Revisiting Alan Moore's Official "Watchmen" Prequel

Wed, September 10th, 2008 at 2:30pm PDT | Updated: February 1st, 2012 at 1:31pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
4

ROLE-PLAYING RORSCHACH

"The Watchmen Sourcebook" by Ray Winninger

Last month, I discussed the importance of Captain Metropolis in the structure of the "Watchmen" series, citing his role as the cornerstone of Ozymandias's ultimate plot, and the link between the heroes of the past and the heroes of the present. But I also mentioned the strange case of the "Watchmen" role-playing supplements for the DC Heroes RPG published by Mayfair Games.

The two modules, "Watching the Watchmen" and "Taking Out the Trash," along with the "Watchmen Sourcebook" continue to fascinate me as examples of an earlier, more innocent time when "Watchmen" wasn't quite, well, "WATCHMEN!!!" A time when Alan Moore actually collaborated on an expansion of the "Watchmen" world.

Recently, I managed to contact Daniel Greenberg and Ray Winninger, the writers of those three Alan Moore-sanctioned RPG books. Greenberg (a freelance scriptwriter, game design consultant, and voice-over director) and Winninger (a senior director at Microsoft) reflected on their experiences working on the only official "Watchmen" spin-offs, and discussed the collaboration needed to launch these unorthodox role-playing books.

As I suspected, both "Who Watches the Watchmen" and "Taking Out the Trash" were written before the "Watchmen" series was completed. Greenberg, who worked on the first module, says, "I started work on the game when 'Watchmen' was a three-page outline, and published it a little more than half way through the original 12-issue run of the comic book masterpiece." Ray Winninger's timeline was similar, although he'd seen at least a few issues of the actual comic before he started writing the spin-off: "I started 'Taking Out the Trash' very early in the series' lifecycle, around the time issue #3 was released," says Winninger. "By that point, Alan had written up through around issue #8 or #9 but he knew exactly how everything would end." Winninger adds, as an aside: "I've always hated the title 'Taking Out the Trash,' by the way. My original title was 'The Harlot's Curse,'" but Winninger's title "was changed by an overzealous Mayfair editor."

Greenberg initiated the "Watchmen" project at Mayfair, and he said he did so for a couple of reasons, "I was a major fan of Alan Moore in the early 80s and I thought his approach to the superhero could invigorate the superhero RPG." By 1986, Mayfair's DC Heroes line had already published over a dozen traditional-style superhero adventure modules, featuring the likes of the JLA, Firestorm, and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Greenberg, rightly so, saw that a "Watchmen" module had the potential to be something much more than just another traditional RPG spin-off: "I admired the way [Alan Moore] could not only shatter superhero stereotypes, but reintegrate them," says Greenberg. "I thought the RPG world could use a dose of that, too."

"I set out to adapt 'Watchmen' to the role-playing game format with the odds stacked against me," says Greenberg. "I had to convince Mayfair Games to agree to publish the game [at a time] when 'Watchmen' looked like a much bigger risk than game adaptations of DC's flagship characters."

"It was especially important to me that I land the project and to get it done right," says Greenberg. "I worked very hard to convince everyone -- Mayfair and DC and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons -- to support my approach to Watchmen so we could publish simultaneously with the comic."

The Comedian takes out the trash.

"Mayfair pointed out that I could probably create two RPGs with all the extra time and effort it would take to create a game based on a comic that did not exist yet," Greenberg adds. "One inducement I offered to Mayfair was that I would do all the work on the game without any advance payments."

But even after sacrificing time and money, Greenberg couldn't have written "Watching the Watchmen" alone. "I was only able to complete the RPG module on time with the extremely generous cooperation from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons," says Greenberg. "The tight schedule left little room for error in writing, designing, game testing, coordinating original art with Dave Gibbons, and securing approvals from Alan Moore, DC Comics, and Mayfair Games."

