The Incredible Legends of
(some thoughts on using two of Vincent Price’s classic films as source material for roleplaying games)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes, American International Pictures, 1971
The year is 1925 and someone is murdering surgeons in London. Killing them with deadly bats, enraged rats, ravening locusts… by draining their blood and even by using a deadly frog mask! Nine medical professionals were present when the lovely Victoria Phibes died, and all of them must pay the price! Or at least that’s how Victoria’s husband, the titular Dr. Phibes, would have it. Anton Phibes allegedly died in a car crash racing to get to his doomed wife but the public is unaware that he lives and he will have his revenge. The living, yet horribly scarred, Phibes has set up a Secret Lair in fashionable Maldeen Square. Here he plays his organ (his degrees are in Music and Theology, not medicine), sings, dances, plots revenge and builds clockwork killing machines (as well as a very talentedmechanical orchestra). He’s even found time to obtain a stunningly beautiful (but unspeaking) assistant, Vulnavia. Phibes is all about style, killing those he holds responsible isn’t enough he has to do it with panache and a Grand Scheme. All of his revenge killings will revolve around the ten Egyptian Plagues of the Bible. Almost… nitpickers are bound raise their eyebrows over the Plague of Rats. As an Evil Genius Dr. Phibes is rather successful. By the end of the film he has murdered eight of his nine intended victims (he believes he got them all) and lays down with his dead wife where a final contraption exchanges his blood for embalming fluid.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again, American International Pictures 1972
You can’t keep a good villain down, or a great villain dead. It is now 1928 and the Moon has reached the appropriate position in the sky to trigger the opening the sarcophagus holding Anton and Victoria.It seems that we only learned part of Dr. Phibes’ genius in the first film. Not only is he a mechanical expert but he also possesses previously unmentioned Occult Knowledge. Presumably he learned this secret lore while studying Theology (and it may explain his uncanny ability to hurl a golden unicorn head with perfect accuracy, as seen in The Abominable Dr. Phibes). The doctor must have been a very busy man while he lived. World class organist, engineer and husband he somehow found time to explore Egypt and set up another Secret Lair (or “a wondrous shrine unknown by any living man” as he calls it) where he plans on locating the River of Life. The River floods only once every two thousand years but floating down it grants immortality.Luckily Victoria isn’t completely dead so Anton can still resurrect her, unluckily his house has been demolished while he slept and someone has stolen the papyrus that will guide him from his Secret Lair to the River of Life.The diabolical doctor instantly infers that the only person who would be interested in the map would be occult expert Darius Biederbeck. Biederbeck is more than he seems, through the use of a mysterious (and diminishing) potion he’s been alive for over 100 years. With his restorative elixir almost depleted he, too, is intent on locating the River of Life.Vulnavia also returns (after getting killed by acid in the first film) this time magically invoked by Phibes thus revealing her to be not a pretty girl with bad taste in men but a supernatural entity with questionable taste in conjurors. Phibes and Vulnavia pack up the mechanical orchestra (how else will he be able to sing and dance?) and assorted apparatus and then hop on the same ship bound for Egypt as Biederbeck. Dr. Phibes remains a villian so he has no interest in sharing the map or the River of Life with anyone and soon the body count starts again. He remains wickedly inventive using animals (birds of prey, scorpions) and new mechanical death traps to give his victims a stylish death. Of course the trail of bodies brings back Inspector Trout who trails the deadly doctor all the way to Egypt. Not that he poses any threat. He did nothing to stop Phibes the first time and fails in the desert as well.Yes, again Phibes wins. The movie ends with him rafting down the River of Life with his bride, his enemies thwarted or dead behind him.
Style and tone of the Phibes films:
These two films are pure, glorious camp. Vincent Price steals the show of course by hamming it up and stealing every scene, which is quite an accomplishment when his character can’t open his mouth and must use a cable and phonograph to speak. As befitting the time of their release the movies focus on a Phibes’ wild, almost trippy, aesthetic. How can you not love a villain who sets up an art deco Egyptian tomb as his base of operations or who finds it reasonable fake a windstorm to cover a killing? Despite all of the deaths the adventures of Dr. Phibes are more strange (and amusing) than gruesome.
