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Friday 19 May 2017

Forget about storytelling and your games will yield better stories

“Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure… Structure should grow out of character.” -- Colum McCann

My friend had just paid several hundred dollars to spend a few days being taught the secret sauce of Hollywood scriptwriting by a self-proclaimed guru.

‘I’d pay to hear Kaufman or Mamet,’ I said. ‘But I reckon they’d start off by saying there is no magic formula.’

‘I knew you’d scoff. Here, I’ll prove it works. Give me one of your Knightmare novellas.’

He counted pages to the plot points, the mid-point, the break into two. ‘See? Fits the three-act story structure exactly.’

‘That’s not proof of your point, though -- quite the opposite. 'Cause I just wrote that book. I didn’t map out where I should put the inciting incidents and reveals and reversals. If you tell a story, sure, it may very well fit the structure - but that doesn’t mean that knowing the structure will help you tell better stories.’

Here’s an analogy you may have heard me use before. Toss a ball and it follows a parabola. But there is no rule in nature that fits the ball’s trajectory to the equation for a curve. The universe doesn’t do equations. Instead the parabola emerges because of the force of gravity making incremental changes to the ball’s velocity. Then we look at it, get our maths on, and say, "Ooh, a parabola."

So too with stories. The changes in velocity are the deep rules of human interaction. The three-act structure is just one curve that you might perceive from a specific set of interactions.

People are suckers for an easy fix. Hence snake oil, superstition, and Trump. And hence also role-playing game design, which has been tempted off into the shrubbery with the seductive promise of a formula for better stories. Things like this:
"Each player around the table gets to write one of the fifty-six Johari adjectives in one quadrant of your character’s Johari window. Pick your character's primary defining adjective from the façade quadrant. The player who gave you that adjective that now assigns your character a Goal, a Grudge and a Geis of her choice. Every time you evoke one of those, the player who assigned it to you takes over as GM to direct you in a scene with potential for a Character Development roll…"
My view on this kind of malarkey is that I turned up to play my character, not to author yours. More importantly, you’re going to get better stories – more interesting, more complex, more surprising, more emotionally affecting, and more transformative – by setting out simply to inhabit the characters rather than by sitting at arm’s length and pulling their strings.

I would never try to shoehorn an RPG session into story shapes when I’m running the game, much less when I'm playing. Let the game take the course it wants without self-consciously imposing story templates and from time to time it will really amaze you. OK, so it probably won’t end up with the tidy three-act form of a blockbuster movie. But what’s more compelling: watching a precision-crafted screenplay tie everything up with a bow, or experiencing life with its shifting, overlapping, unexpected patterns?

The other day I heard somebody talking about a ‘crafted narrative’ RPG system. ‘We enjoyed creating the characters more than playing the game!’ he said – as if that was a good thing. But it’s not, it’s a fail. If you enjoy creating characters, fine. Become a writer. Though, if you do, for pity’s sake don’t subject us to stories wrangled through a Hollywood paradigm. Writers soon learn that it’s more fruitful to let the characters drive the story organically than to try to corralling them with reductive mechanics like goal achievements and epiphany moments.

Human beings evolved to perceive in events the shape of a story, because then it becomes a lesson we can learn. The events themselves aren’t a story, they’re just a cascade of cause and effect. The universe doesn’t do stories any more than it does equations. The story is the parabolic curve mapped onto the events afterwards.

Likewise, the experiences you have while playing the game are the uncollapsed wave function, and all the more interesting for that. When players recount their adventures later, that’s when the storytelling happens. Each character will come away with a different story – for example in this write-up, which describes things from my character’s point of view. If you asked another of the players you’d hear a very different tale. You get it. You’ve seen Rashomon.

In short, you’ll get better stories if you don’t try to create ‘stories’. Because it really is the case that truth (or a simulated life) is stranger than fiction.

