Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Lesson Learned from Detective Chimp

I know I said I wasn't going to make anymore The Brave and the Bold-related posts, but I've had an idea for a post simmering in the back of my brain for a few days now and using Detective Chimp to illustrate my point seemed apropos. Plus, I just like Detective Chimp, who, for those of you who don't know, is an intelligent, talking chimpanzee from DC's Golden Age who solves crimes. You can read all about him here if you're keen to know more.

I can already hear people rolling their eyes about a character like this and understandably so. A chimp sleuth is, on the face of it, pretty ridiculous, all the moreso when he teams up with Batman to take on an alliance of intelligent, talking gorillas -- Gorilla Grodd, Monsieur Mallah, and Gorilla Boss, for those who care -- who've taken over Gotham by turning all its inhabitants into apes. For a lot of people, Detective Chimp cheapens not only Batman but the entire DC universe by his existence and they'd just as soon he never be talked about, let alone be seen, again.

Obviously, the fine folks who made The Brave and the Bold disagree and not solely about Detective Chimp. One of the many signature elements of this cartoon series is the way it uses a lot of third string heroes and villains in its stories, characters like Bug-Eyed Bandit, Calendar Man, Kiteman, and Ultra the Multi-Alien and plays them completely straight. They're not presented as jokes, cynical jabs, and self-satisfied critiques of the DC universe. Instead, they're treated seriously as credible friends and foes of Batman, who considers a fight against the Polka-Dot Man just as worthy of his attention as one against the Joker.

But treating these characters seriously does not mean they're treated without humor -- far from it! What makes The Brave and the Bold such a brilliant cartoon is that its creators clearly understand that it's not merely villains like Killer Moth, sidekicks like Woozy Winks, or heroes like G.I. Robot who are absurd but even Batman himself. Heck, all costumed superheroes are pretty silly if you spend any time thinking about them. The notion that it's somehow inherently more reasonable for a man to dress up like a bat in order to fight criminals than for a criminal to call himself the Sportsmaster and undertake sports-related crimes is one only a certain kind of diehard fan could make. I love The Brave and the Bold, not just because it's a great superhero cartoon, but because its creators and voice actors did such an amazing job making me accept Plastic Man and Clock King on their own terms rather than trying to judge them based on criteria that, if applied fairly, would consign all superheroes and villains to the dustbin.

So what does this have to do with roleplaying games? My personal feeling is that most roleplaying game campaigns are a lot like superhero comics -- patently absurd to anyone who hasn't already invested in them. I say that not as a criticism but merely as a statement of fact. I shudder to imagine what someone who's not a fan of fantasy and doesn't play D&D would think if he read some of my Dwimmermount session reports. Most RPG characters are closer to Detective Chimp than they are to Dmitri Fyodorovich, which is probably a good thing from my perspective, but that doesn't mean that most RPG characters are living jokes. Rather, what I mean is that it's foolish to fret too much about how much "sense" a campaign makes according to any logic other than that by which the campaign operates. All fantasy looks foolish if judged by the logic of the Real World™, which is why it's usually a mistake to do so.

On some level, I already knew this, of course; it's more or less the way I've been running my campaigns for some time now. But, once upon a time, after I'd been in the hobby for a while, I started to take it all too seriously and I'd look down my nose at stuff I considered to be "ridiculous" without once realizing the irony of what I was saying. A certain degree of seriousness is good, even necessary, for a RPG campaign to engage its participants and to survive, but when that seriousness calls for banishing fun, if quirky, ideas in its name, I weep a little. I mean, where would Dungeons & Dragons be without monsters like the gelatinous cube, the lurker above, the piercer and almost the entire contents of the Fiend Folio? And let us not forget the uncounted puns, allusions, and homages included in its corpus.

So, don't shun Detective Chimp. Invite him over for a banana and a chat about deductive reasoning. You may soon realize, as I have, that your campaign is better off with him in it than flinging feces at it from outside it.

29 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Crap, html was never my forte

    the lovely "Stupid Monsters Someone Was Paid to Make" seems appropriate to this post, and highly entertaining in its own right:

    http://www.headinjurytheater.com/article73.htm

    I think I'll probably settle into a mini-series of posts on "ridiculous" roleplaying monsters over the next couple of days...