Setting and Era:
As they are set in the 1920’s the Phibes Films are perfect for any Pulp game. It would take no effort at all to move the action from London to New York, Shanghai or wherever the Characters reside. A good GM could find any number of ways to adjust Phibes’ flair to fit the locale: in Hollywood he may be fascinated by movies or in the Orient he may use the dress and make-up of kabuki. (See below for more thoughts on Anton at the theatre).Dr. Phibes is clearly intended for a Weird Menace game. Even before his occult knowledge is revealed he is making gizmos beyond the technology of the day (or even today, as with his blizzard-in-a-box). It is possible to turn down the dial on Phibes for a more straight historical or gritty action game. The set up is the same (though Victoria will remain well and dead) but Anton’s contraptions will have to be reduced to clever traps. The traps may still be based on the Ten Plagues but perhaps less literal, for the Plague of Boils, Phibes may actually boil the victim rather then give them boils on the skin. Or the locations of the killings may refer to the plagues: a murder located at Locust Mount for example. The pulps owe much of what they are to the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the late 19th century, As such any good GM should be able to take elements from the pulps and retro-fit them to the Victorian Era. With his clockwork deathtraps and his almost operatic style Phibes is practically a Victorian Villain already. All that really has to be done is replace the cars with coaches and, in Phibes’ case, switch in mechanical horses. See notes on the specific characters for ideas on how to make them Victorian
Getting the Characters into the story:
The most obvious way to involve the Characters is to have one or more of them be potential victims of Dr. Phibes. Physicians are frequently found as Victorian Characters so they could simply have been one of the medical experts called in to consult on the doomed Victoria. If none of the Characters are doctors a GM could always resort to the classic MacGuffin of having one of the hero’s loved ones be the person marked for death. Any Characters who are police may be assigned one of the cases and would have to put the whole thing together themselves or a Consulting Detective may quickly deduce the connections between the murders long before the police catch on. Occultists and historians may also see the the mythic theme of the killings, they may try to help but will the authorities listen to them before it’s too late?As always the GM should look at the Characters and the type of game he’s been running. If surgeons don’t fit the bill the GM could always rewrite and decide that Phibes has a vendetta against those who failed to bring his wife’s killers to justice or perhaps his victims were witnesses to Victoria’s death who did nothing to help her.
Some Personages of Note:
In The Abominable Dr. Phibes the police seem to be merely ill-equipted to deal with a criminal of the Dr. Phibes vision and drive. It’s even mentioned that there are seventy men active on the case yet they only find Dr. Phibes’ lair because he tells his last victim where it is! By the second film Inspector Trout and his superior Waverly are clearly only around for comic relief. If the Characters are the police they will obviously be more competent then those presented in the films. This will actually work in the GM’s favor as it allows him to reveal exactly how clever Phibes is and provide more close calls so that the players can actually experience the eccentricities of the antagonist first hand.
Victoria Regina Phibes 1893-1921
We know very little about the late wife of Dr. Phibes other than that she was lovely, that she born in 1893 and that she died in 1921 in a medical emergency that nine doctors and one nurse to not save her from. Based on her name she is sure to be British and she is likely to have been a number of years younger than her husband.Victoria exists solely to drive the stories of the films and explain Dr. Phibes’ obsessions. If she is given new life in the process of the game the GM is free to apply whatever personality fits the game: she may be a kindly woman who doesn’t see Anton’s madness, mean-spirited and controlling (as one of the proposed sequel scripts depicts her) or in a state of zombie-like ambivalence. Her personality will likely have an effect on the actions and temperament of Dr. Phibes (see below).Fitting Victoria into a Victorian Era game posses no problem, mainly because she’s such a blank slate. With the Queen starting her reign in 1837 it’s not even necessary to change her name!
