Wednesday, December 31

Cracking the Spine of A Red And Pleasant Land

It is much what I hoped it would be, an extremely gamey tool for the table top. I also hoped it would contain great examples of how good gaming content can be, how interesting it can be and the book exceeded both expectations handily.

Zack Smith's A Red & Pleasant Land is extremely good. If you play or run rpg's it is currently the most useful, informative and attractive game product on the shelf right now and should have your interest.

I was grabbing gruesome gaming gobbets immediately. Here is my splash list of favorite first impressions;

Guests (fuckin' hell this monster is beyond totally Pearl Jam before they went big in '89 cool), Instant Dungeon Template, Foreclusions, Sample Locations, The Alice, The Slow War, Conversation Openers...

These are what I found in, I don't know, first two minutes of flipping pages. Innumerable elements from the book which can be just lifted out and used by the enterprising game master in their own campaign. I want that, I pay money for this kind of product. I should say I've put money down on game products many times and rarely get any return like this. The table resources and optional rules section are outrageous gears in which you can learn to drive your games. If you look at these in the book and are lost and mystified on how to utilize them you need to accept the fact you don't know what the point of an rpg is and need instruction. The good news is this instruction is available, for free, in the avalanche of gaming blogs talking about how table top rpg's are awesome and here is why. Just requires cursory note taking.

The hard coded setting material provides endless fuel for players and game master's imagination. Obvious superiority of the campaign material outlined in the small, dense book to anything currently in your library will provide all the hooks you need to enter the adventure into your current game. Or convince you you need to tear down and start over...

Criticising the work will be hard. There will be folks like myself who are in love with this piece, and will be quick to attack weak comments which discounts the books accomplishments. For those who can point out flaws in the work, as nothing is ever perfect, will have to keep it tight, and well, will take more work than my rank praise seems to be to crank out.

I'm the kind of person who doesn't get why something resonates or falls flat with me the first time I experience it. Zack has the talent, like most successful artists, to see these connections. I don't but thankfully I will stubbornly stick to the stink of instinct.

What I learned, what surprised me, what was my takeaway from the book, what helped me find deeper appreciation for the activity I like to spend soooo much time on since I was like eleven  was the use of live models in the illustrated artwork. I understood these illustrated characters of the book to be modeled off of the people who actually play in Zack's D&D game. I'm just taking this from  the Zack's video taped game session which he made public. Zack's renderings gush affection and respect for his players. That the participants are loved by the author. That this DM recognizes what the point of the exercise is. To honor the players with the best that you can give them every time.

Wow, cool. Missed that for way too many years of gaming.

It is, for those who care to approach the product with open GM eyes, a big holler of how big of a hill you have to climb. How far you have to go to be a good Game Master, how far you have to go to give your players the respect they deserve, and just now, if you have been playing since, I don't know, eleven, the information and support you need to accomplish this mind numbing colossal task is suddenly bubbling out of the god dam internet since 2009 (Zack is not the only one getting it this good, go find them) letting you know you are not alone. Awesome!

Friday, December 26

Holiday Gaming in the land of Mystara

Something sweet about spending an early afternoon gaming and no need to go to work.

Today I hosted a BFRPG adventure in a new campaign started a year ago. New because the last session, session #3?, was conducted exactly one year ago to the day. Only one player from that original group attended today, but it was enough to maintain a grasp on the continued plight of Eastern Karameikos and the struggles of its inhabitants.

Brother Benedict, in the service of Taras Sukyskin, was joined by Brand; a poor fighting wretch from the village of Corroc, Harek; a fighting dwarf from the Altan Tepe mountains, and Elkis; a hafling thief from the Dymrak forest. All free peoples of Eastern Karameikos was represented as all the new players were coming from communities wracked by demons, danger, and unnamed threats. Something truly evil moved throughout the land, threatening the peace and prosperity of all.

Brother Benedict easily rallied the adventurers around Taras Sukyskin's cause, to rid the land of the Black Mirror found beneath the temple on the island in the Lake of Lost Dreams. The party disembarked from the tombs on the hill and made the two day journey to the shores of the remote lake. There they found the lake shore and island invested with marauding goblins still intent on bringing their dread gods to life.

It took the aid of curse born pixies to slip past the goblins guarding the island temple and once inside the party destroyed the black mirror only to find themselves transported to an ancient ruin, a once noble palace now desolate and barren but for time eaten stone halls. Where once they were below the ground in the dead of night they now find themselves above ground during daylight.

Before they have much time to ponder their mysterious circumstances they are confronted by a yellow robed man accompanied by two fighting dwarves and a lady armed with a red crystal sword. The yellow robed man says that the party now stands at the very edge of time and that he has brought them here in part thanks to their mighty deeds. He states that the only way any of them return from whence they came is for the PC's to secure the "wand of light" and hand it over to him. The PC's try to wrangle out some more information out of him, but the obtuse stranger only  mocks their ignorance and assures them that they will all perish in the oncoming and inevitable dissolution of the cosmos in mere hours hence unless they aid him in his quest. That they best get moving and search the lower ruins of the ancient palace for the Wand of Light.

The PC's try and call the man's bluff, suggesting if they do nothing that he would be forced to take on this perilous quest himself. The man counters that he must use his considerable powers to maintain the structure of the world around them long enough for them to accomplish their task, and that his fate was tied to the success of their task just as much as theirs.

Rightfully dubious, the PC's reluctantly took up the quest. The yellow robed man's dwarven fighters are ordered to accompany the PC's and to see that they find the wand and bring it back. It is not apparent why the others serve the man, but they appear to obey his wishes without question.

The party breaks out torches, establishes marching order, and begins to penetrate the buried passageways of this once proud castle. After passing through empty halls and unlit chambers they stumble upon a grotesque three headed humanoid foul and terrible. The party throws themselves against the monster, but before they cut it down in howling anguish it delivers a devastating blow to Xyzom the dwarven bodyguard throwing the impatient warrior against the wall. Harek is rend limb from limb as Brother Benedict crushes one of the monster's heads beneath his mace. The many headed, many limbed monstrosity falls lifeless amidst the sudden carnage. After killing another one of the aroused three headed horrors the PC's spy a stairway leading to the lower levels of the palace.

to be continued...

Sunday, December 21

Use of Specialisms in my USR

I consider Specialisms in the USR rules to be incredibly flexible. That the rules as written, sparse as they are, leave PC's no choice but to create them and use them in any manner they fit.

A character with the, say, Specialism Agility could try and get an advantage over a heavily armored opponent by striking quickly, or making the opponent off balance before delivering a blow. This appeals to my sense of Sword & Sorcery combat as depicted in the pulps. Indeed, a sell-sword in the gawd awful Game of Thrones books used such a technique against a well armored foe in a one on one challenge to slam his weapon home leaving his opponent gutted and lifeless.

My USR combat rounds are ten seconds, and the action occures simultaneously. PC characters and NPC's characters can use this dynamic to describe what their goals are over the next ten seconds. As the regular rules indicate, characters can roll for a +1 on their actions by successfully rolling against a target number via the use of a Specialism. It is only up to the PC's and the Crypt Keeper to try and put these actions into play through remarkable ideas which are in the spirit of the canon.

The CK can, of course, rule against any application of a Specialism for this +1 bonus and deny the PC this additional roll. In fact, a CK would be best to keep a tight rein on the use of this mechanic, or eventually it will become meaningless through overuse.

Monday, December 1

Lost in the USR Makan-e-Mordan

Our favorite band of low life barbarian scum failed to get the upper hand on Gomer of Akaharia, and were staked out to die in the trackless wastes of the North West Desert.

After they escaped their bonds the desert threatened to swallow their lives

beneath an unrelenting sun, but they endured the unforgiving waste to eventually wander into the accursed city of Akhlat.

Here the land is sustained in the grip of an ancient demon which demands the essence of living beings for food. A city elder believes the newly arrived PC' s are the prophesied saviors destined to slay the gorgon terror.

Friday, October 3

Have you tried simultaneous combat...

...and if so, how did it go?

I'm trying to hammer a simultaneous combat method out with USR, a rules lite rpg, and I'm getting hung up on multiple actions during a combat turn. Specifically with making more than one attack in a turn against an opponent who is only taking a single action.

Anyone who has had any experience with simultaneous combat systems for an rpg I would love to hear about it.

Monday, September 29

What I like about my Carcosa Campaign

Well, it's not really mine, I just play in it.

I took the plunge a year ago to participate in a Google+ campaign based in Geoff Mackinney's Carcosa  setting to play a Sword & Planet game. The non-medieval geometry inherent to the Carcosan world at least guaranteed I would not be interacting with the usual drunken dwarves, bored innkeepers or goblin infested slime coated tunnels which I had hacked my way through since high school.

I hoped the alien environment would force me to approach my play different. What good is gold on a landscape absent of society, safe water, and food?

I hoped it would interest me.

I was curious how OSR rules would handle this kind of setting and I was anxious to try out one of these new retro-clone systems which seemed to be firing the engines of these online gaming opportunities.

As far as the Carcosa game material being offered by the DM through the setting book, this has been great. While bandits and wolves in the woods and along the trails of your average feudal realm can put me to sleep, I seem to really perk up and pay attention when my PC is a half naked savage ducking terrifying dinosaurs, and storm cloud sized amoebas trying to traverse the naked plain or navigate fern choked swamps. The game world makes me feel more threatened due to my lack of familiar reference. How much of the game material we adventure through is from the world book, what is created by the DM and what is hacked from other published sources I don't know. The DM is the one who knows that. But I can say I do feel like I am in a savage alien world racked by terrible powers beyond my PC's comprehension. Once again, mere survival feels like a tremendous victory day in and day out.

Resource management. From torches to ray guns, where to acquire these different resources which increase my chances of survivable can be very difficult to lay your hands on let alone use correctly. Everyone knows how to use a +1 sword, magic wand or a rare and valuable gem, or at least give it a relative game world value. Buzzing robot insect halo surrounding a glowing pylon? Hard to tell what it represents or offers. Once again, pushing me to be more imaginative in my game play than I might have.

This also applies to experience points. Treasure is rare. Items of wondrous power are hard to find. They are either already possessed by some bad ass, or are difficult to access. Mineral wealth is also hard to dispose of. Old Ones are hard to buy off. It forces me to create a different metric for success each game play beyond resource stock piling. I can't just loot my way to a flying squadron of Carcosan's mounted on telepathic bats equipped with stereo speakers blaring Zepplin and shooting lazer beams out of their eyes. I'm going to have to do some work.

Social interaction. It becomes more of a challenge to interact with NPC's when traditional motivations may not apply. What does a spawn of Fasha really want and what does that have to do with me? All good game elements which will encourage me to stretch my imagination a little bit further again.

These elements all conspire (and more I'm not recognizing right now I'm sure) to make me place my individual game session play as infinately more valuable than the accumulation of abstracted experience points and "leveling up".