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  3. I know what you mean about people taking the game too seriously. Recently I've been running a group through the old AD&D Module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and before playing, one of the players who knew that was the module I was going to use indicated that he "doesn't like chocolate in [his] peanut-butter", meaning, he hates the idea of a mash-up between fantasy and science-fiction. He prefers straight-up "serious" Tolkien style fantasy where everything "makes sense." He does play in the game and he does seem to be enjoying himself, but there are many comments made about "stupid" monsters like the vegepygmies. When I was a kid, I thought they were extremely stupid, too. But now as an adult, I think it's just all part of the fun of RPGs to have weirdness and quirkiness like that.

    On a Brave and the Bold front, one of my favorite episodes is the one featuring Bat-mite at what is clearly a Batman Fan Convention. He's showing a scene from the show that he's actually in and trying to get fan approval. If you haven't seen it, James, you've got to look it up. It's hilarious. You've got a Kevin-Smith knock-off wanna-be fan in his homemade Batman costume lamenting in typical geek fashion about how BatB is "not my Batman" because of its light-hearted approach and "silly" villains.

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  4. This post, more than any other I've read anywhere in the past 6 months or so, is without a doubt the stuff of genius.

    I am an absolute devout worshipper of internal logic. That is, I love and love to follow the logic of a given setting or genre. I couldn't give two wet farts if it makes "sense" or is "realistic".

    In the world of DC Comics, putting on a spandex costume with your undies on the outside to fight crime is real. In Star Trek, the Transporter creating an evil duplicate of you is real. In fantasy, hundred foot long, fire breathing, flying lizards are real. Get over it! (I do find it hilarious though that the same people who need weapon speed factors, encumberance and 'accurate' falling damage rules have no problems with Dragons, Wizards and Wish Rings. Humans are so silly its adorable).

    I adore genre conventions of the genres I enjoy and will (almost) always allow a genre cliche' to trump rules. Playing an Anime themed game where you want to make a 30 ft running high jump into your Mecha's cockpit? I say go for it.

    Also, anyone who doesn't like Detective Chimp is un-American and has no soul. You heard me!

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  5. I just have to say I really love Brave and the Bold cartoon. Just to see Kamandi and Omac in animated form alone is amazing! Add to that the shout out in the recent episode to the "Bat-Manga" book (put together by Chip Kidd no less - it is a gorgeous book) and seeing a faithful C.C. Beck style Shazam family is too good to be true!

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  6. Beauty of a commentary.
    brave and the bold was a wonderful show and you did indeed gather what the heart of the show was. You can't treat these guys seriously (allbeit with humor) without love. You have to love detective chimp in all its absurdity to go on the next step of how do I make this all work. We love our characters even if they are named "Sir Spazzalot" GMs have to learn to love these things too even if it seems to grit with that medievel goth feeling you were shooting for or else all is lost.


    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    art and review

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  7. This post has reminded me to create more adversarial NPCs with super-villain characteristics.

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  8. Amen. Just FYI, this was the guiding principle behind the feel we went for with ICONS. There were plenty of "serious" supers games out there. We wanted one that had a more joyous, absurdist vibe.

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  9. Good post. I think characters (and settings) should have the courage of their convictions, but at the same time have a sense of humor about them.

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  10. You'll be happy to learn, James, that Sports Master appears in the new YOUNG JUSTICE cartoon series, another Bruce Timm project from Cartoon Network.

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  11. Agree x 1000. Excellent editorial. Love Brave and the Bold, Adam West is my favorite Batman and Gygaxian dungeon puns are okay by me. I'm also okay with people who despise all three of those things I love - there's room for all in gaming.

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  12. An outstanding post James! One of your best!

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  13. There was a time when I would not have been able to appreciate Detective Chimp (I regret to say that I once rolled my eyes at Gorilla Grodd, until I saw him on the old Justice League cartoon a few years ago.) But Brave and the Bold has changed all that. But now, I embrace him as yet another part of the wondrous world I've always loved to escape to. It's a big world; there's always room for Detective Chimp.

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  14. Correction: Timm is not affiliated with YOUNG JUSTICE. I assumed wrong based on the Timm-esque animation style.

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  15. The "funny" comics of the DC Comics stable, such as Angel & The Ape, Stanley & His Monster, Captain Carrot, Plastic Man and the like, work because they take themselves seriously. They are earnest in their beliefs. The humour resides in the reader's sense of pathos.

    The same is true with RPGs. Except substitute "player" for "reader." The players' characters still have to take these things seriously or it doesn't work.

    YMMV.

