Reviewing Serenity


Serenity is a movie based on a TV show that I first heard about here on Gamegrene, and it's a must-see for all gamers, since it accurately depicts (in my opinion, anyway) the role-playing atmosphere we've come to love and enjoy. Here is a review of the movie, the show, and the roleplaying game.

This is exactly how my friends and I act in-game whenever we play.

Serenity is based off of a sci-fi TV show called Firefly that was cancelled after 14 episodes. I first heard about it from several people posting comments here at Gamegrene. Even though it was a critically acclaimed show with thousands of devoted fans and was written and directed by Joss Whedon, the Oscar®- and Emmy-nominated writer/director behind the global phenomena of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the FOX TV Network cancelled the show during its first season in the fall of 2002. This was the result of horrible ad campaigning and the Network's complete and utter idiocy. FOX didn't even air the pilot episode until the end of the season!

Set in a futuristic, post-Earth universe dominated by a planetary Alliance, the series chronicled the adventures of the ragtag spaceship Serenity and her eclectic crew of outcasts, led by Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, played by NATHAN FILLION. Although FOX TV cancelled the show after only 11 of the 14 produced episodes had aired, Firefly's quirky mix of humor, complex characters and sci-fi had attracted a loyal and passionate following as many people here at Gamegrene can attest.

Luckily, using money earned from the release of the series on DVD, which was a huge hit, Whedon was able to gather the cast and crew (who love the show) and make a low budget (not that you can tell) movie based on the series.

Let me tell you right now, I am extremely critical of movies. I pick apart movies, even the ones that I like. There are only a handful that I can't pick apart: Meet Joe Black, Cellular, and the Shawshank Redemption, off the top of my head. I think that I can safely add Serenity to that list. Now granted, I only saw this movie one time, but it rocked. And I don't say that lightly, as my friends and family can attest. One thing that I truly loved was the humor and fun that the characters exhibited ALL THE TIME. This is exactly how my friends and I act in-game whenever we play. It's brilliant!

The universe presented in this show is realistic, fun, and so prone to adventure that there is already a roleplaying game out based on the movie that I may buy just for shits and giggles. Margaret Weis (of DragonLance fame) Productions, Ltd. announced its agreement with Universal Studios Consumer Products Group to produce roleplaying game products based on Universal Pictures' upcoming film Serenity on April 16th, 2005. The film was released September 30th, 2005 and is now out on DVD as is the entire 14 episodes of the series.

It is a prime example of a roleplaying group in the middle of a really good campaign.

Like the film, the roleplaying game book is set in the future and allows players to either re-create the action of the movie or experience new tales of adventure. The core book, the Serenity Roleplaying Game, is a self-contained roleplaying game using a new game system specially created for the line. The game book will be a full-color, hardcover book featuring still images from the film as well as original artwork. It will provide rules for play, character creation, and a short adventure along with information about the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship, Serenity.

"The universe created for Serenity is amazing," says Margaret Weis, New York Times best-selling author and game publisher. "The movie presents a fascinating and intriguing view of the future. Serenity combines the best conventions of science fiction and westerns in a unique way, and is a natural fit for a roleplaying game."

Vice President of Margaret Weis Productions, Jamie Chambers (who leads a team of game designers and writers including Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, James M. Ward, Tony Lee, and Andrew Peregrine) commented, "I could not be more enthusiastic about the new game. Everyone involved on this project has an excitement and passion for the material, one that shows in the quality of their work and the fun we're having in early playtests. Our goal is provide a game that is easy to learn, fast to play, and encourages the kind of fast-paced action, fun, and character development that fans will see in theaters."

Please watch this movie. It is PG-13 and suitable for 13 years and up. This is due to some sci-fi violence, a few scenes with some blood, and the Reavers, which are cool but would be VERY SCARY for any kids. They are nasty... but still cool. There is no language, nudity, sex, or anything else. It IS extremely funny in a understated sort of way. It is also a prime example of a roleplaying group in the middle of a really good campaign.

Even better, get the movie and the game. That way you are not only supported a great show and the writer/director with the creativity and guts to make it, you'll also be supporting the gaming industry that we all know and love. It's the best of both worlds!

As one of the most rabid Browncoats here, I am happy to be the first to thank you for your favorable review. I have been buying copies of the show and the movie and distributing them among my friends, and Christmas provided me with a convenient excuse. Remember that the movie was made possible by the show's unexpectedly strong DVD sales. Despite the fact that Serenity fared somewhat poorly at the box office (I maintain this poor performance was in no small measure due to the inept marketing campaign and release schedule), some of us still hold out hope that equally strong sales of the movie DVD will prompt media execs to take another look at a Firefly TV show or movie.

