Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 14: Change; The Little Death

If you ask any professional athlete what the hardest thing to do in sports is, they’ll all say “Hit a baseball”. But a coach once told me that the hardest thing to do in sports is to walk into your Super Bowl locker room at half-time and change the strategy that got you there cause it’s no longer working.”

Josiah Bartlett, The West Wing, Red Mass.

A lot of what I wrote previously about death in roleplay, aligns itself to that which most fortune tellers will tell you when the card comes up– Death means change. They say this as if it’s comforting…

Change of any kind, particularly when your characters have bought the premise that lured them into the game in the first place, is a dicey thing (no pun intended). It comes about in one of two ways:

1: The game has taken a life of its own, courtesy of the players’ interaction with your game and, in doing so, has become different to what you thought.

2: You’ve used all your ideas for the first six adventures.

The first one is optimal as it represents a sharing of ideas that culminates in the ownership of a tale between player and GM. Ideally, it also means that your players are doing most of the thinking for you, as far as story ideas go.

Obviously the second is the bad one. But don’t necessarily be fooled into categorising them just yet…

John Rogers called attention to this. TV networks get pitches for shows every year. And one of the things they are looking for is– what kind of mileage do you have for your series? What engines of conflict exist? Because conflict is the heart of each story and the risks that you run, be it writing for TV or running a game, is resolving the conflict too soon.

You can also grind a conflict, like a player’s last nerve, just as easily.

Since we’re talking about TV, lets take a look at my current viewing material. I’m watching Alias, and I’m up to Season 3. Season 1 had so many several engines of conflict that the whole thing appears somewhat steampunk-like in my head: To review:

  • Sydney Bristow lost her fiance to the secret spy organisation and her employer, SD6. She hates them, but even more so because…
  • …They’re not really a black-ops CIA group. They are, in fact, terrorists.
  • Sydney also learns that her father has been lying to her for decades, first by not telling her that he’s a spy. Then by not telling her that she works for terrorists. Then by not telling her that he’s really a double-agent with the CIA. Then by not telling her that her mother was KGB, and so on…
  • Sydney goes to the CIA and becomes a double-agent.
  • She also has all this conflict going on that she has to hide from her best friends, Will and Francie.
  • She’s in love with her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn, but has lost her fiancee, and can’t tell anyone about Vaughn in case she compromises her mission and endangers his life.
  • She wants to be a teacher, so she’s also doing tertiary education.
  • And all the good and bad guys are after artifacts that could spell the doom of the world, designed by a prophet 500 years ago.

So yeah, a lot of different elements to write an hour-long story or map out a 22 episode-long season. The great machine gets even more complex as other characters start to firm up. Jack Bristow tries to form a relationship with his daughter but lacks the basic skillset of interacting with someone outside of espionage parameters. Arvin Sloan is losing his wife to Limphoma. Francie has her fiance cheat on her and buys a restaurant. Will investigates SD6 and becomes a pawn more than a few times.

The machine is glorious in sheer size and ability now. Writers are able to call upon it for exciting hour-long adventures and the machine dutifully spits it out. It hums and glows so it remains a continual source of surprise to me that the creator, JJ Abrams, sledge-hammers a spanner into the gears and watches it crumble apart without mercy.

A few pieces are salvaged but the machine has changed as two essential conflicting components have been sheared apart and are discarded. The output episodes are different, the change is better and here is why:

Suddenly things are no longer formulaic. You can’t predict the outcome of the episodes outside of the basest assumptions. A fact made more apparent with the death of one of the show’s stars. The episodes serve to welcome a new audience but rewards those who have watched since the beginning.

What has this to do with roleplaying, I hear me ask. And it takes a while to answer but it is this…

It is far from unusual to have the adventures of a roleplay game continue for years. In point of fact, I’m involved in three such odessyes:  Jason’s Shadowrun game (10 years), Rhys’s Deus game (3+ years) and Tim’s Exalted game 2+ years). I’m also reading the accounts of another game called Team Grandeur (5 years and counting) and have had games run for anywhere between a year to two years.

And unlike an TV series, these episodes are usually more than 1 hour long, have anywhere between 3 to 6 stars – not counting co-stars – and may have 26 to 52 to even more adventures per year.

Writing a story of such length means that change is an absolute necessity.  But in doing so, you must remember that your stars, audience and fan-base are one and the same.  And, as mentioned in an earlier article, they can make their opinions known in a manner that exceeds any modern narrative medium in both speed and accuracy.  They are a table length away.

At the present, the Adventures of the Colt Apollo are moving along very nicely.  The premise is simple enough, the setting is imaginative, my stable of characters is largely fleshed out and the players have jumped into their roles with both feet.  But at some point, I know that the giant Chekhov’s gun that dominates the horizon of Ascension – or the less notable one hidden in the gulch – is going to have to fire.  And it will.  I have plans.  But I’m not eager to have it go off prematurely.

Consequently, I’d better think up some ideas that don’t just involve the lawmen shooting up folk.  It’s a small town, after all.

One of the strategies employed by TV series, when things start to flag, is the introduction of a new character.  This may be simply a guest star, or it could be a regular member of the cast.  Robert Hook refers to Babylon 5 in the Comments when citing examples of change enacted too soon, and it’s interesting to note that each season introduces a new character to the regular cast in order to advance the overall story.  Season 5 introduced several, largely to pick up the slack of minor plot threads, or character departures but, as Robert says, is weak compared to the other four seasons.

One of my long-term friends (though, oddly, short-term gaming compatriate) has swelled the ranks of The Adventures of the Colt Apollo, which allows me to explore other story ideas before the inevitable game where I pull the trigger.  And I believe his addition will add a new dynamic to the players as well, as it means somebody else for them to interact with that isn’t me with a funny accent.  But there is a moment of trepidation when introducing change to something that is already working really well and the old axiom of ‘If it ain’t broke…’  is something that was running through both my mind and each of the players before they were joined by their newest cast member.

It’s a risk, but there is also tangible benefits from shaking things up, or bringing forward a major plot arc.  Entertainment is the reason your players are here and if you have them interested in a story, there needs to be a payoff as surely as Chekhov’s gun needs to be fired.  It can’t be used as a leash to hold your players to your table, or rather, it can’t be perceived that way by your players.  If you’re concerned that you’ll have used up all your good ideas after the big pay-off, don’t be.  It’s you and your players that make this a game worth playing and that’s all you need to make things that fun again.

Don’t keep putting off your revelations until its too late.  Too many TV shows are guilty of that.

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1 Comment

  1. The effects of ending a conflict too soon are seen in Babylon 5 – they wrote a 4 year arc, with everything resolving in the 4th year, but then got extended to 5. As a result, the story that continues into year 5 is weak, albeit satisfying to hard-core fans.

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