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Author Topic: Get to the /point/, a minor revelation  (Read 7020 times)
Eric.Brennan
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Posts: 23


« on: June 27, 2002, 09:03:59 PM »

I just started a new campaign (after several mis-steps and one-shots.)  In plotting out the arc I wanted--bad guys, allies, geopolitics, blah blah blah, I started wondering why one-shots are more memorable than "normal" campaign play, and if I couldn't isolate the reason and apply it to campaign play.

To preface this, let me say that several of the PCs were searching for a lost city named Irem the Many-Pillared.  (Yes, an openly stolen throw-away for one of my players.)   As such, when planning the campaign, I tried to figure out how to kick it off, and started planning the PC's trip from the city on the coast, through the Southern desert, and then to Irem, where they would encounter a (hopefully) recurring adversary, and find hooks leading them to various other places.  Looking over my brainstorming, I realized that night one would be the urban adventure, night two a caravan trip where the PCs would fight raiders, and night three would involve the PCs arriving at Irem.  

That's when it hit me--Irem is what this is about.  That's the destination.  Everything else I'd planned, sadly, was filler.  The players wanted to get to Irem, and I'm throwing all of this garbage at them for the first two nights.  I began to realize that the reason why one-shots are memorable is that there isn't all of this filler that many RPGs have taught us to throw in: just meaty goodness.  No long, meaningless combat encounters, present just because there should be goblins in the woods; no boring shopping expeditions in town, and pickpocketing in the streets of the city.

When someone looks back on a one-shot, they remember the story, because it isn't obscured by boring filler, whereas when they look back on the standard (for the groups I've gamed with, anyway) campaign game, they have to filter out all of this extra stuff that obscures the story.

So I started the game on the outskirts of Irem, summing up the caravan ride in two sentences and making an aside about bandits fought and hazards avoided.  And then kicked right into survival horror, armies of the dead, and besieged heros.  I found that without long spans of "getting there" the PCs were focused and involved from the get-go--I hope to begin all of my adventures like that, with just meat, and no more filler.

So--there's my revelation.  Has everyone else made this leap before me, and I'm just slow?

--Eric
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Eric J.
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« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2002, 09:37:28 PM »

Filler fuffils every portion of GNS.  It has been a comonality to most literature for several millenia.  I'm not accusing you of activelley dismissing the concept of filer's uses, but I am saying that it is neccecary.  Many new things can come about using random encounters, that may lead to new plots.  People don't usually sit down to eat the heart of the artichoke, though it is oftentimes considered the best.

I am not arguing with your campaign style, especially if you find that it works for you, but I am simply saying that regardless of what problems that it may create, filler is vital to my campaigns and all about them.  Tolkein relies on it heavilley, and it is one of the prime reasons that campaigns are so memerable.  They have a preamble, rising action, climax, and resolution.  Take away any element in favor of another will dismantle part of the essence of literature that our civilization (particurally the Japenese, originally) has strived so hard to amass.

I am also curious as to what you count as filler.  It may be that you, from a gamist tendency, add irrelevant information into journeys.  If this is true, I don't think that you have clearly defined the problem, and it may be that you add in ecounters that aren't relevant and are void of character empathy.  Back to LOTR:  Frodo actually encounters the corpeses of the trolls Gandalf took out form the hobbit.  Their value to the plot as a means of rising action cannot be discounted.

Filler is one of the reasons that the industry has survived.  I think it would be a first thought to say that the RPG industry doesn't center around campain style of gaming.  If you prefer 1-shot gaming, it's fine with me, but I don't see it as a revolution.
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hardcoremoose
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« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2002, 09:38:14 PM »

Hey Eric,

I wouldn't say you're slow - for a lot of us that's a pretty new concept - but it is one of the important issues discussed around here fairly frequently.  Personally, I've been dealing with the concept (with mixed results) over the course of the last year, and I think I'm finally starting to get it.  

It's one of the things Ron means when he says Story Now.  No waiting around to get to the story, no story after the fact...just story happening right now, all the time, readily evident to those partaking of it as it happens.

One of the best sources for this kind of gaming is Sorcerer & Sword.  If you don't have it, pick it up (even if you don't have or never intend to play Sorcerer, &Sword is an invaluable resource to the action-oriented GM, IMO).

Glad to hear the game went so well for you.  Sounds like it was fun.

