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Monday, March 12, 2018

#RPGBlogCarnival "Gamemaster's Cut": my two cents on cinematography and D&D!

When my dear friend Gonzalo, owner of the beautiful Codex Anathema gaming blog (and company!) decided to host his own RPG Blog Carnival I had to go back to this almost defunct blog of mine and write something! It's like a Geas spell... :P

The topic could be described as cinematography in D&D, or D&D in cinematography. Or both, if possible.
I was initially unsure I could contribute with something meaningful, but I also remembered that my current campaign, which runs in a world loosely based on the "Cthon" cosmology/setting detailed in the deepest archives of this blog, basically started exactly as an attempt to bring the best thrills of cinema into D&D, in a very specific way.
So I'm going to talk about this specific way of mine, which could be summarized as...

Bringing back the Fear of the Unknown to D&D... And cinema

Yes, it's self-evident to me that the fear of the unknown is something that has been missing from both camps. Movies such as the very first Alien, with their all-but-cheap thrills and scares, are extremely rare nowadays. The closest example in recent movies that I can think about is The Witch. Although it achieves the objective in a very different way. And then also some alien abduction movies, which by definition fit in this trope, and usually manage to deliver the chills even when done poorly.

Seeing how very different movies and methods can be used to convey what is perhaps the most primal emotion in the human repertoire, I asked myself what's the "winning recipe", not only when it comes to movies, but also in tabletop RPGs such as D&D.

The Monster must be unknown until the very final showdown.

This is arguably the most important point to consider. So many movies nowadays sin in this respect.
In D&D, the sin is even easier to commit, because you know how it is: character rolls high on Perception, and that's it: he/she sees the monster in all its macabre detail. Well, no. It doesn't have to be that way.

First of all, the characters might not understand what they perceive.
This is very important in my game: the monsters are something completely unfamiliar to the characters, they are not supposed to exist in the world. So even when they see them, they don't make sense of them. They might be simple CR1 creatures from the Monster Manual, but that shouldn't be clear to the character, and not even to the player. Even when one or two of these monsters fall down to the characters' magical or martial firepower, the corpses might disintegrate (especially when the monster is extraplanar) or puzzle even more due to their alien anatomy.
A gnoll might be described and portrayed as a humanoid with a hyena head, but this description might be an approximation, and a character seeing one for the first time, might not immediately understand the similarity to the animal. As a GM, I take some pain in describing the creature in ambiguous terms, so the description might still be truthful, visually speaking, but hiding the "meta" about the creature, both to players and characters.

To this end, a few other methods, apart from the description of the monster can be used, which I better list separately.

Your Monster is different.

Sometimes considered a cheap trick of GMs, I think it's fundamental both in movies and games.
In the past I re-imagined the simplest monster, the Goblin, resulting in something that could have came out of the worst nightmares. Some players would consider this unfair, since it also inevitably makes their knowledge of the game less useful, but that's exactly the point: fear of the unknown.
If players don't like this, they don't belong in such an adventure/campaign, and the GM is responsible for announcing in advance that the adventure/campaign will subvert what they know about the game's usual opponents.

As said before, sometimes description is enough for this, but sometimes it isn't. Think about the xenomorph in Alien. It would have been original enough due to its appearance and abilities, but guess what: it also has acid for blood. That's the type of detail that the aforementioned players would have considered foul play by the GM. But it's also what changes the whole situation. Suddenly, the classical methods of confrontation are not so useful anymore.

The true monster is not just a threat when alive, but when dead too. This is especially important if there is more than one of them, but not only. Even when the baddie is just one, having something unexpected happen on its death, will confound the characters and the players alike.
Just as a new method of movement, something happening when the monster is hurt and so on.

But that's not all: the scariest movies don't scare you just with the monster, they use other things. Such as...

The claustrophobic locale.

You might say that dungeons are by definition claustrophobic, but that's not exactly true. A Dungeon is, first of all, a place where you expect threats. You go in there expecting to fight, so the thrills go down from the very first moment. A true claustrophobic locale doesn't even need to be actually closed, or small, although it helps. A forest can be claustrophobic, if done right. The feeling must be that you want to be out of it, but you can't, of course, but also something deeper. Something more akin to "this place is not what it should be". The best claustrophobic locale, both in movies and D&D, is some place which is usually safe. 
This is played especially well in the typical alien abduction movies: the classical isolated farm or cabin. Nothing beats it. Because it's familiar (so it's easy to picture yourself there), and because it can be easily put under a siege from the outside. This is what makes it claustrophobic. Four walls, some windows and a door. It seems ok, until unknown forces are known to be outside, and possibly even INSIDE. That's another hallmark: the threat should be both outside and inside, in poorly known fashion and proportions. You have clues to both presences, but you can't quantify them. And a house is much smaller than a dungeon... You can't just "run back": the problem is most likely exactly what's at its entrance.

