Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Week in Stories - April 28

Seven Stars of Atlantis

The only game I played last week was also the very last session of our pulp game, The Seven Stars of Atlantis. At the end of the previous episode, we'd been drawn into a Hollow Earth (not our Earth, to the best of our knowledge), where the Atlanteans lived, waiting for worlds they'd seeded to be technologically advanced enough to bother plundering.

Quick reminder: I play Margot, a rich, spoiled cat burglar.

Other characters are:
Teddy, a "Custodian" for the Atlanteans and Margot's fiance,
Rex Powell, dashing famed explorer, and
Song Su Li, master detective and Daughter of the Dragon.

We managed to implode the Hollow Earth at the end, and personal matters came to a head in a bunch of cases. As the temple spun back to Earth, a void opened up, and not knowing which was the right way to go to stay alive, Teddy and Margot held hands and walked out into the void, while Su Li and Rex stayed with the temple. As it turned out, that meant Su Li and Rex got back to Earth, and started a long trek to Shambhala, while Teddy and Margot ended up on another planet. Teddy intends to support them with storytelling, while Margot's pretty sure she can supplement that with the cat burglary she's so good at.

So, personal matters. Su Li and Margot went to set an explosive in one of the other temples. Rex had just confessed some feelings for Su Li (I was upstairs pilling the cat while this was happening, so I'm not sure exactly what was said), but on the way to the temple, Su Li assured Margot that what was going on between her and Rex was "purely sexual." Which completely confused Margot at the time.

That got a lot clearer on the way back from blowing up the temple, when Su Li asked whether or not Margot forgave her for the apparent betrayal, and Margot said she wasn't sure. Then Su Li sandbagged Margot by likening it to Margot lying to Teddy - hurting someone you loved to protect them. Margot didn't get it at first, but then the penny finally dropped, about all that Su Li had done to save Margot's life, and a bunch of other things, and...oh.

I wish we'd had more time to play with this twist! I thought it reframed things in a very interesting manner - Margot and Su Li had each always been very concerned about what the other thought of them. And it gives Su Li a bit of a tragic arc - Margot was so crazy about Teddy that it's not like she was going to requite Su Li, but still, it would have and did change things in interesting ways. And now they're on different planets.

Which brings me to how hard it is to get everything in before the end, in almost every roleplaying game! And it's often the personal stuff, which is in someways the most important, but by the end, the plot is probably rolling rapidly to conclusion, and it's hard to balance. While I think it's a good idea not to draw things out, this is why having an epilogue in Sunset Empire worked well. I don't know how to find that balance, and there will probably always be things left undone. In this case, given the likely permanence of the separation of Teddy and Margot from the others (unless Shambhala has some interesting technology tucked away, I guess), an epilogue would not have helped.

One other thing that happened was that I went into the last session going for broke. Margot was going to save Teddy from being a Custodian for the Atlanteans, or die trying. Which probably hit its high point when she told Dr. Song, Su Li's father, that she'd sacrifice everyone on Earth to save Teddy. (My husband later said "you realize that makes her not a very good person." Which, yeah. But she wants what she wants, and would never sacrifice Teddy to save others.)

That ended up working, through the expedient of using Atlantean technology to drain all his blood and replace it with un-nanited blood. Thankfully. But that's not really what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the draft....

Sorry. Drifted into Alice's Restaurant there a bit.

What I'm really here to talk about is about having something your character wants. In my various groups, we've been drifting more and more to systems-light systems, and that's great. I love it. But without the mechanical pressure, I think it's even more important for the players to be bringing their own pressure to the situation. Sometimes, though, it seems like we get into scenes without wanting anything, just to see what happens. That can be great. But sometimes it's just meandering.

I think there's a simple, non-mechanical way to kick that sort of thing into high gear. The terminology I like to use is "essential action," from A Practical Handbook for the Actor. It's the thing your character wants out of the scene. They may not get it, the tools they use to get it will vary, the tactics they choose. Every scene, no matter how small, is deeply enriched if both characters want something. More specifically, want something that has its proof in the other person.

(There's a whole list of things that make up a good essential action, including that it must not presuppose an emotional state in the actor or the scene partner, it must not be trying to get a specific emotion out of the other person, although you can be wanting a specific action: for example, you can't want to make them feel so bad they cry, but you can want an apology from them. There are more, and they're a good bullet point list.)

But it all comes down to this: when you go into a scene wanting something, drama happens much more easily and organically. The stakes are higher. (It doesn't, and shouldn't, always be in the key of angst.) It's more interesting. It'll play better to the other people at the table.

Of course, when you're acting, you can come up with essential actions during all the homework you do in advance. It's harder to do on the fly in a game. So here's what I'm going to try to do for the next little while, and I'll report back on how it goes. I'm going to try to think of one or two essential actions for each other player (or major NPC) going into the game, being fully ready to alter or discard them as the situation changes. That may mean that halfway through the session, I'll have exhausted my essential actions and will have to go on the fly, but I think it likely that by then, new wants will have arisen. And if not, I'll at least have gotten some scenes on the table where, dammit, I wanted something badly.

(Bill and I were talking about this over coffee on the weekend, and spun the conversation out into how to tell if what you're wanting to do is playing to others, and he came up with an idea for a minigame within a game (this would be purely for a oneshot), where before you start a scene, you write down your essential action and place it facedown on the table, and then after the scene, everyone guesses what it was. I think that might be fun to do once, to help get a better sense of what's coming across and what isn't.)

At any rate, with Teddy and Margot, they'd gotten back to each other and were now engaged, and I wasn't sure where to go next. So I decided that come hell or high water, she was getting him out of the finale alive, and went for that one with all my heart. And I enjoyed it.

So that's my personal experiment for the next little while, creating essential actions for my characters and recording the outcome. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. The guess my essential action exercise sounds really useful!

    1. Yeah, I'm looking forward to trying it! It's one of the issues of dramatic roleplaying - making sure what you're doing is playing to others the same way you're feeling it.