Tuesday, September 23, 2014

FU Gundam and Naruto Game -- When the RPG Surpasses the Source Material

My friend wrote about a phenomena called the "imaginary ceiling" in which a RP setting based after an expanded universe can't surpass the original and can be downright uncomfortable playing in as a guest star in someone else's world. I understand his point and I can see instances in which it is true, but I generally don't feel that way. Granted, I played in two long running games set in rather large franchises and they surpassed the source material. One of the games completely ruined the franchise for me because I realized the potential of the setting, all of which the author did not.

I understand his point is mostly is subjective. He sees stories as belonging to the writer and all of us are just the audience- guest stars at best -- and I know a lot of people feel the exact same way. And that's completely cool by me. I just feel a little differently. Once a story is delivered to the masses, to me the story now belongs to the world. Everyone is going to walk away from the experience touched in a different way. I'm not saying the writer shouldn't get credit or paid for his/her work but everyone is going to perceive that writer's world differently from the next person. 

There is so much here I would love to play with!

 I got it, though, some people love a franchise so much, they feel they somehow could not do it justice or maybe unworthy to even consider it.  I also understand when people feel constricted in order to stay true to the world and the world's rules. I completely respect that because we're all different. But when the story's world is huge and small parts of said world are barely touched, I can't help but wonder what happens in said place and I see those blank spots as fair game to develop your own head canon.

 I have fun speculating. Like I speculate what happened to my cat before I got her (I adopted her when her name plaque said something like "~2 years old"). I may or may not have asked her this. I'll let you fill in the blank there.  When I play in a franchise, I worry less about getting it right and more wonder about what could be included to make it better and have it still fit within the rules of canon. Maybe this is arrogant of me, I don't know. It sure is fun, though! It is just as fun as creating my own universe! 

As I said, I was in two long running games based on franchises in which I did not feel limited. Of course, I think there are different reasons why they succeeded.

The first game, I played in college during my 3rd year was set in the Gundam Universe borrowing heavily from Gundam SEED. The system used was the anime inspired Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM). Our GM Chris, who had kind of a dark, self-disparaging sense of humor, called his game FU Gundam and our group played 3 iterations of this setting -- one remains unfinished but only because our GM decided to go to school closer to home. Also, his laptop died and he lost all his notes.

Rest in Peace, Chris's laptop along with all of my character's family members

I've never been a big fan of huge mecha robot anime. I know there are some people whose eyes glow and sparkle like a 5 year old on Christmas whenever they see big mecha clashing against other mecha. I just need a little bit more than that to get excited. There are just other things I'd rather watch. I need something like a revolution against an occupation like with Code Geass or an incredible mind-fuck like Neon Genesis Evangelion or a Stealth Parody like Martian Successor Nadeshiko.   I joined this game because the GM was a friend and he had asked me.

I have no idea what the hell I'm looking at
I ended up enjoying it immensely. Chris used the common Gundam/Big Mecha tropes and weaved in political intrigue along with epic battles, spiced with a dose of young adult angst. I never left a gaming session in which I didn't have my mouth half open in shock. Every little detail that he mentioned in the description of the scene, to what seemed to be miniscule reactions to events, to grains in our characters' back stories he wove with ease into his story. He could be a bit of a troll sometimes -- he loved to kill off NPCs we grew attached to, for instance, then cackle about it -- but he just really wanted to get this sense that the world rested on our characters' shoulders. He used everything he had to enhance the experience -- and loved mind-fucks.

Our group could not get enough of FU Gundam. We looked forward to every game and we speculated what Chris would do next which he would never divulge.  It was like an interactive TV show.

As I mentioned, I never liked Gundam or big mecha. My friends did. And Chris did. Although I remember him saying once he had a love-hate thing with Gundam. I don't think I could blame him. There are many different Gundam series going all the way back to the 70s and each series is more convoluted than the last. I tried watching Gundam Wing and it wasn't my cup of tea so in all honesty, I have nothing to compare it to. My friends to this day still talk about how FU Gundam is their favorite Gundam.  And FU Gundam is my favorite mecha series.

The other long running game set in a franchise happened to be one I liked and watched a couple seasons of before it went down the Hole of Shonen Boring Filler, this one being Naruto. Originally, all this madness started at the UMF TGC convention. I ran a one shot BESM game at it called the Chuunin Exam.

