Playing the surreal without farce

edited October 2007 in Story Games
Over on the Game X taught me Y thread, noclue said
Posted By: noclueDon't Rest Your Head taught me that surreal doesn't have to become farce.
Now this, a surreal game becoming farcical, was something that dogged me in my recent playtest of Solipsist (Pike Brother's Records). Handed the power to change reality in any way (related to their obsessions) the players quickly made some pretty random and silly changes. Indeed the more they went the sillier it seemed to become.

Now this didn't stop the fun as far as I could see (at least I hope not), but it wasn't quite the atmosphere I had intended or expected. Noclue's comment seems to suggest that a well designed game can work around this in a way other than just better GM'ing (if my GM'ing was at fault) or better grasp of a shared theme around the table, so I am very interested in knowing *how* this is done, in Don't Rest your Head and elsewhere.

Is there something I can do in Solipsist to avoid this (if it needs avoiding)? Is this a matter of mechanical tuning or a mechanic I don't have?

Comments

  • David, that's a great question. I'm not sure how much help I can be, but I'll give it a go.

    I think DRYH does several things to avoid this. First, it has a very "real" surreal setting. The players have some narrative control, but its not a "craft the world on the fly" type game. It also retains a GM which centers play and tone. Our DRYH game dealt with pretty deep subject matter which was resistant to the giggles--orphans, abandonment, incest, infanticide.
    Another force that pulls away from farce is the rich rolling die mechanic, which allows the player to narrate on success, but the high dice dominates. So, your success may be a Pyrrhic victory if Pain dominates, or may lead you further into madness or exhaustion. When pain dominates and the game is about finding your long lost sister, or the baby you killed, its not a moment for farce.

    I'm not sure if that's useful.
  • edited October 2007
    There's a big matter of taste thing here too. Let me give some examples:

    My group turned out not to like PTA that much, at least the narration-passing part. In fact no narration-passing mechanic will ever satisfy my group because most don't want to narrate anything outside their characters' actions. But when we did play it, we instinctively rushed for comedy, and it worked great.

    And the same is true somewhat of non-narration-passing games. I snagged Scion, Whtie Wolf's latest kewl powerz game, about the children of the gods and their adventures on modern Earth, and we're having a great time with the comedy that is inherently created when the divine and the exaggeratedly epic exists next to the mundane and ordinary. In fact, it's utter hilarity. Then I go to rpg.net and read about others' Scion games and they're So Very Serious. What the fuck?

    Peoples' first experiments with wide-open narration-passing will almost always be farcical unless someone specifically tells them not to. They will instinctively think "They can't really mean I can narrate whatever I want...someone will say no if I say THIS...hmm...nobody did. I'll go further. What about THIS? What about THIS?" and so on.

    If you want a more serious game and there's no limiting factor in the mechanics, just say to the other players, "I am looking for a serious game with maybe a few comedic touches but let's not go too far overboard." (or whatever your preference is)

    I was discussing this very issue with my wife today and she said, "JDCorley, you just don't get it. We're good at comedy. That's why we are always funny." As always, she is right.

    The first time I ever came across this issue was in In Nomine, way back in the day. This was a game that was deadly serious in some parts and pun-filled comedy in others. I tended to aim just about for a Bill Forsyth movie with it - very sweet and gentle comedy coupled with very gentle horror. But there was plenty of teeth-gnashing and crybaby wailing online that the tone was "inconsistent". This is a feature, not a bug.
  • Of course you've hit it on the head JD with the comment about people's first explorations. Of the four players I was working with 3 people (including myself) had no experience of such a wide open system. The other two (Per and Gregor, who may comment here) had plenty of narration passing experience, but still (I think) no experience with something as wide open as Solipsist proved to be. Maybe that made the comedy elements a lot more likely to happen.

    Interestingly though one of the players was really trying not to be comedic (Justin, playing Niel Gunn). He had a serious conspiracy-oriented character idea, and was after a serious conspiracy, but it still didn't work, because the interactions between each character's different world views still created farce. I wonder if that is just an inevitable flaw in trying to reconcile each world view? If so that is something I could fix, by simply saying that each character will always interpret the weirdness produced by other players in terms of their own vision.

