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

 

 

Unreview: Halloween (2018)

Let’s review the Unreview Rules:

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

See that first rule? Read it again.

All right. Let’s talk about Halloween. I mean, the movie that scared me witless when I was ten years old.

 

 

See that frame right above here? See it?

That’s the first time I ever stood and screamed while watching a movie. I saw it in Ames, Iowa. That theater was in a mall and had only two screens. The one on the left was generally G and PG rated films. If there was an R rated film, it was in the theater on the right. A friend and I paid to see a movie on the left screen, but we snuck into the right screen to see Halloween. And let me tell you, that film scared the bejeezus out of me. I wasn’t right for days. Weeks. And when something scares me, I want to study it. I want to know why it scared me. Also, looking at it with a clinical eye tends to reduce the fear. 

As the years went on, I kept watching that movie whenever I could. When it came on HBO, I’d watch it. Late at night with the TV turned down real low so my parents wouldn’t hear me. Sitting in the dark, all alone, I’d study every frame of that film. I also watched the other “slasher flicks” that followed. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine…all the rest. And I’m sure it isn’t flying in the face of conventional wisdom to say that none of them matched up with Halloween. But it’s clear to me a lot of people don’t understand why. This evening comes to mind. Here, let me explain why horror works.

Let’s take a movie like Alien. You’re sitting in the dark theater and you know there’s an alien on board. You just saw it rip out of some guy’s chest. What does the crew decide to do? They split into teams, arm themselves, and have a plan for getting the alien off the ship. Sounds like a solid plan. But it doesn’t work. One of the crew gets killed (you think) and the rest of the astronauts have to figure out what to do next. They come up with a plan. They split into groups, arm themselves, and…oh well. Now the captain’s dead. Dammit. That plan didn’t work, either. Okay, new plan. Let’s get the hell off the ship. We’ll get into the escape shuttle. Screw the alien, we’re outta here! Oh, that didn’t work? Well, crap.

See a pattern here? Everything they do is smart. It’s exactly what you would do if you were in the situation. You sit in the theater and watch smart people do smart things with a smart plan…and one of them dies. And in your head, you’re saying, “If was there, I’d go along with that smart plan and…oh, crap. I’d be dead.”

And that my friends is why horror works. Because you sympathize with the people on the screen. You empathize with the people on the screen. They’re doing what you’d do…and they end up dead. Not because they did something stupid, but because they did something smart but the killer—the alien, in this case—was one step ahead. That’s why horror works.

When you watch the 1978 Halloween, you’re with Laurie Strode. She’s smart, she’s capable, and most importantly, she’s babysitting kids. You see her talk to the kid, be on the kid’s side. She talks him down from being afraid of the Boogeyman when the other kids try to terrorize him. She says, “I’m here, and I’ll protect you from the Boogeyman.”

And you know what happens? THAT. That happens. She protects him from the goddamn Boogeyman. We’re on Laurie’s side because she does smart things. Not only that, but she’s protecting a child.

Now, if you make your movie full of stupid people doing stupid things, I’m going to stop caring about them because I know they’re gonna get killed. And when I stop caring…well, my friend, you just broke one of the oldest rules of storytelling: Never lose your audience. And that’s why the subsequent slasher films just don’t work. You don’t give a single turd for any of the kids at Crystal Lake. Not one of them. In fact, you want Jason to kill them all. You hate them because they’re pretty and stupid. And the film makers go out of their way to give them qualities you’ll hate so when Jason shows up with his big goddamn bladed thing, you’re cheering for him to kill the kids.

And that’s why Halloween is different. You’re not cheering for Michael Myers. You’re terrified of Michael Myers. And you want Laurie to make it. Just survive. And protect the kids.

