Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Project REBOOT

Here's an idea for a campaign framework you can use in your own superhero games. Oh heck, it would probably work with all kinds of genres. 

Comic books are known for reinventing themselves every so often, restarting the numbering from an Exciting First Issue and refreshing the characters and world of the fiction to match the world around us (and its changing tastes and aesthetics). Sometimes this includes a change in tone, such as the recent Mark Waid run on DAREDEVIL, which cast off a long tradition of dour, gritty urban adventures for a more freewheeling high-adventure style. Sometimes it's a more radical reinvention that literally re-starts the stories from the beginning as though they were happening for the first time today -- any of DC's "New 52" line would qualify here, but I think the only one I read was Grant Morrison's run on ACTION COMICS. In the latter case, Morrison was telling a contemporary story of Superman's early years that also hearkened back to the earliest Superman stories, where he had a more proactive, rabble-rousing persona (and less of the patrician figure we've known him as). 

Other reinventions re-frame what we already know about a character in a new way that "changes everything!" The most famous examples of this are probably Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson" in SWAMP THING and his dark, violent reimagining of the gentle kiddie book MARVELMAN (known, and recently republished in North America by Marvel as MIRACLEMAN). You could also look at things like Warren Ellis's recent tour-de-force run on MOON KNIGHT as a case study, once more changing the convoluted status quo of the long-suffering character (who's gone from "Crazy" to "Super Crazy" and now to "Super H.P. Lovecraft With A Bag of Ancient Egyptian Chips Crazy") in a series of one shots that also radically change the format of what a Moon Knight story looks like. 

Movies and television do this too, of course, and I suppose it's arguable who's ripping off whom. "Reboot" movies have become a cliche at this point, as they mostly seem like excuses to squeeze a few extra dollars out of an intellectual property, and seldom appeal to those who actually enjoyed that property in the first place. I'm looking at you, Michael Bay. The best TV shows and movies that draw from an old well manage to change the material enough to make it feel fresh without losing the things that appealed in the first place. The Russell Davies run of DOCTOR WHO were quite faithful to the original material without feeling old, giving us new incarnations of the Doctor who felt contemporary (but not incompatible with the material) and a deck cleared of decades of cluttered plot threads for new viewers. Ron Moore's much, much darker take on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA kept most of the original story frames and many of the characters and turned them on their ear, with a more mature, Alan Moore-esque tone that concentrated on character drama. Both were successful and fascinating in their own way.

Although many roleplayers balk at the idea of playing a game modelled after a genre show as-is, using the characters in that show rather than creating their own new PCs, I think approaching a new game as a "reboot" of a comic book (or TV show, or what have you) has some legs. This allows you to both keep elements that are familiar and beloved by players but still give them a lot of options for adding their own creative glosses on the world. 

Sometimes a "reboot" is a reframing of tone or "starting from the beginning", and sometimes you'll want something more high concept. Placing familiar characters in a new setting or time period is an obvious one that's been done many times over the years in comic books, such as THE TWELVE (which brings WW2 heroes into the modern world, with their Forties mores and attitudes unchanged) or GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT, setting Batman against a Victorian Gotham backdrop where he battles Jack the Ripper, or Neil Gaiman's 1602, which imagines the Marvel universe existing in the Elizabethan era. Here it's a matter of finding a series that appeals, and then applying the material to a new time period that reframes it in some way. You could play a HEROES FOR HIRE game that imagines Marvel's street-level heroes in the Seventies era that spawned them, borrowing from the style of 70s crime dramas or kung fu movies (or, God help us, disco musical movies). Or make the FANTASTIC FOUR renegade scientists who explore the universe in defiance of a theocratic cyberpunk dystopia. Or play a riff on FIREFLY that feels more like a Hanna Barbara cartoon from the Sixties, complete with comic relief anthropomorphic sidekicks. 

I did a column some time ago on rebooting EXCALIBUR as though it were being done today as a contemporary SF show by the BBC, as an extended example of how this might look in practice.

Anybody tried this?

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