Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In Media Res

“In the middle of things”.

It’s a literary technique, and one of the strongest ways an author can open a work of fiction, right in the middle of the action, forcing the viewer/reader/player to jump right into the story, acting on instinct and emotion and only filling in the details of previous events later, if at all. It’s also a literary technique that’s almost never used in role playing games; adventures usually begin at level one, on the first day of the quest, at the doorstep of a new adventure.

A while back, I promised you my thoughts on Final Fantasy X, and here goes the first installment. I’ve realized the reason that the details- the reality of Spira comes through so strongly is that we, as gamer and viewer are thrust directly into the mix of things. Bad-ass opening cinematic, and than a fight scene, with deeper world details coming after the fighting is done and over. You, the gamer/viewer, learn about the world by doing. There’s exposition, sure, but for the most part, I learn about Spira by participating in the day-to-day life of Spira: your own screen avatar performs religious ceremonies, plays the world’s sports, rides the Shoopuff, and explores the world.

There is a baseline level of exposition and understanding necessary to understand the main story, which is conveyed in a traditional manner- through dialogue and non-interactive cut scenes, but the player can go as deeply as he or she wants into the world. By completing mini-games, side quests, reading info text about the monsters and NPCs in the forms of Shinra’s encyclopedia entries, and dialoguing with NPCs you find more pieces of the puzzle that is the world of Spira, and you’re tangibly rewarded for doing so. More exploration equals better gear, cooler spells, prettier cut scenes, additional missions and powerful, optional boss-monsters to fight.

I realized that Spira is laid out like a giant, interactive puzzle- the literary equivalent of the cube from Hellraiser. Play with it a while and it’ll reward you. The videogame model of story telling is a really interactive, player dictated, 21st Century way of conveying information By contrast, most RPG products are laid out like encyclopedias or travelogues. The reader is a passive participant in the action while reading through the text, only becoming active when the game begins.

As you read through the book, you’re like a tourist boning up on the entry visa requirements for the Coalition States (Rifts), perusing a list of bars and taverns in Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms), or reading a newspaper about the troop buildups in Breeland (Eberron). You’re not a citizen of that world living, breathing, fighting and fucking every day of your life within the universe. Depending on the skill of your game master, and your own role-playing abilities, you might become a citizen of a fictional country later, but when you first read through the rulebook you’re not even a visitor- you’re a guy watching a travel documentary and deciding if you want to visit.

Not knocking any of those settings, by the way, because they’re all great worlds. I’m just saying that they’re all laid out in the same, fundamentally passive, old-school way. Why not do something a bit different? The question is: how do you bring Spira-like interactivity and mystery to gaming? In addition to Final Fantasy X, I’ve also recently become obsessed with ‘alternate reality games’ like, so that may flavor my opinions a bit.

I can think of a few products that come close. Now, this is just off the top of my head, but Aberrant (White Wolf) is on the right track. Sure, the world is still explained by chapter after chapter of exposition, but at least it’s not all in the same voice. Instead, the world info is conveyed with newspaper and magazine clipping, website screen caps, corporate brochures, and other artifacts from within the universe. Not everything is explained; though you know enough to run a good game just by purchasing the core book, those who try to ‘solve’ the mysteries by buying additional splats are rewarded with additional information, usually in the form of more pieces for the puzzle.

The Freedom City Sourcebook (Green Ronin) takes a different approach to interactivity. The book is a traditional RPG world book; on the surface there’s nothing that differentiates it stylistically from other RPG setting guides. The sourcebook takes the usual encyclopedia/travel guide approach to describing the fictional Freedom City. The interactivity comes in the in-jokes, homages and Easter eggs the writers tossed into the manuscript.
In addition to reading through for content, the reader is forced to constantly analyze the text, trying to catch all the NPCs who are named for famous comics characters or creators; the reader is enjoying the world info on two levels. First, the reader is reading through normally, deciding what kind of characters to make and planning out the adventure. Second, the reader is metaphorically wandering through the streets of the city, looking up at the skyline and trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of weirdly familiar superheroes at the same time they’re chuckling at in-jokes like the Trainor and Jordan International Airports.

So, what does this mean for me?

