Dreamland II: adventures in dreamland

Google’s Little Nemo doodle yesterday reminded me of this post I’ve been sitting on (for a month or so since I mentioned the book Dreamland),  about an adventure in dreamland I ran years ago.

The inspiration was:

All of these combined once led to an adventure in my short-lived GURPS Conan campaign in college.  The set-up was a town or small city where the inhabitants are unhappy, drowsy, and fearful.  In fact everyone within the walls is troubled by nightmares, all night every night.

A great tower overlooks the city — in the original adventure the tower was outside the city but it could just as well be inside.  It is of course the tower of an evil sorcerer who is stealing the dreams of the townsfolk.

In my GURPS Conan campaign, to be honest I don’t recall how things played out, although I remember a final duel with Gaznak where the players had to figure out his weakness just as it happened in the story (if you haven’t read the story yet I won’t spoil it now, go read it…or if you are lazy, just listen to it, there is an audiorecording at the link!)

The adventure could involve besieging the actual tower … but the sorcerer escapes to dreamland.  The party may not even realize this until they find their own dreams assailed.  They will be plagued by nightmares, or robbed of their dreams entirely, and never know a good night’s sleep.  The only way to stop the madness once and for all, of course, is to pursue the sorcerer into the dream realm.  Certain drugs or potions will do the trick.

Adventures in dreamland pretty much open up any possibility.  The characters’ attributes, age, even race, class or levels could be different. You could have characters leave all their possessions behind, or learn to dream them into the dreamland too.  What about hirelings, and companion animals?  Can they be induced to take the drug, or simply dreamed up like your sword or spellbook?  (will the dream version of any of these act the way the real one does? will magic items retain their properties or take on others? will the spells be the same in the dream book? will spells have different effects in dreamland? will the dreamed-up creatures try to escape to the real world, and what will they do to their ‘real’ versions?)

Naturally, everything might be different in dreamland — the culture, landscape, the laws of physics and magic, the gods themselves.  Maybe this is an opportunity to change systems or settings in your campaign.  Maybe it’s an occasional interlude for when the DM is out of ideas, or you have unexpected absences and ‘guest’ players.

Lovecraft’s dreamland stories could obviously provide additional ideas, and so do several of Borge’s fictions and essays.

A GIS for maps of dreamland has some neat results too.

Movies like The Science of Sleep,  the Nightmare on Elm Street series (especially the third film), The Imgainarium of Dr. Parassus, Brazil (OK, maybe every film by Terry Gilliam!), and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
might be helpful too.

If you have any suggestions for books or RPG supplements I should add to the bibliography, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments.

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My brother-in-law wrote a screenplay a couple of years ago, and despite winning some awards and garnering some interest from producers, it never actually sold.  He really wanted his story to find an audience, because although it is a sci-fi actioner, it is also about the serious issue of patenting genes.

It’s called Genome and I have already posted a positive review on Amazon so I won’t repeat myself.  I’m no graphic novel aficionado, although I have seen a number of them in my line of work, and read some back in college (The crow, Gregory, and V for Vendetta stand out — all pretty cutting edge for 1991!).

Genome is definitely entertaining.  The art is a bit on the amateur side and I think the story telling suffers a little from being a very literal translation from screen play to graphic novel (each panel represents a shot from the screenplay), but I’m as impressed as hell that he managed to write the screenplay in the first place, and doubly impressed that he gave direction to an artist to get this thing done over the course of a year — learning to use the image editing software, coloring and adding lettering, and directing the artwork, etc., despite having zero experience with the medium.

The formatting is unusual for a graphic novel too — since it was designed to be an eBook, each ‘page’ is just one, two, or three panels.  The art is more manga than comic book, with a dash of what I’d call German expressionism — I really find it easier to understand this graphic novel in terms of film than in comics terms.  It’s mostly black and white, with a dash of color on some panels, which is also pretty unusual.  I don’t think you could do that in print without incurring costs equal to full-color, but as a fan of b&w illustration anyway it really works for me.

