- Classic 1930s and 1940s Horror Roleplaying Games
- Creating Characters for our Horror B-Movie Roleplaying Game
- Classic B-Horror Movie Roleplaying Module based on White Zombie
Recently we put wrote a quick and dirty roleplaying game where the players played the main characters in schlocky B horror movies of the 1930’s (and thereabouts). We built the basic system and described the basic mood of the game. This week let’s flesh it out a bit by taking a closer look at the character archetypes we’ll want our characters to play.
We’ve already given our characters some of the basic skills required in the genre – B movie science, occult knowledge, acts of courage etc. But we’ve not yet given the players a reason to act in a way the setting demands. Personally, I think this aspect of game design is really what sets a decent game apart from an ordinary one – that the rules system and the setting harmonise. There’s several ways of going about this – in other systems it’s done by either introducing specific rules that integrate the character into the game world – for example the rules for Morphs in Eclipse Phase, with the specific “somatic” skill describing your ability to control different bodies – or Traveller’s unique character creation system which takes you through years of your character’s career to date, giving you a good introduction to how the world is set out, your place in it and also, incidentally, allowing your character to die during creation. Alternatively, some rules systems are extremely flavourful. As an example one can’t go past the original Deadlands rule-set which utilised playing cards, imbuing the narrative with a visceral experience reminiscent of the Wild West. The genre we’re swimming in needs us to reward player character behaviour when it follows the theme.
This is achieved in the simplest fashion by introducing classes. Now, I’m not usually one who prefers class systems – my usual opinion is that your skills and abilities determine the sort of person you are and classes usually only restrict choices and creativity. In this case, however, classes would fit our theme very well as the genre is littered with carbon cut out character types. Let’s describe a few:
- The Protagonist: Always male. (This is the 1930’s, after all, people.) Square jaw, clean cut. He isn’t always the buff macho man, but when push comes to shove he’s ready to put up his dukes and wade in. Usually the protagonist has some kind of reason to be involved in the story – if it’s a B grade science horror perhaps they’ll be a scientist. They could be an anthropologist studying voodoo beliefs and ritual. However, they’re not the expert on the subject. That’s taken by either the Scientist or the Occult Specialist (see below).
- The Scientist: Frequently older and in a superior position to the protagonist – perhaps a mentor – the Scientist has an immense grasp on the limits of traditional scientific knowledge and can speculate – perhaps correctly – about the origins and identity of unknown phenomena. When called to action they may do their duty, but in general this character is more dispensable than the protagonist.
- Van Helsing: One of the most frequently recurring characters in these movies – and certainly in the later Hammer series of the 60’s and 70’s – was a Van Helsing-type character. For any of you who don’t know your Dracula, Van Helsing was a learned man who came to be convinced of the reality of Vampires, and Dracula in particular, and was the primary source of information on how it all “works” in the novel. His research lead him to understand the history of the vampire and the several methods which can be employed against him. He has the same sort of functional role as the Scientist in that he’s not the main hero, but provides the necessary knowledge and advice for the main character to successfully deal with the antagonist/s.
- The Damsel: The depiction of women in this era of film might make modern viewers cringe – ever in need of saving, only just waking up to the fact that women might have agency in their own right. Now, if we were going for a modernistic retelling of these sorts of stories we’d have to edit the role of the female main characters here. I’m going to go out on a limb and, at least for this game, aim for a more “period” feel. I justify it by the following argument: The narrative of the role of women in modern society describes a slow transition. Our game will allow us to examine a stage of this narrative. That said, there’s more to the female character in this era of horror film than simply the screaming, bosom-heaving blonde. Have a read over here: http://wagesoffilm.com/post/45432802612/women-in-the-horror-films-of-the-1930s. Overall, whereas the female lead character might at times show a bit more fight than is traditionally associated with this type of character (Helen destroys the Mummy by praying to Isis in the final act of The Mummy, Ann Darrow transfixes King Kong in the movie of the same name), they eventually revert to the “damsel in distress” who must be saved by the male protagonist. In many gaming groups it might be preferable to simply have this character be an NPC. However, if your group is adventurous with roles and styles of play – why else would you even consider running this thrown together little experiment? – why not give this character type a try.
