Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hamlet's Hit Points: A Review

I've made no secret in my admiration for Robin Laws' work (as you can see from some earlier reviews of his games). Even when he produces something I'd don't care for (Rune) or my group dislikes (The Dying Earth) he manages to feed me concepts that end up distinctly informing the gaming I do. His new book does that again.

What is it?
In Hamlet's Hit Points he breaks down three narratives into their story beats, considering what kinds of beats happen throughout. He analyzes a play—Hamlet, and two films Dr. No and Casablanca. He splits beats generally down into Procedural-- moving the plot along, and Dramatic-- affecting the inner life of the characters. While there are other types presented, these two types make up the vast majority. Laws comments on the relative balance of Procedural versus Dramatic beats as helping to define the various narratives. For example, Dr. No has a greater focus on the procedural than the character-oriented Casablanca.

More importantly Laws considers how each beat affects the Hope and Fear of the audience. Positive elements, successes, victories and so on serve to raise Hope. Threats, losses, recurring villains, failures on the other hand increase Fear. To represents this Laws uses arrows, marked by type (procedural, dramatic, etc), and pointing upwards for Hope and down for Fear to map the narrative. He unpacks and explains that map, supplementing the icons with a deeper analysis of what happens in the beat and why that functions as it does. Laws seems to read the PCs as the audience in making that comparison which works pretty well, but does create a couple of odd moments. As he notes POV in a movie, comic, or novel can move away from the protagonists (as it does at points in each of these narratives). GMs will find that move more difficult to pull off in a game without it feeling gimmicky or odd.

Laws worked with another version of this analysis in HeroQuest 2e. There he referred to the Pass/Fail distinction for beats in a story. HeroQuest actually has some of those distinctions built into the mechanics of the system itself. The relative weight of the Pass/Fail moment helps determine difficult, and the stakes and risks rise as the characters move to the climactic moments. That being said, the Hope/Fear distinction seems a clearer and more useful one than Pass/Fail.

Shifts Create Strengths
Laws suggests an understanding of those Hope/Fail contrasts and shifts in a story can be applied to games. He aims to show how successful and classic stories balance those-- providing a necessary moment of Hope to counter-balance the threats arising from Fear moments. That seems like a simple and perhaps obvious concept, but as with the simple concept that underlies his other work (universality of conflict in HeroQuest, core clues in Gumshoe) Laws does an excellent job providing examples and giving a new take on the ideas. Throughout his analysis of these narratives, he stops off to provide asides and ideas about how specific moments fit with role-playing games. And each narrative provides a different set of opportunities.

His observations throughout feel like he's watched and made notes about every session I've run or played in. I found myself stopping every few pages to mark or highlight a particular comment that gave me a new perspective on the way a game had run. That alone made the book valuable to me-- but the tools he establishes to reading beats in a game have already helped to shape my thinking about gameplay.

One point that struck me is that even “out of scene” moments at the table can be read as Fear beats for players. General joking or bs'ing about a person's character can feel to that player like a downbeat for them. A good GM would be aware of that and provide the necessary counter-beats to keep players form being discouraged. And I think that's crucial in Laws reading: how these narrative beats going too much one direction or the other (and usually tending to the Fear side) can break the audience/players enjoyment of the narrative. Laws' other observations on the difficulty of conveying narrative at the table, foils as dramatic substitutes, beats which require too much reasoning as failures and so on make for a great read. I don't necessary agree with everything Laws suggests, but even where I'm unsure-- he gets me thinking.

Many Ideas
In his reading of Hamlet he sets Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia as the active PCs. That's an interesting approach in that I'd always pictured Ophelia as a discarded NPC-- one the player uses and then casts off without any real consideration of the NPCs reaction. However, I can certainly buy Laws take on this-- the problem being that even if we treat all three as PCs, we have a games with a real disparity in both the goals of the PCs and in the level of attention given to each PC. I think, though Laws doesn't directly address it, it points at potentially difficulty in a shared narrative space: that characters/multiple protagonists may read the moments of Hope/Fear very differently. How does a GM track that and how do they balance those issues?

Now I don't want to suggest this is as criticism of Laws' approach. Rather I'd say it is a limitation of the chosen narrative form, movies, in that we tend to have either a single (more often) or dual protagonists-- rather than the group of most rpgs. Even those films which feature an apparent group (Flatliners come to mind as one) tend to have a fixation with one character more than the others. I run a Harry Potter-esque game and one of the more difficult tricks is to make everyone feel like their Harry Potter, or at the very least Ron or Hermione, rather than a bit character. In some ways, I think an ensemble drama, like ER or Homicide ends up more like a typical rpg narrative-- or at least closer to my narratives. I'd say that consideration of multiple players does present a fruitful avenue for future thinking.

It is worth noting that Laws really only deals with the question of multiple protagonists for his first analysis; he approaches Dr. No as a solo game and in Casablanca his focus seems to shift to a dramatic/literary analysis rather than a game one. In fact, if there's a weakness to the volume it is that as the analyses move on, we less explicit connection to rpgs. Amusingly, The Dr. No analysis touches home for me as an old school James Bond player. I remember those games as great and fun-- but only aping the James Bond tropes given that we usually had three or four players. I recall running the Dr. No module-- an adventure which pretty much followed the beats Laws' describes here. I would be interesting to compare that to the original book.

Like Sources
I'm a fan of books that look at the larger narrative issues in role-playing games. In the past I've hunted for resources from other areas which might give some insight or even better some useful ideas or techniques—Robert McKee's Story, Jennifer Van Sijll's Cinematic Storytelling, Mieke Bal's Narratiology. But in recent years we've seen a move of books which provide a critical analysis of gaming without being just social studies or scholarly works. Books like Things We Think About Games, Second Person, and Play Unsafe all provide discussion and ideas which GMs and players can apply to the table.

Many Applications
Laws suggests a number of ways to apply his beat analysis. He suggests keeping those elements in mind when planning. I think that's a reasonable suggestion for GMs who map out their scenarios and sessions more deeply than I do. More usefully he points out that this kind of reading would be helpful when reading through an existing module or adventure-- to help the potential GM see the rise and fall of the tension within it. Doing so might allow the GM insight when it actually hits the table.

He also describes using his method in play-- with the GM noting beats and relative Hope/Fear levels as the play progresses. This could work for GMs comfortable with notation and note-taking in play. It might help the GM note the relative distribution of Hope/Fear beats among the players-- perhaps one player seems singled out for more Fear beats without enough corresponding Hope ones. But more important than any concrete technique Laws' approach provides a mindfulness for the GM-- perhaps a better understanding of the dynamics and reactions of players at the table.

Laws warns that applying this kind of analysis to another GM's game could be a form of passive-aggression. GM's playing in other GM's already have a impetus to judge and critique. That energy can be turned however to good play. Laws suggests that an understanding of these beats might allow players to take actions which support and reinforce the dramatic flow of the game. I also wonder if a fruitful tactic might be to have the group, as a whole or individually, do a post-game analysis of a session. The tools of the beat analysis could show if different players read the session differently or perhaps point out new approaches to the players.

Last Note
Gameplaywright has provided the symbols used in the book freely as a Creative Commons download. I'd love to see more work on this kinds of analysis, especially for different forms. I'd also like to see the difference between cultures. For example, the recent wushu adaptation of Hamlet, The Legend of the Black Scorpion (aka The Banquet). I also hope that Gameplaywright continues to produce excellent materials like these.