Last week we’d had a conversation on the Wombat Discord about how to bring a role-playing party together. It’s one of the most troublesome mechanics in any tabletop RPG. Back when Dungeons & Dragons was just a game about literal dungeons and/or dragons and the party wasn’t expected to do anything more than go adventuring for loot, it was OK to have the players magically appear in a local tavern in hopes of overhearing rumors of a local unearthing of some precious indicators. One could almost imagine that similar situations played out in the Gold Rush days of early American expansion Westward.
Over the years, as RPGs started taking themselves more seriously, and people started taking them more seriously, and the potential for some deeper storytelling began to be realized, the old “you meet in a tavern” became a kind of shorthand for how not to start a campaign. The problem is, though, how do you bring together a party of characters who have other lives, other goals, and are in other places, so that they can accomplish something as a sum greater than their parts?
As luck would have it, Guardians of the Galaxy was on TV last night, and it immediately struck me as a great example of how to get characters together. Take a look at the situation:
- We start with Peter Quill collecting an artifact from a dead world. He found out about this from Yondu, but is essentially “jumping his claim” in an effort to detatch himself from the Ravagers.
- Quill is interrupted by a strike team dispatched by Ronan, who is also after this artifact. When Ronan learns of Quill escaping with the artifact, he dispatches Gamora to take it from Quill. They run into one another on Xandar, where Quill had an appointment to sell the artifact.
- On Xandar, Rocket and Groot (who already have a history) are scrounging for bounties to capture. They peg Quill as a person of interest since Yondu has since put a bounty on his head after finding out he went behind his back to collect the artifact for himself.
- As Quill attempts to sell the artifact, he runs afoul of Gamora as they wrestle for control of the artifact. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot attempt to capture Quill. Gamora is ancillary to their pursuit.
- After the lot of them have been arrested and sent to prison, they meet Drax. He knows Gamora as the ward of Ronan, who killed his wife and daughter. Quill convinced Drax that keeping Gamora alive gives them a better shot at killing Ronan.
GotG is a perfect “session zero” set-up, but we need to break it down a little bit further.
At the initial center of the dynamic (and eventually the center of the movie, but we’re not really concerned with that) is the Infinity Stone housed in the orb. Ronan knows what it is and had sent his strike team first, then Gamora, to get it. Quill, however, does know what it is. He only knows that it’s valuable. This sets up two party members to run into one another — although as adversaries, which is certainly a plausible opportunity for GMs and potential party members alike. They have a common focal point in the orb, although they want it for different reasons: one is a mercenary, and the other is a functionary of another power. Note, though, that at this point the orb is merely a MacGuffin — one could easily argue that as a session zero in and of itself, the Infinity Stone is never the point of the film; it’s a movie about getting the party together (for sequels and the greater MCU, but that’s neither here nor there).
That Rocket and Groot A) knew one another, and B) happened to be on Xandar randomly scoping the crowd for bounties to capture is the weirdest part of the situation. I’m sure comic book nerds would be happy to tell us how and why Rocket and Groot are already together, but that’s irrelevant in specific yet important in theory to this discussion because if players agree, they can have histories together either in small groups or as a whole. Aside from that, however, we don’t get much to look at in terms of Rocket and Groot; they’re “just there” on Xandar, although it does beg the question of why they chose that planet to hang around on.
Finally, we assume Drax has done something terrible enough to end up in prison, but he doesn’t show up until maybe about 1/3 of the way through the movie. As a player character, this would mean someone would have to sit around and soak up the atmosphere until the action rolls around to his or her seat at the table. It could also be a useful tactic if a player is late in arriving at the game session.
So if characters aren’t already together, it’s assumed that they’re all approaching the session zero from different directions. As a GM, that would require some divergent thinking because each character would essentially need his or her or it’s own “mini-adventure” that would lead them up to the point where they were in sight of the other characters. There are a few ways to do this. It could be done at the gaming table during an official session zero, although this would lead to a lot of “meta-knowledge” (not necessarily a bad thing) being granted to everyone else about each character, and it would require each character to have his, her, or it’s own “alone time” with the GM. Another option is to handle the individual run-ups away from the table, in email, Discord, or play by post. This method has the advantage of time and gives players a more comfortable space to role-play their characters through prose and the benefit of editing and revision.
The GotG example is why backgrounds for characters is important. It’s easy to skip or downplay this aspect of character creation because it doesn’t overtly factor into upcoming adventures, but it could help solve the “Rocket/Groot Problem” of how characters know one another, and how they got to where they are when they start the session zero. Backgrounds can also provide a trajectory for characters and GMs. Every character has a past and at least one nebulous goal for the future — revenge, wealth, fame, etc — whether or not they have it in mind or written down. Armed with this, the GM can extrapolate a path for each character such that they all intersect at a specific point; in the case of GotG it’s Ronan on Xandar by way of the Infinity Stone. When we get to that point in the movie, all of the characters are where they need to be in order to accomplish their goals: Quill and Gamora wants to stop the destruction of Xandar, Drax wants to kill Ronan, and Rocket and Groot (again, the most complex characters, oddly enough) are either along for the ride, interested in recovering and selling the Stone, or are secretly in favor of saving the galaxy.
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I cannot write about this movie. There’s no way I can explain to you, the reader, how I feel about it. I can explain the plot (which I won’t do), and I can talk about how faithful it was to the 1982 prequel, and I can talk about the “quirks” of the almost 3-hour film, but there is absolutely no way I can provide the most important part of the film in words: the atmosphere.
