Roleplay and the Art of Storytelling

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art – Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

For a few months now, my 9-year-old and I have been playing our own “role playing game” based on his favorite TV show, The Walking Dead. I put RPG in quotes because the fact is, while we did make character sheets in the early going, we’ve never used them, nor do we make maps or roll dice. We just pick which character or set of characters we want to play as, and one of us serves as game-master, pitching out scenarios and asking the other what their response will be. It’s a very free-form version of roleplaying, basically an interactive way of telling each other stories using these characters and scenarios. We mix and match characters from the show, the comic, and the videogame, so Darryl can interact with Dwight when they stumble across Clementine and Lee wandering the Georgia wasteland. It can be a lot of fun, and my boy came up with a very entertaining do-over of the war with the Governor which ended with a much more satisfying death for that old bastard than what we got on the show.

However, after several weeks of playing for fifteen or thirty minutes before bed a few nights a week, I noticed that our narrative thrust was suffering from some of the same inertia as the show frequently does. A lot of time was being spent navigating a bus down abandoned-vehicle-choked back roads, fighting zombies and ill-tempered human survivors in the woods or at one broken-down compound or another, then hitting the road again. We were trying to juggle too many characters, completely forgetting some were even on hand while continuously focusing on our favorites. In short, what started as an enjoyable diversion became dull (more for me than him) fairly quickly.

So last week, after the boy caught me rewatching episodes of Netflix Daredevil series, he abruptly switched gears and suggested that instead of Walking Dead, we should start a new game involving everybody’s favorite blind-attorney-turned-vigilante from Hell’s Kitchen. Now it could be just my own prejudices and personal predilections at play, but right away, I was more into our little no-rules RPG than I had been for a long while. Part of the reason was the freedom that came with playing only as one lead character, rather than trying to juggle a Michonne/Rick/Darryl combo, then needing to switch to play as Tyrese/Sasha/Carl when the scene shifted. I liked the focus, and my familiarity with the character was enough that I didn’t need dice or stats to know what my guy was capable of, what kind of damage he could inflict on which type of nemesis, and what his specific limitations were. And whether I was the quester or the gamemaster, I felt like I never ran out of options, and I could be a lot more creative than the “zombie/bad human attacks, kill zombie/bad human” status quo we’d been mired in. I think we both felt the change, because suddenly we were jumping up and acting out our fisticuffs and pitched supervillain beatdown campaigns. New York City was an instantly more exciting backdrop than the endless rural South, and I could be attacked by anyone from Tombstone to Elektra while receiving unexpected aid from the Punisher or SHIELD, or having a chance encounter with Spidey and Doc Ock.

300169-daredevil-002

I think what really got my juices flowing more than anything was the simple narrative elegance of those classic Daredevil stories, and the endless options afforded by the Marvel Multiverse, and although he’s read and seen more Walking Dead than anything from Marvel, Ash was equally inspired in his yarn-spinning–the narrative twists he’s come up with have been smart, exciting and frequently hilarious. Not a lot of laughs as humanity dies off one by one, but when guys dress up in longjohns to prowl for crime, well, there should always be room for a good gag or seven. Rather than open-ended wandering through an apocalyptic wasteland with no end of danger, misery or suffering in sight, we get to indulge in boss fights with nigh-invulnerable mob goons in a cramped midtown alley or the Silver Samurai suddenly bursting from a shipping container on a fog-shrouded New York dock.

This is not to say that Daredevil is a better, more tightly constructed vessel for storytelling than Walking Dead (I shouldn’t have to say it because it’s just a simple, straightforward–and utterly subjective–factpinion). But there’s something to be said for the sense of mission, purpose, and the possibility for achieving a goal–stopping a bad guy, saving an innocent, getting through the night without killing anyone, even when/if they’ve more than earned it–beyond mere brute survival. My point being that all the problems I’ve had with that wildly popular zombie narrative on the screen seem to be so much an organic part of its overall structure that they couldn’t help but reassert themselves even when we had nothing holding us back but the limits of our own unrestricted imaginations.  Then again, maybe I was just dragging my own subconscious baggage with me into our gameplay.

Anyway whatever else happens, whether our next RPG is based on Mad Max or They Live, I just hope I’m not begging for Jon Bernthal’s character to die (when he joins season 2 of DD as the Punisher) the way I was for him to bite the big one when he played Shane on WD. Know what I mean?

jon-bernthal-punisher_0

Black Holes and Revelations

When I started this blog, it just seemed like a necessary move to kickstart my “web presence” in the wake of publishing my first book. I don’t tend this little thoughtspew garden as frequently as I assumed I would, because I am prone to sloth by nature and because I have a LOT of other shit to do most every day. Sitting down to journal is a luxury from a past life. I had forgotten how much I used to do it until I cracked open a trunkload of my old spiral diaries and faux-leather-bound notebooks , vigorously and desperately maintained from the mid- ’80s through the late ’90s, a wild minddump of my (pedestrian, suburban, naively whitebread, hopelessly adolescent) innermost feelings, scraps of poetry, false starts at novels and short stories and scripts, and my most significant creative outlet until I started writing in genuine earnest and eventually getting paid for it sometimes.