I'm not sure that the RPG appeals to me personally, as I tend to prefer fantasy and horror gaming to sci-fi, but I am intrigued to hear that it is being released by Weis & co. That sounds promising.

Have no place I can be since I found Serenity...but you can't take the sky from me.

Just wanted to add that I'm also a Firefly fan.

I was in London when Serenity debuted there, but decided to wait for it to screen in Israel (which was supposed to be a month later) so I could take my friends to it....
Sadly, the Israel debut was canceled a week before the opening night because of the poor ticket sale in the US.

I was rather hoping the success of the movie would encourage a re-introduction of the TV series.

"Two by two, hands are blue"

I just bought the Firefly DVD series yesterday, based entirely on the posts on Gamegrene. I haven't seen any of it yet, but I will be sure to lend some feedback. One thing. Should I watch the series first, or the movie?


Definitely the series...

Although you don't technically *need* the series to enjoy the movie, the TV show will give you all the backstory that has to be glossed over for the movie release... and you'll have a deeper understanding of the characters.

I thouroughly enjoyed the movie, as evidenced by this article, and I have yet to watch the series. I've heard that the series is even better than the movie and I'm dyin' to watch it! You can go either way.

"I aim to misbehave."

Yesterday I watched the final episode of Firedly as it just aired more episodes, waiting to buy the movie DVD

I just bought and watched the first three episodes of Firefly last night. I'm pretty speechless...

I'll just say that this is the absolute best TV series that I have ever seen. It is violent without being gruesome, more funny than any comedy show on TV now, more intriguing than any thriller (and that includes 24), and more entertaining than anything that I've seen in a very long time.

"Mal: It may have become apparent to you that the ship could use a medic. You ain't weak. I don't know how bright you are, top three percent, but you ain't weak and that's not nothing. You live by my rule, you keep your sister from doing anything crazy, you could maybe find a place here. 'Til you find a better.
Simon: I'm trying to put this as delicately as I can... How do I know you won't kill me in my sleep?
Mal: You don't know me, son. So let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed.
Simon: Are you always this sentimental?
Mal: Had a good day."

If we start quoting Firefly here we'll never stop :)

But it's so damn funny! I have never enjoyed anything from TV as much as Firefly. And I am REALLY not easy to impress. Some might even say that I'm a little jaded by the typicle crap that is on TV. Firefly is real entertainment. I love it!

I always try to leave a quote in my comments. Since this an article on Serenity and Firefly, I'll have to give one of those. Here's one from an episode that I finished yesterday...

"Simon: You're in a dangerous line of work, Jayne. Odds are, you'll be under my knife again. Often. So I want you to understand one thing very clearly. No matter what you do, or say, or plot... no matter how you come down on us, I will never ever harm you. You're on this table you're safe. I'm your medic, and however little we may like or trust each other, we're on the same crew. Got the same troubles, same enemies and more than enough of both. Now we could circle each other and growl, both sleep with one eye open but that thought wearies me. I don't care what you've done. I don't know what you're planning on doing, but I'm trusting you. I think you should do the same, cause I don't see this working any other way.

River: Also, I can kill you with my brain."

We shall prosper in this land, and we shall call it...this land.

A friend loaned me the Serenity RPG book recently. I've only started reading through it, but there are several interesting from a game mechanic's point of view.

First, the setting is exceedingly soft sci-fi. In fact, there science had been janked out completely. No one, not even the series' creator, knows how the ships work in this setting. Personally, I would love to know why the character's aren't crushed against the rear bulkhead when their ship's massively powerful engines kick in. I can't over-emphasize the softness of this setting. The book describes ships moving through the 'Verse at "the speed of plot." In the director's comentary track of the movie's DVD, Joss actually says, "I don't know what an ion cloud is; I don't care what an ion cloud is." I'll set aside my own revulsion for Joss' bastardization of the genre for moment and describe how this affects gameplay.

I could not stand to play a mechanic in this game. The softness completely blocks any attempt creative engineering or technical problem solving. A mechanic can fix a broken piece of equipment, but neither the player nor the GM has any idea how this is accomplished. It comes down to a simple skill roll -- how uninteresting is that?

Second, the core mechanic is very accessable. The game revolves around players rolling dice pools which are determined by adding the relevant attribute with the relevent skill. That is how everything works. The book is clearly geared towards neophyte gamers who are intimidated by more complex rules. Rules laywers will find this mechanic unsatifying, but it should sit well with the roleplayers.

Third, the setting is fleshed out surprisingly well for a core rule book. The single solar system in which the series takes place, called the 'Verse, is explained. Many planets and moons are detailed. There is even a slang dictionary in the last chapter. It's there just in case you wanted to know the Mandarin translation to, "Crazy dog in love with its own feces."

