Tuesday, June 27, 2023

They Came From Beneath The Sea!

 They Came From Beneath the Sea! is a study in the dangers of irony. The entire book is a tightrope walk between perils - not ironic enough and it's just giving platform to the regressive ideas of a bygone era, too ironic and that feels like something it perhaps hasn't entirely earned. Whether it successfully walks this tightrope is something every reader is going to have to decide for themselves, but for my part I can say that some parts of this book were fun to read, some parts were less fun to read, and some parts had me dreading an imminent surprise cameo from charming 50s B-movie actor (and politically uncontroversial figure) Ronald Reagan.

(I may occasionally overuse irony myself, mea culpa.)

What I can unironically say is that I loved the bones of this rpg system. It's the cleanest and best-presented version of the Storypath rules I've read so far (presumably because it's the most recently written), and its central mechanical conceit is inspired. TCfBtS! is not just an rpg where you tell science-fiction stories inspired by 50s B-movies, it's an rpg where you recreate the movies themselves. Mechanics that interact directly with the characters are inspired by the genre's storytelling tropes - for example, players select one of five "Archetypes" to guide their character's abilities, each one inspired by one of the genre's stock character types - everyman, scientist, G-man, etc. And then those archetypes have trope powers like "shadowy conspiracy" or "I don't get paid enough for this" and the ability to perform cinematic stunts like revealing an injury is just a "flesh wound."

But, on top of that there's a player layer, where you can alter the course of the game with filmmaking tropes. Your character can bust through a wall because the set is cheap or if they find themselves in an intractable situation, you can just cut to a later scene, with the explanation for how they got out of that situation "left on the cutting room floor" and only obliquely referenced by the characters themselves. These powers don't directly exist in the reality of the fiction, except by implication (there's probably some reason the character was able to escape from the locked room, but it's a deliberate plot hole), and they are activated by spending "rewrites," a meta resource you earn whenever your character fails a roll or suffers a notable disadvantage from GM-imposed conditions.

From a gameplay perspective, it sets up a satisfying economy - players try to control the story by dictating the actions of their characters, but when those actions fail, the GM controls the direction of the story. But in the process, they earn a resource that will potentially allow them to jump that story back onto whatever track they want, at the narrative cost of inelegant storytelling, and the whole pattern serves very well to emulate the feel of watching a crummy 50s B-movie.

Which is an amazing design. I absolutely adore it. But it does lead in to the book's greatest weakness - parts of it are kind of crummy. It's that irony tightrope I was talking about earlier. The crummy parts are all clearly crummy by design, but you're still left reading something crummy, you know?

Sometimes it works. I went back and forth on the chapter fictions, which featured stilted dialogue like "'Even a woman scientist would find it difficult to wear a pearl the size of a small cottage' . . . said the scientist, scientifically," bizarre, Chuck Tingle-esque names like "Bran Farsimmon" or "Hemp Mavwell," and nonsensical plot contrivances like "the Federal Bureau of Dams." But, upon reflection, I'm on board. You play a game like this expecting a certain level of goofiness, and the chapter fictions sink to that level admirably.

Where the book lost me was those times when it didn't quite succeed on putting an ironic modern filter on some of its genre's more problematic tropes. The Red Scare is totally unjustified, to the extent that Senator Joe McCarthy gets crushed (to death?) by a giant clam, but the Green Scare is totally justified. Brain Eating Eels and disguised Crab Men really are infiltrating our society to enact their un-American agenda. And the stuff about fish people attempting to "interbreed" with humans in order to "outbreed the humans and take over the dry Earth through numbers alone" is just straight-up the white genocide conspiracy theory, only superficially disguised by the game's sci-fi trappings (I don't think it was intentional, I just think it was uncomfortable).

Also, I'm just going to say it - it's weird that this book treats all oceanic life as an enemy of human-kind. I get it. They're gross, they're slimy, and you get a unique frission of fascinated horror when things turn bizarrely sexual, but from where I'm sitting in the 21st century, it's far more likely that the ocean will need protection from us than the other way around. 

What makes it especially weird is that ecological allegory is something that 50s sci-fi movies did sometimes attempt (albeit with the clumsiness of a Hollywood depiction of a science in its infancy). The closest this book gets is the dolphin people deliberately encouraging climate change denial in order to further their scheme of melting the polar ice caps and taking over dry land, and that . . . well, I already made my little crack about "surprise Reagan."

Overall, my opinion of this book was generally positive. The only reason it took me three weeks to read was because I was also writing 60,000+ words for Ukss Plus (the successor to Ukss d20) during that time. However, I wasn't quite sold on this specific iteration of the game. What I really want is the TCfBtS! approach done with a genre that has less fraught cultural baggage - which is why I backed the They Came From the RPG Anthology! kickstarter even though I still had 150 pages of the book still left to read. In retrospect, it was the right call.

Ukss Contribution: The setting elements of this book were another thing that frequently threatened to veer into "too camp to endure" territory, but there were a few gems. I liked the wide shoulder-pad and glam belted-jumpsuit look of the Glowing People, but that's more a visual thing. The apocalyptic cult living inside the belly of the Centopus (a giant octopus-like creature with 100 arms) was another standout. 

But I think my favorite thing was a name. One of the nicknames for the giant barnacle that lives at the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle is "the Thing That Never Died." It hits just the right sweet spot between plausible folk mythology and plausible B-movie title. I'm not sure the Ukss version will be a barnacle, specifically, but it will be a giant sea creature from the stygian depths.

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