Thursday, June 3, 2010

What to Do Wrong

So, I'm going to cop to something here: when we did Pulp for Spirit of the Century, we did it wrong. Internet Wrong at least. Wrong time period, pulling from inappropriate sources, violating all manner of sacred cows of the genre. It would be easy to blame this on laziness, but I promise you, we busted hump for that book, so why do it wrong?

The answer to that is not something we were even thinking about at the time. Instead, we were thinking "What makes this stuff exciting to us? What makes us want to play right the hell now?" The answer had a lot of talking gorillas and dramatic fight scenes that were unquestionably influenced by some of the more modern incarnations of Pulp, things like Planetary and Indiana Jones.

In retrospect, I still think it was the right decision. There are lots of other games out there that serve other approaches and perspectives on what pulp is about, and most of them are fantastic. As a hobby, we benefit more from those difference in perspective and approach than we do even from our differences in rules.

That point comes around some when I think about licensed properties. Now, on one hand I'm a hypocrite on this, since we have the DFRPG in the pipe, and I would shoot a man for a chance to write a new Amber RPG, but with those crazy exceptions[1], I find that I'd be more inclined to do a lot of other games wrong, and in doing so, I think I'd be more likely to do them right.

By right, I mean "With an emphasis on what makes this playable and fun" and therein likes the rub. It's not impossible to do this with a licensed product, but there are definitely additional challenges that come from it. Take the Dresden Files as an example. If we released a game that was simply modern urban fantasy through a detective fiction lens, we would not need to worry about accurately reflecting the events and characters in the book while still making sure to leave leeway for what might happen in future volumes. That would remove a HUGE burden from our shoulder, design-wise. Now, for Dresden, we consider the tradeoff to be worth it - Jim's sandbox is enough fun to want to play in it - but it's made me incredibly conscious of the dangers of that choice.

There is a profound danger in doing something right, when that something is not of the same kind as your end product. Since the something is usually a book or movie, and the end product is probably a game, there is a certain amount of necessary drift. The things that make one magnificent can fall down dead for the other, and that introduces an apparent paradox: to best capture the spirit of an idea in a game, you need to change it from what made it great in its original source.

This is hardly something new to games[2]. Movies have long been aware that just re-shooting a book line-by-line is going to make a really dull movie. Certain changes are necessary along with the change in medium - masterful changes to a great book yield a great movie, but "masterful" is the operative word here. Making the changes that need to be made can be more of a creative challenge than just starting from scratch.

Now, I'm all for the school of thought that says hard things are worth doing, but I also think there's such a thing as unnecessary labor. Personally, I wish more people would concentrate on making their own game that captures that thing they love about Harry Potter or Dune or god knows what. But it doesn't happen - there's a stigma attached to it. Sometimes you get things pushed through a lens (the way Fading Suns has Dune elements) so that the creator can put some manner of unique mark on it, to declare their creativity. I understand that instinct, but it's a shame because the net result dilutes the things that actually make us excited in the first place.

And that's the center of it all for me - translating the things that EXCITE us into games. This is as true for licenses as it is for games we played 20 years ago and can no longer see the fun in. The act of drawing out that excitement is so much more important than doing it right (for any measure of right), but it's so much EASIER to try to do something right, so we skitter back from our passion in fear of being wrong.

That blows.

I don't know if there's a real solution to this, but I will say this: when I see a game that's passionate but wrong, it's a lot more likely to grab me than one that is complete but bloodless. I have seen no shortage of examples of both, and it's a schism I see from the largest to the smallest of publishers. I just wish there was a way to encourage folks who are willing to slop the table a bit, or at least to find them more consistently, but it remains a crapshoot where they're gonna pop up.

Meanwhile, go do something wrong.

1 - Both of which born from specific, thought slightly tangential loves of the specific properties.

2 - And it's an ongoing lesson of Transmedia


  1. Now, on one hand I'm a hypocrite on this, since we have the DFRPG in the pipe, and I would shoot a man for a chance to write a new Amber RPG...

    I would shoot a man for you to get that chance. I know you would do the material justice.

    Born to be Kings, indeed.

