“Steal This Idea” is an ongoing series in which an element from the media is examined for use in games. These articles will provide a basic description of the scene in which the element occurs is necessary to introduce the idea for gaming, and hooks to use that idea in various kinds of RPGs. We will always reference the title of the media in the article headline, so you can skip this post if you’re worried about spoilers.
Any moron can mine fantasy adventure movies like “The Scorpion King” or “Return of the Jedi” for gaming ideas. I can say that, because I am that moron. To make up for sand-bagging on some of those past STI articles, today I take up the challenge of finding role-playing inspiration in an unlikely spot that you might typically pass over in your search: The Children’s Movie Section at Family Video. For a 50-minute feature that we got for free, I was surprised at how many hooks I found stuck inside. You might be too.
Aside from satisfying my recent jones for Victorian-era fiction, this animated film boasts some heavyweight nerd credentials. John Rhys-Davies- of “Lord of the Rings” movie fame- voices Doctor Watson, former star of “Logan’s Run” Michael York is the voice of Sherlock Holmes, and the famous sleuth’s nemesis Professor Moriarty is voiced by Malcolm MacDowell. While I first saw Mr. McDowell sporting a bowler hat in “A Clockwork Orange”, many sci-fi fans will remember him as the man who killed Captain Kirk in “Star Trek: Generations.” Stop applauding- Shatner’s not that bad.
More than just a slapstick kiddie take on a literary classic, however, a dedicated viewer could certainly take away some very clever ideas and devices that just might serve you in your next RPG outing.
Cartoons are famous for their ability to make any ordinary item a tool of animated violence. This movie was no exception, arming its protagonists with a variety of everyday objects to fight off their adversaries. With so many pages and pages of core rule books dedicated to weapons, armor, and other character equipment, it’s easy to forget that some of the most exciting battles take place using the things just lying around. Instead of giant mallets and sticks of dynamite however, this cartoon actually took a more- can I say it?- realistic approach to its improvised arsenal. Better yet, many of these objects can be used across genres and timelines. Just check out some of the items that inflicted pain through the course of this film:
- Fireplace poker
- Tea trolley
- Wrought iron gate
- Loose floor boards
- Push broom
- Tavern serving tray
- Church organ pipes
- Cemetery grave markers
Not one of us is a role player because we want to act out average mundane scenarios. Yet sometimes, we limit ourselves to the stories we tell because we don’t want to stray into the ‘ridiculous’ or ‘outrageous.’ However, watching this film reminded me that great stories don’t have to be totally believable to be totally awesome. The grander the plot, the farther reaching the scheme, the more satisfying the payoff when the end is realized. To reach for those limitless story lines, you have to be willing to take some chances.
The trick in these cases is making your heroes invest in the preposterous plot. This animated movie had a very pedestrian plot lead-in: a young woman being blackmailed. That simple story evolved into a more elaborate yarn, including a grand heist of several world-famous diamonds. Finally, the insidious intrigue reaches its fever pitch with a scheme to use the stolen gems to focus the rays of a solar eclipse into a devastating laser that can destroy the Tower of London and allow Moriarty to steal the Crown Jewels of London. No big deal. After one clue leads to the next, which leads to the next, it’s easy to accept that the plot has grown bigger than anyone could’ve possibly imagined.
This feature also reminded me of the sense of urgency and intensity that drives an adventure when the heroes know what the villain is planning, and has precious little time to stop it. At first, the protagonists must rush to solve the case because a young woman’s safety is at stake. As the case progresses, they have to step up their efforts to prevent the theft of an important diamond, racing the villains to the priceless stone. Finally, Holmes and his furry companions must beat the clock to foil Moriarty before the solar eclipse takes place. (They’re very careful to broadcast the date and time of the eclipse at the opening of the movie.) Since the heroes know what’s going to happen, and when it’s supposed to go down, the adventure races forward at an exciting pace. While keeping the bad guy’s plans a secret from your party can provide some thrills and chills as well, placing that burden of impending evil on your heroes can also make for a very dramatic campaign.
What originally inspired me to steal this idea was the clever gadgets utilized by characters in the movie, both heroes and villains. Whether it’s a dastardly device that dazzles your do-gooders, or an intriguing invention that stymies a scoundrel, getting creative with your in-game gadgets can give your campaign some much-needed pizzazz.
For instance, while some game worlds allow characters to fly through magical means or mechanical marvels, the (literal) cat burglars in Tom & Jerry’s caper had an ingenious invention. Using a plain-looking backpack that hid metal armatures, these crooked felines could pull a chain on their pack and sprout literal wings to fly from crime scene to crime scene. With a little boost from a controlled incendiary device, this exciting invention allowed the villains to travel from crime scene to crime scene without leaving a discernible trail. Not quite jet packs, these flying packs are still a new and mysterious machination that add wonder to the adventure.
The band of thieves also employ a variety of pneumatic and clockwork devices that pre-date the power tools we take for granted here in the 21st century. Automated glass-cutters, buzz saws, and grabbing claws that aided the villains in stealing their priceless targets. A steam-powered horseless carriage helps Professor Moriarty in his escape attempts. Grounded in science, but greater than what society is used to seeing, these amazing apparatuses can be the bane of a hero’s existence- or borrowed to aid in defeating their dastardly deeds.
The final project at the Professor’s disposal was a diamond-fueled laser that focused the wavelengths of the eclipsed sun’s rays into a devastating beam of pure energy. While this diabolical device clearly exceeds the bounds of known technology for its day, such an ambitious experiment has just enough degree of scientific trappings in its evil engineering to be believable. Finding new and curious contraptions with which to challenge your characters may inspire them to develop some ingenious inventions of their own.
Has cartoon violence ruined your childhood? Have you found unexpected inspiration in a children’s movie? Are you wondering how you made it through an entire blog post about Tom & Jerry? Tell us how you feel in the Comments!