Monday, August 24, 2009

Last Rites of the Black Guard

Last Rites of the Black Guard is a d20 Modern ghost-hunting adventure, produced by 12 to Midnight, for low-level characters. It includes suggestions for adjusting to higher-level campaigns, a bookmarked PDF, and a printer-friendly version. The scenario also features rules from the OGL Horror ritual system. The 12 to Midnight website also offers free downloads of cool extras such as audio recordings of ghosts, pre-filled initiative cards, and more. Please note: this review contains spoilers!

If you’re familiar with the Karotechia in Delta Green, you know that it is led by a triumvirate of Nazis on their last legs: the ancient Olaf Bitterich, the artificially sustained Gunter Frank, and the immortal Reinhard Galt. Advancing the Delta Green timeline thus causes a bit of a problem, because Bitterich should be dead of old age. The solution: Last Rites of the Black Guard (LRBG).

In LRBG, the investigators visit Rosetta, Texas, home of a dirty little secret: it was once home to a Nazi, Franz Heimglimmer. Though Heimglimmer is dead, his legacy lives on in his secret acolytes, who are both trying to rob him of his power and keep him from returning to life. The investigators start out visiting the home of Lisa Gray and her two children, Marissa (7) and Matthew (6). Marissa is in contact with the spirit of Aimee Resnick, a little girl who was murdered at the hands of Heimglimmer. Matthew is protected by the spirit of a Rabbi, but that doesn’t stop glowing atmospheric balls of energy and poltergeists from terrorizing their home.

LRBG has difficulty structuring the plot such that the events flow from one to another. In my experience, players crave clear paths – it helps move the game along, gives them hints to their next clue, and ensures that the game master is appropriately prepared. Because LRBC is largely freeform, it's possible for players to skip whole swaths of the game…like skipping the haunted house to visit Heimglimmer’s home.

The free downloads are awesome, including audio clips of the various spirits speaking and photos of each of the main characters. These really add to the horror, which is why it’s all the more important that don't skip it by going to visit Heimglimmer’s home immediately.

LRBG assumes the characters will conduct a séance, which isn’t necessarily something every group will try. Instead, I had our resident psychic character possessed by Aimee’s spirit and let him role-play out the answers with the other characters. Only after enough clues were gathered about what happened to the spirits did I reveal that there was once a Nazi living next door.

LRBG then moves to the second part of the scenario, which is essentially a death trap. There’s reference to a gold tooth that’s part of the next installment in the series (as far as I know, there’s never been a sequel). Then the investigators find a secret door down into the basement…or they would, if it were on the map. There appears to be only one set of maps, labeled as handouts which are presumably for both the players and game master. This means that secret doors aren’t labeled on the map, and one of those secret doors is critical to finding the finale. The map of the Gray house, conversely, has several rooms labeled “Jeana” – we figured out that this was supposed to be Lisa and the name must have been changed.

Once the investigators find their way down to the secret door, it locks behind them and they are engaged in a fight for their lives with a Risen of Osiris, an undead monster. Since I adopted this monster to a Delta Green setting, I changed it to a Screaming Crawler. The effect is the same: the investigators have to slog it out in a toe-to-toe fight. My players were unhappy about this, expecting to uncover some plot-device to destroy it. The monster has no other purpose than as a guardian, which surprised my players, who expected it to be the Nazi himself (more about him later).

Once the investigators defeat the monster, two undercover cultists arrive to finish the job. When one of the cultists dies, the spirit of Heimglimmer appears (he’s also responsible for locking the characters into the chamber) and absorbs his soul. The other cultist flees, screaming “you’ve doomed us all!” I wasn’t content to just let the scenario end like that, so I had the police, already spooked from the swirling spirit activity around Heimglimmer’s home, fire on whomever ran out the front door waving a pistol.

It turns out that the characters’ actions have led to the resurrection of Heimglimmer and we get to see his return in a cut scene. In other words, the investigators have managed to unearth a great evil. This didn’t make my players happy, who felt like they were being manipulated all along.

It bears mentioning that one of the Nazi cultists has a Jewish-sounding name. For a scenario that spends a significant amount of space dedicated to respecting the Holocaust legacy, it seems peculiar that it would casually cast a Jewish person as a Neo-Nazi without explanation.

