundane world, giving the latter a tragic hollowness.  Set against the almost post-apocalyptic backdrop of Detroit it reinforces our desire, like Aiden, to escape into fantasies of our own.
Finally, I have to commend de Lauzirika on the use of ambiguity in the film.  Flipping between the real and the imagined, the viewer is often left to decide what is what on his or her own.  Now, I used to be a big fan of ambiguity like this, but I’ve been burned so many times by bad storytelling (yes that’s right J.J. Abrams. I’m talking about Lost).  Crave defies this trend and does ambiguity right, neither as a cop-out nor a cheat, giving the audience the tools it needs to decide what is real when Aiden cannot.
Crave is highly recommended for fans of crime thrillers and dark comedy.  Keep an eye on this one; it’s got the potential to be the next word of mouth independent hit.

RPG Goodness

Crave plays with viewer perception and the boundary between fantasy and reality, subject matter that most rpg players should be intimately familiar with.  The way Crave handles that boundary, by embracing ambiguity, is a lesson gamemasters can use at the table.  There has always been a struggle in D&D to differentiate between player knowledge and character knowledge, particularly when it comes to things like saving throws, illusions, and the use of ‘meta’ information in game.  Instead of ineffectually trying to crack down on meta-gaming (although I do discourage it), I’ve found a few techniques that, like the film, embrace the ambiguity of the boundary between player and character:

  • Dice: When players hear the roll of the dice from behind the DM screen, it is a hard to resist cue that something is about to happen in the game.  Players won’t necessarily start taking defensive positions, but they will be a little more wary as the game proceeds.  One method I used to use was to just pick up and roll a bunch of dice at random times to subvert this expectation.  What I have found that works even better though, is to choose specific times when you want to increase the tension and roll a die then.  Instead of subverting the meta reaction it channels it, and can be useful in subtly setting the mood.
  • Mapping: Drawing a map of the dungeon (or sewer, or hedge maze or whatever) is a strange boundary crossing activity, since the characters in the game are considered to be doing it while the players outside of the game do the same.  Since, for ease of play, the DM gives the players the exact dimensions of the chambers the characters are exploring, finding secret rooms or uncovering other mysterious dungeon features can become glaringly obvious when looking at the map (“hey look at that perfect room shaped space over there”).  Sometimes (not always – that would be annoying) when I want to play with that ambiguity, I’ll purposefully give slightly incorrect information when describing a room (call it ‘the unreliable narrator’).  It’s important to give a hidden Perception check for the character doing the mapping to notice the discrepancy – this gives an in-character replacement for uncovering secrets to out-of-character map examination (“wait a second, I only assumed this room was 20 feet long based on the size of the house, its actually only 15 – I think that back wall might hold the corpse of the murdered Countess!”).
  • The Battlemat: If you play with a battlemat and miniatures (as I do), there is a strong meta-game assumption that anything you draw on the mat is terrain and anything you use a miniature to represent is a potential threat (or monster).  Like rolling the dice behind your screen, you can manipulate this assumption to either lull the players into a false sense of security or increase tension and paranoia.  For example, in a recent adventure my players faced off against an animated, undead throne.  While its description was kind of gruesome, the players didn’t see it as a threat because I drew it out on the battlemat as a piece of furniture (and it created a great jump scare when it started to walk across the room).  Likewise, whenever the party finds the long dead corpses of past adventurers (there seem to be a lot of those in adventures), I like to throw skeleton miniatures onto the mat to show their position.  Rather than the players just glossing over the corpses as containers for potential loot, the whole scene suddenly becomes sinister and ominous – are those just dead bodies or are they going to sit up and attack us for disturbing their rest?

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Grabbers

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

Grabbers

Nothing much happens in the small, Irish village of Erin, and that’s just the way chronic alcoholic police officer Ciaran likes it.  Unfortunately, that’s all about to change.  Ciaran has just been assigned a new by the books partner… and the island is being invaded by a swarm of bloodsucking alien tentacle monsters.  The good news is that the aliens are deathly allergic to alcohol.  So the question is: can Ciaran and Lisa get the whole town drunk in time for the invasion?

