Sunday, April 30, 2017

TSR List of Things to Definitely Do

Nobody reads blogs on Sunday, so here's a retropost about gaming aesthetics under fascism:

As blogland well knows, every sneezerag and post-it Tactical Studies Rules ever produced is secretly useful so long as you read it right.

And so, yes, that includes this.

What to do with TSR's list of things never to do? Well, obviously: do them.

But why? Because offending people with a D&D book generally only happens when people start acting nuts and people only start acting nuts when they start having genuine emotions. That's why they call crazy people "emotionally disturbed".

Offense is just the worst worst-case outcome for talking about things that people care about. So TSR's list is really just a list of things people care about.

Use them.

What'll Make Today's Game Interesting?
(Roll d20)

WHOA HEY: As everyone probably already knows, some players may have experienced traumas in their past which may make discussing some of the situations described below emotionally difficult for them. I mean, I guess--I've never actually seen it in real life. But, hey, I've heard about it on the internet and you have too. If you play with people like that then I guess, y'know, be careful and don't be a dick.


1: GOOD CONFUSED WITH EVIL
This session, evil may be portrayed in an attractive light and will be used to muddy a moral issue. NPCs present shall proclaim the antagonist as an agent of right. The PCs will be offered a devil's bargain--something they richly desire in exchange for committing an act with dire consequences. Satanic symbology, rituals, and phrases may  appear even more than usual.
The mixed-blessing bargain is an essential part of anything resembling intrigue. Even in the event that the PCs refuse the bargain, your campaign now has a new point around which drama can pivot and complexity can grow: the villainous would-be power broker can be hoodwinked, manipulated, blackmailed, used against itself. And they can do the same to you.

If you need a villain, here you go.

2: DUPLICATIBILITY
Go do research. Your adventure shall present explicit details and methods of crime, weapon construction, drug use, magic, science, or technologies that could be reasonably duplicated and misused in real life situations.

A central problem or puzzle in the game will turn on it. Go google up how to pick a lock or make crystal meth, then build an adventure around the key ingredients or steps.

A certain level of detail is central to something in the essential nature of any really satisfying puzzles: the ability to admit more than one solution. The more detailed the mechanics of the scenario are, the more points at which the PCs can interact with it--if you and they know exactly which part of the thaumaturgic circle correspond to which part of the summoning, control and dismissal of exactly how many devils then they can alter any single part of a spell to create something you didn't anticipate and send the campaign in all sorts of new directions.

You could start here or here or here or wherever.

3: AGENTS OF LAWFUL EVIL
An agent of law enforcement (constable, policeman, judge, government official, and respected institution) will be depicted in such a way as to create disrespect for current established authorities/social values. 

Someone in power sucks this session. It's essential that the surrounding power structure be at least tolerably functional or else it's just another Evil Empire scenario (see 4 below).

One nice thing about this kind of hook is that while it can be used to surround the PCs with dangers to the point that they can't ignore it, it can still take many forms and respond dynamically to the PCs' actions--it isn't rigid. Start imagining every single thing the government could do to you if it decided it didn't like you, specifically.

However, lest this get railroady--another nice thing about this kind of plot is the PCs have a lot of options about how to handle it--after all, the party just has to find a way to get to one person to end it all. People move, they take holidays, they have schedules and eat lunch. As long as you more or less know how the government works in your setting (and you do, because you're a crazy GM and think about this kind of thing all day or else you wouldn't be reading this blog), the scenes write themselves and the number of ways the PCs can interact with them is infinite.

For a decent outline of how this kind of plot could play out, read this. And saying that would normally be a dickhead move because I'm telling you to go read a whole trade paperback collection just to think up a goddamn D&D adventure but in this case it's not at all a dickhead move because it's maybe the best comic ever written so if you haven't read it you're just holistically better off no matter what, ok?

4: CRIME IS GOOD, CRIMINALS ARE GOOD
Crimes will be presented in such ways as to promote distrust of law enforcement agents/agencies or to inspire others with the desire to imitate criminals. Crime should be depicted as a noble and pleasant activity. Criminals may be presented in glamorous circumstances.

In this situation, the entire ruling class is totally corrupt, oppression is universal and criminals are freedom fighters whether or not they want to be. Think of it as scenario 3 but universalized and turned up to 11. This provides a perfect opportunity for a heroic sandbox: players roam a target-rich environment while working for a common good. For a particularly fine example (from TSR of course) check this out.

5: IMPLACABLE MONSTERS
Evil monsters will be unable to be clearly defeated in any obvious fashion. 

