This is the second part of our exploration of Scarred for Life, the fantastic series of books about growing up in the dark decades of the seventies and eighties. Gen X-rated popular culture shaped our imaginations and informed our gaming.
I’m sure that I first saw this as a double-bill with Blood Simple (1984) at Manchester CornerHouse back in 1991. It was a new golden age of the American Gangster movie, thanks to the recent release of Goodfellas and ahem, The Godfather Part III. On first viewing, I was smitten by the knowingness of it all with its relentless homage to the films of the 40s, especially the film -noir classics such as The Glass Key (1942). My patience for such films has now worn a little thin. This is cinema about cinema that is sometimes difficult to connect to the characters and situations as they appear unreal representations, four times removed from reality. It’s imbued with everything that has gone before, including the obvious noir references, but there’s also Bertolucci and the Three Stooges in there too. This is a film that wears its references on its sleeve. It lacks a human-touch, but its genre emulation techniques are perfect fodder for gaming.
Leo, a crime boss of an unspecified American city at an unspecified time during Prohibition, has a meeting with Johnny Casper (a rival gangster), who urges him to kill Bernie Bernbaum, who has been skimming from the fights fixed by Casper. Bernie pays protection to Leo, he’s also the brother of his girlfriend Verna. Against the advice of his right-hand man Tom Reagan, Leo refuses to sanction the killing of Bernie. Leo doesn’t know that Tom is also in a romantic relationship with Verna, but he is suspicious of her and has her tailed by Rug Daniels.
Rug is killed (and his wig nicked by a street urchin) and Leo immediately suspects Casper so uses his political influence to bare down on Casper’s rackets. Tom tries to persuade Verna to leave Leo. He’s visited by Bernie who tells him that he has the details of Casper’s next fixed fight, he’s been told by Mink, the boyfriend of Casper’s sardonic lieutenant Eddie Dane.
Casper reaches out to Tom, offering to pay off his considerable gambling debts in exchange for Bernie. He refuses. He suggests to Verna that she or Bernie killed Rug. Verna says that she believes him to be jealous of her relationship with Leo. Later, Leo survives a spectacular attack on his home by Casper’s hoodlums. He’s enrage when Tom reveals his relationship with Verna, as he intends to marry her.
Rejected by Leo, Tom turns to Casper, who demand proof of his change of allegiance by shooting Bernie. Tom takes him to the forest and spares the whimpering Bernie, who goes into hiding. He reveals to Casper that it was Eddie Dane and Mink who was giving Bernie the details of the fixed fights.
Bernie threatens to resurface if Tom doesn’t kill Casper. Dane suspects that Tom didn’t kill him, but his plan to kill him is set back when a body surfaces in the woods. The corpse is Mink, killed by Bernie. Tom calls Bernie’s bluff by threatening to tell Casper that he is still alive. Casper kills Dane after Tom informs him that his trusted right-hand man was double-crossing him with the details of the next fixed fight. Tom tells Verna that Bernie is still living and sends Casper to a rendezvous with Mink.
Casper is killed by Bernie who ambushes him. After he has revealed that it was Mink that killed Rug, Tom kills Bernie. Tom uses Casper’s money to place a bet on the fixed fight to clear his debts.
At Bernie’s funeral, Verna ignores Tom, but Leo offers him the role as an advisor once again, forgiving him of his relationship with his finance. Tom rejects his offer. Leo walks away, framed by the trees.
Leo, Irish American gang-leader, political mover and shaker
A mover and shaker in the town with influence with the politicians at the highest levels. Leo is a reflector, trying to work out the moves that he some times can’t understand:
Leo: You hear about Rug?
Tom: Yeah, RIP.
Leo: They took his hair, Tommy. Jesus, that’s strange, why would they do that?
Tom: Maybe it was injuns.
Description: Cigar smoker, his hair is slicked back and wears suits with an insouciance.
Roleplaying hook: He’s rich, powerful with great influence in town, but vulnerable, his relationship with Verna is his weakness.
Tom Reagan, Irish American, world-weary consigliere
The smartest guy in the room. Tom has the ability to play different characters against each other. He’s got a high emotional intelligence and is always a couple of steps ahead of everyone else. He will offer his opinion and advice if you want it or not. Rarely smiles as he is carrying the weight of all of the tensions playing out in his head: gambling debts, an affair with his boss’ girl-friend.
