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!