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Monday, June 13, 2016

What We Can Learn From Comic Book Movies

Today I wanted to talk about something that I have been thinking about recently that connects directly to the table top gaming world: super hero movies.  The process for this is fairly straightforward but definitely needs to be laid out and I think the best way to start is by describing why I am writing this.  You see, I am not a critic in anyway.  You all know this, I have written all of 3 (?) reviews on this blog so far and that is my breadth of experience there, unless you count elementary school book reports.  Nevertheless, there are countless people out there, all with less experience than I, telling others exactly why this movie or that movie is bad.  Or, if they are more kind, not good.

Super hero movies fall into this category a lot, because they are, from an audience's stand point, make or break movies.  You have whole generations of people who were exposed to what comic book super heroes were.  You have whole generations who have experienced and are experiencing what they are and how they change with the times.  In the end though, we know what a comic book is, what it entails, and have certain expectations reading them.

This has always been a large portion of the super hero movie's target audience.  To make these characters and stories that we love come to life.  Changes must be made to accommodate the different medium, the changing times, and (of course) the other audiences they want to attract.  There has been A LOT of attempts.  Some are certainly better than others, but some have been burnt at the stake.  So, I don't claim to be a critic, though I know there were problems.  And I am not an idiot, though I have enjoyed all of them (yes even Swampthing, Spider Man 3, and Green Lantern).  No, not all of them did what they could have or what they, perhaps, should have.  But I enjoyed them.

In fact, let's make that step one.  Not every game or campaign will do what you thought it would.  Nor does it have to.  Just make sure you enjoy it.  If you want something else do something else.  If the movies don't work for you, read the comics.  If Pathfinder doesn't work for you go back to 3.5.  But don't tell other people not to enjoy what they do, don't be mad at companies for expanding their target audiences, and don't bash systems for trying something out (even if it doesn't work for you).

Ok, back to comics.  The main two lines that are out now, and always have been the main contenders, are Marvel and DC.  If you ask me DC has always dominated animation.  No matter how much I love the 90's X-Men or Spider-Man, Batman the Animated Series right on through the iterations of the Justice League are my comic book cartoon crack.  As for the comics themselves.  Let me tell you how much I love Green Lantern or some of the better Superman stories.  Quality stuff.  But Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and some others will always be my go to.  Just how it is.

But, movies.  Now here's a cat that is better left to the bag and Schrodinger.  If you ask me Marvel had the right idea.  Most people agree (as long as you leave out most Fox or Sony productions).  Each movie (series) is relatively independent.  But the experience is greater if you experience more of them (and take advantage of the crossover Avengers films).  DC, well, they have had a long time coming to admit (or at least buckle down and emulate) that Marvel was right in their process.  It worked just like the comics did.  And while they were sufficiently comic-book-feeling, they were grounded in the real world and developed their own dimension in the multiverse.  DC made Batman series after Batman series, and though they were far more successful than Marvel was far sooner, they just kept trying to get away with it.

Now the Dark Knight trilogy was incredible.  But we wanted more.  When the Superman reboot finally came out we were getting the promise for that.  We were going to get more heroes, more stories, and a shared universe.  I think DC learned as they developed Arrow and then The Flash.  You want groups who will take to the Flash and those who take to Arrow.  You want them to be similar, but different.  And you want them to overlap in a shared universe, because us buffs, new and old alike, will watch it all.  We crave the crossovers and hints and Easter eggs.

The problem comes with trying to play a decade's worth of catch-up.  More than a full 2 phases behind Marvel's plans, DC tried to establish a bit of catch up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  There was an unbelievable amount to digest in that movie.  Maybe we aren't even supposed to digest it all, yet, but that may be part of the problem.  DC is already suffering from complaints that the dark realism (aka Kal killing Zod) is too much.  Frankly, I disagree.  It can set up for a very deep dig into the soul of Superman in a film medium (and in less charted ways).  Now, people don't know what is going on.  Some mystery is ok (were those dreams or visions) but now people just don't know what's going on.  And the presentation of all those tidbits detracted from some of the other things they could have done (like Kal trying to live with himself after what he had done).

You must be wondering what this all means, and I apologize for lacing all that with some opinions, but what it comes down to is campaign development.  I mean plot development.  Oh, no wait.  Those are pretty much the same thing.  See, comic books do things more like D&D (and other games) than any other entertainment media.  A long running show like Supernatural comes pretty close, because it has an interconnected story line that runs thick and deep.  Shows like that are still very much monster of the week though, and running a campaign like that might not work as well as you would think.  If you want more of that style, I would suggest the flow of X-Files with its much looser underlying story.

But if you want something that can have monster of the week moments, huge arcing story lines, and even bigger world-shaking crossovers you need to look at comics.  Comic runs can have the benefit of coming out as often as shows and, even if not, they have the benefit of running continuously.  Arcs can begin and end when the GM...ahem writers....decides it is a good time.  They can also be carefully interwoven with other arcs and time periods, with little tidbits getting bigger callings later on.  It is a very healthy and artfully done mix of monster of the week and continuous story.
Marvel Studios knew this when they started phase one.  DC did not.  Now, if you want monster of the week, go for it.  No one is stopping you.  But it feels like DC is a new GM in this system.  They have watched Marvel run multiple campaigns after a few one-shots.  They explored a different system (TV) and succeeded.  Now that we are into the movies though, they want to be in the middle of a campaign while only just starting.


You have the benefit of catering to the smallest, most selective audience of all: your gaming group.  You do not need to cram your entire home brew world (or some franchise's world for that matter) down their throats in the first couple adventures.  You can let them take their time to explore it and soak it up, just like Marvel Studios did for their movies.  The lore buffs may shake to learn more, but those who are new or want to take it slow will thank you.  And more of them will come back to the table.

This is my fear for the Warcraft movie as well.  I will love it.  I am a lore buff and fan of the franchise.  People new to Azeroth have a high potential of being overwhelmed.  The sad thing is, if things don't go well enough they can't just find new players and try again.  Be careful of what you do with lore, prep, and the exposure of these things to players.  You want them to enjoy it, not be overwhelmed by it.

If you're watching Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. (for example) you will not be able to set up such a game right away.  It took them years to be where they are now, in character and in game.  And it was years of friendship that helped propel them to the comfort of acting like that in game.  You aren't going to have a Forgotten Realms the day after tomorrow either.  It took Marvel many years to get the universe it has now, DC needs to be careful playing catch up.  And we already know its rough going for them.

By the same token.  These successes (rough though some may be) come from watching others and looking back at the success of the past.  DC can use its comic success, its animation success, and its TV success to know what they are doing while they follow Marvel's example.  In this same way you can look at other games, other systems, what people found work and don't work, and what worlds people love to figure out how to make yours successful.  It's not easy, it's not obvious, and you cannot cram the enjoyment into people.  But if you ask me Marvel Studios is sharing their love for the comics in the film medium (and succeeding greatly) and DC is just trying to be in the film medium (and having a tough time).  As GM share your love for the game and your world (or chosen world) with the players, don't just run them through it.

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