Mike Mason and I chatted with the guys from the Miskatonic University Podcast today. We discuss the Kickstarter and a few 7th edition topics.
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Mike Mason and I chatted with the guys from the Miskatonic University Podcast today. We discuss the Kickstarter and a few 7th edition topics.
When I first read about it, I dismissed the television series The Vampire Diaries as very much not aimed at me. It sounded like a teen drama that was cashing in on the success of Twilight (which, to be fair, it is) and I assumed that it would have little to appeal to a middle-aged bloke. The involvement of Kevin Williamson, the creator of the Scream films, piqued my interest a bit, but not enough for me to actually watch the damn thing.
Then my friend Seana recommended it to me. Seana has been quite good at gauging my tastes in the past, hooking me on programmes as diverse as The Good Wife and Paranoia Agent. There were two complete series of The Vampire Diaries at this stage, and I watched the first few episodes half-heartedly. Before long, though, I was hooked. While the premise is pretty standard for urban fantasy, the writers do two main things that set the programme apart from most television — things that I wish I saw in more roleplaying campaigns.
I’ve joked a few times that The Vampire Diaries has a rate of attrition that would give George R R Martin pause. This is only a slight overstatement — characters, even ones who seem integral to the plot, are all fair game. They die suddenly, brutally and unexpectedly. This applies to allies, antagonists and unaligned characters equally.
The GM section in Apocalypse World tells you to look at all NPCs through cross hairs, and this is exactly how the writers of The Vampire Diaries seem to approach things. This creates a real feeling of danger. There is never the safe expectation that the protagonists will prevail, and every conflict carries the risk of death.
In my opinion, there is a balance to be found in horror games, and it’s a tricky one: if the characters seem invulnerable, or at least relatively safe, dangerous situations just become exercises in showing off how cool they are and often feel flat; if the game is a meat grinder, chewing through player characters every session, then the players never grow attached to their PCs and their deaths are emotionless inconveniences. Player characters should feel vulnerable, but not disposable. Using the deaths of major NPCs to show them the stakes can help with this.
Having NPCs be vulnerable to the actions of player characters, monsters and other NPCs helps raise the tension, but only if they are characters that the players have come to care about. If an NPC has been in play for a while, and the players have grown used to their presence, their sudden and bloody death can prove a strong reminder than no one is safe. Of course, the death of a player character is an even stronger reminder, but it can undermine the game if it feels pointless or arbitrary.
The main aspect of The Vampire diaries that appeals to me ties in to the entry I wrote about purist adventures last week. As I mentioned then, one of my main frustrations with many RPG scenarios is that they are about stopping an interesting event from occurring. A coven is trying to raise a centuries-dead necromancer from the grave, so that he will tear down the veil between life and death. Of course, it is the job of the player characters to stop this. Most of the time they will succeed, often in a dramatic showdown during the final ritual, and the status quo will be preserved. If they fail, that is the end of the campaign, and while the players may enjoy the spectacle of their failure, it is unusual for their characters to have to deal with the consequences.
There was an episode of Doctor Who a few years ago which disappointment me. It was called The End of Time, and part of it dealt with the impending return of the Time Lords from the annihilation that the Doctor had brought on them. Throughout the episode they were pictured as moving ever closer to our reality, and I was genuinely excited, thinking that their return could make for an exciting arc as the Doctor had to deal with the threat they would pose to time, space and his own existence. Their return is prevented at the last minute, though, and everything goes back to normal. Everyone is safe and there is no on-going drama. It felt like a major let-down.
In The Vampire Diaries, when a threat is foreshadowed, it is almost inevitable that it will come to pass and the protagonists will have their lives changed by it. If a powerful new entity is being summoned, the summoning will succeed and the entity will insinuate itself into the fabric of everyone’s lives. If someone is preparing a ritual that will change the world for the worse, the ritual will succeed and the characters will have to deal with it as best they can. The most interesting outcome always happens.
The most impressive trick that the writers of the The Vampire Diaries pull off is not to make the efforts of the protagonists seem ineffectual in the face of this. Sometimes they are simply outclassed or out-manoeuvred. Other times they choose a more personal victory, such as saving a loved one in the face of the larger catastrophe. The protagonists then move on to adapting to the new threat and the altered status quo. Having things go the way of the protagonists can be satisfying, but failures and unforeseen complications make for much richer drama.
Having major bad things happen in a campaign doesn’t have to feel disempowering for the players. Maybe a ritual happens off-screen or has already finished by the time the players hear about it; maybe their goal is to undo the damage done rather than prevent it from happening in the first place; some of the PCs may find aspects of the outcome beneficial to them despite the wider damage done, making it a hard choice. However you approach it, the important thing is not to leave everyone feeling disappointed that they didn’t get to see the world change in an interesting and exciting way. Keep their lives interesting, even when it hurts.
