Cthulhu and the Wreck of the Sloop John B

(This is from a spelling I performed on my 50th birthday and part of a roleplaying game called “Secret: A Little Game about Magic,” which will be the last RPG I ever publish.)

Thursday November 15, 2018

Spent all day listening to different versions of the Sloop John B. All day.

The Kingston Trio version invokes the original language of Nassau. “Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” Every song a sailor sings is about going home.

When I first heard Brian Wilson’s poppy, happy, melancholy chimes and perfect chorus, I thought the music undermined the lyrics. It wants me to feel happy, but sad. But then I learned more about Wilson, and it made sense.

His depression. Hearing voices. Seeing visions. And I hear the song differently now. Just a little knowledge, and my whole impression changes.

When one of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, brought the song to Wilson, he originally rejected it. “I don’t like folk music.” But Jardine changed the chord structure to better fit a Beach Boys song and re-presented it. He left the studio, and the next morning, Wilson phoned him to come back in. He had re-arranged and recorded the song in less than 24 hours. That kind of obsession only comes coupled with a crippling depression that makes a man never want to leave his home. When the Barenaked Ladies sing “Lyin’ in bed, just like Brian Wilson did,” that’s the Brian Wilson they’re singing about.

I listen now and I hear the boppy music and the melancholy lyrics and it feels like the song was his own Voice of Depression thrown at a mixing board.

When I was a boy, my depression was a ghost hovering over my shoulder, constantly reminding me of ways to kill myself.

“You could do it now. Just jump off the bridge.”

“You could do it now. Just swerve the car into traffic.”

“You could do it now. Eat all the pills in the medicine cabinet.”

And the only time I felt good was in the shower. Just standing under hot water pelting my naked body. That made me feel good. I felt warm and safe. I’d take fifteen minute showers. Thirty minute showers. Just standing there in the hot water. My thoughts would turn to anything other than suicide. In fact, hurting myself was never an option in that place. My best ideas come from standing in the shower, just thinking.

Making music must have been the same way for Wilson. Imagine him, sitting behind the mixing board, focused on the harmonies and chord changes, his mind completely devoted to his work. Thoughts of razors and pills and traffic long gone, kept away behind the locked studio door.

When he says, “Why don’t you let me go home?” I know exactly which voice he’s talking to.

Twenty-four hours. And he made a song that people still sing. Almost as if he had no choice in the matter. As if it was protecting him from something.

I’m only thirteen years old when I find Call of Cthulhu in the Spencer’s Gifts. Walking in with ten dollars from mowing lawns, I planned on spending that money at the arcade next door, but I stopped here first. The people at Spencer’s Gifts have no idea what it is and have marked it down to ten bucks. They don’t even charge me tax for it. “Just take it, kid.”

I have no idea what this thing is. But I know the names “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu.” But it’s a game, too? Like Monopoly or Clue.

I open the box. The sweet smell of freshly printed paper rushes up to greet me. I have my first roleplaying game. Within 24 hours, I have friends over to try it.

I don’t need thirty minute showers anymore. I have something else. I can tell stories.

More than thirty years later, I’m running Pendragon for my friends. The game begins with Uther becoming the King of England and ends with Arthur being taken away to Avalon. It’s a long haul. Sometimes as long as two years of real time.

Six months into the game, my friend Rob writes this:

 

 

And I remember why I run games. I love movies. Nobody can say that about movies. I love books. Nobody can say that about books. Nobody can say that about plays or comics or television shows.

RPGs are a unique medium that has unique effects on the audience. Performs a unique kind of magic. Alchemy. The art of telling the story that transforms the audience and the artist.

Greg Stafford wrote about this in Runequest. In his world of Glorantha, you can accompany a shaman into the Hero Realm and undergo an adventure, reliving a hero’s experience in his eyes, walking in his footsteps. Returning to the world, you are transformed by the experience. Whether he knew it or not—and I like to think he did—Greg made a roleplaying game about the roleplaying game experience: the Game Master helps you enter the world of heroes and gods, where you walk in a hero’s footsteps, seeing through her eyes, and then return to the world, transformed by the experience. By taking you on that journey, the shaman, or the GM, also cannot help but be transformed.

A true magic trick indeed.

And now, all of that rushes up into my head, all at once. A full throttle firehose blast of information. Sailing on the Sloop John B with Cthulhu off the starboard side and Greg in his captain’s hat just smiles and says, “We’ve got this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you home.”

Unreview: Knives Out

Unreview Rules

  • I have to like it
  • I have to pay for it
  • I do my best to use E-Prime

NO SPOILERS

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. He taught me the value of reason and logic (even if he did mix up “induction” and “deduction”). The quirky detective with all his faults and foibles served as one of my first heroes. Later, I learned of Hercule Poirot through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even later, Dashiell Hammett introduced me to the Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler gave me Philip Marlowe. But my favorite—my all time favorite—has got to be Columbo and his “anti-mysteries.” If you aren’t familiar, the structure of a Columbo movie (they were all TV movies) showed you the crime right up front, making the criminal the main character, and the suspense was wondering how Columbo would solve it. And that’s only half the fun. The other half is watching a seemingly bumbling, clumsy, rumpled police detective wander around from scene to scene. I say “seemingly” because behind that cigar and under that coat was a brilliant mind with a trickster’s smile.

