Friday, January 23, 2009

F.G.F #2: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

With yesterday marking Robert E. Howard's birthday, I thought it would be fitting to do a Filmic Gaming Fodder column on this much-debated movie. I don't want to get caught up today in whether it is or isn't a true expression of Howardian values or a faithful rendition of the character - I personally take it for what it is, and that's a gratuitous, violent, sensuous spectacle of a film. I'd like to think that if one could pull REH forward through time and let him watch it with a few beers and some good company, he'd probably find it a lot of fun, even if he'd have a few criticisms about it.

But anyhow, I digress. What I want to talk about today is an exploration of the movie as a revenge film, and not just any kind of revenge - revenge against the very thing that makes the person seeking revenge who they are. The film starts off with Conan's entire people being wiped out by Thulsa Doom, followed by Conan being sold into slavery, first as a simple form of human horsepower (so to speak), and then when his physical prowess has become evident, he's sold again into slavery as a pit fighter, and then passed on again to become a trained and skilled gladiator. When he is finally set free to float adrift in the world, his life is completely without meaning until he stumbles (almost literally) onto Thulsa Doom's operation, at which point his life is given focus again - so much so that he gives up love, riches, and friendship in an attempt to hunt down and kill Thulsa Doom. He is a man utterly driven towards one goal - to kill the one person who has given his life more meaning than anyone else.

See, this is where things get interesting. When Conan finally confronts Thulsa Doom at the end of the film, determined to cut him down, he is confronted in turn by Doom's revelation that, rather than his birth father, Doom is the one who has turned Conan into the man he is that day. It was the thing that has kept him alive and thriving all those long years - the thirst for vengeance. Even before that moment, we are shown by Thulsa Doom that he, far better than Conan's birth father, understands the Riddle of Steel - that it is not in fact steel that embodies strength, but the person who wields it. It was the ability to unlock the meaning of that secret that allowed Doom to raise his body of worshipers and attain the power he holds, and he reveals this secret to Conan in a parallel (but twisted) narrative moment comparable to the beginning of the film, where Conan's father tells him that you can't put your faith in gods or men, but you can put your faith in steel (which becomes a bittersweet statement later on when Conan's father's sword is shattered by the Atlantean broadsword - a statement that I feel is directed more to the fact that it is wielded by Rexor rather than it being an inferior blade).

In the end, of course, Conan pulls himself out of the web of words that Thulsa Doom is weaving around him and cuts him down (with the broken remnant of his father's sword, no less), proving that he can exist on his own and not merely as an antithetical force to Thulsa Doom. And, in doing so, he not only kills his nemesis, but frees all of Doom's followers of the need to consider themselves only in reference to Doom and his cult of personality. At the end of the film, as Conan burns Thulsa Dooms temple to the ground, Conan emerges (if I might stretch this analogy to the limits of the ridiculous) like a phoenix from the ashes of that temple as a new man, freed from the bonds of driven revenge, to go forth and create a new life for himself.

Now, where the heck does gaming fit in?

Unless you are running a truly freeform "sandbox" game (man I am starting to loathe that term), your campaign probably has some overarching goal in mind (I will avoid using the term "plot" here, since it is not a written plot but an end to which the campaign represents the means). I also use the term "goal" rather than "quest" because that also carries with it a lot of preconceived baggage that we're not really concerned with at the moment. Unless you really do want your campaign to run endlessly on for years or even decades, you're going to have some end point at which you'll want to put the campaign to bed and move on to something else. This is usually how I approach a campaign - not as a never-ending story but as something with a definite beginning and end. I just don't have the energy and patience needed to run a game that goes on for more than about a year before some other idea inevitably drags my attention away.

With that framework in mind, there are a number of campaign goals you might consider, but a goal that, I think, can fit into most any campaign setting or system is the goal of revenge. Rather than "save the world", which is a little overblown, or "find the artifact", which is a little overused, vengeance is something that can really give a good group a lot to work with, because vengeance is never as simple as the person seeking revenge makes it out to be. Vengeance can be a drug, a lover, a teacher, a slavemaster - it can be all things in all forms to the person seeking revenge, and in the end it can easily consume that person, even if the act of revenge is successfully carried out.

The concept of revenge can also entertain lots of different play styles. For those players who want a lot of Hack 'n Slash, a vengeance campaign can be filled with slaughtering their way through cabal after cabal of an archenemy's minions in order to get to the "Big Boss" himself. For characters who really like "plot" (there, I said it), a good GM can build all sorts of complex moves and countermoves leading to the final confrontation, a la The Count of Monte Cristo. For players who enjoy a game built around lots of character interaction and development, a campaign can be created focusing on how the drive for revenge affects the PCs, both in relation to themselves as well as to each other and even the world around them.

Even a more "sandbox-y" campaign can be revenge-oriented; as the PCs begin their freeform interaction with the campaign setting, they can repeatedly come into confrontation with elements of a certain power or person that grows into a nemesis for the party to confront at the end of the campaign. This works especially nicely if you allow the PCs to sandbox away for a while, get fat and happy from their adventures, and then you Kick The Puppy and send them off like a cloud of angry hornets. I had a fantasy campaign back in college that came together a lot like this, with players wandering around and getting into adventures for a few levels before running afoul of an evil god's minions, at which point the PCs became driven towards taking on this cult and wiping it out (one PC would make a symbolic cut to his arm for every cultist he killed - it got pretty hardcore).

Ultimately, I think the key to a good revenge goal in a campaign is to never let the act of vengeance A) become too straightforward, B) come without a heavy price, while C) the price you pay is never what you think you'd be paying, and D) the aftermath isn't what you've been imagining all along.

Lastly, a few lists of good revenge movies (some of these I might touch on for other reasons, but for now these lists will give you a lot to work with (notice a few films keep popping up on the same lists).

Top Grossing Revenge Movies, 1980-Present's Classic Revenge Movies

List Universe's Top 10 Great Revenge Movies's list of Revenge Movies


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

It's interesting that you raise the point about sandbox vengeance games. That is exactly what my wife's solo game is about - her desire to find the Chaotic Mage that betrayed her. There's a deeper level than what she knows - but it is exactly that small two sentence backstory that has driven some of the interactions of this game.

And thank you. The point about having a goal/end-point to the campaign isn't something I've considered, but as I read those words, the end-point to the solo campaign just crystalized. I think that is important a game like this.

Darkwing said...

Revenge is a noble goal(for a campaign).

"Sandbox" gets old after a while, as does the quest to destroy X, or find the magic MacGuffin, or what not. Even as a starting place it's good, and if the GM wants it can be used to get the characters involved in a greater plot that they otherwise would not care about.

I personally think that campaigns with goals are a good thing. All good campaigns come to and end. Sequels are fine, but if you just game and game and game with no arc plot...I think it gets boring.

Chad Thorson said...

I played a revenge game a few years back, but my character was killed. So it definitely has it's costs (especially when dealing with Frost Giants).