Archive for March, 2018

Praise! A victorious day! For tomorrow is not promised!

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Excerpted from the journals of Stephor the Seeker:

“Everybody run!” I had shouted pointing to the table where the victor would soon raise her spoon against the traditional meal.

I suppose I should backtrack a bit, I do so love my in media res openings. In my travels seeking to unite my compass with what I believed sure was now named the Necklace of Theongrave, I had occasion to visit Britain, the part called England, during a particularly warm spring only to blunder into the tennis at Wimbledon. Largely because I haven’t permission to open my mouth about a lady, I will skip over the part where I met, romanced and ultimately parted with one of the female contenders, later crowned Queen and Champion of Centre Court. And she must remain safely anonymous. If it matters, we cried at the leaving.

Anyway, I digress. The lady in question is surprisingly relevant to what happened next and will thus be alluded to anonymously. As part of her competition ritual, the lady prefers to watch movies with quite a bit of cartoonish gore the night before a big match. On this particular night, the she insisted on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. We laughed and the other things as you might guess. I hummed the immensely catchy theme song, but not the intentionally horrible Tomato Death Song, as I made my morning grooming ritual watching her sleep contentedly in the warm morning light.

She played her match practically giving the truth to the playground boast about still winning with both hands tied behind her back. And then, holding silver platter aloft and saying the required platitudes about gratitude and sportsmanship all champions give someone mentioned the strawberries and cream traditionally fed to the victor. My Lady Nettia of Racquet produced the pearl white smile that had hooked me a week earlier during the bracket competition. She may have been hoping for a picture to entice strawberry growers to give an endorsement. In fairness, strawberries are good in of themselves, especially when you chew and hear them scream, but I’m getting about fifteen minutes ahead of the main narrative.

My Lady allowed herself to be pulled towards the bowl. Cameras flashed. She raised her spoon saluting a fallen foe. And now we rejoin the narrative with me shouting my warning. Of course, this was a moment before anything happened so the crowds, reporters and the male contenders waiting their later turn at championship with victor’s strawberries and cream all looked at me as if I dropped my pants to reveal a happy face painted down there. I sometimes am able to feel nasty turns in the local magic or technology (to the extent these may be the same thing) and I gave warning.

A few seconds later, the two hundred or so strawberries held in the crisper for the champions emerged taking a hovering flight of the kind that violates physical law unless magic is part of the equation. Even I screamed like a small child allowed to stay up eating sugar and to watch the more terrifying horror movies in Earth’s oeuvre, like, say, The Exorcist…

Editor’s Note:

It is at this point, that I will cut into Stephor’s narrative about the apparently covered up Wimbledon Carnivorous Strawberry Attack of 2018, even as gory as the story gets with a tennis crowd fighting off the strawberries with tennis racquets, cream and peanut butter what with fingers getting bit off and such. And so for those of us living in a more mundane world where a roleplaying game blogger goofed around on Facebook referring to a Carnivorous Strawberry in an unrelated post, what are the game stats?

It would seem that these lethal berries are pissed off swarm animals with behavior much like Africanized Honeybees. Presumably, vibrations, sound and pheromone triggers will induce an attack as will a feeling of great threat like, say, close proximity to cream or the more apparently more effective of creamy peanut butter and toast. The strawberries quickly choose leader-berries that they feed first in order to make decisions about tactics instinctively using their levitating-flying abilities to eat perceived threats first.

Since these fruit that bite back start out as regular produce, a DM/GM would be well advised to give each individual a single or two hit points for each. I suggest that each hit point eaten from victims increases the size of the biting strawberry to the tune of three hit points gained. So win the fight early or there is no telling how large they get. And eating the strawberries will regenerate all injuries caused by these bites, even recovering fingers, toes and noses.