Monday, August 18

USR Sword & Sorcery Critical Hits and Dramatic Fumbles

+James Young wrote up a great Critical Hit and Fumble table for his LotFP game and I have adapted it for my USR game.

While most games, including USR, structure combat around an attacker and a defender, I've taken the plunge with simultaneous action in combat. This means any critical hit or fumble mechanic which catches my fancy will have to be modified to account for any one of the combat participants receiving an extraordinary result based on both participants roll.

Also, each actor in the drama does not necessarily use the same dice so I have to consider how to determine critical and fumble results which account for this variable as well. For the raw mechanic I considered how Chaosium's Elric (as well as their BRP system) handled criticals and fumbles. But I don't have the luxury of a generous d100 point spread to move around in and I was concerned that, with combat dice ranging from d4 to d10, a natural 1 is going to come up more often than I or my players are going to want.

Here is how I structured the mechanic; If you roll a natural  1 or natural  high #, you compare against opponents roll. If your opponent has also rolled a natural 1 or natural high # it is time to check for Critical Hits and Dramatic Fumbles.

Here is the link to the Crypt Keeper's Screen where the current Critical Hit and Fumble Tables can be found.

For hit location just use your favorite chart. I'm using my hit location chart from Chaosium's BRP system, but really any one will do. I think FGU's Aftermath has several which covers humanoids and animals large and small, for example.

All my rules for the game so far can be found on the Summoning page of my blog.

Sunday, August 17

Hard scrabble Times in the Zorab Mountains

My players have made their way from the harsh ranges and stony adventures against bestial hillmen of the Zorab Mountains to once again retire among the wine shops and money lenders in the city of the Grand Inquisitor, Dipur.

They left behind in the flinty peaks high hopes of renown, valor, treasure, a hireling and not much of a pay day. They also left behind a dead, corrupt Count of Castle Highfrost, but instead of glory have been painted with the traitor's brush.

And now I have to get all the prep done for a wide open, sandbox style sword and sorcery opportunity in a sprawling city for tomorrow night. I'm putting on a pot o coffee, pulling out my Conan paperbacks and listening to some Black Mountain.

Anyone is also encouraged to throw me some ideas on generating a pile of adventure hooks and adventure seeds to send these scurrilous heroes into the mouth of hell!

G’wood has a new place for gamers to gather

Things may be turning around here for face to face gaming opportunities...

Many tabletop gamers have dreamed of opening up a store catering to their hobby, but in the Roaring Fork Valley, they’ve never seemed to stick. Since the demise of Mark’s Toys and Pets, locals have been generally had to travel to Grand Junction or Denver to buy role-playing dice or participate in a card tournament.
They don’t have to now.
Since February, word has slowly spread about the Jester’s Court in the basement of the Tamarack building at 10th and Grand in Glenwood Springs. The store is open only limited hours three days a week, but it is gaining a following.
Sean Wagner travels from Grand Junction to run the shop from 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays, 2-9 p.m. Fridays, and 2-7 p.m. Saturdays. He sees a lot of potential in the area.
“There’s a lot to be tapped around here,” he observed. “There’s plenty of gamers.”
Sean and his wife, Trudi, operate a larger store in Grand Junction and two in Wyoming. They’re starting small with the Glenwood store, but have the experience and business savvy to help it grow.
Right now, they’re catering mostly to devotees of the card game Magic: The Gathering, which, oversimplified, is a battle of complex rules among wizards whose powers are determined by the cards.
“Magic’s king,” Wagner explained. “It carries any game store and makes everything else possible.”
“Everything else” includes all sorts of “unplugged” tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons as well as a host of board games including Settlers of Catan and Diplomacy. You won’t find Monopoly or Halo among their selection. You might be able to convince them to order Risk, but you’d be better off asking for a specific Magic card.
The games themselves are only half the point.
“We provide something other places don’t: a place to play,” said Wagner. “We build gaming community in our stores. It’s a special thing. Everyone comes together in a game shop.”
The Jester’s Court hosts Magic: The Gathering tournaments on Friday nights, which usually attract 10 to 15 enthusiasts. Most, but by no means all, participants are in their teens or 20s.
Will Kribs, a 17-year-old Roaring Fork High School grad, stops by the shop almost every day it’s open.
“I can meet new people here,” he explained. He had a handful of people to play Magic and D&D with at school, but the Jester’s Court attracts people from all over the Roaring Fork and Eagle Valleys.
Tylor Kantas is another constant presence. Now 25, he grew up in the Valley.
“We had small groups in school to play,” he recalled, “but a lot of us went different directions and we lost the community.”
Kantas, who participates in Magic tournaments in Grand Junction and is even planning an outing to an event in Salt Lake City, found out about the shop through a friend. He now helps the Wagners out on a volunteer basis, and is such a fixture many customers mistake him for an employee. He’s just happy to be a part of the budding community.
“It’s all about fun,” he said. “Everybody comes in and gets to be their real selves.”
As the community grows, so does the potential for other events like Dungeons and Dragons-style tabletop role-playing or Warhammer competitions. If so, the business will likely outgrow its cramped underground abode, but for now, you can stop by 1001 Grand Avenue, Suite 002.

Sunday, August 3

Last RPG Purchase was Basic Fantasy from Lulu

Since TSR's Basic Dungeons & Dragons with the Erol Otus cover in the magenta colored box was my first rpg purchase way back in 1981, it seems fitting my last purchase was the wonderful retro clone Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game.

With all the free material of quality available online, including Basic Fantasy in PDF format, I've forced myself to be real frugal with actual cash expenditure on rpg books. But Basic Fantasy did it right for me. A free PDF led to a Lulu purchase of the perfect bound, publish on demand copy of the game. The cost of the book was, like ridiculously low, and with a shipping discount being offered it was a no brainer.

The game gave me the house ruled tweaks I wish I had thought of while retaining all the flavor of the great game I first came to love.

I have further modified my Basic Fantasy with the best aspects I find from LotFP (also available for free in PDF format), and all those folks making cool character sheets, free adventures, Game Master aids, etc. just make this product one of the best rpg deals going.

Saturday, August 2

S&S in the World of Xoth

My USR Sword & Sorcery campaign soldiers on and I now have enough game material cobbled together to post them here. Since many of the tools I used are not my own this post serves to recognize the authors of the material I use for my

Campaign Resources;

U.S.R (Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying) is Scott Malthouse's rules lite game mechanics. It is what my game rules are based on. I have just taken Scott's text and hacked it to my tastes.

Character Background's have been lifted from the Elric! rulebook from Chaosium. Same for the basic equipment table.

Campaign Background is from this guy Thulsa who created his own Sword & Sorcery setting he calls the world of Xoth.

Ben Ball's Random Sword & Sorcery Adventure Generator for use with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is something I also rely on to populate the land with adventure seeds.

The USR character record sheet is by Charlie Warren of The Semi-retired Gamer blog.

Wednesday, July 30

USR 2.0 Review

Scott Malthouse's (U)nbelievably (S)imple (R)oleplaying game has just had an update, and as someone who uses the system here are my thoughts on version 2.0.

No fuss, no muss. No hand holding either. But that is the approach I look for in a rules lite universal rpg. I find Scott's USR rules achieve the goal of a unified mechanic which resolves all character interactions and encounters. The two components in which a rpg cannot do without; character creation and encounter resolution, are presented in a total of eight pages of this twenty one page free PDF. Players will be able to get their game on fast with USR, as long as the Game Master is up to it.

The introduction gives Scott's reasons for the revision. One being more advice for new players starting out with roleplaying games. I would have thrown into the introduction something stating USR is best run by experienced Game Masters who have a firm idea of what type of game they want to run. New GM's may be overwhelmed by the need to not only carry along new PC's into an exciting narrative, but also being able to ground the adventure in a sufficiently immersive campaign world. New players will then benefit from both a simple rule set which won't confuse them, and an old hand who knows how to show an rpg'er a good time!

Character creation is the same simple process which should have generate a fully realized PC in ten minutes or less. Especially if the GM has useful campaign information for the players to use.

How To Play is the simple core mechanics of the game. In two pages you have all you need to adjudicate any situation in the course of the game. If you are experienced with Savage Worlds you might find USR a dumbed down version of this game system. Then again, players who have been using any of Chaosiums various manifestations of its Basic Role Playing system will easliy know how to exploit the rules to deliver similiar results. 

While every rpg has detailed rules for combat, here the one page combat rules nicely highlight that combat rules in USR are nothing more than an example of how to adapt the core game with your own additional "chrome", house rules, grafted on rule hacks, etc. Once you have grasped this concept you become capable of resolving everything in the game you need to.

In my own sword and sorcery game I'm still blowing back and forth on all the choices I've made in how I run combat. I've ditched turn order and have made combat simultaneous. I'm still seeking the best method to resolve ranged combat. Applying critical hits and fumbles is still up in the air. Hit locations, and the application of armor... Fortunately my players have been amicable to my on going trial and error play testing of the combat rules as the campaign goes. So far. As long as it is in the service on how to best deliver the flavor of pulp fantasy blood and steel then perhaps I will in the long run be forgive.

I still find it odd Scott's choice to apply weapon bonuses only to the attacker, but with even rules on how order of attack is established omitted, your one page of combat rules are the absolute bare minimum in guidance while still working all the way through. Once again, this an example of why I recommend USR for the experienced Game Master. You are going to have to be comfortable coming up for rulings on the fly for range, cover, multiple attackers, fighting with two weapons, etc. The usual random chaos of unpredictable mayhem which players get up into will keep you on your toes so a good set of prepared spot rules for anticipated combat maneuvers is highly recommended.

An Example of Play and Setting Packages are a nice touch to give the bootstrapping GM an idea on how Scott envisions his game rules being used. 

Two optional rules finish the rules; Narrative Points, and Character Advancement. I don't use Narrative Points in my game, but I do use Character Advancement rules. As with every other aspect of the game, the application of experience for Character Advancement will need close supervision and rulings from the GM who takes fidelity of his campaign world seriously. 

I highly recommend USR for the GM eager to craft from whole cloth the campaign settings of his desires.

Sunday, July 13

Gaming after Hiatus

Is it legal, is it fair? I started a Sword and Sorcery game in December when I busted up skiing. With two months on the couch I discovered there was an online game community and plunged right in.

Then I got better, went to work, and found gaming in the afternoon, evening, weekends, etc. was a bit problematic when my time became more, hmmm, required.

While I can fully appreciate getting in touch with adolescent indolence, navel gazing and masturbation, I did decide RPG's was as worth artistic effort as anything Rothko produced.

So I'm going to fight the trade winds, give up on natural sleep and give those who enjoyed gathering around my virtual table another stab at an ongoing campaign in my sword and sorcery campaign I've cobbled from online bits.