Monday 15 May 2017

What a great fantasy movie looks like

Last time I was over at Leo Hartas's he recommended some movies I needed to catch up on. One of them was Kubo and the Two Strings and - wow. Just wow. I don't want to say anything spoilery (even the trailer gives away a little surprise that's waiting in the end credits) so I'll just urge you in the strongest possible terms to watch this asap. It packs in ten times the wit, charm, imagination and originality of the typical blockbuster SF/fantasy movie. Oh, and Blood Sword fans will realize by the end why I especially cherish the story. A real delight.

Friday 5 May 2017

"The Right Duke" (a Shakespearean World War 2 scenario)

Even by the standards of my group’s seasonal specials, this scenario is an odd one. The specials, held four times a year, are used for epic events in our regular campaigns. At least, that was the original idea. But one of our campaigns involves a group of immortal Spartans, and as that campaign plays out slowly over the centuries, we decided it would be fun from time to time to have non-canonical specials that would allow us to fast-forward in the characters’ lives. So, while the campaign is actually now up to the eighth century AD and the characters recently met Alfred the Great, in various specials we've played them in Victorian times, 1930s New York, a ‘60s spy adventure, and even policing the mean streets of Mega-City One.
As you can see from that list, not only are the Spartan specials non-canonical, they’re usually an excuse to play around with tone and genre in a way we don’t tend to do in our regular campaigns. The adventures don’t even have to make strictly logical sense. You know Moonlighting? The Taming of the Shrew episode? Like that.
Before I go on, there are spoilers ahead. If you’re going to be playing in this scenario, better look away now. Still here? Okay then…
There’s a reason I mentioned Shakespeare. This scenario was set in World War Two and followed on from events in the Immortal Spartans campaign that happened two millennia earlier. Back then, Julius Caesar had heard of a ruined city across the Atlantic where there was a marvellous device (alien technology, naturally) that could make him immortal just like the player characters. He and Cleopatra tried to use it to raise themselves up to be gods over mankind, but the characters thwarted that plan and Caesar seemed to be dissolved in the heart of the machine.
Fast forward to the 1940s. My idea was that on a mission to kidnap Mussolini, the characters would stray through a “tempest” created by an experimental atomic device, arriving not in Milan but in a parallel pocket universe where Caesar, exploiting the consonance between his shadow existence and Mussolini’s isolation as a puppet ruler, now imposed a different reality in which he was the exiled duke seeking a return to power. The characters are sucked into this pocket universe where “Il Duce” = “the Right Duke of Milan” and unless they can stop Caesar from completing the final ceremony, his reality will overwrite our timeline. All the centuries in which he was trapped as a shadow, his “gold complexion dimm’d”, will never have happened and he will become the immortal ruler of all as his original plan decreed.
As for tone – exiled dukes, mistaken identities, storms that warp reality, a magical unity of place and time. It had to be Shakespeare. Try and do some of the NPC dialogue in Elizabethan style. It doesn’t have to be the Bard, but just a few touches will add a lot of flavour. Of course, to use this scenario at all you’re going to need to do a lot of rejigging, even if you run it for one-off characters. Your best bet is probably just to read through it for ideas and then remake it in a form that suits your group. Let us know in the comments how it plays out. 

