Friday, October 30, 2015

Frightful Features - Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)

Created by Steven Dodd, Tales from the Crypt was a horror anthology series that ran for seven seasons on the premium cable channel HBO. The title is based upon the classic horror comics published by EC Comics during the 1950's. Like The Twilight Zone and other anthology series, Tales from the Crypt possesses a host character known simply as the "Crypt Keeper", a reanimated corpse who's risen from the grave to tell terrifying tales for our entertainment.

He also enjoys puns. Really, really, really bad puns. Puns that will make you groan louder than you ever thought you could.

Each episode presented a new tale, each more gruesome than the last. Most of the content was derived from the comics it originated from, causing the majority of the stories to end with some dark twist or a strange moment of macabre justice being enacted upon someone truly despicable after doing something particularly awful. However, they made sure each episode was its own beast and felt different from the last.

I'll admit, I'm cheating with this entry. Tales from the Crypt is clearly not a feature film. However, I decided to break the rules just this once because I believe the Halloween season is the perfect time to talk about this classic series.

I have a soft spot for anthologies, especially when it comes to film and television. The Twilight Zone is my favorite show, and I have very fond memories of Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, The Outer Limits (the 90's remake), and even Are You Afraid of the Dark and Goosebumps. I love seeing a brand new story each time I tune into such a series, admiring the craft put into them and getting such a varied amount of entertainment. Tales from the Crypt is no exception.

Each episode feels like a creepy B-Film crammed into 30 minute bites, filling you up without overstaying their welcome. One episode you might have a serial killer dressed up as Santa Claus attempting to kill a woman who's just murdered her husband and trying to cover it up, while the next could have two gambling rivals challenging each other to increasingly deadly games in order to beat the other. The various directors also brought their own unique touches to each episode, helping each feel more unique, while also still possessing a certain feel that was easily recognizable as a Tales from the Crypt story.

Don't get me wrong, Tales from the Crypt was by no means perfect. Like most anthology series, there are some real stinkers within the 93 episodes that were produced and made. However, the majority were great (especially within the first few seasons) and still remain enjoyable today. They feel like the perfect thing to show during a horror movie marathon, in-between each film to act as palate cleanser. They're also great when you just want to relax and enjoy something creepy and happens to have a heavy dose of dark humor.

Fantasy Age Specializations - The Witch

While every mage knows how to cast a spell, each one possesses a different source for that knowledge and approaches this mystical power in a unique way. Some spend years locked away within ancient towers, pouring over dusty tomes to unlock their arcane secrets. Others devote their lives to the deities, learning to channel their divine might. There are a lucky few who are born with the ability to sling spells, eldritch energies infused within their blood. The witch has chosen a different path.

The witch forges a mystically-binding pact with an otherworldly entity, gaining the ability to perform magical feats. However, they must act as this entity's agent in the mortal world. Occasionally, the witch will be required to perform certain tasks for the patron. These will be determined by the Game Master, based upon the nature of your eldritch pact. The requests made by a demonic creature will differ from the requests of a powerful fey.

Classes: Mage                                    
Requirements: Intelligence and Willpower 2 or higher.                               

Novice: The pact you've made allows you to ask your patron for advice. You can use a major action to act if a particular action will bring good or bad results for you in the future. This will garner you one of four results: 
  • Weal (the action will bring you good results)
  • Woe (the action will bring you bad results)
  • Weal and Woe (the action will bring you good or bad results)
  • Nothing (the action does not have any especially good or bad results). 
You can only contact you patron this way once per encounter. You must rest for 8 hours before you can use this ability again if used outside of combat. 

Journeyman: You patron has granted you the ability to weaken your opponents, turning luck against them. You gain the ability to use a special spell stunt called Hex. This stunt allows you to give a target opponent a -2 penalty to one ability of your choosing until the end of the encounter. This stunt costs 5 SP. 

Master: You become more adept at hexing your opponents. The Hex stunt works as normal, but you can select two abilities to impose a -2 penalty upon instead of one. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rule of Three: Setting Tone for Horror Adventures

Being able to set the proper tone for an adventure is an important tool for any Game Master. This is especially true for Game Masters attempting to run horror-themed adventures. Failing to establish the right tone when attempting to run such a scenario can cause it to go haywire and become something else entirely, like a horribly unfortunate comedy or something even worse than that.

With that in mind, I thought I'd blow off the dust of the Rule of Three series and give Game Masters some tips and tricks for setting the tone for a horror game.

