I asked people for submissions of films, TV shows or other properties they’d like to see covered, and they came in a flood. I might be able to do one a week all year. Maybe make a whole blog around it or turn it into a book. Maybe not. But if you’ve got suggestions you’d like to see, send them in. I fully believe the universe is our sourcebook and everything has a lesson for us, even if some of them are don’ts. So what can we learn about plotting out RPG adventures from a classic Billy Wilder comedy? A lot of course. Such as:
- Sell Your Bit and Sell It Hard
Some Like It Hot’s entire first act involves two guys on skid row. They lose their meal ticket when their speak-easy gets busted by the law, leaving them out in the freezing cold of Depression-era Chicago in winter. Then they get a death threat put on them when they witness a crazed mobster violently mowing down six members of a rival gang. When they decide to dress in drag they do it because the other option is death. These days, movie audiences are lazier; we’ve been told the concept in previews and we find it tiresome to watch the painful set up of the premise, so scriptwriters often rush through it. But it’s because the premise of Some Like It Hot is so well established and so naturally established that we never question it or feel its too silly. Some Like it Hot sells its bit harder than almost any other film; it spends over twenty minutes setting up a silly idea. And that’s why it works.
Now in gaming, we often want to cut to the chase, too. We don’t have the luxury for long prologues of person A being thrown into prison with person B, overcoming their differences then escaping together with the help of person C because A, B and C are all here at the table now, so that stuff gets written into the backstory – if it gets written at all. The problem is we often skimp so much on set up we never sell the bit. It starts at the mouth of the dungeon. But if you never establish why the characters have to go into the dungeon, the question instantly arises of why don’t they just go home? Be a blacksmith. Raise some kids. Yes, players should help provide the answer, but the point is you have to think about it. And the bigger the risk – and dungeon delving is a huge risk – the more you should work on selling it. All that work is how you get away with point 2:
2. You Are What You Wear
I sat next to a guy at the theatre once who didn’t understand that if an actor goes off stage and comes back wearing a different hat, he’s a different character. I fear for a generation becoming that guy, where we lose the language of theatre. Where people can’t understand why Elmer Fudd thinks Bugs Bunny is a whole new person when he’s dressed in a wig and bustier. It’s not just a joke, it’s part of the language of theatre, and the fun of pantomime. Now you may think that it’s not so silly to believe that Sugar wouldn’t recognise “Josephine” as “Shell Oil” (but surely she would recognize his terrible fourth-wall-breaking Cary Grant impression) the point is more how easy it is for these identities to be assumed. The scene where Joe steals the hat and the beach chair and suddenly becomes a billionaire – exactly what Sugar is looking for – is pure wonderful pantomime. He appears – as they say in the comic the Maxx – as whatever you dress him as. You might also notice that Marilyn dresses differently to ever other girl in the band, and that the villain is identified by his spats. This isn’t just the importance of costume, this is the spirit of pantomime where costume is larger than life and works in a different level of reality. It’s not about similitude or what would actually happen, it’s about costume rewriting truth.
What’s that got to do with RPGs? So much. Unless you’re trying to recreate something super realistic and gritty like Breaking Bad, you’re probably doing a tale of some amount of picaresque adventure where people already talk in symbols, where your powers, weapons and armour define a large amount about you. The guy in the robes is the wizard, right? Which means if your fighter puts on robes he will be mistaken for a wizard. If they dress as palace guards they will be mistaken for palace guards. Put on some boots and talk fancy to the king and you can create the Marquis De Carabas, lure some stormtroopers around a corner and come out wearing their uniforms. This doesn’t mean make the Disguise skill useless or let the players get away with impersonating everyone. It means almost any story is improved by the free-flowing fluid reality created by the essential truth that in fiction, you are what you dress as.
3. Always Include A Musical Number
One of the thing that makes classic movies classic is their wide appeal. As mentioned in point one, most movies today are very narrowly designed to fit a very predefined model. A movie about band members in drag wouldn’t have a backstory of a violent criminal massacre, and it certainly wouldn’t stop twice for music numbers. Music numbers do feel silly to lots of people, because they’ve forgotten the language of theatre and are too busy wondering how everyone knows the words or steps. Some Like It Hot gets around this by being about musicians and letting Marilyn do all the singing but they’re still musical numbers, it’s just that the movie sells them (see point one). It’s still an excuse to stop the plot and the script entirely in its tracks and sing. Your gaming reality will benefit from existing in a universe significantly theatrical where this can and does happen.
