Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What Do I Know About Halloween?

Let me preface this by saying I am 100% certain others have noticed far more in the horror genre and had much more important and cogent things to say about it. I just felt like stretching my brain a bit after spending the Halloween season watching horror movies I had never seen before. Looking out across all of the movies I watched for the first time, I think I’m settling in on some thoughts on the “punish the sinner” trope and the “final girl” aspects of the genre, especially as framed by my first time ever viewing of the original Halloween, by John Carpenter and Debra Hill.

Avoiding the Ubiquitous

For the longest time, I had never seen Halloween, where a lot of 80s+ horror seemed to have borrowed their tropes. Having finally watched it, I am kind of curious about the degree to which the “transgressing teens” was intended as a broader theme. I fully realize that creators often don’t realize the themes they infuse into their work, but it also seems that a lot of later movies, like the Friday the 13th series, mimicked the elements of Halloween without brining in all of the context, and it kind of mutated the trope of transgressing teens into what it is today.

I say this because Laurie, in Halloween, smokes pot and actually wants to have sex--she isn’t really being held up as a moral example. Carpenter has said that the reason Laurie survived isn’t because of virtue, but because she wasn’t busy doing other things when she got attacked, which is more circumstance than moral lesson. All of that having been said, since we spend more time with Laurie than with the other characters, she feels more like a “real” character, and the other teenagers are reduced to being defined by their actions in their brief appearances, which makes it easy to see why copying over the circumstances of the movie creates the trope that it does.

Death of the Author, and, er, the Director?

Carpenter’s point seemed to be that teenagers be teenagers, but given that Michael Meyers is targeting teenagers because his sister ditched him to be a teenager, it almost feels like there is a moral judgement involved. In context, however, Halloween continually makes the point that Michael is just  . . . evil. He’s not a virtuous force that is punishing others. He doesn’t talk or give his point of view. He committed a murder as a child, then continues to murder people that fit that template when he is an adult. Michael’s reasoning isn’t even sympathetic. Yes, his sister ditched him to spend time with her boyfriend, but we never get any indication that Michael is harmed because of her inattention. He’s just mad because she didn’t take him trick or treating.

It may also be worth noting that while a lot of critics of the day made a point to seize on the theme of “the movie is a commentary on the decadence of modern teens,” Michael’s sister was killed in 1963. Sure, the movie could be making a commentary about the state of teen morality in the modern era, starting in the 60s--but given that the bulk of the movie is over a decade removed from the original scene, and the theme of decadent teens is never actually mentioned in the movie, it feels more likely that Carpenter and Debra Hill really were just writing from the perspective of “teens be teens.” 

Teen Themes

To some extent, there is almost more of a commentary on the position that teenagers occupy in society. Parents in the original Halloween show up as bookends to the horrors that are happening in the movie. Rather than provide a framework for a moral path, you could view the original Halloween as making a statement that teens are in a place in life where they want to stand on their own, but are still tremendously vulnerable without adult interaction.

Laurie manages to acquit herself very well against Michael Myers all things considered, but it is the intervention of Loomis that finally confirms Laurie’s safety at the end of the film. In some sense, this can be reduced to the standard “damsel in distress” narrative, but Laurie at this point has survived multiple assaults from an increasingly inhuman seeming Meyers. It feels as is the film has really said “nobody could have done better than Laurie without help,” not that Laurie really needed to be saved because anything was lacking in her character.

If the transition of teens to adulthood really is taken as a theme in the movie, it’s also worth noting that Laurie is vulnerable because the parents of the various children aren’t available for help, and the adult that provides aid is an unrelated adult. This is literally the transition that most young people have to make as they enter adulthood and have to forge bonds with more adults that are not part of their family or community.

 The Care and Feeding of Tropes

None of this is to say that the “bad teens being punished” theme can’t be extrapolated from Halloween, just that it appears more prominent with a shallow read of the movie’s events than from viewing elements in context.

Additionally, I think you can make a case that this trope developed in a partially unintentional manner. While there are definitely films to use the “punish the sinner” narrative literally, in many cases it’s actually a non-diegetic theme of the movies. Neither Freddy nor Jason will literally spare someone that hasn’t transgressed the sacred slasher commandments of “thou shalt not get high” or “thou shalt not hook up.” The audience may pick up on the fact that the teens that go off in the woods to spend some quality time together are going to die first, but most slasher villains are no more likely to kill them expressly because they are having sex or doing drugs than they are expressing killing off people of color expressly for being people of color.

