Sunday, October 29, 2017

Narrative Advice from Professional Wrestling--To Sell or Not to Sell?

A lot of effort in RPG circles goes into giving advice to GMs. How do you present an engaging adventure? How do you run a certain style of adventure? How do you take what the PCs give you and integrate it into the campaign?

I have a bit of advice that I want to aim squarely at players. This advice comes from the realm of professional wrestling. If you are in an RPG that has a lot of physical altercations, learning how to “sell” your opponent’s threat level is going to make the campaign much more satisfying.

I’ll also throw this out there at the start—I default to a lot of examples that clearly lean on d20 games for a reference. It is entirely possible to have issues with selling your opponent’s threat level in other games, but I’ve seen it very often in d20 level based games, so it tends to be top of mind.

Professional Wrestling 101

If you aren’t familiar with professional wrestling terminology, if you see someone get hit by a move, and the person getting hit by that move looks like they really got hurt, staggered, or caught off guard by the move, that’s “selling” the move. Professional wrestling may be theater, but there is a logic to the way it works.

If one wrestler does a move to the other wrestler, and that wrestler just stands back up, and then does their move, you don’t get any feel for the stakes of the match, or the ability of either wrestler. Sure, occasionally, someone is going to pull off an impressive dive from the top rope, or they’ll lift someone that you couldn’t lift if you had ten of your best friends helping. But if the other participant just stands there at the end, it loses its effect.

When someone gets “hit” with a move and that wrestler just stands there as if they were not affected, that’s called a “no-sell.” Now, there are appropriate times for a “no-sell,” but you can’t go through your whole career without selling any move, or else your career is going to start looking a little boring. Sure, you are a force of nature. But if you never sell anything, you are always a force of nature that wins everything, and that’s the sum total of the combat narrative you are telling.

Selling in the Face of Stats

Selling your opponent’s threat level is going to mean something different in an RPG. There are stats that show if you hit, or if a spell goes off, and how much damage it does, or what kind of condition might be inflicted. There are often measurable effects in RPGs when an opponent does something to your character.

No-selling an opponent in an RPG can come in many forms, but it happens most often when players are never “in character” in the fight. I’m not a person that demands no metagaming at the table, but if everything your character says is purely analytical and referencing game mechanics, it deadens the effect of what is going on in the narrative of the story.

“That’s less than 10% of my hit points, don’t worry about healing me.”

“I can hit it with a 10 on the dice, so we should be able to keep pace with hitting hit for at least 15 points a round.”

Saying things like the above, and never being in character, takes a lot out of the fight. Many people tend to think that roleplaying ends when a fight begins, but there are plenty of opportunities to keep the story of what is going on moving, informed by the mechanics.

“The hobgoblin hits you for 12 points of damage.”

“Out of character—I should be fine, I’ve still got plenty of hit points left. In character—After the last time we ran into hobgoblins, I wasn’t expecting ones with that much skill with a blade. I need to keep an eye on her.”

Randomly Encountered No-Sells

Some “no-sells” are emergent. When the PCs see a couple of giants walk out onto the battlefield, they assume the big humanoids are going to be a threat. A few unfortunate dice rolls later, and the players might fall into a bad habit.

“These things suck. They’re just slow sacks of hit points. I can’t wait to get to town and talk about how easy it was for us to off these things. I don’t know why anyone is afraid of them.”

The narrative just shifted from “giants are scary,” to “giants are slow and overrated.” If you never run into giants again in the campaign, that’s the impression they have left, and it may have been because the dice were hotter on one side of the screen than the other.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for referring to the reality of the situation.
“The giant rolls yet another 3 on the die, and misses you, again.”

“My character looks at the huge divot in the ground where I was standing a minute ago, and tells the giant that I’m glad his sword arm is stronger than his eyesight.”

In the second instance, referencing the potential for danger, even when the reality of the game isn’t providing that danger, preserves some of the mystique of the giants. The impression isn’t that the giants are universally terrible at combat, but that these giants aren’t doing so well, which preserves their obvious potential threat.

When your character does take a significant hit, make sure to take the time to call that out. Your party cleric may fix it on their turn, but if it was noteworthy, well, note it.

“That’s 54 points of damage.”

“I’ve still got 60, so I can take another hit, but wow, that was a lot. My character’s head spins and they stagger back for a second, and catch themselves before they fall. Then I tell the party cleric I may need just a little bit of divine favor thrown my way before I collapse.”

It becomes very easy to minimize what is narratively happening in stories in games where characters are powerful enough to mitigate consequences. Eventually, characters start to joke about clerics bringing them back from zero hit points, removing curses, or raising the dead. The problem is, a character that has been knocked out from loss of hit points just got battered very hard. They could have died, even if they didn’t. A character that is cursed, diseased, or poisoned could very well be miserable, even if they are still effective until that effect has been lifted. 

