Tag: drama (page 1 of 5)

Tweaking the Masquerade

Courtesy Highmoon

I’ve had vampires on my mind lately. Between writing the draft of Cold Streets, seeing the season finale of True Blood (that’s another post entirely…) and chatting via Twitter with Justin Achilli, I’ve been wondering how Vampire: the Masquerade might be improved. I don’t see Vampire: the Requiem as an improvement, merely a sequel or perhaps another permutation of the game. It’s not strictly better, in my opinion, nor is it discernibly ‘worse’, it’s just different. Masquerade has been my jam for many a year, and I still remember games played within that world fondly. I do think some things could be done to make the setting more interesting, however, and allow for more character exploration and nuance without sacrificing atmosphere.

Get Rid of the Sabbat

As much as I appreciate a good villain, the Sabbat really aren’t good villains. Whenever the idea of blatant rule of humans by vampires comes up, it’s always a bad one. In a game where the notion is to explore mature subject matter such as temptation, the degradation of humanity in the face of power, and what it means to be a monster wearing human skin, an establishment of monolithic evil undercuts the purpose. You can still have dramatic tension and meaningful moments of powerful self-discovery, along with power-mongering, scheming, seduction, and betrayal, without needing to conjure a boogeyman that likes skinning babies for fun. The Sabbat are completely unnecessary, superfluous to the crux of the gameplay, and actually kind of silly when you think about it.

That said, while the antitribu can easily bite the dust I still appreciate the two major clans involved with the Sabbat. So what becomes of them?

Refine the Tzimisce

The fact that the vampires of the Tzimisce bloodline exhibit a mentality and behavioral code far different from any other creature is a lot more interesting to me than their role in the aforementioned Sabbat. When I think Tzimisce, I think classic figures such as Dracula or Elizabeth Bathory. They’re the kind of creature to hide in plain sight, to prey upon those who least suspect them, and cloak their predatory nature with designer clothing or Stepford smiles.

In short, I think the Tzimisce should live in the suburbs.

Think about it. In classic tales the vampire always has a secluded, sprawling manor house. You really don’t know there’s something weird going on until you step inside. A cunning Tzimisce, in my mind, would wear a human skin the way you or I wear slacks to a day job – as soon as you get home, you change into something more comfortable. Sure, it’s fun to dress in fetish clothing and march around to Rammstein, but it’s not very subtle or nuanced. And since subtle and nuanced is what I prefer to go for, that old viewpoint of the Tzimisce needs to go the way of the Sabbat. Instead of shaking a mailed fist at the Camarilla for foiling their plans once again, I much prefer the image of a Tzimisce living a quiet, genteel life of grabbing meals and experimentation subjects out of golf clubhouses, high-end cocktail parties, and corporate gatherings, available to impart some ancient secrets on the curious and the daring… for a price. Some may still maintain chambers of horrors under their gated communities, and others may simply prefer to read a good book by the fire after an evening meal. Don’t limit the clan to a single stereotype; establish some parameters and let the player fill in the blanks as they see fit.

They would tend to stay out of the cities because of the Tremere, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Isolate the Lasombra

Without the Sabbat, what becomes of the Lasombra? One of my absolute favorite clans, their powers over shadows and penchant for manipulation behind the scenes makes them excellent schemers and hidden threats. As much as a member of the Lasombra might crave power, it often takes the form of having influence over the supposedly powerful, rather than being in charge themselves. An ideal Lasombra, in my mind, is not the kind to bark orders at neonates like a drill sergeant. They’re more (you guessed it) subtle than that.