Monday, April 21

The Health of Gaming Today

Looks pretty grim. Over the last five or so years it seems eulogies to another giant of the industry who has just past away. Dave Trampier, Aaron Aalston, Tom Moldvay, Gary of course, etc. I didn't think much of it at first. Unfortunately we all must grow old and die. But then I see a picture like this;

and, you know, the fact that these lovely human beings, these creators, our grandfathers so to speak are falling at the young ages of their sixties, their fifties hit me. And it is easy to see why. The overall health of the folks which created our beloved sport are terribly unhealthy. Liquor, cigarettes, lousy diet, zero exercise.

Obviously the game in which we love is sedentary, four to six hours at a time sitting around rolling dice does not break a sweat. And you throw in all the above listed "activities" which one finds lovingly practice along with the role play chatter and you end up with nineteen forties era heart attack rates, diabetes, cancer. Sheeeet.

The turn around is, of course, quite simple; improving diet and making time for exercise. The consequences of not doing so are dire as the parade of creators to an early grave give their mute testimony. The health consequences of just sitting too long are amply illustrated in this Washington Post article dated January of 2014.

  1. For the love of Aiueb Gnshal get a minimum of 2-1/2 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or a minimum of 1-1/4 hours per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of the two. 
  2. When it comes to diet I've found going vegan doesn't mean losing on flavor and hardiness. Post Punk Kitchen is a great place to start, and I find Isa's cookbooks have delivered awesome dish after awesome dish. Personally I've found the combination of weekly exercise and a plant based diet not only keeps the pounds down, I have more energy, creativity, and a more upbeat attitude in general. All great ingredients helpful to awesome gaming!

Sunday, March 9

2. What was the first character you played in an RPG other than D&D?

...and how was playing it different from playing a D&D character?

Again I have to go with Gamma World here. While the gaming community of northern New Hampshire was dominated with TSR products as best as I can recall, this was the only game I was immediately aware of which got me out of what was becoming a repetitive exercise of dungeon delves with no connected world to belong to.

Being a player, except in a game of D&D, was extremely rare for me as well. If there was a game I wanted to play I was going to have to be the Game Master, or it wasn't going to happen. No, I take that back. My best friend Randy was buying other TSR products; Gangbusters and Top Secret come to mind, but they didn't take off with anyone like D&D and Gamma World.

So I ended up with my first non D&D character being a lithe lad with mental control, and distended jaws like a python from a run down village in my friend Randy's campaign world. A group of Gamma World characters are a wild card bunch of strange powers and disadvantages and for me made me try and think of effective ways to make the character and the group work effectively together. Again, at fifteen years old this was not too sophisticated a program. Mostly it was based on starting with more hit points at first level than any of my long surviving D&D characters ever achieved! Therefore getting into conflict and combat with the unknown was done with complete abandone without much thought to long term planning. But a blast on two liters of Mountain Dew anyways.

Saturday, March 1

1. What was the first role-playing game other than D&D you played? Was it before or after you had played D&D?

Gamma World! The cover of the first edition from TSR just sucked me in. The weird, evocative aftermath setting just set my brain on fire!

Since until then my gaming had been restricted to dungeon delves, the cover was really my first indication role play gaming could involve an "outside" world. What terrible battles could be fought on the bombed out towers thirty floors up?! How do you navigate a landscape engulfed in flames and radiation. Here was a rules set which could let me create the same adventures which thrilled me like the Kamandi comics found at the local barber shop. Charlie the Barber was one smart business man:)

Saturday, February 8

USR Sword & Sorcery Combat Rules Revised

The following combat rules have been further revised and can be found in my USR Sword & Sorcery rules located here


Fighting is handled in the same way as contested attribute tests but with a little extra added on.

All contested combat rolls use the Action attribute during combat.

Close Combat (Hand-to-Hand)

Most close combats are simultaneous, whether one on one, or one against many. All participants are considered both attacking and defending during the engagement. This does not preclude defensive actions being taking by one or more participants.

The attacker is considered the one who rolls highest.  The attacker has scored a hit and the defender's Hits are reduced by the difference between the winning and losing rolls.

For example, Dor is fighting an intruder. Dor rolls 6 on his Action attribute and the GM rolls a 4 for the intruder. The intruder then has his Hits reduced by 2 (6-4=2).

The defender’s damage can be reduced by armor worn, including the defensive value of a shield if brought to bear as well.

Note that armor defensive values reduce damage inflicted, but do not add or subtract from the combat roll while weapon values are added to the combat roll.

If the “attacker” is actually taking a defensive action; such as dodging a blow while leaping out the window, the defender wouldn’t receive any wounds, per se. Instead the attacker would have been successful with their intended action.

For Example; Skavos the Savage intends to defend against the harsh blows from three desert nomads, as he looks to leap upon his steed. Skavos has a Khazistan Swordplay specialism (+2 Action), and he is wielding scimitar (+2 to combat roll). Each of the desert nomads are armed with their own curving scimitars, and are intent on hewing Skavos down where he stands. Skavos rolls a 5 on his d10 Action die for a total of 9. The nomads, with an Action die of d8, each roll for their attacks getting (4+2)=6, (4+2)=6, and (6+2)=8. Skavos has scored a higher combat roll than all his antagonists successfully deflecting their desperate sword thrusts, and leaps onto his horse to affect his escape..

When Hits reach 0 the character is dead.

Alternatively the GM may rule that the character is merely unconscious.

Hits may be regained through healing, but may never go above the initial score.

Weapons and Armor

Weapons can give bonuses in combat, giving one side the edge over the other. Each weapon gives a bonus to the Action roll when brought to bear. Weapon types are as follows:

Light weapon +1 (e.g. short sword, club, javelin)
Medium weapon +2 (e.g. broadsword, battle axe)
Heavy weapon +3 (e.g. halberd, long bow, two handed sword)

Weapons listed as “First Strike” weapons can receive a reach bonus over an unarmed opponent, or armed with a smaller weapon. For the first round of the engagement the bearer of the first strike weapon cannot receive damage unless a significant hit is scored against him. This bonus capability can only be applied against one opponent. Any other attacker resolves the combat roll normally with both participants capable of receiving, and giving damage.

Armor can be used to negate the effects of being hurt. Each armor type reduces the number of Hits taken in combat.

Light armor -1 (e.g. jerkin, gauntlets, light studded armor)
Medium armor -2 (e.g. scale mail, chainmail)
Heavy armor -3 (e.g. plate mail, enchanted steel)

These examples are by no means the only weapons and armor that you can have in a game. The GM could create a spear that gives the character a +5 charging bonus or a suit of armor that's a -4. Just use the above examples as guidelines and have fun making up your own bad-ass creations.

How combat flows

It's up to you how you want combat to play out. You should give the players an indication of their adversaries’ obvious actions, and then give your players a chance to declare their intent. An attempt to achieve surprise may require a successful Attribute roll, or not, but the result of surprise generally means the attacker cannot receive an adverse effect, wounds or otherwise, from the attack roll.

Using specialisms in combat

Characters can use their specialisms in order to gain an edge in combat situations. For example, the greedy merchant wants to find a volatile potion on the lich king’s dusty shelves to protect himself. As his first action he uses his Evaluate Treasure specialism to try and find a substance which might be useful in combat. The GM says it's a hard difficulty roll and rolls a 7 and adds 2 for his specialism, giving a result of 9 – a success! The GM tells the desperate merchant a bottle of volatile dragon venom is among the normal inert ingredients on a sorcerer’s shelves. He picks up the dangerous venom and flings it at lurching undead horror. The doomed merchant will need to roll an Action die now to see if he hits!

Don’t forget, Characters may create specialisms to enhance the limited set of combat mechanics present.

Ranged Combat

Attacking at distance is done like close combat except for the following modifications.

A minimum Difficulty Rating needs to be achieved for the attack to be considered a hit. This difficulty number is based on the range of the attack. Once the difficulty number has been established any situational modifiers and/or specialism bonus can be applied to the attack.

The target of the attack does not get to apply any weapon bonuses or combat specialisms to their combat roll unless they are within Immediate range.

If both opponents are engaging with a ranged attack then who gets off the first shot needs to be established. This calls for an initiative roll based on rolling both their Action, and Wits die totaled. High roll shoots first. If the defender of the first attack is still standing they are now entitled to return fire, or take some other action. If there is a tie, both attackers get off their attacks, and both attacks will need to be resolved simultaneously.

Difficulty Rating based on Range

Immediate, Easy-02 (Attack is within close combat range)

Short, Medium-04 (Attack is within 10-40 feet)

Medium, Difficult-07 (Attack is within 41-70 feet)

Long, Hard-10 (Attack is within 71-200 feet)

Extreme, Impossible-14 (Attack is over 200 feet)

For example, Bert is a rogue who has the knife specialism. He's facing down a city guard who demands Bert to hold and receive the king’s justice. He chooses to hurl his knife at the guard, hoping to silence the cur with one blow. The GM rules that hurling the knife at the guard silhouetted in the street at short range is a medium difficulty roll. This means Bert would have to score a 4 or better on his combat roll for the attack to even be considered a hit. Bert rolls a total of 8 and on his action d10 attribute die and is successful. The guard rolls a 3, taking 4 (8-3-1 for armor protection) hits! The guardsman is seriously wounded and cries out for his comrades!

Magic in Combat
Magical attacks are Ego attribute based attacks, and therefore are rolled using the Ego die. If the target of the magical attack attempts to make a physical attack at the same time, then which attack goes first becomes important. Just like a contested ranged attack discussed above, initiative is determined by rolling Action die + Wits die. High roll goes first. If there is a tie, both attackers get off their attacks, and both attacks will need to be resolved simultaneously.

For example, the arch mage surprises intruders with his cloud of death spell. The cloud of death is a medium attack spell so the mage receives a +2 on his Ego roll. He also receives a +2 for his Arcane Arts specialism. He rolls a 5 and adds 4, resulting in a total of 9. The group of thieves each rolls their Ego die and apply the resulting damage.

Tuesday, January 28

GM enlightenment and the unrelenting doom

I've wanted to get a face to face rpg together since, well, since the first time I ran one. This was when I was eleven back in 1981.

I had received the D&D Moldvay Basic Set for Christmas, and days later, after devouring the rule book, had my brother, and a couple of cousins fighting and dying withing the Caves of Chaos. Whether or not everyone had a good time, I know I did. Mainly because I have been obsessed with rpg's ever since. D&D, Rolemaster, Car Wars, Tunnels & Trolls, Space Opera, Flashing Blades, Pirates & Plunder, Champions, Elric!, USR, Savage Worlds, ad nausium... I feel I've seen it all, rolled it all, and DM'ed it all, and never do I believe, except in rare moments, experienced a shared experience which hit everyone around the table with an immersive hell yeah got to have this everyday, somehow, sometime, screw work I want to sail the silent seas, banish the black gods, put down the mutant riots, fire the cannons, charge the unyielding hordes with these band of brothers, etc.

