Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Story Beats and Showing Victory

I've been talking about Laws' Hamlet's Hit Points for the last couple of posts, something which dovetailed nicely into my previous discussion on Threat, Tension, Risk and Damage. I'm going to keep using his terminology here. What do I think people ought to take away from HHP? First, a sense that moving between Hope and Fear can increase a story's impact. Second, an awareness of the actual beats at a game session can be a worthy exercise. I think being reflective on this process benefits GMs and players. That being said, the game table has a set of additional complexities that standard narratives don't. Some of these Laws addresses directly and some he hints at. We have to be prepared for these complications to completely screw up a session.

Laws' analysis forces us to consider how the audience is situated. In a standard dramatic feature the audience remains passive. In an rpg, the audience switches between a passive and an active state. As well, an rpg narrative tends to be a group activity-- with a significant level of collaborative interaction within the narrative. But that's not always the case. Games move between Group beats and Individual beats. Some impact a single player-- yet even at that moment the other players read the Hope/Fear movement-- they become a passive audience (well, except for kibitzing). I suggested in my breakdown of the Changeling session that there may also be a significant break between player desires and character desires. Players may enjoy being placed in threatening or awful situations when that gives their characters something to do. The same scene, viewed by an outside audience, would read distinctly as a Fear beat.

What Should a Game Do?
A game ought to provide players with a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment while at the same time allowing a GM to fulfill his/her needs. That's a kind of odd formulation-- and one which suggests some oppositional nature in the relation of players and GMs. Let's skip considering GM-free or extremely collaborative rpgs, as I think those are a relatively small fraction of games. They're also not the ones I'm running right now. Some games impose limits on what the gamemaster can do-- for example Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard. That interesting approach isn't one I'm ultimately comfortable with beyond a short-term test. In conventional games I've seen GMs who buy into a struggle between the players and the GM, creating an oppositional conflict. That conflict isn't like a game of Descent where both sides have balanced goals and resources and where there's a winner. The RPG 101 in just about every book suggests that role-playing games have no winners or losers.

But that's not exactly true. Where you have GM/PC oppositional struggles, what's being fought over shifts. The GM wants you to succeed-- but purely on their terms. So interactions the GM sees as unimportant become devalued. Build options the GM finds problematic get reduced. Investigative tactics which don't follow the course of the story get ignored. This is different from newbie GM uncertainty about how to handle things outside of the planned story. Instead we have a GM who sees control as victory, but at the same time pays lip service to “what do you want to do?” That kind of control is a need, just as some GMs really want to tell a cool story, some really want to play with the mechanics, some want a tactical combat, and so on. Those power/control needs rarely balance the equation by providing the players with satisfaction.

Beyond the Table
Anyone who has played rpgs for some time knows you can't overestimate the impact of these off-table dynamics on play. I've seen that referred to as meta-level interactions, and in this I'd also lump in the actions and reactions at the table that arise not from the game itself but from other feelings, recriminations or social perceptions. Some of that gets expressed pretty badly-- I've watched many arguments over rules details and interpretations which clearly weren't really about that. Instead they revolved around some kind of strange implicit social interaction. The all-afternoon raging battle over who would win in a battle between Boba Fett and Darth Vader in Star Wars d6 destroyed a little piece of my soul. I've seen the same kinds of arguments in low detail and high detail systems. I think the only difference lies in high detail systems providing more cover for the real matters of power at hand.

Clearly there's a great deal of ego wrapped up in creating a character and attaching oneself to it. And there's even more ego wrapped up in running a game world. Both sides invite a level of vulnerability and openness to failure that some people find tough to reconcile. In some ways high detail systems work better for these situations as they provide solid ground for making resolutions explicitly and with some perceived “balance.” Based on sales and discussion that obviously works well for a good number of groups and I think it would be wrong to dismiss that.

Clarify Victory
That's why, with a narrative-heavy game, I think it is even more necessary and important for the GM to clarify victory. A detail-heavy game has an explicit win/lose ratio most of the time, and failure often comes from random die rolls. That provides an easy out for attachment. These games often have more conflict situations with crunch-- combats that lasts some time and plays out like a sub-game or a tactical miniatures game (with the associated sense of victory). Games with a greater narrative focus often have different kinds of conflict, and those conflicts may be resolve fairly quickly. The challenge focus may instead be on the dramatic choices the character makes, the social interactions they follow up on, the exploration of the environment. That's certainly the case in most of my games.

