Saturday, November 16, 2019

Halloween Movie Retrospective

Natalie Portman facing mutants in Annihilation

I watched a bunch of horror movies this year in the lead up to Halloween.  It's far and away my favorite genre for cinema (besides super hero movies).  I love the anxiety, disorientation, and dread that a good horror movie generates, and then I get twice as much fun thinking about them as fodder for my game worlds and campaigns.  Win and win.

Here are good movies I took in this autumn with ideas to borrow and steal.  I'll try to avoid major spoilers for people that haven't seen them and just provide the gist.  5E has fundamental problems with horror, so these would primarily apply to Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Call of Cthulhu.

The Hole in the Ground
This one involved a single mom and her son, who move to the Irish countryside and live on the verge of an ancient and primeval forest; there's a giant crater deep in the woods - the erstwhile "hole in the ground".  When her son starts acting strangely, we're confronted with parental horror ("do we really know the loved ones in our life…") while exploring themes of changelings, faeries, and abductions.

The Endless
Two brothers escaped an "alien doomsday" cult in the California wilds, and return to the commune many years later from the outside world to resolve some unfinished emotions.  The people they left behind are remarkably healthy, hale, and youthful, but as they reconnect with childhood memories, they begin to learn there's a sinister secret.  This one had some Lovecraftian monster undertones.

Several years ago a meteor crashed into a remote area of the gulf shoreline.  The surrounding countryside has been engulfed by an ever-expanding  barrier of energy which scrambles signals and communications within the zone.  None of the military patrols that have explored the zone returned.  Natalie Portman stars as a scientist that joins the next research team to enter the area.  Annihilation was very cool; following the footsteps of other patrols, the scientists pick up clues left behind by other explorers through their video devices, and encounter bizarre and terrifying mutants.  This would make a great gaming scenario.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
This one would be hard to do in a d20 game (where unconstrained murder hobos could shortcut the premise) but it might work in a modern horror game.  The unblemished corpse of a beautiful young woman is unearthed in the basement of a murder house; without any obvious causes of death, the police bring her to the medical examiner's for an autopsy.  The coroners are a father and son whose lab is in a sub-basement below their mortuary.  As a terrible storm blows in above ground, knocking out communications and isolating the coroners out in the country, they begin to make terrible discoveries about Jane Doe during the autopsy.  It's atmospheric and creepy.

The director of Hereditary returned with this one, about a handful of college students who travel to Sweden with their friend to spend a few weeks enjoying his rural village's summer festival.  The traditions of the Swedish pagans take a sinister turn as the Americans spend more time in the remote commune, reminiscent of earlier films like The Wicker Man.  This one is artsy, disturbing and revolting, a visually stunning slow burner.  You could model a remote pagan game cult after the fictional villagers in this movie.

The Silence
Soon after A Quiet Place, there was Bird Box and then The SilenceThe Silence wasn't nearly as well done as A Quiet Place, which I'd recommend to anyone, but the premise seems easy to port into a game.  Subterranean explorers (spelunkers) break into an expansive sealed cave system (basically the Underdark) and unleash flying, swarming, primordial horrors onto the surface world, which quickly infests the countryside and spreads outward.

The Ruins
This one is a little older, but it was streaming and my high-school aged daughter wanted to catch a horror movie so we queued this one up.  A group of vacationing college students head out to an archaeological dig site (a Mayan style ziggurat in a jungle clearing) and not only do they get trapped on the ruin, the ruins hold a sinister secret.  Imminently portable to a game setting.

I saw more horror movies this autumn, but the ones above are the films I most want to incorporate into scenarios.  Other ones I'd recommend for simple viewing include Green Room, Train to Busan, Us, and It Comes at Night; I also saw Under the Shadow, Suspiria (the new one), Veronica, Bone Tomahawk, Emilie, Cam, Ginger Snaps, Frailty, and Typewriter - this last set were either mixed quality or limited game-ability.  Although playing a Paladin like the characters in Frailty would be challenging.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Grateful Miscellany

They say you should practice gratitude; taking a few minutes each day to reflect on what you're grateful for has beneficial effects on your mindset, emotional health, and even physical health.  You can find it all over the wise Google in mainstream publications - the science of gratitude.  Life is stressful, you've got to take care of yourself - get out and run or exercise, eat and sleep well, cherish the folks around you.  I'm a pretty grateful person overall.  (Coincidentally I'm a giant Grateful Dead fan, too).

