Indy's Game

Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Movies, Musing, RPGs | 6 Comments

I don’t quite have it yet, but there’s something here. Spoilers for Indiana Jones movies follow.

During play, when Indiana Jones is in combat, he must keep moving. When he is fighting in an environment that he can use to his advantage—around a flying wing, in a speeding truck—this movement may wear out his foes or deal them actual damage. Or perhaps they must move and attack instead of being able to attack twice on their turn, diminishing the threat they pose to Indy. Conveyor belts, roving tanks, speeding cars—all these are preferable to standing around fighting, both for Indy and for us in the audience.

When he is outnumbered in a space without sufficient advantage—like when he’s chased by the Hovitos or the Thuggee—he flees to gain the advantage. He’s gaining resilience or stamina or hit points or whatever by staying in motion. He knows that his foes are most vulnerable while they’re moving so he stages rescues—of the Ark, of his father—when the enemy is on the move. If Indy is in or on a moving vehicle, that counts as him moving. Outnumbered? Turn a fist fight in a castle into a motorcycle chase to get the upper hand. Change the field of battle from static catwalks to out-of-control mine carts. Get out of those tight catacombs and into a speedboat. Hell, Indy can even subdue brutes temporarily by boarding a rocket-powered test vehicle and pitting his stamina against theirs—even while Indy’s hit points are depleted by the ride, he gains hit points back for being in motion.

Indy is most vulnerable when he is trapped in a fight and outnumbered. He can take out one brute or two thugs when trapped alone—say, in the midst of marching, angry ants—but that puts his back against the proverbial wall. (In fact, to get out of such situations, Indy’s player may opt to spend key resources to take out foes—like, say, hulking swordsmen—in one shot rather than risk a time-consuming or dangerous combat.)

It may even be that fights confined to a single area—like, say, a palace guest room—actually constitute traps, not combats. It may even be that the arrival of new enemies—like, say, goons who smash in a door and grab Indy from behind—are invoked by the player for the purpose of turning a duck-and-cover gunfight into a roving brawl. I’m just brainstorming here.

This is an old observation. When I was designing a pulpy d20 adventure setting called Deco Dragons, years ago, the schtick of the rogue class was that they not only moved constantly but that they could increase their defense (and maybe heal) by doing so. (When I played in my Deco Dragons setting with 4th-edition D&D, the joys of that game’s movement mechanics were their own reward.)

If I ever get the Indiana Jones game license, or the go-ahead to work on a game like it, don’t let me forget that Indy must keep moving to stay alive.

Also, remind me to incorporate an attribute called Backbone, like in the old TSR Indiana Jones RPG.


  1. Ryan Macklin
    May 11, 2012

    Contrast that with the social conflict between him at Belloc near the end of Raiders. He’s standing still — or rather kneeling — with the RPG on his shoulder. In fact, everyone is standing.

    I don’t know all of what that means, but I wanted to stick that in your brain (or, rather, since it’s you, just make sure it’s already there).

    – Ryan

  2. Will Hindmarch
    May 11, 2012

    It’s in my head, yeah, along with the fact that Indy is immobilized at the finale, wherein he survives based on his wits and education rather than his roguish mobility. It’s a test of a different skill set and, maybe, a bet on the part of Indy’s player that Belloq and Co. will be brought down by hubris and Indy can recover the Ark in their wake.

    Note, too, that the bit where Indy threatens to blow up the Ark is another failure for Indy… perhaps because Belloq refuses to let the scene progress to movement of any kind. Belloq isn’t just calling Indy’s bluff and appealing to his own passions, in our imaginary system he’d be saying, “I’ll bet you’re just about out of juice and I’m not willing to help you earn [hit/stunt/action] points by taking this to a fight scene.” Instead, Belloq is saying “You can roll the dice or you can be captured and try a different tactic in the next scene.” Indy’s player opts not to roll the dice.

    (I’ll have to write later about the mechanism I have in mind for what constitutes defeat and capture in this medium.)

    We might also decide that there’s a mechanism in play by which Indy’s player is making not just the dramatic in-game choice not to blow up the Ark (assuming that would even work) but also the dramatic, narrative-level decision to save resources for the final scene—a scene dramatized as being highly dangerous to Indy by restricting his movement. Whatever resources he’s got left are all he’ll have to work with, since he can’t move to replenish them.

    (This is also why tying Indy to his father in Last Crusade is an effective setback for Jones—and why they get moving anyway, even though they’re still tied up. When bound, Indy is restricted to using the resources he already has built up.)

