Movies as RPG's:
So you wanna play a movie.
We have talked about reference material in roleplaying games. One of the sources often quoted is the humble moving picture. How would you go about taking your favorite movie and turning it into a roleplaying game session? First you need some rules.
Pick a Genre or Pick a Movie.
Your first thought may be to go straight for a movie. We have quoted the example of store-kid Alex using "The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo" as a background for his first time as being a game runner. Choosing a specific movie has its advantages. You know the characters, setting, props, NPC's and plot. You could almost do something like this from the top of your head and you would not be the first to do so.
I have one caveat though. Unless you have a top secret source of movies that no one else has access to then you are setting yourself up for some heartache for both you and your players. Odds are they have seen the movie too. If you like a lot of control during your game running they might not like the fact that running a specific movie is a lot like a historical re-enactment of a famous battle. It has the same sides, the same generals and the same guys win every time.
Unless of course you are a Mexican historical re-enactor of the battle for their independence from Emperor Maximillian. The re-enactors are nice and let France win every other year just to be fair and because Mexico gets to win the re-enactment next year.
The easiest way to avoid this is to pick a genre rather than a specific movie. Genre is a word for English majors that means "type" as in type of movie. You get more flexibility running a film noir setting and plot than you would for say running the movie 'D.O.A.' specifically for example. As a matter of fact film noir would be greatly served by writing your plot using the "Columbo Method" outlined in episode 003 and its supplemental podcast. Figure out who done it and work backwards from there as to when and how they done it leaving a trail of bread crumbs back to the pick up of the story.
The benefit of picking a genre over picking a specific movie is that you get to share elements but the plot is more difficult to derail. Imagine 'Buffy the Vampireslayer' (the movie) but the plot gets derailed because Buffy gets mono and has to stay in bed for two weeks. Plot derailed. Movie spoiled. Imagine a teenage monster hunter game where it shares elements of a movie and the lead gets mono. Perhaps the lead and the rest of the group spend the evening trying to give vampires, mummys and demons a highly contagious and debilitating disease by smooching with them. That is story, its own story, and cannot be derailed.
I have only known one game runner who has walked the delicate line between both running a game as a specific movie and a movie genre. My best buddy Mike, Aku Maiku or Evil Mike, ran a Star Wars game based on the first Star Wars movie. We weren't the main characters but hired by a mysterious source to trail the original movie characters and to smooth things out for them as they went through the plot.
The premise was that the main characters were incompetent and our party was formed to help them pull off the mighty things that they were not able to do on their own. It had the premise of both the movie and a genre game and was ran perfectly. We tuned up the Falcon to be able to jump so close to atmosphere. We thinned the herd of the stormtroopers to allow the good guys to get aboard for each narrow escape. We turned off the tractor beam on the Death Star while disguised as stormtroopers. We ran interference so that wookies and 5'4" stormtroopers had the run of the station. It was marvelous in both concept and execution.
Should you pick a movie know that it can and will get derailed unless you have a docile player group or are a huge prick. In either case not so sure I would want to hang with your group. As a genre game you are 'like water' ("Master how may I win every battle?" "Be like water.") as far as plot goes and derailing is impossible. That is not to say that a genre game can't have plot elements or characters that are established elsewhere because that is a pretty good idea. The reason is because anything that can happen in that genre can happen but if you go for a specific chain of events with specific characters your players are bound to tear your play house down and you need to be ready for that.
Know the genre or movie.
If you have never waltzed don't learn by signing up for a dance contest. Pick your movie or genre from something that you and your group know about. Quick example: my friends and I used to have an after hours Feng Shui game at the shop. Often I would bring a Chow Yun Fat movie to watch first. I gave everyone XP for their characters for watching the movie and then we would start the game session. Have your expectations for the game and share them with your players.
If you are running a game based on a specific movie there are two ways to go about it. Be sneaky like Alex's D&D version of Scooby Doo or be up front and tell the group like Aku Maiku did. Be warned that if sneaky don't expect things to run smoothly. It is hard to be on 'the same page' with your crew if you are the only one who knows what page you are on. Letting your group know that your game is an homage is not a deal killer. It can be a deal enhancer. They know what to do and when to do it if they have a common frame of reference with your idea to run a game based on a specific movie.
If you run a specific game or a genre game and your players know where you are coming from they will know a lot more than you would think about the tone of the game. They will know what they can, can't, should and shouldn't do during the game.
