You are cordially invited to play a game with me this October.
What game? Well let me tell you…
The October Horror Movie Challenge (sometimes referred to simply as October Challenge, or OHMC) started over on the IMDB horror boards as a friendly competition between the regulars some years ago. The goal: Watch 31 horror movies in 31 days, with at least sixteen of them being first-time views. Of course there were all sorts of other, unofficial goals: Watch the most movies, have the most first-time views, construct the most interesting list, find the most obscure film, and so on. But mostly it was about people who love horror movies sharing and talking about them.
And from the IMDB boards it spread, infecting others like a virus. A zombie virus, maybe.
It’s easy to see the appeal. Halloween has always struck me (and I apologize if my USian roots are showing) as the “cool” holiday. Candy? Costumes? Monsters? There’s something about that that speaks to our inner child…and our inner rebel. It feels like breaking the rules. And as competitions go, it’s an easy one, well-tailored for people at all levels of fandom. So you’re a casual fan? That’s cool, now’s an opportunity to stretch yourself with something you’ve never heard of. Hardcore gorehound? Have fun plumbing the depths of August Underground (fair warning, do not look that up). Don’t like the bloody stuff at all? Many of the best, most classic films don’t spill a drop of it. Enjoy the lighter side of horror? There are dozens of spooky comedies or animated films that are sure to please. Don’t have time to watch 31 movies? Okay, go for the 16 new ones? Fall short of that? No worries, if you see something cool that got you into the October spirit, you win.
I was introduced to it all five or six years ago by the person who would go on to become one of my best friends, Christianne Benedict. I’ve participated every year since, and in that time I’ve made bunches of new friends and had more fun than I could shake a thighbone at. Horror people are good people.
Sometimes I get asked, “why horror?” It’s a hard question to answer. Why, after all, does anyone like anything? Paul Czege once said to me, it’s harder to know what you like about something than what you don’t like, and I think that’s true.
Is it about being frightened? No, not really. I don’t mind that; it’s even kind on invigorating to find a film that actually achieves it. But it’s so rare as to be virtually non-existent for me, at least at this late date, and if it were strictly about that, I wouldn’t be watching.
Is it about the blood and gore? Well, it kinda used to be. I loved that stuff, but explaining why is as hard as explaining “why horror?” in the first place. Part of it, I think, is because I have a lot of issues with human frailty, and my own mortality in particular. Maybe that’s a dodge, though. Regardless, the last ten years or so have seen me veering away from the red stuff as an end unto itself; once I felt the need to test the limits of my endurance with something like The Flower Of Flesh And Blood, but now it just seems insipid (though the fact that Charlie Sheen mistook it for a snuff film and reported it to the FBI is still highly amusing). Today, my Guinea Pig films sit on the shelf, discretely tucked away, and I have no particular desire to return to them.
What about the monsters? Honestly, it might be about the monsters. Because monsters are awesome. I can’t quite recall what the first bona fide horror movie I ever saw was, but I’ve narrowed it to three likely candidates; Gojira, King Kong, or Curse of the Werewolf. Those are the films that, even now, are entrenched in my memory. So yeah, maybe it was the monsters.
Here’s what I believe though: Horror is pure, primal imagination, even more so than fantasy or science fiction. Because anyone who has ever sat around a campfire, and I think this goes back to the dawn of humankind, has looked out into the darkness and wondered what’s out there, lurking just beyond the ring of light1. The stories that were told about those things were our first horror stories…and we’re still coming up with new ones to this day.
So what’s all this got to do with Gaming As Women?
Firstly, the October Challenge is a game, of sorts. But more importantly, all of this stuff eventually makes its way to the gaming table for me…no doubt it’s the same with you and the media you consume. So for the month of October, I’m going to be blogging my Challenge, providing capsule reviews, and maybe offering up adventure seeds and other game-related tidbits as they occur to me. I encourage everyone to share their favorite movies and join in the discussion, and maybe we’ll talk about some other stuff too…like whether “scary” is a fair expectation to place upon a horror roleplaying game, or whether Ravenloft really was the best D&D setting.
In closing, I offer you some of my favorite and most unusual picks from the last couple years. If you need something to kick off October, I got ya covered (although others should post with their picks too!).
