Attempting to Educate Through RPGs

A friend recently asked me to both run some games and teach kids how to run games themselves. It went pretty well!

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Give or take.

For starters, I dusted off a relic of my own childhood: Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

It was probably one of the most anvilicious, ridiculous, flat-out stupidly over-the-top things on television back when it aired but it also covered some ground that kids really don’t get nowadays. Especially American kids. It’s a cartoon about an international, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-everything band of heroic teenagers trying to save the world. Beyond simple, moralistic plots on the environment, it also tried to deal with HIV, gun violence, drugs, the impact of capitalism on poor people, and god only knows what else.

I can fault it for a lot of how it covered those issues, and for a lot more besides, but I can’t fault it for trying and the basic ideas behind it are still sound.

So I adapted it to Evil Hat’s Fate Roleplaying System, with a handful of updates, then I tossed out Captain Planet himself since that’s basically the game master’s player character that nobody else can compete with. This would be a game about the Planeteers themselves.

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And not a game about his mullet.

While I’m happy enough with the setup that I might polish it off and upload it somewhere, it went off the rails by the second half and never recovered. Running a roleplaying game is all about knowing your audience – as I’ve written before. I didn’t know mine.

Unfortunately, this was also my first time running for a group composed entirely of kids and I had a rough patch thanks to a trifecta of boys playing off each other in all the worst ways. If it had been any one of them in the game without the other two, it would’ve gone off without a hitch, but as anyone who’s ever dealt with young boys can and will tell you: they can be demons of chaos. I could see the dynamics forming but I couldn’t figure out how to stop it and keep them on point – that’s on me. Pretty much every trick I tried short of booting them from the game just did not freaking work. It didn’t help that one of them was just watching, not an actual player. I also had to keep shutting another down when he kept trying to play for other people.

Even with that, they all did good during the opening vignettes. Not coincidentally, this was where I put most of my planning and research in. The second half of the scenario was supposed to build off all that but I wasn’t aware of how much handholding I’d have to do (another failure on my part, considering the age group here). That’s one thing I’ll clean up before I upload it anywhere.

Everyone also learned some things in spite of themselves. Within the first five minutes, those kids opened up to environmentalism, current events, political science, and geography. They stayed hooked in for all that stuff throughout the first half; any scenario I put together for kids in the future will probably also try to hook players in with new info rather than just dumping them into the action. If I could figure out how to cram a class’ worth of New Info into a session from start to finish, that’d be gold.

For many of them, it was probably their first time learning about these things with no filter. None of them knew, for instance, that Ukraine has a bucketload of aging nuclear reactors and diminishing resources to care for them. None of them knew about the war vets at the DAPL protests. None of them knew about piracy being a thing in the Indian Ocean. None of them knew about violence against environmental protesters in Brazil. None of them knew about poaching in Africa.

I didn’t dump any horribly visceral details on them, but I didn’t sugarcoat it. They responded amazingly well. And to be fair, none of their parents probably know about this stuff either. There’s a lot to keep track of these days and not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with goings-on in our own country, let alone anything international.

I myself didn’t know about the Ukrainian reactor tidbit until a few days ago, although I definitely need to do more research than Michael Chossudovsky’s Centre for Research on Globalization; slick looking website, and the fact that it’s Canadian had me off guard (Canadians supposedly being more reasonable than us in the States), but craaaaaazy bullshit is crazy and should not be a source of info for anything when dealing with kids.

thanks wikipedia
Fool me once, asshole.

It was also interesting that four out of five players – boys and girls alike – were playing outside their own gender, national origins, and three played outside of their race. These are little things, yes, but that’s one of the key ways you can build openness and empathy in people: take them out of their own skin and put them in someone else’s.

For all that they wrecked the game, two of the problem boys shut down the third when he tried to make a snide comment about one of them playing a girl. The player didn’t hide behind insults, he didn’t make excuses, he didn’t try changing the character in question; he just plain told the other kid to shut up. He liked playing as her. His buddy backed him up without a moment’s hesitation.

Sure, the session was a tire fire.

But I’ll take my victories where I can get ‘em.