The players will either think of some way to stop the monster that you didn't (which is always good) or it'll be all about surviving a Call of Cthulhu-esque horror you cannot hope to destroy (which is always good).

Another nice bit about this kind of plot is it's easy to draw the PCs in: the plot hook is just everyone else running the other way screaming about how nothing can stop whatever the hell it is. Then imply there's treasure.

6: BE EXCESSIVE WITH THE PROFANITY
Profanity, obscenity, smut, and vulgarity will be used this session. While none of these things are interesting in themselves, the emotions they can produce are. The villains in this adventure are grotesquely decadent, but that isn't the point: the point is to keep laying on inversions and perversions until you hit a nerve--something that viscerally makes players (not PCs, players) want to fucking end these motherfuckers.

Once you've done that, the plot and mechanics can all be very simple: the players' intense desire to make it all go away will give the session a satisfying intensity that can push beyond the need for twists or inventions.

7: DRAMA CAN BE CREATED WITH HORROR
The use of drama or horror is acceptable and desirable. The detailing of sordid vices or excessive gore shall be not avoided. Horror, defined as the presence of uncertainty and fear in the tale, shall be permitted and will be graphically detailed.

The key word in the paragraph above is "use"--something graphic will happen and it will happen for a reason. Unlike 6 above, reasons are important here--the intent is not necessarily to inspire feelings of revulsion and horror in the players, the intent here is to emphasize the moral or supernatural excessiveness of the foe in question. Go ahead and write it down, detail the horrors, use a script, think of the worst things you can, and then, when it happens, read it to the players.
Generally the idea with gore is to make a point and it is often the same point: this is what really goes on. Or a metaphor for it. Gore as an aesthetic strategy is often linked to activism. As William Burroughs explained in the introduction to his gory classic Naked Lunch: "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

The gore villain is the opposite of the sexy villain, and works well when juxtaposed with it: you want this? Then this is what you get.

8: JUST VIOLENCE AND GORE
Only lurid scenes of excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, filth, sadism, or masochism, presented in text or graphically, are acceptable today. Scenes of unnecessary violence, extreme brutality, physical agony, and gore, including but not limited to extreme graphic or descriptive scenes presenting cannibalism, decapitation, evisceration, amputation, or other gory injuries, should be actively sought out.

This is not in order to provoke an emotional reaction (6) or to express an idea (7) but just to provide atmosphere. In this adventure everything will be exceptionally bad all the time. 

Lay it on thick all day. Play Raining Blood and Cattle Decapitation. Whether this ends up as a majestically Howardian violence-opera or just funny is up to you and your players, but if every lost hit point is another eyeball rolling across the floor it'll be fun either way.

You'll need terrible vikings, cannibal halflings, maggot zombies or something.

9: SEXUAL THEMES  SHOW UP  
Sexual themes of all types will not be avoided.  Arranged marriage, seduction, droit de seigneur, unrequited attraction, teratophilic and/or sociopathic sexuality might be discussed.

The original TSR guidelines advise against the portrayal of graphic sex scenes and this is good advice given for the wrong reason: narrated sex in games should be avoided not because of The Children but because it appeals mostly to boring people who aren't getting properly fucked and you shouldn't be playing games with them.
However, sex as a dramatic element in intrigues and crimes can be very useful. As Romeo and Juliet cleanly illustrates: the nice thing about sex in drama is it can show up and work at completely cross-purposes with anyone's material interests. The princess wants the pearl: so what? She goes and takes it, it's a heist. The princess wants the pearl but also the pearlbearer's son? It's suddenly gotten very complicated. This may require deception, invention, research, persuasion, disguises.

Any conscientious game master has wondered, now and again, how could this nigh-omnipotent Dark Overlord eight levels higher than them end up letting this party anywhere fucking near the prisoner/command center/treasure hoard? Desire to produce an heir or seduce a subject are answers as good as any--and realistic, too.

10: NUDITY WILL OCCUR
Nudity is never acceptable, graphically, when done in a manner that complies with good taste and social standards: it is as hypocritical as the cleric's mace. Degrading depictions are impossible (this is fiction, nobody's grade is going anywhere) and salacious depiction is unavoidable (tastes vary wildly across the spectrum of all known images). Graphic display of reproductive organs, or any facsimiles will appear this session.
Why is up to you. It might be gory, it might be funny, it might be sexy, it might simply emphasize someone's helplessness, but here's the trick: whatever reason fuckorgans usually show up in your game (rust monster, crit chart, succubus shenanigans), don't use that reason this session. Pick one of the others and do it a different way.