Overall, my players really enjoyed the first part of the scenario but were frustrated by the second half. The lack of an overall story arc may irk some game masters, who are left with a newly revived Nazi cultist without a plan as to how to proceed. For Delta Green keepers, however, it’s the perfect way to put Dr. Bitterich back in action. I recommend The Painting by Modern Misfits as a follow-up.
For more info: To see a demo of Last Rites of the Black Guard, visit the 12 to Midnight web site.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is supposedly about Nazi-hunting in World War II, a revenge fantasy where Jewish-American guerillas (or terrorists, as the Nazis point out) are tasked with spreading fear and loathing throughout France. Led by the rustic Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds have but one task: to each collect 100 Nazi scalps. Please note: this review contains spoilers.

One might think, given the title and the trailers, that this is an action film filled with the occasional machinegun dialogue Quentin Tarantino is famous for. It's quite the opposite: a series of measured vignettes in which the tension is ratcheted up to feverish heights, then explodes in quick, messy violence.

The opening scene sets the stage: Han Landa (Christoph Waltz), AKA "The Jew Hunter," does what he does best in France. As such, he is the nemesis of spies and revolutionaries hiding in plain sight. Landa hunts down Shosanna's (Melanie Laurent) family in a terrifying exchange that culminates in the death of her family. Out of mere whim, ego, or simply being true to his hawk-like nature, Landa lets Shosanna escape. Her survival will have grave repercussions for the German war effort.

These two plots, the Basterds and Shosanna's revenge, eventually intertwine when Hitler and his entourage arrive to view a special showing of a Nazi-propaganda film (Stolz der Nation) in Paris. The film stars Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi war hero who singlehandedly killed dozens of enemies from a sniper tower.

Tarantino never just makes a film to tell a story, as evidenced by the obvious digressions from history he takes with Basterds. He films a vibe, an expression -- in doing so, Tarantion comments on the nature of the cinema and our own humanity. And this time, he's aiming his camera at the audience.

You see, this film isn't just about Nazi hunting, or Pitt's funny accent, or the tension between agents who know their social repartee will end in blood; it's about violence in the movies and how we glorify it. And Tarantino is merciless as he judges every person involved with the film guilty:

The producers are guilty: Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is a simpering suck-up who is far too enamored with the approval of his audience to see how vile his film is.

The actors are guilty: Actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a duplicitous murderer who shoots an unarmed man in cold blood. Zoller, the star of Stolz der Nation, has no stomach to watch his own murders taking place on the big screen but is only too happy to bully a woman with his affections.

Even the projectionist is guilty: Shosanna is so consumed with her revenge that only in killing a man does she finally see his humanity.

But the most guilty of all is the audience in the theater watching Stolz der Nation. They are shot, burned, and blown to bits at the end. That was the goal, of course – to kill as many Nazis as possible, right? It's just a goal that doesn't seem quite so laudable if you happen to be a member of the audience.

From the images of soldiers dying in the Nazi propaganda film to the graphic scenes of Nazis being scalped, Tarantino holds up a mirror. Are you enjoying this, he asks? Because if so…

You're the basterd.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fall of Cthulhu Vol. 3: The Gray Man

The Grey Man is the third volume in the epic story arc that is Boom Studios' Fall of Cthulhu comic series. I discovered Fall of Cthulhu when I was just launching my Delta Green campaign and was hungry for any fiction dealing with the Cthulhu mythos in a modern context. Fall of Cthulhu is all that and more.

The Gray Man continues the story of the odd knife that caused so much havoc in the earlier parts of the series. Our new protagonist is Raymond Dirk, Arkham's sheriff, who is accustomed to strange goings-on. His life is radically changed once he crosses paths with a Brazilian thief named Luci Jenifer Inacio Das Neves (Lucifer for short). A student of Professor Walter McKinley, Lucifer returns to Arkham only to discover he committed suicide.

McKinley had Lucifer steal a cursed knife from an antique collector in Fortaleza in an attempt to keep it away from Cthulhu cultists. It turns out the knife belonged to a very special person: The Gray Man, patron saint of sacrifice. Lucifer and The Gray Man are in a race to get to the knife first.

Dirk is a likable lead character, a man who keeps his cool no matter how strange things get. Lucifer, on the other hand, looms larger than life: she is a master thief and adept sorcerer, capable of concealing herself from the Gray Man and entering the Dreamlands at will.

