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In Genre

In Genre: GUN OPERA

by RJ Grady
Apr 01,2004

 

In Genre: GUN OPERA

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

A man enters his apartment. Something is wrong. He draws a pistol from his long coat and screws on a silencer. He turns the corner into his kitchen. Two startled thugs reach for their guns, but fall bleeding to the floor. A bullet whizzes by the man's head. He turns and fires. Suddenly, his apartment explodes. Bullets and plaster fly everywhere. Finally, the chaos settles, and only one man is left standing.

This is gun opera. The genre begins, more or less, with early cowboy films. Such films were often called "horse opera," in a time when opera still meant the stage, and cinema was not far removed from it. As time went on, film-makers created a great variety and divergence of films in many genres. In the 1920s and 1930s, pulp fiction found its way onto film. The intersection of the hard-boiled detective story and the European "film noire" spawned an entire family of films colored with murder, deceit, and moral ambiguity, a film tradition that continued well into the 1960s with creators such as Hitchcock. Another branch of the family tree are the "Spaghetti westerns," low- to mid- budget films made overseas in the Western mode. They took off the Lone Ranger's mask; the lone gunfighter became not only mysterious, but unpredictable. Such men rose above others not only because of their gunfighting wizardry but because of a core of personal conviction others do not possess. Kurosawa's classic ronin film Yojimbo inspired the Western classic For a Fistful of Dollars. The explosion of action films in Hollywood in the 1980s, especially military, criminal, or detective action, created an echo effect overseas. John Woo succeeded in crafting his own version of the action hero, wrapped in melodrama and machismo.

Gun opera possesses several signature characteristics. First, the protagonist is a deadly shootist. He may also be a martial artist, brawler, assassin, or spy, but unquestionably, he is a deadly warrior capable of killing dozens of unnamed stunt extras in just a few minutes. Second, he operates in isolation. Whether forced from his community, betrayed by his bosses, or simply laboring under a life-learned shadow of paranoia, he has few that he can call friends. Third, the protagonist operates under a code. It may be the code of a "made man" of the underworld, a chivalric approach to being a hired gun, or simply a belief that innocent people need to be protected from the powerful and cruel. Fourth, violence is not a metaphor, it is the central subject of these media. These films are fundamentally about deadly vengeance, the effects of violence on the soul, and how violence transforms human beings. Often, the protagonist is seeking some kind of redemption for his life.

Gun opera is a high-action, high melodrama genre. The protagonists are of the highest competence. Morality often does not provide answers in these media, so much as questions. Instead, personal integrity distinguishes human beings from villains. Related genres include Hollywood blockbuster action, hard-boiled detective stories, horse opera, supercop, detective thriller, and mobster movies.

Killers in the Cabinets

In some ways, gun opera could be described as some other kind of thriller or action movie that dispenses with unnecessary talking. At the same time, gun opera requires sympathy with the heroic characters, and a story, as well. Gun opera is not The Maltese Falcon or even Dirty Harry. They lack the kinetic approach to story-telling. Characters in those films spend a lot of time talking, and when the guns come out, a few bullets or even an icy stare can settle a conflict in seconds. In true gun opera, it takes a hundred bullets to really settle a thorny philosophical issue. If the protagonist is a nearly unstoppable killer, it makes sense for most of the rising action to center on various reasons why he must kill people, and the inevitible results (violent escalation). Eventually, the violence reaches a tide where the character must give up his detached moral viewpoint and decide to take a stand about something, or at least someone. The protagonist achieves some level of redemption when his cause matters more than his life. Despite his risk-taking approach to problems and his dangerous lifestyle, the protagonist of these stories is concerned about his own skin. To grow beyond that, he has to be touched by love, injustice, sadness, or loyalty.

Weapons are very important. Heroes use, but do not pack, assault weapons. The reason is that killing is a personal act. Each well-aimed pistol shot represents a moral decision to kill a human being, one at a time. To habitually carry a machine-gun would represent an indiscriminate approach to violence. In fact, the heroes often wield personalized (and often large and heavy) weapons. The traditional Western killer wields a pair of pearl-handled revolvers, while a modern enforcer might pack .45 calibre automatics.

