Ellen Page Ranked

I’m proud of Ellen Page for her Time to Thrive Speech, in which she came out as lesbian and thanked the Human Rights Campaign for inspiring her. I don’t normally watch these kind of things, but Ellen’s speech was moving, actually one of the best speeches I’ve heard in a long time. Its wide impact is cause for rejoice.

This is a good time for me to update my earlier tribute, by adding the work Ellen has done in the past few years. Here are her films (and even a videogame), followed by the characters she plays in each, both ranked from best to worst. Regenesis is my starting point, though of course Ellen’s been acting since she was 10.

regen1. Regenesis (2004). 5 stars. This TV show is so exceptional that it plays like an extended feature film. Most Americans haven’t heard of it (it’s Canadian), so for the underprivileged Regenesis is a gritty thriller about a group of scientists who work against bio-terrorism, environmental dangers, and bizarre diseases. Unlike most sci-fic dramas, it’s not so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage. As a Canadian production it’s refreshingly unsanitized, meaning that people behave like real people, drop the f-bomb with abandon, appear nude, and exude an organic reality seldom seen on the American network. The acting is top-notch. The first season is the one to watch; it has brilliant story arcs over 13 episodes. Ellen is featured in episodes 1-8 as the daughter of the lead scientist, and she befriends a sick boy who thinks he’s a clone.

hard2. Hard Candy (2006). 5 stars. This film is so many things: a dialogue drama, revenge thriller, enacted domination fantasy, and morality puzzle. I see a different film every time I watch it, and in the sum of those viewing experiences certain faults become strengths. The first time it was a Lolita set-up which turned into castration revenge. On second viewing I knew what was coming, and since Hayley was faking the castration her torture seemed a cop-out, and Jeff’s suicide silly and unbelievable. But on third and later viewings I saw an enacted domination fantasy: a man’s guilt-ridden wet-dream of being tormented by a 14-year old fantasy figure, and ending in his “noble” agreement to kill himself. Hard Candy works brilliantly for me on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy.

juno3. Juno (2007). 5 stars. I normally hate comedies, but Juno is so arresting and honest in its simplicity, and its characters so endearing, that it works just right. It’s also genius for fooling the pro-life crowd into thinking it endorses their agenda. Even if you know nothing about scriptwriter Diablo Cody (a pro-choice feminist) and of course Ellen herself (also a pro-choice liberal who participates in films she believes in), the film clearly establishes a girl’s choice to have her baby without glorifying teen pregnancy, and that she would be supported by her friends and family regardless of her choice. It takes choice for granted, assumes hard-won rights, and doesn’t need to preach. I’ve watched this many, many times.

beyond4. Beyond: Two Souls (2013). 4 ½ stars. If you want to be Ellen, this videogame is your golden opportunity. She plays a character connected to the spiritual realm by the ghost of her dead brother, and is on the run from the U.S. government. Her brother is a pain in the ass, but a convenient power she taps in order to rain hell on the spooks. The story can end 24 different ways, and it’s an emotional ride whichever paths you take. Ellen makes us care for Jodie and sets a new standard in the use of professional actors in games. As an old-school D&D player, I’m surprised to like it, because compared to other videogames it restricts your freedom to move about and explore. You’re basically railroaded along a story, and the choices you can make alter the experience but don’t really shape it. But it’s the kind of story that works well the railroading way. Or at least it did for me — thanks to Ellen’s incredible performance. I was choking up by the end.

x75. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). 4 ½ stars. Of the seven X-Men films to date, Ellen has been in two of them: the very best (this one) and the second-worst (The Last Stand, see below). Here we finally get the all-out war between mutants and humanity, requiring time travel to save the day but without cheap resets — so we get to have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live again. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. Ellen reprises her role as Kitty Pryde, and this time she’s actually an important character: it’s her powers that make the time travel mission possible.

whip6. Whip It! (2009). 4 stars. I cringed when I first heard about this one, but my fears turned out to be groundless. It may have all the cliches and usual outcomes expected in an underdog sports film, but minus the melodrama, and it even plays like an indie film though I’m not sure why. It could be the edgy nature of roller derby, or just the way the characters are handled in the story. Or maybe it’s Ellen’s natural “indie persona”, which she seems to exude without trying. In any case, the story is about a girl whose mother forces her to compete in ghastly beauty pageants until she stumbles across roller derby and falls in love with knocking other girls down on the skating rink. Whip It! is basically what all those cheesy ’80s underdog sports films could have been like if done well.

incep7. Inception (2010). 4 stars. Here Ellen plays a college student who has amazing architectural gifts, and gets recruited into building mazes, labyrinths, and landscapes to be used in dream-invasions. The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a third-level dream — a dream within a dream within a dream — where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up and falling into limbo escalate exponentially.

mouth8. Mouth to Mouth (2005). 4 stars. Right before Hard Candy came this overlooked gem, about a revolutionary teen who leaves her mother and joins a gang living on the streets of Europe. This gang is armed with “radical knowledge”, a neo-communist philosophy that condemns personal property and promotes group interests over the self. Based on the director’s actual experience with gangs, it focuses on the manipulative leader who seduces but ultimately alienates Sherry, yet who incredibly succeeds in brainwashing her mother when she comes to rescue her. It’s still a hard film to come by in the states; the trailer is very good and represents it well.

super9. Super (2011). 4 stars. Everything Kick Ass should have been, upending superhero conventions through brutal satire, making us laugh as our heores take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies and key other peoples’ cars. Their mission is to fight crime, but Ellen Page’s character doesn’t seem to care much about that, as long as she can beat the living be-Jesus out of someone. James Gunn is the flip side to Christopher Nolan, who also redeemed the superhero genre but it a serious way: by destroying our optimism and suggesting heroes as hopeless liberators who escalate terror as they try fighting it. Gunn destroys our seriousness by suggesting heroes as hopeless losers who likewise are barely better than those they go against.

