The Design of Octopussy
Written by Neil Randall
A movie is a combination of plot, character, and setting. A role-playing adventure is also a combination of plot, character, and setting. But there is a major difference between the two: the movie is fixed, while the adventure changes according to the whims of the players and the Gamesmaster.
How can a movie be turned into a roleplaying adventure? This is the problem facing anyone who writes a James Bond 007 module. The advantage of basing an adventure on a movie is that players will instantly recognize the title and the characters, but these are also the main problems.
The players will likely know the plot of the movie. Fine, the plot can be easily changed, so far as to violate the spirit of the original. So the sense of total uncertainty, which makes roleplaying games so much fun for players, is partially lost from the beginning. Second, the players will recognize the Non-Player Characters when they meet them. They’ll know the good guys from the bad guys before, they start. Third, the players will recognize the setting.
All the modules for the James Bond 007 game have encountered these obstacles. They are not insurmountable, but force the players and the GM to think about the conversion from movie to adventure. I’ve never heard of a Bond group derailing in the process, so it seems to work. With my own group, I have a special advantage: they have either not seen the movie or can’t remember it well enough to influence their decisions. I suspect that’s true for some others as well.
When designing Octopussy, I immediately encountered another difficulty: the movie had not yet been released. In fact, it would not be released until after the final playtested version was finished. This really amounted to simulating a movie which did not yet exist. I was sent a 7-page synopsis of the plot. Later I received a few black-and-white stills which helped considerably. Only long after I submitted the first draft, I finally had a chance to read the script.
It was from the synopsis, then, that I had to construct the movie’s plot. A solid adventure had to be constructed from the sketchy details, and since Octopussy and Goldfinger were to be the flagship of the Bond project, everybody wanted it to be good, especially me.
The first step was to construct a logical reason for the villain’s plot. This led to my first observation about the Bond movies: everyone I talked to said that the movies are charming mainly because they do not make sense, that they are totally unreal. If this is true, I’m not sure it’s intentional, but it’s certainly something for the GM to keep in mind. Over-rationalization may be bad here. But such an argument would scarcely hold in the adventure designs, so I had to find a rationale.
This was less difficult than I originally thought, because the rationale behind the Kamal-Orlov plot in the move was difficult to determine, especially working from the synopsis. All I had to do, then, was make mine somewhat logical and it would work. Given the genre, I think it does. Having a spirited public citizen like General Gogol abused by a ruthless villain like General Orlov is hardly a new plot, but it is both familiar and unpredictable enough to be re-used. The Faberge Egg subplot is taken from a short story by Ian Fleming entitled “The Property of a Lady”. It gives a good account of why the Egg is at Sotheby’s for auction, but for many reasons I did not want to’ use it. Gamesmasters wishing a twist in the adventure might dig up the story and use it; it’s a bit less “spiffy” than the movie or the adventure, but it is a bit more plausible.
There is a bit of technological foolery in the adventure which I wish I had not included. For the sake of any reader who has not played Octopussy, I won’t reveal what it is, because the adventure revolves around it – I don’t think the improbable technology detracts from play – the reverse may be true – but it is the one element I probably should have re-designed. It does fit in well with my research about why people like Bond movies, so the players may see it as a strength rather than a weakness. This premise was the first part of the design and it held throughout.
Next, I decided what the main locations would be, and the synopsis served its greatest purpose here. It listed all the major locations, including the Auction and the Train, and I was able to proceed from there. Before writing these down, however, I turned my attention to the NonPlayer Characters.