The search for system was but a symptom of the problem for the question in which I did not know how to ask: How should rpg's be played? Sure there was the usual intro clap-trap you can now routinely find in any current rpg rule book, but it has never worked for me. Or my players.

But I think I've stumbled, bumbled closer to the answer tonight. Desperate for a face to face group I looked at not the possible gamers I could find in my local community, but the people I know in this same community, and how would I get them into rpg's?

And I'm talking people who have never gamed before.

First off, explaining game mechanics, to hit, character creation, all this shit is definitely out the window. Who's going to put up with this nonsense when there's cable? Got to get them (PC's) interested in like five seconds.

That's when I pulled out my copy of Jack Shear's Planet Motherfucker. If I got a bunch of pot smoking, extreme skiing, craft beer guzzling tradesmen here in the high rockies they sure as shit can't say no to "A Psychoholic Trash Culture Setting"! And if they are newbies they won't want to go through the laborious process of character creation, the first chapter in like every rpg book you've ever read. WRONG.

Flipping between the front and back of Jack's nifty little beauty of a game book I found my promise, and my doom. The promise of an evocative setting in which to HOOK new players into wide eyed anticipation, and the doom of doing all the work. Yes, that's right, as Game Master you will have to do all the work. All of it. Don't expect them to crunch all the chrome, calculate the hit dice, figure out the range, smoothly deliver the range modifiers, know the chance of wrenching on the grav lift. That's your job. The best you will get is an evocative setting in which to pitch, and a handy list of character templates for your hooked PC's to latch on.

Planet Motherfucker packs in its 42 pages a lesson in how to do your craft. No whinging, just work. But you got to love it. If you don't how can the others around the table enjoy their play? The book includes the guts of a successful role play experience; campaign setting, source material, random tables, character templates.

Writing out the character templates on a nice, sparse character sheet let the revalation soak in. I'm going to have to come up with some kick ass adventures for these tropes! I mean, once someone says they want to play the Chainsaw Paladin, or the Amazon Brickhouse you better deliver.

Which brings me back to that first game when I was eleven and didn't have a clue, but I got my PC's into the adventure. How did it work, how did it go? I delivered an evocative setting, offered up choices of characters, and thrust them into the fantastic world. Did they know what the stats meant, or what Armor Class was? No. But I did. And you bet I had their attention when I told them to roll the dice to see if they hit.

Sunday, January 26

I Dream of Electric Sheep

Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner blew my fourteen year old mind when I saw it in theaters back in '82.

The Director's Cut is the copy I own for the simple fact it chops out the stupid overdubbed dialogue forced into the initial theatrical release. 
There is no better way to spend a low-light evening in a cluttered apartment alone with a bottle of gin than with this theatrical masterpiece.
Other than searching through scholarly dissections of the movie at the same time. Here is one of my favorites by Majid Salim...


Blade Runner opened in US cinemas on the 25th June 1982, amid media hype, and yet proved to be a commercial failure, only just recouping its $28million costs. Critical reaction to the film was generally negative also: the Los Angeles Times cautioned: “Don’t let the words blade runner confuse you into expecting a super-high speed chase film. Blade crawler might be more like it…[1]“. Indeed, reaction to the film was so hostile that director Ridley Scott later commented, “You’d have thought we were boiling babies or something [2].” His previous film had been Alien (1979), a sci-fi horror film that proved an enormous commercial success, and Blade Runner’s star, Harrison Ford, was (and still is) one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark breaking box office records a few years previously. Blade Runner’s producer, Michael Deeley, had last worked on The Deer Hunter, which won Oscar for Best Picture in 1979. It is to some extent understandable, given Scott and Ford’s previous films, that the public were disappointed with Blade Runner; expecting a special effects laden action film, they were instead presented with a dark, depressing vision of the future, in which most Hollywood values are overturned [3].
However, despite its initial failure, critical reassessments have steadily become more favourable. It has acquired a cult following, and is credited with having inspired the basic aesthetic of the science fiction subgenre cyberpunk, the best example of which is William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Blade Runner is one of only 50 films to be stored in the United States Library of Congress, on account of its contribution to film culture. The British film magazine Empire once described it as ‘a seminal work and an undeniable classic…[4]‘.
The general volte face of critical and popular opinion towards the film may have been the reasons behind Scott’s decision to release a Director’s Cut of the film in 1992, which restored his original intentions for the film. As a text, the Director’s Cut reveals exactly how Scott planned the film originally, and as such allows a variety of new readings of the film’s themes. This dissertation argues that the Director’s Cut of the film reveals subtextual complexities and motifs which question the status of Hollywood science fiction.
Many critics have cited Blade Runner as a postmodernist film. However, postmodernism carries with it an inherent tendency to devalue art, insofar as postmodernism posits that all semiological systems are self referential and as such incapable of any truly representative relationship with reality. In this dissertation I will argue that this may not be true of Blade Runner, because it makes use of mythical, and in particular Biblical, imagery to espouse some of its themes. In the first section of the dissertation I will consider the films moral and political themes, which relate to the politics of power and oppression. I will argue that the film debunks the idea that humans are superior to replicants. I will then consider the wider metaphorical implications of this through two historical phenomena which inform Scott’s semiology, the first being North American slavery, and the second being South American slavery, in the form of the Mayan civilisation. In the second section I will analyse the films theological themes and their relationship to the film’s literary antecedents, such as Paradise Lost. The film’s use of mythical and Biblical imagery is a rejection of the depthlessness of postmodern ideas in favour of a view of Man which is redemptive, and which contradicts the celebration of meaninglessness which typifies postmodern theory. The use of imagery from mythic and religious metanarratives offers humanity self-definiton through moral truth. It is argues that the film’s optimism id the result of a creative paradox. While the film suggests that dehumanisation is all that technology have to offer, it is the ultimate creation of this technology, the replicant Roy Batty, who finds the path to spiritual and moral enlightenment. I the third section, I apply popular postmodern theories to the film.