So yeah, I got some game in this market. I sat down in the theater with my small bag of popcorn and watched the seats slowly fill up. For the first time in many months (I go to the movies a lot) someone sat in nearly every seat. I couldn’t remember a theater being that full.

Waiting for the movie to start, I’m thinking about the director, Rian Johnson. I love his work. He has this skill for taking the tropes of a genre and twisting them up. You’ve got expectations, he’ll dash them while maintaining true to the tropes themselves. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and he always pulls it off magnificently.

And this film takes the classic, old fashioned murder mystery (what Neil Simon calls “murder poo!” in his play Murder by Death) and plays that juggling act with the kind of expertise and clever plotting that he used in Brick.

(And if you haven’t seen Brick, you should. Like, right now.)

The audience around me visibly reacted to the movie. They laughed, they gasped, they inched to the edge of their seats and I was right there with them. And as I sat there in the dark, enamored with what I watched, I thought to myself, “This is what going to the movies is all about.” Getting a visceral reaction from the audience.

Benoit Blanc, as played by Daniel Craig, has quickly jumped up in my estimation of private detectives. Taking a little of Holmes, Poirot and Columbo, Johnson created a character I honestly hope to see again on the silver screen. I know sequels are traps, but I honestly love this character. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast chews on the scenery and has a blast doing it. And like Richard Levinson and William Link (the two gentlemen who created Columbo), he’s created a brand new way to tell a murder mystery. I won’t say anything else other than it amused me to no end.

A friend of mine recently said, “Rian Johnson is dead to me for what he did” to The Last Jedi. And while I felt that was probably his weakest film (I still liked it), I feel sorry for him because he won’t see this movie. I’m going back this weekend to see it again and I’d pay for his ticket.

My D&D Character: Barbarian

My name? I do not have a name. I am called The Heinig.

My people were a peaceful tribe living in the mountains. We abhorred violence, but we understood its necessity. That is why I was chosen to carry the wrath of the tribe. When I was old enough, I went with the other children of my tribe to stand before the shaman. I remember it now. A dark night, we sat around the fire and drank what she gave us. We went before the Goddess, and we were tested. When it was done, the Goddess chose me. And I became the wrath of my people. I was given this axe. I would be their protector. So my people would not need to commit the Gravest Sin, I carried this axe.

What is the Gravest Sin? It is murder. Why do you not know this? Why do your people and your gods not teach you this? Is there any sin greater than that?

This is why I am The Heinig. I carry this axe so no other in my tribe needs to.

But I failed them. A horde of humans ran through my village with steel and fire, killing them all. They left me alive. They thought it was a game. They were all dead and their protector is still alive. And that is how they left me: with my axe and my tribe bleeding in the snow.

When I am very quiet, at night, I can see them. Trapped in this world, unable to pass into the next, for their spirits are unavenged. They sing to me. They do not sing me songs of shame, for they are too kind for that. They sing me songs of strength, so that I may carry on. To let me know that I do not carry this shame alone. They are still with me. And when I am weak, they carry me. When I weep, they laugh. When I doubt, they remind me of what I am.

That is why I shaved my head and my beard and that is why I travel the world. Not for riches. Not for magic. All these things are a means to an end.

I hunt those who murdered my people for sport. And when I find them, I will kill them. Because I am The Heinig. The wrath of my people.

And they will be avenged.

Gencon 7th Sea Larp

 

At Gencon this year, I ran a 7th Sea LARP for about 40 people. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback and people asking me exactly how it worked, what game design process I went through and a bunch of other questions. Since I’ve gotten so many questions, here are some answers.

Now, just to let you know, this is a behind the curtain essay. If you’re the kind of person who watches a magic trick and doesn’t want to know how it works, I highly suggest not reading after a certain point. I’ll let you know when that is. But first, just a quick summary of how the rules worked for the folks who played the game in Indianapolis. Also, if you’re gonna be at Strategicon in Los Angeles around the end of August, this is the larp I’ll be running, so you may also want to avoid the spoilers listed below. I’ll be making some changes, and the game literally changes at the players’ whims, so don’t expect too much “advantage” from reading ahead. Besides, this is a live action roleplaying game. Who the @#$% tries to win a roleplaying game?

(Psst: vampire larpers.)

Oh, that’s right. Never mind. Forgot I asked.

How the Game Works

I set the game in the city of Five Sails. Now, Five Sails is an independent city-state. It belongs to no Nation. “The City where everyone is a king, but nobody wears a crown.” (I stole that line, by the way.) Now, the city is divided into Districts, each “governed” by one of the Nations. There’s a Vodacce district, a Castille district, a Commonwealth district, etc. Every year, the governors of each district vote on a mayor.

