Monday, 17 June 2013

Voices of Light and Darkness

I was going to respond to J.'s post, but I realised that (a) I was responding to a tangential issue and (b) I can post here too.

So I am.

What I'm reacting to is the idea of trigger warnings as badges of honour, and, more broadly, the idea that "serious games equals serious gamers". This is something I've both reacted against and internalised. I would be cross at an insistence that only deep, dark angsty games are "worthy." But at the same time I'm conscious that I really only write light and fluffy games, making me, in some depth of my subconscious, a bit of a lightweight.

I am a complicated person.

I tried to rebel against/succumb to this feeling, this Pheno just gone. I tried to write a dark and political game, exploring the psychology of evil characters making bad, selfish decisions in a time of environmental collapse. The result was FUD, a light farce with parodical characters making bad, selfish decisions in a time of environmental collapse. The game had more in common with my previous con games than I'd imagined it would.

The game was successful on its own terms. I've not heard anything in the first- and second-hand commentary to suggest otherwise. My normal marks of a successful con game (no complaints, at least one lot of effusive praise) were met. I got to play in the Paranoia setting, one of my first gaming loves. But it fell a long way short of what I was aiming for, and that rankles.

I mention this to people who who write the darker style of games, and say, "How do you do it?" and they say, "Ah, but I can't do the comedy games like you can," and I say, "Not the point!" before pausing to consider what they've just said, which is, essentially, "I do it by an instinct which I find difficult to explain; I can't do comedy games in the same way."

At least, that's close enough to my response to the reciprocal question. When I'm asked how I write comedy games, my gut-level response is "how can I not?"

So my questions remain:

What makes for a good dark game?

What do you put into it?

What's important in putting together the characters? What do they need?

How do you manage mood and expectation setting?

How dark is too dark? Are there places you won't go?



  1. To make FUD dark, all you needed to do was take away the comedy elements from the sheets (the character names, the power names) and put one realistic or messed up piece of character description next to each. ("When you sleep, you hear Friend Computer in your nightmares." "You are the last of six clones and you deeply fear you are the worst one yet.") The sheets signalled a comedy tone, and nothing but nothing is more influential on tone than the character sheet. (The GM runs a very close second.)

    1. Very well put, Greg.
      The points of contact that the players have for a game are the setting (if it's a pre-existing one, like Alpha Complex), the GMs and the character sheets (and the other players, to an extent). It could easily be an uphill path to make Alpha Complex serious, but the more you leverage the parts of the game you control, the more you can bend their expectations.
      Dreadful pun names (while delightful) are a fast track to hitting the comedy buttons.

  2. Sympathetic characters sympathetic characters sympathetic characters. But you've heard me say this before. Sympathetic *on some level* characters.

    The key human response to dark stuff is emotional distancing. Ergo how effective your game is at affecting people* depends a lot on how far your players are from those eight deadly words. Don't click that link.

    *Please note: This is true even when I *came* here cos I wanted to be connected to a character in a dark place. Especially then.

    It's not *more* important than the other things you ask, here, but it's the one people tend to miss.

  3. > What makes for a good dark game?

    I start by centring it around something dark. Something terrible, human and personal. A grizzly murder for greed works as an example. Keep it grounded, as too much fantasy can detract. Like Hamlet the ghost provides tone and exposition and it is never made clear if it is good or evil. The ghost does not seek vengeance himself. But what he asks is conflicted between evil (regicide) and just.

    > What do you put into it?

    Depth. I know you can do depth. You need something to tug the heart strings, and they are hidden deep in most gamers.

    > What's important in putting together the characters?

    Links. And each must have a sliver of darkness. Something they don't like about themselves, but which they can't be without. ie "Even though she was always kind to me, with the inheritance, I'm glad she is dead." Ideally each of them could have been the killer, if just one thing changed.

    > What do they need?

    Personality, history, same as comedy character.

    > How do you manage mood and expectation setting?

    Holding mood in a dark serious game is tricky. Think of it like fishing. You pull them in gently, they haul back out, you let them run, then pull them gently back in again. Speak softly and slowly. Keep eye contact. Deliver details of atrocities and darkness deadpan. Flinching at your own darkness is like laughing at your own jokes, it ruins the mood.

    > How dark is too dark? Are there places you won't go?

    It is easy to go too dark. Rape, abuse, children in any combination is in my opinion too dark. Murder and violence is fine, even if it is gory and visceral, as we are, culturally desensitised to it, sex and children are still taboo. Personally I have no issue with dismembering a dog or animal, but some do. That is as dark as I would go.


  4. Quick note for Greg: the character sheets in FUD were essentially a result of my "collapse" into tropes that I was familiar and comfortable with - I had to decide between a light game I could present at a con and a dark one I couldn't.