Before he did Frozen, Adam Green wrote and directed a suck-ass slasher film that nonetheless made a big splash upon the horror scene. Hatchet was badly plotted, boringly directed, and lacked even the one thing a slasher movie really needs…imaginative kills. So color me surprised that his follow-up, Frozen, turned out to be one of my favorite horror films of the last several years. If you can buy into the set-up (and I did, because weirder shit happens all the time) and are okay with the self-involved characters (I feel like they really become people once the peril reveals itself and their exteriors are stripped away, but others disagree), then this film is for you. And even if you can’t do those things, it’ll probably still freak you out. The gist is this: Three college-aged people – two guys and a young woman – are stuck on a ski-lift for a week with a blizzard moving in. As they dangle over the bleak mountainside in sub-zero temperatures, their survival instincts kick in, and what follows is sixty minutes of sustained, nerve-wracking tension. Frozen is one of the few films that’s actually worked over my nerves in a long time, and extra points because the always-easy-to-look-at Shawn Ashmore stars in it (speaking of which, The Ruins is a pretty darned good horror movie too).
What would I do with it? My first thought is a small, minimalist larp, but then no…maybe something more like a quasi-larp that blends in tabletop sensibilities as well. Set aside a specific amount of real-world time to play…I think two hours would be max. Get three friends together and have them each describe a character to each other…no one has to write anything down, just listen to what each person says about their character. It doesn’t have to be the characters from the movie, either. Then set the scene: “You finagled your way onto the ski lift for one last run even though last call was twenty minutes ago…but now something’s happened, the ski lift shuts down with you dangling high over the darkened mountainside, and all the lights go off in the valley far behind you. What do you do?” Now, you need a game mechanic, and I can’t think of a better one than Dread‘s Jenga tower. So yeah, set up your Jenga tower. Every 10 minutes is either daybreak or sundown. Periodically, every 7-12 minutes maybe, a new complication arises – have the players (quickly) choose among them someone to pull a block, describe the complication to everyone (a blizzard sets in, the wolf pack arrives, a gust of wind blows your hat off, etc…the movie has a bunch of complications, watch it for inspiration) and then have the player pull the block and put it on top (just like normal Jenga). Furthermore, sundown is always its own complication, and an especially nasty one at that…when the sun goes below the horizon, temperatures plummet and three blocks get pulled (pulls should be spread as evenly among players as possible, and the order can be decided by the group itself). If the tower falls, that player is eliminated from the game in a manner that ties into the narrative thus far and then a new tower is erected for the other players to pull from…maybe missing a few pieces to reflect their heightened desperation, oxygen deprivation, and advancing hypothermia. I’m tempted to include a genre-rule for the “Final Girl” which dictates that female characters do not ever have to pull blocks for regular complications as long as there’s a non-female character left who could do so (and at sundown, they get to choose where in the order they pull, and always pull the fewest possible), but in the interest of gender egalitarianism, I’ll make that rule optional. :p
So how do the players win? They have to survive to the end of the two hours (or whatever amount of time you decide). And this is where shit gets nasty, because each player has a few tricks up their sleeve…they can place blame on each other player once, they can beg and plead with each other player once, and they can reveal their humanity once total. When a player invokes one of the first two, the player they’re targeting must pull a block (if you’re using the Final Girl rule, they can’t target a female character unless they *are* a female character, or unless there are no non-female characters left). When a player does the third, every other surviving player must pull a block (in the order the invoking player chooses, although if you’re using the Final Girl rule, female characters get to say when they want to pull, and the player only decides the orders if there is more than one female character and they both want to pull at the same time).
Additionally, or perhaps most importantly, players don’t have to sit around and just hope to make it to the end…they can try desperate things to get off the ski lift and get themselves to safety (and in the process, get help to their friends, if they want). No more than one desperate thing can be attempted per 10-minute segment. No one has to attempt one, but if more than one person wants to, the group has to figure out who it’s going to be, and what desperate thing they’re doing (in a reversal of the typical power structure, if you’re using the Final Girl rule, female characters may not attempt a desperate thing unless there are no others brave enough to risk it, or there are only female characters left). They then have to pull a block from the tower. If the tower doesn’t fall, they get a survival point; if a player has three survival points, their character escapes to safety and survives. They may then send help, if they want; if they do, the total number of survival points required for the remaining players is reduced by one. If a second player makes it to safety and sends help, the requirement is reduced one further point. They don’t have to send help right away, though; they can announce it any time between gaining their freedom and the end of the game. If another player does something that causes someone to have to pull a block (like place blame), that pull does count as a desperate thing. And, of course, as with Dread, a player can sacrifice themselves (by purposefully knocking down the tower) at any time to give their friends a new tower to work from.
