I was recently thinking about my love of good old-fashioned Godzilla movies, and that led me to thinking about using giant monsters in RPGs.
The most obvious way to incorporate giant monsters in a game is to make them a monster that the PCs are supposed to slay. I say obvious, but I think I mean “wrong”. It seems like a cool idea to fight Godzilla … but how interesting is combat in games really? Combat in games (and movies, really) should serve something bigger than itself.
Giant monsters are flesh-and-blood stand-ins for natural disasters, like the jotuns in Norse mythology or all those skeletons running around in old paintings of the Black Death years in Europe. This idea offers a way to run a disaster game – symbolically. The characters cannot fight a plague germ itself, for example, but they can swing swords at zombies (or wights, if you want an undead monster that can spawn, which would be a better representation of a disease). With the disease made symbolic, you also need to make the discovery of a cure symbolic – i.e. the PCs have to track down the demonic artifact or evil high priest that launched the plague and destroy it to stop the danger. You might consider going the route of many cartoons and have all those horrible undead monster turn back to normal if the originator of the plague is stopped – depending on whether you’re aiming for hopeful or hopeless in the tone of your game.
Still, a disaster made flesh-and-blood is really what I was writing about at the beginning of this post. Another way of incorporating disaster – be it from tsunami, virus or giant monster – in your game is to use it as a backdrop to the action. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for the post-apocalypse. The disaster sets the stage and creates some new obstacles/challenges to overcome as the PCs attempt to accomplish their goal. The PCs might be on the trail of a murderer in a pulp detective-style game, and have to deal with flooded streets and downed power lines due to a hurricane.
If you go this route, make the disaster or its aftermath a key aspect of the action. If Alfred Hitchcock was going to set a movie in Paris, you can be dang sure he was going to use the Eiffel Tower as a key set piece – probably the climactic set piece. After all, he reasoned – why bother setting a movie in Paris if you’re not going to use settings and things that are only found in Paris. Likewise, why set a game in a flooded city if those flood waters are not going to loom very large in the action and resolution of the game.
Make sure you also use the emotion that goes with a disaster scenario – fear, confusion, sorrow, hope. Introduce emotional choices for the players – hunt down the murderer OR help victims of the disaster; hunt down the murderer WHILE worrying about their own loved ones. This forces them to play their characters, and not their character sheets.
I can think of three ways to introduce a disaster into a game. The first is to begin the game with the conditions already in place. With the city under lock-down due to a pandemic, the detectives seek out a man who stole a formula that might stop it. The PCs go into the game knowing the hazards they’ll face, and can thus prepare for them.
A related scenario to the one above is the count-down to a known disaster. The weather service says that the hurricane is going to make landfall in 24 hours – 24 hours in which the PCs must find and apprehend a fugitive from justice. This scenario and the one before it are also useful for historic games and historic disasters – the Spanish flu, Hurricane Katrina, the sinking of the Titanic. The player know, so there’s no point in trying to surprise them. Use their knowledge against them to create tension – again, I bow my head to Hitchcock for this advice.
“Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.”
This suggests a third scenario – the surprise disaster. The players know that their characters have to apprehend a fugitive from justice and begin the game with that foremost on their minds … and then an hour into the session Godzilla rises from the sea and the game changes dramatically. No time to prepare – just a fight to survive in a city suddenly turned upside down … and maybe a chance to accomplish their original mission that may put them in even more danger. Remember, games are interesting because of the choices we must make in them – figuring out how best to utilize limited resources.
Just a few ideas for incorporating disasters into games – and I hope my readers are staying safe from the current disaster sweeping the globe. I don’t know if people are over-reacting or wisely reacting at this point – but I do hope we all come through it suffering as little damage as possible.