Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Song of Thra

This is my third entry for the month of October on the subject of The Dark Crystal. It will be the last for a while.

I have been in an odd funk this month gaming wise and it's been directly effecting my ability to post. I sit down with enthusiasm and ideas in my head, then rapidly the ideas become muddled and I get distracted, which makes it nigh impossible to finish. This post should have been completed a week ago for example. 

Although I definitely have more thoughts on The Dark Crystal film and series, not to mention adventuring on the world of Thra, I also have a lot of other thoughts on a lot of other subjects as well, and they seem to be getting in the way of a clear and concise treatment of this particular project. If I don't give myself a cut off point, I could just ramble on and on and I don't feel that gives my Dark Crystal ideas, or my other ideas, the thorough consideration they deserve.

With that, let's discuss a The Dark Crystal role-playing game...

The Mystic Prophets Warn of Spoilers

End. Begin. All The Same.

Let's start the way one should, IMHO, start any RPG game endeavor, which is with the questions, 'What is this game about?' and 'What do the Player Characters do in this game?'

Campaigns set on the world of The Dark Crystal would, for the most part, be very similar to those on any Fantasy world.

The peoples of Thra explore ruins, fight monstrous beasts, and save each other from dastardly villains of one sort or another just like the heroes of a thousand other settings. The major difference between a traditional Fantasy RPG and a Dark Crystal RPG would be the themes explored and the PC motivations that propel the game forward.

The Dark Crystal is a setting tied to very particular ideas not always associated with Fantasy adventuring. Concepts like protecting and working with the environment and ecology of the land, spiritualism but not religion, and a sense of family, friendship, and community in the face of outside forces attempting to divide the people are very much aspects of stories set on Thra. 

Depending on the era you set your game in, the kind of tales you might tell will differ but overall I'd like to think they would be a bit less shallow then those of a typical Sword & Sorcery or Dungeons & Dragons game. Ruins may be explored but not with the goal of finding wealth and treasure. Great creatures may be slain but reluctantly, as all creatures large and small are part of the Song of Thra. Dastardly villains must be battled and bested for they are stealing from the world itself to benefit only themselves. 

Their Harsh and Twisted Bodies. Their Harsh and Twisted Wills.

The villains of The Dark Crystal, the Skeksis, are more than just murderous monsters, yet they execute evil acts far worse than any mere ogre or wizard. They divided the Gelfling Clans, kept them distrustful of each other, consumed resources and enslaved the less physically powerful in ways that reflect the overindulgence and lack of concern beyond themselves associated with the wealthy aristocracy. The Skeksis embody all the worst traits of classism and colonialism. They are not abstractly evil. They are literally the worst thoughts, feelings, and attitudes given form. 

Dark Signs, Strange Storms, Sand Where There Used to Be Sea.

Thra itself is alive and is in a sense an ever present NPC that constantly and continuously impacts the lives of PCs in a Dark Crystal game. The Song of Thra resonates in the world's rocks and trees, it's flowers and animals, and in every one of it's native peoples. The presence of Skeksis and the darkening of the Crystal of Truth - also known as 'The Heart of Thra' - disrupts the Song and puts the entire planet out of sorts with itself. This leads to blights that kill crops, animals going into vicious rages, and a host of other ills that strike the environment of Thra along with its inhabitants. 

A considerable portion of any Dark Crystal RPG, regardless of era, should deal with how what is happening in the story effects Thra and vice versa. 

Map of the Skarith Region of Thra

Based on the map from the J.M. Lee Young Adult Novels
Modified by Yours Truly.

By Gelfling Hand or Else By None

Regarding Player Characters; I would say that while the role-playing potential of portraying a Skeksis or an urRu is definitely something to consider, there are various reasons why I don't think I'd personally open up these beings for use as PCs. This doesn't mean I don't think you could do it but I will hold off on discussing this approach myself, at least for now.

My default idea would go with Gelflings as Player Characters. The Gelflings are the most common sentient species of Thra and the focus of the original film, the novels, and the Netflix series. In comparison to other Fantasy RPGs, this makes them the 'Humans of Thra', yet they are wonderfully, delightfully not Human.

