Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Rocketeer: A Quintessential Pulp Film

The local film archive theater recently screened Disney’s The Rocketeer as a Saturday matinee. Seeing it on the big screen again with an enthusiastic audience reminded me how much this film showcases many of the elements I consider essential to a good pulp story. rocketeer

I’m no expert on the pulp literary or film genre. My limited experience focuses more on popular, modern media -- fare such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tales of the Gold Monkey (though I’m remiss in never having seen The Phantom with Billy Zane, though many recommend it) -- and less in the pulp “superhero” print, radio, and film serials popular in the first half of the 20th century; but I know what I enjoy in an engaging movie or game experience. Here are the elements I found best characterize The Rocketeer as a pulp adventure film:

Stereotypical Roles: Pulp character tropes abound in The Rocketeeer…the well-intentioned brash pilot with great aspirations; his mechanic sidekick who can fix or modify almost any machine; the plucky heroine who can intelligently hold her own; the gangster with a heart of gold (or a good streak of patriotism); the mysterious, wealthy benefactor; the dashing villain chewing on the scenery; even the impatiently screaming Nazi political agent and the sternly obedient officers on the zeppelin. Despite some over-the-top stereotyping on the Nazis, all the other actors sincerely immerse themselves in the roles (instead of simply playing them tongue-in-cheek) to offer authentic performances for the genre (there’s also nothing quite like a villainous Timothy Dalton chewing on the scenery…).

Aviation: For me the inclusion of aircraft remains one of the key pulp tropes for material set during “The Golden Age of Flight” (both between the wars and during World War II). Some scenes in the film still bring tears to my eyes because they remind me of the wonder of flight, the excitement of seeing humans fly, of hearing and feeling the aircraft. Aside from the rocket pack around which the action focuses, The Rocketeer includes a Gee Bee racer, an airshow (which helped popularize aviation at the time), an autogyro, the Nazi zeppelin, even “mysterious, wealthy benefactor” and aviation visionary Howard Hughes. The emphasis on aviation technology and the rocket pack help fulfill the pulp trope of amazing technology as a focal point.

Nefarious Villains: Although they’re not revealed until almost the end of the film, the Nazis’ presence as dire enemies underlies most of the film, from towering Lothar’s menacing presence to Neville Sinclair’s obviously villainous ulterior motives. In true pulp form the Nazis try harnessing technology in their plans for world domination. Despite the horrific historical realities, Nazis still serve as easily identifiable stock villains (one possible explanation why Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull were not as successful as the series’ other films with Nazis); those appearing in The Rocketeer often seem so caricatured and overplayed to uphold the stereotypical villain fa├žade and offer some distance from the historical reality.

Historical Period: The inter-war years, as well as those covering World War II, lend themselves to pulp adventure themes. Aside from the historical villains, the era provides context for political posturing for the coming/current war and the related espionage required for factions to gain advantages over one another (also heavily grounded in the historical and fantastic technology like radios, aircraft, and rocket packs). The film also capitalizes on the role of criminal organizations of the time, both as antagonists as tools of the villains lurking in the wings and as patriotic allies in the fight against said villains. I’ll admit I like my pulp based in a firm historical foundation with the more fantastic elements lurking just beneath the surface (as displayed in my system-neutral roleplaying game sourcebooks Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga); history often proves an excellent sourcebook for those writing in a particular period.

Comic Book Violence: With most of the violence in The Rocketeer falls within the film’s PG rating and acceptable cartoon violence standards (though some images, such as pilots exploding while wearing rocket packs, might seem startling). True to the pulp genre most of the violence remains implied by sound effects, shadows, and other indirect methods. Sure, it has plenty of punches, lots of gunfire, and people falling off zeppelins, but it thankfully lacks the flying blood and gore on which many current action films gratuitously rely.

Despite more than 20 years since its release and reliance on traditional special effects techniques with a minimal of CGI The Rocketeer still stands up as both an entertaining film and one which celebrates the pulp genre.