I mentioned that even a forest can be claustrophobic, and this is especially true if the characters get lost. It's not that hard to get lost in a forest, even experienced trekkers will tell you this. So even high level characters might fall into this apparently trivial problem.
Even without being lost, there might be reasons for which you can't or won't go out of the place. In my campaign, the characters are confined to a swampy, dark, mysterious forest for weeks. They are not far from the nearest village but guess what: they are wanted in that village, the very commoners would be glad to hang their necks, and the Inquisition would gladly do it for them.
Inside the forest though, of course, that are other dangers. Of the unknown variant. Even outside they actually don't know exactly what's waiting for them, because for some reason I won't explain, they know that the people looking for them, found corpses that look exactly like theirs. So in theory the search for them should be over. But what happens if some criminals thought dead pop back into existence? In addition, the problem which they would like to solve, lies inside the forest... So a lot of forces compel them to stay, making the typically open environment an actual prison.

The Alien Abduction trope

This needs a point of its own. It's not entirely evident, but if you do some cross-referencing, you may find out that humanity has been writing (and delivering scares) about alien abductions for centuries, or maybe millennia. It's an archetype. Nowadays it's aliens, before it could have been hags, or even gods. But most of the time, generically speaking, it's "The Monster", whatever it is.
The fact that the Monster is kidnapping, more than killing, is a big part of the fear of the unknown.
Death, afterlife not included, is something of a known. It's the end of the line, and it's reassuring in a way. But being taken away by unknown, possibly inhuman forces, for purposes unknown... Much worse. This should not happen to characters, at least not to all of them. They should witness it, or even better suspect it, about other people first. But at some point, it might happen to a character, and it should be a nightmare.

The trope of Alien Abduction though, is not only about the abduction itself. It's also about what described before. The threat from outside finding you in a familiar place, suddenly transforming it into a hell on earth because of the ensuing claustrophobia. 
It's of course perpetrated by the most unknown and unknowable monster(s). It kind of summarizes everything I talk about, but by itself is still not enough, because it doesn't provide enough depth and variety. It can make for a nice movie, but not for a lengthy campaign/series/saga.

The Unknown World

Monsters must come from somewhere. Once the first, traumatic contact is made, and the monster(s) are momentarily defeated, the Righteous have to take the next step: venturing into the home of the monsters to end the threat once and for all.

This is where things get really interesting and challenging for GMs and film-makers alike. This is where world-building becomes the skill you need to roll high on.
This unknown world doesn't have to be completely unknown, or the players/viewers will not identify with it enough to feel involved. At the same time, making it just the typical "cave of the dragon" or "temple of doom" will not engage in the other sense.
Once again, the best lesson comes from the movie that in my opinion delivered the best in this department: alien.
The alien nest is a place that is familiar, in theory, but made alien by the threat itself. The Monster transformed a place that should have been normal, into something hellish, or at the very least unsettling.
This is one way to do it, and it solves an important issue: having this unknown world near enough for it to be an urgent threat.
There are other ways to do it. Stranger Things, borrowing heavily from D&D, does it with a parallel dimension, which is conveniently accessed from physical portals. Modestly speaking, this was the whole idea behind my setting/cosmology: having the classic "planes of existence" as places that can actually be accessed from specific locations, even when their space overlaps "normal space".
Another nice unknown world can simply be, as suggested before, the "forbidden forest", which can of course be any other terrain type (although of course the forest is a primal archetype, that engages humans at an instinctive level).

Can you seal the Unknown away?

Stranger Things season 2 [spoiler alert] replies to this question with its ominous ending. Of course not. Not completely. Even when you win against the monsters in their own world/home, you might find out that you just closed one end of an extremely intricate maze. 
I'm not saying that every story should end with nihilistic realization that the unknown will always be out there, but a bit of this concept sure helps. Maybe you actually managed to secure a nice slice of your cherished reality from the threat of the Unknown, but you might discover you just saw the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with your face-off against evil.

