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Author Topic: Relationship Maps - Book Plundering Technique  (Read 8637 times)
jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« on: May 30, 2002, 09:01:30 AM »

Hello All,

First of all, I was going to send this to Ron privately because of this reason: THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR JAMES ELLROY'S THE BLACK DAHLIA.  Then I figured there might be people who either don't care or have read this particular book and might be interested in my questions.  Of course, the top level assumption is that Ron has read this book but I think that's a safe assumption considering that it's in his recommended reading list in Sorcerer's Soul.

Since, I was reading this novel for my own enjoyment I thought, hell, might as well get some Sorcerer prep practice in and started making notes.  Now out of anything I have read from Sorcerer's Soul (which admittedly, isn't much) this has so far been my absolute favorite.  I REALLY enjoyed this book, mainly because it didn't suffer from that 'detached protagonist' problem I think this genre suffers from.  The protagonist of the book, Bleichart, is hooked up, intimately, with the relationship map in no less than FIVE different places.  The 'no action' option just isn't a valid choice for Bleichart.  He MUST do something and he's royally fucked no matter what.  Loved it.  However, this closeness to the protagonist causes an interesting problem when using it as a spring board for a Sorcerer scenario as you'll see below.

Without the protagonist there are really three distinct clumps of characters:

The Kay-Blanchard-DeWitt Situation
The Sprague Family
The Vogals

These three clumps are loosely connected through the murder of Elizabeth Short.

Now, the Vogals are really only interesting because they're cops and so is the protagonist.  The protagonist gets caught up in the classic do I turn in my fellow law enforcement officers or not, conflict.  Otherwise, they're kind of minor and fairly uninteresting.  So it seems to me they're a good candidate for pruning unless a Player creates a character that could be hooked up to them which depends on what they translate to when I convert the map to the setting I'm interested in.  By the way, I'm looking at using this map to create a scenario for my Ravenloft-Inspired Sorcerer & Sword setting.

The bigger problem is the Kay-Blanchard-DeWitt situation and comes into the point where backstory and plot get a little blurry.  The ONLY way this situation relates to ANYTHING going on in the rest of the relationship map is either via the Protagonist who has been removed or through a plot point.  That is, Martha Sprague confesses her family's involvment with Elizabeth Short to Blanchard.  Blanchard blackmails Emmet(?) Sprague and has DeWitt killed.  Madeline Sprague then tracks down and murders Blanchard.  And all of this only makes sense because Blanchard is a cop investigating the Elizabeth Short murder which may not be the case when I translate the map across settings.

All of the above is NOT backstory, it's plot. It happens in the novel as a direct consequence of several character's (including the protagonist's) actions.  However, it is the ONLY thing that relates one set of conflicts to another.  Otherwise, they're kind of detached seperate issues.  Three solutions spring to mind:

A) Make it backstory.  That is, don't start the game until AFTER DeWitt and Blanchard are dead.  This doesn't seem right as it kills one of the more interesting conflicts in the book's backstory and it leaves Kay kind of dangling.  The only reason she isn't dangling in the novel is because of her love affair and subsequent marriage to the Protagonist.

B) Chop it.  It only makes sense given the novel's specific definition for the protagonist and without that definition the whole conflict loses meaning.  I don't think I fully agree with this but it is an option.

C) Don't sweat the details.  Leave the backstory just as it sits and forget the plot.  If the two issues come together they come together, if they don't well then you have two independent conflicts running concurently and so be it.  Besides you still technically have the Blanchard-Elizabeth Short connection even if it is just professional (one is looking into the death of the other).

Thoughts?

Another problem I'm having (and that I ALWAYS have when using this technique) is sorting out quality backstory from highly specific clues.

For example I'm not really sure what to do with the Linda-Snuff Film situation.  That's really just a clue to justify the connection between Elizabeth Short and the Sprague family.  That, and the snuff film is a major motivator for Blanchard actions.  Is this signficant enough to translate over to the setting?  Or am I getting too caught up in the details of the actual mystery and should just keep things loose so they can get revealed as necessary through actual play?  Linda and the Snuff film feel like a bang, not a 'real' element of the backstory.  It feels like a bang/backstory cross over, really.  Not sure what to do about it.