Fourth, a new group dynamic is proposed, the standard crew. This consists of six characters -- a captain, a pilot, a mechanic, security, socialite, and medic. Reminicent of the old fighter-m.u.-thief-cleric combination of first edition D&D, the standard crew is well balanced and will likely offer a standardized and rewarding opertunity for small group roleplaying. The medic seems like the most fun to me as it provides a very specific role in the game mechanic like the pilot and security but also offers a lot of easy roleplaying chances like the socialite. An original crew is detailed in the book, the crew of the Aces and Eights. These are rock-solid NPC's, interesting and useful.

Fifth, there are three competancy levels provided in character creation. These are Greenhorn, Veteran, and Big Damn Hero. The level determines how many attribute points each character receives at the point of creation. I've seen this sort of thing before in Tri-Stat. This is a well apprecaited mechanic which allows the GM to better control the level of adventure in game, but there isn't really that much difference between these levels. The difference between Greenhorn and Veteran is six points inside of fifty. I haven't actually made a character yet, so these six points could be all the difference in the 'Verse, but I doubt it.

Sixth, the most interesting character in the series, I thought, was Shepard Book. Many people call him a priest for shorthand, but being a shepard is quite different. Book reads the bible, but he does so with a Budist's eyes. Although he professes Christian virtues, his methods and philosophies are very eastern. I was disappointed to not see the RPG develop this concept. I don't think it was even mentioned.

Seventh, the player characters in this game are downtrodden. It is both assumed and encouraged that the characters exist near the bottom rungs of the socio-economic and cultural ladders in the verse. There is no trait for wealth nor status (except former military ranks) and even those characters from high falutin' backgrounds are supposed to be down and out. This is an interesting approach which is usually deemed as optional in most games. The common-man theme extends beyond credits and titles to the mechanics of character creation. None of the characters are exceptional. Among the main characters (crew of Serenity), attributes range from a single D4 to a D10 (except for River Tam) and optional traits are for the most part none too impressive. The irony is that many people will be buying this book with the hopes of creating a character with dynamic superhuman abilities like River Tam, but this just isn't the game for it. River has an Intelligence attribute of D12+D2, an Agility of D12, and the traits of Reader and Total Recall without much detail on exactly what each of those traits do. This game is much more geared towards characters inspired by Malcom Reynolds.

Eighth, this game has vehicle scales. Yay, that was my second favorite mechanic from West End Game's Star Wars.

Ninth, Jamie Chambers wrote the entire book in the dialogue of Mal. On the first page, Jamie writes, "After a quick flip through the book, you might even think the game is strange and all manner of intimidatin'. Don't fret -- this game really is simple." This is an interesting approach which helps the players and GM's get a better handle on the lexicology of the setting. Luckily, Jamie doesn't go overboard and make the text distracting or unclear.

I'm not ready to give this book a rating, but overall I think it deserves a favorable review.

I'll set aside my own revulsion for Joss' bastardization of the genre

Bastardization? Can you explain that further? I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but allow me to rebut what I understand to be your criticism:

First off, Whedon is a script writer and director, not a game designer. His focus is to tell character-driven stories. How does explaining how an ion drive in some pseudo-scientific sounding BS ala Star Trek help to tell good character driven stories? It doesn't... Good stories are about people, not the ships they fly (even in the episode where Serenity breaks down -- the plot was about the people in Mal's life and the ship as a "character" itself, not so much about the broken part). Star Wars doesn't bother to explain how their anti-grav / inertia dampers work... Why fault Serenity for the same?

As designers, it may have been Weis & company's intent to maintain the story-driven aspect of the movie/series within the game. Why spend pages and pages on pseudo-science gobbly-gook when those pages can be better used for background, character and other flavor elements of the game?

If you're the type of gamer who likes faux tech manuals as a part of the sci-fi flavor, then I suppose I can see a little of the disappointment, but most gamers don't care so much about that stuff and when you have a finite page count, you're probably better off using that space for something else rather than wasting a half (or whole) chapter on a thin explanation of how the technology works. Best to just leave that up to the GM.

I always thought Star Trek relied **way too much** on the "I need a hypergraphite hydrospanner to fix the plasma conduit to the flux capacitor" problem/solution. Talk about Deus Ex Machina story resolution... I don't care for that in my games. Bleh. The GM can make fixing the engines as complex or simple as needed in the situation. You don't need extra game mechanics for that (or if you do, go buy GURPS Vehicles).

