Monday, 17 June 2013
Save the world, I want to get off
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?"