They’ve always been good rivals for the more traditional political leaders of the Camarilla, the Ventrue and the Toreador. My inclination is to underscore that by, in essence, putting a single Lasombra at the opposite end of a chessboard from a given city’s Prince. The Lasombra test those in power, evaluating their worthiness through challenges, manipulations and even threats. Not direct ones, of course, but threats manufactured to see what the Prince and their city are made of. If the Prince proves themselves worthy, reward them by manipulating others in the city to their benefit (and the Lasombra’s); if they don’t, engineer their replacement. This change could make the Lasombra out to be some kind of dastardly arch-villain, and some of them may lean that way, but again, the notion is to establish unique parameters and let people fill in the blanks themselves. Sure, some may go for the Moriarty or Hannibal Lecter angle, playing up the superficially antagonistic role, but others may approach the city as an experiment, a giant living Petri dish in which the behaviors, reactions, and merits of those in control are to be tested. Still others may see themselves as performing a vital service for the Prince, ensuring they remain in power. Hell, why not conspire with the Prince directly if the Lasombra in the city considers them worthy? There are possibilities here, more than might be afforded by the Sabbat.

Galvanize the Tremere

Justin posed this question: why aren’t the Tremere the good guys? If order is good for society and vampires, and chaos is bad, why is an ordered clan like the Tremere seen as a bad thing? “When you hear about the Tremere ‘searching for an artifact,’ you immediately conclude, ‘someone has to stop them!'” The Tremere are usually seen as gaming for political positioning, trying to get one up on the Ventrue or the Prince or somebody else who’s in power, and while this is traditionally vampiric behavior, with its structure and clear hierarchy, I think the Tremere are more suited for another role entirely.

Basically, I’ve always though the Tremere would make great cops.

There’s a lot of ways this could go. The Tremere in one city could operate like detectives from L.A. Confidential or Law & Order, while in another they are essentially the Gestapo. But the overarching mentality of the clan would be to protect the Kindred of the city, safeguard the innocent, and enforce the Traditions. They have powerful tools to investigate crime, pursue offenders, and bring them to justice. Instead of using these powers to get an edge on other Kindred, they could be used for a greater good, which in and of itself becomes an edge. And the dynamic within the city remains fluid. Some may respect the Tremere and what they do, while others harbor a deep hatred for authority figures and especially cops. And there are a slew of stories in which cops go bad; a corrupt Tremere would be an anomaly, but would also be a dangerous quantity. If a Lasombra gets some dirty on a Tremere, or the Giovanni name the right price, how will the Tremere’s clan mates find out and deal with them? And what about a member of the Tremere going undercover to investigate whispers of conspiracy among the other clans?

Some things to think about when it comes to vampire storytelling.


Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


‘Crime drama’ is a pretty broad spectrum for stories. Some are from the perspective of those on the people’s side of the law, following detectives and prosecutors in their pursuit of justice. Others give us the point of view of the individual criminal, from the ones trying to rise above a life of crime to those wallowing in it. They range from gritty realism to stylized flights of fancy, but there’s something about Gangster No. 1 that refuses to be pinned down to any side of the story save that of our protagonist.

Courtesy Film Four

Said protagonist remains nameless throughout the story much like his cousin in Matthew Vaughn’s seminal and stylish Layer Cake, and is recruited back in 1968 by up-and-coming crime boss Freddie Mays. Our hero looks up to Freddie in a big way, but when it seems Freddie has more affection of a nightclub singer than his new right-hand man, jealousy rears its ugly head. Circumstances fall together for the young gangster to get Freddie out of his way and become the big dog in the London yards, and he rules over a mighty criminal empire until, over 30 years later, Freddie returns from his imprisonment. A reunion is clearly in order.

One of the best things Gangster No. 1 has going for it is the clear influence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. With Malcolm McDowell as the older iteration of the Gangster, and Paul Bettany excellently pulling off the glower from behind lowered eyebrows that Malcolm himself made famous, we’re reminded quite clearly of the film that gave us ‘a bit of the old ultra-violence’. And this movie certainly doesn’t shrink from the heavy stuff. Indeed, one of the best sequences in it involves a particularly brutal and thorough murder from the perspective of the victim, which tells us much more about the Gangster than any words ever could.

Courtesy Film Four
“Totally cool with you dating that chick, bro.”

