January 11, 2011
“Sadly, Figurative Destruction did not make the RPG Solitaire Challenge contest deadline, due to the author’s dissertation research and past-due book chapter for an edited volume. Please do not despair: the game will continue its development journey after the contest hype.”
“Thanks for participating in the RPG Solitaire Challenge. I look forward to reading your work!”
January 5, 2011
Here’s the first part of the event flow which, as I see it, is pretty much the game. I’m seeing the system as a cross between the Sampats’ Mist-Robed Gate (for flashy ass-kicking abilities with similar game functions), Rob Bohl’s Misspent Youth (for the set scene structure and resisting authority shtick) and Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (for the clearly laid-out set of guidelines for hard choices).
[Hi folks! I’m the playtester in brackets. Playtesting, playtesting – 1, 2, 3…]
What You Need:
The Character Roster Sheet (or some graph paper made to look like one)
The Event Matrix Sheet (or some graph paper made to look like one)
13 action figures/dolls you feel attached to
Bag with some mixed 20 red/white poker chips in it (optional)
Computer with table- or spreadsheet-making program (optional)
Digital camera or laptop camera (optional)
Digital audio recording device (optional)
[The Roster Sheets and Event Matrices will be posted later in the week, when all the optional items will be discussed as well. For now, let’s hit the gameflow.]
- The Pre-Game
- The March Ritual
- The Past
- Resisting the Adversary
- Ruling Badly
- Intrigue and Wariness
- The March Ritual, Redux
- Battling and Flashbacks
- The Final Battle
You play the Manipulator, the person whose hands skillfully maneuver the figures and who meddles judiciously in the plot. The Manipulator is the sole decider and the main audience, so it only seems appropriate that they also get to determine the Outcome of things. To play the game as the Manipulator, you need only perform the steps in the order described:
• Array all the materials listed above in a comfortable space that won’t be disturbed for several hours.
[I have chosen an under-used office in my parents’ house in Iowa.]
• Put on some dramatic music if it gets you in the mood. Preferably Wagner, but the possibilities are plentiful.
[I chose Adorno, actually. ‘Cause I don’t have any Wagner. Curious, indeed!]
• Select two action figures to which you feel strongly attached. These are the Protagonist figures.
[I have selected Mantor from Sectaurs (renamed as Dirk de Silver — a dashing name!) and Fugitoid from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (renamed as Botkin — has a bit of a robot-y sound and the -kin suffix recalls familial signifiers). Both are relatively obscure but prominent in my imagination.]
• Abandon in your mind everything you know about the figure. The only thing you know about them is based on the physical appearance of the figure itself. Digitally photograph them for your own records. You know nothing about them now, but soon you will know more.
The March Ritual:
We cannot go on without dramatically establishing the stakes of what’s going on. Besides – most of the best modern stories start somewhere in the middle before going to the beginning.
• Place the selected protagonist figures on either side of the Character Roster in front of you. Imagine that they are staring across a vast battlefield at each other, draped in dramatic military finery and looking grim but determined. There armies are arrayed before them, but we cannot quite see who makes up its membership. Yet.
[Okay, so I’m liking the contrast between a silver-clad warrior and a gold robot. It’s a cheap shot, but I’m picturing Dirk with a flowing purple robe to match his purple eyes standing on a precipice overlooking a battered mechanical palace. Botkin meanwhile looks calmly from the balcony of the palace up at Dirk. I have an idea that Dirk’s forces will come pouring down into the canyon on horseback, whereas Botkin’s will be robotic and swarm out of the palace.]
• Stare into one of the figure’s eyes, bringing it closer to your face. This indicates to you to flashback to the Past.
[Given that his eyes at least have pupils, I do this to Botkin. See reenactment below.]
Now it’s time to think about the life of the two Protagonists before the Manipulator’s decisions inevitably forced them against each other. Back in the days when they had a common enemy; when there was… the Adversary.
• Answer the following three questions for each protagonist and jot it down as shorthand notes under their names: where and what is their Base of Operations? Why do their peers respect them? What would they kill to protect?
[Alright: character generation time! Dirk’s got long legs (though is without mount), so I decide to make him a kind of dashing free-booting cavalryman from some old aristocracy. His Base is the Galloping Palace, a scarcely understood bio-magical contraption that’s effectively a mansion with legs. Running with this line of thinking, I put down under Respect “He’s a superb rider, spokesman and strategist.”