A Throwback in All the Best Ways

Grabbers is a delightful throwback to the monster comedies of the 80’s, combining equal measures of lighthearted fun and menace.  It doesn’t really break new ground, but it’s territory I haven’t visited in a long time, and Grabbers navigates it perfectly.
The film is immediately comparable to Tremors (itself a throwback), and not just for occupying the same niche and having a similarly tentacled monster.  Grabbers takes the best parts of Tremors and transplants them to Ireland: suspense cut by funny kills, lots of playing with cultural stereotypes (Irish instead of the American Southwest), colorful personalities, and great back and forth between the two main characters (OK, the film’s name also seems to be taken from the ‘graboids’ of Tremors as well).  But here’s the important thing, Grabbers isn’t just a Tremors rip-off.  Aside from the change of scenery, Grabbers has a very distinct personality and brand of humor.  When was the last movie you saw where the only way to defeat the monster was by getting drunk?
A slight aside.  Acting drunk is hard, especially ‘funny-drunk’ (faking it I mean – getting drunk is incredibly easy… and fun).   If it’s not done right your film can turn from hilarious to stupid in a heartbeat.  Given Grabbers’ kind of ridiculous premise, it would have been easy for the whole thing to descend into Ernest Goes to Camp-ness.  Fortunately the actors pull it off, with some truly hilarious scenes and actress Ruth Bradley delivering some choice lines.
The romantic sub-plot is also well delivered.  Ruth Bradley and Richard Coyle have great chemistry, which adds a nice dimension to the whole buddy cop thing.
The titular monsters of the film are well realized and look good (even if they are mainly CGI).  For a smaller budget picture, this is an achievement (one that made for SyFy films rarely accomplish).  Though not perfect, the aliens never come off as so cheap that they take you out of the action of the film.  That’s important because, like the creatures of Gremlins, Critters, and yes Tremors, they provide just enough horror and suspense to keep things from getting too goofy.
Grabbers is recommended for a night of good old fashioned monster fun.  It’s the perfect film if you’re in mixed company and need something accessible for varied tastes in horror.  For fans of Tremors (or Gremlins or Critters for that matter), Grabbers is a must see, and a much better inheritor than any of the sequels those films spawned.

RPG Goodness

Horror comedies are a great inspiration for rpg games.  Inter-party conflict is the stuff of buddy pictures and any game that presents owlbears and gelatinous cubes as serious enemies makes the manoeuver from silly to scary commonplace.  Even some of the most dramatic and sober campaigns I have played in featured goofy table talk, full of pop culture references and lines from movies (not to mention the link between Monty Python and D&D is practically cliché).
I think the real lesson monster comedies have to teach DMs is how to handle the inherent absurdity of the game.  The lesson: play it absolutely straight.  The monsters in Grabbers or Tremors never try and ‘act funny’ themselves.  The humor comes from ridiculous situations and character interaction (in game terms: table talk and PC actions).  There’s no need for the DM to joke things up on their end.  An encounter with a vampire can inadvertently generate laughs and something seemingly silly like a fight with a mimic posing as a table with a birthday cake (an example from one of my own campaigns) can be absolutely terrifying.  In Dungeons and Dragons terms, I think a fight with a grabber could go either way, with a drunken party making all kinds of poor decisions and flubbing skill checks (as in the film), or as a gritty tactical battle that incorporates elements of many of Pathfinder’s alternate class archetypes (like the drunken master and drunken brute).  With that in mind, I present the grabber for the Pathfinder edition of D&D.

Grabber

“Slithering out of the water is a rubbery, black mass of ropy tentacles.  It rolls forward with a wet flopping sound, a horrible barbed tongue flickering out from the centre of the beast’s mass like a bullwhip.”

Grabbers are a race of ravenous, aquatic blood drinkers from the same destroyed world as the akata, where they occupied a similar, aquatic niche in the planet’s food chain.  Chunks of that dead planet cross the dark tapestry as asteroids, making planetfall and releasing grabber eggs into oceans and lakes.  Once hatched, grabbers relentlessly hunt warm blooded life, travelling inland in search of prey on rainy nights.  When compressed, a typical grabber is 2 ½ feet in diameter and weighs 150 pounds.

Juvenile Grabber
Juvenile grabbers have the young template.  Freshly hatched grabbers look like short stubby worms, but still possess the dangerous tongue and blood drinking of their adult form.

Giant Male Grabber
These creatures have the advanced and giant templates.  Female grabbers are far more common than the male of the species, which can grow to enormous size and appetite.  Female grabbers abandon their egg clutches in shallow water or on sandy beaches, leaving the males to protect them from predation – which they do zealously.