- Scott
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #3 on: June 27, 2002, 10:48:28 PM »

Hi,

Off topic and on topic at the same time... Eric's reasoning is one of the reason's I apply no negative connotation to the term "one shot."

To me a one shot has always implied a clear and purposeful scenerio, getting the job done effectively, with one shot, if you will.  It's that clarity and precision that makes the term, for me, very positive.

If anyone wants to hash this term out further, I'll meet you at the thread where the term was recently maligned. ;- )

Take care,
Christopher
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Lemonhead, The Shield
Uncle Dark
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« Reply #4 on: June 27, 2002, 11:46:24 PM »

Eric,

No, you're not slow.  It took a lot of us a while to fiure out how to do fast-paced stuff right.

Pyron has a point, though, one I often debate with my partner, Troy.  Filler sessions can allow for building ot inter-character relationships that become important once the heat is well and truly on.  For me, such session cease to feel like filler.  "Filler" has connotations of the narrative equivalent of "empty calories."

Good filler builds intra-party relationships, and gives the GM time to set up stuff (such as introducing NPCs to recur) for later.  Bad filler is jsut sort of there... as you said, "long, meaningless combat encounters, present just because there should be goblins in the woods."  It's that meaningless bit that gets you.

I've seen (and, sadly, perpetrated) a lot of bad filler.  I think that the habit of including bad filler is an artifact of level-based systems, where a certain amount of mindless bloodshed and looting was nescesary to bring the party up to the strength needed for the "real" adventure.

Lon
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #5 on: June 28, 2002, 12:06:15 AM »

Hi Lon and all,

I think the distinction between good filler and bad filler is addressed part by Ron's writings on the "story unit."  That is, is the story like a an episode of a tv series, a season of a tv series, a movie, a comic book, 12 months of a comic book, or what.

I know that I loved the Avengers-hang-out-at-the-mansion episodes -- but they were respites between intense, action packed issues.  

The thinking is,  that when the group know head of time they're doing 12 monthly issues for the story, there's probably going to be the "Fantastic Four goes shopping and Ben has to learn how to change a diaper" issue -- so it's not a problem.  Everyone's probably expecting it arount session 8 or so -- and everyone knows, even if they didn't know before, "Oh, tonight's *this* issue."

The probelm often comes when either the story unit is defined (I'm thinking, "let's go," your thinking, "no a pastoral stroll through middle earth... the way it's supposed to be") or different GNS modes all mixing each other up (a stroll through a Tolkien pastoral passage can be G (opportunity to get XP), N (a chance to build that theme of Freedom Leading to Dissolution) or S (So! This is what the wilderness around here is like).... But if the group isn't organized properly (no XP, or no theme, or there's no environment to explore), it's going to "feel" old fast.

It is tricky.  But I think Ron's notes in, S&Sword, Author stance, about Story units are really worth reviewing in this regard.

Take care,
Christopher
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: June 28, 2002, 06:11:06 AM »

Hello,

There is no such thing as good filler. What Eric (Pyron) is referring to is pacing and punctuation, which are fine and wonderful things, just as integral to a good story as rising tension, climax, and other overtly sexual metaphors.

Eric (Brennan), this insight you are describing is a crucial one. As Christopher points out, I tried to articulate it as well as I could in Sorcerer & Sword. Just talking and writing, though, is potentially so much blather. I'm glad to see the insight showing up in your approach to and developing habits of play.

Best,
Ron
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #7 on: June 28, 2002, 06:23:12 AM »

Hey Eric,

Good job!  That's an excellent observation.  Let me just say that you have illustrated the concept of pacing very well.  And it's not about what "many RPGs have taught us;" in fact, I would go so far as saying that few if any role-playing games even mention pacing.  My frequent, first advice to 'traditional' gamemasters is "Pacing, pacing, pacing."  That means more than just 'getting to the meat' or 'cutting to the chase,' it means the build up must be commensorate with both the height of the 'meat' and 'how cold' the audience is.

You are very right about players 'remembering the story,' but there's a catch.  It depends on what the story is.  If the story is about "survival horror, armies of the dead, and besieged heroes," then yes, absolutely start there.  But if the game is about the interpersonal relationships of the player characters, the journey can be 'what the story is.'  It all depends on 'where the meat is.'  I could conceive of glossing over the city of Irem in some cases.