Well, the mayor is gone. Presumed dead. Presumed murdered. And one of the governors is responsible. May not have done it themselves, but one of them has the mayor’s blood on their hands.

The players each represent a faction of Heroes working for one of the governors. In the Indianapolis game, I let the players choose which governor they wanted to work for. (This is the first thing I’m changing for the Los Angeles version: players will get divided randomly by drawing numbers out of a hat.)

First Economy: Traits

The game had a number of economies going on (things the players could use during the game.) The first was Traits.

Each player had an index card sized character sheet. The card had only the five 7th Sea Traits: Brawn, Finesse, Wits, Resolve, and Panache. Heroes had scores of 2-5 in their Traits. I also gave some return players (folks who had played in previous 7th Sea larps and brought the same character) and folks who dressed in costume a bonus ability they could use during the game. I had a half-Sidhe pirate, a Montaigne Porté mage and an Eisen mercenary who all got bonus stuff on their sheets.

Next, I introduced the players to the Clues on the table behind me. Each Clue was in a manilla envelope with a cryptic description. Each envelope also had a number of Trait points the players needed to spend to open the envelope. Brawn: 10, for example. That meant the players needed to get enough players to agree to spend 10 points of Brawn to open that envelope and read the Clue. Some Clues were cheap (Finesse: 5) and some Clues were expensive (All Traits: 5). The value of the Clue corresponded to the number of Traits the players had to spend.

Each Clue read similar to this one:

The Governor of ___________________ District owed the Mayor 10,000 Guilders.

I told the players they could fill in whichever governor they wanted. It could be the Vodacce governor, the Castillian governor, etc. And they didn’t have to fill it in right away. They could keep it, show it to the players representing another governor’s interests, and bargain for a trade of some kind.

The clues were deliberately vague for a purpose: at the end of the game, everyone would vote on which governor was responsible for killing the Governor. More on that in a bit.

Second Economy: Guilders and Improvements

The players also had a number of Guilders (coins) they could use as they saw fit. They could use the Guilders to buy Clues, for example. But each district also had a number of Improvements it wanted built in its part of the city. Montaigne wanted a new opera house, Eisen wanted a new garrison, etc. Each Improvement cost 10 Guilders. Once a player–and it had to be a single player–gave over the 10 Guilders for the Improvement, they got the card. Completing an Improvement was worth one Trait refresh. That is, a player could turn in an Improvement card and completely refresh one Trait (Brawn, Finesse, etc.).

Third Economy: Hero Points

Players also had Hero Points they could use like Style Points in my Houses of the Blooded larp. In short, I offer you a Hero  Point and ask you a question: “Isn’t it true that I beat you in a duel two years ago?” You can either say, “Yes” or “No” to this question. If you say, “Yes,” you get the Hero Point. If you say, “No,” I can offer your more Hero Points or just move on to another player, offering them the Hero Point.

Players can also ask me questions about the city, the mayor, etc., by offering me (the Host) Hero Points. If I say, “Yes,” I add it to a list of truths about the city at the front of the room. If I say, “No,” I can’t be bribed. It’s just one and done with me.

Hero Points give the players the opportunity to create stories and backgrounds between themselves, create rivalries, allies and enemies. You cannot force someone to take a Hero Point. It’s 100% consensual. (Because RPGs are more like sex than most people realize.)

The Artifacts

Finally, there’s the Artifacts. Hidden in the game were four Syrneth Artifacts: relics from a civilization that walked Théah before humans. If a group found an Artifact, they could use it to establish whether a governor was a Hero or a Villain. Of course, this significantly influenced the question of which governor was responsible for killing the mayor.

The Pirates and My Ringer

Oh, and in addition to the city factions, I also had a pirate faction. They were in town and offering their services to help solve the murder. I made up the pirate faction as soon as I saw so many people dressed appropriately. They turned out to be a loud, rowdy group who sang shanties and did their best to cause trouble.

I had Jessica along as a ringer. She was playing the half-Sidhe pirate. Jessica is perfect for this job. She’s helpful, knowledgable and when you give her the ability to do anything, she uses it responsibly. So, I gave her the power to do anything. She is a Sidhe, after all.

How It Played

The players made their character sheets out–a total of two minutes–and listened to the description I gave above, the whole spiel took about ten minutes. That included questions. After that, we were ready to play.

Each group started haltingly, testing the waters. Except the Eisen bunch. They went straight to work.

Two duelists–one a Montaigne and the other a pirate–seemed to start a kind of rivalry. They came to me and asked me how the system would handle a duel. I told them, “Offer each other Hero Points. Whoever accepts gets to say who won the duel.” They apparently decided to spend the game collecting as many Hero Points as possible to offer the other at the end of the game to win the duel. That meant they had to say “Yes” to a lot of things to get those Hero Points. And, at the end of the game, they offered each other a mass of Hero Points and agreed on a winner. But more on that later.