Random Encounters: The Shackled City for Pathfinder (Chapter Three Flood Season)

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Currently I am running a Pathfinder campaign for my gaming group, and since I never got the chance to use my copy of The Shackled City hardcover while we were playing 3.5 I figured it wouldn’t be too much work to convert to ‘3.75’.  In spite of Paizo’s claims of backwards compatibility, you can’t really use 3.5 D&D adventures off the shelf for Pathfinder.  Most of it works, but the monsters and NPCs in particular are too weak to be a real challenge to a party of Pathfinder characters.  Converting the stat blocks isn’t impossible, but it does take time, and since I’m doing the work anyway (I’m a bit of a stat block perfectionist) I thought I would share (click on the pictures at the end of the article to download PDFs of the updated stat blocks for all the monsters and NPCs as well as some additional handouts I created for the third chapter).  You can find a conversion of the first chapter of the adventure path, Life’s Bazaar, as well as Pathfinder-style versions of the Greyhawk gods here, and the second chapter, Drakthar’s Way, here.
SPOILER ALERT
Obviously there are a ton of spoilers here, both for the campaign and the adventure.  So if you plan on playing in The Shackled City, peeking ahead is going to ruin a lot of the fun.  If you are one of my players, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t read any further.  You’ve been warned.

Flood Season

The following changes should be made to the adventure for it to play smoothly using the Pathfinder edition of D&D.   Click on the pictures at the end of the article to download a PDF of Pathfinder stat blocks for every NPC and monster in the adventure (when I DM I like to have the monster stat blocks in front of me, instead of having to flip to the back of the book or shuffle through Bestiaries), as well as a few additional handouts useful to the adventure (some handbills advertising Flood Festival events, double-sided invitations to the Demonskar Ball, maps that the PCs can buy to aid them at the Lucky Monkey, the symbol of the Ebon Triad, and an excerpt from Skaven’s scroll detailing the kopru civilization).

Event 6: Meet the Competition
I added a class level to each of the Stormblades to maintain their original CR.  Since there isn’t a Swashbuckler base class in Pathfinder I made Cora Lathenmire a Fighter – with her choice of feats and skills she will still be able to take levels in the Duelist prestige class later in the campaign.

Inside the Lucky Monkey
M1. Common Room
I added a level to both the alleybashers and the hillfolk to maintain their CR in Pathfinder.  I also slightly altered the hillfolk to give them more of an Olman flavor (the jungle barbarians that live in this area of the World of Greyhawk).  I traded out their masterwork longswords for obsidian war clubs (with the stats of a masterwork warhammer), but kept their armor (assuming they had acquired chainmail through raiding or as payment from Triel).  If you want the Hillfolk to be more of a traditional European barbarian, just give them longswords.

M21. Courtyard
The hill baboon was never updated in any of the Pathfinder books, so I replaced them with advanced chimpanzees, but kept the description and flavor.

M27. Kitchen
Tongueater was a mess.  As originally presented, Tongueater was an infected lycanthrope, which adds a needless amount of rolling for the DM and doesn’t really add anything to either the story or the game – so I changed him into a natural lycanthrope.  The second problem was that Tongueater was given levels of Barbarian, a class restricted to non-lawful alignments (and Tongueater is LE), so I switched these out with levels of Ranger (and took the two-handed weapon combat style from the Advanced Player’s Guide to keep him as a falchion wielder).  Finally, the way CR works with lycanthropy and class levels is slightly different in Pathfinder, so he wound up with 5 class levels instead of 3.  Even after all these changes I still think that my version of Tongueater maintains his core identity – a ferocious melee combatant able to tear through PCs quickly.
For DMs interested in a little more flavor than ‘120 pounds of loot worth 4,500 gp’ I broke it down as follows:

  • A large painting of the setting sun on a far horizon with a darkwood frame (taken from area M15); 300 gp; 5 pounds.
  • A case of 12 bottles of fine wine from the Holds of the Sea Princes; 10 gp each; 18 pounds total.
  • 4 bottles of Keoish brandy; 20 gp each; 8 pounds total.
  • Assorted silverware; 100 gp; 10 pounds total.
  • A pair of gold candleholders, elegant in their simplicity; 100 gp each; 2 pounds total.
  • Silver dinner service, embossed with native Amedio fruits and animals; 500 gp; 7 pounds total.
  • 4 golden monkey statuettes with chipped emeralds for eyes; 500 gp each; 15 pounds total.
  • A sea chart of the trade winds of Jeklea Bay and the Northern Azure Sea; 200 gp.
  • A letter of bond for Maavu’s Imports; 500 gp (a great set-up for the next chapter).
  • A lapis ornamental comb; 75 gp.
  • A silver mirror with folding cosmetics plate; 50 gp.
  • A small bottle of spicy smelling perfume oil; 25 gp.
  • 7 moonstones; 50 gp each.

