Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters

Well, that was weird.

I jest, but Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters is not the book I was expecting, presenting strange and twisty turns in Kim Newman’s long-running vampire mythology. It’s also literally not the book I was expecting when it was originally announced as Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju. The promotional synopsis for that book was the following:

In 1899 Geneviéve Dieudonné is working as a doctor on a ship of vampire refugees from Dracula’s Britain, as Christina Light, a vampire who can literally turn into light, persuades the Emperor to cede a section of Tokyo to her as the Vampire Bund, a Shanghai-like international settlement of the undead and her own power base.

New Year’s Eve 1999 in the Vampire Bund in Tokyo, and Christina is on the cusp of completing her hundred-year plan to become an ascendant power in the world. Only vampire samurai Nezumi stands in her way…

In this fifth gripping novel in the acclaimed alternative history vampire series, Newman takes his story to turn-of-the-century Japan and a world of cyberpunk, kaiju, and yakuza.

Evidently, the sprawl of time and bifurcated setting proved impossible to jam into one volume, as One Thousand Monsters covers only the first paragraph of that summary, limiting the action to Geneviéve’s and Christina’s struggles to establish a vampire refuge in Yōkai Town, a walled and guarded ghetto in Tokyo to which the folktale monsters of Japan—the yōkai—have been banished by order of Emperor Meiji. In the expected Anno Dracula manner, these yōkai are vampires themselves and the novel follows the cross-cultural intrigues of vampires both European and Japanese as they struggle with the terrifying mortal sorcerer who keeps them prisoner.

Given the original press release’s overt reference to Nozomu Tamaki’s manga franchise Dance in the Vampire Bund, I expected One Thousand Monsters to delve deeper into the rich vampire lore of Japanese animation and comics. Instead, major supporting characters are drawn from the works of Henry James (with perhaps a winking nod to Stephenie Meyer) and E. C. Segar, with many (but not all) of the Japanese references taken more from traditional folklore and the golden age of Japanese cinema (including unexpected appearances by Akira Kurosawa’s most famous anti-hero and anachronistic references to Nikkatsu’s exploitation films).

I wonder if perhaps, for once, copyright got in the way of the usual “spot-the-reference” game—which would be weird, since Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Drusilla appears rather nakedly as herself—but it could as easily be simply the result of Newman not being a fan of Rurouni Kenshin, Peacemaker Kurogane, the Hakuōki series, and other series I hoped to see referenced. Thankfully, the book does include a call-out to Teito Monogatari—the seminal dark fantasy series known in the West from such adaptations as Tokyo: the Last Megalopolis and Doomed Magalopolis—and its charismatically evil villain Yasunori Katō (visual inspiration for M. Bison) and a few soft lob references to the most famous characters in Japanese horror cinema.  

Instead, Newman digs deep into the history and mindset of Geneviéve Dieudonné, telling the main plot of the book from her point of view and providing flashbacks sketching in the early days of Dracula’s rise to power, providing an interesting counterpoint to the original Anno Dracula. Come to think of it, this is the first Anno Dracula novel in which Dracula himself doesn’t appear. Former Carpathian Guard Kostaki acts as the focal character for the more traditional vampire B-plot, tempted by new darkness and questioning his identity.

This reduction to two viewpoint characters emphasizes the claustrophobia already inherent in restricting the characters to Yōkai Town, an artistic choice that left me squirming even as I couldn’t read One Thousand Monsters fast enough, anxious for the characters to break free of their confinement. Release finally comes in the form of an apocalyptic battle, a conflict thrilling enough that I didn’t mind not getting Geneviéve visiting the Asakusa Jūnikai or meeting Saitō Hajime.   

The end of One Thousand Monsters promises the 20th century half of Daikaiju is still on its way, so perhaps I’ll get more anime and manga references then. Despite my disappointment at not getting quite the story I longed to read, I still couldn’t put this book down. Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters is a strange and unexpected novel, a layered look into the mind of Kim Newman’s favorite heroine peppered with unexpected pop culture references. Fans of the Anno Dracula universe may not get what they expected, but there’s still much to like.

Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters by Kim Newman was published October 24th, 2017. This review is based off of the Kindle version of the novel, purchased at the reviewer’s own expense.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Monster Hunters’ Club (Preview)

The Monster Hunters’ Club is an upcoming setting for Savage Worlds inspired by ‘80s movies such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies and retro fare like Stranger Things. Produced by Darren G. Miller of CCS Games in cooperation with my occasional employer Fabled Environments (and edited by my internet buddy Tommy Brownell), The Monster Hunters’ Club lets players take on the roles of neighborhood kids discovering a world of supernatural horror just outside their doorsteps.

I have very little nostalgia for being a child in the 1980s. I fondly remember the toy lines and pop culture—G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Knight Rider, Transformers—but that’s an artifact of how far out of tune I was with other kids. A combination of anxiety disorder and undiagnosed food allergies meant I spent most of my childhood in a haze of confusion and embarrassing decisions, spending more time playing with toys and watching TV than hanging out. I went on one woodland hike with neighbor kids and everybody got ticks in their hair except me. I saw E.T. during its opening week and liked Megaforce better. I’d happily play a roleplaying game about listening to alternative rock and smoking clove cigarettes as a college student in the ‘90s, but I’m the exact wrong audience for a Stranger Things-inspired RPG.