"As far as I know," says Greenberg, "this kind of day-and-date releasing had not been attempted in RPGs before. It took a lot of hard work and persistence, but in the end was more than worth it." "RPG gamers would be able to play through the first and only Crimebusters mission months before they would be able to read the ending of the 'Watchmen' comic," says Greenberg. "That way, players would have experienced Captain Metropolis committing a terrible act in the name of a greater cause before they read Ozymandias's terrible act for a greater cause. But where Captain Metropolis makes a mess of it in the RPG, Ozymandias learns from him and figures out how to make it work. This deepens the implication in the comic that Ozymandias begins to formulate his ideas about how to 'save the world' after Captain Metropolis's abortive attempt to form a team of heroes. So the game not only grows out of the ending of the comic, but also foreshadows the ending of the comic."

Greenberg emphasizes how helpful Alan Moore was, noting that he was "particularly generous with his time and patience in giving detailed answers to my inexhaustible questions. I was especially honored when he started calling me to talk about his latest ideas."

Winninger had similar experiences with his collaborative efforts: "On all of our various DC Heroes projects we received a lot of cooperation from various DC creators, Alan and Dave included." "Shortly after I picked up the Watchmen assignment I called Alan in Northampton," says Winninger. "He was unbelievably nice and excited about the project. During that first call he spent almost two hours telling me exactly what was about to happen in the next nine issues of the comic, down to the level of individual panels and page layouts." Winninger adds, "I still remember him saying 'Right, issue 12. We open with six pages of corpses.' I spoke with him several times thereafter to bounce my ideas for the adventure off of him, to clarify details to get his approval on the manuscripts and such." And, as Winninger points out, Dave Gibbons provided original cover art for the Mayfair "Watchmen" books and added new interior art as well.

Alan Moore was supportive of everything Winninger planned for the "Watchmen" role-playing game supplements. Winninger says, "I don't recall him ever vetoing anything. I certainly wouldn't have used anything he didn't like. He and I riffed together on some of the new stuff -- backgrounds for some of the Minutemen is one detail I remember."

Greenberg cites a few differences between working on a "Watchmen" book and the average DC Heroes game module: "The restrictions," says Greenberg, "were that I had to make sure all new material fit not only 'Watchmen' continuity, but also fit the world thematically. Depending on your interpretation, those rules constitute either a nearly impossible set of restrictions or near-total freedom. To me they counted as near-total freedom."

"The idea to have Captain Metropolis engineer a plot to force the characters to work together popped into my head in the middle of my first phone call to Alan Moore," says Greenberg. "I blurted out the idea while we were brainstorming, and he approved the plotline on the spot. He even made helpful suggestions which I adopted -- like using Moloch as the logical fall guy for Captain Metropolis. Making Moloch a double patsy -- first for Metropolis and then again for Ozymandias -- could lend another layer of poignancy to the Moloch-Comedian scene in the comic."

Dave Gibbons interior art from the RPG

"The map-burning scene was the perfect catalyst for a plot that delivered the things 'Watchmen' players would want -- the main characters in action together, political overtones with lots of potential for friction between the heroes, and a dark, twisted ending that turned heroism upside down," says Greenberg. "It fit my sense of the themes of 'Watchmen' to have the surprise ending of the game echo the surprise ending of the comic."

Greenberg mentions that Mayfair requested that he consider other approaches, "like Minutemen adventures, solo action, and smaller teams." Greenberger says that suggestions included: "Nite Owl and Rorshach vs. criminals (the approach taken by the upcoming video game)," "Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre on patrol (he's a living god, she can do gymnastics!)," and "the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan vs. the Vietnamese," a suggestion which made Greenberg cringe. "But the clear winner was the idea of adding to established continuity and foreshadowing Ozymandias's plot with false flag kidnappings. Happily, it worked."

Winninger took a more politically-inspired approach while conceiving of the story in his module: "The fact that Nixon was still president well into the 80s is one of those little details in 'Watchmen' that fascinated me," says Winninger. "I decided to build a story around Nixon and his rise to power. With the Watchmen a more mundane adventure about stopping Moloch from robbing a museum or something just didn't seem appropriate."

