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Johnny’s Five – Five Movies/TV Shows That Might As Well Have Been Written As An RPG Campaign

Posted By John Arcadian On February 3, 2010 @ 2:00 am In Johnny's Five | 21 Comments

GS Move Sign While I was watching old movies and cleaning out my basement a few weeks ago, I watched a movie that made me go “Wow! That was totally someone’s role-playing game!”.  It wasn’t the first time that happened to me, and this isn’t the first time that the idea has been discussed here on the stew ( 1 | 2 ). There are a lot of movies and TV shows that have the feeling of a roleplaying game in one way or another. There are some elements in these movies that can easily be picked up on:

  • Focuses on a group of people instead of one "everyman" hero.
  • Sets up an epic adventure with many locations, layers, and twists as opposed to a single story with a definite end (until the sequel).
  • The movie theme fits many stereotypes of a particular role-playing game or setting.
  • Characters have a depth of personality indicative of massive time spent plotting out backstory.
  • Characters have a cookie-cutter feel, as if they are the shining example of a character class.
  • Comedic dialogue of the style which might be found around a gaming table.
  • Evident hooks of some sort bring the characters into the story and give them a reason to work together.
  • Pacing that mimics the flow of a game with all of the unnecessary "down time" bits cut out.

Sure a lot of these are tropes of many different types of media, but some movies just resonate as "Game" to the RPG attuned mind. Some movies like these 5:

  1. Ice Pirates – This is the movie that drew me onto this line of thinking. The jokey dialogue, outrageous string of scenes that felt like multiple stringed encounters, and the epic quest for a universe saving planet that is spoken of only in legend. Sounds like a roleplaying game to me. The cast of characters that surround the main two "heroes" were well fleshed out and had that "character" feel to them. Plus it had Ron Perlman in it.

  2. Vampires: Los MuertosAn B-movie flick starring Bon Jovi as a vampire hunter, which was totally written off of someone’s W.O.D. Hunter notes. Whether it is the computer network used to collect information about the vampires, the supporting character who is a vampire but uses special pills to fight off the infection, the other hunters who join the party before the climactic battle, the vampiress villain who is seeking an unholy artifact to overcome her weakness, or the incredibly cinematic ending everything about this movie screams campaign.
  3. Indiana Jones Movies – Every time my gaming group travels long distances one gamer plays the Indiana Jones theme on his cell phone while the other makes a dotted line on the map. Despite focusing around the adventures of one man and his sidekicks, the Indiana Jones movies have so many crossover elements with RPGs that it is hard to separate them sometimes. World spanning journeys, a quintessential main villain and his/her lieutenant’s, a huge cast of NPCs, long abandoned dungeons with epic traps, the search for magical artifacts of great power, and a slew of other elements too numerous to list. The newest movie in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, felt one step removed from the last Eberron game I ran.
  4. FireflyLong have I been a devotee of the church of Whedon, and long have I known that he was a gamer. In one episode of Buffy, a scene shows 3 characters seemingly planning an assault on a demon base, shortly revealed to be a game of D&D they are playing. Firefly was not immune to Whedon’s gamer side. It focuses on a group of people, each with individual specialties and personalities, who travel on a ship taking on jobs but inevitably doing good for the world. The characters, for the most part, get equal amounts of screen time. The group each has a role that might correspond to common sci-fi themed classes. It has even spawned a wonderful RPG of its own. Firefly can even be considered a game campaign in that it ended halfway through, before the main villain could be but hinted at (2 by 2 – Hands of blue).
  5. The Fifth Element – A classic story of an ancient evil reawakening after a set period of sleep and only one "chosen one" has the ability to stop it. Together with her band of stalwart companions, she journeys across multiple worlds, fights off the orc-like minions of the sub-lieutenant for the BBEG, and acquires the pieces of the key that will release the only weapon able to defeat the BBEG. While there is a lot more to the movie than that, it has all the earmarks of an RPG plot.

The GMing Advice?
Those 5 movies are just some examples of movies that have the feel of gaming sessions or campaigns, but what does that have to do with helping us all become better Game Master’s? Movies like this are a great example of building off of the elements we find in almost all RPGs and doing something different with them. While all these movies have the feel of gaming sessions, they also do things that are necessary to create the drama and action found in a movie. By picking out the gaming similar elements, we can see what else the movie does to create its feel. We can pick up on lessons new to us, or old lessons that we never should have forgotten but did. Examples?

  • While some of these movies feature "dungeons" of a sort, they are not an endless grind. The action is fast and furious and does not stop.
  • Battles occur anywhere and have dynamic terrain. While the terrain can have an impact on the combat, some leeway should be granted for the sake of characters being awesome enough to jump between moving cars.
  • Shows like Firefly can show us that each character needs a moment to shine, and the way people build their characters (Kaylee = Mechanic with no gun skills) show us what they want to do in the game.
  • Ice Pirates did not have the high action and incredible budget of some movies, but the hilarious situations and interplay of the characters made the experience an enjoyable thing, much like the joking of the players makes the experience enjoyable outside of the game being played.

