Readers will probably remember our earlier Double Feature posts where we combined movie-watching and roleplaying in a delicious stew of basement-compatible fun. With all the buzz around the upcoming Hunger Games movie, it seems like a good time to bring this idea back up.
It’s surprisingly easy to make a roleplaying experience around your favorite movies and even more interesting to bring elements of those movies into your existing game. You’ll notice a distinct theme in our commentary, forcing your players into choices with consequences. If you want to ramp up the difficulty, tension and drama of your game, this is a great way to do it.
This is more of a discussion of how to integrate different aspects of the Hunger Games into your own game, and not merely ways to re-skin 4e or another system to be the Hunger Games. If you want specific help on which mechanics from different gaming systems are most helpful, check out Part 2.
Political intrigue and socioeconomic crises are always interesting portions of the roleplaying experience. When all the dungeons have been looted and dragons slain, these are the things that remain. Many of the role-playing elements of gaming usually involve traversing the challenges of an oppressive government ala 1984 or Brave New World. The Hunger Games is no different, except that it is more modern in its publication and ostensibly intended for young adults. Still, as inspiration it has plenty to say about storytelling in a fundamentally unjust setting.
Many settings that involve a dystopian society usually also involve some element of utopia. The government enforces a belief that all is well, and for the most part the populace believes it, or is kept entirely ignorant of how the other half is living. The hero or band of heroes is tasked not just with taking down “the man”, but exposing the hypocrisy, V for Vendetta style.
The world of the Hunger Games isn’t really like this. The Capital does try to put up a facade of well-being, but in the districts the populace all understand the truth of the matter. It is through fear of destruction that they don’t act, not ignorance. This creates an interesting opportunity for game play. It wouldn’t be enough for the party to infiltrate and destroy a government installation. There needs to be a taste of the theatrical involved, the people need to know who did it and why. Your party might serve as much as the rallying cry as it would the tip of the sword.
Of course, with their actions becoming more public, the heat will come down twice as hard, enhancing the danger not just for the party, but the citizens they are trying to save as well. As we often discuss, players tend to regard their own lives as cheap, and will gleefully jump into danger the drop of the hat. Creating a world where their actions can negatively affect those they are trying to protect forces players to plan, strategize and sometimes make tough choices. The town guard is about to attack two different areas of the city as retribution for the party’s actions. Obviously they can’t be in both places at once, so who do they save? Or do they seize the opportunity and launch a counter offensive at the expense of more lives?
Ultimately, it comes down to this: It’s quite hard to upset the status quo in a dystopia. The despots and dictators of your campaign must be good at their jobs, or else they wouldn’t still have them. Those in charge have the power to turn the heroes’ good deeds against them, casting them as dangerous revolutionaries and outlaws in the eyes of the commoners. Heroes who take on the establishment will find that, far from grateful, the oppressed masses may find that their lot has only worsened as a result of their “good deeds.” Is it draconian fear tactics from a government that feels the winds of change blowing, or is it the inevitable backlash of some incorrigible malcontents (the PCs) who should have known better than to challenge Big Brother, the benevolent protector? The PCs have their work cut out for them, convincing them which is the truth. A dystopian government has it in its own best interests to make sure that things get much worse before they get better.
One of the surprising elements to portray in a game based on survival is the lack of large-scale infrastructure. This might not seem like a concern with something based on the Hunger Games, with it’s massive Orwellian governmental machine that leads to the games in the first place, but once you get past the background elements of the setting things are very one-on-one.
Handled crudely, this can easily turn into a campaign of strung-together random encounters. These gnolls are hunting you, kill them first! That maniacal dwarf wants the cache up supplies you just found, kill him first! Orcs are ugly, kill them first! Better to have a steady source of villainy that you can turn to regularly, and without cities and thieves guilds you need to be a little more creative.
One way is to consider your villain’s motivations. As Mike Shea points out, motivations can mean all the difference between a throw-away villain and one that will stick in your players’ minds for a while. Maybe those gnolls are hunting you because they refuse to break the extended-family bonds even in this horrible scenario. They will not separate and the pack needs a lot of food collectively so now they’re desperate, especially since some of the pack members took serious wounds and are wasting away back at camp. Suddenly that gnoll raid is a heart-wrenching Catch 22 that will pull your players’ heart-strings after they slaughter the ill-conceived ambush and stick with them.
You may also want to think of a quest for your villain, pressing a time constraint on the players that make them choose between supplies and success. It’s no secret that if a paragon-tier adventuring group (or even high-heroic) wants some food and water they will be able to get some from somewhere. But if it takes the party three days to assemble all the supplies they need and the villain needs two to reach the mystic ruins where he can assure his victory then what’s an adventuring party to do?
The answer: suffer. And isn’t that why we’re DMs in the first place?
Death matches are nothing new in the world of table top gaming. All sorts of settings and adventures have elements of gladiatorial combat, duels, and other kinds of fights to the death. Part of what makes the Hunger Games unique are the stakes of the combat. Avoiding death seems like a high enough stake on its own, but you can really up the atmosphere and tension of your game by giving your heroes extra incentive to be victorious.
Maybe you enter the death match because you need to gain access to a special magic item that can save your people, or it becomes the first step toward infiltrating the villain’s cabal. Adventurers face death around every corner, so merely acting in the sense of self-preservation becomes a little cheap after a few encounters. Players are notorious for flaunting their mortality at the DM around every turn, so even threatening to “really kill them this time” won’t do your game a whole lot of good.
Feel free to add these extra motivations to the other competitors in the tournament. Is it harder to kill your opponents knowing that the same magic item you need is also the only hope for their homes as well?
Another aspect to play with is how the death match plays out. The Hunger Games forces its participants to adapt to ridiculous conditions and strips them of most of their prized equipment, at least initially. Do you let your party enter the fray fully armed, rested and ready? Or do you strip away some of their special items and make them earn them back? Maybe equipment becomes publicly available for anyone that’s able to grab it. It might annoy some gamers to lose their prized magic weapon for awhile, but think of the surprise when they stumble across a rival band of marauders who are wielding the party’s own weapons against them.
(photos courtesy of IMDB.com)