Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What's in a session? (after Twin Peaks: The Return)

Well, after you've been at a game long enough, almost anything.

Some notable good sessions in recent history:

  • Players have a job interview and get a job
  • Players talk to every ally of villain, in hopes of finding chinks in his social / institutional armor
  • Players arrange a spicy chicken festival in town, as means to publicly accuse evil duke, this leads to his immediate public crucifixion
  • Players find and recruit chef of local black market auction house, who is actually an undercover crimeboss, to be their personal chef
  • Players follow a trail of bureaucratic paper in order to submit a time off request / leave of absence
  • Players escape across a lake of slime in the pouring rain, pursued by a mob of diseased psychos

Regularly, something that seems unimportant or previously small will become magnified in detail, and will become the subject or an entire half session or session or even multiple sessions. Because of this, small but concrete details should be established and fully explored on their own terms, so that the game can open naturally.

I've been thinking of Twin Peaks: The Return a lot. It's a TV show where pretty much anything can happen and the action goes into so many time periods, emotions, and dimensions, that there's never (at least on the first watch) a sense that anything resembling a plot is happening, except that it's interesting. There's the famous episode that takes place inside a nuclear blast, and then there's the strange late season boss fight, and there's touching moments with beloved characters, and there's new villains with magic powers, and there's a dream sequence. Frequently, the TV show takes long diversions from what seems to be the plot, where characters who seemed to be unimportant suddenly take over and don't let go.

This lets the show set up the loveliest and sweetest possible moments, as well as moments of excruciating horror and sadness. Characters who seemed to be lost find unexpected courage, and characters who seemed to be heroes become lost, and all throughout this are dozens of other, small, quiet moments that give the show an indescribable liveliness and strength. There's a famous, long scene that simply shows a bar-worker sweeping a floor. It's pretty remarkable.

Recently, the players have been encountering the seven wives of General Malagon of the Cruelest Eye. One of them is half demon, and she is jealous and possessive. The other six are only part demon, and they are sweet and submissive, and fear the General, and their names are MONEY, LIFE, EXCELLENT, DAUGHTER, MEGAN, and VALERIE. They sleep together in a large heart-shaped bed, and were given care of the General's hostage, a four-year-old named Bashro, who they doted upon and fed sweets. Bashro's father is the formidable warrior VLAWYN THE KET, who has been teaching him the way of the sword, and is hard on him.

When the Bashro was rescued, it seemed important to create a big scene: the wives have fallen for Bashro, and are heartbroken he is leaving, and for his own part, Bashro's stoicism has broken--he calls for the wives when he is taken from them, he has never known a mother, and now he has six, he has never been doted upon or given sweets, or felt love, and he is young, so he has temporarily forgotten his father. 

The players, not trusting the wives, did not allow the boy one last goodbye with them. He was crushed, and so were the wives. I don't know how it's going to shake out.

So this is what I got out of Twin Peaks: The Return. You don't know what's going to happen, but the show is happy to linger on the smallest of moments. Sometimes they add up to something you might call plot, but mostly they exist on their own terms. I think this is an important skill in running a good game. You don't have to rush things, you can let the world exist on its terms, and you should feel free to let the characters and scenarios act out.

I personally like to let these seemingly unimportant interactions take precedence over what seems to be the major action of the game. There is a major quest at play, and it is an important quest geopolitically as well as personally for many of the NPCs and an important quest spiritually in terms of the spiritual health of the kingdom, which has been ruined by the malice of the object the players (and everyone else) are pursuing. But at the same time these are all these small characters the players have met on their quest, and I don't know how they're going to become important, or even if they will. But in the meantime it seems necessary to give these characters plenty of space (and time during a session) to act out.

At the start of their journey, the players were introduced to Claptrous Orng, a priest of Verngi, "The Hungry Man." I always knew that Claptrous was a devotee of the Grinning Pharaoh, and was lying to the players in order to get them to lead him to the Grinning Pharaoh. What I did not know was how close the players would get to him, and how charmed they would be by his affability, his friendliness, his confidence and ease, and his willingness to help. These moments became core to Claptrous' character, and a unique pleasure in running the game. Claptrous was a good guy who was also an obsessed sociopath.  When the priest kidnapped half of camp and got them all captured by the bad guys, these character moments became a driving force of the game -- why would Claptrous betray them? isn't he a good guy? It turned out he was utterly hollow in his obsession and devotion to his dead master. What does that mean for his friendship with the players? This is a mystery that probably won't be solved, and isn't meant to be.

This isn't to say I don't have grander designs for the shape of the game. I've definitely mapped out big set fights, characters, and locations I want the players to meet and experience. I always hoped against hope that they would release the Golden Dragon, otherwise I wouldn't have put him in there. I always knew the Claptrous Orng would find a way to betray the players. But there is always room for the characters and the game to derail itself, and I think it's in that possibility that the game gains real power and real impact and real importance, and creates real mystery.

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