Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thank You Burn Notice

So, the first real session of the light supers Cold War game happened last night after a long interruption after chargen finished. It was short, as will be its fate as a weeknight game, but I think it went well. Small number of dice rolls - everyone at the table is experienced with diceless play and the character sheets very clearly communicated what the characters were strong enough at that rolling wasn't really necessary. That alone was an interesting experience: All the things system is there to help with happened - skills and issues were engaged, and important elements were brought to the forefront - but the system itself barely raised its head at all.

I'm not the sort to just treat it as a "What a great session, we hardly rolled dice at all!" sort of event without examination, and the examination is an interesting reinforcement of an idea I hold close to my heart. To my mind, there's sort of an idealized level of play where important things just happen because that's the natural sensibility of the table. Because this is something we don't necessarily know, we come up with rules and systems to help us reach that, and depending upon what that ideal is for us, we gravitate towards rules and systems that help support that ideal. But because rules serve that end, they are ultimately disposable if you ever reach a point where you can get the things you need without them. It's roughly akin to a writer following instructions and answering questions until something clicks and he can start writing. He doesn't discard the rules, he just internalizes them, or proceeds from an understanding of why they're there.

The specific table I'm playing the cold war game with is one with whom system does not really contribute a lot We know each other well, as the players seek out their own pain instinctively. Hell, we barely touch aspects because everyone falls into effectively self-compelling without a second thought. I could be running this game with almost any system under the sun, and we'd have used very little of it.

Which is not to say I'm considering going systemless. Last night was, in large part, a framing session. There were threats, but they were sufficiently within scope that there was little tension in the actual conflicts (though there was plenty in the build-up and in the less overt conflicts). When it comes time to ratchet up the threat level, system will become more important if only because abstract numbers are perceived as meaner than I am. But even that is an excellent illustration, at least to me, of how important it is to understand the role of system.

Anyway, that's all a bit tangential to what I was originally going to write about which is, of course, Burn Notice. See, I'm a big fan of rules that make for easy scenario design, such as Robin Laws' "Three Fight Scenes" rule for designing Feng Shui scenarios. Another one that I've become fond of, and which really helped in designing last nights game, is the Burn Notice Rule.

See, the show Burn Notice revolves around Michael Westen, a blacklisted spy and his badass friends. Michael is super-competent, and much of the joy of the show is watching him end up somewhere between James Bond and MaCgyver. He is so competent, that most of the challenges he is given are well within his capabilities, but that would make for boring TV, so the average episode of Burn Notice presents him with two challenges[1] which, while not in conflict with one another, force him to split his effort and allocate his resources to try to manage both, something that is more challenging and thus more interesting to watch.

This model is incredibly applicable to other games and stories where the hero is very capable. Rather than presenting additive challenges (which is to say, more powerful opponents, demanding steady escalation of foes), the addition of an extra thread can provide a serious challenge without undercutting the character's competence[2]. Creating a bad guy who's more powerful than Superman is a disruptive thing. Creating two bad guys who are less powerful than Superman, but able to create a problem isn't. All of which is to say, that you can often get more mileage by widening the problem than you can by deepening it.

So as I looked at my notes for the game last night, I felt like the thread I had was good, but it fell a little short, and so I turned to the Burn Notice Rule - If things seem to simple or easy, add another plot. And wham - suddenly what had been a too-clear, too-linear set of ideas became a properly Cold-War-Esque muddle, full of interesting points of engagement. Worked like a charm.

So thank you, Burn Notice. You really do make everything better.

1 - In normal parlance this second thread is a B plot, and the B plot is a hugely important thing in making useful stories. But I single out Burn Notice in this regard because the B plot tends to be really big and robust, more like a plot in parallel than a true subplot. Contrast this with a show like White Collar - there's usually a B plot (Neal working on solving his mystery) and it might create a complication or two in the main plot, but the main plot is still clearly on center stage (until the episode where the B plot moves onto center stage, but that's a whole other thing).

2 - Which is one of the real problems with additive opposition. By the time you reach the fourth or fifth iteration, you've transformed the character from being a badass to being the bottom rung of some unending ladder. This is, by the way, the plot of about 90% of the fighting anime I've seen.


  1. It really worked, and I want to hilight one or two things that the Burn Notice Rule immediately created as interesting complications:

    One: This is a team. They are accustomed to working together - with all three of them present. Remove one of the key components, and the other two of them keep going, but not seamlessly. Anna kept infodumping, because Grey's presence on the team has tuned her to shove information out rapidly and in huge detail. Bull's input relays, however, really want just one piece of information: where's the bad guy and where's my gun? Can you imagine just Anna and Grey? Or Grey and Bull? Ugh. Datadatadata... whoops, I think the bad guy just left. Or seekdataseekdataseek... did you just shoot the data?

    Two: It also created a surprisingly clear list of complicating questions. I know, coming out of the first session, the generic shape of the bad, what I have to worry about for Anna - such as being absorbed by a Mark, or put down by her boss doing his job, because he's the kind of bastard who will - and a list of very *defined* questions, like Where The Hell Did They Take Grey and Who's Side is Our Old Mentor on Anyway? and What Are the Russians Doing in Shenandoah Valley? and on and on. Usually, the first session feels like trying to find your feet. This first session felt like trying to find the right bad guy and throttle him until we got more information.

    Three: It created the kind of situation where the characters got to do their shtick. Grey got to get into a gimmedata conversation and play chess through a wall with one of the bad guys. Bull got to hang out the window of a modded Buick, whipping around, his feet secured in the seatbelts, firing an M-16 *one handed* at a moving target. Anna got to turn to her boss and say, gravely, "I have very bad news, sir. It's calm. All quiet." And, er, drive like Ziva. Because the scenario immediately leaves us scrambling, we get to demonstrate awesome much more quickly than we otherwise would.

  2. Just spit balling here but I see the B plot as a great tool to handle the fact that there is no star. Or rather that the Party is the stat. Each Week, or Adventure, a different B plot focused on a different character can highlight the characters.

    Moreover, the Burn Notice model has the B plot as being Heavily tied to the other characters. Michael needs Sam and Fi for both missions, or They have a side mission and Drag him in.

    It's a Great Sub Spotlight tool!

  3. My Exalted and Amber players will not thank you for this advice...but I do!

  4. My favorite Burn Notice episodes are the ones in which the two plots are related in some way, be it thematically, through a pivot NPC character (often Michael's mom) or because A plot's pro-active bad guy is watching what Michael is doing in the B plot.

    They are much harder to write well, though, and thus much rarer.

  5. @Stéphane Yes, and that's a good point. You can get a lot of mileage out of connections between the two plots, but it's tricky. Do it too much, and your players will just start to expect it and everything starts feeling a little bit too over-connected. But used sparingly, it's powerful juju.

  6. In rereading the Dresden books, there seems to be usually 2-4 competing problems for Harry to resolve -- an interesting way of extending the Burn Notice rule to longer narratives.

  7. @eddy Yah, Jim uses it to great effect as a way to keep a VERY powerful protagonist in check.

    Also, he accomplishes this by not letting his protagonist get any _sleep_. :)

  8. Oh my goodness. It seems to me that Danger Patrol is essentially Burn Notice Rule: the RPG.


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