Jim Cook’s 7 of the Best: Important RPG Lessons That Can Be Learned From Bad Films
Written by Jim Cook
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS
This film is absolutely one of the worst holiday films for the general public, but is one of the best holiday films to draw lessons from for RPG players and Game Masters. This film offers more for the RPGer than that one about the Human adopted by one of Santa’s Elves, or the one about the king of Hallowe’en who nearly ruins Christmas, or even the one about the reindeer with the iridescent nose. This film offers two major lessons to the RPG community.
The first lesson offered is that characters taken out of their chosen element or environment can contribute to interesting stories. While Santa is clearly most at home in his workshop, using his skills to make toys for the good little girls and boys, making lists and checking them twice, and being involved in reindeer husbandry; he needs to make an adjustment to being out of his chosen environment. Santa on Mars needs to use his skills to resolve the plot of the story. One of the easier way to apply this lesson to your home campaign is to do the same thing that happens in this film: kidnapping. Kidnap your players, and take them somewhere that their skills and abilities don’t quite match up to. Shanghai your horse warriors and cavaliers and make them deal with a shipboard adventure. Bring your forest dwelling rangers and elves into a politically driven urban adventure. Strand your laser-sword wielding space knights and raygun shooting space smugglers on a planet inhabited by viscous, spear-tossing teddy bears. Give them some opportunities to use the skills and talents they selected for their characters in new and interesting ways.
The second lesson from this picture is that “good” and “evil” don’t necessarily mean “nice” and “mean”. You can give your game an interesting angle by having a group of evil NPCs capture your heroes for a “nice” reason. That’s what happens to Santa in this movie, he’s kidnapped in order to make the children of Mars happy and engaged. Give your characters a reason to find a “nice” way to defeat the evil “not-really-bad-guys” in a non-violent way. May those social, investigative, and stealth skills take the place of combat related skills and abilities for a while. Then, when you have the players all set up for a peaceful resolution, change it up by adding in a really violent evil NPC who tries to kill the characters in an attempt to scuttle the plans of the “not-so-bad-guys”.
MONSTER A GO-GO
This 1965 film has an important lesson to share with every player and GM: when your story goes of the rails and the wheels fall off the campaign, don’t be afraid to toss everything out and change direction. As strange and difficult this film is to watch, I recommend it to Gamers because it can teach how to handle a game that has totally crapped its own pants. What did director Herschell Gordon Lewis do when he bought a partially completed film that had sat on a shelf for four years? He found mostly new actors, changed the story, and just went with it. That’s the lesson to learn here: just go with it.
Some of your players dropped out of the game? Find new ones. Someone lost interest in playing their original character as the campaign went on? Let them make a new PC. Your painstakingly crafted storyline ended up as a muddled, confused plot tangle? Switch tracks, make everything that happened previously an illusion or dream. Whatever happens, just go with it!
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE
The lesson to be drawn from this film is simple: with the right initial motivation, you can create a dramatic, driving campaign based on a simple linked series of violent scenes. If your group is the kind that isn’t interested in finely crafted political intrigues or soring tales of romance, and all they want is a straight up “murder hobo campaign of combat and looting, watch this film! Give your characters a strong motivation like revenge, set them on the path of the offenders, and let them slice and dice their way through the opposition until none are left standing. This is a simple lesson, but it can be very effective, especially if you are a Game Master who is pressed for time or is new and unsure how to develop a good plot.
North is a terrible movie. There’s no way to sugar coat it. I would never suggest to a “civilian” that they watch it, but it’s essential viewing for the RPG Player and GM. Why? Because it teaches a couple of valuable lessons that can increase your enjoyment of the hobby. The first lesson it teaches is one that no matter how good a role player is, no matter how long they have been involved in the hobby, if they have a bad character stuck in a poorly constructed campaign, nobody is going to have a good time. Characters need to fit the campaign, and if they don’t it’s the fault of both the Player and the GM. If both don’t work together to build a character that fits the world, and a world that fits the character, nothing good came come of it.
The second lesson to learn from North is that the GM should not be afraid to use the entire campaign world in their story. This film takes its main character across the United States, each adventure is in a new place, involving characters with different backgrounds. Bring that into your games. Move your characters around, let them meet NPCs that represent different regional backgrounds. You as the GM put in a lot of work developing our setting and storyline, use that effort! Don’t let it go to waste! Take your game across your world, don’t keep it stuck in one place!
FREDDY GOT FINGERED
If you have never seen this film, count yourself lucky, perhaps even blessed. If you have seen it, at least know that you can learn an important RPG lesson from it. The lesson you can learn from Freddy Got Fingered is that you shouldn’t let the prurient, perverted player in your group derail the game by driving it into a creepy, uncomfortable place. Nearly every group I’ve ever played with has one player who is a funny, jokey, perverted person. They can bring some laughs to the game, and can serve to lighten up heavy, dramatic scenes. The problem is when they start driving the narrative of the campaign, the plot that the Players and GM have been working on can quickly fall apart into a story of puns, fart jokes, and strange, kinky weirdness. Keep your game’s Tom Green from being in the campaign driver’s seat, or you could end up with something like this steaming pile.
THE MASTER OF DISGUISE
This movie stinks. It’s bad; really, really bad. Unfortunately, I have to suggest that you subject yourself to it. It has an important lesson to teach about RPGs. This film teaches us that we need to avoid the single-talent character. The Master of Disguise is about a character who is focused on one thing: the ability to disguise himself as anyone or anything. He seems to have no other developed skills or abilities (and his facility with disguises is somewhat questionable itself). Many RPG groups have players who pour all their character creation and development effort into a single, narrow aspect of the PC. I’ve seen characters built as archers who are really only good at being snipers, or computer hackers that don’t have any abilities developed in areas other than computer use. This movie shows what happens when a character with a single skill/talent focus is dropped into an otherwise decently-constructed story as the protagonist.
If you are building a character, go a little further afield when developing them. Don’t focus only on the core concept. Depending on the game system you are using, you probably have access to a lot of rules and options for creating and advancing your character- USE THEM! Give your character some interesting skills that may be useful in situations that don’t match up with the skill set you focused on.
If you are a GM, help develop characters that will fit in your game, and will be able to handle the kind of scenarios and encounters you will present to them. Keep the single-focus characters as NPCs, and even then, use them sparingly. The best characters are the most complex ones, encourage them.
This film wasted nearly three hours of my life – on two separate occasions. I watched I, hated it, thought I missed something that would make it good, watched it again, and hated it even more after the second watching. This film is full of characters that are either wooden or manic, but either way unlikeable. The lesson we can draw from this movie is that no matter how detailed your campaign setting is, and no matter how compelling your storyline, without characters that the Players care about, it’s all a waste. This film’s world is interesting and has an extensive history. It’s a world that’s got the kind of concept that makes players want to play in it. It’s also got the kind of characters you don’t want to play: either wooden or manic.
The problem with this film, and the problem you can run into in your games, is that no matter how good your background work, your Role Playing Game will be a failure if you don’t have interesting roles to play. Wooden characters, be they PCs or NPCs, just aren’t interesting or memorable. If characters aren’t played with some kind of interesting, dynamic personality, they will fade into the background. Characters played as constantly manic can quickly become annoying and their portrayal becomes more memorable (in a negative way) than their role in the game’s events. Characters that complement the setting and plot, without either sinking into the background or jumping out of the plot as annoyances will make your campaign experience much more enjoyable.