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Southern Fried Sorcerer, the Final Act

Started by Tor Erickson, December 17, 2001, 01:12:00 AM

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Tor Erickson

(this continues two earlier posts in Actual Play: Southern Fried Sorcerer, parts 1 and 2.  There's also some system posts down in the Sorcerer forum).

Southern Fried Sorcerer took 5 sessions to complete.  Each session lasted between 2.5 to 3 hours, except for the final one which ran to about 5.5.  All of the Kickers were resolved to some extent or another, ditto for the Relationship Map and the backstory.  But we also left a surprising amount open.  That was okay.  We never found out if Marvin Harris was actually going insane or whether he was haunted by demons.  We never found out how exactly his mother died, or what was the source of his sister's mental illness.  Was Emily Tyne actually Marvin's half-sister, a result of his father's affair with Emily's mother?  We don't know.  And Charles Scrump never did find out if the five-year old Rosa-Lee was his own daughter.  And who was it that murdered Cole's employer/lover?  Was it Michael Jonathon Tyne or Sethe, Cole's grandmother?

We'll never know.  But as I said earlier, that's okay.  The important things got addressed.  And in this last post I'd like to talk a little about the problems and issues that we came across in addressing those important things.

I think the biggest hurdle to overcome involved a miscommunication over what it means to further the plot.  I had expressed at the start of the game that the purpose of game-play would be to create a satisfying story.  Thus, character action should be directed towards furthering the plot.  In the penultimate session, I realized something was wrong.  At a crucial moment during the session we cut to a flashback.  It was a scene involving Cole Zion Summers, a PC, and Donald Castle, his wealthy employer.  In Cole's backstory, the player had written that there was some sort of a sexual relationship between the two, but it was never established what the terms of that relationship were.  Donald clearly loved Cole, but did Cole actually love him back?  Or was Donald unconsciously using his power as a rich, white man (Cole was bi-racial; half-black, half-white) to force Cole into something he didn't want?  My hope was that we could use the scene to establish (or at least hint at) what the true nature of the relationship was.  (I should note that the flashback was established under the pretext of revealing some info about the Relationship Map)  As the scene progressed, however, the player started to get frustrated. Finally he said that nothing was happening in terms of plot and that we should return back to the present.  Not wanting to press the issue, I agreed.

At the end of the session the player said that he was feeling some frustration.  He said he was trying as hard as he could to keep the plot moving but he felt like he was running out of ideas.  Instantly warning bells started to go off and I realized that we were talking about two different things when we said "plot development."  I had somehow communicated the idea that the game was about figuring out the backstory.  

And as any narrativist knows, that's a BIG MISTAKE, and results in deprotagonization for the characters.  Which, I realized, was exactly what the player was feeling.  So we talked over the next week, and then in our final session, we tried it again.  At a different point, under a different pretext we flashed back to another encounter between Donald and Cole.  As the scene progressed I could tell that it had a different feel.  Now the player was grinning and engrossed in his character.  Honestly, going into the scene neither one of us had any idea what Cole's real relationship was to Donald.  But after 5 minutes of pure role-playing, everything from the gestures to the body language to the dialogue, everybody at the table knew (without it ever having been said directly) that Donald's feelings were reciprocated.

The point is, the player quit worrying about the backstory, and what I had written, and  focused on the issues as raised by his character (which were important issues to the player because he had written them).  The result was one of the best scenes of the game.  But did it develop the plot? one might ask.  My response is: hell yes.  It gave an entire new shape to the story of Cole Zion Summers, and a new interpretation to nearly every one of the in-game actions that he had taken.

Throughout the session, the player engineered two other scenes that clicked in exactly the same way, and in my mind really stole the show.  At the end of the game I asked him if he felt the same frustration as he had the prior week, and his answer was a categorical "no."  Instead, he was relaxed and confident.

So, thanks to everybody at the Forge who contributed to this game (and a lot of you did, whether you know it or not!).  Special thanks to Paul, Jesse and Ron for sharing their insights and personal gaming experiences.

Something funny happened during this run.  I used to read through RPG books all the time, imagining the kinds of games that could be played.  But every time in the past month or so when I've gone to pick up a rulebook I've never gotten past flipping through a few pages before putting it down.  Playing the game was so just so much better.