The flow of the game was groups of players trying to work together to get as many people they could together to “find clues.” One by one, they opened them up and decided on how to fill the blanks.

They exchanged Hero Points establishing relationships with each other, creating rivalries and friendships. And they showed the Clues to each other as they opened them, asking rival factions how much they wanted to pay to keep the Clue from pointing at their governor.

And I… did… nothing.

Honestly. I’ve heard so many people tell me how busy a GM is at a larp, and during my larps, I largely walk around and listen or sit down and watch. That’s because with Hero Points (Style Points in Houses of the Blooded and Blood in my little vampire larp), the players make the drama. I don’t need to do anything. I just toss the pitch and let the players hit the ball, and let them field it.

Because every player has Hero Points, they’re all empowered to make decisions. They can see a player they want to engage and can offer them Hero Points to engage them. I give them the power to do it. But more importantly, I give them the permission to do it. Hero Points are abstract, they aren’t just GM encouragement. They’re a mechanic. And because of that, it’s okay for you to spend them any way you want, so long as you can convince someone else to say, “Yes.”

In a matter of an hour, three of the four Artifacts were found. The players decided which governors were Heroes and which were Villains. The fourth was in Jessica’s possession, and I knew she’d have it show up when it was appropriate. One group who found one of the Artifacts asked if they could use it on the captain of the pirate faction. I told them, “You have to get his permission.” So, they went to him, offered him Hero Points, and he agreed to become a Villain.

And speaking of Villains…

These were mine. My friends I met in Italy. They were the representatives of the Vodacce district. I asked if they would play Villains for me, and they jumped at the chance.

I gave them Villain Points instead of Hero Points. And I said, “Tell the players that Villain Points act exactly like Hero Points, but when you spend them, something awful might happen. Be sure to tell John when you spend them.”

They asked me, “What do Villain Points do?”

I told them. And they smiled. But that’s for later.

I also told them, “Your job isn’t to thwart the players. It’s to get thwarted by the players. You are obstacles to overcome. Let them do it.” They agreed.

So, I gave them Villain Points, a bunch of coins to bargain with, and they were off.

(And that’s Jessica grinning in the background.)

How It Ended

The players managed to discover all the Clues and Artifacts and get all the Improvements made. (That tells me I made things too easy for them. I’ll change that for Los Angeles.) Jessica gave out a few faerie gifts and it looked like the Eisen were in a clear lead for “most productive faction.”

The two women (Pirate and Montaigne) who wanted to perform a duel did so. I set it up like the pro wrestling larp my friend Dan and I run: I had them sit in two chairs just out of reach of each other and asked them to narrate the duel to the other players. They offered each other Hero Points to determine the winner and the Pirate came out on top. They narrated the duel with a lot of pantomime and drama and because the other players didn’t know who was going to win, they were cheering and booing the whole way.

After considering all the Clues, each faction voted on who was responsible for the mayor’s death: the Montaigne governor. And then, when it was all over, I had everyone vote on which player would take his place. Then, we all cheered, I closed the game, and we took pictures.

Spoilers: Behind the Scenes

Like I said, a lot of folks asked me to break down how I pulled all this off. It must have seemed like an incredible feat of game design engineering. At least, that’s what I’m told. People asked me how I kept all the players so entertained. “I’ve never been to a larp where I wasn’t bored at least part of the time.”

Well, here’s the big secret, folks. And, like I said, if you don’t want to know any spoilers or see how the trick is done, turn away now. Just stop reading. And now, with no further ado…

 

 

 

 

 

… I made it all up.

Seriously. I just made it all up.

I sat down on the morning of the larp and wrote down 30 Clues. Took me about forty minutes.

Then, I thought about what kind of cool thing the players could do with the Artifacts. I took a shower–the source of all good ideas–and thought about it. I decided, “The Artifacts let the players decide which governors are Heroes and Villains.” That worked.

How many coins did I give each faction? Eh, I made it up. I had a bag of coins and I decided some factions should get more than others. I knew the Montaigne faction was the smallest, so I gave them the most coins. Seemed to make thematic sense. (Also, the Montaigne faction came damn close to winning the election. They were good players.)

And finally, while I was running the game (which was me pretty much walking around and watching), I rewarded players with Hero Points and Kewl Powerz. Like giving some folks a free Trait Refresh. Or giving others bonus Brawn.

But the most important thing I did was trust the players. I gave them the ability to be GMs themselves (with Hero Points) and let them go. And when one of them got a little over-eager with the idea, I reminded them, “This is just a game. There’s no winning or losing. It’s about telling a story.

Now, you may argue that “winning” is figuring out who murdered the mayor. Yeah, sure. I guess. But really, everyone was going to vote on that anyway.

