Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

I’m glad I finally watched Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

I’d read some critics saying that this movie lumbered under the weight of its exposition. I’d heard from fan-friends that they really liked it. I can see the critics’ critique, but I’m pretty firmly in the second camp.

First off, the exposition involved did not surprise me. Marvel has a lot of work to do with introducing its multiverse stories, and MoMadness was their opening cinematic entry for that.

See, Marvel is clearly planning more multiversal cinematic adventures. They’ve been tying multiverse elements into many of their stories lately, leaning into the weirdness even as they use the multiverse to pull together the most poignant story threads they can get their hands on. They’re probably going to slip up and fall on their face at some point—they can’t all be winners—but so far they’ve done pretty well.

Spider-Man: No Way Home worked magnificently on this front. It also featured Dr. Strange, and multiverse shenanigans, but my guess is that Marvel wanted another movie that more fully focused on the multiverse… and which was completely within their owned IP, instead of being in awkward joint custody with Sony. Aside from all that, I think MoMadness is establishing building blocks for the next set of Big Threats and Consequences for the current MCU arc (while No Way Home was more focused on Spider-Man). After Angry Purple Man 1 & 2 and Thanos’ threats to “all life,” Marvel’s writers are probably trying to up the ante for their next big showdown and multiverse threats to existence as we know it are a solid escalation. Threatening existence itself is also a little bit like jumping the shark, but that’s comics baby.

Now, if you didn’t watch the Loki TV series, or weren’t already familiar with a multiverse as a concept, or didn’t know Marvel’s extensive history of playing with multiverse storylines in their comics, I can see how this movie might feel a little off the wall or rushed in its exposition. But as someone who was familiar with all of those things, I had an excellent time. I actually liked the way they leapt from one thing to the next without spending a whole lot of time building up the how and the why. Among other things, it kept the movie moving (heh) and let Sam Raimi shine with the horror elements he knows so well.

I also see Marvel’s embrace of the multiverse as a way for Marvel to play around with extremely weird or unanticipated story and character ideas. When you have infinite parallel-ish existences, you can wring each one for all the emotional content it’s worth, and then only keep the ones that you like most. If a character dies in one storyline, that’s no reason they can’t some back (with some slightly different emotional baggage) in another storyline. Writers can borrow them from another dimension for an afternoon, after all. This way, one character’s experience of their single life can be grown in new directions (giving the audience context for the character’s emotional world) and then rewritten without necessarily discarding all the emotional development.

This, of course, is going to open Marvel up to screwing the pooch even more thoroughly in their next big ensemble movies. I wasn’t a big fan of Angry Purple Man 1 or 2. Much of my distaste for those movies—even when I loved elements of them—came from the way in which they didn’t give time for (or maintain continuity with) the characters’ emotional development in their preceding individual movies. Juggling so many different storylines across multiple universes is only going to make that more difficult.

On the topic of character development though…

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this movie’s choices. Both, maybe? I like what it does for Dr. Strange. Plus, I really like Wanda Maximoff’s journey—and have reservations about it at the same time. Dr. Strange first, because his experience is simpler.

A little context: in many ways, watching Dr. Strange die repeatedly at the end of his first movie was so fun for me because he’s such a prick. And seeing him gradually become less of a prick over the course of that movie feels good. In that moment near the end, as he’s dying repeatedly, no one else can see his sacrifice. No one else sees him suffering through an eternity of painful deaths in order to negotiate with an impossible force. He’s given a chance to grow as a person even as he pulls a really neat (and frankly torturous) trick in order to save the world.

So for me, Dr. Strange movies have this double appeal: I can see an asshole get what’s coming to him, and I can see that same asshat become a (marginally) better person while growing into his role as a hero. What’s not to love?

MoMadness continues that tradition. Dr. Strange learns from his own (and his other selves’) mistakes. This is one of those places where the multiverse concept really shines: it’s possible for someone to recognize things in themselves that they weren’t ready to see, as they are confronted by their other selves. Dr. Strange may be full of himself and a control freak, but he’s not an idiot. Seeing him come to care for others and be there for them (instead of being there for them for himself, because it gives him a chance to play the savior and build a heroic image of himself) is really sweet. I might actually want to watch this movie again just to appreciate the ways in which it delivers on that personal growth.