A Tragic Postscript

Upon returning from the afternoon matinee of The Rocketeer I heard of the tragic crash of a biplane during a wing-walker routine at a Dayton, OH, airshow. I was particularly saddened because last year my family had a chance to meet the pilot, Charlie Schwenker, and see him run his amazing Extra 300 aerobatic plane through its stunt routine at the nearby Bealeton Flying Circus. Wing-walker Jane Wicker also perished in the crash. Charlie_Schwenker

We had the pleasure of meeting Charlie last year at a Commemorative Air Force Open Hangar Day at Culpeper Airport. Apparently many aviators were there that day wooing sponsors for the annual Airfest at Culpeper every October, so we wandered the ramp checking out some fantastic planes (including a gorgeous Staggerwing Beech). Charlie was just about to put his Extra 300 in the hangar when we wandered by; but he took his time to walk us around the plane and tell us all about it. We chatted with him several times last summer when we enjoyed the Bealeton Flying Circus, including once after he flew the Extra 300 in an astounding aerobatic stunt routine. He was always very warm, friendly, and approachable, infecting everyone around him with the amazement and enthusiasm for aviation, whether in a classic Stearman biplane or one of his two fantastic stunt planes (the other was a Pitts S-1T). When speaking with him shortly after his aerobatic routine, he was still all aglow in the adrenaline rush from those incredible stunts.

Like The Rocketeer and the aviation exhibition in one of the early scenes, these daring aviators and modern airshows help us learn about and celebrate our rich aviation heritage. They offer the general public a small taste of the thrill of flying and encourage young people to pursue it as a hobby or even a career. Charlie and Jane’s passing is tragic, but they remind us to push the envelope, strive for what seems just beyond our reach, and celebrate our achievements with others.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Mechanics of Spell Scrolls

As a break from developing the bestiary for Basic Fantasy Heroes I’ve occasionally diverted to dabbling with magic item concepts for the treasure section. While much of this emulates the category conventions found in Basic Dungeons & Dragonsin terms of weapons and armor with bonuses, I’m rethinking the concept of spell scrolls as exclusively the province of wizards and priests (and as an extension, the use of enchanted wands and staves). Do I continue what seems the standard practice of limiting magical scroll use to spell/canticle users (wizards and priests), or do I provide some ability for non-spellcasters to use them on a more limited basis? My general instinct leans more toward the inclusive than the exclusive, offering the non-spellcasting classes of fighter, thief, elf, dwarf, and halfling a rather risky opportunity to use a scroll discovered as part of a typical adventure’s treasure.

Understanding the fundamentals for using spell scrolls requires a short primer on magic and abilities as developed for Basic Fantasy Heroes. (I’ve outlined some basics for this game earlier, particularly the Oracle System dice mechanics.) In the game wizards and priests do not normally keep scrolls to memorize spells like in D&D; they gain a new spell as a specialty (similar to a feat or special ability), just like other heroes gain combat or non-combat specialties to provide some bonus in the game and define their characters. Using them requires them to roll their hero dice, with the number of successes rolled determining the effectiveness of a spell’s powers. Their training and experience enables them to cast a number of spells and canticles every day equal to their hero dice (three dice for starting characters). 

Spell scrolls in Basic D&D enable a magic-user, elf, or cleric to cast a spell once before the writing fades from the parchment; characters who can’t normally cast spells cannot use spell scrolls (though they can pawn, trade, or otherwise use them as a commodity). In Basic Fantasy Heroes non-spellcasters can try casting a spell from a scroll once per day, but must roll a number of successes equal to the spell’s “tier” or level (usually one for basic spells, two for mid-level spells, and three for higher ones); failure results in the spell backfiring in some detrimental way and the destruction of the scroll…to include any other spells inscribed upon the parchment. This gives non-spellcasters the chance to use spell scrolls at their own peril. Is it open to abuse? Certainly. But it offers heroes a choice if their party doesn’t contain spellcasters. It also opens the debate whether to use a scroll spell to save themselves when it might backfire, harming the group and destroying the scroll.