Similarly there's the whole Frenchman-Roach Doctor connection.  Again, in the novel these just serve to flesh out the specific movements of Elizabeth Short and explain how she came to be where she was on the night of her murder.  Again, too much detail?  Too much Call of Cthulhu clue chain style worrying?  

Some of these elements feel like back-explination rather than backstory.  Linda feels more significant than The Frenchman but again, I'm not sure if she's significant enough to sweat the details.

Anyway, I think that covers my initial concerns.  I'm looking forward to the responses.

Jesse
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1351


« Reply #1 on: May 31, 2002, 08:24:42 AM »

Hmmm...  I realized that my above post was probably too much of one of my 'thinking out loud' posts.  To distill my questions more generically without the specific example they boil down to:

1) When using the book technique and you discover that two parts of your relationship map (and thus conflicts) are only related through plot or protagonist, what do you do?  I think there are many valid options here I'm just curious as to see what people think.

2) When deciding what is worth carrying from the details of the backstory such as who moved where, when and what evidence they left behind of those movements, how do you decide what to bring along and what to let redevelop through actual play?

Okay, those are my questions distilled.

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: May 31, 2002, 08:40:49 AM »

Hi Jesse,

Your second post arrived while I was composing this one ...

This probably won't surprise you, but I think the "closeness of the protagonist" in this book actually makes it harder to use in Sorcerer prep - and indeed, is one of the first things that has to get erased from the prep process.

We've been 'round and 'round on this for a long time now, but you and I differ a lot in our preferences for how much the protagonists should/may be linked into the back-story at the outset of play. If I'm correct, you think that loose or weak links at the outset lead to problematic uncertainties, whereas I think that overwhelmingly tight and explicit links lead to - functionally - railroading.

The key point is the distinction between back-story vs. plot, in the sense that it's not a straightforward distinction at all - in a book or movie, you can't tell the difference, except for stories with very straightforward/linear plots, in which case the back-story happens prior to the first chapter.

My point: you take a relationship map from a book, and then throw out any and all "how the protagonist gets involved," and throw out any and all "where the story starts (as opposed to back-story," and throw out any and all distinction between "main conflict and side conflict." I run these down in order.

1. How the protagonist gets involved is a matter of adding meat/connections to the Kicker provided by the player, and I submit that it ranges functionally from (a) very strong, (b) medium, or (c) absent, which is to say, the character is only linked by proximity. Again, all three are functional, although I tend toward the (b)-to-(c) range in practice.

2. When the in-play story starts need have nothing to do with where it starts in the source material. Hence all post-back-story plot in the book can become functionally cancelled, if you want. Or if you want, take a fair piece of it and make it back-story, such that your play actually begins in Chapter 15 - converting Chapters 1-14 into back-story as far as play is concerned. Or, if you want, "back up in time" such that play begins long, long before the point when (in the book) the protagonist enters the scene.

3. When you have as sprawling and various a relationship map as found in The Black Dahlia (or God help you, the original novel L.A. Confidential), then recognize that the relative importance of the maps (that you choose to use) should be set by the players through their characters' actions - emphatically not by you deciding which is the main map, and which is the main secret (whose revelation will be "the climax"), and which is the main villain, and all that. Just screw all that, in terms of prep - let them tell you through play. Therefore, if the book provides all those juicy maps, hell, throw'em all in there (with suitable edits or whatever) and let the players be the judge of what's most important. Remember that the goal of play is not to reveal all the maps/secrets but to resolve the Kickers.

Finally, I'm now going to crib from a private-message exchange that I just had with Christopher Kubasik (from my post, not his). We were discussing the role of Kickers in movies and novels.

start crib ***

I think that Kickers in application are a lot more labile than they look, once the story has been established. That's why I brought up the Club Dumas example, because it offered such an exceptional, focused, and "look here it is" kind of Kicker, as far as novels are concerned.

Movie sequels have a revisionist effect - given only Alien, we can break it down into fairly coherent Kickers, Bangs, resolution, etc. But now that we have Aliens, it means re-constructing the entire first movie as a Kicker for this "real" conflict.

