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In Genre

Modern Dark Fantasy Adventure

by RJ Grady
Jun 26,2003

 

IN GENRE: Modern Dark Fantasy Adventure

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

In Night of the Living Dead, isolated survivors struggle with fear, mutual distrust, and the constant threat of being killed by zombies. It's a study in horror and human psychology, pulled off with spare elegance and puissant satire. In Evil Dead 2, Ash kills the undead with a chainsaw and a shotgun. We're talking about the latter. The line between two genres can be fine indeed. Dark Modern Fantasy Adventure, in this article, is the genre where heroic characters battle supernatural evil. Dark fantasy, sometimes called supernatural horror, deals with demons, undead, sorcery, and "weird" things that are antagonistic toward humans. Traditional horror is full of fear, suffering, and often, fatalism. Sometimes the protagonists even die, although often the heroes of the story live to see a new dawn. In dark fantasy adventure, though, the heroes take the battle back to the beast. While it may begin as a horror tale, once the heroes arm themselves with knowledge and appropriate weapons, it becomes an adventure story, a tale, much like Beowulf, about battling evil in its lair. Both genres share a strong inspiration in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Dracula unleashed a medieval vampire on Victorian England. In the end, Dracula was put to the stake by the erudite and pious Van Helsing, the devoted Jonathan Harker, and other allies.

The most important characteristic of the genre is the presence of supernatural evil. This evil is identical to that found in Victorian, pulp era, or modern horror. The difference is in the storytelling. In dark fantasy adventure, the climax is treated as the climax of an adventure story, not the spectacle of a morality play. Sometimes the last part of a film of this genre will resemble nothing so much as a cop or special forces thriller, with the traditional villain replaced by a cunning vampire or an unstoppable lycanthrope. Another variant is the zombie slasher, in which the heroes discover a critical weakness of the undead and go on the offensive. Another feature of this genre is that the heroes are more likely to have access to supernatural powers themselves. They may be occultists, seers, or even supernatural creatures. Adventure genres tend to be fairly lighthearted. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is outright silly, but even Return of the Living Dead has a certain level of slapstick. The central characters are often young. While the horrors they may face are formidable, this is an optimistic genre. The expectation is that the heroes will win. Another difference from traditional horror is that dark fantasy adventure is often a chronicle of recurring characters. Morality varies, but there are often moral ambiguities, except with regard to the Big Bad. The supernatural enemy is always unquestionably dangerous to any sane being, good or evil, mundane or demonic.

Related genres include supernatural horror, urban fantasy (such as the TV show "Bewitched" or de Lint's novel Memory & Dream), dark superheroes, supernatural conspiracy, and Gothic horror. The distinguishing traits of modern dark fantasy adventure include pop culture awarness, high action, overt supernatural evil, high character competence, melodrama, and a modern Earth-like setting.

There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth

Modern dark fantasy adventure happens on Earth. This is usually our Earth. However, this Earth has a secret world, a supernatural one, that the characters become a part of. They may be initiated through strange happenings, or the story may revolve around something cataclysmic that changes the world we know. Sometimes, the world is a different Earth than the one we know, where the FBI's ongoing vampire investigations make the evening news and police carry holy water.

Typically, there is one major supernatural power (like vampires), and other traditional supernatural elements are present to a lesser degree (such as mediums, prophecies, weird rituals, and demonic possession). Sometimes, as the chronicle progresses, more and more supernatural elements become present, until the story focuses more on the supernatural goings on than the relation of the supernatural to the mundane world, and becomes more distinctly a modern fantasy milieu. For instance, Buffy begins as a prophesied vampire slayer. She learns that vampirism is caused by demons, and then she begins battling demons. She befriends fallen angels, magicians, and even "reformed" vampires. While the story begins with the surprising revelation that there are vampires in the world (and she has the power to defeat them), later on, another supernatural creature is barely noteworthy, as she is used to living in a magical, dangerous world. In White Wolf's Mage, the characters are magicians and by extension, there are magical things in the world. A heavy crossover game in the World of Darkness is sometimes called jokingly Super-Friends in Black Trenchcoats, because the elements of horror and paranoia are de-emphasized and the various supernatural powers emphasized. A mage, a vampire, and a werewolf may form an informal alliance and battle greater evils.

