Daily Lists, Gaming, Movies

7 Reasons I, Frankenstein Is Like the Greatest RPG Campaign Ever GM’d

Image Official Movie Website

Every January some friends of mine and I gather at a local movie theater to watch the movie we believe will be the worst film that will be released that calendar year. It may seem like this is a bit early in the year to make such an attempt, but it isn’t. January is a month when movie studios tend to release films they expect to flop or that won’t stand up well to the critical eye. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a quick look: 2013 – Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, 2011 – Season of the Witch, 2010 – Daybreakers, 2009 – Paul Blart, Mall Cop. This year my friends and I had to choose between I, Frankenstein and The Legend of Hercules. It was a close call, but when we made our choice I, Frankenstein had a 0% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes and that clinched the deal. We all asked each other, “how bad does a film have to be in order to be universally hated?”

Apparently, the answer is, “not that bad.” I left the theater finding it incredible that no critics enjoyed the film. After all, Miami Connection is 73% Fresh. I only had two explanations for the universal disdain for I, Frankenstein. Either the critics – like Frankenstein’s monster – had no souls, or critics weren’t seeing the film for what it is. It is simply a perfect translation of a fantastic role-playing game campaign, possibly the greatest campaign ever GM’d. If your campaign is half as high concept, action packed, and just plain balls to the wall insane, then you are one lucky gamer. The movie is filled with tropes that are common in role playing games, especially the more “narrative” ones. Let me give you seven quick illustrations of what I mean.

1) Really Stupid Names That Are Still Somehow Cool

What’s the name of Frankenstein’s monster in I, Frankenstein?


Image Paizo

What’s the name of the proxy version of Frankenstein’s monster in Ravenloft? Adam. His creator’s name is Victor Mordenheim and this is because…well…you know…Mordenheim means “murder home” in German and that’s awesome. Role playing games are filled with names that are almost embarrassing to say in mixed company. This is even more the case when you have to take the time to explain the references or why the names themselves are so cool. Here are just a few examples:

Drizzt Do’Urden – Drizzt is one of the most popular characters in fiction, and rightly so. Not just in gaming fiction, but in all of fiction. His name is stupid. It’s so stupid that Rob Salvatore makes sure to hang a lantern on how ridiculous the name is at least once a book. “What’s a drizzit?”

Aballister Bonaduce – This character is the nemesis of Cadderly Bonaduce – speaking of kinda silly names – and I dare you to not wonder where Danny fits into Aballister and Cadderly’s tale.

But wait, there are more: Dragonbait, Fzoul, Bigby, Riggby, Zagyg, Xagyg…Rantledane Spoozleblapper (oh, wait, that one’s mine).

There is a fine tradition of silly names in RPG campaigns and related fiction. They are part of the fun of gaming. Like these games, I, Frankenstein is filled with silly names like Leonore (because almost Poe), Naberius, Helek, Dekar, Sargon, and Procula. I could go on and on, but seriously…Procula? And yet, I think these names are awesome. They are so going down on my list of potential NPC names. “Surrender or face the wrath of Procula!”

2) You Can See the “GM’s” Frustration With Characters Min/Maxing in I, Frankenstein, but the GM “Embraces the Yes”

Every game master has had to deal with the character optimization player, the dreaded min/maxer. Sometimes these players can be a plague upon a gaming group and other times they can be a much needed resource game masters can use to help a game run more smoothly. No matter what role they fill they always want to have a Vorpal Blade with sufficient feats that it critically hits on an 11-20, or their own personal Stormbringer.

Image Wizards of the Coast

In I, Frankenstein, Adam is the min/maxed emo Mary Sue. He’s immortal and is the first “mortal” to “descend” a demon, which he did by stabbing the demon with an iron grave marker. That said, it isn’t grave markers that Adam selects as his weapon of choice. No sirree. When given a tour of the magic shop…I mean the Gargoyle Order’s armory…Adam selects a pair of silver-tipped batons as his weapons of choice. That all sounds pretty tame until his companions criticize him because these batons are “too heavy and unwieldy” for anyone to use. Which leads one to wonder, “how lame is the Gargoyle armory if it has weapons that no one can use?” No wonder these guys are losing the war.

3) I, Frankenstein Is Insanely High-Concept

The advertisements really don’t do the concept of I, Frankenstein justice. This film is so high concept it’s like someone vomited horror movie tropes onto a canvas and swished them around. Here’s the elevator pitch:

“In a world where Frankenstein’s monster wanders the world looking as emo as possible, an ancient order of Gargoyles chosen by the archangel Michael are battling the 666 legions of the demon horde that fell from Heaven when Lucifer defied god for the fate of mankind. Mankind has done nothing but bring the monster misery, but the fate of the world just might lay in his hands.”

C’mon! Have a look on your RPG shelf right now. That’s like six of the games – or potential stories – in games you own. It’s Rippers, In Nomine, Vampire: the Masquerade, Accursed, Chill (using the Things book), and Monsters, Monsters! to name just a few. This is exactly the kind of story that players and GMs love to run. It’s campy, but provides opportunity for some dark psychological drama. Drama that usually comes closer to I,Frankenstein in execution than A Doll’s House. Be honest, those of you who actually saw the movie, when Leonore said she spared Adam because when she looked into his eyes “she didn’t see a soul, but the potential for one” your heart jumped a little with joy because you’ve made up “cool” NPC dialogue like that in your own games.

4) Hilarious Game Session-esque Dialogue

One of the things I found most striking while watching I, Frankenstein was how spontaneous and game-session like the dialogue seemed. One of my favorite moments of the film in this regard is when Yvonne Strahovski’s character Terra Wade is introduced to the “reality” of the mystic battle going on in the shadows. Adam informs Terra that he is caught in the middle of a battle between demons and gargoyles and that he needs to keep Frankenstein’s scientific notes away from them. When Terra hears this, she tells Adam that she doesn’t believe in demons and gargoyles. Mind you, she’s perfectly willing to accept that she is having this conversation with a 200 year-old re-animated corpse. She’s just not willing to take that next step and believe in living gargoyles and demons.

