Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: Nobody Does It Better

A professor once suggested — as many have — that every tale has basically already been told.  There are only a few basic stories, and stories are made different through embellishments.  She continued, saying that the conceit of the writer is to think one can do it better.

Now, obviously, roleplaying is a little different: you may not think you'll run Tomb of Horrors better than Gary Gygax, but on the other hand, he's not going to reanimate simply to come over to your house and run.  Somebody has to run it.

Similarly, you might rewrite a module or write one of your own less out of personal conceit* ("this module sucks") and more out of necessity ("this module doesn't fit my campaign").

Even so, sometimes GMs (or players, for that matter) recycle elements or plots.  Sure, Drizzt is cool, but what if I play him?  Sure, xenomorphs are cool, but what if one is lurking under the ruins of Castle Greyhawk?  What if I include Colonel Ives in my Deadlands game?  A little of the writer's conceit shows through: maybe that thing was cool, but it'll be cooler in my game.  Obviously, it's very easy to do poorly, but done well, it can bring something to the table, even if it's just a dose of humor.

There's nothing inherently wrong with grabbing items like this; only when it's poorly-done or overly obvious is it a problem.  With that in mind, there are a few things that weren't considered particularly stellar, either across the board or by certain individuals.  Can you use them in your game?  Let's see.  We'll start with...

Battlefield Earth: Based on L. Ron Hubbard's novel of the same name (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), humanity is enslaved by decadent, whimsically-evil aliens.  They're so decadent and whimsically evil that they hardly notice while humanity plans a revolt and manages to completely annihilate them (spoiler alert: the humans blow up the Psychlo homeworld).  As one would expect, it is incredibly anvilicious, but on the other hand, what game doesn't occasionally benefit from explosions and decadent, whimsically evil villains?  Possibly a good resource for Paranoia (after a fashion, anyway), or any post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, particularly if everyone is drinking and you want to do post-apocalyptic Independence Day with your gaming group.

Doomsday: Like a lot of films on this (admittedly preliminary) list, this is a pretty strong roleplaying premise.  A viral outbreak leads British agents into post-apocalyptic Scotland.  Glasgow is currently torn by strife — post-apocalyptic cyber-punk Scotland is at war with post-apocalyptic medieval Scotland.  A variant of the Technocracy's Z488-C Video Data Retrieval System (actually more like the Video Eyes and Spy Eyes of Strike Force Zero from Demon Hunter X) makes an appearance.  Good for establishing the atmosphere of games like Gamma World or a Fallout-themed game.  Given some of the technology and access, this might also be an interesting premise for near-future espionage games, or games involving agents of the Technocratic Union.

Freejack: Free...what?  If you've never heard of it, there might be a reason.  You'd think a movie with Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger, Rene Russo, and Sir Anthony Hopkins would have more going for it, but these things happen.  Maybe the time travel angle is a bit weird, but organ thieves and bodysnatchers are fairly classic plot hooks.  I had the idea of a group of inter-dimensional smugglers who run guns and modern weapons to fantasy settings where those objects are basically considered magic items (you might get a couple hundred for a gun on the street, but you could get several thousand gold for one in a low-tech setting); maybe there's an inter-dimensional group of organ thieves who do much the same way.  Or, for a time travel angle, maybe they run out of healthy donors in the future, and a modern group of investigators is trying to determine what's up with the odd disappearances and removed organs (maybe the Greys are these future humans, and they're so inbred that they need fresh human organs, which is why they do all the weird surgeries).

Legion: God loses faith in humanity, and so sends His angels to destroy them.  This is survival horror in a little diner with the baby as a MacGuffin: it is prophesied to be the next messiah, so the angels want to destroy it utterly.  The escort mission with the prophesied child is a pretty classic fantasy trope (for a roleplaying example, it gets used in Rage Across the Heavens).  Survival horror is a similar classic, and as any zombie movie will show you, the threat is actually an excuse to lock several different people in a room and see how they react (in other words: this is a great excuse to let the characters interact and go for each others' throats).  Finally, I once heard that the original plot was supposed to be that newborns were disappearing, and a group of people start investigating.  It turns out that angels are taking newborns, because humanity will go extinct if there is no next generation.  That premise might serve better, particularly since it suggests a longer story arc than survival horror (though escaping the diner and then fighting angels for the rest of your natural life could be a pretty exciting campaign).

Starship Troopers: Based upon the book of the same name, Robert Heinlein was one of the original codifiers of the concept of the "space marine."  Whether you want your space marines vs. aliens story to have as much political subtext as the book or the film, you can always just look to Space Marines vs. Tyranids and leave it at that.

Twilight: Admittedly, I've never read any book in the series (I think I skimmed a chapter at one point), and I've only seen the first movie while under the influence of RiffTrax (though I still maintain it's funnier on its own than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).  That having been said, everything I've heard about the book suggests a lot of interesting and/or creepy stuff, poorly executed.  Sure, Edward is a creepy stalker, but it should be creepier.  Look at Dracula: the Count ruins the lives of whomever he touches; Lucy dies and Mina is probably looking at psychotherapy, if she wants to live a normal life (as is everyone else in the book, for that matter).  As an example of something that stuck with me, I always thought Bella's father would be a good Hunter: the Vigil character.  A police officer whose daughter falls in love with vampires, that shouldn't go well.  That girl would go missing (or her strange actions would prompt investigation by a concerned parent), leaving a confused and worried father to determine what happened.  Likewise, by all accounts, the creepy baby-thing chewing its way out of its mother's uterus at the end of the series should be a study in body horror.  The argument that Twilight vampires aren't even actual vampires could also be examined: they sound almost like Seelie faeries, except a little less capricious.  Plus it throws off players if creatures don't act the way they "should" ("These vampires can withstand the sunlight?  Uh oh...").

You could continue this examination forever, of course.  The biggest recommendation is to avoid emulating books, movies, news stories, and the like, but to use individual elements from those sources.  Carefully.

*Note: Personal conceit isn't necessarily bad: that module very well may suck.

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