11: THE AFFLICTED
Disparaging references to physical afflictions, handicaps and deformities are common throughout human history and will appear in the mouths of thoughtless NPCs.

Even today, people are often cruel and thoughtless toward the crippled, the diseased and the otherwise organically unlucky. In this session, this ugly facet of human nature will be on display.

Fairness is the most important thing in the world and unfairness is the most common thing. Biological unfairness is the most elemental--and gods and superstitions were largely been invented to excuse it. It is thus the source of a rich vein in folklore--and the game is based on folklore.
The mangled can be Tyrion Lannisters, Phantoms of the Opera, Todd Browning Freaks or island-bound Lost Souls. No matter what they achieve or fail to, they immediately highlight the central theme of RPGs: what you roll vs what you do with it. Put some damaged people into play, make them important this session, and see what happens.

12: PRETEND RACE MATTERS
Human and other non-monster character races and nationalities will not be depicted as inferior to other races, or superior to other races, or equal to other races: they will be depicted as individuals struggling with individual circumstances in a world which wholly fails to recognize this.

No races and nationalities shall be fairly portrayed by any other, and racism will be rife: the elf has a distorted view of the dwarf, the human a distorted view of the orc, the gnome a distorted view of the tiefling, the android a distorted view of the cyborg.

Imagine the patchwork of your PC party: imagine none of them are recognized as an individual by the next villains they encounter. One is taken to the mines, one is chosen as a concubine, one is made a vizier, all based on nothing but blind prejudice. Of course your players will fuck it all up, but that's the point.

13: FUCK: SLAVERY.
This session, slavery is depicted as unremarkable; though we can trust our players know it's a cruel and inhuman institution to be abolished, we can't trust the NPCs to know that.

Are they the Southerners in Django Unchained? Are they the Nazis in Inglorious Bastards? Likely neither: the institution is unremarkable to them and they take it as a matter of course, not a matter of debate and justification.
Are the PCs Nat Turner or Spartacus, or just trying to keep out of the way, or are they cynically weaponizing the slaves to use against the masters? Point is the institution will be there this session, and loom large in the plot.

14: RELIGION, MYTHOLOGY AND THE FREAKSHOW THEY ENTAIL
The use of religion in this session is to assist in complicating the struggle between good and evil. Actual current religions might be depicted, ridiculed, or attacked in any way that promotes disrespect. Ancient or mythological religions, such as those prevalent in ancient Grecian, Roman and Norse societies, may be portrayed in their historic roles (in compliance with this Code of Ethics) but only if you go read some shit and come up with at least one thing you didn't already know before running the game.  

In any case, make irrational demands the center of today's session. Like sex, faith is an incredibly convenient excuse for villains to allow for a crack in the armor of their pragmatism. "It is a gibbous moon: we must throw open the gates for 16 hours in compliance with the dictates of Norglyph The Frenetic!"

15: MAGIC, SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND YOU
Fantasy literature is distinguished by the presence of magic, super-science or artificial technology that exceeds natural law. The devices are to be portrayed as fictional and used for dramatic effect. They should, however, appear to be drawn from reality. Actual rituals (spells, incantations, sacrifices, etc.), weapon designs, illegal devices, and other activities of criminal or distasteful nature shall be presented or provided as reference in this session.
This is different from 2 in that you are totally going to fake it. Make every effort to make the thing look plausible, then print it out and show the players.

You'd be surprised how much GMing you can get out of an idea if you understand it well because you made it up.

16: NARCOTICS AND ALCOHOL AND BEARS, OH MY
Narcotic and alcohol abuse shall not be presented solely as dangerous habits. Such abuse should be not dealt with by focusing only on the harmful aspects.

In Phillip K Dick novels they let you see the future, in Palladium they make your stats better, in Deep Space Nine they control the spiky-faced guys, in most world religions they improve your relationship to the deity (wine anyone?). At any rate, useful drugs are a quick-and-simple devil's bargain and they'll feature prominently in today's session.
What will the players do when faced with juiced orcs? Flee in terror? Join them in their intoxicated orgies? Steal their supply? Do that thing where you trace a square in the air and go "You're in the box, you can't hear anyth..." and wait for them to freak out? It'll be a pip.

17: ERODE THE CONCEPT OF SELF
The distinction between players and player characters shall not be strictly observed.

It should not always be clear that the player's imaginary character is taking part in whatever imaginary action happens during game play.