Speaking of the Dreamlands, The Harlot is back in this series. Although her dialogue is wry as always, the Dreamlands artwork is not up to the same creepy standards of Andrew Ritchie, who oozes weirdness with every frame he draws.

Throughout the storyline, a little girl in a yellow dress makes random appearances. Her origins are somewhat explained in the final volume of Fall of Cthulhu, but the nature of separate installments means that readers new to the series will invariably be confused. My guess is she's an incarnation of Hastur (and his avatar, the King in Yellow).

Gnruk also makes an appearance, but he is not nearly as horribly realized as his debut earlier in the series. A conflict between The Gray Man and Gnruk looks a bit like the two are waltzing together.

At the conclusion, Mickey Rennier, a Cthulhu cultist with a green Mohawk, provides a bit of a deus ex machine to wrap it all up. Rennier feels oddly out of place in a comic that seems so grounded; punk villains went out of style in the eighties.

Lucifer is clearly a favorite character; her abilities as a thief aren't really demonstrated in this comic – her claim to fame is basically grabbing a knife and jumping out a window while failing to avoid The Gray Man AND Gnruk – but it's clear she's being set up for greater things, specifically the comic series Hexed.

The conclusion has a great twist and ends on a surprisingly poignant and bittersweet note. Unlike some of the other volumes in the Fall of Cthulhu, this story largely stands on its own. Overall, this is an excellent entry in the Lovecraft tradition that manages to bring the horror of the Mythos down to a personal level.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9

While searching for alien encounter videos, I discovered a little clip titled "Alive in Jo'burg" on YouTube by Neill Blomkamp. Fortunately for us, Blomkamp's ill-fated Halo movie was delayed, so he went back to his roots with the film that started it all: District 9.

If you've seen Alive in Jo'burg you know much of what's going on in District 9 (this review contains spoilers!). In essence, a giant alien saucer lands on Earth and its citizens are repatriated in Johannesburg. However, the aliens are ugly, uncivilized squid-like monstrosities and thus integration attempts (when they happen at all) go poorly. The movie begins with a battle with a telekinetic mech and ends with riots in the streets.

District 9 adds meat to the bones of this highly original film. The aliens are no longer blurry actors in masks but crustacean-like beasts in fully-realized CGI. The ship and the conflict in Johannesburg is still a major plot point, but it is explored through Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a bigoted but cheerful company man who just happens to be married to the daughter of the head of Multi-National United (MNU). He documents the task of relocating the "prawns" (a racial slur for the aliens) to a concentration camp through video, with frequent asides asking the producer to remove particularly embarrassing shots in editing.

In this tightly scripted film, every detail is important: the fact that the aliens have powerful weapons technology only they can use; that the Nigerians take advantage of the prawns by selling them prostitution (and all that implies) and cans of cat food in exchange for said weapons; and that the Nigerians believe they can acquire the power of a prawn through cannibalism.

Blomkamp quickly achieves a sense of rising dread through documentary-style clips where various experts expound on "what Wikus did." The special effects used in creating the prawn are a critical part of making them utterly alien. This is counterbalanced by a horrifying scene where Wikus destroys prawn eggs by setting them ablaze, comparing the popping sound of the roasting babies to popcorn. As a new parent, when Wikus threatens a young prawn, I flinched. And just like that, I was now on the side of the aliens.

An important but unlikely plot twist brings Wikus around to the alien side of life. Betrayed by his company and his father-in-law, he has no choice but to work with Christopher Johnson, an alien who knows more than he lets on. Together, they unveil the depth of corruption in both the squalid slums of Johannesburg and the clean corporate offices of MNU. No organization or race walks out of this film unscathed.

Combining elements of Alien Nation and Enemy Mine, District 9 adroitly balances political commentary on apartheid with Peter Jackson-ian levels of violence. The movie ends with more questions than answers and the certainty of a sequel. I can't wait!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dark Wisdom

I was chiefly interested in Gary Myers' collection of Lovecraftian-inspired short stories because they all take place in a modern setting. I'm always looking for ideas for my Delta Green campaign and was curious to see how other authors updated the Cthulhu Mythos.