east10. The East (2013). 4 stars. This is from the same director of Sound of My Voice (2011), which was about a pair of documentary filmmakers who joined a cult in order to expose its charismatic leader. Similar group dynamics are on display here, as an investigator for a corporate form joins an eco-terrorist group to spy on its members. Ellen plays Izzy, an uncompromising anarchist who is the daughter of a petrochemical CEO; she forces him to bathe in the waterway he’s been using as a toxic dumping site. It’s obviously the perfect role for Ellen, who thrives on such radical causes in real life (though without harming others). Meanwhile, Brit Marling plays the investigator, in an amusing reversal from her role as the cult leader in The Sound of My Voice. The eco-terrorists get in some nasty payback, and it’s huge fun, but it’s the director’s understanding of fringe-group dynamics that make the film so good.

american11. An American Crime (2007). 3 ½ stars. Based on the true story of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured and killed by a disturbed woman caring for her in her parents’ absence. Sylvia was tied up in a basement for weeks — beaten, burned, cut, branded, and forced to eat filth, while, amazingly, kids in the neighborhood dropped by daily to participate in the “fun”. Ellen is as convincing in the role of a savagely abused innocent as she is in that of a tormenting sadist (Hard Candy), and most people won’t want to see this more than once (if that). The final act — Sylvia’s dream of reuniting with her parents as she lies unconscious and dying — is heartbreaking. There are really no pleasant scenes to watch, but I am moved by this haunting montage.

peac12. Peacock (2010). 3 stars. This went straight to DVD, perhaps not surprisingly given what most people expect from psychological thrillers. But cheap thrills aren’t to be found here, only character-driven introspection that Hitchcock would have been proud of. Cillian Murphy plays a Norman Bates character, a shy gentleman who works at a bank during the day, and then at home transforms into his “mother” to do household chores and prepare meals. When Ellen Page’s character, Maggie, shows up at his door asking for money, the mother-half kicks into overdrive and things get unpleasant. Maggie has his child, for his (real) mother had forced him on Maggie in unspeakably obscene ways. The film is a showcase for Murphy as a tormented psychotic, Ellen his collateral. At the same time, it feels a bit less than the sum of its parts.

tracey13. The Tracey Fragments (2007). 3 stars. About a messed up girl looking for her lost younger brother. She searches for him riding a bus at night, naked under a shower curtain. Sound bizarre? This might have placed higher on my list if not for the gimmick of so many split frames playing on the screen at once. I realize what the director was trying to do (hence the title) in portraying a delusional girl whose mind is everywhere: we’re supposed to be impressed less by what happens to Tracey and more by the record of her perceptions; her jagged emotional viewfinder is critical. But it’s asking much of us to digest up to eight frames at a time. Still, once you get used to it, there’s no denying the film’s daring originality. It’s indie, weird, raw… perfect for Ellen Page.

stone14. The Stone Angel (2007). 2 ½ stars. I went into this with high expectations since both of my favorite Ellens are in it (I revere Ellen Burstyn), and so was let down by the mediocrity. It’s one of those films where so much talent goes to waste, and so little is happening around what is trying to seem profound. Burstyn stars as a bitter old matriarch who fears she will lose her independence and be placed in a nursing home by her son and daughter-in-law. Page gets a small role as the girlfriend of another one of Burstyn’s sons, who both get killed by a train in a dare. It’s about family pride being a destructive force across generations, but somehow feels less than the sum of its parts.

xmen15. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). 2 stars. The second to worst film in the X-Men franchise. Bryan Singer could have worked wonders over this lame story about two factions of mutants kicking each others’ asses over the politically-loaded question of a cure for mutations. The attempt to analogize mutation with (homo)sexual orientation is conceptually nifty, but the film amounts to little more than an empty dazzle of special effects and explosions, and in many ways like the third Batman film of the ’90s: hollow as its two predecessors were good. The dialogue is appalling. Ellen plays the shadowcat Kitty Pryde who can pass through walls, but she gets only minutes of screen time, which is perhaps just as well.

rome16. To Rome with Love (2012). 2 stars. Telling four stories at once, only Ellen’s is any good, and even that one not great. The plot: a young American guy (Jack) living in Rome gets the hots for Ellen’s neurotic character (Monica), who is the friend of his own girlfriend. Jack is advised throughout this melodrama by an amusingly caustic Alec Baldwin character who may or may not be real. I’ve never been a fan of Woody Allen, and To Rome with Love seems a flimsy excuse for him to revisit obsessions about sex and death in his typically Woody Allen way. Even the best storyline is marred by the fact that Ellen was miscast in her role. She’s talented and versatile, but this just wasn’t for her.

touch17. Touchy Feely (2013). 2 stars. I’m not averse to chick flicks; in fact I admire many romantic character-driven films. But Touchy Feely is just like the name sounds and a monster bore. It tries to be metaphorically clever: a masseuse develops a sudden aversion to the feel of clients’ skin; her dentist brother acquires a sudden ability to cure pain by an uncontrolled Reiki-like energy. The idea seems to be that their hands are touching and feeling in the wrong ways, but the theme never clicks on any profound level. There are frustrated romances in the background, but dreadfully uninspired. Ellen plays the dentist’s daughter, working as his assistant and living at home, going nowhere in life, devoid of self-confidence. She (and all the actors) play their parts fine in a film as dead as the masseuse’s feeling.

smart18. Smart People (2008). 1 star. Banal, boring, and blisteringly cheerless, this is Ellen’s throw-away film. The story focuses on a conceited college professor who has no time for anyone (least of all his students and two kids), and is writing a book essentially about how stupid people are. Ellen plays his snarky and socially inept high-school daughter, who alternates between patronizing him and mouthing off, while trying to seduce her own uncle in between. (The uncle takes refuge by fleeing the house and sleeping on the dorm floor of his nephew, who can’t stand his sister anyway.) But not even she can save this misbegotten “comedy” which failed to elicit a single smile from me.