Sadly, all that growth also makes me dread what may come in the next big cinematic combo event. If it’s anything like the last one, the individual characters will probably be shortchanged and their growth over the previous films won’t make it fully formed into the movie. Or maybe Marvel will surprise me, but I won’t hold my breath.

All of which brings me to Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch.

Her personal arc is awesome, honestly. It retraces some of her development in WandaVision, which is unfortunate but understandable given that the movie doesn’t assume viewers are current with the TV shows. Despite that, I love how the multiverse works in such similar ways for both Wanda and Strange here. Each has a chance to confront the lives and choices of their other selves—and to be confronted by those things in turn, peeling back the lies and illusions they hold dear.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but to get into the weeds I’ll have to share some *SPOILERS* about Scarlet Witch.

I’m not happy about Scarlet Witch (apparently) killing herself. After how Marvel killed off Black Widow, and the very real problem with the poverty of representation in these stories (see also my review of Soul), having Scarlet Witch kill herself too leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a bad look, Marvel.

On the other hand, this time it made sense. Wanda Maximoff was a tortured soul by the end of WandaVision (much as she was at the start of it). This movie established firmly that she was still in a very bad place, and was busy digging deeper into a magic book that the movie explicitly established as being extremely bad news. But where Black Widow died in a way that felt cheap and senseless (and was arguably fridging), this movie gave Scarlet Witch a chance to have a rich (and painful) emotional arc that ended in death.

She pursues her obsession beyond the ends of the Earth, and is ultimately confronted (while reaching closure with herself and with her family in a way that felt brilliant) by the consequences of her choices up to that point. That drive, that confrontation, and that closure were all good. Those scenes with herself and her boys were heart-wrenching. Given all the choices she’d made leading up to those moments, and the way she’d lied to herself while also digging deep into the evil evil magic book of evil, her choosing to kill herself and destroy the physical manifestation of those dangerous spells actually feels meaningful.

It doesn’t resolve the issue of those spells (presumably) existing in other universes in similar locales, but it makes narrative sense. And it doesn’t feel like the writers just offed a female character to give a male one some new emotional trauma. But while this was definitely a better course than Marvel took with Black Widow—I didn’t feel like Wanda was being shortchanged here.—that doesn’t make me excited about the Scarlet Witch dying.

Having said that, I doubt it’ll stick. Given the increasing importance of multiverse-shenanigans, I suspect Wanda will return to a future storyline as a multiverse-self. Alternate-Wanda presumably won’t stick around, but her character won’t simply be gone.

*END SPOILERS*

Okay.

There’s even more I want to talk about.

I’d love to dig into the ways in which MoMadness functions as a horror movie, but at this point it’ll have to be short. You can easily see the ways Sam Raimi digs into his long experience with making horror movies: the movements of pursuers, the deaths, the moments of disquieting revelation, the occasional weird and awful and maybe a little funny gore and body horror. It’s all present.

We’re even treated to Bruce Campbell! His cameo (and his after-credit scene) are delightful, and offer a nod to Raimi’s Evil Dead series that presages some of the horror elements still to come. It’s a good little bit of bonus fun.

But in conclusion, yes, I liked the movie. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it was good. I hope you can enjoy it too.

Stranger Things s4 and breathing room

I enjoyed Stranger Things season 4.

But the last episode felt rough for me. Maybe that’s because it was almost two and a half hours, or maybe that’s because it was interrupted more than once.

I paused the last episode a couple times due to normal life, including once right at the height of the climax when the show had already been drawing out the tension for as long as possible. Turns out that last pause was the hardest on me.

I’ll come back to that.

Stranger Things has previously been pretty good about modulating its narrative and dramatic tension. The show has woven pauses into the bigger action sequences, with each interlude giving the audience time to breathe and notice how tense they are, and giving characters time to express how previous consequences are still effecting them—it’s the moment for characters to reel from the last blow, collect themselves, and push themselves unsteadily to their feet. It’s also the moment when the audience can be reminded what’s at stake in the narrative, why the tension matters. There’s a basic rhythm to these moments. If you are paying attention you can usually guess where and when the pauses will happen, even without paying attention to the background music (though that does help).