Then she sees this, and says “Oh, shit!”

Because that’s what you say when a demon sloughs off his face to reveal the monster beneath, at least it is when you are a PC in a non-Call of Cthulhu game. You give a humorous exclamation and get to the work of kicking ass, or in this case watching Adam kick ass.

5) Tight Opening Exposition Followed by 90 Minutes of Action

If you look at most RPG adventures you will find that most adventures, and almost all encounters, open with a long string of exposition that is supposed to be shared with the players. Often this comes as a very detailed room description, but my personal preference is when the long winded exposition is presented as NPC dialogue. About five minutes into I, Frankenstein there is a scene with Adam and Leonore that contains nothing but three to four minutes of pure exposition about the conflict between the Gargoyle Order and the Demon Horde. Leonore informs Adam, and the audience, of not only the stakes of the battle, but also educates everyone to key concepts that will play out in the film. Demons aren’t killed, they are descended. Gargoyles aren’t descended, they ascend. The battle needs to take place in the shadows, and the Gargoyles are losing. The stakes are set, the new vocabulary has been transmitted, and the adventure is good to go.

GMs could learn a lot from this scene in I, Frankenstein. In that short span of time – a dull span of time to be sure – the players/audience are conveyed all of the knowledge they need to move forward. After that, there isn’t much planning or plot to be had…unless you consider descending Demons to be a plot. In which case, there is a lot of plot over the next 80 minutes or so. And let’s face it, when you are running your D&D game it pretty much comes down to about 10 minutes of role playing for every 80 minutes of tactical combat.

6) There are a number of RPGs that are Crying Out to Be Run as I, Frankenstein Adaptations

I think anyone who plays role playing games and watches I, Frankenstein will be hard pressed to not begin making a list of games that could, and should, be used to run a campaign inspired by the movie. I instantly began wondering how I could use Kenneth Hite’s brilliant Night’s Black Agents to run a game where the PCs are former spies who get caught up in the battle between the Order and the Horde. The Demons would translate nicely into Vampires using the mechanics in the game.

Image Pelgrane Press

The movie is just begging to be translated to In Nomine, Hero, Savage Worlds, Gamma World 4e, FATE, and a host of other systems. If I were feeling particularly ambitious, I might try to find a way to translate this film into the Pokemon Jr. or Faery’s Tale systems and run sessions for the younger set.

7) The Movie Takes Time to Establish World Rules and So Should Your Game

Unlike your typical Vampire vs. Werewolf movie, I, Frankenstein doesn’t have too many pre-constructed world rules that it can rely on its audience to know before they walk in the door. Sure, it can expect that the audience will know that Adam is Frankenstein’s monster and is an animated corpse. Equally, it can count on the audience having some preconceptions about how demons operate. On the other hand, the film breaks from the demonic tradition in one very significant way and it had to create world rules for the Gargoyle Order. It manages to convey these world rules in the opening exposition and one or two reveals during the story and it’s done in a fairly fluid matter. Demons can be “descended” by anything inscribed with the symbol of the Gargoyle Order as it is a holy symbol created by the archangel Michael. Gargoyles can only be harmed by creatures without souls, which seems to include only demons and Adam.

Most interestingly, demons cannot possess a body that contains a soul of its own. This is a pretty significant violation of the preconceptions that viewers might bring into the theater, but it is one that is central to the plot. Do you want to know why the demons are so interested in how Adam came to be? Let me clue you in: it’s because animated corpses don’t have souls and the demons would really like to finish this little war they’ve been having with the Gargoyle Order. This is also why the demons have had Terra experimenting with reanimating rats.

This one world rule sets the stakes for the adventure’s conflict nicely. If you were ever looking for an example of how to incorporate the lives of one of your PCs into the nefarious plans of your villains, this is a pretty good template.

All of this praise might make you think that I believe I, Frankenstein is a great movie. It’s not. It’s clear that most of the actors in the film are phoning it in. Bill Nighy is a particular offender in this regard, though it should be noted that his performance is a fusion of his Underworld vampire lord and the burned out rocker he played in Love, Actually. As such, it adds a nice comic charm to the film. We also never get to see Yvonne Strahovski kick ass, and after years of Chuck this seems like a waste. There are other female characters – all Gargoyles – who do some damage to the Demon Horde, but the film is wasting a resource here.

But there is something about watching a scene where hundreds – if not a thousand or so – demons rain from the rooftops to do battle with a dwindling number of gargoyles. This is then immediately followed by hundreds of fiery explosions for the demons and pillars of upward bound blue flame when the gargoyles ascend.

All of which leaves one asking, “With firework displays like this, how is it that this war is happening ‘in the shadows?'” The citizens of Battletown must either be blind, or have a lot of extremely festive celebrations.

When Miami Connection was initially released, it went completely unappreciated. Now it has a 73% Fresh rating. That happened because people decided to watch the movie for what it was. I imagine that as time passes and more people watch I, Frankenstein for what it is, more people will come to like the film. It’s popcorn fun. I can definitely say that I don’t think it will be the worst film of 2014.

I should have gone to see The Legend of Hercules…then again, I might have been hypnotized by Hercules’ forgotten lightning powers. It seems Hercules is the real Lightning Thief.

Previously by Christian Lindke:

The 10 Best Superhero Role-Playing Games
From The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to Dallas: 10 Strange Licensed RPGs
Ten Ways to Make a Dungeons & Dragons Movie Not Suck

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