Sunday, April 22, 2012

Roleplaying Daydreams

In addition to my interest in Chinese and movies, I also enjoy playing roleplaying games - some console, but mainly tabletop:  Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, Mutants & Masterminds, Champions, Warhammer Fantasy...  I've been playing for about 18 years.  Most of my closest friends are also roleplayers, and several of them act as Dungeonmaster / Gamemaster / referee for our games. 

Roleplaying inspires my imagination.  It's like writing a collaborative novel or screenplay.  Some of my roleplaying experiences have inspired my writing.  But sometimes all this inspiration can be a little frustrating.  I often find myself thinking of game settings or stories that I'd like to play in, but no one else is interested, or there's no place in our schedule for another game.  I'm planning to convert one of these ideas into the plot for a novel.  But I don't want to do that with all of them.  I don't necessarily want to create all the characters and the plot and action myself.  I like seeing what my fellow players do with the basic concept of a campaign setting, what kind of characters they think will suit that setting and how those characters will respond to the events the GM presents us with.  

When I propose one of these ideas to my gaming friends, their response is often "When are you going to start (the game)?"  This response is also a source of frustration to me.  I've tried GMing a couple of times, and I didn't really enjoy it.  I'm indecisive as a player, and I don't think an indecisive GM is a good idea.  I don't really enjoy dealing with all the rules you have to juggle in order to direct and referee a game.  I also fear that I might try too hard to tell the players how to play their characters to suit the way I envision them, which I don't think is really a good behavior for a GM.  There's a limited amount of dictating character behavior involved in GMing, but I'm afraid I might overstep the bounds. 

Of course, even just coming up with the concept and letting someone else run it might pose other problems for me.  Would I be unhappy with what someone else does with my concept?  For that reason, I try to keep my concepts pretty simple.  And just to amuse myself, I'm going to describe some of them here.

1.  When looking for a basic way to start a new fantasy campaign, I think making the player-characters professional monster hunters ought to be a good start.  It gives an opportunity for them to face a variety of challenges, which would increase in difficulty as the characters increase in level.  They could travel, and possibly become famous and wealthy.  If more complexity is desired than simply a "monster of the week", perhaps they could end up fighting an invading army using monsters as weapons, or combating a secret army of vampires/demons/extraplanar beings infiltrating their homeland.

2.  The PCs are hired by a wizard or group of wizards to collect magic item components and potion ingredients.  This gives them a convenient place to acquire some magic items, which their employer(s) might give them to help them with their tasks.  As they increase in level, they can be sent off to distant lands or long-forgotten ruins to acquire magic items that have been lost to the ages.  If one wanted a deeper story, perhaps the wizards are building an ultimate device to take over the world, or to defend it against some terrible threat predicted by prophecy.

3. A "Hyborean Age" campaign, similar to Conan the Barbarian.  Magic is less common and more feared, common components of high-magic fantasy are absent.  Plate armor is unknown, everyone doesn't have a horse, and every town doesn't have an inn.  Everything is just a little more rugged than in typical fantasy games.  It wouldn't require any major revisions to the rules of Pathfinder or D&D, except to remove the availability of some goods and services. 

4.  I like superheroes, too.  I've played in a number of games, in which the characters were all heroic defenders of a single city.  Someday I'd like to play in a campaign in which the characters are part of an organization similar to the Justice League, with lots of really powerful heroes defending the entire planet, not just one city.  But to make it more interesting for the players, the characters would be newcomers to this organization, not yet assigned to the biggest tasks.  They might be called on to work with the "big guns" occasionally for a special mission - or even to cover for the big names if the Alpha team is off-world or busy with something else.  

That's all for now.  The next time I get an idea, I'll probably add to the list.  For the present I'll go back to wistfully daydreaming about one day getting a chance to play in a campaign like one of the above.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Movie Review: Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Directed by Syndey Pollack
Starring Robert Redford, Will Geer, Stefan Gierasch, Delle Bolton, Josh Albee

Jeremiah Johnson is one of my favorite movies.  It's one of the few movies in the "Western" genre that I really like, although it isn't a typical example of that genre.  There are no cowboys, no gunfights, no stagecoaches.  The story is set about 20 years earlier than most Westerns, which most often take place in the 1870s.  The titular protagonist isn't a veteran of the Civil War, but of the Mexican War.  

In some respects Jeremiah Johnson has a similar theme to the much better known Dances With Wolves.  When I first saw Dances With Wolves, I liked it, but since I've come to find it rather disappointing.  It's pretentious and overlong.  I find it particularly annoying that the love interest for Kevin Costner's character isn't a Native American woman, but a white woman who has been raised as a Sioux, as if Kevin Costner couldn't fall in love with someone who wasn't white.  The movie has to have some backstory about the protagonist, as if to convince us we must be interested in him.  The Indians are noble and the whites are venal.  

What I like about Jeremiah Johnson is that it doesn't do any of those things.  We know he was a soldier, but we don't know anything that happened to him during the war.  He doesn't have nightmares or flashbacks.  We don't know where he came from or anything about his childhood or family background.  

Some of the people he meets are decent, some are horrid.  It doesn't matter whether they are Indians or whites.  The Indians do what they do not because they are evil or noble, but because that's what their culture tells them to do, as do the whites.  Jeremiah isn't heroically trying to save the Indians from oppression.  He's just trying to live the life he wants to live.  He marries a woman he doesn't know and falls in love with her afterward.  They don't even speak the same language.  This movie tells so much more about the experience of the West than the romanticized vision of Dances With Wolves does.

I love that this movie doesn't talk too much.  Jeremiah doesn't have a lot to say.  The wordiest character is the motormouth Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), whose appearance just highlights how quiet Jeremiah is.  Most of Robert Redford's performance as Jeremiah involves using expressions and body language to convey thoughts and emotions, with as little dialogue as possible.  The movie gives me, as the audience, room to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of Utah and think about the themes and plot elements of the story without constantly being distracted by some character prattling.  

It's also funny.  There's a lot of gentle humor.  When Jeremiah, new to the life of a trapper and hunter, worries that his legs will give him away when hiding behind his horse during an elk hunt, his mentor Bear Claw (Will Geer) laughs, "Elk don't know how many legs a horse has got!"  Jeremiah first meets Del Gue buried up to his neck by Indians who are thwarted from taking Gue's scalp by the fact that Gue shaves his head.  Though the movie has a lot of serious and painful moments, they are offset by the funny ones.

There's romance, too.  As I mentioned above, Jeremiah is forced into a marriage he doesn't want.  But he comes to love his bride, even though they don't speak the same language.  He also develops affection for his adopted son.  The whole story is told with great simplicity, which makes it both charming and satisfying.

This movie also makes me cry.  I cry at the end, every time.  I'm not quite sure what I'm crying for.  But I'm glad the movie ends as abruptly as it does.  I don't want to be told what happens next.  I can imagine this film being made now would include an annoying voiceover epilogue by Del Gue telling us what happened to Jeremiah.  Instead, we are simply told that as far as the singer knows, Jeremiah Johnson is out there still.

I hope he is.