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Thursday, June 7, 2012

What-If, Mystery, and Action

OK, what did I mean yesterday when I implied a connection between action/adventure sci-fi like Star Wars and new school RPGs? Or by the implied connection between horror/mystery or what-if/morality SF and old school play?

Let's delve into the three sci-fi categories a bit more. And, because I'm awfully tired of typing out "horror/mystery" and "what-if/morality" and "action/adventure", let's shorten them to "mystery", "what-if" and "action".

Mystery SF is a mystery (or horror) story with futuristic or other SF trappings. What drives the plot is a question: what happened to the scientific expedition or colonists on this planet ("The Man Trap", "The Menagerie")? Where did this unusual hi-tech object come from, and what do those weird-looking guys want (This Island Earth)? Most such SF, especially in the '60s, is a mix of horror and mystery, and even those examples of almost pure horror have a hint of mystery, even if it's just "How do we stop this thing?"

What-If SF is a philosophical fable with futuristic or other SF trappings. Instead of a question driving the plot, a question sets up a dilemma or situation for examination. What if the Bombs started dropping right now (Panic in Year Zero) or have just dropped (On The Beach)? What if a human being had supernormal powers ("Where No Man Has Gone Before", "Charlie X")? What if you crashed on a planet where human beings are considered dangerous, unintelligent animals (Planet of the Apes)? What if we were visited by an alien from an advanced civilization that didn't have war (The Day The Earth Stood Still)? The question sometimes sets up a Mystery, but sometimes it just sets up a challenge. There is usually a morale to the story, and often there is a twist ending, as you see in The Twilight Zone.

Action SF is a story filled with action and adventure, with futuristic or other SF trappings. The plot is driven by physical threat and danger, or occassionally by intrigue or some other non-physical threat. The main character is trying to prevent a war, or win one, or fight crime, or rescue a romantic interest/family member.

Although an occasional scene or two in Mystery SF or What-If SF may contain action or intrigue, and a scene or two in Action SF might have a surprise horrific or morale twist, Action SF has a different rhythm than non-Action SF. Scenes in Action SF often move from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, like the serials that are their oldest example. Scenes in the other two varieties -- let's call them "Question SF" -- move from revelation to revelation, and the revelations are sometimes small and non-threatening, except to a character's mental state or world view. The purpose of the storyline in Question SF is to answer the question, one bit at a time. You don't normally end a Question SF scene on a cliffhanger, but you might end it on a note of foreboding; tension tends to come from empathy with a character or disturbing suspicions about the final resolution, not from a question of "who will win"?

What I was getting at with my final question in the last post was that the focus in old school RPGs tends to be on Questions (Where's the treasure? What threats are waiting for us? How can we avoid injury? How do we get out of here?) Old school play is often driven by the same things that drive Question SF (or a horror movie.) New school RPGs, on the other hand, are driven by more obvious threats, from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, just like Flash Gordon or Star Wars. New school play can have a low-fantasy goal (steal this treasure!) which may superficially resemble a typical old school adventure, but the approach to that goal, the pacing of encounters, will feel like Action SF. And the newest new school RPG designs, like the newest Action SF (or action movies in general,) pump up the excitement and action as much as possible. New school is about going BIG.

You can see hints of this Question vs. Action dichotomy in some of the hot button topics of the RPG debates: mapping, empty rooms/total rooms, how traps are located, save-or-die, puzzles, how hp are handled... If you are playing new school, you want to keep up a steady pace of encounters, you don't want sprawling dungeons with empty rooms -- and you definitely don't want to waste time mapping them. You want to survive longer so that you can have more action. You don't want to design your classes in any way that would encourage players to hang back and avoid action.

What I think (but can't prove) is that people who don't really like the modern Action SF movies very much also don't really like new school RPGs very much, especially if they are over-the-top. Likewise, people who think of old Question SF movies as "too slow" don't like old school RPGs very much, especially if they are deadly. Force someone who dislikes high-action to play a new school design and they will try to insert more puzzles into it, re-introduce save-or-die, make sprawling maps, and drop things like healing surges. Force someone who dislikes Question SF films to play in an old school group and they will pick fights with every monster, jump every chasm, kick over every chest, and in general be impulsive, because they're trying to recreate what's missing.

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