Guns may take on different roles according to the setting. In Buffy, guns are rarely seen, because the genre emphasizes wooden stakes and magical weapons. In Evil Dead 2, shotguns play an important role in smiting evil.

I Love the Smell of Holy Water in the Morning

There are several basic protagonist types. There is the Naive Hero, thrust into a terrifying situation, who must rally and become, of necessity, a fighter. There is the Legacy Hero, who possesses a unique and powerful supernatural talent that makes them, willingly or not, an involved party in the battle between good and evil. There is the Scholar, often a scientist, occultist, or a member of a secret cabal, who possesses slight, but vital, knowledge about the enemy and how to defeat them. Finally, there is the Tough Guy, the military, police, or jock type character whose job is to battle monsters and sacrifice their life at dramatically appropriate times. These categories can, of course, be combined. In some settings, you also have Supernatural Turncoats, actual supernatural creatures who have decided to throw in with the good guys. While difficult to trust, their power and their knowledge of the supernatural make them powerful allies. A team of PC could include nearly any combination of experienced and inexperienced characters. Some will be ordinary folks who take extraordinary risks; others will be occultists or professional monster hunters. Rarely do characters have strong personal ties to more than one character. More often, they are united by a situation, either an immediate threat or a recent tragedy. The battle against evil forges them into very strong bonds akin to those of foxhole buddies.

Sidekicks include obnoxious victims, sexy victims, close-minded old victims, and victims who fall prey to temptation. No character can survive and remain purely a sidekick for long. Other important NPC's include oracles, government agents, rival supernatural powers, faceless hordes of evil, priests, and weaponsmiths. Sometimes love interersts factor heavily in these stories, although their survival chances may be grim.

The setup for a dark fantasy adventure game usually begins with a horror situation. Someone has been killed or transformed by a supernatural evil. At that point, knowledgeable characters or stalwart investigators begin looking for answers or authorities step in to deal with the situation. Civilians, such as relatives and significant others of the victims, insist on being a continual presence in the investigation or fight, and become either heroic characters or casualties. Finally, the evil is uncovered, a few unimportant NPC's die, and the story begins in earnest. The heroes must gain knowledge of the enemy, arm themselves, then marshall all their courage and cunning to pit themselves against a foe more than human. This cycle, learn, arm, and combat, will be repeated throughout the chronicle. Extended chronicles will take on soap opera-like qualities. Besides the interactions between the PC's, a common theme is conflicted attraction to evil characters. Vampires, demons, and rogue magicians are often presented as quite sexy, at least on the surface. Sometimes true romance blurs the line between monster and human. In some versions, the heroes are the front line. The authorities do not know about, and cannot be expected to deal with, the supernatural evil, and only the heroes have the power to do so.

Lethality varies. In light-hearted versions, characters rarely die except for purposes of high drama. They enjoy the same immunity to harm as any action hero. In others, heroes face high attrition, and only one or two lucky souls will be standing by the time the evil is vanquished. The mood spectrum ranges from looney comedy to grim survivalism. Character competence is high; even teenaged normals can take out a half dozen zombies, once they know the trick to it. The universe is friendly, and the expected outcome is optimistic, but the challenges are difficult. Dark fantasy adventure fits easily into the RPG experience, with little contingency-planning by the GM required. What is required is faithfulness to the central idea; while characters may falter and even turn, in the end, all the characters must face the evil or suffer (and allow others to suffer). Unlike horror scenarios, there is nothing wrong with characters loading up their Jeep with any guns and ordinance they can get their hands on, stealing magical items and books for their own use, and assaulting monsters in the manner of beach-storming Marines. That's what it's all about.

