Thursday, February 11, 2016

Monsters and Miscreants

I recently discovered the existence of a delightful thing called Monsters and Miscreants, an entire card game devoted to the monstrous and ghostly world of M.R. James. Needless to say, I bought a set immediately! The tiny package arrived in the mail the other day, bursting with beautiful art and boundless imagination and -- thankfully -- very simple playing instructions. Each card features a ghost, monster, or generally terrifying character from James' stories (a text insert details the stories corresponding to each one) and numerical scores based on "Fright Factor," Physicality, Slayer Score, Dark Arts, and more. I was interested to see that two of my favorites (the Ash Tree Spiders and the Lost-Hearted Children) had middling yet respectable fright factor scores of 76 and 75 respectively.

I personally can't wait to play with my set, though I may just end up admiring the cards for a little while -- and doing some re-reading -- first. In the meantime, I harassed the creator of the card game until he granted my a Q&A for this blog, so please enjoy my conversation with James Drewett, and order your own pack today -- supplies are limited!

SA: How did you decide to make an M.R. James card game? Where did the idea come from?

JD: I've always been a gamer, but have found that the main literary world that is portrayed in gaming is the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. I love the variety of monsters and ghosts in M.R .James and thought it would be fun to see these in a game. Monsters & Miscreants is a simple game that came about while creating my main M.R. James card game, 'Cards for the Curious'.

SA: How did you end up working with your collaborator and illustrator?

JD: While trawling the internet for M.R. James images, I came across a lot of fantastic, vibrant images on which I sourced to an artist at I sent him an email and it turned out that he was the brilliant Swedish artist and designer, Richard Svennson. We had mutual contacts in Mike Taylor and Will Ross from the entertaining M.R. James podcast 'A Podcast to the Curious', and Richard was only too keen to come on board.

SA: What is your background? Are you a game designer?

JD: I've been playing and designing games since I was a kid; however, most of my designing has been for myself, friends and family. I have a life-long love of literature, and now teach students with dyslexia - hopefully helping them to find a love of reading for themselves.

SA: Can you describe the basics of the game in a few words? How did you decide on the rules and structure of the game?

JD: Monsters & Miscreants is a very simple trump-style game, familiar to most people and easy to learn. All the players have a hand of cards. Each card shows a set of categories with statistics, such as Fright Factor, Wall of Weird, Slayer Score etc. On your turn you choose a category on your top card which you hope will beat your opponents' cards. The object of the game is to win all your opponents' cards.

SA: What is your favorite MR James "monster"? What's your favorite MR James story?

JD: It's difficult to choose a favourite "monster" - but I like the guardian of the treasure in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, just for its tentacled weirdness! Again, difficult to choose a favourite M.R. James story - but I think 'A Warning to the Curious' contains all the Jamesian ingredients for a good story: somebody uncovers an artefact that should have stayed hidden, he is stalked by a presence that appears as shadows, fleeting glimpses, bony footprints in the sand, while all along James builds the tension to a truly horrific climax.

SA: Who else do you read? What are your other favorite ghost stories/authors?

Cards for the Curious
JD: I have always read an eclectic range of modern and classic literature, and now am challenged to read an even wider range as I run a local book club. I think Sheridan Le Fanu would rank among my other favourite ghost story writer.

SA: What else are you working on now? What do your future projects look like?

JD: I am aiming to bring out a range of M.R. James games under the banner of 'Pleasing Terror Games'. My hope is to bring the stories of M.R. James to a whole new audience through the route of gaming. I am planning a story telling game as well as a set of cards which will go play alongside Monsters & Miscreants to create a new game.

However, my main project is 'Cards for the Curious' - a strategy card & dice where you play the role of the protagonist in the main M.R. James stories - embarking on a terrifying journey of the imagination, where you try to survive the nameless dread that hunts you, with either your life or your sanity intact. Players relive all the main drama of the actual tale, but, with a host of other encounters thrown in the mix, no story is ever told the same way twice. The concept and prototype have been produced and Richard has agreed to work on the art and design. So watch this space!

A terrifying journey of the imagination where I try to survive the nameless dread that hunts me? I'm sold! You should be, too. Follow the work of James and Richard over at Pleasing Terror.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

You Can't Get This on YouTube, Actually

Getting yelled at by randos on the street is part of my job.

I'm a New York City tour guide, which means I encounter any and every type of person imaginable on these city sidewalks. Some people are perfectly sweet and nice -- entertaining, amusing, wacky New Yorkers. These people are great.

But I’ve also had people yell “TOURISTS!” and “LIES!” at me on my tours. I’ve had cabs deliberately splash me. I’ve had frat boy types yell, “Whooooo ghosts!” (Yes, I do ghostly and macabre tours.) One woman told my group they deserved to get hit by a car and die. Their crime? Standing on the sidewalk outside her house. Once someone called me a liar just as I was telling a group that Fraunces Tavern is still an operating restaurant. “You’re right," I said, "You can’t get a nice meal there, that was a total falsehood, you guys.” Most of the time the best thing to do in these scenarios is muster whatever shred of dignity you have remaining, and ignore them.

But it can get wearying. Because here's the funny thing: I don't like getting yelled at by people. Especially people who literally have no idea who I am, and what I'm saying. Not one of these people has ever listened to me talk, and probably even if they did they're so heavily influenced by indignation and alcohol it wouldn't matter. And I realize it's hypocritical to get uppity about street drunks on an Edgar Allan Poe tour, but something that happened last night bothered me enough to goad me into making a public statement to settle this once and for all.

