Trenches and Getaway Cars

Some of my fellow bloggers have compared old-school D&D to a caper film. The PCs case the joint (dungeon), spend an inordinate amount of time planning their delve (heist), then attempt to sneak past or assassinate whatever guards (dungeon denizens) obstruct their path to the vault (hoard). There’s some truth to this view, but it only covers one aspect of play.

In terms of character creation and development, I think it’s much more useful to view old-school D&D as a war film. The starting PCs are a group of raw recruits (first-level characters) thrown together in a unit (adventuring party) and thrust, unready, into the battlefield (dungeon). Characters have interesting motivations and quirks that make us want to learn more about them, but often they’re killed unexpectedly, demonstrating the brutality and capriciousness of war (adventuring). As time goes on, the original members of the group dwindle, forming a hard core of veterans (high-level characters).

I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of some players to avoid giving their characters any sort of history or personality until they’ve leveled up, on the grounds that such effort is wasted on a character that can easily die. On the contrary, I think that it’s a waste to have a character die without first instilling him or her with personality. If you only have this one chance to play your character, make the most of it!

13 Responses to “Trenches and Getaway Cars”

  1. April 13, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Perhaps it’s like “Kelly’s Heroes”, which is both a caper film and a war film. :-)

  2. April 13, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    They’re already high-level characters!

  3. 3 Eric W
    April 13, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    D&D characters also fall into easy stereotypes (guy from Brooklyn, midwest galoot who has a girl back home, fast-talking Jew / cleric, dwarf, halfling, elf…).

    Caper films don’t seem quite right — Adventurers don’t know what treasure resides in any dungeon, and avidly try to kill whoever will stop them. Oppose this to the debonair way most heist film characters are too refined to want to hurt the poor working saps having to guard whatever there is to be guarded (this is how we know ‘good’ caper crews from ‘bad’ caper crews, we really don’t want our Danny Oceans or Thomas Crownes to hurt anybody, and know that Michael Madsen is completely irredeemable in Reservoir Dogs when he tortures the cop).

    Curiously enough, the swashbuckler and Conan the Barbarian genres don’t really work, either, because in those the heroes never die. The beginning of Saving Private Ryan with its waves of grim protagonist fodder is more apt. The OD&D tendency to turn players into non-ethical demons might remind of the Nazis of something like Come And See or the vigilantes of Inglorious Basterds.

  4. April 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    The war film is a much better fit than the heist film–which is a cool idea for style of playing D&D, but has very little in common with a bunch of guys who arm themselves and venture into an unknown area to steal whatever treasure they can find or seize.

    But the war film isn’t a great fit either. Adventurers want to be underground. The guys in war films just want to survive and go home. If it was up to them, they’d be back in Glantri, living their lives as Normal Men. None of ’em want the xp.

  5. April 13, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Sure, let’s look at motivations! These are a prime target for interesting variations. Even in the war movie, not everyone is a draftee. Some enlist voluntarily for any number of reasons: patriotism, glory, escape from personal or legal problems, an opportunity to exercise antisocial tendencies, etc. Likewise, PCs are never in it “for the XP,” as experience points are a game construct with no tangible existence in the setting. Each PC has unique goals, and not just “excitement, gold or glory.” If your PC wants wealth or magical power, is that for its own sake or to fulfill some goal?

    I like characters with depth. Sadly, Red Box doesn’t do anything to encourage this, but it doesn’t get in your way either, and its simplicity and flexibility makes it easier to shoehorn in some new-school house rules that provide benefits for characterizing your character.

  6. 6 naked
    April 13, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    The Red Box does encourage depth and role-playing, if only slightly. To be sure, gold is by far the most valuable thing in this universe — a knight fighting off a dozen naked demons in hell doesn’t get the same experience reward as a fat friar stumbling over a treasure trove in the woods — but there are allowances for rewarding strong and brave decisions, playing to alignment, etc.

  7. April 13, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    “The Dirty Dozen” is another example that’s both a war movie and a caper film, complete with a cool miniatures set-up of the mansion in which they’re going to do the heist. I think that the fact that there is this overlap is interesting; the two genres seem to go together, as do war and prison break (Stalag 17, etc.)

    I think it’s primarily useful to use these movie genres as metaphors to talk about the things you want to point to – war movie = character background and motivation for Eric, heist film = pacing and focus of the action for me. The differences from roleplaying experience are too numerous to dwell on; for example, related to motivation, the authority structure in the war movie (where you get ordered to do things) is different from PCs’ notorious resistance to authority. Note that one thing the heist/prison break element introduces into the war movie is a space in which the GIs operate outside the normal command structure and are given an excuse to be anti-authoritarian.

  8. 8 naked
    April 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    D&D is essentially Assault on Precinct 13 with the characters playing the part of the drug-addled maniacal fiends trying to break in.

  9. 9 Chris Newman
    April 13, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    DnD is like the people who are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. With the low level characters all dying they protect the weakest and incompetent people who end up getting away. They then survive several encounters by the skin of their teeth and become battle hardened zombie killers(high level characters).

    Zombie apocalypses’ even have the cliche character cast just like DnD

  10. April 14, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    That pingack link goes to an interesting-looking discussion of the D&D = war movie idea in Norwegian! Alas, the Google translation is not good enough for me to make much sense of it. I love the international scope of D&D and would be grateful if anyone can offer a summary of the ideas there!

  11. 11 James
    April 14, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    I guess I’m not familiar enough with the War Movie Genre to agree or disagree. From my limited exposure, most fiction about war is a critique of War as a social institution, and in some cases a celebration of those who persevere despite acknowledging the absurdity and cruelty of that institution. But maybe I just need to watch more war movies. Caper films tend to celebrate its characters’ styles and ingenuity in overcoming a gloriously elaborate deathtrap/vault situation, without as much social commentary.

    (If D&D is Fantasy Fucking Vietnam, it would be funny to see the D&D equivalent of M*A*S*H.)

    Eric, I’ve noticed a desire for greater character depth is a theme to a number of posts. Could you describe your ideally characterized 1st level guy?

  12. April 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Eric, I’ve noticed a desire for greater character depth is a theme to a number of posts. Could you describe your ideally characterized 1st level guy?

    I don’t need much. Just enough to give myself and the players something to work with. Texture. Things to hook onto.

    You can frame the bare bones of a character in one sentence. “I am X, and I seek Y because Z.”

    Some examples from the Glantri game:

    • “I am an escapee from a band of slavers, and I seek strong adventurers as allies because the slavers are trying to recapture me.”
    • “I am a brutal thug from the big city, and I seek lots of gold because I have to feed my drug habit.”
    • “I am a devoted acolyte of Law, and I seek knowledge of the mysterious cult of ‘the Boss’ because the church elders have instructed me to do so.”
    • “I am a sleazy rogue from the big city, and I seek to become the local Guildmaster because I am insatiably ambitious.”
    • “I am the scion of a ruined noble house, and I seek greater magical power because I will die of magical fallout within a year unless cured.”

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2010

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