As GM, your job is to highlight the environment and get into the players’ heads. Never let them forget where they are and how harsh it is. Describe the cold, the hunger, the stark beauty of the landscape that’s slowly killing them. Remember, they’re way up in the mountains and it’s freezing…they’re brains aren’t working right from lack of oxygen and the numbing cold…be their hallucinations, their paranoia, and their desperation. When they talk among themselves, interject often and talk over them if you have to. Sometimes push them to act, and at other times let silence reign. If it’s time for a complication to arise, it happens, even if they’re in the middle of making some other decision. Throw in some lighting that goes from bright to dim for day and night, crank the air conditioner, and queue up some sounds of nature on your portable music device and you got yourself a game. Also, yeesh, I had no idea when I started writing today that I would be designing a game for you…now I should probably pick up Dread to find out if anything I wrote was original at all or if I just re-invented the wheel. Either way, with the kinks worked out, this could be a lot of fun. Bonus points if you play it on a porch swing in a snowstorm.
I first saw this back in college, and revisited it in 2010. It’s a live-action anime (based on an actual anime) about an intergalactic serial killer monster that escapes from a prison ship and the awesome female bounty hunter who pursues him to Earth. Some are going to find it a weird choice, but it has fantastic creature design and a heroic female protagonist who kicks ass and takes names. It also resists the urge to wimp out and let the dudes save her at several points, which surprised me while making me smile. In the extras, the director says that to get her character right, he wrote her as a man, which is an interesting thing that seems to happen in movies from time-to-time…James Cameron did the same with Ripley in Aliens 2.
What would I do with it? I’m not sure. It’s a fun, goofy, man-in-suit action-packed romp with some pretty neat visuals, but it is basically just one combat setpiece after another. If anything, I’d be pulling the villain, Zeiram, out and using hir as inspiration for a bad guy in some existing game. Zie makes for a striking image, and hir constant resurrection into something new and terrifying each time zie “dies” is a neat (and creepy) variation on the unkillable slasher trope. Now I kind of wish I had come up with a stat block for hir, something like 3:
Zeiram (unique CE Outsider), AC -2, Str 20, Dex 16, Con 20, Int 18, Wis 18, Cha 4, MV 12, HD 15, hp 135, #AT 4, 2, or 1, Dmg 1-8, 2-16, or 4-32, SA create weapon, Noh attack, clone-like minions, regeneration, resurrection, SD immune to most mind-affecting powers and spells. Zeiram can manifest whatever weapon zie needs at the moment; smaller weapons provide more attacks/round but do less damage. These weapons can be melee or ranged, as suits Zeiram’s needs. Alternatively, Zeiram can attack with the Noh-face in its head; this attack does 1-8 damage and captures the genetic material of its target. After capturing some genetic material, Zeiram can produce 12 HD worth of weird clone-minions that resemble a mix of hirself and whomever zie has most recently fed from; these minions should have abilities and stats appropriate to their hit dice. You get to decide how to divvy up those HD (i.e., decide how many clones there are), but all clones must be have identical stats. Zeiram regenerates five hit points/round. If Zeiram is ever reduced to zero hit points, zie spends one round incapacitated and then resurrects in a new and more monstrous form (stats will remain relatively unchanged, though the GM might tweak them a bit to reflect, say, a faster but not as physically imposing form). The only way to kill Zeiram is to deal 25 or more points of damage to the Noh-face, which is its only true weak spot (this is normally impossible to do unless Zeiram is incapacitated…even aoe attacks like fireball will not deal the necessary damage to that specific location under normal circumstances).
