Guardians of the Galaxy remains on my mind, perhaps because I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write.
I mentioned in my second-but-last column that the movie is basically the greatest-hits summary of a short tabletop RPG campaign. In the comments and on Facebook, Anise Strong-Morse mentioned that the parallel extends to character creation in a merits/flaws system like the old Storyteller ruleset, or any number of house rules for D&D or WEG. She imagines the process going something like this:
“So, Anna, about your character…”
“You said we could play any weird alien we could think up.”
“I did say that, but you have to admit this is a little nuts. Super-stretchy limbs, the ability to regenerate from total bodily destruction, fireflies, you can bring people back to life by poking them with a sharp stick—”
“Not just any sharp stick, it has to be my finger.”
“And then there’s the damage shield orb thing.”
“It makes total sense for plants to be able to do this stuff! Plants can regrow from cuttings. And they can grow, which covers everything else.”
“…. Conceptually, fine. But you’re way over point buy budget.”
“Did you read the flaws section?”
“There’s a third page?” Beat. “You can’t talk.”
“No, see, he can talk, but he can only say the one thing.”
“I am Groot.”
“Anything sounds silly when you say it in that tone of voice.”
“You want to spend the entire game introducing yourself to people?”
“Look at it the other way: if I can only say one thing, it might as well be an introduction.”
“If I let you do this, that’s all your character can say. For the entire campaign.”
“I might buy some of the disad later with XP. But basically, yeah.”
(I’m not super-current on my RPG design, but seems to me like we’re seeing merit/flaw systems less than we once did. FATE, for example, prefers to handle merits/flaws by combining them through Aspets, which is a brilliant idea I think. A properly-handled flaw was always an advantage from a story perspective, since it lets players pull the story in their direction. So if I’m Despised, I have a built-in subplot and more points to spend on Wikked Sweet Samurai Swords? Where do I sign?)
Thinking about GotG as an RPG campaign dovetails a bit further with my recent about campaign design and worldbuilding. See, fed up with not roleplaying enough in recent years (too many of my old gaming buddies at least moonlight as adults these days!), I inspired a small group of GMs I know to start open campaigns for our extended circle of friends. Pitches included a King Arthur game, a Spycraft game (or a Mutants & Masterminds game cleverly disguised as a Spycraft game), a Baldur’s Gate game, and my very strange postapocalyptic space opera Warring States period concept, in which the PCs are all space Mohists. The other games are up and jogging now, which is great because I get to play in all of them! My Space Mohist setting, though, still crouches by the starting blocks, sorting out its shoelaces. That’s for the most part ‘coz I spend my worldbuilding points on books (and interactive fiction!) these days, but there’s an extra difficulty: prospective players don’t know the world enough to riff.
RPG settings, I’m realizing, work like melodies do in jazz—which is to say, they are common foundations players spin in service of their own goals. Sometimes you’ll play the melody as it lies on the page, but that’s a beginner level; when you’re Andy Statman you can perform a version of the theme from Rawhide so tight and discursive and transformed that non-jazz persons might catch at most a snatch of the melody. I can build an Arthurian knight in my sleep; character creation for the Arthur game was me spinning Mallorific (that’s the adjectival form of Mallory, right?) quest stories on a walk to the gym. Alternatively, if I’m playing in Baldur’s Gate I can make a dwarven barbarian librarian, because I know what’s possible in the Forgotten Realms, and what’s impossible—and as a result what’s funny there.
Proposition: the ideal RPG setting is a place players already know, or almost know, which doesn’t have a closed story. By which I mean, while I know in the abstract that some people do set RPGs in Middle Earth proper, I’ve never encountered a Middle Earth game, and I don’t know anyone who’s run one, in part because—where would you fit more story in the world and age of the Fellowship? Tolkien does a good job of telling the Middle Earth story in Lord of the Rings. Babylon 5 has a broader universe, but still by the end of that show’s run I feel like we’ve seen the story that universe wanted to tell. Star Wars, by contrast, makes a great RPG setting because everyone knows it and it’s huge. Even if we ignore the EU and all but the first three movies, we have a galaxy-spanning civil war, a criminal underworld, and several thousand years of implied history. Plus, laser swords.