If you’re looking for something different to read on your Kindle or compatible eReader, give it a look. You can get it here at Amazon (although if he listens to me, it will also be available in other formats for download or print on demand).

Published in: on April 4, 2012 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  

36th Cleveland International Film Festival

My wife & I try to make one day of the CIFF (nine-day festival) every year, and this year we went on Friday, March 30th.  We usually manage to fit in one shorts program and maybe a feature, but this year we managed to make two features, in addition to a shorts program.

The stand-out for me was Beauty is embarrassing, a documentary about Wayne White, an artist who worked on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as a set designer and puppeteer, who also did animation and music videos, and who is now doing ‘serious’ art, like this:

The other feature, General education, was amusing but amateurish.  It had a solid cast and they all did pretty well with the material but I got the feeling that the writing was either really rushed or there were extensive re-writes by committee. (“You know what this movie needs — more gay jokes!” “Yeah, and let’s make sure every single character ‘grows’ by the end, whether or not we have any time to make them interesting to begin with or give them real reason to change!” “Yeah, and let’s make everyone super quirky!”)  There were some decent laughs but I felt sort of embarrassed for the filmmakers, who were at the festival and obviously very proud of their work.  I’d guess they were all under 30, and I’m impressed they made a movie at all, but they either got too many ‘notes’ during filming or not enough criticism of their original screenplay — I mean someone screwed up the writing, either before or after it was green-lighted.  Maybe my standards were too high after the excellent shorts program.

The shorts included a really dark and jarring film about an honor killing (Shirin), a cute adult cartoon (Preferably blue), a very short film about Frank Oz and Jim Henson (Frank & Jim), and really great documentary about some missionaries and locals building a movie theater in Haiti (Sun City Picture House).  Sun City could have been one of those cringe-inducing ‘let’s-feel-good-about-helping-the-locals’ shorts but it was unflinching and moving in its depiction of the horrors of the aftermath of the earthquake.

It’s really cool that so many of the filmmakers were at the festival to answer questions and so on.  The only jerk among them was the guy who did Frank & Jim. Someone in the audience gushed about how great the short was and how it would make for an interesting feature-length film, are you working on one?  Answer: No, I’m not working on a feature, I thought the idea it worked best as a short, and you are a very person stupid for asking.  He didn’t say the last bit out loud but his tone certainly implied it.  I wanted to ask ‘So who were Frank and Jim supposed to be?’ but didn’t.

Overall it was good time, even if my reviews tend to go negative.  I would absolutely recommend Beauty is embarrassing and Sun City Picture House if you can find them.

Published in: on April 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Zardoz by John Boorman and Bill Stair

I first heard about the movie Zardoz on some internet forum or other where a running joke was to put up disguised links that would lead you to a still from the movie, showing Sean Connery in his bizarre costume from the film (hip boots, red diaper, bandoliers of bullets, beard and ponytail).  It’s not an image you really want to dwell on but it’s hardly an atrocity like the old goat.se linkbomb on B3ta.

Anyway the more I read about the movie, the more interested in it I become.  First and foremost, it was written & directed by John Boorman.  Deliverance is a widely-recognized classic, and Excalibur is one of my all-time favorite films despite its flaws.  The other details I picked up from synopses and reviews (the flying stone head, the psychedelic tone, the gratuitous violence and nudity) only made it more intriguing.  Joesky’s review and the endorsements from a variety of bloggers whose aesthetics are interesting made me finally break down and watch in on cable a few months ago.  I watched it late at night, possibly with chemical enhancement like Nyquil or something (when I get a cold or flu I sleep downstairs and watch too much TV), and I found it a little confusing, but watchable.  (Caution: I managed to watch Children shouldn’t play with dead things all the way through so my threshold for what is ‘watchable’ may be abnormally low.)