As stated above before excision from a longer more boring version of this post, a song or rhyming couplets involving why we eat such things will stun the strawberries. In the pseudo-science rattling around between my ears, mentioning cream is slightly effective but peanut butter really does the trick. Why? You have to crush strawberries to make jam. And, yes, as a roleplaying note, they scream in the most satisfying way when you chew and swallow.

While we’re on the subject of the songs and rhyming poetry about how tasty strawberries are, yeah, I do have to whip up something for Stephor to have recited/sung with feeling to save his lover and the crowd…

Red heart

Pitted with seeds

Sweet tart

Bathing in the white of valorous deeds

Red jam, Red jam

On a smooth field of brown

Toast, between them we slam

Evil sweet goin’ down!

(It’s been a long while).

Now, there are a few things that another DM/GM is perfectly justified tweaking to make these vile beast individual to his/her game and to prevent the phenomenon of players reading ahead in the monster books. First, since I specifically goofed on tennis and Wimbledon a GM/DM does get to vary the mayhem due to the presence of tennis racquets. I merely thought of them as handy objects of blunt force trauma. But, as I toss the Carnivorous Strawberries into the care of others, I won’t get huffy if someone else has a better brain fart that makes for an even more hilarious monster fight. Something about tennis racquets as a help or hindrance could go a long way.

Next, please, Dear God, don’t just confine this one to strawberries. The same magical/supervillain DNA technologies that cause these things are equally applicable to wine or table grapes, apples, tomatoes (direct plagiarism alert), carrots, refried beans or whatever produce is tastiest to eat. For instance, a wine grape swarm will likely snap at Lucy and Ethel’s ankles chasing them away. The varieties of mayhem are endless. And with that I have a bowl of fruit to consume…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

If you’ve been paying attention, you might be aware that my common whine about classics that don’t land as well with me is – “it benefits from being first.” Or not, it’s not on me at the moment to do the word archeology on my posts or the other reviews I did before the current format. Usually, I mean it in a slightly negative manner as in…

Last of the Mohicans as a reading experience could have been so much more and, basically, it benefits from being first.”

With The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a nearly-hundred-year-old silent horror movie, yes, we do get to say the above but not so much from a position of the negative. Rather let’s think about it from the flipside appreciating the ambition that goes into this movie and treat it as a learning experience. For me, the things that didn’t land belly-flopped (but only slightly from the Three-Meter Springboard, not the more painful Thirty-Meter Platform) because I have the benefit of that century of filmmaking in between. And since most film nuts can go Chapter and Verse explaining how Caligari influenced all kinds of movies coming after, we get to see the why of that body of work evolving the way it did – “Dude, we can do so much better once we figure out the film grammar to do that.”

We open on two men on a bench in a garden telling tales of woe how they got there. A crazy lookin’ lady in white with saucer wide eyes wanders through the scene. The younger man, Francis, asserts she is his fiancée and tells their story of woe. Cut to a yellow-lit scene introducing Francis’ very good friend, Alan, and that the fair is coming to town…

Okay, it’s a hundred-year-old early example of German Film Expressionism that tells the story of Francis and Alan, who share a love for Jane (the lady in white). Meanwhile, Dr. Caligari is made to wait a minute or two too long at the city clerk’s office to get a permit to show off his spectacular somnambulist at the fair. At the far, Francis and Alan enter Dr. Caligari’s sideshow tent and Alan makes the mistake of asking the awakened Cesare, the sleepwalker when he might die – “Until the break of day.”

Cesare awakens at Caligari’s command to kill his enemies: the town clerk, Alan and a few others. Francis runs around the town trying to stop the evil doctor and sleepwalker who prove cunning foes what with strategically using a wax dummy that looks like Cesare whenever Caligari might be observed in his rooms. Francis frantically tries to get the authorities to do something, following Caligari to a mental hospital.