[This is how my players came in, but you may decide to ditch the immortal Spartans thing entirely.]
It is the summer of 1943, and you have lived for nearly two and a half thousand years. You are healthy but, having seen so much, inevitably some experiences are hazier than others. Sometimes you wake dazzled by the blazing light on the brass walls of Athena’s temple, or with the taste of a fresh fig plucked from the groves beside the Eurotas. Early memories are always sharp. Others may come into focus for a while, uncertainly poised between recollection and dream, as each successive era sees you in new clothes, speaking a new tongue. Who knows how many loves and friends and foes you have forgotten, how many once-cherished experiences are lost forever in the unstopping torrent of your lives?
And now mankind, whom you have lived among like gods, is on the verge of harnessing the power of Apollo. What wonders the rest of the 20th century may bring, if the world survives the dark abyss of conflict into which it has lately fallen.
You have 480 points to spend. We are using only the two core GURPS 4e books: Characters and Campaigns, both to keep things simple and on the basis that some of the later books break more than they fix. So if it isn’t in those two core books, it isn’t in the special.
Also, no cinematic or paranormal abilities. Exotic abilities are probably okay, but we’ll look at those on a case by case basis rather than list them here.
Stats: IQ should not exceed 14. Other stats can go up to 20, and you can buy Lifting ST and Striking ST up to +5.
Skills in excess of 16 are capped by your IQ. For example, with IQ 12 you can have two skills at 22, or three at 20, etc. Your attitude to modern skills is up to you. Spartans despised long-range missile weapons such as bows as cowardly, but twenty-five centuries is a long time in which to moderate your views.
You have no disadvantages or quirks – at least, not that earn you any points.
Your pooled wealth is already assumed, so you don’t need to allocate points for that.
You don’t have to bother with allies and contacts; as the setting of a special is so limited it makes little sense for you to pay for them. I will automatically assign you contacts if appropriate. However, if you want to specify contacts, in full knowledge that they may not be accessible, feel free to do so.
You should decide if you have sympathy with the Axis or Allies, or are neutral. For the sake of this scenario, it’s assumed that in June 1943 you are at least purporting to be on the side of the Allies and so taking status or rank in the Allied forces may make sense. (If you choose to be a double agent, pay only for your status/rank on the Axis side; their intelligence resources will have arranged equivalent rank for you among the enemy at no cost to you.)
Languages: you have Greek, Latin, English and one other modern language free. You probably will need more. Area Knowledge could also come in handy. (The adventure will take place largely in the European theatre.)
Equipment is mostly going to be standard WW2 kit. Assume that you can have one weapon or other piece of gear of fine quality (adds +2 to skill) and the rest at good quality (+1 to skill). Rationale: this is a time of constant missions, so there’s a lot of churn on the gear you’re using, and not always time to resupply with the top-quality stuff between operations.
Body armour just wasn’t practical for field use in the early 1940s. You might put a bulletproof jacket under an overcoat if you were expecting an assassin to take a potshot at you, or don a flak jacket while aboard a bomber (they are effective at stopping slow-moving shrapnel, not high-velocity bullets), but you’d be lumbering about like Iron Man with his power switched off. The only armour usable on active duty is a helmet (DR4, weight 3lbs).
Your airship, the Apollo, is 250m long with a duralumin hull and seventeen helium gasbags. It is powered by four 1250 hp engines with swivel mounts allowing them to be angled in almost any direction. It has a top speed of 85 mph and a range of 7000 miles.
The bridge and radio room are in the control gondola located at the fore of the hull, with a secondary main crew/passenger area molded into the lower deck area further back. The main quarters include kitchen, dining room, sixteen two-person passenger cabins, further cabins for forty crew behind a bulkhead, and an observation lounge. Access between the control gondola and living quarters is via the interior deck.
The control gondola can be detached from the hull in extreme emergency, deploying chutes that allow a controlled descent to the sea.
Observation nacelles are located fore and aft on the upper curve of the hull. An observation pod called the Eyrie can be lowered from the midpoint of the vessel to keep lookout when hovering in cloud.
An internal hangar holds five single-seat Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes: Phobos, Deimos, Thanatos, Aidos and Aite. These can be lowered for launch by means of a trapeze mechanism, onto which they can hook to return to the ship.

Act I:

Summer 1943. We open over the North Pole, aboard the characters’ airship Apollo, where they are helping Dr Otto Frisch and his assistant Auberon Farley conduct tests using the Lady Godiva Device. The aurora borealis is like being inside a glowing curtain. When Dr Frisch turns on the device, the aurora intensifies and bends in towards the ship. Realizing that the Demon Core of the device is going critical, Farley reaches in and pulls out a component, deactivating it just as the glowing plasma flows through the ship.
They receive a message to proceed to Dounreay Castle on the northern coast of Scotland. The message is tagged “Blenheim”, indicating highest urgency.