My wife once ran a game where we thought we were going to be dungeon crawling a 'haunted castle.'  She didn't tell us it was going to be a typical 'Scooby Doo' style haunting.  It didn't take long after the second or third comic interaction with a 'trap' (the villain didn't really want to hurt anyone), before we 'got into the swing of things.'  I remember a session where two more players joined; their characters had also been searching but everything they had done until they encountered the two of us was about four sentences.  At that point my partner and I came tumbling down a rotted trapdoor with about 100 gallons of water and were sitting there wetly slapping each other, bickering, when they stopped us asking who we were.  (The picture of the two of us tumbling down in a waterfall and then comically slapping each other sticks with me as one of the high points of my experiences.)

The point is she paced the game bringing us from encounter to encounter without even consulting a map, she made more than adequate time for us to argue amongst ourselves and punctuated everything with a visual gag.  (She can be very subtle, we had no idea we were going to be playing for humor.)  It was still a typical dungeon crawl, except without the crawl.  From what you've said, all of this would be 'filler.'  That's why identification of 'what the story is' is highly important.

Pyron raises an important point about how 'filler' can actually be a tool.  Sometimes the tone you want to set for a game can demand a certain amount of filler.  Daily rations, antagonizing bandit raids, and dangerous fauna can be pointless filler, but you can't say that the tense 'tip-toe' through the jungle just before hacking down the last vine revealing the moss-covered doors of the 'hidden city' doesn't serve to enhance the value of finding it.  Sometimes a certain amount of build-up is necessary to make the 'meat taste better.'  Think of it as 'appetizer.'  Sure, an appetizer is 'just filler' but if it is chosen carefully, it enhances the flavor of the 'meat' and the satisfaction of the 'meal.'

Scott is also correct in bringing up Ron's "Story now!" advice; it is an important step away from the habitual ('traditional?') "if it's there somewhere, run it" way of playing.  I'd still argue that you can't forget build-up though, that's why I make it an overall pacing issue.

Ultimately, all GNS concerns aside, it's really a tough but important skill to master, determining what is 'meat,' what is 'appetizer,' and what is just filler.  I find describing it in terms of 'what turns your players on' and putting it to pacing is usually key to getting a person started (too much analysis, and they get lost over-analyzing things).  Good luck!

Fang Langford
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #8 on: June 28, 2002, 06:23:46 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
There is no such thing as good filler.


To paraphrase David Mamet, "Everyone hates filler...that's why they call it filler!"
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Eric.Brennan
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« Reply #9 on: June 28, 2002, 08:11:38 AM »

Thanks for the responses, everyone.

Fang:
Your point about pushing past the last vine to see the lost city is a good one, and has made me rethink my stance.  I'm still against filler, though--for me, those bandit raids, ration shortages and the like would be very purposeful encounters, planned to heighten the tension.

Ron & Hardcoremoose:
Y'know, I've read Sorcerer and Sword cover to cover and I didn't even think to connect what I did the other night with what I read there.  (I had been reading it to get a good grasp of the sword & sorcery genre, more than anything else.)  I guess it finally trickled past the dense bone of my
skull...

As to the good filler/bad filler split that other people have brought up, I guess I'm thinking about a Peter Straub quote I read that said "Every sentence must be an arrow into the heart of the novel." I'm beginning to think that each encounter, even if it gives the appearance of a standard filler encounter, should do the same.  

Of course,  the main problem is going to be dealing with player action, which means there's going to have to be an attempt to turn an unexpected situation that the players bring into the game into something purposeful...  Or am I aiming too high?

--Eric
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #10 on: June 28, 2002, 09:13:17 AM »

Quote from: Eric.Brennan
Of course,  the main problem is going to be dealing with player action, which means there's going to have to be an attempt to turn an unexpected situation that the players bring into the game into something purposeful...  Or am I aiming too high?


No, you're aiming dead center. If a player introduces something, that's a good indicator that they're interested, no? And in any case, the action of any game should center around what the characters are doing. GNS independent. Anything you can do to make that happen is a good thing.

The other perspective is to see that a good system will propell players into making these things pertinent themselves. Take D&D. For a Gamist system that's about killin' stuff, it does a great job of ensuring that's exactly what happens, and that the players will be on the lookout for things to kill. In InSpectres, the session format makes creating the right action inevitable. And in that case it's almost all the players who are making things happen.

Mike
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #11 on: June 28, 2002, 12:09:36 PM »

Hey Eric,

Quote from: Eric.Brennan
Fang:
Your point about pushing past the last vine to see the lost city is a good one, and has made me rethink my stance.  I'm still against filler, though--for me, those bandit raids, ration shortages and the like would be very purposeful encounters, planned to heighten the tension.

