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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

Of Dread and Wonder (part 2)

Jocelyn Robitaille
March 21, 2002 uMn! 9gE?;@J  &ܾLmY~{eџ؇ bKG$dON r!dÁM8/Ȋ-C6 U4⼣ruĆM1?w8Np"rkԋ~7[#*\hZöz/͡ y#4mgXΟKc੠9K%תc.pm.z-7?Z  

Once again, it is time to consider dread and wonder. Whereas last month we examined what made a dread atmosphere or a wonder atmosphere, this month we will explore the other way you can bring those two thematic elements to your game: moments.

Both dread and wonder have the capacity to leave long-lasting impression upon those who experience them. Falling back on Lord of The Rings and on Lovecraft's stories as I have in part 1, it's easy to see the truth of the matter when you consider, for instance, how Gimli his touched and changed by going through Lothlorien, or how the characters in Lovecraft's tales are usually left not quite sane as they were.

This is why using just a moment of dread or of wonder can shape the thematic feel of your game. The players will most likely remember the scene often, and make reference to it both in character and out of character. Each moment of dread/wonder your players will come across will therefore heighten your theme.

Needless to say, however, the more you use, the harder using another gets. This brings us to something I have stated last month: both dread and wonder work on the exact same principle and can therefore be brought forth by the same technique.

Take a few seconds and consider what gears are at work when you experience a moment of wonder. Again, do the same thing for a moment of dread. After examining each one, what unites dread and wonder is fairly clear: surprise.

Both thematic elements, when taken as moments, imply the unexpected. If you take wonder, then let's put it this way: things seem magical to you because they happen totally outside of what you thought possible and what you were expecting. If you take dread, it's pretty much the same thing, except for the interpretation you make of it: things happen that you would never have expected, and that means that you are screwed.

Now that this has been underlined, you probably understand why I wrote this installment in two parts and why I took the time last month to explore dread and wonder atmospheres. Indeed, the technique presented in this installment of thematic voyage is simply surprise; but the effect of that surprise on the side of low-key emotions (and therefore what we are concerned with) is completely dependent on how dread prone or wonder prone your setting is.

Consider the following example. Read it once by picturing yourself in a wondrous setting. Take five seconds or so, and then read it again with dreadful, dark setting in mind.

As you walk on in the moonlit woods, you hear an animal barking in the distance. The sound seems to come from where you're heading. As you walk on, the barking seems closer, stops again. As there are no other ways, you decide to continue. Suddenly, the barking starts again, this time coming from all around you. Drawing out your weapon, you scan the ground quickly to see where the dog is, since it can't be everywhere. Suddenly, your head rises up and you realize the source: about a dozen sparrows are barking in unison.

I don't know for you, but this scene could elicit two reactions in me. If I was in a fairly friendly fairie forest, I'd just go "wow!" and smile. On the other hand, however, if I was in an horror game, barking sparrows would scare me shitless, even if they're regular sparrows aside from that little fact. As stated, surprise is modulated by the context.

Now, the only thing that remains is to consider how surprise works. We all know what surprise is and how to evoke it at times, but doing it's autopsy helps being able to create surprises on cue and ones that will most likely work.

To this end, Ill have to introduce a concept from cognitive psychology that proves most useful in understanding players (and people in general too). Humans have a limited attention span and cognitive potential: we are unable to pay attention to every single detail in our environment just as we are incapable of evaluating every possibility that holds every single moment. It is simply beyond our bounds.

Therefore, we tend to use cognitive schemas: scenarios of what occurs in a given situation. They are, of course, based on our past experience.

If we go back to the barking sparrows, what is the source of the surprise, then? Simply enough, as we hear that an animal is barking in the distance, we think "a dog is barking in the distance". Repeating the fact that barking occurs only strengthens the belief that you will eventually come across a dog if you walk in the direction of the barking.

Thus, as it because clear that the sparrows are barking, you are taken aback because this event falls so far outside the scope of your usual schema that you find yourself forced to analyze the situation in full. And if the atmosphere is of wonder, you'll be fascinated. If it's dread, well, on some level, you'll be aware that the time you take to analyze is time you could be reacting. And that's scary, especially when you consider that unexpected occurrences are often a source of danger per se.

Here you have it: surprise + atmosphere = moment of dread/wonder. It's as simple as that.

Happy gaming, Jocelyn Robitaille TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Thematic Voyage columns

  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 2) March 21, 2002
  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 1) February 12, 2002
  • The world is out to get you November 21, 2001
  • When fantasy and RL mix October 11, 2001
  • Leap of Faith, Part 2 September 6, 2001
  • Leap of Faith July 6, 2001
  • Lean on Me June 8, 2001
  • Courage May 11, 2001
  • Emotional Landscapes March 14, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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