When I write scenarios set in real places, I tend to research them quite thoroughly to avoid cries of “the town hall’s really on X street” or “that building burned down 10 years before your scenario is set”, etc. Where possible, I even try to visit the places to get a better feel for them. When I heard that there was really a place called Dunwich (admittedly here in the UK rather than in Lovecraft Country), I couldn’t pass up the chance to go there and have a look around for myself.
Passing Bedford and Cambridge, then heading down the A14, I left the main highway at Stowmarket and began a 30 mile trek across rural Suffolk along a route the signs indicated was a “tourist trail”. Driving through one village after another, the route is definitely a pleasant one and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a piece of picturesque rural England. There’s plenty to do along the route too, including local crafts, birds of prey centers, sightseeing locations, etc. After the best part of an hour, the normal two-lane roads devolved into unmarked lanes where passing was a little tight at times, flanked on both sides by high hedgerows. Not long after, I came to a sign under a line of trees which proclaimed “Welcome to Dunwich”.
Along the main road into the village, I passed a stone wall on my right-hand side that was soon identifiable as the ruins of the Greyfriars Monastery.
At the end of the road, in the heart of the village itself, a sign directed me to the seaside car park. Here, among the dunes and overlooked by the visitor center and cafe, I parked and instantly regretted not bringing a coat with me. When I’d set off, the weather had been warm (Yes, dear reader, contrary to popular belief, we do actually have warm weather in the UK! It might not happen often, but it had actually been warm all week leading up to this weekend in June), but on the exposed coastline, the wind coming in off the sea make it feel closer to autumn than to summer.
The information display in the car park gives a quick overview of what makes the village a place of interest for sightseeing tourists. Over the centuries, the Suffolk coastline has been eroded at a tremendous rate and much of the great town of Dunwich has consequently fallen into the sea. The map on display there illustrates just how much has been lost over the centuries. The whole upper half of the map below is now gone.
The beach itself is stony and surprisingly loose under-foot. More than once my heels sank into the shingle as I wandered up and down the shore, looking towards Walberswick to the north and the cliffs to the south.
Heading into the village itself, my first port of call was the Dunwich Museum.
Having been in operation for many years now, the museum chronicles the history of the area from Roman times onward. The lower floor is home to an impressive model recreation of the map above. Alongside a series of panels that detail the different phases of history are items that have been found in the area and out at sea – pieces of masonry, pottery, coins, and a huge bronze canon. Here, one can learn that Dunwich was, centuries ago, one of the largest ports in on the East Anglia coast. It was a prosperous harbor and its profitable fishing industry led to it becoming one of the largest settlements in the area. Whilst measures were historically taken to defend the cliffs from coastal erosion, two tremendous storms in 1287 and 1328 ripped the heart of the community, plunging much of the town into the sea and depositing huge amounts of shingle that ultimately clogged up the bay. With the port no longer viable, the town began to decline. The sea-defenses were no longer maintained and the town slid ever-more into the sea. Even now, it’s only a matter of time before the coast retreats further inland and claims the rest of the village.
Upstairs, a small auditorium plays videos of the local area and further displays illustrate the underwater surveys conducted of the area, as well as a few examples of local legends. One of these, which will no doubt work its way into a scenario set here, is the belief that sometimes sailors have claimed to hear the tolling of the church bells from one of the churches under the waves.
The staff at the museum were extremely helpful, taking the time out to talk to me, answering various questions and providing contact details should I need to dig deeper in my research. As I suspected, they had heard of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and were quite pleased that I had chosen to write about the area myself.
Following the Lovecraft theme, it certainly makes me smile that the local pub and restaurant is called “The Ship”, with its emblem being White. After a very fine lunch indeed, I made my way back up the road to the monastery ruins.
The main features that remain here are the exterior walls and a small part of one of the interior structures (above). Certain parts of the area have been closed off for maintenance works, but I passed through and made my way towards the woods that lined the cliffs. Here, a couple of footpaths cut through a carpet of nettles that has grown amongst the trees. Whilst the trees themselves aren’t high, they form a canopy that lets a modest amount of light through and shrouds the place in semi-gloom that is nicely atmospheric. The paths led through to the old Saxon thoroughfare that cut through the earlier settlement.
This led me back onto the main road and back along the monastery wall once more. At the far end of the village, passing the museum again, I came to the only remain church in the area whereas there had previously been several in Dunwich’s heyday. At the rear of the church are the ruins of what was once a leper hospital.
From here, I passed by the two remaining graveyards (in the one connected to the church there also stands the last remaining part of the tower of last church to have fallen into the sea, moved there to preserve it for posterity), the Dunwich war memorial and found myself at the town’s sign, completing my trip.
Whilst it might be a bit off the beaten track now, I definitely found it was a day well spent. The history of the area, which I have only touched upon above, is a rich canvas I can use to form the setting for a scenario. Whilst there might not be a Sentinel Hill nearby, and the cries of “Yog-Sothoth!” may not ring out over the rooftops, I think it’s certainly got a lot that it could bring to a Lovecraftian adventure and my hopefully my visit will add to it being portrayed in as realistic and accurate a manner as possible.
