Friday, February 28, 2014

Film Review: The Warriors

New York actor Roger Hill passed away about a week ago according to the New York Daily News. He was best known for playing Cyrus from the 1979 film "The Warriors".

I first encountered "The Warriors"on television in the 1980s. It was a perfect movie for me. By this time I was settled in Connecticut but still had a healthy love for my native city of New York and still went back there quite often to visit and stay with family. I have prints of old maps of New York City in my house here in Massachusetts - one of Colonial-era New York and another of the 1970s New York City Subway map. What got my attention as I was channel surfing was the frequent scenes taking place in the subway. 

"The Warriors" tells the tale of a gang (named the Warriors oddly enough) that travels from their home turf in Coney Island to a meeting of gangs in the Bronx. They have been assembled under a flag of truce by Cyrus, leader of the biggest gang in the city. Cyrus has a vision of bringing all the gangs together and taking over the city. However the meeting falls apart as Cyrus is assassinated and the police raid the assembled gang. And worst, unbeknownst to the Warriors, at least at first, is they have been blamed for Cyrus' assassination. All the gangs are gunning for them, as are the police, with their home in Coney Island far away.

The story itself is inspired by the Greek soldier/writer Xenophon's tale Anabasis, a tale of Greek soldiers serving as mercenaries under Cyrus the Younger in Persia. With Cyrus' death the Greeks find themselves deep within enemy territory.

One of the things which makes "The Warriors" notable is its portrayal of New York City and its gangs. The gangs are very stylized with little attempt at realism. They tend to be multiracial with firearms extremely rare. They are also very stylized. For example you've got the Baseball Furies, dressed like a strange cross of baseball players and mimes and armed with baseball bats. The city is New York at its worst. Graffiti everywhere. It is not the New York of the glitzy Times Square that emerged in the 1990s but rather the New York of the 70s and 80s with everything falling apart and someone out at night is considered to have been "asking for" any tragedy which befalls them, 

Almost the entire film takes place at night, with the sun only rising as the survivors reach Coney Island (with one final confrontation to face). The rest of the film takes place at night, with sparse subway stations, parks poorly illuminated and dark streets with stores and bars closed and barred shut.

Our protagonists aren't the nicest people, often looking for fights, one member of the Warriors going after a woman in a park with an intent to at best harass her and far more likely to rape her should she prove unreceptive to him. 

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, this bleak setting and morally-lacking protagonists, it is an absolutely engaging film. You find yourself rooting for them and against the police which are, quite correctly, after them. 

To geek out a bit in keeping with the main subject of this blog... How does the film work for those in the gaming world? I think it's a pretty darn good inspiration. It immediately brings to mind the various White Wolf World of Darkness games. Vampires from Vampire: The Masquerade or Vampire: The Requiem would fit right into this setting. Werewolf: The Forsaken has the concept of territory of utmost importance, much like it is to the various gangs of "The Warriors". And most White Wolf games would recognize the concept of belonging to a certain "gang" (or tribe or clan). Though it is a near-modern setting, the likes of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would fit right into the New York of "The Warriors" and would understand the ethics the Warriors operate under. Truthfully it also models your typical roleplaying group rather well - as the gang conclave falls apart and the Warriors lose their leader and they are being chased by police they still manage to find to argue with each other as to who is in charge - hello inter-party conflict.

Regardless of whether you're looking for inspiration or just a fun film "The Warriors" is well worth your time. Can you dig it?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

No Power in the Verse Can Stop Me - Thoughts on Firefly Gaming

Yes... Yes... This is a fertile land and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land and we will call it... This Land.
- Wash, Firefly Episode 1: "Serenity"

With a new Firefly RPG out this month I've been rewatching some episodes of the sadly short-lived television show. There's a decent chance I'll at the very least be taking it for a spin - I have some pretty good memories of the the older Serenity RPG, the basis for which Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) created the Cortex System. Cortex System had a decent amount of similarity with the Savage Worlds RPG.

With the Smallville RPG, the Cortex System evolved into Cortex Plus. Though the character sheets might look rather similar, the engine changed quite a bit to be a far more "narrative-based" RPG. For example, one of the most important aspects of a character in Smallville is his or her relationships with other characters. For example Clark Kent could use his rating in his relationship with Lex Luthor in his interactions with Lex or in other situations where that relationship could be helpful. While the Cortex System seemed somewhat similar to Savage Worlds Cortex Plus seems to be more a cousin to the Fate RPG.