Of course spellcasters may cast a spell from a scroll but can only do so as their only spell use that day, regardless of how many spells their hero dice level normally allow; when they do so the writing does not fade, so they can use the spell again if they dare. The spell backfires (destroying the scroll) if they’ve cast any other spell earlier that day or if they fail to roll any successes in the casting attempt. They may also use the text to learn the spell as a specialty when they level up (when they’d normally choose another spell specialty as part of character advancement). Finding a scroll with a particular spell they wish to learn could form the basis for a leveling-up adventure and a premise for gaining that specialty.

A similar mechanic could function for other treasures enchanted with spell effects usually reserved for wizards and priests, including wands, staves, amulets, or anything else with limited “charges.” I’m debating whether to set a fixed number of charges for such items or simply have them run out under certain conditions; for instance, should a hero use them and fail to roll any successes in the attempt.

I’m hoping to find time to explore some of the game mechanics under development on my own using some modified random dungeon generation, and we’ll see if the typically reckless dwarf I like to play gets into trouble trying to cast spells from any scrolls discovered….

As always, I encourage construction feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Learning by Example

As the father of a three year-old I’m always amazed at how and what he learns. Much of it comes from observing others. He picks up words and phrases by listening to others and repeating them (sometimes to his parents chagrin…). He learns to throw and kick balls by watching his parents do it. He’s too young to read for himself, but he has a healthy sense of curiosity, imitates others, and asks questions about things he doesn’t understand…much like humans of all ages learn to play hobby adventure games. StarFrontiersAd

Gamers use various resources on their own to learn how to play new games: PDF rulebooks available freely from publisher websites; online video reviews and tutorials; even sitting down on their own with the game and trying it solitaire. None of these offer the hands-on, instant gratification of the play experience one gets from sitting down with others and playing the game, whether engaging in a shared exercise in unboxing, reading rules, setting up, and slowly testing a brand-new game or under the tutelage of someone who’s played it before. They don’t offer the experience of learning from actual play and from the example of others teaching the rules.

Hobby adventure games of various stripes -- roleplaying games, board and card games, even miniature wargames -- remain somewhat esoteric pastimes with often complex rules. By their very nature most analog games rely on face-to-face interaction with other players to complete the game experience, players who can help each other learn and understand new games. Unlike the standard board games of casual youth -- Candyland, Battleship, even Scrabble and Monopoly -- modern, sophisticated games don’t have rules concise enough to fit inside the boardgame box cover, nor do they draw on the collective consciousness of standard family games in American popular culture. Many Euro-style games and high-production-value American board games include slick, full-color rules booklets and even player aids to facilitate gameplay. Roleplaying games have long relied on thick tomes to impart rules governing numerous possibilities for characters, combat, and exploration within the game as well as its unique campaign setting. Miniature wargames (and their board-and-chit cousins) often rely on host moderators to set up the game, explain rules, and shepherd participants through the intricacies of movement and combat each turn (as well as bring along their hordes of painted miniatures and fantastic terrain with which people can play).

Deciphering intricate rules systems for any game on our own takes a lot of time, focus, and effort. It rarely provides us with more than a textbook understanding of how the practicalities of the game function without the level of unpredictability of other live players contributing to the game and learning experience. I recall as a 12 year-old I spent an entire weekend secluded in my bedroom reading and trying to comprehend the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (rulebook and the infamous B2: The Keep on the Borderlands module) only to gain a vague understanding of the game’s innumerable intricacies. When Magic: The Gathering first appeared 20 years ago, I remember buying a few packs from Wizards of the Coast’s humble two-booth space at GenCon, marveling at the cards, and scratching my head trying to make sense of the rules. It wasn’t until I played the game with friends at a convention that I really grasped the rules.