For Kill to Protect, I put “His family lineage.” A proper supernatural insect noble, right? Okay: onto Botkin. I can already sense the tension between the magic and the robot technology angles of this choice, so I’m going to put Botkin in the Adversary’s Mechanical Palace… as one of its robot servants. Under Respect, I put “Downloaded Skills,” kind of like in The Matrix, and for Kill to Protect I put “His tender connection with the other robots.” So both Dirk and Botkin are in many ways both fiercely familial. Sounds like a Romeo and Juliet story already!]
• Create an Adversary by choosing another action figure from your available supplies, preferably one whom you find intimidating or creepy. This will become the Adversary. Give it a name.
[Hmmm… so many creepy looking figures in my collection! I select the Blue Ghostling from the Super Naturals, because I really like the cloak/hologram fashion combo; reminds me of a perfectly Deleuzian body without organs. I name him The Vanished King, because he has no distinct shape under his cloak.]
• Answer the following two questions: how does the Adversary keep others in line? What dark plan is he/she ready to unleash?
[The Vanished King calls forth lots of ideas for prospective abilities. I decide that he has Possession as a means of Keeping Others in Line — he can inhabit the bodies of others and subsequently may be always watching within the boundaries of his empire. For his Dark Plan, I chose that he wants to plant copies of himself in the minds of many of his subjects, and has developed technology to help him accomplish this, since magic cannot.]
• And now select three additional figures from the initial pile. These will be the Adversary’s minions, and can embody either legions of similar-looking figures or just a single, fearsome foe. Each figure can be treated like an Ally, except they don’t automatically get a Resist stat. That means each minion has a Weapon and a MegaMove, which you can decide on the spot or wait until a good idea comes along. You have the option of selecting an action figure to represent a standard goon for the Adversary. These have no stats, and are mere fodder for the main characters to work through.
[Here’s a fun part: choosing Flunkies! I grab Spikor from Masters of the Universe and rename him Spinox, the Enforcer (Weapon: Stunning Prod, Mega Move: Pointed Embrace)]. I assume he’s the muscle of the Vanished King’s dystopian kingdom, breaking in doors and striking terror on the populace. The other two are Sinuet, the Mind-Controller (Weapon: Hypnotic Eye, MegaMove: Psychic Evisceration — Bug-Eye from the Real Ghostbusters), and Botcruel, the Technologist (Weapon: Crushing Grip, MegaMove: Vaporpulse — Cruel from Robo Force). Sinuet produces auto-consent and a waiting supply of informers, whereas Botcruel is the chief overseer of the mechanisms in the Vanished King’s palace (including Botkin). Finally, I want the goons to be this faceless Grizzlor from She-Ra, ’cause he looks insane without a face.]
Stay tuned! To Be Continued…
January 4, 2011
Dirk de Silver:
Now that the Evil is vanquished, what now?
Botkin, Awakened A.I.:
“What now?” does not compute. Evil: eliminated
Dirk de Silver:
It doesn’t feel like much – winning.
No perspective. You’d certainly feel it if you did not win.
Dirk de Silver:
But what’s the point of fighting if not for the feeling?
Principles, perhaps. Something to protect?
Dirk de Silver:
Me? I fought for freedom.
You fought for your freedom, I for mine.
Dirk de Silver:
So what? We just finish here, and then go our
separate ways in the world. Abandon our responsibilities?
Better that than the alternative –
becoming what we just vanquished.
The earth shakes as the troops roll out. Two war-hardened leaders stare across a battlefield and recall the times when they fought side-by-side. Once a tyrannical empire had the land in its grip, imposing its will on the people. Fortunately, the two heroes resisted, gathered resourceful allies, used their unique gifts to overcome the tyrant and his minions, and imposed a new, harmonious order on the land. But the core differences between both leaders frayed their relationship; the power and responsibilities of ruling an empire were too great for their vulnerable natures. They began to find fault in every action the other took, polarizing their friends and causing ever-greater disasters within their empire. Finally, the empire was no longer big enough for the two of them — only one could rule. Now their divided allies will summon down acid darkness, open up their hearts, and spill blood for a cause greater than their own: a cause that – as they stare across the battlefield/graveyard-to-be – their leaders may no longer believe in, but now it’s too late. This will cause some to turn traitor, finding their own skins worth more than meaningless martyrdom. Who would want to win such a battle, or even rule the shattered country remaining after the dust settles?