A Response to a Real Life Troll

My customers are not "tourists". (80% of my year round clientele live in the five boroughs or the tri-state area, and even if they were tourists, that doesn't really mean they deserve to get yelled at just for existing.)

My guides do not tell "lies."

And you can't get this on YouTube.

Let me explain that last one.

Last night a particularly lovely and intelligent gentleman was idling at a stoplight on Waverly Place, where he treated me and my group to a barrage of insults for the entire duration of the red light. Yelling out his SUV window, he began with the usual ("Lies! All lies! Don't believe a word," etc.) then helpfully added, "You can get this all on YouTube!" He finished by admonishing my guests to "Read a book!"

What a truth teller!

Think of the incredible powers of deduction this man must have. Without even hearing a word of what I was saying, he was able to deduce instantly that I was simultaneously lying, reenacting a popular YouTube video (I usually alternate between Sneezing Baby Panda and The Evolution of Dance) and trying to convince my guests to stop reading. Unfortunately, before I could chase this genius down and beg him to make love to me, the light changed and he drove away.

For some reason, the whole episode really got under my skin. Why? I'm used to being called a liar. What was it about these comments that bugged me so much? Was it the fact that I basically experience the IRL equivalent of trolling? Possibly.

"Read A Book!"

I think the "Read a book" comment struck me as particularly irritating, for one, because there's a (wrong) belief among some people that tour guides do nothing more than regurgitate the same exact knowledge you could get from a book or a website. Let me tell you something: if your guide is doing nothing more than sharing information, he's doing it wrong.

You can't, as some have suggested, "save money" by "reading a book instead," or downloading an app or, god forbid, using Wikipedia or internet listicles ("Manhattan's Ten Most Haunted Places!") to get the same experience my guides and I provide. I mean, you could get the same raw information, certainly, but again, it's not about sharing information. That's barely half of what we do. The other half? Engaging in dialogue with you, sharing and listening to personal stories, answering your specific questions, synthesizing heaps of information from diverse sources that would take you hours if not weeks to find on your own, weaving narratives and telling stories (you know, like how they do on TV and in the movies), and making you laugh. Yes, my macabre death-tours are funny. Perversely funny.

Flesh and Blood Gore 

The spontaneous human interaction and element of live performance you get on one of my walking tours cannot be obtained simply by reading a page of text and staring at a specific location. But if you're still hell bent on going the self-guided route, by all means, do. Other things you can do to save money and pass the time include cutting your own hair, reenacting Broadway plays in your living room with your cats, and pulling your own teeth. (Actually, reenacting Broadway plays with your cats sounds fun. Let's make that, "Read a transcript of "Hamilton" or "The Book of Mormon" on your phone. Yes, that's a better analogy.)

Look, I realize the guided tour experience isn't for everyone, and some mavericks will never enjoy being part of a group or listening to a guide. (And some people will never feel weirdly compelled to watch Wicked Tuna either.) I know that sometimes it's more fun just to wander and ramble alone than to take a guided tour. But what we offer is less a "guided tour" than an imaginary exploration of a long-vanished New York City, accompanied by the telling of ghostly, gory tales by professional story-tellers. In short, it's a live performance. And you can't get that in a book or on a website, even YouTube.

PSA: How To Avoid The Bad Ones

If, by the way, you're ever on a walking tour where you think what your guide is doing could actually be replicated or even improved in webisode or podcast format, or if the info you're getting is widely and commonly available online and everywhere in the world, then your tour guide is failing as both a performer and a researcher and needs to be stripped of their license -- if they have one -- before they bore someone to death. Sadly, I'm in pretty tainted company here, because many, many ghost tour guides in the city are guilty of this... not mine, of course, but I'm not about to go around naming names.

Quick PSA: before you take a tour with any ghost tour company in NYC, please check that their guides have licenses first. Most reputable companies will list their guides' first and last names on their websites, and a quick DCA license lookup will show whether or not they are licensed. If they're unlicensed, or their real names are unlisted, caveat emptor. I say this not to bash my competition, but to keep you from suffering through a shitty, derivative tour.

You Make It Better

Look, YouTube is great and can totally offer some stuff that I can't. This is very big of me to admit, I realize, but I am a humble person. Mostly, it can offer this great version of The Raven as read by Christopher Walken (Poe's name is spelled wrong, but the poster has added a sincere apologia, so it's all good):

But here's a funny thing that happened last night. At the end of my Poe tour, a customer said, "You know, I'm inspired to go back and re-read some Poe. I haven't done that in so long." It's moments like that that make up for all the heckling and complaining. Much like my live performance is more satisfying -- really! -- than an app or a website, my real life customers are what make everything all worth it.

You guys are amazing and I love you. 

I'm not sure I was ever inspired to re-read anything by Poe because of a video I saw on YouTube, and there are actually some pretty decent Poe biographies/documentaries on there.

So yeah, watch them. Listen to Walken. Read a book. And if you're constitutionally inclined, take a tour that will immerse you in a live, interactive, engaging experience that will bring history and literature to life all around you. Don't yell at tour groups you see on the street; they might be New Yorkers and/or human beings with feelings.

And to the lady in the cab whose singing made a beautiful background for our discussion of Poe's ill-fated final days? We love you, too. Don't stop Beliebing.