Gelflings come in a variety of physical and cultural variations, possess a number of special abilities, unique gifts and mystical talents, and reinforce the feeling of the setting being at once exotic and familiar. This paradox makes them the perfect PCs for a Dark Crystal game. 

If your story is set after the film you run into the problem of there being only two Gelfling in the entire world. It is one of the elements that has prevented me from creating a Dark Crystal RPG before now. However, with the addition information provided in the novel series and streaming series, a post film campaign becomes more viable. 

To begin with, the film does note that the Crystal of Truth - the healed, previously 'dark' Crystal - has the power Jen and Kira (the film's last remaining Gelflings) need to restore or rebirth the world of Thra. This is [in part] why the UrSkeks (the recombined urRu and Skeksis) leave the Crystal in the care of the Gelfling pair. In my mind, listening to and joining in with the revitalized Song of Thra, Jen and Kira are able to cause new Gelfling to be born into the world. 

Initially these Gelfling would rise out of the Swamps of Sog, step out dryad-like from cracks in the trees of the Dark Wood, and so forth. They will likely have no knowledge or memories associated with the past and would need to learn about their world like early Humans did. Of course they have the benefit of the teachings of Jen and Kira, as well as a wiser and more careful Aughra, who is in many ways almost as important to Thra as the Crystal of Truth. 

This leads to some interesting Character Creation options. Imagine if each of the Seven Clans of Gelfling have their own specific skills and gifts, perhaps three special to their type, along with abilities all Gelfling have such as Dreamfasting and Winged Flight for females. Post film Gelfling may be able to choose a mix of Clan traits, since the idea of Clans has been long forgotten. Personally, I notice that while Kira in the original movie looks a lot like Vapra, she has capabilities that remind me of Deet from the Netflix series, who is a Grottan. 

There Is No Filthier Creature In All of Thra

Another Player Character option I would gladly entertain would be a Podling. The Pod People, such as the character of Hup in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, are a simple, rural dwelling, agrarian species living in homes made in the bases of large trees. They are about a head and a half shorter than Gelflings, have a potato like head, and are skilled farmers, gardeners, musicians, cooks, and brewers. 

They are a somewhat hedonistic people, living for life's simple pleasures. The love food, drink, celebrating with banquets, and when young they enjoy rolling around in the dirt and mud (which they sometimes eat for reasons unknown). They remind me of naughty hobbits to some extent and for that reason alone I would be happy to see someone play a Podling. My only stipulation is that not too many people play them. They are not generally seen as adventurers and Podlings willing to stand up and fight terrible danger should be rather rare. 

Where Once Was Great Knowledge, Like Smoke, It Slips Away

The hardest part of this endeavor to create a Dark Crystal RPG has been choosing a system. There are three games that have caught my eye as possible choices and they are Mouse Guard, Ryuutama, and Tales from The Loop.

Mouse Guard was going to be the basis of the official Dark Crystal tabletop RPG when it was originally announced a few years back. The idea of having a number of dice in 'Nature', as in the character's nature, seems to work really well with the themes in The Dark Crystal. Referencing what I said about Gelfling characters above, think of each Gelfling Clan being defined by three Natures, with an addition two or three defining all Gelfling. In a prequel era campaign each play would pick a Clan and get the appropriate Natures for that group. In a post film campaign, Gelfling PCs could pick two from Column A and one from Column C so to speak. 

I also like the basic die mechanic of Successes and Failures (called Cowards in the game, which I find downright hilarious and immersive). The only drawback is that Mouse Guard can be, like its predecessor Burning Wheel, a little over written. There is an awesome, really simple and fast system them that sometimes seems slowed down and made less elegant but very sub-systems and addition rules that I don't find particularly necessary. I would have to trim it down a bit and simplify various aspects of the game to make it work, then add back in the mysticism, Dreamfasting, and other fantastic elements. 