The Problem with Wonder Woman

Here’s my hot take Wonder Woman review in a nutshell: It’s a good movie, not without its flaws but easily the best one to come out of the DC cinematic universe to date and probably the best DC movie since The Dark Knight. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman and it shows; you can see where the executives were brawling and biting nails, but you can also see where the actress was given free rein to just be Diana, Princess of Themyscira. There are moments and scenes that have more emotional weight than just about any other superhero film to date, there’s a clear progression of plot and power escalation, and more clear character arcs than any DC film since they started the drive towards a shared universe.

It’s the equal or better of more than a few Marvel movies, especially during Phase One. Most of my gripes have more to do with special effects and the constraints of keeping it PG-13. I give it a solid 4 out of 5.

But as I was talking with my fiancée afterwards, she brought up a pretty damn good point about what was wrong with it. Namely, Steve Trevor’s role. We went back and forth a couple times before coming to the joint realization of why he was kind of a weak point.

Below be spoilers.

Spoiler
I’m not recycling this at all.

I was and still am mostly okay with Trevor’s role in the film. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it did a good job of being the short-lived tragic romance that brings Diana to the mortal world and introduces her to the handful of good, redeeming characteristics of it.

My initial beef was that he was just too good, too central in a film that wasn’t about him, but as the movie went on it was continually established just how out of his league he was in having anything to do with Diana. The role he and his fellow soldiers play is to help establish Diana as a unique kind of superhero: She is not above the fray, like a Superman or a Batman. She’s a hero of the people. Her allies are men, yes, but they’re relatively diverse, complicated men and they’re the folks who’d be on the front lines in that era.

His character arc comes to a natural conclusion with a heroic sacrifice; this sacrifice gives Diana the rage and then the clarity needed to take out the film’s Big Bad.

A little hokey, but sure, whatever, love interests dying to motivate heroes ain’t exactly new and I’m kinda cool with it being a guy for once.

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The problem, which my fiancée and I hit upon during the end credits, is that this was pretty much the first time a love interest in a superhero flick had that kind of arc – a near-equal role with the hero. And it was a guy. In the first superhero movie dedicated to a female lead.

I’m not tooting my own horn here, but I’m a comic book nerd and I’ve seen most of the superhero movies released in the past ~30 years. I’ve missed a couple that might have similar arcs (the second Garfield Spider-Man movie, arguably Suicide Squad, etc), but this was the first one where I really saw anything like Steve Trevor.

Most superheroic love interests get solid screen time in one to three movies, then drop off the face of the Earth to probably never to be seen again. See: Natalie Portman, whose Jane broke up with Thor off-screen for no apparent reason, or Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Pepper Potts didn’t show up at all in Tony’s recent outings. By comparison, Mary Jane made out like a bandit in the original Spider-Man movies. The less said of Famke Jensen’s Jean Grey, the better, and that’s not even going into her own nominal husband’s fate.

Their arcs, if they have any, are basically filler. They’re usually there to give a male hero something to work for or something to risk; difficult things to do when your hero is bulletproof (re: Lex Luthor throwing Lois off a building in BvS or Jane being a plot device in Thor 2).

Steve Trevor ain’t like that. Steve runs after Diana through No Man’s Land and washes out German trenches with a shotgun. Steve’s a spy, an international man of mystery, someone who could practically be a superhero in his own right – and he is in several comics, as DC treats him like Captain America Lite sometimes.

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The closest parallels to that are Natalia Romanov and Gamora, both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t really count Gamora since she’s part of a clear ensemble cast and has to carry more narrative weight than Token Love Interest for Peter Quill.

That leaves Romanov, whose arcs in Civil War and Winter Soldier are both roughly comparable to Trevor…except that in both she’s still reacting to and being shaped by male leads. And let’s not even talk about the Age of Ultron. Or the fact that Natalia’s been the #2 or #3 character in around five films now. They might finally give her a movie after Infinity War, but I have my doubts, and after Ghost in the Shell I’m not exactly a ScarJo fan.

What I’m saying is that Trevor himself isn’t the problem. He’s fine. It’s the fact that he’s a one-of-a-kind that’s the problem. And he probably only manages that because he’s an American military man. There need to be more Stephanie Trevors out there.

Give us Pepper Potts wrangling corporate jackasses and mastering fire powers or something else that inspires Tony to finish out a character arc. Give us Jane having the awesome revelation that lets Thor save the day, assuming she doesn’t verbally mangle Loki herself.

Hell, give us more female co-stars who aren’t love interests.

Is that really too much to ask?