It’s Long, Get Some Coffee

A day or two ago Mark Delsing​ posted a link to an article from a um… very conventional tabletop roleplaying blog, let’s say, about this amazing idea they ran into of treating the narration in their game as if it were on film. It was a charming reminder of how big the gaps are getting between communities, that’s for sure.

Mark’s angle, because he’s #indieaf, went the opposite direction (let me know if I’m being uncharitable here, Mark!): that modern gameplay had become so completely dependent on the game-as-show metaphor that other approaches to getting everyone on the same page at the table were going unused. Unexamined. Forgotten. It was like the bizarro-universe version of that conventional ttrpg blog.

Anyway, in that thread I doodled out a very quick list of specifically filmic methods I’ve used, personally, to make a game feel more show-like. The point of this post isn’t the list but here it is anyway, so you know what I’m talking about:

* camera angles
* panning
* zooming in/out
* fading in/out
* smash cuts
* montages (training or otherwise)
* the “set piece” (I first saw mention of this in Feng Shui, one of the first explicitly filmic games I can think of, I think after Theatrix)
* specifying scene elements as thematically important
* cutting a scene
* second unit footage (landscapes that set the tone and convey setting assumptions, but not protagonists or plot)
* referencing soundtrack comments (scary tense music, the swelling theme, drum beats, your own heartbeat)
* the very notion of “screen time” as a persistent metaphor
* slo-mo
* handheld versus steadicam versus Michael Bay 360 shot (and other ways one might handle a camera and what is implied by them)

So this approach, it’s a continuum, right? If you don’t really go that deep into the actual metaphor of film, and just describe things in a maybe elevated or authorial way, well, that’s already much different than a DM moving painted figures around on crafted 3D terrain. I’m not implying one must go all-in to treat your game like a show. I’m also saying if you don’t use any of these tricks, then I think what you’re left with is generic play-the-day “how you roleplay” type default roleplaying.

(This is in no way an invitation to get into a definition war. God damn it! Fight the urge, friends. Fight it.)

But what really got me thinking about other structurally purposeful ways of synchronizing the shared information EDIT imaginary space. The SIS is the core killer app of tabletop roleplaying, yeah? But it seems weird, to me, that we haven’t really poked at this very much. I mean other than the language of television and movies, which has marinated so much of indie gaming that lots of folks aren’t even aware of other approaches. There’s an age/experience component to that as well. And it’s a point of friction between OSR types and storygamer types when either camp declares their way is “better.”

Like, say you wanted a game to borrow instead from novels, right? I mean chapters, scenes, narrow rules about point-of-view. Heck, you could get quite avant-garde if you wanted: what would a game play like if it was emulating House of Leaves? There’s some physical-handling stuff that House of Leaves pulls that one simply could not replicate exactly. But I’ll bet you could get close.

But even without avant-garde trickery, there are still fundamentals of novel writing I think one could apply:

* point of view rules: I could totally see the GM having to work in the constraint of third-person limited (or hell, omniscient, which violates all kinds of conventional RPG nonos but maaaaybeee the right game could pull it off). The players could have different rules, equally constrained. First person omniscient is the obvious choice. But you could experimentally pass around second-person limited as well.

* Scene breaks that feel different than cutaways on a show. The written word is generally not able to be as dynamic as visual media, yeah? So how might one narrate a novelic scene break? Probably more time spent explicating emotional stakes so you can have not-literal cliffhangers indicate the break.

* Chapters and Parts. Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine does the chapter thing, not really sure if that’s just a handy shorthand or if the game is trying to feel like how a novel is structured. It might actually be, especially given the pre-made character arc elements.

* Setting dumps. Setting dumps! Yes! Where someone just tells and doesn’t show and you have to absorb a bunch of maybe-useful stuff fast. Rules be damned, even good writers do this. It’s not just bad genre writing.

* Internal monologues. Michael Miller​ reminded me that With Great Power has physical thought bubble props, perfect for comics. Sometimes I’ll ask players to narrate their internal monologues, particularly in games where we need to externalize internal material: moldbreaker moments in Burning Wheel for example.

The other part of running and playing a game in a consciously novelic way would be avoiding other metaphors. Like film. Although, yeah, lots of novels use film language now.

Other storytelling media: stage plays. Radio plays. Actual written-by-vikings sagas. Oh god, musicals. How how how could we get songs that are both beautiful and convey new material about the characters or plot?

Now, I’m first in line when it comes to treating RPGs as unique and not derivative. But the arts have always, always shared among themselves.

Second most #indieAF  moment of #bigbadcon :

A roundtable peer-reviewed IPA-fueled oral defense of our favorite PbtA games, with Jeremy Tidwell​​, Arnold Cassell​​, Andi Carrison​​, Gary Montgomery​​, and Jesse Coombs​​. Edit and the inestimable and thoughtful John Aegard​​! EDIT again and Tomer Gurantz​! And probably a dozen more people. I’m the worst.

“Because it’s rad” being an unacceptable defense, I learned a lot of really interesting stuff about what attracts people to PbtA games. Learning learning, always learning.

Sagas of the Icelanders was mine, because SotI can’t fail, it can only be failed. But the most talked-about was Marshall Miller​​’s The Warren on numerous technical and thematic grounds.