    If it’s not obvious yet, I’m contemplating something that lives halfway between Gumshoe’s resource mechanisms (though measuring somewhat different dramatic resources) and the Adventure Game Engine’s mechanisms for actions and stunts and all that. Consider, if you will, a stunt menu that you shop from by spending Gumshoe-style dramatic points which refresh by doing things in accordance with your character build—like staying in motion to facilitate rollicking adventure sequences.

    This is all molten stuff, of course, which I’m hesitant to talk about in greater detail ’cause it’ll be a while before I can work on any of this for real. I’m just saying. 🙂

  3. John Adamus
    May 14, 2012

    Granted I will admit to coming to this article cold, without any previous mechanical discussions or knowledge thereof.

    If you’re going to use “capture” as a set plot point, and mechanically as an opportunity to try again, then whatever action didn’t work (that led up to capture) doesn’t matter, like we’re throwing it away. Whether Indy turns cartwheels or threatens to “blow up the Ark Renee”, what matters is that he gets captured, because you want to move play from piece to piece and offer opportunity therein.

    This is how I see it:

    Indy at the start of any adventure has a pool of skills and knowledge to work from. The adventure taxes that pool (existing knowledge) and adds to it plot-specific/related new knowledge (Shankara Stones, Grail Lore, the effects of George Lucas on set).

    The adventure has a template –
    Intro of new information (plot)
    Intro of badguy
    Intro of woman
    Intro of muscle
    Development of information
    Confrontation with muscle/woman
    Conflict with Badguy

    Interspersed among these beats are elements of romance or combat that further one or more of the following paths:
    1. Indy deals with his social life (gets the girl)
    2. Indy deals with the opponents of “good” (punches a Nazi)
    3. Indy repairs damage done (or potential damage to be done) by badguys (frees Indian slaves)

    I’ve been toying with a Gumshoe purchase mechanic based on dice pools (assign a die and a qualifier, roll, that number becomes points in a pool…2d12, 1d8, etc)

    But the idea of captivity as a narrative device is different than a mechanical incentive to get captured. Does the scene require capture to function? Are the odds in favor of capture as preferable resolution? (He’s surrounded, out of bullets, etc)

    In what you described above, it’s sort of like him counter-gambling/economizing a character’s remaining points or attributes…which is provocative.

    I’d like to contribute more to this, but need to watch the movies first, if you don’t mind.

  4. Will Hindmarch
    May 14, 2012

    Thanks for writing, John! Good stuff, up there.

    I take it, perhaps foolishly on my part, as a given that specific outcomes are not required or scripted when we look at cinema as examples of or models for play. That is, there is a play-version of Temple of Doom where Indy does not get caught by the Thuggee and but under their spell. Indy’s player may not have known that she was going to play the scene with Belloq and the Ark the way she did when she had Indy show up with the rocket launcher—she may have entered that scene genuinely hoping to get an outcome that would continue the back-and-forth swapping of the Ark for another game session or even win the scenario.

    The writing and development of a movie differs in vital, fundamental ways from the emergent narrative of play (as you obviously know, I say it just to cover my ass a bit) and narrative templates can be great benchmarks or blueprints for communicating during play (“What if we play a romantic scene in here to check in with how Indy and Marion are doing?”) or for shaping the raw stuff of narrative potential (“I’m going to take on Irina Spalko’s big Russian thug now, because I think it’s apt that we get him out of the way before we get to the lost city, and I suspect we’re close now.”). It provides a bit of a map to help inspire or direct pacing and stuff, but even though templates or models may be followed when writing and developing screenplays, I am sometimes wary of them as ludic constructs. (Not always, as I think some works I have in development will show.)

    I mean, for all we know, the big swordsman in Raiders was presented by the GM as a recurring heavy. That was supposed to be his introduction but instead it was his whole presence in the story.

    That is, Indy’s player might well want to wait and try to rescue Marcus or his father when the caravan reaches its destination, rather than en route. I feel like a template puts demands on the player, which potentially restricts choices due to the demands of a different medium—cinema—whereas mechanics like “Indy Fights Best In Motion” incentivize choices that lead to adventurous encounters that hearken to the style and voice of the medium—cinema—which inspires us (but to which we owe no obligation).

