Thursday, June 28, 2012

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Vampire of the Mists III

Things are starting to get a bit bizarre in general at this point in the book. Strahd and Jander play what seems like the weirdest board game two vampires could play with each other: “The Doe has reached the warren. According to the rules that gives me five more Kittens to introduce into play.” Oooookay. (Also, Strahd gets royally pissed off when Trina the werewolf messes with his pieces.) Characters are also starting to behave in ways that defy any pretense of characterization. Jander, despite having made a promise of honor to never enter into a particular room in Strahd's castle, declares that he had his fingers crossed the whole time and breaks in while Strahd is away. And what does he find in there? A centuries-old wedding cake. Yeah, Strahd is Ravenloft's Miss Havisham.

Speaking of Strahd, did you think we were going to get out of this novel with him playing his “organ” again? SUCKER! “One afternoon, he sough distraction by playing the organ. The diversion worked for a while, wrapping him up in its reverberating music that sang to his soul/ His fingers flew over the keys, coaxing chords that echoed his torment yet brought release from it.” So, Strahd gets bored, his “fingers flew” over his organ, and “coaxed” something out of it that 'brought release,” huh? Seriously, Golden? So much to answer for.

While Strahd is masturbating furiously, Jander continues to be a shit-heel. Jander asks Sasha to help him fight against Strahd, but Sasha replies that he has real responsibilities—like to the community he serves as a spiritual leader and as a husband-to-be. Jander, predictably, flies into a rage: “Jander's silver eyes flashed with anger. 'I don't want to hear about your responsibilities. I don't care about your fiancee.” Those are real quotes. He says these things in his out-loud voice instead of keeping them part of his inner dickhead monolog. Basically, he's a sociopath. Which makes you wonder, why doesn't he just mentally dominate Sasha into going along for the ride? Oh wait, that's right, because Sasha's a man and Jander only bends women to his will.

In a move that will surprise no one, it turns out that Strahd is the one responsible for driving Jander's dear Anna (the mentally ill woman he was ballin') into madness. In a convoluted “twist” that no reader could possibly give a fuck about, Anna is revealed to be a piece of Tatyana's soul that was transported from Barovia to the Forgotten Realms at the moment she jumped from the towers of Castle Ravenloft. That Strahd is the big villain all along was obvious; he's the only bad guy the novel ever mentions so it was clear he would end up being the Big Bad. What is a mystery for Jander was never a mystery for the reader. Golden is clearly no Agatha Christie.

Of course, the revelation of Strahd as the central villain comes about through an avalanche of back-story and flashback sequences. The only thing I really gleaned from it was this piece of advice I wish I could travel to Ravenloft and give to Strahd personally: Dear Strahd, if the girl you're obsessed with keeps calling you "Old One," either her name is Anna Nicole Smith and she's just being honest or she just isn't that into you.

Eventually Jander & co. confront Strahd in the crypts, and Strahd is driven off but not killed. For a climatic scene, it's utterly empty of any tension or real feeling of threat. Strahd buggers off to heal up so he can play with his organ some more, Jander realizes that Ravenloft has just been funnin' with him this entire time, and Sasha has to go into hiding. The best part about the end is that Jander dies. I just wish that had happened on page 2 of the novel and not page 239.

Cole did this and he wants you to know it is based on an actual picture of Jander.

Oh, and because we can't have nice things and because Ravenloft truly is a world that hates us, Jander is retconned back into unlife in some god-forsaked supplement. There is no justice, none at all.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Vampire of the Mists II

Guess what? Surprise! Jander continues to be a real fuck-nugget! Despite swearing an oath to protect the burgomaster's daughter, he willingly goes with Strahd to her family's house, feeds on her sister, sits on his thumb while Strahd's minions kill everyone else in the house, and does absolutely nothing to stop Strahd from killing Anastasia before his very eyes. What a god-damn champ.

Aside from continually using his hypnotic powers to maneuver women into doing what he wants, we can also ascribe to Jander a pattern of making promises he doesn't even attempt to fulfill. Despite pledging to Anna that he would solve the mystery of her madness, he stays in Strahd's castle for TEN YEARS without doing much of anything. Seriously, he's got this sworn quest and he gardens at Strahd's place for ten fucking years instead of displaying a trace of follow-through.

Thus far I haven't really commented on Golden's writing. The best thing I can say about it is that it is workmanly. There are no attempts at artistry here, and I'm better off for it as they would definitely fail entirely. Her real weakness as an author is dialog; she has a tin ear when it comes to the way people actually talk to each other. Worse yet, out-of-place phrases slip into the prose. Anastasia describes her unborn child as “kicking like mad”; another character answers in the negative with a teenage mall-crawler's “Nope.”

Actually, I take that back. The worst thing about Golden's writing is her inability to resist the temptation that comes with a protagonist who is largely unaffected by the passing of years; that is, since Jander is a vampire she feels no qualms about advancing the novel's time-line by leaps and bounds. This has two very unfortunate effects: first, it results in secondary characters who aren't around long enough to be developed or for the reader to care about, and two, it really makes it seem like Jander is just loafing around Castle Ravenloft and not actually trying to solve the mystery that he pledged to see through.

