Monday, 8 September 2014

Campaign Workshop: Gaming the Nolanverse (Part One)

It's no secret that I loves me some superheroes, both on the comic book page and at the game table. And as a moviegoer, it's been an embarrassment of riches the past few years for superhero fans -- these days Marvel is hitting it out of the park, but the current Renaissance began, for me, with Christopher Nolan's dark, realistic take on Batman.

The Dark Knight was in pretty dire shape as a movie franchise before Nolan took him over, made increasingly ridiculous by a series of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies. The former couldn't be bothered with more than creative design work, ignoring the fundamentals of story and character. Schumacher couldn't even manage the visuals. When I heard another adaptation was on the way in 2005, I was skeptical at best. My heart had been broken too many times.

Nolan got it. He understood that the Batman comics were not about bizarre villains and design aesthetics, they were about Batman. The main character's dark obsessions have been fascinating for almost a century, and yet in the 90s films Batman is almost a non-presence, a second banana to lesser characters like Vicky Vale and villains that are alternately comic and creepy. Making Batman the solid, emotional core of the films and setting his story against the background of a Gotham City that seemed real and contemporary, not merely a collection of baroque matte paintings, was the first of many good decisions that make the Nolan movies so great.

So of course I've given a lot of thought to what a Christopher Nolan-like superhero game might look like. (And sound like: Another great decision was using Hans Zimmer to craft a memorable soundtrack. But I digress.)

The foundation elements of making a game like this work are not trappings like realistic combat, so much as the acknowledgement that this would indeed be a High Trust, High Drama game -- one that's all about getting deep inside the heads of the characters and examining the reasons why they do the things they do. The second would be an acknowledgement that this game demands a certain serious-mindedness from all the players involved. Although a lot of games have their comedy digressions, that could be poison to a Nolanverse game -- everyone would have to be on board with the idea that this is serious business.

Another important element is working out the "realism" of the game so that all of the players are on the same page. Saying 'It's like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies' is fine, but as always the devil's in the details -- especially if all the player characters are going to be superheroes. Do they wear costumes? If so, are they all basically jet black S.W.A.T. team outfits like the Bale Batman wears? How realistic are the gadgets that they use to help them fight crime? Where do they get these wonderful toys, if not from a billionaire's mad money? Importantly, if you're talking about a group of obsessed vigilantes, do they even work together at all?

Two options that might solve the too-many-nuts-in-long-underwear-to-take-seriously problem might be a) getting the players to work as a team but possibly not put all of them in combat -- it may be that they take turns wearing the cowl, which the criminals / public assume is all one person, or (if players are okay with it) some of them are straight-up support to a single vigilante (as on the TV show Arrow); the b) option would be to take a SMALLVILLE RPG approach to the material, where the players take on the roles of supporting cast and villains rather than simply play the heroes. This would be a game where you'd have someone maybe playing a Commissioner Gordon type, someone as a romantic interest for the hero, and possibly someone taking on the role of nemesis.

You can also plug all of these important roles into the extended cast of the game by using an ensemble style, where each of the players takes the part of at least one supporting character in addition to their "lead". Elizabeth Sampat's excellent BLOWBACK RPG does this elegantly, having each player take on one 'professional' and one 'civilian' in the Burn Notice mold, to create a delicate balance of personal and professional entanglements.

It should go without saying that Batman wouldn't be the same without his Gotham City, and that Nolan did a lot of work establishing it in his movies as a realistic place. Gone were the claustrophobic, overdesigned sets of the Burton days in favour of shoots on real city streets. I think this approach is very important to grounding a Nolanverse game, and if it were me I'd set it in a real world city entirely (like Chicago, where The Dark Knight was filmed) rather than a fictional one. Or else call it by a fictional name but use a lot of real-world detail from a "model" city.

To be continued...

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