Ya gotta have consequences

Just watched Shadow of the Vampire, a movie about an obsessive visionary director making the classic silent film Nosferatu. The twist is that the director has hired an actual vampire to pretend to be an actor playing the vampire. The movie was okay, but not great. A great deal of dramatic tension in the first and second acts is about the crew not knowing what kind of danger they are in, and the director making sure that no one finds out. When they finally do learn that the lead actor is a vampire intend on draining the lead actress dry … they do nothing. They just keep doing their jobs exactly as they did throughout the movie.

It leaves a hollow, unsatisfied feeling. The characters aren’t acting like believable people. There is a revelation, and no consequences follow from it. It breaks the dramatic contract. If there is no splash, why drop the stone in the pond?

In RPGs, lack of consequences for action surface in many ways, and all of them sap player interest and excitement.

  • NPC reactionsA character gives a long, impassioned speech on an important issue and everyone else continues their steadfast denials.
  • Fight resultsThe group is faced with a combat encounter that is far beyond their abilities, and have no chance of making so much as a scratch.
  • Predetermined plotsThe players concoct the most ingenious plan ever to circumnavigate the GM’s carefully prepared finale, so the plan arbitrarily fails.
  • Misread flagsA player crafts a character who is the long-lost prince, but the game never addresses this fact.
  • Rules-Genre disconnectThe group is all there to wage heroic battles against foul beasts, but the game only has rules for poetry slams.

Any of these will strain the suspension of disbelief, weaken interest in the fiction, and sap enthusiasm for the game itself.

Private Story Fiefdoms

(suggested by judd_sonofbert)

Kat’s doing some role-playing on IMVU. It’s a 3D chat site, and some people have crafted the rooms into fantasy taverns and the like. She was explaining that there’s a lot of people who have customized their avatars to look like elves or whatever, and they sit in the tavern and exchange character histories. Since there’s not much of a social contract, there’s no one who’s doing the GM-duty of “adversity-bringer” and so, not much happens going forward. But each character has a past that is rich and melodramatic and well-storied.

I think some of this has to do with the lack of trust intrinsic to role-playing in a public forum like IMVU. You could also see it in “classic” old school D&D where anyone who wanted to play, could play, and character histories (and the player interests they represent) didn’t matter, because the GM was going to lay the dungeon or the kingdom-in-peril out in front of you. Your job was to react to it, and if your character was secretly the lost prince of the Sea Kingdoms raised by a mystic order of monks in the fulfillment of prophesy, it didn’t really matter.

These sorts of situation are (in the broadest outlines) similar to the circumstances that gave rise to feudalism in Europe. After the fall of Rome, the barbarians might arrive and sack your rough-hewn village at any time. In wide-open roleplaying culture, the other players might ignore or subvert your creative interests at any time. In both cases, the obvious solution is to pull up the drawbridge and lock your treasure away where it cannot be touched. In role-playing, the best place to do this is in character history. No one can touch what has already happened to your character. Their fictional past is your Private Story Fiefdom–none may tread upon it without your express permission.

Personally, I’d much prefer to use character histories to catapult story going forward… but that’s just me.

Asserting Plausibility

Cross-posted to my RPGtalk blog

Been doing a bit of reading. There’s a trope in fantastic fiction that has deep roots. Many, many authors take great pains to assert that the fantastic events actually occured, and the papers have been entrusted to them through a definite series of exchanges as recounted in the Foreword, Introduction, or Preface. Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe begins with such a foreword, as does Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Conan Doyle’s Holmes never writes a word, but is recorded, instead, by the compulsive diarist Watson. John Carter of Mars begins with a detailed Foreward about how Burroughs, the “editor,” received Carter’s journals. Tolkein, of course, concocted an elaborate lineage for the Red Book of Westmarch, wherein Frodo & Sam recorded their adventures. In more recent years, the Blair Witch Project became a sensation by asserting the same thing.

Why? What does this gain the author? I figure this a tool to assert the plausibility of the impossible. If these amazing, unbelievable events are real, then they’re relevant, they matter to the reader, and the reader more easily becomes engaged. I could be wrong about that. Alternative interpretations are welcome.

How does this apply to RPGs? Well, the most obvious example is Castle Falkenstein, wherein Mike Pondsmith makes great use of this technique by claiming that the entire game was written by a modern-day expatriate “spell-napped” into the world of New Europa. Which was kinda cool, I thought, but also limiting. But definitely an option for conveying setting material as if it actually existed (Pondsmith scores extra points by asserting that the rules of the game were also created within the game world itself.)

But in a game that’s more about the active creation of story than the recounting of setting details, is there a purpose to be served by connecting the fictional events of the story to the real world that the players live in?

My brain says “No.” In these novels, the authors know what is true and what is fiction. The forewords are not written for their benefit, but solely for the benefit of their readers. In RPGs, everyone is the author. Everyone knows these events did not actually happen in some faraway place because everyone is making them up right now. It would just add another hoop for the fiction to jump through, without adding much in return.

And yet, although I cannot explain why, my gut, in its frustratingly inarticulate way, says “Yes.”