#1. Utilize the Uncanny
The dictionary defines "Uncanny" as "strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way." Properly utilizing the uncanny will help you sell the creepiness of the scene or scenario. Implementing the uncanny can be as simple as having a single light flicker along an empty sidewalk, or having the images with a painting seem to move when the PCs look away. Just don't overdue it. Things tend to lose their eeriness if they are used too much.

#2. Focus on the Details
When describing a scene, you should layer the details on nice and thick. Horror games require the players to buy into a dangerous situation when they're in no real danger. Giving the right amount of detail can make it easier for them to do this, helping them to picture this creepy image within their minds. You can also use these details to foreshadow terrors to come, build tension.

#3. Don't Forget the Tension & Release Cycle
Speaking of tension, you need to know when to build tension and when to release said tension. When building tension, give the players small hints about what is about to come, letting that small bit of knowledge cause their fear to build more and more. However, remember to let that tension break every do often, allowing for a moment of calm before building things back up.

I believe these three tips are of the utmost importance to constructing the proper tone for a horror adventure. While you can enhance the experience by playing atmospheric music in the background or playing by candle light, you need to understand the basic building blocks first an know how to implement them correctly.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ghoulish Games - Eldritch Horror

Published by Fantasy Flight Games, Eldritch Horror is a cooperative game designed by Corey Konieczka and Nikki Valens. Similar to Richard Launius' classic game of Lovecraftian terror, Eldritch Horror raises the stakes by leaving the famous New England town of Arkham and traveling the globe.

The game involves one to eight people taking on the role of various investigators as they travel the world to solve mysteries, gather important clues, and save humanity from the alien machinations of one of the many dark deities from the Cthulhu Mythos, known within as the "Ancient One". The players will combat the particular Ancient One by fighting monsters, completing a myriad of encounters, and various other tasks. However, they must be careful, because the fate of the world is in their hands.

Like I mentioned before, Eldritch Horror is similar to its older brother Arkham Horror. Each games has a group of players become investigators in order to defeat an alien deity. However, Eldritch's global focus, tighter rules, and quicker playing time helps it stand out above its predecessor.

Don't get me wrong, Arkham Horror is a great game and deserves its spot within the Board Game Hall of Fame. However, sometimes it feels more like a chore than an game to play. The game takes awhile to set up, the time to play it causes it to be one of those games you have to plan an entire night around, and it can be a little intimidating to newer players or those not as familiar with Lovecraftian themes. Eldritch Horror gives me that same experience in a smaller package.

Those looking for a dose of the Cthulhu Mythos at their board gaming nights should give Eldritch Horror a look. The game is tight, offers a tough challenge for those of us who really enjoy cooperative games, and allows you to travel the globe in the 1920's to fight alien monstrosities. What's not great about that?

Fantasy Age Specializations - The Slayer

There are things that go bump in the night. The slayer is the one who bumps back. These warriors have trained their entire lives to face the horrors that lurk within the darkness, hoping to eradicate the grotesque and the unnatural.

Sadly, very few slayers have happy endings. The majority either die fighting the creatures they despise, or stare into the Abyss for too long, slowly turning themselves into a special breed of monster. However, there will always be someone willing to ignore the dangerous laid out before them and travel down this sad path, doing what they believe to be necessary.

Classes: Warrior
Requirements: You must have Fighting and Willpower 2 or higher.

Novice: Your training has made you particularly adept at killing supernatural and terrifying creatures. You can spend an Activate action to target an extraplanar or undead creature within 12 yards of you. You receive +1 damage bonus against this target and weapons used against it are considered magical. This lasts until the end of the encounter, the target dies, or you spend another Activate action to target anothet creature. You can only target one creature at a time, and the same target can't be targeted more than once in a 24 hour period.

Journeyman: As you grow in power, you gain the ability to cause greater harm to these abominations. The damage bonus you receive against your target increases to +3.

Master: You learn to multitask and handle several targets at once. When you spend an Activate action, you can target two extraplanar or undead creatures at one time.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Frightful Features - Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

I'm not the biggest fan of "meta-films", movies that prevent the audience from forgetting they are watching a work of fiction. The reason for this is that a lot of movies that fall within this category tend to "wink" at the audience too much or pat themselves upon the back when they think they're being clever, when they actually aren't.