Francis thinks that Caligari is hiding out as the unnamed hospital director and finally seems to make the other doctors aware that their boss is a homicidal nutcase to be thrown into an available cell in straightjacket. But, then we do have the wrap around story of Francis and the other man to get back to and…

We discover that Francis is and always was a patient at the hospital and in his delusions decided that the director made a great Caligari. The director who looks normal now feels happy because now he knows how to cure Francis. Curtain, or rather iris to black…

Many things about this movie landed starting with the acting. Uniformly from the old highly emotive and gestural acting style of early silent films (which is not necessarily how you act when you have a microphone on which to fall back) everybody whether Francis (Friedrich Feher), Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), Jane (Lil Dagover) and especially Director/Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus) just eats up the scenery with sausage and butter.

This acting intended to trade on the emotional state of nightmares optimized for disturbing rather than outright terrifying works hand in glove with the set design. Utilizing the painted on cardboard set backdrops of most stage plays and favoring the viewer’s choice of off-putting triangles contrasted with the equally disconcerting truth of – “straight lines, what’re they?” – you’ll remember these sets a long time. And you’ll steal everything going forwards, which is exactly why cinema in general and horror movies specifically look the way the way they do 98 years later…

Need to terrify your female lead by having the monster/villain appear at her window on a gloomy night ready to enter? Act Four. At least, they decided to let Jane fight a little instead of going for total damsel in distress.

Need to have the hero unable to convince the local authorities of the problem? Also Act Four. Luckily, Francis was able to convince Dr. Olsen (Jane’s father) to try their hand with the police. Unreliable narrator? Check. Twist ending? Check.

I could go on beating the dead horse that you’ll will have seen many of the concepts, tropes and techniques in all kinds of later films that were started here. Many worked. A few didn’t, but only when seen against the hundred-year gap where the successor filmmakers had audience surveys and their own reactions to the movie from which to work to shoot for improvement.

The most glaring thing about this movie seen in 20/20 hindsight is the handling of the juxtaposition of the wrap around story with the main story that might be a total lie as told by a nutjob. There is absolute clarity that Francis was always a patient and that the story he told is a figment. The director (Werner Kraus made up to look normal and nonthreatening compared to Caligari) is an example of the helpful doctor/caregiver instead of megalomaniac intent on weaponizing his hypnosis puppet (somnambulist as a term was slightly misused), but later filmmakers could and would go further with the twist.

Some later filmmakers would use the last shot of the director to muddy up the clarity by going for a facial expression on the director’s face that evoked the manic state of Caligari. This would create spookiness in the last frame as the audience leaves for their lives. Give the audience a shiver creating the possibility that Francis might not have been a totally delusional unreliable narrator after all. That’s one thread. Have you seen any examples of this movie?

Another thread would be to take the story in the direction that leads to, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound where the story that Francis tells has a basis in fact and isn’t completely made up out of whole cloth. The therapist character puts together a puzzle by understanding the symbols. Aside from the example provided, have you seen this movie?

Yet another storytelling thread says that Francis lied through his teeth because he killed Alan for Jane’s hand and made up or enhanced the Director/Caligari to suit his ends. This thread branches again with the choice between said killing drives him crazy or he’s just an unapologetic monster. Have you seen any examples of these movies?

You’ll notice that all of these possibilities require that these filmmakers who hadn’t fully figured out close-ups, or even the ripple dissolve into the flashback somehow pull off film grammar that only came into being because other people watched this movie thinking how do I pull this off better? So in order to make the movie better, I need film knowledge largely inspired by this film.

Basically, this is a time travel paradox that would take all thirteen Doctors sonic screwdrivers at the ready, at least six Companions (eight if you include Amelia Pond and Rory disappearing behind the bushes to make out for no other reason than that they can), a fully charged K-9 and the whole crew of the Shat-Kirk Enterprise doing the warp drive slingshot to solve. A longwinded way of saying that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an amazingly entertaining movie that did what it could and inspired the rest of us to do better. A spooky fun time had by all…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Vlad Dracula, Count Dracula. There are two ways this limited comic book series by my friends, Edward Ambriz and David Moreno, lands. On the historical Count Dracula of Wallachia, thousands of Turks and other undesirables impaled to make a point about invading the sacred homeland. Or on the literary count given to us by Bram Stoker, where after all the copious amounts of impaling and the other forms of brutality depicted in the first version we will see some kind of vampire conversion probably as a last page reveal leading into more stories. And at two issues, there’s no way to guess.

