Sunday, December 13, 2015


Recently I came across a series of videos made by Tony Zhou, a filmmaker in Vancouver Canada, called Every Frame a Painting.  It is worthwhile seeing every video, even though as a filmmaker Zhou betrays his visual prejudices over theme/performance craft through his choice of directors (the same usual suspects that every visual film director adores).

For the record, I equate Wes Anderson's filmmaking (and the defense of it) with the same sort of crap that is today lauded as 'modern art.'  But enough said about that.

Amidst all the content I've just linked, I'd like to draw the reader's attention to a small part of a particular video.  I want to warn the reader: when I showed this to my players last night, they quite reasonably got so taken up with the nostalgic, effervescent context of the video that they completely missed the point Zhou was making.  Therefore, I recommend that the reader watch this three or four times, until they are able to forget the cartoons (which are wonderful, by the way) and concentrate on the film-making and design aspects behind these cartoons:

Allow me to write out the relevant part to my intended post:

Zhou:  "Discipline: the challenge and restrictions you set for yourself.  Like designing a character with no mouth.  Or no face.   Or using no dialogue except for this: [singing]  Because animation lets you do anything, you have to think about what you won't do.  And in Jones's case, there were lots of rules - about the world, the characters and their behaviour.  For instance, Bugs Bunny never picked a fight.  Somebody had to do this: [scene where Fudd sings 'Kill the Wabbit']  And only then would he [Bugs] fight back . . ."

I can't stress how important this is - and unfortunately Zhou, after giving two examples, fails to include a conclusion to the discipline argument in his video before getting caught up in a different subject, human behaviour.  So let me try to expand here.

Role-playing is exactly like animation in that there are no limitations except those we create.  The presence of magic, potential leaks from multi-dimensional planes of existence, potential character builds, the ideals of heroism overcoming adversity, wish fulfillment and players demanding that the world hold personal validation as more important than obeisance to rules all combine to subvert the fabric of our worlds to the point where the center falls apart and the whole campaign degrades into silliness and game death.  The only thing that holds the fabric of the campaign together is what the DM won't do when the players' behaviour comes into conflict with the world's structure.  If the DM is willing to bend that structure past a certain point in servicing the player's behaviour (or desires), the structure gives and the game breaks.

If you closely examine all the manifestations of role-playing game design, from independent efforts by single individuals to the repeated fuck-ups of WOTC, you'll find an underlying attempt to create limitations against things the designer feels has 'damaged' the original concept.  For example, the creation of the thief class that seemed to undermine the ideal of the "hero's quest," causing the thief to be redefined as a "rogue" in an attempt to make a heroic alternative out of something many people viewed as criminal.  It didn't help that many DMs found their worlds plagued by players who considered the presence of the thief class as tacit permission to behave like total assholes.

Because the rules structure is the most concrete part of the game, efforts to create limitations usually begin with individuals addressing themselves to that structure - when in fact the problem isn't in the rules it is in ourselves.  Chuck Jones in the above example doesn't need to redesign all of animation in order to create a particular change in his characters - he only needs to definitively limit himself as to what he will allow himself to do.

For example, from my own world.  Even though there are spells that are expressly designed to control character behaviour (quest, geas, suggestion, charm person, magic jar, etcetera), as a DM I won't blindside any player, ever, with one of these spells.  What do I mean by 'blindside'?  I mean that I won't have an NPC with such a spell cast it against the party in any situation where the party has not forewarned that a caster with this potential is present - so that the players have the opportunity to risk assess their continued efforts to achieve the goal in question.

Why this limitation?  Because the implementation of these spells against human beings SUCKS.  I don't care if the players blindside an NPC; I'm not invested in the NPC and I have lots to do as a DM if one of my NPCs is trailing along behind the party as a mind-dead puppy.  But if I do that to one of the players, the player is screwed.  They are invested in their character and it is way too aggressive an act by a DM to play the game that way.  Dumping a quest spell on a party sounds too much like railroading to me so I don't do it - unless the party willfully and stupidly walks in front of that train when they knew damn well it was coming.

Sure, this does give the players a slight advantage - but it also makes the players less threatened by my campaign.  It feels more 'fair' to them and gives them a stronger sense of being in control in my game.  I don't actually need to use these spells to give momentum to the campaign.  This means that when I want to drive my players to take a specific action, I have to mind-play them a completely different way than relying on a spell and a saving throw.

A similar argument underlies my refusal to employ ideas like alignment in my game.  It's lazy, it's anvilicious, it's aggressively controlling and it denies players the sense of being in control of themselves and their character motivations.  To get around the problems that alignment is supposed to solve (I don't really think that it does solve those problems but other DMs disagree), I've had to change the way I deliver my game and set up my players in the setting to reduce the chance of them acting in a "bad way."

For example, I don't have one person approach the party in the middle of nowhere, so I don't have that problem where I'm giving exposition and one of the players kills the expositor.  If the players are always approached from a position of strength (multiple persons, in a location where their characters could be trapped), the players will respond with respect and not stupidity.  I don't need alignment to keep my players in check; I keep them in check by making my world threatening enough that a foolish player can only succeed in losing their character.

By eliminating punishment for evil behaviour and rewards for good behaviour, replacing both with rewards for smart behaviour, I've gotten rid of the whole evil/good framework for character creation; this lets the players experiment and explore shades of grey in their behaviour rather than strict black and white - making their experience more meaningful and less constrained.  Being that I live in an adult world where I recognize that good and evil is a structured "us" and "them" routine we use to propagandize children and potential voters in political campaigns, I'd rather ditch it from my campaign for the sake of nuance, freedom, imagination and possibility.  Therefore, I don't play with alignment.

I recommend that the reader make a list of things they already won't do in their campaigns - and consider expanding that list with an eye to finding a more elegant way of solving the problem.  Just as Jones does when he decides to skip ordinary dialogue in a particular cartoon or minimalize his presentation to make it more effective and precise.  And watch the video again - because this is how all art develops its focus: by imposing strict, absolute boundaries on what the presenter is willing to present, then living up to those boundaries in a profound, more imaginative way.

1 comment:

  1. As an example, I wrote a short story a few years back where I intentionally restricted myself with the dialogue. The story could have been two or three pages long, since the main action was revealed through a conversation. Instead, by having the characters talk about the issue without speaking specifically about it - by neating around the bush, as it were - I stretched the story out to about ten pages. The result was a far better and more interesting story than it otherwise would have been.

    It is the constraints of life that enable art.


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