Another option I considered is Ryuutama, The Dragon's Egg, a Japanese TRPG translated into English by Kotodama Heavy Industries. It is a fantastic, heartwarming Fantasy game that de-emphasizes combat and focuses on the journey itself. The game has the right feel and some really cool ideas but the dice mechanics are my favorite. I prefer games that utilize dice pools or simple roll-and-beat-a-difficulty using a single die type, 

Finally, I have been really enamored with Free League's games lately and have considered the idea that the system found in Tales from The Loop might work well with this concept. Among the nifty mechanics found in Tales from The Loop (a variant on the Year Zero System I am currently enjoying in my ALIEN RPG campaign) is the way you don't take Damage in the traditional sense so much as get stressed out, frightened, and injured. You can decrease stress by being taken care, talking to, or generally being in contact with another character, PC or NPC. This effectively reflects the strength Gelflings get from one another, evidenced in scenes between Brea and her sisters, Rian and Deet, and even Deet and Hup (though Hup is a Podling). 

I feel like I may be headed towards some 'Great Conjunction' of these three systems. I am still researching and experimenting. Remember, Garthims we'ren't built in a day. Oh wait...nevermind. 

Anyway, this brings me to the end of this post and my final thoughts on The Dark Crystal for the time being. I am so eager to bring this world to the gaming table I can't quite express it. It's a burning, nagging desire. It calls to me as the Crystal calls to it's Shard. I am not positive that I will get to it any time soon however, and they makes me kinda sad. 

Still, it gives me more time to develop ideas and hopefully a second season of the Netflix series will bring more of my fellow gamers around to the concept. Until then...

Come again when the last sister kisses the horizon and don’t be late.

Barking Alien

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Dreamfast With Me

At the time I am writing this, my last post on this subject netted only an average to good number of views and no comments.

I find this disappointing but not unforeseen. As popular and successful as The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix Series has been, it may not resonate with the RPG gaming community or at the very least, the portion of it that visits this blog. 

Hmmm. That actually makes very little sense. People coming to this blog can't be surprised I watched and loved Age of Resistance. They would certainly have to assume that if I liked it, which I really, really did, I'd want to talk about gaming it.

This makes me think I am alone in my interest in running a Dark Crystal RPG. That's a shame if true. As I've noted in the past, I see a lot of potential in a campaign set on the weird and wonderful world of Thra. Perhaps you'll read on and change your mind. 

Writing has that power. As the Gelflings say, writing is 'Words that stay'.

As noted in the previous entry, I've always been impressed and inspired by the original Dark Crystal film but I've also felt that the concepts in it, the world setting of Thra, was far more amazing than what we actually got to see. I've always wanted to see a deeper exploration of this milieu and get to know its people, places, and history better. 

Enter the Netflix streaming series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

Mother Aughra warns of possible spoilers. Impossible ones as well. 

First I want to say that I absolutely loved every minute of this series. Everything from the story to the design and artistry to the combination of traditional puppetry to the modern special effects were breathtaking and inspiring. If you haven't watched it do yourself a favor and go do so. Don't worry, this post will still be here when you return. Go, enjoy!

Among the incredible feats achieved by this series was the positively perfect merging of character development and world-building. 

The audience got to know many of the characters on a personal level, making them not only people you are interested in seeing the exploits of, but also giving the events weight and meaning. You care about what is happening because it is happening to characters you either like or despise. 

For every cheer and chuckle thrown Hup and Deet's way, there is a boo and a hiss for SkekSil the Chamberlain or SkekVar the General. These are heroes you love to root for and villains you love to hate. Sounds perfect for an RPG doesn't it? More on that later...

As for the world-building, Age of Resistance delivered in spades by taking us on a journey across the Skarith Region of Thra right alongside the characters. Each episode added a little more detail and piece by piece the world of The Dark Crystal truly came to life.

From the Caves of Grot to the coast of the Silver Sea, the Crystal Sea's Circle of the Suns to Stone-in-the-Wood, I can clearly see Thra in my mind's eye. I want to explore it so badly! I want to go to a Podling tavern and learn more about those grounded (literally), salt of the earth (again literally) people. What secrets lie within The Castle of Crystal that we haven't yet seen? I am also eager to see more of Thra's creatures, from the 'swimmers' in the Black River to whatever beast SkekMal the Hunter made his skull mask from. 

The Netflix series intertwines in a most interesting way with the series of young adult novels by J.M. Lee that finished with its fourth volume around the same time Age of Resistance began streaming.