M39. Battlefield
Switch out Sarcem’s 3.5 style periapt of Wisdom +2 with a Pathfinder headband of inspired Wisdom +2 (since the item is a headband, you might consider keeping it with Sarcem’s head in area M27.).

M43. Well Room
I added an additional class level to Shensen in order to maintain her CR, following the guidelines for her advancement in the appendix of the hardcover.

Event 10: Information for Sale
I added an additional class level to Artus in order to maintain his CR.  I interpreted his high ranks in Use Magic Device as an interest in magic so I gave him the Rogue talents of minor magic and major magic.

The Kopru Ruins
K7. Nightmare Beach
The skulvyn has never been updated to the Pathfinder game so I replaced it with a fiendish bunyip.  It’s not a perfect fit, but it’s fairly close (and I get the impression the skulvyn was chosen only to showcase the then-released Monster Manual II).

K8. Kopru Lair
The kopru has never been updated for the Pathfinder game, but rather than substitute another monster I decided to rebuild it using the monster guidelines in the Bestiary (as the race plays such a central role in the adventure).  Since it’s essentially a new monster for the game, I included the extended stat block in the PDF (and now that the work is already done, the kopru makes a perfect candidate for the next installment of Classic Monsters).

K13. The Gauntlet
The Reflex save DC for the pit trap here should be DC 20, as that is now the standard for all pit traps regardless of CR.

K16. Workroom
The mud slaad has never been updated to the Pathfinder game (and won’t be by Paizo as slaad are considered WOTC intellectual property) so I replaced it with a cerberi.  This is a case where I think the replacement works better than the original.  Thematically, the cerberi is a better fit for the role of leftover mystic guardian.

K24. Skaven’s Parlor
With arcane lock, the Disable Device check to pick the lock is DC 40 and the door’s break DC is 38.
I added a class level to Skaven to maintain his CR.  In 3.5 diviner Wizards only had a single opposition school, in converting Skaven to Pathfinder I added the opposition school of conjuration as that didn’t have any effect on the spells he had memorized.
In addition to the scroll on the kopru (included in the PDF of handouts) Skaven’s collection of esoteric books contains the following:

  • The Last Will and Testament of Lawethika of Ket
  • Ruminations of Charnel Fulminations
  • The Hours of Tintinnabulatory Twilight
  • Fragments from the Digested Notebooks of Tenrast Inktongue, a Blackmailer

K25: Skaven’s Bedchamber
With arcane lock, the Disable Device check to pick the lock is DC 40 and the door’s break DC is 38.

K27. Spider Nest
Spiders are one of the monsters that went through a lot of changes between 3.5 and Pathfinder, messing up the sizes and CRs of the spiders presented in this adventure.  In order to maintain CR replace the small spiders in this room with 2 spider swarms.

K30. Webbed Cavern
In order to maintain the CR of this encounter, replace the medium and large monstrous spiders with 4 giant spiders and 1 giant black widow.

K31. Ettercap Lair
This room should have 3 ettercaps for the given CR.

K32. Harpoon Spider Lair
The harpoon spider has never been updated for the Pathfinder game (and I suspect it was included in the adventure for the same reason as the skulvyn), so I replaced it with another intelligent arachnid foe, the phase spider (which could just as easily be worshipped as a god by ettercaps).  I made two slight modifications to the phase spider’s stat block to better reflect the adventure.  I changed its alignment to NE to reflect Skaven’s corrupting influence on the creature and I gave it Common instead of Aklo, since there is no Greyhawk equivalent of that language.

K33. Trapped Chamber
The poison on the spikes should read as follows:
Medium Spider Poison—injury; save Fort DC 14; frequency 1/round for 4 rounds; effect 1d2 Strength damage; cure 1 save.