Vulnavia is a bit of a mystery. The first film features her as Dr. Phibes’ attractive assistant, she is quiet and unemotional. Other than following orders her only real talents seem to be dancing, playing the violin and appearing in an endless stream of interesting outfits. She is killed at the end of the film, the accidental victim of one of the Doctor’s Death Traps.She’s back for Dr. Phibes Rises Again, conjured up as a mysterious supernatural being by Phibes. Despite her occult origins she still exhibits no other abilities beyond the constant costume changing. She changes her face and body as well (the original actress is replaced for Vulnavia’s return). In the scripted but unfilmed sequel, The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes, Vulnavia was to be revealed as an incarnation of the goddess Athena (perhaps then she would have been given some real powers).Vulnavia’s real nature will depend on the style of the game an how the GM wants to use her. If the game will be free of the supernatural she could be merely a lovely, but troubled, young woman. Her passing may have a deep affect on Anton (first he losses the love of his life, then his charming assistant) or he may be completely indifferent to her suffering. If he’s uncaring he is likely have replaced her with another stunning acolyte by his next appearance. Each return could see the debut of another beautiful accomplice, an amusing bit that could lead the players wondering where Dr. Phibes finds the endless array of women willing to assist a madman. Then again, she may survive the acid. With a ruined face she could change from being merely Phibes’ assistant to an actual protege, learning his engineering talent and inheriting his thirst for blood. If the doctor dies she may return impersonating him and taking his twisted dreams to new and more disturbing levels. A game with occult elements should take advantage of Vulnavia as a supernatural being. It seems to waste to use her simply as decoration so the GM will have to decide what otherworldly abilities she has. Perhaps she leads Phibes to secret arcane locations like a demonic bloodhound or she could obscure the minds of men so that Anton’s secret abodes are hard to locate… she may even act as a deus ex machina magically teleporting a dying Phibes away, thus ensuring his return in a sequel.Speaking of machines it’s easy to assume that Vulnavia is a machine. It would explain her cold nature, her preference for reticence and the fact the she keeps coming back. In this interpretation she is Dr. Phibes ultimate triumph, a clockwork woman who turns the heads of men (the original script for The Abominable Dr. Phibes has her revealed as such). If the GM goes this route his next influence may be the Bride of Frankenstein: the mechanical Vulnavia is meant as a future receptacle for the revivified brain of Victoria so the monster Phibes may have his true love.Most Victorian Villains didn’t have female sidekicks but Vulnavia is too good to put aside. Perhaps she will seem even more sinister and shocking in that earlier age. In the films her costumes seem a touch out of step with the period. DO NOT do away with this aspect. To be Vulnavia she must be kept her sexy and strange.
Biederbeck may be the best choice to transfer into a Victorian game because he is a Victorian character! As revealed in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Darius is over 100 years old and he’s been keeping himself alive and hearty by means of a mysterious elixir. Of course this vital brew is almost depleted which is why he’s desperate to find the River of Life.A fellow scholar refers to Biederbeck as “one of the great minds of the Western Hemisphere”. He also implies that Darius is viewed as an eccentric who is wasting his talents on his interest in the occult and ancient civilizations. When Dr. Phibes awakens after three years he knows instantly who would have gotten their clutches on his parchment, so Biederbeck must be VERY well know in occult and antiquarian circles. As such it is likely that any Characters with similar interests will have crossed paths with Biederbeck, at the very least they would have heard of him and probably read some of his works. Being well off and well known would make him an excellent Contact or Patron.If the GM is using the second film as a starting point for the game she could have the Characters hired as Beiderbeck’s archeological team. Such a team would have room for a variety of Characters: the antiquarians (of course), another rich financial backer (and their trusty servants), men of action (to protect against hostile natives), mechanics (to keep the trucks rolling), surgeons (it’s a dangerous world) and enigmatic native guides would all be appropriate. Darius may even have a Sinister Henchman or two on hand in case team members need some encouragement following orders. What Beiderbeck wouldn’t allow is any sort of journalist who might publish with out his permission. As depicted Biederbeck is not an evil man. He is secretive, driven and is getting progressively more desperate as his death looms larger. Because of this he ends up short sighted and callous. But in the end he does risk his salvation to save the woman he loves, Diana Trobride. He risks and loses! If he was more likable his death would be the most tragic in either of the movies.If Biederbeck had been a public figure for over one hundred years someone would have caught on. So it’s reasonable to assume that he kept a low profile for most of that time and that he only went public after he exhausted covert means of obtaining more of his life extending solution. It’s even possible that “Biederbeck” is just a character, the public face that allows the real man the chance to connect with other scholars and gain access to their collections and libraries. So where did his elixir of life come from? The GM is welcome to exploit any theory he can think of (just keep in mind that the fluid is running out and can not be recreated). Perhaps the elixir is brewed from a South American plant that is now extinct or maybe it was created by another researcher who met an untimely (and mysterious) death. Since Biederbeck is American let’s go for the most American answer: the Fountain of Youth.
