Get the Rubberised costumes! Throw the atomic switch! Slowly descend into a violent and dangerous place before disappearing as your ideas are devoured by the mainstream! There’s no time to lose, let’s throw ourselves into the B-movie!
What do you mean I need to do a summary? Or that’s it’s not an actual genre? Listen, the B-movies of old were often not advertised and just came on before the actual film to make depression-era audiences feel like they got their money’s worth. I have no time to finagle, I need to summon some cowboys to fight off a radioactive dinosaur!
The Concept of the B-Movie was simple: create a second movie at a fraction of the price of the actual movie, then show it before the movie. That way audiences sort of got a 2 for one deal. Or some cinemas could show just b-movies to play to the cheap seats. If you make a movie for less, then it has to make less to be successful. A lesson I guess film studios today have forgotten.
While at the time B-Movies were often viewed as a lesser form of entertainment, it’s clear now that once they escaped the cycle of continuous western stories, they became a breeding ground for experimental and new types of storytelling and theatre. Here were your voyages to space, your superheroes, you alien invasions. From the late 40’s to the mid 60’s, the B-movie was a place of weirdness and odd entertainment, pivoted on not getting to caught up in arty pretension, instead delivering an exciting and suspense-filled piece of storytelling that anyone could watch and understand. In the beginning, this meant that the films were devoid of subtext, but as cultural awareness of film-makers and audiences grew, the B-movie began to deliver stories that were takes on environmental destruction, cold war society and speculative futures. Slowly, this pushed the studios producing B-Movies into more and more taboo challenging material, eventually becoming part of the exploitation cinema boom. As the age of video dawned, the B-movie had faded, its job replaced by staying at home and watching something cheaply.
But its themes, particularly those of its more experimental sci-fi era, had captured the imaginations of film-makers who came of age as the seventies began to wane. Jaws is perhaps the first big-budget re-imagining of a B-Movie creature feature, and Spielberg didn’t stop there. Close Encounters, ET and Jurassic Park were all movies that during an earlier era, would have been considered B-Movie material but were now blockbusters. With Star Wars doing the rounds too, audiences began to see value in both the spectacle and straightforward discussion of ideas featured in such works. As these genres gained legitimacy, the focus of cinema began to shift. Now we watch superheroes battle for supremacy up to five times a year. Back in the 40’s, they were definitely B properties.
So what can the rise, fall and rebirth of these ideas teach us? Well, for a start that the most popular plot isn’t always the one you started with, or the one you consider to be the most high art. It’s important to look at what you’re making and then understand how that relates to what your audience wants. In the case of a game, the players are your audience. Whenever you invent a subplot for a game, keep an eye on how popular it is. Because it might secretly be your Jurassic Park moment in disguise.
Examples In RPG
Your first port of call in any B-Movie game is to check out any superhero games with Golden or Silver age settings. They’ll have usable material. But there are a few games that deserve attention.
They Came From Beneath The Sea!: A new take on the genre, created Onyx path, a group known for creating some very good content, this looks to be the forerunner for a modern take.
It Came From The Late, Late Show: This is a good one because it has ideas about acting stupid on purpose and fulfilling the genre tropes, so worth a look if you can find it. An oldy but a goody.
Dungeons & Drive Ins
While the B-Movie itself isn’t a genre, it was a medium of delivery and therefore has several ideas and tropes that we can ape. If you want to produce the effect of a B-Movie there are a few things you can do to really help it along the way.
MONSTERS! Lots of monsters. And lots of fights with monsters. I can’t get across enough how important including lots of weird and wonderful creatures is. Make sure that some creatures are virtually unkillable until the heroes find the one thing that can damage them. If this means making your monsters more dangerous, so be it! What if in your game werewolves are not just susceptible to silver weaponry but it’s the only thing that does any damage? What if a giant slug absorbs everything that is thrown at it – except salt? Then it becomes more of a creature based storyline rather than a combat like any other.
Making Things Worse
Also, if a creature can literally get bigger by draining energy from an attack aimed at it, that is a classic beat.
Son Of The Sequel
If a threat, monster of villain hits big with the heroes, don’t forget to bring it back. Remember to change it slightly and put it in a different location but take details from the first encounter and fold them in, creating echoes of the initial fight and players will then recognise what you’re doing. If they go ‘not these guys again!’ you’ve done your job well. Just remember not to use them more than three times – after that it becomes stale.
What Madness We Have Wrought
Try always to make it society’s fault that a monster or threat is happening. Maybe pollution caused this thing? Maybe radioactive tests? Maybe gene-splicing on the space station got out of hand? Magic experiments gone awry? Make sure that the metaphor is suitably heavy-handed and have the person responsible be unapologetic. Then have them be eaten/dissolved/ray beamed to death. Be very on the nose with this. The more you lean hard into the sort of storytelling that wears its intentions on its sleeve, the more it feels like a B-picture.
It’s All In The Description
Using DND for a moment, if you describe a species that comes from the stars in their starships and is green-skinned and kidnaps, dominates and has special technology, you could easily be describing aliens from Mars. But you could also be describing Githyanki. A lot of how you present the B-movie is about finding that descriptive and really allowing it to wallow in the weird. Give big describing time to anything that glows, oozes, shoots beams or is riveted together. If things don’t already do any of that, try to make sure they do.
Triumph Of The Working Man
Remember that this was a form of working-class cinema. The common people must be seen as heroes. Make normal people the character meet useful, especially if they lack a formal education. It might be necessary for a clever person to work with them to achieve their goal. Taking the other side of this coin, you need to display big organisation structures as ill-equipped to understand or combat the crisis.
Finally, remember the B-Movie is born out of the Cold War. Occasionally introducing a stealthy enemy who can infiltrate your organisations and corrupt them from within is also a good plot. If you slowly reveal the level this has gone to, you could easily have the workings of a good story that also works as a conspiracy or espionage plot. Just remember to never let up on the non-too-subtle communist metaphor.
This has turned into a bit of a blockbuster in the end, which is appropriate! Keep your eye out for the next article as we work out where we are going as the column turns two years of age!
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