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Tricky Ports: Kaiju Eiga

As regular visitors will know, one of the strands here on the blog is If…, where I look at the storytelling of movies and TV shows and think about how we can analyse them for RPG scenario and campaign ideas. You might expect there to be a bottomless supply of material here, and there’s certainly no shortage of possible subjects – there are allegedly only seven basic plots, according to some writers and critics, involving less than forty possible dramatic situations. So I tend to look at how particular tropes and bits of plotting are handled – the style, not the substance.

Nevertheless, there are some movies and genres which can prove surprisingly difficult to adapt into the RPG format, regardless of what system you use. Hence Tricky Ports, in which I’ll look at one of these, try to identify the sticking points, and think about whether they can be circumvented.

The Original Movie(s)

I’m not afraid to reveal my long-standing and very sincere love of the Japanese monster movie genre. Some of these films are pretty much unwatchable more than once, others have a certain camp or kitsch value, but the best of them are genuinely creative, funny, and thrilling movies.

The formula for the classic Japanese monster movie goes a little something like this: all is well in Japan to begin with, until there is a sudden mysterious event – a storm uncovers a giant egg, a strange meteorite lands, there are some UFO sightings, or something else unexpected and slightly ominous occurs. The protagonists of the movie are usually policemen, scientists, or journalists – investigative types of some sort, though there’s also the odd astronaut, soldier and plucky high school student.

Enquiries eventually reveal the presence of a terrible threat of some kind, almost always embodied in the form of an enormous monster with a funky name (something like Orga, Megaguirus, or Legion). The monster goes on the rampage and must be stopped, which mostly falls to the ‘hero’ monster who shows up on cue to do battle with it. The ‘hero’ monster invariably struggles in the initial bout, and the protagonists have to do something clever – build a new weapon, find a way to buff the ‘hero’ monster, or destroy a vital piece of enemy equipment (especially if there are evil aliens behind the plot – this happens on a virtually weekly basis in Japan). In the end there is a huge battle between the hero monster and the evil monster, usually involving immense property damage, and in the end the hero monster, having been triumphant, flies or swims off.

The Nature of the Problem

The distinctive thing about RPGs as a form of entertainment is that the audience aren’t just identifying with the protagonists, they are the protagonists (in a sense, at least). In most films and TV series this is fine, as the key moments of the story – the big chases, the fight scenes, the capers, other action scenes – revolve around the main characters, the same as the rest of the movie.

This is not the case with a traditional Japanese kaiju movie. Even with the best of them, no-one is actually watching for the scenes with the human characters. If these scenes (or the characters) are remotely memorable, it is a major achievement of the movie, and usually marks the film out as either a classic of the genre or an unusual outlier within it. (Films with only a single hostile monster, which the humans have to destroy or deal with unassisted – anything actually called Godzilla (1954, 1998, or 2014), Shin-Godzilla (2016), and many American monster movies – don’t really suffer from this problem in quite the same way, but are still a tricky proposition to adapt.)

What the audience is actually there for are the various scenes of battling monsters and wholesale destruction, with the monsters tearing into each other and throwing skyscrapers around. In this sense they’re a little bit like superhero movies, but the difference is that the heroes and villains don’t actually participate much in the movie in between the fights: the human characters are really just placeholders in this sense.

This is the core problem with trying to replicate the kaiju movie in an RPG context: the role of the hero is essentially split between the human protagonists and the ‘friendly’ monster.

Possible Solutions

The simplest answer to this is to remove the split between the two groups of hero-figures. The best way to do this in a traditional RPG context would be to deviate a little from the classic kaiju movie formula and adopt a scenario or campaign frame something akin to that of a movie like Pacific Rim, with the PCs as mecha crew – when evil monsters appear, they stop their investigating, clamber into their huge destructive machines, and have at it.

Mutants & Masterminds has published a supplement with ideas on mecha-based roleplaying (other systems also handle this idea); the real question is whether each PC pilots their own machine or whether they have to work together as a crew. In the latter case, the result would ideally be something like the starship combat system from a game based on Star Trek or Star Wars – each crew member would have their own particular role (commander, pilot, gunner, engineer, etc) with a set of possible tasks they could perform, and the challenge would be working together as a team efficiently.

Alternatively, you could take a more narrative approach and employ a version of troupe play – in this case, the players spend most of the game controlling the human protagonists (who, as noted, often sort of resemble classic PC archetypes anyway), but switch to controlling monsters when it’s time to destroy Tokyo. Having multiple PCs controlling the same monster can be a little bit weird – ‘Okay, you be Legs, I’ll be Mouth’ – so what will probably result is something with multiple monsters fighting on each side. This is entirely genre-appropriate! (You can also handle this in a less narrative way by having each human PC transform into or summon and psychically control a particular monster every time – this latter option is also reasonably genre-appropriate.)

The other thing to consider is how to give the monster battles character and a proper sense of extravagant mass destruction. Rules for exploding infrastructure and collapsing buildings are pretty much obligatory in this kind of game, and also potentially for some of the weirder combat moves seen in these films (bursting through a skyscraper to surprise an opponent is practically standard procedure). Normally I’m really a devotee of Theatre of the Mind combat, but this is one instance where a map and counters and the whole war-game mind-set does make sense – buildings being replaced by ruins or rubble, and areas of difficult and dangerous terrain appearing on the map, will really help to capture the feeling of participating in this type of over-the-top battle sequence.

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