In contrast to the real world, criminals are more likely to adhere to archaic codes of honor, or to be psychopaths. Cops are more likely to be corrupt, or underpaid but principled. And so forth. This is melodrama. All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. But to even begin as difficult a battle as lies ahead for our heroes, they must first come to believe that something is worth fighting for.

The Sequel is Always More Violent and Less Interesting

Gun opera represents a number of distinct problems for gaming. First, it traditionally features a lone protagonist. Second, it hinges on melodrama and emotional impact. Third, it tends to be fatalistic in outlook.

The lone protagonist problem is the easiest to tackle. Many RPGs are based on genres with a similiar tradition. The obvious solution is simply to run one-on-one games. However, most gamers are gregarious by nature. You can simply add more lone gunmen. This approach is taken by the movies The Replacement Killers and Killer. You can also add sidekicks. With a little more competence and a stronger role in the script, the young girl in The Professional could easily be a PC, as could the armourer, retired sheriff, or any number of support characters. The key to making such a character a viable PC is to give them "screen time" comparable to the main character. By combining these approaches, it is easy to assemble a six player group of, say: a maverick cop, an assassin looking to give up the life, an older police detective, a pawn shop owner, a teenaged runaway who witnessed a murder, and a social worker. Whereas a traditional film in this genre would probably emphasize the relationship of the first two characters, a roleplaying session can easily include challenges and interactions for all the characters. And when it comes time to the final shootout, more PCs means more unnamed stunt extras to shoot. And how can that be bad?

Melodrama and emotional impact can be difficult to recreate at the table. To create melodrama, it is vital that all the PCs have appropriate motivations. A lack of moral focus, or an affinity for reckless behavior, can turn the game into a bloodfest. It is better if the PCs are generally reluctant, but unhesitent, action heroes. It is okay for some PCs to take more passive roles in action scenes. The larger issue is real emotional impact. To be successful, the game has to induce a level of paranoia, while also creating a sense that the clock is ticking. Characters have to be distrustful, but the PCs have to be thrust together in some fashion. Most importantly, the characters have to be have integrity. This means having a stronger code of behavior than the villains, but more flexibility than most of the NPCs. They have to be ready to do the right thing, even if it means dying.

Of course, if it all goes to heck, and the PCs end up shooting each other in the first session, that's genre, too. That's fine, if the game is a one-shot, or if the players don't mind replacing characters periodically. It does mean, however, that people can't take things too personally.

Gun opera requires a certain flexibility with the rules of a game. While the actual gunfights, horse chases, and downtown derbies should be handled fairly, and objectively, the GM should feel free to "pause" the initiative every so often to allow PCs or NPCs to say important things. In particular, named characters always have to say something the first time they point their guns at the other. Some games reflect this naturally, others require an imaginary "pause" button. That privilege belongs to the GM, but it should be liberally extended to the players as well.

Gun opera can be crossed with other genres. You can have vampire gun opera, or science-fiction gun opera. You could run a a low-powered, gritty supers game that uses gun opera tropes but replaces guns with deadly super-powers. The movies Blade and Robocop are good examples of gun opera crossover.

Game-ography

Ghost Dog (Guardians of Order)
Tri-stat powered OOP game based on the movie. A general mobster-action genre book as well as a guide to the film. Self-contained in one rulebook. Point-based character creation.

Feng Shui (Atlas Games)
Hong Kong action-film inspired, cross-genre game. Emphasizes melodrama and weirdness. Heavily influenced by the films of John Woo. Requires just the core rulebook. Characters are customized from a number of templates.

GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
GURPS has stats for an extraordinary number of guns of many eras. While character creation can be somewhat cumbersome, GURPS gun-fights are fast. Advantages like Sharpshooter help recreate cinematic action. Requires GURPS Basic Set Third Edition or GURPS Lite (available from sjgames.com). Helpful sourcebooks include GURPS Cliffhangers, Covert Ops, Espionage, Old West, High-Tech, Modern Firepower, and Compendium I and II.

