Monday, February 13, 2012

An Exercise in Wondering

I'm going to take the long way around to my point. I'm always wondering about the question of imaginative space in stories and at the gaming table. Can I- when I'm running a game- really create a world the players can think about, imagine themselves in, and create stories for? I mean obviously when I'm at the table they can have to do that on call- with various levels of restraint and success. But is that the same thing as choosing an action from a limited palette (ala choosing a move in a board game, selecting a menu option in a video game) or do they visualize the story? When people talk about games which are “railroady” that's what I picture. Those games which don't allow that sense of having one's own room in the story- either in table execution or imagination.

I've said before that some settings don't appeal to me because they close off the imaginative space. For example, White Wolf's original WoD metaplot and presentation didn't seem to me to open up possibilities. Instead may supplements closed them down. I think that's the danger in advancing a game line- especially where the material covers background details or history. Sure I like more stuff, more ideas- but I want those to be interesting and not invalidate my own conceptions. Or if they do, they do so in a way that opens up more room for me to come up with stories.

I've been reviewing the TSR gazetteer series for a couple of purposes. On the one hand, there's a nostalgia factor that ties into the new OSR games, with some people going as far as crafting amazing Mystaran supplements. On the other these are supplements I had around and in hand in the early days of building my campaign world. I've used bits and pieces from them more or less literally over the years- but in several cases after one read. So what I actually used at the table were the details and concepts that stuck fast in my head. What's been amazing in the rereading is how different the books are than I recall them. Many concepts I was pretty sure I'd drawn from a particular supplement- but on rereading, it isn't there. I've constructed another story in my head about the book- and rereading hasn't negatively affected that. Instead it has pointed out some stuff I missed in the first reading that fits well with the later stuff I came up with.

As with many GMs, when I think about my game I just spin and freewrite about my campaigns: I sketch out ideas, make lists of words, come up with seeds for scenes, chart out some connections between materials, outline outstanding plots, come up with concrete details, and make some notes about which NPCs would be cool to pull on stage. Often, that's all that I will go into a session with. If I plot, I'll usually make a list of scenes which I can picture happening if the players go the way I expect and if nothing changes. Ideally, the players will deviate from that, forcing me to come up with new connections and ideas.

That level of improvisation means that much of my game world exists as a wave-function, the Schroedinger's Cat of setting. I imagine that's true for most GM's game worlds. Until the players actually look at something, it doesn't exist, the wave function hasn't collapsed into something they can interact with. That isn't to say that it can be 'anything' when it collapses due to observation. Odds and reasonableness impact it. And the collapse has to fit with previous observations of related material. That's part of the toughest job for the GM- revealing a seamless world, where the examined pieces fit together easily. But often I don't have things figured out until the players ask me. There's just too much to know. But I trust myself and my instincts to come up with an answer, a response that fits, makes sense, and is fair. But I know that some players don't like playing where they sense the GM doesn't have a net. I've been lucky in that my players haven't been that way- there's generally shared trust.

So, from threads and bits I like to fill things in and put together stories- and the players & I lob that back and forth to create unexpected things.

Which brings me to the incident that brought this to mind. The other day on G+ I saw Ken Hite mention a horror movie called Yellowbrickroad. The imdb synopsis:
“1940: the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walked up a winding mountain trail, leaving everything behind. 2008: the first official expedition into the wilderness attempts to solve the mystery of the lost citizens of Friar.”

Interesting, I thought to myself. A couple of people commented that they hadn't liked it so much, but I thought why not? Eventually the disc arrived from Netflix. Now I should mention here that I like horror movies- but I have a couple of problems with them. First, I have a pretty low suspension of disbelief, which means that it is pretty easy to get me sucked into a film, provided you keep at least a modicum of acting and production value. Second, if a horror film offers imaginative space- for me to come up with stuff in my head, then I'm right there creeping myself out. So I'll admit that The Ring and The Grudge (American and Original) freaked me out and cost me sleep. There's the moment in The Grudge when the haunting moves beyond the house- and my brain went "holy sh* it can't do that...". The original version of Pulse (Kairo) is another another one, plus many others. And films with that “found footage” approach really get under my skin- so Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity kept me up many more nights than probably anyone else in our group.

So I started watching Yellowbrickroad...

btw, spoilers ahead...

And it has some little creepy set bits: the way he gets the file, the movie theater scene, the music playing in the woods. It mixes standard camera work with 'found-footage' and some interesting effects (like a slide show for one sequence). It layers on the creepiness as the group heads into the woods, getting farther and farther away from civilization. And I'm watching this on my couch, in my house, eating crackers, middle of the day. I've paused several times to stop and move laundry along, make coffee, etc, but the movie's still managed to raise my anxiety level up.

And then there's a brief flash of violence.

It doesn't come out of the blue exactly, but it snaps (literally and figuratively) the characters and film in a new direction. And it absolutely freaked me out. I suspect if anyone else had been watching it with me, my reaction wouldn't nearly have been so profound. And I likely wouldn't have immediately turned the DVD off.

Which is what I did.

And here's the thing. I haven't yet finished watching it- but I've been thinking about how this film is going to play out. I've imagined scenarioes, explanations, stories, scenes and awful dooms for these characters. And that's almost been more fun than actually going back and watching the rest of it. But in some ways it has been a great exercise- an interesting GMs tool that's got be thinking about horror games and how to structure them. So I put that out there as a recommended tactic for GMs needing to recharge your batteries. Find a film, TV show, graphic novel, or book you don't know that much about in a genre you like, read a chunk of the way through it- until you hit something significant and then put the thing aside for a week. Let it work its way into your mind, imagine the possibilities, especially for the characters that you like, come up with cool and different ways the story could go...good endings, bad endings, and everything in between.

That sense of wonder- that sense of possibility, control, and surprise: ideally that's what your players ought to be feeling between sessions.


  1. Just wanted to say-Yellowbrickroad is excellent. And the more you watch it the more it messes you up. If you can turn up the sound or have 5.1 the sound design in the film is incredible.

    And yes, if you can instill what that film does to your players you will haunt them :)

    And I seem to be a johnny come lately but Marble Hornets has that sense of dread and anxiety, leaving you re-watching scenes because of things happening in the frame.

  2. I'm lokoing forward to finishing it in the next couple of days. I hadn't heard of Marble Hornets if will take a look at that. YBR offers a lot that makes it a really strong choice for the kind of exercise I'm talking about- strong set up, cryptic hints, and a cast with easy to grasp roles and motivations. I think those kinds of media- more than a solo protagonist story like some mysteries- will be easier to break and then contemplate.

    Interestingly, the new era of DVD TV has actually reduced that wonder/story-spinning time that used to be a constant. I rarely watch TV shows except on disc or streaming where I can get the answers/next episode quickly. I have a fondness for some shows of the past I think as much for the stories I imagined they had, as for the ones they did. For example I picked up the first disk of Witch Hunter Robin not realizing that the rest weren't out yet. We watched that disc and wanted more, but had to wait 1-2 months between releases. The ending didn't really live up to the build up, but we still enjoyed it- as much for the conversation and brainstorming it created.

  3. That's a great story. Honestly, what you describe is part of why I'm not in a big hurry to read some stories or books, or watch some films, that otherwise I'm sure I would like. I'm not sure that they could live up to how I imagine they could be.