That revisionism changes the bleak and frightening Theme of Alien, which is that we are not masters of the universe and our mother will not help us, into the rather gung-ho and reassuring Theme of Aliens, which is that the strength of motherhood will get us through anything. Therefore, as revised, all of Alien is now setup for Aliens, and not a "story" in its own right at all.

Back to novels, a lot of novels like The Lord of the Rings in its entirety are composed of mini-stories (like a Kicker-to-improvement sequence in playing Sorcerer). I was trying to back up and see the great big story as well as I could, which always seems to come down to Gollum and Sam in terms of actual values and decisions. If we focus down into the mini-stories, then sure, we get all sorts of little Kickers and resolutions.

Still, though, your fundamental point is right - in looking at a finished story, it's very hard to tell when "play begins" in RPG terms. I think that this is a good thing; it shows that "play" addresses what the Kickers provide, so that in retrospect it's seamless. Thus we can start a story 10%, 30%, 70%, or (less interestingly) 90% of the way toward resolution. In retrospect, it should be really hard to tell whether the entire story consists (in RPG terms) of a Kicker + three Bangs, a longer Kicker + two Bangs, a really long Kicker + one Bang, or a really really long Kicker with nothing else but an immediate resolution.

*** end of crib

Hope that helps, and I hope it's not too frustrating.

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1351


« Reply #3 on: June 05, 2002, 08:25:12 AM »

Hello Again,

Ron inquired about this thread in a private email and instinctively I replied by private email.  However, Ron thought that my reply was a useful extention of this thread and he asked me to post it here.  Oh, and we return once again to spoilers for James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Yes, what you said makes a lot of sense. I'm still getting used to the proper use of Kickers. There's a part of me that still thinks of Kickers as a seamless way to get the players involved in the conflicts presented in the backstory rather than using the conflicts in the back story to exaserbate the conflict presented in the Kicker. It's a very subtle difference and, as you've pointed out, a skill not often promoted or even outlined in 'traditional' play.

One of the things that I really liked about the Black Dahlia as a spring board for Sorcerer play is that it was SO plot heavy that it's much easier to throw away the plot, if that makes sense. For example, if you think about it, Blanchard despite his absense from well over half the book is really the main antagonist. It's all of his actions that cause all the subsequent problems and reprocussions for Bliechart. However, given JUST the backstory there's absolutely no reason why it MUST go this way. The backstory itself feels more morally ambiguous than the one from The Chill [A novel by Ross MacDonald that I had used for a previous scenario but found myself unable to escape the exact progression of clue revelation as presented in the book.]  It feels looser and like there's more play in, 'how things might go down.' I just don't feel as tied down to the EXACT progression of information revelation/conflict resolution as I did with The Chill.

There's a VERY good chance that I'll get to run the scenario I've constructed from the Black Dahlia backstory/map in July. I've built a skeleton scenario from it for my Ravenloft inspired Dark Fantasy setting for Sorcerer & Sword. In case you're interested, briefly, things break down like this in the setting:

Humanity is defined as Emotional Sanity (not to be confused with Lovecraftian Intellectual Sanity)

At Zero Humanity you are emotionally unstable and mad in the gothic tradition.

Demons will emotionally torment and haunt you. Aesthetically, they are ghosts, gargoyles, shadow fey (imps, goblins), succubi, etc. (Very similar to the Black Forest setting already presented in Sorcerer & Sword).

Humanity check to stay emotionally "detached." (I don't like that word. I could say "stable" but that isn't quite right either.)

Rituals are based on brooding contemplation (wallowing), violent demands, spiteful curses, and other emotionally erradic behavior.

As I read through The Black Dahlia I couldn't help but see the Sorcerers and Demons just lining up one after another with these definitions.

Blanchard is a low lore Sorcerer haunted by the ghost (Inconspicuous Demon) of his dead sister.

Emmet Sprague is a high lore Sorcerer with his Passer Demon servitor Georgie.

Madeline Sprague is a low lore demon half-breed Sorcerer with no demon of her own. Although, in the book she comes to bind the Dahlia Demon ( see below)

The Black Dahlia is one hell of malicious ghost (Possessor Demon) that is floating around just BEGGING to be properly bound before starving out.

Oh, and Martha Sprague is a True Innocent which is my Dark Fantasy adaptation of the Angelic rules.

Anyway, your advice helped sort a lot of this out.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Well, I hope others find this useful.

