Sunday, December 3, 2017

Places from Which a Story Evolves

This is a follow-up post to one that I wrote earlier today.  I've heard that it's bad form to pile one blog post on top of another ... but if I think of something to write, it is hard not to just keep writing.  Please see the previous post before going at this one, as they are somewhat related.

Herein I want to make a point about player agency, and about building adventures that enable it.  Some of the following might potentially offend some of my American readers; let me make it clear that my desire here is to explain the telling of stories from content that can be universally experienced and appreciated.  No offense is intended.

I'm going to start by proposing four stories intended to depict that universal event, the tragedy of 9/11 in New York.

Plot #1: Passengers on a plane from Boston experience terror as hijackers seize control, without explaining their purpose.  The story revolves around several passengers, each going through their own nightmare, until it becomes evident that there's nothing they can do to stop the inevitable.  The tempo of the story revolves around helplessness, regret, fear and ultimately a joining together of victims when everything is lost in an instant.

Plot #2: Ordinary citizens and New York's finest are caught on the ground beneath the World Trade Center as one plane, then another, crash into the north and south towers.  The story follows the scene on the streets and in the lower levels of the building, as we see the chaos of searching for those who are hurt, frightened or killed.  The tempo of the story revolves around bravery in a crisis, sacrifice, loss and demands to cope with an unrelenting, irrational catastrophe.

Plot #3:  Wishing his sister goodbye as she boards a plane from Boston to New York, a journalist watches in horror as the events of 9/11 unfold on the television.  Driven to find some sort of meaning in his sister's loss, the journalist investigates every aspect and detail of the event, seeking some sort of redemption.  The tempo of the story revolves around truths, lies, cover-ups and the unbearable knowledge that we will never really know the answer why.

Plot #4:  A man watching his wife and child die in a war zone agrees to join a militia, that sends him on a mission to the U.S., where he learns how to fly a plane.  Step by step, he moves towards the decision that has him boarding a plane in Boston, helping seize control of the plane, after which he takes over the controls. The tempo of the story follows his uncertain beliefs at each step, until he finds within him the courage to carry forth his convictions, whatever the cost.

Which movie do you want to see?  Which movie would be the hardest to see, that would push your preconceptions to the limit and result in redefining your experience?  When all is said and done, assuming the same quality of each, which would still have meaning ten or twenty years from now?

Those answers are different for different people.  Certainly, the more comforting films are the first two; the first, because it is a kind of catharsis, that lets us identify with a horror that we often feel.  The second, because we appreciate and acknowledge bravery, which is something we hope to find in ourselves, if we're ever pressed to face something similar.

The third movie is more distant, more intellectual.  It is closer to the experience most of us have, those of us who weren't at ground zero when it happened.  It addresses questions we're still asking.  What was real? What actually happened?  Can we prevent it from happening again?  The third movie is the one that wins the Oscar, as it is carefully paced and filled with long, meaningful dialogues, like the Academy likes.

The fourth movie is completely wrong, completely unacceptable.  It is almost treasonous.  Yet if we were to acknowledge that the men who seized those planes were human beings, with human feelings and human motives, we'd have to further acknowledge that the world is not as clear and simple as we want to believe.

I'm going to argue that the last story has the best plot, however difficult it is to accept the premise.  The first three stories are about victims ... people who have had their experiences forced on them, who rose or failed to rise to the experience, as best they could.  We've made lots of movies about the human experience as it applies to victims; it is easy pickings for a writer.  When the disaster hits, we have a good idea of what people will do, for good or ill.  We have plenty of examples from real life.

The fourth story, however, is about someone in control.  He is not a victim.  He is someone making a decision ... and whatever we think of the decision, it is fascinating to watch stories about people who have the control to decide.  We can easily imagine what we'd do if we were caught in a crisis.  It is nearly impossible to contemplate what sort of mental state it takes to cause that crisis.

This, not surprisingly, comes back to D&D.  I'm not really making an argument that we need to humanize people who commit atrocities (though we've made more than our share of Nazi films, haven't we?).  I'm arguing that when we think of a plot to drive characters in a D&D game, we should stop contemplating circumstances that make the players victims.

It is no fun to be a victim.  It may be tense and full of moments of relief and triumph (at not dying), but it really isn't much fun.  It is far, far more enjoyable to be in the saddle, making up one's mind about what to do next, to have the lives and experiences of others in one's hands.  Now and then, when making an adventure, give a little less thought of things that happen to the players.

Think a little more of set-ups where the end result is less clear, less certain, so the players can rise to the challenge of making the decision themselves.

I know, I know, "How in hell do we do that?"  Well, start by describing the circumstances as something that happens to other people, and not the players.  Make it awful.  Then put the knowledge of how to do something about it in the player's hands.  Then figure out a reward for the players stepping up.  Then see if they do.

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


James said...

I try to actively avoid making my players victims, but I never thought to use that language.

Referring to the prior post, my players would be like "oh, I guess we are playing a module or something" if I had the plot crash through a wall like it was the kool-aid man.

In my campaign, after any big quest, we usually spend an entire session on debriefing the fallout, and then with me presenting the players with 1-3 hooks as well as saying "you guys can also tell me what you and your characters want to do." They know they are completely free to turn down hooks.

My favorite are the quests where they go "we want to do THIS, so our characters will get the information we need to do it, and next session we get right to it."

PS: As someone born and raised in NYC who remembers 9/11, I would totally watch that fourth movie.

JB said...


Archon said...