With that being said, there are a few that I actually really enjoy. Today's feature is one of them: Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a meta-slasher film directed and written by the late master of horror. Although the seventh entry within the popular franchise, New Nightmare takes place within our world a decade after the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released. The story focuses on Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played the first film's heroine Nancy Thompson, currently living in Los Angeles with her husband Chase and young son Dylan. After experiencing a horrible nightmare during an earthquake, Heather discovers her son is being haunted while he sleeps by a man that sounds an awful lot like Mr. Krueger, which is peculiar since she's never shown him any of the films. Quickly, Heather learns a dark secret behind the movies: Freddy Krueger might not be as fictional as she believes, and he might have his eyes set upon her son. Can Heather become the character she once portrayed in order to save her child, or will Krueger succeed at his nefarious goals?

New Nightmare has this interesting concept of a famous slasher from a horror movie being something more, possibly something ancient trapped within the moving frames. It gives a cool explanation for why they keep making more and more of these movies, even thought it becomes harder to explain each and every entry. The reason being that once they stop production, the creature trapped within will escape and reek havoc once more.

That is a great concept for a metafilm, and New Nightmare uses it very well. It references the other films, but does so in a respectful manner instead of an annoying wink to the audience. It delves into the power these movies can have on the real world, but takes it one step further. It also feels like the perfect way to end the franchise, by having Freddy not only escape the world of dreams, but the world of film as well.

Because of this, New Nightmare is one of my favorite entries within the franchise. I still like the original and Dream Warriors better, but this one is a VERY close third. I love the concept, I enjoy the performances (especially from Langenkamp and England), and the effects are still top notch (although, I still prefer the older design for Freddy's scars and claw). I highly recommend New Nightmare if you're looking for a cool twist to a popular franchise that I feel actually works.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Ghoulish Games - Dread

Dread is a horror roleplaying game designed by Epidiah Ravachol and Nathaniel Barmore. Although the game can be used for ongoing campaigns, Dread is at its strongest when used for one-shot scenarios.

There are two things that make Dread a truly unique game within the horror genre: how it handles characters and the game's system.

Unlike the majority of games within the hobby, Dread doesn't use specific mechanics to represent characters. Instead, characters are created and modeled by answering a questionnaire based upon the scenario being played out. Each questionnaire is different and helps players flesh out the different aspects of each character, giving the Game Master things to play with during the session. The only rule players must follow when answering these questions is they cannot contradict a question. For example, when asked a question about why did you break your mother's heart, you can't answer that you didn't do that.

The second unique element is the task resolution system that Dread uses. The game doesn't use dice to determine a character's success, but a simple Jenga tower. When a player attempts something particularly challenging, one with serious consequences that could possibly end with his demise, they must pull one or more blocks from the tower (at the GM's digression). The action succeeds if the player manages to pull the aforementioned blocks and place them atop the tower without knocking it over. However, failing to do so means your character has met his fate and is removed from the game. With that being said, the GM can bring you back in to torment your fellow players if she wishes to do so.

The reason why I love this mechanic is because it does an amazing job at build a sense of tension at the table. Each time a block is removed from the tower, its structure becomes more and more unstable. You know the tower will eventually fall, but you don't know when and you don't know if you'll be the one two do it. That makes every pull tense, since it could be your last, helping build the necessary tension that you need in a great horror game.

While I love Dread, I admit its not a perfect game. This game, like others in the horror genre, require you to have a group of players willing to buy into the scenario and allow themselves to feel scared. Furthermore, the nature of the mechanic requires players to forego some control of the actions of their characters due to the strict results of a block pull and what happens to the character if they fail. Because of this, Dread will not be for everyone.

With that being said, I still think everyone should give Dread a chance. I believe it's one of the best games for short-form horror scenarios and incredibly fun. Check out the game's website if you're interested.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Frightful Features - Grave Encounters (2011)

Directed by the Vicious Brothers, Grave Encounters is a pseudo-documentary horror film following the crew of a ghost-hunting television series as they film an episode. The crew consists of the show's host Lance Preston, occult specialist Sasha Parker, surveillance operator Matt White, cameraman T.C. Gibson, and fraudulent medium Houston Gray.

Hoping to create an entertaining episode, the crew decides to lock themselves within Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, an abandoned asylum with a very long history of paranormal activity. However, as soon as the sun sets and night falls, strange things begin to happen within the walls of this eerie building. Are these "investigators" going mad? What's lurking within the dark halls of Collingwood? Will they managed to survive until morning? Stay tuned after the commercial break to find out...

Normally, I'm not the biggest fan of the "Found Footage" subgenre of horror films. There are a small handful that I enjoy, but the majority are either atrocious or would be better off being shot more traditionally.

