Monday, October 1, 2007

Stunts: A Glorious Passion

I just got done with a pretty stunt-tastic game (yes, I stand by my word choice). Keith GM'ed a pretty rockin' Rifts-in-Persona game. Yes, once again we have decided to play an established setting (Rifts) in our home brew generic system (Persona), and I think it works better than the published system, but that may just be me. Rifts, as I found out, is sort of an interesting setting. Its the future, and society has had some sort of great apocalypse that killed 3/4s of the word's population. This meant that all of their gooey ectoplasm went into the ley lines, and restarted magic. Oh, and it also opened up a whole bunch of "rifts" in the world that are actually portals to other dimensions/worlds/universes.

The cool thing about this setting is that you can (if you're playing PersonaRifts) create a whole world that your character is from, you can craft out a very strange situation, or you can play a human who's gained magic powers, or anything in between. To give you a sample, one of the characters was a wolf, who was actually an energy being (from an appropriate dimension) forced into corporeal form. He just found himself one day in the body of a wolf. Combine that with a crazy gun nut and an even crazier Glitterboy pilot who won't leave her armor because the world scares her, and you have a glimpse at some of the interesting characters possible in this dynamic setting.

Anyway, my point with this post is not to talk about Rifts but to talk about stunts. For those of you not familiar, stunts are the awesome favor text you put around what your character does. For instance, instead of saying "I get on the computer and hack into their mainframe", you might say "I leap into my fully prepared computer sensorium, where my every body movement is interpreted into the electric impulses computers need to function on. As I submerse myself into the electronic world, it is almost as if the computer reads my mind as node after node of the public 'net flits by in the blink of an eye. I lift my fingers and begin to play a symphony as electrons spew forth from my fortress, attacking the enemy. Indeed, what electronic guardian could resist my siren musical call?".

Great stunts have only recently begun to come up in the games I play. About 1.5 years ago, I think, Ghen-ki, Mike, and I were in a car, and it came up that we all thought we could be stunting more in our exalted game. In response we decided to make a couple of changes to the way stunts were given out: 1. Award all stunts, even if its just minorly. 2. Allow all kinds of stunts, including flashbacks we you can reveal some scene from your past. 3. Try to think of something for every action. After committing to these changes, our stunting game started to become much much better.

It is interesting to watch what stunting does for a game. I don't think every game should be heavily stunted, in fact I think for many games, that would ruin the atmosphere of the game, in particular character drama oriented games, I think suffer from too much heroic stunting. In those kinds of games, character emotion and acting I think play a bigger role. But, in an adventure oriented game where everyone is out to have some fun, I think stunting can be a big influence on the fun. Rather than just hitting him with your sword, you're now leaping from rope to rope, brandishing your rapier as you barely mange to keep the pirates at bay. Much more evocative, much more engaging, and it's a whole rush when you finish describing a particularly cool action, and you get to see the reactions of the other players (oo, wow, etc).

One bad thing I have noticed about stunts is when there are different levels of stunting in the crew (players) or when a new player is joined. On several occasions it has seemed to me that new players were getting overwhelmed by the amount and voraciousness of the stunts, and it has actually intimidated players. This is really bad because any healthy group is going to see people come and go from it, and you have to be able to recruit new players. This is one of the reasons I think my wednesday and saturday games are struggling a little bit for players. This badness can also manifest through other players disengaging from the adventure, because they don't feel like they contribute as much to the game as others.

So, concluding, I thought I would take a little bit and describe some of the techniques I use to craft my stunts, and ask anyone reading my ramblings if they might contribute as well in the comments.

If I'm struggling to think of something I will often do two things: 1. Ask the GM for details of the setting... What is in the room? What are people wearing? How is the ceiling or floor constructed? Who is in the crowd (if anyone)? 2. Take stock of what my character has / is doing / is thinking about. The best stunts are ones that combine some part of your character with some part of the setting and some part of the enemy. Show emotion! Grab his scarf and use it to fling him around the room! Use the extras in the area as an appreciative audience.

Sometimes it can help to work from the problem backwards, especially in fighting stunts. Stunting against a blank page can be extremely difficult but if someone asks you how you're going to get to say drilling your sword like a spinning top into the guy's chest, that is much much easier. So, you might think of one awesome way to hurt or injure you're opponent. For instance, maybe you're fighting some sort of demon three times the size of you. Well, how might you hurt them? Say, drop a mountain on it? Ok, now you have to think of a way to do that... Much easier than hurt the demon (In this particular case, I attacked the side of the mountain we were in and caused an landslide).

Another great source of inspiration are movies. Try to get the GM to set the scene, and then picture it in your mind. Now think about how a movie might play out with that setup, what is dramatically appropriate? What are some catch phrases your character might use? You do have to be careful here, though. Lots of movie scenes can come out very very poorly in stunts. For instance, if in the movie Jet Li seems to move into a blur of motion and attacks the 10 guys basically simultaneously, well, thats great for Jet Li and whatever movie he is in, but multiple attack stunts rarely work out that well for roleplaying games. Another type of stunting that doesn't work out well is the skillful stunts. He skillfully jabs a dagger through the metal rings of his ring mail isn't really the best you can do.

One thing that Keith pointed out to me one night when we were discussing stunts is that you want to use words that evoke visuals. For instance if your stunt involves something happening "skillfully" you need to think of other words. How can someone move skilfully? It doesn't evoke any visuals. But if someone moves gracefully like a hunting tigress (or "as graceful as a cow is not", sorry in-joke), that can really invoke a certain feel or scene.

