I feel like I need to start with some disclosures here. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in something like fourth grade and have been a gamer ever since. I’ve also been fascinated by Jack Chick for at least 20 years. I have a binder full of Chick comics I’ve collected over the years; I would like the whole collection, but I can’t bring myself to just order them because giving Chick Publications money (much less my address) seems…icky. I’ve read all the biographical information I’ve been able to find about Mr. Chick (which mostly consists of Daniel Raeburn’s excellent IMP issue about him). I’ve written articles about Jack Chick. I wrote an adventure that used the afterlife as imagined by Jack Chick as a starting point (Waxman’s Warriors). And have you ever thought that “The Death Cookie” was a weird name for a gaming website? That’s because we got it form a Chick tract. Long story, but if you ever catch Leighton and I together and have a Chick tract handy, we might treat you to/punish you with one of our dramatic readings. We’ve even got special voices for recurring characters like Giant Faceless Jesus and the snotty “His name’s not in the book, Lord!” Angel and everything.
In other words, I am the precise target audience for a Dark Dungeons movie, and that’s important. This is not a movie for a general audience. If you’ve played role-playing games or read Jack Chick’s work, you probably won’t hate it and might even get a few laughs out of it. To really appreciate this movie, though, you need at least some familiarity with both (the more the better). If you’ve never played D&D and have no idea who Jack Chick is, you’ll probably find Dark Dungeons utterly baffling.
The movie makes a few changes, like making Marcie and Debbie college students rather than high school kids and giving one of the other players (Nitro) a minor role, but mostly sticks to the plot of the tract. It’s important to understand that Dark Dungeons is not, technically, a parody. Jack Chick gave producer JR Ralls the rights to make the film and he upheld his end of the bargain by making a faithful adaptation. Except for a few Easter eggs, pretty much everything in the movie that seems like comedy--the stylized “50s educational film” dialog; the delusional conspiracy theories; the willful ignorance about “RPGers” and “RPGing”; even the barely-repressed lesbian subtext--are all there in the original tract. Of course, any attempt to faithfully adapt Chick’s work is going to seem like parody, and I think the filmmakers were fully aware of that fact.
Other than expanding the events of the comic panels out into full scenes and adding some framing and padding, the main addition to the plot concerns the activities of the cult who only appear as shadowy figures in the tract. This provides a sort of secret history for the tract, where we find out that the cult is orchestrating everything (even Marcie’s suicide) in order to summon a certain tentacley fellow whose inclusion was, if I’m not mistaken, one of the stretch goals of the Kickstarter campaign. The other major addition is a nod to Mazes & Monsters in which Debbie goes down into the steam tunnels to fight the monsters that she’s inadvertently released by playing the game instead of accepting Christ.
When I first opened my copy of the DVD, I was a little disappointed to see that the movie’s runtime is only 40 minutes, but after watching it (twice), it’s just so spot-on that I’m not sure trying to stretch it to feature length would have added anything. The script is perfect. The acting, directing and other aspects of production fall somewhere in between slickly-produced amateur movie and low-budget indie flick. With the possible exception of the creature effects (which have their own charm for an 80s horror fan like me), nothing about the movie’s production is bad, it’s just obviously done on a limited budget.
The DVD extras are less impressive. In addition to the commentaries (which I haven’t watched yet), there are two features. One, “How to Make a Movie for $1000 (But Not Really)” is just Ralls sharing his extensive expertise (from making one movie) at length over high-speed clips of the filming. The other “A Lifelong Dream: The Making of Dark Dungeons” consists of interviews with nearly everyone involved in the film, right down to the craft services person, behind the scenes stuff, and a few random bits that don’t seem to serve any real purpose. There’s some interesting stuff there, but it’s so badly organized and separated by completely pointless clips that I lost interest pretty quickly and just left it on in the background while I worked on other things. It’s almost like they just burned all the files in the “maybe use for behind the scenes extra” folder onto the DVD in whatever order they were in on the hard drive.
As I said at the beginning, this movie was made for a very specific audience, and for that audience it’s very close to perfect. If you’ve ever uttered the words “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more. I want to be Debbie!,” preferably at a table covered with rulebooks and funny dice, this movie is required viewing. The farther removed you are from that demographic, the less likely it is that you’ll like, or even understand, Dark Dungeons.
As most of you reading this probably already know, QAGS has a Word called “Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie?” While I really doubt we’re the first game to use that kind of descriptor, it surprises me that it’s not suggested in more RPGs. Personally, I define it for nearly every character I play regardless of what system I’m using, and in a lot of cases once I know who I’d cast as the character, everything else falls into place.
