Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yes, I liked Casino Royale

You know what I love about the Daniel Craig Casino Royale? There's this great moment in is where everything goes pear shaped - Bond gets suckered in the big poker game, and it looks like the whole mission is crashing down around him. Daniel Craig totally sold me with what happened next, as he grabs a steak knife from a passing tray and hides it behind his forearm, stalking towards the villain with a pure murderous intent born from the loss of all other options.

I barely remember large swaths of the movie, but that scene sticks with me. I think it's because, in its intensity, it really gets across something that makes these sort of spy-ish stories resonate with me, and with a certain kind of audience.

This isn't intended as a deconstruction of espionage thriller - I'm hardly one to provide that - but rather just a spotlight on issues of knowledge and control in fiction and, by extension, in gaming. As I see it, there's a specific itch that some spy stories scratch, and itch for a sort of smartness. We delight in seeing the hero make the right decisions because h knows what's going on. Because he's the man with the plan.[1]

It's the little thrill when the bad guy pulls his gun and it clicks because the hero has already found it and removed the bullets. We love this idea because it showcases the idea of information as control, and that's an idea that appeals a lot to the information-centric (which includes most nerds). We embrace a hero who's in control. Even if the situation goes out of control, he's on top of the situation and in control of himself. He understands the odds, and only plays the game after he's stacked the deck as far as he can in his favor.

Now, if you stop there you end up with characters who are cool but ultimately shallow. The bit that pushes it over the top for me is that moment when it all goes to hell, but the hero must still act. What makes it so sublime for me is that at that point all of that understanding turns around and becomes a burden. Because the hero had such a profound understanding of the risks thathe has been carefully managing, he understands exactly how bad it is to go off plan.

This issue of understanding is where it really lights up for me. It underscores how important the issue and course of action may be. The emotional commitment that suggests is intensely powerful.

This, in turn, speaks to one of the things I love about crunchy games, like Rolemaster. There is a similar level of understanding (in the form of the mechanics of the system) of just how bad things can get, and a similar emphasis on stacking the deck in your favor before you want to enter into any conflict. And that knowledge sets up a great test of player engagement - at some point they will ask: are they going to be invested enough to go off plan? To face down a fight they have no reason to expect to walk away from?

One of the great conflicts in games is that the kind of capricious death I'm talking about risking here can be both intensely fun and intensely frustrating. Dying from a dumb turn of the dice can be dull, but so can any kind of plot immunity.

I sometimes suspect that the nature of this conflict is such that there is no real mechanical solution[2]. This requires a balancing of factors which falls cleanly within the domain of the skill and actions of the GM. It is this understanding that makes me very sympathetic on the topic of GM fudging as an implicit statement that an imperfect solution driven by a skilled hand is more powerful at any given moment than a more idealized solution.

Not to say that some games don't try, often admirably. But they do so by choosing certain priorities and running with them, or by leaving a large area open to GM interpretation. I don't really see a difference between "Fudging" and "Broad GM Interpretation" in any meaningful way, but I also know that others feel there is a very bright line between the two. The rub in this situation is that strong, explicit mechanical consequences (as opposed to interpretive ones) are what carry the player's ability to understand consequences before they happen, which is at the heart of them taking risks with both eyes open. That predictive element continue to exist with dice fudging (because the potential outcomes are still there to be seen, albeit with altered odds) while interpretive consequences remove that possibility entirely.[2]

1 - This is arguably a subset of competence porn.

2 - One other fix for this is to declare consequences in advance, through stake setting, but I always find that works better on paper than in practice, especially for nasty consequences. For whatever reason, I feel likt there's a lot more blood and fury as long as things happen with in the flow of play, and that's equally true for the purely mechanical (like Rolemaster) or if it strongly creative (as in Polaris with "But only if..."). Stopping to negotiate (or spend too much time looking things up) breaks that flow, and changes decisions that were colored by the rush of the emotion of the moment into a more bloodless sort of calculation.[3]

3 - I use bloodless as a condemnation, but that's unfair. Distance can often be used to create something that is more powerful and resonant as an
idea, especially one that can be expressed later. Distance can create better story than immediacy, and some players really jam on having gotten to the end and having something beautiful and fucked up to look back over. It's fun, and you can make for great play either way, but mixing them mostly just makes mud.


  1. Casino Royale is the best Bond film ever.

    I will accept no other claims.

    Other claims will earn my angry boot.


    Okay, it's fine if anybody wants to make other claims. Seriously, though, I've *never* liked Bond. Bond and Superman always had similar issues: too perfect, too twee, too much the Mary Sue-perhero in action. (To be fair, Connery's Bond was less this, but I didn't grow up with that incarnation.)

    The new Bond is just what I want -- troubled, flawed, fucked-up, but still capable as shit.

    Quantum of Solace was a disappointment compared to Casino Royale, but I still enjoyed the characterization.

    -- c.

  2. I second Chuck (and third you, I guess). I am an unabashed Bond-phile, and I will say unequivocally that Casino Royale not only is the best Bond film, but that it saved the franchise (not in a commercial sense but, rather, creatively).

    Some interesting stuff to chew on in the post proper, particularly through the lens of Tokyo Rain design.

  3. Have you read or played "Wilderness of Mirrors"? I have read it and listened to an recording of a game, and I think it captures what you're going for quite nicely.

    If you haven't (and for others reading this who maybe haven't):
    The first half of the game is competence porn. The GM provides a premise: someone is going to assassinate a world leader. Then the players start describing what they know and their plan.

    They describe who the bad guy is, his secret base, their plan to infiltrate, the obstacles they'll face, the henchmen they'll avoid.

    Then we switch to the "moment when it all goes to hell." We start playing. Depending on the dice rolls, the GM gets "yes, and..."s and "yes, but..."s. Just one little thing going wrong throws the original plan out the window, and the players scramble to keep things on track.

    I really love your idea, by the way. It's one of the reasons I love games that have a high risk of character mortality. While I do get attached to my character, I find their demise as interesting as their success. So when the plan goes to hell, I'm willing to find a narratively appropriate way to have something horrible happen to my character to keep the overall plot moving.

  4. @sam In fact, as a point of geek pride, I have one of the actual print editions of Wilderness of Mirrors, and I've run and played it on more than one occasion. Most successfully, I used it as the basis for the conclusion to a Shadowrun campaign I ran.

    And yeah, WoM is _awesome_, but the one thing I will say after taking it around the block a few times is that it's an awesome idea, but there is precious little wrapper around that idea (though the die mechanic, lifted from Lacuna, gets a bit more of a workout in that game). So I feel like WoM kind of showcases a _technique_ that is well worth learning, but then you need to take it somewhere else to really make it sing.

    -Rob D.

  5. @Rob that's an interesting point. I definitely agree. WoM, like my favorite RPG "Dread," has a wonderful system/technique that lends itself to one-time use here and there and makes me ache for a full-fledged multi-session capable game.

  6. For certain genres of games, I love the "if you try this, there's a chance of arbitrary, capricious death" concept. I haven't quite found a mechanic for it that I'm happy with, though, which is why I'm experimenting with it my current DG/CoC design.


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