ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: COMEDY AND TRAGEDY IN GAMING

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The other night, I had a chance to watch a live performance; it was a group of actors and impersonators that specialize in political satire. I did care not for it, but I will not mention the name, as the performers themselves were very talented and hard working, and I don’t want my bad review to reflect on the actors in any way.

My girlfriend (scratch that- as of this week, my fiancee) asked me why I did not enjoy all of it.*  “You like Colbert Report and Daily Show,” she said, “why not this?” It took a bit of analyzing, but I finally put my finger on why this particular show didn’t appeal to me:

*It didn’t really matter what answers I gave her; she still accused me of being an old fart.

1. Most of the jokes avoided the issues of philosophies of the characters. They went into Huckabee being religious, and the fact that politicians lie, but didn’t seem to go any further than skin deep; Trump has funny hair, Obama has big ears, Hilary has a vacant stare; the democrats distract, the republicans are crazy, etc. At best, this is light frivolousness; at worst, this is superficial muckracking.

2. It was bi-partisan in nature, doing its best to rib on both the left and the right; given the fact that they are in DC, this can be seen as a savvy move, as they are less likely to alienate half of their audience. However, I couldn’t help but feel like one almost canceled out the other. It didn’t feel like a cry from the moderate middle against the extremes, or a call for compromise; it just seemed to devoid of any legs, drifting aimlessly from one borrowed viewpoint to another without committing to anything.

In contrast, the Daily Show often takes intense issues and philosophies and boils them to their core; more often than not, you’re not laughing at the people being lampooned as much as the ideals. It some instances, the Daily Show follows the old movie adage, “show, don’t tell” – you don’t say that someone’s a hypocrite, you show a story about WHY they’re a hypocrite. The audience learns about an issue they never knew, or an important figure they were ignorant of.

On the Colbert Report, the opposite was the case; Colbert’s cold-hearted host character would often be forced to change his rigid views to match a forever progressive world; his struggle to learn and adapt, filled with tears and revelation, made the new events fresh and humanistic.

In the aforementioned live comedy show, most of the characters just walked onto the stage, did a few jokes, and left, like a bad stand-up routine; nothing changed, no one made any real human connection. However, there were a few exceptions; one of my favorite pieces involved President Barack Obama lamenting about getting pulled into war with Syria, and finding solace from a commiserating George W Bush, who was also pulled into the Middle East. They were transformed from thin caricatures to real people that shared a bond.


 

With this in mind, I would like to propose a tweaked definition of

Cret_Comedy_and_Tragedy

Why so serious?

comedy and tragedy, based around this concept:

1. Comedy – in which the characters learn to be better people.

2. Tragedy – in which the characters are given the opportunity to learn to become better people, but do not.


 

COMEDY BREAKDOWN

By this definition, a comedy is about flawed individuals who fib, fumble and fail to get what they want, and generally learn the life lessons necessary to become better human beings. The liar turns honest. The overly righteous person learns to relax. The stuttering lover learns courage.

An old benchmark for “is it a Shakespearean comedy?” is, “did someone get married at the end?” With this model, that still works; isn’t marriage about two individuals learning to be a functional union?

Bad Comedy

Bad comedy, we can surmise, is the opposite:

A badly written comedy is one in which none of the characters learn to be better people.

If a comedy is 100% custard pies and meaningless car crashes, you don’t have a story (at least, not one worth telling). If the heroes don’t improve and/or the villains aren’t taught a lesson, the experience was a frilly waste of time.

That’s not to say that EVERY character needs to learn. There are plenty of Jack Sparrows and supporting characters that stumble around, making sure others get their better future; and like Jack Sparrow, many of them do have their own brief moments of improvement and enlightenment (even if they are conveniently forgotten when the sequel roles around.) In the cases of the Marx Brothers’ films, the clowns make up 70% of the movie, but even they help the lovers get together and rattle the villain’s brains. For a classic example, in Moliere’s The Misanthrope, the title character and his on-again/off-again betrothed come close to amending their ways, but don’t; their best friends, however, learn, grow and get married.

TRAGEDY BREAKDOWN

Just like a comedy is about people learning, a strong tragedy is about about people failing to learn. Othello fails to learn that he should trust his wife more than his old war buddy; Hamlet fails to learn that bloodshed only leads to further bloodshed; Juliet fails to learn that the cute bad boy really won’t change, etc.