Most #indieAF moment of #bigbadcon:

I’m explaining the flow of Rachel E.S. Walton​’s Mars 244 game, mostly for the noobs. I’m going through the prologue, which is a mix of box text, instructions, and choices.

“And so I’ll pass the book to my left, and that player starts by reading some free verse poetry.”

There’s a pause. Vivian Paul​ says “Wait, you’re serious?”

Me: “Yup. Look.” I show the Act One page.

Vivian: “That is so indie.”

Me: “We’re gonna bring it dowwwwn.”

Day 30: What is your fondest memory of a game you thought was fun before you knew better?

Here we are, the end of the hashtag. Everyone feeling #indieAF today?

Two things have jumped out as my takeaways of the experience:

1) I’m loving all the love letters to indie gaming. Read the posts – there are nearly two hundred of them now – and the vast, vast majority I’m seeing are enormously positive. Some of my questions were even written specifically in a “let’s start a flame war” voice. Go back through and read. Amazing.

2) I’m disappointed at the critique of the questions by a small circle of folks. I got what I wanted out of the questions, which was endless love letters to indie gaming for a solid month. But obviously, clearly, there’s a population for whom their Indie Identity is serious business and not a laughing matter. I have yet to see their opinions about the answers, only the questions.

Would I do things differently? Yeah, I would. I learned a lot and got a better grasp of the social media terrain that runs under all this. Specifically, I’d absolutely do more before-the-fact outreach to my women and POC and women POC friends to participate. Some of the best comments in my threads, at least, came from (especially) women. That might come in conflict with the tone of the questions I went with this time around.

Would I do the smug indie hipster voice again? Perhaps not again, no. I think the joke is played out. As a smug indie hipster myself, I’m kind of out of material for now (and yes, I confess I wore myself out with 30 solid days of this). But smugness is a wellspring of hilarity and inspiration! And I do love tweaking smugness about games, because ffs none of this is important. Or, at least, as important as we frequently treat it. Hence my deep skepticism of tying identity and community into hobby activities.

But oh lordy, doing them straight is also so boring. I’m sorry, but it just is. That was my beef with #rpgaday , the earnestness that reads as cluelessness. Nobody I give a shit about gives a shit about what your favorite die size is. So, that’s a problem to solve if I do something like this again in the future. I’m currently leaning super-heavily toward the “oh hell no” end of the spectrum (cue mad applause from the haters). But we’ll see.

I’m also concerned, quite concerned actually, with the unsafe environment this thing allowed here and there. The public-ness of my Collection meant that replies were public and following the hashtag was public. If you got harassed or wrongplussing put you on some enemy’s list out there, I am so sorry to hear you got subjected to that. That sucked. I ended up blocking some folks as well. It wasn’t widespread but the cost of public discourse is asymmetrical social warfare. Fight with the tools you’ve got.

The answer to today’s question is “none.” As in, I never really learned better.

Small press design has shown me a huge and varied range of what it is we’re doing, what’s possible within this amazing activity of ours. As my envelope widens, my appreciation for everything within it widens as well. Not to say that I love all gaming equally; I have tastes and preferences as well. But oh god, who cares about my tastes? Or yours?

Play games. Love games. Investigate them if you’ve got the bandwidth. Or don’t if you don’t, and squeeze what you can out of them for as long as you can.

Me? I’m headed to a con today, with a good friend who also loves games, and we’re gonna game the shit out of some games for three days straight. Some of them will involve killing monsters for their stuff. Some might involve delicious feels. All of it will involve some amount of make-believe, and none of it will save the world.

Hope y’all have a great weekend.

Day 28: What’s the most interesting period of obscure and unrelatable history you’d like to see a game set in? How would you do it?

Jeez…I don’t know. Jason Morningstar, for whom I wrote this question specifically but not exclusively, already had such an interesting thread about it:

It’s a private share but it’s good and interesting.

I’m tempted to do the show-offy thing where I reference some tiny sliver of time and space that literally tens of people might have heard of, and they’re all total history nerds so whatever I pitched would get ‘splained into oblivion in a hundred post thread.

But if I go big, then I plow into the intersection of Pop Culture and Appropriation and nobody walks away from that car crash.

Oh yeah, I’d definitely go with the first option. Obscurity and unrelatability are both good defenses once you’re out in the world. I’m currently totally in love with my “Werewolves in Aquitaine” setting I squandered on a stupid Burning Wheel one-shot, and I want to swing back around to it. Prompting/modeling/shaping a premodern head space to play in is also one of my favorite Major Design Challenges, and I’ll probably spend my entire life trying to figure out how to do it. So I have to leave the second half of my question unanswered for now. It’s sorta-kinda been done! King Arthur Pendragon does some interesting stuff with, at least, cryptohistorical Arthurian values, but I’m not sure it’s directly portable or even the thing I’d want to do.

I had a longer post in mind about the (suit)ability of games to serve a journalistic function, but I just don’t have the energy to get into a long thing about it. Sorry. (The tl;dr answer is “yes, with massive caveats” and maybe I’ll write more about it down the road.)

Two more days! Is everyone feeling #indieAF ?