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Emergent Techniques: Mystiques and Intrigue

Started by Le Joueur, May 16, 2002, 06:26:58 PM

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Le Joueur

What is a Mystique?  The definition is "an aura of heightened value, interest, or meaning surrounding something, arising from attitudes and beliefs that impute special power or mystery to it."  That "special power" is the main reason for employing Mystiques.  Mystiques are an explicit item in Scattershot's Techniques because when delving into the higher forms of sharing the practices of Proprietorship become very complicated; this is meant to provide a framework upon which to then operate.


Mystiques are the Technique of choice used to create suspense.  (Introducing Complications by calling for a die roll in Specific play is another way to create suspense; it's about not knowing how things will turn out.  Even the player can complicate their own character's turn, if they like.)  This is often crucial to the enjoyment of a game.  It is also tightly bound up in the idea that role-playing games do not have known endings (differentiated from predictable endings).

The whole function of a Mystique is to create intrigue; you want to get the other people interested in it.  It hardly matters what a Mystique is if the group really doesn't care.  Operating a Mystique is about seduction, teasing and pleasing, 'hooking' the participants into the game without relying on the deus ex machina of 'character hooks.'  ("You gotta come, it's your brother!")  You don't preplan how to attract the players, but ya gotta 'work it!'  (Maybe I'll come up with some better examples at some point.)

Character Mystiques

One of the more familiar ways of introducing Mystique to a game is have one or more of them revolve around specific characters or personae.  The 'mysterious stranger' is arguably the most common; it's also been one of the least possible for personae.  There are several ways that a character or persona can have a mystique like having a secret, awaiting some latent effect, or operating under a charade; with personae, it's important that the group knows that these exist, but not the specific nature of them.

This allows the persona to be an enigma (the mysterious stranger) to the others; that includes the gamemaster!  I sketched this out somewhat in my first Ideal to Application example, where Dorothy revealed, little by little, the Circumstance of her creation not only to the other player, but to the gamemaster as well.

They are also other Mystiques that can be designed into characters and persona.  Outside of representing the Mystique themselves, a character can have Mystiques that provide their internal drive.  They could suffer a difficulty or from an uncertainty that obliges their player's interest in them.  In some situations, this follows the idea of having somebody else knowing something about your persona that you do not (only the gamemaster knowing the full extent of your persona's amnesia for example).  Whereas in more Self-Conscious play, the player may know the secret that the persona does not.

The Circumstances surrounding a persona may also 'pose a question;' seeking an answer becomes a good motivation for both the persona's desires and the player's goals for that persona.  It can inspire play and 'activate' the player.

Game Mystiques

The game might also 'pose a question;' if it invites an interest in finding out 'the answer,' this kind of mystique can work well.  Games can revolve around the resolution of a conundrum, dilemma, riddle, or controversy.  The Circumstances of game may completely derive from a mystery, paradox, puzzle, or problem faced by a character, group, or society.

Game Mystiques can also come from the realm of Self-Conscious narratives.  An Auteur playing group can find much mileage in creating 'messages' on the central theme in play or evoking heavy Atmosphere or applying themselves to an ever-escalating Tension Spiral or et cetera.  A Self-Conscious Avatar player could easily get carried away in the self-torment of finding out that 'everything they knew was a lie' and so on.

This type of Mystique scores the most heavily into tradition, back in the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons when the Mystique was the secret of the module or the 'notable' treasure in the dungeon (an artifact or otherwise setting-relevant article).  You can easily take this too far, a gamemaster trying to make everything about the game mysterious, but that gets boring.

The most important advice I can give about Mystiques is keeping them small.  The tighter and more focused they are, the easier they are to manage (meaning fewer mistakes about 'what is really going on' and the less railroading you'll be obliged to practice).  Now that doesn't mean they should be superficial, far from it; it means that they can be doubly penetrating.  If a conspiracy exists have its roots run deep and its threat loom large (in the groups eyes at least), just keep 'the insiders' to a minimum.  'Nested' Mystiques also work well, each one revealing another layer, the intrigue is based on the questions created in 'peeling back the layers.'

Broad Spectrum Mystiques

There are also a lot of 'untried variations' that are rare but could be usefully exploited.  This revolves around the concept of 'who is in on it.'

A Mystique does not have to be the secret held by a single individual; a confidence can be held between players or between player and gamemaster.  If you have a group prone to charges of cheating, this kind of conspiracy, even when other persona aren't involved, can be a simple solution.  The most important thing to recall is that if you aren't doing things to intrigue other people with it, you aren't using it to its full potential.