This is a man driven mad with desires. He came from nowhere and wanted everything he saw. He didn’t just look up to Freddie Mays, he wanted to be Freddie Mays. More than once, we get the impression that the Gangster is struggling with feelings of romantic love for Mays, while at the same time he longs to oust Mays and take his place. This is why he seems so tortured when he’s taking his time to kill the rival crime lord who set about assassinating Freddie: the rival cause Freddie pain, he beat the Gangster to the punch, and he doesn’t dress or live anywhere near as well. The Gangster is out to prove his worth, that he is better than any other lawbreaker running around London, and he’ll leave a trail of bloody, broken bodies to do it without a shred of guilt or even a moment’s second thought.

It must be said that without McDowell’s sour, profanity-laced narration and Bettany’s silent, edgy intensity, this character study would fall completely flat. But thanks to the efforts of these two actors the movie functions quite well for what it is. The best scene is probably between Bettany and Saffron Burrows, the girl who “stole” Freddie from the Gangster. When she crosses the line and spits in the face of this cold-blooded, half-mad killer, Bettany’s face gives us an unflinching look at the anger and insanity writhing around in this character. Yet, he composes himself, without breaking eye contact, manages to smile and conveys wishes that would seem genuine, apologetic and heartfelt if it weren’t for the icy rage we’d seen moments ago. It’s a fantastic bit of acting that stands out among the rest of the film’s scenes.

Courtesy Film Four
Why is Professor Lupin being such a complete jerk?

The problems with Gangster No. 1 come down to tone and pacing. It never seems to decide for certain if it wants to be a mix of character drama and comedy like a Guy Ritchie film or a pure hard-nosed crime tragedy like Scarface. Elements of both are clearly present along with the aforementioned Clockwork Orange but it feels a bit like director Paul McGuigan went to a buffet where all of these options were available and tried to cram his plate with as much as he could from each one. It never becomes an actual mess, but also never finds its own voice amongst these influences. It also seems to accelerate a bit too much in places, as if once past the major turning points in the Gangster’s formative years it just wants to get us to the end. As for the ending, I won’t give anything away, but part of me was slightly unsatisfied with its neatness. Call me crazy, but I was expecting things to be a bit messier.

The director’s later work, Lucky Number Slevin and Push, had a better time with tone and pace, but Gangster No. 1 still gives us clean shots of excellent actors working with good story elements. I do feel there are better movies I’ve mentioned that can satisfy a craving for gritty criminal comedy or unflinching views into the underworld, and our villain protagonist doesn’t quite have the necessary pathos for us to be completely won over by him. He comes close, especially when we see how much unresolved emotion there is inside of him for Freddie, but it feels like too little too late. A little more time, perhaps elements of holding onto that duality of admiration and jealous, would have fleshed it out more and maybe left the ending a bit more satisfying for me. It never quite rises to the point of being more than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are excellent enough for me to recommend Gangster No. 1 as an addition to any crime, noir or character-driven Netflix queue selection.

Especially if you’re a fan of British slang, or those mirror dresses club girls wore back in the 60s. Pretty groovy stuff.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


In 1992, vocal independent director Abel Ferrara teamed up with Harvey Keitel to make Bad Lieutenant, the story of an abusive and sleazy cop of the NYPD charged with solving the case of a raped nun. While he was self-indulgent, scandalous and even downright cruel, there existed a glimmer of humanity in the man that few rarely saw. I’m talking of the nameless Lieutenant here, not Ferrara. When revolutionary director Werner Herzog picked up the notion of the corrupt cop for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Abel Ferrara loudly and repeatedly declared that everybody involved in it should drop dead, despite the fact that this is neither a remake nor a sequel. It’d be like calling Moonraker a remake of Goldfinger.

Courtesy Millenium Films

The film opens in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The lead character of the title is one Terence McDonagh. He’s a bit of a selfish prick, keen to gamble and quick to dismiss the plight of others, but he’s still a cop in service to the public. Mostly. The events of the hurricane leave him with a back problem that puts him on Vicodin, which in turn leads to a whole slew of harder drugs and a lifestyle that verges on entirely self-destructive. If it weren’t for his work as a homicide detective, he’d unravel faster than a spool of yarn trapped in a spin cycle. But he does have that work, and he is good at it… when he’s not abusing his position to get whatever he wants from whomever he wants, whenever he wants.

