Welcome back to the Zurn blog! We're resuming our thoughts on campaign creation and garnering ideas for your campaign with an odd post about why I watch B-grade movies on Netflix and other platforms. Because everything they say is true: overall these movies are generally not that good (though I'll note a few that you may want to check out!), but that doesn't mean that there's nothing redeemable or useful in these movies or tv shows.
I'll start off with the justification for watching them, and then walk through some of the things I picked up from watching these shows. I have not seen any other blogs touch this topic, and I'd be very curious to see what you think about it, as I hadn't really started thinking about it until I started watching a Turkish tv show a few weeks ago (which, if you're interested, is Resurrection: Ertugul).
It should also be noted that there will be no spoilers below for any of the films. So for people who hate spoilers (like my wife), this one is for you, :)
I. Why Were the Movies Made?
So, like you, I have limited time, and thus it might sound strange when I tell you, "I watch B-grade movies and shows on a regular basis." Why would I do that? I don't even watch all of the big blockbusters, so why would I make time to routinely watch B Movies? A few reasons, all of which stem from my background as a roleplayer.
First, whenever anyone sets out to spend months if not years making something on a shoestring budget, something has to be driving that desire. For some it's a vision for a specific scene full of emotion coming to life. For some it's the setting, or an element of the world that they think is cool and should be presented on screen. And for some it's something trashy that brings to life a personal fantasy in their mind.
Don't watch the last group - these are just a waste of time.
The others have something useful for you: a driving element that the director put his/her soul into making, and that's what we glean from these movies. So the dialogue, action, special effects, etc. may be terrible, and that's fine - if a movie has a few things that we can use, we can scavenge those and leave the rest.
Second, I like seeing how people develop characters. If the characters are flat, stock, and underdeveloped, it's a good reminder to me not to do that (unless, say, it's an NPC who will be in one scene fulfilling a small role and it doesn't require him/her to be heavily developed). If the characters are vibrant, rich, with deep motivations and reasonable development, good - we can work with that (as you'll see in the next section below). So regardless of what you get in a B movie, you'll get something useful from the characters.
Third, if you are attempting to mimic a style in your campaign, it can be worth it to take in a lot of that genre. So if, for example, your player group really like anime, you might watch a range of solid animes (Sword Art Online, Full Metal Alchemist, Attack on Titan) and some that are more B-grade (Fairy Tale, Seven Deadly Sins, Granblue, etc.). Or if you are going for more of a mystery noire feel, you might watch some Humphrey Bogart alongside some Nicholas Cage in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.
And there are more reasons that will come out in the discussion below, so I won't lay them out here. But suffice it to say for now, B movies fill niche needs for us as roleplayers, and sometimes more than one. So let's take a quick look at a mix of five movies and shows that showcase those useful elements.
II. Useful Characters
One of the few B movies I've watched 3+ times is Centurion (and I feel bad calling this a B movie because it has Michael Fassbender in it, but there it is). It's not because the plot is great (it's similar to The Eagle, if you've seen that one, except less Pictish Chariots), or because the special effects are great (as they are not that great), or because the cinematography is gripping (it's passable), or even because the characters are all that good (which, again, hurts to say because it has Michael Fassbender in it). I like watching it because it presents some unique characters that make for great character concepts and NPCs.
The show features a celtic herbalist who only appears in about 6ish minutes of the movie, but I like how much we learn about who she is, how she lives, how she defends her home, etc. in that short amount of time. There's enough here to build a druid, an herbalist, or other shaman character who has motivations, clever defenses, and a unique personality.
Similarly, the tracker (the female on the promo picture above) has some interesting development, and makes spears look cool (which is unique in movies and shows). She has virtually no dialogue, but you get some great ideas on how to play a non-ranged scout or ranger from this character.
In both cases the characters are fleshed out using minimal dialogue: they show who they are instead of saying who they are or what they think. So while a B-grade movie may not have the best actors in the world, what you get on set can be a useful starting point for building interesting characters.
III. Useful Settings
I have loved imaginative settings and crossovers for years, and B Movies tend to do this often. Dragonfyre is one of these: an American ranger gets sucked into a war involving orcs and dragons, so you don't get much more crossover than this.
