Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game

 For the life of me, I can't remember why I ever thought The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game was a good idea.

That's not meant as a knock on the book, though. It did as good a job as anyone could reasonably expect. It's just that in retrospect, making a Princess Bride rpg is probably impossible. The movie simply doesn't have that much untapped potential.

Believe it or not, that's a compliment. Imagine a Princess Bride sequel or prequel or remake . . . 

The horror you just felt was a perfectly human reaction to the unmitigated hubris it would take to try and improve on perfection. The Princess Bride was a movie so sublime that you don't even want more of the same. If I wanted to see more of the characters or the story, I would just put the thing on repeat (actually, that gives me an idea for my weekend plans . . .)

When we talk about a licensed rpg, it's usually in terms of the extended universe. Your games might not be canon, and they might not even feature any of the official characters or locations, but they do tap into the well of untold stories that you can sense at the fringes of the universe - what else is happening on the Wookie planet, what were the elves of Rivendale doing while Frodo carried the ring into Mordor, how did the rest of the world deal with the nuclear war in the Fallout universe?  And this is possible because elaborate worldbuilding is a major feature of these franchises.

The Princess Bride doesn't really have much of that. Sort of. It's kind of a conceit of the novel that the "original book" by S. Morgenstern did have a bunch of supernumerary worldbuilding that William Goldman "abridged" to get to the "good parts" (sorry about using so many scare quotes, the novel is very sarcastic). Presumably, you could build an extended universe out of that implied setting. However, this particular rpg is quite explicitly based only on the movie. In fact, the one time it ventures into the novel's territory, describing Humperdinck's Zoo of Death, it actually breaks off prematurely, lest it spoil the book. That's the order we're doing things, apparently - movie, rpg, then book.

In any event, the movie-only approach leads to a situation where there's no real justification for the rpg's existence. The movie was already structured like an rpg adventure. Inigo, Fezzik, and Westley are a party and they infiltrate a castle with a ridiculous plan that shouldn't possibly work. It's great, but there's no need to go back. We've already seen the best story that anyone's ever going to tell about the Fire Swamp or the Cliffs of Insanity, and nothing about the movie implies that there's more left to be explored.

So The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game doesn't really try. It's really just a perfectly serviceable low-magic, rules-light rpg that sometimes (read: frequently, to the point of being distracting) quotes a famous movie in its rules explanations. I've actually got nothing major to complain about from a rules perspective. Some nitpicks - the Professions are almost entirely superfluous, and the skill list includes certain skills that are proper subsets of other skills, despite having the same cost (for example, the "Watercraft" skill is just a bundle of the Boating, Fishing, and Swimming skills, which are available separately because Inigo canonically could pilot the boat, but not swim) - but, the basic technology here is the FUDGE system and it works.

I guess, in my heart, I was hoping that there could be an rpg that makes me feel the way the movie made me feel - a very specific combination of warmth and humor and comfort, but of course that's a ridiculous thing for me to want, because I can't be ten years old again and play this game for the first time and be enchanted by the broad characters and easy-to-understand stakes. I can't be 15 again and realize it's slyer and more clever than I gave it credit for. I can reasonably simulate being 30 and coming to appreciate the sweetness of the relationship between the kid and the grandfather, but that wasn't really part of the rpg. Calling the meta-currency "Grandpa, Wait" points was cute, to be sure, but my heartstrings remain untugged.

The only part of the book that really dialed into that Princess Bride feeling was one of the sample adventures, where the PCs play preconstructed circus performers who are in Florin City on the day after Buttercup is kidnapped and wind up getting mistaken for Vizzini's crew. That could potentially hit the right mix of comic, heartfelt, and adventurous to justify the game's license, but I'd hate to try and follow it up with the adventure where you go to the Fire Swamp to gather alchemy ingredients for Miracle Max.

I think the book would probably have worked best as a compilation of adventures, rather than a full game in its own right. It might, at least, have spared us a tour of era-ambiguous Europe that encouraged us (literally, in very direct terms) to play up national stereotypes.

Overall, I'd say this book is a miss. I don't hate it, but it didn't do what it most needed to do. It didn't sell me on there being a vast Princess Bride expanded universe to explore. It didn't teach me any useful new tips for running light-hearted comedy rpgs (in fact, it said a couple of things I'd be better off forgetting). And most of all, it didn't really make me laugh, except perhaps at the occasional obvious fan-boyism (and look, I get it, believe me, there's no part of me that can ever consider "liking The Princess Bride too much" to be a fault). At the end of the day, the issue is that I have books that do fairy tales better, books that do adventure better, books that do romance better, books that do humor better, and so, if I were really hankering for some Princess Bride roleplaying, I'd probably use one of them (off the top of my head, my top 3 choices would probably be Blue Rose, a custom playset for Fiasco, or a Chuubo's mortal-level game).

Ukss Contribution: This one is tough, because how do I know I'm not just picking my favorite thing from the movie? Or maybe that's what I should be doing. I do have a tendency to get a little stealth with these choices sometimes. If I want it to be a true kitchen sink and not just my personal pet project, I have to have the guts to go for the iconic.

So let's see, my favorite part of the movie is . . . strangely enough, Humperdinck and Rugen's conversation outside the Pit of Despair. I just love the casualness of it, and especially the gentleness of Christopher Guest's performance. "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything," he said, sweetly, in an absolutely psychopathic context. Actually, come to think of it, Rugen is always a delight as the secondary villain. 

I mean, come on, "That's the worst thing I've ever heard . . . how marvelous." Such an asshole, but soft spoken and calm. I don't really get what makes him tick, but he never fails to make me laugh. I guess that means the choice has to be Count Rugen, the six-fingered man. . .

If I were picking something from the movie. Because, honestly, the choice is entirely based on the performance. As far as something I enjoyed because of the way it was written in the book under discussion, I guess I'll go with the Woeful Marsh. It's an okay location, but the memorable thing about it is the way it's written to be a transparent parallel to the Fire Swamp - there are waterspouts instead of flame spurts, sucking mud instead of lightning sand, and alligators instead of ROUSs, but it's totally different than the Fire Swamp.