Perhaps only a tyrant.
Figurative Destruction is a diceless, solitary role-playing game that utilizes action-figures as cues for imagining an ultimate battle between two epic heroes now turned against each other by their opposing world-views. It is intended to simulate the kinds of grand-but-simplistic imaginative play many of us practiced during our childhood, albeit adding enriched pathos for an older audience. Though the game institutes a fairly strict dramatic structure, these limitations are designed to focus the player’s (forthwith known as the Manipulator) attention on making the hard choices needed to guide the tragedy toward its suspenseful conclusion.
Normally at this point, I’d be citing all kinds of books and movies that inspired this story arc, etc. This time, however, I’d like for you to just decouple your imagination from all the media that’ll influence your play anyway. Imagine instead the following scenario: you’re a kid who has never been exposed to Marvel Comics and you receive a Wolverine toy. It’s awesome – a kind of wolfish looking guy in a black cyber suit with long blades sticking out of his knuckles. You begin to extrapolate: he’s a dark prince from a kingdom besieged by giant, person-sized maggot things. He has created a cyber suit with claw-like exoskeleton extensions in order to survive in the new hostile environment. His goggles pick up not only the signatures of his maggot prey, but also their spirits after he’s killed them, which is slowly driving him insane. Thus he has been recently exiled to the far off Anvil of the Sun, an unspeakable desert that no one has survived. They’re sending him there tomorrow. His name is now the Clawed Scion, and he’ll be ready to take his kingdom back.
See, neither of these two options for this action-figure’s back-story is more ridiculous or (in my mind) more correct than the other:
Name: Clawed Scion
Powers: Involuntarily Sense the Dead, Cyber Suit
Background: Psychic prince whose kingdom is under siege by giant maggots, but whose very means of fighting his enemies turns out to be his undoing, and is forced into desert exile.
Powers: Adamantium Exoskeleton, Fast Healing
Background: Son of a 19th Century Canadian farmer whose skeleton is bonded with metal in the Weapon X super-soldier project and who then rebels and works for a paramilitary group of liberal mutants
In addition, my version of the Silliness is decoupled from the corporate-enforced, overdetermined Silliness of the backstory to be combined with Wolverine’s image.
Next post – The Rules!
January 2, 2011
(I’m somewhat writing this RPG in order, so bear with me. The actual system’s on its way. ;-))
When we were growing up in the 1980s, we might have been dimly aware of our being amidst a world boom in action-figures. The success of the Star Wars franchise model combined with the 1983 deregulation of children’s television programming based on toys suddenly prompted toy and media companies to jump into bed together. The spawn of their steamy corporate passion were both numerous and absurd: a host of mediocre-to-terrible television programs designed specifically to market action-figures – molded acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) enveloped in colorful industrial acrylics and sealed with polyethylene “accessories” likely to be swallowed or lost in the couch cushions – to impressionable young boys from American suburbs.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe? Mattel created the sci-fi/fantasy cartoon explicitly to sell the figures, which otherwise had ridiculous-looking bow legs. Visionaries – Knights of the Magical Light? Hasbro’s crude response to He-Man, namely fantasy “G.I. Joes” equipped with holograms on their chests and useless staves. Sectaurs? Coleco’s modestly successful insect mutant figures with a nigh-unwatchable cartoon to match. The list goes on: Army Ants, Dino-Riders, M.A.S.K. … the list of recognizable-but-discarded cartoon-toy name brands number in the hundreds. The most successful lines, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers, remain with us to this day, thoroughly insulated from the dark humor of Eastman & Laird or the experiments of obscure Takara engineers in the late 1970s that gave the toys their narrative appeal in the first place, but no less absurd than their unsuccessful counterparts.