Side Note: If you can make the case that the “punishing bad teens” theme developed from a tone deaf emulation of Halloween, it may be worth noting that the trope of people of color dying in horror movies seems to have sprung from Hollywood’s inability to consistently see people of color as viable protagonists. This is also an unfortunate non-diegetic less on that gets passed on that. Growing up in the 80s, I actually heard people defend the morality play aspects of killing off the sexually active teens as a positive way of promoting right behavior, but if that aspect of the story, which often isn’t expressly stated in the movie, was okay to teach, what does that say about using slasher movies to teach moral lessons when it comes to empowering people of color in society?

Later movies, like the Scream franchise and the Cabin in the Woods know exactly what tropes are at play and what they are subverting, but it’s way beyond me to do a deep dive into at what point and in what films the copied elements were copied without conscious thought about overall theme, and at what point the genre tropes were embraced and intentionally played up. It’s obvious from some of the reviews of Halloween that critical analysis of that film included an explicit reading of the movie as a morality play about teenage behavior, so almost immediately someone aware of film criticism would have had access to that commentary. That said, it feels, at least to me, that filmmakers in decades past seemed more likely to disclaim any modern, proximate influence on their films.

Context

After all of this, watching the original Halloween gave me a lot to think about, and I can see the clear influences it had on 80s horror movies (in fact, if you take elements of Halloween and elements of Phantasm, you have a lot of the recurring building blocks of 80s horror movies in those two movies alone). I respect what the film did. I can also see what Halloween did that later movies did not do.

While we often see the “Final Girl” receive a lot of air time, it’s also after the strife in the film has begun. In Laurie’s case, we have tension, as Michael is stalker her and her group of friends, but the killings don’t start up until later in the film, after we’ve seen Laurie’s typical day.

Once the killing starts, it’s the major focus of the film, but because we don’t have a constant stream of killings and bodies, even when characters panic or potentially make bad decisions, it feels more natural, because they haven’t been in an escalating crisis for half the movie, yet still making the same mistakes after hours of strife. Once the characters find out there is a murderer on the loose, it’s new to them, and not a normal thing, and each person reverts back to making an understandable closed set of decisions based on an immediate fight or flight response. Laurie, being the person that survives an initial encounter, begins to make plans and decisions that fit the narrative of what has occurred previously in the movie.

That said, after everything I saw, and everything I can respect in the original Halloween, I have to admit that looking at John Carpenter and horror, The Thing is definitely more my speed. But I’m going to wait to dissect that particular movie for another day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What Do I Know About Comeptitive D&D


Encounter Roleplay is starting a D&D Sports league where various teams of characters will be facing off, deathmatch style, to see who wins a bout. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I will be interested to see a match or two to see how it is presented, but I can’t help but think about other ways that I think D&D can be made into a competition without utilizing a direct deathmatch style.

Illusions of Balance

It’s not that it doesn’t make sense on some level--gladiatorial fights aren’t alien to the genre by any means. It’s just that, on a regular, long term basis, I think there are elements of D&D that don’t get highlighted as well in a deathmatch style presentation.

  • Classes really aren’t balanced the way people think they are balanced--a balanced class is one that contributes to adventuring as much as another class, not one that can take the same target down to 0 hit points in the same amount of time
  • Many classes have abilities that are best showcased over a wide range of challenges--worrying about environmental hazards and traps is greatly lessened when characters run at one another in an arena 
Now, having not yet seen the show, I suspect Encounter Roleplay is going to do some interesting things with the matches. Probably some risk versus reward elements as players decide if they want to unlock a chest to get a magic item or just dive into the fight, or having some random environmental factor that everyone in the arena has to deal with.

Kind of like an unironic version of the One Shot Network’s super entertaining Dungeon Dome show, which casts teams of D&D characters as tag teams in a cross between gladiatorial fights and professional wrestling.

Ghosts of Competitive D&D Past

I know there has been a long running tradition of tournament modules, adventures that a party will complete in an allotted time, with scores associated with performing certain tasks--for example, if they retrieve treasure from a specific room or solve a specific puzzle. I can understand why this approach isn’t going to be used, because even watching the most entertaining group play through four hours of an adventure, and then watching another group do the same thing, and then watching it get scored, may not make the for the best broad appeal.

Given that fights in 5th edition D&D can be resolved much more quickly than, for example, 3.5 or 4th edition D&D combat, it’s entirely possible that you can keep the show’s run time down to a reasonable run time and fit multiple combats into that time.

How Would I Do It?

All of that said, you know what I’d like to see in a competitive D&D show?

Something like American Ninja Warrior or Ultimate Beastmaster. Instead of playing through a whole scenario, frame the situation as two adventuring parties in a relatively linear gauntlet that requires multiple skill sets.