Luckily, Grave Encounters is one of the few that I actually like. I like the concept of a group of people who are basically frauds being confronted with genuine, paranormal activity/ The movie also gets bonus points for offering a situation that explains why they're keeping the cameras rolling instead of just tossing them or turning them off. Well, an excuse that makes suspending your disbelief much easier at least.

Grave Encounters also does a great job at building a very creepy environment that feels like something out of a Call of Cthulhu adventure, especially when the surroundings start screwing with the crew's sanity and their growing madness begins to take over. At times, the film gives me the same eeriness that Jacob's Ladder gave me the first time I saw it, watching the world within the film slowly fall apart and the characters spiraling into insanity.

While the film has its stumbling blocks, mostly with the haphazard pacing and the characters can come off as a little flat at times (especially at the beginning), the situation is intriguing and the weird nature of the horror is cool enough for me to feel comfortable recommending it for at least one viewing. Check it out. I dug it and you might too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ghoulish Games - Dead of Winter

Published by Plaid Hat Games, Dead of Winter: A Cross Roads Game is a semi-cooperative game designed by Jonathon Gilmour and Issac Vega. The game is set in a post-apocalypse during the harsh season of winter. Players take control of several various characters living within a zombie infested colony, doing their best to survive by working together.

Every session of Dead of Winter begins with the players randomly determining the colony's main goal. This will be the major objective the group is trying to complete over the course of the game. It will also determine the number of rounds the game will last and the group's starting morale, which must never hit zero of the players will lose.

During the game, the players will have to deal with a series of crises that will make things much more difficult, During their turns, players will be able to explore a handful of locations nearby the colony, gather food and strengthen the defenses of said colony, kill zombies, and many other actions. Once the round is over, they will check a few things to see if they lose morale, begin to starve, or make things harder for themselves in the rounds to come. The game ends if either the players A) complete their main objective, B) finish the given number of rounds, or C) run out of morale.

While this might sound like your typical cooperative game, Dead of Winter has two elements that really make it awesome: the Secret Objectives and the Cross Roads deck.

At the beginning of the game, players are dealt a Secret Objective card. This gives them a specific objective they need to complete before the end of the game to personally win. However, like Shadows Over Camelot, there is a chance that one player might end up with an objective labeled "Betrayal", meaning they are secretly working against the others. Because these are secret, a slight sense of paranoia creeps in as the game goes on, causing you to question everyone's motives. You'll find its difficult to trust even your best friends during the zombie apocalypse.

The Cross Roads deck is a unique element that happens each turn during the game. When a player starts their turn, the person to their left draws a Cross Roads card, which has a special event printed upon it and a condition that must be met for that event to trigger placed at the top. These events generally create interesting moments within the story of the game and present players with difficult decisions. One card might have you kill an helpless survivor to scare the others into not starting a riot, while another might have you choose whether to save someone who's hurt or take their stuff and leave them to die.

While Dead of Winter is a fun and very tense game, the inclusion of these secret objectives and the Cross Roads deck make it a fantastic experience. This might be my favorite game that came out last year, and I've enjoyed each time I've managed to play it (even though I've only won once). I would even dare to say it's probably my favorite zombie board game because it's the only one I've played that actually feels like a zombie movie.

Those of you who've not played Dead of Winter should change that immediately. Go down to your local game store, grab it off the shelf, and purchase it now. You will not regret it.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Frightful Features - Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is the third installment in the well-known horror franchise. Unlike the other entries within the series, Season of the Witch does not feature the popular slasher Michael Myers. Instead, the film follows the great Tom Atkins as Dr. Dan Challis as he finds himself drawn into a strange series of events associated with a mask-making company known as Silver Shamrock Novelties.

After traveling to the small town of Santa Mira and delving deeper into the company's secrets, Challis discovers they have a horrifying plan for the children of the country, one that will come to fruition on Halloween night if he doesn't find a way to stop it.

Reactions to Season of the Witch at the time of its release were not very kind. Many criticized the films exclusion of Michael Myers, while others complained about the film being this strange blend of several different genres and ideas instead of just another slasher film like its predecessors. However, Season of the Witch has slowly garnered a cult following and a dedicated fanbase, which I happily belong to.

Season of the Witch offers a compelling story that utilizes the holiday of Halloween very well, great performances from great actors, and some truly chilling moments. British science fiction writer Nigel Kneale really knocked it out of the park with his script, even though he was greatly displeased with the increased graphic violence and gore added by movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis. It brings forth the origins of Halloween, mixing them together with more modern elements, making a story that feels unique.