  2. Hi Rob: Just a general comment that I really enjoy reading your blog. Great humor and tons of great brain food on our passion...RPGs. Keep up the fantastic work...wish I could write like you...awesome.
    John T>

  3. I think we do a pretty good job with Leverage, all things considered. Especially since it's the kind of genre people constantly say can't be done properly.

  4. @Cam I absolutely agree, but it also highlights the same issues. We can get away with doing Leverage well because, well, we're throwing a lot of firepower at doing so. I'm just not sure everyone who has a caper game in their soul needs it to be Leverage or Ocean's 11, and they can ruin their own fun trying to make it so. Better to find what excites them and seize THAT.

  5. (I also held off from using Leverage as an example because it's a twofer. The real challenge for Leverage is not in capturing the license, but rather in successfully doing a caper game. I can point to other examples of successful licenses, but caper games? Not so much)

  6. "when I see a game that's passionate but wrong, it's a lot more likely to grab me than one that is complete but bloodless"

    I'd love examples of each one. I know naming names is dicey on the Internet, but it would be help me grab the idea more clearly.

    As for passionate but wrong, man, I'll be damned (no pun intended) if that's not what I have in my vampire game in progress.

  7. To my mind the license also helps to poke some new ideas at the audience, as well. If you buy into the license you might be more receptive to "hippie" ideas that come with the RPG. At least, that's one of my secret goals.

  8. I agree with Daniel. I don't want you to get in trouble, but my mind is skittering around what you are talking about but not fully grasping it without some examples. Perhaps succesful examples of both?

    Not germane to the heart of the discussion, but I am going to state that I reject this new dogma of what pulp is by a minority of supposed experts (who decry you are internet wrong when you try to include flying mummies in pulp games). I just finished reading The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchison and those "real" pulps were pretty friggin' over the top, with entire cities being destroyed, crazy gadgets and so on. So I'm going to go ahead and say that you did it more or less "right" with SotC.

    Okay, back to your regular programming.

  9. I have to say I think SoTC is one of the most modded, bent, twisted and converted games of all times. I've seen sooooo many awesome mod ups and twisted variants of it now. The several I've played in have been hilariously awesome ... despite as you say "being wrong" ... bottom line with cool indie stuff is bend, it break it and shape it how you please ... in my mind that is what its all about. As long as the group is having fun and enjoying whatever it is they are doing c'est la vie!

  10. Hmm. Ok, I make a note to maybe do some non-reviews through this lens at some point.

  11. That said, I think I can point to an excellent example of a game that is beautifully, passionately wrong: Spellbound Kingdoms, a game that I desperately need to review at some point: it's highs and lows are both intensely informative.

  12. Rob, did you ever run Spellbound Kingdoms? The way they handle martial techniques and combat seemed to be full of win.

  13. What a great post, and I couldn't agree more. I think in the past I've sacrificed a lot of fun in the interest of being "realistic" or true to genre. The culture we live in now, especially the gaming culture, is full of mashups and kludges and recombining existing elements to make something new. It's an exciting thing that should be embraced.

    There's plenty of traditional and "old-school" stuff out there -- enough to make anyone happy, I should think. I'm more excited to see the games that challenge those genre boundaries in the interest of fun.

  14. oh wow, I've never heard of Spellbound Kingdoms. That does look intriguing. Please do review, Rob!

  15. This is in line with Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. In it, he theorizes that to create a classic, one must rewrite a classic with a error in it.

    For one not-too-subtle example, James Joyce rewrote the Odyssey as a day in the life story.

  16. Alright, so let's say I really dig a property like the Lost Room. The bits that I like are the weird people in weird subcultures from street level to corporate level. I also like exploring the creative use of the Objects and how easily they can pass from person to person. I just don't know if there's enough meet there to do something besides re-invent Unknown Armies. What are your thoughts in that sort of situation?

  17. @Daniel The problem with broad umbrella games like UA is that when you pick some subset of it, it can feel like you're re-inventing the wheel, but the reality is that a specific, narrow focus is its own reward. There are a lot of game ideas that could be done with UA or Feng Shui or Mage or whatever, but which do a lot better with something focused.

    Lost Room offers a great example of what to do wrong, because as an idea it's not about what it's about. What does that mean? Well, if you describe or pitch The Lost Room it's all about the items and their interactions. That's its unique selling proposition, it's hook if you would.