The Characters

1. Lilith Sandstrom. 5 stars. Lilith is the best character Ellen ever played. She has attitude, but real heart and goes to the wall for her friends. As when she leaves home to take Mick on a whale watch before his time is up. The whale appears moments too late, but at least Lilith is there for him when he dies. My favorite scene is in the next episode, when David proves he’s not such a bastard in helping her come to terms with Mick’s death. The show was never the same after she left.

2. Hayley Stark. 5 stars. I love this psychotic little bitch, as I love Hannibal Lecter and Max Cady. She’s perverse, demented, but also very funny, as long as you’re not on the receiving end of her ire. Her formula: luring ephebophiles into a den of torture in their own homes, and mind-fucking them until they kill themselves. Those are her good traits. I don’t think she has any bad ones.

3. Sylvia Likens. 5 stars. I want to hug this doll whenever I watch An American Crime. Shy, innocent, and with a heart of gold, Sylvia is the last person who deserved the treatment she received from Gertrude Baniszewski. I don’t really believe in hell, but if there is such a place I might hope for Gertie to roast there for nine times the time it took for her to torture and kill Sylvia.

4. Jodie Holmes. 5 stars. I’m in awe of Jodie. She’s someone you get to play, not just watch, and follow through sixteeen years of her life (ages 7-23). I don’t know what inspired David Cage to use professional actors for a videogame, but it was a stroke of genius. Jodie is connected to the spirit world by the ghost of her dead brother, and she taps into him with serious ass-kicking results. You even get to take showers as Jodie. Seriously, watch them here.

5. Libby (Boltie). 5 stars. In some ways I like Libby even more than Hayley because she’s twice as demented, not picky at all about who she kills, and has no righteous pretensions. She says she wants to kill criminals, but that she’s ready to crush the skull of an innocent gives lie to that claim. On top of that, and opposite Hayley, she’s a rapist (and I wouldn’t mind being raped by her). But ultimately I think Hayley’s more charming, especially factoring in her youth.

6. Bliss Cavendar. 4 ½ stars. How can you not love Babe Ruthless? An adorable girl with no pretensions other than wanting to break out of her life prison and have some fun. Apparently her character is just as likable in the novel on which the film is based. For some reason I always associated roller derby with white trash, but I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to sports. No trash here.

7. Izzy. 4 ½ stars. Izzy’s a child of wealth, and of course there’s no revolutionary like an elitist convert. Her father is a corporate executive who poisons rivers, to which Izzy exacts a Dantean contrapasso-revenge by forcing him to strip down and immerse himself in his own toxic mess. Izzy is basically another Hayley Stark, holding to extreme forms of justice in a world of systematic evil.

8. Sherry Green. 4 ½ stars. You have to admire a kid who runs away from home to join a grass-roots movement — that’s putting your money where your mouth is (or complete lack of it) — even if disillusionment is the inevitable outcome. You also have to respect the way she takes undeserved beatings with grace, like when she’s punished by the gang leader, three times her size, for “making him” have sex with her. Honestly.

9. Maggie Bailey. 4 stars. Maggie is much a victim of circumstance who prostitutes herself to pay the trailer rent. She loves her kid to no end — the product of an unspeakable union — and takes the way of least resistance to provide for him. She has little control over her destiny, but for such a nondescript character she’s oddly affecting, and makes you want to jump into the screen to save her from the clutches of Emma.

10. Tracey Berkowitz. 3 ½ stars. I have a hard time getting closure on Tracey. She’s a wonderfully messed up kid, bullied by classmates and shit on by her parents, but so emotionally jagged that it shatters my empathy when I least expect it. She has bipolar mood swings, is vulgar, full of self-loathing and hatred, but also capable of tender mercies.

11. Juno MacGuff. 3 ½ stars. Juno is cool and mostly endearing, though heapingly sarcastic. I think if I had a daughter with this much lip and she got pregnant, I’d force her to have the abortion just to take her down a peg. Well, not really, but… Or if I were the adoptive father of her unborn and she were spending so much damn time with me, I’d divorce my prissy wife and kidnap Juno for an elopement. Or maybe not, but then again…

12. Ariadne. 3 stars. We don’t get much depth to her, but she’s cool, shrewd, and looking out for the welfare of the Inception team, and studiously cognizant of keeping Cobb (Leo DiCaprio’s character) from damaging himself with his subconscious baggage.

13. Kitty Pryde. 2 stars. As with Ariadne, we don’t get much depth here, though we’re not supposed to. Kitty is a great character with great powers that are used poorly in one film (Last Stand) and greatly in another (Days of Future Past).

14. Jenny. 2 ½ stars. Jenny needs a smacking for the opposite reason of Juno: she’s completely lifeless. She’s “trapped” in a go-nowhere life, but not really trapped; she just needs to get off the pot. This makes her unlike the other vulnerable characters on this list (like Sylvia Likens and Maggie Bailey).

15. Arlene Drieser. 2 stars. Young, naive, and broke, she just wants to marry a guy and have loads of kids. With not much screen time we don’t get to know Arlene well, so she falls near the bottom of the list by default. She’s devoted enough to get in a truck with her boyfriend on a suicide dare, and I suppose that says something for her, though perhaps not in a good way.