Don't Undercut
Even GMs that provide opportunities for clear victories can destroy those. GMs stuck in a power balance conflict can use the timing of Hope/Fear as form of a passive/aggressive response. We had a GM for Cyberpunk for a long time who specialized in that-- undercutting successes immediately after the fact. As a rule, reversing or disparaging a player's success is a bad thing to do. Avoid downplaying the opposition after the fact or suggesting the players only won through good/bad luck. I had the experience of that undercutting in one of the worst places, a campaign finale. After my character's apparently heroic death, the GM offhandedly commented that my actions had been stupid and useless, as an NPC could have solved the problem, rendering my actions null. When I was running, I had a similar incident in which a character won a hard-fought battle and defeated an enemy one-on-one. When they awoke the body of the adversary had vanished-- a classic trope in my thinking. However, the player reacted badly to that-- clearly seeing that as undercutting of their victory. I made sure that within a beat or two I had an NPC confirm that the adversary had died. But the damage had been done and the player still read the mystery of the vanished body as a deliberate destruction of their actions, rather than a new plot element.

Baggage Affects Reception
In some cases, meta-game circumstances can impact the degree and seriousness of the Hope/Fear beat . Early in my Arcane Rails campaign, I put forward a mystery since one of the players had described themselves as a kind of detective. When presented with the Fear/Down beat of a mystery his reaction was less tension and more absolute shut down. It became clear that he saw mysteries in games as insoluble. Based on past experience (including his own gamemastering) he thought that I as the GM would simply shift who the murderer was based on their investigation-- preventing the group from actually winning. In this case baggage carried by the audience significantly affected play.

I've also seen more immediate baggage and events affect players. I had a session where two players had clearly had some kind of argument outside the game. They second-guessed and undercut each others' suggestions. That meant that they read the Fear beats of the game as worse than they were and eventually shut themselves down-- eliminating their ability to fruitfully follow up. That negative reaction, at the beginning of an extended sequence, poisoned things. Even later successes would end up colored by that for the players. More often I've seen players bothered by outside circumstances deliberately ignore beats and move to game-destructive behavior-- usually aimed less at the GM and more at fellow players.

Multiple Readings
Players may also not value some kinds of beats. Generally, I read social interaction beats in which the player makes a connection or deepens a relationship with an NPC as a success or a Hope beat. However players may have a different stance or perception of those moments. They may read those interactions as simply decorative and unimportant. Or they might see the beat as purely procedural, like a Pipe beat where the NPC serves as an information kiosk to get directions to the next moment. If a player's been in games where NPCs don't have a role, then these kinds of expectations make sense. But the beat mis-read can also be that a player has an unhealthy attachment to their character. In this case, interactions that I as the GM see as Hope, the player might read as negative or Fear. This arises from the player not getting exactly the response they expect from the NPC or not having their character's image validated by the interaction.

I've also had to handle instances where players seemed to be pleased with Hope beats or else embraced the possibilities of the Fear beats presented. At the table, they appear to accept (in the Impro sense) the moment. However away from the table they fret about those moments. They rework motivations, second-guess their decisions (or the decisions of others), add new fears and threats, and rewrite the events in their heads. If in following sessions the GM tries to add ideas or incidents based on the player's original response or involvement, it generates a completely different reaction. In some cases a fairly hostile one. I'm used to players rewriting the stories they tell themselves in their heads about their characters actions (and even their own player actions at the table). What's more difficult to work with as a GM is when players re-imagine successful moments at the table into unsuccessful ones and then act on that later. That kind of reaction can be a minefield for GMs trying to chart a beat analysis path-- and beyond that for GMs trying to assess what players want.

Little Fears vs. Lingering Fears
When I spoke about tension and risk in an earlier post, I mentioned micro versus macro level risk and reward. I think that distinction can be applied to our understanding of beats. For example, we have threat in a combat situation. That's a micro-level situation-- both in terms of time and impact*. The threat usually comes from the immediate combatants and may shift up and down rather quickly. But macro level threats can't be dealt with by the players so quickly and usually linger. In this case we're talking about unanswered questions, newly appearing adversaries, breaking of friendships and so on. In a combat scene, usually most of the threat or Fear beats get resolved (one way or another) by the end of the scene. For other scenes, those beats may not be resolved-- or even balanced by Hope beats for some time. It think that kind of assessment has to enter into a GM's mental calculation about the squaring one kind of beat against the other.

So the situation becomes more complicated in that we have Fear beats which can linger and players who may read beats differently. We can also have players who draw out the weight and span of a Fear beat well beyond what the GM intends. I'm not saying that this devalues the idea of Beat analysis, but rather I'm saying that the GM should be aware of these kinds of details when trying to understand what happened in a scenario.

The question of lingering Fear beats is one worth pursuing. If too many lingering or higher order fear beats remain, without successful resolution or significantly countering Hope beats, the players may become discouraged. That's a principle Laws suggests. As GMs we have to work to bring those Hope beats forward. Again, that means emphasizing victories and not undercutting them.