Speaking of character development, Golden's Strahd is a bit of a furry. Toward the middle of the novel, Strahd brings his new werewolf girlfriend to the castle: “'She makes an excellent spy and a merry bedfellow.' He turned his attention back to the wolf.” Note that Strahd praises Trina's sexual prowess while she's in wolf form. Castle Yiffenloft, right? Also, soon after Jander has another in what are becoming a series of annoying and poorly-crafted flashbacks; this time, he recalls an incident where he was saved by a weredolphin. Let me type that out again in capital letters in case your mind repressed the word I just used: WEREDOLPHIN. Golden has included a weredolphin in her story. That is an amazing lapse of taste, judgment, and decency. Jander doesn't mention how fuckable the weredolphin was at least.

So, remember the Jander is some sort of shining, radiant elf guy? Well, he's so solar-powered that he gets mistaken for Lathander Morninglord, god of the sun, by a priest of that deity. It's important to Golden that we know that Jander isn't just shit-hot, he's as shit-hot as a god. This distresses Strahd a little bit; adopting a very 90210 pose he accuses Jander of upstaging him at some gala party that Strahd has thrown in his own honor. This, more than anything so far, illustrates what vampires are in Golden's novel: they are pick-up artists who peacock around and trick women into sleeping with them/letting them feed off them.

In what seems like a bizarre narrative misfire, Golden has the young cleric Sasha drown one of Strahd's vampire brides. At first I thought this was invoking the whole “vampires can't cross running water” thing, but the description really focuses on the water filling the vampire's mouth and nostrils—and Strahd explicitly states that someone drowned his vampire lady. Chew on that for a moment; I'm over two-hundred pages into a vampire novel and the author of said novel hasn't yet realized that vampires don't breath and therefore can't drown.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Vampire of the Mists I

When I'm not blogging about my spooky elfgames, I teach courses on Gothic literature at a university. I'll be honest with you, the Gothic is often not the most literary of modes; it has never been a particularly respected literary form and its constituting novels were written by amateurs looking to capitalize on the mania for Gothic horror. As such, traditional Gothic literature was, in most cases, the disposable escapist, pot-boiler, mass market fiction of its day. I've slogged through a lot of it in my studies, and it has frequently been rough going.

So, I should be well-prepared to slog through the Ravenloft novels, right? Welcome to an ongoing series in which I attempt to fight my way through the official fiction of the Domain of Dread. Oh god what have I done. First up, Christie Golden's Vampire of the Mists.

The biggest hurtle in this story will likely be the protagonist, an elf vampire called Jander Sunstar. (What a name!) Jander is the Forgotten Realm's answer to Twilight's Edward: he feeds off of animals until the hunger gets to be too much for which point he then feeds on the helpless inmates of an insane asylum (!!!). And that's not even the most problematic thing he does at the asylum; not content to merely take his sustenance from the disturbed, he actually falls in love with a woman who is clearly mentally handicapped. (But she's handicapped because of magic, so I guess that's okay?) Seriously, he visits her every night for ten years and eventually things get a bit physical. Physical, in an insane asylum where she is incarcerated for being mentally ill. Shades of Edward watching Bella sleep here. Also, while he doesn't sparkle, he's some sort of shining “gold elf” and his gaseous form is described as Joseph's Technicolor Dream Fart.

Of course, eventually Jander's lunatic gal-pal gets a fever and seems to be on the edge of death. Even clerical healing will not avail her. As a last-ditch attempt to keep his madwoman madame with him he tries to make her his vampire bride—but she refuses the curse of undeath. Enraged, Jander...flips out, turns into a wolfman, and kills every motherfucker in the place; seriously, he slays the madwomen and jailers, the innocent and the guilty alike. Which, obviously, leads him to be sucked into Ravenloft.

The sexual descriptions in the novel continue to be just fucking awful. Petya, our rogue-ish gypsy youth, has apparently made a career of professing his love to virginal girls so he can get up their skirts before skipping town—as he does with the burgomaster's daughter. “I like her, but I don't like-her-like-her,” is a faithful paraphrase of his rationale. And, if we had any doubt that women who are otherwise on-the-ball and clear-headed would become instantly wet at the sight of Jander, the young gypsy seer Marushka's clothes start falling off as she trades coy flirtations with our proto-Edward: “Marushka sat down beside him on the wooden bench and shrugged, her blouse slipping off one dark shoulder.” 

Also, let's not forget that Jander is a bag of dicks in vampire form. In what is the squickiest scene yet, Strahd sends Jander a young woman to feed from: “I am to tell you that I am untouched here – she placed a finger to her throat – and here – she cupped her hands about the mound between her legs.” Jander makes a big deal of telling the girl that he doesn't plan on hurting her, then uses his hypnotism power to take away her free will anyway because he's basically a self-justifying rapist.

