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Author Topic: Open/Closed Setting(Pyron's Woe's Take 165)  (Read 5784 times)
Eric J.
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« on: October 27, 2002, 06:02:57 PM »

Pyron(the character): Syrus! We have to get to the ship! The Deathstar's going to destroy the heart of the Rebellion!

Syrus: {Loads his blaster, sets it to kill) Gotcha.  That station's going down.  I'll just contact the rest of our forces and-

GM-commoner: Sorry guys, it's been blown up.  I think it was by some Luke guy.

Pyron:[thinks to himself- Damnit!]

So, another heroic event is ruined by people that the world is based upon.  The timeline for Star Wars has been written, so the players are forced to either go on missions that are irrelevant to the picture at large, or the GM is forced to ignore the story of the world and have Han and Luke wondering about what they're supposed to do next.  I find that campaign specific worlds are far to controlling.  In my indie RPG, I'm trying to create ways around this, like D&D, but I'm finding that this goal hold the premise to a number of conditionals. So, what does a good GM do?  Create their own setting and have their players scratching their heads and complaining, or play a world and never become trulley epic?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: October 27, 2002, 06:39:13 PM »

Hi Eric,

Quite a while ago, at the Gaming Outpost, I presented a viable solution to this problem. Let me outline the problem a little bit first.

1) The game setting is canonical, and well known to everyone participating. The canonical material may or may not contain actual plot (e.g. 1960s Star Trek vs. Star Wars), but it definitely contains a lot of important and specific protagonists.

2) The canonical setting is itself a very large portion of the reason to play; play itself may be considered to be a form of fandom. Contrast "Hey! Let's play in a TV kind of space exploration setting!" vs. "Hey! Let's play Star Trek!"

For purposes of this post, let's stick with a canonical setting that includes plot, like Star Wars, Babylon Five, Middle Earth, or a few others.

The problems are easy to identify, mostly centered on the fact that the established protagonists are, well, the protagonists, which means that the player-characters are not. All the other problems of this sort of play proceed from this core.

Bad solution #1: Play well before or well after the events of the story-as-known. This, bluntly, sucks. The conflicts in the story itself, most particularly the villains, are exactly what lead people to want to play; moving away from those loses most of #2 above.

Bad solution #2: Permit a changed outcome, altering the role of the player-characters and canonical heroes, such that "you" are the Luke-equivalent. This sucks too, since the story would be rotten if Luke (or your PC) missed the crucial shot, and it would be especially rotten if the other rebels simply made the shot before Luke got to it, and since it would simply stink on ice if Han (or the PC equivalent) doesn't return to fight, basically, you're stuck with playing-by-numbers.

Tolerable solution: invent a whole conflict nearby, in the same time period, which is similar to the canonical one. Little did we know that there was a whole 'nother Death Star just around the nearest black hole, and our heroes can destroy this one while Luke is destroying the one we all knew about. This solution is, as I say, tolerable, but it has a definite diluting effect on the fandom for the canonical story. It creates a ... vagueness for the overall setting that devalues most people's reasons for playing. Part of Star Wars' appeal was that the Death Star fight was it, accept no substitutes.

So what to do? Hope springs eternal; when you say, "Let's play Star Wars," everyone goes, "Yeah!!" Something seems possible, at first glance. Yet on critical analysis, the chances of role-playing enjoyably at all in a canonical setting, especially one which includes plot, seem slim to none.

I went through this back in 1996 regarding The Babylon Project. Like most other canonical-setting RPGs, it provided all sorts of options in line with the solutions I've outlined, and painful experience had taught me and the other folks that none of them were fun. I suggested what I called the "underbelly" tactic, and to make a long story short, it worked.

The underbelly tactic was inspired by one of my friends' description of an early Star Wars RPG adventure scenario, in which, at the end, the player-characters delivered a crucial recording to a little 'droid who goes "queep" and rolls off to begin the Star Wars movie. This adventure spawned a whole bunch of imitators through dozens of games which I call "Stepin Fetchit" scenarios, ie, the player-characters are couriers for the real heroes and villains, but with a little discussion, we came up with a different application.