You may say that getting the Artifacts was winning. Yeah, sure. I guess. But it wasn’t zero sum winning. You didn’t win because someone else lost. You wanted to say something true about the governor, and you did. Great! You set a goal and you got it. But that really doesn’t count as “winning,” does it? At least, not at another player’s expense.

The players set their own agendas and had the tools to accomplish them…as long as they got consent from other players. And that’s really how the game runs. That’s the big secret:

 

Give players the power to be the GM and trust they’ll tell stories with it.

 

If you tell players that’s what your game is about–like I did–they’ll generally do it. Didn’t Mr. Miyagi teach us all that? Let me paraphrase: “No such thing as bad player. Only bad game. Game say, player do.” The game says, “Here’s narration rights. Be responsible.” Do that, and players will, generally, do what they’re told.

A bunch of larp people were at the game and they commented on how it seemed there was no system. No formal dueling mechanic, no mechanic for sorcery, no mechanic for mass combat. “Yeah,” I said. “We don’t need it.”

And that’s the truth. In a cooperative storytelling game (like RPGs and larps), what mechanics do you really need? I’ll tell you what you need: a mechanic that encourages people to cooperate and tell stories.

Everything else… it’s just nonsense.

 

 

Oh, and what do Villain Points do?

My Vodacce players know. Ask them. I’m sure they’ll quote you a fair price.

 

My Superman

 

(With acknowledgement to Mike Curry without whom this story wouldn’t exist.)

A bank robbery. Six suspects, all with incredible, inhuman speed and strength. Their eyes glowing an eerie cobalt blue. Fortunately for them, they decided to rob a Metropolis bank and not a Gotham bank. If they had chosen the latter, they’d all have broken bones and possibly brain tissue trauma. Fortunately for them, they chose Metropolis.

About one minute and fifteen seconds after the robbery starts, he shows up. Like a blue and red blur, he moves through the bank, grabbing guns and bending them around the robbers’ bodies. He does this so quickly, cameras can’t catch it.

When he gets to the last robber, the man has a hostage: a man in his sixties who looks like he may fall apart at any moment. The last robber–Reggie Spenser–is a black man with a crew cut. He moves like a professional soldier because he was one. Reggie makes a couple of threats, then finds himself in the same position as his comrades: his gun melted and bent around his body, immobilizing him. Reggie looks up and sees the clear blue eyes and black hair. But what he doesn’t see is malice or hate.

“@#$% you!” he shouts at the Man of Steel. But instead of more violence, the soft baritone asks him a question.

“What led you here?”

Reggie looks confused. “Whuddyou mean?”

“I mean, what led you to the decision to rob a bank? You’re strong. You’re smart. What brought you here, this day, to aim lethal weapons at people and threaten their lives?”

That’s when Reggie realizes that the Last Son of Krypton isn’t just super strong and super fast, but there’s something in his voice that…it isn’t mesmerization. It isn’t anything forceful. It’s just…

Empathy.

Reggie looks into those eyes and hears the voice and realizes, He actually cares. 

“We were Marines. They did something to us. Put us in a box. This blue smoke filled it up and we passed out. And when we woke up, this is what we were. They said we were a mistake and tried to kill us. We’ve been off the grid ever since.”

Reggie hears sirens. And the baritone voice again.

“What’s your name?”

Reggie tells him.

“Reggie, you’re going to face the criminal justice system. More than likely, you’re going to jail. I can’t help you with that. Tell your story to your lawyer. Trust him. I know the woman who runs the Public Defender’s Office. They’re overworked, but they’re good people.”

The sirens get closer and he continues.

“You’re probably going to jail.” He puts his large hand on Reggie’s shoulder. “But when you get out, I’ll be there. And we’ll both make sure you get a fresh start.”

 

Three years later…

 

Reggie Spenser walks out of Metropolis Prison. He’s carrying only what he carried in with him. Standing outside the prison is a tall man in a blue suit with a red cape.

“Hey man,” Reggie says. “Thanks for the visits. I don’t know if I could have made it without ’em.”

The man in the blue suit says, “You’re strong. You would have made it.”

Reggie smiles and says, “Those cookies really come from your mom?”

“They sure did.”

“Tell your mom she makes great cookies.”

The Man of Steel says, “I found the men who did this to you. They’re in custody. The District Attorney says he needs your testimony to finish off his case.”

Reggie thinks for a moment. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll do that.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” Superman says. “You’ve got a hard road ahead of you. There are people who want you to fail.”

“@#$% them,” Reggie says.

“Not the language I’d use, but I appreciate the sentiment. Come on. I’ll fly you over.”

 

Meanwhile, across the river, Gotham Central Hospital just admitted four bank robbers with cranial fractures. Two of them might make it.

 

* * *

 

Mike Curry and I were talking.I had just watched a documentary on Mr. Rogers and was commenting on how decent a human being he was, all the way through. That got Mike thinking about how to introduce Superman to a group of roleplayers. He said “I have Batman, but I haven’t gotten Superman figured out.”

Then, he said, “What if Superman was like Mr. Rogers?”

