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Thinking RPGs: The Blade Runner Challenge (Part One)

February 12, 2012

Blade RunnerI’ve been thinking recently about the experiences characters go through in movies and novels, and how they differ from those of roleplaying game characters. Sure, fictional characters come up against obstacles, experiences they have to “get through” in order to move on, but it’s rare that these obstacles present themselves as so many physical opponents which line up like a coconut shy to be knocked over one at a time. As often as not, obstacles for fictional characters represent something they have to overcome inside themselves – that’s what makes them difficult, not the objective degree of “difficulty” they might pose in themselves.

When Raskolnikov callously murders the old woman pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment, he doesn’t make a to hit roll with his axe against her imaginary (and non-existent) dodge skill, endurance, or armour class; he is wrestling with a compulsion, an obsession within himself “that he has to know”. Is his murder a victory over that obsession, or a defeat at its hands? Well, that’s what the novel’s about… When Luke fights Darth Vader and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, it’s hardly about his skill at all – he’s completely outclassed, doomed to fail. Instead, it’s about his relationship with his father – whether he can reach out and touch a perhaps still glowing ember of humanity in Vader’s carbonised soul. And, perhaps most importantly for this discussion, when Deckard “fights” Batty at the climax of Blade Runner, it’s nothing to do with combat prowess – but rather a process of gradual satori for both sides, as they confront their love of life, vitality, will to survive, and it overcomes the resentment and spite engendered by their thwarted lives; a self-sacrifice at the altar of life.

How on earth do we represent those themes in roleplaying games? Most RPGs busy themselves almost exclusively with the externalities of a character – a mechanistic fixation on his equipment, skills, quantifiable and measurable strength, IQ, etc. In other words, pretty much everything which great fiction deals with is handled by none of what roleplaying games do. It’s all left in a vague, consensual. improvisational zone – as people say, “that’s the roleplaying bit”.

But, of course, the flipside is, if you have a game which doesn’t deal with the physical activities handled by most RPG rules – ie, all of the examples above – then you don’t actually have a game at all. Imagine trying to run the Deckard-Batty building / rooftop scene in most RPGs. Could you do it? Roll 1d100 to keep clinging to the outside of the building? Make an Willpower roll to jam a six inch nail through your fist? It wouldn’t make sense.

So, that’s my starting point. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to brainstorm just what a RPG would look like that could successfully and satisfyingly model that Blade Runner climax, in a way that was exciting, fulfilling, and also a damn good crunchy game. Identifying this goal is what this post has been about – what do you think? Can you think of any classic, iconic scenes in movies, novels, or comic books, which you would *love* to be able to game through in a roleplaying game, but which RPGs in their current incarnation just won’t let you play?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Timothy permalink
    February 13, 2012 8:12 am

    So, this needs a system a bit like Pendragon then, but with multiple rounds?

    • February 15, 2012 1:33 pm

      Hi Tim,
      Kind of – although I think Pendragon might be a little too restrictive in its definition of Traits and Passions, and like you say it’s still very much subordinate to the broader, more versatile physical combat system. But I certainly think it’s in the right direction – that and the Traits / Passions in BRP as a whole.

  2. February 13, 2012 2:30 am

    Have you read Smallville yet, Sarah? If not, let me share a copy with you sometime. 🙂


    • February 15, 2012 1:31 pm

      Hi Cam!
      Actually, I’ve not had a look at Smallville yet, and would love to. I’ve been keeping an eye on it, and heard some great things about its “relationship resolution system”. 🙂

  3. February 12, 2012 1:17 pm

    I’ve played Robin Laws’ Hillfolk so I’m very interested to see what alternative you’ll come up with.

    • February 15, 2012 1:32 pm

      Hi Steve – been hearing some interesting whispers about Hillfolk and the Drama System, though I don’t have a clear idea yet what it involves. Do you think it might be a candidate for the “Blade Runner Challenge”?

  4. February 12, 2012 11:51 am

    Interesting exercise for sure. Had a discussion about this last night, oddly, with a chap asking about which skills needed to be combined in a double-edged conversation at a social gathering.