To be faithful to the genre, the campaign should be episodic, but with strong character continuity (like a soap opera). A lot of interaction should be chatty, and the charcters will probably as run as often as fight, but the PC's should be encouraged to face evil head-on. Planning should be encouraged. Confrontations should be dramatic and full of unexpected twists. The genre is already a fusion of horror, action-adventure, comedy, and urban fantasy. Borrow liberally! The villain from any number of thrillers or gun operas could easily be turned into a vampire, demon, werewolf, or cultist. Likewise, many horror stories, such as Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," could be re-written to include several set pieces involving violent explosions and a few silly NPC's to act as comedic foils.

Game-Ography

Chill
Various editions and several different systems. PC's are supernatural investigators working for a secret foundation. An evil force has invaded ours, using creatures of nightmare as its foot-soldiers and spies. To buy in, select a core rulebook.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (Eden Studios)
Based on the TV show. Uses the Unisystem. To buy in, requires the core rulebook.

Witchcraft (Eden Studios)
Perfect for this genre. A melding of elements from White Wolf's Mage, Buffy, and the works of Lovecraft, with a heroic emphasis. Unisystem. Requires the core rulebook.

All Flesh Must be Eaten (Eden Studios)
The flesh-eating zombie roleplaying game. Offers a complete zombie creation system and several sample setting. Unisystem. Requires the core rulebook.

Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf)
You play a vampire. Besides the loss of your own humanity, you must also face older, more inhuman, and vastly more powerful elder vampires. While it can be played for pathos or antiheroic intrigue, there is certainly a lot of potential for supernatural mayhem in dark sunglasses. Requires the core rulebook.

Mage: The Ascension (White Wolf)
Magicians living among us have unlocked the secrets of reality. The magical Traditions and the rational Technocracy battle in the shadows while the forces of oblivion grow in strength. Requires the core rulebook.

Hunter: The Reckoning (White Wolf)
Ordindary people with extraordinary powers battle the unseen supernatural. Requires the core rulebook.

d20 Modern (Wizards of the Coast)
Readily adaptable to this genre. Requires the core rulebook. The Urban Arcana setting may serve for inspiration.

Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium)
Based on the works of Lovecraft. Ordinary people and adventurers battle ancient evil at the risk of their own sanity. While it can be played for sheer horror, you can also allow the PC's to wield a few rituals and load up on the military hardware and storm hidden temples of evil. The Delta Green setting casts the PC's as demon-slaying special operatives. Requires the core rulebook. There is a d20 version as well as the BRP (Chaosium) version. Delta Green may be helpful.

GURPS Horror (Steve Jackson Games)
Simply by upping the character point totals to heroic levels and allowing a few supernatural abilities, GURPS Horror can serve as the backbone of an action game. Requires the GURPS core rulebook and Compendium I. GURPS Horror, Psionics, Undead, Blood Types, Bestiary, High-Tech, Black Ops, Cliffhangers, Technomancer, Cabal, and Illuminati may all be helpful.

GURPS Technomancer (Steve Jackson Games)
Modern fantasy setting with a dark slant. Industrial enchantment, atomic liches, and ambulatory zombie plague. Requires the GURPS rulebook, Compendium I, and Technomancer.

Feng Shui (Atlas Games)
Hong Kong-inspired action game. Time-traveling heroes battle evil in ancient China, the Boxer era, the modern day, and a distopian technomantic future. Features sorcery, ghosts, hopping vampires, and automatic pistols. Require the core rulebook.

HERO System (HERO Games/DOJ)
HERO System is a good fit for many high-action, mid-power level games. The versatile character creation system handles various magical styles as well as supernatural PC's. Adjustable lethality. Requires the 5th edition rulebook. Helplful, but not necessary, books include the Hero Bestiary, The Ultimate Martial Artist, and various previous edition books such as Horror Hero and Mystic Masters.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Laurell. Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter
Soap opera-like stories of a private investigator Anita Blake and various supernatural goings-on in an urban fantasy version of Earth. The first book in the series is Guilty Pleasures.

