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Friday 27 July 2018

Things from another world

Now that we’re just past midsummer, up here in the northern hemisphere anyway, how about an Antarctic horror to cool the blood? I came across this piece (which uses Runequest stats, but should be easy to adapt) in White Dwarf #48 while rooting out “The Lone and Level Sands” scenario. I was inspired by John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, obviously, but the timing seems off. The Thing was released in the UK in the summer of ’82, this appeared in White Dwarf in December 1983. Maybe I watched it on home video, then a technology in its early stages, but as I’m such a stickler for the cinematic experience – and was a fan of John Carpenter’s work – that’s a little unlikely. Another mystery whose answer is lost in the murk of memory.

I based my version of the creature on one interpretation of what’s going on in the movie. In the original 1938 short story by John W Campbell it works a bit differently, devouring and imitating prey rather than infecting them. Take your pick. In the absence of a name for the species I called my version the "jesmai", probably as a riposte to Jamie (who edited WD) for insisting that I give it a name at all. But all Campbell tells us is that it is
These creatures are usually encountered in remote territories – arctic climes, lonely heaths, or high mountain peaks. They can appear to be normal humans (or other animals) and are always encountered singly, often passing as hermits or trappers.

When attacking they grapple their opponent and then, if successful, lash out with a razor sharp proboscis hidden at the back of the creature's throat. Damage done by the proboscis is determined solely for the purpose of puncturing armour – the victim takes no actual damage as the proboscis only penetrates a centimetre or so, but a venom with potency equal to the Jasmai's CON is injected.

If the venom overcomes the victim's CON they black out and must roll CON as a percentage to come round. This roll is attempted at the end of each round until the character recovers. After recovering, the character experiences no ill effects from the venom for 2d6 days, whereupon they will suddenly lapse into a terrible fever characterized by alternating bouts of sweating and uncontrollable shivering. At this point the character can still be cured with a Dispel Magic 8, but if the fever is allowed to progress then the character lapses into a coma within 1d4 hours and then loses their own identity as they transform into an exact duplicate of the creature that infected them. The transformation takes one hour and can be reversed only with Divine Intervention.

At the end of the transformation the character will have all the skills, memories and motivations of the original creature. The character's own soul/ identity has been destroyed.

The creatures can be distinguished from humans when cut. Instead of bleeding they exude a greenish sap, and the inside of the body is a homogeneous pulp without bones or organs. They take 1d3 CON damage per full turn for every 10° Celsius above freezing.

Friday 13 July 2018

Why sharks get jumped

Maybe one reason why I enjoy role-playing campaigns is because I came early to episodic stories. Long before discovering my great love, comic books, I was glued to Doctor Who and big books of Norse myths. The weekly UK comic TV Century 21 (which I collected from the second issue; it was always just “TV21” to me) presented all those Gerry Anderson shows as taking place in one universe, which fuelled the idea that stories don’t have to have an end.

But that’s for kids. The Norse myths mirror the dramas of childhood, where massive fallings-out and reconciliations can happen in the space of a summer’s afternoon and we don’t mind that each morning is a chance to reset the games and interests of the day before.

As we get older, we demand that stories go somewhere. Things must change. And that’s where they can go wrong, because if you’re going to have change you must also have an ending. When a story is forcibly kept going beyond its natural life, the shark is going to be waiting and one day you must jump it. And then we end up wondering what we even saw in that setting and those characters in the first place.

Breaking Bad and The Shield were designed right from the start so that their narrative trajectory would have an end. Likewise the Harry Potter novels. The Sopranos was originally expected to run for a single season, hence the frenzy of plotting in the twelfth and thirteenth episode when commercial success demanded a jolt of boosterspice. I’d rather have had one perfect season myself. A good show should build in its own Hayflick limit.

What goes wrong with an indefinite run? There’s the escalation of dramatic twists. Take Cracker, Jimmy McGovern’s seminal ‘90s TV drama that started so well. After a time, story logic demanded that the danger Fitz and his colleagues tackled would have to strike close to home. But once we’d seen the team sprint to Fitz’s front door once, the next shock twist had to be bigger. One police officer raped another, and then jumped off a roof. Fitz’s family began to be threatened on a regular basis, until finally his son was targeted by a serial killer who strapped him to an electrified bedstead. He was saved from electrocution in the nick of time. If the show had continued, the only place left to go would have been strapping a bomb to the baby’s pram.

Drama isn’t an Escher staircase. You can’t keep upping the threat. But once you succumb to the understandable urge to grab audiences with a big shock, where else can you go? The Doctor has to save the universe every season, and it has to be from a bigger and badder threat, and the personal secrets revealed (or cooked up) have to be ever more profound, ever more earth-shattering. It’s like taking a hit of heroin. You think it’s the answer to everything, but the doses get bigger and eventually you’re going to OD.

But just as toxic as escalating threat is the self-referential archness that creeps into the writing on a long-running series. It’s narrowcasting, as each instalment calls back to events that only the diehard fans remember – and those fans are the ones who wriggle and giggle at every knowing quote, while the rest of us just wonder why the characters are behaving like they’re in a pantomime.

When I began my comic Mirabilis, it was with the intention of telling the story of a single miraculous year. “Everything will change,” was the logline, because it would. Before the green comet appeared, it was the real historical 1901 – no vampires, no steampunk. Then there’s a year of wonders. One year. When the green comet departs, we’re back to the real world.

The first idea was to tell it all in fifty-two episodes, only they couldn’t have been fifty-two of the 5-page instalments that ran in The DFC. Fifty-two full-length comic books, maybe. Then I could tell the story. But it would still reach an end.

“Unless it’s a huge success,” said the publisher, David Fickling. “Then you’ll have to come up with more story.”

“After the comet goes we’re back to a non-fantastic universe, so there’s nothing more to tell.”

“You can just invent a new reason for there to be fantasy, can’t you?” asked Mr Fickling, flinging up his hands.

“Uh-uh.” I can be pretty stubborn in defence of what I see as creative honesty. “The whole point is that on either side of the year of the comet this is the ordinary world. The story is told. It’s over.”

Of course, having an end in sight doesn’t guarantee the writer won’t jump the shark before they get there, but it does at least let them plan out the gear-shifts of surprises and reversals so that they don’t have to start competing with their own ideas to keep the thing moving. And they can be fairly confident that they’ll never get so bored with the characters that they start having them talk with, as it were, repeated winks to the reader.

Have you been disappointed when a favourite TV show, comic book, or series of novels jumped the shark? How would you have fixed the problem? Don't say, "Get a bigger boat."