The idea we hit was to choose a good ten episodes of Babylon Five (we left which ones up to the GM, although we all agreed on the season first). We all made up characters who were present on the scene, i.e., employed or visiting the station. So we were there in the story, and we were at the center of the action, although we made sure to make up PCs who had no direct personal tie to any of the canonical protagonists.

Tom, the GM, came up with a set of conflicts that related to the later story (with which we were all familiar). As these played out, he "ran" the canonical events simultaneously with "our" events, with all of us committed to the idea of avoiding contradictions, and equally responsible for it. Sometimes, whenever it seemed reasonable and consistent to Tom, our story caused or influenced elements of the canonical story; other times and more often, we'd hear about or see the effects of the canonical story, basically as changing setting.

The story of interest to us was that of our characters, which had conflicts and issues of its own, but as time went by, what we generated was a personal "take" or "complete version" (to put it egotistically) of the canonical story. Basically, we puffed ourselves up to being Strazcinski's collaborators, in our own minds - which if you think about it, was exactly why we were playing in that setting in the first place.

I like the "underbelly" idea. I think it preserves the respect for and interest in the canonical story, while still providing protagonism for the player-characters. The only constraint, and it must be a shared constraint, is to strive for consistency with the canonical story. Given shared commitment to this, even that becomes an interesting and fun creative task.

Eric, I think this offers a good solution to your inquiry. However, I can't overemphasize that it relies on pre-play discussion and full commitment from everyone in play.

Side note: I do not consider an "underbelly" story to be driven by a metaplot; I consider it to be a group-authored story in a changing setting. Any debate on this point belongs in a separate thread.

Best,
Ron
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talysman
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« Reply #2 on: October 27, 2002, 11:01:23 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I went through this back in 1996 regarding The Babylon Project. Like most other canonical-setting RPGs, it provided all sorts of options in line with the solutions I've outlined, and painful experience had taught me and the other folks that none of them were fun. I suggested what I called the "underbelly" tactic, and to make a long story short, it worked.

The underbelly tactic was inspired by one of my friends' description of an early Star Wars RPG adventure scenario, in which, at the end, the player-characters delivered a crucial recording to a little 'droid who goes "queep" and rolls off to begin the Star Wars movie. This adventure spawned a whole bunch of imitators through dozens of games which I call "Stepin Fetchit" scenarios, ie, the player-characters are couriers for the real heroes and villains, but with a little discussion, we came up with a different application.

The idea we hit was to choose a good ten episodes of Babylon Five (we left which ones up to the GM, although we all agreed on the season first). We all made up characters who were present on the scene, i.e., employed or visiting the station. So we were there in the story, and we were at the center of the action, although we made sure to make up PCs who had no direct personal tie to any of the canonical protagonists.

Tom, the GM, came up with a set of conflicts that related to the later story (with which we were all familiar). As these played out, he "ran" the canonical events simultaneously with "our" events, with all of us committed to the idea of avoiding contradictions, and equally responsible for it. Sometimes, whenever it seemed reasonable and consistent to Tom, our story caused or influenced elements of the canonical story; other times and more often, we'd hear about or see the effects of the canonical story, basically as changing setting.

The story of interest to us was that of our characters, which had conflicts and issues of its own, but as time went by, what we generated was a personal "take" or "complete version" (to put it egotistically) of the canonical story. Basically, we puffed ourselves up to being Strazcinski's collaborators, in our own minds - which if you think about it, was exactly why we were playing in that setting in the first place.

I like the "underbelly" idea. I think it preserves the respect for and interest in the canonical story, while still providing protagonism for the player-characters. The only constraint, and it must be a shared constraint, is to strive for consistency with the canonical story. Given shared commitment to this, even that becomes an interesting and fun creative task.

Eric, I think this offers a good solution to your inquiry. However, I can't overemphasize that it relies on pre-play discussion and full commitment from everyone in play.

Side note: I do not consider an "underbelly" story to be driven by a metaplot; I consider it to be a group-authored story in a changing setting. Any debate on this point belongs in a separate thread.


