Monday, May 13, 2013

Universal Comics Movieverse 7

7: Supporting Cast and Screenplay

Now we transition building the supporting cast and the plot

Last time we discussed the ideas behind a core hero’s supporting cast – how it gives the character someone to play off of for characterization, rounds out their weaker areas (though unlike team heroes the core hero is probably not wholly deficient in any area that matters for his stories) and give the other players a chance to work with secondary/NPC archetypes that can be fun to tackle as a player as long as there is equitable sharing of spotlight time.

There are some games that do this very well in the long term – the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG and the most recent Doctor Who game both have mechanics designed specifically to handle the interplay of powerful core heroes and their weaker but still useful supporting casts – and while you can probably take what I’ll be talking about this month and extrapolate it to a longer term game (one that captures a series of movies about a single hero) that’s not my design intent. In this case I’m not advocating any significant mechanical changes to your supers system of choice simply because the rotating core hero/troupe style of play leading up to the inevitable team-up means everyone gets equal time as both a core hero and a supporting cast member.

If your players aren’t comfortable with not being ‘equal’ (that is to say equally powerful superhero) all the time then this may not work for you and you can take the rest of the month off.

If you are still with me we need to work out a supporting cast, which will also help determine the core hero’s frequency chart. It’s probably best to do this as part of a group character creation session but the players can probably get away with e-mail exchanges. For the purposes of this example we’ll imagine a 4 player group with Tom, Jim, Dave and Rebecca as the players (any similarities to one of my actual game groups is purely coincidental). Captain Nostalgia is Tom’s PC, meaning that we need to work out a supporting cast for Jim, Tom and Rebecca.

Looking over the stages of Captain Nostalgia’s backstory there are several Supporting Cast hooks: Jimmy "Buzz" Buzznek, and Lee Grainger from the original comic strip And 6E-ANE from the TV show an 1990’s comic book; plus any other Ad Astrans from other time periods. Tom makes it clear that what he wants from the core character is someone struggling out of a dystopian noir and into Doc Savage style pulp – Nostalgia is a Good Guy born into a Bad World. His through line is not “having to make the decision to destroy his world”. He has made that decision, or will make it in a heartbeat when the opportunity arises. The through line is how much is he willing to sacrifice to make that happen. That makes it pretty clear that we’re setting the movie in the pre-WWII time period so there are regular old Nazis for Captain Nostalgia to fight.

Due to gender biases everyone looks at Rebecca to see if she’ll claim some form of 6E but she demurs – the idea of wearing ‘the future has no shame’ mini-skirts doesn’t appeal. Dave seriously considers playing her but puts it aside. This is probably a good move; 6E has potential as a sidekick with lesser versions of the heroes’ powers, a construction much more suited to the sequel than the original movie. That leaves us with Ad Astras.

The joy of the Ad Astra society is that anyone in any social strata could be a Scientification fan in the 1930s. Jim really likes playing smart/ planning types, Dave likes to play a variety of different characters and has no problem with his PCs being written out in appropriate ways and Rebecca is a dramatist who likes the occasional character angst.

The final decisions then are that Jim is playing Jimmy "Buzz" Buzznek and Rebecca is playing Lee Granger while Dave will provide several geographically separated Ad Astra local experts. That bumps up the size of the supporting cast and makes the Ad Astra’s feel like a larger group, which fits them in a couple of time periods. As of what each contributes, Buzz was always the technical expert while Lee was the charming face and/or sneak so those work nicely. Jim wants to add the Pilot/Driver aspect to Buzz, making him a bit of an Airboy Plane-Crazy Kid. David only designs one of his PCs – he’ll build any others between games to make sure they’re useful – and goes for an older scientist, historian  and SF writer, modeled on both Dr. Asimov and Harry Turtledove, who lives near Buzz and Lee, knows them and will thus be brought into things.

Everyone in the roster has clearly useful aspects – techie/pilot, charmer/thief and scholar/scientist – that don’t overlap with the detective SF detective. Everyone is going to be scary smart and scientific (these are the Ad Astras after all) but I don’t see that as being too much of an issue. The players can now build their PCs using whatever mechanics you have in mind.

Screenplays are scripted. Role Playing Games aren’t. If you want the latter to feel like the former you have to accept some scripting to get the feel right. Now, if everyone at the table is on board with the genre rules and general concept this will be easy but even still some advance awareness of the plot and through lines are needed by the players, and it’s better to have those discussions early in the process so players have input in making the plot fit their character ideas.