You know that trick in Death Frost Doom where
SPOILERS!(highlight to read)
the GM passes a note to the player saying what the thing says and if anyone reads it aloud then something bad happens?
END SPOILERS
...well that trick is cool. Do something like that this session. Keep your players on their toes by making their actions map to character actions.

18: LIVE ACTION ROLE-PLAYING KIND OF
It is my policy to not support any live action role-playing game system, no matter how violent the style of gaming is said to be, until I meet someone hot who does it.

However, right when the players go into, like, the trap in the Temple of the Arachnid Fathers you should say "Hold on, I have to go to the bathroom" and then on the way back go and grab that bag of rubber spiders you bought and when you are about to sit down you should empty it on top of whichever player has the PC in the front.

Things like that. 

So, yeah, time for a trip to the 99¢ store.

19: HISTORY IS TERRIFYING
In this session you'll depict certain historical situations, institutions, or attitudes in a game product that should not be condoned. However: they happened. Pick one. Read up. Learn all about it. Then just translate it into your campaign.

Here's one.

20. ROLL TWICE
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EDIT:
If you're at work, make sure your boss isn't watching because you're about to roll on the floor crying with laughter.  So, ok--I know half you were thinking "I bet the rubes at Story-Games would, even today, totally sign off on half this list"
Turns out they would. Jesus.
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Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Invisible Dungeon & Wallet, Keys, Pants

The Invisible Dungeon and Wallet, Keys, Pants are, like the hexcrawl, dungeoncrawl, heist or Hunter/Hunted, basic formats for open-ended adventures that avoid railroading.

...mostly. The trick is they makes use of one key choker: the party is already in the dungeon. Though it's actually a metaphorical dungeon--they're not in a physically restricted underground maze, but they are unwillingly inside the villains' scheme when the adventure begins.

These are written for the Demon City project (donate to the Patreon here), but can apply to pretty much any game...

Invisible Dungeon

In the Invisible Dungeon, the trick is the players don't know it.

At the beginning of Alien, the Company has just woken up the crew to go investigate a distress call which it knows is dangerous ("crew expendable" according to the secret orders) and, as I noted in an earlier entry, when Get Out opens the photographer is already on his way to the girlfriends' country house which will lead to the party which will lead to him being auctioned off. From the main characters' POVs these are, at the beginning, more or less ordinary situations.

In practice, starting the players in a situation where they don't even know they're in trouble is different by just a hair, in terms of preserving meaningful choice, from being told "Hey we're running this module so you want the gold from Blastoskull Manor", but once the set-up is done, the Host should respect player choices and the scenario should be designed so that any player choice thereafter fuels the adventure.

Dungeons offer choices, but the also have walls: likewise, the Invisible Dungeon should be designed ahead of time with some barriers to escape the villains' dastardly scheme. If the crew of the Nostromo decided to leave the Alien planet without going into the egg chamber what would happen? Well the Host would've had Ash (the Company's secret android) secretly try to kill whoever made that decision and/or somehow get the crew back to the planet to investigate--possibly by sabotaging the ship. If, near the beginning of Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya had decided to, well...get out, the family would've tried a combination of physical force and hypnosis to prevent it (which they do, later in the film).

Now, in a genuine railroad these prevention schemes would automatically work--I recommend you not run things like that. Let the situation play out however it plays out--and if the party escapes the Invisible Dungeon you made early, you switch to a story of pursuit. Even dead bad guys have friends. It's easy to imagine a continuation of the truncated Alien story above where the Company tries to hunt down the crew who've seen its robot go berserk and it's easy to imagine a sequel to Get Out where the police are asking around about this photographer kid who was apparently around at the old country house when that family got killed.

However, the point of prepping an adventure is to prevent having to do all that improvising of new scenarios all at once, and to have players encounter things as well-thought-out and complex as your downtime allows. To get that to happen, it's as important to promise "treasure" inside the "dungeon" as it is to build walls around it. In mass media, this is less necessary than it is in a game--unlike players, movie characters don't know they're in a movie and will walk right into the heart of darkness if the screenplay demands it. Hosts have to be cleverer than screenwriters.

A simple way to do this is to turn an avenue of investigation into a trap. For example: a witness (secretly a villain or villain's pawn) tells the players they saw the gunman flee into a warehouse. The warehouse is a fiendish Saw-like. The (evil) clerk tells the players the records they need are kept at the country courthouse, upon entering, the guards lock the doors and the cell tower is sabotaged.

