Monday, May 13, 2013

My Game-World, by John Sayles

Surfing channels late Saturday night, I stumbed across John Sayles' Lone Star, and ended staying up way past my bedtime to watch the last hour or so of one of my all-time favorite movies.

Lone Star is a murder mystery, a character study, and a meditation on place, in this case, a Texas border town, where the discovery of a half-buried skeleton on an old Army rifle range re-opens the case of the 1957 disappearance of Charlie Wade, sheriff of Rio County. The story veers back and forth from 1957 to the present, with Sheriff Wade's dead hand reaching out to touch the lives of those living in Frontera, the county seat. Lone Star is powerfully acted by a splendid cast, delivered at a pace as measured as Chris Cooper's drawl, and ending with a gut-wrenching twist worthy of its Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

And watching the movie into the early hours of Sunday morning, I was reminded of a conversation with one of my players over dinner awhile back. We were talking about my preparation for our Flashing Blades campaign. He explained that his D&D games tend to be largely improvised, with more of a focus on action than intrigue, and he was impressed by the depth of the machinations revealed in play so far. I told him that it was actually pretty easy for me - any time I created a non-player character, my first thoughts were always along the lines of, 'Okay, who's his brother? his sister? his uncle? his wife and his in-laws? What does he do for a living? who are his allies? his rivals? To what orgaisations does he belong? to what communities? In this way, I explained, conflicts and opportunities cascade out of the characters into the game-world, a flood of ideas on which to embellish.

John Sayles' Frontera, Texas, reminds me so much of how I build non-player characters that it's hard not to wonder if I was subliminally following his script in my head. Sheriff Sam Deeds, the present sheriff of Rio County, is the son of the legendary Buddy Deeds, who happened to be one of the deputies to the missing Charlie Wade and who possessed ample motive to want Wade dead; thus, Sam finds himself investigating the disappearance of Sheriff Wade by way of unexplored corners of his own past. Another of Charlie Wade's former deputies, Hollis Pogue, is now mayor of Frontera and a civic booster; he and others in Frontera are pushing for construction of a new county jail, a move opposed as a wasteful boondoggle by Sam. Hollis and Buddy both benefited from some shady land deals in the past; Mercedes Cruz, a prominent business woman and Fronter city council member, received money from Buddy which allowed her to start her successful restaurant. Sam is conflicted over their adoration of Buddy, a man both vstly corrupt and justly wise, particularly in the naming of the Frontera courthouse over the former sheriff. Mercedes' daughter, Pilar, is a teacher at the local high school, and both she and Sam have their own reasons to dislike Buddy, after their budding relationship was broken up by Buddy, ostensibly over the fact that Sam is white and Pilar a Latina.

There is a local army base commander whose estranged father owns a bar catering to the small African-American community of Frontera, the Latino undersheriff who plans to run stand for sheriff in the next election, and on and on, characters woven into the setting and through one another in surprising ways which the movie reveals strand by strand.

This is the same approach I use to creating characters for my settings, and I've found it to be particularly appropriate to swashbuckling campaigns, considering how little separation exists between the personal and the professonal in the Early Modern world, where family relationships and personal connections are as integral influence and status as offices and titles. Lone Star provides an excellent primer on how to fit these relationships together to build a game-world filled with intrigue.

3 comments:

  1. Latino/a isn't a race, there are white Latinos such as myself and Antonio Banderas. There are also brown Latinos such as Jimmy Smits, and black Latinos such as Zoe Saldana, even "yellow" Latinos such as Aline Nakashima. Other than that, very good review. I believe I saw this film in theaters.

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    1. Yo sé. I followed the usage in the movie, to distinguish between the cultural groups that make up the communities of Frontera.

      I didn't touch on that in the post, but that's another aspect of the movie that I mirror in my game-world, the different cultures that make up Frontera. In my game-world, the France of the 17th century, there are obviously differences between Catholics and Huguenots, but at the time, it was still a polyglot country, with many local languages still extant. There are differences in law between the north and south as well.

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  2. "...any time I created a non-player character, my first thoughts were always along the lines of, 'Okay, who's his brother? his sister? his uncle? his wife and his in-laws? What does he do for a living? who are his allies? his rivals? To what orgaisations does he belong? to what communities? In this way, I explained, conflicts and opportunities cascade out of the characters into the game-world, a flood of ideas on which to embellish."

    I really liked this. Building the familial connections of mother, father, siblings, wife, children, and in-laws is something that Pendragon does really well. I think I need to go take some tables from Pendragon for my Honor+Intrigue campaign.

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