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No Good

Media Games

by uhana Pettersson
Apr 08,2003


Media Games

- Juhana Pettersson

This is a sequel of sorts to my December 2002 column, Turbo-Folk and the Church of Elvis. I'm starting a campaign at the moment, the first in a long time, and there'll be some stuff about that here. The main theme of this column is television. In what seems like a real trend around here, lots of people have started using methods familiar from television and other media in their games, even to the extent of talking about game sessions as episodes and breaking the campaign into seasons, which I find a bit annoying.


A surprisingly functional trope in campaign design is the endless repetition of a couple of small and well considered details. The idea is to keep the flavor of the campaign through subtle means that are, ideally, invisible to the players. Of course, those same players will be looking for this stuff if they read this column, but still. This is a trick you see all the time in television, movies, literature, everywhere.

For example, in my second Vampire campaign, we (there were two GMs) always talked about cats. The game was set in 19th century Egypt, and the characters were Brits. Everything we read about Egypt pointed to one thing: there are cats everywhere, especially in the cities. Whenever we had to describe something, we would say

- It's a narrow alley between two windowless, stooping buildings. There's a couple of cats going through trash a bit further away.


- You left your window open when you left your hotel room. There's a cat sitting on the windowsill.


- After the fight, you're weak and there's blood and entrails everywhere. You notice the dozens of gleaming cat eyes from the surrounding darkness.

The important part of the concept is that the cats never do anything untowards, they're just scenery.

This was a high school campaign, so all this scene setting was eventually used to make a couple of Bubasti NPCs really scary. They never did anything, but they didn't have to, since a lot of the alienation your protagonists were feeling living in a foreign land was personified into the omnipresent cats.

Usually, this is the sort of thing that's best planned at the beginning of the campaign and then adhered to. The longer you do it, the better it works.

In my aborted Kindred of the East campaign Brick City I used butterflies, weddings and funerals. Sadly, the sheer ridiculousness of the setting and bad planning on my part meant that I never got to develop these themes. That's what you get when you succumb to Vampire nostalgia. I especially liked the weddings.

My new superhero reality TV campaign Maailma on minun (the World is Mine) will probably also feature repetitive motifs, but sadly I can't talk about it because my players read this.

Theme Songs

Because my campaign will feature a superhero group whose lives are the subject of a reality TV show that boradcasts 24/7, it would be nice to have a theme song, for the show and the game. Many people have experimented with various musical themes and theme songs for games, character and so on.

When it works, the players have a Pavlovian reflex to the song, so that they're instantly transported to the world of the game. When it doesn't work, it just gets tedious. If you're a cruel GM, pick a theme song that constantly plays on the radio. That way, your players will be assaulted by your game whenever there's a radio on.

Because I need a very specific kind of a song, a TV jingle, I'll be trying to bribe a musician friend to do it for me. Existing jingles are useless because they usually are already associated with a specific TV show.

Just remember this: Carmina Burana seems like a good idea just because you're seventeen. After you get older, you're going to feel really stupid if you play O Fortuna every chance you get because it's so cool. We've all been there.

Player Participation

In The World is Mine, each player will play two characters. A superhero character and a production team character. Since this is television, and the party is composed in a casting process, we have a male lead (White), female lead (White), a male sidekick (Black) and a female sidekick (Latino). The female lead is feminine and the female sidekick is a macho type. The black guy is the joker of the team in the proud tradition of black sidekicks through the ages. The white male lead can't have too much personality since everybody's supposed to be able to relate to him.

The production team characters are the network (HBO) man, the main sponsor's rep (Diesel), the government rep (State Department) and the excecutive producer of the series, who is also the star of the series and thus his player will play only him.

The plan is to hold an in-game production meeting at the beginning of each game session, lasting for an hour or so. During that session, ideas are tossed around, problems are identified and plans are made. If there's not enough action, the producers create new supervillains. If there's not enough soap, the main PCs get instructions to put more effort into romance. If a supporting character is unpopular, he is "killed".

This means that the players will control both the primary characters of the series and it's design. They'll be inventing plots for themselves. I must admit that part of the charm of this design is that it lightens the workload of the GM because the players will participate in creating ideas for the game.

The first session of the campaign will be casting, where every player will take his turn before the casting team, in character, and try to get the part. The rest of the players are the casting team. There will be some applicants who will not be chosen, played by me or guest players, but because only superpowered people need apply, there won't be too many applicants.