A quick aside:

These breathers are an elementary fight-scene choreography technique. In a fight scene they’re vital to giving your performers a chance to rest, check in with each other between bouts of action, and sell the drama of the fight. Almost exactly the same is true of these pauses in any other high tension segment of narrative. While these pauses are less mandatory in written work (written characters aren’t facing physical limitations after all), written action sequences still benefit from them. First, that’s because pauses are believable, and they help build the audience’s sense of a written character as a relatable, exhaustible being. Second, each pause is a chance to reorient your reader to the larger scene, to pull back slightly from the rush of the moment and take stock of the situation (whether that’s an internal emotional experience or an external assessment). Third, pauses allow the audience to unwind a little bit—they don’t release narrative tension so much as let it settle into a more stable state while you ready yourself for the next bit, a resolution-in-miniature.

Many big exciting movies these days forget these pauses, or use them on what feels like the wrong rhythm. This is wild speculation, but… maybe that’s because so much is done with CGI now? Animated figures don’t need time to check where they are in the choreography, they don’t need to take a moment to breathe, they don’t feel how the last four big stunts (done over who knows how many takes) are wearing them down.

But those pauses aren’t actually for the actors. You could easily edit a film to remove all the downtime. I just think the film would be worse for it. That’s because the pauses are there for the narrative and the audience. Missing those breathers also gives the audience no time to breathe. There’s no moment to let recent consequences sink in, there’s no time to see the ways in which the characters are reeling, there’s no time to process the emotional weight of whatever just happened.

The only thing worse, to my mind, than having no downtime is having pauses where characters feel none of the consequences of what just happened to them. Telling stories is about spinning lies so consistently that they all ring true. Ignoring the last lie you told introduces discord and undermines the whole thing (which happened for me in the last episode, when *SPOILERS* Nancy, Robin, & Steve don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from their several scenes of almost-dying *END SPOILERS*).

So, back to my poorly timed pause.

The last episode of season four is a heck of a ride. It’s long, it’s full of action, there’s a ton of build up and payoff. And for better or worse they draw the tension out, and keep ramping everything up, for a long time.

That progressive heightening of tension might have been tolerable if I hadn’t paused right at the peak. But I did. I paused for a little over half an hour to eat dinner, and I did it before the episode gave me any resolution in its dramatic climax.

That pause—without a breather’s usual resolution-in-miniature—gave me time to reflect, when I think I was supposed to just finish the narrative ride. In that pause, I could recognize how much the show had wrung out of its escalating tension, how it had pushed past its previous limits, and how it had pushed me to my limits. I just felt worn out, a side effect of how successfully the show had pulled me in and connected me to these characters and their story.

On further reflection, I think I noticed this so acutely because Stranger Things has previously done a good job of including breathers and not pushing its escalation too far. Or maybe I’m full of it and would have felt just as wrung out in previous seasons if I’d paused at just the wrong time. Either way, I really hope that season five takes a slightly more balanced approach.

It looks like they’re setting themselves up for a big finale, and if they try to maintain peak intensity for as long as they did with the last episode of season four I’ll be too worn out to enjoy it as much as it deserves. Furthermore, if they don’t build in those pauses they’ll fall into the same trap some MCU movies do: lots of big flashy scenes and moments of great import, without the variation in action and tension, or the foundation in narrative consequences, that lend meaning and emotional weight to those big scenes. I think they’ve set a big task for themselves; they’ve got four seasons of previous drama to (mostly) resolve, and bigger stakes than before.

My hope is that season five will take the time it needs, and the slow scenes it needs, to build its drama. I’m down for some big flashy stuff, yes, but it was the small-scale moments of emotional poignancy that grabbed me in the first few seasons: the emotional stakes, the fear and uncertainty, the mystery. That’s way more exciting to me than a big set piece of blockbuster spectacle. I don’t know how they can best deliver those things given what they’ve established so far, but I really hope they do.

The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross

It’s been a hot minute since I last read Stross. At least several years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel like I’ve changed significantly since then. Both as a person and (more narrowly) as a reader. It seems that Stross has changed somewhat as a writer as well (between this book and The Delirium Brief) but… in most ways the work is still the same. And given that what I really wanted was another Laundry Files book, that’s okay.