Although not identical tales, it seems that the main characters in the novels are seen as secondary and background characters on the Netflix show. It is almost as if two different, though definitely related, parties of adventurers were going on related missions through the same world setting.The Netflix series focuses on one group consisting of Brea of the Vapra Clan, Rian of the Stonewood Clan, and Deet of the Grottan, while the books follow Naia of the Drenchan, Kylan of the Spriton, and Tavra, a Vapra Gelfling who happens to be Brea's sister. In addition, Naia's brother Gurjin is a major supporting character in Age of Resistance. The two teams cross paths at various points in each series. 

That is all for now. My next Dark Crystal related post will more specifically address setting up a Dark Crystal RPG campaign and why I think it would be absolutely awesome. Though I am none to dislike Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy, the mystical yet alien nature of Thra and its inhabitants deeply intrigues me. 

See you when single shines the triple suns, what was sundered and undone, shall be made whole, the two made one. 

Until then...

Barking Alien

Friday, October 4, 2019

Another World. Another Time, In An Age of Wonder

I've held off talking about this for as long as I could. I didn't want to spoil anything, giving ample time for everyone who might read this post to see the series, but I can wait no longer. The Three Sisters and Three Brothers have all aligned and the time of the Great Conjunction is at hand.

Mother Aughra listens to the Song of Thra, its Breath, the pulsing of its Heart...The Crystal of Truth. It is time. Time to discuss...

I want to talk a little about what the original Dark Crystal film meant to me, have a brief discussion about the Netflix series itself, and then how to use it all to create a RPG since, um, I am Adam Dickstein and this is what I do.

I'm terribly sorry, are you new here? If you are, just know if I like something a lot and it inspires in me a bunch of cool and interesting ideas, then I going to want to game it. It's pretty much as simple as that. If you're not new to the Barking Alien blog, this should come as no shock. 

I have a lot to say on this subject so this may be the first of few posts. Three maybe?

Let's begin...

The world of The Dark Crystal was first introduced to our own world in 1982 as a theatrical film written and directed by Jim Henson, the multi-talented creative genius behind the Muppets. The movie was co-directed by accomplished and brilliant actor, director, producer, and puppeteer Frank Oz, with a screenplay by Emmy Award winning screenwriter and film director David Odell, both of whom were also veterans of the Muppet Show. 

I was 13 years old when The Dark Crystal came out. It was a very difficult time in my personal life and although I was very excited for the movie and I loved the film, I now realize there was so much going on when it came out it didn't resonate with me quite the way it should have.

I mean, here was a movie about a world both fantastic and alien, created by my hero, with art and designs by one of my all time favorite illustrators, Brian Froud, and I loved it only until the next spectacle of 80s movie magic came along. 

Let's face it, it wasn't the greatest movie of all time. It was an incredible world, full of very interesting beings and ideas, but as a film its narrative was slow and choppy, its plot simple and at the same time somewhat vague. It conveyed its mood and atmosphere well but it left us wishing we'd gotten to know its characters and their universe much better than we had.

All that stayed with me. 

I found myself sketching pictures of the evil Skeksis and the urRu Mystics on my notebook at school. I introduced a version of the Garthim into our D&D games. All the while there was one thing in particular I couldn't stop thinking about. Something I heard Jim Henson himself say on an HBO special about the making of The Dark Crystal (which I now think I enjoyed more than the movie). 

Henson, in what seemed a casual, almost throwaway line said, "I imagined a three-dimensional, three sided object...".

He was talking about the world of Thra, the planet on which the Dark Crystal took place. Come again? A three-dimensional, three sided object? 'That's impossible', I thought, and as with every other time in my life that I have thought that, I now had to figure out how it could be. 

I watched the movie a few more times on VHS tape. I bought and practically devoured the book, The World of the Dark Crystal, and did whatever I could to get more information on the universe in which the film took place. There was sadly little beyond the aforementioned book but WOW, what a book.

Time passed...

In 2007, American manga distributor and publisher TokyoPop put out Legends of the Dark Crystal, a prequel to the original film set several hundreds of years beforehand. While much of it would be retconned in the new canon that would come later, it was the first new Dark Crystal material of the 21st century and in its own way may have gotten the ball rolling for the works to follow. 