The POV Paradox
One of the problems in a game is that as the depth and richness of a game grows, so too does the amount of things that end up going on behind the scenes. That's not to say that these things are out of a players control, but instead they happen outside of the players' vision. Laws', I have to note, addresses this question of POV in his work-- and I think GMs have to take it into account. Let's take Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a common example, and a series which has pretty strong parallels with an rpg campaign. We (the audience) get to see more of the results of the actions of the protagonists (players) in scenes where henchmen come back to report on their failures, where bad guys become angry, where they end up forced to respond to the actions of the heroes.

However at the game table, that becomes harder to point out-- or at least the classic tools aren't there. So what are our conventional options: rumors and explanation from other NPCs, villain soliloquies, finding evidence about canceled or changed plans and so on. Beyond this we also shouldn't underestimate the power of meta-commentary: telling the players that they've really messed up the bad guys' plans, suggesting that you have to retool what you were planning because of their success, transparently lying that they're wrong about a particular tactic or plan. There's a good deal of pretend play which the GM can do to try to reinforce successes-- and point them out when they might not be visible to their characters.

Genre Affects Victory Explication
I'd also suggest that the genre and tone of the game affects how much of that you want to do. For example, in my Harry Potter-esque steampunk campaign, I try to make some of those victories more visible. I exaggerate moments to create emphasis-- since the game play is about a certain level of high drama. The players usually win, and I try to make those victories clear. Mind you, the result has a number of consequences. I have to be careful about the Big Plots-- the arcs that I have in mind for the year (read book from the series) and for the campaign as a whole. I have these loosely imagined, not fully plotted. But the players have impacted those plots significantly. I want to make it clear that they've really impinged on the bad guys (forcing them to change what they're doing) without giving too much away about what those big plans are. On the other hand, having those high dramatic Hope beats and an emphasis on Victory does mean that when a large Fear or fail beat happens, it can really throw the players off. We had a session where the group had to escape from an overwhelming assault-- something they hadn't really faced before. For the next couple of sessions the players reverted to more classic, game-y and defensive approaches. I worry a little about that because we're in the middle section of the big story arc-- the time when things become tougher and darker.

A less High Fantasy game, on the other hand, requires a more careful handling of victory. For example, horror, modern, WoD, cyberpunk or the like. The GM has to maintain a careful balance of tension with release here. More things will operate behind the scenes, so smaller and clear victories in front of the players have to be emphasized. That's a difficult balance to strike right-- especially if the theme and the ethos of the genre work against that. Vampire's about a certain kind of avoiding of monstrosity, Cyberpunk's about humanity in the face of technological nihilism, Changeling's about trying to build trust and self in a world of isolation. But the GM has to provide the player with some stable ground-- and make it clear what that ground is.

The temptation for GM is to keep too many macro-level lingering threats in the air. Keeping the players unsure about even the most basic resources can be attractive-- high tension!, but without any firm fallback players can become morose, disconnected or destructive. In both my Vampire and Changeling campaigns, I tried to establish (after some initial feeling of isolation) a safe refuge for the players. Concerns like shelter, food and so on would be there at the beginning, but would go away rather quickly. Mind you these safety nets only exist if the players believe they exist-- and there's part of the problem as well. As a GM I want to create tension and I will threaten and scare-- but to a certain extent I'm play-acting. I won't deliberately destroy those resources and that refuge of the players. Threaten, yes. Destroy, no. Players who have played with me for a number of years know that-- but they're usually generous enough to play along with me. But that approach doesn't work if the players haven't developed that trust with the GM.

What Does That All Mean?
I'm not entirely sure-- but I think it means reading the beats at the table better and showing players that they have affected things-- even when their characters might not be able to see that. Games have a strong tension between the need to maintain threat and menace and the reality that the game is also an immediate social reaction space. At the same time that the GM needs to be aware of how much threat weighs on the players, players need to be aware of how much their stance may be affecting their reception of the game.

*Usually...some games have no time concept as such, like HeroQuest 2e.


  1. Fantastic post and a lot to chew over. I still hope to dedicate some more of my own brain cycles to these ideas, once I get a spare moment.

    One small note: the POV issue matters, but in a certain games it can be handled just as it is in the movie. In our long-running Buffy campaign (buffy.velvet-edge.com), we have made occasional use of NPC-only "cut scenes" to mimic the style of the series. These mostly occur in the teaser sequence or in an episode's denouement.

  2. That's a good point and I'm glad to hear it works where the genre permits it. I've seen a couple of GMs try to do it and not handle that so well. They had a visual idea but couldn't connect it-- and in one case in an Exalted game it actually confused the players about what they knew and did not know. I've written prologue "teasers" for each of the three books of the steampunk campaign and I think those have been moderately successful-- but they are off from the table and we've had a couple of case where the players misread situations because of those.

    One variation on this I've seen is one-off sessions where players play different characters in an event which will have later impact on the main campaign. In a SWAT campaign we took a one session switch to a military raid in South America that served as a kind of background/origin story for the enemies we ended up pursuing.

    But you're right-- that is a strong way to do it, but I think to be done well (as your group has) requires skill.