There are two ways an author can modernize Lovecraftian horror. He can borrow elements from Lovecraft and incorporate them into his own work, thereby changing the setting but not the theme. Alternately, he can maintain the narrative style of Lovecraft and apply it to a modern tale. Most authors choose the first option, because it's easier; Lovecraft's archaic voice is difficult to emulate and even more difficult for modern readers to absorb. His protagonists narrate the horror tale after the fact, diminishing any sense of urgency. And the final twist is always blasted with great fanfare; italics, exclamation points, and all.

Myers vacillates between these two options with varying degrees of success. Unlike Lovecraft, he is fond of ending the tale at the moment the protagonist is about to discover his fate. He does mimic Lovecraft's narrative style in "The Nest," wherein a police officer shares in the first person his encounter with a ghoul. It's actually one of the best of the lot, and shows a glimmer of potential that isn't always recognized in the other stories.

In some cases, Myers is just content to create an eerie sense of weirdness. "The Web," in which two boys mess with a Necronomicon web site, plays out more like a bad eighties horror movie.

"Slugs," in which a thief finds a statue of Cthulhu in a sewer, begins what is something of a problem in Cthulhu-mythos authors: massive information downloads. Look, we're all fans of Lovecraft. But it is not necessary to mention every Mythos deity, explain who Cthulhu is, and otherwise lay out the plot like a Saturday morning cartoon. Part of Lovecraft's genius was being perfectly comfortable not explaining anything, and in these very short stories there's not a lot of room for exposition. A thief who just happens to run into a sewer and just happens to find a Cthulhu statue and just happens to be on the run from the police and just happens to know an antiques fence…the whole thing begins to sound like a Tales from the Darkside episode.

"Mother of Serpents" is an oddity as the tone is completely different from the rest of the stories. It's written in the stilted language of an older, more formal time. The ending isn't particularly scary and entirely predictable.

It's not until we get to "Fast Food" that Myers really knocks it out of the park. An office worker is sickened by the food at Belial's (yes, it's called Belial's, complete with a pitchfork logo on a matchbook), a burger joint. Customers obsess over the burgers, become grotesquely fat from gorging on them, and are then led herd-like into the restaurant at night. Despite the cheesy name of the restaurant, this is a clever take on an old mythos beast…and no, it's not tcho-tchos. The imagery at the end stuck with me long afterwards.

Connecting Deep Ones to the Creature of the Black Lagoon is the plot of the "Understudy," a mediocre entry. "The Big Picture" is much more Lovecraftian, about a man obsessed with stereograms (remember when those were popular?). This is a modern twist on a popular Lovecraftian notion of perception beyond space and time, but it's pretty standard fare. Similarly, "Omega" is more like a Lovecraftian tale, with a narrator who provides the big twist at the end. This is another massive Cthulhu Mythos dump that saps the story of its momentum.

"The Mask" is another great entry, expanding on the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign and the Mi-Go war. That's followed by "What Rough Beast," a hitchhiker tale that is both heartbreaking and terrifying.

"From Inner Egypt," like "Omega," provides too much detail and not enough freaky weirdness. Likewise, "Horror Show" ends without any real denouement.

For reasons known only to the publisher, someone allowed Myers to produce black-and-white artwork for this book. This was a mistake. The cover is perfectly evocative, but the interior art is a lesson in bad Photoshop. Two cloned pictures of a pixilated butcher standing in a hallway, meant to represent two cultists at Belial's, nearly ruins the story. As does the full-page picture on page 97 of…boxes. A story about Yig has a picture of a snake; a story about Tsathoggua has a picture of a toad. This book would have been better off without the art.

For modern Cthulhu fans, Myers has some entries worth reading. But the uneven nature of the tales and the terrible art detract from what could otherwise be a solid collection.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Mothman Prophecies

It took me years to see The Mothman Prophecies. I was in the midst of a switch from VCR tapes to DVD player and The Mothman Prophecies was an unfortunate victim of the transition, a tape with no player for it. I promptly forgot about it, but Netflix didn't.

In a somewhat eerie parallel, I recently started prepping the Dark*Matter adventure "The Killing Jar" for my D20 Modern conspiracy game. The Killing Jar has quite a bit of information about the Mothman and provided a helpful backdrop to The Mothman Prophecies.