A character that has died and is brought back has actually seen what happens to souls after people die! Even if that is “common” for high level adventurers, that’s not common to over 99.9% of the population—and before it happens to them, the adventurers are part of the 99.9% of the population.

The Good Kind of No-Sells

Is there a good time to “no-sell” opponents? Sure. There is a term in professional wrestling—the squash match. The point of this match is to make one side look extremely awesome by throwing someone at them that they can take out without any effort at all. Some encounters exist to underscore that adventurers are people that are, themselves, dangerous.

Sometimes it is obvious from how the GM is running opponents that they are just there as a nuisance to the PCs, either to waste their resources or stall them until reinforcements arrive. The clearer the clues the GM drops that these opponents aren’t impressive, the more it’s probably okay to make it clear how much more awesome you are than these characters, and how little threat they represent.

Then, there is the most notorious of professional wrestling no-sells. One wrestler has been dominating the match from the beginning. They have pulled off several impressive moves that look like they have devastated their opponent. And then, the momentum shifts. The person that was down on their luck suddenly gets up, gets a second wind, and nothing can hurt them again for the rest of the match. The danger of their opponent was evident early on, but now it’s time to wrap of the story.

In game terms, you make it to the boss fight. Everyone knows the boss is a big threat. You’ve spent months of campaign time establishing this. It might even be that early in the fight, the boss tossed around a party member or two rather effortlessly. At this point, the no-sell can be used to good effect, but the tone of the no-sell is important. It’s not that the threat of the opponent isn’t great. It’s that you are so awesome, so focused, and so determined, through sheer force of will and awesomeness you will persevere no matter what this boss does to you. 

At that point, the no-sell becomes the story of how the boss is dangerous, but because it’s so important that you win, you are more dangerous, and you don’t care what they can unleash.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Kirk Should Have Started Chopping Wood After The Wrath of Khan

I’ve said this a few places in the past, but my perception of movies is sometimes colored by their direct sequels. It all depends on how well they match the tone, and how directly tied into that next movie they are. The most dramatic effect this generally has on me is when I was on the fence about a movie, but the sequel either shores up the original movie’s weaknesses, or wallows in them.

Now, some movies are so strong, I think even a bad, directly tied in sequel doesn’t hurt them too much. But the degree to which this is true is going to vary movie to movie. I greatly respect Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, but my desire to watch Batman Begins is dulled by my perception of how The Dark Knight Rises played out, but despite all of that, I’ll watch The Dark Knight just about any time it comes on.

I posted about this on the blog, but my impression of Man of Steel wasn’t completely negative, but I soured on the movie when Dawn of Justice decided to play in all the worst areas introduced in Man of Steel.

That’s the context in which I’m looking at the Wrath of Khan, one of my favorite movies, but one that I think lost some of its impact as sequels started to chain off the events of the movie.

The Anomaly is Larger in the Past than it is In the Future

I’ve got a disclaimer I want to get out of the way before we dive too deeply into Trek movies and values people assign good and bad. People have derided the Bad Robot reboot Star Trek movies for being too action oriented and not feeling enough like Star Trek. I won’t argue that. I’ll argue, however, that the same argument was true of Insurrection and Nemesis.

Both of those movies fell into the trap of “we’ll throw some philosophical trappings onto the story, but the crux of the story is that we have irredeemable bad guys that you won’t feel bad about when they get blown up, and the only real solution is to have the Enterprise crew kick some ass.”

To fully put my cards on the table, I love First Contact. You could argue that the same formula exists in that movie as well. However, I think the story of Cochrane getting the Phoenix into space has enough narrative weight in the story that it feels more like a plot element and less like an excuse to have the crew of the Enterprise kick Borg ass. Also, instead of introducing new, faceless, irredeemable bad guys, we got irredeemable bad guys that had been used for years in Star Trek. You can disagree, and that’s totally cool, I just wanted to show where I personally drew that line.

Back to Wrath of Khan!

What Was Wrath of Khan Actually About?

I have no idea what the creative types behind the Star Trek movies had in mind initially as a follow up to the Wrath of Khan. I know that at least at some point, Nimoy was of the mind that he wasn’t coming back to the series.

With that in mind, it’s clear that what we got, post Wrath of Khan, may not have been what was originally planned.

I have heard Wrath of Khan characterized as a movie where Kirk got to prove he was more awesome than the superhuman Khan, even though the initial resolution of their conflict was generally peaceful. It “action movied” a resolution from the TV series that was more cerebral. I don’t think that’s an incorrect criticism of the film, but it isn’t entirely how I read the structure of the movie, as it unfolded.