A Theoretical Background for the man known as Darius Biederbeck:
In the late years of the 1700s an American man of means begins to face his middle years. Unhappily, of course. He wishes to stem off the tide of physical corruption and begins research that eventually convinces him that the Fountain of Youth is real. A few years (and several expeditions) later he actually discovers the famed fount (perhaps in the Yucatan peninsula instead of Florida), Unfortunately there’s not much left. The Fountain is not even a stream, its a mere trickle that only succeeds in making the local soil more fruitful. To make matters worse it dries up a bit more every day. The man who will be called Biederbeck collects what he can and works on distilling the solution that will give him life for years to come. But once the Fountain is gone, it’s gone. He’s despondent but he concludes that if one ancient civilization could stumble upon a natural source for immortality, why not another? He abandons his former life (perhaps leaving any wealth he had to his new identity) and begins his private research into ancient civilizations and their legends. The years roll on and he finally concludes two things. First, that he was right, one of the ancient cultures must have held the secrets to eternal youth. Second, that he could do no more by skulking in the shadows so he created “Darius Biederbeck”. Biederbeck eased his way into the world of occult scholars and antiquarians by attending a few lectures and submitting articles to journals. People may have at first been suspicious of the new rising star but no one could doubt the depth of his knowledge or the precision of his insights. In time he found the notability he desired. He also found something he didn’t expect and had never had before: love. His desire to live forever just grew knowing that he had someone to share his eternal life with.
Biederbeck could be used in an either Occult or Wierd Science game. Many Victorian stories blur the line, and if “The Invisible Man” can postulate a scientific way to make a man invisible why couldn’t there be a powerful, but natural, anti-agathic? If the setting has supernatural powers Bieiderbeck will explore them as tenaciously as any other avenue of hope. If the world has a Cabal of magical practitioners he will scheme to join them, intent on learning their secrets.
Dr. Anton Phibes
As with with the other characters from the films we really don’t know that much about the titular subject. By 1904 he was a famed organist (referred to as “one of the greats”), he had studied music and theology in Heidleburg and at the Sorbonne (his is not a medical doctor but does seem to have some medical knowledge), he’s a mechanical genius, he is wealthy, he has an estate in Switzerland and, before the death of his wife in 1921, he had enough time to research and locate a lost Egyptian tomb (where he set up a secret lair complete with modern murals and electricity). He was a tall, good looking man with dark hair (prior to the accident).After the accident Phibes is horribly disfigured, the face that he shows to the public is a clever mask. His ability to speak normally has been destroyed and he’s used his technical skill to design a way to speak by using a cable, a gramophone horn and a mechanism in his throat (the cable plugs into his neck it a bit of cyberpunk prescience). Mentally he’s just as damaged. He is beyond reason and logic. His hatred for those he holds responsible for his wife’s death can only be assuaged by their deaths. Merely killing them isn’t enough, he must mete out justice of Biblical proportions. He is a perfect villain.It’s reasonable to assume that Anton is a number of years older than Victoria. After all, he was a headlining musician when she was just eleven! Women tended to marry younger and marrying a man distinctly older was not considered improper, especially if they were well known and well off. Thus Phibes must have been at least fifteen to twenty years Victoria’s senior.Phibes’ education and refined tastes give us more clues about him. Being both cultured and very well educated implies an upper class upbringing. His fortune must be considerable to bankroll his nefarious schemes and outfit his lavish hideouts. The doctor’s nationality is never stated clearly but he does have an estate in Switzerland and Anton is not a common British name (“Phibes” seems to be a wholly invented surname). Vincent Price was American but in several films it seems assumed that his accent is British, a refined visiting foreigner may adapt British-like inflection especially if he lived in England for a good amount of time.