So anyway, we have 44 pages of black and white comics telling us the early life of history’s more colorful tyrants/national heroes (he did keep the Turks out, you’re welcome Europe), who was as famously harsh upon the native-born sinners in Wallachia (part of Romania now) as the Turks. Vlad is the second son (the Spare) jockeying for favor and position from his father, also named Vlad, against his older brother Micea (the Heir, for now). A young lady (sorry, farm girl, lady being used in a more egalitarian sense these days), Elisabetta, has caught young Vlad’s eye and we will see how this plays out in future installments.

So far the reading experience progresses with a lot of intentional slow moving build up toward the inevitable blood bath of practically anyone in Vlad Tepes of Dracula’s way. We see the building brother fight and the senior Vlad’s preference for his namesake due to suspicions that Micea might be in the closet. Daddy regularly slaps both of his sons for the slightest infractions in learning the fine art of war. And the King, the elder Vlad’s older brother has just agreed to foster both of his sons in Constantinople to create peace with the Turks. Young Vlad instantly sees all kinds of angles that perhaps don’t bode well for Vlad’s cousins, the princes. Micea does not.

Reactions to this story will vary according to one’s personal preferences in terms of how fast the writer and artist cut to the chase and have the dynastic struggle play out amid slashed open arteries and the mass impaling to come. I personally teeter between – “shut up, not every story needs to unfold at the breakneck speed of a violent sibling rivalry tale on speed!” – and – “more bloodshed sooner, please!” Though, I do suspect that however these creators choose that more things will happen in Issue #3 regardless of which Dracula story they’ve chosen to tell, because at some point the story will fall off the metaphorical top of the rollercoaster.

Right now, the story gains its most interesting aspects from Vlad’s first person narration in various caption boxes. Clearly old Vlad narrates over young Vlad’s doings how he got that way with a reputation lasting through the centuries since. These text boxes do quite a lot to fill up the story with more foreboding and foreshadowing for the later parts of the story where Vlad will start picking off enemy’s and likely avenge whatever nasty things are in store for Dear Sweet Elisabetta who even now as the pretty face from the kitchen basically has a sign around her neck reading – HOSTAGE WEARING THE RED DRESS FOR THE EVENING.

Another interesting element of this story is a discussion between Vlad the Senior and the head housekeeper who really wants both of the Tepes-Dracula boys to stay off Elisabetta, because she’s good people that needs to find a good husband that will be less likely to make an offer once a royal nephew finishes up. Predictably from what we assume were the attitudes of the time, Daddy practically shrugs acquiescence. And we also learn of his aversion to having a potentially gay son inherit the lands and titles in this scene.

The read breaks down a little bit what with needing to introduce various players to the political drama of Wallachia with title cards as they discuss the apparently unpopular decision of the King to foster his children in Constantinople. Obviously, even without facetiously bringing up the many victims briefly shown in the first issue in a flash forward to the mostly unseen present where the adult Vlad is superimposed over the field of the impaled, we can say there is a cast of thousands. The title cards help as we see hints of the various political forces sure to play a role later.

I ended up having minor quibbles with how Mister Moreno’s art landed on the page in a few places. Specifically, I had to toggle back and forth between Micea and young Vlad on the page. These two boys practically have the same face. Luckily, like the various Peanuts characters, they wear pretty much the same clothes throughout the story. Micea had a neck ruffle and Vlad wore the Tepes-Dracula coat of arms on his chest. But, as time went by how they acted help me tell them apart.