I think this is a good solution... and I'm surprised it hasn't been suggested by the people writing RPG tie-in products. why? because this style of play is frequently what happens in a historical RPG. the common suggestions on how to play in Star Wars and other fictional settings with canonical events fail in a historical RPG for pretty much the same reason; you can't just have the PCs killing Hitler or Augustus Caesar, unless everyone agreed in advance "we are playing an alternate history game".

of course, people don't have as strong emotional ties to historical periods, it seems, so there are alternate history games floating around... but the "underbelly" technique, as you describe, certainly exists.

one reason may be that there is a definite dramatic precident for "historical underbelly": there are many period-piece movies that concentrate on the lives and actions of fictional characters caught in the middle of historic events. "Gone With The Wind" takes place in the american civil war, but scarlet o'hara does not alter the history of the civil war in any way. likewise, "Casablanca" exists in the context of World War II. the actions of the characters make their small impact, but don't change what we know happened.

I think it's a very good way to handle the conflict between the desire to participate in a well-known, powerful story and the desire to be faithful to the events of that story. I'd like to see it used more often.
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John Laviolette
(aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle)
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greyorm
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My name is Raven.


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« Reply #3 on: October 28, 2002, 12:23:43 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
This sucks too, since the story would be rotten if Luke (or your PC) missed the crucial shot, and it would be especially rotten if the other rebels simply made the shot before Luke got to it, and since it would simply stink on ice if Han (or the PC equivalent) doesn't return to fight, basically, you're stuck with playing-by-numbers.

The underbelly tactic was inspired by one of my friends' description of an early Star Wars RPG adventure scenario, in which, at the end, the player-characters delivered a crucial recording to a little 'droid who goes "queep" and rolls off to begin the Star Wars movie.

Ron,

I guess I'm failing to see the real difference here between the latter and the former...you're still "playing by numbers" from what I can see; ie: suppose your characters ultimately fail to deliver the message to the little droid?  In this case you've just altered canonical history.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #4 on: October 28, 2002, 08:45:56 AM »

The difference appears to be the possibility of consistency with the canonical events. If someone other than Luke blows up the Death Star, that's a direct contradiction. If the player-characters fail to deliver the Death Star plans, well... we don't know who delivered the Death Star plans to R2, do we? If the PCs fail their mission, we know it wasn't them! (It appears that a bit of retConning relative to the canonical history might be inherent in this underbelly technique.)

Of course, if in the course of play the PCs lose or destroy "the only copy" of the plans, then there would be a contradiction. But that would make little sense to begin with (if the only existing copy of the plans were stolen, how would the Imperials finish building the Death Star?). Or if R2 were destroyed just as the delivery was made, it would be a major contradiction, but this sort of problem sounds pretty easy to avoid.

- Walt
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Marco
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« Reply #5 on: October 28, 2002, 09:01:32 AM »

I've toyed with this somewhat.

I'm reminded of the DS9 Episode where the characters were back in time in the Trouble with Tribbles episode and the show "Gumped" (a la Forest Gump) the current actors into the 60's sets.  It worked beautifully--but it took a LOT of work.

I agree with Ron: one of the most satisfying things that can come of this is to create the illusion that you are *a cannonical part* of the story. This requires a great attention to detail on the part of the GM (and the players--but more-so the GM, IMO).

Something else I've done is to create analoge universes that meticulously had the same feel as the fiction but were different (I did this with a next-gen game where all the Star Trek technology was replaced with analgous technology that had similar but different functions).

The point of the analog world was to be as utterly faithful as possible when capturing the *feel* while throwing out the old history and specific heroes/villians. It's a poor substitute if you really want to play Star Trek--but in my experience the players were pretty amazed/pleased with a world that (again, I put a lot of work into it--no zippers on the uniforms, lots of star-treky interpersonal stuff, etc.) had enough of the same elements as the fiction they wanted that they could really get their heads around it.

-Marco
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #6 on: October 28, 2002, 07:22:21 PM »

I think there are a lot of ways to deal with this problem; but it depends on what aspect of the world/story you're trying to preserve, and how intricate the original actually is. I think it also takes a certain amount of flexibility on the part of the referee.