Moral and Political Paradigms

Science Fiction is a Genre which deals, primarily, with outlandish ideas, such as time travel, or human cloning. It is for sheer convenience’s sake that most science fiction novels are set in the future, since this allows the author to disregard realist conventions which may hinder the exploration of the chosen idea. Most science fiction authors consolidate their readers acceptance of their vision of the future by inventing realistic vernaculars, not only to add a realist essence to their work, but often to help to express their ideas as well. Perhaps the best example of this would be William Gibson’s invention of the word ‘cyberspace’ to describe the ‘consensual hallucination’ of a direct neural interface with a computer – a word which has since passed into mainstream language itself [5].
Blade Runner uses its own terminology: the clones of the film are described as ‘Replicants’, a word chosen for its connotations with cell replication (the action which allows genetic engineers to clone genetic material [6]). The terminology is introduced to the viewer by use of a narrative device often found in film noir – that of the scrolling text, either before, during, of at the end of the film itself. Once the opening credits of the film have rolled, this text is scrolled past the blank screen [7]:
Early in the 21st Century, the TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the Nexus phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS-6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonisation of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS-6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on Earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – BLADE RUNNER UNITS – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicants. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
This crawl introduces us to some of the terminology used in the film – such as replicants and blade runners – but much more interestingly, it can be seen to have an element of bias, also. The replicants are specifically referred to as slaves. The text also mentions that they are retired, but suggests that this is more or less synonymous with execution, WE are allowed to ponder this deliberately emotive language for a few moments, perhaps long enough to intuitively feel some sympathy for the replicants before a single one has even been seen, before the words LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 2019 fill the screen, and the film proper begins.
The fade from black is marked by the sound of an explosion, and the first image of the film, the cityscape, is revealed. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, is a hellish, endless maze of giant, industrial buildings; an oil refinery spews flames into the night sky, which is an ashen, polluted grey. A flying vehicle emerges from the fog, and shoots past the screen. Lightning strikes a building, to no apparent effect. This is a place of poison and decay, and it is hard to believe that human could inhabit it.
The vast hell is dominated by the Tyrell Corporation headquarters, two Mayan-style pyramids, each 700 storeys high [8]. For decades, one of the greatest riddles of archaeology was why the Mayans, having built such huge, terrifying, aesthetically impenetrable cities, abandoned them en masse, to crumble and become overgrown with vine and jungle. The riddle was solved when it was recognised that the Mayans, despite their impressive astronomical knowledge, had agricultural practises so primitive that they did not even have ploughs; the farmland around their cities was overused, drained of nutrients, and cities had to be abandoned because staying in them would mean starving to death.
This historical fact is echoed in twenty first century Los Angeles. Earth has been drained of its resources – once the Garden of Eden, it is now a place of death and pollution. Those who can afford it have emigrated to the greener pastures of the Off-world colonies; those who cannot have no choice but to stay and live in the sulphurous ruins.
Suddenly, the screen is filled with a blue eye, in which is reflected the explosions watched a moment earlier. It stares straight at the camera. The next scene begins with Holden, a blade runner, staring glumly out of a window at the city, at which point the eye can be inferred as being his. But when it is on screen this inference cannot be made, because we are yet to be introduced to any characters. Cinematically, it is a slightly unsettling experience. The film is being watched – and suddenly, quite literally, the film begins to watch the watcher. Throughout the film, as shall later be described, a sense of paranoia is sustained, contributing to an all-pervasive sense of negativity.
The camera zooms into a window, and the next shot is an interior one; the film’s first character, Dave Holden, a blade runner, is seen staring out of a window, drinking coffee. A large man enters the room, and a loudspeaker introduces him as Leon Kowalski, a new employee working as a waste disposal engineer. He waits for instructions, and is told to sit down. There begins a bizarre and sinister test: Holden creates a hypothetical situation – not helping an animal in distress – which suddenly becomes accusatory. This both aggravates and upsets Kowalski. A certain tension is created by a lingering close up of Kowalski’s upset face, as well as a thudding heartbeat noise o the soundtrack.
Abruptly, the mood changes. Holden smiles, visibly relaxes, and is suddenly conversational and friendly:
HOLDEN: They’re just questions, Leon. In answer to your query they’re written down for me. It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response.
(He smiled a genuine smile)
Shall we continue?
The tension in the atmosphere dissipates, since the reason for Holden’s earlier hostility is known. His next question contributes to the new, friendly mood of the test. It is neither confrontational nor accusatory. It’s a nice question.
HOLDEN: Describe to me, in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about your mother.
Leon thinks about this question for a moment, before responding, ‘Let me tell you about my mother…’ and shooting Holden with a gun hidden under the table, in a moment of violence so quick be barely have time to register it before the scene ends.
Leon Kowalski is, in fact, a fugitive replicant. The question ‘describe in single words only the good things which come into your mind about your mother’ may seem mild to us, but to Kowalski it is the most sinister question of all – because he has never had a mother, he is a manufactured being, and so cannot but reveal his status as such in any attempt to answer this question verbally.
In Mayan culture, the ruling classes were known as the almehenob – ‘those with fathers and mothers’, a reference to their noble lineage. There was no middle class in Mayan society; people were either fabulously wealthy or miserably poor. The very poor made up the huge majority of the population, and worked for the almehenob as slaves. Again, another reference to the Mayans – this time, their practises of slavery and oppression – is being made. Holden is asking Kowalski about his mother, but Kowalski is a replicant, and replicants are used as slaves: literally and symbolically speaking, he does not belong to the class of individuals who have fathers and mothers [9]. He kills Holden because he must; Holden has the authority to kill any replicant upon detection.
This scene introduces us to some of the themes that feature throughout the film: visually, it gives us the first two examples of ‘eye’ imagery (the giant disembodied eye, and Kowalski’s eye on the monitor), and thematically, it introduces us to some of the political and moral issues of the film. Should the replicants be killed for being on Earth? Should the replicants themselves kill, simply to get here? What is the difference between replicant and human anyway? After all, the fact that Kowalski is a replicant is by no means obvious. He is, in fact, indistinguishable from a ‘real’ human – he exhibits fear, nervousness, and a capacity to kill in cold blood.
In the past, many film noirs have had recurrent images of eyes, an pun on the idea of the ‘private eye’. Murder, My Sweet (1944) is a good example of this, as L Heldreth observes:
In its opening and closing scenes, the detective, temporarily blinded by powder burns, sits in a pool of light with his eyes bandaged. Earlier he had been unable to see figuratively, i.e. detect the killer, and at the end he has temporarily lost his vision [10].
In Blade Runner, the eye motif of earlier film noirs is again used, in connection with the replicants. At various points in the film, each replicants eyes are seen to ‘glow’, a clue that they are replicants (this effect is most clearly seen in the artificial owl, as Tyrell dies). Consider the scene at Chew’s Eye Works; Chew, a genetic engineer who designs eyes, is confronted by Batty about morphology:
CHEW(nervously): I don’t know … I don’t know such stuff! I just do eyes … genetic design …just eyes. (Squints) …you Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.
BATTY(smiling): Chew – if only you could see what I have seen, with your eyes…
Batty accepts his artificiality here, the fact that he was manufactured, but celebrates his experiences, the things he has seen. For Batty, eyes and vision are the keys to the development of an almost Romantic consciousness, emancipated from his status as an automaton. For Chew, eyes are simply units of production. He manufactures eyes, but only Batty ‘sees’ their significance. In some ways, Batty is the human, and Chew the automaton.
The politics of power involve a distinction between oppressed and oppressor, salve and master. In Nazi Germany, Jews were forced to wear a Star of David badge, a visible symbol of the inferior status forced upon them. In Dan Simmons sci-fi novel Endymion (1995), androids are used as slaves, but given bright blue skins, so there is never any confusion over who is slave, who is master. In Blade Runner, there are no distinguishing features between replicant and human, oppressed and oppressor. The only distinction that may be made is with the use of the Voight-Kampff test.
As Holden says, the Voight-Kampff test is ‘designed to provoke an emotional response’. Because replicants are at most four years old, and hence to an extent emotionally immature, their responses to emotionally resonant questions is different, because their lack of experience may lead to them not knowing (or understanding) the correct reaction to some of the questions. Thus the two made be differentiated, and replicants, upon detection, executed.
The Voight-Kampff test has a monitor which displays a close-up of the subject’s eye for the duration of the test. It is with the aid of this close-up that the exminer may judge emotional response by involuntary iris fluctuations. The Voight-Kampff machine is part of a continuous theme throughout the film, the idea that those in power have more ‘vision’ than those lower down the social scale. At street level, everything is chaotic, obscured; constantly unsteady shots have extras passing in front of the camera, forcing us to strain to see the often out of focus background images – for example, after Kowalski’s death, whilst Deckard is buying his bottle of Tsing-Tao, Gaff (the blade runner who originally arrests Deckard) approaches Deckard from behind. Background images are so blurred that he is visible only when he practically right behind Deckard. However, those in positions of relative power – the police, Eldon Tyrell, have access to much clearer view of the city. The constantly roving spotlight, present throughout the film, suggest constant surveillance. The police spinners [11] afford vast, panoramic views of the city, and even have panes of glass in the floor to allow the pilots to see below them. Characters in the film are occasionally watched by the apparition of a strangely sinister Oriental woman, which floats over the city, embedded on the side of a giant airship. David Dryer, co-special effects supervisor for the film commented:
The one scene we … were sorry to lose was supposed to occur in the fight between Deckard and Leon (Kowalski). The idea was we were going to do a matte painting of a giant building above Ford and James with an oriental woman on an animated billboard looking down on the and reacting to what they were doing. She was going to be puffing on one of those big cigarettes and acting as if she was watching a televised fight. That bit was supposed to give a feeling of oppression, that these billboards are watching everyone everywhere they go [12] (italics mine).
Another example of this is Tyrells office, at the very top of one of his pyramids, which has picture windows that survey the entire cityscape. The spaciousness of the office, emphasised by the spartan furniture in contrast to the overcrowding at street level, suggests that space itself is a status symbol. This contrasts sharply with the lot of the replicants, for example Zhora, who works in a crowded ground level strip club. When Deckard visits her, he tells her that he is from the ‘Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses’ and that he is investigating claims that the management have peep holes in the ladies dressing rooms. He claims to protect her from the intrusive surveillance of a higher authority, when in fact the only surveillance she need fear is his. Surveillance appears to be a key feature of Los Angeles in the future – the entire city appears to have turned into one of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticons, whereby one cannot tell if one is being watched, but it is possible that one is being watched at all times, which means extreme caution must be exercised at all times. The replicants of the film must stay ‘in character’ at all times, even when alone.