Even sitting down and watching a movie like this before designing or playing in a game can get you thinking in a different way.

 

In trying to get the best examples of these kind of movies I could, I proposed the idea to the Gnomes to see their movie choices. Here is what they said:

Matt

  • Kindred: The Embraced – Remember that vampire soap opera based on VTM that played late nights in the 90s?

Telas

  • GI Joe felt like a gaming session – 5 min of exposition, 20 min of over-the-top action, and so many coincidences…
  • Parts of Dollhouse feel gamey, notably the missions and some of the ‘character building’.
  • The Unit had both the ensemble cast and mission-based storyline that feel gamey. And some of the story arcs had that Gygaxian ‘peeling the onion’ plot reveal.

Walt

DNAPHIL

  • The TV show Leverage feels likes someone’s d20 Modern group.  There are hints that the writers are geeks of some sorts.  One episode the alias of all the characters were names of actors who played Dr. Who (Tom Baker, etc).  In one episode, starting Will Wheaton (need I say more), Will was part of a Rival Party that faced off against the main group. Just the plans that are laid out and executed in the episodes feel like some gaming group cooked them up and the GM just let them roll.

Also, after writing the majority of this I came across Johnn Four’s excellent list of movies for Game Masters. Go check it out for more movie ideas. He mentions a lot of the ones that we Gnomes have mentioned here. Go check it out: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/articles/top_movies_for_game_masters.html

 

So what movies have you seen that feel like they were written as games? What about them might make you see your own games differently?

 

(Image: Modification of this image. From -  http://www.flickr.com/photos/dr_television/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Johnny’s Five – Five Movies/TV Shows That Might As Well Have Been Written As An RPG Campaign"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On February 3, 2010 @ 3:38 am

The Scorpion King, if not a party-based dungeon crawl, did more things that “Hey I want to use that in my campaign!” than other movies. Combat in a sandstorm, bullrushing soldiers down stairs, street urchin cutpurses, even flaming swords. The part where he gets a strap cut on his leather armor and has to discard part of it looks like somebody rolled either a 20 or a 1.

#2 Comment By stoppableforce On February 3, 2010 @ 8:30 am

A few examples that jump out at me:
Thundarr the Barbarian. (Ookla the Mok’s player is clearly using Savage Species…)

Lost. Need I say more?

Warehouse 13. Okay, granted, it’s only 2 ‘players’, 3 if you count Artie – but talk about extensive backstories. I’ve actually used WH13 as a D20 Modern setting and it worked pretty effectively.

Curse you, DNAPhil, for getting to Leverage before I could. ;)

#3 Comment By Russ On February 3, 2010 @ 8:58 am

I’m pretty sure one of the writers (possibly creator?) of Leverage posts on ENWorld as jonrog. He’s got a couple really good story hours there.

7 Samurai/Magnificent 7 show how a party can get together and fight for a cause. Each character is also fleshed out and has a history.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, a party of adventures travel the world seeking to stop an evil emperor while growing in strength and experience as they go.

#4 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On February 3, 2010 @ 9:20 am

Which episode of Firefly has them “planning an assault on a demon base”? All I can think of is the never-effected planned rescue of Malcolm Reynolds in Shindig. There was also a rescue in War Stories, but there was definitely no “sit down and plan” scene and anyway that would have been far too cutesy for such a grim sequence.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 3, 2010 @ 10:45 am

@TwoShedsJackson – I’m pretty sure that was a Buffy episode…

The last few episodes of Dollhouse are VERY gamey. If you dropped the show early on because it was repetitive, pick it back up; Whedon really put the pedal to the metal towards the end.

#6 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On February 3, 2010 @ 10:57 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider

Ah. Perhaps I misread the meaning.

#7 Comment By drow On February 3, 2010 @ 11:38 am

record of lodoss war! wait, nevermind. that really was someone’s RPG campaign.

#8 Comment By DNAphil On February 3, 2010 @ 11:42 am

@Russ – I knew it! I told my wife over and over that Leverage was made by gamers. There are so many tropes in it that the writers would have had to have seen a gaming table.

After a little research, EN world’s jonrog, is John Rodgers who is one of the writers of Leverage, and as exciting of the Global Frequency pilot that was done in 2005. He writes on the Kung Fu Monkey blog: http://www.kfmonkey.blogspot.com/ and can be found on Twitter @jonrog1

Awesome!

