Sunday, May 1, 2011

Directing the Game (Part Two)

I've got a few more stray thoughts about cinema and rpgs. This continues on from an earlier post Directing the Game: Part One. And that's a commentary on the excellent Geeklist Hida's Top Ten: Directors You Wish Were Running A Game For You by the inestimable Hida Mann. And so we have a nested blog post.

What Was Our Mission Again?

I think of rpgs as a medium- just as cinema, novels, graphic comics, plays, opera and so on as means to conveying a story. That's not to say it is exclusively about story- rpgs have a number of other goals, including the game portion. I think of board games as a medium providing a story about competition, with more or less detail on top of that. RPGs obviously have, or I should say can have, different goals than other mediums. I probably fall closest to Narrativist in the GNS approach- but that's just what I like. The Gamer position's just as reasonable, and the Simulationist...anyway let's move on.

Robin Laws makes a point in Hamlet's Hit Points that has struck with me about the medium. Communication's actually pretty difficult in a tabletop rpg. The GM's the one providing a singular source of information (leaving aside handouts and props for a moment), the players have divergent interests, there's an expectation of interactivity, people who aren't 'on' can do other things, there's no social penalty for walking away to get something, you have books and papers to leaf through to check things, the environment may not be great, you may have cross-talk- in short rpgs face many difficulties not present elsewhere. In a theater you have more complete visual and auditory immersion, seats with a distinct orientation, lighting, the social expectation of silence, an obligation to private and passive reception of the material.

Losing Track of...What?
One of the places that can really hurts is during a combat sequence. Players get invested- they're present, they have something to do. I don't think its an accident that most rpgs build significant sections around combat,m even if they're dressed up as conflict resolution. And of course in a film, a good fight/combat section can easily make it worth my time. By the same token, confusing or badly shot fight sequences irritate the crap out of me. Modern martial arts films which shoot too close to see what's going on just make me angry. Bourne did that, but well and for a point. On the other hand, so many do it to avoid having to worry about showing full moves- instead we get many, many cuts and small sections of the fight assembled like a strange flip-book.

And when the director has a bad editor, then truly ugh. We don;t get a sense of the space, of the positioning of the characters, things pop out from nowhere,...wait, how did he get over there??? I'm confused. And I've had fights like that- both as a player and a GM. My instinct when I run fights is to bear through and get a frantic pace. Ideally that keeps the energy up. But if the players lose the thread of the fight narrative, then they can get irritated when they get shut down on actions or have another player step on their toes. This can hold true even if you're using figures and maps, which I do from time to time, but probably less than half the fights I run. With this possible confusion in mind, I've been practicing a trick which works well- though it isn't original to me. I read it in an rpg blog some time back.

Building a Combat Narrative
Basically when I run a combat, I still try to keep speed up. Players know that when I come to them, they should know what they're going to do. But also they need to stop me and ask me if they're unsure about something important- I try to be good about shifting gears down if I see those kinds of requests. But my goal within a combat round is to construct a complete narrative of that scene. When I come to a player, I try to give a really quick statement of their situation and position: "OK, Kenny, you're on the conveyor belt, and can see that the mooks are trying to lift something out of the box in the corner. What are you going to do?" I've already described the scene, but I do a recap for each player. Its a few second that reorients the player in the moment and also says: OK, you have the floor now, Mr. Player. They take their action, and then when I come to the next player I do the same thing- except, I make sure I state their position relative to the previous player and their action. "OK, Sherri, the machinery's going full tilt and you've seen Kenny leap off past you towards those Mooks with the box, what do you do?"

As the round goes on I compound this- adding a little more, rewinding and describing the turn- and making sure the active player sees what others have done and how they can play off of it. In a tight turn, but the time I get to the last player I'm providing a mini-story of the turn as a whole. Ideally I can take some time at the end of the turn to clarify results and signal the move to the next turn. We draft a dramatic narrative for the turn on the fly- in part by not seeing everything as simultaneous, just close to simultaneous. And I deploy repetition for effect, a classic storytelling technique which can get old in a visual feature. That repetition is a form of flashback, or rewinding.

Flashback's a difficult thing to pull off at a game table- but can be quite fun. The trick is to not make it over determined- a GM can narrate a flashback, but you want the players involved. Which means you want to give the players power to affect things. Some movies play with time even more, like Momento or TimeCrimes. Of course, Hida has Kurosawa as his top pick for rpg director on his list- could something like Rashamon be done in a game? Bouncing around can be fun- but again as I mentioned earlier, it is easy to throw players out of the experience of a game through that bouncing. I've seen at least one game that does build that kind of flashback into the structure of play- InTERRORgation. I don't think it does a particular great job with that, however. It has a great premise- that players build the narrative of what happened in their story through the act of spinning that story out through contradictory answers to some kind of debriefing or questioning.

Time at the Table
A couple of interactive uses for flashback I've seen at games. One, for characters with lost or rewritten memories. The GM can use a flashback scene to play those out. This requires some prep to give the other players a sense of what's happening. Microscope uses a version of this in its "Scene" system- in which players bore down to the smallest level to answer a question. Two, as a means of establishing character or relations. One of the best games I played in began with a series of flashbacks in which each player got a half-session dealing with their background. The other players played NPCs from that past and provided a story that explain some of the character's personality. It invested everyone at the table in the player's experience and role. Another version comes from the Fallout game we've been playing which began with the group witnessing an atomic fireball, then being questioned by our rescuers about exactly how that came to pass- we then rewound to the actual start of the campaign. We didn't come back up to that time point until about halfway through the game. Three, one suggestion I read was to use flashback as a gap-filling measure. If a player doesn't show up for a game, the Gm can run a flashback adventure- an untold story. This allows the group to play, provides some incentive ("oh, yeah, that magic sword I'd gotten I forgot about...') and potentially can be used to introduce goofy sidequests.

Luckily Ahead of Time I...
All of those echo the way films use flashback- or perhaps in some cases more echo how TV shows handle it. One other technique I've used is "flashback prep." This works for games where you have a James Bondian or Bourne sense of the PCs being one step ahead and even echoes how leverage works at times. I use it to encourage players to keep planning sessions brief. Basically players get points or a point of points for 'plans.' Then when they carry out a caper and hit an obstacle, they can spend that point to retcon that they'd planned for that. They brought a device, they hired a diversion, they created an extra identity. It allows them to pull off Mission: Impossible style events. I also means you can play those situations out and reduce player frustration with the "My character would have know..." anger moments. Players don't have to know everything their character would- they just have to be able to spin an entertaining story about what they did ahead of time. The GM can classify those things or even require a pull- I used a variation on this in my Witless Minion! rules. There's a variation on this in the Time & Temp as well.

Still not be continued.


  1. I love the 'Luckily Ahead of Time I...' mechanic. That's a great idea. I'll have to keep it in mind if I ever have an appropriate situation in my games.

  2. It has been a pretty useful thing- and has meant that I can let players have the fun of doing planning and then cut it off when it starts to run out of steam- and the players don't think I'm trying to screw them or force them to move forward from a weakened state. I have a friend running a Freeport True20 campaign who has used it with some success. I tried a more extensive version with a Spy game once, and that worked fine but I only had a single session of playing that out (notes on that can be found here.)

  3. "Flashback prep" is one of the best new techniques our group has used in recent years. It allows for short but crucial in-game planning for a caper and still lets the players feel clever on the spur of the moment; very cinematic.