Gah! Finally done with the write up for Colt Apollo 4. Normally writing anything this involved and grindingly slow is a chore, so you can only imagine how the game went. Or at least how the game went for me. Players seemed to enjoy themselves by all accounts and the dilemma in dealing with the Indian warrior really served as a good moral drama – as well as grounding the characters’ beliefs – that the players sunk their teeth into. But it was still an awkward and unwieldy game for me and it’s time to talk about one of my big dislikes about the medium: Distance.
I’ve run games and played in games where characters would walk 500 miles and then walk they’d walk 500 more* and I have nothing but sympathy for the GM if he/she finds themselves narrating the overland version of The Odessey. When it’s me running the game, this is where the wheels come off the wagon. I do not like any journey in a game that’s going to take more than an hour. Here’s why:
ME: So your characters set off across the desert on a grueling three day trek toward the Forgotten City of Opak Re. **
ME: …And welcome to sunny Opak Re!
Three days of harsh desert conditions, tests of endurance, commitment and courage, all rendered down to a five second description.
This does not make for good storytelling.
Greatest gift to a GM in any system is the good old Random Encounter Table. For those unaware, it’s a series of tables where the GM rolls some dice that correllates to a particular event that occurs on the journey. This could be an ambush by bandits, a merchant caravan, somebody stranded or lost, etc. I’m pretty confident the designers of this table read Tolkien and said “You know, we’ve got elves, dwarves and humans but if there’s one thing that we’re going to take from this; it’s that walking is REALLY boring!” There’s a reason why random tables work and here’s the mechanics:
In comics, sense of slowing time is achieved by how many panels are on a page. In a movie or television show, its a montage of scenes. In a book, its the conversations between characters that chew up the time. The simple rule is: The denser the information you have going on between the end of your last arc and the beginning of the next one, the more amount of time appears to pass.
There’s probably a physics formula that can explain it better…
Back in Mackay, I ran a fantasy based game called Exalted. The story of this I won’t dwell on but I think there was enough travelling across various countries and continents to make Fellowship of the Ring seem a briskwalk down the block to the shops. There were two game mechanics that meant I wouldn’t have to be thinking about how I was going to describe months if not years of events that would take place while players were covering miles and what was ideal about them was that they traded distance for danger. Sure you could travel that far, but you run the risk of being killed and eaten in the process. Even if they weren’t killed and eaten, you’ve got some amount of information or an entertaining scene that chews up time and conveys the illusion to the player of how long a trek they’ve had.
Then one of my players got their hands on a spell that meant they would be perfectly safe from any kind of harm until they reached a destination.
This caused me no end of hair-pulling frustration and lead to an approximate of the example written above for many lengthy travels. Now ‘danger’ is strictly interprative and possibly I could have devised other means of distracting the players inbetween destinations but all the characters were evil or, at the very least, self-serving and so there isn’t a heck of a lot that’s going to draw them off the beaten path unless it’s to their gain. Which is problematic enough but it also means that you’re having to come up with scenes that take TOO MUCH time.
Make no mistake, it’s about distracting your players. But it can really only be a distraction. If the next thread of your story arc is taking place many miles away and you’ve lost one to two games to the minor encounter that the players have decided to take very seriously, to the exclusion of the encounter that you WANT them to take seriously, then you’re either trying to improvise an encounter worthy of their expectations or you’re going to leave your players disappointed that the old man whose horse had thrown a shoe wasn’t actually a god in disguise who was testing the players as being worthy for some grand mission that exists only in their heads.
And it’s not just about hiking overland either. Time becomes and even more important factor when you’ve got players doing things like building, investigating, experimenting or tracking. To bring this back to a more current example, last adventure of the Colt Apollo had Kane tracking Indians over the desert for three hours. Additionally this had Wilhem investigating a murder scene and all of the players warily searching underground for either a stash of iron ore, or a murderous Indian warrior. In each of these scenes I was trying to convey either a build-up of suspense, or the amount of effort involved in their actions. I don’t feel that I was sucessful in either endeavour.
NEXT ENTRY: Some strategies, either developed in hindsight, or some generic ideas to get around this problem.
*You hate it now but give it time. You’ll come to love it again.
**Stolen from Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassady. Cause I can’t come up with imaginary stuff today…