Also, I know I’m writing here about a book published three years ago (and therefore written even longer ago) and comparing it with a book published four years ago (thus written even further into the past). Writers are cursed to be judged on the merits of their old selves, forever. I try to be generous.

It’s weird knowing that I’m now at least five years ahead of where Stross was when he wrote the book, because my subconscious still thinks of this book as “current.” A lot has happened in the past five years. C’est la vie.

Anyway.

Did I enjoy The Labyrinth Index? Yes.

But this isn’t the place to start this series. If you pick up this book without having read a good deal of the preceding series, you’ll be lost. Some of you will no doubt pick up on things fast enough to enjoy it, but you’ll probably have a bit of cognitive whiplash. If, on the other hand, you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in the series… you know what you’re getting yourself into and you’ll probably like this one too.

This series is cosmic horror / grim bureaucratic office comedy / political thriller / spy shenanigans, and it’s the only series I know of which hits all those notes. It’s not as introspective or emotionally investigative as other books I’ve read recently. It doesn’t try to be. I’m not saying it’s merely a cold, unfeeling genre fiction monster ready to crush you beneath its plot, but it’s certainly more about intrigue and external plot than it is about interpersonal (or internal) emotional plot.

If you want something that will scratch those genre-itches, and you need to scratch all of them at once, this is the only back scratcher that I know will do the trick. If you haven’t read anything from the series yet, check out The Atrocity Archives and see whether the genre combination is to your taste. Some things in Stross’ writing will change, others will stay the same.

Relatedly… I can’t tell how much Stross’ writing of (or about) female characters has changed. I’ve been weirded out by it in the past, but that weird-factor is just connected enough to the genres Stross switches between, and just intermittent enough, that I have trouble pinning down exactly what is going on. I think he’s improved, but I haven’t compared his earlier work and his current work side by side. Just be aware that there may be odd or uncomfortable stuff there waiting for you.

Also, I sometimes feel a little weirded out by how Stross wrote the future-past—or past-future, or whatever—and wonder what strange scrying he does for his prognostications. But that quasi-prescience is also part of Stross’ appeal for me, and it’s part of what makes reading his “near-future” based work a few years later so fascinating (even if The Laundry Files aren’t the best example of this). It does tend to date his work more thoroughly.

Oh, and: if you don’t mind spoilers, there’s some good thinking on all of the above from Stross himself, right here.

A Dead Djinn In Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark

Short, fast, fun. A Dead Djinn In Cairo is a good read, with a marvelous setting. It’s also my first time reading any of P. Djèlí Clark’s work.

As a veteran fan of investigative mystery horror, adventure, and Mythos stories, the tropes here feel familiar. That seems intentional. These character and plot tropes are called on to lend the story its structure and familiarity, and they make the story quick and tight when it might otherwise require more explanation and exposition. This works well; it’s an expert’s use of the existing genre shorthand to sketch in structure and conventions, and it lets Clark explore ideas and settings that rarely make it into these genres. It’s skillfully done, and worth admiration.

That exploration is part of why I don’t mind P. Djèlí Clark’s reliance on tropes for narrative stability. He lavishes his attention on novelty elsewhere, with quick splashes of set dressing that seep slowly out of the scenery. The combination of elements is delicious (a turn-of-the-1900s ascendant Egypt, women’s increasing independence, religious turmoil, fantastical creatures and beings in our world following the removal of some of reality’s barriers…). It’s all very good. I love the world he’s created here and will happily read more of it.

But that reliance means I don’t yet have a sense of whether I’ll like P. Djèlí Clark’s other narratives. At some point I’ll want more than my enthusiasm for this cool setting; I’d love for the narrative and its tropes to feel exciting without feeling like they hew so closely to the genre’s conventions, and I’d love for Clark to take the standard tropes and twist them a little more firmly into his own setting’s image. That said, I’d certainly recommend this story over any number of other genre stories. He delivers the expected tropes at least as well as any of the older examples I have to hand, and the trappings of P. Djèlí Clark’s story are more appealing to me. Based on this, I hope he’ll find other ways to exceed those stories as well.

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The fourth and final member of Tor’s Reimagining Lovecraft novella collection, Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan, brings the weird and the uncomfortable home to roost.