Ron Edwards

Hi Tor,

I'd like to know exactly when in RPG history it was decided that "plot" meant "pre-planned set of objectives or events." I tend towards a much broader concept of plot, differing in that it is retrospective rather than predictive: "what happened."

Your insights into what the story was about are extremely valuable - that ultimately, Narrativist play is about the characters. It's a very Egri-type insight; we as audience only have access to story through identification with the passions of the fictional characters. As authors, our goal is to bring that identification into full existence, engaging the audience.

Applied to role-playing, the whole job of the GM flips into something else, namely making it possible for the player to be such an author. The notions of "figuring out the bad guy's scheme" and "stopping the danger to ourselves / the city / the universe" become less of a priority and more of a framework.

I just watched my favorite Cronenberg movie, The Brood, again tonight. Is the movie about the discovery of a psychiatrist's innovative treatment that has gone terribly awry? Or is it about a man who will do anything to get custody of his daughter away from his deranged ex-wife (and as a corollary, about the terrible power of her emotional condition)? I suggest that the movie is ABOUT the latter, the passions and people, using the VEHICLE of the former.

Applying that idea to role-playing is astoundingly rewarding when all the participants share that goal. I'm glad you and the others could achieve that with my game.


Tor Erickson

Hi Ron,

I've been thinking a lot recently about the overall purpose of narrative and the means by which it achieves that purpose, and I wonder if there isn't some widespread misunderstanding of those two things.  In the introduction to Emile Zola's Germinal, Henri de Montherlant says "A novelist can never go too far in the portrayal of life, as life really is;" which may be one of the goals of a naturalist writer like Zola, but I think is a deeply flawed approach to narrative (note, I'm not talking about narrativism here, but rather narrative in the literary sense).

I think the misunderstanding springs from the ideas that 1) narrative is a simple reproduction of real-life events (or as close to real life events as possible), and that 2) "good" narrative requires nothing more than interesting characters thrown together.  I won't comment on the former, other than to say that anyone attempting it is most likely going to produce some pretty boring results.  The latter idea is one I've heard again and again from creative writing teachers, from English profs, and from books on writing.  I think Egri himself falls into this exact line of thinking: in The Art of Dramatic Writing he proposes that before writing you need to create fully fledged characters, detailed down to their last pyschological trait, that will then prove your premise.  

I think this has led to a lot of confusion around the statement that narrative is "all about the characters" (I'm not saying you're misapplying it at all; to the contrary, as far as I can tell, you've pretty much got it nailed).  I think a lot of people take that to mean "2", as I defined it above.  I think the line of thinking is something like "if narrative is all about the characters, then the narrative meaning must arise from those characters and the plot itself is wholly a development of the actions of the characters, based on the peculiarities and intricacies of the characters themselves."  It's this last "and" that I have a problem with.  I think a good writer can make it seem like plot is arising simply from the intricacies of the characters, but I think it's an act of stagemanship that becomes apparent really quickly in a role-playing game, where the act of creation is out in the open.  I might even (nervously, hesitantly) wonder how much of character simulationism arises from this assumption about the creation of narrative.

In terms of Southern Fried, it was a fine line that I walked in communication with the players.  I think I first went too far in stressing the importance of plot, which was interpreted as "pre-planned set of objectives or events."  In setting things back on the right track I had to emphasize the importance of the (player) characters in the game; but I was worried that in doing so I'd get the players thinking too much along the lines of "How would my character react in this situation? Well, let's see.  When he was a little kid..." and in the process lose sight of the fact that we were trying to author a theme, not create a character sketch.

In the end, I think everybody got it. I wonder if I might have been better off by not explicitly stating the importance of plot, and instead letting my in-game actions as GM and the players' instincts accomplish the same goal.  Maybe the best answer is that different tactics work for different people, and you need to pick what's right for each, individual person.


[ This Message was edited by: Tor Erickson on 2001-12-19 12:43 ]

Mike Holmes

OK, I can't stand it anymore.

What you have provided here is really interesting in a theoretics sense. But I'm dying to know; what happened, Tor? Can you at least give us an outline of the events? If Ron bugs you about it not being salient to design or something, I claim now that I want to see it in the name of better understanding what a reasonable outcome target for a narrativist game can be.

But actually I just want the silly details. What went on in that game o yours?

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