K36. Triel’s Chamber
I added a class level to Triel to maintain her CR.

K41. Bloodbath
The bloodbloater ooze has never been updated for the Pathfinder game so I replaced it with an amoeba swarm.  While technically the amoeba swarm could crawl out of the pit in search of food, I assumed their preference for an aquatic environment and regular feedings would keep them in the pit.

K50. Undead Ogres
The pair of ogre zombies are slightly below the target CR, but the skeletal tyrannosaurus in area K48. is so brutal it more than makes up for it.

K52. Cult Treasury
The spawn of Kyuss have never been updated for the Pathfinder game so I replaced them with a pair of giant crawling hands.  I’ll admit it’s not a perfect fit, but the giant crawling hands are the right CR, and their pus burst has a similar gross-out factor as the spawn of Kyuss’ worms.
The poison on the chest should read as follows:
Nitharit poison—contact; save Fort DC 13; onset 1 min.; frequency 1/min. for 6 min.; effect 1d3 Constitution damage; cure 1 save.

K55. Undead Minions
There should only be 6 zombies in this encounter for the target CR.  Just so these monsters wouldn’t seem exactly the same as the zombie ogres in K50., I used the plague variant included in the Bestiary (plus, I hoped they would make up for the missing spawn of Kyuss in K52.).

K56. Tarkilar’s Cavern
Huecuva work very differently in Pathfinder then they did in 3.5 so it was next to impossible to do a straight conversion of Tarkilar.  Instead, I rebuilt him from the ground up.  Starting with a standard huecuva, I added class levels of Cleric until I hit the target CR (adding class levels also gave the huecuva a bonuses to its stats, which I used to replicate Tarkilar’s original stats as closely as possible).  I also fiddled a little with the standard racial skills and feats of the huecuva in order to better emulate the original Tarkilar.  Finally, I allowed the huecuva’s disease to be spread through the creature’s weapon attacks (it is wired directly into his flesh, so the spiked chain is probably filled with all sorts of disgusting bits of rotting gnoll flesh).

The Monster Does Fan Expo – Part 2, Gaming Seminars

Friday, September 14th, 2012

As I mentioned in the first part of my coverage of this year’s Fan Expo, it was nice to see gamers being catered to specifically in the convention’s programming and guest choices.  While I enjoy the buffet approach that Fan Expo takes, tabletop gamers are definitely in the minority among the other fandoms, so there’s a worry that our interests will be overlooked.  That fear was unfounded, as there were plenty of treats for gamers to fill their plates with (and Fan Expo has had some great gaming guests in the past – it’s where I had the chance to meet Gary Gygax before he passed away).
Although time constraints prevented me from chucking some dice in the game room (I was only there for the Friday), I was able to attend two of the con’s gaming seminars: Robin’s Laws of Gamemastery and the Gamemaster Master Class.  Both seminars had excellent turnouts, were a lot of fun, and in spite of having read stacks of Dragon magazine articles on the subject (many of them written by the seminars’ panelists), I still found them informative.  It just goes to show that there is always something for old Dungeonmasters to learn.  I took the opportunity to jot down the most interesting points of both seminars to share them with those who missed out (yeah, this would have been a good time to record a video of the whole thing, but that’s beyond my tech level and honestly, I find of few paragraphs of highlights more interesting than two hours of video).