I'm assuming you mean when they're the 'meat' of the story, not just filler.

Quote from: Eric.Brennan
Of course,  the main problem is going to be dealing with player action, which means there's going to have to be an attempt to turn an unexpected situation that the players bring into the game into something purposeful...  Or am I aiming too high?

Careful, you're making this sound like a 'gamemaster does all the work' type of play (not necessarily bad, but when covert could lead to hard feelings).  What's wrong with the expectation that the players will 'make the effort' to stay "purposeful?"  I say, "they share ownership of the game, make 'em work for it!"

The alternative gets scary when someone secretly decides to 'ruin it for everyone,' taking the game off on wild hares to parts unknown and you either have to apply a little 'force' (read that; railroading) or give up on the "purpose."  Somewhere there has been this 'unspoken agreement' that the players will take the game somewhere "purposeful," I think it's time to 'speak that.'  It doesn't have to be specific, nor should the rules have to do all of it (like Mike's example of Dungeons & Dragons).

So, no, your aim isn't too high as long as you can count on the players to 'help hold the gun' when 'it gets heavy.'

Fang Langford
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greyorm
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« Reply #12 on: June 28, 2002, 05:04:19 PM »

No, you aren't slow at all...it took me a while to get around to this concept, even with my heavy involvement with/exposure to Sorcerer.  "Get to the Bangs" is what the man says, and the man is right.

My games, as recently as a year ago, suffered from the going nowhere syndrome you've described.  Sessions of doing nothing but acting and posing by my players, which, as (I discovered), was them trying to get something to happen...something interesting, something meaningful to fill up that empty space between important events...or to rephrase, something meaningful to fill up the space between meaningful events, something important in between the important events.

Sounds incredibly stupid, right?

"We need an important event to happen, but we can't let an important event happen." Talk about working at cross purposes with yourself!

The group isn't allowing the events that actually mean something to the group to happen until "later" (for a variety of misguided reasons, often based on a broken concept of "keeping it real"), but then they try to fill up the space by creating a meaningful event to keep themselves interested.

The solution is simple, since the group already has meaningful events, use them!

Don't create surrogates for the delayed events, or the story and its impact (to say nothing of one's enjoyment) are diluted.  Get right to those story-meaningful events -- either fast forward to the important stuff, or have it happen RIGHT THEN.

What's that?  I can hear the hard-core character-exploration simulationists screaming in utter horror right now!  "But I WANT to go through those events, I want to be my character when he's taking a dump!"
Fine, just make it meaningful, of interest to the story.  So he's taking a dump...and the orcs you've been waiting to ambush turn the tables and ambush you! Or he spots a patrol while doing his duty (cough...yeah, pun intended) and has to chase them and fight them with his pants down before they can warn the main group.

There's meaning, and it isn't surrogate, it isn't random, it isn't meaningless to the narrative...it is of direct importance to the story being told, and you've avoided the trap of trying to make up something interesting to fill in the non-story area ("Hey, this doody looks like Howdy Doody!" "Ooo, ahhh. Ewww.").

In my group, we had something called a "fast forward": moving the game along without playing through the in-between parts, assuming the events between point A and point B.  Problem was, we didn't use it ENOUGH.  Ofttimes we would stand about on the street jabbering (or our characters would, rather), creating little interpersonal conflicts as we waited to get to the good stuff, the stuff we were all playing to experience.

We were stupid to wait.

Here's another realization I've been mulling over recently: the start of games are not run correctly.  Stay with me and I'll explain what I mean.

Most games try to emulate literature or movies or other forms of entertainment...that is, they start before the point of interest and build up to it.

Why doesn't this work in RPGs?
You can get away with this in a movie or book because you already know the plot!  You already know what the characters are going to do, how they'll react, etc. (because you're writing it that way) so you can quickly and effectively bring them to the point of interest without trouble, because that's what your story is about.

GMs have no such power, but they still try to manage the game this way, establishing the characters and attempting to build the game up to the point of interest through circumstance, social contract (ie: but THIS is the adventure I PREPARED!), and outright bullying.