Anyway, when I came across the ‘novelization’ of the film, which was credited to Boorman and Bill Stair, I grabbed it and figured I’d read it some time — it is a very slim book, as you might expect from a movie tie-in novel.  In fact I read it over the course of a week or so at the gym.  (I try to read something slightly trashy or pulpy so that I don’t have to think too hard but which is still good enough that I look forward to reading it, as motivation to get to on the stationary bike.)

The co-writer, Bill Stair, worked in some design capacity on the film as well, and also co-wrote the script for another Boorman film (Leo the last), but I have not been able to find out much more about him apart form the fact that wrote & drew a comic or graphic novel called Superslave which appears to be fairly rare, and involves some kind of reluctant messiah.  It sounds interesting but is priced way beyond what I’d pay for a graphic novel (currently over $60 on Abebooks and close to that on Amazon).

The Zardoz novel, at just under 130 pages, is a quick read, and gives a few details that weren’t in the film, as well as a fair amount of explanation of what is going on inside Zed’s head, which I didn’t really get from the movie. It also suggests that the ‘brutals’ are not just peasants but frequently mutants, which is not clear in the film. The ‘message’ is much more explicit, and the awkward narration at the beginning of the film is not reproduced, which is a plus.  I can’t say it made me want to re-watch the movie, but if I ever do, I’ll have a much better idea of what is going on.  On it’s own merits, it is a decent science fiction adventure, written in a fairly unique voice, that compares favorably to other pulps but doesn’t really achieve “greatness.”  As a source of gaming ideas, the flying heads, the vortex, and the pyramid are all interesting locations, and the immortals, brutals, and exterminators might make an interesting population dynamic for Gamma World or a similar post-apocalyptic game; for D&D, they are equally usable, especially if you veer towards science fantasy.

Published in: on March 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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Marathon man

Here’s a film story I heard (& I think it’s probably apocryphal) which also seems, to me, applicable to RPGs.

During the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stayed awake 24 hours straight and ran and ran and ran to be out of breath for certain scenes that take place during and after an epic running scene.  His costar Lawrence Olivier asked him what he was doing.  Hoffman said he wanted to be exhausted for the scene.  Olivier supposedly said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

This kind of sums up the communication breakdown in new school/old school edition war (which I sometimes fan the flames of here, being irascible myself).  The old schoolers are more like Olivier, I think.  For them, everything that happens in the game (characterization, awesome stunts, etc.) can be achieved by playing your character.  You don’t need something on your sheet to let you swing on a chandelier or whatever.  You don’t need five pages of character background and hooks to feed your GM.  You just play.

The new schoolers are more like Hoffman.  They want to prepare before the game (“building” a character, writing up goals and motivations, etc.) and want something in the game to specifically enable the awesome stuff they want to do.  Hoffman runs and runs to get sweaty and out of breath, so his character will be convincingly out of breath.  New schoolers want a  list of feats and a complement of combat options so they don’t “have to do the same thing over and over.” (OK, maybe the analogy is breaking down here.  But my idea is something like this: Hoffman wants his performance to be convincing, so he wants real beads of sweat … new schoolers want the results of their actions to be predictable, so they want skills and feats etc. written down on their sheets… capiche?)

Doesn’t mean either is a bad actor.

Published in: on December 4, 2011 at 8:00 am  Comments (11)  
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Books are books, games are games

<I wrote this post back in January and never got around to finishing it.  I don’t remember if this was in response to specific forum or blog posts I’ve read or just wool gathering based on various asides.  Although it’s not exactly polished, and does not really lead to any particular conclusion, I figured I’d better go ahead and publish this to get it out of the way.>