And thus, this story.

Thanks, Mike.

 

Unreview: WWE 2018 Survivor Series

 

Vince McMahon has committed many sins in his life (And by “sin,” I mean the original meaning of the word: “falling short.”), but this is perhaps the one sin for which a wrestling promoter can never be forgiven: he has lost control of his audience.

Everything you see in a wrestling show leads to a single purpose: to control the audience. Make them cheer, make them boo, make them laugh, make them cry. Wrestlers do this in their matches by structuring the contest in such a way that you feel what they want you to feel. The villain cheats, you shout angry epithets at the ring. The hero makes a comeback, you jump to your feet and cheer. And a wrestling show is constructed in the very same way. Just like plays, movies, books, and TV shows, promoters design their wrestling shows to manipulate the emotions of the audience.

Last night on WWE’s 2018 edition of Survivor Series, after taking a brutal and seemingly endless beating which left Ronda Rousey with a beet red chest, a broken lip, a bleeding ear, criss-cross marks on her arms, and visible open wounds, the crowd boo’d her out of the building. The problem was, the beating she took was designed to make the crowd boo her opponent…who walked out of the arena with cheers and chants of “Thank you!” It was the exact opposite result McMahon and his writers wanted.

Watching Rousey walk the ramp to the back choked me up right to the edge of tears. Yes, wrestling matches are choreographed stunt shows, but you can’t fake gravity and you can’t ignore pain. The beating Rousey went through was real. You can watch it. Just do a Google search and look at what her body looked like.

See those marks on her arm? Those aren’t make up. Those are legit marks from getting hit over and over and over again with a shinai. The woman was in pain. The attack—performed by Ric Flair’s daughter, Charlotte—was one of the cruelest and vicious things I’ve seen in years. And as a wrestling fan, I lived through the Horseman beatings in GCW. I saw the Piper-Valentine strap match. I’ve seen Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher. And I watched the Mick Foley-Undertaker Hell in a Cell match live, holding my breath the whole time. This was uncomfortable to watch because Charlotte did not pull any punches. It felt real.

And yet, when it was over, Charlotte was the one who was cheered and Rousey’s hometown crowd simply turned on her. The exact opposite effect of what the creators desired.

How could this happen?

Because Vince McMahon has lost control of his audience. And tonight was just a symptom of a much deeper problem: he thinks his fanbase is stupid.

Let me explain using an example from last night. In wrestling, there’s a long tradition of something called “the promoter’s son effect.” That is, whoever happens to be in charge of the wrestling company pushes his (or sometimes her) son above all the other talent. This creates resentment in the locker room as they watch someone without as much talent, charisma, or wrestling skill gets pushed above and beyond everyone else. It was true of the Von Erich boys in World Class, it was true of Greg Gagne in the AWA, it was true of Erik Watts in WCW…the list simply goes on and on.

Last night’s PPV was to pit the two WWE shows against each other: Raw vs Smackdown. And in the end, Raw won 6-out-of-6 matches, giving them a clean sweep. Why was the show written this way? To give Shane McMahon—Vince’s son—a reason to “turn heel.” That is, to become a villain.

That’s right. Vince threw an entire show’s roster under the bus so his son could have an excuse to become a villain. He made everyone on that show look weak and/or foolish for his son. Perhaps the ultimate example of the promoter’s son effect.

And he does this thinking the fanbase won’t notice. But there’s a problem here. Wrestling fans are a lot more media savvy than they were back in the ’70’s and ’80’s. More savvy than they were in the ’90’s, when wrestling had its Modern Golden Age. We’ve been through TV and media that have demanded a lot from us. Shows like LostAmerican Horror StoryGame of ThronesThe Sopranos, and Breaking Bad actually forced its audience to smarten up and watch with a critical eye. Websites devoted to finding easter eggs and foreshadowing in shows have made their audiences keener than they’ve ever been before.

Problem is, the WWE thinks they’re still selling their product to rubes and marks.

Used to be, when a villain cheated to win a match, the crowd would get angry at the villain. They left the sports auditorium thinking, “That dirty Ole Anderson is gonna get it when Dusty gets his hands on him!”

But a modern audience doesn’t think that way anymore. When they’re unhappy with a match’s results, they get mad at the promoter.

Case in point: two years ago was the Year of Daniel Bryan. Bryan is a wrestler with incredible skills, one of the best performers in the world. And at the time, WWE treated him like a joke because he didn’t look like Hulk Hogan, John Cena or Roman Reigns. He was a comedy act. The fans hated this and voiced their displeasure whenever they could. They’d chant his name during his matches. They’d chant his name during other peoples’ matches. And when he lost, they’d boo, even though he was a heel. The fans simply did not care how McMahon treated Bryan, they cheered. Because, at the time, the crowd felt that if they cheered loud enough, Vince would change his mind.

