Movie of the Month: Die Hard

Movie of the Month: Die Hard

DIE HARD (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Jeb Stuard & Steven E. de Souza
(based on the novel by Roderick Thorp)
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Alexander Godunov, James Shigeta, Paul Gleason, and De’voreaux White

Greetings, all! Welcome to a (hopefully) regular blog segment here on 1985Games! I’m Christopher Jayawardena, and in addition to being the main video editor/camera-operator at the company, I am a total film buff. Being total nerds in the office, we talk about movies. A lot.

When choosing a movie for December, there’s a bazillion choices. While many to this day still argue as to whether DIE HARD is a Christmas movie, what is undeniable is its effect on Hollywood blockbusters and the sub-genre of action films it spawned. Full of quotes, memorable characters, fantastical set-pieces, and some spectacular explosions, it is considered a classic for good reason. And it is happily a choice to pick this as “Movie of the Month” for December, because whether you think it’s a Christmas movie or not: good cinema is always in season!

That said, the film’s been talked to death and video-essay’d on YouTube at nauseum. Here at 1985 Games, we talk about D&D and other tabletop gaming minutia, too! With that bread & butter, I personally wanted to ask - what can we learn from Die Hard, as game masters and as players?

One of the easier things to do with a traditional fantasy TTRPG, would be to give the players a “Die Hard” scenario where they are the John McClanes and must contend with a Hans Gruber. This could be a castle overtaken by a sorcerer or military coup, or trying to save a magical academy from its own students gone wrong. Or be as direct as you like - put the players at a banquet for the king and some group of rogues-posing-as-warlocks bust in and wreck up the castle, with your players able to elude detection. They’ve been stripped of gear, including any materials needed for spells, making it a considerable challenge! The place can get locked down, have a neighboring country’s army as the stand-in for the police force, and so on.

But, what if you put the players in the shoes of Hans Gruber and company, allowing your most dark-and-moody players to take on a considerable challenge. They’ll have to manage the hostages (NPCs), deal with a unit of soldiers trying to break in (enemies), and/or just simply deal with that one particular fly in the ointment (boss). And you could even make it where the players are the analogous police department, trying to talk to both the hostage takers and the one NPC who’s helping (or perhaps hindering) the situation. Perhaps even throw your players into being the hostages, disarmed of their weapons and having to use cunning tactics, persuasion checks, and obscure skills to save themselves from the thieves, terrorists, or monsters.

As fun as the scenario is in Die Hard, though, what really brings the story to life is the characters. For both players and GMs alike, there’s so many good bits of performance, cadence, dialogue, and emotional arc to pull from. You can see the blue-collar archetype of John McClane vs. the white collar archetype of Hans Gruber as one of the clear draws, obviously. One could also take Holly Gennaro-McClane, with her always-observing eyes and direct approach even when confronting the villain, to spin a quiet Wizard that has a deeper strength and a kind heart even when met with powerful foes. Plenty of folks end up channeling Ellis, the businessman with delusions of grandeur, whether they think they do or not. Why not even be inspired by side characters like the Johnsons FBI agents, Thornburg the narcissistic reporter, both the brothers Karl and Tony (and the revenge plot that arises mid-scenario), supernerd Theo’s cool slick `tude, or even the terrorist played by stunt star Al Leong, who famously steals the candy? All of these characters, and more, would work great for a single character in any campaign or one-shot. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration material!

Moving onward, beyond the characters and the plot is the theming involved in Die Hard’s story. The obvious blue collar vs. white collar analogy comes up a lot; McClane finds himself surrounded by these figures of pompous wealth and consumerist mentality. His only real allies are Al Powell, a fellow beat cop, and Argyle, who’s another working stiff (that used to drive a cab before driving limos). Yeah, it’s a bit on-the-nose, but when one applies it to a fantasy world setting there are plenty of political overtones that can be wrung out. What if, taking the scenario above of a military coup, the players end up discovering there was a grave injustice that causes them to agree with the aggressors’ demands, leading to a discussion of what caused the situation in the first place? Perhaps even it’s a robbery, the hostage takers could attempt to bribe the players, especially if they are not loyal to whoever’s being stolen from.

Or, coming back to the heart of the film’s protagonist, could there be an opportunity to tell a story in your game that has the players trying to save the people they love and ultimately finding themselves in the middle of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? For a film from an era known for vapid entertainment, Die Hard has an incredibly strong beating heart within its core. Moments of sensitivity, vulnerability, and growth permeate the entire narrative as it twists and turns with the actions the heroes and villains take. It’s one of the most impactful ways that stories have stayed with us through history, from Arthurian legend to Greek mythology and even the wild fantasies written today. It is a movie that understands itself, its characters, its intention, and strives forward in service of a great adventure, a good time at the movies, that the viewer is happy to go along with.

What I’ve often found is that a lot of storytelling comes down to asking questions and discovering answers based on both intent and instinct, which is something clearly the filmmakers behind Die Hard understood, even if they had to make a lot of it up along the way. It’s an ethos that I think can be applied to tabletop gaming, which is itself a collaborative storytelling artform, where the game master and players continually ask themselves how to drive things forward to make the most of the experience. Maybe the agreements don’t come easy, but it’s an ensemble piece, and so long as we can agree to keep searching together. Because when the harmony strikes, you get that great session. That masterplan. That moment where Ode To Joy plays on your mental soundtrack.

There have been plenty of imitators to Die Hard to the point that you can easily describe films as “Die Hard on a boat” or “Die Hard on a bus” or “Die Hard in space” and know pretty much what you’re getting. The archetypes are there; the structure, the basic plot. But what makes the good ones work, like all stories really, is the execution. So here’s hoping if you take a look at Die Hard yet again this holiday season… you see it through the eyes of a player, a DM, or just a storyteller. Think to yourself, “what can I do with that idea?

Let us know if this sparks any creativity from you all out there! We’d love to hear your ideas, especially if you’ve been able to take direct influence from Die Hard for your own campaigns or sessions! Do you have a favorite one-shot that somehow featured Hans Gruber? Was there that one player who faceclaimed Reginald VelJohnson?

In the future, we’ll be covering a lot of stuff here, from the bonafide cult classics of yore to the wild esoteric stuff I’ve discovered in my decades of watching movies. Personally,  I’d love to figure out a way to talk about Nomads (Die Hard director John McTiernan’s debut feature from 1985), a really underrated little flick that also has a premise that’d be wild to run with for a TTRPG! But that’s for another time. :) Thanks for reading and VIVA CINEMA!!!

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