For example, if I was making a sequel to Halloween, the very last thing I’d do is put stupid people in the movie so the audience clearly knows ahead of time these people are doomed. Like showing a father and his son on their way to a hunting trip and they come across a prison bus with prisoners wandering around. Just wandering around. And you know what else I wouldn’t do? I wouldn’t have the father leave his son in the truck as he gets out to investigate. And to make things even dumber, after you just told the audience, “These two are on a hunting trip,” you have the father wandering around without a weapon. Then, after the son freaks out because his dad hasn’t come back to the truck, you have the 12 year old boy leave the truck and go looking for his father, shouting “Daddy!” at the top of his lungs until the killer snaps the kid’s neck. Yeah, snaps his neck. You see and hear it, right there on screen. I’d never do that. And it’s a good thing this is a hypothetical scenario and not a spoiler. Because I’d sure hate to spoil a good horror film for you, Faithful Reader.

Did I mention it was a twelve year old boy? And his neck just snaps.

Anyway, one of the small details most people miss about the original Halloween film is the lack of gore. There’s almost no blood at all in the film. The only blood you see is a gash on Laurie’s arm from a knife wound, and it’s clear its painted on. I mean, clearly painted on. The movie works not because it tries to gross you out, but because it uses mood, atmosphere, lighting and music to fill you full of dread. When the kills come (and there’s only 4 in the whole movie), they are sudden. It’s over in a moment. And the first half of the movie let you get to know the characters. Well, some of them. Some of them you don’t know, and yes, that’s a weakness in the original film. But Carpenter kept the body count low, so each death counts.

If I did a remake of Halloween, you know what I would not do? Throw in more than a dozen deaths. And make them as brutal as I could make them. Because that would be reducing Halloween to its shallow imitators who didn’t understand the original to begin with. Because each person you kill makes the audience care less. I mean, fourteen deaths would be a lot. Like a Friday the 13th movie a lot. Way, way too many. But who would do that? What kind of writer or director would throw in 14 or so murders knowing that each one has less of an impact, so by the end of the movie, the audience is so numb, they stop caring? I’ll tell you who would do that: someone who didn’t know what they were doing when they were making a Halloween sequel. That’s why wouldn’t do it.

But if someone asked me to make a Halloween sequel, you know what would be really cool? I’d do a flashback to the original with Laurie sitting in class while the teacher talks about a particular story. She’s distracted by a shape standing halfway behind a tree, watching her. The teacher asks Laurie a question and she answers it, looking back out the window to see the shape is gone.

Now flash forward to the present day. Laurie’s granddaughter sits in the same chair with the teacher talking about the same story. She looks out the window and sees Laurie standing in the same place the Shape stood, watching her from halfway behind a tree. The teacher asks a question, the granddaughter answers, and when she looks back, Laurie’s vanished.

You know what that tells me? Especially after you establish that Laurie has been preparing for Michael Myers to escape and return to Haddenfield? That she’s set up her house as a huge death trap? That tells me that the last act of the film is going to be a complete reverse of the first. It’s going to be Micheal wandering around the house while Laurie haunts and hunts him. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Wouldn’t that put so much power into Laurie’s character after she was nearly killed by this guy forty years ago? Watching Micheal become the victim as Laurie hunts the sonofabitch room by room? And there’d be a bit where he threatens the granddaughter or you could have Michael hurt Laurie so bad that the granddaughter has to pick up the plan and…

…yeah, that doesn’t happen. Don’t worry. No spoilers.

Come to think of it, this hypothetical sequel…you know what else I wouldn’t do? Have Laurie explain to her daughter and granddaughter the different qualities of each shotgun she has stashed in the house. “This one is for stopping power…this one is for accuracy…and this one is tactical.” The last example is a snub nosed shotgun, perfect for going room-to-room. You know what I wouldn’t do? After explaining that to her family, not five minutes later, she goes room-to-room…with the shotgun with the longest goddamn barrel she can find. Because that would be stupid, especially after explaining that the short barrel shotgun is the one you use for that kind of…

…yeah. I’m glad that’s only a hypothetical example. Because that would be a huge spoiler if it actually happened.