A good tragedy is all about the little brass ring of hope and enlightenment, and watching the characters reach for it; but it is just out of reach, or more painful still, they pull their hand back at the last moment.

Bad Tragedy

Thus, here is my take on a poorly written tragedy:

A badly written tragedy is one in which the characters are never given the opportunity to learn.

Just as a bad comedy contains a lot of whimsy with no change, a bad tragedy doesn’t give the character a chance to change; if there is no brass ring or lesson to learn, then there’s no missed opportunity for redemption; rather, the characters are being railroaded towards disaster without any real choice or control.* They aren’t characters making tragic decisions, they’re just cardboard stand-ins that the author couldn’t bother to give any life; alternatively, they are decent human beings who are have bad things happen to them for seemingly no reason (I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been told the Michael Keaton film “Birdman” was guilty of this).

*I suppose the lesson the characters could learn is, “life is like being railroaded towards disaster without any real choice or control,” but that’s a pretty ham-handed way of showing it. Macbeth, for example, toys with the themes of fate and destiny, but still gives the characters the ability to affect their fates (or at the very least, the illusion of choice).

I’m not a fan of many modern tragedies, in that many of them don’t seem offer any chance of redemption. It’s like watching a bunch of kids hanging on to a playground roundabout that’s going faster and faster; there’s no mystery about what will happen next, the kids will all fly off. In a good comedy, the audience is curious about what clever tricks will be employed to bring the plot line to a satisfactory conclusion; in a bad tragedy, the only unknown factors are when and in which order the characters will fly off to their doom, and that’s not quite enough to engage me as an audience member.

WAIT, WHAT ABOUT SATIRE?

Satire is slightly different, in that it is a comedy in which the main characters MAY learn, but are not required to; in this way, the plot line may more closely parallel a tragedy*. Rather, it the audience that learns the lesson. However, like the Daily Show, some of the best satires have an ordinary, Everyman character (like John Stewart) who can react to the craziness and arrogance around him, and who can learn (or pretend to learn) alongside us.

*For example, Chekhov considered many of his tragic plays, like the Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya, “comedies,” despite the fact that they are, well, NOT FUNNY**. They really are about foolish people who bring about doom; in this sense, they are satires about a dying way of life, with a clear message for the audience to pick up upon.

**Maybe they’re funny by Russian standards.


 

GET ON WITH THE GAMING THING!

What is this literary rant doing on a gaming blog? A few things:

1. When crafting any story or campaign, it’s a good idea to know how to craft a story.

2. Several games have popped up in the last year that focus upon storytelling, particularly about tragedies. Such examples include in Fiasco by Jason Morningstar, A Tragedy in Five Acts by Michelle Lyons-McFarland, and The Play’s the Thing by Mark Truman. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing any of the three, but I hope to before this time next year.

3. For your one shot games, I propose a simple thing you can tack on at the end. I give you:


 

THE EPILOGUE!

I’ve run several one-shot games before at gaming conventions, and at the end of the long drawn out fight with the baddie, I always felt bad whenever I dropped the suspension of disbelief like a fire-curtain and said, “That was it! Thanks for playing! Bye!”

I now propose the following: after any one-shot game, hand each player a blank post-card. The players will take a minute or two to write down what happens to their character after the story is done. Their fate might be as dramatic as “turning a new leaf,” or “to walk the earth like Caine”; it might be as simple as “taking a nap” or “getting shawarma.” After the players have written them, have them share if they like. If you want, the GM can even write one for a villain or major NPC.

Why do this?: It eases the players back to the outside world (in that they are thinking of their character from the outside), but ends on a powerful note; they have full control over the character’s fate. Did they learn? Did they fail to learn? Did they gain what they sought, or are they saving that nugget for another day?

More importantly, it turns the random rolls of the dice into a full story, with a solid end.


On that note, readers, I want to wish you a Happy New Year. Until next year, GAME ON!

Fate Accelerated: I Don’t Like Spam!

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I like Fate Accelerated. I really do. Hell, I’ve made two Fate World settings using it, and will likely make my third setting FAE too. That being said, it’s not perfect.

Sidenote: If it’s not perfect, why do I play it? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “[Fate] is the worst form of [RPG], except for all the others.”

The best part of FAE is that there is always another way to skin a cat; if a party’s sorcerer has to leave the game early because they have work in the morning, you’re not suddenly stuck with a group incapable of overcoming the magic door down the hall; through cleverness, careful study, or barbaric vandalism, they will find a way.