Of the four stories, this is the one that felt least complete to me. It left obvious spaces open for the story to continue, implications that want some kind of follow-up… but I think I can see why the story stopped where it did. The novella contained its own neat little arc, even though the completion of the arc didn’t resolve the larger story lines this piece opened. Worth noting: there are sequels to this story, though I haven’t yet read any.

Each of the four novellas in this collection builds on a different part of the Cthulhu Mythos, and I’ve found aspects to appreciate about every one of these reinterpretations. They all draw out facets of Lovecraft’s stories—sometimes things he wrote explicitly, sometimes things he implied but failed to recognize—and I’ve enjoyed them as a return to cosmic horror, a way to engage more with stories that I’ve put aside in distaste but which still hold some good core of fright.

And that good core of fright is precisely what I think CRK captures so well here; its presence is the reason that I don’t feel at all cheated by this story. Despite leaving me wanting more resolution, more progress, Agents of Dreamland absolutely satisfied my desire for the Mythos’ pressing discomfort; Kiernan pulls from multiple pieces of Lovecraft’s work—the sometimes goofy and poorly written bizarre monsters, the fairytale otherness of (mis)understood dreaming—and delivers a horror story that holds together as whole cloth. It’s a reimagining, like it says on the novella collection, that improves on the material it draws from. Just like the other pieces in here do, but in its own distinct way (like, again, the other pieces in here do).

In many ways, I think Agents of Dreamland is the most Lovecraft-ish reimagining of the four novellas. Kiernan improves on the original content in a way that feels most comparable to the source material. Maybe that’s why I kept thinking about Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green games while reading it.

Anyway, yes, it’s another good piece in a good collection. If you like Cthulhu Mythos stories but are tired of / disgusted by Lovecraft, or could never get into those stories because of Lovecraft, I suggest these. They vary a lot from one novella to the next, but I’ve enjoyed them all a great deal.

Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

I’ve finished two good books recently, A Memory Called Empire and Hammers on Bone. They both deserve more than a passing mention, but I’m only going to talk about Hammers on Bone right now—I’ve struggled to find good ways to cover A Memory Called Empire without spoiling things, and I’m taking the easier way out.

I read Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone through the same bundle of four novellas that brought me to The Ballad of Black Tom and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. I’m glad to say that this book deserves its company. Reading this has inspired me to tell my own investigative horror stories again, through its good example and obvious love for the material; for comparison, these days Lovecraft only evokes that kind of reaction for me by way of spite and a fierce desire to do better than he did.

Perhaps that’s what drove Cassandra Khaw. Whatever the case, they succeeded.

Evocative, punchy, and more full of body-horror and gore than I’d expected, this book wears its love for the stylings of noir on its nicotine-stained sleeve. Seriously, I haven’t read about this much smoking in years. But it’s a story that comes with all the scummy details and twists I expect from old PI noir, alongside the horror of the Cthulhu mythos and a grasp of descriptive language that leaves me reeling in envy and admiration. Not everyone should try this style of evocative, nearly synesthetic detail, but DAMN does Khaw make it work for me. Their prose lays on atmosphere so thick it’s like drowning, mashed face first into the yellowed pages of cheap detective pulp.

And it works. The quasi-hallucinatory perspective, with its depth of detail, goes beyond merely fleshing out a character voice; it rapidly told me more than I’d realized about who our narrator was… and how Mr. Persons was not at all what I’d first thought.

It’s not a big book, not a long story. It’s a quick and potent read, much faster for me than most of the other pieces in the Tor.com novella collection. If you like horror and noir it’s practically a must. I definitely recommend it. Get it here. Or buy the whole bundle (which I’ve enjoyed so far) here.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was a slow burn, and a good one.

I admit that it lost its compulsive hold on me part way through. I was distracted. My reading wandered, and I consumed several other tasty books. But when I returned to it after some time away, I finished it in one sitting. And while my hair did not stand on end (much harder now with its covid-length), this story does an excellent job of peeling back the skin and exposing fresh, homemade, very human discomfort.

Another friend of mine absolutely adored this book and inhaled it in one go, unable to put it down. In talking about it, we speculated that my distraction in the middle may have come from gendered differences. Perhaps, we thought, I was less caught up in it because it felt less intimately personal. Your mileage may vary.

