Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Death of Cool

Okay, so I don't have as much time to write tonight, so this may not be as long or as thought out as some of my other posts. In this write up, I would like to discuss stunting (a subject you know I think a lot about if you've read this blog), and make a case against them, which may surprise some long-time roleplaying companions of mine.

First of all, what is stunting? In a great comment to my last post, Tim asked why we needed a special word for it at all, wasn't it simply explaining things in a cool way? I can definitely see how for most roleplayers I have seen (outside of my weekly groups) and for most systems, their form of stunting is exactly that: a cool way to describe a sword swing or your character's efforts to unlock in the mysteries of the tree folk's magic. However, I believe that what we normally engage in during play sessions with my group is much more complex, and does deserve its own word, simply because it is that much more complicated.

A great stunt is a story all on its own. It has a beginning middle and end. Narrative control is seized from the GM and promptly used to execute feats of awesomeness impossible without the ability to control everyone and everything around them. There may be dialogue in there, there may be graphically described magical abilities or items. There will almost certainly be some shaking of the earth or some equally significant sign that the universe is in awe of the proceedings. Ideally the conclusion brings forth something that has been hinted at throughout the rest of the stunt. The best stunts call in character traits and previous events that remind everyone why they are here, fighting against the challenge. And the absolute best stunts leave the other players and the GM gaping, slack jawed at the spectacle of pure imagination that has been erected before them, their minds desperately racing to take it all in, for the stunt only lasts for a moment before the next person wipes the slate clean to begin their sword-born story of glory and death.

Stunts have become so integral to the ways that the sunday crew played (when it was happening), that we even had games that were essentially nothing but one long stunt after another. Persona was beaten out of shape in order to support more fully this fully stunt-driven game we were playing. Now don't get me wrong, that slack jawed amazement is something to experience. It is addictive like crack, and you're always looking for the next awesomeness high. I think it appeals to the action movie fan inside most of us, the one that wants one more explosion in the movie, one more gun fight, or one more no-holds-barred brawl on the wing of the airplane. It is an adrenaline rush, and it lets you tell very cool stories. As an example of some of the crazy things that can be done, here is one of the player-created stories that occurred in one of my games without my planning or even helping with it:

The character was the last detective at the end of time, when murder no longer existed for no one could die. He was the only one to still care, because he was the last one to loose someone. He coulnd't help but spend every moment thinking about her. Even when the last star died out signaling the end of humanity he thought of nothing but her. While traveling back through time to save everyone he thought only of her, and when the climactic battle had finished, he only had thoughts for the one thing that gave him strength to see it through. He realized something then: in order for the human race to live, in order for him to complete his role in the pivitol battle, he needed his motivation. So, as his final act, he used his time travel powers to go forward once again to the end of a star and kill his one true love.

That is a pretty awesome story, I think. If I saw that as the plot of a movie, I would love it. And, because the player basically made up the story as he went (for instance: he didn't know at the get-go that time travel would be involved in the game), he couldn't get help from me as the GM to tell his story (or plan it out at all until it was almost the end already). With our form of stunting, however, he didn't need to get my buy in as the GM. He was free to tell his story, because like clockwork he got extensive narrative control whenever there was a significant challenge.

Maybe, hopefully, I have conveyed to some of you what stunting is like in our group. My opinion is that it is an extreme form of storytelling that occurs at break-neck speed, concentrating on combat (though can be done for just about anything), and whose main focus is to spread awesomeness around like rice at a wedding.

This, however, isn't good enough for me anymore. What I have found is that as we concentrate on stunting, as we perform the stunts, even if we are telling an awesome character driven story like the one above, it abandons a large piece of more traditional roleplaying. One of the great thrills I get in roleplaying is fully connecting with my character, sinking into their mind and their behaviors, and experiencing their emotions. Its the same thrill I get from acting. Now,I know that many people approach roleplaying very very differently. For me its all about the emotion and the in character feelings. For others, different things (which I won't even try to get into here). But for me there is this strong element of characterization and of in-character thoughts. Even if you don't play looking for this feeling, I think / hope most people would say that this is at least part of the roleplaying experience (disagree? comment it, baby!). When we stunt, as we have trained each other to do in my groups, the characterization disappears, there just isn't any time or need for it. Why try to roleplay out a story when I can just tell it easily when the next stunt opportunity comes my way?

Stunt provides another large challenge: the uninitiated. I have had countless discussions with people in my group about initiating new players into stunting. We are all stunting up a story in the game, and the new people probably aren't at all. In fact they may not know where to begin (those who didn't start stunting with us just see our current level of skill and not the long climb to get there). It can be very intimidating. And intimated players rarely have a good time.