    Finally I was having real trouble with the sense of creepiness I think the Shadows ought to represent. Partly that was the player's not buying into it, I think, but also it may just be conceptually very hard in this setting. Fear owes a lot to powerlessness, if you feel constantly powerful and enabled then you are going to be a lot less fearful aren't you.
  • I'm surprised at JD's experience, because from what I've seen in PTA, the part of the game where you discuss tone tends to inoculate games from going stupid-silly if that's not what people want.
  • Do you think that a game needs to have a formal introduction of the tone, or is that something that players are supposed to gather from the opening scene as presented by the GM (if there is one)? I know some games have a stage where you do set tone, but they tend to be as part of a collaborative world creation stage. If the setting is pre-defined for you do you still have such an explicit step, or do you assume, for example, that if you are all playing Warhammer 40k then you know the game is going to be dark and brutal without having to point it out?
  • Posted By: HituroDo you think that a game needs to have a formal introduction of the tone, or is that something that players are supposed to gather from the opening scene as presented by the GM (if there is one)? I know some games have a stage where you do set tone, but they tend to be as part of a collaborative world creation stage. If the setting is pre-defined for you do you still have such an explicit step, or do you assume, for example, that if you are all playing Warhammer 40k then you know the game is going to be dark and brutal without having to point it out?
    I was specifically noting that in Primetime Adventures, during the Pitch (world creation), you explicitly define the tone. Matt does a great job of getting straight to the heart of tone by pointing out that Lost and Gilligan's Island are the same premise, separated by a chasm of tone.
  • Granted, and thanks for the clarification, but I am now wondering about the wider question. Is the answer on how to prevent farce rooted in how you outline the tone out of character before the game begins? If so do you need to do it at the start of each game, or is doing it in the setting writeup enough?

    My feeling is that the setting writeup for Solipsist, for example, is clear that the tone is not farce, but that this may not be enough
  • Posted By: HituroIs the answer on how to prevent farce rooted in how you outline the tone out of character before the game begins?
    I think that an explicit mention of tone is extremely helpful to avoiding craptacularities in tone in play. I don't know if Solopsist is constructed such that you can get a useful creation of tone step at the outset of the game. Is the setting too firm to talk about this?

    If so, is there any way to make clear through themes or (better yet) character creation choices, flag choices, etc., what the tone should be?

    Finally you can make an "asshole rule" where anyone fucking with the tone inappropriately can be shouted down.
  • I don't think anyone fucked up the tone deliberately, on the contrary it was the conflict of different world views that created the farce I think.

    I'm sure that I can work something into the game to have a tone step, maybe an expansion of the already included initial scene setting step, and something more to do with setting choices.

    Character creation choices are *very* wide open in Solipsist, which may be part of the problem, but it essential to the concept
  • I should note that our Pitch sessions, due to the hatred of my group for contributions outside their characters, went really fast and included a lot of "yeah yeahs" and "whatevers". The same has not occurred with the many many other groups I've done PTA with. :)

    Oh, I want to mention one other thing - it's socially easier to be funny than to be dramatic. The more casual your group the funnier they will tend to be. The one truly detailed Pitch I did with my regular group was a comedy!
  • Yes very true, and I suspect the less invested people are in their characters the more comedy you get as well. At the moment my GURPS players are taking a break from their regular characters (who are Captains in a Mercenary company) and playing a side-story with some of their men as characters. This has immediately created a much more relaxed and jocular atmosphere than normal (though we are pretty relaxed to start with) and that surely has a lot to do with how much less invested they are in these characters than their normal ones.
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: JDCorley
    Oh, I want to mention one other thing - it's socially easier to be funny than to be dramatic. The more casual your group the funnier they will tend to be. The one truly detailed Pitch I did with my regular group was a comedy!
    I think that for a lot of people, the humor is a defense against being dramatic. I'm certainly not saying this about your group... you said that everyone pretty much just thrives on being funny. But I've had some experience with groups that anytime things would get pseudo-serious, someone would crack a joke to relieve the weird pressure everyone felt to open up. Perhaps the "farce" that comes up sometimes is a result of people preemptively avoiding having to open up. Maybe it's just the people I've gamed with, but a serious game can feel like it ought to be an intimate experience*, and that can make some people uncomfortable.

    *Not "intimate" as in sex, but "intimate" as in everyone takes down their social facades.
  • I've often seen dramatic games played in very casual, joking ways. That is, the fiction was dramatic and serious, the commentary and manner in which it was expressed was laughing and joshing around. And I can understand that. I have five days of child abuse and neglect a week. The last thing I want to do when I get home is Be Serious.
  • edited October 2007
    Posted By: HituroDo you think that a game needs to have a formal introduction of the tone, or is that something that players are supposed to gather from the opening scene as presented by the GM (if there is one)?
    I don't think you gain anything by being coy about your wishes regarding tone, and you stand to lose quite a bit. The thing about farce is that once its out there, its hard to stop and it lays waste to subtleties of an intimate, dramatic moment. For many reasons farce (and humor in general) is far easier than tense drama, its safer, it deals with socially difficult topics in a "socially acceptable" way, and if it isn't what people want from the session, I think it needs to be spoken and agreed to in a concrete way.