“This week, our two groups of adventurers will face the Guild Master's Gauntlet, an infamous series of traps and murder rooms set up by the Guildmaster of Thieves to test all of his prospective employees!”

“This week, our adventuring parties will be traveling through the Ephemeral Passageway, the extradimensional space created by a mad wizard to see who is worthy to inherit their abandoned tower!”

Quick framing device, then a very focused, say, five room dungeon. Not much story, mainly thematic description that flows from the initial sparse setup.

You could have traps, environmental hazards, and monsters in those five rooms, and part of the challenge would be deciding if you want to use your spellslots or consumable items to get past the obstacles, or if you should lean on skills and save your resources--and at the end, have a suitably nasty boss fight with something that has legendary actions and lair actions.

Not a full tournament adventure, but still something that would allow for scoring. Not something that has zero story elements, but something that has most of them front loaded.

Now, this set up only plays to two of the three pillars of D&D. Even in this truncated example, how could we get that last pillar in play? What if we have a timed (maybe three minutes or so) segment at the beginning where the party face negotiations with the gatekeeper of the gauntlet to get more stuff. If possible, set up audience participation with a vote to see if they make a check at advantage or disadvantage, and if they make the check, and by how much, the team gets extra consumables from a set list.

To mechanize any puzzle rooms you might have, you could provide a clue to the puzzle, provide an extra clue for a successful check and and an additional clue for each 5 above, and if they don’t solve the puzzle in an allotted amount of time, they just don’t get the points for the puzzle room and they move on.

Personal Preferences

I will admit, I’m someone that approaches D&D from the standpoint of story first. If there isn’t a story beat in a dungeon room, I don’t want to deal with that room as some kind of time sink or red herring. One of the things that started to cause some burnout for me with 3.5 D&D was that players that were tactically savvy could fight way above their weight-class, EL wise, unless the DM was similarly tactically inclined, and I felt that all of that started to shift the game into “story mode” and “tactical mode,” and it felt less like an integrated whole to me.

I don’t know how entertaining this endeavor will be, but I have definitely enjoyed shows on the Encounter Roleplay network in the past. I know the appeal of Dungeon Dome, for me, was that the players were coming up with over the top, entertaining personalities, so it was much less about the competition, and more about seeing the fantasy trope/professional wrestling trope fusions unfolding.

All of that having been said, I now have a firm image of variously brightly clad people employed by the creator of a challenging gauntlet of obstacles, standing on platforms ready to shove PCs off onto the ground, or shooting at them from behind clearly marked targets, and I have successfully merged two stables of my youth in my own imagination.

By no means am I saying my way of how I would do it would be better than anything that came before. This was just a bit of a thought exercise to see how I would do it. I’m looking forward to seeing how this unfolds, with lots of curiosity.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Maps in RPGs, As Inspired by Sean and Brett (Gaming and BS 212)

Sean and Brett are at it again. Once again there was a topic that came up on Gaming and BS that caused me to go on an even longer tangent than I normally do. Check out episode 212 of Gaming and BS for the full discussion. This time Sean and Brett talk about maps, and that got me wanting to talk about maps as well. Thanks again for a great show!

Gaming and BS Episode 212 Maps in RPGs

And now for my rambling.

Old School Mapping

I think one thing that always gets tricky is that while it feels like a fun, old-school thing to see how the player’s maps differ from the GMs based on how they interpreted their descriptions, in some cases that literally saying that the PCs, the characters in the world, misunderstood what they were personally perceiving. While that works for intricate designs or camouflaged ninja deer, something like assuming there are only two passages out of a room where there are clearly three isn’t something the PCs are likely to do, but I’ve seen GMs that will run with that because “the players weren’t paying attention.”

I honestly think that unless something is meant to be hidden or to be presented as a puzzle, it’s the GMs job to make sure the players understand their environment at least as well as their PCs would. If you are getting upset that your players didn’t pick out simple details in your description of a normal cavern, maybe your description of a normal cavern was too simple for them to latch on to. A simply 40 by 40 room with three 10 x 5 archways cut out of stone with no adornment isn’t really that memorable, so of course your PCs aren’t going to latch on to that like they would if one wall was made from corpses mortared together with some kind of congealed, slimy black substance.

Or, to put it differently, if something is suppose to be a simple decision (do you go to archway 1, 2, or 3), don’t try to “gamify” the PCs remembering what you said.