There’s a significant concern amongst gamers to avoid ‘railroading:, or the GM denying the players agency because the key moments in the game, especially the end, are pre-scripted. That’s a real issue, but a I said we need some scripting in the beginning to get the movies to feel right and the origins tory to jell. I adopt the “Tour Bus” paradigm in these circumstances, where the players get ‘on the bus’ in the first half of the story, acknowledging that they have little ability to change the laying out of the initial problem and the information gathering and then they get off at the destination and can go wherever they want. Based on the scripted nature of the early story there is little chance that the players will do something that will break the game any more than people taking a tour bus to the Grand Canyon will get off the buy, head to a travel agent and buy a ticket to Bermuda. I can be pretty sure they’ll go into the Grand Canyon, but I don’t have control to say “and they will hire this guide, who will have to steal their wallets and then fall off a cliff to advance these plot points”. Once off the bus the players are in control of the action. I can make logical guesses about what they’ll do based on what they saw on the ride but that’s it.

Given that design we have to think about where and when we want to start the bus ride. That means knowing a little more about how screenplays are written. Below is Syd Field’s Paradigm of a screenplay; it divides the action into 11 key parts spread over 4 acts (which are, for reasons of history, called Acts 1,, 2a, 2b and 3). If you’re planning to do the move over more than one game session (which I recommend) then the Midpoint is the logical break between session 1 and 2, and will likely be an emotional downbeat cliffhanger. If you’re doing it over 3 sessions the breaks would be either just before or just after the Pinches depending on whether you’d rather end with rousing action scenes or cliffhangers. In any event, the stages of the paradigm are
·         Opening Image: The first image in the screenplay should summarize the entire film, especially its tone.
·         Exposition: Provides some background information to the audience about the plot, characters' histories, setting, and theme.
·         Catalyst: The point in the story when the Protagonist encounters the problem that changes their life.
·         Plot Point 1: The last scene in Act One, it is a surprising development that radically changes the Protagonist's life, and forces him to confront the Opponent.
·         Pinch 1: A reminder scene halfway through Act 2a that brings up the central conflict, reminding us of the overall conflict
·         Midpoint: a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story halfway through. This marks the transition from act 2a to 2b
·         Pinch 2: Another reminder scene halfway through Act 2b that is somehow linked to Pinch 1 in reminding the audience about the central conflict.
·         Plot Point 2: A dramatic reversal that ends Act 2b and begins Act 3, which is about confrontation and resolution. Sometimes it is the moment when the Hero decides he is finally going to face the Opponent. Sometimes it's the low-point for the Hero, and he must bounce back to overcome the odds in Act 3.
·         Showdown: About midway through Act 3, the Protagonist will confront the Main Problem of the story and either overcome it, or come to a tragic end.
·         Resolution: The issues of the story are resolved.
·         Tag: An epilogue, tying up the loose ends of the story, giving the audience closure.

Taking a look at Captain Nostalgia and his supporting cast, my instinct is to have the first act be 4ST in his dark future, starting the film with a “Blade Runner if it had been set designed by Albert Speer” flair in which we watch 4ST and his partner work a case that makes the brutality of the future clear, get some quick examples of his powers in their original environment, see 4ST’s love of history and then his discovery of the prototype time travel technology, which he breaks into and activates. Since there are no supporting cast members present, but I think that it’s critical exposition. I’d probably run this as a PBEM with Tom and then let everyone else read the finished product. That way we get the exposition but don’t waste everyone else’s time.

The first session likely opens with Lee, Buzz and Doc Adove in the Canadian woods trying to track down some odd radio pulses they’ve been picking up. The kids hope they are alien broadcasts and Adove is there to keep them out of trouble. The pulses are actually an effect of 4STs time machine and after a little character establishment for the supporting cast we see Captain Nostalgia appear in a blast of light. He has things he know he has to do to stop the inevitable Nazi war machine, one of which is right nearby, dragging the kids into it. Things are in high gear for a bit to take us through Pinch 1, which is fighting some Nazi saboteurs who are trying to destroy something where it would be a good visual fight (the GM settles on the Queenston-Chippawa Hydroelectric Plant, revealing that we are near Niagara Falls, not in Alberta). That’s as far as were scripting other than Tom requesting that Act 2b include a murder mystery, in part to drive the second act and also because it’s Captain Nostalgia and that’s what he does. Dave indicates he’ll transition from Doc Adove at act 2b to an ad astra of the member RCMP wherever the murder happens to be to help smooth the plot along. Everyone agrees this sounds good and play begins.

As the GM I have other things in mind for what’s likely to happen - including a Nazi war machine and a high tech fighter plane for the kids to steal and pilot – and a likely ending with Nostalgia making a ‘heroic sacrifice’ and be snapped back to his own time and see that it is not the glorious polyglot future he had wanted. Meanwhile the Ad Astras should dedicate their organization to upholding Nostalgia’s ideals. Since he has a sort of hypnotic mind melt ability he might have left them specific knowledge or training techniques, or he might have slept with Lee or one of the gender yet undefined geographic cast. Either way there is an entre for 6E to be his biological or spiritual grand-daughter in the more contemporary stories. I don’t want to overplot because I’m not writing a screenplay – I’m running a game – and much as I like my endgame ideas I can’t force them.

More on how the rest of the movies work next time. 

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