Description: His accent is Irish rather than American. He’s got rugged appearance, smart, with a calm intelligence behind his eyes.
Leo: I reckon I can still trade body-blows with any man in this town.
[Tom looks at him]
Leo: Except you Tom.
Tom: And Verna.
Roleplaying hook: His hat is his comfort and security. If he loses his hat, or if someone possesses his hat, he gets anxious and vulnerable. He’s a risk taker and his gambles don’t always come off. Drinks rum, lots of rum.
Johnny Caspar, Italian American gang-leader and fight-fixer
Description: Overweight with a comb-over and fat tongue. He’s a working-class street-mobster who has little time for the people in power.
Roleplaying hook: He loves his son. He’s smart and ruthless, but blinded by his impulses. If he wants something to happen, he wants it now. Offended when his requests are not met.
Caspar: You think that I’m some guinea, fresh off the boat, and you can kick me! But I’m too big for that now. I’m sick a’ takin the scrap from you, Leo. I’m a’ of marching into this goddamn office to kiss your Irish ass. And I’M SICK A’ THE HIGH HAT!
[Puts on his hat and coat]Youse fancy pants, all a youse
Bernie Bernbaum, Jewish American provocateur bookie
Bernie’s power lies in his connections. He is pushing the limits by provoking Caspar, but he feels like he holds all the cards.
Description: Pale, thin, vampiric appearance with slick-back black hair and black suit. Wild-eyed and simpering.
Roleplaying hook: He’s in above his head but he thinks his relationships with Mink, Dane and his sister put him in a powerful position. Who is the weakest link? Break the connection and his elaborate get rich quick schemes will fall down.
SCENES OF NOTE
Perhaps the most celebrated scene is the one with Leo mowing down his would-be assailants with a Tommy gun to the tune of Danny Boy. Possibly the best use of a Tommy gun in any film ever?
Excellent use of the autumnal colours of the forest to frame the incongruent image of the urban and urbane gangsters (cf The Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, season 3).
The character who is the catalyst behind the action is Mink (Steve Buscemi). He appears briefly as Tom is passing through the speakeasy. With a ratta-tatt-tatt flow of dialogue and invective he provides exposition by way of implication.
Sam Rami (Evil Dead) has a cameo in the scene where the police shake-down the ‘Sons of Erin Social Club’ with bombs and a Gatling gun.
The Coen Brothers are known for their twist and tuning plots and Miller’s Crossing is no exception. Fortunes of the characters bounce up and down in a matter of moments. Their approach inspired FIASCO (Bully Pulpit Games, 2009) a story telling game designed by Jason Morningstar, which won a Diana Jones Award for its innovative approach to story-telling game-play. It aims to emulate Coen movies “inspired by the cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong”.
It’s not a game that I’ve played, but I think it offers an interesting prospect as the game is motivated by relationships and objects and work through a Three Act Structure where every character has four scenes. A tilt table is used to manage the beats of success and failure in a scene. Sometimes the tilt elements generated by the dice may not appear until later in the game.
Plot twists and turns are probably more associated with the film-noir crime genre rather than gangster films in particular. The crossing and double crossing may emerge from play, but unless there are specific mechanics (like those described in FIASCO) it may not be a feature of a prepared scenario. The twists need to be player led and unless there are mechanics to compel them towards doing it, they’re unlikely to emulate the rapid twists and turns apparent in the cinematic experience.
Why would you want to any way? Games are not cinema.
For my games, I’m more interested in the use of set-pieces. The Coen-Brothers set up situations very carefully, the inter-dependences between the NPCs and the PCs are woven together with relationships and connections. Reactions have a consequences depending on their feelings towards each other.
However, the most important element I want to take away is what @dailydwarf refers to as its unique vernacular. “What’s the rumpus”, “Always put one in the brain”, “take your flunky and dangle” and, of course, “the high-hat”. I’d like to bring that to my GangBusters game. It would be good to introduce the Dying Earth RPG/Skullduggery mechanic of quote cards. If the player is unable to come up with some clever word-play then they can use a card with a relevant and cutting quote to get a bonus.
This is the 80th GROGPOD and there is a sense of celebration in the air. We are delighted to have Marcus L Rowland as our guest. He was a stalwart of Whit Dwarf during its hey day. Cthulhu Now! Green Horizon, To Live and Die in Mega City One and the Fear of Flying, his contribution to our gaming imagination back in the day is inestimable.