Rice, Ann. The Vampire Chronicles
Begins with Interview with the Vampire. Chronicles of Louis, Lestat, Armand, and other vampires in their immortal search for meaning and adventure.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula
Classic tale of Victorian horror that created the modern vampire.

Foster, Alan. Into the Out Of
Dark fantasy, African demons, and dream magic. A horror book outside Foster's usual beat, perhaps his finest book.

Lovecraft, H.P. The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories
A collection of essential tales of Lovecraftian horror.

Lumley, Brian. Necroscope
World governments employ secret spies. A demented necromancer uncovers something unsettling. Vampires prey on unknowing humans. The prose is a little weak, but the world premise is fascinating.

Filmography

Blade (1998)
A half-vampire, his human mentor, and a love interest take on vampires. Campy, high-action. Followed by a sequel.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1992)
California girl flips out and kills vampires. Campy, comedy. Features Luke Perry.

The Lost Boys (1987)
Comedic tale of out of town boys, and the vampires that plague a California town. Themes include family loyalty, the temptation to do evil (sin as rebellion), and courage. Campy, comedy, strong horror emphasis, some coming-of-age stuff.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)
Uneven action-horror in which an antiheroic vampire hunter and his cohorts slay vampires. Sort of a vampire noire thingy.

Teen Wolf (1985)
Silly comedy about a supernatural legacy.

Evil Dead 2 (1987)
A guy accidentally unleashes an immortal evil. His girlfriend dies, he retaliates by killing zombies with a shotgun and a chainsaw. Followed by a sequel, Army of Darkness, that sends him into a parody of an Arthurian past. Indispensible zombie slasher cinema.

The Mummy (1999)
An adventurer and an archaelogist search for a lost city. An immortal evil is unleashed. Zombies must be battled and an evil sorcerer slain. High-action, light-hearted.

The Howling II (1985)
Pure-hearted cleric battles Satanic werewolves. Clothing is ripped off.

Dead Heat (1998)
One of a kind buddy cop movie in which one of the buddies is a reanimated corpse looking for answers.

Ghostbusters (1984)
Smart alecky weird scientists become professional ghost-busters, and battle toe-to-toe with a malevolent demigod.

Sailor Moon (TV)
Young girls transform into superheroes and battle monsters. There's a certain level of pathos, in that every demon they defeat is an innocent person possessed by evil, who must be killed. Strong soap opera elements.

Buffy (TV)
Based on the movie. Ish. Comedy soap opera. Ironically self-aware dialogue. Wiccan lesbians.

The Bits Box

Buddies transformed into vampires (or zombies), shambling flesh-eating zombies, medieval European villains, oversexed teenagers, "Now I'm mad," silver bullets, wooden stakes, monstering out, cat and mouse, kung fu, baseball bat fu, huge books of spells, pump action shotguns, chainsaws, crossbows, holy water, garlic, self-aware dialog, dance halls and clubs, ripping the tops off cars, "Is that you?", prophesies, evil immortals looking for a date, demonic possession, priests, secret cabals, "One more word out of you about vampires and you're grounded," super soakers, good cop/dead cop (or good cop/bad priest, and so forth), vampires, werewolves, demons, cultists, cowardly turncoats, cryptic news articles, "There could be more of them than we thought," perfect hair, "Damn, I broke a nail," vehicular manslaughter (or demonslaughter), rituals of banishing, exorcism, books of legends know one has ever heard of, true names, "Do not call up that which you cannot put down," the tempation to become a servant of evil, prescient dreams, "You loved me one," suburbia, good-hearted kids underneath a shallow exterior, late night horror shows, encyclopedic fans of horror, celebrity TV hosts, "Join me," and candles, lots of candles.

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