Well, their plan worked. Sort of. Daniel Bryan did become the WWE champion…but his reign would be short-lived. He would be played off as a fluke and lose the title to someone of McMahon’s choosing and the fans would be happy to watch it happen. Circumstances would strip Daniel Bryan of the title early: a lifetime of hard matches convinced the WWE medical staff that wrestling was no longer safe. And for two years, Bryan was a non-wrestling talent in the WWE, serving as a manager.

But Bryan was, like last night’s event, a symptom of that same problem. So were wrestlers such as Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka, and Finn Balor. All great talents that the fans were ready to get behind…but Vince remained unconvinced. So, he buried them in the middle of the roster while his hand-picked heroes and villains thrived, despite what the audience wanted.

The crowd believed it could change Vince’s mind. After all, it worked with Daniel Bryan. So, they continued to cheer for their favorites, regardless of what Vince was doing with them. This includes a woman named Becky Lynch.

The fans have decided they love Becky Lynch. And, as a lifetime wrestling fan, I can see why. She’s got talent. She looks fantastic in the ring. She has charisma. And she can put on a damn good show. Everyone loves Becky Lynch…

…so Vince made her a villain.

And the crowd didn’t care. They kept cheering her, no matter what the WWE tried to do.

Last night, Becky was supposed to be on the show. It was supposed to be Becky Lynch vs Ronda Rousey. Unfortunately, one of Vince’s hand picked golden tickets—the Rock’s cousin, Nia Jax—hit Becky in the face, breaking her nose and giving her a concussion. (The latest in a long string of injuries dealt by the severely undertrained Nia Jax.) That meant the WWE needed to replace Becky Lynch. They replaced her with Charlotte Flair.

As soon as the match started, the crowd started chanting Becky’s name. They didn’t want this match. They wanted Becky Lynch. Fortunately, the two women put on one of the best WWE matches I’ve seen in years. And I mean any match, put on by men or women. I was on the edge of my seat.

And then, in the middle of it, Charlotte just decided, “Screw this, I’m disqualifying myself.” In wrestling parlance, it’s called a “F—ck finish.” And when you do one of these, you have to make sure the crowd is with you, or they’ll turn on the match.

And that’s exactly what happened last night. The crowd was so pissed at the “non ending” of the match, they started booing the hero and cheering the villain.

At long last, the crowd has figured out a troubling truth: if they can’t yell at Vince, they’ll yell at the talent.

Last night’s audience turned into an angry mob, and they were going to throw their feces and fire at someone. Vince wasn’t there, so they decided to throw it at Ronda Rousey. The woman who just went through a real beating, had open wounds on her scalp, on her ear, on her arms and legs. And as she walked up the stage, and she heard those people throwing their derision at her, she started to cry.

That’s when I knew I just couldn’t watch the WWE anymore. I just can’t.

I can’t watch Vince McMahon take talent like Asuka, Bayley, Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor, and many, many others and piss their careers down the drain because he doesn’t know how to “get them over” with the crowd.

Sorry, Vince. Your failure of imagination is not my problem. And I’m tired of rewarding it.

 

 

 

Unreview: Suspiria

 

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to pay for it,
  2. I have to like it,
  3. I do my best to use E-Prime

 

Go see it. I mean what I say. Go see it.

Don’t read reviews, don’t listen to anyone else. Just go see it. Sit in a dark theater—alone or with someone you trust—and sit through the whole movie, even through the credits. The whole thing, start to end, to after the end. Go see it.

Why? Because I’m sick and @#$%ing tired of Vancian magic.

What is “Vancian magic?” Well, according to TV Tropes.com:

 

  1. Magical effects are packaged into distinct spells; each spell has one fixed purpose. A spell that throws a ball of fire at an enemy just throws balls of fire, and generally cannot be “turned down” to light a cigarette, for instance.
  2. Spells represent a kind of magic bomb which must be prepared in advance of actual use, and each prepared spell can be used only once before needing to be prepared again. That’s why it is also known as “Fire & Forget magic.”
  3. Magicians have a finite capacity of prepared spells which is the de facto measure of their skill and/or power as magicians. A wizard using magic for combat is thus something like a living gun: he must be “loaded” with spells beforehand and can run out of magical “ammunition”.

 

I’m sick and @#$%ing tired of wizards being treated like Swiss Army knives. A spell for every occasion! Memorizing spells, forgetting them when cast, and having to re-memorize them again.

I’m sick of it. And I want more people to see this film and understand what I’m talking about when I talk about real magic.

Now, remember: I’m a skeptic and an agnostic atheist (an antitheist on my angrier days). When I talk about “real magic,” I’m talking about the kind of stuff we humans came up with when addressing the world. Anthropomorphic answers to difficult questions. Giving names to powers older and greater than us. I can be an atheist and still find magic fascinating. Specifically when someone does it as beautifully as its done in Suspiria.

The whole movie is about a single magical act. Yes, others happen during the course of the film, but this one important magical act is what we’re talking about here. And this isn’t a spell. It’s what Crowley called “a working.” It’s a prolonged work of art. A demanding work of art. Something that makes you…work for it. An exercise of changing the world through will.