What surprised me, and in equal parts heartened and frustrated me as well, was that much of the writing, in spite of the sometimes pathetic, navel-gazing, fear-stunted subject matter, was actually pretty good, especially for a guy in his 20s. Heartening because I know that writing is hopelessly entwined with the strands of my very DNA, and frustrating because I didn’t have the werewithal, back in those long-lost floundering days, to see things through to completion and start making my mark in some small way when I burned with that youthful energy and helpless need to find a way to connect with the world. When I had all the time in the world with me and ahead of me. And there’s that part of me that can’t help pondering, however uselessly, how different my life might have been if I had just knuckled fucking down and done it. But then I remember how much I genuinely like, even love, my life as it is now and realize that it’s all okay, and I can forgive myself my mistakes and lapses and not let them freeze and paralyze me in place the way they evidently did when I was young. Because I still have all the time in the world, even if I do have less of it.

I don’t know why I stopped journaling, except maybe I felt less desperate and started looking out more than in, or maybe my laziness just manifested in some new way, but honestly, what is a blog but a journal for the whole world to see (well, let’s be realistic–for the few dozen of you who might even bother to read this). The fact is, I’m supposed to be journaling as part of my sixth step in recovery, but I’m not sure I’m ready to bore, disturb, or frighten you all with a litany of my defects of character.

But I do recognize that my entries here, from the first one, have functioned as a kind of confessional self-appraisal blended–with little to no nuance–with my pop cultural obsessions. So as I continue to focus and figure out what I’m doing here, I figure I’ll just stumble forward in that direction, and I’ll either alternate or find unusual, hopefully interesting, frequently hamfisted ways of confronting my recovery while continuing to talk about my process as a writer, what I’m putting out in the world–or attempting to– creatively, and espousing the genuine virtues of comics, graphic novels, science fiction adventure, superpeople and capepunkers.

There will be the aforementioned navel-gazing, the requisite “what to watch/read/listen to” suggestions, the occasional shameless plugs for my books when they’re on sale or on the verge of publication, and whatever else crosses my fevered, frenzied, sometimes inspired, often dog-tired brain.

And this being October, I might as well suggest some horror shit for you people to investigate at your leisure.

I probably don’t have to tell most of you that the “Walking Dead” premiere was as good an episode as that show has done–fast-paced, probably a little slim on genuine character beats except for Tyreese and Carol, but filled with action that bordered perilously and brilliantly close to cinematic. Also shied ferociously away from that show’s tendency to drag things out when it comes to settings and certain main characters’ old tendency to spend more time talking than surviving. This one managed to be brutal, tense, and had me cheering for Rick in a way that I have been since he bit that son-of-a-bitch’s throat out. I was worried he was on the verge of becoming Jack from “Lost,” but Sheriff Grimes is really coming into his own. And it even managed to end on a warm, upbeat note in a way this show almost never allows for, with all of our heroes finally together and moving as one. I hope they can maintain this kind of confidence in both narrative and character going forward. This show might finally be ready to become great.

walking-dead-season-5-debut

Speaking of WD, I started reading “Outcast” by the creator himself, Robert Kirkman, and artist Paul Azaceta and I gotta say, so far, so great. It’s about a lost soul with an apparent gift for exorcising demons, which is a good thing because they seem to be popping up pretty much everywhere in his world. Terrific art and intriguing characters. Definitely worth  a look.

outcast_1

And finally, because I do have some of that other shit to do today, if you’re looking for some supremely weird and at times darkly funny low-budget horror, you could do worse than “The Banshee Chapter,” currently streaming on Netflix.

the-banshee-chapter

This caught my interest when I learned that Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine from “Silence of the Lambs” and the amazing adenoidal voice and too many memorable character roles to count, was one of the stars. Only when I started watching did I realize that he was playing a Hunter S. Thompson analog (with savory dollops of Philip K. Dick mixed into the sauce) in a story about ill-advised MKUltra experiments involving a powerful psychedelic drug that opens a doorway to a very dark, Lovecraftian dimension. There are some “found footage” elements but it doesn’t stay stuck in that subgenre rut. It’s not easy to follow, but it’s fun to try and fathom what the fuck is going on. The acting is solid and Levine is amazing. Creep yourself out.

HST

And while this probably deserves to be a post all on its own, this weekend marks the third (fucking unbelievable) anniversary of the unexpected, tragic passing of my brother Michael. I have more thoughts and feelings around this than I can hope to process here or anywhere, but suffice to say he was special, wildly important to me and my family, and while I’ve found a place for my grief over the passing years, I still get frustrated, furious, and sloppily sad whenever it occurs to me (almost daily, really) that I will never get to share anything new with him ever again, and that he won’t be there to comfort me when the other inevitable tragedies of time befall me and the rest of my family. And while I was writing this post, this song came up on my iTunes. It’s a song that made me think of my siblings–for obvious reasons–from the first time I ever heard it, and I insisted it be played at his funeral as my way of saying goodbye. It’s called “Orange Sky” by Alexi Murdoch and I only recommend clicking if you’re in the mood to weep.