Okay, so that probably needs some work, but it’s a start…
Nigel Kneale is most famous for writing Quatermass And The Pit, but for my money, Beasts is where it’s at. This is his television anthology series that aired in the 70s and it’s a brilliant, mature work the likes of which we don’t see nearly enough. Now that I said it, though, I feel like I need to define “mature”, because what we think of as mature – gore and sex and all of that – is the exact opposite of what Beasts is about. Sound, shadow, and performance are used to evoke emotion rather than special effects, and the overall feel is closer to a radio play or stage performance than, say, Tales From The Crypt (which it shares some similarities with in terms of structure). The episodes are each about 45-55 minutes long and can be found on Youtube. My favorite is What Big Eyes…a fantastic take on werewolf mythology that’s really about the abuses humans heap on each other, and how hard it is to fix someone once they’ve been broken that way.
What would I do with it? Pay attention to the use of sound, and the insinuation of threat rather than the graphic display of it. GMs wanting to run horror games can really learn from this. Also, the storytelling…Nigel Kneale was an amazing writer; his earlier works were great, but also a bit removed in that they put the burden of all horror on things outside the human experience. His later work suggests a real turn around, because Beasts is all about horror as the personal. This is a kind of horror that’s gotten short-shrift in the gaming industry, where Lovecraft and WoD-style games have dominated for quite some time.
Lots has been written elsewhere about [Rec] and its sequels, but to sum up: A Spanish found-footage movie involving a group of firemen responding to an emergency call to a small apartment complex, only to find themselves quarantined inside with a spreading zombie virus. This is another film that legitimately played on my nerves, and its sequel even more so. It uses dark space perfectly…as an audience member, you’re constantly forced to look into the darkness, knowing full well that a hungry monster could come lunging out at you any moment. This is a good one if you want lots of jump scares and honest-to-goodness suspense. I like the sequel better, but I seem to be in the minority on that. The third film in the series is on deck for me this October.
What would I do with it? [Rec] depends upon its very specific visual style to generate tension, and that’s not easy to translate to the game table. You need something to recreate that sensation of uncertainty. For that, I’d probably go with Dread, though (as alluded to earlier), that recommendation comes with the caveat that I’ve never actually played Dread. I’d also keep things moving, give the players lots of opportunities to fail, and provide them precious few opportunities to investigate the happenings…this is survival horror, not a mystery.
I don’t even know how to describe this, but I’ll try: A Shaw Brothers produced kung fu/horror(!) film from the 80s that’s may be best described as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with more than a touch of Shakespearean tragedy thrown in. But as wild as that sounds, it all totally works, and it’s easily one of my favorite discoveries from the October Challenge. Of special note, the villain cuts one of the creepiest images I’ve seen in a long time…his killer mask easily puts Michael, Jason, and Ghostface to shame and instantly makes him iconic in my mind. Be careful though: Women are not treated well in this film, and there’s a rape scene that is among the most affecting I’ve ever seen. The film doesn’t forgive its villains or its protagonists for this behavior, which is part of why I like it, but this is kind of a rough one.
What would I do with it? I have no idea. Despite its mashed up genre trappings, it’s essentially a revenge tragedy. What would you use for a game like that? And could you easily insert the kung fu awesomeness into it? The Riddle of Steel is often cited as good for Blood Opera type games…it’d take some work, but the big passions and melodramatic violence would certainly fit.
A lot of people seem to like The Walking Dead, but as zombie television shows go, I have all sorts of problems with it. One of the reasons may be that just prior to the premiere of the first episode, I happened to see Dead Set…the UK’s television mini-series that takes place on the set (and involving some familiar faces) of Britain’s Big Brother. Where The Walking Dead apes the conventions of the zombie film while also hobbling themselves with the narrative restrictions of episodic television, Dead Set really gets its subject matter and embraces its medium to tell a flat-out good – and scary – zombie story. Astute watchers will catch the subtle nods to famous zombie films, but it never descends into pastiche…it’s its own thing, playing within the genre in a way that’s unique and awesome. How much did I like this show? Well, it does the two things I really hate in modern zombie films – fast zombies and shaky-cam – and I still think it’s possibly the best zombie thing I’ve seen in my adult life. And that includes Shaun of the Dead, which I absolutely adore. Fair warning, however: Though probably not as flat-out gory as The Walking Dead, there’s a texture and weight to Dead Set‘s carnage (of which there is much) that makes it feel way rougher.
What would I do with it? Like zombie movies themselves, zombie games are fairly prolific. I haven’t seen most of them, and the ones I have I don’t think much of. I wish I still had a copy of Sean Wipfli’s Dead Meat. Anyone got that laying around? Anyone got a favorite zombie game?