I sat in a dark theater—as you will—and watched this working unfold. The price it demanded. The consequences. The blood. Oh, yes. There’s blood. And horror. Because magic isn’t like reading instructions from a manual. You don’t read the spell from the book and it just happens. You have to pay for it.

Wait. You don’t know the Three Rules of Magic? Here, let me line them up:

 

  1. It always costs too much,
  2. You never get what you want, and
  3. You can break all the rules.

 

Keep those in mind while you’re sitting in the theater. Consider them a compass or a guide. You’ll need them.

That’s why magic is like dance. In fact, dance is magic. It demands more than you can give. Dance until you sweat. Dance until you vomit. Dance until you fall down. Dance until you feel the ecstasy rush through you. To reach that level, you have to pay the others first. You have to pay for it.

And just like the working in the film, the film itself is a working. Art designed to transform. You will not be the same when the lights come back on. You’ll be transformed by what you see.

And that, my friends, is real magic.

 

Unreview: Bohemian Rhapsody

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I do my best to use E-Prime when talking about the thing itself

I write “unreviews” to highlight the subjective nature of reviews in general, and as you’ll see, talking about this film exposes the fact that I cannot be “objective” about it. I loved Freddie Mercury and Queen remains one of the bands who continue to play my emotional heartstrings. I cannot listen to music passively. When other writers like Stephen King say he listens to music while he writes, I just don’t understand that. When you’re listening to Queen, how can you do anything but stop anything else you’re doing and pay attention? I can’t. I start to sing, I play air instruments, or, if it’s available, I get behind my drum kit. Case in point…

Back in 1985, I was a Junior in high school living in Georgia. Live Aid was going to be the biggest concert of all time. Friends of mine and I had MTV on in the background while we played D&D. I was distracted by the music, but it didn’t matter much. Most people don’t remember that before Queen arrived, the show was dull as dirt. The bands who showed up didn’t seem to want to be there. They ran through their 20 minute sets and walked off. “St. Bob” Geldof was worried. His show was going down the toilet.

Then Queen showed up. They weren’t supposed to be there. But they took the stage and, as St. Bob said it, they saved the day. The D&D game stopped dead cold and we watched as Queen showed the other bands how to capture the hearts of a billion people.

I cannot be objective about Queen or Freddie Mercury. That’s probably why I cried all the way through this film.

The plot structure resembles every other band bio pic you’ve ever seen, but Rami Malek uses the same voodoo Karl Urban used to capture the spirt of DeForest Kelly to bring Freddie Mercury to the screen. (I should also say Gwilym Lee does a similar voodoo spell when playing Brian May, the often overlooked musical heart of the band. I honestly thought to myself, “Astrophysicist Brian May of 2018 must have invented a time machine, went back to 1970 and pulled his younger self from the past.) I found myself nodding with the scenes pulled from stories I already knew but my chest heaved every time Malek’s Freddie had to be Farrokh Bulsara: an awkward, sexually confused and lonely geek with big teeth who knew he didn’t belong in the cool kid’s club.

I’ve probably ignored or overlooked a lot of the film’s flaws and I simply don’t care. Moments from the movie broke my heart, and while I wish there cold have have been more of them, I honestly do not care. For example, after watching the scene when Freddie and his beloved Mary watch footage from the first Queen in Rio concert, I will never hear Love of my Life without shamelessly weeping.

Queen made bombastic, hyper dramatic and even hyperbolic music. They threw everything they could at the audience: sound, image and even mythology. That was the whole point of Queen. When Brian May says, “I want to write a song the audience can play along with us,” he meant it. You can say a lot of things about Queen, but one thing you cannot say is they were cynical or insincere. They believed in what they were doing.

This film made me cry and more than once. I was a blubbering mess when my two favorite Queen songs ran over the credits. The first, “Don’t Stop Me Now” is Freddie in full persona: a Dionysian god. The second, “The Show Must Go On,” was written and performed when he knew he was dying. I was wrecked.

While the rest of Bohemian Rhapsody came across to me as a very high priced Behind the Music episode, I simply don’t care. The moments I wanted are there, including a breath-taking full recreation of those 20 minutes that Queen held the attention of the world. And Rami Malek deserves some sort of award for being able to invoke both Freddie Mercury and Farrokh Bulsara.

I cannot be objective about this film. But then again, that’s the whole point isn’t it? We can’t be objective about art. Saying otherwise avoids the whole point of art in the first place: to elicit an emotional response from the audience, to force us to put away our analytical mind and enjoy. Try thinking analytically about any Queen song. Go on. You can analyze the mechanics of it, the musicianship of it, the arrangements, the sound production, but when it comes to Queen, what really matters is how you feel.

BOOM, BOOM, CLAP
BOOM, BOOM, CLAP
BOOM, BOOM, CLAP