Friday, September 3, 2010

External Threats

NPR's did a fantastic set of pieces over the past few days describing the actions of the USS Kirk in last days of the Vietnam War. As Saigon was being evacuated, the Kirk was ordered to turn around and go back to rescue refugees and salvage (or sink) the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy. It was one of those events that got no press at the time, and is exactly the sort of thing NPR excels at - a tapestry of very human, very moving stories.

A part that really grabbed me was the story of the dropped baby. One man, a helicopter pilot, loaded it down with his family and everyone he could carry. The Kirk's a destroyer escort, which is to say it had no place for the helicopter to land, so the pilot had to keep it as steady as possible over the deck to allow people to drop down to the sailors. One of them was a 10 month old girl in diapers, and she was the one telling the story. She didn't remember it, of course, but she had grown up hearing it.

This was just one of many things, a few of them horrifying and many of them amazing and heroic. This stuff really grabs me, as a person and as a storyteller. So much so that I'm a little hesitant to turn it into an example, but it's so fresh in my mind that I can hardly pass up the opportunity.

See, the thing that grabs me about this is the heroism of doing everything you can. There's no difficult choice involved[1], just desperate action and uncertainty. Last, desperate chances. When I can get this in a game, I can't get enough. It's a lightning bolt down my spine. it moves me, and that's something I want.

The problem is, it's not easy to get this, and the route to it is perhaps a little counterintuitive. Explicitly, I am NOT going to get it in a game that is structured towards building that sort of scene. I can get all the motions, but not the emotional punch. That is to say, things like aspects, personality traits, narrative control and whatnot, I can create a _scene_ which contains all the elements of a desperate last stand. I can even bring it to a satisfying resolution.

But it's not the same.

The thing about that scene, as a planned or structured thing, is that it will focus on the heroic choice. In good drama, there's not much question whether or not the hero can vanquish the villain if he can find a reason to take up his sword and fight. Because of that, the dramatic approach reduces the focus on the fight and puts the focus on the choice. The choice is (and should be) hard and full of challenges and consequences, but once its made, you've rounded a corner and things will go from there (until the next choice) .

The same scene, unplanned, with none of those tools is entirely unreliable. There's nothing that guarantees that the scene will ever happen. And if it does, there's nothing that guarantees that it will be a satisfying scene in any way at all. But that knowledge is what makes it all the more powerful when things actually come together because (or perhaps despite) that it's not about the choice, it's about what you do when you must do what you can . It's a bit contradictory, I know, to say that I want X, but X is best in the context least likely to provide me with X, but I can live with that. Contradiction is a part of life.

Traditionally, I've considered this a function of crunchy systems, but the reality is a little more nuanced than that. It's not the crunch per se that does it, it's the enforced external concrete elements that make it matter. Rules are traditionally the most concrete elements but, depending on level of buy in and investment, setting can be equally concrete if that's how the game is run.

So, there's no deep lesson in this. Just a stated preference. But I want to hold it up as something important to me, and an indicator of the fact that there's a lot of powerful emotional punch to be had in matters external, at least for me. It' s not the only emotional punch, and I won't claim it's the best, but it's something I need to keep a grip on because it's important to me.

1 - Except perhaps the choice to do nothing, but that is (as a person and as a character) not much of a choice at all.


  1. Personally I find that crunchy systems get in the way of achieving this.

    I want the player to identify with their character enough so that they do the heroic action without thinking. There is no analysis of the risk or reward. Something need to be done, it needs to be done now, and they are the entities on the spot.

    I find the mechanisms that force, or try to reward, such behaviour tend to break the mood. If a player thinks about what they will get their character should do it dissipates the urgency. They get the player thinking about what they are doing. Which is the wrong approach.

    Heroism is silly. It's irrational. It's often counter-survival and damn foolish. But there is that magic moment when the player turns to face the horde, knowing they cannot possibly win (although at times they do), but determined to buy the rest of the party just that little bit of extra time they need.

    That's what really excites me when it happens in a game. And worries the hell out of me when it happens in real life.

  2. "In good drama, there's not much question whether or not the hero can vanquish the villain if he can find a reason to take up his sword and fight."

    See, in the context of a game, I think one of the things that makes the kind of scene you're talking about viscerally powerful is uncertainty of outcome.

    Like, with the helicopter pilot, there's as much chance that story could have been a tragedy. Real life doesn't operate by rules of drama.

    Situations in a game don't always have to either. When choices are dramatically simple, the tension comes from the very real chance that things could go very badly for you.

  3. @Lenny I think the question is whether the power is in the moment of making the choice, or the moment when things actually -do- go terribly.

    I mean, obvious false dichotomy. There's a lot of power in both. But I'm not sure you can get as much power out of both than you can out of either.

  4. @Rob Totally agree. It's a different kind of pressure that really maximizes the potential of either.

    I was mainly just supporting your idea regarding why aspects and other narrative control mechanics can't as effectively get at what you're talking about - because the payoff is at the moment of choice, and you have a ton of tangible control over the outcome.

    In what you're talking about, the payoff seems to be in the outcome - nothing is difficult about the choice, or at least, no tension has been built around it. So then the buildup and payoff all occur in the aftermath of, "Holy shit, what's going to happen now?"

    One difficulty about this is that to really get that desperate moment, you need there to be a perception of real pressure - you have to do something, anything, right now. It can be hard to create that sense of urgency.

    As a shameless GM trick, I'll sometimes describe everything like I'm panicked as hell and the world's ending. "Oh, fuck, you guys, the wall explodes! And the horde is coming! And the king's out in the open! And he trips and falls running away! What are you going to do! It's a horde! Oh, fuck!"

    Sometimes it'll push a player into blurting something desperate and terrible out. And that mood usually becomes pretty contagious, pretty quick. Not always reliable, but you know.


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