Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Seven Stars in the Rearview (Part One)

There is a melancholy that comes with the end of a campaign, even one that’s been long and satisfying. Maybe the longer and more satisfying the game is, the harder it is to let it go. We’re all junkies for stories. We get tangled up in the lives of our cast of characters, their problems and their passions, and we wonder where their lives will take them next.
And if your group is like mine, along with the end of the game comes the knowledge that it’s going to be a while before you get another turn in the Big Chair, before you have another substantial game to devote your creative energies to.

So: the melancholy of endings. And time to reflect on the game and figure out what you did wrong, what you could have done better, and if you’re lucky, those times when you actually knocked the ball out of the park.

The game I’m talking about is SEVEN STARS OF ATLANTIS, a 1930’s pulp adventure in the Indiana Jones tradition. I’ve been trying to get a real, meaty pulp adventure game going for so long that it feels like a victory that I’ve even been successful in organizing one. I don’t know what it is about that genre that seems to baffle or bore so many groups, even ones that grew up on Raiders of the Lost Ark like I did. Sure, it’s been a long time since there’s been an Indiana Jones movie – and even longer since there’s been a good Indiana Jones movie – but for me the globetrotting adventure with dusty fedoras and Nazi-punching is second only to Star Wars in my affections. And I tend to go back and forth on that last point.

Our cast of larger-than-life heroes included Rex Powell, a world-famous explorer slightly past his prime who hits the bottle as hard as the bad guys; Theodore Kerwood, a reporter who chronicles Powell’s exploits, and the son of a famous inventor and adventurer who mentored Rex early on; Margot Bryce, a spoiled heiress who amuses herself with a secret career as a globetrotting jewel thief; and Song Su Li, the brilliant daughter of a criminal mastermind – the Sinister Dr. Song, a villain in the Fu Manchu “Yellow Peril” tradition.

Perhaps Su Li and Dr. Song are a good place to start talking about SEVEN STARS. I went into the campaign/character creation session hoping for modest things, I thought: 1) “How about we punch some Nazis?” and 2) “While I acknowledge that this genre has much about it that is problematic, or, let’s be blunt, racist and awful – it’s not my intention to dwell on those things in this game.” The players, perversely (I thought), had no interest in punching Nazis, and Rob quickly backed me into a corner with his character concept. If his character was the daughter of a Yellow Peril villain, that opened up a big, nasty can of worms. It meant that I couldn’t ignore the thing about the mostly straight-forward, meat-and-potatoes pulp adventure genre that I was least interested in wrestling with, because frankly racism is a big, serious issue. I don’t approach it lightly (nor should anyone), and I wasn’t sure it would be a good pairing with lighthearted adventure. When you’re running a game that a lot of players aren’t that interested in to begin with, problematic content makes you worried the whole thing is going to implode and bury the game.

So I was left with trying to reform, or at least make more complex, one of the characters who looms largest in the pulps – and who most modern readers find extremely troubling. How could I make a Yellow Peril villain the center of the game? I hoped to make use of something Rob had told me once about his Cold City game: he had made the thing about that setting that troubled and irritated him into the grain of sand to build a pearl around. Good advice.  I looked to a couple of sources for inspiration: Warren Ellis’s magnum opus PLANETARY, and one of my favourite movies from the 1980s, Big Trouble in Little China. Both of these sources depict a Yellow Peril villain like Fu Manchu as a main character, and successfully make them more than the sum of all their racist forebears. PLANETARY’s Hark is actually a hero, from his own perspective, battling against the enemies of China – the West. Once the fearless utopian Axel Brass (modeled on another pulp icon, Doc Savage) convinces Hark that the West isn’t his enemy, everything changes – he joins the ranks of the great pulp heroes who defend the world. Big Trouble’s Lo Pan is less apologetic in his Yellow Peril evil, even revels in it, but James Hong gives him a real humanity underneath it that makes him more than a stereotype.

In one surprising moment, the immortal Lo Pan makes this rather revealing statement to hapless Jack Burton: “You’re a man of the world, Mr. Burton. You know how it is between men and women… how seldom things work out. Yet, like fools, we keep trying…”

A Yellow Peril villain with a sliver of humanity? That had promise. I also liked the idea that, from a certain perspective, Dr. Song could think of himself as one of the good guys. From his perspective, he’s battling the forces of colonization and exploitation that brought the Opium Wars to China. I decided that it made sense to make colonialism the real villain of the story, and that I would need to make sure to underline that point in every exotic port of call that the heroes visited. I would always emphasize the fact that the locals worked for the lavish hotels the heroes visited, but were not actually allowed to be clients. The Adventurers’ Clubs that they visited were populated entirely by lily-white Westerners, telling stories of the latest tombs they’d looted. And ultimately, the real villains of the piece would turn out to be symbols of Western power.

To be continued…

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