I was watching CNN’s documentary on the 1960s last night (which is interesting viewing, incidentally, if you want a quick overview of the decade), and in this particular episode it discussed how television (to paraphrase) was an escape from the darkness, fear, and unease that permeated the society at large. It was an age of zany sitcoms and upbeat variety shows while, on the evening news, the lists of American’s injured or killed in Vietnam was top news, college campuses were rioting, and black people were getting shot, bombed, sprayed with hoses, and assaulted with attack dogs all because they wanted basic human rights.
Now, everything in the latter half there should sound awfully familiar in our current era – the dead soldiers, the riots and demonstrations among the youth, and the mistreatment of African Americans marching for basic equality. What doesn’t sound familiar (at least to me) is the characterization of television as “zany.” Sure, there’s a docket of late night variety shows (though how much “variety” is present is debatable), but few of them are “zany” (with the possible exception of Jimmy Fallon). We’ve got sitcoms, too, but they have a lot less in common with The Dick VanDyke Show and Gilligan’s Island – with their “wholesome” and harmless optimism – and rely, instead, on cynicism, sarcasm, and insult comedy (look at any Chuck Lorre sitcom and despair).
As for dramas…yeesh. You know, when Dexter is one of the more optimistic offerings out there, you’ve got to step back and wonder what on Earth is wrong with us. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Expanse, The Magicians, The Walking Dead, The Blacklist, Man in the High Castle – we’re looking at a veritable who’s-who of dark, depressing, morally ambiguous, and emotionally wrenching stories that catch our collective attention. How many millions of people tuned in to watch Negan swing a baseball bat into somebody’s head, anyway?
What exactly does this say about us?
Now, mind you, I enjoy a lot of these shows. I like moral ambiguity and complex stories without clear resolutions. I do wonder, however, if all this misery, pain, and negativity saturating our entertainment is good for us on an emotional level. As the world gets darker and more disturbing around us with each passing year, wouldn’t it be more natural for us to go all-in with shows like The Good Place, which aspire to a generally positive tone and outlook? It seems this is what Supergirl and The Flash are trying to do, anyway, but (at least personally) something about those shows leaves me flat. They just lack a certain…darkness that I’ve come to expect.
And that last there is what vaguely worries me. Granted, it isn’t like I’ve performed an in-depth survey here and my sense is only that – a sense – but one wonders if we’ve become inured to the horrors of the world. That we don’t have the heady optimism of the post-war boom to ride on to remind us that life doesn’t have to suck and that America can, indeed, be a good place again. When was the last great era of American optimism in our collective lives? The 1990s, right? That’s twenty years gone, folks. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a barely remembered dream. Now it’s all zombie apocalypses and post-modern deconstructions of old sitcom tropes. It’s beheadings and ritualized cruelty. Our “escape” isn ‘t so much an escape as it is a funhouse mirror reflection of our real lives.
Then again, you could make the argument that this is actually healthy. That we aren’t sticking our heads in the sand; that we’re going to face our problems head-on for once. It could go either way, I suppose: either we will face down the dangers of our era with greater passion than before, or instead we will merely shrug and say “that’s life” and let the machine grind us up.
OR maybe I’m just hand-wringing over nothing. I am sure of one thing though: nobody wants or needs a Suicide Squad sequel. Nobody.
So, I’ve just had an idea. It’s one of those ideas which is probably going to eat up far too much of my spare time (wait…I have that?), but could potentially be enormous fun. It’s also one of those ideas that, now that I’ve had it, it is pretty much guaranteed I’m going to do something about it, so I may as well start now.
The idea is a role-playing game inspired by 1960s spy movies. I’m calling it ‘Our Man in Havanna’, but the exact title doesn’t matter so much right now. What’s important is that it is supposed to call up the image of cigarette-smoke filled nightclubs where dangerous men in dark suits play the intelligence game with their wits, a garotte wire, and a .32 caliber automatic. All of this was inspired yesterday, while my daughter and I were listening to this song by Pink Martini.
Anyway, here’s the idea, as it stands now:
One Hero: Most RPGs are ensemble pieces–because there are usually 3 or more players and everybody wants to be a hero, you wind up with a team of experts a la The A-Team, Mission: Impossible, and so on. This is great and all, but I want to shake things up. There is one spy in this game, he/she is the hero, and the story is about him or her. The players actually take turns playing the spy (more on that later) and the idea here is not so much to make your own character shine so much as to make the collective story awesome. Far from being competitive, this game is intended to be collaborative. It is, to my mind, one of the only ways you can have a single-hero story in an RPG without making people feel left out.
