Updated: Jan 27, 2021
In If... was an RPG... I'll be looking at books, movies, and other kinds of storytelling to see what we can learn (and, more importantly, copy and pass off as our own ideas) when it comes to making a narrative work at the RPG table. For this first instalment I'll be taking a look at John Frankenheimer's 1998 thriller Ronin.
The Original Movie
The title, as you may already know, refers to the name given to Japanese samurai whose master had been killed, noble and supremely-skilled warriors reduced to working as mercenaries and sell-swords. It only allegorically relates to the plot, which concerns a team of mercenaries being assembled to take out high-stakes and potentially deadly acquisition of a certain box in present-day France.
It turns out that not everyone on the team is exactly who they appear to be, with the members proving to have their own agendas. There is a lot of double-crossing and selling-out in between the various action sequences, and the resolution is far from unambiguously positive. (Tonally, the movie does seem to be somewhere between the first Mission: Impossible film and The Bourne Identity, which came out a few years later.) Even if you're not looking for GMing inspiration, this is a really solid thriller with some great set-piece chase sequences.
Ronin has a lot to offer someone looking to run a cinematic thriller-style one-shot or campaign. Here are a few ideas...
It's Okay to Have a Maguffin
Ronin is largely concerned with different characters trying to acquire and then hang onto a particular box. However, what is in the box remains mysterious throughout - we never learn what it is, and it never becomes relevant to the story. It's just a plot device. In the same way, you can get away with handing a group of player-characters the mission of acquiring a certain object, without worrying too much about why it's so important. (If you can think of a way of tying your Maguffin into the ongoing storyline, then that's great. But it's not obligatory.)
Guys On A Mission
The opening of Ronin, with the team assembling (in a tavern!) and receiving their assignment, almost feels like the first scene of an RPG session. It's just a very solid way of starting this kind of story: characters come together, are given their objective, and then left to work out how they're going to complete it.
It's worth mentioning there's a degree of niche protection going on here, with the different team members usually having their own special skill they bring to the table: Robert De Niro plays a hugely experienced master tactician, Jean Reno is the guy with lots of connections and local knowledge, Stellan Skarsgard is the technical wizard, and so on. Whenever possible I encourage this kind of specialisation when my group are generating new characters, as it virtually guarantees that everyone gets a chance to shine.
The downside to this kind of opening is that the game can get bogged down in endless discussions about the plan, and take forever to get to the good stuff (the operation itself). Putting a strict time limit on planning is probably a good idea, possibly in combination with an approach of that like Blades in the Dark, where the results of the planning and prep are revealed via flashback as the operation proceeds.
That Character Who Doesn't Quite Work Out...
Sean Bean plays a guy on the team who talks a good game but turns out to be a lot less experienced and capable than he presents himself as being: he can't hack it when the bullets start flying and has a mini-breakdown in the aftermath of the first action sequence of the movie. The rest of the team ditch him and move on: you expect him to reappear later on in some kind of plot complication, but no, he's just gone.
It's common enough (regrettably) for people to have to drop out of ongoing games, or for someone to create a character who looks good on paper but just doesn't pop in the actual sessions. If Ronin was an RPG, Sean Bean would be this kind of character. It's just a question of writing them out neatly and (if possible) resonantly.
The best scenes in Ronin are a couple of extended car chases around the south of France and Paris, with guns going off, people driving the wrong way down tunnels, trying to ram each other off the road, and so on. If you want to run a good thriller RPG, it's worth thinking about how you're going to handle chases (not just with cars - you want to be able to do something like the foot chase from Point Break or Quantum of Solace, too).
A lot of chase systems can turn into slightly dry and predictable exercises in dice chucking. The two best ones I've come across both have an element of bluffing to them: in the old James Bond 007 game (retro-cloned these days as Classified) there's a bidding system between the adversaries, with the person who declares the highest difficulty getting the initiative. Slightly differently, the Gumshoe system is built around characters spending points to boost their dice rolls, and during a chase both sides have to declare their spends without knowing what the opposition will be doing. Both of these add tension to what can otherwise be a mechanical process.
Needless to say, when running a chase, narrative is everything, and it pays to have plenty of ideas for colourful incidents and descriptions of events that occur during the scene. In our group's last Gumshoe chase, one character was driving, taking the characters' vehicle down narrow streets and through a park, with the police in hot pursuit, while the others were desperately checking the street map for an escape route, shooting at the pursuing cop cars, and even throwing improvised explosives out of the back of the car. If you have a system which can incorporate all of these kinds of actions and still play smoothly, you're more likely to have fun and memorable chase sequences in your game.
We've Been Sold Out!
The second half of Ronin takes a more convoluted turn, as one of the team turns out to be a traitor working for the Russians, while the team's employer is revealed to be a terrorist with heinous (but non-specific) plans in mind for the Maguffin, whom the others resolve to take down. If Ronin were an RPG, the second big car chase would actually be between two competing groups of PCs.
This kind of thing is tricky to handle in an RPG, certainly in a campaign. The main reason is that it frequently results in dead or unplayable player-characters: the 'traitor' is either killed or banished from the team, and is excluded from subsequent operations. The whole issue of how to handle conflict within a player-character group is obviously a big one, and really beyond the scope of an article like this - but at the same time, this kind of suspicion and distrust between characters is practically a genre trope of a certain type of thriller, so it's worth considering how to include it if you want to simulate this kind of story.
It's best to keep acts of treason low-key rather than having one character assigned to kill all the others - this sets up a nice possible moment where the traitor is exposed and forced to choose between the team and their employers (if the traitor is a killer the rest of the team are unlikely to offer them this chance). Ensuring the traitor has essential skills and knowledge will also help ensure they're not killed out of hand. Having the traitor brainwashed or mind-controlled can also help prompt the others to treat them more sympathetically. Either way, unless the traitor is flipped as a result of in-game events, their true role is something you should have planned in advance from the beginning of the campaign, with a player who's fully on-board and comfortable with the idea. You should also make it clear to everyone that the possibility of a traitor on the team may be an option (it may be worth doing this even if you're not planning on having an actual betrayal occur).
This can be a difficult kind of plot twist to do well, but with a mature group who are all on the same page, it can result in some very memorable and gripping scenes, which is what you always want for your games and campaigns.