As a counterpoint to these fumbling learning experiences, I point to others where people shepherded me through games. I’ve discussed my own early Dungeons & Dragons experiences, watching two neighborhood kids play the Basic D&D module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands and using observations of that experience to create my own roleplaying game (Creatures & Caverns, revised and polished for free/pay-what-you-want publication at DriveThruRPG.com). I’ve enjoyed learning new games with groups who’d never seen them and trying new games with others who’ve played them many times before. I’ve even participated in game demonstrations at conventions which, while ultimately trying to sell participants on the game, serve as excellent exercises in quickly and clearly teaching the game essentials to as many people as possible. I continue to admire Wil Wheaton’s TableTop show on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel; it offers a chance to learn the game while watching others play it (with the help of handy graphic rules explanations).

In today’s “Internet Age” players have more opportunities to learn how to play games on their own and publishers have more tools and venues to reach players and demonstrate their products. These include free PDFs of the rules available online, videos and tutorials, and frequently asked questions, plus a host of gamer-oriented online communities and forums (as outlined in an earlier Hobby Games Recce post). Finding like-minded game enthusiasts remains difficult in our insulated society where many of our leisure-time interactions occur over the internet. Online interaction, however, also enables us to find other gamers through meet-up sites, social networking links, and regional game events and venues.

What venues actively advocate learning new games with others?

Gaming Friends: Gathering with friends for games remains the best way to learn new games, especially if everyone approaches the experience with open-mindedness to try new things. This approach works when one player obtains a copy of the newest, shiniest game and wants to share, or if others have specific titles in someone else’s possession they’d like to explore. Finding and maintaining a friendly, regular gaming group like this -- for whatever style of adventure game one prefers -- remains a great challenge for many people.

Regional Gaming Conventions: These events (including regional media conventions with gaming tracks, something becoming increasingly rare these days) bring together like-minded fans for both hardcore gaming for experienced players and introductory and demonstration games for those looking to indulge their casual interests. I particularly enjoy cons with open gaming areas and libraries of games (usually board games) con-goers can check out like at a library and play…a great way to unbox a game and test drive it without paying a premium price first. Of course these conventions also offer opportunities to meet and establish friendships with other players in the region for future gaming endeavors.

Public Libraries: Many public libraries offer gaming programs for teens or Scrabble leagues, fantastic places for young people to meet and learn about games, but of little help to adult gamers unless they’re interesting in volunteering to run these events (if library staff accept and approve such volunteers…). Few offer programs such as family games expos (which I’ve discussed before) or adult board game nights. Despite a movement in recent years to transform public libraries into “community hubs” catering to a broad spectrum of patrons and non-traditional library activities, visitors (and many librarians) still cling to the hallowed dogma of libraries as sacred temples to silence (and learning) with no place for such things as pedestrian as…shudder…games. And certainly games have no place in even a non-circulating reference collection to make them more available to patrons. Thus gaming events remain relegated to distant programming rooms for occasional teen events, hiding them from normal library patrons and leaving interested adults (and even pre-teens) woefully underserved. (Apologies to Friendly Librarians of my acquaintance; I’ll freely admit I’ve had a love/hate relationship with libraries throughout my life….)

Friendly Local Game Store: One of the best places to learn about new games remains the place where you can buy them. The best set aside space for players, both those involved in tournaments and other organized events and those simply hanging out checking out new purchases or chatting with friends. Many offer demo copies to check out in-store, and some host demo days or regular gaming events welcoming newcomers. My friendly local game store maintains a library of demo copies of many current board games patrons can check out to examine and play in store, or borrow to take home with a small deposit. The store has also maintained a 20%-off sale for all board games for something like two years now…not that I’m complaining.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Our Adventures Happen Just Off-Screen

A brief Google+ discussion of the post about “Exploding Continuity” over at Hobby Games Recce highlighted an interesting problem: what do you do when there’s so much continuity in the licensed source media (film, television program, comic book) it seems to prohibit roleplaying activities within the setting?