At the retreat (see this had to relate back somehow). I ran 4 games. 3 of them were stunt platform games, and one was not. Guess which one worked the best? People didn't know always how to act or what level of buy-in was expected (fulled-stunted games require all the buy-in you can give). They would get irritated at their own lack of experience at thinking of stunts and feel discouraged. Also, as I player I wouldn't've enjoyed these games. Yes, they could be quite fun on a surface level, there was a lot of action and plot, and if you put it in there, character driven story. But they wouldn've never triggered any deep emotions within me, and I never feel very connected with my stunt platform characters.

It is for this reason that I think I'm done with stunt platform games entirely. Small-scale stunts themselves I definitely will still support and encourage, but I'm going to try to keep the focus away from the stunt platforms and on the characters (or perhaps the spotlight will be on whatever I figure out the players want to be doing with their characters). I love the large scale stunts a lot, and I think they have helped me to become a much better GM (for several reasons relating to greatly improved descriptive powers to preventing blocking training), but I think it may be time to let stunts take a back burner to other techniques and ideas, like the ones that I have been discussing in this blog this week.

Tomorrow: Player engagement techniques! The Retreat continues!


Mike said...

The stunting games Ben is describing were cool, but also very intense. The social pressure to stunt in a cool way was large, and the games had no other 'distraction' almost so if the GM wanted a break from narrating, basically he had to call for a round of stunting. Not that most players weren't happy to oblige him. But it did take away in some ways from the classical roleplaying element of playing your character. Also, because of the system, combat was extremely non-tactical and victory was assured. Basically the only constraint on your stunt was occasionally the desire to work in this-or-that obscure fragment.

Anywhoo, I want to say that I actually use the stunt platform style when demoing one shots to people who haven't played. The cooperative nature of the stunting ensures that everybody wants to contribute and is having fun. The game focuses on *doing* and so there is far less time discussing things (which can be cool of course, but also lame). I also would generally keep the scale constant, which loses the universe-ending superstunts that our group prized but stays at a managable level for new players.

But I don't run my campaign games in this style - pure stunting can make for a fun once-in-a-while thing, but like anything it gets boring if you overuse it.

Anonymous said...

Whew. There's a lot packed into that post. I'd like to discuss a few things, but can I ask a few questions first?

What games were you playing? Only Persona? Amber? Something else? What about the systems you were using made them good "stunting platforms"?

Is stunting called for by the GM or player-initiated? Or is it built into the system more formally? In other words, how do the players know it's time to narrate a stunt? And how do they know when to stop narrating -- how far is too far?

During a stunt, are there limits placed on the narrating player? For example, can a player narrate the actions of another PC during a stunt? How are these limits, if any, created/enforced?

Unknown said...

Pt 1

I'll take the questions in order :)

What games were you playing? Only Persona? Amber? Something else?

Basically the only stunt platform system was Persona... Polaris and Shock though, also feel a lot like this, and were played in a style that borrows a lot from this stunt platform (I'm not saying that is how they have to be played, but that is how we played them). Other systems tend to force too much modeling on you to fully engage the epic stunts.

What about the systems you were using made them good "stunting platforms"?

The most importnat part is to get out of the way... If players are worried about how they will be penalized for their cool stunt, then the idea won't even get off the ground. (you jumped in the air onto the tank rather than just swinging a sword, well give me an athletics roll). This is why Persona is so heavily used, I think, becuase it is *just* enough system to cause players to want to show off their characters.

Is stunting called for by the GM or player-initiated? Or is it built into the system more formally? In other words, how do the players know it's time to narrate a stunt? And how do they know when to stop narrating -- how far is too far?

Generally the GM calls for stunts explicitly, as in: "Sinestro, the evil taxidermist greets you as you climb over his wall "I've been expecting you, and so has my pack of wild dogs! Make a roll to battle Sinestro. (Making a roll is understood to mean do this large scale stunt, since each person gets 1-3 points per stunt, and can also use it to bring in fragments that might otherwise not apply (for instance, Ghen-ki once made a character that was a skydiver, and then made his sky diving fragments apply to every single roll in the game, even the social convincing roll deep in the bowels of the earth). Also as Mike says there is a lot of social pressure to do some big stunts, to flex your stunting muscles. As far as how people know when to stop, generally the GM will frame the conflict with a short phrase (completely informally) like "I'd like to see stunts to save the town from the zombie menace" or "Roll to maintain concentration for 24 hours while piloting the starship with your mind". The GM sets the stage, and in general the players don't go farther than what the GM has setup, but other than that, nothing is too far, almost. Though players are expected to keep things mainly in line with the current power scale (though the GM will in many games escalate the power scale throughout the game).