Their functions place them, forcibly, in the lowest social classes; whether hazardous, such as nuclear fission loading (Kowalski) or sordid, such as prostitution (Pris), the replicants are given only the most menial and degrading jobs. They have childlike qualities: Roy tells Sebastian he’s got ‘some nice toys’ whilst Pris watches, toying with a broken doll. They are also linked with animal imagery – Roy’s wolflike howl, Zhora’s snake tattoo, Pris’s racoon makeup. Both childlike and animalistic qualities have been attributed by slave systems to their victims. Stanley Elkins, in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1963), offers a historical explanation for this fact, using as his example the racial stereotype of the black colonial plantation worker as being lazy and childish. It was common belief at the time that these personality traits were racially inherent, but Elkins debunks this argument by reminding us of the physical and mental torments many slaves suffered, not least in their capture and transportation. The vary act of capture was in itself traumatic, but what followed was the long march to the sea, which was sometimes hundreds of miles away. Upon being sold as slaves to European slave traders, the African would then be transported by ship to the America in what became known as the Middle Passage, which Elkins described as ‘almost too protracted and stupefying to be described as a mere “shock”… brutalizing to any man, black or white, ever to be involved with it [13].’
Only the strongest and healthiest men and women survived the entire experience, from capture in Africa to arrival in America [14]. Upon arrival, Africans knew absolutely nothing about where they were; the cultural codes by which they had lived their lives no longer had any relevance. The life these men and women went on to lead was one of hardship and constant surveillance. Given these facts – the mental scarring that their capture, transport and subsequent lives of slavery left upon them, it is not surprising, Elkins argues, that many of them responded to a situation which their deaths could occur at any time, and for any reason, by reverting, first to a state of utter detachment, and then to a state of childish loyalty to their new masters. Because as Elkins says:
The (old) African values, the sanctions, the standards, already unreal, could no longer furnish (the slaves) with guides for conduct, for adjusting to the expectations of a complete new life. Where then were (they) to look for new standards, new cues – who would furnish them now? (They) could now look to none but their master, the man upon whom the system had committed their entire being: the man upon whose will depended (their) food … shelter … sexual connection, (any) moral instruction (they) might be offered … in short, everything [15].
By casting Roy Batty as the perfect Aryan – 6’5″, with a muscular frame, blonde hair and blue eyes – Scott is pointedly contrasting his appearance with black slavery, perhaps to bring emphasis to the fact that oppression need not be contingent upon race. Elkins finding are relevant in the way that Roy Batty has come to see Tyrell as his father, in the same way slaves in the colonies attributed ‘father-figure’ status to their oppressors [16]. All this would come to suggest that the replicants are strangle childish because of the unimaginable traumas they have been made to suffer. But, although these traumas may have affected them, they have not broken their spirit, or desire to return to Earth. Although slave ships often had insurance against mutiny by the slaves, it rarely happened. But the replicants in Blade Runner did mutiny, and killed humans in doing so. Although the Blade Runner script identifies J F Sebastian as a chess Grand Master, and Tyrell is referred to several times as a genius, Batty’s chess strategies are superior to both. Mentally and physically, Batty is the Neitzschean ‘superman’ – he is ‘More Human Than Human’, as the Tyrell Corporation motto puts it. And yet Batty, the ‘prodigal son’ is a enslaved. But nothing, not even being born into slavery and suffering hardships we cannot imagine, can or will prevent him from coming back to Earth, to meet his maker.
John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, argued that personal identity comprises nothing but memories: the mind is a tabula rasa, or ‘blank slate’ at birth, and all subsequent experiences shape our personalities, and make us human. Subsequent philosophers (notably Noam Chomsky) have shown that there are in fact various things ‘pre-programmed’ into the human mind (such as the capacity for language acquisition, for example) but do not contest that our personalities, the ways we are that make us human, are acquired through experience.
This raises a compelling question: if humans are defined as such because we have personalities, based upon years of memories and experience, and there now exist replicants with personalities, based upon (albeit ersatz) memories also, at what point may the two be differentiated? According to Tyrell, there now exist replicants with memories so perfect that they believe they are human. The film encodes this idea in reverse; Rachel is presented as an ostensibly human executive at the Tyrell Corporation, part of the structure that creates and sells the replicants. But she is subsequently revealed to be a replicant – the Voight-Kampff machine gazes into the windows of her soul, and pronounces her a machine, also.
TYRELL: She’s beginning to suspect.
DECKARD(incredulous): Suspect? How can it not know what it is?
There is no change in Rachel’s appearance, but once the distinction is made, it is final, and she ceases being human. Deckard’s switch to ‘it’ foregrounds the fact that Rachel is now an object, not an individual.
Later, Rachel goes to see Deckard at his apartment. She has with her a photo of herself as a child, with her mother. History is made up of linguistic and photographic artefacts from the past. Deckard proves to her the illusion of her past, by telling her her own memories. Although clutching a fake photograph, the tears are very real. It is at this point Deckard realises that she is not simply a machine, like other replicants, perhaps. Equipped with a memory, an entire lifetime of experienced, she becomes human – she has the life experiences that the replicants four years lifetimes forcibly prevent them from attaining. So seamlessly human, in fact, that even she did not realise that she was a replicant.
Rene Descartes, in his Meditations Upon The First Philosophy, pointed out that our senses are far from trustworthy. We have no direct one-to-one contact with reality, and must instead rely upon sense data to help us construct some simulacrum of it within our minds. His famous Demon Argument argues that our senses may be deceiving us – the modern form of the argument is to posit that it is quite possible that your brain actually resides in a nutrient vat somewhere, and that all the sense data you receive, convincing you of the existence of an external reality, is fed to you via strategically placed electrodes, by a mad scientist. It is a conceit entertained by us all, occasionally – how do I know that my existence is not just a virtual reality game? Reality is a very ephemeral thing. Rachel’s predicament is Descartes’ argument come true, the difference being that she has been unfortunate enough to have her illusion of reality shattered – the scientist has revealed his cruel trick to her. We feel sympathy for Rachel because she is forced to face a truth that we all, in our more fanciful moments, imagine and dread – the fear of verisimilitude being destroyed. Rachel responds by throwing away her photo, which contrasts with Kowalski, who knows he is a replicant, and yet treasures his photos. He may be an artificial human, but he knows that within that context his memories are real… and he cherishes them.
Rachel has neither father nor mother, and so is just like any other replicant, and faces the danger of being retired. For the sake of her survival, she must adapt quickly.
RACHEL: What if I go North … disappear? Would you come after me? … hunt me?
The reference to going North brings to mind the Underground Railroad, the method used by blacks in America to escape slavery in the southern states.
DECKARD: No … no I wouldn’t. I owe you one.
This is an important point in Deckard’s moral development. He ceases his previous coldness to her, and begins to treat her like a person. This moral development is encouraged by the climax of the film, where Deckard, oppressor and hunter, is hunted by Batty a deadly game of cat and mouse. The terror-stricken Deckard is forced onto the roof of the Bradbury Building by a chillingly amused Batty, yet to break a sweat even when Deckard is exhausted. With no other options available to him, Deckard is forced to try and jump to the roof opposite, and barely manages to cling to the edge of it, dangling precariously.
Batty clears the gap with ease, and spends a few moments watching the crippled blade runner grapple with the edge, trying to survive even as his grip begins to weaken.
BATTY: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is , to be a slave.
These words are not spoken with rancour, nor is there any sense of gloating over Deckard’s predicament. They are spoken in a perfectly conversational tone, although there is a sense of bitterness with the last few words. It is almost as though Batty has hunted Deckard throughout the scene not to wreak vengeance or otherwise punish him, but to educate his viewpoint, to help him understand fear and consequently develop empathy. Batty, the replicant, is humanising Deckard, the ostensible human.
Deckard, realising he is about to die, spits at Batty, his face a mask of fear and hatred. But then Batty saves Deckard’s life, grabbing his hand just as his grip fails, and lifting him to safety. This restores a symmetry to the film, a symmetry Deckard cannot help but be aware of: he has killed two replicants, and now two replicants have saved his life. Edited out of the Director’s Cut, the voice over at this point in the original film had Deckard saying:
DECKARD(voice-over): I don’t know why he saved my life. Perhaps, in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had. Not just his life, anybody’s life. My life.
Although the Director’s Cut dispenses with this narrative, the implications of Batty saving Deckard’s life are nonetheless clear. He cannot simply dismiss replicants as machines. the Voight-Kampff test may be designed upon the principle that replicants lack the empathic, emotional responses of real humans, but they do possess empathy, a humane side – had they not, Batty would have left Deckard to die. They are as human as us.
The final scene of the film, in Deckard’s apartment, is perhaps one of the most interesting scenes in the film. Having completed his assignment as ordered, Deckard returns to his apartment to get Rachel and escape out of Los Angeles before anyone tries to retire her. Having woken Rachel, they head for cautiously the elevator. Earlier in the film, in a scene where Deckard is drunk and picking out a tune on his piano, there is a slow fade into a sylvan wood; a unicorn gallops in slow motion past the camera, shaking its mane, and then the scene fades back to Deckard’s apartment. The image, as with the giant eye at the beginning of the film, makes no sense whatever in its immediate context, and is somewhat surreal. The audience is led to infer that the unicorn is of some private significance to Deckard, a recurring dream, perhaps.
As Rachel walks toward the elevator, her foot knocks over something on the floor. Noticing this, Deckard picks it up. It is an origami unicorn, made out of tinfoil. Gaff, the other blade runner, is skilled at origami – we watch him make a chicken in Bryant’s office, when Deckard is refusing to take the job. But how could Gaff know Deckard well enough to know about the unicorn? The only logical answer is to suggest that Deckard himself is a replicant. Just as Deckard revealed to Rachel her replicant status by telling her her own memories, so Gaff has done for Deckard, leaving with origami the one symbol, whose real meaning is never made clear to us, which convinces Deckard that he is not human. In fact, there is evidence that he was already beginning to suspect; earlier in the film, when Rachel asks him if he has ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, there is a pregnant silence, and Deckard ignores her. Also, his piano is covered with old photographs; he appears to spend his free time sitting at the piano, drunk, looking at the photographs, trying to convince himself that they are real, that they prove he had a father and mother. The most reliable evidence that Deckard is a replicant occurs in the scene between him and Rachel, in his apartment. Rachel asks Deckard if he would hunt her if she went north. He replies that he wouldn’t, and the moves behind Rachel. At this point Rachel is in the foreground and to the left of the frame. Deckard is to the right of the frame, a few feet behind her, and out of focus. But nonetheless, his eyes can be seen to glow slightly, a device used by Scott to distinguish replicants from other animals.
Whilst the film as a whole has important moral and political implications, this scene, upon the discovery of the tinfoil unicorn, works as the keystone of both. Throughout the film, we have been encouraged to view replicants as the Other, as slaves, or simulacra. This scene demonstrates that such a differentiation is false, that replicants are no different from humans, and that it is quite possible that we may be replicants. This is the film’s moral message; slavery, racism and sexism have always been defended on the grounds that the group being discriminated against represent an Other who deserve demonisation. But this scene in Blade Runner server to demonstrate that there is no Other – no slaves, no masters, no blade runners: only humans.