Using popular media sources as the basis for roleplaying game settings can present a challenge: finding a place of one’s own for original adventures using engaging setting elements without interfering with the main plot or characters. In many media continuities fans only glimpse a portion of the setting, with plenty of room in which to create their own roleplaying game adventures within that continuity and the spirit of the original intellectual property. It’s not an easy exercise. Most fans immerse themselves in the central characters, settings, and plots; thinking creatively beyond these becomes more difficult when existing primary continuity sources so completely define the setting to nearly prohibit other entertaining adventures from taking place. It helps to shift focus from the central characters and plots and think about others inhabiting the setting and their motivations within that universe.

Many published roleplaying games have successfully managed this in the past -- Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and numerous games based on comic book licenses -- by encouraging players to run characters very much like but not exactly the central protagonists in the licensed media. Some consist of vast universes unlimited by earth history or modern knowledge, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, offering rather broad settings across which one can create and game.

A notable failure in this category was TSR’s Indiana Jones roleplaying game (the one in which the company supposedly trademarked the term “Nazi” as their intellectual property…). In this game players had to choose who ran Indiana Jones and who got stuck playing Willie Scott and Short Round (with original character creation rules following in a supplement one year later…a bit too late). When it acquired the license in the mid-1990s, West End Games approached The World of Indiana Jones roleplaying game in much the same manner as its Star Wars game: players ran heroes who engaged in similar adventures as those seen in the films, playing characters similar to but not exactly Indiana Jones, Marcus Brody (one of my favorites), Marion Ravenwood, and Sallah, as well as a host of other character types inhabiting that historical period and pulp literary genre.

Some games actually build in roleplaying opportunities parallel to elements from films and television shows. For instance, in the Ghostbusters roleplaying game the players ran ghostbusters who franchised their operation from the original team in the film, capitalizing on the film without treading on its continuity.

Having worked on a number of media-inspired roleplaying game projects -- both professionally and just for fun -- I’ve gained some experience in thinking beyond the core media continuity with the scope of a roleplaying game setting in mind. I’ve picked up a mantra to help remind myself how to envision gaming scenarios amid the often daunting core continuity of a favorite media license. I’d always known it to some degree, but it coalesced in a mindset the editors and designers of West End Games’ classic Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game adopted in developing material for that popular setting:

“Our adventures happen just off-screen.”

Here are three examples of popular licensed media settings and how I managed to run adventures or campaigns “just off-screen” from the central plot and characters:

Star Trek: In both an early home-brew system and later published ones based on Star Trek: The Next Generation I ran a short campaign in which the heroes didn’t interact with the Enterprise crew but engaged in similar investigations, patrols, and adventures during the course of their service aboard a smaller Starfleet vessel. Trek presented many easy opportunities for transposing characters into the universe without treading on continuity: many ships in Starfleet, numerous flashpoints around the galaxy (I chose the Cardassian border), lots of different character archetypes to use for both player and gamemaster characters, and a host of sourcebooks (at the time all in print) to mine for ideas and guides for continuity.

Star Wars: Even before I joined West End Games as editor of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal, I’d run a long campaign for friends that started shortly after the Battle of Yavin and culminated in the Battle of Endor. At campaign’s end I received requests from two of the players that their characters go out in a blaze of glory in the final adventure. After a mission in which the heroes rescued the Bothan spies delivering key secret intelligence to the Rebel Alliance (something we hear about but don’t see in the briefing scene midway through Return of the Jedi) all the heroes took part in some aspect of the Battle of Endor…several serving as command crew aboard a small cruiser in the Rebel Fleet and two others in their modified light freighter running interference for the Rebel starfighters (much like the Millennium Falcon in the film).