The primary way the older brands (i.e. pre-1995) are to be interpreted today is through the lens of sarcasm and/or nostalgia. Their sealed plastic is given an additional, incorporeal seal: that of a corporatized childhood, one that should be discarded as readily as it trapped parents’ wallets. “Ha! Got you!” scream out the toy collections of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings, “It was all a ruse – you bought the Raphael in Greek armor! The only way to make your money back in THIS system is to come up with a scam of your own.” Indeed, 1980s action-figures appear as epitomes of the Biblical false idol, ushered in by cheap Saudi oil and techno-militaristic fantasies but too ham-strung by ridiculous narratives to be taken seriously. A dorky prince whose sword’s primary power is to inject him with testosterone? Medieval knights on an alien world who embrace their shamanic totem symbol? Genetically mutated anthropoid insect-people locked in a pointless struggle over a blasted desert? Staring into the narratives behind these figures becomes a confrontation with the symbolic void. We know their names – General Spidrax, Man-at-Arms, Shredder, Optimus Prime – but struggle with assigning them real pathos. But yet…
Opening up my case of action figures after not looking at them for a dozen years brought not a wave of post-scam revulsion, but of boyish love for the slightly smelly plastic. Their visual and tactile qualities immediately recalled countless adventures played out on my bedroom and basement floor. The Mercenaries of Bornbrom, ruthless slavers and transformed prophet-kings (this was Shredder, Ratar-O, and Scare-Glo). There were the Eight Brothers (I had a lot of Ninja Turtle figures) whose attractive green skin caused women to faint, and Captain Megazoom (Space Usagi, pictured left) who would rule the galaxy as a debonaire emperor were it not for the stolid efforts of his enemies the Bodiless (who were totally invisible; I didn’t need to buy a figure for them). I realized this wasn’t nostalgia for the figures themselves, but for the stories I was once able to tell with them. There was a system to how I told the story; I didn’t get into role-playing through arbitrary means. The tragic tale would have to unfold in a certain fashion, and this certain fashion is what I seek to replicate in Figurative Destruction – The Solo RPG: how figures fight together, get separated by their inner natures and then fight again to their own foretold demises. Aeschylus and Shakespeare meet Eternia and Prismos reloaded.
Scoffing at those who would simply gaze at their figures slowly accruing value in plastic boxes, I imbue the soulless with a soul, nurture it, watch it grow, and feel the pathos when the figures are returned back to the dark recesses of the toy box. I creatively destroy and resurrect them, role-playing all the parts with new identities (only their color and shape remain more-or-less the same), powers, and plotlines.
And now so can you.
January 1, 2011
by Evan Torner
Tagline: War kills, power corrupts, evil spreads — and that, friend, is only the beginning.
Fictional Synopsis: Suffering under a tyrannical and inhumane empire, two friends assemble a plucky cell of resistance and miraculously overcome the odds to defeat the source of their troubles. Yet philosophical and practical dilemmas lay before them, dilemmas that prove insurmountably divisive. Slowly their fellow resistance fighters begin to choose sides between them, until their infant society is polarized, forcing their respective armies to confront each other in a painful final showdown.
Design Premise: Upon returning home to Iowa, I discovered a vast treasure trove of RPG books, assorted characters from two decades of gaming, and a closet full of action figures. What to do with all this ephemera? Design a game around it, of course: a game that would also replicate a frequently repeated war storyline in my own imaginary play of my youth. Personal design goals include the expropriation of a large quantity of trademarked action figures and personal campaign-bound characters alike (i.e., their names, identities and powers will be fiddled with at will), their incorporation into a storyline that both showcases their formidable strengths and fatal vulnerabilities pitted against one another, and this storyline’s service to both the player and others as a cautionary tale. I also want to include a system that uses both audio and digital images to document the role-playing while not kowtowing to the genres of podcasts, video or webcomics. The point, I think, is to have the game mechanics add adult pathos, nuance and ambiguity to the otherwise Manichean battlefields of the cartoons many of us grew up with.
I leave you with a video about Sectaur:
September 5, 2010
All the graduate students are settling in. Now comes the swarm of undergrads. Assorted departmental events require my attentions. Fortunately, I enjoy being back in the swing of things.
Writing projects are swarming around me. I am finishing up an essay on the Fantastic in German cinema for the World Cinema Directory, an article for the Knutpunkt 2011 publication on film documentation about LARP, transcriptions of interviews for a colleague (they’re almost done, Jon!), an article about asexuality in Alan Moore film adaptations and a presentation about Gojko Mitic for the 2010 GSA in Oakland, which I am visiting in a month. Still committing several hours to dissertation reading/research a day, as well.
Our role-playing life also looks quite fruitful this fall. We are planning on playing a weekly swashbuckling game (system undecided: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, Lady Blackbird and Swords without Master are all tantalizing possibilities.) Then we just received offers to play Apocalypse World, as well as a Smallville game hack based on The Lost Years of Merlin, and there are several game days in our future for September and October. Great to have a torrent of RPG opportunities after the drought of Berlin!
