At this point, this column is now entirely based on reader suggestions – assuming I’ve seen the movie or TV show, that is. But this was a lovely one to get because it’s one of my all time favourite films, and not just because I saw it at Just The Right Age (around twelve). Like most of Carpenter’s films it is sharply cut and skillfully built, building simply and elegantly from the smallest and most ordinary things to the end of the world. For roleplayers, we constantly have to face the task of taking big, complicated ideas and immersing our characters into it bit by bit, and there’s nobody better at that than Carpenter. Although his lightest film in terms of mood, it is as perfectly structured and intense as his horror work, and manages to do the most complicated world building at the fastest pace.
There’s so much I could talk about, but let’s focus on that last part…
- Genre Comes With A Sense of Place and Time and Culture
Big Trouble nerds know that Carpenter borrowed greatly from Hong Kong and Chinese pulp cinema to create this work, but more importantly, he also borrowed from those cultures as well. This isn’t like Face/Off where the style was kept but not the setting, this is absolutely a film about China. And immigration and multiculturalism. Little China isn’t just set dressing for kungfu fights, we learn everything about it. We begin in its seedy, polluted streets where Jack is welcome because he too is a working man – but he can’t just talk to any old Chinese lady he comes across down an alley, because he’s a stranger as well. Jack isn’t just a stranger to the mystical stuff he’s a stranger to Chinese ways, and this film is about that cultural exchange as much as anything. It’s also heavily political: the lift scene where they drink the toast isn’t just about jingoism for Uncle Sam, it’s another part of the immigrant experience, how the patriotism of the immigrant is unlike any other.
Wth our radio-play aesthetics and focus on action, roleplaying tends to focus almost exclusively on the structure of genres. Do mooks exist, can gun shots be parried, do bad guys get away, those kind of things. The problem with that is its inevitably shallow if its just on its own. Yes, you can put a genre in any setting, but you must still build that setting. Don’t ever make the mistake of resting solely on your structural tropes at the exclusion of look and feel (more on that in the Firefly entry) and build that look and feel on culture and society and nationality. Some say Call of Cthulhu is a game about shoggoths but if it’s not also about the culture and society of Jazz Age America then to me it’s half a game. Indeed, Cthulhu Now existed for a long time before Delta Green gave it more: a sense of 1990s paranoid government conspiracy culture. The Thing isn’t just about bodysnatching, everyone knows it’s that film set in the Antarctic Base, the weather is basically a character in itself. China is in the heart, and your setting should be likewise in the very DNA of every part of your story.
2. Don’t Be Afraid To Be The Fool
Again, Big Trouble nerds will fall over themselves to tell you that the opening sequence was added on to help Western audiences feel more that the white guy was the hero since he falls over a lot. But in fact, fallible, foolish heroes were everywhere in the 80s; a huge part of the lasting appeal of John McClane and Han Solo is how they constantly fall on their ass, get hurt and make mistakes. It not only makes them more likeable, it makes their successes so much more bad-ass when they happen. And let’s be clear; Jack Burton is an unstoppable bad-ass. The moment he’s put in a cell he breaks his bonds, grabs his knife and starts plotting an escape, which he pulls off with a killer knife move. Then he almost rolls down a well on an out of control wheel-chair. Yes, he leaves the safety on, but then he plugs three guys in one second. Yes, he misses the knife throw at Lo Pan, but then he literally snatches a knife clean out of mid air and kills the bad guy. Newsflash: Jack Burton has a swingy dice system.
There’s a meme I’ve seen lately showing Boba Fett and Jar Jar Binks; Fett being what I want my character to be, Jar Jar what the dice made me be. Listen, people: when you roll a 1 you do what Jack Burton always does in a time like that: take the hit and be better for it. If you’re playing a swingy system, understand that 1s will happen and don’t make a character or play in a way that makes that feel off-note. Be the kind of person who trips over sometimes and has no idea what they’re doing but goes in any way (see point four), because you know life’s like that. Shake it off, get back up and try again. Love your fumbles. Enjoy them. They’re making you more awesome in the long run. Yes it sucks if you never roll any hits, but that’s unlikely to happen across the whole campaign. Chances are if you think you’re constantly rolling low, you’re actually forgetting your successes.
3. Everyone Knows Lo Pan
One of the best things about the heroes in they’re mad keen to throw themselves into the plot – they were born ready. Reluctant heroes are a fine trope but they get boring after a while, and they’re godawful for GMs. Jack’s almost naive, gung-ho insistence on going into the jaws of hell just to get his truck back is not transferable to all characters, but he’s far from the only one with stakes in this. Everyone has stakes in this, and that’s why they get so involved. What the hell is Gracie Law doing here? Well she’s at the airport because she helps people immigrate. And she’s at the restaurant because she heard about the massacre at the funeral. Because she’s got issues with Lo Pan. So too does Margo at the Herald. Margo isn’t even invited by Gracie: she’s at the White Tiger just following up the story. Eddie’s there because Gracie needs a lift to the Wing Kong Exchange. It may be a slightly racist trope, but every Chinese restaurant owner DOES know about the ancient sorcery battle with Lo Pan.