Those works include the amazing, The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths, a three volume series of graphic novels by various creatives including new material by Brian Froud himself. The series introduces a few new characters including the intriguing Raunip, the 'Son of Aughra'*. Set much earlier in the history of Thra, both before and during the coming of the UrSkeks, the series is quite impressive and definitely informs elements of the next wave of stories. 

A sequel to the original film was once planned but eventually abandoned as a theatrical feature. The tale lived on as a comic book series entitled, The Power of the Dark Crystal. I will be honest, while it had some neat concepts, I generally didn't love the direction they took the story in. I don't keep this one in my head canon when thinking about The Dark Crystal. 

It was around this time that...or was it slightly before? Somewhat after?...I do know that it was in 2011 that Archaia Entertainment, publisher of Creation Myths and The Power of the Dark Crystal, announced plans for an officially licensed role-playing game. The Dark Crystal RPG was mentioned by press release at the August 2011 Gen Con gaming convention, intending to publish it later the following year. Like its Origins Award-winning Mouse Guard game, The Dark Crystal would be designed by Luke Crane and utilize mechanics similar to that of Mouse Guard and its precursor, The Burning Wheel.

Some of you may have heard about this or even seen my mention of it here on this blog. What you might not know as I've never mentioned it in an open forum is that I almost worked on it. A mutual friend of Burning Wheel creator Luke Crane and myself was a key supporter of the old RECESS gaming events and as legend has it, either Luke as him if he knew the guy who ran the Muppets based games at the event or my buddy mentioned me to Crane as a possible good source of Dark Crystal knowledge. 

Whatever the case, I eagerly awaited what might come of such a promising lineage and interesting collaboration. Unfortunately, nothing is what it amounted to, at least in regards to my involvement. Why I was never connected further on the subject and what became of the project I couldn't say. Only Mother Aughra's eye can see that far across time and space. 

That brings us to 2013, and The Dark Crystal Author's Quest. The Jim Henson Company, in association with Grosset and Dunlap (a divison of Penguin Group USA), held a contest to write a new Dark Crystal novel. Yes, I submitted something. No it wasn't chosen. Instead, the extremely talented J.M. Lee won the contest and his submissions manifested as not one but four books, a series of Young Adult novels that I absolutely adore. These film prequel novels define the new and current canon of Thra, the Gelflings, the Skeksis and UrRu, and much more. 

You see, these novels were the template and resource material for the Netflix series, Age of Resistance. 

Finally, the real meat of the Peachberry! The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix Series! In my opinion it was absolutely Dzenpo! That's Podling for Awesome! What? You all don't speak Podling?** Tsk tsk. 

This post is already getting long so I will address the new streaming series in greater detail in a follow-up post. What I will say is that in a post on January 9th of 2012 in which I discuss the Creation Myth series, I mention how I would love to run a game in The Dark Crystal universe but that it seems like it would be very difficult. My main issue with it simply being we didn't know enough and at the end of the film - SPOILERS - there are no Skeksis, no UrRu, no Garthim, and but two Gelflings on all of Thra! 

Talk about your closed settings! The remaining Gelflings lived happily ever after, alone essentially, the end. No ifs, ands, or buts as far as we can tell. 

Now having read the novels, having seen this show...WOW! Not only is gaming in Thra's 'past' more viable than ever, I am beginning to see a host of possibilities for Thra's future! I could easily run a campaign in the post-film era of The Crystal of Truth!

OK, I need to organize my thoughts for the next posts. I hope you all take a look at The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and when you do, please share your thoughts on it with me and all of us here at Barking Alien.

For now, I am going to sit by the hearth fire, roast me some Merkeep, a little glow moss on the side, and grab a glass of warm Nebrie milk to wash it all down. 

See you soon,

Barking Alien

*Raunip's name is dropped as an Easter Egg in Age of Resistance. Two characters are going to have a duel at 'Raunip's Pass'. I didn't notice it the first time I watched the series but caught it on second viewing. 

**There are a number of videos on Youtube and Twitter wherein Hup, the Podling character from Age of Resistance teaches the viewer how to say words or phrases in Podling. Adorable!