Robin’s Laws of Gamemastery

Toronto’s own Robin Laws hosted a solo panel (an oxymoron I guess, but I can’t think of a better term) on GM advice, fielding some pretty tough questions from the audience and taking the conversation in unexpected directions.
He had an interesting take on the place of ‘story mechanics’ (that is, mechanics in a game that deal with social interaction or other non-combat activities) in rpgs.  In games with these kinds of mechanics (say 3e D&D or Pathfinder), Laws sees a player’s character sheet as an order slip for the DM.  If a player chooses to create a sub-optimal combatant by taking ranks in brewing, music or bargaining, she is telling the DM that she wants those things included in the game.  The player won’t mind that they are a little weaker in combat if they can feel important and shine when later in the campaign she can brew a legendary beer for the king, compose a famous symphony or broker a peace agreement.  I really appreciated the fresh perspective (and a player-centric one at that) on the moldy old role-playing vs. roll-playing debate, especially since I favor those mechanics and still consider myself a role-player.
Laws also had some great advice for how to handle rolling those social skill checks at the table if you feel they are an impediment to role-playing.  Instead of having the player state what their character is going to say and then making the roll (which is what I do, with a bonus or penalty based on what the player says), have them make the roll first and role-play it out based on the outcome.  Then, when the Rogue with the eighteen Charisma rolls a 1 for her Diplomacy check, have her decide why she uncharacteristically failed so badly.  Perhaps she is racist against Dwarves, or has a hard time talking to people of the opposite sex…  This is a trick I’m definitely going to talk to my players about bringing to our game.
When asked his opinion about ‘killer dungeons’, Laws brought up what he called the Tomb of Horrors paradox, which I thought was pretty funny.  Tomb of Horrors is seen as an anathema to new-school sensibilities and is often used as an example of how not to design a scenario (what with its arbitrary puzzles and instant-death traps).  Yet everyone seems to have a gleeful Tomb of Horrors war story, recounting fondly how their entire party was killed by this crushing room or that grinning devil face, so there has to be a place in the gaming world for this kind of adventure.
Finally, I managed to sneak in a question of my own about monster design.  I asked Robin; out of all the creatures he has created for rpgs, what monster was he the most proud of?  Like most writers, his favorite was his most recent (we’re a fickle bunch): a strange otherworldly hairball for the Esoterrorists game that possesses corpses and turns them into serial-killers.  Apparently, he wanted to try and include as many horror tropes as possible in a single monster.  I’m not sure about the whole ‘hairball’ thing, but the rest intrigued me enough to look up the game.

Gamemaster Master Class

While the second seminar I attended covered a lot of the same ground as the first, the change in format (five panelists instead of one) gave it a very different feel.  Panelists Ed Greenwood, Monte Cook, Malcolm Sheppard, and the Chatty DM weren’t able to get as in-depth on every topic as Laws was (that’s just the nature of splitting the time between so many people), but the riffing between the four of them was very entertaining and often hilarious.  Also, I was pretty psyched to finally meet Ed Greenwood, who I’ve always ‘just missed’ at these kind of events, and get Monte Cook to sign my copy of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (which he was gracious enough to do, even as the event organizers where trying to kick us out of the room).
Most of the time was spent discussing what I call ‘player management’ (things like problem players, meta-gaming, player expectations, etc.), which while interesting and a boundless source of humor, isn’t all that useful to me, since I game with close friends whom I’ve played with for years (going on twenty plus years for some of them).  We’ve worked out most of the kinks when it comes to things like that, and besides, they’re awesome (in case they read this).  I will admit to enjoying a certain amount of schadenfreude listening to other DMs’ horror stories though.
The most interesting bits came when the panel were asked about running memorable villains.   Malcolm Sheppard suggested using what he called the ‘devil’s advocate method’ – getting a different player to run the villain each session.  It’s a very cool idea, and I love that it harnesses players’ competitive nature.  If the villain is the player’s character, even if only temporarily, he will do his damnedest to keep it alive – probably more effectively than the DM.  Sheppard did give this advice with a pretty funny caveat though: he warned DMs to underpower their villains, since in his experience, players were much better at dreaming up ways of killing each efficiently than he ever could.  While I don’t think my group is ready to wholly embrace this technique (who wants to give up their own character in a fight with Big Bad?), I think it would work perfectly for players whose character has just died, keeping them involved in the game instead of waiting bored on the sidelines.
Ed Greenwood warned against focusing so much on a single villain if you want the campaign to continue beyond their demise.  When you invest so much character motivation into a single enemy, they become the source of the game’s momentum, and without them there is no movement (I believe Thulsa Doom said it best in Conan the Barbarian: “I am the wellspring from which you flow…”).  Greenwood’s solution to this dilemma, which you can see played out in his game-world the Forgotten Realms in spades, is to make sure that the characters occasionally get entangled with unrelated side-villains.  When the PCs’ nemesis is defeated it’s easy for one of these enemies to pick up the mantle of arch-villain.
Conversely (I believe his words were “even though Ed Greenwood told you not to”), Monte Cook had a sneaky trick to help transform any recurring villain into a character the players will hate with every fibre of their being (and really, it might be weird, but DMs live for that).  Basically, Cook’s advice is to have everything the PC’s do be a part of the villain’s plan, even (especially) when they win.  Rescued the Princess from bandits?  Excellent, now the villain can blackmail the King into offering her hand in marriage.  Slew the dragon?  Perfect, it was guarding a magical gate the villain needed access to.  The trick here is to let things play out as they will naturally, and figuring out how it fits into the villain’s plan in-between sessions.  Admittedly it’s a bit of a cheat, but I think it nicely replicates the highly organized mind of a manipulative and super intelligent antagonist.  Besides, I can attest first hand that when I used a slightly modified form of this in a Planescape campaign that it generated a healthy dose of hate, and there’s no stronger engine to drive your campaign forward.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: V/H/S

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

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).