I think heroics can still be a thing even in a world full of evil unknown. The whole point of the unknown is more of a conflict between Chaos and Order. The Unknown is of course Chaos. When we add Evil and Good to the equation, things get more complex. That's where you could find "people like you" working against you, conspiracies and so on, and it opens an entire new topic, but the point is Chaos and Order. The Unknown, the Monster, is an agent of Chaos, and it doesn't have to be overly complex in that. Schemes, complexity, possibly even intelligence, are hallmarks of Order, more than Chaos. So my point, in the question "Can you seal the Unknown away", is that depending on the case, it could actually be easy. Maybe that particular unknown threat is actually minor (it could be), or extremely simple in its nature. 
The heroes might discover that the threat was coming from an unintelligent, or at least not so smart source. In this case, it might be easy to at least confine it, if not seal it off. 
Discovering that a lot of suffering, if not death, was coming out of something actually simple, might be as horrifying as discovering it was all a plot by some powerful individuals. The point is making something simple not so simple to understand. 
The needs/drives of the monster, of the Unknown, might be simple only when understood. It might not be a simple matter to understand them... And even when understood, the simplicity might be horrifying. 
Just as in, again, Alien: their need to reproduce using humans as hosts is actually simple, but not less horrifying. And the moment you put the last of them and their eggs under the flame-thrower, in theory you are safe. But then again, someone might have interest in using all of that. That's when Evil Order wants to put Chaos under its leash, it's a another classic trope. Maybe, instead, the threat is just something naturally occurring (not in the sense it's truly natural, but in the sense it occurs spontaneously) and at that point, you will need a constant effort to keep it in check. That's probably when the Fear of The Unknown ends, but it's also just an episode. The Unknown being Chaos is extremely varied, if not infinite. There will always be a new horror, a new Unknown, popping out from where you least expect. 

EXTRA: How I'd do a D&D movie, based on this.

As you might have guessed, I would first of all do a horror. It would be the "session 0" of the campaign. Just one big session, in one movie. It would be session 0 because the "heroes" are still all level 1, or actually level 0. They are not heroes yet. It's what happens in this story that will make them heroes. And of course, it would be a horror movie.

Here's my pitch:


Children playing in swampy fields spot strange creatures after dusk. The creatures seem to be hiding from them, but the children are sure they are malicious. Talking to each other, they describe the creatures as having the face of a frog, and they start hunting for frogs, in an effort to "exorcise" the threat. They impale frogs around the fields, leaving them gutted open on sticks, to try and "scare" the frog-faced creatures.
One of the kids disappears, and the kids speak up with their parents, who are ignorant and impatient, struggling all day to bring enough food to feed the families. The parents, furious about the "fantasies" of the kids, don't believe their stories and think they are actually responsible for the other kid's disappearance. They start keeping the kids indoors, prohibiting them from playing in the fields. 
After a while, the kids start thinking that the creatures are closing in on the farms, and they are not mistaken, but the parents again don't believe them.
One fateful night, one of the farms gets attacked. The adults are so indoctrinated (by the local faith) about the non-existence of supernatural creatures, that they take the whole matter in a foolishly light-hearted way, basically letting the creatures in. At that point, chaos ensues. The creatures seem to have the power to hide in plain sight and make people literally shit themselves. Adults go completely crazy, and seem to be basically cooperating with the creatures: they become affected by uncontrollable hilarity, and disturbing scatophilic behaviors. One by one they get abducted, while a few of the kids, still able to react rationally, manage to fight the creatures. They manage to escape only by setting the whole place on fire thanks to previously-dormant magical powers in one of them, that were hinted at beforehand.
They find out that dark figures outside seemed to be watching the whole thing, and appear menacing enough to prevent them from reaching the village. They run towards the nearby forest/swamp.
At dawn, soldiers investigate the burned farm. They find adults and kids burned to death, the adults seemingly still laughing. They find no evidence of the monsters, and thus can't believe the stories of the kids of nearby farms. 
Meanwhile in the forest/swamp, the kids found shelter in an abandoned ruin. There, they find engravings of monstrous faces that seem similar to frogs, and various artifacts. They arm themselves, they slay a giant frog that was lurking nearby, and they impale it gutted at a stake, out of an improvised "fort" they build up. They shelter there. A hermit finds them and fends off their attacks, telling them "I BELIEVE YOU... I BELIEVE YOU!" - he manages to win their trust and opens a book he is carrying, a bestiary, to show them a page describing the frog-faced creatures - The movie then ends ominously, with a cacophony of ribbits resonating both in the forest and nearby the farms.

You might say this is not at all a D&D movie, although you might have understood it's a take on the classic Bullywug monsters. The thing is, it would be chilling (if done right), and it would set the start for a series of adventures, where young adults become heroes against all odds.
It would also show, if endorsed by the D&D trademark, how far can the game and its concepts be stretched, which is the entire point of this (now a tad too long) blog post: a return to the unknown.

Now, I'm kind of obsessed by this concept, to the point I want to write a novel based on it, and on my whole campaign (which also started more or less like this, although the kids were not the playing characters). But it's more of a manifesto than an actual working idea. I hope you can appreciate this manifesto, use it, and make your own "Gamemaster's Cut" a bit more thrilling thanks to it.