Whatever the source of that difference, I absolutely agree with her (and with whomever decided to bundle these books at Tor) that like The Ballad of Black Tom (my review, Goodreads), this book does a beautiful job of reimagining abysmal source material with vibrance, reality, and truth. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe captures the same strange wonder and eeriness of Dreaming that I remember enjoying from Lovecraft’s work, while shedding Lovecraft’s awful baggage. I firmly believe that this story, like The Ballad of Black Tom, is superior to HPL’s work.

Read the originals only if you must, and only if you’re ready for how much worse Lovecraft was.

Speaking of ‘must,’ this story is an adventure of musts and mustn’ts. It’s about being pushed, pressured by society and those with more power. And this story is more concerned with wily survival against the wishes of malignant potentates than with any fulfillment of internal, personal dreams and desires. In fact, it’s about quashing one’s own hopes in order to conform, in hopes that conforming will offer some protection. That is part of what sets this story up so well as a piece of slow horror, but it’s also foundational to why it feels so honest. Our protagonist, Vellitt Boe, struggles against constraints even as she tries to uphold them; she’s caught in a vise, doing her best to protect the little island of home she’s found, the little space for broadening life’s horizons she’s been able to settle into… but to do so, she must drag another woman back from those broadened horizons, back into a constrained life, lest many more lives be lost.

Horrible. Perfect.

Now, some very light, very generalized *SPOILERS*…

The late-in-the-story turnaround leading to the story’s final resolution seems obvious when I think about it now, but it caught me by surprise in the best way. And throughout the story, I loved that Vellitt Boe accomplished more through her own previous experience—and the relationships she’d forged over her well-traveled life—rather than through any personal skill mastery or super-ability. Being experienced in the ways of the world, having old allies, and knowing how to convince people to do what she wanted all did more for her… and that felt perfect. In so many ways, Vellitt Boe is the opposite of the heroes or narrators chosen by Lovecraft, or his contemporary Robert E. Howard. And the fact that Vellitt Boe’s connections to other people are so fundamentally instrumental to her success… it feels to me like a beautiful refusal of the ideologies of the source material.

End *SPOILERS*.

Look, I like this book. I definitely recommend it. More deliberate than fast-paced, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is full of subdued horror, is uncomfortable but rewarding, and is very good.

Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts

When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.

Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.

Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.

Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.

Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.

“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.

To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.

Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.

Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.

Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.

This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

the-ballad-of-black-tom-1

Victor LaValle doesn’t rehabilitate HP Lovecraft; he takes all the good, sheds the malevolent dreck, and adds to the horror a heart and depth that HPL never managed to find. The Ballad of Black Tom (on B&N and Amazon) is a far better imagining of HPL’s The Horror at Red Hook; it has a humanity to it that Lovecraft couldn’t write, and is in every way a superior story.

LaValle uses the story of a young black man to artfully tie the everyday horror of injustice, and humanity’s easy inhumanity, to the overarching themes of cosmic horror and the pursuit of power. He does so while retaining the wonder and strangeness of HPL’s more evocative works, even as he roundly and repeatedly critiques HPL’s own prejudices both implicitly and explicitly. This story is a treat.

If you ever found any redeeming quality in a story by Lovecraft, any frisson of horror that moved you, I suggest that you read this book. If you steered clear of HPL’s work because of its noxious toxicity, but are willing to give horror with heart a try, I recommend this book a hundred times over.

It’s a shame that so much of cosmic horror is tied to HPL these days. HPL’s large collection of ‘-isms’ are so inextricably tied into his stories that they are themselves a source of horror. But Robert W. Chambers wrote cosmic horror before him (with The King in Yellow), and The Ballad of Black Tom is proof that there’s good cosmic horror after him. I’m glad to have a story I can wholeheartedly recommend which doesn’t cover or ignore HPL’s awfulness, but instead acknowledges and rejects it completely.

If you want more other stories like this, there’s a collection of four novellas (including The Ballad of Black Tom) called Reimagining Lovecraft. I haven’t read the other stories yet, but I will soon.

Consent and Horror Gaming, Quick Thoughts

We, as people playing story-games and RPGs, often assume that our fellow players are on the same page as us. We assume that other players want the same things, have the same tolerances, fears, and interests, or at least don’t differ in ways which would surprise us. These assumptions are frequently wrong, to varying degrees. Worse, unless they’re examined these assumptions interfere with players building trust and giving informed consent.