16. Monica. 2 stars. I didn’t quite know where to rank Monica. The problem is that she’s not a believable character. Ellen was miscast in the role; she just comes across as Ellen Page trying to impersonate a sultry vixen moving in on her friend’s boyfriend. Ellen can play a variety of roles, but not “highly sexualized seductress” (unless it’s over-the-top crass like Boltie).

17. Vanessa Wetherhold. 1 star. What’s there to say about Vanessa? She’s frigid, disdains all things democratic, and flirts with her uncle who looks like a toad. Before moving in on her uncle, however, he takes an amusing swipe at her for being a social misfit with no life. In addition to being the low point of Ellen’s acting career, Vanessa is by far her worst character.

Why Dark Tower is My Favorite Module

There’s something extraordinarily primal about Dark Tower. You have a cursed village, dominated by an evil cult, its inhabitants never aging, hardly able to recall a time of law and good. Two buried towers, barely poking above the ruined countryside, its ancient powers locked in stalemate. An underground network connecting the towers, every other room a death zone. It haunts my imagination like no other module, and is the best dungeon crawl ever designed.

It doesn’t hurt that it relies on my favorite pantheon of the Egyptians. (My lawful-good leaning PCs worshiped Egyptian deities; my chaotic-good characters bowed to the Norse.) Here the opposing gods are Mitra and Set, and the history bears repeating. During his mortal life (around 1500 years ago), Mitra was a paladin who opposed the serpent-demon Set. Both were killed in the battle between their followers, and both ascended to godhood. A thousand years later (500 years ago), Set finally enacted his revenge on the village of Mitra’s Fist by creating a dark tower to oppose the white sanctuary. On a starless night the tower suddenly appeared out of nowhere and crushed half the village. Few reached the safety of Mitra’s tower, and most of the village was wiped out.

New settlers came to Mitra’s Fist, naturally hoping to find buried treasure. But their greed awakened the evil of Set’s buried tower, and for the last three centuries the village has been dominated:

“It took a hundred years of digging before searchers found the location of the original village. However, they encountered the unexpected. Something was digging up to meet them. News eventually stopped coming from the village. Mitra’s Fist had changed almost overnight. Some force had possessed the village and its occupants, causing them to slay children, non-humans and Mitraic priests in one night of hell possessed fury. It is these very same villagers who have inhabited the old decaying buildings of Mitra’s Fist for three hundred years since, never aging. For three centuries the village of Mitra’s Fist has existed, unmolested by the outside world. Few have noticed that the village has had the same occupants for over ten generations. Few have noticed because few are those who can visit the village and not fall prey to the sharp, ceremonial dagger of the high priest of Set.”

That powerful set up takes the long defeat theme of The Village of Hommlet (evil is cyclical, it can never be truly defeated, it will keep coming back) and meshes it with the steady creep of chaos in The Keep on the Borderlands (lonely isolated outposts fending off evil forces), but with a threat worse than either. This is a close-quartered clash of good and evil, in an underground of sadism and sacrifice. Enemies lie only rooms away, and the cold war has been festering for bloody centuries. The villagers above are cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass, dominated by the Set cult. Avvakris the Merchant (actually the high priest of Set) is one of the most memorable villains from any module, his son a half-reptilian, and his concubine a ravishing beauty who can either be found making love to him or as a half-eaten corpse with her heart removed.

The architectures are genius. Jennell Jaquays is famous for her non-linear dungeons and confusing environments in which no two groups of PCs can possibly have the same experience going through (note that the credits refer to Paul Jaquays, the name she used at that time in her career). They can retreat, circle around, bypass underneath, go back over old ground, or even use teleporting short cuts that appear without rhyme or reason. The dungeon is nested between the two towers via equally contorted passages. The rough path is a descent of Mitra’s Tower followed by a climb up Set’s, with a lot of unavoidable dungeon mess in between.

Dark Tower is cherished even by today’s players, and that surprises me a bit. The design is uncompromisingly old school: The clash of good and evil is primitive, and the forces of light don’t always come across as benign. Mitra may be lawful good, but he speaks the language of war. His “lions” (saints) don’t suffer fools gladly, and their holy relics are as likely to rape and possess you (even rob you of intelligence or leave you insane) in order to bring down Set’s minions. The module is also light on plot, and equally tailored for evil-aligned PCs. There are rules provided for the bonuses received by clerics of both Mitra and Set when they enter the dungeon areas or tower under control of their deity. Needless to say, the scenes of blood sacrifice and mutilations are alien to the sissified elements that overtook the game by around the mid-’80s.

I suspect the module is widely loved because it’s so archetypal. Villagers hunker down in oppressed, cursed isolation, whilst hideous rites are conducted beneath their homes. It’s as haunting as D&D settings get, and I already mentioned the long defeat theme. Even assuming the PCs succeed in killing Pnessutt the lich, the liberation isn’t a happy one: the villagers die (their bodies fast-forwarding 300 years of borrowed time), and neither tower is completely destroyed by the underground cave-in. The final sentence points to a future replay: “Considering the history of the dungeon, it probably won’t be long before the digging starts again…”

What can I say? Dark Tower is my favorite module for every obvious reason.

Why Inferno is My Favorite Module

Inferno is my ultimate gaming fantasy come true. But it’s an anomaly in this six-part series, because it’s a half module that was never finished — until this very year. The first four circles comprised the classic module (1980), and as of September 2014, all nine circles are available in a revised and expanded package. For sake of simplicity, I will refer to this vast body of work as the Inferno Project. Though the recent publications aren’t written for 1st edition D&D (for copyright reasons), they are entirely in the old-school vein and designed by the same genius, Geoff Dale.

