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No Good

Turbo-Folk and the Church of Elvis

by Juhana Pettersson
Dec 03,2002

 

Turbo-Folk and the Church of Elvis

- Juhana Pettersson

This is a practical column about what we're doing here in Finland in the field of traditional roleplaying games. I'm going to go through some basic tricks we've found useful or effective in creating a game. The idea is that you, the reader, may find something that might suit your purposes or be otherwise useful here, and discard the rest.

A lot of the tactics presented here have been developed or tested in Jaakko Stenros's excellent campaign Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish). The closest reference points for the game are tv series like Oz, the Sopranos or Six Feet Under. Dysfunctional people, depressing realism and deftly surreal events. We play a group of Finnish university students living in a cell apartment, thrown together at random by the housing bureau of the university.

The themes of the game range from the pressure of a society where privacy means little and fake security everything to the media frenzy surrounding a major catastrophe. We've have had to deal with a janitor who anonymously dropped his frozen piss into our mailbox and beat one of us so badly he had to be hospitalized after being discovered. False charges of raping an underage girl against my character (I did try to pick her up at a club, but desisted halfway towards our home after I realized she was sixteen). A huge passenger ferry that sunk after inexplicable explosions, with our characters among the only survivors.

Guest GM

The ferry disaster was actually a one-shot game developed by a friend. Stenros had played it through, and by chance the characters and style were very similar to ours. Stenros invited the creator of that game as a guest GM for one session to ours, with very good results. The independently created scenario was embedded into our game, so that Stenros led into it in previous sessions and picked up afterwards.

There were two basic innovations here. One was the borrowing of another complete game into ours, and the other the guest GM. The merits of wholesale theft of ideas are probably obvious. The primary benefits of a guest GM are simple variety and matters of style. In this case, the singular nature of the experience of living through an event like this was underlined by the subtle difference in game style.

Guest players

A very simple special effect is having a guest player play an important NPC. This is especially practical if the NPC had a definite "run" in the campaign. For example, the characters are a unit of American soldiers in Vietnam. During the campaign, they get a new member to the team, whom the GM intends to die after six sessions. This character would be with the PCs most of the time, and thus primo material for having a separate player.

Of course the GM involvement with a guest player may vary considerably. He may be a micromanaged assistant responsible for the function of a single NPC, conscious of all the GM plans surrounding him or completely akin to the other players, free to move and act, with no special knowledge. Often he's somewhere in between.

This may also be done in the beginning of the campaign. Continuing the Vietnam example, at the beginning of the campaign the GM recruits five players, one of whom is secretly a guest player. The guest player's character dies in friendly fire in the middle of session two to emphasize the arbitrariness of death in a war zone, and he leaves the game.

Player NPCs

One trick that has gained wide currency here is the practice of having players who's main characters are not present at the moment play NPCs. In Lohkeileva kynsilakka, I play the father of one of the PCs in addition to my primary character. The father is rarely in the same scene as my usual character, and one of us also plays the mother. This is the character who's family life is most focused on.

There are two main benefits to this tactic: the first is that even in scenes where only one of the PCs is present, other players can play. The other is to have some variation in the GM repertoire. Especially with stock characters like police officers GMs often get stuck in a rut, with every cop either a good cop or a bad cop. By externalizing the cops to players, we have new and different cops.

The easiest way to use this trick is with officials and other minor characters who have a simple, easily communicated set of behavioral characteristics. It's simpler to say, "You're the taxi driver," than say "You're the guy he sits next to on a train." Everybody knows what taxi drivers do, but people on trains may be anything. This forces the player to improvise, which may be good or bad, since the results will be unpredictable. In the same vein, NPCs that require extensive briefing or have vital plot importance should probably be left to the GM.

The main drawback is that if a player has an NPC he also customarily plays, having him in the same scene with his actual character may be uncomfortable.

art art

I've already been accused here of artistic pretension (apparently a sin), and this is not going to help. At a recent session of Stenros's game, a dream sequence was narrated so that one of the players performed a previously sketched semi-interactive monologue which went from one character to the next. At another time, Stenros played a sequence from Six Feet Under as a mood piece for a funeral in the middle of the game.

The idea is to borrow from another type of art entirely to complement one's game. A really simple version of this would be to watch a movie to set the mood before a session. More ambitious tricks include reading excerpts of poetry (at your own risk), playing a part of the game as pre-scripted theatre or having a group sing along.

This is the sort of thing that can go disastrously wrong. Reading Keats's Ode to a Nightingale in the middle of a combat scene to contrast the ugliness of violence with the beauty of nature might seem a good idea at the drawing board, but probably flops horribly at the game itself. On the other hands, making the players do aerobics to a Jane Fonda tape before the start of a game would certainly be perfect for a game of 80's horror.

A Wedding at the Church of Elvis

One of the best one-shots I've played in was the Swedish auteur Olle Johnsson's Whiteout Las Vegas, in which we played a group of Elvis impersonators on our way to an Elvis impersonator convention in Las Vegas. The game was largely about our varied perceptions of Elvis, and also employed a fragmented timeline, long pre-scripted monologues on part of the GM and some very innovative characterization. For example, our characters did not have individual names, but instead simply called each other Elvis. "Hey Elvis! Me and Elvis thought we should go and check what's wrong with Elvis, since he's been acting so strange." They were described by the GM in very simple terms: "Okay, we have four characters up for grabs. Pill Elvis, Sex Elvis, Asian Elvis and Hero Elvis."