For people reading this who are unfamiliar with Naruto, the series is about hidden ninja villages (each village represents an element) and follows young Naruto as he trains to become "the greatest ninja of all time", typical shonen anime motivation. The second season deals with the Chuunin Exam -- a test novice ninjas take to go to the next rank. I created some pregens, including a ninja I made up who used paper as his primary weapon (think origami).

The game was successful and my friends asked me to run a couple more sessions which I did and then I just didn't feel up to continue it. My friend Tom asked if he could take the setting, remake it for GURPS and run it. I told him to go right ahead and then I asked if I could join.

Then things got serious

That happened to be a great idea. Tom had a style of GMing that fit the Naruto-verse very well. He mastered humor and lightness but he knows how to tackle serious and dark and heavy topics too. Even his dark moments have a touch of whimsy. He took Naruto to a place better than where the manga/anime went. And we loved it so much, we ended up playing two generations of characters. The first game, I played a character whose family's specialty was bamboo. She fought with a pole not too different from how Oberyn Martell fought the Mountain (except she... uh lived). Then, I played her son who had no sense of humor and was super intense.

Actually, this scene could have totally played out at the Chuunin exam

The interesting part was in the first iteration, half the players never even watched Naruto and they adored the game and picked up the nuances to the setting pretty easily. In the second iteration, the players all watched Naruto and by the end of the game, we had stopped watching it because Tom's interpretation of the setting just happened to be that much more interesting. He handled Naruto by saying he went off to some far off place to continue his goal to become the world's best ninja but other characters from Naruto made appearances. Our team had its own story not connected to Naruto's.

Having completed that Marydote, I do agree with some aspects of what my friend said. Some worlds just do not translate over to tabletop very well or not much longer than one game. I toyed with the idea of running a game based on the anime Attack on Titan. That anime/manga is about mankind in the future in which most of the world is overrun by giants that eat people. All of humanity live in this small walled city. The premise is cool but the world is not all encompassing. It is a tiny world with an insular cast. Unless you take out all the canon characters and just play with the setting, you won't get very far. But oh right, Eren, the main character has a key to all the world's mysteries.

Damnit, Eren, find the lock already

This is why the Naruto game worked. The world was vast and detailed and while Naruto is the main character, there is enough going on in which side characters could be going on their own adventures independently of Naruto. Just the story the author chose to tell was about Naruto's typical hero's journey of finding himself.

I think the reason why FU Gundam worked was because the world was less Gundam-verse but more of a Gundam-inspired universe. Chris just took common mecha tropes and played with them and took a lot of the nuances from Gundam itself. The game could have been called Mega-Mecha Shitstorm and nothing wouldn't change. In that case, I think FU Gundam doesn't apply as much to the imaginary ceiling as the Naruto game does.

It is like deciding to run a Walking Dead game but without any of the main characters. What you have is just a basic zombie survival game set in Georgia. You want to run a Supernatural game without Sam and Dean? Well, just go to the White Wolf website and download Hunter: the Vigil and hack some aspects/rules from Supernatural into the setting. It is not really Supernatural because it is the characters that make the setting. Otherwise it is just a world with demons and vampires that you happen to be fighting.

Or it is just Buffy-verse

I do feel the imaginary ceiling exists for me when you tabletop existing characters that aren't your own. I am running Cortex Dramatic using Smallville, but I could not imagine playing Clark Kent or whoever. Characters always feel a lot more personal to me than settings do but that is a matter of preference. The imaginary ceiling also exists for me in which you play in a world in which the NPCs are the main characters in said franchise and your characters are more side characters in another's adventure but I think that is more tied to poor GMing than to the franchise tabletop game itself. 

In conclusion to this ridiculously long post, I find my friend's concept of an imaginary ceiling intriguing and I see where he is coming from. I just don't entirely agree that roleplaying games can't live up to the franchise it comes from. I played two games that discounted that. However, I do think it exists in some ways with certain franchises.

I would like to end on a disclaimer that in general, I do like to create my own worlds and I don't think there is anything wrong with it. I get lost in world building all too easily but sometimes it is fun to speculate about other settings and play with the tools given to you. I don't think that would necessarily hinder you from making a great game, even if the franchise is amazing. I also get this is all a matter of opinion and no one is really right. I just wanted to toss my two cents in. If I came off as condescending, I'm sorry. XD

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