Saturday, April 16, 2016

Casablanca Orphan

Here is an entry for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: this essay is not by me--it's by an anonymous DIY RPG writer who was assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

The difficulty is I have an odd number of entries, meaning this one's orphaned. This is how it'll work--if you like it,  send an email with the Subject "TNA" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it. If you don't, do nothing. At the end I'll look to see if it has more votes than the average entry. If so: it goes to the next round.

Everybody games at Rick’s
Casablanca is better at D&D than The Lord of The Rings.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll specify that the 1942 Hal Wallis production has more to offer an aspiring Dungeon Master than the entire Multi-Media entity that is The Lord of The Rings. There’s a lot of discussion about the influence that Tolkien may or may not have had on Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not going to rehash any of it. It’s online. Go google it—it’s fascinating to me and I think considering the obvious connections, it’s worth your time to investigate.

But now, I’m going to tell you that Casablanca is a better use of your time, if you’re mining something for ideas or just looking for inspiration. If you haven’t seen it, you should go fix that. Casablanca is one of those things that lives up to its hype—it is a satisfying use of your time, and I recommend it to everyone. There’s something in it for you. Tolkien and Tolkien derived works though… Your mileage is going to vary.

For starters, it’s more efficient. I’m always looking for ways to save time—to waste as little of my life as possible. Casablanca clocks in at a lean 102 minutes.  Any version of The Lord of The Rings is going to take up way more of your time and head space. Even Ralph Bakshi’s animated film is another half hour on top of that, and it doesn’t even finish the damn story.

More than that, it offers dungeons dark and dangerous, more so than The Mines of Moria. Enemy occupation, underground resistance, rampant and organized crime, desperate people, exotic locations, villains, heroes, ancient streets, harsh wilderness, love, memorable characters, are all features of the city of Casablanca.  And the way to around or through any of them isn’t as clear as the, “Go East”, path to Mordor.

The stakes are the same. You’re playing for the fate of the world. In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo destroys the ring or the world falls to evil and the free peoples of Earth either perish in flame or are crushed under the heel of a seemingly omnipotent dark lord. In Casablanca, it’s the same thing—though, “The Ring”, in Casablanca can be Letters of Transit or Victor Laszlo, or Rick’s heart, depending on your interpretation.  Whichever your McGuffin of choice, it needs to get where it needs to go or Nazis conquer the world. It’s time to save the world.

But The Lord of The Rings is Epic High Fantasy that doesn’t ask any questions as to how. The way to the end is never in any kind of doubt. Strider will re-forge Narsil into Anduril and lead The Men of The West against The Dark Lord. Frodo must go to Mordor.  We must fight to the end or all is lost. As an adventure, or a narrative, it’s rail-roady. Of course we go to Mordor.  The only road is through the long dark of Moria. If we don’t, we all perish in flames or we bag out on this whole role-playing game thing and do something else. It is the on or off switch of adventure. You accept the call, and send your hero on their little journey or you don’t.

Casablanca, like any given night of a role-playing game with your friends, defies any one genre. It’s a war-time romantic barbarian musical comedy propaganda action spy flick with some shout-outs to film noir. (Note: This is exactly what happens in a good game of D&D) And the way to the end isn’t clear at all. The path to victory is any way you want to go, and the small choices your player characters make, change the conditions of victory as you make them. Do you help Victor Laszlo escape and ensure this NPC of great power and influence can live and continue to fight The Nazis? Or do you sneak into Rick’s after hours and steal the letters of transit to ensure your own escape? Do you help two old lovers reunite and shepherd them to safety? Do you stay in Casablanca and help refugees to escape? Do you turn rebel and kill the Nazi commanders visiting Casablanca before heading into the desert to the Free French in Brazzaville?

Or maybe you turn pick-pocket, and join Ferrari’s organization. Your next job is to find a way to persuade Sam, a bard of some renown, to leave Rick’s behind, and come work for you at The Blue Parrot. And that becomes the adventure, because any of your choices is going to shift the narrative and change the course of the game and the story. In Rings, Evil does shit. Then Good has a meeting, recites some poetry, forms a fellowship, and does what it’s supposed to do.

If you reskin Casablanca with fantastic monsters and characters, change the nouns and give everyone swords and magic, you have whole campaigns worth of adventures, ones where you set your own limits and decide your own fate. Your choices, being small and varied with no immediately obvious consequences to the metaplot, are more meaningful because they shape the game and the game world. There is more to explore, and you’re not just moving from one encounter to the next.

 While wading through orc hordes in Moria to get to The Balrog at the end of the bridge and face him in battle to escape to the surface might be a few really cool fights and an okay evening. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But for my time and money, give me more. More choices, more gray, more intrigue. More everything! Don’t force me to accept this one chance to save the free peoples of Middle Earth. Let me go forth and find another way.

This sounds like I’m baggins on ToIkien (see what I did there?), but I’m not.  I am forever grateful to Mister J.R.R. for his work.  For Halflings, rangers, wraiths, orcs, giant spiders, wizards, et cetera. I read my Illustrated Middle Earth Encyclopedia for fun, damn it! It’s all awesome! But I never understood why anyone would want to play a Middle Earth RPG-- MERPS or The One Ring or anything like them. I just find them limiting in a way that something like Casablanca isn’t, and I’m against limits in my adventure gaming. There is more to offer players and dungeon masters when you don’t limit your game to epic high fantasy.

The ability to shift, change, and build on the imagination of the players is the strength of D&D. It is not a novel, nor is it epic. It’s better.-


  1. The difference is that the characters in Casablanca have to make difficult choices, those in the Lord of the Rings just have difficult experiences. The only character growth in LotR comes from drinking Ent draughts.

    1. i think a lot of people would disagree with you.

      But moreover: no choice is really difficult( in the character growth sense) in an RPG, so it's less relevant. Except in rare cases (like one PC being responsible for another's death) growth is a choice as is deciding a decision is difficult.

    2. Yeah, that's total nonsense. Frodo doesn't change from the beginning to the end of the novel? Merry? Pippin? Aragorn undergoes no change at all? Theoden? Faramir?

      Your claim has no basis in fact.

      Good article, by the way. Found it thanks to Jeffro of Castalia House's sensor sweep.

  2. The book "Hamlet's Hitpoints" by Robin Law actually dissects the movie very nicely from a gaming point of view (along with Hamlet and Dr. No). The emphasis is both on the procedural plot elements and the dramatic/emotional ones. It's a good read.