See Page XX: Fear of Structure: The Diagnosis

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part II of the “Fear of Structure”

With The Esoterrorists now available and a series of GUMSHOE products in the pipeline, it’s time to embark on a series of columns supporting the game. Even if you’re not, heaven forefend, an Esoterrorists player or reader, I hope you’ll find something in these coming columns to chew on, whether you occasionally run or play in other investigative scenarios, or are broadly interested in the theory and practice of roleplaying game design.

If there are prevailing threads through my various different RPG designs over the years, one of them would be a desire to drill through theoretical preconceptions of what the roleplaying experience ought to be, to get to what is really fun about gaming. (This is not to say that all theory is inherently wrong. If that statement were true, it would itself be a theory, and would be wrong, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum that cause the universe to devour itself. And who wants that, really?)

My governing observation here is that there is often a gulf between what we think we want, or ought to want, and what really entertains us. We gamers are a cerebral lot and tend to construct theoretical frameworks, which we lean on heavily when articulating our tastes. Sure, sometimes these theories are reliable markers to enjoyable game play. But it’s always worthwhile to question them, and often liberating to chuck them out the window.

To take an example from an earlier design, Feng Shui questions the then-prevailing assumption that the GM should be entirely in charge of determining what is present in the characters’ environment. Its play advice section instructs players to help imagine what stunt-worthy props might be available for use during fight scenes. They don’t ask the GM if there happens to be an aquarium present, they simply assume it: “I leap over the table, using it as a springboard to land on his back and knock Mr. Po headfirst into the fish tank!” Though they retain veto power over completely implausible or abusive choices, GMs are urged to encourage this player collaboration. The game does this to further its goal of evoking the feeling of being inside a fast and furious Hong Kong-style action movie. Some GMs incorporated this trick into all of their subsequent gaming, Feng Shui or not, which I find incredibly gratifying.

In the case of the GUMSHOE system, my hope is that the people who adopt its core technique-which guarantees that players who look in the right place will find the clues they need to advance the storyline-will find it a powerful tool to increase the fun to frustration ratio of their investigative scenarios. This puts us into conflict with another long-standing assumption about good gaming-that scenario structure is a thing to regard with suspicion, as a sign of that dreaded phenomenon, railroading.

Most gamers have been burned by dictatorial so-called storytelling GMs whose heavy-handed, anti-collaborative techniques discredit all narrative-based play. We all know the kind-the guy who has an “epic” story to tell and wants the players to follow pre-assigned roles as he reveals to them, sequence by sequence, the script he has written in his head. When many players think of an adventure having structure, they think of this guy, and want to run as fast they can in the other direction. Even when, to painfully exceed my daily metaphor quota, they’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This is unfortunate, because to emulate certain fictional genres in a satisfying way, the GM needs to be able to create a sense of structure, with an opening that leads to a series of interconnected scenes, and finally to a climax that wraps up the various plot threads dangled in the previous action.

No story format is more rigorously demanding of structure than the mystery, from which any investigative scenario must, by definition, draw inspiration. Its opening scene sets up a question. The intervening scenes move the protagonists toward an answer to that question, though often in a meandering or indirect way that enriches the puzzle with various tangents and red herrings.

This classic structure allows for some common variations. Sometimes the original mystery the protagonist investigates turns out to be a mere lead-in for a much more important problem. The modern mystery novel often weaves together two apparently unrelated mysteries-one serious, one of less seeming consequence-which the protagonist discovers to be connected. Also common in modern mysteries is a thread of tangentially related character development, which develops the protagonist from book to book. A more classical structure treats the detective as an essentially unchanging iconic character, who resists the efforts of the world to change him, instead altering the world by solving mysteries and imposing order on it.

If you’re not using some variation of the above structure, you’re simply not telling a mystery story.

The problem this genre choice presents us with, then, is that certain players, seeing the theory and not the practice of roleplaying, are overly fearful of a linear or so-called “bread crumb” plot structure, which they equate with egregious railroading.

I’d argue, first of all, that these fears are misplaced, and arise from a fundamental misperception. The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story. As mentioned in The Esoterrorist rules, we saw this at work during playtest, as all of the groups had very different experiences of the sample scenario, as each GM and player combo riffed in their own unique ways off the situations it suggested.

In fact, every RPG session (or series of connected sessions) remotely partaking of a narrative winds up being linear in retrospect. One scene leads to another and finally comes to a resolution. Every choice the players make precludes other choices. There is only one story in the end, made from a wider range of possible branches. It is the sum total of what happens in play.

The scenario, on the other hand, is a series of notes on what might happen when actual play occurs. Published scenarios, except where written by incompetents and/or designers who don’t play much anymore, are invariably presented as a series of possibilities. Game sessions are always linear. Scenarios are always multi-linear.

It would be convenient if players could be relieved of their fear of structure by mere exposure to this argument. However, it’s hard to dislodge one theory with another. In a battle of theory versus practice, you have to show players that their preconceptions are getting in the way of their fun, in actual play.

In the next installment of Page XX, we’ll look at ways to do just that.

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