Without spoilers, 2049 takes place 20 years after Blade Runner, and while word on the street is that you need not have seen the 1982 original, the narrative is far more coherent if you have since a good chunk of the plot focuses on the fate of Deckard and Rachel and the consequences of their flight. 2049 is still primarily concerned with replicants, the genetically engineered labor force pioneered by the Tyrell Corporation and later adopted by the Wallace Corporation. After off-screen events that saw an even greater animosity aimed at replicants, Wallace convinced the population that his Nexus 8 line would solve the problems of Tyrell’s Nexus 6, but the undercurrent of distrust still remains — hence the continued need for the “blade runners”, special law enforcement branch that is tasked with “retiring” replicants who act up. Ryan Gossling plays “K”, a blade runner and himself a replicant who is only respected — not necessarily liked — by his superior officer.
The story is important and hasn’t been given away in any of the marketing materials, but at the end of the day, the plot felt less important the more one considers it. The original Blade Runner was all about the nature of being human. In 2049 they attempt to up that ante by making the question of the nature of humanity far more overt by throwing out questions about the “soul”, Biblical references, and more subtle cues that can be read about here (with spoilers). When the ramifications of Deckard and Rachel’s flight are made apparent early on in the film, it’s meant to be the focal point for the audience as much as it is for the characters within the film, but in writing this post, I think there’s a more important message beyond “what is human”?
The atmosphere of the Blade Runner movies is what I call “classic cyberpunk” (as opposed to the “nouveau cyberpunk” that tries to cut the dystopia with something more palatable, like Shadowrun‘s inclusion of high-fantasy). In these settings, humanity has worked itself into a species and civilization dead-end. Corporations rule from afar simply by convincing the population that they can’t live without their products. The pursuit of shareholder equity leads to the exploitation of natural resources to keep up with the manufacturing demand necessary to supply an increasing population first with creature comforts and later — when resources begin to dwindle — with basic necessities. Overpopulation causes growth both up and out: massive blocks of semi-highrises sprawling well beyond current urban borders offering the bare minimum of living space. There are fewer national borders as people move around the world towards inflection points of greater opportunity, which is an act that only serves to overburden systems that are already struggling to keep up. In between all of this, technology slides in not just as something to take minds off the oppressive situations of daily life, but as a last-ditch effort to give a dying species some last measure of solace as they decay alongside the world around them.
This is where the deeper message came from. In the Blade Runner films, replicants were designed as slaves we could feel good about. They weren’t considered human and could be tailored to the jobs that needed doing both on Earth and in the off-world colonies. The question the first movie asked was whether or not the experiences and memories served as the basis for emotions, and whether the ability to feel those emotions made replicants more human — or more human than human. 2049 takes that a step further, and that forms the crux of the actual plot of the movie (which I can’t explain for obvious reasons), along with questions about free will and the relationship between creator and created.
Still, what I came away with this morning after some reflection isn’t that these movies are about “what is human”, but rather “what does being human mean”? In the Blade Runner universe, humanity has brought Earth to the brink of destruction through wars and exploitation, stripping it bare to feed the corporate engines of consumerism — a fear that was much greater in 1982 when it was a possible future that’s no less scary in 2017 when it’s our actual present. Humanity has created colonies on other planets — 9, according to Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace — but it’s not enough for him. He believes that humanity should expand throughout the universe on the backs of replicant labor, and his all-consuming quest is to find a way to increase replicant production in order to realize that goal. He envisions trillions of replicants, which is what should demand a pause: wouldn’t that equal or even exceed the number of actual humans? And if subserviant replicants achieve superior numbers over their human masters, what could that mean for natural humans?
Blade Runner and 2049 movies prefer replicants to humans. Humans have destroyed Earth, which is obvious in every single establishing shot in both movies. In 2049 we see K flying back to Los Angeles: a continuous plateau of low-rise apartments cut with narrow thoroughfares that lead to the central district of corporate high-rise buildings. Those who inhabit these skyscrapers are the only ones who can see the sky, although there’s not much to see as the constant haze of acid rain clouds is everpresent. There is no good reason to live in Los Angeles, yet millions apparently do and are content to continue to live their lives in the neon canyons of the buildings that have been built up around them. This is humanity’s legacy. It’s what humanity has done to and for itself. Replicants, however, are genetically superior to humans. They are newborns in the epochal scale. Although they are initially used only as disposable resources — mirroring the general philosophy of practically everything in the Blade Runner universe — they express that “more human than human” tendency to position themselves as the inheritors of the humanity that actual humans put aside in their desire to exploit and expand.
We could call these movies “cautionary tales” of the consequence of human greed, but that’s doing these films a grave disservice. These movies are meant to be experienced, not just watched and absorbed and dissected for the first low-hanging-fruit moral that we can extract. Both Blade Runner movies are art house films, and while that sounds pretentious I believe it to be true. Each scene is relevant both to the plot and to maintaining a cohesion of cyberpunk oppression so that we never feel like there’s going to be salvation for anyone at the end of the line. The replicants have the best chance of extracting themselves from the decline of Earth, but humanity has already proven that its decisions and values make them unworthy of being saved. It’s a sad realization as a human who can’t transcend to become a replicant and adds to the layer of inevitable dread that these movies provide.
I both can and cannot recommend Blade Runner 2049. If you liked the first one, you will love this one. If you hated the first, you will despise the second. If you cannot sit for three hours filled with scenes of silence, long establishing camera angles, and (after having read this far) whiffs of director Denis Villeneuve’s French-level pretentiousness, you will be miserable. 2049 has a lot going for it, though, if you are open to it. It’s a beautiful movie even when it’s presenting the direst predictions. Although it’s difficult to consider how no dialog makes a performance, everyone involved on-screen did a fantastic job (even traditionally manic Jared Leto). Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a message movie or a blockbuster movie, but it is a thinking movie and more importantly, a feeling movie that affects the audience at various emotional levels when we open ourselves to it.
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