This is going to be a divisive film. McDonagh is completely unapologetic in his pursuit of pleasure, intoxication and money. He’s either going to be seen as an unredeemable monster barely kept leashed by his ties to the police department, or the magnificent sort of crazy that just needs to be pointed in the right direction to get dizzying results. New Orleans is the perfect environment for him to fester, given its heady mix of music, magic, sleaze, indulgences and mystery. And I can’t think of an actor better equipped to give this character life than Nicholas Cage.

Courtesy Millenium Films

I’ve previously mentioned my affinity for the man, even when he’s being grossly mishandled. He, too, is a talent that requires a particular touch to get the most out of his manic energy. And McDonagh is just manic on his best days. The rest of the time he’s indulging in one behavior or another that’s going to land him square in an early grave, be it from overdosing or bullets. When they say “cop on the edge,” in the case of McDonagh, they mean it. Only in this case, that edge is the edge of total insanity. Cage projects this extremely well, etching the character of the bad lieutenant firmly in our minds and making his antics as memorable as they are deplorable.

Speaking of “the cop on the edge” in terms of movie cliches, there’s something I noticed as the film’s plot unfolded. There’s a teenager who witnessed the murders in question. McDonagh gets saddled with a dog. His girlfriend’s a hooker with a heart of gold. More and more of these get piled on, until one gets the impression that we’re not just watching a cop movie. We are, in a way, watching every cop movie ever, fed through the drug-stained filter of the bad lieutenant. These little tongue-in-cheek elements mixed with the noir nature of the case and its participants and the insanity of the lead character might have been too much for another director to handle, even the venerable Mr. Ferrara or even Tarantino, but not Werner Herzog. He makes it look easy.

Courtesy Millenium Films

Not only does Herzog mix these elements in just about the perfect balance, he underscores just how strange the world of McDonagh becomes. As quickly as we are made aware of the lead character’s skewed world view, the more adeptly that view is conveyed to us in a way so coherent our own masks of sanity may begin to slip. In most other productions, things like dancing souls or phantom iguana might seem like a totally out-of-nowhere, but here it’s only slightly more strange than some of the other stuff that happens. This is probably the most coherent incoherency you’ll see for quite some time, drive by the most memorable, sadistic and completely bonkers protagonist since American Psycho.

As I said, this is likely to be a divisive film. Some will appreciate the high-wire act Cage and Herzog are performing, others will wonder exactly how McDonagh pulls off some of the things that would make him a good cop if it weren’t for his off-duty habits, and still others will downright hate the thing due to the casual drug use, abusive language, violence, insanity and general sleaze. I feel that, whatever camp you fall into, you should check out Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans via the Netflix Instant service, because I guarantee you, you will not see anything like it any time soon, if ever again. The script is well-plotted, the acting is great on all fronts, the direction is top notch and the overall effect will stick with you long after the credits roll. Granted, you might want a shower to get that filthy stickiness off afterwards, but that’s up to the individual viewer. If nothing else, here is the perfect example of how to get the most out of Nicholas Cage, instead of sticking him in something completely lifeless like Trapped in Paradise. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is anything but lifeless. It’s energetic, powerful, completely out of its mind, oblivious to any objections you might raise against it and while you might be wondering whether or not you want to watch it, let me assure you: it’s a bit like the One Ring. It wants to be watched.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Requiem for the Masquerade


Courtesy Highmoon 

Has it really been 20 years?

Obviously it has, since the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade is coming. I’m definitely interested, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which the time I spent playing that game both on the table and in live action. This pending milestone, plus my current re-read of Niven & Barnes’ Dream Park, has me thinking back on those times I donned a suit for a purpose other than a job interview.

Masquerade was a fun and engrossing game world, but it wasn’t without its flaws. A diverse set of clans for power specialization and fluff flavors coupled with an intriguing take on old vampire legends made it appealing right out of the box. The premise of it being based on ‘personal horror’ was fascinating as well, to me: what does this change, these powers, mean on a personal level? How hard will you fight against these new instincts, this new society, to hold on to the person you were? How far will you go to make a place for yourself among the other creatures of the night? These questions, to me, were far more important to me than any number of filled-in circles on a character sheet, especially in retrospect.

