Last week I was lucky enough to wander into BigLots (a store that sells overstock and discontinued merchandise) and found the first three seasons of Samurai Jack for $6. Not $6 for each season; all three seasons, shrink wrapped together, for a total of $6. As I’ve had them on my Amazon Wishlist forever, I could not pass up this kind of deal.
For any of you who’ve never seen Samurai Jack, the metaplot goes like this: a samurai warrior, battling a demon, is transported from his own time period into the far future, where the demon rules the world. He wanders, seeking to destroy the demon and return to his own time, helping people and meeting interesting friends and foes along the way. There are aliens, robots, anachronistic things like vikings, a kilted Scotsman with a machine gun for a leg (this predates Grindhouse by years), just about anything you can imagine, Jack encounters it. The world really makes no sense, and doesn’t hold together, except as part of the meta-narrative of Jack’s journey.
Setting matters, in so far as it allows you to tell the types of stories you wish to tell and supports the types of characters you need to tell that story. Kitchen-sink settings allow practically everything, so what you need to do is pare down the scope and the purpose. Only use the elements needed for your adventure, your plot; the rest of it is out there, over yonder somewhere, but we’re not worried about that. You can try to run it sandbox-style; that way lies madness, zany hijinx, and a game that may quickly run off the rails, but oh the fun you could have.
Of course, most of us old grognards already know this. Most of the D&D campaigns I’ve been in have had “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” elements, dropping in an homage to whatever book, movie or comic the gamemaster was grooving on at any given moment, the narrative (such as it was) tied together only by the player characters’ journeys. It made sense because we made it make sense, we brought some sort of continuity, and turned the anarchonisms and paradoxes as opportunities and plot hooks.
Enter Encounter Critical! When I first re-read this system last year (having first played it, and then forgotten all about it, in 1982), my first thought was “I want to use his to run a Samurai Jack game”. First published in 1979, I believe it was the very first “kitchen sink setting” roleplaying game. Elements of nearly every genre are in there, from fantasy to science fiction, westerns to horror. Some critics overlook the build-in flexibility and creative potential and dismiss it as juvenile, silly, or just plain unworkable. It’s the same criticism frequently leveled at Rifts (which I consider to be an inferior EC knockoff, albeit one that’s more widely played and better supported), That’s when I point to Samurai Jack. It’s not the setting, it’s what you do with it. If you have strong characters, and a good story to tell, you can simultaneously overcome and embrace the quirks of the setting and turn them into a strength. All of the disparate elements are given a context that holds it all together.