Sunday, May 31, 2009

Aces, Tarot and Dead Men

I was talking about The Burrowers (which, incidentally, is fantastic) with a coworker earlier in the week and we ended up talking about horror-westerns. While quite ripe with potential, it's a crossover genre relatively unexplored in both film/TV and games, which actually blows my mind considering how perfectly the building blocks of good horror are present in the frontier. Aside from The Burrowers, there are a few great films and one great tabletop RPG, Deadlands (I believe there was also to be a Deadlands game, but I think it withered on the vine). Our conversation rolled across all these things and left me thinking about how well all those entries set themselves apart.

Deadlands especially is notable for how it uses mechanic design decisions to reinforce its theme. E.g. gambling, especially poker, is pretty quintessentially western. Creating your character in Deadlands begins with drawing cards from the full player card deck to determine their various statistics. Beyond that, there is a type of character called a Huckster, a gambler that uses cards to create magical hexes. By gambling with spirits and Fate itself, Hucksters can coerce supernatural forces into altering the world. The casting of hexes, rather than being resolved by a roll of dice with modifiers, is resolved by the player actually drawing a hand of poker. The better the hand, the more effective the hex. Not only does this create a tangible bond between what the player and the character are doing, but it has both the story and the rules working toward the same purpose.

About a year ago, I ran the 3.5 update of the classic 1st edition adventure I-6: Ravenloft, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. Similar to Deadlands, I began the game by using tarot cards for attribute creation. Anyone who's played either the classic or updated Castle Ravenloft adventures knows there is a tarot reading scene in the adventure that can dramatically change the plot of the game. I also ran this with a full tarot deck, letting the players draw all the cards (minus a few I palmed in to ensure they'd be drawn first). Again, the direct connection between the rules and the in-game actions made this one of my favourite moments of the adventure. It reinforced the theme of the game congruently with the mechanics.

Just last week I ran a 4th Edition Living Forgotten Realms adventure for some coworkers (Core 1-3: Sense of Wonder, which is excellent). There is one puzzle in the adventure that features a 1-100 dial, four levers, some wires and two coloured gems. I constructed some really simple props out of a d10/d100, four folded index cards, some pipe cleaners and some coloured marker stones. Even though it was extremely low fidelity, it made the encounter not only much easier for the players to visualize and understand, but much more enjoyable to solve.

It may be that since tabletop RPGs are more abstract, this kind of theming is easier to incorporate and has a greater payoff. The final tabletop example is the remarkable detailed slang that was created for the Planescape D&D setting, specifically for Sigil. Called "cant," this slang made the setting feel foreign and bizarre without resorting to nigh-unpronouncible fantasy tropes featuring too many apostrophes and not enough vowels. I believe cant involved a lot of real slang that had merely become archaic.

"Aye cutter, I know one that can show you the dark on getting to Ribcage, if you're truly that sodding barmy. But she's a cross-trader and will peel you or worse if you give her the chance."

Doesn't sound like ren fest, does it?

Digital games both do more and less of this kind of theming. Given all the work that goes into visual presentation of the game, often the theme of a game is more explicit through its art. Yet, there are still a lot of opportunities for theming that are not executed. Contemporary or futuristic games often merely emulate contemporary language and culture. Interactions are abstracted unnecessarily.

Games are often at their worst when they are talking at the player, be it through cutscenes or otherwise. Being more subtle and focusing on reinforcing theme in ways beyond monologue/dialog can relieve some of the informational burden and make its presentation less ham-fisted.

The constraints of tabletop RPGs make reinforcing their themes through gameplay and setting content easier than digital games. But I cannot help but think opportunities are being missed that shouldn't be. I think there are lessons to be learned from the theming of tabletop RPGs and I'm going to keep looking for chances to execute upon those lessons. And above all else, more people should play Deadlands, because it's really freaking great.

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