    My feeling has always been that the best gaming experiences come when players and gm are in synch and can properly role play something. I always encourage people to set the dice aside as often as possible. That’s for two reasons. Firstly, my utter lack of ability with numbers means they always get in the way when gaming. They are impersonal things, blank-faced and terribly dull. Secondly, the best experiences I’ve had have always been with the dice all but forgotten. Passionate arguments between characters, never players or gm. Tense, beautiful moments touching on real humanity.

    I’ve been spoiled by having had an amazing GM (Keith, take a bow) and some brilliant players. Keith had the courage and ability to focus on deeply personal stories that covered two or three sessions and that were designed to put one character through the meat grinder. He had the skill to keep the other players engaged and involved, but the focus was on pulling apart just one character and seeing what came out the other side. It was what you were calling for the, Sarah. Internal confilct mirrored and facilitated by external conflict. Bugger me, but it always worked. The man was and is a god amongst puny mortals, but what he does is something anyone can do; you just need the courage and planning.

    There are always times when the player and their character are out of synch. That can be cool, but sometimes you have to rely on dice for something that could be role played but that they player is not equipped to deal with. That was the crux of last night’s chat. Then, you have to have a brilliant gm (with support from other players) able to describe what’s going on from both sides.

    The point where I’ll walk away from a game is when the numbers rule. That’s not role playing. Really, it’s not. You might as well have a table full of linked pocket calculators, press ‘on’ and leave them to it.

    Anyway, to your challenge. I suggest the shark hunt from Jaws – the book version, not the film. All are after the shark, but the three men on the tiny boat in a vast and deadly ocean are not united. Quint is the force of nature pitted against a force of nature. Quint is passion and revenge and hatred facing down something that just doesn’t care about those things. His companions are incidental, disposible. Brodie is doing his duty, bound inescapably to it, fighting past his hatred of the water, afraid of and drawn to Quint, and trying not to think about the fact that the shark biologist with them has shagged his wife. The wee biologist is trying to man-up and prove himself, science and reason against Quint’s raw emotion and experience. The shark becomes a device, able to appear and disappear when it suits the writer/gm to drive the characters forward, pushing them beyond endurance. Killing them if they break, if they refuse to change.

    So, yeah, that. 🙂

    • February 12, 2012 5:11 pm

      Great example, Iain – Jaws it is!

      I appreciate where you’re coming from in your thinking, but tbh I get the feeling that the stance ‘roleplaying before rules’ is often because the particular ruleset doesn’t allow for the desired interaction to be gamed – hence my choice of the above examples. (I’m not suggesting that’s your stance, BTW – just the stance I’m bouncing off.) in other words, I don’t want a game where the rules let external conflict mirror internal conflict, but rather a system that provides a way to game precisely those internal conflicts in a crunchy, non-arbitrary, and fun/satisfying way.

      • Jane Williams permalink
        February 12, 2012 5:19 pm

        You may notice that in my example, it was NPCs whose heads we were inside, and that needs stats.

  5. February 12, 2012 10:27 am

    That sort of thing is exactly what my “Swords” campaign has been dealing with for some time, We use HQ-lite rules, and when relationships and personality traits are the most important abilities, that sort of battle with yourself is exactly what you get.
    Latest “scenario” was about the relationship between two major NPCs. They were good friends for years, then she did something very very bad to him (and all the PCs) for reasons that she thought were good. Now she’s trying to apologise. Will he forgive her, execute her…? What about his loyalty to the other people who got hurt by the same action? Physical/combat stats are irrelevant. The main fight took place inside the heads of two NPCs, with a lot of help / support / augmentation from the PCs.

    Take a good look at HQ, I think you’ll find it does the job, and I’d expect any other story-telling type RPG to do the same.

    • February 12, 2012 5:04 pm

      I play a lot of HeroQuest, Jane, and I think the rules have a very good chance of helping me towards my goal – especially the 2nd edition rules, which are now very much about overcoming story obstacles and not about interpersonal conflict. I think, though, that with HQ a lot of the mileage comes from the context – ie from the specific genre pack implementation, and I’m hoping our discussions will touch on that – not just in terms of HQ, but in general RPG terms too. I’d like to start with a systemless clean slate and see where we end up.

      Your play example sounds great! 😀

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