So how does this relate to a Firefly game? To my mind there's two broad ways you could run such a game (I'm pretty sure one could rattle off a lot more as well as find hybrids of what I propose.) On one hand, you could run, for lack of a better term, a gearhead type of game. Careful tracking of the multiple stars, planets, and moons in the Verse, tracking money, fuel consumption, etc. This is the model one finds in countless Traveller games and I remember similar logic when using FASA's Trader Captains and Merchant Princes supplement for their Star Trek RPG. The appeal in such a simulation is as a player you can truly get a feeling of being in control of one's destiny, of making decisions which have a logical outcome. On the other hand, there are some players who find such a simulation as exciting as a tax return.

The other side of the coin is to try to simulate the drama of the television show. Serenity is short on funds because it is interesting to be so. Simon can persevere against incredible odds not primarily due to skill but out of the love he has for his sister, River. From reading the pre-release materials for the new Firefly RPG it is clear that this is the direction they have taken. Their previous Serenity RPG certainly had this in mind but the mechanics dud not fully embrace this the way the new Firefly RPG does. The trick I find with such games is to avoid a game where the players serve as actors in a story defined by the GM. The players really need to have the ability to drive the narrative themselves, to scatter the designs of the GM in all directions (Dan's GM-ing Secret Number 38 - I actually enjoy it when players in my games go massively away from what I've planned - it's a huge challenge to be sure, but awfully fun.)

What would I do with a Firefly game? Probably the first thing to decide would be if I wanted to run a Firefly-like game or a Firefly game. For example, one could very easily create a similar setting, perhaps more customized to one's individual tastes. The Diaspora RPG, using the Fate engine, excels at creating a setting for your group - a cluster of systems linked by jump routes. The group shares responsibility for defining the systems of the cluster. Despite being a very narrative game, it embraces fairly hard science fiction. One could also shamelessly borrow the cluster creation of Diaspora while going for a more space western feel of Firefly.

Going away from a narrative game, one could simply whip out Traveller and very easily construct a sector with a strong resemblance to the Verse in Firefly, whether in the Official Traveller Universe or in one's own setting. A sector recently brought under one government with some disagreement as to if that is a Good Thing.

Setting in the official Firefly Verse seems a pretty reasonable idea. One danger I do see with it is science fiction fans love to define things and Firefly, for a show that ran about half a season plus a Big Damn Movie, has had a lot of definition. For example, I love the various products that Quantum Mechanix have produced - maps of the Verse, blueprints of Serenity, etc. But if you're going for a more dramatic/narrative realization of the Verse it becomes important to not let those details limit you. Joss Whedon has freely admitted to science not being his strong suit and it shows in Firefly and the move Serenity. Until the movie Serenity it was unclear if the Verse was one system or several - and even when Serenity seemed to settle it as one (admittedly huge and scientifically impossible) system you still had the Operative making references to the galaxy.

I'd be pretty tempted to expand the setting with my own ideas - and invite my players' to make their own contributions. For example, why does the Alliance have such a huge navy? Just for Reavers and pirates? The answer can certainly be yes, but even that answer has its own implications. Is it possible there are other powers in the setting beyond the Alliance? Not all Westerns took place in the United States, with a fair number taking place in Mexico and there's often foreigners paying visits. I've often considered the possibility that there might be other star systems accessible by some sort of "jump gates" at the edge of the system. With the Verse being so huge doing so would in no way contradict what's been shown on the show and film. This need not contradict the slower-than-light exodus from Earth That Was - constructing jump gates might require construction at both sides of the gate and not be something that robots can do. Sure the Alliance got the best system, but there might be visitors from the Holy Russian Empire just waiting to pay a visit.

Also there's thing suggested in the show that never really had a chance to be fully developed. The opening scenes of the pilot episode "Serenity" suggested criminal tongs. One might get inspiration from the tong wars of San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the film Serenity we know the Alliance botched at least one social engineering project at Miranda, along with attempting to create human killing machines. Mal referred to River as a "reader", the existence of such a term suggesting her abilities might not be unique in the Verse. And might there be a moon settled by a gazillionaire who used dinosaur DNA to make his own little Jurassic Park. Perhaps he called it... This Land...