    If farce is the goal, then agreeing to that openly is a good thing as well.
  • remove happiness and sadness from your thinking. think painless thoughts.
    i'm unsure how you can mechanically do this, except with l.s.d and a lobotomy. cordless drill would be painful.
    it's really whether players get it. i'm not sure you can reinforce player understanding, other than social contract. you can only give them a treat or slap them on the wrist and hope that they get to a good place on their own.
    my reply probably doesn't help you out at all.
  • Posted By: Natemy reply probably doesn't help you out at all.
    Well, it is a bit cryptic. I'm not sure where in the thread the comment plugs in.
    Posted By: Nateyou can only give them a treat or slap them on the wrist and hope that they get to a good place on their own.
    I'd prefer a discussion and a consensus about what tone we want as a group. Its hard to reach for treats when my wrist hurts so much.
  • It's the observation of play of Universalis that the first couple of plays of the game tend toward silliness. That's a trend, and not everyone will follow it, but it's one that the data we have seems to bear out.

    Our hypothesis as to why seems to stand up, too. Which is that people, not neccessarily fully comfortable with the sort of control that they're being given in these games (JD's crew, apparently, being very, very uncomfortable, for instance) tend to use humor and siliness as a defensive tactic. As JD also notes, this happens with any game where there is potential for deep philosophical creation, like In Nomine. Comedy is a way to say these things, and yet not be uncomfortable that we're reavealing ourselves to each other.

    Nervous laughter. "Heh, I was just kidding, you know." That sort of behavior is exemplary of this. The game is getting you to show yourself somwhat, and that's just not automatically comfortable. Comedy eases that. Especially if you're good at it.

    What we also observe is that this goes away with multiple plays of the game (at least for those people who become comfortable with this sort of player role).

    Mike

    P.S. Warhammer 40K is goddam hillarious. Oh, sure, it's all hardcore on the surface. But that just makes it all the funnier when you find out that Orks are fungus, and you see the new psycher anti-tank fig who has a device that sucks up grots and teleports them inside the vehicle to cause mayhem. Even the Marines and Chaos Marines, so seemingly serious, have mottos that just make you guffaw:

    "Only Cowards Fight Back!"
  • I think clearly a lot of it has to do with the group - whether they're just willing to be serious, or whether they're respecting the tone. I ran a Nobilis game, and the story was about helping move a city over the mountains, to escape the poverty spirits that were going to be breeding and running amock on the east slopes. It was largely serious, despite the surreal setting. And, I should add, despite the fact that they lived in a pocket dimension that was filled with retro 60's sci-fi invented by hippie-scientists who inhabit the place. But everyones' characters were based on more serious things, and it wasn't randomly thrown in, so really it was a splash of humor in an otherwise serious game. If someone had been the Power of Kung Fu, I'm sure results would have been different.

    So really, it's about making sure everyone is on the same page. And if its not obvious from the beginning, then a discussion on how surreal the game is, how easy it is to throw in random silly things, and then what level of seriousness everyone wants. Help establish using the surreal nature to enforce motifs and themes that are fitting to the story.
  • Posted By: Alvin FrewerP.S. Warhammer 40K is goddam hillarious.
    I was going to point this out myself: WH40K needs a "tone setting session" if you want it to have a particulare tone, just like every other setting, IMO.

    40k can be "inquisitor serious", "rogue trader/explorer high adventourous", "ork waagh invasion brutal", "necromundan hive oppressive"... but also "gorkamorka shooty silly" and "funny grot stupid" :)
  • I read the introductory scenario they released for 40k and was amazed by how funny it was, because that isn't my image of 40k. But then my image of 40k currently owes a lot to the Gaunts Ghosts books, which are anything but serious.

    Mike I think you hit is spot on about the comedy arising from being new to the type of game. In my Solipsist playtest (which is where this started from for me) some of the players were totally new to this style of game, and not 100% comfortable with it, and once they started with the silly things everyone else followed along. This is especially true when you have world changing powers constrained by traits that may or may not be relevant to the tone of a given scene. Gregor's character, for example, had an obsession with the perfect cup of tea (in a middle england sense) and so was forever handing out cups of tea even in what could have been quite gritty situations otherwise.

    I will definitely have a discussion on tone before the next game of Solipsist I have and see where that gets me
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