@DailyDwarf provides a retrospective of his work in White Dwarf.
The first ever Patreon of The GROGNARD Files was Sam Vail and he reveals the first game he played, the last game he played and the game that means everything to him in a lifetime of gaming.
Blythy joins me in the Room of Role Playing Rambling to answer listener questions in the Thunder Phase!
The GROGNARD files returns with the Return of Call of Cthulhu with the return of Lynne Hardy. This time she faces the Keeper’s Screen to reveal her Arcane secrets. She talks about her contribution to the Dying Earth Role-Playing Game, Cogs, Cakes and Swordsticks, the game she designed, and more news about upcoming Chaosium releases that we can look forward to in the coming months.
In the introduction, I refer to it as Episode 47, it’s not, but what are numbers. I have never understood our bizarre numbering system. This show note counts as Errata. We delve into Different Worlds Issue 19 which was a Call of Cthulhu special and features errata, essays by Sandy Petersen and Lyn Willis and more.
The Post Bag returns with comments from listeners. If you are interested in hearing more from The God Learners podcast, you’ll find it where you get your podcasts.
We share a hoary old story about a trip to Morecambe, where nothing really happened, but it was character forming.
Dave Morris joins us in the Room of Role-Playing Rambling and discusses White Dwarf and other projects he’s been involved with over his long career in gaming. You can join his Patreon to support JewelSpider and follow his blog.
There’s a new twitter account for you to follow @theRPGLibrarian follow it and direct mail me if you’d like to know more about the monthly Book Club, starting in Feb.
Follow all of the GROGNARD files projects on Patreon.
Blimey, we’ve been doing this bobbins for five years! Good grief! In this episode, we go back to the beginning to look at RuneQuest with Jason Durall, as well as other highlights from his career in role-playing.
In their podcast about Burnout, the Smart Party rightly advise caution against committing to a large book campaign; disappointment is almost inevitable because it’s difficult to sustain over a long period, when people’s lives are busy. When you do finish a big book campaign against those conditions, it makes it even more sweet.
Almost exactly 2 years to the day and 32, 2 hour long, sessions we completed The Two Headed Serpent in an epic finale. Every session had its thrills and spills, adventure and excitement as the players trotted around the globe, but the final session was great: every player made a contribution to the audacious saving of humanity from certain destruction.
Between the sessions, I created a recap in the form of a comic, which was one of those things that once I’d started, immediately regretted, as it was a time-sink. Now that it’s complete, I’m glad I did it for a record of one of the best series of adventures that I’ve ever taken part in.
It was down to the players, so I’m handing over to them to choose their highlights. Warning, there are spoilers.
The usual format is 5 highlights and fumble, but this time there are no fumbles, other than I’m sad it’s over.
Has to be the nightgaunts attacking the plane. The pilot dead and no one with above 2% pilot. Pure pulpy Indiana Jones stuff and a perfect example of how the system works using luck. Blythy
The disease camp in North Borneo, really loved how the plots slowly revealed there to culminate in a high speed escape whole defusing a mythos nuke!Phil the Dice Mechanic
There’s a few I can think off… Percy’s chat with Gary the Ghoul in Borneo is probably my favourite.Old Scouse Roleplayer
For me I liked the Icelandic base as it slowly collapsed while we were there giving a real sense of urgency, the theft of the brain case and the escape over the lava flow.Mark Kitching
My favourite bits were when Jock got to yell at some Bawbag before opening up with the devastating shotgun! Also, the scene where Percy was grappling Meadham and aided by Jock was driven into the whirling propellor blade! In 40 years, Jock is maybe one of my favourite ever characters.Sam Vail
For me, I loved Oklahoma (I’d just read The Grapes of Wrath) as it was a bit of a different pace from the high-adventure of the other episodes. I could see the players feeling disturbed and unsettled about what was happening and their role in it. I also loved playing gangster NPCs in New York and terrifying Neil, not his character, but Neil.Dirk the Dice
What makes Pulp “pulp” we ask ourselves in this episode.
It features the interview with Paul Fricker that we recorded at GROGMEET19. He’s one of the hosts of The Good Friends of Jackson Ellias, who we joined in the E.N.World Hall of Fame, thanks to the generous votes from the GROGSQUAD.
There’s also a First, Last and Everything from Lee Williams and much more.