    But what you've already hit on is that this is _not_ what it's actually about. The objects are just convenient vehicles to the people and groups which are the interesting bit (contrast with Friday the 13th: The Series or Warehouse 13, which really are about the objects). By focusing on those people rather than the fiddliness of the object, you're already "doing it wrong" but in doing so, you're making it playable.

    Now, mechanics are a whole other kettle of fish, and a much longer discussion. But in short: stripped of setting, does is UA clearly the best match for this idea? Certainly doesn't seem like it, since there's no meaty point of interface between the characters and the objects.

    Which is to say, and answer the real question, it' snot a UA heartbreaker unless you want it to be. :)


    Er. Well. No. That's a lie. It's a happy coincidence. But I'm always glad to end up agreeing with smart people.

  19. Y'know, this might be a roundabout way to make another story-building game about the father-daughter burglary team I came up with a while back: Pop n' Locke.

    The stories are always about trying to steal or con a macguffin from some weirdo. The macguffin then later plays a role in future stories, perhaps. Hm!

    That's not a bad transition from Happy Birthday, Robot! actually. Where HBR had no exclusive character ownership and no GM role, Pop n' Locke have three clear pre-generated roles to play.

    Pop: The old-timer who should've retired years ago, but wants to pass on the business to Locke before he passes on.

    Locke: The straight-laced rebel who still remembers all the training she got as a kid, but wants to leave the business behind.

    The Target: One of a rogue's gallery of weirdos who possess objects with specialized powers. Each target has peculiar habits and appetites. They're not going to part with their objects easily.

    Two players each play Pop or Locke. A third player plays the Target. Each turn, the Pop storyteller describes what Pop does to get the target's object. Each turn, the Locke storyteller does the same for Locke. Pop and Locke are always each other's "AND" support. The Target is always their "BUT" obstacle. The Target storyteller is his own "AND" support. Pop and Locke are collectively his "BUT" obstacle.


  20. Even outside of games, I have to deal with what you're talking about. I am a major, major fan of pulps, but according to several 'detractors', I let far too many people get away with 'doing it wrong'. I have to deal this both from people who keep the genre very closed and over-defined (I've been called an apostate for stating that some Disney cartoons of the early '90s could be considered pulp), as well as people who seem to use the old canon as a weapon against pulp.

    The best example I can think of is Doc Savage's Crime College. There are people out there who won't shut up about the fact that Clark Junior used to perform brain surgery to reform criminals, and treat this as a major defining characteristic, meaning that he NEEDS to be treated as a villain if shown today. That's crap, and as far as I can tell, they only do it to smugly show off how much smarter they are than people from eight decades ago. Then, the purists will yell about how it needs to be there, because it happened, dammit, and therefore must be important. It's not, I promise you. Brain surgery on criminals is wrong, obviously, but the important character trait of Doc Savage is NOT that he performed those surgeries - the point is supposed to be that he is on the cutting edge of almost every science, and the authors made a wildly inaccurate guess on the direction that could go.

    In the end, 'pulp' is a huge label, one that I consider very hard to do wrong (especially when that wonderful prefix 'retro' gets thrown into the mix). The only direction I could possibly understand this is considering a story to be 'too powerful' and that it must therefore be a superhero story. But there's more than just power level that separates the genres, and the line between them is a very feint and shifting thing. Warren Ellis is my best example of a pulp writer who pretends to write superhero stories, but I'm definitely digressing.

    Main point - I agree with you that doing something 'right' involves figuring out the core thing that makes it awesome, even if your interpretation doesn't meet somebody's checklist of Essential Esoterica. Also? In my book, you did it right. Because of Gorilla. Freaking. Khan.

  21. @Chso If you speak of Talespin, then by all that's pulpy, I owe you a beverage of your choice!

  22. I've noticed that most people who try to do Lord of the Rings in an RPG do it wrong... because they worry too much about doing it right. All those sacred cows box you into a corner (a sacred bovine corner!

    Also: I'm planning on mercilessly doing Dresden Files wrong, and I bet most RPG folks who run the game will too. For me, I'm going for a purely fairy tale vibe, so don't really need vampires.

  23. I personally suspect one of the greatest strengths of the DFRPG will be the ability to do it wrong. Urban Fantasy is oddly under-served, especially oddly considering how many games there are for it.


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