My Turbo Charged Thesis Statement
A few days ago, I posted on Twitter that the platonic ideal of a modern action RPG setting, excluding superheroes and urban fantasy, was The Fast and the Furious franchise. This got a lot of likes, reshares, and commentary, to the point I was almost afraid to expound on this for negating the simplicity of it all. But I’m me, so I have to expound.
When I said this, part of my thinking was that even though often set in modern times, urban fantasy and supers often have their own rulesets for their own sub-genres. You can use a broad ruleset that can handle multiple genres to run those games, but they often have many, many options that are tailored specifically for them.
The other thing that was on my mind in this instance was team versus single protagonist. I saw a lot of mentions of John Wick in my comments on this. It is by no means impossible to tweak the tropes you are playing with to move from “one unstoppable protagonist” to “team of unstoppable forces,” but it does require some tweaking.
I also saw mention of the Mission Impossibleseries as sitting in the same space as an ideal construct for a modern RPG setting, and I’m not going to argue that one too much, because it is a team-based setting where characters take on a variety of challenges and various characters are useful because there are individual character niches. That said, I think I jump to The Fast and the Furious over this one for two reasons: while not as ubiquitous as urban fantasy games or superhero games, there are a good number of specific espionage RPGs, and The Fast and the Furious eventually does enter this genre as well. The Fast and the Furious contains multitudes.
Time for a Disclaimer
Whenever I talk about media as it ties into game inspiration, I worry a little that it comes across as an endorsement of that media. There is very little media I would endorse without disclaimer, in part because people deserve things like content warnings, and in part because the degree to which problematic elements are an issue can vary from person to person, and someone not affected by various social issues isn’t the best people to determine why something “isn’t that bad.”
So, before I dive into the problematic elements of the series that jump out at me, I’ll give you my perspective. I’m a cis white male in my 40s. I apologize if I miss some really glaring issues that people from various marginalized groups have experienced, and I honestly would like to hear about problematic elements that I have missed, if you want to share that perspective–but I know it’s not your job to do so, either.
Earlier in the series, LGBTQ+ slurs were used as insults by some of the characters. Unless I have missed them, this appears to be an issue that fades away as the series progresses, but it’s never addressed head-on. Beyond the slurs, the only evidence we have that LGBTQ+ people exist is that we see several parties where attractive women like to make out with one another. As diverse as the cast eventually becomes, it would be nice to have LGBTQ+ characters appear as part of the “family” as well.
Race and Ethnicity
While the team became more diverse pretty early on in the series, the series leaned heavily on people of color as the villains, and that’s not changing with the upcoming Hobbs and Shaw. The Shaws, as villains, did shift this dynamic, but it’s still present in most of the movies. Additionally, while it’s nice that when the middle-east came up, we didn’t get stereotypes about terrorism, we did have a pretty two-dimensional portrayal of a rich middle-eastern prince.
While the team itself has definitely diversified (in some regards, more on that later), it would be great of Rome wasn’t the main comic relief on the team.
From its inception, the Fast and the Furiousmovies have been invested in having some scene, somewhere, that spends a lot of time showing attractive women in skimpy clothing. Contextually, it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but the fact that many of these scenes are shot in such a way that you can only identify the actress by how distinctive her posterior is makes this pretty glaring.
The team itself is really lopsided when it comes to women. Mia can drive, but the majority of the time her job is to be in danger or to sit at home and worry. Letty has been the most consistent presence any woman has had on the team, and is generally shown to be competent in and out of a car, but she was also used as Dom’s revenge focus as well. Giselle was similarly competent, but also had weaponized flirting as part of her team responsibilities. This would have been less of a problem if there were more women on the team, so that one of the only women wasn’t “the flirty one.” Elena’s role has always been entangled in Dom and Letty’s relationship, and she’s also defined by the husband she lost. Monica was never really part of the team, per se, and after she was undercover for a while, she basically dropped off files on Hobbs’ desk. For all of the other recurring characters that the series cycles back into the narrative, we never see Suki outside of the second movie.
So while there are proactive and capable women in the movies, they are way outnumbered by the men, and almost all have some very stale tropes welded on to them. Which brings us to . . .
There is so much “I was disrespected, I must prove I am better than him” going on in these movies. There is also a crap ton of motivating men by putting the women they care about in danger, and comedic posturing to establish the social order of the males on the team.
Probably the most glaring toxic masculinity issue at play here is the “women as prizes” trope. Some of the movies subvert this by having the women, who are competing in races, reassert that they are racers, not prizes, and reaffirm their agency as participants. Unfortunately, most of the plot of Tokyo Drift is completely about this trope, and it is jokingly referenced from time to time later in the series.
The hardest thing to address about all of this is that there are some elements of toxic masculinity portrayed in these movies that are so over the top, it’s hard not to take them as parody. I mean, this is a series where Hobbs flexed his cast off, and it wasn’t even the most over the top thing in the movie.
