Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Horror Allows More Badassery, At A Price

And we're back. What's that? We were supposed to be back on Monday? Sorry about that. I was sick before my work trip, and so I was sick during my work trip, which meant when I got back home I basically just collapsed into a puddle of sick. Since then, I've basically spent less of the last three days being awake than anything else.

Fortunately I'm on the mend, and this time with a new insight (for me at least) I received watching some "scary" movies while half conscious on the couch. In particular, my brain got to wandering on the character Richard B. Riddick and how the "horror" genre of Pitch Black enables this character to be more bad ass, and less generic, than the two sequel movies which are much more in line with general Sci-Fi/Action.

So how does it work?

It's All About Relative Threat
In a horror movie the monster is supposed to be scary, and that means beyond the capabilities of the protagonists. Sometimes this is because the protagonists are just normal people. Sometimes this is because the killer has some sort of supernatural, technological, or other type of edge. Sometimes it is a combination of both. Freddie Krueger would be just as effective against a group of Marines - within reason - since ultimately you have the monster being a "god" in a realm where the victims are powerless. This would be considered broken in most games, except it is part of the horror genre: the threat balance is supposed to be so skewed to one side that it's ridiculous. That's why surviving feels like winning.

Compare this to the action genre though. In an action movie while you do need to have a threat, you also need to have characters who are able to match that threat. Maybe in the early parts they're getting their butts kicked a bit, but they still have their moments. Individual characters have moments that shine. There are signs of competency. There is less a feeling of being in way over one's head and more a feeling of "welp, another tight spot to get out of. Oh well." In some action stories the threat scale is actually the inverse of a horror movie, with the protagonists being so competent, so deadly, that they can mow through the vast majority of the "bad guys" without problem and it's only by being able to go toe to toe with this walking death machine for more than a few seconds and survive that one's true threat level can be learned.

And Then Someone Stands Up...
Do you see where the problem is for "pure badassery"? Part of it is expectation. We expect it in an action sequence - and we can get it. However, when you put those moments into an Action movie, where the tone is already so much in favor of the protagonists, you can end up with a comical feeling and a story somewhat akin to the recent A-Team movie where at some point the protagonists are trying to fly a tank while engaged in aerial battle with drones and yeah it's fune....but it also kinda makes everything seem so silly that the sense of gravitas is lost.

Compare to say Ellen Ripley in Alien and Aliens. It's no mistake that Ripley is a badass. She's considered one of the most bad ass characters in all Sci-Fi and Fantasy. What did Ripley do that is so noteworthy? She persevered, she survived, and she won. The difference is that in Ripley's world she shouldn't.

In the Alien(s) universe, the Xenomorphs are so badass that they fairly casually take apart a group of colonial marines who after showing up to save the day basically end up on the world's longest extraction mission to try and get out. Throughout all this Ripley is only on the frontlines once or twice, but when she does she makes it count. First she takes control of the Marine's APC to break them out of a bad situation. Then she goes in to get Newt out, and she gets locked in. Why? Because we have this world where trained killers and fighters are getting picked off all over the place, but this one person just duct tapes a flame thrower to her pulse rifle, and she goes in, and she meets the enemy as an equal, and she gets back out.

Bad Assery Is A Matter of Scale
This is where Action movies sometimes have a problem. Bad Assery is a matter of scale. To be the coolest kid in School in Pitch Black all Riddick has to do is be a human monster, and then be equally capable to one of the thousands/millions of monsters on the world when it comes to a fight. That's it. All Riddick does in that movie is cement that he is at least as capable as one of the literally thousands of monsters, and he is a super badass. Bring that to an action movie though and it doesn't work as well. Why? Because it's expected to have someone that good first of all - he's an action movie protagonist, of course he's a bad ass, right? But also because in the end of an Action Movie the Hero has to be challenged and made vulnerable, while in the end of a horror movie the hero needs to persevere and show resolve.

Consequently, you have endings like Predator, Aliens, and Pitch Black where the protagonist gets to go off on high notes of bad-assdom, fighting to the end, ready to keep going, etc. Compare that to more action movies where the character has to be challenged and you're left with the sense of "we made it through, somehow." Effectively, one of them ends with "Oh yeah, I'm SO bad ass" and the other ends with "Thank god, I was just bad ass enough." And that sets a lot for the tone of your ending.

How Does This Apply To The Game Table
Now the hardest part about this is applying it to the game table. Horror can be hard at the game table, because Players are generally very good at figuring out ways to beat things - they watch the movies, they know the rules, etc. So getting things to that level of drama can be hard.

However, if there's something to remember here it is this: if you want a bad ass moment you need to set the threat so that the PCs feel like just surviving is the victory condition, and then you need to aim really hard for your ending tone to  be "I'm a bad ass" and not "oh thank god!".

You can do it, but it's hard. Look at more action/horror movies like Aliens, Predators, and others for examples of how movies have done it. Those are often what the games you are playing are trying to emulate anyhow.

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