A Grand Mystique can also be done; it doesn't have to be about a single entity; whole realms of entities can 'hide' within a single Mystique.  In fact, the 'substance' of an entire game can be based upon delving into and exploring an occult (meaning things like a secret society, a hidden world, or some such), offering surprises at every turn (don't forget the 'peeling back the layers' stuff and focus it).  In a Self-Conscious game such a Mystique could not only be familiar to the whole group, but could even be a product of it.  A typical example of how a game works where the personae don't know about the Grand Mystique that the group does is the World of Darkness™; clearly many players read all the material yet their personae are 'in the dark' about most of it.

Being privy or creating a Grand Mystique can result in some really interesting connections between persona and setting that can be rather boring without the intrigue afforded by a Mystique.

Another kind of Mystique that does not get enough press it the Blank Mystique.  A Blank Mystique is where most good Star Trek games could come from.  The famous split infinitive, "To boldly go where no one has gone before," sets it all up in the fraction of the time usually necessary.  Most episodes would revolve around going somewhere strange and figuring out some mystery (heck, Scooby Doo does that too).  What makes it a Blank Mystique is that no one in the group knows 'what is down there.'  The important thing is to maintain the 'air of mystery' that forms this Mystique (the "no one has gone before" part).

In more Referential and Gamemasterful sharing, the players could dump all kinds of little tidbits into the game and someone (traditionally the gamemaster, but that's no longer necessary) will figure out 'what is behind it all.'  (Note; it's a good idea to resolve the Mystique shortly after someone 'figures it out,' otherwise interest will be lost.)

Using Mystiques

Now the classic television conspiracy would make a terrible Mystique because it is too 'smooth.'  Everyone is in on it (except the personae) and everyone practices perfect secrecy (in theory, on television usually some deus ex machina breaches the secrecy for all too mundane of reasons, leaving me wondering, "How did it get so far if it were so prone to failure?").  A good, tight, focused Mystique will be anything but 'smooth.'  Those involved will have to make all kinds of weird sacrifices and allowances, behaving at times in very strange fashion.  It is on these 'rough spots' that you connect the other participants.

'Show a little heal,' reveal a weakness, lose a crucial but characteristic element, the ways that play can redirect towards a Mystique are too numerous to name.  Basically it all goes back to that 'tease and please' bit.  First you do something intriguing, and then you 'give away' a little, lather, rinse, and repeat.  When the time seems right, the group will 'dive in.'  You've also got to be ready for that, because mishandled, it becomes an anticlimactic revelation.  Be careful not to do too much 'teasing' and not enough 'pleasing,' make sure you have enough to give away or that the Mystique is 'shallow' enough that its conclusion won't throw the game off.

The real secret to using Blank Mystiques for games is to keep the game Atmosphere as mysterious and intriguing as possible and yet make the Mystique up as you go.  Since play rarely will 'encircle' a Mystique, there will usually be an 'escape route' just in case the resolution seems to be coming too quickly.  Don't overdo it though, everybody hates a long wild goose chase.

Mystiques are most often practiced by the gamemaster, but there's no reason a persona's Sine Qua Non can't be built completely around one.  This technique is as good for persona, characters, and other entities within the game as it is for the game itself.  The careful use of Mystiques can be an excellent way to moderate the pace of a game (toss in a few minor Mystiques to slow things down, solve or abort a few to speed things up).

The important thing to remember when gamemastering Mystiques is to use seductive and sly Mystiques instead of 'who's got the clue' railroading.  You might think you see how a Mystique should unravel, but it's more important to let the players figure out their own way.  That's why it's important to keep in mind the 'rough spots' of your Mystiques; you use them to intrigue the players in whatever fashion fits where the game is rather than bringing the game to a specific 'rough spot.'

I hope that Mystiques help clarifying how many types of narratives can work without ruining the intrigue by giving the group more information about everything else.  With this, Sine Qua Non, and Genre Expectations, I hope I am cementing 'foundational' the Scattershot Techniques.  If I am not mistaken, once I get around to the 'Who's in Charge,' 'Coming to Terms,' and 'Pacing, Pacing, Pacing' Techniques, I'll be ready to delve into more specifics of how you actually apply the mechanix.  I look forward to your feedback on all these techniques and how they work together.

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!