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Yum. I think. Conflicted.

The evil flip-side to this is that whenever you want to encourage a player to approach a problem from one of their lesser approaches, someone will insist that they can use their strongest approach; this frequently called “spamming.”  While they mean well, these sophisters will turn every turn into a drawn out negotiation, which can kill the mood and drag the evening out. Of course, the GM could always say “No, you have to use this approach,” but that’s against the spirit of FAE, and saying “No” leads to an unfriendly atmosphere (one of my very first entries discussed how much a GM should say “yes.”)

Evil Hat’s Zen Master of Fate Rob Donogue has proposed some ways to get around this on his blog, The Walking Mind, but I thought I’d try one or two ideas of my own:

Option 1: the Permission Aspect

If a player wants to use an approach that doesn’t seem obvious Require a “Permission aspect” first. This will likely be a situation aspect. If they already have a character aspect, require that they invoke it (which gives them the ability to use the approach AND the invoke bonus).

Ex. Chartok, Marna, and Phil all want to attack the a vicious ingredient in Kitchen Arena, the Monstercheese. Chartok’s player wants to charge straight in using Forceful, while Marna’s player wants to use Clever, and Phil’s player wants to use Sneaky. The GM sees no trouble with Chartok using the Forceful approach to make a raw attack, but feels that using Clever or Sneaky is less justified in this instance. The GM requests they get permission aspects first: a rational person like Marna wouldn’t charge in blindly, but if zhe spends an exchange looking for a weapon first (create an advantage for a Giant Cheese Machete), zhe could attack with Clever during any later exchanges. Similarly, a sneaky attack from Phil out of nowhere seems forced, but if Phil’s player spends a fate point to invoke his aspect “Born in Shadows,” the GM will let him use Sneaky to attack (and also gets the +2 invoke bonus). The GM is feeling generous, and decides these invokes are enough to let them use those approaches for the rest of the scene, or until it no longer makes sense (ex. Marna loses the Cheese Machete; Phil uses Flashy to draw attention to himself.)

If the player has a weapon that’s also a stunt, which is tied to a specific approach (ex. The Bow in in Masters of Umdaar using Quick), then the character can always use that weapon to attack; however, they can only use it whenever it seems right for the weapon (ex. Can’t use the bow in close combat), and only if they possess the weapon (ex. They haven’t been disarmed).

Option 2: Critical Hit

If players don’t like the stick, give them the carrot! Whenever a character makes an attempt with an Approach that is Fair +1 or lower and succeeds, automatically treat the result as success with style. Thus, they have a lower chance of success, but a higher gain should they pull it off. A GM might offer this all the time, but it seems better to me as a bargaining chip.

Player: I don’t want to use Forceful to attack, I want to use Quick, it’s higher!
GM: Okay, but if you hit with Forceful, I’ll give you a Critical Hit bonus…


 

Which option sounds better to you? Tell us what you think!

Until next week, GAME ON!

 


Image Citation:

Spam image courtesy of Father.Jack from Coventry, UK, Transferred from Flickr by User:Fæ. Used with permission through Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Neither licensor nor the Spam corporation endorses this blog or its use.

 

Skeleton Crew Necromnibus – Closet Full of Skeletons

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Welcome, readers! So, Halloween ’15 has come and gone, and I know what you’re thinking: not a single supernatural-horror themed entry?! This is particularly egregious, considering one of Tangent Artists’ works-in-progress is Skeleton Crew, an RPG based off of our original comic series. Why didn’t we post something with that?

The honest reason: a few months ago, we decided to take the rulebook back to the drawing board. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good RPG, but we feel we can make it even BETTER. If the Fate System is all about telling a story, then that’s what we’re going to help players do; instead of giving fans a fat splat book filled with stats and figures, we’re going to create a book that helps you tell your story!

Speaking of stories, we’re proud to have a new product at our Tangent Artists booth: the first Skeleton Crew Necronomnibus! This massive tome collects issues one to five of Skeleton Crew into a single book.

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In honor of this milestone, I thought I’d come up with a TA Tabletop entry with FIVE little extras that you can use in your next Fate game, one for each issue.

SKELETON CREW ISSUE ONE: DEATH AND TAXES, BUT MOSTLY DEATH

Kingship Manor – Extra

Kingship Manor is a decrepit mansion located in the Jacobian Heights sc1page012suburbs. It would likely be condemned by the Board of Health, if any of them had enough of a spine to go inside it. In 1884, the manor was been built by the Kingship family, a well-renowned circle of occultists; all but one of the Kingship family members are dead, but their spirits and shadows of many others linger on inside the walls.