What's interesting is that this movie actually makes a lot more sense than the book of the same name by John A. Keel. Keel covers a wide range of paranormal phenomena, from UFOs to Men in Black, from ghosts to the bizarre Mothman. The Mothman itself even has a name, Indrid Cold, and isn't afraid to make phone calls late at night.

And that's what's so unsettling about The Mothman Prophecies. The film flagrantly violates movie tropes by having its apparition not only adopt a name but make dire prophecies at length over the phone.

John Klein (Richard Gere) is the perfect foil for an exploration of the beyond, a haunted man who cannot move on after the death of his wife. Klein has an entire conversation with Cold, testing its knowledge of the present and the future. He even tapes the phone call.

But Cold's paranormal abilities extend well beyond phone calls. It can adopt other peoples' voices, both dead and alive. Ghosts show up in the flesh. It can leave messages for you at the front desk. And you can tape it all you want – vocal analysis will show it's an actual voice. Your voice. Only you didn't make the call.

If you know anything about the original Mothman Prophecies, you know how all this ends. But that's beside the point. The Mothman Prophecies is largely about grief and recovery. But it's also about the burden of the future, knowing that there is an inevitable conclusion to all things that we simply cannot control. Death brings that knowledge into terrible perspective.

Unfortunately, the movie drags. And drags. The eerie sounds are a bit overplayed; in some cases, silence would have been more effective than the relentless sound effects. The aural assault may have been more effective in the theater, but on television it's just annoying.

That doesn't detract from Mothman's overall sense of dread. If you have an interest in paranormal procedurals, watch The Mothman Prophecies. It will leave you Cold. And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dark Entries

I'm a sucker for haunted house stories, if only because they're such a challenge for modern horror writers to pull off. I also love Blair Witch Project-style narratives, supposedly unfiltered media that catalogues horror without artifice and just presents terror in all its messy glory. So the plot behind Constantine's latest jaunt into the unknown, a reality show about a haunted house, piqued my interest.

Like so many Alan Moore characters, John Constantine is arrogant, wily, grungy, hails from the lower class, and the world pretty much hates him. Constantine and his ilk defined a whole generation of trench-coat wearing bastards that provided a much-needed dose of reality to the comic genre. So it's interesting to insert someone like Constantine in what is an undeniably modern format; that of the narcissistic, relentlessly self-promotional Generation Y-world of reality television.

Constantine shifts very quickly from paranormal investigator of a haunted house to reality show contestant, a shift that isn't entirely believable. We're led to believe it's because Constantine is attracted to a woman on the show who reminds him of someone he once knew. Which is all fine and good, but seems entirely out of character for a drifter who brings bad luck to everyone he meets.

And here's the first problem: it's never realistically explained why all the contestants stay there. The house is a virtual fortress, with no windows or doors. All of the contestants are suffering from grisly, realistic hallucinations. And not one of them cracks enough under the pressure to opt out of the game.

Constantine's arrival mucks up this somewhat delicate balance of greed and paranoia. His sole contribution is sleeping with the woman he was attracted to and asking them all to remember their pasts. In a comic all about Constantine, he barely lifts a finger.

About mid-way through, there's a surprised twist involving demons and hell. I figured it out several pages prior and was actually pleased with the direction the book was going in. In the style of the remake of 13 Ghosts, the book's true premise promised a really dark foray into the human condition as the various contestants realize the hopelessness of their situation and…

But alas, that's for a different book. Once the Big Surprise is revealed, Dark Entries begins a downward spiral into parody. Here's a hint: it includes demons wearing headsets, televisions from hell, and an infernal cannibal who still hears the voice of Sawney Bean.

In other words, instead of continuing the dark noir tone of the first half, or the Gen-Y ironic sensibilities of the second half, it chooses a third route: utter ludicrousness. The infernal forces come off as absurd. When the dismembered head of one of the contestants asks if he'll ever play the piano again, it's clear that Dark Entries has given up.

Rankin seems uncomfortable with the graphic novel format, vacillating between Constantine's noir-style narrative sensibilities, the relentless navel-gazing of modern media, and a bad eighties slasher flick. The result is an uneven installment of the Constantine universe.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds

Gary Alan Fine's book, Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, provides an enlightening overview of the state of gaming in the early eighties. Fine, a sociologist, inhabits the gaming cultures he reviews, reporting on Dungeons & Dragons, Chivalry & Sorcery, and Empire of the Petal Throne as a player and game master. He also interviews many of the leading lights of the industry at the time, including M.A.R. Barker, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax.