V/H/S

A group of maladjusted vandals and budding snuff filmmakers are hired to break into a lonely old house and steal a unique VHS tape.  A simple enough job, complicated by a creepy room filled with random tapes, a wall of televisions, and something even more disturbing.  As the vandals watch the tapes, looking for their prize, they are given a window into a frightening world that threatens to drag them in.

Anthology and Found Footage Combine for a Deliciously Scary Peanut Butter Cup of Film

V/H/S was conceived as a creative challenge to a group of independent filmmakers to revitalize the saturated sub-genre of found footage horror.  Like any anthology, there are hits and misses, but overall the film succeeds at what it set out to accomplish – providing some truly frightening moments that had me gripping the armrest in the theatre.
First, if you haven’t seen the film yet I strongly urge you to avoid the trailer if at all possible since it spoils some of V/H/S’s best parts.   It won’t ruin the experience, but I found myself waiting for scenes from the trailer to pop up during the screening, which sort of killed the surprises a few of the segments had to offer.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of horror anthologies, and I really enjoy a good found footage film (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield come to mind) so I had fairly high expectations going in to V/H/S.  I wouldn’t say the filmmaking of the individual segments exceeded those expectations (and in some cases didn’t meet them), but what made V/H/S really stand out was how well it utilized both formats and how well those formats complemented one another.  In fact, I would go so far to say that V/H/S has spoiled me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to see another found footage film without thinking that it probably would have been better cut down to fifteen minutes and included as part of a larger anthology.  The general problem with found footage films is that they tend to be slow, with the worst having huge chunks of filler, and that slowness gives the audience plenty of time to question the verisimilitude of people continuing to film themselves during horrible events (the main conceit of the sub-genre).  V/H/S avoids that pitfall by nature of the format leaving little room for filler.  Each segment cuts to the chase fairly quickly and, in addition to some pretty good justifications for the protagonists filming themselves, the audience really doesn’t have a lot of time to question the suspension of disbelief.
I really dig the concept behind the wraparound tale by Adam Wingard.  It provides an excellent framework for the film, which is actually pretty rare in an anthology, and moves the viewer from one segment to the next efficiently and smoothly (overall I have to commend the filmmakers for using visual styles, that while different, didn’t clash with one another).  There are some odd pacing choices that I wasn’t expecting and, given how despicable Wingard makes his characters, I was a little disappointed he made their comeuppance so unspectacular (off screen for the most part).
The first segment by David Bruckner, about a trio of frat boy types with a set of spy-cam glasses is predictable but has a good payoff (and monster), some excellent practical effects work and a nice punchline worthy of Creepshow 2.
After the lacklustre The Innkeepers, I’m starting to think that Ti West and I just don’t see eye to eye.  His segment here, which documents a young couple’s cross country road trip, takes one of the most unsettling hooks I’ve seen in a long time and throws it away with an ending that isn’t just lame, but also cheats the whole found footage format.  It’s really too bad, because if it had been executed better, West’s story could have had real staying power, clinging to the audience’s subconscious long after leaving the theatre.
Joe Swanberg’s segment, a series of haunted Skype conversations between long distance partners, also stumbled during its finale, but was so original and had some of the best scares in the entire film that it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings.  There’s a really killer reveal at the end but it’s just a bit too long and shows just a bit too much.  This segment freaked me out while I was watching and a more subtle ending would have amplified that fear, rather than helped to dissipate it.  I’ve also got to call out Swanberg for the gratuitous boob shot in what is essentially the segment’s epilogue.  I get that found footage taps into the whole amateur porno aesthetic (there is an 1980’s era slasher flick level of breasts in this film), but it just felt tacked on and a little silly in what was otherwise a super creepy end note (a nit-pick of mine I’m sure many others don’t care about).
Glenn McQuaid’s segment presents a unique take on the ‘college kids camping in the woods’ story that both tweaks film convention and has an unexpected justification for the protagonists filming it.  The best part is how McQuaid explores the medium of found footage and its place in the horror continuum while still delivering the entertainment goods.  Plus it introduces a super cool monster with a concept I don’t think I have seen before.
The final tape in the anthology is also my favorite.  The Radio Silence collective show how to do a haunted house story right with their segment about a group of friends on Halloween looking for a party.  The pacing here is perfect, starting with some nice subtle creeps and building to a great climax.  When things start to get crazy, we are treated to a smorgasbord of supernatural sights and sounds that I won’t be surprised to see imitated by other horror filmmakers very soon.
V/H/S is recommended and is a must see for fans of The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series.  I’m not sure it will change the minds of die-hard haters of found footage, but it stands amongst the better entries of the sub-genre and is a good reminder of why those films are an important addition to the horror lexicon.