Special Rules – Kingship Manor is a location with several situation aspects, including:

Rotting Boards & Creaky Doors – This counts as an obstacle whenever anyone attempts to move between zones.

Perpetually Dark

Bleeding Walls & Ghosts Over Your Shoulder

Big House – Let’s Split Up, Gang – Can be compelled to split the party

Stunt – Gives You the Creeps – The house has the ability to make you shiver in your boots and see things that shouldn’t be there. Once per session, the GM may use the Manor against the occupants; treat this as a create an advantage or attack roll with Provoke or Intimidate +5,which is defended with Will; roll to attack each person separately. Timing: the GM may choose to attack all of the group members in a single turn (ex. when they first enter the manor), or may chose decide to toy with them one by one (ex. If used to attack, the house deals mental stress. If used to place an aspect, the aspect may be invoked by the GM to cause the PC to see something horrific, or to be drawn in by a hallucination.

Old & Busted – The house is not likely to come crashing down around your head, but it is definitely in a fragile state. Any of the interior doors or walls may be broken through with a Physique roll of 5 or higher. This does not apply to walls leading outside and the basement walls (which are made of thicker material).

ISSUE TWO: HOW WELL DID YOU KNOW YOUR FATHER?

Revenants – NPC 

[From the notes of Avi Bashevis]

“During our research expeditions, we have encountered numerous beings that have seemingly “returned from the grave” (although I still theorize this to be a death-like coma state – see Appendix B). Some of these beings sustain physical and mental characteristics from their previous life, but many of these beings suffer radical alterations; it is almost as if they suffer severe mutation. For lack of a better term, I call these altered beings bite arm“revenants.” Unlike humans I have classified as “vampires” or “werebeasts,” which share common symptoms and modifications, no two revenants are exactly alike. Most are in a frozen state of composition, still maintaining their flesh- some even look completely alive if not examined closely. However, this is the only common trend I could find; Sample 1A had limbs that stretched like rubber, while 1C had detachable body parts that float on their own. Sample 4A grew eyes in random parts of his body, while sample 5B had skin grew over her entire force, blocking her eyes completely. I am in the process of conducting research to discern whether these variations are caused by the conditions of their death, their burial, or by some factor they were exposed to in life.”

In the Skeleton Crew universe, “revenant” is a catch-all term for any undead monster that doesn’t fit well into any of the traditional monster rolls.

Here are some rules for creating revenant NPCs

High Concept: Supernatural Fleshy Undead Mutants

Aspects: Driving Hunger (for food, revenge, etc.)

Always Get Weird

Mutated Skills: When creating a Nameless Revenant NPCs, do not plan out their skills ahead of time. Instead, the first time that a revenant uses a skill (to either do an action or defend against one), roll 2dF and add +2 – this is the Revenant’s value for that skill; (for the sack of the action, do not roll the fate dice a second time, but treat it as revenant rolled a +0). Record the value on the revenant’s character sheet.

Example: Weston pulls back his fist and swings hard at a revenant; he rolls 1, plus his fight value of +2. The revenant defends with Fight (which it has not used yet), rolls 2dF and adds +2; it rolls a +2 on the 2dF, for a total of +4. This means the revenant has a Fight of +4 from now on. For this exchange, it’s treated as if Weston rolled Fight +2 plus +1, and the revenant has Fight +4 plus +0.

To keep things simple, once a revenant has recorded five or six skills with a value of +1 or higher, you may treat all other skills as +0.

Tougher Revenants: For tougher and named NPCs, you might include a higher bonus (2dF +3), a wider swing (3dF + 3), or allow the GM to pay Fate Points to reroll the value.

ISSUE 3: MIND YOUR MANORS

Sandworms – NPC 

harvey.gifSpirits tend to haunt areas where the veil between our world and the next are thinnest; likewise, there are other beings that slip through other dimensional cracks, including sandworms. Sandworms are alien serpents that start off small, but can grow hundreds of feet long. They are carrion eaters by nature, but will eat decaying veggie matter or hunt fresh meat if desperate enough. They are expert burrowers, using dimensional portals to hide in solid rock or in impossibly small spaces.