One fairly controversial column Gary Gygax wrote for his “From the sorcerer’s scroll” series in Dragon Magazine was titled “Books are books, games are games” (it originally appeared in The Dragon #31 but I saw it first in the Best of Dragon, vol. II). Gary wrote at length about why epic fantasy (and a certain book about a ring) did not make an ideal setting for D&D games. I can’t really say much on that topic, as I have not really played in games that attempted to create an epic campaign from the start, or at least not one that lasted long enough to be able to say how successful it was compared to other kinds of games. As a player, the most memorable long-term games I’ve played in have been fairly episodic, or started that way. A pair of swashbuckling/pirates GURPS games and many short fantasy games in D&D, Rolemaster, or GURPS, as well as some Westerns in GURPS, stand out and I’ve kept those character sheets for years, perhaps decades. I can also think of a couple that were slowly revealed to be epic-style games, but this was not necessarily obvious at the beginning. One was a semi-historical fantasy game set in Norman England, which began very much like a medieval/Arthurian romance but grew into a massive story involving a Viking invasion (sadly, the game fell apart before reaching any kind of conclusion). The other was a gonzo but really fun riff on Ultima IV, which started as planetary romance type thing as the players made characters based on themselves (idealized, naturally) and ended with a massive battle that involved most of my miniatures. So I can’t dismiss epic style play out of hand even if I’m more interested in picaresque/episodic play now.

Anyway, what I really have been thinking about is the tendency gamers seem to have to go back to the “sources” to promote, justify, attack, or defend their preferred game styles and their conceptions of various fantasy tropes.

What I want to say is that different media like films and books and games are essentially different — that is: are different at a fundamental or essential level as experiences. Reading a book is a different kind of experience than watching a film or playing a game. (Video and computer games are another, fourth thing; board games a fifth; etc.) People don’t always remember this.

I say this because I’ve seen some comments and discussion about how the pulp fiction of Howard and the others don’t have any of the hallmarks of classic D&D (starting weak, working in medium sized parties, looting dungeons, etc.), and how action movies are more like modern editions of the game (ignoring small details and focusing on the big action sequences, heroes from the start, etc.). People often valorize things that make a game “more cinematic,” as if that were inarguably a goal of RPGs. Likewise I myself have been tearing through old sci-fi and fantasy books looking for signs of D&D tropes, and to some extent that seems misguided to me now.

Novels and movies generally don’t have multiple heroes the way an RPG does because of the way those mediums work. It is an exceptional (perhaps experimental, and certainly more challenging than usual) novel or film that features more than one primary protagonist.  Even in the case of literary duos, it seems to me that that one character takes center stage.  (For example, in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, I tend to see either Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser as the ‘main’ character, following the narrator’s focus from story to story or scene to scene.  In Dumas’ The three musketeers, isn’t D’artangan the protagonist?)

In films, usually it is the hero and some number of sidekicks. Perhaps the hero is not clear at the start but is slowly revealed as in a slasher/horror film where we figure out who is a main character by seeing the others killed off. Ensemble casts in an action or caper film like Ocean’s Ten or the Seven Samurai may be better candidates for exemplifying “parties” of adventurers, but realistically the viewer is unlikely to see them all as equally “main” characters.

In books, there are celebrated examples of rich storytelling where many characters are fully fleshed out, but these are fairly exceptional. The vast majority of novels feature a single main character and editors and publishers encourage this. (JRRT himself thought of Samwise as the central character of LotR, by the way, so don’t point to LotR as an example with multiple “main characters”!)

One suggestion I’ve seen is for DMs to try to make a single PC the “star” of a session, and this seems pretty misguided to me. Among the assumptions you’d need to make for such a suggestion make sense are (1) there needs to be a main character at all; (2) the DM can actually control things sufficiently to keep the spotlight on one PC; and (3) the game is supposed to recreate the cinematic experience. I don’t think any of these assumptions are good ones for a D&D game (although these assumptions could apply to other kinds of games).

I say, play the damn game and let the story emerge from play. Over-planning a story line and assigning a lead character doesn’t sound like the kind of game I’d enjoy at all. I’m not saying you shouldn’t throw in a hook or event that is tied to something a character did or is or which relates to a particular character’s background or goals. You can do that without trying to force the PC in question to take any action about it or to take the lead. Likewise I’ve definitely enjoyed sessions where one PC takes a lead role, but it has to happen naturally.