Oh I know what you’re going to say. Your players are shy and tuneless and the GM isn’t sitting by a piano striking up their favourite ballads. Thing is, though, almost all of us are singers. We sing in the shower and in the car. And we feel emotionally engaged when we sing. I bet if you listen to a few of your games, you’ll here people drop in a few songs now and then, as a kind of in joke. Someone might say Hello in character and another person might respond with “from the other side” or “is it me you’re looking for?”. The point is, don’t think of these as asides that distract but build them in deliberately as moments which engage character and player alike. Remember that moment in Almost Famous where the band bonds through spontaneous singing? Your players will too. Sell it hard by putting the adventure climax on stage and having most of the party take a level in bard, or just do an off hand little dance number apropros of nothing, but find a way, now and then, to sing and dance. It will make a game memory that will last the ages.
4. The Players Choose Where the Plot Goes
Some Like It Hot commits a screen-writing heresy. Half way through it goes from being about one thing to being about something else. In fact, it does that twice. It starts as a buddy film about speakeasies and gangsters, turns into an innuendo-fueled farce about cross-dressing on a train and then turns into a romantic comedy of presumed identity. And the person who puts the film in those places is Joe. He doesn’t fall into those situations, he moves into them decisively. Joe drives the plot so hard he jumps the genre track. (And we don’t mind because, since it’s Joe’s decision to do so, the bit has been sold). Again, few movies would be so bold these days to do so many different things, and RPGs are often so keen to invoke their genre that they wouldn’t dare either.
Now, it’s a crappy thing to do when everyone sits down to play a game of Call of Cthulhu to decide that you’re in a Three Stooges movie and not being scared of the monsters, or to turn your light-hearted musical comedy into a gorefest of critical hits. But if we assume we’re all adults who have a good pre-game awareness of where we vaguely might go and a grown-up sensibility of what’s too far, then we should be keen to let our shared creative experiences go where it leads. If the players want to jump the rails and it sounds like fun, go there. They’ll be so grateful to have their in-character desires made central to events they won’t mind if things get a bit bumpy. And if you statted out the mobsters and feel cheated, that’s what the last act is for. In the middle of the romantic comedy, bring back the original gangster plot, or if your characters decide mid-dungeon to try to play Cyrano to a kobold and a goblin in love, then you can still have the umber hulk show up to crash the wedding. But for God’s sake, don’t railroad them away from that Cyrano story if they want it; not only will they feel chagrined, you’ll have lost a story nobody else could have ever created, and will never exist again.
5. Love Is All You Need
Some Like It Hot is a classic because it’s full of variety and different genres, because it sells its bit hard, because it’s got a dynamite fast-paced script that never lets up, but also because it has the kind of feel-good ending and heart-warming message that resonates and keeps us warm inside. In this case it’s Amor Vincit Omnia – love conquers all – and although it sounds cheesy it’s snuck in so cleverly and so right at the last minute that you get all the hit of sentimentality without any of the mawkishness. It’s not just the romance of Shell trying to seduce Sugar with an ridiculously elaborate stunt, although that is one of those things that screams creepy and manipulative and mean until yoiu add both that touch of theatrical unreality which makes impersonation generally okay (see point 2) and the sentimentality of romance. There’s an even deeper romantic moment to the film at the very end, and it’s a one-two punch of incredible, almost way too unbelievable romance, but everything else has been sold so hard we don’t care, and because we want to believe it. It’s when Joe comes clean about his deception, and Sugar doesn’t care, and then when Gerry does the same to Osgood. It’s not just a great final line that Osgood is so in love gender doesn’t matter, it’s also a joyous swing to the bleachers of just maybe how powerful love can be. And this is the last reason we adore this movie so much. It makes us believe in love.
And yet when do we include love in our games? In his amazing Nightmares of Mine, Ken Hite talks about the various big emotions of fiction and why fear is the easiest and most satisfying to evoke at the RPG table. I generally agree but I think he’s too dismissive of love. As Some Like It Hot shows, the trick with love is to use it very very sparingly, to slip it in at the last moment when we’re distracted by the foot-chase onto the speedboat rescue – but to no less powerful an effect. Fear takes time; love is instantaneous. Again, you can sell it, by putting in characters and plots and scenes that revolve around meetings and romances and seductions but you can also just throw in a few random mentions of how the princess is good looking and how your rogue has a thing for her, and then suddenly hit the trigger one second before you get frozen in carbonite and leave everyone reeling from the blow. Remember, we play these games to feel things, and the glory of victory and the power of courage shouldn’t be the only things. When the dragon rises, stand with your party because you love them, it will make it count so much more.
And maybe sing a song while you do it, together. Back to back, face the world with one last number. That’s the very heart of glory and will leave everyone forever changed for it, and it will evoke so much emotion nobody will care about the silliness of dramatic convention – as long as it’s where the players want to be, and you sell it hard beforehand.