2011. It sounds like the future. So far, most of it still is. But I’m not pondering of the future right now. I’ve been taking trips into the past.
A couple months ago I heard Ray Lynch’s Deep Breakfast for the first time in many years. I’m not usually the “new age” music type, but I have fond memories of listening to my mom’s tape of Deep Breakfast on long road trips when I was a teenager. The music is full of plinky plinks and broad WaaAAaaaAAAaa sounds and the occasional soft neerrroowm. It was great daydreaming music, well suited to the Piers Anthony, David Eddings and Alan Dean Foster novels I devoured at the time. To my surprise, it’s still great daydreaming music. It made me want to ride a luck dragon. This got me thinking.
A few weeks ago I was watching Breakin’ (insomnia + Netflix Instant = strange viewing choices). I realized that the pop-lock-break dance battles in the film were structured soemthing like wizard duels: lots of strange outfits and complex movements resulting in targeted energy that seemed to damage the loser. The dancing could be considered a sort of performance magic. This, too, got me thinking.
What if parts of 1980s pop culture were made into a role-playing game? To clarify, I know full well that some very serious, quality scifi, fantasy and adventure films came from the 80s. But I’m thinking more of the quirky and possibly cheesy stuff, because it was, in its way, pretty bitchin’. The game would embrace clichés.
The 1980s in the USA were much more than the hangover of the 1970s. It was more than neon plastic earrings and Nancy Reagan’s fondness for red and Mr. T pitying fools. There were wars, gangs, drug problems, the dawn of AIDS and famine in eastern Africa. The decade also saw the first generation of home computers, the rise of role-playing games and a wide variety of music, everything from the Dead Kennedys to Debbie Gibson.
Just as steampunk tends to ignore rampant prostitution, child labor and 97 percent of the effects of colonialism during the Victorian era, and the Society for Creative Anachronism supports the use of toilet paper, this game would focus not on crack and the Crips but on Scott Baio’s misuse of telekinesis. When life gave us fear of a nuclear holocaust, 80s Hollywood gave us Emilio Estevez. And it kind of helped. It really kind of did.
This game would be about New Wave and breakdancing and hair gel. It’s about Michael J. Fox’s use of time travel to work through his Oedipal conflict. The game would tackle the mysteries of the decade. What was the watermelon doing there? Why leg warmers? Would we ever be invited to a kegger?
I’d call it…Awesome Stuff in the Forbidden Dimension. Or Radical Neon. Because, well, why not?
The rules would be a flashback to the 3d6 era. You’re probably familiar with the scale. You know, like a strength of 18 is Conan the Barbarian, 10 is Miles O’Brien, 8 is Conan O’Brien, 1 is Potatoes O’Brian. Agility of 15 is Flashdance. Agility of 5 means you’ll hurt yourself doing the Safety Dance. The game master may choose to implement house rules such as rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest die, or 3d6 re-rolling all rolls of 1, or turn around, close her eyes and stick her fingers in her ears while humming Eye of the Tiger until the players are done pretending to roll honestly. And unlike in many games in the early days, stats such as appearance and charisma would actually matter.
Character classes could go a little something like this:
Soft-focus Adventurer: You are Flurtox, or Pasadena, or Quasmyre, or Velurvia, or some other ridiculous name, an attractive and romantic hero or heroine questing on an enchanted animal of some long-haired variety in a realm of both cute talking flowers and dangerous swamps full of evil trees and whatnot that line the castle of Lord Gore Sinister.
Cop: You’re a good cop on the jagged edge, in too deep, and this time it’s personal. You’re either the goddamned rookie or the veteran cop whose partner got killed in cold blood three days before retiring and now you have to train a goddamned rookie, right before brain-sucking aliens attack all the shopping centers in Pasadena.
Performance Magician: Your funky-fresh styles-upon-styles get mad respect on the mean shtreets of Pasadena, until a wack rival krew (yes, with a K) comes on your turf with beef, or words to that effect. You gotta get new moves to win the b-boy battle (or any other sort of performer in any other sort of competition). Note that gangs, whether street gangs, hordes of goblins, jeering classmates, or any other sort of groupthink NPC thugs, would be treated as single entities. You can fight them all at once. And street gangs don’t really want to hurt people. They really want to dance in unison and will follow the choreography of the coolest dancer (see Jets v. Sharks, Bernstein, Sondheim, et. al. and M. Jackson v. Lots of Gangs).
Amazing scientist or young associate thereof: Old Doc Brainstorm nearly perfects the Transruptor Helmet when the fredometer reads 3.74 hexamules and transdimentional spiders break out of the Terror Zone, poised to attack. Now, only Doc Brainstorm’s neighbor Steve, the moderately attractive but somewhat socially awkward high school student, stands between freedom and the annihilation of all the shopping centers in Pasadena.
The Flannel Mullet: Dude, living in Pasadena sucks. Your stepdad is a dick, you never know where the best parties are at, and the babes think you smell like bong water. But, whoa! You find out your neighbor is like a full-on vampire! Or you’re recruited by a star commander to defeat aliens! Or other stuff that’s like totally dangerous and cool!
And the parade of possible character type clichés goes on and on. Pasadena is optional, just like in real life.
The game would be less centered on lethal damage than with losing or gaining cool. I’d have a coolness score, as a hybrid of hit points and the old Call of Cthulhu sanity score. When Daniel LaRusso crane-kicked whats-his-Aryan-ass from Cobra Kai, it wasn’t the physical damage that made the audience cheer, but rather Daniel-san’s critical moment of cool. And the other dude was totally not cool after that. Coolness could be gained or lost throughout the game. Activate an oscillation overthruster? Cool up. Get schooled in a rap battle? Cool goes down. A character without cool is effectively dead.
It’s possible that among the 84 squillion games out there, some one has come up with a similar idea already. If so, lemme know. I’ve not seen it myself. Either way, I’m thinking I may just make this happen, 4 realz, yo.
Jason Henninger used to breakdance while wearing Iron Maiden shirts, though all he really wanted to be was a goth in a library. He is far less confused now.