Simple. I’m going to try something new and a bit risky with the Otherverse America campaign setting. I was reading through the rough text of the manuscript today, and I realized something. It’s written in the passive, encyclopedia-style format and to me, maybe because I’ve lived with this world in my head for so long, is kinda dull. Nothing wrong with the encyclopedia-style format, but why not do something a bit different?

How about instead of a 5,000 segment on Choicer holidays, I put the reader/gamer directly into the middle of one, pushing their way through an crowded San Francisco street fair during the Roe Day parades, hearing the constant drone of advertising smartlights, smelling the bar-b-que cooking in sidewalk stalls as you chase a psi-capable Lifer terrorist though the milling crowd. Instead of talking to the reader about the insular nature and xenophobia of the Lifer enclaves, why not send ‘em on a raid inside one of the fortified compounds and let them see things for themselves?

Why not present Otherverse America as a series of linked adventures (similar to Paizo’s Adventure Path or Louis Porter’s Sidetrek Adventure Weekly) instead of a traditional corebook? Each chapter would cover a relatively small, discrete element of the world, and would include, in addition to an adventure write up, a selection of new feats, gear and classes which are a good thematic fit for that week’s adventure. Right now, I’m planning a series of linked adventures, occurring up and down the Otherverse America timeline, but without a linear A-to-Z progression.

Each module would be a standalone adventure, but could occur months, even years before or after the preceding issue’s adventure! The first adventure might take place in 2107, following a young group of Neo-Witch priestesses who have just received their bionic badges of office, while the second adventure follows a platoon of Lifer soldiers more than 30 years earlier, while the third adventure might occur at the end of time, giving the players their first hint of the cosmic, god-level power struggles behind all the politics! I know the continuity and the setting’s meta-plot like the back of my hand, so why not take advantage of that fact?

Of course, something would link all three scenarios- maybe an important NPC during the War-era mission is the parent of one of the heroes during the first; maybe all the adventures occur in the same location, showing how a single adventure site can change dramatically down through the decades. Taking a cue from Final Fantasy and its side-quests, I might find a way to reward gamers who meet certain conditions in each scenario, speaking to (or blasting!) a specific NPC who quest stars in all the modules, for example. What form the ‘side-quests’ take, and what form the reward takes ( in game rewards like XP, bonus feats, super powers, player advantage coupons, or real-world rewards like free products, additional ‘unlockable’ content and info) are all up for debate.

The mystery of what links these diverse, stand alone 4-6 hour game sessions becomes the puzzle the players are trying to piece together, and the suspense of what the picture is going to look like when it all comes together (not to mention curiosity over what next week’s scenario will be) is what keeps the players belling up to the table, week after week.
As you can see, unlike the Adventure Path, where players will be running the same character for most of the long 1st to 20th level adventure, I’d like the Otherverse America campaign to be quick, punchy, and force the players to adopt dozens of different roles, points of view and power levels to keep things fresh and exciting. And I’d also like to borrow the ideas of quick-play battle scenarios from miniature war gaming, that each game session has specific tactical goals. I know I don’t have as much time to game today as I did while I was in the Navy, and I know its’ the same for a lot of other older gamers. Give me a 4-6 hour game session each week and I’m happy, particularly a whole module can be crammed into that session.

The upside to diverse, discrete game sessions is that players can take more risks in character creation, and not have to worry about being stuck with a badly built hero for more than a session or two. Likewise, the heroes can take more risks in game- a heroic death or crippling injury stings a lot less when you’re playing a quick and brutal, high flux combat mission with no lasting consequences for you, the player. Knowing that no matter what happens to your PC this game, you’ll have a whole new PC to play with next week can be very liberating.

The disadvantage is that it becomes hard to identify with a character you’re only going to be playing for six hours or so. I’m picturing Otherverse America as an anthology comic, filled with a bunch of cool short stories by a dozen great artists. Unfortunately, to continue the comic book metaphor, the readers might view Otherverse America as one of those second string comics where the creative team changes every issue and never really hits its stride. Also, by having new casts each adventure, the gamer misses out on what for many is the most fun part of gaming: leveling up! I might have to design a variant XP and reward system that works for this type of game, maybe something similar to a victory points system in mini war gaming.

A downside for me as a publisher is that doing Otherverse America as a weekly or monthly adventure is a bigger investment of time and resources than just putting out similar material as a big, encyclopedia style splat-book. Still, it might be worth the risk, and the setting I love deserves something this cool and innovative.

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