I’ve written about this on GAW before, so I’ll sum up here: A beautiful, sad story about wanting desperately to be normal, within a powerful and explicitly queer framework. Also has the Shawn Ashmore factor in effect…what can I say, dude has made a lot of great genre films.
What would I do with it? For Monsterhearts fans, this should be required viewing. You couldn’t actually play this without creating new skins – though at the same time, I don’t feel the need to slavishly emulate every aspect of all these movies on the gaming table (and think that the urge to replicate everything we like is really limiting to us as gamers) – but it has everything you need to understand what Monsterhearts is about: “freaks” outside the norm trying to find community for themselves, the irresistible pull to live a normal life, teens helping and hurting each other (inadvertently and on purpose), tons of queer content, and Darkest Selves all over the place.
Attack The Block
This is a fantastic aliens-on-the-loose movie, about not-so-friendly ETs descending upon an urban apartment complex in London and the gang kids that band together to fight them. There’s some great performances here – particularly from John Boyega as the reluctant leader Moses – and the aliens are wicked cool. I am absolutely starved for good monster movies these days, and but this one helped sate that hunger a bit. It’s very good, and probably the most straight-up entertaining thing on this list.
What would I do with it? There’s great setting ideas in here, and also a really fantastic exploration of protagonism. Although the authors might disagree, I could see this being fun with Dead of Night, where tension is less important than confronting monsters and having a rollicking good time in that old school monster movie sorta way.
A very, very difficult movie that’s explicitly about patriarchy’s abuses of women, and shows them all onscreen. It’s a bit of an allegory, in that the characters (particularly the male characters) are archetypes more than fully-realized characters, but that doesn’t diminish its impact. I might not have given this a chance if Lucky McKee hadn’t first made May and therefore earned my trust. Someone else’s viewing might be radically different than my own, and I’m still of mixed feelings about the whole thing. That may be the point, though; more than a message, The Woman seems to want to deliver emotions and discomfort, and in that it succeeds.
What would I do with it? I wouldn’t touch this with the proverbial 10′ pole…it basically crosses every line and rips every veil. But if I were going to do it (and I’m not), My Life With Master would be the game. Where Master is a rapey, verbally and physically abusive husband whose idea of fun is to capture the feral woman living in the woods and domesticate her as his personal sex slave…and make his wife, daughter, and son complicit in the activity as well. Yeah, don’t try this at home.
This one is right up there with Human Lanterns for weirdest on my list. It’s a film noir/horror film about a detective cat sussing out the murders of other cats in his new neighborhood…that may or may not be linked to an apocalypse cult and a Gregor Mendel-like figure trying to create an uber-race of felines (as if they didn’t already rule the planet). Oh, and did I tell you it’s animated in the style of a Don Bluth movie? It totally is.
What would I do with it? I’m eager to play a game where the characters are all animals – with a society that feels sophisticated, but is still thematically true to their animal natures – and incorporates big elements of horror. I haven’t quite figured out how I want to do it yet, but it would be great fun. In the meantime, there’s something really great to be gleaned from Felidae; because it’s presented to us in a way that we’re familiar with and that beckons back to our childhoods (cheerfully animated, a la All Dogs Go To Heaven), its terrors feel that much more dissonant. I can only imagine what viewing this would be like had I not known what it was about going in. And while it may not always be appreciated by your players, with the right group, that kind of bait-and-switch could be pretty powerful. In a way, it reminds me of Ravenloft, the way that setting toyed with (some would say unfairly) the expectations of D&D players.
I could go on, but this is already long-in-the-fang. So adieu for now, but meet me back here in a week with a movie or three of your own to discuss4.
That is, if you dare!
(cue the Vincent Price laughter)
- This is strongly connected to roleplaying culture, in that our very first games were explicitly about gazing into the darkness beyond the flickering light of our torches and wondering what secrets it held. ↩
- Ripley isn’t the only bit of Cameron-inspiration that makes its way into Zeiram; the villain hirself combines elements of both Aliens xenomorphs and The Terminator. And yes, I know the xenomorph showed up in Alien first. ↩
- 2E stat block because that’s the ruleset I had nearest at hand. ↩
- And be on the lookout for other creepy goodies and horror-related content from the GAW staff. Our treat to you! ↩