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  16. If you want a Detective Chimp reaction from a hardcore Marvel fan, just bring up Squirrel Girl.
    (She's my hero! She whupped Dr. Doom's titanium plated kiester!)

    I gotta second Barking Alien's contention. "Realism" is a chump's game. "Internal consistency" is where it's at. If you've already established that anything goes, then why not a crime solving chimp? Why not, indeed?

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  17. That's one of the best things about the Golden Age. All of this stuff(vibrant, hastily assembled costumes, magic, monsters, radiation/aberrant chemical reactions giving superpowers instead of say, cancer) was taken seriously in-comic, as well it should be. After all, this was actually HAPPENING to the characters in the pages of the book, right? No-one would be making light of say, a large guy in a bat suit known for prowling around using egregious amounts of violence! Or an evil clown, or a spinning plant lady, or a tiger fur-clad assassin, talking gorillas, vengeful ghosts, immortal, indestructable sorcerors, fully intelligent robots, etc... All that came later, when some writers decided the in-comic world should reflect the attitudes of a segment of the real world audience who sneered at certain 'ludicrous' elements(that they didn't understand, like why heroes wore a pair of shorts over their tights or had a cape.[for the same reason strongmen and acrobats did.]) in them. It's a lack of imagination, I'd say; a bad-ass maniac dressed up as a scarecrow or something is STILL a bad-ass maniac, and no-one when faced with this would offer post-modern critiques on his motives, methodology, or attire, I'd gather! ;-) I deplore the snarky meta-references found in modern comics, it seems to take the fun out of them.(That, and writing overly-long stories to be collected in trade.) I mean, everything doesn't have to be deadly serious at all times; there can be humor, but it should be laughing with the characters, not taking mean-spirited pot-shots at their very existence. Anyone who considers the idea of hundreds (or more) people(and other life forms) running around fistfighting for great justice would consider it a bit on the absurd side, and they would be right! But as a fan, you should balance that with the suspense of disbelief(and love for the characters) necessary to immerse oneself in the ongoing adventure and enjoy the book, imo.

    @Barking Alien:
    'I am an absolute devout worshipper of internal logic. That is, I love and love to follow the logic of a given setting or genre. I couldn't give two wet farts if it makes "sense" or is "realistic".':
    Totally agree!


    'I do find it hilarious though that the same people who need weapon speed factors, encumberance and 'accurate' falling damage rules':
    That's a real small number of people, dude! ;-)(And in their case: cognitive dissonance, ya know!)

    @Bigfella:
    '"Realism" is a chump's game. "Internal consistency" is where it's at. If you've already established that anything goes, then why not a crime solving chimp? Why not, indeed?':
    Well put!

    Squirrel Girl owns all! She's an extrusion of the Silver Age into the Grim Age, created by Steve Ditko(So it's canon!:-D) no less, and the 'fans' that hate her very being deserve her presence in all gritty comics, imo. Now DC needs a character like this! Bring back Ambush Bu, I say.

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  18. If you want to take superheroes "seriously" and try to have them "make sense" you'll end up with Watchmen (a fantastic piece of work in its own right). If you ask the question what kind of person would dress up as a bat to fight crime, the answer is obvious: a crazy person. Many writers have tried going down that line, but Alan Moore brought it to its ultimate and inescapable conclusion: through a serious "real world" optic these people are all fucked up sociopaths and worse.

    This is why I'm not really a fan of making superheroes "serious" (unless taken to its logical conclusion, as in Watchmen). I think Nolan has completely missed the mark with his "realistic" Batman, there's only so far he can take it. Burton got it much better, I think.

    There is a really good series of posts somewhere on the internet talking about how the whole cast of Batman's comics is a sort of unconscious, dream crazytown (which has a lot of paralels with how in D&D the dungeon is the mythic underworld, the subconscious dreamspace). Batman is a shaman, when the spirits come out he does the sensible thing: he goes crazy himself. He puts on a costume and descends into this insane world. So, a resounding Yes! to including all the silly characters and elements, but also treating them with respect instead of as simple jokes.

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  19. I watched an episode of "Community" the other day, totally dedicated to D&D in that episode.

    One of the characters in the show is new to the game, but wants to give it a shot. The following exchange occurs.

    "Is there any way we can catch up to him with that wierd magic cloak he has?"

    "Maybe if we got a pegasus..."