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On February 3, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

IIRC, the first of the recent “Mummy” movies (the ones with Brendan Fraser) appeared in the same year as the “Dungeons and Dragons” movie. I walked out of the former FAR more jazzed about playing a game than the so-called D&D movie.

#10 Comment By sage On February 3, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

Firefly is indeed a great gaming movie/series, but Serenity the game was more then a little bland. The game itself had nothing to do with Firefly, it was just window dressing on a generic system. Lady Blackbird (http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/) pulls of Firefly a lot better (without actually being Firefly, copyright and all that).

#11 Comment By Jacob Seene On February 3, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

For a modern espionage game (such as Spycraft), I’ve found that the Italian Job is an excellent example. The movie shows how a complex “job” might be planned and shows how a team of specialists should interact with minimal overlap. It also does a decent job of walking the line between cinematic and believable.

#12 Comment By Katana_Geldar On February 3, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

That episode of Buffy with D&D is the last episode of Season 8, “Chosen”.

“Could it possibly get uglier? I used to be a highly respected watcher, and now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily. I just wish I could sleep.”

Here is a script I found: http://www.twiztv.com/scripts/buffy/season7/buffy-722.htm

#13 Comment By rocketlettuce On February 4, 2010 @ 1:34 am

I’m gonna have to go with: Anything good.

#14 Comment By John Arcadian On February 4, 2010 @ 9:24 am

Great comments everyone! There are a lot of great game-movies out there.

@TwoShedsJackson – Yipes, it was indeed Buffy, and I was well aware of that. That is a bigger typo than I normally make. Though I can see Jayne being the surprise roleplay heavy player in the group.

I’ve fixed it now. Thanks for pointing it out. Your official No-Prize is in the mail.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I just caught the last few episodes of Dollhouse and totally want to see the game based on it.

@Russ – Absolutely, plus it is just a good show. Can’t wait for the live action movie to come out. That one is the Avatar that I’ve been waiting to see.

@drow – Yes it was! I always remember thinking that, then I saw a book out with translated game notes from it. Lodoss is a great world setting to me. While it was definitely a D&D game, it felt so much more epic.

@Jacob Seene – I’ve seen that movie and made that comparison too. I think I’ve even got an article somewhere inspired from it. Nice one!

#15 Comment By BryanB On February 4, 2010 @ 10:38 am

I always thought that Le Femme Nikita played out like a great espionage campaign, similar to what I used to strive for with Top Secret SI. Alias was also another show that had a gamer vibe to it.

But Firefly is probably the epitome of “This show was written by role-players.” And I mean that in a good way! :D

#16 Comment By whateley23 On February 4, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

The two movies I always use as the “go-to” examples when trying to describe what gaming is like to other people are Tremors and The Chronicles of Riddick. Of course, …Riddick could very well be based loosely on Vin Diesel’s campaigns, so I’ll set that one aside.

Tremors includes some excellent scenes of the characters engaging in problem-solving of the sort I associate with gaming. They pole-vault from rock to rock to avoid the monster, they develop a fairly intricate plan to get the survivalists and everyone out of the valley (of course, it fails, but that’s hardly the point), and so on. The characters are generally the types I’d expect to see in a game with that described background (the survivalists are the most obvious example, but the handymen are pretty generic “modern setting” character types). The monsters are pretty easily dispatched, except for the last one (and that last one is the one who has a distinguishing characteristic), once the characters figure out what’s what.

Clearly, the people who wrote that script were gamers, or else they had a similar analytical perspective.

#17 Comment By Godspiel On February 6, 2010 @ 10:13 am

Farscape, for most of its run, felt like it was based on an actual campaign that somebody ran.

Random Average recently analyzed it in terms of player dynamics: Farscape as gaming group

#18 Comment By BalorX On February 7, 2010 @ 4:03 am

Tin Man. Sci Fi channels take on the Wizard of Oz. The Dorothy character is, unbeknownst to her at the start, a sorceress. The Tin Man is a former cop. The cowardly lion is from a race of empaths, basically psionicists that use their heart instead of their mind. The scarecrow is the character I thought most interesting to play. He has had his brain removed by the BBEG. His knowledge and abilities are revealed to his own surprise over the 3 episodes.

Telling much more gives up the plot so I’ll leave off. Watched it because I thought my wife would enjoy it. Then it sucked me in too.

#19 Comment By peter On February 12, 2010 @ 2:26 am

torchwood

#20 Comment By DocRyder On February 16, 2010 @ 1:15 am

Kindred the Embarassed, I mean “Embraced,” was based on Vampire the Masquerade. In fact, Mark Rein•Hagen (Creator of the Storyteller system and VtM) was a creative consultant on the show.

#21 Comment By DocRyder On February 16, 2010 @ 1:21 am

@DocRyder – Should have read that completely before commenting. Me = Dumbass.


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