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Monday, 17 June 2013

Save the world, I want to get off

You know when you first started role-playing and every other campaign seemed to be about saving the world? Because that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? The stakes don't come any bigger than that, right?

Well, how about finding your little niece who's gone missing in Central Park at sunset? Compared to something like that, saving the world is a pretty unrelatable goal. Even the laziest author or GM recognizes that and, to solve the problem, they usually add, "The world's in danger and only you can save it."

What are they aiming for there? They're trying to make the threat personal. Because, when it's personal, the reader or viewer or player will care about it.

Look at Star Wars. Nobody tells Luke Skywalker that he's going to have to save the world. In fact, he's going to have to do that and a whole lot more, but what kicks it off is a plea for help from a beautiful princess. (Yeah, beautiful. Try to forget about the ear-muff hairdo, that’s all I’m asking.) Princess Leia personifies and clarifies the abstract goal of struggle against a galactic empire. Luke gets drawn in, and we go with him.

Save-the-world is so hard to care about, you see. It’s like: “Evil will triumph.” But what does that even mean? Show us. Evil is your former neighbor herding you into a gas oven. It’s a warlord who cuts your father’s hands off in front of you. It’s not a guy in a black robe spouting nihilistic philosophy and laughing sneerily.

Paul Mason and I, playing characters in a Tekumel game years ago, were told that we had to go off into another dimension to stop an ancient evil from destroying the planet. Simple Tsolyani soldiers that we were, that meant even less to our characters than it did to us. But the “ancient evil” had sucked up the spirit of our slain clan-cousin, and in our beliefs he couldn’t go on to the afterlife until that “evil” was destroyed. We managed to find a way to make ourselves care more deeply than the abstract victory condition of save-the-world could ever have done.

So personal threats are the way you can engage the players. Don't make the mistake of locating those personal threats within the game set-up. Players don't want to sit through a long spiel that tells them how their family has been kidnapped and then throws them into the game to sort it out. Their identification with their character begins only when the override is taken off the steering wheel and they’re in control. The classic adventure game Dark Earth involved a complex plot of betrayal, mystery, and danger, but it made sure that these plot elements were uncovered during the game. By the time you start to figure out the intrigue, you’ll have already been playing for an hour, and, then, just to make sure you take the threat to the world seriously, the game embodies it in a very personal way by having your character get infected with a slow-acting poison. Never mind "You have two hours to save the world"; how about "You have two hours to stop yourself from becoming a monster?"

13 comments:

  1. My early tabletop games tended to be about a bit amoral looters, thieves, warriors and such. I dont think imposing some sort of save the world would not have worked. Only epic scale world affecting thing was about player characters actively and willingly making the world worse place for average inhabitant by petty warlord hijinks, burning cities, gathering orc hordes etc.

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    1. My own roleplaying adventures started out with a lot of amoral characters, Leone or Vance style, and as they were on Tekumel there's no Tolkienesque world-saving because it's not that kind of setting. There is no innate alignment or moralism built into the fabric of the universe the way there is in Tolkien and D&D. That's one reason why Paul and I reacted so negatively to a save-the-world good-vs-evil scenario being bolted onto Tekumel.

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  2. I think the “saving the world” or “saving the Universe” scenario is one of the most effective destroyers of any suspension of disbelief when it occurs repeatedly in a science-fiction/fantasy series: that the Universe is really so fragile as to be subject to such existential threats, that the same heroic person or group of people should be conveniently around to avert those threats each and every time they occur, and that these heroes should be able to do so without eventually suffering severe psychological trauma from the stress. Sadly “Doctor Who” has fallen into this category, especially since the relaunch. It reached the heights (or depths) of absurdity in “Journey’s End”, where Davros’ reality bomb threatened to annihilate not just the Earth, and not just the Universe, but the Multiverse of all possible universes (I did very much enjoy his goading of the Doctor in that episode, but that’s beside the point). Physical jeopardy is no bad thing, but I think it is more effectively enhanced by extending it inward to become emotional jeopardy rather than outward to become cosmic jeopardy.

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    1. You know, I don't think anything I could say would improve on that last sentence, Graham. That's the essence of good fantasy storytelling right there.

      As for Davros... I try to avoid watching New Who Dalek episodes as they just get me seeing red, but an RTD scene of Davros goading the Doctor sounds tempting.

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    2. The odd thing is there's plenty of save the world, save the universe plots in old Who but they often covered it up with an immediate threat. It's obviously going to be curtains for humanity if the alien menace isn't stopped... but the immediate problems were usually "it's going to kill us" or "we have to stop it escaping" - and there were stories where there was no over-arching threat other than the immediate problem. The new series struggles with the concept of scale.

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    3. It sure does. From the way the Time Lords or the Daleks continually showed up to menace Earth, I suspect RTD hadn't got much of a sense of how big the universe really is. A glance at the night sky ought to have given him a clue, but this is the guy who had the Doctor say, "We're in orbit around a black hole... but that's impossible!" So he didn't really worry about getting the science right.

      The other thing that ticks me off is the way the show keeps having the universe cease to exist as a way of showing us how important the Doctor is. "What's happening?" "In this timeline the Doctor never existed, so the stars are going out..." But when has the Doctor *ever* stopped a star from going out? It's lazy, lazy writing. Captain Kirk, Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes all manage to be heroes without saving the world/universe. The Doctor now has to do it every season.

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    4. I suppose the writers are projecting. Their entire universe definitely would collapse if Doctor Who went away.

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  3. I never have world ending prevention quests in my gamebook and always personal because:

    A) If there is progression involved then surely the character must wait until they are more powerful to save the world and do more 'minor' quests first (Lone Wolf didn't save the world in a single book until book 12 and possibly book 4).

    B) There is always the issue of 'Where do you go from here?' which might lead to the big bad being resurrected in some convoluted way.

    C) Graham's comment above about the Universe being that frageile shattering any suspension of disbelief.

    D) Also, one of my bugbears about all these Earth-shaking stories is that I could never just sit back and enjoy the world building because in the space of one story, everything had changed irrevocably. I enjoy stories where you get to explore the world, which means that it needs to have some sense of stability (like the Conan stories or Lovecraft's short stories).

    I am currently working on a gamebook where there are Earth-shaking consequences, but only by accident - in the sense that I made a bad guy who I thought would be cool and then realised that actually if you did not stop him, then I could not think of a situation where anyone else would be able to.

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    1. I guess I have had one save-the-world scenario, in the form of Heart of Ice, and that's my best gamebook. But in my defence, (a) that's not much of a world left to save, and (b) it's very definitely more Leone than Tolkien.

      And, of course, I ended the world in Blood Sword, so maybe that balances out.

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    2. Btw that gamebook you're working on sounds intriguing...

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  4. Hi there,

    I've been looking to buy a PDF copy of the Fabled Lands RPG supplements for Sokara and Golnir, but all the links I've found are dead.

    Sorry if this isn't the most appropriate place to comment, but do you have any idea where I might find a site to buy a PDF from?

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  5. Hmmm. It might be better to ask the company that produced them. http://www.greywoodpublishing.com/ There is an email you can use in "Contact Us".

    Not sure about PDF and I believe that Golnir is not out. Can only be preordered on real paper. When it get out, I have not got a clue.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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    1. Joe, you took the words out of my mouth. I think Greywood went through a pretty big restructuring right after we did the RPG deal with them, and I don't think any more supplements are planned now, unfortunately.

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