    "I really can't tell if you are being sarcastic or not because this all seems equally silly to me"

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  20. 'I do find it hilarious though that the same people who need weapon speed factors, encumberance and 'accurate' falling damage rules': That's a real small number of people, dude! ;-)(And in their case: cognitive dissonance, ya know!)

    Its sadly not as small a number as you might think. To be honest when I was first learning about the OSR that's what I thought it was going to be, a movement of all the old guys who like like sort of thing. I'm glad to see it (mostly) isn't.

    Trust me, here in New York I run into it alot. I've discussed it on my blog. A number of gamers I've run into in NYC are very simulationist, than have the party attacked by a Roper.

    I'm sorry but the need to don a brightly colored Jester cap and pie them in the face is hard to resist.

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  21. @Gregor:
    'but Alan Moore brought it to its ultimate and inescapable conclusion: through a serious "real world" optic these people are all fucked up sociopaths and worse.':
    Debatable. ALL of them would be demented sociopaths or worse?(Even say, Superman? Captain Marvel and the Marvels, Spiderman? I really don't think so...) Not even Watchmen(and Moore/Gibbons themselves came to that conclusion!(And of course, it can be argued even Watchmen missed the mark, especially with the belief that Dr. Manhattan would become so alien and removed from everyday life, and the ramifications of that.) :-) And in mainstream comics reality, until recently, the heroes were pretty well adjusted. Watchmen's was only one possible take on superheroics of the 80's.(As Moore has stated; he doesn't consider it THE statement on the subject.[and wishes that others hadn't battened on to it and tried to make it so, actually!] See Miracleman for another of his, which is still pretty bleak, but with cautious optimism.)

    'I think Nolan has completely missed the mark with his "realistic" Batman, there's only so far he can take it.':
    Mostly true, I'd say. The Supernatural/Super Science/Weird elements of the Batman Comics shouldn't be shied away from, imo.

    'So, a resounding Yes! to including all the silly characters and elements, but also treating them with respect instead of as simple jokes.':
    Heartily seconded!

    I need to look up the Batman as Shaman; that sounds cool! Sounds like a great take on the character.(You could add that to one of the many possible ones, all valid, as Bat-Mite pointed out in the Brave and the Bold 'toon, I'd say.)

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  22. @Barking Alien:
    'here in New York I run into it alot.':
    Oh, I believe you, but from what I've seen the majority of RPGers(OSR and non, what I meant above, sorry!) don't much care for overly fiddly, complex, abstruse rules, especially if they slow the game down for little to no perceived gain. I'm thinking these guys are mostly AD&D(as in the 1979 version) players(or the like) who venerate the RAW? Weapon Speed Factors, Vs. AC charts, and strict encumbrance determination are usually jettisoned pretty early on(especially as 2nd Edition came on), ime and what I've gleaned off of blogs/forums.

    'I'm sorry but the need to don a brightly colored Jester cap and pie them in the face is hard to resist. ':
    You're stronger than I, friend. I'd go for it! ;-)

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  23. I wrote this nearly five years ago after coming to some similar conclusions upon reading a compilation of Silver Age Superman comics:

    http://knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1737

    And at the risk of being a complete pedant, Detective Chimp debuted in 1952. Thus, many comic aficionados wouldn't consider him a Golden Age character.

    There's a lot of debate about when the Golden Age ended and whether there's an intermediate "age" between the end of the Golden Age and beginning of the Silver Age (which is much more widely understood to begin with the debut of the revamped Flash in 1956). Personally, I think breaking things down by decade is far more useful.

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  24. Chris said: "There's a lot of debate about when the Golden Age ended and whether there's an intermediate "age" between the end of the Golden Age and beginning of the Silver Age..."

    Pls tell me this hypothetical era is known as the Electrum Age.

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  25. 1930'S to 1950'S Golden Age
    1950's to 1970's Silver Age
    1970's to mid-1980's Bronze Age
    mid-1980's to 2000's Dark Age
    2000's - present Renaisance

    From the happy go lucky primary colored pajamas, through the dark & demented twisted moralities, to the big Hollywood moviefests over the last decade.

    There has to be room for the Mystery Men & Flaming Carrot in there somewhere...

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  26. @ Greg: Sorry, it's generally referred to as the "Atom Age" or "Atomic Age" due to the the sci-fi focus in general and the obsession with all things "atomic" in particular.

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  27. Can't agree with you more James. There are some in the community that need to step back and not take it so seriously.

    "Why soooo SERIOUS?" -Joker

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  28. Well said, a very enjoyable read!

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