HERO System (Hero Games/DOJ)
Fifth edition has stats for representative firearms. The 5th edition rules incorporate a number of gun fu-friendly combat options and skills. No genre support is currently available, although the previous edition's Dark Champions touches on some aspects and a new version is in the works. Requires the 5th edition rulebook, "Fred." Much advice and support is available from herogames.com, which hosts very active discussion boards.

Torg: Nippon Tech

Bibliography

Gun opera is a cinematic genre more than a literary one, but there are a few books worth looking into.

Miller, Frank. Sin City.
Graphic novel with noir style. Miller can tell a lot of story in just a few panels. Some memorable human monsters appear in this series.

The Punisher.
Comic book chronicle of the gun-toting vigilante.

Lehr, Dick and O'Neill, Gerard. Black Mass.
Real-life journalistic piece about the Boston Irish Mob and a boggling case of FBI corruption.

Filmography

Yojimbo. (1961)
No examination of the lone gunfighter is complete without a viewing of his classic tale of samurai honor, ronin cunning, and high stakes.

Fistful of Dollars. (1964)
Based on Kurosawa's Yojimbo. A lone gunfighter comes to town, and plays one faction off the other in a gang war.

Robocop. (1987)
Sci-fi gun opera. A cop is resurrected as a cyborg. Gradually, he begins to regain his humanity, and becomes obsessed with his past and the criminals who stole it from him.

The Killer. (1989)
John Woo film of an assassin looking to retire, a cop seeking justice, and a mobster out to clear the table for his ambitions. The assassin is the lover of a woman he inadvertently blinded. High melodrama. Chow Yun-Fat stars.

The Punisher. (1989)
Based on the Marvel comic. Panned at its release, now considered to be not that bad by many.

The Professional. (1994)
Jean Reno is a consummate assassin. Natalie Portman is a young girl whose parents double-cross drug dealers. Her little brother dies, and she sets out on a quest for revenge, enlisting the laconic hitman as her mentor.

The Replacement Killers. (1998)
Chow Yun-Fat is a killer who loses his nerve. Mira Sorvino co-stars. Together, they are on the run from his boss, the authorities... everyone.

The Fifth Element. (1997)
Space opera/gun opera crossover with Gnostic overtones. Retired special forces super-man Corbin Dallas is recruited to save Earth from a flaming ball of evil. This entails killing lots of shapechanging aliens using guns.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Quixotic film about a modern gangster assassin and his trials of honor, integrity, and dignity. Riveting soundtrack by the RZA.

The Matrix. (1999)
Hyper-kinetic mystical-surrealist-cyberpunk film borrows from gun opera visual style.

Payback. (1999)
Mel Gibson plays a gangster betrayed by his wife and best friend. He goes on a single-minded quest to recover a suitcase of money and deliver revenge against the parties who wronged him, resulting in a war.

The Mexican Trilogy.
Robert Rodriguez's iconic trilogy, beginning with the low-budget El Mariachi in 1992, then the Antonio Banderas-powered sequels Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). A musician haunted by tragedy battles evil using trick guitar cases and very large pistolas. Johnny Depp co-stars in the third as a blind CIA agent.

Trigun (TV) (1998)
Animated Japanese cartoon about a notorious gunman. Goofy spoofy sci-fi Western.

The Bits Box

Twin guns blazing, a mysterious gunfighter with a painful past, orphans caught up in the middle of trouble, a thousand screaming bullets, bullet-repellent heroes, nameless stunt extras dying two at a time, "I'll be back, I promise," the apartment ambush, hostages, vile crime bosses with no sense of honor, mindlessly bureaucratic superiors, the old buddy with masterful expertise in some area, the lonely widow, unacknowledged love, star-crossed lovers, guns that never seem to run out of ammo, sunglasses, trenchcoats and dusters, sawed-off shotguns, maverick cops, "All you have to do is look the other way, and I'll make you a wealthy man," rooftop battles, improvised weapons or tricks, and bad guys surrounded by forty bodyguards.

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