As I said, the Inferno Project is my dream come true, and it’s a dream that began with Ed Greenwood’s famous Dragon articles in 1983. I always loved The Divine Comedy, and Greenwood’s Nine Hells took at least some inspiration from that epic. He gave us the wastelands of Avernus with atmospheric fireballs; the emerald clouds and stagnant rivers of Dis; the foul marshes of Minauros, plastered with rotting carrion, pelted by rain and hail; the volcanoes and lava rivers of Phlegethos; the swamp of Stygia, with surrounding mountains flashing their white “cold fires”; the black, smoke-filled layers of Malbolge and Maladomini; the glaciers and outer-space cold of Caina; and the misty realm of Nessus, where the very ground scorches those of non lawful-evil alignment. I wanted a module for all of this — for the most epic outer-plane adventure imaginable. Little did I know that such already existed! Inferno had been published three years before, and even more incredibly was based exactly on Dante. But it was one of those obscure Judges Guild modules, not TSR, which my local stores didn’t carry. It would be years before I became aware of Dale’s version of Hell.

I should stress that I still admire Greenwood’s version. But Dale’s is superior — more imposing, and far more weird. In depicting the torture of souls, he produced a medieval canvass completely aligned with a literary classic. Some object to the Christian baggage, but that really isn’t an obstacle; those elements have been tweaked for D&D’s pagan context.

In fact, the Christian layovers are some of Inferno‘s best parts. My favorite encounter area in the history of D&D moduledom is the Noble Castle on the First Circle. It isn’t a place of torment, rather a state of shadowy bliss for “virtuous atheists” who had the simple misfortune of existing in a time long past: “They are the just and good peoples from the Days Before the Gods and live in relative bliss and comfort.” That’s a brilliant translation of Dante’s Limbo, which is the resting place for the virtuous unbaptized; i.e. those whose only sin was not knowing Christ, such as righteous Old Testament figures who predated Christ, and noble pagans from any time. There’s something very distressing about this pocket paradise stranded in an ashen wasteland, with its gardens, trees, clean water, benign wildlife, even music, and the benign hospitable souls (including paladins) forced to dwell here for eternity. They’re content for the most part, yet aware their fate is somehow blighted. Above all, the Noble Castle underscores how weird the Inferno is, unpredictable and unfair. In the official rules, good souls could count on eternal rest in an upper plane befitting their alignment (the Seven Heavens, Twin Paradises, Elysium, etc). Dale’s template of the afterlife is much less secure, and seems premised on the idea that souls can be kidnapped and confined where they don’t really belong.

On the circles below the first, souls are tortured for whatever deadly sin they committed in life. One of the juiciest punishments is the second bolgia of the Eighth Circle. As in Dante’s poem, these are the flatterers, who live in a pit of shit since that’s all they spoke in mortal life:

“A noxious mix of sewage, offal, and other liquid filth fills the pit to a height of seven feet, and clouds of buzzing insects (flesh flies, poison gnats, giant mosquitoes) swarm above the liquid. Mortals swimming across the filth contract 1d3 disease each from the contact. Determine diseases from 1d12: (1) dengue fever, (2) tuberculosis, (3) diptheria, (4) tetanus, (5) malaria, (6) elephantitus, (7) yellow fever, (8) dysentery, (9) smallpox, (10) typhoid fever, (11) tapeworms, (12) bubonic plague; see Codicil of Maladies for details. An encounter occurs to mortals swimming the muck… (1) mud snakes, (2) giant slugs, (3) giant leeches, (4) type 8A devils. Mortals flying above the muck are attacked by type 8A devils.”

The Inferno Project owes to Dante also in terms of the tour-guide approach. Devil rulers can be receptive enough to show PCs around torture pits where souls labor in degrading tasks, and answer questions provided they have the proper passes and behave themselves. These civilized devils are also leering sorts who will as likely attempt to rape female PCs before murdering them — a typical reminder of how faithful modules were to gritty pulp fantasy before D&D became so sissified. Some of the most vile and deadly magic items (often cursed) can be found throughout the Inferno, as well as hidden talismans that can be used against the devils.

But it’s the Dantean landscapes that mesmerize: the River Archeron, the Styx River, the City of the Heretics, the River of Boiling Blood, the Wood of the Suicides, the Desert of Fire (a smoldering 125 degrees), and, especially at bottom, the Frozen Swamp of Cocytus. The Ninth Circle is a prison for traitors and backbiters, a constant 15 degrees, has winds blowing up to 80 miles/hr, blinding fog and roiling thunder that makes normal speech impossible. Lucifer is confined at the pit’s center, and he’s a piece of work at 750 feet tall — and unfortunately the only ticket out of Hell.

On the one hand, I think it’s unfortunate that Dale’s vision of Hell didn’t become official. It became an obscurity I wouldn’t even learn about until the days of internet. But then it’s probably just as well. Not only did Inferno remain a half-finished product, it was too offbeat and worrying for many gamers. I consider it a superior alternative to the Greenwood template and am glad for the project’s completion at long last. It’s my wet dream of Dante’s hell-hole made real. If I could run only one more campaign in my entire life, it would involve every damned circle of the Inferno.

Next and final: Dark Tower.

Why Vault of the Drow is My Favorite Module

If Tomb of Horrors is the most punishing D&D module, and The Lost City the most inspired, and Castle Amber the most rewarding, what is Vault of the Drow? Without doubt, it’s the most brilliantly conceived. Many grognards call it the best thing Gary Gygax ever designed, and in hindsight it’s obvious why. But back in the day it wasn’t esteemed so highly. Certainly gamers I knew didn’t think much of it; it was almost a non-event.