But unless I’ve been completely deceived, I don’t think I’ve been a player in a game where the DM sets out beforehand to make a certain PC shine in a given session.  So I’m curious, for those who use movies or books as the frame of reference for how a game should play out, how do you handle (or circumvent) the issue of a ‘main character’?

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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Five greatest films of all time

So I was reading Zak’s most excellent post on fun size vs. king size in art, D&D, and everything, and it’s given me some things to think about, but what I’m most confused by is his throw-away reference to Barbarella as one of the five greatest films of all time.  I guess I’d go so far to say that it was a lot better than it should have been, and pretty fun to watch.  Maybe it’s in my top 20 campy exploitation films (better than Hell comes to Frogtown but not quite matching Army of darkness).  There’s no accounting for taste, I guess, and actually the more I think about it, the surreal adventures of an often naked adventuress probably just fits his aesthetics too well not to be in his top five, if he was even serious about having  such a list.

Anyway I hate being asked to rank a top anynumber of anything because how the hell do you decide between (say) The lord of the rings versus Cat’s cradle as the #5 book, or Black Sabbath’s first album versus Rubber soul for the #5 album?!?  I always need to narrow the categories down so such a specificity that it is almost meaningless to rank them.  Top five comic dystopian novels? Top five stories about trolls? Top five Citadel Fantasy Tribe Fighters? Those I could imagine.

But if someone held a gun to my head and asked for my top five films, full stop, I guess I’d say:

  1. Brazil
  2. Excalibur
  3. something Clint Eastwood directed, probably a western
  4. some “big” film series like LOTR
  5. something directed by Arika Kurosawa, and/or starring Toshiro Mifune, and about samurai

and that’s about as specific as I can get.  So maybe I just really have two favorite movies, Brazil and Excalibur.  I can pretty much watch either of them any time they’re on, even though I’ve watched them, in whole or part, dozens of times.

Got an ultra-specific top X list? Leave a comment.  For example, these are my top five favorite kinds of single edged swords:

  1. Falchion
  2. Scimitar
  3. Falcata/Kopis
  4. Kora
  5. Yataghan

More for how they look than for utility. A straight, double-edged sword with a sharp point is probably the best design in most situations.


Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 5:00 am  Comments (6)  

Film Friday: Valhalla rising

I finally got around to watching Valhalla Rising the other night and it rocks.

Imagine a 1960s black & white samurai film … it is lyrical and quiet like that, with sudden bursts of carnage.  Add homages to Aguirre, the wrath of god, and Apocalypse now (both in terms of  themes like war and religion and their hallucinogenic cinematography).

The central character, One Eye, looks a lot like Kirk Douglas’ character in The vikings, but remains enigmatically silent throughout.  Is he mute? We never know for sure.  Another character says he comes from hell.  His occasional  sardonic smile also evokes Clint Eastwood.  His physical presence in the movie is a bit like Toshiro Mifune in a samurai film — passive, but not torpid; a serpent lolling in the sun but always ready to strike.

The violence in this film is pretty strong, especially at the beginning where One Eyes uses his fists, teeth, a rope, and a rock to kill several other men, and later when another viking is disemboweled.  My wife found the sound effects disturbing — although she did not watch the film, she could hear the crunching bone and squishing flesh.

It’s pretty slow going most of the time, so don’t expect an action movie.  It is much more like Severed ways than your typical Viking story.

The whole thing probably has no more than 100 lines of dialogue, but combined with the five chapter titles (Wrath, Silent warrior, Men of God, The holy land, Hell, The sacrifice), the movie manages to suggest some deeper meaning.  I’m not sure whether the film as whole should be read as “saying” anything in particular so much as asking questions about religion, violence, revenge, and redemption, and man’s place in nature.  I suppose a few more viewings might help explain things, as there were many flash-forwards and visions, and what seemed to be obscure but meaningful shots of incidental things and landscapes.  The cinematography and framing of images is incredible at times, and it is a beautiful spectacle even if it all “means” nothing.