If I’m not really sure what kind of character I want to play, sometimes I’ll come up with the WWPHITM? and then build the character around it. This is especially helpful when I want to avoid falling back on one of my “default” character types. Unless the game aims for almost campy adherence to genre conventions or I want to play an archetypal character, I usually try to avoid the most obvious choices. So, for example, if I’m making up a character for M-Force, I’ll skip right past Bruce Campbell and Sarah Michelle Gellar (we’ve all seen plenty of Ash and Buffy clones already) and pick somebody like Owen Wilson, who I immediately picture as the loose cannon type. Following that thread, I come up with an easy-going beach bum type--maybe even a surfer dude--who’s a little impulsive and reckless when it comes to monster hunting, possibly because he really doesn’t have much to lose. If I’m not afraid of a little cliche, I can even throw in a brutally monster-eaten family or love interest to add a layer of angst behind the carefree exterior. From there, the character pretty much writes itself.
Part of the usefulness of WWPHITM? lies in the fact that, unlike most game stats, it’s not about the character’s abilities, it’s about personality. You’re not going to get any points or bonuses out of it, so the worst min/maxer doesn’t have any incentive beyond describing the character. Sometimes having this kind of personality template even encourages combat munchkins to jump in on parts of the game that don’t involve hitting things with a pointy stick.
One of the things I like most about WWPHITM?, and what makes it a useful tool for GMs as well as players, is that it’s a good way of avoiding one-note characters. Since--at least if you don’t pick someone who’s seriously typecast--you’ve probably seen a particular actor playing a bunch of different types of characters, you’ve got a larger frame of reference for how the character might act than if you’ve just got some stats and a little background. This goes double for NPCs, who the GM often has to make interesting on the fly. Most gruff blacksmiths and mysterious wizards are interchangeable; unless one of them’s got an interesting name, players might be hard pressed to remember which is which later on in the campaign. If the GM plays one gruff blacksmith as John Goodman and the other as Ian McShane (or for that matter, uses these two actors as templates for the mysterious wizards), the players are going to be much more likely to remember them as something other than Stock Character #37.
Even if you’re not playing QAGS, try thinking of WWPHITM? next time you make a character or NPC. If you’re like me, you’ll find it so useful you’ll play casting director for your whole game.
I'm busy with a few other projects this week, but since I don't want to break my recent streak of regular Monday posts, I'm going to re-post something from the old Death Cookie archives. A lot of our newer fans may not know this, but early on Hex went with a brilliant marketing strategy of "let's be dicks and alienate our potential customers" and this article (which we also did as a panel at a couple of conventions) is an example of that. We've mellowed since then, but the article makes some points that will always be true of some gamers (not you, of course).
Working for a game company has its advantages. True, there aren't a lot of half-naked coeds running around and we don't get much sun, but we do get paid for sitting around playing games all day. Cons pay for us to attend and then give us free shit. People ask us for our autographs while we're there and we have access to all the behind-the-scenes crap. There are a lot of great things about this job, but all of them can't overcome the one thing that makes our lives miserable. Of course, we're talking about the gamers.
An Interview with GILGAMESH! Writer Leighton Connor, Conducted by Stacy Forsythe
The world’s oldest epic, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in its standard version sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC. Much more recently, in 2012, Leighton Connor adapted the epic into the RPG adventure GILGAMESH! Now, two years later, Leighton has followed that up with GILGAMESH!: The Lost Tablets, a supplement that includes additional plot summaries, characters, and GM notes.
I asked Leighton about these two books, and here’s what he had to say.
1. How did you come to discover the Epic of Gilgamesh?
Leighton Connor: I’d heard the name but I never really took notice of it until my wife was in seminary, and I audited an Old Testament class. There was an excerpt from the epic in our textbook. I got somewhat obsessed with Gilgamesh, based on that excerpt, though I didn’t actually read the whole story until years later.
I next encountered Gilgamesh in 2008 when I became a teacher. The first excerpt in our World Literature textbook was, fittingly enough, from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This time I was motivated to go out and get a copy of the epic, specifically the Stephen Mitchell translation. I read it and, what do you know, I loved it.
Last week, I talked about the fact that character sheets are inherently incomplete and that it might be a good idea to rethink them. This week I’m going to float a new definition of a character sheet: “A character sheet should describe the relevant traits of a character at a particular point in time and helps the GM and player understand the character’s role in the game.” Since that doesn’t sound all that different from the standard definition (and since stopping here would make for a short column), I’ll expand on that.
First off, the character sheet describes relevant traits. Relevant to what? Two things: The game and the character.