I think there are two reasons for this, the first being Vault of the Drow‘s problematic relationship to the modules which surround it in a series. D3 falls in the worst possible place, penultimately trailing five dungeon crawls: the giants of G1-G3, the caverns of D1, and the kuo-toan shrine of D2. By the time players hit D3 they’re itching to get to the final module set on the Abyss (Q1), to which the Vault effectively serves as a mere doorstop. The second reason feeds into the first. The Vault is an underground realm, not a dungeon crawl, and with enough care can be mostly sidestepped by PCs not interested in lingering. Which is a shame, because the city of Erelhei-Cinlu resounds with opportunity.

The problem is that I was blind to this, not only because I couldn’t read a map properly, but because I and my players couldn’t wait to get to the Abyss for the showdown with Lolth. Which is, of course, its own problem.

As widely acknowledged today (with some embarrassment), Queen of the Demonweb Pits is an abominable module. Not only is the design a joke (resembling nothing horrifying like you’d imagine the Abyss to be — even involving, yes, a goddamn spaceship as the spider-queen’s lair), but there is simply no reason, per the plot design of G1-D3, for players to take the suicidal step of confronting Lolth on the Abyss. Lolth and her priesthood have been all along opposing the renegade drow attempt to invade the surface world. The goddess isn’t the problem; her wayward servant in the Vault is. Q1 is a complete non-sequitur, and only makes sense if the PCs are overambitious hotheads or fools, or if they just want the orgasmic thrill of trying to kill a deity on her home plane. (Which of course is what we all wanted.) It’s unclear what kind of module Q1 would have been had Gary Gygax not bailed on the project and left it in the hands of David Sutherland, but it’s one of the greatest old-school ironies that a masterpiece like Vault of the Drow was overshadowed by a poorly designed follow-up that made absolutely no sense.

The Vault is best used as either the final module in Gygax’s G1-D3 series, or (as I prefer) a complete stand-alone. If I had respected the thing and gotten proper play out of it, I have no doubts it would be my favorite sandbox, eclipsing even The Lost City. The descriptive writing of the underworld is mind-blowing. Here’s what greets the PCs upon entrance:

“The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, a huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. The radiation from certain unique minerals gives the visual effect of a starry heaven… These ‘star’ nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large ‘moon’ of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres. The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.”

DMs who know what they’re doing (as I clearly didn’t back in the day) can serve up a nightmare world where factions of dark elves plot against each other, demons and undead walk the streets, and obscene sacrifices are offered to Lolth, all under that purple glow of phosphorescent fungi and bizarre “moon”. There are torture parlors, bordellos, drug saloons, and avenues where the undead feast openly, but here’s the thing: everything is disturbingly civilized. And gorgeous.

It’s worth nothing that Dragon Magazine #298 fleshed out the Vault, especially the city of Erelhei-Cinlu (see right), as well as the sadistic culture of the drow. Their bloodsports entertainment is downright obscene, involving bound captives held beneath magic acid that drips onto the forehead, opening up a hole in the victim’s skull and melting the brain: “During this time, orbs of telepathic power communicate the dying victim’s memories to the salivating crowd. Attendees vicariously savor the captive’s most traumatic and painful experiences as he slowly succumbs.” There is also the matriarchal sexism, which allows females to fuck whomever they please, while husbands must remain faithful and are usually sacrificed if caught cheating. On the other hand, if a powerful priestess makes advances on another woman’s husband, she can have him sacrificed for daring to spurn her advances. Attractive males often face these no-win situations and disfigure themselves to stay alive. As for whore houses, there are many, but the Alabaster Slab is the most degenerate, and one I’d be sure to patronize if I had a PC with nihilistic inclinations: a brothel of the dead, run by a demonic madame who provides the “darkest sort of oblivion” to clients.

The drow are D&D’s most iconic race, and it’s an outrage that they were later bastardized. Gone (by the mid-’80s) were the deprave sadists, and in their place a Disneyfied race of dark elves — those poor misunderstood anti-heroes of a dawning political correctness. Gary Gygax had created a genetically evil race without apology, and his are the only drow I acknowledge. I was glad to see Dragon #298 do likewise, and honor the Vault with new surprises. In my teen years I grasped none of the Vault’s potential, but in fact it has more potential than any other module. That’s why it’s my favorite.

Next up: Inferno.

Why Castle Amber is My Favorite Module

It’s impossible for me to discuss Castle Amber apart from my experience of it. I remember thirty-two years ago like it was yesterday. My best friend was the DM and in top form, putting me and three other players though a truly demented campaign. It was weird from the first room, but we knew we were in a loony universe when we ran afoul the ogre dressed in a nightgown who thought it was Janet Amber (whom it killed), and got increasingly homicidal the more compassionate we were. My friend’s impersonation of the ogre and falsettos added up to some of the best DM role-playing he’d ever done; we felt like we were really in that castle.

Castle Amber is like something out of David Lynch: it has a fever-dream feel to it, and off-kilter encounters like the aforementioned ogre. The cover art of the Colossus epitomizes this theme, a staggering piece by Erol Otus which in my opinion is his best work ever. Those huge eyes still freak me out, and I remember them raising terrifying expectations. Our PCs were the recommended intermediate (3rd-6th) levels, yet we had this to look forward to? A fortress-sized 100 HD creature with 350 bloody hit points? The build-up to this encounter is fantastic, not least because the Colossus isn’t even the focus of the adventure. It’s just one of many nightmares to face in order to escape the insane world of the Ambers.

