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Friday, 20 May 2022

Two timing

'Do you remember a guy that's been in such an early song?' asked Bowie. Until reminded by a shout-out from Alexis Kennedy, I'd completely forgotten that in Dragon Warriors book 6 I included some advice on handling passage of time in a roleplaying session:

Very long journeys often mean that a game-time period of many months will be skimmed over in a matter of a few minutes of real-time. However, it is not in the best interests of the game to be too quick about this. A sense of the ludicrous may creep into a game where the GM says something such as, ‘You ride south through Algandy, spend a few days in Ferromaine where you charter a ship, then you sail across the Coradian Sea and down the Gulf of Marazid until you reach the mouth of the Mungoda River after about a month. You find a guide and bearers and make your way inland through thick jungle, finally arriving at the ruined temple Sengool told you about three months after you set out.’

Such an introduction is implausible and does little justice to the adventure that is to follow it. I recommend that you never spend less than half an hour gaming each campaign month. Something of interest must happen in that time. Devise a meeting with officials in Ferromaine – are the player-characters stung for duty tax, or wrongfully arrested by the city guard? Embroil them in a subplot which may take up the whole gaming session (though try not to lose the impetus of the main adventure in doing so). As a last resort, at least throw in a pre-planned but ostensibly random encounter.

One useful trick that allows you to move through game-time at an accelerated rate is by means of a film-like montage. Wait for the players to begin a discussion amongst themselves – a plan of action, an argument over spoils, or whatever – then run them fairly freely through their journey, interjecting briefly sketched events or remarks from NPCs, such as the ship's captain, at intervals to show that time is passing. As in a film, a few minutes’ action can thus be made to seem to cover days or weeks. 

It's that montage technique that Alexis and Lottie were talking about, and it's very generous of them to give me the credit for it. I just swiped it from cinema, after all. But which filmmaker came up with it in the first place? It's almost but not quite what Welles uses in the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane. One flash of light but no smoking pistol -- where did he get it from? And who was the first to use it fully? By which I mean carrying on a continuous dialogue through a succession of scenes in which time is passing.

As with most fictive tricks, we can go right back to Shakespeare. He has two clocks, so to speak, running throughout Othello. (No montage there, obviously.) Montage as a cinematic technique predates dialogue, so at some point while cutting an early talkie it must have occurred to the director and/or editor that it would be neat to hold together the montage sequence with one voiceover or dialogue sequence. It's really just an extension of overtonal montage (a sequence of cuts linked by theme) which was well-established in the silent era. When talkies came along, some bright spark must have made the intuitive leap to using the dialogue as the overtonal glue. But who? Lev Kuleshov? Alfred Hitchcock? Don Siegel? In the absence of any further info, I'm going to have to bashfully submit to Mr Kennedy's attribution and call it the Morris Effect.

If you want to experience it in a game, the obvious pick is The Lady Afterwards, now available on Steam. If the story and game design are as gorgeous as the visuals (and Fallen London suggests they will be) then it's a must-have.

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