I’m sure there’s more character archetypes we might include, but I’m going to stop right there and move on. Note that, when coming up with your characters, it’s probably a good idea to know what sort of story you’re going to run through. Not that any type of character should necessarily be omitted – I was going to write “Don’t put a scientist in a voodoo story”, but I realized I was wrong. Your scientist character might have a grand old time looking up things like hypnotic suggestion, the power of placebos, or who knows what type of explanation. Similarly, if your story revolves around vampires, you might have some interesting arguments between the Van Helsing type character and the scientist, one insisting on an occult explanation, the other on a scientific one. Reward creativity. That said, it might be preferable to persuade your characters to play a certain type of hero depending on the scenario to be run through.
Next we need to give each of these archetypes a couple of different abilities.
The Protagonist – The one most important bit about the protagonist is that they are, by narrative necessity, immortal. He needs to be able to pull out a win at the right time. So let’s make him that way: A character with this ability can automatically succeed at an action when the roll otherwise indicates a fail. When forced to do this, however, one of the other characters must suffer something horrible. Either you can ask the players to volunteer or you get to get creative, GM!
Let’s have a little example. James Dashington rushes to the aid of the lovely Gwinny. Wrestling with Professor Darkly, James rolls a series of ones. Alas! A quick round of furtive looks around the gaming table finally results in Gwinny’s player putting her hand up. Everyone sighs in relief. The GM announces “Struggling with Professor Darkly, Gwinny’s rope somehow tangles around the Professor’s legs. With a scream, he falls of the gangway, splashing together with Gwinny into the horrible zombie goo! After a few minutes 2 grotesque figures crawl out of the vat.” Now, this has ended in a non-typical way for one of these movies – but it doesn’t have to be the end. The GM now gets to add another element to the plot, where the protagonist (and the other player characters) must now find out how to undo the process and restore Gwinny to life. If one of the other characters had fallen in the vat that might have been easier – just have them and the Professor both die.
Scientist – We could come up with some neat little ability for the Scientist, but why not instead hand over some of the plot? The Scientist, on a successful B-Movie Science roll, gets to make up the explanation for what’s going on. That becomes the real explanation. Now, I’d put a few limits in here. First of all, you must have reached a point in the story where an explanation makes sense. Secondly, you’re the GM. You maintain the right of veto if the player states something that would spoil the game. Encourage your player to come up with something fun and something you can work with. Then encourage your player to give a good monologue on the subject.
Van Helsing – Similar to the Scientist, you might have the Van Helsing character make up the explanation to your monster/villain/problem at an appropriate point. Apply the same restrictions and caveats as above. Encourage a monologue.
Love interest – This time we’re going to give a couple of fun abilities to play with. Let’s call them “Scream” and “Trip over”. It’s all in the archetype, people. “Scream” can be played whenever the love interest is either threatened by a villain/monster, or when they have been captured and are held by the villain/monster. It immediately alerts the Protagonist to the plight of the character. At the same time we might allow the player to briefly describe how the villain reacts to the scream. “Trip Over” can be used when running away from the villain or beast. Any nearby character will instantly stop to help. This ability gives anyone involved an extra dice to roll in the “running away” action.
What should be pointed out is a subtle difference from a traditional RPG in this game; in most games, the players are set against the adventure in a win/lose sort of arrangement. It’s possible for everyone to die and the adventure to be “lost.” That’s not the case in this game. Our emphasis is in constructing a narrative. The players should be aware that they will, at the end of the game, win. For that reason there’s no purpose in abusing the powers delineated above. Players should not feel they have to make up an explanation for the phenomena that makes it easy to defeat, for example. Nor should they feel the need to describe the villain instantly letting the female lead go the moment she screams. Instead there should be explanations which help the narrative along and make it interesting and fun.
Now there’s not much left to throw together except some notes to the GM on how to run a session and perhaps a sample adventure. We’ll look at them next time.