I broke up with a girl once because she didn’t like the movie The 13th Warrior.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. We didn’t break up because of that. But as soon as she revealed this horrific fact to me, I began to suspect that this wasn’t gonna be Eternal Love.
And that’s because from my perspective, The 13th Warrior (hereafter “13W”) is utterly superb. It’s nearly note-perfect from beginning to end. If someone doesn’t like it, I’m going to have a hard time trusting his taste, judgment, and plain ol’ common sense. Once trust issues that fundamental develop, dating becomes a touch difficult, eh? ;)
I think 13W has a lot to offer gamers and writers in terms of Getting Things Right. Some of its lessons include:
In most fiction and games, characters end up getting differentiated by what they do: this guy’s the warrior; this one casts spells; the sneaky guy is a rogue; the priest has special divine powers. For gaming in particular, this is important because it communicates what each character can do in a shorthand way everyone at the table can understand. For fiction it’s less important, but it still happens.
And yet, this isn’t the only way to distinguish one character from another. In 13W, all but one character is the same: Norse warrior. Some are a bit better at archery or a particular type of swordplay, and of course they’re visually distinctive (a necessity in a movie). But when you boil it down they’re basically the same guy. In fact, they’re so similar that with the exception of the protagonist (ibn Fadlan) and the king (Buliwyf), we never even know the names of the other warriors. They’re barely used in the film, and when spoken are often uttered with the quick familiarity of a tight group of friends so that the viewer can’t really follow what’s going on (especially given the strangeness of some of the names).
And yet, for all their namelessness, every warrior in the band of heroes is distinctive. And what makes them distinctive (aside from appearance) is their personalities — their mannerisms, attitudes, and perspectives. Herger is pleasant, full of laughter and clever comments, and perceptive. Weath is quiet most of the time, but every now and then says something to make us laugh. Edgtho is grim-faced and serious, always with his mind on the job. And on and on.
I’d love to be a part of a gaming group where the Player Characters were like this — all relatively similar, and yet clearly distinct based on things that have nothing to do with how they function in the game. And I certainly hope to be able to write characters this well-defined in my fiction, where the absence of easy on-the-screen visual distinctions makes personality even more important.
Sometimes “realistic” character development in games and fiction translates to “boring.” Real life generally isn’t all that exciting — and one of the reasons we read novels, watch movies, and play RPGs is to vicariously live less boring lives. Most of us don’t want to have to deal with too much “realism” in our entertainment (too little is just as big a problem, of course, but that’s a topic for some other blog post).
That’s why, for example, characters in fiction and movies often learn to speak foreign languages quickly — they have an innate gift for it, or pick up English from a couple afternoons’ worth of TV shows, have the ability implanted in their brain psionically, or what have you. Learning to speak another language tends to be a slow, boring process, one not suitable for detailed description in what’s supposed to be an exciting novel or movie.
But in 13W, the scene where ibn Fadlan learns to speak with the Norsemen is fascinating. It’s one of the most enjoyable scenes in the movie. It shows how, over many weeks, he listens carefully as they talk around the campfire, applies his native intelligence, and figures out the language (eventually surprising his companions with what he knows). This sort of scene is easier to pull off in a movie than in a novel (much less an RPG session), but it’s proof positive that being “realistic” doesn’t mean being dull.
Similarly, in most stories it doesn’t take long for a character to learn to wield a weapon the author (or director) wants him to use. That’s not realistic at all; learning to use most sophisticated weapons (like swords) properly takes a long time and a lot of effort. 13W, aware of this, makes use of it. Ibn Fadlan tries to learn how to use the Norsemen’s longsword, but it’s simply too big and heavy for him. Rather than having him miraculously learn it anyway, he cuts one of them down to a scimitar, which he already knows how to use well. It’s a great scene with a nice bit of humor involved — relatively realistic, but not at all boring.
Some reviewers criticized 13W for having a lot of set pieces, lumbering along from one battle scene to another, and so on, but I couldn’t disagree more strongly. To me it flows very smoothly from one scene to the next, gradually building up the story and telling us what we need to know to understand what’s going on. Compared to many modern movies, which have periods of dull, meaningless scenes intermixed with adrenaline-fueled action scenes badly filmed, I think it’s a wonderful example of how to develop your story. I think some of the best published RPG scenarios have a similar sort of “everything has a point” story development/flow. I can see the same thing in many of my favorite novels (though a novel may not always be quite so direct, since it’s easier to have asides or secondary character activities in written work.)