Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Seneca Crane Must Die

I had this guy as a DM once...

The Hunger Games movie recently hit DVD, so most of you should have had the chance to see it, assuming you didn't read the book last year.  My wife fanatically tore through all three books of the trilogy last year, eventually loading the audio books and making them mandatory listening on one of our overnight road trips this summer.  In this way I've managed to take in the first two books, and am working my way through the third now.  As an avid table top gamer, it's hard not to see parallels between the referee and the role of Seneca Crane - the Head Game Master of the 74th Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games novel describes a dystopian future where a vicious central authority, the Capital, has its boot on the throat of the twelve districts, after a bloody civil war concluded some 75 years ago.  As punishment for the rebellion, the districts must send a pair of children each year to the capital to compete in "The Hunger Games", a 24-person elimination blood sport where only a single child emerges alive from a specially prepared wilderness arena.  The annual games are designed to demonstrate the impotence of the districts, and the futility of struggle against the might of the Capital.

The main character of the story, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to attend the games on behalf of her kid sister, who gets selected in the random lottery to represent District 12.  But I don't want to discuss Katniss; let's just take a look at the games themselves and the character Seneca Crane.

Each year, the games are held in a specially prepared arena designed with meticulous care by the current Head Game Master.  It's a sprawling wilderness terrain littered with natural hazards such as poisonous plants and dangerous fauna.  The 24 players (Tributes) begin at a central depot called 'the Cornucopia', where the Game Master has provided weapons and gear for the taking.  Players thrust into the game must choose between fleeing immediately into the wilds, or trying to weather the inevitable bloodbath that erupts at the Cornucopia as players fight to the death over weapons and gear.

Here's a crucial piece of the equation; the Hunger Games are televised throughout both the capital and the districts as entertainment and political message.  Seneca Crane's role doesn’t stop with the creation of the arena;  he's expected to deliver exciting television to the viewers back home and send an object lesson to the districts.  Fairness in the games is irrelevant.  If a player moves too far away from Crane's action, the arena is manipulated to guide them back towards harm's way.  If a player or group of players is doing too well, Seneca Crane inflicts additional hazards on them.  We see an example in the movie, when Katniss continually eludes her opponents, and Seneca orders her to be herded arbitrarily towards a group of murderous Tributes by a rampaging forest fire.  Along the way, she is blasted by fireballs and seriously injured, further decreasing her odds of survival.  Later, Crane conjures mutated hounds to chase her down as she continues to elude him.

Seneca is no hidden creator, no unrevealed prime mover, who lifts the curtain on the stage and then steps out of the spotlight.  He is a celebrity in his own right, interviewed on national TV by Caesar Flickerman.  He covets the stage.  He considers himself quite important - after all, he is privy to the secret thoughts of the President.  He has an agenda, and he will not be denied.  His manipulations infuriate the players, just as much as his meddling infuriates us as readers.

I would hope the applications to table top gaming are evident.

Capsule Review:
Stepping off the soap box a moment for a capsule review, I will say the books are an entertaining, fast read.  The series follows in the footsteps of great dystopian works like Brave New WorldFahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, and 1984, holding up a mirror without too much overt proselytizing.  The parallels to reality TV and the Survivor phenomenon are compelling.  As a fan of mythology, I appreciated the allusions to Theseus and the use of the term "Tributes" to describe the unlucky children chosen for the games.  It's a theme that echoes in the other books.

I recommend the series if you like science fiction, and don't mind it toned down just a bit to fit the 'young adult' genre.  Young adult does't mean unintelligent.  You might even pick up a few useful ideas for tricks, traps, and puzzles from the arenas, for use in your own role playing game setting.  I certainly did.


  1. My wife sometimes fantasizes about teaching a class in dystopian futures. Hunger Games is probably top of her list (I lazied out and just watched the movie). But there are a couple favorites that never seemed to get the press as we thought they deserved:

    Feed - YA fiction book by M.T. Anderson. A slice of life and sort of parable on how the coupling of consumerism with ubiquitous internet presence is shaping society. Narrated by a teenage Abe Lincoln clone, constantly seeking novelty and amusement among the dismally affluent arcologies and banal wonders of the era.

    Oryx and Crake - Another Atwood novel, and definitely more ADULT adult than young adult. We listened to it on CD on a long car trip. It paints events leading up to and for some time after a bio-apocalyptic future, seen from the POV of a close friend of doomsday's architect. The technology may not quite be there yet, but in my mind the whole thing was portrayed believably on both the social and technological fronts.