Non-Player Characters are the backbone of a role-playing campaign. They are also the backbone of most literary and cinematic works. Octopussy NPCs are described differently than in most other role-playing adventures. Their descriptions are reasonably full, and make consistent sense. I tried extremely hard to give each a personality while still fitting the James Bond stereotypes we have come to expect. Some playtesters objected to the detail given about James Masterton, for instance, but I chose to retain it in order to give a GM an NPC to incorporate into a NPCs in the Octopussy adventure: Snowman, Fanning, Masterton, Magda, and even Gobinda can be used as recurring NPCs in a campaign. Of all the elements of the Octopussy adventure, I am most pleased with the NPCs. In subsequent adventures, I have de-emphasized NPCs in favour of plot; this may make it easier for the GM to run the adventure, but it is less interesting to write, and, I think, to read. I look forward to the feedback.
If an NPC is well-described, his reactions to the Player Characters will be natural and obvious. If not, it is necessary to build in a set of reactions for every possibility. In Octopussy, I chose the former route and have since tried the latter – Those who role-play in the sense of “acting” will probably enjoy studying the NPC’s personality; those who don’t will, I hope, find enough in the way of Reaction instructions to guide them. Whatever the case, do transplant any interesting NPCs from Octopussy into your own campaign.
With the NPCs finished, the locations had to be described. The Circus was no problem, requiring the reading of a couple books on Circus performances. The Auction I largely made up, but it too provided little difficulty. The biggest problem was with Udaipur, India. When the Bond producers decided on Udaipur as an unknown but beautiful spot, they were right on both counts. The problem was, information on its beauty is severely limited because it is not well documented ‘ Books on Udaipur are few, and few books on India treat Udaipur to any great degree.
Once the material was located, it still had to be fitted into place. Without being able to see the movie, descriptions of exotic locales became difficult; I am not well enough travelled to make it all up. Histories of Udaipur suggested a constant tension between British colonialists and Udaipur authorities. In my original version, Octopussy’s palace was a transplanted British country estate. This fit into Octopussy’s background, so it was fine. It was also fine in that those who saw the movie would be unable to identify Octopussy’s palace on sight when playing the adventure.
The Monsoon Palace depicted in the adventure is not the same as that in the movie. This is partly intentional. Reading the synopsis gave me no idea that Kamal was actually holed up in the Maharana’s mountain palace in Udaipur; I knew Udaipur had one, but I didn’t expect it to be used in the movie. When I read the script of the movie after submitting the first draft, I still had no idea this palace was used. I did find out, though, that Kamal’s palace was on a hill, so I immediately decided to lower it to ground level. Why? Simply to keep the players on their toes. I didn’t want characters hopping the nearest balloon and storming Kamal’s palace as Bond does in the movie. By turning an actual Udaipur hotel into the Monsoon Palace, I solved two problems. Players would not suspect Kamal of living there, and I had a ready-made place to put a gambling room. This misunderstanding worked in my favour.
I have always felt a bit cheated by adventures that do not tell me what happens next. After a player spends eight to ten hours solving an adventure, playing the game as well as he can, he deserves something more than “Well, that’s it; see you next week for a new adventure.” And a GM spending several hours preparing for play should find out what happens if things go well or poorly for the characters. Thus, Part IV: Consequences, came about. I wanted to give the GM an idea of what happens if the characters succeed or fail. Besides, Bond’s defusing of the bomb in the movie was only the penultimate climax; he went on to find and defeat Kamal Khan and Gobinda on the airplane. I felt that players would feel cheated by not being able to chase Kamal once having disposed of the bomb.
Finally, I decided to offer some suggestions for altering the scenario and basing further missions-on Octopussy. The former is a method of countering over-eager players who insist on reading the entire booklet beforehand. The latter is a guide for a novice GM. I would like to have put a bit more effort into developing the further adventures (the idea is a good one), but there was neither time nor space.
The most interesting part of the design from my standpoint was the difficulty of transferring a non-existent movie onto the pages of a role-playing adventure. When I finally sat down to watch the movie, I found myself reacting to the opening credits as I react to a final exam. In a way, I suppose, that was the correct attitude to take. I had just second-guessed the producers of Octopussy the way I had once tried to second-guess my teachers. The main difference was that thousands of people never read my final exams.