Mister Moreno also did the covers and then brought in a colorist. It’s the same art style, but color really helps the emotional impact of the overall read. Yes, except for the quibble in the above paragraph, I found the black and white art highly atmospheric setting the mood for the dark events to come. It favors the dark inks to go with a story landing in the dark places where the main character becomes known to history as Vlad the Impaler.

As for Mister Ambriz’s writing, allowing for the intentional style to let this story build like a slow cooked stew, I found the scripting to be very workmanlike getting the job done with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of emotional impact. This helped me stay with the story despite what are ultimately minor flaws in the writing. The most glaring of these is that through two issues, so far I’ve found seven typos where I couldn’t help myself and highlighted these mistakes with Post-it notes. Hopefully, there will be more time to send the script to a proofreader before the Issue 3 goes to the letterer.

We have a dark atmosphere with an easy sell when it comes to subject, even if we only get the Historical Dracula. The build up bringing things up to the top of the rollercoaster where the winch grinds the cable just before the release still works for me. As such, I’m still waiting to see what happens in Issue 3 when it finally surfaces. And that’s enough for me.

Oops! Someone opened the wrong egg…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Excerpted from the journals of Stephor the Seeker:

It was a night of bloody pissed drunk. The Rainbow City, Blue Sixteen, that pub where the serving ladies tell you to hide your eyes sparking up the special order, at least so I remember. The bright blinding near white blasted through the hands covering my eyes revealing the hidden forms behind my bony digits. Mug with my ale chaser. My dagger, just in case. I saw both of these with reversed colors on the bar. And then I saw the black egg resting between my drink and blade.

When my eyes cleared of spots, the black egg remained on the oak. Someone must’ve used the distraction of my Flaming Blue Flamingo to give me something. I didn’t leave home nagging my parents into a ship and sword to avoid impeding my brother’s accession to the Big Chair with the intent of being impressively stupid about strange gifts. I swept the egg to the sawdust floor and continued telling my best jokes to Brienne the blonde. Sadly, the Lady B, as the patrons called her, carefully explained that while we could disappear somewhere her man would want to watch and then attempt to outdo me afterwards…that killed the mood faster than her kiss to the forehead.

It was in this after phase of trying to figure out how I would get back to my ship without waving a red flag for the usual thugs inhabiting port cities that Lady B tossed a coin to the innkeeper instructing that I should land facedown over a chamber pot in a room upstairs. In so doing, she knelt down to find the black egg that I had so casually dismissed cracked open…

Editor’s Note:

I will stop the first person narrative here what with the legendary Stephor the Seeker about to spend the rest of the evening in the self-induced misery of being loaded to the eyeballs and paying off that karma at a vastly accelerated rate. The journals become more coherent the next afternoon to reveal what lay inside the black egg.

Other sources from that time reveal that the Rainbow City, a fabulous magical city with easy portals to nearly everywhere, nearly wrecked its entire Blue Section in a succession of disasters seemingly man made or natural but for being too far away from the regions where such phenomenon can be expected. A storm roughly equivalent to what Maine lobstermen might name Nor’easter blasted the three-square blocks around the pub. Six trolls seemingly appeared from other dimensions stepping carefully through imaginary doors in side alleys that no wizard ever replicated. And then there was the dragon as the end of level boss fight.

With each new inflicted terror, either Stephor or one of the other sources had found a black egg that was then cracked open. The shards of the previously cracked egg had disappeared when the new black egg appeared. All told the journals relate ten seemingly random destructive events that were finally curtailed when the shells were ground into fine powder and burned destroying the curse. Or just killed off a pernicious monster in its own right. Hard to say what happened.

Stephor entrusted me with his story when we’d met on the Los Angeles leg of his mission to find a lady with a certain necklace. He got one look at my all in one printer and started running off copies of four years of adventures for my benefit. I’d told him that I made my living telling stories, including repackaging unbelievable truths as fictions, and he knew he had the way to honor our first meeting when he was a child. He also put me on his Rainbow City library card as plus one knowing I would want additional sources for the wonders contained in his copied pages…like the black egg that I facetiously named the Noir Easter.