Set Roles: As mentioned above, the Spy is played by various people throughout the campaign. So what does everybody else do? Well, we’ve all seen spy movies–there are roles to be filled. Here they are:
- The Dealer is the GM, essentially. He/she controls the deck, sets the scenes, introduces the mission, and so on. He/she keeps his role throughout the game.
- The Spy is the person sitting to the right of the Dealer (at first). The Spy is the hero, as described.
- The Sidekick is the person sitting to the right of the Spy. They play the various assistants to the hero (which may change throughout the session of campaign, as the story dictates).
- The Spoiler is the person sitting to the right of the Spy. They play the wild card characters–love interests, double agents, important secondary characters, and so on. Again, these characters may change as the session or campaign progresses.
- The Extras is the person sitting to the right of the Spoiler. This player plays all the goons, civilians, and nameless whoevers populating each scene. This is a role usually reserved for the GM in a game, but I’ve often found that players can do it just as well if not better than I can, anyway.
- The Villain is the person sitting to the right of the Extras. This player plays the main bad guy–Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, whatever. Again, a typical GM role, but hilarious fun nevertheless.
If you have fewer than 5 players, you can whittle out roles as you see fit. Extra roles can be played by the Dealer. The objective of everyone is to make a cool spy story together–to entertain one another and have fun playing their roles. In this regard it’s almost like dinner theatre which, incidentally, I think the best RPGs are like anyway.
No Dice: Rather than using dice, the game will use a standard playing card deck (or decks–still thinking about that) in order to adjudicate the kind of things that dice usually decide. I want the game to play sort of like blackjack/poker/baccarat–high stakes, plenty of strategy, reading facial expressions, etc. I haven’t fully decided how the system is going to work yet (I just thought of this yesterday, after all), but I’m thinking it will work sort of like War, in general. If a player wants to do something, the dealer drops a card that represents the difficulty of the task and, to some extent, the nature of the obstacle. If the player can furnish a card that beats the value of the card laid down (aces low, but ace beats king), they succeed and may describe what they do. If they can’t, they fail. The suits of cards exhibit the ways which an obstacle can be overcome. So, for instance (not set in stone, but what I’ve got so far):
- Clubs is the use of force to solve a problem: beat up a thug, break down a door, leap a pit, etc.
- Spades is the use of stealth, subterfuge, or trickery: sneak past a guard, pick a pocket, spot a hidden door, shake a tail, etc.
- Diamonds is the use of resources or equipment: bribe an official, use a pocket laser to cut through a safe, slip knock-out drops in a drink, snipe a target with a high-powered rifle, etc.
- Hearts is the use of charisma, personal magnetism, and charm to solve problems: seduce the villain’s wife, impersonate a general, intimidate a contact, bluff in a card game, etc.
So, by way of example, if you want to break into the villain’s hotel room and I (or the villain) drops a 4 of clubs, that means the doors are locked tight and, possibly (if the Extras player feels like it) there’s a goon outside the door. The Spy would then refer to his or her hand and see if there’s anything of a 5 or higher. Depending on what is there, that determines how the spy can solve the problem. If all he’s got is a 5 of Hearts, he needs to charm his way into the room somehow (perhaps by speaking to the chambermaid), otherwise he can’t do it.
Face Cards will have additional crazy effects, but I haven’t determined what, yet. I’m also thinking that direct confrontations (like fights, chases, and the like) might involve more complicated contests, but I’m not sure how yet.
The idea here is to create a game that is stylish, cool, collaborative, and fun. I’m using cards because I want the players to feel like they’re gathered around a table of green felt in Monte Carlo, stuffed cheek-and-jowl with men in good suits, women in sparking gowns, and dark strangers with eye patches and the uniform of a third-world dictator. I intend to break the game into phases–the Briefing (wherein the Villain and other characters are created), the Investigation (wherein the spy figures out the Villain’s plan), and the Confrontation (wherein the Spy tries to defeat the Villain). I want death traps and car chases and snappy dialogue, goofy gadgets and, most of all, fun.
So, whaddya think? Sound cool? Suggestions? Advice?