So, what in the Nine Worlds is a POI?  Well, come sit on Hlidskjalf and be enlightened...Most simply, it is that point about ten-to-twenty minutes into the movie when the plot -- the story's conflict -- is revealed and suddenly you care about watching the rest of the movie.  (and yes, sometimes it's sooner, sometimes it's later...in general, however)

As I'm sure we all know, in traditionally run games, the GM sets the story to begin before the POI, and then attempts to manuever (either forcibly or transparently) the characters into the adventure (the conflict situation).

Despite that pre-game usually works like this: player creates character with background and personal conflicts/history, GM runs character through an adventure that has little to nothing to do with provided background, personal conflicts or history.

And thus the GM must finagle the PCs into his creation, leading to the usual frustrations vocalized by those in the profession of cat herding.

Wel...don't DOOOOO that!

One way to handle this is for the GM to create the characters -- horror of horrors -- and the players to pick the ones they like the most to play.
GM writes backstory, personality, powers, etc. and the player takes it and runs with it.
Some GMs I know who use this method also have a little pre-game session, where players can add things to the base character by bidding on them and trading between themselves, allowing a bit of customization.

Another way to handle it is the prescribed narrativist method, as I understand it.  You, GM, do not create a damn thing.  You, GM, are there to facilitate the characters' stories, not vice-versa (they way it usually goes).

And the final suggestion I have for handling it, and the most easily grasped, is to plunge the characters directly into the POI at the start of the game, or rather, having the POI occuring just prior to the "opening line."  It is the prologue, so to speak: here is the situation; what are you gonna do about it?

That's where the interest lies.

Example: The characters have been convicted of a crime and sent into the desert to retrieve an ancient artifact for the kingdom as punishment, not to return without it lest they be killed on sight.

Great!  That's the story!  Start them in the desert, searching.  No need to go through the pain of trying to set the characters up, jail them, give them a trial and drag them out into the desert...they're there already.  It's established.  It's backstory for the adventure.  NOW they have control, NOW they have the reins:
"Accused of a crime you didn't commit and sentenced to wander the bleak deserts in search of a mythical city and the legend at its heart, you..."

GO!

(or the long version)
"Accused of a crime you didn't commit and sentenced to wander the bleak deserts in search of a mythical city and the legend at its heart, you find yourself among endless sand dunes beneath an unforgiving sun.  You've your sword, a waterskin, and the promise of a swift, merciless death if you return empty-handed..."

GO!
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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joshua neff
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« Reply #13 on: June 28, 2002, 08:15:54 PM »

So, I'm watching Moulin Rouge with the commentary by the writers, Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce. They talk about the "compression of story"--essentially, being very explicit with the doling out of information & what's going on mentally & emotionally with the characters, getting it all out quickly, which is seen as a very "melodramatic" & "unnatural" way of storytelling. In a "naturalistic" story, the writer would slowly develop the relationships of the characters & slowly reveal what's going on inside their heads, but in melodrama, you very quickly establish what's going on & what's going to happen, because that way you can spend more time on the big emotional scenes.

I found this very interesting & it reminded me of this thread. In my own experience in gaming, both the GM & the Players tend to be very cagey about revealing information--everyone plays their cards close to their chests & doles out information slowly. But if everyone just throws out the information--bam! bam! bam!--& wears their hearts on their sleeves (so to speak), it seems to me everyone can spend more quality time on the big payoff scenes. For example, rather than having the Players struggle for clue after clue to discover the identity of the main antagonist & his/her plan, give them the information in big doses, & then spend more time on the big confrontation with the big bad. Or, as Eric said, instead of having them slowly wend their way to the lost City of Pillars, just zip them there & let them spend more time on the meat of the story.
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--josh

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
Bankuei
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« Reply #14 on: June 28, 2002, 09:31:43 PM »

Quote
In a "naturalistic" story, the writer would slowly develop the relationships of the characters & slowly reveal what's going on inside their heads, but in melodrama, you very quickly establish what's going on & what's going to happen, because that way you can spend more time on the big emotional scenes.


But let's also not forget in naturalistic stories that all well crafted stories use each event and scene as a means of revealing something about a character or a relationship, even if it is only one bit at a time.  There are no pointless scenes, whereas in many disfunctional rpgs, there is no actual development of characters(other than power), so most scenes become pointless.

The interesting thing about scene framing is that by giving a ripe point A, and letting players give point B, it allows the "point" of the scene to be a bit of revealing a bit of the PC's personality or relationships, or letting players step into the landmine of point B where you as the GM let the other shoe drop...

Chris
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