Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On Racing Against the Clock

Ok, I just finished reading Sax Rohmer's "The Mystery of Fu Manchu", which, by the way, was an excellent read. At the end of the book there is an exposition titled "Appreciating Dr. Fu Manchu" by Leslie S. Klinger. She writes:

"... Fu Manchu stories combine demonization of Eastern culture and denigration of effete intellectualism with high adventure and gripping suspense. The emphasis is on fast-paced action set in exotic locations, evocatively described in luxuriant detail, with countless thrills occurring to the unrelenting ticking of a tightly-wound clock. Strong romantic elements and sensuality described, sexually attractive women appear throughout the tales, but ultimately it is the fantastic nature of the adventures that appeal."

Now it seems to me that any Gamemsaster worth their salt is going to do well at most of these things, should they happen to want to replicate the kinds of adventures found in "The Mystery of Fu Manchu" (and who wouldn't?).  High Adventure and gripping suspense?  Yup, we got that down.  Fast-paced action set in exotic locations, evocatively described in luxuriant detail?  Can do!  Countless thrills?  Yup! No problem!  However, there is one sticking point. And it's an important one. It's that bit about "countless thrills occurring to the unrelenting ticking of a tightly-wound clock".

Here's where the RPG as a modality grinds up against the imperatives of Pulp Fiction. The fact is, with a novel the author controls the characters, and so at that final crux moment when all seems lost, and the hero figures out some fabulous solution to the peril and thwarts the diabolical plan, and it all makes perfect sense and is thrilling and awesome - it can happen just like that. That's possible achieve because he author knows the villain's entire plan, and can sit and think for hours, days even, about how the characters will respond in just the right way, at the exact right time in order to elicit the greatest suspense for the reader, and final cathartic victory of the heroes.  It's wonderful, and we readers joy in the thrill of the chase and the final culmination of Aha! at the end when the hero wins the day.

We poor Gamesmasters, however, do not have this luxury at all. Not by a billion miles. First, we have no time to think whatsoever. Once the ball is rolling it is our job, of course, to keep it rolling as fast and furiously as possible. Two, the players control the characters, our heros, not the Gamesmaster/author. Three, the players are (usually) the audience and protagonists at the same time, which creates perplexing conditions in relation to our objective. And lastly, the player is rarely if ever privy to the knowledge of the machinations of the antagonist, nor can they be, as that would ruin the fun of the thing for them as players. The result? Well, I won't say "disaster", exactly, but let's just say - this is very hard to pull off in a traditional style RPG.

The thing is, in order to create suspense for the audience (in this case the Players) we can not divulge the villain's secret machinations to them until the absolute last second, if at all. It's up to the players to puzzle things out and come up with the right answer.  That's the fun of the game, after all.  And so the result is that the players having to make split second decisions with incomplete understanding, are more often likely to fail than succeed - just as the heroes in the novel are - except for them the author does a splendid job saving them with their great and just-in-time wit and wondrous luck - something we Gamesmasters aren't in a position to do without breaking the rules of the game!

Really, if the machinations are properly planned by the antagonist then the solution is not likely to be dead obvious. And this of course leaves plenty of room for the player to make the wrong decision. In fact, it should be likely for the player to make the wrong decision, unless we have our master-mind antagonists be actual imbeciles. Fu Manchu, it should be said, is not an imbecile. Rather our heroes were either incredibly brilliant at the right moment (half the time), or incredibly lucky (half the time).

But can our players be expected to have to be both, consistently?  After all, every 50/50 chance taken via the roll of the dice decreases the overall odds of survival dramatically! It becomes, I'm afraid to say, a preposterous proposition for our players. If we created the scenario with integrity (meaning the antagonist plots things out as they ought to) then the player characters are very, very unlikely to actually survive the game. Not because the Characters themselves are not as resourceful and lucky as Nayland Smith, but because the dice and the lack of Player knowledge make it nigh on impossible.  Too many split-second decisions must be made with brilliant deductions, nuanced thought, pin-point accurate recollections, and against too many live-or-die dice rolls to make the odds of success more than infinitesimal in a real game.  In a novel, everything just happens with wondrous synchronicity because the author makes it so.  In an RPG nothing of the sort can happen.  We rely on the player's wit, and their luck, to see how things turn out.  It is a very different animal.

So the kind of game that is required in order to create the same atmosphere and suspense as a Fu Manchu novel is not very well embodied by the traditional style RPG, I'm afraid. And so I think it is fair and interesting to ask, how would one design an RPG so that the effect, the suspense and thrill, can be obtained?  I think there are probably dozens of answers to this in the great wide world of Indie RPGs... however, can one devise a way to do so without the loss of the core mechanic of players rolling dice, and experiencing the same mystery, awe and fear as the characters in Sax Rohmer's novels?

In other words, I put this puzzler out there for my Old School friends - how would you as a Gamesmaster, or player, solve this problem with a traditional style RPG? All answers, thoughts, and angst-ridden soliloquies are welcome!

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