Thursday, November 16, 2017

On importing horror

I've often called my flagship setting DARK•HERITAGE (and for that matter, many other settings I've worked on over the years) "dark fantasy", which I call a fusion of sword & sorcery with horror themes and tone.  Sword & sorcery is usually (and rightly) seen as a fantastical evolution of the old swashbuckling stories, not unlike what Robert E. Howard wrote for Oriental Stories and other similar publications.  These were clearly heavily influenced by not only the swashbuckling stories by the likes of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini (both of which you should read if you haven't; and then find some movies based on their best works and watch them too.  I recommend the Richard Lester Three and Four Musketeers as well as the Stewart Grainger Scaramouche and the Errol Flynn Captain Blood.)  Layering in some overt horror influences and a more horror tone gives us dark fantasy.  I've often kind of see-sawed back and forth between emphasizing the horror and emphasizing the swashbuckling action.  A few movies and books (and even one whole setting, for a different fantasy game) get the vibe pretty well: 1999's The Mummy, later, Van Helsing (although it's admittedly not a very good movie, even though it's exactly the right vibe), the Solomon Kane movie, and pretty much the entirety of the Warhammer setting—especially WHRPG compared to WHFB.

Anyway, this is pretty intriguing to me in the wake of the CULT OF UNDEATH project, which of course heavily utilizes horror themes and a horror tone—but which is still very much a D&D game, and not a horror game.  Well; the material on which it's based is, at least; I'd probably run it much more like a horror game than the Paizo playing community would.  And then, of course, I stumbled across this post just today.  It specifically references the failed Dark World Universe, but the implications are intriguing for someone who likes exploring the limits between action and horror in his gaming, like I do.  Here's a small quote from the post:
To my mind, the chief problem was the idea of taking a classic horror movie icon like the Mummy and putting it in a non-horror movie. 
2017's The Mummy was a high-budget action movie, with planes, and explosions, and Tom Cruise, and action, and chases, and spectacular special effects, and all the things that were suspiciously missing from almost all of the other Mummy movies that came before it. Even the excellent 1999 Mummy with Brendan Fraser, which was sort of a mix of action and horror, played up the horror more than the action most of the time. But the sequel inverted that formula, and suffered greatly as a result. 
My proposal is to make a shared Universal horror universe (I'll call it DU2) that is focused not on big-budget action flicks, but which is focused on medium-budget horror movies. Stop swinging for the fences, and concentrate on hitting singles and doubles, and you'll have a franchise that will be going for decades. 
I'm not completely sure I agree, but I'm not completely sure that I disagree either.  The problem with the newer Mummy, which wasn't really that bad of a movie wasn't that it was more of an action movie than a horror movie.  The problem with it was that it had boring characters that you didn't care about and who had no chemistry with each other.  It tried to be clever and cute like the Brendan Frasier one did, but it was forced and painfully unfunny when it tried.  In other words, it was probably poorly cast, the screenplay needed some polish, and the director needed to coax some chemistry out of the characters.  Had those things happened, I seriously doubt that we'd be comparing it unfavorably to the earlier mummy movies.

Although that does gel quite well with the notion of "don't try to create a major blockbuster; just create a good movie, and that means attention to details and craftsmanship."  The same is true for a game.  Honestly, I don't know that it matters too much if it's more action or more horror or if it swings back and forth between them from session to session, so much so that it matters that the game is well run and well played.  I've come to the inevitable conclusion after many years of being a gamer that the biggest, fatal flaw; the hubris of the designers of 3e (and beyond) was trying to make a game that would be resistant to bad-GMing.  There's no such thing.  The only really good games are those run by good GMs and played in by good players, who are more or less on the same page about what makes the game enjoyable, so they're not tearing it apart by trying to go too many different directions at once.

Now; you can have adequate games without that.  But you'll never have really great ones.  That requires some skill as GM and player, and it requires some chemistry between you and your friends that you're playing with.

Anyway, some of the other advice for building a monster movie franchise given at the link above is also good advice for running a longer term campaign that focuses on horror themes, so I recommend reading the whole thing.  Good stuff.

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