Sunday, May 27, 2012

Emotional Resonance and Innovation

by Albert

I have had the pleasure of working with Albert at Endgame, and I have been continually impressed by his ability to weave interesting and innovative plot. Now, as I join plot staffs for two games, I'm taking my experience working with Albert with me-- he has certainly helped me learn how to craft experimental modules that are open to improvement and further innovation. I approached Albert with the subject of plot writing, and he provided me with the following thoughts. 


I was given a question:

"How do you write good, emotional plot that is also innovative (i.e., not just an opportunity for players to come in, sob about their character histories, and leave)?"

Creating emotional resonance is all about getting hooks into a player's character. What do they care about? Are there people, PCs or possible NPCs, that are part of their sphere? What does that character struggle with? 

Looking back, the biggest key to this recipe is to let things steep. Allow NPCs time to form organic connections. Throw out possible hooks and see what catches... then reel them in slowly. Going for quick emotional punches can be effective, but are hard to sustain. Why? I think most players emotionally adapt. Players will lapse into humor, distraction, or 'oh this again' mentality to deal with intense situations.

If you them to care, truly care, beforehand, you got them hooked.

For myself at LARPs, Innovation is an approach to writing and running. It requires the capacity to be fearless in trying new things. To take a step back and see outside the standard LARP formats (field fights and modules) we lock our minds into. You need to not take it personally when things go horribly awry. Or worse, when players hate your module. 

An important note: Innovation does not mean Incomprehensible! If players don't understand or can't see the meaning behind what you are doing, you just created a crappy piece of modern art. Never forget the payoff: the friction between innovation and emotional resonance.

So how does one create emotional resonance in creative ways? For myself, I tend to incorporate the following via bullet-points:

* Surprise Them: Scenarios that players don't expect tends to elicit spur of the moment reactions and emotions. This can help sneak that emotional resonance in. Bait-and-switch, bluffing in the pre-hook, etc. all fall into this. But be careful of overuse! Messing with players expectations in bad ways, IG or OOG, can lead to grumpy players. Know what your players are capable of rolling with.

* Make Sure It's Not All About Me/You/Him: If the module is designed to have only one 'active' participant, then everyone else is a trapped audience. Double-check that EVERYONE (PCs and NPCs) have ways to interact with any scene. This can be reasons to actively RP or doodads to be interacted with. Give them a way to leave if it's not their cup of tea. If it can't be helped, make sure the players have some expectation that they are in for a cutscene.

Also, think about the personal plot you are directing. Is this focused on that player as the primary? Or are things happening to that person for their friends to resolve? Can you co-opt them as an actor in a module and open the field to others? Trust in people's capacity to be awesome and wanting to spread the love to their friends. And if they aren't, be firm the PC/Staff delineation. If they want to write plot about themselves, there are other avenues.

* Feedback: Player choice is invaluable. If the player feels that he has the power to alter the world or impact the flow of events, they can open up. If things are railroaded, they will feel extraneous. The latter is a killer of emotional resonance. If ever possible, never chisel the outcome in stone. Let the player's actions (and NPCs!) have power. I cannot stress this point enough.

* Do your research: Each player has unique themes, perspectives, and goals. It's vitally important to know what will work for them and what won't. If you need to ask the player for information, drop them a staff-validated e-mail. Ask them what they want post-game. People/issues they are connected to. Any aspects of their character they are looking to fiddle with or address. 

Doing a module/plot only to have it flop because you don't know the guy is something everyone will run into. Don't take it personally on yourself or the player. Clarifying what you are both looking for will save time and frustration on all sides. This goes doubly true for non-standard plots! Do you like all aspects of LARPing? Every module you've been in? Obviously not. People aren't on the same wavelength, but you can at least tune in to double-check.

* Floon: For long-term games, make sure you are innovating, writing, and running around the threshold where you enjoy it. If you aren't having fun, it will trickle into everything else. Be honest about what your capable of. A module or two per session? Do you just enjoy RP roles in town? Can you juggle five criss-crossing plots at once? Are you a Plot Lich who knows no rest or sense of self-preservation? If you are honest with yourself in that arena, writing isn't a chore. It's an enormously fun way to channel your inner creativity.

So these are the things I look for in writing innovative personal plot. What do you think works for you?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post. I'd love a few examples for each of these.

    I particularly like "surprise them"- it's kind of interesting how often modules have a sort of single track to them, and players become jaded and try to jump to what they think they're expected to do. I find I often try to engage NPCs who are clearly intended as enemies to fight, but they either don't respond, or respond in such a way that makes it clear there's no way to dissuade them. I just heard a tale about a bunch of PCs who went to spy on some PCs, and when a player just assumed they were meant to fight them, it ended up causing a TPK. Having some middle ground, giving NPCs things to want besides killing PCs... that could shake things up... and the ultimate goal, I think, would be for PCs to come in without strong assumptions based on "well, it's a LARP, so of course we're supposed to..."

    I also love the "make sure it's not about one person." So many modules/plot hooks/NPCs are about one single character... but wouldn't it be great if the long lost war buddy of character X was also after the bounty on character Y's head? It's oddly rare.