Another way is to build a breadcrumb trail out of things the players will want to follow even if it has nothing to do with the investigation. The lifeguard with the big blue eyes invites you down to the (wereshark-infested) island for a weekend. You have to know your players and their playstyles pretty well in order for this to work, though.

What not to do is simply decide, after the fact, that whatever the players felt like doing it will turn out to be the trap--this creates a situation where you've artificially removed players' choices, and in the long run this makes them think about their decisions less, and makes a game of decisions and investigations less fun. If the witness is a pawn of the villain, there's always a chance a clever player could find that out, if a clerk is evil the players theoretically might find a way to discover that before heading to the courthouse. If you respect the rules of the imaginary world, the players will learn to investigate it with care.

If you want the Invisible Dungeon to last longer than a single session then it helps to have the villains have some plan for the party besides just killing them. A horror bent on seducing the party members, quietly grooming them for membership in a cult, driving them insane or (as in Get Out) showing them to prospective buyers can maintain a ruse of harmlessness and mystery far longer. The players will know something is wrong (they're playing Demon City, after all) but they won't know who the danger is and who's a harmless NPC.

And there should be, occasionally, harmless NPCs--not just to throw off the players, but also because friendly non-player characters are part of the advancement system.


Wallet, Keys, Pants

In this kind of format, you wake up missing your wallet, your keys and your pants. Or something equally valuable. You may also wake up far from home. Unlike the Invisible Dungeon, the players immediately know something's wrong. The Invisible Dungeon works by luring the PCs in with something they want, Wallet, Keys, Pants works by taking away something the PCs want back.

The advantage of this format is it's easy to add obstacles (the characters were asleep, you can surround them with challenges and terrors) and easy motivate players to face them (they need to find their stuff or escape or both).

The disadvantage is--unless you do it as the opening of the entire campaign--you need to get the characters knocked unconscious. It's no fair just deciding in the middle of a campaign that last time they slept this happened, you have to have the bad guys creep in--roll to see if the PC notices--inject the benzodiazapines--roll to see if they wake up with the pain--and sneak them away to the getaway vehicle.

The wallet, keys, pants option is also a good adventure format if you finish a combat with all the heroes knocked unconscious.

Aside from the beginning, the Host also has to answer a few questions: why did the horror leave the PCs alive? Did something go wrong mid-kidnapping? Does the horror have only an animal intelligence, and so left the party alone at the wrong moment? Do they want something more complex from them than just their flesh? After that, the WKP adventure consists of the same kinds of clues, hazards and a fights as any other adventure--just put these things between the party and whatever it is they want
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Friday, April 28, 2017

Demon City Appendix N (Part 2: Movies)


Recommended watching for Demon City:

Film is the deepest well in terms of horror ideas and images, and if I started talking about great horror movies we'd be here all day, but a few stand out as being particularly relevant to the specific tasks of a Demon City Host:


Robert Wiene’s silent classic of moonlight and hypnotized lunatics The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has been called the first horror movie, but it’s especially important here because the city—depicted not through ordinary photography but through expressionistically painted sets whose black outlines merge with the contrastily photographed actors—is itself a compelling character. In RPGs, there are no pictures, so if you say “the roofs slant diagonally toward a moon bisected by eerily thin smokestacks” well—that’s what the players see in their minds—and that’s great.


John Boorman's Point Blank is neither horror nor quite modern (it's from 1967) but it's a collage of neo-noir images and characters--black-eyed men, stiff drinks, car crashes, revenge, corruption, nightclubs, stylish dames, long shadows, guns, airports, and perfect sets full of reflective surfaces--and an extremely efficient one, because the movie doesn't do anything except follow Lee Marvin as he hunts down his enemies. A vision of the city as isolating-by-day-crowded-by-night crime-playground that builds on classic crime movies like The Big Sleep and echoes forward through everything from Chinatown to Grand Theft Auto.


Dario Argento's Suspiria--a luridly-colored girls-school witchcult flick--is notable because, over and above suspense or even shock, this film emphasizes panic— the easiest horror emotion to sustain during RPG-style combat. Keep an eye on how he uses escalating revelations and dramatic swerves in pacing to keep the audience on edge.


Though Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie's recent The Void draws on a lot of older films, its fast pace and narrow, low-budget focus on a small cast dealing with a single problem (they're trapped in a hospital where something awful is going on) makes it one of those rare films whose set-up could be lifted whole hog for an RPG scenario with almost no changes. It has a handful of frantic fight scenes, a variety of bad guys, improvised weapons, ticking clocks, tense choices and even that old RPG standby: the party tossing a captured NPC down the stairs ahead of them to check for traps.