Or, in the almost-but-not-quite category, The Forgotten Realms is close enough to Middle Earth that you can onboard a new player by saying “fantasy with elves dwarves and hobbits,” but it’s distinct in important particulars—including the lack of a closed central plot arc or a single force of monolithic ontological evil.
My proposition: as a GM you want worlds your players already know, with a twist or two to keep things interesting. “Old West with zombies and magic.” “Pulp action, Maxwell Grant-style.” “Tentacles.” “Mission Impossible.” This is important because players’ sense of possibility space informs their evaluation of options, risks, and opportunities. This is why systems are important. It’s more important for players in a D&D game to know that magic is routine and cheaply accessible to PCs than it is for them to know that Ulfgar Rubberduck leads the Flaming Ankle of Baldur’s Gate. (Or whatever.) If you’re playing a Mission: Impossible inspired game, and you want it to surprise your players by having your villain turn out to be superpowered, it helps to have a setup where superpowers aren’t part of the possibility space.
Want to know the single most terrifying experience I’ve ever had as a gamer? “Max, we’re playing a Vampire game. Character creation is simple: just make a human using the standard rules.” Want your players to feel the horror of the World of Darkness? Want them to spend every session jumping at shadows, terrified of a goodnight kiss or a passing chat? This is how you make that happen. I’d played Vampire before; I knew the rules, I knew what was out there. My character didn’t. Poor bastard.
I think this sheds some light on the common, but to my mind weird, injunction in the fantasy community against submitting work that “feels too much like a D&D game.” That advice confused me for a long while; what is “feeling too much like a D&D game”? I mean, obviously you don’t want wizards running around talking about how they’re out of spell slots for the day (unless you’re Jack Vance), but what else could this mean? Maybe that new authors should avoid fellowship stories? That would seem an odd injunction considering how core these stories are to geek culture. But if the caution is really “don’t write me a story that gives me only the familiar; don’t be the jazz player who walks on stage, plays a standard, and does nothing with it,” then that makes total sense to me. Fantasy readers read a lot of books, so we tend to be more like the jazz connoisseur who appreciates transpositions and subtle variations and off-the-wall half-sensible references—but in games, where it’s important to have every player on the same page, we tend to stay closer to the melody.
(Not that there aren’t wonderfully inventive RPG settings! But the best of those can have their core concepts explained in less than a sentence to the right player group. Sigil is the city at the center of the D&D multiverse. RIFTS is postapocalyptic Earth with mutants, magic, and giant robots. Spelljammer is Orcs in SPAAAAAAACE. In Timewatch, you’re the time police and you police time. When the core concept’s twistier than that, you need a very particular player group, willing to follow you into a sourcebook or three.)
Which may be why Guardians of the Galaxy seems so much like a gamer movie, compared to, say, a syringe-full of pure dystopian SF like Snowpiercer. Snowpiercer’s about worldbuilding: we the audience polish this sooty mirror of a dystopian world until we see how it reflects our own; neither main characters nor audience understand their environment at first, and even by the end many mysteries are left pregnant in the text (Bong Joon-ho gives us enough information to deduce Tilda Swinton’s character’s backstory, for example, but IIRC never underlines it, even with a flashback). By contrast, Guardians, like a good RPG, expects us to know what it’s doing, even relies on our knowledge. One review—I think it was Annalee Newitz’s on io9—mentioned how much mileage the film gets by using our familiarity with space opera as a foundation atop which Gunn and team build, using a combination of 70s music, Footloose references, and general doofus earthlingness. Sound familiar? You and your fellow players have been here before. You know what’s possible, roughly, and what’s not. The GM will throw some particular worldbuilding your way (a mining station inside an enormous space skull! Singularity gems! Nova corps!), but your job as a team is to take this thing people know, and have as much fun with it as you can manage.