Maybe One Eye represents Odin, or we should read some kind of parable of a one-eyed man among blind men, or we should try to puzzle out the significance of the crosses, pagan images, and the pile of stones One Eye struggles to build later in the film.  Probably the fog and clouds of smoke that appear in key scenes, and the subtext of pagans versus Christians, and the attempted crusade, all fit together with careful interpretation.  Surely there is a great term paper for a film class here, or even a thesis…

I found this a lot more entertaining than Severed ways or Pathfinder (two other recent films dealing with displaced Vikings).  If the former has too little action and the latter too little artistry for you, this will be a perfect choice.

The title’s precise significance is a little hard for me to riddle out.  I think of the Kenneth Anger films Lucifer rising and Scorpio rising (neither of which I’ve seen but I understand both are acid-trippy) — perhaps evoking the brutality of the Vikings is the whole point? Is One Eye taking the others to Valhalla, or trying to get there himself? Does it signify the end of Viking paganism? (The Viking version of Christianity presented in the film is rather “pagan” too.)

This probably the most thought-provoking viking film I’ve seen (I know, dubious distinction…).

Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Film friday: Black Death

Short version: Go see this ASAP (it’s on DVD now).

More of this, please.

Longer version:
Black Death is a movie that does everything nearly perfectly, and has moments where it transcends it’s b-horror roots to be quite artistic and thought provoking.  I was intrigued by the poster when I saw it mentioned online.  James Raggi gave it a thumbs up some time back and I just missed it at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and when I checked it out at IMDB I was even more interested by the fact that Christians, pagans, and atheists all seemed to take offense at it and all seemed to find confirmation for their views in it.

The cast is very strong for the most part (the lead was a little out-of-his league, which maybe was intentional since the character is basically out of his league too).  The sets and costumes were great.  The historicity was very good.  I’m not going to quibble about the account of Crecy given by a character or the German method of witch-burning depicted in a film set in England, or even the explanation given of a misericorde (the film gets it right, but a little incomplete).  Some of the dialogue seemed a little too modern but overall I could buy the whole thing. What was good about the film?
–The characters.  Pretty much every one had more than one dimension and was well-acted.
–The fights.  Not a ton of action but the main fight sequence was great and bloody with a nice range of weapons.  There should have been more of these.
–The atmosphere. Mostly shot outdoors, it felt like a medieval Apocalypse Now, with slow stretches punctuated by shocks and action.
–This is a D&D movie.  Or at least a LOTFP:Weird Fantasy movie.  A band of adventurers confront a mysterious evil.  The NPCs and locales creep you out.  Dark as hell.

The themes of religion, superstition, zealotry, and intolerance were strong throughout, and it was pretty hard to root for anyone whole-heartedly.  Some characters showed incredible grit and determination.  Others were pragmatic and clever.  Others were loyal and unflinching. All were good in their own eyes and evil in the eyes of others.  I think viewers with strong biases are offended because no perspective is really privileged.  If you are upset by ambiguity this is probably upsetting.  Bigots are going to call it nihilistic trash.

I’d say the film evokes aspects of several superior films, like Flesh+Blood, The last valley, Excalibur, Apocalypse now, The seventh seal, and Virgin Spring.  And  it evokes some less than superior but watchable films, like The thirteenth warrior, The messenger, Severed ways, and Pathfinder.  But it really is its own film — not one of those movies that make me wish I’d seen the original instead; it is an original.  It’s far from perfect, but well worth checking out.

I am so going to use a waist-deep marsh and a village on stilts in the middle of it in Telengard.

Published in: on July 22, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (4)  

One page dungeon from the art world

This was in a book of art inspired by cult films — Gallery 1988’s crazy 4 cult.  I haven’t watched the Goonies in a long, long time but it looks pretty accurate.

Published in: on July 20, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  
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