There’s a part of me that wonders if I left a good amount of this really juicy storytelling material unexplored. When I first became acquainted with the game I was still developmental in both my abilities for telling tales and my maturity in handling character beats. To put it another way, I was all about the circles. As time went on I did delve into some of the deeper issues but more often than not, real life found a way to upset the pace I was setting for myself in an ongoing Masquerade game.

Then came Requiem. I haven’t played it anywhere near as much as Masquerade, although I did get a great taste of it when I met Will Hindmarch. The questions are still there, but the answers felt odd, in a way. There felt like there was a clean disconnect between who a character was after becoming a vampire, and who they were before. Maybe it’s just me, but the pitch and timbre of the ‘music’ of Requiem felt a bit more avant-garde than that of Masquerade.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great stuff in Requiem. I adore the fact that they did away with cookie-cutter villains, letting player factions and politics become the crux of the drama in gameplay. The change to clans felt a bit odd to me; while I acknowledge it adds potential diversity through bloodlines, it also seemed like an overcomplication of an aspect of the game that didn’t need fixing, in my humble opinion. The obliteration of the Cainite history, and most history for that matter, felt like the least-welcome change. Traditions, tales and lore added depth and a sense of weight to the condition of the players: You are a product of all that has come before you, and it’s up to you if you follow in those bloody footsteps or strike out on your own. In Requiem, any ties to your past or your lineage is tangential at best. There’s less pressure on the player… fewer questions asked.

I’ve long felt that the perfect vampire game (at least in the World of Darkness) lies somewhere between these two settings. The Cainite history, august lineages of the clans with their centuries of infighting, betrayal, absorption and breakaways and deeper personal questions from Masquerade coupled with the faction politics and cagey-yet-social nature of the Beast from Requiem seems like the best of both worlds. Then again, that could just be me. Either way, the characters continue to be the focus of any decent story, and when it comes to the World of Darkness, they’ve been fascinating for 20 years and hopefully will continue to be so for many more years to come.

Header image courtesy Highmoon’s Ponderings

Grains of Salt

Courtesy laryn.kragtbakker.com
Courtesy Jared Fein & laryn.kragtbakker.com

Sooner or later, the work you do is going to come under fire. Mistakes are going to be made. Guess what? You’re a human being. Mistakes are inevitable. How those mistakes are handled, corrected and prevented from repeating themselves matter more than the mistakes themselves, with the experience informing the better construction of future works. Hence, “constructive criticism.”

It tends to work best, however, if the criticism begins with you. And as a critic, you suck.

At least when it comes to your own work, that is. Your opinions, your creations, your procedures have all be formed by you (or, in the case of opinions, possibly snatched from more prominent critics for rapid regurgitation – we’ll get to that) and you’re going to be as defensive of them as any creator is of their created. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I know how that sort of behavior can circle right around and kick you square in the ass just when you don’t need it to.

It’s like bruises in martial arts, loose teeth in hockey, a face covered in egg on a televised debate. It’s going to happen. Beyond a couple of opinions of yourself and your creations that I can tell you are patently untrue, how to get back up when one of these events flattens you is a matter for the moment and circumstance. Communicate, discern, be patient and communicate more. Nobody will get anywhere while blood is up and words are lost in the volume, so step back, breathe, look at the situation and act in the interest of everybody involved, not just you.

Okay, enough hand-holding and team-building, here are two big fat lies we tell ourselves when it comes to stuff we do.

This Is The Best Thing In The History Of Ever!

No. No, it isn’t.

The following might feel something like the above.

The things we consider great only got that way through long, grueling processes, the input of several people and the viability of whatever environment into which they were released. There’s a factor of luck involved as well, but that’s not something we can control, so we’ll leave it out of this deconstruction.