Running a film noir game and pulling out their +10 wizard staff of AWESOME!!? Not unless it is a Dresden Files and that game is an exception because it is noir in a magic world.
Make your characters one dimensional.
Show me a movie about pure character development and I will show you a movie with little action. Show me a movie about pure action and I will show you one with little character development. Not saying that action is the only way to go in a movie based game. Play your game based on "Waiting for Gadot" for all that I care. BUT if your game is meant to be a single session then use the Rule of 5. Unless the body count is at least 5 in the first 5 minutes of the game something is awry.
If you are going for an indefinite number of game sessions character development is not the big thing. Remember that most movies are in the 80 to 90 minute long range and they are mainly about one specific thing about characters and it is not development. It is redemtion. Unless you are European and then it is about everyone dying and then 15+ minutes of silent gloomy visual reflection at the end.
What is redemption? Someone, despite their intentions, screwed up either before the movie started or during the course of that movie. Their job by the end of the movie, alive or otherwise, is to redeem that act. Are they a hero? Their job is to redeem themselves or society or to fix what the bad-guy did. Are they an anti-hero? They screwed up big and must fix things even with the cost of their morals, dignity and/or life. Are they the villain or even a cold-hearted killer? They have to make good prior to rolling the credits. They have to fix what they screwed up. Likeable cold-hearted killers were Chow Yun Fat's bread and butter part for years.
When coming up with characters for your game try to limit the 'but she also's' and 'but he also's'. Unless it is Buckaroo Banzai they 'don't also' and that movie is a one picture genre in itself.
Location location location.
You owe it to yourself to do one of two things about locations in your game. The first is to make it so generic and stereotypical that there is no need for research. The second, which is exclusive of the former, is to do some research on location.
In one of my past gaming groups we had a generic location. We used it a lot. We described it like this "you guys and the bad guys are in a high school gymnasium and there is a big box of guns in the center of the basketball court ... GO!!". It wasn't a real gym though conceptually it got the job done. It was Istanbul in 1955. It was the desert of Tattooine. It was Al Amarja. It was the secret robot Nazi moon base. It was like being a kid with a cardboard box who made it into anything and everything. Gaming is quite simple and fun with terra generica but the key to this generic place was that it was a space built for action.
Places of action aren't the best for suspense. They aren't the best for quiet and unnerving tension. They aren't the best for travelogues or globetrotting adventurers. This is the place for location specific research. Let's take the example of a car chase.
In Venice, Italy, a car chase is a boat chase:
Since this clip is from a James Bond movie the boat chase turns into a boat vs hovercraft chase that confounds the pursuit.
What if that car chase is in the Philippines?
The Philippines uses a type of 'jitney' cab service for public transportation. The vehicles were first made by modifying US Army surplus Jeeps so the word for them became "Jeepney". This is something unique to the location and a potentially cool idea that you would never get from terra generica.
No Good Prop Goes Unused.
The "No Good Prop Goes Unused" rule is something that I came up with from watching movies. Movies are very expensive to make. A lot of stuff gets cut out during editing. Why did the hero look under the bed in the apartment in act 2 and notice the house was wired to explode and then do nothing about it?
That house is going to go *BOOM* in act 3 because no good prop goes unused.
In this type of game props are objects that are meant to be used later. As sure as I once sung in a barber shop quartet in Skokie Illinois they can be subtle if needed. (If that was too subtle for you I have a movie you need to see.) Often, like aforementioned bomb, they are not subtle.
Usually this prop is not directly tied to a character but is there to do some specific thing like blow up a house once the bad guys have been lured inside by a phone call or something.
Props tied closely to a character don't follow this rule. Thor without his hammer is just some dude who needs a haircut and a job. That prop is part of his character.
Inanimate objects that have lines and action and are persistent aren't props at all. They are characters like Robby the Robot in 'Forbidden Planet'.
Much like the movies if the prop is going to be there expect it to be used.
Pardon my MacGuffin.
A MacGuffin is a very specific type of prop. It could be a known thing like the 'secret formula' from 1940's and 1950's spy movies or it could be arcane and nebulous like the contents of Mr. Wallace's briefcase in 'Pulp Fiction'.
The definition of a MacGuffin is "what everyone is after". In this case the prop moves the story along, or that part of the story where it is used like in Brad's apartment in 'Pulp Fiction'.
Simple but powerful plots can come from finding the MacGuffin, keeping the MacGuffin, losing the MacGuffin, or taking the MacGuffin away from people who shouldn't have one.