Romantic Paradigms and the Satanic Myth

The human/android relationship has always lent itself to metaphors of slavery and equal rights. The best example of this would be Isaac Asimov’sRobot series of novels, which began in 1957 and foretold in epic style the story of a future race of androids, their fight for equal rights, and revolutions. The theme of Man’s overreaching pride in thinking himself God’s vice-regent on Earth has been explored often in literature, most memorably in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In cinema, examples would include Planet of the ApesThe Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These films all explore our relationship with nature and technology, and the potential dangers to be faced if we, in our pride, think ourselves masters of these forces. Blade Runner employs these themes, but almost uniquely, it’s Christian imagery also raises theological questions about the definitions of humanity. Insofar as it was based upon a novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) by Philip K Dick, Blade Runner also has strong connections with literature, which are reinforced by the film’s use of literary allusions and themes. This chapter of the dissertation will examine these aspects of the film.
In his excellent essay The New Eve, critic David Desser has observed a claim made by others that Blade Runner’s power rests on its adaptation of a ‘fundamental mythic structure’ also found in Frankenstein: the struggle against human facsimiles. Frankenstein itself, he points out, is a Romantic reading of Paradise Lost. Blade Runner, in its own way, pays homage to both Shelley’s novel and Milton’s epic. the film’s dialogue with Christian symbolism begins with one of the first shots of the film, that of Tyrell’s futuristic Mayan pyramid.
The only type of buildings that the Mayans built as pyramid shaped were the temples in which they worshipped the Sun through ritual human sacrifice. Tyrell, who lives on the top floor of one of his pyramids, is a small, thin, middle-aged man with weak eyesight (he wears thick trifocal spectacles) and little visual presence; and yet, in a visual contradiction typical of the film, he is presented as a sort of deity. He has the highest, most panoramic viewpoint over the city, suggesting he is the most powerful person in it. The only time the sun is seen in the entire film is from Tyrell’s office windows, in the scene where Deckard gives Rachel the Voight-Kampff test. Tyrell tints the windows with the push of a button, suggesting that he, the owner of the Pyramid of the Sun, controls the sun itself, and so is in that respect a godlike figure. We are told by Chew that Tyrell designed the replicants very minds. As William Kolb points out:
Nexus is a Latin word meaning ‘to bind’ and refers to the tie between members of a group, eg members of a series. The replicants who arrive on Earth are literally and metaphorically the Nexus-6.
And as such, the replicants can be said to be a species distinct from us. thus Tyrell can be said to be their God, in that he created them.
‘Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell – “More Human Than Human” is our motto’, explains Tyrell. This is a point stressed by Scott throughout the film: the replicants display not only great physical strength in the film, but also great intelligence, too. In the scene where Deckard is being debriefed, Captain Bryant describes Roy Batty as being a ‘combat model., with optimum self-sufficiency’. From these words, and the image of Batty’s cold blue eyes, it is easy to imagine him as some sort of generic robot killing machine, as seen in countless science fiction films and novels: toneless production line automata. But Batty, as played by Rutger Hauer, defies these epithets. He is intelligent, sometimes cold and calculating, sometimes witty and frivolous. Whereas Deckard is shown constantly in transit, Batty is only ever shown arriving. He is somewhat of an enigma.
Upon his meeting with Chew, the genetic designer, the combat model asserts his independence from generic cliché, and shows that there is more to him that meets the eye, by reciting (quite well) a line of poetry:
Fiery the angels fell,
Deep thunder roll’d around their shores,
Burning with the fires of Orc.
This is a misquotation from America: A Prophecy, by William Blake, a poem that uses the American Revolution as an allegory for the struggle for personal freedom. Many freed slaves fought in the War of independence, believing that victory would mean the abolition of slavery. As such, this quote is particularly apposite; the replicants themselves are seeking freedom from slavery, and so this is Batty’s way of stating his agenda, his reasons for returning to Earth. Blake’s actual lines were:
Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep
thunder roll’d, Around their shores; indignant
Burning with the fires of Orc.
Batty’s angels fall rather than rise, however, giving his quote a Miltonic ambience. In several ways, in fact, Batty and his fellow replicants may be seen as fallen angels. Literally, the murder of the crew and passengers of the shuttle that facilitated their return could be seen as an offence against nature: as slaves, it is above their station to murder, or return to Earth. Once humankind’s servants, they are now demonised, hunted and executed on the spot. Damned, they have fallen from their ‘More Human Than Human’ status, prey to amoral blade runners like Deckard. Insofar as he is the leader of the fallen angels, Batty becomes a sort of Satan figure: the strongest, most intelligent of the fallen angels, unhappy with his station in life, now disgraced.
Desser states that if Batty can be seen as Satan, then Deckard, world-weary blade runner, can be seen as Adam. In Paradise Lost, Milton stressed that his intention were to create Adam as the epic hero, but later generations read Satan as being the real hero of the text. Similarly, Desser argues, Blade Runner presents us with the ambiguity concerning the issue of the film’s hero. Insofar as Deckard is the character we are made to identify with, he appears to be the film’s ostensible hero – he survives. But what kind of hero shoots a woman in the back? Batty’s quest in the film is truly heroic – he seeks more life, to confront his creator, whereas Deckard is just doing a job he has been forced to do. deckard tries to kill Batty several times at the end of the film, and yet when the roles are reversed, and Batty has a chance to kill Deckard, he spares him. At a structural level, the question of who is the hero in Paradise Lost is echoed in Blade Runner: Batty is Satanic, and so Deckard can be seen as Adam-figure of the text, the character who the audience is ostensibly made to sympathise with, but who cannot capture the imagination quite like the ostensible villain can.
Desser also states that Rachel is Eve, and again, I agree with him. Eve was created for Adam, using one of his ribs. When children are born, we have no idea what kind of people they will grow up to become. Rachel, like Eve, was specifically created using human tissue to become a specific person, with the memories and personality of that person predetermined. As such, she is very much like Eve. Desser argues that Rachel’s role as Eve is reinforced with film noir imagery:
To the contemporary reader of Paradise Lost, foreknowledge of Eve’s tragic succumbing to temptation, bringing Adam down with her, makes her image a profoundly ambiguous one. On the one hand, as described by Adam, she has many desirable qualities; and yet she leads to the Fall. Blade Runner similarly relies on an archetypal set of conventions to create an ambiguous image of woman, the classic femme fatale of film noir. Rachel wears her hair pinned up behind her head, and is often seen wearing jackets with the classic Joan Crawford padded shoulders. Her links with the noir era of filmmaking are further stressed by the … use of low key lighting with heavy reliance on shadows, especially the ‘bar effect’ created by light streaming in through half open blinds. This iconography automatically makes Rachel suspect – a potential spider woman, the woman-as-temptress, our fallen mother, Eve.
Rachel believes she is a perfectly normal human being, until she fails the Voight-Kampff test, and Deckard ends all speculation by telling her about the spider that lived outside her window: a memory of childhood innocence, seared into meaninglessness. The transformation that Rachel subsequently goes through is one of the most beautiful moments in the film. Deckard, having numbed himself with alcohol, has fallen asleep. Rachel sits at his piano, and studies the old photographs: testaments of a past, a family, a history: all the things she has lost. She is no longer wearing her jacket. Slowly, very slowly, she begins to let her hair down.
She is no longer the spider-woman that Desser describes; as Milton says:
She, as a veil …
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils…
Humans are born with original sin, and as such, are fallen creatures, tainted with evil.
Rachel becomes a replicant, and automatically her sin is annulled. As such, she returns to a prelapsarian state of innocence, as evidenced by her Eve imagery. She becomes a true human, free of original sin.
The Director’s Cut of the film ends with Rachel and Deckard entering the elevator together, the closing doors cutting off our view of them. If we extend Biblical imagery, it would be logical to infer that they, having been cast out of the Garden, now venture forth into Earth, their futures uncertain. But how valid is this inference? Can Los Angeles really be said to be the Garden of Eden? Literally, it is Earth. But it is also a metaphorical Hell, with its infernal landscape into which the fallen angels descend. Having said that, it is also a metaphorical Heaven, insofar as it is Tyrell’s domain. That they are leaving Los Angeles is clear – but what is Los Angeles? Heaven, Earth, or Hell? The answer to this presumably determines their destination. It must not be forgotten, however, that they are both replicants – Rachel was sentenced to execution the moment she disappeared, and one may assume that Deckard’s incipient departure will lead to the same sentence being passed on him. are they, then, a new Adam and Eve, progenitors of a new race who must suffer in a hostile world? Or, given their death sentences, have they just left Earth, only to enter Hell, with the constant fear of surveillance that will characterise their lives as replicants? We can never know. The bleak, gnawing agony of their predicament is telescoped into eternity by celluloid.
This idea is borrowed from Philip K Dick , author of the novel – Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?- that the film was based on. In particular it is seen in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1973); the eponymous hero of this novel is a man who, having survived interstellar travel, brings back from an alien race an hallucinogenic drug, Chew-Z, which allows people to spend their lives in Paradise, whatever their definitions of Paradise may be. The price to pay, however, is Palmer Eldritch’s assumption of the role of God in every Paradise this drug creates. Given that Palmer Eldritch is the villain of the novel, he uses this omnipotence for generally negative purposes, leading those who have already taken the drug, trapped under his power, to wonder if they really are happy, if they really are in Heaven, or in some subtle, slow-burning Hell of Eldritch’s devising. Another character undergoes an unrelated treatment called E-Therapy, that will turn him into a superhuman genius. There is, however, a slight possibility that it will have the reverse effect on him, and turn him into a simian dimwit. In the weeks that follow the treatment, his worries escalate into full blown paranoia, as his life falls to pieces, and he wonders whether this is a result of his oncoming stupidity, or a natural consequence of possessing genius in a world of lesser men. He quite literally cannot be sure if he is entering a Heaven or a Hell.
In fact, Dick’s books are filled with recurring motifs of paranoia and dehumanisation that illuminate Blade Runner. Dick dies in 1982, four months before the film’s release, as an indirect result of amphetamines misuse in his earlier career. The paranoia attacks that drug users commonly suffer was a source of interest to him: he once joked in an interview, ‘the ultimate paranoia would be when it is attributed to objects – not “My boss is plotting against me” but “My boss’ phone is plotting against me.”This ultimate, object based paranoia does turn up in Dick’s novels, for example Radio Free Albemuth (1985 – published posthumously), in which a character called Nick, who is feeling unwell, thinks his radio hates him because it says nothing but ‘Nick, you’re a prick’ all day. But in the world of Blade Runner such paranoia seems commonplace, even encouraged: even the billboards watch the city’s population as it goes about its daily business. The audience is forced to share this uncomfortable sense of being watched by the giant eye at the beginning of the film, helping us to understand the nightmarish plight of the characters in the film, watched wherever they go.
However, the film does offer hope in the form of its ostensible villain, Roy Batty. Chew points Batty in the direction of J F Sebastian, a genetic designer and friend of Tyrell’s. Sebastian, both enthralled by and terrified of Batty, agrees to take him to see Tyrell.
They ascend in the lift to Tyrell’s living quarters. Tyrell is lying in his bed (apparently modelled after that of the Pope’s). Tyrell allows Sebastian entrance, to discuss his chess gambit:
SEBASTIAN: Mr Tyrell…? I … I bought a friend.
TYRELL (to BATTY): I’m surprised you didn’t come here sooner.
BATTY: It’s not an easy thing, to meet your maker.
TYRELL: And what can he do for you?
BATTY: Can the maker repair what he makes?
TYRELL: …do you wish to be modified?
BATTY (to SEBASTIAN) : Stay here. (Advances) I had in mind something a little more radical.
TYRELL: What … what seems to be the problem?
BATTY: Death.
TYRELL: Well, I’m afraid that’s a little out of my jurisdiction, you …
BATTY: I want more life … fucker.
Tyrell’s first scene in the film opened with an owl flying from one perch to another, reminiscent of Goya’s sketch The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Tyrell is now faced with his monster/creation, but cannot help it – although having experimented with life itself, he admits that it’s ‘out of my jurisdiction’.
TYRELL: You were made as well as we could make you.
BATTY: But not to last.
TYRELL: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You’re the prodigal son. You’re quite a prize!
BATTY: I’ve done … questionable things.
TYRELL: Also extraordinary things. Revel in your time!
BATTY: Nothing the God of Biomechanics wouldn’t let you in Heaven for.
Tyrell’s reference to Batty as the prodigal son is understandable: Satan was the second most powerful being in creation, after God. Batty’s confession that he has done ‘questionable things’ certainly debunks the idea that he is some kind of conscienceless robot. Batty’s final words are spoken with an ironic smile, and some sadness. He was not created by some supernatural agency, but by a man with no more control over mortality than Batty himself. Batty then kisses Tyrell, and kills him.
This scene works in tandem with other key scenes in the film to demonstrate how indefensible slavery is. The slave asks his master for help, but the master cannot provide it, for he too is a slave – a slave to circumstance and mortality. We all are. What right have we, then to enslave others? It is interesting that Batty chooses to attack Tyrell’s eyes – perhaps this is his visceral way of ending the surveillance the city forces the replicants to cower under.
Having killed Sebastian also, Batty takes the elevator down, alone. His initial crimes are compounded by the murder of Tyrell and Sebastian. We see Batty staring through the roof of the elevator – the stars, impossibly, rush past him. He is literally falling from the sky, damned in Hell forever.
Milton’s Satan could be defined as an empiricist, insofar as he did not accept God’s superiority until it was proven to him:
…so much the stronger proved
He with his thunder: and till then who knew
the force of those dire arms?
…(God) I now
of force believe almighty, since no less
Than such could have o’erpowered such force as ours…
He could also be described as a humanist, in that he rejects preordained standards, and prefers self-advancement to servility. Most admirable of all is his self-belief: even when cast into Hell, he remains unbroken:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
It is these qualities of Satan’s that Batty inherits. Satan accepts, given the facts, that he is damned, but this does not stop him from building a palace and continuing his existence on his own terms. Nietzche once claimed that God was dead: from his argument we may infer that if he is not then we should kill him, because it is only once humankind has dispensed with the childish notion that there is some supernatural agency governing his fate that we can truly become responsible for ourselves. Batty does exactly that – kills his God. He must now take responsibility for himself. Tyrell cannot make Batty live longer, nor make him human. Batty must therefore find redemption himself.
During the confrontation between Batty and Deckard, in which Batty proves completely superior an opponent – even dodging Deckard’s bullets – his hand begins to seize up, a sign, perhaps, that his body is beginning to shut down.‘No!’ he cries. ‘Not … yet!’ He searches desperately around the room, and sees a nail protruding from a floorboard. He pushes this nail through the palm of his hand, and the pain unlocks his hand. ‘Yes…’ he breathes.
There is an obvious analogy to the Crucifixtion here, but given that Batty is supposed to be Satan, it seems misplaced. But it is further reinforced once the confrontation has ended. Deckard clings to the overhanging girder, finger slipping. Batty has stripped down to his shorts, holding a dove in his unimpaled hand. After he saves Deckard’s life, deckard warily scrambles backwards, thinking this some macabre continuation of the hunt. But Batty, simply, wearily, sits down.
BATTY: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe … attack ships on fire, off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams, glitter in the dark near Tannhauser gate … all those … moments … will be lost … in time … like … tears. In rain.
Even if we don’t understand the images, it is still a powerful moment. Batty’s entire quest throughout the film has been to prolong his lifespan. But in those final moments, he accepts the inevitability of what is known as the human condition. An essential part of being a blade runner is presumable a lack of empathey, in order to kil replicants withour remorse. Yet once the positions have changed, and Batty is in a position to let Deckard die, he shows empathy, and saves him. If there is one thing the film tells its audience, it is that replicants are superior, not just physicaly, but morally too.
In the end, it is not Tyrell or anyone else who can make Batty human – he must achieve this himself. After murdering Tyrell and Sebastian, and descending into Hell once more, Batty realises that “human” is not a particular DNA combination, but a state of mind. If is he who pushes the nail through his palm, who picks up the dove. He turns himself into a Christ figure, and in those final moments, by accepting his own death and saving Deckard’s life – by showing empathy – he makes himself human, redeems himself. The film’s themes are mostly conveyed visually, and so it is that Battty’s death is signified by the dove flying up into the only blue sky seen anywhere in the film: the heavens have opened. We are reminded of Christ’s baptism, when the heavens opened, and the ove flew down as a personification of the Spirit of God. Now, the dove returns from whence it came. Batty, once Satan, is redeemed, and become an angel once more.