The acting is great as well. Tom Atkins is great as always, reminding everyone who enjoys genre cinema why we universally love this man. He has this ability to bring so much charisma and personality to a character, causing it to just ooze out of the television screen. Dan O'Herlihy does a fantastic job as the movie's antagonist as well, bringing to life this businessman with a dark plan to return Halloween to its more bloody roots. Heck, that voice alone can send shivers down your spine.

Finally, the special effects are superb. Probably the most memorable scene is with the masked child watching the Silver Shamrock commercial. This scene is still great to this very day and looks utterly grotesque. It's definitely one of the scenes I point to when people ask me why I prefer practical effects over CGI. I dare you to watch those snakes slivering out of the eye holes of that rotting mask and not feel a shiver dance up your spine.

Halloween III Season of the Witch is a great horror film that receives an unfair amount of hate. It's one of my favorite films to watch during the month of October, and playing the drinking game associated with it is definitely fun (take a drink each time you hear that jingle). The story is interesting, the acting is great, and the special effects as awesome. I highly recommend Season of the Witch.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ghoulish Games - Ultimate Werewolf

GHOULISH GAMES is a mini-series of posts where I spotlight a board or roleplaying game I feel is perfect for October and Halloween. This series will be posted every Monday.

Ultimate Werewolf is a party card game published by Bezier Games and designed by Ted Alspach. It's based upon Andrew Plotkin's lycanthropic-themed reinvention of Dimitry Davidoff's social game Mafia. The game can be played with 6 to 75 players of all ages, making it one of the best games to pull off the shelf at a Halloween party or a family get together.

The game's rules are pretty simple. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a particular card by the moderator. This card give each player a particular role within the game, with certain roles having special powers or requirements within the game. The game itself is then played in two phases, the Night phase and the Day phase.

During the Night phase, players with certain roles wake up and perform a special action. The Werewolves wake up and select one other player at the table to devour, the Seer wakes up and discovers whether a player is a werewolf or something else, the Witch wakes up and can either save or kill another player once each per game, and so on.

Once every role with a special ability or action has performed it, the Night phase ends and the Day phase begins. During the Day phase, the players wake up and learn who was killed by the werewolves. Afterwords, they discuss among each other who they believe is a werewolf and eventually vote on someone to execute at the end of the phase.  Once this has happened, another Night phase begins and the everything starts again.

The game ends when either all the werewolves have been killed (meaning those aligned with the Villagers have won), or only the werewolves are left alive (meaning they have won).

Ultimate Werewolf, as the name implies, is the ultimate version of Werewolf. The game has 40 unique roles, different scenarios you can use to liven up your game, 78 fully illustrated cards, a useful pad which makes the moderator's task of tracking the different roles within the game much easier, and a comprehensive game guide. Ted really knocked it out of the park with this one.

I only have two major criticisms of Ultimate Werewolf, and they are the same criticisms I have with normal Werewolf. First, you need a good moderator to have a good game. A crappy moderator can ruin a session of Werewolf unbelievably fast. The second one is that the really isn't a game per say, but more of a social event with some rules. While that's not a bad thing, it might turn away those who are looking for something with a little more structure or mechanics.

With that being said, I still feel like Werewolf /Ultimate Werewolf is one of the best party games out there, especially if you have a large group of players. Also, the theme makes it perfect for a Halloween party. Just turn out the lights, set up some candles,and have some fun with your friends.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Frightful Features - Nightbreed (1990)

Based upon the director's novella Cabal, Nightbreed is a dark fantasy film that follows Aaron Boone, a seemingly normal human being who's been having strange dreams. Every night, he finds himself whisked away to a place called Midian where a race of monsters called the 'Nightbreed' live. However, Boone quickly learns these dreams are more than figments of his imagination and he might not be as normal as he thought.

I'll admit, Nightbreed is by no means a perfect film. Hell, one could argue that it's not even a good one. The plotting is somewhat haphazard and the majority of its characters receive very little development outside of a handful of traits and admittedly pretty cool designs.

With that being said, I can't help but have a fondness for Nightbreed. I understand why a cult of genre fans have formed around this movie. The concept of having these strange creatures existing right under our noses and being the truly persecuted ones is very intriguing, the make-up work is excellent and the creature designs are visually interesting, and the climatic third act is a special level of awesome. You can also sense the amount of love and heart Clive Barker put into the film, which causes Nightbreed to possess this odd charm to it.

While it might not be the best movie in the world, Nightbreed manages to sustain itself with a cool concept and utterly awesome third act. Give it a try if you like Barker's work, looking for something with some cool monsters, and an interesting secondary part played by a certain beloved horror director.