So working with these clues here is a Proposed History for Dr. Anton Phibes:
Anton Phibes was born in the late 1870s to a wealthy Swiss family. His father’s fortune was founded on a number of manufacturing concerns and the elder Phibes held engineering and mechanical skills in almost reverent respect. Being the family’s only son Anton was instructed in mechanics and science from a young age. His mother spoiled her only son but also expected him to play the perfect gentleman. He clearly had a knack for the mechanical but he soon fell in love with music and nurtured a fascination with the mystical (which started off merely as a way to antagonize his serious minded father). The senior Phibes grudgingly indulged his son, convinced that the young man would eventually marry and settle down to a life of contented wealth. Anton was like his father in that he strived to be the best and he demanded quality in all aspects of his life (his choice of spouse included).
Anton Phibes completed his education on his own terms. and then took up the career that he wanted, that of a concert organist. He toured extensively, the toast of Europe. On one visit to England he met a lovely young woman named Victoria who reminded him a bit of his charished sister. Life was good for Phibes… until the tragedy that took his parents and his sister from him. The family financial ventures were safe in the hands of the business agents, accountants and lawyers so Anton was free to pursue his personal interests but there was no-one to help him handle his emotions. The shadow of death had fallen over Phibes and he would never be the same. He took Victoria for his wife vowing that they would be together always, death not withstanding. When Victoria was taken from him (before his secret plans for immortality came to fruition) it was too much. His mind snapped and his artistic soul warped.
Characters adventuring in the Victorian or Edwardian Eras could easily meet Phibes as presented (or as the GM imagines him), but this would be a waste of villain so good you could base an entire Campaign around him. As mentioned above it’s an easy task to move the action back a few decades. The key is interpreting and adapting Anton’s style. Replace his murals of flappers with Gibson Girls. A lovely collection of men’s hats would be more interesting than his toupe. But keep the capes and overlarge string-ties. The GM may not have a lot of time to research period music but not to worry. The easiest and best answer is to portray Anton as an aficionado of Gilbert & Sullivan. Either Phibes could dress as a differnt character for each appearance or he could stay with a favored costume, say Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner.Whether to make Phibes a talented technician or a master of mysticism (or both) will depend on the nature of the game. If the supernatural plays no part in the setting keep Anton mundane (this shouldn’t be hard, the only magical thing he does in either film is to call up Vulnavia). But if the campaign has an supernatural bent then the Doctor’s occult knowledge will move from the merely informational to the practical and potent. No matter how skilled he is Phibes is never going to kill with out being able to see his victims suffer, keep his spells personal.The GM will also need to decide just how evil the good Doctor is. As presented he was a decent man who snapped, but the game doesn’t have to work like that. In the original script Phibes was much less likable, being prone to beat Vulnavia in fits of pique. A truly evil Anton won’t care how many innocent people die in his quest for revenge. Perhaps the surgeons and the nurse aren’t enough? Perhaps the entire hospital must pay the price! Conversely Phibes could be played as troubled but basically good, it might even be possible to reason with him. (See: The Tragic Tale of Dr. Phibes below.)
Adventure Seeds and Further Thoughts Applying Dr. Phibes:
The Trail of Dr. Phibes
The Trail of Dr. Phibes isn’t one story but a series of them, a Campaign. Of course Anton survives his previous encounters with the Heroes but he soon seeks to complete his earlier plans for revenge and now he’s added the Characters (or their loved ones) to his list! He will find a new motif for his slaughters, perhaps basing them on the Zodiac of the deaths of Saints. The GM should feel free to imitate the globe trotting action old fashioned cliffhangers. Phibes is as crafty as ever, this merry chase around the world serves more than purpose. The GM should be careful to seed the trail with hints for the Characters, hints leading to the discovery of…
Dr. Phibes’ Master Plan
Phibes’ desire for revenge spirals out of control in this story. The original wrong doers are not enough. Their loved ones aren’t enough. The Heroes aren’t enough. The whole world must pay! This would likely be the penultimate encounter with Anton. If he wins, the world dies. This story may work best with the Occult Phibes option. His killings from The Trail of Dr. Phibes were never random and now their true meaning is revealed: they were blood sacrifices that will unleash catastrophes of Biblical scale. Tidal waves roll, volcanoes erupt and earthquakes level cities. If we have the Super Science Phibes go for the biggest gadget of all: the Atomic Bomb. He may have planted a number of them around the globe during the events of The Trail of Dr. Phibes or his genius may be so great that his one big bomb will be enough to set off a chain reaction that destroys the entire Earth.Of course just because the Phibes is dead doesn’t mean the Heroes are in the clear…
The Death Trap of Dr. Phibes
With Phibes finally put to rest the Characters may think their troubles are over. That is until they need to get ahold of a very important McGuffin, It’s last known location? In the hands of Dr. Phibes. Now the Characters must steel their nerves and descend into Phibes’ last lair. It would be naive (and fatal) for them to believe that the mastermind hadn’t prepared fiendish traps for this eventuality. To ensure he still gets screen time Anton just happened to invent (and record) talkies before he died.