What's revealed by Fine's studies is that issues many gamers face today have remained largely unchanged over the course of thirty years. "Roll-" vs. "role-" playing figures prominently. Game masters who are unprepared or capricious, players who are petty and competitive, groups that exclude other groups…they're all here in vivid detail. What sets Fine's work apart is that he provides sociological constructs to discuss the gaming hobby, a hobby he treats with respect.

On the other hand, there are several issues that are clearly tied to the nascent gaming culture. Rampant sexism and violence towards women disturbs Fine; things have definitely changed for the better. The other major concern of most of Fine's subjects is the invasion of youngsters to the hobby who are too immature to fully grasp its rules. Nowadays we have the opposite problem – there aren't enough young players attracted to the game.

Throughout, Fine interviews his subjects and quotes their experiences as well as his own. These quotes are illustrative of the little challenges gaming groups regularly encounter, from intergroup rivalry to players having their characters to commit mass suicide as a form of protest against a particularly unfair game master. Any gamer will recognize himself and his players in Fine's work.

Chivalry & Sorcery and Empire of the Petal Throne (Tekumel) are not as well known today, but at the time they were a game designer's response to the flaws in Dungeons & Dragons. In the case of Chivalry & Sorcery, it was a more feudal feel to fantasy. In the case of Tekumel, it was the distinct European emphasis that colored all of Dungeons & Dragons. Barker's direct involvement in the Tekumel game universe as a game master provides an immersive contrast to the typical hack-and-slash dungeon games that were popular at the time.

Fine's work isn't flashy, but it's a critical piece of gaming history and a must-read for gaming scholars everywhere.

Ball Peen Hammer

Ball Peen Hammer was never meant to be a comic. It's clear, from the claustrophobic setting of a basement and a clock tower to the long silences and close-up panels of characters' expressions, that this graphic novel is a parable. The post-apocalyptic world outside is a foil to reinforce the claustrophobia and paranoia of those two little rooms. This review contains spoilers.

Ball Peen Hammer is about three art forms: music, writing, and acting. Welton is a musician, Underjohn is a writer, Exley is an actress. All three are part of a commune of artists who have seen been scattered from the Undertunnels by the Syndicate, an oppressive regime of gas-mask wearing soldiers. Adam Rapp, a novelist and playwright himself, is merciless in his critique of these three pathetic creatures. Welton is a shiftless guitarist, never leaving the basement and playing the same song over and over about a woman he loved – but is too frightened to try to find her or save himself. Underjohn is immune to the plague but returns to Welton's basement to write about his experience, cataloguing the slow death of the bleak world around him. Exley insists on wearing her little black dress and up-do hairstyle even in the middle of a city besieged by acid rain and wild dogs.

Ball Peen Hammer is about love lost. Welton, who fell in love with Exley, is paralyzed by the experience, stuck in a perpetual state of yearning for a moment he can never reclaim. Underjohn was in love with a man who died from the plague, but never expressed his affection for him before he passed. Exley carries Welton's child and in her journey to find him regresses to acting – as a mother, as a teacher – to Horlick, a thirteen-year-old street kid who lives in the clock tower with his older brother, Dennis.

Ball Peen Hammer is about filling holes. There are emotional holes in all of the characters, but there are also physical holes: the Collector, who slides in and out of manhole covers to ring bells, repair lights, and tattoo numbers; Horlick, who reenacts American Pie with a melon; Welton, who can never get his toilet to flush; Underjohn, who fled the underground commune after it was filled with concrete by the Syndicate.

Ball Peen Hammer is about the loss of innocence. There are sacks in the basement. Underjohn discovers later that he's a Sacker, whose job is to use a ball peen hammer to fill those sacks. Welton, a Dragger, is haunted by the ghosts of those he helped drag into the basement. Exley inserts herself into a family that doesn't want her. And Horlick pretends he is much tougher than he lets on.

Ball Peen Hammer is not a glimpse into a larger world, part of a running series, the beginning of a comic book franchise, a happy story, a quick read, or meant to be understood literally. It is Rapp's No Exit, banished to comic form because nobody's going to want to see a play that revolves around killing kids with a hammer.