Players’ trust, consent, and buy-in is important regardless of the game, but it’s critical in games dealing with uncomfortable material… like horror games. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around gaming and consent, but this piece will focus on consent in horror RPGs.

Quick note: when I say “players,” I include the storyteller. As the storyteller, you’re not only doing a bunch of work, you’re also participating in this story world that you’re creating with and for your fellow players—if people are pulling the game into territory you’re uncomfortable with or which you really don’t want to cover, that’s important too! Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of other players, or at least not any more than you want to.

Trust is a simple word and a complex subject. Too complex for me to cover in depth in one post. You can’t build consent without a modicum of trust between people involved; for consent to be meaningful, there must be trust that other people will respect the boundaries set and will act promptly and responsibly on feedback they receive. The depth of that trust governs how readily groups can achieve consent, and influences how willing people may be to experiment with their boundaries. One person may have varying levels of trust for different people or topics, and the only way to learn those levels is to ask and observe. So pay attention to those around you, ask for and give feedback freely and without judgement, validate reported discomfort, and resolve that discomfort to the preferences of the uncomfortable person.

Informed consent is another large subject, but at its simplest I’d call it agreement without coercion or surprises. I mention buy-in earlier because I think enthusiastic participation and shared investment is the obvious next step following informed consent; it’s important to have players’ consent, but you really want their buy-in as well. But without laying the groundwork with your players, you’ll only achieve consent and buy-in by luck; ideally, we want to get there by design.

What might that groundwork look like?

The first step is for someone (usually the storyteller) to offer or request a specific kind of game—for our purposes, we’ll assume that people want a horror game. There may be some back and forth here, until there’s a sufficient body of excited players to support a game.

The second step is when a storyteller should warn their players about what underlying kinds of discomfort are likely in the course of the story: a narrative version of “side effects may include,” where you might mention character death, fallible perceptions of reality, gaslighting, decaying sanity, things that go bump in the night, etc. Whatever is particular to your game. You (the storyteller) can also take suggestions from your players here! There’s an art to crafting that warning, given that many horror games revolve around the unknown: I strongly suggest that you touch on broad themes more than specific perils. The specific perils can come up in the next step.

Once you’ve warned folk about what underlying themes you may play with (and asked what themes they might like to add), ask what specific things they’d like to see in the game and what specific things they don’t want. Here the terminology of lines and veils is useful: lines are hard vetos against specific content showing up in a game, while veils are a request to fade-to-black around that content without excluding it entirely. There’s an excellent explanation of lines, veils, and some other safety mechanics here.

Double check to make sure that you’ve heard people’s requests, and that they’ve heard your underlying content warnings.

In the course of play, take breaks! Check in with people, preferably one on one, about how things are going for them and whether there’s anything that they’d like to update in terms of lines, veils, or other requests for the game. I suggest checking in one on one because it’s easy for people to unconsciously pressure others (or themselves) into not speaking up about discomfort. To quote from the link above, a good interaction might look like:

“Ouch!”

“Oops, sorry. Let’s fix that.”

You can also use those check-ins as a means of getting useful feedback on your storytelling, or on the character you’re playing. These are good opportunities to discuss bleed, or any other things that have come up for people through the course of the game. It’s also worthwhile asking the group as a whole to check-in, so long as you’re addressing people’s needs and concerns individually as well.

And remember that trust, consent, and buy-in are all things which can change! None of those established preferences are set in stone, and people’s needs may change. Use safety mechanics (some linked here) to make sure that people don’t feel that their consent has been abused, or their trust diminished. Stoplight check-in vocabulary (green = more of this please, yellow = this is on the edge don’t push further, red = NOPE) is valuable for making this process easier, and having something on the table that people can use during scenes without interrupting game is very helpful. That on-table tool could be an X-card, or several differently colored circles.

Just because you’re playing a horror game doesn’t mean that you should run roughshod over your fellow players. The experience of horror should be in the game and in response to the game, not because your friends were assholes to you in real life.

p.s. the earliest mention of Lines and Veils I could find while writing this today was here, in this thread from 2004.