Dr. Phibes and the Clockwork Killers
Like many cheesy movies the title of this adventure is misleading, Phibes doesn’t show up at all (as he’s still dead). But his legacy remains. Walking among us are Anton’s greatest automatons. They look like us, act like us… until their Sinister Programing activates. The GM should feel free to plunder ideas from The Terminator films, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Autons from Dr. Who.
A Requiem for Dr. Phibes
What happens when a talented young organist plans to perform the last, lost musical piece written by Anton Phibes? Mind control? Hallucinations? Anti-Harmonic Resonances?Reinventing Dr. Phibes…
Dr. Phibes, the Face of Justice
Assuming that Phibes succeeds in his vengeance but fails to bring Victoria back from the dead he might not go quietly into the night. He may view himself as heaven’s avenging sword: taking the lives of those he sees as corrupt or guilty of secret crimes. He is still mad, of course, so it won’t take long for him to start targeting innocents and meting out justice that is not in proportion to the crimes committed. If he is accomplishing his killings by creating new masks to disguise himself the GM might want to check out the movie Darkman. But what if he’s not completely crazy? What if he is right…
The Tragic Tale of Dr. Phibes
In this game Dr. Phibes may not be innocent, but he is justified. Perhaps Victoria did die because of indifference or negligence. Perhaps she’s not the first to die at the hands of these attending medical “professionals”. Anton’s vengeance would then be in the name of many victims. Of course this might not be an accident or negligence. Victoria may be doomed because she witnessed something she was not meant to see and her operation has been used as a convenient way to silence her. If the GM wishes a more gruesome game the surgeons could be intentionally killing patients. Pretty female patients… In this instance Phibes may be the least of the Characters’ worries.
The Many Masks of Dr. Phibes
Taking the Darkman idea from Dr. Phibes, the Face of Justice from almost-hero to utter villain we turn Dr. Phibes’ theatricality on its head. As a master of disguise Phibes could be anyone the Characters see (provided they don’t talk). Walking down a crowded street may become a blood-chilling experience as very stranger becomes a possible threat. Investigating Spider-Man’s nemesis, The Chameleon, might give the GM some insight into the mindset of this Phibes.Dr. Phibes at the Opera
If you mention a disfigured organ player most people will quickly refer to The Phantom of the Opera. So why not exploit that? Dr. Phibes remains as tragic and disturbed as before but now he’s focused on some unsuspecting diva. He will stop at nothing to obtain her and will gleefully kill anyone who he imagines has wronged her or who obstructs her path to fame. Dr. Phibes remains a mechanical expert so his killing machines will be far more clever than those of Erik (The Phantom). A GM using this option would do well do watch another Vincent Price film: Theatre of Blood. Theatre of Blood is the closest thing to a Dr. Phibes sequel you could want. A presumed dead actor returns to kill his critics basing his murders on the plays of William Shakespeare, Yes, his secret lair is an abandoned theatre and he wears an appropriate costume for each death scene. (Just a note: a stage production of Theatre of Blood ran in 2005 starring Jim Broadbent who also played Gilbert to Allan Corduner’s Sullivan in the movie Topsy Turvy.)
Dr. Phibes at the End of Time
In this concluding installment of the saga Dr. Phibes returns one last time. On a previous adventure Anton has obtained immortality, giving him all the time he needs to build one last gizmo: a time machine. Years after he was last seen he returns with a new face and a futuristic fashion. He has returned claiming to be seeking the help of the Heroes. That only they can assist him in saving the Earth form its ultimate threat! Will the Characters trust him? Should they? There are any number of evocative (if not great) movies, comics and books featuring the complexities of time travel. The GM should feel free to lift from them as befits her game and group.