George Romero’s original 1978 Dawn of the Dead is, likewise, a two-hour RPG set-piece adventure: the party is trapped in a shopping mall and the zombies are trying to get them. Like true PCs, they have to build defenses, think as a team, move in bursts and use everything in the environment to their advantage. And, like a good Host, Romero’s chosen a setting that’s interesting as both architecture and content—it’s got escalators to run down, glass walls to watch zombies from behind, and an implied critique of consumerism.



Similarly, Jordan Peele’s recent and excellent Get Out also combines social commentary with a structure Hosts can steal wholesale: the villains draw the main character into what's for them is a usual modus operandi and the plot consists almost entirely of him bumping into eerie side-effects of it that make no sense—at least until the big reveal, and then it’s all about survival. Also addresses the kind of perennial Host problems in this sort of Invisible Dungeon plot like: Why don’t they call the cops? and Why don’t they use their cell phones?


The sleazy Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 is a sleazy tale of one woman’s rape-revenge on the sleazy men of the sleazy New York of the sleazy 1970s (inexplicably released in 1981). The scenes of the initial crimes and her final revenge both evoke a nightmare vision of the city and the mute vigilante main character is a very precise depiction of a player staying in the game and in the spotlight at 0 Calm.




Possession by Andrzej Żuławski is probably the best, or at least most interesting, depictions of the various effects of Calm loss. A good chunk of this gorgeously photographed urban horror/psychodrama is just a couple freaking out at the world and each other. Isabelle Adjani won Best Actress for her frenzied performance and Sam Neill should inspire a shock of recognition in gamers everywhere as, acting opposite, he swings from wooden, amateurish delivery to genuinely harrowing mania and focus in the course of a single scene. 

Takashi Hashimoto's animated show Mononoke (not to be confused with Princess Mononoke--the word just means "spirit" or "ghost") combines genius neopsychedelic animation with classic ghost-story themes. Easily findable on YouTube as of this writing, the typical episode starts out with incomprehensibly eerie visual poetry that gets resolved when the Medicine Seller (a traveling exorcist) explains or guilt-trips the episode's murderer into confessing the details of a ghost-spawning crime with almost Columbo-like efficiency. A wonderful place to steal creature visuals and simple supernatural plots.

If you like anime but lean less toward avant-surrealist art-horror and more toward car crashes resulting from decapitations during blowjobs, Hideki Takayama’s Urotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon Womb is your next first-date movie. Yes, it's a sequel but seriously you're not here for the plot, you're here for the glowing cityscape squirming with nudity, tentacles and the way they animate breaking glass. Even the uncensored version isn't recommended for anyone who is offended by anything.

28 Days Later by Danny Boyle is famous for the introduction of fast zombies, and the first half’s scenes of desperate pursuit and combat through a contrasty, widescreen London are platonically ideal Demon City action sequences.


Beyond The Black Rainbow by Panos Cosmatos is a creeping hallucination of polished retrofuturistic geometry and impossible id-plasm rotating around some kind of plot about a psychic research facility. Worth a look to see how much can be done with a simple story (psycho traps a victim, tortures her, she escapes past a few weird hazards), a handful of evocative images, and a single creepy NPC.


The first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective not only combines elements of horror and crime procedural (rarer than you’d think), but, perhaps more importantly for Demon City, it elaborates an idea of corruption in every direction. The investigation of corrupt rituals by arguably corrupted cops (one of of whom has a strong sense that human existence itself is corrupt) runs afoul of a corrupt power structure in a corrupt place where the corruption is practically written on the landscape.
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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Demon City Appendix N (Part 1: Books)

New painting for Demon City, click to enlarge
While lists of other media to check out are extremely helpful in RPGs, you're often given so much to read that you end up no better than where you started. I, for one, wish I'd been told to read Tales of the Dying Earth or Seven Geases on day one before ever playing D&D--and then let all that other stuff filter in when I got around to it.

So what follows is not an attempt to cover every jewel of the horror and crime genres--this list is just about the most broadly useful texts and starting places, it's assumed the motivated Host can chase down the rest once they find out where their interests lie:

How Crime Works

None of these books are world-class well-written, but they get the job done:

David Simon's book Homicide is a fast read and a good primer on how murder detectives do their jobs--fans of Simon's TV shows The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street will recognize many anecdotes borrowed from the book, but it's all fleshed out in more detail here. Also a good resource on just how extreme modern crime can get without even dipping in to the supernatural.

