Thursday, February 2, 2012

"I Can See the Wires"

Back in the days before blue-screen (and wayyyy before CG), when a sci-fi movie needed to show a spaceship, it was common to create a model and hang it from wires to simulate flight. Depending on the quality of the model, the lighting, and other minutiae of production, the wires might not be noticeable, and the illusion would hold, at least if you weren't looking too closely. But as often as not, the wires would end up being more visible than the ship and the effect would look pretty dorky; hence the title of this entry. But if I liked the story and the model looked cool, I usually didn't care.

Not that I don't appreciate craftsmanship, of course; even then, there were techniques to obscure or camouflage the wires. My favorite was a technique used in 2001: A Space Odyssey for some of the shots of the astronauts floating in their spacesuits: the set was tilted on the side, and the camera was actually under them looking up, so the actors' bodies hid the wires, and there was no telltale lean "downwards" to make it look like they were suspended from anything. I've read that it was also an endurance challenge for the actors and stuntmen.

I mention this because there are two ways of applying this metaphor to RPGs, one perhaps obvious, the other maybe less so.

The first is viewing game rules themselves as the wires: you can see them when the rules jar you out of the game. For some, it's when the probabilities seem off. For others, it's when arbitrary rules ("clerics can't use edged weapons", or "you can never, ever tell anyone you're a vampire") inhibit players from taking actions that they reasonably should be able to do. Retro-roleplaying has a take on the former that, while I think is basically true, waffles a bit when he says:

Avoiding "Math" so broken that the game does not work as intended (e.g. "skill challenges" in D&D 4e as originally released) is important in any game, but beyond that I think "The Math" is less important to creating a fun game than many of its proponents believe.

...but deciding when the game is working as intended is largely a matter of opinion. And I think people should learn more mathematics than most do. Nonetheless, when I'm having a fun time, I don't really care about the realism of having my hit points go up just because I've gotten better at picking locks, or vice versa. The 'body' of the gameplay is hiding the wires just fine, thank you very much.

There's another referent to the "seeing the wires" metaphor, though, and it applies to both movies and RPGs: when the story itself seems to be jerked in a direction that it isn't already headed, mostly for the sake of reaching a pre-conceived ending. Characters change their mind for no reason, the previously brilliant evil mastermind falls for a stupid trick, or (most grating to me) explosions violent enough to destroy a truck, instead of toasting and shredding the protagonists, merely push them gently to safety.

In RPGs, this usually falls under the heading of GM railroading, and there are a few common sources of temptation for that:

  • The characters must Fulfill their Epic Destiny! Maybe I should let him re-roll that critical fumble...
  • I've got this Secret Twist that's So Clever, the players' heads will explode when they find out; all they have to do is turn left down this corridor. "Your NPC ally tells you he thinks it's better to turn left here"...
  • I spent five hours detailing the Lineage of the Town's Mayor, so they'll have to have an encounter with him or all that time will have been spent for naught! Better have the city guards haul them in for some made-up charge...
  • That Story Games site says I have to say Yes to everything my players want, so, yeah, there's a giant steampunk airship manned by anime cat-girls in my bronze-age setting...

These are all wires, and they're easy to see.


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