I've used The Last Starfighter as a solo adventure world, and built this sort of flexibility into my notes. In the original, Alex Rogan beats a video game and is picked up by an alien named Centauri to help defend the civilized galaxy as a Star Fighter; meanwhile, a "Beta Unit", a robotic duplicate, substitutes for him on Earth. My preference in this is to hook my player into beating that video game, and then moving through the story as the hero. However, if I can't hook him into that, there's a second story already in the film: the villains send assassins after the Beta Unit, because their information says that's the Star Fighter. So I make sure that my player character witnesses the attack on the Beta Unit, and so involve him in the adventure from that end. That is, if I can hook the player into being Alex Rogan, I've got an adventure laid out for him; but if I can't, then Alex Rogan comes along and does his part, and my player character winds up in a different part of the story.

I did The Silver Chair from The Chronicles of Narnia a couple times; this works well with more than one player character, or a PC and adjunct NPC's. In the original story, Aslan (best described as God in that world) calls two children to go on a quest. They have been given three instructions which will ultimately lead them, if they understand aright, to rescue the long lost kidnapped Prince Rillian. Their adventure will rush them around the kingdom of Narnia quite a bit, and then on a long trek northward through Ettinsmoor, the land of some rather stupid giants, into Harfang, where the giants are intelligent, sophisticated, and cunning, then underground and on a long trek to where the prince is imprisoned and enchanted. The actions of the protagonists in the story are so complex that it would be nearly impossible to replace them. Instead, as soon as the children have been sent, the player characters are given a related mission, again by Aslan: follow the children, do nothing to interfere with their mission, but watch their backs so nothing attacks from behind. It is then rather simple to create adventures for the "rear guard" as they try to keep up with the quest and fight various adversaries along the road. The player characters are now an integral part of the story even though they never appear in the book; they are always entering the scene pretty much just as the other characters are exiting it.

I've hooked solo player characters into a slightly varied Cask of Amontilado. In this case, I'm greatly aided by an aspect of Multiverser that most games don't have: the players are complete strangers to the world in which they find themselves, but usually don't want to try to explain who they are until they've got some idea where they are. Thus if one is wandering the Italian Alps he is eventually going to stop at some villa to find out where he is, and it is simple for the story to start there, as Montressor invites him in, mistakes him for Fortunato, and moves forward with his murder plot. Again, I have a contingency plan in place: if the player character doesn't "go along" with the suggestion that he's Fortunato, the real Fortunato will appear shortly thereafter, and my Montressor will try to keep the player character there to eliminate the one witness who could connect him to the disappearance of the man he's about to kill.

In all these things, however, this must be understood: I don't care how the story turns out. If the player characters get lost in Narnia, I'll find another adventure for them there. If the player character walks away from the Star Fighter story, I'll let him settle into the world and then bring the Kodan Armada to earth in their relentless conquest of the universe. If the player character evades Montressor and escapes, the antagonist will pursue him, making every effort to kill the character before he has a chance to tell anyone whatever he may know. I'm not committed, ultimately, to the original story. Events beyond the player characters' control will occur on schedule; anything he changes will be changed in this world.

I've yet to try Star Wars. I think I was rather disappointed with a couple of books that came out a few years ago, the first novels which were not novelizations of the films--not that they weren't good, but that I thought they were harbingers of the long-awaited next film, which was still some years away. As the Star Wars novels piled up (and some rather silly ideas appeared in some of them) I knew I didn't have the time or the money to keep abreast of developments in that setting, and proceeded to ignore it. I still haven't seen Attack of the Clones, and for some reason don't feel any urgency to do so. But I think were I to do the death star story, I would run it as a solo, try to hook the PC into taking the Luke role somehow (this is off the top of my head), and keep control of Han Solo myself. If the player ducks the critical role, I'd have some backup role in place (after all, there are storm troopers on the trail of that droid, and my players sometimes have a knack for getting themselves in trouble). It would take more thought to do an extended campaign in that universe, but I think it could be managed.

--M. J. Young
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