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Inspiration: The Happening

or “what can you learn from a movie that failed to deliver?”

I didn’t see The Happening at a cinema, I happily hired it from the video shop for $1 for a week. I’m glad I didn’t watch it at the movies. But I think there are things that can be learnt from it for DnD adventure or campaign design.

The first thing to realise is that The Happening is set up to be a suspense movie, and ultimately when the suspense is supposed to happen is when it failed to deliver. Its not a bad movie, its premise is ok, and the production is ok. So not a bad show really, but I didn’t get to the end of it with that “wow” factor of say the Sixth Sense.

So there lessons I see are:

1) The Characters Need to be Sympathetic

Ok so when you watch the Happening I’d be surprised if you felt any sympathy at all for several of the characters, including 2 of the main ones. Now for an RPG this is less of a problem – its rare that player’s don’t care for their characters, so the trick is making sure that your NPCs are such that the players can care about them. That way when they are threatened the players have motivation to find a way to solve the problem.

The NPC friend who dies is more potent than the random dude who lets himself get eaten by the monster. If its near the climax your and you are introducing an NPC you plan to kill, making her a creepy old lady who lives alone and has gone crazy doesn’t leave the audience being upset that she dies.

You don’t need to fill a suspense game with a lot of boides you can fill it with a lot of probable bodies instead. When the characters have been chased from their homes by the disaster, the empty buildings of the next town they are finally forced to enter are far spookier than the having bodies everywhere or showing random schlubs dieing.

2) Don’t Go To Far

This is a problem the movie had, turning off the survival instinct is not the same as making someone self destructive. The flaw here though isn’t in the dramatic element of some mysterious thing making people kill themselves, but rather in the level of exposition and explanation about how it all worked.

But by explaining it at all, the movie opened it all up to examination and thought by the viewer, now maybe the average viewer needed that in the movie, but for me it wrecked the movie as it exposed flaws between the explanation and the narrative. Now in your campaign you have a much slower development time than a movie, so the players have even longer to think about it, this means you need to be even more careful in your exposition.

So you need to be more obtuse in your explanations, certainly don’t just reveal that X is true, until the characters have not only worked out a solution for themselves but they have tested it.

3) Timing Matters

It seems like a silly thing to have to say for a suspense movie or game but it is true. In The Happening key plot elements were revealed before thclimax of the movie, which left the climax being a fizzle of a moment, especially with the unsympathetic nature of several of the characters.

This is most easily understood by comparing Sixth Sense to The Happening. In the former, if you are paying a great deal of attention or know what to look for you can see what the outcome will be before the end, but it is pretty unlikely. The main character doesn’t understand until the audience does is the normal experience. In the Happening the movie explains what is going to happen then does it, this is particularly bad just before the climax where the whole timeline of the movie is spelt out for you so that the climax is more a “oh I see what happened, whatever” moment.

This is of course not an easy thing to do, and where sowing false clues is important – and this is something that The Happening did badly – no false clues. Every clue turns out to be right, so that there is no surprise, instead you can run ahead and make logical conclusions. This inihibits the growth os suspense. Don’t be to liberal with false clues though, to many and it gets frustrating, but there has to be 1 or 2 otherwise the suspense is removed.

This also leads back to the “who to kill” thing as well, killing the less sympathetic characters earlier (nameless NPCs) and the more familiar or sympathetic NPCs later helps build the suspense. Instead of going this way the movie introduces with a sympathetic character (if nameless) and then kills off sympathetic characters, then back to nameless more nameless, then unsymathetic then has the climax. It also does things like make characters mildly sympathetic then have them act like prats to destroy that then kills them. Ah no. Make them sympathetic and more sympathetic then kill them…

Something Good

The one good thing from The Happening is that the main characters cannot do anything to stop the horribl events. The best they can do is hope to survive. This is where much of the movie’s suspense comes from, the need to run and find solutions so that the characters are not next.

This can be done in a campaign for DnD as well. The characters must spend the start of the campaign fleeing, learning the clues they will need and overcoming the obstacles the disaster creates in the process, until they finally reach a stage where they have learnt what to do and can then attempt to rise up and solve the proble as good heroes. At heroic tier that would be levels 1-3 fairly normal adventures to establish the NPCs etc you are going to threaten and kill in the next arc (aka A New Hope), then levels 4-7 are spent fleeing the disaster and learning the clues, struggling to save NPCs and themselves and learn how to stop the problem (aka The Empire Strikes Back), until at last having learnt the “terrible truth” and how to resolve it they are able to undertake a quest to resolve it climaxing at the end of heroic with the PCs hitting level 11 (aka Return of the Jedi).

Something Fantasy

This gives me the idea of looking at the Legend of the Five Rings story arc that is currently unfolding for ideas. In the current story there are two armies attacking from different directions while a plague spreads through the Empire’s lands. Ignoring the armies for the moment, the plague in the Empire has a lot of scope for the sort of suspense horror campaign that movies like The Happening suggest. In the story there is an evil entity causing the plague to be spread, seeding it in places through out the Empire for maximum effect.

The plague kills indiscriminantly, Samurai, Heimin, and Eta all die, and those it kills rise as zombies and spread the plague to new places. So the characters start out in an area that is affected, and they must flee, or become infected themselves. They must lead their uninfected friends through lands that go from being safe to being infested with bandits, samurai wanting to stop the spread of the plague (and thus restrict movement), and worse plague spreading zombies. As they battle through these obstacles they should learn of the person who is spreading the plague, and the threats of plague couldrons and other things until at last they are confronted with a horde of undead and must somehow save a town from them without getting infected before they can use the information they have learnt to beging hunting the instigators of the trouble… and so on. The next stage is then complicated by the appearnece of a new monstrous threat, and the beginings of intereference from nobles and such that want to gain the glory of stopping the problem for themselves. This should continue, with the slow building of information that the person spreading the plague has a master… the PCs then eventually halt the active threat of the person spreading the plague and must now go and bring a halt to their master…

Hopefully there are some useful ideas here for folks.

Categories: DM Theory
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