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is full of real-life examples of how criminals get in and out of summer homes, armored cars and bank vaults. It also does an excellent job of outlining the surprising variety of things a PC party can get away with in the city without attracting police attention. Did you know master criminals really do build scale models in their secret hide-outs? Did you know cops create completely fake "trap houses" to catch burglars? Read the book.

The Ice-Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer by Philip Carlo is a case study of the infamous Richard Kuklinski. Conveniently for detail-hungry Hosts, he was both a meticulous assassin-for-hire and an omnicidal maniac driven by chaotic inner turmoil. The tedious film featuring Wynona Ryder contains absolutely none of the most interesting bits--like Kuklinski's unhinged autobiographical prison drawings of rats eating his victims, his killing of dozens of homeless men on his way to work just for practice, the way he used every kind weapon on the job from piano wire to crossbows to keep the police from noticing a pattern, or how he'd get so frustrated he'd punch himself in the head until he fell unconscious.


Modern Horror In General

Kier-La Janisse's magnificent House of Psychotic Women is essential to anyone interested in psychological horror. Beginning Hosts will never starve stealing plots and characters from the alphabetized summaries of horror and exploitation films that fill out half the book while experienced ones will learn a lot from the other half: an extended autobiographical essay, in a smart and perceptive style, where the author describes why and how these stories resonated with her during her own troubled childhood and teen years.

The aggressively minimal short stories making up Dennis Cooper's Ugly Man are so far out on the arty cutting edge of the urban and suburban gothic that they still get filed in the literature section. Casually brutal about drugs, abuse, boredom, atrocity and existential terror, they're very modern, very disturbing and--perhaps refreshingly for the kind of Host who tires of femme fatales and mutilated women--very gay. Hosts in search of raw material should appreciate the fact they're almost nothing but plot and voice. If you're worried, go to the store, turn to page 43 and read the surprisingly representative nine-line story Santa Claus vs Johnny Crawford and decide whether it's too weird or too real.

The Alien Quartet by David Thomson is a deep dive into the first four films of modern horror's greatest franchise. Though the Alien movies take place out in space, smart Hosts will find Thomson's nearly shot-by-shot analysis of pacing, characterization, source materials, world-building and imagery shows how minor details conspire to give a story a distinctive shape. 

Batman--Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (not the video game, the fully-painted graphic novel by Dave McKean and Grant Morrison, named after a line in Philip Larkin) is more horrorish--though perhaps less horrifying--than Brian Bolland and Alan Moore's slightly more famous Killing Joke. Gotham has always been a city of psychopaths but in terms of density and lovingly-rendered variety of lunacy-per-page nothing in the Bat-catalogue matches Arkham, largely because the creators ditch plot mechanics in favor of a giving us a kaleidoscopic view of the most demented members of the hero's rogues' gallery mixed in with the memoir of the asylum's mentally deteriorating founder. 

Although Bill Sienkiewicz's Stray Toasters takes place in more than one building, it manages to be even more claustrophobic than Arkham. Told in gorgeously-painted fragments of image and overlapping first-person dialogue, a Host won't learn much about story mechanics, but in terms of setting a mood of urban paranoia this 200-odd page bad trip can't be beat.

Mike Dringenberg and Neil Gaiman's Sandman issue #6 contains absolutely none of the vaguely positive story-worship and humanism that creeps up around the edges of Gaiman's other work--it's just wall-to-wall awful. A man who can do everything shows up in a diner and makes the diners do, well, everything. It's a raw and disgusting tale of bad things happening to good people. Hosts note: it's made powerful not so much by the victims' fates, but by how clearly the characters are realized before being destroyed.

The Classics

Although Demon City is about the present, there has always been room for archaic imagery in every kind of horror--Euripedes The Bacchae is arguably the first horror story, and the tale of murder and zeal still has eminently stealable lines: "Now through the shattered skull the blood smiles". Other Googleable sources for Hosts keen on internalizing the rich and rigid cadences of cultist-speak include The Lesser Key of Solomon and, of course, the King James Bible (particularly the books of Job and Revelations).

If you don't know HP Lovecraft, the short story Nyarlathotep contains the most of what's original in his work (the stunning and stunned turns of phrase, the intimations of a colossal, nihilistic mythology) and the least of what's familiar from his more conventional works and their imitators. It's about a page long and, like the rest of his work, in the public domain--the best place to start if you're wondering whether to plunge in to the longer stuff.