I would also be remiss if I weren’t to point out that the continual theme of family often leads to the male characters showing genuine affection for one another in a way that feels less like the fist bump or one-armed half hug of other buddy action movies. The biggest, most problematic element of this is that while Dom and Brian are allowed to have emotions, Rome’s emotional state is almost always played for laughs, which is even more problematic when you have one of the black male recurring character’s depth being invalidated for comedic purposes.
In Summation . . .
There is a lot of Very Hollywood Action Movie going on in the Fast and the Furious movies, and I’m not going to say that the good outweighs the bad, or that the over the top elements allow some of them to be excused as self-parody. I enjoy the series, and hope it corrects some of these problems, and I definitely think they could do so without changing the overall tone of the films or lose any of the gonzo nature of what gives the films their charm.
Time for the Next Quarter Mile
Now that I’ve laid all of that out, we can start digging into The Fast and the Furious as modern RPG platonic ideal.
So, how, exactly, is The Fast the Furious the platonic ideal for modern action-oriented RPGs?
First, let’s define “modern RPG.” I’m referring to a ruleset that has rules for modern vehicles, weapons, and technology and is defined by taking dangerous action, rather than primarily an RPG about personal interactions and drama. I’m also referring to RPGs that do not have a default setting or genre beyond the rules assigned to them. As an example, you have games like d20 Modern, Savage Worlds, and Modern Age that might fall into this category.
Because these games do not have a defined setting, I started thinking about standard RPG tropes, as opposed to genre tropes. This brought me to the following:
- PCs can be independent operators or work for a patron, in the same campaign
- PCs can interact with a number of sub-genres and types of adventures
- PCs can have specialized roles that facilitate specific niches
- PCs have a noticeable increase in ability that results in scenarios with higher stakes
To use the Fast and the Furious as an example here, we start with, then progress through, the following escalating scenarios:
- Racers that fight local gangs and pull off dangerous heists while dodging cops
- Racers that go undercover to take on organized crime syndicates, with limited law enforcement sanction
- Racers that go undercover to take on international criminals, with limited government sanction
- Racers take on global conspiracies while dealing with high tech military weapons and vehicles as opposition, with limited government sanctions
- Racers take on global conspiracies while dealing with high tech military weapons and vehicles as opposition, with extensive government backing
There are many modern era genres and subgenres where a level-based progression system would seem out of place. It does not feel out of place for The Fast and the Furious movies.
In addition, characters in The Fast and the Furious movies do several things that are very much staples of what RPG characters might do in a game:
- Fighting hand to hand
- Fighting with weapons
- Sneaking around
- Breaking into places
- Stealing things
- Doing research
- Modifying equipment
- Computer hacking
All of this is a pretty long-winded justification of what was a fairly simple tweet, but it was the culmination of years of reading through more “generic” rulesets and thinking, “what would I do with this?” This isn’t the only answer, but I think it’s a pretty solid example of what you could do with it that would lead to one of the broadest applications of the tools usually available in the aforementioned toolkits.
As far as RPG campaigns go, there is a lot that The Fast and the Furious movies do right:
- No wasted NPCs–both supporting characters and villains often recur or have a direct tie to other NPCs that have been previously established
- Widen the Scope, but Have Recurring Locations–The team starts out in one city, has multiple adventures in several other cities around the world, but return to the same neighborhood in LA, and also have a safe location to visit in the Dominican Republic, which was also a location that they expanded into in previous movies. This provides a widening scope while providing stability and continuity as well.
- Aspects–While most of what I have been talking about here has been regarding more granular RPG systems and Aspects are usually associated with Fate, having clear aspects for characters, locations, and even campaign arcs can be extremely useful for maintaining tone. The Fast and the Furious movies are filled with comments from characters that can serve as aspects, and intentionally noting these aspects can go a long way towards reinforcing tone and tying game elements together.
- Internal Framing–Rome very succinctly explains how the stakes of the team’s various missions have escalated in a way that makes it very clear that everyone in the story knows the stakes are getting larger. I’m going to go one step further and explain that this is one thing that The Fast and the Furious does better than the extended Die-Hard series–it acknowledges that the actions have increased in scale. In Live Free or Die Hard, McLean acts as if he has always done things like taking out a helicopter with a car, but we all know this would have seemed wildly out of place for the tone of the original movie. “Players” in the Fast and the Furious “campaign” know the campaign structure and acknowledge it.
- Everything Seems Intentional–I am under no illusions that the creators of the original Fast and the Furious movie, back in 2001, had a plan for 8+ movies. However, by carefully creating simple, easy to follow connections between previous characters, and having characters provide quick summaries of previous movies and how the new information fits with the previous movie, no matter how wild it seems, the movies feel like they are all an intentional extension of the previous movie (well, it took a little longer to get there with Tokyo Drift).
That’s a lot of words to justify an offhand tweet. Now I need to find another movie series to watch for RPG observations.