Thinking RPGs: The Blade Runner Challenge (Part One)
I’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?