The Amber family is critical to the module’s success, and I found their callous amorality far more chilling than straightforward evil foes. Moldvay describes them thus:

“The personalities of the lost Amber family set the mood for the adventure. The Ambers range from slightly eccentric to completely insane. For the most part, the family is [chaotic evil]. While they are proud of their name, they seldom cooperate with each other. Most of them believe they can do anything once they set their mind to it. They live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom… It amuses them to watch adventurers battle obstacles, and they are equally amused whether the adventurers succeed or fail. A good spectacle is more important to them than defeating the adventurers. The Ambers tend to be fair, out of the belief that a rigged game is too predictable and not much fun.”

For the first time I realized the extent to which character and role-playing defined a good D&D game, and how a trait like boredom, of all things, could produce not only deadly results, but dangerously unpredictable ones.

The Ambers are as colorful as they are dangerous. There’s the librarian Charles who buried his sister Madeline alive; the soul of Princess Catherine lurking inside a throne, waiting to possess someone (see upper left); the evil priest Simon, who feigns friendship and kills at first opportunity; Madam Camilla, itching to tell fortunes you’d rather not hear; Andrew-David the man-goat, who patrols the indoor forest with a Wild Hunt of dire wolves and sabre-tooth tigers; and many others. They exist in a cursed eternity, confined to their castle like incestuous wraiths.

But Castle Amber is a masterpiece even aside from all this demented creativity. It packs so much in short space — well beyond what most 36-page modules offered back in the day. First there is the castle itself, with two large wings, an indoor forest, and a chapel, and not a room wasted (see above). Second is a dungeon, with hideous creatures like a brain collector, and potions that induce harrowing dreams that intrude on reality. The dungeon ends at a magical gateway to, third, Averoigne, the old home of the Ambers — an alternate prime material world resembling medieval France, and where magic is a heresy punished by death. Here the PCs must acquire a number of artifacts (one of which can be obtained only by killing the 100-HD Colossus which is in the process of demolishing a town; another of which is an honest-to-gods potion of time travel) in order to return to, fourth, the tomb of Stephen Amber, which contains the means to break the castle’s curse.

Incredibly, this module is scorned by today’s D&D players. As far as I’m concerned, they’re more insane than the Ambers; as always, the new school has it wrong. They want “realistic” modules, and this classic is surrealistic in the extreme. Castle Amber is gonzo pulp fantasy gone wild. And it offers more warped fun, and with such effortless economy, than any other module I know. That’s why it’s my favorite.

Next up: Vault of the Drow.

Why The Lost City is My Favorite Module

If you asked me to name the D&D module that most fired my imagination, that I obsessed like no other, that inspired me to keep building on its foundations, my reply is immediate: The Lost City. I spent countless after-school hours pouring over this thing. It got into my head like a cerebral tapeworm. Meals went untasted as I stayed in my bedroom designing new areas, expanding the underground, and giving the bottom pyramid tiers a complete overhaul. I took the world to bed at nights, dreaming of an ancient civilization fallen from glory, and whose descendents tripped through life half-baked on acid and in thrall to a Cthulhu-like deity monster. It suggested stories of lost culture, and hopeless struggles for restoration. I wanted to go there; that’s the kind of grip it had on me.

That it’s a beginner’s module makes it all the more impressive. It’s hard to come up with top-notch low-level adventures, but The Lost City is so inspired that I never resented the fact that the underground leaves plenty for the DM to develop. In essence, I see the module as epitomizing the Golden Age of D&D (1977-83). It’s pulp fantasy at its purest, with homages to the Conan classic Red Nails, and a world unto itself. A perfect sandbox you can use over again with new plots.

The rooms inside the five-tiered pyramid are filled with a variety of nasties: killer slime, geckos, oil beetles, rolling boulder traps, pendulum blades, a banshee, and a wight who is the transformed corpse of the ancient Cynidicean Queen Zenobia (see left). For PCs who advance to high levels, five lower tiers are provided, the bottom being the lair of Zargon (see bottom left). But it’s the Cynidiceans themselves who define The Lost City. Their lives are a year-round carnival — mushroom farming by day, hallucinogenic partying by night — and this is how Tom Moldvay describes them:

“Every Cynidicean wears a stylized mask, usually of an animal or human face. Some are made of wood, some of paper mache, and some of metal. They are decorated with beads, bones, feathers, and jewels. Most wear fancy clothes, flashy jewelry, and carry short swords. Some paint their bodies with bright colors. The Cynidiceans are a dying race. Each new generation is smaller than the last. Most of them have forgotten that an outside world exists, living most of their lives in weird dreams. The times when they seem normal, tending their fields and animals, are becoming fewer and fewer as the dreams replace reality. Their unusual costumes and masks only strengthen their dreams.”

Against this decadence, however, stand three renegade factions, the few “normal” Cynidiceans attempting to restore worship of the old gods: the Brotherhood of Gorm, the Magi of Usamigaras, and the Warrior-Maidens of Madarua. They’re dedicated to overthrowing the Zargonites in their own way, as they distrust each other, and are certainly not above using PCs as pawns in their covert agendas. It all depends on how the PCs interact with them. This makes for a wonderfully unpredictable dynamic, and it’s noteworthy that Moldvay emphasized this — with a stern reminder for DMs to expect the unexpected from their players:

“The bickering between the three factions, and their attempts to restore sanity to Cynidicean society, give the DM the chance to add character interaction to the adventure. While the factions can be played as simple monsters with treasure, the DM and players can have a lot of fun with the plots and feuding of the factions. If this is done, the DM should plan in advance what the faction members may say or do if the party tries to talk, attack, or wait to see what the NPCs do first. It is important for the DM to avoid forcing the action to a pre-set conclusion — the actions of the players must be able to make a difference.”