En route to Scotland, the airship is attacked by a squad of Bannerboys (Blutfahnejugend). These are young (16-18 year old) Aryan super-soldiers created by a process (“Der Agoge”) developed by Nazi scientists of the Thulë Society in the early 1930s. Bannerboys refer to the Spartans as “Die Golemen” (to distinguish them from so-called Übermenschen).
The control gondola loses contact with the observation nacelles on the upper part of the hull. (Snipers in the Nazi glider took out both spotters.)

The Nazis are attacking in two waves. Inside the hull, commandos are planting bombs while a machine gunner covers them from by the Sparrowhawks. The LMG takes a few rounds to set up, so if characters move fast they will only have three covering snipers to worry about.

The second wave attacks the passenger gondola with the aim of stealing or destroying the Lady Godiva Device. They abseil down the hull, blow the windows with concussion grenades (HT-5 to avoid stun) and move in.

During the attack, the Lady Godiva Device begins to activate. Physics roll at -2 to deactivate it.

The characters get their initial mission briefing from Winston Churchill. The Allied invasion of Sicily has been brought forward and will begin imminently. They are to abduct Mussolini to prevent Hitler from continuing to use him to legitimize Axis control of northern Italy.

Upon arriving in Malta they are greeted by Rear-Admiral Gareth “Bay” Bayswater and his staff.
In Bay’s office they meet an operative called Rasenna who gives them a plan of the Italian coastal defences, and tells them that “Il Duce” is in Milan. They will need to grab him there before he returns to Salo, where the German fortifications will make the job all but impossible.
They need to decide how to equip for the mission. The plan is to parachute near to the city. Bay’s people advise that mostly they should be in civilian gear, as military patrols are more likely to be questioned or even co-opted by superiors.
Two of the party could go in as an Oberstleutnant (Wing Commander”) and Feldwebel (Sergeant) of the First Fallschirm-Jäger Division (“the Green Devils”). As Luftwaffe special ops, they are not subordinate to the SS officers they may run into. They can be supplied with forged papers that confirm they are under orders from General Kurt Student.
The civilians will have to make do with concealable weapons. The two German officers can carry SMGs or FG42 automatic rifles, but need to be careful not to attract undue attention (no actual machine guns!). They can also wear steel Fallschirmhelms (DR 5 on skull).
Incidentally, we use GURPS 4e for the Immortals Spartan campaign. Why? Here’s why.

There is an Italian agent whom they should attempt to contact at a nightclub called Il Fungo a Mezzanotte on the Via del Fieno. They are to ask for the head waiter and say (in Italian) “There is no chance of a mint julep, presumably?” (“Non vi è alcuna possibilità di un Julep di menta, presumibilmente?”) and the agent will contact them.
The agent will know Mussolini’s whereabouts and can provide them with whatever clothing and papers are needed to get access to him. Failing that, they should return to their radio set (wherever they leave it) and request new orders.

As per orders: take the Apollo over Milan to parachute in, seize Mussolini, and bring him back alive across the Swiss border 50 miles away. It’s midsummer night.
A fierce storm is raging over northern Italy. This is where they discover a saboteur (Frisch’s assistant) has planted the Godiva Device in the upper rigging of the Apollo and set it to go critical. As they jump, a vortex of glowing light surrounds the city and they leave a “vapour trail” of sparks as they descend.
If they try to get away from the city, they’ll find a force field now surrounds it at a distance of a couple of miles.
(This list of some of the major Milan landmarks may be useful to provide colour.)