Battlestar Galactica: When the series premiered I jotted down some notes on key personalities, ship-board locations, weapons, and spacecraft for my own reference. I later created a one-shot convention adventure using the D6 Space rules when interest in the show was at an all-time high (a common problem with officially published licensed roleplaying games…by the time the reach publication after a long process of development, writing, and approvals, popular interest in the license might have already peaked and in fact started waning). Rather than Viper pilots the players ran “second-rate” pilots culled from the fleet and charged with training on the reconnaissance Raptor vessels. Alas, I only ran one scenario with pre-generated characters, but it allowed players to fly a ship, explore, blast Cylons, and generally have fun in the universe without disrupting continuity. (It also helped that I once ran it at a convention where Bodie Olmos, who played “Hotdog” in the series, was a guest and made an in-character cameo appearance during the adventure’s introduction).

In creating one’s own continuity in any setting -- but particularly established media settings -- it helps to employ an axiom we advocated at West End Games in relation to material developed for the Star Warslicense: “No Superlatives or Absolutes.” The Star Wars Style Guide I revised for the West End Games version of the roleplaying game contained two paragraphs under that heading in the “Writing in the Star Wars Universe” chapter, and it bears repeating not only to remind setting contributors not to limit themselves but to inspire creators that what they see in the established setting isn’t all that exists:

Don’t make stuff the “biggest” or “best” or “worst” or “most” anything. You can make something big and impressive and nasty by sheer description. You may not use these absolute descriptive because somehow, somewhere, somebody will come up with something bigger and badder….

Similarly, don’t make sweeping statements about the nature of the Star Wars galaxy. instead of saying “All customs inspectors in the galaxy will do this,” limit your perspective to something more local -- “Customs inspectors on this planet…” People will do things differently in different parts of the galaxy, so you will have worlds that are wildly different.

As a final bit of inspiration in finding space within established media settings for one’s own roleplaying escapades I offer one of the game-writing ideas I’ve gleaned from author extraordinaire S. John Ross:

“Explore unexpected ideas everywhere!”

Middle-earth emerged in our brief Google+ discussion as being a particularly difficult setting into which one might stage roleplaying game adventures given the voluminous continuity and world-spanning central plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien created a broad world populated with sophisticated peoples and cultures, but navigating it “just off-screen” from the main plots and characters requires a knowledge of the world.

Iron Crown Enterprises made its Middle-earth Role Playinga cornerstone of its business for years, and Decipher published a roleplaying game concurrent with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (and illustrated with fantastic stills from the movies). Both offered sourcebooks providing setting information and adventure ideas during the Third Age of Middle-earth; further research into other non-game source material could provide inspiration for adventures during other ages. Though I’ve not run one-shot scenarios or campaigns in this popular setting, I’ve considered it, and offer here two campaign ideas to explore:

Pipe-Weed to Erebor: Gathering in Lindon the heroes agree to take a train of pack mules to deliver pipe-weed to the Dwarves of the  recently liberated Lonely Mountain. They must overcome their differences (and seek their hidden agendas), barter for pipe-weed in the Shire, and make the treacherous passage across Eregion and Wilderland, encountering Orcs and wargs fleeing from a terrible battle at Erebor, and evading dark forces seeking to seize a secret one of the heroes carries.

Outlaws of Beleriand: This campaign idea is set in the ancient First Age of the Silmarillion. The heroes begin as members of the houses of Elves and Men assembling for an assault on Morgoth’s fortress in Angband to recover the Silmarils in a complex plot involving forces from across Beleriand. Their plan goes horribly awry through Morgoth’s intervention in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. As part of the eastern assault on Angband led by Maedhros, the heroes face the horror of Glaurung, Father of Dragons, plus treachery from within the ranks of Men. Fleeing the lost battle, the characters must survive as Morgoth’s forces overrun the land. They seek news of the few havens left within Beleriand, forge friendships with allies, and make their way across a land swarming with Orcs and other fell beasts. The campaign is basically a riff on the classic Star Wars “Rebels versus the Empire” theme, with characters seeking valuable supplies, allies, and secret havens from which to sortie against the overwhelmingly superior enemy.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.