RPG Goodness

One of the reasons found footage works so well in a short format is that it has a very noticeable point of view, which gives the audience a lot of information quickly about the character filming it just by how it is shot without the need for exposition.  It’s a technique DMs can utilize themselves by incorporating ‘found documents’ (standing in for found footage) into their campaign.
I’m a bit of a handout junkie in my games, so I don’t really need an excuse but, in my experience, found documents require only a little effort on the DMs part to create and add a tremendous amount of atmosphere to the game.  There is a long history of using found documents as adventure hooks in D&D (the Return to the Tomb of Horrors mega adventure has some of the best), and running across a scroll or stack of papers that documented any of the tales in V/H/S would make a very memorable adventure (Joe Swanberg’s segment would be hard to reproduce but could be created as a series of correspondence).  My preferred method of including found documents in a game though is as an item of treasure.
Most adventures involve thwarting a villain’s evil scheme or stopping a (sometimes complex) plot or conspiracy from coming about.  The only problem is that most of the time the players only learn the broad strokes of what they are dealing with, and then move on to the next adventure.  The finer details and the villain’s motivations are often left to be enjoyed only by the DM (unless you’re running a supers game and do the whole ‘now that you’re captured, let me tell you about my plan’ thing).  By introducing found documents into the monster’s lair you can share this information with the players and give them a glimpse into the mind of the foe they have just fought.
The form such a document takes is important to keep in mind as it will help get across as much information about the one who created it as the point of view the camera tells the viewer in a found footage film.  Organized, methodical minds (i.e. Lawful) might make a journal or a detailed ledger of accounts while unorganized or insane minds (i.e. Chaotic) might make rambling manifestoes or smear poetry on the walls in an unwholesome substance.  Just remember you don’t need to recreate a whole document in order for it to get the point across to the players.  V/H/S shows just how much story you can tell with a short excerpt (although in found journals I do like to include one or two short entries with no solid information but that helps to paint a portrait of the author’s personality).
The other thing DMs can take away from viewing V/H/S is inspiration for new monsters – scads of them (over email Toronto After Dark festival director Adam Lopez joked that you could create a whole game out of the monster material in V/H/S, and he’s not far from the truth).  My favorite was the creature from Glenn McQuaid’s entry, presented for the Pathfinder game below.  It’s a tiny bit spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out before using the new monster in your game.

Shadow People

Your eyes can’t seem to focus on your pursuer, though glimpses out of the corner of your eye of its bloody attack on your camp give you the impression of a dark, humanoid shape… indistinct images that even now begin to slip unnaturally from the grasp of your memory.

The shadow people are enigmatic and malicious magical creatures that dwell in lonely wilderness locations and abandoned ruins.  They are extremely territorial, viciously attacking and tormenting any intelligent creature that passes too near their homes.  Any fortunate enough to survive an attack by the shadow people and resist their magical aura can be guaranteed a lifelong enemy, for the creatures’ greatest fear is that outsiders will spread word of their existence to the outside world.
Consequently, there is very little information regarding the nature or origin of the shadow people beyond general warnings that a particular patch of woods is haunted.  Brave adventurers moving through shadow people territory though might find faded pictograms, or ancient runes carved into crumbling pillars that tell the story of a group of assassins, cursed by the gods for slaying a beloved priestess to be forever erased not just from history, but from memory itself.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Detention

Monday, July 16th, 2012

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).

Detention

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.

RPG Goodness

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.

Note:

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.