    Anyway, I don’t think capture as a consequence for failure throws stuff away. Capture can enter into play in a lot of ways (maybe Indy’s captured by the Thuggee the week that Indy’s player can’t make the session) and may simply be a substitute for character defeat/death, depending on the rules at the table. The larger point is that it’s not a set plot point, it’s something that’s emerging from play as a consequence—it’s thematically apt because it restrains Jones, a character who thrives on movement, and changes the challenge from physical to academic or social or whatever. It restricts choices in a way that may be provocative to the player.

    If a scene requires capture to function, it should be in the GM’s arsenal not as something that should force capture on Dr. Jones but as a reaction to the (perhaps inevitable) situation where Dr. Jones runs out points (of whatever sort) and so is captured.

    This isn’t to say that narrative templates have no place or nothing to teach us. They certainly do! They can tell us what to do when Indy runs out of points and is captured (that the answer is not, for example, to shoot him dead) or help us make decisions as storytellers, not just as characters. For example, if we have a commun understanding that we’re not just playing to romp through an environment but to hopefully reach a narrative climax and denouement, Indy’s player can trust that a dramatic choice will still be offered in the next/final scene even if Indy the character basically has to rely on a deus ex machina to thwart his old nemesis.

    Lots of factors in play, certainly, and cinematic precedent can help us understand how to arrange gameplay choices and interpret the outcomes in dramatic fashion, but I want to underline the fact that movies can help us understand how to incentivize or collaborate better than they can help us head towards template-structured outcomes.

    I want to write something here about the spectrum between sandbox and script, but I think I’m writing further and further away from your point. If so, I apologize. I’m just continuing to think out loud, at this point. 🙂

    (I’m also hesitant to write more about mechanics here since I can’t afford to actively work on this stuff right now.)

    Please do write more, John, when you like!

    (Edits: Numerous.)

  5. John Adamus
    May 14, 2012

    My apologies for suggesting such a thing as this could ever breathe and live if scripted to too stringent an ideal.

    Now, having spent the better part of the night watching Raiders and some of the Young Indy series, I have some new conclusions.

    1. Combat is seen as a vehicle, moving the character goal(s) and/or plot forward — Fighting the Nazis advances plot AND character, fighting the traps advances the character. But combat is at times both Indy vs Other-Human AND Indy vs Obstacle. So mechanically it goes beyond needing to-hit rolls and damage tracking, it also serves as a story device. There is a “Why” behind every fight, and you can tie it to either the immediate plot AND/OR the character involved.

    2. Indy is at “his best” when he’s confronted by a non-human puzzle. The traps in tombs, the concept of faith (it’s explored in all the movies either overtly or subvertly), or by the mystery of maturity (as explored in the TV show). The Nazis, Thuggee, more Nazis and later Russians are at best impediments to that (speedbumps, albeit ones that fight back).

    3. If we’re to agree that character values dictate attributes, then I’m inclined to say there are at least 4: Knowledge, Reason, Backbone, Strength. I could argue that there could also be an additional one, call it Charm. The TV series in particular (with the obnoxious child actor) focused on a combination of Knowledge and Reason, but once the teen Indy came around and the show found more mature and frankly better writing, Backbone and Strength joined the party to tell a more complete picture.

    4. Companion characters (sidekicks, love interests, children) function in two ways – to create situations for Indy to resolve (i.e. Save me from this bad thing happening), or to solidify what’s already been taught/felt/experienced (i.e. His father getting shot, loving Marion, coming back to his senses after the Goonies kid burns him with a torch)

    5. Indy is not so much a period piece as he is at the whim of scope and focus. Indy can thrive in any pre-WW2 setting and situation, but that is as much a function of HOW the story is told (our psychic distance between viewer and participant) as anything else. One of the main failings in Crystal Skull is that the scope trucks out too far, and we see not a big man of skill atop a small pyramid, but rather a single man (admittedly older and slightly out of place) atop one of many pyramids, and for the first time we see Indy looking dated, weakened and passed by in terms of technology, societal conventions and other characters.

    Were the scope to remain more tethered to the plot and how Indy can interact with/through/by it, we’d not see Indy out of that context of being the central figure of his own drama and adventure. It wouldn’t matter then the time period of the story, or even the technology around him, so long as the focus is kept more appropriate, Indy could survive either in character or as an archetype.

    I do hope these second thoughts were of more help.

  6. Will Hindmarch
    May 15, 2012

    Before I come back to play later on, I just wanted to underline this: Don’t apologize! My feelings about narrative templates are mine and not definitive. I can go on and on about them, clearly, but so what? If a template proves fruitful for your design, run with it, of course. And thanks for taking the time to gab about all of this with me, John! 🙂


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