Actually, though everyone knows Lo Pan because he’s a well designed villain, and this is actually both a GM and a player issue. Players should be falling over themselves to be ready to adventure on the slightest motivation, but GMs should be sure to write villains that suggest this. Marcie’s writing the story because Gracie knows about Wing Kong’s involvement with possibly drug importing and sex trafficking and maybe more – they have a history. Lo Pan is the godfather of Little China, you can bet he collects rent on Uncle Chu’s restaurant, for example. The GM has to capture an important NPC and a truck to motivate Jack and Wu, but that’s not hard because the Lords of Death work for the Wing Kong. Robin Laws’ Gaean Reach makes this an explicit mechanic, which is also good, but it’s just a good rule of thumb when writing any plot element – everything leads to where you want it to go. There are no coincidences. Coincidences are boring.
4. Always Be Backstorying
Not only is everyone ready for action, everyone is ready to tell you why. There’s an enormous amount of exposition in this film and not just about the ancient chinese sorcery duel fought across the centuries. There’s also explaining all the characters who leap into frame, and developing them in seconds. And the script is perfect at this. In the smallest amount of words it tells you the most amount of detail about characters, giving depth and resonance to small roles like Uncle Chu and Eddie and Margo. And it never feels forced, even when Wu and Gracie start telling their life stories at the drop of a hat. Because we’re just as confused as Jack is and because it’s written with spark and verve and cadence so good it will burn your ears. Obviously we can’t all write that well but if you remember there’s always time for bickering (point 3) you’ll learn how to slip in your exposition.
And what are you expositing? As a player you might think you have nothing TO exposit. You’re completely wrong. You know who you are but your fellow players do not. You’re on the radio when you roleplay, apart from a few hand gestures it’s all about what you say. So you have to tell everyone who you are all the time. Never stop giving people your resume, and that’s both past jobs and current skills. Never stop reminding people of why you’re in the dungeon, how you got there and how you’re going to get out. Yes, this can end up being an annoying character tic if every time you roll to hit you say “this is how we did it back in my log cabin where I grew up with four baby sisters” but understand this: an annoying character tic is a thousand times better than a mysterious cipher who rolled a fourteen. The only traits your character actually has are the ones the other players can remember a year later. Make them remember. It binds the story together and makes playn stronger. ABB: Always Be Backstorying.
5. Accept Half Answers
The GM corollary to Always Be Backstorying is understand that the GM will be too (or should be) and it works better if he does it bit by bit. Big Trouble has an enormously complicated backstory and setting to tell you but it never actually has one big scene of exposition. Instead you can set your watch to it: every ten minutes, another bit of setting is revealed. In between is an action scene or some more glorious dialogue and character backstorying. Sometimes there’s literally no reason why someone doesn’t finish explaining some part of the backstory but we don’t notice because the scene and the people in are moving so fast. And that works better. We find it a more natural and exciting way to learn, and it makes a film rich and worth seeing again and again. Plenty of other great genre films do the same trick, and we love them equally for it; someone once said Star Wars did so well because it moved too fast to keep up with, making people see it again.
But RPGs have this tension; they exist between a game which you can win and a story which you can enjoy, and in a game, people need to know the stakes and the risks. Hiding information feels like cheating and getting screwed over. Nothing annoys a player more than the GM telling them they were rolling to not fall off a cliff and die, say, when they thought they were making a boring old climb check. So players have a tendency to demand to know everything, and ask lots of questions, and probe deeper, and to get the jump on how they’re likely to be double-crossed and plot-twisted. Yes, for some people part of the point of rpgs is to NOT act like narrative characters, to do the things story characters don’t do because winning by being boring is awesome. But even if you do enjoy that style of play, it can really ruin good exposition delivery. Understand that the GM is going to tell you everything you need by the time you need it, and accept the barest minimum you can stand to feel like you can be safe and get that jump. And try, if you can, to explore your boundaries on that issue, to understand that your GM wants to entertain you not hurt you so you can not know things.
Again, it’s probably more memorable if you ALMOST fall off the cliff because you weren’t sure what you were rolling for, and you rolled a one then when you knew the stakes and took ten on it and climbed the slope successfully. Especially if you make it more memorable by talking about how you got your fear of heights and how you’re going to kill the enemy who made you climb the mountain, while you are dangling off the edge. And that literal cliffhanger will be even more memorable if you’re hanging there because you were fighting pulp villains in the 1930s and Fu Manchu is screaming at you from his zeppelin. It’s the details that matter, they are the spice that make the flavour rich, but you have to remember to put them in. Bit by bit, drop by drop, till they fill the whole dish with flavour.