Traveling Back in Time

Try to isolate the plot of The Wrath of Khan from its sequels. I know, it can be difficult, because The Search for Spock dovetails so directly from The Wrath of Khan that it feels like it was always meant to happen that way. But nobody knew that when The Wrath of Khan first came out.

The themes that were explored in Wrath of Khan were themes of change. McCoy and Kirk talk about Kirk getting older. Spock is a Captain, and Saavik, a new supporting character, gets a fair amount of screen time. We’re told that the crew is young, with new Starfleet graduates all over the place. Kirk isn’t in charge, but circumstances put him in charge. We get massive foreshadowing with the discussion of the Kobayashi Maru, and how Kirk has never faced the no win situation.

One point I have brought up in the past that made a few Trek fans a bit upset with me is that Kirk screws up big time in this movie. His actions cause members of his crew to get killed.

I have been corrected by said upset fans, arguing that Khan is the one that fired on them, so Kirk didn’t kill anyone, etc. The point being, anyone in that command position that had deviated from standard protocol, and had crew members that had died due to that deviation, would be held accountable for those deaths. Saavik points out what Kirk should have done.

In fact, there is an important point here. In the past, Kirk has been lauded for “going with his gut” instead of sticking to the rules. However, in most of those circumstances, Kirk’s gut told him to take bold action, to do something. This time, Kirk’s gut told him “hey, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine.” He ignored the rules this time, not to take bold action, but to remain complacent and hope for the best.

That’s the whole point being driven home by the earlier discussion between McCoy and Kirk. Kirk isn’t the young starship captain that can do no wrong, no matter how much he pushed the boundaries of the rules. Everyone changes. Everyone gets older, and assumes new roles. Kirk’s role isn’t to be on the bridge of a starship anymore.

Yes, he rises to the challenge eventually, but the point isn’t that he suddenly becomes good old young Captain Kirk again—its that Kirk is still enough of the man he was to fix the problem that he helped to create. But there is a cost. Not only does he lose a lot of this young crew, including Scotty’s nephew, he loses his best friend. After years of avoiding the Kobayashi Maru, it bites him hard in the ass.

All the above is some powerful stuff. If there was never another Star Trek movie made with the original series crew, it would be easy to picture Kirk retiring from Starfleet entirely, realizing he’s not happy being an admiral, but that his place isn’t on the bridge of a starship. People like Sulu and Saavik would move up into important positions on the flagship, and time would move forward. But, hey, they made so much money on this one, why not undermine all those lessons?

Why Do You Hate Kirk? Why Do You Want Spock Dead?

I neither hate Kirk, nor want Spock dead. Wrath of Khan, however, was such a powerful step for the characters that you aren’t going to top what happened in that movie. TOS Kirk was awesome, but we get to see old “he’s still got it, right?” Kirk live long enough to go camping and complain about his captain’s chair not being comfy enough, and even to have his womanizing lampshaded. I get why this happened, since we did get more Captain Kirk, but it might have been a bit more powerful to let the “you can’t keep doing what you did in the past” lesson be a more serious lesson, rather than a comedic one.

I absolutely love Spock, and I’m glad that eventually we got to see him as an ambassador doing ambitious things like trying to mend the rift between the Romulans and Vulcans (thank goodness no later storylines casually gutted the Romulans before they could show his work paying off, er, moving on). Spock death, however, is one that still, to this day, brings a tear to my eye.

Just thinking about “I have been . . . and always shall be . . . your friend,” as it was delivered in that scene, still gives my shivers. But I saw The Wrath of Khan, in theaters, almost as many times as I saw The Empire Strikes Back. I didn’t know Spock was coming back before that scene had really imprinted on me. I wonder if it has near as much power for people that see it for the first time knowing that he comes back in the next movie?

The Search for Spock also attempts to absolve Kirk by letting his gut lead him back to Genesis, not just for selfish reasons, but to accidentally stop the Klingons from getting information about the Genesis device. Except, I’m not sure they could have reverse engineered the device from the planet, and I don’t think we ever established that David knew enough about it to reconstruct it for them. But, hey, at least Kirk and company didn’t do something completely selfish, even if they didn’t know the Klingons were on their way.

Lost in Translation

Just about every lesson we learn in The Wrath of Khan is reversed in subsequent movies.

  • Kirk is getting older and isn’t the man he was in his youth—except he eventually gets “punished” by being made a Captain, and the decommissioned Constitution class starship gets rebuilt, even though that class of ship is out of date, because Kirk shouldn’t have to deal with change
  • Spock made the ultimate sacrifice based on his belief that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one—and he makes this not by sacrificing others based on cold logic, but by sacrificing himself, so why not have his friends all risk themselves and to bring him back to life?
  • We introduced characters like David and Saavik to show that time was moving forward, and that Kirk and his crew weren’t the center of the universe—so why not kill off David (essentially having Kirk trade his son’s life for his old friend’s—the needs of the franchise outweigh the needs of the one), and have our recast Saavik never show up again?