Greenberg says that he took all of his Mayfair work seriously, but "this was a very special project." "I had been a huge fan of Alan Moore since the early 80s," says Greenberg, "when I chased down imports of UK titles like 'Warrior' every month to read the latest 'Marvelman' and 'V' [for Vendetta]", which, he notes "was a lot more difficult in the pre-Internet era."

Winninger has similar feelings about working on the "Watchmen" supplements: "The 'Watchmen' projects were very special to me right out of the gate. When I started writing them nobody knew that 'Watchmen' would become such a classic, but I loved the material I'd seen," says Winninger. "I was already a huge fan of Alan Moore -- I was following his 'Swamp Thing' at the time -- and I was looking forward to working with him and playing around with his concepts. Today I'm generally pretty happy with the sourcebook but I'd love an opportunity to re-write that adventure now that I'm older and wiser."

Winninger reveals that, in the beginning, Alan Moore didn't plan for "Watchmen" to be a self-contained book: "very early on I remember that Alan was excited about extending 'Watchmen' in various directions. I remember him mentioning a couple of things he was interested in -- a 'Tales From the Black Freighter' comic with Joe Orlando and some of the other old EC artists and maybe a 'Minutemen' miniseries," says Winninger. "Obviously his falling out with DC killed any possibility we'd ever see these projects but I also got the sense he was starting to believe that perhaps 'Watchmen' was better left alone."

Now, over twenty years later, the three Mayfair game supplements are the only existing expansions to the "Watchmen" universe. Their place in "Watchmen" history has raised their value (with the sourcebook selling for over $100 in some online auctions), but even in the 1980s, the Mayfair "Watchmen" books did very well for the company. "Mayfair Games told me that 'Who Watches the Watchmen' was their hottest selling module and broke sales records, leading them to quickly green light two more 'Watchmen' titles," says Greenberg, noting that his contract disputes with Mayfair prevented him from working on the last two books in the series. He adds that his module "got great reviews, terrific fan feedback, and won the RPG industry's top award."

Superhero Stats

Winninger agrees with Greenberg's memory of the sales upon release: "The 'Watchmen' books were big sellers for us," says Winninger, "they sold more than twice as much as an average DC Heroes product."

Greenberg adds that, beyond the strong sales, there were interesting reactions from players who enacted the "Watchmen" adventures: "In playtesting, I found that players sometimes made choices that echoed the actions their characters would take later in the comic," says Greenberg, "actions the players did not know about because those issues had not been published and I didn't let any game testers see the notes about the ending of the comic."

"Just as Rorshach grew in the telling from a repellant creature to a figure of strange integrity, I found the same thing happening in playtests," says Greenberg. "His Ditko-esque 'never compromise' approach was a constant source of inter-party friction and took the role-playing to a higher level."

"Also, all the 'mature' elements of the plot that Mayfair was so nervous about turned out to be among the strongest parts of the module," says Greenberg. "They were favorably reviewed, earned great player feedback, and were commended by retail stores and distributors who asked for more mature material. Not long after, Mayfair did a 180 and started work on its first line of 'edgy' games aimed at more mature audiences." That line of "edgy" products included the game "Underground" which mixed together a band of genetically enhanced ex-mercenaries, politics, and cannibalism. A legacy the "Watchmen" creators probably never imagined.

Greenberg adds that he's happy with the reception of his addition to the "Watchmen" milieu, but wants to make one thing clear: "I'm pleased that some fans like it so much they consider the events to be part of the 'Watchmen' canon because it fits seamlessly and because Alan Moore approved it. But I have told them that I cannot agree with them. Only the 'Watchmen' series itself is canon. My game is only an adaptation -- reflected light and not the source."

But, says Greenberg, "I'm proud of ["Watching the Watchmen"]. I achieved just about everything I set out to achieve with it."

Winninger also has nothing but affection for his work on the "Watchmen" RPG books: "working on 'Watchmen' was an absolute pleasure; the sourcebook in particular was probably the most interesting gaming project I had the opportunity to work on." Winninger adds, "I'm very pleased to be a little footnote in the 'Watchmen' story."

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes." More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  watchmen, rpg, alan moore, dave gibbons, mayfair games

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