The basic design of The World is Mine is based on an unrealized one-shot I had called Death Row. It it, the players would play inmates who are taken from the death row into a Big Brother -style reality TV -show. Each week, the audience of the show would vote who among the inmates would be executed. Each player would play an inmate, a series producer and participate in the voting process that would simulate the show's audience.

Thus, each inmate would be up to the challenge of trying to be as popular as possible among the audience. He would have to guess what sort of behavior the public would deem worthy and what despicable, and try to act accordingly. Of course, the job of the producers would be to make this as hard as possible by making sure that the personalities involved are as incompatible as possible.

The carrot would be that if you survive for, say, eight weeks, you get a pardon.

The beauty of this design is that the GM is left only with the job of pacing the game. The players take care of the rest.

Slo Mo

Audiovisual experiments have been among the least successful. In Jaakko Stenros's game Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish), he first used the credit sequence from the TV series Six Feet Under as a mood piece for a funeral, but the players felt it was distracting.

There is something deeply problematic in a TV screen as everyone who has tried to play roleplaying games with a TV on can attest. The flickering image starts stealing attention, and suddenly nobody's talking anymore. Another problem with the Six Feet Under sequence was that the American culture of death is different from the Finnish one. We have graveyards and priests and funerals, but there are enough subtle differences in the attitudes towards death to make the general feel of an American cultural reference wrong.

In Finland, the president traditionally hosts a gala party on independence day, the sixth of December. There is a tradition of political demonstrations against the event or trying to use it to draw more attention to other issues, and these demonstrations have in recent years been the most confrontational in Finland. The guests invited include members of parliament, important economic movers and shakers, writers, directors, sports people and so on. The party is televised live.

In Stenros's campaign our characters had survived, among twenty other people, from a disastrous catastrophe at sea in which a huge ferry sunk and thousands of people were killed. All survivors were invited to the independence day gala as a part of "the process of national healing".

Stenros projected the taped party TV coverage on the wall of our playing space, for the purpose of creating atmosphere. Unfortunately, here too the curse of the moving image asserted itself and the game was often interrupted by pained exclamations of "Look at what she's wearing!"

Perhaps a third try will do it. I'm going to try to use the Bill Viola video art work the Passing as a background mood piece in my campaign Kulak. I'm going on the theory that moving pictures are less disruptive if they're really slow. I suspect nobody has ever accused Bill Viola's work of being anything except positively glacial in tempo.

Celebrity Guest Stars

In my experience, celebrity appearances are not very common in rolepelaying games. By celebrities I mean certain kinds of fictional and real characters that were not invented by the GM. Michael Jackson is a celebrity. Wolverine is a celebrity. When I was a kid, I used to believe that it would be incredibly cool to use Elric as an NPC in a Forgotten Realms campaign. Haven't done much of that recently.

In Vampire, you don't see Dracula, in Changeling Oberon and Titania are strangely absent and in In Nomine, characters are unlikely to meet Satan or God. Of course, there are stats for Dracula, but I'm talking about how often you run into this kind of stuff in actual games.

In Stenros's game, celebrities were everywhere in the independence day game. I think that was the first time I have seen famous real world people used as NPCs in a game, although some of them have had a presence in the campaign earlier. Stenros even made us play some of the smarmy Finnish politicians when our own characters where not present.

The rarely explored concept of a celebrity NPC got another twist with the idea of celebrity guest star, a celebrity NPC played by a guest player. Having a guest player play an NPC is usually used as a tactic for promoting that NPC, and combining that effect with the celebrity aura did make David Bowie seem that much more striking in the middle of the general muddle of the lives of our characters.

There's one weird tendency I observed in this relatively sparse sampling of celebrity characters. The celebrity is surrounded with an aura of sorts, as if we unconsciously assumed that since they're famous, they must be special people. I found myself playing a Finnish right wing politician as a very smooth operator, despite the fact that I despise him and have no idea what's he like in real life. But that seemed like the most reasonable guess.

By the same token the all the celebrity NPCs played by the GM seemed like nice and smart people, and nobody had had a bad day or a stupid opinion. Normally, we're critical people. Bowie got a real star treatment from the girl who played him. He was infallible, a social chameleon who could do no wrong.

I don't like characters, NPCs or otherwise, who seem too perfect. Its annoying to realize that other people always seem to stumble onto handling celebrity characters this way, and embarassing to realize that I did it too. Where are the critical, unflattering potrayals? It's not like you're going to get a libel suit for a tabletop game.

- juhana

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