Here we have a guy out of his element, out of his world, and out of his familiar level of technology, and the result is a passable movie with an engaging setting that makes you want to build a story in it. And, if you use a portal setup to start your campaign, you can easily do this for a roleplay group.
Now, naturally, depending on your roleplay system, doing a crossover may be more or less easy; you may not be able to bring certain types of items with you to, say, a medieval era (as that is the most common setting for RPGs currently) purely because your GM may not want to estimate its stats or abilities. But a crossover of eras is a cool concept for a campaign, turning a dungeon crawl into something more unique.
Another B movie with an interesting setting is The Last King. This is a European movie that follows the escorting of a baby who happens to be the heir of the kingdom, and a loyal band of warriors (as "knights" is perhaps too strong a term to use for them) are attempting to transport him to safety.
The challenge of the tale, though, lies more in how to transport the baby safely (along with your gear for surviving in the harsh winter environment) without losing it while moving through vast amounts of snow and natural disasters. Of course there are people to fight as well, but a big part of the trick is how to do all of this (including fighting) while on the rudimentary skis of the time.
You want an archer who is as cool (if not cooler, pun intended) than Legolas? You should watch this movie. It's not that the archer is particularly cool - it's the setting that makes him cool. So don't be afraid to walk away from a B movie with decent (but not great) acting and an okay plot simply saying, "Okay - I really want to set a campaign in that setting though. THAT would be cool." And B movies can do that for you.
IV. Useful Items
Okay - it has to be said that this movie franchise is something you should watch regardless of your thoughts on movie quality, purely for how good it is at being SOOO BAAAD by normal movie standards. In its defense, it has Neil Patrick Harris as one of the characters, and the rest of the main crew aren't terrible, they're just not that good.
This is bolstered by a cheesy script (that, granted, is true to source material), poor visual effects, and plots that are okay but nowhere close to good, deep stories. But one of the things you cannot fault these movies for (because, believe it or not, there are FOUR of these - one of which is completely CGI) it's ingenious ideas for items and equipment. If you are running a sci-fi campaign, you should watch these movies for ideas for gear, weaponry, armor, ships, alien species and means of attacking atmospheric ships, tech for mind-controlling said aliens - the whole range.
Plus a good ol' fashioned cheesy script isn't bad every now and then. You'll laugh, which helps your blood pressure. So watch this series, cringe when you should, and then laugh about it.
V. Useful Plots/Scenarios
Most of you probably assumed this when you clicked on the article, and rightly so: plots in movies tend to be one of the big things critics talk about, and is one of the things that sticks with us when we see a movie or show (for better or worse). And it's true: a movie with terrible acting, special effects, props, etc. might have a useful plot (or at least scenario, encounter, or vignette) that we can use when building stories.
Let's look at the Netflix original, ARQ. I watched ARQ on a whim a few years ago, and it is one of the few B movies I've watched multiple times (and one of the even fewer ones that I later introduced to my wife). The plot is reminiscent of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, and the whole movie takes place in a single house (which is convenient for a low-budget film, and it works for the story).
How do you do a timeloop scenario without it getting boring/stale, or seeming like consequences don't matter? Because ultimately the premise of these movies is a plot centered around a trap or puzzle (your frustration level will determine what you call it), and that can be cool for the first hour or so, but it can wear down the audience as well.
ARQ handles the plot in a unique way - I'm not going to spoil how (as I want you to watch it), but suffice it to say for now, actions have consequences. And this is not just in an Edge of Tomorrow way where you know what's coming next, or a Groundhog Day where you can become skilled in something through hundreds of times practicing the piano, for example.
And I wanted to end with ARQ because in truth, it has a lot of these elements in it. It has a few core characters that are really deep, and would serve well as PCs or NPCs. It has a cool setting (which I won't share as it would border on a spoiler), useful items (taser gloves: not unique per se, but very cool), and of course, an engaging plot. So sometimes you will even get the full package in a single movie, though I wouldn't plan on it.
B movies lack the polish and effects of the big studios, and that's good: it means they need to stand on their content alone. And many of them don't of course, but they bring something useful to the table. And that "something," whatever that is, might make your roleplay session or experience better. So I watch B movies. Do you?