Several movies are MacGuffin movies. All of the action and plot are based secifically around the possession and disposition of the MacGuffin. You may recall some favorites like Spielberg's 'Raiders of the Lost MacGuffin' and the three movie 'Lord of the MacGuffins' franchise that made Peter Jackson famous.
2nd Guy on Bus or Your NPC's.
The Feng Shui roleplaying game is a game that asks the question "what if you were in a Hong Kong action movie?". To this end there are three types of characters. Player characters, named characters and un-named characters.
Player characters and named character follow the same rules for combat and conflict resolution. Un-named characters are the bit players who have no great roles or great lines but are pretty much there for the hero to shoot up. Jim and I use the term "mooks" a lot. That is Feng Shui shorthand for un-named characters.
The un-named characters don't upstage the players or the named characters. They don't get the cool lines or the cool stuff to do. They are at most a distraction or an obstacle to the players and named characters who the 'movie' or the game is all about.
Also in the game, and as I think befits most other games, they have just a few stats and perhaps a few generic weapon props and maybe a jazzy costume description but it ends there. If there are ones who distinguish themselves make them a named character and give them a more important role.
A personal example of this is the Captain in my write up of The Lair of the Goblin King. When we first encountered him he was a simple combat opponent. He could have been a bear or a goat or a walrus and it would have made no difference. When the game turned to political intrigue he came forth as a player in local politics. He became a possible candidate for village constable. He had a more defined role to do if he didn't get the job as well. Then he became Captain Stanley because who he was mattered.
In more classical games make your un-named characters something pulled straight out of the game's critter book. If they have a more important role work on defining their role in the game and their relationships with other characters and groups and give them a name.
No hero or bad guy in a movie was ever 2nd Guy on Bus.
MDQ and Classical Plot Structure.
Sophomore English time.
Classical plot structure goes like this. We have rising action, the climax and then resolution.
During the rising action we introduce characters, settings, show you props that won't go unused and pose dramatic questions. Dramatic questions? What are they? Will Mulder and Scully ever smootch? Will Cary Grant fall off of Mount Rushmore? Is James Mason's character as gay as Martin Landau's character thinks he is? The answer to that was different if you asked Mason or Landau after the release of 'North By North-West. These are examples of dramatic questions.
Not all dramatic questions will be answered. One that must be answered is the MDQ or major dramatic question. This question is so important that the climax of the story is just about answering this dramatic question.
Think of your game's climax. With no major dramatic question it may have a peak in action but it will not have a proper climax.
In a simple MacGuffin plot the MDQ might be 'will the good guys get the Maltese MacGuffin from the bad guys?' The action in the story's climax answers that question.
After the climax it is all down hill and we go into resolution. Will they get to keep the MacGuffin? Will they put it in a home with people who will be kind parents? Will it fall off the face of Mount Rushmore? The plot resolution is a chance for you and the players to tuck away all of the lose ends from the rising action and the climax and to put a nice and gentle end to your story/game session.
Make yourself aware of both the MDQ and classical plot stucture. Following it can make your games more clear and each session better. If you are going to run games walk into each one armed with your MDQ at the very least.
If you can't recall the elements of MDQ and CPS remember that like a lot of other things it is a euphemism for sex. Rising action, climax, and then the descending action or resolution.
The Hitchcock Maneuver.
Alfred Hitchcock, who invented the term MacGuffin, didn't always follow classical plot structure. He cheated much like a good game runner will do. The Hitchcock Maneuver was simple but groundbreaking for movies. He stopped just after the climax. This gave him more of his 90 minutes to spend on strong character development, rising action and dramatic questions. Feel free to steal the Hitchcock Maneuver. Many do and that is why it is a maneuver.
Don't get "butt-hurt" if it gets derailed by your players.
Movies are very tightly controlled in budget, plot, location, casting and effects. Roleplaying games even under the most draconian game runner typically are not this tightly controlled. If your game gets derailed because you can't get them to do what you want then, man, don't have a cow.
Beating the Hitchcock drum again. He was a production designer before he was a director. He worked the movie out in his mind before he ever shot a frame. He had the lines, delivery, set design and blocking down before the first day's shooting. When someone wanted to improvise he did have a cow. Literally. He is also famous for his quote "Actors are cattle." His actors were not allowed to improvise. "That's the writer's job."
Give your player their options. They are not automatons and even if you are trying to base your game session on a specific movie marching lockstep through the plot with no chance to be creative or an individual is for the movies and not for roleplaying games.