Such advice, of course, was boilerplate wisdom in the old school and hardly needed spelling out. That Moldvay saw the need to do so in 1982 indicates what was slowly creeping into the game, and would become the new fad a year and a half later. Prior to the Dragonlance craze of 1984, railroading (i.e. pre-packaged plotting) was anathema in D&D. The Golden Age was one of open-ended sandboxes (i.e. locales/settings), which left plotting to the DM, but also to the players, with the result that stories grew spontaneously in game play. The Lost City is one of the best examples of this classic approach, and completely unlike today’s adventure-path designs that predestine players’ “choices”.

You can have a lot of fun with the city, and one group of PCs I ran got terrific use out of the cache of fireworks. No self-respecting role players pass up the opportunity to explode skyrockets, and in this case, they were used quite dramatically in the underworld after defeating the Zargonites… to signal a new era with a glorious holiday.

No module has galvanized me like The Lost City, and that’s why it’s my favorite.

Next up: Castle Amber.

Why Tomb of Horrors is My Favorite Module

To call Tomb of Horrors a “favorite” seems absurd on the face of it. It’s certainly the most famous and notorious module, but it’s impossibly unfair, and if you play it honestly you won’t be playing long. Gary Gygax only designed it to shut up complainers that D&D was getting too easy. He may have gone overboard by way of response, but it turned out to be just what the game needed in 1978. The tomb made an impact not only as a dungeon, but by the mentality it fostered. It’s my favorite module because it’s the most reliable gauge of one’s affinities for the old-school. In effect, its a Platonic ideal. All killer dungeons walked in its shadow, unable to repeat the artistically perfect nihilism. The more we hated it, the more we loved it. Today’s generation will never understand why.

One thing I need to clear up, however, is Gary Gygax’s disingenuous preface. He states that this is a “thinking person’s module” — in other words, one that challenges player skill more than character ability. In theory this is true, but in practice it’s obviously bullshit. No one beats the tomb, no matter how smart they are; everyone dies, usually in the first few rooms. Player skill is as meaningless as character level when you’re talking about instant death with no saving throws every step of the way, and the only means of sidestepping annihilation are non-sequiturs. The demi-lich is an instant soul-stealer, and can only be harmed by things you’d never dream of trying: expensive gems thrown by a thief; a low-level shatter spell (go figure); a power word kill, but only if thrown by an astral or ethereal spellcaster; etc. It’s as if Gygax was playing Russian Roulette with the Player’s Handbook, and pulling random spells and gimmicks from his ass to serve as get-out-of-hell free cards.

One of my favorite encounter areas are the killer doors that gush blood:

“The doors are 14′ wide and 28′ tall, made of solid mithril, 3′ thick, and impregnated with great magicks in order to make them absolutely spell and magic proof. Where the halves meet, at about waist height, is a cup-like depression, a hemispherical concavity, with a central hole. The latter appears to be the keyhole for the second key, but if this is inserted, the character so doing will receive 1-10 points of electrical damage, while the first key will cause double that amount of damage to any so foolish as to insert it. The real key to these gates is the scepter from the throne room behind. If the scepter’s gold ball is inserted into the depression, the mithril valves will swing silently open. But if the scepter’s silver sphere is touched to the hemispherical cup the holder of the instrument will be teleported instantly and spat out at the devil’s mouth at 6. [the tomb’s entrance], nude, while all his or her non-living materials go to 33. [the demi-lich’s crypt], and the scepter flashes back to the throne.”

Then come the gallons of cascading blood — keep in mind that Gygax wrote this before Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — if the doors are cut by a sharp weapon. It’s the blood of all victims who have died in the tomb, and once again, you’d never guess what it takes to stop it from drowning everyone: a levitate spell coagulates the blood (but turns it into a massive ochre jelly) a purify water turns it to gas (but unfortunately poisonous), raise dead or resurrection destroys it (this solution being one of the few without any lethal side effects), etc.

I don’t believe for a moment that any group of players ever honestly beat this module (a) on first entry, knowing nothing about the tomb’s design in advance, and/or (b) without the DM toning at least parts of it way down. It’s just not possible. But that’s the point. The tomb gave DMs a license to be punishing off the scales, and players the okay to be masochistically thrilled by impossible challenges. It brought nihilism to the game, and while I doubt I knew the word as a young teen, the concept was slowly dawning on me. In some ways Tomb of Horrors messed with my psyche like The Exorcist (I was exposed to both around the same time). It disturbed and upset me, but rooted me in a framework that took fantasy very seriously. Thanks to it I would become receptive to important ideas (like the long defeat in Tolkien) and the amoral heroism of tomb robbing.

And even if it can’t be called a “thinking person’s module” without winking too broadly, the principle is there, and was soon applied to modules that gave players an actual chance; Ghost Tower of Inverness and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun to name a couple. It also goes without saying that you can tone down the module, which some DMs did, though that rather defeats the purpose. The unforgiving nature of the tomb is its point. Grognards thrill to it the same way videogamers thrive on those high levels they can never win. Today’s D&D crowd is another story; for them it’s too cruel. But if it’s cruel it also repays strategic planning — and knowing when the hell to run. You could possibly stand a slim chance of beating this thing with enough retreats and follow-up expeditions.

Tomb of Horrors torpedoed my sensibilities like no other gaming product, and I rose from the ash anew. It taught me there were no limits to punishment, and that nihilism has its place in fantasy. It changed my view of gaming, even my view of life. That’s why it’s my favorite module.

Next up: The Lost City.