My research with the Rainbow City Library using Stephor’s card showed that black eggs show up across the multiverse mostly in places where magic provides shortcuts to science. Terrible and extraordinary events occur immediately upon cracking open the egg. One landed in the Sixth Ring of the Golden City and took out four blocks. The first of many appearances of the great storm much like Nor’easters once the rescue team swept up finding the cracked black shell. Because of this high correlation with storms unleashed in this manner, the resemblance to an Easter egg, this is how I came to name this phenomenon Noir Easter. Even serious research needs a few puns.

Was the Noir Easter a magical shell unleashing anything that had been locked inside waiting for a modern day Pandora to make French toast? Was the Noir Easter a sentient being, a monster that changed itself into the form most likely to amuse it laying waste to whole cities? Frankly, having followed up the additional sources the answer is elusive where perhaps both statements are true.

Wizards and scholars reporting back to the Library have stated that sometimes the Noir Easter can be appeased and propitiated with tender caresses or leaving the remains of the evening’s sandwich so the egg or the monster inside could feed. In some cases, the eggshell had strengthened with the offered food that nothing happened, even when the egg dropped from a great height. Such effects always proved temporary as the storm and plague of monsters that should’ve defined far off and therefore legendary merely waited a few days.

So for the benefit of my fellow game masters and authors who perhaps don’t have access to the Rainbow City Library, it is time to set down the parameters of what the Noir Easter could be. I think that, yes, the egg is in fact alive, but that it also makes agreements with other kinds of monsters to protect them when facing extinction in the home range until a gullible sentient (usually a human) can be enticed like Pandora to crack it.

The great storm appears to be the first form of the egg itself. That it releases itself from the small space in the egg as a sentient storm perhaps taking the form of a triumvirate of elementals: water, air and fire (providing the underlying energy of great storms). Then the many and varied monsters that come after the storm are either the creatures given a lift from elsewhere to the new range, or could be further manifestations of the Noir Easter itself. The wizards involved can’t agree, but they do agree that the mayhem ends when the shells are powdered and burned.

Luckily, for those of us that live in low magic realms the Noir Easter is just a fable to be ruthlessly exploited at the gaming table or in print for the temporary terror of our readers and players. Since the Noir Easter can either be anything or hide nearly anything in the various monster books for your favorite system, I will include a non-inclusive list of devastation to give the GM/author a quick goose to the imagination to tailor the fun and mayhem. Oh, yes, and my usual loosey-goosey suggestions as to the combat stats of the thing (assuming it’s alive).

1. Orcs, Vorgons and Goblins. The egg unleashes a number of pissed off humanoids roughly equivalent to the amount of hit points in the party. A warm up fight.

2. Trolls. Now the egg gets nasty transforming into a pack of trolls equal to three times the hit points of the whole party.

3. More trolls or giants. Mayhem equivalent to four times the hit points in the whole party.

4. Medusas, sirens and sirdusas. This one waits until the party makes it back to town and springs the leggy female upon them when they least expect it in the tavern – “buy me a drink kind, Sir.”

5. An even bigger storm. Perhaps the Noir Easter wasn’t finished leveling whole neighborhoods and just has to come back for more…

6. The dragon. Draw up a narratively appropriate dragon, wyrm, draco-bear or anything similar and get busy.

Of course, the individual DM/GM and author has complete freedom to expand these six choices into ten choices, twenty choices or even a hundred (a lot of work creating that D100 table, but…). I suggest that in its native egg state the Noir Easter whether whole or cracked should be able to survive at least thirty hit points of damage with resistance up to at least leather armor. And allow for random occurrences of “feed it and try to make friends.” There that covers that stats and rules geekery.

And if you should ask how in the real world one comes up with Noir Easter. I was loaded at a bar and I found a black plastic Easter egg, so not far off from what Stephor asserted in his journals. I’m a professional at this…until next time.