New School Mapping

When I was reviewing Esper Genesis, the 5e SRD d20 sci-fi game, I ran across a passage talking about roles that people in a group could assume when travelling, and how assuming those roles meant they couldn’t use passive perception. I looked up in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition Player’s Handbook and realized that I had missed those roles in D&D the entire time I had been playing 5th edition.

Activities are navigate, draw a map, track, and forage. Not all of these always apply, but the way these roles are referenced does imply how those roles should be adjudicated in 5th edition D&D. Navigating is about making checks to see of the party gets lost when they go somewhere they haven’t been before. Drawing a map is about to record the group’s progress which “helps the characters get back on course if they get lost . . . no ability check is required.” In other words, the implication is if someone is fulfilling the mapping role, in character, if the PCs get back to where they were previously, they can backtrack to places they have already been.

What’s interesting to me about this is that for the cost of someone not being able to use their passive perception score, PCs should probably be able to backtrack their way out of a dungeon unless there is some kind of mitigating circumstance or supernatural alteration to the terrain after they left. I’ll be honest, I know anyone can run their games the way they want to run them, but there have been so many times I kind of wanted “permission” to handwave PCs backtracking out of the dungeon (of course, if it’s taking them hours to get out, I’m still all for rolling for random encounters for things potentially jumping them while the backtrack--I just don’t want to ask them about every intersection and multiple set of doorways on the way out to make sure they don’t wander around in the dungeon forever . . . in real time).

Setting Maps and the Stories They Tell

When it comes to maps that I personally really love--part of my image of the Forgotten Realms is the map of northern Faerun that came with the Old Grey Boxed set. I loved that map, both the smaller scale heartlands version and the zoomed out larger scale map. I also loved the functionality of the map just being a map, but with a plastic overlay to make it easier to apply game rules for travel based on the distances.

When it comes to maps and the Forgotten Realms--something major happened to the Realms in 3rd edition that was never explained in setting, but I think it had a more dramatic effect on the setting than people realize. The designers condensed the map of Faerun by about a third. This was done because they felt that it was a waste to develop parts of the setting that the PCs might never travel to in a campaign, so everything should be within reasonable travel distance to the heartlands.

I disagree with this logic, but beyond assuming that every adventurer should go to every place in the Realms to make developing different areas worthwhile, it also had the effect of making it feel like there was less unexplored in the setting. Traveling from Cormyr to Waterdeep was by no means rare, but it took time and effort on the old map. The entire reason the Zhentarim establish their trade route through the very dangerous Anauroch desert was because the straight line shaved weeks off of the long trip down and around the middle of the Heartlands and over and back up to the Sword Coast North. Less detailed nations were completely removed from the new map because of where “constrictions” happened. It was faster to get from one side of Faerun to another, and all of those spaces that might have uncharted settlements, inns, and ruins were cut down.

While Faerun is still much larger than I think most people visualize, and still has a lot of room for uncharted areas, the effect of making all of the major settlements closer to one another made stopping in those “unnamed” places less important, and reinforced the perception that every road was well traveled and well documented.

One of my favorite approaches to maps in fantasy products lately has been the maps in the Shadow of the Demon Lord products. Not only are many of these maps less about detail and more about the impression and relative locations of locations on a map, but many of them do not have a scale. While some fans are bothered by this and have been spending a lot of time trying to create a scale for some of the maps, I loved looking at the maps of the Borderlands of Tear and thinking, “I want it to take about a week to reach that side of the map, about two weeks to reach the middle, and maybe a month to traverse the all the way to that side of it.”

Maps with a Really Big Scale

It has actually helped my enjoyment of some science fiction properties to get an idea what the region of space looks like, where the media takes place. As an example, the only thing I was really worried about when the Expanded Universe became Legends for Star Wars was that the galactic geography remained intact. I was less worried about the lineage of Mandalorian Houses than I was just knowing that there were Core systems, the Inner Rim where the Core worlds expanded first, a Mid Rim that is kind of the “working class” section of the galaxy, a lawless Outer Rim that has to make do without much help from the rest of the galaxy, and the Unknown Regions were all kinds of mysterious weird undocumented stuff can come from. To me, seeing that map of the galaxy helps me to understand what kind of stories to tell in the setting, more than knowing exactly how many Jedi Knights were alive during The Phantom Menace.

Even though I know the series writers didn’t have it as well developed as we do now, I understand the politics of Star Trek better now that I know what species lives in what quadrant of the galaxy, and it becomes more obvious who the neighbors are and where the buffer regions are, including who lives there. Maps can communicate and reinforce elements of a story in a powerful manner.

Except for Firefly. The map of a trinary star system designed to handwave not utilizing FTL in the setting makes my head hurt.