If you've seen Carrie and The Shining and want to get further into Stephen King's world of horror in parking lots and office blocks, the short story collection Skeleton Crew is a good survey, with The Mist and Nona giving the best idea of what the novels are like.

Shirley Jackson is the missing link between the fevered mythography of Lovecraft and King's horror-as-wound-in-the-modern in terms of both era and style--her short story The Lottery is easy to find on the web.

Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs is not only the best of his Hannibal Lecter books, but probably the best written popular example of the overlap of crime and horror--rich in procedural and psychological detail, well-paced, thoughtful, and stylish enough to have caught the attention of literary types like Martin Amis (who gave it a rave review) and David Foster Wallace (who put it on his syllabus).


Japanese Horror-Manga K-Hole

Of the delights and terrors of Toshio Saeki, Junji Ito, Kazuo Umezu, Suehiro Maruo, Shintaro Kago, Hideshi Hino and their ilk Google knows far more than any human should. Type in a name and image search until you get a good idea for a monster or become too ill to continue. 

As to actually diving in to the stories, Suehiro Maruo's Mr Arashi's Amazing Freak Show is a decent introduction to the depraved body-horror and pitiless psychology typical of both the plots and "NPCs" in the genre and is available in official English translation.


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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Adventure-Building and The Ecology of Murder

This is a new painting I made for Demon City, click to enlarge it
The silver ant of the Sahara can survive about ten minutes in the mid-day sun. Platoons of them crawl up from their ant hills, skitter widely, searching fast, then, when prey's found--a beetle, a tiny lizard--teams quickly re-swarm and rush the corpse back.

Sometimes it's hard to drag the irregular corpses back over the rock and debris while time runs short in the killing sun, so they go hastily to work with their mandibles, sawing off legs and arms to make the dead thing easier to roll back to the nest.

Scale this drama up: If you were a detective and you came upon this scene after the fact what would you see? Arms and legs hastily chopped off, maybe drag-marks, no torso or head. 

You could reskin them as anything smaller than their victim--sun-sensitive albino cannibal children, packs of wild dogs afraid of detection. The point is, in their collective haste to get back where they came from they left a distinctive trail of limbs--and that's the first scene of your campaign.
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To make a horror adventure you usually start with the horror--the murderer or monster--and game masters are used to thinking of horrors only in terms of their appearance and their abilities: it looks like this and it does that. In a classic adventure game you can often get away with it: yes, Mr Greenwood the green ooze has a life cycle but the main thing is it's eating your foot and then there's some other monster in the next room--in an investigation, which relies on squeezing every ounce of story-potential from a single monster, the horror needs an ecology.

It doesn't just have that strange look and strange power, it has specific methods--a niche, a consistent way of doing things. In an investigation, knowing the ecology doesn't just provide flavor or depth if needed--it generates the whole adventure. Before you begin, you run the horror through its horrible day and its more horrible night, and imagine what would be left behind--that's what the players then find, and must back-engineer the nature and location of the creature.

Buffalo Bill has his strangely skinned corpses (because he's making a suit out of women), the Murder at the Rue Morgue has ear-witnessing neighbors with conflicting reports of the murderer's language (because it was an orangutan), each of these opening clues comes not necessarily from what makes the horror horrible, but from what makes it itself.

Often this can involve the creature's weaknesses--the silver ants saw off those limbs not because they have some special ability to move their prey but because they don't, and they are hustling hard before the sun kills them. Imagine a creature that could only move in silence--the players might find identically slain corpses off lonely roads and in recording studios (which are soundproofed, yes, but how long before they make that connection?).

Nearly the entire plot of Get Out is just the slow revelation of a specific ecology, despite not starting with a murder. (Spoilers) The daughter brings unwitting but able-bodied black victims to the house, the parents auction off the victims to aging friends, and--aided by hypnosis and surgery--the brains of the villains end up in the bodies of the victims. The "house servants", rather than a rotting corpse, are the first clue.

There is no way to mechanize the process of inventing these ecologies: horror needs mystery, mystery needs the unknown and the unknown means you'll need to think up at least some details on your own. But you'll be surprised how much mystery and horror you can get out of a very simple ecology--grab one at random and try it:

The pitcher plant? It has a sweet nectar on the rim, but in order to get at it, insects inevitably slip down the inner walls and then slowly dissolve in the acidic pool at the bottom. Translate this to a horror scenario in the most literal terms and maybe we have an opening scene with an acid-scarred lunatic roving the streets, smelling like candy. Investigation might reveal a pattern of children who never came back from school, clustered around a warehouse district...

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