If your criticism is more about "Cowboy and Indian" science fiction, read on...

clearly geared towards neophyte gamers who are intimidated by more complex rules

Possibly, or perhaps it is geared for experienced roleplayers who want simple mechanics to stay out of the way of game play. If it makes teaching newbies an easier task, all the better. I'd guess the intent of the game is to aim for more role playing and less roll playing. FUDGE is another example of this -- as many or as few stats/skills as you like with a very simple resolution mechanic. The mechanics are meant to stay out of the way of the actual game play.

setting is fleshed out surprisingly well for a core rule book

I'm not sure how closely Whedon worked with the designers, but obviously there is a lot of source material for Firefly/Serenity just from the TV series and movie. If Whedon provided any additional notes or ideas, that would give an ample supply. Also, in this case, the story is everything. A rich background is more important than how an ion drive works, for instance. No doubt Weis et al kept the importance of the backstory at the front of their mind -- otherwise you might as well be playing any generic scifi... not Serenity... so it's little surprise that there is an emphasis here.

Fifth, there are three competancy levels

I didn't get a chance to examine this closely, but perhaps again the emphasis was more on roleplaying rather than level grinding. That's probably the worst legacy D&D has contributed to the mentality of players -- that more levels/loot is the goal. I don't know if this was actuallly a design goal, but it wouldn't surprise me if the system was intended to lean in the story telling direction.

interesting characters in the series, I thought, was Shepard Book

I can't speak to this except to suggest that adding real world religious aspects to a game might turn off your intended audience. A good GM can add those spices him/herself if needed. Just take Christianity and Eastern philosophy and mash them together like all the other East/West aspects in the 'Verse. If I were the designer, I might tip toe past that as well.

player characters in this game are downtrodden

Actually, this is no surprise to me... More a surprise that other games don't emphasize this more. Why would one want to become a trader/adventurer/pioneer on the edge of space? (or the edge of the Old West, or the edge of the Horde/Alliance lands?) You'd do it only if you didn't have the money for a better life elsewhere. People living rich, comfortable lives don't pick up and live in a tent in the wilderness (99% of the time). Immigrants and pioneers were people without land and few options where they previously lived. They set out toward the wilderness out of neccessity and the hope for a better life. This makes as much sense in science fiction as it does in any other genre.

A friend of mine once asked me why I thought the Firefly universe had so much Western (the genre, not the hemisphere) influence. My response was that it makes perfect sense that on newly terraformed worlds, you have very little industry. You'd have to start as an agrarian and mining society since the cost to import finished goods would be astronomical... Hence, horses, cattle, sheep, subsitence crops, few cars or other gas vehichles, and no heavy industry (factories, et al) at first. You'd very much have a pioneering, "old west" kind of flavor... The relatively poor, downtrodden farmers and miners, robber barons trying to carve out their own small empires of politics and wealth, bandits living on the fringe as well as traders and honest entrepeneurs. I think Whedon was right on the mark with his ideas.

hopes of creating a character with dynamic superhuman abilities like River Tam

Not neccessarily... Not all science fiction fans are Ninja/Jedi wanna-be's. As a matter of fact, players in my old group tended to play personality types closer to Mal, Wash and Zoe -- a little bit crazy, but confident and almost always snarky. That, and fans of the show know that River is almost unique in her abilities (aside from others who may have been experimented on) and therefore know a normal character will not have special psi abilities.

I'd just like to say that my wife and I both got really hooked on Firefly/Serenity. We thought that it was clever, engaging, and certainly quirky. The strengths of the show, in my humble opinion, were pithy dialogue, interesting characters, and flavour. Some have criticised it for not being to genre. It is not Science Fiction -- it is Space Fantasy. Space Fantasy has been around long enough for people to recognize it without explanation. In fact, as a genre, it is more pervasive than Sci-Fi.
The Western bit was something that I didn't know how to take at first and I still makes me a bit uneasy. That is not a bad thing. I see it as a stylization -- a deliberate anachronism to get at the flavour or essence of something else. Sure, I see the valid point about the frontier -- but I think of it as a metaphor. That may be entirely off-base to what Josh Wheedon was going for. Did anyone else see it like that?
Visually I loved the ship itself. Conceptually it just spoke to me. The engines had an undefined "glow" that mirrored what I thought of the whole show -- less focus on detail, explaination, and plot; more flavour. That would be my only cricitism. I found the plot just slightly above average. The thing is that I wouldn't change a thing. If the plot were more detailed, more unique, it may detract from the real strengths of the show. I don't think that picking apart the show intellectually is a useful exercise. That would be like using a osciliscope to measure music -- wrong tool for the job.

Two thumbs up for Serenity!
(and two more from Joanne)

My wife and I agree completely Gilgamesh! We saw Serenity first and then bought the Firefly series based on how much we loved the movie. We bought the Serenity roleplaying game based on how much we love the series. Life just keeps getting better and better...

I have since introduced my inlaws and another couple to the world of Serenity. They are all eager to buy copies of their own and share them around with their friends and family. It's like a virus...

"I'm a leaf on the wind... Watch how I soar!"