Going for baroque
Posted by Ron Edwards
Chatting about role-playing some more … In the 80s, I was gripped by an utter fixation on this one supervillain concept, for whom I ripped off a name from one or another supplement … I think it was Villains & Vigilantes, anyway, the name was “Patternmaster.” God did I try to make Patternmaster work.
It started in my late-80s Shield game, for whom I recently commissioned some art, so you can see in the pic, left to right top, PyraAquila, Zön, Golum, and Insecto; and left to right bottom, Firenza, Tesseract, Spectre, and Runaround. I’ve written once already about how I borked this game through losing the core concerns of the characters and getting too fancy, in Time travel trippin’ up. Imagine if you will the following similar impositions and fanciness in there at the same time …
I guess it was my attempted homage to the Green Goblin, specifically my enjoyment of the three-way crimeboss secret identity puzzle in very early Spider-Man. I wrote about it in All about the pie, and that post’s more general concept appropriately applies here too. Let’s see if I can summarize what I did.
- “That ill-fated old superhero group” sort of like the Watchmen insofar as Watchmen was strongly influenced by the Roy Thomas tradition
- Here, the group was called the Legion, billed as the failed heirs to the glamorous WWII group of that name, including the Conjuror, Hourglass, Rubber Sam, and Puzzle
- Basically Puzzle murdered Rubber Sam and Hourglass didn’t find out whodunit
- Connections to player-characters
- the Conjuror is now called Phantasm, is a notable supervillain, and is sort of a friend to the hero Firenza
- the mcguffin of the murder included a mummy’s hand and ties into all sorts of stuff with the hero the Spectre (who’s very Egyptian in motif)
- This is my character (“NPC” in gaming parlance) with a history of time-travel, such that she was out-of-time and subjectively in her teens during that time in the 1950s, and during the time of play, was situated “correctly” in her mid-twenties in the present
- “Hourglass” / “Tesseract” get it? I’m so clever
- At present, Patternmaster
- So, there’s this crimeboss, with “crimes” being vaguely defined
- Two guys could be him: Phantasm, formerly the Conjuror, or Stewart Rhodes, formerly Puzzle
(boy, I sure ripped a lot of names from V&V supplements, as the reader will notice)
So for any one of these, “Hey that’s a pretty good idea.” Of course they were good ideas; I’m a creative person and generally put a fun or insightful spin on anything I get past the musing stage (with special exception for those times when my ideas are stupid, by the way). If we’d been doing a grim street superhero game, and if one of the player’s characters had dipped a toe in time travel, then this would have been a fine centerpiece preparation-and-play concept. But instead, I mushed it onto my whole Omnius-based, politics-heavy, international crisis foundation for the game, where it was completely unanchored and leaned drunkenly.
My points here concern, first, execution, and second, understanding of the medium.
Execution is more than mere rendering and presentation, it’s knowing when you have enough to do the thing, and not to tie so many things into it. If I wanted to do the three identities, then that’s one thing; if I wanted to do the long-unsolved grim-history supergroup murder, that’s another. And furthermore, there’s dropping this whole thing onto a game explicitly predicated on another very rich-and-complex thing. Medium is such a perfect word for what I mean … the physicality not merely of presentation, but of engagement. There must be a person for a transitive act to take place, otherwise the thing is only a thing and not a medium at all. Role-playing’s medium is the spoken word + further spoken words in response. This is often subject to obsessive design attention in terms of fine-grained individual character actions, but doesn’t receive enough attention regarding situations, past events, and priorities.
With these in mind, and reflecting on a 30-years-back experience, as the Game Master in this particular GM-heavy family of role-playing design, there are two (2) ways that work:
- When providing questions and triggers, leave the dramatic buildup and circumstances of climactic conflict up to future decisions of the players, including the full possible range from (i) they don’t care and aren’t going to engage, to (ii) they blaze into it and nail it to the ground right away. Don’t plan & choreograph how it’s going to build and resolve.
- When providing revelations and answers, begin with player-generated material which begs for those things. Don’t pose both the question in your original material and your answer for it.
I’m a slow learner. Now we shift to a few years later, to 1990-92, and my Force Five game, which I’ve written about a few times as well, and for which you can find tons of background material in Snakes and hotties. The pic shows, standing or flying left to right, Strobe, Irie, Cortex, and Silver Dragon; and crouching in front, left to right, Serpentine and Blackfell. The primary villain was a bit similar to Omnius in being a major international game-changer, although a very different person.
And who was supposed to be a major supervillain in this one too? Oh golly look, here’s Patternmaster again, shoehorned into my already perfectly good Doctor Chaos situation – exactly the same! I have a totally political and fully engaging thing to concentrate on including lots of colorful protagonists with problems of their own, and here I start in on some … crimeboss. Who is he? (wiggle fingers) Ooo-OOO-ooh.
Cue a million ways to “make it matter,” including implanting memories into a whole bunch of people’s heads so each one thinks he’s Patternmaster, ruining Cortex’s character concept by having one of his supporting characters be a Patternmaster mole, and ultimately, forcing a new player to accept Patternmaster as a primary foe for his character, Blackfell. I can’t summarize it as well as I did for the earlier game because it’s starting to make me groan aloud. As I recall, no one besides myself cared “who he is!!” by the time I was doling out the for-real clues.
Role-playing is like that. Instead of making this new comic in terms of the fun medium, drawing on a few inspirations from the historical medium, you overload the medium with every comic that ever floated your boat. Again, by the medium, I’m referring to the actual social spoken engagement with play across everyone who’s decided to put some time into this together. When the twin dragons of crisis and results thereof become canned, and therefore not a building exchange but rather a packaged dropoff, it’s not just a failure of events in the medium, it’s a failure or rather misuse of the medium.
I’m not alone in this. Who else? C’mon, speak up. Ah ha – you, you, you, you, you … and you.
Next: The raw and real deal