Halloween (1978) works because it’s the story of ordinary people facing off against unstoppable evil. And remember me talking about that moment I stood up and screamed? That moment right there in that picture? I stood up and screamed nobody knew it was going to happen. We thought Michael was just a lunatic. We didn’t know he was “pure evil.” Laurie just didn’t count on Michael Myers being what he is and neither did we. Who would be? The first time you watch the film, you have no idea what he is, so when he does his famous sit up, you scream. Because that’s when you realize exactly what she’s up against. It’s the Boogeyman. For real. Not a crazy guy in a mask, no. The honest to God real and walking talking goddamn Boogeyman. And that’s the moment when I was so afraid, I couldn’t sit still. I was trembling in my seat. Because this young girl who is protecting a ten year old kid—just like me—was in the same room as a real monster. A real monster. Not Frankenstein or Dracula or Wolfman. They were fake. This was a real monster. He could be in my closet, right now, waiting for me to come home. And the worst possible thing you can do when you make a horror film is fill it full of worn-out cliches from the original’s predecessor because that makes it something you never want a horror film to be: boring.

That’s why Halloween (1979) works. And that’s why…

…sorry. Rule #1.

 

Santa Vaca: “Fun Happens Between the Rules”

(From the introduction to the Santa Vaca Companion—coming soon.)

Photo on Foter.com

I have a lot of respect for James Ernest. We tend to hang out at conventions and spend a lot of time talking about games and everything but games. We agree, we disagree, we argue, but there’s always respect. I have never felt as if James was talking down to me and I do my best never to talk down to him.

And here’s something that everyone should say about someone else: James is a better game designer than I am. Like, way better. I can patch together some rules for a game, but James can put together ten or twelve solid games in as many hours. But there’s one caveat to this truth. James doesn’t get roleplaying games. It’s not that he doesn’t understand them, or even that he couldn’t design one, but there’s just something about RPGs that eludes him. He’s said this to me more than once. And I think it’s part of the mutual respect we have.

Just recently, at RinCon, he told me about a Pairs Deck game he made that was, in essence, an RPG. A card draft tells you who your character is and what they can do, establishing race and character class. Then, play proceeds to tell the story of your characters running through a dungeon crawl.

(“Running through a dungeon crawl.” Oh I could go on and on about the irony of that.)

James explained to me that his regular playtest crew was having fun, but there was a problem with the game. Whenever they were bantering and roleplaying their characters, they were having fun, but as soon as they engaged with the mechanic, the fun fell apart. And a little prideful part of me likes to think that he was telling me this story because he wanted my opinion about it. That one little thing that I knew, that little trick he hadn’t mastered yet. He was asking me. That’s what I like to tell myself. Anyway, he told me the story and without missing a beat, I said something that completely took me by surprise.

“In an RPG, the fun happens between the rules.”

I was shocked after I said it. But I said it with such confidence, I’m sure James thought it was some kind of profound RPG Buddha wisdom that I kept secret except for those who were truly worthy. But that isn’t the case. I just kind of said it. And after saying it, I thought about it for the rest of the weekend.

Is that really true? Does the fun really happen between the rules?

As a matter of coincidence, I ran The Name of the Game is Wrestling, a pro wrestling RPG Dan Waszkiewicz I have been playing around with for almost half a decade. The game started off as a straight RPG, then changed to a card-based RPG, then changed into something else, then something else…and we’ve given up about a dozen times trying to figure out how to do it.

Well, we figured out how to do it. We threw the damn rules out.

Oh, there are rules. It’s just none of them involve any dice or cards or conflict resolution.

The way it works: We have everyone get together and we explain for about 15 minutes why professional wrestling works as a storytelling medium. We explain how a match works, breaking it down to its five component parts, then ask everyone to come up with a character. Not everyone makes a wrestler, but that doesn’t matter because they can be part of the crowd. (In wrestling, the crowd is a character who has a role to play in the story.)

Once everyone has a character, we put together a wrestling TV show and divy everyone up into pairs, telling them how much time they have to tell the story of their match. Then, we run the show. We have only two explicit rules when telling the story of your match: no touching and no bumps (no falling down). That’s it. Just those two rules. Other than the rules of what makes a wrestling match work, those are the only two explicit rules we demand.

And you know what? It works. It works so damn good that people come in either not knowing or not caring about wrestling and leave fans. They cheer, they boo, they stomp their feet. They even make signs. They create cheers for their favorite wrestlers. It’s such a romping good time, we’re typically asked to either close the door or keep the sound down.

And there are no rules. Just two safety restrictions.