Basically, to keep ourselves going, we may at times tell ourselves that what we’re doing is good. That’s fine, and it probably either is good or will become good. What it isn’t is the best thing ever. Not on its own, and especially not in its first iteration. No author I know of hit the bestseller list with their first draft or even their first book. No director makes an Oscar-winner the first time they point a camera at something, unless they got their hands on the super-secret list of critera the folks in the Academy check off when they watch movies that might be worthy of the golden statues they give to rich people. Then again I’ve grown somewhat jaded with the whole Oscar thing and it’s colored my opinion somewhat.

That’s another thing. Opinions. Now I’m as guilty of the following as another special snowflake individual on the planet, and it bears saying & repeating to myself as much as anybody else. I’m fully aware of the glass house in which I live, but dammit, sometimes you just gotta toss a rock.

Your opinion is unlikely to be entirely your own. It might be right or wrong, but to defend it like it’s gospel is not going to win you any friends no matter from where or whom it originally derived. Our tastes, viewpoints and leanings are a combination of our life experiences, the things others say and do around us and the environment in which we live. Other people have had similar experiences, heard or seen the same things we have and/or live in similar environments. That means your opinion is highly likely to be not entirely your own and should be taken with a grain of salt, even if you’re telling it to yourself.

Back to your work. I’m sure it began with a good idea. Ideas can persist through edits, revisions and future iterations. The idea might still be good even if the implementation sucks ass. That doesn’t mean the overall product is good. A good idea badly implemented makes for a bad product. Look at what happened to Star Wars. What’s important to keep in mind is that you might not be able to find all of the flaws in your own work, and in order to make it the best it can be before it ships, you might need to take some knocks to the ego. If you can remember that your idea and work are not the Best Things Ever, if you can maintain the ability to take your own creations with a grain of salt from an objective viewpoint, the overall product will be much shinier for it.

TL,DR: Don’t act like your shit don’t stink.

This Absolutely Sucks & Will Never Amount To Anything, I Should Quit Now

Courtesy Disney
Cheer up, emo donkey.

Ah, the other extreme. I hate this one just as much.

Let me pause a moment before I rant in the other direction from where I just came from. If you truly feel your time will be better spent doing somthing other than the thing that you’re considering the absolute worst that humanity has to offer, I can understand that. Go and do the other thing you want to do. I and others might still consider what you’ve done worthwhile or even worth sharing, but you are the best arbiter of how to spend your time and energy. Just remember others are entitled to their opinions as much as you are.

Okay? Okay.

Remember how I said that the things we consider great didn’t start that way? That means they started in a state of not being great. In fact some of the first attempts probably sucked out loud. I’d love to see a first draft of The Stand or an early shooting script of RDM’s from Battlestar Galactica or Michaelangelo’s first painting. These creative minds only became great after the grueling process of editing, revising, being told they suck, editing and revising again, and managing to find the right time, people and environment for introducing their work.

Since soothsaying isn’t exactly a reliable basis for planning, the only way to find the right time is to keep trying. Finding the right people means going out and meeting some. And locating the right environment can be a matter of research. Don’t try to put a work with a narrow genre focus into purveyors with general, broad interests; try instead to locate an venue catering to similar tastes and passions to whom you can relate and communicate, and let them see what you can do. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a monumental achievement, but it wouldn’t have gotten painted if Michaelangelo had been approached by the manager of a Starbucks instead of His Holiness.

Notice that this is all stuff you can control. Your work is no different. If you really think your work isn’t good, and you want it to be, you can improve it. Work at it. Practice. Don’t let the nay-sayers and the lowest common denominator and the mediocrity get you down. Nothing excellent ever comes to be out of nowhere and without some work and sacrifice. Give up some time, expend some energy, burn a little midnight oil, and make that thing as powerful and awesome as you can. And believe me, most of us are capable of being pretty damn awesome if we’re willing to pay that price.

TL,DR: Don’t act like your shit is a world-scale biohazard.

I think I’ve said about all I can on this subject. No human being is the be-all end-all of all great things; neither are any of us completely and utterly irredeemable. I think we could all stand to take things said to us, about us and by us with a few more grains of salt.

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