Friday, January 18, 2013

Missing the Mark


I’m feeling the need for a new micro-game.

[we’ll come back to that in a second]

How O How did I miss the new television show featuring one of my all-time favorite superheroes? That would be Green Arrow, about whomI've blogged before. The new TV program is called ARROW (duh) and is running on the CW (I thought that was the Country-Western channel?), but I couldn’t tell you when it normally airs because I am the parent of a small child…unless shows are running late at night, I’m generally only watching them “On Demand.”

So having newly discovered Arrow, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the shows I’ve missed. It’s not awful (which I feared) and certainly a step up from The Cape…has kind of a J.J. Abram’s feel to it (what with the flashbacks and the mysterious past/hidden agendas and the castaway-island-weirdness stuff) which is generally a good thing, if not terribly original. On the other hand, the casting for Oliver Queen just seems so YOUNG. Though I suppose the idea of the older gentleman, play-boy (read: creepy chauvinist-womanizer) doesn’t work as well in the 21st century as it might have in the 1960s (see Mad Men). The reinvented Queen is a young Hollywood in the tabloid style of today’s n’er-do-wells (see Paris Hilton, Jack Osborne, etc. for examples).

My how the world turns.

I also like the Longbow Hunters-style archery (of course) and the reinvented “Speedy” (Queen’s crank-snorting younger sister in this show…ha!)…and the hood, too. Warms my heart, it does. I’m not too keen on the green leather jumpsuit and the romantic interest looks like she belongs on one of those WB shows…but otherwise, it’s enjoyable throwaway action-TV and really has some potential to go to some of the dark places worthy of Green Arrow (as opposed to simplistic PSA-style, “One To Grow On” moralizing).

[“Speedy” = crank addict. Ha! Every time I think of it, makes me chuckle]

You know, it’s funny (interesting)…I know there’s a lot about Green Arrow that echoes the Batman character, which isn’t all that surprising as they’re both knock-offs of Zorro (invented 20 years before Batman, thank you very much)…wealthy socialites during the day and grim masked men of justice at night. The secret hide-outs, the gadgets, the M.O., the sidekick, the character-themed vehicles, the acrobatics, etc. all make them seem like mirror image characters, other than the color of their costumes.

However, it’s the minute differences of personality that (for me) makes all the difference in the world, catapulting one onto my Top 5 or Top 3 all-time list. And no, it’s not just the fact that GA has the beard and uses a bow instead of a Batarang. I mean, let’s just draw the clear distinction right here and now:

[and, yes, this will get back to gaming in a moment, really…]

Batman IS an interesting character…as a child I read his comics, watched the old Adam West show, saw the cartoons, saw that first Michael Keaton movie a dozen times or so, and own all the Christian Bale films (for whatever reason, I never got around to watching the in-between films). I owned the whole Jason Todd/Death in the Family series at one point, as well as the Frank Miller post-apoc Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. I like Batman, but after mashing all these sources together, here’s how I see Batman (minus the ninja training):

-          A man with a keen, detective mind; armed with gadgetry purchased by wealth; driven by a childhood trauma, but with an unshakeable resolve regarding preservation of life even with his relentless pursuit of justice.

Compared to Green Arrow who is:

-          A man with the hunting skills developed from his castaway experience; driven by a desire for social justice forged in the years of isolation and contemplation; owing more to the Law of the Wild than the Kantian philosophy of Batman (the issue of wealth and gadgetry varies depending on the GA series/portrayal).

Leave aside the fighting ability both characters possess: “Who’s a better fighter” is a pretty moot point in comic books (and their ilk) when nearly all (male) characters are scrappy and fight-worthy and have as much brawling power as is necessary for the story/plot at hand. Instead look at three things:

  1. What motivates the character (origin of their heroic impetus)
  2. What is the character’s method (power that sets character apart)
  3. What is the line the character won’t cross (self-imposed limitation)

The last is perhaps the MOST important part of a superhero…at least one that is well developed…because while folks are always quoting the “with Great Power comes Great Responsibility” line from Spiderman, the unsaid part about being greater than other mortals is “with Great Power comes Great Temptation.” The question is important because without a line, nothing stops the character from using their abilities for selfish and self-aggrandizing purposes. Doing THAT drops the character from the ranks of what we call “heroes.”

For example: Nothing physically stops the She-Hulk from intimidating the hell out of normal people (she might do so on occasion for a laugh, or because she’s annoyed with someone, but generally she attempts to put people at ease despite her strength and power). Nothing stops Steve Rogers from pursuing a lucrative career as an underwear model and living a life of debauchery with fame and fortune. Nothing prevents Spiderman from becoming the world’s greatest cat-burglar or from Reed Richards using his scratch-built spacecraft to ferry the rich and famous into orbit for a hefty fee.