Unknown said...

Pt 2

During a stunt, are there limits placed on the narrating player? For example, can a player narrate the actions of another PC during a stunt? How are these limits, if any, created/enforced?

There is almost no limit, excepting the actions of named characters (including major NPCs). Minor NPCs, bystanders or allies can be narrated to the hearts content. For the most part other PCs can be narrated as well, but generally only enough to get the necessary help to pull off the cool stunt (with some exceptions, I had a character who regularly stunted with the magical power in the PCs blood which sometimes necessistated a lead-in stunt to acquire the blood of said PCs). In general if you are manipulating a PC or a major villian people will ask permission ("Can I use you in my stunt" or "I'll be borrowing your sword for my stunt is that ok?"). Sometimes this results in even better stunts as the other player character will often orchestrate the handoff in their own stunt (this is part of the phenomenon that stunts are easier to do with some level of restraints placed on the characters via the setting, NPCs, world or whatever. The GM has final say over the stunts as to if they go too far, exceed the scope of the game, or otherwise wreck up the place ;). That being said, the GM is generally expected to accept and even encourage all the stunts unless it is absolutely necessary that he block a stunt (there by ruining someone's carefully thought out plan, this is also why agreement to be used in a stunt is also socially considered to be required unless it really messes you up).

Hopefully that answers all the questions... I'm going to hold off on my next blog post until tomorrow, but I thought I would reply to the comments.

In response to mike's comments: I completely agree that stunt platform games can show off some of the cool things we do in one-shot scenarios. That being said, for me at least, it seems like I've done them once too often, and they all feel a little stale an uninteresting, at least at this point. I completely agree with using a different style for compaigns (though I do still encourage stunts)

Anonymous said...

I’d like to make a case for stunting, then. In my personal opinion, stunting is one of the best mechanics I’ve ever encountered in roleplaying. It’s benefits are many.
On a basic level, the stunt gives the player something to do. It is so easy as a player (especially a new player) to just sit back and let more experienced players and the GM carry the action, and only occasionally say “I hit the bad guy”, and roll some dice. Having to perform a stunt drags the player out of their virtual corner, and makes him do something. Even if the stunt is not particularly elaborate at first, it makes the player think about his character more, and makes the player take control of the action, for however brief a moment. Naturally, as you stunt more, you get better at it and your stunts are more elaborate.
Stunts are also a great way for players to put their own stamp on the game. The easiest way to demonstrate your hidden but cool powers is to use them in a stunt. Do snakes come out of your ears? Use them to snake-wrap a fleeing bad guy! Can you grow butterfly wings on demand? Do it while exploring an old warehouse. Of course there are other avenues of character development in roleplaying (it is roleplaying after all) but in my mind stunting is the fastest and most direct way to tell other players (and characters) what kind of a character you are.
I have found that stunting is often welcome even in systems that are not stunt-oriented. While in Persona stunting conveys a mechanical advantage, in most other systems it does not. But no matter… very quickly stunting becomes its own reward, and you do it just because it’s fun. What’s more important, it is fun for other players, and often a relief for a GM, who can take a break for a minute and let the stunting player control the action. I have found it out while playing Vampire: The Masquerade, a decidedly non-stunting game where I would stunt at every opportunity. In that game, I was playing a vampire Voodoo priest (and a capoeira martial artist!), a character that lends itself beautifully to stunting, what with all the voodoo rituals and capoeira high kicks. Stunting allowed me to get beyond all the tables and rules that the game provided – there are no voodoo rituals specifically described in the rule book, but I would concoct my own on the fly, and often achieve what was needed even when there was no mechanic in the game for doing it.

- Nikita

Ben said...


I completely agree with you about the ability of stunting to make a game much more engaging. I don't think my point came across very well, but what I was trying to argue against in the post was the 'stunt platform' games, where the game only consists of a series of stunting rounds. I always think that cool description will add to the game, and as you point out, can also be a source of great charcter depth. What I want to avoid in my future games are situations where there is no in-character interactions between players, which I think stunt platform games discourage.

I really like your observations about new players. For people who like this style of playing, I agree that it can be very awesome for them, and draw them out into increased character depth and roleplaying awesomeness. But, I have also seen it backfire... Particularly in unsure gamers who are used to a more traditional narrative structure... I have seen these types of players just absolutely shut down in the facing of socially-mandated stunting requirements, and as a consequence feel either very uncomfortable or just be very unhappy with the game.