When Dan and I tried the game with rules, it all fell apart. People got too focused on rolling dice or playing cards. They weren’t telling stories, they were playing the game.

And that’s the thing that’s been bugging me most about RPGs these days. They’re too focused on the rules that they forget the goal here is to tell stories.

Combat heavy games like D&D, Shadowrun, or Vampire (yes, it’s a game about fighting; look at the list of Advantages) give you hundreds of pages of rules for mediating combat. And as soon as someone draws a sword or fires a gun, you know what happens: we all spend hours sorting things out. That’s because we’ve stopped telling stories and started playing the game.

And don’t get me started on “story games.” They’ve got the same problem. Just as combat games present you with heavy, intricate, elaborate systems for moderating fight scenes, story games give you heavy, intricate, elaborate systems for telling stories. So much so, I’m more upset about story games than I am about combat games. Combat games have the implication, “You know how to do this, so here are the rules for it.” Meanwhile, story games have the implication, “You don’t know how to do this, so let me hold your hand and show you.”

(Took me a long time to figure out why story games made me feel like I was being talked down to. I finally figured out a way to articulate it.)

Is it no wonder we talk about the game sessions when we rolled no dice as magical moments? The three hour game session of Suicide Squad that Rob Justice ran for me, Mike Curry, Eichlos and Chris Colbath comes to mind. We got a simple assignment: KILL THE BATMAN. Simple. We spent three hours talking about that. The first half was whether or not we could do it. The second half was whether or not we should do it. And that session was magic for me.

Rules in an RPG should always help us to tell stories. Not create an authentic tactical situation. And the RPGs that try to force story down our throats forget the best rule of storytelling: the best stories break the rules. It’s like someone hovering over my shoulder yelling at me, “You’re in the seventh stage of the Hero’s Journey and you haven’t met the goddess yet! And stop trying to Cross the Threshold! That isn’t until The Return!”

Maybe I’ve had a rough year. No, that isn’t a maybe. That’s a truth. I’ve had a rough year. But as I look through everything I’ve done as an RPG designer, I’m constantly asking myself the same question: “Did that help the players tell stories?”

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always, “Yes.”

Unreview: A Simple Favor

Unreview Rules: 1) I must like it, 2) I had to pay for it, 3) I do my best to use E-Prime.

I love a movie that refuses to fit genre stereotypes but uses them to its advantage. I also hate genre. Movies that defy genre with a unique and compelling voice always bring me to the theater. That’s one of the reasons I love the Coen Brothers. They own their own genre. “Coen-esque.” And, of course, as a fan, I’ve watched The Big Lebowski about a billion times. The gimmick always makes me smile: a film noir with the most unlikely detective. In Lebowski, our detective—”the laziest man in Los Angeles”—smells like white Russians, has no job, and seems obsessed with bowling. Lebowski has so much character and absolutely does not belong in the noir detective story unfolding around him. The premise still makes me giggle.

Now take A Simple Favor. In many ways, the same premise. Let’s make a classic film noir complete with a femme fatale, a wife in trou…I mean, a husband in trouble, and let’s throw in the world’s most unlikely detective. In this case, a single mom.  But not just a single mom, oh no. Instead of “the laziest man in Los Angeles,” let’s make her “the craftiest crafty woman in the world.” You know the one. The woman who has time to get her kid to school, bake brownies, sign up for every school activity, maintain a daily mommy vlog, and has her own helium tank because “kids love balloons.” Yes, that woman. You know her. She can knit together a hat or a pair of socks or a scarf while you’re wasting time on the X-Box. She owns killer Excel sheets and keeps track of everything. Now, let’s put her in the middle of a film noir mystery and see what happens.

As I sat in the dark theater watching the story unfold, I was laughing. Because watching Anna Kendrick play the craftiest crafty woman in the world delighted me beyond belief. I’ve known more than a few (and yes, I’m living with one now) and just thinking about tossing her blindly into this elaborate game of charades got me giddy. “Remember moms, do it yourself.” Remember that. It’ll be important as you watch.

But Kendrick wasn’t the only marvel on the screen. I’ve suddenly become a huge fan of Blake Lively. She killed this role. Can she play every femme fatale from now on? Please Hollywood? Please?

The twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat. I’ve usually got my writer hat on when watching mysteries, but this time, the film had me so entertained, I took that hat off, sat back with my popcorn and Coke Icee, and just enjoyed the show. I don’t think there was a single moment I didn’t have a smile on my face.

Finally, Santa Vaca

So, I did a hack. Begin the jokes now. “A hack did a hack.” There, I beat you to it.

When I say, “I did a hack,” I mean I did a hack of the world’s most famous RPG. This has been years in the making. I had the…wait. Stop. Let’s start over.

Just below, you can read the introduction to Santa Vaca: A Hack of the World’s Most Famous Roleplaying Game. I’ll be releasing the “DIY” version as a PDF next week. The introduction goes through some of the why’s and wherefore’s of how this whole project came to be and gives you an idea of what this monster looks like.

And when I say “DIY,” I mean Do It Yourself. I wrote the thing, I laid it out, I edited it, I got art for it, the whole kit and kaboodle. Once you read the intro, you’ll understand why.

Santa Vaca will be on sale via my website and Drivethrurpg next week.

 

 

Sacred cows make the best steaks.

— The Tao of Zen Nihilism

 

This all started as a dare. A dare I made to myself. Actually, it started a lot earlier than that, so let’s jump all the way to the beginning, back to 1999 when the folks at Wizards of the Coast gave permission for other game designers to play with their toys. I’m talking, of course, about the d20 SRD, or “Standard Reference Document.”

Now, most folks see that and say to themselves, “Hey, I could make a few new feats!” or “Hey, I could make a new prestige class!” or “Hey, I’ve got a few spells I could throw in there.”

I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as an invitation to come in and mess things up. You want me to play with your toys? Fine.

I’ll take the heads off all your dolls and put tinker toys in their place.

I’ll switch the voice boxes on your G.I. Joes and Barbies.

I’ll take your Legos and some superglue and make laser sights and other accessories for your super powered squirt guns.

If you tell me I can do whatever I want with your toys, when you get them back, you won’t recognize them.

Like I said, most people see an OGL as permission to write adventures and add on more features. I see it in a completely different light. I see it as permission to really screw things up.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s the whole point. Experiment. Don’t just think outside the box; throw the damn thing out the window.

* * *

The idea for this book first came to me in the place where all good ideas happen. I’m talking about the shower.

For some reason or another, I was thinking, “Could I change the core resolution system of D&D without changing the character sheet?”

(Don’t ask me why I was thinking this. I honestly could not give you an answer.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized, “Yes. Yes, I think I can.”

I jumped out of the shower, sat in front of my computer and recorded my thoughts. When I was done, I posted them on my Youtube channel. You can even watch my wet hair slowly dry as the video progresses.

It was a challenge that caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go. Held on with the grip of a maniac crocodile. Then, I started wondering, “What else could I change without changing the character sheet?”

Could I change alignment? “Yeah, I could.”

Could I change the magic system? “Yeah, I could.”

Could I change… dare I think it?… combat?

After a short while, I said, “Yeah. I could.”

Not make them “better.” No, no, no. Change them to something else. Make them say something I wanted to say.

How much could I change without changing the character sheet?

That was the question I first asked. And from that, I got this book.

* * *

I feel it’s necessary to say this again: I’m not “fixing” anything. Nor do I think my ideas make D&D a “better” game. But, as a game designer, I often putz around with game systems after I get done reading them. I fool around with them more when I’m in the middle of running them. I even think about ways to change them when I’m not running them.

These are ideas I’ve had while reading, writing for and playing D&D. If you ever played in one of my games, these are the house rules I’d make.

They change the game in fundamental ways. You cannot play the game the same way if you implement even one of these changes. The whole game transforms. Takes on a different feel. It means something different.

Also, each of the ideas in this book are modular. That is, you can take one of them and leave the rest. You could use all of them if you like. (You’d be playing a very different game, but maybe that’s the point.)

* * *

So, I wrote all this stuff down. Then, I forgot about it. This thing called 7th Sea showed up and smacked me in the face and stole all my attention, saying I wasn’t getting it back until I was done. So, I forgot. Until recently.

