Recently I re-watched Ladyhawke for the umpteenth time. It’s always been one of my favorite fantasy movies, but this time, I watched it with a specific eye towards gaming. What ideas could I get from it for gaming? How easy would it be to reproduce that kind of scenario in a game? (If, in fact, it’s even possible or desirable to reproduce — RPGs are a very different artform from movies, after all.)
In case you don’t remember it: A thief, Philippe, escapes from the Bishop of Aquila’s dungeons. Since no one has ever done this before, the Bishop demands that the thief be found and executed, so his men go out in search of Philippe. The thief stays one step ahead of the Bishop’s troops until they finally catch him — but he is rescued by Etienne of Navarre, a mysterious knight in black who keeps a hawk with him. Etienne dispatches the Bishop’s men handily, then Philippe and Etienne form an unlikely symbiosis: Philippe seems to offer Etienne a way into Aquila to seek revenge, while Etienne offers Philippe protection from the Bishop’s men. But what about the hawk?
Philippe eventually finds out that the hawk is in reality a woman, Isabeau, who is Etienne’s estranged love. During the day, she turns into a hawk. At night, Etienne turns into a wolf. The two have been cursed by the Bishop, who was jealous of their love. Now, they are always together but always apart.
The next day, the Bishop’s men attack and Isabeau is struck by a crossbow bolt. Etienne commands Philippe to take her to a nearby abandoned monastery, where an old monk lives. The monk, Imperius, sees to her wounds and reveals that he was the one who (through drunkenness) revealed to the Bishop that Etienne and Isabeau were in love. For this, Imperius feels he owes them a tremendous debt.
But he has a plan: there will soon come a “day without a night, a night without a day” where Isabeau and Etienne can confront the Bishop and unravel his curse. First, though, they’ll all need to sneak into Aquila…
There are a lot of little problems with the movie, some that are more obvious and some that are less so:
- The armor is ridiculous. The mail armor evokes “painted sweater” and “incredibly 80s” far more than “actual armor”, and the strips of tin forming the front of Rutger Hauer’s helmet face-guard look like they wouldn’t even stop a football, much less a sword.
- Isabeau’s function is mostly to sit around, look pretty, and occasionally be wounded so the men can have some motivation. Feh.
- At one point, Isabeau, Philippe and Imperius set a pit trap for Etienne (in his wolf form). What exactly were they planning to do with Etienne once they’d captured him? Why couldn’t they just ask him to do whatever they needed him to do? (Etienne in wolf form seems very docile sometimes, and very wild other times.)
- As they get close to capturing wolf-Etienne, he falls into some ‘ice’. And by ‘ice’, I mean “thick-cut sheets of styrofoam that look like no ice I’ve ever seen.” I think the filmmakers even make sure to have one of the characters say “He’s falling in the ice!” A good thing, because otherwise I’d honestly wonder if Etienne was supposed to be falling through a hole in time to a modern-day pack-and-ship store.
- Finally, why does Navarre send Philippe off to get help for Isabeau, instead of going along himself and using his giant horse and sword to protect her? This is narratively convenient — otherwise, Philippe would have nothing to do — but it makes approximately zero in-world sense. There’s even a scene of Etienne sitting and praying. He’s literally just sitting and praying, while Philippe is hopefully rescuing his beloved. Not a very good, or even sensical, plan.
Other than those questions, though, everything else in the story fits together really well. Philippe appearing gives Etienne just the sign he’s been looking for; Navarre was once the captain of the guard, so the guards let him past; how the whole “day without a night” thing works; how Philippe’s thieving skills get used — if this were an RPG, I’d commend the GM on making sure that everyone (well, except Isabeau) gets to contribute something important to the plot, and on making it all fit together so neatly.
It’s tempting to think that the film was designed to ride the wave of D&D-inspired fantasy. The main characters map pretty closely to standard fantasy classes, for example. Etienne is clearly a warrior (perhaps a paladin); Imperius is a priest; and Philippe is one of the better depictions of a thief I’ve seen in a movie. He’s arguably the main character, since he’s the only one who has much of a character arc, and since we effectively see the other characters through his eyes.
Watching the film again reminds me of so many of its set-pieces that make good gaming fodder. The great locations, for a start:
- The ruined monastery with its rickety, collapsing rope-and-board bridge. I suppose I’m a sucker for rope bridges — I just find them thrilling and evocative in games. And Imperius emphatically reminding Philippe to “walk on the left” is genius.
- The dungeons of the Bishop are also a lot of fun. Pretty unrealistic, but a nifty setting anyway.
- The forest houses are another classic. Whole villages in the woods? Again, pretty unrealistic, but fun.
- Maybe my favorite: the trellis outside the inn. Philippe hopping around from grape vine to grape vine is classic adventure. Might be difficult to simulate satisfactorily with RPG miniatures, though.
And the movie has some very inspirational items:
- The bishop’s staff with its secret spike.
- Who doesn’t like Etienne’s double crossbow?
- And last but not least, Etienne’s sword. It’s not magical, but it doesn’t have to be, because it’s full of possibilities. I can’t help but wonder: What did his forefathers do to earn their gems? What stories has this sword been part of?
A few other generally nifty things:
- I’ve always liked Ladyhawke’s subtle take on magic. The only magic in the story is the curse, which is (interestingly) called down by a Bishop. It’s a totally effective, highly mysterious, and completely unique piece of magic. By my standard that magic in fantasy be powerful, mysterious and rare, Ladyhawke’s is nearly perfect.
- The motivations are nice and strong, with some great inter-character tension. Etienne convincing Philippe to go back into the dungeons that he’d barely escaped from, Imperius’ both selfish and selfless reasons for stopping the curse, etc. etc.
- This reminds me — Imperius could be argued to be the other main character, since his arc is probably second only to Philippe’s. And we learn so many interesting details about his past along the way.
All in all, a great movie, with lots of good gaming fodder. It’s easy to imagine trying for a similar scenario in an RPG. Perhaps a reversal, where Isabeau gets to rescue Etienne and Philippa the thief gets to help her along the way. Or where we learn how the gems in the sword of Navarre were earned.