Unexpected DnD movie
I’ve said before that AD&D is perfectly adapted for wuwei adventures (without really needing OA at all): the whole levels/magic items/powers mix is much more appropriate to Hong Kong cinema than it is either to De Laurentiian bare-chested bravado or to John Boorman/Ridley Scott shiny metal epics. All you need to add is a “jump” skill to every character class: 5 feet per level should cover it, ignore armour.
And that was before I saw the ultimate D&D movie – Red Cliff* – which I think I might be able to translate straight into a mass battle module. Both the sins and the strengths of D&D are front and center. The generals are obviously name level fighters and operate as such, soaking up arrows and cutting dozens of level 0 or 1 mooks in half in single swings of their swords. There is a whole essay on the shield as a straight -1 to AC in there – as well as another contradictory one on the shield as an important player in formation fighting. Wars are decided by druidic weather sense. There’s even a Houri who clouds the mind of the Big Bad. But most of all, it’s really not about the characters but about the strategic/tactical situation: odds are weighed, plans are set in motion, forces and spies deployed. The tension comes not from the negotiation of the plans, nor from the interactions between the plotters, but from how the plans unfold in the situation, making it much like a classic heist.
And if there is an important difference between Tolkienesque and D&D-esque fantasy, I don’t think it revolves around whether the quests are epic or picaresque, nor whether the heroes are hapless, fallible beings or pure-hearted indestructibles, nor whether the ending is encapsulated in the opening conditions. Instead I think it might be found in the difference between The Two Towers and Red Cliff . In the former, all the military strategy is secondary to the heroic agency of a few individuals: the castle is held through sheer dogged grit (which orcs lack, natch) but it’s the cavalry-as-avenging-angel that turns the tide. It’s a sublime vision of effectively divine forces: man is at best the butterfly that can occasionally fan a hurricane. In Red Cliff the outcomes of battles are decided by human planning and execution. And you have to play every trick you can muster to storm the castle, and even if you get to the final confrontation nothing is certain – you have to make it work in the moment. You are, in brief, rolling the dice at every turn. And there’s a sense in which the heroes and the mooks in Red Cliff are made from the same stuff – a sense that’s central to LoTR but only really manifested in the figures of the hobbits.
…all that said, it’s not that great a film (at least in the 2.5 hour cut I saw – there’s also a 2-part marathon version). As my wife observed, there isn’t a single really well drawn character, nor any convincing inter-character tension. And during the battle sequences I often didn’t know what particular scenes were supposed to be telling me. When I said I could dip out for a couple of minutes because all I would miss would be a lot of wood flying around she said “but that’s the whole movie.” And she was right. But I reckon that very mediocrity as drama is vital to its gameability.
* I refer specifically to the short cut, all-in-one-movie version rather than the 2-part original, because that’s what I saw. Apparently the long version has a whole load of interpersonal drama between allies, which carries it away from the kind of roleplaying party solidarity that White Wolf, for instance, thought was unattractive about the characteristic D&D table.