Which probably makes me the perfect person to evaluate one.

First off, the free preview of The Monster Hunters’ Club available on DriveThruRPG is physically beautiful. The graphic design and layout by Karl Keesler—famous in the Savage Worlds community for his beautifully-rendered character sheets and gorgeously-detailed convention games—perfectly evokes an ‘80s paperback horror novel (the aesthetics of which I do have nostalgia for, even if I never read any). The digital paints of Veronica Jones (who has also illustrated the similarly-themed Little Fears) are some of the best art I’ve ever seen in a Savage Worlds licensee product, rendering everything in a pseudo-charcoal sketch style that perfectly matches the tone of the game—full of childhood wonder, but turned foreboding with a wash of gray and black.

Darren G. Miller hooks me in the introduction by turning literature nerd and giving us a brief history of children’s adventure fiction, beginning with The Swiss Family Robinson. By emphasizing the long history and universality of kids’ adventure lit early in the book, Miller provides an “in” for those (presumably few) of us who remember our childhoods (especially our ‘80s childhoods) with less than fondness. I may have spent my early years usually inside, playing with action figures alone with my brother instead of with the neighbor kids, but it’s not like I didn’t read Encyclopedia Brown.

Those bats are so cute.
The preview does not present a sample adventure and pre-generated characters, as I would usually expect, but instead a couple of sample archetypes from the 18 promised to be in the full book: the Brain and the Clown. These archetypes are not the simple set of stat blocks and line or two of explanatory text seen in most Savage Worlds products, similar to character creation in Streets of Bedlam. This gives the archetypes a depth usually only seen in Powered by the Apocalypse game playbooks.

A significant advantage to this approach is that Miller is able to stick to the spirit of the core Savage Worlds Young Hindrance while providing a means of creating more competent heroes. The painfully-familiar Brain archetype, for instance, gets the Young Hindrance’s 3 attribute points, but also starts with a Smarts of d6 while the 10 points to distribute among skills are enhanced by a free d4 in two Knowledge skills. Additional color is provided by bonus Edges and Hindrances (a more-forgiving requirement for the Scholar Edge, an adult mentor, and a weakness to bullying) as well as a choice of background. Because of these bonuses, players can only choose either a Major Hindrance or two Minor Hindrances for additional character points.

The backgrounds move the character creation process into the enhanced levels provided by The King is Dead’s secret societies or Rifts® for Savage Worlds’ M.A.R.S. packages, but still remain balanced with the intent of The Monster Hunters’ Club. The Brain can choose between the Academic (gaining Jack-of-all-Trades for Knowledge skills only, but also becoming a Doubting Thomas), Hacker (gaining bonuses to rolls involving technology but becoming even more socially awkward), and the Sleuth (gaining bonuses to investigatory activities but becoming blind to danger). Each background also modifies the starting equipment characters get (encyclopedias for the Academic, an early PC for the Hacker, and a magnifying glass and “junior detective set” for the Sleuth).

The preview ends with a partial overview of the Arcane Backgrounds available in The Monster Hunters’ Club. Instead of the usual Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Super Powers, and Weird Science, the child heroes may instead select Belief, Gadgetry, Psychokinesis, and Storytelling. Similarly to the conflict over consensual reality and Paradox in Mage: The Ascension, these abilities are powered by childlike wonder and innocence, and are thereby harder to use in the presence of adults. Belief and Storytelling are previewed; Belief is the make-believe of over-imaginative daydreamers while Storytelling is a bard-like ability to lift spirits and spook people out by spinning yarns. It’s a genre-savvy approach to Arcane Backgrounds that veers sharply into the magical realism side of kids’ adventure, reminding me of The Bridge to Terabithia and The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Drama Queen.”

With such an auspicious preview, I can highly recommend keeping an eye out for news on The Monster Hunters’ Club. Even if I personally can’t see myself ever playing in a setting like this, I can’t imagine a better product for this niche coming to Savage Worlds. The art and design are gorgeous and the writing is genre-savvy with the perfect tone. It all adds up to a project I’m eager to see succeed and which I heartily recommend to fans of ‘80s kids adventure.


BONUS: My Stats
Ok, I was probably five or six in this picture, not ten.

Sean Tait Bircher, Age 10
Brain (Academic)

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d4, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Belief d4, Fighting d4, Knowledge (Monsters and Mythology) d8, Knowledge (Zoology) d6, Persuasion d4, Riding d6, Stealth d4, Throwing d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Bad Eyes (Minor), Doubting Thomas, Outsider, Young
Edges: Berserk, Luck, Scholar
Gear: 10-speed bicycle, bookshelf of literary classics, set of encyclopedias, valid library card
Special Abilities:
  • Power Points: 10
  • Powers: Healing (plush lion named Sylvester)
  • Bookworm: Whenever you make a roll for a Knowledge skill you do not have, you roll a d4 instead of d4-2
  • Malicious Envy: -2 to Tests of Will to resist Taunt
  • Mentor: Joseph Sullivan (grandfather, high school principal)

Savage Rifts Playtest Update: Too Many BUGS!

Sean and I went down to one of our many gaming stores -- Court of Gamers -- to run a playtest of Savage Rifts. Gathered around the table ...