Just about every one of the most powerful, bold aspects of Wrath of Khan got walked back in the subsequent movies.

Parting Shot
Lots of people love Star Trek IV. The crew all hang out together, and except for the fact that they have to use a Klingon ship and Spock has to comedically remember who he is, all is right with the world. Nothing of any import has happened anywhere, because the crew is all back together.
In fact, not only does the crew get to save the Earth, Kirk gets “punished” by getting his captaincy back, and they build him a new Enterprise.

For stealing a starship, destroying it, defying a Starfleet order, and sabotaging another Starfleet ship, I could have totally bought that Starfleet might commute Kirk’s sentence and let him retire on a farm instead of a penal colony. Giving him a ship and the title he already wanted is like pressing a big reset button with the middle finger of nostalgia, telling everyone that it’s more important to see the crew together on the Enterprise than to tell a good story.

So, no, Star Trek IV is not the Hell one of my favorite Star Trek movies.

Fun thought experiment—you actually could have had the Undiscovered Country still take place by having Starfleet pull Kirk out of retirement to act as an ambassador, because “only Nixon can go to China.” Everything else could have unfolded almost exactly the way it did, on a ship that someone else was commanding. And you could have weaved in even more character development in showing what Kirk’s life has been like since he left Starfleet.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Tales of Halloween Past

I was about to fall asleep, when, for some unknown reason I remembered a completely random moment from Halloween of 1984. I was but a lad of 10 years at that point in time, in 5th grade, attending St. John's.

If you've followed along on my various self-indulgent ruminations here on the blog and elsewhere, you may have seen me point out that I started playing D&D in 1985. That is true. However, I stole the D&D Basic set that my sister received for Christmas in the summer of 1984, after seeing the poor thing sit in a drawer for six months.

My favorite part of the book was the section with the monsters. The rules weren't quite making much sense, but the description of the monsters and what they could do was firing my imagination.

At school, for Halloween, we were having a contest to determine who could write the scariest story. The irony in this is that in just two years, we would have one of the prominent families in town start a crusade against Halloween because their youngest was scared by something spooky, and all of our Halloween celebrations were turned into Fall Fests where we could only dress up as biblical characters. But that wasn't the case in 1984.

I'll be honest, I can't remember most of the stories that my classmates wrote. Fifth graders apparently aren't the best horror writers. There are only two stories I remember from that year. One story was written by my friend Mike, who spun a yarn about a haunted house that culminated in a washing machine that started to churn out blood.

But my story? I drew my inspiration from the monster section of the D&D Basic set.

I can't remember all of the nuances of the story.

Let me rephrase that. I was unlikely to have had any nuances in my story, but I can't remember most of the details, except the following.

The story involved an adventuring party traveling into an ancient cave system. Eventually they stumble upon a mound of bones, which they assume are the remains of the dinner eaten by some huge monster that lives in this section of the dungeon. Slowly, the bones start to pull themselves together into an army of skeletons.

Outnumbered by the bones of the dead, our intrepid adventurers ran into another denizen of the dungeon. A seven foot spider called a tarantella skitters out and bites one of the adventurers, and then retreats back down the corridor. The first adventurer feels the poison, which causes him to start dancing. The rest of the adventurers see this, and are forced to dance as well, until they all collapse on the floor of the dungeon, helpless.

At that point, before the poor spider could come out and claim its meal, the host of skeletons catch up with the exhausted adventurers. Unable to run, or even to move, they could only watch in terror as the living dead start to rip them to pieces, too tired to even scream out in pain.

Yup. That's what I wrote about. I TPK'd a party before I ever ran a game. In case you haven't run into it before, the tarantella isn't a misspelling of tarantula. The tarantella is a monster from the D&D Basic set whose poison causes its victim to dance a dance that is so compelling, everyone watching has to join in, until they collapse from exhaustion. That was such a compelling image to me, I had to do something with it.

Mike won the contest. Despite explaining that the tarantella was a unique monster, and not a misspelling of tarantula, I got marked off a few points for spelling. It was disappointing. That said, I got to read the story in front of the whole class, so that almost makes up for my poor, misguided teacher, who didn't understand a masterwork of horror when she heard it.

I have absolutely zero idea why that story popped into my head as I was attempting to fall asleep. I know I couldn't quite drift off without recounting it. Although, now that I think about it, I'm seeing a lot of eight legged shadows in the corner of the room.