But the threshold of self-imposed limitation varies from character to character. She-Hulk MIGHT intimidate someone for amusement, but Superman would not despite having the same (or greater) power…at least not while in uniform. Spiderman will happily knock the teeth out of some mugger in a dark alley, but he generally stops short of psychologically scarring and inflicting mental torture on an individual like the Batman will. The line a hero won’t cross comes to define the character as much or more so than anything else…compare Wolverine to his fellow X-Men in the 1980s as a stand-out example.

And while Batman is all about inflicting fear and terror and rough justice on the street criminal, his own code of ethics stops him short of bleeding someone with an edged weapon…unlike Green Arrow. Sure, it’s a fine line but it IS a line: the Bat is perfectly capable of giving some guy a concussion or sending ‘em to the hospital with a rupture, but piercing someone’s femoral artery or spleen runs the risk of putting someone in the MORGUE. That’s a decided difference between the two. GA doesn’t rank in the same category of the Punisher (who sets out to murder criminals in the name of “justice”) but he is one of the more flagrant and reckless of masked vigilantes, judged solely on his methods, at least since the Longbow Hunters.

[compare Green Arrow to non-Ultimate Hawkeye who continues to use non-lethal “trick arrows”]

So while there are superficial similarities between the GA and Batman, for me they are extremely distinct based on the answers to those three questions: motive, method, and limit. And the Arrow’s answers to those questions make him one of my favorite characters while Batman’s answers (respectable though they are) do not.

Okay, so what does all this rigmarole have to do with gaming?

Welp, last night I was back in play-testing mode with the wife back in town from business and BECAUSE of the all the Arrow TV watching and comic book contemplation, I decided to run my Supers game rather than the new Space Opera setting. Longtime readers know how easily my mind wanders from one subject to another with only the vaguest inspiration, so I realize none of you are all that surprised.

The most recent iteration of DMI Supers has quite a few differences from the last version (play-tested with Will a few months back), and this time I even had a pretty serious adventure mapped out for the thing (cribbed from a prior adventure I’d written for Heroes Unlimited). Unfortunately for Greg (the sole player to show up…more on THAT in a separate post), I discovered the fast-and-loose style of DMI does not lend itself well or easily to the “scripted adventure” and we never got past “Chapter 1” nor did the game have the chance to show off its strengths.

ALSO, as with my Lost World game there were serious issues of motivation that just ended up “falling short.” The DMI system provides a versatile, visceral, and expressive system that is not only fun to play, but helps define your character within the play itself…I haven’t found the thing that JUMPSTARTS play. What gets you INTO it…what creates an impetus in players to be PRO-active as opposed to RE-active?

[in case I forgot to mention this in an earlier posting, this proactive player stance is important for a richer role-playing experience, but I don’t want to get off topic just at the moment]

Old school D&D is excellent at this, for example: character advancement is tied to treasure acquisition and the characters are (by definition) treasure hunters by trade. Consequently, players have an impetus to self-motivate in looking for treasure (and being creative in how they recover it), immediately immersing themselves in the game at hand.

The best version of DMI so far (by which I mean, the most EFFECTIVE version) has been my post-apoc-mutant-style game MDR. In MDR, character are presented with an immediate situation and goal (by design and by character definition) and thus have an immediate impetus to “get on it.” But the Lost World game and the Space Opera game and Supers game all have a more “open format” that is supposed to be built and based on the characters’ personal motivations, which is nice in THEORY…but then the players end up sitting back and waiting to REACT (using their proper motivation) to whatever the GM throws at you.

As opposed to being proactive.

SO NOW (going back to the original sentence) I’m starting to think I need to write a new micro-game. It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these one-sheeters and maybe I need to go back to that format, at least briefly, in order to fix some of these issues. The micro- format forces me to be short, sweet, and elegant and really distill down the basic elements of a game…giving me a parsed version that can be elaborated on as necessary (and/or appropriate) if the stripped-down, basic version is at least FUNCTIONAL. I think the last one I completed was, in fact, the first version of DMI (for the Out-Of-Time game)…but that worked well enough that it led to the two-page version of MDR which worked so well that I started incorporating the basic DMI engine into other genre games. But the difference between OOT and MDR and the later versions of DMI is that those earlier games had set, specific victory conditions (so to speak)…and the later versions do not.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve got to return to the basic parameters of DMI first if I want to develop it into a full-blown game engine…and I’ve got a feeling/inkling that (with regard to the Supers game) the key might be to revisit those three distinctions I’ve listed above: the motive, method, and limitation that really differentiates one street-born vigilante from another. That might actually be more important for such a game than the power list I so diligently slaved up.

*whew!* That was pretty random.

; )

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