Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Thursday 28 June 2012

Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein reviewed by Tim Franklin

Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein
Written by Iain Lowson
Published by Cubicle 7
Released in 2011

Flesh is freaky. Humans are sacks of meat and offal suspended from frames of articulated bone. Diseases make us leaky. Old age makes us creak. The natural world contains abundant tools to dismantle our frail chassis. Human ingenuity has invented many more. So it’s no wonder that we are afraid of our bodies. We wouldn’t feel physical pain if we didn’t have bodies. They’re embarrassing. Sweaty, noisome and oozing. No matter the effort we invest preserving them, they slowly give in to decrepitude and ruin, then death. In a word, our bodies are treacherous. This is the sticky, throbbing heart of Dark Harvest.

Being a pen and paper role-playing-game, there is a certain dissonance between theme and the play experience. The stories you tell in the game revolve around body horror, but playing the game is all about talking and rolling dice. Dark Harvest runs on a streamlined version of the Victoriana rule system. If a player wants to achieve something they roll a pool of white six-sided dice, the size of which depends on a list of controlling attributes and skills. Ones and sixes in the results are good. The Game Master can throw in black six-sided dice to the pool to represent how difficult the task the player is attempting is; ones and sixes on these subtract from successes. It’s a light and inoffensive system without any thematic weight which fades into the background quickly during play. You could play Dark Harvest with a different rule set and lose little from the experience. Whether that is a problem for you depends on how deeply you want the central theme of a game to be embedded in the system that shapes play.

If the rules are dry, the setting is oozing in thematic gore, in a way that is in part a literary “what-if”, and part alternate history. Pen and paper RPGs drink deeply from the established literary genres, borrowing tropes left and right to build their worlds, and many wear their heritage proudly on their sleeve: Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf, 1992) is a love-letter to Anne Rice, Dungeons and Dragons (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, 1974) is neck-deep in the oeuvre of Robert E. Howard and Tolkein, and Traveller (Games Design Workshop, 1977) continues the visions of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Dark Harvest is a shade peculiar. It explicitly continues the tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but translocates the good doctor forwards a century and puts him in charge of a country on the eve of World War One. What emerges is compelling and rich with horrific potential, but it’s hardly connected to its source material.

If Doctor Victor Frankenstein had a country, what would it be? It rather depends on your sense of Frankenstein. In Dark Harvest we see one version of the doctor. Escaping the death that befalls him at the end of Mary Shelley’s opus, Frankenstein uses the incredible revivification serum to extend his life for a century, working behind the scenes of European grand politic. He assumes the mantle of the king of Romania and begins a reunification process that ends with the formation of a terrifying new state, Promethea. This land, with its closed borders and draconian security services, is the perfect place to extend the reach of Frankenstein’s obscene science with research unfettered by the morals of lesser men. This gives the game a very fixed scope and stage. Player’s will either fight for or oppose Frankenstein’s regime. Its influence is so pervasive in the setting that there is no room for orthogonal explorations, or side conflicts between different parties that merely happen to exist in the same world. If you don’t take to the setting and the central tension (between Frankenstein’s scientific idealism and common human decency) you may find that you don’t get many sessions out of the game.

Curiously, I found that the political milieu of Dark Harvest provides a richer seam of inspiration for telling stories than the bare fact of Frankenstein’s superscience. The default timeline sets the game a couple of years before the onset of the Great War. Promethea has been overlooked by the great powers so far, which are engaged in biting one another’s necks. The country is positively boiling with monstrous secrets which, if unveiled before the world, could have grotesque ramifications for the course of human history. With resistance groups active in the country (led by a certain, century-old monster, familiar to movie-goers everywhere), there is ample space to explore the uneven warfare between an oppressed proletariat and a brutal state, or the role of foreign agents distrusted by all and desperate for political gain. The outsider looking in also gives a perfect introduction to the world and allows the horrors of Frankestein’s regime to be revealed bit by bit. Frontloading the player with that information would rather spoil the surprise. Extending a game of Dark Harvest into Weird War One is a juicy prospect - and also outside the scope of the main book.

Class warfare is a strong theme in the default Victoriana setting. Unusually for an RPG, your class in Victoriana is not Rogue, Fighter or Thief, it’s Upper, Middle or Lower. This foregrounds one element of Victorian society and provides rich fuel for some of the game’s main conflicts, with characters joining in strike action and proletarian uprisings or negotiating the viper’s nest of high society deal-making. For Dark Harvest, the class conflict dial is turned up to eleven.

With Frankenstein’s genius unbound from financial and ethical constraints, every perversion becomes possible. The most pervasive of these is the titular Dark Harvest. The citizens of Promethea do not own their own flesh. Using the same technology that gave Frankenstein his unnatural lifespan, it is possible for members of the ruling class to claim the choicest body parts from the people below them on the social ladder and add them to their own bodies, swapping away their blemishes, weaknesses and flaws. Lucky peasants will get a defective spare as a replacement, while others are left to die. This is simultaneously a hammy horror conceit and an astute metaphor for power dynamics in a capitalist economy.

There are more gauche excesses. One extreme form of capital punishment is evisceration, a mix between torture and Damien Hurst art installation. Victims are mounted to a frame and then treated with Frankenstein’s life-extending serum. Then they are dismantled, piece by piece, still quite alive. This extreme body-horror is a little bit 1980s. Historical regimes have been capable of similar excesses of brutality, but for an element in a horror game it is a little troublesome. Once the evisceration is out of the bag, what have you got left to shock with? (This is perhaps the questions that The Human Centipede (2009) was attempting to answer).

The positive aspect to Promethean science is in Augmentations. These are biological super powers arising from body transplants. Your character might have the eyes of a hawk or the strength of a bear, gills, or venom glands. You may be pursued by a biologically engineered huntsman with an unnatural sense of smell and the strength of ten men. A lot of intellectual energy has been invested making these an easy, plug and play element of the system, which is good and bad in equal measure: good, if you like to mix horror, pulp and awesome powers, and bad if you already sick of games that say they are about political intrigue or psychological horror but invest half their page count into lists of superpowers (for reference, see the entire publication library of White Wolf Publishing). Dark Harvest would be an excellent starting point if you wanted to play a game set in the Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007) universe. Similarly, the ability to create wolfmen and hunchbacks ensures Promethea is roaming with every stock monster in the Gothic library.

So the interpretation of Frankenstein in Dark Harvest is more Hammer Horror than Mary Shelley. You could make room for a melancholic meditation on the morality of creation, the insecurity of masculine science, the divinity of humankind, or the perpetual battle of nature versus nurture, but there is nothing inherent to this game that supports that kind of investigation or those themes of play. Dark Harvest is extroverted, concerned with outsides, matter not mind, flesh not spirit. Promethean by White Wolf went more deeply into the subjectivity of the monster, tasking players with wandering the earth in a quest to rise from monster to mortal. But there’s no need to make any thematic transplants. Slapping around the fake gore and greasepaint in Dark Harvest is chilling as it is.

Tim Franklin has recently arrived in the Black Country and is setting up as a freelance literature project coordinator. He has completed a course in playwriting at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, and a collection of reviews and mad railings at the government can be found at his blog, Unsuitable for Adults. He's a gamer, and that's where his interest in horror is most keenly focused. He has contributed a co-authored article with Pete Wolfendale, ‘Kant on the Borderlands’, for the collection Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy (forthcoming Autumn 2012).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Tim. Much appreciated. I'll be sure to link to it from the various DH:LoF sites.


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