As I touched upon when discussing purist adventures, I’ve been thinking about how horror is a pretty strange thing to love. I know plenty of people who find horror unappealing for good reasons, ranging from not enjoying being frightened to finding it all a bit silly and juvenile. While no one likes everything, horror as a genre seems to inspire stronger positive and negative reactions than possibly anything except pornography.
For those of us who love darkness, monsters, blood and nightmares, this usually starts in childhood. A few years ago, I watched a panel discussion at the Alt-Fiction festival in Derby where the assembled horror writers were asked what had kindled their interest in their chosen genre. Most of the panellists were around my age, and it was interesting that three of them cited the experience of watching Nigel Kneale’s chilling TV series Beasts.
I will save discussing Beasts for another post, but what resonated with me was that there was a point in each of their childhoods when they came into contact with something horrific and found that it connected with their imaginations in a new and exciting way. That part of their mind was probably always there, but Beasts awoke it. While Beasts had a similar effect on me when I saw it, something else had stirred the dark part of my imagination before then.
When I was eight years old, my father bought me a copy of Dennis Gifford’s book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I had inherited my father’s love of films — he was a film critic for Radio Hong Kong and one of the founders of the Studio One film club in HK — and cinema was the main interest we shared throughout his life. Even at that age, my tastes were tending to the macabre, and the Gifford book cemented that. It quickly became my most treasured possession.
I was a geeky child, and spent much of my time alone in my room, reading. Books fuelled my various obsessions, and I filled my brain with facts about dinosaurs, sharks and the natural world in general. The Gifford book supplemented this with stories of the extremes Lon Chaney went to in becoming The Man of a Thousand Faces, the iconic age of Universal monster movies, and the rather stranger world of what was then modern horror. It was the best introduction a young horror fan could have had: accessible and rich, with plenty of photographs. Despite the subject matter, it is a surprisingly genteel book, and Gifford shied away from the bloodier aspects of the genre. He considered most horror films made after the 1950s to be tasteless and exploitative, and especially disliked Hammer.
It would be years before I saw many of the films described, but when I finally did, my frequent re-reading of Gifford made them feel like old friends. In some cases, I even believed that I had seen films because Gifford had made them a part of my memories; it wasn’t until I watched the Karloff/Lugosi collaboration The Black Cat last year that I realised I had never actually seen it before and had just assumed that I had.
The other experience that confirmed me as a horror fan was stumbling across Todd Browning’s Freaks on television when I was about eight or nine. This was in the early seventies and, as I had learned from Gifford, Freaks had been banned in the UK for many years, which made it especially fascinating to me. We were living in Geneva then, and Swiss TV had obviously decided that Freaks was suitable for broadcast, so I managed to watch it in secret while my parents were out for the evening.
In case you haven’t encountered it, Freaks is a film from 1932 which tells a tale of emotional manipulation, betrayal and revenge set amongst the performers in a travelling circus. Most of the characters are members of the circus’ freak show, and rather that using special effects, Browning took the decision to use real freak show performers of the time, including dwarfs, amputees and people with a variety of birth defects.
Having seen it again it later years, Freaks now comes across as somewhat exploitative and insensitive. The main scene of horror in the film, with the villain being pursued through mud and rain by the freak show performers, does rely largely on the audience being disturbed by their appearance. It is still undeniably an important piece of horror cinema, and an effective one.
Watching Freaks in secret, knowing its reputation as a banned film, made me feel both that I was transgressing somehow and that I was entering some other world of people who had seen this same thing. These were powerful feelings for a child, and they helped shape me.
It occurred to me a while ago that I probably don’t watch horror films for the same reasons as many people. It is very rare that one frightens me. More often, they simply resonate with my imagination, transporting me in a way that other films rarely do. Even though I am not scared, there is a build-up and release of tension, or a cathartic stirring of strong emotions. This is makes horror films strange and perversely comforting things, and I’m sure that it’s all Dennis Gifford’s fault.
Robert E. Howard shot himself.
Today my mother is 80 years of age. 77 years ago, on June 11th 1936 Robert E. Howard put a bullet through his own head on hearing of the death of his mother (or near enough, hearing that she was not going to awake from a coma).
He was 30 years old. Thirty. That seems very young. Of course plenty of people have died young and left their mark. Lovecraft himself only reached 47. I always wonder what they would have gone on to create. But never mind that; Howard and Lovecraft have left a legacy. They created work that has influenced and enriched the lives of several generations, and I’m sure that will continue for many years to come. One day they’ll be forgotten, but we’ll be pushing up daisies before that I’m sure. In a way, they will outlive us. And I’m quite happy with that.
So thanks Robert E. Howard.
23 January, 2018
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