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: June 05, 2002, 09:13:42 AM »

Hi Jesse,

There's a part of me that still thinks of Kickers as a seamless way to get the players involved in the conflicts presented in the backstory rather than using the conflicts in the back story to exaserbate the conflict presented in the Kicker. It's a very subtle difference and, as you've pointed out, a skill not often promoted or even outlined in 'traditional' play.

This is me, shuddering. That part of you is a part that I wouldn't especially want to role-play with, either as GM or player. Personal preference thing.

THE BLACK DAHLIA
...  it's much easier to throw away the plot, if that makes sense.

I agree entirely. It seems counter-intuitive - that if there's "more plot" in the source book, that there's more constraint on play, but as you point it, it works exactly the opposite.

The backstory itself feels more morally ambiguous than the one from The Chill [A novel by Ross MacDonald that I had used for a previous scenario but found myself unable to escape the exact progression of clue revelation as presented in the book.] It feels looser and like there's more play in, 'how things might go down.' I just don't feel as tied down to the EXACT progression of information revelation/conflict resolution as I did with The Chill.

Well, it's still a source of puzzlement to me why you felt so constrained by the plot structure of The Chill in the first place. I don't know how many times I've said that the point of using source literature in this way has nothing to do with the actions and experiences of the protagonists in the stories ... that both of those things get tossed Wheee right out the window in game prep. "Clues" as experienced by a protagonist in the story, for example, are not clues for purposes of play - they are content, which is to be totally customized to the new, totally prioritized situation presented by the new protagonists (player-characters). They may be easily observed without resistance, deeply buried in a conflict-situation, or whatever, totally independent of whatever role they played in the source story. Most especially independent of when they appeared in the source story, and also of what impact they have on the protagonist's behavior.

My only comment about your demonic/sorcerous tweaking of The Black Dahlia is that you seem to have gone a bit overboard.  Any one or two of those interpretations would be plenty, as far as I'm concerned. After all, you have three or four player-character sorcerers with their demons too - with all that goin' on in the relationship map, you practically have a whole zoo. Remember the Art-Deco? I only had one definitely-involved non-PC-bound demon in the whole back-story.

THE UR-RAVENLOFT IDEA
I like the breakdown of your proposed setting. Might I intrude, delicately, to point out that you should stop right here and take it to the players next, specifically character creation, before adding pretty much anything else.

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1351


« Reply #5 on: June 05, 2002, 10:09:22 AM »

Hello Again,

The reason I had trouble throwing away the plot progression for The Chill is directly related to that "detached protagonist" problem, that keeps coming up.  While reading The Chill, I just didn't see the conflicts (other than 'whodunnit') Archer was facing and the back story seemed fairly black and white.  It was a straight traversal of the relationship map.  Archer HAD to follow up on the leads he was presented with in the order he was presented with them or -> no story.  The conflicts weren't personal for Archer and were out there which hampered my ability to percieve them as anything else but out there conflicts with only really one resolution path of interest, the one taken by Archer.

However, The Black Dahlia was EXTREMELY personal.  I saw the choices Bleichart was faced with.  There were no, go this way or no story, choices.  It became easier for me to imagine those situations going a totally different way.  It was easier for me to imagine the same backstory leading to completely different situations all together.  It felt less black and white in both its structure and presentation.

As for my Sorcerer Adaptation of Black Dahlia, you've confirmed my suspicion that I've over done it.  I will probably simplify it based on what my players give me as characters.

I also TOTALLY agree with you about going to my players with what I have outlined above.  In fact, that's why I like my Dark Fantasy setting because it only consists of Color + Humanity Definition, and that's it.  I, personally, don't have any other ideas at all.  It's very open from there.  It's funny but Sorcerer allowed me to finally express something I've been interested in for a long time.  People used to ask me what my favorite D&D setting was, and I'd say Ravenloft.  Then they'd snigger and tell me how ridiculous and frivolous Ravenloft was because it wasn't 'real' enough.  I've realized that's why I like Ravenloft so much.  Ravenloft isn't a place, it's an idea.  And Sorcerer gives me the tools to properly express that idea better than D&D or the "fully fleshed out" Ravenloft setting ever could.

Jesse
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