Another technique I sometimes use is to have my characters emotions or feelings manifest physically, for instance, if my character is shouting, screaming in pain, perhaps their swords is forced out of the way by the power of my words. In a magical setting, I one has a songstress who regularly blocked swords with the notes of her songs made physical through her desire.

Well, thats about all I have time for right now, but I'm sure that I'll be posting more on stunts in the future. In the mean time, anyone out there have other suggestions?


buffalo said...

One bit of advice I think is relevent:

Some characters are a lot easier to stunt than others. I think it basically comes down to this: the more "flashy" your character is, the easier it's gonna be to stunt. This flashyness can happen on a variety of levels:

Appearance: As stated before with skillful, saying "beautiful" is like saying nothing. But if your character wears nothing but bright orange, you're never going to run dry of " a orange juice factory exploding, my character..." kinds of stunts.
Personality: The more obviously insane, the easier it is to stunt. "Killing rage" is something that gets used a lot to get you where you need to be for more brutal stunts.
Humor: Getting a laugh is often a lot easier than impressing people, but oftentimes you can do both. Insanity makes this easier too.

It just strikes me, writing this list, that characters overdesigned for stunting are exactly the sort of character that can quite easily derail a campaign.

Perhaps a way to help new players ease in is to encourage "old hand" players to play more stunt-averse characters while helping newbies play more study-apt? It also might help the experienced gamers exert a more moderating plot influence. This, in my experience, is usually the opposite of how things usually pan out if left to their own devices. Thoughts?

Ben said...

Sorry I didn't respond earlier (I'm on a recruiting trip)

I definitely agree that character design can influence how stunty a character is. I've certainly used that to my advantage several times (and I know Mike has too).

I aggree that stunty characters and plot destroying characters do share some common traits. But at the same time, I know characters that are stunty and don't distrupt plot. I'm playing one of those right now (she is mike a meek lamb as far as plot goes, but very stunty nonetheless).

I think this whole topic deserves its own blog posts (creating characters for stunts...)

I definitely think the idea of encouraging experienced people to play less stunty characters and newbies playing more stunty characters is an idea worth trying. There is something to be said for the experienced people getting to "show how its done" but my bet is that that will happen on its own, even with the less stunt driven concept.

Leslie said...

Stunting is something that's starting to hit my gamer radar too, though my thoughts aren't very cohesive on the subject yet. Despite that, I think I'll try to dribble a few of them out here. ;)

One thing I must say up-front is that I *suck* at stunting. I freeze, I stutter, and if I see a 'stunt' situation coming up - I have to stop all other forms of gaming to try and prepare for when the GM rounds on me for my turn. (It's not pretty.) And for a gamer of 20+ years like myself - that's a bit humbling.

I'm starting to suspect that the reasons I suck at stunting is that my sources for gaming inspiration are not primarily visual. I watch *some* action films - but not a lot. I'm familiar with *some* anime - but not much of the new stuff. I don't download from YouTube. And I don't play combat video games at all.

My inspirations are primarily drawn from comics and literature. Ask me about any cyber-punk novel. One whole room of my house is a library. I have a complete run of Nexus comics in my basement. (A little visual yes, but not in motion.) Etc, etc.

Therefore, the things I enjoy (books, not video games) have predisposed me toward what I enjoy and - hopefully - will then do well with in a game. (This may also go back to the 'sandwich builder' vs. actioneer style of gamer, Ben.)

Ask me to describe something cool, fast and visual in a running combat situation? I blink at as the panic rises in me. Ask me to describe what my character's wearing? Perpare for the seminar complete with hues, materials and cultural significance. ;)

Having said all that, yes I still think that stunting adds a lot to a game. Particularly a one-shot or pick-up adventure game. (I *am* very fond of highly cool things.) But how to maintain that kind of coolness through-out a longer character based campaign - I don't know yet.

I'm thinking around this area because Amber Diceless Role-Playing, with it's very powerful characters and very loose combat system, *should* be a system with great potential for stunting and yet it's one of the hardest to get people to stunt in.

That may be due to the game being based upon a series of books. Does that imply that most of it's players might have a 'readers' background as opposed to 'viewers' background...? I don't know, maybe.

Hmmmm.... need to think some more. :)

Ben said...

Hey Leslie!

A bunch of great comments.

On not stunting well yet... I am convinced that stunting is an almost orthogonal skill set to the skill set of traditional roleplaying. As I mentioned in the article, my exalted group (ghen-ki, mike, keith and some other occassionally) only recent (last 1.5 years) have really been hitting the stunts. And I don't think we were bad roleplayers before, and moreover, I don't think that adding stunting has really increased our roleplaying ability. What it does allow us to do is have very stylistic and cool things happen in our games. I also think we're just beginning to explore the world of stunting and how it can have an impact on the game play beyond that of just making combat cool (see my Goal Oriented Stunting post for more about that).

But, like I said before, I don't think stunting really helps get at the heart of the roleplaying experience (perhaps "yet"), I really feel like exposure to gamers like you, Chris, and Andi has really been the impetus to "kick it up a notch" and improve my roleplaying skills.

As far as not having that much to draw on, I do think that puts you at a bit of a disadvantage, especially early in your stunting career. But, I also think it is a really honest-to-god skill that can be trained. When I think about what used to pass for stunting in our games a year and a half ago, I realize just how far we have come as a group in our stunting abilities, and I further see that you really do become a lot better the more practice you have.

For the record, I thought both you and Chris held up quite well in the cyperpunk persona game we played, which I had meant to really bring out the stunting in our regular group.

Just some more thoughts :)