See, I’ve been fascinated by the OSR (old school revival). Something pinged in my heart and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was enthralled. And it wasn’t until very recently I understood what it was.

These little black and white books with black and white art and very little layout and they were only a few pages and they…

…holy @#$!, these were the games I was doing back in 1999. When the original OGL popped up. They were full on DIY punk rock. The stuff I loved when I was in high school. The attitude, I mean, not the games. The “@#$! you, I’ll make the game I want!” attitude. I finally figured it out.

And when I finally got it, I got to it. And now, you’re holding it.

No fancy layout. No fancy art. Not even any fancy editing. Just the game the way I’d play it. But with some of my own rules. Not the game rules. I mean, game design rules. Anyway…here they are.

Rule #1: Keep the Cows

If I’m gonna do this, I have to keep the “sacred cows” of D&D. I have to keep the stuff that’s remained through all the editions, the stuff that’s appeared on every edition character sheet. In other words, I have to keep:

  • The Six Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc.)
  • Alignment
  • Armor Class
  • Character Level
  • Experience Points
  • Hit Points
  • Spell Levels

Rule #2: Slaughter the Cows

However, I do not need to keep the mechanics. I can change the mechanics to anything I want. But I have to keep the nomenclature.

Rule #3: Separate the Cows

I have to make each system independent of itself. In other words, if you want to take my idea for hit points and put it in your game, and just the idea for hit points, my mechanic has to work.

Rule #4: Ergodic Cows

Back in the day, when I first bumped into roleplaying games, they could be defined as ergodic literature. That is, text requiring non trivial effort to traverse. In other words, you had to figure things out on your own. The author didn’t give you everything you needed. And sometimes, it seemed the author was intent on making things difficult.

I’ve done that here. There are references to rules that don’t exist. Sometimes I use two different terms to refer to the same rule. I’ve even taken the effort to leave out an entire page. But if the point of all this is to make this feel like “the early days of roleplaying games,” I felt those steps were necessary to make the game feel authentic.

And you know, when my friends and I discovered that the rules we bought weren’t exactly “complete” (there are no healing rules in 1st Edition Call of Cthulhu, for example), we were forced to make things up. And that lead me to game design. So, maybe you’ll follow the same path. You can thank me later.

 

* * *

 

It’s an experiment. I don’t imagine it will change the game industry or anything dramatic like that. I got inspired, I did a thing, and it’s done. And now, I want other people to have it. Play with it. Mess around with it. You know, like we used to do. At least, like used to do.

So, enjoy it. And let me know if you use any of it for your home game. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Take care,

 

John

War of the Cross Kickstarter Suspended

Tonight we suspended the Kickstarter for War of the Cross. We are deeply saddened to have to do so, but we are committed to providing quality projects to all of our backers. Thank you to all of our fans who supported this project, and all of our other projects.

Here is the full update that was posted on Kickstarter:

To all our backers,

We deeply regret to inform you that we must, once again, cancel the Kickstarter for War of the Cross.  

After our first Kickstarter for the project failed, we did our best to take the feedback we received from the community and make the necessary adjustments to help ensure its success, as well as to attempt an expanded marketing push on the game’s behalf. But we’re now forced to acknowledge that those efforts were ultimately not enough to attract the kind of response we needed to make this project viable, from either the existing 7th Sea fan community or the strategy board game community in general.  

It is possible that we may barely hit our funding goal for the project. But after seeing the second round of feedback, we’re now also concerned that enough work needs to be done on the game that our funding goal would not be sufficient to pay for the additional development costs, additional production, marketing, printing, and shipping, especially given the amount of resources we have already committed to fulfilling on our other Kickstarters.  

To be clear, we haven’t given up on War of the Cross—we think it’s a solid design that deserves to be put out into the world in some form, and we’re committed to finding some kind of solution down the road in that regard. But right now, we feel the right thing to do is to close this out and go back to the drawing board.  

We know this is going to be disappointing for many of you, and we apologize sincerely for that. We’re eternally grateful for your support and commitment, and your patience with us even as we make mistakes and continue to learn from them. We hope that one day, we’ll be able to make something out of War of the Cross that you’re going to love.

Thank you.