By far the oddest psycho-sexual scene yet, however, occurs when Jander and Strahd bust out their flutes and pipe organs to have a vamp-bro jam: “A sweet, pure sound issued forth, a bird's call to the rumbling waterfall of Strahd's organ. The count looked up, and something like delight mingled with surprise on his pale face. Together, the vampires created spontaneous music. The clear tones of the flute danced and skittered like light over the organ's deep chords." I defy you to not read that as gay pr0n. At least they come away mutually satisfied: "Simultaneously they finished their songs..." If you know what I mean.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What's the Deal with Igor's Hump?

What's the Deal with Igor's Hump?

FACT #1: All mad scientists (and many vampires) have a hunchbacked assistant.
FACT #2: That assistant is always named Igor (some pronounce it EYE-gore, some EEE-gore)
FACT #3: Here's the deal with Igor's hump:

d10 Hump Type (hey oh!)
1 Black-Blood Blister – if Igor takes any damage there is a 50% chance it will rupture his hump, which is, in fact, a giant blood blister filled with the Black Blood of the Earth. If ruptured, the Black Blood takes 1d4 rounds to congeal into a coherent mass that then attacks everyone nearby (use the stats of a Black Pudding).
2 Camel-like Fluid Storage – Igor's hump contains a randomly-generated potion. If Igor is killed without damaging his hump, the characters may be able to siphon it out of him as the least-appealing treasure ever.
3 Demonstone Tumor – Igor's hump is actually a tumor caused by small pieces of demonstone that are embedded in his back. The demonstone causes any spell cast within 30' of Igor to trigger a roll on the Magical Mishap Table.
4 Embedded Meteor – what looks like a hump is actually an meteor from space that collided with Igor's back. The radiation from the meteor has been slowly mutating Igor; at the moment that is least convenient for the player-characters Igor will transform into an evil Shambling Mound.
5 Hardened Bone – Igor's hump is a giant knob of bone. Indeed, Igor's skeleton is hard as iron, granting him a +2 bonus to his Armor Class.
6 Mold Infection – Igor's hump is really a symptom of an inner mold infection. If Igor takes any damage there is a 50% that his hump will explode into a cloud of mold spores (use the stats of a Gas Spore).
7 Psychic Brain – Igor's hump houses a second brain that possesses the mind blast ability of a Brain Lasher.
8 Pus-filled – instead of being a solid mass, Igor's hump is really a pus-filled membrane. If Igor takes any damage there is a 50% chance that his hump bursts open, discharging a thick yellow and green ooze. This pus takes 1d4 rounds to congeal into a coherent mass, which then attacks everyone nearby (use the stats of a Green Slime).
9 Stunted Twin – what looks like a hump is actually the visible portion of Igor's twin brother who failed to develop properly in utero. The hump can detach itself from Igor's body at will to wreck havoc (use the stats for a gremlin).
10 Tentacle Cluster – Igor's hump is a gift from the Demon Lord Zzorch. It can sprout a multitude of tentacles to attack with; while the tentacles do no damage on their own, they possess the paralytic ability of a Cadaver Grub.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

We Didn't Get the Memo Re: Warhammer FRP

I've been thinking about WFRP 1e a bit lately; it is the game we definitely had the most fun with in high school.

Sadly, it turns out that we were playing it completely wrong.

Warhammer is supposedly a meat-grinder of a game where beginning PCs suck at everything and will inevitably die in gruesome ways.  We got this one totally wrong.  Two PCs (mine and a buddy's dwarf trollslayer) went through the Enemy Within, Doomstones, Drachenfels, and a bunch of one-shot adventures and survived them all, so clearly we were doing it wrong.

We tended to play cautiously, but there is something to be said for starting WFRP characters being a lot tougher than 1st level D&D characters.  A 1st level fighter right off the turnip truck can be killed in a single blow; a WFRP character can't be killed in a single blow because they'll start with at least one Fate Point.

And as for WFRP characters being Eternal Weenies Who Always Suck, my long-lived six-career elf character begs to differ.  Sure, he didn't end up with a super-high Strength or Toughness, but an absurdly high Agility and the Dodge Blow skill meant that it was practically guaranteed that at least one attack per round would miss him entirely.  Oh, and he also had a ridiculous Initiative score and 4 Attacks to unload before his foes got a chance to act.  Good luck with that, warriors of chaos.

Warhammer's Old World is a crapfest with nothing but misery, disease, and poop lying around all over the place.  We honestly never got that sense of the Old World from the 1e setting materials.  Sure, the Old World was a place of danger, corruption, and economic disparity, but I think you need a big element of that in a fantasy setting for it to be interesting.  Nevertheless, it certainly didn't seem as post-apocalyptic as people often make out.

Of course, we actually benefiting from not knowing too much about the culture surrounding Warhammer that favored SPIKES AND MORE SPIKES AND GRIMDARK HELMS WITH SPIKES AND SKULLS ON THEM because we pretty much played the game in isolation from anyone else playing it.  To us, Warhammer was a place where Gandalf could go on an adventure with Conan, Legolas, King Arthur, and  Renaissance German dwarves and Viking dwarves, like this:

That's what WFRP looks like to me, but I guess we didn't get the memo.