  5. Stu: the dark version of FUD would be to make it not Paranoia. Paranoia puts a comic spin on an absolutely horrific world; taking away the shield goes a long way. Secondly ground the characters in the very sorts of scenarios that they're going to be dealing with - their parents were workers killed in a riot, or killed by rioters; they never had enough food; they went without medicine as valuable dollars were channeled into impractical scientific research; whatever. And then give them living human relations still out there in the sprawl who are going to be impacted by whatever happens while the PC themself sits in the relative safety of the situation room. That's right there already the bare bones of a heavy-hitting game.

    A shorter answer: realistic characters are dramatic characters. Contradictions and connections are what create realism.

    1. Also for dramatic (non-comedic) games generally: speak quietly wherever possible to make people have to pay attenion to hear. Get player attention wherever possible with body language rather than words - arm gestures work. Stay seated, don't stand (which I know is not your style, but standing draws player eyelines and attention away from the table and therefore away from other players. If you stay seated they have to be looking at another actual person or deliberately looking away, which is better). Statements should only be used to emphasise mood and atmosphere; new events should be phrased as or introduced with a question to players. Numbers, mechanics, or anything that reduces a complex concept to a something less concept should be avoided both on sheets and in the game. Descend into the game slowly; take time with the intro; tease aspects of the game before explaining them fully. Set player expectations before the content starts. ... also other things, if I think of them later I will add them. :-)

    2. I'm mostly taking this stuff on board, but this wouldn't be the internet if I didn't focus on the bit I disagree with and mouth off.

      I believe that Paranoia has the potential to be a very dark setting indeed. The tendency to play it as slapstick is as much a player defense mechanism than text. It wouldn't take a lot of tweaking to tone down the more ludicrous aspects of the setting and play up the omnipresent surveillance, the lack of control, the fear and loathing and sameness of the population and the use of trust and orthodoxy as a vector for power.

      I *didn't* do that in FUD, but I could have.

    3. Fair enough; I've never read the actual Paranoia book (or certainly not in any comprehensive way). I've been in a few light games that used aspects of the setting (all comedies) and played the card game (very much a comedy), and that's the extent of my experience with it.

    4. I have reflected, and I mispoke. The comedy is text, really - but it's like that humour-as-defense thing is written in. The setting is still very bleak, and the humour could be taken out with little effort, leaving just dark satire.

  6. Ok, so, this got me thinking about my own process (and the fact that I disagree with most of what's been posted thus far, suggesting that everyone's process might be different), and it hit me that we might mean different things here. What are some games (or media generally) you'd call dark? We'll look at how they do it.

    1. Thing is, I don't like horror very much. I find violation as a trope at once confronting and dull; bad horror is as sleazy as bad porn.

      That said, I've played some horror games that would feed into my concept of "dark".

      Andrew Smith and Xole Karman did a two-session Cthulhu game many years ago, Great White Light, set in Australia's security agencies, and it has stayed with me ever since. That was a horror game with a lot of body horror, but the kicker was the lack of control the PCs had over things that mattered on an emotional level. Dark here would be the horror thing of "violation of the personal".

      Andrew Smith did a Triptych more recently: Body Corporate. Again, it was body horror, but what I admired was that he could give me a more or less goofy character - a sleazy Korean-American tea-partier - and make his motivations real and immediate, in a couple of lines of text. Dark here was again that sense of personal engagement, knowing that you were party to something bad.

      Less horror-y: David James ran a Shadowrun game some years ago. I can't remember its name, but it was about a DocWagon crew. It had a lot of stock cyberpunk stuff, but the thing that impressed me was the dramatic drives of the characters. (Depending on the players, that may have been more or less soapy - I felt it had depth.)

      In other literature: as I said, I'm not real keen on horror, but a Le Carre spy thriller might be a good example. Shades of grey, no real champions, villains as bad as the heroes, because they're basically the same people.

      But really, it may be as simple as wanting to run a serious game. Humour is distancing. I think I'd like to run a game without that shield - but at the moment, it's all I know.

    2. The other one I should have mentioned was Peter Rousell's Shiprock from Pheno just gone. Although it was basically a horror game, there was a lot of story and character depth before the horror tropes really started to kick in.

      This was particularly impresive given that the character creation was a guided-spontaneous-ad-hoc generation thing, and Peter's touch was very light throughout. I was left thinking, "How the heck did you do that?"

    3. Shiprock was (kinda, with one important difference) a Dread game.

      These are the reasons I thought Shiprock (and kinda also Dread) work. First, you're playing a real person you can relate to easily - the way the characters were designed, they were just dudes, and I think if you drilled down to it, you'd find the characters have things in common with their players, just because that's what people default to. Second, there were consequences - every time something went wrong (and that, in our game, was a big part of what Peter did - his questions kept coming back to 'what goes wrong?') there were serious repercussions for the PCs. Third, as a corollary to the second thing, the PCs were responsible for the things that happened to them. That's more of a horror thing, though - for a certain type of horror, there's a core element of You Are Being Punished.


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