Postmodern Analysis

Many critics have cited Blade Runner as a postmodernist film [17]. Some would argue that all Hollywood films are inherently postmodern, in that they generally recycle earlier forms of popular culture, such as comic books or gangster novels ( Batman, Pulp Fiction etc.). Indeed, they can sometimes go so far as to recycle themselves, as the five Rocky films demonstrate. The difference, I believe, is that whilst most popular cinema is postmodern by virtue of existence, Blade Runner is consciously postmodern, in that it explores some of the issues the phrase relates to.
Postmodernism is a word that refers to many things, not least of them being a reference to the ways that signs become more important than the things they signify; as Dominic Striantii says:
The mass media, for example, was once thought to hold a mirror up to, and thereby reflect, a wider social reality. Now reality can only be defined in terms of this mirror. Society had become subsumed within the mass media. It is no longer even a question of distortion, since the term implies that there is a reality outside the surface simulations of the media, which can be distorted, and that is precisely what is at issue according to postmodern theory [18].
The idea of the ‘simulacra’ lies at the heart of Blade Runner. The simulacra of the film, replicants, are indistinguishable from humans. ‘Human’ is a very ambiguous term. Structuralism dictates that it is the relationships between elements of the code that give it signification. The word ‘human’ requires a context, in this case, ‘replicant’, to give it meaning – by juxtaposing ourselves in binary opposition with another we define ourselves. This sheds light on many aspects of the film. Why are the replicants not allowed on Earth? Why, if they are capable of developing their own emotional responses, are hey ruthlessly denied the opportunity to do so? The answer to these questions relates directly to the Human/Replicant relationship. The humans of the film treat the replicants ruthlessly because, in a way, they must, in order to give the concept of human meaning in the postmodern world. But they cannot keep this violent hierarchy from collapsing; the replicants prove they can be just as human as the humans themselves. the cultural code upon which the world of the film is based is, like the city itself, corroding, resulting in a crisis of definition for humanity.
In his influential work Simulations (1981), Jean Baurillard charts the history of simulations, and posits that there are three order of simulacra. The first order was that of pre-Industrial Revolution, counterfeit simulations of Nature, such as using a fork as an artificial prosthetic in place of the hand. The second order of simulation was the production of industrial times, where the idea of ‘counterfeit’ becomes meaningless, because industrial production requires no natural template and yet can mass produce identical objects in their thousands. The third order of simulation is us, insofar as cells replicate, they become genetic simulacra of one another. Baurillard calls this the ‘code’: the binary system of ones and zeros that id the basis of DNA structure. As a system of signification, it is forever beyond our grasp:
The code’s signals … become illegible … no possible interpretation can ever be provided, buried like programmatic matrices, light years, ultimately, from the biological body, black boxes where every command and response are in ferment … the code itself is nothing other then a genetic, generative cell where the myriad intersection produce all the question and all the possible answers to select (for whom?). There is no finality to these questions (information signals, impulses) other then the response which is either genetic and immutable or inflected with minuscule and aleatory differences … Instead of prophecy, we fall subject to the (genetic) ‘inscription’ … (this) is the outcome of an entire history where God, Man, Progress and even History have successively passed away to the advantage of the code …[19]
In effect, Baurillard implies that there is nothing that can be done – any hope of a significant relationship with reality is lost:
Every closed system protects itself … from all metalanguage that the system wards off by operating its own metalanguage, that is, by duplicating itself as its own critique … reality is immediately contaminated by its simulacrum. [20]
If there can be no reality, but only a simulacrum of it, we must surrender to simulation. To pick up an earlier point, Blade Runner’s humans attempt to protect their identity in the postmodern world by enforcing a violent hierarchy between human and replicant: but doings this is not possible. As Raman Selden says of Blade Runner:
(In Blade Runner), in a parallel scenario to Baudrillard’s view that humans should surrender to the triumphant world of objects, human subjects are involved in a (mostly losing) battle with invasive postmodern technologies. [21]
We cannot uphold the human/simulacra relationship because we are, in effect, simulacra ourselves – genetic simulacra, and simulacra in terms of our ontological assumptions (ie we create a simulation of reality in place of the reality which, according to Baudrillard, is forever beyond us).
The relationships between humans and replicants aside, Blade Runner also presents us with a fascinating view of human class relationships. Historicists believe that when one accepts the existence of historical styles of art – e.g. High Renaissance, Abstract, pre-Raphaelite – one must also accept that, insofar as they had different definitions of art and quality, there can never be objectively measured against each other. Clement Greenberg defined avant-gardism as a way of sidestepping this: all art periods nonetheless shared the formal apparatus of the medium, paint, brushed, and so on, and Greenberd believed it was the task of the avant-gardist to concentrate on this. But postmodernism, in particular postmodern architecture, has rejected this theory in favour of the view that one can hold a relativistic view of all former styles of art or architecture, and engage in pastiche. Pastiche is perhaps the favourite form of postmodernists: the best example of this would be Andy Warhol’s painting Thirty are better than one [22]. Blade Runner itself engages in pastiche on more than one level. first, its architecture reveals several different styles. The first few shots of the film show futuristic looking refineries, but then concentrate on a futuristic building that is a pastiche of Mayan architecture. The interiors of the Tyrell Corporation that are shown, however, are designed in an Establishment Gothic look [23]. The police headquarters of the film was designed to echo the Art Deco look of the Chrysler Building, in New York City [24], and the Bradbury Building, in which the final chase scene of the film is set, is an architectural anomaly, built in 1883 by an architect heavily influenced by a utopian book he had read about the year 2000 [25]. Animoid Row, where Deckard goes to discover the origins of the snake scale, seems to resemble a Middle Eastern bazaar. Blade Runner’s presentation of Los Angeles in 2019 as a postmodern architectural entrepot accentuates the ahistorical nature of postmodernist art.
The work of Jean Francois Lyotard is also of relevance. Lyotard’s book, The Postmodern Condition (1979), offers as a symptom of the aforesaid condition the downfall of metanarratives, which are paradigms which make total, all-encompassing claims to truth, such as Marxism, or science. The postmodern condition rejects any claim to absolute truth in favour of relativist interpretations of the world (a staple part of postmodernism), which results in metanarratives collapsing into meaninglessness. For example, History, as a metanarrative, seeks to chart human behaviour in terms of sequential causality. Blade Runner was made in 1982. Although it contains the futuristic elements of forty years in its future – 2019- it also contains the film noir elements of forty years in its past. Time appears to obey different laws in Blade Runner – it is both present, future and past simultaneously, without respect to sequential causality. Science and religion are both metanarratives, but Blade Runner throws them both into doubt by using religious imagery in reference to biotechnological creations – are the replicants machines? Or prophets? Or neither – are they just human, like us? Tyrell’s death signifies the both the literal failure of science and the metaphorical failure of religion to provide solutions withi
n the film: Tyrell cannot help Batty, either as his scientific creator, or his God.
Even Deckard’s total, all-encompassing belief in his own existence – what one might tentatively define as the Cartesian metanarrative – is devalued by a tinfoil unicorn, a crude simulacra of one of Deckard’s dreams.


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Kerman, Judith b (ed), Retrofitting Blade Runner:Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Bowling Green State University Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1991
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Sammon, Paul M, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, Harper Prism, 1996
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[1]- Sammon, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, 1996, pg 314
[2]- Sammon, Ibid, pg 389
[3]- By this I mean the values of what Theodor Adorno called the ‘culture industry’, which mass-produces art for profit. To profit most from a mass art like cinema one must appeal to the lowest common denominators in a film, for example a love interest, or the desire to see justice done at the end of a film, and so on. Blade Runner’s hero is an anti-hero – at one point he kills a fleeing woman by shooting her in the back. The film generally presents a negative view of humanity, which may have contributed to its initial commercial failure, especially given that it was released at the same time as ET, a ‘feelgood’ film that was the box office success of that year.
[4]- Empire, August 1997
[5] – Gibson coined this word in Neuromancer(1983), one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of the 1980′s and the founding work of the cyberpunk subgenre. Gibson has often cited Blade Runner as a major influence on the novel.
[6]- Sammon, Future Noir : The Making of Blade Runner (1996), pg 314
[7]- Hereon referred to as the ‘opening crawl’.
[8]- Sammon, 1996, p236
[9]- ‘In 1662, a Virginia law stated that a newborn (African) was or was not free depending on the status of the mother.’ (Denise Dennis, Black History for Beginners, 1984, pg 38). Holdens question can be seen to be very straightforward, then : ‘Are you or are you not a slave?’
[10]- Heldreth, Blade Runner and Detective Fiction, Retrofitting Blade Runner, ed J Kerman, 1991, pg 44
[11]- The name given to the hovering vehicles in the film.
[12]- Sammon, 1996, pg 161
[13]- Elkins, Slavery, A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 1963, pg 100
[14] – ‘One-third of the numbers first taken, out of a total of perhaps fifteen million, had died on the march and at the trading stations; another third died during the Middle Passage and the seasoning.’ Elkins, Ibid, pg 101
[15]- Elkins, Ibid, pg 102
[16] – In the scene where Batty and Tyrell meet, there is almost a sense fo kinship between them; Batty takes the opportunity to confess his sins, and Tyrell strokes Batty’s head in a fatherly way which would otherwise, between two strangers, seem strange.
[17] – Dominic Striantii, Raman Selden, and Nigel Wheale, amongst others, have made this claim.
[18]- Striantii, An Introduction to the theories of popular culture, 1994, pg 224
[19]- Baudrillard, Simulations, 1981, pg 104-5
[20]- Baudrillard, Ibid, pg 148
[21]- Selden, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, 1993, pg 181
[22]- Warhol used a silk screen to create thirty identical Mona Lisas; given its title, the piece can be seen to be an irony on the ethos of capitalsim, whereby quantity becomes more important than quantity.
[23]- Sammon, Future Noir, 1996, pg 139
[24]- Sammon, Ibid, pg 118
[25] – Sammon, Ibid, pg 138
Written by
Majid Salim