Speaking of torrents, apparently Hurricane Earl lost its steam as it swarmed up the coast, though some places got hit a little.
Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, USA, 2009)
I knew nothing about this film before I saw it, but Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen (2009) – a great multicultural farce – was sold out just when we arrived, so in we went. A ballet film about the life of a Chinese ballet dancer who manages to make it to capitalist America during the 1980s to become a star. I was struck by how much the film directly references The 36th Chamber of the Shao-Lin (1978) during his boyhood training montage, and how the musical score articulates redundant emotional cues in the fashion of a melodrama. This would have been a fantastic made-for-TV movie, but on the big screen it was slightly silly. Nevertheless, the revolution-kitsch sequence where all the ballet dancers are given guns and are marching off toward the communist future was worth the ticket.
Firefly (Episodes “Trash” and “Shindig”, 2002)
I have noticed in re-watching old Firefly episodes that the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere from the show stems not only from the snappy dialog, “aw shucks” guitar-twangy soundtrack, or absurd plot pickles, but from the characters’ eyebrows. That’s right – situations tend to revolve around an interplay between some scenic element and the raising and lowering of a prominently placed character eyebrow. Let’s look at some examples:
The episode “Trash” opens with Captain Mal sitting in a desert, naked. A close-up of his face has him raise his eyebrow prominently in the sunlight before sardonically stating: “Well, that went well.” The eyebrow raise heightens the contrast already posed by his statement and his situation.
Flashback to earlier: Mal meets up with an old friend. The man’s moustache is huge, but the eyebrows are what make him sympathetic and avuncular, rather than merely sketchy. We trust him on behalf of his eyebrows, which he uses most expressively.
Here’s Mal’s eyebrow raise expressing extreme skepticism toward a proposal. Yes, we as the viewers would turn that crazy offer down, too: eyebrow raising as a means of building sympathies with characters’ worldviews.
Inara’s eyebrows are clearly the most impressive in the show, and are the primary reason for our attraction to her – the way they help frame her eyes, along with her long black hair. Expressions of mystery, tranquility and innocence – the eyebrows of a domesticated vamp.
Kaylee has a great idea. And how do we know it’s great? By raising her eyebrows during a moment of creativity and confidence. Eyebrows as indicators of inspiration and “thinking outside the box,” perhaps of thought itself.
Here’s a good example of eyebrows as a suspense mechanism: Wash the pilot tries to keep his ship steady by raising it and lowering it, just as his eyebrows similarly raise and lower. Eyebrows can function as a suspense mechanism, building inherent tension through the uncertainty of their fluttering.
Last, but not least, Jayne is immobilized on an operating table. Only his face can move, exaggerating the series’ idiomatic reliance on facial cues for humor to the point of near-absurdity. Jayne is imprisoned in his facial gesticulations, demonstrating them to be useless in persuading others’ of his point of view. The scene re-affirms the eyebrow as humor mechanism while self-reflexively pointing out its inability to have a lasting impact on reality, unlike the eyebrow twitches found throughout the rest of the show.
Now I could be reading too much into eyebrow characteristics found in all television, but this episode somehow illustrated them most effectively.
SoulCalibur (Namco, 1999)
After firing up my Dreamcast from a year-long hiatus, I revisited an old classic: SoulCalibur, one of the best games for the console and prettiest fighting games ever made. In light of present-day CG technologies, the game’s look stands up to the test of time. Hues and contrast in the background still remind me of 19th Century landscape paintings, and the fight choreography still draws me in to emulate it. Cursory research revealed that the game’s success as a fighting title (in contrast with Tekken and VirtuaFighter) can be owed to something called “lenient buffering,” which allows for easier execution of complicated moves to both beginners and experts alike. This flexible valence on the learning-curve makes it a remarkably egalitarian game, as button-mashers can still take on pros (especially with Siegfried or Misturugi), whilst the latter can always find new combinations of attacks and defenses for certain scenarios. Later versions of the game diminished this balance by adding too many chain combinations, juggling maneuvers and gimmicks in general to the mix, which makes it a slighly nicer looking version of most other fighting games. In the meantime, I enjoy the lenient buffering of the original.