The nightclub is called Il Fungo a Mezzanotte – the Midnight Mushroom. The agent they have to meet is Mira. She unrolls from a carpet and does a slinky Egyptian-style number. (Eidetic memory identifies her as Cleopatra, but not right away – say “she reminds you of someone”, then later give them an IQ roll.)
Mira tells them “Il Duce” will be at the castle tomorrow morning for a state proclamation, but that he will be heavily guarded by SS troopers then. She will try to find out his whereabouts tonight, when it will be easier to kidnap him, but her informer hasn’t got in touch yet.
“They say his agents are out searching for something called the Proserpine Key. I don’t know where that is, but if you find it then you may find him. I was given this ring, which is supposed to be a clue of some kind.”
As they talk, there’s a raid on club by the police, whom Mira calls the Calibanieri (sic). They might try to fight it out, but Mira hurries them to the back door. “They’ll call for Pineborn and Il Brute. Go to the Love-in-Idleness café near the cemetery. I’ll join you there.”
If they demur, have Il Brute and Mr Pineborn arrive. (See later for stats.)

Mira’s ring is a large diamond on a silver setting. Scrutinizing it closely reveals a tiny imperfection inside the gem. A Vision roll at -10 allows them to see the “imperfection” is in flux.
To view the image, they either need a magnifying glass (could break into a jeweller’s) or hold it up to a bright light like the lamp on the side of the Cathedral plaza. The image shows Cleopatra and Caesar as glowing figures. (This is a good point for someone to realize that Cleopatra is Mira.)
The ring itself is not the Proserpine Key. Mira herself is the Key.

It’s likely that on the way through from the Via del Fieno to the Love-in-Idleness, they will pass by the Cathedral plaza.
The image of Mussolini is projected onto the side of the Cathedral at night, hundreds of feet high. Except… it’s not Mussolini’s face, it’s Caesar’s. 

The informant in a guy in a trenchcoat who they need to spot (Vision at -5 for the darkness) across the plaza. As they see him (100 yards away) he ducks into a telephone kiosk.
The informant’s phone call summons the Calibanieri – unless they shoot him, in which case the shot brings a patrolling SS jeep.

They’re fleeing from police cars (why? maybe they pursued and killed the informant) and are cornered, until Baron Glauer pops up from a manhole cover and leads them to safety.
Baron Glauer is a psionic of the Thule Society. He tells them that he can see both worlds, theirs and Caesar’s, having the ability to send out his astral form between realities and even teleport by Tibetan meditation. He promises to help the characters, warning that they must find the Proserpine Key or Caesar will use it to replace their time line with his own. He says that as long as they stay within five yards of him, he can cloud the minds of ordinary patrolmen not to notice them.
In fact Glauer just wants the Proserpine Key in order to have a bargaining chip with Caesar.

Mira sends word to them at the café to meet her at the cemetery nearby. Her note says, “I will wait at the  grave of Signor Einstein,” which refers to Hermann Einstein, Albert Einstein’s father.
At the grave they do indeed find Mira waiting for them. She tells them Caesar is at the Cathedral. “He is getting ready for some kind of ceremony at dawn.”
However, Baron Glauer recognizes Mira as the Proserpine Key and teleports her away with him just as Mr Pineborn and Il Brute arrive for a big fight.

Some special effects for if/when this happens:

         Lights flicker – that’s the “they’re here” warning.
         Pineborn may put lights out altogether (both he and Il Brute can see in the dark).
         Il Brute can rip out tables and use them as shields or to throw.
         Il Brute can throw Mr Pineborn at someone -- a highball special.

As the characters race to the Cathedral, they’ll see that parties of workers in many streets are decking out Il Duce’s statues with purple robes and laurel wreaths, as for a Roman triumph.

Act III:

Caesar is conducting a marriage ritual that will transform him and Mira into full immortals and replace our reality with his. The characters have to disrupt the ceremony.
They face Caesar and his bodyguard – not as tough a fight as the one earlier, unless the bodyguard were alerted to use gold bullets. [The Spartans can regenerate most damage, but gold weapons disrupt this ability so that they heal from such injuries only as fast as normal men.]

If the characters successfully disrupt the ritual, this pocket universe reverts to real-world Milan, Caesar becomes Mussolini (alive) and they will need to reach the Swiss border. Baron Glauer could help if they haven’t killed him, though he can only teleport so large a group a few miles.