High Concept: Extradimensional Striped Serpents

Aspects: Drawn to Warm Dry Places

Sneaky, not Smart

Small Medium Large
Stealth +2

Fight, Athletics +1

Stealth +3

Fight, Athletics +2

Notice, Will +1

Stealth +4

Fight, Athletics +3

Notice, Will +2

Stress: 1 2 Stress: 1 2 + Mild Stress: 1 2 3 + Mild + Moderate

Stunts:

Ambush Hunter: If a Sandworm is making a surprise attack (ex. From a hiding spot, has a hiding aspect placed on it), it may add it’s Stealth skill to its Fight skill for that turn.

ISSUE 4: MIND YOUR MANORS -pt. 2

The Love Triangle – Scene

scissue4_cover archieA love triangle is a unique type of social contest. It can be adapted for any number of characters, but for this demonstration, we’ll start with three.

In this example, we’ll start with three characters: Maria, Shelley, and Weston. In the comic, there were two characters (Maria and Shelley) who were attracted to the third (Weston), but do not feel bound to this this; there’s nothing to say that you can’t have all three be attracted to each other.

In a love triangle scene, each character will attempt to use their skills to draw in a potential romantic partner, or sabotage another relationship. In the tracker below, every two characters are connected by three boxes. During each exchange a player may attempt to Lure or Sabotage; treat these as an overcome rule against active opposition. To lure, use an appropriate social skill, such as Rapport, Deceit or Evoke*; the target defends with Will. If you succeed, tick off one of the boxes in between your character and theirs.

Weston o o o Shelley
o o
o o
o o
Maria

*To see more on Evoke, see entry “Killing with Kindness.” The finished SC RPG will likely involve a version of evoke (working title: Incite).

If your character fails, then no boxes are ticked off (alternatively, if you have no boxes ticked off, you may “succeed with style,” which ticks off a box on the tracker of every characters connected to you- obviously, you’re charming but your aim needs work!) If you succeed with style, gain one box and a boost as normal.

To sabotage, you use different social skills, such as Provoke, Intimidate, or Deceit; pick a filled-in relationship boxes, and target one of the two characters on that track (that character defends with Will). If your sabotage attempt is successful, than uncheck that filled box- it becomes empty again. Also, if you succeed with style, you may also fill in a box connecting one of those two characters to you (your lies are drawing one of them in). However, if you fail by more than two points (i.e. the defender rolls +2 higher than your roll), you uncheck one of the boxes connecting you to the defender (or, if there are none, fill in an empty boxes connecting those two characters together); obviously, your underhanded tactics are not impressing them.

ISSUE 5: FRIGHT AT THE MUSEUM

The Doombell! – The Artifact Extra

gear doombellThe doombell is a small bell once belonging to the dread necromancer Frida Feiertag, who was as brilliant as she was lazy. Instead of having undead servants lazing about the house and trying to summon them with a bell, she found it simpler to just create an artifact that raised servants right on the spot. Most of the undead zombies and skeletons it raises are too dumb to carry out complex tasks, but have a very low chance of turning on their master (always a plus). It can also serve as an alarm clock to long powerful-but-sleeping undead creatures, like mummies and liches, but these figures feel no sense of loyalty.

Special Rules: Any enemy* armed with the doombell may use it to summon forth one or more minions as an action; once per scene, the user may roll their Will plus 4dF- this are Summon Points. With this result, they can either summon a mob of NPCs or a single nameless NPC. A mob will include one mob member for each Summon Point, each with two skills (Fair +1 each) and one stress box. An NPC will have one skill equal to the number of summon points, two skills at Summon Points -1, a mild consequence, and stress boxes equal to the Summon Points -2. Create a high concept and an extra aspect describing the nature of the summoned minion. If the summoner is defeated or concedes, any remaining minions fade away; if not, they will linger around.

Ex. Deadringer has Willpower +3 and rolls +2, for a total of 5 Summon Points. He can create a mob of five NPCs (ex. +5 Fight, +5 Will, 5 Stress), or a single NPC (+5 Fight, +4 Physique, +4 Will, 3 Stress Boxes [a 1, a 2, and a 3] + Mild Consequence).

*By default, this item can only be used by enemy NPCs; however, if a PC manages to steal it, they can learn to use it as a stunt. If so, they can only use it once per session, and the Summon Points are equal to HALF of the PC’s Will + 4dF, rounded up. (Ex. If you roll a total of 5, you gain 3 Summon Points.) Any minions created will return to the aether after any long scene in which they participated.


 

That’s it for this entry. Until next time, folks, game on!