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Friday, 30 November 2018

Inevitability doesn't have to mean jumping through story hoops


Victor Mature. With a loincloth and an ass’s jawbone he was the Conan of his day, but Arnie or Sly could never match the performance he gave in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Mature played Doc Holliday, consumed by self-loathing and taking refuge in a bourbon bottle. When Holliday’s girlfriend is shot, Wyatt Earp sobers him up long enough to dust off his black bag and operate. It seems to go all right. The girl is getting better. Holliday glimpses a ray of hope. Maybe he could yet go back.

Then she dies. It’s a throwaway event off-screen – we only learn about it when Earp finds Holliday back in his dark place with the whiskey. And (defying the old movie rule to “make a scene of it”) Ford thereby expresses the whole theme of fatalism that runs right through the movie. Holliday can’t change, he can’t escape his destiny. This is the gunfight at the OK Corral as Shakespearean tragedy.

Then I got to thinking about story-based games, of which gamebooks are an obvious example. I'm sure you've encountered episodes like this one. You race through, bludgeoning enemies who are trying to stop you, only to arrive at the dock a minute too late. The ship has sailed, the bad guy has the girl (or the cute guy, if you prefer) and he’s taunting you. The chapter or game level ends there, and after a long slog through many equally stage-managed scenarios, you’ll finally get the chance to confront him and make up for failing there at the docks.

The trouble with that is it's too artificial. If I’m being invited to interact with a story, surely I shouldn’t be just jumping through the author’s hoops?

Now imagine this scenario. You’re sent to either kill or rescue a character – your choice. But the story requires this character to die. For narrative reasons, she has to be missing from later episodes. So the author says to himself, “If you decide to rescue her, I’ll have a scene at the end of that section where you’re almost home free and a stray bullet kills her anyway.”

I don’t like designing gamebook stories that way. It smacks of authorial arrogance: “You’re only the player, so sit there and watch.” But what would John Ford have done with it? Most likely he’d build the gamebook around the theme of inevitability. He wouldn’t kill the character right there at the end of the chapter, he’d leave it till later. Crucially, he’d let your choice make a short-term difference even if not a long-term one. In the interim, after all, she might have fallen in love. Or got pregnant. Or betrayed you. Dying then comes with a different emotional heft.

The players don’t always have to be able to make a difference – just so long as they aren’t ignored.

13 comments:

  1. I agree. I have had a look at many "Sword & Sorcery" scenarios and, though the start" in medias res" is a trope of the genre, I would advise to avoid it as much as possible towards players. They must be the masters of their destiny.

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    1. I would qualify that by saying that, in my roleplaying games, nobody else is master of the PCs' destiny. The best stories emerge, not out of authorial templates, but from attempting things in an impartial universe.

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  2. I like your cinematic reference, and I like your conclusion: "The players don’t always have to be able to make a difference – just so long as they aren’t ignored." Similarly, I've read commentary on running games where the example is a mystery where the characters totally miss a crucial clue (as-written) for whatever reason. Instead of totally hosing the adventure, give them the information through an improvised means and in exchange they get handicapped at some later point.

    But I have no problem with writing an adventure where players are not "master" of their destiny. If the theme is "Fate -- there's no escaping Destiny," then the players' contribution to the game is how their characters squirm and strive on their path, and ultimately succumb to their fates. Do they cry out against the darkness? Do they beg? Do they sacrifice themselves nobly for a person or cause? I don't find being an author to equate with "arrogance."

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    1. There's certainly nothing wrong in my book with designing an adventure with no hope of triumph. Most Dragon Warriors scenarios go that way. I don't much care for the arithmetic of fudging clues and then getting players to pay for having missed them, though. If I made a clue too obscure, and stupidly made the entire adventure hinge on finding that clue, then it's not the players' fault. Even in an investigative campaign we've had players miss clues, get the wrong end of the stick, and end up pursuing an entirely different thread than the one originally planned - and that's when games really get more interesting than stories.

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    2. The "Gumshoe" system is based on investigative scenarios, but it "gives" all the clues to the players and what matters is how they interprete these clues.
      This approach has been criticized because it only gives a "feeling" of investigation, but not the real gist.
      A better system is the "rule of three". For each scene, make 3 different clues available. Unless your players are very bad, they shall probably get one of the three. And place no more than one or two "red herings" per scenario.

      Here is the original article by Justin Alexander : http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

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    3. Too often investigative campaigns self-consciously seek to reproduce the feel of a TV show rather than the messier (and I would say more interesting) reality which often includes missed clues, misinterpretations, unresolved crimes and miscarriages of justice. I really ought to do a post about this.

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  3. Hi Dave off topic but will we see another wonderful Dragon Warriors Xmas adventure? They are truly one of the highlights of the festive season!

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    1. You betcha, Nigel. We've got Tim Harford's adventure "The Dean's Folly" coming up on Friday. Meanwhile IRL my group was treated to another of Tim's adventures yesterday. It just wouldn't be Christmas without them, and I'll ask him if we can run that one next year.

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    2. Ah the Dragon Warriors Christmas Special ! Over the years Dave, Charlie Brooker and Dr Who have variously disappointed our festive expectations, but not you ; )

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    3. And I can guarantee the tradition will continue, John, as I'm currently scheduling next year's special -- another cracking adventure by Tim Harford -- which we played last Sunday.

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  4. To go further off topic I just want to go all fan boy for a minute (slightly awkward for a mid-forties Aussie bloke) and say thanks to you Dave (and Oliver) for creating such a wonderfully evocative game and world with DW/Bloodsword and Legend! Warm glow of nostalgia aside your work has stood the test of time and is some of the best rpg writing around! It has given my brother and I many hours of enjoyment during our childhood. So thanks! Also please pass onto to Jamie that his world of Orb and Way of the Tiger books are works of epic imagination and are also much loved! Ahem after that unseemly outpouring of emotion back to our regular programming... :-)

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    1. As a 60-year-old Brit I'll take your kind comments with a manly handshake and a mumbled thank you, Nigel :-) It's very gratifying for me, Oliver and Jamie to play in a group that includes 40-something gamers who cut their roleplaying teeth on Dragon Warriors -- once fans, now firm friends. And it was a particular pleasure this year to introduce my 20-yo godson Inigo to the world of Legend. It's taken on a life of its own and Oliver and I are just two of the fans now.

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