Tales From The Serenity RPG

The God’s honest truth, is that I have probably spent more time playing the Serenity RPG, whether it be in writing up games and characters, or actually executing them, than I have watching Firefly and Serenity.

And yes, for the uninitiated, I do mean table top, pen and paper role playing games, the kind played with dice, character sheets and imaginations. Yes, I mean something akin to Dungeons & Dragons. If you’re a fan of Netflix’s recent, rather brilliant, offering Stranger Things, yes, it’s just like what the four friends are doing in their basement (minus the figurines). This activity continues to amaze and sometimes disgust some people when you talk about it – certainly, my parents have never rightly understood what the attraction is – but it’s been a fairly significant part of my social life for over a decade now.

I got into RPG’s in college, with the Games Society. I was an awkward, socially anxious 18 year old who had spent six years in a run-down all-boys secondary school in the middle of Limerick City, and suddenly I was in a completely different environment with completely different people, and I struggled for a while, on nearly every level. But the Games Society, and RPG’s, gave me an outlet, and from there I was able to grow into a more outgoing person, with a lot of friends of similar interests.

My first RPG was a D20 modern campaign, and in truth I had barely gone through five sessions of that before I wanted to “GM” my own games. There’s such a great attraction to the RPG as a story-telling device, one where you make the universe and the bones, and let other people fill it up with their own words and actions. It took me a while to actually work up the courage and the enthusiasm to give it a go, at the annual convention the Games Society held. This was going to be a “once-off” game, a self-contained adventure that usually lasts around three hours, revolving around a set goal for a group of players/adventurers. Find the treasure, free the princess, kill the bad guy, etc. And my first attempt was with the Serenity RPG.

An officially licensed book from Margaret Weis Productions, the Serenity RPG is based almost entirely off the movie in terms of background and details – it would take a while for Firefly rights holders Fox to get into the idea – and uses the Cortex RPG system (or at least it did, newer versions, that I avoid like the plague, do other things). Cortex is sometimes just referred to as “D12”, utilising every dice type up to the twelve-sided variety. It’s the kind of system I love, stripping away the inane complexity you often get from D&D and its variations but not being so simplistic as to be brainless (like, say, the Unisystem of the Buffy RPG, that I have also used on occasion). It’s a system where the vast majority of actions come down to rolling two die, one for a character’s attributes, which serve as the sort of base characteristics in terms of agility, strength, intelligence and the like, and one for a characters skills, which amount to what they are trained or educated in, like guns, intimidation, athletics, etc. There are modifiers, and traits and complications that affect these rolls, but it’s still just that two dice thing at the end of the day, with players either trying to breach a threshold to succeed based on the difficulty of the task, or rolling against opposing players or “NPC’s”.

I won’t offer much more of a wider review of the Serenity RPG book, it’s official adventures and the supplementary material, other than to say that, once you create some “house” rules to get around the inevitably poor rules and the other minor flaws – (it’s money system for example) – and once they had actually given the damn thing an index, it’s one of those games that I have never hesitated to come back to over and over.

It’s a system that an idiot can pick up, understand, and play with in a very short amount of time, which is perfect for a GM like me. There are GM’s who love combat and dungeon crawls, delighting in looking up the specific strengths and weakness of weapons against every type of monster. There are GM’s who have such finely crafted economic systems that they can happily make a game out of loot division. I’m not one of those people.

I’m a story guy. The bog-standard NFB RPG game or session is one where I’m aiming to outline an interactive narrative with a firm beginning, middle and end, with a conflict to sort out, a mystery to be solved, obstacles or a villain to be overcome, or maybe all three. My games are ones where players are talking in character more than shooting as one, with my combat sections usually designated right to the end, as a sort of finale blow-out, a pay-off for following the plot to its conclusion.

But man, that was not the case in that first game. I made several key mistakes.

The theme of the convention that year was “Bizarro”, basically alternate versions of things. So, I thought to myself, wouldn’t Bizarro Serenity be a cool idea? I’ve fallen into that trap more times since, of pushing ahead with an idea that, on a surface level, seems cool and interesting, but that, with poor planning and execution, falls to pieces very quickly.

The idea was, essentially, an “evil” version of Serenity. The ship was now an Alliance cruiser, led by Purplebelly Commander Malcolm Reynolds, with crack fighter pilot Hoban Washburne, twisted Chief Engineer Kaywinnet Frye, incredibly intelligent security officer Jayne Cobbington, and you get the picture.

The problem was that I had no point to the game beyond that radical change of circumstance. Aside from the dangers of asking players to take on the roles of canon characters – something I’ve largely avoided since, as I find players have trouble getting into the right mindset, and have much more fun with something they create at least partially – I wasn’t pointing them in the right direction: the actual plot amounted to little more than “Attack these Independents” with the rest predicated on the players interacting with each other for their entertainment.

And it all feel apart very quickly. I learned many important things from that game. Namely:

-You need a structure. Lacking one, the game went nowhere for an hour, then too fast for the last hour, as I first waited for the characters to interact instead of doing anything fulfilling, and then barely let them do any interactions at all.

-In a game with a designated command structure, the leader player can’t be a chump. I had a witless guy I barely knew as my commander, and he proceeded to act in a witless manner, letting other characters run roughshod over both his authority and the plot.

-You need to lock down out of character behaviour fast. When the guy playing Jayne kept playing him like a moron, I allowed it to proceed even though it tore the fabric of what little narrative I had apart.

-If you can’t improvise, don’t GM. I’ve gotten a lot better at this, but in that first game once my initial plot notes had to be thrown out the window, I floundered, coming up with stupid things to do for the crew, making up my own rules, and eventually bringing the whole catastrophe to a halt half an hour earlier than I was scheduled for.

It was a learning experience for sure. And it was all worth it in the end, because I wasn’t dissuaded from Gming. Bizarro Serenity was the gateway for my epic three campaign long attempt to craft a narrative that would end up taking Whedon’s vision and tearing it apart. And I’ll talk about it a bit more next time.

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