Here are a couple of things I noticed this week in the gaming world that inspired some gratitude and appreciation.

Mike Mearls on Greyhawk
I rotate across a bevy of podcasts on the way to work, mostly non-gaming - history, philosophy, even some fantasy football.  Once in a while I'll fire up something about gaming.  I wouldn't categorically recommend WOTC's "Dragon Talk"; it's usually a bit of marketing, some exposition on obscure Forgotten Realms lore (yawn), and then a guest.  Some of the guests are doing fantastic things with D&D - psychologists using D&D to improve social skills with autism kids, for instance - real heartwarming stuff.  But many of the guests are streamers, celebrities, or improv groups talking about their shtick.  Every once in a while they do a "Sage Advice" where they deep dive on some rules with their rules guru, that's usually golden.  Dragon Talk is in my podcast queue; I'll typically look at the details and delete anything that seems yawnstipating.

This week's first serendipitous moment when I was doing clean up on some old Dragon Talks sitting on the iPod and saw one that had an interview with a cartographer, so I fired it up in the headphones while doing some house cleaning.  The cartographer interviewer was fine, the real gem was a 45 minute interview with Mike Mearls on why he loves Greyhawk as a setting.  (You can listen to it from here:  Dragon Talk with Deven Rue - Mike is at about 9 minutes in.)

The interview starts with an overview of campaign settings, from OD&D's start, the Greyhawk supplement, up until about the Forgotten Realms Greybox.  The theme of the interview, though, is why Greyhawk is different from the Forgotten Realms, and analysis on Gary's approach.  Greyhawk is human-centric, and focused on political states with very real human motivations.  Unlike later campaign sets, it's very much a tool box that presents the world right on the cusp of change (the return of Iuz, for instance) but doesn't tell the DM how the change needs to go.  It's a launch point for DIY D&D.

By comparison, the Forgotten Realms is all about the metaplot.  There are oodles of canonical references, novels, and published campaign arcs.  The Realms is ideal for the dungeon master that wants to run the game, but can't spend much time each week preparing their own stories; you can pick up any of the WOTC hardcovers for 5E and run something out of the book.  And to be fair, WOTC has been doing a good job of creating open-ended sandbox campaigns in the Realms.  I'm not a big fan of the Realms for many reasons, but I like how they've done most of their 5E adventure books.

But the main point of the podcast is Mike gets why Greyhawk is so highly regarded by our niche.  Down with canon.  I actually think if WOTC publishes a Greyhawk source book, their internal struggle is with whether they return to the 1983 Brown Box setting and omit Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes (which pushed Greyhawk down the meta-story canon path).

Incidentally, Wizards of the Coast currently has a 2019 marketing survey posted to collect feedback on how you play D&D in 2019, including your favorite settings.  Get out there and vote for Team Greyhawk.  (Wizards of the Coast 2019 survey).

The Monsters Know What They're Doing
My other serendipitous discovery this week was the blog, The Monsters Know What They're Doing.  The author, Keith Ammann, has been writing weekly breakdowns of monster tactics for the past 3 years.  He deep-dives the Monster Manual or sourcebook entry, combining an analysis of the monster's attributes, skills, combat statistics, and flavor text, to provide a ready-to-use set of tactics at the table (for 5E).  Your kobolds will behave differently from orcs, which are different from goblins.  He's doing that for everything.  It's yeoman's work, and his blog is easy to search so you can target a specific monster and review tactical suggestions in advance of your game session.  Need an idea what the monster shaman will summon with the Conjure Animals spell?  Chances are he's got a breakdown for you in the tactics.  He's collected a few years of his material into a book - I don't have it yet, I just discovered the blog this week from an online mention.  I'll post a review if I get it; in the meantime the blog is free, searchable, and a fantastic labor of love.  If you're a DM for 5E, it will give you ideas when planning tactics for upcoming monster encounters and put you in the monster's shoes.

In the spirit of sharing, are there any world-building, DMing, or similar gaming podcasts you've been enjoying?  How about other hidden jewel blogs like The Monsters Know that you want to pass along?  Drop a note, thanks!

And one non-gaming thing to be grateful for - the Dead are touring again!  They played Halloween night in my area (Madison Square Garden) and I'll catch some shows this weekend down in Virginia, too.  (Photo courtesy of my friend Mindunn who maneuvered through the floor and got some great pics).  Happy Sunday.