At the heart of the game was a scene where we played a wedding at the church of Elvis. It had nothing to do with our characters or the plot; we were given new ones on the run, and the scene remained unconnected in terms of plot through the whole game. Nevertheless, because it crystallized the whole Elvis thing so perfectly, it was thematically vital to the game.

So the idea is to have a scene unconnected to the main narrative but thematically relevant. Stenros borrowed the technique to Lohkeileva kynsilakka, so that in the aftermath of the ferry catastrophe, while our main characters were in the hospital getting treated for hypothermia, shock and in the case of my character, heart attack, we had a scene where we played rescue workers trying to find people who are still alive in the area where the ship went down.

The rescue team consisted of a helicopter pilot, a guy in wetsuit who was lowered into the sea by a cable to get the bodies and a doctor who administered first aid in case one of them was alive. I was a reporter for CBS news out to get the pictures for a good disaster story. Weirdly, playing the rescue team or the distraught relatives and friends of our actual characters was a lot more fulfilling than playing the survivors themselves.

The Birth of a Baby Giraffe

Another technically adventurous game was Topi Pitkonen's mini-campaign KPKS, nominally a D&D3 Planescape game. I'm still a bit unsure what the point of the game was, but I suspect Topi was trying to create a Godardian game where the player is forcibly made aware of the fact that he's playing a roleplaying game. His range of techniques in pursuit of this goal was extensive. He started by explaining that this was going to be a conservative, light D&D3 game, the sort where things like the rules and solving puzzles had relevance.

It was anything but. He was relatively strict about the rules until suddenly, at the mid-point of the six-session campaign he gave us a set of Mikado sticks and announced that from now on, every problem would be solved with them. Pick a stick without disturbing the others and you succeed. Otherwise, it's a failure. It made for some very bizarre combat scenes.

Other times he lectured, playing an NPC, for hours about the nature of the multiverse, talking about the plane of Dungeons and the plane of Dragons. He might suddenly launch into a breathless description of the birth of a baby giraffe, to the sound of music that felt like Jean Michel Jarre.

He used NPCs that were so obvious GM plot control devices that everybody despised them, but forced our characters to like them. His plot development was more far-fetched than that of the most surreal soap opera. In a typical session, my character found out that she had been pregnant, had been secretly aborted by her boyfriend, the fetus had mysteriously went into her familiar who had been accidentally turned into an undead monster, who appeared to claim his portion of my motherly love, was killed (by me), I was forcibly made to fall in love with another PC by an arrow shot by a cupid and at the end of the session the previously mentioned boyfriend proposed. I naturally said yes. In those circumstances, it was the only reasonable thing to do.

Weird stuff, all in all.

Nylon Beat

Experimenting with music is something that probably every GM has tried at some point. Stenros decided that the soundtrack of a society stuck in 1984 would be idiotic eurodance beat. He was following in the footsteps of Milosevic's fascist Serbia where during his reign radio stations and tv music shows usually only played music called turbo-folk, which combined folk music and fast synthesizer beats.

Stenros's choice was to play a single Nylon Beat (a Finnish dance trash duo) album, Nylon Moon (because it was their only English-language album) every game, whole game, on repeat. After a couple of games of this he used a single song of different music to emphasize a dream sequence and the effect was electric. We'd gotten used to the idea that the sound of this campaign was Nylon Beat, from funerals to weddings, and having different music was unreal.

After a while, Stenros even started playing around with the Nylon Beat. He always starts the game with the first song on the album, and sometimes switches it on to emphasize important events.

The dream sequences in Lohkeileva kynsilakka are very important, and each of the characters has his own dream sequence theme song. Although the repertoire of music has widened a bit, it's still all very controlled.

Cut!

The final technique I'm going to present here was accidentally developed in my one-shot -game Bad Blood Blasphemy, a cheap vampire movie game inspired by Blade II. The idea is to interrupt the normal flow of action with a cut to another scene. This is useful in giving the game a cinematic flavor, helps with pacing and drama. It's almost mandatory in a movie genre game.

One way to use the cut is to cut between two scenes, switching back and forth between, for example, a dramatic fight sequence and a hot, steamy bedroom scene. Makes more sense if the characters are separated, though, although I suppose the adventurous might go for a composite scene that mixed two different timelines.

Another way to cut is to end the scene after everything that's relevant has been dealt with, even though the situation might still be unfinished. For example, the characters have interrogated a prisoner, who reveals where the criminal mastermind is hiding. Cut! and the characters are in a helicopter, trying to land on the oil tanker where the mastermind has his center of operations.

Because Bad Blood Blasphemy was very much a genre game, all sorts of conventions were quickly established. The leader of the PCs had the power of Cut! because he could use dialogue so that it would have been against the genre to continue the scene any longer, after something like "Let's go!" and a flourish of his cape. The comic sidekick could cut a scene by telling an inane joke.

Dramatic dialogue could also force back and forth cutting. Lines like "Oh, Lord Byron. I'm your daughter!" cannot continue without a piece from another scene in the middle. This would sometimes cause loops after a couple of simultaneous dialogues required these dramatic cuts, leading into each other.

The cut is, of course, a part of the standard GM toolkit, but once you're more aware of it, you can use it more effectively.

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