Monday, April 13, 2015

The Orson Welles School of Game-Mastering

Go watch This Video. It 'll make you run better role-playing games.

It's a documentary short, "F for Fake (1973) - How to Structure a Video Essay." I'm ... not entirely sure what the creator means by the term "video essay." Like most creations discussing the process of creation, unspoken assumptions and undefined terms clutter much of the landscape.

"Its just a typical variation of the Obtuse November Horse theme ... y'know, like anyone would recognize." 

Regardless of its intention, there's two great ideas in this essay with great applications to tabletop role-playing. (granted, more for a narrative style of play; the ideas may fit poorly with a game in a more old-school sandbox style.)

First is "Therefore/But." In any sort of chronicle built from scenes, its an easy mistake to just string those scenes along in an "...and then..." chain, where the order of progression doesn't matter and nothing really builds. Walking your character through town encountering a series of NPC's, experiencing their quirks and pumping them for rumors then trundling on to the next can feel like a trudge through a daily errand list, no matter how colorful those NPC's are. But if every scene has a consequence, a "Therefore ..." or a "But ..." at the end that changes how the character will interact with the next scene, it turns the events into a building drama. Put another way, "Therefore" equals Opportunity, "But" equals Consequence. You approach the Bailiff, offer him a drink, therefore (opportunity) he considers you an ally in his coming bid for re-election. You cross the neighborhood to talk to a pickpocket you know, end up saving him from some drunk mercenaries, but (consequence) get marked for later vengeance by the mercenaries.  Tie some strings between the Opportunities and Consequences of few scenes like that, you get conflicts to resolve and a narrative direction to follow, rather than just a series of incidents.

Consequence or Opportunity? Depends whether or not you're in the truck.

Second is "Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch..." The resolution of a story is almost always enhanced by the anticipation of that resolution, so you want to tease out the resolution a bit to maximize that anticipation. How do you tease it out? By jumping to another story just as the first one hits a milepost, and then teasing out the resolution of the second story by switching back to the first story, or even yet another story. Keep that up, and the audience gets to enjoy a lot of anticipation. In a role-playing context, this means you don't introduce the Evil Mastermind, set up a fight against the Evil Mastermind then defeat the Evil Mastermind all in one go. Much better to have some other evolving situation (daresay, something spawned by a Consequence or Opportunity) press into the gaps between those big beats. The Evil Mastermind appears ... but the Mayor wants to cut the Superhero Team's funding! The Evil Mastermind launches his great attack ... therefore the Mayor says superheroes are a menace! In this particular example, you're also trading between different flavors of challenge, the direct physical menace of the Evil Mastermind and the more mysterious machinations of the Mayor, contrasting them against each other. This is particularly salient to role-playing because, thanks to the objective-directed war-gaming origins of the medium, staying focused on the current crisis through to its bitter end is precisely how most scenarios were traditionally structured. Of course, advice intended for authorship isn't going to translate directly to the communal narrative-building of role-playing, but its a fruitful idea to start from.

I'm pretty sure this is all "Scriptwriting 101" and probably some version of it has already appeared in a dozen smart and hip gaming texts already, but this video lays out these great ideas directly and concisely.

This post felt incomplete without at least one more picture, so here's a context-defying psychedelic witch.

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